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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”*…


The first issue of the the first volume of the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Scientific papers, at the very dawn of that writing form, hadn’t yet evolved the conventions we’re so familiar with today. As a result, the contents of that first volume (and those that followed) are a fascinating mix of the groundbreaking, the banal, and the bizarre. Some are written as letters, some take the form of essays, some are abstracts or reviews of separately published books, and some are just plain inscrutable…

For example, this contribution from Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry and a pioneer of the scientific method:

A New Frigorifick Experiment Shewing, How a Considerable Degree of Cold May be Suddenly Produced without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind, or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year – Robert Boyle (again!) (Phil Trans 1:255-261). The word “frigorific”, which Boyle apparently coined for this title, meant “producing cold”, and Boyle’s claim was that simply mixing ammonium chloride into water would cool the solution down. This doesn’t seem to actually be true (saltpetre is frigorific; straight ammonium chloride can keep water liquid below normal freezing point, but isn’t actually frigorific). But although Boyle’s title is a bit hyperbolic, and he does go on a bit, he describes his experiments quite lucidly, so it’s probably unfair to call this one a weird paper. Whether Boyle was right or wrong, here he was doing modern science…

Stephen Heard observes…

Boyle’s Frigorifick paper raises an important point: not every paper in the early Philosophical Transactions was weird, even if in a few case it takes a close reading to realize that. The oddities are interspersed with important observations (like those of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and descriptions of major advances (like Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations of cells). But the oddities are there by the dozen, and they give the impression of a freewheeling, chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation…

Sound familiar?

See more examples and learn more at “The Golden Age of Weird Papers.”

* Albert Einstein


As we scratch our chins, we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and  Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


Written by LW

January 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts”*…


Diagram from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878), illustrating a spectrum of elements and forces, spanning from the (outermost) solidness of rock to the (innermost) “spirit”


There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement

– Lord Kelvin, 1900

Kelvin’s (in)famous assertion, among others, have led to the sense that physics at the fin de siècle was believed by scientists at the time to be on the point of completion. But that could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, at that moment almost anything seemed possible.  At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality.

Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how this turn to the unseen parallels quantum physics (which was, ironically, first proposed by Max Planck in 1900) in “Worlds Without End.”

* Werner Heisenberg


As we recall that all things are relative, we might send bounteous birthday greetings to Charles Alfred Coulson; he was born on this date in 1910.  A mathematician and theoretical chemist, Coulson was a pioneer of the application of the quantum theory of valency to problems of molecular structure, dynamics and reactivity.  He was Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (a position in which he was preceded by E. A. Milne, the mathematician and astrophysicist, and succeeded by Roger Penrose), and was a founder and Director of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute.



Written by LW

December 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

“My grandmother is over eighty and still doesn’t need glasses. Drinks right out of the bottle”*…



It’s bad enough for the first kid when a new baby shows up to steal your thunder. But the injustice is compounded when you have to start wearing glasses while your little sibling stays as cute and non-four-eyed as ever. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: firstborn kids are more likely to be nearsighted…

Focus on the facts of the case, and learn the possible reasons, at “Why More Firstborn Kids Need Glasses.”

* Henny Youngman


As we reconcile ourselves to the reality that four eyes are better than none, we might spare a thought for John Tyndall; he died on this date in 1893.  A prominent 19th-century physicist, he was known for his work on a range of subjects, from crystals to diamagnetism and infrared radiation.  But he is probably best remembered as the man who explained (in his book Light) why the sky is blue.  And he was perhaps most impactful in his development of the “light fountain“– which demonstrated the scientific foundation for modern fiber optic technology.



Written by LW

December 4, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”*…


Your correspondent is headed into the chilly wilds for the Thanksgiving holiday, so this will be the last post until after the passing of the tryptophan haze.  By way of keeping readers amused in the meantime, the puzzle above…

Find a step-by-step guide to its answer at “How to Solve the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever.”

* Tweedledee, in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There


As we muddle in the excluded middle, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Albert Einstein presented the Einstein Field Equations to the Prussian Academy of Sciences.  Einstein developed what was elaborated into a set of 10 equations to account for gravitation in the curved spacetime described in his General Theory of Relativity; they are used to determine spacetime geometry.

(German mathematician David Hilbert reached the same conclusion, and actually published the equation before Einstein– though Hilbert, who was a correspondent of Einstein’s, never suggested that Einstein’s credit was inappropriate.)

On the right side of the equal sign, the distribution of matter and energy in space; on the left, the geometry of the space, the so-called metric, a prescription for how to compute the distance between two points.



Written by LW

November 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“In eternity there is no time, only an instant long enough for a joke”*…


Finnish artists Juha van Ingen and Janne Särkelä have developed a monumental GIF called AS Long As Possible, which loops once every 1,000 years. The 12 gigabyte animated image is made of 48,140,288 numbered frames, that change about every 10 minutes [the first and last frames are above].  van Ingen and Särkelä explain:

In the early days of World Wide Web GIF was the most popular tool for artists working on on-line projects. But in mid 90’s the technically more versatile Flash took over as the number one creative tool for presenting art works on-line. Recently with the huge success of photo-sharing services such as Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr GIF has had its second coming and has regained its popularity also as an artistic medium.

The name of ASLAP is homage to John Cage composition “ORGAN2/ASLSP” (1987) which is played with Halberstad organs for the next 625 years. The abbreviation of Cages composition included and instruction to the performer of the piece: As SLow aS Possible. However, if the piece was to be played as slow as possible the first note should be played for ever.

As humans capability to comprehend eternity is limited, it is easier understand the dimensions of a composition lasting hundreds of years than something playing for ever…

They plan to start the loop in 2017, when GIF turns 30 years old (and Finland celebrates its Centennial of independence). “If nurturing a GIF loop even for 100 — let alone 3,000 years — seems an unbelievable task, how much remains of our present digital culture after that time?”, van Ingen said. The artists plan to store a mother file somewhere and create many iterations of the loop in various locations — and if one fails, it may be easily synchronized with, and replaced by, another.


* Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf


As we take it slowly, we might send itty-bitty birthday greetings to Niels Henrik David Bohr; he was born on this date in 1885.  A Danish physicist and philosopher, Bohr was the first to apply quantum theory,to the problem of atomic and molecular structure, creating the Bohr model of the atom, in which he proposed that energy levels of electrons are discrete, and that the electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus but can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another– a model the underlying principles of which remain valid.  And he developed the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed in terms of contradictory properties, e.g., particles behaving as a wave or a stream.  His foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory,won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.


Written by LW

October 7, 2015 at 1:01 am

“A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas”*…


… well, markets opening anyway.

There’s a rule of thumb that to have a healthy diet, you should eat the rainbow—meaning fruits and veggies of all colors. A similar notion could be applied to a country’s economic health. The more diverse the exports, the less susceptible a nation will presumably be to fluctuations in a single market. Too reliant on oil? A drop in prices might spell the loss of billions of dollars. And for a country where heavy machinery comprises most of the exports, that drop in prices might mean lower operating costs and an uptick in sales. And thanks to globalization, the web of trade is very complex and tough to comprehend.

Looking for better ways to unpack this data, Harvard researchers mapped out international exports in an infographic called the Globe of Economic Complexity, an interactive website that visualizes the exports of every country around the world.

Industries like agriculture, medical products, precious metals, cars, and even baked goods are all assigned a specific color. To get more detailed breakdowns, the infographic leads you to an atlas of exports with more detailed breakdowns. The data was collected in 2012 and for that year, the graphic shows the United States as predominantly turquoise (machinery and parts), blue (automotive), and fuchsia (chemicals). Spin the globe and head over to China and nearly half of the exports are machinery related. Saudi Arabia is a beacon of pink for petroleum, accounting for 76% of exports. Clicking on the country names shows who the nation exports to the most.

Changing to different views, like the product space graph, reveals which countries are most heavily involved in the trade of a specific product. Who knew that the United Kingdom accounted for 26% of the antiques trade or that Europe exports the most cigarette papers?

Browse at globe.cid.harvard.edu. [Via Co.DESIGN]

* Victor Hugo


As we note sadly that two countries with McDonald’s franchises have in fact gone to war, we might send charged birthday greetings to Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson; he was born on this date in 1871.  An experimental physicist whose work earned him the honorifics “father of nuclear physics” and “father of electronics” (along with a Nobel Prize), he is considered the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday, and and was instrumental in laying the foundation for the advances in technology and energy that have enabled the globalization visualized above.



Written by LW

August 30, 2015 at 1:01 am

“At my age, the radiation will probably do me good”*…


The “banana equivalent dose” (BED) is a measure of radiation used to illustrate levels of emissions.  Bananas contain lots of potassium, which contains 0.01% potassium-40– which is radioactive.  The radiation exposure from eating a banana is deemed “1 BED,” roughly equivalent to 0.01 millirem (mrem).  (Happily, one would never be able to eat enough bananas to be dangerous, as our bodies excrete the potassium we’re consuming before it can do exposure damage.)

The existence of a clearly-understandable unit of this sort allows for easily-understood apples-to-apples (or, bananas-to-bananas) comparisons…

This is also roughly the exposure from having a single smoke detector.


Due to increased altitude; Mt Everest is more like 800 mrem (80,000 bananas) per year.


The granite in the walls is mildly radioactive. By comparison, the Vatican is about 800 mrem (80,000 bananas) per year.


More fruity comparisons at Mad Art Lab‘s “Yellow Alert

* Sir Norman Wisdom


As we peel, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Richard Philips Feynman; he was born on this date in 1918.  A theoretical physicist, Feynman was probably the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-WW II era.

Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake [below] from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

– From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)

email readers click here for video


Written by LW

May 11, 2015 at 1:01 am


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