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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“Time is the longest distance between two places”*…

 

In 1949, on the occasion of Einstein’s seventieth birthday, Gödel presented him with an unexpected gift: a proof of the nonexistence of time. And this was not a mere verbal proof, of the sort that philosophers like Parmenides, Immanuel Kant, and J. M. E. McTaggart had come up with over the centuries; it was a rigorous mathematical proof. Playing with Einstein’s own equations of general relativity, Gödel found a novel solution that corresponded to a universe with closed timelike loops. A resident of such a universe, by taking a sufficiently long round trip in a rocket ship, could travel back into his own past. Einstein was not entirely pleased with Gödel’s hypothetical universe; indeed, he admitted to being “disturbed” that his equations of relativity permitted something as Alice in Wonderland–like as spatial paths that looped backward in time. Gödel himself was delighted by his discovery, since he found the whole idea of time to be painfully mysterious. If time travel is possible, he submitted, then time itself is impossible. A past that can be revisited has not really passed. So, Gödel concluded, time does not exist…

Put yourself in Jim Holt‘s skilled hands for an explanation and an exploration of implications, in “The Grand Illusion.”

* Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

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As we check our watches, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that Clarence Birdseye first tested frozen peas with consumers at a Chester, NY grocery store.  Birdseye had already patented a range of “flash-freezing” processes and devices, inspired by his experiences as a biologist and trapper in Labrador earlier in the century.  He had noticed that while slow freezing creates ice crystals in frozen foods– crystals that, when thawed, create sogginess– meat exposed to the extremely cold temperatures in the Canadian North– frozen essentially instantly– didn’t create internal ice, and were as tasty when thawed months later as fresh.  Birdseye created quick-frozen vegetables and meats as a storable option to fresh, and in 1930 offered a range of 26 frozen meats and vegetables.

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Written by LW

November 3, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic”*…

 

On Tuesday, the Nobel Committee announced the winners of the the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2014.

Isamu Akasaki, 85, left, Hiroshi Amano, 54, and Shuji Nakamura, 60, won “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”– an award that speaks to current concerns over energy efficiency, climate change, and improving living conditions in developing economies:

In the spirit of Alfred Nobel the Prize rewards an invention of greatest benefit to mankind; using blue LEDs, white light can be created in a new way. With the advent of LED lamps we now have more long-lasting and more efficient alternatives to older light sources…

As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.

The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power…

[Read more in the Nobel press release]

The Committee’s choice was clearly a worthy one.  Still, as a reminder that the field is a very competitive one, it’s worth (re-)visiting the expert predictions that immediately preceded the award.  Thompson-Reuters’ annual Science Watch predictions named three potential winners (or groups– the award can go to up to three); while they’ve been right four of the last ten years, and all of their candidates did amazing– and amazingly-important– work, they missed this year.  Ditto, the expert panel whose prognostications were reported last Friday by Scientific American.

But maybe most fundamentally, it’s worth noting (quizzically, as SciAm does) that since the Prize was first awarded in 1901, only two women have won: Marie Curie (who was a double Laureate, also winning in Chemistry) and more recently, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won in 1963.

* Woody Allen

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As we size up the sociology of science, we might recall that this was a bad day for inclusiveness in Massachusetts in 1635: the General Court of the then-Colony banished Roger Williams for speaking out for the separation of church and state and against the right of civil authorities to punish religious dissension and to confiscate Indian land.   Williams moved out to edge of the Narragansett Bay, where with the assistance of the Narragansett tribe, he established a settlement at the junction of two rivers near Narragansett Bay, located in (what is now) Rhode Island. He declared the settlement open to all those seeking freedom of conscience and the removal of the church from civil matters– and many dissatisfied Puritans came. Taking the success of the venture as a sign from God, Williams named the community “Providence.”

Williams stayed close to the Narragansett Indians and continued to protect them from the land greed of European settlers. His respect for the Indians, his fair treatment of them, and his knowledge of their language enabled him to carry on peace negotiations between natives and Europeans, until the eventual outbreak of King Philip’s War in the 1670s. And although Williams preached to the Narragansett, he practiced his principle of religious freedom by refraining from attempts to convert them.

Roger Williams statue, Roger Williams Park, Providence, R.I.

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Written by LW

October 9, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Correlation does not imply causation”*…

 

From stat-enthusiast (and full-time law student) Tyler Vigen, entertaining examples of patterns that map in compelling– but totally-inconsequential– ways…

More (and larger) examples at the sensational Spurious Correlations.

* a maxim widely repeated in science and statistics; also rendered: (P&Q)≠(P→Q)٧(Q→P).  It addresses the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“affirming the consequent”) logical fallacy

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As we think before we leap, we might send energetic (really energetic) birthday greetings to Enrico Fermi; he was born on this date in 1901.  A physicist who is best remembered for (literally) presiding over the birth of the Atomic Age, he was also remarkable as the last “double-threat” in his field:  a genius at creating both important theories and elegant experiments.  As recently observed, the division of labor between theorists and experimentalists has since been pretty complete.

The novelist and historian of science C. P. Snow wrote that “if Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford’s atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.”

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Written by LW

September 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself”*…

 

Did you ever wonder where you came from? That is the stuff that’s inside your body like your bones, organs, muscles…etc.  All of these things are made of various molecules and atoms. But where did these little ingredients come from? And how were they made?…

Find the answer at “How much of the human body is made up of stardust?

* Carl Sagan

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As we hum along with Hoagy Carmichael, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that the first American edition of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita was released.  Finished in 1953, Nabakov was turned down by publishers ranging from Simon & Schuster to New Directions, all concerned about its subject matter.  Nabakov turned to Maurice Girodias and his Olympia Press, and published in France in 1955.  Though it received almost no critical attention on release, Graham Greene called in “one of the three best novels of 1955″ in a year-end wrap-up published in the Sunday Times– provoking a response in the Sunday Express that the novel was one “one of the filthiest” ever.  Surprisingly to many, the novel’s American launch elicited no official response.  But it registered hugely with the reading public: it went into a third printing within days and became the first novel since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.  Lolita is included on Time‘s “List of the 100 Best Novels in the English language from 1923 to 2005,” and it is fourth on the Modern Library’s 1998 “List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century.”

Cover and half-title page of a presentation copy of the first American edition, inscribed by Nabokov to his wife, Vera ( “Verina verae Nab Aug. 1958 Ithaca”) and embellished with a delicately-rendered butterfly.

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Written by LW

August 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things”*…

 

A few years back, 12 million of us clicked over to watch the “Pachelbel Rant” on YouTube. You might remember it. Strumming repetitive chords on his guitar, comedian Rob Paravonian confessed that when he was a cellist, he couldn’t stand the Pachelbel Canon in D. “It’s eight quarter notes that we repeated over and over again. They are as follows: D-A-B-F♯-G-D-G-A.” Pachelbel made the poor cellos play this sequence 54 times, but that wasn’t the real problem. Before the end of his rant, Paravonian showed how this same basic sequence has been used everywhere from pop (Vitamin C: “Graduation”) to punk (Green Day: “Basket Case”) to rock (The Beatles: “Let It Be”).

This rant emphasized what music geeks already knew—that musical structures are constantly reused, often to produce startlingly different effects. The same is true of mathematical structures in physical theories, which are used and reused to tell wildly dissimilar stories about the physical world. Scientists construct theories for one phenomena, then bend pitches and stretch beats to reveal a music whose progressions are synced, underneath it all, in the heart of the mathematical deep.

Eugene Wigner suggested a half-century ago that this “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in the natural sciences was “something bordering on the mysterious,” but I’d like to suggest that reality may be more mundane. Physicists use whatever math tools they’re able to find to work on whatever problems they’re able to solve. When a new song comes on, there’s bound to be some overlap in the transcription. These overlaps help to bridge mutations of theory as we work our way toward a lead sheet for that universal hum…

Read the harmonious whole at “How Physics is Like Three-Chord Rock.”

* Henri Poincare

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As we hum the tune eternal, we might send astronomical birthday greetings to Allan Rex Sandage; he was born on this date in 1926.  An astronomer, he spent his career first at the Palomar Observatory, then at the Carnegie Observatory in Pasadena, where at the outset, he was a research assistant to Edwin Hubble, whose work Sandage continued after Hubble’s death.  Sandage was hugely influential on his field; he is probably best remembered for determining the first reasonably accurate value for the Hubble constant (there ate those chords again) and the age of the universe– and for discovering the first quasar (again, those chords).

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Written by LW

June 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”*…

 

email readers click here for video

What is space?  Three contenders for the theory of everything converge on a single very big idea– that our universe was born in the instant when nothing and nowhere were joined.

Read more at “Goodbye big bang, hello big silence” (summary; full text requires subscription).

* Albert Einstein

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As we ruminate on relativity, we might spare a thought for Thomas Samuel Kuhn; he died on this date in 1996.  A physicist, historian, and philosopher of science , Kuhn believed that scientific knowledge didn’t advance in a linear, continuous way, but via periodic “paradigm shifts.”  Karl Popper had approached the same territory in his development of the principle of “falsification” (to paraphrase, a theory isn’t false until it’s proven true; it’s true until it’s proven false).  But while Popper worked as a logician, Kuhn worked as a historian.  His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made his case; and while he had– and has– his detractors, Kuhn’s work has been deeply influential in both academic and popular circles (indeed, the phrase “paradigm shift” has become an English-language staple).

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Written by LW

June 17, 2014 at 1:01 am

“There are some things so serious you have to laugh at them”*…

 

They have just found the gene for shyness. They would have found it earlier, but it was hiding behind two other genes.
Stuart Peirson, senior research scientist, Oxford University Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology

Other howlers at The Observer’sScientists Tell Us Their Favourite Jokes.”

[cartoon source]

* Niels Bohr

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As we titrate out titters, we might send birthday yucks to Stephen William Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA; he was born on this date in 1942.  A theoretical physicist and cosmologist, he is probably best known in his professional circles for his work with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity, for his theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation (now called Hawking radiation), and for his support of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

But Hawking is more broadly known as a popularizer of science.  His A Brief History of Time stayed on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for over four years (a record-breaking 237 weeks), and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

“We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

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Written by LW

January 8, 2014 at 1:01 am

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