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Posts Tagged ‘CERN

“A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”*…

Metaphysical debates in quantum physics don’t get at “truth,” physicist and mathematician Timothy Andersen argues; they’re nothing but a form of ritual activity and culture. After a thoughtful intellectual history of both quantum mechanics and Wittgenstein’s thought, he concludes…

If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might have couched his arguments in the vocabulary of cultural anthropology. For this shared grammar and these language games, in his view, form part of much larger ritualistic mechanisms that connect human activity with human knowledge, as deeply as DNA connects to human biology. It is also a perfect example of how evolution works by using pre-existing mechanisms to generate new behaviors.

The conclusion from all of this is that interpretation and representation in language and mathematics are little different than the supernatural explanations of ancient religions. Trying to resolve the debate between Bohr and Einstein is like trying to answer the Zen kōan about whether the tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one can hear it. One cannot say definitely yes or no, because all human language must connect to human activity. And all human language and activity are ritual, signifying meaning by their interconnectedness. To ask what the wavefunction means without specifying an activity – and experiment – to extract that meaning is, therefore, as sensible as asking about the sound of the falling tree. It is nonsense.

As a scientist and mathematician, Wittgenstein has challenged my own tendency to seek out interpretations of phenomena that have no scientific value – and to see such explanations as nothing more than narratives. He taught that all that philosophy can do is remind us of what is evidently true. It’s evidently true that the wavefunction has a multiverse interpretation, but one must assume the multiverse first, since it cannot be measured. So the interpretation is a tautology, not a discovery.

I have humbled myself to the fact that we can’t justify clinging to one interpretation of reality over another. In place of my early enthusiastic Platonism, I have come to think of the world not as one filled with sharply defined truths, but rather as a place containing myriad possibilities – each of which, like the possibilities within the wavefunction itself, can be simultaneously true. Likewise, mathematics and its surrounding language don’t represent reality so much as serve as a trusty tool for helping people to navigate the world. They are of human origin and for human purposes.

To shut up and calculate, then, recognizes that there are limits to our pathways for understanding. Our only option as scientists is to look, predict and test. This might not be as glamorous an offering as the interpretations we can construct in our minds, but it is the royal road to real knowledge…

A provocative proposition: “Quantum Wittgenstein,” from @timcopia in @aeonmag.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we muse on meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the official ground-breaking for CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) was held. Located in Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world… that’s to say, a prime spot to do the observation and calculation that Andersen suggests. Indeed, it’s been the site of many breakthrough discoveries over the years, maybe most notably the 2012 observation of the Higgs Boson.

Because researchers need remote access to these facilities, the lab has historically been a major wide area network hub. Indeed, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee developed the first “browser”– and effectively fomented the emergence of the web.

CERN’s main site, from Switzerland looking towards France


The wharves of Manhattan, 1851: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves
as Indian isles by coral reefs.”

I first encountered the work of Peter Gorman via his glorious book Barely Maps (a gift from friend MK). Early in the pandemic, Peter picked up Moby Dick

I read Moby-Dick in April 2020. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started making maps and diagrams as a way to figure it out.

Moby-Dick is infamous for its digressions. Throughout the book, the narrator disrupts the plot with contemplations, calculations, and categorizations. He ruminates on the White Whale, and the ocean, and human psychology, and the night sky, and how it all relates back to the mystery of the unknown. His narration feels like a twisting- turning struggle to explain everything.

Reading Moby-Dick actually made me feel like that—like I’d mentally absorbed its spin-cycle style. I developed a case of “Kaleidoscope Brain.” The maps I was making were obsessive and encyclopedic. They were newer and weirder and they digressed beyond straightforward geography…

Ocean currents, February- U.K. Admiralty Navigation Manual, Volume 1: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose
gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

Moby Dick, mapped and charted: Kaleidoscope Brain, from @barelymaps. It’s a free pdf download, though one has the opportunity– well-taken– to become a Patreon sponsor.

* Headline in New York Day Book, September 8, 1852


As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was first powered up. The world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, it is devoted to searching for the new particles predicted by supersymmetry theories, and to exploring other unresolved questions in particle physics (e.g. the Higgs boson)… that’s to say, to mapping and charting existence.

A section of the LHC


A “map” of a proton-proton collision inside the Large Hadron Collider that has characteristics of a Higgs decaying into two bottom quarks.


“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines”*…


… they do, however, run more terrestrial risks.  The weasel above (a stone marten) hopped over a substation fence at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and was electrocuted by an 18,000 volt transformer (an incident that knocked out power at the facility).  Lest its notoriety fade, the once-weasel is about to go on display at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum.

The stone marten is the latest dead animal to go on display at the museum. It joins a sparrow that was shot after it sabotaged a world record attempt by knocking over 23,000 dominoes; a hedgehog that got fatally stuck in a McDonalds McFlurry pot, and a catfish that fell victim to a group of men in the Netherlands who developed a tradition for drinking vast amounts of beer and swallowing fish from their aquarium. The catfish turned out to be armored, and on being swallowed raised its spines. The defense did not save the fish, but it put the 28-year-old man who tried to swallow it in intensive care for a week…

The tale is preserved in full at: “Totally stuffed: Cern’s electrocuted weasel to go on display.”

* Steven Wright


As we hold the pose, we might spare a thought for David Wilkinson; he died on this date in 1852.  A mechanical engineer and machinist, Wilkinson (no known relation to your correspondent) played a key role in the development of machine tools in the U.S. (initially in the textile industry): he invented the metal lathe and process for cutting screws.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

I, for one, have always wanted to know…


Readers will know the Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator built to answer such questions as “Is there a ‘God Particle” (Higgs Boson)?”  The LHC accelerates two counter-rotating beams of protons to nearly the speed of light and then brings them into collision inside giant, cathedral-sized detectors that study the subatomic debris that comes flying outward.  The folks at CERN, who operate the LHC, hold the world’s record for the highest energies ever achieved: the collisions of more than 10 billion protons per bunch at a total energy of 2.36 trillion electron volts, or TeV, per collision.

But the LHC raises as many questions as it hopes to answer…

Who hasn’t wondered, for example, what happens if one puts one’s hand in front of the beam?  Happily (if not conclusively), the folks at Sixty Symbols have gathered some answers:

As we think hard about wearing gloves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that a number of meteor fragments fell near Murchison, in Victoria, Australia.  Analysis of the fragments has identified over 14,000 compounds in the carbonaceous chondrite; almost 100 of them, different amino acids, only 19 of which are found on earth…  encouraging proponents of “panspermia”– the proposition that life on earth was “jump-started” when key ingredients in the primordial soup dropped in from the Heavens.

Murchison fragment

First Takes…

The very first photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who aimed a camera obscura, which held a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of petroleum), out the window of the upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras. After a day-long exposure, the plate was removed and the latent image of the view from the window was rendered visible by washing it with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum, which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The result was this permanent direct positive picture– a one-of-a-kind photograph on pewter:

(For more on Niépce and the story of his pioneering accomplishment, visit the source of this photo, the site of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.)

But in many ways as interesting as the first photo of anything is the first photo of a specific thing.  OObject has curated a collection of a dozen of the most interesting “firsts,” from the first photo of a human face

Self portrait of Robert Cornelius, 1839

… to the first photo on the web

Les Horribles Cernettes (LHC... pun intended*), a band at CERN (where Tim Berners-Lee "created" the web), 1992

More– from the first photo of the whole earth and the first x-ray to the first color photo and the first picture of the surface of another planet– at OObject.

As we say “cheese,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that George Gershwin signed his name to the completed orchestral score of the opera Porgy and Bess. The composer considered the 700-page work his masterpiece; many critics agree, considering this first American opera to be the finest American opera.

From the title page of the manuscript score (source: Library of Congress)


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