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“I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque”*…

Looney Tunes without Looney Tunes: “Looney Tunes Backgrounds.”

[TotH to This Isn’t Happiness]

* Bugs Bunny

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As we contemplate context, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, superconductivity, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles.  But he is most widely remembered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics and author of what’s become known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

During World War II, Heisenberg was part of the team attempting to create an atomic bomb for Germany– for which he was arrested and detained by the Allies at the end of the conflict.  He was returned to Germany, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which soon thereafter was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics. He later served as president of the German Research Council, chairman of the Commission for Atomic Physics, chairman of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Some things are so serious that one can only joke about them

Werner Heisenberg

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“If and when all the laws governing physical phenomena are finally discovered, and all the empirical constants occurring in these laws are finally expressed through the four independent basic constants, we will be able to say that physical science has reached its end”*…

The fine-structure constant was introduced in 1916 to quantify the tiny gap between two lines in the spectrum of colors emitted by certain atoms. The closely spaced frequencies are seen here through a Fabry-Pérot interferometer.

As fundamental constants go, the speed of light, c, enjoys all the fame, yet c’s numerical value says nothing about nature; it differs depending on whether it’s measured in meters per second or miles per hour. The fine-structure constant, by contrast, has no dimensions or units. It’s a pure number that shapes the universe to an astonishing degree — “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding,” as Richard Feynman described it. Paul Dirac considered the origin of the number “the most fundamental unsolved problem of physics.”

Numerically, the fine-structure constant, denoted by the Greek letter α (alpha), comes very close to the ratio 1/137. It commonly appears in formulas governing light and matter. “It’s like in architecture, there’s the golden ratio,” said Eric Cornell, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In the physics of low-energy matter — atoms, molecules, chemistry, biology — there’s always a ratio” of bigger things to smaller things, he said. “Those ratios tend to be powers of the fine-structure constant.”

The constant is everywhere because it characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic force affecting charged particles such as electrons and protons. “In our everyday world, everything is either gravity or electromagnetism. And that’s why alpha is so important,” said Holger Müller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. Because 1/137 is small, electromagnetism is weak; as a consequence, charged particles form airy atoms whose electrons orbit at a distance and easily hop away, enabling chemical bonds. On the other hand, the constant is also just big enough: Physicists have argued that if it were something like 1/138, stars would not be able to create carbon, and life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Physicists have more or less given up on a century-old obsession over where alpha’s particular value comes from; they now acknowledge that the fundamental constants could be random, decided in cosmic dice rolls during the universe’s birth. But a new goal has taken over.

Physicists want to measure the fine-structure constant as precisely as possible. Because it’s so ubiquitous, measuring it precisely allows them to test their theory of the interrelationships between elementary particles — the majestic set of equations known as the Standard Model of particle physics. Any discrepancy between ultra-precise measurements of related quantities could point to novel particles or effects not accounted for by the standard equations. Cornell calls these kinds of precision measurements a third way of experimentally discovering the fundamental workings of the universe, along with particle colliders and telescopes…

In a new paper in the journal Nature, a team of four physicists led by Saïda Guellati-Khélifa at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris reported the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant. The team measured the constant’s value to the 11th decimal place, reporting that α = 1/137.03599920611. (The last two digits are uncertain.)

With a margin of error of just 81 parts per trillion, the new measurement is nearly three times more precise than the previous best measurement in 2018 by Müller’s group at Berkeley, the main competition. (Guellati-Khélifa made the most precise measurement before Müller’s in 2011.) Müller said of his rival’s new measurement of alpha, “A factor of three is a big deal. Let’s not be shy about calling this a big accomplishment”… largely ruling out some proposals for new particles

A team in Paris has made the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant, killing hopes for a new force of nature: “Physicists Nail Down the ‘Magic Number’ That Shapes the Universe.”

[TotH to MK]

* George Gamow

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As we ponder precision, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.

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“The nations of the world must now stay united in the struggle against unknown forces instead of fighting each other”*…

Toho’s [see hereThe Mysterians (1957) is a mammoth sci-fi spectacle, featuring giant lasers, flying saucers, underground domes, alien invaders, and robot monsters. Lying beneath its visual prowess is a set of questions, themes, and ideas that elevate The Mysterians as one of the decade’s most fascinating films. It asserts a warning for humanity: don’t misuse science. For 1957, in the midst of a spiraling nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the film is chilling; but when examined through the lens of 2020, The Mysterians is arguably even more frightening today.  

In the film, a series of earthquakes and forest fires precedes the appearance of a giant robot, Mogera. The mechanical monster wreaks havoc before it is blown up by the self-defence forces. The next day, a gigantic dome emerges from the ground, and we are introduced to the robot’s creators: the Mysterians. They beckon key scientists to meet them in their base, where they explain themselves as a race ravaged by atomic war. The Mysterians want three kilometres of land on which to live, but they also have an unpleasant stipulation. The Mysterians’ bodies are so damaged by radiation that they can no longer birth healthy offspring; and so, they want to mate with human women. Having already used Mogera to show that conflict is useless, the Mysterians appear to have the upper hand. However, forces from East and West unite, and Earth is poised to take on the Mysterian menace. 

The Mysterians features Akihiko Hirata in a role similar to his turn in Godzilla (1954). Hirata plays the enigmatic Shiraishi, a scientist who discovered the home planet of the Mysterians, Mysteroid. Shiraishi disappears before the Mysterians emerge, and we later discover that he has joined them. Seduced by their scientific achievements, Shiraishi admires the Mysterians; he believes that they simply wish to stop mankind from destroying itself, ignorant to their real plans for conquest. His assertion of science above all else prevents him from considering the ethical horrors that come with the Mysterians’ terms.  

Shiraishi is the personification of director Honda’s concerns over the misuse of science. “At that time I feared the danger of science, that whoever controlled it could take over the entire Earth”, Honda observed…

There’s also something else that makes The Mysterians all the more chilling today. The film’s concern that we could become like the Mysterians may have already come to pass – though not in a way that’s immediately apparent. The Mysterians have gone through an unimaginable horror in the form of atomic annihilation; and yet, they haven’t learned from their own nightmare. Instead of renouncing war or seeking peace, the Mysterians have looked to further conquest. For them, there is no recognition of the horror of war, just the restart of its engine.  

At the film’s climax, when the Earth has successfully fought back the invaders, we see scattered Mysterian bodies in their decimated dome. Many of their helmets are cracked and split, revealing their faces; they look human, with very little to distinguish them from us except their wounds and radiation scars. One looks at their damaged faces and sees a miserable, endless cycle…

The Mysterians is also striking in its depiction of a united Earth, with both Russia and America working side by side. The nations of the world join to fend off the new danger, with earthbound conflicts rendered banal in the face of collective oblivion… Director Ishiro Honda’s [see here] concern was in presenting a united planet – a recurring tenet of his genre work. Of The Mysterians, Honda said, “I would like to wipe away the [Cold War-era] notion of East versus West and convey a simple, universal aspiration for peace, the coming together of all humankind as one to create a peaceful society.” As noted by his biographers (Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski), the visual composition of scenes involving international meetings shows a symmetry that affirms Honda’s egalitarian view; no one country is seen above or below another…

From Christopher Stewardson (@CF_Stewardson), an appreciation of a classic that’s all-too-timely again: “Thoughts on Film: The Mysterians.”

[[TotH to our buddies at Boing Boing]

* “Dr. Tanjiro Adachi,” The Mysterians

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As we think globally, we might recall that it was on this date in 2018 that Sir David Attenborough (a naturalist and producer/host of the BBC’s epic Life on Our Planet) spoke at the UN’s climate summit in Poland. Sir David warned that climate change is humanity’s greatest threat in thousands of years, and that it could lead to the collapse of civilizations and the extinction of “much of the natural world.”

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“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”*…

In the past few decades, the Gini coefficient—a standard measure of income distribution across population segments—increased within most high-income economies. The United States remains the most unequal high-income economy in the world. The disparity reflects a surge in incomes for the richest population segments, along with sluggish or even falling incomes for the poorest, especially during bad economic times.

At the same time, the middle class is shrinking. The percent of Americans in the middle class has dropped since the 1970s, from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019. Some have moved up the income ladder, but an increasing number are also moving down. The middle class has also shrunk considerably in countries like Germany, Canada, and Sweden, but other advanced economies have generally experienced more modest declines.

From the introduction to the Petersen Institute for International Economics report “How to Fix Economic Inequality?

Founded by Pete Petersen (Lehman Brothers Chair, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, and co-founder, with Trump supporter Stephen Scharzman, of investment giant Blackstone), and overseen by trustees who include Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, and George Schultz, PIIE is hardly a “progressive” think tank. But they are worried: quite apart from its obvious humanitarian toll, inequality at the scales that have emerged is highly unlikely to be sustainable (even at the human cost that we’ve so far been willing to pay). Put more bluntly, it is ever more likely to torpedo the domestic (and large hunks of the global) economy and indeed to threaten the stability of democratic society.

Other sources suggest that they have very good reason for concern:

• Even as the stock market hits new highs, 26 million Americans are suffering food insecurity (See also: “The boom in US GDP does not match what’s happening to Americans’ wallets.”

• The distribution of assets in the US (and other developed economies, but most egregiously in the U.S.) is even more skewed than income: see data in the PIIE report and “The Asset Economy.”

• And lest we think that this issue is confined to the U.S., social democracies throughout the developed world are feeling the same pressures (albeit mostly less dramatically).

FWIW, your correspondent doesn’t have terrifically strong confidence in the remedies mooted in the PIIE report. Even as the authors recognize that the issues are deeply structural, they confine themselves to recommending (what seem to your correspondent) relatively timid and incremental steps– which, even if taken (and most require legislative or regulatory action) are more likely to slow the polarization underway than to reverse it.

But they are worth contemplating, if only to provoke us to more fundamental measures (e.g., here). And in any case, it’s telling– and one can only hope, encouraging– that determined champions of the very neoliberal economics that have gotten us here recognize, at least, that unless we change course, we’re speeding into a dead end.

* Warren Buffett

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As we agree that fair’s fair, we might recall that it was on this date in 2001 that Enron, once #7 in the Fortune 500, declared bankruptcy. Six months earlier, it’s stock had traded as high as $90; it closed November 30th at 26 cents, wiping out billions in wealth (a appreciable part of it disappearing from employees’ pension plans). At the time, Enron had $63.4 billion in assets, earning it the honor of being the nation’s largest bankruptcy to that date. (It would be surpassed by the WorldCom bankruptcy a year later.)

Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO served 11 years in prison on several counts of fraud; Andy Fastow, Enron’s CFO, would served about 5 years. Chairman Ken Lay was also found guilty, but died before his sentencing. Enron’s accounting firm, Arthur Andersen (at the time a leader among the “Big 5”), which at least “missed” the egregious fraudulent practices in their audits of Enron, was effectively forced to dissolve after the scandal.

Published a year before the scandal broke

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“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”*…

In the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, a burly custodian in an orphanage basement, hunched over a chess board, intrigues a nine-year-old girl named Beth Harmon, who sees him playing, under a dim light, against himself. This Mr. Shaibel can tell Beth’s a bit desperate to understand what he’s doing, and begrudgingly agrees to teach her to play. At night, high on the tranquilizers the staff administers to orphans—this is the early 1960s—she practices tactics in bed, staring up at a chess board that she hallucinates on the ceiling. Beth advances rapidly in skill, until Mr. Shaibel, who plays in a club, can no longer reserve how impressed he is at her abilities. He invites a fellow chess player, who heads the local high school chess group, to meet Beth, and recruit her. She ends up playing the boys in the club simultaneously, including last year’s champion. A crowd of students forms as she bests each one.

As I watched Beth dreamily focus on her imaginary chess board, simulating alternative possibilities, I thought about how that must be shaping her brain, particularly the part dedicated to planning and decision-making, the frontal cortex. Compared to other regions, it’s uniquely malleable, or plastic. Stanford behavioral endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky calls it “the brain’s hotspot for plasticity.” Our brains are changing, forming new neural connections and severing others all the time, of course. But at a young age the brain’s plasticity is much more pronounced. This is something that Tom Vanderbilt discussed in his Nautilus feature, “Learning Chess at 40,” in which he reports what it was like taking up the game with his four-year-old daughter. Neil Charness, a psychologist who has studied cognition through chess for years, told Vanderbilt, “If you’re talking about two novices, your daughter would probably pick things up about twice as fast as you could.” In that way it’s like learning a language—children can assimilate the game’s complex rules and action much more intuitively and quickly than an adult.

This means that chess offers a unique opportunity. It could perhaps be the ultimate window through which we might see how our mental powers shift during our lives. This is because the moves of professional chess players in games, going back over a century, are recorded, and so researchers can objectively analyze the quality of players’ moves over their career, inferring cognitive rise and decline. And that’s exactly what a recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did…

How a game that dates from the 6th century can teach us about ourselves and how we change as we age: “Scientists Analyzed 24,000 Chess Matches to Understand Cognition.”

The study- is here: “Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run.”

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we consider our next move, we might recall that it was on this date in 1877 that the first meeting of the Manhattan Chess Club was held; the entrance fee was $1 per person and dues were $4 per year. MCC was, until it closed in 2002, the second-oldest chess club in the U.S. (The oldest, The Mechanics Library Chess Club in San Francisco, first met in 1854– and is still in operation.)

Bobby Fischer, left, played a speed match against Andrew Soltis in 1971 at the Manhattan Chess Club

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