(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes


As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”


Written by LW

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it”*…


Feynman and Dirac

Two of Marek Holzman’s photographs of Feynman and Dirac together in Warsaw in 1962


Beloved late physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988) first met his hero Paul Dirac (1902–1984) during Princeton University’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1946 and then again at least twice, in 1948 and 1962. Most notably, the two came to heads during the so-called Pocono Conference when Feynman gave a lecture on a nascent “Alternative Formulation of Quantum Electrodynamics”, reformulating the theory which had earned Dirac the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. A star-studded audience of 28 of the world’s leading physicists attended the conference, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe and of course, the inventor of the theory himself, Paul Dirac.

Feynman’s reformulation of Dirac’s theory was not well received at Pocono, as Bohr, Teller and Dirac all raised objections. Feynman’s disappointment from the audience’s reaction motivated him to write up his work for publication instead. He did so, and in the next three years went on to publish four major papers describing his now well-developed theory and its implications…

Feynman and Dirac [met for the last] time, at the International Conference on Relativistic Theories of Gravitation in Warsaw, Poland in 1962… Their conversation, as overheard by a nearby physicist, was so remarkable that he jotted it down:

F: I am Feynman.
D: I am Dirac.
F: It must be wonderful to be the discoverer of that equation.
D: That was a long time ago.
D: What are you working on?
F: Mesons.
D: Are you trying to discover an equation for them?
F: It is very hard.
D: One must try.


Another of Holzman’s photographs from Warsaw

Feynman’s work earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

Paul Dirac died in 1984 at the age of 82 years old. Two years later, Feynman was invited to give one of three Dirac Memorial Lectures. He did so, with a lecture entitled “Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics”, which he opened as follows:

When I was a young man, Dirac was my hero. He made a new breakthrough, a new method of doing physics. He had the courage to simply guess at the form of an equation, the equation we now call the Dirac equation, and to try to interpret it afterwards.


How Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman’s hero-turned-opponent, motivated a life’s work which not only altered the trajectory of modern physics, but also erected Feynman’s legend as one history’s finest scientist: “When Feynman met Dirac.”

* Richard Feynman


As we chase after clarity, we might send very tiny birthday greetings to Wolfgang Paul; he was born on this date in 1913.  A physicist, he developed the non-magnetic quadrupole mass filter which laid the foundation for what is now called an ion trap— a device (also known as a Paul trap) that captures ions and holds them long enough for study and precise measurement of their properties.  During the 1950s he developed the so-called Paul trap as a means of confining and studying electrons.  He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989 for his work.

He humorously referred to Wolfgang Pauli as his imaginary part.

220px-Wolfgang_Paul source


“Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick”*…




Could the Earth be a life-exporting planet? That’s the curious question examined in a recent paper written by Harvard University astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb.

The researchers take a novel twist on the controversial notion of panspermia – the idea, propelled into the mainstream in the early 1970s by astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, that life might have started on Earth through microbes arriving from space.

The theory is generally discounted, although eminent astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking conceded it was at least possible, and a major paper published in 2018 revived the topic big-time.

In their [late December, 2019] paper, Siraj and Loeb reverse the standard assumption about the direction of the microbial journey and ask whether it is possible to that at some point Earth-evolved bacteria could have been propelled away from the planet, possibly to be deposited somewhere else in the Milky Way…

Astronomers suggest microbes might hitch lifts on interstellar asteroids.  More on the hypothesis and the evidence that supports it at “Earth bacteria may have colonised other solar systems.”  Read the underlying paper at arXiv.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer


As we ponder the polarity of proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Albert Einstein startled his audience at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin by suggesting the possibility that the universe could be measured.  His talk, “Geometry and Experience” (text here), applied some results of the relativity theory to conclude that if the real velocities of the stars (as could be actually measured) were less than the calculated velocities, then it would prove that real gravitations’ great distances were smaller than the gravitational distances demanded by the law of Newton.  From that divergence, the finiteness of the universe could be proved indirectly, and could even permit the estimation of its size.

Later that year, Einstein was announced as the 1921 Nobel Laureate in Physics, an award he accepted the following year.

Bildnis Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein in 1921


Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!


“The average scientist unequipped with the powerful lenses of philosophy, is a nearsighted creature, and cheerfully attacks each difficulty in the hope that it may prove to be the last”*…




There are decisive grounds for holding that we need to bring about a revolution in philosophy, a revolution in science, and then put the two together again to create a modern version of natural philosophy.

Once upon a time, it was not just that philosophy was a part of science; rather, science was a branch of philosophy. We need to remember that modern science began as natural philosophy – a development of philosophy, an admixture of philosophy and science. Today, we think of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and, of course, Isaac Newton as trailblazing scientists, while we think of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz as philosophers. That division is, however, something we impose on the past. It is profoundly anachronistic…

Science broke away from metaphysics, from philosophy, as a result of natural philosophers adopting a profound misconception about the nature of science. As a result, natural philosophy died, the great divide between science and philosophy was born, and the decline of philosophy began.

It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction…

Nicholas Maxwell argues that science and philosophy need to be re-joined, lest humanity seek knowledge at the expense of wisdom; only then, he suggests, can we hope to solve the urgent, fundamental problems that we face: “Natural philosophy redux.”

[Image above: source]

* Gilbert N. Lewis


As we seek ever-higher ground, we might that it was on this date in 1898 that the heirs of Alfred Nobel signed a “reconciliation agreement,” allowing his lawyers and accountants to execute his will.  The lion’s share of his estate was clearly marked for the establishment of the eponymous Prizes that are awarded each year.  But the residue, which was to be divided among descendants was the subject of much contention.


The first page of Nobel’s will [source]



“The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and it is the world itself”*…


Inlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340

Long-time readers will know that your correspondent has a fascination with the impulse to collect the world’s knowledge, from Diderot and his Encyclopédie to Wikipedia (c.f., “Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality” and “Rest in Pieces“).  But the encyclopedic impulse has much older roots…

Sometime around the year 1314, a retired Egyptian bureaucrat named Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri began writing a compendium of all knowledge, under the appealingly reckless title The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. It would eventually total more than 9,000 pages in thirty volumes, covering all of human history from Adam onward, all known plants and animals, geography, law, the arts of government and war, poetry, recipes, jokes, and of course, the revelations of Islam…

Browse away at “In the Attic of Early Islam.”

* Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night


As we collect our thoughts, we might spare a thought for Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz; he died on this date in 2006.  A prolific creator– he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career– he was one of the first writers in Arabic to explore Existentialist themes (e.g., the Cairo Trilogy, Adrift on the Nile).  He was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.


Written by LW

August 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: