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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”*…


Jeremy England is concerned about words—about what they mean, about the universes they contain. He avoids ones like “consciousness” and “information”; too loaded, he says. Too treacherous. When he’s searching for the right thing to say, his voice breaks a little, scattering across an octave or two before resuming a fluid sonority.

His caution is understandable. The 34-year-old assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the architect of a new theory called “dissipative adaptation,” which has helped to explain how complex, life-like function can self-organize and emerge from simpler things, including inanimate matter. This proposition has earned England a somewhat unwelcome nickname: the next Charles Darwin. But England’s story is just as much about language as it is about biology…

A new theory on the emergence of life’s complexity: “How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we resist the urge to simplify, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.





Written by LW

July 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”*…


Let us say we were interested in describing all phenomena in our universe. What type of mathematics would we need? How many axioms would be needed for mathematical structure to describe all the phenomena? Of course, it is hard to predict, but it is even harder not to speculate. One possible conclusion would be that if we look at the universe in totality and not bracket any subset of phenomena, the mathematics we would need would have no axioms at all. That is, the universe in totality is devoid of structure and needs no axioms to describe it. Total lawlessness! The mathematics are just plain sets without structure. This would finally eliminate all metaphysics when dealing with the laws of nature and mathematical structure. It is only the way we look at the universe that gives us the illusion of structure…

Science predicts only the predictable, ignoring most of our universe.  What if neither Platonism nor the multiverse are the accurate approaches to understanding the reality we inhabit?  “Chaos Makes the Multiverse Unnecessary.”

[image above: source]

* José SaramagoThe Double


As we impose order, we might spare a thought for Philipp Frank; he died on this date in 1966. A physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science, he was Einstein’s successor as professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague– a job he got on Einstein’s recommendation– until 1938, when he fled the rise of Nazism and relocated to Harvard.  Frank’s theoretical work covered variational calculus, Hamiltonian geometrical optics, Schrödinger wave mechanics, and relativity; his philosophical work strove to reconcile science and philosophy and “bring about the closest rapprochement between” them.



Written by LW

July 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first”*…


In our terrestrial view of things, the speed of light seems incredibly fast. But as soon as you view it against the vast distances of the universe, it’s unfortunately very slow…

An illustration of what one would see, traveling at the speed of light from the sun toward the edge of our solar system.  The filmmaker decided to end the video after Jupiter (at 45 minutes) to keep it “short,” since it could have gone on another half hour just to get to Saturn, let alone Uranus, Neptune, the former-planet Pluto (#neverforget), or the Kuiper Belt.

Take the tour at: “Ever wonder what it ‘looks’ like to travel at the speed of light? Here you go.

* Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man


As we examine enormity, we might send sharply-focused birthday greetings to Theodore Harold “Ted” Maiman; he was born on this date in 1927.  A physicist and inventor, Maiman is credited with the invention of the first working laser, a synthetic ruby crystal laser, which was announced to the world in a July 7 press conference hosted by his employer, Hughes Aircraft.  Maiman’s work, for which he was granted a patent, led to the development of a variety of other types of lasers, and laid the foundation for the myriad uses in storage, scanning, communications, and other applications that have emerged since.



Written by LW

July 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Librarians are the secret masters of the world”*…


Interior view of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos scientific library

If library work was among the most tedious [at Los Alamos], the award for the most unenviable job likely belonged to its head librarian: Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist who at one point interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright for The Boston Globe.

In 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Serber to spearhead the project in part because of her lack of librarian experience. He wanted someone who would be willing to bend the rules of cataloguing.

Her appointment was a victory for the women on the Hill. Though women were integral to the success of the Manhattan Project—scientists like Leona Woods and Mary Lucy Miller played central roles in the creation of the bomb—none occupied leadership positions.

In this respect, Serber stood alone. As the head of the scientific library, she became the Manhattan Project’s de facto keeper of secrets, a position that soon saw her targeted for an FBI probe—and almost ended in her being fired from the project…

The remarkable true tale of the woman who dodged accusations of communism, and made the atomic bomb possible: “The Librarian Who Guarded the Manhattan Project’s Secrets.”

* Spider Robinson


As we check it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy),  was published.  Often referred to as simply the Principia, the three-volume work outlines Newton’s laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics; Newton’s law of universal gravitation; and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler first obtained empirically).  This first edition was written in Latin, the universal language of scholarship at the time; an English edition was published in 1728.  It remains one of the most important works in the history of science.

Title page of the first edition



Written by LW

July 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Everything around us is scale dependent. It’s woven into the fabric of the universe.”*…


What do you, your town, and your employer all have in common? Scalability. According to physicist Geoffrey West, there are mathematical principles that govern the growth and longevity of complex organisms, crowded cities, and even corporations…

A fascinating interview with West about his new book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies: “What Do Organisms, Crowded Cities, and Corporations Have in Common?

See West talk about his work in a the Long Now Seminar.

[TotH to @jhagel]

* Geoffrey West


As we get small, we might send illuminated birthday greetings to John Walker; he was born on this date in 1781.  A chemist from Stockton-on-Tees, Walker invented friction matches in 1827; he had accidentally discovered their “secret” the prior year when he mixed potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide, which he bound to a sulphur-coated stick (with gum).

He recorded the first sale as “Sulphurata Hyper-Oxygenata Frict,” but by the second sale (five months later), he was getting the hang of naming: “friction lights.”  He sold them in boxes of 50 for a shilling, with a folded slip of sandpaper as a striking surface.  He ultimately trade-named them “Congreves,” in honor of Sir William Congreve, known for his invention of military rockets.

A tin Congreves matchbox (1827)


Written by LW

May 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The missing link in cosmology is the nature of dark matter and dark energy”*…


Familiar visible matter can be thought of as the privileged percent—actually more like 15 percent—of matter. In business and politics, the interacting 1 percent dominates decision making and policy, while the remaining 99 percent of the population provides less widely acknowledged infrastructure and support—maintaining buildings, keeping cities operational, and getting food to people’s tables. Similarly, ordinary matter dominates almost everything we notice, whereas dark matter, in its abundance and ubiquity, helped create clusters and galaxies and facilitated star formation, but has only limited influence on our immediate surroundings today…

The common assumption is that dark matter is the “glue” that holds together galaxies and galaxy clusters, but resides only in amorphous clouds around them. But what if this assumption isn’t true and it is only our prejudice—and ignorance, which is after all the root of most prejudice—that led us down this potentially misleading path?…

Indeed,  Harvard theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall asks, “Does dark matter harbor life?

* Stephen Hawking


As we reach reflexively for a flashlight, we might send particular birthday greetings to Abraham Pais; he was born on this date in 1918.  After earning his Ph.D. in physics in Holland five days before a Nazi deadline banning Jews from receiving degrees, he went into hiding– and worked out ideas in quantum electrodynamics (later shared with Niels Bohr) that became the building blocks of the theory of elemental particles.  He was later a colleague of Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Pais was also an widely-respected historian of science.  Among his many works were a biography of Bohr and (the work for which he’s best remembered as a historian) Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, which is considered the definitive Einstein biography.



Written by LW

May 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…


The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will. Astronomers wonder what dark matter is, geologists seek the origins of life, and biologists try to understand cancer—all difficult problems, of course, yet at least we have some idea of how to go about investigating them and rough conceptions of what their solutions could look like. Our first-person experience, on the other hand, lies beyond the traditional methods of science. Following the philosopher David Chalmers, we call it the hard problem of consciousness.

But perhaps consciousness is not uniquely troublesome. Going back to Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, philosophers of science have struggled with a lesser known, but equally hard, problem of matter. What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics? This problem, too, seems to lie beyond the traditional methods of science, because all we can observe is what matter does, not what it is in itself—the “software” of the universe but not its ultimate “hardware.” On the surface, these problems seem entirely separate. But a closer look reveals that they might be deeply connected…

Find out how the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics at “Is Matter Conscious?

For more on the conscious controversy– what is it?  who/what has it?– see also “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

* Kingsley Amis


As we think, therefore are, we might send analytic birthday greetings to Sigismund Schlomo Freud; he was born on this date in 1856.  The father of psychoanalysis, he revolutionized the field of psychotherapy– so much so that later practitioners have often failed to recognize Freud’s scientific predecessors.  Throughout his work (in such books as Interpretation of Dreams and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) he emphasized the role of unconscious and non-rational functioning, going against most contemporary thought by suggesting that dreams and “mistakes” may have affirmative meaning.



Written by LW

May 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

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