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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“Night Time Is the Right Time”*…

An architect based in Boston by day, Andrew Thomas Shea is a photography hobbyist at night and his latest project, Neon New England, celebrates a beloved common fixture across the Northeastern United States… vintage neon signs.

More of Shea’s sumptuous work at “Nocturnal photographs of New England’s famous American neon signs.”

* song written and first performed by Roosevelt Sykes (1937), bt better known in subsequent versions by inspired many subsequent versions, including hits by Ray Charles, Rufus and Carla (Thomas), and James Brown


As we reflect on reflection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Léon Foucault famously used a pendulum suspended from the top of the dome in the Pantheon in Paris to demonstrate that the earth turns on its axis. (He used a technique developed by Vincenzo Viviani, though it was Foucault’s “experiment that caught the public’s attention.) The following year, Foucault used (and named) the gyroscope in a conceptually simpler experimental proof.

(Several years later he also helped take the first photo of the sun.)



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

Freeman Dyson was a translator: he turned physics into math, and those subjects into English for the general public.

Mathematics, like life, is complicated. But, for those who do mathematics, it is a source of joy. “The main thing is just astonishment that there’s such a rich world out there—a wonderful, abstract, very beautiful, simple world,” [John] Conway said. “It’s like Pizarro standing on the shores of the Pacific or whatever. . . . I can sit here in this chair and go on a voyage of exploration. A very different voyage of exploration, but, still, there are things to be discovered, things to be seen, that you can quite easily be the first person ever to see.”

So many of us now sit in our rooms, bound in space while time drips away. It can be a bit of a comfort to know that, as long as you are able to sit still and think, your creative spirit can be an engine of exploration. On their journeys, these playful, curious mathematicians discovered Monsters and numbers so large that they can hardly be written down. We’re grateful for the lively stories of their expeditions, and for the thinkers who led them. They’ll be missed…

John Conway, Ronald Graham, and Freeman Dyson all explored the world with their minds. Dan Rockmore (@dan_rockmore) celebrates “Three Mathematicians We Lost in 2020.”

Special bonus: an interview with an heir to Dyson– that’s to say, an important mathematician who’s also a gifted “translator”– Steven Strogatz.

* Henri Poincaré


As we share their amazement, we might we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


“Bohr was inconsistent, unclear, willfully obscure, and right. Einstein was consistent, clear, down-to-earth, and wrong.”*…

The founders of quantum mechanics understood it to be deeply, profoundly weird. Albert Einstein, for one, went to his grave convinced that the theory had to be just a steppingstone to a more complete description of nature, one that would do away with the disturbing quirks of the quantum.

Then in 1964, John Stewart Bell proved a theorem that would test whether quantum theory was obscuring a full description of reality, as Einstein claimed. Experimenters have since used Bell’s theorem to rule out the possibility that beneath all the apparent quantum craziness — the randomness and the spooky action at a distance — is a hidden deterministic reality that obeys the laws of relativity.

Now a new theorem has taken Bell’s work a step further. The theorem makes some reasonable-sounding assumptions about physical reality. It then shows that if a certain experiment were carried out — one that is, to be fair, extravagantly complicated — the expected results according to the rules of quantum theory would force us to reject one of those assumptions.

According to Matthew Leifer, a quantum physicist at Chapman University who did not participate in the research, the new work focuses attention on a class of interpretations of quantum mechanics that until now have managed to escape serious scrutiny from similar “no-go” theorems.

Broadly speaking, these interpretations argue that quantum states reflect our own knowledge of physical reality, rather than being faithful representations of something that exists out in the world. The exemplar of this group of ideas is the Copenhagen interpretation, the textbook version of quantum theory, which is most popularly understood to suggest that particles don’t have definite properties until those properties are measured. Other Copenhagen-like quantum interpretations go even further, characterizing quantum states as subjective to each observer…

… which has, as you will see as you read on in the piece excerpted above, some pretty profoundly weird implications. Either the rules of quantum mechanics don’t always apply, or at least one basic assumption about reality must be wrong: “A New Theorem Maps Out the Limits of Quantum Physics.”

See also “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

* John Stewart Bell


As we pity Schrödinger’s cat, we might we might send penetrating birthday greetings to Henry Way Kendall; he was born on this date in 1926. A particle physicist, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1990 (with Jerome Isaac Friedman and Richard E. Taylor) “for their pioneering investigations concerning deep inelastic scattering of electrons on protons and bound neutrons, which have been of essential importance for the development of the quark model in particle physics.”

In 1969, Kendall helped found the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 1997, in connection with the Kyoto Climate Summit, he helped produce a statement signed by 2,000 scientists calling for action on global warming.


“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”*…

One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. Donald Trump is president, QAnon has mainstreamed fringe conspiracy theories, and hundreds of thousands are dead from a pandemic and climate change while many Americans do not believe that the pandemic or climate change are deadly. It’s incomprehensible.

I am here to tell you the the reason that so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.

In other words: No one’s driving. And if we hope to retake the wheel, we’re going to have to understand, intimately, all of the ways we’ve lost control…

The internet might be the system that we interact with in the most direct and intimate ways, but most of us have little comprehension of what lies behind our finger-smudged touchscreens, truly understood by few. Made up of data centers, internet exchanges, huge corporations, tiny startups, investors, social media platforms, datasets, adtech companies, and billions of users and their connected devices, it’s a vast network dedicated to mining, creating, and moving data on scales we can’t comprehend. YouTube users upload more than 500 hours of video every minute — which works out as 82.2 yearsof video uploaded to YouTube every day. As of June 30, 2020, there are over 2.7 billion monthly active Facebook users, with 1.79 billion people on average logging on daily. Each day, 500 million tweets are sent— or 6,000 tweets every second, with a day’s worth of tweets filling a 10-million-page book. Every day, 65 billion messages are sent on WhatsApp. By 2025, it’s estimated that 463 million terabytes of data will be created each day — the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs…

What we’ve ended up with is a civilization built on the constant flow of physical goods, capital, and data, and the networks we’ve built to manage those flows in the most efficient ways have become so vast and complex that they’re now beyond the scale of any single (and, arguably, any group or team of) human understanding them. It’s tempting to think of these networks as huge organisms, with tentacles spanning the globe that touch everything and interlink with one another, but I’m not sure the metaphor is apt. An organism suggests some form of centralized intelligence, a nervous system with a brain at its center, processing data through feedback loops and making decisions. But the reality with these networks is much closer to the concept of distributed intelligence or distributed knowledge, where many different agents with limited information beyond their immediate environment interact in ways that lead to decision-making, often without them even knowing that’s what they’re doing…

Ceding control to vast unaccountable networks not only risks those networks going off the rails, it also threatens democracy itself. If we are struggling to understand or influence anything more than very small parts of them, this is also increasingly true for politicians and world leaders. Like the captain of the container ship, politicians and voters have less and less control over how any of these networks run. Instead they find themselves merely managing very small parts of them — they certainly don’t seem to be able to make drastic changes to those networks (which are mainly owned by private corporate industries anyway) even though they have a very direct impact on their nations’ economies, policies, and populations. To paraphrase the filmmaker Adam Curtis, instead of electing visionary leaders, we are in fact just voting for middle managers in a complex, global system that nobody fully controls.

The result of this feels increasingly like a democratic vacuum. We live in an era where voters have record levels of distrust for politicians, partly because they can feel this disconnect — they see from everyday reality that, despite their claims, politicians can’t effect change. Not really. They might not understand why, exactly, but there’s this increasing sense that leaders have lost the ability to make fundamental changes to our economic and social realities. The result is a large body of mainstream voters that wants to burn down the status quo. They want change, but don’t see politicians being able to deliver it. It feels like they’re trapped in a car accelerating at full throttle, but no one is driving.

They may not be able to do much about it, but there are mainstream politicians and elected leaders who see this vacuum for what it is — and see how it provides them with a political opportunity. Figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson certainly don’t believe in patching up the failures of this system — if anything, they believe in accelerating the process, deregulating, handing more power to the networks. No, for them this is a political vacuum that can be filled with blame. With finger-pointing and scapegoating. It is an opportunity to make themselves look powerful by pandering to fears, by evoking nationalism, racism, and fascism.

Donald Trump has still not conceded the 2020 election despite Joe Biden’s clear victory, and is leaning in part on the fact that the United States has a complex and sometimes opaque voting system that most of the public doesn’t understand to spread conspiracy theories about glitchy or malfeasant voting machines switching or deleting millions of votes. It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the highest-profile figures on the right — like ex-Trump-adviser Steve Bannon or Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage — have backgrounds in the financial industry. These are political players who have seen how complicated things have become and can sense the gap in public comprehension but want to fill it with chaos and conspiracies rather than explanations…

As Tim Maughan (@TimMaughan) explains, vast systems, from automated supply chains to high-frequency trading, now undergird our daily lives — and we’re losing control of all of them: “The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand” (the first of a series of monthly columns that will “locate ways that we can try to increase our knowledge of the seemingly unknowable, as well as find strategies to counter the powerlessness and anxiety the system produces”).

* Confucius


As we contemplate complexity, we might send emergent birthday greetings to Per Bak; he was born on this date in 1948. A theoretical physicist, he is credited with developing the concept (and coining the name) of “self-organized criticality,” an explanation of how very complex phenomena (like consciousness) emerge from the interaction of simple components.


“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


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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