(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs”*…


An ” Amplituhedron“, an illustration of multi-dimensional spacetime

Our architecture, our education and our dictionaries tell us that space is three-dimensional. The OED defines it as ‘a continuous area or expanse which is free, available or unoccupied … The dimensions of height, depth and width, within which all things exist and move.’ In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that three-dimensional Euclidean space is an a priori necessity and, saturated as we are now in computer-generated imagery and video games, we are constantly subjected to representations of a seemingly axiomatic Cartesian grid. From the perspective of the 21st century, this seems almost self-evident.

Yet the notion that we inhabit a space with any mathematical structure is a radical innovation of Western culture, necessitating an overthrow of long-held beliefs about the nature of reality. Although the birth of modern science is often discussed as a transition to a mechanistic account of nature, arguably more important – and certainly more enduring – is the transformation it entrained in our conception of space as a geometrical construct.

Over the past century, the quest to describe the geometry of space has become a major project in theoretical physics, with experts from Albert Einstein onwards attempting to explain all the fundamental forces of nature as byproducts of the shape of space itself. While on the local level we are trained to think of space as having three dimensions, general relativity paints a picture of a four-dimensional universe, and string theory says it has 10 dimensions – or 11 if you take an extended version known as M-Theory. There are variations of the theory in 26 dimensions, and recently pure mathematicians have been electrified by a version describing spaces of 24 dimensions. But what are these ‘dimensions’? And what does it mean to talk about a 10-dimensional space of being?…

Experience says we live in three dimensions; relativity says four; string theory says it’s 10– or more… What are “dimensions” and how do they affect reality? Margaret Wertheim offers a guide: “Radical dimensions.”

* Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions


As we tax our senses, we might spare a thought for Robert Jemison Van de Graaff; he died on this date in 1967.  A physicist and engineer, he is best remembered for his creation of the Van de Graaff Generator, an electrostatic generator that creates very high electric potentials– very high voltage direct current (DC) electricity (up to 5 megavolts) at low current levels.  A tabletop version can produce on the order of 100,000 volts and can store enough energy to produce a visible spark. Such small Van de Graaff machines are used in physics education to teach electrostatics; larger ones are displayed in some science museums.

Boy touching Van de Graaff generator at The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum. Charged with electricity, his hair strands repel each other and stand out from his head.




Written by LW

January 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”*…


If you wanted to hear the future in late May, 1968, you might have gone to Abbey Road to hear the Beatles record a new song of John Lennon’s—something called “Revolution.” Or you could have gone to the decidedly less fab midtown Hilton in Manhattan, where a thousand “leaders and future leaders,” ranging from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the peace activist Arthur Waskow, were invited to a conference by the Foreign Policy Association. For its fiftieth anniversary, the F.P.A. scheduled a three-day gathering of experts, asking them to gaze fifty years ahead. An accompanying book shared the conference’s far-off title: “Toward the Year 2018”…

More amazing than science fiction,” proclaims the cover, with jacket copy envisioning how “on a summer day in the year 2018, the three-dimensional television screen in your living room” flashes news of “anti-gravity belts,” “a man-made hurricane, launched at an enemy fleet, [that] devastates a neutral country,” and a “citizen’s pocket computer” that averts an air crash. “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling,” it asks, “with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?”

Much of “Toward the Year 2018” might as well be science fiction today. With fourteen contributors, ranging from the weapons theorist Herman Kahn to the I.B.M. automation director Charles DeCarlo, penning essays on everything from “Space” to “Behavioral Technologies,” it’s not hard to find wild misses. The Stanford wonk Charles Scarlott predicts, exactly incorrectly, that nuclear breeder reactors will move to the fore of U.S. energy production while natural gas fades. (He concedes that natural gas might make a comeback—through atom-bomb-powered fracking.) The M.I.T. professor Ithiel de Sola Pool foresees an era of outright control of economies by nations—“They will select their levels of employment, of industrialization, of increase in GNP”—and then, for good measure, predicts “a massive loosening of inhibitions on all human impulses save that toward violence.” From the influential meteorologist Thomas F. Malone, we get the intriguing forecast of “the suppression of lightning”—most likely, he figures, “by the late 1980s.”

But for every amusingly wrong prediction, there’s one unnervingly close to the mark…

Those uncannily-accurate predictions, and their backstories, at “The 1968 book that tried to predict the world of 2018.”

* Søren Kierkegaard


As we ponder posterity, we might send static-y birthday greetings to Robert Woodrow Wilson; he was born on this date in 1936.  An astronomer, he detected– with Bell Labs colleague Arno Penzias– cosmic microwave background radiation: “relic radiation”– that’s to say. the “sound “– of the Big Bang.  Their 1964 discovery earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.



“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment”*…


We’ve all heard it before: There’s no time like the present. Broadly speaking, of course, it means to “seize the opportunity right now,” or maybe in my case, to avoid procrastinating. From a psychological perspective, this makes a lot of sense. As humans we experience time “passing,” and there is a special quality to the present moment. Hypnosis and dreams aside, there is no way to directly experience either the past or the future in the same way we experience the present. But is the aphorism true? Does modern physics actually tell us that there’s no time like the present?

Our best current physical theory of space and time is general relativity. Prior to Einstein’s revolution over a century ago, physics considered time to be an “external parameter”—an independent, fundamental feature of reality not influenced by any other factor in the universe. Whether or not the passage of time is real or illusory (this is an age-old philosophical debate that predates Einstein and is indeed not settled by his theory), we now know that time intervals are not external or universally determined. Time is an internal component of a physical system, a dimension intertwined with three spatial dimensions. Taken together, this is “spacetime,” and is influenced by varying factors and is influenced by varying factors, including speed (relative to other observers or systems) and gravitational forces. Because the theory of relativity posits the constancy of the speed of light for all observers (even if they are moving relative to each other), spacetime itself must dilate and the concept of a time interval becomes elastic.

As a result, there is no universal notion of the present that applies equally to all observers. What looks present to me could just as easily be in someone else’s future, and in a third person’s past. Simultaneity is relative…

Think there’s no time like the present? As Mark Shumelda suggests, modern physics begs to differ: “Actually, There Is a Time Like the Present.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


As we cogitate on carpe diem, we might send playful birthday greetings to Johan Huizinga; he was born on this date in 1872.  A Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history, he is probably best remembered for his 1938 book Homo Ludens, in which he argues for the importance of the play element of culture and society, suggesting that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.



Written by LW

December 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”*…


Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was being uncharacteristically unambitious. He once pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to be indistinguishable from magic. If you dropped in on a bunch of Paleolithic farmers with your iPhone and a pair of sneakers, you’d undoubtedly seem pretty magical. But the contrast is only middling: The farmers would still recognize you as basically like them, and before long they’d be taking selfies. But what if life has moved so far on that it doesn’t just appear magical, but appears like physics?

After all, if the cosmos holds other life, and if some of that life has evolved beyond our own waypoints of complexity and technology, we should be considering some very extreme possibilities. Today’s futurists and believers in a machine “singularity” predict that life and its technological baggage might end up so beyond our ken that we wouldn’t even realize we were staring at it. That’s quite a claim, yet it would neatly explain why we have yet to see advanced intelligence in the cosmos around us, despite the sheer number of planets it could have arisen on—the so-called Fermi Paradox…

Caleb Scharf on the possibility that alien life could be so advanced it is indistinguishable from physics: “Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?

For a very different perspective (albeit, one seemingly rooted in a more narrowly-defined understanding of “life”), see “A Key Evolutionary Step May Mean Intelligent Alien Life Doesn’t Exist in the Universe.”

* Albert Einstein


As we think through the thought experiment, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made 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.



“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is reality worth?”*…


It is tempting to believe that we live in a time uniquely saturated with images. And indeed, the numbers are staggering: Instagrammers upload about 95 million photos and videos every day. A quarter of Americans use the app, and the vast majority of them are under 40. Because Instagram skews so much younger than Facebook or Twitter, it is where “tastemakers” and “influencers” now live online, and where their audiences spend hours each day making and absorbing visual content. But so much of what seems bleeding edge may well be old hat; the trends, behaviors, and modes of perception and living that so many op-ed columnists and TED-talk gurus attribute to smartphones and other technological advances are rooted in the much older aesthetic of the picturesque.

Wealthy eighteenth-century English travelers… used technology to mediate and pictorialize their experiences of nature just as Instagrammers today hold up their phones and deliberate over filters…

The pre-history of “influencers” and their images: “The Instagrammable Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

* Marty Rubin


As we watch what’s old become new again, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society)


Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.



Written by LW

December 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen”*…


We’ve certainly come a long way since the ancient Greek atomists speculated about the nature of material substance, 2,500 years ago. But for much of this time we’ve held to the conviction that matter is a fundamental part of our physical universe. We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy. And, although matter may be reducible to microscopic constituents, for a long time we believed that these would still be recognizable as matter—they would still possess the primary quality of mass.

Modern physics teaches us something rather different, and deeply counter-intuitive. As we worked our way ever inward—matter into atoms, atoms into sub-atomic particles, sub-atomic particles into quantum fields and forces—we lost sight of matter completely. Matter lost its tangibility. It lost its primacy as mass became a secondary quality, the result of interactions between intangible quantum fields. What we recognize as mass is a behavior of these quantum fields; it is not a property that belongs or is necessarily intrinsic to them.

Despite the fact that our physical world is filled with hard and heavy things, it is instead the energy of quantum fields that reigns supreme. Mass becomes simply a physical manifestation of that energy, rather than the other way around…

Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property: “Physics Has Demoted Mass.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


As we watch all that is solid melt into air, we might spare a jaundiced thought for Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he died on this date in 1976.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heritable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.



Written by LW

November 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“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

%d bloggers like this: