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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Written by LW

May 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”*…

 

Your correspondent is old enough to remember the Cold War and the Civil Defense efforts (booklets, films, duck-and-cover drills) aimed at “preparing” us for atomic conflict.  It’s a sad sign of our times that they’re re-emerging:  “Where to Hide If a Nuclear Bomb Goes Off In Your Area.”

(If there’s a silver lining in this fallout-laced cloud, it’s that it’s re-directing attention to a problem– a threat– that never actually went away; c.f., Ploughshares.)

* J. Robert Oppenheimer

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As we enter the Twilight Zone, we might recall that it was on this date in 1903 that The Times (London) newspaper reported that Marie and Pierre Curie communicated to the Academy of Sciences that the recently discovered Radium…

… possesses the extraordinary property of continuously emitting heat, without combustion, without chemical change of any kind, and without any change to its molecular structure, which remains spectroscopically identical after many months of continuous emission of heat … such that the pure Radium salt would melt more than its own weight of ice every hour … A small tube containing Radium, if kept in contact with the skin for some hours … produces an open sore, by destroying the epidermis and the true skin beneath … and cause the death of living things whose nerve centres do not lie deep enough to be shielded from their influence.

That same year the Curies (and Antoine Henri Becquerel) were awarded the Noble Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity and radiation.

Marie and Pierre Curie

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Written by LW

March 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”*…

 

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:

But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

– Richard Wilbur

Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo.’

It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself…

The closer you look, the more the materialist explanation of consciousness (and physics) appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground: “Minding matter.”

Pair with the two parts of Tim Park‘s conversation with Riccardo Manzotti: “Am I the Apple?” and  “The Mind in the Whirlwind.”

For dessert, “Atom, Archetype, and the Invention of Synchronicity: How Iconic Psychiatrist Carl Jung and Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli Bridged Mind and Matter.”

* Albert Einstein, riffing on his friend Kurt Gödel

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As we think about thinking, we might spare a thought for Frederick Winslow Taylor; he died on this date in 1915.  An engineer and inventor (42 patents), he’s best remembered as the father of “Scientific Management,” the discipline rooted in efficiency studies and standardization.  Quoth Peter Drucker:

Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of sixty years.

Taylor’s work encouraged many followers (including Frank “Cheaper by the Dozen” Gilbreth) and effectively spawned the field of management consulting.  But Taylor practiced what he preached, and found time to become a champion tennis player as well:  he won the first doubles tournament (1881) in U.S. National Championships, the precursor of the U.S. Open (with partner Clarence Clark).

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