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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“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

“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


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



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


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).


“When physicists say ‘we don’t understand what’s going on here,’ they really, really mean it”*…


Theoretical physicists and cosmologists deal with the biggest questions, like “Why are we here?” “When did the universe begin?” and “How?” Another questions that bugs them, and likely has bugged you, is “What happened before the Big Bang?”

To be perfectly clear, we can’t definitively answer this question—but we can speculate wildly, with the help of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll from the California Institute of Technology. Carroll gave a talk last month at the bi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas, where he walked through several pre-Bang possibilities that would result in a universe like ours…

Consider the options at: “What Was Our Universe Like Before the Big Bang?

* Theoretical physicist Peter Woit, Columbia University


As we scrutinize the singularity, we might spare a thought for E. E. Barnard; he died on this date in 1923. Recognized as a gifted observational astronomer, he is probably best known for his discovery of the high proper motion of Barnard’s Star in 1916, which is named in his honor.  But, drawing on his experience as a photographer’s assistant in his adolescence (and building on the work of John William Draper), Barnard also contributed mightily to the development of celestial photography.



Written by LW

February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?”*…


“The teaching of Logic or Dialetics” from a collection of scientific, philosophical and poetic writings, French, 13th century; Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, Paris, France. Photo by Bridgeman

Is logical thinking a way to discover or to debate? The answers from philosophy and mathematics define human knowledge..

The history of logic should be of interest to anyone with aspirations to thinking that is correct, or at least reasonable. This story illustrates different approaches to intellectual enquiry and human cognition more generally. Reflecting on the history of logic forces us to reflect on what it means to be a reasonable cognitive agent, to think properly. Is it to engage in discussions with others? Is it to think for ourselves? Is it to perform calculations?…

The rise and fall and rise of logic: “What is logic?

* George Orwell, 1984


As we ruminate on reason, we might send enlightened birthday greetings to Benjamin Franklin; he was born on this date in 1706.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.  And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.

– Henry Steele Commager



Written by LW

January 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing more wonderful than a list, instrument of wondrous hypotyposis”*…


Da Vinci would carry around a notebook, where he would write and draw anything that moved him. “It is useful,” Leonardo once wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider.” Buried in one of these books, dating back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list…

Check it out (if not off) at “Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490) Is Much Cooler Than Yours.”

* Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


As we prioritize prioritization, we might spare a thought for Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger; he died on this date in 1961.  A physicist best remembered in his field for his contributions to the development of quantum mechanics (e.g., the Schrödinger equation), and more generally for his “Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment– a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics– he also wrote on philosophy and theoretical biology.  Indeed, both James Watson, and independently, Francis Crick, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, credited Schrödinger’s What is Life? (1944), with its theoretical description of how the storage of genetic information might work, as an inspiration.

It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, “Who are we?”

– from Science and Humanism, 1951


Written by LW

January 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

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