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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman

“Werner Heisenberg once proclaimed that all the quandaries of quantum mechanics would shrivel up when 137 was finally explained”*…

One number to rule them all?

Does the Universe around us have a fundamental structure that can be glimpsed through special numbers?

The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) famously thought so, saying there is a number that all theoretical physicists of worth should “worry about”. He called it “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.”

That magic number, called the fine structure constant, is a fundamental constant, with a value which nearly equals 1/137. Or 1/137.03599913, to be precise. It is denoted by the Greek letter alpha – α.

What’s special about alpha is that it’s regarded as the best example of a pure number, one that doesn’t need units. It actually combines three of nature’s fundamental constants – the speed of light, the electric charge carried by one electron, and the Planck’s constant, as explains physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies to Cosmos magazine. Appearing at the intersection of such key areas of physics as relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics is what gives 1/137 its allure…

The fine structure constant has mystified scientists since the 1800s– and might hold clues to the Grand Unified Theory: “Why the number 137 is one of the greatest mysteries in physics,” from Paul Ratner (@paulratnercodex) in @bigthink.

* Leon M. Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?


As we ruminate on relationships, we might spare a thought for Georg von Peuerbach; he died on this date in 1461. A mathematician, astronomer, and instrument maker, he is probably best remembered for his streamlined presentation of Ptolemaic astronomy in the Theoricae Novae Planetarum (which was an important text for many later-influential astronomers including Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler).

But perhaps as impactful was his promotion of the use of Arabic numerals (introduced 250 years earlier in place of Roman numerals), especially in a table of sines he calculated with unprecedented accuracy.

Georg von Peuerbach: Theoricarum novarum planetarum testus, Paris 1515 [source]
Page from Peurbach’s sine table [source]

UFOs (Unusual Feynman Objects)…


Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)


As we marvel at method, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Giovanni Batista Donati made the first spectroscopic observations of a comet tail (from the small comet, Tempel, 1864 b).  At a distance from the Sun, the spectrum of a comet is identical to that of the Sun, and its visibility is due only to reflected sunlight.  Donati was able to show that a comet tail formed close to the Sun contains luminous gas, correctly deducing that the comet is itself partially gaseous.  In the spectrum of light from the comet tail, Donati saw the three absorption lines now known as the “Swan bands” superimposed on a continuous spectrum.


“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry”*…

Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
—Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Benoit Mandelbrot, Sterling Professor of Mathematics at Yale and the father of fractal geometry, died last Thursday at age 85.  As Heinz-Otto Peitgen, professor of mathematics and biomedical sciences at the University of Bremen, observed, “if we talk about impact inside mathematics, and applications in the sciences, he is one of the most important figures of the last 50 years.”

“I decided to go into fields where mathematicians would never go because the problems were badly stated,” Dr. Mandelbrot once said. “I have played a strange role…”  Indeed, one hopes that Mandelbrot had the consolation of his own fascination as he contemplated the diffusion pattern of the pancreatic cancer that killed him.

At TED2010, mathematics legend Benoit Mandelbrot develops a theme he first discussed at TED in 1984 — the extreme complexity of roughness, and the way that fractal math can find order within patterns that seem unknowably complicated.

* Richard Feynman

In other sad news, Barbara Billingsley, the avatar of American motherhood in her role as Mrs. Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, passed away on Saturday.




As we marvel at patterns nested within themselves, we might recall that it was on this date in in 1962 that In 1962, Dr. James D. Watson, Dr. Francis Crick, and Dr. Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for their work in determining the double-helix molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).


It’s all about the ink…

Euler’s Identity (source)

Called “the most remarkable formula in mathematics” by Richard Feynman, Leonhard Euler‘s Identity, as the equation in the tattoo is known, was named in a reader poll conducted by Mathematical Intelligencer as the most beautiful theorem in mathematics. Another reader poll conducted by Physics World named it the “greatest equation ever.” *

One can find other mathematical and scientific tattoos here…  and if one wishes to design one’s own, well…

… just click here.

As we steel ourselves for the needle, we might recall that on this date in 1947, George C. Marshall, a former general serving as Secretary of State, gave the speech at Harvard that laid the foundation for what became known as The Marshall Plan– the program under which the U.S. provided around $12 Billion (a fraction of the sum that the Federal government is “investing” in G.M, but real money in those days… ) to help finance the economic recovery of Europe in the wake of World War II.

George C. Marshall

Oh, and lest we forget, June is Accordion Appreciation Month.

* Why is Euler’s Identity considered beautiful?  Three basic arithmetic operations occur exactly once each: addition, multiplication, and exponentiation. The identity also links five fundamental mathematical constants:

-The number 0.
-The number 1.
-The number π, which is ubiquitous in trigonometry, geometry of Euclidean space, and mathematical analysis (π ≈ 3.14159).
-The number e, the base of natural logarithms, which also occurs widely in mathematical analysis (e ≈ 2.71828).
-The number i, imaginary unit of the complex numbers, which contain the roots of all nonconstant polynomials and lead to deeper insight into many operators, such as integration.

And the equation is “balanced,” with zero on one side.

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