(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Schrödinger

“The threat of a pandemic is different from that of a nerve agent, in that a disease can spread uncontrollably, long after the first carrier has succumbed”*…

We were, of course, warned. As we do our best to digest the news of emergent new strains of the COVID-19 virus, a look back at Annie Sparrow‘s 2016 New York Review of Books essay on pandemics…

Pandemics—the uncontrolled spread of highly contagious diseases across countries and continents—are a modern phenomenon. The word itself, a neologism from Greek words for “all” and “people,” has been used only since the mid-nineteenth century. Epidemics—localized outbreaks of diseases—have always been part of human history, but pandemics require a minimum density of population and an effective means of transport. Since “Spanish” flu burst from the trenches of World War I in 1918, infecting 20 percent of the world’s population and killing upward of 50 million people, fears of a similar pandemic have preoccupied public health practitioners, politicians, and philanthropists. World War II, in which the German army deliberately caused malaria epidemics and the Japanese experimented with anthrax and plague as biological weapons, created new fears…

According to the doctor, writer, and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, “outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional.”

Much of human history can be seen as a struggle for survival between humans and microbes. Pandemics are microbe offensives; public health measures are human defenses. Water purification, sanitation, and vaccination are crucial to our living longer, better, even taller lives. But these measures of mass salvation are not sexy. While we know prevention is better and considerably cheaper than cure, there is little financial reward or glory in it. Philanthropists prefer to build hospitals rather than pay community health workers. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the Western market to the distant and poor Global South where people cannot afford to buy treatments. Education is a powerful social vaccine against the ignorance that enables pathogens to flourish, but insufficient to overcome the corruption of public goods by private interests. The current enthusiasm for detecting the next panic-inducing pathogen should not divert resources and research from the perennial threats that we already have. We must resist the tendency of familiarity and past failures to encourage contempt and indifference…

An important (and in its time, sadly, prescient) read: “The Awful Diseases on the Way,” from @annie_sparrow in @nybooks.

See also “6 of the Worst Pandemics in History” (source of the image above) and “A history of pandemics.”

[TotH to MK]

Hannah Fry

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As we prioritize preparation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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“You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”*…

Edward Brooke-Hitching grew up in a rare book shop, with a rare book dealer for a father. As the author of histories of maps The Phantom Atlas, The Golden Atlas and The Sky Atlas, he has always been “really fascinated by books that are down the back alleys of history.” Ten years ago, he embarked on a project to come up with the “ultimate library.” No first editions of Jane Austen here, though: Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library collects the most eccentric and extraordinary books from around the world.

“I was asking, if you could put together the ultimate library, ignoring the value or the academic significance of the books, what would be on that shelf if you had a time machine and unlimited budget?” he says.

Following up anecdotes, talking to booksellers and librarians and trawling through auction catalogues, he came across stories like that of the 605-page Qur’an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein. “If that was on a shelf, what could possibly sit next to it?” he asks. “I mentioned it to a bookseller and they told me about a diary that they’d had, from the 19th century, written by a shipwrecked captain who only had old newspaper and penguins to hand. So Fate of the Blenden Hall was written entirely in penguin blood.”

There’s the American civil war soldier who inscribed his journal of the conflict on to the violin he carried. There’s the memoir of a Massachussetts highwayman, James Allen, which he “requested be bound in his own skin after his death, and presented to his one victim who had fought back as a token of his admiration.” Or the diary of the Norwegian resistance fighter Petter Moen, pricked with a pin into squares of toilet paper and left in a ventilation shaft; although Moen was killed in 1944, one of his fellow prisoners returned to Oslo after it was liberated from the Nazis and found the diary. Or the entirely fabricated book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: its author George Psalmanazar, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned man with a thick French accent, arrived in London in about 1702 and declared himself to be the first Formosan, or Taiwanese, person to set foot on the European continent. (“Obviously no one had been there and nobody knew what Taiwanese people looked like, and he became the toast of high society,” says Brooke-Hitching.)

The joy for the author in his discoveries – and make no mistake, The Madman’s Library is an utterly joyous journey into the deepest eccentricities of the human mind – was that they “make you realise that, above everything, people have always been funny, been weird, been unquenchably curious in every possible arena”…

The Madman’s Library, the ultimate collection of bizarre books down the ages: “From cut-out confessions to cheese pages: browse the world’s strangest books.”

[TotH to buddy MK]

* Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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As we get weird, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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“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

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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

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious”*…

 

Of all the bizarre facets of quantum theory, few seem stranger than those captured by Erwin Schrödinger’s famous fable about the cat that is neither alive nor dead. It describes a cat locked inside a windowless box, along with some radioactive material. If the radioactive material happens to decay, then a device releases a hammer, which smashes a vial of poison, which kills the cat. If no radioactivity is detected, the cat lives. Schrödinger dreamt up this gruesome scenario to mock what he considered a ludicrous feature of quantum theory. According to proponents of the theory, before anyone opened the box to check on the cat, the cat was neither alive nor dead; it existed in a strange, quintessentially quantum state of alive-and-dead.

Today, in our LOLcats-saturated world, Schrödinger’s strange little tale is often played for laughs, with a tone more zany than somber. It has also become the standard bearer for a host of quandaries in philosophy and physics. In Schrödinger’s own time, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proclaimed that hybrid states like the one the cat was supposed to be in were a fundamental feature of nature. Others, like Einstein, insisted that nature must choose: alive or dead, but not both.

Although Schrödinger’s cat flourishes as a meme to this day, discussions tend to overlook one key dimension of the fable: the environment in which Schrödinger conceived it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that, in the face of a looming World War, genocide, and the dismantling of German intellectual life, Schrödinger’s thoughts turned to poison, death, and destruction. Schrödinger’s cat, then, should remind us of more than the beguiling strangeness of quantum mechanics. It also reminds us that scientists are, like the rest of us, humans who feel—and fear…

More of this sad story at “How Einstein and Schrödinger Conspired to Kill a Cat.”

* Terry Patchett

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As we refrain from lifting the box’s lid, we might spare a thought for Charles Babbage; he died on this date in 1871.  A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer.  Anxious to eliminate inaccuracies in mathematical tables. By 1822, he built small calculating machine able to compute squares (1822).  He then produced prototypes of portions of a larger Difference Engine. (Georg and Edvard Schuetz later constructed the first working devices to the same design which were successful in limited applications.)  In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.

Babbage’s other inventions include the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope.  He was also passionate about cyphers and lock-picking.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

Playing at life…

 

For years both scientists and science fiction writers have suggested that a sufficiently advanced civilisation could– and thus would– create a simulated universe.  And since simulations beget simulations (within simulations, within simulations, etc., etc.), there would ultimately be many more simulated universes than real ones…  meaning that it would be more likely than not that any one universe– say, ours– is artificial.

Silas Beane, working with a team at the University of Bonn says he have evidence this may be true.  The Physics arXiv Blog at Technology Review explains:

 

First, some background. The problem with all simulations is that the laws of physics, which appear continuous, have to be superimposed onto a discrete three dimensional lattice which advances in steps of time.

The question that Beane and co ask is whether the lattice spacing imposes any kind of limitation on the physical processes we see in the universe. They examine, in particular, high energy processes, which probe smaller regions of space as they get more energetic

What they find is interesting. They say that the lattice spacing imposes a fundamental limit on the energy that particles can have. That’s because nothing can exist that is smaller than the lattice itself.

So if our cosmos is merely a simulation, there ought to be a cut off in the spectrum of high energy particles.

It turns out there is exactly this kind of cut off in the energy of cosmic ray particles,  a limit known as the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin or GZK cut off.

This cut-off has been well studied and comes about because high energy particles interact with the cosmic microwave background and so lose energy as they travel  long distances.

But Beane and co calculate that the lattice spacing imposes some additional features on the spectrum. “The most striking feature…is that the angular distribution of the highest energy components would exhibit cubic symmetry in the rest frame of the lattice, deviating significantly from isotropy,” they say.

In other words, the cosmic rays would travel preferentially along the axes of the lattice, so we wouldn’t see them equally in all directions.

That’s a measurement we could do now with current technology. Finding the effect would be equivalent to being able to to ‘see’ the orientation of lattice on which our universe is simulated…

Read the whole mind-blowing story (including some comforting caveats) at “The Measurement That Would Reveal The Universe As A Computer Simulation” (and find Beane’s paper here).

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As we wonder if there’s a “reset” button, we might spare a thought for the extraordinary 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

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 4, 2013 at 1:01 am

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