Posted tagged ‘physics’

Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.


David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.


That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.

Enough With The Guns, Already. Time For Death By Cosmic Walls of Fire

December 21, 2012

I’ve been detecting just a bit of battle-weariness on the intertubes today.  I’ve got a bunch more gun posts up my sleeve, but I can see how a diet of lead, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, might wear a little thin.  So here’s an olive-branch — something to feed your head, completely sorrow free.

My science writing buddy Jennifer Ouellette (my interview with her here) has a really excellent piece up at on a new puzzle roiling theoretical physics.  She writes about a paradox raised by a re-examination of an idea in black-hole physics long thought settled.

The question that prompted the latest discussion is what happens when you have a couple — people for now, by convention Bob and Alice — wandering through the cosmos.  But then, as Jennifer writes:

The adventurous, rather reckless Alice jumps into a very large black hole, leaving a presumably forlorn Bob outside the event horizon — a black hole’s point of no return, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

Conventionally, physicists have assumed that if the black hole is large enough, Alice won’t notice anything unusual as she crosses the horizon. In this scenario, colorfully dubbed “No Drama,” the gravitational forces won’t become extreme until she approaches a point inside the black hole called the singularity. There, the gravitational pull will be so much stronger on her feet than on her head that Alice will be “spaghettified.”

Now a new hypothesis is giving poor Alice even more drama than she bargained for. If this alternative is correct, as the unsuspecting Alice crosses the event horizon, she will encounter a massive wall of fire that will incinerate her on the spot. As unfair as this seems for Alice, the scenario would also mean that at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.

From that pyrotechnic foundation, Jennifer then tells a fascinating story that both gives an account of the confusion and excitement this line of thought has produced — and along the way, provides a nice insight into the style of thought that (some) theoreticians use to pursue ideas far into the deep.

So, if you’ve had enough of murder and mayhem here on this vale of tears, here’s a chance to take yourself quite a good way out of the everyday.

Now, no post like this would be complete without (a) the appropriate sound track, and (b) given that I’ve invited you into the hairy realm of quantum mechanics, a cat picture:


This one illustrates why I feel a moral obligation not to fold laundry prematurely.

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

Program Notes (More Self-Aggrandizement)

February 15, 2012

For anyone interested in getting Higgsy with me, I’ll be talking with theoretical particle physicist Matt Strassler in just a couple of hours — at 5 p.m. EST.  As usual, it will be part of the Virtually Speaking Science strand of the Virtually Speaking empire — and you can listen live or as a podcast at Blog Talk Radio.*    For those of you whose virtual lives please you more than your real ones, you can take part in the fun as members of the live (ish) audience in Second Life.

Matt, as some of you may recall, is someone whose blog I’ve pointed to before; he’s only been operating Of Particular Significance for a few months, but it has rapidly become one of the handful of first places to go for really smart, high-level but intelligile news and explanation from the bleeding edge of particle physics.  Matt’s been working on the kinds of problems the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for many years now.  After a slightly rocky start, that accelerator has been performing brilliantly, with the result that we are in the midst of a very perplexing time.  We have tons of data, and tantalizing, elusive suggestions of results within that trove…

…among them, hints about what is called the Higgs particle, which is the name for the entitiy physicists believe that nature confers mass on much, though not all of what has mass in the universe.

Matt will tell you that the Higgs, often known by its wretched nickname, “the God particle,” is actually less important than something else, the Higgs field — which is a shorthand way of saying that what the elusive Higgs does is what counts — and we should not presume the search will take us to the point we think is most likely, until it does.

We’ll range over stuff like that, and some conversation about the role of instruments in driving what the instrument makers think, and even to some big questions about why people might care about such genuinely abstruse stuff — and how we might use that interest to do an end around of some more contentious debates in science as it enters the public sphere.

So come on down if you have a moment.  This should be one of those conversations that makes my head hurt, but in a good way.

*We will be getting our podcast going in iTunes shortly, BTW, and I’ll let y’all know as we do.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field With Crows, 1890.


An Important Birthday Today, I Hear…

December 25, 2011

…of a fatherless boy,¹ so precariously brought into this world that as his mother lay on her birthing bed, it seemed unlikely so ill-conceived a child could live.²

But he did, and as his contemporaries bore witness, he would fashion miracles in their season.  As proclaimed by one of those who spread the good news — that which in Greek we would call a gospel —  “No closer to the gods can any mortal rise.”³

I’m talking about Isaac Newton of course.*  You were thinking of someone else?

Happy Newtonmas everyone!**

(Footnotes below the jump.)


Mind Candy: EC (aka God) meets Graphene — by way of a bit of stuff to hold this blog until the day job lets up again…

October 8, 2010

Via @BoraZ I find an interesting approach to celebrating the natural facts at the heart of this year’s physics Nobel honor.

I never felt less like sniffing anything:

All this by way of apologizing for the comm silence around here.  My visiting committee is showing up in ten days, and I got to get busy.

More soon.


More Treats: CERN, Physicists, Hippopotami, Higgs Love, Flanders and Swann edition

August 30, 2010

Via ThonyC, from Blake Stacy ab origio, this transport of delight*:

For those of you too callow, or merely victims of a deprived childhood to get the ur text from which Cern’s songbirds derive their version, here’s the original, by the irreplaceable Flanders and Swann:

*And just because I do truly love you, and we need all the happiness we can get at the end of a week that featured goldbug-cultist-grifter Glenn Beck’s misspelling of the word “honour” and the start of the final days before the students arrive…

…here’s the source of that little bit of F&S slyness with which I chose to open this farrago:

Don’t Use This Jargon At Home, Kids: Marc Ambinder/High Energy Particle Physics Edition

October 14, 2008

Usually, a post on this blog with Ambinder in the title is going to be full of froth and rage and general accusations of journalistic malfeasance.  As regular readers know, I think Ambinder is very good on the mechanics of politics and a disastrous reporter and interpreter of policy and the meaning of campaign claims.

Occasionally, given that I grief young Marc (hey — I just turned 50; I’m allowed) so much, I try to acknowledge his good work, as I will in the post immediately subsequent to this one. This time, though, I’m just trying to figure out what the man was trying to say.  Here’s the key quote:

But comparing IE spending and campaign spending is like comparing fermions and bosons. IE committee don’t get the preferred rate; campaigns do. So the Obama campaign, by consolidating spending, gets more bang for its buck.

I mean, I’ve written a fair amount about physics; made a couple of films in the general area too.  And I can’t quite follow the metaphor. In case you were wondering, fermions are that class of particles most commonly associated with stuff, matter. Selected fermions include the various breeds of quarks, which combine to form composite fermions like protons and leptons — e.g. electrons, muons and neutrinos, among other yet more exotic bits and pieces.

Bosons are often referred to as associated with forces — the phenomena that hold things together or push them apart – rather than with the matter that is being thus clumped or dispersed, though when you get deep enough into the weeds of quantum mechanics (way past my pay grade) such distinctions become just as sketchy as most attempts to draw sharp lines in the quantum arena.  The celebrity boson just now is the Higgs particle, one of the targets of the Large Hadron Collider (which still has not produced the black holes that will destroy the planet).

The Higgs boson is the last particle yet to be observed of all of those specified in the Standard Model within which modern physics accounts for the behavior of three of the four known fundamental ways in whcih particles interact.  It is the particle through which matter acquires mass, which leads one popular account of its physics to note, drily, that “if it exists, the Higgs boson is an integral and pervasive component of the material world.”

All of which is to suggest that Marc, to put it politely, got it a little off when he suggested the difference between two types of political spending on advertisements is equivalent to two critically different components of reality.  The fact that it takes more of one pot of money to buy an ad over another is nothing like the qualitative chasm that distinguishes fermions from bosons.

If I were the old New Yorker, I’d shout “Block that metaphor!”

As I’m not, I’ll just say that, as this blog has had occasion to observe elsewhere, that philosopher Inigo Montoya got it right when he said, “I don’t think that it means what you think it means.”

A Little Weekend Palin/Physics Snark

October 5, 2008

A few of us were sitting around the dinner table last night, including one very smart physicist (who shall remain nameless to protect all and sundry).  After a little obligatory LHC conversation, in which phrases like Kaluza-Klein particles were bandied about recklessly, we started talking on the campaign.

Contemplating the honorless, joyless slog that has become the McCain campaign, not to mention what seemed like its surprising seemingly foolish decisions of the last few weeks, I wondered if there were a fundamental unit, a quantum of stupidity.

Why yes, of course — the answer came to several of us in a flash.

The quantum of folly is the palon.

Moving on from there, I began to think.  The supersymmetric partner to the palon would, by convention be called the Spalon — but I wonder if a more descriptive name wouldn’t be the McCain Bozo-n.

And of course, the particle emitted in a collision between a palon and the hard nub of reality — think of the crash between faith in abstinence education and the actual practice of teenagers — would have to be a palino.

Don’tcha think?

Image:  El Greco, “Allegory of a boy lighting a candle in the company of an ape and a fool,” 1589-92.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.


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