Just a quick note here as I’m on deadline for a piece on this stuff, but today we got the official announcement of the worst kept recent secret in physics. Here, via the Guardian, is the TL:DR version of what was said:
On 14 September 2015 at 9:50 GMT, the two detectors of the newly upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a signal.
It was unambiguously a gravitational wave signal because it matched the predictions from Einstein’s general theory of relativity almost precisely.
This is huge news, as it is, among other things, the latest and most elusive (so far) direct confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity that describes what we feel as a force holding our feet to the floor is in fact the local warping of spacetime by matterenergy. (In the case of our feet and our floor — that warping is the dent in spacetime created by the mass of the earth.)
It is as well a triumph of virtuosity in observation and measurement. The detection of a gravity wave is a simply wondrous an act of human hands and mind. It is a joy to witness, at least for me.
There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.
Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”
The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.
I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week. Alexandra Witze in Nature had a good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker. (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)
But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet. As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan[Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.
But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself. That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject. A sample:
In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nine—and for good reason. “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says. Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”
It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up:
The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.
I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:
“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”
There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down. It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.
I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.
Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.
Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.
Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.
The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance. She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.
Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.
Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766
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Shortest form, David and I will talk both about the story of the planet Vulcan, which really should have existed; how Einstein disposed of it when he invented his truly radical new conception of gravity; and what Vulcan’s repeated discovery tells us about the difference between how we think science works, and how it really does in the hands of the human beings who do the labor. It should be fun.
Einstein’s gift for mental imagery showed itself when he tried to explain to his son how mere geometry could produce what we feel as the tug of gravity. Imagine, he said (at least so the story goes) a blind beetle. When it “crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved.”
Or imagine living on a vast, seemingly featureless plain, so flat that you know only two dimensions, length and width. Out for a walk one day, you find that your steps are coming harder. You begin to puff and labor. You sense that you’re being pulled by something — a force you could call gravity. It tugs you back as you walk along what you’re sure is a straight line. To anyone able to perceive three dimensions, not two, there is a simpler explanation — or as Einstein told his son, “I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”
I can promise you that the evening will beat rearranging your sock drawer. By what margin? Only time will tell.
PS: If you’re interested by conflicted next week, I’ll be doing an event at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. on November 12. Much the same stuff to be discussed. And support for a good local bookstore thrown in!
…for which insight Amadeo Avogadro received the honor of having his name attached to the number of molecules that make up one mole of a substance, a number set by convention as the number of carbon 12 atoms that add up to 12 grams of the substance. That number: 6.02*10^23. Hence, Mole Day, running from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m on 10/23.
Rule number two in this list of ten commandments goes beyond the needed snark (and the first principle, which might be called the Tao of science: the only way to achieve Nobelity is not to strive for it).
This second principle actually says something dead on point on where discovery happens, in an argument that I think bears on much beyond science itself. It requires that the prize-aspirant should “hope that your experiments fail occasionally.” Why?
There are usually two main reasons why experiments fail. Very often, it is because you screwed up in the design by not thinking hard enough about it ahead of time. Perhaps more often, it is because you were not careful enough in mixing the reagents (I always ask students if they spat in the tube or, more recently, were texting when they were labeling their tubes). Sometimes, you are not careful enough in performing the analytics (did you put the thermometer in upside down, as I once witnessed from a medical student whose name now appears on my list of doctors who I won’t allow to teat me even if I’m dying?). These problems are the easiest to deal with by always taking great care in designing and executing experiments. If they still fail, then do them over again! But the more interesting reason that experiments fail is because nature is trying to tell you that the axioms on which you based the experiment are wrong. This means the dogma in the field is wrong (often the case with dogma). If you are lucky, as I was, then the dogma will be seriously wrong, and you can design more experiments to find out why. If you are really lucky, then you will stumble onto something big enough to be prizeworthy.
And with that, a chance to think about non-stupid things for a while. Open thread, y’all