Physics
Miscellany



After Escher by Dave McCallister


There is a new (February, 2017) dance piece Incarnations which purports to have "Quantum Leaps, When Physics Meets Dance". It would be fun to see.

There is a play Creation's Birthday written by Hasan Padamsee, Head of Fermilab's Technical Division, which is being presented by Genesis Theatrical Productions of Chicago during March, 2015. The play is described as "the story of the genesis of the big bang theory through the legendary battle between astronomer Edwin Hubble and science icon Albert Einstein."

There was an article in the February, 1987, Chicago Tribune which claimed that the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago was a fabulous place for single women to venture since it was filled with dashing, intelligent, single young men. Well, I was at Fermilab at the time and one thing can be said in support of the veracity of the article - there certainly were very few women around the place. Times have changed. There was a play, described as "a new comedy about love, coffee and quantum physics", performed (February 2000) at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in downtown Chicago called "now then again" which is set at Fermilab! The play was called "a deft little romantic screwball comedy with a very brainy twist" in the review in the Chicago Sun Times. It is being put on again (June, 2014) in Glen Ellen - Village Theatre Guild show mixes love, quantum mechanics. This is truly strange.

Muons can be used for nuclear threat detection inside large volume containers.

I've always been a huge fan of Neil Young and liked his quote from the February 16, 2008, Globe & Mail, "The time when music could change the world is past. Back then [during the late 60's], we were part of 'the movement.' Today there is no movement. Today, it's science, physics and spirituality that can change the world." I thought that would be the biggest connection between Neil Young and physics. But no, he was spotted in 2009 in his video for the song "Light a Candle" wearing a Big Bang t-shirt designed by a graphic designer from SLAC. Who'd a thunk it.

What is it about physics and opera? There is yet another physics-themed opera happening 2014 - the solar inspired Prince Igor - which is reviewed here. Philip Glass has wrote a third(!) physics opera - Kepler - which had its first run in the fall of 2009. Also in 2009 the physicist


Image of Lisa Randall and the set of Hypermusic Prologue
Lisa Randall, author of Warped Passages, teamed up with composer Hector Parra to create Hypermusic Prologue, an opera about physicists and extra dimensions [1] [2] [3]. The year 2005 saw not one but two operas based on the theme of the atomic bomb. "Dr Atomic", which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in October, 2005, centres on J. Robert Oppenheimer in the hours before the first atomic bomb test at the Trinity site in New Mexico. There is an interview with the composer, John Adams, and the director-librettist Peter Sellars in Physics Today. As well there is a Commentary on the opera from the Exploratorium, the science museum in San Francisco. The opera was considered Alive and Dead according to two reviews in Scene4 magazine. The playwright and an actor from the Chicago show visited Fermilab in January of 2008 to see the handiwork of Robert Wilson up-close. The other opera is also an installation piece. The Children of Uranium (I Figli dell'Uranio), a "multimedia spectacle which deals with the discovery, development, the fears and tyranny of nuclear power - the nuclear deterrent associated with uranium," is the product of Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke. It is took place November, 2005, at the Villa Croce Museum of Contemporary Art in Genoa. Of course, the original scientist-based opera was probably Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass which premiered on July 25, 1976, in Avignon, France. There is also an opera about Nikola Tesla called Violet Fire which didn't seem to garner terrific reviews.

Antimatter was back in the public eye in 2009 with the release of the Angels & Demons. Antimatter caught playwrights' attention in the past. A large particle accelerator lab, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), was the site for a theatre experience about Paul Dirac's mathematical "discovery" of antimatter. The play, called `The Oracle of Delphi', was performed in the experimental pit of the Delphi experiment! There is a writeup about this event in the March 2000 Issue of the CERN Courier as well as an article about the author. The same show, under the title


Image from the performance of The Oracle of Delphi at CERN.
Into the Antiworld, was performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre at University College London in England.

Time has been an obsession of philosophers and physicists since, well, since forever! Check out the essay entries (December 2008) to fq(x) - Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology on The Nature of Time. There is also a new book by Dan Falk called In Search of Time: Journeys along a Curious Dimension about which the Ottawa Citizen said "Falk's book is what Hawking's A Brief History of Time should have been." Falk has also posted an essay on time travel which you might find amusing. There have always been plenty of musings on that old chestnut, "Did time begin with the Big Bang?" There are many philosophical discussions - like Time before Time by Rudiger Vaas - as well various physics heavyweights including Stephen Hawking on The Beginning of Time. . There are several sites on how one experimentally examines such a question including Observing the Beginning of Time and Beyond Einstein. Finally, this is a question with a long history of theological debate. If you are interested in this kind of thing, have a look at "Genesis: Science and the Beginning of Time" [PDF] and God and the Beginning of Time.

There was, of course, the famous (September 2008) Large Hadron Rap which was covered all over the media. Now (August 2009) you can Groove to the physics mix tape. It seems the labs are full of HEPsters! I wrote earlier about a doo-wap band - Les Horrible Cernettes (the acronym is a a particle physics "joke") - who were born in the early 1990's at CERN's annual Hardronic Music Festival.
They were even written up in the December 28, 1998, New York Times. And to think I saw them when they were just starting out.

Several years ago I wrote "Where are all the beautiful people in science?" Way back in 1997 there used to be a calendar called "Studmuffins of Science". There was no 1998 version because there were too few samples in the studmuffin pool according to the authors of the calendar! Well, there is at least one studmuffin left in the high energy pool at Fermilab according to Chicago Magazine. It was revealed in Fermilab Today that Mark Jackson, a theoretical particle physicist, was chosen 'One of Chicago's top 10 bachelors' of 2008. Of course, Fermilab was full of nothing but bachelors back in 1987 when I was there. This is verified by the rather funny article from the February, 1987, Chicago Tribune discussing what life was like for a young male at Fermilab at that time.

Well, it seems that there are folks that just don't agree with the results put up earlier about fractals and the paintings of Jackson Pollock. While the paintings of Pollock have always been considered chaotic, they were supposedly shown to be fractal in an article in Nature! The May 2005 article Multifractal Fingerprints in the Visual Arts uses fractal analysis to distinguish art styles. Now Jones-Smith et al. in Drip Paintings and Fractal Analysis say they "definitively demonstrate, by analyzing paintings by Pollock and others, that fractal criteria provide no information about artistic authenticity." There is a newer (Sept 2009) paper by Jones-Smith et al. in which they further discuss the limitations of the fractal analysis.

Now there appears to be a backlash against the backlash growing against the superstring revolution. That is, the superstringers are fighting back (see, for example, Joseph Polchinski's article All Strung Out?

strings
http://xkcd.com/171/
and dialog site). Everything was rosy in 2000, according to an article in the June 20, 2000, edition of the New York Times (and what better judge of scientific validity can there be than that!) and was still going strong in September, 2003 and Explains It All (or Not) in December, 2004. The excitement is all about recent theoretical ideas concerning a problem that has vexed physicists for 75 years - namely, how to create a theory which incorporates both quantum mechanics and gravitation (as described by the General Theory of Relativity). These two worlds are united in Supersting Theory (see also the "Official" Superstring Website), the mathematical formalism expressing the idea that

extra dimensions
P. Coddington/Univ. of Adelaide
Four-dimensional Picasso. Connecting many triangular bits of flat spacetime to make curvy spacetimes demonstrates how our four-dimensional world can arise from the fuzzy "quantum foam" that may exist at the tiniest scales. [Graphic is from Physical Review Focus]
the elementary "particle" of nature is a string, with the different masses of the observed particles corresponding to a set of harmonics or normal modes of the vibrating string. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene is a nice book explaining the vagaries of Superstrings. Recently, however, two books criticizing superstring theory have appeared. They are Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit (reviews) and The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by the Perimeter Institute's Lee Smolin. (An interesting review and discussion of Smolin's book can be found at Not Even Wrong blog.) There were two difficulties with the theory that have always made it rather unpopular - there were no experimentally testable predictions at foreseeably accesible energies and the strings live not in 4 dimensions (3 space + 1 time) but 10 dimensions! However, these extra dimensions have changed from being a thorn in the side of the theory to possibly holding the key to a resolution. The status of things as of January, 2004, is described in a nice article by Dan Falk in the Globe & Mail and in a more technical description posted to the arXiv e-Print archive. Work from Nima Arkani-Hamed and collaborators as well as new work from Lisa Randall and Raman Sundrum (described here and here) have brought real excitement to the field. They propose various scenarios where either the extra dimensions are actually of a measureable size or the "standard" three forces - electromagnetic, weak, and strong - act only in our familiar 4 dimensions while gravity is free to roam in all ten. There is even suggestions from some theorists that dimensions may be dynamical constructs! The most exciting part is that it may be possible (not necessarily probable) to observe these effects in present or near-future experiments. Searches for extra dimensions are being undertaken through accurate measurements of the 1/r2 nature of the gravitation interaction as well as in high energy particle collisions at Fermilab and the LHC. There is also the possibility that the energy available in collisions at the LHC might lead to the production of black holes [graphic]! No need to worry, however, as they immediately disappear by shedding their energy through Hawking radiation. If you have trouble thinking about life in more than 3 spatial dimensions, maybe reading about life in two spatial dimensions will help. The complete text of Edwin A. Abbott's classic tale of interdimensional experience Flatland: A romance of many dimensions can be found here.

There is a play called Copenhagen by the renowned playwright and author Michael Frayn (he wrote "Noises Off", for example) which explores the occasion in 1941 when Heisenberg paid a visit to Bohr in Copenhagen. The intriguing question, of

Copenhagen Toronto Show
Martha Henry as Margrethe Bohr in the Toronto Production of Copenhagen- PHOTO CREDIT: SWD Photography
course, is "what did they discuss?" Some speculate that Heisenberg was trying to obliquely warn Bohr about the German atomic bomb project. There has been some new (Feb. 2002) light shed on what transpired through the release of some letters from Neils Bohr (see also New letters expose war-time secrets). There is a recent (October 2006) reinterpretation of this letter that contends it supports Heisenberg's version of what happened at the meeting. There is also a "Heisenberg letter" which can be found at the Who Was Werner Heisenberg? site maintained by the Heisenberg family. There one can find a number of Heisenberg's letters and writings translated into english. There is also a resources page. The London version of the play saw very enthusiastic reviews while the Broadway version won several Tony awards! The play opened in Toronto in January, 2004. There were good articles on the show and Frayn in the Toronto Star and Globe & Mail. I saw the opening-night show on January 7 (which was great) and there were reviews in the Star and Globe & Mail. A panel discussion of the scientific and ethical issues addressed by the play happened on February 8, 2004, and I was one of the panelists. Recently (Feb, 2008) the play was performed in Boston by the American Repertory Theatre. As seems usual for this unusual play there is a website discussing issues associated with the play. There have been a number of symposia, both in Europe and the U.S., discussing the issues surrounding the play. For example, there was a day-long symposium on the play "Creating Copenhagen" at the City University of New York which examined the scientific and historical issues brought up in the play as well as artistic issues associated with the writing and staging of the play. Several of the presentations at this symposium were reprinted in the July 2000 issue of Physics Today including: A Historical Perspective on Copenhagen, The German Uranium Project, and Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein. There is also a nice bit of detective work by Jeremy Bernstein in The Drawing or Why History Is Not Mathematics from the journal Physics in Perspective. I also recommend the book by Jeremy Bernstein entitled Hitler's Uranium Club. The play was the subject for the University of Pennsylvania's 1999 Reading Project. At this site you can find a number of fascinating essays about the play written by both artists and scientists. Also there are articles in May 1999 CERN Courier and June 1998 PhysicsWeb discussing the play. Finally, there is another article by Jeremy Bernstein on Heisenberg's trip to Poland in 1943. There will be a reading of the play at York University on November 30, 2005.

Lastly for those of a theatrical bent (or those just bent), there is a play by Steve Martin (yes, the guy with an arrow through his head) called Picasso at the Lapin Agile which is about an imagined meeting of Picasso and Einstein in Paris in 1904. The play was performed in Toronto in the fall of 2001. The reviews have been generally good and, not suprisingly, it sounds like the play adds a touch of silliness to what otherwise could be a pretty sterile topic.

The millenium had barely begun and already the end appeared near on the rather silly debate as to whether there is anything new to learn in science. There have recently been many claiming "The end of science." I hardly think the case for this statement is very strong. And neither does Frank Close, a respected theoretical physicist and science writer who closes his nicely written CERN Courier article `The electron century' with the words, "If there is any message from this that we can be sure is a guide for the coming century, it is this: prepare for surprises." And neither does Sir John Maddox, who was for almost 23 years editor in chief of the British journal Nature. Maddox articulates this view in the article "The Unexpected Science to Come..." which appeared in the December, 1999 issue of Scientific American. This comprises a synopsis of the ideas from his book "WHAT REMAINS TO BE DISCOVERED: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race" which has gotten good reviews, including one in the January 10, 1999 edition of the New York Times Book Review. The first chapter of the book is a wonderful summary of how each of the last 5 centuries has seen monumental and surprising advances in science - arguing, of course, that it is just silly to hold the belief that the next century will be any different. There are limits to science, of course, as discussed in this review of the book "IMPOSSIBILITY: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits" by John D. Barrow. But that science is at an end? In his usual succinct style, no less than Hans Bethe in the March 1999 issue of Reviews of Modern Physics had this to say;

A hundred years ago, some of the great physicists in England and Continental Europe predicted that physics was at an end. We know what actually happened ...
Looking at the predictions of 100 years ago, it would be foolish to make predictions for the next 100 years.
Position PhysicsWeb survey Physics World survey
1 Sir Isaac Newton Albert Einstein
2 Albert Einstein Sir Isaac Newton
3 James Clerk Maxwell James Clerk Maxwell
4 Galileo Galilei Niels Bohr
5 Paul Dirac Werner Heisenberg
6 Niels Bohr Galileo Galilei
7 Max Planck Richard Feynman
8 Richard Feynman Paul Dirac &
Erwin Schrödinger
9 Michael Faraday  
10 Erwin Schrödinger Ernest Rutherford

It was clearly "Millenium Madness" as there was a spate of "greatest" this or that of the millenium and/or century towards the end of 1999. Albert Einstein was chosen as " the individual who had the most impact in the past 1,000 years" from lists of the top 20 individuals submitted to the Globe & Mail by readers. Three of the top ten were physicists with Newton coming in at number 5 and Galileo at number 10. Also, Albert Einstein was chosen Time Magazine's Person of the Century. Scientists were not immune to the madness, of course, as shown in the Table to the right where the results of two surveys are given. Isaac Newton came first and Einstein second in the survey of which scientists have made the most important contributions to physics by PhysicsWeb from Britain's Institute of Physics. The results of a survey conducted among 100 of today's leading physicists by the BBC News in the U.K. for Physics World are also shown. There is a nice essay entitled "Genius Among Geniuses" which explains why Newton and Einstein top all lists. Here is the last word on the subject from writers to the American Physical Society. Just for completeness(?), I include a list of the 10 Most Important Scientists in History according to Isaac Asimov.

There has always been a fascination with time. You can take A Walk Through Time, a site on the evolution of time measurement from The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S. Even the Christmas Lectures (made famous by Faraday) of 1999 was on "Arrows of Time." The article Seeing Faster by James Gleick in the New York Times Magazine gives a fascinating glimpse into how flash photography has changed our perception of time. The site also includes plenty of interesting links. There seems a particular fascination with time travel including a site with "explanations" of relatvity and time travel as well as Brian's Views on Time Travel. I didn't realize that such things were simply an opinion.

Okay, even though I know such techniques would never be employed by a physicist, I thought A List Of Fallacious Arguments from Prof. Don Lindsay of the University of Colorado would still be useful to have around ... to help out a friend or relative.

Allan Bromley made a nice plea for more science funding (in the U.S. anyway) in an op-ed piece in the August (1999) Washington Post. It is probably true that the connection between economic growth and scientific research can never be pointed out too often.

Professor George Goth of Skyline College in California has compiled some interesting lists of things including: The Magnitudes of Physics, The Chronology of Physics, and The Words of Physics.

Have you ever wondered how a group of seemingly reasonable people can reach a decision that seems illogical (e.g., why did they hire somebody else!)? It has been shown that, yes, in fact, group decisions are chaotic! Check out a synopsis of the Physical Review Letters paper.

Some physicists have managed to insinuate themselves into the consciousness of the general populace. There is a website which shows various currency in many countries which have a physicist's picture on them. Canada, of course, is not among these countries - we still worship politicians or the British monarchy. There is also a website showing scientists on stamps from around the world as well as A Selective History of Science on Stamps.

Does it seem to you that acronyms, like cockroaches, seem to multiply no matter what is done to counter them? There is an essay in the June 16, 1998, New York Times about how even physicists can't keep track of the acronyms in our field.

The Eighteen Arbitrary Parameters of the Standard Model in your Everyday Life is an interesting attempt by Bob Cahn of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to relate the arcana of particle physics to our world. The article requires a fairly sophisticated (upper-year undergraduate or graduate level) understanding of physics but is nicely written.


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Last Update: December 1, 2008