Archive for the 'Science' Category

Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

Lecture night: psychology and politics

August 23, 2016

Jonathan Haidt is an unusually interesting academic. He is a psychologist who has in recent years turned his attention to matters of public import, and has especially emerged as an advocate of greater “viewpoint diversity” in the academy. To that end, he has founded Heterodox Academy, a forum for highlighting findings that run counter to received opinion in academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences.

Earlier this month he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assocation. His lecture is entitled “What’s Happening to Our Country? How Psychology Can Respond to Political Polarization, Incivility and Intolerance”, and in it he considers a number of long-term polarizing trends in American society and what to do about them.

He’s an engaging speaker. If you’re interested in understanding the Trump phenomenon, or fancy the thought of seeing a crowd of left-wing academics called out for bias by one of their own guild, this lecture might be for you. If you’re of conservative temperament, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that an eminent academic considers you anything other than roadkill on the upward way of enlightenment. As he says in the lecture, every healthy society needs a party of order and stability as well as a party of change and progress. It sounds sensible to me (except the bit about change and progress). The lecture is about 50 minutes long, once the introductions are over.

If you enjoy this talk, you might also enjoy a TED talk he gave on the respective moral motivations of liberals and conservatives.

Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.

Gravitational waves

February 11, 2016

There’s a very exciting announcement today from the LIGO experiment: they are reporting the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves. Read all about it.

The existence of gravitational waves — which are “ripples” in spacetime produced by catastrophic astrophysical events like black hole collisions or supernovae — are one of the most important predictions of general relativity. Today’s discovery will go into every future textbook on the subject, and the scientists involved go straight to the Nobel shortlist.

The LIGO experiment (LIGO = Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), if you haven’t heard of it, is one of the most amazing physics experiments ever conceived. Gravitational waves travelling through the detector change its size by a small amount, and so the experiment consists of making continual, very precise measurements of distance. The sensitivity is exquisite: they can detect a change in length of a fraction of the radius of a proton.

The particular observation reported today is of a collision of two black holes at an estimated distance of 1.3 billion light years. Here is the technical paper describing the discovery.

What a great day!

Happy birthday, General Relativity

November 25, 2015

einstein-paper

One hundred years ago today, on 25 November 1915, Einstein first presented the field equations for General Relativity during a lecture in Gottingen. GR is regarded, with justice, as among the most beautiful and creative achievements in the history of science. I know of none greater, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to spend many happy hours working with the field equations — and some unhappy ones too, of course, because they are fiendishly difficult to solve!

On the same date, 25 November 1915, Einstein’s paper on the perihelion advance of Mercury was published in Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften. This was the first, and is still one of the most important, experimental tests of General Relativity.

Einstein-equation

A wee bit here, a wee bit there

November 20, 2015

A few wee bits of note:

  • The recent Synod on the Family in Rome hasn’t, by and large, been a laughing matter, so this provides welcome comic relief.
  • Fr Longenecker, a long-time blogger at Standing on my Head, has recently launched a new blog: The Suburban Hermit. If you’ve an interest in things Benedictine, or like to look at old abbeys and read old books, it might be for you. Just today he wrote about our sort-of patroness, St Julian of Norwich.
  • Canada has a new Prime Minister, and he’s setting a new tone in international affairs.
  • Janet Cupo is planning to host an online book club during Advent this year; we’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of GodThere’s probably still time to get a copy if you’re interested; mine arrived in the mail today.
  • My day job, in part.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have a school like this in your neighbourhood?
  • On a similar note: Russell Kirk on why one might want to learn Latin? I studied it for a year. Avis, avis, avis.
  • One possible reason: to realize more clearly that English is not normal.
  • Did you know there is an animal that can survive being dehydrated for 10 years, being kept at 200 degrees below freezing, and going to outer space? Meet the mightiest wee bit of them all: the tardigrade.

The divisibility trick

January 7, 2014

You might have learned the “divisibility trick” in grade school. It says that if you want to know whether a number is divisible by 3, there is a shortcut: if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3 then the number itself is divisible by 3. For example, is 459 divisible by 3? Well, 4 + 5 + 9 = 18, which is divisible by 3, so 459 is divisible by 3 as well.

This trick also works with the number 9. Again, you can try it with 459.

A week or two ago I was reading Anthony Esolen’s “Word of the Day” blog in which he stated a result about the divisibility trick generalized to a base-X number system; namely, in a base-X number system the divisibility trick works for X-1 and its factors. I was intrigued, and, as I had given some thought to the divisibility trick a few years ago and had some notes on it, I sat down last night and came up with what I think is a sound proof of the claim.

I am sure there is a nice way to formulate the argument — my approach leans heavily on modular arithmetic, which is closely related to the elegant theory of cyclic groups — but I went about it in the most simpleminded way imaginable. You can read my argument here:

DivisibilityTrickBaseX [pdf, Updated]

An amusing application of this result is in a binary (base-2) number system. The claim simply says that any binary number for which the sum of its digits is divisible by 1 (which is all of them, since every positive integer is divisible by 1) is itself divisible by 1 (which is all of them, for the same reason). So the claim is almost empty in that case.

Elemental boating

June 18, 2013

The topic this week at the What If? blog is a novel one:

What would it be like to navigate a rowboat through a lake of mercury? What about bromine? Liquid gallium? Liquid tungsten? Liquid nitrogen? Liquid helium?

I spent a few days last week on a boat in a lake of water, and after reading the entertaining and instructive responses to the questions above — not neglecting to watch the illustrative videos — I will say this: thank goodness for water!

Notes on neuroscience

June 6, 2013

I am in no respect an expert in neuroscience, but naturally I am aware of the main technical developments of the past few decades — especially functional MRI — which now provide neuroscientists with amazing imagery related to brain activity. I am also aware of the broad effort in the field to establish correlations between brain activity and mental states.

I will not deny that I am mildly discomfited by this effort, not because there is anything suspect about such correlations but because they are so often conjoined with a strange presumption that somehow brain scans are particularly probative windows on human behaviour, whereas in fact they are usually just fancy proxies for things we already know by other means (as has been convincingly argued). One also routinely runs into a tacit neurological reductionism according to which minds are “really just” brains, and you and I are, at bottom, “really just” fleshy computers processing stimuli. In this view of things, the notion of persons as bearers of freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility tends to become, at best, occluded.

My discomfort is only mild because I am aware that, whatever the merits of any particular scientific study, the minds-are-brains view is plagued by conceptual problems and, at least within the ambit of the reigning philosophy of nature in which matter is defined to be devoid of mental properties, is doomed to failure.

But, quite apart from the question of how we should interpret findings of correlations between mental states and brain activity, there remains the question of whether we should believe that such correlations exist in the first place. It seems that we should, but with reservations, for the evidence is not as strong or as straightforward as one might think.

For instance, a few years ago an important paper identified problems with common analysis techniques in fMRI studies. The authors showed that using such techniques they could produce nice correlations using data that were pure noise. Studies which avoided such confused methods uniformly showed comparatively low correlations. The authors speculated that a significant number of the findings claimed by the field might be illusory. I do not know what revisions resulted when (or if) the data were analyzed again.

And now, in this month’s Nature Reviews, comes another paper that criticizes the results of a wide swath of neuroscience work. The authors argue that a significant fraction of neuroscience studies suffer from low statistical power, meaning that both the sample sizes and the effects being studied are generally small. The problems with low power studies are many: the probability of missing true effects is fairly high, as is the probability of falsely “discovering” something that isn’t there. Even when a finding is true, low power studies tend to exaggerate it. Here is a popular level summary of the paper and the issues at stake.

Obviously it is up to the specialists to sort these issues out, and I have no doubt that they will. But there does seem to be warrant for wariness the next time you hear a claim that the neural correlate of this-or-that aspect of your mental life has been found. Sometimes things are just not that simple.

Meanwhile.

Planck results

March 21, 2013

Big science news today: the Planck experiment has released a huge raft of results based on cosmological observations made during 2009-10. Planck is a satellite-based experiment that has been making precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the details of which tell us a great deal about the history and structure of the universe. Planck is a truly spectacular project.

I remember that when I was an undergraduate physics student — which was quite a long time ago now — we heard rumours of this satellite, which was then in the planning stages. The hope was that it, and to a lesser extent its predecessor WMAP, would usher in an era of “precision cosmology”, in which cosmologists would have a wealth of high quality measurements against which to judge their theories about cosmic structure and evolution.

Based on the results published today, I would say that those hopes have been triumphantly vindicated. For instance, consider this paper on cosmological parameters; look at Tables 1 and 2. These are amazing results: baryon density is about 2.2%, cold dark matter density about 12%, dark energy density about 68%, Hubble constant about 67, and the age of the universe about 13.8 billion years (with an uncertainty of only about 100 million years!).

There is a lot here for non-specialists to digest — and I certainly count myself in that group. The BBC is on the case.