As I approach my 50th birthday, I’ve been having fun coming up with various lists of 50 things – 50 people I want to meet, 50 sitcoms I’ve watched at some time in my lifetime, 50 quotes I like, etc.
Among the lists of lists, I gen’d up two of books I want to read (50 is far too small a number for either list, but it fits with the age thing): 50 books I own that I have yet to read – I have many, many more than that, and 50 books that I do not own that I want to read. Of course, if I ever read any of them, I will likely find myself adding to my library (no surprise there).
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku happened to be first on my list of books that I do not own that I wanted to read. I picked it up last Monday when returning A Confederacy of Dunces to the library. I hadn’t planned on getting it – I was only looking to see if it was in – but was taken in immediately by the subtitle: “A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel”. Not unlike Star Trek – I’m Working On That by William Shatner and Chip Walter, the book promised a survey of science fiction concepts becoming a reality, but very unlike Shatner’s book, here was a theoretical physicist doing the looking and explaining why something could not be done or how it might.
It’s a rare scientist (or engineer for that matter) who is truly respected by his/her peers for research results/theories who can also communicate to the masses. Richard Dawkins certainly made that leap (his early books are more academic than his later works). When it comes to physicists, I think the pool shrinks. Stephen Hawking did a marvelous job conveying cosmological concepts in his books, as did Brian Greene – though Green’s books, while quite readable, are still fairly technical for the average person.
Michio Kaku writes a very readable book…for a physicist who is the co-founder of string field theory. Perhaps that is an unfair qualification. I have known many physicists who are wonderful conversationalists, but I don’t know if they are so because I am interested in their subjects or that they are simply wonderful conversationalists with everyone. Regardless, Kaku writes as one of those wonders. Peppered throughout this book are references to other books (a lot of fiction), a few movies, some history of the people and science behind the science. Those may make Kaku more accessible to the average reader, but I think it just shows that he has a life outside of theoretical physics.
In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku looks at science fiction to see what might possibly become science fact. He breaks down his subjects into three classes of impossibilities:
- Technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate known laws of physics and may be possible in some form in this or the next century (these are force fields, phasers, Death Stars, ETs and UFOs, teleportation, starships/antimatter engines, antimatter universes and certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility.)
- Technologies that “sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.” They may not be possible at all, and if so, will likely only be possible thousands or millions of years in the future (these are time machines, hyperspace and wormhole travel as forms of travel faster than light, and parallel universes.)
- Technologies that violate the known laws of physics, which if possible, will result in a fundamental shifting of understanding of physics (Kaku notes there are surprisingly few such impossibilities, examining only perpetual motion machines and precognition).
Of course, one should read the book before thinking that Star Trek’s transporters, phasers, warp engines, or shields (force fields) could ever become a reality. I won’t spoil your read by revealing what the “certain forms” might be, but you can guess that Dr. McCoy won’t be complaining about having his atoms scattered across the universe for many centuries to come.
I was intrigued by Kaku’s discussions of what one would call paranormal, but after he gently observes that there has never been any real evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis or precognition, he explains the physics behind how one might be able to realize a part of the first two (precognition violates the known laws of the universe, thus cannot be performed through any technology…but is not completely impossible.) I liked his summary of science and psychokinesis:
One problem with analyzing psychokinesis scientifically is that scientists are easily fooled by those claiming to have psychic power. Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses.
He’s fair where research has had some seemingly positive findings, but does note that “fully half” of the successful trial of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Program “originated from a single individual” and that the results are always non-reproducible.
The lesson here is that while almost nothing is impossible (what scientists really mean is that these ideas are impossible for primitives such as us), the technology needed to overcome the impossible is impossibly advanced.
So, I strike one from one list and add at least seven, as I now want to read Kaku’s other books. I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible as a diversion from the contemporary news.
I watched Anil Ananthaswamy’s TED talk video “What it takes to do extreme astrophysics” last Sunday. I thought he was eloquent and passionate. Intrigued by his way with words, I picked up his book – The Edge of Physics, on which his talk was based – from the local library the next day. I now need to add it to my own.
Ananthaswamy has created a fascinating survey of history and extraordinary efforts of today’s cosmologists to uncover the knowledge of the origins and the fundamental structure of the universe. It’s a quick read, even though I found myself pausing to seek out (and read) Hubble’s 1929 paper “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae”; Ostriker, Peebles and Yahil’s 1974 paper “The Size and Mass of Galaxies, and the Mass of the Universe” and to look up where these researchers are working. I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative and particularly the composition of the book. Ananthaswamy’s wonderful story has exquisite descriptions of the exotic and dangerous locations where the investigative scientists have found the “environmentally silent” conditions necessary to the detection of theorized particles and energy or of nearly unimpeded observation of the universe. Transitioning smoothly from optical cosmology to detection of neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, Higgs bosons and more, Ananthaswamy excels at simplifying complex subjects, his narrative interwoven with the history of the building blocks leading to the current competing theories.
As an engineer, I wonder how knowing the nature of dark matter or the validation of supersymmetry or superstring theories is useful; or more practically, how that knowledge can be used. But as a former physics major who never lost interest in the subject, I love the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it can be used for anything practical.
I was asked in another thread what I might consider literature (with a capital “L”)…I’m thinking The Edge of Physics qualifies for me.
Do neutrinos affect radioactive decay? That’s what new research at Purdue seems to suggest.
When researchers at Purdue were looking for a reliable way to generate random numbers, they thought they were smart to use radioactive decay – after all the rate of decay was a known constant (for a given material) but the decay of any particular atom was truly random. But what they discovered may have huge implications for the Standard Model, for physics and for cosmology.
As the researchers pored through published data on specific isotopes, they found disagreement in the measured decay rates – odd for supposed physical constants.
Checking data collected at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and the Federal Physical and Technical Institute in Germany, they came across something even more surprising: long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 seemed to show a small seasonal variation. The decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.
In addition, during a solar flare event in Dec 2006, a Purdue researcher, observing day in manganese-54, noticed that the decay rate began to drop almost 36 hours before the flare event
became visible on earth. In a series of published papers, the Purdue team showed that the observed variations in decay rates were highly unlikely to have come from environmental influences on the detection systems.
Their findings strengthened the argument that the strange swings in decay rates were caused by neutrinos from the sun. The decay rates dropped as the Earth came closer to the sun (where it would be exposed to more neutrinos) and rose as the Earth moved farther away.
So there was good reason to suspect the sun, but could it be proven?
Enter Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics and an expert on the inner workings of the sun. Sturrock knew from his experience that the observed neutrino intensity varies on a regular basis as the sun revolves and shows a different face to the Earth. He suggested that Purdue: Look for evidence that the changes in radioactive decay on Earth vary with the rotation of the sun.
Looking again at the decay data from the Brookhaven lab, the researchers found a recurring pattern of 33 days, which differed from the observed solar rotation period of about 28 days. They explain this by suggesting that the core of the sun – where nuclear reactions produce neutrinos – spins more slowly than the surface.
The evidence points toward a conclusion that emissions form the sun are directly influencing radioactive isotopes on Earth.
However, no one knows how neutrinos could interact with radioactive materials to change their rate of decay. This result holds promise in many ways: as an early warning system for Solar Flares; as an avenue for new research on neutrinos; or as the first inking of even stranger new particles. “It would have to be something we don’t know about, an unknown particle that is also emitted by the sun and has this effect, and that would be even more remarkable,” Sturrock said.
Some of the neighborhoods near my house in St. Louis have already celebrated Halloween. For instance, my street celebrates Halloween on the Sunday afternoon prior to Halloween. Celebrating in the daylight makes it easier for us to visit with little neighborhood children and their parents. The nearby Compton Heights neighborhood celebrates Halloween on the Saturday night prior to Halloween. Our family was invited to venture over to Compton Heights a few nights ago, and we weren’t disappointed.
Amidst all of the traditional candy-giving, we stumbled upon one particular house where the family had put together its own haunted house. The family owns a big old house, but also owns a separate large two-story carriage house in the back. They hired an electrician to wire up the carriage house with sophisticated lighting and they assembled a team of 20 friends and family to pose as various types of dead people inside the house. Not typical dead people, mind you. Dead people who stand still in the dim lighting and come alive just when you are convinced that they are mannequins (and there were quite a few mannequins too, some of them dismembered). When selected dead people came alive, they yelped, or they screamed; some of them reached out and grabbed you. There were ghouls and ghosts, a vampire, a mummy, floating bones, a guy with a “chainsaw,” and a beheaded guy who suddenly moaned, all of this horror looking rather real and all of these characters lurking carefully amidst the dim lighting as we toured this incredible house.
Each of the photos in this post is from this house. Note that it’s not always easy to take photos in a darkly lit haunted house. While I was taking a photo of a decapitated head on a table, for instance, a dead man reached out and tugged on my sleeve, smudging the long exposure.
How good was it? I stood outside for 30 minutes after I toured the haunted house, and every ten minutes or so, I saw a panicky grown child running from the haunted house crying. Bravo! I then learned that the haunted house family has been putting on this magnificent show, for free, for 15 years. Double Bravo!
But as I walked away from the haunted house, I wondered two things.
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, has spent countless hours defending his positions before lay audiences. What’s really impressive about Dawkins is the way he keeps his cool under fire (I was first impressed with Dawkins’ composure when I viewed this episode, involving Dawkins’ interview of the gay-bashing hypocrite, Ted Haggard).
Consider this condescending interview conducted 3/4/09 by Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio. You can listen to the entire one-hour interview here. At the beginning of this interview, Miller could barely hide her disdain for Dawkins. Many of the people calling the show to ask questions were much more open-minded than the host–they certainly didn’t pick up the host’s mocking tone.
Miller began the interview by branding Dawkins a failure because people weren’t running to convert to atheism, despite Dawkins’ hope (expressed in The God Delusion) that people reading his book would be caused to rethink their beliefs in religion. Dawkins explained that he did hope that people would rethink their beliefs, but that his book didn’t fail merely because people didn’t abruptly quit their religious affiliations. Here’s the hope Dawkins expressed when he wrote The God Delusion:
I hope to persuade . . . a substantial number of middle of the road people that there’s nothing wrong with a disbelief in God … there’s nothing outlandish about it. It’s probably what they’re like anyway, whether or not they admit it to themselves.
Miller then worked to corner Dawkins with a belief expressed by theist John Polkinghorne that there are no hard and fasts truths. Dawkins agreed with Polkinghorne on this general point, but advised Miller that this doesn’t mean that we have no understanding of anything.
I started thinking about the the “reductionist attitude” in presenting science when I read Erich’s Post To deal with “arrogant” scientists we need to move beyond reductionism and break the “Galilean Spell” (from May 7, 2008). Curricula seem to begin with biology, work through chemistry, and finally introduce physics. If English were taught categorically as [...]
Are you sure you want to be “free”? Freedom is such a strange concept. I’ve never understood it in the context of personal decision-making. Americans claim to love “freedom,” but how much freedom can you stand? Freedom implies occurrences that are unhinged from naturalistic laws. Freedom implies a mechanism that is not hooked into the [...]
In the May 18, 2007 edition of Science (available only to subscribers online), Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg consider why so many adults resist science. They cite a 2005 Pew Trust poll finding that 42% of people believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Most people who [...]