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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: physics, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 26 - 50 of 63
26. The way of the abstract

The realm of theoretical physics is teeming with abstract and beautiful concepts, and the process of bringing them into existence, and then explaining them, demands profound creativity according to Giovanni Vignale, author of The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, imagination, and theoretical physics. In the excerpt below Vignale discusses the beginnings of theoretical physics and the abstract.

Physics, most of us would agree, is the basic science of nature. Its purpose is to discover the laws of the natural world. Do such laws exist? Well, the success of physics at identifying some of them proves, in retrospect, that they do exist. Or, at least, it proves that there are Laws of Physics, which we can safely assume to be Laws of Nature.

Granted, it may be difficult to discern this lofty purpose when all one hears in an introductory course is about flying projectiles and swinging pendulums, strings under tension and beams in equilibrium. But at the beginning of the enterprise there were some truly fundamental questions such as: the nature of matter, the character of the forces that bind it together, the origin of order, the fate of the universe. For centuries humankind had been puzzling over these questions, coming up with metaphysical and fantastic answers. And it stumbled, and it stumbled, until one day—and here I quote the great Austrian writer and ironist, Robert Musil:

. . . it did what every sensible child does after trying to walk too soon; it sat down on the ground, contacting the earth with a most dependable if not very noble part of its anatomy, in short, that part on which one sits. The amazing thing is that the earth showed itself uncommonly receptive, and ever since that moment of contact has allowed men to entice inventions, conveniences, and discoveries out of it in quantities bordering on the miraculous.

This was the beginning of physics and, actually, of all science: an orgy of matter-of-factness after centuries of theology. Careful and systematic observation of reality, coupled with quantitative analysis of data and an egregious indifference to theories that could not be tested by experiment became the hallmark of every serious investigation into the nature of things.

But even as they were busy observing and experimenting, the pioneers of physics did not fail to notice a peculiar feature of their discipline. Namely, they realized that the laws of nature were best expressed in an abstract mathematical language—a language of triangles and circles and limits—which, at first sight, stood almost at odds with the touted matter-of-factness of experimental science. As time went by, it became clear that mathematics was much more than a computational tool: it had a life of its own. Things could be discovered by mathematics. John Adams and, independently, Urbain Le Ferrier, using Newton’s theory of gravity, computed the orbit of Uranus and found that it deviated from the observed one. Rather than giving up, they did another calculation showing that the orbit of Uranus could be explained if there were another planet pulling on Uranus according to Newton’s law of gravity. Such a planet had never been seen, but Adams and Le Ferrier told the astronomers where to look for it. And, lo and behold, the planet—Neptune—was there, waiting to be discovered. That was in 1846.

Even this great achievement pales in comparison with things that happened later. In the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell trusted mathematics—and not just the results of a calculation, but the abstract structure of a set of equations—to predict the existence of electromagnetic waves. And electromagnetic waves (of which visible light is an example) were controllably produced in the lab shortly afterwards.

In the 1870s Ludwig

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27. New short stories! By me!

Hi, all. If you’re in the mood for some short fiction, you can now read two of my short stories, written last year while I was deep into my quantum physics research for my upcoming trilogy, INTO THE PARALLEL. You can tell my brain was pretty physicsy at the time.

They are:

A SKIP OF THE MIND: A physicist must find a unique solution to the problem of time travel if he wants to save his wife.

GAMEMASTER: They say high school is a game . . . For one girl, it’s a game she’s in charge of. A stroke of a key, an equation, a few changes in molecules and atoms here and there, and suddenly the losers aren’t such outcasts anymore. Nicki isn’t doing it to be noble, she’s doing it for sport. Because she can. But what happens to the people she’s remade? Who’s in charge of them now?

Hope you like them!

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28. What is Energy?

By Jennifer Coopersmith

Energy is the go of things, the driver of engines, devices and all physical processes. It can come in various forms (electrical, chemical, rest mass, curvature of spacetime, light, heat and so on) and change between these forms, but the total is always conserved. Newton missed energy and it was Leibniz who discovered kinetic energy (he called it vis viva). The idea was promoted on the continent, chiefly by one family, the Swiss family of feuding mathematicians, the Bernoullis, in the first half of the 18th century. The more subtle concept, potential energy, slipped in over a hundred years, uninvited, like the 13th fairy at the party.

In Feynman’s profound allegory (‘Dennis the Menace’ playing with blocks), energy is defined by its property of being conserved. But, this doesn’t answer to all our intuitions about energy. Why does it change smoothly between its various forms? For example, when a child swings on a swing, her kinetic energy decreases as the swing climbs (and gains gravitational potential energy) and then, as the swing descends, she goes faster and faster.

A different approach holds the answer. Consider the walk to the shops. You could take the shortest route or you could optimize other aspects, e.g. take a longer route but less hilly, or more shady or with the least number of road-crossings. Nature also works in this optimizing way: it tries to minimize the total ‘action’ between a starting place and a final destination. ‘Action’ is defined as ‘energy’ times ‘time’, and, in order to minimize action, the energy must be able to change in a prescribed way, smoothly and continuously, between its two forms, kinetic and potential energy, (The Principle of Least Action was discovered by an eccentric Frenchman, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, while head of the Berlin Academy of Science, in the mid 18th century.)

What are kinetic and potential energy? Kinetic energy is the energy of motion of an individual body whereas potential energy is the energy of interaction of parts within a system. Potential energy must be specified for each new scenario, but kinetic energy comes in one essential form and is more fundamental in this sense. However, as potential energy relates to internal aspects (of a system), it doesn’t usually change for differently moving ‘observers’. For example, the game of billiards in the lounge of the ocean liner continues unaffected, whether that liner is coasting smoothly at 30 kph or whether it’s moored to a buoy. The kinetic energy of the liner is vastly different in the two cases.

But sometimes potential energy and even mass do change from one ‘reference frame’ to another. The more fundamental quantity is the ‘least action’, as this stays the same, whatever the (valid) ‘observer’.

Heat energy is the sum of the individual microscopic kinetic energies. But the heat energy and the kinetic energy of an everyday object are very different (e.g. the kinetic energy of a kicked football and the heat energy of a football left to warm in the sun). In fact, for the early 19th century natural philosophers, considering heat as a form of energy was like committing a category error. The slow bridging of this error by people like Daniel Bernoulli, Count Rumford, Robert Julius Mayer and James Joule makes a very interesting tale.

With regards to the looming energy crisis and global warming, here are the things we must remember:

1. Nature always counts the true cost, even if we don’t
2. There is no such thing as safe energy – it is energetic, after all
3. As the sink of all our activities becomes warmer, so all our ‘engines’, cars and humans etc, will run less efficiently
4. We must consider not only energy but also ‘least action’ – and take action.


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29. Hunting the Neutrino

By Frank Close

Ray Davis was the first person to look into the heart of a star. He did so by capturing neutrinos, ghostly particles that are produced in the centre of the Sun and stream out across space. As you read this, billions of them are hurtling through your eyeballs at almost the speed of light, unseen.

Neutrinos are as near to nothing as anything we know, and so elusive that they are almost invisible. When Davis began looking for solar neutrinos in 1960, many thought that he was attempting the impossible. It nearly turned out to be: 40 years would pass before he was proved right, leading to his Nobel Prize for physics in 2002, aged 87.

In June 2006, I was invited by The Guardian newspaper to write his obituary. An obituary necessarily focuses on the one person, but the saga of the solar neutrinos touched the lives of several others, scientists who devoted their entire careers chasing the elusive quarry, only to miss out on the Nobel Prize by virtue of irony, chance, or, tragically, by having already died.

Of them all, the most tragic perhaps is the genius Bruno Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo was a remarkable scientist and a communist, working at Harwell after the war. When his Harwell colleague Klaus Fuchs was exposed as an atom spy in 1950, Pontecorvo immediately fled to the USSR. This single act probably killed his chances of Nobel Prizes.

In the following years, Pontecorvo developed a number of ideas that could have won him one or more Nobels. But his papers were published in Russian, and were unknown in the West until their English translations appeared up to two years later. By this time others in the USA had come up with the same ideas, later winning the Nobel Prize themselves.

Amongst his ideas, one involved an experiment which Soviet facilities could not perform. But most ironic were Pontecorvo’s insights about neutrinos.

Ray Davis had detected solar neutrinos – but not enough of them. For years, many of us involved in this area of research thought Davis’ experiment must have been at fault. But Pontecorvo had another theory which indicated that like chameleons, neutrinos changed their form en route across space from the Sun to Earth. And he was right. It took many years to prove it, but by 2000 the whole saga was completed. Davis duly won his Nobel Prize, but so many years had elapsed that Pontecorvo by then was dead.

So although my piece for The Guardian began as the life story of Ray Davis, Pontecorvo was there behind the scenes to such an extent that it became his story also. It is also the story of John Bahcall, Davis’ lifelong collaborator, who, to the surprise of many, was not included in the Nobel award.

The lives of these three great scientists were testimony to what science is all about: as Edison put it, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

A final sobering thought to put our human endeavors in context: those neutrinos that passed through you when you started reading this article are by now well on their way to Mars.

Frank Close OBE is Professor of Physics at Oxford Univeristy and a Fellow of Exeter College.  He is formerly Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. He has written several books including The Void, Antimatter, 0 Comments on Hunting the Neutrino as of 1/1/1900

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30. Quantum Theory: If a tree falls in forest…

By Jim Baggott


If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear, does it make a sound?

For centuries philosophers have been teasing our intellects with such questions. Of course, the answer depends on how we choose to interpret the use of the word ‘sound’. If by sound we mean compressions and rarefactions in the air which result from the physical disturbances caused by the falling tree and which propagate through the air with audio frequencies, then we might not hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

Here the word ‘sound’ is used to describe a physical phenomenon – the wave disturbance. But sound is also a human experience, the result of physical signals delivered by human sense organs which are synthesized in the mind as a form of perception.

Now, to a large extent, we can interpret the actions of human sense organs in much the same way we interpret mechanical measuring devices. The human auditory apparatus simply translates one set of physical phenomena into another, leading eventually to stimulation of those parts of the brain cortex responsible for the perception of sound. It is here that the distinction comes. Everything to this point is explicable in terms of physics and chemistry, but the process by which we turn electrical signals in the brain into human perception and experience in the mind remains, at present, unfathomable.

Philosophers have long argued that sound, colour, taste, smell and touch are all secondary qualities which exist only in our minds. We have no basis for our common-sense assumption that these secondary qualities reflect or represent reality as it really is. So, if we interpret the word ‘sound’ to mean a human experience rather than a physical phenomenon, then when there is nobody around there is a sense in which the falling tree makes no sound at all.

This business about the distinction between ‘things-in-themselves’ and ‘things-as-they-appear’ has troubled philosophers for as long as the subject has existed, but what does it have to do with modern physics, specifically the story of quantum theory? In fact, such questions have dogged the theory almost from the moment of its inception in the 1920s. Ever since it was discovered that atomic and sub-atomic particles exhibit both localised, particle-like properties and delocalised, wave-like properties physicists have become ravelled in a debate about what we can and can’t know about the ‘true’ nature of physical reality.

Albert Einstein once famously declared that God does not play dice. In essence, a quantum particle such as an electron may be described in terms of a delocalized ‘wavefunction’, with probabilities for appearing ‘here’ or ‘there’. When we look to see where the electron actually is, the wavefunction is said to ‘collapse’ instantaneously, and appears ‘here’ with a frequency consistent with the probability predicted by quantum theory. But there is no predicting precisely where an individual electron will be found. Chance is inherent in the collapse of the wavefunction, and it was this feature of quantum theory that got Einstein so upset. To make matters worse, if the collapse is instantaneous then this implies what Einstein called a ‘spooky action-at-a-distance’ which, he argued, appeared to violate a key postulate of his own special theory of relativity.

So what evidence do we have for this mysterious collapse of the wavefunction? Well, none actually. We postulate the collapse in an attempt to explain how a quantum system with many different possible outcomes before measurement transforms into a system with one and only one result after measurement. To Irish physicist John Bell this seemed to be at best a confidence-trick, at worst a fraud. ‘A theory founded in this way on arguments of manifestly approximate character,’ he wrote some years later, ‘howe

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31. International Women’s Day: Émilie du Châtelet

Today on OUPblog we’re celebrating the 100th International Women’s Day with posts about inspirational women. In this post, Patricia Fara, author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History, writes about the 18th century mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet.

Émilie du Châtelet, wrote Voltaire, ‘was a great man whose only fault was being a woman.’ Du Châtelet has paid the penalty for being a woman twice over. During her life, she was denied the educational opportunities and freedom that she craved. ‘Judge me for my own merits,’ she protested: ‘do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that renowned scholar’ – but since her death, she has been demoted to subsidiary status as Voltaire’s mistress and Isaac Newton’s translator.

Too often moulded into hackneyed stereotypes – the learned eccentric, the flamboyant lover, the devoted mother – du Châtelet deserves more realistic appraisals as a talented yet fallible woman trapped between overt discrimination and inner doubts about her worth. ‘I am in my own right a whole person,’ she insisted. I hope she would appreciate how I see her …

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49) was tall and beautiful. Many intellectual women would object to an account starting with their looks, but du Châtelet took great care with her appearance. She spent a fortune on clothes and jewellery, acquiring the money from her husband, a succession of lovers, and her own skills at the gambling table (being mathematically gifted can bring unexpected rewards.) She brought the same intensity to her scientific work, plunging her hands in ice-cold water to keep herself awake as she wrote through the night. This whole-hearted enthusiasm for every activity she undertook explains why I admire her so much. The major goal of life, she believed, was to be happy – and for her that meant indulging but also balancing her passions for food, sex and learning.

Born into a wealthy family, du Châtelet benefited from an enlightened father who left her free to browse in his library and hired tutors to give her lessons more appropriate for boys than for marriageable girls. By the time she was twelve, du Châtelet could speak six languages, but it was not until her late twenties that she started to immerse herself in mathematics and Newtonian philosophy. By then, she was married to an elderly army officer, had two surviving children, and was developing intimate friendships with several clever young men who helped her acquire the education she was not allowed to gain at university.

When Voltaire’s radical politics provoked a warrant for his arrest, she concealed him in her husband’s run-down estate at Cirey and returned to Paris to restore his reputation. Over the next year, she oscillated between rural seclusion with Voltaire and partying in Paris, but after some prompting, she eventually made her choice and stuck to it. For fifteen years, they lived together at Cirey, happily embroiled in a private world of intense intellectual endeavour laced with romance, living in separate apartments linked by a secret passage and visited from time to time by her accommodating husband.

For decades, French scholars had been reluctant to abandon the ideas of their own national hero, René Descartes, and instead adopt those of his English rival, Newton. They are said to have been converted by a small book that appeared in 1738: Elements of Newtonian Philosophy. The only name on the title-page is Voltaire’s, but it is clear that this was a collaborative venture in which du Châtelet played a major role: as Voltaire to

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32. Top Ten Reasons to Study Physics

  1. Getting grant money to play.
  2. It has its quarks.
  3. You can finally find something colder than your ex.
  4. It makes you look intelligent.
  5. The more you learn, the less you know, and the more you know, the less you learn. Thanks Heisenberg.
  6. Rocks are too dirty.
  7. If you’re lucky you can glow in the dark after your experiments.
  8. You used to smash cars as a child. Now you smash atoms.
  9. “But officer, if I drive really fast I won’t age as quickly.”
  10. Schrödinger’s Cat was never meant ot be dissected.

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33. Top Ten Reasons to Study Physics

  1. Getting grant money to play.
  2. It has its quarks.
  3. You can finally find something colder than your ex.
  4. It makes you look intelligent.
  5. The more you learn, the less you know, and the more you know, the less you learn. Thanks Heisenberg.
  6. Rocks are too dirty.
  7. If you’re lucky you can glow in the dark after your experiments.
  8. You used to smash cars as a child. Now you smash atoms.
  9. “But officer, if I drive really fast I won’t age as quickly.”
  10. Schrödinger’s Cat was never meant ot be dissected.

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34. Playing God - Man vs. Fly

Last night, I was feeling philosophical, but had nothing to ponder on. I looked at my PC and was struck with the sheer lack of technical expertise I had in electronics, rendering any opinion I had on the intricacies of the device around 10 years out of date. I started looking on Wikipedia, before feeling pretty belittled by my lack of knowledge of space physics. Then, inspiration hit me. Actually, it hit the window.

“Bzzzz. Whack. Bzzzzzz. Whack. Bzzzzz. Whack”. I looked around to try and locate the origin of such debacle, then I saw it. A fly was buzzing around, hitting off the window repeatedly.

I found myself at a fork in the path of destiny in my life. It would have been easy to ignore the offending beast and go back to my scholarship on the theorised negative pressures exhibited by dark matter. But no, unfortunately I chose the other path open to me: I concentrated on the fly.

Bzzzzzz. Whack. Bzzzzzz. Whack.

On watching the poor creature, I couldn’t help but admire its boundless stoicism and determination. However, the net feeling in my mind was not one of reckless pity. It was more a feeling of disappointment. I wasn’t disappointed in the fly: how could a creature that is probably less than a day old really understand the enormity of its stupidity? Rather, I was disappointed with evolution. I had really hoped that over two billion years of cumulative learning and development, the animal kingdom would have overcome such a barrier.

Image via Wikipedia

Evolution is always cited as such a wonderfully intelligent thing. Even as I write this, I can hear Richard Attenborough saying, “Look how the tree has learned to lean towards the sunlight.”. Of course there is far more to be said for evolution and its wonderful creations. But 2 billion years? I had really hoped for more.

Bzzzzzzz. Whack.

I was starting to get quite upset. If I was locked in a room the size of earth for 2 billion years, I would have expected to design a fly that could learn from its mistakes.

Bzzzzzzz. Whack.

The window was dirty, I noticed with increasing desperation. Surely the resultant deviation from transparency would register with the fly?

Bzzzzzzzz. Whack.

This was the last straw. I had to do it, I had to be the vector for natural selection. From that moment on, any offspring of the fly would spend their entire adult lives whacking into inanimate objects without the brainpower to overcome such a simple problem.

Bzzzzzz. Whack. I knew then, if I didn’t do it, the animal kingdom would be doomed. I reached for a newspaper. I rolled it up in my hands. The future of the world was in my hands.


Image via Wikipedia

Bzzzzzz. Whack. This only steeled my resolve. I made my move. The fly, with almost pre-cognitive reflexes, dodged to the side and flew away. Knowing that my newspaper probably created a pressure wave that aided the fly in its escape, I poked holes in my holy smiting tool, ready to continue in my role as God of evolution.

Bzzzzzzz. Whack. The fly was back. I leapt at it.

The ensuing struggle was too horrible to even describe. The bloodshed? Non-existent. The perspiration on my brow? Fairly prominent. The fly? Still alive. My curtains? In a heap on the floor. My desktop belongings? Scattered. My glass of coke? Spilt.

The fly had won. I slumped in a heap of desolation on the floor. I couldn’t help but wonder if the attempts to get through the window were simply an ingenious experiment to prove quantum theory (if you hit an object enough times you will go through it) or if the fly’s erogenous zones were on its forehead. Either way, the little bugger had won.

Bzzzzzzz. Whack. Back to trying to decipher space physics, I suppose.

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35. Real space battles

Okay, I know nobody is even reading blogs this week, but I didn’t want this to pass by unnoted: an awesome post on Gizmodo about the realities of battles in space. Love it.

– Joni, a former physics major who is driven crazy when books have plot elements that break the laws of the universe as we know it

Posted in Joni Sensel Tagged: battles, physics, space

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36. The Everafter

The Everafter by Amy Huntley. HarperCollins. 2009. Review copy supplied by publisher. High school.

The Plot: "I'm dead." There is much she doesn't remember, not even her name. But she knows that once she was alive, with a body, and now she is dead. Objects are floating....keys. Pine cone. Bracelet. Sweatshirt. Touch the sweatshirt, and suddenly she is a place, a time, a when, a where, and finally, a name. Maddy. Madison Stanton. 17. She's dead. But why?

The Good: Each object, bracelet, keys, sweatshirt, is something that, when alive, Maddy lost. Touching the object brings Maddy back to that time, that moment, and she can relive that memory again and again and again. If, in that captured moment, alive-Maddy finds the object, the door is shut and that memory cannot be revisited.

So a ghost story. A dead girl revisiting her life story.

With physics.

Maddy, revisiting a physics class: "something can be two things at once, and that observing them influences which of the two they are... Ms. Winters has moved to talking about how everything in the universe is connected in ways that can't always be seen or understood. ...at the subatomic level no time has to pass for one particle to know about and be affected by what's happening to another." Maddy's head is about to explode, and so is mine, but what Huntley has done is taken the fantastical (the afterlife, ghosts, Heaven) and wrapped it in science.

Touch an object, visit that time, and so alive-Maddy and dead-Maddy are there, both at the same time. At some point Maddy realizes she can influence the past, her life; an object may be found, a bit of reality shifted. But no matter what little difference she makes, which gives her a feeling of disquiet as she erases one memory and creates another, the end remains the same. She is Madison Stanton. She never visits a time later than age seventeen. And the way this works and intertwines, changes, being and observing -- is all explained by physics.

Madison's journey through her life is not offered in a linear fashion; she jumps in time, back and forth, and we get a scattered feel for her life and family. She is in love with Gabe, happy to be wearing his sweatshirt; then she is meeting him at her sister's wedding. Madison plays with her friend Sandra, then she is six and in Disney World, then she is eleven. She is enemies with Tammy, then friends, then the slumber party that ended their friendship. Slowly, for both Madison and the reader, the puzzle of her life, her death, her afterlife is revealed.

Huntley offers a few possibilities as to why, and how, Maddy died. While not a classic whodunit mystery, there is suspense, and Maddy is trying to find out why she lost that which is most important to us all. Life.

Inventive story telling, beautiful language, a book that gets better on rereading, a narrator whose death you mourn and dread even though you know its unavoidable; it's easy to see why this is on the Morris Award shortlist.

As an adult reading this: I

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37. Oops--Siphon Definition Defied Law of Gravity

This week Australian physicist Dr. Stephen Hughes of the Queensland University of Technology found an error in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and he is having it corrected. The definition in question is for the word “siphon.” The definition, which has been followed by most other dictionaries, has been in error for the last 99 years. The following is the OED definition:
A pipe or tube of glass, metal or other material, bent so that one leg is longer than the other, and used for drawing off liquids by means of atmospheric pressure, which forces the liquid up the shorter leg and over the bend in the pipe.
Margot Charlton of the OED’s staff explained, “The OED entry for siphon dates from 1911 and was written by editors who were not scientists.” She was surprised that nobody had queried the definition in those 99 years. The definition of siphon will be corrected in the next edition of the OED.

Atmospheric pressure is involved to start the process of moving the liquid up the shorter leg of the siphon. However, once the fluid is over the bend in the tube, it is gravity, the weight of the liquid, that pulls the it down the longer leg.

Dr. Hughes reported, “An extensive check of online and offline dictionaries did not reveal a single dictionary that correctly referred to gravity being the operative force in a siphon.” I guess he did not check Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, which provides the following definition:
1 a : a tube bent to form two legs of unequal length by which a liquid can be transferred to a lower level over an intermediate elevation by the pressure of the atmosphere in forcing the liquid up the shorter branch of the tube immersed in it while the excess of weight of the liquid in the longer branch when once filled causes a continuous flow
Amsco has editors who are scientists, but we are human and sometimes make a mistake. Like the OED, once we become aware of it, we correct it in the next reprint.

I got the idea for this post from my son, Don, who sent me a link to an article in The Register, an Information Technology journal from the United Kingdom. I enjoyed the article so much that I subscribed. On Tuesday, I saw the following headline in the science section of The Register: “Siphon Wars: Pressurist Weighs into Gravitite Boffin. This could be trouble, I thought, and it was. Rather than try to paraphrase (see tomorrow’s post by Lauren), I decided to quote from The Register.
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38. How Good Are Your Sunglasses?

As I age, I am beginning to be more aware of the importance of protecting myself from the sun. I wear sunscreen, even in the winter. However I am not really good about putting on my sunglasses. I do have an anti-UV coating on my bifocals, which I hope is helpful, and when I remember them, I have stylish clip-on polarized sunglasses. I recently read an article that got me thinking more about sunglasses and ultraviolet radiation (UV).

As you can see from the top bar in the diagram above, there are different forms of light, ultraviolet and visible. Human eyes detect visible light, which divides into blue, green, and red, as shown on the bottom bar. (We detect infrared as heat.) Ultraviolet light is part of the spectrum of light; its wavelength is shorter than that of visible light. Some animals, such as bees and some birds can see in ultraviolet light, and many flowers and birds have patterns that are only visible in ultraviolet light. Humans cannot see ultraviolet light. However, parts of the eye such as the cornea, the lens, and the retina can be damaged when they absorb too much UV light. Some scientists think that exposure to UV light may cause cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye.

All UV light is more energetic than visible light, which is why it causes damage. The shorter the wavelength of light, the more energetic it is. The more energetic the light is, the more damage it can cause. As you can see from the bottom part of the diagram, there are several types of ultraviolet light. Because our atmosphere protects us from the most of the other forms of ultraviolet radiation, we should be most concerned with UVA and UVB. UVA has a longer wavelength than UVB. In addition to damaging our eyes, UVA and UVB cause sunburn and skin cancer.

With this in mind, I went to my ophthalmologist to have my eyes checked. He gave me a new prescription for lenses. I took my prescription to a local eyeglass shop (Wize Eyes), where the friendly saleswoman helped me pick out stylish new frames. Knowing that I tend to forget to put on my sunglasses, I chose lenses that darken in sunlight and protect my eyes from UV light. This picture was taken in a cloudy evening, so the lenses do not look very dark.

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39. On the Practitioners of Science

By Jennifer Coopersmith

There is a Jane Austen-esque phrase in my book: “it is a ceaseless wonder that our universal and objective science comes out of human – sometimes all too human – enquiry”. Physics is rather hard to blog, so I’ll write instead about the practitioners of science – what are they like? Are there certain personality types that do science? Does the science from different countries end up being different?

Without question there are fewer women physicists than men physicists and, also without question, this is a result of both nature and nurture. Does it really matter how much of the ‘blame’ should be apportioned to nature and how much to nurture? Societies have evolved the way they have for a reason, and they have evolved to have less women pursuing science than men (at present). Perhaps ‘intelligence’ has even been defined in terms of what men are good at?

Do a disproportionate number of physicists suffer from Asperger Syndrome (AS)? I deplore the fashion for retrospectively diagnosing the most famous physicists, such as Newton and Einstein, as suffering in this way. However, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and offer my own diagnosis: these two had a different ‘syndrome’ – they were geniuses, period. Contrary to common supposition, it would not be an asset for a scientist to have AS. Being single-minded and having an eye for detail – good, but having a narrow focus of interest and missing too much of the rich tapestry of social and worldly interactions – not good, and less likely to lead to great heights of creativity.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the science of energy was concentrated in two nations, England and France. The respective scientists had different characteristics. In England (strictly, Britain) the scientists were made up from an undue number of lone eccentrics, such as the rich Gentleman-scientists, carrying out researches in their own, privately–funded laboratories (e.g. Brook Taylor, Erasmus Darwin, Henry Cavendish and James Joule) and also religious non-conformists, of average or modest financial means (e.g. Newton, Dalton, Priestley and Faraday). This contrasts with France, where, post-revolution, the scientist was a salaried professional and worked on applied problems in the new state institutions (e.g. the French Institute and the École Polytechnique). The quality and number of names concentrated into one short period and one place (Paris), particularly in applied mathematics, has never been equalled: Lagrange, Laplace, Legendre, Lavoisier and Lamarck, – and these are only the L’s. As the historian of science, Henry Guerlac, remarked, science wasn’t merely a product of the French Revolution, it was the chief cultural expression of it.

There was another difference between the English and French scientists, as sloganized by the science historian Charles Gillispie: “the French…formulate things, and the English do them.” For example, Lavoisier developed a system of chemistry, including a new nomenclature, while James Watt designed and built the steam engine.

From the mid-19th century onwards German science took a more leading role and especially noteworthy was the rise of new universities and technical institutes. While many German scientists had religious affiliations (for example Clausius was a Lutheran), their science was neutral with regards to religion, and this was different to the trend in Britain. For example, Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) talked of the Earth “waxing old” and other quotes from the Bible, and, although he was not explicit, appears to have had religious objections to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (at any rate, he wanted his ‘age of the Earth calculations’ to contradict Darwin’s Theory).

Whereas personal, cultural, social, economic and political factors will undoubtedly influence the course of science, the ultimate laws must be free of all such associations. Presumably the laws of Thermodynamics would still

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40. Robert's Snow: Spotlight on Melanie Watt

Melanie Watt is one of the 200 wonderful picture book illustrators who has taken the time to create a unique snowflake for the Robert's Snow project. Robert's Snow is a group of auctions to raise money for cancer research. Please check out all the gorgeous snowflakes by visiting the Robert's Snow site. Not all snowflakes are being spotlighted on blogs.

Melanie Watt's snowflake will be available in the third (and final) auction, which runs from Dec 3-7. Here is a sneak peek. 

Who recognizes that cute little guy? Melanie Watt describes her snowflake like this:

"My snowflake is based on one of my book characters Scaredy Squirrel. This neurotic little worrywart is pretty much afraid of everything. Along with the snowflake there is a WARNING: Beware of frostbite.

P.S. I love the Mo Willems books !"

Here are some of the fabulous books she has worked on.

An all time favorite of mine. A riot, really. Winner of the Cybils 2006 in the fiction picture book category!

This sequel will not disappoint.

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41. Robert's Snow...Meet Illustrator Amy Young!

Today, as part of Blogging for a Cure,  we're featuring illustrator Amy Young and the snowflake she created for Robert's Snow -- a fantastic fund-raiser for cancer research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Blogger's Note:  I'm a children's author and a middle school English teacher, so my students are collaborating on our series of illustrator profiles! Today's feature is courtesy of the Global Citizens in 3rd period English class!

Amy L. Young grew up in Watertown, MA. She started drawing at the age of three, and as she grew up, she dreamed of being an artist.  By going to the Cleveland Institute of Art for two years and then Yale, she accomplished this goal. Later on, her first book, Belinda the Ballerina, was published in 2003.  Like Belinda, Amy Young took dance lessons at the age of seven. She also wrote and illustrated two other books -- Belinda in Paris and Belinda and the Glass Slipper.  Her three books do not just attract young, enthusiastic dancers. They also attract adults and other children because of her wit and comedy.  Amy L. Young is a very talented writer and illustrator.

We had a chance to interview Amy about her snowflake and her work.

Globals:  First of all, we were enchanted by your snowflake. What was the inspiration for that design?  What made you think of Emmalina the Mud Fairy and the sunflower that you chose?

Amy: I'm glad you like my snowflake! Emmalina is a character from THE MUD FAIRY, a book I have written which will be published by BloomsburyUSA at some point (no publication date yet).  Emmalina is sort of a tom-boy fairy, who would rather stomp in mud puddles and play with frogs than be all delicate and dainty. But she does still take an occasional nap on a flower, as you see on the snowflake. The idea of  the sunflower just came to me as I was thinking about it. That's often how I get my best ideas; it's kind of like magic.

Globals: Why are you participating in Robert's Snow?   Do you have family/friends who have been affected by cancer?

Amy:  It is a great opportunity to do what I do best, and have it benefit a good cause. I really like that the entire illustration community has risen to the occasion to contribute. It feels good to be a part of a such a  large, generous community. And yes, I have lost loved ones to cancer: two aunts, and, most recently, a very dear friend. It is a cruel disease, and I like to think I might have some small part in fighting it.

Globals: Why do you like illustrating so much, and what inspired you to become an illustrator and writer?

Amy: I remember being in nursery school when I was three years old, gluing one piece of paper to another, and saying, "I am going to be an artist when I grow up." I have no idea why I have always felt such a strong connection to making images, but it seems to satisfy a need. I have always liked writing, and making picture books seemed the 
perfect way to combine those two things.

Globals: When you were young, what else did you want to be when you grew up?

Amy: Actually, nothing!

Globals: We're looking forward to reading about Belinda. What made you want to write about a ballerina?

Amy: The first Belinda story came to me in a flash -- it was as though I didn't make it up myself. It was just there. Looking back, I think I liked the idea of a ballerina with big feet. It was a funny image. But I also liked that she was incredibly graceful in spite of, or perhaps because of, her feet. It was a change to gently poke fun at 
people's prejudices and assumptions.

Globals: Are the ballerina books autobiographical at all? Did you write about Belinda having big feet because you do?

Amy: In most ways I am not like Belinda: I have small, wide feet, like a duck; I am not as shy as Belinda is, and I probably have a bit more of a temper;  I had never taken a ballet class before doing the first book. In spite of those differences, there is one major trait that Belinda and I have in common: I love doing art as much as she loves dancing. Interestingly, Belinda's love of dancing has rubbed off on me -- I now take ballet.

Globals: What's your favorite book that you wrote or illustrated?

Amy: I don't have a favorite, but right now I am very excited about the next Belinda book, which will come out on Valentine's Day. It is called Belinda Begins Ballet, and tells the story of how Belinda started dancing when she was a girl.

Globals: We read on your website that you've had a wide variety of jobs and even went to law school before your became an illustrator. Why did you decide to study law, and what made you leave it?

Amy: Well, I panicked. I didn't think that I would be able to make a living doing art, so I looked for something else. My father is a lawyer, and he loves his job, so I thought "I'll try that!" I was a lawyer for seven years. There was a lot that I liked about being a lawyer, but I really missed doing art -- just the way Belinda missed dancing. (Ah, there's the autobiographical part!)

Globals: We also noted that you didn't care for waitressing. How come?

Amy: I waitressed in a pizza place in a big city. When things got busy we were frantic trying to get everyone served, and some of the customers treated us as if we were barely human. Just not my cup of tea.

Globals: Now the rapid-fire questions...things that kids (and grownups who are just big kids) need to know!  What's your favorite book ever?

Amy: I really don't have one favorite book. I like so many books, and different books suit different moods.

Globals: What was your greatest accomplishment in life?

Amy: Wow. That's a toughie. I think it is sort of amazing that I managed to get through Harvard Law School (I worked very hard!), but in a way I would say getting my first book published was a bigger accomplishment, because it was closer to my heart.

Globals: Do you like sushi?

Amy: Yes!

Globals: What's your most embarrassing moment (that you're willing to share)?

Amy: That would be eleventh grade math class. I was the only one who got the answer to one of the homework problems, and I was asked to go up in front of the whole class and explain how I did it. So I did, but it turns out my method was all wrong and really pretty stupid. There was this terrible awkward silence, and a few people tittered, and I really did wish I could sink into the floor and just disappear. The funny thing is that now it would take a whole lot more than that to embarrass me. I like to laugh at myself, and it makes life a lot more fun.

Globals: Have you ever ridden a horse?

Amy: Yes, but I would rather pat one and feed it and brush it and tell it how lovely it is, instead of riding it. 

Globals: What's your biggest fear?

Amy: That I will be in the middle of a big presentation and my slides or PowerPoint will fail me. It's not that I'd be embarrassed so much as I wouldn't know what to do, because showing people images of what I do is so much a part of how I present material. I guess I would manage, but it would not be good.

Globals: Your favorite dessert?

Amy: Anything with chocolate!

Globals: Thanks, Amy, for taking the time to visit with us, and thanks for giving of your time and talents for the Robert's Snow project!

Amy: Thank YOU! One of the things I love about what I do is making contact with people like you!

Here is your chance to win a signed copy of one of Amy's books from the Belinda series.  All you have to do is leave a comment on one of the snowflakes from Auction #3, and we'll enter you in a drawing for that signed book. You can also visit Amy Young's website to learn more about her work.

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42. Robert's Snow: Mike Wohnoutka

I had heard of Mike Wohnoutka and seen several of his enticing, saturated-with-color books. 

But I don't know if I had ever officially met him before a Children's Literature Network event last year. Arthur Levine came to Minneapolis and sat down for a conversation with 30 or so local published authors and illustrators. Then most of us headed across the street for dinner. I sat at an empty end of the horseshoe-shaped dinner table and won the dinner-seat lottery. I spent the next couple of hours chatting with Arthur Levine, his cousin (a teacher, I believe, in Wisconsin), and Mike Wohnoutka. Mike was funny, soft-spoken, and gracious, and we all had great conversation about children's books (not to mention a tasty cheese plate).

So I was happy to pick him as one of the local illustrators I wanted to feature here on Blogging for a Cure, an orchestrated bloggers' effort to help raise funds for cancer research by spreading the word about Robert's Snow.

About Mike

Mike is the illustrator of many children's books, including the award-winning Davey's Blue-Eyed
, by Patricia Harrison Easton and his most recent, When the Wizzy Foot Goes Walking, by Roni Schotter. He is also a regular contributor to the Cricket Magazine Group.  Mike has been busy in his studio and will have two new books coming out in 2008.

Even though Mike was a trouble maker [Laura: no, it can't be!] when he was in grade school, and thus gets a little nervous around principals, he still enjoys visiting schools and talking to students about illustrating children's books. 

He grew up in Spicer, Minnesota, and now has made his home in Minneapolis with his wife, son and brand new daughter.

About the Snowflake 


Isn't it gorgeous? I love these snowflakes that really celebrate the joy of winter. I think the rest of the country thinks we in Minnesota hunker down and feel miserable for six months of the year. That is just not true! Here's what Mike had to say about his snowflake.

How did you (honestly) feel when you were approached to participate in Robert’s Snow?

I was honored to be asked again, but at the same time I felt overwhelmed with work and didn’t feel I was going to have the time this year.  Then I realized this was a perfect opportunity to make a little difference by being a published children’s book illustrator, so I was happy to make it  a priority.

Which of your books is your snowflake most “like”?

When I painted the snowflake I had just finished a new picture book that comes out in February called Mama’s Little Duckling.  It has a softer, more atmospheric quality than my other books.

How did you come up with the idea for your snowflake?

The snowflakes are small,  so I wanted to do something fairly simple and graphic.  I decided a snowman would be fun.

What did you think about while you were working on it?

I kept thinking that I want to keep this simple and not worry about the details.  The mood was most

What medium is your snowflake?


More About Mike

6 Words to Describe His Art and Style

6 Highlights of His Career

1. My senior year in high school won a statewide art contest with a drawing I did of my dad. This led to a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design.

2. Meeting David Shannon my freshman year in college. After seeing his presentation I knew I wanted to be an illustrator.

3. Doing a cover illustration for Spider magazine. 

4. When Random House called me to illustrate my first book,
Counting Sheep.

5. Meeting editor Michelle Copella at a  SCBWI conference. I illustrated three books with her.

6. Visiting New York last fall and meeting with 12 publishers.

Mike has a truly excellent website, and I hope you'll visit it and browse through all the great art and info. But here are 6 facts about Mike that you won't learn from that site:

1. We just had a baby girl, Olivia, at the end of October.

2. I share a studio with 8 other artists in Northeast Minneapolis in the
Northrup King Building.

3. I enjoy running, reading, doing crossword puzzles and playing softball.

4. My favorite TV show is
The Office

5. I come from a large family. I have three brothers and three sisters.

6. I love being a dad.

I love the joy in Mike's snowman, the feeling that he's about to dance right off the page. In that spirit, I wrote a silly snowman poem (all three of the illustrators I've featured have used snowmen on their flakes, and I'm starting to feel quite a camaraderie with them, especially since I sat here this morning watching the first snow fly).


Feel free to email Mike to let him know what you think of his snowflake. Like many of us, he's juggling work and (new) parenthood, and you know how nice a few pats on the back are!

And the Robert's Snow auctions start on Monday, November 19. Have you picked the flake(s) you want to bid on yet? There are so many cool ones. This year I'm determined to snag one. Outta my way!

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43. Robert's Snow: Final Week

As you know if you've been visiting any children's book blogs for the past few weeks, Robert's Snow is an online auction that benefits Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Over 200 children's book illustrators have created art on individual snowflake-shaped wooden templates. The snowflakes will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to cancer research. You can view all of the 2007 snowflakes here. Jules and Eisha from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast have found a way for bloggers to help with this effort, by blogging about individual illustrators and their snowflakes. The idea is to drive traffic to the Robert's Snow site so that many snowflakes will be sold, and much money raised to fight cancer. The illustrator profiles have been wonderful so far - diverse and creative and colorful. And there are lots more to go.

Here's the schedule for Week 5, which starts Monday. As previously, this early schedule links to the participating blogs, instead of to the individual posts. You can find links to the posts themselves, and any last-minute updates, each morning at 7-Imp. Jules and Eisha have also set up a special page at 7-Imp containing a comprehensive list of links to the profiles posted so far. Also not to be missed is Kris Bordessa's post summarizing snowflake-related contests to date over at Paradise Found.

Monday, November 12

Tuesday, November 13

Wednesday, November 14

Thursday, November 15

Friday, November 16

Saturday, November 17

Sunday, November 18

Please take time out to visit all of these blogs, and read about these fabulous illustrators. And, if you're so inclined, think about bidding for a snowflake in the Robert's Snow auction. Each snowflake makes a unique gift (for yourself or for someone else), and supports an important cause.

See also the following note from Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader:

Note to Blog Readers about Blogging for a Cure: When Jules of 7-Imp put out her call in September for bloggers to interview/feature artists who had created snowflakes for Robert’s Snow 2007 at their blogs, a number of artists had not yet sent in their snowflakes to Dana-Farber. As time was of the essence to get Blogging for a Cure underway, we worked with the list of artists whose snowflakes were already in possession of Dana-Farber. Therefore, not all the participating artists will be featured. This in no way diminishes our appreciation for their contributions to this worthy cause. We hope everyone will understand that once the list of artists was emailed to bloggers and it was determined which bloggers would feature which artists at their blogs, a schedule was organized and sent out so we could get to work on Blogging for a Cure ASAP. Our aim is to raise people’s awareness about Robert’s Snow and to promote the three auctions. We hope our efforts will help to make Robert’s Snow 2007 a resounding success.

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44. Robert's Snow: Spotlighting Jane Dyer

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make contact with Jane Dyer, but I still have the opportunity to spotlight the truly wonderful snowflake she created for Robert's Snow: For Cancer's Cure entitled "Baby Snowflake". I wish I knew how to make the background of the post dark, so you could get a better view of this unique beauty. Jane Dyer's snowflake will be up for auction Nov 26th-30th.

According to Little, Brown and Company, "Jane Dyer always wanted to be a teacher...She wrote and illustrated lesson activities for teachers to accompany a new reading program being developed for Addison-Wesley. But it was Jane’s special gift for illustration that soon led to trade book work with numerous publishers."

Here are some of my favorite books she has made beautiful through her art.

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45. Let it Snow... Again!

In eight hours, I need to be on a train to New York for the NYS English Council Conference.  Am I packed?  Not quite.  But I really, really wanted to share what my students finished today.  When I signed up to participate in Blogging for a Cure to promote the Robert's Snow: For Cancer's Cure fund-raiser for the  Dana Farber Cancer Institute, I enlisted my 7th graders' help interviewing illustrators and writing features about them.  We interviewed:

I also wrote a grant so we could purchase wooden snowflakes and supplies to make our own ornaments to sell to raise money for the effort.  Look what my students did!

This is our snowflake board, where the ornaments are on sale for $5 each.  In a few weeks, we'll be sending our check to Dana Farber for cancer research, to go along with the thousands raised in the Robert's Snow Auction.

One of my students brought in origami paper and made tiny butterflies and cranes to decorate her snowflake.

I love the creative ideas they came up with.  Just like real snowflakes, no two were alike...

I'm convinced that the artist of the snowflake below is going to publish a graphic novel some day...

Another work in progress...

The kids worked hard today and were SO excited to join the ranks of artists working for a cure for cancer.  We'll post an update when we have a final amount for our donation!

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46. Robert's Snow Auction Starts Today!

After weeks of reading about the Robert's Snow auction, your chance to own original art by children's book illustrators and help raise funds for cancer research at the same time, today's the day to take action!

I have a list of about 10 snowflakes in this week's auction that I'd be pleased to buy. Can I afford to buy even one? I have no idea! It depends how high the bidding goes. What about you? Do you have any favorites? In an effort to test the waters and learn how to just this nifty poll tool, will you answer the following questions?

Have you been reading the snowflake blog features?
Some of them

Did you bid on a snowflake last year?

Do you plan to bid on a snowflake this year?

What is the most you can spend on a snowflake?
Sky's the limit (don't we all wish!)

Do you already have a snowflake (or more than one) picked out?

How did you learn about the snowflake?
A feature on someone's blog about that specific snowflake
Exploring the Robert's Snow website
Other (please leave a comment giving more detail)

Thanks for participating! Good luck on winning the snowflake of your dreams!

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47. Robert's Snow Poll Results

OK, 10 people voted yesterday (thank you, you 10, I know it was kinda slow with new pages opening), and here are the results.

Have you been reading the snowflake blog features?
Yes 6
Some of them 4

Did you bid on a snowflake last year?
No 7
Yes 1

Do you plan to bid on a snowflake this year?
Yes 9
No 0

What is the most you can spend on a snowflake?
$50-$75    3
$75-$100    2
$100-$150    4
$150-$200    2
Sky's the limit    0

Do you already have a snowflake picked out?
Yes 7
No 2

How did you learn about the snowflake?
A blog post about that snowflake 5
Other 2
Exploring the Robert's Snow website 1

Now I'm off to check on the flakes I bid on yesterday. I think I bid on 3 and was quickly outbid on all of them. Have to see if I can afford to raise my bid at all!

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48. Big Answers With A Big Bang

Frank Close, OBE, is Professor of Physics at Oxford University and a Fellow of Exeter College. He was formerly vice president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. He received the Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Medal in 1996, awarded for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of physics. He is the author of The Void, Very Short Introduction to Particle Physics, The Particle Odyssey and many more.  Also, look for Antimatter in January, Close’s newest book.

We asked Close to explain the importance of the Large Hadron Collider to us.  He kindly sent us the post below and the following analogy, comparing the journey for answers about the origin of the universe to sewing a tapestry:  “The quest is like sewing a tapestry, but one where the picture is only revealed as you do so. First you have to make a needle, then feed it with thread and then finally start sewing. It took 20 years to design and build the needle. Last Wednesday we started to put thread through the needle’s eye. It will take some time before we have enough thread, tightly enough wrapped and in sufficient colors to start sewing. That will be later this year or next spring. If we are lucky there may be some parts of the picture where the image quickly comes clear; other parts of the picture may take a lot of time and careful work before the images can be discerned.”

Keep reading to find out the answers this tapestry may hold.

Only nature knows what happened in the long-ago dawn of the Big Bang; but soon humans will too. The visions of the new world will hopefully be tomorrow’s stories. If you want a machine to show how the universe was in the moments of creation, you don’t find it in the scientific instrument catalogs: you have to build it yourself. And so scientists and engineers around the world pooled their knowledge to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Immediately there were problems. Beyond the ability of a single continent, this became a truly global endeavor; unparalleled in ambition, in political and financial challenges. At its conception, the state of the art in cryogenics, magnets, information technology, and a whole range of technologies was far short of what would be required for the LHC to work. The whole enterprise relied on the belief that bright ideas would emerge to solve problems, any one of which could have proved a show-stopper. There were many who feared that particle physics had bitten off more than it could chew; that the LHC was over-ambitious; that this would be the end of physics.

Now we are almost there. Wednesday, Sept 10 when the current was turned on, and for the first time a beam of protons circulated through the vacuum tubes colder than outer space, was just the start. The next step will be to send two beams, in opposite directions – well, that’s been done but not yet intensely enough to smash into one another and produce data. That is still for the future. At first, and for some months, they are likely to be too diffuse and low energy to produce anything of great use to science. Only later when high energy intense beams collide, and the debris from those mini-bangs pour through the gargantuan detectors, which in turn speed signals to the waiting computers, will the moment we’ve waited for have arrived. A year or two accumulating data and the first answers to the big questions will begin to emerge.

The seeds of matter were created in the aftermath of the Big Bang: quarks, which clustered together making protons and neutrons as the newborn universe cooled, and the electron, which today is found in the outer reaches of atoms. We and everything hereabouts are made of atoms. In the sun and stars intense heat rips atoms apart into their constituents, electrons, protons and neutrons.

By colliding beams of particles, such as electrons or protons, head-on, it is possible to simulate the high-energy hot conditions of the stars and the early universe. At CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research) in the 1980s a machine called LEP (Large Electron Positron collider) collided electrons and their antimatter analogues, positrons, fast enough that they mutually annihilated and created for brief moments in a region smaller than an atom, the conditions that occurred within a billionth of a second of the Big Bang. Trying to reach time zero is like finding the end of the rainbow, and the LHC will take us ten to a hundred times further than ever before. At the LHC the beams of protons will pack a bigger punch and their collisions will show how the universe was at its infancy and perhaps give us some insight to how the universe evolved.

Within a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, the material particles from which we are made, and the disparate forces that act on them, had become encoded into the fabric of the universe. However, the events that led our universe to win the lottery of life were decided earlier than this. Some of them we believe occurred in the epoch that is now within our reach. That is what the LHC promises to reveal.

As the 21st century begins, physics can explain almost all of the fundamental phenomena revealed in the search for our origins, yet there are niggling loose ends. We see hints of a unified theory vaguely in the shadows, but what it is and how the structures that led to the particles and forces that molded us are still perceived only vaguely.

Why are there three spatial dimensions; could there be more? Cosmology suggests that “normal matter” is but one percent of the whole, and that we are but flotsam on a sea of “dark matter”. What that dark sea consists of, how it was formed, why there is any matter at all rather than a hellish ferment of radiation, are unknown.

Why is there structure and solidity to matter when our theories would be happier if everything flitted around at the speed of light? Theorists believe that all structure and ultimately the solidity of matter are the result of a field of force that today permeates the universe known as the Higgs field. This can be made to reveal itself if the conditions are right. For example, as an electromagnetic field can be stimulated to send out electromagnetic waves, so can the Higgs field create waves. However to create these waves requires huge energy. The LHC has been designed to achieve these conditions. As an electromagnetic wave comes in quantum bundles, particles known as photons, so the Higgs waves will come in the form of particles known as Higgs bosons.

There is also the question: why there is anything at all? In the beginning there was nothing: “there was darkness on the face of the void”. Then came a burst of energy: “let there be light and there was light”, though from where it came no-one knows. What we do know is what happened next: this energy coagulated into matter and its mysterious opposite, antimatter, in perfect balance. Anti-matter destroys anything it touches in a pyrotechnic flash. So how did the early universe manage to survive self-annihilation between the newly born matter and antimatter? Something as yet unknown must have occurred in those first moments to upset the balance. For several years we have glimpsed a subtle asymmetry between arcane forms of matter and antimatter made from “strange” and “bottom” quarks and antiquarks. One of the goals of the LHC will be to produce large numbers of particles of bottom matter and their antimatter counterparts in the hope of finding the source of the asymmetry between matter and antimatter.

Ultimately however, this is a voyage of discovery into a world that once existed but was lost in the sands of time, 13.6 billion years ago. Like some astonishing Jurassic Park, the LHC will show once more what that epoch was like. We have ideas of what is to be found, and there are certainly questions, such as those above, whose answers we crave. But in focusing on them like this we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are at the stage of witnessing remarkable engineering, and it is those we should be applauding; as for discoveries in fundamental science – watch this space.


4 Comments on Big Answers With A Big Bang, last added: 9/29/2008
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49. The Agenda of a Biographer Counts

The DK biography series “A Photographic Story of a Life” picks very well documented subjects. In doing the research for Marie Curie, published in August, I must have brought home at least twenty biographies on her for both children and adults. My problem: What on earth can I bring to the party that that will set my book apart from all the others (aside from the compact and jazzy format set by the publisher)? The answer: me as author.

You see, I have an agenda. I want to get kids interested in science. Marie Curie’s work is intimately connected with the work of other scientists during the twenty-or-so years when chemistry and physics came together and culminated in modern atomic theory—a model of the atom that explained the behavior of gases, chemical reactions, electricity, light, changes of state of matter, radioactivity, the periodic table—in short just about every bit of data that had been accumulating over the previous 200 years in the disciplines of chemistry and physics. A bio of Marie Curie gave me the opportunity to tell a part of that story through the life of an interesting female scientist. For me, it is one fascinating tale.

I also have a bit of biography myself. I know from having been around for a while that there are themes and threads in the life of any multi-faceted human being. Telling a life story by sticking to chronology can make a reader’s eyes glaze over. But telling how a thread develops can be an interesting narrative in itself. Marie was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a patriot of Poland, an expatriot living in France, and the other woman in a sex scandal in addition to be a driven scientist. It was fun to weave in all these threads to the big ideas of the scientific revolution she was a part of. She was a woman in a man’s world and I know what that feels like from some of my experiences, such as being the only female in a pre-med Columbia College organic chemistry course or speaking at the Fermi Lab.

As a children’s book author yet another discipline is imposed on the telling of a story. I am terrified of boring the reader. Most people’s lives don’t unfold like a well-crafted drama. Yet, the demands of today’s entertainment-saturated readers means that I could lose my reader after any sentence. That awareness has been conditioned in me for many years. Above all, it is imperative for those of us who write nonfiction to write a good read.

I think it is the job of a biographer to find points of connectedness with the subject. I found many with Marie Curie as I did with my first DK bio on Harry Houdini. These people were successful and worthy of our admiration because they, too, had agendas that gave their lives purpose and meaning. My life and my biographies have both been enhanced by finding ways for their agendas to fit in with mine.

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50. Top Ten Reasons Physics is Like Sex

  1. What goes up, must come down.
  2. You never want to start anything with a headache.
  3. New discoveries are always being made.
  4. Vectors, vectors, vectors.
  5. It doesn’t hurt once you get used to it. Some people even enjoy it.
  6. One word: Friction.
  7. Size isn’t everything. Sometimes the smaller ones take longer to do.
  8. For every push there’s an equal and opposite shove.
  9. Simple harmonic motion.
  10. It’s always fun to experiment.

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