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Tag: quantum physics

Origins

I recently finished a book: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution.

I am a sucker for astrophysics. Unlike most areas of scientific inquiry, humans have almost no real capacity to touch or directly measure astronomical phenomena. For phenomena outside our galaxy, its practically inconceivable that humans will ever be able to visit them. Consequently, almost everything we know about our cosmos comes from humans being extremely curious, observant, and resourceful. To me, it’s a sign of the highest form of human technical ingenuity and scientific deduction that we can achieve.

The book Origins is a great exploration of this which, as its title suggests, goes through some of the most deep scientific questions humans can ask: how did the universe come to be? how did the stars come to be? how did the planets come into existence? how did life come into existence? can there be life “out there”?

And given the nature of the questions, who better than People Magazine’s sexiest astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to help answer them? Tyson, in addition to being an accomplished astrophysicist, is one of the public faces of science – oftentimes appearing in the media and on shows like Comedy Central’s Colbert Report and The Daily Show.

While the book falls a little bit short of “accessible to every layperson”, for anyone who has taken high school physics and has a passing interest in astronomy, this book is not only very easy to digest, it provides just enough depth that the reader can appreciate that concepts as fantastical as Dark Matter, the cosmic background radiation, and the flatness of the universe have a strong scientific basis built through a series of very reasonable, methodical, and ingenious set of experiments and observations.

As anyone with a real appreciation for science knows: science is much more about the process of discovery – the Eureka’s that oftentimes reveal deep insights about the universe — than memorizing equations. Rather than present a set of statements about astronomy, Tyson nails presenting that exploratory aspect of science. He doesn’t simply say that the Big Bang resulted in a cosmic background radiation of ~2.7K – he points out that a Ukrainian physicist hypothesized that such a radiation existed years before it was possible to measure it and even estimated it at ~5K – amazing considering it was just based on some “back of the envelope” math. Tyson points out that it wasn’t “true” astronomers and physicists who finally built a device capable of measuring the radiation, it was some researchers at Bell Labs who were trying to build a microwave-based communications system and it wasn’t until the “real” astronomers stumbled on a paper that described some bizarre “excess antenna temperature” that seemed to come from “everywhere” that they realized that Bell Labs had inadvertently discovered the best evidence we have for the Big Bang.

If that sort of scientific storytelling in an area as rich and deep as astrophysics is appealing to you, I’d recommend getting the book.

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The Miracle Year

Albert Einstein is one of history’s most formidable geniuses. What is the most astonishing is that many of his seminal, scientific-revolution inspiring work was published in ONE YEAR (1905 — a year that many now call Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, or “Miracle Year”).

And did he do this while working at a premier research institute? Working with the best and brightest minds? No. He did this while working as an inept examiner at the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland working more or less alone. In that one year, he published on:

  1. Photoelectric Effect – The only work of his own that Einstein has ever pronounced “revolutionary”, it used Max Planck’s theoretical work which had, at the time as a purely theoretical manipulation, postulated that energy can only exist at discrete points (ie. 1 and 2 and 3, but not 1.1 or 1.3) to explain an experimental phenomena (blackbody radiation) which scientists could not otherwise explain. Einstein took this work and used it to explain another problem which scientists had been baffled by and postulated the wave-particle duality of light. Interestingly, Max Planck himself wasn’t a fan of his own quantized energy assumption — which became the underpinnings of Quantum Theory — but at a meeting between the two, Einstein was finally able to convince him of its merits. This was a truly seminal work and netted Einstein his only Nobel Prize.
  2. Brownian Motion and Atomic Theory – Although the existence of atoms had been postulated by the Greeks and more formally by the grand chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists still considered the idea of the atom to be just a useful theoretical manipulation. Despite Planck’s (reluctant) use of it in his analysis of Blackbody radiation, it was Einstein who was able to finally prove the value of statistical mechanics — the idea of applying quantum theory on huge numbers of atoms to make conclusions about physical phenomena — by showing how Brownian motion, the phenomena where small objects can be seen to “dance” around under a microscope (because they are colliding with too-small-to-see atoms and molecules) could be understood through statistical mechanics. Einstein was thus able to arrive at an actual numerical figure for the Boltzmann Constant (and, as a result, Avogadro’s Number) and provide a real empirical basis for molecular/atomic theory.
  3. Special Relativity – With a single hypothesis that light had to move at a constant speed no matter your perspective, Einstein was able to provide a framework which unified classical mechanics with Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetic phenomena. Amazingly radical at the time, it was met with quite a great deal of skepticism (after all it postulated some very counter-intuitive consequences) but has been supported by so many experimental observations that it’s now generally accepted as valid today.
  4. E=mc2 – Yet another seminal paper producing what is possibly the most famous equation in all of physics, Einstein proposed the radical idea that energy and mass are interconvertible, thus explaining the basis for nuclear energy and weaponry.

History is full of many brilliant people — but to publish four revolutionary papers in ONE YEAR is incredibly awe-inspiring and indicative of just how brilliant Einstein was!

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