Category Archives: physics

Review 219: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

LL 219 - The Pleasure of Finding Things OutThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Here’s the problem with having high expectations: they’re so often dashed.

In my years trawling the web and being a science nerd, I heard a lot about Richard Feynman. There are legends about him, that he was the Puck of physics – brilliant, untamed, and really, really funny. I read another book of his, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought that this book, with a title that appealed to me and by an author-scientist whom I respected, would be as much fun.

When I got the book, I was expecting to read a lightning-quick volley of ideas that would set my mind alight with the wonder and infinite possibilities contained within a lifetime’s pursuit of science.

Yeah, that didn’t quite happen.

"Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And do you know where he put it?"

“Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And let me tell you – Feynman never found it”

Don’t get me wrong – Feynman is indisputably brilliant, and far from the classic mold of the physicist. He had no patience for titles or honors, and in fact couldn’t give a damn about them as long as he had science to do. He would tell Nobel laureates – men whose names were bywords for scientific brilliance – that they were wrong, without hedging or worrying about their egos. He liked to play the bongos, loved a good party, and delighted in playing tricks. One of his more irritating hobbies was safe-cracking, and by the time he left Los Alamos labs after the Manhattan Project there were no places left to hide secrets from Feynman.

So Feynman was no doubt a really cool guy, the kind of scientist you would want to invite to your party without hesitation. His first interest was science, and as scientist go, he was one of the best.

That doesn’t mean that reading him is always entirely entertaining.

The book is, for me, not very readable for two reasons. The first is that it goes get terribly technical at times, and while I love science, I am not educated enough in it to grasp a lot of the technical details. Indeed, it broke my heart when Feynman said that, when it comes to physics, if you don’t know the math, you don’t know the science. True, yes. Humbling, yes. But still….

Were I editing a collection of Feynman’s work, I would have started with the Big Ideas, defenses of science as an integral function of humanity’s ultimate progress. Then, having made the reader comfortable with how Feynman thought, they could have gotten into what Feynman thought.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

But no, the book starts off with highly technical lectures on quantum electrodynamics and the difficulties in getting parallel computers to work. If you don’t know a lot about how computers work, or you don’t have a detailed awareness of atomic theory, you’re going to be a little lost. Or a lot lost. Even his minority opinion on the Challenger accident, something I was especially keen to read, was far too dry to be as enjoyable as I wanted it to be.

The second reason why I didn’t really enjoy this book is because a lot of it is transcripts of speeches and interviews. Very few people are able to speak in a readable manner, and someone with a mind like Feynman’s – always moving, always active – isn’t one of them. There are a lot of asides and false starts, wandering thoughts and truncated paragraphs. Even his more structured speeches aren’t structured very well for the reader.
I think it would be different to listen to him, to sit in the audience and watch the man speak. Indeed, if you go to YouTube and look around, there are a lot of videos from interviews that he gave, and he’s great fun to watch. He had the kind of infectious energy and enthusiasm that would make it easy to gloss over structural problems and really enjoy the speech. When you listen, you easily get the passion that he has for science and for physics in particular. Turning speech into print is always dangerous, however, and here I think it fails.

The first image in a search for "Feynman Acolytes." Tell me this man couldn't have been a cult leader.

The first image in a search for “Feynman Acolytes.” Tell me this man couldn’t have been a cult leader.

For different people – people who are deeply involved in physics or who are Feynman acolytes – this book is probably a fascinating look into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to find other things to enjoy from the text, and it is there. One of those is, indeed, the title of the book – the pleasure of finding things out.

For Feynman, science wasn’t a rigor or a job, it was a joy. He attributes a lot of that attitude to his father, an unlikely fan of science. As a uniform salesman, Feynman’s father was not a scientist and had no scientific training. But he raised his son to think about the world. Rather than tell him why, for example, a bird picked at its feathers with its beak, encouraged Richard to observe the bird, to form a hypothesis and then see if observations confirmed it. His father taught him to question everything, to form his own opinions about the world, and by doing so, made him into a scientist from an early age.

It is that attitude which should be the dominant theme of this book, rather than Feynman’s technical genius. He says, over and over, to doubt everything. Ask yourself why things are the way they are, rather than just relying on what other people tell you. Observe, experiment and test, and you’re doing science.

He has some disdain for social sciences, and a pretty healthy dose of misogyny in a couple of places, but if he is arrogant, then it is probably deserved. Feynman was a man fascinated with how the universe worked, all the way down to its smallest components, and that was his passion. Not awards, not titles, not praise – just the work, the discovery and the pleasure.

————————————————
“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
– Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
————————————————

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under essays, memoir, physics, Richard Feynman, science

Review 218: Why does E=MC2?

LL 218 - Why Does EMC2Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Way back in the mists of ancient time, when I was a college drama student, we all went down to New York City to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I don’t remember much of it now, but I remember it had to do with math and fractals, time and space, and that when the play was over and we all went outside for a smoke, I had a moment of what could only be called sublime clarity. I stood out there with my cigarette, staring off into the middle distance, and – for just an ever-so-brief time – I understood everything.

Not the play, mind you. Everything. It all made sense. It was nothing I could have put into words or explained in any period of time shorter than a lifetime, but it all worked. It all fit together, and I knew what the universe was and what my place in it was. It’s probably how Fenchurch felt in The Hitchhiker’s Guide right before the Earth was demolished.

It... it all makes sense now.

It… it all makes sense now.

And that feeling was wonderful.

It passed, though, because no one can be allowed to hold on to that kind of clarity of understanding. We’d never get anything done. By the time I got on the bus, I was trying to claw my way back to it, understanding but not caring that this was a place you couldn’t find the same way twice. The fine, crystalline perfection of the universe had once again been hidden from my mind, and all that was left was the memory of what it had felt like to know that everything was as it should be.

Reading this book was kind of the opposite of that experience. On every page, I knew that if I would be able to hold on to these ideas just a moment longer, if I could just put the pieces together a little faster, then I would have true understanding of the elegant beauty of creation. But I couldn’t, and I was left with the feeling that it was my own shortcomings that were at fault, rather than those of the authors.

Cox and Forshaw have set a very interesting challenge for themselves in this book. They want to explain one of the most famous equations in human history, and to do it in such a way that the non-scientist reader can understand not only what it means, but where it came from and what its implications are. This is no mean feat, of course, on any front. For all its simplicity, E=mc2 contains within it some of the most important and fundamental understandings about how the universe works. To truly understand this equation is to understand time and space, matter and energy, existence in four dimensions and at scales both vast and tiny.

They begin with what looks like a very simple question: where are we? Galileo pondered this question for a while, and came up with an answer that was probably both enlightening and horrifying for his time.

We don’t know.

Very helpful, thank you.

Very helpful, thank you.

Oh sure, we can know where we are in relation to something else – between a pair of arbitrarily numbered latitude and longitude lines, for example, or at a position around the star that we orbit. But a moment’s thought reveals that we still need to explain where the reference point is, and that we can only explain that in relation to something else, which can only be positioned by yet another relative measurement. In other words, there is no such things as an absolute location in space. There is no universal “there” there by which we can understand the position of anything.

Man, that must’ve freaked him out.

The next insight is that if there is no absolute place, then there also cannot be any absolute motion. As I type this, I am sitting in my comfy chair. As far as I’m concerned, I’m motionless. But I’m not. To an alien on the moon, I’m moving with the Earth’s rotation, whipping past at a breakneck pace of about 1,600 kilometers per hour. On top of that, the Earth is moving around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. which is in turn dragging the whole solar system around the center of the galaxy at roughly 220 kilometers per second, and the galaxy itself is moving through intergalactic space at over 600 km/s, and space itself is expanding at what can only be Ludicrous Speed.

So questions that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really hard to answer. But what comes next is even worse: if there is no absolute place or motion, then what about time? How can we have an immutable, fixed time if there is no such thing as an immutable, fixed place?

Look, I don't know how to make it any simpler than this.

Look, I don’t know how to make it any simpler than this.

Cox and Forshaw proceed to lead us by the hand through the discoveries and realizations of scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell, with a little bit of Pythagoras and Galileo, before bringing us to Einstein and beyond. Through the use of lightspeed trains, mirror-clocks, and a whole variety of illustrative analogies, they take us step-by-step through the process of moving from our understanding of three-dimensional semi-Euclidean space to a four-dimensional spacetime. They guide us through physics and geometry, on scales both large and small, and show not just what E=mc2 means, but how Einstein got to it, and how we’ve proven it so far.

In that sense, this book is a great success. The popular vision of Einstein is that he came up with Relativity because he was bored at work, and that it popped into his head fully formed. But without the work of countless scientists before him, Einstein wouldn’t have had a place to start. E=mc2 is built on the foundations of meticulous science, and is supported by a logical structure that is both elegant and simple. What’s more, his theories of relativity have been tested again and again in all kinds of ways, and they have stood up to those tests. And not for lack of trying, mind you – there isn’t a physicist alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to prove Einstein wrong and propose a more accurate version of reality. But so far, it seems to be the best explanation there is.

For all their care and meticulousness, however, the book is still a bit tough to get through. One of the things that got in my way was how they constantly apologized for using math. I understand why they did it – a lot of adults have a hate-fear relationship with math, and especially equations that start using letters. Math still has an element of mystery and wizardry about it, at least if you’re not very proficient in it, and I get that they didn’t want to scare off any math-phobics from their book.

Wau!

Wau!

But at the same time, I think I would rather they had said, “Okay, follow along with us – it’s about to get MATHTASTIC!” Well, maybe not those words, but I started to get a little tired of being talked to like a timid child as the book went on. They said over and over that I could skip the math parts if I wanted to, and sure enough that’s what I ended up doing. But I think I would have come out of this book with a much better sense of understanding and accomplishment if Cox and Forshaw had said, “We’re going to do math and you’re going to understand it.” As it is, they talked to me like I was a slightly dim child, and I still didn’t fully understand. So what, then, does that say about me?

That I seriously overthink things, for a start.

In any case, even if I didn’t get the math, and didn’t see where all their conclusions came from – especially when they started going over the Master Equation of particle physics near the end – I at least came away with a better understanding of both the chain of reasoning that led to E=mc2 and the ramifications it has on our understanding of the universe. I don’t understand everything this time, at least not yet, but I know more. And that will have to do.

—————————–
“Science at its best is driven by inquiring minds afforded the freedom to dream, coupled with the technical ability and discipline to think.”
– Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=mc2?

Leave a comment

Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, mathematics, physics, science

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

——————
“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
——————

Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel