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On Not Finishing Kaku’s “Physics of the Impossible”

Posted by jns on March 7, 2012

I read a lot of popular-science books. You know I do this partly to support the Science Booknotes and Science Book Challenge projects at Scienticity. I often remark to myself how thoroughly I enjoyed a book that I chose arbitrarily at my library, maybe because the title appealed to me or the book spine was the right color for me that evening. The implication for me, I’m happy to say, is that there is a great deal of really very good writing about science for the non-specialist. It’s satisfying to review these books and let other potential readers know about the great ideas they discuss.

Sometimes, of course, I select a book that turns out not to suit my taste for some reason. Generally speaking I prefer not to review a book I didn’t care for because I don’t see the point of a negative review about a book whose subject matter didn’t really appeal to me or whose author wrote in a style that I found unsympathetic. After all, many others might find the book worthwhile or tune in to that author’s particular style, and I’d much rather have a review in our booknotes collection setting out positive reason why a potential reader might choose to read a particular title.

Then there is the small but difficult category of books that I never finish reading because, for some reason or another, I find them too overwhelmingly irritating. For instance, I never finished reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox (my booknote) because his writing was so bad, and so badly edited, that I conjectured that it had been written by pod people who had taken over his body. Happily, these are rare events, but sometimes it seems important to write about them.

What to do, then, when I find an author known for his (or her) enthusiastic and entertaining advocacy and popularizing for science whose writing exhibits a notable disregard for precision about scientific facts and, furthermore, who seems to have a superficial or incorrect understanding of parts of his or her subject matter?

When I read a book that I plan to write about, I keep a folded sheet of paper inside the back cover where I make notes of interesting ideas, things to mention, and possible quotations for use in a review. I also make a note of trouble spots in the text: unclear or badly written explanations, confusion over facts of science, and such things. When I have filled the pages with errors the author has made and I’m only on page 30 of the book, I know I have trouble on my hands, and a quandary. I can easily stop reading the book, but I have to decide whether to write about it or not. Is there a useful point — beyond venting my spleen — to writing about bad science writing?

I have such a case on hand with Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible*, in which the (apprently) well-known science popularizer talks about the physics and possibility of such science-fiction staples as invisibility cloaks, force fields, time travel, and such topics. It’s a very appealing idea, I thought, but I had to stop reading; there were simply too many errors–some serious errors–of science to continue, all before I reached page 30, less than one-tenth of my way through the book.

Let’s begin by going through some of the problems that I had in these early pages.

1. Conflating Historic Events

“Growing up, I remember my teacher one day walking up to the map of the Earth on the wall and pointing out the coastlines of South America and Africa. Wasn’t it an odd coincidence, she said, that the two coastlines fit together, almost like a jigsaw puzzle? Some scientists, she said, speculated that perhaps they were once part of the same, vast continent. But that was silly. [...] Later that year we studied the dinosaurs. Wasn’t it strange, our teacher told us, that the dinosaurs dominated the Earth for millions of years, and then one day they all vanished? No one knew why they had all died off. Some paleontologists thought that maybe a meteor from space had killed them, but that was impossible; more in the realm of science fiction [pp. xi--xii]

The idea that the continents might once have fitted together is a very old one, evident to most anyone who ever looked at a world map. These days we have at hand the well-established theory of plate techtonics to explain how it all could have happened, and certainly did happen. In the earlier twentieth century geologists and others began thinking more seriously about the idea of continents moving, but it was experimental results in the late 1950s and early 1960s that finally overthrew “conventional wisdom” that the continents couldn’t just move around. Plate techtonics was well established as scientific orthodoxy by 1965.

The Alvarez Theory, the idea that the extinction of the dinosaurs was brought about by the impact with Earth of a large body from space, was first proposed by Luis and his son Walter Alvarez following on Walter’s discovery of a thin sedimentary layer of iridium that dated closely to the time when dinosaurs disappeared. That theory did not appear until 1980. For many years afterwards the idea that an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs was widely thought preposterous; before that time it hadn’t even been thought of. By now, of course, it’s widely familiar to the general public.

I hope you see my difficulty by now. The author writes that his teacher taught him that 1) some scientists speculated that continents drifted, an assertion that only makes sense prior to 1965, when Plate Techtonics was established; and 2) that some scientists though maybe an asteroid had killed the dinosaurs, an idea that no one had thought of until 1980. He writes that his teacher taught him these things in the same year, even though the closest in actual time that they may have come to each other is 15 years. In other words, this makes a good story but it’s highly unlikely that these two events took place in the same year.

2. Confusing Words and Ideas

This problem is more subtle. In the first chapter Kaku has a section on “force fields”, a common technology of science-fiction worlds for decades. Kaku unfortunately takes the words too literally and conflates the notion of a science-fiction “force field” with some combination of the ideas of “forces” and “fields” as they are used in physics, and so he spends some time talking about the four fundamental forces of the universe (gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force) and discusses to some extent how each of these is formulated mathematically as “field theories”. But one does not get “force fields” by simply combining these two concepts. He confuses the reader over these pairs of words used differently in two different realms, and then leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that “force fields” might become reality just as soon as physics catches up and discovers a new field theory for a “fifth force”. None of this has anything useful to do with the concept of a “force field” as it’s deployed by science-fiction authors.

3. Casual Writing Leads to Mistaken Readings

In another space I’ll write about what I think should be the prime directive of any writer about science : First, Do Not Mislead. Writing about science for a popular audience is an awesome responsibility; scientifically literate readers can fend for themselves, but if the author has in mind an audience of nonspecialists, it is vital that the author take the utmost care with describing and explaining facts from science, because the nonspecialist reader can easily invent his or her own mistaken notion of how nature works when presented with sloppy, incomplete, or imprecise exposition. I expect popular science writers to

  1. Get it right, and
  2. Say it clearly.

Here are just some examples of statements that I felt violated the Prime Directive in Kaku’s writing. First, from the section on “Magnetic Levitation”:

“One common property of superconductivity is called the Meissner effect.” [p. 14]

When a superconductor in a magnetic field is cooled from its normal (non-superconducting) phrase to its superconducting phrase, it “expels” the external magnetic field from it’s interior, which is to say that it creates on its surface electrical currents that themselves create a magnetic field that just cancels the externally imposed field within the superconductor. This is known as the “Meissner Effect”, named for Walther Meissner. This is a defining characteristic of superconductors, a property necessarily exhibited by every superconductor. I find it odd to refer to it as a “common property of superconductivity”, as though it’s an incidental property seen in only some, perhaps many, superconductors, but suggesting that it is not a universal property.

In a section on “Invisibility”, discussing the possibility of an “invisibility cloak”:

“But today the impossible may become possible. New advances in “metamaterials” are forcing a major revision of optics textbooks. [p. 17]

Actually, the manufactured metamaterials that Kaku refers to, surprising and ingenious as they are, behave according to well-understood principles, requiring no “revision”, just an increase in understanding how to manufacture materials with desirable optical properties. This is misleading and a type of sensationalism that doesn’t serve the cause of increasing science literacy.

Later in the section on “Invisibility”, Kaku turns to a discussion of electromagnetic fields, namely, James Maxwell’s great advance in physical theory in the 19th century:

“(…If he [Maxwell] had lived longer, he might have discovered that his equations allowed for distortions of space-time that would lead directly to Einstein’s relativity theory. [p. 19]

Now, here is a frequent problem with those who write about science. There are, in fact, two distinct theories of Einstein commonly referred to as “relativity” : the theory of “Special Relativity”, from 1905, and the theory of “General Relativity”, from 1916. Special relativity is a theory of electrodynamics, basically a theory of light, which also introduced the idea of four-dimensional “space-time” and that most famous of equations, E=mc^2. General relativity is a theory of gravitation, a geometrical theory that treats gravity as deformations in space-time.

Usually the context makes clear which “relativity” the author meant. But here our only guide is that Kaku speaks of “distortions of space-time”. In special relativity travel at high velocities bring about time dilations and length contractions (“Lorentz Transformations”), i.e., distortions of space-time. In general relativity, gravitational effects are produced by the distortions of space-time caused by mass.

Carelessness here has caused a confusion that can’t be untangled and therefore does nothing to enlighten the nonspecialist reader who may not distinguish the two “relativity” theories so easily to begin with.

4. Errors of Physical Fact

These were the most troubling errors that confronted me in reading the first sections of Kaku’s book. Troubling because it betrays the trust between the nonspecialist reader and the authoritative voice of the author to make statement of physical fact, or to give descriptions of physical systems, that are imprecise or simply incorrect. I find it even more troubling when the author is a physicist who should be expected to get it right.

Back to the pages of discussion about Maxwell’s Theory of Electrodynamics, the author writes:

Maxwell began with Faraday’s discovery that electric fields could turn into magnetic fields and vice versa. He took Faraday’s depictions of force fields and rewrote them in the precise language of differential equations, producing one of the most important series of equations in modern science. They are a series of eight fierce-looking differential equations. Every physicist and engineer in the world has to sweat over them when mastering electromagnetism in graduate school [p. 18].

While it is certainly true that every physicist and engineer had to sweat over the equations in graduate school–probably even using the same, nearly universally taught textbook–the italicized phrase (my italics) would raise any student’s eyebrows. Whether the equations are “fierce-looking” or not is a matter of taste (I think they’re rather elegantly simple myself), there are in fact only four equations, two for the electric field and two for the magnetic field.

I nearly dropped the book when I read this — I couldn’t imagine how any physicist could have come to refer to “eight” equations. Now, while it’s true that the electric and magnetic fields are written in modified form when they occur in materials, rather than vacuum, the equations stay the same. That there are two each for the electric and magnetic fields is fundamentally characteristic of the entire field theory.

Slightly further on, Kaku offers this analysis of the property of optical transparency in materials:

Maxwell’s theory of light and the atomic theory give simple explanations for optics and invisibility. In a solid, the atoms are tightly packed, while in a liquid or gas the molecules are spaced much farther apart. Most solids are opaque because light rays cannot pass through the dense matrix of atoms in a solid, which act like a brick wall. Many liquids and gases, by contrast, are transparent because light can pass more readily between the large spaces between their atoms, a space that is larger than the wavelength of visible light. For example, water, alcohol, ammonia, acetone, hydrogen peroxide, gasoline, and so forth are all transparent, as are gases such as oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and so on.

There are some important exceptions to this rule. Many crystals are both solid and transparent. But the atoms of a crystal are arranged in a precise lattice structure, stacked in regular rows, with regular spacing between them. Hence there are many pathways that a light beam may take through a crystalline lattice. Therefore, although a crystal is as tightly packed as any solid, light can still work its way through the crystal.
Under certain circumstances, a solid object may become transparent if the atoms are arranged randomly [as in a glass]. [pp. 25--26]

It’s at this point that I threw up my metaphorical hands in despair and stopped reading the book. This “explanation” of transparency is so totally wrong I hardly know where to begin.

Light, namely, propagating electromagnetic waves, only interact with matter via the electromagnetic field (with a notable exception in General Relativity that doesn’t impinge on this discussion); in other words, light waves are sensitive to electrical charges, electrical currents, and magnetic fields. They sense the electrical charge of the electron “cloud” around an atomic nucleus; they might sense the positive charge of protons in a nucleus if they can get close enough for it to have an effect. Electromagnetic waves–light waves or photons, pick your favorite representation–do not interact with the mass of matter itself. Whether atoms are heavy or not heavy makes no difference, the light doesn’t sense the mass. Hold that thought.

Now, while it is true that the atoms in a liquid or solid are much closer together than they are in a gas, the atoms are still so physically small and so distantly separated relative to their physical sizes–not to mention that the components of an atom are vastly tinier than the “size” of the atom itself–that most of matter, whether solid, liquid, or gas, is still empty space. Even in a crystal or a glass this is true. Physically, the mass of atoms occupies exceedingly little of the space of the object they make up. By “exceedingly little” I mean this: the volume of the atomic nucleus is only about 1/1,000,000,000,000th the approximate volume of the atom itself.

I hope it’s becoming clear by this point that how close the atoms are together has relatively little bearing on how much “space” in matter is taken up by substantial parts of the atoms. The simple deduction, then, is that material objects are not more transparent or less transparent because the atoms are closer or further apart such that they “block” the light. The light does not run into the atoms and get blocked by their physical size. They are in no sense like a “brick wall” in any way that I can imagine makes sense.

The transparency of any given substance is determined by the not-so-simple interaction between light waves of particular frequencies (or “colors”) and the electric fields (predominantly) created in the substance by the particular configuration of its atoms. Gases do tend to be relatively transparent because the wide separation of their atoms creates a weakly interacting electric field. Nevertheless, some gasses do have colors because their atoms absorb certain wavelengths of light preferentially, through light waves being absorbed and/or emitted by the atomic electrons. Crystals have complicated and varied optical properties — transparency, opacity, colors in gemstones, birefringence, polarization rotations, etc. — depending sensitively on the periodically varying electric field inside the crystal that is produced by the regular (crystalline) placement of the atoms; but do keep your mind on the electric field inside the crystal, not the atoms “blocking” the light. There are also materials that are mostly opaque to visible light but that can be transparent in wavelengths of light that our eyes do not detect. The optical properties of materials is a rich field with lots of interesting effects and phenomena; get a taste for it, if you like, by looking up “transparency” in Wikipedia.

Looking up “transparency” is apparently something that author Kaku didn’t bother to do when he should have. His explanation of the phenomenon I find so confused and misleading that I feel his writing does a serious disservice to the nonspecialist who reads his book hoping for understanding from a scientist who knows what he’s talking about. This is why I stopped reading the book at this point, and why I have chosen to write about it.

One or two of the objections I noted earlier on amount to very little. I frequently find one or two little errors in any book I read, but it’s usually just something to note with some amusement and then move on; rarely does a misstatement or error like that cause me serious concern, and I rarely comment on them in my review of a book. A whole string of them, page after page, however, convinces me that the author is a sloppy writer or has a very superficial knowledge of the subject at hand. When the writer is a working scientist writing about science, I am totally confounded. As for these bigger errors I’ve just discussed — they are inexplicable. It is the author’s responsibility to realize the limits of his or her knowledge or understanding and find ways to avoid or correct problems in his or her writing.

These are the reasons why I simply cannot recommend this book to a general reader. That the book seems to have reached some level of popularity disturbs me : such poorly conceived and executed writing about science undermines the efforts of the many excellent writers about science — scientists, historians, journalists, and others — writing with more care and accuracy about their subject.
* Michio Kaku, Physics of the impossible : a scientific exploration into the world of phasers, force fields, teleportation, and time travel. New York : Doubleday, 2008. xxi + 329 pages.


Selecting a Popular-Science Book to Read

Posted by jns on January 6, 2011

Recently I was contemplating answers to potential questions prior to a brief interview (I’ll give a link if it shows up someplace linkable) I gave about our Science Book Challenge. One question that came to mind, one for which we try to provide one answer with our collection of science-book notes, is “How do I choose a popular-science book that I might like to read?”

It’s an important question. I want to encourage people to read about science, but I really want to encourage people to read something that they will enjoy, something that will speak to them and leave them feeling refreshed with new ideas. What value is there is reading something that just doesn’t speak to you? It may fulfill some false notion of virtue but it’s not going to open anyone’s mind to the idea that science is something that can speak to them with pleasure and profitable learning.

Here’s a simple algorithm I came up with that I truly believe will work well for most people. In addition to helping a reader locate a potential rewarding book, it has the virtue of introducing the reader to a librarian — librarians are great people to get to know! — and of encouraging the use of one’s local library, a valuable resource perennially in danger of withering from community neglect.

  1. Go to your library.
  2. Ask a librarian to show you where the science, or math, or engineering books are.
  3. Look along the shelves for a book with a title that interests you, or one with a funny author’s name, or one with an interesting picture on the cover or an attractive color on the spine. This isn’t as random as it sounds–you’re pulling out a book that already has something appealing to you.
  4. Open the book to some page near the middle and read a few paragraphs to see whether the way the author writes is agreeable to you. It doesn’t matter at this point whether you understand any of the ideas the author might be writing about. Rather, it’s to get an idea whether you can stand to listen to this author talking to you for the next 200 pages.
  5. Check out the book and start reading it. If it doesn’t engage you — for any reason whatsoever! — stop reading it, take it back, and try another one.

The basic ideas here are to start anywhere but start now, and not to let the books intimidate you–you get to judge the books, the books don’t get to judge you.


Special Relativity: A First Reading List

Posted by jns on February 3, 2010

A long-time friend of mine, quite inadvertently and perhaps to his lasting regret, brought up the subject of special relativity : we briefly touched on the idea central to special relativity that the speed of light (in vacuum) is constant (as measured) in every inertial reference frame.*

At first hearing it’s a rather unsettling idea, and of course one wonders how one could possibly make a physical theory around such an idea and have it come out in any meaningful way. Well, one can if one is Einstein, and there are unexpected and startling consequences that flow logically from that simple idea about the speed of light.

The next step in our conversation–not surprising since I was party to the discussion–was “what book should one read to learn these things about special relativity?”

Well, that turned out a bit of a poser. I was certain that we should have something appropriate in our Scienticity Book Notes collection, but there was nothing. Nothing at all!

Well, that was a deficiency that needed some attention. So, we need to have some books read about special relativity and some notes written. Therefore, I’ve put together a tentative wish list of titles that look promising.

I say “promising”–there are no guarantees. Everyone who writes a book on a subject has unique ideas about what should be discussed and how to go about it, and I’ll admit that not all of those ideas align with my ideas about what should be in the book.

I’d like a book about light — not about vision, or color, or art, or optics, but light itself, what it is, how we think about it now, how we used to think about it, how unusual is its place in the physical universe, and then about how the idea of the constancy of the speed of light (in vacuum, in inertial frames, etc.) lies at the heart of special relativity (which is a theory of “electrodynamics”, i.e., a theory of moving charged particles and interactions with electromagnetic fields, i.e.2, essentially a theory of light).

I don’t think the readers I have in mind are much interested in deriving mathematical consequences and such, so there needn’t be a go at developing, say, the Lorentz-contraction equations, but the concepts and ideas must be explored for the average reader in a nonpatronizing way.

It may be too tall an order. I’d just as soon not write the book myself at this time, although it would make a fabulous subject if it’s not been written. (Please let me know if you personally know of such a book.)

And so, the following reading list, the result of a rather cursory look at some sources to try to uncover some candidate titles.

  • Brian Cox, Why Does E=mc2?: And Why Should We Care? (Powell’s synopsis). I’m not so interested in the “deeper” meaning of that famous equation — it’s really far from the most important idea of special relativity despite it’s explosive significance — but the synopsis suggested that Cox might explore the ideas in a useful way.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, & Space-Time (Powell’s synopsis). I know, even Feynman’s “Easy Pieces” are far from easy, but if one is in the mood to read slowly and savor, there’s a high density of delight in Feynman’s expositions, and I’d like to know just how hard these seem to normal people.
  • Alan Lightman, Great Ideas in Physics (Powell’s synopsis). This book isn’t exclusively about light or relativity, but the few other books I’ve read by Lightman were very nicely written and he impressed me with with profound understanding of the ideas he talks about, so it made this list with high hopes.
  • N. David Mermin, It’s about Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity (Powell’s synopsis). I knew Mermin’s name during my years as a working physicist from his writing, which I regarded highly. This apparently is his attempt to do just what I would like to see done, so I’m keenly interested in the result.
  • Nigel Calder, Einstein’s Universe : a Guide To the Theory of Relativity (79 Edition) (Powell’s synopsis). When I was a young pre-scientist, Calder had quite a reputation as a popularizer, but I’ve never read any of his writing so I can’t comment. Maybe this is the jewel we seek?

If you know about these, or have other titles to suggest, please chime in.

If you’d like to read and write about some of them as part of your Science-Book Challenge (What, not already signed up? Tsk. Use that link and do it now!), that would be fabulous and will help other people when the question comes up again, as it most certainly will.

*You can take this to mean any frame of reference, i.e., viewpoint, that is moving at a constant velocity, i.e, not accelerated; accelerated frames of reference are the subject of general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravitation). If you’d like to know more about this idea of reference frames, I can recommend the now vintage but very fine film “Frames of Reference”, which you will find as the second video offering in this blog posting of mine.


On Reading Potter’s You Are Here

Posted by jns on May 29, 2009

Another book I read and enjoyed recently was by Christopher Potter: You Are Here : A Portable History of the Universe (New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009; 194 pages). Here is my book note.

Potter said he wanted to write the book he wanted to read but no one had ever written. Great idea! His saying that made me think that it was not a book I would have (or could have) written, but that’s a good thing. The book is appealing and the ideas presented very thoughtfully, so I think it could certainly reach an audience that other books don’t speak to. How to tell? I don’t know whether there’s any alternative to reading some of it to see whether it works for you.

Anyway, there were, as usual, a couple of left-over excerpts. This first one is a very telling point that doesn’t much get discussed.

Einstein’s famous theory, the one known as the special theory of relativity, first appeared in 1905 in a paper entitled ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’. It was the German physicist Max Planck (1858—1947) who renamed the theory, though Einstein thought the word relativity was misleading and would have preferred the word invariance instead, a word that has the opposite meaning. [p. 87]

I don’t know that I would exactly say it has the “opposite meaning”, and even if it does have an opposite meaning, it doesn’t refer to the same concept that “relativity” does. However, calling it “invariant” would have been a good, if inscrutable, idea.

“Invariant” means just what it sounds like it means in physics as well as English, something unchanging. But it is used in physics and math to refer to things that don’t change specifically when other things are changed, or transformed.

Special relativity provides one of the best examples of something that it physically invariant, too: the speed of light. If all the laws of physics were to “look the same” in various inertial reference frames (see the film “Inertial Reference Frames“), or under transformation to different inertial reference frames, then the speed of light must be the same, or invariant, in all of those frames. The invariance of the speed of light is the central concept of Einstein’s 1905 theory “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. “Electrodynamics” because that is the “classical” theory of moving charged particles, which, as we saw in the most recent “Beard of the Week“, is identical with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic radiation / light.

This next excerpt I thought was a fair and concise summary of Bishop James Ussher’s contribution to the idea stream about the age of the Earth, and as the darling of young-Earth creationists.

In his Annals of the Old Testament, published in 1650, the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (1581—1656), had worked out a chronology of Creation. In a supplement to this work published in 1654 he calculated that Creation had occurred on the evening before Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, a date that does not differ much from the attempts of others, from at least the time of the Venerable Bede (c.672—735), to set a date for Creation. Ussher is today often taken for a fool, but he was a greatly respected scholar of his time, known throughout Europe. According to some biblical scholars, the reign of man was meant to last no more than 6,000 years, taking as evidence a line from the Book of Peter: ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’ (2 Peter 3:8). Creation, which began around the year 4000 BC, was set to end 6,000 years later. today, we believe that in 4000 BC the wheel was being discovered in Mesopotamia. Ussher’s date was inserted into the margins of editions of the King James Bible from 1701. It is to this version of the bible that fundamentalists have their curious relationship. [p. 212]


On Reading The Age of Entanglement

Posted by jns on May 21, 2009

Reading proceeds apace, but writing about the books seems to happen in big clumps. For instance, my book note on Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics was Reborn (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. xvi + 443 pages). Perhaps if I wrote less I could write sooner.

Oddly, I didn’t realize how much I had enjoyed the book until I wrote about. I found it quite engaging and, despite the author’s defensiveness about writing narrative nonfiction (and her queasiness cause me a bit of queasiness at first), I thought it was not only engaging but high in scienticity. She’s done a very careful and thorough job with keeping her science precise, and I thought she showed quite a depth of understanding in what is described as her first book.

From my collection of quotations noted but unused in the book note, this one about the distinction between a theoretical physicist and an experimental physicist. It’s pretty much true, but a bit of reflection makes it unsurprising.

“How do you tell an experimental physicist from a theorist?” asks [experimental physicist John] Clauser more than thirty years later, in his northern California desert home encrusted with sailing trophies and plaques. Running his finger along the thick spines of schoolbooks, he beings to answer his question: “A ”theorist” will have: lots of textbooks (the experimentalist will have some engineering ones, too).” He taps these with his finger. “Lots and lots of ”Phys. Rev. Letters.”” In fact, a bookshelf taking up a whole wall is crowded with the pale green journals. “Biographies of the great, and books written by them.” Clauser gestures through the door of his wood-paneled office. “But the ”experimentalist” will have”—he turns: here, in the hallway beside the kitchen door, is another floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, packed with rows and rows of narrow, shiny softcover book spines in garish fluorescent colors—””catalogues.”” He grins. “Anything I need to make, if I don’t have the pieces already, I look for it here. I can make anything.” [pp. 260—261]


On Reading Sun in a Bottle

Posted by jns on March 23, 2009

Rather recently I enjoyed reading Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle : The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking (New York : Viking, 2008; 294 pages). The subtitle is indicative, although I’m not sure just how strange the history of fusion is.

Of course, what he means by “the history of fusion” is not so much the discovery of nuclear fusion, nor really much about its exploitation to build “H-bombs”. Although these topics appear in early chapters to set the fusion stage, the book is mostly devoted to what happened subsequently on the quest for the practical fusion reactor that would fulfill the dream of “unlimited power”.

Well, the quest still goes on and commercial fusion reactors have been just “20 years away” for at least the last 5 decades. All of the “hot fusion” projects are here: “pinch reactors”, magnetic bottles, Tokamaks, and “inertial-confinement” fusion (the name for those giant, multi-laser devices Lawrence-Livermore labs build to zap deuterium pellets), as well as the “cold fusion” wannabes, including Pons and Fleischmann and the later “bubble fusion”, both of which, in the author’s words, have since been “swept to the fringes of science”.

Anyway, my book note is here, but I thought I’d share this one short excerpt that dramatizes why “people of faith” should never be allowed to set policy: anything they really want to “believe” they end up thinking came from their god. By the way, Lewis Strauss was also the guy who was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s principle antagonist during the struggle to take away Oppie’s clearance as some sort of “punishment” for being too liberal.

The paranoid, anti-Communist Edward Teller was the man who most desperately tried to bring us to the promised land. He and his allies lobbied for more and more money to figure out how to harness the immense power of fusion. Lewis Strauss, the AEC chairman and Teller backer, promised the world a future where the energy of the atom would power cities, cure diseases, and grow foods. Nuclear power would reshape the planet. God willed it. the Almighty had decided that humans should unlock the power of the atom , and He would keep us from self-annihilation. “A Higher Intelligence decided that man was ready to receive it,” Strauss wrote in 1955. “My faith tells me that the Creator did not intend man to evolve through the ages to this stage of civilization only now to devise something that would destroy life on this earth. ” [pp. 59—60]


Science-Book Grab-Bag

Posted by jns on March 22, 2009

I’ve been reading lots of good books this year, several that I can count for my own commitment to the Science-Book Challenge, but I am only now catching up on writing about them. Tonight I wanted to mention a trio of top-notch books from three different domains: cosmology, probability & statistics, and history of science (sort of) / chemistry.

1. John Gribbin, The Birth of Time : How Astronomers Measured the Age of the Universe. The subtitle is exactly the theme of the book, and Gribbin answers the question with a very appealing, very satisfying amount of history and scienticity. I marveled at his writing: he made clear, precise writing seem effortless. (My book note.)

2. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk : How Randomness Rules our Lives. Here was an excellent combination of clear and precise exposition of the central ideas of probability and statistics integrated with fascinating examples of those concepts injecting randomness into everyday life. Again, I found the writing very engaging and apparently effortless. (My book note.)

3. Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air : A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Again, the subtitle is truth in advertising. The book was sort of an intellectual biography of Joseph Priestly, who got tangled up in the early days of chemistry research and civil unrest and the American Revolution. Mostly successful but still very engaging and satisfying to read. (My book note.)

From Johnson’s Invention of Air, I did set aside a few extra excerpts I wanted to share. Here they are.

This first excerpt sets the tone for the book–and the attitude of the author–but the anecdote is revealing and horrifying to me. Happily, we know that America turned from following this dangerous path that encouraged anti-intellectualism and anti-scientism. I’m sure some would think this just some liberal hyperbole; I don’t.

A few days before I started writing this book, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was asked on national television whether he believed in the theory of evolution. He shrugged off the question with a dismissive jab of humor: “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president,” he said. “I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.”

It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, the speaker had to share one basic assumption with his audience: that “science” was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn’t know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing a textbook on international affairs. The joke wouldn’t make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the chief executive. But science? That’s for the guys in lab coats.

That line has stayed with me since, because the web of events at the center of this book suggests that its basic assumptions are fundamentally flawed. If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science. The protagonists of this story lived in a climate where ideas flowed easily between the realms of politics, philosophy, religion, and science. The closest thing to a hero in this book—the chemist, theologian, and political theorist Joseph Priestley—spent his whole career in the space that connects those different fields. But the other figures central to this story—Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—suggest one additional reading of the “eighth-grade science” remark. It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American. [p. xiii—xiv]

But there is a lighter side to enjoy here, at least for some of us who can see the humor. I don’t think I have heard any fundamentalists recently who advocated taking lightning rods off churches because they interfere with god’s will. It always strikes me as odd how some science can apparently be perfectly consonant with such an absolutist belief system.

The most transformative gadget to come out of the electricians’ cabinet of wonders was the lightning rod, also a concoction of Franklin’s. [...] Humans had long recognized that lightning had a propensity for striking the tallest landmarks in its vicinity, and so the exaggerated height of church steeples—not to mention their flammable wooden construction—presented a puzzling but undeniable reality: the Almighty seemed to have a perverse appetite for burning down the buildings erected in His honor. [pp. 22—23]

Finally, here is the author quoting Thomas Jefferson writing to Joseph Priestley, after Priestly’s house, scientific instruments, and laboratory notes had all been destroyed by a reactionary mob under the flag of “Church and King”. I think the ironic parallels with our own recent unpleasantness under the previous administration couldn’t be clearer, but the lessons of the Founding Fathers keep getting willfully distorted.

What an effort my dear Sir of bigotry, in politics and religion, have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring in one of his answers to addresses that we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science. This was the real ground of all that attacks you. [pp. 197—198]


On Reading The Little Ice Age

Posted by jns on March 11, 2009

Earlier this year I read the book Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age : How Climate Made History 1300 – 1850, by Brian Fagan (New York : Basic Books, 2000; 246 pages). He takes a close look at the relatively cool period between the “Medieval Warm Period” and the current warming period, and considers in careful but fascinating detail the ways that global climate change affected European society and culture. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think he did an excellent job assembling all of his facts and dates and locations and keeping them well sorted out and in line with his thesis. I gave it high marks in my book note.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt that interested me. This was one of his many entertaining and enlightening asides, this one a nicely done short history of sunspots.

Sunspots are familiar phenomena. Today, the regular cycle of solar activity waxes and wanes about every eleven. years. No one has yet fully explained the intricate processes that fashion sunspot cycles, nor their maxima and minima. A typical minimum in the eleven-year cycle is about six sunspots, with some days, even weeks, passing without sunspot activity. Monthly readings of zero are very rare. Over the past two centuries, only the year 1810 has passed without any sunspot activity whatsoever. By an measure, the lack of sunspot activity during the height of the Little Ice Age was remarkable.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were times of great scientific advances and intense astronomical activity. The same astronomers who observed the sun discovered the first division in Saturn’s ring and five of the planet’s satellites. They observed transits of Venus and Mercury, recorded eclipses of the sun, and determined the velocity of light by observing the precise orbits of Jupiter’s satellites. Seventeenth-century scholars published the first detailed studies of the sun and sunspots. In 1711, English astronomer William Derham commented on “great intervals” when no sunspots were observed between 1660 and 1684. He remarked rather charmingly: “Spots could hardly escape the sight of so many Observers of the sun, as were then perpetually peeping upon him with their Telescopes…all the world over.” Unfortunately for modern scientists, sunspots were considered clouds on the sun until 1774 and deemed of little importance, so we have no means of knowing how continuously there were observed.

The period between 1645 and 1715 was remarkable for the rarity of aurora borealis and aurora australis, which were reported far less frequently than either before or afterward. Between 1645 and 1708, not a single aurora was observed in London’s skies. When one appeared on March 15, 1716, none other than Astronomer Royal Edmund Halley wrote a paper about it, for he had never seen one in all his years as a scientist–and he was sixty years old at the time. On the other side of the world, naked eye sightings of sunspots from China, Korea, and Japan between 28 B.C. and A.D. 1743 provide an average of six sightings per century, presumably coinciding with solar maxima. There are no observations whatsoever between 1639 and 1700, nor were any aurora reported.


On Reading The Carbon Age

Posted by jns on October 28, 2008

I recently finished reading The Carbon Age : How Life’s Core Element has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat, by Eric Roston (New York : Walker & Company, 2008. 308 pages). I very much enjoyed the act of reading it, but it was only when I was writing about it that I realized that is really an excellent book on all counts. My book note is here.

In this case I think what I admired the most was the author’s scienticity, which is how we refer to a scientific / rational / analytical / naturalistic perspective combined with the fortitude to integrate science moments into a larger cultural context. Mr. Roston did an excellent job of it, making it entertaining and informative without being the least bit silly or imprecise. As you may recall, I’m easily irritated by authors writing about science who do not take the trouble to be precise and thoughtful in their scientific exposition, but I had no such reaction here. If my memory is correct, I thought there was one explanation, out of the 300 pages, where the concept being explained was slightly befuddled–not a bad record!

But, our purpose here is to provide a place for a few excerpts that just didn’t fit into the book note for some reason or that I marked specially for blogging. (It’s true! Sometimes there are bits of the text that I think are a must-share but they don’t share the tone of a book note, so it’s lucky you!)

In this first excerpt, we’re in the midst of a long discussion about carbon’s place in the origins of life and how its central role may have come about. One of the great steps forward happened very, very early in the process. In a world of one-celled life, one cell managed to trap another cell inside it and the two continue to reproduce together to this day. Eukaryotes are organisms, including humans and most everything we think of as life except bacteria, whose cells are complex systems containing a nucleus and other parts, including mitochondira, which produce the energy the cell runs on by breaking down (“burning”) carbohydrates. I liked this terse, elegant, and altogether sensible paragraph about that moment.

The capture and integration of one cell by another is called endosymbiosis. Nearly all eukaryotes have little organs (“organelles”) called mitochondria. These cellular energy centers descend from purple sulfur bacteria, inhabitants of stomatolites in Shark Bay. This class of bacteria has made its living for as long as 3 billion years by using oxygen to burn carbohydrate fuel. Deep in the evolutionary past, some oxygen-breathing bacteria became engulfed within anaerobic cells, which needed help thriving in an atmosphere of increasing oxygen. These bacteria are the ancestors of our cellular power plants. The evidence is that bacteria and mitochondria share much of the same DNA. [p. 73]

In this next short excerpt, Roston comments on the familial culture of experimental scientists. I’ve known this phenomenon myself. I started out in low-temperature physics, an experimental discipline that appeared early in the 20th century when Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, the Dutch physicist, first liquefied helium in 1908. We were a small community and everyone could trace their lineage; there are only a couple of major branches of the family. I don’t think I’ve seen this written about elsewhere and I thought Roston’s observations were very perceptive.

Labs are structured as intellectual family fiefdoms. A professor “raises” his graduate students, who grow up and fan out across the world of research universities and private industry. Virtually everyone’s intellectual ancestors [in chemical synthesis] can be traced back to J.J. Berzelius, the Swedish chemist who first called carbon “C”. Every generation tends the repository of knowledge, weeding out its predecessor’s bad ideas, answering some of their questions, and asking many of their own. [p. 135]


On Hydrogen (& Physics Humor)

Posted by jns on October 23, 2008

I recently finished reading the book Hydrogen : The Essential Element, by John S. Rigden (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2002. vii + 280 pages). Here’s my book note. It’s a book I can recommend.

As I mentioned in the book note, the “hydrogen” of this book is the physicist’s “hydrogen”,* the simple atom of electron + proton (with some isotopic variations) that is the simple test case for all physical theories that deal with things atomic: if it doesn’t work for hydrogen, it’s not going to work.

Hydrogen is overwhelmingly the most abundant atomic species in the universe, making up about 74% (by weight) of the matter we can see. It is the predominant fuel that stars burn through fusion (to make helium nuclei). Hydrogen is the earliest element in the cosmos, protons condensing from a universe of quarks when the temperature finally became low enough, in the period (the “hadron epoch”) between one microsecond to one second after the big bang. It was some time longer before the universe cooled enough (some 380,000 years!) for the protons to capture and hold onto electrons, thus becoming actual atoms of hydrogen (Of course, there had to be electrons to capture; they condensed around one second ABB.#)

Anyway, the history of our modern understanding of the hydrogen atom, and the efforts to gain that understanding, is virtually identical to the history of “modern physics”, by which we loosely mean all that physics stuff from the early twentieth century: quantum mechanics and its friends. Lots of other interesting things get thrown in, too, from all the attention the hydrogen atom got. A couple of the more interesting: the development of the hydrogen maser and very high precision time keeping (i.e., “atomic clocks”, leading to the GPS), and the invention of a technique known to physicists as NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), which in recent decades developed into the familiar MRI (magnetic-resonance imaging).

Anyway, that’s book-note stuff. What we’re all about here is a couple of leftover quotations from the book that go under the heading: “Physicist’s and their Strange Sense of Humor”. The first two quotations reveal things that physicists find almost knee-slappingly funny but may remain inscrutable to nonscientists (and I wouldn’t worry about that either, if I were you–you’re not missing all that much).

Paul Dirac was a[n] unusual person. Perhaps because Dirac’s father demanded that his young son use French rather than his native English to converse with him, the young Dirac adopted the habit of silence during his childhood simply because he could not express his thoughts in French. Whatever the reason, the adult Paul Dirac was a a man of silence. Dirac’s silence was so intense that it inspired a little levity among physicists. In physics, the units given to physical quantities like time or length are important. Physicists, clearly in jest [!], have defined the unit of silence as the dirac. [p. 89]

For this second joke, I might mention that it was Ed Purcell who pioneered the NMR technique, and that the technique uses magnetic properties of the hydrogen atom, which moves much like a gyroscope when magnetically disturbed (hence the reference to “precessing”**).

I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking at snow…around my doorstep–great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field.
–Edward M. Purcell [quoted on p. 137]

Finally, this one goes into that file where we put really bad predictions of what the future might hold.

In 1952, neither Purcell nor Bloch could have predicted the ways their discovery would advance understanding of solids, of the structure of chemical molecules, and even more. In fact, a representative from Dupont Chemical Company visited Purcell soon after the paper announcing the discovery was published. The Dupont scientist asked Purcell what the practical applications of NMR might be. Purcell responded that he could see no practical applications. In this, Purcell was very wrong. [p. 147]

* Rather than, say, a chemist’s “hydrogen” with discussions of interesting molecules and acids and reducing reactions and carbohydrates, etc. Nor is it an engineer’s “hydrogen”, nor a politician’s “hydrogen” (as in “hydrogen economy”). They’re all stories for another book for someone else to write. What a publishing opportunity!

I just read this the other day about the big bang and the origin of the cosmos (and now I forget who gets the attribution): “In the beginning there was nothing, then it exploded.”

# We could just say “it happened at one second”, since the current understanding has it that time (whatever it is besides a whole other story) began with the big bang.

I’m sure I’ve expressed my peevishness before about how the perfectly good word “nuclear” had to be expunged before MRI could be a commercial success.

** When some body, like the Earth or a hydrogen nucleus, rotates about an axis, and that axis is tilted relative to some other axis about which the tilted axis itself executes a (generally much slower) rotation (a kind of wobble), that latter motion is referred to as “precession”. The precession of the Earth’s axis takes about 26,000 years. Hydrogen atoms do it at about 500 megahertz (or 500,000,000 times each second).