UNIVERSE

THE MAKING OF A PHYSICIST

[6.30.03]

 

MURRAY GELL-MANN
September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019

Uncharacteristically, I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, "What were you thinking of putting down?" I said, "Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I'm most enthusiastic about. I'm also interested in natural history and exploration."

He said, "You'll starve!"

After all, this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example — but he didn't want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn't have any spare money at all.

I asked him, "What would you suggest?"

He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, "I'd rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart." And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was advised to take up nearly anything but engineering.

Then my father suggested, "Why don't we compromise — on physics?"

Edge is pleased to bring you a conversation (and video) with Murray Gell-Mann conducted in SantaFe over the Christmas holiday in 2003 — in which he conveyed "something about his life and his attitude toward the world and toward physics."

— JB

MURRAY GELL-MANN (September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019) was a theoretical physicist and, until his death, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology; winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics; a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a Distinguished Fellow; a former director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; one of the Global Five Hundred honored by the U.N. Environment Program; a former Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; a former member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; and the author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.

Murray Gell-Mann's Edge Bio Page


 

EINSTEIN AND POINCARE

[6.22.03]

"I'm interested in bending the edges of the spectrum to make the abstract and the concrete hit one another more directly."

video

Introduction

 

Peter Galison, Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard, asks how Poincaré and Einstein "could have radically reformulated our ideas of time and space by looking at the way that philosophically abstract concerns, physics concerns, and ... technological problems of keeping trains from bashing into each other and coordinating mapmaking across the empires might fit into a single story."

Regarding Einstein’s and Poincaré’s account of simultaneity, he wonders: "Is it really physics, or fundamentally technology, or does it come down to philosophy?" He calls it "an extraordinary moment when philosophy, physics and technology cross, precisely because of the intersection of three very powerful streams of action and reasoning at the turn of the century."

This moment resonates with many recent discussions on Edge, and to what Galison terms "the collection of sciences that have grown up around computation. Here, ideas about the mind, about how computers function, and about science, codes, and mathematical physics all come together. Von Neumann thinks about the mind and its organs (memory, input-output, processing) as a way of designing a programmed computer. The programmed computer then becomes a model for the mind. The ideas of information, which are encoded into the development of computation, also become ways to understand language and communication more generally, and again feed back into devices. Information, entropy, and computation become metaphors for us at a much broader level."

Convergences such as Einstein’s and Poincaré’s account of simultaneity or new the sciences of computation are "opalescent moments" that "point to science in times and places where we’re starting to think with and through machines at radically different scales—Where we are flipping back and forth between abstraction and concreteness so intensively that they illuminate each other in fundamentally novel ways, in ways not captured by models of simple evaporation or condensation. When we see such opalescence, we should dig into them, and deeply, for they are transformative moments of our cultures."

JB

PETER GALISON is the Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and the author of How Experiments End; Image and Logic; and Einstein's Clocks and Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time.

Two collections of interpretive essays have been published about Image and Logic, which also won the Pfizer Prize for Best Book in the History of Science. For his work on these books he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, and a Max Planck Prize by the Max Planck Gesellschaft and Humboldt Stiftung in 1999.

Peter Galison's Edge Bio page

Peter Galison presents his new book: Einstein's Clocks and Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time:

True time would never be revealed by mere clocks—of this Newton was sure. Even a master clockmaker's finest work would offer only pale reflections of the absolute time that belonged not to our human world, but to the "sensorium of God." Tides, planets, moons—everything changed, Newton believed, against the universal background of a single, constantly flowing river of time. In Einstein's electro-technical world, there was no place for such a "universally audible tick-tock" that we can call time, no way to define time meaningfully except in reference to a definite system of linked clocks...Two events simultaneous for a clock-observer at rest are not simultaneous for one in motion. With that shock, the foundation of Newtonian physics cracked; Einstein knew it. Late in life, he interrupted his autobiographical notes to apostrophize Sir Isaac as if the intervening centuries had vanished; reflecting on the absolutes of space and time that his theory of relativity had shattered, Einstein wrote: "Newton, forgive me; you found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power."...At the heart of this radical upheaval in time lay an extraordinary yet easily stated idea that has remained dead-center in physics, philosophy, and technology ever since: To talk about simultaneity, you have to synchronize clocks with a flash from one clock to another, adjusting for the time that the flash takes to arrive. What could be simpler? Yet with this definition of time, the last piece of the relativity puzzle fell into place, changing physics forever.


IN THE MATRIX

Topic: 

  • UNIVERSE
http://vimeo.com/79462677

"All these multiverse ideas lead to a remarkable synthesis between cosmology and physics...But they also lead to the extraordinary consequence that we may not be the deepest reality, we may be a simulation. The possibility that we are creations of some supreme, or super-being, blurs the boundary between physics and idealist philosophy, between the natural and the supernatural, and between the relation of mind and multiverse and the possibility that we're in the matrix rather than the physics itself."

IN THE MATRIX

[5.17.03]

All these multiverse ideas lead to a remarkable synthesis between cosmology and physics...But they also lead to the extraordinary consequence that we may not be the deepest reality, we may be a simulation. The possibility that we are creations of some supreme, or super-being, blurs the boundary between physics and idealist philosophy, between the natural and the supernatural, and between the relation of mind and multiverse and the possibility that we're in the matrix rather than the physics itself.

video

Introductory Remarks

Cosmology and astrophysics are branches of physics in which one needs an unusual combination of breadth and depth to excel. Martin Rees is arguably the finest all-round theoretical physicist working today. I do not always agree with him—especially in areas outside physics itself—but I always want to know his opinion. As does every wise person.
—David Deutsch

I have known and admired Martin Rees since the early 1970's when we were postdocs together at Cambridge University. Even at that stage Martin's extraordinary breadth of knowledge and expertise were apparent. Pick almost any topic in astronomy or physics, and he would have a carefully evaluated position worked out. He is one of only a few great scientists who is both open-minded and healthily-skeptical. At a time in his career when he could justifiably rest on his laurels, Martin Rees is as energetic and active as ever, offering stunning insights into many emerging scientific fields.
— Paul Davies

Martin Rees one of the most influential people working in astrophysical and cosmological theory. He is simultaneously open to new ideas and suggestions and careful and rigorous in his response and criticisms. Also, it's difficult to suggest an idea about the evolution of structure in the universe or the formation of the galaxies that he hasn't thought of or played with or perhaps even written about at some time. Much of the credit for what I like to think of as the discovery that the laws of nature are special in ways that allow the universe to be very structured is due to him.
—Lee Smolin

Martin Rees is my favorite theoretical astrophysicist. He is not only incredibly knowledgeable, but he is also wonderfully helpful to his colleagues. He has contributed over 500 papers to the scientific literature, making important contributions to almost every aspect of astrophysics. He is especially well-known for his work on galaxy formation and the theory of cold dark matter, and also for his work on active galactic nuclei and the black holes that are believed to drive them.
—Alan Guth

There are two types of cosmologists active today: those who seek the physical principles driving the global properties of the Universe, and those who concentrate on the details of astrophysical objects, like galaxies, quasars, and black holes, that give complementary information about structure at smaller distances. Martin Rees is one of the few cosmologists exploring both venues, giving him a unique perspective from which to develop scientific ideas, and to synthesize known ideas for a broader audience. He always has something
interesting to say.
—Lisa Randall


SIR MARTIN REES is Royal Society Professor at Cambridge University, Fellow of King's College, the UK's Astronomer Royal, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was previously Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, having been elected to this chair at the age of thirty, succeeding Fred Hoyle. He has originated many key cosmological ideas: for example, he was the first to suggest that the fantastically energetic cores of quasars may be powered by giant black holes. For the last twenty years, he has directed a wide-ranging research program at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy.

He is the author of several books, including Gravity's Fatal Attraction (with Mitchell Begelman); New Perspectives in Astrophysical Astronomy; Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others; Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe; Our Cosmic Habitat; and Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in this Century—on Earth and Beyond (published in the UK as Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival).

Martin Rees' Edge Bio page 

David Deutsch's Edge Bio Page
Paul Davies' Edge Bio Page
Lee Smolin's Edge Bio Page
Alan Guth's Edge Bio Page
Lisa Randall 's Edge Bio Page 

WHO CARES ABOUT FIREFLIES?

Topic: 

  • UNIVERSE
http://vimeo.com/79465151

"We see fantastic examples of synchrony in the natural world all around us. To give a few examples, there were persistent reports when the first Western travelers went to southeast Asia, back to the time of Sir Francis Drake in the 1500s, of spectacular scenes along riverbanks, where thousands upon thousands of fireflies in the trees would all light up and go off simultaneously. These kinds of reports kept coming back to the West, and were published in scientific journals, and people who hadn't seen it couldn't believe it.

WHO CARES ABOUT FIREFLIES?

[5.10.03]

We see fantastic examples of synchrony in the natural world all around us. To give a few examples, there were persistent reports when the first Western travelers went to southeast Asia, back to the time of Sir Francis Drake in the 1500s, of spectacular scenes along riverbanks, where thousands upon thousands of fireflies in the trees would all light up and go off simultaneously. These kinds of reports kept coming back to the West, and were published in scientific journals, and people who hadn't seen it couldn't believe it. Scientists said that this is a case of human misperception, that we're seeing patterns that don't exist, or that it's an optical illusion. How could the fireflies, which are not very intelligent creatures, manage to coordinate their flashings in such a spectacular and vast way?

video

Introduction by Alan Alda

Steve Strogatz has worked all his life studying something that some people thought didn’t exist while others thought was too obvious to mention.

It’s found in that subtle region—the haze on the horizon—that smart people, it seems, have always been intrigued by. He saw something there, and went and looked closer.

What drew him on was a pattern in Nature that showed, surprisingly, that an enormous number of things sync up spontaneously. His research covered a wide range of phenomena, from sleep patterns to heart rhythms to the synchronous pulse of Asian fireflies. And now, in his new book, Sync, he’s drawn all these strands (and many others) together in a way that has the shock of the new. Even though we may see the moon every night (perhaps not realizing it’s an example of sync) it’s hard not to be surprised at the number of things around us—and in us—that must (or must not) sync up for things to go right. 

I’ve known Steve about ten years. We met when I called him up on the phone, wondering if he’d even take my call. I had read an article of his in Scientific American about coupled oscillators. From his first description of Huygens’ discovery that pendulum clocks would sync up if they could sense each other’s vibrations, I was fascinated, and I hoped he’d tell me more about it. He was surprisingly generous in the face of my hungry, naive curiosity and we’ve been friends ever since. 

Steve has that quality, like Richard Feynman’s of not only wanting to make every complex thought clear to the average person, but, also like Feynman, of actually knowing how. When we were working on the Broadway play QED, by Peter Parnell, in which I played Feynman, it’s no surprise that we asked Steve to advise us on the physics in the piece.

Please let me introduce you to Steven Strogatz, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University: my pal, Steve.

—Alan Alda

 

STEVEN STROGATZ is a professor in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics and the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University. He is the author of the best selling textbook Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos: With Applications to Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering and the trade book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order.

His seminal research on human sleep and circadian rhythms, scroll waves, coupled oscillators, synchronous fireflies, Josephson junctions, and small-world networks has been featured in Nature, Science, Scientific American, the New York Times, US News and World Report, New Yorker, Discover, American Scientist, Science News, Newsweek, Die Zeit, and London's Daily Telegraph, and broadcast on BBC Radio, National Public Radio, CBS News, and numerous other mass media outlets.

Steven Strogatz's Edge Bio Page
Alan Alda's Edge Bio Page 

Who Cares About Fireflies? from Edge Foundation on Vimeo.

LOOP QUANTUM GRAVITY: LEE SMOLIN

[2.23.03]

Science is a kind of open laboratory for a democracy. It's a way to experiment with the ideals of our democratic societies. For example, in science you must accept the fact that you live in a community that makes the ultimate judgment as to the worth of your work. But at the same time, everybody's judgment is his or her own. The ethics of the community require that you argue for what you believe and that you try as hard as you can to get results to test your hunches, but you have to be honest in reporting the results, whatever they are. You have the freedom and independence to do whatever you want, as long as in the end you accept the judgment of the community. Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about. There's a great strength in our democratic way of life, and science is at the root of it.

It's only since the middle 1980s that real progress began to be made on unifying relativity and quantum theory. The turning point was the invention of not one but two approaches: loop quantum gravity and string theory. Since then, we have been making steady progress on both of these approaches. In each case, we are able to do calculations that predict surprising new phenomena. Still, we are not done. Neither is yet in final form; there are still things to understand. But the really important news is that there is now a real chance of doing experiments that will test the new predictions of these theories.

This is important, because we're in the uncomfortable situation of having two well-developed candidates for the quantum theory of gravity. We need to reduce these to one theory. We can do this either by finding that one is wrong and the other right, or by finding that the two theories can themselves be unified.

LEE SMOLIN, a theoretical physicist, is concerned with quantum gravity, "the name we give to the theory that unifies all the physics now under construction." More specifically, he is a co-inventor of an approach called loop quantum gravity. In 2001, he became a founding member and research physicist of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Ontario. Smolin is the author of The Life of The Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

Lee Smolin's Edge Bio Page

THEORIES OF THE BRANE: LISA RANDALL

[2.9.03]

Additional spatial dimensions may seem like a wild and crazy idea at first, but there are powerful reasons to believe that there really are extra dimensions of space. One reason resides in string theory, in which it is postulated that the particles are not themselves fundamental but are oscillation modes of a fundamental string. 

LISA RANDALL is a professor of physics at Harvard University, where she also earned her PhD (1987). She was a President's Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and a junior fellow at Harvard before joining the MIT faculty in 1991. Between 1998 and 2000, she had a joint appointment at Princeton and MIT as a full professor, and she moved to Harvard as a full professor in 2001. Her research in theoretical high energy physics is primarily related to exploring the physics underlying the standard model of particle physics. This has involved studies of supersymmetry and, most recently, extra dimensions of space.

Lisa Randall's Edge Bio Page

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - UNIVERSE