I’m preparing an article on a very important type of energy that I’ve avoided writing about so far — the energy that comes from the interaction among fields. I’ve avoided it because it’s tricky to figure out how to explain it. But it’s important, for this form of energy is responsible for all the structure in the universe, from atoms to galaxies. The article’s not quite ready yet, so today I’ve just got some good reading material for you, including the heavy, the weird, the amusing, and the optimistic.
Heavy stuff first: from the Nobel Laureate and writer Steven Weinberg, who among many many contributions to particle physics, cosmology and quantum field theory is co-inventor of the modern theory of the weak nuclear force and how it ties in with the electromagnetic force (`the electroweak theory’). He has written an article in the New York Review of Books called `The Crisis of Big Science. If you don’t understand that large scientific enterprises, such as are needed in modern particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, are under serious threat, or you don’t know why they are, you need to read this article. Every particle physicist, string theorist, astrophysicist and cosmologist needs to read it. (Though I should add that in his brief explanation of the Standard Model of particle physics, Weinberg takes some misleading shortcuts typical of the old guard explanation style, and which this website avoids. See if you can find them!)
Now, the weird — yes, quantum mechanics, relativity and causality. According to the equations of quantum mechanics, the way in which reality is organized in our quantum world is so bizarre that it lies beyond human imagination. But hey, a new experiment seems to confirm (to no one’s surprise, but to the discomfort of many) that some of the weirdest predictions really happen. (A caveat first; I am not an expert in these types of measurements and cannot determine myself whether the measurement is reliable, so you may want to wait for a confirming experiment.)
Information about physical systems is, in some sense, stored in a distributed fashion, not entirely locally. Yet despite this, no information is transferred faster than light, and the basic requirements of relativity and causality are (just barely!) respected. If you want to understand something about the types of theoretical and conceptual issues that experiments like this are inspired by, I recommend a technical lecture by the great Harvard professor Sidney Coleman, called Quantum Mechanics IN YOUR FACE.
On the light-hearted side, my alma mater Simon’s Rock has just been rated as one of the ten top nerdiest colleges in the United States by the Princeton Review. Wow, a college where you actually have small classes, talk to your professors, and really learn stuff! Honestly, they’re just saying that Rockers aren’t so big on sports and some (not me though) play a lot of things like Dungeons and Dragons. Whatever… we know these lists are pretty arbitrary, but hey, I’m amused.
And for more general entertainment, my friend Professor Daniel Whiteson (of the University of California at Irvine, and of the CDF and ATLAS experiments at the Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider) requests that I point you to the efforts that he and his collaborators are making to educate and amuse you: two accessible comic strips in video form, one on the Higgs particle and the ongoing search for it, and one on dark matter.
Finally, a worthwhile post from the Resonaances blog, explaining some of the speculative ideas by theorists that are in the process of being falsified by the data at the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a good post, but I have to add a caution: What he says is correct assuming the hints of a Higgs particle at a mass of 125 GeV (see here and here for more recent updates) really turn out to be the real thing. You see, Resonaances’ author is convinced not only that the Higgs particle has been definitively discovered but also that all other physicists (except me) are as convinced as he is. So he just writes as though the case is settled. I suggest you follow Weinberg and remain more circumspect; better evidence than this has vanished in the past.