Hi all, and welcome! On this site, devoted to sharing the excitement and meaning of science, you’ll find a blog (posts begin below) and reference articles (accessible from the menus above.)

Keep an eye out for my new book, “Waves in an Impossible Sea,” due out in March 2024. Here’s what some of my colleagues are saying about it. You can pre-order it at independent bookstores (such as Harvard Book Store, Powell’s, and many others), or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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Heads Up — Northern Lights Possible in Next 24 Hours

[Note added: the predicted storm has begun, as of about 1000 UTC, 5:00 AM NYC time; good for early birds on the west coast and those in Asia.] If you live in Canada, Europe or the northern half of the US, keep an eye to the north late tonight and possibly tomorrow night. A series … Read more

Is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity Truly Elegant?

  • Quote: . . . the Higgs field exhibits the most inelegant of the known laws governing fields and particles. There’s an amusing tendency for those who tout beauty to ignore this, as though it were an inconvenient family member, and to focus instead on Einstein’s elegant theory of gravity. Yet even that theory has its issues.
  • Endnote: Einstein’s theory of gravity is amazingly elegant as long as one ignores the puzzle of “dark energy,” which would have been easier to do had it been exactly zero, and as long as gravity is a very weak force, as its weakness leads to extremely simple equations. In string theory, Einstein’s equations become much more complex, and the elegant simplicity of the math shifts to the level of the strings themselves . . . perhaps.

I’ll expound below upon the second bullet point, hoping to draw attention to general questions concerning aesthetics in theoretical physics.

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A Half Century Since the Birth of QCD

This year marks a half-century since the discovery that a quantum field theory, now known as QCD (quantum chromodynamics), could be the underlying explanation for the strong nuclear force. That’s the force that holds quarks and gluons inside of protons and neutrons, and keeps protons and neutrons clumped together in atomic nuclei. This major step in theoretical physics occurred just a couple of years after it was discovered that a similar quantum field theory for the weak nuclear force (which includes W bosons, a Z boson and a Higgs boson) is mathematically consistent.

With these two breakthroughs came the sudden and unexpected triumph of quantum field theory, emerging as the basic mathematical and conceptual language for understanding the cosmos. It came after two decades in which most experts were convinced that quantum field theory was inconsistent, and only a stepping stone to something deeper.

This week I am in New York City attending two attached scientific meetings, both focused on QCD and other quantum field theories that share its key property, known as “confinement.” One meeting is hosted by New York University, and the other, the Annual Meeting of the Simons Collaboration on Confinement and QCD Strings, by the Simons Foundation. Many luminaries who have spent time on this subject are here together, ranging from David Gross, who co-invented the subject (and was a winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize), to brilliant graduate students who are hoping to reinvent it.

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What [Really] Causes our Twice-Daily Ocean Tides?

More about tidal forces today (see also yesterday’s post) and the conceptual point underlying Earth’s ocean tides.

  • (Quote) Because gravity dwindles at greater distances, the Moon’s pull is stronger on the near side of the Earth and weaker on the far side than it is on the Earth’s center. This uneven pull stretches our planet’s oceans slightly, resulting in a small bulge of water, not much taller than a human, both on the Earth’s side facing the Moon and on the opposite side, too.
  • (Endnote) To explain why gravity leads to a water bulge on both sides of the Earth is too complex for a footnote, and I’d rather not repeat the most commonly heard explanations, which are misleading. One can see a hint of the cause as follows: if one drops a water balloon in constant gravity, it will fall as a sphere, whereas if it is pulled more strongly at the bottom than at the top, it will stretch into an oval as it falls.

Here I’ll explain this last observation more carefully.

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The Impossible Commentary: Is Gravity a Force? Is it an Illusion?

[This is a tricky one… it’s easy to make confusing statements about Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity), and so I am especially hopeful of getting readers’ feedback on this subtle issue, to make sure what follows is 100% clear and correctly stated.]

  • (Quote) On Earth’s surface, we are roughly 4,000 miles from Earth’s center. But if you ascended another 22,000 miles, where you’d find the GOES weather satellites that monitor Earth’s weather patterns, you’d find your weight (but not your mass!) reduced to one-fortieth of what it is on Earth… And if you traveled out into deep space, far from any large object, you’d weigh virtually nothing. Yet all the while, your body’s mass—the difficulty I would face if I tried to speed you up or slow you down—would never change.
  • (Endnote) Confusingly, astronauts orbiting Earth inside nearby space stations appear to float as though weightless. From Newton’s perspective, they are not truly weightless; if they were, they’d coast, leaving the Earth’s vicinity and moving rapidly into deep space.
    Instead, they and their spaceship are pulled by gravity into a common orbit around the Earth. Since they travel on the same path as their container and as the camera which films them, they seem and feel weightless. (This subtle issue is turned on its head in Einstein’s view of gravity.)

Astronauts in a space station seem to float, as though they are weightless. Are they truly weightless? Or are they only apparently weightless?

The same issues arise for people in a freely falling elevator, accelerating downward with ever greater speed. They will feel weightless, too. But are they?

Newton would have said they are apparently weightless, subject to gravity but all falling together along with their vehicle. A naive (but instructive!) reading of Einstein might lead us to say that they are truly weightless… that the gravity that Newton claims is present is a pure illusion, a fictitious force. But a precise Einsteinian would say they are almost but not quite weightless — and the lack of perfect weightlessness is a clue, a smoking gun in fact, that they are indeed subject to gravity.

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The Impossible Commentary: Newton, Gravity, and the Speed of the Moon

Additional supplementary material for the upcoming book; your comments/corrections are welcome. This entry has to do with how Newton realized that weight and mass aren’t the same thing — that the pull of Earth’s gravity depends on how far you are from the Earth’s center.

  • (Quote) Newton knew right away that if the force of gravity were as powerful out by the Moon as it is at Earth’s surface—if the Moon accelerated toward the Earth at the same rate that your dropped keys do—then motion and gravity would be wildly out of balance [and so the Moon would have fallen and crashed into the Earth.]
  • (Endnote) To avoid disaster, the Moon’s orbital speed would need to be 40 miles per second, leading it to circle Earth twice a day.

Here I’ll explain why this is true, using a little math. (If you already know something about Kepler’s laws of planetary orbits, additional relevant discussion can be found in this post from 2022.)

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About the News that Antimatter Doesn’t “Fall Up”

The press is full of excitement today at the news that anti-matter — hydrogen anti-atoms, specifically, made from positrons and anti-protons instead of electrons and protons — falls down rather than rising up. This has been shown in the ALPHA experiment at CERN. But no theoretical physicist is surprised. Today I’ll explain one of many … Read more

Beyond the Book: The Ambiguities of Scientific Language

Personally, I think that popular science books ought to devote more pages to the issue of how language is used in science. The words scientists choose are central to communication and miscommunication both among researchers and between scientists and non-scientists. The problem is that all language is full of misnomers and contradictory definitions, and scientific language is no exception.

One especially problematic scientific word is “matter.” It has multiple and partly contradictory meanings within particle physics, astronomy and cosmology. For instance,

  • (Quote) It’s not even clear that “dark matter,” a term used widely by astronomers and particle physicists alike, is actually matter.
  • (Endnote) Among possible dark matter particles are axions and dark photons, neither of which would obviously qualify as “matter.”*

Why might one not view them as matter?

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