Mass, Weight, and Fields

Today a reader asked me “Out of the quantum fields which have mass, do any of them also have weight?” I thought other readers would be interested in my answer, so I’m putting it here. (Some of what is discussed below is covered in greater detail in my upcoming book.)

Before we start, we need to rephrase the question, because fields do not have mass.

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How to Tell that the Earth Spins

Continuing with the supplementary material for the book, from its Chapter 2. This is in reference to Galileo’s principle of relativity, a central pillar of modern science. This principle states that perfectly steady motion in a straight line is indistinguishable from no motion at all, and thus cannot be felt. This is why we don’t feel our rapid motion around the Earth and Sun; over minutes, that motion is almost steady and straight. I wrote

  • . . . Our planet rotates and roams the heavens, but our motion is nearly steady. That makes it nearly undetectable, thanks to Galileo’s principle.

To this I added a brief endnote, since the spin of the Earth can be detected, with some difficulty.

  • As pointed out by the nineteenth-century French physicist Léon Foucault, the Earth’s rotation, the least steady of our motions, is reflected in the motion of a tall pendulum. Many science museums around the world have such a “Foucault pendulum” on exhibit.

But for those who would want to know more, here’s some information about how to measure the Earth’s spin.

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Beyond the Book (and What the Greeks Knew About the Earth)

Since the upcoming book is basically done, it’s time for me to launch the next phase of the project — the supplementary material, which will be placed here, on this website.

Any science book has to leave out many details of the subjects it covers, and omit many important topics. While my book has endnotes that help flesh out the main text, I know that some readers will want even more information. That’s what I’ll be building here over the coming months. I’ll continue to develop this material even after the book is published, as additional readers explore it. For a time, then, this will be a living, growing extension to the written text.

As I create this supplementary material, I’ll first post it on this blog, looking for your feedback in terms of its clarity and accuracy, and hoping to get a sense from you as to whether there are other questions that I ought to address. Let’s try this out today with a first example; I look forward to your comments.

In Chapter 2 of the book, I have written

  • Over two thousand years ago, Greek thinkers became experts in geometry and found clever tricks for estimating the Earth’s shape and size.

This sentence then refers to an endnote, in which I state

  • The shadow that the Earth casts on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is always disk-shaped, no matter the time of day, which can be true only for a spherical planet. Earth’s size is revealed by comparing the lengths of shadows of two identical objects, separated by a known north-south distance, measured at noon on the same day.*

Obviously this is very terse, and I’m sure some readers will want an explanation of the endnote. Here’s the explanation that I’ll post on this website:

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New Scientist Covers the Standard Model and Beyond

For those of you who subscribe to New Scientist, their magazine’s cover story this week is a feature entitled “THE AMAZING THEORY OF (ALMOST) EVERYTHING”. In the feature is an overview of the Standard Model (which describes all known fields and particles, excepting gravity, with amazing accuracy, but leaves a plethora of puzzles unaddressed) and includes a final section (edited by Abby Beall) with short articles by six scientists about their current views regarding the Standard Model, among them myself. [This website’s introductory article on the Standard Model is here; see also here.] . . .

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Dismantling Common Sense, Twice

In my last post I raised a question about the pros and cons of common sense. I left it as a wide-open question, as I was curious to see how readers would react.

Many aspects of common sense affect how we relate to other people, and it’s clear they have considerable value. But the intuitions we have for nature, though sometimes useful, are mostly wrong. These conceptual errors pose obstacles for students who are learning science for the first time.

It’s also interesting that once these students learn first chemistry and then Newtonian-era physics, they gain new intuitions for the natural world, a sort of classical-physics common sense. Much of this newfound common sense also turns out to be wrong: it badly misrepresents how the cosmos really works. This is a difficulty not only for students but also for many adults. If you’ve read about or even taken a class in basic astronomy or physics, it can then be challenging to make sense of twentieth-century physics, where Newtonian intuition can fail badly.

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The Topic(s) of the Upcoming Book

Every book on science focuses attention on a little sliver of a vast, complex universe. In Waves in an Impossible Sea, I had intended to write mainly about the Higgs field, and the associated Higgs particle that was discovered in 2012 to great fanfare. I was planning to explain how the Higgs field does its job in the universe, and why it’s so important for the existence of life.

However, this plan had a problem. The Higgs field would be irrelevant were it not for quantum physics on the one hand and Einstein’s relativity on the other, and to comprehend the latter requires some understanding of Galileo’s earlier concept of relativity. To show why the Higgs field can give mass (more precisely, rest mass) to certain types of particles requires combining all of these notions together. Each of these topics is daunting, worthy of multiple books, and I knew I couldn’t hope to cover them all in 100,000 words!

To my surprise, resolving this problem wasn’t as difficult as I expected, once I picked out a few crucial elements about each of these subjects that I felt everyone ought to know. Lining up those conceptual points carefully, I found I could give a non-technical yet accurate explanation of how elementary particles can get mass from a Higgs field. (A more mathematical explanation has been given previously on this website, in two series of articles here and here.)

Yet what surprised me even more was that the book’s main subject slowly changed as I wrote it. It became focused on the question of how ordinary life emerges from an extraordinary cosmos. Though a substantial section of the book is devoted to the Higgs field, it is situated in a much wider context than I originally imagined.

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Emerging From the Writing Cave

I have just submitted a book, entitled Waves in an Impossible Sea, to my publisher, Basic Books (a trade press well known for Gödel, Escher, Bach, as well as numerous other science and math titles.) If all goes smoothly, it will go on sale in March 2024 or thereabouts. Now that it is mostly done, … Read more

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