The Fast and Glamorous Life of a Theoretical Physicist

Ah, the fast-paced life of a theoretical physicist!  I just got done giving a one-hour talk in Rome, given at a workshop for experts on the ATLAS experiment, one of the two general purpose experiments at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. Tomorrow morning I’ll be talking with a colleague at the Rutherford Appleton Lab in the … Read more

Floating in Space … But Why?

Have you perhaps wanted to go into space someday, so you could float around and do somersaults like the astronauts you see on TV? You know, out in space, where everything floats, because … because … … because there’s no gravity in outer space??? Hmm… If there were no gravity in space, what would keep … Read more

Courses, Forces, and (w)Einstein

This week and next, I’m very busy preparing and delivering a new class (four lectures, 1.5 hours each), for a non-technical audience, on the importance of and the discovery of the Higgs particle.  I’ll be giving it in Western Massachusetts (my old stomping grounds).  If it goes well I may try to give these lectures elsewhere (and please let me know if you know of an institution that might be interested to host them.)   Teaching a new class for a non-technical audience requires a lot of concentration, so I probably won’t get too much writing in over that period.

Still, as many of you requested, I do hope soon to follow up last week’s article (on how particle physicists talk about the strength of the different forces) with an article explaining how both particles and forces arise from fields — a topic I already addressed to some extent in this article, which you may find useful.

Now — a few words on the flap over the suggestion that math Ph.D. and finance expert Eric Weinstein, in his mid-40s, may be the new Albert Einstein.  I’ve kept my mouth shut about this because, simply, how can I comment usefully on something I know absolutely nothing about?  (Admittedly, the modern media, blogosphere and Twitter seem to encourage people to make such comments. Not On This Blog.) There’s no scientific paper for me to read.  There’s no technical scientific talk for me to listen to.  I know nothing about this person’s research.  All I know so far is hearsay.  That’s all almost anyone knows, except for a few of my colleagues at Oxford — trustworthy and experienced physicists, who sound quite skeptical, and certainly asked questions that Weinstein couldn’t answer... which doesn’t mean Weinstein is necessarily wrong, only that his theory clearly isn’t finished yet.  (However, I must admit my expert eye is worried that he didn’t have ready answers to such basic questions.)

What I do know is that the probability that Weinstein is the new Einstein is very low.  Why?  Because I do know a lot about how very smart people with very good ideas fail to be Einstein.  It’s not because they’re dumb or foolish.

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What is the “Strength” of a Force?

Particle physicists, cataloging the fundamental forces of nature, have named two of them the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. [A force is simply any phenomenon that pushes or pulls on objects.] More generally they talk about strong and weak forces, speaking of electromagnetism as rather weak and gravity as extremely weak.  What do the words “strong” and “weak” mean here?  Don’t electric forces become strong at short distances? Isn’t gravity a pretty strong force, given that it makes it hard to lift a bar of gold?

Well, these words don’t mean what you think.  Yes, the electric force between two electrons becomes stronger (in absolute terms) as you bring them closer together; the force grows as one over the square of the distance between them.  Yet physicists, when speaking their own language to each other, will view this behavior as what is expected of a typical force, and so will say that “electromagnetism’s strength is unchanging with distance — and it is rather weak at all distances.

And the strength of gravity between the Earth and a bar of gold isn’t relevant either; physicists are interested in the strength of forces between individual elementary (or at least small) particles, not between large objects containing enormous numbers of particles.

Clearly there is a language difference here… as is often the case with words in English and words in Physics-ese.  It requires translation.  So I have now written an article explaining the language of “strong” and “weak” forces used by particle physicists, describing how it works, why it is useful, and what it teaches us about the known forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the (still unobserved but surely present) Higgs force.

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TIME for a Little Soul-Searching

Yes, it was funny, as I hope you enjoyed in my post from Saturday; but really, when we step back and look at it, something is dreadfully wrong and quite sad.  Somehow TIME magazine, fairly reputable on the whole, in the process of reporting the nomination of a particle (the Higgs Boson; here’s my FAQ about it and here’s my layperson’s explanation of why it is important) as a Person (?) of the Year, explained the nature of this particle with a disastrous paragraph of five astoundingly erroneous sentences.   Treating this as a “teaching moment” (yes, always the professor — can’t help myself) I want to go through those sentences carefully and fix them, not to string up or further embarrass the journalist but to be useful to my readers.  So that’s coming in a moment.

But first, a lament.

Who’s at fault here, and how did this happen?  There’s plenty of blame to go around; some lies with the journalist, who would have been wise to run his prose past a science journalist buddy; some lies with the editors, who didn’t do basic fact checking, even of the non-science issues; some lies with a public that (broadly) doesn’t generally care enough about science for editors to make it a priority to have accurate reporting on the subject.  But there’s a history here.  How did it happen that we ended up a technological society, relying heavily on the discoveries of modern physics and other sciences over the last century, and yet we have a public that is at once confused by, suspicious of, bored by, and unfamiliar with science?   I think a lot of the blame also lies with scientists, who collectively over generations have failed to communicate both what we do and why it’s important — and why it’s important for journalists not to misrepresent it.

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Two Major Steps Forward

Apologies to those who’ve been asking questions: I’ve been away from the website for a few days (family matters) and have not been able to keep up with comments.  I will try to catch up over the coming day or two. But I do have two pieces of good news. First, I gave a public … Read more

Einstein, History and Science

On Saturday I gave a lecture, newly minted, on how Einstein is perceived in the public eye, and on how the numerous misconceptions about Einstein affect the way many non-experts believe that science is actually carried out.  Doing the research for the lecture involved, among other things, going back to some original sources I’d never read or had only read a long time ago, looking a bit at Einstein’s notebook from the period around 1912 (online here), and re-reading large portions of a wonderful biography of Einstein that I’m afraid was written by a physicist for physicists — and consequently largely unreadable without technical background, but a must-read for anyone who has that background.  I refer here to Abram Pais’s famous biography: “Subtle is the Lord…”, whose title refers to Einstein’s famous quip: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”  (You can read about the origin of this quip in Pais’s book.)

I also enjoyed tracking down some videos online of various physical effects that Einstein explained, or that he predicted in advance.  These included videos (linked below) of

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End of the OPERA Story

In case you haven’t yet heard (check my previous post from this morning), neutrinos traveling 730 kilometers from the CERN laboratory to the Gran Sasso laboratory do arrive at the time Einstein’s special relativity predicts they would. Of course (as the press mostly seems to forget) we knew that.  We knew it because ICARUS already made … Read more

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