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I am a big fan and collector of the BBC Horizon documentaries and I was pleasantly surprised to have found an old one (probably from the year Horizon started, though I think this is from 1966) that I didn’t know exist till two weeks ago. It is on the exciting discovery of the \Omega - and features Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. It, like the old Horizon documentaries is more technical but at the same time more raw and exciting. And is worth watching only for its historical significance and age if nothing else. Definitely a collector’s item!

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Strangeness Minus Three (BBC Horizon, 1964/6)

Total Runtime: 41:20

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part3]

[Alternative Link]

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A week ago I observed that there was a wonderful new documentary on you-tube, put-up by none other than author and documentary film-maker Christopher Sykes. This post is about this documentary and some thoughts related to it. Before I talk again about the documentary, I’ll digress for a moment and come back to it in a while.

With the exception of the Feynman Lectures in Physics Volume III, Six not so easy pieces (both of which I don’t intend to read in the conceivable future) there is no book with which Feynman was involved (he never wrote himself) that I have not had the opportunity to read. The last that I read was “Don’t You Have Time to Think“, a collection of delightful letters by Feynman written over the years (Note that “Don’t you have time to think” is the same as “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations”).

Don't You Have Time To Think

A number of people including many of Feynman’s close friends were surprised to learn that Feynman wrote letters and so many of them. He didn’t seem to be the kinds who would write the kind of letters that he did.  These give a very different picture of the man than a conventional biography would. Usually, collections of letters tend to be boring and drab, but I think these are an exception.  They reveal him to be a genius with a human touch. I have written about Feynman before, like I have covered points in an earlier post which now seems to me to be overtly enthusiastic. ;-)

Sean Caroll aptly writes that Feynman worship is often overdone, I think he is right. Let me make my own opinion on the matter.

I don’t consider Feynman god or anywhere close to that (but definitely one of my idols and one man I admire greatly), I actually consider him to be very human and some one who was unashamed of admitting to his weaknesses and who had a certain love for life that’s rare. I only am attracted to Feynman for one reason : People like Feynman are a breath of fresh air in the bunch of supercilious pseudo-intellectual snobs that are abound in academia and industry. A breath of fresh air especially for the lesser mortals like me. That’s why I like that man. Why is he so famous? I have tried writing on it before. And I won’t do so anymore.

I’d like to cite two quotes that would give my point of view on the celebrity-fication of scientists, in this case Feynman. Dave Brooks writes in the Telegraph in an article titled “Physicist still leaves some all shook up” February 5, 2003:

Feynman is the person every geek would want to be: very smart, honored  by the establishment even as he won’t play by his rules, admired by people of both sexes, arrogant without being envied and humble without being pitied. In other words, he’s young Elvis, with the Earth  shaking talent transferred from larynx to brain cells and enough sense to have avoided the fat Las Vegas phase. Is such celebrity-fication of scientists good? I think so, even if people do have a tendency to go overboard. Anything that gets us thinking about science is something to be admired, whether it comes in the form of an algorithm or an anecdote.

I remember reading an essay by the legendary Freeman Dyson that said:

Science too needs its share of super heroes to bring in new talent.

These rest my case I suppose.

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The only other book of Feynman that I have not read and that I have wanted to read for a LONG time is Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman’s Last Journey. Unfortunately I have never been able to find it.

Tuva or Bust! Richard Feyman's Last Journey

There was a BBC Horizon documentary on the same. And thankfully Christopher J. Sykes has uploaded that documentary on you-tube.

This is a rare documentary and was the last in which Feynman appeared. It was infact shot just some days before his death. This documents the obsession of Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton with visiting an obscure place in central Asia called Tannu Tuva. During a discussion on geography and in a teasing mood Feynman was reminded of a long forgotten memory and quipped at Leighton, “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva”. Leighton thought it was a joke and confidently said that there was no such country at all. After some searching they found out that Tannu Tuva was once a country and now a soviet satellite. It’s capital was “Kyzyl”, the name was so interesting to Feynman that he though he just had to go to this place. The book and the documentary covers Feynman’s and Leighton’s adventure of scheming of getting to go to Tannu Tuva and to get around Soviet bureaucracy. It is an extremely entertaining film to say the least. The end for it is a little sad though. Feynman passed away three days before he got a letter from the Soviets about permission to visit Tannu Tuva and Leighton appears to be on the verge of tears.

The introduction to the documentary reads as:

The story of physicist Richard Feynman’s fascination with the remote Asian country of Tannu Tuva, and his efforts to go there with his great friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton (co-author of the classic ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman’). Feynman was dying of cancer when this was filmed, and died a few weeks after the filming. Originally shown in the BBC TV science series ‘Horizon’ in 1987, and also shown in the USA on PBS ‘Nova’ under the title ‘Last Journey of a Genius’

Find the five parts to the documentary below:

“I’m an explorer okay? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff”

Part 1

tatu1Click on the above image to watch

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Part 2

tatu2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 3

tatu3-2Click on the above image to watch

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Part 4

tatu4Click on the above image to watch

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Part 5

tatu5-2Click on the above image to watch

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After I got done with the documentary did I realize that the PBS version of the above documentary was available on google video for quite some time.

Find the video here.

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Michelle Feynman

Michelle Feynman

As an aside :  though Feynman could not manage to go to Tuva in his lifetime. His daughter Michelle did visit Tuva last month!

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One of the things that has me in awe after the documentary over the last week is Tuvan throat singing. It is one of the most remarkable things that I have seen in the past month or two. I am strongly attracted to Tibetan chants too, but these are very different and fascinating. The remarkable thing about them being that the singer can produce two pitches as if being sung by two separate singers. Have a look!

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Project Tuva : Character of Physical Law Lectures

On the same day I came across 7 lectures which were given by Feynman at Cornell in 1964 and were put into a book later by the name “The Character of Physical Law”.  These have been made freely available by Microsoft Research. Though some of these lectures have already been on youtube for a while, the ones that were not needless to say were a joy to watch. I had linked to the lectures on Gravitation and Arrow of Time previously.

Project TuvaClick on the above image to be directed to the lectures

I came to know of these lectures on Prof Terence Tao’s page, who I find very inspiring too!

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Quick Links:

1. Christopher J. Sykes’ Youtube channel.

2. Tuva or Bust

3. Project Tuva at Microsoft Research

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Here are a number of interesting courses, two of which I am looking at for the past two weeks and that i would hopefully finish by the end of August-September.

Introduction to Neural Networks (MIT):

These days, amongst the other things that I have at hand including a project on content based image retrieval. I have been making it a point to look at a MIT course on Neural Networks. And needless to say, I am getting to learn loads.

neurons1

I would like to emphasize that though I have implemented a signature verification system using Neural Nets, I am by no means good with them. I can be classified a beginner. The tool that I am more comfortable with are Support Vector Machines.

I have been wanting to know more about them for some years now, but I never really got the time or you can say the opportunity. Now that I can invest some time, I am glad I came across this course. So far I have been able to look at 7 lectures and I should say that I am MORE than very happy with the course. I think it is very detailed and extremely well suited for the beginner as well as the expert.

The instructor is H. Sebastian Seung who is the professor of computational neuroscience at the MIT.

The course has 25 lectures each one packed with a great amount of information. Meaning, the lectures might work slow for those who are not very familiar with this stuff.

The video lectures can be accessed over here. I must admit that i am a little disappointed that these lectures are not available on you-tube. That’s because the downloads are rather large in size. But I found them worth it any way.

The lectures cover the following:

Lecture 1: Classical neurodynamics
Lecture 2: Linear threshold neuron
Lecture 3: Multilayer perceptrons
Lecture 4: Convolutional networks and vision
Lecture 5: Amplification and attenuation
Lecture 6: Lateral inhibition in the retina
Lecture 7: Linear recurrent networks
Lecture 8: Nonlinear global inhibition
Lecture 9: Permitted and forbidden sets
Lecture 10: Lateral excitation and inhibition
Lecture 11: Objectives and optimization
Lecture 12: Excitatory-inhibitory networks
Lecture 13: Associative memory I
Lecture 14: Associative memory II
Lecture 15: Vector quantization and competitive learning
Lecture 16: Principal component analysis
Lecture 17: Models of neural development
Lecture 18: Independent component analysis
Lecture 19: Nonnegative matrix factorization. Delta rule.
Lecture 20: Backpropagation I
Lecture 21: Backpropagation II
Lecture 22: Contrastive Hebbian learning
Lecture 23: Reinforcement Learning I
Lecture 24: Reinforcement Learning II
Lecture 25: Review session

The good thing is that I have formally studied most of the stuff after lecture 13 , but going by the quality of lectures so far (first 7), I would not mind seeing them again.

Quick Links:

Course Home Page.

Course Video Lectures.

Prof H. Sebastian Seung’s Homepage.

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Visualization:

This is a Harvard course. I don’t know when I’ll get the time to have a look at this course, but it sure looks extremely interesting. And I am sure a number of people would be interested in having a look at it. It looks like a course that be covered up pretty quickly actually.tornado

[Image Source]

The course description says the following:

The amount and complexity of information produced in science, engineering, business, and everyday human activity is increasing at staggering rates. The goal of this course is to expose you to visual representation methods and techniques that increase the understanding of complex data. Good visualizations not only present a visual interpretation of data, but do so by improving comprehension, communication, and decision making.

In this course you will learn how the human visual system processes and perceives images, good design practices for visualization, tools for visualization of data from a variety of fields, collecting data from web sites with Python, and programming of interactive visualization applications using Processing.

The topics covered are:

  • Data and Image Models
  • Visual Perception & Cognitive Principles
  • Color Encoding
  • Design Principles of Effective Visualizations
  • Interaction
  • Graphs & Charts
  • Trees and Networks
  • Maps & Google Earth
  • Higher-dimensional Data
  • Unstructured Text and Document Collections
  • Images and Video
  • Scientific Visualization
  • Medical Visualization
  • Social Visualization
  • Visualization & The Arts

Quick Links:

Course Home Page.

Course Syllabus.

Lectures, Slides and other materials.

Video Lectures

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Advanced AI Techniques:

This is one course that I would  be looking at some parts of after I have covered the course on Neural Nets.  I am yet to glance at the first lecture or the materials, so i can not say how they would be like. But I sure am expecting a lot from them going by the topics they are covering.

The topics covered in a broad sense are:

  • Bayesian Networks
  • Statistical NLP
  • Reinforcement Learning
  • Bayes Filtering
  • Distributed AI and Multi-Agent systems
  • An Introduction to Game Theory

Quick Link:

Course Home.

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Astrophysical Chemistry:

I don’t know if I would be able to squeeze in time for these. But because of my amateurish interest in chemistry (If I were not an electrical engineer, I would have been into Chemistry), and because I have very high regard for Dr Harry Kroto (who is delivering them) I would try and make it a point to have a look at them. I think I’ll skip gym for some days to have a look at them. ;-)

kroto2006

[Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto with a Bucky-Ball model – Image Source : richarddawkins.net]

Quick Links:

Dr Harold Kroto’s Homepage.

Astrophysical Chemistry Lectures

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I came across a report on the new year eve of an old problem concerning the fantastic pattern formation and columnar jointing in nature  resolved. This particular problem  has been close to my heart as I elaborate in the paragraph below hence it was fun to read about it.

A Childhood Story: When I was in grade 2, my pappa got me a set of Childcraft Worldbook. It had some very interesting pictures. I was too young to understand the text completely but I used to love looking at the pictures. There was a very nice picture and a short accompanying article on the Giant’s Causeway in Volume 6 – Our World, on page 31 . However, I enjoyed reading this particular article as it had a story of the kind that kids are attracted to. It said that a lot of people before the turn of the century thought it was made by a giant, Fionn Mac Cumhail, to travel from Ireland to Scotland, and that this explained why the mostly regular hexagonal blocks that made up the Giant’s Causeway were so huge. I was fascinated by the story, but there was a short note at the end – It is believed that these columns were made by volcanic activity. I think fascination is fundamental to most science and art, when talking of science it has to be coupled with its seemingly opposite characteristic – skepticism. I think the line on volcanic activity making the structure did just that. Over the years whenever I saw a picture of the Causeway, I used to wonder how it (specifically the shapes) might have formed. And a PhD student has answered that question now!

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The Giant’s Causeway: On the coast of northern Ireland, there is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns extending into the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal and fit very neatly, the neatness of this structure inspired a number of legends of an “intelligent designer”.

giantscauseway_1[A view of the Giant’s Causeway on the northern Irish Coast : Image Source]

Click to Enlarge

giants_causeway[A view of the Basalt Columns on the Causeway: Image Source -BBC]

A structure similar somewhat to the Giant’s Causeway is the Devil’s Postpile in California.

What is known is that in the Paleogene period, there was intense volcanic activity in the region (Antrim), and that it is what formed the structures. However, what was not known was how was it that such specific forms, shapes were formed.

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Research: PhD student Lucas Goehring and his adviser Dr Stephen Morris of the department of Physics  of the University of Toronto have been working on the problem above. They found out that the size of the columns that varies from one site to another varies as according to the speed of cooling of the lava from an eruption/flow. Using a combination (as required for such a task) of solid mathematical theory provided by Harvard Prof L Mahadevan, good experimentation and field work at the actual sites the researchers solved the problem of what determines the size of the columns.The field work involved making measurements in-situ i.e on the columns to determine at what rate had the lava cooled to form them.

The key to understanding and confirming their ideas was reproducing the phenomenon in the lab, that they did using simple materials. The idea was to use water and corn- starch, which cracks when dried and forms very similar columns as the ones talked about. Controlling the drying rate, a relationship between the size of the columns and the cooling rate was worked out.

starch_expt[Image Source – Reference 1]

The above is the experimental setup for the one just described above. According to Goehring : “The columns are formed as a sharp front of cooling moves into the lava flow, assisted by the boiling of groundwater, As the front advances, it leaves behind a crack network which evolves into an almost hexagonal arrangement. This network carves out the columns.”. They found out that the slower the cooling the much larger the columns.

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For more detailed information on the research carried out in this regard, I’d direct you to pages from Goehring’s website.

>> Experiments

>> Field Work

>> Models

>> Extensions

He in the above pages gives a quite accessible picture of their findings and their work. Perfect, especially for somebody like me who is not trained in the field in which this research has been carried out, but are very interested in how it was done.

The findings of this work appeared in the December issue of the proceedings of the national academy of sciences.

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Quick Links:

1. Order and Disorder in Columnar Joints

2. Workshop on Emergent Pattern Formation

3. U-Toronto Press Release

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I recently discovered a series of three lectures by the legendary physicist Hans Bethe given in 1999. Bethe was a professor at  Cornell University almost all his life and these lectures given at age 93 had been made public by the University quite a while ago.

betheblackboard2

[Hans Bethe at the blackboard at Cornell in 1967: Image Source and Copyright – Cornell University ]

These lectures are on the Quantum theory for expert and the non- expert alike. Due to some engagements I am yet to view them, however I am still posting them as I am sure these as given by Bethe himself would be great.

From the Cornell University Webpage for these lectures:

IN 1999, legendary theoretical physicist Hans Bethe delivered three lectures on quantum theory to his neighbors at the Kendal of Ithaca retirement community (near Cornell University). Given by Professor Bethe at age 93, the lectures are presented here as QuickTime videos synchronized with slides of his talking points and archival material.

Intended for an audience of Professor Bethe’s neighbors at Kendal, the lectures hold appeal for experts and non-experts alike. The presentation makes use of limited mathematics while focusing on the personal and historical perspectives of one of the principal architects of quantum theory whose career in physics spans 75 years.

A video introduction and appreciation are provided by Professor Silvan S. Schweber, the physicist and science historian who is Professor Bethe’s biographer, and Edwin E. Salpeter, the J. G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Science Emeritus at Cornell, who was a post-doctoral student of Professor Bethe.


Introduction

video0-2

View Introduction (Quick Time Required)

The introduction has been given by Edwin E. Salpeter and Silvan S. Schweber.


Lecture 1

video1

View Lecture 1 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 2

video2

View Lecture 2 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 3

video3

View Lecture 3 (Quick Time Required)

Appreciation

video4-2

View Appreciation (Quick Time Required)

Note: All the images above and also the text giving an introduction to the lectures are a copyright of Cornell. Please comply with the terms of use associated with them.

Links:

1. Download Apple Quick Time

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The Camera Lucida

While reading something by Leonel Moura a few months ago which described in some sense the evolution of art. I came across the Camera Lucida, I had not heard or read about it before and reading about it was fun. Not only is it elegant but is something that can be used with good effect even today and is available quite easily with art suppliers.

The Camera Lucida is a very elegant device, it works to the effect as if the the object we have to draw is reflected on the paper or the canvas we are drawing on. So one would only have to trace the object without having to worry about the perspective. Camera Lucida is Latin for light chamber which is the exact opposite of Camera Obscura which means dark chamber. That ancestral thread lead to the modern photography and as an illustration of that fact we still call our photographic devices as cameras. However there is no optical similarity between these two devices.

It was used as a handy drawing and painting tool by artists and even microbiologists till a few decades ago and was invented by  William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. There is some evidence that the device was first described by Johannes Kepler but over time his contribution it seems was forgotten and now the invention is largely attributed to Wollaston. Wollaston’s original design is given below

[Image Source: Wikipedia Commons]

In such an arrangement an artist looks down at the fabric or paper (labeled as P) through a half silvered mirror which is placed at 45 degrees. The mirror is adjusted so that the source or the object to be drawn (Label S) is in the field of view. Given the arrangement, a virtual image of the source is formed on the paper, this superimposition appears as if the object or person of who you are making a painting of is reflected on the sheet and thus the job is reduced to simply making the outline and coloring it aptly.

Note: The light coming from S is totally internally reflected at the surfaces of the four sided glass prism allowing all of the light from the source to the eye.

[Images Courtesy of The Camera Lucida Company]

The image on the left is simply of an artist using a camera lucida to paint a subject on paper, and the one on the right is simply a photograph taken with a camera lens in place of the artist’s eye and it shows how the image of the subject appears on the paper with the hand of the artist. The Camera Lucida as I mentioned earlier was for obvious reasons used by microbiologists as till recently photomicrographs were expensive!

A sample sketch of a Camera Lucida used for this purpose is shown below:

Click to Enlarge

[A Camera Lucida: Image Courtesy, The Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney ]

Controversy

According to a controversial art history theory called the Hockney-Falco hypothesis advanced by a British-American artist David Hockney, quite a few of the great artists of the past whose works lead to advances in Realism were using optical aids and that their creations were not entirely due to their skill as is held. The evidence for this proposal is based solely on the characteristics of the paintings. Hockney’s collaborator Charles Falco who is a condensed matter physicist and an expert on optics calculated the amount of distortions that would result with the use of certain optical aids. Such distortions have been found in the works of quite a few artists such as Ingres, Carvaggio etc. Their controversial idea is summarized in Hockney’s book: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

[Image Source: Amazon]

The Camera Lucida is also very easy to make and I going to make one of these soon!

PS: Also check out the David Hockney page at Artsy.

Quick Links:

1. Buy a Camera Lucida

2. The Camera Obscura

3. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

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I started writing this post on 18 June with the singular aim of posting it by 22 June. The objective of this post was to celebrate the life and ideas of Tommy Gold (May 22, 1920 – June 22, 2004) on his fourth death anniversary. But after that I did not have much access to the Internet for reasons I had posted about earlier, and so sadly I missed that date. After that I did not edit and post it as I thought there would be little point. Now I think it is okay to  post it instead of deleting it all together. A tribute to Thomas Gold would still be the aim though I regret I could not post in time.

[Image Source]

Quoting Thomas Gold (Source):

New ideas in science are not always right just because they are new. Nor are the old ideas always wrong just because they are old. A critical attitude is clearly required of every scientist. But what is required is to be equally critical to the old ideas as to the new. Whenever the established ideas are accepted uncritically, but conflicting new evidence is brushed aside and not reported because it does not fit, then that particular science is in deep trouble – and it has happened quite often in the historical past. If we look over the history of science, there are very long periods when the uncritical acceptance of the established ideas was a real hindrance to the pursuit of the new. Our period is not going to be all that different in that respect, I regret to say.

This paragraph reminds me of a post on Gaping Void, a blog that I just discovered two days back on the fantastic Reasonable Deviations. The post, titled Good Ideas Have Lonely Childhoods is highly recommended to read, as a vast majority of good ideas are heretical and this post is on a heretic. Infact this post on Gaping Void prompted me to publish this forgotten draft!

Thomas Gold was a true renaissance man, a brilliant polymath and a controversial figure who Freeman Dyson has described as a modern heretic. Gold was born as an Austrian and was educated in Switzerland and the UK, Initially he worked with Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle and then later accepted an appointment with the prestigious Cornell University and remained there till his death.

Gold portrays the typical rebel scientist, with a penchant for controversy and working against general and strongly held theories. Gold worked across a large number of fields- Cosmology, Biophysics, Astrophysics, Geophysics, Space Engineering etc. Throughout his career Gold never cared about being wrong or of the opposition. He had this knack of turning out to be right. He however was not afraid to be wrong, infact he has been very famously wrong two times and he took both times in good humor. Such was his intellect that he never cared of any opposition and his ideas have always been very interesting. I hope to chronicle some of his major ideas here.

Coming back, as I said he has been famously wrong two times:

1. First was the steady state theory. Gold along with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi developed and published the steady state theory of the universe in 1948. The three thought that it was impossible to think that all of matter could be created out of an initial singularity. The theory proposed that new matter is created continuously and this accounts for the constant density of the expanding universe. Though this seems to have violated the first law of thermodynamics the steady state had a number of supporters in the 50s and the 60s but the discovery of the cosmic background radiation which basically is a remnant of the big bang or explosion was the first major blow to it and over time its wide acceptance declined to only a very few cosmologists like Jayant V. Narlikar, who very recently have proposed alternatives and modifications to the original idea of steady state like the quasi steady state. However whatever said and done, the competition between the Big Bang and the Steady State spurred a lot of research which ultimately has helped us understand the cosmos better as good competition always does.

2. His second major incorrect idea was proposed in 1955, when he said that moon’s surface was covered with a fine rock powder that is electro-statically supported. He later said that astronauts would sink as soon as they landed on the moon. His theory influenced the design of the American Surveyor lunar landing probes to a very large extent. But their precautions were excessive and most of the fears were unfounded, though when the Apollo 11 crew bought back soil samples from the moon, it was indeed powdery though nowhere close to the extent Gold had proposed it to be. However a lot of astronomers credit a lot of development in planetology in subsequent years to Gold’s initial work and ideas on the lunar regolith.

[The famous photo of the footprint on the Lunar Surface: The Lunar soil was powdery as predicted by Gold but nowhere to the extent he had thought so. Image Source : Wikipedia Commons]

On both the occasions Gold took “defeat” in good humor, the trademark of a good scientist is that he is never afraid to be wrong. He once remarked:

Science is no fun, if you are never wrong!

In choosing a hypothesis there is no virtue in timidity and no shame in sometimes being wrong.

The second quote is not supposed to be humorous by the way.

On most occasions however, Thomas Gold had this knack of turning out to be right inspite of facing intense criticism initially. Some of his heretical ideas that turned out right were:

1. Pitch Discriminative Ability of the Ear: One of the first of Tommy Gold’s ideas that was received with much hostility and was summarily rejected by the experts of the time was his theory and experiments on hearing and pitch discrimination. In 1946 immediately after the great war, Gold got interested in the ability of the human ear to discriminate the pitch of musical sounds. It was a question that was perplexing the auditory physiologists of the time, and Gold fresh from working with the royal navy on radars and communications thought of the physiology of hearing in those terms. The human ear can tell the difference when a pure tone changes by as little as one percent. Gold thought that the ear contained a set of resonators finely tuned, whereas the prevailing view of the time was that the internal structure of the ear was too weak and flabby to resonate and all the interpretation of the sounds and tones happened in the brain, with the information being communicated by neural signals.

Gold designed a very simple and elegant experiment to prove the experts, the professional auditory physiologists wrong. The experiment has been described by Freeman Dyson in his book, The Scientist as Rebel as he himself was a part of the experiment. Prof Freeman writes:

He (Gold) fed into the headphones a signal consisting of short pulses of a pure tone, separated by intervals of silence. The silent intervals were atleast ten times as long as the period of the pure tone. The pulses were all of the same shape, but they had phases that could be reversed independently….Sometimes Gold gave all the pulses the same phase and some times he alternated the phases so that the even pulses had one phase and the odd pulses had the opposite phase. All I had to do was to sit with the headphones on my ears and listen while Gold put in the signals with either constant or alternating phases. I had to tell him from the sound whether the phase was constant or alternating. When the silent intervals between pulses was ten times the period of the pure tone, it was easy to tell the difference. I heard a noise like a mosquito, a hum and a buzz sounding together, and the quality of the hum changed noticeably when the phases were changed from constant to alternating. We repeated the trials with longer silent intervals. I could still tell the difference, when the silent interval was as long as thiry periods.

This elegant experiment showed that the human ear could remember the phase of a signal after it has stopped for thirty times the period of the signal and proved that pitch discrimination was done not in the brain but in the ear. To be able to remember the phase, the ear should have finely tuned resonators that continue to vibrate during the period of silence.

Now armed with experimental evidence for his theory that pitch discrimination was done in the ear, Gold also had a theory on how there could be very finely tuned resonators made up of the weak and flabby material in the ear. He proposed that the ear involved an active – not a passive – receiver, one in which positive feedback, not just passive detection is involved. He said that the ear had an electrical feedback system, the mechanical resonators are coupled to the electrically powered sensors so that the overall system works like an active tuned amplifier. The positive feedback would counteract the dissipation taking place in the flabby internal structure of the ear.

Gold’s findings and ideas were rejected by the experts of the field, who said Gold was an ignorant outsider with absolutely no knowledge or training in physiology. Gold however always maintained he was right. Thirty years later, auditory physiologists armed with more sophisticated tools discovered that Gold was indeed correct. The electrical sensors and the feedback system in the ear were identified.

Gold’s two papers on hearing published in 1948 remain highly cited to this day.

2. Pulsars: One of his ideas that was rather quickly accepted was his idea on what a Pulsar was. After being discovered by radio astronomers Gold proposed that they were rotation neutron stars.

[A schematic of a Pulsar. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons]

After some initial disapproval this idea was accepted almost immediately by the “experts”. Gold himself has written this on this matter in an article authored by him titled The Inertia of Scientific Thought:

Shortly after the discovery of pulsars I wished to present an interpretation of what pulsars were, at this first pulsar conference: namely that they were rotating neutron stars. The chief organiser of this conference said to me, “Tommy, if I allow for that crazy an interpretation, there is no limit to what I would have to allow”. I was not allowed five minutes floor time, although I in fact spoke from the floor. A few months later, this same organiser started a paper with the sentence, “It is now generally considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars”.

3. The Arrow of Time: In the 60s Gold wrote extensively on The Arrow of Time, and held the view that the universe will re collapse someday and that the arrow of time will reverse. His views remain controversial till today and a vast majority of cosmologists don’t even take it seriously. It remains to be seen if Gold’s hypothesis would be respected.

4. Polar Wandering: In the 1950s while at the royal observatory, Gold became interested in the instability of Earth’s axis of rotation or the wandering pole. He wrote a number of papers on plasmas and magentic fields in the solar system and also coined the term “The Earth’s Magnetosphere”. In 1955 he published yet another revolutionary paper “Instability of the Earth’s Axis of Rotation“. Gold made the view that large scale polar wandering could be expected to occur in relatively short geological time spans. That is, he expressed the possibility that the Earth’s axis of rotation could migrate by 90 degrees in a time of under a million years. This effectively means that in such a case, points at the equator would come to the poles and points at the poles would come at the equator. Gold argued that this 90 degree migration would be triggered by movements of mass that would cause the old axis of rotation to become unstable. A large accumulation of ice at the poles for example might be one reason why such a flip could occur. His paper was ignored largely for over 40-45 years, largely because at that time the research was focused on plate tectonics and continental drift.

In 1997 a Caltech professor Joseph Kirschvink, who is an expert in these areas published a paper that suggested that such a 90 degree flip indeed happened at least once in the past in the early Cambrian era. This holds much significance given the fact that this large scale migration of the poles coincides with the so called “Cambrian Explosion“. Gold’s work was finally confirmed after being ignored for decades.

5. Abiogenic Origin of Petroleum: When I first read about the theory of abiogenic origin of petroleum promoted by Tommy Gold and many Soviet and Ukrainian Geologists, I was immediately reminded of my old organic chemistry texts that spoke of the abiogenic origin theory given by Mendeleev almost 150 years ago. This was called Mendeleev’s Carbide Theory and it died after the biological theory of petroleum origin was widely accepted.

Speaking as a layman who has little knowledge of geology, petroleum etc, I would say any theory of petroleum origin must broadly explain the following points:

1. Its association with Brine.

2. Presence of N and S compounds.

3. Presence of biomarkers, chlorophyll and haemin in it.

4. It’s optically active nature.

According to Mendeleev’s Carbide theory:

1. The molten metals in the Earth’s interior combined with carbon from coal deposits to form the corresponding carbides.

  • Ca + 2C ---> Ca C_2
  • Mg + 2C---> Mg C_2
  • 4Al + 3C---> Al_4 C_3

2. The carbides reacted with steam or water under high temperature and pressure to form a mixture of saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons.

  • Ca C_2 + 2H_2 O---> Ca(OH)_2 + C_@ H_2
  • Al_4 C_3 +12H_2 O---> 4Al(OH)_3 +3C H_4

3. The unsaturated hydrocarbons underwent a series of reactions such as hydrogenation, isomerisation, polymerisation and alkylation to form a number of hydrocarbons.

  • C_2 H_2 ---> C_2 H_4 ---> C_2 H_6
  • 3[C_2 H_2]---> C_6 H_6

etc.

This theory got the support by the work of Moissan and Sabatier and Senderen. Moissan obtained a petroleum like liquid by the hydrogenation of Uranium Carbide, Sabatier and Senderen obtained a petroleum type substance by the hydrogenation of Acetylene.

However the theory was in time replaced by the theory of biological origin as it failed to account for:

1. The presence of Nitrogen and Sulphur compounds.

2. Presence of Haemin and Chlorophyll.

3. Optically active nature.

After almost hundred years, the abiogenic theory was resurrected by the great Russian geologist Nikolai Alexandrovitch Kudryavtse in 1951. This was worked on extensively by a number of Russians in the coming two decades.

In the west Thomas Gold was the only major proponent of it. And this is his most controversial theory, not only because it was opposed by powerful oil industry lobbyists but also because Gold faced much flak for plagiarism, something that Gold refused to acknowledge, in his later works he cited the works of the Russian scientists in the field. He maintained that he was simply not aware of the work done by the Soviet Geologists and that he cited their work once he became aware of it. Gold proposed that the natural gas and the oil came from reservoirs from deep within the Earth and are simply relics of the formation of the Earth. And that the biological molecules found in them did not show they had a biological origin but rather that they were contaminated by living creatures. He remained critical of the proponents of the theory of biological origin as then it could not be explained why there were hydrocarbon reserves on other planets when there had been no life on them. This theory remains controversial, Gold could not live to defend it. However an elegant experiment performed provides some evidence that Gold could indeed again be right.

Dyson wrote the following on an EDGE essay in this regard:

Just a few weeks before he died, some chemists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington did a beautiful experiment in a diamond anvil cell, [Scott et al., 2004]. They mixed together tiny quantities of three things that we know exist in the mantle of the earth, and observed them at the pressure and temperature appropriate to the mantle about two hundred kilometers down. The three things were calcium carbonate which is sedimentary rock, iron oxide which is a component of igneous rock, and water. These three things are certainly present when a slab of subducted ocean floor descends from a deep ocean trench into the mantle. The experiment showed that they react quickly to produce lots of methane, which is natural gas. Knowing the result of the experiment, we can be sure that big quantities of natural gas exist in the mantle two hundred kilometers down. We do not know how much of this natural gas pushes its way up through cracks and channels in the overlying rock to form the shallow reservoirs of natural gas that we are now burning. If the gas moves up rapidly enough, it will arrive intact in the cooler regions where the reservoirs are found. If it moves too slowly through the hot region, the methane may be reconverted to carbonate rock and water. The Carnegie Institute experiment shows that there is at least a possibility that Tommy Gold was right and the natural gas reservoirs are fed from deep below. The chemists sent an E-mail to Tommy Gold to tell him their result, and got back a message that he had died three days earlier.

6. The Deep Hot Biosphere: I am yet to read this book, though I have been thinking of reading it for almost a year now.

[The Deep Hot Biosphere, Image Source : Amazon]

In this controversial but famous theory Gold proposes that the entire crust of the Earth uptill a depth of a few miles is populated by living creatures. The biosphere that we see is only a very small part of it. The most ancient part of it is much larger and is much warmer. In 1992 Gold referred to ocean vents that pump bacteria from the depth of the Earth in support of his views. A number of such hydrothermal vents have since then been discovered. There is increasing evidence that his yet another controversial theory might just be right. Even if it is not, the evidence collected will help us understand our planet much better.

[A Black Smoker Hydrothermal Vent]

Finally Quoting Prof Freeman Dyson on him again:

Gold’s theories are always original, always important, usually controversial, and usually right.

References and Recommended Reads:

1. The Scientist as Rebel : Chapter 3 – Freeman Dyson (Amazon)

2. The Inertia of Scientific Thought – Thomas Gold

3. The Deep Hot Biosphere – Thomas Gold

4. Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society – Freeman Dyson

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