Feeds:
Posts

## Personal and Historical Prespectives of Hans Bethe

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.

[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

View Introduction (Quick Time Required)

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

Lecture 1

View Lecture 1 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 2

View Lecture 2 (Quick Time Required)

Lecture 3

View Lecture 3 (Quick Time Required)

Appreciation

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.

Onionesque Reality Home >>

## The Emerging Mind

About two months back I came across a series of Reith lectures given by professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, Dr Ramachandran holds a MD from Stanley Medical College and a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge University and is presently the director of the center for Brain and cognition at the University of California at San Diego and an adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. Dr Ramachandran is known for his work on behavioral neurology, which promises to greatly enhance our understanding of the human brain, which could be the key in my opinion in making “truly intelligent” machines.

[Dr VS Ramachandran: Image Source- TED]

I heard these lectures two three times and really enjoyed them and was intrigued by the cases he presents. Though these are old lectures (they were given in 2003), they are new to me and I think they are worth sharing anyway.

For those who are not aware, the Reith lectures were started by the British Broadcasting Corporation radio in 1948. Each year a person of high distinction gives these lectures. The first were given by mathematician Bertrand Russell. They were named so in the honor of the first director general of the BBC- Lord Reith. Like most other BBC presentations on science, politics and philosophy they are fantastic. Dr Ramachandran became the first from the medical profession to speak at Reith.

The 2003 series named The Emerging Mind has five lectures, each being roughly about 28-30 minutes. Each are a trademark of Dr Ramachandran with funny anecdote, witty arguments, very intersting clinical cases, the best pronunciation of “billions” since Carl Sagan, and let me not mention the way he rolls the RRRRRRRs while talking. Below I don’t intend to write what the lectures are about, I think they should be allowed to talk for themselves.

Lecture 1: Phantoms in the Brain

Lecture 2: Synapses and the Self

Lecture 3: The Artful Brain

Lecture 4: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese

Lecture 5: Neuroscience the new Philosophy

[Images above courtesy of the BBC]

Note: Real Player required to play the above.

As a bonus to the above I would also advice to those who have not seen this to have a look at the following TED talk.

In a wide-ranging talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran explores how brain damage can reveal the connection between the internal structures of the brain and the corresponding functions of the mind. He talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear color or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters.

Again he talks about curious disorders. One that he talks about in the above video, the Capgras Delusion is only one among the many he talks about in the Reith lectures. Other things that he talks about here is the origin of language and synesthesia.

Now look at the picture below and answer the following question: Which of the two figures is Kiki and which one is Bouba?

If you thought that the one with the jagged shape was Kiki and the one with the rounded one was Bouba then you belong to the majority. The exceptions need not worry.

These experiments were first conducted by the German gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler and were repeated with the names “Kiki” and “Bouba” given to these shapes by VS Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard. In their experiments, they found a very strong inclination in their subjects to name the jagged shape Kiki and the rounded one Bouba. This happened with about 95-98 percent of the subjects. The experiments were repeated in Tamil speakers and then in babies of about 3 years of age. (who could not write) The results were similar. The only exceptions being in people having autistic disorders where the percentage reduced to only 60.

Dr Ramachandran and Dr Hubbard went on to suggest that this could have implications in our understanding of how language evolved as it suggests that naming of objects is not a random process as held by a number of views but depends on the appearance of the object under consideration. The strong “K” in Kiki had a direct correlation with the jagged shape of that object, thus suggesting a non-arbitrary mapping of objects with the sounds associated with them.

In the above talk and also the lectures, he talks about Synesthesia, a condition wherein the subject associates a color on seeing black and white numbers and letters with each.

His method of studying rare disorders to understand what in the brain does what is very interesting and is giving insights much needed to understand the organ that drives innovation and well, almost everything.

I highly recommend all the above lectures and the video above.

Onionesque Reality Home >>

## First Optical Images of extra-solar Planets

It is logical to believe that there exist millions of planets in the “vicinity” of our part of the universe alone. However, limited due to tools and the extremely vast distances to be dealt with, we have only been to locate about 300 extra-solar planets, and these have been located indirectly. That is, by observing gravitational wobbles by tracking the star over a period of time it can be known if it is tugged at by an object like a planet.

Why is it difficult to Image the actual planets, one might ask? Well the reason is simple, the distances we deal with are so huge the star simply outshines the planet, making it very difficult to image the planets moving around the star. How does one avoid this problem? The idea is very practical. A occulting bar is used to block out the brightest part of the star’s image so that the blinding light is reduced. Other more specialized techniques can improve things by reducing the light further.

Also another strategy used by professional astronomers looking into deep space for planets over the last two decades has been to focus on systems expected around young stars. The reason being that if the formation of the planetary system is recent the planets would be significantly brighter from the heat of their formation. Much like our early solar system. It would be very difficult to look into space for a planet that is nestled in a star system like that of our Sun of today. This is because the planets would be very very faint (as they would be older and hence colder) and hence very very difficult to image.

However for the first time we have ACTUALLY been able to see extra-solar planets. This is a HUGE step, culminating from years of painstaking observations and focus. These planets are gaseous and probably will have no trace of life. However, the fact that we have been able to image them has a LOT of meaning. Some astronomers have said that it might not be very fantastic to think that we might in a very short time vector be able to observe some Earth like planet that is more likely to have life (carbon based, atleast of the type we know), now this is something that one could not even THINK of some years ago. It was probably fantasy to think we could be able to image planets like our own, now suddenly it looks quite possible.

The first image below, taken by the Hubble telescope shows a ring of dust surrounding the star Fomalhaut (derived from the Arabic فم الحوت fum al-ḥawt, meaning “mouth of the whale”) which is only 25 light years away in the constellation Piscis Australis. This star can be seen with the naked eye in the night sky. The lower right inset image is a composite image from the images taken in 2004 and 2006. Paul Kalas and his team of the University of California at Berkeley found out the planet.  This planet completes orbit around its star every 872 years.

[Image Source: HubbleSite]

The radial streaks are scattered starlight. The planet’s temperature is 260 degrees, quite cool compared to other exoplanets. This dot is about three times the weight of Jupiter and about three times as far from the star as compared to how far Pluto is from our sun. This dusty ring around Fomalhaut is suspected to be something like the Kuiper belt of our solar system.

This star system was expected to have planets in 2005.

The following is a video on the same:

A ring of dust surrounds the star Fomalhaut. Images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 and 2006 show that a white dot just inside the dust ring moved in the intervening two years. Researchers believe the dot is a planet that weighs no more than 3 Jupiter masses and lies about three times as far from its star as Pluto does from the Sun (Courtesy of Paul Kalas/UC Berkeley)

Yet another fantastic finding was the discovery of a planetary trio orbiting the star HR 8799 in the constellation pegasus. About 130 light years away, the planets found are from 7-10 times the size of jovian Jupiter. With the farthest of the lot sitting at a distance of 68 AU from HR 8799 (1 AU is the distance between the earth and the Sun). These planets are still glowing because of the heat resulting from contraction after their formation. Their orbit was measured by far IR techniques at the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in Hawaii.

This near-infrared composite image shows the nearby star HR 8799 (multi-coloured blob) and its three planets (red dots at upper left, upper right and just below the star). The planets are 7 to 10 times as massive as Jupiter (Image: National Research Council Canada).

Wow! I am awed once again by the ability of astronomers to find out even the most obscure of dots amongst a nasty conundrum of dots. And even more by the discovery itself. And let me not talk about the images we have above.

I have always harbored a fantasy, that is to be on the crew of humans who get to travel to such a far off land on a Super Daedalus or Super Orion type space-ship. It would take some years (space-ship time). But ofcourse when I return to Earth I would not find anybody I know. For, centuries would have passed as per Earth time by the time I get back. ;)

Onrionesque Reality Home >>

## Chandrayaan 1’s first Pictures

The first Indian lunar probe the Chandrayaan I (in sanskrit, संस्कृतम् Chandra = moon ; Yaan = Vehicle . So, literally it means moon craft) beamed back its first pictures of the earth that it took as the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) has been testing the cameras on Chandrayaan.

The terrain mapping camera aboard Chandrayaan, which is a black and white imager, had been turned on for testing. It relayed back two test images, one taken at a height of 3,000 km and the other at a height if 70,000 km. The Pictures can be found and viewed in higher resolution here.

Update (15 November): Chandrayaan has now started sending pictures from the Moon,  this post was written only for the pictures sent back of the Earth while testing the terrain mapping camera. Find them at the end of this post.

[Pictures of home never grow old ]

Click to Enlarge

The Chandrayaan was launched on the 22nd of October by India’s old warhorse the PSLV (C11) into an initial elliptical orbit around the Earth. Like many I was skeptical about the logic for such a mission when it was announced a few years ago. I just thought there was no real logic in doing an exercise that would essentially be a re-invention of the wheel. Over time my view refined by more information about it has changed. I will come back to this in just about a while.

Ofcourse one would say anything to do with space research is a show of a countries growing economic clout and it commands immediate respect. True, but that is not why I think it is not a futile exercise.

Inexpensive, So why not do it? Some argue that though India is growing rapidly and is projected to over take many major European economic powerhouses by 2015-2020 (It is already ahead of them in PPP terms though still has a long way to go in nominal GDP terms) and countries like Japan by the 2030-35, it still has a lot of people under the poverty line and the standard of living remains low. So it is only a waste of money. Well, the Chandrayaan I only cost \$80 million, the cheapest moon mission of comparable scales by far. And this much money is meager when you look at an elephant like economy really (to give you an idea, the Boeing 747-8 costs US\$285.5-300 million according to 2007 prices. So the mission that way cost nothing really, so the whole talk about India wasting money has very little ground.

To Avoid a Possible Space Apartheid: The NPT is always billed as an unfair treaty by three nations that refuse to sign it – India, Israel and Pakistan. Their argument being that the provision of the treaty that allows the countries that made atomic weapons before 1967 to keep weapons, and to continue their development and to disallow and to impose sanctions on countries that try to develop weapons later is unfair, and there is no reason stated why such a distinction is made. India has advocated disarmament as a complete solution.

Anyway, I have always thought that an international agency should hold a minimum number of weapons and all the other countries should give up their nuclear weapons over time. This reserve should be kept only for a very unlikely doomsday scenario in the future that might require mankind (stress added) to intercept a comet on collision path towards the Earth with an Orion like super missile. This is extremely unlikely, but one can never totally rule out the chance even in a medium term time vector.

Coming back, if in a similar manner, in the medium term future there is a possibility of some select countries to set up a base on Mars or on the Moon, then it is possible that countries who made a mark in space till a specific date might only get to join. And it might just end up being like the NPT. So making a mark is a wise thing to do. Though again this is a sort of an outlandish argument.

Now coming back to the main argument that was it worth it to send a mission that is like doing boldly what others have done before. What new is left on the moon to be looked at, absolutely nothing? I think it is not something like that, and it is definitely worth it. Let’s get a sense of history first to see why.

A Little History: The Moon always has been an object of wonder since the stone age man. Many rock paintings have featured the moon. Over the ages people have looked up with amazement on what it was and what was on it. Most religious beliefs accorded it to be an immutable creation of God and some gave the Moon the status of god.

This notion was first challenged in recorded history by the observations of the Canterbury Monks in 1178 (June 18), who recorded an explosion on the moon, which was in recent times confirmed as a comet striking the moon. By the middle ages it was fairly recognized that the moon was a sphere though mostly it was held that it had a smooth surface. The heretic Galileo Galilei was the first to draw images of the moon that challenged this view. Clearly, the telescope was the first giant leap in the exploration of the moon. Over time it was recognized that the moon had a surface as terrestrial as on Earth and that there was nothing heavenly about the moon. For some centuries for the want of tools, there continued to be speculations about the nature of moon and life on it.

Speculations are always a part of any space exploration or thought process, they only aid in further development of tools to explore them, the present one being speculations (though more studied and calculated than the ones we had 500 years ago ofcourse)  about water or He3 on the moon. The absence of tools gave rise to wild speculations like in the great moon hoax of 1835 a number of people were led to believe that there were strange beings living on the moon.

The era of modern exploration of the moon began with the Luna 1 (also Mechta : Russian word meaning Dream) of the former Soviet Union.

[The Luna 1]

It was the first human made object to reach the vicinity of the moon. The subsequent cold war race between the Soviet Union and the US culminated in 1969 with the landing of the first humans on the moon. Till then they had sent about 40 spacecrafts to map and study the lunar surface in great detail. After the first moon landing about a dozen men landed on the moon. They were as follows:

Apollo 11 [July 20, 1969]:
1. Neil Armstrong “One small step for (a) man, One giant leap for mankind…”
2. Buzz Aldrin

Apollo 12 [November 19-20, 1969]:
4. Alan Bean

Apollo 14 [February 5-6, 1971]:
5. Alan Shepard
6. Edgar Mitchell

Apollo 15 [July 31-August 2, 1971]:
7. David Scott
8. James Irwin

Apollo 16 [April 21-23, 1972]:
9. John W. Young
10. Charles Duke

Apollo 17 [December 11-14, 1972]:
11. Eugene Cernan
12. Harrison Schmitt

The Soviets mainly relied on robotic explorers to collect rock samples whereas the above astronauts got about 400 kg of soil and rock samples back to earth for investigation. After the end of this race the interest in the moon significantly waned. Was there anything left to know about the moon that would interest us at all?

Moon Mysteries:

>> Though we know the maximum about the moon as compared to any other celestial body other than our own planet, we still know very little about it.

>> The Moon is 4.5 billion years old and is a witness to the countless mysteries about the solar system we are not aware of. It still has a lot to offer. And its proximity would only help us in this quest.

>> Comprehensive lunar surveyors like the Clementine gave us a lot of new insight, but a lot remains to be known.

>> The origins of the moon are not known well enough. According to one hypothesis that has maximum currency today is that a large object collided with the Earth and resulted into debris that eventually formed the Moon.

How the Chandrayaan is Not A Reinvention of the Wheel:

1. The chief advantage that the Chandrayaan has is that it carries instruments that can survey the Moon in extensive detail like never before. This could lead to various new insights. It could map the Moon using the visible, UV, IR, X-Ray, Low Power Gamma ray and radar. This would give a detailed 3-D atlas of the moon and also a sound picture of its chemical composition.

The probe is expected to orbit the moon for two years, in this period if suppose there is a solar flare, then the x-rays emitted from the Sun could cause the iron on the Moon to emit characteristic X-rays which could be analysed by the Imaging X-Ray spectrometer. Also, this data could be used by the Hyper Spectral Imager and the Moon Mineralogy mapper to find out the amount of Iron on the Moon.

2. Water on the permanently shadowed regions of the poles of the Moon was a distinct possibility that was indicated by the Clementine mission, the Chandrayaan could go a long way in investigating this further.

3. There are many other objectives that the Chandrayaan is expected to work at.

For more details look here

Update (15th November): Chandrayaan has now started sending back images of the Moon and some have been released by the ISRO. They can be found over here:

One of them below was taken by the TMC in orbit.

[Photo Source: Indian Space Research Organization ]

Click to Enlarge

In conclusion, one thing is for sure. World competition for space is now a thing of the past IMHO and space agencies around the world would only co-operate for working towards the overall benefit of mankind.

## What Drives Science?

This post started off as a comment on Gibberish on the blog Backreaction. But then I decided to write on it on my own blog. It was inspired by some abrasive remarks by Lubos Motl on his blog (read the line about female reproductive organs helping in getting jobs for example, clearly disparaging Sabine. Having followed her blog for a while, I think she is a smart woman) for the said post and comments by him on Sabine’s blog and by her in response.

I just find it very upsetting and even disgusting how Dr Lubos Motl writes sometimes about people or countries he does not like or agree with. I find it upsetting because in midst of well thought out and totally rational arguments he gets so angry with someone who has a different point of view and pops up something totally abusive, disgusting and ofcourse politically incorrect which kills his point.  For Example look at this. I am reminded of this simple but very profound quote:

He who angers you, conquers you.

Whatever it is, his point gets lost in his angry abuses and abrasiveness. I still read his blog everyday (even though sometimes it upsets me) as once in a while it definitely carries a GOOD point hidden under his dark “humor” and abuses. Thus, though he has good points it seems that they sink in rhetoric.

I don’t know for sure what was the objective for Dr Sabine to write her blog post. If she wrote it just for fun, in the sense making fun of how incomprehensible the abstract seemed to be (as yes, the abstract is simply beyond understanding for the uninitiated) then it was perfectly all right. I mean come on, we all laugh sometimes when we for example look at a textbook in which we can’t understand a word in the beginning. So if she wrote in that sense then it is perfectly okay and even funny. :)

But if not, then my point being that papers in such specialized disciplines can not expected to be written to be comprehensible to the general public. Which is exactly what Lubos was thundering about here. I have often seen Motl sparring with Sabine, Peter Woit, Lee Smolin and others mostly on opposing theories and having very heated discussions. Sometimes coming to the point like: Your ideas are shit and so are you and your brain and so on.

These exchanges often come down to the following: What drives Science? And what should drive it. And what is “good” science and what is “not so good” science. And who decides that?

And I will write about this and not about Motl or any other person I mentioned above. They and their discussions only served as an inspiration to write. Let me make that VERY clear.

We can write about things after having done our work in a way that the general public understands and that more and more people are attracted to it. It is probably the duty of all involved in science to try and make their work look exciting once completed so that more and more people are attracted to science and technology BUT they can’t do some work only with an eye that it would gain currency amongst audiences (this could sometimes be true for some new technology but not for pure science).
Science IMHO is not driven by social forces (yes sometimes research in a particular discipline can be started due to social needs, but once started it is driven by its own internal logic and by objective facts of nature). And if it is then it should not be.

I am an engineer by training and not a physicist, so I don’t claim to be understanding beyond a broad outline about most things these guys have animated discussions about. Technology but NOT pure science i.e the search of truth, is probably greatly driven by social forces but I wrote this as papers would always seem to be incomprehensible and estoric to the general public. Science can never be done with a view on public opinion and it should ideally develop on its own logic (keeping a check with experiment) and not as how we would like to see it develop. Even if that means getting incomprehensible papers like these.
Making them comprehensible after doing your work to the public to make science look attractive is the duty of people who want more and more people attracted to science as I said earlier. But doing science only to make it attractive is unacceptable. Science is only driven by the quest to understand nature. (these three lines are repeated again on purpose)

I would like to quote Freeman Dyson here on something highly related:

In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know”. The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed…We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake.

I know that we were not talking of “Heretics”, but what i wanted Prof Dyson to convey for me was that most people who talk “clearly” about science are only trying to talk more clearly than they themselves understand the facts. These facts can only be understood by objective analysis of the observations that nature presents us, even if that means going towards a direction in science that is highly estoric and beyond the understanding of the general public.

For me, In reality science is partly driven by social factors and partly by its internal logic but it is ultimately driven to what nature decides what more important is, not what we want to be more attractive.

For a scientist the main reward should not be to gain adulation by doing “attractive work” (work that appeals to the general population) and thus work towards the singular aim for that, but to try and catch a glimpse of the transcendant beauty of nature. And if doing that leads to more and more estoric work, as long it can be verified by experiment then be it. Probably this is the reason why some people are opposed to String Theory as there as of now can’t be experiments to prove things on it, and it is just regarded as an ugly or beautiful (this view varies w.r.t the frame of reference) mathematical construction nothing else. People have lots of hopes from the LHC. But again having a “hope” is only because we are human, nature alone will decide what is true and what is false.

I would again quote Dyson here, as his views on this topic are most closely aligned to what I have always thought.

One might believe that in science nature will ultimately have the last word abd still rescognize that an enormous role for human vainglory and viciousness in the practice of science before the last word is spoken. One might believe that the historian’s job is to expose the hidden influences of power and money and still recognize that the laws of nature cannot be bent and cannot be corrupted by power and money. To my mind, the history of science is most illuminating when the frialties of human actors are put in juxtaposition with the transcendence of nature’s laws.

Francis Crick is one of the great scientists of our century. He has recently published his personal narrative of the microbiological reolution that he helped to bring about, with a title borrowed from Keats, What Mad Pursuit. One of the most illuminationg passages in his account compares two discoveries in which he was involved. One was the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA, the other was the discovery of the triple helix structure of the collagen molecule. Both molecules are biologically important, DNA being the carrier of the genetic information, collagen being the protien that holds human bodies together. The two discoveries involved similar scientific techniques and aroused similar competitive passions in the scientists racing to be the first to find the structure.

Crick says that the two discoveries caused him equal excitement and pleasure at the time he was working on them. From the point of view of a historian who believes that science is a purely social construction, the two discoveries should have been equally significant. But in history as Crick experienced it, the two helixes were not equal. The double helix became the driving force of a new science, while the triple helix remained a footnote of interest only to specialists. Crick asks the question, how the different facts of the two helixes are to be explained. He answers the question by saying that human and social influences cannot explain the difference, that only the transcendent beauty of the double helix structure and its genetic function can explain the difference. Nature herself, and not the scientist, decided what was important. In the history of the double helix, transcendence was real. Crick gives himself the credit for choosing an important to work on, but, he says only Nature herself could tell how transcendentally important it would turn out to be.

I would, as most would say that science should be driven by its own internal logic with a reality check with naturally observed facts (experiment). Social factors and doing it for the sole purpose of making it look “attractive” might either act as a catalyst or as a reverse catalyst in reaching the final point. Let nature decide and let us keep working on what WE think is right till we get a judgment.

Any deviation from the basic scientific ideals (like doing science to only make it attractive) might result in something that is not science in the first place.

The Inertia of Scientific Thought – Thomas Gold (A critique on the herd mentality in science and the peer review process).

Onionesque Reality Home >>

## Smart Man, Wise Man, Feynman!

Richard Feynman has always been one of my role models. I have many role models but not that I like everything about them, just some particular traits. However for Feynman I was never very sure what i liked but I really like him. I hardly discussed Feynman with anyone but I gradually noticed that he was very popular, with a popularity amongst people who had heard of him rivaling Einstein.

[Richard Feynman: Image Source, Wikipedia Commons]

I never thought about it seriously on why he became so popular as he did, I mean there have been many physicists who did fundamental work but people have hardly heard of them. Take for example Poincaré and Einstein, Poincaré worked on the same things as Einstein and did very fundamental work, but people today have hardly heard of him but everybody knows Einstein. However the reasons for Einstein becoming popular are not very difficult to understand.

I had been provoked to think about it a few times after some discussions on a forum on Feynman that I own, a brief discussion in comments on Reasonable Deviations and once with a professor of mine. However I never thought about it beyond a point.

I have not read anything related to Feynman over the past year or so, but last week I just took out Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track from my own personal library and just read some letters that I had marked in my first reading a couple of years back as very incisive and insightful. I came across the foreword to the book by Timothy Ferris again and also a couple of reviews by Freeman Dyson on books on Feynman in Scientist as Rebel. I entirely agree with the analysis these two gentlemen give. And I would like to share it and add my own ideas and thoughts.

Being a great scientist and being famous are two separate things, like Ferris rightly points out that for every great scientist who became a public figure like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Werner Heisenberg there are others who have done fantastic work like Subramanyam Chandrashekar, Linus Pauling etc who did not.

Let’s take a case from the above: Werner Heisenberg.

After the first world war, the dominant mood in Germany and in most of Europe was of doom. Dyson mentions in a review of the book “Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment” that a theme song that represented this mood was Der Untergang des Abendlandes or Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, after the German defeat on the eastern front the book took Germany by storm and within some years almost everybody had read it and everybody talked about it. Even people who strongly thought that Spengler was indulging in false rhetoric were highly influenced by his work.  He said that the decay of the western civilization must bring with it a destruction of the rigid ideas in Classical Physics and Mathematics. Quoting him:

Each culture has its own new possibilities of self expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the other, each limited in duration and self contained…Western European physics let no-one deceive himself has reached the limit of its possibilities. This is the origin of the sudden and annihilating doubt that has arisen about things that even yesterday were the unchallenged foundation of physical theory, about the meaning of the energy principle, the concepts of mass, space, absolute time, and causal laws generally.

There were many similar works to follow up by other authors that built upon this environment. At about this time Hermann Weyl and Schroedinger were highly influenced by Spengler’s work and the mood in the country and the rest of Europe that was of revolutionary expectation. So, when Heisenberg actually came up with his theory it at that time was seen to challenge the primacy of causality in Physics. It was revolutionary.

[Werner Heisenberg]

The point being that Heisenberg became famous for reasons that largely were extraneous to his actual work. His work came in a period of great intellectual and philosophical turmoil and expectation. And hence he became as famous as he did.

Feynman worked with the Manhattan project and gained some notoriety from it but seldom made any headlines otherwise, and his work was not “revolutionary” in the broad sense above so again it is not clear what made him famous.

Actually that way Feynman was not a “revolutionary” at all. Quoting from Scientist as Rebel:

Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and Hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental and stick with them for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs. most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things and foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog, Richard Feynman was a fox

Feynman was a great storyteller as is apparent from “Surely You are Joking..” and “What do you care What other people think“. People of all ages always like storytellers. And his stories were very very spicy, very funny and very interesting. And through this his personality came to be known. Feynman’s appeal as Timothy Ferris rightly points out was more in his core conduct as a working scientist. His enthusiasm, freedom and integrity, reflected the spirit of science in action.

Feynman loved his freedom. He wrote home while on the Rogers Commission probing the Challenger Space Shuttle crash:

“I am completely free, and there are no lovers that can be used to influence me”

He always advocated in his own style freedom of choice for his students. Something that resonates with almost all of us when we look around at the rigid ideas about what is right and wrong and loads of bureaucracy. Most of us sometime or the other are harried by the “politically correct” ideas that infest social structure and academia. Feynman embodies a welcome change that finds favor with most people. As Dave Brooks wrote about him:

Feynman is the person that every geek wants to be: very smart, honored by the establishment even as he won’t play by its rules, admired by people of both the sexes, arrogant without being envied and humble without being pitied. In other words he is young Elvis, with earth shaking talent transferred from the larynx to the brain cells and enough sense to have avoided the fat Vegas phase. Is such celebritification of such 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.

Another thing about Feynman was his integrity and humility. As Ferris rightly puts it and I agree with him from my own personal experience, once someone gets in a position of power he or she starts wielding that to defend their own views. As Einstein himself once remarked:

To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate made me an authority myself.

[Source: American Physical Society]

Such use of position though in a psychological way understandable, can be extremely irritating for the newbie, which everyone is at some point right? Feynman never got into that business. Again quoting Ferris:

He remained the instinctive rebel who sympathized with the students in the hall than the sage on the stage

He was a great authority himself. However he always preferred clarity of thought than anything else. He extremely disliked authority and honors. He thought they had no point and it was a rotten system in which a group of individuals would decide who is “good enough” to get an honor. He nearly declined the Nobel prize but later decided to take it at the insistence of his wife Gweneth. He said this when asked if it was worth winning the Nobel:

I don’t know anything about the Nobel prize. I don’t understand what it is all about and what’s worth what. And if the people in the Swedish academy decide that X,Y or Z should win a Nobel prize then so be it. I won’t have anything to do with it. It’s a pain in the neck. I don’t like honors, I appreciate it for the work I did and for people who appreciate it. I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there is any sense to anything else. I don’t see any point that some one in the Swedish academy decides that this is work is noble enough to receive a prize. I have already got my prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors bother me, honors as epaulets, honors as uniforms. My pappa brought me up this way, I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

Feynman was always willing to admit his ignorance. Most of the times people around us talk in a way that is “clearer than they ACTUALLY think”, he never got into the trap. If he did not know anything then be it. He was never afraid of being uncertain and admitting that he did not know something. Look at the video below and let him talk about it himself (05:00 onwards)

In fact his seminal paper on the famous Feynman diagrams would have never been published had it not been for coaxing by friends. There is a funny anecdote regarding that, but let’s not get into that. For about a year after his work on Feynman diagrams he refused to publish it. He said he was just too lazy to do it, he could talk to anybody who wanted to listen about it. But he would not publish it. He frequently said he was a fool and extremely lazy. People avoid saying that, but he was just reflecting on human condition. Again something that strikes a chord equally amongst the less gifted and the well gifted.

The world has known him as a great scientist, a great teacher and a great clown. But in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track we see another side of him. That of a wise counselor. He is not trying to be smart in any of the letters, just trying to be clear. He never spoke of his research or what he wanted to do in those letters, but they were only meant to help those who wanted to learn. The letters are a pleasure to read. Do read them if you have not.

And to think that people around us have SOME work and they start cribbing that they are just too busy to reply to a letter or even a text message, and here you had a great scientist, a Nobel laureate, a great teacher writing personally to the letters he used to get from all parts of the world, doesn’t it sound too good to be true? Every single letter in the collection is personal.

As Dyson writes:

I described him in a a letter to my parents as “half genius and half buffon”. Here in the letters he is neither a genius nor a buffon, but a wise counselor, interested in all kinds of people, answering their questions, and trying to help them the best he can.

He wrote letters to Kings, scientists, politicians, students, fans and just about anybody. Amongst these letters are some letters to his first wife Arline. Which describe day to day difficulty they had between their marriage and her death from TB. For most of these years Feynman was at the Manhattan project and Arline was at a nursing home some sixty miles away.

His letters to his second wife, Gweneth are full of anecdote about his travels. Some writing about the stupidity and snobbery of kings and some writing about the wonderful things in life.

He is famous as a great joker who played to the crowd. The prankster who found it was cool to break safes at Los Alamos or when it comes to trying to decode the Mayan Hieroglyphics or talking about adventures in topless bars. Feynman admired people with practical skill and said philosophers had no use. He controversially maintained that it was only through science that one could admire the true beauty of nature. He was a person of strong opinions.

But inspite of being a joker, a regular guy the general public could connect to and a genius he was a wise man.  When people came to him for help or wrote to him about problems, he spoke truth. His answers to most problems made a lot of sense and they still do. Be it concerning freedom, life, government etc. He mostly made great sense. I liked this part by Dyson most,

Like Einstein and Hawking he had come through times of great suffering, nursing Arline through her illness and watching her die, and emerged stronger. Behind his enormous zest and enjoyment of life was an awareness of tragedy, a knowledge that our time on Earth is short and precarious. The public made him into an icon because he was not only a great scientist and a great clown but also a great human being and a guide in time of trouble.

Onionesque Reality Home >>

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.

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

Onionesque Reality Home >>