Popular physics has enjoyed a new-found regard. Now comes a brave attempt to inject mathematics into an otherwise fashionable subject
Popular physics has enjoyed a new-found regard. Now comes a brave attempt to inject mathematics into an otherwise fashionable subject
Nov 5th 2011 | from the print edition
The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen. By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Allen Lane; 255 pages; £20. To be published in America in January by Da Capo Press; $25.
PREVIOUSLY the preserve of dusty, tweed-jacketed academics, physics has enjoyed a surprising popular renaissance over the past few years. In America Michio Kaku, a string theorist, has penned several successful books and wowed television and radio audiences with his presentations on esoteric subjects such as the existence of wormholes and the possibility of alien life. In Britain Brian Cox, a former pop star whose music helped propel Tony Blair to power, has become the front man for physics, which recently regained its status as a popular subject in British classrooms, an effect many attribute to Mr Cox’s astonishing appeal.
Mr Cox, a particle physicist, is well-known as the presenter of two BBC television series that have attracted millions of viewers (a third series will be aired next year) and as a bestselling author and public speaker. His latest book, “The Quantum Universe”, which he co-wrote with Jeff Forshaw of the University of Manchester, breaks the rules of popular science-writing that were established over two decades ago by Stephen Hawking, who launched the modern genre with his famous book, “A Brief History of Time”.
Mr Hawking’s literary success was ascribed to his eschewing equations. One of his editors warned him that sales of the book would be halved by every equation he included; Mr Hawking inserted just one, E=mc2, and, even then, the volume acquired a sorry reputation for being bought but not read. By contrast, Mr Cox, whose previous book with Mr Forshaw investigated “Why does E=mc2?” (2009), has bravely sloshed a generous slug of mathematics throughout his texts.
The difficulties in explaining physics without using maths are longstanding. Einstein mused, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” and “the fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Yet the language in which the world is described is that of maths, a relatively sound grasp of which is needed to comprehend the difficulties that physicists are trying to resolve as well as the possible solutions. Mr Cox has secured a large fan base with his boyish good looks, his happy turns of phrase and his knack for presenting complex ideas using simple analogies. He also admirably shies away from dumbing down. “The Quantum Universe” is not a dry undergraduate text book, but nor is it a particularly easy read.
The subject matter is hard. Quantum mechanics, which describes in subatomic detail a shadowy world in which cats can be simultaneously alive and dead, is notoriously difficult to grasp. Its experiments yield bizarre results that can be explained only by embracing the maths that describe them, and its theories make outrageous predictions (such as the existence of antimatter) that have nevertheless later been verified. Messrs Cox and Forshaw say they have included the maths “mainly because it allows us to really explain why things are the way they are. Without it, we should have to resort to the physicist-guru mentality whereby we pluck profundities out of thin air, and neither author would be comfortable with guru status.”
That stance might comfort the authors, but to many readers they will nonetheless seem to pluck equations out of thin air. Yet their decision to include some of the hard stuff leaves open the possibility that some readers might actually engage in the slog that leads to higher pleasures. For non-sloggers alternative routes are offered: Messrs Cox and Forshaw use clockfaces to illustrate how particles interact with one another, a drawing of how guitar strings twang and a photograph of a vibrating drum. A diagram, rather than an equation, is used to explain one promising theory of how matter acquires mass, a question that experiments on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, will hopefully soon answer.
The authors have wisely chosen to leaven their tome with amusing tales of dysfunctional characters among scholars who developed quantum mechanics in the 1920s and beyond, as well as with accounts of the philosophical struggles with which they grappled and the occasional earthy aside. Where the subject matter is a trifle dull, Messrs Cox and Forshaw acknowledge it: of Heinrich Kayser, who a century ago completed a six-volume reference book documenting the spectral lines generated by every known element, they observe, “He must have been great fun at dinner parties.” And they make some sweeping generalisations about their colleagues who pore over equations, “Physicists are very lazy, and they would not go to all this trouble unless it saved time in the long run.”
Whether or not readers of “The Quantum Universe” will follow all the maths, the authors’ love for their subject shines through the book. “There is no better demonstration of the power of the scientific method than quantum theory,” they write. That may be so, but physicists all over the world, Messrs Cox and Forshaw included, are longing for the next breakthrough that will supersede the claim. Hopes are pinned on experiments currently under way at CERN that may force physicists to rethink their understanding of the universe, and inspire Messrs Cox and Forshaw to write their next book—equations and all.
from the print edition | Books and arts
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
“The Information,” by James Gleick, is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.
So this book’s prologue is its most slippery section. It does not exactly outline a unifying thesis. Instead it hints at the amalgam of logic, philosophy, linguistics, research, appraisal and anecdotal wisdom that will follow. If Mr. Gleick has one overriding goal it is to provide an animated history of scientific progress, specifically the progress of the technology that allows information to be recorded, transmitted and analyzed. This study’s range extends from communication by drumbeat to cognitive assault by e-mail.
As an illustration of Mr. Gleick’s versatility, consider what he has to say about the telegraph. He describes the mechanical key that made telegraphic transmission possible; the compression of language that this new medium encouraged; that it literally was a medium, a midway point between fully verbal messages and coded ones; the damaging effect its forced brevity had on civility; the confusion it created as to what a message actually was (could a mother send her son a dish of sauerkraut?) and the new conceptual thinking that it helped implement. The weather, which had been understood on a place-by-place basis, was suddenly much more than a collection of local events.
Beyond all this Mr. Gleick’s telegraph chapter, titled “A Nervous System for the Earth,” finds time to consider the kind of binary code that began to make sense in the telegraph era. It examines the way letters came to treated like numbers, the way systems of ciphers emerged. It cites the various uses to which ciphers might be put by businessmen, governments or fiction writers (Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe). Most of all it shows how this phase of communication anticipated the immense complexities of our own information age.
Although “The Information” unfolds in a roughly chronological way, Mr. Gleick is no slave to linearity. He freely embarks on colorful digressions. Some are included just for the sake of introducing the great eccentrics whose seemingly marginal inventions would prove to be prophetic. Like Richard Holmes’s “Age of Wonder” this book invests scientists with big, eccentric personalities. Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, may have been spectacularly arrogant about what she called “my immense reasoning faculties,” claiming that her brain was “something more than merely mortal.” But her contribution to the writing of algorithms can, in the right geeky circles, be mentioned in the same breath as her father’s contribution to poetry.
The segments of “The Information” vary in levels of difficulty. Grappling with entropy, randomness and quantum teleportation is the price of enjoying Mr. Gleick’s simple, entertaining riffs on the Oxford English Dictionary’s methodology, which has yielded 30-odd spellings of “mackerel” and an enchantingly tongue-tied definition of “bada-bing” and on the cyber-battles waged via Wikipedia. (As he notes, there are people who have bothered to fight over Wikipedia’s use of the word “cute” to accompany a picture of a young polar bear.) That Amazon boasts of being able to download a book called “Data Smog” in less than a minute does not escape his keen sense of the absurd.
As it traces our route to information overload, “The Information” pays tribute to the places that made it possible. He cites and honors the great cogitation hives of yore. In addition to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the Mount Rushmore of theoretical science, he acknowledges the achievements of corporate facilities like Bell Labs and I.B.M.’s Watson Research Center in the halcyon days when many innovations had not found practical applications and progress was its own reward.
“The Information” also lauds the heroics of mathematicians, physicists and computer pioneers like Claude Shannon, who is revered in the computer-science realm for his information theory but not yet treated as a subject for full-length, mainstream biography. Mr. Shannon’s interest in circuitry using “if … then” choices conducting arithmetic in a binary system had novelty when he began formulating his thoughts in 1937. “Here in a master’s thesis by a research assistant,” Mr. Gleick writes, “was the essence of the computer revolution yet to come.”
Among its many other virtues “The Information” has the rare capacity to work as a time machine. It goes back much further than Shannon’s breakthroughs. And with each step backward Mr. Gleick must erase what his readers already know. He casts new light on the verbal flourishes of the Greek poetry that preceded the written word: these turns of phrase could be as useful for their mnemonic power as for their art. He explains why the Greeks arranged things in terms of events, not categories; how one Babylonian text that ends with “this is the procedure” is essentially an algorithm; and why the telephone and the skyscraper go hand in hand. Once the telephone eliminated the need for hand-delivered messages, the sky was the limit.
In the opinion of “The Information” the world of information still has room for expansion. We may be drowning in spam, but the sky’s still the limit today.
My first realization I was hooked on Oscar was when I seriously began pondering one of mankind's most profound dilemmas: whether to rent or buy a tux. That first step, as with any descent down a...
Among other interesting observations in it, he calls attention to the fact that, “according to the journal Nature, a third of all studies never even get cited, let alone repeated.”
For scholars of Fisher, Popper, and Kuhn, some of this discussion won’t be quite so novel, but for anyone designing scientific experiments, the effects discussed here are certainly worthy of notice and further study and scrutiny.
Data analytics are changing the ways to judge the influence of papers and journals.
The base question is are citations the best indicator of impact, or are there other better emerging methods of indicating the impact of scholarly work?
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, our own bodies are worse off than most because of the differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live.
GOOD MORNING: Sunday morning, hours after they departed the SRO BevHilton ballroom where their Carousel of Hope Ball raised more than $6 million ($1.5 million from Marvin) benefiting the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, Marvin and Barbara Davis were hosting a lavish lunch for the out-of-town guests plus participants in the fundraiser. Marvin still couldn’t get over the ball’s finale when he saw wife Barbara on stage shaking it with Ricky Martin — who had the entire ballroom on its feet dancing. Barbara had also told Michael Jackson, “Ricky wants to meet you.” So Jackson and his date Elizabeth Taylor made their way backstage with Barbara, who shoved Michael onstage for a brief moment in the spotlight with the new king, Ricky Martin. Martin had flown in from Australia with his entire troupe to perform gratis, as did the other artists. I had been annoyed by Jackson and Taylor, who were sitting directly in front of our table. I thought them rude as they engaged in conversation during Ricky’s first two numbers. Jackson’s doctor, dermatologist Arnold Klein; had sidled up to talk with them during Martin’s performance. (Klein’s nurse Debbie Rowe, you recall, married/divorced Michael and bore him two children: son Prince, 3-1/2, and daughter Paris, 2-1/2). Jackson and his children have been regular (biweekly) visitors at the Davis’ home and the offspring get high marks from Marvin. John Davis had birthday-gifted dad Marvin with two tiny donkeys which graze on the lush lawn; the celeb lunch bunch had a full view of the tiny critters who have free rein (and you know what that includes) of the garden … At the BevHilton, Elizabeth and Michael were seated at one end of the head table on the first riser and in full view of the crowd below. As you might imagine, their presence created a major crush of visitors; some like Shirley MacLaine and Carrie Fisher (who just toiled with Taylor in “Those Old Broads”) carried on their conversation on the carpeting alongside Elizabeth. Another of the “Broads,” Joan Collins, was seated elsewhere with Evie and Leslie Bricusse. Collins is off to England to be at daughter Tara Newley’s side during her divorce battle. Joan is no stranger to that stage.
IT WAS NO SECRET that Ricky Martin, while the toast of the (young) world, was nervous about appearing before this mature, star-studded audience of performers and execs. He needn’t have been! Sure, he’s had movie offers but can’t accept because of the time they’d take away from his concerts and recordings. He winged out (in his plane) immediately after the BevHilton benefit to Miami … Performers at future BevHilton events will be pleased to know that Merv Griffin, the Carousel Ball’s host, has built a new backstage facility for talent. It was appreciated by the magnificent performers Toni Braxton (who said her mother has diabetes), young Charlotte Church (whatta voice!), David Foster and the musicians. Jay Leno’s takeoff tape on candidates Gore and Bush was classic, but his remarks about President Clinton are getting to be overdone by now. Touching moments were the remarks by Barbara Davis, daughter Dana (and the presentation of a hand receiving the brass ring sculpture) and Sidney Poitier. George Schlatter did a terrif job again producing the show … Clive Davis, one of the music chairmen, just signed Luther Vandross and O-Town to his new J Records and has now added a young duo from Brazil: Medeiros, brothers Julian and Rodalgo M. who sing in Portuguese, Spanish and English. Attending with Davis was his cousin Jo Schuman Silver, owner of SanFran’s fantastic “Beach Blanket Babylon” show, which continues SRO for every performance … Among those who stopped by to hug Michael Jackson was Berry Gordy, his discoverer. Also Suzanne De Passe. Also there Keely Shaye Smith and Pierce Brosnan, who told me he doesn’t expect to be away at work when their baby arrives in February. And they probably will not have the wedding until summer, in Ireland … As always, the Carousel Ball featured a silent auction which preceded in the BevHilton’s rooms surrounding the lobby and ballroom. Dana Davis and sister Nancy Davis-Rickel again chaired and the auction brought in $623,389 — to date. They are still selling items. Celebrity-designed plates brought in $56,700. Guests included Line Renaud, just in from Paris. She arrived with Veronique and Gregory Peck (he contributed one of the designed plates). Neil Diamond even bought a painting by LeRoy Neiman, which he had contributed … Marvin Davis, whose properties over the years have included 20th Century Fox and the Beverly Hills Hotel, has a new affiliation with Lend Lease with plans to build everything “all over the world.” Meanwhile the Davises continue to build to one day find a cure for childhood diabetes.
AND NOW, AS THEY SAY on the 11 o’clock news, “some late-breaking news”: Charlton Heston, who starred in the first two “Planet of the Apes” pix for 20th, will cameo in the next. Yes, he was killed off in the second pic — but now he returns as an ape. No, he’s not a foot soldier, so he won’t have to carry a gun — as I did, as an ape (member of the National Rhesus Assn., ya know) in the first “Planet” pic, opposite Heston. Producer Richard Zanuck and director Tim Burton launch next week in Paige, Ariz., site of the first.
John Davis had birthday-gifted dad Marvin with two tiny donkeys which graze on the lush lawn; the celeb lunch bunch had a full view of the tiny critters who have free rein (and you know what that includes) of the garden …
Class of 1996: JEFFREY P. DOSHNA and SARAH (WATSON) DOSHNA write: "We are pleased to announce the birth of our son, Noah Alexander Doshna on April 29. Sarah continues to work as a process engineer for Merck & Co., in their sterile pilot plants. Although Jeff is continuing his doctoral studies in the department of urban planning at Rutgers University, he has assumed the role of 'stay-at-home' dad for the time being. Fellow Vincent-Willard alumna IVY WONG '96, paid a visit in June and brought a card for Noah signed by ROGER OEN '96, JAMES ARMSTRONG '94, CHRIS ALDRICH '96, MAX BARTEAU '96, TAMMY WU '96, JANET LEE '96, PETER SYLVES '96, and TONY TSAI '96. We also regularly see JOHN PAXTON '96."
More than 400 guests attended Johns Hopkins convocations in San Francisco and Burbank in March, hearing from President William R. Brody and other outstanding faculty speakers about developments at Johns Hopkins. The Southern California convocation, held at the Walt Disney Studios, was hosted by University trustee John F. Cooke, Disney's executive vice president-corporate affairs.
Address of George Bush
41st President of the United States
The Johns Hopkins University
Arts and Sciences/Engineering Undergraduate Diploma Award Ceremony
Baltimore, Maryland -- May 22 1996
Madam President, thank you for that wonderful, warm introduction and what a pleasure it was to meet with Asma and the other leaders of this class here today. I felt very relieved when I told them that I was going to give this speech on the gold standard and the international balance of payments. It only takes about 50 minutes and they all seemed enthralled with the idea. All of which reminded me, as I was telling Dr. Nathans and my friend, Mike Bloomberg, who's taken on the chairmanship of the board here, about a graduation at Yale University which I attended, and the speaker went on. He went Y is for Youth, he went on about 25 minutes, A for Altruism, another 35 minutes, L for Loyalty, 30 minutes, E for Excellence. By the time he finished, all but one kid had left. The guy was praying. He said, "Oh son, I'm so pleased to see you here giving thanks." He said, "What exactly are you praying for?" The kid said, "Well, I'm praying that I did not ... thanks to the Lord that I did not go to Johns Hopkins University."
Um, I'm pleased to be here. It's been a little more that six years since I visited this prestigious university for Commemoration Day. And I am delighted to be back here. I salute Dr. Nathans for what he has given to this university, not only as faculty but as his interim period as president and I am grateful for his service to the country on our Science Board which he served ... with no partiality, but just bringing to the board his sense of excellence for which Johns Hopkins is so famous. It doesn't seem possible that 48 years ago I was sitting out there where our graduates are today, most of them, bursting to get out there and claim my stake in the world, to try anything. And I am sure that each of you feels the same way, and I encourage you to do it all. Don't be afraid of trying, of dreaming. Don't even be afraid of failure or tears. We all stumble. We all face fear, and that's what makes us human. But none of us should ever regret, none of us should ever sit at a grandchild's graduation and think, I wish that that were me, starting all over again, there's so much I'd do differently. First of all, don't worry, any of you graduates, if you're not 100 percent sure what you want to do the rest of your life, what you want to be 30 years from now. Barbara and I have lived in about 40 different houses, over the course of 51 years of marriage, and I wish Barbara would stop saying, "George can't hold a job." But, uh, but it was only after a couple of decades out in the real world that I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But the point is this, you have a lifetime of chances in your grasp right now. Don't lose any of them. Don't give up the chance to take a risk, follow a vision, hug a child, touch a life.
Touching a life. That's what I want to talk to you about today. Each of you has visions of success for your future. You can just feel the energy as the president spoke here, what a wonderful job she did. Find your own ways to define it. Let me give you mine. As often I said as president, I believe that any definition of a successful life must include service to others. It's just that simple. It doesn't mean that you have to run for public office, but I hope all of you will somehow save some time to be actively involved in our political system. It's not very pleasant in the political arena these days. There's an adversarial press, and a very, very much, kind of a controversial environment. But it's worth it. It's worth it to get into what Teddy Roosevelt calls the arena, roll up your sleeves and try. Serving others does mean rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in your community, though. It means getting off the sidelines, it means being a doer and not a critic. It means contributing to a cause larger than yourself. There is no problem. You know you read the papers, there's all these problems. But there is not one single problem in the country today that somewhere is not being solved by some people. And for eight years as vice president and four as president and even today unemployed and retired, I have seen literally thousands of examples of the neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit that made this country the kindest and the gentlest and the strongest in the entire world. It was one of the real joys of being president, and Barbara and I are continuing to try and encourage others to volunteer their time and effort to fighting a community problem. People say, "What's it like from going from being president of the United States of America one day" ... they don't say to be unemployed the next, they're very polite to us now. We can even go to a ballgame in Camden Yards and not even get booed. It's wonderful. But they say, "What's it like," "What's it like?" and it's a wonderful life, because what we want to do is what everybody on this faculty, I'm sure, does; what every parent does; and that's put something back into the system. Give something to the community in one way or another. It doesn't have to be dramatic, it doesn't have to be in the newspapers, some way to have the satisfaction of knowing you're helping make somebody else's life a little brighter. Of course, government has an obligation to help those who cannot help themselves. And yet there's something special about the kindness of a neighbor helping someone he or she doesn't know. It gives that special touch that is beyond the power of government to provide. No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down and lifting someone else up, and to serve others, to enrich your community. This truly defines a successful life. For success is personal, and it is charitable, and it is the sum, not of our possessions, but of how we help others.
And so, here I am at 72 years old, and I'm expected to give advice, and I will. My advice is to encourage you to follow the example of those who have preceded you and to set an example for those who follow. For each of you, Johns Hopkins has been a wonderful place of possibilities. This standard of excellence has been for each of you a place of possibilities. A place where you have developed your potential and prepared for the future. But now the time has come to venture out. The time has arrived for you to put in the hard work and the sacrifice and dedication that transforms these possibilities into reality.
Do it all, but do it without neglect of family. People say to me, "What's the largest problem, what's your biggest shortcoming?" The largest problem is, in my view, facing the country is the decline or the weakening of the American family and my biggest shortcoming was not being able to rally the country, not for government legislation, but to do something to strengthen the American family. And so each of you, your career paths ahead of you, do something to help strengthen the family and for those kids that don't have a family, take them under your wing and help them, too.
Let me close. I am an optimist about the future. I honestly and truly believe that our best days are yet to come. I believe this because I've seen how far we've come. Gone are the suspicions and the conflict of the Cold War. We no longer face threat of nuclear holocaust, where your parents, some of them, were taught to hide under their desks, to avoid nuclear fallout. We no longer live in a world of two antagonistic superpowers, and, as for me, I take heart that a teacher will not have to explain balance of terror, mutually assured destruction, and all of these other acronyms of the Cold War. We're putting that dark chapter behind us and today the world is rife with promise and opportunity, and yes, cliche though it may be, today begins the rest of your life. A Yale teacher once said, "Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it, for today has power, boldness and magic in it.
My favorite story was told by a great friend of Barbara's and mine who received the congressional gold medal the other day, the coveted award, Billy Graham. And he told about a speaker that was standing where I am and the speaker went on too long, so one of the guys at the head table, the dais, picked up his shoe, heaved it at him, missed him and hit a lady sitting in the front row. She goes like this and says, "Hit me again. I can still hear him."
So I would say to you, be bold in your dreaming, be bold in your living, be bold in your caring, your compassion, your humanity and then, when you sit at your grandchild's commencement half a century from now, you'll look back at the tapestry of your life and find it good, and that will be the greatest success of all.
Thank you for welcoming me back to this very special campus and may God bless every single graduate in the class of 1996. Thank you very much!
The student-run SNARK film series will screen a sneak preview of the soon-to-be-released Michael Douglas-Annette Bening film, American President, in the newly refurbished Shriver Hall Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The auditorium, which seats 1,100, was recently outfitted with a new screen, 35-mm projectors and soon-to-be-installed Dolby sound system in part to accommodate student organizations, which promised to bring to Homewood sneak previews of major Hollywood films.
SNARK director Chris Aldrich says the free tickets are available at the Levering Hall Student Union desk beginning at noon.