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“Smashing Physics” Review

Having read a large number of personal statements from physics applicants to Dundee this year, it is clear that, much as it was for me, particle physics and the quest for the fundamental understanding of how the Universe works is something that really gets physics students fired up. For me this was undoubtedly true, and I suspect that my knowledge of the particle zoo was probably rather better as a teenager than it is now. The quest for the Higgs Boson has undoubtedly captured the public imagination over the past few years, and I very much hope it is helping to inspire the next generation of physics students.

Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth

Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth

But I have small confession – these days it all leaves me a bit cold (although oddly, I think neutrino oscillations are pretty cool). I am clearly a bad physicist, as isn’t this stuff supposed to inspire me too? As it happens I seek that inspiration, still, in the form of popular science books (and blogs), as the technical detail of the search for the Higgs and other particle physics is a long way from my comfort zone, but even though Ian Sample’s and Sean Carroll’s books about the search for the Higgs sit upon my bookshelf, every time I pull them down I find an excuse to read something else. But when I was given Jon Butterworth’s ‘Smashing Physics‘ for Father’s Day I figured that it was time to bite the bullet and get stuck in.

I think one of the key things that Smashing Physics has going for it is that is a personalised tale – full of asides –  and the fact that author has a direct connection with the Higgs search (through the ATLAS experiment) makes everything very much more immediate. It also has mini-treatise on the need and justification for basic scientific research, and reads a little like a manifesto for particle physics at times. In this sense it is very much a reflection of the very positive message than the particle physics community has been able to present in recent years, and the effects of this are being felt, for example, in the new Scottish school Physics curriculum. I’m not completely sold by this argument [particle physics must be funded at all costs] – one counterpoint is that it’s really expensive to do these experiments and one could do lots of other interesting physics with the money. While politicians might prefer to see work funded that is more applied, that has, in the language of our times, more impact, my own view is that there is an high intrinsic value in doing basic research, but of course there is plenty of other fundamental research that one could do, other than look for Higgs Bosons, in areas such as condensed matter physics, photonics, quantum optics etc. I get the sense the particle physics community forgets this from time to time. I enjoyed these asides however as they give a really good overview of how science works, why it is important and the benefits it can bring both intellectually and at tangents to what you are actually doing.

The book itself is a compelling read, covers the ground in a straightforward way and has useful glossary sections to cover the background info you need to understand the more technical parts. It does, in my mind, make a reasonable assumption that you have some technical knowledge of the subject. As an example, as far as I can see, despite significant discussion of things like the electroweak symmetry breaking, there is no definition of what the weak force actually is – certainly not from the index entries. There are various other bits of technical jargon that seem to pop up from time to time with no real explanation, so I suspect an interested person having no physics knowledge at all might struggle at times, but perhaps an interested teenager who has read some other popular books in this area could get something from it. I have no huge issue with this technical level as I find it hard to trudge through books which start at the basics, and read like every other popular science book on ‘modern’ physics areas. Diving in at the deep(ish) end can be rewarding.

So I’d certainly recommend the book, and it might even make me get down some of these other Higgs search texts I’ve been shying away from. Smashing.

A different way

Like many physicists, I suspect, I grew up gripped by the developments in quantum mechanics that happened at the start of the 20th century. This is often portrayed as the work of lone geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and the rest. That this work was carried out in isolation is to some extent true, but there was a surprising amount of collaboration and certainly discussion between the big hitters of the time. This work, and related studies in areas such as radioactivity, ultimately led to one of the biggest scientific collaborations that had ever existed – the Manhattan Project. This was an altogether different beast: one goal, build a bomb. Many of the brightest minds, engineers, physicists and chemists came together to work out how to achieve what they viewed as something that could help to win the war.

In modern times we have our own parallels of such large scale collaborations, CERN being the most obvious example. These mainly occur because of the huge scale and expense of the projects under consideration. I do often wonder though if we wouldn’t be much better placed to carried out nearly all scientific research through such large ‘crowdsourced’ efforts.

I have a small research group, too small to easily carry out the various ideas that I might have, too small to have the resources to fund all the experiments I’d like to try. It may be that I can persuade a funding council to give me money for these ideas, but the odds are against me. I can then wait and see if we can do them on the fly somehow, or find, depressingly, that someone beaten us to it, a few years after my original thought. I suspect nearly every scientist has similar thoughts about work that just never gets done.

But there are lots of groups out there, lots of talented people, lots of equipment going spare – lots of slack at certain times within any research group, big or small – why don’t I just publicly lists all my ideas and hope someone else runs with it and sees if it’ll work or not? It doesn’t work like that of course. We are precious with our ideas as they define our careers, the funding that we do get, which in turn allows us to build our groups and justify the continued need to employ us. Even collaborations, which are a way to help realise ideas that often we can’t do ourselves can be difficult, time consuming and often not quite what you need if you team up with the wrong group.

This does, I suspect, also have the problem of massively slowing down progress. We all want to win the prize, get the plaudits, get the pay rise, and this stems from doing the work and having your name in the right place on the author list. In this day and age of open access publishing, open data and near instantaneous access to all knowledge it does seem that if the end goal, the experiments, the finding things out is what we want to achieve , that our current way of ‘doing’ science seems increasingly outdated.

Could we do things differently? Would it be possible simply to fund research teams that can then respond to new ideas – take the very best ideas and see them through – have secure funding for staffing and equipment at certain Universities and then let academics the world over provide them with the ideas? This would provide much greater focus and possibly much greater efficiency in how we spend research money. An example would be, say, a centre for optical microscopy in the life sciences, based, for arguments sake at Dundee. We fill it with 100 staff and then throw open to the world the idea to present us with the most pressing problems in the area. It may be that these ideas receive some peer review to set priorities and then we task the centre with solving the problems. The originator of the idea gets appropriate credit, and the centre works collaboratively with the research community to help it make progress. We set up these little ‘Manhattan Projects’ with stability for staff, enhanced training for students, and better opportunities to exploit the research through critical mass. In a sense it centralises the experimental skills and distributes the ideas. It is a model that appears to work for very large scale experimental work, but would it be more efficient than our current massive distribution of experimental skills?

As it happens I am reading J. Craig Venter’s most recent book ‘Life at the speed of light‘ which in a way promotes this idea – a highly skilled, well funded lab pushing for a clear and ambitious research goal. Admittedly he was (and is) in competition with other groups, but if that funding was more concentrated and the initial thinking open and free for wider input and discussion to happen, could things have gone even more quickly? Do we want to see the results and the progress and quickly as we can or keep all the glory for ourselves?

The answer is that I am not sure – the model would seem to work in some cases, but clearly has problems, and would more than likely have to be globally accepted to work in the way I think it could. But with new paradigms appearing in the field of ‘open’ academia very rapidly, maybe there is a different way that we could do science, and actually see more of the collective ideas of the research community come to light and bear fruit.

Going on a summer holiday, quantum style

The Academic Summer is an oft discussed thing. There are usually two camps, the outraged non-academic, moaning about taxpayers money going to fund four months of time off for lazy academics to swan about and not teach anybody anything, and the aghast academic bemoaning the fact that they work bloody hard thank you very much during the summer, and barely have time for a real holiday anyway.

I don’t think I fall in the latter camp – I have a 12 month job, some of which involves contact teaching while the undergraduates are about, but which also involves a myriad of other things, like for example, today I was attending graduation and a garden party. It’s a hard life. I also hope to get at least one grant submitted in the next couple of weeks and the list of things to do on my whiteboard seems to grow each day – writing a whole new lecture course for September being very high on the list. So, like most people, I work hard, and this is in large part due to the fact that I enjoy my job. But the reality is that it can be hard to find time to take off on holiday. This is compounded by the odd way in which academics often end up to all intents and purposes as their own boss – so if you are mainly having to justify time off to yourself, it can be hard to tell yourself you really deserve it, or can really afford to take it off.

This is interesting as I have just finished reading “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar (which is well worth reading – it gives an excellent overview of the development of quantum mechanics in that golden area before the second world war, but rather rushes later developments that came later). In the book it tells the story of scientists who once upon a time led very different lives to us – no internet, no email, telephony in its infancy – you could wait years to see papers in print. This meant that scientists worked in greater isolation, but nonetheless the cohort of scientists who worked developing quantum mechanics managed to do something perhaps that has never really been done since. And, what kept cropping up was that they took lots of holidays. Bohr, Heisenberg etc were always popping off on walking trips, skiing outings, sailing and even going on academic ‘tours’ which probably involved a fair bit of travelling. Perhaps if you are a bunch of geniuses you can get away with lots of holiday – but I do think it perhaps suggests that sometimes academia takes its self rather seriously. Breaks are needed by everyone, working all the time is simply not good for the majority of us. Holidays perhaps allow a bit of that much needed thinking time. Me? Well, I had planned to take a week away with the family during the school holidays. After reading ‘Quantum’ I’d really love to take three, but have convinced myself that I definitively have to take two full weeks to recharge. Then I can come back and get stuck into the new challenges that will be coming my way in the next year or so. If you are an overworked academic – just ask yourself, ‘what would Bohr do?’. He’d go walking.

The Geek Manifesto

May 30, 2012 1 comment

It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error,’ he said. ‘It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.’

So (more or less) ends the Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, with a quote from Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court Justice. I don’t think I am giving anything away though when I say that this is the core message of the book.  This is the crux of the book, the idea that in all spheres of life, from the media to government and the healthcare to the environment, science is misunderstood and misrepresented. This is often unintentional, but sometimes is willful. The clarion call is that those of a scientific bent need to stand up to those who would use scientific evidence in inappropriate ways, or indeed to simply ignore it, and to try and correct mistakes and lack of understanding.

There are numerous clear examples in the book, covering all walks of public life, of how scientific evidence has been used and misused over the past decade or two – most of these, I suspect will be very familiar to the intended readership – MMR, evidence on drugs, nuclear power etc, but the narrative flows well, and the argument largely hangs togther in a cohesive manner.

My only major criticism is that some of the argument makes thigns a bit too black and white, and at the end of the day, making decisions at a societal level is statistics based, and that can be tough politically, not to mention disenfranchising for many. For example, it may well be that one way of teaching reading is better than another, and national policy can take that into account, but what if the evidence is that it is only better for 60% of pupils (I am making these numbers up)? That’s clear cut – the majority would benefit, but the reality not picked up in that type of ‘only look at the numbers’ geekfest, is that you may end up damaging the other 40% more than if you stayed with the ‘worse’ methodology. You could then argue hybrid systems could be brought in, but that makes things so much more complicated and leads to extra testing to find out what is optimal for each child. This sounds ideal, but probably isn’t realistic. So we have to be mindful of how data is interpreted and made use of, but we also have to be sensitive to a large number of other factors that shape government decisions. I think the book is not so great on dealing with nuance. Where there is clear cut evidence that policies are nuts, we should complain and demonstrate why, but sensitivty to broader issues and concerns is needed too, else the clinical ‘geeks’ come across as arrogant and patronising.

And we want science and critical thinking to become central to the national conversation. We want as many people as possible to appreciate not only what science achieves, but how it achieves it. We know that that has to start at school.

I think this idea is important, and I give a school’s talk myself on why I think learning science for it’s own sake is important, even if you never go on to work in a science or engineering field, but I do wonder sometimes if the idea is oversold. The book tells the great story about the school kids from Blackawton Primary School who undertook original work in studying how bumble bees decide which colour of flower to get nectar from. The children designed an experiment and then went through the scientific process of iterating the experiment to try to prove and improve their hypotheses over what was happening. My question is, that having down this once, have they learned their lesson over how science works? Clearly we should try and encourage this type of thinking in school kids, but beyond a certain introductory nature will kids not understand how an experiment works, how science works? A different question is: do kids actually know how science works when they leave school, but when they get to the real world they just forget or ignore it, as it seems far removed from what they do on a day to day basis? I’m all for a better science educated population, I’m just not completely sold it makes that much difference in the types of decisions discussed in the book.

Another of the arguments of the book is that it appears that scientists and engineers are under represented among MPs. I’m not entirely sure on the stats here, but it may just be that people like lawyers and doctors are over represented. I suspect more people work on shop tills that as bench scientists, but there is no big call for more of them to be elected as MPs. I suspect that getting certain types of people into politics will be difficult – my general impression, at least among my online contacts, is that often scientists align with political factions that tend to lose elections ;-). I also think, at the end of the day, politics is about going out and talking to people and persuading them about why they should vote for you – and to do this, your have to have much further motivations than the deisre to see evidence win out.

I really liked the Geek Manifesto, I took much of it to heart, but maybe I’m just pessimistic that it will result in much, but maybe there are signs that the geeks (which I find an ugly word) are really starting to find a voice. Alternatively maybe I should just chuck all this academia in and go and get elected or become a teacher. Do something more directly meaningful. You should all read this book.

“The Quantum Universe” and “How to teach quantum physics to your dog”

I’ve written previously about how it can be difficult to move from the basics of a subject to the more complex aspects. Quantum mechanics is a good case in point. There are many many books that introduce the subject to a non-expert user, and just as many undergraduate and graduate textbooks that try and turn those inspired by the popular science into experts. It’s a big jump between the two. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s book, “The Quantum Universe, Everything that can Happen Does Happen” is possible an attempt to try and bridge the gap between the two. It covers many of the familiar aspects of the popular science book, but tries and to discuss this in terms of Feynman path integrals (without too much of the calculation) and attempts to give, in my view at least, a slightly different spin on the ‘weirdness’ of quantum mechanics.

The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

The main thrust of the book has been caught up in a little bit of internet controversy (here and here, for example), in which Cox described the change in energy of an electron in a lump of diamond to be inextricably linked to the energy of every other in the Universe, and that due to the Pauli Exclusion Principle, in which no two fermions can exist in the same quantum state, if the energy of one changes, then the energy of every other electron changes in response. Everything is connected to everything else.

This goes to show you have to be very careful about how you present complex science in public, and the more famous you get the more careful you have to be. Cox seems to have oversimplified in the TV lecture, and even if correct it does seem a bit of a sales gimmick in this case, as any changes are simply t0o small to be measured. In addition there does seem to be a little bit of confusion with this idea when discussing degeneracy pressure in neutron stars in the final, fairly technical chapter.

While the book is interesting I did find it rather hard work due to the use of a ‘clocks’ analogy that is used to describe quantum interference effects, and which is used throughout the book. I didn’t find it a very intuitive analogy, and coupled with the somewhat wordy explanations, and lack of diagrams (and diagrams on pages away from the explanations dealing with them) I’m not sure I’d recommend the book to anyone other than with a desperate need to keep up to date with Brain Cox’s popular science output. The book should be applauded for the introduction of topics such as semiconductors and attempt to do a real world calculation at the end, although I’m not really sure who this is intended for.

How to teach quantum physics to your dog

I amy be wrong, but I don’t think Brian Cox does much in the way of undergraduate teaching. Someone who does is Chad Orzel, from Union College, who has written a much clearer explanation of quantum physics with his “How to teach quantum physics to your dog“. In this book much of the same material is covered in a much clearer and more concise fashion. It doesn’t have as much technical info as “The Quantum Universe”, but covers the material well, from the basic ideas of quantum uncertainty all the way to quantum teleportation. The hook here is that the discussion is framed as a sort of Socratic dialogue between Orzel and his Dog Emmy. Initially I thought this would just annoy me, but I got used to it quickly and it really helps the explanations to have an interjector asking sensible questions about the validity of what has just been said (always good when dealing with quantum physics!). In many ways this looks like a smart undergraduate asking the questions (although with less squirrels) and I suspect that this clarity of thought has come from extensive interactions with inquiring young minds. I really enjoyed the book, and the only weak explanation, where the technicalities prove a bit too much for many questions, was on the teleportation chapter.

There are lots and lots of books on quantum theory in the popular market place, but if I were looking to invest in one of the newer ones, then I’d plump with Orzel’s book and Emmy’s bunnies. It’s a nice refresher with good explanations, and is well suited for senior school pupils. Cox and Forshaw’s book is, I feel, trying to being a Feynman’s QED for a modern age, but comes up short with more muddled explanations. It is to be commended for trying to take on some very challenging ideas though.

Taking the Long View – The Pixar Touch

January 10, 2012 2 comments

One of the nice things about working in a University is that there is usually the opportunity to hear interesting people talk about a wide variety of subjects. At Dundee we run the usual range of courses one might expect from English to Forensic Science and there are often eminent people who come and give University wide talks on their work. Another particularly nice thing about Dundee is that we have an art and design college (Duncan of Jordanstone) and so we get to have a few more creative types who come and talk about design and graphics and the like.

So this was why I ended up sometime last year going to a talk by Alvy Ray Smith, one of the Pixar founders. His talk was entertaining and largely non-technical, but it did highlight that it is difficult for technical people to work in isolation from people like designers and story tellers if what they want to do is create art or entertainment. Smith worked on some of the first computer paint packages back when computer graphics were primative, and when the idea that you could create a fully computer animated movie was just a pipe dream.*

One of the things that Smith mentioned in his talk was a book, “The Pixar Touch,” by David A. Price, which tells the tale of how Pixar came to be. I can highly recommend the book, which starts with the early days of computer generated graphics and runs up to the later Pixar films. The key figure is Edwin Catmull, who worked on computer graphics for his PhD in the early 1970s. Catmull would go on to work for various companies, building up a team, and the technical knowledge that would finally lead to Toy Story. The book charts this rise, through Catmull’s early dealings with companies, including ILM, and the purchase of his group by Steve Jobs, and the founding of Pixar.

It’s a good read, not terribly technical and what shines through most is the passion of the key players and their desire to use their technical skills to make an animated movie. Bear in mind that this work was started in the 1970s, when computing power was primitive, to say the least. What’s striking is that they always believed that they could do it – even though from Catmull’s first commercial ventures to Toy Story it took 20 years – they did what they needed to get to the point where they could make a film. They built the hardware, did networking before it was fashionable, worked on hard mathematics to enable shots to be produced, and even when George Lucas and then Steve Jobs came along and seriously doubted they could make a film, and focussed them on other things, they always kept their dream in reach.

I think this long view is very impressive, and I wonder how practical it is today in our rapidly changing technical world. I also wonder how this squares with the new requirements that EPSRC applicants have to adhere to, when they try and forecast the value of their work over a 10-50 year timeframe. Could Catmull, hand on heart, have said that his work would revolutionise animated film making? That he would win multiple Oscars for his work? That it would lead to him being President of Walt Disney Animation Studios? Maybe he could, but I think this long view is challenging both in industry and in academia. Funding is hard to come by for something that takes 20 years to deliver.

The other problem of course, is that few people are so visionary, and many dreams of success in 20 years time will have died for a wide range of reasons, but I take heart and hope from the Pixar Story – if you work hard on the technical details, realise your failings and overcome them (hiring John Lassiter, in Pixar’s case was probably their key hire after the technical work was done) then you can make something of value and significance.

Now I just need to find that world class problem that will see me right for the next couple of decades.

* I was watching the new Virgin Atlantic ad last night with all it’s fancy graphical overlays, in a early James Bond-type introduction, and it all seemed perfectly reasonable – but as I started to think about how the images and videos must have been overlaid and animated, it made me realise that I take the remarkable far too much for granted.

Feynman by Ottaviani and Myrick: A review

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Earlier in the year I read and reviewed Laurence Krauss’ biography of Richard Feynman, ‘Quantum Man‘, which focused primarily on some of the key science that Feynman worked on over the course of his career. Feynman is one of the few scientists, along with Einstein, who is capable of selling books based on his life with any form of consistency: he is one of the few really famous scientists. Of course Feynman is probably as famous for his extra-curricular activities as for his science (which, if we are honest, is pretty complicated, and with which he struggled throughout his career to try and describe in terms palatable for the layman), and it this complete disregard to the normal science stereotypes that make him such an endearing figure. It is unsurprising then, that we have a second book about his life published within the space of a year. ‘Feynman‘ by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick takes a slightly different view than is normal, in a very literal sense, as this is a graphic/comic book, giving an overview of Feynman’s life.

If Krauss’ book is very much focussed on the science, this book is a rather more general overview of Feynman’s life, and to some extent the science is sidelined. There is a comprehensive bibliography included and it’s clear if you have read Feynman’s own anecdote recollections that the work draws heavily on these (although there is not much on bongo playing!). I found that, for someone who is quite familiar with this material, this part of the book was interesting (to see it in graphical form) but largely uninspired. In the early parts of the book, the key science that Feynman worked on, moving towards his theory of QED, is glossed over – this isn’t really one for the seriously technically minded.

Later in the book, and in Feynman’s life, I found the material more interesting, and this included stuff that I had either forgotten about , or material that I hadn’t looked at before, and the combination of Feynman’s illness and the final projects (the NASA Space Shuttle panel) he worked on seemed quite poignant.

The part that I found best, and of most interest, was the description of the Alix Mautner Memorial lectures, which Feynman had devised to try and explain QED to his friend Alix Mautner. Sadly she died before he could deliver the final lecture. This part has much of the scientific content of the whole book, and might jar a bit with the rest if you hadn’t been expecting something meatier to start with. The descriptions draw heavily on the outline Feynman gives in his little book QED (which is based on the lectures), but I found this cartoon description to be very illuminating. Obviously they don’t go into as much detail as Feynman did himself, but they give a very clear description of how light can be thought of when reflecting off a mirror, and a good simplified description of his path integral method. The introduction of the Feynman diagrams is perhaps a bit more rushed, and I suspect it might be difficult to follow if you had not had some visibility of them before, but it’s a good effort nonetheless.

This might be your first introduction to the cult of Feynman, and if so, then it I’d suggest it’s a good one. I’m not sure it’s quite as inspiring as reading Feynman’s stories in prose form, but you can get the gist here in a much shorter read, and you get to learn a bit of science along the way. Worth reading for those who know little of Feynman, and those that know a lot, but probably more satisfying for the former.

Finally, one thing that jarred was the image I have of Feynman, both as a young and old man. The drawings of him as an older man chimed well with my mental image, those of him as a younger man didn’t as much, and this was a negative point as far as I was concerned.

I like this trend in science cartoons. I really liked the comic Logicomix about Bertrand Russell (better than ‘Feynman’, I thought) – let’s hope for some more -Einstein next?