Friday, January 27, 2023

Science and the universe are awesome

Since we are surrounded by scientific knowledge. We are so used to it that we can take science for granted and not reflect on how amazing science truly is. And how amazing the universe is that science reveals. Things that we know, learn, and do today in science would have been inconceivable decades ago, let alone centuries ago.

What specific things do you think are particularly awesome? This question was stimulated by Frank Wilczek's recent book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. In writing the book, he says "what began as an exposition grew into a contemplation."

 My answer to the question has some significant overlap with Wilczek's ten. 

Below I list some of the things that I find awesome. I consider two classes: what science can do and what we learn about the universe from science.

Science works! It is amazing what science can do.

We can understand the material world.

Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." In a previous post, I explored some different dimensions of the fact that the universe is comprehensible. The mystery includes human capabilities, both intellectual and physical, and the malleability of the material world.

We can make precise measurements.

Scientists have created incredibly powerful and specialised instruments for making very precise measurements such as spectrometers, telescopes and microscopes. Scientists can measure the tension in a single strand of DNA, the magnetic moment of an electron to a precision of one part in one billion billion, the spectrum of light emitted by a galaxy that is ten billion light years away, ...

We can predict the outcome of new experiments.

Scientists construct theories in their minds, on pieces of paper, in mathematical equations, and in computers. One way to evaluate the possible validity of a theory is to propose new experiments and predict the outcome. Famous examples include the existence of the chemical element aluminium, the existence of the planet Neptune, radio waves, a specific excited quantum state of the atomic nucleus of carbon atoms, the pollinator moth for Darwin's orchid, the deflection of the path of light from a distant star by our sun, gravitational waves, the Cosmic Microwave Background, quarks, the Higgs boson, the Berezinskii-Kosterlitz-Thouless phase transition, the hexatic phase, edge states in integer spin antiferromagnetic chains, topological insulators, ... Predictions are particularly impressive when they are unexpected and controversial.

We can use mathematics. 

Eugene Wigner received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. In 1960 he published an essay "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences that concludes

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. 

We can manipulate and control nature.

Scientists and engineers can move single atoms, design drugs, make computers, build atom bombs, heart pacemakers, and mobile phones, manipulate genes, ......

We know so much but we know so little. 

On the one hand, the achievements of science are amazing. Yet, in spite of this, there are still significant mysteries and challenges. Examples include the nature of dark matter or human consciousness, a quantum theory of gravity, fine-tuning of fundamental constants, the quantum-classical boundary, protein folding, the nature of glasses, and how to calculate the properties of complex systems.

It is awesome what science reveals to us about the universe.

The immense scales of the observable universe

Our sun is just one star among the more than two hundred billion that make up our galaxy, the Milky Way. And that is just one of one trillion galaxies in the whole universe. It takes light from the most distant galaxies tens of billions of years to travel to us.

Length, time, and energy scales over many many orders of magnitude

These go far beyond our everyday experience and what we can see with the naked eye (from a millimetre to a kilometre). On the large scale, the visible universe involves distances of billions of light years (10^25 metres). On the small scale, there is the sub-structure of nucleons, which is smaller than femtometres (10^-15 m).  This wide range of length scales is nicely illustrated in the wonderful movie Powers of Ten and its update, The Cosmic Eye. There are corresponding time, energy, and temperature scales varying over many many orders of magnitude. For example, as one goes from ultracold atomic gases to quark-gluon plasmas, the  relevant energy and temperature scales vary over more than 20 orders of magnitude! At every scale, there are distinct phenomena and structures. 

Universal laws that are simple to state

The universe exhibits a diversity of rich and complex behaviour. Yet it can understand much of it in terms of simple universal laws that are easy to state, e.g., Newton's laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, Schrodinger's equation of quantum mechanics, the genetic code, ....  And, these are just a few of these laws. One does not need a multitude of laws to describe a multitude of instances of a multitude of phenomena.

Just a few building blocks

There are just a few fundamental particles in the standard model (leptons, neutrinos, and gauge bosons). Everything is made of them. They are the building blocks of atoms. They each have just a few physical properties: charge, spin, mass, and colour. Every single particle of a particular type in the universe has exactly the same properties. Exactly. As far as we know, they have been exactly the same throughout time, going back to the beginning of the universe, and whether they are in your body, or in a star in a distant galaxy.

Atoms are the building blocks of chemical compounds. Every single atom of a particular chemical element (and nuclear isotope) is absolutely identical. This allows astronomers to determine the chemical composition of distant stars, galaxies, and dust clouds.

Humans, plants, and animals all have the same molecular building blocks and there are just a few of them. Any DNA molecule is composed of just four different base pairs (denoted A, G, T, C) and proteins are composed of just twenty different amino acids.

There are two amazing things here. First, there are just so few building blocks. Second, every one of these building blocks is absolutely identical.

Emergence: simple rules produce complex behaviour

Humans, cells, and crystals can be viewed as systems composed of many interacting components. The components and their interactions can often be understood and described in simple terms. Nevertheless, from these interactions complex structures and properties can emerge.

Nature appears to be fine-tuned for life

This covers not just the values of fundamental physical constants that lead to the notion of fine-tuning and the anthropic principle. Water has unique physical and chemical properties that allow it to play a crucial role in life, such as the surface of lakes freezing before the bottom and aiding protein folding.

The intricate and subtle "machinery" of biomolecules

Proteins have very unique structures that are intimately connected to their specific functions, whether as catalysts or light sensors.


What do you think are the most amazing things about science and what we learn from it?


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Condensed Matter Physics: A Very Short Introduction; almost there...

The publication of my book has been delayed a couple of months. It is now due for release in February in the UK and May in the USA.

It is available for pre-order.

If you are teaching a course for which the book could potentially be one of the texts you can request a free inspection copy.

OUP has produced a nice flyer to promote the book.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The green comet and quantum chemistry

The comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) getting a lot of attention, pointed out to me by my friend Alexey. Why is it green? This basic question turns out to be scientifically rich and has only recently been answered.

The green glow comes from a triplet excited state of diatomic carbon, C2. This got my interest because a decade ago I blogged on debates by quantum chemists about whether C2 involves a quadruple bond. Back in 1995, Roald Hoffmann wrote an interesting column in The American Scientist (and reproduced in his beautiful book Same and Not the Same) about the molecule and how it is present in various organometallic compounds and inorganic crystals.

Recent advances in understanding the photophysics of C2 were reported in 2021 in this paper.

Photodissociation of dicarbon: How nature breaks an unusual multiple bond

Jasmin Borsovszky, Klaas Nauta, Jun Jiang, Christopher S. Hansen, Laura K. McKemmish, Robert W. Field, John F. Stanton, Scott H. Kable, and Timothy W. Schmidt 


Here is a summary of the significance and content of the paper from Chemistry World.

..as dicarbon streams out of the comet core, it is destroyed by sunlight – this is why the comet tail, unlike the coma, is colourless. However, the precise mechanism of this supposed photodissociation had remained unclear.

Researchers in Australia and the US have now for the first time observed diatomic carbon’s photodissociation in the lab. The team produced dicarbon by photolysing tetrachloroethylene, and then breaking it apart with laser pulses. This allowed them to determine its bond dissociation energy with the same precision as for oxygen and nitrogen. Previous measurements for dicarbon had uncertainties an order of magnitude higher than for other diatomic molecules.

To break its quadruple bond, the molecule must absorb two photons and undergo two ‘forbidden’ transitions, those that break spectroscopic rules. Cometary dicarbon, the researchers calculated, has a lifetime of around two days until sunlight breaks it apart – the reason why its colour is visible in the coma but not in the tail.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Some amazing things about the universe that make science possible

 This post takes off from the following Einstein quotes.

"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible"

from "Physics and Reality"(1936), in Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York: Bonanza, 1954), p292.

"...I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way .. the kind of order created by Newton's theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different." 

Letters to Solovine, New York, Philosophical Library, 1987, p 131.

There are several dimensions to the comprehensibility of the universe. The dimension highlighted by Einstein is that there is order in the world, reflected in laws that can be succinctly stated and mathematically encoded. These laws seem to hold for all time and everywhere in the universe. Here I suggest there are three other dimensions that make science possible. 

A second amazing dimension is that humans have the rational ability to do science: to reason, to understand, to communicate, and to make instruments such as telescopes and microscopes. There seems to be somewhat of a match between the rationality of the universe and human rationality. This is written in the spirit of arguments about fine-tuning, where one imagines alternative universes.

Humans could have been different. Suppose that the amount and variation of human intelligence (at least that aspect of intelligence relevant to doing science) were different, and the mean and standard deviation were lower. Suppose that intelligence was lower so that there were no brilliant humans like Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Pauling, ... In fact, suppose that even the brightest people were as good at science as I am at music and dancing. Scientific progress would be rather limited.

But it is not just human intelligence that matters. A third amazing dimension is that of manual dexterity. I am "all thumbs" and not particularly good in the lab. There are some gifted experimentalists with an outstanding ability to do things most people cannot, even with training. Such abilities allow them to fabricate precision instruments, grow crystals, see faint images, ... If some humans did not have such abilities scientific progress would have been much slower, or possibly non-existent.

A fourth crucial dimension concerns the availability and processability of certain materials that are central to scientific progress. Making instruments requires particular materials such as metals, glass, and semiconductors. Suppose we lived in a world where some of these were very rare or just could not be processed to the purity or malleability required.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

A light slow start to the year

Best wishes for the New Year!

Over the holidays my son introduced me to the humorous wonders of Philomena Cunk. Here is a short sample.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Eight amazing things physics has taught us

What are the most amazing things that we know about the physics of the universe? If you were to pick ten what would they be?

I recently read Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (2021) a popular science book by Frank Wilczek. My interest in the book was piqued just to see what Wilczek's choices for his "ten" were. I got a copy from the public library and became entranced because I discovered what a gifted writer and expositor Wilczek is. I found I was learning some physics I did not know; or at least getting a deeper understanding of what I should know. I then bought my own copy so I could annotate it. I have previously enjoyed the insights in many of Wilczeks' Physics Today columns.

The book gives a popular presentation of some physics "basics" such as celestial mechanics, the Standard Model of elementary particles (which he renames the Core), and Big Bang cosmology.  I found it full of insights. I also appreciated that Wilczek does not have the hard reductionist or scientism edge found in the popular books of some distinguished theoretical physicists such as Weinberg and Hawking. However, a careful reading led me at times to be somewhat disappointed and irritated, for reasons that I discuss briefly below. In the end, this is because, not surprisingly, I have a much more emergentist perspective on reality, seeing it as stratified.

First, here are the ten things that Wilczek finds amazing, helpfully summarised in his chapter titles.

Part I. What There Is 

Chapter 1. There's Plenty of Space

Chapter 2. There's Plenty of Time

Chapter 3. There Are Very Few Ingredients

Chapter 4. There Are Very Few Laws

Chapter 5. There's Plenty of Matter and Energy

Part II. Beginnings and Ends 

Chapter 6. Cosmic History is an Open Book

Chapter 7. Complexity Emerges

Chapter 8. There's Plenty More to See

Chapter 9. Mysteries Remain

Chapter 10. Complementarity Is Mind-Expanding

Here are some of the ideas associated with each of the ten keys.

There's Plenty of Space

The scales of the universe are incredible. Beyond us, there is the vast numbers of stars and galaxies, and distances of more than ten billion light years. Within us, each of our bodies contains more atoms than there are stars in the universe. Our brains have as many neurons as there are stars in our galaxy. An atom is largely empty space.

There's Plenty of Time

Cosmic time is abundant. The quantity of time reaching back to the big bang dwarfs a human lifetime... [which] contains far more moments of consciousness than universal history contains human life spans. We are gifted with an abundance of inner time.

There Are Very Few Ingredients

Everything in the universe is made of just a few particles: leptons, quarks, and neutrinos. And forces and the associated bosons, such as photons, gravitons, and gluons. These particles have just a few properties: mass, charge, colour, and spin.

 "The most basic ingredients of physical reality are a few principles and properties. Four simple yet profound general principles govern how the world works.

1. The basic laws describe change.

2. The basic laws are universal.

3. The basic laws are local.

4. The basic laws are precise.

Newton realised locality was a problem. Fields rather than particles are the fundamenta building blocks of matter.

Quasiparticles are discussed. In high school, Wilczek was inspired by a visit to Bell Labs where he learnt that quanta of lattice vibrations are phonons. He describes how he introduced anyons in the early 1980s and how they were then identified with quasiparticles in fractional quantum Hall states.

There Are Very Few Laws

From forces we are led to fields, and from (quantum) fields, we are led to particles.

From particles we are led to (quantum) fields, and from fields, we are led to forces.

Thus, we come to understand that substance and force are two aspects of a common underlying reality.

The four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear) are described by just a few simple mathematical equations.

The art and science of spectroscopy is described as "Atoms sing songs that bare their souls, in light."

Wilczek's Ph.D. work on quark confinement and asymptotic freedom in Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) was the beginning of QCD being accepted and used.

Newton's gravity theory presented the puzzle of the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. Einstein's gravity solved the puzzle and "fulfills Newton's aspiration for a theory of gravity based n local action". 

    "we can portray the majestic logic of general relativity in ten broad             strokes... "

    "John Wheeler, the poet of relativity, summed it up this way: "Space-time     tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to bend."

Wilczek makes the debatable and misleading claim that "The equations of QED, QCD, general relativity, and the weak force, ... have powered many advances, including lasers, transistors, nuclear reactors, MRIs, and GPS."

There's Plenty of Matter and Energy

The fact that the amount of solar energy falling on the surface of the earth is vastly greater than current human energy consumption.

The concept of "dynamical complexity" is introduced but not defined. "Music and ritual are purified expressions of dynamical complexity."

"The principle that the essence of human purposes is experienced through flows of information in dynamic complexity, rather than through details of chemistry and physiology, is both mind-expanding and liberating. It challenges us to imagine how minds could emerge elsewhere in the universe, and it prepares us to embrace those minds within our circle of empathy."

To me, this is "mumbo jumbo" and reflects the muddled thinking that occurs when Wilczek wildly extrapolates from "fundamental" physics to broader and deeper questions about humanity. The last chapter has similar weaknesses.

Cosmic History is an Open Book

A lucid short summary is presented of big bang cosmology. What we know and why we know it. The chapter ends with a brief reference to Augustine's prescient insights about time. It is what clocks measure and so time did not exist before the beginning of the universe.

Complexity Emerges

How did the featureless simple "soup" that existed a million years after the big bang develop into the complex universe seen today with structures such as stars, galaxies, planets, and biological life? This short chapter (only eight pages) mostly talks about the role of gravity. The chapter could have been much richer by discussing the emergence of complexity in biology, psychology, and sociology. Again, simple laws can produce complex properties.

There's Plenty More to See

The discovery of the Higgs particle and gravitational wave astronomy are both described. Some speculations are made to connect "Quantum Perception and Self-Perception."

Mysteries Remain

What triggered the big bang? Could it hapen again?

Are there meaningful patterns hidden in the apparent sprawl of fundamental particles and forces?

How, concretely, does min emerge from matter? (Or does it?)

Wilczek describes violation of time reversal invariance (T) in elementary particle physics and the Peccei-Quinn proposal for a new field to explain this. The corresponding particle was dubbed the axion by Wilczek, which fulfilled his high school dream to give a particle that name when he encountered a laundry detergent with that name. The axion "cleans up a problem" in elementary particle physics.



Axions are candidates for dark matter.

Complementarity Is Mind-Expanding

Bohr's concept of complementarity (embodied in wave-particle duality in quantum theory) is embraced. 
Complementarity is the concept that one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have very different or even contradictory properties. Complementarity is an attitude toward experiences and problems that Ive found eye-opening an extremely helpful. It has literally changed my mind. Through it, I've become larger: more open to imagination, and more tolerant.
I am no fan of this perspective. I am all for having an open mind, considering a range of perspectives, and living with dialectic (intellectual tensions). However, I do not use quantum theory to justify that. There is a multitude of moral, philosophical, social, and political reasons that provide much more compelling justifications for humility. Bohr's perspective and extrapolations from the atomic world to politics has a long and dubious history that has systematically been debunked by Mara Beller, including in Physics Today.  Nevertheless, these ideas just won't go away, as seen why a recent volume of papers on Quantizing International Relations.

In summary, I love Wilczek's discussions of physics, and I think eight of the ten chapters describe amazing things about the physical world that we have learnt and should contemplate with awe and wonder.  But, two of the chapters make speculations about how the type of theoretical physics that Wilczek has made seminal contributions to is profoundly relevant to technological, social, economic, and political reality. I would much rather draw on the insights and debates from the humanities and social sciences to understand those realities and our place in them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Philosophy in a nutshell

How should we live? What really exists? And how do we know for sure? 

These three questions are at the heart of philosophy as an academic discipline.  This raises the question as to what the "philosophy of physics" is and what it should be? Philosophy of Physics: A Very Short Introduction by David Wallace explores this. He begins by stating that "Daniel Dennett defines philosophy as what we do when we don't know what questions to ask." I found that somewhat unsatisfying and went to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. 

Most definitions of philosophy are fairly controversial, particularly if they aim to be at all interesting or profound. That is partly because what has been called philosophy has changed radically in scope in the course of history, with many inquiries that were originally part of it having detached themselves from it. The shortest definition, and it is quite a good one, is that philosophy is thinking about thinking. That brings out the generally second-order character of the subject, as reflective thought about particular kinds of thinking—formation of beliefs, claims to knowledge—about the world or large parts of it.

A more detailed, but still uncontroversially comprehensive, definition is that philosophy is rationally critical thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world (metaphysics or theory of existence), the justification of belief (epistemology or theory of knowledge), and the conduct of life (ethics or theory of value). 

Each of the three elements in this list has a non-philosophical counterpart, from which it is distinguished by its explicitly rational and critical way of proceeding and by its systematic nature. 

Everyone has some general conception of the nature of the world in which they live and of their place in it. Metaphysics replaces the unargued assumptions embodied in such a conception with a rational and organized body of beliefs about the world as a whole. 

Everyone has occasion to doubt and question beliefs, their own or those of others, with more or less success and without any theory of what they are doing. Epistemology seeks by argument to make explicit the rules of correct belief-formation. 

Everyone governs their conduct by directing it to desired or valued ends. Ethics, or moral philosophy, in its most inclusive sense, seeks to articulate, in rationally systematic form, the rules or principles involved. 

The three main parts of philosophy are related in various ways. For us to guide our conduct rationally we need a general conception of the world in which it is carried out and of ourselves as acting in it. Metaphysics presupposes epistemology, both to authenticate the special forms of reasoning on which it relies and to assure the correctness of the large assumptions which, in some of its varieties, it makes about the nature of things, such as that nothing comes out of nothing, that there are recurrences in the world and our experience of it, that the mental is not in space.

On the lighter side here is Philomena Cunk's brief engagement with philosophy.