Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘physics’

Feynman 100

I know the day’s almost over, but it’s still important to recognize that today would have been Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday. Feynman doesn’t “feel” 100 years old in my mind; after all, cancer took him when he was still 69. He didn’t get to have an extended period of being a grand old emeritus professor, frail and stooped. No wonder we still remember the wisecracking young guy.

Physics Today put up a link to a 2017 story about the inside of the youthful Feynman’s calculus notebook. Another writer for that magazine admits that Feynman’s humor could be exasperating at times. My guess is that the #MeToo movement would have tripped him up at some point. (To be fair, though, he encouraged his younger sister to become a scientist in her own right.)

Physics World also has a block of Feynman-at-100 stories on its home page; this British publication’s best-of package includes a couple of reviews of past plays about Feynman, a more general piece about physicists and science writers, and — my favorite — Virginia Trimble‘s tale of posing au naturel for a Feynman drawing session. (She was actually on my second-year project committee when I was in graduate school, and she’ll hit her own three-quarter-century mark later this year.)

I’ve read books by Feynman and books about Feynman. When I was studying undergraduate physics, our campus physics club rented 16-mm copies of the Feynman lectures that went into his book The Character of Physical Law (YouTube hadn’t been invented yet). At one point, the camera operator cut to a closeup shot of someone in the audience, and we UMass students glimpsed our future professor, Eugene Golowich, then finishing up his doctorate at Cornell, leaning back in his seat with a slight smile on his face. He taught very well himself — and I can’t help thinking that Feynman had a bit of influence on him.

As I write this entry, the first part of Caltech’s Feynman 100 celebration is taking place in Pasadena (there’s that bit of time difference between East and West). His sister, at age 91, is still able to participate in the program. So wonderful!


My Hawking number

So, what’s your Hawking number?

I’m referring, of course, to the notion that everyone is separated by no more than six degrees. The mathematicians really got the ball rolling with their concept of an “Erdös number,” based on collaborations with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. In the early days of the public Internet (that is, when Usenet newsgroups were a big thing), a long series of posts linking Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood celebrities led to a popular game, and eventually a website, for calculating “Bacon numbers.”

Of course, I wanted to calculate my own Bacon number. Around that time, a couple of things happened: one friend from my college newspaper had a bit part in Ron Howard’s The Paper, and another friend had a major CGI credit in Howard’s next film, Apollo 13. Thus, if you limit the Bacon game to actors, my Bacon number is 3: me -> my friend -> Robert Duvall (who was also in The Paper) -> Kevin Bacon. But if you include crew members, my Bacon number is only 2: me -> my other friend -> Kevin Bacon, who was of course in Apollo 13.

When I learned of the death of Stephen Hawking, my first thought was of one friend who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge University: Jonathan McDowell, the “Jonathan’s Space Report” guy. I’ve known him for almost 30(!) years now; when our friendship was new, A Brief History of Time was just hitting the bestseller lists. I checked with Jonathan, who confirmed that his doctoral adviser at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy was Bernard Carr, whose doctoral adviser in turn was Hawking. So Hawking was Jonathan’s “academic grandfather.”

And thus, even though I’ve never met this distinguished scientist, my “Hawking number” is 3: me -> Jonathan -> Carr -> Hawking. (Strictly speaking, this number should include only published peer-reviewed journal articles. But in my mind, a friendship counts as much as a film credit or publication.)

Incidentally, Jonathan’s Erdös nuber is 5, so does that make my Erdös number 6?

I’ll leave you with a list of links to news and commentary about Professor Hawking’s passing.

I’m sure there are plenty more tributes out there, but if I spend any more time tracking them down, I’m definitely not going to get my own work done.

I’ll leave you with a couple more relevant tweets from Jonathan McDowell:

Football … and physics!

I’ve been meaning to write about the whole “Deflategate” thing with the New England Patriots, but I’ve been juggling a lot of other things the past couple of weeks. (See previous post about writing a feature article about a certain distinguished scientist who just died.)

Disclaimer: I am the daughter of a football fan who always rooted for the Patriots, but who passed away before the Patriots ever appeared in the Super Bowl, even that first appearance in January 1986 when the Pats got mashed to pieces by the Chicago Bears just two days before the Challenger disaster. I may not follow the NFL with my father’s intensity, but I’m a Massachusetts native to the core.

When the “scandal” first broke, I was going to write about the relationship between pressure, volume, and temperature, but then I did a Google News search on “ideal gas law” and found that a few other writers had beaten me to the PV = nRT punch. Here’s a link to one of those articles: had a more recent analysis of the situation, noting this:

Healy [a Carnegie Mellon grad student] also pointed out a few mistakes made by many scientists quoted in the press on the matter. In citing the ideal gas law, some of them failed to take into account that the air pressure inside a 12.5 psi ball is actually twice as high, because the measurement also reflects the surrounding atmosphere pushing back against the ball. When you account for that, the balls can drop by about 1 full psi from the temperature difference alone.

Additionally, the effect of moisture was often ignored. After the leather absorbed a bit of water, however, it expanded slightly, led to an additional 0.7 psi decrease in air pressure in his experiments.

This give me (hardly unbiased toward the Patriots) some assurance that the whole thing was an honest matter of game-day weather physics, not some nefarious cheat.

Ultimately, everything boils down to this: Haters are gonna hate and people like to put dynasties in the crosshairs. But the Patriots got to be a dynasty by being very, very good at what they do. Photonic Pat says: GO PATS!!! 🙂

Don’t bet against optics

Once I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was curious about the Nobel Prize in physics. So I booted up the computer and, sure enough, learned that Serge Haroche and David Wineland are this year’s laureates for their work in quantum optics. Congratulations to them both!

I also did a quick search on OSA’s website and found that Wineland and Haroche have both won the society’s Herbert Walther Award for quantum optics. It’s a relatively new award, and these two guys were its first winners. Also, Haroche won the society’s 2007 Charles Hard Townes Award for quantum electronics. And Wineland won OSA’s 1990 William F. Meggers Award for spectroscopy, as well as the society’s highest honor, the Frederic Ives Medal with Jarus Quinn Prize Endowment, in 2004.

For more on the quantum world, I am following science writer Alexandra Witze’s tweet and commending you to a special issue of Science News from 2010. I think it’s time for breakfast.

But one final postscript: Here in America, lots of people say terribly disparaging things about “lazy government employees.” Well, gee, Wineland is the fourth fifth “government employee,” and the third fourth from NIST, to win the physics Nobel in the last 15 years.

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot one of the NIST laureates in my original post, although John L. “Jan” Hall held a joint appointment with JILA and the University of Colorado in addition to NIST. Four Nobel prizes in the span of 15 years is truly something for NIST to be proud of!

About those Nobel Prize predictions…

Wondering why I haven’t spent time noodling over the possibilities for next week’s Nobel Prize announcements? My friend at Slate, Laura Helmuth, asked some of her friends to assess the competition. I definitely recommend reading the resulting article.

Bottom line in physics: It’s too early to give the nod to the Higgs boson crowd. But there are plenty of other contenders, some of whom are female (and it’s been 49 years since a woman won a Nobel in physics, hint hint). Personally, I’m rooting for the folks in optics and astronomy. But you already knew that, right?