Unreasonable Effectiveness

I just thought I would link to a couple of classic essays today.  These deal with the slightly mind boggling link up between mathematics and physical theories – often we have some sort of (often rough) measurements and a nice, neat mathematical formula that fits them, then the formula will seem to give a “law of nature” that is hugely accurate beyond what we might reasonably expect.

Is this just an artefact of how we use mathematics, or is there really an underlying mathematical structure to the universe?  It gets towards something that Steven Weinberg described in the book I read recently – the idea of a Final Theory in physics.  I’m not sure where I would come down on this, but they make interesting reading.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Hamming

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The Neutrino Hunters by Ray Jayawardhana

18684781Initial thoughts on this book – it’s much lighter than the other Physics books I have read recently (Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg and Strange Beauty by George Johnson).  The introduction references The Big Bang Theory and sci-fi books by Greg Bear.  The tone feels a world away from the manifesto of Weinberg and the heavy weight biography of Gell-Mann.  This is probably a good thing – Jayawardhana covers physics right up to the time of writing, and many of these experiments aren’t yet at the stage of results and are light on entertaining anecdotes, so the style helps keep things pacy.

With my background in Physics, I would actually be interested in more detail on the theory behind neutrinos but Jayawardhana largely leaves this out for quick summaries of the concepts.  In truth this is probably a better option, for the flow of the book and readability for a general audience.  The personalities involved, their motivations and the surroundings of the experiments and theory developments are described more than the actual theory itself – but these are of great interest: people like Pauli and Dirac, experiments like Ice Cube in the Antarctic or SNOLab in a Canadian nickel mine.  These provide more than enough material to fill the book.

The book inevitably tails off a little towards the end when we reach unfinished experiments and possible applications (detecting neutrinos to discover illegal nuclear material, for example) and feels like a little bit of a mish mash of all the ideas and experiments that the author declined to give more prominence in the main chapters of the book.  There are some of these stories that could be covered in further detail – there is just a short paragraph, for instance, on Samuel Ting and AMS.

Neutrino Hunters stays short and sweet though – an enthusiastic introduction to some of the biggest topics in particle physics today.

Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.

Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on here, but my degree was in Particle Physics.  You start to pick up the big names (if you didn’t know them already) as you learn the subject – Steven Weinberg is one such name.  His work on electroweak unification was a major part of the course.

You also start to pick up the details of previous experiments.  In my era, with the Large Hadron Collider just starting to take data, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) came up now and then.  This experiment that never was, was cancelled in 1993 due to budget problems.  It would have reached energies well beyond that of the LHC.

In 1992 Weinberg released this book, describing why he believed that a “final” theory of fundamental physics would exist, what it could look like, and justifying the funding of the SSC.  Although he did not win the debate on funding, the arguments in the book still stand – it’s surprising how up to date the book seems.  In the last 25 years, we have discovered the Top quark, flavour changes in neutrinos, the Higgs Boson, gravity waves, and pushes into the limits of Supersymmetry and Dark Matter.  Yet still something more is needed.

Weinberg’s arguments on the importance of spending on fundamental science, and on his field as the most fundamental of sciences, may not land for everyone, but he places them eloquently and (relatively) diplomatically.  His discussion on realism vs positivism is very interesting, it filled in some of the gaps from my very experimentally focused degree.  If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a theory as “beautiful”, this is as good a place as any to get an explanation of what they mean and why this matters.

After writing this I found another recent review of it in the Guardian.  From the early days of the LHC, but I think it too is still very valid.  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jul/08/dreams-final-theory-weinberg-review

Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern

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This book isn’t exactly about Dimitri Mendeleyev, he only shows up 260 pages into a 295 page book, but there’s the old line “standing on the shoulders of giants”.  This is about the slow process the chemistry went through to develop from the rather haphazard work of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the modern science that it became with Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table.

For the most part, the book is full of tales of the various personalities that paved the way for Mendeleyev.  Big names like Issac Newton, Francis Bacon and Antoine Lavoisier are covered, as are lesser known figures like the unlucky Carl Scheele or the disreputable Johann Becher.  The first half of the book switches between a history of alchemy and a history of empirical science in general, as it needs to.  The later chapters focus more and more on chemistry, and particularly that which led towards the understanding of elements.

It’s a fairly light book, but Strathern does find time to weigh in with opinions – on the views of male scientists that kept it a boy’s club for so long, and on people who either had the right approach but wrong answer or vice versa.  This second point could have had more made of it – it is acknowledged that even good scientists will hold to their beliefs or opinions (Priestly and others trying to hold onto their theories about Phlogiston after Lavoisier’s identification of Oxygen) but it doesn’t really interrupt the sense of progress.

My only real disappointment with the book is the ending point.  Other than a brief comment on the success of the periodic table in the future, the book cuts out at Mendeleyev’s peak.  For what is basically a general history of chemistry, it would be nice to see where the subject went in its mature form.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a book with a reputation.  Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds.  It has also received its fair share of criticism.  Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.

In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up.  Something to bring back some sense of optimism.  Some sense of progress.  Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill.  It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.

Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious.  His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire.  The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011.  At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.

The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating.  Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world.  Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.

Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world.  In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.

First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications.  The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).

After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians.  There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.

There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers.  There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another.  It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.

The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered.  The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar.  He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point).  In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.

Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

Continue reading Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.

Continue reading Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

Continue reading Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry