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
Initial 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.
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.
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.
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
A few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.
Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.
Continue reading Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy