physics

Asking Deep Questions

Most people think simple questions ought to have simple answers. But one of the things I learned studying math at the University of Toronto was that the longer the question, the easier it was to answer. But when the questions are short an simple, the answer is anything but. 

The late Richard Feynman, physics professor at Cal Tech and Nobel Laureate, exemplifies this perfectly when a journalist tries to ask him why magnets repel:

Reasons for Pessimism

Author and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss thinks their are reasons to be pessimistic, but that's no reason to be gloomy. Here in a short little insight on BigThink, he explains why the universe doesn't care about you... and that's a good thing

I love the part at the end where he emphasizes the importance of knowing how the world actually is. After all, I'm a magician. Some people say I spend my time trying to convince people of things which aren't true. Rather, it's better to say I spend my time trying to get people to to question and doubt what they see and realize that not everything around them is the way it appears intuitively.

Anyways... off to go create some meaning and purpose... and magic.

What if Fish Tried to do Physics

Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek appeared recently at an event at Arizona State University as part of the "Origins Project" where he discussed different ways of looking at the vacuum (the fancy technical term for empty space with "nothing" in it.)

The introduction to the talk is remarkable because it highlights the importance of being able to approach problems from new, creative, and often highly counterintuitive perspectives.

One of the first examples is particularly striking. Imagine you were a fish trying to do physics. (As Leonard Susskind suggests... fyshicists... groan...) Getting to the fundamental laws would be difficult because the only reality you knew of was of one where the world was filled with water. The constant interference in your experiments caused by changing pressure, drag, convection currants would be a constant hindrance. In order to make progress you would have to imagine how things would work in the absence of water; something which would seem heretical to everyone who had only ever seen a world with water everywhere.

It turns out many of our major advances have involved one of these implausible shifts in perspective. It feels to me like a very magical way of looking at the world (backed up by reams of calculation and experimental evidence!) 

There is also a second part to the conversation with a discussion with the O.P.'s director, Lawrence Krauss: 

They may be a bit long, but they're a wonderfully enlightening alternative to trying to go out in cold, snowy, windy weather. 

My new favourite phrase

My favourite word of 2015 was the verb to poof, which essentially means to magic something into existence. For 2016, I think it definitely has to be brain boners.

I've posted a review of Sean Carroll's fantastic book, The Big Picture previously. This compilation of some of his more powerful and profound comments is well-deserving of the term:

RPF10

I'm a strange enough person that when I was young I had a favourite physicist. This was in the days before YouTube when if you wanted to learn about someone you had to have a book, or happen upon something on TV live.

Since Richard Feynman passed away when I was three, there was not really any new material on him coming out. By the time I finished university, I had read all of the published books and listened to the audio lectures. Shortly after that, Bill Gates released Project Tuva [which now seems to be a deal link - the videos are now hosted by Cornell].

But now all the little snippets of interviews and documentaries have managed to make their way online so I was able to enjoy this wonderful collection of quotable and insightful Feynman:

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll's most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I've read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith. 9780525954828

It's a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it's been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don't know just how much we actually know about the universe. It's very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from "I don't know" to "nobody knows" without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called "tolerance". But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It's gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They're only magical when they're poorly understood, so it's nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It's a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don't want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that's worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn't go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.