Monday, December 1, 2008

The Mystery of Time: An Essay Contest

The nature of time is one of the deepest mysteries.  In a new paper, submitted to an essay contest for the Foundational Questions Institute, I offer my own thoughts on this riddle:

The Garden of Forking Paths:  Time as an Expanding Labyrinth

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Einstein's Last Assistant

Dr. Bruria Kaufman, Einstein's last research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, turns 90 years old this year. She has had an extraordinary career, including collaborations with an amazing number of well-known scientists from various fields.

As a young researcher, she worked with Lars Onsager, a famous statistical physicist and Nobel-Prize-winning chemist, and John von Neumann, the Hungarian mathematician who was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century and helped invent the computer. She then spent time working with Einstein during his final days.

At the age of 27, during the 1955 Jubilee (50th anniversary) of relativity in Bern, she had the sad task of delivering Einstein's final paper on unified field theory. Her brilliant mentor had just passed away.

These varied areas of research are impressive in and of themselves. But then she collaborated with and married Zellig Harris, the founder of structural linguistics who advised Noam Chomsky. So she had yet another career as a prominent linguist.

Harris died in 1992, at the age of 82. In 1996, Kaufman married Nobel laureate physicist Willis Lamb, who was 83 at the time. She had known him from years earlier. Lamb was famous for having discovered the quantum phenomenon known as the Lamb shift, one of the earliest indications of virtual particles in the vacuum. They collaborated, later divorced, and Lamb recently died.

It is hard to think of a living scientist who has had a more diverse career than Dr. Kaufman.

Quantum Musicians

A common metaphor in quantum mechanics relates the standing wave vibrations of electrons in atoms to the harmonics of plucked guitar strings. Apparently that image has resonated with some of the offspring of quantum theorists who have chosen musical careers.

A pioneer of this trend was Olivia Newton-John, the English-born Australian musician who captivated audiences in Grease and Xanadu. Her maternal grandfather was none other than one of the principal founders of quantum mechanics, Goettingen physicist Max Born.

In more recent years, the band Eels has attracted a loyal following. Its founder, (aka "Mr. E") is Mark Everett, son of Hugh Everett, developer of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. He was recently featured in the BBC documentary "Parallel Lives, Parallel Universes."

Albert Baez, an X-ray pioneer, passed away last year. You can guess who his famous daughter, a prominent folksinger, is.

Then there are Brian May, guitarist and songwriter of the classic rock band Queen, and Brian Cox of the UK Synthpop Band D:ream. They have started a kind of reverse trend. May has become an astrophysicist and chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University and Cox has become a physicist at CERN.

Quantum harmonies are more than just a metaphor these days!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Way of Science in the Labyrinth of Culture

German historian of science Daniela Wuensch has just published a new book: The Way of Science in the Labyrinth of Culture

How can anyone resist a book with such a great title? It looks like an interesting read.
So far it is available only in German, however. So to travel through this labyrinth, those not fluent in that language may need a dictionary in addition to an Ariadne's thread.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unifying the Forces of Nature

It has been the physics community's long-standing dream to unify the natural forces into a single comprehensive theory. Two of the pioneers in unified field theory attempts were physicists Oskar Klein and Albert Einstein. In my new history of physics article, I explore connections between their quests for unification in five dimensions.

Here's a link to my recently published article (subscription required to see the full content; alternatively, paper copies available upon request):

Klein, Einstein and Five-Dimensional Unification

A Guide to Understanding the Bomb

A book review I wrote of Doomsday Men by PD Smith has finally made its way into the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer and also online:

A Guide to Understanding the Bomb

It is a fascinating book about the history and culture of superweapons and I highly recommend it.