Redshifted In Memphis: Thread for a discussion of books about science or its history aimed at a general audience but not playing to the crowd

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Or dumbing it down, for that matter.

aka Redshirted in Memphis.

Books such as The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes, despite its provocative title. Or The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira. Where the scientific research may read like police procedural, lots of figurative or real cups of coffee drunk or cigars smoked by very real humans whilst going down blind alleys until the correct conclusion is finally arrived at. Or was it?

Bo Diddley Is A Threadkiller (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 10 May 2014 04:17 (nine years ago) link

one month passes...

Andronikashvili, Reflections on Liquid Helium. An informal memoir with funny anecdotes. There are nice cameos of Kapitza and Feynman, and a lot of space devoted to Landau. This book was written in 1965-75, so not everything could get into print, giving the narrative a certain eeriness. The theorist Matvei Bronstein, who was shot in 1937, gets a brief mention, but Andronikashvili's predecessor the low-temperature experimentalist Lev Shubnikov, who was also shot that year, does not. Stalin is mentioned in passing (Andronikashvili got a Stalin Prize), but Beria, who yanked Andronikashvili out of Kapitza's lab in Moscow and stuck him in Tbilisi to build up Georgian physics, is not, and the whole episode is blamed on unnamed higher forces. Andronikashvili comes off as a good-humored person who always bounces back and triumphs.

"I will try to explain the reason for the disagreement, from the point of view of Landau's former theory --"
"Why 'former theory'?" Dau asked indignantly.
"Indeed, why are you allowing yourself to call Lev Davidovich's theory 'former'?" Anatolii Petrovich asked sternly. "I must ask you to carry on the discussion on a different note."

Ferreira, The Perfect Theory. Good on the period from about 1955 to about 1985. One's impression is that from then till now, no one is sure what the right path is.

His older sister had drowned when he was a young child, and he blamed gravity.

Smith, Beating the Odds: The Life and Times of E. A. Milne. A biography of the astrophysicist by his daughter, but not a labor of love, since they were not close. I found it well-written and interesting. Roger Penrose wrote the forward. Milne did a lot of work on the structure of stars and applied mathematics but is best remembered for a peculiar cosmological model.

news of Milne's theory spread from Budapest to California.

It was almost certainly Arthur Koestler who spread the news in Budapest. Andrei Zhdanov officially denounced the theory in 1947.

Not the greatest title, but life dealt Milne more than his share of misfortune, which he bore like an Englishman of his time.

Physicists in exile from Germany were invited to the Clarendon Laboratory "and in 1933 they were the first in the world to produce liquid helium." Helium had been liquefied since 1908, so she means to say something else.

alimosina, Wednesday, 25 June 2014 17:40 (nine years ago) link

Schechter, The Path of No Resistance. Published in 1989 in the wake of the superconductivity boom of those years. It comes with a blurb from Philip W. Anderson: "It is by far the best popular book on this subject." IMO this is no longer the case, but Anderson is one of my heroes, so I had to read it, and it's good. The technological forecasts are of historical interest, but the story remains fresh. It's fun to read about how Chu "accidentally" made a systematic error in his manuscript, then corrected it by phone at the last possible moment before publishing. In those far-off days, people used to jump on planes to hand-deliver manuscripts to journals before others did.

(Japanese) comic books in which young men get rejected by attractive women for not knowing about superconductivity

K. A. Müller turns out to be a Jungian who has kept a voluminous dream diary through his career.

Anderson on why there aren't many popular books on condensed matter, as opposed to things like particle physics and cosmology:

Particle physics goes in these great leaps and in between the leaps there is very little to do, and so you stop and you write a book either about your experiences at Los Alamos or what particle physics is all about. There are also a lot of unemployed particle physicists because they do not produce graduate students who are useful to our industrial colleagues... there aren't enough of us who are unemployed to do this.

Clark, The Quest For SS433. SS433 turned out to be a gravitationally collapsed object at the center of supernova remnants which orbits a normal star and blasts out jets of matter in opposite directions like quasars do, only on a smaller scale. This picture emerged over time.

SS433 consistently revealed a knack for arousing professional vehemence with the international astronomical community.

Clark provides first-hand evidence of that. "My letter to him was not too diplomatic, I recall. I was feeling smug..." "As I read the paper, I grew furious." "Perhaps rather petulantly... I gathered my bags and headed for the airport." It's an open question whether Clark is unusually touchy, or if most scientists are but don't write popular books. In any case he's determined to get his share of credit, and provides a convenient chart showing who did what when. He ends on a hopeful note:

Whatever the professional rivalries of the past, or the disappointment, jealousy, and anger experienced, however, time is able to smooth out the differences between emotional extremes.

Cover blurb: "The Discovery of the Astronomical Phenomenon of the Century". Two years later Supernova 1987A was observed.

Kim, Yoshio Nishina: Father of Modern Physics in Japan. Not really on topic because it is formal scholarship, but it is readable and helps to explain why Japan, even after being bombed into rubble, could run circles around almost every other nation in particle physics.

Yukawa loved reading Chinese classics, including the works of Chuangtzu and Mencius, but Tomonaga preferred to attend popular shows and to read Japanese traditional fables. When a publisher invited them both to a famous Kyoto restaurant, Yukawa sat upright in the center of the room while Tomonaga leaned against the wall and stretched out his legs.

alimosina, Wednesday, 25 June 2014 17:44 (nine years ago) link

Thanks for reviving and posting extensively, had forgotten about this thread. Will look into some of your recommendations.

That's How Strong My Dub Is (James Redd and the Blecchs), Wednesday, 25 June 2014 23:10 (nine years ago) link

JR, these are less recommendations than a reading log with comments. They're the last six books I've read.

alimosina, Thursday, 26 June 2014 18:42 (nine years ago) link

one month passes...

Joint bio of Faraday and Maxwell seems pretty interesting from what I've read of it so far:

Hiriam (Come And Take Me) (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 28 July 2014 03:00 (nine years ago) link

Looks interesting, thanks. I will look out for it.

alimosina, Tuesday, 29 July 2014 18:54 (nine years ago) link

Shifman, ed. Under the Spell of Landau. The story of Soviet physics is Tolstoyan in scale, with heroes, villains, martyrs, and people trying only to survive. Everyone was remarkable, though. This book is a 530-page slice off the corpus and contains portraits of Landau, Migdal, Zeldovich, Smorodinsky, Ter-Martirosyan, Kirzhnits, Gribov, A. Larkin, and Anselm, and an article each on Orlov and Pontecorvo. The tone is reverential, the subjects are typically referred to by a nickname or by first name and patronymic or sometimes by "the Teacher", and the distinction between the subject's professional and personal lives is erased. One essay title is "He Lived Among Us". Another contributor: "These notes are my grateful tribute to his blessed memory."

Landau has long been revered, but lately people are having a few second thoughts, not about his genius but about his power. He had a habit of hearing about some new idea, taking it farther than its originator could, and then publishing it with little or no credit to the originator. (This happened twice to Migdal.) He shut down lines of research when he decided they were wrong. Thus Abrikosov was blocked from publishing his work on quantum vortex lines and Feynman got the credit. Landau suppressed all work on field theory in his circle from 1955 on, and anyone working on it was exiled to the wilderness. (The same thing happened in the West, but from herd instinct, not authority.) Then there was Landau's absolutely functional theory of women. ("You always see teacups arranged around a teapot, you never see teapots arranged around a teacup.") His widow published a bitter memoir in old age.

(Δₑ ~ 0.07 -- "James Bond effect")

The hothouse atmosphere of that school will not return, because it depended on inelastic state support and being cut off from the rest of the world. In a publish-or-die environment where everyone is online and can read everyone else's work, the pressure of conformity is much greater and it is harder for weird strains to survive.

Producing dense papers was a norm. This style, which was probably perceived by the outside readers as a chain of riddles, is partly explained by tradition, presumably dating back to the Landau times. It was also due to specific Soviet conditions, where everything was regulated, including the maximum number of pages a given paper could contain. Compressing derivations and arguments to the level considered acceptable was an art which had its grandmasters. Arkady Vainshtein was especially good at inventing all sorts of tricks allowing him to squeeze in extra formulae with very few explanatory remarks. I remember... we had to make 30 pages out of the original 60-page preprint version, and he managed to do that losing no equations and even inserting a few extra. This left a strong impression on me.

Kragh and Overduin, The Weight of the Vacuum. This is the first monograph this year (co-)authored by the bulldozer-like Helge Kragh, but it may not be the last. Kragh is a historian with a capital H; for him the subject matter is a procession of documents, some long forgotten. Thus this book is not really on-topic. Short, informative, and dry.

Panek, The 4% Universe. The same story told from the personal side. If you want to read about smart, fallible, ambitious, envious people in a battle to produce science before their rivals do, this is your book.

During a break in the Princeton activities, as various astronomers and cosmologists were climbing a flight of stairs to an auditorium, Turner sent Perlmutter a message. Ostensibly talking to the astronomer walking beside him, Turner raised his voice.
"I don't think Saul is that stupid," he said.
Perlmutter didn't appear to hear.
"I said," Turner repeated, raising his voice, "'I don't think SAUL is that STUPID.'"

The author indulges in some distracting literary devices. There's a page of impressionistic biographical detail about "her" early life before "she" is revealed to be Vera Cooper Rubin. He likes to emphasize things with italics.

He also likes one-short-sentence paragraphs.

He uses them often.

Once the real story gets under way these devices become less annoying. Panek seems to have obtained varying degrees of cooperation from the participants. We learn a lot about what Brian Schmidt and Nick Suntzeff were thinking, but Saul Perlmutter, like the Roadrunner, remains opaque.

Once while Perlmutter was making a presentation at a conference, Nick Suntzeff turned to Bob Kirshner and whispered, "Saul thinks there's a Nobel Prize in this."
Kirshner gave Suntzeff a look. "There is!"

The Nobel Prizes were awarded after all a few months after the book was published.

alimosina, Monday, 4 August 2014 17:03 (nine years ago) link

Interesting. Started this Quantum Mechanics book by Kumar highly recommended in Ferreira's book.

Who Loves The Three Suns (James Redd and the Blecchs), Wednesday, 6 August 2014 01:24 (nine years ago) link

Are you reading these books in English or in Russian?

Flan O'Brien, bibliotecario de Babel (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 7 August 2014 10:30 (nine years ago) link

That link being:
Lost in the Tensors: Einstein's Struggles with Covariance Principles, 1912-1916
John Earman
University of Minnesota
Clark Glymour
University of Illinois at Chicago

Flan O'Brien, bibliotecario de Babel (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 7 August 2014 10:36 (nine years ago) link

Thanks for that. I don't read Russian, alas.

alimosina, Thursday, 7 August 2014 15:54 (nine years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Full title: Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality, by Manjit Kumar. About two thirds of the way through and learned a ton about the personalities involved in the history of the physics.

Dear Ultraviolet Catastrophe Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 23 August 2014 20:56 (nine years ago) link

This thread has been useful so far, even if there is nobody here but us chickens.

Dear Ultraviolet Catastrophe Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 24 August 2014 19:02 (nine years ago) link


alimosina, Sunday, 24 August 2014 20:42 (nine years ago) link

Promising: Einstein's Clock's, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time, by Peter Galison.

Dear Ultraviolet Catastrophe Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 26 August 2014 17:11 (nine years ago) link

Overview of various books about Einstein two years after the centenary of the annus mirabilis, written by Lee Smolin and interesting in its own right. Be sure to read the Exchange of Letters as well.

The Wu-Tang Declan (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 1 September 2014 02:41 (nine years ago) link

Breizman and van Dam eds., G. I. Budker: Reflections And Remembrances. Budker was the leading Soviet accelerator physicist from 1946 to 1977, and this is a volume of remembrances of him by friends and disciples in the now-familiar heartfelt Russian style. Migdal's sketch is called "A Divinely Favored Physicist."

One day we were discussing a very difficult and intricate question, which required our complete attention. With his hyperactivity, (Budker) made it altogether impossible for us to concentrate on the question. After several "final" warnings, I just pushed him out and closed the door. Even then, however, he did not calm down, but shouted through the door, "Make the substitution 1/x!" ...I held my head in my hands and groaned, "My God, what am I to do?"

Eventually they gave Budker his own institute in Novosibirsk, over doubts that such a random number could run anything. Budker was similar to Fermi in that he could take a theoretical idea and push it all the way through to apparatus that worked. Landau gave him a typically backhanded compliment, "relativistic engineer," which Budker loved. These essays were written in 1987, and only one alludes to the political harassment Budker faced during the 1970s which led to his fatal heart attack at age 59.

Budker: Tell me, please, Kadya, do I know physics?
Migdal: Yes, you do.
Budker: But if I read nothing and nevertheless know physics, therefore I must be a genius.
Migdal: (after some deliberation) No, Andrei, you just know physics by hearsay.

Forbes and Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field. This book is balanced between the history of something inanimate, electromagnetism, and the two eponymous lives. The separate parts don't completely fuse, although the exposition is good. Faraday started out as a chemist, and Maxwell did profound work on statistical mechanics and like Budker was a theorist who managed a lab. A unified book would suppress much of that, and not dwell on their early lives. Toward the end, a third biography emerges, that of the maverick Heaviside. (Mahon has also written a biography of Heaviside.) Enjoyable as a collection of interesting topics arranged in a episodic narrative. I'd planned to read Mahon's other book on Maxwell but he may have stolen his own thunder.

No jokes of any kind are understood here.

Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest. As the title suggests, this is a book of two halves(, Brian). The first 70 pages are devoted to his early life and physics career, and the remaining 100 to his life after becoming a priest. Theology is now the center of his life, so one can't honestly protest that there isn't enough physics in his autobiography.

We are not allowed to stick swords into people, though in the Middle Ages the clergy were permitted to hit people on the head with a heavy mace, provided they did not draw blood.

Polkinghorne has also written a huge number of books about religion and science, none of which I've read. I have read Rochester Roundabout. It conveyed the excitement and confusion of the Rochester meetings and contained some vivid portraits. On Schwinger lecturing:

Schwinger, quiet in ordinary conversation, becomes like a man possessed on the platform. It seems to be the spirit of Macaulay which takes over, for he speaks in splendid periods, the carefully architected sentences rolling on, with every subordinate clause duly closing.

Elsewhere, Polkinghorne had some rather English ironic praise for the charismatic Geoffrey Chew, whose anti-field-theory program in the late 1950s and 1960s influenced a lot of researchers (including Polkinghorne), maybe not for the best. One doesn't find such things here. Polkinghorne has had a good life and is clearly at peace with himself and the world. It's an enviable condition, and the book has a mellow serenity. I prefer Rochester Roundabout, though.

alimosina, Monday, 1 September 2014 18:40 (nine years ago) link

That's a great article. I've read Isaacson's biography, which is really good. I want to read the Pais, but need to brush up on my tensor calculus first... Also very good is Einstein and the Quantum by Stone, which makes up for an imbalance in Isaacson.

alimosina, Monday, 1 September 2014 18:56 (nine years ago) link

Toward the end, a third biography emerges, that of the maverick Heaviside

Do you recall what Heaviside called his own, unfinished autobiography?

Speaking of Polkinghorne, have you read The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo?

Pais book is great for first hand quotes -in German! - from AE, but yeah feel like I should learn some of the math and physics better from some other sources first.

The Wu-Tang Declan (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 1 September 2014 20:41 (nine years ago) link

Have both the Isaacson and the Neffe bios. The latter is more snappily written, even if at times venturing into speculation and sensation, so reading that first.

Pais also wrote a book about Bohr as well as one with short bios of about a dozen scientists. As of today know a lot more about tensors than I used to. Maybe need to look at one of the more spherically symmetric post-Newtonian solutions. Oh wait summer is over.

The Wu-Tang Declan (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 1 September 2014 20:59 (nine years ago) link

Also very good is Einstein and the Quantum by Stone
Love the subtitle of this: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian.

This book has a good, intuitive treatment of vector calculus under the standard coordinate systems and then of Cartesian-tensors as well as many other topics: Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics by Frederick W. Byron, Jr. and Robert W. Fuller.

The Wu-Tang Declan (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 1 September 2014 22:56 (nine years ago) link

Do you recall what Heaviside called his own, unfinished autobiography?

"Wicked People I Have Known"!

have you read The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo?

Yes, and it was the "gateway drug." Kragh has written a more technical one, which I'd like to get to some day.

Pais also wrote a book about Bohr as well as one with short bios of about a dozen scientists.

I've read the second, and also Pais' autobiography. I haven't read the Bohr biography and may never, having recently ground through a related book by the ubiquitous Kragh. However I did look at the preface. Pais quotes an unnamed colleague, "one of the best-known and successful physicists of my generation" or something similar, who asks Pais, "what exactly did Bohr do?" Pais didn't bother to add, "whose initials are R. F."

alimosina, Monday, 1 September 2014 23:56 (nine years ago) link

three weeks pass...

Love this passage from the Dirac book by Farmelo:

In Dirac’s bailiwick, the leader of the drive was George Batchelor, an Australian-born mathematician with an uncompromising manner that made clear the extent of his ambition to anyone who doubted it. Then in his late thirties, Batchelor was an expert in fluid mechanics, the branch of applied mathematics concerned with the flow of gases and liquids, a subject for which Dirac had little time - he regarded it as the small fry of theoretical physics. Nor did he like Batchelor, one of the few people who could bring out the snob in him; their colleague John Polkinghorne recalls that Dirac once offended the rhino-skinned Batchelor by dismissing George Stokes, one of the pioneers of fluid mechanics, as ‘a second-rate Lucasian professor’.

Dear Catastrophe Theory Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 27 September 2014 14:22 (nine years ago) link


Since the mid-1920s, Gamow and Landau had been two leaders of the informal group of young Soviet theorists nicknamed the ‘Jazz Band’. In its seminars, the group discussed new physics, the Bolshoi Ballet, Kipling’s poetry, Freudian psychology and any other subject that took their fancy. The Jazz Band was mastering the new quantum physics much more quickly than their professors - ‘the bisons’ - whom they teased unmercifully, while taking care to remain within the bounds of decorum.

Dear Catastrophe Theory Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 27 September 2014 16:10 (nine years ago) link

One more:

Of all the months in the Cambridge academic calendar, June was the most relaxed. The examinations over, it was time for the students to leave the university, but only after the catharsis of the summer ball. The intoxicating mix of music and dancing, free-flowing champagne, gorgeous frocks and sharply cut dinner suits could cheer up the most abject examinee. Dons could put on their summer suits and wind down to the ‘long vac’, when they had no administrative duties and were free to spend the long, languid afternoons doing nothing except sit in a deckchair and watch a game of cricket. Dirac was nonplussed by the appeal of an activity that involved twenty-two men spending hours - sometimes days - playing a game that often ended in a draw, which devoted spectators would often deem exciting. The game had no more ardent admirer than G. H. Hardy, for whom it was akin to pure mathematics: all the more beautiful for its lack of useful purpose. A few years later, he gave pride of place in his study to a photograph of the Australian batsman Donald Bradman, one of Hardy’s three greatest heroes (the others were Einstein and Lenin).

Dear Catastrophe Theory Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 27 September 2014 16:16 (nine years ago) link

That A. Douglas Stone book is really well written, from what I've been able to read so far. Thanks for the recommendation.

Dear Catastrophe Theory Waitress (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 27 September 2014 17:37 (nine years ago) link

Weisskopf, The Joy of Insight
Peierls, Bird of Passage

Weisskopf was born in 1908 and Peierls in 1907. They appear in each other's autobiographies and Peierls' has a blurb by Weisskopf on the cover. They also appear in the same photograph.

That's Peierls sitting on Heisenberg's right and Weisskopf sitting behind his left shoulder.

Because Heisenberg was not yet married, he spent a lot of time with his students. Among other things, he was a great Ping-Pong player. He had one Japanese co-worker, Yoshio Nishina, who played better than he and who beat him regularly. I recall one occasion when Heisenberg, who was not a good loser, disappeared for three days after a defeat by Nishina. Heisenberg was also an amateur pianist. I still recall how he played Beethoven's extremely difficult Hammerklavier Sonata for us. His performance was technically perfect but almost completely devoid of passion.

Peierls remembers the winner as Chinese. Nishina's biography didn't mention a stay in Leipzig. Weisskopf's book is full of small errors of fact, so there's no way to know.

Weisskopf likes general statements, whereas for Peierls life is a sequence of events described in a mellow tone. Weisskopf's efforts on behalf on nuclear arms control were noble, but is a chapter called "Working with the Pope for Peace" as dull as it sounds?

The work of the academy is carried out in plenary sessions held every two years and through conferences on special topics. A general theme is chosen for the plenary sessions, and a few people are asked to give talks, which lead to much discussion among the members. Examples of such general themes are "The Responsibilities of Scientists," "Basic and Applied Science," or "Science and Society."

Pretty much, even if one is Catholic. I also could have done without the chapter on the sublimity of classical music and an attempt to describe the modern world. Very Central European.

Weisskopf was the director general of CERN. Peierls worked on more kinds of physics. I was hoping to get a non-technical explanation of what Peierls brackets are, but there probably isn't one. Peierls does mention with some pleasure that Dyson predicted that they couldn't exist.

I recall a conversation I had with Fermi about Chadwick's discovery of the neutron. It followed Irene Curie's experiments, which, as one can now see by hindsight, were clear evidence that the radiation in question consisted of heavy neutral particles and not gamma rays, as she believed. Fermi expressed sympathy that she missed the discovery, but his tone made me suspect that he had known the result all along. I found out later that, on seeing the report of the Curie experiment, Majorana had immediately said, "How stupid these people are! This is a heavy neutral particle!"

Segue to:

Magueijo, A Brilliant Darkness. A biography of the Italian Dirac. Ettore Majorana not only deduced the existence of neutrons two years before they were officially discovered (Fermi didn't believe him), he wrote down Heisenberg's theory of the nuclear force before Heisenberg, and Pauli and Weisskopf's scalar field theory of 1934 in 1931. He liked to write theories on cigarette packs, show them to Fermi's group, throw them away, and then laugh when other people rediscovered them. This careless attitude enraged Fermi, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Majorana had psychological problems and eventually became a recluse. He talked openly of suicide and then disappeared, apparently drowned. He's entered Italian culture and is depicted in films and comic books, variously forseeing nuclear weapons, leaving Earth on a flying saucer, and being invisible to everyone except cats.

Magueijo has a case of hero worship (I know the feeling), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but he is also in touch with his inner 13-year-old.

The institute is in a bizarre location, at Via Panisperna. The street name sounds horribly like "pane e sperma," "bread and sperm" -- undoubtedly an odd type of sandwich.

His talent looked supernatural, and he scared the shit out of them -- especially Fermi.

If all of this weren't enough to make Sir Isaac Newton barf in his tomb...

It's ambidextrous in time. It simultaneously throws up and eats its meals. A Majorana neutrino flushing the toilet defies imagination.

As usual when there are so few facts, Magueijo has had to make a narrative out of his own research. "And so I go to Rome..." John Bahcall is referred to as Bachall, and at one point Ida Noddack is called Ida Novak.


alimosina, Sunday, 28 September 2014 22:32 (nine years ago) link

Since the mid-1920s, Gamow and Landau had been two leaders of the informal group of young Soviet theorists nicknamed the ‘Jazz Band’.

Gamow escaped to the West, which made it tough on the others. They arrested Ivanenko first, but let him go, and they shot Bronstein. They arrested Landau but Kapitza was able to get him free. An astronomer once told me that Gamow "started an experiment on the long-term effects of heavy alcohol use, using himself as the subject." Here is a portrait of Gamow at a conference in 1956:

"Landau is a genius, Ivanenko a police spy, and here I am," and with his glass he pointed to himself, sprawled on the couch.

alimosina, Sunday, 28 September 2014 22:48 (nine years ago) link

The examinations over, it was time for the students to leave the university, but only after the catharsis of the summer ball. The intoxicating mix of music and dancing, free-flowing champagne, gorgeous frocks and sharply cut dinner suits could cheer up the most abject examinee. Dons could put on their summer suits and wind down to the ‘long vac’, when they had no administrative duties and were free to spend the long, languid afternoons doing nothing except sit in a deckchair and watch a game of cricket. Dirac was nonplussed by the appeal of an activity that involved twenty-two men spending hours - sometimes days - playing a game that often ended in a draw, which devoted spectators would often deem exciting.

I can't picture this except through the lens of Monty Python.

alimosina, Sunday, 28 September 2014 22:51 (nine years ago) link

The lens of Sam Peckinpah as diffracted through the Python filter?

The "5" Astronomer Royales (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 28 September 2014 23:45 (nine years ago) link

Nice. I'm itching to read Gorelik's biography of Landau, which looks definitive, but it hasn't been translated yet.

alimosina, Monday, 29 September 2014 14:39 (nine years ago) link

two months pass...

Online, available to public copy of From c-Numbers to q-Numbers: The Classical Analogy in the History of Quantum Theory, by Olivier Darrigol, which looks like it might be interesting.

A cursory look found nothing else of interest publicly available, but it certainly seems to be worth digging.

ILB Traven (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 02:28 (nine years ago) link

Interesting but demanding!

There's an article by Aitchison, MacManus, and Snyder called "Understanding Heisenberg’s ‘magical’ paper of July 1925." I haven't tried to read it either, but it starts out with this great quote by Weinberg:

If the reader is mystified at what Heisenberg was doing, he or she is not
alone. I have tried several times to read the paper that Heisenberg wrote on
returning from Heligoland, and, although I think I understand quantum mechanics,
I have never understood Heisenberg’s motivations for the mathematical
steps in his paper. Theoretical physicists in their most successful work tend
to play one of two roles: they are either sages or magicians....It is usually not
difficult to understand the papers of sage-physicists, but the papers of magician-
physicists are often incomprehensible. In that sense, Heisenberg’s 1925 paper
was pure magic.

Perhaps we should not look too closely at Heisenberg’s first paper......

My God, if Weinberg can't understand it...


The Theory of Bohr, Kramers, and Slater (Bks)

I have already described how, in spite of his acute awareness of fundamental difficulties, Bohr publicly rejected Einstein's and Rubinowicz's conceptions of radiation. He saw them as self-contradictory or strategically impotent.[215] However, from contemplation of his opponents' arguments he drew some essential characteristics of a future theory of radiation.

Poor Kramers. He calculated what would soon become known as the Compton effect (recoil of photons), which Compton got the Nobel Prize for. But his director, Bohr, didn't believe in photons so he forced Kramers to suppress the work. Kramers' health broke, and he emerged from the episode even more psychologically in thrall to Bohr, and participated in the bizarre BKS theory.

Then Kramers wrote down the first correct quantum mechanics relations. Heisenberg moved in like a shark, added a page to the paper, and demanded that his name be included. Next year Heisenberg generalized the approach, producing quantum mechanics.

In the 1930s, when field theory was in crisis, Kramers invented the idea of renormalization, which was the way out. After the war, at the 1947 Shelter Island conference, as the only non-American to be invited, he gave a lecture on his idea. In the audience were Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman. You can guess what happened.

After Kramers' death, Heisenberg tried to cheer up Kramers' wife with his famous insightfulness into human situations. "Your husband deserved the Nobel Prize. For some reason I never got around to nominating him."

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 04:28 (nine years ago) link

Close, Neutrino
Sutton, Spaceship Neutrino

Close's writing is clear and precise, though not beautiful. The Infinity Puzzle is like a superior detective story with many subplots, but it took time for it to build up a head of steam. I think the problem with Neutrino is its shortness. Sutton has the luxury of perhaps twice the word count, and some 20% of the book consists of very interesting historical photos, which lend a certain momentum. Sutton is able to go into a lot more detail, and in this subject the details are everything. Sutton's book is dated (1992 vs. Close's 2010) but it wins. There's a time-traveling effect as projects that are planned in Sutton are accomplished in Close.

Sutton oddly describes Majorana as "brilliant but charismatic."

But Majorana refused to publish his ideas or to give Fermi permission to promote them, and soon others, such as Dmitrij Iwanenko, produced similar theories.

Sounds right. Sutton quotes Pontecorvo writing in 1982:

In the late fifties and in the sixties the opinion was frequently expressed that neutrinos a la Majorana, although beautiful and interesting objects, are not realized in nature...[Since then] the question raised by Majorana has become more and more important and nowadays is, in fact, the central problem in neutrino physics.

Pontecorvo is the hero of Close's book, but Close doesn't mention Majorana at all, let alone the question of neutrinos being Dirac or Majorana, which according to this article from February is still open.

More on the subject from Frank Wilzcek.

The Neutrino Oscillation Industry page, complete with job openings, and a bunch of neutrino experiments.

Franklin, Are There Really Neutrinos? I sure hope so, otherwise I've wasted a lot of time reading about them.

We know that the world is a social construction and has no independent existence, but Franklin clings to the old, discredited view that over time, science can provide reliable knowledge about the so-called physical world. His writing is not memorable, but he gives a detailed account of beta-decay and neutrino experiments from the earliest days to 2000, complete with multiple wrong turns.

One of the experimental results mentioned in Sutton (the 17 eV neutrino) was just coming under fire as her book was published. It receives a burial in Franklin.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 04:39 (nine years ago) link

All very interesting, thanks. But where are you getting copies of all of these very out-of-print books? Oh I see, a university library, no?

ILB Traven (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 14:01 (nine years ago) link

I would LOVE to read a book like this about the development of wireless communication technology, starting with the discovery of radio and moving into later communication developments

droit au butt (Euler), Sunday, 30 November 2014 17:46 (nine years ago) link

Well, if there are some suppressed Russian scientists involved on that, I'm sure alimosina has read it.

ILB Traven (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 17:49 (nine years ago) link

In the meantime, you could try Einstein's Clock's, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time, by Peter Galison,which I finally made some headway in. Hilary Putnam called it "indispensible" and "wonderful."

ILB Traven (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 18:14 (nine years ago) link

Docked for added in extra 'e' to the first name of Humphry Davy.

Cutset Creator (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 21:18 (nine years ago) link

We know that the world is a social construction and has no independent existence, but Franklin clings to the old, discredited view that over time, science can provide reliable knowledge about the so-called physical world. So do Winston Smith and Louis Pasteur, for a while.

dow, Sunday, 30 November 2014 21:33 (nine years ago) link

Hilarious typo in Forbes and Mahon's Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.
Giordano Bruno is referred to as "Giardino Bruni."

Cutset Creator (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 21:36 (nine years ago) link

Not sure what alimosina is getting at: is it that Franklin seems to be asking a philosophical question rather than a scientific one?

Cutset Creator (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 21:45 (nine years ago) link

Well, if there are some suppressed Russian scientists involved on that

Funny you should say that. Feinberg's book of biographical articles contains a memoir of the physicist Alexandr Mintz, who was literally dragged into radio communications research.

"As for the third arrest -- this was shortly before the war, everything was much more serious. I was arrested and waited for an interrogation for a long time. There came a day when I was taken to an investigator. I was going along a wide corridor with doors along it, cries of torture were heard through them. Finally I was led into one of the rooms. At the desk, with his back to the window, there sat an investigator. I approached, grabbed a heavy inkstand from the desk and said, 'If you touch me I will hit you with this until you kill me or I kill you.' Suddenly there happens a miracle. 'Not at all, Alexandr L'vovich, I have summoned you here not at all for this. Comrade Narkom wants to see you.' Apparently he did not know what for...

So, they led me though stairs and corridors. Finally we enter a big room and they lead me to Beria. Near him there stands some NKVD colonel. Beria says: 'This has to be done in three months. If you do it -- you are free.' I looked though a description of the task, thought for a while, and said: 'Well, I can do it, but not in three months but in six.' After these words the colonel exploded, jumped to me from the side, shaked fists at my face and shouted: 'How dare you! Comrade Narkom extends such trust and honor to you and you are saying that you need twice more time for this!' I turned to him and said: 'Do you think that I like it here so much that I want to stay longer?' Beria laughed and said: 'OK, let it be your way.'"

"Did you do it?" I asked.

"Yes, of course. Our group that worked on this was kept is special conditions, excellent lunches were brought."

He's referring to a sharashka. You can read about life in them in Solzhenitsyn's First Circle.

I'd like to know the story behind the Russian Woodpecker, but I'm not holding my breath for that.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 22:04 (nine years ago) link

Not sure what alimosina is getting at: is it that Franklin seems to be asking a philosophical question rather than a scientific one?

Yup. He writes that he was seeing some beginning students coming in with slogans like that, which led him to write the book as a detailed challenge to those who defend the slogans. For example, for while it looked like Fermi's theory of beta decay had problems, and another theory (Konopinski-Uhlenbeck) fit the data better. But with more data, Fermi's was supported, and Konopinski conceded that his theory was not the right one. There were a lot of reversals and wrong trails because the phenomena are so elusive. One of the slogans was that theories become accepted not because of evidence but because of the social power of the people making the theories.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 22:16 (nine years ago) link

So would you say Feinberg's book of biographical articles conformed to Euler's formulation or not?

Cutset Creator (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 23:06 (nine years ago) link

No it didn't. I don't know of a reference, actually.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 23:13 (nine years ago) link

Sorry, just was making sort of a bad joke about "Euler's formulation." Also love this quote about him from François Arago: "He calculated just as men breathe, as eagles sustain themselves in the air."

Cutset Creator (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 30 November 2014 23:21 (nine years ago) link

Euler proved the existence of God to Diderot very efficiently.

Here's an interesting view of one of the Long Lines towers.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 23:37 (nine years ago) link

Thanks! I have ordered it.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Wednesday, 7 November 2018 23:13 (five years ago) link

one month passes...

("Principles of Quantum Electrodynamics") was first translated into English and then into Russian. The Russian translation became a real bestseller with 50,000 copies sold. When I asked how this could be possible, I received the disillusioning reply, "Well, here all scientific books are cheap because the state subsidizes them. In the far corners of Siberia paper is expensive. That's why farmers buy these kinds of books and use them to roll their cigarettes."

Bruno Touschek once told me about a time when all of the civilian casualties of a military action were mentioned and that Heisenberg had replied, "but they were just Poles."

-- Thirring, The Joy of Discovery

alimosina, Saturday, 29 December 2018 04:17 (five years ago) link

Bojowald, Once Before Time

A popular account of loop quantum cosmology. It is translated from German, with quotations from Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Wittgenstein.

One may view this quantum gravitational base as analogous to the matter vacuum, but it is much more ominous... The vacuum of loop quantum gravity is of an inconceivable emptiness: no sound, no light, no stuff, no space; only time as a faintly glimmering hope to leave behind this wasteland.

Ashtekar is a mathematical physicist, an analyst equipped with technical brilliance and unparalleled mastery of the dark art of scientific power play. Senior to Rovelli and Smolin, he quite naturally saw the leadership role fall into his hands. And he seized it.

Especially Nietzsche. This book is for fans of hypothetical physics. It is non-technical but more demanding than others in this area (e.g. Ferriera).

alimosina, Saturday, 29 December 2018 04:23 (five years ago) link

Gordon, The Brookhaven Connection

Most people know Brookhaven National Laboratory as an underfunded but legendary institution where excellent science is done, home of the last American particle accelerator and other research facilities. Crease wrote a good history of its first 25 years.

The Initial Program Report called for an electrostatic accelerator to be built for the low-energy region... Van de Graaff himself had founded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation (HVEC; the company claimed the trademark "Van de Graaff") with two colleagues, John Trump (uncle of Donald, future real estate tycoon) and Denis Robinson, to build the machines commercially.

But Crease left out the most amazing part: BNL's secret research into time travel and alien contact! (Likely inspired by the nearby Montauk Project.)

"It was a representative of the Galactic Federation, or for want of a better term, an EBE. An EBE gave us the plans but didn't tell us how to follow them. The plans were a mathematical formula with a primer at the top of the page."

The story is reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, as the narrator is led by a guide through subterranean caverns, where unseen higher authorities with effectively magical powers are monitoring humanity's moral progress.

Suddenly, I looked up for a second at Mr. J and saw a strange expression on his face as he shook his head to say, "NO!" At the same time, I felt a gentle pressure on my right shoulder. As I turned slowly to my left and just before I fainted, I glimpsed a two-legged being staring intently at me through two beady reptilian eyes.

Unfortunately the narrative breaks off there and we haven't heard anything more. Maybe humanity is still not ready for the whole story. But the editor's note is dated summer 2001, soon after which the EBEs really let us down. For once John Trump's nephew can't be blamed. Happy New Year.

alimosina, Monday, 31 December 2018 01:55 (five years ago) link

Thanks for all your good work on this thread, alimosina.

Just looked up that Bojowald book on a library app and the subject says Thriller, Thriller, Thriller.

Spirit of the Voice of the Beehive (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 1 January 2019 23:30 (five years ago) link

Okay now it says Science, Physics, Nonfiction

Spirit of the Voice of the Beehive (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 1 January 2019 23:31 (five years ago) link

More fiction than non, IMO.

alimosina, Wednesday, 2 January 2019 16:24 (five years ago) link

four months pass...

Murray the G?

TS The Students vs The Regents (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 25 May 2019 21:36 (four years ago) link

He looks like he is channeling Harlan Ellison in that picture.

TS The Students vs The Regents (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 25 May 2019 21:40 (four years ago) link

At Caltech Gell-Mann was almost as famous for his erudition as for his physics; he was enormously learned in subjects most of us didn't know existed. A story is told about a physicist, much bothered by this, who decided to become expert in some obscure corner of human knowledge, so that, just once, he could trump Gell-Mann. Of course, for the plan to work the subject had to be one that could be introduced naturally into the conversation. He knew that the dining room of the Caltech faculty club was decorated near the ceiling line with the heraldic shields of universities; he decided to learn blazonry, the technical descriptive language of heraldry. When next he had lunch with Gell-Mann at the faculty club, he allowed his gaze to drift upward. "How interesting," he said (and here I must make up babble, for I know no blazonry myself), "gules rampant on sable argent." Gell-mann looked up. "No," he said. "No, it's sable rampant on gules argent."

-- Sidney Coleman

alimosina, Sunday, 26 May 2019 00:14 (four years ago) link

Right. I believe he was known to be annoyed by Feyman’s clowning. Also think I heard about him hyper-pronouncing words of foreign origin such as “mayonnaise.”

TS The Students vs The Regents (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 26 May 2019 00:24 (four years ago) link

"Plectics" -- that one didn't catch on.

alimosina, Sunday, 26 May 2019 18:48 (four years ago) link

Plectic Murrayland

TS The Students vs. The Regents (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 27 May 2019 20:16 (four years ago) link

Wonder how this new Graham Farmelo book is.

TS The Students vs. The Regents (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 30 May 2019 00:49 (four years ago) link

four weeks pass...

Hoarding chalk.

alimosina, Thursday, 27 June 2019 18:35 (four years ago) link

five months pass...

Realizing that it will be difficult for a blind young man to find a girlfriend at the age of 18-19, Pontryagin's mother took into her family an orphan girl, Tasia (of his age), when her son was still a boy, and, when the time came, literally put her in bed with him. Tasia was an ordinary good-looking girl, and not stupid, completely undeservedly doomed to a bitter fate. She loved Lev Semyonovich from childhood. Having started studying at the Faculty of Mathematics at Moscow State University, Lev Semyononvich got into the intellectual elite and soon announced to Tasia that he would not live with her, because he would seek "true love", and she was too simple for him. Tasia studied biology at Moscow University; after graduating, she left for (Soviet) Georgia, where she did not marry, because she did not cease to love Lev Semyonovich. And Lev Semyonovich began to fall in love, I will not list the names of his "objects" -- the name to them is a legion -- I will only add one funny detail: they were all Jewish.

-- Rosa Berri

The detail is "funny", if that's the word, because Pontryagin was a notorious antisemite.

alimosina, Thursday, 19 December 2019 16:46 (four years ago) link

After reading about hypothetical matter, or mathematics pretending to be matter, it's a relief to read about actual data about real matter.

Hazen, Symphony in C

The author is the director of the Deep Carbon Observatory, which studies carbon on earth in the widest sense. This book cuts across atomic physics, geophysics, chemistry, biology and the origins of life, and nanoscience (graphene, nanotubes etc). Unlike popular books which have to spend chapters reviewing familiar topics before getting to something new, here new or unfamiliar material is on every page.

As well as being a very good writer, Hazen is a musician in an orchestra. The persistent symphonic metaphor used for organizing the book can be taken or left.

Werner and Eisenhardt, More Things in the Heavens

Though she be but little, she is fierce.

One doesn't hear a lot about the Great Observatories as such, but everyone knows about the Hubble Space Telescope. The Chandra is still on mission, and the Compton was crash-landed and replaced. This book is about the Spitzer Space Telescope for observing in the infrared.

Even the most cynical reader has to be amazed at all the data. "Torrents" of new exoplanets, planetary disk formation, star formation, galactic evolution, and the cosmic web of galactic cluster filaments. Not to mention buckyballs in space, measurement of the Milky Way bar (not the candy bar, but the bar at the center of our galaxy where the arms start), a ring of Saturn so huge that it would be twice the size of the moon if we looked up at it face-on from Earth, and the infrared signal from a collision of two neutron stars that was detected by LIGO. All this from a telescope about a yard across. It ran out of liquid helium after six years and some of its infrared channels shut down. The whole telescope is scheduled to shut down next month.

Galaxies can walk and chew gum at the same time.

These two made several other books I read this year seem pretty thin gruel.

alimosina, Thursday, 19 December 2019 21:11 (four years ago) link

two months pass...

Just coming here to post that. His autobiography is fascinating and I’ve long appreciated his NYRB pieces. Seems like he kept writing them right up to the end.

o. nate, Friday, 28 February 2020 20:23 (three years ago) link

one month passes...

RIP Philip Anderson.

When one understands everything, one has gone crazy.

-- PWA

I hope this thread doesn't turn into a roll call this year.

alimosina, Sunday, 5 April 2020 17:02 (three years ago) link

Anderson accuses researchers of "looking under the streetlight".
I say this all the time, only in the variant "looking where the light is."

Three Hundred Pounds of Almond Joy (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 5 April 2020 18:15 (three years ago) link

"looking under the streetlight"

A regrettable, but nearly universal, side effect of academic training and grant-funding dependence.

A is for (Aimless), Sunday, 5 April 2020 18:23 (three years ago) link

It turns out, contrary to my expectations, that funding is by no means necessary for creativity, in fact the relationship may be inverse.

I think it is more like this -- everyone has an age at which he stops thinking originally, but that age is enormously variable. I know good physicists whose useful lifespan is in the forties or younger -- the name I have for them is "young fogies" -- but I know plenty of others who haven't reached it at 80 or more.

alimosina, Sunday, 5 April 2020 18:55 (three years ago) link


Three Hundred Pounds of Almond Joy (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 12 April 2020 13:13 (three years ago) link

five months pass...

Ting is, by most accounts, a driven personality who cannot easily be deterred from his goals, once telling the U.S. Department of Energy (after one of his proposals had been turned down): "I reject your rejection."

alimosina, Monday, 14 September 2020 20:13 (three years ago) link

one month passes...

I. M. Khalatnikov is 101!

alimosina, Sunday, 18 October 2020 22:50 (three years ago) link

six months pass...

Oh hi, I wrote a quiz that some of you might be interested in looking at. Guess I will post a link upon request.

A Stop at Quilloughby (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 7 May 2021 19:52 (two years ago) link


Tsar Bombadil (James Morrison), Wednesday, 12 May 2021 10:48 (two years ago) link


I was born anxious, here's how to do it. (ledge), Thursday, 13 May 2021 08:15 (two years ago) link

I posted it on ILB as well but will repost here as well

Working in the POLL Mine (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 15 May 2021 17:39 (two years ago) link

I meant to say elsewhere on ILB.

Working in the POLL Mine (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 15 May 2021 17:40 (two years ago) link

ledge already took it

Working in the POLL Mine (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 15 May 2021 17:58 (two years ago) link

two months pass...

In one of those unfunny coincidences, Steven Weinberg and Toshihide Masukawa died on the same day.

alimosina, Wednesday, 4 August 2021 03:10 (two years ago) link

And Miguel Virasoro, the same ****ing day.

alimosina, Friday, 6 August 2021 04:07 (two years ago) link

two months pass...

Deser, Forks in the Road

A brief, informal memoir by the co-author of ADM and co-inventor of supergravity and superstrings. Deser provided early theoretical support for what became LIGO. The discrepancy between an amazing life and the casual matter-of-factness of the memoirs is striking. It's written as though anyone could have done as well. One funny part is the author's claim that he is not good at mathematics and tries to avoid it (he uses Chern-Simons forms in some of his later papers).

... my committee consisted of Julian plus Bob Karplus and Abe Klein, both of whom were under great stress: they had families and knew that they couldn't get tenure at Harvard; assistant professors almost never did. To land desirable positions elsewhere, their job at this point was to convince Schwinger how smart they were. There is no easier way to do that than via an unwitting graduate student. They had just made some nasty calculations in Electrodynamics. In the process they had discovered all sorts of esoteric mathematical functions, in particular, something called dilogarithms, which were still not in the textbooks. They knew about dilogarithms, I did not know about dilogarithms, so this was the moment they could really impress Schwinger, who could appreciate the finer points. During the first hour of that debacle, indeed after 15 minutes, it was clear that I could not contribute anything to that conversation, let alone answer questions. So they proceeded to entertain Julian with their Talmudic knowledge of these new aspects... I was totally destroyed. I was sent out of the room. After a very few minutes, Schwinger came out and said, "You realize that you failed this exam," a very rare occurrence in those days. "Yes," I replied. He smiled and I nearly fainted when he added "Don't worry about it."

It's always surprising to hear about how unfashionable research in gravity was in the 1950s.

That same year I got the chance to hear one of Einstein's last seminars. Oppenheimer (of Oppenheimer-Snyder black hole fame, ironically his one claim to Nobel glory) had gathered us new recruits to warn against having anything to do with the "old fool down the hall" or with Relativity in any form. There was little danger at that point, since none of us even knew what GR was.

On Andre Petermann:

Andre Petermann who stayed on at CERN for life, though mainly invisibly, showing up only in the wee hours. His accomplishments were many, if mostly unsung: only one, the renormalization group creation in his thesis is well-known. His advisor was the aristocratic Baron Stueckelberg, always accompanied by his large dog at (later) CERN seminars; both were tragically under-rated. They were antipodal: Andre came from the slums of Geneva (yes, even it used to have some -- albeit higher class) with an accent to fit. He also invented quarks independently of Gell-Mann and of Zweig, did still-not-widely-known important calculations including in QCD... and raced cars.

The author is a devoted reader of Proust, but a less Proustian memoir can hardly be imagined.

alimosina, Sunday, 17 October 2021 21:17 (two years ago) link

one month passes...

Zangwill, A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many

God speaks to us through Phil Anderson. The only mystery is why He chose a vessel that is so difficult to understand.

-- Anatoly Larkin

Philip Anderson never wrote an autobiography, which is too bad, because it would have been very entertaining. Here he is refereeing a paper.

This paper will add immeasurably to the confusion on this subject and should not be published. It is a pity that the author's earlier paper cited as Reference 1 cannot be "unpublished".
Like many of his other papers, this work has a pedantic character that is the author's greatest weakness.
I don't know whether to be amused or sad that no one in the amazingly long list of individuals thanked by the author in his acknowledgements failed to see the basic physical fallacies of this paper or at least failed to convince the author of them.
This paper sets up a straw man and then knocks it down with great fanfare, arriving in the end at precisely Anderson's conclusions but very poorly understood and stated.

In his statement to Congress criticizing the SSC, he took a measured tone:

My name is Philip Anderson, Joseph Henry Professor at Princeton University. I worked for many years at AT&T Bell Labs, ending up with the rank of Director on my retirement, and I was a Professor at Cambridge University for a number of years. I won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for fundamental research in solid state physics. I may be the physicist most often cited by colleagues.

Zangwill is not a biographical prose stylist, but Anderson comes through in all his brilliance and arrogance. It is a philosophical moment to read about one's hero behaving not very well.

Anderson took an odd, proprietary attitude toward the theory of HTS. Participants recall a Gordon Conference where he announced that "all the other theorists should leave the room. I am the only one here who should talk to the experimentalists." Worse, he dismissed as "nonsense" and "folly" the work of other theorists who proposed mechanisms for cuprate superconductivity different from his own, even as his own ideas changed over time. Small wonder that some referred to RVB as "really vague bullshit."

The editing is pretty good, but the index isn't complete. "At the time, the truth of this statement was known only for the dimensional case studied by the quantum pioneer Hans Bethe in 1931" should read "one-dimensional." Stalin died in 1953. "Experimetal" is a nice typo.

alimosina, Tuesday, 14 December 2021 18:08 (two years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat just turned 98. So may we all some day. Happy New Year!

alimosina, Friday, 31 December 2021 22:18 (two years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Is it wrong of me to want some kind of Blurb Search so I can see what Sylvia Nasar has praised, to name one use?

Presenting the Fabulous Redettes Featuring James (James Redd and the Blecchs), Wednesday, 19 January 2022 06:22 (two years ago) link

five months pass...

Hubert Reeves to thread!

Build My Gallows Hi Hi Hi (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 1 July 2022 13:14 (one year ago) link

Although I don’t know anything about him apart from the one meme pull-quote.

Build My Gallows Hi Hi Hi (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 1 July 2022 13:14 (one year ago) link

Unfamiliar with this thread but I was thinking today: I wonder if I could get a book that would explain science to me?

the pinefox, Friday, 1 July 2022 23:04 (one year ago) link

two months pass...

Kenneth Watson turned 101 yesterday.

alimosina, Friday, 9 September 2022 19:13 (one year ago) link

Close, Elusive

A history partly of Peter Higgs, partly of his boson, told in Close's precise and lively style. One gets the sense once again of how much the 2012 discovery was the end of an era.

alimosina, Friday, 9 September 2022 19:13 (one year ago) link

one month passes...

Clary, Schrödinger in Oxford

Schrödinger found a temporary refuge at Oxford for a few years after 1933, partially funded by ICI. The author has collected a lot of interesting details about this period and later.

After the dinner Schrödinger was weighed on the college scales in the Senior Common Room. He came out as 10 stone 9 lbs (68 kg). This is a quaint tradition at Magdalen College on special occasions or when the Fellows are feeling especially happy, perhaps after some fine wine at dinner from the voluminous College cellar. It is a tradition that still occurs today and the records of the weights are kept in a special book. There are four records in the book of Schrödinger being weighed in this way -- the other three are in 1934, 1938, and 1948 and his weight hardly changed over this 15-year period.

There will always be an England. The Schrödingers lived two doors down from J. R. R. Tolkien and angered their neighbors by letting dandelions and weeds grow in their garden.

I do not think you fully realised how he behaved when he was in Oxford. Everything in England was wrong from the bicycle brakes and door knobs to more important things and only things in Germany were right. He freely commented on these things to people who wanted to hear them and those who did not. He was a menace to neighbors, not only because of his complicated matrimonial affairs about which he wanted everyone to know -- actually he seemed to be very proud of it, but also in many other matters where he behaved absolutely ruthlessly.

-- Fritz Simon

If anything, the famous equation is more important now than then, on account of improved analytical methods and computing power.

Schrödinger's family was impoverished after World War I and Schrödinger had a lifelong neurosis about money. He bought some plumbing items for £30, and when he left Oxford they were sold for £20. He wrote a letter to demand his £20 back and this demand went all the way to the board of directors of ICI. Also, he turned down a job offer from Princeton because his friends Einstein and Weyl were making a lot more money nearby at the Institute.

Even in his 60s he was having open liasons at scientific meetings.

Women loved the self-centered jerk and were willing to have his children. Walter Moore mentions three kids in his biography. (Clary throws shade on Moore.) One of Schrödinger's grandchildren became a physicist before he knew who his grandfather was. What is life? That's life.

alimosina, Sunday, 30 October 2022 00:16 (one year ago) link

two weeks pass...

I recently finished Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall. In some ways it's perfectly crafted to appeal to someone who as a child devoured the adventures of Tom Swift Jr. in dusty old dog-eared hardbacks and was gradually and gently disabused of the expectation that that mid-century-vintage Space Age future was just around the bend. The book is many things: popular science, extrapolative future speculation, a polemic, anecdotes about private aviation. Hall takes some currently very unfashionable opinions and makes a strong case for them: such as the idea that the brightness of our future depends on increasing our energy consumption, rather than the reverse.

o. nate, Saturday, 19 November 2022 21:46 (one year ago) link

four months pass...

Polchinski, Memories. More dispiriting than interesting.

alimosina, Sunday, 19 March 2023 19:15 (eleven months ago) link

seven months pass...

Pontzen, The Universe in a Box

The catered lunch that day happened to be American-style pizza, and I asked Governato -- a proud Italian -- whether his simulations looked a bit too much like thick-crust monstrosities, rather than the thin-crust beauties they ought to be. With a trace of irritation, he explained that other simulations had only ever managed to produce dough balls. We hit it off immediately.

Parisi, In a Flight of Starlings

This book is so short that you can't protest that things aren't covered enough. There is a chapter about flocking in birds, and another about the statistical mechanics of spin glasses.

There is also a crazy reconstructed conversation with 't Hooft about trying to do something with 't Hooft's calculation of the beta function for Yang-Mills theories. Forces become strong at larger distances and weak at small distances, kind of like the way quarks are confined in hadrons. Parisi asked 't Hooft about applying the result to hadrons. But what force to use? Electromagnetism wouldn't work. They gave it up as a bad idea.

We did not give a moment's thought to the color charge proposed by Gell-Mann. It would have been enough at that moment to have seen his name written somewhere (on a blackboard, for instance), or for someone to have casually mentioned Gell-Mann's model at lunch or supper, for me to have been able to run to 't Hooft with a cry of "Eureka!" In a couple of days we would have done the checks, written it up, and sent it for publication.

Gross, Wilczek and Politzer did it a few months later.

On that morning in 1973 we let slip the chance to win a Nobel Prize. Forthunately, for both of us, it would not be our only chance.

Not everyone can say that.

alimosina, Tuesday, 31 October 2023 22:35 (three months ago) link

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