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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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

alimosina, Tuesday, 29 July 2014 18:54 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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

alimosina, Thursday, 7 August 2014 15:54 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink


alimosina, Sunday, 24 August 2014 20:42 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink


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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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

alimosina, Sunday, 30 November 2014 23:13 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

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 (four years ago) Permalink

Wondering about this new book about gravity waves.

Woke Up Scully (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 26 March 2016 21:47 (two years ago) Permalink

one month passes...

Freund, A Passion for Discovery

A short book of anecdotes and reflections. Freund is a serious person who writes in a deceptively casual manner.

Nicolae Ceaușescu's daughter Zoia was a mathematician. Wikipedia: "Allegedly, her parents were unhappy with their daughter's choice of doing research in mathematics, so the Institute was disbanded in 1975."

According to Freund, Zoia didn't return home one night and her parents ordered the secret police to find her. She was in a hotel room with a boyfriend, also a mathematician. Her parents were so outraged that they shut down the Institute of Mathematics. The institute's math journal stopped being published. Eventually it reappeared, with Zoia as the editor.

Freund also writes about Oppenheimer behaving badly. Weinberg:

Oppenheimer always sat in the front row, asking questions that demonstrated that he knew as much about the speaker's subject as the speaker. Of course he was showing off, but no one else could have gotten away with it. He *did* know as much as the speaker.

Freund explains that it was done with preprints, which were scarce in those pre-electronic, pre-copier days. Oppenheimer always got preprints.

After receiving his "That is a very good question..." compliment, Oppenheimer would turn around from his first row seat with the demeanor of a pianist receiving applause for having performed a technically difficult piece.

Kerson Huang (...) introduced a parameter and Oppie interrupted:

"Kerson, what about the sign of this parameter"?

"That is a very good question." Oppie took his bow and Kerson went on "Its sign must either be plus or minus" -- a polite way of saying it is totally irrelevant. Ten minutes later Kerson introduced a second parameter and emphasized that it must be positive, its sign can never be minus, making it clear that Oppie had asked his prepared question in the wrong place. The people could barely suppress their laughter.

That was over fifty years ago. Here is Huang in 2013 presenting a theory of dark matter.

the Einstein era lasted to about 1925 when, as we saw, Heisenberg appeared on the stage. The Heisenberg era endured till 1943 and was followed by a transitional period dominated in a sense by Enrico Fermi. During this Fermi era physicists began exploring the subnuclear realm using ever more powerful accelerators. Then in the early Fifties Murray Gell-Mann was anointed and the Gell-Mann era extended into the early Seventies, followed by the Gerard 't Hooft era and finally beginning the the Eighties the Edward Witten era whose end is now approaching.

Maybe this is the Nima Arkani-Hamed era.

Miller, 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Story of a Scientific Obsession

Farmelo's biography of Dirac is subtitled Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. Dirac wasn't a mystic at all, but Pauli was. Farmelo on Miller: "The book serves as the first popular biography of this outstanding scientist and is long overdue."

Pauli had a psychological crisis when his first marriage ended and turned to Jung, which began a decades-long association. Jung included a lot of Pauli's dreams in his books. They also collaborated on a book about synchronicity. The only true example of synchronicity was the famous way mechanical things would break whenever Pauli was nearby.

it is striking that Oppenheimer should have turned down such a distinguished scientist (for the Manhattan Project). Perhaps the Pauli effect was on Oppenheimer's mind? After all, there was plenty of delicate machinery, not to mention powerful explosives, at the site.

This is a biography of Pauli with a lot about Jung, but both were very interesting. Things are left out (Pauli wrote down a Yang-Mills type theory before Yang and Mills but didn't publish it, and when Yang gave a lecture on it Pauli harassed Yang until Oppenheimer told Pauli to shut up) and what is put in (dreams and numerology) wouldn't matter if it wasn't about Pauli.

Jung referred not to "my" but to "our dream psychology," a phrase he never used to anyone else. His patient had become a co-worker.

Pauli had dreams in which a Chinese woman appeared. Later, a real Chinese woman showed experimentally that parity was violated. He took that as a message from the collective unconscious instead of a funny coincidence.

All this didn't prevent Pauli from having a manic episode later in life in which he collaborated with Heisenberg on a wrong theory of everything, and may have encouraged it.

Do alchemy and solar myths have anything to do with the self? Shakespeare is probably a more valuable guide than Jung.

alimosina, Monday, 2 May 2016 20:06 (two years ago) Permalink

Steinhardt and Turok, Endless Universe

The authors invented the ekpyrotic cosmological model.

According to Wikipedia, current versions of the model avoid the use of branes and extra dimensions, but those were developed later. The book describes two infinite branes 10^-30 centimeters apart, which collide periodically and create Big Bangs. The good part is the authors' account of how their ideas came together.

The book makes a case against inflation. The BICEP2 results initially seemed to confirm inflation and rule out their model, but that turned out not to be the case. More data is on the way.

Theoretical physics is in some respects similar to certain Asian philosophies, according to which enlightenment is attained only at the price of great pain and personal suffering.

Frampton, Did Time Begin? Will Time End?

This is a 100-page book that doesn't waste time. It is an essay on the author's idea that the equation of state for dark energy could be less than -1, and that plus certain branes can make the universe cyclical.

The author subsequently made the news for other reasons. He'll want to avoid that the next time around.

Penrose, Cycles of Time

Roger Penrose's huge book The Road To Reality provides "a reason to live," according to Jaron Lanier. That's a high bar for this book to meet, but it is worth reading. It has a very interesting treatment of the thermodynamics of gravitation and the low entropy of the big bang. Penrose does not use string theory, but wants the rest mass of all particles to fade away leaving a timeless universe that can be extended into another one at an asymptotic boundary.

Penrose is in the English tradition of speculative cosmology (Eddington, Milne, Hoyle). He even discusses the large number coincidences of Dirac.

The appendices contain more 2-spinor formalism than most books published by Knopf. A few Weyl curvature tensors have leaked into the main part of the book.

After all this cyclical speculation it's a relief to turn to getting observational results.

Levin, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

This book appeared a month or so after the announcement that gravitational waves were observed. The author had already been doing interviews for a few years. Or, as she puts it:

We put aside misgivings. We're at the summit already, the surface of the Earth. The summit is a location, wherever we are. It's also a time, in our future, when the advanced machine will be fully operational. On the ascent we lost Weber and, for all intents and purposes, Ron Drever. Still, the numbers on the climb grow. No matter who falls away, others take their place, and the ascent continues. the expedition is alive; the march picks up pace and heads toward the collision.

This book is really writerly.

His observations synced with the dark phases of the Moon, he'd travel into the heavier dusk to dawn of the countryside, receptive to pale astronomical flashes, the Moon redirecting the sunlight away from the Earth, the less luminous messages straining at visibility... He was surveying the skies before he drilled deeper.

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There's an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics -- the French guy, the German guy, the American girl. So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms. In the end it's personal, as much as we want to believe it's objective.

The author also has a first-person, present tense, diaristic mode.

Some are affixing cables, some are sitting underneath the tube near a gate valve and doing something, I don't know what, but I take note of their confidence. No one tells anyone else what to do. Everyone seems to understand the next step needed and seems expert. One person is in full bunny suit behind temporary clean-room drapes. He stands on top of a structure. Is that my friend Aidan? He would be installing parts of the thermal compensation system, which adjusts for distortions of the mirror due to laser heating. But it's hard to make out individuals under a bunny suit and it's not like you can drop in and chat, so I fall onto my stomach and crawl to the civilization side of the arms.

I'm infiltrating the experimentalists' ranks. I have questions. Geniune questions that are not taxing and are not intended as tests of anyone's competence. They are the experts on the instrument. I'm the outsider. So I'm glad when the initial curiosity over my attendance on the best night of the week, Taco Tuesdays, subsides -- Jamie says, in an undertone, "you're a scientific dignitary," I hope without sarcasm -- and the drinks flow and inappropriate stories are told and I become one of the guys.

The thick subjectivity makes a curious contrast with the indifference of nature. It's a great story in any case.

alimosina, Monday, 2 May 2016 20:10 (two years ago) Permalink

That linked Frampton story was fascinating. For what it's worth, the two novels by that journalist, Maxine Swann, are really good.

The Levin book quotes are lovely. Will seek that one out.

🐸a hairy howling toad torments a man whose wife is deathly ill (James Morrison), Tuesday, 3 May 2016 07:55 (two years ago) Permalink

Oh, it's Janna Levin! Her "A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines" is a great novel.

🐸a hairy howling toad torments a man whose wife is deathly ill (James Morrison), Tuesday, 3 May 2016 07:56 (two years ago) Permalink


alimosina, Wednesday, 4 May 2016 17:45 (two years ago) Permalink

Took a copy of that Janna Levin book out of library and skipped. Yes, very interesting angle -the human angle!- and writing, as you guys point out.

The WLS National Batdance (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 5 May 2016 17:13 (two years ago) Permalink

Ok, i just finished Levin's book, and really enjoyed it. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

🐸a hairy howling toad torments a man whose wife is deathly ill (James Morrison), Monday, 9 May 2016 12:58 (two years ago) Permalink

seven months pass...

Well, this is odd.

alimosina, Sunday, 18 December 2016 02:08 (two years ago) Permalink

Wilczek, A Beautiful Question

Another book by the well-known Wilczek.

Does the world embody beautiful ideas?

The author calls this a "meditation." There is a chronological sequence from Plato to Newton to Maxwell to the 20th century, but the history is very abstract. The tone of one of certainty and the subject matter is completely aestheticized. There is certain to be something in this book that you've never thought of before.

That decision will lead me to use some slightly unconventional expressions, such as "quantum fluid theory" where you would elsewhere find "quantum field theory."

The author's exuberance and habit of replacing conventional terms with new ones can grate on those of a more saturnine temperament.

alimosina, Sunday, 18 December 2016 02:09 (two years ago) Permalink

Happy Birthday to Isaac Newton, a first rate Lucasian professor by any standard!

How I Wrote Plastic Bertrand (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 25 December 2016 22:30 (two years ago) Permalink

Famiglietti, The Flight of AMS
Pol, Inside CERN
Ginter, LHC: Large Hadron Collider

Three collections of experiment porn.

Essentially all of the photos in Famiglietti can be found here.

The AMS hasn't discovered any anti-universes yet, but it has found something. Here is a really good interview with Samuel Ting.

Pol is mostly interested in offices, corridors, and people at work. The buildings at CERN are kept shabby and there is not enough room, so some sit at desks in incongruous places. The usual joke posters that white-collar people put around their work areas. This book is nicely bound and printed on thick paper.

Ginter was given a lot of access to the experiment halls and he has produced a large square coffee-table book, suitable for buying as a gift and then keeping for yourself. In that generous spirit, happy new year.

alimosina, Sunday, 1 January 2017 03:23 (two years ago) Permalink

(They had quite a book launch)

alimosina, Sunday, 1 January 2017 03:28 (two years ago) Permalink

Ed yong: i contain multitudes -- rather wonderful book on the microbiome

I hear from this arsehole again, he's going in the river (James Morrison), Sunday, 1 January 2017 11:07 (two years ago) Permalink

two months pass...
five months pass...

Lederman and Teresi, The God Particle

This famous book launched the most loathed epithet in physics. Leon Lederman was a central figure in experimental high-energy physics for decades and was director of Fermilab for years. This book was written at the height of enthusiasm for the SSC, of which Lederman was naturally one of the main promoters, which seemed to be just around the corner, and which this book was surely intended to promote. Time and CERN have passed the book by. The best parts convey the feeling of what it's like to stay up all night with an experiment.

Blurb from the WSJ: "A relentless gagman, Mr. Lederman treats us to a host of jokes..."

Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes was one of the best, though now dated, popular accounts of the birth of the universe. (I always thought the book sold so well because people thought it was a sex manual.)


A meticulous, driven, precise, organized experimenter, Ting worked with me at Columbia for a few years, had several good years at the DESY lab near Hamburg, Germany, and then went to MIT as a professor. He quickly became a force (the fifth? sixth?) to be reckoned with in particle physics. My letter of recommendation deliberately played up some of his weak points -- a standard ploy in getting someone hired -- but I did it to conclude: "Ting -- a hot and sour Chinese physicist."

These are the jokes. After marching grimly through 200 pages of history stuffed with gags, the reader reaches a chapter about accelerators, Lederman's specialty. Here the book gets better, although the gags don't.

There are better books out there. This is melancholy.

Bartusiak, Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony: The Story of a Gamble, Two Black Holes, and a New Age of Astronomy

Maybe not essential if you've already read Levin. Bartusiak doesn't employ Levin's novelistic magnification of personalities, but she gives a lot more context. There's also material on future projects (assuming we don't all get blown up first).

De, Unchallenged Privilege: The Billion-Dollar Trilateral Gravitational-Wave Discovery Scam

No wait -- it's fake physics! Bibhas De exposes the entire LIGO experiment as a colossal hoax.

Rainer Weiss has been promoted as LIGO's original architect, a kind of an Argo to Thorne's Jason. Facts on the ground prove otherwise: He is the architect of LIGO's doom.

Some smart people agree with him on some points. It would be good to see his charges answered.

alimosina, Wednesday, 30 August 2017 17:36 (one year ago) Permalink

what the actual fuck at that last book on ligo

i know and work with some people who work on ligo, maybe i should buy a copy and challenge them to refute it

frankfurters take on new glamour in this gleaming aspic (bizarro gazzara), Wednesday, 30 August 2017 17:39 (one year ago) Permalink

Sure, why not? Probably nothing to it. I don't have enough background to have an opinion.

alimosina, Wednesday, 30 August 2017 20:09 (one year ago) Permalink

Rigden, Hydrogen

Hydrogen might seem banal.

One such conversation was with Steven Weinberg in Austin, Texas. When our paths crossed in Austin, he asked me, "What are you writing?" I told him about the hydrogen book. After a pregnant pause he said, "That's nice... that's nice."

Hydrogen and its cousins are so simple that any deviations from theory imply that the theory is wrong. Rigden follows hydrogen through quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, the strong force, masers, NMR, deuterium in cosmology, and the Bose-Einstein condensate (among other things). If you're bored by this you're bored by physics.

Rigden doesn't mention hydrogen bombs, like the one NK just exploded. Get your reading done while you can. I'm taking my own advice.

alimosina, Monday, 4 September 2017 01:08 (one year ago) Permalink

That sounds like a really good and elegant idea for a book. Will seek.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Monday, 4 September 2017 09:52 (one year ago) Permalink

four weeks pass...

Muller, Now

This is a pretty good review.

Richard Muller started an experiment to observe the CMB in the 1970s. Later he invited George Smoot to join the experiment and eventually to lead it. Smoot won the Nobel Prize in 2006. Muller also started an experiment to observe distant supernovas to measure the Hubble constant in the 1970s. Later he asked his student Saul Perlmutter to lead it. Perlmutter won the Nobel Prize in 2011. Muller has very good ideas. This book is speculative and veers off into philosophy, but Muller's experimental point of view grounds it better than other speculative books.

alimosina, Monday, 2 October 2017 00:40 (one year ago) Permalink

I tried to enter this special group but was rejected, although I had an advantage in comparison with other students – I had passed the first examination session at the Physical Faculty. David Kirzhnits (a future corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences) was also rejected, although he had a recommendation from Landau.

It is interesting how he got this recommendation. Kirzhnits was a student at MAI (Moscow Aviation Institute). The teacher of physics (a women) noticed his nonordinary abilities. She knew Landau and told him about this talented student. Landau invited Kirzhnits for a conversation. After the conversation Landau said: “I will write a letter of recommendation to Predvoditelev – the dean of the University Physical Faculty.” He took a sheet of paper and a pen, sat down and started to think. “I cannot write 'Dorogoi (dear) Alexander Savvich'" said Landau... "He is not dear to me. I cannot write 'Uvazhaemyi ..' (respected): I have no respect for him.” He thought a little more, then exclaimed: “Oh, I will write him: 'Dear' – in English 'dear' has no definite meaning." The reason of rejection of Kirzhnits and me was our nationality – antisemitism was on the rise.

-- B. L. Ioffe

alimosina, Monday, 2 October 2017 00:44 (one year ago) Permalink

Meanwhile, things are not looking so great on the energy frontier.

alimosina, Monday, 2 October 2017 00:54 (one year ago) Permalink

Have you read that Dennis Overbye book, what is it called Einstein in Love?

Two-Headed Shindog (Rad Tempo Player) (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 2 October 2017 01:16 (one year ago) Permalink

Giaever, "I Am The Smartest Man I Know"

Ivar Giaever was born in 1929 to a poor family in Norway, emigrated to Canada and then the US, and got a job by chance at GE where someone suggested doing experiments on quantum tunnelling. He won the Nobel Prize in 1973.

they had asked NTH, my alma mater, to support me, but the only letter they got from Norway was that somebody with my name had graduated from NTH in 1952 in mechanical engineering with bad grades.

The title is intentionally ironic for a book in which things just sort of happen. Yuval Ne'eman:

But there was someone who gave Feynman a taste of his own medicine. The Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Giaever once suffered through a lecture with Feynman. Two years later, he came back to Caltech to give another lecture. This time, however, Giaever not only answered Feynman to the point, but also made him look stupid. Obviously, he had done a good job of preparing ahead, deliberately slipping in remarks to provoke Feynman -- who walked straight into his trap. Everyone in the lecture hall could feel how stunned Feynman was.

Typically, Giaever writes that he hadn't planned anything, he just happened to say something humorous and everyone took it as a crushing reply.

Giaever started dating his future wife when they were 14, and writes that they are still in love at 86. (Aw.)

alimosina, Monday, 2 October 2017 01:23 (one year ago) Permalink

No, I haven't read that one.

alimosina, Monday, 2 October 2017 01:23 (one year ago) Permalink

"Barish said he had set an alarm in anticipation of a call from Nobel officials — though when it did come at 2:41 a.m., it beat his alarm by 4 minutes."

alimosina, Tuesday, 3 October 2017 19:14 (one year ago) Permalink

three weeks pass...

Nice interview with Weinberg here. (It's the 50th anniversary of his famous paper.)

alimosina, Monday, 30 October 2017 17:31 (one year ago) Permalink

six months pass...

Feynman, QED
Schwinger, Einstein's Legacy

The two Alps of mid-20th-century American theoretical physics. Schwinger had his centennial in February, and Feynman will have his in May.

Feynman was the Damon Runyon of physics lecturing, while Schwinger was the Henry James. Editors have made these books less idiosyncratic. Both books are a slightly dated at the edges, but timeless at the core. They are as close as ordinary people can get to those unimaginable minds.

alimosina, Monday, 30 April 2018 00:47 (nine months ago) Permalink

Kalai, Gina Says

Over a decade ago, Smolin and Woit wrote popular books criticizing string theory. This led to a lot of dispute on blogs, including Woit's. Several unusual characters took part. The author of this book has collected the exchanges between his sock puppet and everyone who responded to "her."

One participant writes:

Personally I considered “Gina” to be a tedious semi-troll and was glad when Woit decided to ban “her”...

Looking back on those discussions now, they seem both tedious and entertaining at the same time.

Tedious for sure. The book describes a psychological experiment by Kalai (except for an appendix about math). Passive-aggressive "Gina" contributes nothing of value, and Kalai presents "her" the way a first-grade teacher might present a student. It's a relief to escape.

Vignale, The Beautiful Invisible

Theoretical physics for poets, almost literally. Not only does the author constantly refer to poetry, he sometime sounds like Wallace Stevens.

Needless to say, this tangential reality is purely conjectural -- it did not happen and could not happen in real life, but its value lies not in having or not having happened; it lies in giving a sharp meaning to a concept

There is a great chapter on spin near the end. Since QED covers everything except spin, it's a nice complement. I wish the author would go farther into his specialty at this level.

alimosina, Monday, 30 April 2018 00:54 (nine months ago) Permalink

Recent revival of this thread reminds me that this winter was high school application season here in NYC and during one of the many accompanying discussions one parent said something about Townsend Harris not having any Nobel Prize winners and I had to correct

Nashville #9 Dream (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 4 May 2018 04:11 (nine months ago) Permalink

Nice. The NYC public school chase is bizarre, but that's what you get in a world city. There's probably an ilx thread on it.

Frank Wilczek went to Martin Van Buren. So did an Economics Nobelist. So it's got that going for it.

alimosina, Friday, 4 May 2018 15:23 (nine months ago) Permalink

Considered starting such a thread but thought better of it

Nashville #9 Dream (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 4 May 2018 23:21 (nine months ago) Permalink

two months pass...

Reinders, The Life, Science and Times of Lev Vasilevich Shubnikov

In a few years Shubnikov discovered the Shubnikov-de Haas effect, type-II superconductors, and the Meissner effect. His work was in advance of theory until the 1950s. He probably would have won a Nobel prize eventually.

Rjabinin and Shubnikov’s discovery was actually earlier then Meissner and Ochsenfeld’s, and that this negative assessment by Landau, who is said to have called the results ‘bullshit’ (chush’ sobach’ja), was the main reason that it was sent to the journal later. It shows that having a theorist close at hand is not always an advantage.

Mezhlauk approved Shubnikov's arrest on July 24, 1937, and Yezhov signed Shubnikov's execution order on October 28. Yezhov had Mezhlauk arrested on December 1 and shot in 1938. Yezhov was shot in 1940.

In Soviet civilization everything was connected to everything else. A lot of this book is about other people.

As late as 1930, for example, (Frenkel) was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota in that ‘most despicable’ of all countries, the United States of America. He had also played an important role in the discussion with the ‘philosophers’ about whether modern physics (relativity theory and quantum mechanics) could be reconciled with dialectical materialism. In this discussion the Czech-born ‘philosopher’ Ernest Kolman (21) had accused him in 1931 of Trotskyism and ‘rotten liberalism’.

(21) Ernest Kolman (1892–1979), a loathsome character who was especially keen on ‘wrecking in science’ which he spotted everywhere, often with serious consequences for the persons he ‘exposed’; he initiated the Luzin affair with the publication of the anonymous article “On enemies with a Soviet mask” (O vragakh v sovetskoj maske) in Pravda of 3 July 1936 and also accused other scientists, such as Landau, Vernadsky, Tamm, and Vavilov, of ‘wrecking’.

This Kolman attended a famous-at-the-time conference in London in 1931.

Why was Kolman even there? A clue lies in the disturbing fact that not only was Kolman the sole surviving member of the delegation to be interviewed about it by historian of science Loren Graham in the 1970s, he was practically the only member to survive to the end of World War II. Every other member (besides Ioffe) was executed in the purges or died in a prison camp. That they experienced that fate, and that Kolman did not, are related. On August 22, 1971 (before his defection) and on April 22, 1977 (afterward), Graham asked Kolman about the experience, and the philosopher related that he had been Communist Party secretary to the delegation, specifically tasked with keeping the others—many suspected of ideological deviations—in line. Party members were required to emphasize Marxism in their talks, and Kolman reported that Bukharin had fallen short of the mark, but Hessen (whom Kolman had previously attacked in print) had performed well. (This did not save Hessen; he was executed in December 1936.) Kolman had other duties, such as successfully helping to persuade physicist Peter Kapitza, then living in exile in Cambridge, to return to the Soviet Union.

-- Michael D. Gordin, "The Trials of Arnost K.: The Dark Angel of Dialectical Materialism"

Hessen, or Gessen, had earlier denounced relativity as un-Marxist and said there should be an ether. In 1931 Bronstein, Ivanenko, Gamow, and Landau sent him a postcard agreeing with him, calling Einstein a kook, and adding that they would study caloric fluid and phlogiston as well. They illustrated it with a cartoon of a cat (Hessen was supposed to have looked like a cat). It must have seemed funny at the time.

After being persuaded to return to the Soviet Union, Kapitza was duly barred from leaving, but not actually arrested.

Landau, Shubnikov and others could have seen it coming. They could have known from earlier experience (of Ivanenko, Bursian, Korets around 1935) that they were dealing with a criminal regime and that they were playing with a fire that would eventually consume them... They played a dangerous game and must have known it was a dangerous game.

Gamow saw what was coming and got away.

Zeldovich recalled the animosity of all Soviet physicists towards Gamow since he did not return to Moscow after the famous Solvay meeting of 1933... By this action Gamow hampered the possibility for all Soviet physicists to travel abroad after that date. He recalled how he was motivated by a matter of pure confrontation against Gamow for some time. As soon as Gamow presented the theory of a hot universe he himself presented an alternative theory of a cold universe, initially at zero temperature. The process of building up heavy elements was stopped in his theory by the presence of a degenerate sea neutrinos and only hydrogen would be born from an expanding Friedman universe. He stressed again, how building such a theory was motivated ideologically and politically. He recognized the crucial role of the Penzias and Wilson discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation which disproved his ‘political’ theory and proved instead the validity of Gamow’s theory. He finally concluded “Yes: although Gamow made many mistakes he is one of the greatest Soviet scientists!” And then recalling the fundamental contributions Gamow made to the understanding of the DNA structure he asked: “How many Nobel prizes did Gamow receive? Two?” I answered: “None.”

-- Remo Ruffini, "Moments with Yakov Borisovich Zeldovich"

alimosina, Thursday, 5 July 2018 00:33 (seven months ago) Permalink

Amaldi, The Adventurous Life of Friedrich Georg Houtermans

Houtermans grew up in Vienna.

Fritz started to show such a difficult behaviour that his mother, through her friend Anna Freud, arranged for Fritz to be taken care of by Anna’s father, Sigmund Freud. The sessions, however, did not last long because when Fritz realized that he had to relate his dreams to Freud, he and his imaginative cousin Anni began to invent dreams, which Freud soon discovered and stopped the psychoanalytic treatment.

Later he studied at Göttingen.

Once Fritz, with the permission of Franck, announced at the Colloquium the presence of a Russian professor in Göttingen and then introduced into the lecture room two dancing bears, whose owner he had met in the street just before.

Houtermans moved to Kharkov against Pauli's advice, and was duly arrested as part of the same fake conspiracy as Shubnikov. It was a common method to implicate people who were dead or out of reach. After being tortured, Houtermans claimed that he had been following orders from Laszlo Tisza, who had managed to get out of the country. (For a while, Tisza and Twitter existed simultaneously.)

Houtermans was handed over to the Gestapo but released. He worked for von Ardenne's independent nuclear weapons project in where else but the research department of the postal ministry. In a bizarre episode, he visited Kharkov in uniform under German occupation.

Houtermans was a fictional character with his greatness, his weaknesses, his internal conflicts, all governed by his humanity, his generosity and his particular personal humor that could not be tolerated by any totalitarian regime. This is why I believe that only a novelist of great talent could describe his character...

alimosina, Thursday, 5 July 2018 00:52 (seven months ago) Permalink

two weeks pass...

Dyson, Maker of Patterns

Freeman Dyson writes like an angel and is endlessly quotable. This book is an autobiography in the form of letters to his family, with commentary. There is surprisingly little overlap with Disturbing the Universe.

In my time as a professor I lost three young people whom I had invited as members, one by suicide and two who ended up in mental institutions. I do not know how many I saved. I only know that the institute is a dangerous place for young people, and as a professor, I bore a heavy responsibility for their mental health.

Dyson is not made of the same stuff as we are. Not only is he mathematically brilliant and ageless, he has more empathy than most people and is able to make friends with anyone.

Wolfgang Pauli, the great physicist from Zurich, was talking in German to a group of respectful listeners... Pauli told how Schwinger had come to Zurich and explained the new American physics clearly, not like the nonsense that Dyson had been writing. At that moment Fierz pushed me forward and said, "Professor Pauli, please allow me to introduce you to Professor Dyson." Pauli replied, "Oh, that does not matter, he does not understand German," and continued his discourse. Afterwards Pauli always treated me with great respect, and we became good friends.

These letters show superhuman forbearance when his wife runs away with his old college friend whom he'd helped to get a job (the blood-freezing Georg Kreisel). Luckily for the kids, they stay with Dyson, who soon finds lasting happiness. The reader can't help rooting for him.

alimosina, Sunday, 22 July 2018 22:17 (six months ago) Permalink

Freeman Dyson, autumn 1948:

Oppenheimer is unreceptive to the new ideas in general and in particular to Feynman. Oppenheimer shocked me when he arrived by taking a semidefeatist attitude to the whole business... on Sunday I felt so irritable that I wrote the enclosed letter to Oppenheimer... On Sunday night I went for a walk into a field outside the town, where the sky was unobscured by lights, and sat down on the grass to make up my mind whether I should send the letter off. After some time I had decided to do it, and then suddenly the sky was filled with the most brilliant northern lights I have ever seen. They lasted only about five minutes, but were a rich bloodred and filled half the sky. Whether the show really was staged for my benefit I doubt, but certainly it produced the same psychological effect as if it had been.

Wallace Stevens, autumn 1948:

This is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house

On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.

alimosina, Sunday, 22 July 2018 22:19 (six months ago) Permalink

Ha, recently took that Dyson book out of the library, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (pvmic) whilst looking for another book written by a physicist- who is from Memphis!- that is not about physics.

Isora Clubland (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 22 July 2018 22:42 (six months ago) Permalink

More info here.

alimosina, Monday, 23 July 2018 22:54 (six months ago) Permalink

three months pass...

A colourful figure on this scene was Claud Lovelace. Austere in appearance, booming in voice, confident in attitude, he had been notorious while holding an appointment at CERN for his habit of sitting in the front row at other people's seminars reading the pile of preprints he had brought with him, but occasionally looking up to pose a pointed question. It is said that once, when Lovelace himself gave a seminar and the rest of Theory Division by arrangement turned up, each with his own pile of reading matter, he was not amused. Claud had gone into the resonance-hunting business in a big way. There was by now so much data to fit, and so many assumptions necessary to make the task tractable, that one could always indulge in a straight-faced application of statistics to 'prove' the total unreasonableness of a colleague's view, judged from one's own perspective. Lovelace pronounced the 'best-fit' results of his principal rival, Gordon Moorhouse from Glasgow, to have only a chance of one in 10^166 of being right. In reply, the milder Moorhouse conceded a chance of one in 10^24 of Lovelace's correctness.

-- Polkinghorne

That year I was fired by CERN for discovering too many nucleon resonances (all of which were subsequently confirmed)

-- Lovelace*jBHiPADEY2dq_vJA_5zDPQ.jpeg

alimosina, Tuesday, 6 November 2018 18:59 (three months ago) Permalink

Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

Bell Labs in all its majesty.

(John R. Pierce) was so thin and slight that even in late middle age he could fit into the slender office lockers that staffers used to stow their jackets or lab coats. "People think you can't fit into these, but you really can," Pierce said one day to Henry Landau, a Bell mathematician, who looked up from his desk to see Pierce walk unannounced into his office, squeeze himself into Landau's locker, close the locker door, open it, squeeze himself out, and then exit the room.

The building in Holmdel stood empty for a long time, a ruin from a vanished civilization, but they've adapted it to our ways.

alimosina, Tuesday, 6 November 2018 19:02 (three months ago) Permalink

Is that John Polkinghorne? I've enjoyed a couple of his books, should get more.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Wednesday, 7 November 2018 02:13 (three months ago) Permalink

Yeah, Rochester Roundabout. If you like that quotation you will like the book.

alimosina, Wednesday, 7 November 2018 15:29 (three months ago) Permalink

Thanks! I have ordered it.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Wednesday, 7 November 2018 23:13 (three months ago) Permalink

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 (one month ago) Permalink

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 (one month ago) Permalink

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 (one month ago) Permalink

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 (one month ago) Permalink

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 (one month ago) Permalink

More fiction than non, IMO.

alimosina, Wednesday, 2 January 2019 16:24 (one month ago) Permalink

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