Monday, July 18, 2011

Verse, part III

Kepler told us all about the planetary or-
Bits, and that they go round in endless ovals, which might bore,
Except he also said that they sweep out in equal time
An equal area of their orbit, which is quite sublime.
Since he was Tycho's student, the lesson, I suppose,
Is: Always find a teacher with a strangely waxen nose.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Verse, part II (Galileo)

Modern science has begun: it's Galileo Galilei!
Everyone stand back 'cause he's got lots of stuff to say.
Summarizing his achievements takes the best part of a day,
But the main bit said the earth did not in one position stay.
(The word had got to Rome, and they told it to the pope --
G. G. had to recant, because the pope said clearly 'nope'.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Lucretius expounded all his theories in verse;
Now science is much better, though my poetry is worse.
Intellectual agitations I shall in detail rehearse,
In somewhat varied meter and with stanzas fairly terse.
This will someday be continued when I find myself the time,
And the inclination to make the Lorentz contraction rhyme.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

James Clerk Maxwell

I was cleaning out my iTunes today, and I found this recording of myself reading a speech I gave about James Clerk Maxwell last year. (I recorded it in order to be able to listen to it and memorize it that way.) I thought it seemed suitable for Strangely Charming.

Click on the "Play" button (the one with the triangle) to hear it. Enjoy!
Physics forever,

Monday, April 18, 2011

And then there was George Gamow

Gamow was almost a proto-Feynman, famous for his physics practical jokes. (An example: He once sabotaged Pauli's chair at a conference simply so he could yell "Pauli effect"! The "Pauli effect" was supposed to be that whenever a theorist, especially Pauli, started working with experimental equipment, the equipment would promptly break. One experimentalist friend of Pauli's refused to let him in the lab. This same friend owned a large wooden hammer, with which he would threaten his apparatus when it wasn't working. Everyone laughed -- until somebody "borrowed" the hammer and the apparatus promptly ceased to function. There was another physicist who brought his apparatus flowers every morning.)

Gamow was Russian. In 1932, he and his wife decided that they would rather like to move abroad. The authorities were not quite so fond of this idea as were the Gamows. To make a long story short, they decided to defect. By kayak.

Brilliant, no? Mr. and Mrs. Gamow planned to hop in their boat and paddle across to Finland. Or Turkey. Yes, they tried to defect by kayak twice. Both times they failed -- not because they were caught, but because of the weather. It was raining.

So in 1933 they chose a more, let's say, traditional approach. Gamow applied for permission to attend a prestigious conference in Brussels, the Solvay Conference. He recieved it, they went to Brussels -- and they never did come back. Eventually they moved to America. So it was a happy ending, but in the process it involved two separate attempts to defect from the Soviet Union by kayak.

This only confirms my suspicion that, well, physicists can be weird.

Another Dirac story

Again, true. He was an interesting person.

Heisenberg and Dirac are at a party.

Dirac: Heisenberg, why do you dance at parties?

Heisenberg [a bit baffled]: Well, the ladies are nice.

[a few minutes later] Dirac: How do you know they're nice before you dance with them?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Physics Humor

Inspired by last post, here are a few gems from my archive of physics humor. If you happen to have any to share, please post them in the comments! I would love to hear them!

To start off, a terrible pun.

What does a physicist eat with soup? Quarkers.


Now for some variety: a rather terrible visual pun.

And this one is one of the best of a whole category of jokes, "The Mathematician, the Physicist, and the Engineer [and sometimes the Sociologist]," in which the mathematician is technically correct but ridiculously precise, the physicist is focused on the real world but the wrong part of the real world, the engineer is relentlessly practical, and the sociologist, if present, is vague, over-general, and not very scientific:

A mathematician, a physicist, a sociologist, and an engineer are traveling by train into Scotland. They see a brown cow. “Oh look,” says the sociologist, “Scottish cows are brown.” “No, no,” replies the physicist, “we perceive one of the cows in Scotland to be brown.” “You're both wrong,” replies the mathematician, shaking his head at his friends' muddled reasoning. “There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which at least one side appears to be brown.” “Oh, who cares?” asks the engineer. “Let's get out and milk the cow.”

Another MP&E[&S] (hey, that sounded like an IT abbreviation -- wonder if any of these involve computer scientists) joke, this time without the sociologist:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are staying in a hotel (perhaps the Hotel Infinity?). The physicist gets up in the middle of the night and sees a fire in the hall. Rubbing his chin, he concocts a method for manufacturing carbon dioxide from the nearby bucket of water to use in a makeshift fire extinguisher. While he's thinking, the engineer smells smoke, runs out, and dumps the bucket of water on the fire, effectively putting it out. In the morning, they discuss the events of the night with the mathematician. “Did you see the fire?” asks the physicist. “Oh, yes,” replies the mathematician, “I saw it before either of you did.” “Then why didn't you put it out?” says the engineer. The mathematician explains, “Well, there was a fire and a bucket of water – obviously a solution existed!”

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. "I want a pint of beer," says the first mathematician. "I'll have half of what he's having," says the second. "I'll have half of what he's having," says the third, and so all the way down, halving all the way. "OK," says the bartender, and gets two pints of beer. [Optional ending: "Separate tabs," say the mathematicians. An infinite number of mathematicians get thrown out of a bar.]

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. That's to be expected -- they never do watch where they're going. [Inspired by the joke, "Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks."]

OK, enough walking into a bar jokes. They're not that great anyway, and besides, those are about mathematicians. Now for one that's true:

Physicist P.A.M. Dirac (he always used the initals) was famously untalkative. So much so, in fact, that his colleagues invented a unit of information flow – the dirac, equal to one word per hour.

Here's a one-word piece of physics-related humor: Feynman. If you've heard about his crazy escapades (say, picking all the locks at Los Alamos), you'll know why.

Physics forever,

"A Song of Speeds" - a poem which I composed

inspired by James Clerk Maxwell, of whose great discovery this year marks the 150th anniversary, and of whom this is a pale and clumsy imitation -- though he could never have written it, as it incorporates concepts of which he never heard, although his theory both underlies and inspired them

'Twas wrought by Relativity,
In year nineteen-oh-five;
The photon's swift velocity
By Einstein was derived:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious

Faster than thou no thing can go,
For thus runs the decree,
O speed of light in vacuo,
As anyone can see:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

Traveling at two point nine
Times ten to pow'r of eight,
Light charges on in a straight line
Much much too fast to wait:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

At such a pace there passeth not
The weeks or hours or days,
(Or, as the SI polyglots
Prefer, the seconds). So praise!
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

So gather 'round and sing the song
Of Light and of its Speed,
Which need and must be sung as long
As thou reciev'st thy meed:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

And as a postscript, another piece of physics humor.
Somebody asks Heisenberg, "Speaking not as a physicist, not in your professional or professorial capacity, but simply as a human being like all the rest of us, what do you really think of quantum mechanics?"
Heisenberg replies, "I'm uncertain."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Job of Science

What is the job of science? In other words, what can we expect science to do? Are there fundamental limitations to the kinds of truths that can be discovered by science – or can science even discover truth at all? These are extremely philosophical questions, but also extremely important for the practicing scientist, as their answers can influence everything from how one approaches a problem to how one presents the results. They are also extremely controversial. Realizing that all reasoning needs principles from which to reason, I will take for this article's principles that God exists, that He created the universe, and that He absolutely, infallibly, and solely revealed Himself in the Christian Bible and not through any other means. In essence, our listing of truths will begin with the truth of the Bible.

So, we take by faith that the Bible and nothing else is revealed truth, and we assume this as our starting principle for deduction. What about unrevealed truth? That exists, too; the Bible tells us that God established the physical world (Gen. 1) and its laws (Prov. 8:29, speaking of the “limit” and “command” that apply to the sea). These physical laws are ultimately true, but they are not in the Bible; therefore they cannot be revealed truth. (Note that, in this context, when I talk about physical laws, I mean not the 'laws' that have been formulated by fallible mankind to describe the universe, but the ultimate laws formulated by God to control the universe. Obviously, we don't know these ultimate laws.) Hence, the ultimate laws are unrevealed truth.

But can science find this truth? I maintain that it cannot. For science is a human endeavor, and humans are notably imperfect; therefore science is also imperfect. And an imperfect endeavor cannot lead us to perfect knowledge, which is what we would have if we knew the ultimate laws. Most likely the ultimate laws are beautiful and simple to the Mind that can comprehend them, and perhaps we will be told them when we get to heaven – or even better, maybe we will be allowed to discover them as an act of worship. But whether or not we ever know them in heaven, we will never know the perfect ultimate laws on imperfect earth. This may seem depressing, but it has a bright side: science will only stop when we know the absolute final laws of the universe, so if that is impossible, scientists will always have a job!

If science can't find ultimate truth, what can it do? Quite a lot, it turns out. The job of science is simply this: to allow humans to make predictions about the world, which can then be used to help fulfill the Dominion Mandate (Gen. 1:28).1 Basically, the job of science is to create models. Whether these models are as simple as a diagram of a lever or as complex as the quantum model of the atom, they are the beating heart of all true scientific endeavor. Note that the goal of these models, to fulfill the Dominion Mandate, does not mean that no scientific study should be done unless there is already a use in mind; on the contrary, some of the most useful things we know of, such as electricity and magnetism, were studied for hundreds of years before any significant use was made of them, but those many years of study were essential in gaining the knowledge necessary to invent, say, the hand-cranked emergency flashlight. Pure science is just as God-honoring as applied science.

Our situation can be compared to that of a man in a large room, extending as far as the eye can see, with many ropes hanging from a mysterious black box on the ceiling. He pulls one rope and hears a sound. Being a curious fellow, he decides to pull several ropes. Each time he hears a different sound. He pulls ropes in combinations; he pulls them hard and soft; he holds them for short and long times. After a while he begins to imagine a mechanism inside the black box that is ringing a set of bells. Perhaps he sketches this mechanism in a notebook. He sees that, if this is really the way it works, that rope over there – that blue one – it ought to produce a very low note. He pulls the blue rope; he hears the predicted tone! He checks further predictions, and they are confirmed. He has produced a model. After he has checked his model some more, he decides to walk further away. To his surprise, a rope that ought to produce a clear, high note actually makes a deep organ-like chord. He wonders: is his model wrong? But how can that be, since so many ropes fit it? He eventually realizes that all ropes within a certain area fit it, but the ones outside do not. He can produce another model for the ropes further out, but it contradicts the description of the black box that works for the inner ropes. This doesn't bother him too much, though, because he knows he may never find what is really in the box, but can only describe how the ropes and sounds seem to behave. Maybe later he discovers a model that makes the right predictions for both the inner and outer ropes; excellent! That is easier to work with. After long exploration, he finds a very puzzling region with no perceptible pattern. Actually, there is one idea that seems to work, but it is absolute nonsense: it claims that there are little fairies flying inside the box, and certain of the ropes have higher amounts of fairy dust. Of course, there are no fairies inside that box or anywhere else! What shall he do? But then he recalls that his models do not purport to explain what is really in the box, only what seems to be in the box based on how the ropes and noises behave. So, it's all right to use a model that would be philosophically unacceptable if it claimed to be a description of what really occurs, as long as everyone is clear that it cannot be what really happens, but can only give accurate predictions. Often the more reasonable models are also better predictors, but in the absence of a model that is “better” philosophically, a model based on “fairies” can and should be used.

What is the moral of the tale of the man and the ropes? The man represents scientists; the ropes represent physical phenomena, and the pulling of the ropes represents experiments. The black box represents the ultimate laws of the universe, and his models of what is in the black box represent the sets of 'laws,' or models, produced by science. The regions where the different models work represent the spheres of applicability of models in science; for instance, Newtonian mechanics is applicable for large objects moving slowly, but not for very small or very fast objects. “Fairy models” represent ideas, such as the lack of definite properties in quantum mechanics, that may seem incompatible with revealed truth but make excellent predictions.

We started this article with the questions, “What is the job of science? Can science discover truth? If not, what can it discover?” Our answers, based on the assumption that the Bible is the only revealed truth, were these: The job of science is to produce workable models2 that can make predictions and be used to fulfill the Dominion Mandate. Science cannot discover absolute truth, but it can state that a certain part of the observed world behaves as if certain 'laws' really were the ultimate laws. Science may not be able to discover truth, but it's certainly a worthwhile undertaking!

1 Those who have studied using Bob Jones University Press's science textbooks, to which I am indebted for many of my views on the role of science in the Christian life, will recognize the use of science to obey the Dominion Mandate.

2For more about the definition of workability in models, see this paper's companion paper, What Should We Ask of a Theory?