"Most of our life is spent dealing with ideas that are abstract and cannot be embodied; they can only be held in the mind ...  The tools of our trade are also intangible. We have nothing material to clutch or discard, no object that would absorb or reflect our emotions. Theoretical physics is largely a private affair, a life lived out in the mind,"

thinks Sara, wistfully.  

It is true that we theorists seldom have a tangible hold on something that represents our intellectual passion, and so the times that we do, are extra special. Today is one such day for me. I just came back from my visit to Roxbury Latin School with gifts that represent ideas that excite me; ideas I have discussed with the bright, fun, students at Roxbury Latin in the past. 

I can now hold a Higgs Boson in my hand, and pin Calabi Yau manifolds wherever I want. What more could a girl ask for?

Relativity and its Influence on Scientific Thought

Some time in 1919, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington was asked whether it was true that only three people in the world understood the general theory of relativity. Apparently he thought for a moment and then asked: “Who's the third?” Depending on your mood, that can sound witty, or arrogant; but either way, once you read his beautiful expositions of Einstein's theory, it is difficult to dispute the truth behind Eddington’s reply.

Arthur Stanley Eddington's expression is crystal clear, and his language is a joy to read. Unfortunately, most of his works are of print, and hence not nearly as widely known as they deserve to be. This year marks the centennial of general relativity, and as my contribution to the celebrations, I compiled an electronic version of the 1922 Romanes Lecture on 'The Theory of Relativity and its Influence on Scientific Thought' that Eddington delivered in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. 

Collisions: A Particle Physics Playlist

For some weird reason, an inordinate number of scientists are also accomplished (or aspiring!) musicians. Inevitably, the theories they think about all day, seep into the music they play. A surprising number of tracks are particle physics inspired, and when I came across these, I just knew I had to compile a playlist. 

So, in the now long-ago tradition of mix tapes, I give you Collisions. 

Side A:

  1. The ATLAS Boogie - The Canettes Blues Band
  2. Large Hadron Rap - Kate McAlpine
  3. The Collider - Les Horribles Cernettes
  4. Strong Interaction - Les Horribles Cernettes
  5. Mr. Higgs - Les Horribles Cernettes
  6. Every Proton Of You - Les Horribles Cernettes

The last five songs have the kind of vintage flair one would expect from the legendary Les Horribles Cernettes, the all girl ‘high energy rock band’ based at CERN and named so that their initials coincided with those of the Large Hadron Collider. Because CERN was the birthplace of the World Wide Web, the Cernettes also happen to be the subject of the first ever photograph on the web. 

The first two songs in the ‘tape’ are newer and extremely catchy! I found the video for The ATLAS Boogie just incredible. Its surprisingly informational while also being a ton of fun.

If you find want more, here’s a page dedicated to the LHC Rap, complete with lyrics, videos and a downloadable .mp3 And if that still isn’t enough, the Atlas Experiment has released a CD called Resonance (preview here). Not all the songs are science-themed, but they’re definitely worth checking out. 

The Mysteries of Nature and Art

As far back as I can remember, I have heard Isaac Newton being referred to as a genius; yet it was not until I actually read some of the 'standard texts' of his time that I truly appreciated what Newton had accomplished. As John's father said

"It is only when you compare the nature of [the Principia] to the style and argumentation that dominated Natural Philosophy in the decades hitherto, that you truly appreciate its power.”

The Mysteries of Nature and Art, by John Bate, is one of the books that is said to have caught Isaac Newton's curiosity and fueled his desire to pursue the intellectual course he adopted. If you don't want to peruse the original manuscript, this article in the Public Domain Review will give you a pretty good insight into the mood and vocabulary that prevailed at the time. 

An Electron's Valentine

A third of the way through The Strangest Man Graham Farmelo quotes a few stanzas from a poem that currently resides in the Cavendish Laboratory Archive at Cambridge University. 

O hear the sad petition we electrons make to you 

To free us from the dominion of the hated quantum view

For we are all abandoned to its dread uncertainty,

Except by you, our champion. O we pray you, set us free!

Once in a pleasant order, our smooth-flowing time was spent.

As the classical equations told us where to go, we went.

We vibrated in the atom, and a beam of light was freed;

And we hadn’t any structure – only mass and charge and speed.

We know not if we’re particles, or a jelly sort of phi,

Or waves, or if we’re real at all, or where we are, or why.

The story goes that this (anonymous) poem was found pinned to a notice board at the Cavendish Lab around 1930. I thought it was adorable anyway, but when I discovered (in the notes at the end of the book) that this was written as a Valentine’s card to the electron, I loved it even more - and I just knew I had to refer to it in Only The Longest Threads! 

Personally, however, I’m still not sure whether it is a Valentine to the electron, or from the electron to the Physicists; I would actually argue for the latter interpretation. To me, it seems that electrons, finding themselves in the midst of the greatest crisis of identity and philosophy they have ever known, are reaching out for help. So even though I am fully aware that actual subatomic particles did not sit down and pen these verses, part of me still can’t help being touched by the faith ‘the electrons’ show in our ability as Physicists to set the world to rights.

Reading this poem makes me want to go reassure a few electrons this Valentine’s Day and promise them that we will try to prove worthy of the trust they repose in us. While I’d never thought about it in those terms before, I suppose we do – through the theories we espouse – assign identities to everything we study. Given the number of times we have changed our worldview this past century, we’ve probably been the inadvertent causes of quite a few ‘adjustment disorders’ (if not out-and-out psychoses) in the subatomic world alone.

Here’s hoping we do better in the future.

Einstein - How I See The World

I have been reading about Einstein, in one form or another, for decades now. I have poured over his own writings - both scientific and otherwise - as well as countless commentaries on these works. I have explored his theories in their mathematical intricacy, and studied several detailed biographies - but I still learnt a lot from this video. It appears that hearing someone laugh makes them come alive in a way nothing else will. 

Farmelo on Dirac & his Religion of Mathematical Beauty

When Oskar, the post-doc at Niels Bohr's Institute describes the dramatic personae of quantum mechanics to Anna, here's what he writes about Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac

In many ways, Dirac was an anomaly among his loud, larger-than-life contemporaries. Dirac was fascinated by beauty, but he had little time for literature or the theater and thought philosophy a waste of time; he sought, and found, a majestic beauty in mathematics. Dirac thrived on its enduring nature and its regal lack of ambiguity; there is no room for dissent, or even opinion, regarding a mathematical truth: it is absolute and eternal. Perhaps it was because of this preference that Dirac worked alone. Words crave company, they thrive on conversation and interpretation, whereas mathematics has its own internal checks and is free of the need for external validation. Like mathematics, Dirac was content unto himself. When he chimed in to the quantum mechanics chorus, Dirac attracted immediate attention. His notes were so pure and so sure that they cut through the hum, and all around him stopped to listen. The song he sang was a hymn to mathematics.

During my research for Only The Longest Threads, I came across The Strangest Man - a masterful biography of Dirac. I learnt a lot from Graham Farmelo's book, and was excited to discover this talk he delivered on the same, fascinating, subject. 

Einstein Arrives in New York 1921

On April 2 1921, Jacob stood among the throngs at Battery Park to greet the steamship Rotterdam which brought his idol, Einstein, to America for the first time. As he waited, he thought about the theory of relativity - a set of esoteric ideas that had made a scientist into an international celebrity. 

Once Einstein headed off on his motorcade and the crowds began to disperse, Jacob too, headed back. 

At last I began winding my way home, taking care to avoid the main streets on the Lower East Side. I knew, as did the rest of the city, that Einstein was headed for the Hotel Commodore. Thousands of people lined the path, in a street party of sorts, waving to his motorcade. Even avoiding his route, I heard for a long time the honking of car horns, this modern form of fanfare being the tribute the streets of New York paid to the gentle genius. I wondered how he puts up with this constant rush of adoration around him. Perhaps he retreats to that secret “chest” in his mind, that imagined place, far out in dark, empty space, that served as a mental testing ground for the general theory of relativity.

Here's what he was talking about: 

Schrodinger - Do Electrons Think?

The dawn of quantum mechanics was riddled with doubt. It was not only outcomes that were suddenly rendered uncertain; the very nature of familiar objects was called into question. Objects like electrons. As Oskar writes in his letter to Anna,

Everyone struggled to make sense of this unexpected universe we had unknowingly inhabited for so long. One of the best expressions of intellectual frustration came from Cambridge University, in the form of an anonymous poem some students tacked on the walls of Cavendish lab. It was a “petition” made by electrons desperate to be set free from the “dread uncertainty” of the “hated quantum view.” They lamented the loss of the “smooth-flowing” time when all they had to do was follow the classical equations, and they bemoaned the sudden identity crisis they found themselves in, no longer knowing if they were particles or waves or a “jelly sort of phi,” or even if they were real at all, “or where we are or why.”

Well over a decade after that letter was written, Schrodinger delivered a lecture about electrons.  I find it interesting both for its content, and because it affords me the opportunity to hear this (slightly) "older Austrian virtuoso" in action. 

Maxwell's Address to the British Association - September 1870

In his letter to Lizzy, Charles talks about the influence Maxwell's writings have had on him. It is due to Maxwell that he has come to believe that:

scientific truth should be presented in different forms, and should be regarded as equally scientific whether it appears in the robust form and the vivid coloring of a physical illustration, or in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolical expression

The above is an excerpt from an address Maxwell delivered to the British Association in 1870. It is a short speech, full of lovely thoughts and phrases, well worth reading in its entirety. 

Not In Textbooks - Yet.

As Sara and Leo wait for their respective trains at the Gare Corvain, they talk about the monumental discovery that has just been announced. Sara reflects on the discrepancy between how the morning's events will be recorded in textbooks, and how they were actually experienced.

In future editions [of textbooks], a new sentence will be added, to say that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012. In a few years, to a new generation, that is all it will be: a flat, black-and-white statement of fact. But for those who have lived through this moment, that same prosaic phrase will sparkle and gleam.

In much the same vein, the physicists who work at ATLAS, declare "What we do is not in textbooks". In this wonderful little video, they share what they do and why. 

The Higgs Boson Announcement

Having earned a seat by camping out all night, Sara takes her place in the auditorium, and looks around. This is what she thinks:

In minutes, the screen in front of me will be flashing images of machinery, plots, results from the world’s most sophisticated experiment; but right now, the only projection is a sea of faces, in an auditorium, much like this one, at the other end of the world. At the international particle physics conference in Melbourne, physicists are glued to their chairs, in anticipation of what is to come.
“Today is a special day,” begins Heuer. It’s show time.

Here's what happens next: 

Gerard 't Hooft's Nobel Lecture - December 1999

Gerard 't Hooft ended his Nobel Lecture by expressing his reservations about string theory.

There is still room for surprises, he said, as an image of magnifying glasses popped up on the screen behind him. If, ’t Hooft continued, we could actually see a string, there’s no telling what we would find. All of a sudden, music started playing, and the entire hall burst into laughter. As the magnifying glasses zoomed in, they revealed Taz—the Tasmanian devil from the Looney Tunes cartoons—jumping up and down on the string, using it as a tightrope, and pulling faces the entire time.

Having read so much about this talk in Only The Longest Threads, it's only fair that you should get to watch it for yourself


Santa Lucia

Musing on the recurrent infinities that showed up in the equations of quantum electrodynamics (QED) confounding and frustrating physicists, Ingrid compares the situation to a bleak Scandinavian December. 

"When the days shrivel up, in preparation for the winter solstice, in every town across Sweden, processions of little girls, following in Saint Lucia’s wake, light up the dark. With voices sweetly harmonizing, the girls sing of brooding shadows and of Night who walks with her hushed, heavy feet, until Saint Lucia appears to dispel the gloom. Clad in white, a wreath of candles in her hair, Lucia whispers of the rosy dawn to come. Fortified by this vision, and aided by glögg, gingerbread cookies, and raisin saffron buns, we get by until the nights grow shorter and the gorgeous sun has his day."

QED was not rescued quite this poetically, but hope did come, in the guise of renormalization, and we were able to extract sensible answers from our crazy calculations.

I find the festival of Lucia (celebrated on December 13) to be one of the prettiest Swedish customs. I particularly love this song that is sung each year, as Lucia walks in, surrounded by a halo of light. 

The Street of Signs - Copenhagen 1930

In his letter to Anna, Oskar describes the atmosphere and culture of Niels Bohr's Institute, the "foster home" of the fledgling quantum mechanics. 

The Institute seems ordinary enough from the outside; there is nothing to distinguish it from its neighbors, nothing to warn a passerby of the madness that reigns within these walls. Often I think we should follow the custom of Copenhagen’s shopkeepers and hang up a metal sign above the front door; but what symbol would we employ? The pet store displays the silhouette of a parrot, grapes announce the liquor store, a pastry dangles above the bakery, and a watering can and kettle are suspended above the metalworker’s shop: each simple image announces its occupant’s vocation and business with clarity. Part of the trouble with quantum mechanics is that we don’t have such a symbol yet. The world that exists this side of the threshold is surreal, but it has a strange logic all its own—unexpected, but self-consistent.

There's a charming little video on YouTube (courtesy of British Pathe) that shows the signs Oskar is talking about. Click on the picture below to watch it. 

Maxwell's 'Wheels Of Life'

In his letter to Lizzy, Charles reminisces about the games they played as children, including

the “wheels of life” we used to produce for parlor entertainment, a decade ago. Using the somewhat rickety machines of my devising, we would arrange a series of your beautiful little drawings on a spinning wheel, and when we set it in motion fast enough, the images blurred into each other, their transitions vanishing entirely, giving the appearance of movement. Even though we were intimately acquainted with every stroke, every cog—having put it all together—yet we would watch mesmerized.

In his boyhood, Maxwell made such zoetropes too, and thanks to the wonderful James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, we can actually see his handiwork!  Like Charles and Lizzy, I too, am enthralled. 

[Use the arrows on the images to toggle between Stop and Play]




Dangling Threads

Writing Only The Longest Threads has been a rich and rewarding experience, but on days when the process of putting pen to paper - or finger to keyboard - was less than exhilarating, I sought refuge, and renewal, in research. The more I found out about the times and places where my stories unfold, the more excited I was to write them. I love exploring the rabbit holes of thought, and since I burrowed far deeper than was strictly necessary, I collected a lot more material than actually made it into the book. But, even though they aren't explicitly present, these invisible pieces of information are the seeds from which my word-worlds grew. 

This blog is for those of you who, like me, wonder about the story behind the story, From time to time, I will share  the gems I uncovered while writing Only The Longest Threads; perhaps I will post excerpts from the manuscript, that got edited out of the final draft.  I might also include some things I come across now. Because, even though the book is printed and bound, we all know that neither science nor story are ever truly finished. Some threads are always left dangling; by weaving onto these, we can keep extending the tapestry.