Tag Archives: James Clerk Maxwell

The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

Read the full poem

Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

Read the full poem

William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

Read the full poem

For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

Read the full poem

Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Probing the physical limits of plasmons in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms

A Sept. 5, 2018  news item on ScienceDaily introduces the work,

Rice University [Texas, US] researchers are probing the physical limits of excited electronic states called plasmons by studying them in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms.

A Sept. 4, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert published on Sept. 5, 2018), which originated the news item, explains what plasmons are and why this research is being undertaken,

Plasmons are oscillations in the plasma of free electrons that constantly swirl across the surface of conductive materials like metals. In some nanomaterials, a specific color of light can resonate with the plasma and cause the electrons inside it to lose their individual identities and move as one, in rhythmic waves. Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) has pioneered a growing list of plasmonic technologies for applications as diverse as color-changing glass, molecular sensing, cancer diagnosis and treatment, optoelectronics, solar energy collection and photocatalysis.

Reporting online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, LANP scientists detailed the results of a two-year experimental and theoretical study of plasmons in three different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Unlike the plasmons in relatively large metal nanoparticles, which can typically be described with classical electromagnetic theory like Maxwell’s [James Clerk Maxwell] equations, the paucity of atoms in the PAHs produces plasmons that can only be understood in terms of quantum mechanics, said study co-author and co-designer Naomi Halas, the director of LANP and the lead researcher on the project.

“These PAHs are essentially scraps of graphene that contain five or six fused benzene rings surrounded by a perimeter of hydrogen atoms,” Halas said. “There are so few atoms in each that adding or removing even a single electron dramatically changes their electronic behavior.”

Halas’ team had experimentally verified the existence of molecular plasmons in several previous studies. But an investigation that combined side by side theoretical and experimental perspectives was needed, said study co-author Luca Bursi, a postdoctoral research associate and theoretical physicist in the research group of study co-designer and co-author Peter Nordlander.

“Molecular excitations are a ubiquity in nature and very well studied, especially for neutral PAHs, which have been considered as the standard of non-plasmonic excitations in the past,” Bursi said. “Given how much is already known about PAHs, they were an ideal choice for further investigation of the properties of plasmonic excitations in systems as small as actual molecules, which represent a frontier of plasmonics.”

Lead co-author Kyle Chapkin, a Ph.D. student in applied physics in the Halas research group, said, “Molecular plasmonics is a new area at the interface between plasmonics and molecular chemistry, which is rapidly evolving. When plasmonics reach the molecular scale, we lose any sharp distinction of what constitutes a plasmon and what doesn’t. We need to find a new rationale to explain this regime, which was one of the main motivations for this study.”

In their native state, the PAHs that were studied — anthanthrene, benzo[ghi]perylene and perylene — are charge-neutral and cannot be excited into a plasmonic state by the visible wavelengths of light used in Chapkin’s experiments. In their anionic form, the molecules contain an additional electron, which alters their “ground state” and makes them plasmonically active in the visible spectrum. By exciting both the native and anionic forms of the molecules and comparing precisely how they behaved as they relaxed back to their ground states, Chapkin and Bursi built a solid case that the anionic forms do support molecular plasmons in the visible spectrum.

The key, Chapkin said, was identifying a number of similarities between the behavior of known plasmonic particles and the anionic PAHs. By matching both the timescales and modes for relaxation behaviors, the LANP team built up a picture of a characteristic dynamics of low-energy plasmonic excitations in the anionic PAHs.

“In molecules, all excitations are molecular excitations, but select excited states show some characteristics that allow us to draw a parallel with the well-established plasmonic excitations in metal nanostructures,” Bursi said.

“This study offers a window on the sometimes surprising behavior of collective excitations in few-atom quantum systems,” Halas said. “What we’ve learned here will aid our lab and others in developing quantum-plasmonic approaches for ultrafast color-changing glass, molecular-scale optoelectronics and nonlinear plasmon-mediated optics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Lifetime dynamics of plasmons in the few-atom limit by Kyle D. Chapkin, Luca Bursi, Grant J. Stec, Adam Lauchner, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Yao Cui, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS September 11, 2018 115 (37) 9134-9139; published ahead of print August 27, 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805357115

This paper is behind a paywall.

Quantum back action and devil’s play

I always appreciate a reference to James Clerk Maxwell’s demon thought experiment (you can find out about it in the Maxwell’s demon Wikipedia entry). This time it comes from physicist  Kater Murch in a July 23, 2018 Washington University in st. Louis (WUSTL) news release (published July 25, 2018 on EurekAlert) written by Brandie Jefferson (offering a good explanation of the thought experiment and more),

Thermodynamics is one of the most human of scientific enterprises, according to Kater Murch, associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It has to do with our fascination of fire and our laziness,” he said. “How can we get fire” — or heat — “to do work for us?”

Now, Murch and colleagues have taken that most human enterprise down to the intangible quantum scale — that of ultra low temperatures and microscopic systems — and discovered that, as in the macroscopic world, it is possible to use information to extract work.

There is a catch, though: Some information may be lost in the process.

“We’ve experimentally confirmed the connection between information in the classical case and the quantum case,” Murch said, “and we’re seeing this new effect of information loss.”

The results were published in the July 20 [2018] issue of Physical Review Letters.

The international team included Eric Lutz of the University of Stuttgart; J. J. Alonzo of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Alessandro Romito of Lancaster University; and Mahdi Naghiloo, a Washington University graduate research assistant in physics.

That we can get energy from information on a macroscopic scale was most famously illustrated in a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon. [emphasis mine] The “demon” presides over a box filled with molecules. The box is divided in half by a wall with a door. If the demon knows the speed and direction of all of the molecules, it can open the door when a fast-moving molecule is moving from the left half of the box to the right side, allowing it to pass. It can do the same for slow particles moving in the opposite direction, opening the door when a slow-moving molecule is approaching from the right, headed left. ­

After a while, all of the quickly-moving molecules are on the right side of the box. Faster motion corresponds to higher temperature. In this way, the demon has created a temperature imbalance, where one side of the box is hotter. That temperature imbalance can be turned into work — to push on a piston as in a steam engine, for instance. At first the thought experiment seemed to show that it was possible create a temperature difference without doing any work, and since temperature differences allow you to extract work, one could build a perpetual motion machine — a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Eventually, scientists realized that there’s something about the information that the demon has about the molecules,” Murch said. “It has a physical quality like heat and work and energy.”

His team wanted to know if it would be possible to use information to extract work in this way on a quantum scale, too, but not by sorting fast and slow molecules. If a particle is in an excited state, they could extract work by moving it to a ground state. (If it was in a ground state, they wouldn’t do anything and wouldn’t expend any work).

But they wanted to know what would happen if the quantum particles were in an excited state and a ground state at the same time, analogous to being fast and slow at the same time. In quantum physics, this is known as a superposition.

“Can you get work from information about a superposition of energy states?” Murch asked. “That’s what we wanted to find out.”

There’s a problem, though. On a quantum scale, getting information about particles can be a bit … tricky.

“Every time you measure the system, it changes that system,” Murch said. And if they measured the particle to find out exactly what state it was in, it would revert to one of two states: excited, or ground.

This effect is called quantum backaction. To get around it, when looking at the system, researchers (who were the “demons”) didn’t take a long, hard look at their particle. Instead, they took what was called a “weak observation.” It still influenced the state of the superposition, but not enough to move it all the way to an excited state or a ground state; it was still in a superposition of energy states. This observation was enough, though, to allow the researchers track with fairly high accuracy, exactly what superposition the particle was in — and this is important, because the way the work is extracted from the particle depends on what superposition state it is in.

To get information, even using the weak observation method, the researchers still had to take a peek at the particle, which meant they needed light. So they sent some photons in, and observed the photons that came back.

“But the demon misses some photons,” Murch said. “It only gets about half. The other half are lost.” But — and this is the key — even though the researchers didn’t see the other half of the photons, those photons still interacted with the system, which means they still had an effect on it. The researchers had no way of knowing what that effect was.

They took a weak measurement and got some information, but because of quantum backaction, they might end up knowing less than they did before the measurement. On the balance, that’s negative information.

And that’s weird.

“Do the rules of thermodynamics for a macroscopic, classical world still apply when we talk about quantum superposition?” Murch asked. “We found that yes, they hold, except there’s this weird thing. The information can be negative.

“I think this research highlights how difficult it is to build a quantum computer,” Murch said.

“For a normal computer, it just gets hot and we need to cool it. In the quantum computer you are always at risk of losing information.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Information Gain and Loss for a Quantum Maxwell’s Demon by M. Naghiloo, J. J. Alonso, A. Romito, E. Lutz, and K. W. Murch. Phys. Rev. Lett. 121, 030604 (Vol. 121, Iss. 3 — 20 July 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.030604 Published 17 July 2018

© 2018 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada’s Perimeter Institute, graphic novels, physics, and a public webcast

The full name is Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The abbreviation I’m most familiar with is PI but there’s also Perimeter or PITP according to the institute’s Wikipedia entry. It is the only such institute in the country (as far as I’m aware) and it is very active in science outreach such as their latest foray: Graphic Talk about the Universe: a Clifford V. Johnson public lecture webcast.

A January 16, 2019 posting on the Slice of PI blog (?) announces the webcast,

Physics lends itself to illustration

From da Vinci’s detailed drawings to schematics of a hypothetical zombie cat both alive and dead in a box, illustrations are invaluable tools for those not fluent in the language of equations

But while illustrated textbooks abound, only relatively recently have artists and writers begun exploring physics concepts through the growing genre of graphic novels

These artists (one of whom will deliver a live webcast from Perimeter on Feb. 6!) convey complex ideas not only through illustration, but also narrative creativity, dialogue, action, and humour.

Here are some of our recommendations. Did we miss your favourite? Let us know in the comments.

The Dialogues by Clifford Johnson (MIT Press) is available here.

Max the Demon vs Entropy of Doom by Assa Auerbach and Richard Codor (Loose Line Productions Inc.) is available here


I have two comments about the excerpt from the PI blog: (1) I love the reference to Maxwell’s demon thought experiment in the title for Auerbach’s and Codor’s graphic novel title and (2) Clifford Johnson and his graphic novel were mentioned here in an April 16, 2018 posting.

PI has created a trailer for Johnson’s upcoming webcast,

You can watch the live webcast on February 6, 2019 here (7 pm ET or, for those of us on the West Coast, 4 pm PT). There will be tickets available for anyone who can attend the live lecturre in Waterloo, Ontario. Tickets are available as of Monday, January 21, 2019 at 9 am ET or 6 am PT.

Ghostbusters* (all female version) and science

It was delightful to learn that there is science underlying Paul Feig’s upcoming all female version (remake) of the movie Ghostbusters in a March 4, 2016 article by Darian Alexander for Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

With Thursday’s [March 4, 2016] release of the first trailer for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, fans finally got a good look at the highly anticipated reboot. The clip offered a peak into the movie’s setup, its setpieces, and its overall tone. But there’s one topic it left mysterious: the science.

Well, in a new and pretty fascinating marketing tie-in, the studio made a video going deep on the science of proton packs. Tucked inconspicuously into the trailer footage (at around the 1:05 mark) was a short shot of an equation-filled whiteboard. Appearing somewhat mysteriously atop it was a url: ParanormalStudiesLab.com.

The Paranormal Studies Lab site (part of Sony’s publicity campaign for the film) doesn’t have a great deal of information at this time but there is this video featuring scientist James Maxwell (not to be confused with James Clerk Maxwell whose 150-year-old theory mashing up magnetism, electricity and optics is being celebrated as noted in my Nov. 27, 2015 posting),

By the way, there is a real paranormal studies laboratory at the University of Virginia according to a Feb. 10, 2014 article by Jake Flanagin for the The Atlantic,

The market for stories of paranormal academe is a rich one. There’s Heidi Julavits’s widely acclaimed 2012 novel The Vanishers, which takes place at a New England college for aspiring Sylvia Brownes. And, of course, there’s Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters—Marvel’s take on Andover or Choate—where teachers read minds and students pass like ghosts through ivy-covered walls.

The Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine is decidedly less fantastic than either Julavits’s or Marvel’s creations, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating place. Founded in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson—originally as the Division of Personality Studies—its mission is “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”

What sorts of “phenomena” qualify? Largely your typical catalog of Forteana: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, “claimed memories of past lives.” So yes: In 2014, there is a center for paranormal research at a totally legitimate (and respected) American institution of higher learning. But unlike the X-Mansion, or other fictional psy-schools, DOPS doesn’t employ any practicing psychics. The teachers can’t read minds, and the students don’t walk through walls. DOPS is home to a small group of hardworking, impressively credentialed scientists with minds for stats and figures.

Finally, for anyone unfamiliar with the original Ghostbusters movie, it was made in 1984 and featured four comedians in the lead roles, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis, according to IMDB.com. Feig’s 2016 version features four female comedians: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones.

*’Ghostbuster’ corrected to ‘Ghostbusters’ on March 14, 2016.

*ETA Oct. 17, 2016: L. E. Carmichael has written up a Ghostbusters review in an Oct. 17, 2016 posting on her eponymous blog.*

Constructing an autonomous Maxwell’s demon as a self-contained information-powered refrigerator

Aalto University (Finland) was the lead research institution for  INFERNOS, a European Union-funded project concerning Maxwell’s demon. Here’s an excerpt from an Oct. 14, 2013 post featuring the project,

An Oct. 9, 2013 news item on Nanowerk ties together INFERNOS and the ‘demon’,

Maxwell’s Demon is an imaginary creature that the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell created in 1897. The creature could turn heat into work without causing any other change, which violates the second law of thermodynamics. The primary goal of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems) is to realize experimentally Maxwell’s Demon; in other words, to develop the electronic and biomolecular nanodevices that support this principle.

I like the INFERNOS logo, demon and all,

Logo of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems).

A Jan. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk seems to be highlighting a paper resulting from the INFERNOS project (Note: A link has been removed),

On [a] theoretical level, the thought experiment has been an object of consideration for nearly 150 years, but testing it experimentally has been impossible until the last few years. Making use of nanotechnology, scientists from Aalto University have now succeeded in constructing an autonomous Maxwell’s demon that makes it possible to analyse the microscopic changes in thermodynamics. The research results were recently published in Physical Review Letters (“On-Chip Maxwell’s Demon as an Information-Powered Refrigerator”). The work is part of the forthcoming PhD thesis of MSc Jonne Koski at Aalto University.

An image illustrating the theory underlying the proposed device has been made available,

An autonomous Maxwell's demon. When the demon sees the electron enter the island (1.), it traps the electron with a positive charge (2.). When the electron leaves the island (3.), the demon switches back a negative charge (4.). Image: Jonne Koski.

An autonomous Maxwell’s demon. When the demon sees the electron enter the island (1.), it traps the electron with a positive charge (2.). When the electron leaves the island (3.), the demon switches back a negative charge (4.). Image: Jonne Koski.

A Jan. 11, 2016 Aalto University press release, which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

The system we constructed is a single-electron transistor that is formed by a small metallic island connected to two leads by tunnel junctions made of superconducting materials. The demon connected to the system is also a single-electron transistor that monitors the movement of electrons in the system. When an electron tunnels to the island, the demon traps it with a positive charge. Conversely, when an electron leaves the island, the demon repels it with a negative charge and forces it to move uphill contrary to its potential, which lowers the temperature of the system,’ explains Professor Jukka Pekola.

What makes the demon autonomous or self-contained is that it performs the measurement and feedback operation without outside help. Changes in temperature are indicative of correlation between the demon and the system, or, in simple terms, of how much the demon ‘knows’ about the system. According to Pekola, the research would not have been possible without the Low Temperature Laboratory conditions.

‘We work at extremely low temperatures, so the system is so well isolated that it is possible to register extremely small temperature changes,’ he says.

‘An electronic demon also enables a very large number of repetitions of the measurement and feedback operation in a very short time, whereas those who, elsewhere in the world, used molecules to construct their demons had to contend with not more than a few hundred repetitions.’

The work of the team led by Pekola remains, for the time being, basic research, but in the future, the results obtained may, among other things, pave the way towards reversible computing.

‘As we work with superconducting circuits, it is also possible for us to create qubits of quantum computers. Next, we would like to examine these same phenomena on the quantum level,’ Pekola reveals.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

On-Chip Maxwell’s Demon as an Information-Powered Refrigerator by J.V. Koski, A. Kutvonen, I.M. Khaymovich, T. Ala-Nissila, and J.P. Pekola. Phys. Rev. Lett. 115, 260602 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.260602 Published 30 December 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final comment, this is the 150th anniversary of Maxwell’s publication of a series of equations explaining the relationships between electric charges and electric and magnetic fields (featured here in a Nov. 27, 2015 posting).

The search for James Clerk Maxwell

The Brits really know how to celebrate an anniversary. In this case it’s the 150th anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory unifying electricity, magnetism, and light. (My Nov. 27, 2015 posting the first piece here featuring the anniversary and it describes the theory in more detail than you’ll find here.)

As part of the celebration there’s a five-episode series titled: Self Drives: Maxwell’s Equations being broadcast on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) 4. Stephen Curry writes about the series in a Dec. 9, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s a potent antidote to the “Isn’t this amazing?” school of science communication and it’s called Will Self. In Self Drives: Maxwell’s Equations, which was broadcast recently [you can hear it as a podcast by visiting this site] on BBC Radio 4, the curious curmudgeon takes science to task once again as he goes in search of the mathematical and physical genius behind James Clerk Maxwell.

Over five short episodes, Self’s querulous quest takes him from Maxwell’s birthplace in Edinburgh to his family home in Glenlair, to the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank and the Diamond synchrotron near Oxford, and finally to Cambridge, where Maxwell studied mathematics in his youth and returned in his latter years as one of the nation’s most accomplished scientists to head the university’s Cavendish physics laboratory. Accompanying Self along the way is Akram Khan, the same physics professor who joined the errant writer on his earlier orbit of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I would have dubbed Khan Sancho Panza to Self’s Don Quixote but for this particular expedition the characters are reversed. It is Khan who wishes to see the poetry of science, while Self is happier to be grounded in prosaic and flawed reality. At CERN he refused truculently to worship in the cathedral of particle physics, stymied in equal measure by the difficulty of the subject matter and the boosterism of its scientific proponents. Here again the journey is mostly one of disappointment and frustration.

But not for the listener. The quest is far from fruitless, and nor is it lacking in emotional and intellectual force. Self’s documentary is not straight biography – you will find out more about Maxwell’s life and work from Wikipedia – but he has a different target in mind. …

Here’s the pair of explorers,

Will Self, Akram Khan and Maxwell’s infamous equations. Photograph: Laurence Grissell/BBC

Will Self, Akram Khan and Maxwell’s infamous equations. Photograph: Laurence Grissell/BBC

It’s good writing and an intriguing look into communicating science in a way that’s not quite so reverent and/or kid friendly as we tend to be in Canada.

James Clerk Maxwell and his science mashup unified theories of magnetism, electricity, and optics

It’s the 150th anniversary for a series of equations electric charges and electric and magnetic fields that are still being explored. Jon Butterworth in a Nov. 22, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blog network explains (Note: A link has been removed),

The chances are that you are reading this article on some kind of electronic technology. You are definitely seeing it via visible light, unless you have a braille or audio converter. And it probably got to you via wifi or a mobile phone signal. All of those things are understood in terms of the relationships between electric charges and electric and magnetic fields summarised in Maxwell’s [James Clerk Maxwell] equations, published by the Royal Society in 1865, 150 years ago.

Verbally, the equations can be summarised as something like:

Electric and magnetic fields make electric charges move. Electric charges cause electric fields, but there are no magnetic charges. Changes in magnetic fields cause electric fields, and vice versa.

The equations specify precisely how it all happens, but that is the gist of it.

Butterworth got a rare opportunity to see the original manuscript,

 Original manuscript of Maxwell’s seminal paper Photograph: Jon Butterworth/Royal Society [downloaded from http://www.theguardian.com/science/life-and-physics/2015/nov/22/maxwells-equations-150-years-of-light]

Original manuscript of Maxwell’s seminal paper Photograph: Jon Butterworth/Royal Society [downloaded from http://www.theguardian.com/science/life-and-physics/2015/nov/22/maxwells-equations-150-years-of-light]

I love this description from Butterworth,

It was submitted in 1864 but, in a situation familiar to scientists everywhere, was held up in peer review. There’s a letter, dated March 1865, from William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) saying he was sorry for being slow, that he’d read most of it and it seemed pretty good (“decidely suitable for publication”).

Then, there’s this,

The equations seem to have been very much a bottom-up affair, in that Maxwell collected together a number of known laws which were used to describe various experimental results, and (with a little extra ingredient of his own) fitted them into a unified framework. What is amazing is how much that framework then reveals, both in terms of deep physical principles, and rich physical phenomena.

I’m not excerpting any part of Butterworth’s description of how Maxwell fit these equations together for his unification theory as I think it should be read in its totality.

The section on quantum mechanics is surprising,

Now, one thing Maxwell’s equations don’t contain is quantum mechanics [emphasis mine]. They are classical equations. But if you take the quantum mechnical description of an electron, and you enforce the same charge conservation law/voltage symmetry that was contained in the classical Maxwell’s equations, something marvellous happens [emphasis mine]. The symmetry is denoted “U(1)”, and if you enforce it locally – that it, you say that you have to be allowed make different U(1) type changes to electrons at different points in space, you actually generate the quantum mechanical version of Maxwell’s equations out of nowhere [emphasis mine]. You produce the equations that describe the photon, and the whole of quantum electrodynamics.

I encourage you to read Butterworth’s Nov. 22, 2015 posting where he also mention two related art/science projects and has embedded a video animation of the principles discussed in his posting.

For anyone unfamiliar with Butterworth, there’s this description at the Guardian,

Jon Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London. He is a member of the UCL High Energy Physics group and works on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. His book Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs was published in May 2014

Brains, guts, health, and consciouness at TED 2014′s Session 5: Us

While most of the speakers I’m mentioning are the ‘science’ speakers in this session, they are more precisely ‘medical science’ speakers which takes me further than usual out of my comfort zone. That said, Nancy Kanwisher, brain researcher, opened the session (from her TED biography),

Using cutting-edge fMRI technology as her lens, Nancy Kanwisher zooms in on the brain regions responsible for some surprisingly specific elements of cognition.

Does the brain use specialized processors to solve complex problems, or does it rely instead on more general-purpose systems?

This question has been at the crux of brain research for centuries. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researcher Nancy Kanwisher seeks to answer this question by discovering a “parts list” for the human mind and brain. “Understanding the nature of the human mind,” she says, “is arguably the greatest intellectual quest of all time.”

As many of us now know courtesy of researchers like Kanwisher, the brain has both general purpose regions and specialized regions for perception and complex processing but Kanwisher’s presentation was as much about the process of discovery as it was about the discoveries she and her colleagues have made. She talked about her personal experiences with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as she tested (many times) her own brain first and then spent years looking at grayscale images as she decoded what she was observing and tested over and over and over again.

Next came the ‘gut guy’, or as microbial ecologist Rob Knight’s TED biography describes him,

Rob Knight explores the unseen microbial world that exists literally right under our noses — and everywhere else on (and in) our bodies.

Using scatological research methods that might repel the squeamish, microbial researcher Rob Knight uncovers the secret ecosystem (or “microbiome”) of microbes that inhabit our bodies — and the bodies of every creature on earth. In the process, he’s discovered a complex internal ecology that affects everything from weight loss to our susceptibility to disease. As he said to Nature in 2012, “What motivates me, from a pragmatic standpoint, is how understanding the microbial world might help us improve human and environmental health.”

Knight made the case that our microbes are what give us our individuality by noting that 99.99% of our DNA is the same from one person to the next but out microbial communities vary greatly person to person and the community in your mouth varies greatly from the community on your skin. He and his colleagues are using the information to consider new types of medical interventions. For example, research has shown that giving children antibiotics before the age of six months affects their future health.

Interestingly, we carry about 3 lbs. of microbes individually and Knight and his colleagues are still gathering information about those lbs. He mentioned the American Gut project (and solicited future volunteers from the live audience by mentioning he had just happened to bring 100 kits which were available at his table outside). This project is for US participant only.

Stephen Friend, oncologist and open science advocate was featured next. From his TED biography,

Inspired by open-source software models, Sage Bionetworks co-founder Stephen Friend builds tools that facilitate research sharing on a massive and revolutionary scale.

While working for Merck, Stephen Friend became frustrated by the slow pace at which big pharma created new treatments for desperate patients. Studying shared models like Wikipedia, Friend realized that the complexities of disease could only be understood — and combated — with collaboration and transparency, not by isolated scientists working in secret with proprietary data

Friend has a great name for someone who advocates for transparency and openness. He opened with stories about his work and how he came to be inspired to look for health rather than disease. He noted that for the most part, medical research is focused on the question of what went wrong with a patient rather than asking if healthy people have some sort of natural immunity or protection from cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Perhaps by examining health people we can find ways to more effectively intervene.

He provided two examples of research that examined natural immunity such as research in San Francisco (California) into why a small but significant percentage of people with HIV never developed AIDS; his other example was regarding research into lipid levels and why some people with high levels never develop heart disease.

I’m a little foggy about this point but I think he made a request for information about these medical phenomena and people from around the world shared their research with him in an open and transparent fashion.

This next bit was clear to me, he and his colleagues are moving to another stage with their research initiative which they have named the Resilience Project; Unexpected Heroes. He too solicited volunteers from the audience. I haven’t been able to locate a website for the project but there maybe some on the Sage Bionetworks website, the organization Friend co-founded. Good luck!

Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,

In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.

Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.

Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).

Getting the logos they deserve: 50 physicists and mathematicians

There are some 50 logos created by Dr. Prateek Lala of the University of Toronto (Canada) on behalf of various physicists and mathematicians. Before showing any of these clever logos, here’s a bit more about Dr. Lala’s logos in John Brownlee’s Feb. 5, 2014 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

The scientific typographics were created by Dr. Prateek Lala, a physician and amateur calligrapher from Toronto. Inspired by the type biographies of Indian graphic designer Kapil Bhagat, Lala designed his logos to make the lives and discoveries of various scientists more engaging and immediately relatable to students.

Kelly Oakes in a Feb. 3, 2014 post for BuzzFeed features 20 of the logos and I’ve downloaded two of them for here,

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) formulated the equations that describe electricity, magnetism, and optics as manifestations of the same phenomenon – the electromagnetic field. He’s also the namesake of Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment in which a hypothetical demon violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Credit: Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) formulated the equations that describe electricity, magnetism, and optics as manifestations of the same phenomenon – the electromagnetic field. He’s also the namesake of Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment in which a hypothetical demon violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Credit: Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

I particularly enjoy how Dr. Lala has introduced the ‘demon’ into the logo. And then, there’s this one,

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a biophysicist who used X-ray diffraction data to determine the structures of complex minerals and living tissues, including – famously – DNA. Credit: Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a biophysicist who used X-ray diffraction data to determine the structures of complex minerals and living tissues, including – famously – DNA. Credit: Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

There is a bit of a controversy regarding Franklin as many believe she should have received more acknowledgement for her role in Crick and Watson’s ‘discovery of DNA’. I last mentioned Franklin in an August 19, 2013 posting (scroll down half-way) featuring a rap, Rosalind Franklin vs Watson & Crick, which was written and performed by children as part  of Tom McFadden’s Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles) school science project. The rap does a very good job of summarizing the discovery and the controversy and the performance is of a professional grade.

Getting back to Dr. Lala’s logos, there’s a slide show of 50 logos on this Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics webpage. I selected this one from the slideshow for inclusion here,

Aryabhatta (476-550) was a pioneer of mathematics and astronomy in India. He is believed to have devised the concept of zero and worked on the approximation of pi. Credit Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

Aryabhatta (476-550) was a pioneer of mathematics and astronomy in India. He is believed to have devised the concept of zero and worked on the approximation of pi. Credit Dr. Prateek Lala / Perimeter Institute

Dr. Lala has created some infographics of his logos which are can be seen here at visual.ly or you can see one featuring 60 of his logos in a July 26, 2013 posting by Carolina Brandão Zanelli on her Art for Scientists blog. As well, the Perimeter Institute is offering a poster of Dr. Lala’s logos in the Fall 2013 issue of their Inside the Perimeter magazine available here.

I was a little curious about Dr. Lala and was able to find this on academia.edu,

Prateek Lala
University of Toronto, Medicine, Post-Doc

Research Interests:
Medicine, Pharmacology, Drug metabolism, Pharmacoinformatics and Education

Enjoy!