Tag Archives: James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwell’s demon at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada)

James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879), a Scottish physicist, is famous for many scientific breakthroughs (see Maxwell’s Wikipedia entry) and also for a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s demon. This graphical abstract illustrates a paper from three Simon Fraser University (SFU) physicists that advances the ‘demon’s’ possibiliteis,

Graphical Abstract: Energy flows in conventional and information engines used to displace a bead. Credit: Advances in Physics: X (2024). DOI: 10.1080/23746149.2024.2352112

A June 6, 2024 news item on phys.org describes Maxwell’s thought experiment and announces a possible breakthrough, Note: Links have been removed,

The molecules that make up the matter around us are in constant motion. What if we could harness that energy and put it to use?

Over 150 years ago, Maxwell theorized that if molecules’ motion could be measured accurately, this information could be used to power an engine. Until recently this was a thought experiment, but technological breakthroughs have made it possible to build working information engines in the lab.

SFU Physics professors John Bechhoefer and David Sivak teamed up to build an information engine and test its limits. Their work has greatly advanced our understanding of how these engines function, and a paper led by postdoctoral fellow Johan du Buisson and published recently in Advances in Physics: X summarizes the findings made during their collaboration.

A June 5, 2024 SFU news release (also on EurekAlert but published June 6, 2024) by Erin Brown-John, which originated the news item, describes the breakthrough in more detail,

“We live in a world full of extra unused energy that potentially could be used,” says Bechhoefer. Understanding how information engines function can not only help us put that energy to work, it can also suggest ways that existing engines could be redesigned to use energy more efficiently, and help us learn how biological motors work in organisms and the human body.

The team’s information engine consists of a tiny bead in a water bath that is held in place with an optical trap. When fluctuations in the water cause the bead to move in the desired direction, the trap can be adjusted to prevent the bead from returning to the place where it was before. By taking accurate measurements of the bead’s location and using that information to adjust the trap, the engine is able to convert the heat energy of the water into work.

To understand how fast and efficient the engine could be, the team tested multiple variables such as the mass of the bead and sampling frequency, and developed algorithms to reduce the uncertainty of their measurements.

“Stripped down to its simplest essence, we can systematically understand how things like temperature and the size of the system changes the things we can take advantage of,” Sivak says. “What are the strategies that work best? How do they change with all those different properties?”

The team was able to achieve the fastest speed recorded to date for an information engine, approximately ten times faster than the speed of E. coli, and comparable to the speed of motile bacteria found in marine environments.

Next, the team wanted to learn if an information engine could harvest more energy than it costs to run. “In equilibrium, that’s always a losing game,” Bechhoefer says. “The costs of gathering the information and processing it will always exceed what you’re getting out of it, but when you have an environment that has extra energy, [molecules doing] extra jiggling around, then that can change the balance if it’s strong enough.”

They found that in a non-equilibrium environment, where the engine was in a heat bath with a higher temperature than the measuring apparatus, it could output significantly more power than it cost to run.

All energy on Earth comes from the sun, and it eventually radiates out into space. That directional flow of energy manifests itself in many different ways, such as wind or ocean currents that can be harvested. Understanding the principles behind information engines can help us make better use of that energy.

“We’re coming at [energy harvesting] from a very different point of view, and we hope that this different perspective can lead to some different insights about how to be more efficient,” Bechhoefer says.

The pair is looking forward to working together on other projects in the future. “We were lucky to get a joint grant together. That really helped with the collaboration,” says Bechhoefer.

Sivak, a theorist, and Bechhoefer, an experimentalist, bring complementary approaches to their work, and they have been able to attract trainees who want to work with both. “We have different styles in terms of how we go about mentoring and leading a group,” says Sivak. “Our students and post-docs can benefit from both approaches.”

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

Performance limits of information engines by Johan du Buisson, David A. Sivak, & John Bechhoefer. Advances in Physics: X Volume 9, 2024 – Issue 1 Article: 2352112 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/23746149.2024.2352112 Published online: 21 May 2024

This paper is open access.

Graphic novels for teaching math, physics, and more

I’m going to start with the fun, i.e., “Max the Demon Vs Entropy of Doom”,

Found on Assa Auerbach @AssaAuerbach·Twitter feed: 6:57 AM · Feb 17, 2018 [downloaded from: https://theconversation.com/3-reasons-we-use-graphic-novels-to-teach-math-and-physics-211171]

Engaging introduction to James Clerk Maxwell’s and his thought experiment concerning entropy, “Maxwell’s demon.”

It’s one of the points that Sarah Klanderman and Josha Ho (both from Marian University; Indiana, US) make in their co-authored August 17, 2023 essay (on The Conversation) about using graphic novels to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics in the classroom, Note: Links have been removed,

Graphic novels – offering visual information married with text – provide a means to engage students without losing all of the rigor of textbooks. As two educators in math and physics, we have found graphic novels to be effective at teaching students of all ability levels. We’ve used graphic novels in our own classes, and we’ve also inspired and encouraged other teachers to use them. And we’re not alone: Other teachers are rejuvenating this analog medium with a high level of success.

In addition to covering a wide range of topics and audiences, graphic novels can explain tough topics without alienating student averse to STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Even for students who already like math and physics, graphic novels provide a way to dive into topics beyond what is possible in a time-constrained class. In our book “Using Graphic Novels in the STEM Classroom,” we discuss the many reasons why graphic novels have a unique place in math and physics education. …

Klanderman and Ho share some information that was new to me, from the August 17, 2023 essay, Note: Links have been removed,

Increasingly, schools are moving away from textbooks, even though studies show that students learn better using print rather than digital formats [emphasis mine]. Graphic novels offer the best of both worlds: a hybrid between modern and traditional media.

This integration of text with images and diagrams is especially useful in STEM disciplines that require quantitative reading and data analysis skills, like math and physics.

For example, our collaborator Jason Ho, an assistant professor at Dordt University, uses “Max the Demon Vs Entropy of Doom” to teach his physics students about entropy. This topic can be particularly difficult for students because it’s one of the first times when they can’t physically touch something in physics. Instead, students have to rely on math and diagrams to fill in their knowledge.

Rather than stressing over equations, Ho’s students focus on understanding the subject more conceptually. This approach helps build their intuition before diving into the algebra. They get a feeling for the fundamentals before they have to worry about equations.

After having taken Ho’s class, more than 85% of his students agreed that they would recommend using graphic novels in STEM classes, and 90% found this particular use of “Max the Demon” helpful for their learning. When strategically used, graphic novels can create a dynamic, engaging teaching environment even with nuanced, quantitative topics.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety if you have the time and the interest.

Here’s a link to the publisher’s website, a citation for and description of the book along with a Table of Contents, Note: it seems to be available in the UK only,

Using Graphic Novels in the STEM Classroom by William Boerman-Cornell, Josha Ho, David Klanderman, Sarah Klanderman. Published: 30 Nov 2023 Format: Paperback Edition: 1st Extent: 168 [pp?] ISBN: 9781350279186 Imprint: Bloomsbury Academic Illustrations: 5 bw illus. Dimensions: 234 x 156 mm Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Pre-order. Available 30 Nov 2023


This book provides everything STEM teachers need to use graphic novels in order to engage students, explain difficult concepts, and enrich learning. Drawing upon the latest educational research and over 60 years of combined teaching experience, the authors describe the multimodal affordances and constraints of each element of the STEM curriculum. Useful for new and seasoned teachers alike, the chapters provide practical guidance for teaching with graphic novels, with a section each for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. An appendix provides nearly 100 short reviews of graphic novels arranged by topic, such as cryptography, evolution, computer coding, skyscraper design, nuclear physics, auto repair, meteorology, and human physiology, allowing the teacher to find multiple graphic novels to enhance almost any unit. These include graphic novel biographies of Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Alan Turing, Rosalind Franklin, as well as popular titles such as T-Minus by Jim Ottaviani, Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine, Theodoris Andropoulos’s Who Killed Professor X, and Gene [Luen] Yang’s Secret Coders series.

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Foreword, Jay Hosler
1. What Research Tells us about Teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics with Graphic Novels
2. Teaching Life Science and Earth Science with Graphic Novels
3. Teaching Physical Science with Graphic Novels
4. Teaching Technology with Graphic Novels
5. Using Graphic Novels to Teach Engineering
6. Teaching Mathematics with Graphic Novels
7. Unanswered Questions and Concluding Thoughts
Appendix: List of STEM Graphic Novels

Finally, h/t August 20, 2023 news item on phys.org

Leaning Out of Windows (LOoW): An Art and Physics Collaboration (2023 book) in Vancouver (Canada)

Be careful not to fall, is a familiar stricture when applied to ‘leaning out of windows’ supplying a frisson of danger to the ‘lean’ but in German, ‘aus dem Fenster lehnen’ or ‘lean out of the window’, is an expression for interdisciplinarity. It’s a nice touch for a book about an art/physics collaboration where it can feel ‘dangerous’ to move so far out of your comfort zone. The book is described this way in its Vancouver (Canada) Public Library catalogue entry,

Art and physics collide in this expansive exploration of how knowledge can be translated across disciplinary communities to activate new aesthetic and scientific perspectives.

Leaning Out of Windows shares findings from a six-year collaboration by a group of artists and physicists exploring the connections and differences between the language they use [emphasis mine], the means by which they develop knowledge, how that knowledge is visualized, and, ultimately, how they seek to understand the universe. Physicists from TRIUMF, Canada’s particle physics accelerator, presented key concepts in the physics of Antimatter, Emergence, and In/visible Forces to artists convened by Emily Carr University of Art + Design; the participants then generated conversations, process drawings, diagrams, field notes, and works of art. The “wondrous back-and-forth” of this process allowed both scientists and artists to, as Koenig [Ingrid Koenig] and Cutler [Randy Lee Cutler] describe, “lean out of our respective fields of inquiry and inhabit the infinite spaces of not knowing.”

From this leaning into uncertainty comes a rich array of work towards furthering the shared project of artists and scientists in shaping cultural understandings of the universe: Otoniya J. Okot Bitek reflects on the invisible forces of power; Jess H. Brewer contemplates emergence, free will, and magic; Mimi Gellman looks at the resonances between Indigenous Knowledge and physics; Jeff Derksen finds Hegelian dialectics within the matter-antimatter process; Sanem Güvenç considers the possibilities of the void; Nirmal Raj ponders the universe’s “special moment of light and visibility” we happen to inhabit; Sadira Rodrigues eschews the artificiality of the lab for a “boring berm of dirt”; and Marina Roy metaphorically turns beams of stable and radioactive gold particles into art of pigments, oils, liquid plastic, and wood. Combined with additional essays, diagrams, and artworks, these texts and artworks live in the intersection of disparate fields that nonetheless share a deep curiosity of the world and our place within it, and a dedication to building and sharing knowledges.

Self-published, “Leaning Out of Windows: An Art and Physics Collaboration” and edited by Ingrid Koenig & Randy Lee Cutler (who also wrote many of the essays) was produced through an entity known as Figure 1 (located in Vancouver). It can be purchased for $45 CAD here on the Figure 1 website or $41.71 (CAD?) on Amazon. (Weirdly, if you look at the back outside cover you’ll see a price of $45 USD.)

Kind of a book

“Leaning” functions as three kinds of books in one package. First, it is documentation for a six year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), second, a collection of essays, and, third, a catalogue for three inter-related exhibitions. (Aside: my focus is primarily on the text for an informal book review.)

Like an art exhibition catalogue, this book is printed in a large, awkward to hold format, with shiny (coated) pages. It makes reading the essays and documentation a little challenging but perfect for a picture book/coffee table book where the images are supposed to look good.

I particularly liked the maps for the various phases of the project and the images for phase 1 showing what happens when an image is passed from one artist to the next, without explanation, asking for a new image to be produced and passed on to yet another artist and so on. There is no discussion amongst the artists about the initial impetus (the first artist in the stream of four met with physicists at a science symposium to talk about antimatter).

Ingrid Koenig, Antimatter Process Design (detail), 2017. This diagram shows the process design of five different streams of interactions, mapping out routes for 26 artists and 26 physicists, as well as an experimental class taught by Koenig at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. [downloaded from https://canadianart.ca/features/searching-for-the-language-of-the-universe/]

Unexpectedly, the documentation proved to be a highlight for me. BTW, you can find out more about the Leaning Out of Windows (LOoW) project (e.g. participants, phases, and art/science resources) on its website.

Koenig should be congratulated for getting as much publicity for the book as possible, given the topic and that there are no celebrities involved. CBC gave it a mention (May 8, 2023) on its Books: Leaning Out of Windows webpage. It also got a mention by Dana Gee in a May 12, 2023 ‘Books brief‘ posting on the Vancouver Sun website.

Plus, there were a couple of articles in an art magazine highlighting the art/science project while it was in progress featuring the few images I was about to access online for this project.

A January 6, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine by Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig introduces the project (Note: I’ll revisit the “metaphor and analogy” mention in this article and throughout the LOoW book later in this post),

The disciplines of art and physics share certain critical perspectives: both deal with how metaphor and analogy inform creative processes. Additionally, artists and physicists address issues of the imagination, creative thinking and communication, and how meaning is made through theoretical research and process-based investigations. There are also important differences in these perspectives. Art brings an appreciation for abstract or non-representational practices. Physics research addresses complex problems relevant to understanding the study of matter and motion through space and time. Physicists also contribute knowledge about how the universe behaves. Together, the achievements of art and physics allow the possibility of a much richer understanding of the nature of reality than each field can contribute individually.

There’s a January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine by Perrin Grauer featuring Mimi Gellman, Note: A link has been removed,

Artwork by artist and ECU Associate Professor Mimi Gellman was selected to appear on the cover of the current issue of Canadian Art magazine.

The gleaming, otherworldly image graces the magazine’s issue on antimatter —a subject which “presents a mirror world of abstract phenomena: time reversals, mutual annihilation, cosmic rays, cloud chambers, an infinite sea of sub-atomic particles that parallels our ‘real’ world of matter,” according to the issue’s editors.

Mimi describes her work as approaching some of the affinities between the biological, the perceptual, the cultural and the astronomical.

“My drawings do not explore the exterior world we perceive but rather what I call the ‘architecture of consciousness’ which permits us to perceive it,” she says.

“Recalling astronomical diagrams and reflecting the mixture of hybrid cultural worldviews in my background, they reveal deep similarities between the dimension explored by sub-atomic physics and the implicit interiority of contemporary art.”

I’m sorry I never saw any announcements for the project exhibitions, all of which seemed to have taken place at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. There were three concepts each explored in three exhibitions, with different artists each time, titled: Antimatter, Emergence, and In/visible Forces, respectively.

A bouquet or two and a few nitpicks

Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig have a wonderful quote from Karen Barad, physicist and philosopher, in their essay titled, “Collaborative Research between Artists and Physicists,”

Barad introduces the concept of intra-action and the fluidity of materialization through our bodily entanglements—through intra-action our bodies remain entangled with those around us. “Not only subjects but also objects are permeated through and through with their entangled kin, the other is not just in one’s skin, but in one’s bones, in one’s belly in one’s heart, in one’s nucleus, in one’s past and future.This is a true for electrons as it is for brittlestars as it is for the differentially constituted human.” As Barad asks herself, “How do I know where my physics begins and ends?” … [p. 13]

To the left of the page is a black and white photograph of entangled cables captioned, “GRIFFIN (Gamma Ray Infrastructure for Fundamental Investigations of Nuclei- TRIUMF.” It’s a nice touch and points to the difficulty of ‘illustrating’ or producing visual art in response to physics ideas such as quantum entanglement, something Einstein called, ‘spooky action at a distance’. From the Quantum entanglement Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon that occurs when a group of particles are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the group cannot be described independently of the state of the others [[emphasis mine], including when the particles are separated by a large distance [emphasis mine]. The topic of quantum entanglement is at the heart of the disparity between classical and quantum physics: entanglement is a primary feature of quantum mechanics not present in classical mechanics.[1]

Some of the essays

One essay that stood out in LOoW, was “A Boring Berm of Dirt’ (pp. 141-7) by Sadira Rodrigues. She notes that dirt and soil are not the same; one is dead (dirt) and the other is living (soil) and that the berm has an important role at TRIUMF. If you want a more specific discussion of the difference between dirt and soil, see David Beaulieu’s February 23, 2023 essay (Soil vs. Dirt: What’s the Difference?) on The Spruce website.

Rodrigues’ essay (part of the Emergence concept) situates the work physically (word play alert: physics/physically) whereas all of the other work is based on ideas.

In “Boring Berm … ,” radioactivity is mentioned, a term which is largely taboo these days due its association with poisoning, bombs, and death. The eassy goes into fascinating detail about TRIUMF’s underground facility and how the facility deals with its nuclear waste and the role that the berm plays. (On a more fanciful note, the danger in the title of the book is given another dimension in this essay focused on nuclear topics.) Regardless, the essay was definitely an eye-opener.

Aside: The institution has been rebranded from: TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics) to: TRIUMF (Canada’s national particle accelerator centre). You can find a reference to the ‘nuclear’ name in my October 2, 2018 posting although the name was already changed, probably in the early to mid-2010s. There is no mention of the ‘nuclear’ name in TRIUMF’s Wikipedia entry, accessed August 22, 2023.

Gellman and language

Mimi Gellman’s essay, “Crossing No Divide: Mapping Affinities in Art and Science” evokes unity, as can be seen in the title. She’s one of the more ‘lyrical’ writers,

There is a place in our imagination where east or west, or large or small, or any other opposites cease to be productive contradictions. As an artist and educator, I have become interested in the non-binary and resonance between Indigenous Knowledge and physics, between art and science, and between traditional ways of considering cognition and thinking with the hand. [p. 33]

This is how Gellman is described for the January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine, which is archived on the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD) website,

Mimi Gellman is an Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi (Ojibway-Jewish Métis) visual artist and educator with a multi-streamed practice in architectural glass and conceptual installation. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada, and is completing her research praxis PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University on the metaphysics of Indigenous mapping.

She highlights some interesting observations about language and thinking,

The Ojibwe language, Anishinaabemowin, like many Indigenous languages is verb-based in contrast with Western languages’ noun-based constructions and these have deep implications for the development of one’s worldview. …

I suspect anyone who speaks more than one language can testify to the observation that language affects one’s worldview. More academically, it’s called linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I find it hard to believe that it’s considered a controversial idea but here goes from the Linguistic relativity Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

The idea of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis /səˌpɪər ˈhwɔːrf/ sə-PEER WHORF, the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ worldview or cognition, and thus individuals’ languages determine or shape their perceptions of the world.[1]

The hypothesis has long been controversial, and many different, often contradictory variations have existed throughout its history.[2] The strong hypothesis of linguistic relativity, now referred to as linguistic determinism, says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and restrict cognitive categories. This was held by some of the early linguists before World War II,[3] but it is generally agreed to be false by modern linguists.[4] Nevertheless, research has produced positive empirical evidence supporting a weaker version of linguistic relativity:[4][3] that a language’s structures influence and shape a speaker’s perceptions, without strictly limiting or obstructing them.

Gettng back to Gellman, language, linguistic relativity, worldviews, and, adding physics/science, she quotes James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson “a research fellow at the Native Law Centre of Canada, University of Saskatchewan College of Law. He was born to the Bear Clan of the Chickasaw Nation and Cheyenne Tribe in Oklahoma in 1944 and is married to Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw educator. In 1974, he received a juris doctorate in law from Harvard Law School,”

[at a 1993 dialogue between Western and Indigenous scientists …]

[Youngblood Henderson] We don’t have one god. You need a noun-based language to have one god. We have forces. All forces are equal and you are just the amplifier of the forces. The way you conduct your life and the dignity you give to other things gives you access to other forces. Even trees are verbs instead of nouns. The Mi’kmaq named their trees for the sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees during the autumn about an hour after the sunset, when the wind usually comes from a certain direction. So one might be like a ‘shu-shu’ something and another more like a ‘tinka-tinka’ something. Although physics in the western world has been essentially the quest for the smallest noun (which used to be a-tom, ‘that which cannot be further divided’), as they were inside the atom things weren’t acting like nouns anymore. The physicists were intrigued with the possibilities inherent in a language that didn’t depend on nouns but could move right to verbs when the circumstances were appropriate.3

This work from Gellman is a favourite of mine, and is featured in the January 13, 2020 article in Canadian Art Magazine and you’ll find it in the book,

Image courtesy Mimi Gellman. Mimi Gellman, ‘Invisible Landscapes,’ 2017. Conte on Japanese Obonai paper, 63.5 x 48.3 cm. [downloaded from https://www.ecuad.ca/news/2020/canadian-art-magazine-features-cover-artwork-by-mimi-gellman]

There are more LOoW images embedded in the January 6, 2020 article on the Canadian Art Magazine website.

Derksen and his poem

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Theodor W. Adorno, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were unexpected guest stars in Derksen’s essay, “From Two to Another: The Anti-Matter Series,” given that he is an award-winning poet. These days he has this on his profile page on the Department of English, Simon Fraser University website, “Dean and Associate Provost, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.”

From LOoW,

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are well known as materialists, having helped define a materialist view of history, of economics and of capitalism. And both Marx and Engels aimed to develop Marxism as a science rather than a model based on naturalizing capitalism and “man.” … [p. 89]

Derksen includes a diagram/poem, for which I can’t find a digitized copy, but here’s what he had to say about it,

My mode of looking at this [antimatter] is through poetic research —which itself does not aim to arrive at a synthesis but instead looks for relational moments. In this I also see a poetic language emerge from both discourses [artistic/scientific]—matter-antimatter thought and dialectical thinking. For my contribution to Leaning Out of Windows, I have tried to combine the scientific aspect of dialectical thinking with the poetic aspect of matter-antimatter thought and experimentation. To do this, I have taken the diagrammatic rendering of Carl Anderson’s experiment which resulted in his 1932 paper … as a model to relate the dialectical thinking at the heart of Marxism and matter-antimatter thought. …

Towards the end of his essay, Derksen notes that he’s working (on what I would call) a real poem. I sent an email to Derksen on August 21, 2023 asking,

  • Have you written the poem or is still in progress?
  • If you have written it, has it been published or is it being readied for publication? I would be happy to mention where.
  • If you do have it ready and would like to ‘soft launch’ the poem, could you send it to me for inclusion in the post?

No response at this time.

Flashback to Alan Storey

I think it was 2002 or 2003 when I first heard about an artist at TRIUMF, Alan Storey. The ‘residency’ was the product of a joint effort between the Canada Council for the Arts (Canada Council) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC).

I spoke with Storey towards the end of his ;residency; and he was a little disappointed because nothing much had come of it. Nobody really seemed to know what to do with an artist at a nuclear facility and he didn’t really didn’t seem to know either. (Alan Storey’s work can be seen in the City of Vancouver’s collection of public art works here and on his website.)

My guess is that someone had a great idea but didn’t think past the ‘let’s give money to science institutions so they can host some artists who will magically produce wonderful things for us’ stage of thinking. While there is no longer a Canada Council/NSERC programme, it’s clear from LOoW (funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SSHRC]) that lessons have been learned.

Kudos to David Morissey who acted as an interface and convenor for the artists and to Nigel Smith (Director 2021 – present) and Jonathan Bagger (Director 2014 – 2020) for supporting the project from the TRIUMF side and to Ingrid Koenig and Randy Lee Cutler who organized and facilitated LOoW from the artists’ side.

Now, for the nits

“Co-thought” is mentioned a number of times. What is it? According to my searches, it has something to do with gestures. Here’s one of the few reference I could find for co-thought,

Co-thought and co-speech gestures are generated by the same action generation process by Mingyuan Chu and Sotaro Kita. Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2016 Feb;42(2):257-70. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000168. Epub 2015 Aug 3.


People spontaneously gesture when they speak (co-speech gestures) and when they solve problems silently (co-thought gestures) [emphasis mine]. In this study, we first explored the relationship between these 2 types of gestures and found that individuals who produced co-thought gestures more frequently also produced co-speech gestures more frequently (Experiments 1 and 2). This suggests that the 2 types of gestures are generated from the same process. We then investigated whether both types of gestures can be generated from the representational use of the action generation process that also generates purposeful actions that have a direct physical impact on the world, such as manipulating an object or locomotion (the action generation hypothesis). To this end, we examined the effect of object affordances on the production of both types of gestures (Experiments 3 and 4). We found that individuals produced co-thought and co-speech gestures more often when the stimulus objects afforded action (objects with a smooth surface) than when they did not (objects with a spiky surface). These results support the action generation hypothesis for representational gestures. However, our findings are incompatible with the hypothesis that co-speech representational gestures are solely generated from the speech production process (the speech production hypothesis).

It would have been nice if Koenig and Cutler had noted they were borrowing a word ot coining a word and explaining how it was being used in the LOoW context.

Fruit, passports, and fishing trips

The editors/writers use the words or variants, metaphor, poetry, and analogy with great abandon.

“Fruitful bridge” (top of page) and “fruitful match-ups” (bottom of page) on p. 18 seemed a bit excessive as did the “metaphorical passport” on p. 5.

I choked a bit over this on p. 19, “… these artist/scientist interactions can be seen as ‘procedural metaphors’ that enact a thought experiment … .” Procedural metaphor? It seems a bit of a stretch.

A last example and it’s a pair: “metaphorical fishing trips whereby artist and scientists received whatever they might reel in …” on p. 42 (emphases mine). Fishing trips are mentioned in a later essay too, one of the few times there’s some sort of follow through on an analogy.

Maybe someone who wasn’t involved with the project should have taken a look at the text before it was sent to the printer.

Using the words, poetry, metaphor, and analogy can be tricky and, I want to emphasize that in my opinion, those words were not often put to good use in this book.

Moving on, arts and sciences together have a longstanding history.

*ETA October 3, 2023: Ooops! I had a comment about the use of the word ‘passports’ in the book but somewhere in all my edits, I cut it out. (huff)*

Poetry and physics

One of the giants of 19th century physics, James Clerk Maxwell was also known for his poetry. and some of the most evocative (poetic) text in the LOoW book can be found in the quotes from various physicists of the 20th century. The link between physicist and poetry is explicit in a September 17, 2018 posting (12 poignant poems (and one bizarre limerick) written by physicists about physics) by Colin Hunter for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

Going back further, there’s De rerum natura, a poem in six books, by Lucretius ((c. 99 BCE– c. 55 BCE). Amongst many other philosophical concerns (e.g., the nature of mind and soul, etc.), Lucretius also discussed atomism (“… a natural philosophy proposing that the physical universe is composed of fundamental indivisible components known as atoms; from the Atomism Wikipedia entry). So, poetry and physics have a long history.

Leaving aside Derksen’s diagram/poem, there’s a dearth of poetry in the book except for a suite of seven poems from TRIUMF physicist and professor at UBC, Jess Brewer following his “Emergence, Free Will and Magic” essay,

Emergence / An extremely brief history of one universe, expressed as a series of science fiction poems by Jess H. Brewer, June 29, 2019

Inspired by Dyson Freeman’s delightful lecture series , “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe,” Reviews of Modern Physics (51) 1979

1. Bang
Why not?
For reasons known only to itself,
the universe begins
The quantum foam of spacetime seethes
with effortless energies,
entering and exiting this continuum
with a turbulent intensity
transcending the superficially smooth
expanding cosmos
and yet it kens the glacial passage of “time”,
because it waits.
And kens the vast reaches of “space”,
because it watches,
Its own experiences has taught it that
from each iteration of complexity,
awareness will emerge.

… [p. 149]

My thanks to Brewer for the poetry and magic and my apologies for any mistakes I’ve introduced into his piece. I was trying to be especially careful with the punctuation as that can make quite a difference to how a piece is read.

While Muriel Rukeyser is not a physicist at TRIUMF or, indeed, alive, one of her poems leads the essay “Leaning into Language or the Universe is Made of Stories,” by Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig,

Time comes into it
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms..
—Muriel Ruykeyser, Speed of Darkness, 1968

Before getting into the response that physicist, David Morrissey, had to the poem, here’s a little about the poet, from the Poetry Foundation’s Muriel Ruykeyser (1913-1980) webpage,

Muriel Rukeyser was a poet, playwright, biographer, children’s book author, and political activist. Indeed, for Rukeyser, these activities and forms of expression were linked. …

One of Rukeyser’s intentions behind writing biographies of nonliterary persons was to find a meeting place between science and poetry. [emphasis mine] In an analysis of Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, Virginia Terris argued that Rukeyser believed that in the West, poetry and science are wrongly considered to be in opposition to one another. Thus, writes Terris, “Rukeyser [set] forth her theoretical acceptance of science … [and pointed] out the many parallels between [poetry and science]—unity within themselves, symbolic language, selectivity, the use of the imagination in formulating concepts and in execution. [emphasis mine] Both, she believe[d], ultimately contribute to one another.”

Rokeyser’s poem raised a few questions. Is her poem a story? Or, is she using symbolic language, the poem, to poke fun at stories and atoms? Is she suggesting that atoms are really stories? I found the poem evocative especially with where it was placed in the book.

Morrissey takes a prosaic approach, from the essay “Leaning into Language or the Universe is Made of Stories,”

… [in response to Rukeyser’s claim about stories] Morrissey responded stating that “scientific theories are stories—but how we evaluate stories is important—they need to be true, but they do probe, and some are more popular than others, especially theories that we can’t measure.” He surprised us further when he said that wrong stories can also be useful—they may have elements in them that turn out to be useful for future research. … [pp. 205-6]

In general and throughout this project, it seems as if they (artists and physicists) tried but, for the most part, were never quite able to articulate in poetic, metaphoric, and analogical forms. They tended to fall back onto their preferred modes of scientific notations, prosaic language, and artworks.

Both sides of the knife blade cut

Everybody does it. Poets, academics, artists, scientists, etc. we all appropriate ideas and language, sometimes without understanding them very well. Take this for example, from the Canadian Broadcasting’s (CBC) Books “Elementary Particles” August 16, 2023 webpage,

Elementary Particles by Sneha Madhavan-Reese

A poetry collection about family history and scientific exploration

Through keen, quiet observation, Sneha Madhavan-Reese’s evocative new collection takes us from the wide expanse of rural India to the minute map of Michigan we carry on the palms of our hands. These poems contemplate ancestral language, the wonder and uncertainty of scientific discovery, the resilience of a dung beetle, the fleeting existence of frost flowers on the Arctic Ocean.

The collection is full of familiar characters, from Rosa Parks to Seamus Heaney to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, anchoring it in specific moments in time and place, but has the universality that comes from exploring the complex relationship between a child and her immigrant parents, and in turn, a mother and her children. Elementary Particles examines the building blocks of a life — the personal, family, and planetary histories, transformations, and losses we all experience. (From Brick Books)

Sneha Madhavan-Reese is a writer currently based in Ottawa. In 2015 she received Arc Poetry Magazine’s Diana Brebner Prize and was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her previous poetry collection is called Observing the Moon

As you can see, there’s no substantive mention of physics in this book description—it’s just a title. Puzzling since there’s this about the author on Asian Heritage Canada’s Sneha Madhavan-Reese webpage

Sneha Madhavan-Reese’s award winning poetry has been widely published in literary magazines in North America and Australia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 2000, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2002. Madhavan-Reese currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario. [emphases mine]

It seems the mechanical engineer did not write up her book blurb because even though the poet’s scientific specialty is not physics as such, I’d expect a better description.

In the end, it seems art and science or poetry and science (in this case, physics) sells.

Alchemy, beauty, and Marx’s surprise connection to atomism

It was unexpected to see a TRIUMF physicist reference alchemy. The physicists haven’t turned lead into gold but they have changed one element into another. If memory holds it was one metallic atom being changed into another type of metallic atom. (Having had to return the book to the library, memory has serve.)

The few references to alchemy that I’ve stumbled across elsewhere in my readings of assorted science topics are derogatory, hence the surprise. Things may be changing; Princeton University Press published a November 7, 2018 posting by author William R. Newman about Newton and alchemy. First, here’s a bit about William Newman,

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Now for Newman’s comments, from the November 7, 2018 posting,

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

WN: The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy [emphasis mine]. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist. 



The ‘beauty’ essay by Ingrid Koenig was also a surprise. Beauty seems to be anathema to contemporary artists. I wrote this in an August 23, 2016 posting (Georgina Lohan, Bharti Kher, and Pablo Picasso: the beauty and the beastliness of art [in Vancouver]), “It seems when it comes to contemporary art, beauty is transgressive.”

Koenig describes it as irrelevant for contemporary artists and yet, beauty is an important attribute to physicists. Her thoughts on beauty in visual art and in physics were a welcome addition to the book.

Marx’s connection to atomism

This will take a minute.

De rerum natura, a six-volume poem by Lucretius (mentioned under the Poetry and physics subhead of this posting), helped to establish the concept of atomism. As it turns out, Lucretius got the idea from earlier thinkers, Epicurus and Democritus.

Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focused on Lucretius, Epicurus and more, suggests an interest in science that may have led to his desire to establish economics as a science. From Cambridge University Press’s “Approaches to Lucretius; Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura,” Chapter 12 – A Tribute to a Hero: Marx’s Interpretation of Epicurus in his Dissertation,


This chapter turns to Karl Marx’s treatment of Epicureanism and Lucretius [emphasis mine] in his doctoral dissertation, and argues that the questions raised by Marx may be brought to bear on our own understanding of Epicurean philosophy, particularly in respect of a tension between determinism and individual self-consciousness in a universe governed by material causation. Following the contours of Marx’s dissertation [emphasis mine], the chapter focusses on three key topics: the difference between Democritus’ and Epicurus’ methods of philosophy; the swerve of the atom; and the so-called ‘meteors’, or heavenly bodies [emphasis mine]. Marx sought to develop Hegel’s understanding of Epicurus, in particular by elevating the principle of autonomous action to a first form of self-consciousness – a consideration largely mediated by Lucretius’ theorization of the atomic swerve and his poem’s overarching framework of liberating humans from the oppression of the gods.

Fascinating, eh? The rest of this is behind a paywall. For the interested, here’s a citation and link for the book,

Approaches to Lucretius; Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura
Edited by Donncha O’Rourke, University of Edinburgh

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Online publication date: June 2020
Print publication year: 2020
Online ISBN: 9781108379854

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108379854

32.99 (USD) Digital access

It’s a little surprising Derksen doesn’t mention the connection in his essay.


It’s an interesting book if not an easy one. (By the way, I wish they’d included an index.) You can get a preview of some of the artwork in the January 6, 2020 article on the Canadian Art Magazine website.

I can’t rid myself of the feeling that LOoW (the book) is meant to function as a ‘proof of concept’ for someone wanting to start an art/science department or programme at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, perhaps jointly with the University of British Columbia. It is highly unusual to see this sort of material in anything other than a research journal or as a final summary to the granting agency.

Should starting an art/science programme be the intention, I hope they are successful in getting such it together and, in the meantime, thank you to the physicists and artists for their work.

We should all ‘lean out of windows’ on occasion and, if it means, falling or encountering ‘dangerous, uncomfortable ideas’ then, that’s alright too.

Modernizing ‘Maxwell’s demon’ for a quantum computing feat

Maxwell is James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish mathematician and scientist, considered a genius for his work on electromagnetism. His ‘demon’ is a thought experiment that has influenced research for over 150 years as this November 29, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily makes clear,

A team of quantum engineers at UNSW [University of New South Wales] Sydney has developed a method to reset a quantum computer — that is, to prepare a quantum bit in the ‘0’ state — with very high confidence, as needed for reliable quantum computations. The method is surprisingly simple: it is related to the old concept of ‘Maxwell’s demon’, an omniscient being that can separate a gas into hot and cold by watching the speed of the individual molecules.

A November 30, 2022 UNSW press release (also on EurekAlert but published on November 29, 2022), which originated the news item, modernizes the demon,

“Here we used a much more modern ‘demon’ – a fast digital voltmeter – to watch the temperature of an electron drawn at random from a warm pool of electrons. In doing so, we made it much colder than the pool it came from, and this corresponds to a high certainty of it being in the ‘0’ computational state,” says Professor Andrea Morello of UNSW, who led the team.

“Quantum computers are only useful if they can reach the final result with very low probability of errors. And one can have near-perfect quantum operations, but if the calculation started from the wrong code, the final result will be wrong too. Our digital ‘Maxwell’s demon’ gives us a 20x improvement in how accurately we can set the start of the computation.”

The research was published in Physical Review X, a journal published by the American Physical Society.

Watching an electron to make it colder

Prof. Morello’s team has pioneered the use of electron spins in silicon to encode and manipulate quantum information, and demonstrated record-high fidelity – that is, very low probability of errors – in performing quantum operations. The last remaining hurdle for efficient quantum computations with electrons was the fidelity of preparing the electron in a known state as the starting point of the calculation.

“The normal way to prepare the quantum state of an electron is go to extremely low temperatures, close to absolute zero, and hope that the electrons all relax to the low-energy ‘0’ state,” explains Dr Mark Johnson, the lead experimental author on the paper. “Unfortunately, even using the most powerful refrigerators, we still had a 20 per cent chance of preparing the electron in the ‘1’ state by mistake. That was not acceptable, we had to do better than that.”

Dr Johnson, a UNSW graduate in Electrical Engineering, decided to use a very fast digital measurement instrument to ‘watch’ the state of the electron, and use real-time decision-making processor within the instrument to decide whether to keep that electron and use it for further computations. The effect of this process was to reduce the probability of error from 20 per cent to 1 per cent.

A new spin on an old idea

“When we started writing up our results and thought about how best to explain them, we realized that what we had done was a modern twist on the old idea of the ‘Maxwell’s demon’,” Prof. Morello says.

The concept of ‘Maxwell’s demon’ dates back to 1867, when James Clerk Maxwell imagined a creature with the capacity to know the velocity of each individual molecule in a gas. He would take a box full of gas, with a dividing wall in the middle, and a door that can be opened and closed quickly. With his knowledge of each molecule’s speed, the demon can open the door to let the slow (cold) molecules pile up on one side, and the fast (hot) ones on the other.

“The demon was a thought experiment, to debate the possibility of violating the second law of thermodynamics, but of course no such demon ever existed,” Prof. Morello says.

“Now, using fast digital electronics, we have in some sense created one. We tasked him with the job of watching just one electron, and making sure it’s as cold as it can be. Here, ‘cold’ translates directly in it being in the ‘0’ state of the quantum computer we want to build and operate.”

The implications of this result are very important for the viability of quantum computers. Such a machine can be built with the ability to tolerate some errors, but only if they are sufficiently rare. The typical threshold for error tolerance is around 1 per cent. This applies to all errors, including preparation, operation, and readout of the final result.

This electronic version of a ‘Maxwell’s demon’ allowed the UNSW team to reduce the preparation errors twenty-fold, from 20 per cent to 1 per cent.

“Just by using a modern electronic instrument, with no additional complexity in the quantum hardware layer, we’ve been able to prepare our electron quantum bits within good enough accuracy to permit a reliable subsequent computation,” Dr Johnson says.

“This is an important result for the future of quantum computing. And it’s quite peculiar that it also represents the embodiment of an idea from 150 years ago!”

Hat’s off to whoever prepared the opening sequences for this informative and entertaining video from UNSW,

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

Beating the Thermal Limit of Qubit Initialization with a Bayesian Maxwell’s Demon by Mark A. I. Johnson, Mateusz T. Mądzik, Fay E. Hudson, Kohei M. Itoh, Alexander M. Jakob, David N. Jamieson, Andrew Dzurak, and Andrea Morello. Phys. Rev. X 12, 041008 Vol. 12, Iss. 4: October – December 2022 Published 25 October 2022

This paper is open access.

For years, James Clerk Maxwell’s role as a poet has fascinated me. Yes, a physicist who wrote poetry about physics and other matters as noted in my April 24, 2019 (The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute) where you’ll find poems by various physicists including the aforementioned Maxwell, as well as, a link to the original Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) posting featuring the excerpted poems even more physics poems.

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).