Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

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.”

D-Wave and the first large-scale quantum simulation of topological state of matter

This is all about a local (Burnaby is one of the metro Vancouver municipalities) quantum computing companies, D-Wave Systems. The company has been featured here from time to time. It’s usually about about their quantum technology (they are considered a technology star in local and [I think] other circles) but my March 9, 2018 posting about the SXSW (South by Southwest) festival noted that Bo Ewald, President, D-Wave Systems US, was a member of the ‘Quantum Computing: Science Fiction to Science Fact’ panel.

Now, they’re back making technology announcements like this August 22, 2018 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

D-Wave Systems today [August 22, 2018] published a milestone study demonstrating a topological phase transition using its 2048-qubit annealing quantum computer. This complex quantum simulation of materials is a major step toward reducing the need for time-consuming and expensive physical research and development.

The paper, entitled “Observation of topological phenomena in a programmable lattice of 1,800 qubits”, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature. This work marks an important advancement in the field and demonstrates again that the fully programmable D-Wave quantum computer can be used as an accurate simulator of quantum systems at a large scale. The methods used in this work could have broad implications in the development of novel materials, realizing Richard Feynman’s original vision of a quantum simulator. This new research comes on the heels of D-Wave’s recent Science paper demonstrating a different type of phase transition in a quantum spin-glass simulation. The two papers together signify the flexibility and versatility of the D-Wave quantum computer in quantum simulation of materials, in addition to other tasks such as optimization and machine learning.

An August 22, 2108 D-Wave Systems news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further (Note: A link has been removed),

In the early 1970s, theoretical physicists Vadim Berezinskii, J. Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless predicted a new state of matter characterized by nontrivial topological properties. The work was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016. D-Wave researchers demonstrated this phenomenon by programming the D-Wave 2000Q™ system to form a two-dimensional frustrated lattice of artificial spins. The observed topological properties in the simulated system cannot exist without quantum effects and closely agree with theoretical predictions.

“This paper represents a breakthrough in the simulation of physical systems which are otherwise essentially impossible,” said 2016 Nobel laureate Dr. J. Michael Kosterlitz. “The test reproduces most of the expected results, which is a remarkable achievement. This gives hope that future quantum simulators will be able to explore more complex and poorly understood systems so that one can trust the simulation results in quantitative detail as a model of a physical system. I look forward to seeing future applications of this simulation method.”

“The work described in the Nature paper represents a landmark in the field of quantum computation: for the first time, a theoretically predicted state of matter was realized in quantum simulation before being demonstrated in a real magnetic material,” said Dr. Mohammad Amin, chief scientist at D-Wave. “This is a significant step toward reaching the goal of quantum simulation, enabling the study of material properties before making them in the lab, a process that today can be very costly and time consuming.”

“Successfully demonstrating physics of Nobel Prize-winning importance on a D-Wave quantum computer is a significant achievement in and of itself. But in combination with D-Wave’s recent quantum simulation work published in Science, this new research demonstrates the flexibility and programmability of our system to tackle recognized, difficult problems in a variety of areas,” said Vern Brownell, D-Wave CEO.

“D-Wave’s quantum simulation of the Kosterlitz-Thouless transition is an exciting and impactful result. It not only contributes to our understanding of important problems in quantum magnetism, but also demonstrates solving a computationally hard problem with a novel and efficient mapping of the spin system, requiring only a limited number of qubits and opening new possibilities for solving a broader range of applications,” said Dr. John Sarrao, principal associate director for science, technology, and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The ability to demonstrate two very different quantum simulations, as we reported in Science and Nature, using the same quantum processor, illustrates the programmability and flexibility of D-Wave’s quantum computer,” said Dr. Andrew King, principal investigator for this work at D-Wave. “This programmability and flexibility were two key ingredients in Richard Feynman’s original vision of a quantum simulator and open up the possibility of predicting the behavior of more complex engineered quantum systems in the future.”

The achievements presented in Nature and Science join D-Wave’s continued work with world-class customers and partners on real-world prototype applications (“proto-apps”) across a variety of fields. The 70+ proto-apps developed by customers span optimization, machine learning, quantum material science, cybersecurity, and more. Many of the proto-apps’ results show that D-Wave systems are approaching, and sometimes surpassing, conventional computing in terms of performance or solution quality on real problems, at pre-commercial scale. As the power of D-Wave systems and software expands, these proto-apps point to the potential for scaled customer application advantage on quantum computers.

The company has prepared a video describing Richard Feynman’s proposal about quantum computing and celebrating their latest achievement,

Here’s the company’s Youtube video description,

In 1982, Richard Feynman proposed the idea of simulating the quantum physics of complex systems with a programmable quantum computer. In August 2018, his vision was realized when researchers from D-Wave Systems and the Vector Institute demonstrated the simulation of a topological phase transition—the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics—in a fully programmable D-Wave 2000Q™ annealing quantum computer. This complex quantum simulation of materials is a major step toward reducing the need for time-consuming and expensive physical research and development.

You may want to check out the comments in response to the video.

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

Observation of topological phenomena in a programmable lattice of 1,800 qubits by Andrew D. King, Juan Carrasquilla, Jack Raymond, Isil Ozfidan, Evgeny Andriyash, Andrew Berkley, Mauricio Reis, Trevor Lanting, Richard Harris, Fabio Altomare, Kelly Boothby, Paul I. Bunyk, Colin Enderud, Alexandre Fréchette, Emile Hoskinson, Nicolas Ladizinsky, Travis Oh, Gabriel Poulin-Lamarre, Christopher Rich, Yuki Sato, Anatoly Yu. Smirnov, Loren J. Swenson, Mark H. Volkmann, Jed Whittaker, Jason Yao, Eric Ladizinsky, Mark W. Johnson, Jeremy Hilton, & Mohammad H. Amin. Nature volume 560, pages456–460 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0410-x Published 22 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall but, for those who don’t have access, there is a synopsis here.

For anyone curious about the earlier paper published in July 2018, here’s a link and a citation,

Phase transitions in a programmable quantum spin glass simulator by R. Harris, Y. Sato, A. J. Berkley, M. Reis, F. Altomare, M. H. Amin, K. Boothby, P. Bunyk, C. Deng, C. Enderud, S. Huang, E. Hoskinson, M. W. Johnson, E. Ladizinsky, N. Ladizinsky, T. Lanting, R. Li, T. Medina, R. Molavi, R. Neufeld, T. Oh, I. Pavlov, I. Perminov, G. Poulin-Lamarre, C. Rich, A. Smirnov, L. Swenson, N. Tsai, M. Volkmann, J. Whittaker, J. Yao. Science 13 Jul 2018: Vol. 361, Issue 6398, pp. 162-165 DOI: 10.1126/science.aat2025

This paper too is behind a paywall.

You can find out more about D-Wave here.

The memristor as computing device

An Oct. 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk both builds on the Richard Feynman legend/myth and announces some new work with memristors,

In 1959 renowned physicist Richard Feynman, in his talk “[There’s] Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” spoke of a future in which tiny machines could perform huge feats. Like many forward-looking concepts, his molecule and atom-sized world remained for years in the realm of science fiction.

And then, scientists and other creative thinkers began to realize Feynman’s nanotechnological visions.

In the spirit of Feynman’s insight, and in response to the challenges he issued as a way to inspire scientific and engineering creativity, electrical and computer engineers at UC Santa Barbara [University of California at Santa Barbara, UCSB] have developed a design for a functional nanoscale computing device. The concept involves a dense, three-dimensional circuit operating on an unconventional type of logic that could, theoretically, be packed into a block no bigger than 50 nanometers on any side.

A figure depicting the structure of stacked memristors with dimensions that could satisfy the Feynman Grand Challenge Photo Credit: Courtesy Image

A figure depicting the structure of stacked memristors with dimensions that could satisfy the Feynman Grand Challenge. Photo Credit: Courtesy Image

An Oct. 27, 2016 UCSB news release (also on EurekAlert) by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, offers a basic explanation of the work (useful for anyone unfamiliar with memristors) along with more detail,

“Novel computing paradigms are needed to keep up with the demand for faster, smaller and more energy-efficient devices,” said Gina Adam, postdoctoral researcher at UCSB’s Department of Computer Science and lead author of the paper “Optimized stateful material implication logic for three dimensional data manipulation,” published in the journal Nano Research. “In a regular computer, data processing and memory storage are separated, which slows down computation. Processing data directly inside a three-dimensional memory structure would allow more data to be stored and processed much faster.”

While efforts to shrink computing devices have been ongoing for decades — in fact, Feynman’s challenges as he presented them in his 1959 talk have been met — scientists and engineers continue to carve out room at the bottom for even more advanced nanotechnology. A nanoscale 8-bit adder operating in 50-by-50-by-50 nanometer dimension, put forth as part of the current Feynman Grand Prize challenge by the Foresight Institute, has not yet been achieved. However, the continuing development and fabrication of progressively smaller components is bringing this virus-sized computing device closer to reality, said Dmitri Strukov, a UCSB professor of computer science.

“Our contribution is that we improved the specific features of that logic and designed it so it could be built in three dimensions,” he said.

Key to this development is the use of a logic system called material implication logic combined with memristors — circuit elements whose resistance depends on the most recent charges and the directions of those currents that have flowed through them. Unlike the conventional computing logic and circuitry found in our present computers and other devices, in this form of computing, logic operation and information storage happen simultaneously and locally. This greatly reduces the need for components and space typically used to perform logic operations and to move data back and forth between operation and memory storage. The result of the computation is immediately stored in a memory element, which prevents data loss in the event of power outages — a critical function in autonomous systems such as robotics.

In addition, the researchers reconfigured the traditionally two-dimensional architecture of the memristor into a three-dimensional block, which could then be stacked and packed into the space required to meet the Feynman Grand Prize Challenge.

“Previous groups show that individual blocks can be scaled to very small dimensions, let’s say 10-by-10 nanometers,” said Strukov, who worked at technology company Hewlett-Packard’s labs when they ramped up development of memristors and material implication logic. By applying those results to his group’s developments, he said, the challenge could easily be met.

The tiny memristors are being heavily researched in academia and in industry for their promising uses in memory storage and neuromorphic computing. While implementations of material implication logic are rather exotic and not yet mainstream, uses for it could pop up any time, particularly in energy scarce systems such as robotics and medical implants.

“Since this technology is still new, more research is needed to increase its reliability and lifetime and to demonstrate large scale three-dimensional circuits tightly packed in tens or hundreds of layers,” Adam said.

HP Labs, mentioned in the news release, announced the ‘discovery’ of memristors and subsequent application of engineering control in two papers in 2008.

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

Optimized stateful material implication logic for threedimensional data manipulation by Gina C. Adam, Brian D. Hoskins, Mirko Prezioso, &Dmitri B. Strukov. Nano Res. (2016) pp. 1 – 10. doi:10.1007/s12274-016-1260-1 First Online: 29 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find many articles about memristors here by using either ‘memristor’ or ‘memristors’ as your search term.

2D-nanocellulose and electricity

The 2D trend seems to have swept into the world of nanocellulose materials. An Oct. 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes work in the field piezoelectronics as driven by 2D nanocellulose materials (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from ICN2 [Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology] Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures Group publish in Scientific Reports (“Orthotropic Piezoelectricity in 2D Nanocellulose”) findings providing the basis for new electromechanical designs using 2D-nanocellulose. In a longer-term perspective, the reinterpretation of electrical features for hydrogen bonds here introduced could pave the way in the understanding of life-essential molecules and events.

An Oct. 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more information about this area of research,

In the next coming years nanocellulose (NC) would attract lot of attention from industrial researchers (market value is estimated to be 530 M$ worldwide by 2020)(1). The process of development and functionalization of NC materials is being promising because of their well-known unique optomechanical features and green nature. However, there is still a niche for applications based on NC electric-response. In this scenario, the results published in Scientific Reports with the participation of ICN2 researchers, would set up foundations for new strategies intended to drive novel applications based on 2D-NC with a predicted piezoelectric-response ~ pm V-1. This result could rank NC at the level of currently used bulk piezoelectrics like α-quartz and most recent 2D materials like MoSe2 or doped graphene. The first author of the article is Dr Yamila García, and the last one ICREA Research prof. Dr Clivia M. Sotomayor-Torres, Group leader of the ICN2 Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures Group.

“We are too big” (2). It is one of the main limitations to do nanotechnology as Richard Feynman pointed out in 1959. As a contribution in paving the way to overcome this restriction, it is introduced a theoretical framework for the investigation of electric field profiles with interatomic resolution and thus to understand the fundamentals of the electromechanical coupling at the nanoscale. Remarkably, the mean-field descriptor obtained with the methodology described in the manuscript would also complete the latest definition of hydrogen bonds stated by IUPAC since it is the first effective approach in quantifying the electrical nature of such interactions.

An “atom by atom” (2) understanding of electrical forces managing directional bonds is needed if we plan to engineer materials by means of highly selected nanoscale oriented mechanisms. So then, deepening on the understanding of 2D-NC as a piezoelectric system managed by electroactive and well-distinguishable HB  could facilitate new openings for nanotechnologies  community intended to progress on NC applications, i.e. straightforwardly introducing electronic-base sensing and actuating applications. Looking to the future, areas like molecular biology or genetic engineering would be benefited by the new contributions on the understanding of electrical forces within life-essential hydrogen bonds.

(1) Nanocellulose (Nano-crystalline Cellulose, Nano-fibrillated Cellulose and Bacterial Nanocellulose) Market for Composites, Oil & Gas, Paper Processing, Paints & Coatings, and Other Applications: Global Industry Perspective, Comprehensive Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Segment, Trends and Forecast, 2015 – 2021.

(2) “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of manoeuvring things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.” Richard Feynman, 1959

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

Orthotropic Piezoelectricity in 2D Nanocellulose by Y. García, Yasser B. Ruiz-Blanco, Yovani Marrero-Ponce & C. M. Sotomayor-Torres. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 34616 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep34616 Published online: 06 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Congratulations to Markus Buehler on his Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for advances in nanotechnology

A May 24, 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) news release celebrates Markus Buehler’s latest award,

On May 21 [2016], Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering head and McAfee Professor of Engineering Markus J. Buehler received the 2015 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Theoretical Molecular Nanotechnology. Buehler’s award was one of three prizes presented by the Foresight Institute, a leading think tank and public interest organization, at its annual conference in Palo Alto, California. …

The Foresight Institute recognized Buehler for his important contributions to making nanotechnology scalable for large-scale materials applications, enabled by bottom-up multiscale computational methods, and linking new manufacturing and characterization methods.

Focusing on mechanical properties — especially deformation and failure — and translation from biological materials and structures to bio-inspired synthetic materials, his work has led to the development and application of new modeling, design, and manufacturing approaches for advanced materials that offer greater resilience and a wide range of controllable properties from the nano- to the macroscale.

Buehler’s signature achievement, according to the Institute, is the application of molecular and chemical principles in the analysis of mechanical systems, with the aim to design devices and materials that provide a defined set of functions.

“It’s an incredible honor to receive such an esteemed award. I owe this to the outstanding students and postdocs whom I had a pleasure to work with over the years, my colleagues, as well my own mentors,” Buehler said. “Richard Feynman was a revolutionary scientist of his generation. It’s a privilege to share his goals of researching molecular technology at very small scale to create new, more efficient, and better lasting materials at much larger scale that will help transform lives and industries.”

The two other award winners are Professor Michelle Y. Simmons of the University of New South Wales [Australia], who won the Feynman Prize for Experimental Molecular Nanotechnology, and Northwestern University graduate student Chuyang Cheng, who won the Distinguished Student Award.

I have featured Buehler’s work here a number of times. The most recent appearance was in  a May 29, 2015 posting about synthesizing spider’s silk.

Quantum; the dance performance about physics in Vancouver, Canada (2 of 2)

Gilles Jobin kindly made time to talk about his arts residency at CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) prior to the performances of Quantum (a dance piece resulting from the residency) from Oct. 16 -18, 2014 at Vancouver’s Dance Centre.

Jobin was the first individual to be selected as an artist-in-residence for three months in the CERN/Geneva programme (there is another artist-in-residence programme at the laboratory which is the CERN/Ars Electronica programme). Both these artist-in-residence programmes were announced in the same year, 2011. (You can find out more about the CERN artist-in-residence programmes on the Collide@CERN webpage,

As a main strategy of CERN’s Cultural Policy for Engaging with the Arts, Collide@CERN is a 3-year artist’s residency programme initiated by Arts@CERN in 2011.

By bringing world-class artists and scientists together in a free exchange of ideas, the Collide@CERN residency programme explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson: human ingenuity, creativity and imagination.

See below for more information about the Collide@CERN artist residency programmes:

Collide@CERN Geneva Residency

Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Residency

The Collide@CERN prize – an open call to artists working in different art forms to win a fully funded residency – will be awarded annually in two strands (Collide@CERN Geneva and Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN) until 2013. It comprises prize money and a residency grant for up to 3 months at CERN.

The winning artists will interact and engage with CERN scientists in order to take their artistic work to new creative dimensions.

The awards are made following two annual international open calls and the jury comprises the cultural partners as well as representatives from Arts@CERN, including scientists.

Planned engagement with artists at CERN is a relatively new concept according to an August 4, 2011 CERN press release,

Today CERN1 launches its cultural policy for engaging with the arts. Called ‘Great Arts for Great Science’, this new cultural policy has a central strategy – a selection process for arts engagement at the level of one of the world’s leading research organizations.

“This puts CERN’s engagement with the arts on a similar level as the excellence of its science,” said Ariane Koek, CERN’s cultural specialist.

CERN’s newly appointed Cultural Board for the Arts will be the advisers and guardians of quality. It is made up of renowned cultural leaders in the arts from CERN’s host-state countries: Beatrix Ruf, Director of the Kunsthalle Zurich; Serge Dorny, Director General of the Lyon Opera House; Franck Madlener, Director of the music institute IRCAM in Paris. Geneva and CERN are represented by Christoph Bollman of ArtbyGenève and Michael Doser, an antimatter scientist. Membership of the board is an honorary position that will change every three years.

The Cultural Board will select one or two art projects a year to receive a CERN letter of approval, enabling these projects to seek external funding for their particle-physics inspired work. This will also build up an international portfolio of CERN-inspired work over the years to come, in conjunction with the Collide@CERN (link sends e-mail) Artists Residency Programme, details of which will be announced in the coming month.

To date, Jobin is the only choreographer to become, so to speak, a member of the CERN community. It was a position that was treated like a job. Jobin went to his office at CERN every day for three months to research particle physics. He had two science advisors, Nicholas Chanon and Michael Doser to help him gain an understanding of the physics being studied in the facility. Here’s Jobin describing his first experiences at CERN (from Jobin’s Collide Nov. 13, 2012 posting),

When I first arrived at Cern, I was captivated by the place and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the subject: Partical [sic] physics… And I had some serious catch up to do… Impressed by the two introduction days in which I had the opportunity to meet many different scientists, Ariane Koeck told me “not to panic” and “to spend my first month following my instinct and not my head…”. …

I found out about the 4 fundamental forces and the fact that gravity was the weakest of all the forces. For a contemporary dancer formed basically around the question of gravity and “groundness” that came as a total shock! I was not a “pile of stuff”, but particles bound together by the strong force and “floating” on the surface of the earth… Me, the earth, you readers, the LHC flying at incredible speed through space, without any of us, (including the physicists!) noticing anything…  Stardust flying into space… I was baffled…

Jobin was required deliver two public lectures, one at the beginning of his residency and the other at the end, as well as, a series of ‘interventions’. He instituted four ‘interventions’, one each in CERN’s library, data centre, anti-matter hall, and cafeteria. Here’s an image and a description of what Jobin was attempting with his library intervention (from his Nov. 13, 2012 posting),

CERN library dance intervention Credit: Gilles Jobin

CERN library dance intervention Credit: Gilles Jobin

 My idea was to “melt” our bodies into the timeline of the library. Like time chameleons, we were to adapt our movements and presence to the quiet and studious atmosphere of the library and be practically unnoticed. My postulate was to imagine that the perception of time is relative; there was a special texture to “time” inside the library. How long is an afternoon in a library? Never ending or passing by too quickly? It is a shared space, with the unique density you can feel in studious atmosphere and its user’s different virtual timelines. We melted into the element of the library and as we guessed, our “unusual” presence and actions did not create conflicts with our surroundings and the students at work. It was a bit like entering slowly into water and becoming part of the element without disturbing its balance. The time hypothesis worked… I wanted to do more site specific interventions in Cern because I was learning things differently. Some understanding was going through my body. Being in action into the labs…

It was only after the residency was completed that he started work on Quantum (producing a dance piece was not a requirement of the residency). After the residency, he did bring his science advisors, Chanon and Doser to his studio and brought his studio to CERN. Jobin managed to get rehearsal time in one of the halls that is 100 metres directly above the large hadron collider (LHC) during the time period when scientists were working to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson). There were a number of announcements ‘confirming’ the Higgs. They started in July 2012 and continued, as scientists refined their tests, to March 2013 (Wikipedia entry)  when a definitive statement was issued. The definitive statement was recently followed with more confirmation as a June, 25, 2014 article by Amir Aczel for Discover declares Confirmed: That Was Definitely the Higgs Boson Found at LHC [large hadron collider].

As scientists continue to check and doublecheck, Jobin presented Quantum in October 2013 for the first time in public, fittingly, at CERN (from Jobin’s Oct. 3, 2013 blog posting),

QUANTUM @ CERN OPEN DAYS CMS-POINT5-CESSY. Credit: Gilles Jobin

QUANTUM @ CERN OPEN DAYS CMS-POINT5-CESSY. Credit: Gilles Jobin

Jobin was greatly influenced by encounters at CERN with Julius von Bismarck who won the 2012 Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Residency and with his science advisors, Dosen and Chanon. Surprisingly, Jobin was also deeply influenced by Richard Feynman (American physicist; 1918 – 1988). “I loved his approach and his humour,” says Jobin while referring to a book Feynman wrote, then adding,  “I used Feynman diagrams, learning to draw them for my research and for my choreographic work on Quantum.”

For those unfamiliar with Feynman diagrams, from the Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In theoretical physics, Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of the mathematical expressions describing the behavior of subatomic particles. The scheme is named for its inventor, American physicist Richard Feynman, and was first introduced in 1948. The interaction of sub-atomic particles can be complex and difficult to understand intuitively, and the Feynman diagrams allow for a simple visualization of what would otherwise be a rather arcane and abstract formula.

There’s also an engaging Feb. 14, 2010 post by Flip Tanedo on Quantum Diaries with this title, Let’s draw Feynman diagrams! and there’s this paper, by David Kaiser on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website, Physics and Feynman’s Diagrams; In the hands of a postwar generation, a tool intended to lead quantum electrodynamics out of a decades-long morass helped transform physics. In the spirit of Richard Feynman, both the Tanedo post and Kaiser paper are quite readable. Also, here’s an example (simplified) of what a diagram (from the Quantum Diaries website) can look like,

[downloaded from http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2010/02/14/lets-draw-feynman-diagams/]

[downloaded from http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2010/02/14/lets-draw-feynman-diagams/]

Getting back to Quantum (dance), Jobin describes this choreography as a type of collaboration where the dancers have responsibility for the overall look and feel of the piece. (For more details, Jobin describes his ‘momement generators’ in the radio interview embedded in part 1 of this piece on Quantum.)

In common with most contemporary dance pieces, there is no narrative structure or narrative element to the piece although Jobin does note that there is one bit that could be described as a ‘Higgs moment’ where a dancer is held still by his or her feet, signifying the Higgs boson giving mass to the universe.

As to why Vancouver, Canada is being treated to a performance of Quantum, Jobin has this to say, “When I knew the company was traveling to New York City and then San Francisco, I contacted my friend and colleague, Mirna Zagar, who I met at a Croatian Dance Week Festival that she founded and produces every year.”  She’s also the executive director for Vancouver’s Dance Centre. “After that it was easy.”

Performances are Oct. 16 – 18, 2014 at 8 pm with a Post-show artist talkback on October 17, 2014.

Compagnie Gilles Jobin

$30/$22 students, seniors, CADA members/$20 Dance Centre members
Buy tickets online or call Tickets Tonight: 604.684.2787 (service charges apply to telephone bookings)

You can find part 1 of this piece about Quantum in my Oct. 15, 2014 posting. which includes a video, a listing of the rest of the 2014 tour stops, a link to an interview featuring Jobin and his science advisor, Michael Doser, on a US radio show, and more.

Finally, company dancers are posting video interviews (the What’s Up project mentioned in part 1) with dancers they meet in the cities where the tour is stopping will be looking for someone or multiple someones in Vancouver. These are random acts of interviewing within the context of the city’s dance community.

Vancouver’s Georgia Straight has featured an Oct. 15, 2014 article by Janet Smith about Jobin and his particle physics inspiration for Quantum.

The Higgs boson on its own has inspired other creativity as noted in my Aug. 1, 2012 posting (Playing and singing the Higgs Boson).

As noted in my Oct. 8, 2013 post, Peter Higgs (UK) after whom the particle was named  and François Englert (Belgium) were both awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the theory of the Higgs boson and its role in the universe.

Physics World reaches out with science doodles

A March 2014 special education issue of Physics World features a ‘science doodle’ on the cover. From a Feb. 27, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

In this month’s edition of Physics World, professional “science doodler” Perrin Ireland gives her unique take on one of Richard Feynman’s famous lectures, 50 years after it was first delivered.

The doodle is made up of an array of small, colourful, cartoon-like pictures that merge into one big collage representing Feynman’s “The Great Conservation Principles” lecture that he gave at Cornell University in 1964 – one of the first of Feynman’s lectures to be captured on film.

Here’s what the doodle looks like from the Feb. 28, 2014 Physics World blog post by Matin Durrani and Louise Mayor, and an excerpt from the post,

Richard Feynman lecture doodle by Perrin Ireland taken from the March 2014 issue of Physics World magazine. [downloaded from http://blog.physicsworld.com/2014/02/28/physics-world-brings-feynman-lecture-to-life/]

Richard Feynman lecture doodle by Perrin Ireland taken from the March 2014 issue of Physics World magazine. [downloaded from http://blog.physicsworld.com/2014/02/28/physics-world-brings-feynman-lecture-to-life/]

Commissioned by Physics World for the March 2014 education special issue, which examines new ways to teach and learn physics, this colourful image is based on a lecture by Richard Feynman called “The Great Conservation Principles”. It is one of seven Messenger Lectures that the great physicist gave at Cornell University in the US exactly 50 years ago, a video of which can be watched here or in the digital version of Physics World.

The drawing’s creator is professional “science doodler” Perrin Ireland – science communications specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US – who describes herself as “a learner who needs to visualize concepts in order to understand them”. For people like Ireland, thinking visually or in a story-like way helps them to recall facts and explanations, which can come in very useful when trying to learn something new.

So to find out what science doodling could bring to physics, we invited Ireland to watch Feynman’s 1964 lecture and create a drawing for us – the picture above being the result. Half a century after his lecture, Feynman remains an iconic figure in physics and although we’ll never know what he would have made of Ireland’s doodle, our bet is he would have been amused.

You can click on the image [in the original post] to see it in greater detail, and if you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can find out more about Ireland’s work and her motivations in an article in the digital version of the magazine or via the Physics World app, available from the App Store and Google Play.

For the record, here’s a a run-down of highlights in the issue.

Taking modern physics into schools – Having helped to introduce a new curriculum in Scottish schools that showcases the latest physics research, Martin Hendry describes the lessons learned in bringing cutting-edge physics into the classroom

Feynman’s failings – They were never successful as a textbook. So why, a half-century after their publication, do so many physicists keep Richard Feynman’s three volumes within reach? Robert P Crease has a theory

Computing in the classroom – Computer science is essential for modern physics, yet students come little prepared for it. That may soon change, says Jon Cartwright

The power of YouTube – As one of the presenters of the hugely successful Sixty Symbols series of YouTube science videos, Philip Moriarty describes his experiences in front of the  camera and how they have transformed his ideas about bringing physics to wider audiences

Rules of engagement – Empowering children to look at the world around them with
curious, questioning eyes is the goal of Fran Scott, who describes the golden rules she follows to do just that

Learning by doodling – Do your reams of written lecture notes ever really sink in?
Louise Mayor investigates how visual methods can help you process and remember information

The MOOC point – Massive open online courses give students free access to some of the world’s top educators. James Dacey explores the benefits and drawbacks of these courses compared with those traditionally offered by universities

Thinking like a scientistEugenia Etkina and Gorazd Planinšič describe how research into how people learn – plus the desire to help all students develop scientific “habits of mind” – is reshaping the way they teach physics

We are bound by symmetryMatthew R Francis reviews The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality by Dave Goldberg

Plutopia foreverKate Brown reviews The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kierman

Graduate careers special – Our bi-yearly special looks at the challenges of working abroad for physicists

Navigating new cultures – Working overseas is a common career step for physics graduates, but moving countries can produce a culture shock. Sharon Ann Holgate explains how to manage the effects of cultural differences

Making the right move – Your first steps into the world of work after graduation are an
adventure and working abroad can seem like an especially exciting way to begin. But is it
right for you? Marcia Malory investigates

Lateral Thoughts: But it’s obvious David Pye on strange conventions in physics

Enjoy the issue – and if you fancy trying a doodle of your own, we’d love to see your efforts, which you can e-mail to pwld@iop.org.

The Feb. 27, 2014 news release offers more detail about the doodle, Perrin Ireland, and the art of information visualization,

The doodle, which was commissioned as part of Physics World‘s special issue on education, includes two spaceships passing each other to illustrate Einstein’s theory of relativity, two gods playing chess as a description of nature, and a child playing with building blocks to illustrate the law of the conservation of energy.

Ireland first adopted the doodle technique while studying for a human biology degree at Brown University and it became so helpful that her coursemates began asking for copies of her creations.

For her, and many others, thinking in a visual and story-like way enhances the learning process, helping to recall specific facts and explanations.

Ireland is now part of a growing movement of “information visualizers”, some of whom have been commissioned to “live scribe” at academic conferences to provide more aesthetic recordings of the meeting. Others, meanwhile, have been employed by companies such as Disney to “visually play” with ideas for how they want projects to turn out.

For students wanting to make use of Ireland’s doodle technique, Louise Mayor, features editor at Physics World, explains in her accompanying article that in order for it to be successful, they must try it themselves and not rely on the visualizations of others.

“Everyone’s brain contains different memories and associations, so the best way to take advantage of these techniques is to do them yourself – because when you convert the information you’re trying to learn into images, associations and analogies, you are forced to relate them to the images and concepts already stored in your mind,” Mayor writes.

A PDF of the March 2014 issue of Physics World will be available to download free from Monday 10 March 2014.

I note that while the news release states that a free issue will be available for downloading, the blog posting states that you must be a member of the Institute of Physics, publisher of Physics World, which requires payment of a fee, to access the issue.

Hands, Waldo, and nano-scalpels

Hands were featured in Waldo (a 1943 short story by Robert Heinlein) and in Richard Feynman’s “Plenty of room at the bottom” 1959 lecture both of which were concerned with describing a field we now call nanotechnology. As I put it in my Aug. 17, 2009 posting,

Both of these texts feature the development of ‘smaller and smaller robotic hands to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels’ and both of these have been cited as the birth of nanotechnology.

The details are a bit sketchy but it seems that scientists at the University of Bath (UK) have created a tiny (nanoscale) tool that looks like a hand. From the University of Bath’s Dec. 12, 2011 news release,

The lower picture shows the AFM probe with the nano-hand circled. The upper image is a vastly enlarged image of the nano-hand, showing the beckoning motion spotted by Dr Gordeev.

Here’s a little more about Dr. Gordeev’s observation from the Dec. 12, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Dr Sergey Gordeev, from the Department of Physics, was trying to create a nano-scalpel, a tool which can be used by biologists to look inside cells, when the process went wrong.

Dr Gordeev said: “I was amazed when I looked at the nano-scalpel and saw what appeared to be a beckoning hand.

“Nanoscience research is moving very fast at the moment, so maybe the nano-hand is trying to attract people and funders into this area.

The research group is using funding from Bath Ventures, an organisation which commercialises the results of the University’s research, and private company Diamond Hard Surfaces Ltd, to explore the use of hard coatings for nano-tools, making them more durable and suitable for delicate biological procedures.

I appreciate Dr. Gordeev’s whimsical notion that the hand might be trying to attract funding for this research group.

Nano’s grey goo and the animation series Futurama

You never know where you’re going to find nanotechnology. Most recently I found it in a review of the first few episodes of the animated US tv series, Futurama. Alasdair Wilkins recently offered a few thoughts about a recent ‘nanotechnology-influenced’ episode Benderama. From Wilkins’s June 24, 2011 commentary,

“Benderama” is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: “The Farnsworth Parabox” did this with alternate universes, Bender’s Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and “The Prisoner of Benda” focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn…well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt’s hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

The business about smaller duplicates creating smaller duplicates is very reminiscent of Waldo, the story by Robert Heinlein which according to Colin Milburn influenced the part about creating smaller and smaller hands in Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. From a transcript of Feynman’s talk (scroll down 3/4 of the way),

A hundred tiny hands

When I make my first set of slave “hands” at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of “hands,” and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred “hands” at the 1/16th size.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario was first proposed by K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation. He has distanced himself from some of his original assertions about ‘grey goo’ and there is still debate as to the plausibility of the  scenario.

From a more technical perspective, Feynman, Heinlein and Benderama present a top-down engineering scenario where one continually makes things smaller and smaller as opposed to the increasingly popular bottom-up engineering scenario where one mimics biological processes in an effort to promote self-assembly.

I’m not sure I’d call the science in the episode, ‘outlandish but plausible’ as it seems old-fashioned to me both with regard to the science and the humour. Still the episode seems to offer some  gentle fun on a topic that usually lends itself to ‘end of the earth’ scenarios so it’s nice to see the change in tone.