Amir D. Aczel (amirdaczel.com) writes about mathematics and physics and has published 18 books, numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as professional research papers.
A Higgs candidate event from the ATLAS detector of the LHC.
Courtesy of CERN
What made me fall in love with theoretical physics many years ago (in 1972, when I first met Werner Heisenberg) was its stunningly powerful relationship—far beyond any reasonable expectation—with pure mathematics. Many great minds have pondered this mysteriously deep connection between something as abstract as mathematics, based on theorems and proofs that seem to have little to do with anything “real,” and the physical universe around us. In addition to Heisenberg, who brilliantly applied abstract matrix theory to quantum physics, Roger Penrose has explored the deep relation between the two fields—and also, to a degree, between them and the human mind—in his book The Road to Reality.
And in 1960, the renowned quantum physicist and Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner of Princeton wrote a fascinating article that tried to address the mysterious nature of this surprising relationship. Wigner marveled at the sheer mystery of why mathematics works so well in situations where there seems to be no obvious reason why it does. And yet, it works.
Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman on Twitter) is a journalist whose articles and interviews have appeared in Wired, Nature, The New Yorker, and other national publications; have been featured on The Colbert Report; and have been nominated for National Magazine Awards and included in many anthologies. Steve is currently working on a book on autism and neurodiversity called NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently (Avery Books 2013). This post originally appeared on his blog, NeuroTribes.
Photo by Flickr user Noodles and Beef
Your doctor doesn’t like what’s going on with your blood pressure. You’ve been taking medication for it, but he wants to put you on a new drug, and you’re fine with that. Then he leans in close and says in his most reassuring, man-to-man voice, “I should tell you that a small number of my patients have experienced some minor sexual dysfunction on this drug. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and the good news is that this side effect is totally reversible. If you have any ‘issues’ in the bedroom, don’t hesitate to call, and we’ll switch you to another type of drug called an ACE inhibitor.” OK, you say, you’ll keep that in mind.
Three months later, your spouse is on edge. She wants to know if there’s anything she can “do” (wink, wink) to reignite the spark in your marriage. She’s been checking out websites advertising romantic getaways. No, no, you reassure her, it’s not you! It’s that new drug the doctor put me on, and I hate it. When you finally make the call, your doctor switches you over to a widely prescribed ACE inhibitor called Ramipril.
“Now, Ramipril is just a great drug,” he tells you, “but a very few patients who react badly to it find they develop a persistent cough…” Your throat starts to itch even before you fetch the new prescription. Later in the week, you’re telling your buddy at the office that you “must have swallowed wrong” — for the second day in a row. When you type the words ACE inhibitor cough into Google, the text string auto-completes, because so many other people have run the same search, desperately sucking on herbal lozenges between breathless sips of water.
In other words, you’re doomed. Cough, cough!
Joanne Manaster shares cutting-edge biology with teachers working on masters degrees at the University of Illinois. In addition to videos and articles at her website, Joanne Loves Science, her work can be found at Scientific American. She always has time for science on twitter @sciencegoddess.
Luann Lee is a National Board Certified high school science teacher in Oregon. She can be found on Twitter as @Stardiverr and now that her dissertation is finished, blogs about science and education here.
On Wednesday, President Obama proposed the STEM Master Teacher Corps, a new program to incentivize teachers who display excellence in teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or “STEM”). The idea is that 2,500 such teachers would be chosen and positioned in 50 different locations around the country in the inaugural year of the project. According to the White House, these Master Teachers “will receive additional resources to mentor math and science teachers, inspire students, and help their communities grow.” The Master Teacher proposal is a follow-up to his 2010 STEM teacher-training initiative, “Educate to Innovate,” and part of a broader effort to fight the fact that students in the world’s only superpower don’t do so super in science and math, which figure to be so important for our economy in a tech-driven future.
Everyone supports the idea of improving STEM education, but there are some important questions about the program. Most importantly, the criteria for choosing the teachers (and the panel who will determine the criteria) remain unknown, though early hints are indicating that student test scores will be a factor in determining the worthiness of the teachers for this honor, according to information obtained during a White House Twitter chat on July 18, 2012 (the entire chat is here.)
Because the specifics of the program are not yet fully laid out, there’s still an opportunity for scientists, engineers, educators, and parents to speak up and insist that the science taught in schools be meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry as opposed to memorization, drill, and lecture. Ideally, teachers chosen for this honor (and the substantial stipend that accompanies it) must be able to guide students to become masters of inquiry-based, hands-on science. What would a learning environment at the hands of such a master teacher look like?
Emily Elert is a science journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in DISCOVER, Popular Science, Scientific American, and On Earth Magazine.
Last month, CBS Boston aired a story about a man in Massachusetts who caught fire while operating a grill in his backyard. He wasn’t going crazy with lighter fluid, nor was he being careless with propane. No, the culprit was Banana Boat Sport Performance spray-on sunscreen.
But don’t be too quick to blame the orange bottle. After all, this kind of thing does occasionally happen when people spray flammable substances from aerosol cans in close proximity to burning coals. There are, however, other reasons to be suspicious of the summertime mainstay: several recent reports have raised questions about both the effectiveness and safety of sunscreens.
In fact, the National Cancer Institute, a branch of the NIH, declares on its website that studies on sunscreen use and cancer rates in the general population have provided “inadequate evidence” that sunscreens help prevent skin cancer. What’s more, research suggests that some sunscreens might even promote it.
Those are heavy charges for a product that people have long felt so good about using.
Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. His writing has appeared in DISCOVER, Harper’s, Science, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
There was a time when people thought of playing cards as cosmic instruments. Fortunes were told, fortunes were lost, and the secrets of the universe unveiled themselves at the turn of a card. These days we know better. And yet, a look at the mathematics of card shuffling reveals some startling insights.
Consider, for instance, the perfect, or “faro” shuffle—whereby the cards are divided exactly in half (top and bottom) and then interleaved so that they alternate exactly. Most people think shuffling tends to mix up a deck of cards, and usually that’s true, because a typical shuffle is sloppy. But a perfect shuffle isn’t random at all. Eight consecutive perfect shuffles will bring a 52-card deck back to its original order, with every card in the pack having cycled through a series of predictable permutations back to its starting place. This holds true for any deck, regardless of its size, although eight isn’t always the magic number. If you have 25 cards, it takes 20 shuffles, whereas for 32 cards it only takes 5; for 53 cards, 52 shuffles are needed. You can derive a formula for the relationship between the number of cards in the deck and the number of faro shuffles in one full cycle.
Emily Willingham (Twitter, Google+, blog) is a science writer and compulsive biologist whose work has appeared at Slate, Grist, Scientific American Guest Blog, and Double X Science, among others. She is science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.
In March the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the newly measured autism prevalences for 8-year-olds in the United States, and headlines roared about a “1 in 88 autism epidemic.” The fear-mongering has led some enterprising folk to latch onto our nation’s growing chemophobia and link the rise in autism to “toxins” or other alleged insults, and some to sell their research, books, and “cures.” On the other hand, some researchers say that what we’re really seeing is likely the upshot of more awareness about autism and ever-shifting diagnostic categories and criteria.
Even though autism is now widely discussed in the media and society at large, the public and some experts alike are still stymied be a couple of the big, basic questions about the disorder: What is autism, and how do we identify—and count—it? A close look shows that the unknowns involved in both of these questions suffice to explain the reported autism boom. The disorder hasn’t actually become much more common—we’ve just developed better and more accurate ways of looking for it.
Leo Kanner first described autism almost 70 years ago, in 1944. Before that, autism didn’t exist as far as clinicians were concerned, and its official prevalence was, therefore, zero. There were, obviously, people with autism, but they were simply considered insane. Kanner himself noted in a 1965 paper that after he identified this entity, “almost overnight, the country seemed to be populated by a multitude of autistic children,” a trend that became noticeable in other countries, too, he said.
In 1951, Kanner wrote, the “great question” became whether or not to continue to roll autism into schizophrenia diagnoses, where it had been previously tucked away, or to consider it as a separate entity. But by 1953, one autism expert was warning about the “abuse of the diagnosis of autism” because it “threatens to become a fashion.” Sixty years later, plenty of people are still asserting that autism is just a popular diagnosis du jour (along with ADHD), that parents and doctors use to explain plain-old bad behavior.
Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism sometimes known as “little professor syndrome,” is in the same we-didn’t-see-it-before-and-now-we-do situation. In 1981, noted autism researcher Lorna Wing translated and revivified Hans Asperger’s 1944 paper describing this syndrome as separate from Kanner’s autistic disorder, although Wing herself argued that the two were part of a borderless continuum. Thus, prior to 1981, Asperger’s wasn’t a diagnosis, in spite of having been identified almost 40 years earlier. Again, the official prevalence was zero before its adoption by the medical community.
And so, here we are today, with two diagnoses that didn’t exist 70 years ago (plus a third, even newer one: PDD-NOS) even though the people with the conditions did. The CDC’s new data say that in the United States, 1 in 88 eight-year-olds fits the criteria for one of these three, up from 1 in 110 for its 2006 estimate. Is that change the result of an increase in some dastardly environmental “toxin,” as some argue? Or is it because of diagnostic changes and reassignments, as happened when autism left the schizophrenia umbrella?
Amir D. Aczel has been closely associated with CERN and particle physics for a number of years and often consults on statistical issues relating to physics. He is also the author of 18 popular books on mathematics and science, and has been awarded both Guggenheim Foundation and Sloan Foundation fellowships. Many thanks to Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin and to Barton Zwiebach of MIT for their helpful comments.
Readers of this blog have probably heard the standard fare about how the Higgs boson “gives mass” to everything in the universe, probably with some kind of analogy, like the one about a famous person walking through a crowded room, pulled every which way by admiring crowds, and that these connections “make the person massive“—as the Higgs field does with particles. Now that we finally seemed to have pinned down the elusive particle, I want to explain where the Higgs came from and what it does. While our understanding of the particle comes from some complicated math, the formulas actually tell a fascinating story, which I’ll recount in this post. All you need to keep in mind is that in the modern understanding of physics, categories aren’t as starkly separate as you might think: particles can be represented as waves or fields, and a force can also be viewed as a particle or a field.
So, a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe had four kinds of “photons” floating around—the usual photon of light, and three other massless particles that “look” and act just like the photon. We label them: W+, W-, and Z. They are bosons, meaning carriers of force, as is the usual photon.
At the Big Bang, the universe also had one, unified, mighty force called the Superforce ruling it. But a tiny fraction of a second before the era I am talking about, the Superforce began to break down, successively “shedding off” part of itself to make the force of gravity, and another part of itself to make the strong nuclear force, which later would be active inside the nuclei of all matter, holding quarks inside protons and neutrons once these composite particles came into being. The two forces, gravity and the strong force—important as they are—do not enter our main story today.
The remnant we have of the Superforce at the time we are talking about, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, has three forces of nature held together inside it: electricity, magnetism, and something called the weak nuclear force, which later would be responsible for beta decay, a form of radioactivity. You may remember from a physics course that “electromagnetism” unifies electricity and magnetism, as Maxwell taught us over a century ago. But, during the era I am talking about, there are really three linked forces: electro-magnetic-weak; all three are held together as the electroweak force that remained from the Superforce after it had shed off gravity and the strong force.*
In the June 2012 issue of Discover, E. O. Wilson authored a piece with the provocative title, “Is War Inevitable?” Derived from his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, the narrative has a rather simple answer to the question implied in the title: war is inevitable, because it is part of human nature, and, perhaps more provocatively, it shaped human nature. John Horgan, who recently penned The End of War, rebuts Wilson’s argument in a point-by-point fashion in a companion article, “No, War Is Not Inevitable.” I find myself in a curious position: I agree with John Horgan in terms of the conclusion—that war is not inevitable—but not for the same reasons. While Horgan is right that Wilson relies on a particular, controversial group of ethologists to make the assertion that chimps have frequent inter-group conflicts and humans have always had wars, so Horgan leans upon his own preferred group of scholars to make the opposite points. But both of them, I think, miss the crucial part of the answer: the tricky interplay between nature and nurture.
With a strong background in ecology, Wilson assumes a Malthusian paradigm when it comes to human numbers and human resources. In other words, we are subject to a carrying capacity. When there is a surplus of resources population size increase, and “catches up” to the resource base. After a time an equilibrium develops between population and resources. How? The reality is that for solid evolutionary reasons, individuals do not reduce their own reproductive output altruistically. Rather, the population “self-regulates.” In the jargon there is “intra-species competition,” as individuals and groups scramble for finite resources. (There are also, of course, inter-species factors, like predator, prey, and parasites.) The losers die, while the winners reproduce. Each generation is witness to conflicts which check the population and maintain the equilibrium.
Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.
I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.
The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.
But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.