It’s normally hard to get scientists out of their labs for anything other than food or caffeine, but about 2,000 of them managed to make it to a demonstration outside the British Treasury today to protest the drastic cuts being made to the UK science budget in the name of deficit reduction.
Students of science around the world end up having to learn a lot of British names, like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin anmd Stephen Hawking, just to name three. That’s because UK has produced far more than its fair share of the world’s cumulative scientific knowledge, even while spending less on science per capita than other modern countries.
A scientific community has to be grown and nurtured across many generations. You can’t just add money to smart people and grow one overnight.
And scientists are mobile — they travel very easily from countries that don’t want them to countries that do. The countries that do want them end up more prosperous than the countries that don’t.
Now I have to be honest — there are a lot of British physicists I would be happy to see more of in America. But my pleasure will come at the UK’s expense, and I think the government needs to reconsider this decision.
I love books like a wino loves wine. So I feel pretty drunk every April when the LA Times Festival of Booksrolls around. Critics say we’re all blond and superficial in Southern California. You can see just how wrong this stereotype is when you’re surrounded by bookworms and lit geeks of all sizes, shapes and cultures at the festival.
Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking
As a science geek, I felt morally obligated to attend the Real Science panel on Saturday morning. The panel was moderated by science writer K.C. Cole and featured her fellow science writer Carl Zimmer, odor scientist Avery Gilbert and theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind.
Susskind told the audience he was grateful for the extreme intellectual puzzle posed by black hole entropy, given that his generation in physics was too young to have participated in the great quantum mechanics and relativity revolutions on the Einstein era. Instead they were left to “clean up the mess” left behind by their elders, turning the primitive and confusing subject of relativistic quantum mechanics into the elegant theoretical powerhouse of quantum gauge field theory.
Before I heard Carl Zimmer talk about his new book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, I had no idea that the humble and ubiquitous intestinal bacteria E. coli has won twelve Nobel Prizes in science — which is ten more than any multi-celled organism on record.
What scientists have learned about E. coli “challenges our assumptions about life,” Zimmer said. Despite their apparent simplicity, each E. coli cell acts like a distinct individual. If 747s behaved like E. coli, then two identically built planes would exhibit completely different behaviors when you tried to fly them.
Another surprising and philosophically challenging aspect of e-coli is their ability to organize socially into competing tribes that compete for food and make tribal war. I’ve always thought of war as a human behavior that was learned. If even single-celled organisms can organize into tribes and make war, then the instinct for war is an instinct that is basic to life itself.
There’s a photograph buried in my closet that was taken in the old days of analog photography and has never been digitized and hopefully never shall be. It shows a much younger me reclining on the sand at Club Med in Marbella, topless, as is the norm in such places, holding in front of me a copy of “The large scale structure of space-time” by S.W. Hawking and G.F.R. Ellis.
The sublime Mediterranean sunshine, the water skiing lessons over the glittering waves, the entwined aromas of salt air and freshly caught fish sizzling on the grill — it all went away for an hour or so while I took a swim in Chapter 4 — The Physical Significance of Curvature.
This is an extremely sexy chapter, and not just because curves are sexy. What’s especially sexy about this chapter is the way it begins with the simple idea of the spacetime paths of massive and massless objects, and ends up laying out the basic mathematical conditions for spacetime singularities and time travel.
Now how does this happen? The key to all this is known as Raychaudhuri’s equation, discovered independently by Indian physicist Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri and Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau. This fantastic equation, also known as the focusing equation, tells us when the spacetime curvature of a given gravitational system will force light cones to collapse and form spacetime singularities and when the curvature will keep them from converging, allowing conditions to develop where time travel is at least theoretically possible.
Time travel, water skiing and grilled fish make for quite a day at the beach.
Here’s to a beautiful man and to all of his beautiful books!