Posts Tagged ‘string theory’

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Our dear friend and former Caltech faculty member S. James Gates has just become one of the “cool people” in Washington. He’s been chosen by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Gates is the first African American to hold an endowed chair at a major research university. He’s currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I interviewed him the last time he visited Caltech. You can read or listen to the interview here.

I think President Obama is going to enjoy and benefit from the wise counsel of Professor Gates. I just want to say, “Hey Jim, don’t forget your friends out here in Pasadena. We’re thinking about you. Congratulations. Hope you visit us again some time soon. You can bring your new friend Barry too.”

Caltech has more than just one representative in PCAST. Caltech’s femtochemistry superstar Ahmed Zewail has also been appointed to the body. Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work using lasers to take pictures of chemical reactions occurring over time scales of 10-15 seconds, which is one millionth of one billionth of a second. Pretty darned fast!

Zewail is not only a genius and a darned clever man, he’s been active in the struggle for peace in the Middle East. So congratulations, Professor Zewail! Once again you’ve made Caltech proud.

I love books like a wino loves wine. So I feel pretty drunk every April when the LA Times Festival of Books rolls 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

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’s latest book is The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, his chronicle of the intellectual battles over the meaning of black hole entropy and the ultimate fate of decaying black holes.

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.

Panel moderator K.C. Cole

According to the third panelist, fragrance scientist Avery Gilbert, , fresh oysters exude the same chemical responsible for the smell of pinto bean farts. That’just one of the peculiar things you’ll be able to learn in his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

Whenever we stress out over nuclear proliferation in the news, we’re feeling the legacy left to us by J. Robert Oppenheimer, our “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” His brother Frank left a more peaceful and enjoyable legacy in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a “museum of human awareness” that combines science education with art and just plain fun. K.C. Cole, a longtime friend of the non-nuclear Oppenheimer, drew on letters and extensive interviews for her personal portrait Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.


Happy Birthday, Sir Michael Atiyah!

Sir Michael, showing his enthusiasm for mathematics

Sir Michael, showing his enthusiasm for mathematics

Thanks to Luboš Motl at The Reference Frame for reminding me that today is the 80th birthday of Sir Michael Atiyah, an extraordinary mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on physics.

I interviewed Sir Michael the last time he was at Caltech. You can listen to him here.

I was upset, by the way, to see that Luboš recommends “shoot your environmentalist today” as a way to celebrate Earth Day. If he took himself seriously, then he’d have to wipe out 90% of theoretical physics, including many of the people he admires the most.

The fact is, conservatives like Luboš are a minority in physics. It’s not because of any discrimination, or because conservatives aren’t as good at math as liberals are. Studies have revealed that the brainy people with conservative personalities tend to feel more attracted to careers in business or law rather than academia.

The job of upholding old traditions is one that naturally appeals to conservatives. The job of discovering new knowledge tends to appeal more to people with a liberal disposition.

I’ve come to believe that evolution made humans separate into liberals and conservatives for a reason. We liberals need the conservatives to hold us back from accepting too many new ideas before they can be proven to be good ones, just like the conservatives need us liberals to keep society from choking to death on old outdated tradition.

Global warming won’t be the last debate we ever have, but it’s a debate that I wish I didn’t feel so confident at winning. I love to ski. I hope the vast majority of practicing professional climate scientists are wrong. Unfortunately, I think they know what they’re doing. I think they’re right and I think we need to pay attention to them now, not later when conservatives finally see the light.

Is quantum gravity an oxymoron?

Quantum mechanics forbids a quantum system from being both knowable and objectifiable. But quantum mechanics and quantum field theory assume that the spacetime metric is both knowable and objectifiable. If the metric is not knowable or not objectifiable, then it’s impossible to define a quantum theory precisely. In that sense it seems like the term “quantum gravity” is oxymoronic. String theory demands that the graviton exist, but so far it hasn’t enlightened us on the ultimate resolution of this apparent oxymoron.