The Big and the Small

Modern Physics is an origin story of extremes. Extreme speed. Extreme smallness. It was in these corners of reality that old notions found their limits and new ideas could rise to solve mysteries.

A hot cup of coffee and a cold cup of ice water, observed over hours, teach us about some of the things heat energy does, and in response to that, what temperature does. But what IS temperature? Figuring that out leads us down one of the many roads to the quantum universe.

Seeing the Quantum Universe

It never fails. An optical recording disc, with its numerous small grooves, causes light from a hydrogen discharge tube to spread out in a rainbow. Except this rainbow is incomplete, with only a red, a cyan, a blue, and a violet line. Where are all the other colors? Hydrogen cannot make them. The electron in its orbit around the proton is constrained like a standing wave on a guitar string. Only certain frequencies of its orbit are allowed. Only certain kinds of light can emerge.

The real quantum realm, laid bare with plastic and light and electricity.

A Peek into the Secret City

Four of us stood in the lobby of the La Fonda Hotel. The beautiful space sits just off the main square in Santa Fe. You could almost feel the ghosts of the Manhattan Project walk past as people now sat, perhaps unaware, reading papers, waiting for friends, eating in the restaurant, or drinking in the bar. Here, in this lobby, Dorothy McKibben first spotted J. Robert Oppenheimer at the bar; within moments, he would walk over and hire her on-the-spot for the position of head administrator of the Manhattan Project Office in Santa Fe. Not a 3 minutes walk from this lobby was 109 East Palace, the nondescript and unassuming home of that office. Somewhere in this space, but in the distant past, was the voice of Robert Serber joined with other Los Alamos scientists trying to talk loudly and spread the rumor, unsuccessfully, of “electric rockets” in the near-empty hotel bar.

The modern lobby and bar area of the La Fonda Hotel, with its restaurant set off to the right. The bones of this structure remain unchanged since the 1940s, even while its undergone modernizing renovations.

We were here in anticipation of the start the next day of our short course, “The Secret City: Los Alamos and the Atomic Age”. Our students would be people who had elected to participate in the SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute, a marvelous program that unites alumni, faculty, staff, SMU administration, and others in one place to take short courses in fascinating subjects. These range from golf and wine tasting to presidential history and physics. Here, I recollect some of the three days in which I had the privilege to participate and interact with an incredibly engaged audience.

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The Joy of Pulling things Apart

A clothes dryer heating element, 10 years old and broken

Before I wanted to be a physicist – I mean, really wanted to become a physicist – I learned the joy of tinkering. I am sure it started earlier than when I remember it actually happening (memory is funny that way), the first first recollection I have of fully losing my fear of pulling the universe apart, and putting it back together, was in the basement shop of my grandfather… shortly after he passed away.

Every generation of scientist makes the same observation; it’s so common, it’s trite. “Kids these days,” the observation usually starts, “they lack the courage to get their hands dirty.” I have heard this my whole life, even as I grew up in this field. The truth is, any one of us who got this far – who lost all our fear for dismantling the universe and putting it back together – probably had a mentor along the way.

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