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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A peek in the wheelhouse

Is anyone driving the national science policy ship of state? Photo by John Hoey and available from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The U.S. has been without a “science adviser” (technically speaking, a Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP) since the inauguration of the current president. Based on existing records, this is the longest that the U.S. has ever gone without this position being filled (492 days). I haven’t taken a broader look at the state of science policy in the U.S. in a long time, mostly because I have tried to remain entirely focused on research and teaching. Thinking about how this particular executive branch behaves also generally fills me with despair for our nation, so I guess I have also actively avoided it. But sometime, you just have to look into the wheelhouse to see if anyone is driving. Of course, you might learn you are on a big ship on an uncertain path, with no one steering.

UPDATE [June 10, 2018]: The New York Times has an excellent and very comprehensive article on how the Trump administration has almost entirely abandoned the use of science in policy, the use of scientists in science policy positions, and the filling of science policy advisory positions. They make an excellent point: negotiations with a nuclear-armed country demand scientific input (e.g. advice on whether or not de-nuclearization verification procedures are complete and sound), and there is no science advice used in the process of preparing for, or conducting, the upcoming summit with North Korea. Science, as a methodology, establishes the most reliable facts about reality; to abandon science in policy is, ultimately, to abandon reality in policy.

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A View from the Shadows: Confessions of a practicing physicist

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science and especially physics, or to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

When I joined the existing co-authors of “Reality in the Shadows” to contribute to the book, I hesitated. It had nothing to do with them. Jim Gates is renowned in my field for his intellectual prowess, considered a founder of key ideas in the theory of supersymmetry. Frank Blitzer is a talented polymath, with expertise in engineering (he’s literally a rocket scientist), a man who helped put humans on the moon, and a man passionate about communicating modern science to a non-expert audience. In fact, both of them are passionate on the latter.

It wasn’t a fear of writing. A lot of physicists are afraid of writing. They seem to dread the exercise. I embrace it. I know I am too wordy, but I also accept the need for review and editing… so that usually works out for me. I can write fast and revise slow.

No, it was something else that made me hesitate: my colleagues. Writing a book on physics for a popular audience carries potential social and, as a knock-on effect, professional risk for a practicing physicist mid-career. I hesitated because I feared a backlash from my peers, those who frown on writing books for a popular audience. They view it as an exercise in bad analogies, misinformation about the details of physics, and especially revisionist history. In this essay, I explore my fears ahead of taking the dive into joining Frank and Jim in co-authoring “Reality in the Shadows.”

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A View from the Shadows: Tune That Dial to Black Hole

A simulation image, tweeted out by the NRAO, showing what astronomers can expect to see (right) when they crunch the radio data from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

In our book, “Reality in the Shadows,” we devote an entire chapter to the phenomenon of the black hole (“A Shadow Where No Light Shines“). We dealt in things that are known – for instance, that black holes exist and that they can be detected using their effects on the surrounding space and matter – and things that are not known for certain – the mathematics needed to fully describe a black hole, for instance. Black holes are a deep dive. They represent the mass of at least one stellar core compressed into a volume smaller than the nucleus of an atom. Whereas neutron stars are like nature’s largest atomic nucleus, black holes are nature’s heaviest, but smallest, atomic nucleus. This makes them a challenge to modern physics. In a black hole, gravity is extremely strong… but so are the other forces of natures, those described by quantum physics. Yet no evidence-verified union of gravity and quantum physics exists. That makes black holes an excellent candidate to learn what we have not yet learned about places in the universe where gravity and quantum forces are both strong.

One of the exciting things that we didn’t get to include in the book, because it was not yet concluded as of publication, is an ongoing attempt to “photograph” the event horizon of the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, our home galaxy. In this essay, I’ll take a look at this effort and give you some ideas about just how big that black hole is, and why it might be possible to photograph it by tuning into it using radio waves.

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