Physics on the Fringe

I have a review of Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful new book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything up today at Bookforum. Wertheim has been collecting examples of outsider theoretical physics for fifteen years, and in Physics on the Fringe she considers what drives people to try to piece together the laws of the universe entirely on their own. As she follows the life and work of the “fringe theorizer” Jim Carter, who, like many outsider physicists, rejects math-heavy field theory in favor of his own home-spun ideas, she examines the professionalization of physics, the rise of abstract mathematics, and the oft-ignored question of who has been left behind as we march toward a “theory of everything.” One of my favorite parts the book that I had to leave out of the review is Wertheim’s discussion of Michael Faraday. [Edited to add: a version of my discussion of Faraday is now included in the Bookforum review as well.]

Michael Faraday, experimentalist extraordinaire. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Michael Faraday, the experimental physicist who did pioneering work on electromagnetism in the early nineteenth century, walked the fine line between insider and outsider in a way that is nearly impossible to do today. Faraday grew up poor and began his scientific career as a bottle washer in a laboratory in London’s Royal Institution. Like Carter, he had no university education and puzzled through the mysteries of the universe largely on his own. Unlike Carter, he was eventually regarded as a genius and recognized as one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time. In fact, it was Faraday who first developed field theory after sprinkling iron filings near a magnet and observing the predictable patterns they formed. “Ironically,” Wertheim writes of Carter, “the one major figure in the history of physics whose life story in some respects paralleled his own had been the source of an idea he could not stomach.”

Faraday lived at a time when the boundaries between amateur experimentalist and professional scientist weren’t quite as rigid as they are today, but he, too, felt the sting of being ignored by the academy. It wasn’t until the more respected physicist James Clerk Maxwell turned the results of Faraday’s experiments into differential equations that the physics community embraced field theory, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, the telecommunications industry, home electricity, and quantum mechanics. Ironically, Faraday’s lack of a formal education meant that he couldn’t understand Maxwell’s equations; Wertheim tells us that he “died a hero, but an alien in the world he had helped create,” and it’s easy to imagine him sympathizing with Carter and the other outsider physicists who still feel left out of that world today.

Click here for more information about Physics on the Fringe. Margaret Wertheim also runs the very cool Institute for Figuring here in Los Angeles.


Saying Goodbye to the Tevatron

Welcome to what I hope will be an occasional series: Labs of the Past, in which I take a look at labs or pieces thereof that no longer exist. Last fall, Fermilab shut down its flagship accelerator, the Tevatron, which had spent decades reigning as the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. Fermilab is still going strong and is throwing its considerable weight behind an innovative intensity frontier program, but I wasn’t the only one who was sad to see the Tevatron go. Needless to say, I was delighted to hear this week that data from the CDF and DZero collaborations is still actively contributing to the hunt for the Higgs boson. And in case you need to brush up on the accelerator’s many other achievements, the latest print issue of Symmetry Magazine includes a lovely piece on the Tevatron’s legacy by Rhianna Wisniewski.

I got my start writing about physics as a Fermilab intern, so when it was time for the Tevatron to be laid to rest last fall, I felt like I had to be there to say goodbye. What follows is my account of attending the Tevatron’s funeral on Septemeber 30, 2011.

An aerial view of the Tevatron. The Main Injector can also be seen in the background. Image courtesy Fermilab/DOE.

Approximately seven hours after the Tevatron shutdown, I squeezed out of Fermilab’s Users’ Center bar to head to an Irish wake for what was, until just a few months ago, the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. This being the CDF party, The Drug Sniffing Dogs, the collaboration’s official rock band, had been going strong for three and half hours and showed no sign of stopping. The set list had devolved from what the lead singer called “crying in your beer songs” like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” to dance party favorites like “Super Freak.” I had signed two commemorative T-shirts, one on someone’s body, while sipping Two Brothers’ Atom Smasher beer and munching on homemade cookies frosted with the CDF logo. The whole affair was tinged with the melancholy elation of the night after high school graduation, with everyone desperately savoring the last moments of an already bygone era before truly letting themselves move on to what they hoped would be bigger and better things.

For many physicists, those bigger and better things await them at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which is already colliding particles at over three times the energy of the Tevatron and only operating at half power. Others will be staying at Fermilab to work on the lab’s new intensity frontier program, which involves building state-of-the-art superconducting accelerators to study muons and those potentially faster-than-light neutrinos you’ve heard so much about. Still others are moving on to careers in industry or medicine, while some are retiring along with the Tevatron. But on Friday, all eyes were on the machine that had, for the last 28 years, led the way in the study of the fundamental building blocks of our universe and made the Illinois prairie the best place in the world to be a high energy physicist. Read the rest of this entry »


The SoundLab, Arup

If you are a cool person who knows about architecture and design, you probably know all about Arup. As for me, I only recently heard about what is easily the world’s hippest engineering consultancy. But even I was already unwittingly familiar with Arup’s work, as it is behind several of the most iconic structures built for the Beijing Olympics, the new Lincoln Center, the Seattle Central Library, a few particle accelerators, and even the latest skyscraper being built down the street from my old apartment in Mexico City—just to name a few of its many projects.

Less tangible but no less impressive is the work of Arup Acoustics, which, broadly speaking, helps clients build spaces that are conducive to listening to certain sounds and not others. Despite its impressive list of projects ranging from wind farms to opera houses, the crowning achievement of Arup Acoustics may be eight sparse rooms scattered across the world: the SoundLabs.

The SoundLab in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Arup.

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