Eirik Hektoen’s blog

2009-08-06

“A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down” by Robert B. Laughlin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Eirik Hektoen @ 10:40

I have just finished reading this book, with the rather bold subtitle, by a Physics Nobel Prize winner (originally published in 2005, although my paperback from Basic Books is from 2006).

It is a bit hard to know what to think about it.  It starts off with a very strong program, and makes some very persuasive arguments early on, but in the end I am not sure whether it lived up to the expectations. It’s not that I disagree with the author (as a complete amateur in the field of Physics, how could I?) but that the book frequently presents strong claims without similarly strong arguments to back them up.  Instead it often makes some rather general points, or tells some vaguely related anecdote, as if it assumes that the rest of the argument is self-evident or something the reader should already be familiar with.

But, if this sounds negative, I should stress that I nevertheless enjoyed reading it very much (not least due to those anecdotes).

The basic thesis of the book is that the search for the ultimate truth in Physics (and other fields) through the reductionist search for smaller and smaller “elementary” components is mis-guided because the fundamental truth occurs through a process of organization, that is emergence—the main theme of the book—at a higher level.

In Physics this means at the level where you have a largish number of atoms or molecules, such that, for example, the phase of matter—e.g., solid, liquid or gas—is established, and quantum weirdnesses are irrelevant or insignificant.  When the number of atoms is much smaller than this, you cannot really tell if you have a liquid or a gas, and the position and motion of individual atoms are unknowable by the uncertainty principle.  This, and the fact that there is no sharp boundary between these “small” and “large” territories, is well known and one source of the conceptual difficulties with quantum theory.

Well, my understanding is that the opposite of reductionism is holism, which in this case should mean taking in the whole of reality—small and large—in a single unified framework.  In other words, rather than saying the fundamental truth lies at some particular, preferred level, to understand and explain all the levels, from the quarks to the cosmos, and how they are connected, in one go.  But isn’t this basically what mainstream physicists are trying to do, with their search for grand unified theories of everything?

Part of the ultimate truth must therefore be to actually explain this emergence.  How does it come about?  How do the physical characteristics of matter, time and energy transition between the small (quantum mechanical), the large (emergent) and the super-large (cosmic)?  Again, this seems to be a busy research area, though, under the headings of chaos and complexity.

The main value of this book is as a realist, down-to-earth antidote to all the whackier attempts to extrapolate the quantum uncertainties to large-scale effects—such as the “theory” that every time any particle makes a random move under quantum rules the whole universe instantly splits into multiple copies for the different options available to this particle.  The absurdity of such an idea just shows that the extrapolation actually doesn’t work, and that there is therefore something missing in the underlying theory, however well it works in the  atomic-sized domain.

Anyway, the next book I am reading now is Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics“, which, judging by the introduction and first couple of chapters is also going to address the problem with the current state of Physics (basically, that following about 200 years of regular important discoveries, there has been no significant advance since about 1970).  One of the themes stressed early on in this book is the importance of going back to basics, and history, to understand what has driven scientific revolutions (in particular earlier unifications), and to stress the actual, practical importance of falsifiability and other requirements to scientific theories.  I am curious to see where this goes.

2009-07-01

Language Paradox

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Eirik Hektoen @ 10:57

Yesterday I was talking on the phone to a friend called Christophe, who is French and lives with his partner in Barcelona.  We were discussing plans for going to the Pyrenees this weekend.

We met on a Catalan course last year, but, curiously, he also speaks Norwegian from having learnt it years ago.  We have a habit of speaking sometimes in Catalan, and sometimes in Norwegian, depending on which we feel most like practising at the time.

This time it wasn’t clear at first which language we were going to use, but I was feeling tired and a little stressed and because of this I asked him if we could speak in Catalan.

Now, this seems a bit strange…  In Norwegian I am a native speaker and he has a more-or-less intermediate level (but lacking practice).  In Catalan I am on the low- and he is on the high end of intermediate.  Being tired and stressed, I wanted to be sure that I was in control of the conversation.  So, logically I should I have been more comfortable speaking in Norwegian, shouldn’t I?

I think I felt that speaking the language where my level was higher than his, I would say something that he would not understand correctly, without me noticing; whereas speaking in the language where my level was lower than his, any misunderstanding would be on my part, and I would therefore be able to get clarification.

Speaking in the language where I was at a disadvantage meant, therefore, that I was more in control!

(Of course we could just have spoken in English, where I suppose we are both equally fluent, but what would be the fun in that?)

2009-03-14

Second Barcelona Move Anniversary Day, and Brownies

Filed under: Misc — Tags: , , — Eirik Hektoen @ 20:03

Today it is exactly two years since my move from London to Barcelona.

Whereas living in England always felt temporary—even though it lasted for over 19 years—moving to Barcelona was different. Firstly, it was a dream come true. Secondly, I think it feels right to “settle down” now, and Josep and I agree that we will (probably) live here for the rest of our lives. I also have a strong wish to integrate myself here, for example by learning the Catalan language and culture.

All in all, therefore, I consider 14 March as a significant date in my personal calendar, perhaps more important than my birthday, and definitely worthy of an annual celebration.

So… To mark the occasion this year I brought a batch of home-made brownies to work last Thursday! This was a very popular move, and many people asked me for the recipe, so I am going to include it here:

Brownies

A slightly adapted version of Nigella Lawson’s recipe in her excellent book How to be a Domestic Goddess

  1. Start heating the oven to 180°C.
  2. Find a tin approximately 22cm square and line the bottom and sides with baking paper.
  3. Melt 250g butter and 250g dark chocolate (I prefer Lindt’s 85%) together in a saucepan on a low heat.
  4. Beat 4 large eggs, 330g sugar and 2ts vanilla essence together in a bowl.
  5. Measure 150g flour and mix with ½ ts salt.
  6. When the chocolate has cooled slightly, stir in first the eggs, then the flour, and finally 200g whole walnuts.
  7. Pour it into the tin and bake for about 25 minutes, testing with a pin, until it starts to get dry (but is still a little moist) in the centre.
  8. Let it cool in the tin.

2009-03-08

First Post

Filed under: Misc — Tags: — Eirik Hektoen @ 19:08

Just what the world needed, another blog!

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