Saturday, June 9, 2012

History of Science films of note: Isaac Newton, Zombie Hunter

No word yet on whether Shia Labeouf has been tapped for the role of Isaac Newton.

I guess historians of science like doing historical reenactments, like Captain Cook's 1768 expedition to observe the transit of Venus — but it's important to remember that we don't have a monopoly on doing history! According to The Hollywood Reporter, Rob Cohen, director of first Fast and the Furious and The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, will soon be teaming up with Rocky producer Gene Kirkwood to write and film a new movie based on Isaac Newton. Via The AV Club:
“Cohen's story will focus on Newton's later years as the head of the Royal Mint, with his film casting Newton as a ‘detective’—perhaps one aided by Newton's older partner John Locke, as sort of an Enlightenment-age Lethal Weapon—with Newton devoting himself primarily to hunting down counterfeiters (and, should Cohen show any interest in actual history, slowly falling apart thanks to a system ravaged by alchemy-provoked mercury poisoning). ”
I'm sure that after writing the Principia, Newton needed something better to do, but I kinda doubt that hanging out with a pain in the rear like John Locke was one of them. On the other hand, if this upcoming movie is anything like Troy, we might want to make this required viewing for undergrad SciRev classes — with a shot whenever Newton's heterodox religion gets cut out of the script, or at least whenever we get to see Brad Pitt's pecs.

sources: THR, The AV ClubLists of Note
image credit: National Geographic, The Michael Bayifier

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Transit of Venus

Although we did not travel to Tahiti, several graduate students and faculty members did gather on the shore of Lake Mendota this Tuesday to try and observe the Transit of Venus. Venus passes in front of the sun periodically, with pairs of transits 8 years apart occurring approximately every 120 years. The most recent transit was in 2004, which meant this was the last opportunity in our lifetimes to witness it.

Aside from being a rare astronomical phenomenon, the Transit of Venus is significant for historical reasons. By combining precise observations of the Transit from multiple sites around the Earth, astronomers in the 17th and 18th centuries hoped to use the principle of parallax to calculate the distance between Venus and the Earth. If this distance could be determined, then the distances of all the planets from the Sun could be calculated using Kepler's law relating the period of a planet's orbit to its distance from the sun [video]. That is to say, scientists would finally know the absolute size of the solar system.

Scientists and explorers from Europe and America mounted expeditions to the far corners of the world to observe the transits of 1761 and 1769. This included the famous first voyage of James Cook, who set out from England to sail around South America at Cape Horn before heading on to the island of Tahiti in the South Pacific. After 8 months at sea, Cook and the scientific observers reached Tahiti and established a small observation post. After successfully recording their data, Cook and his crew continued on to explore the coasts of New Zealand and Australia before gradually making their way through the Indies and around the Cape of Good Hope on their way back to England.

Here in Madison, Mike, Florence, and Robin set up two telescopes at the Memorial Union Terrace. However the weather was mostly cloudy as the transit began. A dinner of beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut helped our intrepid scholars ward off scurvy while waiting for the clouds to part.
Finally, about an hour into the transit, we began to see gaps in the clouds and sunlight breaking through in the west. As the sun came into view Mike and Florence quickly re-calibrated the telescopes.
One telescope had a solar filter that allowed viewers to look directly at the Sun and Venus, while the second telescope projected the image of the transit onto a sheet of paper.
As the clouds came and went, we attracted crowds of interested passers-by. People were grateful to have a chance to view the transit, and we all had a blast!

Click here for a full slideshow of the event.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Thin Sheet of Reality: The Holographic Principle at the World Science Festival 2011

“What you’re seeing here is an interesting thing…This whole holographic story is the most radical thing that has happened to our understanding of space, time, matter, since the invention of quantum mechanics and relativity.” —Leonard Susskind

This weekend is the 5th annual World Science Festival in New York, whose mission is “to cultivate a general public informed by science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future.” In five years it has become one of the premier settings in the United States for the public to engage with science — complete with long lectures, panels, a street fair, and spectacular and esoteric demonstrations of science in action and scientists “at work”.

Last year’s program included a cosmology and physics lecture that caught my eye — a panel on the holographic principle in string theory titled A Thin Sheet of Reality, featuring four of the key contributors of this new speculative theory, Raphael Bousso, Gerard ’t Hooft, Leonard Susskind, and Hermann Verlinde. Briefly, the holographic principle states that all of three-dimensional reality can be described as a two-dimensional sheet or surface of information that extends to the limits of the observable universe, what Bousso calls “a universal relation between geometry [surface area] and information” in spacetime. For now, the caveat is that the holographic principle gives physicists an absolute measure of the quantity of information in a region of space, but the exact form and quality if that information is totally unknown — imagine storing a Whitney Houston (RIP) song on your computer, but then losing that MPEG algorithm that tells the computer how to decode the 0’s and 1’s into soaring vocals and black turtleneck sweaters. The goal for Bousso, ’t Hooft, Susskind, and Verlinde has been to resolve the Hawking black hole information paradox — that quantum information about energy and matter is irretrievably lost inside of a black hole — and in so doing present a unified theory of gravitation, matter, and energy.

If all of this sounds absolutely bat-shit-insane, then you should definitely set aside 90 minutes and watch the panel talk. However, this talk is not just an introduction to a physical theory given by any ordinary physics professor, but also an historical discussion of the development of the theory as told by the physicists who came up with it! Seen this way, lots of cool issues that historians of science might call “science and the public” start to jump out. The first thing is seeing theoretical physicists try to describe a non-intuitive theory to a totally lay audience without mathematics: it takes about an hour for any of it to finally make much sense!

Aside from personal tales of how physics works from the inside (like trying and failing to have an argument with Stephen Hawking), the really good stuff comes at the end of the panel, when the moderator prompts Bousso, ’t Hooft, Susskind, and Verlinde to share their vision of where the holographic principle is going, and why it might be important. ’t Hooft’s imperatives especially, to “ask nasty questions,” are interesting in just how basic his demands are: the restoration of causality and determinacy to quantum mechanics, the subsequent elaboration of the holographic principle to account for dynamics and change over time, and perhaps even a “pre-quantum theory” that describes classical, relativistic, and quantum physics in general! Susskind’s response is classic: “I wouldn’t bet on it!”

Go watch A Thin Sheet of Reality here, and afterwards check out this year's World Science Festival schedule. Don't get lost out there!

Additional reference: Bousso, Raphael (5 Aug 2002). "The holographic principle". Review of Modern Physics 74 (3): 825–874. arXiv:hep-th/0203101Bibcode2002RvMP...74..825Bdoi:10.1103/RevModPhys.74.825