Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Eppur si muova

Dr. Robert Wilson was a very practical man. He was amongst the pioneers of nuclear and particle physics and developed smaller, cheaper, and yet more powerful particle accelerators and methods for detecting and observing objects that are smaller than light. At the time (1969) nuclear and particle physics was mostly theoretical and it promised no real applications (exactly as the study of electricity was thought to be useless for years after its discovery). As Wilson helped to pioneer the study of nuclear physics and lead in the battle to construct the tools necessary to understand the structure of not just atoms but of matter itself the United States was embroiled in a cold war of ideas about how to spend money and who should sell bread. Much, and by much we mean significantly more than half, of the US budget each year was being spent on building the biggest guns in order to show the then USSR that Communism would never work. Even though the most powerful of the weapons ever made, that at that time were being made by the hundreds (then thousands), were developed from the discoveries of nuclear physics the Congress of the US had reservations about the large investment the Department of Energy and Dr. Wilson wanted to make in a new facility to experimentally study particle physics (0.001% of the total budget that year, but paid out over almost ten years so really 0.0001%).
When Dr. Wilson was called before Congress he explained to the congressmen, as best he could, the fundamentals of particle accelerators and what they would be used for (essentially smacking REALLY REALLY small things together REALLY REALLY hard to watch the sparks). He explained how this facility could probe the very fabric of matter and begin to show the answers to questions humankind has asked since the dawn of history; what is the universe and out of what is it made? But he didn't mention Russia and he couldn't promise new military applications and so Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island had the following exchange with the venerable scientist:

Pastore: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?
Wilson: No, sir; I do not believe so.
Pastore: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.
Pastore: Don't be sorry for it.
Wilson: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.
Pastore: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?
Wilson: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.
(Testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, April 16, 1969)

Dr. Wilson's words contain the truest and most compelling reason to study physics, not just for a people but for every person: to thirst for Truth and seek out the nature of things elevates not just our comfort and our safety but our very selves. Understanding is an end in itself and nothing is more pragmatic than to explore, after all, who can make use of what isn't known or build from things that haven't been found? Would we have satellites or cell phones if Newton had not wondered why apples fall but the moon does not? Is understanding how stars and worlds are born and die only of value when they make electricity cheaper and cleaner or could a curious mind, who knows that planets and people are made from the stuff of a dead star, find something about us, about what we are? Is there nothing comforting or meaningful in knowing that even stars come to an end but in so doing give birth to the substance of life and worlds?
Still, as profound and compelling a reason as understanding may be for it's own sake one cannot ignore the myriad uses which physics (and all the sciences) has brought to us. Fermilab, the particle accelerator which Dr. Wilson planned and defended was built with no expected application in mind except for discovery but in the past 30 years has helped in the development of the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) medical scan, increased efficiency and safety at nuclear power plants,provided information about particle interactions which is now used as one of the tools to measure the health of the ozone layer and outer atmosphere, provided cheaper faster and more accurate methods for producing silicon chips, opened whole and totally unforeseen possibilities for space craft propulsion, and has provided the only source of information known to predict solar activity and solar flares which in the last century were notorious for interfering with or totally preventing radio and television communication. And this is something important and intrinsic about discovery, something we all understand but hardly ever remember; if the discoveries could be predicted then there would certainly be no need to look for them.
The applications of knowledge and new technology are limited only by the ingenuity of the people who choose to use them. It could hardly have been predicted that the invention of photography would contribute much to the development of flight and it all happened because of an argument about horses. In 1872 the governor of California, Leland Stanford, got into a disagreement about whether or not all four of a horses feet leave the ground during its gallop. In order to settle the dispute he commissioned the photographer Edweard Muybridge to take photographs of a horse in motion, but the conventional cameras of the time lacked the speed necessary to accomplish the task. Muybridge solved the problem by arranging several cameras in a line which were triggered by chords stretched across the path of the horse. These striking photographs, which showed that all four feet of a horse do indeed leave the ground at once, were seen by the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey who was fascinated for much of his life in flight. Struck by the idea of photographing an animal in motion this physiologist who had discovered already that the wings of an insect take an elliptical path finally found a means by which the flight of a bird could finally be known. Making use of the newly developed gun camera (as opposed to the far more threatening camera gun) he photographed birds in flight which culminated in his writing the perennial work on avian flight, “Le Vol des Oiseaux” (The Flight of Birds). This work provided not only inspiration but badly needed data to a pair of American brothers who would prove themselves right and that their “heavier than air flying machine” would work.
We can only ever see by looking and it is here that physics has the most to offer an individual. Physics is nothing less than learning how to see the future by properly observing what is happening now. It shattered the perspectives of the western mind when Newton declared to the world that no matter what stone you threw or how you threw it he could tell you not only where it would land and at what speed but he could tell you its location and speed at every moment in time after that. Newton's laws told us more than simply how to locate objects in space but set into motion a means of beginning to understand what those objects were and even what space itself might be. Physics presumes to be, and has thus far found no failure which hasn't helped it grow, a description of everything that physically exists. This does not simply stop being true when we step up from stones and begin to speak about the motions of people, the structures of the brain, or even the mechanisms by which cells carry out the business of being life and cooperating together to building plants, animals, and all of us. Physics is a toolbox that people like you and I have spent whole lifetimes of work building, taking into itself the tools of mathematics and logic, of observation and precision, of learning from error, and these tools teach us how to observe and know not just inanimate things but everything that is. These tools that built bridges across distances called epic and then to the moon have also been used, by clever minds, to see better how the things of man are also described by watching nature. Techniques which were used to explain how things are hot and why they are different from things that are cold are now used to model traffic patterns and occur to me more than once when I dart my way through a concert crowd. Methods that were developed to solve the once unsolvable problems of relativity are now used to minimize distances in complex systems (like trying to determine which series of plains will get a traveling salesman home the fastest and cheapest). And more than one impossible question in mathematics has been answered by an exhausted but curious physics student who couldn't be bothered to find out it couldn't be done (and deference where its due, revolutions coming from exhausted but curious students -and hobbyists- of math have humbled and exalted us all).
It was when the arts and sciences first began to cross over that Europe woke to it's most significant portion of one of humankind's many a renaissance. Leonardo de Vinci used his skills as an artist to bring about the beginnings of modern engineering and anatomy. The discovery of perspective, which arose because of extensive studies of Euclid's geometry, provided the means to bring a whole new dimension to the visual arts. The Futurists and Dada were, partially, a response to the counterintuitive ideas of quantum mechanics and relativity while at the same time much of the geometrical theory of special relativity itself was declared, abstractly, in H. G. Wells' book “The Time Machine”, published a decade before Einstein finished his perennial work. Jorge Borges, the Argentine genius of Spanish magical realism who taught and went blind at UT, was intimately familiar with the profound consequences of quantum mechanics and the Earth shattering ramifications of mathematician Kurt Godel's proof that an infinite language cannot ever express the fullness of truth.
More often than not knowledge is presented in shards, as if something impenetrable had struck and shattered truth and beauty, but it simply isn't so. Knowledge and truth, appreciation and beauty, is only a single thing with myriad pieces and angles by which to be seen. Its a thing I learned one day while reading a paper entitled “An Introduction to Loop Quantum Gravity in the Canonical Ashetekar Formulation of General Relativity”, reality is just a single thing all mixed together without any distinction between objects; the fractures that are the diversity of objects in the universe are just beautiful illusions.

The wise walk around with eyes in their head,
seeing truth in everything, while fools fumble
in the darkness. -Ecclesiastes

I blame thee not to look and seek,
for the heavens are as the book of
God before thee set, to learn his hours,
days, and seasons. - Milton, Paradise Lost

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I have looked through the lens of physics to behold the very moments of creation and in them seen glimpses of the mind of God. The nowhere that was everything exploded into (not penetrating but becoming) reality itself, time and place and all thats in it, because of some sudden uncertainty about its inexistence. Before there was time, which is change and the chaos that makes life, something changed. Inside of no place, where there are no locations and every distance is zero, is the universe stretched across lengths that shame and humble the mind that conceives to picture them.
We dwell in a place where everything is remembered but not all information exists. Not one cause or action, however small, is ever lost or forgotten.