‘The Dialogues’ Takes On Physics And Reality In Words And Pictures

Culture Facebook Twitter Flipboard Email Enlarge this image An image from Clifford Johnson's The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson hide caption toggle caption Courtesy of Clifford Johnson An image from Clifford Johnson's The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson The origin of the universe, the nature of space, the reality of time: These are ancient questions. Libraries across the world are filled with heavy books that are, themselves, heavy with equations on these issues. But how many graphic novels are exploring these questions? More importantly, how many graphic novels written and drawn by expert theoretical physicists are there? Well, happily for us all, the answer to the latter question is "at least one," thanks to University of Southern California physicist Clifford Johnson. Johnson's new book The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe is a penetrating exploration of questions — that are both ancient and modern — about the nature of the universe. I found The Dialogues to be compelling, and the use of the graphic novel format only deepened that impression. After finishing the book I wanted to understand more about how this project took shape. Clifford Johnson was kind enough to answer my questions, included below, over a series of emails. Why did you decide to use this format? Once I decided that it was important to me to present ideas in the form of an accessible series of conversations, I realized a bit later that it would be really great to see who was having the conversations: ordinary people of all kinds. Then, I thought it would be valuable to see where the conversations were taking place — out there in the world, in cafes, on the street, etc. So visually, I get to drive home the idea that science is in the mouths of everyday people, and out there in the world, as opposed to Continue Reading

FlashForward: What Did You See?

FlashForward “No More Good Days” September 24, 2009 Ron Tom: ABC Why is this so familiar? Every single year, without fail, some new show is touted as being “The Next Lost.” And every single year, without fail — with one notable exception — these shows fail. Life on Mars, The Nine, Invasion … gone and mostly forgotten. FOX and NBC have been reasonably successful at finding success with the format, but ABC, despite its continued and desperate attempts, simply has not, yet, been able to replicate that special magic that they found with Lost some five years ago. Until now? Shakespeare, or Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, or Martin Luther, and whom you will soon recognize as Charles Darwin or Vivaldi, is in a car accident. Oh noes, Joseph Fiennes! But the thing is, it wasn’t just Joseph Fiennes who was in a car accident. As he pulls himself out of his overturned vehicle, Joseph Fiennes realizes that flight 815 crashed! everyone on the road with him seems to have been in an one enormous clustercollision, a clustlision! (Wait, does that sound dirty? That sounds vaguely dirty.) And to make matters worse, Joseph Fiennes can’t find Dimitri! OH NOEZ! WHERE IS DIMITRI?! OK, so, FOUR HOURS EARLIER, Joseph Fiennes was getting up for his gun job, chuckling at a cutsey note left for him by his wife, PENNEH!, making breakfast for his cuteish daughter, being kind to the help, before leaving for his gun job. Penneh, in the meantime, is worried about someone named Bryce. Bryce, it turns out is out on some pier somewhere which is extraordinarily crowded at 7 in the a.m., and he has a gun. Oh, Bryce. Joseph Fiennes, it seems, didn’t head straight to his gun job, but rather to a sunrise AA meeting, where Mr. Bearded Dude talks about his daughter’s body being returned from Afghanistan and how it drove him to take a drink. I BET. I WANT A DRINK JUST HEARING THAT STORY. Also, and this might be cruel and crass or Continue Reading

Quantum physics trick means we could send information twice as fast

Tech & Science Quantum Physics Information Security Our world is all about information, so perhaps it's no surprise that quantum physicists think about how they can manipulate their field to send information faster. And in a pair of recent papers, a team of quantum scientists have outlined a way to do just that—and in a way that no wannabe spy could ever listen in on. The gist of the technique feels a bit like the famous riddle in which two guards—one of whom always tells the truth and one of whom always lies—protect two doors, one of which hides a tiger. The trick is to always ask what the other guard would say: that way, it doesn't matter whether you've asked the truthful guard or the lying one, you have precisely one lie and one truth in the answer, so you can work backwards to avoid the tiger. The physicists' technique could mean information can travel twice as fast—with complete security. Leon Neal/Getty Images See all of the best photos of the week in these slideshows In the quantum communication scenario, it's not about truth and lies, it's about knowledge and uncertainty between two people. For simplicity, imagine the tiniest message possible, which includes either yes or no, no additional information. Each person knows what message they sent. Traditionally, each person would send their yes or no encoded in a particle of light and the other person would receive it based on how long light takes to bridge the distance between them: two people, two particles, twice the wait time. But here's where the new research speeds things up. Quantum physics means that the same particle can be—as one of the researchers told Live Science—essentially "in two places at the same time." Read more: Can Artificial Intelligence Help Scientists Unravel the Secrets of Colliding Black Holes? That nifty trick means two people can communicate with just one particle of light in which both people have encoded their Continue Reading

A legendary quantum material called skyrmion has shed light on mysterious of ball lightning

Tech & Science Quantum Physics Lightning Scientists have finally succeeded in producing a strange phenomenon they've been hunting for more than 50 years now. Called a Shankar skyrmion, it's a knot of matter looped together by twisted magnetic fields that, just like a giant tangle of yarn, often only gets tighter when you pull on a string. When the team of scientists created this weird structure in a quantum material, they realized it looked awfully familiar: Now they think its secrets might help explain a dramatically long-lived type of lightning. That's all according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances, which outlines the new discovery and its possible implications. An artist's conception of a skyrmion. Heikka Valja See all of the best photos of the week in these slideshows “The biggest moment was when we realized we got the same electromagnetic fields as predicted for ball lightning,” co-author Mikko Möttönen, a quantum computing researcher at Aalto University in Finland, told Gizmodo. “We didn’t aim for that. But wow.” Möttönen and his colleagues started with a Bose-Einstein condensate, an incredibly weird state of matter beyond the traditional solid, liquid and gas. To make a Bose-Einstein condensate, scientists take rubidium gas and cool it way down to just above absolute zero, but in such a way that it doesn't freeze solid like orderly ice. Instead, it becomes a wacky mess of particles all in the same quantum state. Read more: Watch Stephen Hawking Explain What He Thinks Came Before the Big Bang Then, the team applied a loopy magnetic field, which successfully knotted the quantum gas to produce the skyrmion in three dimensions. And by looking closely at the skyrmion, they were able to study its magnetic field—which they realized was exactly what happens in ball lightning. That's a strange form of lightning that forms knots of light Continue Reading

Current Parent: Snow Days Not What They Used To Be

East Granby, East Hartford, East Haven, Enfield. Wait, what? No East Windsor? Ripoff! Such was the life of a child in Connecticut in the 1970s, listening as Bob Steele slowly and carefully listed the lucky ducks getting a snow day. If you tuned in to WTIC-AM 1080 and he was already up to Fairfield and Farmington, you were out of luck. There was no telling when he’d get back to the beginning of the alphabet. As I write this, it’s a snow day. One blessing of being on deadline on a snow day is I can’t be distracted by the Today show, since our local affiliate provides us with all-day all-hands-on-deck coverage of the three inches of snow many of us received. When I tell my kids that we literally gathered ‘round the radio to listen for no-school announcements, I lose all credibility as a progressive mom. We had to get up and get ready for school while simultaneously listening to the radio. But even as a little kid, I didn’t mind listening to Mr. Steele — he liked to talk about how things were spelled and pronounced, just like me. Not too long ago, some brilliant person came up with the idea of showing delays and closings on the bottom of the TV screen. Although it’s not the method most of us rely on today, it was about as monumental at the time as the invention of the wheel. Like most parents, I’m signed up to receive a text from one of the local TV stations if our public school is closed or delayed. My youngest son attends a magnet school, from which we get a text, a phone call, and an email in our choice of languages. His bus driver, I kid you not, even sends me a text. Parents with kids in magnet schools know that figuring out a delayed opening requires a degree in quantum physics: The delay for a particular student depends on where the bus originated, not the town in which you live or attend school. Snow days in the 1970s were essentially an outdoor neighborhood party. We may have used the rotary dial phone to call a Continue Reading

Quantum speed limit may put brakes on quantum computers

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.) Sebastian Deffner, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (THE CONVERSATION) Over the past five decades, standard computer processors have gotten increasingly faster. In recent years, however, the limits to that technology have become clear: Chip components can only get so small, and be packed only so closely together, before they overlap or short-circuit. If companies are to continue building ever-faster computers, something will need to change. One key hope for the future of increasingly fast computing is my own field, quantum physics. Quantum computers are expected to be much faster than anything the information age has developed so far. But my recent research has revealed that quantum computers will have limits of their own – and has suggested ways to figure out what those limits are. The limits of understanding To physicists, we humans live in what is called the “classical” world. Most people just call it “the world,” and have come to understand physics intuitively: Throwing a ball sends it up and then back down in a predictable arc, for instance. Even in more complex situations, people tend to have an unconscious understanding of how things work. Most people largely grasp that a car works by burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine (or extracting stored electricity from a battery), to produce energy that is transferred through gears and axles to turn tires, which push against the road to move the car forward. Under the laws of classical physics, there are theoretical limits to these processes. But they are unrealistically high: For instance, we know that a car can never go faster than the speed of light. And no matter how much fuel is on the planet, or how much roadway or how strong the construction methods, no car will get close to going even 10 percent of the speed of light. People never Continue Reading

How quantum physicists accidentally solved the most iconic Yahoo! Answers post of all time

A fundamental assumption we make about time is that it moves in only one direction—forward. We call this the “arrow of time.” In November, physicists revealed that it’s possible to reverse that arrow using quantum physics. But how did they do it?Let’s begin, as more stories ought to, with this iconic 2010 Yahoo! Answers post. Keep up with this story and more The idea that it's impossible to unbake a cake is a great example of how we view entropy as only able to move in one direction. You can mix those ingredients, no problem. But once you’ve done so, you can’t unmix them. The chaotic energy can only increase and move forward. Or so we believed.The physicists at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil demonstrated that a system can exist in which chaotic energy flows backwards. They showed a cold object heating up a hotter object, as PBS explained. It would be like the ingredients of the cake spontaneously separating and unbaking, a devastating blow to authors of many insistent comments on the Yahoo! Answers post. The physicists’ new system, as the MIT Technology Review reported, contains acetone, which is your standard nail polish remover, and chloroform. The chemical makeup of chloroform comprises one carbon atom, one hydrogen atom and three chlorine atoms—so, CHCl3.Physicists can manipulate the nuclear spins within that system using a technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance, according to the Technology Review. After aligning the nuclei within the carbon and hydrogen atoms with a strong magnetic field, and radio pulses flip one or both. This approach forces them to become entangled, which is quantum physics-speak for basically making them share the same existence. Then the physicists monitor the radio signals the nuclei emit to see how their quantum states evolve.Since the two nuclei are in what’s called “thermal contact,” the heat energy of each Continue Reading

Fusion breakthrough explained: What are quarks again?

December 11, 2017—“Quark fusion” may sound like “Star Trek” technobabble, but a recently confirmed particle could be the result of this process – an explosive reshuffling of some of nature’s smallest constituents. Q: What are quarks again?You’re looking at quarks right now. Magazines, screens, and air are made of atoms, and atoms are largely made of protons and neutrons – which are the most familiar examples of the three-quark bundles that physicists call baryons.Quarks come in six varieties: up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom. Up and down quarks form protons and neutrons, while the unstable and much heavier strange, charm, top, and bottom quarks tend to transform into lighter particles fractions of a second after being created.  Q: What is quark fusion?Fusion describes a general process in which particles recombine to form new particles, because the new particles need less energy to exist than the old ones did.According to a paper published online in Nature on Nov. 1, researchers have calculated the energy savings that would result if two charmed baryons (three-quark bundles including a charm quark) collided and shuffled their bits around to spit out a neutron (up-down-down) and a doubly charmed baryon (up-charm-charm). That energy output was unremarkable, but then the researchers considered what would happen if a similar fusion reaction took place between quark bundles featuring the much heavier bottom quark. “It was a shocker,” says coauthor Marek Karliner, a physicist at Tel Aviv University. The event would release about eight times as much energy as a nuclear fusion reaction.  Q: Does quark fusion really happen?Dr. Karliner’s calculation rests on an observation made in July by the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb) at the LHC, a powerful particle accelerator outside Geneva. The experiment confirmed the doubly charmed baryon’s existence and measured Continue Reading

Nobel Prize goes to French-American duo for quantum physics

STOCKHOLM — A French-American duo shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for inventing methods to observe the bizarre properties of the quantum world, research that has led to the construction of extremely precise clocks and helped scientists take the first steps toward building superfast computers. Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland opened the door to new experiments in quantum physics by showing how to observe individual quantum particles while preserving their quantum properties. A quantum particle is one that is isolated from everything else. In this situation, an atom or electron or photon takes on strange properties. It can be in two places at once, for example. It behaves in some ways like a wave. But these properties are instantly changed when it interacts with something else, such as when somebody observes it. Working separately, the two scientists, both 68, developed "ingenious laboratory methods" that allowed them to manage and measure and control fragile quantum states, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time." Christophe Lebedinsky/AP This 2009 photo shows French physician Serge Haroche, right, and his aide Igor Dotsenko in Paris. Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. The two researchers use opposite approaches to examine, control and count quantum particles, the academy said. Wineland traps ions — electrically charged atoms — and measures them with light, while Continue Reading

Columbia University will ‘review’ weird antics of quantum mechanics prof Emlyn Hughes, who stripped onstage

Columbia University is investigating the antics of a nutty professor who stripped down to his skivvies and delivered a bizarre lesson in quantum mechanics, the institution confirmed Tuesday. Columbia Assistant Vice President Robert Hornsby said administrators “are currently reviewing” Prof. Emlyn Hughes’ off-the-wall behavior during class Monday. Students were bombarded with projected images of the collapsing Twin Towers and Nazi Germany as Hughes stripped down to his underwear and rap music played. The whole incident was caught on camera and later posted on the student website Bwog. During the five minute display, two people dressed as Ninjas blind-folded two stuffed animals and then impaled one with a sword. After, Hughes explained to the class that they would have to “strip raw” and “erase all the garbage” from their brains to properly learn quantum mechanics. “I thought that the 9/11 thing was a little offensive,” said freshman Andrew Stoughton, who said his dad worked in the World Trade Center but was late to work Sept. 11. “I try to take it with a grain of salt, like, okay, it's a personal tragedy for people but it's also a historical event that needs to be contextualized,” Stoughton said. “Walking that line is tricky and I think he misstepped.” On the other hand, Stoughton said, “I was definitely paying a lot more attention than I usually do.” Freshman Jared Greene agreed that the lecture kept him “awake,” but thought the class “might have been in poor taste.” That said, the frosh thinks it’s “misguided” for the prof to get “flak for trying to make a lecture more interesting.” Freshman Mariam Gulaid said she was just confused. “I wasn't thinking about it in an offensive or non-offensive way,” she said. “I was trying to figure out what was going on. “And Continue Reading