Monday, 2 August 2010

Energy, the Subtle Concept

Elusive Stuff

Energy, the Subtle Concept: The Discovery of Feynman’s Blocks from Leibniz to Einstein by Jennifer Coopersmith

New Scientist, 17 July 2010

MOST of us have a vague idea of what energy is, if only because we have to pay for it. We know that it is the E in Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, and all of us have an opinion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy. For William Blake's devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, energy was "eternal delight", yet Newton never fully appreciated the importance of a concept that was rarely used until the 19th century.

So, what is energy? Easy to ask the question but, as Jennifer Coopersmith shows in Energy, the Subtle Concept, finding the answer was a messy and tangled affair, involving plenty of argument and controversy. It's a tale of persecuted genius, of royal patronage, of social climbers and dreamers, of rich men and poor men, a foundling, entrepreneurs and industrialists, lawyers, engineers, a taxman, a spy and a brewer. Some were showered with honours, others neglected until long after death.

The concept of energy is hard to grasp because it is something that cannot be directly observed. It was only in the early 19th century that it was even recognised as a distinct physical quantity. Since then it has played a vital role in the development of science and technology. Its importance lies in the fact that it possesses the very rare property of being preserved. Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another. So fundamental is this property to nature that it is enshrined, in more sober scientific terms, as the first law of thermodynamics.

The first step on the long road to understanding the true nature of this relationship had been taken in the 1800s by Benjamin Thompson, an Anglo-American physicist, inventor and soldier of fortune. While supervising the boring of new cannons Thompson realised that heat might be a form of motion rather than a special weightless substance called "caloric". Most remained unconvinced, largely because Thompson was a notorious opportunist and spy. The turning point came in the form of experiments performed, in the 1840s, by English brewer and amateur scientist James Prescott Joule, who introduced the term thermodynamics.

The conservation of energy is arguably the most important law in physics. But what exactly is being conserved? Are some forms of energy more fundamental than others? You will have to read the book to find out. Coopersmith sets out to answer such questions and to explain the concept of energy through the history of its discovery. This is neither a straightforward narrative nor one for the faint-hearted. Those not put off by the odd bit of mathematics, will be well-rewarded by dipping into this book.

The Edge of Reason

Extreme Physics, Extreme Pilgrim

The Edge of Reason: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology

Tehelka, 17 July 2010

Anatole France said that wandering reestablishes the original harmony that once existed between man and the universe — a particularly apt aim for a traveller trying to explain cosmology.

Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Edge of Reason is an elegant, genre-defying book that’s part travelogue, part popular science. It has come from his journeys to some of the most remarkable and delicate scientific experiments in the world. In Siberia, Ananthaswamy, the consulting editor at the popular science magazine, New Scientist, visited Lake Baikal Neutrino Telescope, which uses the world’s largest freshwater lake to detect neutrinos — ghostlike particles that pass through matter easier than a knife through butter, carrying information about the furthest reaches of the cosmos. At the Large Hadron Collider, the underground scientific cathedral near Geneva, he writes of how physicists are smashing protons into each other at energies replicating the early universe — hoping that the debris will reveal a telltale sign of ‘the God particle’ — the Higgs boson, physics’ answer to why there’s mass in the universe. At the South Pole he was stunned with “the sheer audacity of the IceCube telescope — searching for outer space neutrinos smashing into a cubic kilometre of clear Antarctic Ice”. But even extreme physics took on new meaning, admits Ananthaswamy, when he spent a surreal month in Antarctica. “Nothing in your experience prepares you for a continent of ice where there’s neither vegetation nor trees.”

In person, the London-based writer, 46, is soft- spoken and bespectacled. Born in the small town of Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, Ananthaswamy studied engineering at IIT Madras and did a Master’s in the US. He returned to India to work for a software company that soon shipped him to Silicon Valley. Though the money was great during his 12 years there, life was “emotionally unsatisfying”. He decided to pursue a long-held desire to write. He threw up the high-paying job and eventually headed to London for a much sought-after post at the New Scientist.

Two years later, he embarked on his travels to seek the unsung heroes of science and found himself in desolate deserts, derelict mines, standing on mountaintops and even at the bottom of the world. “It’s not enough to point telescopes from local mountains or conduct lab experiments to understand dark matter and dark energy,” he says of these sites, “There’s something that links all these places — they strip off the unnecessary and leave only the essence to ponder.”

At a Christian monastery near California’s Mount Wilson Observatory, he sensed how similar the monks were to cosmologists. “If solitude and silence engender creativity,” he muses, “then it behoves us to protect not just our own solitude but of nature’s as a whole. If we pollute pristine places like Lake Baikal, we’ll deny ourselves any chance of deciphering our own beginnings.” His book is an eloquent description of a scientific pilgrim’s search for this solitary understanding.

Click the page to view the original article.

Seven Wonders of the Industrial World

Blood, sweat and imagination

Seven Wonders of the Industrial World
by Deborah Cadbury

The Guardian, 8 November 2003

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria. These were the seven wonders of the ancient world. The list was drawn up in the Middle Ages with probably as much rancour surrounding it as any team selection by Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Only the Great Pyramid, built around 2560BC, has survived. It is unlikely that any of Deborah Cadbury's seven wonders of the industrial world will last as long. Her magnificent seven are: the Great Eastern, the Bell Rock Lighthouse, Brooklyn Bridge, the London sewers, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam.

In fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern was sold for scrap within 30 years of being launched in 1859. Dubbed the "Crystal Palace of the Seas", it was almost 700ft long, made of iron and held together by three million rivets. On her maiden voyage to New York, the Great Eastern had on board only 38 passengers and a crew of 418. It was designed to carry 4,000 passengers in luxury all the way to Australia, but a catalogue of disasters and the opening of the Suez Canal turned the Great Eastern into a giant white elephant.

While Brunel was busy building his "great ship" on the Isle of Dogs, London was drowning in a sea of excrement as the city's 200,000 cesspits overflowed. By 1854, three outbreaks of cholera had left 30,000 dead. Something had to be done, but only after the "great stink" had forced MPs to flee both parliament and the city in fear of their lives. Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed an ambitious scheme to build an underground network that linked London's 1,000 miles of street-level sewers. The sewage system took 12 years to complete, and as London breathed easier, it was hailed by the Observer, in 1861, as "the most extensive and wonderful work of modern times".

The London sewers may seem like an odd choice, but Cadbury's selection reflects her desire to tell the story of how the modern world was forged "in blood, sweat, and human imagination". There was plenty of all three.

With the exception of the Hoover Dam - constructed during the height of the depression, when poverty-stricken workers died building it ahead of schedule and under budget for a few dollars a day - Cadbury's wonders are products of the industrial revolution, when a worker's life was even cheaper.

None cost more in lives than the Panama Canal, begun by the French in 1880. Within 10 years, the jungle, swamps and tropical diseases had left more than 20,000 dead. But what really mattered to investors was the $280m lost by the time the canal company was declared bankrupt. It was the largest financial collapse of the 19th century and led to the downfall of the French government. Work only started again in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt realised that a canal was vital for US naval supremacy. The Americans would take 12 years, and another 5,000 lives, before the "longest 50 miles in history" was complete.

Cadbury's earliest and smallest wonder was built during the Napoleonic wars. In 1807, Robert Stevenson started work on the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the east coast of Scotland. The Bell Rock, a large reef 11 miles out to sea, had claimed countless lives as it "breathed abroad an atmosphere of terror". The main problem Stevenson faced was the fact that the Bell Rock lies 16ft beneath the sea for all but three hours of each day. It took four years, more than 2,500 tonnes of stone, and a brave team of men, who received 20 shillings a week, to banish "the blackness enveloping the terrible power of the Bell Rock".

Whereas Stevenson and his men toiled above the water, Washington Roebling faced a mysterious new disease, which his men nicknamed "the bends", as they laboured beneath the East River that divides New York and Brooklyn. Roebling's father, John, had designed the Brooklyn Bridge to connect America's two fastest-growing cities, but died in an accident before work began. It was left to his son to oversee the construction of what would be the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Only three years into the project, Roebling suffered a terrible case of the bends. Lucky to survive, he was too weak to leave his house and had to continue working on the bridge by dictating his instructions to his wife. When the bridge opened in 1883, after 14 years of labour, with the loss of 20 men, Roebling could only watch from his bedroom window.

While "practical visionaries" such as Brunel, Stevenson and Roebling may have been "taking risks and taking society with them as they cut a path to the future", Cadbury never forgets those risking their lives just to survive. What makes this book a compelling read is the heroism and desperation of ordinary men.

Faster Than the Speed of Light

Summing up the universe

Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
by João Magueijo

The Guardian, 29 March 2003

John Dryden's poem "Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders", 1666, celebrated the Royal Navy's victory over the Dutch and the failure of the great fire of London to consume the entire city. Yet as significant as these events were, they pale in comparison to one of the true high points of human achievement that occurred during that same year: the 24-year-old Isaac Newton laid the foundations of calculus and the theory of gravity, and outlined his theory of light. Only one other year and one other scientist bear comparison with Newton and his annus mirabilis .

Albert Einstein's "miraculous year" was 1905. The unknown 26-year-old patent clerk produced - in breathtaking succession - the special theory of relativity, the quantum theory of light and a convincing argument for the existence of atoms. As preparations for the centennial celebrations get under way, João Magueijo has written a gripping, no-holds-barred account of his challenge to one of the central tenets of relativity and its implications for our understanding of how the universe works.

That the universe began with a "big bang" is something that most of us now accept without question, yet there remain puzzling features about the universe that the big bang theory cannot explain. Why does the universe look the same over such vast distances? Why is it so large? Why does it have the shape it has? Why does the universe exist at all? For years cosmologists have been looking at the infant universe for "clues to its adult behaviour".

Some of these questions, Magueijo realised, could be answered if he broke just one golden rule. It was a simple solution to the cosmological problems, but it presented him with a problem of his own. For his answer "involved something that for a trained scientist approaches madness". What Magueijo proposed was that light travelled faster in the infant universe than it does now. In doing so, he risked "career suicide" by questioning the validity of a perhaps the most fundamental rule of modern physics: that the speed of light is a constant.

Magueijo, a reader in theoretical physics at Imperial College, London, is no madman. But some have called him a heretic and dismissed his theory. After all the constancy of the speed of light is, as he points out, "woven into the fabric of physics, into the way that the equations are written". Frankly, the reaction of his critics is understandable, since Magueijo's proposal would entail the wholesale revision of the entire framework of 20th-century physics.

Undaunted by the hostile reactions, Magueijo continued to investigate the possible consequences of a varying speed of light (VSL) in the very early universe. Whereas others may have been intimidated, he had the courage to follow where VSL led. Disappointingly, "for a long while it led nowhere".

Once he teamed up with his first collaborator on VSL, the American cosmologist Andy Albrecht, new avenues began to open up through regular brainstorming sessions. At the end of each session, conducted behind locked doors, the blackboard calculations were wiped clean. They wanted to keep their ideas under wraps until they were ready to publish a fully fledged theory, since "publish first or perish" is a sad fact of a life for all scientists.

Magueijo provides a highly readable account of the problems besetting modern cosmology and how they appear to be resolved by VSL. Better still, he gives an honest and revealing insight into what it's like to carry out scientific research: the endless frustrations, the fear of being beaten by competitors, the ebb and flow of tension between collaborators, the numerous dead ends, the unexpected moments of inspiration, and the often tedious task of checking and rechecking calculations.

Finally, Magueijo offers a glimpse into the often fraught process of peer review that begins after a finished article is submitted to a journal for publication. He and Albrecht had to bite the bullet, more than once, through a year-long review process, before their paper was finally accepted.

Magueijo finds it difficult to conceal his contempt for the reports written by referees that are at the heart of peer review. For him they are "often empty of scientific content and reflect nothing but the authors' social standing, or their good or bad relations with the referee". In fact, so scathing was he about one well-known journal that the libel lawyers were called out and the original print run of the UK edition of his book had to be shredded.

Whatever the final verdict on VSL, where experimental results will act as the ultimate referee, Magueijo and his collaborators have developed a theory that is now being taken seriously, against all the odds. As the young Einstein once remarked: "Foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."