The re-branding of Physics Capsule

Two years ago we launched Physics Capsule. Along with my good friend, Roshan Sawhil, this new venture I had stepped into was not only important for both of us but also useful and, in some small way, exciting. Back then we (thought we) had the entire route map for Physics Capsule all chocked out and it seemed to be only a matter of following it through.

Who knew it would be harder than we expected? As always real life got in the way and I am quite sure neither of us has any qualms about admitting that Physics Capsule should have been a lot more active than it is today. But we also learnt a few things over the last two years which we believe will help us approach Physics Capsule differently.

First of all, writing an article every day — even with the two of us taking turns — is hectic and near impossible at the moment. We have come to terms with this. We think a much more realistic aim would be to write two articles a week, one from each of us. Individually, that means writing one article a week is doable, and is a fair, albeit reduced, speed of growth for Physics Capsule.

Secondly, we had always looked at this as an online magazine. In fact that is still what we want it to be, but after some thought we have come to the conclusion (and this was over a year ago) that the strength of Physics Capsule lies in it being more of a primer on basic — and eventually advanced — physics, rather than reportage. Continue reading

On science in the American election — or the lack of it

Not too long ago, an essay was published on this website talking about science, the ongoing American election, and Donald Trump’s ridiculous stand on various scientific issues. Back then, Mr Trump was not the GOP’s presidential nominee, although few doubted he was soon going to be. Now that he is, his ideas on science — and those of his pick for vice-president, Mike Pence, the overly religious, scientifically illiterate, populist governor of Iowa — went, much like his entire presidential campaign, from being a ridiculous joke to becoming a dangerous precedent.

Between them, the republican nominees believe that smoking does not kill, are hardline creationists, and scoff at climate change. Whatever your impression about America may be, it cannot be denied that the country’s stance on many issues has shaped those issues around the world. And, with the US being one of the biggest contributors to science today, what its coming president believes in is important. Now, fortunately, not a lot of people believe that Mr Trump will be the next president, and neither do poll numbers. But he will be part of the legislature and that is troubling enough for science.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), Mr Trump has spoken little about physics. Perhaps the closest he has ever come to physics is when, sometime last week, a random fellow used suction cups to scale Trump tower. (Wired, staying faithful to the unanimously approved superhero naming scheme, called him the Gecko Man.) He has, however, claimed somewhat indirectly that his uncle’s genius is inheritable, and that because his uncle was a genius (which is a fair, testable claim) he too is. Continue reading

Additions to Chad Orzel’s article on physicists and philosophers

Chad Orzel wrote a column on his blog last week about James Blachowicz’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled “There is no scientific methods”. The Times article talks about how methods in science and those in, say, the humanities, are similar and then tries to make some point out of it regarding the validity of any thought.

Orzel uses an apt emoji (or is it kaomoji?) to describe the lack of a conclusion in Blachowicz’s article: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is particularly representative of a lot of research in the social sciences. There are two things Orzel’s article misses out on, in my opinion: firstly, it does not talk about the fact that such a practice of abrupt endings — that feel as if a closing inverted comma is missing — are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the humanities, and one that particularly disturbs physicists: vagueness. Somehow, most social scientists I have come across are perfectly satisfied with an answer that appears to point them in some meaningful direction, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the same argument is being understood by different people differently as a direct result of its being vague. The open-ended state of arguments (or the lack of a conclusion altogether) catalyses this.

Consider this sentence which Orzel also quotes, albeit for a different purpose: “If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?” The argument begins by stating that the scientific method is only one form of inquiry. Continue reading

On bad metals

On Condensed Concepts yesterday, Ross Mckenzie talked about bad metals and the unitary limit. There were a couple of ideas I was unfamiliar with, and I note some points here for anyone similarly interested in this area. Dr Mckenzie’s own writing followed the paper “Breakdown of the universality of the Kadowaki-Woods Ratio in multi-band metals” by D.C. Cavanagh et al.

Generally, we consider a material to be a metal when its resistivity increases with increase in temperature, and its electron excitation spectrum has no gaps. Its classical picture is given by the Drude model in which electrons move some average distance between two collision-scattering events. This is called the “mean free path”. In its quantum mechanical picture given by Sommerfeld’s later model (which was built on Drude’s), like everywhere else in quantum mechanics, we consider plane-wave states with corresponding wavelengths.

To define a good metal we need to mash these two models together (which is not something I like) and state the following: when an electron propagates a distance longer than one wavelength, it may be considered a good metal. Further, the electron-electron collision that occurs is proportional to the number of excited electrons and the number of vacancies, both of which are proportional to the temperature, making the resistivity — afforded by such electron-electron collisions — proportional to the square of temperature.

When none of these (or even some of these) are violated, the material is considered a “bad metal”. In physics we have a lot of such boring names, and we hardly spend any time naming things elaborately like chemists or biologists may. Continue reading

On simplification in popular science

Albert Einstein’s famous book, “Relativity” begins with a quote by Ludwig Boltzmann: “Elegance should be left to shoemakers and tailors.” Over the course of one’s study, nearly every physicist can attest to this. For a subject that is praised as the epitome of elegance, developing physics can be uncharacteristically ugly and raw. Not every equation is as beautiful as that pop star, E=mc^2, or Euler’s lesser known but similarly elegant e^{i\pi}+1=0. Like a lot of other things in life, the road to the final, elegant equation happens to be hard and turbulent. And one of the biggest components of such an elegant solution happens to be simplicity.

Being passionate about popular science writing, one of the arguments I am confronted with is about simplicity. By necessity, popular science writing has to be diluted to make sense considering the layperson’s somewhat limited understanding of physics — in my case, or more generally any science for that matter. This dilution has two key problems, but first let us put aside the probability that it is not required at all. I cannot attest to every scientific field, but like most disciplines, physics uses “shorthand” (for lack of a better term), or words and phrases that have a deep meaning and which are used to make the understanding of one idea concise, based on the assumption that the more basic idea underlined by the “shorthand” phrase is already known and its validity already agreed upon. Between physicists this is rarely a problem; with non-physicists it is the biggest obstacle. Continue reading

On self-studying physics

All through my formal education in Physics I have seen a lot of people, including myself at one point, embarking on a mission to self-study physics. It is indeed a mission and a strenuous one at that. Physics is one of the fastest developing fields today, and because it is the oldest and has been the fastest developing field all through history, the amount of knowledge a student of physics has to learn to be able to justifiably comprehend the frontiers of research is greater than in any other field. This, on the one hand makes learning physics quite an enjoyment and accomplishment, and on the other it makes the task daunting and, almost certainly at some point down the road, discouraging.

Longtime Physics Forums member, micromass, about a week ago, wrote an “insight” article on the forum about self-studying physics/mathematics. Since I am about to begin rigorous self-studying sessions myself for the rest of this year, I decided to compile everything of note mentioned in the article as well as the ensuing discussion elsewhere on the Forum for future reference and ease for everyone who finds themselves in this position. By the time I compiled the discussions, I had poked around the rest of the Forum as well as leafed through older resources I had saved years ago and here they are in one tidy package.

1. Pick a topic, learn the maths

Funnily enough the first point comes from a Physics Stack Exchange question and mentions, briefly, the barebones approach that every other tip or suggestion is an altered form of. Continue reading

The physics behind Interstellar — Christopher Nolan’s space drama

As a man of physics, Interstellar is a film I would not miss for the world; if not for the physics, for the images — and director Chris Nolan’s images have always been powerful. Interstellar does not fall short on that. However, it helps for the layperson to learn a thing or two about physics before watching the film, which is why I wrote this article — and made sure there are no spoilers.

The film is really very small, but dressed as an operatic journey through space and time. The use of physics is interesting, almost exciting, and what holds the audience’s attention is (surprisingly) as much the science as the story of a parent-child relationship.

And yet, like so many films before it, Interstellar falls short merely because it was hyped far too much and it set itself an unrealistically high barrier. Continue reading

On Physics and Hinduism

Image courtesy, Be good stewards of mother earth.
Image courtesy, Be good stewards of mother earth.

At the entrance to the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN) stands a 2 metre tall statue of the Hindu deity, Nataraja (see above). To the unaware, it looks like something out of place: something that does not belong in one of the world’s largest scientific research institutions. But it is only one instance of the compatibility between physics and Hinduism. Continue reading

Understanding the Higgs Boson in under 10 minutes

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This is not a scientific article and should not be treated as such. As a work of popular science, this aims to introduce the Higgs boson (AKA the God Particle as the media call it) to the common man with a limited scientific background.

As of the time of writing this article, no papers had been published by CERN describing their results/discovery of the Higgs boson and hence no statistics or other data have been provided.

It is worth noting that CERN conducted multiple experiments at the LHC and two experiments, namely ALICE and CMS both independently discovered the Higgs boson simultaneously, thus strengthening the credibility of physicists’ claims.

BY 1915, EINSTEIN’S THEORY OF RELATIVITY had — even if it made absolutely no other point to the layman — certainly put the equation E=mc^2 on almost everybody’s tongue.

It all started with the big bang, er… Einstein

The equation has far-reaching implications even to this day, one of which is the equivalence of mass and energy.

The equation, as is obvious, says that energy (represented by E) is equal to mass (represented by m.) Precisely how they are equated is another matter altogether, but what we need to gather from this equation at the moment is that Einstein said showed that mass and energy are inter-convertible i.e. he showed that at some level they are pretty much the same!

Now this cropped up a new problem. If energy and mass are so easily converted into one another, what makes mass stay as mass? Continue reading

On Physicists and the law: how society has misplaced its views of science and its community

While I have often said that the community of physicists works for the common gaining of knowledge and to derive infinite mental pleasure out of that, I have also asserted that little is done towards blindly implementing it—that is what engineers are for: the Engineering – this is where the semi-skilled workers realize the work of better minds… [The] Oompah-Loompahs of science, as Sheldon Cooper puts it.

But, fun apart, my argument has always been struck, perhaps even beheaded many a time in the past. And today, I learned the height of it all—although I was quite late in finding out. Perhaps the greatest opponent to my belief is social paradigm. Non-scientists (who are the ones supposed to understand this in the first place) fail to catch on to the fact that a scientist has so much on their hands that to conform to complicated social ways becomes terribly troublesome. And, needless to mention, it is quite meaningless to hold them legally responsible for it.

Dr Adlène Hicheur

Today I read the editorial on a recent issue of Nature (Oct. 13, 2011) about the singular case of the French-Algerian physicist Dr Hicheur, which reminded me of the villain from Iron Man 2 (he is a physicist.) As it happens, the French think that Dr Hicheur, a high-energy physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Laussane, was plotting terrorist attacks in France.

Whether his work was so alien to the (forgive me for saying this, but) incompetent authorities who captured him on this account, that it appeared to them like a diabolical plot to blow up France; or whether they just needed a reason to feel safe and so decided to catch somebody and call him a criminal, is beyond me. Continue reading

Astronomy lecture-workshop — Day 3

I still do not know why somebody said ‘All good things end,’ but they did and they did.

Today was the last day of the Astronomy lecture-workshop hosted by Yuvaraja’s College, Mysore and convened by the Science Academies of India. If you have not read them already, you can see what happened on the first day, here; and go through my report of the events on the second day, here.

On the last day we had just two lectures signalling the end of eleven remarkable hours that stood for everything in this workshop. The two lectures were by Prof Uday Shankar of the Raman Research Institute and Dr Sreekumar from ISRO.

Questions galore

Prof Uday Shankar opened our eyes in one way—and nobody can deny that: the fact that we stop (or have already stopped, in some rare cases,) questioning the trivial things around us. In fact he made this clear by firing questions at us regularly and insisting that we must find the answers ourselves.

So let me take a little deviation here to state his questions and that I am still finding out the answers to some of them, so I will probably write an article or two explaining the stuff once I find out. In the meantime, if you get to it first, feel free to share below!

  • Why are only few frequencies of radiations allowed past the ionosphere?
  • How many different types of molecules have been discovered in Radio Astronomy?
  • What are some famous types of molecules that are also subjects of study in other disciplines of astronomy?
Continue reading