Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

23 FEBRUARY, 2012

Systematic Wonder: A Definition of Science That Accounts for Whimsy

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On “the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free.”

We march through the world armed with intuition and rationality to conquer the unknown, the two in near-constant friction in a culture that frames them as opposing forces. We turn to science and the scientific method as the ultimate bastion of rationality in our quest for Truth. But science isn’t merely reason, science is culture. It’s a poetic and practical sensemaking mechanism for the universe and our place in it, the totality of whose machinery is greater than the sum of its logical parts. In this poignant short excerpt from A General Theory of Love, one of the 5 essential books on the psychology of love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon eloquently capture that elusive, often intentionally dismissed, but wildly important aspect of science that embraces intuition and imagination:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?”

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21 FEBRUARY, 2012

Why Everything is Connected to Everything Else, Explained in 100 Seconds

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Rockstar physicist Brian Cox uses quantum mechanics to illustrate one of the deepest truths of existence.

UPDATE: Sean Carroll (previously) has a well-argued critique of Cox’s explanation. Thanks, Siddharth.

Last week, physicist Brian Cox showed us why everything that could happen does happen in a riveting tour of the quantum universe. In this fascinating short excerpt from BBC’s A Night With The Stars, Cox turns to the Pauli exclusion principle — a quantum mechanics theorem holding that no two identical particles may occupy the same quantum state simultaneously — to explain why everything is connected to everything else, an idea at once utterly mind-bending and utterly intuitive, found everywhere from the most ancient Buddhist scripts to the most cutting-edge research in biology and social science.

This shift of the configuration of the electrons inside the diamond has consequences, because the sum total of all the electrons of the universe must respect Pauli. Therefore, every electron around every atom in the universe must be shifting as I heat the diamond up, to make sure that none of them end up in the same energy level. When I heat this diamond up, all the electrons in the universe instantly but imperceptibly change their energy levels. So everything is connected to everything else.”

For a deeper dive into this infinitely fascinating world, treat your mind to Cox’s The Quantum Universe.

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15 FEBRUARY, 2012

Richard Feynman Makes a Wager

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Fifteen dollars of irreverence and honor, or how to avoid “occupational disease.”

Twenty-four years ago, the world lost the great Richard Feynman — champion of curiosity, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. Among Feynman’s most memorable and beloved qualities was his singular blend of irreverence and honor, which shines in this wonderful anecdote from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, a priceless collection of more than 40 years of Feynman’s letters and a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence.

Immediately after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman made a wager with MIT Professor Viktor Weisskop, who was convinced that The Great Explainer would succumb to a career in administration — or what Feynman once referred to in a letter as an “occupational disease.” A man of his word, Feynman sent Weisskop the following note a decade later:

Prof. W. Weisskopf
Physics Department
M.I.T.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Professor:

I have found the document describing our wager and find that you gave me too much money so here’s $15 back. For your records, may I state in writing that as of this date, January 6, 1976, I am not holding, nor during the last ten years have I held, a responsible position as defined in the contract of the wager. Therefore I consider that the wager has been paid by Professor Weisskopf and that’s that!

Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman

The wager contract itself:

–On this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE, at a Luncheon given at the Laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin, Geneva, the following WAGER was made between Professor Viktor F. WEISSKOPF and Professor Richard P. FEYNMAN.

The terms of the WAGER are as follows:

— Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e., before the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said Mr. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

–Conversely, if on the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE, the said Mr. FEYNMAN shall have held or be holding no such position, Mr. WEISSKOPF will be deemed to have forfeited his WAGER and will be in duty bound to pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. FEYNMAN.

–For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.

–In case of contention or of non-fulfillment of the aforementioned conditions, the sole arbiter shall be Mr. Giuseppe COCCONI.

Signed at Meyrin on this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE.

Richard P. Feynman
Viktor F. Weisskopf
Signed and witnessed: G. Cocconi

Here’s to a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

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