March 14: Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! (b. 1879)

March 14, 2011

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day!  Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no?  I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein.  26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect, the paper that would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics five years later, in 1921.  In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass.  This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist.  Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the field of physics.  And, you noticed:  Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc².  He won it for the photo electric effect.  Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day.  Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement.  Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war.  Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism.  He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription.  His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States.  In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that.  But Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views.  Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs.  (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not  a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it in the divorce settlement.  Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character.  His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke.  For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words.  He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them.  (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers).  Einstein is the only scientist in that group.  So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century.  This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man.  A most important body of work.  He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

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Encore post: Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature

March 14, 2009

[This is an Encore Post, from August 2007 — just as it appeared then.  See especially the links on textbook selection processes, and “cargo cult” science, at the bottom.]

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.  [2009 Update:  James is studying physics in the wilds of Wisconsin, finals week at Lawrence University next week — study hard, and good luck, James!]

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.


63rd anniversary: Hiroshima, August 6; Nagasaki, August 9

August 9, 2008

63 years ago, U.S. military action brought a quick close to hostilities without an invasion of Japan, with the detonation of two atomic bombs, one over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and one over Nagasaki on August 9.

Daily Yomiuri Online carried a description of memorial events in Hiroshima today, from Yomiuri Shimbun:

NAGASAKI–The Nagasaki municipal government held a ceremony Saturday marking the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city, at which participants called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

A total of 5,650 A-bomb survivors, representatives of victims’ families from around the nation and Nagasaki citizens participated in the ceremony. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also attended the ceremony, which was held in Nagasaki Peace Park near ground zero.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue read out the Nagasaki Peace Declaration, which urges the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.

“Human beings have no future unless nuclear weapons are eliminated. We shall clearly say no to nuclear weapons,” Taue said.

The ceremony started at 10:40 a.m. Three books listing the names of 3,058 people confirmed to have died as a result of the bombing in the past year were placed inside a memorial box in front of the Peace Statue.

The total number of books listing the names of the deceased is 147, and the number of names is 145,984.

Representatives of surviving victims, bereaved families, the prime minister and Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba placed flowers at the site.

At 11:02 a.m., the time the atomic bomb struck, ceremony participants offered a silent prayer. At the same time, local high school students rang the Bells of Nagasaki.

In the peace declaration, Taue read from an academic paper written by four people, including a former U.S. secretary of state, which promoted a new policy for developing nuclear weapons. The proposal encouraged countries to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The mayor said world nuclear powers “should sincerely fulfill their responsibility of nuclear disarmament,” and urged the government to pass the three nonnuclear principles into law.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor who helped rescue of victims after the bombing.

The mayor referenced one of the doctor’s remarks, saying: “There are no winners or losers in a war. There is only destruction.”

Shigeko Mori, 72, representing survivors of the bombing, read out an oath for peace that said Japan should promote its Constitution and the three nonnuclear principles to the rest of the world to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Fukuda gave a speech, saying, “Japan should play a responsible role in the international community as a nation cooperating for peace.”

(Aug. 10, 2008)

Other information:

Other related posts at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:


Nuclear bombs, game theory, the Cold War to the brink

September 27, 2007

John von Neumann died prematurely at 54, in 1957. He was very much a polymath, acknowledged first for his mathematical abilities, eventually contributing to physics, computer science and economics. His contributions in nuclear physics and game theory especially deserve better recognition than they’ve gotten among the public at large.

John von Neumann, NAS photo

Princeton University commemorates von Neumann’s life on the 50th anniversary of his death, with an afternoon and a night of lectures and discussion by scientists, economists and historians, October 5 and 6, 2007.

It should be good fun, and if you’re in the neighborhood of Princeton, New Jersey on October 5 and 6, you should go.

Here’s the biographical overview of von Neumann from the National Academy of Sciences, showing him to be the sort of guy we would have been happy to keep around another 40 years or so:

John von Neumann (1903-1957). When he was elected a member of the Academy in 1937, von Neumann was known for his contributions to the fields of mathematical logic and the foundations of quantum mechanics. But his interests were wide-ranging, and he went on to do distinguished work in other fields, including economics and strategic thinking. He is perhaps best known for his work in the early development of computers. As director of the Electronic Computer Project at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (1945-1955), he developed MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer), which at the time was the fastest computer of its kind. Built at a time long before the invention of the silicon chip, MANIAC was run on thousands of vacuum tubes. Von Neumann was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1903, and studied in Berlin, Zurich, and Hamburg. In 1930 he joined the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He became a US citizen in 1937, and during the Second World War distinguished himself with his work in weapons development. In 1955 he was named a Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission, a position he held up to his death from cancer in 1957.

Free Lecture No. 1:

Budapest: The Golden Years

Early Twentieth Century Mathematics Education in Budapest and Lessons for Today

Free and Open to the Public
Panel Discussion
October 5, 2007
3–6 p.m.
219 Aaron Burr Hall
Princeton University

The starting point for the discussion is The Social Construction of Hungarian Genius, 1867–1930, a paper by Professor Tibor Frank, an historian of Hungarian exiles. The paper will be available for distribution at the event.

Free Lecture No. 2:

“Living in von Neumann’s World: Scientific Creativity, Technological
Advancement, and Civilization’s Accelerating Dilemma of Power”

Lecture and Panel Discussion
8 pm, Saturday October 6, 2007
McCosh 50 Lecture Hall
Princeton University

Introduction by Charles Harper

Lecturers:
Thomas Schelling, University of Maryland College Park,
Nobel Laureate, Economics
George Dyson,
von Neumann biographer

Panel Moderator:
Eric Gregory, Princeton University

Panelists:
Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study
Martin Nowak, Harvard University
Robert Wright, Princeton University

Banner for von Neumann Lectures, 2007


Feynman, on the inconceivable nature of nature

August 27, 2007

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.


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