Category Archives: Science

An Exa-Prize for “Masters of Light”

Holy Swedish silica/on. It’s an exa-prize!

Calling them “Masters of Light,” the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics to Charles Kao, for discoveries central to the development of optical fiber, and to Willard Boyle and George Smith of Bell Labs, for the invention of the charge-coupled device (CCD) digital imager.

Perhaps more than any two discoveries, these technologies are responsible for our current era of dramatically expanding cultural content and commercial opportunities across the Internet. I call this torrent of largely visual data gushing around the Web the “exaflood.” Exa means 1018, and today monthly Internet traffic in the U.S. tops two exabytes. For all of 2009, global Internet traffic should reach 100 exabytes, equal to the contents of around 5,000,000 Libraries of Congress. By 2015, the U.S. might transmit 1,000 exabytes, the equivalent of two Libraries of Congress every second for the entire year.

Almost all this content is transmitted via fiber optics, where laser light pulsing billions of times a second carries information thousands of miles through astoundingly pure glass (silica). And much of this content is created using CCD imagers, the silicon microchips that turn photons into electrons in your digital cameras, camcorders, mobile phones, and medical devices. The basic science of the breakthroughs involves mastering the delicate but powerful reflective, refractive, and quantum photoelectric properties of both light and one of the world’s simplest and most abundant materials — sand. Also known in different forms as silica and silicon.

The innovations derived from Kao, Boyle, and Smith’s discoveries will continue cascading through global society for decades to come.

Mirrors, mirror neurons, and the future of the brain

Fascinating stuff from UC-San Diego’s V.S. Ramachandran, who has pioneered the understanding of mirror neurons using almost primitive experiments with store-bought mirrors . . . among many other wonders . . .

Free Thinker Dyson

This profile of Freeman Dyson is must reading for all those who admire creative — and courageous — thinking. It’s even more important reading for those who tend to toward group-think.

Beyond Dyson’s scientific genius, John Tierney admires his “humanism and optimism.”

“Kind of silly” to debate science

Speaking at the Eco:nomics conference, Al Gore once again sounded his “planetary emergency” alarm even as he refused to discuss the matter with Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg.

he was challenged by Mr. Lomborg, the Danish skeptical environmentalist who thinks the world would be better off spending more money on health and education issues than curbing carbon emissions.

“I don’t mean to corner you, or maybe I do mean to corner you, but would you be willing to have a debate with me on that point?” asked the polo-shirt wearing Dane.

“I want to be polite to you,” Mr. Gore responded. But, no. “The scientific community has gone through this chapter and verse. We have long since passed the time when we should pretend this is a ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ issue,” he said. “It’s not a matter of theory or conjecture, for goodness sake,” he added.

Reporting from the conference, Kim Strassel interviews big-time CEOs who regret getting on the cap-and-tax train.

In other news, the Washington, D.C. global warming — er, climate change — rally was cancelled due to snow.

Abundance of Scarcity

John Tierney asks:

Does being spectacularly wrong about a major issue in your field of expertise hurt your chances of becoming the presidential science advisor? Apparently not, judging by reports . . . that Barack Obama will name John P. Holdren as his science advisor. . . .

Holdren was a big proponent of the erroneous Ehrlich “population bomb” thesis. Seems in general to be an alarmist, scarcity scare-monger, and all-around bully who mixes three parts politics for every one part science.

Sensational Science Book

Here’s my brief Amazon review of Louisa Gilder’s new book The Age of Entanglement:

The creative and insightful history of science’s next big thing
November 30, 2008
by Bret Swanson

Louisa Gilder’s new book is about abstract science and the very real people who clash (and collaborate) over its truth and meaning. The Age of Entanglement is an old story with a new perspective, a dramatic new telling — and a new ending. An ending that shows Einstein was right and launches quantum physics toward its next great chapter. 

All the old characters are here — Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger (who coined the word “entanglement”), Pauli, Born, Dirac, de Broglie, and of course Einstein, who thought “spooky action at a distance” was implausible yet found Bohr’s entire quantum mechanical philosophy even less convincing. Unlike other tellings, however, Gilder vividly deploys their actual words from speeches, papers, letters, and memoirs to recreate the intense conversations and rancorous debates that toppled the Newtonian world. Our new understanding of entanglement, moreover, changes the very nature of the old quantum debates. Gilder’s description of Schrödinger’s epiphany that led to his wave equation is almost euphorically exciting and inspiring. 

Despite the quantum revolution, big questions remained, questions that only Einstein, Schrödinger and few others had the courage to raise. And now enters the new cast — Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, David Bohm, Richard Feynman, and the particle smashing Irishman John Bell, who from the early 1960s through his untimely death in 1990 showed entanglement was real. Bell is perhaps the most-important-little-known physicist, and Gilder brings the late CERN engineer-theorist to life just as his work has become the most-cited in all of physics and is breaking out across the scientific and technological frontiers. 

From Vienna, Solvay, and Copenhagen to Rio, Princeton, Berkeley, Geneva, and back to Vienna, the reader is there for Bell’s intuitive breakthrough that brought the 1935 Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper out of laughable obscurity back to forefront of the debate (EPR argued that quantum mechanics was incomplete). And you are in the basement room where the experimentalists John Clauser and Dick Holt constructed the awkward tubular photon-counter that first proved the entanglement that years later multi-kilometer fiber-optic rings around Geneva would show with even greater precision. 

Waves or particles, statistics or reality, mind or matter, information or physics, these are some of the biggest questions we know. This is the mystery of the entanglement that, although still not fully understood, is even now spawning new technologies like quantum cryptography and quantum computing and which, as you will find at the end of Gilder’s great book, somehow connects the universe across the generations. 

— Bret Swanson 

Here is Gilder (on page 242) recounting a typically rich offering from the understated but always logical John Bell:

Bell looked at Jauch as if he wasn’t quite certain the other hadn’t been making a joke. “I have a question about complementarity,” he said, in the voice of one who is changing the topic slightly. “Because it seems to me that Bohr used the word with the reverse of its usual meaning.” He grinned, tipping he head to the side. “Consider, for example, the elephant. From the front she is head, trunk, and two legs. From the back she is bottom, tail, and two legs. From the sides she is otherwise, and from the top and bottom different again. These various views are complementary in the usual sense of the word. The supplement one another, they are consistent with one another, and they are all entailed by the unifying concept `elephant.'” Bell’s hands gestured to suggest this. His eyebrows then lowered. “But Bohr, Bohr wouldn’t — it’s my impression that to suppose Bohr used the word in this ordinary way would have been regarded by him as missing his point and trivializing his thought. He seems to insist rather that we must use in our analysis elements which contradict one another, which do not add up to, or derive from, a whole. By `complementary’ he meant, it seems to me, the reverse: contradictariness.”

“The Age of Entanglement”

My friend Louisa Gilder’s brand new book The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn arrived in the mail from Amazon today.

Matt Ridley, author of Genome, says:

Louisa Gilder disentangles the story of entanglement with such narrative panache, such poetic verve, and such metaphysical precision that for a moment I almost thought I understood quantum mechanics.

The cover art alone is spectacular. Can’t wait to crack it open tonight.

Technology Stepchild No More

Advancing faster than Moore’s Law, hard disk digital storage technologies are are the unsung heroes of the tech revolution. The beat goes on, and a large number of new technologies, from hybrid drives to phase-change ovonics to racetrack memory, promise to match the capacity of digital storage and/or DRAM with the speed of SRAM and other solid state memories. See a big special report from MIT’s Technology Review on all these “next memory” candidates, and more.

Thanks, Mr. Crichton

Ross Douthat informs us that author Michael Crichton died on election day.

Crichton took science seriously. That’s not to say he did serious science, or that his novels were scrupulously realistic. But he made science fun to popular audiences and passed along an imaginative curiosity in the possibilities and perils of nature.

A number of years ago, before it was de rigueur, he also warned that our public officials, courts, and media were not scientifically literate. And that this was increasingly dangerous in our complex and knowledge-accelerated world. His books were often too alarmist for my taste, but he made up for that foible in the last few years. With State of Fear and a series of public lectures and testimony, he bravely took on the global warming alarmist crowd. And I think he was right.