The CP blogger of the year award is still not one of the big hitters. The awarder (me) is still fickle. Previous winners were Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) and, last year, David Didau (@learningspy). This year’s recipient is a different kind of blogger, one who mostly uses fiction to hit home. This year @whatonomy has stepped up another gear, with his 14 part series featuring Michael Benzine (@MichaelBenzine) and Glynnis Hardacre (@HardacreGlynis), which is riotously hilarious, as well as being satire of a high standard. Entertainment and erudition. Check it out here.
So, congratulations (if that’s the right word) @Whatonomy! May you continue to generate satirical hilarity for many years to come!
In May 2014 I bought Winston Churchill’s six volumes The Second World War, and started reading. I don’t think I had ever attempted reading anything quite as ambitious as this before (except perhaps Alastair Campbell’s diaries) and I have only just finished. I have read many other books alongside, and for some periods of time I stopped reading the Churchills, but came back to them. The first few volumes were hard going – partly because the style was unfamiliar (lots of official telegrams), but also because the early phases of the war were relentlessly bad news for the British and their few allies. It wasn’t until the Germans attacked Russia, and Japan attacked USA (at Pearl Harbour) that Churchill knew that the war was won (given the combined resources of the USA, British Empire and Soviet Russia). The outcome was inevitable, but the route there was not; a lot of really tough decisions were required.
There are several major things that I take away from reading this extended tale: firstly, Churchill’s grasp of the big picture and understanding of the strategic consequences of events was striking. He was also immersed in detail, but always with an eye on the big strategic picture, as far as I can see. The war was huge and wide ranging, and needed a central figure who could see the whole. Secondly, Churchill’s moral purpose was indefatigable and relentless. The result of these two together generated extraordinary resilience and implementation. Thirdly, the war drove an economic and industrial transformation in the main countries. The logistics involved in fighting were huge and complex, with rapid scientific advances also required. This also demonstrates what can be achieved. But, if the Germans had got to the atomic bomb first……
Life, and History, flow; they ebb and flow, sometimes up and sometimes down. The Churchills took me on such a journey, whilst allowing me to step back and see that this was the case. The finish was not all triumphalism and bombast, either. For a start there was the clear development of the Iron Curtain and the start of the great battle between the liberal democracies and Communism (which Churchill spotted early), indeed, the sixth volume is subtitled “Triumph and Tragedy”. And Churchill lost the General Election of 1945 and was suddenly no longer at the top table. Life, and History, can be relentless and ruthless.
As an interlude, I’ve just finished reading John Gribbin’s The Quantum Mystery (a short Kindle book). It’s very good. What it doesn’t do is bother with any of the maths. Instead, it sort of tells the human story, summarises the key experiments and focusses on the Scientists. I had been dwelling on entanglement, and ‘spooky action at a distance’, but had forgotten how strange the quantum world is right at its core. The double-slit experiments establish this very clearly. The original experiments were with light, and diffraction patterns – hence light is a wave, but other experiments showed that light is also particulate (the photon). This experiment was refined over time, and it became possible to fire one photon at a time at the slits and still observe a diffraction pattern build up as more and more photons are fired through the apparatus. The individual photons appear to know that there will be other photons following, and distribute themselves with a probability determined by the Schrödinger wave equation. Even more strange; if one of the slits is covered then the interference pattern disappears. And, if a detector is placed between the slits and the detector screen after the photon has passed through the slit, then the interference pattern also disappears (but how does the photon know it won’t reach the detector screen when it passes through the slit?). Now light is strange anyway (it travels at the speed of light and is subject to all sorts of strange relativistic effects).
But, in 2013, with the advance of nano-technology, it became possible to repeat these experiments using a stream of single electrons. And the same things were seen. So, this is a general quantum feature. Individual wave-particles appear to behave as if they know what their path through space will be in the future. How is that possible? We appear to be able to characterise the quantum world, but not understand it.
Having recently investigated the concepts around gravitation (via Special and General Relativity), it’s now time to try to get to grips with Quantum Theory. I’m a Chemist, and the quantum world view is part of my foundational experience (electron quantised energy levels in atoms being the starting point for chemistry). But, I don’t understand it.
I bought and read John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction. I now need to buy another book that introduces the mathematics, and looks at the various consequences of the quantum state of things in more detail. But, my developing understanding of the role of mathematics in physics has received another push along the road of erudition. Here’s where I’m at:
Reality exists in the world (of physics), but we don’t necessarily understand it much (the odd experimental glimpse perhaps). Meanwhile, Pure Mathematicians have been developing all sorts of mathematics (often hundreds of years before), just because they could, and were interested in the maths (no obvious utility at the time). Physicists sometimes realise that a particular mathematics (e.g. Tensors, complex numbers, matrices) might help to describe the physics – they explore this, work out boundary conditions, constraints, and see what pops out. The maths yield possible observable predictions; some of which turn out to be real. Iteration then proceeds, and understanding increases – a new mathematical language emerges which allows reality to be described, explored and investigated. Nobody knew, at the beginning, where this would lead. This is part of the excitement of Physics.
Quantum Theory, then. Boy, bizarre and counter-intuitive. One of my favourite findings (to date) is that combining Quantum Theory and Special Relativity yields the concept of anti-matter! And, that a vacuum is actually a humming hive of activity (although there is nothing there).