Archive for September, 2010

Philosophy 1, Physics 0

HospitalityHere’s an interesting recent analysis. A WSJ study surveying the majors of over 1100 college football players, found this important result: one player studying philosophy, but zero tackling physics. I guess philosophy wins among the heady majors starting with ‘ph’ for this group. There were some 134 in sociology and of course 7 taking hospitality — because nothing says ‘welcome’ like a few hundred pounds of flesh soaring through the air to crush the life out of you.

But this leads to a bit of a philosophical dilemma. Would you rather have someone on your team who could make quick calculations to launch a football on the proper trajectory, or have your ball-handler stuck in a reflective trance, pondering “why there is something rather than nothing” for that full half second before the blitzing defense crashes in with the goal of turning something into nothing?

A physicist responds in this article that the absence of football physicists is basically due to them being wimps. But how about this possibility: the physics students are the ones who understand concepts like conservation of energy, and what happens when a lot of kinetic energy is suddenly converted into a painful heap of writhing potential energy. And the ‘potential’ part of that energy assumes that bones heal up enough so that kinetic energy becomes possible again one day.

Or, maybe the physicists understand that stuff and are wimps.


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This post is going to take some courage to get through, but there will be practical pay-out in the end. I promise.

I recently completed the intriguingly titled book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. It was a nice refresher on a number of the wondrously odd ways the world works at quantum levels. (To the unfamiliar: that means the very teensy-tiny levels.) Although I didn’t really much care for the parts involving the dog. Quantum physics all makes perfect sense except for the many bewilderingly non-intuitive parts.

One of the odd effects is the ‘quantum eraser.’ A number of quantum experiments use light passing through a pair of closely spaced slits, which give rise to odd quantum effects when even a single photon of light appears to go through both slits simultaneously and interferes with itself (observable by the pattern formed on a wall). But when something is done (e.g. use polarizing filters) to measure which slit the photons really go through, the interference disappears. If you know the light’s path, the quantum oddness goes into hiding. But a “quantum eraser” can recover the quantum effect, when for example a subsequent filter is added to again make it impossible to know which slit the light went through. The interference pattern re-appears, since the knowledge of the path is erased. This is an excessively brief description, but you can read about an experiment you could (really) perform at home to see the effect. Click on the laser picture.

Reading on these topics gives you the chance to struggle with whether you are a ‘wavefunction-collapse’ person or a ‘many-worlds’ person, in your interpretation of how the act of observing quantum effects affects the result.*  It’s possible I hold a superposition of those two views (in the somewhat quantum sense), which I will now name the ‘Many Collapsing Worlds’ theory. There is a reasonable risk that this name has been used before, but 23 seconds of google searching did not find it,** so I boldly claim it as my own. There is a satisfyingly depressing tone to that phrase.

OK,  now for the practical part. Another interesting phenomenon is the notion of virtual particles. These are a pair of particles, such as an electron and positron — which is an antimatter version of an electron — that appear and disappear out of (and presumably into) nowhere rather quickly. All within a billionth of a trillionth of a second or so. Which leads to this nice line on page 197 of the dog book:

“In practical terms, this means that a particle and its anti-particle can pop into existence from nothing inside the box.”

Yes, no doubt about it, there’s something you can make practical use of. Almost as practical as making lunch or filling up the gas tank or charging your phone (with electrons, not positrons!).

If that doesn’t work for you, try this practical tip. I’m convinced that there is a Nobel Prize waiting for someone who can come up with an explanation of the key quantum mechanism, that’s even better than my ‘Many Collapsing Worlds’ theory. And as I posted previously, Nobel prizes appear to have beneficial health side-effects, not to mention  trivial things like fame and enough money to fund many quantum eraser experiments.


* Note back-to-back use of effects & affects — try to do this at least yearly.

** This post is the only google hit, and it uses “many collapsing worlds” in a very non-quantum sense, down in the responses.

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