Tag: Quantum Mechanics

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Einstein, Ether Strings, and Millikan on the Electron


In the early years of the last century, R.A. Millikan measured the charge of the electron. He was one of the greatest experimentalists to ever live, not only isolating and measuring something so incredibly small but doing other important work with things like cosmic rays. As such, when I saw he had a book, named The Electron, I figured he ought to know a thing or two about the subject. He did; it’s a complete, informative, and up-to-date book, so long as that date occurs within World War I.

The book has been eye-opening, not because of the new physics, but because of all the outmoded and discarded theories that he mentions and dismisses on the way. What if electrons didn’t have a fixed charge, but a statistical distribution that averaged out to what we think of as a fixed charge? This was a viable theory until Millikan disproved it looking at his oil droplets. What really got me though was when he spent his last chapter describing wave-particle duality. Only there was no such thing when he wrote the book. At that point all modern physics had was a real head-scratcher of a problem. Sample quote:

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Fun with Vectors and the Zombie Apocalypse


No, not vector in the epidemiological sense. The other, mathy kind of vector. Which, trust me, are fun. At least stick around for the zombies.

This dates back to my college days, when I took Differential Equations. Twice. I’ve always been good with math. Sure, I struggled with plenty of things along the way (percentages, trig identities, multivariable integration. Oooh, and concentrations in chemistry), but DiffEq is where I hit the wall like a coyote hits his own painted-on tunnel. Vector spaces were part of that; an abtruse concept used to justify an abstract concept used to solve some difficult equations that might, in turn, have something to do with the real world. But once I got my head wrapped around them, vector spaces turned out to be a fun and useful bit of math. Hey, it could happen.

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Listen, I’m going to be straight with you. This one is mostly for my fun. I mean, they’re all up largely because I like to hear the sound of my own voice. But this one, this one is a bit superfluous. This is the quantum mechanical explanation for how semiconductors work. I’ve already described the […]

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Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. How to Build a Computer 5: Fundamental Chemistry


I know I promised simple transistor uses last time. Thinking about it though, I’d rather go into a bit more detail about the electron golfing I described earlier. It’s a neat analogy, but it doesn’t cover some things you can do with diodes. Interesting things. Therefore we’re gonna dive in for a deeper understanding of chemistry, atoms, and cartoons. Let’s look at a model of an atom using common household objects:

You all have your Ricochet mugs, right?

An atom consists of protons and neutrons in the middle and electrons outside. The common picture of an atom has those electrons whizzing in neat, well-defined orbits. That’s wrong. It’s closer to electrons having spaces they hang out in. We’re on the level of quantum mechanics here, so odd stuff happens. It’s not actually possible to tell where an electron is; it’s small enough that you can only give probabilities. Hmm… let me try it again.

Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Those Wonderful German Compounds


Those Wonderful German Compounds, wherein your winning Scrabble words for the next six months can be found.

It’s been a long time since the fascination with German took hold and nearly as long since that language’s legendary and oft-mocked propensity to generate staggering numbers of compound words of nearly unlimited length became one of the great pleasures of my life. I love compounds and I love German compounds especially because they are so lexically transparent, so often poetic and sometimes even linguistically efficient. Let’s take some simple examples, like the ones that got me started:

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I am an amateur philosopher. That means that no matter how much effort I put in nobody pays me, or even thinks of paying me for it. I must also admit that this is an enormous topic with many facets, about most of which I am completely unqualified to speak. Of course, I am probably […]

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Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Saturday Night Science: Planck


“Planck” by Brandon R. BrownTheoretical physics is usually a young person’s game. Many of the greatest breakthroughs have been made by researchers in their twenties, just having mastered existing theories while remaining intellectually flexible and open to new ideas. Max Planck, born in 1858, was an exception to this rule. He spent most of his twenties living with his parents and despairing of finding a paid position in academia. He was 36 when he took on the project of understanding heat radiation, and 42 when he explained it in terms which would launch the quantum revolution in physics. He was in his fifties when he discovered the zero-point energy of the vacuum, and remained engaged and active in science until shortly before his death in 1947 at the age of 89. As theoretical physics editor for the then most prestigious physics journal in the world, Annalen der Physik, in 1905 he approved publication of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, embraced the new ideas from a young outsider with neither a Ph.D. nor an academic position, extended the theory in his own work in subsequent years, and was instrumental in persuading Einstein to come to Berlin, where he became a close friend.

Sometimes the simplest puzzles lead to the most profound of insights. At the end of the nineteenth century, the radiation emitted by heated bodies was such a conundrum. All objects emit electromagnetic radiation due to the thermal motion of their molecules. If an object is sufficiently hot, such as the filament of an incandescent lamp or the surface of the Sun, some of the radiation will fall into the visible range and be perceived as light. Cooler objects emit in the infrared or lower frequency bands and can be detected by instruments sensitive to them. The radiation emitted by a hot object has a characteristic spectrum (the distribution of energy by frequency), and has a peak which depends only upon the temperature of the body. One of the simplest cases is that of a black body, an ideal object which perfectly absorbs all incident radiation. Consider an ideal closed oven which loses no heat to the outside. When heated to a given temperature, its walls will absorb and re-emit radiation, with the spectrum depending upon its temperature. But the equipartition theorem, a cornerstone of statistical mechanics, predicted that the absorption and re-emission of radiation in the closed oven would result in a ever-increasing peak frequency and energy, diverging to infinite temperature, the so-called ultraviolet catastrophe. Not only did this violate the law of conservation of energy, it was an affront to common sense: closed ovens do not explode like nuclear bombs. And yet the theory which predicted this behaviour, the Rayleigh-Jeans law, made perfect sense based upon the motion of atoms and molecules, correctly predicted numerous physical phenomena, and was correct for thermal radiation at lower temperatures.

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. My Interview With Einstein


I was working in my astrophysics lab at home yesterday, flipping the space-time continuum on its side and tying quarks and Higgs boson particles to it with the sub-atomic vibrating strings which some claim to be the building blocks of all matter. I cobbled together a miniature particle accelerator/collider out of an old bicycle tire and cap pistol in between episodes of Property Brothers on HGTV. It has since produced a steady stream of God particles, which I keep cool in an old Yeti ice chest out back. If you ever need any, just holler.

In an incredible coincidence, after I closed my lab for the night, I got a call from an old friend, Momo, with whom I had done a nickel in Alcatraz. He died unexpectedly last year from injuries received in a limbo challenge in St. Barts. He heard I had been trying to break into the posthumous interview racket. Turns out he’s been spending a lot of time lately with Albert Einstein. With little warning, Momo put the Mensa Mensch on the phone. I asked the late genius if I could record our conversation. He said “ja wohl,” and off we went. Here are excerpts.

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Saturday Night Science: Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy


“Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy” by Roger PenroseSir Roger Penrose is one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists and mathematicians working today. He is known for his work on general relativity, including the Penrose-Hawking Singularity Theorems, which were a central part of the renaissance of general relativity and the acceptance of the physical reality of black holes in the 1960s and 1970s. Penrose has contributed to cosmology, argued that consciousness is not a computational process, speculated that quantum mechanical processes are involved in consciousness, proposed experimental tests to determine whether gravitation is involved in the apparent mysteries of quantum mechanics, explored the extraordinarily special conditions which appear to have obtained at the time of the Big Bang and suggested a model which might explain them, and, in mathematics, discovered Penrose tiling, a non-periodic tessellation of the plane which exhibits five-fold symmetry, which was used (without his permission) in the design of toilet paper.

“Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy” seems an odd title for a book about the fundamental physics of the universe by one of the most eminent researchers in the field. But, as the author describes in mathematical detail (which some readers may find forbidding), these all-too-human characteristics play a part in what researchers may present to the public as a dispassionate, entirely rational, search for truth, unsullied by such enthusiasms. While researchers in fundamental physics are rarely blinded to experimental evidence by fashion, faith, and fantasy, their choice of areas to explore, willingness to pursue intellectual topics far from any mooring in experiment, tendency to indulge in flights of theoretical fancy (for which there is no direct evidence whatsoever and which may not be possible to test, even in principle) do, the author contends, affect the direction of research, to its detriment.

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I am not a mathematician. I’m not qualified to comment on the complex (or maybe even simple) mathematical functions, formulas, proofs and theorems produced by Srinivasa Ramanujan that have challenged, continue to challenge and now are being used by mathematicians, physicists and other scientists today (over 90 years after Ramanujan’s death) to understand and make […]

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