Hunger For The Higgs

February 22, 2014


I was fascinated to read that (see here):

More than 10,000 people have signed up for an online course to study the work of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Professor Peter Higgs.

The free seven-week course, called The Discovery of the Higgs boson, begins this week and is being run by the University of Edinburgh where Prof Higgs worked when he developed the “God particle” theory.

The course is being run on the FutureLearn platform, a partnership of 23 universities.

The requirements seem quite modest: The course requires a basic level of mathematical skills, at the level of a final-year school pupil. A basic knowledge of physics is helpful, but not required.

Although it’s already started, it may be worthwhile joining if you’re interested in the topic as just 2 hours a week is needed. The link to the course is here.

I’ve previously written about the Higgs here and here (I did academic research in this area for over 10 years before moving to the commercial sector).

Picture credit: LiveScience.

Seeing Is Believing

December 29, 2013

In case you’ve not seen this before, be patient and wait until the end, just 2 mins, and you’ll be very surprised! It shows just how easily you can get (cleverly) fooled.

More on optical illusions here.

Feynman On QM

December 20, 2013

Following on from here, I’ve just noticed that Volume Three of the Feynman Lectures (Quantum Mechanics) is now available online.

Once again, a really fantastic version and all free too!

Hopefully this helps ignite the imagination of the next Feynman…

What’s All This Higgs Stuff?

October 6, 2013

A nice video version of the ‘explanation’ of the Higgs field/particle (discovered earlier this year) that’s based on an analogy with people at a party and the different ways they interact with each other. See also here.

I’m very familiar with this area (my postgraduate research was in particle physics) so it’s not easy to appreciate how useful or otherwise these mini-explanations are. Books are available for longer and more detailed explanations, at various levels, but these are obviously not for everyone.

In fact there are so many distractions these days, I guess getting a few minutes of someone’s time and getting a flavour of the concepts over is quite an impressive achievement!

For more info, there’s a very accessible and recent account of this important breakthrough here.

Feynman’s Legendary Lectures

September 24, 2013


I started out in life as a physicist (in particle physics to be precise).  In hindsight, I was very lucky to be doing research during an extraordinarily productive period (see here and here) – it was an exciting time!

One aspect of this was helping give undergraduate courses as well as taking problem sessions. Courses usually had a standard textbook to go with them, and there was a good selection. At the same time, there was also the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLP) which were a very individualistic take on broadly the same material.

Rather remarkably, the first volume of the Feynman lectures is now available free online with the other two volumes in preparation. They’ve done a really excellent job, it’s worth taking a look, even if there’s only a passing interest. There’s some interesting background on the development of the online version here, including:

Mike Gottlieb has now devoted 13 years of his life to enhancing FLP and bringing the lectures to a broader audience, receiving little monetary compensation. I asked him yesterday about his motivation, and his answer surprised me somewhat. Mike wants to be able to look back at his life feeling that he has made a bigger contribution to the world than merely writing code and making money.

Finally, it’s revealing to read Feynman’s preface to these lectures (written in 1963):

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.

The above lectures are at an undergraduate level and some are quite advanced. If you’re interested in his lectures at a more general level, take a look instead at the his Messenger Lectures or else the videos produced by Christopher Sykes.

Feynman was quite a remarkable man and it’s very impressive that his legacy lives on in so many ways.

Picture credit: here.

The Importance Of High Quality Ignorance

September 2, 2013

How can science capture the hearts and minds of the general public?

At a TED Conference earlier this , Stuart Firestein (Columbia University) suggested that more emphasis be put on communicating the role of questions (‘conscious ignorance’) than on answers (‘facts and knowledge’) to give a more compelling insight into how science actually works.

From an article that comments on his talk:

Firestein said George Bernard Shaw was delightfully right when he noted that “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” And Firestein said this was a good thing: “We use knowledge to create high quality ignorance.” High quality ignorance is the goal, because what we don’t know makes a good question for a scientist.

Science is a practice of revision, and Firestein asserted that it’s a victory to revise. He’s suggesting a major revision in how we communicate science. He believes communicating our quest for ignorance to students and the public is the best way to spark scientific imagination. “Answers create questions… we may commonly think that we begin with ignorance and we gain knowledge,” he prefaced. “The more critical step in the process is the reverse of that.”

Looking at the video, which is a good and easy watch, I liked his phrase ‘you get a little knowledge so you can better define the ignorance you have to go after’, which has obvious business applications as well. This is probably quite far from the common perception that science is linked to hard facts and certainty.

On this theme, there’s a nice quote from Richard Feynman on the roles of ignorance, doubt and uncertainty in science:

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

The Financial Ecosystem

August 15, 2013


Before transferring to the business sector, I spent the first twenty years of my career as a physicist in academia (see eg here). Because of this I retain a strong interest in developments in this and related fields. There are often tantalising connections.

In this context, there’s an interesting article in +Plus magazine on thinking about the financial system through the eyes of mathematical biology:

Financial mathematics received a lot of bad press in the aftermath of the crunch and many believe that it was the popularity of mathematical models – often borrowed from physics — that put the financial system at risk. But now models borrowed from biology are helping us understand how this risk might be reduced.

In particular, models can help us understand how the structure of a network influences disease transmission. For instance, during an HIV/AIDS outbreak, a person with lots of partners will spread more infection than one with few. If the network is assortative — with individuals with lots of partners interacting mainly with others who have lots of partners — the infection will spread quickly initially but soon burn out. However, if the network is disassortative — with high-risk people mixing with low risk individuals — the epidemic will be slower, but result in more cases. Unfortunately the financial network appears to be disassortative, which means any problems are likely to spread widely.

See also here.

Picture credit: here.

Thinking About The Future

July 10, 2013

“The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” – Freeman Dyson (physicist)

Some Jokes To Think About

July 8, 2013

From The Independent (10 from the 25 given):

  1. A photon checks into a hotel and the porter asks him if he has any luggage. The photon replies: “No, I’m travelling light.”
  2. Pavlov is enjoying a pint in the pub. The phone rings. He jumps up and shouts: “Hell, I forgot to feed the dog!”
  3. There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t.
  4. When I heard that oxygen and magnesium hooked up I was like OMg.
  5. An Englishman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and a German are walking down the street together. A juggler is performing on the street but there are so many people that the four men can’t see the juggler. So the juggler goes on top of a platform and asks: “Can you see me now?” The four men answer: “Yes.” “Oui.” “Si.” “Ja.”
  6. Never trust an atom. They make up everything.
  7. How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? None, it’s a hardware problem.
  8. Did you hear about the man who got cooled to absolute zero? He’s 0K now.
  9. A classics professor goes to a tailor to get his trousers mended. The tailor asks: “Euripides?” The professor replies: “Yes. Eumenides?”
  10. A programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.

However my favourite, being an ex-physicist, is:

An electron is driving down a motorway, and a policeman pulls him over. The policeman says: “Sir, do you realise you were travelling at 130km per hour?” The electron goes: “Oh great, now I’m lost.”

If you’re baffled, take a look here.

The Millau Bridge And Montpellier

June 2, 2013


The Millau Viaduct

Recently I took a short break to the south-west of France, flying Bristol to Beziers. The benefit of small airports, apart from cheap flights, is that you’re both on and off very quickly!

We planned to take a look at the famous Millau Bridge (more precisely a viaduct) but didn’t have time for it in the end. From Wikipedia:

The Millau Viaduct is a cable-stayed road-bridge that spans the valley of the River Tarn near Millau in southern France. Designed by the French bridge engineer Michel Virlogeux, in collaboration with architect Norman Robert Foster, it is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world, with one pier’s summit at 343 metres (1,125 ft) — slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 38 m (125 ft) shorter than the Empire State Building. It was formally dedicated on 14 December 2004 and opened to traffic two days later.

However flying out of Beziers, we glanced down and even then it was pretty hard to miss – incredibly impressive!

On one of the days we went to Montpellier, which we’d heard good reports of and were quite surprised at both it’s size and differing styles. Some interesting facts and figures are:

Montpellier is one of the French people’s three favourite cities for its attractive living and working conditions. Over the past 20 years, Montpellier has grown to become France’s 8th largest city. Montpellier is also the city with the highest demographic growth in France, with 43% of the population under 30 years old. Today, the Montpellier agglomeration area has a population of 420,000. According to Insee forecasts this could grow by an additional 300,000 people by 2030.

The city has two large and quite separate parts. The old town has myriad streets like this, with many bars and small restaurants

2013-05-25 Montpellier 1

And major historical buildings like the Opera House (below)

2013-05-25 Montpellier 2

And the new part, which, in sharp contrast, has views like this

2013-05-25 Montpellier 5

2013-05-25 Montpellier 4

Quite an unusual mixture of styles. There’s a good tram system so it’s easy to go from one part to the other (there’s quite a distance between them).

I’d like to go back there again and explore further as Montpellier really caught my imagination (cheap direct flights are readily available).

Picture credit: Millau Viaduct.


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