Thursday, August 26, 2010

What Books Changed Your Life?

On the Monroe Institute website, Leslie French asks the provocative question: "What books changed your life?" She cites her own life-changing books as do many others in her comments section.

I confess that as long as I've been able to read, I've been a book slut. I love books, buy books, devour books and possess several library cards. Books have been changing my life for as long as I can remember. But which are THE BOOKS, the books that made a difference? I decided to limit my selection to ten books, to include only books that purport to be non-fiction and to list these books in rough chronological order of their influence at various stages of my life. To all those dozens of books that spring to mind shouting "Choose me! Choose me!" I have to say "I love you all, and it pains me to not include you, but, as anybody connected with the book business knows, editors have to be ruthless!"

1. The Baltimore Catechism: gave me the answers at age 6 to questions that still puzzle me today.

2. St. Joseph's Missal: you can't follow the players (at the Mass) without a scorecard especially when the game's conducted in Latin.

3. Introduction to Complex Variables: imagine discovering for the first time the existence of another kind of number (complex numbers) than the kind you count with, whose properties are strange, beautiful and utterly logical.

4. Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Schiff: my first introduction to the strange world of quantum physics. At Stanford, prime breeding ground for big egos, Schiff was famed for his extraordinary modesty.

5. The Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Paul Dirac: Closest thing to The Bible in quantum physics. Dirac introduces here his ideosyncratic bra/ket notation which is now the language in which every physicist in the world expresses the quantum mysteries.

6. The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts: In the early 60s, living in San Francisco, I first read Alan Watts's description of his LSD trips and decided that someday I too would drop acid.

7. Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert: no better way to understand a subject than to write a book about it.

8. Not Man Apart by Robinson Jeffers: "Love that, not man apart from that..."

9. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding..."

10. The Penny Whistle Book by Robin Williamson: former member of Incredible String Band teaches the art of the Irish whistle. With this book and 10 years of practice you could be a star.

And to all those books left out, I repeat: "I love you dearly, but an editor's gotta edit."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quantum Immortality

Frank Tipler uses "locality" to prove the Multiverse Model
Quantum mechanics is the most successful theory of the physical world we have ever possessed. Its range is enormous and it has never made a single incorrect prediction. But this success comes with a steep price--the loss of our ability to say "what's really going on in the world". Many "quantum realities" have been proposed, none of them entirely satisfactory. Heinz Pagels in Cosmic Code describes the quantum reality marketplace and in my own Quantum Reality I present several proposed models of "what's really going on."

No model of quantum reality is more preposterous than the Quantum Multiverse proposed by Hugh Everett III in 1957. In this reality the quantum wavefunction, usually interpreted as the POSSIBILITY that something can happen, is construed as a CATALOG OF ACTUALITIES. In Hugh Everett's Multiverse EVERYTHING THAT CAN HAPPEN DOES HAPPEN but most of it happens in other universes than our own. As many universes exist as things that can happen, hence the term "Multiverse".

Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp has pointed out one important consequence of such an exuberant model of "what's really going on". If the Multiverse model is true then very improbable events, as long as their probability is not zero, MUST HAPPEN IN SOME UNIVERSE. For instance, the emergence of life may be extremely unlikely, but if life can happen, then life must happen, in a few exceptional universes.

Another line of speculation concerns "quantum immortality". The role of conscious beings in the Multiverse is ill-defined because we do not as yet possess a physical model of mind. But it is plausible to suppose that when the universe splits into various realities, your conscious mind inhabits only those realities in which it is still alive. This way of thinking predicts that you will enjoy, in your own subjective universe, if not immortality then certainly a greater-than-average life span. While you perceive your friends dying all around you, you seem to "miraculously" escape death until you have exhausted (like the cat with 9 lives) all your possible lives--and then at last you DEFINITIVELY DIE.  Each of us can verify this hypothesis for ourselves but paradoxically we cannot share our conclusions with others.

Ironically all quantum realities, including the Multiverse, predict exactly the same quantum facts so there exists at present no experiment that could tell us for sure what is "really going on" beneath the quantum facts.

Recently Frank Tipler, a controversial physicist at Tulane University, has published a "proof" that the Multiverse is real. If we believe that Einstein's Theory of Relativity applies not just to the quantum facts, but also to "what's going on behind the facts", assets Tipler, then we must accept the truth of the Multiverse.

A profound theorem due to the late Irish physicist John Stewart Bell is generally thought to have proved that "reality is non-local"--which means that quantum reality, whatever it is, must operate at speeds faster than light. On the other hand the quantum facts, the things we can actually observe, seem always to obey Einstein's speed limit. This tension between quantum reality (faster-than-light) and quantum fact (light-speed-limited) has always seemed a peculiar feature of the post-Bell quantum world.

A curious loophole in Bell's Theorem, however, is that it cannot be proved in a multiverse reality.

Tipler cleverly exploits this loophole in Bell's Theorem by demonstrating that if one assumes not only the quantum facts but also quantum reality itself to be "local"--which means limited to light speed interactions--then Everett's Multiverse is the only possible candidate for a Real Quantum Reality.

If Reality obeys Relativity, then we really live in a quantum Multiverse. So sayeth Frank Tipler.

Most physicists will probably dismiss Tipler's argument as Meaningless Scholastic Metaphysics. But, on the other hand, he may be right. If we really live in a Multiverse, then everyone of us might look forward to experiencing quantum immortality--living "forever" each in our own special universe. Sounds kinda creepy to me.

The argument for quantum immortality (more properly called quantum longevity) is dubious because we are profoundly ignorant about how consciousness fits into the scheme of things, but Tipler's derivation of the truth of Multiverse if Relativity holds for Quantum Reality as well as Quantum Fact is as solid as these kinds of arguments can be.

Quantum immortality of the life-extending kind may not really exist. On the other hand, Frank Tipler may himself have achieved a small but conventional kind of quantum immortality via his clever locality-based proof in favor of the real existence of the Multiverse.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Quantum Jujitsu

We house-broke quantum reality
Taught Schrödinger's Cat to purr--
Now regular life's as uncanny
As atoms ever were.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

MBARI Open House

Salinas River Near Moss Landing

California's Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) is home to some of the most unusual deep sea life forms on Earth. Life calls out to life: the submarine canyon's wild biodiversity has attracted an equally diverse gathering of marine biologists and scientific institutions including Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, University of California's Long Marine Lab, Cal State's Moss Landing Marine Labs and more recently the Packard-Foundation-funded Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) located in Moss Landing.

Last weekend MBARI held an open house to familiarize the public with its scientific activities and to show off some of the beautiful sea creatures that live just offshore of Moss Landing--forms of life so bizarre that one can easily imagine that they developed on some other planet.

To study these creatures in their natural environment MBARI has pioneered the development of a variety of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that carry video cameras, manipulators and chemical laboratories into the depths where no man has gone before. MBARI's stable of specialized deep-sea probes is analogous to NASA's deep space probes except MBARI's inquisitive robots are designed to explore the depths of the Earth's oceans rather than the airless spaces between the stars.

MBARI's Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts
Among MBARI's many deep-sea robots is one named after Ed Ricketts, an early Monterey marine biologist immortalized by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row. In one memorable voyage, Steinbeck and Ricketts studied the marine life of the Gulf of California together--their adventures chronicled by Steinbeck in Log From the Sea of Cortez. 

While studying physics at Stanford in the 60s, I took a sidetrack thru Don Kennedy's biology lab to check out a possible career in neurophysiology. (I quickly returned to physics; biology is much too complicated and resistant to mathematization.)

The nervous systems Kennedy and his students investigated were mostly those of sea animals which we gathered at a beach near Half Moon Bay. At that time two books were our biology bibles--Ed Ricketts's Between Pacific Tides and a thick tome bearing the title Animals Without Backbones (not a history of America's Democratic Party but a catalog of marine invertebrates). I was surprised and happy to see that MBARI had honored the notorious dude that had taught me marine biology (through his book) by giving the name Doc Ricketts to one of their remotely controlled Yellow Submarines.

Besides videos of weird sea creature, submarine canyon geology demonstrations and close-up introductions to actual deep-sea robots. MBARI hosted a large interactive children's program which included making colored squid prints, constructing and operating small underwater robots in tanks and the immensely popular Giant Inflatable Squid which immediately captured the attention of the Quantum Tantra Ashram's senior scientist.

Waving goodbye to the crowds at MBARI my companion and I lunched at Phil's Snack Shop, then conducted our own informal exploration of the wild life currently making its home along the marshy shores of the Salinas River.

More Open House pictures at the MBARI site. Thanks, Kim.
Kids entangling with the Giant Inflatable Squid

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Quantum Legos

In the Paleozoic era of conventional computing (45 years ago), one crucial problem was how to build a fast switchable multi-bit MEMORY ARRAY. Many schemes from vacuum tubes to transistors were devised for storing and changing the 0s and 1s inside the computer's brain. How many of you remember the checker-board arrays of tiny magnetic donuts threaded by little wires that were once the hottest thing in computer memory tech (along with magnetic disc drives the size of washing machines)?

Quantum computers have the same problem--what to use for memory? But in the quantum case you not only have to store 0s and 1s but all possible quantum superpositions of a 0 and a 1--the so-called "quantum bit" or "qubit". Several physical systems from single photons to superconducting loops have been suggested for realizing qubits including single ions.

An ion is an atom or molecule that has become electrically charged by adding or removing electrons.

Isolating a single ion has up till now involved a large and complicated array of electric and magnetic fields that form an "ion trap"--sometimes called Penning or Paul traps. But recently scientists at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) have developed a small silicon chip (pictured above) that can trap single ions, opening the possibility of assembling large arrays of ionic qubits by stacking these silicon modules like Lego blocks.

The development of "Quantum Legos" by physicists Dietrich Leibfried, Jason Amini and their colleagues at NIST may well be the crucial breakthrough that takes quantum computers out of the laboratory and into our bedrooms.

From Popular Science August 2010. Thanks brother Tom.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Les Blatt Finally Graduates

In the early 60s S. Leslie Blatt and I worked for our PhDs under Walter Meyerhof, sharing time on the same accelerator in the basement of Stanford's Varian Lab. Earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton, a PhD at Stanford, Les went on to do research at Ohio State University and chaired its physics department for many years. Then he took a post at Clark where he was Dean of their graduate school. After a long and distinguished career in physics, summarized here, Les Blatt is at last getting out of school. He's retiring this month--finally graduating from the academic community he served so well.

One well-kept secret about Professor Blatt is that when the world got Les as a physicist, it lost a talented writer of musical comedy. It was the custom at Stanford for graduate students to satirize their profession and their professors at the annual physics Christmas party. Most of these satires are best forgotten but one of the most ambitious efforts along these lines deserves to be remembered--an unabridged parody of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady by Les Blatt and Dave Coward. I remember this production especially well because the principals rehearsed it in the living room of the house in Woodside that I shared with fellow Stanford grad student Chuck Buchanan.

Highlights follow (from my copy of Physical Revue--its title a spoof of America's major physics journal Physical Review--thanks, Les):

The play opens with Higgins (a theorist) and Pickering (an experimentalist) striding about Higgins's office, bemoaning the low quality of physics students. They sing:

...Clever grad students--two or three--
Working hard for their PhDs.
Who'd do my work for me.
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?...

Higgs: By golly, Pickering, you've got something there. A clever student once in a while would be a real joy. But they seem so rare these days.

Pick: Rare? They don't exist. What's more there isn't one who's even average. They're all stupid!

Higgs: Now, now, You're being too harsh. Perhaps we ourselves are partly to blame...

Pick: Nonsense! Students are irrational, that's all there is to that--their heads are full of wires, nuts and brads. They're nothing but an oscillating, relaxating, congregating group of beer and coffee drinking, never-thinking, irritating grads!

Higgs: Why can't we teach our physics students how to think?
The subject matter's easy; the concepts are distinct.
If YOU learned as slowly as a lot of your students do,
Why you might end up in engineering too!

Pick: I beg your pardon!

Higgs: Why can't we teachers teach our students how to think?
We say it to them clearly; they just sit there and blink...

Psychologists ply their art on man
Which seems quite narcissistical,
While chemists learn their alchemy
With methods that are mystical!

But educating physics students is the task I preach.
Oh, why can't professors
Why can't professors
Why can't

Pick: Well, perhaps you are right. But if you feel that way, why haven't you done anything about it?

Higgs: Pickering, I have. I'm convinced that the new method I'm working on is the answer. Why I could turn ANYONE into a first-rate quantum mechanic, thermo-dynamo and general all-round good guy at coffee hour. And in just a few weeks.

Pick: Oh? There you go exaggerating again. If your method is so good, why haven't I seen any of these marvelous products of your mind?

Higgs: Simply not enough time.

Pick: Ha! I call your bluff, mister wiseguy theoretiker. The next person that walks in that door is your guinea pig, sir. You've got to turn them into a physicist. And I'll give you exactly thirty days, no more.

[A knock on the door reveals Liza Doolittle, a Stanford pom-pom girl selling Big Game tickets. Higgins goes to work, teaching Liza how to pass as a physicist and Pickering schedules a PhD oral exam for her in thirty days in front of Stanford's top professors.]

Liza: Alpha j commutes with gamma five.

Higgs: By Schiff, she's got it! By Schiff, she's got it!
Now once again, the game we play...

Liza: Alpha j, alpha j!

Higgs: Now make the sign survive...

Liza: Gamma five, gamma five!

Liza, Higgins, Pickering: The alpha j commutes with gamma five.
The alpha j commutes with gamma five.

[On the appointed day, Liza and Higgins enter the Small Seminar Room where she will be examined by a trio of eminent Stanford profs--Sid Drell, Charlie Schwartz and Wolfgang Panofsky.]

Higgs: Thank heaven for Wolfgang Panofsky!
If he hadn't been there, I'd have died of boredom.
Yes, he was there, all right, and up to his old tricks.

Armed with his perennial grin,
His form factors and pion spin,
He made it his devilish business to show
How much Miss Doolittle didn't know.

First I tried to slow him down--
Persons of such great renown should take it slow.
Finally I decided it was foolish
Not to let him carry out his plan.
So I stepped aside...That's when the fun began!

Using problems from his book
He thought he had her on the hook...
Maxwell tensors, gee-mu-nu's
But he could not get her confused.
And when at last the test was done,
He turned and said: "Okay, you've won!"

Pick: That's why I say you did it,
You did it, you did it!
You said that she would do it,
And indeed she did!

You took a pure beginner
And you made of her a winner.
There's no doubt about it.

[Higgins celebrates with Pickering but, upon returning to his office, discovers a telegram from Liza declaring that she has left Stanford for a high-paying job in industry. Higgins is dismayed and dejected by Liza's departure. But eventually Liza changes her mind, arrives back in Higgins's office and expresses her decision to stay.]

Liza: I've grown accustomed to this place;
I like its easy-going way.
I like the Navy paying bills,
The monster in the hills,
The lecture tower,
The coffee hour--
They're quite a habit with me now...

I didn't know how much I'd miss it when to industry I went.
Now that I'm back at Stanford, I'm starving but content.
I've grown accustomed to the search for fundamental facts--


Congratulations S. Leslie Blatt on your distinguished career in the service of science! I wish you many happy years of retirement and encourage you to consider writing musical comedy again. These few highlights only hint at the brilliance of your full production which bore the unforgettable title:  

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How Do You Know?


How do you know

that this is not
the paradise
foretold us
by Mohammed?