Today (September 5), John Cage would have been 100 years old. A few weeks ago, I went to the John Cage Centenary Celebration at the BBC Proms. Cage is probably best know for 4′33″, his infamous 1952 piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (originally in three movements — although he eventually decided to make the structure of the piece even less prescribed). That wasn’t performed the night I was at the proms, but a few evenings before by the London Sinfonietta, so I listened on the radio, and tried to use the opportunity to attend to the sounds around me: the movements of my neighbours, the cycling of my refrigerator, the cars on the road. (Allan Kozinn, who wrote Cage’s NY Times obituary 20 years ago, writes about an impromptu performance he conducted on an A-Train Subway car.)
Last year, some friends gave me an excellent birthday present: the score to 4′33″ in Cage’s proportional notation: 1 page = 7 inches = 56 seconds”: spare and beautiful on paper, reminding us that Cage was a visual artist as well as a composer:
The highlight of the Prom dedicated to Cage was “Branches”, for amplified cactuses and plants. This sounds like a joke, and like much of Cage’s work, it is indeed intentionally playful, and probably as much performance art as music. The players were scattered around the Albert Hall, on stage, in the central pit, in boxes among the audience, and their succulents, leaves and water bowls were set with high-gain microphones, and arranged by consultation with the I Ching, one of Cage’s favourite ways of introducing randomness into his works. The result was beautiful, and silly, and I’ll never look at a spiny cactus the same way again.
Robyn Schulkowsky leads John Cage’s Branches for amplified cactuses and plants at the BBC Proms. ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou
So now, any classical concert that doesn’t feature a smattering of plant life will feel somewhat staid, but nonetheless I am headed back tonight for John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China”. I’ve managed to see a couple of his other operas, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, over the last few years, and this was his first. This semi-staged version will be conducted by Adams himself — what it lacks in sets and costumes will perhaps be made up for in other sorts of excitement. But probably not in plants.
The Higgs day continues (and I’m not even a particle physicist).
At about 5pm, just as I was dialling into one of my several-times-a-week Planck teleconferences, I had an email from Tim at the BBC, who works with the World Service “World Have Your Say” show, coming on at 6pm. Would I be able to come up with a one-minute analogy for the Higgs Boson? I came up with two (neither original). The first is that the Higgs field acts like treacle or molasses, inhibiting the motion of particles — and it’s exactly a resistance to motion that is the manifestation of inertia, and hence mass. The more fanciful analogy, due to UCL’s David Miller, is that it behaves like a roomful of partygoers when someone famous walks into the room. We peons throng to the celebrity, slowing her down (it was Margaret Thatcher in the original version); a less famous celebrity is impeded somewhat less, and even the partygoers themselves — analogous to the Higgs particles — can’t move freely. Hence, all particles have a mass.
Unfortunately, both of these had been discussed by UCL’s Professor John Butterworth (who blogs for the Guardian and whose excellent explanations made him ubiquitous in today’s media blitz), the IOP’s Caitlin Watson, and journalist (and cosmology consultant?!) Marcus Chown even before I came on. I was prepared to give up the chance for media glory, or possibly talk about the related concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking and the infamous “Mexican Hat potential”. But at just after 6, they rang back and asked if I could join the programme in progress. What I hadn’t quite realised was that the title for the show was “Is there room for Higgs Boson & Religion?”.
I suppose this stems from Leon Lederman’s book, The God Particle. The story that has been told in recent years is that Lederman wanted to call it “The Goddamn Particle” and that his American publishers wouldn’t let that pass — but I always thought that version a little too pat, both getting Lederman off the hook for an ill-conceived name, and tweaking American religious sensitivities.
But whatever the source, the host wanted to use today’s news to try to pound on the usual science-vs-religion drum, inviting listener comments on the topic along with a discussion between the scientists and a series of religious figures. Luckily, none of us really wanted to use this occasion to disagree: the spiritual types wanted to see science as a celebration of the (god-created, god-given) natural world, and we scientists didn’t want to claim more for science than its ability to answer the practical questions about the real world that it has the tools to address. Of course, I felt the need to say, many religious people and perhaps entire religions make supernatural claims about the world. And those, so far, have turned out to be false.
I would have preferred to talk about spontaneous symmetry breaking, but if you want to hear about science and religion, download the podcast.
I made it back onto the BBC today, this time to discuss Stephen Hawking on his 70th birthday (most of the people more qualified than me are actually at a meeting in his honour in Cambridge). (Actually, my very first appearance on the BBC, which generated one of my very first blog posts, was to talk about Hawking’s bet with Preskill and Thorne about the fate of information supposedly lost into a black hole — Hawking had originally claimed that a black hole destroys any information that fell into it, which would be a violation of the tenets of quantum mechanics, but has since, somewhat controversially, conceded.)
I have been lucky enough to meet Stephen, and was even invited to a dinner party at his house, where I got to see him posing with his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Barack Obama in 2009. So I was especially disappointed to subsequently hear that he was too ill to actually attend his conference in Cambridge. I wish him a very Happy Birthday and a speedy recovery.
It’s not hard to talk about Hawking: he’s been involved with some truly exciting breakthroughs in theoretical physics over the last few decades, perhaps most importantly for teasing out the relationship between the properties of black holes and the laws of thermodynamics. This seemingly formal analogy was realized to be much more than that with Hawking’s discovery that black holes are not, in fact, “black” — rather, they glow at a temperature inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole, emitting what has come to be called Hawking Radiation.
These are very significant discoveries, teaching us something crucial about the connections between the three great theories of physics, quantum mechanics, gravity and thermodynamics. But it’s safe to say that no one yet fully understands exactly what those relationships are.
And of course Hawking’s nonscientific accomplishments are well-known and justly valorised. He has lived with — triumphed over — ALS for far longer than any of his doctors had predicted. He has written one of the best-selling popular science books of all time, A Brief History of Time. And, needless to say, he’s done some amazing scientific work, just some of which I’ve mentioned above.
There have been very many very brilliant physicists through the centuries. So it would certainly be premature, if not churlish, to take the long view and ask where Hawking would sit in the pantheon of physicists from Archimedes through Newton, Einstein and beyond. Indeed, as my friend and colleague Peter Coles has just written, Hawking’s peers have so far decided that the time is not yet ripe to elevate him to the top of the table. (Peter has also written a short book on the subject, picking apart some of the interactions between scientists, the media and the wider public.)
Saturday afternoon I received a call from a news producer at the BBC — could I come talk about the Mars Science Laboratory, launched earlier that day?
This was a tough question, publicity-monger though I am: I don’t actually know anything about Mars. I suppose to people outside of the very broad field of “astronomy”, studying the planets in the solar system is not very different from studying the Cosmic Microwave Background. After all, in both cases we use telescopes and satellites. But actually, the study of planets is much closer to geology (and, with increasing interest in the possibilities of life on those planets, to biology) than astronomy per se.
Nonetheless, I did actually know a little about the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover: when I was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this year (to work on the CMB), our group took a quick field trip across the lab to the shop where the satellite was being assembled. Everything else I admit that I learned from wikipedia and NASA PR materials in the two hours before the interview.
One of the difficulties in getting to the surface of Mars arises from its tenuous atmosphere: parachutes aren’t a very efficient braking system. Instead, the igloo-shaped structure above and below is part of the “Sky Crane”, an amazing contraption that will hover and lower the rover gently down to the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover itself is possibly the most sophisticated robot we’ve ever put on another planet: about the size of a Mini, it will scoot around the neighbourhood of the landing site, performing experiments and sending the results back to the human race. My favourite instrument is the ChemCam, which will use “laser induced breakdown spectroscopy” to analyse rocks on the Martian surface. This is the very science-fictiony idea of shooting a high-energy laser beam at a rock, high enough to vaporise it, and then take a careful spectroscopic picture of that vapour, which scientists will decode and use to figure out the rock’s constituent elements. (Of course if there were any real Martians, they might not take kindly to our shooting laser beams at their rocks, in which case we may need to figure out a defense against the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.)
Martians are, of course, one of the most important parts of MSL’s mission and the broader international program of exploring Mars. NASA is very careful to point out, however, that the point of the current mission is not to find life per se, but to help determine Mars’ habitability: could Mars now support life, or could it have in the past? The actual hunt for life will have to wait for a future mission.
Despite my almost eight years in Britain as an astronomer, I suppose I have to be embarrassed to admit I’ve never actually watched “The Sky At Night”, apparently the longest-running show on television (possibly in the whole world, not just the UK). But I’m watching this evening’s episode, mostly because I’m on it. I was filmed during last month’s trip to the Planck launch. As always, it was painful to realize the fat figure with the bad posture and annoying voice was actually me. But it was fun to watch Patrick Moore do his studio interviews, with a style and on a set neither of which seem to have changed since the 1970s.
But it was beautiful and moving to see the launch again, and to watch the much closer movies and pictures than I was able to get on the day. Since then, parts of Planck have been slowly turned on, cooled down, and checked out. Everything is working well so far; we’re looking forward to the first data in a little more than two months. It’s going to be a long summer.
The episode will briefly be available on BBC’s iPlayer, but more of my cringeworthy discussion of Planck in a different context is up on YouTube; check out the next post for much cooler cosmology video from a more photogenic cosmologist with a better voice.
This week, Stephen Hawking was awarded the Copley Medal, and the BBC took the opportunity to broadcast the Today Show direct from the Royal Society, in what seemed to me a fairly amateurish production. Professor Peter Coles reprised his usual and welcome role as an anti-Hawking-hype nay-sayer. Another commentator (sorry, I’ve forgotten whom) made the crucial point that Newton, Einstein and Maxwell really invented entire new disciplines of physics with reverberations in almost everything we physicists do. In contrast, Hawking’s most famous work, on black hole radiation and quantum cosmology, consolidated existing strands (and is no less brilliant for that).
Much of the rest of the show felt like it was being broadcast from Heatheringfarnborough Village Hall with a strangely patronizing John Humphries leading on an incoherent and somewhat reactionary audience. The low point to me was a supposed discussion between the equally-exasperating Bryan Appleyard and Lewis Wolpert. Appleyard sets up the straw man of “scientism”, the idea that we scientists think that all questions have scientific answers, and for his part Wolpert manages to fall into the rhetorical trap. (I agree with almost everything Wolpert, like Richard Dawkins, says. I just wish they each would learn to say it in a less annoying way.)
Appleyard correctly points out that trying to ask scientific questions about, say, the pursuit of stem cell research or abortion, involves a category error: whether a lump of cells is “a human being” is not a question that has a scientific answer, since there is no well-specified scientific definition of the rather fuzzy concept of “human being”.
Perhaps coincidentally, BBC4’s In Our Time featured a discussion of the Speed of Light. (I will resist calling it “illuminating”…). John Barrow made an excellent analogy between a light wave and a crime wave. In a sound wave, particles are moving closer together or further apart; in a water wave they are mostly moving up and down. But a light wave, rather, is a wave of quantum-mechanical information which changes the probabilities that receptors in our eyes, or CCD chips in our cameras, will interact with the incoming photons.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell discussed the infamous “twin paradox” of relativity — but she didn’t actually explain why it’s a paradox! Consider a pair of twins, and send one out on a very fast spaceship, moving near the speed of light. If that twin turns around and comes back to earth, she’ll find that she’s much older than the sister she left behind. Why? Relativity states that moving clocks run slow, so the moving twin ages more slowly than the earthbound twin. But it’s not yet a paradox — that comes in when we remember that relativity also says that motion at a constant velocity is completely relative. That is, while the twins are moving away from one another, the space traveller would equally well say that her earthbound sister’s clocks are running slow compared to hers! But (here’s the paradox) if the situations are symmetric, how come the outcome is different? Why is the travelling twin older? The answer is that the situation isn’t really symmetric between the twins at all: the moving twin had to accelerate her spaceship with respect to the earth when she leaves, again when she turns around, and then finally when she returns, accelerations that the stay-at-home twin doesn’t undergo.
Finally, my review of Davies’ Goldilocks Enigma has made it to the top of the “Arts & Letters Daily” aggregator (look for “cosmic evolution”). Thanks to those of you who’ve read it and sent me comments; please feel encouraged to post them here for others to read.
Update: Bryan Appleyard elucidates a slightly more nuanced position in the comments.
BBC4 let us spend a night with my New Jersey homeboy, Bruce Springsteen.
Selections from The Seeger Sessions, recorded with a BBC audience at St Luke’s in London, gave us middle-aged Bruce as protest singer, rocking up some folky standards. This may indeed be what the world needs now, but with its whitebread, bespectacled audience, it had a kind of NPR/Garrison Keillor feel (think Andy Kershaw without the hard-rockin’ Peel influence, and worse jokes?). But during the next hour, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band in ‘75, when Springsteen started singing “Thunder Road”, it sent chills up my spine.
Me, I remember summers listening to “Born To Run” in the late 70s and early 80s, not quite understanding the operatic desperation of Bruce’s characters, but adolescent enough to pretend to it, and just old enough to feel — and young enough to believe in — the salvation of rock ‘n’ roll.
While I was out last night planning the overthrow of religion with my fellow amoral atheists, the BBC was broadcasting a documentary in which it presented a poll showing that nearly 40% of Britons thought Intelligent Design or Creationism is the best explanation of life on earth.
So it appears that Britain, too, is being swayed by the crackpots.
For some reason, the BBC's Today Program had a feature on the Big Bang and its purported problems confronting modern data. Apart from the woefully misguided Eric Lerner, the discussion was relatively nuanced and at least attempted to distinguish between a wrong theory and an incomplete one -- the questions that the Big Bang, as it stands today, leaves unanswered. The Big Bang per se is simply the idea that the Universe started out hot and dense and has been expanding ever since. This is borne out in great detail by observations such as the expansion of the Universe itself; by the abundances of the light elements like Hydrogen and Helium which were "cooked" in the heat of the Universe when it was just a few minutes old; and by the Cosmic Microwave Background which I spend much of my time investigating, the so-called afterglow of the Big Bang (see the picture below).
The unanswered questions are addressed in refinements to the Big Bang such as the ΛCDM model, which posits the properties of the particles and energy that make up of the bulk of the Universe: CDM is "cold dark matter" which we've only observed via its gravitational effects, but haven't yet seen the requisite particle in the laboratory; Λ -- or "dark energy" -- is something like Einstein's famous Cosmological Constant which seems to be driving the universe to expand ever faster, and whose identity is completely mysterious -- and even worrying. (This is the explanation for Tom Shanks' experts-only quip of a few weeks ago.)
The feature also included a brief statement from my colleague Kate Land, who has been working with Joao Magueijo (and neither of whom I seem to be able to point to right now) investigating some of the unexpected patterns we see in the CMB, and whose work may point to yet more refinements to or revisions of the Big Bang.
For us experts, the most interesting part of the interview was the statement that we should expect new results from the WMAP satellite in November. WMAP reported its first results back in 2003, and we've been waiting for their analysis of yet more data for the past year and a half or so (meanwhile, experiments like Boomerang have continued to analyze their own CMB data).
The Observer also reports on the supposed anti-US bias of the BBC's Katrina reporting, citing a second-hand report from the always fair and balanced tycoon Rupert Murdoch on a conversation with Tony Blair. The PM supposedly referred to the BBC's coverage as "gloating" and "full of hatred of America". Even Bill Clinton seemed to echo these criticisms.
I'm not so sure: I was in the US for the entire week of Katrina, and the reporting there was no less angry: angry not at the people of New Orleans, of course, but angry at the government for its slack response, its representatives' willingness to tell bald-faced lies about the state of the poor (in several senses of the term) people in the Superdome, for example. That veneer of supposed objectivity (and of course we must emphasize the "supposed") is rarely cracked in US reporting, but Katrina was one event which actually brought the reporters straight into the story, a stark contrast to the sorry, spoon-fed "embedding" they and we have had to endure of late.