Faust in Copenhagen is an account of an extraordinary group of people who explored the mysteries of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and early 1930s. The author is Gino Segre, a physicist himself, and in the Acknowledgments of this finely written and carefully researched volume he says, “Writing this book has been a labor of love, allowing me to spend time in the company of many of the intellectual heroes of my youth.” Indeed, the figures he writes about were heroes to many of us who had a youthful interest in physics.
In Segre’s book, the lines of history converge on April,1932, in Copenhagen. There a group of physicists meets to review the advance they’ve made in understanding the baffling world of quantum mechanics. They’ve made amazing progress and 1932 was a “miracle year.” At the end of the meeting they’re entertained by a small theatrical production, a comic skit written by fellow-physicist Max Delbruck. It’s a light parody based on Goethe’s culturally heavy Faust, but with the names and personalities changed to resemble the physicists themselves. Of course, we know what they did not, that the political storm gathering in Europe would make their swift gain in knowledge look like a bargain with the devil, a Faustian bargain to be paid for with the horrific birth of the atomic bomb.
Faust in Copenhagen is written for the general reader. It focuses on the physicists, their friendships and conflicts with each other, their competing attempts to understand the structure of the atom, the twists and turns in their lives. For readers with an interest in physics and physicists, this is a fascinating stretch of history — those not interested in such things would probably not pick up the book. There are no equations in this volume, no mathematics at all.
I wonder if you can say much about quantum mechanics without saying at least a little about numbers. One of the people at the center of Segre’s story, Lise Meitner, was an experimentalists, but the others — Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbruck, Paul Ehrenfest — dealt primarily with numbers, the results of experiments which were expressed in numbers. What made quantum mechanics so baffling was that these physicists had to figure out what was happening when they couldn’t see what was happening – they couldn’t peer inside an atom. All they had were numbers and the relationship between certain numbers, and from that they had to work backward to guess at would produce those numbers. It took a while to figure things out because, as they discovered, the weird rules governing the sub-atomic world were nothing like the familiar laws of Isaac Newton that determine the world we experience.
Of course, the same set of experimentally derived numbers can mean different things to different people. Certain numbers might suggest that an electron makes elliptical orbits around the nucleus of an atom. But you can’t really trace the orbit and see it do that; maybe the electron does something else that merely produces the same effect as an elliptical orbit. Werner Heisenberg, very young and very bright, hoped to erase what he felt were false visualizations, and he came up with a way of handling the numbers that didn’t depend on a theory of orbital motion but did produced the right results.
At the same time, another physicist who wasn’t part of the Copenhagen group, Erwin Schrodinger, did like to visualize the sub-atomic world and he came up with a completely different way of dealing with numbers and, like Heisenberg’s mathematics, his produced the right answers, too. The two men soon hated each other’s math. Of course it’s possible to discuss their conflicting ideas simply as ideas, but explaining a little bit about Heisenberg’s matrices and Schrodinger’s wave equations might allow the reader a better sense of how different those approaches were.
As it happens, one of the physicists not able to attend that meeting in 1932 was George Gamow, who was detained in Russia by the Soviets. He had had a couple of sojourns in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen in the past and he eventually escaped Soviet Russia, rejoined the physics community in Europe and settled in the United States. Gamow, who was writing important papers in quantum mechanics when he was twenty-four, later wrote a series of books on physics for the general reader; one of those books, Thirty Years That Shook Physics, tells the story of the people who developed quantum theory, much the same tale that Gino Segre tells at greater length and with more detail fifty years later.
Thirty Years That Shook Physics is lighter in tone than Segre’s book and has anecdotes, illustrations, sketches and cartoonish drawings by Gamow himself. It also has some mathematics — not a lot, not blindingly difficult, but real and useful in giving the reader a sense of what the physicists were doing. Segre’s work, with its extended conceit of the Faust story, has more artistry to it, and happily Gamow’s book is still available as a follow-up for interested readers of Faust in Copenhagen. After all, if you don’t like the look of an equation you can always skip it, but if it isn’t there, you won’t know what you’re missing.
April 26 was Intellectual Property Day. World Wide! It got right by you, right? That’s understandable, I suppose. It got past President Obama, too. Of course, he has the excuse of being really, really busy these days. And you’ve probably forgotten about WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization of the United Nations. Or maybe you never even heard of it. Well, now you know.
If you were a member of the Authors Guild, as I am, you’d have received an invitation to jot down a list celebrating “the creativity and innovation of the American people.” I scribbled out my list a couple of days ago. Barack Obama got around to jotting down his list today and it includes, among other things, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, and for innovative sports team, the Chicago Bulls — no surprise there.
The theme for Intellectual Property Day this year is Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined. The Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, observed that the internet provides a great opportunity for creators to interact with their audiences. “Now, with the Internet, the audience has become potentially the whole world. That is an enormous creative opportunity. It’s an enormous cultural opportunity. And it’s an enormous economic opportunity,” That’s certainly true.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that digital media, especially the internet and most especially the World Wide Web, provide a great opportunity for theft of intellectual property.The movement to legitimize theft of intellectual property loves the phrase “Knowledge Wants to be Free!” That’s a great slogan if knowledge refers to such things as the French Language, the location of Los Angeles, the shape of a maple leaf, or the atomic composition of water, but it’s not so smart when it refers to a recently composed song or novel. Our slogan is Stamp Out Starving Writers, Buy Their Books!
Probably the most notorious example of theft of intellectual property is Google’s wholesale copying of copyrighted books. It does this for “the public good.” Which is admirable. But Google also gets revenue which it would not get if it didn’t display the books to get readers to the Google web site — and, of course, the authors of those books get no money at all from Google.
Some people — usually not authors — will point out that being accessible on Google makes the work more likely to sell, and raises the writer’s profile. That’s certainly possible. Writers and other artists sometimes do present their work, or some part of it, free to the public, but as the creator of those works the artist wants to be in charge of what is offered free and when. As Google turns a profit from making the books available online, the writer wants a slice of that, too.
In October 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Google’s use of the books without compensation was “fair,” because the search engine’s “primary intended beneficiary is the public.” To many of us, the primary intended beneficiary of whatever Google does is Google — that’s the way capitalism works. The public does benefit, but that’s secondary — Google isn’t incorporated to serve the public good.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, has pointed out that “Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”
Yes, we’re grumpy about that.
The saying goes that time is money. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that rich people live longer than poor people. So we can turn the old saying around and say that money is time. A few years ago, a movie with premise that time and money are interchangeable came out. The action-adventure sci-fi thriller was called In Time and starred Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.
The movie takes place in an alternate present where everyone’s diminishing 25-year life expectancy is visible in luminescent numbers on their forearm. The body-clock stops at age 25, after which you have a year in which to buy more time, if you have the money. If you don’t, you can gamble for it, beg for it, steal it — or give up and die. The premise is very interesting, but the film is disappointingly commonplace with the usual smooth talking rich villains, the lower strata of relentless killers, and the dashing heroic lovers who steal from the idle time-rich to give to the desperate time-poor.
The most interesting scenes are simple visuals where Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried — he with a shaved head and not-quite-shaved cheeks, she in a high-heels and tight miniskirt — run as fast as they can to escape thugs and the time police. The pair are good runners even when holding hands. It’s too bad everything else is so lame, because a movie in which more money means more time alive dramatizes an essential fact of life in the US today.
Nowadays, men in the top 1 percent can look forward to celebrating their 87th birthday, which is about 15 more birthdays than those poor guys in the bottom 1 percent. As a matter of fact, really rich men in the USA can look forward to living longer than men anywhere on the planet. Those other guys down in the bottom 1 percent of in the United States, can expect to live as briefly as men in Sudan.
These sad facts come from an investigation into wealth and life expectancy by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and seven other researchers. The surprising news in this news is that for the poor, where they live will help determine how long they live. The rich do well in any city, but the poor – while generally living more abbreviated lives – live longer if they reside in, say, San Francisco or New York city rather than in Detroit or Tampa. According to the researchers, it helps if the place where you live has an abundance of affluent smart people and social policies which encourage a healthy lifestyle. To be specific, if a municipality reduces the areas where you can smoke cigarettes and increases the areas for bicycling and other healthful activities, all people will benefit.
Another effect of wealth is that it tends to even out the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Poor women tend to live 6 or 7 years longer than poor men, but as men and women rise in wealth, the difference in their life expectancy shrinks and at the top, women can expect only 3 or so more years than men.
Of course the movie is, as we tell our frightened children, only make believe. In real life a phone call doesn’t cost you a minute off your life, and breakfast in a really good restaurant won’t chop eight-and-a-half weeks from your lifespan. One of the In Time characters says, “Many must die so that a few can live forever.” The relationship of wealth to life expectancy in the United States isn’t that bad. Not yet, anyway.
These Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo. We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!
Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.
And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.
You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.
Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”
Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.
A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.
The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.
(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)
Jo Page, a friend who has contributed occasional posts to Critical Pages, has now written a lively and engaging book, Preaching in My Yes Dress. Ms. Page is a Lutheran pastor and this publication is partly a memoir and partly a personal report of what it’s like to deal with the bright and dark moments of pastoral work.
The story begins with friendly simplicity — “As Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, luminescent Audrey Hepburn makes convent life masochistically chic – all that pious obedience and semi-sexual mortification of the flesh. As a little girl, I wanted to be Sister Luke.” The movie made a deep impression on the girl who, when she was nine years old, sensed a cause-and-effect relationship between her own sinfulness and the death of her father. Jo Page moves deftly back and forth between the troubled inner life of that little girl and the zig-zag plot of the movie, keeping the tone precise and light. That same deftness comes into play throughout the book as the author moves from tragic to comic events in her childhood, or from wanting to “get on God’s good side” as a youngster to enrolling in a seminary as an adult with a husband and two children.
The author avoids solemnity, but doesn’t hide or dodge serious problems when they arise in the course of her story. The full title of this memoir is Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor. And that means Pastor Page is startlingly honest in depicting her doubts and the questions that arise, no matter her role – “Who can really tell what God’s will for us is anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes it seems as though God is strangely distant, strangely silent. That’s when we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.”
Preaching in My Yes Dress is thoughtful, refreshingly candid and provocative. And though it touches on subjects such as the rise of the religious right, the patriarchal nature of scripture and church organization, it’s never heavy or belligerent. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but the the title of this one is a pretty good giveaway as to what’s inside. Actually, the cover is damned good, too.
Alas, there’s no right to privacy in the Constitution of the United States. The closest we come to that right is in the 4th Amendment which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause —” and so forth.
For the past few years, the administration has been trying to get US companies to install “back doors” in their encryption programs. That way federal agencies will be able to access our otherwise private information. And now, as you know, a federal judge has ordered Apple, Inc. to hack its encrypted i-phone so the FBI will get into the device used by one of the killers in the San Bernardino massacre. Apple says No. Doing that, says CEO Tim Cook, would ultimately compromise the privacy of all i-phone users.
That’s a brave stand for privacy. And, frankly, if we have to rely on global corporations to protect us from government snooping, we’re in a bad way.
In 1890 a couple of law partners, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review about privacy. In the years since then, it’s become one of the most famous articles ever printed in that review. In their article, the young lawyers found a right to privacy — or, as they wrote, “the right to be left alone” — in common law, and also found it implicitly in a variety of statutes. It was a good start, but that was over 100 years ago.
Thirty years later, the same Louis Brandeis, by then a Justice of the Supreme Court, argued that a right to privacy was implicit in the 4th Amendment. The case was Olmstead v. the United States, and the question was whether recordings of wiretapped private telephone conversations constituted impermissibly seized evidence and consequently should be excluded from the trial. The case was well chosen to favor the use of wiretaps, because the people being wiretapped were in an outrageously huge bootlegging business. By a five-to-four decision, the Court said wiretapping had not violated the 4th Amendment. So Brandeis lost. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft said, there had been no searching and nothing had been seized, the conversation had been merely overheard. By the way, that decision was not overturned until 1967, thirty-nine years later.
The article written by Brandeis and Warren in 1890 had been stimulated by the invention of the camera and the public display in newspapers of photographs of private people. And in the 1928 Olmstead case, the decision followed upon the use of telephone wiretaps. In each case the interpretation of the 4th Amendment came in response to a technological advance that law didn’t cover. Now, of course, technology has advanced terrifically with the invention of the marvelous digital phone and all that it can do.
Clearly, any conclusive decision in the Apple case will have to involve an interpretation of the 4th Amendment. The Apple case, like the Olmstead case of 1928, is well chosen to favor the authorities, namely the FBI, since the phone they want to get into was used by the perpetrators of the horrifying San Bernardino massacre. It’s a hard case. And there’s an old legal adage that say, “Hard cases make bad law”
If you’re interested, Critical Pages has an earlier post on Louis Brandeis.
Scientists detected gravitational waves this past September, but spent the next four months checking their figures to make absolutely certain they knew what had happened and then, after giving it some thought, they chose to announce their findings this Feburary, just before Valentine’s Day. After all, these scientists are real flesh-and-blood people, not robots. They were as aware as you are that being swamped by love changes everything, affects your sense of time and space — alternately squeezing and stretching them — as do gravity waves.
Linking gravity with Valentine’s Day gives a weight to the concept of love and meaningfulness to the notion of gravity. Gravity is powerful when objects are close to each other, but it weakens amazingly fast as the distance between them increases; in fact, it diminishes with the square of the distance and pretty soon it’s so weak as to be undetectable. Essentially, there’s nothing there. Phone calls don’t get returned, emails don’t get answered.
Scientists hoping to detect gravity waves searched for four years and got nowhere, no results. They shut down their equipment, improved it’s performance fourfold and began their search again. And they got lucky. Two intensely powerful gravitational loci circling each other closer and closer finally merged, devouring and sinking into each other in a fashion reminiscent of the poet Lucretius’s description of a man and a woman making love. The event, which happened 1.3 billion years ago sent waves across the universe which were picked up at the LIGO detector in Hannaford, Washington, and the LIGO detector in Livingston, Louisiana.
Those two points of pure gravitational energy were drawn to each other 1.3 billion years ago and the vibrations emanating from that mating have been traveling across the cosmos to us ever since, reaching us this past September, and expanding even now beyond us. It’s good to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Our posts on earlier Valentine’s Day are accessible from the search box at the top of the page.