physicist

The last word a physicist wants to hear at a cocktail party is “quantum.” The science of quantum mechanics has been so badly butchered and misrepresented by well-meaning writers, that others have taken the oversimplifications and run with them. As a result, New Age mystics and alternative medicine proponents have used their misunderstandings of quantum mechanics (which they, more often than not, refer to as “quantum physics”) to add credence to their pseudoscientific ideas and products.

“The Quantum Universe,” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, both particle physicists at the University of Manchester, attempts to clear up some of the misconceptions by starting at the basics of quantum mechanics, covering the same material that many physics students will see in their introductory classes. Unfortunately, this means that they don't delve into some of the more elaborate and hotter topics, such as string theory.

However, what they lack in addressing newer ideas, they more than make up by writing what very well may be the definitive introduction to quantum mechanics. “The Quantum Universe” is written for the layman, who will likely enjoy it, but it would also be a superb supplement for physics students struggling through early quantum mechanics classes.

The fundamental difficulty of quantum mechanics arises from the discovery that things on a very small scale (the size of an electron, for instance) don't behave the same way as things do in our normal macroscopic world. On the macroscopic scale, if somebody places a block on a table and blinks, it will be in the same place when they opens their eyes again. On the quantum scale, however, if a person does the same experiment, the electron could be anywhere else in the universe after the blink.

Still, there are very specific rules for the possibilities of where else the electron could be that usually involve quite a bit of math.

Cox and Forshaw get around this by trading in abstract mathematical concepts and using images instead. Specifically, the authors use clock faces to represent complex numbers (“real” numbers added to “imaginary” ones). While not always easy to follow, this works better than requiring the reader to have a background in complex analysis.

Most readers will need to make their way through the book somewhat slowly, carefully rereading paragraphs to ensure understanding, but quantum mechanics is a tricky subject matter and this is not nearly as baffling as most textbooks that cover the same material are. Those who take the time to read the book properly will come away from it with a profound knowledge of what quantum mechanics is and how it works.

Some ideas are simply not easy to convey, but Cox and Forshaw are patient writers and really take the extra effort to spell everything out. Readers will need to meet them halfway, but this is likely to be as accessible as quantum mechanics will ever be, at least in book form.

And those who want to have a genuine understanding of how it works owe it to themselves to buy a copy of “The Quantum Universe” and keep it in their personal libraries. Many books have been written on the subject of quantum mechanics. For those looking for an understanding of exactly how it works, with no hand waving or beating around the bush, this may be the best.

Printed on Monday, February 13, 2012 as: Book uses images to explain quantum mechanics concepts

Photo Credit: Caitlin Zellers | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This is a semester-long column recapping some of the exciting new scientific developments of the week. Robert Starr is a Ph.D. student studying physics.

Scientist Sees Dark Galaxy: Simona Vegetti, an MIT physicist, has discovered an entire galaxy that seems to be composed of “dark matter,” a mysterious and invisible substance that makes up an estimated 95 percent of the matter in our universe. Not much is known about dark matter, other than it has mass and doesn’t reflect light, but scientists have other methods of detecting it. For instance, highly massive objects can noticeably bend light just like a lens does. As such, by studying these bends in light, Vegetti managed to infer that a galaxy-sized object made of dark matter existed outside of our own galaxy.

Comet Disintegrates into Sun: Fortunately, in our own galaxy, many things do reflect light, including comets crashing into the sun. A study published in “Science” has verified that video taken last summer is of a comet vaporizing in the sun’s atmosphere, something that hadn’t been filmed before. The video is a result of a new satellite specifically designed to study the sun and reveals a big ball of ice about the size of a small aircraft carrier grazing the sun at less than 60,400 miles from the surface at a speed of 372 miles per second, breaking up in the process. While it may seem to happen too fast for most casual viewers to see anything without re-watching the video several times and being told exactly where to look, it’s provided scientists with an abundance of data and proves the effectiveness of the new satellite.

Look Out, George Lucas: Along with that satellite, we also have an International Space Station orbiting the earth, which occasionally welcomes civilians aboard for a hefty fee. One of these civilians, Richard Garriott, filmed an eight-minute science fiction movie called “Apogee of Fear” while on board in 2008.

Though NASA previously wouldn’t permit him to release the movie (as it was not part of their original agreement with him), they changed their stance this week and stated that they “hope to resolve the remaining issues” and allow the film to be released to the public.

Want to Live to 100? Look to Your Parents: A new study suggests that the ability to live to 100 may have a significant genetic component, though perhaps not as strong as previously thought. As a follow-up to a problematic study from a year and a half ago which suggested that researchers could predict whether you would be a centenarian with 77 percent accuracy just by looking at your genes, scientists reevaluated the data and found that they could only predict individuals’ ability to reach 100 with about a 60 percent certainty. This jumps to 85 percent with older individuals, suggesting that when you reach a certain age, genes play a stronger role in longevity than they do when you’re younger.

I Can Calculate That with My Eyes Closed: A group of researchers at the University of Vienna have demonstrated that it’s possible to develop a computer that can process information without actually being privy to that information — in other words, blind computation. While this is part of a “quantum computer,” a theoretical system based on quantum mechanical properties that’s still a long way from seeing the light of day outside of a research lab, it has huge implications when combined with cloud computing. One of the major fears of “the cloud” is how it renders privacy obsolete. However, with this type of system, we could have the power of a cloud-based system without sacrificing our personal information to it.

Jim Ottaviani, author of the comic novel “Feynman,” stressed the importance of graphic novels in literature and the impact Richard Feymann’s life had on the physics community.

Photo Credit: Kiersten Holms | Daily Texan Staff

Physics meets graphic novels in Jim Ottaviani’s newest graphic novel about the famed physicist, Richard Feynman.

Ottaviani said most people aren’t aware of the many nuances that come into play when writing a graphic novel. He said he has to create the scene through his writing for artists to refer to when they are drawing out the graphic novels. 

“I think a lot of people are totally wrong about comics. There is definitely a lot that comes into play,” Ottaviani said. “I mean I might sit there and write out an 800-page script for a 200-paged graphic novel.” 

Many of the attendees at a speech by Ottaviani in Robert A. Welch Hall on Friday were physics majors, and physics graduate student Maria Becker said she was interested in the graphic novel because of her admiration of Feynman’s work on quantum mechanics. Feynman received the Nobel prize in physics in 1965 for his work in the field. 

“I was primarily interested in hearing about Feynman, and I knew the book was going to be here as well. Of course, I was also interested in the graphic novel,” Becker said.

Ottaviani detailed the planning, processing, drawing and editing of graphic novels. 

“The way it starts for me is page one, panel one. Give the artist a feel for the setting,” Ottaviani said. “You want to give the artists a feel for the setting by including those really minute details.”

Ottaviani shared some of the tricks he uses to make his graphic novels with the audience.

“If you want a surprise to happen, you put it at the top left-hand side of an odd-numbered page,” he said. “Then, the reader turns the page and bam!”

Ottaviani said that after he writes the scripts, his degree of usefulness to the project varies on how much he trusts the artist. He said sometimes he is very involved while other times he realizes he would just interfere with the artist’s creativity. 

Many were interested in the creative process that went into the graphic novels, but others were more interested in hearing about Feynman himself.

“I came to see him speak because I am a physics major, and it’s Feynman,” said physics junior Alex Reinhart. “It’s obligatory.”

Ottaviani said his admiration for Feynman inspired him to create his latest graphic novel. 

“I think, though, that part of what made Feynman great was his curiosity,” Ottaviani said. “The desire to learn and experience more made him great.”

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Comic author Jim Ottaviani speaks about physicist, art to students 

The mere mention of the name Richard Feynman causes any physicist’s eyes to brighten. No doubt, Feynman was one of greatest thinkers of the 20th century, but he never acted like one. He was a goofball — a child in an adult’s body who loved life almost as much as the thrill of discovery. He happened to find his way into physics, but along the way got distracted by a number of hobbies, from cracking safes to drawing nudes to playing the drums. Known by his friends as an expert raconteur, eventually he put his stories into print and published collections such as “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

Feynman,” the graphic novel by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick, adapts several of those stories along with some of Feynman’s lectures and speeches. The result is nothing short of marvelous. Each frame captures Feynman’s excitement, and the parts that delve into physics do so in as accessible a way as possible, allowing the reader to marvel at Feynman’s unique teaching style.

The best stories in the book are those that focus on Feynman’s mischief. While working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he would spend his spare time trying to get around the security at the base. It was almost as if Feynman took “you can’t do this” as a challenge rather than an order. And being the brainy guy that he was, he’d typically pass the challenge with flying colors.

Ottaviani’s graphic novel covers many of Feynman’s stories, but also does a particularly good job of presenting some of the scientific ideas that the man immersed himself in. Feynman was a major proponent of the idea that if one could not form an introductory lesson on a subject, then he didn’t really understand it. As a result, he spent a lot of time presenting advanced topics to those outside the field, never explaining them in the traditional textbook manner and often preferring a less mathematical, more conceptual approach.

Though Ottaviani covers the science well and also hits most of the biggest feats of Feynman’s life, it’s slightly frustrating (though understandable) that he’s unable to cover more of the material from the books, lectures and talks. The graphic novel already clocks in at an appropriate length of 266 pages, though there’s likely enough material out there to more than quadruple that.

Additionally, the individual stories are appropriately abridged, offering something like an overview of the material that it’s adapting. While “Feynman” works as a standalone piece, it’s more effective when thought of as a companion piece or introduction to its sources.

“Feynman” does what it sets out to do and does it very well: It captures the essence of a great character, providing an entertaining portrait of his life, in his own words and from his point of view. It’s a beautiful tribute to a great man.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Graphic novel presents life of world-renowned physicist