Relevant and resonant extracts from art, science and life and the place where patterns begin to emerge. 


' scope given to the imagination' - Charles Darwin

"In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains 

of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these

plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be

described only by negative characters; without habitations,

without water, without trees, without mountains, they support

merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar

to myself, have those arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my

memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile

Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal

impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings; but it must

be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination.

The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely

passable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having lasted,

as they are now, for ages, and there appears to be no limit to

their duration during future time. If, as the ancients supposed,

the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water,

or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look

at these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but

ill-defined feelings?"

Charles Darwin.


"Science is fiction" - Jean PainlevĂ©

I have just become an admirer of the short films of Jean Painleve (1902 - 1989).  He affirmed "the superiority of reality", the "extraordinary inventiveness of Nature", over "the artifice" of traditional cinematographical scenes. He is pictured with his homemade waterproof housing for underwater photography.  Below is his short film, 'Le Vampire' where the real becomes surreal.


'This is The First Thing', Larkin and 'The Sigh', Hardy

Two poems about the passage of time and things that cannot be recaptured.  They were bought together in an email conversation. 

This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.
 - Philip Larkin from 'The North Ship' collection, 1945
The Sigh
Little head against my shoulder, 
Shy at first, then somewhat bolder,
  And up eyed;
Till she, with a timid quaver,
Yielded to the kiss I gave her;
  But, she sighed.
That there mingled with her feeling
Some sad thought she was concealing
  It implied.
- Not that she had ceased to love me,
None on earth she set above me;
  But she sighed.
She could not disguise a passion,
Dread, or doubt, in weakest fasion
  If she tried:
Nothing seemed to hold us sundered,
Hearts were victors; so I wondered
  Why she sighed.
Afterwards I knew her thoroughly,
And she loved me staunchly, truly,
  Till she died;
But she never made confession
Why, at that first sweet concession,
  She had sighed.
It was in our May, remember;
And though now I near November
  And abide
Till my appointed change, unfretting,
Sometimes I sit half regretting
  That she sighed.
- Thomas Hardy

'In praise of particle physics', The Economist, 17 December 2011

In this week of economic turbulence in Europe and the glimmer of the prospect of discovering the Higgs particle, this quite beautifully written leader article in The Economist voiced my thoughts...
Higgs ahoy!
The elusive boson has probably been found.  That is a triumph for the predictive power of physics.

IN PHYSICS, the trick is often to ask a question so obvious no one else would have thought of posing it. Apples have fallen to the ground since time immemorial. It took the genius of Sir Isaac Newton to ask why. Of course, it helps if you have the mental clout to work out the answer. Fortunately, Newton did.
It was in this spirit, almost 50 years ago, that a few insightful physicists asked themselves where mass comes from. Like the tendency of apples to fall to the ground, the existence of mass is so quotidian that the idea it needs a formal explanation would never occur to most people. But it did occur to Peter Higgs, then a young researcher at Edinburgh University, and to five other scientists whom the quirks of celebrity have not treated so kindly. They, too, had the necessary mental clout. They got out their pencils and papers and scribbled down equations whose upshot was a prediction.
The reason that fundamental particles have mass, the researchers calculated, is their interaction with a previously unknown field that permeates space. This field came to be named (with no disrespect to the losers in the celebrity race) the Higgs field. Technically, it is needed to explain a phenomenon called electroweak symmetry breaking, which divides two of the fundamental forces of nature, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. When that division happens, a bit of leftover mathematics manifests itself as a particle. This putative particle has become known as the Higgs boson, whose possible discovery was announced to the world on December 13th (see article).
Physicists demand a level of proof that would in any other human activity (including other scientific ones) be seen as ludicrously high—that a result has only one chance in 3.5m of being wrong. The new results—from experiments done at CERN, the world’s premier particle-physics laboratory, using its multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider, the LHC—do not individually come close to that threshold. What has excited physicists, though, is that they have got essentially identical results from two experiments attached to the LHC, which work in completely different ways. This coincidence makes it much more likely that they have discovered the real deal.
If they have, it would be a wonderful thing, and not just for science. Though nations no longer tremble at the feet of particle physicists—the men, and a few women, who once delivered the destructive power of the atom bomb—physics still has the power to produce awe in another way, by revealing the basic truths that underpin reality.
Model behaviour
Finding the Higgs would mark the closing of one chapter in this story. The elusive boson rounds off what has become known as the Standard Model of physics—an explanation that relies on 17 fundamental particles and three physical forces (though it stubbornly refuses to accommodate a fourth force, gravity, which is separately explained by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity). Much more intriguingly, the Higgs also opens another chapter of physics.
The physicists’ plan is to use the Standard Model as the foundation of a larger and more beautiful edifice called Supersymmetry. This predicts a further set of particles, the heavier partners of those already found. How much heavier, though, depends on how heavy the Higgs itself is. The results just announced suggest it is light enough for some of the predicted supersymmetric particles to be made in the LHC too.
That is a great relief to those at CERN. If the Higgs had proved much heavier than this week’s announcement implies they might have found themselves with a lot of redundant kit on their hands. Now they can start looking for the bricks of Supersymmetry, to see if it, too, resembles the physicists’ predictions. In particular, in a crossover between particle physics and cosmology, they will be trying to find out if (as the maths suggest) the lightest of the supersymmetric partner particles are the stuff of the hitherto mysterious “dark matter” whose gravity holds galaxies together.
A critique of pure reason
One of the most extraordinary things about the universe is this predictability—that it is possible to write down equations which describe what is seen, and extrapolate from them to the unseen. Newton was able to go from the behaviour of bodies falling to Earth to the mechanism that holds planets in orbit. James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, derived in the mid-19th century, predicted the existence of radio waves. The atom bomb began with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, which was a result derived by asking how objects would behave when travelling near the speed of light. The search for antimatter, that staple of science fiction, was the consequence of an equation about electrons which has two sets of solutions, one positive and one negative.
Eugene Wigner, one of the physicists responsible for showing, in the 1920s, the importance of symmetry to the universe (and who was thus a progenitor of Supersymmetry), described this as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Not all such predictions come true, of course. But the predictive power of mathematical physics—as opposed to the after-the-fact explanatory power of maths in other fields—is still extraordinary.
Some might see the hand of God in such predictability. The Higgs boson is, indeed, known to headline writers as the God particle (though the sobriquet was actually first given by a bowdlerising editor, who shortened an author’s reference to “that goddamn particle”). Others will prefer to stand in awe of a universe that they suspect began as a quantum fluctuation in pre-existing nothingness. And yes, there are calculations explaining how that could have happened, too.
Both sides, though, should be in awe not merely of the universe, but also of the men and women who have stripped, and continue to strip, that universe of its mystery—and do so without diminishing the wonder of it all. So, at a time when the future of human affairs seems particularly uncertain, a Christmas toast to the predictability of physics. 

Testing Einstein's Theory of General Relativity

Francis Everitt gave a fascinating talk yesterday at the departmental colloquium about the experimental mission - Gravity Probe B, which completed earlier this year, over forty years after its original conception. The aim of the mission was to verify Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, by investigating two extraordinary phenomena predicted by Einstein: the geodesic effect (warping of spacetime due to the Earth) and the frame dragging effect (the extent to which the earth drags its spacetime round with it). The project is a fantastic story of human vision, tenacity and imagination.

Visit the excellent project site.


Emmy Noether - Einstein's appreciation

Emmy Noether was a great woman mathematician.  She created one of the most beautiful and profound theories showing how our most fundamental conservation laws of energy, angular momentum, linear momentum and charge can be derived from corresponding symmetries.  Here is Einstein's memorable and thought provoking tribute, published in the New York Times.

Emmy Noether

Professor Einstein Writes in Appreciation of a Fellow-Mathematician.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

The efforts of most human-beings are consumed in the struggle for their daily bread, but most of those who are, either through fortune or some special gift, relieved of this struggle are largely absorbed in further improving their worldly lot. Beneath the effort directed toward the accumulation of worldly goods lies all too frequently the illusion that this is the most substantial and desirable end to be achieved; but there is, fortunately, a minority composed of those who recognize early in their lives that the most beautiful and satisfying experiences open to humankind are not derived from the outside, but are bound up with the development of the individual's own feeling, thinking and acting. The genuine artists, investigators and thinkers have always been persons of this kind. However inconspicuously the life of these individuals runs its course, none the less the fruits of their endeavors are the most valuable contributions which one generation can make to its successors.

Within the past few days a distinguished mathematician, Professor Emmy Noether, formerly connected with the University of Göttingen and for the past two years at Bryn Mawr College, died in her fifty-third year. In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. One seeks the most general ideas of operation which will bring together in simple, logical and unified form the largest possible circle of formal relationships. In this effort toward logical beauty spiritual formulas are discovered necessary for the deeper penetration into the laws of nature.

Born in a Jewish family distinguished for the love of learning, Emmy Noether, who, in spite of the efforts of the great Göttingen mathematician, Hilbert, never reached the academic standing due her in her own country, none the less surrounded herself with a group of students and investigators at Göttingen, who have already become distinguished as teachers and investigators. Her unselfish, significant work over a period of many years was rewarded by the new rulers of Germany with a dismissal, which cost her the means of maintaining her simple life and the opportunity to carry on her mathematical studies. Farsighted friends of science in this country were fortunately able to make such arrangements at Bryn Mawr College and at Princeton that she found in America up to the day of her death not only colleagues who esteemed her friendship but grateful pupils whose enthusiasm made her last years the happiest and perhaps the most fruitful of her entire career.

Princeton University, May 1, 1935.

[New York Times May 5, 1935]

The New York Times printed a recent article reminding us of this forgotten mathematician. Click on the image to read (and press <skip ad>).


Heinz Mack

I discovered Heinz Mack's work in the Belfast Museum.  He was part of the Zero Group that included Jean Tingueley.  Amongst other things his work explores light.
Heinz Mack Folium Argentum 1968. Etched/engraved aluminum sheet, 39-1/2 x 51-1/2 inches

Seeing into the atom

Visiting the London Science festival at UCL in early October, I met Gleb Lukicov who had created this beautiful experience for visitors - using a cheap hand held spectrascope they could see the spectral lines emitted by different gases.  Each lamp contains a different element (cadmium, mercury, sodium.....) which produces its own unique spectral lines, like a fingerprint.  The lines tell us about the atomic structure. Gleb is a young physicist and passionate science communicator.



My study of an Orrery in the Science Museum - image below.

See this paper on making beautiful Meccano models.  

The Epilogue says 'In 1773, it was written that ‘Knowledge of the orrery is of first consideration amongst those qualities forming the scholar and the gentleman’. I trust that you, dear reader, have thus been enriched!'

Selected images below: Jovilabe (by Alan Partridge), Solar System (by P. Briggs) and Gear Model:

Below:  the earth, sun, moon.  Tellarium from the Science Museum.


'Jai guru deva om' (glory to the shining remover of darkness)


The unified photon spectrum

Russell Turner 1989, Laganch 1995, Henry 2002

Andrew Jaffe presented this chart in his guest lecture today - it shows the entire light energy density in the universe.  Over 99% of this light energy is from the big bang.  

In his song 'All Across the Universe', John Lennon uses the Sanskrit phrase: "Jai guru deva om" which approximates as "glory to the shining remover of darkness". There are long held and well recorded empathies between buddhism and modern physics.  


All Across the Universe - John Lennon

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,

They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe

Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind,

Possessing and caressing me.

Jai guru de va om

Nothing's gonna change my world,

Nothing's gonna change my world.


Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,

That call me on and on across the universe,

Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box they

Tumble blindly as they make their way

Across the universe

Jai guru de va om

Nothing's gonna change my world,

Nothing's gonna change my world.


Sounds of laughter shades of earth are ringing

Through my open views inviting and inciting me

Limitless undying love which shines around me like a

Million suns, it calls me on and on

Across the universe

Jai guru de va om

Nothing's gonna change my world,

Nothing's gonna change my world.


Octagonal room

More views from the forgotten octagonal room on the top of Physics. 


Hydrogen in the early universe

The whiteboard after a conversation with cosmologist JP about the story of hydrogen in the early universe and what we might learn from studying the 21cm electromagnetic wave emitted due to the electron spin flip transition.


Applied Astronomy - Esther B. Tiffany


Robert Delaunay

Cover of a Robert Delaunay catalogue.


Blackett Laboratory - artwork by John Skeaping

Above the main doorway into the Imperial College Physics building is a relief carving in a piece of Irish black limestone showing imagery emblematic of the status of physics around fifty years ago. It was made in the late 50's by Prof John Skeaping of the RCA.  There is no information about this work on the web, though there are bits and pieces about John whose artworks are also held by the Tate Museum.

We have decoded the image here.

This great image of the orginal design was kindly supplied by Malcolm Hudson


Explaining Relativity - Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.
It's so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,
Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.
It is this, and the existence of limits.
(received from an astrophysicist this morning)



Poem Rocket - Ginsberg

Extracts from 'Poem Rocket'

This is my rocket my personal rocket I send up my message
Someone to hear me there
My immortality
without steel or cobalt basalt or diamond gold or mercurial fire
without passports filing cabinets bits of paper warheads
without myself finally
pure thought
message all and everywhere the same
I send up my rocket to land on whatever planet awaits it
preferably religious sweet planets no money
fourth dimensional planets where Death shows movies
plants speak (courteously) of ancient physics and poetry itself is manufactured by the trees
the final Planet where the Great Brain of the Universe sits waiting for a poem to land in His Golden pocket
joining the other notes mash-notes love-sighs complaints-musical shrieks of despair and the million unutterable thoughts of frogs

The moon over Imperial College and a brilliantly lit planet.....


Mystery patterns

There is a relief carving in slate above the doorway to the physics department.  It is a montage of symbols, imagery and equations from physics.  In the centre is this pattern....but, what is it?  

The full sculpture is decoded here and this specific emblem is discussed here.


Models of light

This morning's visit to the MSc optics lab with Peter Torok revealed this fantastic model for visualising the effect of a lense on light.  Regard the lens positioned perpendicular to surface, to the left of the model. The highest peak is the focal point.  These days, students usually see this rendered in 3-d on computer.

above - move optics lab

above - a model of the surface of light waves made in 1876, based on Fresnel's work in the 1820's on crystal optics. The surface represents a wave front of light radiating from a point in a crystal: Two shells touch each other in four places. (displayed in the Science Museum).

below - my shadow, south ken wall


Jenny Moncur

Jenny Moncur created this flooring design in linoleum for the ICA in 1987.  Every landing has a different pattern.