Wednesday, November 25, 2015

2015 – 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

With UNESCO marking 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, will the centenary of Einstein’s presentation of General Relativity inspire advances of current physics? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in November 1915, Albert Einstein presented to the world his “Theory of General Relativity” as a way to resolve another contradiction of physics not covered by his “Theory of Special Relativity” ten years before. According to Isaac Newton, gravity travelled instantly through the universe. But according to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, nothing can go faster than light (but there’s an intriguingly convincing work by Thomas Van Flandern of the US Naval Observatory back in the mid 1970s proving otherwise that you can also check out). To overcome these incompatible views, Einstein introduced another, even grander theory in which space and time are not empty but are instead like a fabric that can be curved and stretched. This new picture – in which gravity originates from the bending of sheets of space-time – revolutionized cosmology and gave us the most compelling theory of creation, the Big Bang. 

Einstein’s Special Relativity was incomplete because it made no mention of acceleration or gravity. Einstein then made the next key observation: Motion under gravity and motion in an accelerated frame are indistinguishable. Since a light beam will bend in a rocket that is accelerating, a light beam must also bend under gravity. 

To show this, Einstein introduced the concept of curved space. In this interpretation, planets move around the sun not because of a gravitational pull but because the sun has warped the space around it, and the curvature of space itself due to the sun pushes the planets. Gravity does not pull you into a chair; space pushes on you, creating the feeling of weight. Space-time has been replaced by a fabric that can stretch and bend. 

General relativity can describe the extreme warping of space caused by the gravity of a massive dead star – a black hole. When we apply General Relativity to the universe as a whole, one solution naturally describes an expanding cosmos that originated in a fiery “Big Bang”. 

One of the simplest demonstrations using everyday objects to explain Einstein’s General Relativity that even the youngest school-kids can grasp is the bowling ball, marble and bedsheet set-up. Put a bowling ball on a bedsheet and shoot a marble past it. The marble will move in a curved line. A Newtonian physicist would say that the bowling ball exerts a “force” that “pulls” on the marble, making it move in a curved line. A Relativist would say that the ball curves the bedsheet and that the bedsheet “pushes” against the marble. This “simple” demonstration of Einstein’s General Relativity on how gravity shapes the cosmic space-time also explains why the 1919 solar eclipse observation that shows the sun’s gravitational well curving the path of starlight and the advancing perihelion of the planet Mercury that Newtonian physics is at a loss to explain why.  

Einstein’s General Relativity also shows that gravitational fields affect the flow of time – making them slow down which was only demonstrated unequivocably just recently – back in the mid 1990s - when atomic clocks were accurate enough to show the difference. Without correcting the effects of General Relativity, the Global Positioning System or GPS signals from the satellites to your receiving unit would have errors of several parts per billion – which is enough to make them useless. 

Recently, one of the most grandiose experiments to test the limits of Einstein’s General Relativity was the hunt for gravitational waves. Physicists can’t yet put the entire universe on a lab bench, but experimental tests of Einstein’s theories can now be carried out with subatomic precision. Perhaps the most elusive phenomena predicted by General Relativity – but has yet to be observed – are gravitational waves. In theory, a cataclysmic event such as a spiraling merger of two black holes should produce wavelike ripples in space-time that could still be detectible by the time they reach planet Earth. Two Earth-based observatories, Advanced LIGO and Advanced VIRGO at the University of Pisa in Italy, will look for disturbances as small as a hundred-millionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ahmed Mohamad And America’s Post 9/11 Education Scene

Is America’s post 9/11 education scene way different than what has come before when a 14-year-old Arab-American high school freshman gets arrested for being an electronics enthusiast?

By: Ringo Bones 

During a typical Monday morning back in September 14, 2014, a 14-year-old Arab American high school freshman of MacArthur High in Irving, Texas named Ahmed Mohamad was arrested by the local police after his teacher mistakes the clock that he had worked over the weekend and bought to his class’ show-and-tell for a bomb. Later investigation showed that the uproar over the young electronic enthusiast was primarily racially motivated via the post 9/11 paranoia that is still gripping white Anglo Saxon conservative America, Ahmed Mohamad was later invited by President Barack Obama to the White House and given a commendation. Given the “politics” surrounding the incident, is the post-9/11 paranoia harbored by white Anglo Saxon Protestant America hurting, rather than helping, science education in America?   

The political blowback of the incident made Ahmed Mohamad to decide that he won’t be going back to MacArthur High anymore after being singled-out due to his ethnicity. After all, there are white Anglo Saxon Protestant high school students his age that were carrying loaded assault rifles publicly in the name of the “Open Carry Law” elsewhere in Texas and nobody dared to call them as “Christian Terrorists”?  

Is post the white Anglo Saxon Protestant Post 9/11 Paranoia destroying the social fabric of diversity in America? Ahmed Mohamad could be a case-in-point of this and it is also ruining the inclusiveness of science education in America where kids of high school freshmen are seeing science education as “uncool” thanks to former US President George “Dubya” Bush. Ahmed Mohamad’s exceptional abilities in digital electronics should have been nurtured given that when I was his age back in the 1980s, was still learning the rudiments of digital electronics –i.e. still learning about logic gates and J-K flip-flops. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Graphene: The Wonder Material Awaiting Commercial Applications?

Even though its two discoverers already share a Nobel Physics Prize, is graphene that wonder material that’s desperately seeking commercial applications? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though the properties of this so-called wonder material is already familiar to materials researchers as far back as 1947, it wasn’t until the 1970s that two Manchester University physicists, Prof. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov developed a method to consistently synthesize the one-atom-thick-carbon wonder material now known as graphene, which eventually allowed them to share the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize. Given that it is 207 times stronger than steel and is a very good conductor of heat and electricity, the wonder material grapheme has defied commercial exploitation because of a lack of an economically viable way to synthesize and manufacture it, until now. 

Known as the “first lady of graphene”, Catharine Paukner, CEO and founder of Cambridge Nanosystems had recently developed an economically viable method to produce graphene on a mass scale. Using methane extracted from communal landfills and cow flatulence, Paukner has managed to convert this potent greenhouse gas (one molecule methane has 25 times the greenhouse warming effect of a single molecule of carbon dioxide) into something useful – the famed wonder material graphene. 

Already in the planning stage, Catharine Paukner’s large-scale methane to graphene plant, based on the workings of a domestic kitchen microwave oven, will be able to produce 5-metric tons of graphene a year. As a wonder material with hundreds of potential very lucrative commercial uses since it was extensively studied in the past 25 years, graphene still elude practical everyday applications due to the difficulty of producing it in quantity at a cost-effective manner. Ultra-light carbon composites more than 200 times stronger than steel for electric powered aircraft applications and replacement body parts are just some of the commercial applications that could make graphene production a potential multi-billion dollar a year industry.    

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Homer Simpson: Brilliant Theoretical Physicist?

Even though the world-renowned patriarch of The Simpsons is a well-known bumbling oaf, but did you know that Homer Simpson, at one time, exhibited his genius as a "theoretical physicist"?

By: Ringo Bones

Though he is more well-known as a dunce and a bumbling oaf, Homer Simpson – a world-renown animated character often used by its creators to assess the prevailing zeitgeist – once displayed his mathematical genius and even predicted the mass of the Higgs Boson to within more than 90-percent accuracy 14 years before it was confirmed by a team of particle physicists operating CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. To the curious, this was from an episode titled “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” where Homer Simpson got envious of Thomas Alva Edison and tries to out-invent the “Wizard of Menlo Park”. Does this mean that Homer Simpson is now in hallowed company with Peter Higgs?

The episode would have been forgotten and would have languished in some obscure footnote of 20th Century history if not for Dr. Simon Singh who wrote a book back in 2013 titled “The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets” that included a spotlight on the 1998 episode “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” when Homer becomes “obsessed” with Thomas Alva Edison and decides to become an inventor. A scene in that particular The Simpsons episode script required a reading glasses-clad Homer to be placed in front of a chalkboard with complex mathematical equations. One of the writers on staff had a physicist friend who was researching the then-theoretical Higgs Boson particle and needed a “scientifically believable” illustration of Homer dabbling with a complex mathematical equation predicting the mass of the Higgs Boson particle – which is also known as the “God Particle”.

“That particular equation - as shown on TV on that particular 1998 The Simpsons episode – predicts the mass of the Higgs Boson” says Dr. Simon Singh. “If you work it out, you get the mass of the Higgs Boson that’s only a bit larger than the nano-mass of a Higgs Boson actually is. It is kind of amazing as Homer makes the prediction 14 years before it was discovered” (in the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider). For those super interested, the Higgs Boson particle was discovered to have a mass of 126 GeV.

The Higgs Boson particle is the “visible” that interacts with the Higgs Field – just like gravitons do with the gravitational field. The Higgs Field is an energy force that permeates across the universe that gives baryonic matter mass and allows the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force to co-exist in the “Standard Model” of how we think, so far, on how universal molecular physics work.
Even though Homer’s mathematical musings on the Higgs Boson somewhat reminds me of 1984 Nobel Physics Prize winner Carlo Rubbia’s mathematical musings that was pictured on a 1990 era Time magazine, the field of particle physics / quantum mechanics, mathematics can be a very useful tool in discovering and describing an “unknown particle” with better than 90-percent accuracy. Back in 1962, a then 32 year old Caltech physicist named Murray Gell-Mann proposed a search for a then theoretical particle called the Omega Minus. The particle’s existence was mathematically predicted by the Standard Model, Gell-Mann argued by a theory he formulated himself and by another physicist – a then 37 year old former Israeli Army officer named Yuval Ne’eman.

This theory which Gell-Mann called “The Eightfold Way” was based on an obscure mathematical system invented in the 19th Century in order to manipulate numbers in groups of eight since each interacting nuclear particle had eight quantum numbers how subatomic baryons and mesons are organized into octets. Independently, Ne’eman did the same. Eventually, Gell-Mann was awarded the 1969 Nobel Physics Prize for his work on elementary particles and by 1971 began work in search for a then unknown family of particles called “quarks” using "The Eightfold Way".