Of Books And Bosons
by Mike Clifford
I heard a story recently about someone who asked everyone that was going to buy him a Christmas present to give him their favorite book. On the face of it, this sounds like a wonderful idea, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the person in question will have ended up with a pile of books that will be, at best, only half-read. Judging from a quick scan of the internet, the idea seems to have been copied and modified a few times, with one person posting: “Buy me your favourite book and I'll be so so happy. Correction. Unless your favorite book is some Nicholas Spark romance novel…” Perhaps books need to be discovered in order to be treasured and the context of where they are bought adds to the reader’s experience.
Personally, I spend many hours scanning the shelves of second hand / charity shops to see what’s on offer. As well as being cheaper, the advantage over a traditional bookshop is that one can tell something of the history of a second-hand book by its condition. A shiny “good as new” book may not have been read, whereas a creased paperback with a broken spine begs to be rescued and to be read by fresh eyes.
And that’s how I came across the book “Einstein’s Dreams” by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. The title immediately grabbed my attention as I scanned the bookshelf in a charity shop, and so I bought the battered copy and took it home with me where I discovered that I’d found a rare “proof copy” which explained the slightly odd type-setting. Quite how it turned up in Nottingham, I will probably never know. Anyway, the novel is written in a series of chapters, which contain Einstein’s fictional dreams concerning various conceptions of time. Some episodes play on the theory of relativity, whereas others are purely fictional. Lightman’s writing bridges the academic / fictional divide in a way that few others have managed to do successfully. The book is amongst my favorites and, foolishly abandoning my second-hand book shopping methodology, I rushed to order another of his novels, “Reunion,” online, only to be bitterly disappointed. I might yet be tempted to give Lightman another go and try one of his more recent books, “Mr g” but that’s another story and it’s had very mixed reviews (but that makes me want to read it all the more).
Separating science fact from science fiction is particularly difficult when it comes to quantum physics, where Newton’s laws are treated with the same disdain applied to speeding limits on freeways by many motorists. I can remember the moment when I lost my faith in the subatomic. At the end of my high school education, in my final science lesson, my Chemistry teacher left us with the bombshell that the electrons that we’d drawn in orbits around atoms probably didn’t exist, or at least, at that point in time, no one had managed to isolate one. Perhaps this wasn’t the ideal thing to say to prepare us for the exam revision period.
Nearly thirty years on, the quest for isolating sub-atomic particles is hotting up, or perhaps, cooling down. I’m reliably informed that individual electrons can now be easily confined in CMOS transistors operated at cryogenic temperatures around −262 °C. And more recently, attention has focused on the Higgs Boson or “God particle” of which I know very little apart from this splendid tale: A Higgs Boson knocks on the door of a church. “Can I come in?” “No!” say the priest. “Ah, come on, you can’t have mass without me!” says the subatomic particle.
I am puzzled by the so-called “discovery” of the Higgs Boson via the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The press releases from CERN in 2012 stopped someway short of what the media wanted to hear, announcing the "observation of a new particle" rather than the experimental confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson, but maybe I’m splitting hairs. After all, a BBC article on the subject comments with a palpable roll of the eyes, “Particle physicists are a notoriously conservative bunch when it comes to saying they have found something.” Whatever you do, never ask a physicist if she’s found the car keys, or a missing cat (groan). But perhaps this conservative approach should be commended given the CERN Director-General, Rolf Heuer’s, observations that “We’re living through a period of unique circumstances for science. Positive indicators, such as a renewal of interest in physical sciences at the University level and unprecedented public interest in the LHC, are aligning with storm clouds in the form of a prolonged economic crisis that will put downward pressure on everyone’s budgets.”
With a budget of approximately $9 billion, atom-smashing doesn’t come cheap. According to Wikipedia, “Physicists hope that the LHC will help answer some of the fundamental open questions in physics, concerning the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary objects, the deep structure of space and time, and in particular the interrelation between quantum mechanics and general relativity,” I can’t help feeling that this seems like a very big sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s an interesting question, but rather than throw money at it and trust an instrument that seems to be constantly under repair (the physicists blame the engineers) and which can’t even appear to accurately measure the speed of light, I’d prefer to invest more in theoretical physics instead. Einstein got a long way without doing any physical experiments. However, in an recent newspaper interview, Physicist Don Braben from UCL lamented that, "Science at the margins, where great discoveries are made, is in a total mess… Many of the scientists like Einstein and Planck who made the major discoveries of the 20th century wouldn't have got funding under today's rules. Until 1970 good scientists were guaranteed some money just to think. Not any more."
Perhaps Braben is looking back with a hint of nostalgia. I’m not quite old enough to remember the 1970s in much detail, but I do remember when I appeared to have more time (rather than more money) to think, which isn’t quite the same thing. Perhaps it’s for the theoretical physicists to come up with an equation linking time with money, just as Einstein linked energy with mass. Just think how much time CERN’s $9 billion might buy.
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.
Mike was recently honored by Universitas 21 (a global network of research universities) for his efforts regarding internationalisation in education both within and beyond the engineering classroom. U21 writes that "[Mike] created international experiences for students which impact positively on communities with a particular focus on Africa, but also across the globe, including Cambodia, India, Malaysia and Tajikistan."
In 2009, Mike was voted "engineering lecturer of the year" by the Higher Education Academy's Engineering Subject Centre for his innovative teaching methods involving costume, drama, poetry and storytelling.