Progress on the Mach-Zehnder interferometer

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 by quantummoxie

It has been an insanely busy 2014 for me. I spent nearly the entire month of March elsewhere, with the APS March Meeting in Denver and then the workshop Information and Interaction that I organized with Dean Rickles which turned out to be a resounding hit (videos will be posted soon — I need to get through the end of the semester first). At any rate, I did find a bit of time to delve into my Mach-Zehnder interferometer in recent weeks and am pleased to report that I have figured out one of the problems I was having. Sometimes it is helpful just to have someone around to bounce ideas off of, and my former student, Eric Holland, who works in superconducting qubits and returned to campus to give a talk, kindly obliged. Of the many problems I was having last year when trying to understand the basic interference pattern, one of the more perplexing was the fact that I seemed to only get an interference pattern for specific sizes of the central square of the interferometer. I am happy to report that this was just a relic of the fact that at certain sizes, the interferometer is more difficult to align. I was able to get a pattern for every size I tried when Eric was here (maybe MZIs only work when someone named Eric Holland is in the room?).

I discussed my general issues with Markus Aspelmeyer over dinner in Denver and he maintained that the classical pattern is a result of the fact that the beam widens as it propagates. Last year, I did the ray tracing for such a spreading beam and, faithfully keeping track of the phases and wavelengths, still couldn’t get the result I expected. I’m going to go back and retry it because Markus seemed fairly confident that this was the explanation. He pointed out that the coherence lengths for the lasers I work with should be very, very long and thus should not be an issue. At any rate, in order to do what I need to do eventually, this all means I will have to figure out how to collimate the beam.

Anyway, Eric and I did figure out that there are vibrational issues affecting the stability of the pattern which means next fall I’m going to have to get some students to develop a damping system for it. But progress has been made! Not bad for a theorist, eh?

Book Review: Beating the Odds: The Life and Times of E.A. Milne

Posted in Uncategorized on February 2, 2014 by quantummoxie

I have been meaning to post this review for quite some time and just haven’t gotten around to it until now. That should in no way reflect how I felt about the book (as you will see if you continue to read this post).

Title: Beating the Odds: The Life and Times of E.A. Milne 

Author: Meg Weston Smith (Foreword by Roger Penrose)

Publisher: Imperial College Press, 2013

Let me begin by saying that I am very privileged to actually know Meg Weston Smith personally. I am forever indebted to her for her kindness and hospitality in welcoming my wife, my then-eighteen-month-old son (now 13 years old!), and me into her home many years ago when I was doing research for my PhD. Over the years she provided numerous bits of information on Milne and his relationship to Eddington that proved to be immensely helpful (not to mention fascinating). E.A. Milne was her father and I know just how long she has been working on this project which was started as a way to learn more about him (he died at the age of 54 when Meg was just 17).

At points poignant and at points heart-breaking, but wholly inspirational, the story of Edward Arthur Milne is one of striking success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Twice widowed before the age of 50 (both times to suicide) and hampered by progressive Parkinsonism as a result of contracting encephalitis lethargica during the outbreak that swept around the world in the early 1920s, he persevered and became one of the giants of 20th century astrophysics, cosmology, and mathematics. While known primarily for his work in astrophysics, he made seminal contributions to ballistics during both World Wars, during the second of which his house was destroyed by a German V-1 launched in retaliation for the D-Day invasions. I suppose there is some dark irony in that fact.

Also less-well-known is the fact that Milne was the first to suggest that light signals be used to standardize time measurements. This, of course, is exactly how the SI unit of time – the second – is presently defined. The present definition is not quite what Milne had envisioned. In fact the present definition of the meter is actually closer to his original idea. Nevertheless, special relativity implies that the second could easily be defined in similar terms. Tom Moore has an excellent derivation of the Minkowski metric using light clocks in his book Six Ideas That Shaped Physics, Unit R: The Laws of Physics are Frame-independent. Milne originally received a great deal of criticism for this idea. Max Born referred to Milne’s light signals (used to measure time) as “weird inventions.” Of course, Milne got the last laugh.

Part of Milne’s problem was that he held some unconventional views that were unfortunately seized upon by Herbert Dingle who never missed an opportunity to publicly ridicule them. It may seem strange in retrospect that Dingle, who strongly opposed special relativity because it was grounded in theory and not experiment (though has nevertheless been repeatedly experimentally verified), should actually be taken seriously, but one must realize that these were very early days in modern physics, before the cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered, before dark matter and dark energy, before string theory and loop quantum gravity. Like Eddington, with whom Milne had a close friendship but strong professional disagreement, it may be that Milne was ahead of his time. Some of Milne’s ideas are enjoying a bit of a renaissance, though in somewhat altered form. In my own work on CPT-symmetry I have begun to wonder if there might actually be more than one sense of time, as Milne had suggested.

It should be said that Milne was, first and foremost, a mathematician and was thus very strongly grounded in theory as driven by mathematics. This also squarely put him in the camp of what I like to call the “deductivists” whose standard-bearer at that time was Eddington. The deductivists put a priority on theoretical and mathematical derivations. Einstein himself was essentially a deductivist in that he famously said, in response to a question posed to him when Eddington’s results turned out to match his theory, that any experiment that disagreed with relativity would simply be wrong. Today, Milne, Eddington, and Einstein would not actually be considered all that radical. Max Tegmark, for instance, firmly believes that the universe is entirely mathematical. I would think that Milne would find something of a kindred spirit in Max.

At any rate, all of these thoughts were prompted by my (relatively) recent reading of Meg’s wonderful book. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of science or even just in history itself. It is not technical and so does not require any mathematics background to read. The book itself is deeply personal and yet wholly accessible. It is a terrific homage to a father who sincerely tried his best to provide for his family and to serve his country, college (Wadham), and students, all while contributing a wealth of ground-breaking and enduring ideas to applied mathematics.

Science and Religion

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 by quantummoxie

I’m wading into shaky waters by posting this, but it arose out of several conversations I have had recently. In one, when discussing global warming with a skeptic, I found myself having to defend science against charges that it is a religion. In the second, when discussing randomness (actually, the recent death of John Dobson which then led to other discussions), I was confronted with the odd claim that, unlike other religions that are based on mere faith, Christianity is an evidentiary faith. The latter is an interesting tactic; it would seem that in an attempt to combat science (or certain tenets of science), some people have taken to co-opting the language of science (while, whether they realize it or not, changing the meaning of that language). Clearly, “evidential” and “faith” are antonymic words. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (which I was required to use for a deductive logic class in college because it contains word origins), evidence is something that furnishes proof. Conversely, Webster’s defines faith as a firm belief in something for which there is no proof (emphasis mine).

Setting aside this linguistic pretzel, one of the claims in the discussion that grew out of Dobson’s death was actually a continuation of another one I had had with the same group of individuals (some believers, some not) last year: whether there is true randomness in the universe. One of the people in the discussion argued that since God knows the outcome of every single process and since God created the universe, there thus can be no random processes in the universe. (He then went on to say he does not reject any type of science despite having rejected evolution as it applies to humans in at least one discussion.)

My response to that is this: I have no problem with anyone believing that God or the Divine or whatever knows all and for him/her/it/them there is no randomness. The fact of the matter is that none of us as human beings can and will ever achieve the status of God and thus be able to know everything. We live in the here and now, in an empirical world that, for whatever the reason (God, randomness, etc.), is possessed of certain patterns that are somehow comprehensible to us via deductive and inductive logic. Science is concerned with the here and now. It is concerned with what we can know. Legitimate science is always supported by evidence which means empirical data and the rules of formal logic. Religion didn’t discover insulin and penicillin. It didn’t invent automobiles and televisions. If you want to believe that God has helped guide these discoveries, I have absolutely no problem with that. But that is a question that is beyond science.

Now, by saying that there is no randomness or chance because God knows all (and therefore rejecting, for example, evolution), one either is suggesting that we can achieve God-like status or that a mere faith in God is all we need to understand seemingly random processes. But a faith in God isn’t going to suddenly allow someone to predict the outcomes of die rolls in a game of craps or to suddenly understand how to get around the uncertainty principle. Science makes incredibly accurate predictions and models as it is. Nevertheless, there are God-fearing scientists out there (e.g. John Polkinghorne). But it’s not like they have been any more successful than anyone else at figuring out how to predict games of craps or getting around the uncertainty principle.

And that is precisely the point. The aim of science is to make sense of the real world in which we live, to understand (or “model” as best we can) how it works, and, to some extent, improve our lives in this real world since, for better or for worse, it is the one we inhabit at this moment. Whatever individual scientists may say, science really says nothing about actual reality (at least in the philosophical sense). But that was never its point. It’s purpose is to comprehend the world around us, the world we inhabit right here, right now.

Science is a profoundly human endeavor. Certainly its results are, to some extent, objective in the sense that a scientist from China and a scientist from France can agree on the result of an experiment even if they don’t speak the same verbal language (mathematics is, in some sense, the language of science, and mathematics is universal). But science is still human. It describes the state of our knowledge about the world around us and, sometimes, the limitations of that knowledge itself. If someone wants to believe that everything we perceive every day of our lives is an illusion, that’s fine. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that doesn’t help humanity make practical advances to better our lives and the lives of others. It doesn’t help us make accurate predictions about anything. Like it or not, we rely on certain things being consistent in our lives — the Sun coming up every morning, stuff not suddenly “falling” up, the fact that you won’t wake up tomorrow morning on Mars. Science extends the scope of reliability. When science talks about randomness, it has something very specific in mind that must, in some sense, produce reliably predictable results because that is what science does. Period.

And that is the crux of my response to the person who made the accusation that science was a religion (intimating in his accusation that religion is inherently a lot of hogwash, an idea David Albert nicely put to rest two years ago in his review of Lawrence Krauss’ book). Science produces reliably predictable results that are self-consistent and follow the basic rules of formal logic. If it’s a religion, then it’s the only one that can make future predictions about physical systems with anything more than 50% accuracy.

So people can believe what they want about how the world really works, but don’t tell me, when something that is quantifiably verifiable, i.e. offers up results that can be agreed upon across cultures and across times, that those same methods are wrong. My response will be: can you give me a method that is better and that I — and humanity itself — can rely on to be consistently correct and predictable every single time? If religion were the answer to that question, science never would have arisen to begin with.

FQXi live blogging

Posted in Uncategorized on January 8, 2014 by quantummoxie

I’ve got some live blogging happening over at the FQXi site from the FQXi conference. One post is up and the next will be coming out today sometime.

Physics year-in-review, Parts I & II

Posted in Uncategorized on December 29, 2013 by quantummoxie

Once again I have been asked to give my list of the most noteworthy physics news stories of the year for FQXi’s podcast. This year they’ve broken it up into three parts, spreading it over three podcasts. The first two installments are here and here respectively. Staying true to form, my choices may be somewhat controversial, but I feel I’ve done a reasonably good job of defending them (and, besides, it’s just a list). Thanks to the always superb Zeeya Merali and Brendan Foster.

Doctors without physics…

Posted in Uncategorized on November 13, 2013 by quantummoxie

One of my more “popular” posts, quoted above, from several years back talks about why physics is important to medicine. An interesting and related flash point on campus (my campus) recently has to do with our new core curriculum. I won’t bore you with details other than to point out the fact that it led me to yet another article demonstrating the importance of physics to medicine:

Quantum Moxie

In what is an absurd suggestion, Ezekial Emanuel has suggested that medical schools cease requiring physics, organic chemistry, and calculus for incoming students, arguing that doctors never use those subjects in the daily practice of medicine. It is hard to overstate the absurdity of this suggestion. On the one hand, even if his claim was true (which it is not), the critical thinking skills one learns in those three classes, especially physics, are invaluable. As a colleague of mine argued yesterday, if you can make it through those courses, statistics and ethics ought to be a breeze (not to imply those courses are cakewalks, but that physics, organic chemistry, and calculus are excellent preparation).

Aside from that, his claim is just patently false. With advances in medical technology increasingly more complex it seems ridiculous for future doctors not to have a basic understanding of the principles behind this technology…

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What teaching means to me

Posted in Uncategorized on October 12, 2013 by quantummoxie

Sometime yesterday morning a former student of mine — Dan Breen ’12 — was involved in a car accident. Things were touch-and-go all day and a vigil was held last night on campus which is when most of us learned that Dan was fighting for his life. Unfortunately he passed away this morning.

I didn’t know Dan that well. He was a relatively quiet student in a class of strong personalities. It was a two semester introductory physics course for primarily biology and natural sciences majors and I’m a notoriously tough teacher. I try to challenge my students to think deeply about the subject and I expect a lot from them. I tend not to lecture and like to think of myself as being a militant practitioner of the Socratic method. But I certainly have no illusions about being the world’s best teacher. I try to learn just as much from my students as they hopefully learn from me. They may not realize it, but I do actually take their comments and criticisms to heart. And of the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of students I’ve taught in the past thirteen years, I remember more than they may realize.

There are the obvious memories like the time when I was teaching at Simmons College that I taught class in a full clown outfit, red nose and all (I got some very strange looks from the toll booth workers on the Tobin Bridge that day). Or the time that two of my former students presented me with a large, green, flashing (yes, flashing) bow tie with gold shamrocks on it and cajoled me into wearing it during class. The tie is still on my desk (though I will admit that I haven’t worn it since). Or the time I jokingly told one kid I’d give him an A if he could solve this impossible puzzle that someone had given me as a gift (and that I “stored” on my desk) only to see him solve it right then and there. I used to play chess with one guy at lunch almost every day. I remember taking one class to the beach to teach geometry in the sand. My office is still littered with devices and projects students have made over the years, including a rather large telescope. I remember the time an ice storm caused a power outage during a final exam. I remember the stunned feeling in the room the day after 9/11 and how we just talked about anything and everything. In fact I was teaching a class when I first heard what had happened.

I usually remember the faces, though I don’t always remember the names. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in contact with a number of them (partly thanks to social media) and one or two have even become colleagues. I’ve seen pictures of their spouses and their kids. Several have been to my house. One babysat for me and my company hired another two. Some have become friends.

Dan was, unfortunately, witness to one of my darker moments. The spring semester of 2011 was a difficult time for me personally. I had several things happen in my personal life that elevated my stress levels to the point at which I was having heart palpitations. In the midst of this my father-in-law, whom I had known half my life and to whom I was quite close, passed away quite suddenly. Not long after, the strong personalities in that class mixed with my heavy stress in such a way that things came to a sudden head one day and I lost my cool. It’s the only time I’ve ever lost my cool.

I don’t know how that affected Dan. He wasn’t one of the ones I stayed in touch with. But he was still my student. I care about my students — every last one of them even if I don’t always remember their names — because teaching is about more than just collecting or dispensing knowledge and skills. It’s about compassion and the mutual desire of teacher and student to learn. It’s about helping people grow as human beings (and that applies to the teachers as well as the students), about finding themselves, about their — our — dreams. But it’s not just about the ones I stay in touch with. It’s about all of them. That’s what teaching means to me.


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