Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Trouble with Physics

Lee Smolin
 I bought myself a book for Christmas called the “Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin. He calls into question the physics research of the last thirty years by taking a layman, like myself, on a tour of the five great unanswered problems in physics (**see below), from its inability so far to unify general relativity and quantum theory, to the need to explain dark matter and dark energy.
In fact he starts by representing the lack of fundamental theoretical breakthroughs in the last thirty years as a failure and goes on to undermine much of the current research in physics by describing it as being based on unsound foundations.  He consequently attracts criticism even "flaming” for his challenging views from certain physicists who, in the direction of their research, are committed to what amounts to the new orthodoxy of String Theory.
Perhaps this extract below concerning supersymmetry will help explain why he is sometimes considered controversial.

"In supersymmetry-theory convention, the superpartners of fermions begin with an “s,” like the selectron, while the superpartners of bosons end in “ino.” .........
First of all a theory cannot be partly supersymmetric. If one particle has a superpartner, they all must. Thus, each quark comes with a bosonic partner, a squark. The photon is partnered with a new fermion, the photino. ..........
Not only are there squarks and sleptons and photinos, there are also sneutrinos to partner the neutrinos, Higgsinos with the Higgs, and gravitinos to go with the gravitons. Two by two, a regular Noah’s ark of particles. Sooner or later, tangled in the web of new snames and naminos, you begin to feel like Sbozo the clown. Or Bozo the clownino, or swhatever."

Within the context of a comprehensive review of recent research, he paints a picture of a large highly cohesive group of earnest string theorists unquestioningly following their leaders and excluding alternative views or fields of research. Whilst doing so they are ignoring the basic requirement of a scientific theory, which is to make predictions that are testable by observation and experiment. (Otherwise it is all just metaphysics - my comment not his!)
Towards the end of the book he comments on the sociological aspects of the organisation of scientific research in physics and finds many elements of the same sort of "groupthink" that has unfortunately been seen in twentieth century politics.  In addition he makes the case that academic recruitment to physics research posts in the USA is structured in such a way that the likelihood of scientific visionary thinkers obtaining a post is extremely limited, whilst those researchers committed to extending the work of more senior scientists in the current orthodoxies are most likely to be appointed or given tenure. He implies that without a change in the support made available to visionary theorists the US physics academy will continue to stagnate in terms of a lack of fundamental and testable theoretical breakthroughs. 
The irony is, as he also points out, that the psychology and sociology of these self sustaining groupthink situations, which undermine performance or lead to disastrous consequences, is well understood, particulary by US academics in other disciplines and even in businesses.

I found it surprisingly soothing over the Christmas and New Year holidays after I had had a wisdom tooth removed and whilst I was surrounded by family chit-chat in French.

Here is Lee in entertain and amaze mode!

**1. Combine general relavity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory pf nature.  This is called quantum gravity.
2. Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory which does makes sense.
3. Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single fundamental entity.  The unification of the particles and forces.
4. Explain how the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature.
5. Explain Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  Or if they don't exist determine how and why gravity is modified on large scales.  More generally, explain why the constants of the standard model of cosmology, including the dark energy, have the values they do.  

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ice Sculptures

The centre of Paris at Christmas is impressively festive.  The elegance of the illuminations in the Place Vendome and the extravagance of the facades of the big stores like Printemps and Lafayette really have to be seen to be appreciated. 
All along the Champs Elysees is a Christmas Market set up in wooden chalets which sells everything that any tourist or Parisian could want to buy on a cold winter's day. 
About halfway along is a large insulated tent, which is cooled to -6 degrees centigrade and in which you can see ice sculptures.   The ice is shipped from Canada because to get such clear ice, the water has to be very low in dissolved gases.  The owner, who obviously enjoyed chatting to the crowds in the queue, explained that they used twenty sculptors from many different countries who work for three weeks to create the show and that on 6th January it was all going to be brutally dismantled as it is everywhere they go.  It was clear that the proportions of some things had been distorted to fit the blocks of ice but overall I was impressed with the results.  I hope that the photos below give a good idea of the show.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

A Christmas Concert

Here in rural France opportunities for attending live concerts are limited, so since autumn 2009 I have been singing in a small choir.  It's always good to try new things but until I started singing I never understood just how hard it is to to make music yourself and to do it well.  Not knowing how to sight read is a significant disadvantage, which means that I spend many hours in front of my computer learning the pieces. Fortunately the Choir Master is computer orientated and he sends out midi files which I can edit and play on Notation Composer, whilst watching the screen or reading the score. 

The choir likes to sing quite sophisticated music from the 15th century onwards, often in latin or modern european languages.  This is much more interesting to perform, and for audiences to listen to, than the popular songs and show tunes that some other local choirs choose to do.  At least I think so!  It is also more difficult, and at times rehearsals have felt like a particularly refined form of torture while I struggled, along with most of the rest of the choir, to get things right.  Even after I have learnt the music well at home, singing with other people frequently makes things go wrong. A different tempo or the lack of a cue for an entry can easily put you off.  I usually find that I don't know the pieces as well as I thought I did!

On Saturday 18th December we gave our first real concert this year in the Church at Teyssieu. The acoustic is wonderful and it really enhanced the performance, but it was absolutely freezing. I was hiding safely out of sight behind the sopranos where the occasional mistake could not be easily localized.  The programme was quite ambitious being a mixture of sacred pieces and traditional, but very old, Christmas songs together with a vocal quartet and solo items.  For the two principal pieces in the concert two violins, a flute, a cello and a keyboard provided the accompaniment.  

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
We had seven weeks to learn the music, and even though some of the choir already knew half of the pieces, it was barely enough.  But we only had about three hours, spread over several days, to rehearse with the string continuo and that proved to be insufficient. In the performance of the Messe de Minuit by Charpentier the choir missed an entry in the Kyrie, after a passage of instrumental music, and ground to a halt.  The saving grace was that the musicians kept playing, so that only the more knowledgeable people in the audience realised we had gone badly wrong.  By the time we came to the second half we were in our stride and gave a good account of that part of the programme, even though we were all frozen and thinking about the vin chaud which was to follow at Netty's house.  For the obligatory encore, the choir refused the suggestion by the Choir Master to attempt the Kyrie again and he opted for Pastores Loquebantur (by Brixi), an easier but still quite impressive piece. 

The people I spoke to afterwards were complimentary about the performance and particularly the quality of the sound that we produced.  All, that is, except for one ex-chorister who said that the second half was better and he was right!  Whilst drinking a vin chaud, which was excellent and very necessary, in Netty's elegant and warm house, I avoided talking to the ex-Choir Mistress who had retired from directing the choir just before I joined.  I am sure she could have been much more critical if she had wanted to!

I have decided to try taking some singing lessons in January in the hope of learning basic technique and some exercises.  As a minimum I need to increase my range at the top, because I am struggling with notes above the stave, and also to improve my breathing.  It would be nice to learn how to get a real tenor quality in my voice but I mustn’t dream.

The word on the grapevine is that we will be doing another concert in June 2011.  I hope we have sufficient rehearsals to do much better next time!  I also hope that we can pick up some more singers, particularly men, because at the moment I am one of two tenors and there is only one bass!