The 1927 Solvay Conference. Think of the brain power represented in this one image. Imagine being a fly on the wall!
It is one of the most famous photos in the history of physics and captures the illustrious participants at the fifth Solvay Conference in Brussels, October 1927. Twenty-nine physicists, the main quantum theorists of the day, came together to discuss the topic “Electrons and Photons”. Seventeen of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners.
NOTE: it was from this conference that Albert Einstein’s famous quote reverberated across the world: “As I have said so many times, God doesn’t play dice with the world”:
The International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, located in Brussels, were founded by the Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay in 1912, following the historic invitation-only 1911 Conseil Solvay, the first world physics conference.
The Institutes coordinate conferences, workshops, seminars, and colloquia. Following the initial success of 1911, the Solvay Conferences (Conseils Solvay) have been devoted to outstanding preeminent open problems in both physics and chemistry. The usual schedule is every three years, but there have been larger gaps.
And here is a very cool short video of the 1927 conference with some background featuring clips of the major brains in attendance:
Contrary to folklore, the interpretation question to quantum theory was not settled at this conference and no consensus was reached; instead, a range of sharply conflicting views were presented and extensively discussed. Today, there is no longer an established or dominant interpretation of quantum theory, so it is important to re-evaluate the historical sources and keep the interpretation debate open. You can read complete English translations of the original proceedings (which were held in French) … the lectures and the discussions … and there are numerous background essays you can read on the three main interpretations presented: de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory, Born and Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, and Schroedinger’s wave mechanics.
"Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan"
I have been playing around with Pantheon which is MIT Media Lab’s ambitious effort to visualize cultural production across history. I had pulled comparisons of the most culturally significant industries in various countries before the Middle Ages and after. On the vertical axis, countries were plotted in descending order of cultural power (fewer countries existed before the year 1500) and on the horizontal, each country’s cultural production with the listed occupations and fields. One of the most obvious patterns is the decline of religion as a domain of cultural power and the rise of the natural and social sciences, as well the emergence of the creative arts, from film and theater to design.
I was reminded of something I had read in Carl Sagan’s last book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” which he had written primarily to explain the scientific method to laypeople, and to encourage people to learn critical or skeptical thinking. To distinguish between ideas that are considered valid science, and ideas that can be considered pseudoscience. The quote:
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
It was brought home to me yesterday when I read Sasha Sagan’s essay “Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan”. It’s a beautiful piece and relates the story of the Sphinx Head Tomb, repository of her father’s papers, handwritten notes, photographs, to-do lists, birthday cards, childhood drawings, and report cards. The evidence of a great life lived. To read it click here.
How do mathematicians calculate Pi? Well, with a Mossberg 500 Pump-Action shotgun, you idiot!
The task? Calculate:
The method? a Mossberg 500 Pump-Action shotgun:
Having a subscription to the MIT Technology Review opens you to an incredible source of technology and science news, information and reviews. One element is the “arXiv Papers”, a compendium of new research papers, the subject matters being mostly mathematics and physics. I usually scan it once a month. It can be a treasure trove of “technology-soon-on-the-horizon” that often hits the mainstream press months later. All of it just brilliant stuff.
Lately I have been immersed in math due to my work in the field of artificial intelligence. Lately I have been focused on the application of machine learning techniques within the practice of law, as part of a series of presentations our legal group gives on basic principles underlying machine learning methods, in a manner accessible to non-technical audiences.
I have always loved math, and have been fascinated by Pi, and its calculation. Pi Day is celebrated on March 14th (3/14. get it?) around the world. Pi (Greek letter … Pi) has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point. I remember it was one of the first exercises I ever did in “Introduction to Computing” (waaaaaaaaay back in 1972), using a random number generator to find the value of Pi. I did it in FORTRAN back in those days (with punch cards on an IBM370/155). But I got hooked onto Pi years later during a “math in the Bible” course (yes, these courses do exist) when our professor pointed out this passage:
"And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one rim to the other it was round all about, and…a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about….And it was an hand breadth thick…." —- First Kings, chapter 7, verses 23 and 26
Research back in the 1930s discovered that there’s more to that verse than appears. In Hebrew, the letters are also numbers, and the number values of letters and words are often very significant to the reading. There is a ‘jot’ (‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ are like diacritic marks) in the original, which here means, “look deeper”. So with a bit of deeper analysis, one finds that the letters there turn out to make up a fraction. I forget what the fraction is, but it’s something like 31/222 or some such, and with the fraction the value is within 1% or less of pi. There is the usual “this-is-numerology-bullshit” debate but still, fascinating stuff.
And then …. ahem … you have people doing a study who are at least one side short of a geometric cube, if you know what I mean. Here follows … from a reader/commentator in the aforementioned “arXiv Papers”, a novel way to compute Pi, with links to Medium which republished it. Medium is one of the best “longread” websites out there. An enormous list of subject areas. Take a look. You’ll subscribe.
"Imagine the following scenario. The end of civilization has occurred, zombies have taken over the Earth and all access to modern technology has ended. The few survivors suddenly need to know the value of pi and, being a mathematician, they turn to you. What do you do?
According to a couple of Canadian mathematicians, the answer is to repeatedly fire a Mossberg 500 pump action shotgun at a square aluminum target about 20 meters away. Then imagine that the square is inscribed with an arc drawn between opposite corners that maps out a quarter circle. If the sides of the square are equal to 1, then the area of the quarter circle is pi/4. Next, count the number of pellet holes that fall inside the area of the quarter circle as well as the total number of holes. The ratio between these is an estimate of the ratio between the area of the quarter circle and the area of a square, or in other words pi/4. So multiplying this number by 4 will give you an estimate of pi.
The result? According to this method, pi is 3.13, which is just 0.33 per cent off the true value. Handy if you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world.”