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Science Writer Jennifer Ouellette Answers Our Questions About Physics

For those with a curious mind Physics offers an inexhaustible supply of questions and mysteries to be solved. It also presents an enormous challenge to understand its principles and how they relate to our lives and our existence. Jennifer Ouellette is a strong advocate of education in science and critical thinking. She became a science writer and has written articles in many trade publications on the topic, has published several books including "Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales From the Annals of Physics" and "The Physics of the Buffyverse", and runs the science blog, "Cocktail Party Physics". She also agreed to shed some light on a few questions that trouble a confused mind! :-)

Q1. What do you find to be the most exciting developments in science and physics today?
A: I’m most interested in some of the research that’s taking place at the interface of various fields: the convergence of physics and biology, for instance, is yielding some fascinating breakthroughs. I love the combination of science and art, such as analyzing fractal patterns in the paintings of Jackson Pollock; or using synchrotron radiation sources to study ancient scrolls, like the newly discovered Archimedes fragment announced last year. And of course, any unique tie-ins between science and pop culture are a bonus for capturing my interest and enthusiasm.

Q2. What developments do you think hold the most promise for actually improving people's lives?
A: There’s great work being done on applying mathematical models from physics to the study of viruses (the flu, HIV) to develop more effective vaccines, for instance. Physics has already given us microfluidic “labs-on-a-chip” for DNA testing and similar assays, and truly cutting-edge medical imaging techniques are giving us unprecedented glimpses into the human body – most notably the brain and single cell structure and behavior. From an environmental perspective, cleaner, cheaper alternative energy sources are certainly on the horizon, and while the hydrogen car is pretty far into the future, that’s another promising area of research. And of course, the technological explosion will continue in consumer electronics. Who knows what kind of must-have gadget they’ll come up with next?

Q3. When I purchased a math coprocessor for an early "386" computer I had it came with some demo programs. One of them tested the coprocessor by using it to generate graphic fractal patterns, which you could zoom-in or zoom-out from. After playing around with it I realized that you couldn't reach an end point and that the pattern would continue to repeat indefinitely in both increasing and decreasing scales. Do you think we may find the universe to be like this in that we can't resolve an ultimate size or an indivisible particle no matter how far we look in either direction?
A: Well, mathematics and computer programs are abstract by nature, so it’s not surprising to find the scale stretching infinitely in both directions. Physics, while it uses the language of mathematics and the tools of computer modeling, is fundamentally an explanation of how things work in the real, observable world. Infinities are more problematic, especially when they pop up in theory; there are always limits in physical reality. But I don’t think anyone knows for sure just where those boundaries lie, and there’s always the issue of the parts we can’t see: dark matter (the existence of which we’ve been able to deduce from its gravitational effects), dark energy, black holes, and the far more hypothetical extra dimensions or parallel universes. Every time physicists answer a key question, it raises even more mysteries to explore. That’s part of the excitement of science.

Q4. The European agency CERN is scheduled to complete its LHC (Large Hadron Collider) this November (2007). What predictable discoveries do you think will come from its operation, and what surprises are possible to be found?
A: The Higgs boson is the obvious hoped-for discovery related to the LHC, and it seems like a good possibility, especially in light of recent rumors of preliminary evidence of a Higgs signature at Fermilab’s Tevatron. With its higher energies, the LHC should be able to confirm this critical missing piece of the Standard Model. There’s a good chance it might also produce a few mini-black holes, which could shed light onto the inner workings of such exotic objects. There are also some long-shot potential discoveries which, if they occur, would be very exciting indeed: evidence for a gravitron (hypothetical “messenger particle” carrying the gravitational force), or the supersymmetrical partner-particles called “sparticles.” Most exciting of all would be evidence for the extra dimensions predicted by string theory.

Q5. One of the most talked about technologies in computer science right now is quantum computing. This technology relies on a principle called entanglement in which a change in one particle causes an equal change in the entangled particle somewhere else. Conventional thinking requires that some type of "mechanism" exist between the particles to synchronize this change. Does such a mechanism exist, or is conventional thinking just too narrow for this realm of science?
A: There’s nothing “conventional” about quantum mechanics! That said, entanglement is an observed phenomenon that’s sufficiently advanced that it’s being developed for such practical purposes as data encryption and rudimentary quantum teleportation. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a quantum physicist who didn’t believe there is an actual mechanism at work here. Just because we’re not 100% sure what that mechanism might be, or exactly how it works, is no reason to assume that it doesn’t exist. Take away the mechanism, and you’re left with magic. True, Cornell physicist N. David Mermin has called entanglement “the closest thing we [physicists] have to magic,” but that doesn’t mean he thinks it IS magic. The world is not magic. It is so much more wondrous than that.

Q6. On a scale between "proven" and "theoretical" where do you see current quantum computing technology?
A: I wouldn’t frame it as a tussle between proven and theoretical. Certainly the theoretical framework is solid. The challenge is in controlling the unpredictable quantum effects that hold sway at the subatomic level sufficiently to build a working prototype. There was a great deal of media hype a few weeks ago when D-Zero announced they had built the “first working quantum computer,” but those reports proved to be greatly exaggerated. According to the buzz in the quantum computing research community, the D-Zero work seems promising, but it’s by no means as definitive a demonstration of a working quantum computer as originally claimed. Much more research remains to be done.

Q7. Do you believe this technology will make up the next major phase in computer science, or do you see other transitional technologies filling the gap?
A: I think it’s anyone’s guess what the next generation of computers are going to look like. Quantum computing gets the lion’s share of the media attention, but there’s tons of other technologies under development: optical computing, “spintronics,” molecular (DNA) computing, and MIT scientists are even exploring the use of air bubbles to build tiny logic devices drawing on microfluidics technology.

In the meantime, scientists just keep getting better and better at pushing the limits of “Moore’s Law” in conventional semiconductor-based computers. If the developmental boom in graphene continues at its present pace, we could see that material – essentially a two-dimensional (one atom thick) form of graphite, i.e., the lead in your pencil – find its way into our computers within a decade. But that’s an optimistic assessment. Lots of technological and engineering hurdles still need to be overcome.

Q8. I heard you describe a photon as a particle without mass. Can you explain that?
A: Photons are particles of light, and do not have mass (unlike, say, electrons), which is why they can travel at the speed of light in the first place. Einstein’s special relativity set that cosmic speed limit: no particle with mass can exactly reach the speed of light, even in our largest particle accelerators. And since time slows down the faster a particle travels, a particle of light experiences everything in a sort of eternal “now.” Time literally comes to a complete stop. How weird is that?

Q9. What developments do you see ahead for the science of photonics?
A: Photonic crystals are an exciting area of research, particularly for fiber optics applications. Lasers continue to be a truly amazing enabling technology: it’s now possible to construct tabletop particle accelerators that use lasers to accelerate electrons much faster, over a shorter distance, by creating “wakes” for them to surf along. And solid-state lighting (light-emitting diodes) are poised to revolutionize the way we illuminate our homes and businesses, perhaps even how we read books and newspapers, or advertise on billboards, since organic LEDs can be printed onto flexible plastic substrates.

Q10. You're doing research in infrasound and you've described it as sound waves with a frequency below the human threshold of hearing. What would cause infrasound and what influence would (or does) it have in our world?
A: infrasound is just the propagation of low-frequency sound waves. Sound waves are mechanical energy, so just about anything can cause those waves: volcanoes emit infrasound; so do tornadoes, and breaking waves in the ocean surf. Human beings are limited in what we can see and hear, but the world is far richer in terms of sound and light than the average person suspects. Thanks to the ultra-sensitive instruments built by scientists, we’re able to record, measure, amplify and analyze all that hidden phenomena at levels that wouldn’t have been possible a century ago.

As far as the potential influence of infrasound, at least one researcher believes that the “ghost sensing” phenomenon is related to our subconscious detection of infrasonic waves. There’s even a specific frequency that resonates with the natural frequency of the human eye, capable of causing a visual image/hallucination – “seeing ghosts.” However, a more practical influence is the potential for using infrasound to better predict volcano eruptions, surf conditions, developing tornadoes, and the like.

Q11. It was learned after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that most of the animals fled inland to safety before the waves reached land. Do you think infrasound may have played a role in this?
A: There is a very real possibility that infrasound played a role in the animals’ behavior. Depending on the species, animals can be much more attuned to sound waves at frequencies that lie outside the range of human hearing. Elephants, for example, are extremely sensitive to infrasound (low frequency waves), while bats are highly attuned to ultrasound (high frequency waves).

Q12. What do you think are the most promising opportunities for someone interested in a career in science or physics?
A: I’m always hesitant to make a specific recommendation. So much attention is paid to “hot subfields,” and while aspiring scientists should take their marketability into consideration, too often such a focus results in an influx of young people into a given subfield, when they might otherwise be more inclined to pursue other areas. This is certainly a concern about string theory, for example, at least among some in the physics community. I’d suggest following your genuine interests and curiosity. Take the hot subfields and your future marketability into account, by all means, but ultimately you’ll do the best science when you’re following your scientific instincts.

Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics

The Physics of the Buffyverse


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