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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics
The Physics of the Buffyverse