Martin Rees on On The Future

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various prospects for the future—good and bad—are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity’s future depends on our taking a very different approach to thinking about and planning for tomorrow. Rich with fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology, this book will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Are you an optimist?

I am writing this book as a citizen, and as an anxious member of the human species. One of its unifying themes is that humanity’s flourishing depends on how wisely science and technology are deployed. Our lives, our health, and our environment can benefit still more from further advances in biotech, cybertech, robotics, and AI. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable and secure world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the ‘west’ do today (albeit using less energy and eating less meat). To that extent, I am a techno-optimist. But what actually happens depends on politics and ethical choices.

Our ever more interconnected world is exposed to new vulnerabilities. Even within the next decade or two, robotics will disrupt working patterns, national economies, and international relations. A growing and more demanding population puts the natural environment under strain; peoples’ actions could trigger dangerous climate change and mass extinctions if ‘tipping points’ are crossed—outcomes that would bequeath a depleted and impoverished world to future generations. But to reduce these risks, we need to enhance our understanding of nature and deploy appropriate technology (zero-carbon energy, for instance) more urgently. Risks and ethical dilemmas can be minimized by a culture of ‘responsible innovation’, especially in fields like biotech, advanced AI and geoengineering; and we’ll need to confront new ethical issues—‘designer babies’, blurring of the line between life and death, and so forth—guided by priorities and values that science itself can’t provide.

Is there a moral imperative as well?

There has plainly been a welcome improvement in most people’s lives and life-chances—in education, health, and lifespan. This is owed to technology. However, it’s surely a depressing indictment of current morality that the gulf between the way the world is and the way it could be is wider than it ever was. The lives of medieval people may have been miserable compared to ours, but there was little that could have been done to improve them. In contrast, the plight of the ‘bottom billion’ in today’s world could be transformed by redistributing the wealth of the thousand richest people on the planet. Failure to respond to this humanitarian imperative, which nations have the power to remedy—surely casts doubt on any claims of institutional moral progress. That’s why I can’t go along with the ‘new optimists’ who promote a rosy view of the future, enthusing about improvements in our moral sensitivities as well as in our material progress. I don’t share their hope in markets and enlightenment.

A benign society should, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal for two reasons: firstly, those we routinely have to deal with are increasingly remote and depersonalised; and secondly, modern life is more vulnerable to disruption—‘hackers’ or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life—security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth—but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire internet more secure. But their current applications—allowing an economy based on cryptocurrencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions—seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

But what about politics? 

In an era where we are all becoming interconnected, where the disadvantaged are aware of their predicament, and where migration is easy, it’s hard to be optimistic about a peaceful world if a chasm persists, as deep as it is today’s geopolitics, between the welfare levels and life-chances in different regions. It’s specially disquieting if advances in genetics and medicine that can enhance human lives are available to a privileged few, and portend more fundamental forms of inequality. Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair—with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Will super intelligent AI out-think humans?

We are of course already being aided by computational power. In the ‘virtual world’ inside a computer astronomers can mimic galaxy formation; meteorologists can simulate the atmosphere. As computer power grows, these ‘virtual’ experiments become more realistic and useful. And AI will make discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains. For example, there is a continuing quest to find the ‘recipe’ for a superconductor that works at ordinary room temperatures. This quest involves a lot of ‘trial and error’, because nobody fully understands what makes the electrical resistance disappear more readily in some materials than in others. But it’s becoming possible to calculate the properties of materials, so fast that millions of alternatives can be computed, far more quickly than actual experiments could be done. Suppose that a machine came up with a novel and successful recipe. It would have achieved something that would get a scientist a Nobel prize. It would have behaved as though it had insight and imagination within its rather specialized universe—just as Deep Mind’s Alpha Go flummoxed and impressed human champions with some of its moves. Likewise, searches for the optimal chemical composition for new drugs will increasingly be done by computers rather than by real experiments.

Equally important is the capability to ‘crunch’ huge data-sets. As an example from genetics, qualities like intelligence and height are determined by combinations of genes. To identify these combinations would require a machine fast enough to scan huge samples of genomes to identify small correlations. Similar procedures are used by financial traders in seeking out market trends, and responding rapidly to them, so that their investors can top-slice funds from the rest of us.

Should humans spread beyond Earth?

The practical case for sending people into space gets weaker as robots improve. So the only manned ventures (except for those motivated by national prestige) will be high-risk, cut price, and privately sponsored—undertaken by thrill-seekers prepared even to accept one-way tickets. They’re the people who will venture to Mars. But there won’t be mass emigration: Mars is far less comfortable than the South Pole or the ocean bed. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people.

But I think (and hope) that there will be bases on Mars by 2100. Moreover we (and our progeny here on Earth) should cheer on the brave adventurers who go there. The space environment is inherently hostile for humans, so, precisely because they will be ill-adapted to their new habitat, the pioneer explorers will have a more compelling incentive than those of us on Earth to redesign themselves. They’ll harness the super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in coming decades. These techniques will, one hopes, be heavily regulated on Earth; but ‘settlers’ on Mars will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species. So it’s these spacefaring adventurers, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era. If they become cyborgs, they won’t need an atmosphere, and may prefer zero-g—perhaps even spreading among the stars.

Is there ‘intelligence’ out there already?

Perhaps we’ll one day find evidence of alien intelligence. On the other hand, our Earth may be unique and the searches may fail. This would disappoint the searchers. But it would have an upside for humanity’s long-term resonance. Our solar system is barely middle aged and if humans avoid self-destruction within the next century, the post-human era beckons. Intelligence from Earth could spread through the entire Galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet—this pale blue dot floating in space—could be the most important place in the entire cosmos.

What about God?

I don’t believe in any religious dogmas, but I share a sense of mystery and wonder with many who do. And I deplore the so called ‘new atheists’—small-time Bertrand Russell’s recycling his arguments—who attack religion. Hard-line atheists must surely be aware of ‘religious’ people who are manifestly neither unintelligent nor naïve, though they make minimal attempts to understand them by attacking mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it; they weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism. They also weaken science. If a young Muslim or evangelical Christian is told at school that they can’t have their God and accept evolution, they will opt for their God and be lost to science. When so much divides us, and change is disturbingly fast, religion offers bonding within a community. And its heritage, linking its adherents with past generations, should strengthen our motivation not to leave a degraded world for generations yet to come.

Do scientists have special obligations?

It’s a main theme of my book that our entire future depends on making wise choices about how to apply science. These choices shouldn’t be made just by scientists: they matter to us all and should be the outcome of wide public debate. But for that to happen, we all need enough ‘feel’ for the key ideas of science, and enough numeracy to assess hazards, probabilities and risks—so as not to be bamboozled by experts, or credulous of populist sloganising. Moreover, quite apart from their practical use, these ideas should be part of our common culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global. It should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too.

I think all scientists should divert some of their efforts towards public policy—and engage with government, business, and campaigning bodies. And of course the challenges are global. Coping with potential shortage of resources—and transitioning to low carbon energy—can’t be solved by each nation separately.

The trouble is that even the best politicians focus mainly on the urgent and parochial—and getting reelected. This is an endemic frustration for those who’ve been official scientific advisors in governments. To attract politicians’ attention you must get headlined in the press, and fill their inboxes. So scientists can have more leverage indirectly—by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice. Rachel Carson and Carl Sagan, for instance, were preeminent exemplars of the concerned scientist—with immense influence through their writings, lectures and campaigns, even before the age of social media and tweets

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments on straddling political divides.

Does being an astronomer influence your attitude toward the future?

Yes, I think it makes me specially mindful of the longterm future. Let me explain this. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (maybe not in Kentucky, or in parts of the Muslim world). But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer—indeed, we could still be nearer the beginning than the end. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It then flares up, engulfing the inner planets. And the expanding universe will continue—perhaps forever. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human—they could be as different from us as we are from slime mold. Posthuman evolution—here on Earth and far beyond—could be as prolonged as the evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful. And of course this evolution will be faster than Darwinian: it happens on a technological timescale, driven by advances in genetics and AI.

But (a final thought) even in the context of a timeline that extends billions of years into the future, as well as into the past. this century is special. It’s the first where one species—ours—has our planet’s future in its hands. Our creative intelligence could inaugurate billions of years of posthuman evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. On the other hand, humans could trigger bio, cyber, or environmental catastrophes that foreclose all such potentialities. Our Earth, this ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos, is a special place. It may be a unique place. And we’re its stewards at a specially crucial era—the anthropocene. That’s a key message for us all, whether or not we’re astronomers, and a motivation for my book.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic HabitatJust Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Steven S. Gubser: Thunder and Lightning from Neutron Star mergers

As of late 2015, we have a new way of probing the cosmos: gravitational radiation. Thanks to LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and its new sibling Virgo (a similar interferometer in Italy), we can now “hear” the thumps and chirps of colliding massive objects in the universe. Not for nothing has this soundtrack been described by LIGO scientists as “the music of the cosmos.” This music is at a frequency easily discerned by human hearing, from somewhat under a hundred hertz to several hundred hertz. Moreover, gravitational radiation, like sound, is wholly different from light. It is possible for heavy dark objects like black holes to produce mighty gravitational thumps without at the same time emitting any significant amount of light. Indeed, the first observations of gravitational waves came from black hole merger events whose total power briefly exceeded the light from all stars in the known universe. But we didn’t observe any light from these events at all, because almost all their power went into gravitational radiation.

In August 2017, LIGO and Virgo observed a collision of neutron stars which did produce observable light, notably in the form of gamma rays. Think of it as cosmic thunder and lightning, where the thunder is the gravitational waves and the lightning is the gamma rays. When we see a flash of ordinary lightning, we can count a few seconds until we hear the thunder. Knowing that sound travels one mile in about five seconds, we can reckon how distant the event is. The reason this method works is that light travels much faster than sound, so we can think of the transmission of light as instantaneous for purposes of our estimate.

Things are very different for the neutron star collision, in that the event took place about 130 million light years away, but the thunder and lightning arrived on earth pretty much simultaneously. To be precise, the thunder was first: LIGO and Virgo heard a basso rumble rising to a characteristic “whoop,” and just 1.7 seconds later, the Fermi and INTEGRAL experiments observed gamma ray bursts from a source whose location was consistent with the LIGO and Virgo observations. The production of gamma rays from merging neutron stars is not a simple process, so it’s not clear to me whether we can pin that 1.7 seconds down as a delay precisely due to the astrophysical production mechanisms; but at least we can say with some confidence that the propagation time of light and gravity waves are the same to within a few seconds over 130 million light years. From a certain point of view, that amounts to one of the most precise measurements in physics: the ratio of the speed of light to the speed of gravity equals 1, correct to about 14 decimal places or better.

The whole story adds up much more easily when we remember that gravitational waves are not sound at all. In fact, they’re nothing like ordinary sound, which is a longitudinal wave in air, where individual air molecules are swept forward and backward just a little as the sound waves pass them by. Gravitational waves instead involve transverse disturbances of spacetime, where space is stretched in one direction and squeezed in another—but both of those stretch-squeeze directions are at right angles to the direction of the wave. Light has a similar transverse quality: It is made up of electric and magnetic fields, again in directions that are at right angles to the direction in which the light travels. It turns out that a deep principle underlying both Maxwell’s electromagnetism and Einstein’s general relativity forces light and gravitational waves to be transverse. This principle is called gauge symmetry, and it also guarantees that photons and gravitons are massless, which implies in turn that they travel at the same speed regardless of wavelength.

It’s possible to have transverse sound waves: For instance, shearing waves in crystals are a form of sound. They typically travel at a different speed from longitudinal sound waves. No principle of gauge symmetry forbids longitudinal sound waves, and indeed they can be directly observed, along with their transverse cousins, in ordinary materials like metals. The gauge symmetries that forbid longitudinal light waves and longitudinal gravity waves are abstract, but a useful first cut at the idea is that there is extra information in electromagnetism and in gravity, kind of like an error-correcting code. A much more modest form of symmetry is enough to characterize the behavior of ordinary sound waves: It suffices to note that air (at macroscopic scales) is a uniform medium, so that nothing changes in a volume of air if we displace all of it by a constant distance.

In short, Maxwell’s and Einstein’s theories have a feeling of being overbuilt to guarantee a constant speed of propagation. And they cannot coexist peacefully as theories unless these speeds are identical. As we continue Einstein’s hunt for a unified theory combining electromagnetism and gravity, this highly symmetrical, overbuilt quality is one of our biggest clues.

The transverse nature of gravitational waves is immediately relevant to the latest LIGO / Virgo detection. It is responsible for the existence of blind spots in each of the three detectors (LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston, and Virgo). It seems like blind spots would be bad, but they actually turned out to be pretty convenient: The signal at Virgo was relatively weak, indicating that the direction of the source was close to one of its blind spots. This helped localize the event, and localizing the event helped astronomers home in on it with telescopes. Gamma rays were just the first non-gravitational signal observed: the subsequent light-show from the death throes of the merging neutron stars promises to challenge and improve our understanding of the complex astrophysical processes involved. And the combination of gravitational and electromagnetic observations will surely be a driver of new discoveries in years and decades to come.

 

BlackSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String TheoryFrans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton. They both live in Princeton, New Jersey. They are the authors of The Little Book of Black Holes.

Face Value: Can you recognize the celebrities?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 

 

Todorov

 

A: Justin Bieber and Beyoncé

 

Todorov

Face Value: Who is more likely to have committed a violent crime?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 

 

Todorov

 

The face on the right was manipulated to be perceived as more criminal looking and the face on the left as less criminal looking.

Note that these immediate impressions need not be grounded in reality. They are our visual stereotypes of what constitutes criminal appearance. Note also the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. More masculine appearance makes a face appear more criminal. In contrast, more feminine appearance makes a face appear less criminal. But keep in mind that it is impossible to describe all the variations between the two faces in verbal terms.

Based on research reported in

  1. Funk, M. Walker, and A. Todorov (2016). “Modeling perceived criminality and remorse in faces using a data-driven computational approach.” Cognition & Emotion, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1227305.

 

Todorov

Protecting human subjects while doing global science

By Indira Nath and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker

How are the ethical rules for the protection of human subjects globally defined? Accessibly written by an InterAcademy Partnership committee comprised of leading scientists from around the world, Doing Global Science is for anyone concerned about the responsible conduct of science in today’s global community.

Doing Global ScienceOne of the most exciting adventures of our time is the rapidly growing global research enterprise. It involves many highly trained professionals working across national borders and cultures and—perhaps more importantly—across traditional disciplines. Researchers form a global community that is producing new knowledge and transforming our society at an unprecedented rate. Curing disease through the use of new tools such as gene editing, discovering the origins of the universe, and gaining a better understanding of human behavior by analyzing social media data are some examples. Governments realize the potential of new knowledge and are investing large sums of money in science. Research collaborations form an important part of foreign policy for many nations and bring economic benefit. Large international projects hasten the production of knowledge with costs being shared by the participating countries. Moreover, internationally co-authored papers are cited more than work undertaken in one country (Adams,2013. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/ v497/n7451/full/497557a.html.).

The research landscape has thus become more diverse and complex and presents stakeholders with both opportunities and significant challenges, such as the need to promote and foster integrity in research. Recent high profile cases of research misconduct from around the world have drawn attention to the risks and threats posed by irresponsible behavior. With this in view, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global network of over 130 academies that reach governments representing 95% of the world’s population, tasked an international committee of experts with developing educational materials for use by the global research enterprise in promoting responsible conduct and avoiding misuse.

The IAP committee, which I co-chaired along with Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker of Germany, developed Doing Global Science: A Guide to Responsible conduct in Global Research Enterprise, which was released earlier this year. Doing Global Science is a resource to be used in educational and training settings by young researchers, educators and institutional managers. It states the broad principles underlying global science and explains the practical aspects of responsible conduct of research. This guidance is meant to be adapted to the requirements of different nations which may differ in specific regulations and laws. What sets Doing Global Science apart is its emphasis on harmonization of good practices by nations to be followed in a rapidly developing global science enterprise.

Doing Global Science follows the steps in the research process, from planning research and securing funding, to performing experiments and analyzing data, to publishing and communicating results. It includes hypothetical scenarios that raise difficult issues for group discussion and an extensive list of references that can be used for further study.

The seven fundamental principles of responsible conduct in science discussed in Doing Global Science are honesty, fairness, reliability, openness and accountability, objectivity and skepticism. Irresponsible research behavior that harms the research enterprise such as falsification, fabrification and plagiarism are defined and discussed. To maintain trust, everyone involved in research must work to ensure responsible conduct. Universities and other research institutions should sustain an environment that fosters good practices, and ensure that the next generation of researchers receives effective training and mentoring.

Given the importance of reliable data to the advancement of knowledge, researchers need to keep clear, accurate and, secure records. They should also clarify responsibilities for data integrity at the initial stages of research, particularly where the research team consists of multiple investigators and groups from different countries or institutions. Discussions on data sharing, authorship criteria, and primary responsibilities for various aspects of the work should also be agreed upon at an early stage. New technologies make it possible to share data for reuse by larger communities, pointing to the need for harmonization of national and disciplinary rules and practices related to data. In addition to supporting integrity, open sharing of data will contribute to the reproducibility of scientific results, an issue that has gained considerable attention recently.

Doing Global Science also covers the processes involved in peer review at the level of research funding and publication decisions, since evaluating interdisciplinary and international research is complex and requires broad expertise. Review panels should include experts from different disciplines as needed, and be inclusive of underrepresented groups. Incorporating international perspectives into peer review is an emerging practice that is needed in smaller countries where expertise in a particular area of research is limited, and can be useful even in larger countries with more research activity.

A central message of Doing Global Science is that preventing irresponsible behavior through training and education is preferable to having to take corrective action after such behavior has occurred. This is especially important in preventing misuse of research and related technologies. It is difficult to predict the future course or consequences of an emerging research field. Nuclear weapons emerged from basic research in subatomic particles, and genetic engineering arose from research into antibiotic resistance. Nevertheless, researchers need to take responsibility for trying to anticipate and minimize the possible risks of research that may cause harm if misused. The 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA and the 2016 International Summit on Human Gene Editing held in Washington, DC are examples of the research community exercising that responsibility. Challenges will continue to arise in the life sciences and in other disciplines that will possibly require new guidelines and codes of conduct.

Researchers also need to familiarize themselves with the laws and regulations governing the protection of human subjects and laboratory animals, laboratory safety, environmental protection, and the collection and transfer of biological resources. These laws and regulations differ among nations, and in international collaborations a shared understanding among the participating research groups is needed. For example, regulations covering biodiversity research in some countries may include detailed guidance to ensure that local indigenous communities approve of the collection of specimens and share in the benefits of any resulting commercialization activity.

Since research is competitive, and may produce results that can be commercialized, it is necessary to ensure that the financial and personal interests of researchers and research organizations are aligned with responsible conduct. Many research institutions, research sponsors, and journals require individual researchers to disclose possible financial conflicts of interest. Research institutions and even nations may find it difficult to objectively investigate allegations of research misconduct made against prominent researchers or impose appropriate penalties due to fear of damaging their reputations, losing financial support, or national pride. Corporate sponsorship of academic research is another area where tensions may develop if inappropriate influence is exercised on research activities. Funders of international projects should ensure that clear cut guidelines have been provided by the researchers and the collaborating institutions.

Scientific journals also have an important role to play in promoting responsible conduct by ensuring a fair and effective review process that avoids bias. When articles need to be retracted due to irresponsible behaviour or honest error, the retraction notices should be prominently displayed.

Doing Global Science builds on the efforts of many individuals and groups around the world who have contributed to promoting and fostering research integrity at the international level through the World Conferences on Research Integrity and in other forums (www.wcri2017.org). The release of the guide comes at a time when universities around the world are expanding education and training in the responsible conduct of research. Our IAP committee hopes that Doing Global Science contributes to this movement. In order for the global research enterprise to maximize its positive impact on society, universal awareness and adherence to the principles of good science and responsible conduct are needed.

Authors: Indira Nath, MD, FRCPath1, DSc (hc)  is Co-Chair of IAP project on Research Integrity and Former, Head, Department of Biotechnology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi 110029, India. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the University of Munich.

Women in Science: Who are they at Princeton University Press?

Women have made great strides in STEM fields, but there are still far too few women in science—a situation that remains both complex and troubling. Here at Princeton University Press, we are proud to publish numerous important books in the sciences by women, on topics ranging from de-extinction, to primitive stars, to fireflies. If you’re interested in learning more about the lives and ideas of #WomenInScience, DiscovHer—a site dedicated to showcasing these remarkable people—has put together a great list of blogs for you to follow. And check out some of the most fascinating PUP authors and their books here:

Shapiro Jacket Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist
and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, shows how
de-extinction might change the future of
conservation in
How to Clone a Mammoth.
The Cosmic Cocktail What is the universe made of?
Acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese
shares the most cutting edge research aimed at
answering that question in
The Cosmic Cocktail.
Frebel Anna Frebel, who discovered several of the oldest
and most primitive stars, tells the story of the
research behind stellar archeology in
Searching for the Oldest Stars.
Lewis Have you ever been curious about the fireflies
that light up our summer nights? Noted
biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis
answers all your questions and
more in Silent Sparks.
5-9 Fairbairn_Odd Daphne J. Fairbairn, a professor of biology,
shows that the differences between men and
women are negligible when compared with
differences between males and
females in the animal kingdom in
Odd Couples.
Hough

Delve into the fascinating world of
earthquake prediction in
Predicting the Unpredictable by
seismologist Susan Elizabeth Hough.

5 Fascinating Physics Facts

NahinPaul J. Nahin shows that physics is all around us in his new book, In Praise of Simple Physics. Nahin takes the reader step by step through a variety of everyday examples, proving that you don’t need an advanced degree to appreciate the math behind a speeding car, a falling object, or the rotation of the planets. For instance:

1. The Sun’s gravitational force upon Earth is 180 times larger than the Moon’s gravitational force upon Earth (p. 45), but lunar tides are larger than solar tides because the Sun is so much further away than the Moon (p. 48).

2. Saturn’s rings are believed to have been caused by tidal forces due to gravitational variation. Long ago, a moon of Saturn got too close to the planet and was pulled apart—the fragments make up the rings (p. 49).

3. Gravity and centripetal acceleration caused by the Moon create two tidal bulges on Earth—one directly below the Moon and the other on the far side of the Earth opposite the first bulge. The Moon’s gravitational pull on the two tidal bulges produces a net counter-rotational torque that tends to reduce the Earth’s rotational speed. The result is that the length of a day on Earth is continually increasing by about 2 milliseconds per century. Assuming that this rate of increase has been in effect for the last 2,000 years, then the day Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC was shorter in duration, compared to yesterday, by about 40 milliseconds (p. 53).

4. Physics can be funny! What do you get when you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber? A biologist would say, “nothing, because that’s impossible to do,” and a mathematician would be able to prove why. In vector mathematics there are two different ways to multiply two vectors together: the dot product (which produces a scalar result), and the cross product (which produces another vector). Each starts with two vectors. While a mosquito is, in fact, a vector of disease, a mountain climber is a scalar and you cannot cross a vector with a scalar (p. 66).

5. The center of mass is the point at which we can imagine the entire mass of the object is concentrated as a point mass. If you stack books on top of each other with each staggered exactly halfway across the one beneath it (at the center of mass) and off the edge of the table, the stack will not fall (p. 97).

If any of these facts have you scratching your head and you want to know more, pick up a copy of In Praise of Simple Physics for detailed explanations of the math behind each of these—and many more!

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Carl Wunsch: Has oceanography grown too distanced from the ocean?

Wunsch jacketWith the advent of computers, novel instruments, satellite technology, and increasingly powerful modeling tools, we have vast knowledge about the ocean. Yet because of technological advances, a new generation of oceanographers have grown increasingly distanced from the object of their study. Physics Today recently published a Q&A with Carl Wunch, author of Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean. According to Wunch, the field of oceanography cannot rely on theoretical truths alone. In this interview, he emphasizes the importance of the discipline’s observational roots:

Before Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean (Princeton University Press, 2015) was published, Carl Wunsch had already made “an immense contribution” to the field, writes Stuart Cunningham in his January 2016 review of the book for Physics Today. Cunningham counts more than 250 papers and “an astonishing list of master’s and PhD students whose own merits are widely recognized.”

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography is Wunsch’s fifth book. Cunningham writes that it will be “of value to anyone wishing to know more about how to observe the ocean, interpret the data, and gain insights on ocean behavior and on how oceanographers reach their understanding of it.”

Carl Wunsch

Carl Wunsch

Wunsch was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT before his retirement in 2013; he is now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He received his PhD at MIT under the tutelage of renowned oceanographer Henry Stommel. Among other things, Wunsch has studied the effects of ocean circulation on climate.

Physics Today recently caught up with Wunsch to discuss Modern Observational Physical Oceanography and his views on climate change issues.

PT: What motivated you to take up this book after retiring from MIT?

WUNSCH: In talking to students and postdocs, and in teaching, it became clear that we are in an era increasingly dominated by modelers and theoreticians, for many of whom observations are something downloaded from the Web and then taken as a “truth.” The field of physical oceanography and its climate components has become ever more remote from its observational roots.

In the past 25 years physical oceanography developed a number of highly useful, up-to-date, but theoretically based textbooks. There was no book known to me to which one could direct a colleague or student that emphasized the interesting complexities of the very diverse data types oceanographers now have available. The beautiful theories emphasized by the existing textbooks can produce the misperception of a laminar, essentially steady, ocean and in the extreme case, one reduced to a “conveyor belt.”

Read the full interview in Physics Today, here.

Business Insider calls Katherine Freese one of the “50 scientists who are changing the world”

The Cosmic CocktailBusiness Insider included Katherine Freese, author of The Cosmic Cocktail, in a list of the 50 scientists who are changing the world. Freese was recognized for her pioneering work in the study of dark matter. Other picks included Andrea Accomazo, the first person to land a probe on a comet, Alan Stern, the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission,  Cori Bargmann, autism and Alzheimer’s researcher, as well as an impressive lineup of other scientists whose “revolutionary research in human happiness, evolutionary biology, neutrino physics, biotechnology, archeology, and other fields is helping to advance our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine.”

You can read the full feature here, and watch Freese discuss the greatest mysteries of the universe here.

Congratulations, Katherine!

Math Drives Careers: Paul Nahin on Electrical Engineering and √-1

Paul Nahin is the author of many books we’ve proudly published over the years, including An Imaginary Tale, Dr. Euler’s Fabulous Formula, and Number Crunching. For today’s installment in our Math Awareness Month series, he writes about his first encounter with √-1.

Electrical Engineering and √-1

It won’t come as a surprise to very many to learn that mathematics is central to electrical engineering. Probably more surprising is that the cornerstone of that mathematical foundation is the mysterious (some even think mystical) square-root of minus one. Every electrical engineer almost surely has a story to tell about their first encounter with √-1, and in this essay I’ll tell you mine.

Lots of different kinds of mathematics have been important in my personal career at different times; in particular, Boolean algebra (when I worked as a digital logic designer), and probability theory (when I wore the label of radar system engineer). But it’s the mathematics of √-1 that has been the most important. My introduction to √-1 came when I was still in high school. In my freshman year (1954) my father gave me the gift of a subscription to a new magazine called Popular Electronics. From it I learned how to read electrical schematics from the projects that appeared in each issue, but my most important lesson came when I opened the April 1955 issue.

It had an article in it about something called contra-polar power: a desk lamp plugged into a contra-polar outlet plug would emit not a cone of light, but a cone of darkness! There was even a photograph of this, and my eyes bugged-out when I saw that: What wondrous science was at work here?, I gasped to myself —I really was a naive 14-year old kid! It was, of course, all a huge editorial joke, along with some nifty photo-retouching, but the lead sentence had me hooked: “One of the reasons why atomic energy has not yet become popular among home experimenters is that an understanding of its production requires knowledge of very advanced mathematics.” Just algebra, however, was all that was required to understand contra-polar power.

contra power scan

Contra-polar power ‘worked’ by simply using the negative square root (instead of the positive root) in calculating the resonant frequency in a circuit containing both inductance and capacitance. The idea of negative frequency was intriguing to me (and electrical engineers have actually made sense of it when combined with √-1, but then the editors played a few more clever math tricks and came up with negative resistance. Now, there really is such a thing as negative resistance, and it has long been known by electrical engineers to occur in the operation of electric arcs. Such arcs were used, in the very early, pre-electronic days of radio, to build powerful AM transmitters that could broadcast music and human speech, and not just the on-off telegraph code signals that were all the Marconi transmitters could send. I eventually came to appreciate that the operation of AM/FM radio is impossible to understand, at a deep, theoretical level, without √-1.

When, in my high school algebra classes, I was introduced to complex numbers as the solutions to certain quadratic equations, I knew (unlike my mostly perplexed classmates) that they were not just part of a sterile intellectual game, but that √-1 was important to electrical engineers, and to their ability to construct truly amazing devices. That early, teenage fascination with mathematics in general, and √-1 in particular, was the start of my entire professional life. I wish my dad was still alive, so I could once again thank him for that long-ago subscription.

Enter to win a copy of Alan Turing: The Enigma, the Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game

Hodges_AlanTuring movie tie inOn November 28, The Imitation Game will open in limited release. In the film, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the genius British mathematician, logician, cryptologist and computer scientist who led the charge to crack the German Enigma Code that helped the Allies win WWII. Turing went on to assist with the development of computers at the University of Manchester after the war, but was prosecuted by the UK government in 1952 for homosexual acts which the country deemed illegal. The film is inspired by the award-winning biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

To celebrate the release of the film, Princeton University Press is pleased to announce the publication of a new edition of the book with a movie still cover and new material from the author that brings the story current through Turing’s pardon by the Queen. Enter our giveaway below to win a copy of the new edition of the book AND a $25.00 Fandango gift certificate.

This giveaway will run from November 11 through November 24 and is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada, aged 18 and older. No purchase is necessary. If you prefer to enter via email, please send a note to blog@press.princeton.edu. Please see complete terms and conditions below.

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Quick Questions for Ian Roulstone and John Norbury, co-authors of Invisible in the Storm

Ian Roulstone (top) and John Norbury (bottom) are authors of Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather and experts on the application of mathematics in meteorology and weather prediction. As we head into hurricane season along the Eastern coast of the United States, we are still not fully recovered from Hurricane Sandy, empty lots still dot the stretch between Seaside and Point Pleasant and in countless other beach communities. But it could have been worse without the advance warning of meteorologists, so we had a few questions about the accuracy of weather prediction and how it can be further refined in the future.

Now, on to the questions!

Ian RoulstoneNorbury

 

What inspired you to get into this field?

Every day millions of clouds form, grow, and move above us, blown by the restless winds of our ever-changing atmosphere. Sometimes they bring rain and sometimes they bring snow – nearly always in an erratic, non-recurring way. Why should we ever be able to forecast weather three days or a week ahead? How can we possibly forecast climate ten years or more in the future? The secret behind successful forecasting involves a judicious mix of big weather-satellite data, information technology, and meteorology. What inspired us was that mathematics turns out to be crucial to bringing it all together.

Why did you write this book?

Many books describe various types of weather for a general audience. Other books describe the physical science of forecasting for more specialist audiences. But no-one has explained, for a general readership, the ideas behind the successful algorithms of the latest weather and climate apps running on today’s supercomputers. Our book describes the achievements and the challenges of modern weather and climate prediction.

There’s quite a lot about the history and personalities involved in the development of weather forecasting in your book; why did you consider this aspect important?

When reviewing the historical development of weather science over the past three centuries, we found the role of individuals ploughing their own furrow to be at least as important as that of big government organisations. And those pioneers ranged from essentially self-taught, and often very lonely individuals, to charming and successful prodigies. Is there a lesson here for future research organisation?


“We can use mathematics to warn us of the potential for chaotic behaviour, and this enables us to assess the risks of extreme events.”


Weather forecasts are pretty good for the next day or two, but not infallible: can we hope for significant improvements in forecasting over the next few years? 

The successful forecasts of weather events such as the landfall of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey in October 2012, and the St Jude Day storm over southern England in October 2013, both giving nearly a week’s warning of the oncoming disaster, give a taste of what is possible. Bigger computers, more satellites and radar observations, and even cleverer algorithms will separate the predictable weather from the unpredictable gust or individual thunderstorm. Further improvements will rely not only on advanced technology, but also, as we explain in our book, on capturing the natural variability of weather using mathematics.

But isn’t weather chaotic?

Wind, warmth and rain are all part of weather. But the very winds are themselves tumbling weather about. This feedback of cause and effect, where the “effects help cause the causes”, has its origins in both the winds and the rain. Clouds are carried by the wind, and rainfall condensing in clouds releases further heat, which changes the wind. So chaotic feedback can result in unexpected consequences, such as the ice-storm or cloudburst that wasn’t mentioned in the forecast. But we can use mathematics to warn us of the potential for chaotic behaviour, and this enables us to assess the risks of extreme events.

Are weather and climate predictions essentially “big data” problems?

We argue no. Weather agencies will continually upgrade their supercomputers, and have a never-ending thirst for weather data, mostly from satellites observing the land and sea. But if all we do is train computer programs by using data, then our forecasting will remain primitive. Scientific ideas formulated with mathematical insight give the edge to intelligent forecasting apps.

So computer prediction relies in various ways on clever mathematics: it gives a language to describe the problem on a machine; it extracts the predictable essence from the weather data; and it selects the predictable future from the surrounding cloud of random uncertainty. This latter point will come to dominate climate prediction, as we untangle the complex interactions of the atmosphere, oceans, ice-caps and life in its many varied forms.

Can climate models produce reliable scenarios for decision-makers?

The models currently used to predict climate change have proved invaluable in attributing trends in global warming to human activity. The physical principles that govern average global temperatures involve the conservation of energy, and these over-arching principles are represented very accurately by the numerical models. But we have to be sure how to validate the predictions: running a model does not, in itself, equate to understanding.

As we explain, although climate prediction is hugely complicated, mathematics helps us separate the predictable phenomena from the unpredictable. Discriminating between the two is important, and it is frequently overlooked when debating the reliability of climate models. Only when we take such factors into account can we – and that includes elected officials – gauge the risks we face from climate change.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

From government policy and corporate strategy to personal lifestyle choices, we all need to understand the rational basis of weather and climate prediction. Answers to many urgent and pressing environmental questions are far from clear-cut. Predicting the future of our environment is a hugely challenging problem that will not be solved by number-crunching alone. Chaos and the butterfly effect were the buzzwords of the closing decades of the 20th Century. But incomplete and inaccurate data need not be insurmountable obstacles to scientific progress, and mathematics shows us the way forward.

 

bookjacket Invisible in the Storm
The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather
Ian Roulstone & John Norbury