Tag Archives: physics

Shades of Translation

I was playing Codenames with some friends, a game about giving one-word clues to multi-word answers. I wanted to hint at “undertaker” and “march”, so I figured I’d do “funeral march”. Since that’s two words, I needed one word that meant something similar. I went with dirge, then immediately regretted it as my teammates spent the better part of two minutes trying to figure out what it meant. In the end they went with “slug”.


A dirge in its natural habitat.

If I had gone for requiem instead, we would have won. Heck, if I had just used “funeral”, we would have had a fighting chance. I had assumed my team knew the same words I did: they were also native English speakers, also nerds, etc. But the words they knew were still a shade different from the words I knew, and that made the difference.

When communicating science, you have to adapt to your audience. Knowing this, it’s still tempting to go for a shortcut. You list a few possible audiences, like “physicists”, or “children”, and then just make a standard explanation for each. This works pretty well…until it doesn’t, and your audience assumes a “dirge” is a type of slug.

In reality, each audience is different. Rather than just memorizing “translations” for a few specific groups, you need to pay attention to the shades of understanding in between.

On Wednesdays, Perimeter holds an Interdisciplinary Lunch. They cover a table with brown paper (for writing on) and impose one rule: you can’t sit next to someone in the same field.

This week, I sat next to an older fellow I hadn’t met before. He asked me what I did, and I gave my “standard physicist explanation”. This tends to be pretty heavy on jargon: while I don’t go too deep into my sub-field’s lingo, I don’t want to risk “talking down” to a physicist I don’t know. The end result is that I have to notice those “shades” of understanding as I go, hoping to get enough questions to change course if I need to.

Then I asked him what he did, and he patiently walked me through it. His explanation was more gradual: less worried about talking down to me, he was able to build up the background around his work, and the history of who worked on what. It was a bit humbling, to see the sort of honed explanation a person can build after telling variations on the same story for years.

In the end, we both had to adapt to what the other understood, to change course when our story wasn’t getting through. Neither of us could stick with the “standard physicist explanation” all the way to the end. Both of us had to shift from one shade to another, improving our translation.

What Makes Light Move?

Light always moves at the speed of light.

It’s not alone in this: anything that lacks mass moves at the speed of light. Gluons, if they weren’t constantly interacting with each other, would move at the speed of light. Neutrinos, back when we thought they were massless, were thought to move at the speed of light. Gravitational waves, and by extension gravitons, move at the speed of light.

This is, on the face of it, a weird thing to say. If I say a jet moves at the speed of sound, I don’t mean that it always moves at the speed of sound. Find it in its hangar and hopefully it won’t be moving at all.

And so, people occasionally ask me, why can’t we find light in its hangar? Why does light never stand still? What makes light move?

(For the record, you can make light “stand still” in a material, but that’s because the material is absorbing and reflecting it, so it’s not the “same” light traveling through. Compare the speed of a wave of hands in a stadium versus the speed you could run past the seats.)

This is surprisingly tricky to explain without math. Some people point out that if you want to see light at rest you need to speed up to catch it, but you can’t accelerate enough unless you too are massless. This probably sounds a bit circular. Some people talk about how, from light’s perspective, no time passes at all. This is true, but it seems to confuse more than it helps. Some people say that light is “made of energy”, but I don’t like that metaphor. Nothing is “made of energy”, nor is anything “made of mass” either. Mass and energy are properties things can have.

I do like game metaphors though. So, imagine that each particle (including photons, particles of light) is a character in an RPG.


For bonus points, play Light in an RPG.

You can think of energy as the particle’s “character points”. When the particle builds its character it gets a number of points determined by its energy. It can spend those points increasing its “stats”: mass and momentum, via the lesser-known big brother of E=mc^2, E^2=p^2c^2+m^2c^4.

Maybe the particle chooses to play something heavy, like a Higgs boson. Then they spend a lot of points on mass, and don’t have as much to spend on momentum. If they picked something lighter, like an electron, they’d have more to spend, so they could go faster. And if they spent nothing at all on mass, like light does, they could use all of their energy “points” boosting their speed.

Now, it turns out that these “energy points” don’t boost speed one for one, which is why low-energy light isn’t any slower than high-energy light. Instead, speed is determined by the ratio between energy and momentum. When they’re proportional to each other, when E^2=p^2c^2, then a particle is moving at the speed of light.

(Why this is is trickier to explain. You’ll have to trust me or wikipedia that the math works out.)

Some of you may be happy with this explanation, but others will accuse me of passing the buck. Ok, a photon with any energy will move at the speed of light. But why do photons have any energy at all? And even if they must move at the speed of light, what determines which direction?

Here I think part of the problem is an old physics metaphor, probably dating back to Newton, of a pool table.


A pool table is a decent metaphor for classical physics. You have moving objects following predictable paths, colliding off each other and the walls of the table.

Where people go wrong is in projecting this metaphor back to the beginning of the game. At the beginning of a game of pool, the balls are at rest, racked in the center. Then one of them is hit with the pool cue, and they’re set into motion.

In physics, we don’t tend to have such neat and tidy starting conditions. In particular, things don’t have to start at rest before something whacks them into motion.

A photon’s “start” might come from an unstable Higgs boson produced by the LHC. The Higgs decays, and turns into two photons. Since energy is conserved, these two each must have half of the energy of the original Higgs, including the energy that was “spent” on its mass. This process is quantum mechanical, and with no preferred direction the photons will emerge in a random one.

Photons in the LHC may seem like an artificial example, but in general whenever light is produced it’s due to particles interacting, and conservation of energy and momentum will send the light off in one direction or another.

(For the experts, there is of course the possibility of very low energy soft photons, but that’s a story for another day.)

Not even the beginning of the universe resembles that racked set of billiard balls. The question of what “initial conditions” make sense for the whole universe is a tricky one, but there isn’t a way to set it up where you start with light at rest. It’s not just that it’s not the default option: it isn’t even an available option.

Light moves at the speed of light, no matter what. That isn’t because light started at rest, and something pushed it. It’s because light has energy, and a particle has to spend its “character points” on something.


arXiv vs. snarXiv: Can You Tell the Difference?

Have you ever played arXiv vs snarXiv?

arXiv is a preprint repository: it’s where we physicists put our papers before they’re published to journals.

snarXiv is…well..sound it out.

A creation of David Simmons-Duffin, snarXiv randomly generates titles and abstracts out of trendy arXiv buzzwords. It’s designed so that the papers on it look almost plausible…until you take a closer look, anyway.

Hence the game, arXiv vs snarXiv. Given just the titles of two papers, can you figure out which one is real, and which is fake?

I played arXiv vs snarXiv for a bit today, waiting for some code to run. Out of twenty questions, I only got two wrong.

Sometimes, it was fairly clear which paper was fake because snarXiv overreached. By trying to pile on too many buzzwords, it ended up with a title that repeated itself, or didn’t quite work grammatically.

Other times, I had to use some actual physics knowledge. Usually, this meant noticing when a title tied together unrelated areas in an implausible way. When a title claims to tie obscure mathematical concepts from string theory to a concrete problem in astronomy, it’s pretty clearly snarXiv talking.

The toughest questions, including the ones I got wrong, were when snarXiv went for something subtle. For short enough titles, the telltale signs of snarXiv were suppressed. There just weren’t enough buzzwords for a mistake to show up. I’m not sure there’s a way to distinguish titles like that, even for people in the relevant sub-field.

How well do you do at arXiv vs snarXiv? Any tips?

Jury-Rigging: The Many Uses of Dropbox

I’ll be behind the Great Firewall of China next week, so I’ve been thinking about various sites I won’t be able to access. Prominent among them is Dropbox, a service that hosts files online.


A helpful box to drop things in

What do physicists do with Dropbox? Quite a lot.

For us, Dropbox is a great way to keep collaborations on the same page. By sharing a Dropbox folder, we can share research programs, mathematical expressions, and paper drafts. It makes it a lot easier to keep one consistent version of a document between different people, and it’s a lot simpler than emailing files back and forth.

All that said, Dropbox has its drawbacks. You still need to be careful not to have two people editing the same thing at the same time, lest one overwrite the other’s work. You’ve got the choice between editing in place, making everyone else receive notifications whenever the files change, or editing in a separate folder, and having to be careful to keep it coordinated with the shared one.

Programmers will know there are cleaner solutions to these problems. GitHub is designed to share code, and you can work together on a paper with ShareLaTeX. So why do we use Dropbox?

Sometimes, it’s more important for a tool to be easy and universal, even if it doesn’t do everything you want. GitHub and ShareLaTeX might solve some of the problems we have with Dropbox, but they introduce extra work too. Because no one disadvantage of Dropbox takes up too much time, it’s simpler to stick with it than to introduce a variety of new services to fill the same role.

This is the source of a lot of jury-rigging in science. Our projects aren’t often big enough to justify more professional approaches: usually, something hacked together out of what’s available really is the best choice.

For one, it’s why I use wordpress. WordPress.com is not a great platform for professional blogging: it doesn’t give you a lot of control without charging, and surprise updates can make using it confusing. However, it takes a lot less effort than switching to something more professional, and for the moment at least I’m not really in a position that justifies the extra work.

Thought Experiments, Minus the Thought

My second-favorite Newton fact is that, despite inventing calculus, he refused to use it for his most famous work of physics, the Principia. Instead, he used geometrical proofs, tweaked to smuggle in calculus without admitting it.

Essentially, these proofs were thought experiments. Newton would start with a standard geometry argument, one that would have been acceptable to mathematicians centuries earlier. Then, he’d imagine taking it further, pushing a line or angle to some infinite point. He’d argue that, if the proof worked for every finite choice, then it should work in the infinite limit as well.

These thought experiments let Newton argue on the basis of something that looked more rigorous than calculus. However, they also held science back. At the time, only a few people in the world could understand what Newton was doing. It was only later, when Newton’s laws were reformulated in calculus terms, that a wider group of researchers could start doing serious physics.

What changed? If Newton could describe his physics with geometrical thought experiments, why couldn’t everyone else?

The trouble with thought experiments is that they require careful setup, setup that has to be thought through for each new thought experiment. Calculus took Newton’s geometrical thought experiments, and took out the need for thought: the setup was automatically a part of calculus, and each new researcher could build on their predecessors without having to set everything up again.

This sort of thing happens a lot in science. An example from my field is the scattering matrix, or S-matrix.

The S-matrix, deep down, is a thought experiment. Take some particles, and put them infinitely far away from each other, off in the infinite past. Then, let them approach, close enough to collide. If they do, new particles can form, and these new particles will travel out again, infinite far away in the infinite future. The S-matrix then is a metaphorical matrix that tells you, for each possible set of incoming particles, what the probability is to get each possible set of outgoing particles.

In a real collider, the particles don’t come from infinitely far away, and they don’t travel infinitely far before they’re stopped. But the distances are long enough, compared to the sizes relevant for particle physics, that the S-matrix is the right idea for the job.

Like calculus, the S-matrix is a thought experiment minus the thought. When we want to calculate the probability of particles scattering, we don’t need to set up the whole thought experiment all over again. Instead, we can start by calculating, and over time we’ve gotten very good at it.

In general, sub-fields in physics can be divided into those that have found their S-matrices, their thought experiments minus thought, and those that have not. When a topic has to rely on thought experiments, progress is much slower: people argue over the details of each setup, and it’s difficult to build something that can last. It’s only when a field turns the corner, removing the thought from its thought experiments, that people can start making real collaborative progress.

The (but I’m Not a) Crackpot Style Guide

Ok, ok, I believe you. You’re not a crackpot. You’re just an outsider, one with a brilliant new idea that would overturn the accepted paradigms of physics, if only someone would just listen.

Here’s the problem: you’re not alone. There are plenty of actual crackpots. We get contacted by them fairly regularly. And most of the time, they’re frustrating and unpleasant to deal with.

If you want physicists to listen to you, you need to show us you’re not one of those people. Otherwise, most of us won’t bother.

I can’t give you a foolproof way to do that. But I can give some suggestions that will hopefully make the process a little less frustrating for everyone involved.

Don’t spam:

Nobody likes spam. Nobody reads spam. If you send a mass email to every physicist whose email address you can find, none of them will read it. If you repeatedly post the same thing in a comment thread, nobody will read it. If you want people to listen to you, you have to show that you care about what they have to say, and in order to do that you have to tailor your message. This leads in to the next point,

Ask the right people:

Before you start reaching out, you should try to get an idea of who to talk to. Physics is quite specialized, so if you’re taking your ideas seriously you should try to contact people with a relevant specialization.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: your ideas are unique, no-one in physics is working on anything similar.

Here, it’s important to distinguish the problem you’re trying to solve with how you’re trying to solve it. Chances are, no-one else is working on your specific idea…but plenty of people are interested in the same problems.

Think quantum mechanics is built on shoddy assumptions? There are people who spend their lives trying to modify quantum mechanics. Have a beef against general relativity? There’s a whole sub-field of people who modify gravity.

These people are a valuable resource for you, because they know what doesn’t work. They’ve been trying to change the system, and they know just how hard it is to change, and just what evidence you need to be consistent with.

Contacting someone whose work just uses quantum mechanics or relativity won’t work. If you’re making elementary mistakes, we can put you on the right track…but if you think you’re making elementary mistakes, you should start out by asking help from a forum or the like, not contacting a professional. If you think you’ve really got a viable replacement to an established idea, you need to contact people who work on overturning established ideas, since they’re most aware of the complicated webs of implications involved. Relatedly,

Take ownership of your work:

I don’t know how many times someone has “corrected” something in the comments, and several posts later admitted that the “correction” comes from their own theory. If you’re arguing from your own work, own it! If you don’t, people will assume you’re trying to argue from an established theory, and are just confused about how that theory works. This is a special case of a broader principle,

Epistemic humility:

I’m not saying you need to be humble in general, but if you want to talk productively you need to be epistemically humble. That means being clear about why you know what you know. Did you get it from a mathematical proof? A philosophical argument? Reading pop science pieces? Something you remember from high school? Being clear about your sources makes it easier for people to figure out where you’re coming from, and avoids putting your foot in your mouth if it turns out your source is incomplete.

Context is crucial:

If you’re commenting on a blog like this one, pay attention to context. Your comment needs to be relevant enough that people won’t parse it as spam.

If all a post does is mention something like string theory, crowing about how your theory is a better explanation for quantum gravity isn’t relevant. Ditto for if all it does is mention a scientific concept that you think is mistaken.

What if the post is promoting something that you’ve found to be incorrect, though? What if someone is wrong on the internet?

In that case, it’s important to keep in mind the above principles. A popularization piece will usually try to present the establishment view, and merits a different response than a scientific piece arguing something new. In both cases, own your own ideas and be specific about how you know what you know. Be clear on whether you’re talking about something that’s controversial, or something that’s broadly agreed on.

You can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t by looking at comments on this blog. When I post about dark matter, or cosmic inflation, there are people who object, and the best ones are straightforward about why. Rather than opening with “you’re wrong”, they point out which ideas are controversial. They’re specific about whose ideas they’re referencing, and are clear about what is pedagogy and what is science.

Those comments tend to get much better responses than the ones that begin with cryptic condemnations, follow with links, and make absolute statements without backing them up.

On the internet, it’s easy for misunderstandings to devolve into arguments. Want to avoid that? Be direct, be clear, be relevant.

In Defense of Lord Kelvin, Michelson, and the Physics of Decimals

William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, was a towering genius of 19th century physics. He is often quoted as saying,

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.


Certainly sounds like something I would say!

As it happens, he never actually said this. It’s a paraphrase of a quote from Albert Michelson, of the Michelson-Morley Experiment:

While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice. It is here that the science of measurement shows its importance — where quantitative work is more to be desired than qualitative work. An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.


Now that’s more like it!

In hindsight, this quote looks pretty silly. When Michelson said that “it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established” he was leaving out special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. From our perspective, the grandest underlying principles had yet to be discovered!

And yet, I think we should give Michelson some slack.

Someone asked me on twitter recently what I would choose if given the opportunity to unravel one of the secrets of the universe. At the time, I went for the wishing-for-more-wishes answer: I’d ask for a procedure to discover all of the other secrets.

I was cheating, to some extent. But I do think that the biggest and most important mystery isn’t black holes or the big bang, isn’t asking what will replace space-time or what determines the constants in the Standard Model. The most critical, most important question in physics, rather, is to find the consequences of the principles we actually know!

We know our world is described fairly well by quantum field theory. We’ve tested it, not just to the sixth decimal place, but to the tenth. And while we suspect it’s not the full story, it should still describe the vast majority of our everyday world.

If we knew not just the underlying principles, but the full consequences of quantum field theory, we’d understand almost everything we care about. But we don’t. Instead, we’re forced to calculate with approximations. When those approximations break down, we fall back on experiment, trying to propose models that describe the data without precisely explaining it. This is true even for something as “simple” as the distribution of quarks inside a proton. Once you start trying to describe materials, or chemistry or biology, all bets are off.

This is what the vast majority of physics is about. Even more, it’s what the vast majority of science is about. And that’s true even back to Michelson’s day. Quantum mechanics and relativity were revelations…but there are still large corners of physics in which neither matters very much, and even larger parts of the more nebulous “physical science”.

New fundamental principles get a lot of press, but you shouldn’t discount the physics of “the sixth place of decimals”. Most of the big mysteries don’t ask us to challenge our fundamental paradigm: rather, they’re challenges to calculate or measure better, to get more precision out of rules we already know. If a genie gave me the solution to any of physics’ mysteries I’d choose to understand the full consequences of quantum field theory, or even of the physics of Michelson’s day, long before I’d look for the answer to a trendy question like quantum gravity.