Frogs, science and magic mirrors

August 4, 2006

Levitation without meditationThe IOP has just launched a podcast feed (hat tip Yan Feng). Their first post (mp3 here) is a 20 minutes interview with Michael Berry, of the eponymous phase fame, whose work on levitating frogs earned him an IgNobel Price in Physics in 2000. Professor Berry talks neither of his phase nor his frogs in the interview, but of his current research on optics (having to do with conical diffraction and the angular momentum of light), and the relationship between science and art (he is very fond of images representing optical phenomena, as you can see in this beautiful gallery). He has also a couple of things to say about the interplay between theoretical work and practical applications and the part played by science in our society. In this regard, his little piece Living with Physics (pdf) and his unpublished Night thoughts of a theoretical physicist (pdf) are very worth reading; for instance, here’s a quite inspiring musing on the unity of science:

From science come inspiring and magical connections between very different things. This observation counters one of our commonest criticisms: that by the reductionist disarticulation of the world into its parts, which are then studied separately, we lose the sense of the whole. My favourite example starts with the question: Why is matter hard? Atoms consist mostly of empty space, after all, so why doesn’t matter squash down, with all the electrons collapsing into their lowest quantum energy states near the nuclei? Because this is prevented by the Pauli exclusion principle: no two electrons can be in the same state. And where does that come from? It could well originate in a property of rotation in three-dimensional space4: holding a glass of wine, you can turn it completely twice (that is, through 720°) and find at the end of this contortion that your arm is untwisted (this does not work for a single turn). I find that `two into none’ connection, that totally unexpected association of microscopic hardness with geometry5, miraculous.

A Makyoh in action. Click for more pictures.By the end of the interview, Berry returns to his research and mentions a quite curious recent result of his, the explanation of the workings of the oriental magic mirrors called Makyoh. This bit caught my eye (well, i guess it was my ear) because i had never hear of those magic mirrors before. They’re quite amusing. These cast and polished bronze mirrors, manufactured in China and Japan since at least 500 BC have a pattern embossed on the back that magically appears in a patch of light reflected by the mirror face (which to the naked eye looks as smooth and polished as one can get, except for a bit convexity). You can see a Makyoh in action in the figure on the right (more here): the pattern in the reflected light patch is nowhere to be seen in the mirror’s surface, which reflects images as a regular, slightly convex mirror would do. Credit for explaining the trick usually goes to Ayrthon and Perry, but, according to this article of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica,

The true explanation of the magic mirror was first suggested by the French physicist Charles Cleophas Person in 1847, who observed that the reflecting surface of the mirrors was not uniformly convex, the portions opposite relief surfaces being plane. Therefore, as he says, ‘ the rays reflected from the convex portion diverge and give but a feebly illuminated image,while, on the contrary, the rays reflected from the plane portions of the mirror preserve their parallelism, and appear on the screen as an image by reason of their contrast with the feebler illumination of the rest of the disk. Such differences of plane in the mirror surface are accidental, being due to the manner in which it is prepared, a process explained by W. E. Ayrton and J. Perry (Prot. Roy. Soc., 1878, vol. xxviii.), by whom ample details of the history, process of manufacture and composition of Oriental mirrors have been published.

I haven’t found these original papers on-line, but you can learn more about the history of Ayrton and Perry’s discoveries in this page on magic mirrors from Grand Illusions. A more in-depth treatment of the optics involved is given in Michael Berry’s article Oriental magic mirrors and the Laplace image (pdf), where he explains how the Laplacian of the relief height function gives rise to the image in the reflected patch (see also this article for comments on Berry’s and a bit more on the history of Makyoh).

I find Professor Berry’s willingness to investigate funny, every-day problems refreshing, not to mention his concern on making the physicist’s world closer to outsiders, like, say, taxi drivers. Or, as Berry himself puts it:

A source of delight is uncovering down-to-earth or dramatic and sometimes beautiful  examples of abstract mathematical ideas: the arcane in the mundane.


The Mark Steel lectures on Physics

August 2, 2006

Here’s Open University’s Mark Steel’s comic (but informative) take on Newton:

and on Einstein:

The whole series includes lectures on Charles Darwin, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud and Aristotle. Hat tip Mind Hacks.

The fifth way

August 1, 2006

Five-dimensional physics, P. WessonI’ve been reading a bit about modern Kaluza-Klein-like theories of gravity, as advocated (among others) by the people of the ‘Space-Time-Matter consortium‘. Although i don’t know yet whether i buy all their arguments (and i actually have some reservations, more on them later), these ideas are so elegant and simple that i’d like to share a bit of what i’ve learnt so far. Thus, this post is not an endorsement of the physics behind five-dimensional theories, but rather an exposition (hopefully understandable to non-specialists) of what i like about them [1].

As you surely know, multi-dimensional space-times are nowadays routine to string theorists (who use models of up to 26 dimensions, ten and eleven being also popular choices), but i’ve found little, if any, motivation to take them seriously; surely because of lack of study on my part, but also because i’ve never read an argument making them feasible from a physical point of view. Extra dimensions are needed in string theory to have consistent supersymmetry, and to avoid divergences of the vacuum zero-point field or get a massless photon. Now, that may be a perfectly physical and intuitive motivation for some of you (and one can even argue that the dimensionality of the world is being derived from the theory), but definitely not for me: my rusty intuition says that obtaining up to 22 extra-dimensions and having to hurriedly sweep them under the rug (er, i mean, compactify them) is a strong hint to go look for better ways [2]. More akin to my old-fashioned ways is the path followed by Paul Wessan: let’s just add an extra dimension, take it at face value and see if it makes any sense. Of course, the idea of a fifth dimension does not come out of the blue, so let me start with a bit of motivation.

Wood versus Marble

General Relativity singles out gravitational forces by converting them into pure geometry. Gravitation is no longer an interaction comparable to electromagnetic, strong or weak forces, but, rather, the manifestation of the structure of space-time [3]. As a consequence, the relativistic world is split in two quite dissimilar parts: geometric entities (represented by the space-time metric or, if you prefer, the connection vierbein) and energy/matter/fields (represented by the stress-energy tensor). These are by no means worlds apart; on the contrary, they’re deeply interconnected via Einstein’s equations:

G = k T …….. (1)

The stress-energy tensorOn the left hand side, one encounters magnitudes related exclusively to the geometry of space-time: the Einstein’s tensor G is constructed from the metric g and its derivatives (up to second order), which describe the curvature of space-time (G is constructed from the Ricci tensor, which in turns derives from Riemann’s, or curvature, tensor R). On the right, we find the world of matter, energy and fields: the stress-energy tensor T describes the pressure, stresses, density of energy and its flux, i.e., how matter moves through space-time (if you’re new to metrics, tensors and GR, see this nice page for a quick, conceptual introduction, or this one, with beautiful ASCII art). Energy influences geometry, which influences energy, which influences energy, and so on and so forth, in a highly non-linear way. But we have still two differentiated kinds of stuff, which Einstein was fond of calling marble and wood. He spent many years trying to get rid of wood and to find a unified theory containing only geometric entities; five-dimensional theories try to push forward towards that ivory tower.

Before jumping to a fifth dimension we can get a glimpse of how geometry can play a role similar to that of matter fields by taking a look at the famous cosmological constant. The Einstein tensor above is carefully constructed to ensure that its covariant divergence vanishes; as a consequence, matter fields satisfy a generalised conservation equation, i.e., the relativistic version of classical energy, momentum or charge conservation. But one can add a term proportional to the metric to the left hand side of (1) while still preserving this desirable property: the constant of proportionality is the cosmological constant. Introducing it, and considering the case of empty space (vanishing T), we can rewrite Einstein’s equations as

G + L g = 0 …….. (2a)

Everything’s marble here, but we can rewrite the equation above passing the cosmological term to the right hand side

G = -L g …….. (2b)

Compare with (1): Lg plays the role of a stress-energy tensor, made up of marble, which can be seen as representing the energy associated with vacuum. Admittedly, it’s a peculiar form of energy, because it represents a negative pressure, but it can be used to explain (more or less) dark energy and the acceleration of the universe’s expansion. But what about other fields, like the electromagnetic field? Can we recast them using geometric quantities? As long as we stick to four dimensions, we have no spare geometric terms at hand. Enter the fifth dimension.

A world without matter

The metric tensor in N dimensions consists of N(N+1)/2 independent functions. Therefore, going to five dimensions buys us 5 more geometric entities to play with and make the cause of, say, electromagnetism. Tensor equations such as those in the previous section do not depend on the number of dimensions: one just gets more components as we go from four to five of them. The trick is to group on the left the terms making up, say, the Einstein tensor in four dimensions, and to put on the right hand side the rest (containing terms arising from the fifth dimension), which can now be reinterpreted as stress-energy arising from geometry. So, if we start with a 5D universe without matter, its corresponding Einstein equations

G[5] = 0 …….. (3)

(where we explicitly denote the dimensionality) a subset of the equations represented by (3) can be algebraically re-arranged as

G[4] = T …….. (4)

where the new tensor T is made up of all the terms appearing in (3) that include the new metric functions associated with the new dimension. Thus, if one happens to life in a 4-dimensional subspace of the 5-dimensional universe, 4-dimensional observations will be naturally interpreted using (4). That is, to these lower dimensional beings, higher-dimensional geometric effects look wooden! But there’s more: as i mentioned, (4) is just a subset of (3) and the rest of equations (involving, again, terms relative to the extra dimension) can be reinterpreted as conservation/evolution equations for our geometrically induced matter fields.

Kaluza and KleinKaluza and Klein were the first, during the 20s, to apply these ideas, incorporating the electromagnetic potential as 4 of the 5 extra available metric coefficients [4] (for a quick summary of the maths involved, see this nice page by Viktor Toth [5], or this excellent paper by Jeroen van Dongen on Einstein’s reaction to Kaluza and Klein’s ideas). By further stipulating that the old 4D ones are independent of the new coordinate, the right hand side of (4), which contains combinations of the 5D metric functions and its derivatives, takes the form of the EM stress-energy tensor. And the additional conservation equations coming from (3) are Maxwell equations. Beautiful as this result is, people felt a need to explain where is the additional spatial dimension hiding [6]. While Kaluza was at first happy with just making the 4D fields of the theory independent of the fifth dimension by prescription, Klein proposed what is still today the most popular way of hiding extra dimensions: compactification. That is the famous hose pipe model, where the fifth dimension is finite and curled into a circle, giving rise to a slim cylinder: the extra dimension is there, but we cannot see it, in the same manner as we would take the hose pipe as a one-dimensional line when seen from a distance. This model has further interesting properties, on account of the periodicity of the additional dimension; for instance, constraining electromagnetism to a circle immediately explains charge quantization, as waves directed along a finite axis can only have discrete frequencies. Unfortunately, the same calculations give a mass for the electron which is wrong by twenty-two orders of magnitude, so that this line of inquiry was soon abandoned.

Compactification lives up in today’s theories of unification in string theory, where, however, the pure marble world idea has been abandoned: we have stress-energy contributions not coming from geometry, but from matter, or string, fields (see for instance Michael Duff’s writings, including his fun Flatland, Modulo 8, or Kaluza-Klein theory in perspective). But there’s a second perspective, namely, to take the extra dimensions at face value, without necessarily compactifying them, and assume that nature is only approximately independent of them. At the same time, we stick to the idea of avoiding non-geometrical quantities, deriving the stress-energy contents of the four-dimensional subspace exclusively from 5D geometry. This is the approach championed by P. Wessan’s Space-Time-Matter (SMT) theory, to which we turn our attention in the following sections.

It’s a small, embedded universe

Vanishing matterIt is not difficult to prove that any solution to Einstein’s equations (1) in N dimensions can be recast as an empty N+1 dimensional space satisfying the source-less equations (3). This purely mathematical result, known as Campbell’s theorem, allows us to reinterpret our 4D universe with its fields and matter contents as a subspace of a wider, five-dimensional, and empty one. Now, one of the key features of Einstein’s General Relativy is gauge invariance, that is, the fact that all relevant physical quantities and equations are independent of the coordinate system we chose to express them. This invariance is still valid in the whole 5D theory, but when we restrict ourselves to a 4D subspace we loose it: physics in four dimensions depends on how we choose to embed our perceived world in the five dimensional universe. Different embeddings yield different dependencies of 4D fields in the fifth coordinate and, therefore, different physics. Thus, if we start with a flat 5D universe where all test particles move along null geodesics, what we actually perceive in our limited 4D view depends on how our 4D hypersurface is embedded in that flat space-time. While i find this situation a bit disturbing (i have yet to make my mind up as to how disturbing), it is arguably not new: in regular GR accounts of solar system observations or universe models we use routinely very specific coordinate systems to match our measurements with the results of the theory (for instance, we could choose a co-moving coordinate system in our cosmological models and expansion would suddenly disappear).

LFRW embedded in five dimensionsAt any rate, there’s quite a few interesting ways of embedding our 4D slice in five dimensions providing new perspectives on our (so to speak) every day physics. For instance, the existence of an extra dimension can make big-bang singularities vanish, due to the fact that the geometry-induced stress-energy tensor comes with a time-varying cosmological constant. In a nutshell, the 4D big-bang becomes a coordinate singularity (due to an ill-chosen 4D coordinate system) which is regular in five dimensions. The figure on the left shows such an embedding, discussed in full in this article by Seahra and Wesson (in other models, the big-bang can also be interpreted as a a shock-wave in a curved, if empty, five-dimensional universe). We already see here one of the interesting traits of these theories: since the fifth dimension is not a priory hidden, observables such as the cosmological constant can depend on time.

The fifth force

In vanilla General Relativity, one is often interested in the motion of test particles, that is, particles whose associated stress-energy tensor is so tiny that it does not contribute as a source in the right hand side of (1). These free-falling particles, characterized by their rest mass, follow geodesics of the underlying metric (the curved space generalisation of straight lines in Euclidean space) and serve as a probe of the geometry of space-time. As we know since Galileo, the equation of motion of a free particle in flat space-time simply states that its velocity, v, is constant:

dv/dt = 0

The relativistic generalisation is the geodesic equation, which substitutes the 3-velocity by its four-dimensional version u, whose spatial components are still v and whose temporal component measures proper time s, i.e., time as measured from the point of view of the moving particle. In addition, one has to take into account the curvature of space-time, which plays funny games with parallel transport, and substitute regular derivatives by covariant ones, taking into account the effects of geometry on the velocity vector when it gets moved in a curved background. Thus, one can write our free-falling equation of motion as

Du/ds = 0 …….. (5)

where the capital D is not a typo, but denotes covariant differentiation. We can let our test particle interact with other fields: for instance, if it’s charged an there’s an electromagnetic field in the region of space-time that it traverses, the particle will no longer follow a geodesic, but deviate according to an equation of the form

D(mu)/ds = f …….. (6)

where i have included the constant rest mass (m) and f denotes the force four-vector, which describes the interaction of the test particle with the field (this is just the natural generalisation of Newton’s second law). But let’s go back to our five-dimensional universe. Since there are no matter fields in there, geodesic motion is described by the source-free equation (5), where u is now the five-velocity. We can play again the trick we used with Einstein equations and split the geodesic equation to see how it looks in our 4D embedding. The result is that motion as viewed in the four dimensional slice is not geodesic, but satisfies an equation of the form (6) with a geometry-induced force. Not only that, the rest mass can also depend on the fifth dimension; actually, with an appropriate embedding the mass is the extra-dimension. Another intriguing possibility is that null geodesics in five dimensions (representing causally connected paths) can appear as time-like or even space-like curves in four dimensions, so that apparently unconnected events in 4D are actually causally related in the wider five dimensional universe. In such a model, what we take for two separate particles could be reinterpreted as a single one following a 5D geodesic, making true the old speculation by Feynman/Wheeler according to which there are not many electrons, but a single one travelling in time. Bizarre as all this may sound at first, the math is relatively straightforward and, if nothing else, may serve to hone your differential geometry skills: see for instance this paper by Wesson and Seahra for details.

We encounter a by now familiar theme: the actual form of the fifth force and mass function is gauge dependent, i.e., it varies as we change the coordinate system used to describe the four dimensional subspace. Moreover, they seem to be mutually incompatible: the embedding where you get rid of big-bang singularities is different from the one that tries to reveal the nature of inertia, or (as we mention below) the quantum mechanical aspects of the four-dimensional subspace. But, again, i must concede that in regular GR we express different experimental outcomes using different coordinates systems, so maybe the situation is not as ugly as it seems at first. At any rate, these 5D gauge-dependent models have the redeeming quality of making concrete predictions which are, in principle, measurable, so that we should be able to let experiment decide for us, just as in the old good days.

Further reading

Besides the book linked above, there’s a quite long list of articles on STM and 5D gravity by Wessan and friends. A very good discussion of all the above topics, and then more, is the review paper Kaluza-Klein Gravity, which also discusses alternative multi-dimensional theories like strings or Randall and Sundrum’s braneworlds. Interestingly, it has been shown that the latter are algebraically equivalent to 5D STM, albeit their physical motivation is quite different (in Randall’s branes, stress-energy is not geometrical, but caused by regular fields constrained to the 4D subspace). Also worth reading are Wessan musings on the connection between 5D physics and 4D indeterminism (see, for instance, Space-Time Uncertainty from Higher-Dimensional Determinism), which i haven’t commented further because i don’t really understand them and, probably as a result, find too speculative (as far as i can see, quantization rules are introduced by hand–more on this when i find time to study it properly!).

All in all, higher-dimensional physics is intriguing and, i’d say, worth investigating further. I don’t have a problem with unseen dimensions, as long as they introduce new physics or provide explanation for ill-understood known phenomena (with due respect to Occam). After all, we do not see time, or atoms for that matter, but use them everyday because they explain in simple terms what we actually see. The theory’s ability to make testable predictions (variable rest-mass, variable cosmological constant, etc.) is undoubtedly a strong incentive to further study, as is its simplicity and (to a geometer’s eyes) elegance. Albeit the latter is somewhat tainted by the dependency of physics on the coordinate system used to describe the 4D embedding. In a sense, the 5D universe is playing the part of an absolute space-time (is that Newton laughing?), not a very fashionable thing these days. But, as Feynman said [1], the question is not whether we like Nature…


[1] During his Auckland lectures on QED, Richard Feynman was asked about his opinion on quantum indeterminism. His answer was that the point was not whether he liked or not how nature was, but, rather, how nature actually behaves. Caveat emptor.

[2] Feynman again, in a quotation that can be taken either to back or to debunk my critique, according to taste:

Let me say something that people who worry about mathematical proofs and inconsistencies seem not to know. There is no way of showing mathematically that a physical conclusion is wrong or inconsistent. All that can be shown is that the mathematical assumptions are wrong. If we find that certain mathematical assumptions lead to a logically inconsistent description of Nature, we change the assumptions, not Nature (Feynman Lectures on Gravitation).

[3] This is, by the way, one of my difficulties with unification attempts along the lines of QFT, for gravitation is not, in an essential way, a force in the sense of QFT. Therefore, trying to second quantize it in the same way as electroweak or strong interactions has always struck me as misguided in a fundamental way, as long as one takes the lessons of GR at face value. My first gut reaction was to consider QFT on curved space-time much more appropriate, although (for various reasons that i leave for a future post) it can be just a first approximation. If one is to quantize anything related to gravity, if feels more natural to quantize space-time, along the lines of, for instance, Loop Quantum Gravity. That’s also the reason for my being skeptical when people claim that string theory contains GR, meaning that a weak field perturbation of the flat background has to have spin 2.

[4] Actually, the first attempt at explaining electromagnetism by means of an extra dimension predates General Relativity. In 1914, Gunnard Nordström made such a proposal, in the context of his own theory of gravitation (see also this WikiPedia page for a quite detailed and pedagogical account).

[5] If you’re interested in CAS systems able to tackle tensor calculus, you may be also interested on Viktor’s work with Maxima, a quite nice free CAS.

[6] Arguments in favour of three spatial dimensions date back, at least, to Pythagoras:

For, as the Pythagoreans say, the world and all that is in it is determined by the number three, since beginning and middle and end give the number of an ‘all’, and the number they give is the triad. And so, having taken these three from nature as (so to speak) laws of it, we make further use of the number three in the worship of the Gods. Further, we use the terms in practice in this way. Of two things, or men, we say ‘both’, but not ‘all’: three is the first number to which the term ‘all’ has been appropriated. And in this, as we have said, we do but follow the lead which nature gives. (Aristotle, De Caelo.)

Some centuries later, Kepler’s theory explaining the solar system in terms of platonic solids (which unsettlingly reminds me of modern attempts at explaining everything in particle physics in terms of symmetry groups and their representations) depended on a three dimensional world, which Kepler linked to the Holly Trinity (for an entertaining discussion of Kepler’s physics in the context of extra dimensions, see this Physics Teachers article).

July’s top ten

August 1, 2006

These are the ten most viewed posts during July:

  1. Geometrically speaking
  2. You’re never too old
  3. Quantum probability
  4. Getting Schwarzschild right
  5. Nature’s nifty tricks
  6. Powers of Ten
  7. The dimensionality of the world
  8. Pebble physics
  9. The cyclist team
  10. Students and quantum mechanics

This has been the best month so far here at physics musings in terms of number of visits, thanks to Sean’s kind plug of Geometrically speaking. A big thanks to Sean, and also to those of you posting encouraging comments or just dropping a mail; and, as always, thanks for reading!

Students and quantum mechanics

July 28, 2006

The latest issue of Physics Today has a freely available article that, under the title Improving students’ understanding of quantum mechanics, gives a very interesting analysis of student’s difficulties when faced with university courses in Quantum Mechanics:

Extensive testing and interviews demonstrate that a significant fraction of advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students, even after one or two full years of instruction in quantum mechanics, still are not proficient at those functional skills. They often possess deep-rooted misconceptions about such features as the meaning and significance of stationary states, the meaning of an expectation value, properties of wavefunctions, and quantum dynamics. Even students who excel at solving technically difficult questions are often unable to answer qualitative versions of the same questions.

The article goes on describing little problems posed to students and how they revealed fundamental misconceptions (if you know a bit about QM you may find interesting to try your hand at them too), and proposing ways of improving their understanding by means of interactive software and tutorials (more fun ahead). Recommended.

Three Feynmans walk into a bar…

July 28, 2006

The first two vanish into the back room to play a game of darts, leaving the third to chat up the barmaid. After emptying a stein, he pulls a bit of ribbon from his pocket and entertains her with a trick hereby he ties the ribbon to the handle, twists the stein around two full turns, and then magically untwists the ribbon without moving the stein. He tells her how particles he studies have a property called “spin”, and that particles whose spin is 1/2 actually behave like the stein with the ribbon tied to it: coming back where they started only after two, but not one, full turns. Feynman then leans closer, and conspiratorially whispers to her why (in language a barmaid can understand), just spin 1/2 particles act this way, and not other particles.

What story does the Feynman tell the barmaid?

(Posted by Edward Green to sci.phys.research. Hints here and here.)

Feynman spinning

Electronic referees

July 22, 2006

Judging a paper’s quality may be hard for human referees, and people are looking for alternatives. For instance, this recent PhysicsWeb news gives an overview of P. Chen et al. article Finding Scientific Gems with Google, where the authors take advantage of Google’s page rating algorithm to assess the relative importance of all publications in the Physical Review family of journals from 1893 to 2003. Since the rating algorithm weights pages by number of referrers [0], there’s in principle no value added to traditional citation indexes: both popularity measures are linearly correlated. The catch is that there are exceptions: papers that are not widely cited but that, judging for the number of web pages linking to them, seem to be much more influential than one would think (the article mentions quite a few, Feynman, Murray and Gell-Mann’s one on Fermi interactions being an example). Amusing; although i must confess that this kind of democratic assessments of our scientific endeavours remind me somewhat of a well-known Planck dixit:

Max PlanckA new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Max Planck, 1858–1947

(I remember i jotted down this same quotation some twenty years ago, together with a note showing my skepticism… nowadays i think i’m much more of a planckian than i used to be.)

Returning to our electronic referees, over at PhysOrg there’s a story about how computer science may help us in detecting bogus papers, where by bogus i mean automatically generated ones (looks like our human referees do sometimes find their task really hard!). Probably the most popular case of such a prank was the article accepted at WMSCI 2005 whose author came out to be SCIgen, an automatic paper generator created by the guy in portrait on the right. And our field is not immune to similar problems, as exemplified by the amusing Bogdanoff Affair (besides, as you’ll see, most probably no computer program would be of much help in this case).

[0] Of course, i’m oversimplifying: see here for the complete history behind Google’s PageRank.

Update: Andrew Jaffe, in his excellent blog (recommended, but you probably already knew it), has some interesting thoughts about peer review, and a recent initiative by Nature to open a debate on the issue and looking for ways of improvement.

Postmodern Prometheus

July 22, 2006

Hiroshi, isn't he?I know i’m wandering a bit off-topic here, but this post over at Mind Hacks was too fun to let it pass unnoticed: according to recent news, Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Lab (IRL) at Osaka University in Japan, has created an android double of himself. You can see Hiroshi in the figure on the left (stolen from this recent Scientific American article). If you didn’t recognise the android at first, don’t worry: Ishiguro’s team have been conducting a variation of Turing’s test where androids are shown to humans for around two seconds; 70% of times people take the androids for humans. The experiment is part of a study trying to explain the so-called uncanny valley effect: the emotional response of humans to robots increases as the robot is made more human-like, up to a point where a too close resemblance causes the empathy to abruptly fall. A sort of too good to be true effect. According to the IRL experiments, this may be caused by the stillness of androids: it’s impossible for humans to stand perfectly still, and that’d be what makes robots uncanny. To prove their hypothesis, Ishiguro’s team has added micro movements to their toys. As the result of the experiment with 20 subjects, 70% of the subjects did not become aware they were dealing with an android when the android had micro movements, but 70% became aware with a static android.

SensorsOf course, there’s much more to Android Science (as they call their interdisciplinary endeavours) than micro movements. This beautiful paper gives an introduction to some of the challenges faced by these intrepid researchers, ranging from an understanding of cognition and intelligent behaviour in humans to the technical challenges of creating an adequate sensor system for the robot: besides the piezo-electric films under their silicon skin, the androids use a sensor network distributed over their environment that includes video, sound and infrared motion sensors. (Yes, that’s a bit like cheating, but the results are impressive: you can get a glimpse of the science and technology behind sensors and data processing in these posters by the IRL researchers) The paper also discusses in length the Turing tests mentioned above.

I just wonder, why do the androids look so angry?

Pebble physics

July 20, 2006

From the Curiosities Department comes this news over at PhysicsWeb (see also a previous piece at about recent advancements in our understanding of pebbles:

Aristotle's peeblesA question that has been around since the time of Aristotle — what shape is a pebble? — has now been solved by physicists in France and the US. Douglas Durian of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues in Strasbourg say that a pebble is “a nearly round object with a near-Gaussian distribution of curvatures”. All pebbles, regardless of their original shape, end up with a similar shape that depends solely on how the pebble was eroded over time. The results could help geologists determine the history of a pebble simply by looking at its geometry (Phys. Rev. Lett. 97 028001).

You can also take a look at this nice presentation for more details, and even see some movies by the people of Strasbourg. For all the nitty-gritty details, the articles can be found in the arXiv, here and here.

steiner.pngThis news reminded me of an older one, The Mistery of the Skipping Stone, where the physics of bouncing stones in water is (more or less) explained (unsurprisingly, the determining factor seems to be the initial velocity of the stone: see this very readable paper, to appear in AJP, by the same author, Lyderic Bocquet). A piece of amazing trivia included in the article: In 2002 an American called Kurt Steiner set a new world record when he threw a stone across a river in Pennsylvania and made it bounce… 40 times. Unbelievable? I thought so, but here’s the proof. By comparison, the team of physicists writing the article were using a specially designed catapult for their experiments, but they got just 20 bounces. What’s your mark?

Update: And, when it comes to talk about physics and throwing, nobody more apt (one would say) than a physicist let loose at the Baseball Major League: in A Magnus Force on the Mound,  Major league pitcher Jeff Francis brings an educated insight to the physics of baseball (besides giving me an excellent excuse to publicize the excellent Symmetry Magazine, a joint SLAC/Fermilab publication about particle physics for the rest of us).

The dimensionality of the world

July 17, 2006

Although Bee has recently written an amazing and thorough article over at Backreaction with virtually everything one needs to know about extra dimensions in physics, let me add a sort of footnote in the form of some naive musings, a couple links and a Hertzian digression in this somewhat iffy post.

Multiple dimensions and the problem of time
As a student, i was in love with Kaluza-Klein theory and its extremely elegant explanation of electromagnetism as the purely geometrical effect of a fourth spatial dimension. The really magic thing is that the electromagnetic energy momentum tensor (in four dimensions) arises as a consequence of an empty five-dimensional space where particles follow geodesics; in other words, photons are purely geometry, just as gravitational forces. The problem, of course, was to explain why we don’t measure that fifth dimension. Kaluza just prescribed that no physical quantity depended on it, while Klein tried a somewhat more satisfactory solution by compactifying it to an unobservable size, and making it periodic, just as the second dimension of a long hose, which becomes one-dimensional when seen from a distance. Unfortunately, this beautiful picture seemed to lead to insurmountable difficulties with chirality or the mass of the electron, unless one goes the string way and adds more compact dimensions to our universe. I thought Kaluza-Klein theories were all but abandoned in their original 5-dimensional form these days, but following some links in the recent review article by Orfeu Bertolami, The Adventures of Spacetime, proved me utterly wrong. There’s been quite a lot of activity in the area during the last decade, leading even to a Space-Time-Matter consortium, a sort of physicists’ club promoting 5-dimensional gravity theories without compactification. The consortium is coordinated by P.S Wessan, and has quite a few members and interesting publications: see for instance this comprehensive review of KK theories of gravity for an introduction to Wessan and friend’s ideas. What i find compelling about their approach (and what, at the same time, of course reveals my prejudices) is that they tackle multidimensional physics from the point of view of general relativity, rather than particle physics. However, i guess that a word of caution is in order: i’ve read very little about these (to me) novel approaches to KK theories, and i’m not yet ready to endorse them; if they were right (and i definitely wish they were), they’d be quite revolutionary: for instance, they explain quantum indeterminacy as a result of particles travelling in higher dimensions… that’d be extremely cool (and actually make real one of my silly ideas of old), but perhaps too cool to be true? Well, i’ll leave it for you to decide (as for me, i think i’m going to read Wessan’s book, Five Dimensional Physics, lest student dreams can really come true!).

Returning to Bertolami’s paper, let me mention that it is part of a forthcoming book entitled Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World, the good news being that the above link points to freely available versions of many of its chapters, written by various authors, including Wessan and G.F.R. Ellis. The latter writes about his rather original ideas on time in General Relativity, and the Block Universe idea, familiar to all relativists, of a world represented as a frozen 4-dimensional whole. Ellis observes that such a representation clearly suggests that time is an illusion: the entire universe just is. The problem is that such a view seems incompatible with irreversible, macroscopic phenomena, as well as with the fundamental indeterminism inherent to quantum mechanics. To take into account these facts of life, Ellis proposes an Evolving Block Universe: time passes; the past is fixed and immutable, and hence has a completely different status than the future, which is still undetermined and open to influence; the kinds of `existence’ they represent are quite different: the future only exists as a potentiality rather than an actuality. The point being that our regular, predictable universe models are based on too simplistic assumptions and oversimplified systems, and that taking into account realistic, emergent ones renders the future under-determined. Although very interesting from a philosophical point of view, Ellis ideas need much fleshing out before becoming a solid theory of anything. But still, he makes many a fine point, and quite a lot of good questions worth thinking about.

A digression: Hertz’s mechanics
Finally, Bertolami’s paper draw my attention to a facet of Heinrich Hertz‘s work i was totally unaware of, namely, his contributions to the interpretation of classical mechanics. After gaining a place in the history of physics with his experimental confirmation of the existence of electromagnetic waves, and before his tragic death when he was only 37, Hertz wrote a book, The Principles of Mechanics Presented in a New Form, where he proposed a formulation of Newtonian physics freed of forces, using instead a variational principle. According to Hertz’s principle, particles move along paths of least curvature, where the (three dimensional) metric is defined by constraints instead of forces. Similar principles were proposed by Gauss and d’Alembert before Hertz, but the latter was notorious (if only ephemerally) for pushing to the forefront a view of space-time defined by matter in a purely relational, Leibnizian fashion: Hertz tries to derive his system of the world from material particles alone. Unfortunately, i’ve found little information on-line on Hertz’s ideas, which seem to be better known to philosophers due to their influence on Wittgenstein (who directly mentions Hertz in his Tractatus). For those of you with a philosophical soft spot, this paper presents a re-interpretation of some of Wittgenstein’s ideas under a Hertzian perspective. As a physicist, i find Hertz’s ideas interesting almost only as a historical curiosity, and don’t know how relevant they really are to modern epistemology: comments welcome! ;)