Before the elusive particle could be discovered—a smashing success—it had to be imagined.
It took an out-of-this-world arrival to get that perfect chemical combination for water to fill our planet.
In Einstein’s day, the possibility that our universe could have turned out differently was a mind-bender that physicists might have bandied about long after the day’s more serious research was done. But recently, the question has shifted from the outskirts of physics to the mainstream…
Waiting for the Higgs Particle
When rumors started crisscrossing the Internet last week that the elusive Higgs particle had been detected by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, I experienced my first physics-generated chill in a decade. It happened again Tuesday morning with the official announcement suggesting that the more than 40-year search for the Higgs may finally be nearing its end…
Darkness on The Edge of The Universe
The New York Times
In a great many fields, researchers would give their eyeteeth to have a direct glimpse of the past. Instead, they generally have to piece together remote conditions using remnants like weathered fossils, decaying parchments or mummified remains. Cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, is different. It is the one arena in which we can actually witness history…
The Origins of The Universe: A Crash Course
A tantalizing idea considered since the early part of the last century is that the universe might have more than the three spatial dimensions of common experience.
In addition to the familiar left/right, back/forth and up/down, physicists have contemplated additional directions that are curled up to such a small size that they’ve so far eluded discovery.
For many years Einstein was a strong proponent of this idea. He had already shown that gravity was nothing but warps and curves in the familiar dimensions of space (and time); the new idea posited that nature’s other forces (for example, the electromagnetic force) amounted to warps and curves in additional, as yet unknown, spatial dimensions. Difficulties in applying the idea mathematically resulted in Einstein ultimately losing interest. But decades later, string theory revived it: the mathematics of string theory not only requires extra dimensions but has shown how to resolve the issues that flummoxed Einstein…
Put A Little Science In Your Life
A COUPLE of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we’ve all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.
But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier’s letter emphasized something I’ve increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.
The Universe On A String
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this month, The New York Times reported that Albert Einstein had completed his unified field theory — a theory that promised to stitch all of nature’s forces into a single, tightly woven mathematical tapestry. But as had happened before and would happen again, closer scrutiny revealed flaws that sent Einstein back to the drawing board. Nevertheless, Einstein’s belief that he’d one day complete the unified theory rarely faltered. Even on his deathbed he scribbled equations in the desperate but fading hope that the theory would finally materialize. It didn’t.
In the decades since, the urgency of finding a unified theory has only increased. Scientists have realized that without such a theory, critical questions can’t be addressed, such as how the universe began or what lies at the heart of a black hole. These unresolved issues have inspired much progress, with the most recent advances coming from an approach called string theory. Lately, however, string theory has come in for considerable criticism. And so, this is an auspicious moment to reflect on the state of the art…
That Famous Equation And You
E = mc² has become the most recognized icon of the modern scientific era. Yet for all its symbolic worth, the equation’s intimate presence in everyday life goes largely unnoticed. There is nothing you can do, not a move you can make, not a thought you can have, that doesn’t tap directly into E = mc². Einstein’s equation is constantly at work, providing an unseen hand that shapes the world into its familiar form. It’s an equation that tells of matter, energy and a remarkable bridge between them…
One Hundred Years of Uncertainty
By the early 1950’s, Einstein realized he was losing the battle. But the memories of his earlier success with relativity – “the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light” – urged him onward. Maybe the intense light of discovery that had so brilliantly illuminated his path as a young man would shine once again. While lying in a bed in Princeton Hospital in mid-April 1955, Einstein asked for the pad of paper on which he had been scribbling equations in the desperate hope that in his final hours the truth would come to him. It didn’t.
Was Einstein misguided? Must we accept that there is a fuzzy, probabilistic quantum arena lying just beneath the definitive experiences of everyday reality? As of today, we still don’t have a final answer. Fifty years after Einstein’s death, however, the scales have certainly tipped farther in this direction…
The Time We Thought We Knew
Time dominates experience. We live by watch and calendar. We eagerly trade megahertz for gigahertz. We spend billions of dollars to conceal time’s bodily influences. We uproariously celebrate particular moments in time even as we quietly despair of its passage.
But what is time? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it — but certainly, a few years into the 21st century, our understanding of time must be deeper than that. By now, you’d think, science must have figured out why time seems to flow, why it always goes in one direction and why we are uniformly drawn from one second to the next. The fact is, though, the explanations for these basic features of time remain controversial. And the more physicists have searched for definitive answers, the more our everyday conception of time appears illusory…