Tag Archives: Science

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Growing up, my hero was Thomas Jefferson. Here was a man who seemingly did it all: he was of course a leading figure in the founding of our nation, but he was also a gifted writer and a deep thinker, embracing a scientific view of the world. He founded the University of Virginia and, as president, drastically expanded the lands that would eventually become part of the United States. He seemed the epitome of a so-called Renaissance man.

However, as with most things, as I got older, I learned that Jefferson was a much more complex figure, full of contradictions. In the Declaration of Independence, he penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” yet, he owned slaves. In fact, he had an ongoing relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered several children. He presented a face of aloofness to politics, seemingly above the pettiness of parties, but, behind the scenes, he was actively engaged in attacking rivals and disparaging other ideas. He was against centralized Federal power until he held it and solidified it significantly. He was terribly afraid of what others thought about him but he continued to search out the central position of national affairs.

The point of Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power is to delve into the mind of Jefferson, to explore the seeming contradictions, to understand the full person. Meacham’s goal isn’t to describe in detail all of Jefferson’s accomplishments. In fact, major events such as the revolution, Jefferson’s time in France, even his presidency are, effectively, only briefly described. Rather, it is Jefferson’s innermost thoughts that Meacham tries to probe, mostly through Jefferson’s copious correspondence and the thoughts of his contemporaries. A complex picture arises of a man who, at his core, has two primary drives: he wants to be a great man and he wants the American experiment to succeed.  He needed power and control. He needed to shape his life and society to his vision of them.

It is perhaps this that best explains Jefferson’s political life. He was so afraid that Americans, particularly the Federalists such as Adams, would revert to a monarchy of some form — worse, rejoin Britain — that he made it a key mission in his life to subvert such efforts. He felt that an educated people would make the right decision, that education begat reason and that, in turn, would lead to a good government. He expounded “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters” and that “reason, not revelation or unquestioned tradition or superstition, deserved pride of place in human affairs.” However, he knew that an uneducated public was a danger: “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into a public message… it becomes a government of chance and not design.” To make informed decisions, people must be informed. “In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”

The contradictions in Jefferson’s life are best embodied in his views on slavery. It seems that he did make some admittedly small efforts to end slavery, or at least mitigate it, but, after a few defeats, he gave up. He didn’t advocate for outright freedom, but emancipation and deportation. He didn’t believe that the two races could live side by side. He realized that the institution of slavery would lead to a crisis, but he, along with many of his contemporaries, decided to punt on the issue of slavery in favor of establishing an imperfect United States. The country would later suffer greatly for this, but, in his mind, there would have been no country if they hadn’t gone this route. Perhaps Jefferson’s biggest failing is that, while he tried so hard to exert his views and meld society to his vision in other aspects, he simply “chose to consider himself powerless” over the issue of slavery. Even in his personal life, he didn’t act on his principles, only freeing those slaves which were his own children (by an arrangement with Sally when she lived with him in France to guarantee her return with him). This is where Jefferson, as a hero, comes crashing down the hardest. This isn’t simply a case where Jefferson was no less enlightened than his peers. There were many who advocated for the end of slavery. Some of his fellow Virginians freed their slaves. Emancipation was not a foreign concept, something that hadn’t even crossed their minds. As Meacham says “Jefferson was wrong about slavery,” even from a contemporary perspective.

His personal life was often filled with days of scientific inquiry. He had an enlightened view on experimentation, stating that “I have always thought that if in the experiments to introduce… new plants, one species in a hundred is found useful and succeeds, the ninety-nine found otherwise are more than paid for.” Further, he knew that not all discoveries immediately led to an amazing new application. He advocated for science for its own sake: “The fact is that one new idea leads to another, that to a third and so on through a course of time, until someone, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.” This is a view that science requires sustained effort and encounters much failure for every success, a view that we would do well to continue to adopt in our own times.

Jefferson spoke a strong game when in the political opposition, arguing against any centralization of power and against a strong centralized government. He was a pure democrat. But, upon gaining power, he didn’t hesitate to use it. As Meacham says “It was easy to speak theoretically and idealistically about politics when one is seeking power. The demands of exercising it once it is won, however, are so complex and fluid that ideological certitude is often among the first casualties of actual governing.” This seems to be an insight we could take to heart today. We are often swayed by idealistic arguments about how the government should work, about how society should work, but we neglect the actual difficulties of governing. We are given platitudes about how things will change, but then are frustrated when they don’t change enough. This is how it has been since the founding of the country and is not likely to change any time soon.

Most intriguingly, Jefferson seemed to have a good perspective on his place in history. He was certainly very proud of his achievements, but he also knew that history would inflate them, would place the achievements of his generation on a pedestal to be almost worshipped. “They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and supposed what they did to be beyond amendment… I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Jefferson knew that people and societies change and that their laws must change with them.

This book isn’t exactly an overview of Jefferson’s life. Rather, it tries to delve into his motivations, his thoughts, using his own words. It tries to understand what drives him. At times, it is a little frustrating in that the context isn’t fully fleshed out — the historical backdrop isn’t always clearly presented, but rather assumed — though to fully paint the picture would have led to an enormous volume. Further, there is no deeper analysis of what Jefferson was thinking. In some sense, he is simply presented, with all of his contradictions. That we can’t delve deeper is frustrating, but the simple fact of the matter is that this is the best we can do. We don’t have him here to talk to, so we can only analyze what he wrote and what others wrote about him. Thus, we are left with an imperfect portrait of an imperfect man, one who stood above others in many ways, but who certainly had his own failings. As Meacham says, “He was not all he could be. But no politician — no human being — ever is.”

I certainly gained a new appreciation for Jefferson, both his accomplishments and the motivations behind them. As an adult, I know no human is perfect and no one can be held up on an unquestioned pedestal. Jefferson, as part of the generation that led to the American experiment, is a great man, a man that is inspiring both for the depth of his thoughts and the breadth of his activities. He is also a small man, for his failures. He is a real human who made enormous sacrifices in some domains of his life but was unable to make others that were equally important. Is he my hero? No. But he is still a man I can admire, understanding that he was, as we all are, a flawed human being.

A few other Jeffersonian snippets I thought worth sharing:

  • We have no rose without its thorn; no pleasure without alloy. It is the law of our existence; and we must acquiesce.
  • Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
  • Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind.
  • [Good humor] is the practice of sacrificing to those whom we meet in society all the little conveniences and preferences which will gratify them, and deprive us of nothing worth a moment’s consideration; it is the giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions which will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves. How cheap a price for the good will of another!

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

This book is thought-provoking.

When she was fifteen, Amanda Gefter’s father, while out to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, asked her “How would you define nothing?” Her father had been thinking about the nature of reality and he had come to the conclusion that it was nothing. Or better said, Nothing. This question led Amanda on a journey, both of personal development and to understand the true nature of reality. She delved deep into what physics said about reality. Along the way, in her mind masquerading as a journalist, she interviewed and discussed physics with leading physicists. She delved deep into what the cutting edge of science said about the nature of reality. And, along the way, she discovered her own voice, writing a book detailing her journey.

Gefter’s knowledge and insight about the nature of reality, and the excitement she conveys as she learns it, is simply inspiring. As she tries to uncover what physics says objective reality truly is, she slowly finds, step by step, that nothing is objective. Beginning with relativity that said that time and gravity are relative, and through quantum mechanics, that tells us that even measurements are relative, she examines what we know, what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what that uncompromisingly leads us to conclude about reality. There is no objective reality. Every observer essentially has their own reality, their own definition of the universe.

She jumps into how that means a universe could arise out of literally nothing. As no observer can know everything about the universe, as our views are limited and finite, it puts bounds on the information we can each collect. That bound essentially leads to the formation of the universe, a shadow that arises out of nothingness. I don’t completely understand it, and not sure I buy it all, but the steps by which she gets there are all based on what our science tells us.

In any case, her examination of the science itself is fascinating. I was unaware of what the most recent developments in cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics were concluding. Her excitement in discovery each new twist and turn is infectious. And, along the way, she gives great perspectives of the leading thinkers in this area.

This book is humbling.

Gefter has no formal science training. Her father, though a medical doctor, is not a physicist. But, these two delve so deep into questions regarding the nature of reality, it is simply humbling for someone like me who has studied physics. Granted, I went in a different direction, focusing on the properties of atoms and materials, but still, that these two have the curiosity, the drive, and the deep intuition to really delve into these questions is inspiring. I’m inspired to try to delve deeper into my own fields, beyond the every day drivers of doing practical science. We’ll see if I’m able to follow through.

The ideas that Gefter explores, that she describes, are hard concepts  and I admit that I struggle with many of them. Most of them arise from simply considerations, typically from seeming paradoxes where some assumption leads to contradictions about how reality must be. In each case, those assumptions must be abandoned and soon we are left with very few. The chain of reasoning and evidence that leads to the final picture is well described, but they ideas are challenging. To fully grasp them, I know I will need to read further.

This book is touching.

Gefter is set on her quest by her father’s question and his own ruminations on the nature of reality. She is both accompanied and followed by her father on this quest as she makes it her own. But, the way Gefter and her father conspire as this journey unfolds, the way they discuss their most recent insights, the way they work together to delve into these deepest of questions, is, in some sense, maybe what all parents dream of. Gefter’s father inspires his daughter to undertake the quest of a lifetime. And she takes it beyond what he could have ever done on his own. The deep intellectual relationship between the two, the shared vision, is something that I could only dream of passing along to my own daughter.

This book is awesome.

The way Gefter explores the nature of reality, the way she starts on her quest knowing literally nothing about the physics of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity, and reaches into the deepest understanding we have, is a great way to convey what we know about reality. She systematically crosses off elements of what might comprise reality and delves deeper and deeper into the seeming paradoxes that arise as our science progresses. I certainly learned a great deal, and the ideas presented are thought provoking in a way that is rare in such books. As opposed to other books on cosmology and string theory, this one doesn’t necessarily take a side or advocate for a certain perspective. Instead, Gefter is really trying to understand what we know and what science tells us about reality. And, in doing so, she produces one of the most entertaining and educational forays into modern physics I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The ideas that arise from modern physics are mind bending. They push the limits of our ability to understand the world around us. They are beyond our wildest imagination. Science is often criticized for its lack of creativity, but modern physics has created a view of the world and reality that could never have simply been imagined, never dreamed up.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

These days, celebrities come in the form of musicians, actors, sometimes politicians, and athletes. They draw lots of attention and, in many cases, lots of money. They impact our lives, creating the music and films we listen to and watch, the sporting feats that entertain us, and, in particular, the policies that govern our lives. However, conspicuously missing in this list are scientists. Arguably, scientists make more profound and lasting changes that have greater impact on our lives, providing the fundamental discoveries and insights that become the technologies that transform our world, our way of work, and even how we are entertained. But, they don’t become celebreties. They are not widely recognized in society. Most of us would be hard pressed to name more than a few scientists, and most of them are known more for their advocacy than their actual science. Think Neil deGrasse Tyson. Or Stephen Hawking. How many more can most of us think of?

Maybe one of the last great scientists that also captivated the imagination of society as a whole was Richard Feynman. Even so, I didn’t know about him as a kid, even as I got into science and was going down a path that ultimately led to a career in science. In my case, I think my first exposure was Feynman’s role on the panel investigating the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. But, even then, I didn’t know anything about his science.

It wasn’t until later, when I actually began studying physics in earnest, that I started learning something about Feynman’s science and life. That was through his two semi-autobiographical books: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. These are more anecdotes of his life rather than detailed accounts of his science, and as such they contributed greatly to his celebrity. He was one of the most respected scientists in the world, but he was also a character, a man full of life, full of stories that let people see a side that wasn’t just the science, a side they could relate to.

I admit that I still don’t know much about Feynman’s science. I went a different direction in physics and his work always felt over my head. I did take one of the volumes of his Lectures on Physics with me when I lived in Spain for a year, hoping to delve more deeply into my studies, but I got distracted by the bar scene in San Sebastian. Of course, I encountered Feynman again in graduate school, but only briefly as my own studies agin took me in a different path.

That said, reading James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius, let me “connect” with the mystique and science of Feynman in a way I hadn’t done before. Gleick intermixes Feynman’s personal life with the scientific advances he was making, including describing the struggles that any scientist encounters to some degree when they are embarking on pushing the frontiers of what is known. At times, Feynman struggled to find a topic that inspired him and, at others, struggled to push that science forward at the pace he really wanted to. At least later in life, Feynman had the luxury, due to his past success, to take his time to work at his pace and on problems of profound interest to him. He didn’t have to worry about the modern “publish or perish” paradigm that stifles so many. It makes me wonder how Feynman would have done in today’s environment.

Gleick does describe many of the profound contributions Feynman made to science, though admittedly they still go over my head. I would hope that if I had the time to devote to understanding his work, I might be able to, but the way Gleick describes how Feynman was able to make his leaps of insight and how he saw the fundamental nature of the universe, one can’t help but feel that Feynman was simply one of those people who truly is a genius, someone who’s mind works in either a different or faster way that allows him to see things others simply cannot see.

Even for a non-scientist, I think this biography would be an excellent read, one that conveys the excitement of scientific discovery as well as the hard work that is involved. It also captures that spark that we are all born with and we all have as kids — that spark that causes us to ask questions about the world around us, that spark that many of us seem to loose as we grow older. Gleick captures that spark in Feynman and the fact that he never lost it, he never stopped asking those questions.

Feynman also challenged those around him. He would ask provocative questions, such as If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generation of creatures? Feynman’s answer to this question was: “All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” It is essentially these interactions that form the foundation of my own research, how atoms interact to form materials and how those materials respond when the atoms are disrupted.

The celebrity of Feynman, and of scientists like him, has seemingly diminished. Gleick gives two reasons for this. First, there has been some disillusionment with science since the heyday after World War II, with the advent of nuclear weapons and our ability to essentially self-distruct. Further, the answers science provides in areas such as biology seem less black and white than they used to be, with the recommendations changing with each generation of scientists. This is in part because biology is that much harder than particle physics. Second, with more wide spread access to education and more people becoming scientists, fewer people stand out. As Gleick says, “When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none.”

This book is a fascinating tour of both science in one of its most exciting and dynamic times, when quantum mechanics was being discovered and fleshed out, as well as one of the leading physicists of the time. His personal life was certainly as interesting as his science. A leading scientist at Los Alamos during the development of the first atomic bomb, his sick wife resided in nearby Albuquerque, suffering from tuberculosis, and dying at a very young age. This left Feynman personally adrift, particularly in his relationships with women, even while he contiuned to produce some of the most revolutionary science. All scientists are, at least so far, human, and have their own personal struggles. How these humans develop science is one of the fascinating aspects of this book. The insight into the creative process, the way science progresses, is a story everyone can appreciate. One of Feynman’s insights that resonates with me is that science is a deeply creative endeavor, but, “scientific creativity is imagination in a straightjacket.” As opposed to art, in science “whatever we are allowed to imagine… must be consistent with everything else we know.”

As Feynman described it, science is not an absolute. “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty… we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true.” He contrasted this doubt with the certainty that is often characteristic of religious beliefs. Science doesn’t provide certainty, it provides a framework in which to interrogate the nature of the universe.

In the end, this is a great book about a fascinating man and his remarkable contributions to science. Getting a glimpse of how a very human person who also had one of the greatest scientific minds approached his work and found his way to these great insights is both fascinating and humbling. It certainly wants me to learn more about other great scientists.

 

Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley

1009394Ludwig Boltzmann was one of the fathers of statistical mechanics, that field of physics that treats large collections of particles and has allowed us to understand how materials, which are large collections of atoms, behave. That atoms comprise everything around us is almost self-evident today, but only about 100 years ago, many scientists did not believe atoms existed. Scientists like Boltzmann postulated atoms to derive theories that could explain, for example, how gases behave when you squeeze them or heat them up, but, at the time, they were a theoretical construct. Sure, earlier scientists and philosophers had speculated on the existence of atoms, all the way back to the ancient Greeks, but no one had ever seen an atom, so building a whole theory on the assumption that atoms exist seemed, to many scientists, the utmost folly. They thought it was pointless to build theories on hypothetical entities that might never be observed.

In spite of pushback from many established scientists, Boltzmann dedicated his life to developing theories that relied upon the assumption that atoms exist. He was only fully vindicated when Albert Einstein published his paper explaining the origin of Brownian motion, that motion you can see in a microscope in which a particle of pollen, for example, seems to wander randomly around the slide. What caused that motion? Einstein showed it was atoms bombarding the pollen grain from all sides. He did this by using Boltzmann’s theories.

David Lindley’s Boltzmann’s Atom explores the state of physics during the end of the 1800s and how scientists like Boltzmann laid the foundation for modern theories about atoms. Not only did Boltzmann’s work establish some of the pillars of statistical mechanics, but, in some sense, laid the groundwork for the forth-coming quantum revolution. Lindley describes the scientific atmosphere, especially the conflict between pure theorists like Boltzmann and more pragmatic scientists that felt that theoretical physics was not fundamentally science. Ultimately, Boltzmann’s ideas prevailed, but that basic conflict still exists, particularly as modern scientists build theories based on super-strings and membranes, entities that no one knows how we will ever see. The debates we have today about the future of science and whether such theories are really science remind one of the similar debate over atoms.

Not only does Lindley provide a fascinating history of science, but he delves into the life of Boltzmann himself, who was a complicated man. Boltzmann seemed to never be at peace, never happy with the perceived lack of recognition his theories had during his life. He always felt isolated and alone, never in the center of the science world. He always felt like he was missing out, much like the social wallflower that hangs back against the wall at the party. Lindley’s portrayal of Boltzmann and the other scientists of the era shows that scientists are all too human, with their ambitions, egos, and insecurities. That the pillars of such an important branch of physics were such people provides a reality check on how science actually occurs. Breakthroughs aren’t automatically embraced by the community, but often need time to be assimilated, often via the passing of the old guard, before they are truly appreciated. Science, like all human endeavors, can be messy, and the life of Boltzmann highlights this fact.

Having read this accounting of Boltzmann’s life right after that of Alexander Hamilton’s, I am struck by the anxieties we have today. We fret that politics has degenerated or that science is at the cusp of some existential crisis. We always believe that our situation is somehow special, that things are at a tipping point never encountered before. However, reading about these men and their roles in the history of science and the United States, respectively, one cannot but be struck by how little things have changed. Sure, politics are nasty now, but they were nasty way back during the founding. Sure, theoretical physics has an uncertain future, but it did so back when atoms were being discussed. Things are different, but they really aren’t at some level. As they say, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.