A physicist’s lament

By Marcus Wilson 27/01/2012

Yesterday I visited Auckland to interview a few people who work with physics in their industry-based jobs. This was part of my small research project on the role of maths within physics, which I’ve talked about earlier. One of the people I interviewed gave some really fascinating responses, perhaps in part because he had grown up in the former Soviet Union.

In the UK, and in NZ, doing science is equated by a great swath of people with being a geek. It pushes you to the margins of society; it’s a real conversation killer to reveal that you do physics for a living. In short (and this is my opinion – I don’t have a data source for this) science isn’t properly valued because it’s not understood what it achieves.

However, my interviewee described how being a scientist, and a physicist in particular, was one of the most admired positions that one could achieve. Scientists belonged to the ‘elite’ in the Soviet Union. They were respected, and science held great appeal. Those intellectually capable of doing it were motivated to do it.

Now, I’m not suggesting I’d rather have grown up in 70’s and 80’s Soviet Union as opposed to 70’s and 80’s United Kingdom (I’d rather be under the governance of Thatcher than Brezhnev any day), but perhaps we can learn something here. Why was it that scientists had such respect? Was it that people could see what scientists did and how they contributed to society? I’m speculating, but maybe it’s worth probing at this one a bit more. In the meantime, I’ll just have to work on the dumbed-down sanitized version of what I do at work for the next time someone asks me at a party.



0 Responses to “A physicist’s lament”

  • Ever read a book from MIR publisher? Got 3 of them, great books. Go grab one if you can. They have been translate in French, letting me believe they were translate in english too.

    Russian master the practical approach on doing math. Remind me of old american books, like the Granville,smith & Longley about differential calculus or in physics the Kane & Sternheim.

    Side note: Most people in Europe are wearing, as a badge of honnor, not only their lake of interest in science, but also the scientific methodology to answer questions and resolve issues.

    Rationality, logic, science methodology? Come on, who would use such things in the XXI century. We are human being not machines. (it’s a joke, in case…)

  • I think it might be the difference in someone knowing what it is that you do as opposed to having to explain it to them. I think it is called education. But I could be mistaken.

    ‘m a Doctor’. ‘Ah…I was in osptial last week.’
    ‘I’m a chemist’. ‘Ah… Druggie.’
    ‘I’m an accountant’. ‘Ah….Money.’
    ‘I’m a banker’. ‘Ah…my money.’
    ‘I’m a biologist.’ ‘Ah…wow…Life.’
    ‘I’m a lawyer.’ ‘Ah…what’s that smell?’
    ‘I’m a physicist.’ ‘Ah………Really?….Are you married?’

  • I think if you look into it, the Soviet Union had a patchy history up until at least that time as regards science in general with some scientific fields (like biology or cybernetics) being regarded as “ideologically incorrect”, research being subject to political pressure, and also censorship of research, both within and without the Soviet Union. Physics probably suffered least within this but wasn’t immune and unlike other areas of science which were limited by this ideology Soviet era scientists managed to win Nobel Prizes for their research. You may find that if you were talking to a scientist working in another area though, the picture may well be somewhat different when talking about their status and it would be much lower status than you’d expect.

    As regards the job, physics is probably seen as a big area, and somewhat inaccesible to the lay person unlike something like medicine. We all know the names of Newton and Einstein though! Perhaps it would be better to find a description of what area of physics you work in to use rather than just physicist. Then it’s not quite so broad.

    • My PhD research drew heavily from what is known as the ‘Hubbard Stratonovich transformation’ (which should more accurately be referred to as the ‘Stratonovich Hubbard Transformation’), which was a lovely piece of theoretical physics coming out of the Soviet Union in 1957. In simple(ish) terms, the HST transforms a two-body interaction (e.g. that of electrons interacting by a repulsive potential – it’s a ‘two-body’ interaction since the repulsion between two electrons acts on a pair of electrons) into a one-body interaction (e.g. where a single electron interacts with a fixed electric field) BUT in ALL POSSIBLE external fields. I can’t find an easily accessible piece online on the HST (though I haven’t looked VERY hard) so I might just have to write one. But my point here is that it was a piece of work done in the Soviet Union. There is of course the possibility that it is called the Hubbard Stratonovich transformation, not the Stratonovich Hubbard transformation since otherwise it would be referred to as the SH T, much to the hilarity of PhD students I’m sure.

  • I believe in the 70’s the Russian woodpecker was being worked on (predecessors’ to HAARP)1976. The frequency set to 10hz VLF for an over the edge radar and possible weather modification. Not using the American excuse of communicating with submarines. Russian science was pushed during the cold war to be smarter than the Americans and they were more open to ideas, such as Tesla’s weather modification and death ray.
    The American defence department started work on VLF transmitters long after the Russians, with their ionosphere heaters being said to be used for communication with submarines. It has been proved however VLF radio waves can heat water vapour in clouds, moving clouds and systems. The public I believe are starting to wake up to the cooperate agenda being pushed with the merchants of death and oil’s grip over our economy and knowledge base.
    We the people are getting sick and tired of no solutions to the problems mounting on our planet. Seeing the battle for power and control being played out in the big picture. Rising fuel costs, war in the oil rich East and the new carbon tax they want passed on to the consumer.
    Having found so many alternatives personally which are labeled as crank science but is rooted in real phenomenon. Radiant energy, cold fusion, magnetic vortices, hydrogen as fuel, plasmafication of inert gases. All I see from science is avoiding these issues and learned people denying very real natural phenomenon and evidence.
    I put it down to the dumbing down of our society as a way to retain the corpereate agenda.
    What we need are scientists who having found the evidence to go out on a limb and back themselves, otherwise more oil more war.

  • Electrickiwi, it sounds to me as if you believe that somewhere, in a bunker in Arizona, is the headquarters of a top secret organization owned by corporate America (whatever that means), loaded with Physics Nobel Laureates, who have a machine to provide the world with free, clean energy, but are holding this back until such time that global warming has put the earth into anarchy, and only then will they release it, in return for the world’s governments agreeing to come under their control. James Bond meets George Orwell, maybe. Reality, no.

  • Well in my experiments with my limited means and resources I have found radiant electricity, JPMorgan helped to stifle the research in this. It is natural electricity that can be harnessed for good. I have seen the beginning of a vortex created in a magnetic field which we have been told is static. Reality yes
    My research into theory tells me zeropoint energy is real, dark energy which we have no idea how to harvest or what it is, makes up 70 % of the universe, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we worked out what it was and found someway to harvest it, instead of spending billions to find a particle which so far has had no effect on our fuel problems.
    Cold fusion in my research has so many possibilities but rather than embrace the idea it is ridiculed, this supports my theory of an agenda by the fuel monopolists. Reality yes (I can prove this if requested)
    Human nature is for power and control over the masses.
    Hydrogen has been proven to run cars. (want proof ?)
    Give me $100,000 and I could get Hydrogen safely installed in cars and a fuelling station.

  • Cold fusion was shoddy experimental method. Zero point energy is certainly real, but if it can be harnessed then by definition it isn’t zero point energy.Cars can of course run on hydrogen – but it’s not a source of free clean energy (ask yourself where the hydrogen comes from). It’s interesting that you suggest we look at harvesting dark energy, but in the same sentence imply that the very machine that is best suited to investigate it, the Large Hadron Collider, is a waste of money. If you, or anyone else, can find a solution to the world’s energy needs that doesn’t harm the environment you will make a lot of money and probably have a Nobel Prize to boot. Yes – we need innovative thinking here – innovative thinking rooted in science.

  • Thank you Marcus, I appreciate your response. Could you tell me in your scientific opinion the difference between zero point energy, vacuum energy (broken symmetry), radiant energy and dark energy please.
    I also read today that a lightening strike has energy going down and energy going up (Feynman ), is this duality in action ?

  • Your comment is on my to-do list, along with reading a student’s thesis, preparing lectures for next year, supervising PhD and summer students, writing grant proposals and considering how we best can deliver a physics programme with limited resources. Plus a few more. Being a platfom to publicise other people’s agendas, especially quacking ones, is not part of my job description. But, since you are getting frustrated with me, here are some answers.

    Zero-point energy: A system that is in its lowest quantum state does not have zero energy. That means at absolute zero temperature, there energy of a quantum system is not zero. Unfortunately you can’t extract this energy, because there is no lower quantum state for the system to move into.

    Vacuum energy: I assume you mean Dirac’s vacuum states here. Dirac’s equation for relativistic electrons predicted that there would be no lowest quantum state – they go on to minus infinity in energy. To make sense of this he postulated that the negative energy ones are usually full of electrons. A positron (anti-electron) would be the lack of an electron in a negative energy state. In a sense, Dirac’s analysis ‘predicted’ the existence of antiparticles. And, yes you can get energy out of these states. Put an anti-electron with an electron and you get energy (in fact, two gamma rays at 511 keV – look at Positron Emission Tomography, PET scan, for example). It won’t be an energy source for the earth’s population, however, as you have to put an equivalent amount of energy in to make the anti-electron in the first place.

    Radiant energy: All objects emit radiation, depending on their temperature and what their surface is made of. The most obvious example is the sun, which radiates a huge amount of energy. So, yes, we do use radiant energy to power things on earth.

    Dark energy: Ask a cosmologist. It’s a postulated thing that some cosmologists think is needed for the universe to behave in an understandable way. No-one knows whether it exists. Can we use it? Perhaps, maybe, somehow, if we know what it is (assuming it is there).

    Energy in lighning strikes. I’m not sure about this one, but the energy in a cloud-land system where charge separation has occurred (i.e. the state-of-play before the strike) is stored in the electric field between the cloud and ground. Therefore it’s not really right to think about the energy being stored IN THE CLOUD, or the energy being stored IN THE GROUND – rather it lurks in the electric field between them. So I would say energy doesn’t flow up or down – it comes out of the field into light, heat and sound. (On the other hand, electric charge certainly does flow – positive ions will move in the opposite direction to negative ions so there will be charge movement both up and down.)