“Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein I must share today my recent encounters with Albert Einstein, because in the past 3 weeks he’s presented himself with highly positive energy no less than a half-dozen times. First, on Monday, as I left the lobby of the Soho Grand Hotel, he had the audacity to stick out his tongue at me from across the street. I figured it was time in my space-time continuum to write about the synchronicity of my Einstein moments. Forbes magazine blog contributor August Turak the gave a nod to Einstein on July 17th in his well-written article, The 11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About. After that worthy read, Einstein waved a wrench in my face from the side of a plumbing company truck. The previous week he caught my eye at a novelty store on Madison Avenue by appearing on a “relatively delicious” Einstein’s Energy Bar. (Copy on the package suggested that if the entire mass of the bar were converted to usable energy – for which, of course, there is no known method – I could jog to the sun and back 100 times or power the entire U.S. for two years.) Before that I got an email from BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) announcing its commissioned revival of “Einstein on the Beach, An Opera in Four Acts” for the institution’s 30th Next Wave Festival this fall. Earlier still, but after the 4th of July, while viewing BAM’s 150th Anniversary Archive Exhibition in the lobby of its main building, I was struck by the cover of a teacher’s guide titled “The Amazing Einstein,” a children’s education program BAM presented in the ‘70s. In the event you don’t click on the photo to enlarge the copy, here’s the quote that jumped out at me: “The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap – call it intuition or what you will – and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.” – Albert Einstein I admit I’ve had Einstein on the brain since the discovery of the Higgs boson, announced with a bang in Geneva on the 4th of July. I imagined Einstein with a glass of champagne toasting with scientists around this once-elusive particle’s existence as evidence of a field that extends throughout the universe giving mass to everything in it. For the Higgs discoveries support Einstein’s Unified Field Theory of continuous structures. A man of incredible imagination, Einstein humbly said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” I stand with vigilante curiosity alongside those physicists today who continue to to chip away at the mysteries of nature in hopes of explaining the nature of reality.
“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is, everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you … the minute that you understand that you can poke life … that you can change it, you can mould it … that’s maybe the most important thing.” – Steve Jobs, in a never before broadcast, exclusive interview featured in the PBS documentary “Steve Jobs – One Last Thing” opinion piece by writer Walter Isaacson that ran in The New York Times’ “Sunday Review.” Here Isaacson, author of the newly released biography “Steve Jobs,” reflects on the genius, or ingenuity, of Steve Jobs and draws some remarkable parallels with Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, two of his other biography subjects. He reminds us that the genius equation requires both new ideas and execution. And he believes that the most successful Americans have been those creative and imaginative types who know how to “stand at the intersection of the humanities and science.” Then there’s “One last thing,” Steve Jobs’ well-known product intro catchphrase that’s also the title of a PBS documentary that debuted Wednesday night about the man who changed the nature of technology. This program of interviews with people who worked closely with Jobs or chronicled his life examines the Apple co-founder’s influences, talents and achievements. Comparisons by a few are made to Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and Henry Ford. The creations of Steve Jobs and the other famed inventors he’s named alongside clearly had changed the world. But it’s what they set out to do – to apply their energy to changing lives for the better. Their innovations were tied to service and improvements for the greater good. I’ve been reminded again of the broadest meaning of success.It’s been nearly a month since the impact of his death reverberated around the world. Two new chronicles of Steve Jobs’ life this week focused on a couple of questions about the master innovator that got me, too, thinking again: Why was he great? What makes a genius? “The Genius of Jobs” is the headline of an
On the same day the world learned of mastermind Steve Jobs’ death, a remarkable back-story was told by the Royal Academy of Sciences in awarding the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman. Shechtman’s status as a profound game-changer may not come to mind with the likes of Jobs, Ford, Edison and Einstein, but his discovery 30 years ago of “quasicrystals” – atoms arranged in non-repeating patterns once considered impossible – has “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter.” According to the Royal Academy, on the morning of April 8, 1982, an image counter to the laws of nature appeared in Dan Shechtman’s electron microscope. In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal and considered a fundamental truth. Shechtman’s image, however, showed a different story. Four or six dots in the circles would have been possible, but absolutely not ten. He counted and recounted, then made a notation in his notebook: 10 Fold??? His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was criticized and ridiculed by other scientists. Eventually he was asked to leave his research group. It wasn’t until 1987, when friends of Shechtman’s in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for X-rays to verify his discovery, that his finding were accepted. The medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular – they follow mathematical rules – but they never repeat themselves. Dan Shechtman’s story is fascinating, but not unique. Throughout the history of science, researchers have been forced to fight established knowledge, “truths” and “laws,” which have often proven to be no more that universal assumptions. Because what we know is limited by our tools of measurement, I applaud not only Shechtman’s discovery and Nobel Prize honor, but his confidence and perseverance to go against the rules and challenge conventional wisdom. This is, after all, the International Year of Chemistry.
“If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything.” – Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research The global physics community awaits a seminar at CERN today where a group of European physicist will announce they have clocked subatomic particles known as neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. According to Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, a pillar of modern physics known as the equation E=mc2, that feat is impossible. So are we truly hours away from one of the biggest upsets in the world of physics? Are we on the quantum edge of a grand rethink of the laws of nature? With today’s shocking announcement, it’s anticipated all scientific eyes will turn to Fermilab near Chicago to replicate the results CERN found in collaboration with Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory. In the meantime, I can’t help but think Einstein would be excited by the news. For it was he, the most famous scientist of the century, who said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Since attending the Secret Science Club’s encore screening of the 2007 BBC documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” last week, I’ve been reading everything I can find about Hugh Everett III, one of the world’s pre-eminent quantum physicists and the man who came up with the ground-breaking “Theory of Parallel Universes” almost 60 years ago at the age of 24. Singer-songwriter Mark Everett, front man for the rock band Eels, grew up not knowing that his father was a genius, or that his dad’s many-worlds theory put him right up there with Einstein and Newton. Hugh Everett died when his son was 19, and, according to Mark, he barely knew his father. So this film chronicles Mark’s journey to understand his father’s profound contributions to science. Mark visits with Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT, who has spent years working on Hugh Everett’s theories and David Deutsch, a physicist at the University of Oxford, whose “Theory of Everything” builds on Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. (Interestingly, Scientific American magazine’s cover story this month – “Questions about the Multiverse” – refers to the work of both Tegmark and Deutsch, with no mention of Everett as the inventor of the idea.) Mark also gets a demonstration of the Double-Slit Experiment that shows how subatomic particles, until they are observed, will act as a wave, taking every possible path at the same time. In other words, only when observed, does a particle collapse down to one point as a single particle – and the reality of viewing that one particle is created by the act of observing it. Before Hugh Everett’s time, physicists had been taught for generations that the equations of quantum mechanics worked only in one part of reality, the microscopic, and were not relevant at the macroscopic level. While this has been disproved in the last decade (see my post dated 6/3/11), it was Everett who first addressed the measurement problem by merging the micro and macro worlds – thinking of large objects as existing in quantum “superpositions,” that is, in two places at the same time. It was Everett’s radical idea to ask, What if the continuous evolution of a wave is not interrupted by acts of measurement? What if no elements of superpositions are ever banished from reality? What if every time we make a decision, we “break off” into probable selves, with the observable probable self taking one possible path, and other probable selves taking other paths? There’s mounting interest in Everett’s theories these days, and a biography by Peter Byrne I want to read. In the meantime, I’ll be mulling over this footnote from Everett’s thesis: “From the viewpoint of the theory, all elements of a superposition (all ‘branches’) are ‘actual,’ none any more ‘real’ than the rest.” I’ll continue to think also about how the implications of Everett’s mathematically consistent worlds apply to thought, decision making, and our ability to create our own reality. I think you’ll be fascinated by what you’ll find when you click through to “Parallel Live, Parallel Worlds” and the Double-Slit Experiment. And if not you, then one of your probable selves.