How to be a quantum physicist

Leave a comment

What You’ll Need: rules, the desire to break rules

Songlist: I’ve Got the World on a String by Frank Sinatra, Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin

Further reading: Physics and Beyond by Werner Heisenberg, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Shoot, I forgot to carry the 1!

Caveat: I don’t even completely know what a quantum physicist does. I dropped out of Physics 101 in my senior year of high school to take Painting 101. But that same semester, as I was working my way through the color chart and learning the difference between hue, tint, shade, and tone, a principle first proposed in 1927 came along and blew my mind.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.”

What Heisenberg introduced was not just a paradox in the scientific community, but a profound epistemological problem. While the modernist age in which he worked was based on the certain progress of man via industry and art, Heisenberg did his part to usher in post-modernism by proving a limit to knowledge, and thereby a limit to progress. At some point, there are things in the universe that are simply unknowable by humankind.

Theoretical physics is one of the most philosophically rich and morally challenging fields of our time. I’m currently reading Richard Rhodes Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, an incredible history of early twentieth century science. It’s strange to realize that only a hundred years ago, the atom was a debatable concept. And over the course of only a few decades, the atom became a weapon of catastrophic potential. Scientists working on the atomic bomb in the United States weren’t even sure if they would be able to harness its power–some worried that a self-sustaining atomic reaction would consume the entire atmosphere, effectively blowing up the planet Earth.

When scientists began work on what was later known as the Manhattan Project, the motivation seemed as much to defeat the enemy as to continue working in what Rhodes (via a chemist, Polanyi, who also studied the process of science) refers to as the “growing points”–the place where the most productive discoveries were being made. Heisenberg himself talks about this in his book Physics and Beyond: he was naturally attracted to physics because the greatest discoveries in the world were all in that field, whereas if he’d been born contemporaneously with Mozart he might have ended up a composer.

Yeah, this makes sense as a theory of the universe...

In the past century, the general theory of relativity (proposed by some obscure scientist named Einstein) redefined the scope of physics and led directly and indirectly to the many-worlds interpretation, which postulates that all possible outcomes in any given situation simultaneously occur in a multiverse of independent parallel universes; to spacetime singularities, where the paths of light and particles come to an abrupt end in the universe; to quantum teleportation, which seeks to transmit quantum information over arbitrary distances; to string theory, which posits many unknowable dimensions in addition to the four we are able to experience; to M-theory, a theory so complex and esoteric the scientists themselves who are working on it don’t agree what the “M” stands for. As American physicist Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Einstein himself was disturbed at the growing ambiguity and loss of measurement in physics. He famously stated, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Which is precisely what’s so interesting in twentieth and twenty-first century physics. Are we getting closer to the truth, or have we come to a barrier of knowledge beyond which no human can pass?

The best bookstores in the world


I posted about the world’s most beautiful libraries back in July, but there are just as many cool bookstores in the world. Books, being so full of art and history themselves, often find homes in buildings full of history and glamor.

Take the Livraria Lello, a bookstore in Porto, Portugal (the link brings you through to 360 degree views of the interior). Though it looks more suited to a grand ballroom in a gothic revivalist mansion, the Livraria–complete with wood paneling and stained glass skylight windows–was built in 1881 specifically for the purpose of selling books. It’s not hard to remember that books were once considered treasures in such a gorgeous setting:

Portugal's Livraria Lello

Or take Holland’s Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a bookstore housed in an 800 year-old church. After the Dominican congregation left the Maastrich church, a team of architects repurposed the space to sell books. After admiring 14th century paintings, take a break at the cafe–conveniently located where the alter once stood:

The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich, Holland

The beautiful Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires is located in a former theater, red velvet curtain and balconies still intact:

El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Other bookstores survive not so much on physical grandeur but on historio-literary cachet, such as City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Shakespeare and Company, an English-language staple in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Co, founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, was popular with the Lost Generation expatriates, such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Beach was, in fact, the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. The store closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris, and never reopened. Ten years later, the second store bearing the name was opened in homage to the first and drew the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. The store itself is tiny and packed full with books–none of the wasted space of that lofty cathedral nonsense:

The volume-crowded interior of Paris's Shakespeare and Company

Several directors have also paid tribute to Shakespeare and Company by filming scenes at the iconic bookstore. Woody Allen featured it in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and here it is in one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise:

Independents’ Day

Leave a comment


Common Good Books, where you can find "Good Poetry" and "Quality Trash"

Last Monday I imagined a business model in which Nobel Prize winning authors sell books. In fact, the idea of a famous author owning a bookstore is no fantasy–in my home cities alone there are two independent bookstores owned by best-selling writers. Louise Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow, runs Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which specializes in Native American literature (there’s a page on the Birchbark website devoted to the dogs of the store…swoon). In St. Paul, Garrison Keillor, host of the long-running Prairie Home Companion, is the proprietor of Common Good Books, aka my favorite bookstore.

We’re lucky in the Twin Cities. We have a multitude of wonderfully curated independent bookstores, and even a few dedicated to children’s literature. Some of them, like Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis, garner widespread praise for hosting upwards of 150 readings a year by both obscure and well-known talents. By this point you’ve probably heard of Tea Obreht, the incredibly gifted 26-year-old author of The Tiger’s Wife, who became the youngest woman ever to win the Orange Prize. You know where she started her reading tour? Yup, Magers and Quinn. Her book had barely been out a week when my boyfriend and I crammed into the reading area tight with bookshelves and overly-cologned middle-aged women.

Other cities are not so fortunate. One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, brought the plight of Nashville to national attention this past November when she opened Parnassus Books. One local bookstore closed, and bankruptcy shuttered the Borders; as the New York Times put it, “A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful.” Patchett and Parnassus saved the literati.

I don’t know what I would do without a bookstore in my vicinity. This past Friday night when my boyfriend asked me what I wanted to do, I immediately replied “Let’s look at books!” He laughed–and then he realized I was serious. There was no reason to think I wasn’t, since we’ve spent a few Friday nights this way already pointing out books we’ve read, want to read, want to reread.

Actually, I do know what I would do if I moved somewhere without such a healthy literary community. I’d make like Louise and Garrison and Ann and open a shop myself. There’s just no way I could live without literature.

The joy of books


The only problem of selling books by cart and not in a store is you wouldn’t be able to have this much fun:

Amazing stop-action animation!

How to be a bookseller


What you’ll need: a love of ISBNs and ARCs, a lot of time to read

Songlist: Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits

Further Reading: The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee


I have this business model in mind which is probably terrible in terms of financial prospects, but which would be totally cool.

Everyone loves food carts, right? Hot dogs on the streets of New York, mini donuts in Minneapolis, suspicious meats in a foreign country you probably don’t have the right bacteria to digest, and so on. So why not a book cart?

Can I offer you some Rushdie today, sir?

Here’s what I’m thinking: first I’m gonna become a super famous novelist (which is just one of the reasons this business plan might be a little tricky). That way, people will be much more interested in reading whatever I recommend. I’ll pick 3 books a week, one fiction, one non-fiction, and one miscellaneous–poetry, anthology, classic, young adult, etc–and sell them on the streets of Minneapolis. Businessmen and -women will start to trust my suggestions, and buy whatever I’m peddling. It can’t fail!

Oh sure, bookstores are closing right and left. But many of these are Barnes and Noble bookstores and, of course, Borders. The advantage of my bookcart (feel free to come up with potential names) is that inventory is always small and constantly being refreshed. Bookstores aren’t closing because people don’t read anymore–people just often don’t know what to read. Imagine their neighborhood Nobel Prize winning novelist (okay, I’m stretching here) stopping by every Monday with a fresh new recommendation.

Of course, I haven’t figured out any logistics of this, and it’s not a very franchiseable operation–I’d have to hire Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to fit in with the business model. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t make any money. But you don’t get into book selling if you want to make money. You do it because you love reading and talking about books–which I do. Like I said: can’t fail!

Phantom math

Leave a comment

“Don’t be too sure,” said the child patiently, “for one of the nicest things about mathematics, to anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see,” he went on, “it’s very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where–but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking for.”

The Dodecahedron man in The Phantom Tollbooth

So says the .58 child in Norton Juster’s masterpiece children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth (the child is part of an average family with a mother, father, and 2.58 children–he’s the fractional son). I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth before because it’s so full of wonderfully odd explanations of concepts. Milo, the main character, and his retinue make it to Digitoplis where numbers are mined and sent around the world (though they are highly valuable it’s alright when a few numbers drop to the ground because the broken ones can be used for fractions).

They also eat subtraction stew–the more you eat, the hungrier you get. When Milo asks to see the biggest number in the kingdom, he is shown an extremely large 3–it took 4 miners to dig it out. He tries to explain that he wants to see the number of greatest magnitude. The Mathmagician (ruler of the land of Digitopolis) tells him to think of the biggest number possible, and then add one. And then add one again.

“But when can I stop?” pleaded Milo.

“Never,” said the Mathemagician with a little smile, “for the number you want is always at least one more than the number you’ve got…”

Sometimes I wonder if reading The Phantom Tollbooth at a young age gave me a head start on my math career. Thank you, Milo.

Proof positive


The Simpsons--making me smarter yet again

In a Treehouse of Horror episode, Homer gets sucked into a bizarro dimension where he becomes 3D. Take a closer look at that equation behind Homer: 1782^12+1841^12=1922^12. Looks relatively simple, right? If you were to pull out a pocket calculator, it would confirm that this equation is true. And yet, not only would your pocket calculator be wrong, it would belie a mathematical enigma that went unsolved for 358 years.

A "tree" made out of Pythagorean relationships

We are all taught in geometry class about Pythagoras’s discovery of the special nature of right triangles. The relationship of the two legs of the triangle to the hypotenuse is a^2+b^2=c^2. Duh. A-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared has the familiar ring of E equals MC squared…even if you don’t exactly know what it all means.

In 1637, mathematician Pierre de Fermat wondered if such a relationship would be possible, though, when values are raised to a power higher than 2. After some study, he conjectured that in fact no three positive integers a, b, and c can fulfill the equation a^n+b^n=c^n where n is greater than 2.

When I heard about this theory, later termed Fermat’s Last Theorem, it seemed irrational. I thought through the order of cubed numbers (numbers raised to the third power): 1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216, 343…surely if you went far enough, you would find two cubes that could be added to each other and result in a third cube? But no–it’s impossible. Even so, though, it seemed like the explanation for this should be obvious. It should, it seemed to me, be an elegant solution that matches the elegance of the original conjecture (and I wasn’t the only one who thought this–the fictional Lisbeth Salander from the wildly popular Stieg Larsson series is obsessed with finding her own proof for the theorem).

And yet, while Fermat was correct in his conjecture, it took several hundred years and extremely elaborate proofs to show why. Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician, submitted a proof in 1993 that was based on numerous other proofs that had already gone up against the theorem. His theorem contained a major error, but with another year of diligent work and vetting from other mathematicians, Wiles submitted a finalized proof in 1994, published in 1995. The proof is more than 100 pages long and draws from such esoteric concepts as absolute Galois groups, Hecke eigenforms, and abelian variety. Wiles’s proof has many ramifications in algebraic geometry and number theory, and he was knighted for his work.

I think they just should’ve sent Matt Damon in to solve the thing:

Older Entries