Sep

21

As my wife is now studying, of all things, nuclear physics, I am currently reading "The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom" by Brian Cathcart .

The physical sciences have always been dear to my heart and so I am having fun helping her with her homework. {What is the deBroglie wavelength of a baseball thrown at 30 meters/second (about 67 and a half miles/hour)? Can such wave characteristics be detected? What is the deBroglie wavelength of a proton traveling at one tenth of the speed of light?}

I took particular joy in the authors description of George Gamow, a brilliant theorist who is known for explaining alpha decay via a theory of quantum mechanical tunneling, which is one of the strangest aspects of quantum mechanics and the one that I find most interesting (along with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle).

To quote Cathcart: "Meanwhile Gamow was establishing himself as the court jester of the institute, always staging practical jokes, writing poems and songs and organizing parties where people played parlour games - a favorite involved everyone lying on their backs and passing balloons around with their feet. He was the soul of the party and people loved his talk all the more because of the breathtaking liberties he took with language. Although he spoke neither German nor English nor Danish with any accuracy [Ed.: he was Russian] he did not hesitate to hold forth in all of them and the letters he wrote in this period bear witness to the anarchy of his vocabulary and syntax."

"Anarchy of his vocabulary" indeed! My wife is excited about and interested in the material and I am happy to see her unexpected diversion in this direction (she is a Librarian by trade). For those interested, the course she is taking is here, and if you page down to the "Lecture Links" and then click any one of the dates and then scroll through the material in the window on the left you can get an idea of what she is up against. We have our studying cut out for us.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Tim Richmond on September 22, 2009 1:46 pm

    The Feynman Lectures on Physics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Feynman_Lectures_on_Physics) provides an outstanding qualitative assessment, and was a indispensible companion to the reams of mathematics during my physics undergraduate work.

  2. Christopher Tucker on September 22, 2009 4:41 pm

    Thanks Tim, got em!

    More of Gamow's antics from Cathcart. After convincing Neils Bohr to take his motorcycle out for a spin, Gamow recorded the result in verse. Quote:

    While Gamow rushing to the fore,
    Was doing what he could for Bohr
    Who should like Jove himself appear
    But Rutherford? In Gamow's ear
    He thundered: 'Gamow! If once more
    You give that buggy to Neils Bohr
    To snarl up traffic with, or wreck,
    I swear I'll wring your bloody neck!'

    and on translating an important paper of his:

    "…for it was barely comprehensible, not because the science or thinking were obscure but because of the chaotic jumble of languages in which it was written, German and French spellings jostling with English and Danish vocabulary on a background of Russian syntax. Fowler balked at the job of translation and passed the text to a former research student of his, Bertha Swirles. It was a mighty labour - 'there was an occasional correct sentence', she observed, looking on the bright side - and even when she finished she felt the need to pass it to a second colleague to sift out what she called 'residual Gamow'"

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