Atomic Perfume, Neutron Christmas Musicals, Particle Zoos, and the Link Between Mayonnaise and Space Travel
Being ill has the advantage that you finally get to sit (or lie) down and do things that you normally don’t have the time – or the lethargy – to do. What I did was: mending clothes, listening to lots of archived programmes of Radio 4’s ‘The Material World’ and watching all three parts of the BBC4 series ‘Atom’ that a friend had kindly recorded for me (thanks, Chris!) as I am one of the few television-less people in the world (and that as an OU student, oh dear!).
‘Atom’ is a weird sort of mini-series in that it makes quantum physics entertaining for everybody. You receive information on key moments of science and their corresponding experiments, as well as the cultural and personal events that gave rise to them (sometimes way too personal, e.g. ‘the sexually charged physics’ of Schroedinger and Feynman). What I liked about the programme was first of all, that it tackled this subject. No matter whether one likes or dislikes how it was done, one has to admit that it succeeds at raising questions. Fittingly, the scientist-presenter Jim Al-Khalili closes the series with the words: ‘when I’m away from my work, I still wonder what it all means’. Even in its most corny moments, the programme manages to astound. Did you know that scientists wrote a musical about the discovery of the neutron? Apparently so, though I have not been able to find any evidence of this (if it really exists, I want a copy of the score!). What I have found are the ‘radium cosmetics’ mentioned in the programme. Why did people manufacture radium cosmetics? At the time of its discovery radium proclaimed a ‘miracle cure’ and hence a fashion fad for ‘beneficial’ radium products led to very bizarre creations such as ‘parfum atomique’, radium bath products (‘for healthy skin’), radium razor blades etc. As Al-Khalili commented: ‘the good old days when ignorance really was bliss’ (unfortunately, it rarely was bliss as one can see from the example of the Radium Girls).
Source: Institut Curie, http://www.curie.fr
What I also liked was how the programme managed to come up with some good visual comparisons regarding atoms and forces (e.g. ‘there are more atoms in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all of the world’s oceans’) while at the same time unsettling them (e.g. ‘the act of measurement creates atoms/the universe’), so that you have to ask yourself how you prefer to think of atoms/matter/yourself/the world/the universe. Other great moments include the juxtaposition of ‘we are all made of stardust’ with ‘we are all nuclear waste’, the statement that ‘space is a constant storm of creation and destruction’ (well, it’s great if you’re a geographer…) and the link between ‘the mysterious force of mayonnaise’ and space travel.
More on Mutable Matter’s TV and radio experiences soon…
This summer I read Karen Barad’s ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’. I could hug this woman simply for writing the following sentence:
‘…For example, we don’t notice the furniture being rearranged in the room when we turn a light on in a dark room, although this is strictly the case’ (Barad, 2007:108).
This took me back to sitting in Physics class at school. We had to do one of those boring force calculations where a motorbike rides the inside walls of a cylinder or followed up by calculating gravity in relation to how moons go round planets (you can see I’m not very good at this) etc.
Apart from being bored by the dull ‘boy typed’ imagery of a motorbike going round inside a cylinder, I thought: ‘I don’t think the world is like that. I don’t think that I as a school kid can just sit here and calculate exactly how things work in the universe.’ After much struggle, I did the boring calculation anyway and went up to my teacher and told him just what I had thought then. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said: ‘You are right, but you will have to wait till your A-levels where you can take classes in quantum physics – there you will find out how things really work. At least what we know about it so far.’ I was quite excited about that, but lost further interest in the physics we were currently taught. I actually managed to stay with Physics until A-levels, albeit with really bad marks (why invest energy in something that’s not the ‘real thing’ anyway?).
Finally, a few years of boring classes later (in a bizarre way the teacher did a good job at keeping me interested enough in the subject to stay on), I was ‘doing quantum physics’. Luckily, with a new teacher who I did not have to associate with motorbikes in cylinders. I felt extremely excited and could not wait to learn what had been kept from me for so long (remember, those were the days with no wikipedia/internet, and I did not get what people said about quantum physics in my parents’ ancient encyclopaedia, so I had to be patient). And I was rewarded, indeed: I took to the subject, like a fish takes to water. Finally, the world was as weird as I had always felt it must be. And the physicists ‘doing it’ were, too (my physics teacher recommended to me that I read Feynman’s biographies)! I was happy – and my marks went up.
The rest of the class suffered the opposite effect – they hated it: all the certainty was gone, all ‘common sense’ intuition, too. I have to admit that I quite revelled in this feeling, because I was usually smiled upon as a dreamer who was good at languages and ‘arty things’ (and who went to school in bat or astronaut costumes), and now I could stick my middle finger up at the ‘rational guard’. Yes, the furniture is being rearranged when we turn on the lights – and that is great! :D
A while ago, I was talking to someone over lunch, as you do, about the impossibility of talking about quantum physics: either, you sound pretentious – or you do not sound scientifically competent. Either option attracts ridicule. Can you talk about it in a ‘normal kind of way’ (like you probably could if it was do with classical physics)? My poor conversation victim then came up with a genius comment:
‘My husband thinks about how quantum physics works the following way: If you watch your team’s football match, your team loses. If you don’t watch your team’s football match, your team wins.’
There you go!