Space-time, your way!

IB Physics students at the British International School Phuket were the first to experience this 60 minute session which started with the infamous apple falling on Newton’s head (and the resultant Newton’s equations of motion and universal gravitation) to current thinking on space-time and gravity.

Uh, what happens if the sun vaporises suddenly, without warning, in a flash? What lies beyond our visible universe? Is space-time in loops? Is space-time a basket with the weave of string theory, in which reality sits in?

With theoretical physics, the only wrong question is the unasked one!

It was a fun, lively session that finished with modelling space-time with foam, coloured paper, wood, cardboard, and of course, imaginations !

Stay tuned to see their creations!

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Photographs courtesy of British International School, Phuket

EVENING IN WONDERLAND WORKSHOP AT PORTSMOUTH HIGH SCHOOL, HAMPSHIRE, UK

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Nobel Prize For Physics 2016: The Wonderland Way

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was awarded to David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

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Told in the story of An Evening In Wonderland, topology is explained as thus:

It is said that hell is where the mind is. His Ouma told him that in her dark, forbidding Voortrekker way. And hell was indeed where PW currently resided. He could find no peace, and took to prowling the long corridors of CERN at all hours, checking on the progress of the all-night experiments that ran here in the vast, sleepless underground labyrinth.

“You look haggard, Professor,” Alice remarked, surveying his hooded eyes and hair that stood on ends as he ran his fingers countless times thorough it. He looked more like an angry Mohican than a world famous professor of theoretical physics.

Blerrie hell,” he laughed self-consciously. I must build myself a quiet room in my brain.”

It was good to speak to her, he thought, because she understood. She understood all of him. And much, much more.

And so, they talked. They discussed the quietest place they could build on earth.  A box to which a very strong vacuum pump is attached to remove all air molecules so that there is no sound. The box is suspended off the ground so that it is insulated from both sound and vibration. And it is lined with thick steel walls so that there are no wifi, radio waves or anything.

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“I would be able to sleep then,” PW joked. “No demons can get into that box.”

“You forget, my dear Professor, that there will be elementary particles popping in and out of existence disturbing you in your insulated box, because nothingness is actually not empty. It is teeming with the potential for life, for matter, because nothing does not exist.”

Strange matter, and matter than can exist in strange states.

And indeed, the latter is the gist of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics winners’ research topic: matter that can assume strange states. Matter in these strange states plays a big role in superconductivity and superfluids, where it flows with almost zero resistance at low temperatures.

The three guys who won the big prize this year used topology to study these weird phenomena. Why topology and what is topology?

Well, simply because topology simplifies things. It is the maths of shapes, but unlike geometry, it is a lot simpler and whole lot more relaxed. Measurement and accuracy don’t really matter in topology, unbelievable as it may sound.

Because the only thing that really matters in topology: is holes, namely how many holes you’ve got. A teacup with a handle and a donut is the same thing topologically because both have one hole each, and if made from squidgy rubber material, you can morph one into the other.

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Basically, it is about what you can do with squidgy rubber ball, donut, pretzel, complicated knots…depending on how many holes you want in your model. But apart from the number of holes, the type of holes are also taken into account: the hole you get from cutting through a length of ribbon (1-D), punching a hole through a piece of paper (2-D) or the hole inside a balloon (3-D) are examples of different types of holes.

So what’s the big deal?

This is it: using this unbelievably simple model, scientists can begin to understand and explain the behaviour of really complex stuff (and predict new phenomena), because an average substance may contain a trillion trillion atoms, all interacting with each other.

“Gee, all this talk makes me feel like eating a donut,” PW said with a grimace, playing idly with a rubber band on his desk, wondering how many holes he can make out of it.

“Eating won’t help, because you can’t hide from your thoughts, Professor,” Alice said wisely.  “You just have to make peace with them, like untie the Gordian knot.”

Starry, starry night

In October, in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, I saw the most amazing array of stars as we were walking on the beach late at night.  Having lived in big cities for most of my last ten years, I was enchanted.

In the book, the protagonist PW found fame because of his passionate documentary about stars. He told his audience, “If you want to see magic, go look at stars!”

I have always been fascinated by them. When I was a student at Oxford, I used to tag along with a group of expert friends who would go up to White Horse Hills to gaze at the night sky. We would sit on horse blankets, sustained with thermos of hot milky tea (and sometimes, stronger beverages).  On clear nights, in the countryside away from light pollution, with the naked eye you can see up to 19,000,000,000,000,000 miles away, very easily sky.  You don’t need telescope or binoculars (you just need to know what to look for), and you can easily see stars from other galaxies like the Andromeda that is 2.5 million light years away.  Considering that light travels round the earth seven times in one second, that is one heck of a distance away!

And that’s the thing about stars that fascinated me.  It was the first thing that moved me away from the world of Newtonian reality that we all are entrenched in to a magical Universe beyond and within.  That’s when magic becomes reality, when we are presented with unequivocal proofs that the things we cannot see with our own eyes (and thus rationalise) actually do exist.  Logic and common sense is based on everyday experience, not upon the Universe as it is revealed through the marvels of modern technologies that allow us to gaze deep into the heart of an atom or back to the newborn Universe. The quantum model of our Universe encompasses principles that contradict not only our everyday experience but also our intuitive concept of reality.

If you look at the photo accompanying this post, you will see a small fraction of galaxies that are in existence….and each galaxy contains billions of stars. And if someone on the other end of the galaxy is checking us out right this moment, he/she/it will see a bunch of Neanderthals clubbing each other.

Here is a link worth clicking on, to understand the magic I am talking about: http://htwins.net/scale2/

Be enchanted, you live in a magical realm ❤

But what is reality?

There are Many Worlds, she knew, because in Wonderland, there were many doors, and each door opened to a different reality. One could just as easily step out into the beautiful, star-lit summer’s evening of today as into a winter’s night of one’s long-gone childhood, or even into a world built solely on one’s wildest imaginings, because somewhere in Time, in the huge trove of all possible events, each and every one of those world existed. The Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is accepted as a possibility that many worlds might actually be a ‘real’ representation of our reality, the Universe and totality. But how do those many worlds exist?

“You breathe when you sleep” / “You sleep when you breathe”, the Dormouse had chipped at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “Existence” and “illusion” are words, and you get to decide how to use them. The Universe is not an objective phenomenon; rather, it is a subjective experience. In a language similar to Quantum Mechanics, Mathematics says that you get to define your domain and what counts as existence in that domain.  Changing the domain thus changes what exists.