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September 27, 2002

Immanent beauty
Posted by Teresa at 03:29 PM *

From the PhysicsWeb site, an article by Robert P. Crease. A while back he asked readers to send in their nominees for the most beautiful experiment in physics. Now he reports on the results: what they picked, and why. And here’s the New York Times picking up on the story.

I love this stuff. I don’t know why people are so hesitant about talking about their work—what’s cool, what gets old real fast, the constraints and requirements that drive everything else, the moments you always remember.

I once came within a hairsbreadth of disgracing myself during a Broadway performance of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. A character had just made an impassioned speech about text editing, and described that moment when you see in a garbled text the error that muddled it, and the text as it’s supposed to be; when a small change here and another one there will instantly untangle the snarl and let it run smooth. I’m not sure how I was supposed to react to it, but I just barely caught myself in time to keep from punching my fist in the air and shouting “Yes!”

As it happened, I was there in the company of a bunch of publishing people; but I doubt the rest of the audience would have been as understanding.

Usually, when people talk about the finicky bits of text editing, I apologetically say okay, it’s boring, but someone has to care about all that stuff, and aren’t you glad it isn’t you? But sometimes what I want to say is “No, you don’t understand—sometimes it’s beautiful.”

Thanks, physicists, for letting me see yours.

Comments on Immanent beauty:
#1 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 05:07 PM:

I loved that bit of TIOL, too. And I was the only one who laughed at the Catullus jokes (the night I saw it, I mean; I'm sure you laughed at them too).

#2 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 07:38 PM:

Other readers found beauty in much larger play - such as Roemer's observations of Jupiter's moon Io to determine the speed of light or Eddington's measurement of the bending of starlight. These astronomical observations turn the entire solar system - and even the galaxy and beyond - into a vast playing field for experiment.

Yeah. I'm looking forward to the launch of Gravity Probe B in the next year, to measure the actual drag of spacetime around the Earth.

Thanks for the link, Teresa!

#3 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 01:44 AM:

Teresa said:
"Usually, when people talk about the finicky bits of text editing, I apologetically say okay, it's boring, but someone has to care about all that stuff, and aren't you glad it isn't you? But sometimes what I want to say is 'No, you don't understand--sometimes it's beautiful.'"

I'll never forget the time I explained in Slanapa just what it is that library catalogers do. Jerry Lapidus, I believe it was, had the 'that sounds really boring, but whatever' reaction. I was quite taken aback. I loved cataloging and was really good it. (I entered Library School wanting, like so many others, to be a reference librarian--my first cataloging course was a revelation.) I can't, in honesty bring myself to say it's always beautiful, but oh, so often it's just lovely the way things fit together.


#4 ::: Joel Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 11:29 AM:

I love the phrase "deep play" and will add that to my mental toybox of favorite concepts like "strange loops" from Godel, Escher and Bach.

Great link.


Joel Davis

#5 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2002, 12:35 AM:

One of my favorites was Pound and Rebka's experiment to measure the gravitational change in the frequency of light (gamma-ray photons) going up and down a vertical shaft. This is for several reasons:

1. They measured a phenomenon usually thought of as astrophysical, on the scale of a university science building;

2. One way of describing the result is that they were measuring the differential rate of time at the top and bottom of the shaft;

3. They used Mossbauer spectroscopy, which has always struck me as one of the most beautiful techniques in physics-- an amazing combination of an exotic physical effect and deceptively simple-looking equipment (it usually involves wobbling something with an audio speaker transducer) to get fantastically precise results;

4. The effect they measured was so tiny that one of the most troublesome background effects they had to compensate for was the relativistic time dilation due to the room-temperature motion of atoms;

5. The shaft where it took place was a few yards away from my old grad-student office, so I could impress undergrads by pointing to it.

#6 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2002, 02:29 PM:

I'm rather amazed that Michelson & Morley's ether experimentation didn't make the top ten. But then, their experiment is time-consuming to reproduce.

I wish I could remember who it was who made huge strides against phlogiston by demonstrating that a horse-turned spindle could generate unlimited amounts of heat, which proved that the heat wasn't coming from phlogiston in the spindle itself; that's always struck me as a good one, too.

Ah, here it is. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, and it wasn't about phlogiston. After Lavoisier proved that phlogiston didn't exist, he proposed a very similar substance called "caloric". Rumford's observations of cannon-boring disproved the "caloric" theory, though it lingered for a while longer.

"Strides Against Phlogiston" would be a great album title, regardless.

#7 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2002, 04:43 PM:

Kevin, the Michelson-Morley experiment is easily reproducible; as much within the reach of a freshman or sophmore physics lab as is the electron double-slit experiment

Personally, I'm astonished that the Baron von Eotvos' experiment demonstrating the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass didn't make even the list of also-rans

#8 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2002, 02:00 AM:

Alan: It's hard to reproduce because doing it right takes six months (because you want to try the test with the Earth's velocity reversed). But other than that, you're right.

As to Etrovos: Perhaps the voters thought that Cavendish's experiments filled the torsion balance requirement?

#9 ::: ers ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 08:14 PM:

Just catching up...

In general, I find that anyone holding forth on a subject that they study for the love of it can't be boring. (Hope that parses -- I do use "they" to solve what Anne Fadiman called the "his'er dilemma.") For some lovely writing about the beauty of language and editing, read Anne Fadiman's collection of essays, _Ex Libris_. Do not walk to the book store. Run.

I have not read or seen TIOL, but I'm going to get my hands on a copy of the script Real Soon Now. And maybe persuade the community theatre group I work with to consider it... :-} There are a number of staunch Stoppard fans in the group. Stoppard put some similar insight into the beauties of math in Arcadia, by the way.

As for finicky text editing, it IS beautiful. So there. I, too, joke about being impossibly picky and pettifogging, but that's just social embarrassment -- good writing, aided by insightful, precise editing, is beautiful in its clarity and (sometimes) its clever precision. When it's really good, you can see the beauty of the ideas, concepts, and/or images *behind* the words, and feel the resonances....



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