Art Journal (6) Tracings


For this study I used the same sgrafitto technique as with #5, but with cool instead of warm colors and combining both Australian aboriginal symbols (meeting place, campsite/waterhole, human and kangaroo tracks, people sitting, spears) with images from a bubble chamber, where one sees tracks coming from the collision of 300 GeV proton in the 30 inch hydrogen bubble chamber at Fermilab (credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Champagne and the Experimental Method

winebottleThere is a belief, common in France anyway, that the fizziness of an opened bottle of champagne can be preserved by placing a metal spoon, handle down, in the mouth of the bottle.  Both my wife and brother-in-law, both French, believe that this a sure way to better enjoy an opened bottle the next morning, or even the morning after that.

But is this belief true?  Examining it critically is an excellent, non-technical way of understanding the experimental method.  In brief, the method is a way of separating the possibly true from the definitely false.  We, as citizens, need to do this just as much as does the scientist in the laboratory.

So let’s have at it.  What arguments pro and con are there for the spoon-the-bottle hypothesis?  On the pro side of the ledger is that people I know and respect believe the hypothesis. Also in favor is that the belief is shared by many others, and has been around for a long time.  This is a version of the Argument from Authority.

What about the con side?  When I first heard about this use of a spoon — after half-finishing the second bottle of champagne with friends — I objected that “it just didn’t seem right.”  Pressed to explain, I questioned the mechanism: how could the spoon stop bubbles from forming in the liquid below, then escaping though the neck, passing around the spoon, which “obviously” did not form real barrier.

We argued back and forth, but these theoretical arguments failed to convince my drinking companions. To decide the issue, I proposed an experiment.  We would half-drink two more bottles of champagne so as to have three identical bottles, A, B, and C, then proceed a follows:  re-cork bottle A, put a spoon in the neck of bottle B, and do nothing to bottle C.  All would be placed in the refrigerator.  We would test the three bottles the next morning and for two mornings thereafter.

My proposal was accepted, and we set about preparing the experiment.  The next morning, not so many hours after putting the bottles in fridge, there was not much difference among the bottles.  I thought B and C were a bit stale, but my companions disagreed.  The next day there was a considerable difference, with bottles B and C definitely stale, definitely lacking in that bubbly tang.  B and C seemed equally stale. The day after it was clear to all: B and C were quite flat, while A retained its fizzyness.  The spoon had done nothing.

This little tale illustrates the essence of the experimental method in science: formulate a precise question, then design and carry out experiment to answer it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Simple, effective, and useful in everyday life.

One more thing

There is one more thing.  You do not have to accept my judgement of the spoon-in-the-bottle hypothesis.  Rather than accepting my authority, you can carry out the experiment yourself.  If you get the same results, or similar once, this confirms the hypothesis.  A good experiment is repeatable.


A List of Science Books

Today when my son Dylan and I were out walking, he asked if I would write down a list of serious but popular science books.  So here goes.  I have most of them at various points in my life — high school, university, sometimes much later.

  1. George Gamow, One, Two, Three, Infinity.  This is a classic, written by a great physicist, known for his work on the Big Bang as well as other things.  I read this book in high school.  It had a great influence on me.
  2. Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law. See this review by Frank Wilczek.
  3. Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.
  4. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes. This books talks about what happened during the first three minutes after the big bang.
  5. George Johnson, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. Of course there are more than ten, but this is a very good selection.
  6. A. Douglas Stone, Einstein and the Quantum.
  7. Adam Hart-Davis, Le Chat de Schrödinger: 50 éxperiences qui ont revolutionné la physique.
  8. Chad Orzel, How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog. The title may seem bizarre, but Orzel’s literary device of using his dog actually works, and his explanations are both clear and beautiful

The Reason Why

Bubble chamber image showing muon neutrino traces. Jan. 16, 1978, at FermiLab

In the beginning, at the instant of creation, there came into being numerous particles: quarks and antiquarks, protons and and antiprotons, electrons and antielectrons, each kind paired with its opposite. Thus was matter and antimatter created in equal measure. But when particle met antiparticle, an exceedingly frequent occurrence in those early times, the encounter was brief, violent, and almost always fatal, as both were destroyed, their substance vanishing in a flash of  pure energy. When the great annihilation came to an end, there were few survivors of this many-fold decimation: no more than one in a billion remained.  They were all of one kind, the kind we now call matter.  It is of these particles that all we see about us is made, from the grains of sand on the seashore to the trees to the sun, the stars, and to the most distant galaxies.  The clue for our improbable and miraculous existence is hidden in the image above, an image of muon neutrino traces in a bubble chamber, the paradoxically huge microscope that physicists use to probe the smallest realms. In the laws that govern us, it turns out, there is a small asymmetry, a kind of distinction between right and left, charge and anticharge, which are otherwise equal mirror images of one another. Neutrinos, born of the annihilation of particle and antiparticle, of the explosions of stars which create the iron and nickel of which our earth’s core is made, of the proton-proton reactions which power our sun,  carry to us the message of this tiny discrepancy, the reason for our existence.

(Draft #1)

Article by Dennis Overbye, New York Times

Physics note: Neutrinos are ghostly particles that interact very weakly with matter.  The proton-proton reactions that power the sun send out a huge stream of neutrinos.  Each square centimeter of the Earth’s surface is bombarded by roughly 100 billion neutrinos per second.  Almost all of them pass through the Earth, exiting unchanged on the opposite side.