Scientific Feats of the Year
Posted on December 31, 2018
After my last post, you might be expecting an announcement about my new professional home, but that will have to wait for January 2. I once represented a sporting equipment manufacturer in a claim against an athlete who had an endorsement deal with the company. The athlete had had a couple of terrific years and had signed a new endorsement deal with a competing company that was to begin several months later, when his first deal expired. But in that interim, the athlete held a press conference: “I’m still endorsing golf club A,” he said in essence, “but as of January 1 I’m be endorsing golf club B.” Not cool. So you won’t hear from me on this until the bells at midnight.
Instead, I wanted to mention a few of the very cool scientific stories I read in 2018. There was a lot of astronomy news this year, but my favorite story was the story of the Ice Cube experiment in Antarctica, which detected a neutrino and was able to get the word out so quickly that the Fermi space telescope was able to point in the right direction and confirm that the neutrino’s source was a distant blazar in the constellation Orion. This was the first time astronomers had been able to trace a neutrino back to its source. It’s amazing to think that something as violent as a blazar—a massive black hole in the center of a far-off galaxy that somehow accelerates particles in a focused beam at nearly the speed of light, should be connected with neutrinos, ghostly, elusive particles that hardly interact with ordinary matter at all. Some scientists described the discovery as the birth of neutrino astronomy, just as the LIGO experiment marked the birth of gravity wave astronomy a couple of years ago. Our modern Galileos are using new tools to find new ways to see the heavens. This is really a Golden age for anyone who wants to know what the world out there is like.
The second story I want to mention is the redefinition of the kilogram so that our standard of mass is no longer defined with reference to a particular artifact sitting in a vault in Paris, but instead with reference to the Planck constant, one of the fundamental constants of nature. The kilogram was the last of the basic units to be redefined in this way. To me, what’s wonderful about this is that in principle it is much more beautiful to make our measurements depend on the constants of nature than to measure the constants of nature using measurements that are arbitrary. Why should the speed of light be 299,792,458 meters per second? Why should Newton’s gravitational constant be 6.67408(31)×10−11 m3⋅kg−1⋅s−2? How much more elegant if the speed of light—the only fundamental speed in the universe—were defined to be 1, and all other speeds calculated from there? Or the gravitational constant defined to be 1, and so forth. Of course, this is not an original thought. Scientists sometimes use natural units like this, and they can show relationships that otherwise are concealed. Here is what Frank Wilczek said about this idea:
We see that the question [posed] is not, “Why is gravity so feeble?” but rather, “Why is the proton’s mass so small?” For in natural (Planck) units, the strength of gravity simply is what it is, a primary quantity, while the proton’s mass is the tiny number.
It’s an amazing world out there! Be sure, in 2019, to take a minute from your work to appreciate it.