Sunday, August 12, 2012

Little Talks

Today's post has nothing specific to do with sailing, although since the subject covers everything in the world, I guess that could be enough to justify a relation to sailing.  But if you really want to read only about sailing, you can skip it.

An elderly gentleman in a continuing care retirement care facility in upstate New York agrees to give a few little talks to other residents.  He proceeds, speaking slowly with a slight accent, occasionally pausing as he gathers his thoughts, changes the old-fashioned transparencies displayed on a screen, stuffs a pencil into the breast pocket of his rumpled jacket - and reminisces about some of his old acquaintances -  such as Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, etc.

The topic is Quantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple and the elderly gentleman is Hans Bethe, a renowned nuclear physicist who was a key figure in the Manhattan Project, advisor to several U.S. presidents and a Nobel laureate.

What I really enjoyed was watching this 93 year old scientist, who had lived among the greats in the rarified world of nuclear physics, presenting lectures enthusiastically to an audience of other residents and making it comprehensible without being condescending or involving too much math.  In terms of content, it is mainly historical which is well done with photos and anecdotes. Personally I would have liked to hear more about the theories themselves, but I won't quibble and presenting the theories through a story of trial and error and human actions probably makes it more readily grasped.

It is clear that the gentleman is enamoured of the subject and has all his wits about him, even if his delivery is no doubt a bit slower than it would have been in years past.  But it certainly appealed to me - seeing someone enthusiastically passing on to others his passion with a quiet authority that allows him to distill things to a point few would dare without a thorough mastery of the subject.  It is especially poignant that he does so in his twilight years and is a clear manifestation of the universal urge to pass on something to the next generation.

I learned something I (and probably many others) had misunderstood about the uncertainty principle.  Betha emphasizes that quantum mechanics - just like Newtonian physics - makes "exact predictions of all observable quantities" and that it "is completely misleading to say that quantum mechanics makes things uncertain".  Basically quantum mechanics, including the uncertainty principle, applies only at the atomic level, but not in the world we experience.

There was one charming slip in his third lecture.  Intending to refer to Gilbert Lewis, a chemist at Berkeley, he said "C.S. Lewis" -  I have no idea if it was a delicious Freudian slip or just a simple error, but I know which version I prefer.


  1. Wonderful. I always though it was a shame that he wasn't really one of the authors of the famous Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper.

    1. I didn't know that - thanks for the update.

      Here he is explaining that it was joke and the theory was wrong.


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