The scientific story of 2016 was the announcement of the detection of Gravitational waves, the compression and stretching of space by Ligo (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

Much of the publicity of the event centred on how it proved Einstein right as he had theorised abut them as a consequence of the General Theory of Relativity (GTR). To have done so reveals our need for a human story, even when dealing with complicated scientific theories and the continued fascination with Einstein, the man, his work and his legacy.

There was something very profound about the detection of Gravitational Waves, beyond its verification of the GTR. As Marcus Chown explains in his recent book, The Ascent of Gravity it is “the most important development in astronomy since the invention of the telescope in 1608”. We are no longer restricted to seeing; now we can hear the universe. A whole new sense has opened up for us when it comes to understanding the universe.

It appears to me that we are already beginning to see the consequences of the discovery of Gravitational Waves.

In June the third detection by the Ligo team hinted that this observation may help to an understanding of dark matter. The mass of the circulating black holes that collided to create the waves detected suggests they were formed not from collapsing stars, but from patches of material. It is a long stretch, but this may be the start of the hunt for dark matter.

More recently a paper published by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam suggests that the detection may help to prove string theory. The theory (there are many competing versions) says that particles are strings which vibrate to create the forces of nature. The theories are dependent on at least six extra dimensions. The paper says that string theory predicts that the ripples caused by the collisions of black holes that cause the gravitational waves detected by Ligo also cause ripples through the extra dimensions, which would create an effect on the gravitational wave. If that effect can be detected then it supports string theory.

Slowly but surely the discovery of gravitational waves is causing the radical impact on physics and our understanding of the universe that was predicted. Einstein, once again is the beacon we use to shine on the dark universe and decipher its meaning.

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Genius – a missed opportunity

Posted April 30, 2017 By admin

The ten part National Geographic drama of Albert Einstein started last Monday (in New Zealand).

I expected to have mixed reactions – and I did. There were some positives and some negatives. On the whole it was a credible drama, but not brilliant.

Science is hard to portray in drama and this production struggled. On the whole, gimmicky portrayals of sunbeams and visual tricks of space left me somewhat cold, as did the rather clunky insertion of scientific language in the middle of everyday conversations, the worse of which was the gratuitous sex scene at the beginning. I get why the makers did it – shock the viewer at the start, strip away the old world view of Einstein with a sexier more true to life rendition of him and his affairs – but really – the first scene of him in the drama is him shagging his secretary against the blackboard and wiping his equations off the back of her dress afterwards? Please. For me, the weaving of the science into the everyday needed more work and better crafting.

Where the drama worked better was when it stuck to the drama. Jonny Flynn’s portrayal of the young Einstein was excellent; in fact, in many ways was more convincing than that of Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of the older Einstein, which to me appeared rather hackneyed.

The first episode of Genius left me feeling as though it was a bit of a missed opportunity. The telling of the science and the real life older Einstein could have been more nuanced, which would have made the show more seamless and more compelling.

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Einstein and the Event Horizon Telescope

Posted March 5, 2017 By admin

Black Holes are both awe inspiring and endlessly fascinating. Who can fail to be interested in a place where time and light die? They are places of unimaginable power, where the laws of nature as we understand them break down.

And what intrigues me more than anything about black holes is that all we know about them is purely man made. What do I mean; after all, surely, there is nothing less man made than such exotic beasts? Yet all we know about them comes from the human mind and imagination because we have never actually seen one let alone probed or examined one.

Black Holes are the creation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GTR). Without the theory it would be impossible to have created the concept of the black hole. The GTR predicts that if mass is sufficiently compacted it can deform space-time and create black holes. So what are the features of black holes? A brief summary goes like this:

  • The pulling force of a black hole is so great that not even light can escape – hence the term – black hole. It consumes everything within its gravity. There is no escape.
  • Such enormous gravity is caused by matter being squeezed into a tiny space, such as when stars die and collapse in on themselves
  • There are a whole range of sizes, from the small primordial black holes that are thought to have formed when the universe was formed, to super massive black holes at the centre of galaxies, which have the mass of more than a million times our sun in a space the size of the solar system.
  • The black hole at the centre of our galaxy is called Sagittarius A.
  • We have not seen a black hole – yet, we know of their existence by theory and through stars orbiting close to one producing high-energy light, which we can observe.

However, for the first time it is proposed that we will be able to observe a black hole and take a picture. It is some picture though and it will be taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

The EHT is not one stand alone telescope. It is a network of radio telescopes dotted around the globe and it is about to go operational. It plans to focus on the super massive black hole Sagittarius A at the centre of our Galaxy, which is 25000 light years away. The nine telescopes create a virtual telescope the size of the earth by combining data from them all and is capable of seeing a grapefruit on the moon.

What will be seen? Well if GTR is correct a crescent of clouds of dust and gas which blazes with energy. Indeed, the picture will be a validation test for GTR. If the picture sees a ring, then there is something incorrect in the GTR, it predicts a crescent.

All I can say is that every validation so far has proved the theory correct, so I look forward to success. And imagine the excitement of seeing a picture of a black hole!

The EHT is a true Einstein machine. An earth wide network designed to see what the GTR predicted and which will further validate the theory.

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2016 – Forget Trump, it was Einstein’s year

Posted January 24, 2017 By admin

Somewhat predictably Time magazine named Donald Trump as their person of the year. I understand the reasoning, but cannot agree. The year undoubtedly belonged to Albert Einstein, but to understand why, we need to understand the deep importance of his theories and the effect they have on our everyday lives.
Two stories stand like book ends to the year; seemingly unconnected, but that is wrong. They are connected by the work of Albert Einstein.
The first was the announcement in February of the discovery of Gravitational Waves. Confirmation from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) of the capture of the signal on Sept. 14, 2015, caused quite a stir worldwide. Some described it as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last 100 years. Why? In essence, it gives us the ability of seeing the universe in a whole new way. Suddenly we are not only able to see the Universe, but now hear it. Whereas before we were deaf to space, now we can hear its music. And what will this mean? Ultimately it will take us all the way back to the start – back to the big bang. The very act of creation may be opened to us.
The second story was the December story that Uber was to use driverless cars in San Francisco. To be fair, it was short-lived. California officials ordered a shutdown after concerns of the cars running red lights. However, surely this is the thin end of the wedge. Driverless cars are here to stay and are set to revolutionise the transportation industry, the insurance industry and all service industries that employ drivers. We are on the verge of a huge shift in how we use the car.
What links these two stories? The General Theory of Relativity (GTR). Einstein’s 1916 masterpiece. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein as a consequence of the theory. No theory – no gravitational waves. And for driverless cars? One of the essential elements of the whole system is GPS. Without it, there could be no driverless cars and without the GTR there could be no GPS system. The network of satellites that provide GPS have to constantly take account of the effects of the GTR. If the adjustments were not made then every day the GPS system would be thrown out by miles, rendering it useless.
These stories are a reminder of Einstein’s legacy and our dependence on it. Long after The Don has gone, Einstein will still be influencing and remaking our world and our understanding of the universe. So whilst today’s news cycle may be dominated by Trump, when we look back to 2016 in a hundred years time it will be Einstein people will talk about.

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Einstein’s Energy Solutions

Posted January 31, 2016 By admin

I have spoken before about Einstein’s contributions to our future energy solutions. In Einstein’s pot pori I highlighted the fundamental contribution Einstein’s 1905 explanation of the photoelectric effect has made to our ability to design and understand solar panels and in Two Fusion Futures I discussed Nuclear Fusion as the possible answer for our future energy needs and again the importance of Einstein’s work in our ability to understand and deliver Fusion energy.

 

Recently I have become aware (Marcus Chown – What a Wonderful World) of another possible future energy source: Artificial Photosynthesis. Most of us know that Photosynthesis is the process whereby plants take in carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen. However, how does this work and what has it to do with Albert Einstein?

 

It is all to do with the Photon and an understanding of how photons work. Light’s energy is contained in the photon (first brought to the world by Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect in 1905) and in plants that energy is transferred to an electron by proteins. The electron then energises chemical processes that splits hydrogen from water and together with carbon from carbon dioxide builds sugars with a leftover of oxygen, which is then ejected by the plant. This process then, involves the production of hydrogen, which is possible future energy source. It can be used in power cells to fuel our energy needs.

 

Replicating this process artificially could lead to unlocking our energy needs and could transform the world.

 

This requires three steps:

    1. Light is captured and its energy transferred to an electron
    2. The electron is freed from its atom
    3. The electron is used to liberate hydrogen from water.

 

Without Albert Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect by his introduction of light quanta (now known as Photons) we would be in the dark ages in our understanding of these processes. Once again then, his work is at the heart of a fundamental understanding of our world and leading the way for our future.

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