Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Times Continue to Change

A thoroughly well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature to America’s unofficial poet laureate — Bob Dylan. Some good news that we can all cheer during these troubled, changing times. In the Nobel committee’s words,

For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.


Video: TV Movie, The Times They are a Changing’ (1964), directed by Daryl Duke and starring Bob Dylan.

Neutrinos in the News

Something’s up. Perhaps there’s some degree of hope that we may be reversing the tide of “dumbeddownness” in the stories that the media pumps through its many tubes to reach us. So, it comes as a welcome surprise to see articles about the very, very small making big news in publications like the New Yorker. Stories about neutrinos no less. Thank you New Yorker for dumbing us up. And, kudos to the latest Nobel laureates — Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald — for helping us understand just a little bit more about our world.

From the New Yorker:

This week the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald for their discovery that elementary particles called neutrinos have mass. This is, remarkably, the fourth Nobel Prize associated with the experimental measurement of neutrinos. One might wonder why we should care so much about these ghostly particles, which barely interact with normal matter.

Even though the existence of neutrinos was predicted in 1930, by Wolfgang Pauli, none were experimentally observed until 1956. That’s because neutrinos almost always pass through matter without stopping. Every second of every day, more than six trillion neutrinos stream through your body, coming directly from the fiery core of the sun—but most of them go right through our bodies, and the Earth, without interacting with the particles out of which those objects are made. In fact, on average, those neutrinos would be able to traverse more than one thousand light-years of lead before interacting with it even once.

The very fact that we can detect these ephemeral particles is a testament to human ingenuity. Because the rules of quantum mechanics are probabilistic, we know that, even though almost all neutrinos will pass right through the Earth, a few will interact with it. A big enough detector can observe such an interaction. The first detector of neutrinos from the sun was built in the nineteen-sixties, deep within a mine in South Dakota. An area of the mine was filled with a hundred thousand gallons of cleaning fluid. On average, one neutrino each day would interact with an atom of chlorine in the fluid, turning it into an atom of argon. Almost unfathomably, the physicist in charge of the detector, Raymond Davis, Jr., figured out how to detect these few atoms of argon, and, four decades later, in 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this amazing technical feat.

Because neutrinos interact so weakly, they can travel immense distances. They provide us with a window into places we would never otherwise be able to see. The neutrinos that Davis detected were emitted by nuclear reactions at the very center of the sun, escaping this incredibly dense, hot place only because they so rarely interact with other matter. We have been able to detect neutrinos emerging from the center of an exploding star more than a hundred thousand light-years away.

But neutrinos also allow us to observe the universe at its very smallest scales—far smaller than those that can be probed even at the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva, which, three years ago, discovered the Higgs boson. It is for this reason that the Nobel Committee decided to award this year’s Nobel Prize for yet another neutrino discovery.

Read the entire story here.

MondayPoem: Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney, poet, Nobel Laureate and above all observer of the Irish condition passed away last week.

He is widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets; and was famous both for his critical acclaim and for being so widely read. He will be missed. Luckily for the rest of us, Heaney left behind a wonderful swathe of work, which current and future generations will come to cherish.

By Seamus Heaney

– Death of A Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Read more about Seamus Heaney here.

Image: Seamus Heaney. Courtesy: Murdo Macleod / Guardian.

Seamus Haney, Come Back

Enough is enough! Our favorite wordsmiths must call a halt right now. First we lost Chris Hitchens, soon followed by Iain Banks. And now, poet extraordinaire, Seamus Heaney.

So, we mourn and celebrate with an excerpt from his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech. You can find more on Heaney’s remarkable life in words, here, at Poetry Foundation.

From the Independent:

When I first encountered the name of the city of Stockholm, I little thought that I would ever visit it, never mind end up being welcomed to it as a guest of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation.

At the time I am thinking of, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception. In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.

We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.

The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.

I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air.


I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to “walk on air against your better judgement”. But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.


To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against. Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability – and responsibility – to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”

This temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are was corroborated by the experience of having been born and brought up in Northern Ireland and of having lived with that place even though I have lived out of it for the past quarter of a century. No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration. So, partly as a result of having internalized these attitudes through growing up with them, and partly as a result of growing a skin to protect myself against them, I went for years half-avoiding and half- resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot. And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more license than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.

In such circumstances, the mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth”, even as it recognizes the destabilizing nature of its own operations and enquiries. Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen seventies in another small house, this time in Co. Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home-not only those by the Provisional IRA in Belfast but equally atrocious assaults in Dublin by loyalist paramilitaries from the north. Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam’s fate in the 1930s, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my noncombatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweetnatured school friend had been interned without trial because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology. In a poem called “Exposure” I wrote then:

If I could come on meteorite!
Instead, I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, a grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once in a lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
(from North)

Read the entire article here.

Science at its Best: The Universe is Expanding AND Accelerating

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded to three scientists: Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt. Their computations and observations of a very specific type of exploding star upended decades of commonly accepted beliefs of our universe. Namely, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Prior to their observations, first publicly articulated in 1998, general scientific consensus held that the universe would expand at a steady rate forever or slow, and eventually fold back in on itself in a cosmic Big Crunch.

The discovery by Riess, Perlmutter and Schmidt laid the groundwork for the idea that a mysterious force called “dark energy” is fueling the acceleration. This dark energy is now believed to make up 75 percent of the universe. Direct evidence of dark energy is lacking, but most cosmologists now accept that universal expansion is indeed accelerating.

Re-published here are the notes and a page scan from Riess’s logbook that led to this year’s Nobel Prize, which show the value of the scientific process:

[div class=attrib]The original article is courtesy of Symmetry Breaking:[end-div]

In the fall of 1997, I was leading the calibration and analysis of data gathered by the High-z Supernova Search Team, one of two teams of scientists—the other was the Supernova Cosmology Project—trying to determine the fate of our universe: Will it expand forever, or will it halt and contract, resulting in the Big Crunch?

To find the answer, we had to determine the mass of the universe. It can be calculated by measuring how much the expansion of the universe is slowing.

First, we had to find cosmic candles—distant objects of known brightness—and use them as yardsticks. On this page, I checked the reliability of the supernovae, or exploding stars, that we had collected to serve as our candles. I found that the results they yielded for the present expansion rate of the universe (known as the Hubble constant) did not appear to be affected by the age or dustiness of their host galaxies.

Next, I used the data to calculate ?M, the relative mass of the universe.

It was significantly negative!

The result, if correct, meant that the assumption of my analysis was wrong. The expansion of the universe was not slowing. It was speeding up! How could that be?

I spent the next few days checking my calculation. I found one could explain the acceleration by introducing a vacuum energy, also called the cosmological constant, that pushes the universe apart. In March 1998, we submitted these results, which were published in September 1998.

Today, we know that 74 percent of the universe consists of this dark energy. Understanding its nature remains one of the most pressing tasks for physicists and astronomers alike.

Adam Riess, Johns Hopkins University

The discovery, and many others like it both great and small, show the true power of the scientific process. Scientific results are open for constant refinement, or re-evaluation or refutation and re-interpretation. The process leads to inexorable progress towards greater and greater knowledge and understanding, and eventually to truth that most skeptics can embrace. That is, until the next and better theory and corresponding results come along.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Symmetry Breaking, Adam Riess.[end-div]

MondayPoem: Further In

Tomas Tranströmer is one of Sweden’s leading poets. He studied poetry and psychology at the University of Stockholm. Tranströmer was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.

By Tomas Tranströmer:

– Further In
On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon’s scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
streaming in.
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
inside me
words in invisible ink
which appear
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it…

Andre Geim: in praise of graphene

[div class=attrib]From Nature:[end-div]

Nobel laureate explains why the carbon sheets deserved to win this year’s prize.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to the discoverers of the one-atom-thick sheets of carbon known as graphene. Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, UK, who shared the award with his colleague Konstantin Novoselov, tells Nature why graphene deserves the prize, and why he hasn’t patented it.

In one sentence, what is graphene?

Graphene is a single plane of graphite that has to be pulled out of bulk graphite to show its amazing properties.

What are these properties?

It’s the thinnest possible material you can imagine. It also has the largest surface-to-weight ratio: with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches (in Manchester, you know, we measure surface area in football pitches). It’s also the strongest material ever measured; it’s the stiffest material we know; it’s the most stretchable crystal. That’s not the full list of superlatives, but it’s pretty impressive.

A lot of people expected you to win, but not so soon after the discovery in 2004. Were you expecting it?

I didn’t think it would happen this year. I was thinking about next year or maybe 2014. I slept quite soundly without much expectation. Yeah, it’s good, it’s good.

Graphene has won, but not that much has actually been done with it yet. Do you think it was too soon?

No. The prize, if you read the citation, was given for the properties of graphene; it wasn’t given for expectations that have not yet been realized. Ernest Rutherford’s 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry wasn’t given for the nuclear power station — he wouldn’t have survived that long — it was given for showing how interesting atomic physics could be. I believe the Nobel prize committee did a good job.

Do you think that carbon nanotubes were unfairly overlooked?

It’s difficult to judge; I’m a little afraid of being biased. If the prize had been given for bringing graphene to the attention of the community, then it would have been unfair to take it away from carbon nanotubes. But it was given for graphene’s properties, and I think carbon nanotubes did not deliver that range of properties. Everyone knows that — in terms of physics, not applications — carbon nanotubes were not as successful as graphene.

Why do you think graphene has become so popular in the physics community?

I would say there are three important things about graphene. It’s two-dimensional, which is the best possible number for studying fundamental physics. The second thing is the quality of graphene, which stems from its extremely strong carbon–carbon bonds. And finally, the system is also metallic.

What do you think graphene will be used for first?

Two or three months ago, I was in South Korea, and I was shown a graphene roadmap, compiled by Samsung. On this roadmap were approximately 50 dots, corresponding to particular applications. One of the closest applications with a reasonable market value was a flexible touch screen. Samsung expects something within two to three years.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]