Monday, August 12, 2013

Schrödinger's cat

Today's Google doodle remembers Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key figures in the development of quantum mechanics and winner of the 1933 physics Nobel. In my day job I'm a computational chemist, and my work largely depends on using computer models that approximate Schrödinger's equation that is used to describe the arrangement of electrons in molecules. In the popular eye he is remembered for his "Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment. He was critical of a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics that says that for certain phenomena that could equally exist in two different states, say, for instance, the spin of an electron, the resolution of the two states is dependent on an observer - that is, until someone measures it, the electron equally exists in both states. In his argument, he asked us to imagine a cat in a box. Somehow, the release of a poison is rigged to the decay of a radioactive atom. Since it is impossible to predict whether the atom will decay or not until it is observed, under the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat is both dead and alive until you open the box. I think most people actually misinterpret his point. He wasn't actually saying the cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, instead it was a reductio ad absurdum argument, showing how the Copenhagen interpretation can to obviously ridiculous conclusions.

For our LEGO illustration, here is a two-sided scene by Sea Serpent. On one side the scientist (Schrödinger, presumably) opens the box to hug his cat, on the other side he is distressed to find his cat is dead.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


FifthPixel made this great rendition of the bathyscaphe Trieste. On January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh reached the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean at 10,911 meters. This feat was not repeated until last year (by Titanic director James Cameron).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Jill Tarter & Jocelyn Bell Burnell

I've previously blogged cookies of LEGO Rosalind Franklin and Hedy Lamarr made by Wendy Staples of the Quirky Cookie for a ScienceGrrl event. I really need to feature her versions of Jill Tarter & Jocelyn Bell Burnell as well.

Tarter is an American radio astronomer, who has spent much of her career on the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI), and she did other important work on astronomical bodies such as brown dwarfs. Carl Sagan based the character Ellie Arroway in his novel Contact in part on Tarter. BTW, you should really read that book. The book (NOT the movie) is full of great insights into life as a graduate student, the conduct of international science, thoughts about how information can be transmitted, descriptions of radio telescopes, and even a very thoughtful examination of the interaction of science and faith.

Bell Burnell is another important radio astronomer, from Northern Ireland. She has had a long career in science and academics, but is perhaps best known for her discovery of pulsars as a graduate student. There was a bit of a controversy in that her research adviser, Antony Hewish, was awarded half of the 1974 Nobel, and not Bell Burnell. The question of who gets the true credit for a discovery - student or teacher - has always been a question. For the record, Bell Burnell has said publicly that she did not have problems with the decision as it was in keeping with common practice, and she has received a lot of recognition and awards for her work.

Just for good measure, Wendy also made a bunch of generic scientists as well.