Tag Archives: James Clerk Maxwell

Scientific Selfies

by Shane L. Larson

One of the great pleasures of my life is going to scientific conferences. I love sitting through talks, listening to my colleagues weave tales of things I’ve never thought about before. I find something deeply relaxing about simply letting new information seep into my brain and connect to things one might never have expected. It makes my life and daydreams interesting.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

I was sitting at a meeting in Denver recently, listening to one of my colleagues spin a tale I’ve heard before, about the dark matter in the Cosmos. The idea that the Universe is not entirely made of the same stuff as you and I was pioneered in the 1930s by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, based on a famous observation of the motion in a distant cluster of galaxies known as the Coma Cluster. Zwicky showed that if you count up all the stuff you could see in your telescope and compared it to how much stuff you need to make the galaxies move, there was some matter that was missing, or dark! This is a famous and important result, and my colleague did what we all do when we tell this tale: he put up a picture of Zwicky. More often than not, we all use the picture shown to the left!

Which got me to wondering — if Zwicky were still with us today (sadly, he has gone back to the Cosmos in 1974) and I were to drop him an email asking for a picture of him to show in a talk, what would he send me?

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

There are other examples of funny scientist pictures that are commonly used. Perhaps the most famous is of Albert “Big Al” Einstein, sticking out his tongue. The picture was taken by a UPI reporter on Einstein’s 72nd birthday, and was a favorite of Einstein’s. It is arguably one of the most popular images of Einstein and is used in many venues, especially when talking about complicated physical concepts that derive from Einstein’s work. I use it in two different instances. The first is when I’m trying to convince people that scientists aren’t completely serious people — we like to have fun and goof off; if Einstein did it, so can we! We’re people too! The second is when I’m talking to people about dark energy — a completely unknown physical effect that appears to comprise almost 70 percent of the Universe. Einstein’s famous “blunder,” known as the Cosmological Constant, is a leading candidate for explaining the dark energy. I like to think that if I could call Einstein up on the phone and tell him we were going to use his greatest blunder to explain the greatest mystery in physics today, he might think I was pulling his leg and blow a big raspberry over the phone, like he appears to be doing in this picture!

Not all of my colleagues use pictures when they talk science; not all of them regale us with historical tales of the subject they are outlining. But I always do because to me, the context of the story is as important as the scientific result itself. Science is a uniquely human endeavour — no other species that we know of studies the world like we do. Science, like art, is an intense expression of our innermost creativity and imagination. As such, it is important to me to put a human face on all the great mysteries we have unravelled, and on all the puzzles we are still trying to find answers to.

Consider Jane Goodall, widely known for her decades long research on the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania. I would love to be a collaborator with Goodall, so I could ping her for a picture to use. What picture would she choose? There are thousands of pictures of Goodall and the Gombe chimpanzees, many quite famous, but the most striking to me has always been this one by Michael Nichols of National Geographic. It captures so eloquently the interspecies interaction which has always been the hallmark of Goodall’s work. While the unconventional methods Goodall used in characterizing her work has often garnered criticism centered around the anthropomorphization of the chimpanzees, it is precisely the idea that we are closely related to these other Earthlings that makes Goodall and her work so compelling to the rest of us. All the subtle mix of wonder and mystery at this deep connection with our cousins, the great apes, is captured for me in this single image.

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

The existence of funny or striking images is largely due to the development and commercialization of film. Today especially, pictures are cheap and easy — goofing off for the camera is a worldwide pastime! But before cameras and photography became common, photographic pictures were posed and planned. As a result, as one looks back in time, it seems to me that we often simply have the image of famous scientists, and little of their personality. But I still show their pictures.

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. :-)

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. 🙂

This is one of my favorite pictures of James Clerk Maxwell, though it is not one you often see. It shows the iconic Maxwell that is so well known to physicists, in his mid-life, with his signature bushy beard, together with his wife Katherine. Maxwell was a phenomenal physicist, contributing to many areas including color photography and thermodynamics. What he is most well known for, however, is the combination of electricity and magnetism into one, unified description of Nature now called “electromagnetism.” It was the first time humans had ever come to the realization that there was some deep unification possible in the Laws of Nature, and set the stage for fundamental physics research that continues to this day; the quest to find the Higgs boson is the distant descendant of Maxwell’s original epiphany about unification. What I love most about this picture is that Maxwell had a fuzzy sheep dog! If Maxwell had posted this picture to Instagram, I’m sure I’d shoot him a text right away saying, “LOL Jim. What’s the dog’s name?”

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Beyond the horizon in time when photography was invented, our memories of distant ancestors and figures is reduced to art. It is no secret that I harbor a deep romanticism for Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest polymath known in history. It is a fond daydream of mine to imagine sitting on a hillside somewhere with Leonardo, sketching in my Moleskine next to the great master as we engage in idle chit-chat, speculating on the awesome machinery of Nature and how we humans might tap into that machinery and be more than we think ourselves to be — to fly, or traverse the wide oceans, or to build a violin whose sound would make the masses weep with joy to hear the sound of it. There are many portraits of Leonardo, but the one I carry in my mind is one that is thought to be a self-portrait (though this is debated), the famed “Portrait of a man in red chalk.” If it is Leonardo, it shows him late in his life. I’m most captivated by the eyes in this portrait — deep, hidden under bushy eyebrows, the corners lined with wrinkles that I imagine must be derived from a life filled with laughter and delight at all the world has to offer. Too much to read into fading lines of chalk sketched five hundred years ago? Perhaps, but it keeps me putting my pen to paper every day, spilling out crazy ideas and imaginings about the world. What would Leonardo do?

Because I do place great stock in the human story of science, my passion for showing pictures of scientists doesn’t end with historical retrospectives. Most of my colleagues have at some point in our collaborations been asked for a picture, so I can show the world the people I work with. They are all brilliant, unique, imaginative scientific minds. As you might imagine, their pictures reflect their inner brilliance. I show their pictures when I give talks to bring those human dimensions to our work, because I am proud to call them friends and colleagues.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Here is my academic family, my research group from my last year at Utah State University. They are, each of them, singularly brilliant and talented. Every one of them is just beginning to write their stories. I have no doubt that if they come visit me in the old scientists’ home when I’m 107, they’ll bring pictures of their adventures and tell me tales of the paths they walked in the world, no matter what they might be. We’ll pull out this old picture, and laugh at how young we all were back then, and how quaint “digital pictures” were back when that technology was new-fangled.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My scientific selfie. :-)

My scientific selfie. 🙂

Someday, one of my students, or one of you, will need a picture of me for something. When you do, do me a favor — no serious pictures. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some odd little picture that is so awesome everyone will use it, just like the picture of Fritz Zwicky. Until then, I’ll leave you with one my favorites — my selfie. Not as compelling as Goodall’s picture, nor as elegant as Leonardo’s portrait, but maybe as serious as Einstein’s. 🙂

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In Living Color

by Shane L. Larson

I don’t often talk to people for great lengths of time on airplanes. I’m kind of shy around people I don’t know.  But on a recent long flight home from the East Coast, I found myself sitting next to a wonderful woman, 75 years young, and we talked for the entire 5 hour flight.  Stefi was a gold- and silversmith from Vermont, and a German immigrant.  Our conversation ranged from the art of jewelry making, to winters in Vermont, to her grandchildren whom she was going to visit in Utah.

But at some point, the conversation strayed to her childhood in Berlin, where she lived as a young girl during the closing days of World War II.  There, sitting right next to me on the plane, was a living, breathing soul who had lived through the heart of World War II.  Not a soldier, not a support person who worked the fronts or factory lines, but a person caught in the middle of the war itself. From vivid memory, she recounted tales of what she saw, living huddled in a basement with her mother and sisters as the end of the War approached.  She was there as the Red Army advanced toward the Battle of Berlin, and saw the Russian occupation of the city.  In her mind’s eye, she could see it all in living color again.  But my vision was only pale black and white; the only images of the War that anyone in my generation has ever seen are stark black and white images.

In the days after the flight, long after Stefi and I had gone back to our respective lives, I was thinking about the differences between memory and historical record. In physics, we have similar historical records of our distant past, also preserved in stark, black and white images.  One of the most famous images in my field, is of the Fifth Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons, held in the city of Brussels in October of 1927.  The reason this particular conference is so well known is the iconic black and white photograph captured of the participants.

The participants in the 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons, in Brussels.

Scanning through the photograph, or running your finger down a list of names, one encounters names that are completely synonymous with the development of modern physics. Of the 29 participants, 17 went on to win Nobel Prizes; included among them is Marie Curie, the only person who has ever won two Nobel Prizes in different scientific disciplines!  This single image captured almost all of the architects of modern physics.  These are the minds that seeded the genesis of our modern technological world.  The conference itself has passed into the folklore of our civilization, as this was the place that Einstein expressed his famous utterance, “God does not play dice!”  Neils Bohr famously replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”

For many of us in this game called physics, the people in this image are icons, idols, and inspirations.  We know their names, we know their stories, and we can pick them out of pictures as easily as we can pick friends out of modern pictures.  But always in the dull and muted grain of black and white photographs. I’ve never met a person (that I know of) that met Einstein, or Bohr, or Heisenberg, or Curie; no one to recount for me the vivid colors of these great minds in their living flesh.

It is an interesting fact that all of these historical images are black and white. Color photography was first demonstrated some 66 years earlier at the suggestion of another great mind in physics, James Clerk Maxwell.

The first color photograph ever taken, by Thomas Sutton in 1861 at the behest of James Clerk Maxwell. The image is of a tartan ribbon, captured by a three-color projection technique.

The process worked by taking three black and white pictures through colored filters — red, green and blue — then reprojecting the black and white pictures through the filters again to produce a colored image.  This is more or less the same principle that is used today to generate color on TV screens and computer monitors.  If you look very closely at the screen you are reading this on, you will see that the pixels are all combinations of red, green and blue.

An example of RGB image construction. The three black and white images on the left were taken through Red (top), Blue (middle) and Green (bottom) filters. When recombined through those colored filters, they produce a full color image (right).

The famous tartan picture was generated for a lecture on color that Maxwell was giving.  Maxwell’s interest in light and color derived from the reason he is famous  — Maxwell was the first person to understand that several different physical phenomena in electricity and magnetism are linked together.  His unification of the two is called electromagnetism.  One consequence of that unification was the discovery that the agent of electromagnetic phenomena is light.  Today, the four equations describing electromagnetism are called the Maxwell Equations.

As with all things in science, the elation of discovery is always accompanied by new mysteries and new questions. One of the central realizations of electromagnetism was that light is a wave, and that the properties of the wave (the wavelength, or the frequency) define what our eyes perceive as color.

The electromagnetic spectrum — light in all its varieties, illustrated in the many different ways that scientists describe the properties of a specific kind (or “color”) of light. What your eye can see is visible light, the small rainbow band in the middle.

The realization that the color of light could be defined by a measurable property was a tremendous leap forward in human understanding of the world around us, and it naturally led to the idea and discovery that there are “colors” of light that our eyes cannot see!  Those kinds of light have often familiar names — radio light, microwave light, infrared light, ultraviolet light, and x-ray light.  But knowing of the existence of a thing (“Look! Infrared light!”) and being able to measure its properties (“This radio wave has a wavelength of 21 centimeters.”) are not the same thing as knowing why something exists.  How Nature made all the different kinds of light and why, were mysteries that would not be solved until the early Twentieth Century, by many of the great minds who attended the Solvay Conference.

Einstein famously discovered the idea that there is a Universal speed limit — nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in the vacuum of space.  Max Planck postulated that on microscopic levels, energy is delivered in discreet packets called quanta — in the case of light, those quanta are called photons.  Neils Bohr used the Planck hypothesis to explain how atoms generate discrete spectral lines — a chromatic fingerprint that uniquely identify each of the individual atoms on the periodic table. Marie Curie investigated the nature of x-ray emission from uranium, and was the first to postulate that the x-rays came from the atoms themselves — this was a fundamental insight that went against the long held assumption that atoms were indivisible, leading to the first modern understandings of radioactivity.  Louis deBroglie came to the realization that on the scales of fundamental particles, objects can behave and both waves and particles — this “duality” of character highlights the strangeness of the quantum world and is far outside our normal everyday experiences on the scales of waffles, Volkswagens and house sparrows.  Erwin Schroedinger pushed the quantum hypothesis on very general grounds, developing a mathematical equation (which now bears his name) that gives us predictive power about the outcome of experiments on the scales of the atomic world — his famous gedanken experiment with a cat in a box with a vial of cyanide captures the mysterious differences in “knowledge” between the macroscopic and microscopic worlds.  And so on.

The visible light fingerprints (“atomic spectra”) of all the known chemical elements. Each atom emits and absorbs these unique sets of colors, making it possible to identify them.

It is fashionable in today’s political climate to question the usefulness of scientific investigations, and to ask what benefit (economic or otherwise) that basic research investment begets society. Looking at the picture of the Solvay participants and considering their contributions to the knowledge of civilization one very rapidly comes to the realization that their investigations changed the world; in a way, their contemplations made the world we know today.  The discovery of radiation led directly to radiological medicine, radiation sterilization, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons.  The behaviour of atoms and their interactions with one another to generate light leads to lasers, LED flashlights, cool running lights under your car or skateboard, and the pixels in the computer screen you are reading from at this very moment. The quantum mechanical beahviour of the microscopic world, and our ability to understand that behaviour leads directly to integrated circuits and every modern electronic device you have ever seen.  That more than anything else should knock your sense of timescales off kilter; at the time quantum mechanics was invented, computers were mechanical devices, and no one had ever imagined building a “chip.”  The first integrated circuit wasn’t invented until 1958, when Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments built the first working example, 31 years after the Solvay Conference; the first computer using integrated circuits that you could own didn’t appear until the 1970s, and smartphones showed up in the early 2000’s.  The economic powerhouses of Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and all the rest, are founded on basic research that was done in the 1920s and 1930s.

Which brings me back to where we started — pictures from those bygone days.  After the first tri-color image of Maxwell’s tartan, the development of color photography progressed slowly. The 1908 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for an early color emulsion for photography, but the first successful color film did not emerge until Kodak created their famous Kodachrome brand in 1935.  Even so, color photography was much more expensive than black and white photography, and was not widely adopted until the late 1950s.  As a result, our history is dominated by grainy, black and white images.

So it was a great surprise last week when the Solvay Conference picture passed by in one of my friend’s Facebook stream, in color!  Quite unexpectedly, it knocked my socks off. I spent a good long time just staring at it.  Never before had I known of the flash of blue in Marie Curie’s scarf, Einstein’s psychedelic tie, or Schroedinger’s red bow tie (is Pauli looking at that tie with envy?).  But more importantly, the people were in color, as plain as if they were sitting across the table from me. It’s a weird twist of psychology that that burst of color, soft skin tones of human flesh, suddenly made these icons all the more real to me.

Colorized version of the famous 1927 portrait of the Solvay Conference participants [colorized version by Sanna Dullaway].

No longer just names and grainy pictures from history books, but rather remarkable minds from our common scientific heritage, seen for the first time in living color by a generation of scientists long separated from them.