Saturday, August 19, 2006


Cosmos (apparently "the biggest-selling Australian science magazine") has an article about string theorist Michael Kaku. I've never been a huge fan of him, but it's an interesting article describing how he

"Because my parents were poor, I knew from a very early age that I would have to be self-reliant. Hence, in high school, I built a 2.3 million electron volt atom smasher, which helped me to get into Harvard. My parents did not understand at all what I was doing, but they realised it was important, and helped in any way they could. The atom smasher used up 22 miles [35km] of cooper wire, which my parents and I wound on the high-school football field over Christmas vacation."

The atom smasher consistently blew the fuses at his parents' home. But it also impressed atomic scientist Edward Teller, who arranged a scholarship at Harvard University for the young Kaku.

Later, one finds the quote

...tediously having to memorise Maxwell's eight hideous mathematical equations that describe electromagnetic fields

and one hopes these are the author's words not Kaku's. Presumably the author is trying to contrast Maxwell's original equations with that written in covariant form ala Kaluza-Klein, which shows up a few sentences further down.

Anyway, a bit more on string theory shows up, and some comments and quotes about Kaku's thoughts on God appear later.


Anonymous said...

I don't know how they taught Maxwell's equations at Harvard back then. I heard some horror stories about the undergraduate math curriculum there, and I vividly remember the equations as I learned them at Butler U. in the early fifties. Yes they were ugly.

Covariant? It is to laugh! The prof didn't truly believe in relativity. The displacement current rode high in his explanation with the kind of metaphysical motivation that I thought had vanished from physics until Susskind came along.

Angry said...

Ugly? Ugly? Ugly!

No. Come on, there are much uglier equations in physics. And we're talking electromagnetic radiation here...pretty important stuff by any measure (biological, chemical, physical, artistic, etc). These equations describe light, they unify what had always been separate, namely electric and magnetic fields. These are wonderful equations.

Anonymous said...

Eight Maxwell equations? Did Maxwell arise from the grave and pronounce four additional equations since I left school?

Anyone who thinks Maxwell's equations are ugly must not have been taught with Jackson's _Classical Electrodynamics_, a book which instills aesthetic appreciation along with calculational skill.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 26 06

Maybe he is talking about the differential forms for the vacuum, then the equations in matter. In the Griffiths book for undergrad E&M they list the equations and lay all of eight them out on the very last page, while beneath them are the auxillary field equations.

I realize, however, that popular physics in the pop culture are not necessarily prolific or have contributed great things to science, they simply have charm.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 26 06

Oops, I meant popular physicists in pop culture!

And I do think that Maxwell's equations are beautiful with the symmetries and so forth. I learned about the duality transformations and E and B field shadows, rather painfully from JD Jackson's book. That guy is really nice, but that book is not so nice!

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