Martin Gardner died on Saturday, May 22, in Norman, Oklahoma. A prolific author and critic, Gardner was best know for his monthly column “Mathematical Games” which he wrote for Scientific American for twenty-five years. Beginning in 1983 he contributed a regular column “Notes of a Fringe Watcher” to Skeptical Inquirer where he debunked pseudo-scientific claims.
Gardner attended the University of Chicago in the 1930s and graduated in 1936. After a short stint in his native Tulsa as assistant oil editor of the Tulsa Tribune he returned to Chicago to work in the University’s public affairs office. His semi-autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm is set on the U of C campus—in the Divinity School and its chapels in particular.
The Press was privileged to keep a number of Gardner’s seventy-some books in print for many years, including The Annotated “Casey at the Bat,” Logic Machines and Diagrams, Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions, The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, Martin Gardner’s New Mathematical Diversions, and Martin Gardner’s Sixth Book of Mathematical Diversions. In 1989 we published Gardner’s Why and Wherefores, a collection of his essays and reviews, including the excoriating review, under a pseudonym, of one . . .
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Black holes are undoubtedly one of the all-time coolest phenomena in astrophysics. With his theory of relativity, Einstein initially predicted their existence as the inevitable result of gravitation on some of the more massive objects in the universe. But according to Fulvio Melia’s new book Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics, for more than four decades after the publication of Einstein’s ideas, this phenomenon, along with the rest of Einstein’s theory, remained a curious abstraction for most scientists who lacked the final set of equations that would allow them to empirically verify its principles.
Then came Roy Kerr, the twenty-nine-year-old Cambridge graduate who solved the great riddle in 1963, transforming Einstein’s theory into an applicable description of how real objects in the universe actually behave—including black holes. As a recent review in the New Scientist notes:
The most intriguing application of Kerr’s solution is in describing objects that are so massive and so dense that their gravitational field prevents even light from escaping. Einstein himself was skeptical that such “black holes” could exist in nature. Just as Kerr was developing his solution, however, the first compelling evidence for black holes was found. Today, . . .
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Because Albert Einstein’s equations so accurately describe the world around us, they seem timeless. But in truth, we have only understood how to apply his theory of general relativity for less than fifty years. When Einstein published his description of the effect of gravitation on the shape of space and the flow of time in 1916, few scientists knew what to do with it. Enter Roy Kerr, a twenty-nine-year-old Cambridge graduate who solved the great riddle in 1963. The solution he proposed emerged coincidentally with the discovery of black holes that same year and provided fertile testing ground—at long last—for general relativity. Today scientists routinely cite the Kerr solution, but even among specialists few know the story of how Kerr cracked Einstein’s code.
Part biography, part chronicle of scientific discovery, Cracking the Einstein Code unmasks the history behind the search for a real-world solution to Einstein’s field equations. Offering an eyewitness account of the events leading up to Kerr’s great discovery, Fulvio Melia vividly describes how luminaries such as Karl Schwarzschild, David Hilbert, and Emmy Noether set the stage for the Kerr solution; how Kerr came to make his breakthrough; and how scientists such as Roger Penrose, Kip Thorne, . . .
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Of the stories making today’s headlines, the continued technical glitches in the Large Hadron Collider should particularly resonate with some Chicagoans—especially those with PhD’s in particle physics. Until the construction of the LHC, the Batavia based Fermilab was home to the world’s most powerful supercollider, the Tevatron, so named because of its ability to accelerate particles at energy states of up to one terravolt, (TeV). But since an international consortium of scientists powered up the LHC, which boasts a target operating energy seven times that of the Tevatron, the lab has been preparing to fade into the background as the new collider takes over its position conducting experiments at the cutting edge of particle physics.
But since 2007 several malfunctions have delayed CERN’s first sub-atomic smash-ups, and now, as has been widely reported this morning, another malfunction may set those experiments back even further.
As the New York Times notes, this is obviously bad news for researchers and engineers eager to demonstrate the scientific payoff promised by the 15 year, $9 billion dollar project, but for the folks back at Fermilab, it may mean that the Tevatron gets to stay online for a little while longer as scientists whose . . .
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In October, New Scientist reported that large black holes, vestiges from a pre-Milky Way universe, could be floating undetected in our galaxy. If we find them, the magazine suggests, they could help us understand the violent birth of the Milky Way itself. But if the threat of rogue black holes has you a little worried, Three Steps to the Universe is here to bring this, and other recent discoveries involving cosmic phenomena, into clearer focus. Explaining how we know what we know about everything in space—from our familiar sun to black holes and dark matter—David Garfinkle and Richard Garfinkle take readers on an utterly fascinating tour of the universe, revealing along the way how scientists uncover its mysteries.
Read the press release.
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Since the successful launch of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN last week, all eyes have been on Switzerland. But closer to home, Fermilab, in Batavia, Illinois, houses the Tevatron, a landmark particle accelerator. In anticipation of the publication this fall of the definitive history of the laboratory, Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience, we asked Lillian Hoddeson, Adrienne W. Kolb, and Catherine Westfall to reflect on what the LHC means for Fermilab and for the future of physics:
Congratulations to CERN for the successful launch of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, the latest excursion into the frontier of high energy particle physics!
For more than 25 years the energy frontier machine has been Fermilab’s Tevatron, the 1983 superconducting extension of the 1972 Main Ring. Now the LHC will be the machine at the energy frontier. The LHC will enable high energy physicists from around the world to explore deeper into the unknown frontiers of the universe. While the times and technology are vastly different in 2008, much of the same excitement and drama of the turn on of CERN’s LHC was felt by physicists at the turn on of Fermilab’s Main Ring and the superconducting Energy Doubler/Saver, . . .
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The August 16 edition of the Guardian published a short but positive review of John D. North’s Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology. The review praises the book for its comprehensive exploration of these two sciences, and their integral role in helping mankind to define his place within the universe. From the Guardian:
At nearly 900 pages, this is a suitably monumental book about the biggest subject of all: the cosmos.… From Stonehenge and ancient China, where sunspots were first recorded in 28BC (European astronomers didn’t spot them until the 17th century), to today’s search for dark matter, Machos and Wimps, this remarkable work brings together the global history, theories, people and technologies of astronomy to tell a story that “has very few intellectual parallels in the whole of human history.”
See the review on the Guardian website.
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Now available in paperback—Optimists believe this is the best of all possible worlds. And pessimists fear that might really be the case. But what is the best of all possible worlds? How do we define it? Is it the world that operates the most efficiently? Or the one in which most people are comfortable and content? Questions such as these have preoccupied philosophers and theologians for ages, but there was a time, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when scientists and mathematicians felt they could provide the answer.
This book is their story. Ivar Ekeland here takes the reader on a journey through scientific attempts to envision the best of all possible worlds. He begins with the French physicist Maupertuis, whose least action principle asserted that everything in nature occurs in the way that requires the least possible action. This idea, Ekeland shows, was a pivotal breakthrough in mathematics, because it was the first expression of the concept of optimization, or the creation of systems that are the most efficient or functional.
Tracing the profound impact of optimization and the unexpected ways in which it has influenced the study of mathematics, biology, economics, and even politics, Ekeland reveals throughout . . .
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Joseph Mazur, a professor of mathematics at the University of Marlborough, published a review today of Ivar Ekeland’s newest book The Best of all Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny in the international journal of science, Nature. In his review, Mazur praises the book for its fascinating exploration of the work of eighteenth-century French intellectual Maupertuis, a philosopher and physicist whose ideas—as Mazur notes—continue to have a profound impact in both fields to this day. Mazur writes:
The eighteenth-century French philosopher Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis gave us the principle of least action: in all natural phenomena, a quantity called ‘action’—for him, the product of mass, distance travelled and velocity—tends to be minimized. In his view, God, being the supreme mathematician, had created the “best of all possible worlds” by insisting that everything in it obey the principle of least action, an economy of effort—a metaphysical rule designed to support the laws of mechanics.
In The Best of All Possible Worlds, Ivar Ekeland skillfully traces the historical developments of de Maupertuis’ principle as it matured from a metaphysical directive in physical two- or three-dimensional space to a mathematical principle in a conceptual space where the action is not just minimized but stopped . . .
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