Sunday, December 25, 2016

Physics is good for your health

Book sandwich
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Yes, physics is good for your health. And that’s not only because it’s good to know that peeing on high power lines is a bad idea. It’s also because, if they wheel you to the hospital, physics is your best friend. Without physics, there’d be no X-rays and no magnetic resonance imaging. There’d be no ultrasound and no spectroscopy, no optical fiber imaging and no laser surgery. There wouldn’t even be centrifuges.

But physics is good for your health in another way – as the resort of sanity.

Human society may have entered a post-factual era, but the laws of nature don’t give a shit. Planet Earth is a crazy place, full with crazy people, getting crazier by the minute. But the universe still expands, atoms still decay, electric currents still take the path of least resistance. Electrons don’t care if you believe in them and supernovae don’t want your money. And that’s the beauty of knowledge discovery: It’s always waiting for you. Stupid policy decisions can limit our collective benefit from science, but the individual benefit is up to each of us.

In recent years I’ve found it impossible to escape the “mindfulness” movement. Its followers preach that focusing on the present moment will ease your mental tension. I don’t know about you, but most days focusing on the present moment is the last thing I want. I’ve done a lot of breaths and most of them were pretty unremarkable – I’d much rather think about something more interesting.

And physics is there for you: Find peace of mind in Hubble images of young nebulae or galaxy clusters billions of light years away. Gauge the importance of human affairs by contemplating the enormous energies released in black hole mergers. Remember how lucky we are that our planet is warmed but not roasted by the Sun, then watch some videos of recent solar eruptions. Reflect on the long history of our own galaxy, seeded by tiny density fluctuations whose imprint still see today in the cosmic microwave background.

Or stretch your imagination and try to figure out what happens when you fall into a black hole, catch light like Einstein, or meditate over the big questions: Does time exist? Is the future determined? What, if anything, happened before the big bang? And if there are infinitely many copies of you in the multiverse, does that mean you are immortal?

This isn’t to say the here and now doesn’t matter. But if you need to recharge, physics can be a welcome break from human insanity.

And if everything else fails, there’s always the 2nd law of thermodynamics to remind us: All this will pass.


  1. Nice post. We'll Always Have Physics. Merry Christmas, Sabine.

    "the laws of nature don’t give a shit" Bee wins! We all win.

    Merry merry - light into all dark corners. Or not. Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius

  3. Maybe a cliche to quote it again, yet for whatever its worth here goes the words of Weinberg in its all entirety, -"But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."

  4. Dear Sabine,

    A wonderful essay!

    Best wishes,


  5. You captures so well what keeps me following. Frohliche Weinachten

  6. Hi Sabine,

    many thanks, what energy!

    best wishes.

    PS: Knon Anon, the "farce" can be studied. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the observer... or rather just on its back.

  7. Dear Hossie

    It is not good for your health to post articles at 0605 on Christmas morning. Like many others. I hope you keep well, stay happy, prosper and enjoy the good things of life. This is not just goodwill - it is a selfish desire to keep reading your wonderful posts!

  8. Those of us who have managed to penetrate a bit below the surface of things, are blessed indeed! But who ever could have conceived we would find God in .... algebra! Give me a break!

  9. Wild Bill,

    I see your point ;) Alas, the time stamp is Eastern Time, which means it was around noon CET. And I wrote the post last week. Having said that, it's my way of keeping sane during the holidays. Best,


  10. I completely agree.

    For me science, in particular theoretical physics and mathematics, has always been a spiritual (not religiously so) fix point for me, a place where I can, at least mentally, seek refuge, especially in times of hardship. The laws of physics, and certainly the theorems of mathematics, are eternal. Liberatingly, they do not depend upon or care about the ever changeable whims and fads of human beings and the associated far too often superficial 'cultures'.

    The following quote from Bertrand Russell on his thoughts on 'pure reason' seems appropiate: "Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world."

    PS: I always check your blog for new entries. I like reading your insightful posts, sprinkled with humor, and, not seldomly, I think, entertaining sarcasm. Happy new year!

  11. Maybe we are not a isolated system,maybe 2nd law is a observation not a fact.
    Science may find a solution.
    Merry Christmas 🎅

  12. When the insanity starts to infiltrate my psyche, I watch Carl Sagan's 'The Pale Blue Dot' again.....

  13. @driod33 Find the error, for the result is absurd.

    A hermetically isolated (adiabatic) hard vacuum envelope contains two closely spaced but not touching, in-register and parallel, electrically conductive plates having micro-spiked inner surfaces. They are connected with a wire, optionally containing an in-series dissipative load (small motor). One plate has a large vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., osmium at 5.93 eV). The other plate has a small vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., n-doped diamond "carbon nitride" at 0.1 eV). Above 0 kelvin, spontaneous cold cathode emission runs the closed isolated system. Emitted electrons continuously fall down the 5.8 volt potential gradient. Electron evaporation from carbon nitride cools that plate. Accelerated collision onto osmium warms that plate. Round and round. The plates never come into thermal equilibrium when electrically shorted. The motor runs forever.

    Fifty years of quantum gravitation sum to empirical nothing because the testable solution demands ugly equations (= "loudly invisible").
    "loudly invisible"

  14. Thanks Sabine. Nice post. Best wishes for 2017 and well beyond. ... Garyl

  15. Those musings are so true Sabine.

    On a phylosophical level, the most difficult part to handle for me is balancing this:

    When zooming out, we, and our planet, we're just an totally insignificant speck of dust with zero effect on the vastness of it all. But when zooming in, we can experience and do incredibly nice things.

    So for those out there who aspire greatness, or everyday normalness, I have the words of Maximus Decimus Meridius ,),):
    "What we do in life, echoes in eternity!".

    All the best for 2017


  16. Ditto for those of us digging deep into how living things work, using the tools of genetics, cell and developmental biology. The love affair with figuring out how the world works is one that hopefully will never grow stale.

  17. "Gauge the importance of human affairs by contemplating the enormous energies released in black hole mergers." Hihi, was this a statement from Sheldon in Big Bang Theory?

  18. Maurice, yes, sobering - and the estimated peak power was still 3 to 4 orders of magnitude less than the maximum allowed in General Relativity.....

  19. A truly beautiful contemplation
    I read all your posts in 2016 and intend to do so in 2017.
    Thank you.
    And all the best in the coming New Year!


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