My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 05 Apr, 2005

Spinning the wheel

After spinning my wheels trying to review just about everything I have learned in mechanics up to this point, I finally went ahead and learned something new tonight. It was the next bit in my "Made Easy" textbook, namely angular velocity and torque force. It was illustrated by pictures of a wheel of fortune, a bucket crank over a well, and a seesaw. The sample problems were about things like levers, planks with weight on them, and a steering wheel. Even I, in my otherworldly virtual environment, could conceive of such simple ordinary things. I wandered through my quarters looking for a wheel I could spin to demonstrate torque for myself, but all I came up with were the small, very grubby wheels of a metal hand truck which I decided not to bother with. I get the picture.

The physics of applying force to a rotating thing is new for me, so I am finally breaking out of the orbit I have been stuck in for the last few weeks. I felt that I would never get anywhere. I often feel that way. Each time I try to review, I feel as though I've not studied it enough, I don't have the facility that would allow me to just snap through it as if it were a familiar skill. That goes for acceleration, vectors, weight and gravity, all the classical mechanical things I've been studying for the last few months. I have to artificially impose Newton's third law on my thinking. It is, at least for me, counter-intuitive to think of forces being balanced and equal whether something is floating or sitting on something solid. I have to remember that steady motion is as much an equilibrium as "at rest." In a way I am still an ancient Greek who believes that things seek their own "designated place" in a hierarchical Universe of earth, air, fire, and water.

I have also been both exhilarated and depressed by a book that I am currently reading. The book is NOBEL DREAMS by Gary Taubes, from 1986, real cheap at It's the breathlessly written story of how the great particle accelerators and detectors of the 1980's were built, and the men who built and manned them and wrung discoveries out of them. Towering over it all is the grandiose, heroic (and morally ambiguous) figure of Nobel Prize winner Carlo Rubbia who bullied, politicked, bluffed, and clawed his way to the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1984. This is a person I would not want to meet in a dark accelerator hallway. Not that I ever would, mind you. The world of high-energy physicists described by author Taubes is about as accessible to ordinary folk like me as the clergy of the Vatican (and the upcoming papal conclave) or perhaps, in another culture, the Freemasons. It is a relentlessly masculine world in which physics is warfare. Or at least NFL football. Here are men who are willing to consume their whole lives for their quest, working around the clock to track exotic particles while their patient wives wait at home. When they are not doing physics in the lab, they are bashing about all night in bars and strip joints, always talking physics. Not a very welcoming atmosphere for women physicists, that's for sure. There are just one or two in the book, and the author doesn't portray them with the loving attention to character he spends on the big men.

And then there are the great accelerators. This is where I first saw the luminosity, 14 years after that book was written, when I visited the Tevatron at Fermilab in 2000. I was lucky enough to have one of the insiders take me into the accelerator hallways (the machine was then inactive, while it was being upgraded). From what my guide told me, and what this older book tells me, the atmosphere and competition between the big accelerators and their canon clergy has not changed. CERN in Europe is betting on its immense Large Hadron Collider, now under construction, while Fermilab claims that its belltower is still the highest (as competing towns in Italy are fond of doing).

They are tracking the cuttingest edge of physics, while I am toiling over what they learned so effortlessly in their childhood. I turn the wheel again and again. But then, what are those accelerator rings but a kind of wheel? They don't turn, of course, but the particles inside them ride the rings, whipped into frenetic speed by the roaring klystrons (is torque applicable here?), circling and circling until they are aimed at each other and collided. The accelerators are great Catherine wheels, spewing particle fireworks into their detectors for the acolytes to record and study. I still hope that someday, somehow, I'll be able to catch some of that light.

Posted at 3:42 am | link

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