Of Cops and Shots

The room is plain and cloaked in shadow, save the single pool of light draped over a hardened criminal. Facing the her is a meaty lug of a detective with a ketchup-stained tie and hairy knuckles. “This doesn’t have to go bad for you, Jenny,” the larger man growls. “You work with us and I can […]

Charles Hard Townes Made Things Happen

Charles Hard Townes died a week ago, aged 99.  He was a physicist at Berkeley who came up with the principle of the laser; at age 98, he’d stopped coming into the office every day. His obituaries are thorough and their praise is justified.  I’d met him for reasons the obituaries don’t mention.  He helped […]

Ye Olde Scientific Writing

A few weeks ago, biologist Stephen Heard blogged about beauty in scientific writing. Among his examples, he cited an elegant explanation of quantum mechanics research and a playful description of a snake surveying a “disconsolate line” of frogs. More details can be found in Heard’s paper on the subject, which calls for scientists to strive […]

Picking Your Brains

Dear LWON readers, I’d like to ask you a question. Twice recently I’ve written about properties of black holes that blow my mind. In each instance, my inspiration was a detail from a movie. First was Interstellar. The great gravitational grip of the black hole in that movie, as is the case for all black holes, distorts […]

The Greatest Athlete in the World

On Wednesday, at 3:25 Pacific Standard Time, two scruffy, skinny men embraced atop Yosemite’s El Capitan. To the casual observer, just a couple dudes in a national park trying to get off the mountain before sunset. Yet, these men had accomplished something so amazing that the sitting US president would call and congratulate them. So difficult […]

Marvin Goldberger, Always Called “Murph”: Part 2

Part 1 is here. While Murph was still at Princeton, in his first years there, he was spending summers consulting, sometimes for defense contractors, sometimes for the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  (A lot of physicists did this: academic scientists’ salaries run for nine months; they needed summer money.)  Then a little later, during the post-Sputnik years, […]

Marvin Goldberger, Always Called “Murph”: Part I

The day before Thanksgiving, Murph Goldberger died.  He was old, he’d been born in 1922; and in those nine decades, he’d collected an extraordinary amount of life.  He was drafted right out of college into the Manhattan Project’s brilliant and very young Special Engineering Detachment, where he met his wife, Mildred; and ever after if […]

The Writings on the Wall

    You’d think a wall panel in the Galileo gallery in the Galileo wing of the Galileo Museum would be a good place to get an accurate context for Galileo’s historical significance. You’d be wrong: “These astronomical discoveries heralded a revolution destined to demolish an image of the universe that had lasted for two thousand […]