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 […]

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 […]

11:59:59:59:59:59:59….

In the 1992 documentary A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking describes what we would see if we were observing an astronaut nearing a black hole’s event horizon—the barrier beyond which gravitation is so great that not even light can escape. He invites us to imagine that the astronaut is wearing a watch, and that […]

Debunking Hollywood: Falling!!!

Debunking Hollywood is LWON’s very occasional series that takes a hard science look at common TV and movie tropes.  Our hero is in dire trouble yet again. He stands on the rooftop, a villain in front of him, his feet inches from a seven-story fall. Sweat glistens on his brow as he fearlessly throws a punch but […]

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 […]

Hiding in Plain Out-of-Sight

If you haven’t seen the movie Interstellar, you might not recognize the image above. It’s the black hole that figures prominently in the climax. But even if you have seen the movie, chances are excellent you still don’t know what you’re looking at. I didn’t, anyway, at least the first few days I spent staring at […]

Conversation with Sharon & Geoff: Starship Fusion

Last week, Lockheed announced it had a small team working on what it calls a Compact Fusion Reactor.  Fusion is the opposite of fission that’s used in nuclear plants today; it can produce enormous amounts of energy; the fuel for  itis cheap and plentiful; a small fusion engine would solve the world’s energy problems. I […]