Posts Tagged ‘physics’

Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton

Friday, March 13th, 2009

This piece may appear to many readers (that is, I imagine it might if there were many readers) to be an exercise better suited for a medieval theologian, an effort which most people today would deem a waste of mental energy spent elaborating a dubious odd abstraction having no relationship to the real world. Nonetheless, I am going to report my observation of interesting parallels between the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as envisioned by the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso, and the picture modern physics presents of the fundamental nuclear particle called the proton. Structuralists may take some pleasure in seeing an unexpected example of the human mind’s convergence on certain images for representing conjectured interactions between entities which are not directly observable by means of our senses. Of course, the theoretical picture of the proton is based on objective experimental data and is in no sense arbitrary, though it may be incomplete; while theological consensus is that the Trinity can be known by revelation only.

First let us briefly review some important facts about protons. Protons are the electrically charged particles that, along with the electrically neutral particles of slightly higher mass, the neutrons, make up the nuclei of atoms, in which almost all of the atomic mass is concentrated. The number of protons in an atom’s nucleus determines how many electrons the atom has—the same number—and from this everything about the atom follows.

Given the laws of physics that govern the electrons in the atom, the mere number of protons in the nucleus determines the chemical properties of the atom of which it is a part. For example, the nucleus of the hydrogen atom consists of a single proton. Hydrogen thus has one electron; and, by virtue of that fact, two hydrogen atoms love to join with oxygen to make that extraordinary chemical compound that Life requires—water. Helium, on the other hand, has two protons in its nucleus and thus two electrons; it won’t combine with anything else. These are the two simplest elements, but their examples suffice to illustrate how definitive the number of protons in the nucleus is for establishing atomic properties.

Electrons can and do exist separately from nuclei and are freely exchanged among them. Protons do not spontaneously join together to form nuclei here on Earth. All atomic nuclei, except for that of hydrogen, which formed shortly after the Big Bang, and that of helium, much of which formed during a short time where conditions in the early universe resembled those in a star’s interior, have to be made in the furnace of the stars. Most of the matter of the universe (the normal matter, anyway, not the “dark” matter) is still in the form of the first-made element, hydrogen. The number of protons in the universe is estimated to be around 1079!

Born from the Big Bang, protons seem destined to last as long as the universe. All the other heavy particles (baryons), such as the neutron, are unstable and subject to decay into lighter particles. A free neutron (not bound in an atomic nucleus) will on the average last only around fifteen minutes before decaying into a proton, an electron, and an ultralight particle called the antineutrino.

Although theories have been put forth in which the proton would also decay, no one has ever observed proton decay, and not for want of carrying out experiments deep below the Earth’s surface that specifically look for such events. According to experiment, the lower limit on the average lifetime of the proton is around 1034 years! Considering that this is about 1024 times greater than the age of the universe, I’m comfortable calling protons as “eternal” as matter can be.

In summary, protons, which may be totally stable, make up most of the normal matter of the universe and by their mere number in the atomic nucleus determine the chemical properties of atomic elements. All of the complex chemical reactions that take place in the universe, though they involve most directly the electrons of the atoms, ultimately trace down to the number of protons in the nuclei of the atoms involved.

Now let us move from science to theology. One of the features of Christianity that sets it apart from the other major monotheistic religions—Islam and Judaism—is its peculiar notion of the Trinity, that somehow God, although one and indivisible, is also three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, traditionally). The idea of one God in three persons is different from that of multiple independent gods and goddesses in polytheistic religions, although Islam holds that Christianity is polytheistic because of the Trinity belief.

Now I want to consider Dante’s attempt to convey through poetry the mysterious concept of the Holy Trinity, which in his faith was a certainty. On reading the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso recently, I came across an image that immediately reminded me of something else I’d thought of before: the conceptual similarities between our scientific description of the proton and the Triune God; only now a particular detail of Dante’s description of what he had seen made the similarity appear stronger than I had realized before.

Near the end of his time in Heaven (Paradiso) Dante was finally empowered to behold God, his ability to comprehend mysteries directly by sight alone having been enabled by Divine grace. Here is the Singleton translation of lines 115-120 of Canto XXXIII of Paradiso.

“Within the profound and shining subsistence of the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors and one magnitude; and one seemed reflected by the other, as rainbow by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the one and the other.”

This is far from being a clear picture, and Dante had said beforehand that description—even distinct memory—of what he had  beheld was impossible. But I was struck this time by how much Dante’s word-painting resembles our own nebulous physical picture of the proton. The essentials of Dante’s vision were three equally sized circles (or spheres) of three colors and two distinguishable types, with some sort of continual interaction occurring among the circles. The image of the rainbows reflected in each other, with each circle yet of a different color, seems to my mind to be saying that the colors are changing, but in a co-ordinated way. I might add that Dante’s original description of God was as a point of blindingly bright white light.

Why does this vision of Dante’s make me think of the proton? Modern physics has discovered that the proton has within it three particles, whose existence a theoretical physicist had predicted and named quarks years before they were first experimentally observed. Two of the quarks in the proton are identical and are called “up” quarks. The other is a “down” quark. In this context, the terms up and down have no meaning except as a way of distinguishing the two types of quark. No directionality is implied by the names. Up and down are examples of what physicists call quark “flavor,” and of course there is nothing related to the sense of taste implied by the name flavor; it’s just a conventional way to designate this particular quantum number or characteristic.

Now, by probing the proton with high-energy particle collisions we can “see” that the quarks are inside the proton, but there is no way to observe an individual free quark, due to the peculiar nature of the force between quarks, which, contrary to the action of other known forces, actually gets stronger as the quarks are separated further from each other, making it impossible to pull or knock a single quark free from its mates. It is possible to break up a proton with a high-energy collision, but only by making new quark combinations, never in a way that makes a single quark visible.

Thus nature seems to present us with a stable and indivisible proton consisting of three quarks, two of which are identical, but no one of which can be seen apart from its union with the other two. What I hadn’t realized before re-reading Dante was that Catholic theology viewed the Holy Spirit as different in some way from the Father and the Son. The Son was “begotten” by the Father, whatever that might mean, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the two other Persons, whatever that means. Thus in Dante’s vision two of the “circles” seemed reflected by each other, these being identified by commentators as the Father and the Son of the Trinity. For me it seems natural to mentally map this pair to the two up quarks. Dante clearly sees the third circle as being distinguishable from the other two, and this third circle would correspond to the down quark in my whimsical analogy.

Can we go further? There is more to the quark picture of the proton than the quark flavors. The quarks all have another quantum characteristic which physicists, for want of a better term, have called “color,” though, of course, without any real connection to what we mean by color in the world we perceive directly. The proton as a whole is colorless, however, meaning that proton states must be made up of one “red” quark, one “blue” one, and one “green” one, which taken together make for a colorless proton. However, the colors are not fixed on any given quark. The quarks are continually exchanging particles called “gluons” between each other. These gluons carry color, so that each quark is changing color continually, but always in a way so that there is one red, one green, and one blue quark at any time. This color exchange is the source of the force that binds the quarks together. I invite the reader to judge the extent to which Dante’s description resembles the picture of quarks held together through color exchange.

Do the similarities between Dante’s poetic vision of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God and our modern, well-established theory of the tri-quark proton amount to more than a curious historical coincidence? Does this analogy go beyond the merely amusing to the deeply significant?

Of course not.

It can’t, can it?


How could it not?

But that’s crazy.

Isn’t it?

Frederick Copleston, S.J., in the second volume of his superb work, A History of Philosophy, says in summarizing a fundamental teaching of the preeminent medieval theologian-philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, that God “creates the world as a finite imitation of His divine essence.” One aspect of this is that we human beings with our power of reason and our ability to appreciate beauty and to discern good are created “in God’s image,” as Genesis says. But can this finite imitation of God’s essence also be be seen in the most fundamental parts of the physical universe?

As one who has come to recognize God’s existence, but who has not embraced Christianity fully, partly because of the difficulty in affirming belief in “revealed truths” such as God’s Three Persons, I can’t help wondering if the protons of the universe (all the multitude of protons!) are not so many messages in bottles thrown into the sea of the cosmos, just waiting to be read once their language had been mastered: “Yes, doubting Scientist, here is a coherent image of the Trinity. Ponder my depths and believe.”

The Second Most Important Event in My Life

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world. The first of these (second in importance) occurred when I was sixteen years old, some forty years before the other (which was, I now see, actually the long-delayed completion of the first). This event from my high school days was not connected with any notable historical event or outwardly impressive occurrence. It was personal and internal, purely intellectual and unaided by any drug; and it affected the future course of my life in manifold ways.

There have of course been key events involving people and personal relations in my life which have determined the unique details of it, including those most important ones—in regard to earthly happiness—of wife and offspring; but none of these events, even those that seem to have been ordained by benevolent providence, changed my basic understanding of the world in the way the two I’ve called most important did.

The dramatic (though secret at the time) change I am writing about today occurred early in the fall semester of my junior year when I was one of a group of students gathered around our physics teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. We were there to watch our teacher (then, I believe, in her second year at our school), a young woman, imposing by virtue of both her appearance and intellect, go through a physics demonstration.

That I was taking physics that year as a junior was pretty much an accident. I can’t recall if this was usual or not, but I clearly remember that my father had helped guide my decisions on which courses to take that year. He had recommended that I take physics. I think the idea was to get a hard course out of the way before the other hard courses that would be coming up my senior year. Whatever the reasoning, I had written physics in, and no one had suggested I switch, though somehow everyone else seemed to know that the standard path was to take chemistry in the junior year followed by physics the next. I remember being surprised to discover on the first day of school that all the other students in the class were seniors with whom I had never taken a class before.

Anyway, once I had signed up for physics, I remember expressing my dread of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like natural science; I was very interested in biology, mainly from my fascination with the diversity of life. I was also interested in the stars, solar system, and planets. But I just didn’t like the sound of physics, about which I had somewhere obtained the vague notion that it dealt with how machines worked. Machines were neither alive nor celestial, and I think I held their being man-made and functional against them. From all I can remember, I seem to have had no idea that physics was a quantitative, as opposed to a merely descriptive, science; and I don’t think that concept even existed in my mind.

I recall a fellow student trying to sell physics to me as a great way of increasing my understanding of how automobiles worked. However, I really had no interest in the actual workings of any machines, including those most highly esteemed ones around which social life and status in our high school revolved. I had had to learn a certain amount about how cars worked, or at least the terminology used in discussing modifications for speed, just to avoid being seen as irredeemably ignorant in the most important area of knowledge (at least of those unrelated to sexual matters) in the male adolescent culture of my group. But when that fellow student tried to convince me that physics would be valuable because of the insight it would give me into the internal combustion engine, it only made my heart sink lower at the thought of having to endure a year of such boring stuff. Even accounting might have been more attractive.

Before I go on, let me briefly sketch what kind of place I was in emotionally, academically, and socially. The central fact of my life and that of my family was that my father was an alcoholic on the way down. That affected our family in numerous negative ways that anyone can easily imagine. For my mother, my sister near me in age, and me, it meant a good deal of anger, embarrassment, shame, stress, fear, worry, and resentment; which is not to say that we never shared good times with my father (for example the choosing of courses I mentioned), just that we could not depend on him for anything; and the bad times were frequent.

A few years earlier I had fallen in with a group of boys, among the leaders of which were a couple (one of whom I considered a good friend) that had an antisocial streak, which I didn’t share but which I was too weak to reproach or reject. It was a good feeling to have a group to “run around with,” and I enjoyed a greater status being with these kids than I had felt before, having come to this town in the seventh grade and found myself lacking the friends or standing I might have acquired in elementary school.

As a result of some thrill-seeking (for them, not me) illegal acts with my companions, I had gotten into a little trouble with the law also (hinted at in Times I Might Have Died). My milieu was basically a semi-delinquent one that overlapped with that of kids that had already dropped out of school and who carried switchblades. My companions liked to go looking for fights (which I hoped we wouldn’t find) and drive fast. We all smoked cigarettes, and we regularly found ways to purchase beer illegally, so that I may have been placing myself in danger of following my father down the path to alcoholism.

The year before I had skipped school many days. For example, in those days when World Series games were played during the daytime, I hadn’t missed watching a single one on television though the series went to seven games. My fellow baseball-watching friends and I got caught for that and made a short gesture toward running away from home to avoid facing the consequences. To my shame, I reflect that none of the others finished school, lacking the academic capital to fall back on that I had.

I was in no danger of flunking out of school, but my grades were not great, certainly not what they should have been; and I had been something of a class comic going back to the second grade, partly as a way to gain respect as one willing to go against authority, risk punishment, and take it like a man when it came in the form of getting “busted,” as we called paddling. I had decided it was time to get serious about school and had definitely ruled out getting involved in any illegal activity (with the exception of alcohol possession), but I was still without any real purpose or idea about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had no girl friend and had trouble envisioning that situation changing. To say I was not a happy lad, would be an understatement.

As I try now to remember back fifty years, I wish I could see my old physics text to see what subjects came first in it, so I could tell if we had gone through other topics before coming to the way the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth; for that was the subject of the demonstration on this momentous day. It may have been the very first thing we dealt with in that class, though I have a feeling it was not. I can’t remember if this was the first classroom demonstration.

Physics demonstrations can be quite dramatic, and there are high school teachers and college professors who go to a lot of effort to make entertaining shows for students out of them. These demonstrations can have a certain magic show quality, as things can occur that go against the students’ expectations, sometimes accompanied by impressive sounds and visual displays.

The physics demonstration I was to witness that day was not of that dramatic type. It might even be the most boring of all physics demonstrations, as it is merely a series of measurements, with no motion or visible phenomena occurring, except for the adjustment of the measuring device to the different conditions. Nothing visibly exciting happens in the statics of fluids.

How I wish I could remember in detail the actual steps my teacher went through in the demonstration! But those are lost forever. I can only remember what the demonstration was about, but not what the apparatus looked like in detail. The demonstration was designed to show how the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth below its surface. The specific details are not really important in the context of the story. The apparatus must have consisted of a manometer for measuring pressure differentials, a flexible tube to connect one side of the manometer to a means of probing the pressure under water, and a vessel containing water.

Here is a plausible guess at the steps I must have witnessed my teacher carrying out. The teacher lowered the probe into the water, and we saw the fluid in the manometer adjust to the new pressure it was experiencing on the side connected to the probe. The fluid level in the manometer column on the probe side went down, and that on the other side went up. My teacher recorded the difference in the two levels, which is a measure of the pressure in the water, and also recorded the depth in the water at which it had been observed.

She moved the probe lower into the water tank, and we saw the manometer fluid levels respond once more, this time with a greater difference between them. My teacher recorded the new pressure and depth and went on to repeat the procedure at several more depths in the water. Then she made a graph of the measured pressure versus the depth, to show that the points traced out a straight line. She thus showed us that the measured pressure p followed a simple formula: p = constant • h, where h is the depth. It was the same linear relationship that we had in our books.

Alternatively (and, as I’ve said, I don’t remember), she may have started with the equation we had in the textbook and for each depth calculated a predicted pressure measurement, which she would then compare to the actual measurement to show that it was very nearly the same.

Whatever procedure she followed, she certainly had my full attention and could not have made a more successful demonstration from my perspective. Thank you, Virginia Rawlins, dear first physics teacher!

What had I seen? Changing the depth of the probe had caused the manometer fluid levels to change, and to change in a very precise way. The measured values of the real-world quantities of pressure and depth were related through a simple algebraic equation in the abstract world of mathematics. As I pondered what was being demonstrated to me, my mind’s eye must have looked back and forth from the physical to the mathematical. From the real to the abstract back to the real. From the predicted to the measured back to the predicted. What is going on? There is new and important information here, but I can’t tell what it means.

I suppose only a few milliseconds elapsed between the powerful seismic disturbance, which must have occurred deep beneath the surface of my consciousness, and the resulting tsunami of revelation that slammed into my conscious mind and swept away its previous view of the world, now revealed to have been pathetically inadequate.

I remember that I walked back to my desk totally stunned by that first look into the deep mathematical order of the physical world. I knew I was in my physics class, but everything and everyone around me seemed distant, muted, and temporarily irrelevant, as my mind worked on reconstructing its view of reality.

Here was a mystery deeper than any I could have imagined; and a power greater—the ability to know what a physical measurement was going to be before it had been made! The physical measurements I had seen carried out in the real world with real physical objects and fluids had been written down and the corresponding numbers shown to fit almost perfectly with a particular relationship that existed only in an abstract world having no connection with the physical one I lived in. Or so I had thought until that moment. This unexpected, undreamt of connection between those two independent worlds—one the physical world as I haphazardly experienced it, the other a precise realm that existed only on paper and in people’s heads—was the most astounding fact I had ever encountered.

The world was describable by mathematics! I had to know all about it! I had to learn all the physics there was. At first I assumed everything to be known had already been discovered; that it was just a matter of learning it. While it was a disappointment to find out that not everything was known, it also meant there was still an opportunity to help finish the job. As soon as I heard about relativity and quantum physics I wanted to know why we weren’t learning them, not realizing that would require math and physics far beyond what I knew.

Later that year, when my mother and I visited the physics classroom during the school open house night, my teacher said to me “Bobby, we’ve got to get you a scholarship,” and to my mother “He’s the most brilliant junior student I’ve ever had.” Now, for all I know my teacher had never had a single junior physics student before, but it filled me with joy to hear her words, as I had had no idea she thought so highly of my abilities. Now I knew for sure what my next step in life was going to be. I was going to major in physics in college and go as far as I could with it. Thank you again, Mrs. Rawlins!

This personal discovery of my passion in life and my teacher’s encouragement gave me a new focus and goal. I decided I needed to make all A’s from then on and almost did. With the help of (in retrospect, almost laughably small) student loans and family support, I found a way to pay for college, which was pretty cheap at the University of Texas back in those days, and successfully got physics and math degrees there. I fulfilled a dream by going on to get my PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. I imagine I will write more about my experiences both as a physics student and a physicist later. There are a couple of posts already here about my time in Berkeley.

Looking back at how adrift I was at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I can say that my discovery of physics may have saved me. I never said anything about my experience to my teacher or anyone else back then that I recall. It was personal, possibly a little crazy-sounding, and ultimately incommunicable. A number of questions have arisen in my mind during the course of my writing about that life-changing experience of long ago. Why me? Why then? Why with such suddenness? Maybe I’ll return to them at a later date.

From my current outlook on the world, I believe that what was so stunning about the universe’s being describable by mathematical laws was that it hinted at the Divine Intelligence behind that mysterious order. I did not make that connection at the time, however, and instead came to adopt the viewpoint that the perfection of physical laws governing the universe (as I would have put it) only showed the superfluousness of the God concept. Now I view my recognition of the beautiful mystery and power of physics as a gift from God which launched me on a trajectory that led eventually to my recognition of God’s existence some forty years later.

“How Are You This Evening, Professor?” Asked the Roulette Croupier

Monday, March 10th, 2008

When I was a graduate student doing research in experimental particle physics at the University of California in Berkeley in the 1968-74 period, I shared an office with another graduate student up on “the Hill” in Building 50B of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Jerry, a sociable young researcher whose office was across the hall, was frequently at the center of conversations right outside my door. Jerry had a pretty loud voice, so I heard a lot about what he and his friends were up to. The talk might be about rock concerts or other recreational activities as well as physics shop talk. Sometimes people would go skiing, sometimes people would take a trip to the casinos in Reno, which wasn’t that far away.

At some point, Jerry and a few other junior physicists and grad students decided to apply their physics knowhow to the problem of beating the roulette tables at Reno. From my memory of Jerry’s hallway accounts, augmented a little by answers to questions I asked someone (Jerry, probably) at the time, I can sketch the outlines of how the project went.

As far as I know, they came up with their scheme independently from any previous attempts. Their idea was a sort of Gordian-knot-cutting approach that didn’t require a detailed analysis of the roulette ball’s motion. No equations of motion required!

YouTube has a collection of roulette wheel videos (mostly advertising ways to make money playing roulette!) for those of you as unfamiliar with how a roulette wheel works as I was until a few days ago or who would like to refresh your memory. The basics are the following. The croupier launches the roulette ball so that it races around a circular track that encompasses the rest of the roulette apparatus. The track is banked, and the ball is traveling along a section of the inside of a cone, but due to the ball’s high initial velocity, it hugs the wall and doesn’t start to roll downhill toward the center of the apparatus until it has slowed down substantially.

Frictional forces slow the ball down; at some point gravity has its way, and the ball rolls downhill, eventually coming to rest in one of the numbered compartments of the inner wheel. To make things more interesting the inner wheel rotates in the direction opposite to the way the ball travels around the outer circle.

I never knew the full details of their scheme, but I know that the basic premise of their method was that an essential parameter of the roulette ball’s motion followed an exponential decay law. The method depended crucially on the fact that roulette bets can still be placed for some time after the ball has been launched, which gave them a short time in which to make measurements and calculations and then place their bets based on the results.

Exponential decay of a certain variable occurs when the rate at which the variable decreases in time (decays) is proportional to the current value of the variable. The constant of proportionality is called the decay constant. For any fixed time interval (say half a second), no matter when the timer starts, the value of the decaying parameter will always be found at the end of the interval to have decreased by the very same percentage from what it was when the interval began.

The speed of the ball around the outer perimeter in the first part of the spin must have been the parameter they were focussed on, since it’s the only variable you could realistically hope to obtain in real time. What’s more, ball speed would be the crucial variable to know. If you know the value of an exponentially decaying variable (ball speed in this case) at any time, then the decay constant tells you what its value will be at any later time.

Exponential decay of the speed would imply that the the frictional force slowing the ball down was proportional to the speed. This wouldn’t have to be strictly true, just a sufficiently good approximation. Any detailed analysis of the ball’s motion would clearly be impossible in real time. Exponential decay would just be a hypothesis to test, and evidently, in the experience of Jerry and his friends, it was good enough to make money on.

They had no device for measuring speed directly. The requirement would be to time the position of the ball at three points and with sufficient accuracy to determine the decay constant. I assume a hidden programmable calculator would be used for all the calculations, since they would have had to use the measurements to solve for both the speed at some particular time and the decay constant. How they would have input this data into the calculator, I don’t know. I wish I had actually seen them in action, as it must have been fascinating. They would only have needed to determine the decay constant once for a given roulette wheel and ball combination. Then only two measurements would have been required during a spin to determine the speed at a known time.

I’m guessing that they would have used their speed formula to determine the point on the wheel at which the ball would lose contact with the outer rim and begin its descent, which would occur when the component of the gravitational force parallel to the cone’s surface became greater than the component of centrifugal force acting in the opposite direction. Yes, I know centrifugal force is not a “real” force; but, mathematically, it’s a convenient fiction for calculating when the gravitational force starts to make the path of the ball deviate more from the straight line it would follow (in the absence of wall or gravity) than it would deviate if the centripetal force exerted by the wall on the ball were acting alone.

To calculate this point would require knowledge of the angle that defines the interior conical surface on which the ball is moving, but that would either be standard or something they could calibrate from observing a few roulette spins, always assuming the method was reasonably sound. Once the descent has started, the motion is probably similar from one roulette spin to the next, even allowing for the possibility of hitting a deflector on the way down. Those occasional deflections aren’t going to make or break the method as a potential money-maker.

The roulette-beating team would have had to take into account the motion of the inner wheel as well, but that would be simply a matter of keeping track of a constant rotation. With all that knowledge they should have had an excellent chance at correctly identifying the sector (though not the exact number) the ball should end up in. They would have bet on some contiguous range of numbers, for I can’t imagine the method could have done better than that. Individual bets would not pay at long odds, but they could consistently win if they could predict the sector the ball would end up in.

After the team had advanced their technique sufficiently, they rented a roulette wheel for testing their method under realistic conditions. The method perfected, they set off for a dry run in Reno. The results of that expedition convinced them they could be making money at it even under the pressure of a casino environment. Perhaps they won a little money playing for low stakes.

I assume that on their next trip to Reno they were ready to make some real money, perhaps even to win an enormous jackpot, but I don’t know that for a fact. Inside the casino, it was soon apparent that things were not going to go well. Jerry was greeted with “How are you this evening, Professor?” Now even though this was not 100% correct about Jerry’s job title, it was enough to indicate some serious intelligence work on the subject of who he was, and it conveyed very adequately the desired message of “We know who you are and what you’re up to.”

Whether Jerry and his friends decided to leave on their own then or were escorted out, I can’t say. I do know that they were joined in the parking lot by some professional intimidators, who made it clear they had better not come back. So ended the story of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab roulette scheme, or at least the last I heard of it.

Jerry, if you should by some amazing accident stumble upon this article, I ask you to write up your experience, as I’m sure it would be very entertaining. Send it to me by email, and I will post it (without revealing your full name if you prefer) if you can’t think of a better outlet. Of course, Jerry may be the one with the magnificent Tuscan villa I imagined for Bob in my previous post, in which case he will not want to give away any trade secrets.

Also, if anyone makes a fortune from the secrets revealed in this post, please don’t forget to come back and make a donation. Just remember I don’t condone breaking any laws, and I believe there are now laws about using any sort of computer in a gambling casino, at least in the most up-to-date jurisdictions.

Finally, let me propose that the Department of Homeland Security could benefit from hiring a few people that work in casino security. They know how to identify suspicious characters and follow their moves to see what they are up to. And they don’t waste time with random searches.

Why Gamble? Hire a Physicist.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

I landed my first and only free-lance physics job right around the time I turned in my PhD thesis with all the required signatures to the UC Berkeley graduate office in 1974. It was at a time when I was without an income or a place to live. No, I wasn’t on the street. I had plenty of people I could crash with, and my mother was sending me a little money, but it wasn’t an ideal situation, to say the least. As part of a cost-cutting move, I and at least one other grad student, who like me must have seemed destined to maintain his Research Assistant status at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab indefinitely, had been given a cutoff date for support by the particle physics research group we belonged to. Fortunately, I had been able to use the Lab’s computer facilities and my office there to finish writing my thesis during the summer, albeit without being paid. I’m afraid the other student I spoke of never did finish. I hope things turned out all right for him.

Anyway, I needed to make some money while I figured out what my next step would be. I had personal reasons for staying in the Bay Area, and having given my physics research a much lower priority than political activity (remember, this was Berkeley) for so long, I don’t think it even occurred to me to ask my thesis advisor Ron Ross to help me get a postdoc somewhere, which would have been the normal course for a new PhD to follow. Ron and I weren’t on bad terms exactly, but he hadn’t understood my participation in student strikes and so on, and we hadn’t interacted all that much for quite a while. To be honest, I hadn’t really expected to finish my degree. I was definitely not on the normal career path. I should add that when a physics professor called Ron about hiring me several months later, he gave me a strong recommendation, for which I am grateful.

Now the University maintained a bulletin board in some campus office where jobs available to Cal students were posted. I found out about this and went to check it out. One unusual posting intrigued me and seemed to have my name on it. Someone was looking for a physics grad student that had completed the graduate classical mechanics course. I believe the posting was even more specific about needing to be able to derive equations of motion using the Lagrangian formulation of mechanics. Though it had been years since I’d taken the course, this sounded right up my alley: a textbook problem, though I assumed it must be a pretty hard one.

The office put me in touch with my prospective employer, who turned out to be a former UC Berkeley math teacher, one currently engaged in a court battle with the University over some unfair practice, so he claimed, related to his being no longer a teacher there. I don’t remember the details, but it sounded pretty hopeless. The guy, whom I’ll call Bob, wanted to make sure I could handle the problem first, and then that I would agree to work on it without knowing its purpose, which was to remain secret. He said the work was related to some device he and others were planning to make. He also assured me that it was not weapons-related.

After he had determined I might be capable of succeeding at the task, he brought in one of his partners (there turned out to be several) in the secret venture to help negotiate my pay rate. This was not easy for me since I had been making a low Research Assistant salary for several years and had no idea what hourly rate I should get as a new Physics PhD (or near-PhD, whichever it was). We agreed on something, which was definitely an improvement over nothing, but which was unfortunately, as it turned out, an hourly rate instead of a flat price for the whole job. Afterwards the partner, call him Ben, felt obliged to tell me he thought I had sold them my services at too low a price.

The problem to be solved was that of a sphere rolling down the inside of a cone. It must be a funny kind of a device they wanted to build. Some kind of guidance system? Bob explained that all they needed were the equations of motion because they had other team members who were computer programming experts that would be able to solve the problem numerically.

Bob had tried to find the equations of motion in numerous physics books, without success. Something he had seen in a paper or a textbook by some Russian physics professor had led him to believe that, if he could only reach that particular Russian, his quest would be over. Bob had been trying to track the professor down, making long-distance calls to the Soviet Union for several days. I believe there was a language problem. In the meantime he was turning to me to get the project past this crucial step.

It wasn’t a very hard problem, and I found the equations all too quickly from the standpoint of income. Bob, however, was a very generous fellow, and I benefitted from his generosity beyond the money I earned for solving his problem. For example, when Bob heard I didn’t have a regular place to stay he told me I could come by his house any time. The window by the front door was always unlocked, so I could just climb in if no one was home. I slept on his living room floor two or three nights, though it was not a very restful place. Bob actually found the equations in a text book not long after I had obtained them, so it was just as well he hadn’t spent too much on it.

It was not the best time in Bob’s life. In addition to losing his job, he had split up with his wife (though his teenage son was living with him), and the bank was foreclosing on his house. Eviction was imminent. He was approaching that problem from a legal angle as well, working on a presentation to US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to halt the eviction, arguing that the bank had not sent the final notice to his actual address. Not only that, they had knowingly sent it to the wrong address, and this was a widespread practice by California banks, thus making the issue one that the Supreme Court should take up.

Bob had obtained all the proper legal forms for petitioning the Supreme Court, but still had to type his argument and the requisite names in them. I helped him with that. This was in the days of the typewriter, before computer word processing. I believe he needed a lot of whiteout. Whether Bob’s drinking was a cause of or a result of his current troubles, he was definitely drinking too much at this time, and I had a very hard time waking him up so he could get the Supreme Court package sent out in time. But the package was sent and received, and a court clerk affirmed by telephone that Justice Douglas had taken it home with him to read overnight. Even I felt some satisfaction in knowing that, though I had no hope for a Supreme Court intervention. There was something admirable about Bob’s never-say-die spirit.

The rest of Bob’s team also seemed to have seen better days. At least one other, a large, morose programmer, had a drinking problem. The group also included two rather attractive women of the same name, but of different stature, one being referred to as “tall Gwen” and the other as “small Gwen.” I think small Gwen may have once been married to Ben.

Bob once took me, his son, Ben, and one of the Gwens out to eat in a nice restaurant but got his credit card rejected, which I mention just to show what dire straits he was in. He managed to come up with some alternative payment method, which I don’t recall now. Much worse than the credit card refusal, which could happen to anyone really, was the night an angry artist came with a burly friend to retrieve his paintings from off Bob’s wall. I was asleep on the living room floor when the two of them burst in, one of them saying “Rip off an artist, will you?” as he knocked Bob down. It was over pretty fast. I lay low. Later Ben asked why Bob hadn’t waked him up, for he would have come downstairs with his 38. I relate these details just to give you a picture of the kind of life these guys were leading. It would take Dickens to really do them justice.

Anyway, everyone in on the project’s secret seemed to be counting heavily on it to turn their fortunes around. They had a code name for the project: The Number. They spoke of The Number a lot, sometimes in ways that indicated they viewed time as before The Number and after The Number. What could this mysterious project be?

The name provided a clue, and you probably have guessed it by now. Although I have to say I never had it verified by one of them, and I never even mentioned that I thought I might know the secret, what else could it have been but a project to beat the roulette wheel at a casino?

I’m afraid they hadn’t thought it through sufficiently, for I can’t see how they would have made practical use of any kind of solution they came up with, never mind that a sphere rolling in a cone hardly seems an adequate model. I wasn’t going to be the one to break the news, and they never asked me what I thought. My job was done, and I moved on.

I imagine they eventually gave up, but for all I really know Bob may now be living in a magnificent Tuscan palazzo, sending out a new money-gathering party to Monte Carlo whenever the wine cellar needs replenishing. Or maybe I was just wrong about what The Number was. What do you think?

I actually know of some physicists that found a way to beat the roulette wheel, but they ran into other problems. I’ll tell that story in my next post.