Month: July 2016

Electron uncertainty

daisyMost of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Michael Faraday’s ability to ‘accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [see my post entitled ‘Steadiness and placidity’ on July 18th, 2016] was exceptional and perhaps is one reason he was able to make such outstanding contributions to science and engineering.  It has been said that his ‘Expts. on the production of Electricity from Magnetism, etc. etc.’ [Note 148 from Faraday’s notebooks] on August 29th 1831  began the age of electricity.  Electricity is associated with the flow of electric charge, which is often equated with the flow of electrons and electrons are subatomic particles with a negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 atomic mass units.  A moving electron, and it is difficult to find a stationary one, has wave-particle duality – that is, it simultaneously has the characteristics of a particle and a wave.  So, there is uncertainty about the nature of an electron and most of us find this concept difficult to handle.

An electron is both matter and energy.  It is a particle in its materialisation as matter but a wave in its incarnation as energy.  However, this is probably too much of a reductionist description of a systemic phenomenon.  Nevertheless let’s stay with it for a moment, because it might help elucidate why the method of measurement employed in experiments with electrons influences whether our measurements reflect the behaviour of a particle or a wave.  Perhaps when we design our experiments from an energy perspective then electrons oblige by behaving as waves of energy and when we design from a matter perspective then electrons materialise as particles.

All of this leads to a pair of questions about what is matter and what is energy?  But, these are enormous questions, and even the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said ‘in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is’, so I’m going to leave them unanswered.  I’ve probably already riled enough physicists with my simplistic discussion.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.

Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature [the epilogue], Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

The very nature of art is affirmative

zennor headWP_20160714_009I have been away on vacation, disconnected from all sources of electronic communication and trying  not to think about engineering.  Hence, I don’t have much to write about except to enthuse about magnificent coastal walks in Devon and Cornwall that provided opportunities to achieve the kind of mental detachment described in last week’s post.  In St Ives, the beauty and tranquillity of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden impressed us so much that we went back for a second visit.  The title of this post is taken from a 1970 quote from Barbara Hepworth that was reproduced on the museum wall and reflects my reaction to her sculptures in their garden setting:  ‘I think the very nature of art is affirmative, and in being so it reflects the laws and evolution of the universe’.


Steadiness and placidity

Picture5Writing a weekly blog must be a little like being a newspaper columnist except that I am not part of team of writers and so there is no one to stand in for me when I go away.  Instead I have to get a few weeks ahead before I go away. So I will be on vacation when you read this post and I hope that I will have achieved a certain level of ‘steadiness and placidity’ to quote Michael Faraday.  Faraday used to escape to Hastings, on the south coast of England, for breaks away from the hustle and bustle of London.  He would take walks [see my post on August 26th, 2015 entitled ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘] and spend time on the seashore [see my post on May 4th, 2016 entitled ‘Horizon Therapy‘] to achieve ‘a kind of mental detachment, an ability to separate himself from things as they are and accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [from his biography by James Hamilton], which he described as ‘steadiness and placidity’.


Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.


Escape from eternal punishment

145-4502_IMGIn her introduction to the ‘World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson says the ‘punishment of the Gods turns out to be a 24/7 always-on meaningless managerial job, where no matter how many emails you answer, your inbox will be full again the next day’. As a professor, I am fortunate not to have the meaningless job part of this punishment but I do sometimes feel that my inbox fills up no matter how many emails I answer.  Actually, I suspect that the filling rate is related to my answering rate but it appears to be a complex feedback relationship.

Many of us compound the punishment by shackling ourselves to the inbox via our smartphones. You may not see it as a punishment to be constantly in touch with everyone but it is probably a handicap. We have a limited bandwidth to handle information and people tend to over-communicate and lack understanding. We need to reduce the level of communication and increase the level of understanding.

I am breaking the relentless cycle of communication by taking a holiday for a couple of weeks.  There will be some horizon therapy [see my post entitled ‘Horizon Therapy‘ on May 4th, 2016] and mind-wandering [see post entitled ‘Mind wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014]  as well as doing pretty much nothing.


Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife with an introduction by Jeanette Winterson, London: Picador Classic, 2015.