Understanding the Periodic Table

Understanding the Periodic Table cover Understanding the Periodic Table
Ron B. Davis Jr., PhD
Georgetown University
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.

I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.

I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.

Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.

The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.

If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.


Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas

Origin coverOrigin: A Genetic History of the Americas
by Jennifer Raff
Twelve (February 8, 2022), 369 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $14.99

In Origin Jennifer Raff sets out to dispel some of the misconceptions about the origins of humans in the Americas and to describe some of the results of the most recent genetic research on the subject.

A central component of the study of humans in the Americas is the Clovis people, named for the town in New Mexico near which their arrowheads were found. They were believed to be in the Americas around eleven thousand years ago. Some old-school archaeologists and anthropologists insist that these were the earliest peoples in the Americas and that sites believed to be earlier are not to be trusted. Raff disagrees, and her irritation with this approach shows. She tells us that humans were in the Americas fourteen to fifteen thousand years ago by the most conservative estimates, and perhaps as much as thirty thousand years ago, depending on the evidence you accept.

Raff is a geneticist and her work along with that of her colleagues takes a much more nuanced view than that of some traditional archaeologists. Their work shows at least four distinct genetic groups who migrated to the Americas at different times.

The author also uses the latest research to debunk other preconceived notions. Disputing the long-held belief that there was a Bering land bridge over which people migrated from Siberia to the Americas, she shows how more recent research suggests that there was a land mass called Beringia in the region where people lived, hunted, fished, and had families for many centuries. It was only later that they moved on to the Americas. She makes the case that some could have made the trip by sea rather than by land.

Although a geneticist, Raff has the utmost respect for her archaeologist colleagues and spends a lot of time discussing the archaeological evidence. She visits one archaeological site, a cave in South America, to see the first-hand the work her colleagues were doing. She understands the criticality of preserving the integrity of such sites. She writes:

quoteTake nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time. (And vandals, some of my father’s friends added, darkly—the gallows humor of long-suffering veterans of cave conservation.)

She discusses her work at a site in Alaska as a consulting geneticist, removing genetic material for study from ancient people whose remains were being moved to safer ground in advance of rising sea levels.

Raff describes in detail the methodology she and her colleagues use to extract ancient genetic material in order to prevent contamination. There are several layers and levels of safety and decontamination she must go through before starting work on a sample. It made me think of the decontamination scene in the movie version of The Andromeda Strain. Such precautions are well-justified, however. Another book I read describes how the first scientist who attempted to sequence a Neanderthal genome ended up with results that were mostly his own genes.

The author is adamant on one issue: respecting the wishes of Indigenous people. She firmly believes that scientists should not study the genes of the remains of Indigenous people without the consent of present-day descendants. While she describes incidents of cooperation between scientists and Native Americans, she also pointedly recounts those times when science did not respect the wishes of the people and engendered their mistrust.

If you are interested in the latest work on human migration to the Americas, Origin is a great place to start.


The Big Bang and Beyond

The Big Bang and Beyond coverThe Big Bang and Beyond: Exploring the Early Universe
Gary Felder, PhD
Smith College
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The experience of watching this course was rather odd. First, it was taped when the COVID protocols at the Great Courses had the instructors sitting instead of standing, and always looking at one camera rather than turning from one camera to the other. Second, instructor Gary Felder has a rather odd demeanor. His quiet, measured tone projects the more of an image of Buddhist meditation instructor than a cosmologist.

But a cosmologist he is, and there is a lot of good material here. Felder goes through the basics of the big bang theory, describing the various phases of the process. The formation of the first stars, and after that the planets, solar systems, and galaxies, did not occur right away. That happened sometime between thirty million and two hundred million years after the big bang. And Felder tells us the big bang was not an explosion but simply the moment the universe started expanding. Cosmologists call this moment Planck Density, “the earliest moment we can describe with our currently known laws of physics.”

Felder explains the original theory of the big bang was pretty much accepted once Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Before that a few cosmologists, most notably Fred Hoyle, believed the universe was a fixed, stable entity, what Hoyle and colleagues called the steady state theory. But although most scientists believed the CMB was sufficient proof of the big bang, there were several phenomena that the theory failed to account for. This is where the theory of inflation arose. Inflation posits that distances in the universe increased by a huge amount, perhaps 101,000,000 (that’s ten to the one million) in a fraction of a second. This explains many of the inconsistencies found in the original theory. I won’t go into them here, but Felder describes them in detail.

There are some theories that say just because the big bang happened as it did in our observable universe, it did not necessarily happen that way in the whole universe. There might be multiverses these theories say. That’s where cosmologists draw from quantum mechanics.

An open question is whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and collapse back into itself. That depends on the critical density of the universe. It turns out that the universe is so close to that critical density that we don’t know. At least that was the case until the discovery of dark energy. With dark energy in place the universe will expand forever. Unless dark energy decays. Then maybe it won’t.

Confusing, yes. But Gary Felder helps make all of this clear in his twelve lecture series.


Synchronicity

Synchronicity coverSynchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect
Paul Halpern
Basic Books (August 18, 2020), 247 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $26.99

This book was not what I expected.

I have been interested in the phenomenon of synchronicity since the mid-1970s and have experienced it in my own life more than once. I’m interested in reading new material on the subject, hence this title caught my attention since I had just finished listening to the audiobook version of Paul Halpern’s Flashes of Creation, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But I’m not sure what Halpern was trying to accomplish here.

He discusses the debate over the speed of light, and the argument over whether it was fixed or variable. He recounts how Einstein’s special theory of relativity put an end to that debate: it is fixed. Halpern then provides an overview of the emergence of quantum mechanics, and how Einstein could never embrace the theory.

The author describes how quantum entanglement was discovered, which states that two subatomic particles can be at a great distance from each other, but the state of one can affect the state of the other. He delves into the work of Wolfgang Pauli, who was interested in this phenomenon. But the work of Carl Jung and his investigations into synchronicity fascinated Pauli as well. The two worked together and Pauli shared his dreams with Jung, which Jung published without revealing the subject’s identity.

Halpern spends a good portion of the book discussing the collaboration between Halpern and Jung but dismisses Jung’s understanding of synchronicity as anecdotal and not verifiable. The author, however, gives grudging credit to the work the two did together: “Though Pauli and Jung’s dialogue was not purely scientific, they did identify a significant dichotomy in nature: the distinction between causal linkages and synchronous connections.”

This book is not the place to go if you want to learn about synchronicity. (Start with Jung’s monograph for that.) Nor is it the best place to learn about quantum mechanics, although there is nothing wrong with what is here. There are many other excellent books on quantum mechanics. (Click the Books link in the Categories map on your right to find several.) If you want to read the best work of Paul Halpern go straight to Flashes of Creation.


Flashes of Creation

Flashes of Creation coverFlashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate
Paul Halpern
read by David Stifel
Basic Books, August 17, 2021
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In this highly listenable volume Paul Halpern traces the history of cosmology in the twentieth century through two of its most famous researchers and popularizers: George Gamow and Fred Hoyle.

The two men were alike in many ways and different in others. Gamow was one of the developers of the big bang theory of the universe while Hoyle advocated a steady-state hypothesis. Both were capable researchers and both were popularizers of astronomy and cosmology. Gamow appeared on television in the United States and wrote a “Mr. Tompkins” series of books: a sort of “for Dummies” set long before that line existed. Hoyle did radio programs in the United Kingdom and wrote novels. Gamow loved riding motorcycles and Hoyle was a hiker and mountaineer.

Along the way Halpern writes about many others involved in twentieth century cosmology. He discusses Edwin Hubble and his discovery that the universe is expanding. He gives plenty of attention to Einstein, who leaned toward a steady-state universe until he met with Hubble and learned of his findings. Halpern recounts how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This discovery essentially confirmed the big bang theory of the creation of the universe and discredited Hoyle’s steady-state theory. Stephen Hawking appears in the book, and we learn that, ironically, early in his career he had applied to work with Hoyle but was turned down.

Halpern discusses the B2FH team: Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Hoyle. The Burbidges were a husband-and-wife team who wanted to work in the United States as it was impossible for Margaret as a woman to get telescope time in England. The team, though steady-state proponents, did some highly credible work regarding the formation of the elements in stars. Sadly, Hoyle could not accept the rejection of his steady state theory and kept coming up with more and more bizarre permutations of steady-state as evidence for the big bang increased.

I read a lot of astronomy and cosmology when I was in elementary school. I no doubt read about the big bang theory, but I specifically remember reading some of Fred Hoyle’s work and his discussion of the steady state theory. I know I read one of his novels. It was in that context that I found this joint biography engaging.

David Stifel capably reads Flashes of Creation and wisely avoids too much vocal inflection when voicing the words of the individuals the book discusses. Listening to this audiobook was time well spent for me.


The Disordered Cosmos

Disordered Cosmos coverThe Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Bold Type Books (March 9, 2021), 244 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $21.49

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an angry woman. And justifiably so.

The author is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother. She identifies as Black. Prescod-Weinstein grew up in East Los Angeles, with all the challenges that implies, yet earned acceptance into Harvard. She got her PhD and engaged in research in particle physics. She has studied dark matter, focusing her work on a theoretical particle called the axion.

The first part of the book is about physics and her research. She then talks about the biases in physics and science in general. She writes about melanin and points out that genetics and biochemistry have shown that skin color is an arbitrary construct, not tied to race.

Prescod-Weinstein segues from her discussion of dark matter to a commentary on how Black people are dark, that is invisible, in society, and all the entailed risks. She then spends a lot of space discussing how we decide where we build our telescopes. She explains how the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii is sacred to the indigenous Hawaiians, yet we built our telescopes there anyway. She recounts encountering the wrath of her science colleagues when she joined the native Hawaiians in opposing the latest addition, the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Gender plays an important role in this book as well. Prescod-Weinstein devotes several pages to the challenges that trans people face. She refers to herself as both “agender” and “queer.” In the acknowledgements she mentions her “spouse and political partner” whom she identifies as “Mr-ProfChandra.” Though some don’t like to admit it, gender is a fluid thing.

The author candidly describes her own experience of rape at the hands of a male in a position of power in her field. She describes the event in some detail, making clear that what happened was at the very least non-consensual sex, and was for all intents and purposes rape. Prescod-Weinstein concludes the book with a heartfelt letter to her mother, a civil rights activist, which recounts all that her mother did for her.

Much of The Disordered Cosmos is not easy to read, but it is a reminder of how far we have to go in the work of social and racial justice.


Two Video Courses on Physics

Don Lincoln CoursesThe Evidence for Modern Physics: How We Know What We Know (2021)
The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality (2017)
Don Lincoln, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)
streaming video purchased as a set on sale for $97.90

I’m not sure what motivated me to buy this set. There is a lot of duplication in these two video courses. They do take different approaches, however. The newer course is a general overview of physics and focuses on how we know what we know, as the subtitle indicates. Dr. Lincoln focuses the older course on the quest for a “theory of everything” in physics, and he describes what we know and where the gaps in our knowledge are.

Both courses discuss the classical physics of Isaac Newton, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, the big bang, gravitational waves, and what we know and don’t know about dark matter and dark energy. Lincoln does a good job of making complex concepts clear, although there is a lot more math in the older course than there is in the new one.

The older course offers a lot more in the way of graphics and enhanced production values. In that course Lincoln changes his position and looks at the two different cameras. In the new course he is always looking at the same spot, though there are two camera angles. I attribute all of this to the fact that the second course was obviously taped during the pandemic, with its staffing and social distancing limitations. In Evidence For Dr. Lincoln gets tickled by his lame attempts at humor just a little too often, something that occurs far less frequently in The Theory of Everything.

This is all fascinating stuff, and I enjoy learning about quantum mechanics from different experts in the field, as you may have noticed from my Kindle and audio book reviews. In this case, however, the two courses are too similar for me to recommend both. There have been no major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics since 2017, but of the two I’d recommend The Evidence for Modern Physics, despite the couple of drawbacks I’ve mentioned. On the other hand, if you find that the older course on sale and that the new one isn’t, the go for The Theory of Everything.


The God Equation

God Equation coverThe God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Michio Kaku
Doubleday (April 6, 2021), 215 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I am always interested in books on physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, so in reading a review of this title I decided it was worth my time. The author is a working physicist who teaches graduate students, but who also had written several books for the general reader. This is his most recent.

The purpose of the book is to discuss whether a “theory of everything” is possible, something that so far has eluded scientists. Kaku starts by reviewing the history of physics, starting with Newton, and moving on to quantum mechanics. I guess I’ve read more books (or listened to more audiobooks) on the subject than I’ve given myself credit for, because I noticed at least a couple of places where Kaku glossed over things where he could easily have provided a complete explanation. For example, he somewhat simplifies the (in)famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, when presenting it exactly the way Schrödinger did would have taken perhaps another half paragraph.

Kaku spends some space, appropriately, discussing the race for the atomic bomb during World War II. He describes how Werner Heisenberg was appointed to lead the German effort. Kaku says that the Germans under Heisenberg were well behind the Americans, who were pursuing their secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. However, other sources I have read state that Heisenberg knew the correct formula, but deliberately introduced subtle errors, too subtle for anyone but the sharpest physicist to notice, that were just sufficient to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.

But back to the theory of everything. Kaku “has a dog in this fight,” as linguist John McWhorter likes to say, and Kaku admits it. He tells us he has been researching string theory since 1968 and believes that it offers the best candidate for a theory of everything.

Near the end of the book he also tells us that string theory continues to uncover new layers, and a final, definitive version of string theory has yet to emerge. Kaku hopes that a definitive version of string theory will provide us with a neat, mathematically complete theory of everything.

Somehow, though, as I finished the book I was left disappointed and unconvinced.


The Human Cosmos

The Human Cosmos coverThe Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars
Jo Marchant
Dutton (September 1, 2020), 399 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.21

The Human Cosmos is a look at how humankind has looked at the heavens through the ages.

The author describes how the earliest civilizations tracked the movement in the sky and how a king’s astronomers could help him solidify his power. The ability to predict an eclipse could reinforce his legitimacy, while an error could make him vulnerable.

The book goes on to follow human achievements in astronomy through classical, medieval, and early modern times. Marchant describes how observing the cosmos influenced the transition from the American colonies to the new United States. Oddly, the author goes off on a tangent recounting the events of the American and French revolutions, the only connection seemingly being that Thomas Paine used some of Newton’s principles in his writing.

But when she returns to the world of astronomy the book gets interesting again. She describes the current science and shows how a meteorite found in Antarctica turned out to be a chunk that was blown off of Mars. She also talks about pulsars and writes about the desire of many to believe that the signals occurring at precisely timed intervals were artificial and the creation of an intelligent source out there. So far, most of the signals seem to be natural events, emitting from rapidly spinning stars near the end of their life cycles. She does tantalize us, however, by saying a couple of the detected signals have not been adequately explained.

If you enjoy astronomy and/or the history of science you will like The Human Cosmos.


Until the End of Time

Until the End of Time coverUntil the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Brian Greene
Knopf (February 18, 2020), 416 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $19.89

Brian Greene is a working physicist who is also well-known for writing popular books on science. Until the End of Time is his latest. I read a couple of very positive reviews of this book when it first came out and was intrigued enough to purchase it.

Green covers a variety of topics, including entropy, evolution (both biological and non-biological), quantum physics, the big bang and the earliest days of the universe, and the ultimate fate of the universe, which scientists now generally see as continued expansion until there is nothing there.

Greene is an excellent writer when it comes to popularizing science; he is clear, concise, and witty. He certainly knows his stuff, and the work is well-annotated. There is a lot of interesting material here and I learned a few things that I didn’t know before. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed: I came away without any new insights about the search for meaning.