Standing in Faraday’s Shoes

A highlight of my recently-completed visit to England was the honor of giving a public lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. It’s an honor to give public talks anywhere, of course — I always enjoy seeing people who are not professional scientists nevertheless decide that the best way they can spend a Tuesday evening is to hear a physicist lecture about the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider. But the RI is special. Its leadership in bringing science to a wide audience dates back to 1825, when Michael Faraday inaugurated the famous Christmas Lectures. The lecture hall where I was speaking is the same one where Faraday spoke, happily with more comfortable seats and better audio-visual equipment. The connection was especially appropriate, as the hidden message (not so hidden by the end, really) of my talk was that we need to think about the world in terms of fields rather than particles, and it was Faraday who introduced the concept of an electric field.

Sadly, almost as soon as I left the RI announced that it is in serious financial difficulty. (I don’t think it was my fault — we had a nearly-full house for the lecture.) Their historic building in the tony Mayfair district of London, where the popularity of their events in the nineteenth century led Albemarle Street to become the first one-way street in the city, is now up for sale. Scientists and science lovers are in an uproar, and hope to save the RI building from being sold to an unsympathetic landlord, but it’s unclear whether that’s a feasible scenario. While it’s true that there are many more outlets for good science communication now than in Faraday’s time (I’m sure he would have been an enthusiastic blogger, but the technology wasn’t quite ready yet), it would certainly be a shame to lose or substantially alter such an historic and effective institution.

For the curious, here is the talk I actually gave, complete with location-specific jokes.

The audience Q&A, a lively discussion moderated by Alok Jha, was recorded separately.

And for the impatient, here is a much more brief (7 minutes) interview that I did just ahead of time.

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15 Responses to Standing in Faraday’s Shoes

  1. N. says:

    Bravo, Sean. It’s been a privilege.

  2. Is that a true story about the Nobel laureate who urinated on his competitor’s experiment? I always assumed it was exaggerated. Or maybe the experiment had been stung by a jellyfish?

  3. Tony Rz says:

    In the beginning there was matter and antimatter perhaps since most of the matter that remained became the visible universe, perhaps the matter and antimatter that destroyed each other became the dark matter particles, and as the dark matter particles come together, being both of normal matter and antimatter they are the force driving the increased expansion of the universe? Just wondering, perhaps a dumb question.

  4. Sean Carroll says:

    John, I’ve heard the story from multiple experimenters, but it’s certainly possible that they are just passing along an irresistible story. Probably hard to verify, I would suppose.

  5. Sean Carroll says:

    Tony, the problem is that we have very good measurements of what matter and antimatter annihilate into, and dark matter isn’t there.

  6. john naddaf says:

    would we be able to detect dark matter if it had no spacial properties,,,as in similar to time??and have we ever been able to detect any system that posessed no spacial properties??
    i put forward that dark energy and dark matter are emergent properties caused by the interaction of spacetime,with space and time respectively…space expands similar in properties to dark energy,,while time dilates in the same motion as dark matter….
    space time is not a stable system of one uninteracting,reather spacetime is a singular totality opposing…

  7. Zwirko says:

    Sean, I see that you done a Sixty Symbols video with Brady Haran too and there is apparently another in the pipeline. Will there just be the two? An excellent YouTube channel I think.

  8. Joan Hendricks says:

    Sean Carroll: Just a note to say that in addition to everything else in your book and this talk at RI, I was interested to hear your “mini-talk” on women being recognized in science. I am 72 years old and entered college in 1958 with the intent of getting a degree in physics, but ended up being too intimidated as the only woman in the lecture hall and by being shunned in the labs when students were told to “pick a lab partner”. Glad things are changing, if slowly.

  9. Joan Hendricks says:

    Now at age 72, I hope I live long enough to learn what dark matter is!

  10. Max says:

    Bravo! Excellent speech. Did you learn the chess analogy from Feynman? Thank you for putting in the time and effort to aptly explain these difficult ideas.

  11. MP says:

    Sean, I was a bit stunned by your claim that the gravitational field introduced by Laplace solved the problem of action at a distance, and that accordingly there was no instantaneous interaction between distant bodies. It seems to me that when one of the bodies moves at location x, the other body changes its motion instantaneously as the force it senses is determined by the gradient of the field and the latter changes without any delay and simultaneously at all points of space. In other words, the speed of propagation of the gravitational interaction is infinite.

    In fact, you can show while keeping the inverse square law that if the speed of propagation were finite the orbits wouldn’t close — and the bodies would spiral towards each other (I think it was Laplace who pointed out this for the first time, but I’m not sure). There is a torque because, due to the delay, the gravitational force is no longer radial. Of course, Einstein showed that the speed of propagation is finite and the bodies do indeed spiral toward each other — as binary pulsars illustrate.

  12. Sean Carroll says:

    MP– If I said there was no instantaneous interaction, that was a mistake. All I meant to say is that the interaction is communicated by a smooth field that obeys a local equation, rather than appearing magically far away. Laplace explains the “at a distance” mystery of Newtonian gravity, but doesn’t change that the speed of propagation is infinite.

  13. John says:

    I enjoy listening to you educate so much. You’re calm and easy-going way of talking is so delightful to hear. Oh, and thanks for adding me on Facebook. lol I must have all your work! 😀

  14. Mateus says:

    I have a question: You’ve said that that the science of everyday phenomena is known, but what about turbulence?

  15. Magical Meat says:

    Sean, always enjoy your talks. Just curious, has anyone ever told you that you sound like Alan Alda (with a slightly deeper register)?

    One other question, I know it’s ultimately “fields,” (rather than particles) but it seems to me making that claim in a lecture to a lay-audience might be a bit too much. I know the intentions are good behind that. Obviously, you still have to see them as “wave packets,” and the fundamental conceptual framework behind QFT is, of course, “quantum.” (Yes, I’m aware you know all of this inside and out — I’m just pointing it out because my guess is at these lectures, most of your audience doesn’t). I just think that for a general audience, though your statement was meant to clarify things, I’m just not sure you can go that far. The reality just is more subtle. My guess is their first exposure to QM is “wave-particle duality.” And, of course, in the lecture at RI you do go right back into referring to things as particles. Anyway, for those who remember Einstein and the photoelectric effect from school (and, thus, why the wave explanation didn’t work), unless you remind lay people of the particle as “quantized wave packet,” I just think they’re going to be more confused. It’s a minor quibble. You do a fantastic job. (Also, if you could in future lectures elaborate more on the subtleties of “virtual particles,” those are an unfortunately named and I find as misleading as anything to the average person. Lawrence Krauss, who I also really enjoy, doesn’t do a great job with that either. I think, ironically, in trying to keep certain things simple, they cause more confusion, because wave/particle duality and “virtual particles” can only be simplified so much. But it doesn’t take that much more effort to flesh them out. These audiences are self-selecting as motivated and intelligent, so they want the full picture.

    Anyway, just a suggestion. And really, the only criticism I’d have. Unless you want to swear more. I think tossing a few f’bombs now and then would liven things up. Or go the Gallagher route and smash watermelons.