Are YOU Socially Intelligent? Daniel Goleman - Social Intelligence

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From the bestselling author of EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE comes SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE. Author Daniel Goleman uncovers new science, revealing that human minds are made to connect with one another during any interaction.

Steve Jobs’s Genius - NYTimes.com

Steve Jobs’s Genius - NYTimes.com:


The Genius of Jobs

ONE of the questions I wrestled with when writing about Steve Jobs was how smart he was. On the surface, this should not have been much of an issue. You’d assume the obvious answer was: he was really, really smart. Maybe even worth three or four reallys. After all, he was the most innovative and successful business leader of our era and embodied the Silicon Valley dream writ large: he created a start-up in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company.

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Mr. Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune.
So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.
He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead ... Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”
Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri PoincarĂ©, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (O.K., it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)
Einstein had the elusive qualities of genius, which included that intuition and imagination that allowed him to think differently (or, as Mr. Jobs’s ads said, to Think Different.) Although he was not particularly religious, Einstein described this intuitive genius as the ability to read the mind of God. When assessing a theory, he would ask himself, Is this the way that God would design the universe? And he expressed his discomfort with quantum mechanics, which is based on the idea that probability plays a governing role in the universe by declaring that he could not believe God would play dice. (At one physics conference, Niels Bohr was prompted to urge Einstein to quit telling God what to do.)
Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.
Mr. Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it’s probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.
In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Mr. Jobs’s specialty. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” he said. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Mr. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.
In the annals of ingenuity, new ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution. When others produced boxy computers with intimidating interfaces that confronted users with unfriendly green prompts that said things like “C:\>,” Mr. Jobs saw there was a market for an interface like a sunny playroom. Hence, the Macintosh. Sure, Xerox came up with the graphical desktop metaphor, but the personal computer it built was a flop and it did not spark the home computer revolution. Between conception and creation, T. S. Eliot observed, there falls the shadow.
In some ways, Mr. Jobs’s ingenuity reminds me of that of Benjamin Franklin, one of my other biography subjects. Among the founders, Franklin was not the most profound thinker — that distinction goes to Jefferson or Madison or Hamilton. But he was ingenious.
This depended, in part, on his ability to intuit the relationships between different things. When he invented the battery, he experimented with it to produce sparks that he and his friends used to kill a turkey for their end of season feast. In his journal, he recorded all the similarities between such sparks and lightning during a thunderstorm, then declared “Let the experiment be made.” So he flew a kite in the rain, drew electricity from the heavens, and ended up inventing the lightning rod. Like Mr. Jobs, Franklin enjoyed the concept of applied creativity — taking clever ideas and smart designs and applying them to useful devices.
China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.

Steve Jobs - A Sister’s Eulogy - NYTimes.com

A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs - NYTimes.com:


A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs


Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.

By then, I lived in New York, where I was trying to write my first novel. I had a job at a small magazine in an office the size of a closet, with three other aspiring writers. When one day a lawyer called me — me, the middle-class girl from California who hassled the boss to buy us health insurance — and said his client was rich and famous and was my long-lost brother, the young editors went wild. This was 1985 and we worked at a cutting-edge literary magazine, but I’d fallen into the plot of a Dickens novel and really, we all loved those best. The lawyer refused to tell me my brother’s name and my colleagues started a betting pool. The leading candidate: John Travolta. I secretly hoped for a literary descendant of Henry James — someone more talented than I, someone brilliant without even trying.

When I met Steve, he was a guy my age in jeans, Arab- or Jewish-looking and handsomer than Omar Sharif.

We took a long walk — something, it happened, that we both liked to do. I don’t remember much of what we said that first day, only that he felt like someone I’d pick to be a friend. He explained that he worked in computers.

I didn’t know much about computers. I still worked on a manual Olivetti typewriter.

I told Steve I’d recently considered my first purchase of a computer: something called the Cromemco.

Steve told me it was a good thing I’d waited. He said he was making something that was going to be insanely beautiful.

I want to tell you a few things I learned from Steve, during three distinct periods, over the 27 years I knew him. They’re not periods of years, but of states of being. His full life. His illness. His dying.

Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day.

That’s incredibly simple, but true.

He was the opposite of absent-minded.

He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.

When he got kicked out of Apple, things were painful. He told me about a dinner at which 500 Silicon Valley leaders met the then-sitting president. Steve hadn’t been invited.

He was hurt but he still went to work at Next. Every single day.

Novelty was not Steve’s highest value. Beauty was.

For an innovator, Steve was remarkably loyal. If he loved a shirt, he’d order 10 or 100 of them. In the Palo Alto house, there are probably enough black cotton turtlenecks for everyone in this church.

He didn’t favor trends or gimmicks. He liked people his own age.

His philosophy of aesthetics reminds me of a quote that went something like this: “Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”

Steve always aspired to make beautiful later.

He was willing to be misunderstood.

Uninvited to the ball, he drove the third or fourth iteration of his same black sports car to Next, where he and his team were quietly inventing the platform on which Tim Berners-Lee would write the program for the World Wide Web.

Steve was like a girl in the amount of time he spent talking about love. Love was his supreme virtue, his god of gods. He tracked and worried about the romantic lives of the people working with him.

Whenever he saw a man he thought a woman might find dashing, he called out, “Hey are you single? Do you wanna come to dinner with my sister?”

I remember when he phoned the day he met Laurene. “There’s this beautiful woman and she’s really smart and she has this dog and I’m going to marry her.”

When Reed was born, he began gushing and never stopped. He was a physical dad, with each of his children. He fretted over Lisa’s boyfriends and Erin’s travel and skirt lengths and Eve’s safety around the horses she adored.

None of us who attended Reed’s graduation party will ever forget the scene of Reed and Steve slow dancing.

His abiding love for Laurene sustained him. He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere. In that most important way, Steve was never ironic, never cynical, never pessimistic. I try to learn from that, still.

Steve had been successful at a young age, and he felt that had isolated him. Most of the choices he made from the time I knew him were designed to dissolve the walls around him. A middle-class boy from Los Altos, he fell in love with a middle-class girl from New Jersey. It was important to both of them to raise Lisa, Reed, Erin and Eve as grounded, normal children. Their house didn’t intimidate with art or polish; in fact, for many of the first years I knew Steve and Lo together, dinner was served on the grass, and sometimes consisted of just one vegetable. Lots of that one vegetable. But one. Broccoli. In season. Simply prepared. With just the right, recently snipped, herb.

Even as a young millionaire, Steve always picked me up at the airport. He’d be standing there in his jeans.

When a family member called him at work, his secretary Linetta answered, “Your dad’s in a meeting. Would you like me to interrupt him?”

When Reed insisted on dressing up as a witch every Halloween, Steve, Laurene, Erin and Eve all went wiccan.

They once embarked on a kitchen remodel; it took years. They cooked on a hotplate in the garage. The Pixar building, under construction during the same period, finished in half the time. And that was it for the Palo Alto house. The bathrooms stayed old. But — and this was a crucial distinction — it had been a great house to start with; Steve saw to that.

This is not to say that he didn’t enjoy his success: he enjoyed his success a lot, just minus a few zeros. He told me how much he loved going to the Palo Alto bike store and gleefully realizing he could afford to buy the best bike there.

And he did.

Steve was humble. Steve liked to keep learning.

Once, he told me if he’d grown up differently, he might have become a mathematician. He spoke reverently about colleges and loved walking around the Stanford campus. In the last year of his life, he studied a book of paintings by Mark Rothko, an artist he hadn’t known about before, thinking of what could inspire people on the walls of a future Apple campus.

Steve cultivated whimsy. What other C.E.O. knows the history of English and Chinese tea roses and has a favorite David Austin rose?

He had surprises tucked in all his pockets. I’ll venture that Laurene will discover treats — songs he loved, a poem he cut out and put in a drawer — even after 20 years of an exceptionally close marriage. I spoke to him every other day or so, but when I opened The New York Times and saw a feature on the company’s patents, I was still surprised and delighted to see a sketch for a perfect staircase.

With his four children, with his wife, with all of us, Steve had a lot of fun.

He treasured happiness.

Then, Steve became ill and we watched his life compress into a smaller circle. Once, he’d loved walking through Paris. He’d discovered a small handmade soba shop in Kyoto. He downhill skied gracefully. He cross-country skied clumsily. No more.

Eventually, even ordinary pleasures, like a good peach, no longer appealed to him.

Yet, what amazed me, and what I learned from his illness, was how much was still left after so much had been taken away.

I remember my brother learning to walk again, with a chair. After his liver transplant, once a day he would get up on legs that seemed too thin to bear him, arms pitched to the chair back. He’d push that chair down the Memphis hospital corridor towards the nursing station and then he’d sit down on the chair, rest, turn around and walk back again. He counted his steps and, each day, pressed a little farther.

Laurene got down on her knees and looked into his eyes.

“You can do this, Steve,” she said. His eyes widened. His lips pressed into each other.

He tried. He always, always tried, and always with love at the core of that effort. He was an intensely emotional man.

I realized during that terrifying time that Steve was not enduring the pain for himself. He set destinations: his son Reed’s graduation from high school, his daughter Erin’s trip to Kyoto, the launching of a boat he was building on which he planned to take his family around the world and where he hoped he and Laurene would someday retire.

Even ill, his taste, his discrimination and his judgment held. He went through 67 nurses before finding kindred spirits and then he completely trusted the three who stayed with him to the end. Tracy. Arturo. Elham.

One time when Steve had contracted a tenacious pneumonia his doctor forbid everything — even ice. We were in a standard I.C.U. unit. Steve, who generally disliked cutting in line or dropping his own name, confessed that this once, he’d like to be treated a little specially.

I told him: Steve, this is special treatment.

He leaned over to me, and said: “I want it to be a little more special.”

Intubated, when he couldn’t talk, he asked for a notepad. He sketched devices to hold an iPad in a hospital bed. He designed new fluid monitors and x-ray equipment. He redrew that not-quite-special-enough hospital unit. And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.

For the really big, big things, you have to trust me, he wrote on his sketchpad. He looked up. You have to.

By that, he meant that we should disobey the doctors and give him a piece of ice.

None of us knows for certain how long we’ll be here. On Steve’s better days, even in the last year, he embarked upon projects and elicited promises from his friends at Apple to finish them. Some boat builders in the Netherlands have a gorgeous stainless steel hull ready to be covered with the finishing wood. His three daughters remain unmarried, his two youngest still girls, and he’d wanted to walk them down the aisle as he’d walked me the day of my wedding.

We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.

I suppose it’s not quite accurate to call the death of someone who lived with cancer for years unexpected, but Steve’s death was unexpected for us.

What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died.

Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us.

He started his farewell and I stopped him. I said, “Wait. I’m coming. I’m in a taxi to the airport. I’ll be there.”

“I’m telling you now because I’m afraid you won’t make it on time, honey.”

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze.

Until about 2 in the afternoon, his wife could rouse him, to talk to his friends from Apple.

Then, after awhile, it was clear that he would no longer wake to us.

His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before.

This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.

Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.

He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.

This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

He seemed to be climbing.

But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.

Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were:


Mona Simpson is a novelist and a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She delivered this eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs, on Oct. 16 at his memorial service at the Memorial Church of Stanford University.


Columbia University economist Pierre-Andre Chiappori finds overweight OK if you're rich | Herald Sun

Columbia University economist Pierre-Andre Chiappori finds overweight OK if you're rich | Herald Sun

Columbia University economist Pierre-Andre Chiappori finds overweight OK if you're rich

ATTRACTIVE women do not mind overweight men as long as their wallets are fat, according to a new - albeit obvious - study by a New York academic.

A Columbia University researcher created a mathematical formula to calculate the exact trade-off between billfold and belt-size that both men and women make in choosing their partner

According to economist Pierre-Andre Chiappori, single people looking to get hitched rate each other's eligibility by assessing two traits - physical and socioeconomic attractiveness.

Other factors, like a sense of humour or a kind soul, play a smaller role in how men and women assess each other on the dating market, according to Chiappori and his co-authors.

Both men and women prefer slim, wealthy spouses to poor, fat mates, according to data collected from 667 white American couples by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

But fatter men and women do not have to settle for less desirable partners.

According to Chiappori's formula, men compensate for flab with cold, hard cash, while women make up for an extra layer of pudge with an extra year of education.

For every 10 per cent increase in their body mass index, or BMI, single men must increase their annual salary by 2 per cent to compete in the same dating pool, according to Chiappori's working paper, "Fatter Attraction". BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight by his height.

A 180cm man who weighs 80kg - just about the perfect BMI - and earns an annual salary of $100,000, for instance, would have to get a $2000 raise if he packed on about 9kg and did not want to downgrade the level of women he could date.

A hefty woman can make up for her less-than-perfect body by being more educated.

If a single woman who is 170cm and weighs 65kg gains 3kg, she must have one year more of education to remain at the same level of attractiveness to potential suitors.

"Our findings tell us that physical appearance is not such a big deal, and it's easy to compensate for," Chiappori said.

Read more about the mathematical secrets to weight, money and love at the New York Post.


Explainer: the point of pure mathematics

Explainer: the point of pure mathematics
2 August 2011, 6.56am AEST

Explainer: the point of pure mathematics

What is pure mathematics? What do pure mathematicians do? Why is pure mathematics important? These are questions I’m often confronted with when people discover I do pure mathematics. I always manage to provide an answer but it never seems to fully satisfy. So I’ll attempt to give a more formulated…

Alan Turing, through pure mathematics, laid the foundations for the modern computer. Leo Reynolds

What is pure mathematics? What do pure mathematicians do? Why is pure mathematics important?

These are questions I’m often confronted with when people discover I do pure mathematics.

I always manage to provide an answer but it never seems to fully satisfy.

So I’ll attempt to give a more formulated and mature response to these three questions. I apologise ahead of time for the oversimplifications I’ve had to make in order to be concise.

Broadly speaking, there are two different types of mathematics (and I can already hear protests) – pure and applied. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell attempted to give rigorous definitions of this classification.

I capture the distinction in the following, somewhat cryptic, statement: pure mathematicians prove theorems and applied mathematicians construct theories.

What this means is that the paradigm in which mathematics is done by the two groups of people are different.

Pure mathematicians are often driven by abstract problems. To make the abstract concrete, here are a couple of examples: “are there infinitely many twin primes” or “does every true mathematical statement have a proof?”

To be more precise, mathematics built out of axioms, and the nature of mathematical truth is governed by predicate logic.

A mathematical theorem is a true statement that is accompanied by a proof that illustrates its truth beyond all doubt by deduction using logic.

Unlike an empirical theory, it is not enough to simply construct an explanation that may change as exceptions arise.

Something a mathematician suspects of being true due to evidence, but not proof, is simply conjecture.


Applied mathematicians are typically motivated by problems arising from the physical world. They use mathematics to model and solve these problems.

These models are really theories and, as with any science, they are subject to testifiability and falsifiability. As the amount of information regarding the problem increases, these models will possibly change.

Pure and applied are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are many great mathematicians who tread both grounds.


There are many problems pursued by pure mathematicians that have their roots in concrete physical problems – particularly those that arise from relativity or quantum mechanics.

Typically, in a deeper understanding of such phenomena, various “technicalities” arise (believe me when I tell you these technicalities are very difficult to explain). These become abstracted away into purely mathematical statements that pure mathematicians can attack.

Solving these mathematical problems then can have important applications.

Ok computer

Let me give a concrete example of how abstract thought lead to the development of a device that underpins the functions of modern society: the computer.

The earliest computers were fixed program – i.e. they were purpose-built to perform only one task. Changing the program was a very costly and tedious affair.

The modern remnants of such a dinosaur would be a pocket calculator, which is built to only perform basic arithmetic. In contrast, a modern computer allows one to load a calculator program, or word-processing program, and you don’t have to switch machines to do it.

This paradigm shift occurred in the mid 1940s and is called the stored-program or the von Neumann architecture.

The widely accessible, but lesser-known, story is that this concept has its roots in the investigation of an abstract mathematical problem called the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem).

The Entscheidungsproblem was formulated in in 1928 by the famous mathematician David Hilbert.

It approximately translates to this: “does there exist a procedure that can decide the truth or falsehood of mathematical statement in a finite number of steps?

This was answered in the negative by Alonzo Church and Alan Turing independently in 1936 and 1937. In his paper, Turing formulates an abstract machine, which we now call the Turing machine.

The machine possesses an infinitely long tape (memory), a head that can move a step at a time, read from and write to the tape, a finite instruction table which gives instructions to the head, and a finite set of states (such as “accept”, or “deny”). One initiates the machine with input on the tape.

Such a machine cannot exist outside of the realm of mathematics since it has an infinitely long tape.

But it is the tool used to define the notion of computability. That is, we say a problem is computable if we can encode it using a Turing machine.

One can then see the parallels of a Turing machine with a fixed-program machine.

Now, suppose that there is a Turing machine U that can take the instruction table and states of an arbitrary Turing machine T (appropriately encoded), and on the same tape input I to T, and run the Turing machine T on the input I.

Such a machine is called a Universal Turing Machine.

In his 1937 paper, Turing proves an important existence theorem: there exists a universal Turing machine. This is now the parallel of the store-program concept, the basis of the modern programmable computer.

It is remarkable that an abstract problem concerning the foundations of mathematics laid the foundations to the advent of the modern computer.

It is perhaps a feature of pure mathematics that the mathematician is not constrained by the limitations of the physical world and can appeal to the imagination to create and construct abstract objects.

That is not to say the pure mathematician does not formalise physical concepts such as energy, entropy etcetera, to do abstract mathematics.

In any case, this example should illustrate that the pursuit of purely mathematical problems is a worthwhile cause that can be of tremendous value to society.

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Explainer: Quantum physics

Explainer: Quantum physics

Explainer: Quantum physics

This might surprise you, but there may be literally thousands, or even tens of thousands, of devices and components surrounding you right now that work because of our understanding of quantum physics. Before you ask, it doesn’t include your dishwasher detergent. Quantum Physics is a branch of science…

Without quantum mechanics, we would not have the transistor. IvyMike/Flickr

This might surprise you, but there may be literally thousands, or even tens of thousands, of devices and components surrounding you right now that work because of our understanding of quantum physics.

Before you ask, it doesn’t include your dishwasher detergent.

Quantum Physics is a branch of science that engenders huge amounts of interest, awe, and, more often than not, bewilderment. But before we can tell you how it really impacts you, we need to provide a little bit of background.

OK, give me the theory

Quantum Physics is focused on explaining the behavior of matter and light at very small scales – single atoms and photons (“particles” of light). The mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics (distinguished from the broader term quantum physics) allows scientists to model the physics being probed through experiments.

There’s nothing unique about quantum physics – it’s a scientific theory just like any other, meeting the rigorous requirements of the scientific method.

But there are certainly some strange aspects of the theory.

The word “quantum” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning a quantity, share, or portion. It was applied to pioneering studies of the nature of light and matter because experiments suggested that a wide variety of measures came with only very particular allowed values – quite contrary to what we generally observe in the world around us, or standard physical intuition.

It gets stranger.

In quantum physics nobody can tell you much with any certainty. They can only describe probabilities for measurement outcomes (e.g. where a particle might be). And quantum physics describes light as being both a particle and a wave at the same time.

Why is the theory so counterintuitive? Well, unfortunately that remains the subject of much study, including the active research field of quantum foundations, trying to elucidate what’s really going on.

Despite these quirks, quantum physics has become one of the most successful scientific theories developed to date, permitting scientists to explain a range of behaviors in systems from stars to gases, metals to light.

Most importantly, the theory has predictive power, a key requirement in science.

What about all those quantum applications?

Let’s begin with IT.

Transistors are the fundamental hardware elements in microprocessors – they represent bits of information in the way they conduct electricity (on = 1, off = 0).

Transistors are fabricated from materials known as semiconductors, in which charge-carrying electrons are only allowed to occupy certain discrete energy levels, as determined by quantum physics. As more electrons are added they form allowed “bands” in a prescribed manner.

The resultant energy “bandstructure,” which can be modified by applying voltages to wires connected to the device, gives rise to the switching behavior from which we build fundamental electrical elements.

Without quantum mechanics we would have no understanding of semiconductors, could not have engineered the transistor, and thus would have no microprocessors.

Similar things can be said about other familiar IT devices in your office. Mobile phones, for instance, use high-frequency circuits that function thanks to the same physics.

On the internet, network time is kept by atomic clocks which use the quantum description of atoms and light-matter interactions to produce an extremely stable and repeatable “tick.”

In fact, almost every piece of information technology hardware – from microprocessors in desktops and servers to optoelectronic modulators and laser diodes used in long distance communications for the internet owe their existence to our understanding of quantum physics.

Anything outside the office?

At home, if you turn on your flatpanel television it may well have what’s known as an LED-backlit display. This uses an energy-efficient light source know as a light-emitting diode.

The quantum physics of semiconductor bandstructure and Planck’s theory of radiation explain how to produce light of various colours from these devices.

Your home entertainment system may also have a DVD player that uses a solid-state laser, the development of which was based on Einstein’s quantum theory of radiation and later developments in stimulated emission.

Or if you had an MRI for a knee injury, that functioned thanks to developments in nuclear magnetic resonance and the quantum theory of “spin” angular momentum. We could go on and on …

To be clear, these aren’t technologies that can be torturously traced back to quantum theory – these are devices and systems that were developed explicitly because of our knowledge of quantum physics.

So now you know

The real, everyday impacts of quantum physics have been obscured by marketers who use the word “quantum” relentlessly to suggest that their products are “high-tech,” in applications as diverse as data storage and, yes, dishwasher detergent. Similarly, New-age groups have co-opted “quantum” and used it to mean pretty much any absurd pseudo-religious idea they wish.

All of this is bunk.

But now if someone tries to sell you something because it’s “quantum” you can separate truth from nonsense.

And if you question why this branch of physics matters to you, just look around and you’ll see the answer in nearly all of modern technology.

Explainer: String theory

Explainer: String theory
How long’s a piece of string? You may want to sit down for a minute. Gnu2000

String theory entered the public arena in 1988 when a BBC radio series Desperately Seeking Superstrings was broadcast.

Thanks to good marketing and its inherently curious name and features, it’s now part of popular discourse, mentioned in TV’s Big Bang Theory, Woody Allen stories, and countless science documentaries.

But what is string theory and why does it find itself shrouded in controversy?

Life, the universe and the theory of everything

Today we think of string theory in two ways.

It’s seen as a theory of everything – that is, a theory that aims to describe all four forces of nature within a single theoretical scheme.

These forces are:

  • Electromagnetic force
  • Gravitational force
  • Weak nuclear force
  • Strong nuclear force.

Electromagnetism and gravity are familiar to most people. The nuclear forces occur at a subatomic level, and are unobservable by the naked eye.

String theory is also used to describe quantum gravity, a theory that combines Einstein’s theory of gravity and the principles of quantum theory.

Tangled beginnings

But string theory began life more modestly, as a way to describe strongly interacting particles called hadrons.

Hadrons are now understood to be composed of quarks connected by gluons but string theory viewed them as quarks connected by strings (tubes of energy).

Understood this way, string theory buckled under both new experimental evidence (leading to the crowning of quantum chromodynamics which describes the interactions of quarks and gluons) and also internal problems.

String theory involved too many particles, including a massless particle with so-called spin 2 – spin being the name used for the angular momentum of particles.

As it happens, this is exactly the property possessed by the graviton – the carrier of gravitational force in the particle physics picture of the world.

Beyond four dimensions

This discovery meant that with a bit of skilful rebranding (and rescaling the energy of the strings to match the strength of gravitation), string theory shed its hadronic past and was reborn as a quantum theory of gravity.

All those other particles that were also problematic for the original string theory were able to capture the remaining non-gravitational forces too. This is how string theory took on its current role as describing all four forces together: a theory of everything.

But it could not shed many of its curious features.

One such feature was the necessity of many more space-time dimensions than are actually observed.

In a “bosonic” version of string theory (i.e. without matter or fermions, there would have to be 21 dimensions – 20 space dimensions and one time dimension.

In a theory with fermions, there would have to be nine spatial dimensions and one temporal, ten dimensions all together.

The problem is that we only perceive four dimensions: height, width, depth (all spatial) and time (temporal).

Supersizing symmetry, downsizing dimensions

The “super” in “superstring theory” refers to a symmetry, known as supersymmetry, relating bosons and fermions.

There are five possible theories that involve matter in ten dimensions. This was previously seen as a problem since it was expected that a theory of everything should be unique.

The six unseen dimensions (ten minus the four dimensions of everyday life) are made too small to be observable, using a process known as compactification.

Beautiful maths

It is from this process that much of the extraordinarily beautiful (and fiendishly difficult) mathematics involved in string theory stems.

We have no trouble thinking of each event in the world as labeled by four numbers or coordinates (e.g., x,y,z,t).

A string-theoretic world adds another six coordinates, only they are crumpled up into a tiny space of radius comparable to the string length, so we don’t see them.

But, according to string theory, their effects can be seen indirectly by the way strings moving through spacetime will wrap around those crumpled, curled up directions.

A Calabi-Yau space, visible to strings, but not to us. Lunch

There are very many ways of hiding those six dimensions, yielding more possible stringy worlds (perhaps as many as 10500!).

How long is a piece of string?

This is why string theory is so controversial. It seemingly loses all predictive power since we have no way of isolating our world amongst this plenitude.

And what good is a scientific theory if it cannot make predictions?

One response is to say that these various theories are not really so different. In fact there are all sorts of exact relations known as dualities connecting them.

More recent developments based on these dualities include a new type of object with higher dimensions – so called Dp-branes.

These too can wrap around the compact dimensions to generate potentially observable effects.

Most importantly, they can also provide boundaries on which endpoints of strings sit.

Just to complicate things more, a new kind of theory has been discovered, this time in 11 dimensions: 11 dimensional supergravity – it is also very beautiful mathematically.

Dial M for Multiverse

String theorists are fond of saying that these six theories are aspects (special limits) of a deeper underlying theory, known as M-theory. In this way, uniqueness is restored.

Or is it?

We still have the spectre of the 10500 solutions or worlds. The great hope is that the number of solutions with features like our own world’s (with its four visible dimensions, particles of various types interacting with particular strengths, conscious observers, and so on) will be small enough to be able to extract testable predictions.

So far, though, the only real way of getting our world out of the theory involves the use of a multiverse (a realistically interpreted ensemble of string theoretic worlds with differing physical properties) combined with the anthropic principle (only some of these worlds have what it takes to support humans).

Needless to say, this does not entirely sit easy with critics of string theory!

But string theory has been making strides in other areas of physics. Notably in the physics of plasmas and of superconductors.

Whether this success can be repeated within its proper realm (fundamental physics) remains to be seen.

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