Albert Einstein’s Elegant Theory of Happiness: It Just Sold for $1.6 Million at Auction, But You Can Use It for Free

Albert Einstein had a theory of general relativity. Turns out, he had a theory of happiness, too.

While traveling in Japan in 1922, Einstein learned that he had won the Nobel Prize. Suddenly the object of unwanted publicity, he secluded himself inside the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. And while there, explains NPR, "a courier came to the door to make a delivery." In lieu of giving the courier a small tip, Einstein handed the courier two handwritten notes, one of which read: "A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness."'

Einstein also gave the bellhop another useful piece of advice: Don't lose those handwritten notes. They might be worth something someday.

Sure enough, Einstein's scrawled theory of happiness sold for $1.6 million at an auction on Tuesday.

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Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. Thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Image by NASA, via Flickr Commons

Imagine being Stephen Hawking’s dissertation advisor? Not that most of us can put ourselves in the shoes of eminent Cambridge physicist Dennis Sciama... but imagine a student succeeding so profoundly, after having overcome such remarkable difficulty, to become the celebrated Stephen Hawking? One would feel immensely proud, I’d guess, and maybe just a little intimidated. Some graduate-level professors might even feel threatened by such a student. It’s doubtful, however, that Sciama—who signed off on Hawking’s thesis in 1966 and died in 1999—felt this way.

As F.R. Ellis and Roger Penrose write, when Hawking announced a significant finding about black holes in 1974, Sciama “quickly recognized the importance... hailing it as initiating a new revolution in our understanding.” Despite his portrayal by David Thewlis as “a kind of authoritarian gatekeeper” in the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Sciama “was much more than that picture suggests,” writes another of his highly accomplished mentees, Adrian Melott; “he was a superb mentor who brought out the best in his students.” Ellis and Penrose, themselves esteemed scientists strongly influenced by Sciama, write of his “astonishing succession of research students,” three of whom became fellows of the Royal Society.




I mention these names because they are just a few of the many people who inspired, challenged, and guided Hawking, much of whose fame rests on his bestselling popular cosmology, A Brief History of Time. While he may be talked of as a lone eccentric singularity whose mind operates above our mortal plane, like every scientist, he developed in a community that includes many such minds. The observation in no way diminishes Hawking’s accomplishments--it might, ideally, spur those of us with an interest in his work to look at how it developed in conversation and debate with others, like eminent Cambridge physicist Fred Hoyle.

We can begin to do that now by going back to Hawking’s graduate days and reading his doctoral thesis, which has been made available for free download by the Cambridge University Library. “Properties of Expanding Universes” has proven so popular that it crashed the library web site, with more than 60,000 views yesterday. By contrast, “other popular theses might have 100 views per month,” says Stuart Roberts, deputy head of research communications at Cambridge.

In a statement accompanying the dissertation’s release, Hawking matter-of-factly situates himself in a vast community of “great” minds:

By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos. Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.

Should we have such open access, all of us could follow the debates across academic projects, learn how the most sophisticated views of the universe’s nature get formulated and refined. However, we’d probably also find that few other physicists express themselves with as much clarity as Hawking. Whether or not we understand his scientific explanations, we can understand his prose, and his directness of expression has won him millions of readers who may have never have otherwise read any theoretical physics. See the first paragraph of Hawking’s introduction below:

The idea that the universe is expanding is of recent origin. All the early cosmologies were essentially stationary and even Einstein whose theory of relativity is the basis for almost all modern developments in cosmology, found it natural to suggest a static model of the universe. However there is a very grave difficulty associated with a static model such as Einstein's which is supposed to have existed for an infinite time. For, if the stars had been radiating energy at their present rates for an infinite time, they would have needed an infinite supply of energy. Further, the flux of radiation now would be infinite. Alternatively, if they had only a limited supply of energy, the whole universe would by now have reached thermal equilibrium which is certainly not the case. This difficulty was noticed by Olders who however was not able to suggest any solution. The discovery of the recession of the nebulae by Hubble led to the abandonment of static models in favour of ones which were expanding.

Whether the remainder of “Properties of Expanding Universes” is as readable may be difficult to determine for a little while. As of the writing of this post, at least, both the original link and a secondary URL hosting a photographed version of the document have ground to a halt. (Update: Pages are serving fairly well again, at least for now.) No doubt many of the visitors are physicists and grad students themselves. But their numbers may be dwarfed by laypeople eager to see Hawking’s peculiar genius first emerge into the world, from a community of similarly brilliant cosmologists.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Neil deGrasse Tyson Demonstrates the Physics-Defying Rattleback

The rattleback--it's been intriguing us since prehistoric times. Seeming to defy the laws of physics, it spins in one direction, "rattles" to a stop, and then changes direction, as Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates above. How does the rattleback work? To get into that, watch this technical video from William Case, a professor at Grinnell College. Or review the resources on this web page. In either case, you will need to wear your thinking cap.

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When a Cat Co-Authored a Paper in a Leading Physics Journal (1975)

Back in 1975, Jack H. Hetherington, a physics professor at Michigan State University, wrote a research paper on low–temperature physics for the respected scientific journal Physical Review Letters. Before sending it off, Hetherington asked a colleague to review the paper, just to make sure it covered the right bases. What happened next Hetherington explained in the 1982 book, More Random Walks in Science:

Before I submitted [the article], I asked a colleague to read it over and he said, 'It’s a fine paper, but they’ll send it right back.' He explained that that is because of the Editor's rule that the word "we" should not be used in a paper with only a single author. Changing the paper to the impersonal seemed too difficult now, and it was all written and typed; therefore, after an evening’s thought, I simply asked the secretary to change the title page to include the name of the family cat, a Siamese called Chester, sired one summer by Willard (one of the few unfixed male Siamese cats in Aspen, Colorado). I added the initials F D in front of the name to stand for Felix Domesticus and thus created F D C Willard.

The editors eventually accepted the paper, "Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc 3 He." And the ruse lasted until, remembers Hetherington, “a visitor [came to the university and] asked to talk to me, and since I was unavailable asked to talk with Willard. Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag.” (Pun surely intended.) Apparently only the journal editors didn't find humor in the joke.

Above, you can see F.D.C. Willard's signature (a paw print) on the front page of the article. The website, TodayIFoundOut, has much more on this enchanting little story.

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An Animated Introduction to the Life & Work of Marie Curie, the First Female Nobel Laureate

Looking for an introduction or reintroduction to the life and work of scientist Marie Curie?

You could have a peek at her original manuscripts, after first signing a waiver and garbing yourself in protective gear, so as to avoid the radioactivity permeating her possessions...

Or you could turn to song. Army of Lovers, the Crypts!, and the Deedle Deedle Dees have all written songs in celebration of this brilliant woman, the first female Nobel Laureate and only person in history to have been awarded Nobel prizes in two different sciences.

(Her lead-lined coffin, forbidden studies, and romance with fellow physicist and husband Pierre are the stuff from which golden lyrics are spun…)




Or you could watch the TED-Ed animation above, written and narrated by Dr. Shohini Ghose, Physics Professor and Director of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Women in Science.

Ghose counterbalances the tantalizing biographical tidbits of the world’s most famous female scientist with her actual contributions to the fields of oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics.

Ghose’s full TED-Ed lesson includes a review quiz and further resources.

To get an even more in-depth introduction to the Curies, listen to the episode of In Our Time, below.

And do remember to put down the sparklers and potato salad for a moment in silent recognition that this July 4th marks the 83rd anniversary of Mme. Curie’s death from aplastic anemia, the result of prolonged exposure to radiation.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Build Leonardo da Vinci’s Ingenious Self-Supporting Bridge: Renaissance Innovations You Can Still Enjoy Today

Leonardo da Vinci, the most accomplished example of the polymathic, artist-engineer "Renaissance man," came up with an astonishing number of inventions great and small in the late 15th and early 16th century, from the helicopter to the musical viola organista, the tank to the automated bobbin winder. Even the devices he was born too late to invent, he improved: humans had crossed the humble bridge, for instance, for countless centuries, but then Leonardo created a new, self-supporting variety whose design, as followed by a kid and his dad in the video above, still impresses today.

"With a series of wooden poles and beams, 'Stick-Boy' shows his Dad how to build Leonardo da Vinci‘s self-supporting arch bridge, also known as the emergency bridge," say the description by Rion Nakaya at The Kid Should See This. "No nails, screws, rope, glues, notches, or other fasteners are holding the bridge in place… just friction and gravity."




Clearly it works, but how? According to a post at the blog ArchiScriptor on self-supporting structures, all such bridges, from Leonardo's on down, really do rely on only those two forces. "Notches in the members make it easier to construct, but strictly speaking aren’t necessary as long as there is some friction. Gravity will do the rest."

Leonardo, the post continues, "explored two forms of the structure – a bridge and a dome. His work was commissioned by the Borgia family, with the mandate to design light and strong structures which could be built and taken down quickly. This was to aid them in their constant struggle for power with the Medici family in Renaissance Italy." The site of the Leonardo3 Museum adds, "we do not know whether this bridge was ever put to practical use, but it is not hard to believe that such a modular construction, extremely easy to transport and to assemble, must have met with great favor from the Renaissance lords who were always on the lookout for new technologies to put to military use."

Leonardo himself called this "the bridge of safety," and it counts as only one of the ingenious bridges he designed in his lifetime. For the Duke Sforza he also invented several others including a revolving bridge which, according to Leonardo da Vinci Inventions, "could be quickly packed up and transported for use by armies on the move to pass over bodies of water," could "swing across a stream or moat and set down on the other side so that soldiers could pass with little trouble," and "incorporated a rope-and-pulley system for both quick employment and easy transport." All useful tools indeed for those who once sought military dominance in Italy, but even more beneficial as inspiration for the Renaissance boys and girls of the 21st century.

via The Kid Should See This

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Pioneering Physics TV Show, The Mechanical Universe, Is Now on YouTube: 52 Complete Episodes from Caltech

In December, Caltech announced that the critically acclaimed TV series, The Mechanical Universe… And Beyond, has been made available in its entirety on YouTube. Created at Caltech and aired on PBS from 1985-86, the 52-episode series offers an introduction to college-level physics, covering everything from the scientific revolution begun by Copernicus, to quantum theory. A university web page offers more details on the production:

The series was based on the Physics 1a and 1b courses developed by David Goodstein, the Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Emeritus.

Each episode opens and closes with Goodstein lecturing to his freshman physics class in 201 E. Bridge, providing philosophical, historical, and often humorous insight into the day's topic. The show also contains hundreds of computer animation segments, created by JPL computer graphics engineer James F. Blinn, as the primary tool of instruction. Dynamic location footage and historical re-creations are also used to stress the fact that science is a human endeavor...

Although the series was designed as a college-level course, "thousands of high school teachers across the US came to depend on it for instructional and inspirational use," Goodstein says. "The level of instruction in the US was, and remains, abysmally low, and these 52 programs filled a great void."

You can stream all 52 episodes above. Or find them on Youtube and DailyMotion. They will also be added to our collection of Free Online Physics Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Visit this Caltech website to get more information on the show.

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