What Happened When Stephen Hawking Threw a Cocktail Party for Time Travelers (2009)

Who among us has never fantasized about traveling through time? But then, who among us hasn't traveled through time? Every single one of us is a time traveler, technically speaking, moving as we do through one second per second, one hour per hour, one day per day. Though I never personally heard the late Stephen Hawking point out that fact, I feel almost certain that he did, especially in light of one particular piece of scientific performance art he pulled off in 2009: throwing a cocktail party for time travelers — the proper kind, who come from the future.

"Hawking’s party was actually an experiment on the possibility of time travel," writes Atlas Obscura's Anne Ewbank. "Along with many physicists, Hawking had mused about whether going forward and back in time was possible. And what time traveler could resist sipping champagne with Stephen Hawking himself?" "




By publishing the party invitation in his mini-series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking, Hawking hoped to lure futuristic time travelers. You are cordially invited to a reception for Time Travellers, the invitation read, along with the the date, time, and coordinates for the event. The theory, Hawking explained, was that only someone from the future would be able to attend."

Alas, no time travelers turned up. Since someone possessed of that technology at any point in the future would theoretically be able to attend, does Hawking's lonely party, which you can see in the clip above, prove that time travel will never become possible? Maybe — or maybe the potential time-travelers of the future know something about the space-time-continuum-threatening risks of the practice that we don't. As for Dr. Hawking, I have to imagine that he came away satisfied from the shindig, even though his hoped-for Ms. Universe from the future never walked through the door. “I like simple experiments… and champagne,” he said, and this champagne-laden simple experiment will continue to remind the rest of us to enjoy our time on Earth, wherever in that time we may find ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Infographics Show How the Different Fields of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science Fit Together

Ask anyone who's pursued a career in the sciences what first piqued their interest in what would become their field, and they'll almost certainly have a story. Gazing at the stars on a camping trip, raising a pet frog, fooling around with computers and their components: an experience sparks a desire for knowledge and understanding, and the pursuit of that desire eventually delivers one to their specific area of specialization.

Or, as they say in science, at least it works that way in theory; the reality usually unrolls less smoothly. On such a journey, just like any other, it might help to have a map.




Enter the work of science writer and physicist Dominic Walliman, whose animated work on the Youtube channel Domain of Science we've previously featured here on Open Culture. (See the "Related Content" section below for the links.)

Walliman's videos astutely explain how the subfields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science relate to each other, but now he's turned that same material into infographics readable at a glance: maps, essentially, of the intellectual territory. He's made these maps, of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science, freely available on his Flickr account: you can view them all on a single page here along with a few more of his infographics..

As much use as Walliman's maps might be to science-minded youngsters looking for the best way to direct their fascinations into a proper course of study, they also offer a helpful reminder to those farther down the path — especially those who've struggled with the blinders of hyperspecialization — of where their work fits in the grand scheme of things. No matter one's field, scientific or otherwise, one always labors under the threat of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Or the realm of life for the bioinformatics, biophysics, and biomathematics; the whole of mathematics for the number theory, the differential geometry, and the differential equations; the workings of computers for the scheduling, the optimization, and the boolean satisfiability.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Stephen Hawking’s Interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Recorded 10 Days Before His Death: A Last Conversation about Black Holes, Time Travel & More

Ten days before Stephen Hawking’s death, Neil DeGrasse Tyson sat down with the world-famous physicist for an interview on Tyson’s StarTalk podcast. “I picked his legendary brain,” says Tyson in his introduction, “on everything, from the big bang to the origins of the universe.” He starts off, however, with some softballs. Hawking’s favorite food? He likes oysters. Favorite drink? Pimms.

Your appreciation for Tyson’s earnestly awkward small talk may vary. He’s prone to making himself laugh, which doesn’t elicit laughs from Hawking, whose communication was, of course, extraordinarily constrained. And yet, when it came to matters most of consequence to him, he was eloquent, witty, profound into his final days.




Though we cannot detect any tonal inflection in Hawking’s computer voice, we know him as a sensitive, compassionate person as well as a brilliant mind. It doesn’t sound like he’s bragging when—in answer to Tyson’s question about his favorite equation (at 4:10)—he replies, “the equation I discovered relating the entropy of black hole to the area of its horizon.” "How many people," Tyson replies, chuckling, "get to say that their favorite equation is one they came up with? That’s badass.”

Cutaway segments with Tyson, theoretical physicist Janna Levin, and comedian Matt Kirshen surround the short interview, with Levin offering her professional expertise as a cosmologist to explain Hawking’s ideas in lay terms. His favorite equation, she says, demonstrates that black holes actually radiate energy, returning information, though in a highly disordered form, that was previously thought lost forever.

At 8:05, hear Hawking’s answer to the question of what he would ask Isaac Newton if he could go back in time. Whether we understand his reply or not, we learn how “badass” it is in the cutaway commentary (which begins to seem a little ESPN-like, with Levin as the seasoned player on the panel). Rather than asking Newton a question Hawking himself didn’t know the answer to, which Newton likely couldn’t answer either, Hawking would ask him to solve a problem at the limit of Newton’s own studies, thereby testing the Enlightenment giant’s abilities.

Offered ad-free in Hawking’s memory, the podcast interview also tackles the question of whether it might ever be possible to actually travel back in time, at 24:00 (the answer may disappoint you). Michio Kaku joins the panel in the studio to clarify and sticks around for the remainder of the discussion. The panel also answers fan-submitted questions, and Bill Nye makes an appearance at 42:16. Hawking’s interview makes up a comparatively small portion of the show.

His answers, by necessity, were very brief and to the point. His final theories, by contrast, are mind-expandingly vast, opening us up to the secrets of black holes and the existence of the multiverse. While Hawking's theoretical work may have been too speculative for the Nobel committee, who need hard evidence to make a call, his legacy as “one of our greatest minds, of our generation, of the century, or maybe, ever,” as Tyson says, seems secure.

via Laughing Squid

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

Stephen Hawking (RIP) Explains His Revolutionary Theory of Black Holes with the Help of Chalkboard Animations

Stephen Hawking died last night at age of 76. I can think of no better, brief social media tribute than that from the @thetweetofgod: “It’s only been a few hours and Stephen Hawking already mathematically proved, to My face, that I don’t exist.” Hawking was an atheist, but he didn’t claim to have eliminated the idea with pure mathematics. But if he had, it would have been brilliantly elegant, even—as he  used the phrase in his popular 1988 cosmology A Brief History of Time—to a theoretical "mind of God."

Hawking himself used the word “elegant,” with modesty, to describe his discovery that “general relativity can be combined with quantum theory,” that is, “if one replaces ordinary time with so-called imaginary time.” In the bestselling A Brief History of Time, he described how one might possibly reconcile the two. His search for this “Grand Unified Theory of Everything,” writes his editor Peter Guzzardi, represented “the quest for the holy grail of science—one theory that could unite two separate fields that worked individually but wholly independently of each other.”




The physicist had to help Guzzardi translate rarified concepts into readable prose for bookbuyers at “drugstores, supermarkets, and airport shops.” But this is not to say A Brief History of Time is an easy read. (In the midst of that process, Hawking also had to learn how to translate his own thoughts again, as a tracheotomy ended his speech, and he transitioned to the computer devices we came to know as his only voice.) Most who read Hawking’s book, or just skimmed it, might remember it for its take on the big bang. It’s an aspect of his theory that piqued the usual creationist suspects, and thus generated innumerable headlines.

But it was the other term in Hawking’s subtitle, “from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” that really occupied the central place in his extensive body of less accessible scientific work. He wrote his thesis on the expanding universe, but gave his final lectures on black holes. The discoveries in Hawking's cosmology came from his intensive focus on black holes, beginning in 1970 with his innovation of the second law of black hole dynamics and continuing through groundbreaking work in the mid-70s that his former dissertation advisor, eminent physicist Dennis Sciama, pronounced “a new revolution in our understanding.”

Hawking continued to revolutionize theoretical physics through the study of black holes into the last years of his life. In January 2016, he published a paper on arXiv.org called “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” proposing “a possible solution to his black hole information paradox,” as Fiona MacDonald writes at Science Alert. Hawking’s final contributions show that black holes have what he calls “soft hair” around them—or waves of zero-energy particles. Contrary to his previous conclusion that nothing can escape from a black hole, Hawking believed that this quantum “hair” could store information previously thought lost forever.

Hawking followed up these intriguing, but exceptionally dense, findings with a much more approachable text, his talks for the BBC’s Reith Lectures, which artist Andrew Park illustrated with the chalkboard drawings you see above. The first talk, “Do Black Holes Have No Hair?” walks us briskly through the formation of black holes and the big names in black hole science before moving on to the heavy quantum theory. The second talk continues to sketch its way through the theory, using striking metaphors and witticisms to get the point across.

Hawking's explanations of phenomena are as profound, verging on mystical, as they are thorough. He doesn’t forget the human dimension or the emotional resonance of science, occasionally suggesting metaphysical—or meta-psychological—implications. Thanks in part to his work, we first thought of black holes as nihilistic voids from which nothing could escape. He left us, however with a radical new view, which he sums up cheerfully as “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, There’s a way out.” Or, even more Zen-like, as he proclaimed in a 2014 paper, “there are no black holes.”

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

Western Music Moves in Three and Even Four (!) Dimensional Spaces: How the Pioneering Research of Princeton Theorist Dmitri Tymoczko Helps Us Visualize Music in Radical, New Ways

Every musician has some basic sense of how math and music relate conceptually through geometry, in the circular and triadic shapes formed by clusters of notes when grouped together in chords and scales. The connections date back to the work of Pythagoras, and composers who explore and exploit those connections happen upon profound, sometimes mystical, insights. For example, the two-dimensional geometry of music finds near-religious expression in the compositional strategies of John Coltrane, who left behind diagrams of his chromatic modulation that theorists still puzzle over and find inspiring. It will be interesting to see what imaginative composers do with a theory that extends the geometry of music into three—and even four (!)—dimensions.

Pioneering Princeton University music theorist and composer Dmitri Tymoczko has made discoveries that allow us to visualize music in entirely new ways. He began with the insight that two-note chords on the piano could form a Möbius strip, as Princeton Alumni Weekly reported in 2011, a two-dimensional surface extended into three-dimensional space. (See one such Möbius strip diagram above.) “Music is not just something that can be heard, he realized. It has a shape.”

He soon saw that he could transform more complex chords the same way. Three-note chords occupy a twisted three-dimensional space, and four-note chords live in a corresponding but impossible-to-visualize four-dimensional space. In fact, it worked for any number of notes — each chord inhabited a multidimensional space that twisted back on itself in unusual ways — a non-Euclidean space that does not adhere to the classical rules of geometry. 

Tymoczko discovered that musical geometry (as Coltrane—and Einstein—had earlier intuited) has a close relationship to physics, when a physicist friend told him the multidimensional spaces he was exploring were called “orbifolds,” which had found some application “in arcane areas of string theory.” These discoveries have “physicalized” music, providing a way to “convert melodies and harmonies into movements in higher dimensional spaces.”

This work has caused “quite a buzz in Anglo-American music-theory circles,” says Princeton music historian Scott Burnham. As Tymoczko puts it in his short report "The Geometry of Musical Chords," the “orbifold” theory seems to answer a question that occupied music theorists for centuries: “how is it that Western music can satisfy harmonic and contrapuntal constraints at once?” On his website, he outlines his theory of “macroharmonic consistency,” the compositional constraints that make music sound “good.” He also introduces a software application, ChordGeometries 1.1, that creates complex visualizations of musical “orbifolds” like that you see above of Chopin supposedly moving through four-dimensions.

The theorist first published his work in a 2006 issue of Science, then followed up two years later with a paper co-written with Clifton Callendar and Ian Quinn called “Generalized Voice-Leading Spaces” (read a three-page summary here). Finally, he turned his work into a book, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice, which explores the geometric connections between classical and modernist composition, jazz, and rock. Those connections have never been solely conceptual for Tymoczko. A longtime fan of Coltrane, as well as Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and Stravinsky, he has put his theory into practice in a number of strangely moving compositions of his own, such as The Agony of Modern Music (hear movement one above) and Strawberry Field Theory (movement one below). His compositional work is as novel-sounding as his theoretical work is brilliant: his two Science publications were the first on music theory in the magazine’s 129-year history. It’s well worth paying close attention to where his work, and that of those inspired by it, goes next.

via Princeton Alumni Weekly/@dark_shark

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

Read the “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” Letter That Albert Einstein Sent to Marie Curie During a Time of Personal Crisis (1911)

Marie Curie’s 1911 Nobel Prize win, her second, for the discovery of radium and polonium, would have been cause for public celebration in her adopted France, but for the nearly simultaneous revelation of her affair with fellow physicist Paul Langevin, the fellow standing to the right of a 32-year-old Albert Einstein in the above group photo from the 1911 Solvay Conference in Physics.

Both stories broke while Curie—unsurprisingly, the sole woman in the photo—was attending the conference in Brussels.




Equally unsurprisingly, the press preferred la scandal to la réalisation scientifique. Sex sells, then and now.

The fires of radium which beam so mysteriously...have just lit a fire in the heart of one of the scientists who studies their action so devotedly; and the wife and the children of this scientist are in tears....

—Le Journal, November 4, 1911

There's no denying that the affair was painful for Langevin’s family, particularly his wife, Jeanne, who supplied the media with incriminating letters from Curie to her husband. She must have been aware that Curie would be the one to bear the brunt of the public’s disapproval. Double standards with regard to gender are nothing new.

A furious throng gathered outside of Curie’s house and anti-Semitic papers, dissatisfied with labeling the pioneering scientist a mere home wrecker, declared—erroneously—that she was Jewish. The timeline was tweaked to suggest that Curie had taken up with Langevin prior to her husband’s death. Fellow radiochemist Bertram Boltwood seized the opportunity to declare that "she is exactly what I always thought she was, a detestable idiot.”

In the midst of this, Einstein, who had made Curie’s acquaintance at the conference, proved himself a true friend with a “don’t let the bastards get you down” letter, written on November 23. Other than a delicate allusion to Langevin as a person with whom he felt privileged to be in contact, he refrained from mentioning the cause of her misfortune.

A friendly word can go a long way in times of disgrace, and Einstein supplied his new friend with some stoutly unequivocal ones, denouncing the scandalmongers as “reptiles” feasting on sensationalistic “hogwash”:

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,

A. Einstein

PS I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck’s radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure’s motion follows the laws of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though.

That deliberately geeky postscript amounts to another sweet show of support. Perhaps it fortified Curie when a week later, she received a letter from Nobel Committee member Svante Arrhenius, urging her to skip the Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Curie rejected Arrhenius’ suggestion thusly:

The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept ... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.

For a more in-depth look at Marie Curie’s nightmarish November, refer to “Honor and Dishonor” the sixteenth chapter in Barbara Goldsmith’s Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie.

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

The Doodles in Leonardo da Vinci’s Manuscripts Contain His Groundbreaking Theories on the Laws of Friction, Scientists Discover

Just like the rest of us, Leonardo da Vinci doodled and scribbled: you can see it in his digitized notebooks, which we featured this past summer. But the prototypical Renaissance man, both unsurprisingly and characteristically, took that scribbling and doodling to a higher level entirely. Not only do his margin notes and sketches look far more elegant than most of ours, some of them turn out to reveal his previously unknown early insight into important subjects. Take, for instance, the study of friction (otherwise known as tribology), which may well have got its start in what at first just looked like doodles of blocks, weights, and pulleys in Leonardo's notebooks.

This discovery comes from University of Cambridge engineering professor Ian M. Hutchings, whose research, says that department's site, "examines the development of Leonardo's understanding of the laws of friction and their application. His work on friction originated in studies of the rotational resistance of axles and the mechanics of screw threads, but he also saw how friction was involved in many other applications."




One page, "from a tiny notebook (92 x 63 mm) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dates from 1493" and "contains Leonardo’s first statement of the laws of friction," sketches of "rows of blocks being pulled by a weight hanging over a pulley – in exactly the same kind of experiment we might do today to demonstrate the laws of friction."

"While it may not be possible to identify unequivocally the empirical methods by which Leonardo arrived at his understanding of friction," Hutchings writes in his paper, "his achievements more than 500 years ago were outstanding. He made tests, he observed, and he made powerful connections in his thinking on this subject as in so many others." By the year of these sketches Leonardo "had elucidated the fundamental laws of friction," then "developed and applied them with varying degrees of success to practical mechanical systems."

And though tribologists had no idea of Leonardo's work on friction until the twentieth century, seemingly unimportant drawings like these show that he "stands in a unique position as a quite remarkable and inspirational pioneer of tribology." What other fields of inquiry could Leonardo have pioneered without history having properly acknowledged it? Just as his life inspires us to learn and invent, so research like Hutchings' inspires us to look closer at what he left behind, especially at that which our eyes may have passed over before. You can open up Leonardo's notebooks and have a look yourself. Just make sure to learn his mirror writing first.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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