J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How He Recited a Line from Bhagavad Gita–“Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”–Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion

No matter how little we know of the Hindu religion, a line from one of its holy scriptures lives within us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is one facet of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who left an outsized mark on history. For his crucial role in the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remembered as the”father of the atomic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mexican desert that proved these experimental weapons actually work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruction previously only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an interview with Wired, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson explains that, in the original, the word that Oppenheimer speaks as “death” refers to “literally the world-destroying time.” This means that “irrespective of what Arjuna does” — Arjuna being the aforementioned prince, the narrative’s protagonist — everything is in the hands of the divine.” Oppenheimer would have learned all this while teaching in the 1930s at Berkeley, where he learned Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. This created in him, said his colleague Isidor Rabi, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”

The necessity of the United States’ subsequent dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, examined in the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb, remains a matter of debate. Oppenheimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describing himself to an appalled President Harry Truman as having “blood on my hands.” But in developing them, could he have simply seen himself as a modern Prince Arjuna? “It has been argued by scholars,” writes the Economic Times‘ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote another line from that scripture brought to mind by the nuclear explosion, that “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One” — and perhaps also that splendor and wrath may be one.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Map of Quantum Physics: A Colorful Animation Explains the Often Misunderstood Branch of Science

In our time, few branches of science have taken as much public abuse as quantum physics, the study of how things behave at the atomic scale. It’s not so much that people dislike the subject as they see fit to draft it in support of any given notion: quantum physics, one hears, proves that we have free will, or that Buddhist wisdom is true, or that there is an afterlife, or that nothing really exists. Those claims may or may not be true, but they do not help us at all to understand what quantum physics actually is. For that we’ll want to turn to Dominic Walliman, a Youtuber whose channel Domain of Science features clear visual explanations of scientific fields including physics, chemistry, mathematics, as well as the whole domain of science itself — and who also, as luck would have it, is a quantum physics PhD.

With his knowledge of the field, and his modesty as far as what can be definitively said about it, Wallman has designed a map of quantum physics, available for purchase at his web site. In the video above he takes us on a guided tour through the realms into which he has divided up and arranged his subject, beginning with the “pre-quantum mysteries,” inquiries into which led to its foundation.

From there he continues on to the foundations of quantum physics, a territory that includes such potentially familiar landmarks as particle-wave duality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the Schrödinger equation — though not yet his cat, another favorite quantum-physics reference among those who don’t know much about quantum physics.

Alas, as c explains in the subsequent “quantum phenomena” section, Schrödinger’s cat is “not very helpful, because it was originally designed to show how absurd quantum mechanics seems, as cats can’t be alive and dead at the same time.” But then, this is a field that proceeds from absurdity, or at least from the fact that its observations at first made no sense by the traditional laws of physics. There follow forays into quantum technology (lasers, solar panels, MRI machines), quantum information (computing, cryptography, the prospect teleportation), and a variety of subfields including condensed matter physics, quantum biology, and quantum chemistry. Though detailed enough to require more than one viewing, Walliman’s map also makes clear how much of quantum physics remains unexplored — and most encouragingly of all, leaves off its supposed philosophical, or existential implications. You can watch Walliman’s other introduction to Quantum Physics below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Albert Einstein’s Grades: A Fascinating Look at His Report Cards

Albert Einstein was a precocious child.

At the age of twelve, he followed his own line of reasoning to find a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. At thirteen he read Kant, just for the fun of it. And before he was fifteen he had taught himself differential and integral calculus.

But while the young Einstein was engrossed in intellectual pursuits, he didn’t much care for school. He hated rote learning and despised authoritarian schoolmasters. His sense of intellectual superiority was resented by his teachers.

In Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, author Abraham Pais tells a funny story from Einstein’s days at the Luitpold Gymnasium, a secondary school in Munich now called the Albert-Einstein-Gymnasium:

At the Gymnasium a teacher once said to him that he, the teacher, would be much happier if the boy were not in his class. Einstein replied that he had done nothing wrong. The teacher answered, “Yes, that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect that a teacher needs from his class.”

The same teacher famously said that Einstein “would never get anywhere in life.”

What bothered Einstein most about the Luitpold was its oppressive atmosphere. His sister Maja would later write:

“The military tone of the school, the systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was also particularly unpleasant for the boy. He contemplated with dread that not-too-distant moment when he will have to don a soldier’s uniform in order to fulfill his military obligations.”

When he was sixteen, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy to pursue a business venture. They told him to stay behind and finish school. But Einstein was desperate to join them in Italy before his seventeenth birthday. “According to the German citizenship laws,” Maja explained, “a male citizen must not emigrate after his completed sixteenth year; otherwise, if he fails to report for military service, he is declared a deserter.”

So Einstein found a way to get a doctor’s permission to withdraw from the school on the pretext of “mental exhaustion,” and fled to Italy without a diploma. Years later, in 1944, during the final days of World War II, the Luitpold Gymnasium was obliterated by Allied bombing. So we don’t have a record of Einstein’s grades there. But there is record of a principal at the school looking up Einstein’s grades in 1929 to fact check a press report that Einstein had been a very bad student. Walter Sullivan writes about it in a 1984 piece in The New York Times:

With 1 as the highest grade and 6 the lowest, the principal reported, Einstein’s marks in Greek, Latin and mathematics oscillated between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invariably scored 1 in math.

After he dropped out, Einstein’s family enlisted a well-connected friend to persuade the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH, to let him take the entrance exam, even though he was only sixteen years old and had not graduated from high school. He scored brilliantly in physics and math, but poorly in other areas. The director of the ETH suggested he finish preparatory school in the town of Aarau, in the Swiss canton of Aargau. A diploma from the cantonal school would guarantee Einstein admission to the ETH.

At Aarau, Einstein was pleasantly surprised to find a liberal atmosphere in which independent thought was encouraged.  “When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,” he later said, “it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”

In Einstein’s first semester at Aarau, the school still used the old method of scoring from 1 to 6, with 1 as the highest grade. In the second semester the system was reversed, with 6 becoming the highest grade. Barry R. Parker talks about Einstein’s first-semester grades in his book, Einstein: The Passions of a Scientist:

His grades over the first few months were: German, 2-3; French, 3-4; history, 1-2; mathematics, 1; physics, 1-2; natural history, 2-3; chemistry, 2-3; drawing, 2-3; and violin, 1. (The range is 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest.) Although none of the grades, with the exception of French, were considered poor, some of them were only average.

The school headmaster, Jost Winteler, who had welcomed Einstein into his home as a boarder and had become something of a surrogate father to him during his time at Aarau, was concerned that a young man as obviously brilliant as Albert was receiving average grades in so many courses. At Christmas in 1895, he mailed a report card to Einstein’s parents. Hermann Einstein replied with warm thanks, but said he was not too worried. As Parker writes, Einstein’s father said he was used to seeing a few “not-so-good grades along with very good ones.”

In the next semester Einstein’s grades improved, but were still mixed. As Toby Hendy of the Youtube channel Tibees shows in the video above, Einstein’s final grades were excellent in math and physics, but closer to average in other areas.

Einstein’s uneven academic performance continued at the ETH, as Hendy shows. By the third year his relationship with the head of the physics department, Heinrich Weber, began to deteriorate. Weber was offended by the young man’s arrogance. “You’re a clever boy, Einstein,” said Weber. “An extremely clever boy. But you have one great fault. You’ll never allow yourself to be told anything.” Einstein was particularly frustrated that Weber refused to teach the groundbreaking electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell. He began spending less time in the classroom and more time reading up on current physics at home and in the cafes of Zurich.

Einstein increasingly focused his attention on physics, and neglected mathematics. He came to regret this. “It was not clear to me as a student,” he later said, “that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods.”

Einstein’s classmate Marcel Grossmann helped him by sharing his notes from the math lectures Einstein had skipped. When Einstein graduated, his conflict with Weber cost him the teaching job he had expected to receive. Grossmann eventually came to Einstein’s rescue again, urging his father to help him secure a well-paid job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Many years later, when Grossmann died, Einstein wrote a letter to his widow that conveyed not only his sadness at an old friend’s death, but also his bittersweet memories of life as a college student:

“Our days together come back to me. He a model student; I untidy and a daydreamer. He on excellent terms with the teachers and grasping everything easily; I aloof and discontented, not very popular. But we were good friends and our conversations over iced coffee at the Metropol every few weeks belong among my nicest memories.”

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This is What Richard Feynman’s PhD Thesis Looks Like: A Video Introduction

Richard Feynman wasn’t just an “ordinary genius.” He was, according to mathematician Mark Kac “in his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses,” a “magician” and “a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings. Many a Feynman anecdote comes from Feynman himself, who burnished his popular image with two bestselling autobiographies. His stories about his life in science are extraordinary, and true, including one he tells the first seminar he gave at Princeton in 1939, attended by Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann, and Albert Einstein.

“Einstein,” Feynman writes in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, “appreciated that things might be different from what his theory stated; he was very tolerant of other ideas.” The young upstart had many other ideas. As biographer James Gleick writes, Feynman was “nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty three… there may now have been no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science.” He had yet to complete his dissertation and would take a break from his doctoral studies to work on the Manhattan Project in 1941.

Then, in 1942, Feynman submitted his thesis, Principles of least action in quantum mechanics, supervised John Archibald Wheeler, with whom Feynman shares the name of an electrodynamic theorem. Published for the first time in 2005 by World Scientific, “its original motive,” notes the publisher, “was to quantize the classical action-at-a-distance electrodynamics”—partly in response to the challenges posed to his early lectures. In order to do this, says Toby, host of the video above, “he’ll need to come up with his own formulation of quantum mechanics, and he does this by first coming up with a new formulation in classical mechanics,” which he must apply to quantum mechanics. “This turns out to be a bit of a challenge.”

Feynman himself found it insurmountable. “I never solved it,” he writes in Surely You’re Joking, “a quantum theory of half-advanced, half-retarded potentials—and I worked on it for years.” But his “field-less electrodynamics” possessed a “stupendous efficiency,” argues physicist Olivier Darrigol, that “appeared like magic to most of his competitors.” The value of this early work, says Toby, lies not in its ability to solve the problems it raises, but to come up with “a new way to approach things”—a method of continual searching that served him his entire career. He may have discarded many of the ideas in the thesis, but his “magical” thinking would nonetheless lead to later massive breakthroughs like Feynman diagrams.

Those who follow the math can do so in the fifteen-minute video walkthrough of the Feynman’s thesis—and read the thesis in pdf form here. Toby lists several sources on key concepts on the video’s YouTube page to get you up to speed. If the high-level physics flies right over your head, learn more about how Feynman’s incredible ability to learn and teach almost any subject made him such a flexible and creative thinker in Gleick’s book, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

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

The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

After winning the Nobel Prize, physicist Max Planck “went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, ‘Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?’ Planck said, ‘Why not?’ And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, ‘Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.'”

That this intellectual switcheroo never actually happened didn’t stop Charlie Munger from using it as an opener for a commencement speech to USC’s Law School. But when a successful billionaire investor finds value even in an admittedly “apocryphal story,” most of us will find value in it as well. It illustrates, according to the Freedom in Thought video above, the difference between “two kinds of knowledge: the deep knowledge that Max had, and the shallow knowledge that the chauffeur had.” Both forms of knowledge have their advantages, especially since none of us have lifetime enough to understand everything deeply. But we get in trouble when we can’t tell them apart: “We risk fooling ourselves into thinking we actually understand or know something when we don’t. Even worse, we risk taking action on misinformation or misunderstanding.”

Even if you put little stock into a made-up anecdote about one Nobel-winning physicist, surely you’ll believe the documented words of another. Richard Feynman once articulated a first principle of knowing as follows: “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” This principle underlies a practical process of learning that consists of four steps. First, “explain the topic out loud to a peer who is unfamiliar with the topic. Meet them at their level of understanding and use the simplest language you can.” Second, “identify any gaps in your own understanding, or points where you feel that you can’t explain an idea simply.” Third, “go back to the source material and study up on your weak points until you can use simple language to explain it.” Finally, “repeat the three steps above until you’ve mastered the topic.”

We’ve featured the so-called “Feynman technique” once or twice before here on Open Culture, but its emphasis on simplicity and concision always bears repeating — in, of course, as simple and concise a manner as possible each time. Its origins lie in not just Fenyman’s first principle of knowledge but his intellectual habits. This video’s narrator cites James Gleick’s biography Genius, which tells of how “Richard would create a journal for the things he did not know. His discipline in challenging his own understanding made him a genius and a brilliant scientist.” Like all of us, Feynman was ignorant all his life of vastly more subjects than he had mastered. But unlike many of us, his desire to know burned so furiously that it propelled him into perpetual confrontation with his own ignorance. We can’t learn what we want to know, after all, unless we acknowledge how much we don’t know.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

Isaac Newton Conceived of His Most Groundbreaking Ideas During the Great Plague of 1665

Whether you’ve volunteered to self-quarantine, or have done so from necessity, health experts worldwide say home is the best place to be right now to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For some this means layoffs, or remote assignments, or an anxious and indefinite staycation. For others it means a loss of safety or resources. No matter how much choice we had in the matter, there are those among us who harbor ambitious fantasies of using the time to finally finish labors of love, whether they be crochet, composing symphonies, or writing a contemporary novel about a plague.

Many lifesaving discoveries have been made in the wake of epidemics, and many a novel written, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, composed three years after an outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria. Offering even more of a challenge to housebound writers is the example of Shakespeare, who wrote some of his best works during outbreaks of plague in London, when “theaters were likely closed more often than they were open,” as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes at The Atlantic, and when it was alleged that “the cause of plagues are plays.”

You can forgive yourself for taking a few days to organize your closets, or—let’s be real—binge on snacks and Netflix series. But if you’re still looking for a role model of productivity in a time of quarantine, you couldn’t aim higher than Isaac Newton. During the years 1665-67, the time of the Great Plague of London, Newton’s “genius was unleashed,” writes biographer Philip Steele. “The precious material that resulted was a new understanding of the world.”

In Shakespeare’s case, only decades earlier, the “plagues may have caused plays”—spurring poetry, fantasy, and the epic tragedies of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Newton too was apparently inspired by catastrophe.

These years of Newton’s life are sometimes known in Latin as anni mirabilies, meaning “marvelous years.” However, they occurred at the same time as two national disasters. In June 1665, the bubonic plague broke out in London…. As the plague spread out into the countryside, there was panic. Cambridge University was closed. By October, 70,000 people had died in the capital alone.

Newton left Cambridge for his home in Woolsthorpe. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated the city. As horrifying as these events were for the thousands who lived through them, “some of those displaced by the epidemic,” writes Stephen Porter, “were able to put their enforced break from their normal routines to good effect.” But none more so than Newton, who “conducted experiments refracting light through a triangular prism and evolved the theory of colours, invented the differential and integral calculus, and conceived of the idea of universal gravitation, which he tested by calculating the motion of the moon around the earth.”

Right outside the window of Newton’s Woolsthorpe home? “There was an apple tree,” The Washington Post writes. “That apple tree.” The apple-to-the-head version of the story is “largely apocryphal,” but in his account, Newton’s assistant John Conduitt describes the idea occurring while Newton was “musing in a garden” and conceived of the falling apple as a memorable illustration. Newton did not have Netflix to distract him, nor continuous scrolling through Twitter or Facebook to freak him out. It’s also true he practiced “social distancing” most of his life, writing strange apocalyptic prophesies when he wasn’t laying the foundations for classical physics.

Maybe what Newton shows us is that it takes more than extended time off in a crisis to do great work—perhaps it also requires that we have discipline in our solitude, and an imagination that will not let us rest. Maybe we also need the leisure and the access to take pensive strolls around the garden, not something essential employees or parents of small children home from school may get to do. But those with more free time in this new age of isolation might find the changes forced on us by a pandemic actually do inspire the work that matters to them most.

via The Washington Post

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

The Story of Physics Animated in 4 Minutes: From Galileo and Newton, to Einstein

No matter how well you remember your physics classes, you most likely don’t remember learning any stories in them. Theories and equations, yes, but not stories — yet each of those theories and equations has a story behind it, as does the entire scientific enterprise of physics they constitute. The video above from the BBC’s Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club provides an overview of the latter story in an animated four minutes, making it ideal for youngsters just starting to learn about physics. It will also do the job for those of us not-so-youngsters circling back to get a better grasp of physics, its discoveries and driving questions.

“The story of physics is, for the most part, a tale of ever-increasing confidence,” says Ó Briain, a comedian as well as a television host and writer on various subjects. This version of the story begins with rolling balls and falling objects, observed with a new rigor by such 17th-century Italians as Galileo Galilei. Galileo’s work became “the rock on which modern physics is founded,” and those who first built upon that rock included Isaac Newton, who started by noticing how apples fall and ended up with a theory of gravity. Newton’s work would later predict the existence of Neptune; James Clerk Maxwell, working in the 19th century, made discoveries about electromagnetism that would later give us radio and television.

For quite a while, physics seemed to go from strength to strength. But as the 20th century began, “the latest discoveries didn’t build on the old ones. Things like x-rays and radioactivity were just plain weird, and in a bad way.” But in 1905, onto the scene came a 26-year-old Albert Einstein, who “tore up the script by” claiming that “light is a kind of wave but also comes in packets, or particles.” That same year he published an equation you’ll certainly remember from your school days: E = mc2, which holds “that mass and energy are equivalent.” Einstein proposed that, if “someone watches a spaceship flying very fast, what they would see is the ship’s clocks running slower than their own watch — and the ship will actually shrink in size. But for the astronauts inside, all would be normal.”

In other words, “time and space can change: they are relative depending on who’s observing.” Einstein called this “special relativity,” and he also had a theory of “general relativity.” That showed “how balls and apples weren’t the only thing subject to gravity: light, time, and space were also affected. Gravity slows down time and it warps space.” No matter how dimly we understand physics itself, we all know the major players in its story: Galileo and Newton made important early discoveries, but it was Einstein who “shattered traditional physics” and revealed just how much we still have to learn about physical reality. Still today, physicists labor to reconcile Einstein’s discoveries with all other known facts of that reality. As frustrating as that task often proves, the kids who take an interest of their own in physics after watching the video will surely be heartened to know that the story of physics goes on.

via The Kids Should See This

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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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