Albert Einstein: Physicist and Social Justice Warrior

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From left: Former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, Albert Einstein, Lewis Wallace, and Paul Robeson. Einstein had invited Wallace (who was running for President in 1948) and singer/actor/civil-rights activist Robeson to his house to discuss anti-lynching activism. Robeson asked Einstein to co-chair his  organization, American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL). [Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images]

From left: Former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, Albert Einstein, Lewis Wallace, and Paul Robeson. Einstein had invited Wallace (who was running for President in 1948) and singer/actor/civil-rights activist Robeson to his house to discuss anti-lynching activism. Robeson asked Einstein to co-chair his organization, American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL). [Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images]

How Albert Einstein Used His Fame to Denounce American Racism

The world-renowned physicist was never one to just stick to the science

For Smithsonian Magazine:

By the spring of 1933, the most famous scientist in the world had become a refugee.

Einstein was a more fortunate refugee than most. By that time he was already a Nobel Prize winner and media celebrity, recognizable around the world. That fame made him a high-profile enemy for the new Nazi government in Germany, but it also guaranteed him safe places to go. Ultimately he ended up in America at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Einstein saw racism as a fundamental stumbling block to freedom. In both his science and his politics, Einstein believed in the need for individual liberty: the ability to follow ideas and life paths without fear of oppression. And he knew from his experiences as a Jewish scientist in Germany how easily that freedom could be destroyed in the name of nationalism and patriotism. In a 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University, the oldest black college in the U.S., Einstein decried American racism in no uncertain terms.

“There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States,” said the renowned physicist, using the common term in the day. “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” [Read the rest at Smithsonian Magazine]

Evolution, entropy, and beards

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The Hidden Connections Between Darwin and the Physicist Who Championed Entropy

These magnificently bearded men both introduced a dose of randomness and irreversibility into the universe

For Smithsonian Magazine:

Of all the scientific advances, evolution has been the hardest on the human ego. Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory, laid out in his groundbreaking 1859 book On the Origin of Species, threatened to overturn humanity’s exalted position in the universe. Yet in the same era, a quieter—and seemingly unrelated—scientific revolution was also taking place.

The concept of entropy in physics began harmlessly enough, as an explanation for why steam engines could never be perfectly efficient. But ultimately, entropy also threatened an established hierarchy. And in fact, entropy and evolution were more than casually related. [Read the rest at Smithsonian]

Forging dark matter in the Big Bang

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The origins of dark matter

Theorists think dark matter was forged in the hot aftermath of the Big Bang

For Symmetry Magazine:

Transitions are everywhere we look. Water freezes, melts, or boils; chemical bonds break and form to make new substances out of different arrangements of atoms. The universe itself went through major transitions in early times. New particles were created and destroyed continually until things cooled enough to let them survive.

Those particles include ones we know about, such as the Higgs boson or the top quark. But they could also include dark matter, invisible particles which we presently know only because of their gravitational effects.

In cosmic terms, dark matter particles could be a “thermal relic,” forged in the hot early universe and then left behind during the transitions to more moderate later eras. One of these transitions, known as “freeze-out,” changed the nature of the whole universe. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The search for magnetic monopoles, the truest north

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The hunt for the truest north

Many theories predict the existence of magnetic monopoles, but experiments have yet to see them

For Symmetry Magazine:

If you chop a magnet in half, you end up with two smaller magnets. Both the original and the new magnets have “north” and “south” poles.

But what if single north and south poles exist, just like positive and negative electric charges? These hypothetical beasts, known as “magnetic monopoles,” are an important prediction in several theories.

Like an electron, a magnetic monopole would be a fundamental particle. Nobody has seen one yet, but many—maybe even most—physicists would say monopoles probably exist. (Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…)

There (to an asteroid) and back again: a robot’s journey

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This Thursday, the OSIRIS-REx robotic probe will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, destined for asteroid Bennu. I can’t ride with the probe, but I’m doing the next best thing: going to Florida to watch the launch, alongside scientists involved in the project. Here’s a preview, written for New Scientist:

NASA probe about to leave for asteroid Bennu and bring bits home

For New Scientist:

Bennu or bust. On 8 September, the OSIRIS-REx probe will leave Earth for the asteroid Bennu, and will return with souvenirs: up to 2 kilograms of material from its surface.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is the latest in a string of sample return missions, following the Stardust mission to the comet Wild 2 and the Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa. Both of those missions hit hurdles, and neither brought more than a few grains of material back to Earth.

OSIRIS-Rex will pioneer a new and ambitious technique for gathering samples: a robotic arm equipped with a vacuum cleaner. [Read the rest at The New Scientist]

Confused about the Big Bang? Start here

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The Big Bang is the central concept in cosmology — the study of the whole universe — but it can be confusing to a lot of people. In fact, it’s a little unfair: some of the confusion comes from us cosmologists. In my latest for Symmetry, I try to sift out some of the important concepts and hopefully clear up some of the confusion.

Five facts about the Big Bang

It’s the cornerstone of cosmology, but what is it all about?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Astronomers Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason in the early 20th century discovered that galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way. More to the point: Every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy on average, which means the whole universe is expanding. In the past, then, the whole cosmos must have been much smaller, hotter and denser.

That description, known as the Big Bang model, has stood up against new discoveries and competing theories for the better part of a century. So what is this “Big Bang” thing all about? [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Information ain’t no good if you can’t get to it

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The most important website in particle physics

The first website to be hosted in the US has grown to be an invaluable hub for open science

For Symmetry Magazine:

With tens of thousands of particle physicists working in the world today, the biggest challenge a researcher can have is keeping track of what everyone else is doing. The articles they write, the collaborations they form, the experiments they run—all of those things are part of being current. After all, high-energy particle physics is a big enterprise, not the province of a few isolated people working out of basement laboratories.

Particle physicists have a tool that helps them with that. The INSPIRE database allows scientists to search for published papers by topic, author, scholarly journal, what previous papers the authors cited and which newer papers have used it as a reference.

“I don’t know any other discipline with such a central tool as INSPIRE,” says Sünje Dallmeier-Tiessen, an information scientist at CERN who manages INSPIRE’s open-access initiative. If you’re a high-energy physicist, “everything that relates to your daily work-life, you can find there.” [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]