Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

When Richard Feynman was a boy of thirteen he hung around guys who were a bit older. One day one of the older boys, with the cooperation of his girlfriend, was demonstrating how to kiss. After observing the expert’s technique, Feynman finds a girl, they sit on the couch, and begin to practice the art of kissing when excitement fills the room be “Arlene is coming, Arlene is coming!”

Arlene was very pretty, but Feynman was otherwise occupied and not inclined to change what he was doing just because the queen walks into the room. But later it became obvious to Feynman that she had captured his interest and later his heart. She was very popular. Feynman was the skinny, studious kid and had lots of competition from more able bodied boys.

He was very shy at first. But as they became friends and grew close he began to enjoy more of her time and attention. They began to go steady. Later, while Feynman did his undergraduate work at MIT and his graduate work at Princeton he would go home to see Arlene as frequently as he could. During the time he was at Princeton, Arlene became ill. At first the doctors thought she had typhoid fever, then they were certain it was Hodgkin’s disease, but finally she was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lymphatic gland. In the early 1940, tuberculosis was a fatal disease for most patients. Arlene was going to die.

They married anyway and were very careful with this highly contagious disease. When Feynman was sent to Los Alamos to help in the war effort Arlene came along. Oppenheimer arrange for her to live in the nearest hospital about a hundred miles away in Albuquerque. Feynman went to see her often and she was a prankster. But after a couple of years the disease caught up with them and she slipped away.

Feynman carried this great love for Arlene and the sadness of losing her his whole life. But he treated it as a rich part of being human, and felt fortunate to have lived through such a beautiful love. He managed to be a happy man his whole life.

Richard and Arlene Feynman were on the wrong side of medical science. Had her disease occurred later, antibiotics could have saved her.

The marvelous situation my wife, my children, and I find ourselves in, is that we are on the other side of medical science. Thirteen years ago, my wife was diagnosed with another fatal lung disease affecting the lymphatics for which there was no cure, but because the disease is slow in its progression, a lung transplant provides a new lease on life. Two and a half years later, Linda had deteriorated and was struggling for breath when we got the miraculous call that matching lungs for her rare blood type were available. Today, nearly eleven years later my wife is doing wonderfully.

We are giving thanks this day to everyone who contributed to making this great gift possible, from the scientists, to the doctors and nurses, the donor family, my employer at the time Citigroup, whose insurance program covered the enormous costs involved, to our friend, our neighbors, our families who all came forward and help us during the crisis. Thank you all!!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Empty Space Does Not Exist

I am reading Steven Hawking’s new book (for the semi-ignorant masses like myself) The Grand Design. I am enjoying the book thoroughly. It is the first time I've seen Richard Feynman get the attention he deserves. About halfway through the book Hawking talks about a consequence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, that there is no such thing as empty space. Empty space cannot be empty because then the both the value of the field, and the rate of change would be exactly zero and that cannot obtain. Although it seems to me that the problem Heisenberg uncertainty principle depends upon is having something to observe. So this argument seems a bit circular. But, there's a much easier way to show that space is not empty.

A little thought experiment would suggest that within the knowable universe, if Einstein was right, it’s pretty easy to decide space is not empty, in fact it is quite full, maybe completely full (whatever that means). Einstein suggested that energy and mass are forms of the same thing. The conservation of energy and the conservation of mass were both wrong, but combined are true.

Imagine you are in orbit around the earth. You look away from the sun. What do you see? Stars! You see billions of stars. In fact, if your eyes were more sensitive, perhaps more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps you could see a couple hundred billion galaxies, each made up of 200 billion to 400 billion stars. That’s a lot of photons hitting your little eye all the time. Now imagine you move a few inches over to your right. What do you see? The same thing. If fact, wherever you move in space you will still be impacted by billions and billions of photons. Thus, space is not empty. Now, all I need is a photon sail and I'm off.