Femto-Column: Short Essays
on Science and Humanity
Tatsuo Tabata

"Femto" is "a combining form used in the names of units of measure that are one quadrillionth (10 to minus 15) the size of the unit denoted by the base word" (Random House Webster's College Dictionary). Femto-meter, fm, is a unit suitable to express the size of atomic nuclei. Thus, "femto" is used here for the name of a very short column.
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Copyright © 2000-2001 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

31. Young Einstein and a Compass Needle
32. Gell-Mann and Feynman
33. Challenging Mysteries of the Universe
34. Needs to Stop Isolation of Scientists
35. Understanding the Physical Universe
36. The Value of Searching for Dark Matter
37. Serendipity and a Prepared Mind
38. A Human Side of Einstein
39. An Expression of the Freedom of Expression
40. The Beauty in Physical and Cosmological Theories

To All the Contents of Femto-Column

31. Young Einstein and a Compass Needle

James Livingston starts his book1 by the story of Albert Einstein at the age of four or five, when his father showed him a compass needle. The behavior of the needle (effects not connected with direct "touch") gave a deep and lasting impression on young Einstein. The story was originally told in Einstein's autobiography,2 and has been cited often in books on Einstein and the theory of relativity.3 However, the main theme of Livingston's book is neither this great physicist nor the theory of relativity. Why then does he begin with this story? No wonder. His book treats magnets.

Livingston describes ten facts about the magnetic force. Just half of them have been known for hundreds of years, and the rest, only since the nineteenth century. Using these facts like equations in physics textbooks, he gives detailed explanations on the workings of various magnetic devices and the modern technologies of magnets in plain words. The topics covered includes superconducting magnets, magnets in motors, speakers, TVs, toys, fiction, magic and weapons, magnetic recording, magnets in medicine, biomagnetism, and so on, namely everything about magnets. The book is also interspersed with humorous comments.

In the last chapter the author goes back again to young Einstein's wondering at the motion of a compass needle, and writes that Einstein's curiosity provided the driving force that led him eventually to quantum physics and relativity. Thus the reader notices here that the title of the book, "Driving Force," has the triple meaning of the magnetic force itself, the driving force of magnets in much of today's technology and the driving force to Einstein's important work. This is one of the most educational and interesting books I have ever read in the genre of science for laypersons.

  1. J. D. Livingston, "Driving Force" (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996). In the IDEA site you find another story related to this book.
  2. P. A. Schilpp, ed., "Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist" (Tudor, New York, 1949).
  3. The book I read most recently is: A. D. Aczel, "God's Equation" (Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1999)

29 Jul 00

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Driving Force" on the bying-info page of this book at

32. Gell-Mann and Feynman

In his book1 George Johnson beautifully describes the life and work of the Nobel-Prize physicist Murray Gell-Mann and the revolutionary history of elementary particle physics. In addition to how the important discoveries of the Eightfold Way and quarks were made, we learn Gell-Mann's diverse interests in linguistics, ornithology, archaeology, environmental problems and complex phenomena. The author writes not only about the physicist's brilliance and success but also his human frailties such as his experiences of writer's block and procrastination and his brooding temper, thus making the biography complete as viewed from every side.

Gell-Mann worked for many years at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where another Nobel-Prize physicist, Richard Feynman, was doing research and education. Therefore, we find many stories about Feynman in the Gell-Mann's biography. The collaboration of the two physicists did not necessarily go well, but the author writes about "an incredible combination of talent" in helping other persons' work as follows: Gell-Mann seemed to be engaged in every thing, while Feynman seemed interested in his current obsessions. Feynman was able to take one's idea apart and put it back together so that one understood it as never before. Then Gell-Mann could show how the idea fit with the rest of the fabric of knowledge.

Caltech held a grand memorial service for Feynman after six weeks of his death. At the end of the detailed description of this service, Johnson writes that Gell-Mann didn't show up at either gathering repeated and that mutual friends of Caltech's two great physicists were puzzled, "Was Murray too broken up over Dick's death to attend? Or was he still angry at him and jealous of Feynman's fame?" Neither was true. The story to answer the puzzle follows in the next passages of the book.

  1. G. Johnson, "Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999).

10 Aug 00

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Strange Beauty" on the bying-info page of this book at

Go to “What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?”

33. Challenging Mysteries of the Universe

Martin Rees, Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University and Astronomer Royal, skillfully describes in his recent book for a general readership1 the mysteries of the physical laws that govern our universe. On page 2, he gives a list of explanations of the six numbers treated in this book. Readers may feel it necessary to look back this list often while reading later chapters. For this purpose, the explanations are a little lengthy and lack the rigor of definition, though this is not a serious defect of this book.

The list with my version of explanations is:

N (about 1036)

The ratio of the gravitational to the electrical force between protons.

Epsilon (0.007)

The ratio of the binding energy of the helium nucleus to the total rest-mass energy of constituent nucleons (nuclear efficiency).


The ratio of the actual to the critical density of the universe (for omega <1, gravity will eventually reverse the expansion of the universe).


Einstein's cosmological constant (the recently claimed observation of an accelerating expansion of the universe is attributable to a non-zero vacuum energy and a nonzero value of lambda).

Q (about 10-5)

The energy needed to break up and disperse stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies as a proportion of their total rest-mass energy (related to the fabric of our universe).

D (3)

The number of spatial dimension in our world.

Narrating about possible consequences that would be caused by different values of these numbers, the author ingeniously makes the readers wonder about the forces that shape everything from galaxies to life on earth. With a heightened curiosity, they are lead to the final chapter, where they would be interested in guessing by themselves if the fine-tuning of the values of the six numbers is the result of providence or multiverse.

In the same chapter the author says that understanding the very beginning of the universe remains a fundamental challenge, and refers to Richard Feynman's analogy between inferring the rules of chess by watching a few games and learning the physical laws of nature by scientific methods.

  1. Martin Rees, "Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe" (Basic Books, New York, 2000; first published in 1999 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

2 Sep 00

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Just Six Numbers" on the bying-info page of this book at

Go to “What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?”

34. Needs to Stop Isolation of Scientists

On the "millennium essay" pages in the two recent issues of the journal Nature the isolation of scientists in two different contexts were discussed.

Raúl Camba of the University of Oxford takes up the problem of recent developments in scientific language and writes,1 "Specialist words are essential for accuracy, but they can also results in a private, isolating jargon." He gives an interesting example of comparison between Tycho Brahe's exquisite account of the 1572 supernova and modern researchers' complex terminology to describe the 1987 supernova. Then he insists that scientific education ought to include courses on writing an article and giving a presentation in order to train would-be scientists in effective communication with the public. For the reason that English is now the language of science, Camba also points out the importance of English education in the countries where people don't speak it.

Roel Snieder of the Colorado School of Mines writes2 that during the Renaissance scientists often had extremely broad interests (e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, a scientist, engineer, painter, sculptor and architect) but that since the middle of the past millennium science has become increasingly specialized. The author does not regard this a positive development, because specialization creates isolation. In the present situation of science he finds an increasing need to broaden the outlook of scientists once again. The need is spurred by the study of very complex systems (the Earth's carbon-dioxide system, biotechnology, optical computation, etc.), which can only be made with the input of knowledge from different disciplines. Homo universalis to be resurrected, Snieder considers, should be a person not of the extreme breadth of Leonardo da Vinci but of the ability to work in an interdisciplinary team.

To stop both kinds of isolation, we need develop good education. However, it would also be important that students are well motivated for communication skills and interdisciplinary research to make their own effort to acquire necessary abilities. Students, it would be demanding for you to become a good scientist of the 21st century, but, think of the joy of discovering a new fact of nature to make it the common property of mankind! Then you will notice how the job would be worth doing.

  1. R. Camba, "Start making sense: Scientists must stop isolating themselves behind walls of jargon," Nature vol. 406, p. 461 (2000).
  2. R. Snieder, "The tube worm turns: Science needs a new breed of Renaissance man and woman," Nature vol. 406, p. 939 (2000).

22 Sep 00

35. Understanding the Physical Universe

For forty thousand years humans have tried to know how the universe works, and now physicists are approaching the ultimate understanding of the laws that govern the natural world. In his new book "Supersymmetry,"1 Gordon Kane, a renowned particle physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, describes the theories at the forefront of this majestic human endeavor in a readily understandable manner.

Kane calls the theories that work at different distance scales "effective theories"; and an ultimate theory of nature, "the primary theory." His another explanation of an effective theory is as follow: At its own level, an effective theory provides a "how understanding," a description of how things work. For the effective theory at larger distances, however, the smaller-distance effective theory explains all or some of the input parameters, thus providing a "why understanding." The method of effective theories has sometimes been called a reductionist one, but the author thinks that the word resuctionist is somewhat misleading because by this method physicists not only separate areas to study them but also integrate them as they become understood.

As the title shows, the central theme of Kane's book is the supersymmetry theory. This theory is expected to extend the Standard Model, a validated effective theory on a scale of about a hundred million billionth meter, down to the wondrous scale of nearly a hundred million billion billion billionth meter (Planck scale), but it is not yet the primary theory. Thus the author also explains the possible relations of the supersymmetry and the next possible effective theory called string theory, and their way up to (or down to, from the view point of distance scales) the primary theory.

Kane writes not only about the features of the theories but also how these would be tested experimentally. To confirm the supersymmetry really to be the next stage toward the primary theory, particles called a Higgs boson and a "superpartner" have to be found in giant accelerators. Topics of research in progress are often referred to in this book, so that the author uses an acronym of RIP for such research. It is wonderful that many problems in RIP are treated in simple words.

In the chapter "Can we really understand the origin of the universe and its natural law(s)?" the author examines the justifications for funding particle physics and cosmology, and gives three strongest reasons: (1) Understanding gleaned from basic science enriches our culture and our view of our relationship to the universe. (2) The impact of basic research on young people produce the result that many of them see an opportunity to develop products or information technology by the use of methods they learned. (3) Basic research more than repays society for its cost through the mechanism of spin-offs (examples: the World Wide Web was developed at CERN to find new ways to handle data from the LEP collider for international collaborations; accelerators invented and developed to do nuclear and particle physics are finding uses in the research and applied fields of material and medical sciences and much more). --This is what we want politicians to read.--

All in all "Supersymmetry" is quite an inspiring book, and I strongly recommend it to all the readers of an inquisitive mind.

  1. G. Kane,, "Supersymmetry: Squarks, Photinos, and the Unveiling of the Ultimate Laws of Nature" (Perseus Publishing,Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

23 Sep 00

(A shorter version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Supersymmetry" on the bying-info page of this book at

36. The Value of Searching for Dark Matter

Will the universe expand forever, begin to contract at some time in the future, or get to a balanced state? The answer depends on the amount of mass it contains. To explain the behavior of galaxies unaccountable by the mass of visible matter, the idea of "dark matter" was proposed in the 1980s.

The astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss at Case Western Reserve University recently published a book entitled "Quintessence."1 This title means "The Fifth Essence." Actually the latter was the title of the first edition of this book published in 1989. In ancient philosophy, it meant the heavenly material that was supposed not only to form stars but also to pervade all things, and is used here to represent dark matter and another possible "stuff", vacuum energy, in the universe.

Krauss starts the story by an intriguing brief review of the earliest notions of cosmologies and gives an updated and much detailed account of the dark matter problem for lay readers. The account covers both theoretical and experimental studies including those to be done in the near future. Some chapters might be hard for bedside reading even for scientists, because the author often lays one reason upon the other for an explanation. However, thorough reading of this book would be rewarding if you like to wonder about the mysteries of the universe and scientists' efforts to resolve them.

For the possible question if the search for dark matter is worth the effort, Krauss provides the following reply: It is not so much the answers that make the search worthwhile as the search itself. The progress of science and the arts turn the life worth celebrating by rekindling our dream and imagination. --Yes, we humans are the creatures to live with dream and imagination!--

  1. L. Krauss, "Quintessence: The Mystery of Missing Mass in the Universe" (Basic Books, New York, 2000).

9 Oct 00

(A shorter version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "Quintessence" on the bying-info page of this book at

37. Serendipity and a Prepared Mind

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2000 was awarded to Alan J. Heeger of the University of California at Santa Barbara, USA, Alan G. MacDiarmid of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and Hideki Shirakawa of the University of Tsukuba, Japan. Their work cited for the award is the revolutionary discovery that plastic can, after certain modifications, be made electrically conductive.

The beginning of the discovery is reported to have included a serendipitous1 pass (New York Times, 11 Oct.). One day in the early 1970s, a researcher in Shirakawa's laboratory misheard the latter's instructions and added 1,000 times too much catalyst to the chemical reaction for producing thin films of polyacetylene. The result was a silvery film composed of a different form of this material. Meanwhile, MacDiarmid and Heeger, then also at the University of Pennsylvania, had made a metallic-looking film out of strands of sulfur nitride. MacDiarmid talked about this film at a seminar in Tokyo. Shirakawa met MacDiarmid during the coffee break and told him about the silvery polyacetylene film. This led to their co-operation to develop an electrically conductive plastic.

There are many examples of serendipitous success in science and technology (see for example Shapiro2 and Roberts3). An important thing for such success is that the researcher's mind has to be prepared to grasp the meaning of chance happening. It is also reported (Asahi Shimbun, Evening ed., 11 Oct.) that Shirakawa wrote an essay in his last year at junior high school about his wish to develop plastics with much improved characteristics. It is wonderful that he had been prepared for just the great discovery since his boyhood.

The press release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences4 lists the following practical applications of conductive plastics: anti-static substances for photographic film, shields for computer screen against electromagnetic radiation and for "smart" windows (that can exclude sunlight). The list includes also the additional application of semi-conductive polymers recently developed in light-emitting diodes, solar cells and as displays in mobile telephones and mini-format television screens.

In the field of my specialty of radiation dosimetry, a stack of plastic films or plates plays a role of a phantom to simulate energy absorption in human tissue. The use of conductive plastics is effective for the stable measurement of energy and charge deposition by ionizing radiation at different depths in the stack. Therefore I learned the presence of conductive plastics soon after they had become available, but had not known who were the inventors of them until I read the news of the Nobel Prize in chemistry 2000.

  1. "Serendipity" means the natural ability to make interesting or valuable discoveries by accident (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). Horace Walpole so named (1754) a faculty possessed by the heroes of a fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip" (Random House Webster's College Dictionary).
  2. G. Shapiro, "A Skeleton in the Darkroom: Stories of Serendipity in Science" (Harper and Row, 1986).
  3. R. M. Roberts, "Serendipity: Accidental Discovery in Science" (Wiley, New York, 1989).
  4. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2000 (The Site of The Nobel Foundation)

13 Oct 00

38. A Human Side of Einstein

In his book1 Amir Aczel describes Einstein's equation of general relativity, which governs the behavior of the universe, from its birth to a possible role in the near future. The story is beautifully woven together with the latest finding in cosmology and the riddle of creation. The finding is that the cosmos is expanding at an ever-increasing rate.2 This became one of the causes for the revival of Einstein's "cosmological constant," which its inventor called his "biggest blunder."3

On the basis of Einstein's letters that became accessible recently, Aczel also tells, for the first time, the great physicist's efforts to get a prediction of his theory experimentally proved. Thus the author well succeeds in revealing a human side of the person who discovered "God's Equation" and making his book an absorbing read.

  1. Amir D. Aczel, "God's Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe" (Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1999).
  2. This topic is also treated in:
    - Mario Livio, "The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos" (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000).
    - Donald Goldsmith, "The Runaway Universe: The Race to Find the Future of the Cosmos" (Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).
  3. Martin Rees writes, ". . . George Gamow's autobiography My world Line recalls a conversation in which Einstein, three years before his death, rated lambda as his 'biggest blunder' . . ." in his book "Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe" (Basic Books, New York, 1999).

24 Oct 00

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "God's Equation" on the bying-info page of this book at

39. An Expression of the Freedom of Expression

Based mostly on true events in 1930s New York City, writer-director Tim Robbins wove different stories into the 132-minutes movie "Cradle Will Rock" (Touchstone Pictures, 1999). A poor young woman dreaming to become an actress, Olive Stanton (played by Emily Watson), is singing on the street for a nickel. An Italian lady, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon) is selling the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci to wealthy industrialists for the purpose of helping fund Mussolini's war effort. Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions the Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint the lobby of Rockefeller Center. Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen), 22-years old, directs his Federal Theater group to prepare for the performance of "The Cradle Will Rock." However, the theater is blocked on the eve of its opening by soldiers of the US government.  . . .

Reviews of this movie are controversial and ranges from a scathing criticism to an utmost appraisal.

"But we don't need a 60-year perspective to see Robbins' attitude revealed in all its meanness of spirit. If he hated these people so, why did he waste his time and ours putting them on film?"1

"Although I'm tempted to ignore the movie's failings and recommend it for its politics alone, what would be the point? Liberals don't need to see it to confirm their beliefs, and conservatives are probably beyond hope."2

"The pity of it is that once Robbins forgets his subplots and concentrates on the outlaw performance itself -- with once homeless actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) and firebrand Italian actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro, playing a role probably modeled on future blacklist victim Howard Da Silva), starting the show -- the movie fulfills its promise and becomes moving, rousing, thrilling."3

"As the moment approaches for "The Cradle Will Rock" to see the light of day, the material coalesces into something tough and purposeful, yielding a stirring finale."4

I was quite moved when Olive Stanton began to sing in the scene referred to in the third comment above. Was I seeing the movie by neglecting subplots? No, I was not. Therefore, I believe that the film was already moving, rousing, and thrilling enough. What this product gives is not a simple caricature of politics but a description of the strong passion and co-operation of people for one of fundamental human rights, the freedom of expression, when it is subjected to pressure.

  1. Richard Corliss, Time Vol. 154, No. 26 (Dec. 27, 1999).
  2. Ian Waldron-Mantgani, The UK Critic (May 12, 2000).
  3. Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune (Jan. 11, 2000).
  4. Janet Maslin, New York Times (Dec. 8, 1999).

27 Oct 00

40. The Beauty in Physical and Cosmological Theories

In the book "Accelerating Universe"1 a cosmologist and art fanatic, Mario Livio, elegantly tells the general reader about the recent observational finding that the expansion of the universe is speeding up contrary to the long-held belief of slowing-down expansion. He stresses the effect of this finding on the beauty of the fundamental theory of the universe; or rather the central theme of the book is that beauty.

Livio clearly explains his requirements for the beauty in physical and cosmological theories. The requirements are (1) symmetry, (2) simplicity, and (3) the Copernican principle (we are nothing special). According to the author, the tentative discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe poses a frightening challenge to the beauty of the final theory by raising difficult questions about the non-zero value of the cosmological constant (or the energy of the vacuum). From the viewpoint of the Copernican principle Livio rejects resorting to the anthropic principle for giving a quick answer to those questions. The story told about the recent finding of extrasolar planets is intriguing and helps strengthen the basis of the expanding Copernican principle.

In the earliest chapter entitled "Beauty and the Beast" Livio writes that the mutual influences between the arts and the sciences are frequently exaggerated and that direct, immediate, conscious influence is minimal. However, he continues that in some epochs people from different disciplines sometimes think along similar lines, giving examples of simplicity and reductionistic approach aimed at in architecture and art. Then he says, "Interestingly, while this reductionistic approach was adopted only by certain movements in Western art, . . ." Here I thought that he was going to say that the reductionistic approach had been absent in Eastern world. To my joy, however, he next writes, "in Japanese art, as in physics, reductionism has been regarded as an element of beauty for centuries," and refers to Sesshu's painting and Shikibu's poem.

Concerning the relation between beauty and physical theories, we have to remind ourselves of the followings: P. A. M. Dirac held the principle that theoretical physics must follow the route determined by beautiful mathematics.2 Chandrasekhar described the evidence that a theory developed by a scientist, with an exceptionally well-developed aesthetic sensibility, could turn out to be true even if, at the time of its formulation, it appeared not to be so.3 Recently Robert S. Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University wrote, ". . . the arts and sciences are as integral today as they were in the Renaissance."4 The relation between science and beauty seems to be too deep to be dealt with in one of my short essays.

  1. M. Livio, "The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos" (John Wiley, New York, 2000).
  2. H. S. Kragh, "Dirac: A Scientific Biography" (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990).
  3. S. Chandrasekhar, "Beauty and the quest for beauty in science" in "Truth and Beauty: Aethetics and Motivations in Science" (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987).
  4. R. S. Root-Bernstein, "Art advances science: Today's scientists stand on the shoulders of pioneering artists" Nature vol. 407, p. 134 (2000).

8 Jan 01

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "The Accelerating Universe" on the bying-info page of this book at

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