S0701: The Hofstadter Insufficiency

This is the long awaited moment for fans of The Big Bang Theory.  The show has returned for another season with all new episodes.  Or is it the even longer-awaited return of The Big Blog Theory, giving you “the science behind the science”?

Our season opens with Leonard at sea. He left his girlfriend and his friends to go on a scientific expedition. Conveniently for the story, he left on a research vessel to the North Sea where no one could visit him.   But as we see, that story posed an inconvenient problem for the science….

smart alecks
I know that some of you were thinking, “Hey, there are no icebergs in the North Sea”. This map shows they are not unheard of. (See the marker above the “a” in “Britain”.)

Scientists, even physicists, of nearly every stripe at some point find themselves doing “field work”.  I have traveled with my physics students to Arctic and Antarctic research stations for weeks and even months at a time.  We’ve also gone several thousand feet underground into pure salt mines.  We go to factories we never would have known existed to check on the critical parts of our detectors — the latest being one that could stamp out 12 foot by 5 foot circuit boards on what amounted to a giant hydraulic panini press.  Other physicists and astrophysicists travel to mountaintops to build and use telescopes. Physicists go just about anywhere you can and maybe can’t imagine.   If you thought a career in science was purely an office job, you are missing some data.  The life of science can be a life of adventure.

Even if not going into a remote location, or even out-of-doors, many scientists travel to national laboratories for their data. Perhaps my most dangerous assignment of all was back when I was still a graduate student.   I worked in decaying old trailers on site of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, complete with dead racoons on the roof, overflowing toilets,  and with (being physicists) nobody-knew-what growing behind the paneling and carpets.  Luckily, nobody contracted cholera.

Back to Leonard.  Conducting field work on a research vessel is not uncomon.  Actually, one of my former Ph.D. students is now a researcher at the Naval Research Lab who goes to sea often with instruments he built.  A research vessel on the North Sea was a perfect way for the writers to send off Leonard out-of-reach over the summer break.

But then we had a problem.  Leonard was working with Stephen Hawking, the physicist whom Penny calls the “dude who invented time”.   More specifically, Hawking is one of the world’s leading experts on Black Holes and the physics that governs them, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.   But there are no black holes to visit by a research vessel at sea.   Nothing beyond Newton’s laws of physics are required to understand the sea.  So maybe it was hopeless, what could Stephen Hawking possibly care about any research project Leonard would be conducting in the North Sea.  Oceanography and marine biology could not be farther from General Relativity.   But luckily there was one thing that fit the bill.

Nobody can visit a black hole, nor is anyone ever likely to.  But theories must be challenged with data to find out which, if any, are right.  It turns out that the mathematics of general relativity have something in common with the mathematics of fluid flows.   One of Hawking’s famous predictions is that the previously held idea that nothing ever escapes a black hole had a loophole, they could eventually evaporate through a process conveniently called Hawking radiation.  Because the process is quantum mechanical, it carries hope that it might lead us to the elusive theory of gravity that is also fully consistent with quantum mechanics.

Nobody has ever seen this radiation, but over thirty years ago William Unruh realized that supersonic fluids shared  some mathematics in common with black holes. Specifically, he showed that  the same arguments that led Hawking to predict radiation from black holes lead one to predict a certain spectrum of sound waves to be emitted from supersonic fluids.  Even many of the quantum effects are there, with units of sound waves called phonons, in analogy to units of light being called photons. Decades later, Leonard is putting this to the test on the research vessel.   Tune in to find out if the results were “promising” or not.

Now the biggest problem.  The script coordinator asked me how to pronounce Unruh.  But I’d never met him.  I asked several of my theoretical colleagues who were of course sure of the answer, as theorists always are.  But the problem was each was sure of a different pronunciation.    In desperation, I knew I would have to contact Professor Unruh.   I admit I was a bit nervous.    I considered calling his answering machine at 4 in the morning hoping he would say his name.  But since he’s a physicist there was a good chance he would be in his office.  So I asked him.   For the record it is UN-roo and he is very nice.

18 Responses to “S0701: The Hofstadter Insufficiency”

  1. johnhalada Says:

    It’s great to have you back, Doctor. Enjoyed your new post.

  2. ftbotsb Says:

    1. I worked at NRL.
    2. I also worked at WHOI [whoi.edu] [most memorable project: BASS the Benthic Acoustic Speed Sensor – a 3d micro wave detector that sat at the bottom of the ocean. It ran on a Comodore PET]
    3. I don’t know how to explain to my wife that I’m LOL at a blog on the science behind the science of a sitcom.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      Why would you put a microwave sensor in the bottom of the ocean? Microwaves do not propagate in sea water. Is it possible it was sonar?

      On Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 11:16 PM, The Big Blog Theory

      • Wilson Says:

        He didn’t say “microwave detector”, he said “micro wave detector”. Given what you say about microwaves, I expect that it was the detector that was micro, not the waves, or possibly that it was microscope water waves being detected. : )

      • Fred Basement Says:

        Wilson got it exactly right. Sorry, like the geek I am I didn’t think of the confusions. almost SONAR, it didn’t “ping”. The research was being done in the 1970’s. We were trying to find out what makes the sandy ripples at the bottom of the ocean and determine how the sand was moving. I think the research was to find ways of preserving/protecting/improving beaches. The BASS device was on a tripod with a computer [that stored it’s data on a cassette tape] sliced up and stuffed into a torpedo shell. BASS measured very small water motion using a matrix of sound transduscers. The total volume it measured was less than 20cm sq.
        From The Basement Of The Science Building.

  3. Wilson Says:

    Welcome back! Greatly enjoyed the post. Thanks!

  4. Bolo Lacertus Says:

    I thought that the series was decaing, with you back, there is hope!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Yay, the blog is back! Any chance you are going to go and backfill the rest of S5 or S6? I’d love to read some of the insights!

  6. feldfrei Says:

    Thanks for restarting the science behind the science! 🙂 I like to see the North Sea being part of the show (this marginal sea was the first ocean I got to see as a child). On the risk of being nitpicky – the record of an iceberg occurred in the northernmost part of the North Sea close to the Shetland Islands which mark the border to the Norwegian Sea. Nevertheless, the North Sea is known for rough weather, particularly in the cold season when large scale depressions produce hurricane-force winds. Another but rare phenomenon are polar lows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_low, the ‘hurricanes’ of the polar regions. Experiencing a polar low on a vessel is no fun since it is accompanied by heavy snowfall and rough seas, and in some cases severe icing. Last December, a polar low made landfall over the Netherlands / northern Germany (with thunderstorms and heavy show showers): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIKGR9HfgZc

  7. Paul Holt Says:

    Where are you going to find supersonic waves in the North Sea? Sounds a little dodgy.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      You make them.

      • DrJim Says:

        Make them on the boat? Wouldn’t it be easier in a stable lab with fed ex available?

      • David Saltzberg Says:

        If you are dealing with very long wavelengths, you would need an impossibly big tank. You also have much higher pressures. There may also be an underwater site already well instrumented.

        On Mon, Oct 14, 2013 at 5:05 PM, The Big Blog Theory

  8. Fred Basement Says:


  9. MandaX Says:

    Your colleagues sound a little Unruhly to me.

  10. SuperC142 Says:

    It’s January 14 and I’ve only *just* realized you’re back. I’m happy you are, though; welcome back!

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