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About Howie Firth

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So far Howie Firth has created 21 blog entries.

Oh, starboard your helm!

This time it could be the big one. Fire on the Amazon, fire in Siberia, a dome of heat above the American west and wildfire surging below – too often we close our minds to events that seem far away. But something may be stirring much closer to home. Scottish winters are warmer than they should be for this far north. Orkney has the same latitude as Leningrad or southern Greenland – yet its winters are very different. The reason is the warm water from the Gulf of Mexico – the Gulf Stream. It brings Orkney’s

The Big Bang 3: Lemaître’s universe, Hubble’s law

Georges Lemaître was a devout priest and a brilliant physicist who found Hubble’s Law in theory two years before Hubble did in practice. He took Einstein’s equations of general relativity and showed that they had a solution in which the universe expands, with the speed of expansion increasing as time goes on – just as Hubble had observed in his study of distance and speed of recession of the spiral nebulae. Born in 1894 in Charleroi in Belgium, Lemaître was educated at a Jesuit school and went to university to study civil engineering. World War I

The Big Bang 2: A shift in the mist

The Latin word nebula means ‘mist’, and originally a nebula was any sort of misty patch in the sky. Today it is more precise, referring to an interstellar cloud of dust and gas; and we shall see in a moment why the name evolved. An issue that came to the fore around 1920 was the question of the nature of a particular group of nebulae – spiral nebulae. It was know that a number of these spiral nebulae were moving away from us, at a significant speed. It was possible to find this out by using

The Big Bang 1: The first ideas

The story of the development of the idea of the Big Bang has two separate strands, and we have to switch back and fore between them. The one strand is the observational work of astronomers, developing techniques to measure the distance of stars and galaxies – and also their relative speed. The discovery – published by Edwin Hubble in 1929 – that the galaxies are receding from us, with the speed of recession growing with distance, is the basis of the belief of an expanding universe. A parallel strand of investigation involves purely pencil and paper,

The physics of the Wood of Hallaig

Time, the deer is in the Wood of Hallaig. Hallaig by Sorley MacLean is on one level about the clearance of people from the land of which they were a part. At another level it is a poem about the nature of Time. ‘Tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille Hallaig’ ‘Time, the deer is in the Wood of Hallaig.’ Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig trom faca mi an Àird an Iar ’s tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig ’na craoibh bheithe, ’s bha i riamh The window is nailed and boarded Through which I

Processes and objects

There are two fundamentally different ways of picturing the world around us. One is as a collection of objects – and we learn from our earliest moments that we are surrounded by things that we pick up or bump into. But an alternative approach is to see the world as formed out of processes – actions and experiences. We switch focus from the food we pick up to the process of eating, from the chairs we bump into to the process of exploring the room. In our modern material Western world, objects are to the fore,

Eddington’s universe

Whenever the poet George Mackay Brown reorganised his library, getting rid of some of the overspill, some books from younger years would always remain. There was the first Penguin book from 1935, a biography of Shelley by André Maurois; and Penguin number 3, Poet’s Pub by Eric Linklater. And there was also a book on cosmology, published in Pelican Books in 1940. The wartime paper is thin and the pages became dog-eared, but it was kept with care. In The Expanding Universe, Sir Arthur Eddington described the new picture of the cosmos. He described the measurement

Higgs 1: Frozen light

The discovery of the Higgs particle is one step further on a long road – the search for the nature of matter. Our experience of matter starts in childhood, when we become familiar with objects and learn to live with them – how to pick them up when they’re useful and avoid bumping into them when they’re not. Our language is so attuned to objects that we speak in object terms even when the topic is highly abstract and insubstantial. Thus we talk about ‘giving time’ as if we were handing out sweets, and ‘having a point

Higgs 2: What makes light matter?

The big question is: what is the process that somehow freezes or condenses energy into particles of matter? In this process, the energy somehow acquires the characteristic of mass – for which we can go again to David Bohm: ‘Mass is a phenomenon of connecting light rays which go back and forth, sort of freezing them into a pattern.’ It is as if the light ray that flows through space and time has been somehow trapped, its forward motion locked into a extremely tiny circle. And when the opposite process takes place, in which a particle and

Higgs 3: Symmetry for the strong

When the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie died in 1899 he was a bitter and disappointed man. True, his mathematical ability had been recognised by some of the greatest people in the field, including the great German mathematician Felix Klein, and Lie had succeeded Klein in the chair of mathematics at Leipzig. But those who understood the true significance of his work and its potential for physics were very few; and indeed after only two years in the post he resigned and went back to Norway and suffered a mental breakdown. His physical health declined as well,

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