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In Our Time - States of Matter

Friday 4 April 2014, 14:15

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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In Our Time: States of Matter In Our Time: States of Matter
One of the things about broadcasting is that you feel hungry when you’ve finished.  Especially after a live programme.

It’s odd because you haven’t done anything particularly strenuous. It’s the same enigma that governs the feeling of tiredness after merely sitting for a few hours at a desk, scribbling away.

But what I had to eat after this morning’s programme, or rather before that, after the Today programme trail, was a good dollop of humble pie.

John Humphrys is so fast-witted and such a sport that it’s great fun trying to get a rise out of him, despite the fact that I have never succeeded in, as it were, beating him to the punch.

This time, talking about the states of matter – solids, liquids and gases – I intimated (no, let’s be clear about this), I said that Today was good and solid, tea-dependent on liquid, but was rather over-abundantly full of gas.

I know I shouldn’t make jokes. I’m no good at them. That was not only a rotten joke, it was wrong.

I would have no talent to keep up the clipped, precision pace of the Today presenters, as they range over the world from 6 to 9am. But of course, John, as usual, had that extra cylinder and put me down with a beautifully murmured "you are too kind". Ouch.

Physicists are widely regarded as the cleverest of people.

Again what struck me this morning was their heroic attempt to make things which are on the far edge of knowledge, and as arcane as alchemy, clear to me and, I hope, thereby to many of you.

The thing that strikes me as extraordinary about the top scientists we have on, and it was fully in evidence this morning, is that they are doing work for the love of doing the work, i.e. thinking about thinking for the sake of thinking, and yet now and then there’s a twinkle which says this might turn out to change the entire world of communications, or technology, or manufacturing, or whatever.

And so it will. The gap between discoveries in universities and developments in industry is closing, and it’s these people who, in a rather bewildered way, I sometimes feel, are at the centre of what we are now in – the full rush of the knowledge industry. And yet, paradoxically, they can only stay at the centre by ignoring the fact that they are part of any industry.

And so – London. A couple of days ago I walked from my house in North London to Lambeth Bridge to talk to David Puttnam.

About an hour and a half in fantastic sunshine, through three parks – Primrose Hill, up the hill (a test of puff), and then looking over London, a Dick Whittington moment (although he was two or three hills away to the east).

Then cutting a swathe through the grandeur of Regent’s Park, down Regent Street itself and into the magnificent congestion of St James’s Park, with rugby teams of young children completely blocking the path, but eventually being polite enough for the rest of us who would rather go forward than stand still all day (or, come to think of it, they might have the right idea). 

And this on a morning for which our mighty meteorologists had predicted Saharan sandstorms sweeping up the Thames. The Thames sparkled. The white daffodils in St James’s Park looked white. The sky was blue. The sun shone brightly. 

I am so pleased that they know what the weather will be like in a hundred years' time. Now and then you feel that tomorrow would be handy.

Rather too much going on in television, with many new programmes and repercussions from Tony Hall’s fanfare for the BBC’s New Deal on the arts, and … even though I sit at a telephone some distance away, I can hear the accretion of impatience from Ingrid, who types these missives …

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

In Our Time: States of Matter

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    Comment number 1.

    This is what I like about the series IOT,how you go from Berkeley,who denied the existence of matter to a programme about the’states of matter’.The broad range of subject matter is truly remarkable,keeping the subjects from freezing into set,solid formations,by keeping things fluid, changing and in motion.You often change into more gaseous forms when dealing with astrophysics or quantum physics or maths.In this programme I know you’re respectful to the speakers and you seem to ask pre-set questions to keep it moving,I suspect you’re not fully engaged,but it’s heart-warming to know you are covering everything in the history of ideas.I think this subject would have benefited from some pictorial accompaniment.Maybe it’s time for one on Noah’s Flood,its significance for our times?

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    Comment number 2.

    This programme gave us an insight into the way states of matter behave,when ice gets
    slippery and melts,the plasma on the surface of the sun,and Bose-Einsteincondensates. How ice gets slippery was truly remarkable,the way that the bonds that hold matter together are loosened(made from electrons that are quantum-mechanical);our ability to predict the states of matter where phase-boundaries occur,using computing power to solve the equations of motion. A laser beam differs from the light from an ordinary light bulb in several ways. In the laser the light particles all have the same energy and oscillate together. To cause matter also to behave in this controlled way has long been a challenge for researchers.The Physics Nobel Laureates of 2001 caused matter “to sing in unison”-thus discovering a new state of matter,the Bose-Einstein condensate.

    The process is similar to when drops of liquid form from a gas,hence condensation, where atoms are cooled to a very low temperature,all the atoms gather in the lowest possible energy state.The wave-like property of particles when slowed down makes all the particles behave like 1 quantum blob of matter,only occurring at very low temperatures.The condensate contained entirely coordinated atoms.This can be considered as a primitive laser beam using matter instead of light.

    We can use our study of states of matter to assess what other worlds or moons like the icy world of Enceladus with its tiger stripes of heavenly water or the surface of Mars consist of.I thought the after talk(see the podcast) was fascinating.The idea of a competition between matter binding together and then you give it motion through thermal energy,where matter wants to fly apart.The so many ways nature solves that problem that astounds you ,you see the amazing complexity of the physical world,coming from very simple equations.There had been talk of simple elements and the infusion of impurities into an element making alloys

    .For instance as a cyclist you become aware of new phases of steel that are being found that give you extraordinary stiffnesses and lightness,which comes from playing around on this energy landscape,where you’re tinkering with the composition with the thermal treatment of the material.This led to discussion of the controlled thermal processing of steel in the Industrial Revolution,the making sure that you got the crystal size that you want,so it doesn’t just fracture when you go over a bump in the road.A lot of this was empirical at the time,even though the understanding of metallurgy came later.

    They knew what they were doing.It was scientific by being systematic even if they didn’t have the language at the time.Experimental method without the models.Similarly Wedgewood in ceramics.That era showed the ability to progress without a theoretical framework.As with the Iron Age before, men learned to put impurities into materials in a controlled way.Similarly the silicone revolution leading to the Information Age.How you make semiconductors do what you want them to do.We leaned about metastability and find out diamond is not a stable form. Diamonds are not forever.


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