Thought Experiments


Introducing “What the Physics?!” – A New NOVA Web Video Series

NOVA is excited to introduce a new pilot web video series devoted to asking and answering mind-blowing physics questions, big and small. In the coming weeks, keep an eye on the What The Physics?! channel for videos on everything from the speed of light to the physics of texting. And get a first look at the premiere video in the “What The Physics?!” series, in which your intrepid host, physicist Greg Kestin, gets in a rowboat to demonstrate how to create a single-molecule-thick layer of olive oil on a lake—with surprisingly powerful results.

At the same time, we’ll be winding things down here at The Nature of Reality, but our library of articles will still be right here—so keep reading, commenting, and sharing.

A little about Greg: Since 2014, Greg has been a digital associate producer at NOVA. He is also on the faculty at Harvard University, where he studies theoretical particle physics and quantum field theory, teaches mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, and waves, and produces videos for use in physics courses. He’s written essays and produced videos for The Nature of Reality and NOVA Next, including the award-winning 2.5 Ways to Die in a Black Hole (with Anna Rothschild).

I talked with Greg about “What the Physics?!,” life as a physicist, and why he doesn’t recommend that you try his latest experiment at home.

So, what exactly is “What the Physics?!”

“What the Physics?!” is a new YouTube channel NOVA is piloting. Each episode explores something surprising or really interesting related to physics, like the science behind the movie “Interstellar,” or what real parallel universes might be like—basically, things that make you go, “What The Physics?!”

What makes video such a great way to explore physics?

Physics isn’t just equations and math. It’s dynamic and, well, really cool-looking. Some of the earliest curiosity we all have is when we see something strange happen, and think, “That’s amazing!” Videos about the weird dynamic visuals that come out of physics can give us that same feeling.

What are your own research interests? 

I’ve done research in nuclear physics, fusion energy, gravitational wave physics, and most recently theoretical particle physics. Specifically, I’ve been focused in the area of quantum field theory, developing ideas of how to better understand the ultra high-energy particle collisions in experiments being done at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I also have research interests in particle astrophysics and black holes.

How did you get into physics?

I don’t know, but I remember when theoretical particle physics came on my radar. It was in middle school when I picked up Richard Feynman’s “The Meaning of it All” (I highly recommend!) from the library. He had a way of making fundamental physics sound like a fun puzzle or game, and discussed doubt and uncertainty as though it wasn’t such a bad thing: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong…I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe …which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly.”

So, curiosity started feeling more fun, and I started being more comfortable saying “I don’t know.”

What do you think the most exciting developments in the next few years might be? What fields are you watching closely?

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is smashing particles together harder than any experiment in history, and recently they’ve seen a hint of something that might be a new particle. I’m not sure if it is anything, but whether or not this is something new, it’s possible that in the next couple of years they could make discoveries that would usher in a new golden age of particle physics.

Also, particle astrophysics has very interesting mysteries that are yet to be solved. Dark matter is one of the biggest mysteries. Also, there is strange energetic light coming from the center of the galaxy that can’t quite be explained.

And black holes seem to be a pit of endless puzzles, and hopefully answers; puzzles about galaxy evolution, and about the structure of space-time.

Did you have a teacher or professor somewhere along the way who made a big impression/big difference in your career path?

There are so many! My high school didn’t have AP physics, and a very supportive teacher offered to guide me through the material. Also, I owe a lot to my undergraduate research advisor. He gave me great advice, and trusted me to do independent research before I would have believed I could.

So, what’s all this about spilling olive oil on a lake?

Olive oil seems so tame, so unassuming. But if you put just a tablespoon of it on a body of water, something really weird happens. It slowly spreads and spreads and spreads until it covers about an acre of the lake. Not only that, but it calms all the waves over that acre or so. It seemed so unbelievable when I first heard it, so it was amazing to actually see it!

Isn’t putting oil on a lake usually a bad idea?

This small amount of olive oil didn’t hurt the ecosystem, and we did it on a private lake (actually a former quarry) that was isolated from streams or other public water. If we all started pouring oil into lakes and oceans, it would be harmful—and illegal.

Were you sure it would work? Have you ever done an experiment like this one that didn’t work?

I wasn’t sure it would work. The first time I tried it, as soon as I got on the lake, the wind just stopped. That means no waves. I put in a little olive oil, but it didn’t have a visible effect without waves to calm. I waited for two hours, but no luck. I wish it had been sunny; I could have at least gotten a tan.

What’s your advice to students who are interested in careers in physics?

Follow whatever you think is interesting. You will probably understand it differently than other people, so if you feel like you are developing your own personal language for understanding, that’s probably good. If something makes sense to you, then don’t be easily convinced you’re wrong, and if something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t be easily convinced it should.

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Kate Becker

    Kate Becker is the editor of The Nature of Reality, where it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and spent seven years as senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.