Locklin on science

Observations of n00b amateur astronomer

Posted in astronomy by Scott Locklin on August 19, 2021

I’ve been meaning to buy a telescope for about 20 years; I recently did so. Here are a few observations, most of which have nothing to do with astronomy as a hobby per-se.

The telescope:

I bought for my main gizmo an 8″ Celestron SCT Evolution, more or less because my old boss in the LBNL optical metrology lab told me to (thanks Wayne). It’s an interesting basket of compromises. The optical quality seems reasonable  and its designed to work pretty well with cheap 1.25″ eyepieces. The computer control handset thing comes default with it is …. adequate, but you have to be able to find the stars it’s interested in for alignment. This isn’t always possible in the city. The red dot sight you need to actually use this computer control is worthless and ceased to function after two days. The LED in the thing stopped working, and the “mount” the LED sat in fell apart; this is insanely bad, almost unbelievable. Begin the acquisition treadmill: telrad is pretty cool bit of Norden bombsight Americano know-how.  The StarSense handset and alignment camera is what it should come with. StarSense is a  system with a camera mounted to the optical tube, which takes pictures of random places in the sky and figures out the orientation of the telescope, and more or less how to navigate to anything you’d like.

Back in the day when I was 9 or so and planning on being an astronaut, I was a pretty good backyard astronomer; kept track of when/where the meteors and planets would be and could point out lots of interesting things in a suburban night sky. I’ve of course forgotten most of it. I also no longer live in a suburb; full on city canyon with Bortle 9 most of the time. So, even if I was as sharp as I was when I was 9, there sure ain’t many visible stars most of the time. As such, using the tracking gizmo that comes with the thing, or the extra StarSense thing for alignment isn’t cheating; it’s the only way to see much of anything.

The software for it is almost total garbage from a usability perspective. Celestron makes some wifi thing you’re supposed to connect to with a laptop or ipotato. It kinda sorta sometimes works if you don’t mind steering the scope around with non-tactile ipotato screen buttons. Ridiculously insecure and I really wish I could turn it off. For handsets, I’d pay the $400 extra for the StarSense handset even if it didn’t come with the camera which aligns to stars without you peeping through the Norden Bomb sight. Every time you turn the thing on, it forgets what time and day it is; this is a reminder to buy the $200 GPS module. Fun gotcha; it asks you the first time you turn it on where it lives, then remembers that forever; if you bork it up, it lives at Celestron HQ somewhere in California. Despite not knowing what time it is, it “knows” where it is.  This makes it impossible to align to the night sky, since you’re not actually in California. This is with the StarSense handset; with the other one you need to tell it where you live as well, and in degrees minutes seconds (as opposed to fractional degrees like on your ipotato); every time. Again, all of this is to get you to buy the $200 GPS module which I stubbornly refuse to do. At some point I’ll figure out the protocol they use to communicate and build my own for $5, which I will sell to Celestron nerds for half price.

The mount would occasionally hilariously move in 350 degree arcs West to move 10 degrees East. This came from something called “cordwrap mode.” This is one of those things that really evinces a dim view of human nature; one which is probably fully justified and why even amateur astronomers can’t have nice things. There are all kinds of serial cables festooning these machines; early on in the history of the Celestron computer mounts, people would do moron things like slew around until the cables were so tight they pulled the connectors off. So Celestron introduced cordwrap mode which carefully ensures it never rotates past some arbitrary line in its alignment which is always inconveniently near where you want to telescope around. Because people are morons, this “cordwrap mode” is not only the default: it is reset to be turned on every time you use/align the telescope. So you have to navigate some dumb unintuitive menu to turn it off,  to avoid the thing moving in 358 degree arcs to see the thing which is 2 degrees away. You also have to avoid being this stupid, which is harder than it sounds.

The other fun thing; by default it basically moves at MAXIMUM SPEED (4 degrees per second) to slew to whatever object you want to see next. Seems like that would be OK, especially if it’s taking 350 degree detours. Except MAXIMUM SPEED is also ludicrously loud. And you’re using this thing at 2 or 3 in the morning; in my case  mostly in a densely populated city with neighbors who already think I’m a lunatic for shirtless weight lifting. Navigating the stygian depths of the preposterously unintuitive menu system, you can find a place to set this to be 1.5 or 2 degrees per second where it is pretty reasonable in volume.

It’s obvious the MBAs at Celestron are selling this setup as “does everything for intermediate or well-off beginner astronomer.” But it is equally obvious that it should have been sold with the StarSense thing in the first place, or at least a red-dot thing that works. Their business model is definitely add-on sales. Otherwise it’s mostly an acceptable setup. Oh yeah; eyepieces: you get two, one of which is a useful 40mm plossl. The other one (13mm plossl) is pretty weak and I’ll give it to whoever wants it. Eyepieces are a whole ‘nuther ball of wax. Eyepieces are absurdly expensive; there exist eyepieces which cost as much as or even more than a decent telescope. They actually do make a big difference though. Some of the wider field of view eyepieces are truly huge; some weighing north of a kilogram. For contrast; the C8 is considered a medium big telescope and the optical tube assembly (OTA) only weighs 5.6kg.

From an engineering point of view, the SCT design telescope itself has some flaws. Obvious weak point: the focuser is shit and probably needs to be replaced. The mirror should also be lockable, and apparently is when you buy from other manufacturers -nothing like having your focal point change when you move the telescope around. The thing is also F/10/2000mm long in focal length, which makes it a bit difficult to point without all kinds of help. Finally if I had bought the 9.25″ scope, it would have had a better tripod (while pushing the mount to its limits). Tripod and mount are pretty important. If you screw something up here, the thing will vibrate preposterously and you won’t see anything.

The online community:

Astronomy is in principle the type of community I like. Nerdy people who appreciate the wonders of the universe.  It’s a little bit like gun forums; a bunch of mostly male nerds  festooning their pointy phallic cylinders with extra expensive doodads to eke out some marginal or imaginary performance improvement. It’s also a little like wristwatch or automotive forums in that it is preposterously consumer treadmill oriented. Despite the nerdiness of the hobby, the forums have one of the absolute worst signal to noise ratios of any community I’ve ever seen. You’d think it’s pretty simple: dudes who want to see space junk. Optical physics is otherwise pretty inarguable. But the hobby is  irrational and different subsets of it have widely different goals. You have the crowd that wants to look at stuff with their eyeballs, and also the crowd that wants to use software to stitch together CCD images to “see” photos you could download a better version of on the interbutts. When you ask for advice, you have to be very specific as to which crowd you belong to, or might belong to in the future. Generally, people from the wrong crowd will also give you unhelpful advice, even when you ask them not to.

Lots of it, honestly, is upper middle class nerds counting coups by having a bigger space dong and encouraging their fellows to purchase similarly enormous collections of space dongs.  Even more hilarious: the actual things  … have dimensions kinda somewhere between astronomer and porn star.  “Hey friend, you’re not one of those 1.25″ diameter elbow cucks, join the 2” elbow crew, and enjoy spending hundreds of dollars on new glans-penis-looking tumescent eyepieces.” I have a little education in physics; what’s more; I used to actually do optical metrology, and I even have some experience in the building of optical equipment. Many of these people are speaking nonsense. There’s a lot of it in the telescope community; it’s a weird mixture of meat and potatoes optics and audioph00l tier blubbering.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, if that’s what you’re into, bro, it’s just the whole group madness of it all. Personally I’d rather spend the money on showgirls:

The astronomy nerds I’ve actually met in person are pretty cool though. You have to figure they’re posting on forums when in the throes of consumerist madness, angry at their junky telescopes, or pissed off that it’s cloudy or they live in a shitty place where they can’t see anything. Ed Ting is a fixture in the astronomy community and his sort of avuncular uncle personality is pretty common.

OK, so the community leaves something to be desired, and its an expensive consumerist treadmill. It’s still pretty cool looking at space stuff. Insanely cool, really. Globular clusters, nebulas, colorful double stars, the moon and planets are all pretty amazing even in the city. Things in the countryside are completely bonkers.

The telescope-2:

One of the things you immediately realize with this sort of thing is it’s a pain in the ass to drag something like this 100 yards away, up a hill. It’s also a pain in the ass to box it up and stick it in a car and drive somewhere with it (and then unbox it, set it up and align it); at which point you might as well book a hotel 2 hours out of the city and have properly dark skies and make a couple day trip of it. Sometimes you just want a peep at the moon which is on the other side of the building or whatnot. Hence the “grab and go” scope. Something you can stick in a backpack or bring on an airplane. Because I hate half-baked solutions, I got a little Takahashi FC-76DCU I can break down and shove in a camera bag. Takahashis are not the ne plus ultra; those are oddly enough all American scopes which you have to wait  …. years for.  Takahashis are the “future collectors item you can buy today” brand. You get a little autographed thing that tells you about the guy who made your telescope (in Japanese), and the serial number. Which in my case means “80th telescope made in  1st year of reign of glorious Emperor Naruhito.” No, really, it’s by year of the Emperor’s reign.

As with the Celestron, the mount is as important as the  telescope; in this case another Japanese thing, which I outfitted with …. timing tape to make it actually orientable. It’s not as accurate as a push-to computer mount, but it only requires I have a working cell phone to get coordinates (or a planisphere and some basic sky sense).  With a high end doodad like this you can get a really sharp focus, and while you can’t see as much as with the SCT due to less light being collected, it ain’t bad. Considering how much easier it is to move around, it’s going everywhere I go where it might be dark.


Since I live in a city, most of the time I have a hard time looking at deep space objects, but stuff like planetary nebulas, planets, moon and globular clusters are no problemo, and are of various degrees of awesomeness.

Outside of the city though, holy shit space is awesome. We all have (hopefully) experienced night skies such as all of our ancestors have. Despite the best efforts of miscreants like Elon Musk to bomb your views with his dumb porn-transmitting satellites, it’s still pretty impressive. With a telescope it’s even more amazeballs.  Just point to a random part of the milky way with a small telescope and you’ll feel like Captain Kirk exploring the universe.

Open problems in Astronomy

Posted in astronomy, Corliss, Open problems by Scott Locklin on June 11, 2021

As promised, as I go through my William Corliss books (and feel like writing things down), I’ll check for anomalies which persist in being anomalous.

Globular Clusters; these are the weirdest goddamned things. While I was still in grad school, they were considered to be older than the age of the universe. Someone fiddled with a constant somewhere, and now we’re supposed to be OK with this (AOF24), but it’s really only the beginning. Other mysteries, like the galaxies themselves, these things don’t move right. I believe the present fashion is to talk about nebulous forms of matter nobody can see as being responsible for it. Corliss just says what they do; they apparently have weird velocities. Worse, they persist. These are objects nearly as old as the universe, with known, small angular momenta. You’d think they would have collapsed by now. I guess it’s magical dork matter holding them back from doing this. Except everyone says globulars are actchually missing dark matter, because reasons. Oh yeah, they also have a lower limit as to the number of stars, which is just freaking weird.  AOB3,4,8,9,17. Other of Corliss anomalies didn’t fare so well; he asserts (albeit claiming only sparse evidence AOB19) there are no globular binaries, but in fact, there are. Easy mistake to make, and the type of thing you’d expect astronomy to get better at over time as telescopes get better. FWIIW not accounting for doubles may be why they look so old. Astronomy, once you start to look into it, sure does have a shitload of assumptions baked into it.

Quantized redshift; fuck you universe, you can’t do shit like this. There are, of course, experimental error reasons this might happen, but there’s enough of these things out there it merits its own wikipedia page. I suppose it could be data artifacts; noise can look pretty weird if you stare at it long enough.AOF18, AQB1,2,6, AWB7, ATF11.

Bode’s law (and friends). ABS1 ABS6 This is one of those things you’re confronted with immediately in astronomy; not even telescope tier; stuff that Babylonians could have figured out. Why is the solar system following a power law? I mean it could be some kind of nebula thing. Could be sheerest coincidence. Could be God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom. There are all kinds of “resonances” in the solar system which defy explanation beyond “it must be a resonance.”

AU secular increase. Here’s one Corliss missed: the orbit of the planets around the sun is increasing. It could be tidal forces, as people attribute to the moon slowly moving away from the earth. People have tried to unify this with the various other anomalies we’ve seen in orbital mechanics; flyby anomalies and so on, not sure how successfully. But people are pretty sure it’s happening. Hey, I got a dumb idea; maybe it’s the same thing making galaxies spin weird and globs not collapse. Maybe … gravitomagnetics? Don’t know! Apparently there are weird things going on with Saturn as well.

Spiral persistence. AWO13. This is another one that is weird, but so old nobody really talks about it. Yeah, like so galactic angular momentum implies dork matter or whatever, why do they so often look like spirals. Worse, spirals with bars. Based on the age of galaxies and their angular momentum, and, like the Virial theorem, the spirals should have turned into pancakes by now.


Origin of Galactic rotation. AWB9. This is a peculiar one, and I sort of hesitate to include it, but it might be an important idea and it certainly bothered important people back in the day. I mean, the universe spontaneously appearing is weird enough I don’t mind it having non-zero angular momentum. The angular momentum of galaxies may have originated in some kind of tidal forces. Others suggest the universe itself rotates. I suspect there is some Kapitza-tier basic physics here that angular momentum conservers didn’t notice, but I include it here anyway as I don’t think anyone has ever talked about how it might have occurred. Corliss also talks about the existence of galaxies itself as being pretty weird (AWB17), which is probably true, but which I also don’t have a  big problem with as long as they behave themselves.

Solar wind isotope variation. ASF4. There’s huge variance in the nitrogen-14/15 isotope ratios in the lunar regolith. There’s also  variation in the solar system at large. Could be some of it is from the early solar system, could be broken solar models. Corliss calls this one a “2” -and people don’t seem to worry about it too much, but it struck me as pretty weird.

Axis of Evil. Another one Corliss couldn’t see in his day. How come cosmic background anisotropies are correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun? Was Copernicus right? Is it all some weird systematic error? I’m betting on the latter. It could be sorted out by sending a Planck style microwave space telescope into some non-earth orbit and see if it goes away or looks different. It also should give anyone trying to build new physical models based on astronomical observations pause as to the numerous things that could go wrong.

Solar magnetic cycle. ASO4 ASO5 ASO10 ASZ. First we get the sunspots, then we get the solar flares, then the magnetic field of the sun flips. And sometimes you get stuff like the Maunder minimum. Sun’s pretty weird man. It’s all very well documented; both directly and from secondary sources, and nobody has the slightest idea what’s going on -not even, really on a hand-wavey level. FWIIW solar models are the basis for an awful lot of astronomy if that makes you feel any better about astronomy.

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Posted in Book reviews, history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 16, 2021

My pal Bill Dreiss suggested I have a look at this one the other day. I had seen Frau Dr. Professor gabbling on in various videos circulating among the nerdetariat; never really listened as I don’t have time for podcast type entertainments, and certainly not in the subject of high energy physics, which is a field I am mostly contemptuous of. She seemed fairly sensible; an earnest and apparently well-meaning person who is disillusioned with the direction of high energy physics. She also seemed a little late to the party; I came to virtually the same conclusion on my own while I was still in grad school, just looking at the behavior of high energy guys in physics departments. Woit and Lee Smolin wrote fairly convincing take downs of noodle theory back in 2006, though I suppose they didn’t go after the larger enterprise of High Energy Theory as a field. Apparently her book made people in my old physics department REALLY MAD. In fact one of the last things my late thesis advisor Chuck Fadley said to me before checking out for the great unknown was a strong recommendation I read this book. I had clean forgotten, but I remember being in the hotel in Hamburg and being confused (post Sauna and beer) why he was trying to get me to read some German lady’s pop science book, and chalked it  up to his illness. Sorry Chuck: you were right, I should have read it when you said.

My old boss: almost always right

Hossenfelder describes the group madness of the high energy physics community. It really is a sort of mass hysteria; literal tens of thousands thousands of presumably high IQ people are gripped by it, and it’s accelerated and intensified by the internet, which makes peer pressure and communication practically instant. It’s also encouraged by the pyramid scheme nature of generating new PhDs with nothing better to do. Consider the average high energy theorist; they are effectively doing the kind of work they did in grad school; working on “cutting edge” problems in the latest woo. The average paper I’d say represents approximately the kind of mindset and work effort of a couple dozen (90s era, pre solutions websites) JD Jackson homework problems. It’s not that this stuff is easy; neither were JD Jackson problems. I’m just saying these guys are grinding the proverbial organ box like trained monkeys rather than, you know, being curious and thinking about things. Their “field” is a sort of shared delusion about what people should be working on, based on what everyone else they know is working on, and ridiculous hero worship of the 1920s theoretical physics community. And “aesthetics” and various quasi philosophical views about how their godless universe will conspire to be “aesthetic” and “natural” to them for some reason.

One thing she hammers on is the idea that “aesthetics” is bullshit (something I mentioned in 2009). Most of physics isn’t particularly aesthetic or beautiful. Physics is weird and often surprising. Frankly, so is mathematics, biology, human nature, the appearance of the universe: just about everything is weird and surprising. The only people who think the world around them isn’t weird and surprising are navel gazers who don’t get out much. In particular the idea that certain physical constants would be conveniently sized for perturbation theory (aka “naturalness“) is just fucking insane. La Hossenfelder talks about it, but doesn’t emphasize how crazy this is, but it’s rather like assuming your checkbook will always have 00 in the cents columns because it’s more convenient for you that way. Or that useful hashing functions will have lots of 00s on randomly generated numbers. This numerology assumes  that the universe will conspire to make itself understandable with current year fashions in mathematical tools used by the clown car that is contemporary theoretical high energy physics.

The book has an odd style (I assume it’s a translation) and is a combination of editorializing, layman didactics and interviews with important figures in the field. Some of the choices of didactic effort are peculiar; explicitly calling out matrices as tables of numbers while describing perturbation techniques and various group theories as some kind of woo. As the interviews go on, you get the feeling that physicists and cosmologists are not great people. They’re kind of … losers. She never exactly says this, but on some inner emotional level she must be thinking it, because that’s how all her interlocutors come off; sweaty palmed, lost, over grandiose, goofball nerds.

And let’s face it; postwar theoretical high energy physics has been a big basket of failure.  Sure we have electroweak theory from the early 50s which was verified in the 70s. What has come of it? It’s been 70 years. 70 years after Maxwell we had television. 70 years after quantum mechanics we had pentium chips. It’s been 70 years guys; where’s my electroweak technology? Really we all know there will never be a technological implication to electroweak theory. Which makes it not some great achievement of humanity: it makes it irrelevant to the point of being a sort of theology for nerds. The field of theoretical high energy physics (and frankly the experimental part) itself is, in every respect, a failure rather than something for humans to be proud of. While it is difficult to master the mathematics involved in it, that’s not much of an argument that it should actually be worthy of respect. Respectable branches of physics make predictions and produce results in the physical world. High energy theory ought to be about as respectable as any other cult: at least those people handing out flowers in the airport are giving people beautiful flowers. For all I know, the indoctrination of airport-flower-people involves similarly difficult mental gymnastics. The very difficulty of the indoctrination is arguably what makes them so reluctant to give it up: career as sunk cost fallacy.

The various interviews are filled with dispiriting LARPing (Live Action Role Playing for those of you that don’t speak /chan). From the twittering astrophysicist wearing a NASA insignia from the 1960s, back when NASA wasn’t the DMV for rockets, to the various famous wrinkley brain scientists play-acting at profundity as if they were at the head of a successful, relevant and respected profession, rather than the fools who helped lead a failed intellectual enterprise into a ditch. Hossenfelder’s book exposes the whole squalid enterprise for the LARPy failure that it is. The people involved in it aren’t great savants anyone should be paying attention to; they’re losers. Like most losers, they’re only dimly aware of their failings; if losers were self reflective they’d probably find a way to, like, not be losers.

There were a few bits and pieces I was only dimly aware of; the latest experiments demonstrating what losers the theorists are, the odd Witten-victim condensed matter guy developing some goofy qubit based cosmology. My favorite such thing was actually from her blog; pointing out that the one time the noodle theorists thought they could make a useful calculation involving measurements in the world of matter, they failed. That’s ridiculously damning; for all the alleged brainpower put in service of noodle theory, they failed utterly in their attempts to be, you know, actual scientists making testable predictions.

String theorists’ continuous adaptation to conflicting evidence has become so
entertaining that many departments of physics keep a few string theorists around
because the public likes to hear about their heroic attempts to explain everything.
Freeman Dyson’s interpretation of the subject’s popularity is that “string theory is
attractive because it offers jobs. And why are so many jobs offered in string
theory? Because string theory is cheap. If you are the chairperson of a physics
department in a remote place without much money, you cannot afford to build a
modern laboratory to do experimental physics, but you can afford to hire a couple
of string theorists. So you offer a couple of jobs in string theory and you have a
modern physics department.”

Women named Sabine were at the beginnings of great things in the past. Her politely bullyciding high energy theorists into non-existence would be a great boon both to physics and the human race. It’s a shame more people didn’t listen to Phil Anderson back in the day, or John Horgan’s numerous educated outsider criticisms, but if this Sabine woman manages it: I, for one will be grateful. What makes physics powerful is the combination of mathematics with experiment: nature holds you accountable for your success or your blunders -not your dimwitted nerd friends on the tenure committee. The High Energy clowns play acting as Pauli or Einstein like figures are not physicists; they’re at best live action role players or overt mathematical mountebanks occupying seats which would be better issued to tribologists, fluid mechanists or optical physicists. If we can nudge the profession back to, you know, things like the scientific method and testing things involving matter, (quantum computers definitely don’t count) maybe humanity will get somewhere.

well played Dr. Hossenfelder

Great physicists: Pyotr Kapitza

Posted in history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 8, 2021

Pyotr Kapitza is one of those physicists whose greatness isn’t fully appreciated. In fact, I think other than the memory of him in the low temperature community, weirdoes who are Nobel Prize autistes, and a few mentions in L&L books, he’s largely forgotten in the West (I assume there are Russian language biographies as his son ended up a famous TV personality ). Not only was he a very great physicist, he was also a great man in every way. Principled, a leader and talented in multiple fields; his enormous indirect influence was almost important as his direct contributions. A biography of Kapitza would make for wonderful reading.

He was a Russian-Pole who landed in Cambridge working for Rutherford in the 1920s. He proceeded to make big contributions in ultra-high magnetic field physics, low temperature physics (liquefaction of helium), and he created the enormously influential Kapitza club.

The idea of the Kapitza club was that young physicists were too deferential to older ones, and older ones too dismissive. The lectures were done informally with chalk and board only, with jokey Kapitza introductions to loosen people up. Guys like Dirac, Hartree and Heisenberg built courage and had big ideas here which changed the world. These were invite only affairs, done in student housing; much like early Christianity met in the catacombs to avoid detection by the establishment of the day. It was unapologetically elitist group (again; invite only), but also radically egalitarian. Kapitza would warm them up by making deliberate blunders in his introductory remarks which he encouraged shy people to correct to get into the spirit of things. Very much in the spirit of the ancient Greek philosophers.

“In setting up the Kapitza Club in October 1922, he [Kapitza] had shaken his postgraduate colleagues out of their lethargy and persuaded them to attend a weekly seminar on a topical subject in physics. The talks usually took place in Trinity College on Tuesday evenings, after a good dinner. The speakers, normally volunteers from the club’s members, spoke with the aid only of a piece of chalk and a blackboard mounted on an easel and had to be prepared for a series of interruptions, mediated by Kapitza with the quick wit and elan of a modern-day game-show host.”

Those of you who are still in the game should take note. In this era of mediocrities, “company men,” policed speech codes and professional and personal cowardice: such meetings and societies are the only way to drive scientific research forward. People have tried inclusiveness for decades now and the results are in: it doesn’t work. Forming tightly knit, non-hierarchical groups of elite minds who are interested in science rather than all the bullshit that goes with it in “fn-leeerb merp derp science” current year is the only way forward. I encourage all kinds of people to try this; exclude more people: exclude most people, you’ll get more done. Finding scientific shitlords willing to do a presentation via chalkboard is a great filter. Doing this for F=MA tier shit is difficult, having a bunch of fellow loons who will throw buns at your head when you goof up on some arcane and novel subject: even better.

Though Kapitza was primarily considered an experimental physicist, he could hang with the greatest theorists. He and Dirac came up with a cute quantum diffraction effect in one of these BS sessions which was later proved out. This is sort of the Platonic ideal of a physicist to my mind; you have to be able to roll with the theorists, but you have to be able to deal with matter. That’s what physics is, after all: the study of matter. Others who had this quality were Fermi and Oppenheimer. While some theoretical and experimental specialists were required even back in those days; it was expected that even the most allergic-to-experiment theorists like Wolfgang Pauli would be able to think deeply about matter and experimental apparatus. Even if such apparatus would spontaneously combust if Pauli were in the same room with it. This is something that is forgotten by contemporary noodle and symmetry fetishists playing in the particle soup.

Kapitza was kidnapped by the Soviets while visiting his parents and did most of his important work in the Soviet Union. As a pioneer in liquid helium research he was the first to discover superfluidity which he eventually won a Nobel Prize for (oddly shared with Penzias and Wilson). He also worked closely with Lev Landau whose book is why I remembered Kapitza -for a cute little effect called the Kapitza pendulum; a sort of mechanical phase locked loop that is marvelous and beautiful in its action.

Incidentally he didn’t come up with the actual mechanical effect: someone told him about the effect described many decades ago. Kapitza was the one who sat down, did experiments and figured out the detailed math that explains it. This is the type of thing that could theoretically have been done by anyone using simple apparatus; it is literally F=MA tier physics. Kapitza, a man who had already done his Nobel prize winning work; arguably work which would earn him two Nobels in current year, a man who helped develop the Soviet atom bomb: he didn’t think it was beneath him to figure this out. Proper physicists rather than career drudges are actually curious. It’s on page 714 volume 2 of his collected works if you’re curious; a really beautiful piece of work. In fact open his collected works at random and it’s filled with treasures like this. The previous paper in this collection was on how the wind induces waves on the sea. First paper in volume 3 is a learned seminar on the Russian cod liver oil business.

For his next couple of important contributions he developed industrial scale processes for air liquefaction, microwave oscillators and new contributions in plasma physics. As a scientific administrator he made contributions to the Soviet nuclear program and founded multiple technical journals and the Kapitza Institute. Any of these contributions would have made him a first rate scientist, scientific administrator and technologist; the fact that he managed to fit them in one life is amazing and awesome.

Beyond all this, he was a badass with a life filled with appropriately Russian tragedy. He drove an ambulance on the Polish front in WW-1, his wife and two children died of the 1919 flu afterwords, and in Soviet times he both stood up to arch commie monster Beria and lived, and was the only member of the Russian academy of sciences who never joined the Communist party.

Kapitza was a universal man; not only did he contribute numerous physical and mathematical inventions to his field, he was a great administrator, and a good man who made the world and all the people around him better wherever he went. Despite great tragedy he lived an admirable and courageous life. People like this do not go into physics or any kind of scientific endeavor any more. Maybe a few applied math people in startups or hedge funds for considerably lower stakes.