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Matin Durrani: May 2011 Archives


By Matin Durrani

I recently received a copy of the 15 April issue of the Brookhaven Bulletin – the newsletter of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US – which described the forthcoming 100th birthday celebration of the physicist Maurice Goldhaber (right, image courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory).

The birthday bash took place on 18 April, as planned, so I was so sad to learn, as I did yesterday via the New York Times, that Goldhaber sadly died on 11 May.

Born in Austria on 18 April 1911, Goldhaber was one of the last survivors of the glittering pre-war era that saw so many revolutions in physics.

According to Brookhaven’s online tribute, Goldhaber had worked at the University of Cambridge in the UK with the Nobel-prize-winning physicist James Chadwick, where in 1934 Goldhaber became the first person to measure accurately the mass of the neutron.

After obtaining his PhD from Cambridge in 1936, Goldhaber moved to the US, joining the University of Illinois. He arrived at Brookhaven in 1950, going on to serve as lab director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1957 Goldhaber famously discovered that neutrinos have a left-handed helicity, which means that their intrinsic angular momentum, or “spin”, is in the opposite direction to their momentum. That experiment was cited by Brookhaven historian and Physics World columnist Robert P Crease in his collection of most beautiful experiments of all time

By all accounts, Goldhaber was one of those physicists who saw physics as not just a job but his life. Although he retired in 1985, Goldhaber continued to go in to Brookhaven most days until he was well into his 90s. He won numerous awards and prizes, sharing the Wolf Prize in 1991 with Valentine Telegdi for their “separate seminal contributions to nuclear and particle physics, particularly those concerning the weak interactions involving leptons”. He was also awarded a US National Medal of Science.

Goldhaber was not alone in his love for physics: he was part of a family of four generations of physicists, including his son Fred Goldhaber and brother Gerson.

By Matin Durrani


I always find it interesting when little-known anecdotes about some of the greatest figures in physics come to light.

So here’s one that I thought I’d share with you, courtesy of Uri Haber-Schaim, a retired physicist now living in Jerusalem.

Writing in the latest issue of Il Nuovo Saggiatore – the bulletin of the Italian Physical Society – Haber-Schaim recalls a summer school in high-energy physics that took place in Varenna, Italy, in 1954, which was attended by, among others, the Italian particle physicist Enrico Fermi.

During the morning break, one of the participants from France – A Rogozinsky – posed a mathematical problem concerning a priest and a sexton on a walk who encounter three people coming towards them.

The sexton asks the priest how old the three people are and is told that “the product of their ages is 2450 and the sum of their ages is twice your [i.e. the sexton’s] age”.

The sexton, saying that he needs more information to solve the problem, is then told by the priest that he – the priest – is “older than any of them”.

So the question is: what are the ages of the three people, the priest and the sexton?

Haber-Schaim recalls that everyone at the meeting realized that writing down equations would not get them anywhere and that he then suggested to Rogozinksy that he present the problem at lunch so that everyone could tackle it together.

Fermi, however, who was a notoriously good problem solver, proceeded to answer the puzzle within a minute.

So over to you, readers. Can you solve the problem or – even better – beat Fermi and get the answer in under a minute?

For the record, I still haven’t figured it out.

By Matin Durrani, Munich, Germany


I’m sitting three rows from the back inside the gently lit conference room at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich. The academy is housed in a grand, honey-coloured stone building that forms one wing of the huge Residenz complex, which was almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War following the Allied bombing that left it and most of the city in ruins.

The Residenz, which looks glorious in the spring sunshine, is an appropriate and symbolic venue for the conference I’m attending, which has been organized to mark 25 years of the journal EPL.

Originally known as Europhysics Letters (it was rebranded in 2007), the journal was set up to promote and showcase the very best of European physics research. It may not yet match its great American rival – Physical Review Letters – as a journal containing short “letter” articles exploring the very frontiers of physics, but just as the Residenz was restored to its former glory, so EPL is playing a small part in rebuilding European physics.

Europe’s long realized that collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to science, with the CERN particle-physics lab being the shining example of what happens when nations work together. And so it is with EPL, which was begun in 1986 as a joint venture between the French and Italian physical societies, the UK’s Institute of Physics, which publishes, and the European Physical Society.

The organizers have invited a string of top speakers – the full list is here – and bused and flown in over 100 students and postdocs from across Europe to create a good, international feel.

As for me, apart from consuming an extremely large number of fabulous mini chocolate croissants on offer in the coffee breaks, I’ve been filming some video interviews with Michael Schreiber, EPL’s current editor-in-chief, particle physicist Luisa Cifarelli, who is current EPS president, and David Delpy, chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. They will appear on this website in a few weeks’ time.

The conference dinner was held last night at one of Munich’s best known restaurants – the atmospheric Hofbraukeller – with a fabulous four-course buffet (it may have been five; I lost count).

Right, it’s coffee-break time – off for a few more of those croissants. I just hope my colleagues Fiona Walker, Claire Webber and Jo Pittam, who are also at the meeting, haven’t polished them off yet….