Dear Hollywood, I'm writing to thank you for all your efforts getting the Science accurate in your recent movies. Most people, as I'm sure you're aware, aren't fooled by techno-jargon anymore and you can't just throw words like "quantum mechanics" around. In fact, you may remember my recent blog where I highlighted ten examples of Sci-fi media getting the Science right. I am sincerely grateful that smart Sci-fi movies are becoming more frequent. After all, the more good Science we have in movies, the more kids grow up with a trustworthy view of the world. So thank you.
As happy as I am that scriptwriters are making an effort to get their Science correct however, I have to raise a concern over the way Scientists themselves are depicted. At the moment cinematic Scientists usually fall into two categories: lunatic villains or incomprehensible uber-nerds. Scientists are either busy creating death-robots or scratching endless equations onto blackboards in dimly lit laboratories, usually with a vaguely German accent.
I'll accept the latter type of Scientist does exist (although FYI, nobody uses blackboards anymore) but the stereotypes are getting a bit worn out aren't they? Don't worry, I do understand the need...sometimes you want to ground your movie in real-world Science, so if you bring a "Science-character" in and have them spout a bunch of gobbledook, the plot suddenly works. But I honestly don't think people are buying it anymore. Writing Scientists as evil geniuses or bumbling equation-surfers is starting to smack of lazy writing.
Besides, you don't want to teach people Scientists are "mad". After all, the inventions of medicine, electricity, vehicles, clean water, heating, the internet, and even the technology used to make movies are all gifts from Scientists. We built the modern world and we think we've been pretty patient so far, perhaps you'd be willing to stop painting us as evil or incomprehensible?
In order to help you, I've compiled a list of some outstanding fictional Scientists who did a great service to our community. I've chopped out people like Sherlock Holmes (who studied Chemistry at Oxford) or Bruce Wayne (who studied at the Berlin school of Science) because while they have Scientific educations, they are detectives of crime while Scientists are detectives of nature.
Of course, you don't have to pay attention to my list and can continue with the "mad Scientist" stereotypes. But, just so you know, the minority of us who really are "mad Scientists" are not happy with the situation either. I'm not saying they're busy working on a death ray, but I might remind you that Scientists built the world you currently live in. You might not want to annoy us too much. I await your response. Your humble servant - tim james
10. Bruce Banner (Marvel Comics/The Avengers)
Depending on whether you go with the movies or comics, Bruce Banner's origin story plays out slightly differently...but both are equally noble. In the comic book he's a nuclear Physicist who rescues someone from a nuclear blast, while in the movies he's a Biologist trying to cure blood diseases, testing his new radiotherapy technique on himself. In both cases, his selflessness turns him into the Hulk, an angry dynamite truck on legs.
If I had Banner's powers, the first thing I'd do would be trigger a Hulk-episode and go after all the people I hate. Pseudoscientists, politicians who deny global warming, people who wear flip-flops etc. etc. But not Bruce Banner. Banner keeps his powerful side under wraps for fear of hurting people. He actually tries to play down his greatest asset. This makes him unique among super heroes because rather than using his powers, he tries to hide them. Banner is a voice of morality and maturity among otherwise playful demi-gods. He's not a wise-cracking Spider-man or an arrogant Iron-man, he's a responsible, grownup-man.
In the real world, some Scientists really do make themselves suffer for the good of mankind by the way. People like Barry Marshall, who deliberately drank a petri dish of Helicobacter Pilori in order to find out whether they caused stomach ulcers...they did (he later won the 2005 Nobel prize for medicine). So it's nice to see a Scientist with super powers acting like an adult.
9. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Now, before you say "he's the ultimate mad Scientist" I'm talking about the character as originally described in Shelley's novel from 1818, not the "It's aliiiiiive!" guy from the 1931 movie. Frankenstein, as he appears in the book, is a tragic hero; so excited by discovery that he doesn't think about the possibility of things going wrong.
His original desire to create life is not to play God, but to cure the greatest illness - death itself. Frankenstein wants to live in a world without fear and that is a noble thing to pursue. It's also of crucial importance that the very instant his creature comes to life, he realises his mistake and flees (as shown in the above picture, taken from the original book). He doesn't cling to his intelligence in place of morality, he quickly realises he's made a mistake and lives in self-hatred for the rest of his life, haunted by the monster of his own making.
Victor Frankenstein of the book was also a much better Scientist than Frankenstein of the movies. The monster he creates isn't ugly, but perfectly formed. It can also speak, read, write and argue philosophically. The only reason, in fact, Victor comes to loathe his creation is because he fears he has crossed a moral boundary. Most movies tend to miss the fact that Frankenstein was a good guy haunted by his own guilt, although I recommend the Kenneth Brannagh and James McAvoy versions if you're interested.
8. Zefram Cochrane (Star Trek)
In the Star Trek Universe, Cochrane is a pretty important, although not very well known character. In the fictional history of the show, he's the guy who invented warp drive and made first contact with aliens. Without him, human beings would never have been allowed to trek in the first place! The reason I've chosen him isn't for his appearance in the TV show however, it's his appearance in the eighth movie, First Contact, played brilliantly by James Cromwell.
The plot of FC sees the enterprise crew travelling back in time in order to meet Cochrane just before he makes his historical warp-test. In doing so, the crew is allowed to meet their hero and they discover something about him: Cochrane is a bit of an ass. He's not the brilliant, well tempered man of myth but a cantankerous drunkard who only wants to get his invention working so he can "retire to some tropical island filled with naked women".
What's brilliant about the movie however is that (Minor Spoiler Alert) once he's made his discovery and seen what it can do, he changes his mind. He starts thinking about the bigger picture and realises there's more to be gained than just money and women. We don't see his full evolution, but we get a glimpse of him re-discovering his passion for Science and deciding to try to be worthy of his own legend. Plus, he's a fan of classic rock, which automatically makes him worth a place on the top ten.
7. Hari Seldon (Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov)
Most of the people on this list have been included because of their Scientific thinking, rather than their achievements. If we measure greatness according to "how well they act like Scientists" then we're looking for reason, skepticism, logic, commitment to evidence etc. etc. but I also think it's worth including a Scientist who makes an incredible Scientific discovery. In that regard, one of the greatest fictional Scientists is Hari Seldon.
Seldon's Scientific achievement is one of the most remarkable in all of Science fiction writing. He invents a predictive model for the galactic human civilization. By using thermodynamic theories of particle physics, Seldon is able to create a theory which successfully predicts every rebellion, every war and every dictator that will arise in the coming years. He essentially invents the perfect method for predicting future-history. His model even works when people know it exists and try to rebel against it, because his model predicts their very act of rebellion. How's that for a mind-melt? Today's best Scientists can just about predict the weather 48 hours in advance. Seldon accurately predicts the fall and rise of empires over a thousand year period.
Since governments are made of people, and people are made of chemicals, it should be possible in some massively hypothetical scenario to really link the two. How will the basic laws of physics express themselves through human behaviour, in other words? In order to compose such a theory, Seldon must have an understanding of the Universe utterly unrivalled.
6. Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men)
Xavier was a child prodidgy, graduating from Harvard at sixteen and accruing four PhDs in Biological Sciences at Oxford. Besides this fierce intellect, he's also psychic; possessing the ability to read and control other people's minds. A person with those skills can do pretty much anything they want. So what does he do? Opens a school for vulnerable teenagers.
Xavier's job is, first and last, a teacher. And as we all know, Science teachers are in the business of saving the world. He gives young people hope, education and the ability to control their mutations, besides lobbying political groups and running the X-men, a mutant counter-terrorism organisation.
The most interesting thing about him to me, is that he has the power to end the mutant war easily but chooses not to. He could get inside the minds of every villain and persuade them to start being good guys but he refuses on the grounds that he doesn't want to violate free will. This makes him morally fascinating, not to mention controversial. He has the power to fix the world but avoids it because he doesn't think "ends justify means". He won't brainwash people into being good, but rather, wants to educate them into being better versions of themselves.
5. Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty)
If you've never come across the animated comedy show Rick & Morty then it's best I don't tell you much about it, although I will say it's definitely not for younger viewers. The Scientist of the show is Rick Sanchez, a brilliant man who's ability surpasses not only the rest of the human race, but the rest of the Universe. But what the show does perfectly, is to depict the price he pays for this genius.
A lot of the show's humour comes from the fact that Rick is simultaneously a Universe-faring adventurer, but also a man living in his daughter's spare room. The clash between the fantastical sci-fi and the domestic quarrels of people trying to live ordinary lives is what makes him unique. And it's this tension between Science and ordinary life that creates Rick's hell.
While Rick himself may not be a particularly moral character to have on the list (he's basically a terrible person) I had to include him because he perfectly encapsulates the dark side to being a Scientist...they are sometimes lonely individuals who struggle with everyday life. When you see the beauty and insanity of the Universe everywhere you look, it can be hard to connect with other humans. Rick Sanchez is on here because every now and then the show hits a heart-breaking home run in depicting the burden of the genius: when you're brilliant, nobody ever really gets you.
4. The Doctor (Doctor Who)
There are three reasons The Doctor is a brilliant Scientist. The first is his sense of hope. While Rick Sanchez essentially gives up on people, The Doctor believes almost anyone can be redeemed and that no situation is truly hopeless. After all, he could spend his life anywhere in the known Universe and yet chooses to invest his efforts protecting a tiny backwater world called Earth. He is optimistic about our planet and sees hope amidst the bleak reality.
The second reason is simple: he's damn good at Science! Not only does he have a limitless knowledge of theoretical physics, The Doctor is also a great problem solver, determined to always think his way out of a problem rather than resorting to guns and intimidation. When everyone else believes in ghosts, The Doctor starts asking questions and doing experiments. He uses logic, evidence and critical thinking in order to save the day. Very few other fictional heroes manage to solve their problems with their brain alone.
The third and final reason is that the doctor is excited by everything! While disaster is the storyline of each episode, it's made clear that this only accounts for a small percentage of what he does. Most of the time he just blazes around the Universe finding out what it's like. He's not doing Science to save lives all the time, sometimes he's just doing it out of sheer curiosity.
3. Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future Trilogy)
Steven Spielberg described reading the script for Back to the Future as “like someone emptying a dump-truck of good ideas into my brain”. It's hard to disagree with him, it is a truly brilliant film. Also the most wholesome and upbeat film about incest I've ever seen. And one of the main reasons the movie works so will is the impossible-to-dislike Doc Brown.
I’ve mentioned Doc Brown before because I love the way he describes himself as “a student of all Sciences”. He just finds the Universe fascinating and invents time travel as a tool for learning more about it. When Marty McFly tries to use the machine to cheat at sport, Doc Brown reminds him “I didn't invent the time machine to make money, I invented the time machine to travel through time!!!” In some ways, Doc Brown is a lot like The Doctor, he’s just a more upbeat version without a dark brooding interior. It's hard to picture this guy having a grumpy day.
Partly thanks to the wonderful performance of Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown's portrayal of a Scientist is someone who is friendly, funny, admittedly a bit strange, but ultimately warm and caring, particularly in his loyalty toward Marty and Clara. While The Doctor and Rick Sanchez might be equally briliant, Doc Brown is someone you'd actually want to hang around with.
2. Dr. Eleanour Arroway (Contact by Carl Sagan)
In my list of Sci-fi media that got the Science right, Contact was featured pretty highly. I've also talked about Ellie Arroway before in my blog on why we need a better representation of women Scientists in movies. But I really do think Ellie Arroway is worth talking about, so I'm going to talk about her again.
Arroway is the voice of reason amid a political circus that erupts when humans finally make contact with aliens. Played perfectly by Jodie Foster in the movie, and written beautifully in the novel by Sagan, Arroway finds herself constantly alone for the simple reason that she is right. While Arroway argues for reason, she is constantly overthrown by small-minded politicians who just want to get their angle in, missing the bigger picture. But, unlike Rick Sanchez or The Doctor, Arroway doesn't isolate herself from people and brood...she gets ready for a fight and never backs down.
Arroway is also ruthless when it comes to the Scientific method. She relies solely on evidence to form every aspect of her worldview and refuses to bow to public opinion or human desire. She is a Scientist to the very last page, keeping her mind open to every possibility, but matching it with a healthy skepticism. In fact, her commitment to Scientific thinking is topped only by one other character I can think of...
1. Spock (Star Trek)
Who else? Honestly, who else could top a list of fictional Scientists? Even people who've never seen Star Trek recognise Spock. It's hard to think of another Scientist who is so universally recognised and admired. Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of Spock is as much a part of modern cultural history as The Beatles or Marilyn Monroe.
The whole purpose of the Enterprise’s mission in Star Trek is Scientific discovery and, as the Science officer, Spock is therefore key to the show. But the reason I’m picking him is because he comes from a planet run by of Scientists. Vulcan.
People often miss the point of the Vulcan race. They’re misrepresented as emotionless, cold and clinical observers of the Universe with no thoughts of compassion. But Vulcans do feel emotion, violently so. The logic and reason they use is an evolutionary defence-mechanism to keep themselves from murdering each other. Logic is their way of taming their wildness.
Anyone who thinks Spock lacks emotion needs to watch Wrath of Kahn and anyone who thinks Vulcans lack empathy needs to watch The Voyage Home. Vulcans are highly compassionate people, they just control their emotions through sheer will of thought and commitment to reason.
The Vulcan race gives us a glimpse of something beautiful: a society which actually works. We're nowhere near it at the moment - humans are still caught in webs of tradition, selfishness and ego - but we have also evolved the capacity for thought, selflessness, empathy, and rationality. This battle rages across our countries and in each of us internally. The sensible, logical side, and the cruel animalistic drive. If the latter wins, we will destroy our planet and ourselves. If the former wins, we will ascend to greatness.
Spock is the epitome of what a Scientist tries to be. We aren’t cold, we aren’t clinical, we aren’t emotionless and we certainly aren’t mad. We just want to learn things. We just want to live long and prosper.
The Quantum Theorist at the Wedding
At the weekend I went to a wedding and sat next to a theoretical physicist. This was exciting enough, but I discovered that he'd just finished a PhD in an area of research very similar to my own (computational quantum mechanics). It’s a pretty niche area so I was astonished another human being had actually heard of it. Naturally I wanted to talk to find out more.
As he explained his work I realised the discovery he’d made was truly phenomenal. A potential game-changer which alters our understanding of Physics. Then, as I finished worshipping him, the conversation went like this…
Him: So it turns out the spin-state energies for non-ground-state systems follow a Gaussian distribution and that small-to-large system interactions lead to maximum entanglement.
Me: That’s amazing!
Him: Thank you, what was your research on?
Me: I made liquid wood.
Me: So, how’s your cheese-and-flower soup?
His work was so technically advanced I can’t sum it up neatly in a weblog, other than to say: we thought particles did a thing, but it turns out they do a different thing! This guy was making fundamental discoveries on the forefront of modern quantum mechanics, but my research can be summed up in a single sentence over a wedding lunch...so who’s the real genius here?
It then occurred to me that I’ve never actually talked about my research. I mention it briefly on the “about me” page and I’ve occasionally discussed it in lessons because I honestly think it’s interesting (that’s why I studied it) but I’ve never gone into any detail. So here it is for them what is curious.
Why would you want to make liquid wood?
As a species we use about 2x10^20 Joules’ worth of energy per year. Most of that comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas. Three main problems with this. 1) burning these substances is toxic, 2) they fill the air with greenhouse gases, 3) they will run out. We need a new energy source and we need it badly.
A potential candidate is cellulose: one of the main substances found in plants. For starters, when you burn cellulose it burns clean i.e. doesn’t produce any toxic chemicals, second you can replant the trees you cut down (making it carbon neutral) and third, plants will be around for a very long time. Cellulose solves all three problems and the good news is we have lots available. The amount of cellulose energy produced every year by nature is around 2x10^21 i.e. if we harvest just 10% of what nature already produces, we solve the energy crisis. Nice.
Unfortunately we can’t just burn wood as a civilization (for a million reasons) so we need to extract the cellulose from the plant-matter and burn it on its own. Just one problem: Cellulose is VERY hard to extract from plant. It’s like mixing up a bunch of candyfloss with a bunch of carpet-fibres and then trying to extract the candyfloss.
What we really need is to somehow turn wood into a liquid (liquids are usually easy to separate).
Step One – What’s already been done?
If you want to do good research you have to find out what other people have tried. And, it turns out, somebody had already started investigating liquid cellulose. In 1934 a man named Charles Graenacher discovered, purely by accident, that you could put small amounts of wood into a novelty chemical called an ionic liquid and get a thick wood-like sludge at the end. Back then his discovery was considered a bit of a joke – what would you want liquid wood for? It’s only in the past decade that people have rediscovered Graenacher’s research and realised how potentially useful it could be.
Thing is, we discovered the process by accident so it was basically a matter of fumbling around in the dark. Nobody knew why wood dissolved in these ionic liquids. If we could work out what was going on however we might be able to come up with a better way of doing it. After all, you can’t launch a rocket until you understand how gravity works.
There was already a bit of work being done on wood solvents by the time I got interested in the topic, but no theory behind it. Essentially it was a matter of: chuck some wood into a chemical and see if it works. Luck in other words. And this is where I began.
Step Two – Invent some calculations
Molecules are insanely small. Too small to be seen with a microscope. We also can’t ask them “how are you guys interacting?” The only way to know how molecules are really behaving toward each other is to use something called computational quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we have for explaining the world. It’s the study of the Universe at its deepest level – the very core of understanding. The only problem is that quantum mechanics is less than a hundred years old and, although rigorously tested and validated, we don’t know everything about it.
So, firstly I had to invent a new quantum-mechanical method for calculating how the molecules in wood interacted with the molecules in ionic liquids (if you want a more technical description of how I did this see below*).
This took several months and it was probably the most exciting part of the research. I spent most of my time sitting in front of a computer combining different equations to see if I could get any which worked. I can’t pretend I had a hunch from the beginning and I can’t pretend I had a Eureka moment either. Really, it was months of educated guesswork which finally started to yield sensible results.
So, about three months in, I developed a new way of simulating particle interactions by bootstrapping a bunch of different quantum mechanical methods together. Honestly, the method I invented is pretty clunky. It can be summed up in a single equation (let’s call it the tim James equation) but it looks so ridiculous I’d feel embarrassed to even display it. But, ugly as it was, my new equation worked to 96.6% accuracy.
Step Three – Use quantum mechanics to work out what’s going on
With my brand new method for calculating interactions between molecules I began teaching the computer how to correctly simulate the chemicals in wood and the chemicals which dissolved it. This would hypothetically tell me what was going on at the quantum level.
This part of the research was mostly tedious data gathering. I’m talking: wake-up, input some information, wait for the computer to pump out an answer, then repeat, over and over. For eternity.
My calculations also took up a lot of computer-space, so I decided to run everything at night. I became nocturnal because it was the best time to get access to all the computer-power I needed. Furthermore, to save time, I rigged nine computers to run simultaneously on different parts of the calculation. Many is the night you could find me in the computer lab at three in the morning, nine-computers all humming together as I ran back and forth between them making sure none of them went wrong. And I took a couple of photos...
After several months of this I began to start seeing a pattern. I got a feeling for what was going on with all these molecules...according to my computer simulation of them...and I started to make a guess as to why wood can be partly dissolved in certain ionic liquids.
Cellulose strands are tightly bound to each other via something called Hydrogen bonding (it's the same thing which makes the kevlar in bullet proof vests so tough). Certain ionic liquid chemicals seemed to be the right shape, size and charge to slip between the cellulose strands and ease them apart.
Step Four – Test it
My hypothesis suggested that for wood to dissolve, the ionic liquid had to have certain key features. So I decided to put them all together in one molecule. This new chemical I designed was named 1-crotyl-3-methylimmidazolium chloride (CMIM Chloride for short) which, if my hypothesis was correct, would out-dissolve any other ionic liquid.
And this is where things got tense. By now I’ve spent about a year on the project. I’ve invented my own equation, my own QM-approach, my own hypothesis and my own chemical. But if I don’t actually test it I might as well just say “I reckon this is true...” I had to actually make my chemical for real in the laboratory, sprinkle in some woodchips and see if it worked.
This is the part I suck at by the way. I’m not a very good lab chemist. Perhaps I’m just not very patient, or maybe too clumsy or careless, but I’m much safer with a computer and pen/paper in front of me than glassware. Everybody else is much safer too.
However, with a few false-starts, a lot of cursing and one near-explosion (sadly I’m not joking, I really did once almost blow up a fume cupboard by accidentally making a bomb) I finally managed to synthesise my computer-predicted wood solvent.
And then the moment of truth. It worked.
We tried using wood-chips, cellulose powder and even cigarette paper and they all sunk into the ionic liquid and formed a liquid. The new chemical really did dissolve wood about as accurately as my model predicted.
By no means does this prove my theory is correct of course, someone could come along tomorrow and point out the flaws in my method, but it was a really nice way to finish. Technically, even if my hypothesis had been proven wrong then that's still good for Science. Any discovery tells you something, even a negative one. But I'm a human...and it felt nice to have my hypothesis validated. And that's where my work ended.
I did take a photograph of it but I can't find it anywhere. If you're curious however, this is a photograph of liquid wood from another research group...
So there we have it. I managed to create liquid wood and not die. There are still some big problems with my chemical however. It cost about £60 to make 10 centimeters cubed of the stuff, as well as 5 hours of dangerous labwork. And then the actual dissolving of the wood took about an hour. My chemical is expensive, works slowly and takes ages to prepare (not to mention being quite dangerous) but making an efficient wood solvent wasn't really my aim. My aim was to come up with a theory which would help future Chemists design their own wood solvents.
Now that we know how it works (assuming I'm right...fingers crossed) we're not fumbling in the dark any more, we can go straight to the design stage. My contribution to this field is minor but I'm still proud of it. If, one day, we find a way to base our planet on a cellulose economy rather than a fossil fuel one, I can say that I helped, in a very small way, to nudge us in the right direction. Basically I've helped save the world. You're welcome.
* Technical bit...
Unfortunately you can’t fully describe what a particle is doing at any given time due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (it is impossible to simultaneously know the momentum and location of a sub-atomic particle). Instead, we have to work out the probability of a particle being in a certain place at a certain time. We can do that using the Schrodinger wave equation. This treat’s the particle’s probable behaviour as a wave. A wave which describes the probable behaviour of a particle is called a “wavefunction”. If you calculate the wavefunction for a particle you can predict its probable behaviour.
Currently, the mathematics required to accurately model anything more than two particles just doesn’t exist. We simply haven’t figured out how to solve the Schrodinger equation for a three-body system. The reason is that every time you add a particle in, you add a huge number of extra parts to the calcultion. For example, to correctly solve the Schrodinger equation to model a single atom of Iron requires (I have genuinely counted out the zeroes here, this isn’t just a joke) 10000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 different terms in one equation. No computer on Earth can do this yet.
By the late 80s however, a new type of quantum mechanics was being developed called Density Functional Theory (DFT for short) which uses a few clever approximations and fudgey-guesses to give you an answer which is pretty reliable. So if it’s a choice between “perfect answer but impossible to calculate” and “reasonable answer and can actually calculate” the second option is the clear choice. Therefore, most people modelling many-body systems will be working with DFT.
DFT, invented by Walter Kohn, takes a completely different approach. Rather than calculating the wave-behaviour of each particle individually and combining them all, Kohn suggested we treat all the electrons as one thing: a sort of fuzzy electron-cloud which can be thick in some places and thin in others. This 3D cloud of electron-ness tells you the probability of finding an electron in a certain place…thicker the density the more likely it is to be there.
DFT is still pretty new though, and at the moment it can only calculate the electron density for one molecule, not an interaction between several. So here’s what I actually did. DFT works as follows: you start with an approximately correct structure (often based on an earlier, cruder type of sum called a Hartree-Fock calculation). You then undergo what’s called an iterative process where you make a little change to the molecule, calculate the stability, make another change, calculate stability, make another little change, calculate and so on and so on until you get an optimum answer which can’t be improved or made any more stable.
Sometimes you go in the wrong direction of course and head away from stability so your final answer ends up with a molecule whose stability is the square-root of minus one. (Not that I ever did that of course, never.)
What I decided to do was combine DFT with another type of calculation called molecular mechanics (MM). MM is very good at dealing with many-body systems which is DFT’s main weakness. So I spent a few months trying to find a way of combining these two approaches to create some kind of super MM-DFT process. To describe the actual process I used to develop this approach would be very tedious so I'll just go to my final method which worked as follows:
Start by assuming all the atoms are rubber balls and all the bonds between them are springs (treat them as classical structures in other words). Put them into a virtual 3D box and bounce them around using MM several thousand times. Eventually, by pure chance, it will end up finding stable and likely arrangements of all the molecules. Take this structure and perform hundreds of little calculations on it with DFT until you end up with a sensible answer. Simple as that. Nothing fancy, nothing groundbreaking, just take your answer to one calculation and use it as the starting point for the next.
The only problem still arising was that DFT treated the whole system as one molecule rather than three. To get rid of this problem I used an even cruder fudge-factor where I calculated the average difference between a covalent bond and an ionic bond and simply subtracted this from every bond which shouldn’t have been there. It’s honestly amazing how close to the real answer this ridiculous cheat got me. But I can honestly say I’m the first person in the world to have used it. I’ll probably also be the last.
Seriously, if equations are works of art, mine was a Jackson Pollock painting.
This sounds like a made up story. I didn’t believe it myself. Urban legends about politicians, Science and mathematics are very common. But this one isn't a legend. The state of Indiana really did come close to legally changing the value of pi. The idea of such a story is hilarious. The reality of such a story is horrific.
In 1897 a man named Edward Goodwin thought the accepted value of pi couldn’t be correct. I’ve done a video on the subject of pi, but the important facts are as follows: If you draw a circle, you’ll find the circumference is longer than the diameter. Specifically, it's just over three times longer. No matter how big you draw it, the circumference will always be three, one tenth, four hundredths, five thousandths, nine ten-thousandths...bigger than the diameter. Or, to write that number in numerals: 3.14159…times bigger.
This number, 3.14159… is what we call an “irrational” number, meaning you can’t translate it into a fraction. For example, the number 1.75 can be translated as 7/4. The infinitely long number 0.33333... can be written as 1/3 and so on. But pi is not like that. Pi cannot be written as a fraction or in any other simple form. It goes on forever (as far as we can tell) and there is no pattern to it (as far as we can tell). It is irrational.
To be honest, pi is a hideous, inconvenient and awkward number. It goes on forever at random which means we can never know its accurate value (it doesn't have one). So, in order to deal with this monstrosity, we call it "pi" for short and represent it with the famous stone-henge symbol. Incredibly useful in pretty much all of modern Physics, not to mention engineering, statistics and a whole host of other stuff. Pi is an important part of the modern world and yes, it's a shame it's such a horrible number.
Enter an Indiana gentleman by the name of Edward Goodwin; an amateur mathematician who didn’t agree with this value of pi. His reasoning was that a circle couldn’t possibly have an irrational number built into it. The world has a perfect design so the idea of circles having this ugly number hidden inside them wasn’t to be tolerated. So he set about trying to prove that pi wasn’t 3.14159...
According to the mathematician David Singmaster, Goodwin produced nine completely new values of pi, each using a different method (all wrong) six of which he decided showed real promise. Among these six values were 3.2, 3.23 and even 4.
Now, whereas most people might get other mathematicians to check their work, Goodwin did something else. He tried to get a law passed which would make pi legally one of his values. He tried to ban the concept of 3.14159...
The proposed bill was submitted to the Indiana Committee on Education as House Bill #246 (Indiana House of Representatives, 1897) and, instead of considering him a crackpot, the representatives actually decided to take a vote on pi and Goodwin’s bill was approved by 67 votes to nil.
That’s right. 67 actual human beings decided that pi was not 3.14159… but one of Goodwin’s values. Following approval, the bill was then submitted to the state Senate where it successfully made it past the first reading. Fortunately, on the second reading, a member of the legislature showed it to his mathematician friend, Clarence Waldo. Waldo made sure the bill was shot down and the value of pi was allowed to remain as it was. Crisis was averted and Goodwin was largely forgotten by history. To this day, nobody knows what he looks like. A photograph of Waldo does survive on the other hand, but he's in the middle of a crowd somewhere and it's really hard to find him.
The fact that Edward Goodwin disagreed with pi is not a problem. Honestly it’s not. If someone says something strange (and pi is strange), you’re allowed to question them and suggest alternatives (provided you're willing to accept the strange idea if it still turns out to be better than yours).
In fact, challenging accepted ideas is one of the reasons we make progress as a species. Think where we’d be if nobody challenged the ideas of Earth being flat and sitting at the centre of the Universe.
Goodwin made a mistake and guess what, getting things wrong in Maths and Science is absolutely fine! True, he should have got his ideas peer-reviewed by other mathematicians, rather than going straight to government, but I find it hard to be angry at this guy. I kind of like him. I mean, it shows weirdly passionate dedication to come up with nine different values for pi. No, Goodwin’s actions aren’t the major issue here.
I don’t even have a problem with 67 politicians not understanding what pi is. Most politicians have backgrounds in business and law, not mathematics. For what it’s worth, I would like to see more Scientifically and mathematically educated people in government (obviously) but the fact remains that most politicians have expertise in...well....politics rather than STEM.
It’s understandable that a room of non-mathematicians got confused by the technical language of Goodwin’s bill, so it’s forgivable none of them realised how outrageous his claims were. Failing to understand something is not a crime either. The real problem is that these senators decided to take a vote on it anyway.
They thought they could determine truth by popular vote and that's not how we figure things out. Did they think circles all over the country would suddenly develop points in order to validate the new law? Governments have to make decisions on ethical conduct, economics, trade and welfare of its citizens. Their function is to protect and serve the population of their country. They do not get to make decisions about objective truth. Natural law does not have to conform to governmental law and if we say pi is legally 9, that doesn't make it so, Reality don’t work like that guv.
The fact is you can’t decide truth by committee or by vote or by authority. You decide it by investigating and considering the evidence. Nature is not a democracy. She's a dictator. Whatever she says, goes. You certainly aren't allowed to reject a fact because you don’t like it or make parts of reality illegal. If nature is ugly, then she’s ugly. Deal with it.
I, for instance, find it very difficult to accept the existence of the movie Flashdance. I mean, the main character is a welder who moonlights as a cabaret dancer?? It’s a film which tries to fuse gritty crime-drama and psychological angst with ballet and 80s disco. How is that a thing which the Universe permitted?
My point is, Flashdance is not a part of nature I’m comfortable with. But I can’t just vote it out of existence and pretend it never happened. Flashdance is a part of the world and I have to make peace with that. What a feeling.
Likewise, pi is the value it is. If you find this aspect of nature strange and unattractive…well…too bad. That's how circles are. The ratio between their outside and their middle is an unpleasant number. You can go out and check it by measuring the circle yourself, that's the whole point of finding out truth. You can find it out!
Nature’s laws are not always what we’d like them to be. Sometimes unusual, sometimes overly complicated and even, in the case of pi, messy. But, like it or not, you don’t get to say how the world is. You can only discover and accept it. If you don't like our Universe then find another one. And take the movie Flashdance with you.
I love science, let me tell you why.