Black Bodies and Quantum Cats - Tales of Pure Genius and Mad by JENNIFER OUELLETTE


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TALKIN’ ’BOUT A REVOLUTION 17 big bang and plate tectonics. Their mind-set is nearly identical to that of the Catholic Church toward Copernican theory: when scientific evidence contradicts their reading of the Bible, they assume that the evidence is false—not that their interpretation of scripture might be wrong. Most creationists aren’t this radical, but they have become increasingly proactive, and often litigious, particularly as regards setting science curricula in schools. The Kansas state board of education made national headlines in August 1999 when it voted 6 to 4 to eliminate the teaching of the big bang and evolution from the required scientific curricula.

The strange magnifying effects that so intrigued the ancient Assyrians owe less to magic, of course, than to the unique nature of light and its interaction with matter. Light is a peculiarly ephemeral substance that suffers from a chronic identity crisis. For centuries scientists have debated whether light is a particle or a wave; today we know it is neither, although it has properties of both, like an actor who moonlights as a waiter on the side, or who really just wants to direct. It travels in a straight line like a stream of particles, but it can also diffuse outward like a wave.

One week later, M. Delor repeated the experiment in Paris; he was followed in July by an Englishman, John Canton. One unfortunate physicist did not fare so well. Georg Wilhelm Reichmann attempted to reproduce the experiment, but a glowing ball of charge— the first documented example of ball lightning—traveled down the string, jumped to his forehead, and killed him instantly. A few days later, however, a Russian chemist named Mikhail Lomonosov performed the same experiment successfully. Franklin was unaware of these other experiments when he undertook his own version during a thunderstorm in June 1752, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

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