The Path to Immortality

by Nicholas Mee on October 11, 2017

It is 1697, we enter a dimly lit tavern in one of the less inviting districts of London. Huddled in the shadows we see a man in a loose cloak sitting expectantly with his accomplice at a small table. He has long grey hair, a sharp nose and a determined look in his piercing eyes. This is the Warden of the Royal Mint and he is hoping to interrogate some of the coiners and counterfeiters who, along with many other assorted cutthroats and villains, haunt this alehouse and its environs.

The Tower of London. Credit: Wikimedia – Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Isaac Newton had been appointed Warden—a position worth £300 annually—just the previous year. Modernisation of the coinage was underway. Hand-stamped coins remained in circulation, but the Mint had recently been mechanised and silver and gold coins were now being smelted and stamped in the Tower of London on an industrial scale. The Royal Mint assigned £700 each year simply to remove the dung generated by its horse-powered machinery. Newton declined the accommodation adjacent to the smoke, stench and noise of the factory and army barracks within the walls of the royal fortress, and made his own arrangements in the heart of swinging London. Nevertheless he engaged in little of the high life the capital had to offer. Newton was no enthusiast for the arts, alluding to classical sculptures as ‘stone dolls’ and describing poetry as ‘a kind of ingenious nonsense’. He did visit the opera once in what was the golden age of English opera, the era of Henry Purcell. He recalled: ‘I heard the first act with pleasure, the second act stretched my patience and in the third act I ran away.’

Newton’s alchemical pursuits probably attracted him to the position at the Mint, but he may not have realised his duties extended to the prosecution of coiners, clippers and counterfeiters. Soon after taking on the role, he wrote to the Treasury requesting that a duty ‘so vexatious & dangerous’ not be required of him any longer. Their response was to insist that Newton meet his obligations. With little option but to comply, Newton took to the task with the single-minded determination that he approached all his endeavours.

The Path to Immortality

We find it hard to imagine the father of modern science descending into the underworld vice dens, alehouses and taverns of London and the notorious Newgate prison gathering evidence leading to the prosecution and execution of London’s coiners. It invokes an image common to the world’s mythologies of the hero descending into an underworld realm of horror and depravity where, after overcoming the most arduous ordeals and ultimately death itself, the hero returns with heightened knowledge and self-awareness. The heroes Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Theseus, Heracles, Odysseus and Aeneas all undertook such a journey and their mythical success was proof of their extraordinary powers and the key to their immortality. Newton’s immortality had been established in the much quieter and more genteel surroundings of Trinity College, Cambridge, where a decade earlier in 1687 he published the book that more than any other would forge the modern scientific world. This book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) is usually known as The Principia (pronounced with a hard ‘c’).

Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge. Credit: Wikimedia – Cmglee.

Isaac Newton entered Trinity College in 1661 as an 18 year old student. In August 1665 the university closed due to an outbreak of plague and Newton returned home to Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. Newton remained at home for the next two years and it was during this period that he developed his early ideas that would lead to a complete transformation of science and the wider world. There is a famous and memorable image of the young Newton musing on the force of gravity after seeing an apple fall in the garden of the manor house. Although this sounds an unlikely story, it was told by Newton himself. Newton lived his last seven years with his niece Catherine Barton and her husband John Conduitt, who also assisted Newton at the Royal Mint. Conduitt recorded the following account of Newton’s story:

‘In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.’

Newton realised that if we throw an apple it will follow an arc as it is drawn towards the ground by gravity. We can imagine firing an apple or a cannonball from a mountain top. The faster we propel the cannonball the further it will travel before it hits the ground. Newton reasoned that if it were propelled with sufficient velocity it would circle the Earth completely, like the Moon, without ever touching the ground—it would be in orbit. Newton illustrated this idea with the figure on the left which is taken from the Principia. We are so familiar with the notion that the force that pulls an apple to the ground is the same as the force that holds the planets in orbit that it is hard to conceive of a time when this was not common knowledge. But prior to the Newtonian revolution, less than 350 years ago, the connection between the fall of an apple and the celestial dance of the planets was completely unknown.

The Scientific Revolution

Newton offered far more than an analogy and a convincing argument. He produced a complete system of mechanics and gravity that could be used to calculate how the material world operates. Newton’s ideas were applied far and wide by subsequent generations and became the foundation for the entire scientific enterprise of understanding the universe. Newton’s theories reigned supreme for over 200 years.

Saturn’s beautiful rings held within the planet’s orbital embrace. Credit: ESA.

It was not until the early years of the 20th century, that modifications to Newton’s theories would be found necessary. We now know that quantum theory is required when analysing the very small, special relativity when objects are moving close to the speed of light, and general relativity when considering the gravitational effect of extremely massive bodies.

Warping Space and Time

In 1915, Einstein devised a theory of gravity—general relativity—that works even better than Newton’s. Einstein did away with Newton’s force of attraction between massive bodies. He proposed, instead, that each massive body warps space and time in its vicinity and this affects the path of any other objects that move close by, including light. Although these descriptions sound completely different, the predictions of the two theories are very similar unless the bodies are extremely massive.

Rather remarkable conclusions follow from general relativity when applied to intense gravitational environments. General relativity implies that massive objects bend the path of light and objects such as giant elliptical galaxies and galaxy clusters warp space so much they act like enormous gravitational lenses. The illustration below shows an example where the light from a distant galaxy is warped into a circle by the intervening giant elliptical galaxy seen within the ring. Another consequence is the existence of black holes—objects whose gravitational attraction is so severe that even light cannot escape. General relativity also predicts that incredibly violent events, such as black hole collisions and mergers, generate ripples in the fabric of space known as gravitational waves. All these outlandish predictions are now known to be correct.

Gravitational lens – LRG 3-757 discovered in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Credit: ESA/NASA/HST.

Newtonian gravity works incredibly well. It is perfectly adequate in almost all circumstances. In the vicinity of the Earth, the differences between Newtonian gravity and general relativity are tiny, so we might expect them to be irrelevant in every day life. It is quite surprising, therefore, that we now daily use a technology that relies on general relativity for its accuracy. Gravitational time distortion is built into the GPS (Global Positioning System) used for satellite navigation. GPS could not function for more than a few minutes, if the predictions of general relativity were not incorporated into the system.

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton succeeded in his crackdown on abuse of the British coinage and was personally responsible for 28 convictions. He was appointed Master of the Royal Mint in 1699, and six years later when knighted by Queen Anne it was for his work at the Royal Mint rather than his scientific achievements. In 2017, the Royal Mint issued a 50p coin to mark the 375th anniversary of Newton’s birth.


Further Information

There is a lot more about Newton and the development of his ideas about gravity in my book: Gravity: Cracking the Cosmic Code.


The Alchemists’ Dream

by Nicholas Mee on September 23, 2017

The alchemists’ dream was to understand and control the structure of matter and to turn base metal into gold. Modern physicists are equally curious, but hopefully rather less avaricious.

Four Forces

The Cockcroft-Walton machine.

The 20th century saw the development of machines to delve deep into the structure of matter. John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton constructed the first particle accelerator that could interrogate the atomic nucleus in 1932. It is now in the Science Museum in London and looks like a machine that Dr Frankenstein would have been proud of.

By the middle of the century all known phenomena could be described in terms of just four forces. Gravity controls the large-scale structure of the universe, but the intrinsic weakness of gravity means its effect is utterly negligible between pairs of fundamental particles, such as electrons in atoms. By contrast, the other three forces all play important roles in particle physics. The electromagnetic force holds atoms together. It gives us the electrical industry and the whole science of chemistry. The strong force binds the nucleus of an atom together. The weak force is responsible for some types of radioactivity and plays a critical role in synthesizing atoms in the stars.

A Modern Alchemist

There has been an equally impressive consolidation in understanding the particles on which these few forces act. During the 1950s and 1960s particle accelerators revealed new particles at a disconcerting rate. Murray Gell-Mann was the leading architect of new ideas that would bring order to the particle mayhem. Known for his broad spectrum of interests, which range from linguistics to ornithology, he is shown here playing an arithmetical African game known as oware. The game is said to have a symbolic significance. The board is sometimes set east to west to align with the rising and setting sun. If the board is the world, the stones are the stars and the cups are the months of the year. Moving the stones is said to mimic the gods moving through space and time.

Gell-Mann playing oware.

Gell-Mann discerned a deeper substructure to the multitude of particles that feel the strong force. He proposed in 1964 that these particles, which include protons, neutrons and their more exotic relatives, are formed from a new class of fundamental particles called quarks—a nonsense word Gell-Mann borrowed from a line in James Joyce’s mind-bending novel Finnegans Wake.

Initially Gell-Mann deduced the existence of three types of quark known as up, down and strange. Three more quarks have since been discovered: the charm, bottom and top quarks, making a total of six. A similar model was proposed by George Zweig who referred to these sub-components as aces. A key feature of these models is that protons contain two up quarks and one down quark, while neutrons are formed of two down quarks and one up quark. Particles composed of quarks are known collectively as hadrons.

Left: proton, Right: neutron, where d labels the down quarks and u labels the up quarks.


Richard Feynman with some of his particle interaction diagrams.

In the late 1940s Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Freeman Dyson devised a quantum theory of electromagnetism. Quantum electrodynamics, or QED as it is usually known, provides an incredibly precise explanation of the electromagnetic force at the level of particle interactions. According to QED, electrons, protons and other charged particles interact by passing photons—the fundamental particles of light—back and forth. Feynman is celebrated on the stamp shown here, where he is depicted along with the diagrams he invented to represent particle interactions. QED has also proved to be the perfect model for constructing theories of the other forces.

Gluing the Quarks Together

The strong force is described by a theory called quantum chromodynamics (QCD) in which quarks interact through the exchange of particles known as gluons. Why are they called gluons? Because they provide the glue to hold quarks together, of course. QCD is like QED on steroids. It is the same sort of theory, but while there is just one photon, there are eight types of gluon. Also, photons are uncharged and therefore don’t interact with other photons, whereas gluons feel the strong force, so they do interact with other gluons. This makes QCD calculations more complicated, but the theory works incredibly well and provides a wonderful description of the workings of Nature at very short distances, such as within the nucleus of an atom.


The weak force has its own idiosyncracies. It operates through the exchange of three particles known as the W+ (W-plus), W (W-minus) and Z bosons. Unlike photons, which are massless, this trio are heavyweights. It is as though the weak force operates by lobbing cannonballs between particles, rather than ping pong balls, which accounts for its weakness and short range. Peter Higgs and two other teams of physicists independently invented a new quantum field to give mass to the weak force exchange particles. If the theory was correct, the electromagnetic and weak forces would now be seen as two aspects of a single unified electroweak force, despite their obvious differences. A critical prediction of the theory is the existence of a new fundamental particle—the Higgs boson.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the modern descendent of early atom smashers such as the Cockcroft-Walton machine. It is the highest energy accelerator of all time. In the LHC the projectiles are protons, which are accelerated in two beams that intersect at four points around the machine where head-on collisions occur. Hence the name—it is a large machine, 27 kilometres in circumference, in which protons, which are hadrons, are smashed into each other.

Almost all particles created in collider experiments are unstable. Such particles rapidly transform into two or more lighter particles that carry away the energy released. Eventually the only particles left are members of a small collection of stable particles. These include the protons and electrons, photons and neutrinos. If these particles were not stable there would be no atoms and no light.

On 4th July 2012 CERN announced the LHC had found the Higgs boson. This completes the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces—the greatest unification of forces since Faraday and Maxwell 150 years ago.

The beam pipe of the LHC during construction.

A Triumph of Modern Physics

The combination of the electroweak force and the strong force is known as the Standard Model. This incredibly successful theory is one of the great triumphs of modern physics. It explains the structure of matter in terms of a handful of fundamental particles and a couple of forces.

Fundamental particles divide naturally into two classes: fermions and bosons. Fermions are the particles from which matter is composed. They are named after Enrico Fermi. Bosons are particles such as photons that are exchanged between other particles to produce forces. They are named after Satyendra Nath Bose.

There are just 12 fundamental fermions along with their antiparticles. These fermions form three generations of four particles. The first generation consists of the up and down quarks, the electron and the electron neutrino shown in the first column below. Ordinary matter is formed from the first three of these particles. Each particle in the second and third generations carries the same charges and seems to be just a heavier replica of the corresponding particle in the first generation. These particles are shown in the next two columns.

The right-hand part of the table shows the fundamental bosons, responsible for producing the strong, electromagnetic and weak forces. The discovery of the Higgs boson filled the last empty slot in the table.

The Standard Model Table of Particles.

It is a remarkable fact that the Standard Model is consistent with every particle physics experiment ever performed. For instance, LHC researchers released data in 2016 of a particle composed of a strange quark and a bottom anti-quark decaying into a pair of muons. The Standard Model predicts this is an extremely rare event occurring just three times in every billion decays of the particle, and this matches exactly what the researchers observed, making it the rarest decay process ever measured. It highlights the precision with which particle physics predictions are being tested, and, so far, the Standard Model agrees with the experimental results every time.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the incredible success of the Standard Model it cannot be the end of the story. The Standard Model provides a very concise account of the structure of matter, but it has various loose ends and unexplained features. There is no explanation of why there are three generations of matter particles. There is no explanation of why the masses of the fundamental particles vary so greatly, as illustrated below.

The masses of the fundamental particles vary greatly. The volume of each sphere shown here is proportional to the mass of the corresponding particle. The masses of the neutrinos are far too small to be visible.

There is also the question of further unification. The Standard Model comes close, but it does not unify the electroweak force with the strong force. And although there are not many fundamental particles, the number is far more than we might expect from a truly fundamental theory.

Most serious, perhaps, is a rather more disturbing issue. About 85% of the matter in the universe exists in some mysterious form that does not fit into the Standard Model Table of Particles. It has been dubbed dark matter.

Further Information

There is a lot more about the structure of matter and how the Standard Model came about in my book Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered.

There is more information about dark matter here: Most of the Universe is Missing!


Alchemical Furnaces of the Cosmos

September 21, 2017

Arthur Eddington was raised in a Quaker family in northern England. After studying in Manchester, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University and by the 1920s he established himself as the world’s leading astrophysicist. Eddington developed models of the structure and evolution of stars that form the foundations of the subject even today. The key […]

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From the Leviathan to the Behemoth

September 19, 2017

The Leviathan William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, built a monster telescope with a six-foot or 1.8 metre mirror weighing almost three tons at his home in Birr Castle in county Offaly, Ireland. Construction was completed in 1845. The Leviathan of Parsonstown, as it is known, remained in use until the end of the […]

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The Battle for the Cosmos!

August 20, 2017

Following the Second World War, a battle for the origin of the universe was waged by two teams of nuclear physicists; one led by George Gamow, the other by Fred Hoyle. Both would be incredibly successful, but not quite in the ways they expected. Gamow was a brilliant physicist from Russia who gained international acclaim […]

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Life, But Not As We Know It!

August 18, 2017

I remember many years ago watching an episode of Star Trek called The Devil in the Dark. The Starship Enterprise visits a mining community on the planet Janus VI where an unknown lifeform is playing havoc with the mining operations. The crew eventually track down the source of the disruption – a strange creature that […]

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Lovely LISA

August 15, 2017

One of the amazing ideas to emerge from Einstein’s theory of general relativity was the possibility of gravitational waves rippling their way across the cosmos. It took a century to verify this prediction. Their existence was finally confirmed by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) in September 2015, as described in this post: Cosmic Ripples. What’s […]

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We’re Having a Field Day!

August 12, 2017

René Descartes proposed an imaginative explanation for the motion of the planets in the 1630s. He argued in a work known as The World that the existence of a void or vacuum is impossible and therefore space must be filled with some sort of fluid. He suggested that the planets are carried around the sun by […]

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Cosmic Order and the Higgs Force

August 9, 2017

Tracking down the Higgs boson took almost fifty years, so the announcement of its discovery by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012 was a momentous occasion. Strange as it may seem, the theory that predicted the existence of this elusive particle was devised to explain one of the great mysteries of the world around us — […]

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From Genesis to Revelation

August 1, 2017

Modern cosmology is one hundred years old this year. Of course, poets, seers and sages have contemplated the origin of the universe for millennia and arrived at various conclusions. There aren’t really that many distinct possibilities, however. The universe is either finite, eternal or cyclic, and the third of these possibilities is like a combination […]

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