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Sir Michael Berry Highlights the Wonders of Physics

Friday, October 12, 2012
On October 3, Distinguished Visiting Professor Sir Michael Berry, Melville Wills Professor of Physics (Emeritus) at Bristol University in England, shared with the Marymount community his fascination with the wonders of physics. As he explains, “Sometimes, nature and technology can illustrate and bring to life the abstract ideas of physics and mathematics in beautiful and unexpected ways.” Sir Michael was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1982, knighted in 1996, and is the recipient of numerous awards from the Wolf Prize in physics (1998) and the Polya Prize of the London Mathematical Society (2005) to – on a lighter note – the IgNobel Prize in physics (2000) for his work on the levitation of frogs.

In his presentation, Professor Berry gave examples of wonders that reveal the underlying physics of natural phenomena and the importance of numbers. He explained the great moon-driven river wave (tidal bulge) that happens twice a day in the estuary of the Severn River in southwest Britain – pointing out, “The river actually flows backwards upstream, but downhill.”
Supernumerary rainbows can be understood by wave optics, which superseded ray optics. Before we understood that light is waves, not rays, the phenomenon was inexplicable. Sir Michael also talked about the amazing fact that modern cars operate on the equivalent of a hair's-thread of fuel and the thrill of seeing the green flash that can, in rare instances be observed when looking out to sea at sunset when the horizon is completely free of clouds. Sir Michael explained, “The atmosphere is a huge air lens, bending light. Green is bent more than red, so we see green a bit later.” In the split second before sunset or sunrise, a brilliant green gleam can be seen. He mentioned Jesuit priest Jose Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican's astronomic observatory, who documented the green flash. Funes has said that star-gazing brings him closer to God.

Professor Berry next marveled at how the CD makes use of laser technology and connects the worlds of physics, math, engineering, music, and business. “Quantum physics has democratized music, just as chemistry democratized art through photography,” he pointed out.

Referring to quantum twists and turns, Sir Michael noted that no two electrons can occupy the same state simultaneously (Pauli exclusion principle); each exchange is accompanied by a hidden rotation. This is the principle that can make matter impenetrable. He used his belt to show that two 360 turns actually straighten the belt – making the connection between physics and geometry.

Lastly, Sir Michael explained the color of gold. Early attempts to explain why gold is a “gold” color only took into account how electrons interact on a quantum level (physics of the small). They kept coming up with “silver.” However, gold is a heavy metal, so electrons move fast; quantum relativity (physics of the small when moving very fast) must be considered to understand the gold color.

During the question-and-answer session, Professor Berry was asked when he became passionate about theoretical physics. He replied that it was when he began thinking for himself – noting that his education provided the foundation, but he needed to go beyond the classroom and do his own exploration.
1: Distinguished Visiting Professor Sir Michael Berry (center) discusses his use of fractal geometry with faculty and students.

PHOTO 2: Sir Michael demonstrates the green flash visible in the split second before sunset.

PHOTO 3: With help from senior Daphne Puerto, Professor Berry uses his belt to explain quantum twists and turns.

PHOTO 4: (left to right) Sir Michael Berry; Dr. Eric Bubar, MU assistant professor of Physical Sciences; and senior Emma Wallace, a Biology major

PHOTO 5: Sir Michael Berry with Marymount President Matthew D. Shank