As scientists accustomed to crossing the boundary between the macroscopic and quantum worlds, two Pinhead Town Talk presenters will describe some of the fundamental properties of our universe, most of which are invisible to human beings.
The keynote topic of Pinhead Institute's third annual summer Town Talk Extravaganza, held tonight, Tuesday, August 1, 7-9 p.m. at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village, is "The Chemistry of the Universe," presented by William Klemperer, Harvard University Research Professor of Chemistry. "On Quantum Weirdness in To-Hell-You-Ride: A Fresh Look at Mining Disasters," will be given by David Coker, Boston University Professor of Theoretical Chemistry.
Coker will illustrate the world as viewed by a molecule, while Klemperer casts his intellectual sights upon the chemistry of the infinite and its components galaxies, dark spaces and stars.
Klemperer, who has taught at Harvard University for more than fifty years, is the classic disheveled professor. He drops papers, loses his train of thought mid-sentence, but when set before an audience he rises theatrically with a genuine and charming presence, commanding attention.
In his talk, Klemperer will describe the kinetic chemistry within a galaxy and note that to understand the universe we must understand the nature of chemical reactions. Galaxies are highly non-uniform. The elements hydrogen and helium are dominant in the universe, although the abundance is variable. For example, there are dark, totally opaque regions void of all starlight and populated with giant molecules. Klemperer notes that these are important, high-density astrological objects where stars are formed. There are also low-density regions where starlight drives the energy. And while the complexity of the universe is exciting, on Earth it is even more complex.
Coker, a University of Boston professor of theoretical chemistry, is notorious among his colleagues for giving wildly energetic talks that are difficult to fully comprehend but always highly entertaining and funny.
"There is a significant difference between the world we experience in our daily lives, something we call the 'classical world,' and the world of microscopic particles atoms, molecules, electrons, and protons," he says. "They are fundamentally different worlds. Our worldview is completely different from the worldview of a molecule."
In an effort to explain quantum mechanics in human terms, Coker will describe a hypothetical, macroscopic mining disaster in which a derailed train collides with a mine. "From the human perspective, there is death, dismemberment and destruction," he says. "However, what the microscopic world experiences simultaneously is something entirely different. In the microscopic world, the disaster both takes place and doesn't take place. The ability to exist in two states at once is known as 'superposition.' Molecules experience this, but we can't, in part because our time scales are very different. The timeframe of the superposition is very, very short. By the time we observe it on the macroscopic level, the decision has been made, and superposition cannot be observed."
The contrast of scale in the two talks will require the listener to stretch between the unfathomably large and the unthinkably small. Coker will focus on the behavior of the atoms and molecules in infinitesimally short time frames, while Klemperer's story harkens back to the beginning of time itself. Distances in Coker's story are the width of atoms; Klemperer's basic unit is a light year, 5.88 trillion miles or the distance a beam of light travels in a vacuum over one year.
Hosting the evening extravaganza will be Dr. John Straub, Boston University Professor of Chemistry and President of Telluride Science Research Center, and Nana Naisbitt, executive director of Pinhead Institute. Klemperer's talk is the fourth annual R. Stephen Berry lecture, in honor of University of Chicago professor Berry as a founder of TSRC. The 2006 Pinhead Town Talk science lecture series is sponsored by the Town of Mountain Village and produced in collaboration with the Telluride Science Research Center. Coker and Klemperer are participants of TSRC, which attracts about 350 scientists to Telluride each summer.
For more information call Naisbitt at 728-0713 or go to www.pinheadinstitute.org.