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Michael Walzer: Who are you?

Question: Who are you?

Michael Walzer: I was born in the Bronx in 1935, and I spent my first nine years there and then my parents moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which is the small steel town east of Pittsburgh, a little Pittsburgh. They moved there in ‘44, which was just when the steelworkers had succeeded in organizing. Johnstown was a union town and a democratic stronghold. I grew up there, left Johnstown when I was 17 to go to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. After Brandeis--do you want me to continue? I had a Fulbright scholarship that took me to Cambridge, England, for a year in ‘56-’57, and then I went to Harvard as a graduate student in the Government Department and taught for one year at Harvard after I got my PhD, and then for four years at Princeton and then came back to Harvard in 1966, and I taught there in the Government Department until 1980. And then I moved to the Institute for Advanced Study where I have been ever since. Well, I grew up in a lefty household. My parents were readers of a newspaper called PM which was a kind of popular front daily in New York. I.F. Stone and Max Lerner wrote for PM. We subscribed to I.F. Stone’s Weekly even after we moved to Johnstown, so my parents were an important influence. And then at Brandeis I met Irving Howe and Lewis Coser who are just setting up Dissent Magazine who were ex-Trotskyists who were moving to some kind of social democratic political position and they were my political mentors. I grew up with politics. Politics was the daily conversation. I grew up during World War II which was also a very important factor. And then I came of age politically, I suppose, just at the time when America was opening up politically--the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement--these were my training grounds for political life. And Brandeis was a place where the 60s began in the 50s. I was there from '52 to '56, and it was already a hotbed of the kind of politics that the rest of the country experienced after 1960. Well, the Montgomery Bus Boycott--I think that was 1954--and at Brandeis, which was very far away and where there were practically no black students, but there are a lot of Jewish red diaper babies and Jewish lefties of different sorts--that was for us a very crucial event, and we organized just rallies and in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So that was an important feature, and then there was Rosenberg, which was very important at a Jewish, especially important that the Jewish university. And we divided; some of us thought that they were probably guilty and we were maybe the children of socialists rather than of communists and others thought…Brandeis was a place were the debates between Stalin and Trotsky went on long after they had ceased in the rest of the world. So I read the first issues of Dissent Magazine. I went canvassing for Adalai Stevenson. So it was an open politics; we weren’t left sectarians at all. Canvassing for Adalai Stevenson as a Jewish kid in Waltham, Massachusetts, we probably did him more harm than good, but we were very earnest and committed to political action. And it was in the course of my political activities--of traveling south in 1960 and organizing Vietnam summer in 1967--it was in the course of those activities that I began to realize that I was using a political language that I didn’t understand very well, and that deserved some reflection and articulation, more theoretical articulation, and that’s when I began to think about myself as possibly a political theorist.

 

A Jewish red-diaper baby.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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Bubonic plague case reported in China

Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.

(Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images)
Coronavirus
  • The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
  • Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
  • Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
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The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Image: solarseven / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
  • Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
  • Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
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