George Musser
George Musser
George Musser is a contributing editor at Scientific American and Nautilus magazines and the author of two books, Spooky Action at a Distance and The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. He is the recipient of the 2011 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award and the 2010 American Astronomical Society’s Jonathan Eberhart Planetary Sciences Journalism Award. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT from 2014 to 2015.

What Happens to Google Maps When Tectonic Plates Move?

Consumer GPS now achieves an accuracy of a few meters, good enough to spot mapping errors and geological changes.

A couple of weeks ago, I was writing up a description of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and I thought I’d compare the warping of spacetime to the motion of Earth’s tectonic plates. Nothing on Earth’s surface has fixed coordinates, because the surface is ever-shifting. Same goes for spacetime. But then it struck me: if […]

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The Wholeness of Quantum Reality: An Interview with Physicist Basil Hiley

David Bohm's longtime collaborator explains why he thinks quantum physics describes a holistic reality.

VIENNA—One night in 1952, Richard Feynman and David Bohm went bar-hopping in Belo Horizonte. Louisa Gilder reconstructs the night in her brilliant book on the history of quantum mechanics, The Age of Entanglement. Feynman was on a sabbatical in Rio and, ever exuberant, raved about local beers, drumming lessons, and Brazilian girls. Bohm, teaching at […]

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Does Some Deeper Level of Physics Underlie Quantum Mechanics? An Interview with Nobelist Gerard ’t Hooft

Is the notorious randomness of quantum mechanics just a front?

VIENNA—Over the past several days, I attended a fascinating conference that explored an old idea of Einstein’s, one that was largely dismissed for decades: that quantum mechanics is not the root level of reality, but merely a hazy glimpse of something even deeper. A leading advocate is Gerard ’t Hooft of Utrecht University, who shared […]

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When the Large Hadron Collider Is Too Small

Four times the circumference, seven times as much energy: Is that really what it’ll take to test multiverse theories?

The Large Hadron Collider has only just begun its explorations, so it might seem a little premature to begin thinking about what new particle projects might come next. But given how long these things take to plan, is it ever too soon? This summer, particle physicists held a huge planning retreat in Minneapolis, which Peter […]

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What Would It Mean for Time to Come to an End? [Video]

A TEDx talk in 2013

Could time come to an end? What would that even mean? In April 2013 I gave a talk about this strange physics idea at a TEDx event in Trento, Italy, based on a Scientific American article I wrote in 2010. My conceit was that time’s end poses a paradox that might be resolved if time […]

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It From Bit or Bit From It? The Fifth Foundational Questions Institute Essay Contest

What a great way to start the week: the Foundational Questions Institute has just announced its fifth essay contest. The topic is the physics of information. It could hardly be more timely, and not just because of the cultural Zeitgeist. Going to a physics conference these days is like landing in The Village of the […]

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George and John's Excellent Adventures in Quantum Entanglement, Part 2 [Video]

Here’s what an entanglement experiment actually looks like.

The first time I ever saw quantum entanglement for myself was in August 2011 on a road trip to Colgate University. Goodness knows how many blog posts and magazine articles have been written about the quantum realm, invariably describing it as weird. But I’d never actually seen this supposed mind-blowingness with my own eyes, which […]

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How to Build Your Own Quantum Entanglement Experiment, Part 2 (of 2)

The cheapest and easiest way to do the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment.

In my last post, I scrounged the parts for a very crude, but very cool, experiment you can do in your basement to demonstrate quantum entanglement. To my knowledge, it’s the cheapest and simplest such experiment ever done. It doesn’t give publishable results, but, to appropriate a line from Samuel Johnson, a homebrew entanglement experiment […]

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How to Build Your Own Quantum Entanglement Experiment, Part 1 (of 2)

The cheapest and easiest way to do the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment.

Quantum-entanglement experiments are not exactly something you can buy in the science kit aisle at Toys ’R Us. The cheapest kit I know of is a marvel of miniaturization, but still costs 20,000 euros. In the past month, though, I’ve put together a crude version for just a few hundred dollars. It’s unbelievably simple—so simple […]

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Physicists Find a Backdoor Way to Do Experiments on Exotic Gravitational Physics

Who’d have thought viscous fluids would act like gravitational waves caroming off a black hole?

The whole point of an explanation is to reduce something you don’t know to something you do. By that standard, you don’t gain much by explaining anything in terms of black holes. Appealing to the most mysterious objects known to science as an explanation sounds like using one mystery to explain another. Yet this is […]

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When You Fall into a Black Hole, How Long Have You Got?

Maybe not long at all, if black holes are ringed by “firewalls.”

In chatting with colleagues after a talk this week, Joe Polchinski said he’d love to fall into a black hole. Most theoretical physicists would. It’s not because they have some peculiar death wish or because science funding prospects are so dark these days. They are just insanely curious about what would happen. Black holes are […]

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Hacking the Quantum: A New Book Explains How Anyone Can Become an Amateur Quantum Physicist

Quantum physics is becoming the next maker revolution.

For years I’ve been thinking and hoping that quantum physics would become the next hacker revolution. DIYers in their basements, garages, and hackerspaces have already pioneered radio communications, PCs, household robots, and cheap 3-D printers—why not quantum entanglement, cryptography, computers, and teleportation? In recent years, physics educators have streamlined quantum experiments to the point where […]

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How to Build the World's Simplest Particle Detector

Foil tray, plastic tumbler, and rubbing alcohol make for a simple cloud chamber, without any dry ice.

In about 10 minutes, using stuff you probably already have lying around your house, you can watch atomic nuclei and elementary particles for yourself using a diffusion cloud chamber—a rudimentary particle detector. There are lots of websites and YouTube videos giving step-by-step instructions to build such a chamber, but all require some component that’s hard […]

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How Do You Count Parallel Universes? You Can't Just Go 1, 2, 3, ...

Introducing a whole new breed of number, the p-adics.

Cosmologists have been thinking for years that our universe might be just one bubble amid countless bubbles floating in a formless void. And when they say “countless,” they really mean it. Those universes are damned hard to count. Angels on a pin are nothing to this. There’s no unambiguous way to count items in an […]

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String Theory in 26 Seconds [Video]

A weird little video, done on a dare.

SANTA BARBARA—Someone once asked me to describe string theory in 26 seconds, so, a couple of months ago, I went down to Goleta Beach with my iPhone and recorded this little video. It’s kind of spacey, I admit. Soundtrack and dog were entirely unintentional.

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As If One Giant Black Hole Weren’t Enough, What’s a Galaxy Doing with Three?

Standard formation models can’t account for this triplet.

Last Thursday, my colleague John Matson described a truly amazing galaxy known, somewhat unromantically, as BX442. It has a majestic spiral pattern while hundreds of its galactic contemporaries were gawky and misshapen—a peculiar and special anomaly which suggests to many astronomers that cosmic pinwheels are ephemeral art forms, like Tibetan sand mandalas. John’s piece spurs […]

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Does It Matter If Black Holes Are Popping into Existence Around Us All the Time?

Black holes are not just distant cosmic monsters. Microscopic ones may exist all around us, with potentially momentous consequences.

It may well have been the liveliest hour and a half I’ve ever spent in the company of theoretical physicists. In April, during a workshop I was attending on black holes, Bill Unruh gave a talk that challenged his colleagues on a point almost all of them thought had been settled in the mid-1980s. His […]

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What Is the Higgs Boson? [Video]

In 2 1/2 minutes, you, too, can break the symmetry of the electroweak interactions.

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Quantum Horse Races and Crystals of Light

Start with a row of rubidium atoms, place your bets, let ’em go.

SINGAPORE—I’d heard of quantum dice, quantum poker, quantum roulette, and even quantum Russian roulette, but a quantum horse race? I learned about this surreal game of chance last December during a symposium at the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. Start with a row of rubidium atoms, place your bets, let ʼem go, and measure […]

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Charismatic Megaparticles Might Hint at Dark Matter, and Much Besides

Out in the cosmos, “dark accelerators” slingshot particles to huge speeds and no one knows why.

At a lecture I went to some years ago, astrophysicist Trevor Weekes compared garden-variety elementary particles to mosquitoes. They are plentiful and easy to find—indeed, they find you. But ultra-high-energy gamma rays, he said, are like elephants. They are fairly rare, but among the greatest of creatures. They often roam in spectacular habitats. Their sheer […]

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Is Dark Matter a Glimpse of a Deeper Level of Reality?

Many theoretical physicists speculate that space and time arise from deeper physics. Erik Verlinde goes them one further.

SANTA BARBARA—Two years ago several of my Sci Am colleagues and I had an intense email exchange over a period of weeks, trying to figure out what to make of a new paper by string theorist Erik Verlinde. I don’t think I’ve ever been so flummoxed by physicists’ reactions to a paper. Mathematically it could […]

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Which of the Basic Assumptions of Modern Physics Are Wrong? Announcing the Fourth Foundational Questions Institute Essay Contest

There’s something unnerving about unifying physics. The two theories that need to be unified, quantum field theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, are both highly successful. Both make predictions good to as many decimal places as experimentalists can manage. Both are grounded in compelling principles. Both do have flaws — including an unfortunate tendency to […]

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Particles for Peace: Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, and Arab Physicists Lay Plans for a Joint Particle Accelerator

In the ’50s, CERN united postwar Europe. Can SESAME do the same for the Middle East?

SANTA BARBARA—Physics has always been one of the most globalized of professions. Physicists think of themselves as supranational, rising above national and cultural concerns. They may not always live up to this ideal, but at least they try. I got a glimpse of this as a college student in 1987 when I spent my spring […]

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Where Do Space and Time Come From? New Theory Offers Answers, If Only Physicists Can Figure It Out

Vasiliev theory might extend string-theoretic ideas to new settings. But dang, is it hard.

SANTA BARBARA—”Maybe we’re just too dumb,” Nobel laureate physicist David Gross mused in a lecture at Caltech two weeks ago. When someone of his level wonders whether the unification of physics will always be beyond mortal minds, it gets you worried. (He went on to explain why he doesn’t think we are too dumb, though.) […]

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The Emperor, Darth Vader and the Ultimate Ultimate Theory of Physics

This physics theory is like Darth Vader: you think it’s the ultimate power, until you meet the Emperor.

PASADENA—The theory is so obscure there’s not a Wikipedia page about it yet. It might be impossible to formulate mathematically. One theoretical physicist calls it the Emperor Palpatine of theories, even more powerful and inscrutable than the Darth Vader theory that he and others have been studying intensively. And yet it has a purity and […]

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Could Simple Experiments Reveal the Quantum Nature of Spacetime?

Gravity might muck with the quantum by distorting the uncertainty principle and introducing ambiguities in sequences of cause and effect.

Conventional wisdom has it that putting the words “quantum gravity” and “experiment” in the same sentence is like bringing matter into contact with antimatter. All you get is a big explosion; the two just don’t go together. The distinctively quantum features of gravity only show up in extreme settings such as the belly of a […]

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George and John's Excellent Adventures in Quantum Entanglement [Video]

A metaphorical version of John Bell’s famous entanglement.

Simply put, bottomlessly deep: that is the definition of a great discovery in science. From the principle of relativity to evolution by natural selection, the concepts that govern our world are actually not that hard to state. What they mean and what they imply—well, that’s another matter. And so it is with quantum entanglement. One […]

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Could a Balloon Fly in Outer Space?

Sure it could. Space is not a perfect vacuum.

Here’s the sort of crazy idea that animates our office conversation at Scientific American. It all started with my colleague Michael Moyer’s joke that a certain politician could build his moon base using a balloon: just capture the hot air and float all the way up. Ha ha, we all know that balloons don’t work […]

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Magnetoastrocoolness: How Cosmic Magnetic Fields Shape Planetary Systems

For one thing, they can cause embryonic planets to spiral inward.

AUSTIN, Texas—Astrophysicists have a funny attitude toward magnetic fields. You might say they feel both repelled and attracted. Gravitation is assumed to rule the cosmos, so models typically neglect magnetism, which for most researchers is just as well, because the theory of magnetism has a forbidding reputation. The basic equations are simple enough, solving them […]

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Astronomers Catch Black Hole Spitting Out Material

Knots of gas are clocked at a quarter of the speed of light.

AUSTIN, Tex.—One of the great ironies of the universe is that black holes, the ultimate vacuum cleaners, create more of a mess than they clean up. (It is a complaint that many people who finally prevailed on spouses and roommates to clean up after themselves might appreciate.) How is it that, in sucking up surrounding […]

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