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.

Science Is the 99 Percent

Nobelist Steven Weinberg says the crisis in science funding is part of a general underinvestment in public goods.

AUSTIN—A regular feature of American Astronomical Society conferences is an evening lecture on the state of science funding. Let’s just say it’s not a great date night. There have been happy counterexamples, but usually you spend an hour and a half hearing about the latest budget cuts and walk out of the room in a […]

George Musser 0 Comments 4 min read Continue reading

Melting Glaciers Muck Up Earth’s Gravitational Field

Clever use of gravity data shows that glacial retreat really is a global phenomena.

SINGAPORE—Photographs never quite capture the sparkling blue tint of glacial ice, so when I visited the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia on a backpacking trip through South America some years ago, I was happy to get this camera angle: the blue of the Argentine flag gives you a sense of what the blue of the […]

George Musser One Comment 4 min read Continue reading

Proving You Are Where You Say You Are

Philandering spouses and students playing hookey, beware: quantum cryptography may make it impossible for you to hide your location.

SINGAPORE—When a speaker brings a tangle of garden hoses, a bottle of water, and a towel to the podium, you know it’s going to be a fun talk. Computer scientist Harry Buhrman of the Centrum Wiksunde & Informatica in Amsterdam recently visited Singapore to help celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Centre for Quantum Technologies. […]

George Musser 0 Comments 6 min read Continue reading

What the World Looks Like, If You Move Backward in Time [Video]

A remarkable film project.

Oops, I said my last post on the recent Foundational Questions Institute conference would be my final one, but I can’t resist just one more. At the conference, Gavin Crooks at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, who studies molecular machines and gave a great talk on how life balances time asymmetry with thermodynamic efficiency, showed this brilliant short […]

George Musser 0 Comments 1 min read Continue reading

How Life Arose on Earth, and How a Singularity Might Bring It Down

Living things are souped-up versions of inorganic geochemical reactions.

COPENHAGEN—It didn’t take long for the recent Foundational Questions Institute conference on the nature of time to delve into the purpose of life. “The purpose of life,” meeting co-organizer and Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll said in his opening remarks, “is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” Well, there you have it. Carroll is one of the most […]

George Musser 0 Comments 8 min read Continue reading

Quantum Cheshire Cat: Even Weirder Than Schrödinger's

A box can contain all the properties of a particle, even though no particle is there.

COPENHAGEN—Just when you thought you’d heard every quantum mystery that was possible, out pops another one. Jeff Tollaksen mentioned it in passing during his talk at the recent Foundation Questions Institute conference. Probably Tollaksen assumed we’d all heard it before. After all, his graduate advisor, Yakir Aharonov—who has made an illustrious career of poking the […]

George Musser 0 Comments 3 min read Continue reading

Free Will and Quantum Clones: How Your Choices Today Affect the Universe at its Origin

Just when you thought the debates over free will couldn’t get any weirder.

COPENHAGEN—The late philosopher Robert Nozick, talking about the deep question of why there is something rather than nothing, quipped: “Someone who proposes a non-strange answer shows he didn’t understand the question.” So, when Scott Aaronson began a talk three weeks ago by saying it would be “the looniest talk I’ve ever given,” it was a […]

George Musser 0 Comments 9 min read Continue reading

Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception

Conscious experience lags 80 milliseconds behind actual events.

COPENHAGEN—I always knew we humans have a rather tenuous grip on the concept of time, but I never realized quite how tenuous it was until a couple of weeks ago, when I attended a conference on the nature of time organized by the Foundational Questions Institute. This meeting, even more than FQXi’s previous efforts, was […]

George Musser 0 Comments 14 min read Continue reading

Do Physicists Make the World a Better Place?

Well, I think so, but others are doubtful.

COPENHAGEN—This past week, I’ve been attending the Foundational Questions Institute conference on the nature of time, and in the coming weeks, I hope to share with you some of the mind-blowing things I’ve found out. In the meantime, there’s one question I wanted to put out there for everyone to comment on. On Wednesday, physicist […]

George Musser 0 Comments 4 min read Continue reading

Can Scientists Really Do Anything to Reform Education?

Yes, but it must start with respect for teachers and their needs.

Biologist and biology educator Joanne Manaster has a thought-provoking guest blog post today on what, if anything, scientists can do to help K-12 science education. She quotes English physics teacher Alom Shaha expressing an opinion that I don’t think gets aired enough: If I were trying to be controversial, I’d reply “very little, until they […]

George Musser 0 Comments 4 min read Continue reading

Physicists Simulate the End of Time in a Maryland Lab

So-called plasmons let experimenters explore exotic spacetime geometries in complete safety.

Last September I had an article in Scientific American about what it would mean for time to end—how the world might cease to unfold in a unidirectional sequence of cause and effect. Some processes, for example, could cause time to morph into just another dimension of space. Last week experimenters announced that they have simulated […]

George Musser 0 Comments 4 min read Continue reading

Is Reality Digital or Analog?

Look for answers in the winning essays of the third Foundational Questions Institute essay contest.

Last week, the Foundation Questions Institute announced the winners of its third essay contest, which Scientific American co-sponsored. (I helped to decide on the question, judge the essays and hand out the awards at the World Science Festival in New York City.) The essay question was, “Is Reality Digital or Analog?” Is nature, at root, […]

George Musser 0 Comments 5 min read Continue reading

What Would Happen If Earth and Mars Switched Places?

The orbits of the inner planets would go chaotic.

Last Saturday, at a workshop organized by the Foundation Questions Institute, Nobel laureate physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft gave a few informal remarks on the deep nature of reality. Searching for an analogy to the symmetries of basic physics, he asked the attendees to imagine what would happen to our solar system if you suddenly swapped […]

George Musser 0 Comments 5 min read Continue reading

Space Is an Elaborate Illusion

The holographic principle suggests that space emerges from a deeper spaceless reality.

Editor’s Note: This post was initially published May 12 on the World Science Festival’s Web site. My dad took a peculiar pleasure in fitting the maximum amount of stuff into the smallest possible space. Whenever we went on a family trip, he packed our suitcases like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, ensuring there wasn’t a single […]

George Musser One Comment 6 min read Continue reading

Space Shuttle Endeavour Launches Successfully on Its Final Mission

Space shuttle Endeavour soars into space on its 16-day, STS-134 mission to the International Space Station.

Editor’s note: Updated at 12:15 P.M. KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—The space shuttle Endeavour took off on its final flight Monday morning at 8:56 A.M. Eastern time. The takeoff came after a nail-biting final hour as technicians had to do some last-minute repairs to the shuttle’s heat tiles and clouds filled the sky above Cape Canaveral. In […]

George Musser 0 Comments 2 min read Continue reading

Why It Scrubbed

NASA engineers troubleshoot Endeavour’s electrical problems.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—When NASA scrubbed the shuttle Endeavour‘s final launch here on Friday, engineers said there was a best-case and a worst-case scenario. Well, guess what: it was the worst case. The trouble began when an electric heater for the hydraulics system failed to turn on. When engineers opened the hatch into the left aft […]

George Musser 0 Comments 3 min read Continue reading

Scrubbed! Space Shuttle Launch Delayed at Least Three Days Due to Electrical Failure

Second-to-last shuttle flight has some glitches.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—The shuttle Endeavour suffered a minor but potentially troublesome electrical failure that delayed its launch from Friday to Monday at the earliest. Technicians won’t know for sure until they drain the external fuel tank and get access to the errant unit, a process that will take 24 hours. By Sunday noontime, NASA officials […]

George Musser 0 Comments 4 min read Continue reading

NASA’s shuttle program counts down ’til the end

An excited yet wistful space reporter gets ready for the second-to-last shuttle launch.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—If I’d jumped, I could have touched the belly of the Discovery. Of course, I would have then been escorted unceremoniously from the Orbiter Processing Facility. But I was that close. What a strange mix of thrill and melancholy it was to see those heat-shield tiles, the swoop of the delta wing, and […]

George Musser 0 Comments 3 min read Continue reading

Do-It-Yourself Quantum Spooky Action

An experiment that used to fill a basement lab now fits on an endtable.

DRESDEN, Germany—How cool would it be not just to read about the craziness of quantum mechanics, but to see it—even better, do it—for yourself? Several years ago I asked virtuoso experimental physicist Paul Kwiat whether he could develop a simple demonstration anyone could do at home, and he and his undergraduate student Rachel Killmer came […]

George Musser One Comment 3 min read Continue reading

Leif Robinson, 1939–2011: A Pioneer of Astronomy Journalism

Nobody knew the night sky, or how to bring it down to earth, like Leif Robinson.

I got the news today that one of the great figures in astronomy journalism and amateur astronomy, Leif Robinson, former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, died yesterday at 71. Leif served as editor in chief of S&T from 1980 to 2000 and was a regular fixture at gatherings of professional and amateur astronomers alike. […]

George Musser 0 Comments 1 min read Continue reading

Why Don’t Exoplanets Match Astronomers’ Expectations?

A dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

SEATTLE—The most exhilarating science conference I’ve ever been to took place in San Antonio 15 years ago this week, when planet hunters Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler announced they had found two planets orbiting sunlike stars beyond our solar system. Coming a couple of months after another team, led by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, […]

George Musser 0 Comments 6 min read Continue reading

In Praise of Scientific Error

Reflections on a very strange article by Jonah Lehrer.

My wife has first dibs on our New Yorker each week, so I only just got around to reading Jonah Lehrer’s piece on the scientific method in last week’s issue, which has been getting so much attention from my fellow science writers. John Horgan calls it a “bombshell” and Charlie Petit a “must-read.” Lehrer describes […]

George Musser 0 Comments 7 min read Continue reading

Is Reality Digital or Analog?

Announcing the third Foundational Questions Institute essay contest.

The Foundational Questions Institute announced this week its latest essay contest, “Is Reality Digital or Analog?”, and if it’s anything like the past two contests, we’re in for a real treat: the contest should draw entrants from some of the deepest thinkers of our time. This time around, Scientific American has joined the institute as […]

George Musser 0 Comments 3 min read Continue reading

Are Mars and Titan Geologically Dead?

New evidence suggests yes, but planetary scientists go back and forth.

PASADENA—They say that null results never get published, either in science or in journalism. Well, I’m about to break that rule. Some of the most interesting results to come out of the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting this week concern non-discoveries. In recent years, planetary scientists have gotten excited by the prospect that Mars and […]

George Musser 0 Comments 6 min read Continue reading

Something Slammed Into the Rings of Saturn and Jupiter

And we’re seeing the aftermath years later.

PASADENA—This week I’m here at the annual Division for Planetary Sciences meeting. Much as I enjoy Pasadena, it’s rather a comedown from last year’s meeting place in Puerto Rico. Leave aside the natural attractions: even the freeways in Puerto Rico are in better repair than California’s. Then again, we don’t come here for the earthly […]

George Musser 0 Comments 3 min read Continue reading

Faster-Than-Light Electric Currents Could Explain Pulsars

Contrary to popular belief, electric pulses can outrace light—as long as they're not a causal process.

Claiming that something can move faster than light is a good conversation-stopper in physics. People edge away from you in cocktail parties; friends never return phone calls. You just don’t mess with Albert Einstein. So when I saw a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting this past January on faster-than-light phenomena in the […]

George Musser 0 Comments 5 min read Continue reading

Deep in Thought: What Is a “Law of Physics,” Anyway?

Physicists and philosophers struggle with the most basic of questions.

WATERLOO, Ontario—One thing that’s both disconcerting and exhilarating about physics is how many seemingly simple questions remain unanswered. When you hear the questions that physicists struggle with, you sometimes say to yourself, Wait, you mean they don’t even know that? Physics might be defined as the subject that tries to figure out why the world […]

George Musser 0 Comments 15 min read Continue reading

Toying With the Laws of Physics: Elizabeth Streb's Latest Dance Performance

You never fully appreciate the laws of physics until you have to figure out how to mimic them.

The last time I slammed into a wall, it hurt. I’m not too fond of falling off three-story buildings, either. The laws of physics can be so unforgiving. But two weeks ago I went to choreographer Elizabeth Streb‘s latest work, “Run Up Walls,” in which dancers slammed into panes of glass without uttering a single […]

George Musser 0 Comments 2 min read Continue reading

In Praise of Small Things

Runty galaxies are as baffling as their bigger brethren. A second dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Most people think of astronomy as the science of big things—”vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big,” as Douglas Adams put it. But judging from last week’s American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., the most interesting things in astronomy these days are the small(ish) ones. Planet-hunters, having racked up hundreds of Jupiter-size worlds, now seek Earth-size […]

George Musser 0 Comments 8 min read Continue reading

A Galaxy of New Worlds

The diversity of planets outside our solar system is really kind of crazy. A dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Astronomical Society meeting, held here this week, was officially the largest congregation of astronomers (3,400 of them) in history—the most extraordinary collection of cosmic knowledge that has ever gathered together with the possible exception of when Isaac Newton dined alone. The breadth of topics was astounding, but the one that stood out […]

George Musser 0 Comments 6 min read Continue reading

Previous page Next page