Also available at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/week192.html
February 16, 2002
This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 192)
John Baez
As Bush prepares to bomb Hussein's weapons of mass destruction into
oblivion, along with an unknown number of Iraqis, I've been reading
reading biographies of nuclear physicists, concentrating on that
exciting and terrifying age when they discovered quantum mechanics,
the atomic nucleus, the neutron, and fission. I started with this book
about Lise Meitner:
1) Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, University of California
Press, 1997.
Meitner's life was a fascinating but difficult one. The Austrian
government did not open the universities to women until 1901, when she
was 23. They had only opened high schools to women in 1899, but
luckily her father had hired a tutor to prepare her for the university
before it opened, so she was ready to enter as soon as they let her in.
She decided to work on physics thanks in part to the enthralling
lectures and friendly encouragment of Ludwig Boltzmann. After getting
her doctorate in 1906, she went to Berlin to work with Max Planck. At
first she found his lectures dry and a bit disappointing compared to
Boltzmann's, but she soon saw his ideas were every bit as exciting, and
came to respect him immensely.
In Berlin she also began collaborating with Otto Hahn, a young chemist
who was working on radioactivity. Since women were not allowed in the
chemistry institute, supposedly because their hair might catch fire,
she had to perform her experiments in the basement for two years until
this policy was ended. Even then, she did not receive any pay at all
until 1911! But gradually her official status improved, and by 1926 she
became the first woman physics professor in Germany.
Meitner was one of those rare physicists gifted both in theory and
experiment; her physics expertise meshed well with the analytical
chemistry skills of Hahn, and as a team they identified at least nine
new radioisotopes. The most famous of these was the element
protactinium, which they discovered and named in 1918. This was the
longsought "mother of actinium" in this decay series:
92 uranium 235

 alpha decay: 7.1 x 10^8 years

v
90 thorium 231

 beta decay: 25.5 hours

v
91 protactinium 231

 alpha decay: 3.25 x 10^4 years

v
89 actinium 227

 beta decay: 21.8 years

v
90 thorium 227

 alpha decay: 18.2 days

v
88 radium 223

 alpha decay: 11.4 days

v
88 radon 219

 alpha decay: 4 seconds

v
84 polonium 215

 alpha decay: 1.78 milliseconds

v
82 lead 211

 beta decay: 36.1 minutes

v
83 bismuth 211

 alpha decay: 2.13 minutes

v
81 tellurium 207

 beta decay: 4.77 minutes

v
82 lead 207
As you can see by staring at the numbers, in "alpha decay" a nucleus
emits a helium nucleus or "alpha particle"  2 protons and 2 neutrons 
so its atomic number goes down by 2 and its atomic mass goes down by 4.
In "beta decay" a neutron decays into a proton and emits a neutrino and
an electron, or "beta particle", so its atomic number goes up by 1 and
its mass stays almost the same.
But to understand Meitner's work in context, you have to realize that
these facts only became clear through painstaking work and brilliant
leaps of intuition. Much of the work was done by her team in Berlin,
Pierre and Marie Curie in France, Ernest Rutherford's group in
Manchester and later Cambridge, and eventually Enrico Fermi's group in
Rome.
At first people thought electrons were bound in a nondescript jelly of
positive charge  Thomson's "plum pudding" atom. Even when Rutherford,
Geiger and Marsden shot alpha particles at atoms in 1909 and learned
from how they bounced back that the positive charge was concentrated in
a small "nucleus", there remained the puzzle of what this nucleus was.
In 1914 Rutherford referred to the hydrogen nucleus as a "positive
electron". In 1920 he coined the term "proton". But the real problem
was that nobody knew about neutrons! Instead, people guessed that the
nucleus consisted of protons and "nuclear electrons", which made its
charge differ from the atomic mass. Of course, it was completely
mysterious why these nuclear electrons should act different from the
others: as Bohr put it, they showed a "remarkable passivity". They
didn't even have any spin angular momentum! But on the other hand, they
certainly seemed to exist  since sometimes they would shoot out in the
form of beta radiation!
To solve this puzzle one needed to postulate a neutral particle as heavy
as a proton and invent a theory of beta decay in which this particle
could decay into a proton while emitting an electron. But there was an
additional complication: unlike alpha radiation, which had a definite
energy, beta radiation had a continuous spectrum of energies. Meitner
didn't believe this at first, but eventually her careful experiments
forced her and everyone else to admit it was true. The energy
bookkeeping just didn't add up properly.
This led to a crisis in nuclear physics around 1929. Bohr decided that
the only way out was a failure of conservation of energy! Pauli thought
of a slightly less radical way out: in beta decay, maybe some of the
energy is carried off by yet another neutral particle, this time one of
low mass. Two mysterious unseen neutral particles was a lot to stomach!
In 1931 Fermi called the big one the "neutron" and the little one the
"neutrino". In 1932 Chadwick realized that you could create beams of
neutrons by hitting beryllium with alpha particles. The neutrino was
only seen much later, in the 1950s.
(I hope people remember this story when they scoff at the notion that
"dark matter" makes up most of the universe: even if something is hard
to see, it might still exist.)
As a physicist, Ruth Sime is good at conveying in her book not only
the excitement but also the technical details of Meitner's detective
work. At first, most of this work involved studying three different
decay series. The one I drew above is called the "actinium series":
starting with uranium 235, it hopscotches around the period table until
it lands stably on lead 207. Since both alpha and beta decay conserve
the atomic mass modulo 4, all elements in the actinium series have
atomic mass equal to 3 mod 4. Similarly, elements in the "uranium
series" starting with uranium 238 have atomic mass equal to 2 mod 4.
Elements in the "thorium series" starting with thorium 232 have atomic
mass equal to 0 mod 4.
These decay series bring back nostalgic memories for me, since as a kid
I learned about them, and a lot of other stuff, from my dad's old CRC
Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. This was small compared to more
recent editions. But it was squat, almost thick as it was tall, bound
in red, with yellowing pages, and it contained more math than they do
these days  I think I learned trigonometry from that thing! I believe
it was the 1947 edition, which makes sense, since my father studied
chemistry on the GI bill after serving as a soldier in World War II.
The radioisotopes still had their quaint old names, like "mesothorium",
"radiothorium", "brevium", and "thoron". Alas, my mother eventually
threw this handbook away in one of her housecleaning purges.
Anyway, all three of these decay series are best visualized using
2dimensional pictures:
2) Argonne National Laboratory, Natural decay series,
http://www.ead.anl.gov/pub/doc/NaturalDecaySeries.pdf
But I know what the mathematicians out there are wondering: what about
the atomic mass equal to 1 mod 4?
This is the "neptunium series". It is somewhat less important than the
rest, since it involves elements that are less common in nature.
Hmm. I don't know about you, but when I hear an answer like that, I
just want to ask more questions! WHY are the elements in the neptunium
series less common? Because they're less stable: none has a halflife
exceeding 10 million years except for bismuth 209, the stable endpoint
of this series. WHY are they less stable? Maybe this has something to
do with the 1 mod 4, but I'm not enough of a nuclear physicist to know.
Thanks to Pauli exclusion, elements are more stable when they have
either an even number of neutrons, an even number of protons, or better
yet both. In general I guess this makes elements with atomic mass 0
mod 4 the most stable, followed by those with atomic mass 2 mod 4.
But why is 1 mod 4 less happy than 3 mod 4? Dunno.
Back to Meitner:
When Hitler gained power over Germany in 1933, her life became
increasingly tough, especially because she was a Jew. In May of that
year, Nazi students at her university set fire to books by undesirable
writers such as Mann, Kafka, and Einstein. By September, she received
a letter saying she was dismissed from her professorship. Nonetheless,
she continued to do research.
In 1934, Fermi started trying to produce "transuranics"  elements above
uranium  by firing neutron beams at uranium. Meitner got excited about
this and began doing the same with Hahn and another chemist, Fritz
Strassman. They seemed to be succeeding, but the results were strange:
the new elements seemed to decay in many different ways! Their chemical
properties were curiously variable as well. And the more experiments
the team did, the stranger their results got.
No doubt this is part of why Meitner took so long to flee Germany.
Another reason was her difficulty in finding a job. For a while she was
protected somewhat by her Austrian citizenship, but that ended in 1938
when Hitler annexed Austria. After many difficulties, she found an
academic position in Stockholm and managed to sneak out of Germany using
a nolongervalid Austria passport.
She was now 60. She had been the head of a laboratory in Berlin,
constantly discussing physics with all the top scientists. Now she was
in a country where she couldn't speak the language. She was given a
small room to use a lab, but essentially no equipment, and no
assistants. She started making her own equipment. Hahn continued work
with Strassman in Berlin, and Meitner attempted to collaborate from
afar, but Hahn stopped citing her contributions, for fear of the
Nazis and their hatred of "decadent Jewish scence". Meitner complained
about this to him. He accused her of being unsympathetic to *his*
plight. It's no surprise that she wrote to him:
"Perhaps you cannot fully appreciate how unhappy it makes me to
realize that you always think I am unfair and embittered, and that
you also say so to other people. If you think it over, it cannot
be difficult to understand what it means to me that I have none of
my scientific equipment. For me that is much harder than everything
else. But I am really not embittered  it is just that I see no real
purpose in my life at the moment and I am very lonely...."
What *is* a surprise is that this is when she made her greatest
discovery. She couldn't bear spending the Christmas of 1938 alone, so
she visited a friend in a small seaside village, and so did her nephew
Otto Frisch, who was also an excellent physicist. They began talking
about physics. According to letters from Hahn and Strassman, one of the
"transuranics" was acting a lot like barium. Talking over the problem,
Meitner and Frisch realized what was going on: the neutrons were making
uranium nuclei *split* into a variety of much lighter elements!
In short: fission.
I won't bother telling the story of all that happened next: their
calculations and experiments confirming this guess, the development of
the atomic bomb, which Meitner refused to participate in, how Meitner
was nonetheless hailed as the "Jewish mother of the bomb" when she came
to America in 1946, and how Hahn alone got the Nobel prize for fission,
also in 1946. It's particularly irksome how Hahn seemed to claim all
the credit for himself in his later years. But history has dealt him a
bit of poetic justice. Element 105 was tentatively called "hahnium" by
a team of scientists at Berkeley who produced it, but later, the
International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decreed that it be
called "dubnium"  after Dubna, where a Russian team also made this
element. To prevent confusion, no other element can now be called
"hahnium". But element 109 is called "meitnerium".
It's a fascinating story. But it's just one of many fascinating stories
from this age, all of which interweave. After reading about Meitner, I
started reading these other books:
3) Emilio Segre, Enrico Fermi: Physicist, U. of Chicago Press, Chicago,
1970.
4) Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr's Times: in Physics, Philosophy and Polity,
Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 1991.
5) The Neutron and the Bomb: a Biography of Sir James Chadwick, Oxford
U. Press, Oxford, 1997.
There are also, of course, lots of books focusing on the Manhattan
Project. For a website on Meitner, try:
6) Lise Meitner online,
http://www.users.bigpond.com/Sinclair/fission/LiseMeitner.html
Her days were very dramatic ones for fundamental physics! Now it
seems the action has gone elsewhere. While biology and computers
threaten to upend our world, researchers in fundamental physics seem
stuck pondering hard questions... like quantum gravity.
In "week189", I mentioned some new ideas about the "quantum of area",
and how Dreyer has made some progress reconciling loop quantum gravity
with Hod's argument that the smallest possible nonzero area is 4 ln 3
times the square of the Planck length. You may recall that Hod's work
relied on some numerical computations: they gave the answer 4 ln 3 up
to six significant figures, but nobody knew what the next decimal place
would bring!
Since then, a lot has happened. Most importantly, Lubos Motl has shown
(not rigorously, but convincingly) that the agreement is indeed exact:
7) Lubos Motl, An analytical computation of asymptotic Schwarzschild
quasinormal frequencies, available at grqc/0212096.
Alejandro Corichi has tried to explain why Dreyer's idea that spin1
punctures dominate the black hole entropy calculation
is consistent with an SU(2) gauge group in loop quantum gravity:
8) Alejandro Corichi, On quasinormal modes, black hole entropy, and
quantum geometry, available at grqc/0212126.
Personally I must admit I'm not convinced yet.
Motl and Neitzke have investigated what happens with black holes in
higher dimensions:
9) Lubos Motl and Andrew Neitzke, Asymptotic black hole quasinormal
frequencies, available at hepth/0301173.
Also, Hod has generalized his work to rotating black holes:
10) Shahar Hod, Kerr black hole quasinormal frequencies,
available at grqc/0301122.
I won't explain any of these new developments here, since I've written
two articles explaining them  a less technical one and a more technical
one  and you can get both on my webpage:
11) John Baez, The quantum of area?, Nature 421 (Feb. 13 2003), 702703.
Also available at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/area.html
John Baez, Quantization of area: the plot thickens, to appear in
Spring 2003 edition of Matters of Gravity at http://www.phys.lsu.edu/mog/
Also available at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/area.html
Anyway, it's fascinating, and puzzling, and frustrating subject!
Now for some math. I've been talking about operads a little
bit lately, and now I want to connect them to Jordan algebras.
People often say: to understand Lie algebras, start with an associative
algebra and see what you can do just with the operation
[X,Y] = XY  YX
What identities must this always satisfy, regardless of the associative
algebra you started with? It turns out that all the identities are
consequences of just two:
[X,Y] = [Y,X] ANTISYMMMETRY
[X,[Y,Z]] = [[X,Y],Z] + [Y,[X,Z]] JACOBI IDENTITY
together with the fact that the bracket is linear in each slot.
Thus we make these identities into the definition of a Lie algebra.
People also say: to understand Jordan algebras, start with an
associative algebra and see what you can do with just 1 and the
operation
X o Y = XY + YX
This looks very similar; the only difference is a sign! But it's harder
to find all the identities this operation must satisfy. Actually, if
you don't mind, I think I'll switch to the more commonly used
normalization
X o Y = (XY + YX)/2
Two of the identities are obvious:
1 o X = X UNIT LAW
X o Y = Y o X COMMUTATIVITY
The next one is less obvious:
X o ((X o X) o Y) = (X o X) o (X o Y) JORDAN IDENTITY
At this point, Pascual Jordan quit looking for more and made these
his definition of what we now call a "Jordan algebra":
12) Pascual Jordan, Ueber eine Klasse nichtassociativer hyperkomplexer
Algebren, Nachr. Ges. Wiss. Goettingen (1932), 569575.
He wrote this paper while pondering the foundations of quantum theory,
since bounded selfadjoint operators on a Hilbert space represent
observables, and they're closed under the product ab + ba.
Later, with Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann, he classified all
finitedimensional Jordan algebras that are "formally real", meaning
that a sum of terms of the form X o X is zero only if each one is zero.
This condition is reasonable in quantum mechanics, because observables
like X o X are "positive". It also leads to a nice classification,
which I described in "week162".
Interestingly, one of these formally real Jordan algebras doesn't
sit inside an associative algebra: the "exceptional Jordan algebra",
which consists of all 3x3 hermitian matrices with octonion entries.
This algebra has lots of nice properties, and it plays a mysterious
role in string theory and some other physics theories. This is the
main reason I'm interested in Jordan algebras, but I've said plenty
about this already; now I want to focus on something else.
Namely: did Jordan find all the identities?
More precisely: if we set X o Y = XY + YX, can all the identities
satisfied by this operation in every associative algebra be derived
from the above 3 and the fact that this operation is linear in each slot?
This was an open question until 1966, when Charles M. Glennie found
the answer is NO.
It's a bit like Tarski's "high school algebra problem", where Tarksi
asked if all the identities involving addition, multiplication and
exponentiation which hold for the positive the natural numbers follow
from the ones we all learned in high school. Here too the answer is NO 
see "week172" for details. That really shocked me when I heard about
it! Glennie's result is less shocking, because Jordan algebras are less
familiar... and the Jordan identity is already pretty weird, so maybe we
should expect other weird identities.
It's easiest to state Glennie's identity with the help of
the "Jordan triple product"
{X,Y,Z} = (X o Y) o Z + (Y o Z) o X  (Z o X) o Y
Here it is:
2{{Y, {X,Z,X},Y}, Z, XoY}  {Y, {X,{Z,XoY,Z},X}, Y}
2{XoY, Z, {X,{Y,Z,Y},X}} + {X, {Y,{Z,XoY,Z},Y}, X} = 0
Blecch! It makes you wonder how Glennie found this, and why.
I don't know the full story, I know but Glennie was a Ph.D. student of
Nathan Jacobson, a famous algebraist and expert on Jordan algebras. I'm
sure that goes a long way to explain it. He published his result here:
13) C. M. Glennie, Some identities valid in special Jordan
algebras but not in all Jordan algebras, Pacific J. Math. 16
(1966), 4759.
Was this identity the only extra one?
Well, I'm afraid the title of the paper gives that away: in addition to
the above identity of degree 8, Glennie also found another. In fact
there turn out to be *infinitely* many identities that can't be derived
from the previous ones using the Jordan algebra operations.
As far as I can tell, the full story was discovered only in the 1980s.
Let me quote something by Murray Bremner. It will make more sense if
you know that the identities we're after are called "sidentities",
since they hold in "special" Jordan algebras: those coming from
associative algebras. Here goes:
Efim Zelmanov won the Fields Medal at the International Congress of
Mathematicians in Zurich in 1994 for his work on the Burnside Problem
in group theory. Before that he had solved some of the most important
open problems in the theory of Jordan algebras. In particular he
proved that Glennie's identity generates all sidentities in the
following sense: if G is the Tideal generated by the Glennie
identity in the free Jordan algebra FJ(X) on the set X (where X has
at least 3 elements), then the ideal S(X) of all sidentities is
quasiinvertible modulo G (and its homogeneous components are nil
modulo G) [....] Roughly speaking, this means that all other
sidentities can be obtained by substituting into the Glennie
identity, generating an ideal, extracting nth roots, and summing up.
This is a bit technical, but basically it means you need to expand your
arsenal of tricks a bit before Glennie's identity gives all the rest.
The details can be found in Theorem 6.7 here:
14) Kevin McCrimmon, Zelmanov's prime theorem for quadratic Jordan
algebras, Jour. Alg. 76 (1982), 297326.
and I got the above quote from a talk by Bremner:
15) Murray Bremner, Using linear algebra to discover the defining
identities for Lie and Jordan algebras, available at
http://web.archive.org/web/20030324024322/http://math.usask.ca/~bremner/research/colloquia/calgarynew.pdf
Now, the Jordan triple product
{X,Y,Z} = (X o Y) o Z + (Y o Z) o X  (Z o X) o Y
may at first glance seem almost as bizarre as Glennie's identity,
but it's not! To understand this, it helps to think about "operads".
I defined operads last week. Very roughly, these are gadgets
that for each n have a set O(n) of abstract nary operations:
\  /
\  /
\  /

 



together with ways to compose them, like this:
\ / \  / 
\ / \  / 
  
     
  
\  /
\  /
\  /
\  /
\  /
\  /
\  /

 



Given an operad O, an "Oalgebra" is, again very roughly, a set S on
which each element of O(n) is represented as an actual nary operation:
that is, a function from S^n to S.
Now, all of this also works if we replace the sets by vector spaces,
functions by linear operators, and the Cartesian product by the tensor
product. We then have "linear operads", whose algebras are vector
spaces equipped with multilinear operation.
For example, there's linear operad called Commutative, whose algebras
are precisely commutative algebras. Get it? Oalgebras with O =
Commutative are commutative algebras! This is the sort of joke that
has stuffy old professors rolling on the floor with laughter.
There's also a linear operad called Associative whose algebras are
precisely associative algebras, and a linear operad Lie whose elements
are Lie algebras, and a linear operad Jordan whose elements are Jordan
algebras.
This last fact seems to be my own personal observation, made in
discussion with James Dolan. The Lie operad is wellknown, but I've
never heard of anyone talk about the Jordan operad! What follows is
some related stuff that we came up with:
The operads Lie is the suboperad of Associative generated by the
binary operation
[X,Y] = XY  YX
Similarly, we can try to get the operad Jordan by taking the suboperad
of Associative generated by the binary operation
X o Y = XY + YX
and the nullary operation
1
However, there's a problem: the operations in this suboperad will
satisfy not just the identities for a Jordan algebra, but also the
"sidentities" that hold when you have a Jordan algebra that came
from an associative algebra. So, this suboperad should be called
"SpecialJordan". To get Jordan, we have to *throw out* all the
sidentities. But mathematically, unlike the process of putting
in extra relations, it's a bit irksome to describe the process of
"throwing out" relations.
This makes Jordan algebras seem like just a defective version of special
Jordan algebras. However, there are other things which are really
*good* about Jordan algebras... so I still think there should be some
nice way to characterize the operad Jordan.
For that matter, I think there's a nicer way to characterize the operad
SpecialJordan! Here's a little conjecture. The operad Associative has
an automorphism
R: Associative > Associative
which "reverses" any operation. For example, if we take the operation
sending (W,X,Y,Z) to the product YWXZ, and hit it with R, we get the
operation sending (W,X,Y,Z) to ZXWY. Now, the fixed points of an operad
automorphism always form a suboperad. So, the fixed points of R form a
suboperad of Associative... and I conjecture that this is SpecialJordan.
In other words, summarizing a bit crudely: I think the Jordan algebra
operations are just the associative algebra operations that are
"palindromes"  their own reverses.
Let's check and see. The nullary operation
1
is a palindrome and it's a Jordan algebra operation. The unary
operation
X
is a palindrome and it's a Jordan algebra operation: as I mentioned last
week, this "identity operation" is in *every* operad, by definition.
The binary operation
XY + YX
is a palindrome, and it's just the Jordan product! So far so good.
But what about
XYX ?
Well... this ain't even an operation in Associative, because it's not
linear in each argument! Ha! I was just testing you. But it's not
a complete hoax: to get something sensible, we can take XYX and pull a
trick called "polarization": replace X by X+Z, then replace it by XZ,
and then subtract the two to get something linear in X, Y, and Z:
(X+Z)Y(X+Z)  (XZ)Y(XZ) = 2(XYZ + ZYX)
This is a ternary operation in Associative that's a palindrome.
But is it a Jordan algebra operation?
YES, by the following identity:
(XYZ + ZYX)/2 = (X o Y) o Z + (Y o Z) o X  (Z o X) o Y
In fact, this is just the "Jordan triple product" I was talking about
earlier:
{X,Y,Z} = (XYZ + ZYX)/2
= (X o Y) o Z + (Y o Z) o X  (Z o X) o Y
So, the Jordan triple product is not as insane as it looks: it
shows up naturally when we try to express all palindrome operations
in terms of the Jordan product!
I leave it to the energetic reader to continue checking this conjecture.
If I had more energy myself, I would now bring Jordan triple systems and
Lie triple systems into the game, discuss their relation to geometry and
physics, and other nice things. But I'm too tired! So, I'll just leave
off by mentioning that Bremner has invented a qdeformed version of the
octonions:
16) Murray Bremner, Quantum octonions, Communications in Algebra
27 (1999), 28092831, also available at
http://math.usask.ca/~bremner/research/publications/qo.pdf
However, he did it using the representation theory of quantum sl(2).
These folks define a *different* qdeformation of the octonions using
the representation theory of quantum so(8):
17) Georgia Benkart, Jose M. PirezIzquierdo, A quantum octonion
algebra, Trans. Amer. Math. Soc. 352 (2000), 935968, also available at
math.QA/9801141.
I find that a bit more tempting, since the ordinary octonions arise from
triality: the outer automorphism relating the three 8dimensional irreps
of so(8). I don't know how (or whether) these quantum octonions are
related to the 7dimensional representation of quantum G2, which could
be called the "quantum imaginary octonions" and was studied by Greg
Kuperberg:
18) Greg Kuperberg, The quantum G_2 link invariant, Internat.
J. Math. 5 (1994) 6185, also available with some missing diagrams at
math.QA/9201302.
I thank Sean Case, Alejandro Corichi, Rob Johnson and Bruce Smith
for helping me correct some errors in this Week's Finds.
I'll finish off with a quote:
"I believe all young people think about how they would like their
lives to develop; when I did so, I always arrived at the conclusion
that life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty.
That life has not always been easy  the first and second World
Wars and their consequences saw to that  while for the fact that it
has indeed been full, I have to thank the wonderful developments of
physics during my lifetime and the great and lovable personalities
with whom my work in physics brought me contact."  Lise Meitner

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