I've been reading a bit lately about one of the most complex and brilliant figures of the 20th century, Andrei Sakharov.Besides his achievements in the field of Russian hat wearing, Sakharov played an important although complicated role in nuclear proliferation. He was instrumental in both designing bombs and movements to limit their use. His scientific and engineering genius pushed the Soviet nuclear program to great heights in the 40s and 50s but then in the 60s the guy turned around and became a leader of the peace activists and internal critics of the Soviet system. He was an outspoken advocate of intellectual freedom as well as a strong opponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For his work along those lines, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the West and was imprisoned in the closed city of Gorky for six years by the Soviet government (While I'd like to talk about "closed cities" here, this post is getting long enough as it is.).
Anyway, Mikhail Gorbachev released Sakharov from his "internal exile" in 1986 partially to get his scientific opinion on the planned US missile defence shield. Sakharov's main advice, by the way, was that the shield could be largely ignored as it would easily be fooled and effectively nullified (a fact which is most certain known by Putin and most certainly been told to and fogotten by Bush). What really interests me though is that Sakharov continued to advocate for reform but was also willing to give military advice to the Soviet government. I can understand the man's confusion since I used to drink Miller Lite because it tastes great but then I find out it's less filling. DILEMMA!
His scientific achievements include two of my favorite nerd fantasy level ideas. The first one being the invention (worked on in conjunction with Igor Tamm) of the Tokamak, a machine that attempts to use a toroidal magnetic field to contain a plasma and produce fusion energy. Now that's the kind of science a geek can chip a tooth on!
The second idea is that gravity is not a fundamental force but instead is an emergent quantum property. That one makes a person feel smart just saying it. So, what the hell does that mean? Well if you're a physicist you can just read this paper. But here's the layman's cliffnotes: Basically, the idea is that if you looked at the fundamental rules of how things behaved at a quantum level, gravity wouldn't be in there. Gravity only looks like a rule when you put together a large group of quantumy things. This theory is called induced gravity and has some proponents even today.
If you still don't understand emergence, just think of traffic. If you look at the local traffic laws, you won't find the rule that you must slow down as you go into a tunnel or as more and more cars get on the road. But, if you look at the behavior of cars on the road this might as well be a law. That's how the concept of emergence works.
(Photo of Sakharov via Gulag)