March 25, 2021

Episode 7 - The one where we ask if physicists should be strung up by their superstring theories, we look at the glorification of binge eating in The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the indecisive refreshment strategy in Polly Put The Kettle On

Our Brainy Lecture looks at the wiggly jiggly world of superstring theory and we ask whether a whole generation of physicist have just wasted their lives. We turn our attentions and saucepans to a Cider Beurre Blanc. This week’s song under microscope considers the enduring charm of Polly Put The Kettle on and examine what exactly has kept this infusion centric ditty in the charts for the last two hundred years. That gets us thinking about the whole canon of gruesome english language nursery rhymes.  In literally the last section we investigate how words enter the english language. We also look at the body image issues and the glorification of binge eating  in the blockbuster book by Eric Carl, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.


Episode 7

In this week's podcast for a post stupid society, our Brainy Lecture looks at the wiggly jiggly world of superstring theory and we ask whether a whole generation of physicist have just wasted their lives. We have the real cowboy hat and see how our hat of the week formed a link between  Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Goldfinger’s manservant Oddjob and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. In a sauce a sauce my kingdom for a sauce I need you to stand by your orchards as we turn our attentions and our saucepans to Cider Beurre Blanc. This week’s songs under microscope considers the enduring charm of Polly Put The Kettle on and examine what exactly has kept this infusion centric ditty in the charts for the last two hundred years. That gets us thinking about the whole canon of gruesome english language nursery rhymes.  In literally the last section we investigate how words enter the english language. We also look at the body image issues and the glorification of binge eating  in the blockbuster book by Eric Carl, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 

You are listening to Frenzied and Sustained and I am Ian Spector and this is a

Brainy Lecture - String Theory 

For years scientists have been vexed about having to chose between two beloved children, called Little and Large by absolutely no one. The Large is General Relativity with Einstein’s field equations and the Little is Quantum Mechanics with its Schrodinger’s equations. Large, General Relativity explains how matter distorts space time but gets really funky trying to describe what happens in atoms and starts blowing its diodes all down its right hand side with lots of divisions by zero and miniature black holes. To be honest, it is not that hot on the super massive scale. It gets pretty wild with black holes and its predicted singularity. On the other hand Quantum Mechanics predicted the standard model of particles and these have be very emphatically been confirmed experimentally. The Standard Model of Elementary Particles is the periodic table of the sub-atomic particles. Thus all of nature is described by 12 matter particles called Fermions and 5 force carrying bosons. The Fermions are divided amongst the Quarks and the Leptons. The quarks are found in the nucleus of atoms and are divided into up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. The world’s favourite Lepton is the electron but there is also our short lived friend the muon as well as the Tau which is a morbidly obese electron. Each of these three has an associated neutrino called the electron neutrino, muon neutrino and tau neutrino. Alright, whilst we are at it let’s list the force carrying bosons, gluon, photon, Z boson, W boson and the Higgs Boson. The four forces are mediated by the force carrying particles jumping between quarks and leptons.

But the standard model is not as tidy as it could be if we want one theory that describes the entire universe. Remember, at the time of the big bank the universe was very tiny and relativity and quantum mechanics must have worked together as the whole universe was tiny so general relativity must have coexisted with quantum mechanics or was created by it.

This standard model has some glaring gaps.

Some have charge; some don't.

Some particles feel some forces, but not others.

We have six types of quarks, three charged leptons, three neutral ones and four force carrying particles. Plus, when you include the mysterious world of dark matter and a so-far-undiscovered particle called a graviton, the even less well known dark energy the situation is messy.

Oh, and the standard model also only works if we define some 19 free parameters such as the mass of particles.

It's hard to imagine that the ultimate building blocks and most fundamental rules are found in this complexity.

It seems there must be something simpler underlying all of this. A theory that brings all observable phenomena into the same mechanical framework.

As we dive into the world of the super small, we encounter molecules, then atoms, then protons, neutrons and electrons.

Digging deeper, we find quarks and leptons.

So could there be another layer? and how many additional layers.

Even though they haven't been found and certainly may not even exist, we already have a name for the layer below quarks and leptons. These smaller particles are called preons. It was originally thought that the Preon was the world’s most abundant hybrid car but that theory has now largely been debunked.

So, there could be a long line of undiscovered particles before we find the ultimate and smallest particle of all.

But String Theory (Oh, Ian, you finally remembered what the subject of this Brainy Lecture) is an alternative to the endless stream of smaller and smaller particles. It says that that when we get to the smallest size of all, we don't find a particle, but rather an ultra-tiny vibrating string.

So how does that work? How can a string explain the variety of subatomic particles we know about?

Essentially, scientists assign the various different vibrational patterns of the string to be the various known particles.

You can get a sense of this by seeing what happens with a single string.

If you pluck a note on a harpsichord it resonates at one frequency, play a different note and you get a different frequency. In String theory all these notes are different particles.

Quantum strings are much more ambitious than boring electron orbits The hope is that tweaked just right, those discrete vibrational modes can be made to match the properties of known particles. Particle mass just comes from the length of the string and its tension. Tension is after all just energy per unit length. So string length defines mass but also defines which complex vibrational modes are possible and those modes in turn define particle properties like electric charge and spin

So this is the great promise of string theory. By defining a single parameter the string tension all of the possible particles should be automatically defined

Compare that one parameter to the 19 free parameters of the standard model. It sure sounds closer to a fundamental theory.

Oh, did I mention that these are one dimensional strings and that they are vibrating in 11 dimensions not just our four. What was that???? Yes, to embrace the simplicity of string theory we do need to introduce the mind-bending complexity of an additional 7 dimensions. The dimensions are super tiny. Oh, like that makes things better. So let me guess they are so tiny that we can’t even detect them. Yes. But on the other hand, out of the mathematics popped a closed string, the graviton. For free you finally get a theory that unites gravity with all the other forces. For free? We just invented 7 new dimensions.

But if you lock 10 string theorists in a room, and I simply cannot recommend that course of action highly enough, and ask them what are the strings made of they will blush and look at their feet.  The answer that they will mumble into their beards may include

pure mass energy

fundamental irreducible existence

Topological irregularities in the fabric of reality 

It is a meaningless question.

So the beardy weirdies create 7 new dimensions as a nuclear terrarium, or nerrarium as no one calls it, for their magic jiggling strings but if I ask them what this string is made of they say, no don’t ask that look at the tricks they can do. They can hold energy, they can stretch and merge to allow them to decay into different particles. Also by having gravity as a loop it is smeared around a two dimensional area avoiding the singularities and division by error problems. A graviton otherwise would have to act on a point creating other problems like mutual attraction, infinite gravity at the point. But strings have extent so avoid all the point problems. So tiny vibrating strings seem to suggest that they can automatically reproduce general relativity and seem to promise to include all of quantum theory too. But on the other hand, a generation of theoretical physicists have worked on string theory and have not one testable theory for their efforts.

So we have an interesting situation where string theory does not provide a unified model of how our universe works, but it is a framework that can be tweaked for something like 10 to the power 500 universes. And we have no real idea to determine which is ours. Everything in superstring theory just seems to be mind-bendingly hard. There is also a problem with the cosmological constant. This is a parameter that we think should be positive in physical theory as the amount of energy that you are left with when you take everything out of the universe. Being positive supports the accelerating expanding universe. 

String theory doesn't really like that; it prefers either zero or negative cosmological constant. People are working very hard

Trying to get that positive cosmological constant.  

The other thing that string theory typically needs is super symmetry so and if we found evidence of supersymmetry then that will be good the string theory because we haven't found it is not going to be found at the LHC about look at it but  that's not to say that string theory is wrong it just means that supersymmetry appears at a higher energy than the LHC can't see.

We sort of root for Super Symmetry because we want the dark matter particle,  the neutralino, and that comes from Supersymmetry.  Of course it doubles the particles in our standard model. But on the plus side the particles have excellent names such as Squark, selectron, gluino, zino and wino

So, unless you are a psycho you will have a load of questions, how small are these dimensions and their bits of string? Perhaps as small as the Planck length 10 to the -35 of a metre. Can we even contemplate an experiment to directly detect the strings, or their dimensions or any of this. I don’t know, seems unlikely. has any of this get any experimental data? No. Do you believe in them, don’t be ridiculous. In that case why are grown men and women who really ought to know better looking for  these bits of string and why don’t they look for something easier like fairies.

But this is a theory that came out of observations and mathematics and is consistent with special relativity and Quantum Field Theory. It was not dreamed up and then physicists manipulated the maths to fit. It certainly solves a huge number of problems with our standard model. But then again, it needs all those dimensions, and supersymmetry …

 I guess because all theories sound stupid right up to the moment that they don’t.

Hat of the Week

 The Bowler

The Earl of Leicester had a problem. The gamekeepers who patrolled his estate to deter poachers wore top hats, and these kept getting knocked off and damaged. Could somebody come up with a solution?

Yes indeed, somebody could. The earl’s younger brother Edward Coke (pronounced cook) sought out the services of the hat-makers Lock & Co. of St. James Street, in central London. The commission was passed on to William and Thomas Bowler, who designed a strong, low-domed, tight-fitting hat covered with felt.

Coke showed up at the Lock’s place of business in December 1849 to inspect the creation. It’s said that he put the bowler on the floor and stomped on it a couple of times. He pronounced the headgear suitable for gamekeepers and paid the company 12 shillings (that’s about £50 in today’s money).

As was the habit of Lock & Co., they named the hat after the first customer to order it. The coke was born; it only later took  the name of its actual designers.

At first, the bowler hat was commonly used by working-class men in Britain. However, early in the 20th century, the hat became popular among London’s gentlemen of finance and governance.

Armies of bowler-hatted men marched into the City of London each morning to go about their toils in counting houses, bureaucracies, and law chambers. The attire became the mark of the “City Gent.”

At the same time, it was lifted from the head of the working man, who replaced it with the cloth cap. The type of hat worn became a statement about Britain’s class system.

But, fashions change, the bowler hat came in for a bit of ridicule over snobbishness, and its popularity faded, replaced by a more casual look. 

When the coke/bowler crossed the Atlantic to settle on the heads of Americans it also acquired a new name―in the United States it’s called a derby. However, the name also owes its provenance to a British aristocrat.

Edward Stanley, the twelfth Earl of Derby set up a horse race in 1780. The race took his name and became known as a derby. When bowler hats arrived, stylish gentlemen wore them to watch the derby. Americans had their own Kentucky Derby and they took the name and attached it bowlers.

The derby became popular with cowboys and railroad workers. Author Lucius Beebe was moved to write that “the authentic hat of the Old West was the cast iron derby, the bowler of old Bond Street, and the ‘chapeau melon’ of French usage.” He added that “only a very small fraction of the population of the West, and that largely in Texas and concerned with ranching, wore a Stetson or other variety of shade hat.”

Famous outlaws in the rough-and-tumble days of the nineteenth century wore derbies; the list includes Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and Black Bart. Hollywood movies notwithstanding, officers of the law also wore derbies.

A Sauce a Sauce, my Kingdom for a Sauce

Cider Beurre Blanc

This sauce is superb with grilled scallops, braised turbot, a simply

poached sole on the bone, or an oven-roasted whole John Dory.

80ml cider vinegar

60g shallots, finely chopped

100ml sweet cider (that is the alcoholic cider)

50g dessert apple, preferably Cox, peeled and finely grated

250g butter, chilled and diced

salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the cider vinegar and shallots into a small, heavy-based saucepan set over a low

heat and reduce the liquid by half. Add the cider and grated apple and cook gently to

reduce the liquid by one-third.

Still over a low heat, incorporate the butter, a little at a time, using a whisk. The sauce must not boil, but merely tremble at about 90°C. I always use a thermometer but if you have not got one watch it like a hawk. If you are a member of the uncontacted arrow people then you could watch it like a Harpy Eagle, a gray-belied goshawk, White throated hawk, Puna Hawk, Zone-tailed hawk. Look, Arrow People, you have a ton of hawks to choose from. Just don’t serve this cider beurre blanc with a hawk. It is unseemly.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately, or keep the sauce warm for a few minutes in a bain-marie.

Songs under the microscope

In Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge there was included the lyrics to the nursery rhyme Polly Put the Kettle On. Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841 so we can assume that the rhyme had been around a while before that. The story tells the tale of the eponymous Polly putting on a kettle in order for all the proponents to have tea. Then Sukey takes it off again as they all went away. 200 years ago someone put a kettle on and changed their mind and we are till singing about it. How did that go viral. Where was the character development, where was man’s struggle against the universe, where was the narrative arc. Oh, and by the way Sukey and Polly were still there, why could they not to be allowed tea? 200 years. Einstein gave us an enduring theory of gravity in his General Relativity and he gets no songs. A plan for the entire movement of the universe, the curving of space time and no songs. Well, obviously excepting Einstein a go go by Landscape. But other than that, oh, and Jimmy Buffett’s 2013 hit Einstein was a surfer, and Einstein on the Beach by Counting crows….OK let’s have an Einstein top ten

10 Einstein A Go-Go by Landscape

9 A new entry at number 9 is Stupid Einstein by The Three o Clock

8 Second week at number 8 for Einstein’s Day by Mission of Burma

7 Number seven is Jeremy Tuplin and the Albert Einstein song

6 a non-mover Einstein was a surfer by Jimmy Buffet

5 Straight in at number five is Einstein on the beach by the equally mathematical Counting Crows

4 Second week in the charts for Kelly Clarkson and Einstein

3 Number three is last week’s number one, Einstein’s Takin’ Off by Ugly Duckling

2 A non-mover Einstein Brain by Admiral Freebee

1 And number one for the 11th week running is Randy Newman’s 1977 hit Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America

And if I remember I will provide a link to One’s Tube

Interesting, the anagram of polly put the kettle on is 

Leek Lepton Hotly Putt

Pellet Ethyl Punk Toot

Help knotty pellet out

Laval lethal wee

Kayaking a Toffee Suit

Infatuate a Key Fog Ski

A  Kinky Outfit Saga Fee

Healthy Genome Love

So whilst the character development is limited, at least the body count is low, by children’s nursery rhyme standards. In Ring-a-ring-a-roses they all die, in Oranges and lemons we have death by decapitation, Pop goes the weasel is an early version of Les Miserables where here the protagonist must sell his clothes just to buy some food to survive. 

And what psycho would sing three blind mice to their children. If we consider the harrowing lines

Three blind mice, three blind mice.

See how they run, see how they run.

They all ran after the farmer's wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

First, the mice were blind, they were not chasing the farmer’s wife, they were running blindly and she happened to be in their way. I must say though, Mrs Farmer did well with her carving knife to cut off all their tales. 

In London Bridge is falling down remember that in the original London Bridge there were houses on the bridge with people living in them. Perhaps a mandatory eviction notice rather than a ditty suggesting possible remedial measures (build it up with wood and clay). It sounds like exactly the sort of building methods that got them into this mess in the first place.

And whilst we are at it, Humpty Dumpty. His crime sitting on a wall. Punishment, death. next we have religious intolerance in Goosey, goosey, gander. Its second verse has 

There I met an old man

Who wouldn’t say his prayers;

I took him by the left leg,

And threw him down the stairs

Another head trauma and probable death here

It’s raining, it’s pouring
 The old man is snoring
 He went to bed and he bumped his head
 And couldn’t get up in the morning

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Literally the last section

How  do words enter the English language

The most obvious way is through refugee words arriving on our shores. Britain is the Ellis Island of language. We really are not fussy, we accepted pyjama and shampoo from India, chaparral from the Basques, caucus from the Algonquin Indians, ketchup from China, potato from Haiti, sofa from Arabia, boondocks from the Tagalog language of the Philippines, slogan from Gaelic.

Words can reach us though different routes and different times and be assigned different meanings. So we got canal and channel, regard and reward, poor and pauper, catch and chase, cave and cage, amiable and amicable. Sometimes we get the triple bonus play such as cattle, chattel, and capital, hotel, hostel, and hospital, and strait, straight, and strict. There is at least one sextuplet—jaunty, gentle, gentile, gentry, genital and genteel

Of course Shakespeare gave us at least 1700 words.























exposure (presumably so that he could regulate the amount of light entering his camera)










hobnob (though I suspect in the sense of meeting and he had nothing to do with the invention of the oat based confection)













skim milk







Bafflingly, sometimes words evolve to invert their meaning. So counterfeit used to mean a legitimate copy, brave once meant cowardice, garble meant to sort out and manufacture used to mean something made by hand.

Next we borrow a foreign word then spawn several new words. For example the French word mutin (rebellion) and turn it into mutiny, mutinous, mutinously, mutineer, Mutiny on the Bounty, while the French have still just the one form, mutin.

But there are words that have made an appearance in English, oft through a circuitous route, but for no reason they fall out of fashion. Luckily we are here to catch them and reintroduce them. One such word is velleity. Whilst we still have volition we have lost velleity. It represents a slight desire to do something, but not enough to actually do it. I had the velleity to create some examples for you, but in the end it seemed too much of a faff. 

But of all the ways words get hatched my favourite are the words created by mistake. words. The most famous of these perhaps is dord, which appeared in the 1934 Merriam-Webster International Dictionary as another word for density. In fact, someone had scribbled down that its symbol could be written as  “D or d,” meaning that “density” could be abbreviated either to a capital or lowercase letter. The people at Merriam-Webster quickly removed it, but not before it found its way into other dictionaries. Such occurrences are more common than you might suppose. According to the First Supplement of the OED, there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that owe their existence to errors. For the most part they are fairly obscure. One such is messauge, a legal term used to describe a house, its land, and buildings. It is thought to be simply a careless transcription of the French ménage. Many other words owe their existence to mishearings. Buttonhole was once buttonhold. Sweetheart was originally sweetard, as in dullard and dotard.

Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar 

This classic illustrated story begins when a cute little caterpillar hatches and thinks to himself, "I have arrived. I am born. I have mouth, stomach, hunger I need to eat something.” 

And that's exactly what he does, eating huge portions of clearly human food. But he is also highly wasteful. The first thing he does is eats just a hole through an apple. Now that apple is ruined and he is still hungry. He does not go back and eats the rest of the apple, no, he goes off and destroys two pears and so he goes on, in fact in my copy of the book the  louche laval lepidoptera he ate all the way through the pages and the cover.

 In the book on Saturday he ate  through 

one piece of chocolate cake

one ice cream cone 

one pickle 

one slice of Swiss cheese 

one slice of salami 

one lollipop 

one piece of cherry pie 

one sausage 

one cupcake 

and one slice of watermelon

Oh, and then he moaned that he had a stomach ache. So he eats a bit of leaf. So after stuffing his pie hole for a week now he decides to have a salad.

As he binge eats  he grotesquely inflates into what is no longer a cute caterpillar and is a miserable looking cake of lard.

So he lies down, tucks himself into his cocoon, succumbs to sweet nothingness ... and wakes up fabulous.

What kind of grotesque message is this book conveying. 

Shovelling a refrigerator full of food into your face hole until you feel like someone loves you is not a healthy message to be giving, and I just checked the recommended age on Amazon, 3-5 year olds. Binge eating will make you more miserable not less. 

He is not fat and happy. He s full of self-loathing as he steels himself for another serving

Hey, larva boy, it's food. Not love.

So the take away message for our 3-5 year olds is  "Binge eating is great, and the worst consequence will be waking up the next day even prettier than before!"

But the caterpillar was not the eventual winner of the overeating competition this week.

The old woman who swallowed a fly takes the cake. Well, in fact, the cake was just about the only thing that she did not take. She ate a fly, spider, bird, cat, dog then a cow and finally a horse. At least in this cautionary tale the old woman died, she did not wake up young and gorgeous.

And that is the end of Literally the Last Section. It is also the end of this week’s podcast.

In next week’s Frenzied and Sustained our Brainy Lecture finally turns its attention to Dark Energy and asks if we are heading towards a Big Rip. In Literally the last section we delve into the morally murky world of Thomas The Tank Engine, assuming that my 28 volumes have been delivered in time for me to get down and snarky with them.  Our Song Under the Microscope is the middle of the road pap song “Ebony and Ivory” and we use music theory to show why Paul McCartney made a very poor choice of metaphor for racism. Keeping our heads warm next week in The hat of the week will be the ushanka. Please point your browser at        dot com and clink on the link to say hello. We are doubling our audience every week and I would love to know what’s on your mind.   

And remember, there are only  two types of people in the world, those that can extrapolate from incomplete data………