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Brian Oxley
Works at ThoughtWorks
Attended Rice University
Lives in Houston, TX
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Brian Oxley

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The coolness of root 2.
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The weak force is what causes radioactive decay. It's also what has made life on Earth possible.
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Home.
Who needs $100 oil? Texas still has more jobs, more manufacturing, lots of high tech, light regulation, no state income tax - and lots of room to spread out.
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A model for life on Titan.
A new type of methane-based, oxygen-free life form that can metabolize and reproduce similar to life on Earth has been modeled. It is theorized to have a cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero.
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Dance of the Hag

On the face of it both electricity and magnetism are remarkably similar to gravity. Just as two masses are attracted to each other by an inverse square force, the force between two charged objects, or two poles of a magnet are also inverse square. The difference is that gravity is always attractive, whereas electricity and magnetism can be either attractive or repulsive. For example, two positive charges will push away from each other, while a positive and negative charge will pull toward each other. As with gravity, electricity and magnetism raised the question of action-at-a-distance. How does one charge “know” to be pushed or pulled by the other charge? How do they interact across the empty space between them? The answer to that question came from James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell’s breakthrough was to change the way we thought electromagnetic forces. His idea was that each charge must reach out to each other with some kind of energy. That is, a charge is surrounded by a field of electricity, a field that other charges can detect. Charges possess electric fields, and charges interact with the electric fields of other charges. The same must be true of magnets. Magnets possess magnetic fields, and interact with magnetic fields. Maxwell’s model was not just a description of the force between charges and magnets, but a also description of the electric and magnetic fields themselves. With that change of view, Maxwell found the connection between electricity and magnetism. They were connected by their fields. A moving electric field creates a magnetic field, and a moving magnetic field creates an electric field. Not only are the two connected, but one type of field can create the other. Maxwell had created a single, unified description of electricity and magnetism. He had united two different forces into a single unified force, which we now call electromagnetism.

Maxwell’s theory not only revolutionized physics, it gave astrophysics the tools to finally understand some of the complex behavior of interstellar space. By the mid-1900s Maxwell’s equations were combined with the Navier-Stokes equations describing fluids to create magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). Using MHD we could finally begin to model the behavior of plasma within magnetic fields, which is central to our understanding of everything from the Sun to the formation of stars and planets. As our computational powers grew, we were able to create simulations of protostars and young planets. Although there are still many unanswered questions, we now know that the dance of plasma and electromagnetism plays a crucial role in the formation of stars and planets.

While Maxwell’s electromagnetism is an incredibly powerful theory, it is a classical model just like Newton’s gravity and general relativity. But unlike gravity, electromagnetism could be combined with quantum theory to create a fully quantum model known as quantum electrodynamics (QED). A central idea of quantum theory is a duality between particle-like and wave-like (or field-like) behavior. Just has electrons and protons can interact as fields, the electromagnetic field can interact as particle-like quanta we call photons. In QED, charges and a electromagnetic fields are described as interactions of quanta. This is most famously done through Richard Feynman’s figure-based approach now known as Feynman diagrams.

Feynman diagrams are often mis-understood to represent what is actually happening when charges interact. For example, two electrons approach each other, exchange a photon, and then move away from each other. Or the idea that virtual particles can pop in and out of existence in real time. While the diagrams are easy to understand as particle interactions, they are still quanta, and still subject to quantum theory. How they are actually used in QED is to calculate all the possible ways that charges could interact through the electromagnetic field in order to determine the probability of a certain outcome. Treating all these possibilities as happening in real time is like arguing that five apples on a table become real one at a time as you count them.

QED has become the most accurate physical model we’ve devised so far, but this theoretical power comes at the cost of losing the intuitive concept of a force. Feynman’s interactions can be used to calculate the force between charges, just as Einstein’s spacetime curvature can be used to calculate the force between masses. But QED also allows for interactions that aren’t forces. An electron can emit a photon in order to change its direction, and an electron and positron can interact to produce a pair of photons. In QED matter can become energy and energy can be come matter.

What started as a simple force has become a fairy dance of charge and light. Through this dance we left the classical world and moved forward in search of the strong and the weak.

Tomorrow: The strong force answered the question of how positive charges could be bound in the nuclei of atoms, and allowed us to understand the origin of matter itself.
Electromagnetism can produce a force between charges or magnets, but it is much more than a simple force.
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Cradle to Grave

Gravity is perhaps the best known of the four fundamental forces. It’s also the one that’s easiest to understand. At a basic level, gravity is simply the mutual attraction between any two masses. It’s the force that lets the Sun hold the planets in their orbits, and the force that holds the Earth to you. The force is always attractive, and the strength of the force between two masses depends inversely on the square of their distances, making it an inverse square force. But gravity’s simplicity is just a veneer that hides a deeply subtle and complex phenomenon.

When Newton proposed his model of universal gravity, one criticism of the model was how gravity could act at a distance. How does the Moon “detect” the presence of Earth and “know” to be pulled in Earth’s direction? A few ideas were proposed, but never really panned out. Since Newton’s model was so incredibly accurate, the action-at-a-distance problem was largely swept under the rug. Regardless of how masses detected each other, Newton’s model let us calculate their motion. Another difficulty came to be known as the 3-body problem. Calculating the gravitational motion of any two masses was straight forward, but the motion of three or more masses was impossible to calculate exactly. The motion could be approximated to great precision, and was even used to discover Neptune, but an exact, general solution for three masses would never be found. Newton’s idea was simple, but it’s application was complex.

In the early 1900s, we found that gravity wasn’t a force at all. In Einstein’s model, gravity isn’t a force, but rather a warping of spacetime. Basically, mass tells space how to bend, and space tells mass how to move. General relativity isn’t just a mathematical trick to calculate the correct forces between objects, it makes unique predictions about the behavior of light and matter, which are different from the predictions of gravity as a force. Space really is curved, and as a result objects are deflected from a straight path in a way that looks like a force.

But despite its simple approximation as a force, and its beautifully subtle description as a property of spacetime, we’ve come to realize over the past century that we still don’t know what gravity actually is. That’s because both Newton’s and Einstein’s models of gravity are classical in nature. We now know that objects have quantum properties, with particle-like and wave-like behaviors.  When we try to apply quantum theory to gravity, things become complicated and confusing. In most quantum theory, quantum objects exist within a background framework of space and time. Since gravity is a property of spacetime itself, fully quantizing gravity would require a quantization of space and time. There are several models that attempt this, but none of them have yet achieved a fully quantum model.

Usually our current understanding of gravity is just fine. We can accurately describe the motions of stars and planets. Seemingly odd predictions such as black holes and the big bang have been confirmed by observation. Every experimental and observational test of general relativity has validated its accuracy. Large objects with strong gravity can be described just fine by classical gravity. For small objects with weak gravity we our approximate quantum gravity is good enough. The problem comes when we want to describe small objects with strong gravity, such as the earliest moments of the big bang.

Without a complete theory of quantum gravity, we won’t fully understand the earliest moment of the universe. We know from observation that the early observable universe was both very small and very dense. From general relativity this would imply that the universe began as a singularity. Most cosmologists don’t think the universe actually began as a singularity, but without quantum gravity we aren’t exactly sure. Even if we put the quantum aspects of gravity aside, there is still a part of gravity we don’t understand. Within general relativity it is possible to have a cosmological constant. Adding this constant to Einstein’s equations causes the universe to expand through dark energy, just as we observe. While general relativity allows for a cosmological constant, it doesn’t require one. The cosmological constant agrees with what we observe, but there are other proposed models for dark energy that agree as well (at least for now). If dark energy is really due to the cosmological constant, then the constant must be very close to zero, at about 10-122. Why would a constant be so incredibly close to zero? Why does it even exist when general relativity doesn’t require it?

We don’t know, and without that understanding, both the origin and fate of the universe remain mysteries.

Tomorrow: Electromagnetism was the first unified theory, combining the forces of magnets and charges. The result gave us a new understanding of light, and led us down a path toward a theory of everything.
We often speak of gravity as a force. More accurately it is a feature of spacetime. Even more accurately, we don't know what it is.
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Quantum theory is often viewed as a strange and mysterious model where objects behave in illogical ways. While it’s true that quantum objects behave in ways that are counterintuitive, we actually understand the behavior quite well. In fact, many of these strange behaviors are used in modern astronomy. Take, for example, the quantization of magnetic moments.

Most atoms have a small magnetic field. This magnetic field can be approximated as a small magnet, just as the Earth’s magnetic field is sometimes treated as a magnetic. The strength of that imaginary magnet is given by the magnetic moment of the atom. With this in mind, the orientation of an atom’s magnetic field can be represented by the orientation of the magnet.

Suppose, then, that we were to toss atoms through an inhomogeneous magnetic field. Individually the atoms have no particular orientation, so we would expect that the orientation of their magnetic moments are entirely random. As a result, some of the atoms would be more strongly attracted toward the north direction of the magnetic field, while others would be more attracted to the south, and everywhere in between. If the atoms really did act like tiny magnets, we would expect to see the beam of atoms spread out evenly by the magnetic field. In fact, what we see is that the atoms either move toward the north or south, and that’s it. Instead of spreading out evenly, the atoms lock into specific orientations. This experiment is named the Stern-Gerlach experiment, after the physicists who first performed it in 1922, and it demonstrates one of the basic aspects of quantum theory. When you try to measure the state of a quantum system, the results you get are often snapped to discrete results. It would be like measuring the height of a random collection of people, and finding they are all exactly either 5 ft or 6 ft tall.

As strange as this is, we actually use a similar effect to measure the strength of magnetic fields in the Sun. Since electrons also have magnetic moments, strong magnetic fields can cause their energy levels in an atom to shift. As a result, the emission lines an atom gives off can be shifted by magnetic fields. Emission lines can even be split slightly, which is known as the Zeeman effect. We see this effect near sunspots, which is how we know that sunspots are cooled by magnetic dampening.

That’s part of the real power of astrophysics. Once we understand a phenomena, however strange, we can use it has a tool to study the stars.
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Forge of Heaven

Our understanding of atoms as being made of smaller subatomic particles began with the discovery of the electron in the late 1800s. After we learned that electrons were negatively charged, and that removing electrons from an atom left it positively charged, it was thought that atoms must be held together by electromagnetic forces. There were several proposed models, but one of the most popular was known as the plum pudding model. This proposed that negatively charged electrons were held in a positively-charged atom like plums in a pudding. But in the early 1900s Ernest Rutherford scattered alpha particles off thin layers of gold foil and found that atoms consisted of dense, positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons. It was soon found that atomic nuclei consisted of positively charged protons as well as neutrons that had no charge. While it was clear that nuclei and electrons were held together by electromagnetic forces, we had no idea what held nuclei together. What could possibly hold protons so close to each other, given the immense repulsive force due to their charges?

Since atomic nuclei also contained neutrons, it was easy to imagine them acting as some kind of “glue” which held protons together. Since neutrons have no electric charge, this couldn’t be done by electromagnetism. There must be some new force strong enough to overpower electromagnetic forces. In the 1930s, Hideki Yukawa proposed that the force between protons and neutrons could be mediated by a new type of quantum particle, just as electromagnetic forces are mediated by quantum photons. Unlike  the photon, this particle would have mass, and as a result the strength of the strong force would die off exponentially with distance. It would also be repulsive at extremely close distances. This meant the strong force would have a distance “sweet spot” to hold protons and neutrons close to each other while not causing them to collapse into a singularity. By the 1940s we began to develop the tools of particle physics, and this intermediary particle known as the pion (or pi meson) was discovered. It seemed like we were finally beginning to understand the strong force.

But over time we began to find more and more particles. In addition to the proton, neutron and pion, we found a range of others. They could be charged positively, negatively, or not at all. Some of them were heavy, like protons and neutrons (known as baryons), while some were lighter like the pion (known as mesons). Many seemed to have some similarities in behavior, but it was unclear just how they might be related. Then in the 1960s Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig argued that all of these particles were themselves made up of more fundamental particles they called quarks. In this model quarks not only had electric charges of 1/3 or 2/3 the charge of a proton or electron, they also possessed a strong charge or “color” charge.

Although strong charges are not actually colored, the color analogy is useful because of they way they interact. With electric forces there are just positive and negative charges, and an object is electrically neutral if its charge sums to zero. With the strong force there are three types of charges: red, green and blue, and three “opposite” charges anti-red, anti-green and anti-blue (or less commonly cyan, magenta and yellow). To be strong neutral, the color charges must sum to “white.” Following the color analogy, red + green + blue adds to white, so it is neutral. So is red + anti-red, or green + anti-green. In this way, baryons are made of three quarks (one of each color or anti-color) while the lighter mesons are made of two quarks (a color anti-color pair).

From this we’ve been able to develop a model of the strong force along the lines of quantum electrodynamics (QED) for electromagnetism. Since the strong charges are “colors” it is known as quantum chromodynamics (QCD).  Like QED, quantum chromodynamics can be expressed as Feynman diagrams, but instead of charges exchanging photons it is quarks exchanging strong field quanta known as gluons. There are many similarities, but also some important differences.

In electromagnetism, photons are both massless and chargeless. This means, for example, that they can interact with electrons without changing their charge. An electron is always negatively charged before and after interacting with a photon. Gluons are massless, but possess color. Just as charge is conserved in electromagnetism, color is conserved in strong interactions. This means if a quark emits or absorbs a gluon it must change color. As a result, the specific color of an individual quark is indefinite. While we can say that the quarks of a proton have color charges that add to “white,” the fairy dance of quarks and gluons means that color charge is tossed back and forth between quarks. So quarks have color, but not a specific color at any particular time.

If that’s not strange enough, since gluons have color themselves, they interact with each other as well as the quarks. This is a dramatic difference from QED, where photons only interact with charges. Because of their interactions, gluons will tend to cluster in the region between quarks. If you could grab two quarks and try to pull them apart, the gluons would form a flux tube between them. One of the ways gluons can interact is to create a quark anti-quark pair (just as a photon can create an electron-positron pair). Given enough energy, eventually some gluons would interact to create a pair. The flux tube would then snap, and you would be left with two baryons or mesons. The overall effect of this complexity is that you can never isolate a single quark. The strong force ensures that quarks cluster into color-neutral groups of two or three (and perhaps four). It’s an effect known as color confinement.

It’s taken us decades to understand the complexities of the strong force. Even now the calculations are so complex it takes powerful supercomputers to solve most of the equations. There’s still much to learn, but we now know that Yukawa was pretty close to the mark back in the 40s. When quarks are close together in a proton or neutron, for example, they tend to interact directly through the gluons. But the distance between a proton and neutron in the nucleus of an atom are more widely separated, and so they tend to interact when gluons produce a meson. Yukawa’s pion model is a good approximation, and there really is a distance “sweet spot” between protons and neutrons. Rather than simply being a jumble of quarks, atomic nuclei are distinct clusters of protons and neutrons that can combine into stable arrangements. This means not only that atoms can be stable, but that their nuclei can combine to create larger stable nuclei. At high temperatures and densities, hydrogen can become helium, helium can become carbon, etc. This type of temperature and density exists within the cores of stars, and through the strong force they fuse elements to produce heat and light.

When you look up at the night sky, the stars you see are driven by strong force interactions. In that way the strong force truly is the forge of heaven.

Tomorrow: The weak force takes us on an even stranger path. One that leads us toward the origin of life itself.
The strong force is a complex interaction that holds nuclei of atoms together. It is also the force that lets stars create the elements we see around us.
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Gorgeous.
Oops! In a happy accident, Comet Lovejoy just happened to be in the field of view of the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, the world’s most powerful digital camera. One member of the observing team...
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"Almost all current descriptions of the fundamental laws of the universe can be viewed as deep generalizations of Maxwell’s equations. Even more surprising is that these equations and their generalizations have led to some of the most important mathematical discoveries of the past thirty years. It seems that the mathematics behind Maxwell’s equations is endless." -- Thomas Garrity, introduction to E&M for Mathematicians.
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Blame Higgs.
Most of the laws of nature treat particles and antiparticles equally, but stars and planets are made of particles, or matter, and not antiparticles, or antimatter. That asymmetry, which favors matter to a very small degree, has puzzled scientists for many years. Physicists offer a possible solution to the mystery of the origin of matter in the universe.
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Education
  • Rice University
    Physics, Music, 1987 - 1991
  • Trinity University
    Physics, Music, 1985 - 1987
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What is the weak force?
briankoberlein.com

The weak force is what causes radioactive decay. It's also what has made life on Earth possible.

Internet Freedom Works
www.politico.com

For the past two decades, Internet freedom has been a remarkable success story. It has given the American people unprecedented access to inf

Could classical theory be just as weird as quantum theory?
phys.org

Quantum mechanics is often described as 'weird' and 'strange' because it abandons many of the intuitive traits of classical physics. For exa

The most backwards moon in the solar system
briankoberlein.com

Triton is Neptune's largest moon, and the largest moon it the solar system to orbit backwards.

How Can Space Travel Faster Than The Speed Of Light?
www.universetoday.com

Cosmologists are intellectual time travelers. Looking back over billions of years, these scientists are able to trace the evolution of our U

Scientists find strongest natural material known to humans
www.sciencedaily.com

Limpet teeth might be the strongest natural material known to humans, a new study has found. Limpets -- small aquatic snail-like creatures w

Ada the Amplifier
rjlipton.wordpress.com

Plus updated links to our Knuth and TED talks Ada Lovelace was nuts. Some have used this to minimize her contributions to the stalled develo

Interesting Plausibility that Elon Musk Could Become a Trillionaire with...
nextbigfuture.com

Some have called the Elon Musk comment that Tesla Motors could reach $700 billion in market valuation by 2025 with 50% per year annual reven

Scientists get first glimpse of a chemical bond being born
phys.org

Scientists have used an X-ray laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to get the first glimpse of the trans

The Spectacular Too Big Failure of Dodd-Frank
www.thefiscaltimes.com

Not much unites the activist Left and activist Right, and not much ever has.

Resort Air Services to offer Houston-Big Bend flights - Houston Business...
www.bizjournals.com

Houstonians looking for a quicker way to Big Bend have another option, as Dallas-based Resort Air Services announced nonstop service between

Smashing polarized protons to uncover spin and other secrets
www.sciencedaily.com

If you want to unravel the secrets of proton spin, put a “twist” in your colliding proton beams. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)

Experiments Get Underway on Novel Nuclear Reactor | MIT Technology Review
www.technologyreview.com

Transatomic Power has begun tests on a very cheap and compact molten-salt reactor.

How to Manage Remote Direct Reports
hbr.org

Start by setting expectations.

An exploration in Material Design by feedly
medium.com

A deep dive into what feedly would look like with all the Material Design guidelines applied. By feedly’s lead designer.

Unsung private space industry milestone met: Column
www.usatoday.com

International law allows for space prospectors, and the FAA gave one company the green flag.

One of our favorite places in the Philippines. The staff was excellent, lacked for nothing. The nearby national parks are grand. Well recommended. Do note this is a "green" resort. Hot water is solar-heated, which may provide a surprise for your morning shower. We look forward to staying here again.
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First class traditional men's business clothing. You pay for quality.
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It really is Tex-Mex like your grandfather ate.
Food: ExcellentDecor: Very GoodService: Excellent
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Some of the best customer service I've had in a long time. They had similar products to what I wanted but not exactly. So they looked up the number of a competitor, wrote it down, and offered to call.
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reviewed a year ago
The best, of course.
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reviewed a year ago
Fantastic beer menu. Take your workmates here. Ask for a cocktail.
Atmosphere: ExcellentDecor: ExcellentService: Excellent
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