Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)

Peter von Rittinger’s biography reads like a success story created by a Victorian novelist, and his invention was a text-book example of innovation triggered by scarcity ( Bio DE / EN).

Born 1811, he was poor and became an orphan early. Yet he was able to study mathematics and physics as his secondary education had been financed by the Piarist Order. He also studied law and mining. Immediately after having graduated he was appointed as inspector in an iron ore processing plant (stamping mill), and later called a pioneer in that field and accountable for several inventions.

1850 Rittinger became ‘Sectionsrat’ (head of a division) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Mining in Vienna. He was knighted in 1863, so quoting all his titles as a public servant in the higher echelons of the Austro-Hungarian empire he was:
k. k. Sectionsrath Oberbergrath Ritter von Rittinger.

Peter von RittingerYet it seems even as an administrator he was still a hands-on tinkerer. He developed a process for harvesting salt from brine at Saline Ebensee in Upper Austria – saving 80% of input energy compared to processes used at this time. In the mid of the 19th century saltworks in Austria had been dependent on fuel: on wood available locally. Railway tracks have not been built yet, and fossil fuels had not yet been available. The ecological footprint had to be much closer to the physical area than today.

In History of Heatpumps, Martin Zogg writes:

One of the main applications [of mechanical vapor compression] is the salt production from salt brine. In order to get 1 kg of salt there have to be evaporated about 3 kg of water, which illustrates the enormous energy demand of such processes. Whole forests had been cleared for this purpose.
Peter von Rittinger … was the first to try the realisation of this idea on a pilot scale. …. He designed and installed the first known pilot heat pump for heating only with a capacity of 14  kW, … The start-up of Rittinger’s “steam pump” was in 1857.

This is the title page of Rittinger’s publication of 1855:

Rittinger, Abdampfverfahren, 1855. Title page.Translating about to:

Theoretical-practical treatise
on a novel evaporation process
applicable to all varieties of liquids
using one and the same amount of heat
which – for this purpose –
is set into perpetual circular motion by water power.
Taking into account the salt boiling process specifically.

I have created this simplified figure from the description in his paper:

Rittinger, Steam Pump, called the first heat pump.

Simplified sketch showing the principles of Peter von Rittinger’s steam pump as described in his original paper. The vessel had to be opened to remove the salt which had precipitated in the upper part of the vessel (called a brine ‘pan’ in German) and water accumulated in the lower part (‘double bottom’).

Salt brine is feed into the upper part of a vessel can be closed an has two parts: The colder, upper part contains brine mixed with water vapor at low temperature and low pressure; the lower part is separated from this cavity by a metal slab with high thermal conductivity. The colder vapor is compressed; and the compressor is driven by a water wheel. To start the process, all cavities are filled with vapor heated to 100°C at the beginning.

At a higher pressure, the evaporation / condensation temperature is higher. Thus hot, dense vapor condenses on the top of the lower cavity, releasing heat which is available in the upper cavity to heat the colder ‘input vapor’. This makes salt precipitate in the upper chamber where it was collected regularly.

In a heat pump for room heating a refrigerant running in a closed cycle is compressed by a mechanical compressor powered by electrical energy. At low temperatures and low pressures the refrigerant evaporates easily, even when in contact with a cold heat source (such as our water / ice tank at 0°C in winter). After compression, vapor condenses at temperatures higher than room temperature and thus the refrigerant is able to release the heat ‘harvested’ before. Rittinger’s steam pump is called The First Heat Pump by historians: However, in this device the water vapor mixed with salt brine is both the ‘refrigerant’ and the liquid to be heated.

In his paper, Rittinger explained that you could as well start from a brine at a temperature as low as 10°C, not needing any auxiliary heating. The system would operate at lower temperatures and pressures. But due to the lower pressures the same material would occupy a larger volume and thus the system had to be much bigger. I suppose, taking into account investment costs, this would have been less economical than using a bit of fuel to get the process going.

What I found intriguing about Rittinger’s work – and perhaps about the way research publications were written back then – was the combination of hands-on engineering, theoretical modeling, and honest and ‘narrative’ reporting of difficulties. Zogg’s history of heat pump quotes quite a number of Leonardo-da-Vinci-style inventors with diverse interests and an obviously ‘holistic’ approach.

Martin Zogg notes that using today’s technology, such ‘steam pumps’ easily obtain a coefficient of performance of 15 – more than 3 times the COP of a heat pump used for room heating. Mechanical vapor compression is state-of-the art technology in salt processing. The reason for the high COP is the lower temperature difference between hot and cool brine vapor. You just need to provide for a sufficient temperature gradient to allow for heat transport from the hot to the cooler cavity, and to overcome the change in evaporation temperature (according to Raoult’s Law).

I could not find the figures in the original paper that Rittinger referred to. The following image is a link to a clickable, larger version of the figures Rittinger had added to a later paper dated 1857, on the actual results of his experiments:

Figures attached to Rittinger's paper of 1857, steam pump experiments(Provided by the digitized archive of Polytechnisches Journal, by University of Berlin, under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0)

What looks like a top view of spaceship Enterprise is the vessel seen from the top. On the left, the corresponding side view shows that it was rather tall. What had been described as a simple separating wall-style flat heat exchanger was actually built as a system of several cylindrical cavities (to increase the heat exchanger’s surface). In the figure the cavities containing high-pressure vapor are denoted with b/c/d. The steam pump / compressor is denoted with E, Dampf-Pumpe, and shown to the right of the vessel in the side view.

Though the numbers were in line with his theoretical calculations, Rittinger’s pilot system did not work well: This was an unreliable batch process, as the vessel was opened regularly to remove the precipitated salt. Rittinger made some suggestions in his original paper, on how to harvest salt continuously. From experience he knew that salt crystals should easily glide downwards from a tilted plane. But among other issues, Rittinger noted in his research report from 1857 that salt crystals behaved quite differently in his vessel, and he attributed it to the higher temperatures in the closed vessel: Instead of being able to harvest the loose crystal at the tip of the conical vessel, all vertical planes have been covered with a crust of salt that resisted also the strongest chisel.

His epigones finally solved such issues – quoting Zogg again:

Probably stimulated by the experiments of Rittinger at Ebensee, the first truly functioning vapour recompression salt plant was developed in Switzerland by Antoine-Paul Piccard the University of Lausanne and the engineer J.H. Weibel of the company Weibel-Briquet of  Geneva in 1876. In 1877, this first heat pump in Switzerland was installed at the salt works at Bex. It was on a larger scale than Rittinger’s apparatus and produced around 175 kg/h of salt in continuous operation.

Lest We Forget the Pioneer: Ottokar Tumlirz and His Early Demo of the Coriolis Effect

Two years ago I wrote an article about The Myth of the Toilet Flush, comparing the angular rotation caused by the earth’s rotation to the typical rotation in experiments with garden hoses that make it easy to observe the Coriolis effect. There are several orders of magnitude in difference, and the effect can only be observed in an experiment done extremely carefully, not in the bathtub sink or toilet flush.

Now two awesome science geeks have finally done such a careful experimenteven a time-synchronized one, observing vortices on either hemisphere!

The effect has been demonstrated in a similarly careful experiment in 1908. It had been done on the Northern hemisphere only, but if it can attributed it to the Coriolis effect by ruling out other disturbances, the different senses of rotations are straight-forward.

Austrian physicist Ottokar Tumlirz had published a German  paper called “New physical evidence on the axis of rotation of the earth”. I had created this ugly sketch of his setup:


Rough sketch based on the abstract of Tumlirz’ paper, not showing the vessel containing these components [*]

A cylindrical vessel (not shown in my drawing) is filled with water, and two glass plates are placed into it. The bottom plate has a hole, as well as the vessel. Both holes are connected by a glass tube that has many small holes. The space between the two plates is filled with water and water slowly flows out – from the bulk of the vessel through the the tiny holes into the tube. These radial red lines are bent very slightly due to the Coriolis force, and the Tumlirz added a die to make them visible. He took a photo 24 hours after starting the experiment, and the water must not flow out faster than 1 mm per minute.

Ernst Mach has given an account of Tumlirz’ experiment, quoted in an article titled Inventors I Have Met – anecdotes by a physicist approached by ‘outsider scientists’, once called paradoxers, today often called crackpots. I learned about Ernst Mach’s article from the reference and re-print of the article on this history of physics website.

Mach refers to Tumlirz’ experiment as an example of an idea that seems to belong in the same category at first glance, but is actually correct:

To be sure, Professor Tumlirz has recently performed an experiment which, while externally similar to this, is correct. By this experiment the rotation of the earth can be imitated, if the utmost care is taken, by the direction of the current of water flowing axially out of a cylindrical vessel. Further details are to be found in an article by Tumlirz in the Sitzungsberichte der Wiener Akademie, Vol. 117, 1908. I happened to know the origin of the thought that gave rise to this invention. Tumlirz noticed that the water flowing somewhat unsymmetrically in a glass funnel assumed a swift rotation in the neck of the funnel so that it formed a whirl of air in the axis of the flowing jet. This put it in his mind to increase the slight angular velocity of the water at rest with reference to the earth, by contraction in the axis.


Comment on the German abstract: It seems one line or sentence got lost or mangled when processing the original as this does not make sense: so bendet sich das Wasser zwischen den beiden Glasscheiben [here something is missing] nach dem Rohrchen durch die kleinen Öffnungen.

I have not managed to find the full version of the old paper and the figures and photos online. I would be grateful for pointers.


Update added August 2016: C. Schiller quotes this historical experiment in vol. 1 of his free physics textbook Motion Mountain (p. 135):

Only in 1962, after several attempts by other researchers, Asher Shapiro was the first to verify that the Coriolis effect has a tiny influence on the direction of the vortex flowing out of the bathtub.

Ref: A. H. SHAPIRO, Bath-tub vortex, Nature 196, pp. 1080-1081, 1962

A Sublime Transition

Don’t expect anything philosophical or career-change-related. I am talking about water and its phase transition to ice because …

…the fact that a process so common and important as water freezing is not fully resolved and understood, is astonishing.


There are more spectacular ways of triggering this transition than just letting a tank of water cool down slowly: Following last winter’s viral trend, fearless mavericks turned boiling water vapor into snow flakes. Simply sublime desublimation?

Here is an elegant demo of Boiling water freezing in midair in the cold:

The science experiment took its toll: About 50 hobbyist scientists scalded themselves, ignoring the empirical rule about spraying any kind of liquid and wind direction:

“I accidentally threw all the BOILING water against the wind and burnt myself.”

Can it really be desublimation of water vapor? The reverse of this process, sublimation, is well known to science fiction fans:

Special effects supervisor Alex Weldon was charged with devising a way to realistically recreate the look of pools of steaming milky water that had been at the location. He concocted similar liquid with evaporated milk and white poster paint, mixed with water and poured into the set’s pools. Steam bubbling to the top was created with dry ice and steam machines, passed into the water via hidden tubing.

(Source: Star Trek online encyclopedia Memory Alpha on planet Vulcan.)

Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, and it is the combination of temperature and atmospheric pressure on planet earth that allow for the sublimation of CO2. The phase diagram shows that at an air pressure of 1 bar and room temperature (about 293 K = 20°C) only solid and gaseous CO2 can exist:

Carbon dioxide p-T phase diagramIf a chunk of dry ice is taken out of the refrigerator and thrown onto the disco’s dance floor it will heat up a bit, and cross the line between the solid and gas areas in the diagram.

Sublimation of dry ice (Wikimedia, public domain)On the contrary, the phase diagram of water shows that at 1 bar (= 100 kPa) the direct transition from vapor to ice is the is not an option. Following the red horizontal 1-bar-line you need to cross the green realm of the liquid phase:

Phase diagram of water (Wikimedia, User cmglee)You would need to do the experiment in an atmosphere less than 1/100 as dense to sublimate ice or desublimate vapor.

But experiments show that the green area seems to be traversed in the fraction of a second – and boiling water seems to cool down much faster than colder water!

It seems paradoxical as more heat energy need to be removed from boiling water (or vapor!) to cool it down to 0°C. The heat of vaporization is about 2.300 kJ/kg whereas the specific heat of water is only 4 kJ/kgK.

I believe that the sudden freezing  is due to the much more efficient heat transfer between the ambient air and vapor / tiny droplets versus the smaller heat flow from larger droplets to the air.

Mixing water vapor with air will provide for the best exposure of the wildly shaking water molecules to the slower air molecules. If not-yet-vaporized water droplets are thrown into the air, I blame the faster freezing on water’s surface tension decreasing with increasing temperature:

Temperature dependence surface tension of waterSurface tension indicates the work it takes to create or maintain a surface between different phases or substances. The internal pressure inside a water droplet is proportional to surface tension and inverse proportional to its radius. This follows from the work against air pressure needed to increase the size of a droplet. Assuming that droplets of different sizes will be created with similar internal pressures, the average size of droplets will be smaller for higher temperatures.

A cup of water at 90°C will be dispersed into a larger number of smaller droplets and thus a bigger surface exposed to air than a cup at 70°C. The liquid with the lower surface tension will evaporate more quickly.

One more twist: If droplets are created in mid air, as precipitates from condensation or desublimation, it takes work to create their surfaces – proportional to surface tension and area. On the other hand, you gain energy from  these processes – proportional to volume. If the surface tension is lower but the area is larger the total volume is the same – and thus the net effect in terms of energy balance might be the same. But arguments based on energy balance only don’t take into account the dynamic nature of this process, far off thermodynamic equilibrium: The theoretical energy gain can only be cashed in (within the time frame we are interested in it) if condensation or freezing or desublimation is actually initiated – which in turn depends in the shape and area of the surface and on nuclei for droplets.

Heat transfer is of course more efficient for a larger temperature differences between air and water; perhaps that’s why the trend started in Siberia:

I have for sure not discussed any phenomenon involved here. Even hot water kept in a vessel can cool down and freeze faster than initially cooler water: This is called the Mpemba effect, a phenomenon known to our ancestors and rediscovered by the scientific community in the 1960s – after a curious African student refused to believe that his teachers called his observations on making ice cream ‘impossible’. The effect is surprisingly difficult to explain!

In 2013 an Mpemba effect contest had been held and the paper quoted at the top of this post was the winner (out of 22.000 submissions!). Physical chemist Nikola Bregovic emphasizes the impact of heat transfer and convection: Hot water is cooled faster due to more efficient heat transfer to the environment. Stirring the liquid will disturb convective flows inside the vessel and can prevent the Mpemba effect.

The  effect could also be due to different spontaneous freezing temperatures of supercooled water. Ice crystals can start to grow instantly at a temperature below the theoretical freezing point:

Various parameters and processes – such as living organisms in the water or heating water to higher temperatures before! –  might destroy or create nucleation sites for ice crystals. Supercooling of vapor might also allow for a jump over the green liquid area in the phase diagram, and thus for deposition of ice from vapor even at normal pressures.

Quoting Bregovic again:

I did not expect to find that water could behave in such a different manner under so similar conditions. Once again this small, simple molecule amazes and intrigues us with it’s magic.
Ice in our underground water tank, growing at the top layer of heat exchanger tubes. These are only covered with water if a bulk of ice underneath will make the water level rise.

Carl Sagan’s Glorious Dawn: The Promise of Cosmos

Trying to catch up I am wading through social media streams and notifications. I am delighted to discover a post that echoes EXACTLY what I feel / have once felt as a teenager and high school student who had just decided to become a physicist. In his reflections Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Samir Chopra said it better than I would have been able to do. Quote: “I react the way I do to “A Glorious Dawn” because when I watch it I am reminded of a kind of naiveté, one that infected a part of life with a very distinct sense of possibility; I am reminded indeed, of an older personality, an older way of looking at the world. You could call this simple nostalgia for childhood; I think you’d be partially right. This nostalgia has many components, of course. Then, science, its methods and its knowledge, seemed sacrosanct; its history the most glorious record of human achievement, rising above its sordid record in other domains. It seemed to document a long struggle against many forms of intellectual and political tyranny. Because I was a student of science then–if only in school–I felt myself tapping into a long and glorious tradition, becoming part of a distinguished stream of humans possessed of epistemic and moral rectitude. And because I felt myself to be have just barely begun my studies, I sensed a long, colorful, adventure–perhaps as dramatic as those that I had seen depicted in Cosmos‘ many episodes–lay ahead of me.”

Samir Chopra

The YouTube video titled “A Glorious Dawn” starring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking (their voices run through Auto-Tune ), and snippets from Sagan’s epic  Cosmos , has now racked up almost nine million views and twenty-seven thousand comments since it was first put up sometime back in 2009. (Mysteriously, in addition to its seventy-seven thousand ‘Likes’ it has also attracted over a thousand thumbs-downs. There’s no pleasing some people.)

To that count of nine million views I have made several dozen contributions. And cheesily enough, on each occasion, I have detected a swelling, a lump in my throat, and sometimes even, most embarrassingly, a slight moistening of the eyes. I am a grown man, supposedly well above such trite sentimentality. What gives?

Like many of those that write those glowing comments on YouTube, I too watched Cosmos as a youngster. I learned a great deal of astronomy and the history…

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This Year in Books: Biographies, Science, Essays.

This is my pick of books I enjoyed reading in 2013. I am hardly capable of reviewing books but I tend to pick books in order to answer a specific question.


I have a penchant for physicists’ lives in the first half of the 20th century. How did scientists organize their lives and research without computers? How did they cope with war? Did it help the development of theoretical physics that their knowledge and skills were quite diverse?

Paul Dirac was perhaps an underrated hero of quantum physics until the release of The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo. Dirac trained as an engineer and searching for a job without success. He was driven by a top-down approach to physics: by the beauty of mathematical equations that eventually match a model of reality. Dirac’s usage of mathematics and his way of inventing new symbols (Dirac said he invented the bra) was said to give proof of his engineering mindset.

In Inside The Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer Ray Monk gives a vivid account of the Manhattan project and the related rise of the reputation of scientists (which kept – in my opinion – misleading aspiring physics students for decades to come about their employability). For multi-talented and erudite Oppenheimer physics was the best way to do philosophy. Though not an administrator before, he turned out to be the perfect facilitator and “project manager” – speaking the language of theoretical physicists and engineers alike.

I picked this Oppenheimer biography because I found Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Monk superb:

It is a book for those interested solely in Wittgenstein’s life as well as for amateur philosophers who had tried to decode the Tractatus in vain (as myself). I am not sure if you grasp the combination of his logical analysis of language and his allusions to the mystical without knowing about Wittgenstein’s debut in philosophy as Russell’s mentee on the one hand and his desire to be given the most dangerous task in World War I, in search for a life-altering experience, on the other hand. Peter Higgs has recently stated that he would not have been successful in today’s academic system. The more we are flabbergasted by reading about Wittgenstein’s lifelong reluctance to publish anything.

Wittgenstein had trained as an engineer, too.

Other biographies I read I 2012 might corroborate that a training in engineering or working closely with engineers helps the development of the theorist’s mind:

Jürgen Neffe’s biography of Einstein lays out his life in chapters dedicated to different aspects of his life, rather than using a chronological approach. So the voyeuristic reader can zoom in on Einstein’s family life. I was most interested in his childhood when Einstein lived in his father’s and uncle’s electrical engineering company, and his track record as an inventor.

If Feynman – featured in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick- wasn’t the archetypical combination of a theorist and a hands-on tinkerer I do not know who was. His playing with flexagons or his childhood experiments with the garden sprinkler are legend.

History of Science and Popular Science

Until I read The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin last year I did not know that there are different genres of popular physics that can be characterized as enthusiastic or critical. Enthusiastic accounts use the science-is-cool approach  – that applies to sci-fi-style descriptions of the inner workings of the LHC as well as “spooky” theories used to explain experimental results. I believe it is not an accident to see that genre grow in times of cut governmental budgets.

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll was awarded the prize for the best science book 2013 by the Royal Society. I have hardly seen a popular book covering theory at such a deep level and giving account of LHC’s history and work and live in the scientific community in general.

Critical books focus on the way (string) theory became detached from reality in a way that might have been too much even for Dirac. In the beginning of the 20th century theory was driven by experimental results to be explained – now theory is said to have taken up a life on its own.

The title Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth is sensationalist. In my opinion Jim Baggott gives a rather balanced account of the history of physics – I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to understand what the big questions in fundamental physics have been in the past 100 years.

Physics on the Fringe by Margaret Wertheim is an unusual gem. She criticizes contemporary research in a subtle way – as a by-product of describing life and mind of a so-called outsider physicist. A book that focuses on paradoxers without buying into their theories but showing respect for the human beings behind the theories (I blogged about the book here.)

Matthew Rave shows that theoretical models can be explained in a completely different way – not featuring famous physicists and artistic photos of particle colliders: Why is there  anything? is a Socratic dialogue that fans of Douglas Hofstadter’s Achille and Tortoise will enjoy.

Class of Its Own: Books by Nassim Taleb.

A review of books read in 2013 would not be complete without mentioning Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and The Black Swan again. I blogged about these books and ideas here, here, here, and here.

In relation to the science books I want to emphasize his refreshing perspective of academic – planned, Soviet-Harvard-style – research versus tinkering by amateurs. I might over-generalize but I feel that those eminent 20th century physicists were tinkerers at heart.

Essays on Life, Work, the Universe and Everything

Taleb’s books are essays and not for the nit-pickers. This made me recognize that some of my all-time-classics could be classified as personal essays as well. These books are partly autobiographical vignettes, partly analysis of specific industry sectors – entangled using a narrative in a peculiar way.

The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living by Randy Komisar. A career in Silicon Valley illustrated by a fictional character, a young entrepreneur who wants to start an internet-based funeral business. Actually, the book is about the delusion of the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do and then do what you want to do. Using Taleb’s language it is about Optionality in your life.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ , Mike Daisey’s account of working at in the glorious days before the bust is the most hilarious account of Dilbert’s life in the cubicle: his fight with illogical metrics, managers who admire Michael Moore’s movies and don’t see the inconsistency, or people nearly killing each other for exposure to the ray of light shining through the building’s single tiny window.  Underneath the epic story it is a book of a seriously multi-talented man and his love-hate relationship with the corporate world.

The Art of Working Less  is the (translated) title of my favorite German book in that category. It is very different from your typical self-help book on work-life balance. Both authors trained as medical doctors and were successful in their careers – as a doctor running his practice and a as CEO of a publishing house, respectively – until they decided to leave the treadmill.

The authors analyze the historical development of the value assigned to work. They wonder about our obsession with work – way beyond financial necessities and trancending the professional realm by attributing work-like “ethics” to our unpaid occupations too. The target group of the book are people who could easily afford to work less, but don’t do so. Martin Luther is blamed for having instilled protestant work ethics in generations by replacing work (Arbeit – a term with negative etymological connotations) with Beruf (profession) being very similar to Berufung (vocation, true calling).


Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain – an eye-opener. I am typically considered an extremely extrovert person by people who know me personally. Cain tells me otherwise, my reluctance of “social” company events gives proof of that. Probably I am a faker on a mission: Introverts are able to transcend their limits if they want to achieve their goals. I enjoyed Cain’s experiment of attending a Tony Robbins workshop for research purposes.

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants Malcolm Gladwell investigates how and why a physical or other disadvantage can lead to superior results. I was most impressed by the stories of dyslexic people who became successful in jobs that heavily rely on reading and writing skills. Gladwell’s heroes have learned to cope with so-called failure at an early age and they developed workarounds and skills replacing literacy as memorization, negotiation skills, and reading cues.


I don’t read much fiction and if so, I tend to read several books by single author in a row. Last year was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Chesterson’s Father Brown. This year I turned to Philipp K. Dick‘s dystopian fiction and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Robust Control System Networks by Stuxnet decoder Ralph Langner is no-nonsense technical analysis – and yet the first book I read that contained a reference to the The Black Swan. Langner brilliantly debunks the way risks are evaluated in IT security, that is using insurance-based models and indulging in building theoretical models. Langner highlights the way control engineers at the shop floor think in contrast to this.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr brilliant analysis reflects all my personal findings – again confirmed by this summer’s time-out from social media. I am eagerly awaiting his upcoming book on automation.

Having enjoyed reading Jaron Lanier, I am aware of the irony of hosting my blog on one of those Siren Servers.

Taleb has called Ray Kurzweil his anti-me in Antifragile, so I am probably not the most unbiased reader of The Singularity is Near.

Kurzweil’s worldview is self-consistent if you buy into his optimism, but it does not strike a chord with me. For reasons to be probably analyzed in future blog posts I rather picture myself as one of those subversive rebels in clichéd science fiction movies, those who live outside that utopian metropolis run on the latest technology.

Textbooks and Outlook

Having read Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory I plan to tackle more advanced textbooks in 2014.

But I will also return to ancient textbooks – books reflecting Dirac’s original ideas. I learned theoretical physics from Heisenberg’s last graduate student, Wilhelm Macke. He wrote six volumes on theoretical physics, published in the 1960s. I am looking forwarding to reading those again in 2014.

Theoretische Physik, Wilhelm Macke

Six volumes on Theoretical Physics, by Wilhelm Macke.

Fragile Technology? (Confessions of a Luddite Disguised as Tech Enthusiast)

I warn you – I am in the mood for random long-winded philosophical ramblings.

As announced I have graduated recently again, denying cap-and-gown costume as I detest artificial Astroturf traditions such as re-importing academic rituals from the USA to Europe. A Subversive El(k)ement fond of uniforms would not be worth the name.

However, other than that I realize that I have probably turned into a technophobe luddite with a penchant for ancestral traditions.

Long-term followers might know what I am heading at again as I could only have borrowed a word as ancestral from Nassim N. Taleb. I have re-read Taleb’s The Black Swan and Antifragile. The most inspirational books are those that provide you with words and a framework to re-phrase what you already know:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3405-3406.

I have covered Antifragile at length in an earlier article. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness – it is about systems gaining from volatility and disorder. I will not be able to do this book justice in a blog post, not even a long one. Taleb’s speciality is tying his subject matter expertise (in many fields) to personal anecdotes and convictions (in many fields) – which is why some readers adore his books and others call them unscientific.

I am in the former camp as hardly any other author takes consistency of personal biography and professional occupation and writing that far. I was most intrigued by the notion Skin in the Game which is about being held accountable 100%, about practicing what you preach.

I eat my own cooking. I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself. I will be the first to be hurt if I am wrong. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 631-633

Taleb has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans – and so do I. He is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks.

Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.

I don’t read his books as a detached scientist – it is more like talking to somebody, comparing biographies and ideas, and suddenly feeling vindicated.

A mundane example: At times I had given those woman-in-tech-as-a-role-model interviews – despite some reluctance. One time my hesitation was justified. Talking about my ‘bio’ I pointed that I am proud of having thrived for some years as an entrepreneur in a narrow niche in IT. In the written version the interviewers rather put emphasis on the fact I had been employed by a well-known company years before. Fortunately I was given a chance to review and correct it.

Asking for their rationale they made it worse: I have been told that it is an honor to be employed by such a big brand name company. Along similar lines I found it rather disturbing that admirers of my academic track record told me (in retrospect of course, when I was back on a more prestigious track) that working as a consultant for small businesses was just not appropriate.

What is admirable about being the ant in the big anthill?

I had considered my own life and career an attempt – or many attempts – to reconcile, unite or combine things opposite. Often in a serial fashion. In my pre-Taleb reading era I used to quote Randy Komisar’s Portfolio of Passions or Frank Levinson’s 1000 ideas you need to have (and discard again) as a business ower.

Taleb introduced optionality to my vocabulary, borrowed from trader’s jargon: An option is the right but not the obligation to engage in a transaction. Thus you should avoid personal and career decisions that puts you on a track of diminishing options. This is exactly what I felt about staying in academia too long – becoming a perpetual post-doc, finally too old and too specialized for anything else.

Nassim Taleb does not respect nerdiness and smartness as we define it the academic way.

If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3097-3099.

He suggests just passing exams with minimum score. I, nerd of stellar grades and academic fame, declare defeat – I have already repented here. But let me add a minor remark from cultural perspective: I feel that academic smartness is more revered in North America than it is in middle Europe although America values hands-on, non-academic risk taking more, as Taleb points out correctly. I had been surrounded by physicists with an engineering mindset – theoretical physics was for the socially awkward nerds and not a domain you become a rockstar in.

It would not de me good to brag about any sort of academic achievement in my ancestral country – it rather puts you under pressure to prove that you are a genuine human being and still capable of managing daily life’s challenges, such as exchanging a light bulb, despite your absent-minded professor’s attitude. Probably it can be related to our strong tradition of non-academic, secondary education – something Taleb appreciates in the praise of Switzerland’s antifragility.

I have been torn between two different kinds of aspirations ever since: I was that bookish child cut out for academia or any sort of profession concerned with analyzing, writing, staying at the sideline, fence-sitting and commenting. But every time I revisited my career decisions I went for the more tangible, more applied, more involved in getting your hands dirty – and the more mundane. Taleb’s writings vindicate my propensity.

I had always felt at home in communities of self-educated tinkerers – both in IT and in renewable energy. I firmly believe that any skill of value in daily professional life is self-taught anyway, no matter how much courses in subjects as project management you have been forced to take.

For I am a pure autodidact, in spite of acquiring degrees. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 4132-4133.

Blame it on my illiteracy but Taleb is the first author who merges (for me) deep philosophical insights with practical and so-to-say ‘capitalist’ advice – perfectly reflecting my own experiences:

My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like “recognition” and “credit” warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 678-680

I’d rather work some not-too-glorious jobs based on a simple feedback loop, that is: People do want something badly – I do it – they pay me, and I’d rather not (anymore): write applications for research grants in order to convince a committee or execute the corporate plan to meet the numbers.

Taleb provided very interesting historical evidence that so-called innovation has actually been triggered by now forgotten self-educated tinkerers rather than by science applying Soviet-Havard-style planning. You might object to those theories, probably arguing that we never had a man on the moon or the Dreamliner airplane without Soviet-Havard-style research, let alone LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson. I might object to this objection by hypothesizing that the latter probably does not result in products we desperately really need (which includes big airplanes and business travel).

But I do know the counter-arguments – Einstein and the GPS, Faraday and allegedly useless electromagnetic waves that once will be taxed, WWW and CERN – and I don’t hold very strong opinions on this.

Because of the confirmation problem, one can argue that we know very little about our natural world; we advertise the read books and forget about the unread ones. Physics has been successful, but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful, and people tend to generalize that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly nonlinear) weather than the origin of the universe. –Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Kindle Locations 3797-380

I absolutely do love theoretical physics – when other people listen to meditation music, do yoga, go to church, take walks in the sunset, wax poetic, read Goethe, are bamboozled by renaissance art: I read text books on quantum field theory. There is joy in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So academics should be paid by the public for providing the raw material.

But I know that Taleb’s analysis is true when applied to some research I have some personal familiarity with. Austria has been a pioneer in solar thermal energy – many home owners have installed glazed solar collectors on their roofs. The origin of that success is tinkering by hobbyists – and solar collectors are still subject to DIY tinkering. Today academics do research in solar thermal energy, building upon those former hobbyist movements. And I know from personal experience and training that academics in applied sciences are really good at dressing up their tinkering as science.

Nassim Taleb also believes that organized education and organized science follows wealth, not the other way round. Classical education in the sense of true erudition is something you acquire because you want to become a better human being. Sending your kids to school in order to boost GDP is a rather modern, post WW II, approach.

Thus I believe in the value of fundamental research in science in the same way as I still believe in the value of a well-rounded education and reading the ancients, as Nassim Taleb does. But it took me several attempts to read Taleb’s book and to write this post to realize that I am skeptical about the sort of tangible value of some aspects of science and technology as they relate to my life here and now.

I enjoyed Taleb’s ramblings on interventionism in modern medicine – one of the chapters in Antifragile that probably polarizes the most. Taleb considers anything living and natural superior to anything artificial and planned by Soviet-Harvard-style research – something better not be tinkered with unless odds are extremely high for positive results. Surgery in life-threatening situations is legitimate, cholesterol and blood pressure reducing medication is not. Ancestral and religious traditions may get it right even if their rationales are wrong: Fasting for example may provide the right stimuli for the human body that is not designed for an over-managed regular, life-hacker’s, over-optimizer’s life-style along the lines of those five balanced daily meals your smartphone app reminds you of. As a disclaimer I have to add: Just as Taleb I am not at all into alternative medicine.

Again, I don’t have very strong opinions about medical treatments and the resolution to the conflict might be as simple as: Probably we don’t get the upsides of life-saving surgery without the downsides of greedy pharmaceuticals selling nice-to-have drugs that are probably even harmful in the long run.

But – again – I find Taleb’s ideas convincing if I try to carry them over to other fields in history of science and technology I have the faintest clue of. Software vendors keep preaching to us – and I was in that camp for some time, admittedly – that software makes us more productive. As a mere user of software forced upon me, by legal requirements, I have often wondered if ancient accountants had been less productive in literally keeping books.

I found anecdotal evidence last year that users of old tools and software are still just as productive – having become skilled in their use, even if they do accounting on clay tablets. This article demonstrates that hopelessly outdated computer hardware and software is still in use today. I haven’t been baffled by ancient computers in military and research but I have been delighted to read this:

Punch-Card Accounting
Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they’ll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948. Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards.
Companies traditionally used the 402 for accounting, since the machine could take a long list of numbers, add them up, and print a detailed written report. In a sense, you could consider it a 3000-pound spreadsheet machine.

I guess the operators of this computer are smiling today, when reading about the NSA spying on us and Russian governmental authorities buying typewriters again.

IBM 403 accounting machine

The machine in the foreground is an IBM 403 accounting machine where the input are punched cards; the machine in the center is an IBM 514 Reproducing Punch apparently connected to the foreground 403 as a summary punch, and the one in the background is another 403 or 402 accounting machine. (Wikimedia, Flickr user ArnoldReinhold)

I don’t advocate reverting to ancient technology – but I don’t take progress and improvements for granted either. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains plans to release his new book in 2014, titled The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. In his related essay in The Atlantic Carr argues:

It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

Probably productivity enhancements kick in exactly when the impacts outlined by Carr take effect. But I would even doubt the time-saving effects and positive impacts on productivity in many domains where they are marketed so aggressively today.

Show me a single company whose sales people or other road warriors do not complain about having to submit reports and enter the numbers to that infamous productivity tool. As a small business owner I do complain about ever increasing reporting and forecasting duties inflicted upon me by governmental agencies, enterprise customers, or big suppliers – a main driver for me to ‘go small’ in any aspect of my business, by the way. Of course software would ease our bureaucratic pains if the requirements would be the same as when double-entry accounting has been invented by Pacioli in the 15th century. But the more technology John Doe is expected to use today, the more ideas CEOs and bureaucrats dream up – about data they need because John Doe ought to deliver them anyway in an effortless way.

Reading all the articles about the NSA makes me wonder if additions of painful tedious work due to the technology we ought to use is something marginal only I rant about. I had said it often in pre-public-NSA-paranoia times: I would love to see that seamless governmental spying at work to free me from that hassle. I had been confronted with interfaces and protocols not working and things too secure in the sense of people locking themselves out of the system.

So in summary I feel like an anti-technology consultant often, indulging in supporting people with working productively despite technology. Since this seems quite a negative approach I enjoy making wild speculative connections and mis-use interdisciplinary writings such as Taleb’s to make my questionable points.

May the Force Field Be with You: Primer on Quantum Mechanics and Why We Need Quantum Field Theory

As Feynman explains so eloquently – and yet in a refreshingly down-to-earth way – understanding and learning physics works like this: There are no true axioms, you can start from anywhere. Your physics knowledge is like a messy landscape, built from different interconnected islands of insights. You will not memorize them all, but you need to recapture how to get from one island to another – how to connect the dots.

The beauty of theoretical physics is in jumping from dot to dot in different ways – and in pondering on the seemingly different ‘philosophical’ worldviews that different routes may provide.

This is the second post in my series about Quantum Field Theory, and I  try to give a brief overview on the concept of a field in general, and on why we need QFT to complement or replace Quantum Mechanics. I cannot avoid reiterating some that often quoted wave-particle paraphernalia in order to set the stage.

From sharp linguistic analysis we might conclude that is the notion of Field that distinguishes Quantum Field Theory from mere Quantum Theory.

I start with an example everybody uses: a so-called temperature field, which is simply: a temperature – a value, a number – attached to every point in space. An animation of monthly mean surface air temperature could be called the temporal evolution of the temperature field:

Monthly Mean Temperature

Solar energy is absorbed at the earth’s surface. In summer the net energy flow is directed from the air to the ground, in winter the energy stored in the soil is flowing to the surface again. Temperature waves are slowly propagating perpendicular to the surface of the earth.

The gradual evolution of temperature is dictated by the fact that heat flows from the hotter to the colder regions. When you deposit a lump of heat underground – Feynman once used an atomic bomb to illustrate this point – you start with a temperature field consisting of a sharp maximum, a peak, located in a region the size of the bomb. Wait for some minutes and this peak will peter out. Heat will flow outward, the temperature will rise in the outer regions and decrease in the center:

Diffluence of a bucket of heat, goverend by the Heat Transfer EquationModelling the temperature field (as I did – in relation to a specific source of heat placed underground) requires to solve the Heat Transfer Equation which is the mathy equivalent of the previous paragraph. The temperature is calculated step by step numerically: The temperature at a certain point in space determines the flow of heat nearby – the heat transferred changes the temperature – the temperature in the next minute determines the flow – and on and on.

This mundane example should tell us something about a fundamental principle – an idea that explains why fields of a more abstract variety are so important in physics: Locality.

It would not violate the principle of the conservation of energy if a bucket of heat suddenly disappeared in once place and appeared in another, separated from the first one by a light year. Intuitively we know that this is not going to happen: Any disturbance or ripple is transported by impacting something nearby.

All sorts of field equations do reflect locality, and ‘unfortunately’ this is the reason why all fundamental equations in physics require calculus. Those equations describe in a formal way how small changes in time and small variations in space do affect each other. Consider the way a sudden displacement traverses a rope:

Propagation of a waveSound waves travelling through air are governed by local field equations. So are light rays or X-rays – electromagnetic waves – travelling through empty space. The term wave is really a specific instance of the more generic field.

An electromagnetic wave can be generated by shaking an electrical charge. The disturbance is a local variation in the electrical field which gives rises to a changing magnetic field which in turn gives rise a disturbance in the electrical field …


Electromagnetic fields are more interesting than temperature fields: Temperature, after all, is not fundamental – it can be traced back to wiggling of atoms. Sound waves are equivalent to periodic changes of pressure and velocity in a gas.

Quantum Field Theory, however, should finally cover fundamental phenomena. QFT tries to explain tangible matter only in terms of ethereal fields, no less. It does not make sense to ask what these fields actually are.

I have picked light waves deliberately because those are fundamental. Due to historical reasons we are rather familiar with the wavy nature of light – such as the colorful patterns we see on or CDs whose grooves act as a diffraction grating:

Michael Faraday had introduced the concept of fields in electromagnetism, mathematically fleshed out by James C. Maxwell. Depending on the experiment (that is: on the way your prod nature to give an answer to a specifically framed question) light may behave more like a particle, a little bullet, the photon – as stipulated by Einstein.

In Compton Scattering a photon partially transfers energy when colliding with an electron: The change in the photon’s frequency corresponds with its loss in energy. Based on the angle between the trajectories of the electron and the photon energy and momentum transfer can be calculated – using the same reasoning that can be applied to colliding billiard balls.

Compton Effect

We tend to consider electrons fundamental particles. But they give proof of their wave-like properties when beams of accelerated electrons are utilized in analyzing the microstructure of materials. In transmission electron microscopy diffraction patterns are generated that allow for identification of the underlying crystal lattice:

A complete quantum description of an electron or a photon does contain both the wave and particle aspects. Diffraction patterns like this can be interpreted as highlighting the regions where the probabilities to encounter a particle are maximum.

Schrödinger has given the world that famous equation named after him that does allow for calculating those probabilities. It is his equation that let us imagine point-shaped particles as blurred wave packets:

Schrödinger’s equation explains all of chemistry: It allows for calculating the shape of electrons’ orbitals. It explains the size of the hydrogen atom and it explains why electrons can inhabit stable ‘orbits’ at all – in contrast to the older picture of the orbiting point charge that would lose energy all  the time and finally fall into the nucleus.

But this so-called quantum mechanical picture does not explain essential phenomena though:

  • Pauli’s exclusion principle explains why matter is extended in space – particles need to put into different orbitals, different little volumes in space. But It is s a rule you fill in by hand, phenomenologically!
  • Schrödinger’s equations discribes single particles as blurry probability waves, but it still makes sense to call these the equivalents of well-defined single particles. It does not make sense anymore if we take into account special relativity.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – a consequence of Schrödinger’s equation – dictates that we cannot know both position and momentum or both energy and time of a particle. For a very short period of time conservation of energy can be violated which means the energy associated with ‘a particle’ is allowed to fluctuate.

As per the most famous formula in the world energy is equivalent to mass. When the energy of ‘a particle’ fluctuates wildly virtual particles – whose energy is roughly equal to the allowed fluctuations – can pop into existence intermittently.

However, in order to make quantum mechanics needed to me made compatible with special relativity it was not sufficient to tweak Schrödinger’s equation just a bit.

Relativistically correct Quantum Field Theory is rather based on the concept of an underlying field pervading space. Particles are just ripples in this ur-stuff – I owe to Frank Wilczek for that metaphor. A different field is attributed to each variety of fundamental particles.

You need to take a quantum leap… It takes some mathematical rules to move from the classical description of the world to the quantum one, sometimes called quantization. Using a very crude analogy quantization is like making a beam of light dimmer and dimmer until it reveals its granular nature – turning the wavy ray of light into a cascade of photonic bullets.

In QFT you start from a classical field that should represent particles and then apply the machinery quantization to that field (which is called second quantization although you do not quantize twice.). Amazingly, the electron’s spin and Pauli’s principle are a natural consequence if you do it right. Paul Dirac‘s achievement in crafting the first relativistically correct equation for the electron cannot be overstated.

I found these fields the most difficult concepts to digest, but probably for technical reasons:

Historically  – and this includes some of those old text books I am so fond of – candidate versions of alleged quantum mechanical wave equations have been tested to no avail, such as the Klein-Gordon equation. However this equation turned out to make sense later – when re-interpreted as a classical field equation that still needs to be quantized.

It is hard to make sense of those fields intuitively. However, there is one field we are already familiar with: Photons are ripples arising from the electromagnetic field. Maxwell’s equations describing these fields had been compatible with special relativity – they predate the theory of relativity, and the speed of light shows up as a natural constant. No tweaks required!

I will work hard to turn the math of quantization into comprehensive explanations, risking epic failure. For now I hand over to MinutePhysics for an illustration of the correspondence of particles and fields:

Disclaimer – Bonus Track:

In this series I do not attempt to cover latest research on unified field theories, quantum gravity and the like. But since I started crafting this article, writing about locality when that article on an alleged simple way to replace field theoretical calculations went viral. The principle of locality may not hold anymore when things get really interesting – in the regime of tiny local dimensions and high energy.