Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Einstein's Wife

The documentary "Einstein's Wife" appeared on US Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) in 2003. However, the controversy surrounding the documentary hasn't subsided even now. This is certainly true between the producer of the documentary, Geraldine Hilton, and physicist/historian Allen Esterson.

The whole issue here is whether Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, played a significant but uncredited role in producing the 3 papers by Einstein during his miraculous year of 1905. The PBS Ombudsman has produced a detailed account of the whole transaction and point-counterpoint between these two parties. It is VERY long, and very tedious. However, PBS should be commended in publishing this openly for other readers to follow.


Update on Continuing Resolution of US Budget

I wrote earlier on the predicament that US science funding is in for the fiscal year 2007, due to Congress action (or inaction) by adopting the 2006 budget. I also copied the letter from the American Physical Society that gave the link to write to various US congress representatives to highlight the harm it would do to science, and physics in particular, if this is adopted till the end of the current fiscal year.

This is now a positive development on this matter. It appears that the US Congress is ready to pass a resolution adopting the 2007 budget for science funding. This means that many of the alloted money for the DOE and NSF could be restored.

House Joint Resolution 20, which will be taken up tomorrow by the full House, gives NSF a $334 million increase in its $4.3 billion research account, the full 7.7% boost requested under ACI. DOE's $3.6 billion Office of Science would increase by only $200 million rather than the $505 million requested. But the legislation wipes out some $130 million in congressional earmarks in 2006 and gives office head Raymond Orbach the right to add that amount to DOE research programs. Likewise, NIST research would grow by $60 million (the administration requested a $104 million jump) because the legislation frees up $137 million in earmarks.

However, pay attention also to this part of the report:

Last month, the new Democratic majority in Congress said it planned to extend that rule for the remaining 8 months of FY2007, with minimal adjustments to deal with pressing problems caused by a year-long budget freeze.

That's when the scientific community went to work. Professional and academic organizations joined other science advocates in pushing for research spending to be considered a national priority. They urged legislators to support a 2007 budget proposal by President George W. Bush, called the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) (ScienceNOW, 26 September 2006:), that called for a nearly $1 billion increase in the research budgets at NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and NIST in 2007 as part of a 10-year doubling, and to find additional money for NIH, which was scheduled for a 1% reduction.

So, if you had participated in this, and had written to your representatives, I would like to sent my sincere thanks! While we are not out of the woods yet (and I'll wait till this is signed by the president to start celebrating), it does mean that many of the programs and projects that were slated either to be cut, suspended, or even totally eliminated, might survive after all. Science in the US would have had a huge hole to dig itself out of if this didn't change.

So again, thank you, people. Way to go!


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Einstein Museum Set to Open in Switzerland

A permanent exhibit on Albert Einstein is set to open in Bern, Switzerland. This is where Einstein had his miraculous year in 1905 while working in Bern at the Swiss Patent office.

Y'know, we have Hall of Fame all over the place. We have Tennis Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, etc... etc. Maybe, just maybe, it might be good to have Physics Hall of Fame! It's about time we honor physicists who have made significant impact in the history of human civilization. Of course, where would one build such a thing? How about in Sweden, home of the Nobel Prizes? Or maybe at the Cavendish Lab in England? What about at the venerable Bell Labs where practically most of our modern electronics came from? I dunno, and maybe, it isn't going to be such a major attraction to the general public ("Kids, where do you want to go for your vacation?" "Dad, let's go to the Physics Hall of Fame!"). Still, I think with the right attraction built into the facility (a superfast rollercoaster called the SUPERCURRENT that floats via magnetic levitation - see, I have this all planned!), we can use it to highlight why physics played a major role in shaping the world we have now.

Now... what do we do about a mascot?


Want A Job At The US Patent Office?

The US Patent Office is seeking new recruits. They are desperately short of employees especially with the increase in patent filing. They also need good candidates after the debacle a few years ago of patent officers actively involved in the "free energy" embarassement.

Besides, you will be following in Einstein's footsteps, sort of.



Monday, January 29, 2007

Forum on Physics and Society

The January issue of the Forum on Physics and Society newsletter is now online. This is an exceptionally informative issue, especially the articles written by 3 different current and former Presidential Science Advisers, including the embattled current Adviser, John Marburger.

Don't miss it.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Gyroball in Baseball?

I don't know why this is stirring up such a fuss, but it does. It appears that there are claims being made that the Japanese Boston Red Sox baseball pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka can throw what is known as the "gyroball". Instead of a baseball with a horizontal spin, causing it to sink faster or float longer, the gyroball has a vertical spin (what most people think a gyroscope should be like). A ball having that kind of a spin moving through air will curve either to the left or to the right, depending on the direction of the spin.

The physics here isn't the big deal, or surprise. What people are doubtful is whether the human arm, in the conventional mechanics of throwing a baseball pitch, can impart that kind of a spin. I wouldn't know since I don't play baseball. I suppose if one can change the throwing mechanics, such a ball might be possible. After all, I've seen tennis player from a far wide position on the court hitting a ball around the net post to curl the ball back into the court. One really does not need a pure vertical spin to do this, just a component of it.


UK to Screen Foreign Students in Nuclear Physics and Biochemistry

The United Kingdom may force graduate students in nuclear physics and biochemistry to undergo background security checks amid fears that these students might use their knowledge to make weapons. This is in line with what the US is already doing in visa applications for students in certain "sensitive" subject area.

Wait till these people realize that people working in accelerator physics, studying waveguides in physics/electrical engineering, even nanotechnology, etc... etc. can also make "weapons". Oy vey...


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Anthony Leggett to Join the Faculty of University of Waterloo

There seems to be a trend in the migration towards Canada of top physicists. It has been announced that Nobel Laureate Anthony Leggett will be Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Waterloo. He follows the footsteps of another Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, who earlier bolted Colorado University for University of British Columbia. However, unlike Wieman, Leggett still retains his position at the University of Illinois. It appears that he's having a joint appointment with Waterloo, spending 2 months a year there.

Hey, I guess if you're a Nobel Laureate, you can probably write your own ticket. Still, it certainly appears that universities in Canada are in a very aggressive period of recruiting well-known physicists for their institutions.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Single-Electron Tunneling Refrigerator

This has always been something that fascinates me, and I suppose, until now, there hasn't been anything that would allow this to be of practical use.

This report presents the latest advancement in tunneling refrigerator, which might actually be practical for cooling large particles. I like how they use the coulomb blockade junction to ensure that the electrons tunnel through one at a time, and so the "hottest" electrons would have the highest probability to tunnel first.

Another cool report [pun intended]!


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Harbury Brown-Twiss on Bosons and Fermions

The bunching and antibunching effects due to bosons and fermions, respectively, have been observed in the same Harbury Brown-Twiss apparatus for the first time. This was done using ultra-cold helium gasses, He4 (bosons) and He3 (fermions). This is the clearest comparision of quantum correlation between these two types of "particles".


UK Universities Unite for Joint Graduate Program

To bolster the quality of their graduate program, 3 UK universities are joining together to form a joint graduate physics school. In light of the decline in physics enrollment, resulting in the recent closure of the Reading University physics department, Birmingham, Nottingham and Warwick universities have combined their forces (no pun intended) to form a program which they hope will attract top-notch students from across the world.

It appears that this is becoming a trend in the UK, in light of a similar but larger aliance already formed in Scotland. It is commendable that they are at least trying to do something to tackled this problem.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Students Dressed Up As Icons

Students at a middle school dressed up as famous figures that have made an impact. As expected, someone dressed up at Einstein. But what caught my attention was this description:

There weren't any awards for best costume, but Craig Dudd's version of Albert Einstein was hard to miss. Craig, 14, spray-painted his hair white, sported a white mustache and borrowed a white laboratory coat from a local orthodontist.

There are, of course, 2 things wrong with this:

1. Einstein was not an experimentalist, and there's hardly any chance of him ever having any need to wear a lab coat;

2. Most physicists do not wear a lab coat, even experimentalists. I don't even have one, and I know for a fact that in all my years working as an experimentalist, I have never see a physicist wearing one.

I think kids like these do not have access or interactions with scientists, and physicists in particular. So of course, the popular misconception on what a scientist should look like based on what they've read, or seen in the popular media would be the one they have. I suppose in the scheme of things, this is the least problematic of all the misconceptions students have about science and scientists. Still, I wonder if this is a symptom of the distance between "fiction" and "reality" that the students have about science.


Irrational Fears of Radiation

A while back, I wrote an essay about the need of scientists to be "Shallow, Perky, and Superficial", in dealing with non-scientists about science issues. This is because, in my experience, the public is not impressed, and usually cannot digest or comprehend, straight, boring facts. Often, bells and whistles, and how one delivers the messages are more important than the validity of the message itself.

Today comes another piece of news about a very common scenario - the irrational fears of radiation. We have seen this happened many times, starting back in the 70's the the Three Mile Island incident that since then has crippled the advancement in the use of nuclear power in the US. It is also the source of the shut down of a very productive research reactor, the High Flux Beam Reactor, at Brookhaven. In the latest incident, a retired health physicist tries to set things straight about the amount of radiation that is expected from a proposed detonation of a chemical explosive at the Nevada Test Site called "Divine Strake". There are several important points being made in that article with regards to comparing the level of radiation that people get in everyday activities. People do not realize this, yet, they fear something when a number is given to them. Why? Because they do not have any reference point on what that value means. If you tell them you're getting 1 mrem, it means nothing to them. However, if you tell them that, in a year, the average background radiation that one would expect to get is 360 mrem, then that number now can be put in perspective.

This is something every scientist should understand when communicating with the general public. It is not sufficient to simply lay out the facts. Telling the public that they will be getting so-and-so amount of radiation is not enough, because the public has no way to digest that number and to put it in context with other amounts that they are getting. Whenever something like this is report, one must include other typical numbers so that the public has a reference point to compare to.

During the last Argonne Open House this past Oct, 2006, we had a large cloud chamber as a demonstration item. People who took a look at it were impressed, but many weren't sure what they were. We had a poster next to the chamber explaining them what they're seeing, i.e. in identifying the different type of tracks they see with the possible particles. Many were surprised when they read that these are "radiation" particles (alpha, beta, and muons), and asked where they're coming from. Many thought that the lab grounds were radioactive! When they were told that these really are background radiation that they would find even in their own home, many were shocked! They looked at the large number of tracks in the cloud chamber and suddenly realized that all of these particles are bombarding them right that very second! All I could say to them during this time was "This is the environment that we have evolved in!"

Of course, that statement in itself could open up another can of worms, but I think everyone who got to see the cloud chamber got the point.


IU Physics Majors Increases by 30%

It was reported earlier that the number of US high school students enrolled in physics reached record level. As a result, there is a surge in the number of physics majors in colleges. Indiana University is the first to report a significant increase in the number of students majoring in physics.

They are also quite progressive in recognizing that many students may not want to continue in the traditional physics program by going on to getting a Ph.D. More and more schools are offering non-traditional paths for students to be more employable by the time they receive their undergraduate degree.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Man Traveling 69 MPH When He Hit Awning

OK, whatever happened, this is NOT a good way to illustrate the laws of physics under any circumstances. Whatever made them ask a physicist to calculate the speed that this guy had when he hit the awning is beyond me, considering that any high school physics student could have done that!

[ZapperZ slaps himself silly]


Monday, January 22, 2007

A Neutral, Molecular Synchrotron

Another cool invention. Physicists in Germany has managed for the first time to produce a neutral particle synchrotron[1]!

A synchrotron is usually a circular storage ring where charged particles, usually electrons, moves around in circles close to the speed of light. They are accelerated by a combination of electric (RF) fields and using magnetic fields to steer and focus. In this new invention, polar molecules such ammonia, have been accelerated in a rather small ring, 81 cm in circumference.

Again, a very interesting work that promises to open up a whole world of possibilities. The abstract for this work can be found here.


[1] C.E. Heiner, et al., Nature Physics Published online: 21 January 2007 | doi:10.1038/nphys513

Communications of Legitimate Physics Ideas - Pt. 2

Previously, I mentioned the most important means of communications of physics ideas - via publication in a peer-reviewed journal. In this posting, I will mention the other significant means of communications in physics, via presentations at various conferences, seminars, workshops, etc.

The reason why there are numerous conferences and workshops throughout the world within a year is because this is actually one of the most effective and quickest means to communicate. One can actually meet and hear the person who actually did the work. You can easily ask questions to a person, something that can't be done very well when reading a published paper. A talk or presentation also tends to be more elaborate, containing detail information that may not have been included in a paper. Not only that, due to the sometime lengthy process of publishing a paper, by the time a paper appears in print, it may already be old news. On the other hand, information gathered at a conference could be some data that was only obtained just the previous week. So one can get a good sense of the state of knowledge that everyone has, or is working on, at that instant. Relying simply on what is in publication could mean one is several months behind on what is important. This is especially true in fast-moving fields such as high-Tc superconductivity.

Personally, I find that it is vital that one attends such conferences in one's field regularly. Not only is it useful to hear various speakers present their work, but more often than not, some of the most important information is obtained in the hallways or over coffee during a conversation. The latest PRL publication that I had was an idea that was born during a coffee break conversation in between sessions at a workshop! One cannot overemphasize the importance of such face-to-face discussion. Physics is seldom done in isolation, since most of us are not Einstein or Planck.

While it isn't a formal part of the curriculum for most graduate students in physics, I know for a fact that attending and presenting one's work while still in a graduate program is a vital part of the training of becoming a physicist. One should not be satisfied that a doctorate degree in physics if one has not stood in front of experts in the field and present one's work. One's ability to communicate one's work effectively is almost as important as the knowledge itself.

There are several major conferences throughout the year. However, the largest yearly physics conference in the world is the APS March Meeting. This regularly attracts between 5000 to 7000 attendees. It is the largest because the division of Condensed Matter/Material science is one of the division that meets during this meeting. In fact, during the APS Centenial Celebration in 1999 at the Atlanta Convention Center, there was a record of 13,000 attendees, which was hailed as the largest ever gathering of scientists in the history of human civilization. The APS March Meeting is the conference that most graduate students, especially those in condensed matter/material science, cut their teeth and made their first ever presentation of their work in front of experts in their fields. Yours truly was one of those.

You may visit the APS webpage to learn more about this meeting, and all other conferences that they organize. There are also a lot of events that are also open to the general public. So if any of these meetings are in your city (they move around each year), it is a good idea to see if you can attend some of them.


Nobel Laureates Discuss Energy Use

This is a rather interesting event. Six of UC-Berkeley Nobel Laureates sat down and discuss the energy consumption and problem in the US. Even if this doesn't amount to anything, it is still fascinating to hear the opinions of people who are at the top of their field and, presumably, because of their stature, can influence the direction of research to some extent, at least at their institution.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Satellite Kill Creates Space Hazard

So, how does China's successful test of destroying one of its satellite could possibly be hazardous and could affect you? Read more about it here.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Duke University Returns Laser to Physicist Who Made It

This is a VERY strange story. A legal dispute occurred over the ownership of a research laser.

There are many thing unanswered from reading this story. Who paid for the laser in the first place? I can't believe this guy built it out of his own pocket while he was a graduate student. How did it go with him to Stanford? Who paid for it to be completed? This is not cheap! A university usually keep the facility especially if it also supported it via providing support for that faculty member. The fact that this thing was shipped from Stanford to Duke University has many issues unanswered.

A very unusual story indeed!


APS Sets New Membership Record

The American Physical Society (APS), which is the largest professional society for physicist, sets a new membership record this past Jan 8, 2007. It broke the 46,000 barrier, reaching a total of 46,293.

The increase is attributed to a significant increase in student membership.


Institute of Physics Announces Award Winners

The Institute of Physics has announced the list of winners for their prestigious awards.


Real Time Relativity

I only did a quick look at this, but it seems to be pretty cool. This paper presents a program that allows students in intro classes on Special Relativity to view a game-like simulation of relativistic principles and effects. It has, in the reference section, a url for someone to find the program and install it.

If you decide to check it out, let me know how well it goes and how useful it is in illustrating SR.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Quantum Biology

This is probably another sub-field in biophysics, but it is still good to hear that quantum mechanics is clearly present in areas that many people do not know of. Here's to more examples of the usefulness of physics beyond just what most people are aware of.


Imaging Charge Carrier Motion

This is so cool!

Using a combination of a scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and laser illumination, a group in Japan has managed to image the motion of charge carrier density across a pn semiconductor junction. They apply different biasses and you can literally see what you have so far seen only schematically in textbooks of the depletion layer and charge diffusion across this layer.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Einstein and His Tea Leaves

This came from the Jan 12th edition of Physics News Update (which, if you haven't subscribed to it already, you should smack yourself on your head). It appears that that Einstein fella also had his hand in something that could lead to new blood separation technique. This all came when Einstein explained the phenomenon of how tea leaves settle on the bottom of a cup. For heaven's sake!

This Einstein guy has his nose in almost everything. He's beginning to annoy me!



Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Photonic Schrodinger Cat Breaks Record

I've written earlier on the Schrodinger Cat-type experiment. Now comes another report on a 6-photon entanglement that produces 2 types of 6-photon state.


Argonne's Rube Goldberg Competition

If you are a high school student in the Chicago area, you might want to consider doing this if you are not aware of it already. The 12th annual Argonne National Laboratory Rube Goldberg competition is upon us once again. The deadline for submission of entries is this coming Jan. 29th, so you don't that much time left.

The winners, besides going on to the regional and national competition, also gets to come and visit Argonne and show their working machine in Argonne Cafeteria for all the scientists, engineers, and Argonne employees to see.


The Problem in High School Mathematics

Since I do not have any children, I obviously do not encounter such issues normally. However, after reading David Klein's (Dept. of Physics, Cal State University, Norridge) editorial in Am. J. Phys.[1] on the state of mathematics education funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Dept. of Education, I am completely aghast that something like this would not only have been funded, but actually get passed to be taught to our children. NO WONDER we're getting kids out of high school who are stuck in physics - their mathematics background is faulty!

What is scary is what Klein wrote here:

During the previous decade, the goal for students to achieve fluency in algebra and arithmetic was often derided by educators as “mindless symbol manipulation” or “drill and kill.” This point of view guided the creation of math textbooks. The resulting radical deemphasis of algebra and arithmetic—the prerequisite to algebra—in NSF-funded and NSF-distributed math programs has stark consequences for science education, especially physics. When the isolation of a variable in a simple equation is laborious for students rather than automatic, the depth of instruction in high school physics courses is severely limited. At the university level, students struggling with elementary algebra find themselves adrift in their calculus classes, and success thereafter in physics courses is elusive.

Many students have the perception that physics is "difficult", especially at the freshman intro level. What I find more often than not is that when they get stuck, they got stuck with the mathematics, not the physics. Yet, they don't realize that and since it was a physics problem and a physics class, it was physics that was difficult.

Why the NSF and the Dept. of Education do not look closely at how mathematics is being taught in the Europe and especially the Far East, I have no clue. It is undisputed that students in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and even China, have some of the highest mathematical knowledge and ability of any students at the same level. So what did they do? They went and reinvent the wheel!


[1] D. Klein, Am. J. Phys. v.75, p. 101 (2007)

Competition Brewing Underground

A few sites are in competition to win the NSF's Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.

I'm surprised this is still moving along considering the budget hole that the NSF is having due to the continuing resolution.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Negative Index of Refraction

A discussion elsewhere made me realize that, even though this area is taking off like mad and it has been known for quite a while, a number of people are still unfamiliar with it, especially the concept. So I thought I'd give what I think is the best "tutorial" on this area. It is a Physics Today article co-written by John Pendry, so I believe is one of the discoverer/inventor of the metamaterial that exhibit such property.

I'm a bit familiar with this area because one of our graduate student is working in it. He's trying to build a set of these metamaterial into a waveguide structure. We're hoping to have electron beam bunches going through these material and maybe generate a reverse Cerenkov radiation. If we can do that, it will be a major accomplishment, not just in terms of the physics, but also for electron beam diagnostic. This is because the Cerenkov radiation will not be in the forward direction as in ordinary medium, along with other forms of radiation that can add to the noise of the detected signal, but rather in the backward direction, which is less noisy.

However, the task in doing this is formidable. The structures on printed circuit boards, and have to be alligned very carefully. We also don't know how well it will do when it encounters our electron beam. Previous results have also shown that the beam will excite several different modes that might drown out what we want.

Oh well. We shall see....


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Egg Drop Project

We often get questions regarding the egg-drop project or competition. This is where you have to find a way to drop and egg from a height without breaking it (of course). Some time, like in this competition, the student is constrained to what he/she can use.

I can see how this would engage the student into being creative and to make him/her consider various laws of physics. But does it really? Creative? Sure. But how much physics consideration and calculations were part of the student's conscious effort? I'd love to hear from students who have done such a thing to know if they had a better understanding of physics, and from teachers who have either organized or helped with such projects. Was there something really tangible that was accomplished as far as physics is concerned?


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Roger Penrose To Discuss His Book

Hey, if you're anywhere near Minneapolis, MN, you might be interested in this. Roger Penrose will be discussing his latest book, "The Road to Reality" at the U. of Minnesota Bookstore on Feb. 2nd. He will also sign his book afterwards.


What is Energy?

We get this question A LOT on various public forums. People seem to want to know what it is, as if it is a "quantity" that should have just one basic and complete definition. It is one of those words in which we use very often and assume that we and everyone else know the meaning of.

However, what is used in the ordinary language is not necessarily the same thing as that used in physics. This is especially true when one considers that fact that everything in physics must have an underlying mathematical description. Add to that the complication that many things in physics get more complicated and more complex as one tries to define something in the most general form that covers ALL areas of physics from classical mechanics to elementary particles.

This article, written by a retired physics professor, tries valiantly to define what energy is to the public as used in physics. I'm impressed that a local newspaper would carry such a thing. It is a useful starting point for a lot of people to differentiate between how that word is used in ordinary pedestrian language versus how it is used in physics. Now I know I'm being a bit nitpicky here, but the article became a bit confusing, and incomplete, towards the end.

I like how he clearly indicates right away that there are 3 different forms of energy. The first being the energy of motion (kinetic), the second being energy a particle has in a field (which is just potential energy). However, I'm confused to what the 3rd form of energy is since, unless I missed it, he didn't state it explicitly. The way it went, I'm guessing he is saying that it is thermal energy. However, if this is true, then it isn't really a different form of energy because in the article itself, he stated that heat is nothing more than kinetic energy. This, as we all know, is correct from classical thermodynamics.

So based on this article, there should only be two forms of energy. This is quite accurate, especially when we only consider classical mechanics. In solving the dynamics of a classical system, when we write the Hamiltonian or Lagrangian, we consider the T and V of the system, which are the kinetic energy and the potential energy respectively, in terms of generalized coordinates and generalized momentum. That is all that we need. This shows that those are the only two forms of energy that is the "source" of other energies, and the only forms of energy necessary to completely describe the system.

We similarly have the same thing in quantum mechanics where the two terms the Schrodinger equation are the kinetic energy and potential energy.

However, we can also argue that there IS a 3rd form of energy, that is being the conversion between mass and energy via the infamous Einstein equation. Because of the conversion between mass and energy, the more general relevant conservation law would have to include the sum of both mass and energy when there is a conversion from one to the other. So in this article, the 3rd form of energy should be the energy equivalent represented by a mass. Notice that I hesitate to say that mass and energy are "the same thing". The connection isn't that easy and we are still studying such a thing, especially in the origin of "mass".

One could also argue that photons are another form of energy. However, if one does not want to be to picky, one can easily argue that photons have "kinetic energy" via their momentum, so one doesn't have to make a new category for them.

As I've said earlier, as one tries to cover all the bases and try to be as general and complete as possible, it get more complex and things aren't as easy as they seem. However, I do think that this should cover what most of the general public would need to know on what "energy" is. If they want more, they'll just have to study physics! :)


Sound Travels Faster Than Light?

I some time wish the media would be a bit more careful when reporting things like this.

A new paper in Applied Physics Letters has demonstrated a case where the group velocity of sound appears to travel faster than the phase velocity, using a rather clever and simple device. They split the sound in a pipe into two, and recombining them after each one has traveled though a different length. The final effect of the interference produces an anomalous dispersion, creating the appearance that the group velocity went faster than expected. However, if one reads the paper carefully, one would notice that no part of the wave actually traveled faster than c.

Similar effects have been seen for light in an anomalous medium (the NEC experiment from several years ago). Unfortunately, whenever we get headlines such as this, most people simply glanced over, or even ignored, the details of the experiment and the physics, and immediately declare that something can travel faster than light. We had to deal with such claims last time with light right after similar publicity of that NEC paper. I don't doubt it one bit that we'll get similar reaction from this.

Unfortunately, unless paper authors and media editors become more careful in choosing their words, the rest of us who have to deal with constant questions from non-physicists (and especially crackpots), will continue to have to correct many misconception due to such headlines.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Two Weeks into 2007

This is the end of the second week back at work after the holiday season, and already it has felt like it has been a long year.

By the end of last week, the first week back at work, I had 2 research proposals to review, and one manuscript for PRL to referee. I've yet to sit down and read through any of them. Of course, there are my work project that needed to be restarted, all made extra difficult because we just can't spend any money due to the budget contraints. While I used to be able to buy stuff that I need, now not only do I have to think twice, three, maybe even four times if I really need it now rather than later, but I also have to pass it through a few people who will have to approve of such a purchase. At this stage, people are actually getting quite serious into the idea that we really have almost no ability to do the work we were hired to do since there's just no money to do them!

.. and so it goes.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nuclear Wastes Container Gets Cooked?

OK, this isn't a very comforting news. It seems that one of the material used to store nuclear wastes generated from nuclear plants deteoriates even faster than first thought.

It is no question that storing these material for that long is a daunting task. This is not a permanent solution, and it shouldn't be. If we are to continue using the same technology to generate power from nuclear plants, then without reprocessing, or even the use of breeder reactors, then we will continue to face this problem.

Unfortunately, with the current climate on scientific funding, how much money do you think will go into studying this?


Plumber Stole 20 kg of Bronze

A plumber in Russia stole 20 kg of bronze from the Nuclear Physics Institute. People are wondering that if something that big and heavy could have slipped out, what ELSE could have been stolen, especially "nuclear substance".

If this had happened at a US Nat'l Lab, all hell would have broken loose, and those who within the DOE Nat'l Lab system, even if it didn't occur here, would feel the consequence of such an incident. We already have enough to "thank" Los Alamos for from these last few years.


High School Physics Enrollment Hits Record High

At least this is one good news of the year so far. Enrollment in high school physics in the US hits record high. This is also reported by the AIP. The trend is also predicted to continue.

Now we can consider the quality of physics education that they are getting. We should not be satisfied with just the qantity alone. Bad physics education at the high school level will have the reverse effect of turning student OFF of physics. So this good news should be the impetus to further improve the quality of physics education.

Still, this is good news all around, considering that Europe, and especially the UK, are having some trouble in getting students interested in pursuing studies in physics.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Tevatron's Frantic Search for the Higgs

It appears that new measurements and calculations that pin down the W mass even more has lowered the upper limit for the Higgs boson. This has increased the chances for the Tevatron at Fermilab to be the first to detect the Higgs in what could possibly the last big hurrah for the lab before its scheduled shut down by the end of 2009. With the looming operation of the LHC at CERN, the next couple of years will be the Tevatron's last grasp for glory it it's long and illustrious history.

Just think. For the first time in the history of the high energy physics field, by the end of 2009, there will be ZERO major high energy physics experiment on US soil. The nation that gave birth to high energy physics experiment will soon have none. If that doesn't tell you something, nothing will.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Science Labs: Beyond Isolationism

Here's a report on an effort to make schools science labs more relevant to the kids' education.

They could easily do this at the undergraduate level also, especially in intro classes. Most science labs do not make a clear emphasis that the skills that a student acquire in such labs can be equally important later on as the lessons being taught.


Fiscal Year 2007 Funding

This is the letter to APS members urging them to write to their representatives regarding the House's decision for continuing resolution to the FY 2007 budget. If you are in the US, and especially if you are a US citizen and a registered voter, PLEASE consider seriously writing a letter to your representative and your senator regarding this. I cannot over-emphasize the need for your action, because major important facilities are being considered to be shut down and laying off their employees due to this.

Funding for physics science have suffered for at least the past 6 years. Just when we think we might see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are let down again. There is only so much we can take for being battered like this for so long. Please help us in making those in power realize the harm, both short term and long term, of their inaction to pass a reasonable budget for the sciences for this fiscal year.

Thank you!



From: Judy Franz, Executive Officer of APS

To: APS members

Re: Member Alert:

I'm writing to ask your help in urging Congress to enact increases for the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) STRS account in the upcoming Continuing Resolution for FY07. These increases are critical for preserving the health of science and education programming at these three agencies.

Please go to this URL to quickly and easily send an email to your Member of Congress: (See Pointers below.)

Background: Congress did not pass the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 budget before the start of the fiscal year on October 1. Consequently, the NSF, the DOE Office of Science and NIST are currently operating at the FY06 levels, despite strong bipartisan support for significant increases that had been proposed in the FY07 budget. Before adjourning in December, the 109th Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the federal government at FY06 levels through Feb 17th. The leadership of both the House and the Senate has already announced their plan to pass a yearlong spending resolution in lieu of the outstanding appropriations bills when the 110th Congress convenes. The spending resolution, if left unchanged, will extend FY06 funding levels for the entirety of FY07.

The year-long extension of the FY06 funding levels could have severe effects on the science and education programs in the US:

* There will be a significant reduction in operations or a complete shutdown at some key national user facilities that academic and industrial researchers from around the country rely on. (See for a more detailed discussion of the DOE situation.)

* Scientific and technical staffing at the national laboratories may suffer reductions in force, since the FY06 funding levels do not account for salary-adjusted inflation.
* University grants will be notably reduced
o At NSF, there will be a 10% reduction in the number of new research grants, a loss of 40 planned Graduate Fellowships and $439 million in missed opportunities for scientific discoveries. (See for a more detailed list of the effects that will be felt by NSF)
o At DOE, university grants could be cut by 10% or more. Due to the significant cut in funding of the Office of Science in FY06, DOE has been operating below FY05 levels. The proposed Continuing Resolution would extend these difficult levels through October 2007.

It is possible that Congress will make some adjustments for select agencies when they pass the yearlong resolution. It is conceivable that funds will be added to the NSF budget. Congress is more likely to allow DOE and the Department of Commerce to reprogram their allocations to fund the DOE Office of Science and NIST at the proposed FY07 levels, since the overall increases in the proposed FY07 budgets over FY06 for those two agencies is very small and it is the reallocation within the agency that is critical for science. If either or both of these actions are to be taken, however, , it is vital that scientist constituents urge their Members of Congress to do so. Communications from constituents are a very effective tool in influencing Members of Congress and are an important source of leverage for the APS Washington Office.

Please take a moment to write your Member of Congress and strongly urge them to include the FY07 funding levels for these three agencies in the yearlong Continuing Resolution, by simply clicking this link:


(1) Individualizing your letter is not essential. (2) If you are a government employee, please do not use government resources to send a communication. (3) Using the above link to send your messages is straightforward and fast; the system can be used with most web browsers, but works best with Windows and a recent version of Internet Explorer or Netscape. (4) Your browser will take you to a page where you will enter your name and address. (5) After entering your address, click the “Edit/Send Email button.” A window with an individual email message to the five offices will appear. Click “Send Emails” to transmit the communication. (6) Electronic submission is preferred. (7) For technical help, write to

Monday, January 08, 2007

Dark Matter Mapped

If you can map the cosmic microwave background (CMB), why can't you map the location of dark matter? This is exactly what has been done, and it is a doozy.

Certainly, this needs refining and re-testing. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it would be a first step in characterizing dark matter as we know it now.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Comedy Meets Physics

This is a (loose) review of Adam Felber's book Schrodinger's Ball. It is supposed to be comedic, unlike pop-science books.

I haven't read it. Has anyone?


"Floristry" as Good as Mathematics?

The UK school system is already suffering from problems with attracting students into science, especially physics. Now this. It appears that if you get a diploma in hairdressing, that's equivalent to a C in physics at the A-Level. REALLY!

At some point, there are things that should never be made to be compared to. They each have their own worth and their own merit. This is one such case.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Those Who Fail Science Are Doomed

This is just plain hilarious to read, so you should. Besides, it makes for a great reading on weekends when you don't want to overtax your grey matter.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Particle Astrophysics

Hey, if you have access to the journal Science, or if your school has site-wide accces to it, don't miss the special coverage on particle astrophysics in Jan 5, 2007 issue. This is a very good and comprehensive coverage of the state of art of this field, especially on the wide-ranging experimental efforts ranging from the detecting neutrinos passing through the Antartica ice to the array of detectors in the pampas of Argentina.

I am involved in this in an indirect way via the AirFly project that I've described earlier. This is part of the huge Auger Observatory effort that is also described in the Science journal coverage. So I have a bit of a keen interest in it, even though technically, it isn't my field of study.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Communicaton of Legitimate Physics Ideas - Pt. 1

In physics, there are principly two means of communicating one's ideas to others in the field. The first and most common means is via publishing one's work in a peer-reviewed journal. The other is via a presentation at one of the many conferences/workshops held throughout the world. I will discuss the former.

For a physicist, there are three most prestigous journals for one's work to be published: Nature, Science, and Physical Review Letters. These journals not only require that the work submitted to be of significant importance and quality, but also have wide-ranging impact beyond just a small, specialized area. This is especially true for Nature and Science where both journals tend to only publish papers that will have a high impact value.

It means that getting one's work to be published in one of these three journals is not that easy. Nature and Science have editors that are actively involved in weeding out all the submitted papers. My guess is that between 50% to 60% of all papers submitted to these two journals never made it past the editors. These editors sometime consult ranking physicists in the appropriate fields to see if a submitted paper has enough of an impact for it to continue to the next stage. Of the remaining papers that did get through and went on to be reviewed by selected referees (typically 2 or 3 referees for each paper), only about less than half that actually got approved for publication. This process is similar for Physical Review Letters, except the editors tend to be more liberal in letting the papers go to the refereeing stage (they still weed out the obvious quackeries, which from what I gather, they receive almost everyday). However, the referees are as strict and demanding as those for Nature and Science.

Why are these three journals that prestigous? First of all, because everyone in the field knows how difficult it is to have a paper published in those journals, it means that having one is a sign of accomplishments. Many funding agencies look favorably if someone has work appearing in these high-impact journals. Secondly, these journals have their own public relations people that advertize and produce press releases of select papers in their journals. This makes some work widely known and cited both within the field and in the public media. Having one's work published in one of these journals is a sign of very high achievement.

If those three are what I consider to be the top tier journals, the next in line would be the Physical Review series of journals (i.e. Physical Review A,B,C,D, and E), the Journal of Applied Physics series and Applied Physics Letters. It needs to be emphasized here that just because these journals are of a lower tier than the first three, it doesn't mean they are of any less importance or less impact. Often, the Physical Review journals serve to expand the work published in the Physical Review Letters (PRL), since PRL has a limit of 4 typeset pages for each paper. Other than certain specialized sections, the Physical Review journals have no length limitations. The papers published here also tend to be more specialized for people working in a particular field, i.e. it doesn't have that "wide-ranging" impact that Nature, Science, and PRL require.

The next tier of journals would include European Physical Review, Journal of Physics series, Europhysics Letters, and Physica journal series. Again, there have been very important papers being published in these journals, even though in terms of prestige, they are not typically considered as high-impact journals.

The level of refereeing also tends to be commensurate with the prestige of the journals. One tends to see a more liberal refereeing for a lower tier journal, and maybe each submitted paper might have only one referee, as opposed to 2,3, and up to 5 referees for papers submitted to Science, Nature, or PRL.

To end this, here's a very sobering fact. Since the establishement and popular practice of peer-reviewed journals in the scientific field (let's say since early 20th century), there have been NO instances of any work or ideas making a significant contribution fo the body of knowledge in physics that have not appeared in a peer-reviewed publication. Now think about this for a second. If you have a discovery, theory, ideas, etc., and you have not or unable to have it accepted and published in a peer-reviewed journal, you have an ABSOLUTE ZERO chance of having any impact or contributing to the body of knowledge in physics. PERIOD! This is what the history of science has shown. It means that if one only has one's theory appearing on some website and/or discussion areas, and these are the ONLY avenue for such an idea to see the light of day, there is a 100% chance that such an idea will go nowhere, do nothing, and will disappear into obscure-land. Having one's work appearing in a peer-reviewed journal is a NECESSARY criteria, although not a necessary AND sufficient criteria, for having any impact and making a contribution to physics.


Men Only?

This is a rather astounding statistics published on The Guardian:

There is a grand total of 515 physics professors in the UK, and a mere 25 of them are women.

Wow! And I thought the situation here in the US is bad.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Blogging For Physics

While I decided only recently to get into blogging on physics news and issues, many of you should have heard about Sean Carroll and his blogging history. He and his blogging collaborators have produced what is probably the most popular physics blog, which I enjoy reading thoroughly.

This is rather fun and amusing interview with Carroll regarding his "fame" as a blogger.


Belief and Knowledge—A Plea About Language

I will only have one thing to say: READ THIS ESSAY!

It is by Helen Quinn, and the essay is published in Physics Today.

Edit: the link no longer works. Here's another link.


The Physics of Climate Modeling

A very good article in this month's Physics Today. It describes the physics of climate modeling, a very complex system that certainly requires a lot of computational power.

One aspect of this article is the highlight on what is know as the "emergent" phenomenon. I have mentioned this earlier in regards to debunking the myth of the "Theory of Everything", especially with regards to condensed matter systems. So this article is another example of such emergent behavior that detailed understanding at the microscopic scale is hopeless in describing such large-scale effects.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Thread-Bare Theories

IEEE Spectrum has an interview with Smolin with regards to his deliciously controversial book "The Trouble With Physics, which is a stinging criticism of String Theory.

With both his and Woit's book getting huge publicity and the public's attention, there's some hope that those who might be seduced into this field of study due to Brian Greene's book and TV documentary might think twice. I'm not expecting that String Theory will die off. However, it is about time someone throw a lot of cold water to many people, especially young theorists, to wake them up and look carefully at what is going on.


Monday, January 01, 2007

A Designer Universe?

What better way to kick in the new year than to dive into one of the most divisive and controversial subject - Science and Religion!

It seems that lately, there has been an assault on science by religious fundamentalism, especially with regards to the teaching of evolution. And even when we have entered into the 21st century, there is still a considerable percentage of the population that still believe in supernatural phenomena and paranormal events that have, at best, only anecdotal evidence.

This is an old essay by Steven Weinberg, from a speech he gave in 1999 on the topic of the possibility of our universe made by a "Designer". This essay has a lot of powerful points that cannot be pushed aside easily, and someone with Weinberg's stature certainly cannot be marginalized. While religious zealots tend to not stake the high grounds in terms of the physical world (maybe they learned their lessons from the Galileo affair), they do continue to assert their "moral" high grounds. This is where Weinberg also confronts them head on, that if we look at it carefully enough, this moral high ground actually has nothing to do with their religious beliefs. In fact, he claims that:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

If this essay doesn't wake you up, nothing will. So what a way to start the new year, eh?