Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Einstein's Wife - The Response

I posted earlier the issue surrounding the PBS's documentary on the controversy surrounding Einstein's wife Mileva Maric and her role in Einstein's work, especially during his miraculous year. I'm very happy to hear a response from Allen Esterson, who is the central player in trying to debunk the points made in that documentary. Please read the comment that he has written in the blog entry that I linked above.


Making the Young Find a Life of Physics Fun

This is another account of someone making a difference in getting students interested in physics. This time, it comes from Wales. Ray Davies (not the Nobel Laureate who passed away recently) is getting kids interested in physics and photonics/optics in particular.

“One girl came along for work experience on a Monday morning and said ‘I hate all science.’ So I asked her what she was interested in and she said she had always been interested in climbing.

“So we built a laser-activated, remote-controlled, mobile rescue stretcher. She’s now started a physics degree at university.

When you can actually do that, you HAVE made a significant impact.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

String Theory Explains RHIC Jet Suppression?

I decided to put a question mark at the end of the same title in the report published in the AIP's Physics News Update. After all the bashing that String Theory has gotten recently, it would only be fair when there is a glimmer of experimental observation that it might be able to explain. This is such a case about the recent observation of jet suppression at RHIC.

Still, as in any theoretical development (or even any new experimental observation), this will require a "gestation" period to let experts in the field fight it out. If this cannot be explained by other means, then Woit's Not Even Wrong may have to change!



Outlook for US DOE Budget for FY2008

Robin Staffin, who is the DOE Associate Director of Science for High Energy Physics, presented the outlook of funding for the High Energy Physics program in FY2008. The viewgraphs that were used for that presentation to the HEPAP committee can be found here.

It seems that the funding for HEP isn't spectacular. In fact, it sounds more like trying to just survive until some more definite decision on the ILC (International Linear Collider) is made.


Laws of Physics a Kid Can Understand

This is slight different. A series of physics projects and demonstrations is done to illustrate the laws of physics, but with a very sobering implications. Such demonstratons is tied to what would happen in a vehicle collisions, especially when the passengers do not wear seatbelts, and other "moving" activites.

Lessons include "Busting Brains," "Another Day in the Frontal Lobe" and "Stop in the Name of Friction." Students drop tofu and raw eggs -- representing the brain and the skull -- from desktops and ladders to learn about inertia, gravity and Newton's Third Law of Motion -- or specifically what happens when they fly off their skateboards, tumble down a hill on skis and flip off their bicycles without a helmet.

This is certainly where you can kill 2 birds with one stone. Let the kids see how physics applies and the serious implications when one isn't prepared for it.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Pentaquark or No Pentaquark?

If you have missed the sage of this "non-discovery", you might want to get up to speed here.

About a couple of years ago, I attended a seminar by Curtis Meyer of Carnegie-Mellon. He presented almost all of the experimental work done on the search, discovery, non-discovery of the pentaquark. I think this talk was the most extensive search of all the experimental evidence ever presented at one place that I have ever attended.

Just based on the experimental evidence alone, when they are put side by side, it is very difficult to be convinced that the pentaquark was actually discovered. Almost without fail, the experiments that did NOT observe the pentaquark have higher statistics, better resolutions, more model-independent analysis, and are able to detect known decay channels that were missing in many of the experiments that claim to detect the pentaquark.

Luckily, I found the the viewgraphs that were used in his talk yesterday. I think this is roughly what was used - I don't remember all of them, but I do remember the salient viewgraphs in this similar talk that probably was given at U. of Miami. Have a look at the collection of expt. data and see if you draw the same conclusion.

Still, it is interesting to note that there have been not a whole lot of new reports since then to support the existence of the pentaquark. So the previously-reported results are seriously in doubt right now.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

An Interview With Dean Kamen

This is a short interview with Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (that I had the pleasure to be on for more than 2 hours at Epcot last Sept) and the insulin pump. I like it where he stated the obvious that most quacks just do not get:

If we come up with a great idea but it violates the laws of physics, (it won’t work).

That's a rather good rule to live by.



Saturday, February 24, 2007

Study Physics to Become a ..... CEO?

OK, so this isn't really something that happens all the time. Still, along with being a politician, it is good to know that someone with a physics background can actually climb the corporate ladder and become the CEO of a major corporation. This is just exactly what Ralph Izzo has done by becoming chairman and chief executive officer of Public Service Enterprise Group.

See kids? Get your physics Ph.D, and throw in an MBA degree, and the sky is the limit!



Friday, February 23, 2007

Psychics 'Hired to Find Bin Laden'

Oy vey!

Thanks to Bob Park's What's New for pointing this out. It is reported in the Daily Mail that the British Ministry of Defense tried to hire psychics back in 2002 to find Osama Bin Laden. When the "established" psychics refused to participate (I wonder why...), they hired a bunch of "amateurs" instead!

I mean, you can't make up these things, folks! Just the thought that these people (and let's not forget that the US military has also funded many other dubious pseudosciences like this) have the responsibility to defend us and our well-being, doesn't that make you sleep peacefully at night?



The Nature of Time Symposium

Austin College, TX, is hosting a symposium on the nature of time. A list of speakers consisting of physicists and philosophers will be discussing about the nature of time, and if time is nothing more than an illusion or a human invention.

Maybe I'm just not smart enough, or I'm too simplistic in my view, or maybe I'm just a too-pragmatic experimentalist, but I really am puzzled with the constant issue on why time could be not real, or an "illusion". Whenever someone tells me this thing, my question back at him/her has always been "OK, show me how you could describe the complete dynamics of a system without using time". Of course, he/she can't, and it is impossible to do that with the physics that we have right now. So already, time is an essential ingredients in describing our world. Is this the property of something that isn't "real" or an "illusion"? Do you use an illusion as a NECESSARY INGREDIENT in describing ALL of the physical phenomena? I don't think so.

But here's another common argument being put forth : time is relative and isn't absolute, via Special Relativity. My response would be, so is LENGTH, which means that space (which is highly "attached" to time in Special Relativity) is also relative and can change. So how come no one is having a symposium to discuss that space is "not real" and is an "illusion"? Why pick on poor old time only? [pun indented.]

Of course, the experimentalist side of me would say that, unless they have something substantial that we can test, such an exercise is nothing more than (oh, you've gotta see this one coming from a mile away) a waste of time!



Physics Teacher Knows How to Get His Students' Attention

Here is another report of a physics teacher that is making a tremendous difference. Mr. Robert Miller teachers physics at the Ottawa's Mother Teresa High School.

Students say Mr. Miller deserves the award. “He has a unique way of teaching,” said David Bae, who didn’t like physics until he took a course with Mr. Miller. “I used to skip a lot, but in his class, I don’t.”

I would say that, even if it is only just ONE student, he has made a difference.

Here's to Mr. Miller!


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Science Fair Projects

I get very frequent questions on suggestions for science fair or physics projects, especially at the high school level. So I thought I should post a link in here of a place where a collection of science fair websites are posted. I'll also put this as one of the links for this blog.

Science Fair Projects


Science Careers In Search of Women

In about 2 weeks, Argonne will be hosting the Science Careers in Search of Women conference. This is the 20th anniversary of this project of introducing girls in high school to scientists and a career in science.

This will be my 4th year of involvement in this effort. I've always tried to volunteer for projects that try to introduce what we do to the general public (see the Argonne Open House report), but this one is rather special. While I'm not from the female gender, I can see how women may have a tougher time getting the encouragement to choose a science career. The previous times that I've been involved with this project have been a lot of fun. I get to host between 10 to 20 high schools students and show them our experimental facilities. Now I can honestly tell you that these girls mean business. They certainly did not take this as a "vacation" from school, because they came here will armed with very intelligent questions. I had so much fun the first time I did this that I volunteered to do this the following year.

It is too bad that we have no women working in our group, which would have been a more effective role model for them. Still, I try to do the best I can short of dressing up in drag.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Probably a Good Speech, but Unfortunately, Not-So-Good Reporting

Today is just not a very good day for journalism, or maybe I'm just ornery and picking on them. I earlier mentioned the very bad application of physics by a journalist in analyzing Barack Obama policatical campaign. This, I believe, is new report off a college newspaper from Oklahoma State University. This student report (I presume) is reporting on a speech given by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek.

I suppose it could be forgiven that this is nothing more than a college newspaper. Still, it reflects very badly that the person doing the reporting is not well-versed in basic, simple science. This would imply that this person also probably didn't quite get what Wilczek was also presenting.

An obvious error would be in this passage:

More than 20 years ago, scientists discovered molecules that changed how they understand the basic materials for life, a 2004 Nobel Laureate recipient said Tuesday.

Dr. Frank Wilczek said quarks and gluons, the molecules discovered, are smaller than electrons and protons.

I seriously doubt that Wilczek would call "quarks and gluons" as "molecules". The fact that this reporter doesn't know what a "molecule" is, is actually quite sad. It reminded me of the survey a while back of the basic science knowledge of the average American, and it was appalling. I'm sure many of them didn't know what a "molecule" was either.

Of course, the other hilarious statement from this report was:

Wilczek is trying to rearrange the formulas to find better ways of understanding physics, he said.

Really now! Is that how theorists come up with new ideas or try to explain existing phenomena? By rearranging formulas?

OK, OK.. I'll stop making fun of this person. Still, in the interest of quality and accuracy, they should have put someone who at least had a year of chemistry to report something like this. Or better yet, get one of the physics undergraduates to write thsi report. They have to eventually learn how to write properly anyway.


A Five Degree Difference in Expansion?

I wonder if these people ever consulted either a chemical enginner or a physicist before they file this lawsuit. It seems that a class action lawsuit has been filed against several Florida gas stations. It stems from the fact that when these gas station buys gas wholesale, they pay for it and the taxes when it is being sold at 60 degrees (Fahrenheit). But when the gas is sold to the customer, the fuel is kept at, get this, 65 freaking degrees!!

The suit against Murphy Oil USA, Marathon Oil, 7-Eleven and five other companies claims the defendants have ''exploited physics'' by paying fuel taxes on wholesale gasoline stored at the industry standard 60 degrees, then selling it to customers after it expands in underground tanks that typically generate temperatures of 65 degrees.

Someone call the President and complain!

Now, I'm no expert in the properties of ordinary gasoline. However, I simply cannot imagine that a temperature difference of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (which is considerably smaller than a change of 5 degree Celsius), would make THAT much of a difference in the gasoline's density. In fact, I would think that the inaccuracy of the pump kiosk itself has a bigger impact on the amount of gas you get rather than a mere change in the gas density by a puny 5 degrees.

I honestly am constantly amused at how some people arrive at the decisions that they make.


Obama Physics?

I cringe when I read a bastardization of physics like this. I think this news reporter is simply trying to be "cute" in applying a couple of laws of physics to the Barack Obama political campaign (this post will probably make sense only to those in the US, but the implication of it goes beyond the US border).

While I'm sure this is done tongue-in-cheek, in some academic circles, such a practice is done seriously. The Postmodernist movement has attempted to "incorporate" many aspect of physics into social, political, and other human activities and policies. The theory of relativity is a very common victim, followed by quantum mechanics. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have detailed several of these in their excellent book "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science".

I really don't quite understand why some people think that various principles of physics should be applicable to human behavior and policies. Maybe physicists should take this as a compliment because some social and political scientists seem to think that the laws of physics should be applicable in all aspect of our world, including human interactions. However, they are only understanding a very small and narrow aspect of how we do and understand physics, while ignoring others. They obviously do not know about the physics of phase transition, for example, whereby what we know in a particular phase cannot be simply extrapolated into the next phase. In first order phase transition, there is an abrupt change in a number of thermodynamic quantities that completely destroys one's ability to simply extrapolate one's knowledge in one phase into another.

Or what about emergent behavior where by the collective behavior of a system simply cannot be predicted even when one has the complete knowledge of all the interactions at the microscopic level? This throws into doubt about the existence of a "theory of everything", but more importantly, it is a clear signal that one simply cannot weely-neely apply principles known at one level to accurately describe properties at another level. It isn't that obvious, not that easy!

But of course, these postmodernists didn't realize that. All that they can do is extract some superficial aspect of physics and apply it to their hearts content without any evidence that what they are doing is valid. Very nice!


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Scientists Hit the Road to Make Physics Fun

More reports on various efforts to being fun physics to various students throughout the country. This traveling physics road show certainly has become physics "ambassadors".


'Key issues' articles in Reports on Progress in Physics

The journal Reports on Progress in Physics has announced the start of a series of shorter articles that will allow some of the leading figures in various fields of physics to make highly advanced and "speculative" insights into the particular area of their expertise. The following is the announcement from the journal's editorial board:

The Editorial Board of Reports on Progress in Physics has commissioned a series of short articles from world leaders on key physics issues in their field. These essays may raise the key issues, or ask open questions or may even suggest wild ideas. Basically, they give world leading physicists the opportunity to write what they think about the key issues in their field, free from the usual requirement to provide the fair and balanced presentations of the subject normally found in articles in Reports on Progress in Physics. We believe that the readers of the journal will be interested to learn about these exciting ideas.

Just as Hilbert's famous paper of 1900 set the agenda for the next century or more in mathematics, so we hope that this series of papers will define the key issues and open questions in physics for the 21st Century and that the articles will be widely cited and downloaded.

The first of these articles—'Insights from simulations of star formation' by Richard B Larson (Yale University, USA)—is published in the current issue. We trust that readers will find this article and its successors in the series to appear through 2007 and beyond entertaining and stimulating.

It used to be that journals published by the Institute of Physics (IoP) could be read for free during the first 30 days that it appears online. I do not know if this is still the case, but it is worth checking. Furthermore, other journals published by the IoP such as the New Journal of Physics are open access journals. They are always available for free.


Science Video Resources

Vega Science Trust, a nonprofit organization in the United Kingdom, has a collection of science videos that one can view right on the web (you may need a Real Player). The site contains more than 50 scientific presentations aimed mostly at college students or the general public. Visitors can also drop by a master class on states of matter or watch a documentary about a conference in which med students hobnob with Nobel laureates.

If you have viewed and "tested" any of the videos and find it useful/useless/etc., could you let me know? Thank you!


More on the Plasma Wakefield Accelerator

More follow-up on an earlier report on the latest advancement on the plasma wakefield accelerator. The main players in this work were interviewed in this Stanford news report.

While this is certainly encouraging and a significant advancement in advanced acceleration techniques, the media needs to be tempered in trying to oversell this technique for the sake of selling newspapers with sensational headlines. The use of such technology does NOT depends only on the availability of high gradients. For particle physics and FEL applications, the QUALITY of the particle beam is very stringent. I've mentioned earlier of two factors - energy spread and emittance - which could easily be the showstoppers for ANY acceleration mechanism.

We should not try to oversell any part of science. We have seen what has happened to String Theory, especially after Brian Greene's Elegant Universe TV series and the backlash against String Theory. Our communication to the public especially should not give false expectations, and certainly not with promises that we may never be able to fulfill.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Lunar Observatories On A Budget?

Putting observatories on the moon? Why didn't we think of this sooner? It sounds like something reasonable to do, it might be cheaper and more stable, and it has a lot of advantages from what has been described. Just think about it. It's cheap, and it can actually do a lot of science! Those are two factors that the International Space Station does not have!


More on US Research Funding

I wrote earlier on the landscape of the US research funding for FY2007 and the President's proposed FY2008. In the latter, there is a significant cutbacks for the National Institute of Health, and funding for biophysics/medicine in general (note that in total amount, the NIH budget still dwarfs over the physical science budget). I mentioned that I have mixed feelings about this, especially as someone who has seen how badly treated the physical sciences were while the NIH was rolling in the money.

The current Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger defended the President's trimming of the NIH budget for the upcoming year in an interview with Science (16 February 2007) this week. Essentially, he echoed what I had said earlier:

"I think the overall federal scientific enterprise is well-funded," Marburger says. "But there's been a ramp-up of expensive programs in some areas, while important programs in other areas are underfunded." He notes that the American Competitiveness Initiative, first proposed last year, attempts to correct that imbalance in the physical sciences by boosting the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, and the core labs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And he says that other agencies can thrive with their current budgets by setting priorities and sticking to them.

There is no way the federal government can ever satisfy the demands created by the doubling of the NIH budget [between 1998 and 2003]. It's led to what I call an unregulated research market, with booms and busts that are beyond the ability of the government to control.

[At the same time,] NIH funding got way out of step with funding for the physical sciences. Biomedical research is funded much closer to the level of its needs than are the physical sciences. And there are imbalances within the biomedical research enterprise in which it's not clear that the pattern of expenditures matches the importance of the research. A lot of its $28 billion budget is aimed at treatments and therapies for specific diseases rather than basic cell biology and molecular biology, which raises the question of whether we're spending enough on basic research.

I think many of us look at the military budget and simply DREAM about what we can do with just a small fraction of it, and we're talking about barely 1% to 2% here. The same can be said about the NIH budget. This, by no means, is not meant to diminish the importance of the work being done, especially when it is very transparent what the application is for. However, for too long of a time, basic physical research areas such as high energy physics and nuclear physics have been treated as the ugly stepchild that do not deserve even a decent level of funding. It boggles the mind that, in my lifetime, there's a very strong possibility that all high energy physics collider experiment in the US will be gone by the end of 2009! It is utter destruction of a field of study in the US. All the while, Europe, Japan, and especially China, are ramping up their activities in this field and anticipating some of the most exciting times in the history of this area.

I have said before that the effects of our neglect on basic science won't be felt right away. In fact, by the time we can see the symptoms of neglect, it might almost be too late, and it will take a lot of effort to dig ourselves back out. It would be sad to consider that we are now starting to see the beginning of those symptoms. One can only hope that we have diverted a major disaster with the recovery of the FY2007 budget within the continuing resolution. However, we are still not out of the woods yet, especially when there is still a battle brewing for the FY2008 budget.

Will people suddenly wake up and see what damage they have done to the physical sciences?


Sunday, February 18, 2007

42 GeV Energy Gain in Plasma Wakefield Accelerator

A new report last week improved the energy gain in electron plasma wakefield accelerator to 42 GeV. The work reported by the SLAC, UCLA, and USC group adds another advancement in the advanced accelerator technique. Previously, other groups have reported improvement in energy gain using laser plasma wakefield technique.

There are still major issues in being able to use such techniques in actual applications. The energy spread is still rather large, and the emittance is also not optimal for applications such as FEL and high energy physics collider, which require very low emittance. However, in making a compact accelerator for applications that do not require such strict parameters, these techniques are showing amazing advancement.


Clever Figures Can Mislead

A new book written by a physics professor exposes the misleading messages we are bombared with every day using figures and numbers. Joseph Ganem, an associate professor of physics at Loyola College in Maryland has written a book titled "The Two-Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy" which exposes how these numbers can be very deceptive.

This is where one can use such examples and tell kids why they need to learn mathematics. If there are any teachers that need some incentive to get the students to pay attention, this would be it. It will get ride of the myth that they will only use mathematics if they get jobs that make use of it. The examples given in this book shows that what we do everyday requires knowledge in elementary mathematics.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chef David Mullen Uses Physics to Add Flavors

I got excited when I read the title of this interview. Being a "foodie" and an amateur cook (read my post on how I learned how to bake bread because of physics), anything that mixes my profession with my hobby is always exciting. This is because I've always considered cooking as being chemistry.

However, when I read this interview, I see hardly any "physics" involved in here. The closest that David Mullen said that had anything to do remotely with physics was

I have been working with a technique called spherification. This is exciting because it allows me to change the physics of an ingredient. It doesn't change the flavor. The process just creates a light 'shell' about this tiny ball bursting with flavor and a liquid center. You can also change liquids to solids, in either case, it brings a new dimension to a dish.

Well, that wasn't a lot of "physics", was there? Minor application of phase transition, maybe.

I think those pastry competition where they had to construct outrageous chocolate and sugar pieces have more physics involved, or at least, structural engineering. :)


Friday, February 16, 2007

Photons Really Have No Premonition on How It Will Be Observed

The double slit experiment continues to be the subject of many of those who are trying to "understand" quantum mechanics. Philosophers especially seem bent on trying to make some sense out of it, and crackpots use it as "evidence" for this wild metaphysical mumbo jumbo.

Physicists, on the other hand, continue to test and study it one aspect at a time and systematically tries to find the answer to very definite questions. A case in point is this latest report. A very meticulous study on whether photons have an advance notice on how it is going to be measured seems to have ruled that out in a very clever way. Unless there are signals that are traveling faster than the speed of light, photons have no idea of the setup they will encounter and simply behave as they should when they it.


Lastest Update on FY2007 Funding

If you need to read up on the saga of the US Science funding for Fiscal Year 2007, read here.

We have just gotten the news that the bill that was passed by the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, has just been approved by the US Senate and signed by the President yesterday. This bill includes a $200 million increase for the US Dept. of Energy.

So this is a done deal. However, how much money that will trickle down to the needed research area, and how all this money will be allocated, is still not known.



Phillip Phillips has a very good review of the normal state of the cuprate superconductors. One may wonder on why we care about the normal state behavior when what we want is what is causing it to be superconducting. Well, as with the conventional superconductor, the normal state tends to give us a lot of clues on what exactly is going on as one approach the superconducting regime. By looking at various parameters in the normal states, we can see how they evolve and maybe give us hints on the cause of the onset of superconductivity in these materials.

One of the interesting aspect of the normal state is the resistivity behavior. The linear resistivity as a function of temperature is seen almost over the whole doping range. While such a thing is predicted within the phenomenological model of a Marginal Fermi Liquid, it actually provides a strong argument for quantum criticality in the phase diagram of this material. This is illustrated in Fig. 1 of the article.

However, I don't believe that there has been a clear evidence of, say a highly overdoped cuprate that goes from the superconducting state into a Fermi Liquid State, and then into a Strange Metal state as one raises its temperature. I think there have been a few evidence that there might be 2 different gap scales in the underdoped cuprates, so this certainly matches that part of the phase diagram. But the overdoped part isn't clear. In angle-resolved photoemission on the overdoped cuprates, the coherent peak, representing the presence of well-defined quasiparticle states, survives till very high temperatures (150K or so). I don't think there's any evidence yet that the peak disappears abruptly as it crosses from the Fermi Liquid regime into the Strange Metal regime. We expect this to occur because for optimally doped cuprates, its normal state is the Strange Metal. As soon as the material goes above Tc, the quasiparticle peak disappears promptly.

The mystery continues...


More Evidence of Martian Water?

It seems like more evidence are flowing in (pun intended) to indicate the presence of water on Mars, either presently or in the past. A report presented at this week's AAAS annual meeting in San Francisco is using high resolution pictures from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to support that view.

So then, where are the little green men?



Burton Richter To Speak On Future Of Particle Physics

Nobel Laureate Burton Richter will speak today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco on the future of particle physics. This is in light of the pending shutdown of the Tevatron at the end of 2009, the coming of the LHC at CERN, and the recently announced budget for the International Linear Collider (ILC).

There are certainly a lot of exciting activities and results to look forward to. It is just that all of the excitement will not be on US soil, especially if the ILC goes elsewhere.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Was It Really A Quantum Computer?

I reported earlier in the week about the brouhaha surrounding D-Wave System's impending announcement of a "quantum computer". As expected, it isn't a done deal, and many experts not only argue that it isn't really a quantum computer, but also that what was revealed is slower than conventional computers.

Why am I not surprised?


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A New Way To Learn Physics And Astronomy

The students at Ithaca College has a new way to learn physics. Rather than huge lecture halls, they seem to be making use a lot of "business" technology in a rather cooperative and interactive learning.

This is fine and dandy, but not many schools can afford such a thing, much less, have capable people to maintain it. The introduction of something that can't be implemented at many schools seems to rather ... er... I dunno, besides the point? Anyone can dump tons of money into something like this and claim to achieve outstanding results. What will that accomplish in trying to raise and standard of teaching of physics in general? One could have easily put ONE professor teaching ONE student and claim to have made a significant progress in the teaching of physics.

What we need is a realistic methodology/technology combination that can be implemented at most schools, not some pie-in-the-sky that most can't afford.


Blogging for Physics - Part 2

I highlighted earlier the interview with Sean Carroll published in PhysicsWeb. PhysicsWeb has a follow up to this and profiled one of the most popular (if not the most popular - Woit's Not Even Wrong may argue with that) physics blog in cyberland - Cosmic Variance. If you have never been there, give it a try. It is never boring! :)

Still, I think the coverage of all this physics blogging missed one very important site which I would consider to be THE original physics blogger - Bob Park's What's New. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, Bob Park has essentially done his "blogging" way long ago than probably all of us. I'm guessing that most people forget that because he has been doing this before "blog" was even a well-known word. Still, his impact cannot be overlooked.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nature's News on the Purdue's Bubble Fusion Fiasco

Yes, I have decided to call this the Purdue's Bubble Fusion Fiasco, because this is no longer a blemish on Taleyarkhan.

Nature has finally a news item on Purdue's decision. It is longer and more in detail, with almost all of the main player being interviewed. I still can't believe that Purdue administration thinks they can actually get away with something as sneaky as this. It only makes people think they do have something to hide. What I found incredulous was this particular news item:

The university never responded to Suslick's concerns. Peter Dunn, Purdue's associate vice-president for research, told Nature that he believes the university followed its procedures. He declined to comment on why he never replied to Suslick, or on whether evidence related to Suslick's concerns was forwarded to either inquiry. Purdue hasn't revealed the identities of the members of the second inquiry panel, but Dale Compton, a professor of industrial engineering at Purdue and a member of the first panel, says he has no recollection of being asked to consider the questions about Taleyarkhan's data.

Lefteri Tsoukalas, who asked Purdue to investigate Taleyarkhan in February 2006, has called the announcement "an outrage". Tsoukalas was head of Purdue's nuclear-engineering school until he resigned in October 2006 in protest at the way the university was handling the concerns. He notes that the usual procedure for handling allegations of scientific misconduct is to hold a preliminary inquiry, then either proceed with an investigation or close the matter. That did not happen in this case; instead, the university ran a second preliminary inquiry. Apart from Tsoukalas, calls by Nature have failed to locate anyone who raised concerns about Taleyarkhan's work who was interviewed during either inquiry. "Purdue's finding is as mysterious as bubble fusion itself," says Tsoukalas.

I mean, people, you have got to be kidding me! I can understand (barely) if this is a multi-national conglomerate, but for an academic institution that has a reputation to maintain? Hello?

I think the Cold Fusion disciples of Fleshmann and Pons have finally found a place where they can work.


Football Physics

Or should I have clarified that this is American Football physics?

I highlighted earlier of the public lecture by Tim Gay that will be held during the upcoming APS March meeting. He has also written a short essay on Physics Central on this that you might want to read.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Fermilab Open House

It says that Fermilab wows 2000 at its Open House this past Sunday. I wish the number would have been higher, because Fermilab needs the support of the community right now. The open house at Argonne that I've reported here drew roughly 18,000, and we have had even more in past years before the long break.

Still, I thought that it is strange that Fermilab has its Open House in the middle of winter. That could certainly discourage many people from making the trip out there.


Quantum Computer To Be Unveiled Tomorrow?

That soon?

A Canadian company, D-Wave Systems, has announced the unveiling of what it has called its "quantum computer" tomorrow (Tuesday). Of course, there's a chorus of "yeah, right!" coming from many corners.

So far, the details are sketchy (and we all know that the devil (god?) is in the details). Just because someone calls it something doesn't make it what it is supposed to be (i.e. quantum "teleportation"). Still, how many want to bet that this is really the "quantum computer" that we all had in mind?


A Prediction Falsified but Ignored?

OK, I may get into trouble with this, but hey, we only live once! :)

Back in 1998, Nima Arkani-Hamed et al. published a paper in PRL titled "The Hierarchy Problem and New Dimensions at a Millimeter"[1]. In it, they essentially predicted that the "extra dimension" in which gravity might "leak out" into could be detected at the millimeter scale. This, of course, created quite a buzz, since now, something like this could actually be tested. It means that at that scale, there should be a deviation of the Newton's gravitational law.

Well folks, it is close to 10 years now since that paper was published, an in the mean time, several tests have been done. Starting with Eric Adelberger's group at the U. of Washington, the Newtonian gravity has been tested several times, and up to the micrometer scale, and no deviation has been observed![2]

Now, I am sure that Arkani-Hamed is a fine physicist that has made several other contributions to this particular field of physics. However, in many of the interviews that I've read and reports on him, how come no one has ever addressed this fact that one of his major predictions that got him a lot of publicity has been thoroughly falsified? I mean, if I'm interviewing someone and one of the major point that that person is making has clearly not come true, do I try to ignore it like a 20,000 lb gorilla in the room? I simply can't. Even Barbara Walters would not have missed such an opportunity, and we all know how soft Barbara can be!

Maybe he has been confronted with this fact at various conferences, etc., I don't know. I don't move in the same circles. So if anyone knows anything about this, can you pass it on to me? I just find it incredulous that no one has called up on this.


[1] N. Arkani-Hamed et al. Phys. Lett. B 429, 263 (1998).
[2] ; ;

Uncertainty - Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science

The New York Times has a good review of this book by David Lindley. I suppose this is another one in a long series of books about the historical struggle of quantum mechanics. Still, it might give a different perspective on an already well-worn path.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

30 Tesla Superconducting Magnet Possible?

It is, according to this article.

I'm still skeptical. I will reserve my judgment till after I read the paper. It would be interesting to see that "phase diagram" that they have mapped out. Still, I'd like to see how they could get the material to not have migrating vortices at that magnetic field, even at 12K.


Arts at Argonne

Last night we attended another Arts at Argonne concert. It was fantastic! The performers were the Altenberg piano trio from Vienna. They performed Mozart Piano Trio No. 5, Beethoven's "Kakadu" Op. 121a, and Brahms Piano Trio No. 1. The Brahms piece was a total revelation. I've never heard of it before, and the opening allegro was simply dazzling!

It's one of the "perks" of working at Argonne, I would say. They organize the Arts at Argonne series of concert each year, and this is their 19th season. The concert is open to the public - you just have to call ahead to make sure you have a gate pass to be able to enter the grounds. We try to go to roughly 2 concerts each year, depending of what they have in the series. Still, I think that they could never top the performance that we attended a couple of years ago which, till this day, I still think about. It was a performance by I Solisti Di Venezia, and bar none, it was THE BEST live musical performance that I've ever, ever attended. I have no idea when this group would be coming back to the US, but if they're anywhere nearby, I'm going.

This is one of the few occasions that I do not mind going in to "work" on a Saturday evening.



Light, Polarization and Liquid Crystals

If you are in the Boulder, Colorado area, you might not want to miss this. It appears that this is similar to the "Wonders of Physics" show that I am familiar with as an undergrad at UW-Madison.

I am of the impression that shows like this are more effective in transmitting physics knowledge to kids than, let's say, a non-guided visit to a "science center". So in my book, such shows should be highly encouraged.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Can You Remove Huge Amounts of CO2?

If you know or can invent a device that can remove large amount of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, you might just win $25 million!

Al Gore and billionaire Richard Bronson have joined forces to offer this "Virgin Earth" challenge.

The winner must be able to demonstrate a commercially viable design which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric, greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years without countervailing harmful effects

OK, so get on with it! :)


Electric Breakdown

This is a rather fascinating paper (at least to me) that studies the mechanism of an electric breakdown. While the occurrence of static electricity is common when you feel a spark between your hand and a doorknob, trying to get the exactly, step-by-step mechanism is not easy. This is especially true in trying to get a clear, direct experimental verification of all the different models of breakdown, because such an effect is very transient and occurs over such a short period of time. Even trying to sample the field with a probe would not work because the probe itself will alter the field that we are trying to measure.

This issue has quite a bit of relevance to the news story about the International Linear Collider. One of the main issues on any accelerator is the maximum electric field gradient that an accelerating structure can withstand. It is widely known that the regular copper cavity that is commonly used in many accelerating structures will start experience electric breakdown at fields above 40 MV/m. (This number actually has some variation depending on the RF frequency applied to the cavity and the pulse length). What this means is that to accelerate charged particles to a higher energy, you will need many of these structures, since each one can only have up to some maximum value. The ILC is going to use superconducting technology as its accelerating structure to get a higher gradient. Still, even in a superconducting structure, there is still a maximum gradient that can be applied before breakdown occurs. That's why the ILC is proposed to be 20 km long to achieve its targeted energy.

So understanding the physics of breakdown is crucial in predicting on when it will occur for a particular material and configuration. Knowing such a thing will allow us to investigate how to minimize such a thing, and maybe even try to engineer a material that can have a higher tolerance to high fields.

This is one of the projects that my group is going to do. We're hoping to investigate the onset of electric breakdown in an RF cavity by examining field emission current pattern from a surface before a breakdown. There are many models of breakdown that attribute the heating of protrusions due to a high field emission current as the main trigger of the creation of a plasma that precedes a breakdown. We are hoping to test this via correlating regions of high field emission current (or dark current) with the eventual breakdown. A dedicated facility to study this is being assembled and about 90% done. So hopefully, sometime within the next couple of months, we will start our initial testing.


Friday, February 09, 2007

The Physics of Ribbon Curling

I kid you not!

Next time you look at those curled up ribbons at the end of a neatly-tied bow, you'll know that the physics of it has been a mystery till now. A physicist at Harvard claims to have figured it out, and lest you think this is purely an exercise in triviality, you'd be wrong. It seems that this knowledge may have some relevance to a new field of manufacturing, including nanotechnology!


More on the ILC Cost

Most press reports on the announcement of the cost for the International Linear Collider do not include the breakdown of where these costs come from. The rough estimate of the various components are as follows:

M&S/equipment for machine: $4.9B
Conventional facilities: $1.8B
Manpower: 13000 FTE's (full time employee/effort)
Construction time: 7 years

Again, remember that these are quoted in 2007 dollars.

This is certainly a huge project and will require a well-managed international effort. The only question now is (i) where will it be located and (ii) when will it be built. Any delay in deciding this will only drive it its costs, something many people (and countries) can't afford.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

ILC to Cost $6.7 Billion

It has been formally announced that the International Linear Collider will cost $6.7 billion in terms of FY2007 dollars.

Yes, it is a shipload of change.

For the US high energy physics community, this is the ONLY project that they are pushing to host right now on US soil. The Tevatron, as have been mentioned earlier, will cease operation at the end of 2009. After that, there will be no high energy physics collider experiment in the US. Several institutions, including Fermilab and Argonne, are trying to get support for ILC to be built at Fermilab by incorporating the existing facilities into the new design. I'm guessing that people in Texas have learned their lessons from the failed SSC and won't try to bid for this again.

To me, the only serious competition to the US in hosting the ILC is China. With almost unlimited financial resources and the hunger to be a more important player in the international scientific scene, they will be a very serious and viable candidate to host such a facility. The fact that this announcement is made during a meeting in China is not a mere coincidence.


Follow-up on the bubble Fusion Fiasco

I should have remembered this when I wrote the earlier post on this issue. Brian Naranjo uploaded a rebuttal to the reply made by Taleyarkhan in PRL. Since PRL has a policy that you can't write a comment to a reply, all he can do is either write a whole new paper, or upload his comment to ArXiv, which was what he did just this past Feb. 1, 2007.

While this comment does not address the issue of what Purdue University was investigating, it does support the argument that this bubble fusion phenomenon is far from being confirmed.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Second Inquiry Exonerates Taleyarkhan?

Oh really now?

Supposedly, Purdue University administrators have exonerated Rusi Taleyarkhan of allegations of misconduct in the bubble fusion debacle. Unfortunately, no one knows what was done, what was reviewed, who reviewed it, and how they arrived at such a conclusion. This was done by a secret panel deliberating secretly. In other words, as much as Purdue tries to kill this off, it will not go away, and will continue to be a blemish on the university.

Now, compare this to what Bell Labs did after a similar allegations was leveled at Hendrik Schon a few years ago. Bell appointed a blue-ribbon panel headed by Malcolm Beasley, a very respected physicist from Stanford, and had a very open, full disclosure investigation and findings that were available online. The difference here is night and day!

Whether there was any misconduct at all, at this point, is quite irrelevant. What I do know is that the reputation of Purdue University in terms of integrity is SHOT.


Storing Light Here, and Retrieving It There

Lene Hau and her group are at it again!

After demonstrating a few years ago that they can stop light completely and then turn it back on, they have now exploited another aspect of quantum mechanics. In this new experiment, they have managed to store light in one BEC gas, and then have it retransmitted back using a second BEC gas! This is such a clever experiment.


More on the US FY2007 Budget and Possible 2008 Budget

More information on the proposed Fiscal Year 2007 US Budget that is in the Senate right now, and the proposed FY 2008 Budget. It appears that the NIH may get hit hard with this.

I have a mixed feeling about this. On one hand, I hate to see science budgets being cut, not just for selfish reason, but I know what happens to projects when something like that occurs. Many science research projects take time to develop and mature, and when there is a funding cut, decisions have to be made on what to let go and what to keep. Inevitably, things that just got started and yet to really produce are the ones that tend to go first.

But on the other hand, I've watched with utter envy how, especially during the Clinton Administration, the NIH budget simply bloomed before our very eyes while funding for the physical sciences were barely surviving above water. The NIH at least doubled their funding during that time, while the DOE and NSF's basic science research barely moved. During this time, I know of several physicists who pointed out that many of the abilities and facilities that NIH-type research are able to do were directly benefiting the work done in basic physics research. Facilities like synchrotron centers, SEM technology, etc.. etc.. all came out of basic physics research. There is a trickle down effect here in which things that were part of physics and became well-known from physics are later used in biology, biophysics, biochemistry, and medicine. So to neglect the "source" of all these innovations was simply insane.

So now it appears that the shoe is on the other foot. The NIH budget may, if the President gets his way, suffer a cutback while DOE and NSF's funding on physical science may double in 10 years.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Diamond is Open For Business

The Diamond Light Source, UK's new synchrotron facility, is finally open for business, with the first scientific users expected this week.


Can Washington Get Smart About Science?

This is an op-ed piece written by Alan Sokal and Chris Mooney. If those names sound familiar to you, then you're up to speed on the situation with how science is done among the academicians and politicians.

Alan Sokal became a physics household name when he did his infamous Sokal Hoax on Social Text journal. In a masterful, ingenious sweep, he revealed the fallacy (and frankly, the utter nonsense) of postmodernist delusion of knowing what science is. It was a perfect attack on how science (and especially physics) was abused by this group of people.

Chris Mooney became well-known due to his article "The Republican War on Science", his attempt to expose how the Republican, after gaining power, tried to either squash, or change, science to suit their personal agenda or beliefs.

So this op-ed piece in LA Times from these two well-known defender of science is VERY hot, so hot that it just sizzles with scathing attack on how science has been mistreated during this past few years. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or independent, etc.. this is an essay that should be read because these are points that must be addressed. Whether one agrees with it or not, one fact remains very clear - that there HAS been a deliberate effort to subdue scientific works and results during the Bush administration.

Look, none of us are naive enough to not think that every administration will try to enhance scientific reports that agree with their position. We were not born yesterday, and most of us have enough cynicism in the system to at least be aware of such a thing. However, there have been many evidence that the current administration has done unprecedented actions to stifle scientific results, and even supported the teaching of "intelligent design" in schools. I have seen physicists, who are normally conservative in their politics, completely changing their tunes after seeing what has transpired.

As the article said, it is ironic that the Republican party, that had always tried to promote itself as the champion of science, is now directly at war against it. I also don't doubt that the backlash against religion as evidenced by the popularity of Dawkins book, and the recently released attack on religion by Stenger that I mentioned in the previous post, is a result of the extreme religious fanaticism imposed into the American political and social scene. I think those who are stuck in the middle have very important choices to make.


God: The Failed Hypothesis?

OK, throw another log in the atheism fire.

Early this year, I gave a link to Steven Weinberg article on The Designer Universe - his treatise on why physics has made it acceptable to not believe in the existence of God. Of course, there is also the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion, that became a runaway bestseller, which not only removed all apologies about being an atheist, but also promote it by pointing out "fallacies" about believing in God.

So now we add another champion to the same cause. Vic Stenger has written a book titled God: The Failed Hypothesis. In it, he claimed to have tested all the claims made by the Judeo-Christian-Islam belief and falsifed them based on science.

It is certainly a provocative claim, and I'm sure, will incite a lot of very lively discussion all over the 'net, if it hasn't already.


Monday, February 05, 2007

Thursday Night Football with Tim Gay

Hey, if you are in Denver, CO during the week of March 5, you might want to attend this public lecture, which is a part of the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting.

Thursday Night Football with Tim Gay
7:00 pm Thursday, March 8, 2007
Adam's Mark Hotel
Grand Ballroom, Tower Building
1550 Court Place, Denver, CO 80202


More Undergraduates Turn To Research

This news article describes the very "fashionable" trend of undergraduate research. It seems that there is an increasing effort for undergraduates to go beyond just classroom work and involve themselves with research projects.

I've certainly encouraged physics students to do this if they can afford it. And by "afford it", I mean as in being able to afford the time and effort. It certainly does not make any sense if the student is already struggling with school work and tries to add even more burden by doing an undergraduate research project. So it is certainly recommended for those who can handle the extra work.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Phil Anderson to Receive Honors for "Go"

Phil Anderson isn't new to receiving awards, nor does he needs another one. Still, this is rather unique, I would think. I did not realize that he is an avid Go player. It appears that he has been one ever since he did his stint in Japan, and has been promoting it ever since.

Due to that, he is to receive an award from Nihon Ki-in, the association of Japanese professional Go players and teachers. Apparently, this has only been awarded 3 other times in the US, including one to Albert Einstein, who, coincidentally, was also at Princeton.

Just another facet of Anderson's life that I never knew before.


Saturday, February 03, 2007


This is such a clever invention.

A group at Caltech has made what is essentially a nanocantilever that can "weigh" masses down to the attogram scale, but without the need for cryogenic temperatures and ultra high vacuum. This is quite impressive.


Friday, February 02, 2007

The Moon Can Be Shocking

You could get all charged up by going to the moon, literally!

A group of scientists have estimated that the surface of the moon can have a high build up of charges. Such build up can be as high as 4500 volts! This could be detrimental to metals and other electrical equipment.

Shocking, isn't it?



US Science Funding in FY2007 Budget

Here is a bit more on the recent debacle of US science funding. This is a well-done article on the catastrophe that was just recently averted. It describes how we arrived at the mess, what could have happened had the mess continued, and how we had barely survived it.

Science, and especially basic physics research, is still not out of the wood. Funding for fields such as astronomy and high energy physics is still very dire. The Tevatron at Fermilab WILL still end its operations by the end of 2009, ending ALL major high energy physics collider experiments on US soil for the first time in the history of high energy physics.

So there are still more work to be done here.


ISU Provost Recommends Closure of Physics Program

I reported earlier about the closure of the Physics department at Reading University in Great Britain, and the problems with the physics program in UK universities in general. If people think this problem is exclusive to the UK, think again. It is also happening in the US, but maybe not with the same trend. The physics program at Indiana State University is on the chopping block, along with other degree programs.

I suppose this is always an issue at schools with very small programs. It has to be decided between the need to have such a program that serves the university community as a whole versus the cost of continuing a program that has a small number of students and graduates each year.

Ironically, while ISU is facing closure due to low enrollments, another university in the same state is having stellar number of enrollments. I reported earlier that Indiana University is reporting a significant increase in the number of physics majors, a trend that is in line with the statistics reported by the AIP.

With the number of physics students in high school reaching record levels, it would be interesting to see if that has an effect on enrollments at smaller programs such as the one at ISU. Not sure, though, if that would be in time to save the ISU physics program.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Reflections on Physics by C.N. Yang

C.N. Yang did a reflection on physics and his life during his last visit to CERN. As someone who has made several key contribution to the field of elementary particle physics, he certainly had a front-row seat to what has been going on in that field for the past 50 years.

I like what he said at the end of the article.

In the meantime, what does he think will be the most important discovery at the LHC? "Everybody is focusing on the Higgs and most feel it will be discovered," he observes. "But," he adds, "it may be more exciting eventually if it is not discovered."

That would certainly turn physics upside down.


Physics Shows

This is a rather interesting report. Undergraduate students at University of Bonn developed a 2-hour physics show for the general public that would be understandable to kids aged 10 and up. It appears that the exercise is effective in getting the students to understand the physics concepts even more. Not only that, local high school students have also picked up on the idea and started putting up their own shows.

When I was an undergraduate at U. of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the opportunity to attend a yearly physics show by Dr. Clint Sprott called The Wonders of Physics. It was very popular, and the lecture room was always packed. It has now grown to be very popular and I think he even do some road shows.