Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Physics of Basketball

With the NCAA Final Four fever going on here in the US, it was appropriate for National Public Radio (NPR) to air a segment on the physics of basketball. You can listen to the segment with U.S. Naval Academy professor John Fontanella.


Friday, March 30, 2007

LHC Faces Delay

This is not good.

This was just announced today on PhysicsWeb. The recent tests of the superconducting magnets that is part of the LHC have failed.

The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN could be delayed after three of the magnets used to focus and manipulate the accelerator's proton beams failed preliminary tests at CERN earlier this week. The magnets were built at Fermilab in the US, which announced the failure on its Web site. Although CERN has not yet issued a formal statement on the set-back, it looks increasingly unlikely that the LHC will come on-line this year as planned.

The full news report can be found at PhysicsWeb (access requires free registration). It appears that this was a serious failure when a structure that supported one of the magnets broke under high pressure that is some time expected under operations.


It's Shiny and Glittery, and Covered With Aluminum Foil!

One of the most common comment that I get when I show our deposition system to visitors is "What's with all the aluminum foil?" In fact, as you can see from the picture, you can't even see the vacuum chamber since it is almost completely covered by it.

Anyone who has done any work in trying to get to ultra-high vacuum (UHV) can tell you that one of the things we have to do after we vent and close our system is to do a "bake-out" during pumping. While all the vacuum pumps are running, we want to reach the vacuum system to above 100 C to drive out moisture and gases that may have been absorbed (or adsorbed) into the walls of the vacuum system. So the outer part of the vacuum chamber is often wrapped with heating tapes. To reduce heat loss and increase the heating efficiency, we also cover the vacuum chamber with aluminum foil. Thus, the presence of aluminum foil in many systems that go down to UHV level.

For the system in the picture, we usually do a bake-out for about 2 to 3 days, and after cooling, we can consistently get down to as low as 2.5 x 10^-10 Torr using a combination of ion and turbo pumps. Since we do have to vent the system pretty often, it is a lot easier to just leave the heating tapes and the aluminum foil "wrappings" on the chamber. So we haven't actually seen the whole chamber underneath all that aluminum foil for about a year (I'm guessing it's still there!).


AirFly Preprint Out

I mentioned earlier about our facility being used as part of the AirFly project to calibrate the fluorescence of energetic electrons through air/gasses. The work and results that have been gathered here and elsewhere for the past few years finally are now slowly being submitted for publication. The first such results submitted for publication was submitted last month and also appeared on ArXiv.

We hope that there will be a series of publications on this as more and more data are obtained and analyzed.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

The String Debate - Who Won?

I reported yesterday about the upcoming (that evening) debate between Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss at the Smithsonian on the merits of String Theory. We now have a report on what transpired. It sounded like it was a rip-roaring evening, just like I expected.

I wonder if they'll take this on the road, or maybe, even Broadway? :)


ILC Design Report

This is a rather good and concise article on the details of the International Linear Collider design report. It also has a link to the ILC home page that has the full report, and basically everything anyone wants to know about the ILC but was afraid to ask.


Even MORE Followup on the Bubble Fusion Fiasco

Those of you who haven't followed this so far may want to read several posts in this blog.

In the March 29, 2007 issue of Nature, Purdue University Provost and vice president for research responded to Nature's earlier report on this debacle. You should read the whole letter, but I will quote only this very last part of it:

Purdue University's policy on research integrity states: "The mere suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing, even if totally unjustified, is potentially damaging to a person's career. Consequently, no information about charges of a lack of integrity in research may be disclosed except to the appropriate university and federal authorities." Any response to an allegation of misconduct at Purdue will adhere to the letter and the spirit of that principle. We believe this is true at the vast majority of universities. Readers of Nature would not understand that truth from your coverage, nor would they be likely to conclude that a successful and fair inquiry might include a finding of 'not guilty'.

Let's get few things straight here:

1. Taleyarkhan's reputation is ALREADY under question. So this confidentiality to protect his reputation is MOOT!

2. If I were Taleyarkhan and I have just been exonerated, I want the report to be available out in the open.

3. If they can't release all the info, citing privacy concerns, then they should at least address why certain key people were never called to testify. This certainly can't break any privacy protection. This fact alone will lead the most of us to consider that this whole process is a sham.

4. In trying to protect Taleyarkhan's privacy and reputation, the puzzling actions by Purdue and confidentiality claims have managed to induce the OPPOSITE effect, not only on Taleyarkhan, but also on the university's image.

I wrote earlier that if Purdue thinks that by such actions that they would have laid this issue to rest, they have it seriously wrong. I rest my case.


Faster Crunching Thanks to Einstein

It looks like the basic theory of Special Relativity still holds plenty of surprises. Now it may be possible to complete a computation in less time simply by changing inertial frames!


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Brian Greene Versus Lawrence Krauss

Wow! I've you're in the Washington DC area, you may not want to miss this heavyweight fight. Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss will debate on String Theory. Specifically, Greene will try to sell us String Theory, and Krauss will tell us why it is undeserving all the hype. The debate occurs TONIGHT at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Cosmologist Michael Turner will moderate.

Man I wish I could be there!


The "Father of MRI" Dies

Physicist Paul C. Lauterbur, who received a 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine, died on Tuesday, March 27, 2006, in his home in Urbana, IL. He was 77.

Every time someone asks me if physics has any direct impact on our everyday lives (especially when they think that all we do are String theory, particle physics, etc), MRI/NMR is one of the first things I point to. There is a tremendous, and certainly not insignificant, amount of advancement in biology, biophysics, and medicine, that came out of physics, a fact that many people are still not aware of. I think those of us in this field need to continually sell this fact of physics to the general public.


The Case of the Murderous Physicist

This article revisits a very painful event for many physicists, especially here in the US. It involves the murder-suicide of 6 people, including the shooter, back in 1991 at the University of Iowa.

This nightmare has been used as the inspiration for a fictional account of the event in a movie titled "Dark Matter" and won a prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival. Interestingly enough, the film, while ending in the bloody massacre, is described as more about the process of student-mentor in a physics graduate program. Brian Greene has described it as doing a "... really good job of capturing the atmosphere of a research lab".

I would love to see this movie if I didn't know about the story and how it will end. I think it would be just too painful to see such tragedy, at least for me.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Public Lecture on Quantum Cryptography

Daniel Gottesman of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics will give a public lecture on Apr. 4th on Quantum Cryptography: A Tale of Secrets Hidden and Revealed Through the Laws of Physics.

Unfortunately, even if you're in the area and haven't gotten tickets to the lecture, it is already sold out. But prep yourself up for this next one from the Perimeter Institute:

May 2, 2007, 7:00 pm
Howard Burton, Perimeter Institute, Executive Director: "Great Scientific Ideas That Were Completely Wrong"

Tickets available starting on Monday, April 16, 2007.

That sounds like it might be a hoot! No one here can give me a report on this? :) In any case, past public lecture podcast can be viewed here.


Two Beirut Students Arrested Over Physics Exam Scare

First of all, I hope that by mentioning it here, I am not giving anyone any ideas or giving this more publicity than it deserves. This truly is NOT how your life should change, because it WILL change for the worse, especially with heightened security concern everywhere, especially here in the US. So think VERY carefully before you act this stupid.

2 students in Beirut have been arrested for the bomb hoax phone call.

When asked about the reason why they made up such a lie, the students said they "wanted to get rid of the physics exam."

Unbelievable. And contrast this news to the one in Nepal where students protested to be able to study physics! I'd say after these students get their punishment, they should be deported to Nepal where they probably won't have to study physics. How's that for a fair deal?


Monday, March 26, 2007

Physics Meets Constitutional Law?

There's not much I can comment on this because I'm only reading 2nd hand report of the Harvard Law Review article. But it appears that this is another attempt at using physics principle and incorporating it into areas that, at first look, has no obvious connection. This attempt is very similar to the one on Stock Market physics, albeit, it is published in a more "prestigious" journal. This time it is being used as an argument to revamped the US laws, lawyers, and constitution.

I think my earlier comment accompanying Stock Market physics may still apply here. The justification that one can actually apply various aspects of quantum mechanics to such situations, for example, is still absent, especially when even in physics, classical mechanics dominates in our everyday phenomena. So if we don't apply QM in, let's say, building a house, why would it work in how judges arrive at a decision? This, of course, assumes that various physics principles being cited are actually being used and understood correctly. More often than not, these principles are understood superficially and applied incorrectly. So who knows....


Sunday, March 25, 2007

More Follow-up on the "Bubble Fusion Fiasco Isn't Over"

I wrote earlier about the Bob Park report that a member of the US House of Representative has asked Purdue University for the report on its review of Taleyarkhan misconduct accusations. Thanks to the comment by Lawrence B. Ebert to my blog entry, I have found the New York Times article that reported on the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee request that was sent to Purdue's President.

A university spokesman, Joseph Bennett, said, "Purdue’s plan is to work with the committee, with the intention of providing them everything that they’ve requested."

I can only hope that this report is made public, because heaven knows, it certainly isn't coming willingly from Purdue. Like I said earlier, if Purdue thinks they can put this issue to sleep by simply depriving everyone from the necessary information, they have seriously underestimated the issue and overestimated the perception of their integrity.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Time Is An Illusion?

For some odd reason, there seems to be a lot of such discussion on the internet, be it in some crackpot website, or on various online forums. And the strange thing about it is that, more often than not, such a discussion is based on, of all things, philosophical arguments and not on physical grounds at all! Most argued that time is a construct of the human mind (as if the rest of what we observe isn't), and that it isn't as "fundamental" as space, etc. In almost all cases, these arguments seem to have overlooked (or maybe they are ignorant of them) a large body of knowledge in physics, and inevitably, never try to address the dynamics of the universe without "time".

Now this is not to say that there isn't a legitimate question on this. One of the things that we try to decipher about the universe is the question on how many fundamental constants are there. Constants such as the fine structure constant can be dimensionless, and thus, such a constant is not dependent on our measuring scale. What ever is the most minimum set of constants that we need to completely describe the universe that we are aware of, then the dimension of such constants will require the minimum corresponding scale. For example, if the speed of light is a fundamental constant, then the concept of both space AND time is the most minimum set of dimensions that we require to allow for "c", since it is a measurement of how much space light has moved in a particular period of time. You cannot simply have just space or just time to be able to define "c" as a quantity.

So what would be the impetus for someone to claim that time is an illusion or isn't fundamental? The most common and most feeble argument that I have seen is the application of Special Relativity's consequence that time "can change" with respect to an observer in different inertial frames. This includes the time dilation effect, and the inability to agree on what is "simultaneous". The other most common argument is the notion that time is nothing more than a measure of displacement, and so, space is more fundamental.

Here, I am not going to try and argue that time isn't fundamental, or time isn't an illusion. We still haven't figured out yet what is meant by an "illusion", since such a word seemed perfectly obvious to the people involved in the philosophical discussion (no one asked the definition of the word, at least not that I have seen). It certainly isn't a physics concept. What I will try to do is point out holes and inconsistencies in such an idea, and that most of these people are actually missing huge chunks of physics that they are ignoring in putting forth their argument. So essentially, this could easily be another "Imagination Without Knowledge is Ignorance Waiting to Happen" entry.

1. Time changes in Special Relativity.
Sure it does! But so does space! Time dilation AND length contraction are two of the consequences of the postulates of Special Relativity. So why pick on time alone?

2. Time is simply a measure of displacement.
How would you actually MEASURE spatial distances? How does one determine Point A is at some distance away from Point B? Use a ruler? How did we arrive at that ruler? What if the distance is huge? Inevitably, this will lead to using light (as Einstein did) in DEFINING what we mean by space and time. That the idea of space is based on the distance that light traveled in a particular period of time, and the idea of time also follows in the same manner. So here, space and time are certainly interlocked, and one isn't more fundamental than the other.

3. In Special and General Relativity, time and space occupy the same degree of importance. They share the same platform, and they are interconnected as the Minkowsky spacetime manifold. So someone who claims time is an illusion or isn't fundamental seems to have ignored or dismissed SR and GR, and did so without any explanation.

4. In elementary particle physics, the concept of space and time are contained in the P and T symmetry (for parity and time). The generally accepted idea out of the Standard Model is that CPT (C=charge conjugation) symmetry is conserved, while we have seen CP and T being violated separately. Regardless of whether we eventually see CPT violation, the fact that the time symmetry operation shares the same degree of importance as parity and charge as one of the fundamental symmetries of the universe seems to have been lost in this argument. Why is such an issue never brought up and explained away?

5. In many well-known phenomena, the appearance of violation of time-reversal symmetry indicates the existence of a profound transition. The transition from the normal state into a superconducting state in unconventional superconductors is one such example. The broken time-reversal symmetry is an important clue on the transition point of such a phenomenon. If this is an "illusion", someone has a lot of explaining to do.

6. Radioactive decay doesn't care if we have a "mind" or not. It will take the same amount of time no matter if we designate time as fundamental or an illusion. Considering that at a single nuclear level, this is a random process and yet as a conglomerate of nuclei, they all somehow "know" the decay rate that they have to "obey", I'd say that these nuclei know about "time" and respect it.

These arguments are just the beginning. For some reason, most of those who are involved in such arguments never seem to address any of these issues, but rather seem to think that one can arrive at a conclusion simply based on "logic" and word games. Somehow, evidence and observation of our physical world aren't an important factor in deciding such a thing. Or maybe they know that they can't address these points and decide to ignore them.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Bubble Fusion Fiasco Isn't Over

If Purdue University thinks that by ending their inquiry and exonerating Taleyarkhan that this mess will go away, they better think again.

As reported in the March 23 edition of Bob Park's What's New:

Now Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), chair of the Science Committee's Investigations Subcommittee has requested a copy of the University's internal investigation reports.

Would Purdue refuse to provide such a thing? After all, they have kept this under secrecy all the while. From reading what Bob Park wrote, I think he is also getting fed up with the way this has been handled. But then again, other than Taleyarkhan, who isn't?


Free Lecture Series To Explore Most Violent Places In The Universe

This is the announcement made to all the employees here, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be advertised more widely. So here it is:

Nine free lectures at The University of Chicago will explore how black holes, remnants of exploded stars and other exotic celestial objects emit streams of powerful gamma rays.

“The Quest for Gamma Rays: Exploring the Most Violent Places in the Universe” is the title of this year's Arthur Holly Compton Lectures, sponsored each spring and fall by the university's Enrico Fermi Institute. The 65th series of these public lectures will begin Saturday, March 24, and will be held each Saturday through June 2, except for April 21 and May 26, when there will be no lectures. The lectures will be given from 11 a.m. to noon in Room 106 of the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, 5720 S. Ellis Ave.

Compton Lectures are intended to make science accessible to a general audience and to convey the excitement of new discoveries in the physical sciences. Delivering the lectures this spring will be Elizabeth Hays, research associate in the Fermi Institute and at Argonne.

Among her topics, Hays will discuss the work of VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System). An array of four telescopes at Kitt Peak in southern Ariozna, VERITAS is one of the most sensitive high-energy gamma-ray observatories in the world.

The Compton Lectures are named for Arthur Holly Compton. A former physicist at the university, Compton is best known for demonstrating that light has the characteristics of both a wave and a particle. He organized the effort to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb and directed the Metallurgical Laboratory at The University of Chicago, where Fermi and his colleagues produced the first controlled, nuclear chain reaction in 1942.

For more information about the lecture series, call (773) 702-7823.

I know Liz Hays well and this would be an amazing series of lectures. So don't miss it if you can!


Stephen Hawking Talks Physics, Brian Greene Talks Physics

Everyone is talking physics it seems these days.

Brian Greene certainly has been talking a lot of physics. This interview, though, is a bit more "casual" and a bit hilarious than the one I reported right before this.

And since Greene and Hawking will be doing a joint physics presentation, I guess it is appropriate to also have a similar interview with Hawking. Here, the interview isn't as hilarious.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Interview With Brian Greene

Brian Greene does not need any more publicity. But still, we have a Q&A with him on MSNBC.COM.

It's an interesting interview, but I'm really puzzled at a few things. Let's start with this:

Well, I think string theory in many ways is much easier to understand than relativity. Relativity challenges your basic intuitions that you’ve built up from everyday experience. It says your experience of time is not what you think it is, that time is malleable. Your experience of space is not what you think it is, it can stretch and shrink. These things are so counter to experience that it is very difficult even for professional physicists to take these ideas on board in a deep, intuitive way.

When it comes to string theory, though, it’s a very natural idea. It’s saying that those particles that we imagine making up everything in the world around us, that we previously envisioned as being little dots — now we’re saying if you examine them with a sufficiently powerful microscope, that dot will actually not be a dot. When you magnify it, you'll say, "Oh, it's actually a little filament, it's a little string."

So from that point of view, it's not a difficult idea to grasp. Of course, there are features of the theory that are hard to grasp, like extra dimensions of space and things of that sort. But from a rock-bottom standpoint, I think string theory's easier to grasp than relativity and also easier to grasp than quantum mechanics.

Now, I don't know about you, but a stringy object living in many dimensions is NOT "easier to grasp than quantum mechanics" in my book. Furthermore, Relativity is certainly easier to understand even when the concept of "time dilation" and "length contraction" appears a bit strange in the beginning. The proof? We teach undergraduates, some time in their 2nd year, of Special Relativity, and they seem to be able to grasp it quite well. Last time I checked, we don't teach these kids String Theory at that stage.

When asked the the length scales in String theory, this is what he has to say:

That's certainly the case. But that was the case also in the early days of quantum mechanics. Now we have technologies that allow us to probe directly to the small distances where quantum mechanics really comes into play. But in the early days, you were trying to find indirect signatures of this strange picture of the microworld.

Now the difference here is that I don't think we'll have equipment that can measure these tiny distances in 30, 50 or 100 years. It could be 500 or 1,000 years, or maybe we'll never be able to probe the tiny distances that string theory shows as the relevant arena for its new ideas. But that's the framework of science: You put forward fundamental ideas, and you try to work out their consequences in a manner that can be accessed with the equipment that you have.

Wow! I'm not sure how he could have said that with a straight face. Considering that macroscopic phenomena such as superconductivity are direct manifestation of quantum mechanics (i.e. we don't have to go to "small distances") mean that QM did not need such "indirect signatures" to signify that its description is valid. The same cannot be said about String Theory. There aren't any yet at measurable scales. So the comparison with QM here isn't quite valid.

The one part that is disappointingly missing from the question is the backlash against String theory. The reporter failed to asked him about Woit's and Smolin's recent books and attacks on String theory. I thought this was a rather strange thing not to have been brought up.


Frontier At Your Fingertips

I have written several (maybe a couple) of essays on here regarding the importance of condensed matter physics and tying that with the fallacy regarding the "Theory of Everything".

One aspect of these two that is crucial is the idea of quantum criticality. In this week's issue of Nature (Nature 446, 379, 22 March 2007), Piers Coleman once again has written a wonderful piece in which a bunch of issues were tackled in just one page: emergent behavior, superconductivity, life, quantum criticality, string theory, etc... There are several passages that are worth quoting:

The potential for quantum matter to develop emergent properties is far more startling. Atoms of niobium and gold, individually similar, combine to form crystals that, kept cold, show dramatically different properties. Electrons roam free across gold crystals, forming the conducting fluid that gives gold its lustrous metallic properties. Up to about 30 nanometres, there is little difference between gold and niobium. It's beyond this point that the electrons in niobium start binding together into the coupled electrons known as 'Cooper pairs'. By the time we reach the micrometre scale, these pairs have congregated in their billions to form a single quantum state, transforming the crystal into an entirely new metallic state — that of a superconductor, which conducts without resistance, excludes magnetic fields and has the ability to levitate magnets.

Superconductivity has always been the poster child for collective, emergent phenomena. It is what Bob Laughlin used to demonstrate emergent behavior. And it is what Carver Mead used to proclaim that "Nowhere in natural phenomena do the basic laws of physics manifest themselves with more crystalline clarity."

On the issue of reductionism versus emergent behavior, Coleman has this to say:

Some believe that emergence implies an abandonment of reductionism in favour of a more hierarchical structure of science, with disconnected principles developing at each level. Perhaps. But in almost every branch of physics, from string theory to condensed-matter physics, we find examples of collective, emergent behaviour that share common principles. For example, the mechanism that causes a superconductor to weaken and expel magnetic fields from its interior is also responsible for the weak nuclear force — which plays a central role in making the Sun shine. Superconductors exposed general principles that were used to account for the weak nuclear force.

This is clearly an argument against those who think that ideas and principles that come out of condensed matter are not "fundamental". Such importance is certainly not only the monopoly of elementary particle physics, String, etc.

It is a very good article, and I strongly recommend reading it from start to finish. Piers Coleman, besides being one respected physicist, has also written several terrific articles in various journals. I always look forward to his next one.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

DOE Office of Science FY 2007 Operating Plan

The US Dept. of Energy sent its operating budget for FY2007 (which, btw, is already half over) based on the congressional approval of its budget that is part of the continuing resolution. What is clear in this plan is the money allocation for each of the different sector of the DOE's Office of Science.


A B.Sc Degree in Homeopathy?

It seems that in the UK, you can actually get a degree in Homeopathy, a B.Sc degree no less. For something that is a scam at worst, and a pseudoscience at best, I am actually quite surprise that reputable institutions would actually grant such a thing. What were they thinking?

And then, there's this:

Finding out exactly what is taught in the courses is not straightforward. Ben Goldacre, a London-based medical doctor, journalist and frequent critic of homeopathy, says that several universities have refused to let him see their course materials. "I can't imagine what they're teaching," he says. "I can only imagine that they teach that it's OK to cherry-pick evidence. That's totally unacceptable."

Whenever they try to hide things (but still claim that this a scientific discipline), then you know that something is not kosher.

I hope US universities do not drop their standards that low to start offering such degrees. It was bad enough that Princeton once had a "paranormal" research center.


Relatively Speaking, Einstein a Rebel

Walter Isaacson gave a public lecture about Einstein to promote his latest book Einstein: His Life and Universe. He made a point that Einstein didn't get along that well with his school teachers and instructors.

Twentieth-century German-born physicist Albert Einstein didn't get along with his grade school teachers or his professors at the Federal Polytechnical Institute in Zurich (now the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology).

Einstein, a visual learner, managed to alienate all of his professors before he graduated, Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time, told an audience Tuesday at The Society of the Four Arts.

While this may be true, I cringe at the anticipation of a bunch of people somehow justifying such behavior in school just because that person might become the next Einstein. They of course neglect the statistics on how many such behavior actually lead to dysfunctional adults, and the fact that the probability of producing the next Einstein is extremely small.

Not only that, I'm sure this message will also be lost:

Paying attention in class, however, is important.

Isaacson dispels the notion — found on numerous Internet sites — that Einstein flunked mathematics as a child: "Einstein never, ever flunked math."


Hawking Will Star at Texas A&M's Physics Festival

Stephen Hawking sure gets around a lot. He was at Berkeley barely a couple of weeks ago, and now he will be at Texas A&M University's Physics Festival. I wonder what he will be talking about this time?



Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Canadian Budget a Boon for Science

Unlike the US, our Canadian friends up north appears to have a brighter fate in science funding. The new Canadian budget provides an increase in money almost across the board for all areas of science research.

I guess that is what happens when you don't have money being siphoned off to fight a war.


Does Nature Convert Mass Into Energy?

A very common question in many physics forums online is the issue of "mass" and "energy" being "the same thing" (whatever "same thing" means). Most of the time, such question comes from someone who did not quite have the breadth of knowledge of Special Relativity and Quantum mechanics. All he or she cared about was the infamous E=mc^2 equation, and that is that. Somehow, all the other properties of light (having energy, momentum, and spin) and the particles (having "rest" energy, kinetic energy, spin, possibly charge, and particle number conservation) are ignored.

This is a rather informative and entertaining paper that was recently published in Am. Journal of Physics. Titled "Does Nature Convert Mass into Energy"[1], it partially addresses the validity of the idea of "energy conversion" when there is a change in mass.

I think it is interesting that in many cases, the confusion comes in on how we define the words we are using. For example, what exactly do we mean when something is "the same", or something is converted from one to another? While such phrases appears to be trivially obvious in ordinary conversation, it is not so when applied to physics, especially when the very nature of the property of the object is under consideration. This is what most people who are not familiar with physics do not realize when they ask such questions. The question itself can, in fact, be the source of the difficulty and confusion.


[1] R. Baierlein, Am. J. Phys. 75, 320 (2007).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Statistical Analysis Debunks Climate Change Naysayers

This is a rather interesting statistical analysis. It was given as an assignment by an economics professor to his students. He asked for the cost of two scenarios being wrong: (i) that the climate change is predominantly due to human activities, and (ii) the climate change is not due to human activities.

The conclusion? Cost of being wrong with (ii) is a lot more devastating than the cost of (i) being wrong.

On a related note, the Drudge report tackles several misrepresentations of climate "evidence" that have been used by many to discredit the claim that global warming is due to human activities. In particular, the claim that Mars, Jupiter, and Pluto are also experiencing their own "global warming" due to the sun's activities are taken from an unverified comment, rather than scientific conclusion.


Expert Teachers "Key To Physics"

This really is a no-brainer. But it bears repeating that a good teacher can make all the difference in getting students interested and good in physics. It is true practically everywhere. Thus, even if this article is a report about the state of secondary education in UK schools, it certainly applies also to other parts of the world, including the US. However, I am not certain to what extent this is similar in US high schools:

Too many pupils never have the opportunity of finding out because in their schools the subject is wrapped up in science taught by biologists.

I am aware of mathematics teachers teaching physics in a few high schools in the US, but never heard of biologists. Furthermore, I don't know if students in the US have this kind of "distractions":

But another school with hardly any pupils doing A-level physics, "prided itself on its performing arts, and pupils were continually being taken out of science lessons for drama and music rehearsals," the report said.

I am guessing that transgression like this would not be tolerated here, but who knows!

But just to prove that, with proper attention, schools can attract a keen interest in physics, here are success stories from various UK schools that have bucked the trend over there.


We Want To Study Physics

We all have heard how difficult it is to get students to want to study physics, especially in the West. High school teachers go through great lengths to get students interested in science, and while the enrollment in physics has seen a recent increase, it is still a subject area that many students shy away from, or have expressed very little interest.

Yet, in certain parts of the world, the ability to study physics is seriously hampered. The March 2007 issue of APS News highlighted the plight of students in Nepal who were unable to study physics due to the limited places available in the educational institution. In fact, it got so bad that they even organized a student protest to study physics! There were signs and protest chants saying "We Want To Study Physics!"

The full video of the student protest can be found here.

Sometime, you just have to shake your heads at the injustice of the world. You have one part of the world that takes for granted the freedom to study whatever they want, with all the facilities and encouragement one would ever needs, and another part of the world that have such desire to pursue such studies but are denied the access.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Q&A With Lene Hau

Lene Hau made news a few years ago, first by slowing light down to 17 m/s, and then by completely stopping it to 0 m/s and then re-transmitting it in its original form. Just recently, she made more news by doing the same thing, but this time, after the first light was stopped, she transfered it to another gas, and then re-transmit it.

This is a fascinating interview with her and gives a little bit of an insight on what makes her tick. Although the report may have presented it half-jokingly, I do think that she is certainly someone I would consider a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in the next 10 years or so. I would say that Lene Hau and Deborah Jin of NIST would be the two leading women in physics who would be spectacular choices for the Physics Nobel Prize. It would be nice if that happens during my lifetime.


Testing The Boundaries of Science Teaching

Princeton University is testing a new way to teach science that incorporate interdisciplinary studies from several different subjects. Called the Intergrated Science Curriculum, the students learn ways to conduct experiments across different subject areas.

This sounds like a very challenging series of courses, but I can certainly see how something like this can be highly useful. Without even considering the material being learned, just the analytical skill being acquired out of something like this is valuable enough. I especially like the fact that one of the goals of the program is this:

By understanding the mathematical patterns that underlie physical phenomena everywhere in nature, students develop an intuition about the world that can help them approach problems in any classical scientific field.

Developing students' mathematical intuition is one of Botstein's goals, and one that is proving the most challenging to achieve.

This is the one major aspect of what it means to be a scientist, and certainly true for a physicist.

While the program is still being studied and being adjusted, I certainly hope it succeeds and becomes part of the established curriculum.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Visualizing Physics

Sets of images from VISUALIZING PHYSICS: Technology-Enabled Active Learning at MIT. If nothing else, these are really cool images! :)


Friday, March 16, 2007

Physics and Progress

One of the worst misconception that most people have about physics is that it is a subject matter that deals with esoteric, far out theories that have nothing to do with their everyday lives. To them, physics is equivalent to "nuclear physics", "elementary particle/high energy physics", or worst still, "string theory".

I have tried to point out several different areas of physics that actually have a direct impact in our everyday world, including producing all those electronic gizmos that we all cannot live without. The latest edition of AIP's Physics News Update up the ante and lists 3 advances in physics that have a good probability of having a direct application to our lives. These areas are certainly a major part of physics, and people need to know that. They may not be sexy and do not get their own series on Public Broadcasting TV, but they are as important as anything else.


NASA Declares No Room for Antimatter Experiment

Y'know, some time, the decision being made is SO DUMB, you really have got to laugh your head off and wish someone would smack these people on the back of the heads.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been ridiculed by many (and certainly by Bob Park) as being a glorious orbiting piece of an expensive junk whose purpose probably is an eventual tourist attraction. So, if you are a NASA Administrator and someone actually proposed a viable, highly-praised experiment that can piggy back onto the ISS, wouldn't you be all over it like a cheap suit just so you can now deny these critics that the ISS is worthless? You'd think so, wouldn't you? Of course you would, because you're smart and rational.

But not if you're Michael Griffin, the current NASA Administrator. I have no idea if his decision is being made by others higher ups, but this is just mind-boggling. Reported in this this week's Science (Science 16 March 2007):

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is a model of international cooperation, led by a dynamic Nobel Prize winner, and promises to do impressive science in space. But it may never get a chance to do its thing.

The problem is that NASA has no room on its space shuttle to launch the $1.5 billion AMS mission, which is designed to search for antimatter from its perch on the international space station. "Every shuttle flight that I have has got to be used to finish the station," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a Senate panel on 28 February.

What exactly is he rushing to finish here? A floating.... er.... what? Bed and Breakfast? You can't call it a laboratory, since that would require actual scientific work to be done.

You have to read the rest of the article. It is frustrating when really silly things like this are being done.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Meson Messes With The Standard Model

Looks like they may have discovered another meson turning into its antiparticle before decaying. A new report to be published in PRL out of SLAC shows that the neutral D-meson decays into its antiparticle before it decays away. It appears that this was not expected to occur for this particular meson due to the way its quark constituents are "linked".

Obviously, they need to do some serious thinking on what this means.


Phonons and High-Tc Superconductors

There seems to be a rather interesting development in this issue during this past week. But first, a little bit of a very, very short history on this.

The whole "holy grail" of superconductivity (and condensed matter physics, in general) is finding the "glue" that causes pairing in the high-Tc superconductor family. This glue will be the direct mechanism that causes this phenomenon in these material, very much like phonon being the pairing glue of conventional superconductors.

Currently, there are two competing scenarios for the possible candidates for this glue: phonons and magnetic interactions. While these two scenarios have been floating around for a while as the possible mechanism for high-Tc superconductors, they both came to a head-on clash with the publications of 3 papers in the same year. The papers by Kaminsky et al.[1] and Johnson et al.[2] support the idea that the magnetic channel is responsible for the electronic properties in these superconductors and thus, is the responsible mechanism for superconductivity. On the other hand, the paper by Lanzara et al.[3] argued for the phonon mechanism in the same material. What is interesting here is that all three papers essentially are looking at the same type of experimental results! All of them are studies using angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES), and all of them are looking in particular at the "kink" feature along the nodal direction of the reciprocal space of the material, with varying doping! So what you have here is the same type of experimental results, with 2 different interpretations.

While there have been many papers arguing for both phonons and magnetic interactions since then, two recent papers have appeared in Nature that made definite claims for the phonons being the responsible glue. The first one, published in 2004, was a new ARPES study of the isotope effect in the bismuth cuprate superconductor.[4] Now, while the isotope effect has been found to influence the value of the critical temperature Tc in conventional superconductors, such an observation isn't found in high-Tc superconductors, which was the initial impetus for many to drop the phonon mechanism in these material. However, this paper showed that there is a large effect on the electronic structure seen in the ARPES result when an isotope substitution was made (i.e. changing O16 to O18). This was seen in the high energy broad "hump" in the spectrum.

A new rebuttal of that paper was just published this week that repeated the same measurement (and more), and found no such effect.[5] While they do not claim to dispute the phonon picture, they certainly threw doubt into the experimental results of the earlier paper.

The second paper that also originally supported the phonon mechanism was based on results from scanning tunneling microscopy (STM).[6] Here, again, the energy scale of the "dip-hump" feature that is common in tunneling results was examined as a function of substitution between O16 and O18 isotopes. The authors argue that the "mode frequency" changes dramatically with such substitution, and such dependence argues for the phonons as the source that this mode.

This interpretation too is disputed. A new paper has argued that the tunneling results that was seen was primarily due to the inelastic tunneling effect.[7] It is argued that the paper was probing the excitation of the apical oxygen that resides in the insulating later, and not the conducting Cu-O plane where superconductivity is believed to occur.

Moral of the story: the phonon picture is far from having any convincing results that would make this as the pairing glue.


[1] Kaminsky et al., PRL 86, 1070 (2001).
[2] Johnson et al., PRL 87, 177007 (2001).
[3] Lanzara et al., Nature 412, 510 (2001).
[4] Gweon et al., Nature 430, 187 (2004).
[5] Douglas et al., Nature 446, E5 (2007).
[6] Lee et al., Nautre 442, 546 (2006).
[7] Hwang et al., Nature 446, E3 (2007).

Update on That "Quantum Computer"

This week's issue of Nature [Nature 446, 245 (15 March 2007)] has a follow up on the recent claim by D-Wave systems of building the first working quantum computer.

D-Wave's approach is known as adiabatic quantum computing. It uses a superconducting microchip to create spinning loops of current, which it says act as qubits, spinning in both directions at once. The qubits then entangle together, putting the entire machine in a 'quantum ground state'. By slowly changing the magnetic fields around the qubits, the computer's operator can then change the computer's entanglement, moving it into a new ground state. Reading this state can, according to the designers, reveal a solution to a complex problem without the need to directly read the state of individual qubits.

My initial reaction to this was how they were hoping to isolate the system and preserves the entanglement. It seems that I'm not the only one who is skeptical on this particular issue.

Aaronson says, however, that external noise could still be a problem for the machine. He also notes that the company has provided no public evidence that it has its system under control — or that its qubits are entangled correctly. According to Lloyd, researchers are still debating whether the entire approach is of any use: "Nobody knows exactly whether adiabatic quantum computing will work or not.

The most amusing part of this article was the response by Geordie Rose, D-Wave's founder and chief technology officer.

But Rose says that the company's scientists are satisfied that the system is indeed operating properly — and that the objective is to try something out and see whether it works, rather than to pin down exactly how it does so. "I understand the scientific community would like to see publications coming from us," he says. "But this project has never been about science, it's about building a machine."

Now, to be fair, he is right at some level. If he can show to some extent that it "works", then he could have said that he created a "computer". However, if he claims that this is a "quantum computer", then this is a different matter. This requires the demonstration that you ARE using the prescribed quantum effects as the mechanism to to produce the result. Considering that this is still a new and unexplored area, making such a claim DOES require scientific verification. Simply saying something like "I have a box, and it spits out results, and so it works" will not cut it, and certainly not if you want to convince that you not only have a box that works, but a box that works using a particular methodology! That is now a different animal than just engineering.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Stock Market Physics?

Holy cow! If I didn't know any better, I'd say this would be something that The Onion would put out! But this guy is damn serious! :)

This stock trader has apparently written earlier on "stock market physics", equating the dynamics of the stock market with Newton's gravitational law and Kepler's Law. His "source" is Wikipedia (of course), which as we all know, is highly reliable (don't make me gag).

Now he's back for more, and this time, he's applying more orbital motion!

Of course, as any physics major can testify, you simply cannot "plug-and-chug" into "physics equations". Such actions often lead to mindless and meaningless results. In this instance, it is not just plug-and-chug, but change-the-variable's meaning-and-substitute method. What he doesn't seem to know is that these equations were DERIVED using a set of dynamical, generalized form and then imposing "boundary conditions", which are often initial values, or constraints. This is where the physics comes in, and this is where how one sets up the starting point that makes or breaks the ability to find the solution. In classical mechanics that result in the laws being used in this case, the starting point is either the 2nd order differential equation of motion that takes into account all the forces in the system, or the Hamiltonian/Lagrangian that takes into account all the energy of the system. This is the most difficult part as far as the physics is concerned, because one has to know what are the force or energy involved, and how to write them down accurate for the relevant coordinate system. After doing this, the rest is just cranking out the mathemematics.

Unfortunately, some people think that they can just make use of the result and make "appropriate" substitutions to turn it into a valid equation for another use. This is a bastardization of physics. Such use often results in absurd and meaningless results. Pointing that somehow the results "fits" the data isn't sufficient - correlation does not imply causation. Besides, how many "fudge factors" can one juggle in a single equation anyway?


Physicist’s Stories of an Infant Universe

While people were going gaa-gaa over Hawking's public lecture at Berkeley, Nobel laureate George Smoot gave what appeared to be a fascinating lecture Monday night at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

I wonder how many people showed up for that?


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The ILC and the Economy

Most of us who follow the saga of the International Linear Collider (ILC) realize the technical and scientific importance of the project, even if it costs roughly $10 billion. So we tend to sell it based on that. However, it appears that Fermilab and some ILC advocates have been selling the ILC to its surrounding communities based on the economic impact of such a project.

This is not going to be an easy sell. As the news article has mentioned, something like that may not be very convincing. We should make sure we do not over state the importance or impact of something. The international space station suffers from the same fate, because it was sold as a scientific laboratory when not much science is actually done (or needed to be done) in such an environment. It certainly didn't justify the cost.

We should not let the ILC suffers from the same fate. Sell it as much as we can based on the scientific importance. Unless there is some clear economic impact studies, we should not push it based on such a thing. I think there are certainly a number of economic impact, but we do not need to go with the scare tactics described in the article. Not many people will buy it anymore.


Getting Soaked For Physics

Looks like this is a rather common practice. I mentioned a week ago about a teacher risking getting soaked to illustrate projectile motion to her students in the physics of splat. Looks like another physics teacher is also "sacrificing" himself in the name of science. He not only got soaked, but also got pelted with marshmellows!

Well done and kudos to all these teachers who have a very difficult job to accomplish.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Lockheed Martin Patents Quantum Entanglement Radar?

Say it isn't so! But it is true! Lockheed Martin filed a patent in Europe (what, the US Patent Office is too far?) for a new type of radar that uses quantum entanglement.

European patent number EP1750145 describes "radar systems and methods using entangled quantum particles". It says such a device could "visualise useful target details through background and/or camouflaging clutter, through plasma shrouds around hypersonic air vehicles, through the layers of concealment hiding underground facilities, [and find] IEDs [improvised explosive devices], mines and other threats - all while operating from an airborne platform". It could also be mounted on a satellite.

No! But wait, it gets better!

The Lockheed Martin patent envisages a different use for entanglement. Current radar systems become less useful as range increases, because the frequencies needed to transmit over long distances are less sensitive. According to the patent this problem can be removed by entangling light at different frequencies and then sending them out together as a bundle.

It says: "Entangled radar waves can combine one or more particles with a relatively high frequency for resolution, with one or more particles at a lower frequency for more effective propagation." The radar beam could then "propagate through different types of mediums and resolve different types of target".

Analysing the return signal would reveal the "location, speed, direction of travel, distance to target, target image, target size, target area, target volume, target dimensions, target cross-section, target surface roughness and target material composition", the patent claims.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are two problems with this:

1. We have not had any reliable applications yet of quantum entanglement, especially in sending and receiving information. I know the Zeilinger group has sent signals of kilometers, but this is still in a highly experimental stage. Certainly no experiment of any kind has been verified to do what this patent is claiming, even at the simplest stage.

2. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe there has been any kind of detection of entanglement of photons in the frequency of a radar. Are they detecting entanglement of the whole "bundle"?

Considering all the possible loss of coherence along the way, I'd say that they should have demonstrated, at the very least, how this is possible at that frequency, especially making the detection.

... and these people are US defense contractors? Yowzah!


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Our Waistlines Can't Avoid Laws of Physics

This is a rather pointed, but amusing look, at dieting and the calorie counting of the food we eat in trying to not be overweight. I thought I'd post this just in case people forget that the laws of physics works everywhere!



Out There

The New York Times has a surprisingly in-depth coverage of cosmology, especially on the issue surrounding dark energy and dark matter.

I think people need to be reminded that this is still an on-going research, and that there's still a lot of study to be done on these "dark" stuff. It is still way too early to draw up any definitive conclusion.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hawking's Star Power at UC-Berkeley

Stephen Hawking can still draw a sizable crowd. His public lecture this past Tuesday night at UC-Berkeley was sold out (of course).

However, if your read carefully the news report, there's something rather odd, and may even be troubling. One would expect that with such popularity, people are interested in hearing what Hawking has to say, and his message. However, this may not be true.

Nearly 3,000 people have paid money to see Hawking and hundreds more couldn't get tickets, making the appearance a bona fide happening on a campus where the Internet and the ever-growing demands of student life have made mass events less frequent.

Yet, in the very next part of the report, we get this:

But in contrast to the popularity of Hawking's lecture, less impressive was the response to invitations academic officials extended to freshmen to discuss the cosmologist's latest book with top professors.

Thirty-three sessions were held as mini-seminars for first-year students to grapple with Hawking's latest book, "A Briefer History of Time." All freshmen in the College of Letters and Science were sent copies of the slim hardback over the winter break and asked to read it and take part in discussions in the spring before attending Hawking's lecture.

Some of the university's most decorated faculty volunteered to lead the talks, including physics Nobel Laureate George Smoot and astronomer Alex Filippenko, winner of numerous campus and national teaching awards and the top vote-getter in students' reviews of their professors.

But Smoot taught a half-empty room of nine students.

"He's a Nobel laureate," said a dismayed Alix Schwartz, director of academics for the undergraduate division of the College of Letters and Science, "and half the students who signed up didn't show up."

What does that tell you?

We live in a "celebrity-driven" society, and I'm sure physics isn't immune by that. People didn't show up to Hawking's lectures to listen to what he has to say. They just want to see him. He could probably draw the same crowd if he does nothing but recites the phone book. That would be too bad, because obviously in this case, his celebrity has overshadowed the physics message that he does. People do not show the same level interest in his physics as they do with Stephen Hawking the person. As a physicist, if your work is no longer the main focus, then you lose that identity and you are now just like any other "celebrity".

The irony in this whole thing is that, the discussion of Hawking's book and work reveals more about Hawking than attending any of his public lectures. The students who skipped these discussion sessions did not know what they were missing.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Science Careers In Search of Women - Update

I mentioned earlier about my involvement with the Science Careers In Search Of Women Conference. It went smoothly yesterday. There were a total of more than 350 students, plus teachers, from the Chicago area that attended the conference.

At our particular facility, we had a total of 25 students and 3 teachers visiting our accelerator. They got to go into our bunker and saw a real research accelerator. I was bombarded with quite a number of very intelligent questions, both from the students and from the teachers. It was a lot of fun, and I hope, for the attendees as well.

I also gave them a few trinkets before they left, which is always a crowd favorite. This includes the latest version of the Particle Data chart (we are, after all, in the High Energy Physics Division). All in all, it was a brief, but a fun hour. Looking forward to doing this again next year.


Condensed Matter Physics

The 2007 APS March Meeting wraps up today for another year. If you have read my earlier entry on Love Your Gizmos, you would have heard about why many in the public are still unaware of the field of condensed matter physics.

Consider the fact that when most bright-eyed physics majors in their first year entering a university, they are either not aware, or hardly know anything about a field of physics known as condensed matter. Yet, if they go on to receive their Ph.D in physics, there is a chance chance that they will be graduating with a specialization in such a field! It is estimated by various professional physics organizations that roughly 50% of all practicing physicists are in condensed matter physics/material science. It is certainly the largest and most dominant division under the wing of the American Physical Society. It also produces the largest amount of peer-reviewed publications.

So what is "Condensed Matter Physics"? Condensed matter (CM) is the study of matter. It is not the study of atoms, molecules, and particles in isolation, but rather it is the study of atoms, molecules, and particles when there's a gazillion of them AND they are also interacting with each other. This is what goes on in solids, and very often in certain types of liquids and gasses also. Solid State physics is a large part of CM. This means that CM covers a huge range of phenomena, ranging from the properties of metals, semiconductors, insulators, to superconductivity, to magnetism, etc. It is because it is such a huge field that CM is the only area of physics with two separate sections in the Physical Review Letters. It is also the only subject area of the Physical Review journals series that produces FOUR volumes per month (Physical Review B).

So why is CM so huge and so important? The most obvious reason is that this is the one area of physics that produces direct practical applications. All of the advances in modern electronics came out of our understanding of the properties of materials and our ability to fabricate, manipulate and control them. So when someone asks if physics has any practical applications, chances are he/she isn't aware of this area of physics.

However, the non-obvious reason that is equally important is that the advancements and discoveries coming out of CM have important and wide-ranging implications throughout physics. At the most fundamental level, CM studies how things interact with each other. This knowledge transcends CM physics and is important in any field of physics. Important discoveries made by Phil Anderson on the broken gauge symmetries are now common principles used in field theories and particle physics. The Higgs mechanism itself came out of CM. Thus, the progress in the theoretical understanding of CM systems have wide-ranging impact on practically all of physics.

The third reason why CM is so important is because this is the area of physics that consistently produces a description of a phenomena with some of the highest degree of certainty. Because of the ability to fabricate and control a measurement, CM phenomena can often be tested repeatedly, often by simply changing one parameter at a time. This allows for some of the most reproducible results anywhere in physics, giving it the highest degree of certainty. In fact, the value of physical constants such as the Planck constant "h" and the elementary charge "e" are determined from values measured from CM physics experiments. CM experiments also produce some of the most convincing evidence for the validity of quantum mechanics and special relativity.

There are many exciting discoveries and phenomena left to be studied in CM, which leads the study of many-body phenomena. I highly recommend readin Piers Coleman recent article on this, which should also give a flavor of the importance of such a field. I can only hope that many incomming students would at least be aware of the wide horizon that is out there, and that physics isn't just some esoteric area of study that is confined only to nuclear, particle, or even (ugh) string theory. There are still many exciting and unfinished revolution in condensed matter physics.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Physics of Splat

Here's a physics high school teacher willing to get wet just to illustrate the physics of projectile motion. Good for her!



Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Stolen Lawrence Nobel Medal Recovered

One of the few instances that justice is served very quickly.

The stolen Ernest Lawrence's Nobel Prize medal that was stolen overnight has been recovered and the thief apprenhended. Hooray!

As a punishment, he should be made to work through all of Jackson's Electrodynamics until he got it all correct.


Love Your Gizmos? Thank a Physicst

Most people still think that physicists means people who work in esoteric field of study such as particle physics, astrophysics, nuclear physics, or worst still, String Theory! :)

It is a fact that the largest division under the American Physical Society is the division of condensed matter/material science. This field studies the property of matter and material, and how large number of particles interact with each other. It has a direct impact on many of our lives, including all of our modern electronics. Yet, most people are not aware of the existence of such fields.

This news report, in conjuction with the APS March Meeting currently going on in Denver, highlights the field of condensed matter physics, and why most people don't know about it. Students starting out in physics, especially, would benefit from a larger horizon of what physics is and what many physicists do. This is because inevitably, they will have a large probability of ending up in this field of study rather than, say, string theory.


More On The Stolen Nobel Medal

Nature has a more comprehensive report on the stolen Lawrence Nobel Prize medal. It appears that throughout history, there have been a few instances of the "adventure" of several medals given to various people, including the melting of a couple to prevent them from being taken by the Nazi.

Very interesting!


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ernest Lawrence Nobel Prize Medal Stolen

This is certainly reprehensible. Ernest Lawrence's Nobel Prize medal was stolen overnight. It was in a locked display case at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley.


More Extrodinary Value of Accelerators

I pointed out a terrific article by Swapan Chattopadhyay on the value of particle accelerators. If you need more convincing, or want to see how this could have a direct impact on your lives, here's more evidence. This is where the next generation of cancer treatment may make use of particle accelerators. In fact, particle accelerators are already being used in hospitals to produce x-rays.


A Pioneering Physicist ... Who Happens To Be A Woman

It is appropriate that as we celebrate (at least here in the US) the Women Month, and as I prepare for my involvement in the Women in Science week here at Argonne, that we highlight one of the most important figures in Physics/Engineering right now. She is Mildred Dresselhaus.

This news article provides a brief background of her life and accomplishments. It is quite impressive, and made even more considering what she has to go through as a women in a field dominated by men.


Did Fermilab Observed the Higgs?

A recent paper by X.-G. He et al in PRL[1] suggested that the recent decay of the Sigma+ particle into a proton and muon-antimuon might indicate the presence of a Higgs particle, but at the "wrong" mass than that predicted by the Standard Model. They claim that the 214.3 MeV mass could be explained within the Supersymmetric model. If this is right, then the Standard Model would have to be overhauled to include the supersymmetric extension.

Still, there were only 3 events detected at the HyperCP experiment at Fermilab, and this is not the first time there have been claims of possible Higgs observation. I don't think anyone will be convinced of anything until the LHC goes on line.

More review of this work can be found on PhysicsWeb (free registration required).


[1] H.-G. He et al. PRL 98, 081802 (2007).

More Woodstock of Physics

More news article on the Woodstock of Physics being remembered this year. This time, it is from the New York Times. What I'm reading here matches all that I have heard about the event from those who attended it. It sounds like a truly magical evening-into-morning. Having attended the Woodstock of Physics West after the discovery of the superconductivity in MgB2, I can only imagine the commotion during that event.


UPDATE: Don't miss AIP's Physics News Update's coverage on this topic.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Extrodinary Value of Accelerators

Swapan Chattopadhyay has a very good reflection on the value of particle accelerators. Don't miss it. It might help get ride of the prevailing wrong impression that

particle accelerators = particle collider/particle physics experiment

.. which is one of my pet peeve which I try to correct every time I encounter it.


The Woodstock of Physics Remembered

20 years ago, around this time of the year, the landmark event called the Woodstock of Physics occurred during the APS March Meeting in New York. It was the year after Bednorz and Mueller discovered high-Tc superconductors.

This article recounts those euphoric moments where physicists became the center of attention of the public and the media. Many years later, a similar, but not in the same scale, gathering of physicists during the 2001 APS March Meeting in Seattle occured. Dubbed Physics Woodstock West, it was precipitated by the discovery of superconductivity in MgB2 at ~50K by the Akimitsu group.

Physicists seldom get overly excited by anything. But when they do, it is an event not to be missed!


Incidentally, the 2007 APS March Meeting is going on this week in Denver, CO.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bastardization of Quantum Mechanics

I wrote earlier on why Quantum Mechanics is so difficult to understand for laymen, especially those who only read about it in pop-science articles and books. The fact that, without any understanding of the mathematical formalism, QM will appear as if its various principles and consequences pop up out of nowhere, because it has no connection with our classical world that we are so familiar with. The consequence of such an impression is that one can almost make up anything one likes, because it appears that QM does the same thing.

What this implies clearly is that, if one lacks the understanding of the mathematical formalism of QM, one really hasn't understood QM at all! One ends up with all these weird, unexplained, unfamiliar, and frankly, rather strange ideas on how the world works. These conceptual description QM may even appear "mystical". It is not surprising that such connections are being made between QM and various forms of mysticism. One lacks any connection with the existing reality that one has understood. So somehow, since QM can do this, it seems as if it's a licence to simply invent stuff weely neely.

We already see this being done. In the movie "What the $*%&$# Do We Know?", QM was bastardized to the extent that it was used to justified various crackpottery and pseudoscience. Not only will people who do not understand the formalism of QM will be seduced by such a thing, but people who do not understand the difference between anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence will also be fooled into thinking that the various pseudosciences have the same level of evidence as other sciences.

It is disheartening to see that such bastardization continues, especially in the popular media. This article, presumably from a local newspaper in Vermont, talks about, among other thing, psychic and telepathic ability of animals and humans (and between animals and humans). It would have made a good laugh if it weren't for the fact that, as expected, they use QM as a justification for having such ability.

"Until a few years ago I was a firm non-believer in animal communication, an absolutely firm-scientific-skeptic-non-believer," says one of Grillo's clients, Kate Selby, 42, owner and director of riding at The Equestry in New Haven.

"The more and more you read about quantum physics, and particle matter, and how everything is made of energy, including communication, it has been proven over and over again, scientifically, that matter is energy, and communication and thought are energy. If you believe that ... you can access any kind of energy."

This is the very thing that I had addressed. This person cannot distinguish between the scientific evidence of QM that ".. has been proven over and over again.." versus the unproven and frankly, dubious evidence of pseudoscience such as psychic and telepathy. And the fact that QM can have such phenomena, it somehow is a license to apply the same thing to unverified claims. Why? Because they have no understanding about the mathematical rigor of QM. All they see are these phenomena that looks weird and appear out of nowhere that are not related to any reality that they are familiar with. Thus, one can invent and justify anything one likes!

Unfortunately, this is probably not uncommon. It occurs all over the 'net in the numerous crackpot websites. And it will probably be reported in the popular media that often do not have anyone educated in any decent level of science (much less physics) to be able to put the brakes on publishing nonsense like this. I sometime want to yell at these newspaper editors and force them to read books like Bob Park's "Voodoo Science". But of course, such books would force them to actually think, and we don't want them to do that, do we?


Solar Energy Conversion

Don't miss this terrific article in the March 2007 issue of Physics Today. It talks about the conversion of light from the sun into usable solar energy. With our current energy crisis (yes, there is a crisis, just that people don't know it), any effort to use other forms of energy more efficiently should be considered seriously.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Good Experiment, Not Good Reporting

This is in the spirit of an earlier report that was a good speech, but not good reporting. The difference being that one could possible forgive that earlier report. It was done by an amateur for a college newspaper. Once can probably understand (overlook?) the errors and inaccuracy.

But what is the excuse for this one? It is supposed to be a site that publicizes research in the European Union, so one rather expects that people who actually write such a thing would have some clue on what they're writing. However, there are at least a couple of errors or, at best, misleading information contained in this report. In fact, two of them are in this sentence alone:

Experts were able to use the synchrotron, a particle accelerator located in Grenoble, France, that was designed to study high-energy particle physics, to expose gold to unprecedented pressures.

Now, I've never been to the synchrotron center in Grenoble, but I've worked at a synchrotron center before, so I know quite a bit what a typical synchrotron center is. It is NOT a place to study "high energy particle physics". That is a common misconception, especially when someone hears that there are particles being accelerated. They don't realize that there are no "collision", at least not intentionally. Not all particle accelerators are also particle colliders.

But what is even more amusing is that, if you read the sentence as is, you get the impression that there are people who use a synchrotron "... to expose gold to unprecedented pressures." This is physically impossible, not to mention, meaningless.

What happened here is that pressure is applied mechanically to a diamond crystal (probably with an anvil), and then using the radiation from the synchrotron (which is what a synchrotron is used for anyway), they looked at probably the x-ray diffraction/scattering curves to see a change in the crystal structure. X-ray scattering is very good at doing that.

To say that science reporting in the media is still disappointing in terms of quality is an understatement.


Should All Students Take Physics?

It appears that in the effort to bolster science literacy, some high schools in the US are beginning to require all students to take a class in physics.

Boosters say physics should no longer be seen as the hard-to-grasp province of math whizzes, but should be taught to everyone because it's key to developing analytical skills and a true understanding of chemistry and biology.

While I think this may be a step in the right direction, some time I believe that these things are not spelled out explicitly to the students, especially on why taking a class in physics is important REGARDLESS of what they do later on in life. When I used to run undergraduate intro physics labs (as many graduate students in physics tend to do as TA work), I remember telling my students in no uncertain terms that while it is "nice" that they could understand and remember some of the physics material that they got out of the course and labs, what is more important to acquire is the skill and analytical ability out of the course and labs. I flat told them that the majority of them are not physics majors, and will probably not use that much "direct" physics material that they learn in the class, even if they are engineers. But what they will learn and acquire are the ability to think things in a systematic, analytical manner (if the physics lessons are done properly), and how we gain knowledge and certainty on things that we accept. This ability transcends physics, and is useful in all aspects of life. The fact that some people do not have such ability is why we have people believing in pseudosciences, and why people cannot tell the difference between anecdotal evidence and valid scientific evidence.

So I'm all for teaching physics to everyone. However, I think in many cases, the students need to be told WHY they are being made to learn such a thing. They should be made aware that along with the material, HOW physics is done should also be the focus. It must be introduced deliberately, rather than subconsciously or via accident. For many of these students who will grow up and NOT become a physicist or a scientist, such ability to think clearly and arrive at a decision based on valid evidence will be a crucial factor in their lives.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Possible Construction of ILC to be Delayed?

In the March 2, 2007 issue of Science, reality smacks into the fact of high energy physicists in the US.

American physicists want to build the ILC at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, and researchers had hoped to break ground in 2012 and fire up the ILC's beams of electrons and positrons in 2019. But last week, DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach told the government's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel to add 5 years or more to that timeline, extending a projected gap during which the United States will not have a particle smasher (see table).

Now I can't say that I'm totally surprised by this. I have mentioned before that funding for high energy physics during the past 10 have been very much neglected, in spite of all the advances and discoveries made. All of this leads to very much the end of any particle collider experiment in the US by the end of 2009. So the demotion of priority of the ILC is not a suprise. It merely reflects how much this area of physics is under-appreciated.

But what is amusing (some may even call it highly annoying), is Orbach's subsequent comment/suggestion:

Orbach asked the panel to bridge the gap with smaller-scale projects, a request that vexes researchers whose experiments were canceled in part to free up resources for the ILC.

..... Meanwhile, Orbach's call for a program of smaller projects evoked jeers from researchers whose experiments had been cut. "This is really stupid and very frustrating because we had a program," says Sheldon Stone, a physicist at Syracuse University in New York who worked on an experiment called BTeV that would have run at the Tevatron collider at Fermilab. In 2005, DOE nixed BTeV (Science, 11 February 2005, p. 832), and months later the National Science Foundation killed a pair of experiments known as RSVP that would have run at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York (Science, 19 August 2005, p. 1163). Last April, DOE joined a Chinese neutrino experiment rather than backing one at a nuclear reactor in Braidwood, Illinois.

I suppose one should get used to govt. officials telling us to do one thing, and then turn around and cut the funding for doing just that. Still, it is highly disappointing that they are still able to utter such thing with a straight face.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Hawking To Experience A Brief History of Weightlessness

This is in all the news media today, so I might as well report it.

Stephen Hawking will be making a trip in one of the vomit comet, an airplane that can make those brief moments of weightlessness. I guess he wants to experience the analogous sensation of "zero g" for himself. I hope someone videotape this, because this could easily turn into a rather amusing event. OK, ok.. I know I'm not being nice here, but I can't help trying to imagine what would be happening. I mean, if he's still straped to his wheelchair, he's going to be a rather dangerous object bobbling around in that plane (LOOK OUT!).

I need to stop giggling. Talk to you later!



Explore the History of Physics at Saturday Seminars

If you are in the St. Louis area, you may not want to miss this series of public seminars at Washington University, St. Louis. They look like a terrific set of seminars of the history of several areas of physics, including MRI/NMR.


More Predictions Falsified And Will Possibly Be Ignored?

Hum... I didn't get into the trouble that I was predicting when I wrote about the falsified predictions of Arkani-Hamed et al. but ignored. Maybe people were making sure that my prediction is falsified! :)

Well then, here's another one. In this week's Issue of Nature, March 1, 2007, Clive Speake wrote about another prediction of String Theory made by Sundrum[1]. In it, graviton is a "fat string", with a spatial scale associated with it at 90 microns. This means that the good old Newton's gravitational constant is expected to deviate from its standard value below 90 microns.

Well guess what folks, the same fate that has befallen the Arkani-Hamed prediction of sub-millimeter deviation may occur here too. A recent measurement of the gravitational constant made by Kapner et al.[2] have measured the gravitational constant up to 55 microns, with no deviation from the expected value.

Now what?



[1] R. Sundrum, Phys. Rev. D 69, 044014 (2004).
[2] D.J. Kapner, et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 98, 021101 (2007).