Friday, September 28, 2007

Quantum Weirdness In A Lab

A terrific experiment has been reported in the new issue of Science which you shouldn't miss.

V. Parigi et al., "Probing Quantum Commutation Rules by Addition and Subtraction of Single Photons to/from a Light Field", Science v.317, p.1890 (2007).

Abstract: The possibility of arbitrarily "adding" and "subtracting" single photons to and from a light field may give access to a complete engineering of quantum states and to fundamental quantum phenomena. We experimentally implemented simple alternated sequences of photon creation and annihilation on a thermal field and used quantum tomography to verify the peculiar character of the resulting light states. In particular, as the final states depend on the order in which the two actions are performed, we directly observed the noncommutativity of the creation and annihilation operators, one of the cardinal concepts of quantum mechanics, at the basis of the quantum behavior of light. These results represent a step toward the full quantum control of a field and may provide new resources for quantum information protocols.

Read also the Perspective on this paper by R. Boyd et al. in the same issue of the journal. In that Perspective, the description of what has been accomplished can be summed up in these 2 paragraphs:

In an intriguing and illustrative report on page 1890 of this issue, Parigi et al. present the results of a laboratory demonstration of what happens in the quantum mechanical operations of photon creation and annihilation, which lacks commutativity. These authors add a single photon to a light beam, which corresponds to the action of the standard quantum mechanical creation operator â. They can also subtract a single photon from the light beam, which corresponds to the annihilation operator a.

Parigi et al. measure the quantum mechanical state of a thermal light field after performing these two operations on it, and they show that the final state depends on the order in which the operations are performed. This result is a striking confirmation of the lack of commutativity of quantum mechanical operators. Moreover, the authors present the strongly counterintuitive result that, under certain conditions, the removal of a photon from a light field can lead to an increase in the mean number of photons in that light field, as predicted earlier.

This is such a clever experiment. And one would think that for people who are still dissing the photon concept, this is almost a smack in the face. One can only hope....


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mysterious Big Burst of Radio Waves

Astronomers have a puzzle on their hands. As reported in the Science daily news (link probably open for free only for a limited time), a large burst of radio signal came and went mysteriously.

The mystery signal represents something else entirely. It packed as much energy in its mere 5-millisecond duration as the sun puts out in a month, making it by far the strongest, quickest signal radio astronomers have observed, although it wasn't nearly as powerful as the elusive gamma ray bursts that populate the universe.

This is where science expands its boundary of knowledge, when unexpected discovery, measurements, or results are obtained. So what could be the possible cause of such a signal?

Reporting online today in Science, the researchers say they think only two phenomena could be behind the radio burst they discovered: the merger of two neutron stars or the final evaporation of a black hole. NASA astrophysicist Valerie Connaughton of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, isn't sure either hypothesis will hold up, because no radio burst has ever been associated with either phenomenon. If this one can be linked, however, it would be a "huge deal," she says.

So stay tune!


PhET Wins PhIRST Prize!

Sometime I amuse myself with silly things more than I should.... :)

The Physics Education Technology Project launched by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman has won first prize in a contest run by the journal Science and the US National Science Foundation.

The Physics Education Technology Project, or PhET, was honored in the fifth annual International Science and Technology Visualization Challenge in the category of interactive media. More than 200 contest entries were received from 23 countries on six continents.

The PhET Web site offers more than 60 free interactive simulations allowing users to explore physics concepts and their connections to phenomena in everyday life. PhET's "virtual" physics experiments can be used to explore such things as what happens as electricity flows through wires and light bulbs, how the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere warms the Earth, what happens in a microwave oven and how a laser works.

And if you didn't know how PhET came into existence, this is the reason why Carl Wieman is someone many people look up to:

Wieman, director of PhET, launched the project in 2002 using $250,000 of the money he received for winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics together with a comparable amount from an NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar award and CU-Boulder.

It is a very good website if you haven't visited it already. So certainly a recognition well-deserved!


Homer's Physics

It seems that The Simpsons have been involved in the sciences a lot more extensively than we know. First we have the article on how scientific The Simpsons TV series really is. Then we got Paul Halpern book about science and The Simpsons. Now, we have someone teaching physics in such a way that Homer Simpson can understand it and called it Homer Physics.

Kaspi elicited several questions and more than the occasional 'Ahh!' of epiphany during her recent presentation on neutron stars, the dense, rapidly rotating stars created from the collapse of a larger star: "What makes a pulsar a pulsar?" "Does it always stay bright or does it fade away?"

Over the course of about an hour, Kaspi would answer these questions and more, in the simplest of terms. Of course, the video of the rapidly rotating figure skater helped make the presentation accessible enough for even Homer Simpson to understand—hence, the name of the lecture series.

I guess you have to what got to do in trying to communicate to people and make the subject matter interesting.


Learning Physics and Learning ABOUT Physics

I think most people confuse between the two. This is true especially for laymen who do not go through the rigorous study in physics.

Learning physics is defined as what we normally have in a university setting. There's a series of information, understanding, discourse, skills, and even interaction that are all involved in learning physics. Physics, as is true for a number of other subject areas, isn't a passive subject that you can just and think you have understood what you've read. I can tell you that F=ma, and even define what those symbols mean, but I can guarantee you that if this is your first time seeing it, you'd never be able to use that equation to solve the problem of how much load is being supported by a structure. just simply reading a physics text give you only a superficial knowledge of the material. Until you can use it to solve actual problems and see how it is applied or how it work, then you can say that you've understood it. Physics involves knowledge AND skills, and in this case, it is the skill to think about something and to know how to solve it. These are the steps involved in learning physics.

Learning ABOUT physics is different. You can pick up one of the popular pop-science books and learn about physics. Since these books almost have no mathematics, physics principles are often illustrated either via analogies, or via specific examples. While this technique is perfectly fine, what is missing here out of necessity is that the reader does not see the most general form of the principle, which in all cases can only be described in the clearest way in mathematical forms. For example, try to explain what Gauss's law is. You can attempt to say:

The sum of all the electric field crossing a closed surface and perpendicular to that surface area is proportional to the amount of enclosed charge within that surface.

You'd get blank stares looking back at you. So instead, you either use an example (point charge is popular), or you use analogies (water flowing out of some opening or source).

Now this is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, in many cases, the person reading or hearing such a thing often either forget, or overlook the fact that these are analogies or special cases. If he/she sees another example, he/she might not know that this really did come from the same principle. Or worse still, he/she thinks that that example is IT, and that the principle is only represented by that example. They start thinking that the example IS the principle. Just look around the 'net and see how many people think quantum mechanics is nothing more than the uncertainty principle, or wave-particle "duality". They seem to have missed that all of these came out of a set of starting points, including the QM postulates and how QM treats observable operators. The uncertainty principle and others are simply consequences of these starting points. So in other words, they only saw the shadow of the animal and think that this IS the animal!

The reason why I'm writing this is that I've encountered another case where someone with only a superficial knowledge of physics and who got it by reading pop-science books (in this case, Hawking's "A Brief History of Time") seems to think that he knows as much physics as I do. One can already imagine how frustrating it can be when dealing with such a person. When you try to show where he made a mistake, he often "quote" passages from the book and then tries to extol the prestige of Hawking ("He's a world famous physicist. He can't be wrong here!").

There's nothing wrong in wanting to know a bit more about physics via reading such pop-science books. Heck, I've even recommended many of my friends to a few of them. The error here is in deluding oneself into thinking that, even if one understood everything that's written in these books, that one has learned physics. This is wrong. What one has learned is something ABOUT physics, rather than physics itself. Try to solve a typical physics problem using what one learned out of these books. This would be a very clear test of one's knowledge. Learning about physics gives one a brief glimpse of physics. It should never be confused with an actual learning of physics.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Future of Fermilab

This MSNBC Reporter got a closer look at Fermilab and its future as the LHC is about to go online. That report on Project X was covered in one of my previous blog entry here.

In the worst case scenario, the Tevatron will be shut down by the end of 2009, but Fermilab itself will continue as a research lab in many other areas.

Oddone also points to Fermilab's role in a plethora of experiments probing the mysteries of the neutrino, dark matter and dark energy, on Earth and perhaps in space. Elsewhere on the astrophysics front, Fermilab is a collaborator in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as well as the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory.

Still, it is a particle collider laboratory and I don't think anyone would be happy if it doesn't reclaim that role after the Tevatron.


Storing Light Here, and Retrieving It There - Follow Up

I mentioned earlier this very cool experiment by Lene Hau and her group where she stored the light in one gas, and then retrieve it later in another gas. Nature has a video podcast with an interview with Hau. She explains how this is done, and why it is and exciting and important work.

So take a look at it if you haven't discovered it already.


Only 29 Percent of Americans Have a College Degree

This is a rather curious article in of itself. But this part clearly shows that the perception of what physicists do is still clouded with misinformation.

I recently met a man with a PhD in physics. There's an accomplishment, wouldn't you say? A degree in upper level sciences - surely we need more like him! Actually, no, we don't. After the linear accelerator program died in the 1980s, the market for his skills dried up, and he retrained as a brain surgeon. Because he needed a job.

Maybe the writer is specifically referring to this particular person's area of specialization (it isn't clear). However, it is clear that she isn't aware this one fact:

that the largest fraction of practicing physicists are not in particle/high energy, but rather in condensed matter/material science, an area in which she DOES need more of if realizes how the conveniences that she enjoys came out of such fields.

And we haven't even factored in all the commissioned studies that have been produced indicating that our deterioration in scientific knowledge is putting the nation at risk.


Panofsky Passed Away at Age 88

Stanford University has announced that Wolfgang Panofsky, Director Emeritus and found of SLAC, has passed away at the age of 88. He leaves a long and illustrious legacy in the world of high energy physics, and physics in general.

A photo album of his life would open to snapshots of the Panofsky family leaving pre-war Germany to escape persecution, Panofsky as a young man driving Albert Einstein (a friend of his father) while at Princeton, Panofsky in a B-29 bomber 10,000 feet above the world's first nuclear explosion in New Mexico.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Quantum Spin Hall Effect

This certainly would be a major advancement in spintronics if it can be verified and manufactured. A group at Stanford and at University of Würzburg have fabricated a spintronic device based on the spin states of the semiconductor, whereby the transport in this case is not the charges, but rather the spin "current" of the electrons.

Using special semiconductor material made from layers of mercury telluride and cadmium telluride, the experimenters employed quantum tricks to align the spin of electrons like a parade of tops spinning together. Under these extraordinary conditions, the current flows only along the edges of the sheet of semiconductor. Interestingly, electrons with identical spins travel in the same direction together, while electrons with the opposite spin move in the opposite direction. Unlike existing semiconductors, this unusual electric current does not generate destructive heat through dissipation of power or the collision of electrons with impurities in the semiconducting material.

So there isn't your usual heat dissipation via Ohmic heating. This certainly is the next logical step in semiconductor physics.

And there are people who can't figure out the use of quantum mechanics? :)


When Science Suddenly Mattered, in Space and in Class

This is a New York Times piece on the same issue on the importance of science and mathematics education. It is disheartening to realize that even after several studies spanning many years, the issue of the lack or weakening of the importance of science and mathematics education hasn't gone away and, according to some, is worsening.

In 1983, a bipartisan federal commission warned in the report “A Nation at Risk” that the country was engulfed in a “rising tide of mediocrity,” citing particularly a “steady decline in science achievement.”

More than 20 years later, a panel established by the National Academies, the nation’s leading organizations in science, medicine and engineering, said much the same thing. In “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a report issued in 2005, the panel said the erosion of the nation’s scientific and technical strength threatened America’s strategic and economic security.

Of course, if you have followed this blog, there seems to be no end in the different methodologies done at both the high school level and at the college level to try to raise the interest of the students to study science and mathematics. It appears that most of the blame for the lack of science education in the US falls on the way it is being taught.

There is no shortage of ideas about how to turn things around. But people who study the issue see several problems.

Dr. Malcolm said some of the blame must go to the way classes are taught, with too much emphasis on memorizing terminology and not enough on concepts. Most students receive teaching-to-the-test instruction, she and other experts say, in which science laboratories are organized like cookbooks, with ingredients, equipment and instructions — and results — known in advance.

Ideally, Dr. Malcolm said, students should be given the chance to do real research — to experience framing a question, deciding what kind of evidence is relevant and figuring out how to collect it. “I’m not saying there’s not drudgery in science,” she said, “but when you get to the point where all the data are sitting in front of you and you start seeing patterns and nature begins to speak — that’s a kick.”

I certainly think that how it is being taught can make a difference. However, speaking for myself, I came out of such a system that is being criticized, and I know many others who do. In fact, if you look at the educational system in China and Japan, the two nations who are now producing scientists and engineers at a very high rate, they have a system that is even more rigid than the US. Almost every point of criticism that is in this article are what is being practiced there. Yet, it is working effectively in those places and they seem to be producing quite a number of excellent scientists.

I don't think it is all on the educational system. I think a major part of the lack of interest in studying science is (i) the perceived lack of importance and (ii) the perceived lack of employment that is commensurate with the amount of education one has to obtain. Let's face it, not many people are willing to spend 4 years in undergraduate education, 6 years in graduate school, then maybe 3-4 years as a postdoc, and then maybe, just maybe, get a $50,000 starting salary.

Until being a scientist, and in particular, being a physicist, is perceived to be a viable and realistic job opportunity, not many students will consider it.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Hidden Galaxies Detected

I'm so glad they are not calling these "Dark Galaxies", because that would bring out a whole slew of problem.

It seems that astronomers are now able to detect dim galaxies (as in not very visible, not as in "stupid") that are in front of very bright quasars.

To locate the so-called "invisible" galaxies, Bouche and his team looked through huge catalogues of quasar data and picked out those with "dips" in their light signatures. Then, using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in the mountains of northern Chile, the team searched for galaxies close to the pulse of quasar light.

The astronomers capitalized on the VLT's special infrared spectrometer, called SINFONI, to pick apart 20 patches of sky around the quasars to search for galaxies from the time when the universe was about 6 billion years old, almost half its current age. Seventy percent of the time, they found a galaxy hiding in the "headlights" of a quasar.

Very neat!


A Brief History of the Hawkings

Humm... we seem to have a lot of stories lately (well, a couple in a row so far) about off-springs or descendants of famous physicists. I wrote about the marriage of the grandson of John Bardeen earlier. Now comes an interview with Lucy Hawking, the daughter of Stephen Hawking.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Wedding Announcement

No, not mine! :)

I've never done any wedding announcements on here. But this is a bit different. I've always been curious to see how off-springs of famous physicists turn out. Many of course follow in their parent's footsteps and become physicists themselves.

If you've read my essay here on the late John Bardeen, you'd know that I consider him as the most influential physicist that has ever lived. So I was trolling the news and read something related to the wedding of one of his grandsons.

The bridegroom, 33, is the director of corporate development for The New York Times Company; he helps manage mergers and acquisitions and other corporate strategies. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and has an M.B.A. from Columbia.

He is a son of Nancy Thomas Bardeen and James M. Bardeen of Seattle. The bridegroom’s mother is a tutor at the Loft Writing Center of North Seattle Community College. His father is an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The bridegroom’s paternal grandfather, the late John Bardeen, was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956, for helping to develop the first semiconductor transistor, and in 1972, for a theory of superconductivity.

Obviously, being smart and well-educated runs very much in that family. Congratulations to the bride and groom!


Saturday, September 22, 2007

NuSTAR Given NuLife!

OK, so that wasn't as funny of a title as I would like. Still, it's one piece of great news coming out of NASA these days, and an exception to the recent trends of either cancellation, or having to choose to fund one over the other. The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission that was canceled last year has been given the funding to go ahead with its project.

"We are very excited to be able to restart the NuSTAR mission," said Alan Stern, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "NuSTAR has more than 500 times the sensitivity of previous instruments that detect black holes. It's a great opportunity for us to explore an important astronomical frontier. We are getting more and more from the science budget we have, and the restart of the highly valued NuSTAR mission is an example of that."

Could the arrival of Stern at NASA be something to rejoice in terms of funding for these small mission?

With the arrival of Stern this spring, small explorer missions, called SMEX, were back on the table. NASA will invite proposals by January for three new SMEX missions. NuSTAR's resurrection is a bonus, Boggs said.

"This is a very good sign that NASA and Alan Stern are committed to continuing NASA's tradition of performing cutting edge science," he said.

"he" as in Steven E. Boggs, a collaborator for the mission and an associate professor of physics at UC Berkeley.

Let's hope more saner heads will prevail at NASA.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Terminal Velocity

I wrote a while ago about the paper on how physics is handled in Hollywood blockbusters and the limited lessons that they can give. Strangely enough, in the current online issue of The Answer Man (September 20, 2007) at the famous film critic Roger Ebert's website, there was a rather interesting lesson on terminal velocity between a person and a bullet after both have left an airplane.

Q. It is foolish of me to wonder about the physics of a movie that contains skull-piercing carrots and bullet-propelled merry-go-rounds, but in "Shoot 'em Up" would there be any point to shooting down at Mr. Smith when he is falling from the plane? He should be traveling at terminal velocity and wouldn't the bullets also be going that fast, too? Hence, they couldn't catch him?
Alex Kincade, St. Joseph, Mich.

A. According to, "If an object falls with a larger surface area perpendicular to the direction of motion, it will experience a greater force and a smaller terminal velocity. On the other hand, if the object fell with a smaller surface area perpendicular to the direction of motion, it will experience a smaller force and a greater terminal velocity." A skydiver has a larger surface area than a bullet; also, the skydiver is falling, but the bullet is propelled by an explosive charge.

While certainly the cross-sectional geometry would dictate a amount of drag force exerted on the object, one also cannot ignore the mass of the object here, no? For example, take 2 object of the same shape by different mass. While they would fall at the same rate in vacuum, the one with the large mass has a larger gravitational force, and requires a larger drag force (i.e. at a higher velocity) to cause it to reach a terminal velocity.

But the other aspect of it is also interesting. While it is true that the bullet was propelled out of the gun (i.e. initial velocity is some value) while the person fell out of the plane (initial velocity is approximately zero), would the bullet still reaches the same terminal velocity? I say it would, because if it is moving faster than the terminal velocity, the drag force is larger than the gravitational force on it, and will slow it down until they both are equal. So whether the bullet will catch up to the person or not depends how far that person has started his fall.

In other words, what happened as described in the movie isn't impossible physically. But it isn't necessarily what can happen all the time since a few other facts are involved.

So what do you think? Did I analyze this correctly myself?


Existence of Fractional States Even in 3D?

It is always fun when you read about new and unexpected observations, even if it is just an initial observation that requires much more studies.

We all know about fractional quantum hall/fractional charge phenomenon observed and verified many years ago. These were seen on 2D material where the behavior observed appears to indicate that the charge carriers have fractional charges (e/3 at that time). The understanding that we have today is that the dimensionality (i.e. 2D) is the requirement for such an effect to take place.

Now we have preliminary indication that this may not be the case. A report in this week's Science on Bismuth indicates hints that such fractional effects can also be seen in 3D material (K. Behnia et al., Science v.317, p.1729 (2007)). While the signal may not be as clean as the 2D case, there are distinct indications that some form of fractionalization (they have assigned a filling level as 1/2) is taking place.

So now, if this is true, we will have to go back and revise our understanding of the behavior of strongly-correlated electrons and the role of dimensionality in such a system.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Batters May Achieve Dramatic Increases In Home Runs Through Steroids

This should add to the controversy.

Tufts University physicist Roger Tobin is about to publish a paper in the journal American Journal of Physics titled "On the potential of a chemical Bonds: Possible effects of steroids on home run production in baseball" (I wonder if that "chemical Bonds" was a pun?)

A change of only a few percent in the average speed of the batted ball, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, is enough to increase home run production by at least 50 percent," he says. This disproportionate effect arises because home runs are relatively rare events that occur on the "tail of the range distribution" of batted balls.

I wonder if this should be added to our collective knowledge on the Physics of Baseball? :)


Einstein Failed Mathematics?

For some odd reason, this myth seems to perpetuate no matter how many times it gets debunked (very much like the claim that evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

This myth is now a new entry in a collection of physics myths. Hopefully, there's enough people who know about this to help destroy it.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nobel Laureate Disses NASA's Manned Spaceflight

The International Space Station is an orbital turkey.....

That's what Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg said.

You go, Steven!

As many physicists/scientists have mentioned many times (including Bob Park in his weekly column What's New), manned space flight program has not produced much science, and certainly not commensurate with the cost.

"No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value."

What is even sadder is that these types of projects that have no scientific merit are getting the green light, whereas really strong science projects like the Beyond Einstein missions are having to fight among themselves to be the one to take off. NASA has been forced to be more of a "cheerleader" rather than a scientific organization, where what gets funded has more to do with political whims rather than solid science. Now this is fine if this is what is being sold to the public. If the public is silly enough to prefer to pay for such a thing, then the public deserve what they get, which are more orbiting turkeys. But if this is sold as great scientific endeavor, then it is a lie, especially when most scientists, and certainly the prominent ones, are not support it.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Kung Fu Science

I found this website back in 2005. It is called Kung Fu Science. It is fun enough and silly enough to warrant a small advertisement in here.

"For a lighthearted exploration of the connection between physics and martial arts, punch up the new exhibit Kung Fu Science from the Institute of Physics in London." - Science NetWatch.

You get to follow the progress of a student trying to find the ability to chop a board in half with her hand using nothing but physics knowledge. What could be more fun than that? :)



Monday, September 17, 2007

Undergraduates Ask: Should I Do a Ph.D.?

This is a very useful article from the current issue of Science. It explores the question on whether a student should pursue a Ph.D after completing his/her undergraduate program. This is a question that get asked often in various forums on the internet.

I believe this article is accessible to everyone. Still, if the link is restricted, please let me know.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Plasma Revolution

The title is a bit misleading. This article in this week's Nature (v.449, p.133 2007) is on the use of plasma for particle acceleration. I have written about the advancement in this field a few times already (read here, here, and here).

It's a good review article on the use of plasma as a medium for the wakefield generated either using charge particles or laser. However, it has some misleading and incomplete parts to it. For example:

A handful of groups are working on a new way to accelerate particles - known as wakefield acceleration - that should not only help push physicists towards the next energy frontier, but also provide affordable, table-top accelerators that could revolutionize cancer treatment.

The technique involves passing either a laser beam or a beam of particles through a plasma....

Nothing wrong with this, but the author made it sounds as if the ONLY technique for wakefield acceleration is using plasma as a medium. He is ignoring another technique that is also making quite a good progress here, the use of dielectric medium instead of a plasma. The dielectric-loaded accelerating structure, such as those done at Argonne's Wakefield Accelerator group, has recently shown the ability to generate and withstand an accelerating gradient of 100 MV/m. Now it may not be of the same gradient as those achieved using the plasma technique. However, this technique has several advantages, such as the obvious ability to be staged.

The wakefield technique, both using plasma and dielectric media, has shown promising advancement for a new acceleration technology that might allow for the next generation of particle accelerators. The next few years should be very exciting.

Edit: A new press report on the AWA dielectric-loaded gradient can be found here.


Friday, September 14, 2007

'Beyond Einstein' Research Should Begin With Mission to Study Dark Energy

The National Academy of Science's National Research Council panel has issued its report and recommendation on the next set of moderate but ambitious task to tackle cosmological issues. Due to NASA's budget constraints, the panel recommended only one project, the $1-billion-plus Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM), while putting the other projects on the back burner for now.

Prompted by Congress and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA and DOE asked the committee to assess the five proposed mission areas and recommend one for first development and launch. NASA’s Beyond Einstein program, set to begin in 2009, is comprised of two astronomical observatories, Constellation-X and LISA, as well as a series of probes: the Inflation Probe (IP), the Black Hole Finder Probe (BHFP), and JDEM.

"All of the mission areas in the Beyond Einstein program have the potential to fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe," said committee co-chair Charles F. Kennel, distinguished professor and director of the Environment and Sustainability Initiative at the University of California, San Diego. "But JDEM will provide direct insight into a key Beyond Einstein science question, and is the most technically feasible option for immediate development."

It's too bad that sacrifices like this has to be made, while the scientifically meaningless ambition to send manned mission to the Moon and Mars are getting funding.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Physics, The Backbone Of The Scottish Economy

Well, maybe they're exaggerating a little bit. Still, it is undeniable that physics does play a prominent role in a large part of the Scottish economy from this report.

The research, which quantifies the scope of physics as well as its practical, economic worth, claims that while only four per cent of Scottish workers are employed in industries that are physics-based, the sector actually contributes ten per cent of its entire economic output.



The US Dept. of Energy has produced a website that highlights the contribution from the US in the building of the LHC. While the mission is rather narrow, the website actually has quite a lot of information on the LHC itself, including various blogs of people directly involved in it. Besides, there's plenty of neat pictures there that give you a sense of scale on the size of these detectors, especially ATLAS.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kilo Prototype Mysteriously Loses Weight

This is rather disconcerting.

The standard kilogram kept in Paris is mysteriously losing its mass, but about 50 micrograms!

"The mystery is that they were all made of the same material, and many were made at the same time and kept under the same conditions, and yet the masses among them are slowly drifting apart," he said. "We don't really have a good hypothesis for it."

Now, 50 micrograms is actually quite big, considering that we can detect changes to a mass by single molecules. I think this strengthen the calls for a better (atomic) standard of the kilogram, much like the standard for 1 m and 1 second have been migrated to more well-defined quantities.


Firm Evidence for Existence of Positronium

The same group that had the initial evidence for the formation of positronium (a "molecule" of 2 electrons and 2 positrons) has now presented more convincing evidence (link may only be open to non-subscribers for a limited time).

The clinching data come from looking at how the intensity of the gamma-rays changes as the temperature is altered. Electron-positron annihilation should be more rapid in Ps2 than in lone positronium atoms, because the binding increases the chance of collision. And the positronium mix should have a greater proportion of molecules at lower temperatures, since the cold makes molecules more stable. So the gamma-rays should become more intense when the mixture is cooled. That's exactly what the researchers saw, they report in Nature.

The exact citation for this paper is:

D. B. Cassidy and A. P. Mills, Jr., Nature v.449, p.195 (2007).

Nice going!


Purdue's Bubble Fusion Panel Submits Report

This embarrassing and continuing saga of the bubble fusion fiasco has taken another step. The panel set up by Purdue University at the urging of the Office of Naval Research has issued a finding.

A Purdue University panel that reviewed misconduct allegations against a scientist who claims he produced "tabletop fusion" has concluded that "several matters merit further investigation."

The finding was announced without elaboration in the case of Purdue nuclear engineering professor Rusi Taleyarkhan.

Which means that this will go on and on and on and on....

Nature's news report can be found here (link may be available for free only for a limited time).

This is the third inquiry run by Purdue, which was criticized earlier this year by both scientists and lawmakers for its handling of concerns raised by scientists about bubble-fusion claims at the university. Purdue has not said publicly what exactly in Taleyarkhan's work it might investigate further.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thundercloud Accelerator?

This is certainly fascinating. Physicists in Japan has compelling evidence that potential gradient in thunderclouds can in fact accelerate electrons up to 35 MeV, or maybe even higher.

Still, I don't think we can use it in a controllable manner. :)


Forum on Education Newsletter Fall06/Spring07

The Forum on Physics Education newsletter for Fall06/Spring07 is now available online. It is full of information on a number of issues on physics education.


Is This The Clearest Picture Of Space Ever Taken?

Of all the things they have to argue about, I would think this would be the last of it.

Nature has a rather amusing (at least, it is for me, but probably not for the participants) of the minor controversy surrounding what has been claimed to be the clearest pictures taken of objects in space (link may be open for free only for a limited time). A group at CalTech and Cambridge claims to have taken the clearest picture ever using a ground-based observation and 50,000 cheaper than the Hubble telescope. Of course, the Hubble people aren't taking this lying down and have fired back!

I think that whenever something like this occurs, people tend to forget the REASON for doing these things. Rather, they are arguing the means, rather than figuring out how the get to the ends. Can any of these pictures actually give us the information we need? Getting a good resolution and better pictures are only the means to being able to give us information to better our understanding. Can any of these pictures do that, and do that better than the other? That is what should have been pointed out and discussed, not who has the "clearest" picture.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Thomson Scientific Predicts Nobel Laureates

OK, the season for the Nobel Prizes is coming up. Everyone seems to have their own ideas. However, Thomson Scientific has a more "statistical-based" prediction using the citation index. This is what they came up with for Physics:

Sumio Iijima - Meijo University (Japan);
Martin J. Rees - University of Cambridge;
Arthur B. McDonald - Queen's University (Canada);
Yoji Totsuka - University of Tokyo (Japan).

Still, their batting average isn't that good.

Of the 54 Thomson Scientific Laureates named since 2002, four have gone on to win Nobel honors.

4 out of 54 is not a good percentage, so I'm not sure what they're croaking about. In many instances, even a moron can predict who will win (the Bednorz and Muller award was a no-brainer). And I had predicted Leggett and Abrikosov back in the mid 90's already.

We will see how accurate they are this year. So what is YOUR prediction for this year?


Friday, September 07, 2007

Of Physics and Finance

Is this more bastardization of Quantum Mechanics? Well, not quite, but it is still perpetuating the common misconception about QM, especially on the wave-particle duality. This article tries to point out similarities, analogies, and parallel actions between QM and the world of finance.

It really is difficult for me to accept one of these things, because using the argument that they appear to share SOME characteristics doesn't mean that they formalism for both should be identical. QM is MORE than just "wave-particle duality". In fact, if you have read my earlier entry on this, there is NO DUALITY in the formalism of QM! So using such phenomenon to make similarities between these two fields is highly dubious.

Still, at the very least, the article isn't pushing for the USE of QM's principle in finances, because that would be outright crackpottery, unlike some of the recent bastardization of QM that we have seen. And there is a legitimate merging of physics and economics that is now popularly called "econophysics". I just wish that people don't try to extend a superficial understanding of physics, especially quantum mechanics, into something it isn't supposed to be used.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fermilab Employees Think Green

Good for them! Even when they funding agency that owns Fermilab is unable to provide any kind of financial support, several Fermilab employees, under their own initiatives, started their own not-for-profit organization to restore the open prairie area on Fermilab grounds.

For its first endeavor, FNA hopes to secure a $25,000 matching grant to improve a 35-acre savannah inside the lab's Tevatron ring. Savannahs are ordinarily open, forested areas, but this one is being choked by raspberry patches and dogwood trees and needs to be completely reworked.

"We would get all of that brush and stuff out of there, whether by cutting, or herbicide, or burning," he said, "and then we would extensively reseed it with plants, grass and trees."

Check at the end of the article on how you can make monetary contribution.


ILL Celebrates 40 Years of Service

Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, celebrates its 40th Anniversary. This is an outstanding neutron source facility that has users in many areas of physics ranging from condensed matter to elementary particle physics.

This is a good overview of the facility and its scientific activities.


You Can’t Get Physical Without Physics

Physics is all around us, and we live and depend on it. Take it from someone who didn't study it that much and now get to realize that we are living and surrounded by it.

Yet, physics is all around us, involved in virtually everything that moves. It didn’t occur to me that I would one day need to become one with the beast.


Physics is involved in everything from walking to gymnastics to hockey, from shooting a game of pool to watching a balloon float off into the sky.

Now, if only more people realize that.


Don't Try This at Home!: The Physics of Hollywood Movies

Hollywood movies seems to be getting quite a bashing lately with their bad physics. First was the article that recently got quite a bit of publicity describing their unlimited fun, but limited science literacy. Now comes a book, written by California high school physics teacher Adam Weiner, describing more of the unrealistic situations in major movies.

A sample: If, in the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, poor old granddad really did float to the ceiling after drinking an extra-carbonated beverage, the bubbles should technically have swollen him to a sphere about 15 feet wide.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Multiple Problems Push LHC Start to Next Spring

So one can't just blame it on the failure of the superconducting magnet made by Fermilab! :)

This is a rather good summary of the reasons for the delay in the start up of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Still, for something this huge, the delay is not unexpected, but it will be costly.


What is Conceptual Understanding?

This article deals with the issue of conceptual understanding in mathematics education. Still, it is a fascinating article that may even apply to how we understand things in physics.

One interesting aspect to this essay that deals with physics and engineering is this:

One of the principal reason why mathematics majors students progress far, far more slowly in learning new mathematical techniques at university than do their colleagues in physics and engineering, is that the mathematics faculty seek to achieve full conceptual understanding in mathematics majors, whereas what future physicists and engineers need is (at most) functional understanding. (Arguably most of them don't really need that either; rather what they require is another of the five strands of mathematical proficiency, procedural fluency.) I have taught at universities where the engineering faculty insisted on teaching their own mathematics, precisely because they wanted their students to progress much faster (and more superficially) through the material than the mathematicians were prepared to do.

I actually rather agree with that. In my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, I've stated that some time, physics majors need more mathematics than mathematics major. However, they don't need to know it that deeply. They only need to know how to use it correctly. That is why many physics departments teach their students their own brand of "mathematical physics", mainly to arm their students with the necessary "tools" that they would need to tackle advanced physics courses without having to take all the equivalent mathematics classes that deal with these topics with rigor.

So yes, I'd say "procedural fluency" would be an apt description of what most physics majors need as far as mathematics is concerned.


Hawking Wants Science To Be As Exciting As Science Fiction

Remember a while back I reported that Hawking was planning on writing children's books on science? It has now been released. This is a recent interview of him on his reasons for writing such books.

"Our aim is to make real science as exciting as science fiction," Hawking said.

Lucy Hawking, a journalist and writer, told the press conference that one of her father's common refrains was, "That's too much science fiction, we do science fact."

The trio wanted to "provide a modern vision of cosmology from the Big Bang to the present day," without presenting it as magic, Galfard said.

Certainly an admirable intention. But I wonder which parents would be the ones buying these books for their kids? Would parents who do not believe in evolution and the cosmological age of the universe buy these for their kids?


ITER Takes Step Forward Towards Fusion Energy Future

An ion source developed at the Max Planck Institute has been chosen to heat up the plasma for ITER. Looks like they are making progress in building this thing.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Examples of the Zeroth Theorem of the History of Physics

This is just a fun paper to read, even if it is only for historical context. J.D. Jackson (he of the dreaded "Classical Electrodynamics" graduate level text author) has written a rather engaging essay on the assignment of "names" to various discovery/invention in physics. He calls it the Zeroth Theorem of the History of Physics. And I think there's often quite a bit of truth in it based on my own observation.

The zeroth theorem has some similarities to the "Matthew effect" The Matthew effect describes how a more prominent researcher will reap all the credit even if a lesser known person has done essentially the same work contemporaneously, or how the most senior researcher in a group effort will get all the recognition, even though all the real work was done by graduate students or postdocs. The zeroth theorem might be considered as the first kind of Matthew effect , but with some time delay, although some examples do not fit the prominent/lesser constrain. Neither do my examples reflect, as far as I know, the possible influence by the senior researcher or friends to discount or ignore the contributions of others. The zeroth theorem stands on its own, examples often arising because the first enunciator was before his/her time or because the community was not diligent in searching the prior literature before attaching a name to the discovery or relation or effect.

You'll get to know all the participants that may not get the recognition that they deserve in some of the well-known formulations that we currently use.


Saturday, September 01, 2007

Argonne's Green Transportation Event

This past Friday, Aug. 31, 2007, the group involved with transportation research here at Argonne held an open day for Argonne and U. of Chicago's employees to visit their temporary display area. On exhibition are all the latest technology in fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative fuel sources for road vehicles. This includes the latest technology in hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and even hydrogen-powered vehicles.

While some of these new technology have a lot of obstacles left to over come to make them a viable alternative to current fuel sources, it was still nice to get a closer look at them, and get to talk and ask questions to the experts doing research work with these vehicles. The hydrogen source, for example, still has plenty of issues to deal with, including how to produce hydrogen without consuming even more power than it can produce, and how to transport it over long distances.

Here are a few pictures taken during this event.

There was a nice crowd at the first session in the morning.

There were several different types of hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles on display. Many of them were loaded both on the front and on the back of the vehicles. Here are three of them.

The "star" of the event was the five BMW vehicles that were hydrogen-powered. The event highlighted the research work done by BMW and other automobile companies in this area.

This is the hydrogen fueling tank that was used to refuel one of the vehicles as part of the demonstration.

We were shown how one of these vehicles is refueled. Just look at the size of that insulated transfer line and what actually coupled to the car!

The hydrogen fuel tank is in the trunk of the vehicle, right behind the rear passenger seat.

A few lucky attendees got to do a test drive around the Argonne campus in these BMW vehicles. I wasn't one of the luck ones. :(

It was a fun event. Again, it is always nice to see the actual vehicles and get to talk to the experts. That was the best part of the whole event for many of us, especially those car fanatics. :)