Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Barry Barish and the GDE

Barry Barish of Caltech heads the Global Design Effort (GDE) for the International Linear Collider (ILC). As anyone who has followed the news since December 2007, the ILC has had two major, and possibly fatal blow to its plan: the UK pull-out and the drastic reduction in funding in the US.

This is a good article on Barish and his effort within the GDE, including his take on the future of the ILC. I think most people kinda agree that even if the ILC gets built, it will probably be the last of its kind because the cost to go beyond that is no longer realistic. Unless new acceleration schemes that are currently still in basic, fundamental research stages (such as plasma wakefield, etc.), particle accelerator for high energy physics will probably not get any bigger than the ILC-like design.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Theistic Evolution - The New Theology?

This is a rather fascinating article from, of all places, the Chicago Tribune. It detailed the "inquisition" being faced by a physicist at Calvin College in Michigan for a book that was published years ago. In it, Howard Van Till dares to propose that his religious belief can be reconciled with the evolution.

Van Till roused a small but fervent pack of enemies at the conservative college with his book, "The Fourth Day," in which he argued that the stories of the Bible and science's account of evolution could both be true. His critics on the school's board of trustees had no interest in reconciling the religious account of creation with a naturalist explanation of how life and the universe have evolved over the ages. For years after the book's release in 1986, Van Till reported to a monthly interrogation where he struggled to reassure college officials that his scientific teachings fit within their creed.

Now that's an interesting tactic.

I suppose that many people do accept both, and I suspect that there are a lot more of them than those who are reverently anti-evolution or anti-religion. This is because many people of faith accepts that what they believe in is simply a matter of faith - devoid of physical and empirical evidence, and they're willing to accept that. They still continue to accept science as the workings of the world that they live in. I don't see anything wrong with that kind of a "compromise".

But this attempt at reconciling religion (or in this case, Christianity) with evolution is certainly interesting. It does mean that many who accept both don't have to feel any discomfort for an apparent contradiction.

A good article!


Revamping Intro Physics Laboratory - Part 2

So what is the main purpose of intro physics laboratory?

Keep in mind that MOST students in such courses are NOT physics majors. In fact, for many, these are the only physics courses they'll ever take. So I see it as the best opportunity to introduce to the students how physics actually work. How exactly do we consider something to be valid in physics? After all, anyone and everyone can come up with some "theory" to describe something (and in the age of the internet, everyone does!). How do we select which ones are valid and which ones aren't? It all comes down to experimental verification. How we know something to be valid come from our empirical observations. Therefore, proper experimental techniques must be crucial since it can determine what is valid and what isn't. This is where the acquired skills come in.

When I say "skills", I don't just mean physical skills, such as the efficient way of using an oscilloscope, or one's agility in soldering a piece of wire. It also includes mental skill, which is the ability to think through a problem, or a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right. It also includes the ability to know what is the best and most accurate way of doing something. For example, why can't a student simply make one measurement of the restoring force of a spring, make the corresponding measurement of the spring extension, and then plug those values into the Hooke's law equation to find the spring constant? Why do we have to make a series of measurements instead? The ability to know why we need to do that is an acquired skill in proper technique to test a particular relationship of two different variables. One acquire such skill after consciously and repeatedly learning ways to make such tests. However, the students need to be told that these are the skills they are being taught, so that they are consciously aware of what they are doing and why. So often, in the usual physics labs, this awareness is lacking and not being emphasized.

What the labs can do is reveal in a very direct way how we gain and verify knowledge. What exactly is the relationship between variable x and y, and how do I test it? How do I know my result is valid? In the end, without one having to tell them point blank, they learn the difference between "scientific evidence" versus other forms of evidence, and they get a glimpse of some form of what people like to call "the scientific method". Considering that most of them will go on to do other things in life beyond just doing physics (or even science), I would think that this ability to have them understand what is involved in determining what is valid is something extremely valuable. This lack of understanding can easily be the cause of why people accept pseudoscience and other flaky ideas. That is why I consider these physics labs as extremely important not just in physics, but as part of a general education of the population.

Since I've already mentioned what is wrong with the current way of doing intro physics labs, I should put my money where my mouth is. What exactly should we do in such courses? In the next part, I will give an explicit suggestion on how to revamp these lab sessions.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Webcast: Nobel Laureate on the History and Fate of the Universe, March 4th, 2008

Here's an announcement for the upcoming Honeywell-Nobel Initiative:

Honeywell will be presenting a Webcast – The History and Fate of the Universe – by Nobel Laureate Dr. George Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley. His talk will focus on the present status of cosmological observations and will make a forecast on things soon to come. It’s a big topic but one Dr. Smoot is well qualified to address.

In 1992, Smoot and his team detected and mapped tiny variations in the radiation from the early Big Bang. Gravity worked on these variations to grow the galaxies, clusters of galaxies and clusters of clusters that are found across the universe. For this work, Smoot was co-awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Smoot will be delivering this lecture to the students and faculty of the Government College of Engineering in Pune Maharashtra, India on March 4th. A live Webcast of his remarks, as well as related content, will be available for viewing from Honeywell Science.

You can also find more information and details on our MySpace page.


Revamping Intro Physics Laboratory - Part 1

I used to hate doing the lab in First Year college intro physics classes. It would be 2 hours of torture, and at that time, I didn't see the point. Unless things have changed, most students taking such classes would tend to feel the same way as I did. And I think this is a waste of opportunity to really get through to the students of THE most important aspect of science, and of physics in particular - the empirical testing of physical concepts, and how we arrive at our knowledge to accept something as valid. This is what separates science from pseudosciences (and even religion).

The problem here starts from the very beginning. When I was that freshman undergraduate, no instructor ever spent time explaining why the laboratory sessions are important, why it is crucial that we actually DO things, rather than just read or watch what is being done. No one was explaining to me the fact that the SKILLS that I could get out of the physics lab may turn out to be a rather important aspect of my education that transcends beyond just physics, but into other parts of my life. This means that it doesn't matter if you're a physics major or not, the physics labs can be quite beneficial as one progresses in one's education, career, and life. I strongly believe students should be made aware of this in no uncertain terms. The physics instructors must impress upon the students why doing these laboratory experiments is important, what kind of skills are being practiced, and why this is different than just sitting and reading. I would think that the students would at least become aware that there is a rational reason for forcing them to do such a thing, rather than just them being told that they need to do this for no valid reason.

When I was a lab TA years ago, I tried doing just the very thing. More than 3/4 of my students at that time were not physics majors, and I flat out told them that in the lab sessions, it was more important to pay attention to what they were doing, and reporting what they were doing, rather than the final "answer" or results that they were trying to measure. I was more interested in what they were thinking as they were doing the experiment, reporting accurately their observations, and if the results looked weird, to notice that they did look weird rather than just reporting the number and did not realize something was not quite right. In other words, I was more interesting in the doing of the experiments themselves rather than testing if the students understood the physics theory or idea that was being tested. I was more interested that the student acquire proper experimental skills. They can learn more effectively about the theory and principles in class. I wanted the lab session to be more "hands on" on how to think and conduct an experiment to measure something.

So already my philosophy in what an intro physics lab session should be was different than what I encountered during my undergraduate years. And after being in this profession for many years, and being an experimentalist, I am even more convinced that this is what such lab sessions should be.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Unitarian Physicist to Speak on Separation of Church, State

This is a piece of news announcing a speech by a physicist. It would have been a rather innocuous announcement, except for one, historically-important fact about the person delivering this speech.

Schempp, a Unitarian, was the subject of a 1963 Supreme Court case banning school-sponsored Bible readings in public schools. While a high school student in Abington Township, Pa., in 1956, he and fellow students were required by state law to read 10 Bible verses every day. He protested and was disciplined at school. He and his father, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district.

I tell ya, even as a child, physicists can be a pain in people's butt, aren't they? Still, I'm proud to know that a physicist (or in this case, an eventual physicist) was the one responsible for this. :)


Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Day In The Life Of Brian Cox

If you are ever curious to know the typical day of a well-known physicist working at CERN, you can't get any better than reading this about Brian Cox. Long periods of time away from home can some time be the less rewarding part of the job.

Still, this is a fascinating and amusing account of a day in his life.


Leap Year Has a Long and Complicated History

This year, February will again have 29 days, making 2008 a leap year. This article describes the reason and history behind the leap year.

“Everyone knows that the calendar year shows it is 365 days, but it really isn’t. Really, it is 365 and almost-one-fourth days.”

According to, the actual time for Earth to travel around the sun is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, to be precise, marking a full year for us.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Panel Picked to Review UK Physics

The health of physics in the United Kingdom will be the subject of this review by a panel appointed after the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) budget shortfall.

I thought there has been a number of previous studies already on this issue. I suppose this study is to evaluate the future impact of the budget cuts that has been done to UK physics. Still....

But some physicists are sceptical that the review will do anything to reverse the current situation in any case. “It is likely the review will just say that this shouldn’t happen again,” says Mark Lancaster, a particle physicist at University College London.

Having a review and pledging support for basic physics are one thing. Not providing enough funding to pursue it is another. This can be said to the US physics budget situation as well.


A Deeper Look at Student Learning of Quantum Mechanics: the Case of Tunneling

This preprint, co-authored by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, looks at the difficulties that students had in understanding quantum tunneling.

Abstract: We report on a qualitative study of student learning of quantum tunneling in traditional and reformed modern physics courses. In the reformed courses, which were designed to address student difficulties found in previous research, students still struggle with many of the same issues found in other courses, but the reasons for these difficulties are more subtle, and many new issues are brought to the surface. By explicitly discussing how to build models of potential energy and relate these models to real physical systems, we have opened up a floodgate of deep and difficult questions as students struggle to make sense of these models. We conclude that the difficulties found in previous research are the tip of the iceberg, and the real issue at the heart of student difficulties in learning quantum tunneling is the struggle to build the complex models that are implicit in experts' understanding but often not discussed explicitly with students.

It's a lengthy paper, and I'm still reading it. But it is interesting that you get to learn quite a bit more about quantum tunneling in here, especially on aspects that are quite subtle.

Let me know what you think...


Preparing for Your Post-Ph.D. Career

The Science Career webpage has another great article on preparing for life after getting a Ph.D. As I had mentioned in my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, at some point, one has to prepare oneself with the reality that the traditional path of a physics career may either not be suitable, or not available to be pursued. And with the dwindling job opportunities in universities and research labs (especially after the recent budget cuts in the UK and US), other alternatives should seriously be considered.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lord Kelvin's Follies

Now I don't know if what has been quoted here as being from Lord Kelvin is accurate or even true. So let's get that out of the way first of all. Still, this webpage lists several erroneous statements that is attributed to Kelvin that obviously aren't true, or even accurate, anymore. Certainly the part about physics being a dead subject isn't true (if only he is alive today to see how that is so not true).

Still, how is that any different than the grandiose claim that some physicists have made regarding "The Theory of Everything", even when, admittedly, such a theory can't come up with a description of everything, such as many emergent phenomena.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Big Bang Implosion of Physics

This is a terrific essay that expresses what I've been saying all along on why research on basic physics is important enough not to be abandoned.

In truth, fundamental research is a necessity, not a luxury. Most of the technological developments made in the past 100 years have been fuelled by fundamental research into science. Albert Einstein famously dismissed Enrico Fermi’s idea that massive amounts of energy could be released by splitting the atom. The unintended consequences of the theory of relativity gave us nuclear power. Similarly, from the esoteric beauty of the theory of quantum mechanics has emerged electronics, computing and laser optics, to name but a few developments.

We cannot foretell where research into the fundamental constituents of matter will take us, but to not travel down that path is to shut the door on the future. Our ability to understand and control nature is what gives us the capacity to carve out a different future not constrained by the fetters of the immediate problems of finite resources. It is our lack of vision and our preoccupation with the limitations of our society that holds us back from venturing further.

As physicists, we need to carefully list out ALL of the "applications" that came out of what was originally thought to be nothing more than "pure knowledge". This, to me, is the most effective means of countering the notion that pursuing basic knowledge for knowledge itself has no direct, beneficial outcome to human civilization. We should no longer talk about "spin offs" of science projects. We have to go right down to the nitty-gritty and use concrete example. That's the only way the general public and the politician can understand.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

UK Still Hopeful of Participating in Gemini Project

There is a glimmer of hope that the UK would not have to withdraw completely from the Gemini Project due to the recent budget constraints.

But last week it emerged that the council was now in discussions with the observatory about future collaboration.

Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), welcomed the news that "the stand-off between the STFC and the board of the Gemini Observatory has been replaced by constructive discussion".

If this is true, it offers one very rare piece of good news, considering that a week ago, the STFC reaffirmed UK's withdrawal from the ILC collaboration, putting the whole effort into jeopardy of being abandoned.


The Most Intense Laser in the Universe - So Far

This is where if anyone doesn't understand physics, or the language being used in laser optics, one could easily get misled by the title.

The people on HERCULES laser at the University of Michigan has claimed to have created the most intense laser pulse in the universe {link may be available for free only for a limited time}.

The intensity of a laser beam is the amount of energy it delivers per unit time per unit area. This record-breaking beam actually has very low energy — at just 20 joules, it is less than the 8,000 joules stored in a tic tac — but the energy is squeezed into a tiny spot (1.3 micrometres in diameter, about a hundred time thinner than a human hair) for a very short time, just 30 femtoseconds (10-15 seconds). So the beam has an intensity of 2 x 1022 watts per square centimetre: two orders of magnitude more intense than achieved before.

It will be nice if there's an immediate application for it.


Monday, February 18, 2008

The Science of the Perfect Souffle

I'm always happy when I can combine things that I love into one, such as Disney and Physics, or food and Physics. This is the latter. It discusses on the chemistry and physics of making the perfect souffle.

Science in the kitchen is largely the chemistry kind — the properties of two liquids mixing, the transformation of bread into toast, the breakdown of starches into sugars. But do you ever think about velocity or gravity in your cooking? It turns out, beating eggs is all about science — and it's physics and chemistry that make a souffle rise or fall.

I don't think this will make physics a requirement subject for anyone wishing to graduate from a culinary school, but it is still entertaining in the Elton Brown sort-of way.


Presidential Campaigns Call for Big Boosts to Research Funding

At the AAAS annual meeting this past week, representatives from the Clinton and Obama campaign presented their candidates' views on science policy.

Representatives of the two remaining major Democratic candidates for U.S. president both endorsed big budget increases for federally funded basic scientific research at a debate before hundreds of scientists today, with Senator Hillary Clinton's (D–NY) team offering decidedly more specifics on their plans.

Still, what was glaring here is that not a single Republican candidate sent a representative.

The presumptive Republican candidate, Senator John McCain (R–AZ), was invited but sent regrets, said Albert Teich of AAAS. "They apparently would have liked to come." Representative Ron Paul (R–TX) and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee did not respond to AAAS's invitation.

Take that however you wish.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Snowmobiles Faster Than A Speeding Bullet, Maybe, But Not Light

I'm glad this writer spotted something fishy about the accident report.

Mr. ... and his brother ....were traveling across (the) lake around 10:30 p.m. at an apparent high rate of speed when (they) came upon the shore and hit a maple tree ... 'He was overdriving his headlights. The shore came up too fast and he hit a maple tree

The writer certainly questioned, and rightly so, the phrase "overdriving his headlights", because it implied that the snowmobile was moving faster than the headlights! Awful! :)

Still, this accident report is practicing what I wrote earlier about the propensity of news editors and other "official-type" reports of using the phrase "rate of speed", when all they meant was just "speed". If all they meant was that the vehicle was moving fast, then "rate of speed" is the wrong expression, because this is acceleration. An object could have an instantaneous speed of 0 and yet, still have the highest "rate of speed" it will have in its motion (example: oscillating mass on a spring).

More media writers need to have better physics education. Unfortunately, based on this news report, so do people in a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife


Friday, February 15, 2008

Dark Energy and the Accelerating Universe

This resource letter has appeared online in the March issue of the American Journal of Physics[1]. It is written by one of the leading experts in this field, Eric Linder. If you don't have access to AJP, you can get the arXiv preprint of this paper here. Reading the abstract alone should be sufficient motivation on why anyone would want to keep a copy of this paper.

Abstract: This Resource Letter provides a guide to the literature on dark energy and the accelerating universe. It is intended to be of use to researchers, teachers, and students at several levels. Journal articles, books, and websites are cited for the following topics: Einstein's cosmological constant, quintessence or dynamical scalar fields, modified cosmic gravity, relations to high energy physics, cosmological probes and observations, terrestrial probes, calculational tools and parameter estimation, teaching strategies and educational resources, and the fate of the universe.


[1] E. Linder, Am. J. Phys. v.76, p.197 (2008).

Shortchanging Science

This is an editorial in a Toledo newspaper that essentially echoes what have been said of the budget disaster that has befallen science funding.

LAMENTS in the scientific community about hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding cuts for research highlight yet another example of government saying one thing and doing another.
But for now, scientists rightfully feel betrayed over the ditching of the government pledge to boost funding for research, and they worry what will befall their most talented colleagues as government investment in their projects wanes. In Congress, Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois predicts a sure brain drain among scientists if government continues to deliver only nominal support.

I think the jokes that are often being made about politicians speaking from both sides of their mouth aren't that funny anymore when it reflects reality.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

American Institute of Physics Announces Awards for Best Science Writing

This is a press release from the AIP announcing the winners of the awards for best science writing. There are some really good science essays here. I would bring your attention to Tim Folger and his award in the Journalist category. The article, published in Discover, is actually quite interesting and provocative. It was based on an interview with Roger Penrose, and of course dealt with one of the most fundamental issues surrounding quantum mechanics. It also contains a description of one of his proposed experiment at detecting the quantum superposition using mirrors, which is currently being tested by Dirk Bouwmeester at UCSD.

The proposal for this experiment was published a while back in PRL, and you can find the arXiv version here.


Violation of the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics in Systems with Negative Specific Heat

I must admit that I am not that familiar with this topic. I've paid attention to the research surrounding materials with negative index of refraction, or right-handed materials, that have been made recently using metamaterials. However, I have not paid any attention to materials having a negative specific heat.

It appears that such material can be shown to violate the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, as shown in this preprint that is to be published in PRL. Obviously, systems that exhibit such specific heat are not something one encounters everyday (are these systems even under what we generally consider to be a thermodynamic equilibrium?). Still, it is nice to see how we continue to understand the limits of the principles that we have in physics. At the very least, this paper has a wealth of references to these exotic systems exhibiting such negative specific heat. That alone is enough for me to keep a copy of this paper. :)


Dark Physics Beats Light Limit

If you haven't read this Physical Review Focus story, you might want to do that. This is an ingenious technique of trying to beat the diffraction limit in optical lithography on electronic chips by using so-called the "dark states". It doesn't use a multiphoton effect, and thus, does not require a high-powered laser.

The photoresist molecules would be activated by coherent population trapping (CPT), a process used in slow light and other atomic experiments. In the simplest case, two lasers drive two transitions from different lower energy states to a common excited state, but due to a quantum interference effect, the molecules are never excited. Instead they evolve into a so-called dark state--a stable combination of the lower states that is unaffected by light. With additional upper and lower states, there may exist more complex dark states that combine several low-energy states and that could be populated using additional lasers tuned to the different transitions. CPT does not require multiphoton absorption, so it can work at relatively low intensities.

This is such a clever scheme. Of course, there's still a long way to go before such a technique can be used in an industrial setting.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Report Backing Clemens Chooses Its Facts Carefully

So, you didn't think that Roger Clemens and the alleged steroid use from the Mitchell Report would be on a physics blog, did you? Bear with me. This has everything to do with data analysis and statistics, something many of us physicists, especially experimentalists, have to do.

For those who don't know about this (especially those from outside North America or don't follow US baseball), there is a major scancal in the sports of US baseball. The recently released Mitchell report, commissioned by the Major League Baseball association has implicated many high-profile players of using steroids during their professional careers. One of them is Roger Clemens, a well-known baseball pitcher who was well on his way to the baseball Hall of Fame in a few years.

Clemens has vehemently denied such practice. He has gone on the "offensive" of trying to produce "evidence" for his innocence. One of the things he (more likely, his defense team) has done is to produce a set of statistics showing that his performance late in his career (during the period that he was accused of using human growth hormone) is not unusual. So his camp actually tried to produce some quantitative analysis to proclaim his innocence.

This is fine and dandy. Unfortunately, his "data analysis" is being disputed by no less than three Ivy League academicians. Three professors from the University of Pennsylvania has challenged the validity of the analysis and wrote an article in the New York Times to rebutt the conclusion from Clemens statistics. The most damaging conclusion they gather out of a more thorough analysis of the statistics was this statement:

Other measures suggest Clemens performed similarly to his contemporaries. But these comparisons do not provide evidence of his innocence; they simply fail to provide evidence of his guilt.

Our reading is that the available data on Clemens’s career strongly hint that some unusual factors may have been at play in producing his excellent late-career statistics.

In other words, if the Clemens camp was hoping that the statistics show his innocence, they are wrong. It certainly doesn't show that he has used any performance enhancing drugs, but it certainly also can't be used as evidence for his innocence like they had hoped.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Profile of Harry Lipkin

This is an interesting profile of theorist Harry Lipkin. While many of his colleagues certainly know him due to his body of work, many others certainly know of him due to his highly provocative essay in Physics Today several years ago titled "Who Ordered Theorists?" In it, he argued that many of the discoveries and amazing advances in elementary particle physics (and possibly physics in general) have not be due to theorists, and in fact, might have been hindered by them.

Of course, being an experimentalist, I'm not going to argue with that. Still, it brought out a lot of "heated" discussion and rebuttals after the letter was published. Still, I can say with definite certainty that many of the emergent phenomena in condensed matter, for example, such as superconductivity and fractional quantum hall effect, were never predicted by theory. The experimental discovery of the phenomena inevitably always came first.


Monday, February 11, 2008

More Bad Physics - Part 2

Again, this is possibly nitpicking. But really, something this elementary should not be done incorrectly. You have read previously how someone mistaken energy as mass*velocity. We have another one of the same degree.

I think this is nothing more than an advertisement, which makes it worse since it shows that whoever is peddling this doesn't know much about what he/she is talking about. There are two very strange physics in here and they both occur in the same paragraph.

Being Able to slam dunk is almost as much in the mind than it is in the legs but in the end it comes down to one thing – power. In physics power is strength x speed. Strength is the amount of energy that your legs can push up with and speed is how long it takes to push out the strength.

Close, but no cigar.

In physics, Power = Energy/time, or Force*speed. And "speed" isn't "how long it takes to push something", which is really a quantity of time, not speed. It is really the time rate to move something.

Again, this is basic, intro physics that first year college kids, or even high school kids, would have come across. The terms "power", "energy", and "speed" are very well-defined at this level. One simply can't just mix things up as one pleases. So for this person to invoke "in physics...." and then proceeded to mess things up is really astounding.

I don't know about you, but I certainly won't buy whatever it is that is being peddled here. :)


The Physics of Sandcastles

Lots of stuff on granular physics in here. This short article gives you a brief intro on the physics of sandcastles, or more specifically, the ratio of sand to water to give you the most stable sand structure.

Of course, the practical application of this goes beyond just building castles in the sand at the beach.

The results provide understanding of the complex physics of more than just sandcastles: they could shed light on landslides, which have killed hundreds of thousands over the past century.

This again is another example where many people do not realize of the practical application of physics, and that there's a lot of physics involved here.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Where Science, Religion Meet?

This news article reports on a noble effort of trying to present the middle ground between science and religion as part of what they call the Evolution weekend. I'm sure they had good intentions here in doing this, and certainly, having such dialog could possibly help. However, and maybe this is simply the skeptic in me talking, I think they're missing a lot of important aspect here, which is understandable if they only think of "religion" as being "christianity".

For example:

"Neither science nor faith can fully prove how the world came to be, so they are complimentary to each other," said Bennet Brabson, a professor of physics at Indiana University in Bloomington.

"(Religion and science) have a shared inquiry, not necessarily a shared certitude," said Mark Engle, a retired rector from a Marquette church. "The journey of truth in scriptures is never done without science."

Whenever someone says something like this, he/she is forgetting one important thing. In science, when something is accepted to be valid, there is usually ONE set of formulation or description that we all agreed on. It doesn't matter if you are an American, a European, a Russian, a Chinese, a christian, a buddhist, a muslim, an athiest, etc... It is the SAME scientific theory and description. The theory of conventional superconductivity, for example, isn't different for a Canadian than it is for a Japanese, no matter what their social and cultural differences are. Even something that is still being highly studied, such as the Big Bang Theory, has a rather large and uniform consensus, even though there are small groups of cosmologist that may disagree with it. What may differ, for instance, among those who do accept the Big Bang, is the details. They may disagree on the "exact" age of the universe, let's say, but it's a matter of it being 4 billion, 6, billion, of 12 billion years old. The difference certainly not between 10 billion and 10,000 years old. If better evidence come along, accepted science evolves to match the evidence.

The same can't be said about religion and its view of the universe. The Judeo-Christian-Islam view of the universe varies WIDELY from the Hindu/Buddhist/Taoist/etc. view of the universe. One can also say that even within the Judeo-Christian-Islam religion, there are also significant differences in the description of the universe. Don't believe me? Read Maurice Bucaille's "The Bible, The Quran, and Science". They do not agree on the fundamental formation of the universe and its age. Even among the Christians themselves, you get one that accepts the age of the universe from Cosmology as being in the billions of years, while there are these "Young Earth" followers who still think the earth is only of the order of 10,000 years old! That's a major, major discrepancy in my book.

So I find it strange that whenever people say that both science and religion can meet, and that one compliments the other in our understanding of the universe, this major disagreement between various religious views are never mentioned, as if "religion" is only one version of Christianity, and as if "religion" means "Christianity" only. There is NO ONE ACCEPTED VERSION of the universe in religion. That's a fallacy.

Not only that, the other reason why I think events like this may not be that effective is because you get someone like this who can't see the fault in what they believe in:

Fred Betz, 63, of Galesburg told the panelists he took the words of the Bible at face value, and his understanding of scripture disproved evolution.

"What's wrong with my simplistic view of reading the Bible?" Betz asked.

Panelists said nothing was wrong and pointed to the central themes of Evolution Weekend: open-mindedness and discussion.

"The way we deal with each other is more important than any of our individual theories," Brabson answered.

Betz wasn't convinced.

"It's sad we're having (this discussion) in a church," he said after the event. "The Bible is the inherent word of God. It's sad I had to explain the same things to them I had to explain to my atheist friend."

How come no one points out that what this guy accepts "at face value" is nothing more than a product of SEVERAL TRANSLATIONS of human memorization over hundreds of years? Did he think that the bible was written in English outright? How secure are you at accepting "at face value" something that had been translated from several ancient languages across several different cultures? How many languages does this guy know? Has he ever done any kind of translation and see how a lot of meanings get lost when one does that? I mean, c'mon! Why are we missing something this obvious here?

When all the religions of the world get their act together and come up with a coherent picture, when maybe this "science meet religion" affair might produce something worthwhile. Till then, all this is doing is trying to merge science with something that is ill-defined. I see this as a futile effort.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Physicist Discovers How Sax Players Hit High Notes

Many physicists either study, or try to investigate things that may not be strictly in the traditional area of physics. I mentioned one earlier on the study of the most optimal way to load passengers onto an airline. Now comes a study by a physicist to investigate how a professional saxophone player can hit the high notes that many people cannot. They somehow are able to adjust their vocal tracts to resonate at the same frequency as the sound they're trying to make with the saxophone.

But for the highest notes, the vocal tracts of professional saxophonists did something special.

"In those higher frequencies up there, the saxophone's own resonances are relatively weak, so that's why it's hard to sound those notes," Mr Chen said.

"By adjusting your vocal tract resonances to match those in the saxophone, they add up. That allows them to play the notes."



Friday, February 08, 2008

Layoffs At Cornell

I've mentioned of the effects of the disastrous Omnibus budget that was passed recently, and have highlighted how it has severely affected operations and staff at several US Nat'l Labs. But the casualty isn't just restricted to these places. Cornell University has had to lay off about 10% of its workforce at its Laboratory of Elementary-Particle Physics.

The 11 job cuts represent 10 percent of the lab's 110 employees. The laboratory, which studies the laws that govern atoms and molecules, has lost 30 percent of its funding in the last 2 1/2 years, said lab director Maury Tigner.

“The support of physical science throughout the United States has been falling victim to the latest congressional action in which the American competitiveness has not been supported,” he said.

So not only is there a real impact beyond just the high energy/nuclear physics programs, there are also impacts beyond just the Nat'l Labs. I wouldn't be surprised that there are more of these stories around in the months to come, because I don't see the president's FY09 budget proposal being passed, certainly not this year.


The LHC As A Time Machine?

Report on this has been circulating the news wire for a few days ever since the silly editors at New Scientists proclaimed that it can happen (shall I mention for the gazillion'th time why I consider New Scientist as the science's supermarket tabloid?). I suppose when colliders like RHIC didn't actually produce blackholes, some people need to come up with other more creative ways to get them free publicity. So why not a wormhole?

We finally have a sensible article that discusses this. Still, the crackpots of the world are already rejoicing and jumping all over this.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

UK Confirms Withdrawal From ILC

The funding council for the UK has refused to reconsider the withdrawal from the International Linear Collider (ILC) consortium (link requires free registration for full access).

But despite strong protests from physicists, the STFC says in a statement released today that it has “reaffirmed its decision to stop funding the ILC”, which is seen as the next big experiment in particle physics after the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The statement was released following a meeting of the STFC’s council last week.

Of course, this doesn't sit well with many people.

Brian Foster from Oxford University in the UK, who is European director of the ILC’s global design effort, says he regrets — but is not surprised by — the STFC council’s decision to withdraw from the ILC.

“At no time has council or any of its subsidiary bodies, or the chief executive, seen fit to discuss this ill-informed decision with me or our international partners, but has instead presented it as a fait accompli,” Foster told “While I am grateful that various STFC officials are working constructively with me to try to rescue some of the world-leading work in the UK, I can never accept the legitimacy of the deeply flawed process that has led to the STFC’s withdrawal from the ILC. I will continue to make the case for this vital world project in the hope that STFC will rejoin in the future.”

There's a prevailing "doom" around many places that were involved in the ILC. It is quite conceivable that the ILC is dead, and that even with some restored funding, the momentum for it is lost forever, at least for the US and UK. The possible hope for the resurrection of the ILC would be to site it in either Japan or China. It certainly would signify the complete and final end to particle collider experiment in the US.


The Physics of Sailing

Ah, to sail out in the open waters with the warm breeze in my face .... right before I throw up due to motion sickness... :)

Anyhow, this is an article on the physics of sailing in the Feb. 2008 issue of Physics Today. There's a lot of physics involved here, obviously. But one would think that such things are only being considered when designing a vessel, rather than when one is actually sailing it.


Optimal Boarding Method For Airline Passengers

Kids, there is an example on where, your training as a physicist or a scientist, can prepare you to tackle a problem analytically and systematically, even when it isn't about physics or science. Your physics education prepares you for a whole lot more than just doing physics.

I don't try to highlight something when it isn't even published yet, or when it isn't by a well-known figure, but this preprint is way too much fun to ignore. So I thought I'd bring it up. It is by Jason Steffen, a postdoc at Fermilab. I'm guessing from the comment he wrote that, while boarding a plane on his way to attend a conference, he somehow observed how the airline boarded the passengers and decided to study the most optimum way for this process to occur to minimize the boarding time. Thus, he came up with this study.

Like I said, it is a very entertaining reading. I hope someone can alert the airlines on this, but we should wait till it gets published in the submitted journal first.


Addendum: He has a newer version of this paper that can be found here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rate Of Speed

Have you ever heard of people using the phrase "rate of speed" before? I have, mainly on TV during one of our local news. Usually it is during a description of some vehicular traffic incident, and some vehicle was described as moving at a "high rate of speed". What they really want to say is simply that the vehicle was moving very fast, but somehow, they think saying "high rate of speed" sounds "sexier".

This, of course, is rather inaccurate. Typically, when say say "rate of something", we usually mean the time rate of change. In calculus, it is d/dt of something, i.e. the time derivative. So when one say "rate of speed", one is actually saying ds/dt, where s is speed. This is ACCELERATION!

Now there's nothing wrong with this if the newscasters actually did intended to say acceleration (which begs the question on why they don't just say "acceleration"?). But more likely, they wanted to say "speed". So really, transposing "speed" into "rate of speed" is not only non-economical in terms of words to say, it is also no longer correct.

So, if you write for some news broadcast, and you want to say that a vehicle moves very fast, just say "high speed" and NOT "high rate of speed". If your producer or proof reader disagree, ask him/her to open a physics textbook.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Physicists Hope U.S. Budget Will Mean an End to Research Cuts

This is a NY Times article on the Science funding aspect of the president's FY09 budget. Again, while there are generous increase in physics funding, it appears that, as Shirley Bassey likes to say, it's just history repeating itself.

This year, the president’s proposal provides no increase at all for the National Institutes of Health. That may set up a replay of last year, with the large percentage increases for physical sciences offering an inviting target for budget cutters.

“It’s the same scenario going forward for the third year in a row,” said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “With not enough money, there really is no way to make everyone happy.”

Further complicating the process is the presidential election. There is widespread speculation that the Democratic-controlled Congress will delay passage of the budget bills in hopes that the next president will be a Democrat and more amenable to its priorities.

If that happens, the government would again run on continuing resolutions, continuing financing of operations at the current 2008 levels, and not the hoped-for higher levels of 2009.

If you notice, this is EXACTLY the scenario that I think will likely to occur.

I'm depressed.....


What's Ahead for Early-Career Scientists?

This is a rather good and useful article from Science career section. It discusses the job market and possibilities from someone just starting out in a science career. There are a lot of relevant and important statistics that are included in the article.

So if you're about to graduate and jump into the job market, don't miss it.


Physical Sciences Win Out Over Biomedicine in 2009 Budget Proposal

More analysis of President Bush's FY2009 Budget proposal. This is reported on the Science daily news. It appears that the NIH will have a flat funding for 2009, while physical sciences get a substantial increase, as has been noted already.

Predictably, that view doesn't sit well with biomedical scientists. "We reject the premise that funding science in one area or at one agency must come at the expense of another," says Bob Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. "There is no doubt that NSF and DOE merit the significant increases the president has proposed. But neglecting NIH at the same time is failing to grasp the interconnectedness of science."

I agree, but did the very same people argued vehemently about this when THEY were getting a doubling of funding while physical sciences suffered with flat or dwindling fundings? With Nuclear and High Energy Physics in major trouble right now, and with the unbelievable disparity in funding currently between biomedicine and physical sciences, I don't think the biomedical scientists will get that much of a sympathy from many physicists right now.


Monday, February 04, 2008

President Bush's FY2009 Budget Proposal

So here it is, the President's budget proposal for FY09 for the Department of Energy.

There is a substantial increase in funding for basic physics research, but the same was proposed for FY08, and look what happened.

Again, considering the size of the budget and the size of the projected budget deficit, and the fact that a new president will take over in Jan 2009, do you have any confidence that Congress will pass this by end of Sept. 2008? I don't! This means that the miserable condition that science is operating under right now will drag on at least till the end of the year.


More Problems With MOND

There are more challenges to the Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) theory.

[Note: a few of the links may require free registration to gain full access to the article]

First of course was the observation from the collision in the Bullet cluster from a year ago. The result from this strongly favors the presence of Dark Matter. In fact, many astrophysicists even proclaimed that MOND is dead after this observation. Of course, things don't die off that easily (and that fast) in physics. The MOND advocates came back with a scenario that could be consistent with the Bullet cluster observation without any need for Dark Matter. This was met with major skepticism by others in the field, as can be read at the end of that article in the link.

Now comes another publication that might seriously challenge MOND's analysis of the Bullet cluster.

I. Ferreras et al., "Necessity of Dark Matter in Modified Newtonian Dynamics within Galactic Scales", Phys. Rev. Lett. v.100, p.031302 (2008).

Abstract: To test modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) on galactic scales, we study six strong gravitational lensing early-type galaxies from the CASTLES sample. Comparing the total mass (from lensing) with the stellar mass content (from a comparison of photometry and stellar population synthesis), we conclude that strong gravitational lensing on galactic scales requires a significant amount of dark matter, even within MOND. On such scales a 2 eV neutrino cannot explain the excess of matter in contrast with recent claims to explain the lensing data of the bullet cluster. The presence of dark matter is detected in regions with a higher acceleration than the characteristic MOND scale of ~10^-10 m/s^2. This is a serious challenge to MOND unless lensing is qualitatively different [possibly to be developed within a covariant, such as Tensor-Vector-Scalar (TeVeS), theory].

This lensing issue was brought up in one of the article that I linked above, so obviously, this is a serious issue with MOND. Let's see if they can dig out of this one.


Disappointing Budget Hits DOE's BES Division

If people think that the outrageous Omnibus spending budget only hits High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics, think again. This this week's issue of Science (Feb. 1, 2008), Adrian Cho lays out the effects on the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) part of the Dept. of Energy (DOE) budget.

As the largest of the Office of Science's six divisions, BES funds research in materials sciences, chemistry, condensed matter physics, and related fields. Its $1.28 billion budget also pays for synchrotron x-ray sources, neutron sources, and other "user facilities" at the Office of Science's 10 national labs. The 2008 budget will not lead to major layoffs at those labs, as have cuts to DOE's particle physics budget (Science, 11 January, p. 142). But it will mean an array of smaller cost-saving measures that will have an impact on science. For example, user time will be cut by up to 20% at BES's already-oversubscribed user facilities, which support thousands of university researchers. "Nationwide, it is a very significant impact," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge. "But it's not manifest in a dramatic way at one lab."
The cuts in the BES budget are also hampering plans to build some user facilities. Researchers at Brookhaven received only $30 million of the $45 million requested to design and procure parts for the $912 million National Synchrotron Light Source II, which is scheduled to start up in 2015. And researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California received only $5 million of $17.4 million requested to begin construction of a 28,000-square-meter building that would provide lab space to users of the adjoining Advanced Light Source (ALS)

So this is a devastating budget, no matter from which angle you look at it, for all of science. And frankly, I do not see a relief in sight. The president's budget for FY09, scheduled to appear today, promises to be HUGE, and is predicted to cause record US budget deficit. I can already see that the US Congress is not going to allow such spending, which means that they can easily delay this beyond the start of FY09 in Oct 1st. This means that we will continue to be saddled with the catastrophic FY08 budget as part of the continuing resolution. I am not optimistic at all....

Please prove me wrong.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Maybe 'They' Should Study Some Science Instead?

I got a good chuckle and almost yell "You Go, Bill!" after reading this commentary. He is responding to the call that science and engineering students take more "liberal arts" courses as part of their education.

I am tired of the presumption that it's the engineers who need to become "well rounded." The typical engineer has broader knowledge and interests than the average non-engineer, in my experience. Then look at the abysmal understanding the public has about basic science and engineering topics; it would be funny if it wasn't so sad. These are the same people who call upon the technical community to solve every problem quickly, painlessly, and without tradeoffs. Tell me: Who needs to learn more about the other side of life?

That actually is a very strong point. Science and engineering students today have to learn a lot more than what they need to know several years ago. Our accumulation of knowledge causes students to have to know a lot more before they can graduate.

Now don't get me wrong. I think all engineering and science students should learn about other things to be effective scientists and engineers. The art of communication, be it verbally and in writing, is crucial, especially in dealing with the general public. We have already seen what can happen to science funding when the general public and our politicians are not clearly informed on why funding basic science is important.

However, I think that the liberal arts electives that these students should be exposed to should be relevant to their profession. Learning about the social, philosophical, and human aspect of science and technology, and how they are perceived by the public, would be something highly useful to them when they do become scientists and engineers. But as the commentary has mentioned, this "understanding" needs to go both ways. Many liberal arts programs do not require their students to have any working knowledge of science and engineering. So in that sense, I can fully understand the frustration of the author in this paragraph:

There are many reasons for this decline, including the sheer complexity of today's technologies, a lazy and jaded public, and the dumbing down of education (have you seen today's high-school chemistry labs?), to name a few. But the basic principles of science and engineering are still vital and unchanged (force, power, gravity, the list could go on and on). Why should our community accept the premise that it is we who need to learn more about that non-technical side, rather than the other way around?


Einstein’s Taxing Time at Oxford

It's amazing that after all these years after this man's death, there are still plenty of new discoveries about his life that keep popping up. Case in point is this newly published account of his encounter with the British tax law.

You would have needed to be Einstein to understand the Inland Revenue’s thinking when one of its more zealous inspectors wanted to tax the great German physicist on a fellowship granted by an Oxford college.

It was not until a personal intervention by the chairman of the board of the Revenue that a £400 ($787) annual stipend awarded to Albert Einstein by Christ Church in 1932 was ruled exempt from British taxation.

I have a feeling that for a very long time, there will be new discovery like this about Einstein's life.


Jefferson Lab Imager Can Detect Beginnings Of Breast Tumors

This is just another clear example where the advances in the techniques used in physics produce a direct benefit in other areas, such as medical imaging. In this case, knowledge of detector physics can produce an early detection of breast cancer tumor that a mammogram could have missed.

The pre-clinical results will be published in the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology on Feb. 7.

"We are physicists," Majewski said. "The medical people decide when this device is ready."

The work of Majewski's team has already been developed for the market by Newport News-based Dilon Technologies. This new research builds on Dilon's model and expands its capability because it has been designed to guide a biopsy, Majewski said.

This is also another example of the practical application of physics, in case you encounter people who think that there's nothing directly beneficial from physics.

It is imperative to point out why investment in basic research is so important. It isn't just for the knowledge, but also the "side effects". Many advances in the medical field and computing would not have occurred if it weren't for work done in nuclear and high energy physics. So when people pour money into the biological and health fields but sacrificing funding in basic physics, they are ignoring this fundamental fact that many of the advances made in the medical/biological fields came about thanks to the fruits of the labor done in basic physics. The public, and especially our politicians, need to be fully aware of that! Whoever is responsible for this story should point out clearly where the technology came from.


Friday, February 01, 2008

What Is Physics?

It's strange that almost 900 posts into this physics blog, I would have a post that would ask that question. :)

Well, I wasn't the one asking it, but this article did. It is a piece written by Ian Cuthbert of the Institute of Physics in UK. I think this is a simplified answer to that question. The article deals mainly on the typical educational path that a student in the UK would take to become a physicist. So it is more of a description on how to be a physicist, rather than "what is physics".

Still, it is useful for those considering this career, if you're in the United Kingdom.


Another Reason Not To Use Yahoo Search

So Yahoo is laying off more people as it loses even more grounds to Google. I guess in my case, I very seldom use Yahoo search anymore. But once in a while, I do. However, this latest "incident" simply reinforced the reason why I don't use it that often.

We all know that all these search engines try to make money off advertisements. They all use some "contextual" advertisement that is relevant to what you were searching for. So of course, if you do a search for "physics", websites that have relevance to that topic will come up as in the advertisement area of your search page. That's nothing new. However, when you do a search for "physics" on Yahoo, you tend to get not only physics-related websites, but also psychic-related websites!

Now I know fully well that (i) this also some time occurs when you do a Google search and (ii) the "intelligent" software is trying to make account for possible misspelling of the word. Since "physics" and "psychic" is close enough, I can see why they would both come up together (I won't go into the advertisement for crackpot websites, which both Yahoo and Google are guilty of). Still, Yahoo is notorious for putting up a lot of these psychic websites after such search, way more than what you would find using Google. And heaven forbid if you go to one of the physics-related Yahoo groups. There's plenty of psychic website advertisement.

This is a screen snapshot that I got after one of my recent excursion to do a Yahoo search on "physics".

As you can see, the whole list of web advertisement is for psychic websites! I mean, c'mon!

It is sad that while their spelling may be similar, these two can't be more further apart. It is a night-and-day difference in what they do, how they go about their business, etc. In other words, these advertisement for psychic websites are highly annoying, at least to me. But then again, I've been know to not have a lot of patience for such nonsense.

I wrote earlier on how we some time we get people who can't spell very well coming into the IRC physics chat channel. They were looking for some "reading" in the physics channel, when, of course, they were looking for the "psychic" channel. We had a lot of fun at their expense, I'm sorry to say. :) Maybe Yahoo is trying to cater for these people who can't spell very well. Now, it would only be fair that they also get physics websites when they do a search on "psychics". But then again, how are they to know that they're reading a legitimate webpage and not some crackpottery? Maybe they'll like the crackpottery more! Oy vey!