Friday, May 30, 2008

Who Is the Anonymous Author of the Web's Best Physics Blog?

Sadly, no, it is not Yours Truly or this blog!


Wired is trying to find out (and trying to contact) the person who is running what it called "the Web's Best Physics Blog", which is the arXiv blog. In fact, they are obsessed with him/her.

We love the blog and want to work with its creators, but they have not responded to's emails. So, we're turning to you, readers, for a crowdsourced investigation. If you help us determine the real identity of this blogger, there might be even be a prize in it for you.

Does anyone know who this Kentucky FC is and how we could contact him/her/them? Is she a famous physicist? An undiscovered Einstein? A graduate student dithering away another year hoping to delay having to settle for a tenure-track position in some cold, inhospitable clime?

So what competition did it enter to win the "Web's Best Physics Blog" title? :)


US Particle Physics Spared the Axe?

Well, maybe for now.

The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) that advises the Dept. of Energy, met this past week to make recommendations on future directions of high energy physics funding and projects in the US. This New Scientist article seems to be painting a "rosier" picture than it really is.

You can read the preliminary report of the P5 meeting here.

There's nothing here that indicates that the politicians (and the President, now and the one to be installed in 2009) pays any attention to such report. After all, they've been known to ignore previous recommendations.

And as a follow-up to the post from yesterday regarding the anonymous donor that gave $5 to help Fermilab, Wired has this dead-on article about the sad state of American particle physics funding.

Say what you will about the relative importance of particle physics in everyday life, but how is it that a government spending $16.8 $2.9 trillion a year can't scrounge up enough change in the cushions to properly fund its premiere particle physics lab?

In the scheme of this country, we're not talking huge amounts of money here. The Federal government's total budget for the lab is $320 million. That's as much as we spend on, say, two-and-a-half F-22 Raptors, and we've managed to build over a hundred of those. Even just the interest on our nation's collective credit card was more than 1,000 times the Fermilab's budget.

... which is essentially what I had said earlier. People have somehow lost perspective for the scale of things.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Private Donor Gives Fermilab $5 Million

This is all over the Web already, but what the hey...

An anonymous donor gave $5 million to U. of Chicago to help with the financial debacle at Fermilab. This is reminiscent of the donation to RHIC a while ago to save it from being shut down temporarily due to similar budget constraints, although it wasn't from an anonymous donor.

The savings from the furlough allowed lab officials to keep the lab's particle smasher, the Tevatron Collider, running all out in its quest to spot the famed Higgs boson, the missing link in physicists' theory of the known fundamental bits of matter. Fermilab researchers hope to discover the Higgs before it's snagged by the more powerful Large Hadron Collider, which should turn on this summer at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. The donation, which will be funneled through the University of Chicago, will enable the lab to stop the furlough after two of four planned rounds of leave. The lab was able to scrape up another $1 million, in part because about 50 employees have already jumped ship, Oddone says.

This is the second time in recent years that philanthropists have bailed out a beleaguered DOE lab. In 2006, Congress gave Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, too little money to run its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which is used to study a type of nuclear physics. James Simons, a theoretical physicist and billionaire hedge-fund guru then donated $13 million to Brookhaven to run the machine.

It paints a very sad picture of science funding in the US. $5 million is PUNY in the scale of funding sizes. Many corporations burn that much in just 1-day. And we haven't gotten into what minuscule percentage that is out of the military spending. Yet, it saved the lab from the debilitating furloughs that, from all anecdotal accounts, have crippled the Fermilab.

But still, this is only a temporary band-aid on a bigger disease.

Although the donation ends the furlough, it does not solve Fermilab's problems. "The grain of salt is that it really does nothing to change the uncertainty with regard to the future," says Brendan Casey, a Fermilab particle physicist. "So there's some relief, but the underlying tension is still there." A DOE advisory panel will meet tomorrow and Friday to discuss the future of the lab and particle physics in the United States.

Both the US public and the politicians need to decide if they wish to continue supporting particle physics in the US. Scientists would rather hear that they do not, rather than giving mixed, wishy-washy signal. At the very least, the former will allow many to simply pull up roots and move on, knowing that a political decision was made to abandon an important field of physics. Years from now, at least, we know who to blame for such a debacle and let history judge the foolish mistake these people made.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wi-Fi Signals Causing Health Issues?

New reports are surfacing of certain people who are "electro-sensitive" and being affected by Wi-Fi signals, causing headaches and chest pains.

You'll understand if I read something like this with a large degree of skepticism. This is not new. I've reported this earlier with people who claim almost the same symptoms with cell-phone signals. Look at how credible those claims are.

I'm not saying these people didn't experience all this, and I'm not saying we shouldn't look into it. But considering the track record of such claims in the past (including claims about transmission power lines), we shouldn't enact bans and legislation just YET until there's clear evidence of a cause-and-effect. And let me tell ya, we are a LONG way off from that at this point.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

João Magueijo’s Big Bang

I don't normally highlight either fringe science or something that is still so highly controversial that it requires more "gestation" period. But since this thing is going to be on TV tonight, I might as well point it out. The Science channel will be airing a documentary presenting the highly controversial view of cosmology from the point of view of cosmologist João Magueijo. He, if you have followed this field closely, is a proponent of the idea that the intrinsic speed of light has been varying over time since the beginning of our universe. I'm guessing that he is justifying this view based on the still-controversial observation that the fine structure constant may have varied over time (see here and here).

Still, this NY Times review of the documentary isn't that flattering.

Not everyone will be charmed, however, by the extent to which he and his producers apparently thought it was necessary to dumb down and dress up the science in question. Everything is presented in classroom metaphors, and not very vivid ones: shots of static on a television screen represent cosmic radiation; a stretchy sweater with a lot of extra buttons stands in for the expanding universe. An inordinate amount of screen time is also devoted to shots of the dreamy Dr. Magueijo staring at models of the solar system or lying on a deck chair and gazing at the sky.

It doesn’t help when he brings his own bad-boy biography into the picture (a habit that began with his 2003 book, “Faster Than the Speed of Light”). We’re treated to the story of how he had his Einstein-was-wrong-about-the-speed-of-light breakthrough while fighting a hangover, and to the sight of him chuckling while watching what appear to be fake home movies, with an actor playing the young João.

Unfortunately, I have other commitments tonight that I won't be able to watch this show, and I didn't set anything to record it. If you did catch it, can you post something here and let me know what you think of it?

The article did get one thing rather accurate, though. I've seen his pictures several times already before this (haven't met him in person yet), and I might even go out on a limb and say that he is one of the most good-looking physicist that I've ever seen. :) I'm guessing that the camera loves him, and in many circles, that's good enough for a TV show.


World Science Festival Debuts Tomorrow

If you are lucky enough to be in the New York city area, you can participate in the World Science Festival which will start tomorrow in Manhattan.

The festival website has more info and programs for this event.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Behind a Scientific Success, a Failed Texas Experiment

As the dawn of the LHC is upon us and the excitement growing by the day, a relic of what could have been the most powerful particle collider ever built sat decaying and gathering dusts in Texas. This article looks back at the debacle that was the Superconducting Supercollider what was supposed to be built just outside of Dallas.

The Tevatron ring measures about 4 miles in circumference. The SSC ring was to have been 54 miles in circumference, producing collisions 20 times more intense than the Tevatron.

The new European accelerator, called the Large Hadron Collider, will not be as powerful as the mighty SSC would have been. The Large Hadron Collider's ring, about 17 miles in circumference, should be capable of producing collisions about one-third as powerful.

The collapse of the SSC is also an example on how politics got into the way of a science project, especially in how Fermilab lost the opportunity to build it there. It also shows very clearly for the first time that physicists are not united behind such huge and horribly expensive machine. Phil Anderson, for example, testified on why he was opposed to such a facility.

The SSC would have made the LHC moot. However, the SSC collapse has also foreign partnerships with the US more weary about the US commitment to such endeavor. The recent budget cutbacks on the ILC and ITER only reinforced such point of view.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Brookhaven's Summer Sundays

I have mentioned this whenever they have their yearly open Summer Sundays. If you are anywhere near Long Island, NY, you really shouldn't miss the opportunity to visit Brookhaven National Laboratory during one of their Summer Sundays. You get to visit not only the lab in general, but also get to tour the facility that's open for visitors for that day. Typically, the days highlighting the NSLS and RHIC are two of the more popular and tend to have the largest number of visitors, and understandably so.

This is one of the few opportunities one gets to tour a world class science facility and gets to ask questions to scientists working there.

Speaking of Brookhaven, it seems that people are still publishing erroneous rumors and accusation towards the lab that are amazingly wrong (and presumably getting away with it). The lab wisely decided to address the inaccuracies published in a book titled "SWelcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town", and included references to the affect of the lab on that two and the surrounding area on Long Island. It is amazing that someone would publish a book and yet, hardly do any homework on what they are writing on. Unfortunately, many of the book's readers would probably never see these counter points against the book and so, these inaccuracies (lies?) will be perpetuated. This is usually the "source" of information for the "public" and these accusations are taken as gospel by many.


Friday, May 23, 2008

US National Compact Stellarator Experiment Cancelled

I suppose this is neither inevitable nor surprising. The National Compact Stellerator at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has been shut down, mainly due to cost overruns and delays.

"In late 2006, it became clear that NCSX construction project would not be able to meet its approved baseline total project cost of $102M or its completion date of July 2009," said Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach in a statement. Since then the DOE, Princeton University, and Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have been reviewing their options for the project and PPPL. They concluded that "the budget increases, schedule delays and continuing uncertainties of the NCSX construction project necessitate its closure," said Orbach. The new proposed cost for NCSX was $170 million with an August 2013 start date, which would have put research at PPPL in peril said an April 2008 Office of Science report.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Outsider Science

Hey, if you're an amateur scientist/physicist and think you have some earth-shattering theory that you want to share, you may want to read this article from Symmetry before you hound other physicists with it.

I have been the recipient of several of these unsolicited e-mail and "manuscripts", and let me tell you that other than providing a good few minutes of laughter, I some time feel rather sorry for these people because, most often, the mistakes or inconsistencies were quite obvious. This despite the fact that many of these "theories" are often rather difficult to decipher because they are written in non-standard terminology. The words being used are familiar, but the context they are used in are rather odd. Certainly, the advice given in that article is very pertinent here:

To merit their attention, professionals say, an outsider would have to show that he’s done his homework. Serious contenders have to understand the language of physics and get their math right. Most importantly, any new theory must agree with past experiments.

A theory could predict that hula hoops will come bouncing out of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, as long as it accounts for all the experimental data up to that point, Rizzo says. Too often, amateurs ignore that basic constraint.

I would say that the amateurs "ignore" that constraint because they tend to not be aware of all the experimental data, or are ignorant of the body of knowledge in that field of study. This is another example of what I categorize as "imagination without knowledge is ignorance waiting to happen". There's no substitute for doing one's homework, and claiming something that contradicts or inconsistent with existing data or observation without realizing such data exist reflects one's ignorance. No professional scientist wants to be shown to be in ignorance of the state of knowledge of the field he/she is in, but this is what many "amateur physicists" continue to exhibit without shame.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Quantum All The Way

This is from a few weeks ago, but the issue is so important and interesting, I should still mention it on here. This was also the article I was reading on the plane while I was on my most-recent vacation. It was fascinating enough that it didn't put me to sleep and entertained me for several minutes.

This article was written by Phillip Ball in May 1st 2008 issue of Nature. I strongly suggest that, if you haven't read it and have access to it, that you take some time reading it. It deals with the issue of the "transition" or boundary or crossover or whatever between classical and quantum regimes.

To understand what the quantum–classical transition really means, consider that our familiar, classical world is an ‘either/or’ kind of place. A compass needle, say, can’t point both north and south at the same time. The quantum world, by contrast, is ‘both/and’: a magnetic atom, say, has no trouble at all pointing both directions at once. The same is true for other properties such as energy, location or speed; generally speaking, they can take on a range of values simultaneously, so that all you can say is that this value has that probability. When that is the case, physicists say that a quantum object is in a ‘superposition’
of states.

Thus, one of the key questions in understanding the quantum–classical transition is what happens to the superpositions as you go up that atoms-to-apples scale? Exactly when and how does ‘both/and’ become ‘either/or’?

Of course, there is a very good coverage of the leading candidate that tries to connect between the classical-quantum transition - decoherence. One of the important point of the article is the idea that it isn't the SIZE of the object that is important, but rather the time scale for when decoherence sets in.

Decoherence also predicts that the quantum–classical transition isn’t really a matter of size, but of time. The stronger a quantum object’s interactions are with its surroundings, the faster decoherence kicks in. So larger objects, which generally have more ways of interacting, decohere almost instantaneously, transforming their quantum character into classical behaviour just as quickly. For example, if a large molecule could be prepared in a superposition of two positions just 10 ångstroms apart, it would decohere because of collisions with the surrounding air molecules in about 10−17 seconds. Decoherence is unavoidable to some degree. Even in a perfect vacuum, particles will decohere through interactions with photons in the omnipresent cosmic microwave background.

So that's why we can still get interference pattern when particles as large as buckyballs are used, or that we can still see superposition effects in 10^11 particles, as in the SQUID experiments from Delft/Stony Brook.

The article also pointed out the alternative idea from Penrose that the coupling of the system to gravity (or gravitons to be exact) might be responsible for the emergence of our classical observation. I mentioned this earlier in another blog entry, including the upcoming tests being proposed Dirk Bouwmeester.

A great article, even if only for the wealth of the references given. A highly-recommended reading.


PRST-AB Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary

The Physical Review Special Topics - Accelerators and Beams journal celebrates its 10th Anniversary on May 14th, 2008. Here is the announcement from the Physical Review

On 14 May 2008, Physical Review Special Topics - Accelerators and Beams is celebrating its 10th anniversary. PRST-AB was founded by Robert Siemann and the APS in 1998 to provide the accelerator community with its own journal, covering all aspects of accelerators from fundamental physics to technology. PRST-AB has also been an innovator in scientific publishing, with numerous advanced and novel features: It is an all-electronic journal, features conference or special editions, exhibits aspects of a virtual journal, and has pioneered open-access publication. PRST-AB is offered at no cost to both authors and readers, through the generous support of its sponsors.

Publications in PRST-AB have been growing steadily from initially 24 articles in 1998 to 130–140 articles published per year in 2006/7. In parallel, the number of sponsors has increased substantially from 8 original ones to presently 19, in North America and Europe. The wide sponsorship is recognition of 1) PRST-AB as the premier journal of accelerator physics and technology, and 2) the contributions PRST-AB is making to the international accelerator community.

To celebrate its 10-year milestone, PRST-AB is publishing a number of short essays on general topics of accelerator physics, written by well-known experts in the field. The anniversary essay series starts in May and will be continued throughout the remainder of this year.

Frank Zimmermann

Note that you can access articles from PRST-AB free of charge. With the announced publication of short essays on the general topics of accelerator physics, you might want to check out this journal during the remainder of the year for these articles. They might provide useful information and overview of the field if you're not familiar with the area of accelerator physics.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Historical Derivation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Relation is Flawed

This is a rather interesting paper published in the current issue of AJP[1]. It narrates the historical account of the rigorous derivation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and claims that some of the derivation used after Heisenberg's presentation of it may have been flawed.

However, what caught my eye was the single author of this paper. It is John. H. Marburger III. When I checked his affiliation, I was correct. This is THE John Marburger who is currently the embattled "Science Adviser" to President's George W. Bush.

Immediately, 2 things came to my mind. First, at least he still gets to continue to explore scholarly topics, even in the historical sense, while he holds this position. But secondly, he must be bored in his current job to actually have some time to do such in-depth research. :) That last comment, of course, is purely speculative on my part.


[1] J.H. Marburger III, Am. J. Phys. v.76, p.585 (2008).

Monday, May 19, 2008

At Ten, Dark Energy "Most Profound Problem" in Physics

I'm sure many people would argue with the "most profound problem" in physics tag here. But don't kill me, that's the title used in a rather good overview published by National Geographic of dark energy as it approaches its 10th year since discovery.

I've already mentioned other reviews and historical perspective on dark energy, which you may want to read here and here to supplement this article.


Willis E. Lamb Jr., Died at Age of 94

Anyone who has studied quantum mechanics would have come across his name and the "Lamb shift" named after him. Willis Lamb died this past week at the age of 94.

A professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, Dr. Lamb received a 1955 Nobel Prize in physics for his experimental work on the fine structure of the hydrogen atom and for the discovery of what came to be called "the Lamb shift," a tiny deviation in the energy of an electron orbiting a hydrogen atom's nucleus. The discovery had enormous implications for the quantum theory of matter.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Iron-Based High-Tc Superconductors - Follow-up

Actually, this is more of an in-depth review of what we know so far about this iron-based superconductors. Physics Today has quite a good article covering what has now become a rather "hot" material in condensed matter physics. It definitely appears that the spin-density wave has a major role in this family of material.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Arsenic Poison Didn't Kill Napoleon

Another myth bites the dust.

A new study by physicists at INFN in Milano-Bicocca and Pavia, Italy, has shown that there's no difference in the arsenic level in Napoleon's hair during his last days when compared to when he was a child. This means that he wasn't deliberately poisoned by arsenic during his last days. Instead, it was more likely that it was due to a lifetime's worth of exposure to arsenic.


Friday, May 02, 2008

On Vacation

Hello Folks,

I'm on an extended vacation right now till May 18th. So there will be little to no updates at all in this blog till I get back.



Thursday, May 01, 2008

Accelerator Disaster Scenarios, the Unabomber, and Scientific Risks

I just want to say that I had a lot of fun reading this preprint by Joseph Kapusta. It is entertaining, insightful, and has a ton of information for both scientists and non-scientists alike. It reinforces the point that I've been trying to make, which is the constant miscommunication between scientists and non-scientists. The blame goes on both sides - scientists for not considering how what they say is being interpreted by the public, and the public for not self-educating themselves into trying to understand not just the science, but the vocabulary that science uses. Not being aware that there are discontinuity in the communications and understanding of the two parties is the first significant problem. This is also a very good opportunity to again highlights the wonderful essay written by Helen Quinn that I've mentioned a while back. Everyone should read it!

If you have some time, I'd recommend reading this article by Kapusta, even for just for its "storytelling" aspect.