Monday, June 30, 2008

Scientific Fraud

Is there more of it than you think? This article seems to think so.

The data presented in the article were restricted to the US health and biological science, so it simply "extrapolated" into the rest of science. Now, even if this is true, that there are "... three incidences of fraud for every 100 researchers...", one needs to evaluate two important things as far as physics is concerned:

(1) were these part of important, high-profiled work and publications?

(2) did it get through to the stage where it was being used as a valid source?

The two instances mentioned in the article (the Schon and Ninov debacles) certainly fit #1, but this is out of how many high-profiled work? The thing we need to keep in mind here is that these high-profiled work, published in major journals, are usually highly scrutinized. So one certainly cannot get away with a lot of things, much less, fraudulent results, since someone is bound to try and reproduce your results. This is why it is still a major puzzlement why Schon did what he did, as if he didn't think someone was going to try and reproduce his results. So these important works in physics usually are not affected by frauds, because it is just way too difficult to get away with it.

Now, certainly such things are less scrutinized in lesser journals. But most of these very seldom become significant work that we rely on. And this brings us to #2. How many of these frauds actually made it "out" and into the stages where they were applied and used? I don't know of any. Why? Because if it is fraudulent, it would not work, no matter how much you try! That was the problem with the Schon results, no one could reproduce it! It could not get out of the scrutiny part and into the applied/application part.

The point here is that fraudulent work in physics hasn't made it out too far for it to mislead or fool enough people. (I'm distinguishing this from outright crackpottery such as the "hydrino".) If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, no matter how one tries to hide the fraud. Science, and certainly physics, is still a slave to Mother Nature.

Because the PRACTICE of science is a human endeavor, it is why we have peer-reviewed process, and then further scrutiny by others in the field. If not, why bother with all of the circus? The public and the media should be made aware of this, and this is why any results or discoveries should be given the proper "gestation period" for the system to work. The fact that something has been published isn't really the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a detailed, careful scrutiny. It is when the public and the media forget about this is when they are "misled".


Physics Teacher Shortage in the UK

More physics secondary education problem in the UK. A new report indicates that one in for secondary schools in the UK no longer have a physics specialist teacher.

The survey shows substantial differences in the availability of physics teachers - both regional differences and by the type of school. And it raises concerns about the viability of physics as a separate subject.

In inner London, there is a tendency to have general science teachers rather than specialist physics teachers - and 50% of secondary schools do not have any physics teachers.

In contrast, in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, only about 10% of schools do not have any specialist physics teachers.

If we couple with with an earlier report and something that I truly believe that the problem with physics education is the way it is being taught in high schools, then the situation in the UK not very good. It is not just a matter of conveying the material. It is also the enthusiasm, creativity, and interest in the material. Presumably, someone who specialized in physics would tend to have those elements and would show it in his/her teaching.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Recapturing The Excitement Of Science

This article is all over the place and going in all directions. Its main emphasis is on the refurbishing of the Faraday Lecture Theatre at the Royal Institution in London. Still, it is an interesting read, especially on the historical aspect. Even more interesting, however, is that the impression that I have regarding the teaching of physics, and how the importance of physics is communicated to the general public, are articulated exactly in the article.

What a contrast with today. Last week, Ofsted reported that at both primary and secondary school level, science lessons were dull and there were not enough practical experiments. Teachers no longer entertain classes with explosions of powdered magnesium; gone are the bunsen burners for heating noxious mixtures in fragile test-tubes.

"Science is a fascinating and exciting subject," said Chief inspector Christine Gilbert. "Yet for many pupils, it lacks appeal because of the way that it is taught."

So why are so many people today happy to admit that they find science difficult and dull? Some of the blame may be laid at the doors of our education system, as the Ofsted report suggested. But there must be more to the flight from science.

People who would never admit to a lack of understanding of art or literature are happy to confess to total incomprehension where science is concerned. Yet our lives today depend as never before upon the outcomes of innovative science and technology. Without medical science, our lives would be shorter and more painful; without physics and chemistry, domestic conveniences that ease our everyday lives could never have been developed.

If, however, the reason for the general public's disenchantment with science is to be laid at the door of scientists unable or unprepared to communicate their subject so as to engage the interest and enthusiasm of non-specialists, then the Royal Institution is continuing a long tradition actively to counter such a trend.

This person in that speeding case may be exactly the product of such an environment, resulting in a complete disconnect between the advances in physics and the way we live our lives today.


Friday, June 27, 2008

SCOAP3 Expands

The push for having open-access peer-reviewed journal articles in high-energy physics now includes 3 more US National labs: SLAC, J-Lab, and Lawrence Berkeley.

Eventually, everyone will have access to those high-energy physics papers. So no one can claim any ignorance because he/she has been unable to access these peer-reviewed articles. :)


Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Laws Of Physics Do Not Apply Here?

I was casually reading this article, which started out to be rather amusing. But then, it got VERY annoying especially when the ignorant judge started to give out his opinion.

A couple in England was contesting a speeding ticket when the wife was caught using a speed camera. Her husband, who happened to be a physicist, challenged the speeding ticket because the speed camera wasn't used according to instruction.

Now I have no idea who's right or who's wrong here, and this isn't really the focus of this blog post. However, what caused my jaw to drop was what the judge then said.

West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership spokesman, Philip Gwynne, said Mr Fielden appeared to be "defending his wife's honour" by "using the laws of physics."

He said: "However, the judge has ruled that in speeding cases it is the law of the land that matters – not the law of physics.

"Maybe it's time that we left physics in the classroom and allowed cameras to get on with their job which is to reduce injury and death on our roads and encourage people to drive within the speed limits," he continued.

Er... hello? Didn't the camera actually used physics to measure a vehicle's speed in the first place? And what's with confining physics to only "in the classroom" nonsense? Is he out of his mind making such a silly statement like that?

I hate to say this, but I shouldn't be shocked by such stupidity anymore. However, it also a reflection on those in physics to evaluate on whether we have done enough to emphasize the relevance of physics in our world today. Too often, big news on physics have come from very esoteric areas of physics. This includes high energy physics (the LHC is in the new a lot lately), astrophysics, etc., all of which are definitely important, but have a major disconnect between the subject area and what the general public are familiar with. They don't see how such things are applicable in their daily lives, and so have the impression that physics only deals with things that they don't use. They forget that their basic electronics, and most of their modern conveniences, came out of discoveries in physics, especially solid state/condensed matter physics.

Confining physics to the classroom is the last thing we want to do.


EDIT/UPDATE: There's a bit of confusion on my part on who said that idiotic passage that I quoted from the news article. From this report, it appears that it is the person by the name of

Philip Gwynne, a spokesman for West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership, which runs the camera, said: "Maybe it's time we left the physics in the classroom. The cameras are there to encourage people to drive safely."

If this is true, than I apologize to the presiding judge, and this Philip Gwynne character has a serious problem. The "West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership" can't possibly want someone this ignorant to be their spokesman..... can they?


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public Outreach Program For Gravitational Wave Astronomy?

It could happen! It certainly isn't a very well-known area of physics/astronomy, so any kind of publicity and public outreach can certainly help in making the field more familiar to students and the public.

This preprint highlights the effort in introducing gravitational wave research by the LIGO collaboration to students, educators, and the public.

Abstract: The nascent field of gravitational-wave astronomy offers many opportunities for effective and inspirational astronomy outreach. Gravitational waves, the "ripples in space-time" predicted by Einstein's theory of General Relativity, are produced by some of the most energetic and dramatic phenomena in the cosmos, including black holes, neutron stars and supernovae. The detection of gravitational waves will help to address a number of fundamental questions in physics, from the evolution of stars and galaxies to the origin of dark energy and the nature of space-time itself. Moreover, the cutting-edge technology developed to search for gravitational waves is pushing back the frontiers of many fields, from lasers and materials science to high performance computing, and thus provides a powerful showcase for the attractions and challenges of a career in science and engineering. For several years a worldwide network of ground-based laser interferometric gravitational-wave detectors has been fully operational, including the two LIGO detectors in the United States. These detectors are already among the most sensitive scientific instruments on the planet and in the next few years their sensitivity will achieve further significant improvement. Those developments promise to open an exciting new window on the Universe, heralding the arrival of gravitational-wave astronomy as a revolutionary, new observational field. In this paper we describe the extensive program of public outreach activities already undertaken by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and a number of special events which we are planning for IYA2009.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rising Cost of Oil 'Due to Speculation'

Finally, a research work done in the field of econophysics that I've actually found to be "relevant" and interesting! :)

This is a preprint by a group from ETH Zurich and the East China University of Science and Technology. In it, they claim that the rising cost in oil cannot be explained simply via supply and demand, that the major cost for the increase is due to oil speculation. You can read a review of this preprint at the Physics World website (free registration is required).

In an economy without speculation, the price of commodities tends to grow by a fixed percentage every year; this is an exponential rate of growth. But when an economy is influenced by speculation, the percentage increase can grow too. This gives rise to a power-law growth or, as the researchers call it, a “super-exponential growth”.

Sornette’s group has looked at three different models to see if oil prices exhibit super-exponential growth. Each of these models is based on a “log-periodic power law”, which characterizes the super-exponential growth, and contains three main parameters: the time when the bubble is expected to end; the exponent of the power law; and a scale factor. The researchers found that all three models fitted the oil-price data well, implying that the growth has indeed been a bubble.

Apparently, this group also predicted back in 2005 of the burst of the US housing market. And look at where we are now?


A Celebration of Learning?

I don't think so.

OK, so this is another one of those where I know that I am being overly critical here, and possibly nit-picking the issue. But still, based on my experience, the important distinction here is lost on many people who are not familiar with science and science education.

This story is reporting a group of high school and college students reading out loud various books in an effort to highlight the love of learning.

Inside the gazebo at Goettel Park was not the place Monday for anyone with a headache: Sebastian Notaro's voice boomed chapters from "College Physics" while Kate Sheldon read a cookbook. Andrea Catania recited from a Harry Potter book, and Chelsea Meredith read from the Quran.

Five others were reading aloud - all at the same time.

They even explained the reason why they are doing this silly exercise.

The event, which didn't have a name, had two purposes, including the collection of donations for a food pantry.

"It's a great way to revitalize intellectual spirit among our youth and show we are interested in learning," Miller said.

The food pantry drive thing, I have no problem with, and certainly can be effective if advertised. But the "we are interested in learning" part has a lot of things wrong with it especially as far as learning physics and mathematics are concerned.

First of all, just because someone can read something, doesn't mean he/she understands the content. Give a high school student a copy of Jackson's Classical E&M text and I can easily see that student reading it. He may stumble over a few words, but he can read it. But did he understood what he just read? I bet you cash the weight of that book that he did not. So just because someone reads off "College Physics" is meaningless as far as "learning" is concerned. That is why you never see authors of a college physics text at bookstores or coffee lounges reading chapters off their books. That would be absurd.

Secondly, one does not study physics and mathematics simply by reading it similar to what one would do when reading a novel, or a cookbook. You don't just sit in a chair with nothing else, and read Griffith's Quantum Mechanics text. While you can get some superficial knowledge out of doing something like that, you do not get the clear grasp of the content without actually working it out while reading the book. One learns and understand the material via working out the examples and following along the mathematics with pen and paper. It is also why these texts have exercise problems to test one's understanding of the material. This is the only way to really get a grasp of the physics. There are no shortcuts.

So while I can appreciate this as being nothing more than "symbolic" or a publicity stunt, the way it is done to emphasize "learning" is all wrong for understanding "College Physics". They could have done better if they read and understood the book and showed a demonstration instead. It certainly would have been a lot more exciting for the audience and may even had prevented headaches!


Monday, June 23, 2008

NOVA scienceNOW Premieres Wednesday

Got this info in my e-mail, and thought a lot of people might be interested in seeing this.

On Wednesday, June 25 at 9 p.m., PBS will present the season premiere of NOVA scienceNOW, NOVA's magazine-style "sister show" hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. We think readers of Physics and Physicists will be interested in the show and hope you'll consider posting about it!

Wednesday's episode kicks off with a trip to the Soudan Underground Laboratory, a mine-turned-science lab where scientists are searching for evidence of dark matter. Later this summer, NOVA scienceNOW will travel to the Goddard Space Flight Center, where astronauts are preparing for a tricky last-chance repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope; then, on July 23, we'll explore a radical step forward in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and on July 30, we will get the latest results from the Phoenix Mars mission. Every episode closes with Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmic Perspective." For a taste of NOVA scienceNOW's unique take on physics, biology, math, and more, pay a visit to our YouTube page at

NOVA scienceNOW will run new episodes every Wednesday at 9 p.m. through the end of July, with rebroadcasts continuing in August. For a full list of upcoming segments, please see the attached press release. You can also find more on all these stories on the NOVA scienceNOW Web site:

And to check your local listings to confirm when NOVA scienceNOW will air near you, visit:

I have talked to many people who are involved in MINOS. They are doing very fascinating work there, not the least of which, the location where they were in (or should I say, under).


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Earth Will Survive After All

This came out last Friday, but I've only finished reading the whole thing just now. As reported in The NY Times today, all the concerned regarding the safety of our Earth due to the LHC has no significant probability of happening. This is based on the report that was released a few days ago.

And note the argument that I've used all along from the Auger Observatory results.

Do I think this will silenced all those doomsday-sayers? Nope, because most of them have already made up their minds with their so-called "facts". They'll still be singing the same tune even 10 years after LHC has gone into operation, because people never learn. A few of the people that I know will probably be at there when the LHC begins not only the first particle beam this July, but also the first collision, which from what I've been told, probably will begin in Sept. I told everyone to take some pictures, especially if a black hole starts appearing. I want to be the first to post a picture of a black hole swallowing up a part of Earth!



EDIT: The preprint by Giddings and Mangano has now appeared on ArXiv.

The abstract is VERY clear:

Abstract: We analyze macroscopic effects of TeV-scale black holes, such as could possibly be produced at the LHC, in what is regarded as an extremely hypothetical scenario in which they are stable and, if trapped inside Earth, begin to accrete matter. We examine a wide variety of TeV-scale gravity scenarios, basing the resulting accretion models on first-principles, basic, and well-tested physical laws. These scenarios fall into two classes, depending on whether accretion could have any macroscopic effect on the Earth at times shorter than the Sun's natural lifetime. We argue that cases with such effect at shorter times than the solar lifetime are ruled out, since in these scenarios black holes produced by cosmic rays impinging on much denser white dwarfs and neutron stars would then catalyze their decay on timescales incompatible with their known lifetimes. We also comment on relevant lifetimes for astronomical objects that capture primordial black holes. In short, this study finds no basis for concerns that TeV-scale black holes from the LHC could pose a risk to Earth on time scales shorter than the Earth's natural lifetime. Indeed, conservative arguments based on detailed calculations and the best-available scientific knowledge, including solid astronomical data, conclude, from multiple perspectives, that there is no risk of any significance whatsoever from such black holes.

Any challenges MUST be done with physics, using at least the same level of meticulous study, and not by a series of quotations attributed via 2nd hand information from other people.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rethinking Expertise

In an earlier post, I responded to a writer who called professional scientists the "most scientifically illiterate group in the US" and pointed out several fallacies of that statement. The problem here is that the level of expert knowledge that scientists consider themselves to have. We know what it means and how it feels to know something very well. This is why when we read other area of studies, we know we do not have the same level of expertise and would rather be inclined to refer to a true expert in such a field.

A book that was recently reviewed in Physics World seems to support what I had said. In Rethinking Expertise by Harry Collins and Robert Evans, the authors makes several distinction on the level of knowledge that a person can have.

The starting point of the book is the obvious realization that, in science or any other specialized field, some people know more than others. To develop this truism, the authors present a “periodic table of expertise” — a classification that will make it clear who we should listen to when there is a decision to be made that includes a technical component. At one end of the scale is what Collins and Evans (who is also a Cardiff sociologist) engagingly call “beer-mat expertise” — that level of knowledge that is needed to answer questions in pub quizzes. Slightly above this lies the knowledge that one might gain from reading serious journalism and popular books about a subject. Further up the scale is the expertise that only comes when one knows the original research papers in a field. Collins and Evans argue that to achieve the highest level of expertise — at which one can make original contributions to a field — one needs to go beyond the written word to the tacit knowledge that is contained in a research community. This is the technical know-how and received wisdom that seep into aspirant scientists during their graduate-student apprenticeship to give them what Collins and Evans call “contributory expertise”.

What Collins and Evans claim as original is their identification of a new type of expertise, which they call “interactional expertise”. People who have this kind of expertise share some of the tacit knowledge of the communities of practitioners while still not having the full set of skills that would allow them to make original contributions to the field. In other words, people with interactional expertise are fluent in the language of the specialism, but not with its practice.

I think most of us who work in science are fully aware of that, and that is why we seldom offer "expert" opinion on an area that we didn't specialize in. We KNOW what level of understanding is required to be able to make an original contribution to it. This is something crackpots are not aware of, and something that most of the public are not aware of when they talk about science and gave the impression that they have actually understood the issue on hand.

I think I have the "interactional expertise" in many areas, where I can actually engage in a semi-intelligent conversation with experts in those areas. However, if someone were to ask me for information about something in those areas, I would definitely refer to an expert, even though I believe that I know more about that area of study more than the average Joe off the street. Unfortunately, for some people, my referral to an expert somehow implied that I'm "scientifically illiterate". How logical is that?


Friday, June 20, 2008

A Resuscitated Science Funding

The US House of Representatives gave some lifelines to science funding in the US.

A third of a loaf is better than nothing. That's the feeling among the U.S. research community after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to boost the current budgets of four key science agencies by $337 million. Although it was less than lobbyists had hoped, it's probably more likely to happen than the sizeable budget increases for next year approved this week by several House and Senate spending panels with jurisdiction over a number of science agencies. Lobbyists fear those numbers, for the 2009 budget year that begins in October, could represent high-water marks in a process that likely will extend far beyond the November elections.

This still has to be approved by the Senate, and then signed by the President, so it still has a long ways to go. Still, it has a good prospect of getting through. But this is only a temporary reprieve in the sense that it stops the layoffs, furloughs, etc. It still doesn't provide the money for any significant progress in funding. And then there is the continuing resolution of a crappy budget well into 2009.

All is still not well....


A Constant Constant

One of the issues that physics is trying to investigate is whether our physical constants are the same everywhere else in the universe. This just doesn't mean that it could be different in a different location of the universe due to the exotic conditions, but also at different times throughout the evolution of the universe. We have heard about the controversial idea that the fine structure constants could have varied at different times during the life of our universe.

Now comes the latest verification that comes from 6 billion light years away regarding the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron. Murphy et al.[1] have reported that, within the limits of their experiment (which is the most accurate so far), they see no variation in this ratio. This means that this constant is the same even back that far in time.

You may read a review of this work here as well.


[1] M.T. Murphy et al., Science v.320, p.1611 (2008).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Physics Experiment With Your Microwave

This article describes a rather simple physics experiment that one can try with a microwave oven.

2 microwave-safe glasses

1 incandescent light bulb (60 watts works well)

1 microwave oven

Directions: Fill one glass with water. Put the light bulb in the other glass so it doesn't roll around. Put both glasses in the microwave. Turn the microwave on for three seconds (use the low-power setting if it has one).

Watch: If your microwave has a turntable, you will see the light bulb glow and dim as it travels. If your microwave doesn't have a turntable, repeat the experiment several times, moving the light bulb to different spots. Be careful, the light bulb gets hot! And don't run the microwave longer than five seconds at a time.

The science: Light bulbs glow when electrons speed across a thin metal wire called a filament, heating it to several thousand degrees. In this experiment, you harnessed the energy of the microwave radiation generated by your microwave oven.

It sounds interesting enough. But I can't help thinking "Holy Cow! Someone's not going to follow the instruction and will blow up his/her microwave oven!" Then again, a spark in a microwave oven is, in itself, a fun physics experiment. :)


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Problem With Using Scientists' Words To Support Religious Beliefs

This is a rather interesting article in It discusses the propensity of some people of quoting scientists, especially Einstein in particular, to support a particular religious point of view, or to say that even those great scientists believed in a deity.

I suppose when one deals with history or the nature of human interactions and beliefs, these quotes are the "data" one goes by to draw up a conclusion about that person. Of course, one only needs to examine a lot more than just a few quotes to get a more complete picture. Quotations need a frame of reference, a context, to give a fuller picture.

However, physics, on the other hand, are not done via a series of quotations, no matter how much one can cite such a thing. Most people not in this field of study seem to not be aware of that. If you look at the "debate" in the comments section on the issue of the LHC safety, you'll encounter a lot of "quotes" from various documents or from various people. This is done while the person extracting the quotes have no clue of the physics in question. One cannot engage in a physics discussion with people like that!

There is also another angle to all this. As a physicist, I highly respect the accomplishment of all the giants in this field. How can one not when one is benefiting from all the work and discoveries done by them. When I wrote my glowing comments about John Bardeen, while I admire his down-to-earth and unassuming demeanor, what I admire the most are his accomplishments, more than anything else. In other words, I look up to him as a physicist.

However, I also know that while I am in awe of these great scientists, I do not worship them. Their words are not the gospel, and they are or were still ordinary human beings. From what I have seen, many physicists also share the same level of acceptance. It is only those who somehow need need to put these people on such high pedestal that are examining each and every word that these prominent scientists say as if a favorable statement somehow justify their beliefs. "See? Einstein thinks the same way as I do!" Big Deal! Do you also understand General Relativity?


Can Special Athletes Really Defy Physics?

I shouldn't highlight this, but I'm pissed at the title. The title of this article has no relevance whatsoever with the content. So why even bother making such a mockery?

Sometimes, when you're talking about "willing" something to happen, you don't mean defying the laws of physics.

It's not like a great place-kicker can make a poorly struck field goal hook back against the wind.

Nor do I believe Tiger can physically cause a putt to change directions.

But great athletes can mix talent with desire -- plus an incredible confidence -- to create the result they need.

Nothing in the article comes even close to "defying physics", whatever that means. If Tiger Woods actually putted a golf ball downhill past a hole, and then the ball decide to act against gravity and comes back to go into the hole, now THAT is what I would call 'defying physics', thankyouverymuch! If that happened, it will be an even bigger news than his painful win at the US Open, I can tell you that!

Furthermore, these people seem to have forgotten that Tiger has LOST {gasp!} before. I'm guessing that he had tried to "will" many putts into the hole during those losses that didn't happen. Thus, some of the claims being made in that "news" piece seem to be based on only on sports highlights on TV that selects favorable "data", rather than examines the whole body of evidence.

I don't expect a thorough scientific analysis of the data for something like this, but at the same time, the inability for people to do some simple analytical evaluation is utterly shocking. This is why there are people who believe in various mumbo-jumbo such as The Secret.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Physics Agency Instigates Review

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) of the United Kingdom responsible for funding physics/astronomy programs has instigated a review of the way it conducts its business. This is after a universal criticism of the way it has caused the current funding debacle in the UK.

Too bad the US President and Congress are not brave enough to give themselves a review of what they did the the US physics programs.


Graduate Quantum Mechanics Reform

So I've written a bit on revamping the undergraduate physics laboratory. I believe that many, if not most, of the studies on better teaching and presentation methods have been directed at introductory college, undergraduates, and high school students. We don't hear much about graduate programs that need revamping. I suppose one assume that students at that advanced level can mostly learn on their own even with unequipped instructors and teaching methods that aren't well-developed.

So it is a breath of fresh air that I came across this preprint that actually talked about reforming how graduate level QM is taught.

Abstract: We address four main areas in which graduate quantum mechanics education in the U.S. can be improved: course content; textbook; teaching methods; and assessment tools. We report on a three year longitudinal study at the Colorado School of Mines using innovations in all four of these areas. In particular, we have modified the content of the course to reflect progress in the field in the last 50 years, use modern textbooks that include such content, incorporate a variety of teaching techniques based on physics education research, and used a variety of assessment tools to study the effectiveness of these reforms. We present a new assessment tool, the Graduate Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey, and further testing of a previously developed assessment tool, the Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey (QMCS). We find that graduate students respond well to research-based techniques that have previously been tested mainly in introductory courses, and that they learn a great deal of the new content introduced in each version of the course. We also find that students' ability to answer conceptual questions about graduate quantum mechanics is highly correlated with their ability to solve calculational problems on the same topics. On the other hand, we find that students' understanding of basic undergraduate quantum mechanics concepts at the modern physics level is not improved by instruction at the graduate level.

It's an interesting reading, and I've gone through it only quickly. I plan on reading it some more when I have the time. In the meantime, why don't you take a whack at it? :)


Monday, June 16, 2008

Physics of a Crane Collapse

With all the recent crane collapse going on, especially in New York City, this issue is certainly quite relevant. The following report is basically a transcript of a discussion with an assistant professor at the University of Maryland on the physics surrounding a crane collapse.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Can Real Life Physics Example Be Taken Too Far?

This news article reports on a physics question that does not sit well with a number of people.

In today’s Senior Physics exam, one of the problems is about a 'virtual' crime scene in which a victim is lying on the stage in the school auditorium with a gunshot wound to the head. There are four student suspects, and the problem has to do with calculating trajectory and other physics issues.

Many administrators are complaining.

Ruth Rosenfield President of the Montreal Teachers Association cannot believe how such an insensitive question could have been included in the exam, in light of the Dawson College shooting.

What do you think? Would a question like this be appropriate at Columbine high school, Virginia Tech, or Northern Illinois University? Or is there a better, less controversial way to test students about projectile motion without invoking such imagery?


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Peter Higgs on the Dawn of the LHC

I mentioned earlier of an article referring to Peter Higgs and the impetus for him to come up the Higgs mechanism. One doesn't hear much about Higgs since he's a very low-key individual. So it is rather nice to read about him and what he's up to nowadays, especially on his recent visit to CERN. This news article is basically an update on him especially with regards to the LHC about to be powered up.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fermilab Takes Stage in The Da Vinci Code-Like Physics Thriller

Physics thriller... hum.... when was the last time you see those 2 words together? :)

In any case, this article from Symmetry magazine is quite entertaining. It is a review and an interview with author Mark Alpert regarding his new novel "Final Theory". Most of the setting for this novel is set at Fermilab.

So hey, if Dan Brown can use CERN for "Angels and Demons", someone else certainly can use Fermilab for another thriller, no? :)


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

GLAST to Blast Off Today!

All fingers crossed! GLAST is ready for lift off today!

In a final meeting of scientists, engineers, technicians and officials, NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) received the final "Ready to Go!" from all teams. GLAST is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance's Delta II Heavy rocket with a launch window from 11:45 a.m. - 1:40 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 11.

You can read more about GLAST at its official website. More info from Physics World can be found here.


Edit: Update - GLAST was successfully launched!

Photo credit: NASA/ULA

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Physicists in Congress Calculate Their Influence

OK, let me first of all qualify myself by saying that I love, LOVE, reading this piece. I don't ever recall reading a report on this before, even though there have been previous articles on how physicists work in the US Congress. But this NY Times article on the 3 physicists in the US Congress is just plain delightful.

First of all, it highlights what I have argued earlier. What is important is not that one learned a specific issue, but that one is equipped to learn about things and think things through analytically, which is something that can be acquired as a skill in a science class.

There are 435 people in the House, Mr. Holt said, and “420 don’t know much about science and choose not to.” He recalled his exasperation when anthrax spores were discovered in the Capitol in 2001 and colleagues came to him and said, “You are a scientist, you must know about anthrax,” a subject ordinarily missing from the physics curriculum.

“The difference,” he said, “is we would be perfectly happy to pick up a copy of The New England Journal of Medicine and read about the etiology of anthrax.”

“In fact, we basically did that,” Mr. Ehlers said.

“We know more than our colleagues,” Mr. Holt said, “but not more than they could know.

But it is also sad to know that these lawmakers are saddled with the same level of ignorance that we have seen in the general public.

But sometimes, he said, the problem is just old-fashioned ignorance. Several times he has found himself “rushing to the floor” to head off colleagues ready to eliminate financing for endeavors whose importance they did not understand.

Once it was game theory. The person seeking the cut did not seem to realize that game theory had to do with interactions in economics, behavior and other social sciences, not sports, Mr. Ehlers recounted.

Then there was the time he rose to defend A.T.M. research against a colleague who thought it should be left to the banking industry. In this case the initials stood for asynchronous transfer mode, a protocol for fiber-optic data transfer.

One would think that if one is making such an important decision on something, that one would at least figure out what those things mean, especially when these lawmakers have staffers that can easily brief them on what they are.

It would be nice to have more people in power who have a more positive inclination towards science, and physics in particular. However, I'm skeptical that there will be significantly more.


High-Tc Superconductors Are Very Kinky - Update 1

Since I last completed the essay on the "kink" that is observed in ARPES spectrum of high-Tc superconductors, I've made 2 updates on the list of references. There have been 2 preprints appearing on arXiv that argued for the phonon origin of this kink. It there does not seem to be any end to this issue in sight, at least for now.

I wonder how the ARPES spectrum for the FeAs-based superconductors are going to look at. I bet many people are scurrying to be the first to report on that, assuming of course that one has a sizable single-crystal sample that can be easily cleaved in vacuum.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Physicist Debunks Cellphone Popcorn Viral Videos

It is really sad that we now have to address all kinds of crackpotteries that appear on YouTube. This is one such example.

YouTube videos that show a group of friends apparently cooking kernels of popcorn with their cellphones have been viewed more than a million times since they were uploaded last week.

The parlor trick (see embedded clip) looks amazing enough, but there's a hitch: It's not physically possible, according to University of Virginia physics professor Louis Bloomfield.

The problem here isn't these yoohoos who made the video. There will always be bored people like this who'd do one thing or another just to get attention. The problem is the people who view these things and would put some credibility into it. We then have to take some effort into debunking such crap. Even then, how many people who saw the video would actually see this response?


ITER Faces Cost Hikes And Delays

ITER hasn't been built yet, but already planners are warning of additional costs and a possible 3-year delay. (Link may be available without subscription only for a limited time).

Construction has not even begun on the ITER fusion reactor, which has been beset by political wrangling since its inception. Now its seven international backers are to be told they will have to come up with an extra €1.2 billion–1.6 billion (US$1.9 billion–2.5 billion) on top of its current €5-billion construction budget if the project is to be realized.

A report from a group of scientific advisers says the additional money is needed for critical design changes and for coordinating between the participant nations. And the experiment, already delayed, will not be completed until anywhere from one to three years after its current 2018 due date.

I guess some of the added costs are understandable. They had to incorporate earthquake safety for the building at Cadarache, which was not included in the original estimates because that was done before a site selection. Still, this is approaching (if not already overtaking) the ILC cost.


Making Sense of the Legendre Transform

I don't mind admitting that, while I was a graduate student, doing the Legendre transform in statistical mechanics was more of a "automatic" response rather than anything I actually understood. All I knew was that it got me from one place to the other, and that's that. Luckily, I don't quite use that piece of information, and that skill, in my everyday work. Unluckily, it means that, while I can still tackle such problems, I don't think I have that good of a grasp of it as I do with other aspects of physics.

That's why I was rather interested in reading this preprint on an effort to clearly introduce the Legendre transform. The authors used the standard, useful examples from classical mechanics and statistical mechanics, so physics majors should be well-familiar with the coverage. I've only looked through it rather quickly, with the intention of reading it more carefully later, but I think this could potentially be highly useful to many, especially if you are still in school learning this subject.

If you have read through this more carefully, and have some comments, please post them here. I'd like to hear them.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?

This is a rather provocative and often insightful essay posted on RedOrbit. It discusses not just why a general science education for non-scientists/engineers is important (we all know that), but also how it should be done. There are certainly many points in this essay that I agree, and I certainly consider the general introductory course in Physics, for example, not quite as effective to non-science majors in terms of getting across the point. That's why I have tried to put down some suggestion on how to do this better from the perspective of the introductory laboratory exercises.

However, the essay goes a bit further than that and tackles the larger issue, which by and large, I agree with. However, I also think that the author may be missing an important point in all of this. For example:

When we take as our goal the production of students who are comfortable handling science-related issues that arise in public debate, two propositions follow immediately, both of which are profoundly out of tune with the current academic consensus: (1) the students need to know something about all areas of science, rather than a lot about a single area; and (2) the students do not need to be able to "do" science.

I have absolutely no problem with that one. But this one is where the author missed something important:

A common response to the notion of teaching all of the sciences is the claim that the standard type of courses really teach something called the "scientific method," and that this will magically give students the background they need to read the newspaper on the day they graduate. This argument is so silly that I scarcely know where to start commenting on it. If it were applied to any other field, its vacuity would be obvious; after all, no one argues that someone who wants to learn Chinese should study French, acquire the "language method," and learn Chinese on his or her own. If we expect our students to understand the basic principles of ecology or geology, we should teach those principles explicitly. To do otherwise is to indulge in what I call the "teach them relativity and they'll work out molecular biology on the way home" school of thought. Incidentally, the notion that there is a magical "scientific method" explains a bizarre feature of the modern scientific community. I am referring to the fact that, outside of their fields of specialty, professional scientists, as a group, are probably the most scientifically illiterate group in the United States. The reason is simpie: scientists are never required to study science outside of their own fields. The last time a working physicist saw a biology textbook, for example, was probably in high school. If you do not believe me, ask one of your scientific colleagues how he or she deals with public issues outside of his or her field. Chances are you'll get an answer like "I call a friend," a technique I refer to as having recourse to the Golden Rolodex.

There are 2 problems with the author's view on this:

1. Scientists, more than anyone else, I would think, know the limitation of what they know, and because of that, realize that that what they know about other fields are only at the superficial level. I can bet you that if you take someone off the street and another physicist, for example, evaluate carefully what each of them know about stem-cell, I will put my money that the physicist has a deeper technical understanding of what a stem-cell is. Yet, if you ask them casually about such issue, you can easily get the "I call a friend" answer. Why? Because most of us do not consider our knowledge to be on the expert level on such issues. Our "threshold" for considering that we have a valid understanding of something is SO HIGH, because we know what is meant to be an "expert" at something, that many of the important aspect of understanding something are in the DETAILS which one are not aware of by knowing something just superficially! So to deduce the fact that a scientist would rather rely on someone who is an expert in the other field as being "illiterate" in that area of study is bogus! This is where an "anecdotal" observation simply doesn't have enough substance to draw up such conclusion.

2. When we teach students science, or physics in particular, we are teaching them SKILLS, or more specifically, analytic skills. It is a systematic examination of the problems, looking at correlations via the relationships between various quantities and parameters, and then looking at the cause and effect. If one look closely, what I've mentioned here is totally INDEPENDENT of physics! You can apply such skill to any problem that one encounters in life! In fact, I just applied such skill in #1 to argue why the author's conclusion is faulty! When I did my series on the revamping of the undergraduate physics lab, the whole purpose of it is to make a CONSCIOUS effort to get the students to examine these aspects of the formation of knowledge. How do we accept something as being valid? When someone claims that "... scientifically illiterate group...", how do we judge that to be valid rather than just simply accepting it blindly just because someone writes it on a webpage? This is the whole essence of our ability to analyze a situation to make a valid conclusion, and thus, forming knowledge about something. While you do not study classical mechanics in introductory physics classes so that you can be able to understand the issues surrounding global warming, the SKILL that you acquire in thinking through a problem in classical mechanics is very much relevant in your effort to decipher the wide range of information that is contained in global warming.

But why can't we simply cut to the chase and just teach the kids about global warming, stem-cells, energy crisis, etc.. etc? Because there are an infinite number of scientific issues that can pop up! We simply can't cover ALL of these issues or even anticipate what's to come in the future. Nanotechnology is something that is fast emerging as something that could create quite a social issue soon. And who knows, there are those that could easily pop up anytime soon. Teaching specific subject matter rather than the skills that are subject independent is like giving a hunger person some fish, rather than teach that person how to fish. You can satisfy the immediate needs, but next time the same type problem crops up, you have to continue to provide more, rather than just give that person the skill to be able to solve it on his/her own.

I'm not saying covering these areas in a general science course is useless. They are not. However, they should be covered as ILLUSTRATIONS of the application of the analytical skills they learned in science classes. When someone mention "stem cell", a scientist wanting to know about it will first ask "OK, what is a stem cell? How is it defined? What does it do, and what are the properties?" Then the scientist will ask "OK, what are the social/cultural/moral issues? What are the points from each side? Do they make any valid ideas that are consistent with what stem cell is defined as? Are their conclusions unique, or can there be more than one conclusions based on the same set of data and understanding?" These are ALL the same type of questions a scientist asks in his/her own line of work, and the same skill applies when he/she tries to understand the same thing. I don't see any other way to evaluate something to be valid. This will allow someone to clearly know the boundary between something that is based on solid, physical evidence, versus something that has gone beyond that into the realm of moral decisions and social opinions.

The problem right now, as I see it, is that there isn't a conscious effort to tell these students that this is one of the main purpose of them enrolling in such science courses. Many, if not most, of the instructors are simply teaching the content, with little emphasis, even if they are aware of it, of the analytical skills that are being "accidentally taught" through such classes. So these students are encountering a very valuable skill without knowing it, and they lose it afterwards because it isn't something that was visible to them as being important. It is why, I think, that we can start with the revamping of the intro physics labs, because this is where science is right in front of their face, and where they see how we accept or understand something. Only through a conscious and deliberate effort of emphasizing such analytical skills can we generate a general population that can do their own self-evaluation of the information that they are being bombarded with.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Advancing Research in Science and Engineering

A new report out of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences paints a discouraging picture for young researchers in light of funding situation here in the US. The white paper, titled "Advancing Research in Science and Engineering", boils down to two issues: "the need to foster early-career scientists and to encourage high-risk research", both of which are severely affected by the constant budget and funding problems.

The complete detail and the full report can be found here.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Where Mathematics And Astrophysics Meet

This is a terrific article that, as the article mentioned, illustrates Wigner's proposition of the "unreasonable effectives of mathematics in the natural sciences". It describes an example on where research work in a fundamental theorem of algebra actually has a practical solution for a problem in astrophysics.

In their article "From the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra to Astrophysics: A `Harmonious' Path", which appears in the Notices of the AMS, mathematicians Dmitry Khavinson (University of South Florida) and Genevra Neumann (University of Northern Iowa) describe the mathematical work that surprisingly led them to questions in astrophysics.


DOE Submits Yucca Mountain License Application

The Dept. of Energy submits a license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the federal nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

I will clearly qualify myself as someone who support nuclear power, be it in the form of fission reactors that we currently have, or development/research of fusion reactors (though not necessarily in the current trend). However, the central issue is still the waste generated by nuclear power plants, especially those in the US that are prohibited by law to be reprocessed, unlike those done in Europe and Japan. So baring a change in policy, having a safe place to store these nuclear waste is of utmost importance if support for that energy source is needed. That's why, after a lengthy study, the DOE is now able to apply to make the Yucca Mountain a repository site.

We'll see how it goes...


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel

It was reported earlier that the particle physics in the US is getting some "lifeline", based on the initial report to be submitted to the Dept. of Energy. The panel, known as P5, has now submitted its final report to the DOE.

Various reports on this seems to indicate a reason for optimism, even when the panel gave a lukewarm support for the ILC. Unless there's some serious infusion of cash, I can't see how anyone can be optimistic about the situation, especially when another continuing resolution is almost a certainty for the 2008 Fiscal Year, where science in the US will be saddled with continuing the most devastating budget in recent memory.


A BCS-Like Gap for the New Iron-Arsenic Superconductor

This ought to throw a large wrench into any similarities between the copper-oxide superconductors and the newly-found iron-arsenic superconductors. A new measurement of the superconducting gap of the latter found that they behave very much like that predicted by the conventional, good-old BCS theory[1]. This means that, even though the crystal structure has similarities with the copper-oxide superconductor (and the notion that maybe the same theory might be applicable as well), the behavior so far rules out many of the exotic theories that have been set up for the copper-oxide superconductors. The authors argue that in light of this, new theories may be needed to describe the iron-arsenic superconductors.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks. It's going to be a long and bumpy ride here as more experimental data pour in.


[1] T.Y. Chen et al., Nature v.453, p.761 (2008).

The Milky Way Gets a Facelift

Or rather, our understanding of the Milky Way gets a facelift!

This was reported in today's Science's daily news update.

Forget what you thought the Milky Way looked like. The galaxy is far from the simple and elegant spiral-armed structure so often portrayed. New observations, presented today at the 212th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Missouri, reveal, among other things, that the Milky Way is missing two of the four spiral arms it was thought to have. The findings should force a significant rethinking about how the Milky Way evolved and how its stars formed.

Horrors! We live in a "deformed" galaxy? :)


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Dark, Perhaps Forever?

The New York Times has a lengthy piece on the current effort in the study of Dark Energy.

A decade ago, astronomers discovered that what is true for your car keys is not true for the galaxies. Having been impelled apart by the force of the Big Bang, the galaxies, in defiance of cosmic gravity, are picking up speed on a dash toward eternity. If they were keys, they would be shooting for the ceiling.

“That is how shocking this was,” Dr. Livio said.

But what I just don't quite understand is this kind of reaction:

It is still shocking. Although cosmologists have adopted a cute name, dark energy, for whatever is driving this apparently antigravitational behavior on the part of the universe, nobody claims to understand why it is happening, or its implications for the future of the universe and of the life within it, despite thousands of learned papers, scores of conferences and millions of dollars’ worth of telescope time. It has led some cosmologists to the verge of abandoning their fondest dream: a theory that can account for the universe and everything about it in a single breath.

Forget about the fact that I don't quite believe that such a thing is possible (i.e. "account for the universe and everything about it in a single breath") due to my view that the "TOE" is a fallacy. But why are they giving up so quickly? I mean, the discovery of dark energy has only been about 10 years old! This is a blink of an eye! Condensed matter physicists had dealt with the mysteries of high-Tc superconductors for 20 years already, and you don't hear them giving up! And they have more data and more discoveries to content with.

If the Dark Energy Survey really gets off the ground, there's a good chance that more evidence on the nature of dark energy will be revealed. Aren't people just salivating for that kind of information? I don't know what is there to be discouraged about. If I were in this field, I'd say that this might be some of the most exciting time to be alive!


Monday, June 02, 2008

Accelerators And Dinosaurs

This is an old article in Physics Today written by Michael Turner, but it is still a good piece to read if you are not familiar with particle accelerator physics and are still confusing particle accelerator with high energy physics. I've written about this topic (and the popular misconception) before, but here, Turner has written this better than I could.

I remind my readers that only a handful of the more than 15 000 accelerators in operation around the world are used in particle-physics research. This fact would not surprise Ernest O. Lawrence, who saw an importance far beyond physics research. He and his brother John, a physician, pioneered the medical applications of accelerators at Berkeley. Today, one-third of all accelerators are involved in medical applications, such as cancer therapy, imaging, and the production of short-lived isotopes. The other two-thirds are used for industrial applications ranging from micro-machining to food sterilization and for national security applications, which include x-ray inspection of cargo containers and nuclear stockpile stewardship.

This data clearly show why the field of accelerator physics transcends beyond just what they are normally perceived as, which is particle-physics/colliders. This is a good article to read if you're bored.



Sunday, June 01, 2008

Boffo Box Office for Science Festival

All early reports seem to indicate that the first ever World Science Festival is a resounding success. They have either sold out or virtually sold out almost all of their events.

“Despite the fact that we are programmed against ourselves,” he says, “with almost seven or eight of our events happening at the same time in some instances, we have sold more than 90 percent of our seats and may in fact sell out the entire event.”

But what I found amusing was the dimwit who wrote the first comment to that news article. He/she seems to have the impression that the whole point of having a science festival is to encourage kids to have a career in science! If that's the case, we should bar adults from going to such events, since they definitely are too late to change careers! Yes, stop that 60-year old grandpa from attending Alan Alda's "QED"!

I sometime think that the gene pool needs some chlorine.....