Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Wonders of Physics

Where can you hear Richard Muller, author of "Physics for Future Presidents", talking about why US Presidents should learn a bit about physics, Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Laureate in physics, saying that physicists are an eccentric bunch, and Mark Oliver Everett, the son of Hugh Everett of the "Many Worlds" fame, reflecting on his father's life after the documentary "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives"? Why, at the Public Radio International website, of course!

The audio is from PRI's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" program. Quite an entertaining program.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Science, Spirituality Closer Than You Think?

This comes from an editorial in Dallas Morning News:

In the new book Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, National Public Radio correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty surveys various scientific fields and highlights discoveries – particularly in neuroscience and quantum physics – causing us to rethink our models of reality. They're also causing a growing number of scientists to reconsider the objective validity of spiritual experiences and religious teachings.

These results are controversial because, if validated, they fundamentally undermine the dominant scientific paradigm of a purely material universe. Nevertheless, reports Hagerty, more and more data pour in to challenge what has been settled consensus. Her reporting suggests that experimental results make it easier for scientists and religious believers to be open to, and learn from, each other's worldviews.

If funding comes through, Dallas could well play a key role in what might be a new scientific revolution. Southern Methodist University theologian William Abraham is leading a top-flight international team of neuroscientists, physicists, theologians, psychologists, philosophers and others to investigate whether mental activity can alter brain states and what the implications might be for free will. The idea is to look into, from a nondogmatic perspective, whether the latest findings in neuroscience and quantum physics should cause us to revise science's exclusively materialist model of the human person – and what that could mean.

One prominent member of the Abraham team is University of Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, who contends there is now convincing empirical evidence for the soul's existence – and that restless young scientists want to know more. Beauregard tells NPR's Hagerty, "It's only a matter of time before there will be a major paradigm shift."


Convincing empirical evidence for the soul's existence? To whom? Astrologists also think there are convincing evidence for what they do. It doesn't mean there is one.

I'd like to know how long is this "matter of time". 10 years? 20 years? 150 million years? Because the SAME type of claim on the existence of such a thing has been done for hundreds of years already! How many times does one gets away with saying such nonsense before people stop believing? Obviously, it is an infinite number.

It is always funny to me when most people who claim about the connection between "spirituality" and "quantum physics", actually have very little understanding of either, and certainly not on quantum physics. They THINK they do, after reading some pop-science books. All I can say is, after reading that pop-science books, go ahead and build me a solid-state transistor. After all, that works because of quantum mechanics. Since you've understood quantum mechanics, build me a transistor!


May 29, 1919: A Major Eclipse, Relatively Speaking

Wired has the historical account on what happened today in 1919 in the history of physics. Sir Arthur Eddington made the measurement during the solar eclipse that ultimately because the first verification of Einstein's General Relativity and catapulted Einstein into fame.

Both locations had clear skies, and the astronomers took several pictures during the six minutes of total eclipse. When Eddington returned to England, his data from Príncipe confirmed Einstein’s predictions. Eddington announced his findings on November 6, 1919. The next morning, Einstein, until then a relatively obscure newcomer in theoretical physics, was on the front page of major newspapers around the world.

I had almost mentioned earlier that there were questions being asked on the validity of the Eddington results and conclusion. This has been discussed and addressed here.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Steven Chu's OpEd in The Times

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu wrote an Opinion piece in The Times. The essay concentrates mainly on energy consumption and the environment. The Times' synopsis on Steven Chu says it all:

MEET OBAMA’S NEW GREEN MAN On December 15, 2008 President Obama announced the appointment of Steven Chu as US Energy Secretary, a move that heralded a new era in the White House. Dr Chu is a pioneering Nobel prize-winning scientist devoted to the issue of climate change. The contrast with the Bush years could hardly have been greater.


Particle Physics - It Matters

The Institute of Physics (IoP) has produced a document on the the importance of particle physics. The press released on why particle physics is not just black holes and antimatter can be found here, while the document titled "Particle Physics - It Matters" can also be found at the link.

While the document highlights the UK contribution to the global particle physics/high energy physics effort, it nevertheless provides a good coverage of the direct impact that this field of study has made on our civilization. The main points that one can summarize on the impact of particle physics on our civilization are: (i) basic knowledge of fundamental particles and interactions (ii) spin-off benefits.

Will the general public read this? I hope so, and that's why I'm pointing out the document here.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fusion Dreams Delayed

This has been reported by Nature's daily news. The international consortium that runs ITER has decided to scale back the machine and will delay running it at its full-blown power for at least 5 years {link available for free only for a limited time}.

Faced with ballooning costs and growing delays, ITER's seven partners are likely to build only a skeletal version of the device at first. The project's governing council said last June that the machine should turn on in 2018; the stripped-down version could allow that to happen (see Nature 453, 829; 2008). But the first experiments capable of validating fusion for power would not come until the end of 2025, five years later than the date set when the ITER agreement was signed in 2006.

The new scheme, known as 'Scenario 1' to ITER insiders, will be discussed on 17–18 June in Mito, Japan, at a council meeting that will include representatives from all seven members: the European Union (EU), Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, China and India. It is expected to be approved at a council meeting in November.

This is certainly not unexpected after the US pulled out all of its contribution for that one year (with parts of it being restored later). The machine is also an extremely ambitious one with a very difficult set of goals, not unlike the LHC. So I certainly don't find this unexpected. But still, there's tremendous expectation for something that costs this much.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Public Perception of Astronomers: Revered, Reviled and Ridiculed

This is a rather fascinating essay about the role of astronomers, and the public perception of the profession through a period of history.

Of course, in the advice for astronomers to get more involved with the public to demystify the profession, there's plenty of similarities with physicists. Embracing technology and trying to be an effective communicator are all important aspect of popularizing any field of studies, and these certainly apply to astronomy and physics.

Still, it is a fun essay to read, especially during the Year of Astronomy.


Monday, May 25, 2009

A Musically Shattering Physics Lesson

This has been done and shown a few times, but it is still fun to see it. This is from a 12th-grade physics lesson from a high school in Minnesota, and shows how a straightforward human voice can break a glass. This is of course a demonstration of resonant frequency.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Don't Slam Brakes With Escaped Hummingbird In Car

This is a rather amusing question presented in the Car Talk website. It isn't about cars, but rather basic Newton's Laws.

Q. Once, on a very long, boring trip, my passenger and I were reduced to asking each other dumb questions. We came upon one question that we couldn't settle. Imagine that I'm driving along at highway speed with the air conditioner on and the windows closed. A hummingbird that was caged in the back seat gets loose, and with nowhere really to go, it ends up just hovering there in midcar. Our question is this: If I hit the brakes hard, does the hummingbird crash into the windshield? My friend said of course it would, that its momentum would cause it to keep moving forward as the car slowed. But I, being the more educated of us (not necessarily a good thing, as my friend claimed), said that the hummingbird's position would depend on its air speed, not its ground speed, and as the car slowed down, the air inside the car would slow down at an equal rate, as would the hummingbird, thereby avoiding becoming windshield splatter. So guys, please settle this question so I can finally get some sleep.

You can read the answer in the website. But of course, it is "obvious" that the poor bird will go SPLAT onto the windshield.

But then, there was a followup question on what would happen to cigarette smoke. Now, presumably, the question is being asked because the cigarette smoke is "less dense" than the surrounding air, which is why it rises. The answer given on that website is still the same as that for the hummingbird, which should not be correct.

I gave a similar problem in one of my "Revamping the Undergraduate Physics Lab" series, but instead, I used a helium-filled balloon. The whole point is to find something that has a smaller density than the air surrounding it. So if we have the balloon in the car instead of the cigarette smoke, hitting the brakes will actually cause the balloon to move BACKWARDS. This is because the more dense air surrounding it will be the one that gets pushed forward more than the balloon, thus displacing the balloon backwards.

One can always try this oneself. I've seen this counter-intuitive observation during a few train rides, so I know for a fact that this is the correct observation. I haven't done it with smoke, though, since obviously smoking isn't allowed on trains and in many vehicles that I have been in. But if a volume of smoke rises because it is less dense than air, then it should behave just like the helium-filled balloon, presuming that it doesn't get mixed too much with the surrounding air.


World's Largest Physics Lesson

No, I don't throw away such description cavalierly. Supposedly, those folks at Guninness Book of World Records have certified it as such.

On May 7 2009 at the Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, the world's largest physics lesson was conducted.

The largest physics lesson involved 5,401 participants who were taught by Steve Spangler Science (USA) during a presentation at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, USA, on 7 May 2009. The event was part of the 9News Weather & Science Day hosted by Steve Spangler and Kathy Sabine. Guinness World Records™ Adjudicator, Danny Girton, was present at the event to award the new record.

You can also read more about it here.

The question is, how effective was it rather than simply being a gimmick to get into the World Record book?


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can A Dog Bowl Start A Fire?

You'd be surprised!

A dog bowl that contains some water is being considered as the possible origin of a house fire.

"It's the MythBuster himself," said one co-worker, looking on as Keenan reconstructed the scene of the fire: He put a clear bowl of water on a metal stand, placing it about 13 ½ inches above a thin piece of cedar placed below it at an angle. The bowl suspected of causing the deck fire was 14 inches above the deck, Keenan said.

The conditions — 70 degrees and sunny, with light winds — were comparable to those on Sunday. The experiment was performed at about 1:45 p.m., an hour before the actual fire started. Keenan admitted he wasn't sure what kind of wood the deck was made of.

With the sun shining down on the bowl, the cedar began smoldering in about 15 seconds. Earlier, some newspaper caught fire just as easily.

Is it just straightforward optics? Stay tune!


Wire Power

Here's a short article on the effort (and advantages) of using superconducting wires for power transmission.

"They" are scientists and engineers at a handful of companies in Europe, the U.S. and Japan who have figured out how to turn brittle, fragile superconductors into flexible wires. "We basically found a way to bend the unbendable," says Greg Yurek, who left the MIT faculty in the late 1980s to found American Superconductor in Massachusetts. Superconductors have found their way recently into ships, wind turbines and electric cars. But the big push now is for power transmission. A major element of the "smart grid" is a new set of long-distance power lines to carry electricity from renewables like wind and solar. Conventional power lines are expensive, unsightly and wasteful-they can lose 14 percent of their energy from the resistance of the copper cables.

Superconducting cables have no such problem. A set of cables carrying five gigawatts of power-the output, of, say, five big nuclear power plants-can fit into a pipe just three feet across, and you could even bury it underground. Part of the pipe will be taken up with a cooling system: these superconductors work only when kept at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, about minus-170 degrees Celsius. Nitrogen is relatively cheap to manufacture and keep cold compared with the liquid helium (minus-269 degrees) needed for old-fashioned superconductors. The cooling equipment draws some energy from the cable, but still far less than the losses in copper cable. Even so, the power industry isn't likely to trash its old but serviceable transmission lines and install superconductors, even if they are more efficient. If the world is going to start using climate-friendly renewables, it'll require new transmission lines anyway. In the U.S., for example, the most abundant and reliable wind power comes from a belt stretching from Texas north to the Dakotas. The best spots for solar are in Arizona and New Mexico. The biggest consumers of electricity-the cities-are mostly along the coasts and near the Great Lakes.

The article is obviously referring to the high-Tc cuprate superconductors that have a critical temperature above liquid nitrogen. There's a lot yet to be done, but the commercial application using these superconductors are growing every year.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Academia or Industry?

This is a rather good and realistic article for job seekers to get a first-hand account on the difference between jobs in academia and industry. For many students, there is certainly a larger range of possibilities and employability to go into either one, and making a choice on one over the other certain depends on not just opportunity and job openings, but also on philosophical inclinations.

When young scientists "first start becoming acquainted with what it means to do research in the private sector, it's really quite a culture shock," says Michael A. Santoro, a business ethics professor at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey. "In business, everything begins with the profit motive. ... Just the very idea of research is geared towards a product rather than knowledge itself. The most critical factor in determining whether a scientist is going to be successful in making the transition from the university to the private sector is the ability to buy into that point of view."

A good article to read if you about to enter the job market at any level.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Really Is Different

I've mentioned before, many times in fact, on here about the issue regarding reductionism and "The Theory of Everything". I argued that a large fraction of practicing physicists, especially those in condensed matter physics, do not buy into this idea of a theory of everything, simply based on emergent phenomena that we observe in condensed matter physics.

The main "poster child" for such argument is Phil Anderson's "More Is Different" paper published quite a while back. Now comes a paper that strengthen Anderson's assertion that More Really Is Different.

Gu et al.[1] published a paper in which, using the 2D Ising model that simulates a cellular automata of magnetic spins.

Abstract: In 1972, P.W. Anderson suggested that ‘More is Different’, meaning that complex physical systems may exhibit behavior that cannot be understood only in terms of the laws governing their microscopic constituents. We strengthen this claim by proving that many macroscopic observable properties of a simple class of physical systems (the infinite periodic Ising lattice) cannot in general be derived from a microscopic description. This provides evidence that emergent behavior occurs in such systems, and indicates that even if a ‘theory of everything’ governing all microscopic interactions were discovered, the understanding of macroscopic order is likely to require additional insights.

A News and Views in Nature[2] this week article reviewing this paper explains it a little bit clearer for those of us not familiar with these 2D computation and the intricacies of cellular automata.

In their study, Gu et al. mapped the dynamics of a certain CA into the lowest-energy (ground) states of Ising models. In this framework, Figure 1 can now be interpreted as a snapshot of a two-dimensional spatial lattice of spins. They grouped spins into blocks that encode the logic operations needed to produce universal computation in the corresponding CA. They then defined the 'prosperity', p, of two-state systems as "the probability that a randomly chosen cell at a random time step is live" (live meaning state 1).

Using the computational properties of the CA, Gu and colleagues were able to show that p is undecidable for infinite, periodic Ising systems. They argued that, as a consequence, many macroscopic properties of an Ising system, including the system's magnetization and degeneracy (number of independent configurations) at zero temperature, depend on p and hence are also undecidable. Because Ising models have been used to describe not only magnetic materials but also neural activity, protein folding and bird flocking, the consequences of Gu and colleagues' results transcend both computer science and physics.

Nice stuff! This would be another compelling argument against reductionism and the fallacy of the "Theory of Everything".


[1] M. Gu et al., Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, v.238, p.835 (2009). Also see the arXiv version here.
[2] P.M. Binder Nature v.459, p.332 (2009).

Physics to Feel Pinch as STFC Comes up Short

Looks like more rough weather is in store for physics funding in the UK. A shortfall in the budget for 2009-2010 may mean a re-examination of certain fundings, including subscriptions to established research programs, such as Britain's membership in CERN.

Minutes of a meeting of the STFC council held at the end of March report that if there is no improvement in the exchange-rate situation "there would be further pressure (on the budget) in the order of £43 million".

Options mooted to cover the deficit include considering whether any existing international subscriptions could be renegotiated "with the intention of reviewing them when sterling recovered" and looking at whether an element of the UK's subscriptions to Cern, the European particle physics centre, and other international projects could be paid in sterling, with the amount commensurate with that placed in sterling contracts.

The minutes of the STFC meeting can be found in that news story.

This isn't good news. At the time when the US, Japan, and China are putting extra money into science as part of their attempts to stimulate the economy, the UK (and also Canada) isn't doing the same. It will be interesting to see just what the ramifications of such action will be in later years.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Science Helps Unravel Mystery of 'A Hard Day's Night'

I must have lived a musically-sheltered life, because I never knew that a mystery concerning the first note of the Beatles's "A Hard Day's Night" existed till now.

Guitarists and other musicians for more than 40 years -- without success -- have tried to recreate the sound that opens "A Hard Day's Night." While the note played on George Harrison's 12-string Rickenbacker is the most prominent, the two-second duration of the chord is filled with undertones and frequencies that musicians have been unable to identify or recreate.

Now someone has studied the Fourier transform of the note (why this obvious analysis was not done sooner is a mystery to me).

A research student at Dalhousie University, in Canada, used a mathematical calculation known as Fournier Transform to figure out which notes are on the record.

Jason Brown took up the issue in his thesis.

Brown's "Mathematics, Physics and 'A Hard Day's Night'" details what he learned by analyzing the opening chord in a computer sound editing program.

The "mysterious notes," according to Brown's research, come not from guitar notes played by George Harrison or John Lennon or bass notes from Paul McCartney, but a piano played by Beatles producer George Martin.

Mystery solved!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plasma Physics Lab Device Has Second Life

This is a rather neat story of how a device that was invented for a specific purpose finds a life outside of that use and become something quite useful. In this case, it is a radiation detection device that was originally intended to detect and measure all the radioactive substance inside the walls of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory's tokamak.

The "Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System" (MINDS) was designed by a group led by Charles Gentile, one of the lab's leading experts in radioactive materials.

"The development of MINDS, from a fusion energy research tool into a potentially important addition to the nation's homeland security arsenal, illustrates an outstanding example of technology transfer from the laboratory to the marketplace," said Lewis Meixler, PPPL's head of technology transfer and applications research. "It is also a tribute to Charles Gentile and his dedicated team, whose tenaciousness in overcoming all obstacles and whose continuous striving to improve system performance made the MINDS possible.

Of course, this is not an uncommon example in science research. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN as a means for physicists to look at data and results quickly. In fact, many advanced computing technology evolves out of the need for high-speed and high-volume data distribution in science. These are just a minuscule example of how devices and applications that were invented specifically for scientific needs trickle down to a more popular and useful application elsewhere.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Austria Will Not Pull Out of CERN

Early possibilities of Austria pulling out of CERN has now been struck down. Austria Chancellor has overrulled the science minister and will continue to be a member of the high energy physics lab.

"Austria has been a member of CERN for over 50 years -- a whole host of Austrian scientists are linked to CERN and will continue to do so in the future," Faymann, a social democrat, said at a news conference with Science Minister Johannes Hahn.

Hahn, a conservative, had angered Austria's scientific community earlier this month when he said CERN's 20 million euro ($27 million) annual membership ate up too much of his international research budget, and that Austria planned to quit.

Obviously, there's a lot of other issues bubbling under the surface here. Let's hope science isn't used as a pawn in such a power and political struggle.


Nuclear Phenomenology: A Conceptual Proposal for High School Teaching

I'm all for teaching kids, even at the high school level, various areas and topics in physics. I think going beyond the basic, fundamental topics (such as mechanics, rudimentary E&M, etc.) can stimulate their interest and remove some of the boredom out of studying physics.

Still, I am not sure how effective this would be considering the level of understanding of an average high school student here in the US. The authors are arguing that various concepts in nuclear physics can be introduced effectively at the high school level. Maybe this is more appropriate for educational systems where high school seniors already have some solid understanding of physical chemistry and atomic physics.

I think it would be educational for the general public, though. It presents various nuclear phenomena in simple terms that many people can understand. So it could be useful as a general educational material in nuclear physics.

Any physics high school teachers reading this? What do you think? Would something like this be understandable, or even useful, for your students?


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Let's Get Real About Energy

This is a rather good and eye-opening article. It gives, in very simple terms, the level of energy consumption using comparison that many people can understand.

Let's express energy consumption and energy production using simple personal units, namely kilowatt-hours. One kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the energy used by leaving a 40-watt bulb on for 24 hours. The chemical energy in the food we eat to stay alive amounts to about 3 kWh per day. Taking one hot bath uses about 5 kWh of heat. Driving an average European car 100 kilometers (roughly 62 miles) uses 80 kWh of fuel. With a few of these numbers in mind, we can start to evaluate some of the recommendations that people make about energy.

These are numbers that many people can understand. But what is also interesting is the comparison of various possible alternatives energy sources.

As a thought-experiment, let's imagine that technology switches and lifestyle changes manage to halve American energy consumption to 125 kWh per day per person. How big would the solar, wind and nuclear facilities need to be to supply this halved consumption? For simplicity, let's imagine getting one-third of the energy supply from each.

To supply 42 kWh per day per person from solar power requires roughly 80 square meters per person of solar panels.

To deliver 42 kWh per day per person from wind for everyone in the United States would require wind farms with a total area roughly equal to the area of California, a 200-fold increase in United States wind power.

To get 42 kWh per day per person from nuclear power would require 525 one-gigawatt nuclear power stations, a roughly five-fold increase over today's levels.

A very good article.


Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives

It was either ironic or good timing that this past week, two articles on Everett's Many Worlds interpretation of QM appeared on arXiv. I've highlighted both here and here. This is because PBS will premier "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives" this coming week.

For most of Mark Oliver Everett's life, things didn't add up. Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives follows Mark, better known as E, the lead singer of the rock band EELS, across the country as he attempts to understand the fantastic possibility of parallel universes and unravel the story of his troubled family and the father he never really knew—iconoclastic quantum physicist Hugh Everett III.

In this intelligent and imaginative film, the wry and charismatic Mark takes an emotional journey into his father's life, meeting Hugh's old college friends, colleagues, and admirers. It is only by entering the esoteric world of quantum physics that Mark can hope to gain an understanding of, and more importantly, a connection to the father who was a stranger to him.

It is officially scheduled to air Tuesday, May 19 at 8 p.m. ET/PT during NOVA, but as they say in TVland, check your local listing.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Meet Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Live Online!

From PBS's Nova:

Calling all teachers! Join this unique, interactive Webcast event for science educators, and enjoy an hour with Neil, host of PBS's NOVA scienceNOW. Hear an introduction from NOVA senior executive producer Paula Apsell, get a sneak peek of NOVA scienceNOW's upcoming new season which premieres Tuesday, June 30, learn about free media resources for your classroom, sample hands-on activities, and ask Neil your questions about the universe. The Webcast event is free and will be held on Wednesday, May 27 at 6:00pm ET, so save your spot now: register at


2009 Summer Sunday Tours at Brookhaven Lab

If you are in the New York City/central Long Island area during this summer, you might want to check out Brookhaven Lab's annual Summer Sunday Tours. The schedule for this year's tour has already been set, and you can expect the sundays that highlight RHIC and NSLS will be very busy.

Don't miss it if you can. This is a very good tour of a very prestigious laboratory.


Fermi's Golden Rule Is Actually Dirac's!

In the latest issue of Am. J. Phys. (June 2009), there is a letter to the Editor on the historical accuracy of attributing the name of things in physics. A letter by Taco Visser of Delft University has a very interesting historical account of the attribution of the time-dependent perturbation "Golden Rule" to Fermi.

In fact, in his classic text Nuclear Physics,3 Fermi gives two results, one for first order transitions and one for second order transitions. He coins the names “Golden Rule #1” and “Golden Rule #2,” but does not give a derivation. For this he refers to Schiff’s textbook. Clearly the names suggested by Fermi were hugely successful. So successful even that Schiff adopted this terminology in a later edition of his book,5 in which he writes “Eq. 35.14… is so useful that it was called ‘Golden Rule No. 2’ by E. Fermi.” Nevertheless, Schiff was well aware that this formalism originated elsewhere. In another footnote he mentions its discoverer: Paul Dirac. More than 20 years before Fermi’s book appeared, Dirac published a beautiful and comprehensive treatment of quantum mechanical perturbation theory6 in which the first order result is presented and applied to absorption and emission of radiation. In older texts, for example the book by Kramers7 or that by Condon and Shortley,8 Dirac is given full credit for his work. After Fermi published his book, that habit seems to have gone out of style. But Fermi is in no need of extra accolades; the key formula of perturbation theory is really Dirac’s Golden Rule.

Read the article by Jackson that is referred to in the letter to see other examples of mis-attribution of the wrong names in physics.


Many Worlds in Context

It looks like a couple of contributors to the upcoming book "Many Worlds? Everett, Quantum Theory and Reality" have uploaded the chapters the wrote onto arXiv. I'm not complaining since it makes for a good bedtime reading!

I mentioned earlier the essay by Adrian Kent that I would say was critical of the Many Worlds interpretation. Now along comes Max Tegmark's article that will appear in the same book.

Abstract: Everett's Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics is discussed in the context of other physics disputes and other proposed kinds of parallel universes. We find that only a small fraction of the usual objections to Everett's theory are specific to quantum mechanics, and that all of the most controversial issues crop up also in settings that have nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

What is fun about this essay is that he reveals a "poll" he did at the Perimeter Institute on several questions regarding Many Worlds and interpretation of QM.

Boy do I have a lot of reading to do over the weekend! :)


Six Classic Lines of Bull

Well, at least this is a rather entertaining reading.

ScienceCareer section this week has a rather "amusing" list of 6 "classic" lines of bull that either employers or employees/perspective employees dish out that are relevant in science careers. I'm not sure how classic they are because I'd say that I haven't heard most of them. Maybe this is because I haven't been in a "corporate" setting and in many case, my boss handles most of the administrative aspect of our daily operations. Still, I've done my share of interviews, from both sides, and can't recall the situation mentioned on the list.

In any case, the list does contain one pertinent advise that many perspective science job seekers and those still in school should pay attention to.

"Just concentrate on doing good science, not on getting a job. Good science sells itself; they'll come to you."

Translation: "Get back there in the lab and don't stick your head out again until that next publication is in hand."

Doing good science--great science for that matter--is critical no matter what type of job you're targeting. But one thing is for sure: Anyone who thinks that they can simply be good at something--and that this will get them noticed--has a rough road ahead. That's because finding a job requires skills that have nothing to do with science.

What it takes to succeed is not really hard-core sales, and yet it's more than just laying out your science. You need to use your network to find a job (which, of course, requires having a network to begin with), and you need to be able to stand up and take credit for what you do well. This is a skill that isn't usually taught, especially by a principal investigator who would prefer that you stay focused on the work in his or her lab.

I wish more science students in college realize that.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Half A Century After "Two Cultures" - Has Anything Changed?

50 years after C.P. Snow's landmark book "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", a 2-day symposium was held at Harvard to discuss the effects of the book and the state of the "two cultures" between Science and the Humanities.

So has anything changed since the book was first published? While I do see an easier access to information that each of the "culture" can access of the other, there is still a significant gap in terms of both sides understanding each other. But more importantly, despite the scientific and technological advances that are evident all around us, there appreciation and importance of science are still very much underrated with the general public. And I'm not referring to the scientific literacy either.

Many "cultural" issues seldom have scientific content. For example, when was the last time you see Oprah Winfrey pick a book with actual, VALID science content? She'll pick a book like "The Secret" that bastardizes physics, but what about a non-fiction that discusses fallacies and outright deceptions in our society that can be addressed via science? I would have loved for her to pick one of Bob Park's books, or even "Physics for Presidents", which would have been appropriate reading for her viewers during the presidential election.

So while science does gets its exposure now and then, the appreciation and understanding of it is still lagging in popular culture when compared to the humanities. So my answer to the question in the topic is : Not much.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Dance Of Quantum Entanglement?

First of all, a disclaimer. I am not artistically literate. While I love watching dance moves, I can clearly admit that these avant garde dances are way beyond me, and something I don't get. In fact, I feel that way as well with many modern paintings and sculptures, but that's another story.

So when I first heard about this dance performance called "Spooky Action", my first reaction was "Oh no!", and my second reaction was "How are they doing to bastardize QM to show it in a dance performance?" So yes, I already had a huge bias against it and didn't have quite a high expectation, not in terms of the dance performance itself, but in the "message" that they were trying to convey.

It appears that the first performance of such a dance was performed, and I just finished reading a review of it.

Spooky Action begins in a blackout with a disembodied voice proclaiming, “I am a particle.” Seconds later, the voice identifies itself as a physicist. Which is it? Particle or physicist? And who are the dancers? At times, their actions suggest the random movements of particles in an accelerator; at others, the desperate and often unsuccessful attempts of human beings to connect with one another. When Paul Struck demands “Particle or wave?” with increasing vehemence and urgency, he seems to have adopted the persona of the scientist himself.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!!

I often would like to ask those who come up with such concepts as to the actual reason for it. I'm very sincere about this. I'm very curious as to why someone would choose such a difficult topic, and try to present it as a dance form. Is it because he/she thinks that he/she can accurately convey a visual representation of the concept? Was there a goal to "educate"? Or is it simply an "application" of the concept as a metaphor to something else, as what appears to be the case here. In other words, what exactly is the expectation here? Or do they simply throw things up in the air and simply let it fall where ever they may be?

I suppose it is "nice" that physics and physics ideas have permeated into the artistic realm. It exposes it to people who may not have either heard of it, or indifferent about it. However, this can also be a double-edged sword. If you present it in such a way as to bastardize it into ways in which it becomes unrecognizable, then I think that that causes more harm than good. The awful movie "What The Bleep Do We Know" isn't going to be used as a marketing tool to promote physics, no matter how much it exposes the general public to concepts in quantum mechanics.

BTW, if this was done by high school students, or even as a parody, it would have been a stroke of genius! I would love to attend something like that.

I fully expect a dance performance to next present their interpretation of tax accounting.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Austrian Physicists Protest at CERN Pull-Out

This isn't surprising at all and highly expected. As reported earlier, Austria has decided to pull out of CERN. The timing is especially ridiculously awful as, after working for so long on the LHC and contributing to the laboratory, the LHC is about to start up and a whole new frontier of high energy physics is about to be opened.

So it is understandable that Austrian physicists would strongly protest against the pull-out.

Researchers in Austria have started an online petition in protest at the country’s decision to withdraw from the CERN particle physics lab. So far over 1500 people have signed the petition, which will be sent to Johannes Hahn, the Austrian science minister, who announced on Thursday that the country would cut its funding for CERN worth around €20m per year.


The Inadequacy of Everettian Accounts of Evolution, Probability, and Scientific Confirmation

This is certainly a provocative title. The manuscript, which is a chapter in an upcoming book, I would guess, directly questions whether Everette's "Many-World" model for quantum theory is in fact adequate, or whether it has actually failed.

Abstract: There is a compelling intellectual case for exploring whether purely unitary quantum theory defines a sensible and scientifically adequate theory, as Everett originally proposed. Many different and incompatible attempts to define a coherent Everettian quantum theory have been made over the past fifty years. However, no known version of the theory (unadorned by extra ad hoc postulates) can account for the appearance of probabilities and explain why the theory it was meant to replace, Copenhagen quantum theory, appears to be confirmed, or more generally why our evolutionary history appears to be Born-rule typical. This article reviews some ingenious and interesting recent attempts in this direction by Wallace, Greaves, Myrvold and others, and explains why they don't work. An account of one-world randomness, which appears scientifically satisfactory, and has no many-worlds analogue, is proposed. A fundamental obstacle to confirming many-worlds theories is illustrated by considering some toy many-worlds models. These models show that branch weights can exist without having any role in either rational decision-making or theory confirmation, and also that the latter two roles are logically separate. Wallace's proposed decision theoretic axioms for rational agents in a multiverse and claimed derivation of the Born rule are examined. It is argued that Wallace's strategy of axiomatizing a mathematically precise decision theory within a fuzzy Everettian quasiclassical ontology is incoherent. Moreover, Wallace's axioms are not constitutive of rationality either in Everettian quantum theory or in theories in which branchings and branch weights are precisely defined. In both cases, there exist coherent rational strategies that violate some of the axioms.

It's 26 pages long, and at this point, I haven't had the chance to read it yet. But you might have time, so I'm not going to deprive you of the pleasure (torture?) of reading it. :)


Why The Public Can't Tell What Is Valid And What Is Pseudoscience

Why, you asked? Because some time established facilities that one put trusts on also can't tell the difference and even promote quackery.

I can see if some fly-by-night operator or scam artist to fall for such a thing, but a "hospital"? A Sutter Lakeside Hospital somewhere in California is having its first Health and Wellness Expo, and it is a doosey, folks! Here are the attendees/participants/vendors that got highlighted.

Lucerne resident Margaret Rowson said she came to see Dr. Fred Allen Wolf, theoretical physicist, who was interviewed in the film "What the Bleep Do We Know." Wolf was one of the two keynote speakers.

What? A reputable physicist from UCLA, USC, Berkeley, UC-San Diego, UC-Santa Barbara, etc. were all busy? You had to find someone who appeared in a crackpot movie?

But it gets better...

A couple separately offering homeopathy and acupuncture had a booth as well, and spoke of their plans to make their services available at the Wellness Center in June.

Kinda expected, isn't it?

The problem here is that medical establishment like a hospital symbolizes what we know works in medicine, which presumably is based on solid science and clinical studies. When it endorses things like this which either have not been scientifically shown to be valid, or when it mixes dubious physics with valid ones, the public can't tell which is which and simply considers all of them to be on the SAME level of validity. "Hey, if my hospital endorses it, it must be OK". I'm just surprised they don't have an astrologer on hand to do medical screenings.

So shame on them for turning their backs on the very methodology that they exist on.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Final Hubble Servicing Launch

In case you are interested, the final servicing launch of the shuttle to the Hubble Space Telescope will take place today at 1:01 p.m. CDT. You can follow it at NASA TV at

This would make the Hubble turn into an almost new telescope, so it is an important one.


Edit: the launch was successful, in case you missed it.

‘Angels’ Lecture to Separate Physics from Fiction

With the Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" movie getting quite a bit of attention (notoriety?), especially in the physics world, I think the particle physics commumnity has wisely taken up the opportunity of the public's attention to highlight their work in context with the movie/book.

This is part of a series of lectures for the public describing what is right and wrong about the fiction contained within the book.

Though a compelling page-turner and brilliant blend of science and fiction, elementary particle physicists readily spot when the novel departs from real science and the realm of the possible to the unreal possibility of an antimatter catastrophe, courtesy of the minuscule amounts generated at CERN.

“Antimatter is real, unlike Kryptonite,” said Dr. Joseph M. Izen, a professor of physics. “There actually was a dedicated experiment at CERN to trap antiprotons and to make antihydrogen a few years ago, but that was not part of the LHC program. There is a conversion of mass to energy when matter and antimatter annihilate, but the quantity of antimatter in Angels & Demons, the trap holding it and its appearance as a floating, pulsating antiblob in the book/movie are fictional plot devices. These days, more antiprotons are being made by the accelerator complex at Fermilab in the U.S. than are being produced at CERN.”

If one of these comes to your neighborhood, it might make for an interesting evening out.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Austria is Leaving CERN

The cost of being a member nation in CERN is weighing too much on Austria. The country plans to leave CERN and stop its contribution to the high energy physics laboratory.

Austria has been a member of the 20-nation body since 1959, but plans to leave because membership ties up around 70 percent of its budget for funding such international research, Science Minister Johannes Hahn said late Thursday.

"In the meantime there have been diverse research projects in the European Union which offer a very large number of different scientists' perspectives," Hahn said in a statement.

Austria contributes 2.2 percent of CERN's budget. It will be the first country to leave the organization since Spain's departure in 1969. Spain rejoined in 1983.


Neutron Stars: Billions of Times Stronger Than Steel

A new computer simulation on the core of neutron stars has revealed that it is extremely dense and 10 billion times stronger that the toughest steel that we know of. But that is more fascinating is how it relates to my previous blog entry of "gravity waves". It appears that imperfections, such as mountains, on the surface of the neutron stars can actually generate gravitational (gravity?) waves.

That incredible strength also means that when neutron stars form they can tolerate some imperfections on their surfaces. In this case, such imperfections can be mountain-sized bumps as heavy as Earth. As those bumps ride the fast-spinning stars, their mass disturbs spacetime enough to generate gravity waves, the simulations by Horowitz and Kadau show. First predicted by Albert Einstein, the waves are disruptions that radiate through the very fabric of spacetime. They travel as fast as light and can stretch every atom they encounter. Scientists have deployed new instruments in recent years in an attempt to observe the waves, but so far they have remained elusive.

Humm... gravity or gravitational? :)


2009 Tyndall Lecture

This is a video of the 2009 Tyndall lecture. It is on the physics of the human body.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Mountains Emit Mesospheric Gravity Waves

Er... what? A rather "interesting" report, which can imply that it's something I've never heard before. :)

A U.S. study suggests wind blowing over mountain ranges can generate gravity waves that propagate vertically into Earth's upper mesosphere.

Researchers said such waves, known as mountain waves, have previously been observed low in the atmosphere. But Steven Smith, Jeffrey Baumgardner and Michael Mendillo of the Center for Space Physics at Boston University said their research has produced the first unambiguous images of mountain gravity waves in the upper mesosphere -- 50 to 62.5 miles in altitude.

A mass of wind can cause a "gravity wave" when blowing through mountains? Is this the same "gravity wave" that has been long sought-after by LIGO and LISA? Could they detect such a thing?

I plead completely ignorance over this phenomenon, and might try to see if I can get a copy of the paper, which isn't that easy to get based on the access that I have. Can anyone else shed some light into this?


Thursday, May 07, 2009

The 2010 Science Budget

President Barack Obama has released his budget for fiscal year 2010. And there's plenty of things to be happy about for the physical sciences Both DOE Office of Science and NSF are slated to receive increase in funding.

Those in the physical sciences should be as pleased as their biomedical colleagues are because Obama proposed to increase the Department of Energy's Office of Science from $4.8 billion to $4.9 billion, again, not taking into account the gaudy $1.6 billion awarded in February, which must be spent by next year. The Department of Energy's total includes $280 million for setting up eight so-called Energy Innovation Hubs, to be funded at $25 million per year, which would each focus on one specific area, including solar fuels and nuclear energy.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) did particularly well, with a request of $7.04 billion, an 8.5% jump over the $6.5 billion it received in 2009. That increase would keep it on course to achieve a promised budget doubling within a decade. The foundation's six research directorates would receive a 10% boost, to $5.73 billion, and its education programs would inch up by 1.5%, to $858 million. NSF officials don't plan to release details until next week's meeting of the National Science Board, which oversees it.

Still, this may not survive intact after both Congress and the Senate hack at it. After many years of suffering with miserable budget, this was the first year that the physical sciences actually had an increase in spending, especially in fields such as high energy. It would be nice if this can be sustained rather than having the rug pulled under...


Hubble Space Telescope Refined Hubble Constant

The Hubble Constant is now better known and more precisely known after the latest set of measurement by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The new value for the expansion rate, known as the Hubble constant, or H0 (after Edwin Hubble who first measured the expansion of the universe nearly a century ago), is 74.2 kilometers per second per megaparsec (error margin of ± 3.6). The results agree closely with an earlier measurement gleaned from Hubble of 72 ± 8 km/sec/megaparsec, but are now more than twice as precise.
This new, more precise value of the Hubble constant was used to test and constrain the properties of dark energy, the form of energy that produces a repulsive force in space, which is causing the expansion rate of the universe to accelerate.

By bracketing the expansion history of the universe between today and when the universe was only approximately 380,000 years old, the astronomers were able to place limits on the nature of the dark energy that is causing the expansion to speed up. (The measurement for the far, early universe is derived from fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, as resolved by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, WMAP, in 2003.)

Their result is consistent with the simplest interpretation of dark energy: that it is mathematically equivalent to Albert Einstein's hypothesized cosmological constant, introduced a century ago to push on the fabric of space and prevent the universe from collapsing under the pull of gravity. (Einstein, however, removed the constant once the expansion of the universe was discovered by Edwin Hubble.)

There's less wiggle room now for various theories of Dark Energy.


The Final Frontier: The Science of Star Trek

As the new Star Trek movie about to open this week, SciAm interviews Lawrence Krauss, who wrote "The Physics of Star Trek" 15 years ago.

It's a long but informative interview, especially for kids who tend to dream up stuff and think that they can be done now (or soon). Krauss has the ability to throw some cold water of reality to many of these, but that doesn't mean that he is saying that these things are impossible physically, just whether they are PRACTICAL!


China Opens World Class Synchrotron Center

I'm surprised it actually took China this long to build one of these facilities, but it is finally here. The Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility (SSRF) is now fully operational (links available for free only for a limited time) and becomes the most expensive science facility in China.

The Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility (SSRF) officially opened its doors last week to a queue of scientists waiting hungrily for beamline time. The 1.2-billion renminbi (US$176-million) light source is China's biggest investment in a single science facility to date, says Zhao Zhentang, an accelerator physicist and the facility's deputy director.

It definitely would be another attraction for many of the talents that have left China to work elsewhere.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Lab Safety

Science Magazine this week had a tragic coverage of the accident that happened at UCLA's chemistry lab where a research assistant died due to the injuries she sustained while doing work. And in the news appearing today, UCLA has been fined by the state's safety body due to this accident.

For many of us experimentalists who went through doing research work at our various institutions while we were graduate students, 'safety' was almost unheard of. We tend to learn what to do from either other graduate students, a postdoc, or if we're lucky, from our supervisors. The safety aspect was never a formal part of our training or work. Some time a senior graduate student would tell us what to do or what not to do when he or she thought it was appropriate. But mainly, there were often no formal training in safety in the lab.

If you then work at a US Nat'l Lab, the culture is the reverse. Before you even lift a finger to do something, you are already inundated with a series of safety orientation and then a bunch of safety training courses that are commensurate with what you will be doing. Many people (and sometime, including me) moaned the chore of going through this myriad of safety course. But even when I really don't feel like going through it, in the back of my mind, I actually appreciate the fact that I at least know what is a safe practice and what isn't, and I at least know WHERE to seek assistance in case that I'm not sure what to do. This is because I am being made aware of the support organization that has been designed to help me with such information. To me, that is the single most important realization in working in a research lab, especially when one is dealing with potentially dangerous situations.

Such support system isn't available, or at least, not well-established at most universities. I know that I went through college without knowing that there was even such a thing as "health and safety" section of the school that was supposed to monitor lab safety and safe practices. We just went in and do our work under the assumption that what we're doing isn't dangerous. I bet, right now, that if you go around various university labs and research areas, you'll find numerous OBVIOUS safety violations (I'm not talking about nit-picking small ones). Do you see gas cylinders unsecured to an immovable structure? Or what about an extension cord connected to another extension cord? Or having cryogenics and compressed gas in tight, confined working space?

I'm surprised there aren't many more of these type of accidents happening in college labs. Or maybe there are many more smaller accidents that just do not get reported or do not the same level of publicity.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Why Antihydrogen and Antimatter Are Different

An excellent review of CPT theorem and the asymmetry between matter and antimatter.

If matter were made with hydrogen, the existence of antimatter would be assured by the existence of the two antiparticles (antiproton and antielectron), the existence of the antiphoton being assured by QED. As Dirac emphasized, to have matter it is necessary to have another particle (the neutron) and another glue (the nuclear glue) to allow protons and neutrons to stay together in a nucleus. This problem first comes into play in heavy hydrogen, which has a nucleus – the deuteron – made of one proton and one neutron. For these two particles to remain together there needs to be some sort of "nuclear glue". We have no fundamental theory (like QED) to prove that the nuclear antiglue must exist and act like the nuclear glue. It can be experimentally established, however, by looking at the existence of the first example of nuclear antimatter: the antideuteron, made with an antiproton, an antineutron and nuclear antiglue. If the antideuteron exists, all other antielements beyond heavy antihydrogen must exist. Their nuclei must contain antiprotons, antineutrons and nuclear antiglue. But if the antideuteron did not exist, nothing but light antihydrogen could exist: farewell anti-water and farewell all forms of antimatter.

It give a glimpse on how many (all?) of the physics that we understand are so dependent on symmetry principles, and how many new physics are being discovered via such violations.

Don't miss it!


Science, Spirituality, and Some Mismatched Socks

This actually is a surprisingly good layman's review of the current state-of-the-art knowledge on quantum entanglement, all coming from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal! It also had a rather amusing anecdote coming from John Bell.

In a 1981 paper, Mr. Bell took a swing at Einstein's notion of "hidden variables" by relating the sock-wearing patterns of his physicist colleague Reinhold Bertlmann. Mr. Bell noted that if he saw one of Mr. Bertlmann's feet coming around the corner and it had a pink sock, he would instantly know, without seeing the other foot, that the second sock wouldn't be pink. To the casual observer that may seem magical, or controlled by "hidden variables," but it was no mystery to Mr. Bell because he knew that Mr. Bertlmann liked to wear mismatched socks.

Not sure if this is true, but it certainly is funny.

There are a couple of very recent development in this area of study that was mentioned in this article. The first is apparent violation of the "speed" of entanglement that was measured by Gisin's group.

Last year, Dr. Gisin and colleagues at Geneva University described how they had entangled a pair of photons in their lab. They then fired them, along fiber-optic cables of exactly equal length, to two Swiss villages some 11 miles apart.

During the journey, when one photon switched to a slightly higher energy level, its twin instantly switched to a slightly lower one. But the sum of the energies stayed constant, proving that the photons remained entangled.

More important, the team couldn't detect any time difference in the changes. "If there was any communication, it would have to have been at least 10,000 times the speed of light," says Dr. Gisin. "Because this is such an unlikely speed, the conclusion is there couldn't have been communication and so there is non-locality."

I reported this earlier here with the exact citation.

The second was the direct observation of the Hardy's paradox.

In 1990, the English physicist Lucien Hardy devised a thought experiment. The common view was that when a particle met its antiparticle, the pair destroyed each other in an explosion. But Mr. Hardy noted that in some cases when the particles' interaction wasn't observed, they wouldn't annihilate each other. The paradox: Because the interaction had to remain unseen, it couldn't be confirmed.

In a striking achievement, scientists from Osaka University have resolved the paradox. They used extremely weak measurements -- the equivalent of a sidelong glance, as it were -- that didn't disturb the photons' state. By doing the experiment multiple times and pooling those weak measurements, they got enough good data to show that the particles didn't annihilate. The conclusion: When the particles weren't observed, they behaved differently.

In a paper published in the New Journal of Physics in March, the Japanese team acknowledged that their result was "preposterous." Yet, they noted, it "gives us new insights into the spooky nature of quantum mechanics." A team from the University of Toronto published similar results in January.

Again, I've mentioned this in another entry, with not only the exact citation, but also a link to the paper which can be accessed for free.

The issue of "spirituality" as mentioned in the article related to Bernard d'Espagnat and his Templeton prize has already been tackled here. He certainly is a master at having his "wiggle room" in this article. All I can say is that if you make your idea vague enough, you can claim validity with almost anything.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Fermi Pokes A Hole In ATIC Balloon

OK, OK... no more puns! :)

ScienceNow is reporting from the APS April Meeting that a new result from Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope may have damper the enthusiasm of a possible detection of dark matter that was reported from ATIC balloon experiment.

One way to spot these particles might be to look to the skies. Some popular theoretical models suggest that if two lingering particles of dark matter collide, they should annihilate to create an ordinary particle and an antiparticle, such as an electron and a positron, which can be observed. Those particles should emerge with a definite energy determined by the mass of the dark energy particles, leading to a sharp peak in the energy spectrum of electrons and positrons from space.

That's why the results from the NASA-funded Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) balloon experiment sparked interest last fall (Science, 21 November 2008, p. 1173). ATIC observed that the number of electrons and positrons hitting Earth peaked sharply between about 300 billion and 800 billion electron volts. That dramatic excess appeared to be consistent with dark-matter annihilations.

But the new satellite measurements, from the $690 million Fermi telescope, don't reveal such an excess. Launched in June and designed to detect high-energy photons called gamma rays, Fermi is actually a sophisticated particle detector that serves just as well to detect electrons and positrons. It detected more than 4 million electrons and positrons from August through January--compared with ATIC's thousands--and Fermi researchers precisely measured the particles' energy spectrum.

So now they have to reconcile the two contradictory observations. And of course, there's PAMELA to content with.

Edit: Here's a more detailed coverage of this, AND, with a free download of the relevant paper.


NIST's Deborah Jin

Sci Am has a concise listing of Deborah Jin's accomplishment in the field of condensed matter physics. Her discovery of the first ever fermionic condensates is nothing short of extraordinary and was such a crucial "missing piece" in the BCS-BEC connection.

I've always maintained that this is Nobel caliber work and will not be surprised if she wins it one of these days.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Finding 1 Atom in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

A terrific Symmetry Breaking article on the search for a neutrinoless double beta decay.

The EXO collaboration, involving SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University, and many other partners, is looking for a never-before-observed process called neutrinoless double beta decay. In their case, this means watching for an isotope of xenon decaying into barium, giving off two electrons (the double beta decay), but without giving out any neutrinos. A beta decay process gives off one neutrino, so how could this even be possible? It only works if the neutrino is its own antiparticle, so that the two beta decays each have a neutrino which essentially cancel each other out, like matter and antimatter annihilating. And the possibility that process exists is the reason for the experiment.

If neutrinoless double beta decay is observed, it means the neutrino must be its own antiparticle, a key unknown in the study of neutrinos. If the neutrino is indeed its own antiparticle, it has all kinds of implications for the structure of the Standard Model and the relationships between the fundamental particles.

While many people would not be able to understand what's the big deal with the physics or what is being looked for, there is however, one important factor that should not be overlooked. These brilliant people are trying to look for extremely rare events. This is not particularly uncommon and is not unique to just this experiment. So just because the event is extremely rare and hard to find, it doesn't mean that it can't be found, or that there is no way to look for it.

The point I'm trying to make here is that many people who study "pseudoscience" phenomena often use the excuse that they are studying or trying to observe something that is difficult to detect and very rare. They often use such excuses as the reason why such paranormal phenomena cannot be reproduced on demand. I don't buy it for the very reason that in physics, it is not unheard of to look for such difficult and rare events. How many top quarks were found out of the gazillion collisions at the Tevatron that first time? This is not exactly "common"!

So it looks like we have another experiment to look forward to this year.


Is Canada Losing The Lab-Rat Race?

This is a news article examining how well Canada sells a career in science. Unfortunately, the report doesn't think that Canada has done well in encouraging students to go into this field. This includes institutions and scientists themselves who have been selling themselves short in promoting and advertising their accomplishments.

Last year, Dr. Miller's research team made an important discovery about what happens to matter at extremely high temperatures. “The closest way I can describe it to is we stuck our hand into the sun, grabbed a chunk and took a look at it.”

The popular German newsweekly Der Spiegel wrote about it; in the U.S., Wired magazine featured his research. In Canada, his work passed without a murmur.

“We don't celebrate Canadian accomplishments,” he says. “If Canadian science was portrayed in a more winning way, you would see a lot more people get the fever.”
U.S. institutions lobby on behalf of their researchers in a way that Canadian universities often do not, suggests Alan Bernstein, former president of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the granting agency that funds medical research at Canadian universities and now the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York.

Success breeds success, he says. “As a nation, we expect our hockey teams to win because they always have. If you are good as a nation at something, there are role models for young people coming through.”

Scientists themselves accept some of the blame. Samuel Weiss, who won a prestigious Gairdner Award last year for his discovery that the adult brain can produce new cells, says Canadian scientists have to get better at thumping their chests.

“As scientists, we are way too reticent to tell the story and engage the community the way scientists engage the community in other countries. … We'll point to government, but I don't know if we have made the case about how important science is.”

This is really rather puzzling. With the presence of the Parameter Institute and all the well-known physicists in residence, one would think that science, and physics in particular, would have gained significant "fame" and popularity among the public. Add to that the fact that various Canadian institutions have managed to attract well-known physicists, even with joint appointments (see Carl Weiman and Tony Leggett), it is difficult to think that such publicity does not inspire more interest in the field.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

2009 Particle Accelerator Conference/APS April Meeting

Amid the swine flu outbreak, the 2009 Particle Accelerator Conference in Vancouver, Canada will go on as planned starting tomorrow. With attendees from all over the world, the conference organizers will have an extra bit of challenge this time in making sure that there isn't any sense of concern regarding this epidemic.

This is the last time the North American PAC will be held every two years. After this, the PAC conference will rotate with the European Particle Accelerator Conference (EPAC) and the Asian Particle Accelerator Conference (APAC). This will mean that in some years, the North American PAC will be held in the same year (hopefully not at the same time) as the Advanced Accelerator Concepts (AAC) Workshop. As it is now, PAC and AAC are held on alternate years. So it will be interesting to see how they are affected by the change in scheduling.

Separate to that, the APS April Meeting starts today in Denver, CO. This too will have attendees from all over the world. And it is strange that this and PAC overlap each other by at least a couple of days. Maybe it is on purpose so that a few attendees can fly to the other one after the APS meeting is over? I don't know.....