Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Steven Chu is Newsmaker of the Year

Nature has selected US Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate in Physics Steven Chu as the Newsmaker of the Year {Link may be available for free only for a limited time}.

Chu has already had a significant impact. From his position near the top of President Barack Obama's administration, he has helped make the case that the United States must commit to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, not only to save the planet but also to ensure that the country will be able to compete with China, India and Europe in the emerging green economy.

And he has started to commit the energy department to doing more high-risk research on clean energy. This is the proper role of governmental research programmes: to develop promising technologies that are too far from the market to draw the support of industry, which has to focus on near-term profits. Nations cannot simply regulate themselves out of the global-warming problem; pledges to cut greenhouse emissions have to be made real by the scientists and engineers who develop cheaper, cleaner and more efficient ways to produce and distribute energy.

He still has quite a huge task in front of him. But for once, there is quite an optimism that science policy and science decision for this Administration will be heavily-based on the advice of knowledge scientists rather than politicians and based on politics.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Joy of Physics Isn’t in the Results, but in the Search Itself

I like this article. I like it a lot. It reflects more or less why many of us go into science, and physics in particular, even though the journey is long, uncertain, tedious, and the pay isn't that great when you compare to the effort. Very often, the journey in getting there is the joy in doing physics.

As the dark matter fever was rising a few weeks ago, I called Vera Rubin, the astronomer at the department of terrestrial magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who helped make dark matter a cosmic issue by showing that galaxies rotate too fast for the gravity of their luminous components to keep them together.

But Dr. Rubin, who likes to stick to the facts, refused to be excited. “I don’t know if we have dark matter or have to nudge Newton’s Laws or what.

“I’m sorry I know so little; I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”

Now while we can certainly try to sell this to the general public, at some point, we also must face the question on whether such money should be spent simply for a bunch of people to have some "joy" in continuing search to understand our world. Should public money be spent solely on projects that bring a sense of joy and accomplishment to a group of people?

While the author of that article did mention all the side benefits that we have acquired from basic physics research, he neglected to mention that physics isn't just the LHC, but it is also iPods! While those who work in high energy physics, astrophysics, etc. will have to go with the "basic knowledge" angle, let's not forget that other parts of physics such as condensed matter, atomic/molecular, medical physics, etc. are producing results that have DIRECT IMPACT and applications to the public. The pursuit of knowledge in these fields also brings joy and utmost satisfaction, with the added benefit that money spent in these areas can be more easily justified via their applications.

Physics must trumpet both the "fundamental knowledge" research represented by the LHC, and the direct/applied fields. Both of these aspects of physics show that money being spent in this field not only expand our fundamental understanding of our universe, but also our everyday lives. I don't know of any other field of study that can say that as strongly.


A Conversation With Frank Wilczek

This is actually quite an enlightening Q&A with Frank Wilczek published in the NY Times. In it, explained a little bit on the motivation for QCD, and a little bit of his childhood. Boy, was Freeman Dyson wrong!

One of the big questions at that time was — what is the strong force, one of the four basic forces, the most powerful force of nature, that among other things holds atomic nuclei together? There were lots of known facts about the strong force, but no real theory. Freeman Dyson had said that it would be 100 years before it was understood.

Now I'm rather curious about the novel that he has been writing. It sounds like a totally new angle for a mystery genre.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Newton's Laws Do Not Ignore Friction

Usually, if this was made by some obscure individual on some obscure website, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. After all, you can find a lot of such garbage all over the 'net. But this is from a supposedly-respected financial publication, and made by someone from New York University. Therefore, it deserved to be addressed and corrected. It is also another example on why the general public often have faulty knowledge of physics, even basic physics that we teach kids in high school.

This article comes from, and talks about the future of the Dow Jones. Inevitably, people who don't know enough physics will want to make either a comparison, or an analogy, to some aspect of physics.

"Economics used to ignore liquidity risk, like Newton's laws ignore friction in physics," says Lasse Pedersen of New York University "However, now people are realizing similar frictions are central to what is going on in the economy."

This, of course, is totally wrong. Any physics student taking intro physics in college would have known this. Example: body on an inclined plane problem with friction involved. The whole point of drawing the free-body diagram in such a case is so that one can find the NET force acting on the body and applying F=ma (which is ONE of Newton's laws) to find the dynamics of the body. So Newton's Laws DO NOT ignore friction. The frictional force is like any other forces and there's nothing special about it.

This is another black eye for those in the economic/financial sector. It seems that, based on the past few posts in this blog, that I'm taking aim at this field. I'm not! It is the people who represent such a field and making stupid statements that are giving this field a bad name. If they just stick to what they know and keep their mouth shut on things that they don't, we would get along very well. But nooooo.... they somehow want to show off their ignorance of physics and hoping that those who read what they say don't know any better. And the sad thing is, they'll probably get away with these things too.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Economics Is As Much A Science As Physics?

It may be Christmas Eve, but I'm not in a forgiving mood. There is a quote from some clueless "philosopher" who thinks that economics is as much a science as physics!

I asked [philosopher] Nelson Goodman this question once, and Nelson Goodman said economics is as much of a science as physics. I said, well, how could that be? He said: Physics can explain how a leaf falls from a tree and everything that happens to it, but it can't tell you where the leaf's going to land. Economics is the same.

That's utterly stupid. How do you think we were able to send things out in outer space if we don't know where it is going to "land"? Being able to "explain" and describe the dynamics of that leaf INCLUDES the ability to predict what will happen. That's how you know your electronics will work, because we have predicted with great accuracy how the mechanism within your semiconductors will behave in the future.

But the stupidity doesn't end there...

Yes, absolutely right. I use that all the time. The parts of physics that are exact are the parts of physics that are exact. The parts that are inexact are vastly greater. Sensible scientists don't waste their time pushing against doors that endlessly will not give. They are opportunistic and go where they can, but there are pitfalls in that. It's like the drunk who is looking for his keys under the lamplight in the street, but he wasn't near the lamplight. He said, yes, but that's the only place I can see anything, therefore I'm looking here.

That makes no sense, especially when this person doesn't illustrate such accusation with an example. The whole idea of doing science is to go into places where we either have little knowledge in, or in which our current understanding just doesn't work. That's exactly an example of looking where the lamplight isn't there!

People who have never worked in science, or physics in particular, and then try to make generalized characterization of the field, simply reveal their complete ignorance. And when you start with a foundation based on faulty knowledge, you end up with absurd conclusion, such as equating economics to be as much of a science as physics.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Time in a Hurry?

Contrary to the previous NPR blog article that I didn't quite like, this one is actually quite level-headed and doesn't go beyond valid physics to try for the sexy angle. It is a quick and accurate description of "time".

In physics, things are simpler. Time is a fundamental quantity, something that cannot be defined in terms of anything else. There are some issues with this, that we will address some other time. (Sorry...) The second is the universal unit, and it's defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations between two levels of the cesium-133 atom. Very different from the tick-tack of old mechanical clocks, which are not very reliable.

It will be interesting if the writer (a theoretical physicist) would write the same type of article for "space".


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Are Human Ideas And Opinions Quantum Objects?

Are human ideas and opinions quantum objects? Does it show properties of superposition? Does it have a wavefunction and observable operators? Really!

In the continuing effort to "bastardize" quantum mechanics, many people who don't have a clue of what it is routinely cite the various aspects of quantum mechanics and then applying it to situations where it may not even apply. Crackpots do this all the time, especially in areas of pseudoscience where QM has been used as a justification for all the new-age mumbo jumbo. They do this while forgetting that various aspects of QM have been experimentally tested and verified, whereas their applications to other things have not.

And that brings us to this "delightful" discussion. The writer applied both QM and SR (the physics-bastardization double-coupon) to make amazing justification regarding opposite opinions.

So what's physics got to do with it? First, it allows two contradictory descriptions of nature to be true. So both my friends both could be (and were) right. As Neils Bohr put it: The opposite of a shallow truth is false, but the opposite of a deep truth is also true.

Particles are waves and waves are particles. Whether they show one face or the other depends on what you look for in your experiment, on what kind of question you ask. In other words, the context.

Each of my friends is a complex, warm, caring, passionate and much-loved individual. Each is also nothing but a bunch of quarks and electrons. Two contradictory statements. Both true. Different contexts.

This, of course, isn't new. Extreme post-modernists have done this already, with hysterical and nonsensical conclusions. One only needs to follow the situation surrounding the Sokal Hoax.

The problem in all of this is, of course, that if you understand only a very small and superficial portion of something, and then you apply it, you've essentially ignore the majority of what you applied. For example, if contradictory ideas like that can be represented or justified as "waves" or having such duality, then ALL the other consequences of such analogy should also follow. What happened when they "interfere" with each other, or underwent rapid decoherence? If one makes an "observation", shouldn't the other ideas essentially goes away since the wavefunction has collapsed? Now what?

Bastardization of physics produces nonsensical results. I don't know why people need to grasp onto something they don't even understand to justify something.


Monday, December 21, 2009

What's In Store for 2010

Physics World has a list of things we might be looking forward to in 2010. The most obvious one is, of course, the LHC. There are also plenty of other things, some we may not be looking forward to at all, such as the funding disaster in the UK, and a similar issue in Japan.

2010 promises to not be lacking in drama of every type.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Number of Physics Faculty

I finally had a chance to look at one of the recent survey results published by the AIP. This is a survey of the physics faculty at US educational institutions done in 2008. It covers institutions having Bachelor, Masters, or Ph.D in physics degrees as the highest granting degree.

The most obvious conclusion here is how stagnant the number of faculty member has been since 1998. In fact, if one look at Fig. 1, since 2004, the number has remained relatively the same across all three types of institutions. One sees this conclusion both in the total number of physics faculty members, and in the average number per institution.

What does this mean, boys and girls? It means that if you want to do physics AND then get a job in a university as a physics faculty, someone must either leave first, or retire, before there is an opening for you to take. It also means that if you are majoring in a field of physics that isn't that employable outside of academia, you will have a tough competition in trying to get the job that you want.

Of course, this trend doesn't take into account the influx of money from this year's stimulus bill and whether that created additional jobs that was never available. Still, this is only a temporary infusion, and it is still uncertain whether any physics jobs created out of such funds will actually last.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Google Exploring Quantum Computing Algorithms

Google is probably the first major internet company to explore quantum computing algorithms, based on this report.

Google is working on developing a quantum computer, announced Google's Hartmut Neven at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference (NIPS 2009) in Vancouver, Canada last week.

Nevan, who is the comapny's technical lead manager for image recognition gave details of the presentation on the google research blog.

The reason for google's interest in quantum computing is speed. At the size of the internet increases exponentially it is becoming harder and harder for google to maintain the fast speed of the service without having to resort to building massive server farms.

They certainly have the financial resources to explore such research-front area. Companies with money can do that, as we have seen with Bell Labs during the golden days when it has the money and the monopoly.

But hold on. After reading some more of the article, my eyes widened when I read something a bit unsettling.

The company has spent three years working on quantum adiabatic algorithms with a Canadian company D-Wave providing the hardware.

D-Wave's processors work by magnetically coupling superconducting loops called rf-squid flux qubits. "It is not easy to demonstrate that a multi-qubit system such as the D-Wave chip indeed exhibits the desired quantum behavior," says Nevan.

D-Wave, D-Wave, D-Wave... I know that company. They claimed to have made the first "quantum computer", a claim that has yet to be verified (read here, here, and here. Anyone has any new update on them?).



Time And Space For Celebration Dance?

I fully admit that I'm completely ignorant (and therefore, probably unable to appreciate it) of modern dance. So I certainly could have missed any kind of "message" and artistry from it. Still, maybe the Emperor really has no clothes!

This, I'm guessing, is some form of a kick-off celebration for the start of construction on the NSLS II at Brookhaven Lab. The info says that ".... members of the Center for Dance, Movement and Somatic Learning at Stony Brook University performed a special interpretive dance titled Time and Space for Celebration...." All I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't in the audience, because I will get a fit of the "church giggles" watching this. If you don't tell me the title of the dance or the occasion, I would have never guessed that this is an "interpretive" dance on "time and space for celebration". Besides, "time and space" is rather "generic", isn't it? One would think that for the NSLS II, which will be a synchrotron light source facility, one would want to have a subject closer to either light or electron storage ring/beam dynamics, etc, not "space and time". Either way, I don't get this at all.

Or maybe I'm just being extra bitchy this morning because I haven't had my coffee yet... :)


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UK Physics Hit With "Savage" Cuts

Rather depressing news coming out of the United Kingdom and their science funding in general. Severe cuts in the physics funding will cause UK to withdraw from several prominent research programs.

Savage cuts have been made to the UK's physics research programme that will see the country withdraw from over 25 leading international projects in astronomy, nuclear physics, particle physics and space science. The cuts were announced today by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is facing a £40m shortfall in funding. The cash crisis will see the UK pull out of the ALICE experiment at CERN, axe funding for the Boulby Mine in Yorkshire, which is searching for dark matter, and withdraw from the European X-ray Free Electron Laser project at the DESY lab in Hamburg.

This sounds rather devastating. The bad news coming out of the UK doesn't seem to let up these past few years, including the state of A-level education over there. One can only speculate the ramifications on UK science from this act.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You Are Using Quantum Mechanics In Your Digital Camera

Well, for most of us, that fact isn't surprising. But, it is still useful to emphasize this in case there are still people out there who thinks that QM is only some esoteric subject area (like all of physics) that has nothing to do with their everyday lives.

This is a well-written article in the Washington Post that shows how a CCD detector that is in digital camera came out of the our understanding of quantum mechanics. The inventor of the CCD won the Nobel Prize for Physics this year.

Getting a digital camera for Christmas? Before you fire it up to capture Uncle Wally's fateful fifth trip to the punch bowl, take a moment to picture this: You've got a genuine scientific marvel in your mitts. In fact, it took nothing less than two Nobel prizes and a revolution in physics in order for you to point and shoot.

Why? Because to take a filmless picture, your camera or camcorder relies on, um, quantum mechanics. In particular, it exploits the fact -- revealed by Albert Einstein himself -- that a beam of light, which behaves like a wave in some circumstances, acts like a bunch of separate particles in other circumstances.

A good article to give to someone who asks you if physics is of any use.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Electromagnetic Detection of a Perfect Invisibility Cloak

One of the areas of physics that had been getting a lot of publicity is the area of metametrials/left-handed materials that produces negative index of refraction. The "sexy" aspect of this study is the possibility of "cloaking" an object having such left-handed properties from electromagnetic radiation, even if it is only within a limit bandwidth. I've highlighted several of these cloaking reports previously (read here, here, and here).

Now comes something that throws cold water over everything. A paper that appeared in PRL[1] recently pointed out that while any cloaking device, even a perfect one, cannot be detected via EM radiation, shooting charged particles at them allows them to be detected!

Abstract: A perfect invisibility cloak is commonly believed to be undetectable from electromagnetic (EM) detection because it is equivalent to a curved but empty EM space created from coordinate transformation. Based on the intrinsic asymmetry of coordinate transformation applied to motions of photons and charges, we propose a method to detect this curved EM space by shooting a fast-moving charged particle through it. A broadband radiation generated in this process makes a cloak visible. Our method is the only known EM mechanism so far to detect an ideal perfect cloak (curved EM space) within its working band.

So all you need is to shoot electrons and voila, you see these things being cloaked. Of course, this doesn't work to well in air since, depending on the electrons' energy, the mean free path of the electrons in air can be quite limited. But in the vacuum of outer space, that's a different story. Just think, we could have told Capt. Kirk how he could have detected those cloaked Klingon warbirds! It would have been so easy!


[1] B. Zhang and B.-I. Wu, Phys. Rev. Lett. v.103, p.243901 (2009).

Searching for the Higgs

With the LHC back in operation and performing smoothly (so far), this is a rather timely review on the search for the Higgs at appeared today.

While the article is not exactly designed to be understood by the general public, it is still informative, especially in the very beginning, to almost everyone.


A Christmas Gift for That String Theorist

What do you get for that string theorist who thinks we live in a 10 (or is it 11?) dimensional world? Why, you get the Calabi-Yau Manifold crystal, of course!

According to string theory, space-time is not four-dimensional as you might expect, but actually 10-dimensional. The extra six dimensions are believed to be compactified or rolled up into such a small space that they are unobservable at human scales of sight. Their size and six dimensions make Calabi-Yau spaces difficult to draw. But, this model shows a three-dimensional cross-section of this likely space to reveal its structure and shape.

This 3" cube and the surface within is a wildly self-intersecting ride through space. Cement your place in string theory history by adding this highly intriguing crystal to your collection. It includes clear rubber feet for scratch-free display. And, if you want to learn more about the mathematics of this wondrous cube, read on...This particular space is one of the most appealing candidates, because there's a series of Calabi-Yau spaces embedded in CPN (N-dimensional complex projective space) described by homogeneous polynomials of degree (N+1).

Oh freaking brother!

It'll cost you US$90 to have string theory sitting on your desk.



Friday, December 11, 2009

LHC Overtakes Tevatron - Implications For The US

This NY Times article discusses not only the scientific, but economic implications to the US as the state-of-the-art high-energy physics experiment shifts to Europe.

That future, physicists say, includes not only the sheen of announcing exotic particles and strange dimensions, but also the ancillary rewards of increased technological competence and innovation that spring from the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. The World Wide Web, lest anyone forget, was invented by particle physicists at CERN. Detectors developed for physics experiments are now used in medical devices like PET scans, and it was the industrial-scale production of superconducting magnets for the Tevatron that made commercial magnetic resonance imagers possible, said Young-Kee Kim, deputy director of Fermilab.

It is all very fine to worry about the value of the dollar. But what about the value of the proton?

“Particle accelerators and detectors (initially with the bold and innovative ideas and technologies) have touched our lives in many ways and I have no doubt that this will continue,” Dr. Kim wrote in an e-mail message.

Those spinoffs now will invigorate the careers and labs of Europe, not the United States, pointed out Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas in Austin, who won the Nobel Prize for work that will be tested in the new collider. Americans will work at CERN, but not as leaders, he said in an e-mail interview.

It will be years before the true impact, both intellectually and economically, will be felt. I just wish people REMEMBER the moment when the turning point occurs.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Science Begins at SLAC’s LCLS

It was a major undertaking and a total 'sex change' for SLAC going from a high energy physics facility to a "light source" facility with the LCLS. But it appears to be going smoothly and about to produce a lot of science.

Commissioning assisted by users is currently under way, with experiments taking place using the Atomic, Molecular and Optical (AMO) science instrument, the first of six instruments planned for the LCLS. In these first experiments, the researchers are using X-rays from the LCLS to gain an in-depth understanding of how the ultrabright beam interacts with matter.

And kids, please note that this is made possible by knowledge and advancement in accelerator physics, not high energy physics or particle collider. They are not the same thing.


Back From Vacation

Left 80-degree Orlando last night and flew into 20-degree Chicago (that's all in Fahrenheit for those who are confused about those numbers). Brrrr.....

It'll take me a couple of days to catch up on what has been going on in the Physics world while I was gone, but we'll get up to speed sooner or later...


Monday, December 07, 2009

Tiger Wood's Debacle Drives Sale of Physics Book

It's amazing what can drive the sale of a book, much less, a physics pop-science book. It appears that a copy of John Gribbin's book "Get a Grip on Physics" book was found on the floor of Tiger Wood's wrecked SUV. That notoriety is now driving up the sale of the book.

A series of pictures released by Florida police of Woods's wrecked SUV includes a shot of the back seat, complete with waterbottle, towel and furled umbrella. But there among the shards of tinted glass in the footwell sits a well-thumbed copy of a paperback with the golf-appropriate title clearly visible: Get a Grip on Physics.

This incidental role in Woods's domestic drama has been enough to create a rush to get hold of the book, with the title's sales rank on jumping from 396,224 earlier in the week to a high spotted yesterday by the Wall Street Journal of 2,268.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Einstein Won The Nobel Peace Prize in Physics?

One some time wonders if there really still are copy editors out there checking not only for basic spelling and grammar, but also the accuracy of what is being printed. Now I know that mistakes can happen, but some of these things are blatant facts that should be quite well-known, which make them inexcusable to get wrong.

Take this news article, for example. I mean, it goes in way too many directions, but that isn't the problem. The problem comes in with this part of the article involving good old Albert:

Who would have thought that Albert Einstein would be the centre of a lawsuit in 2009? Einstein, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for physics, who died in 1955, was recently included in a commercial by a cosmetics company. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which owns the Einstein trademark, has filed a lawsuit against Benefit Cosmetics for illegal use of Einstein's image.

Nobel Peace Price in Physics? Really?

Sure, this is nitpicking, but come on now, this is almost common knowledge already. I can somewhat understand if people still think he got the Nobel prize in physics for Relativity (despite the fact that people can easily Google this and find out it was for the photoelectric effect). But mixing up the Nobel Peace Prize and the Physics price? What caused that?