Sunday, January 31, 2010

New Revolutions In Particle Physics

I thought I should put this up now that we truly have a series going with the 3rd lecture now online. This series is given by Lenoard Susskind, and being produced by Stanford University. This is the brief synopsis of the lecture:

Leonard Susskind gives the first lecture of a three-quarter sequence of courses that will explore the new revolutions in particle physics. In this lecture he explores light, particles and quantum field theory.


Art Deserves Funding, But NOT Because It Is Like Science

I'm often irritated by other fields in trying to either coattail onto physics, or making rather dubious comparison to it. Worse still, some time someone will try to justify the funding of something by bad-mouthing science.

In this opinion article, the author is arguing why funding for the arts should not be abandoned even during this tough economic times. OK, fine. But then, one of the reasons given why goes a bit awry when a comparison between arts and science is made.

While the arts and science seem like opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum, they share a common purpose: discovery. Science is largely concerned with discovering the physical world around us. The arts are concerned with discovering ourselves, through which we discover each other. Discovery starts the process. It comes before. Discovering ourselves and discovering each other is the unifying force in the birth of community long before there are any discussions about budgets or programs or services. The community supports education and infrastructure, but it is the arts that foster community.

I am no scientist, but what little I know of quantum physics suggests that the interaction of the observer with the observed has a much greater influence than we had ever anticipated. It may even be that the observed does not exist until the observer is there to observe it. This is the essence of the arts, through which we confirm our own experience – our own existence. We observe each other the same way. Through the arts, we all enter the world – together.

Let's look at this argument closely, shall we?

I will argue that the process of "self-discovery" through art is NOT UNIQUE, and can be done by many different ways. One can have self-discovery by meditation, by seclusion in a cave somewhere if one prefers, or even by doing physics! Trust me, I've done plenty of self-discovery when I was struggling while doing a Jackson's E&M homework question at 3:00 am! One does not need to look at a Picasso, or listen to a Rachmaninoff piece, to have "self-discovery". On the other hand, the discovery done in science IS unique! One does not discover superconductivity, fractional quantum hall effect, the top quark, etc. by doing other things not science. Even when things are discovered by accident, the validity or it, and the full understanding of it, can only be done through science and nothing else.

So, even IF we grant the idea that art can also produce "discovery" via this thing call "self-discovery", the comparison to science falls short. The nature of the discovery being argued for in this article is not confined to just art. If this is the best that one can come up with, then it has made the argument to fund the arts even weaker, since one can easily do one's "self-discovery" through cheaper, alternative means. Art needs to find its own unique reasons so that one would want to fund it for what it is, not for what it is similar to with other fields. Make it stand on its own, not on the crutches of others.


Actress Anne Hathaway Is A Physics Geek?

Who knew?

Actress Anne Hathaway confesses to GQ Magazine that she is obsessed with physics.

Miss Hathaway, 27, who starred in The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, spends her spare time reading physics textbooks rather than fashion pages.

She said: ‘I’m interested in elementary particles. What I like thinking about is how time and space exist in the universe and how we understand it.

‘Any spare time I have, I bury my head in a physics textbook.

Like I said, who knew?

Now let's see, I forgot who was the other Hollywood celebrity that is also fascinated with physics. I wonder if this is catching on with these celebrities. It is nice if it is. However, and this is where cynical old me rears its ugly head, one has to wonder if the interest is due to some pseudoscientific reasons made popular by unreliable sources such as "The Secret", etc.


Magnetometers for Cardiac Diagnosis

It's a long way from the very "pedestrian" applications of magnetometers. It seems that it is sensitive and reliable enough that it has been proposed as a diagnostic for heart conditions.

The sensor head is made up of a series of coils that cancel out unwanted signals and amplifies the signals that are needed. So the tiny magnetic fields produced by a person's heart can be transmitted into the heavily shielded environment. What we've been able to do is combine existing technology from the areas of atomic physics and medical physics in a completely unique way.

Supposedly, this development came as a "by-product" of a research grant titled "Creating Long Chain Entanglement Using a Phase Sensitive Micromaser". This is another example of not judging a scientific work by its name. You just never know what direct benefits that you will get even when the subject matter being studied sound esoteric.


Friday, January 29, 2010

1001 Inventions

This news article highlights the inventions and discovery from the Muslim world that has affected the rest of the world. It is based on the exhibit "1001 Inventions" that is currently running at the London's Science Museum. It includes several items that are relevant to mathematics and physics, and even the world of learning.

3. Flying machine

"Abbas ibn Firnas was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly," said Hassani. In the 9th century he designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba in Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back. His designs would undoubtedly have been an inspiration for famed Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci's hundreds of years later, said Hassani.

4. University

In 859 a young princess named Fatima al-Firhi founded the first degree-granting university in Fez, Morocco. Her sister Miriam founded an adjacent mosque and together the complex became the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University. Still operating almost 1,200 years later, Hassani says he hopes the center will remind people that learning is at the core of the Islamic tradition and that the story of the al-Firhi sisters will inspire young Muslim women around the world today.

5. Algebra

The word algebra comes from the title of a Persian mathematician's famous 9th century treatise "Kitab al-Jabr Wa l-Mugabala" which translates roughly as "The Book of Reasoning and Balancing." Built on the roots of Greek and Hindu systems, the new algebraic order was a unifying system for rational numbers, irrational numbers and geometrical magnitudes. The same mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi, was also the first to introduce the concept of raising a number to a power.

6. Optics

"Many of the most important advances in the study of optics come from the Muslim world," says Hassani. Around the year 1000 Ibn al-Haitham proved that humans see objects by light reflecting off of them and entering the eye, dismissing Euclid and Ptolemy's theories that light was emitted from the eye itself. This great Muslim physicist also discovered the camera obscura phenomenon, which explains how the eye sees images upright due to the connection between the optic nerve and the brain.

If anyone reading this has visited the exhibit, I would appreciate some feedback.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dark Matter Claims Face Challenge

Recent claims of possible dark matter origin for excess high energy electrons and positrons from Fermi, HESS, ATIC, and PAMELA may be down the tubes. It seems that a new model has shown a more conventional explanation for these excesses and thus, causing more doubt that these were signatures from the presence of dark matter {link available for free only for a limited time}.

Galactic electrons are thought to originate in the explosion of supernovae, and conventional models predict that they lose energy as they pass through the Milky Way's magnetic field. The annihilation of proposed dark-matter particles would also create electrons, and some theorists had interpreted the recent experimental detections of surplus high-energy electrons as evidence for this process.

But starlight also scatters the electrons. Petrosian says that starlight suppresses the energy of most electrons in a way that makes it seem as if there is an excess of certain high-energy electrons. The Stanford group's models show an excess that is similar to that reported by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope; the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS), a ground-based detector in Namibia; and the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC), a balloon-borne detector that flew over Antarctica.
But by tweaking parameters in their model, the Stanford group can also mimic the PAMELA results. Like the electrons, the positrons are also thought to originate near supernovae — although through secondary collisions of protons. By increasing the density of gas and the number of photons near these supernovae — both possible scenarios given that supernovae occur in gas-rich star-forming regions near lots of stars — the model predicts high-energy positrons similar to those reported by PAMELA.

The exact reference to the paper is:

L.Stawarz et al., Astrophys. J. v.710, p.236 (2010).

This certainly throws a huge damper on those theorists who think they've seen tantalizing evidence of dark matter beyond just astronomical observations.


Quantum Computer Gets Hydrogen Molecule Right

This is rather amazing, at least, it is to me.

A new report has shown proof-of-principle of using a quantum computer algorithm and applying it to photons to calculate and simulate the hydrogen molecule.

Reporting online January 10 in Nature Chemistry, the Harvard group, led by chemist Alán Aspuru-Guzik, developed the conceptual algorithm and schematic that defined the computer’s architecture. Aspuru-Guzik has been working on such things for years but didn’t have the hardware to test his ideas. At the University of Queensland, physicist Andrew G. White and his team, who have been working on such sophisticated gadgets, said they thought they could make one to the Harvard specs and, after some collaboration, did so. In principle the computer could have been rather small, “about the size of a fingernail,” White says. But his group spread its components across a square meter of lab space to make it easier to adjust and program.

The reference to the actual Nature Chemistry paper is as follows:

B.P. Lanyon et al, Nature Chemistry v.2, p.106 (2009).

This is outstanding work! I'd love to see the setup and even better if I get to see it running.

Sidenote: why is this published online in 2010, but it has a reference dated 2009? Usually, the online publication is well ahead of the actual publication.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Physicist Wins Glamour Magazine Award

Yes, you read that right, GLAMOUR magazine, the fashion magazine for women. I kid you not. Apparently, they have this yearly award in various categories, including, get this, Science and Technology. Who knew?!

This year, the award is given to Prof. Athene Donald of Cambridge.

Professor Donald, who is the Deputy Head of the Department of Physics, beat out such candidates as scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield and internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox to win the prize from the iconic women's lifestyle magazine.

In announcing the award in their latest edition, the magazine praised Professor Donald as a "great role model" who has "forged a real path for herself in the male-dominated world of physics."

OK, I just wasted several minutes erasing something I wrote about my cynicism regarding a fashion magazine giving awards about Science and Technology and talking about role model. My head told me to just shut up and report the damn news! :)


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement

We have seen many previous reports and studies in which teachers can be a significant factors in how well students understand a material. However, I think this is the first one I've encountered whereby there is a gender-specific effect. A new study concluded that if a female teacher has anxiety of her math skills, this will transfer more likely to female students in the class. What resulted is rather interesting: the female students will acquire the impression that boys are better at math than girls, and will also cause these students to perform poorer in mathematics.

But by the end of the year, the more anxious teachers were about their own math skills, the more likely their female students but not the boys were to agree that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading."

In addition, the girls who answered that way scored lower on math tests than either the classes' boys or the girls who had not developed a belief in the stereotype, the researchers found.

The study was published in PNAS, and you can have access to the paper at the PNAS website, at least, I think you could since it is an open access article.


Physicists' Dreams and Worries

A short report on a "summit" held recently in Los Angeles among top physicists (mostly theoretical, it appears) to discuss broad ideas and expectations for physics for the next decades or so.

Organized into “duels” of world views, round tables and “diatribes and polemics,” the conference was billed as a place where the physicists could let down their hair about what might come, avoid “groupthink” and “be daring (even at the expense of being wrong),” according to Dr. Spiropulu’s e-mailed instructions. “Tell us what is bugging you and what is inspiring you,” she added.

I'm not quite sure what this has accomplished or how it has set the agenda for physics for the next several years. Maybe the news report doesn't convey enough to draw such a conclusion.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Physicist, Physician, Physical Therapist?

What's in a name?

So have you ever heard someone calling a physicist as "physician"? I'm sure both sides of the profession are a little bit miffed with that terminology being used. The physicist want to be called as such, while the physician doesn't want someone else to get the "stature" of a medical doctor without undergoing the torture of hours and hours of sleepless shifts. So do you correct the error?

I tend to act "dumb" and say "well, I'm a physicist, not a physician. I'm sorry, I cannot prescribe to you any drugs". Usually, if this is someone I don't know that well, he/she tends to ponder what I just said for several minutes, which is usually enough for me to make a getaway before he/she gathers his/her wits.

I recall several years ago the APS-Physics had a bit of an identity crisis. The APS, which stands for (does it still stand for this?) the American Physical Society, wanted to get ride of the word "Physical". It seems that in many instances, especially when it hosts conferences at various places, people mistaken it for either an organization for doctors (i.e., getting your "physical"), or people into physical therapy or physical education. So they wanted to call the organization the American Physics Society. I seem to recall that there were a lot of negative feedback from members, etc. I didn't see what's wrong with calling it the American Physics Society, but then again, I didn't have any strong feelings one way of the other, the same way I couldn't care less if Pluto is designated a planet or not. It changes nothing. Still, the APS probably didn't care for the name to be an issue and probably dropped the whole thing. Instead, they now call themselves APS - Physics. The word "Physics" appears on almost every logo and name accompanying "APS". Now, hopefully, no one would confuse us attending APS meetings as being physical therapists ("I'm sorry, I'm a physicist, not a physical therapist. So I can't twist your back into a pretzel").


Critical Casimir Effect

OK, so I didn't know that there's a thermodynamic analog of the Casimir effect, called the "critical Casimir effect". So this is definitely fascinating.

When two conducting plates are brought in close proximity to one another, vacuum fluctuations in the electromagnetic field between them create a pressure. This effective force, known as the Casimir effect, has a thermodynamic analog: the “critical Casimir effect.” In this case, thermal fluctuations of a local order parameter (such as density) near a continuous phase transition can attract or repel nearby objects when they are in confinement.

You can read more about it by getting the actual paper from the link given. I definitely will have to dig up the references in here to catch up on this.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Frisbee Birthday

It seems that yesterday (January 23) was the birthday of the Frisbee inventor, and also the "birthday" of the Frisbee.

Successful regional sales of the Pluto Platter soon caught the attention of the then new Wham-O, Inc., a maker of slingshots. After introduction, and a period of discussion and negotiation, Wham-O purchased the rights to the Pluto Platter on January 23, 1957, which happened to be Morrison's 37th birthday. 1957 was an interesting and fortuitous year for Wham-O: The Hula Hoop craze was catching fire, causing the company to temporarily divert materials and production effort to keeping up with the insatiable demand. But by the following year, the disc was back on track, and had been given the Frisbee name we all fondly recognize today.

The article also has a short history of the Frisbee.

To celebrate that occasion, even though I am a day late, here's a link to a nice treatment on the physics of Frisbees.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Colliding Particles Can Make Black Holes

Hooray! Black holes can be formed from colliding particles! Unfortunately, the energy scale is way out of range without invoking those curled up dimensions that we keep looking for.

Now Choptuik and Frans Pretorius of Princeton University have simulated such collisions, including all the extremely complex mathematical details from general relativity. For simplicity and to make the simulations generic, they modeled the two particles as hypothetical objects known as boson stars, which are similar to models that describe stars as spheres of fluid. Using hundreds of computers, Choptuik and Pretorius calculated the gravitational interactions between the colliding particles and found that a black hole does form if the two particles collide with a total energy of about one-third of the Planck energy, slightly lower than the energy predicted by hoop conjecture, as they report in a paper in press at Physical Review Letters.

Does that mean the LHC will make black holes? Not necessarily, Choptuik says. The Planck energy is a quintillion times higher than the LHC's maximum. So the only way the LHC might make black holes is if, instead of being three dimensional, space actually has more dimensions that are curled into little loops too small to be detected except in a high-energy particle collision. Predicted by certain theories, those extra dimensions might effectively lower the Planck energy by a huge factor. "I would be extremely surprised if there were a positive detection of black-hole formation at the accelerator," Choptuik says. Physicists say that such black hole would harmlessly decay into ordinary particles.

I'm guessing that this is the preprint of the paper in press.


Friday, January 22, 2010

50 Years of Laser

2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser.

By the mid-1950s, scientists had identified several excellent materials and had recognized that putting a mirror on each side of the laser medium would drastically increase the output, reflecting the photons back and forth, and producing more stimulus and more emissions on each transit. If one of the mirrors was partially transparent, a stream of photons would emerge from that end -- the now familiar laser beam. Finally in May 1960, Theodore Maiman, a physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories, constructed the first laser that emitted light in the visible range.

Of course, the the World Year of Physics, and World Year of Astronomy, there is a website that celebrates this anniversary for the laser:



Thursday, January 21, 2010

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

The latest Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 has been published (you can find the 2006 and 2008 indicators in this Blog's link). As usual, there's a wealth of information here. The one that I always tend to read first is the public attitudes and understanding of science and technology. This year, they have new survey questions included in the evaluation.

Very interesting...

Chris Mooney, in his blog related to this latest indicator, point to an important aspect of this study:

For instance, just 13 percent of the public now claims to follow science and technology news “very closely,” and this number has been on a downward trend for the past decade, ending with the current low. So while Americans may profess great admiration for science in the abstract, they hardly feel compelled to pay it much attention.

An overwhelming number of the public support science, but don't quite follow it. This shouldn't be surprising, and it certainly isn't to me. I wrote way back when about the need for scientists to be "Perky, Shallow, and Superficial" when explaining science to the public. And in it, I said this:

Now, what this means is that, while the public in general supports science, and scientific endeavors, they are doing it NOT because they are aware of what science is and what it does, but rather based on the PERCEIVED importance of science and technology. This is extremely important to keep in mind, because this implies that the support for science is built on an extremely shaky foundation. Such foundation can be easily eroded either via a mishap, or simply good "Public Relations" done by people against science.

As scientists, we cannot forget this, because it explains the fickleness in the support that we get. That overwhelming support that is there one day can easily go away the next day, and not because of some scientific evidence, but possibly because someone else has better bells and whistles.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quantum Algorithms for Algebraic Problems

A very extensive review of quantum algorithms, and more importantly, an exploration on what type of mathematical problems that can be more efficiently solved using computer computers versus classical computers[1].

Abstract: Quantum computers can execute algorithms that dramatically outperform classical computation. As the best-known example, Shor discovered an efficient quantum algorithm for factoring integers, whereas factoring appears to be difficult for classical computers. Understanding what other computational problems can be solved significantly faster using quantum algorithms is one of the major challenges in the theory of quantum computation, and such algorithms motivate the formidable task of building a large-scale quantum computer. This article reviews the current state of quantum algorithms, focusing on algorithms with superpolynomial speedup over classical computation and, in particular, on problems with an algebraic flavor.

The arXiv version can be found here.


[1] A.M. Childs and W. van Dam, Rev. Mod. Phys. v.82, p.1 (2010).

Win a Copy of The Physics of Superheroes

No, I'm not the one giving it away or running the contest, Wired is.

This is an interview with University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios, who wrote "The Physics of Superheroes". If you leave a comment, you get a chance to win a copy of the book.

He certainly does get interviewed a lot. There was a YouTube interview of recently.


Physicist Has A Way With A Wok

I know of a few physicists who happen to be avid cooks. I happen to be one of them, so we tend to chat with each other once we discover that we share the same passion. So I read this article with a bit of interest. It profiles a physicist who certainly, by all definition, an avid cook, even more than just an amateur chef. I'm just a bit amazed at the extent he would go to get all those exotic ingredients, which, strangely enough, I'm quite familiar with, even the "tempeh". I tend to stick to the wealth of Asian, Mexican, and Indian grocery stores that are plentiful here in the Chicago area.

I wrote a story on how I got into baking bread. I still do, but not as often anymore or as often as I would like.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Goos-Hänchen Shift With Neutrons

Looks like ISIS wasted no time in producing important results.

What was proposed by Newton a long time ago, and was verified with photons quite a while back, has now been seen with "matter waves". What is now called the Goos-Hänchen shift has now been observed in the reflection of neutron beams at the ISIS facility[1].

You can read a review of this paper at the PhysicsWorld website.

Newton predicted in the 17th century that a beam of light reflected at a glass-vacuum surface should undergo a minuscule lateral shift. He was arguing that wavefronts, having reached the vacuum, should "slide" a short distance along the interface before re-emerging and reflecting back into the glass. Given the tiny scale of this effect, however, it was not until 1947 that it was first observed experimentally by the physicists F Goos and H Hänchen at the State Physical Institute in Hamburg, Germany.

Case closed? Well not quite because, as all physicists are taught in high school, the distinction between waves and particles is not as clear-cut as common sense might suggest. Due to the quantized nature of energy, light can sometimes behave as if it were composed of particles, and particles can behave as if they were waves. Now, a group of researchers led by Rob Dalgliesh and Sean Langridge at the ISIS facility and Victor de Haan from the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) have finally completed the picture by demonstrating the so-called Goos-Hänchen effect with neutrons.


[1] V.-O. de Haan et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. v.104, p.010401 (2010).

Overview of CLIC

While the International Linear Collider (ILC) has been getting more of the publicity as the next possible e-p collider to follow the LHC, it is not the only game in town that has a realistic technology and the physics to produce TeV scale e-p collider. The Compact Linear Collider (CLIC) at CERN is also a serious contender to be the next accelerator technology for such a collider.

There is an excellent review of the technique published in the latest issue of PRST-AB[1]. Note that this journal is open access. It means that you can access the article for free.

With the ILC currently on its deathbed, CLIC may emerge as the leading contender.


[1] R. Tomas Phys. Rev. ST Accel. Beams v.13, p.014801 (2010)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Newton and the Apple

It appears that the Royal Society has released documents regarding the fabled counter between Newton and the apple. I didn't put that statement in a more definite form because I have not been able yet to get to the Royal Society webpage that contains the scanned document. Either their webpage has been overwhelmed by all the publicity, or they have a server that sucks.

In any case, the conclusion seems to be consistent with the one I reported earlier of an account by William Stukeley.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Lake Views" by Steven Weinberg

This is a review of Steven Weinberg's latest collection of essay compiled in a book titled "Lake Views". Obviously, this will be another book that I will buy (enjoy the royalty money, Steven!) :)

Some of the essays might come off as too abstract for readers who don't particularly care about a given topic; in particular, a lengthy review of mathematics expert Stephen Wolfram's 2002 book, A New Kind of Science, requires a deep and abiding interest in cellular automata. (For the rest of us, that's a kind of modeling that studies how individual cells evolve through time depending on what the cells next to them are doing.)

In other pieces, though, Weinberg can, within several eloquent pages, distill the essence of why science is important. His 2003 commencement speech at Montreal's McGill University points out that while it isn't so important to know who was prime minister of Canada a century earlier, in 1903 Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy were at McGill figuring out how radioactivity worked – research that has profoundly shaped our knowledge of the natural world, including explaining why the Earth's core remains hot after billions of years.

Interestingly enough, I found a short interview with him that, without reading the book, somehow possibly revealing the origin of the title of the book.

Give us a glimpse into your writing routine. I do all my research and writing at home. If you see me on the UT campus, it’s because I’m giving a class or meeting with colleagues or students. But even when I’m at my desk at home, I often just spin my wheels, so I need something to keep me sitting there. My desk looks over Lake Austin, and I have a television set that I keep on while I’m working. Between watching old movies and enjoying the view of the lake, I generally manage to stay at my desk until I think of something worth doing.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Self-Assembling Magnetic "Snakes"

For some odd reason, when I saw this video, I broke up into a hysterical laughter! :) It is probably because there's something that looks like a shaggy-looking man swimming next to a bunch of tadpoles! :)

This is the description given to accompany the video:

Nickel particles float peacefully in a liquid medium until a giant snake seems to swim by and snatch several particles up, adding to its own mass. The self-assembled "snakes" act like biological systems, but they are not alive and are driven by a magnetic field. The research may someday offer some insight into the organization of life itself.


Anyway, see for yourself!

A review of this research work done at Argonne can be found at the Wired website.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Making A Supersonic Jet In Your Home

As always, I'm a sucker for articles like this. While it may not have earth-shattering ramifications, I always love reading curious but common phenomenon like this that produced something that is highly unexpected.

The paper shows that when you drop, say, a marble, into a liquid, what happens next can actually produce a supersonic jet of air! A review of this work can be found here, and you can also get access to the actual paper in the link.

In the kitchen version of the experiment, the marble creates a crown-shaped splash and crater as it falls into the liquid. The crater deepens to the point at which the walls start to contract. This is due to both the weight of the water outside and possibly surface tension, both of which create pressure gradients that force the collapse. Air inside this collapsing neck must escape upward or downward as the neck approaches pinch-off. It is in this escaping air that Gekle et al. found supersonic velocities—the first jet in this simple experiment.

A video of this also accompanies the review article.

I often wonder if the fun and fascinating tidbits of apparently "mundane" things like this is the reason why I got into physics in the first place. I know many people cite trying to understand the universe, or wanting to find the meaning of life, etc... etc. as the reason they study physics. I often find that I don't have such grand ambition. Instead, I find delightful pleasure in figuring out if quantum effects causes a pencil balanced on its tip to fall over, or if warm water freezes faster than cold water! Maybe I have a small mind....


Thursday, January 14, 2010

LBNE at Fermilab Gets CD-0 Approval

Symmetry Breaking has a nice report on the recent Critical Decision 0 approval from Dept. of Energy for the design of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment at Fermilab. This one looks huge.

LBNE will use the Main Injector accelerator at Fermilab to produce protons that collide with a fixed target to generate a beam of muon neutrinos. This neutrino beam will strike a small detector on the Fermilab site and then travel more than 620 miles to strike an underground detector more than 10 times the size of the largest LHC detector.

With NOvA about to kick off, Fermilab will be very busy producing a lot of neutrinos in the near future.

Now I'm just waiting for some crackpots to start suing them because they're objecting to neutrinos being sent through them or under their houses.


The Life And Times Of Ettore Majorana

A very good article in PhysicsCentral Blog giving a brief description, and the quirkiness, of Ettore Majorana. One can only imagine how things would be very different in physics right now had he not disappeared.

I've mentioned before another article that described in greater detail his contribution to physics. Even through his troubled, and relatively short life, he has left a lasting legacy in physics.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Race To Detect Gravity Waves

.. and you think the only race we have is the one between the Tevatron and the LHC to find the Higgs!

Nature News has a very fascinating race between different group to be the first to detect gravitational waves {Link open for free only for a limited time). The race is between those using orbiting detectors such as the Fermi telescope, versus the interferometry-based ground detectors such as LIGO.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is identifying the locations of dozens of these galactic clocks, allowing radio astronomers to follow up and monitor them. Researchers can deduce whether a passing gravitational wave has jostled Earth by watching for slight variations in the arrival time of pulsar radio-wave bursts — just fractions of a second over the course of years. If these efforts succeed, researchers will have a new tool for exploring the cosmic cataclysms — colliding black holes, for example — that are thought to generate gravitational waves (see graphic).

The shoestring effort, involving groups in Australia, Europe and North America, could beat larger and better-funded groups that use laser interferometry to try to detect gravitational waves by their tiny effects on the movements of test masses. "People are finally taking notice," says Scott Ransom, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, who last week announced the discovery of 17 millisecond pulsars at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC.

More info on LIGO can be found here.

As someone not involved in this race, I supposed I don't care all that much who detects what first. All I care about is the detection itself.


Tipping Time of a Quantum Pencil

I ran across this article in Eur. J. of Phys. and it reminded me of several other articles that I've read on this very topic. This is, of course, a rather familiar problem to many physics students. It involves the a pencil balanced vertically on its tip. So classically, it is in an unstable equilibrium. The problem is to use quantum mechanics, or the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle in particular, to find the tipping time for the pencil. The application of the HUP invokes the fact that the exact position of the top of the pencil can have a natural fluctuation that will tip it off the vertical axis.

The latest paper that I'm aware of on this topic deals with a very detailed calculation of calculating the tipping time of a quantum rod[1]. In this calculation, the author showed that the classical problem can be recovered when the Planck constant goes to zero, and draws the conclusion that:

.. the tipping of the quantum rod can be understood as having been triggered by the uncertainty in angular momentum engendered by localization of the initial state...

The article is a bit difficult to follow, and I didn't get any direct value of the tipping time.

The more interesting papers that I've found earlier on the same topic are much more illuminating than this one. A paper by Don Easton presents a caution for people who tries to apply QM as the basis of the tipping time[2]. His calculation of the tipping time, using QM, gives a humongous number: 0.6 million years. He examined why some posted solutions actually gave a balancing time of the order of 3 seconds, and why those treatment may be faulty.

Another paper that cautioned the use of the HUP in calculating the tipping time is a paper by Shegelski et al.[3] Here, they caution that one can't just use the HUP alone, and they also compared this to the faulty application of the WKB approximation to this problem.

Fascinating! Certainly something that I read in bed before going to sleep! :)


[1] O. Parrikar, Eur. J. Phys. v.31, p.317 (2010). You can also get a free copy of the paper within the first 30 days of online publication at this link.
[2] D. Easton, Eur. J. Phys. v.28, p.1097 (2007).
[3] M.r.A. Shegelski et al., Am. J. Phys. v.73, p.686 (2005).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sterioid Use in Baseball

The recent admission of steroid use by Mark McGwire brings another black chapter in baseball. This news report cited a paper by Roger Tobin, which I mentioned already a while back. The AJP paper[1] examines the correlation between increase in batted speed (presumably due to increase in muscle mass) and the ability to hit long balls.

Note also that statistical evidence has also been used to show that there's a likelihood of the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.


[1] R. Tobin, Am. J. Phys. v.76, p. 15 (2008).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Carbon Nanotubes as Cooper-Pair Beam Splitters

An amazing experimental feat. This experiment is along the lines of previous experiments that tries to split a Cooper pair into its entangled individuals.

Now, a new experiment by L. G. Herrmann in France, working with colleagues in France, Spain, and Germany, published in Physical Review Letters [1] demonstrates that electrons entangled in a superconducting Cooper pair can be spatially separated into different arms of a carbon nanotube, a material thought favorable for the efficient injection and transport of split, entangled pairs. This work may help pave the way for tests of nonlocal effects in solid-state systems, as well as applications such as quantum teleportation and ultrasecure communication.

If they can be separated at large enough distances to remove the locality loophole, then this would be the source of the first no-loophole EPR-type experiment.


Pulsar Bursts Move 'Faster Than Light'

More fascinating results from the world of astronomy. What was seen in the NEC experiment from many years ago of the apparent superluminal group velocity in an anomalous dispersive medium has apparently being seen in radio pulses from a distant pulsar.

Jenet's group thinks that anomalous dispersion should be added to this list. Using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, they took radio data of the pulsar PSR B1937+21 at 1420.4 MHz with a 1.5 MHz bandwidth for three days. Oddly, those pulses close to the centre value arrived earlier than would be expected given the pulsar's normal timing, and therefore appeared to have travelled faster than the speed of light.

The cause of the anomalous dispersion for these pulses, according to the Brownsville astrophysicists, is the resonance of neutral hydrogen, which lies at 1420.4 MHz. But like anomalous dispersion seen in the lab, the pulsar's superluminal pulses do not violate causality or relativity because, technically, no information is carried in the pulse. Still, Jenet and colleagues believe that the phenomenon could be used to pick out the properties of clouds of neutral hydrogen in our galaxy.

When the NEC's anomalous dispersion paper came out, the crackpots were falling over each other out of the woodwork proclaiming that Relativity has been "proven" to be wrong, without even bothering to understand the paper and why such claim was utterly silly. I'm just dreading to think what this new paper will cause.


The Year in Science 2009

This discussion, aired on Minnesota Public Radio, was held between Chris Mooney and Lawrence Krauss.

Chris said that he and Krauss may have differed, at most, by 5%. :)


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Graham Farmelo Revising Dirac's Biography?

This is just a short article on Graham Farmelo and his quest to finish his award-winning biography of P.A.M. Dirac. What caught my eye was what was written at the end of the article:

And the late scientist is still springing new surprises on his biographer: "Genius is posthumous productivity. Last summer I found out that he had anticipated arguably the greatest discovery in theoretical physics of the 1990s so I had to redo that part of the book." Which means he's stuck with Dirac for the rest of his life? "Suits me," Farmelo says.

So I had to think back a little bit harder on what could this "... greatest discovery in theoretical physics of the 1990s... " could be? The only thing I can come up with is the discovery of "magnetic monopoles" in spin ice this past summer. I've covered this previously in this blog, and this blog entries.

Other than that, off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that would be significant enough for Farmelo to make such addition to what is essentially a very new book. Can anyone come up with an idea?


Saturday, January 09, 2010

Finding 'Beautiful' Symmetry Near Absolute Zero

This is a fairly good article on the recently discovered symmetry in a cobalt niobate compound. The article is rather lightweight on the actual work, and has more to do with explaining symmetry in a condensed matter system.

The actual work was published in Science this week[1].

Edit: You may read a review of this work at the PhysicsWorld website as well.


[1] R. Coldea et al., Science v.327, p. 177 (2010).

Hunting Oscillation of Muon to Electron?

I'm probably nitpicking here, but the title of this report can cause severe confusion especially to those who are not knowledgeable in this field (meaning, almost everyone reading it).

This is a brief report on the NOvA project that is going along at full speed, thanks in large part due to the recent stimulus bill. There's nothing wrong with the article at all. However, I wish they edit the title a bit. It says:

"Hunting Oscillation of Muon to Electron: Neutrino Data to Flow in 2010; NOvA Scientists Tune Design"

Anyone who doesn't know any better would think that a muon can "oscillate" into an electron, and it can change "sex". This is certainly not the case, or at least, not what NOvA is trying to find. It is the oscillation between the muon NEUTRINO and the electron NEUTRINO that they are trying to look for and pin down more accurately (we already have evidence of neutrino oscillations from several previous experiments).

When writing an article for the public, such seemingly minor confusing point can become a major factor.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Feynman and the Futurists

For once, I really don't know what to make of this. So I'm going to just throw it out there and let you people decide for yourself.

This article is citing a little-known after dinner lecture that was given by Richard Feynman before he won the Nobel Prize and because well-known. It somehow connects it to our current "craze" in nanotechnology, albeit the side that is a little bit more dubious than the current mainstream research line.

The most prominent scientists involved in this mainstream version of nanotechnology have admitted that Feynman's "Plenty of Room" talk had no influence on their work. Christopher Toumey, a University of South Carolina cultural anthropologist, interviewed several of nanotech's biggest names, including Nobel laureates; they uniformly told him that Feynman's lecture had no bearing on their research, and several said they had never even read it.

But there is another kind of nanotechnology, one associated with much more hype. First described in the 1980s by K. Eric Drexler, this vision involves building things "from the bottom up" through molecular manufacturing. It was Mr. Drexler who first brought the term "nanotechnology" to a wide audience, most prominently with his 1986 book "Engines of Creation." And it is Mr. Drexler's interpretation that has captured the public imagination, as witness the novels, movies and video games that name-drop nanotechnology with the same casual hopefulness that the comic books of the 1960s mentioned the mysteries of radiation.

I'm almost tempted to argue that this could be an example of not a "bastardization of science", but rather a "bastardization of a speech". There's also something close to a "hero worship" going on here, especially by those outside of this field of study. I think that for most physicist (and I'm probably talking mainly about myself), we definitely respect the WORK of many of the great physicists that have blazed a trail for us to follow. But we don't worship them, or give them god complex, because many of us have actually interacted with them and see them as not just ordinary people, but people with their own faults and point of view that we may not share. In other words, their "words" are not gospel!

I've "discussed" with many crackpots in which they try to argue physics using a series of quotes from this physicist and that physicist, without barely understanding the physics itself. This made it seem as if these "words" are the final words of god and therefore, must be correct, which is of course, utterly silly. And I can't help but think that this is what is going on based on what I've read in this article.

Hoping to dissociate their nanotechnology work from dystopian scenarios and fringe futurists, some prominent mainstream researchers have taken to belittling Mr. Drexler and his theories. And that is where Feynman re-enters the story: Mr. Drexler regularly invokes the 1959 lecture, which broadly corresponds with his own thinking. As he told Mr. Regis, the science writer: "It's kind of useful to have a Richard Feynman to point to as someone who stated some of the core conclusions. You can say to skeptics, 'Hey, argue with him!'" It is thanks to Mr. Drexler that we remember Feynman's lecture as crucial to nanotechnology, since Mr. Drexler has long used Feynman's reputation as a shield for his own.

Ignoring the possibility that Feynman could be wrong, it is difficult to argue when someone not only deflects a criticism by redirecting it to someone else, but that someone else is also dead! We can also argue that maybe there are other ways to interpret what Feynman said - when was the last time there is one single, non-ambiguous interpretation of a statement, much less, a whole speech?


Thursday, January 07, 2010

An Accelerometer Based Instrumentation of the Golf Club

Unlike most other reports on the physics of golf, this one goes into a more detailed analysis and modeling for a particular aspect of golf. - the golf club and the mechanics of the golf swing. A couple of papers by the same author appeared on ArXiv this morning that study these things using accelerometers, and I found them to be quite a fascinating read.

An Accelerometer Based Instrumentation of the Golf Club: Measurement and Signal Analysis

An Accelerometer Based Instrumentation of the Golf Club: Comparative Analysis of Golf Swings

I found out that the maximum speed of the golf club head approaches the high 80 miles per hour. That's a substantial whack onto the ball. It would be interesting to see what the speed is for top pro golfers - I hear that Tiger Woods isn't doing much these days. Maybe he could be available for any follow-up studies. :)

Edit 01/08/2010: This author is producing preprints like a factory now. This morning, on the 2nd day in a row, another preprint related to golf appears on ArXiv:

Measuring Tempo, Rhythm, Timing, and the Torques that Generate Power in the Golf Swing


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Earliest Photos of Universe as a Toddler

Awww..... what cute little baby galaxies!


Rethinking Science Education

Are we losing students who intended to go into science and engineering by the way we present a science curriculum in college? Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University thinks so.

Some of Tilghman's talk to college presidents concerned the dismal state of science education in the United States, from elementary and secondary education through higher education. She recited various statistics and called for the creation of more courses that engage science students in "big questions" early in their careers. Too many college students are introduced to science through survey courses that consist of facts "often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems." Only science students with "the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job" will reach the point where they can engage in the kind of science that excited them in the first place, she said.

I think it is easy to see what's wrong, but it is more difficult to know what to do correctly. I've brought up TONS of examples of various educational philosophy and techniques/technology already being employed, all in the name of improving science/physics education for students at various level. At some point, there will be too many of these and not enough people studying which one is the most effective.

I still stand by my assertion that a students interest and engagements in a class depends predominantly on the instructor. A motivated and interesting instructor will be more effective in not only conveying the material, but also in generating interest in the subject matter than any technique/gadget/technology out there.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Quantum Criticality and Novel Phases: A Panel Discussion

For those of us who couldn't be at the panel discussion in Dresden this past August, this report is the next best thing. Piers Coleman of Rutgers has compiled the panel discussion on the very topic of the conference.

Abstract: Physicists gathered in august at Dresden for a conference about "Quantum Criticality and Novel Phases". As one part of the meeting, nine panelists hosted an open and free-wheeling discussion on the topic of the meeting. This article outlines the discussions that took place during at this panel-meeting on the afternoon of August 3rd, 2009.

It actually is quite entertaining to read, and the grouping by topics is actually quite useful and easier to follow. One can get an insight on why understanding the quantum criticality and phase transition is such an important aspect of condensed matter.


What the LHC Could Reveal

This is a terrific opinion article in the LA Times written by Steve Giddings regarding what one can expect out of the LHC. Note that the LHC wasn't built JUST to look for one thing. No one in their right mind would build something THAT expensive just to look for the Higgs. That would be absurd. There are other equally, if not more, fascinating searches that will be conducted.

It is worthwhile to note his point at the end in terms of the cost of building such a thing:

All this may seem like impractical and esoteric knowledge. But modern society would be unrecognizable without discoveries in fundamental physics. Radio and TV, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, PCs, iPhones, the GPS system, the Web and beyond -- much that we take for granted would not exist without this type of physics research and was not predicted when the first discoveries were made. Likewise, we cannot predict what future discoveries will lead to, whether new energy sources, means of space travel or communication, or amazing things entirely unimagined.

The cost of this research may appear high -- about $10 billion for the LHC -- but it amounts to less than a ten-thousandth of the gross domestic product of the U.S. or Europe over the approximately 10 years it has taken to build the collider. This is a tiny investment when one accounts for the continuing value of such research to society.

But beyond practical considerations, we should ponder what the value of the LHC could be to the human race. If it performs as anticipated, it will be the cutting edge for years to come in a quest that dates to the ancient Greeks and beyond -- to understand what our world is made of, how it came to be and what will become of it. This grand odyssey gives us a chance to rise above the mundane aspects of our lives, and our differences, conflicts and crises, and try to understand where we, as a species, fit in a wondrous universe that seems beyond comprehension, yet is remarkably comprehensible.

Can't say it any better. Research in fundamental knowledge has yielded not only advancement in our understanding of the world we live in, but also enhanced the economies of many countries and societies that invested in it. And this is all done at such a puny amount of money when compared to the benefits, both directly and indirectly. The amount of money that was given out during the financial institution bailouts last year alone could have sustained full-throttled physics research in the US for decades.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

George Smoot Is Smarter (And A Whole Lot More Fascinating) Than A 5th Grader

This is a very interesting "mini biography" of the life of Nobel Laureate George Smoot. It of course came with a lot of references to his participation in the TV Game Show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader", which he clearly established that he is.

Brushing aside objections from his Lawrence Berkeley lab colleagues, who argued it would not portray the world's premiere research lab in the right light, he decided to appear in September on the Fox TV game show, "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

He appeared earlier in the year on the CBS sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," playing himself as the keynote speaker at a conference attended by the main characters, ultra nerdy scientists. He said he agreed to go on the show because he likes that the scientists are portrayed as heroes.

But "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" was different.

"It was kind of like rebelling," Smoot said. "It was risky because there was a big chance you wouldn't answer everything correctly. You are supposed to be this example to new generations, and to have to say you are not smarter than a fifth-grader would be embarrassing."

It certainly was a huge risk, because these shows don't actually test how "smart" you are, but whether you can remember or memorize disjointed facts and information. He had everything to lose, and not much of anything to gain. I think for those of us in this field, it was more of a sigh of relief that he performed brilliantly on that show.

This article conveys many aspect of Smoot that I'm sure many of us don't know about. So it gives an insight and further depths into this fascinating person.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Storing Light For 1.5 Seconds

Lene Hau and her group at Harvard has done it again! After demonstrating the ability to "stop light" several years ago, they now have shown that they can store that light for longer than milliseconds - this time, up to 1.5 seconds, which is LONG at the time scale that we are typically used to when dealing with light. You can also read more about this work here.

Now, one has to realize that we can "stop light" very trivially. Shine your flashlight onto a black surface, and voila! You've stopped light. However, what is done here isn't that. Stopping light, in this case, means that the light's energy AND PHASE, are somehow captured temporarily, and then it is then retransmitted later on. This can't be done when you stop light with a piece of paper, let's say, because you can't 'replay' what you had captured - most of the energy is lost in the vibrational energy of the stopping material. So that's why this "stopping light" experiment is different and not easy, and such a big deal. The ability to store and then replay exactly what came in is what makes it such an amazing feat.

Edit: This paper is available, "free-to-read" at the PRL website.


Friday, January 01, 2010

The Shock and Awe of Creation

This is actually quite an educational and thought-provoking piece on the reconciliation between evolutionary biology and "God", or at least, the philosophy of god. The most important aspect of the argument can be summarized here:

There are, of course, many people, among them prominent scientists, who have claimed and continue to claim that the scientific notions of evolution do indeed necessarily imply such a materialistic philosophy. Richard Dawkins is among the most vocal proponents of such a philosophy, arguing that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist". This strident atheism does not, however, help their scientific work in any way, and on the contrary, is the source of so much of the controversy that rages over it.

It is a fundamental mistake, however, to accept their bundling of the three scientific evolutionary ideas with what I have termed evolutionism. Rather, a more sophisticated response would be to show that the three scientific notions in any form are compatible with theistic philosophy.

In many cases, however, the reaction of religious believers to the materialistic claims of evolutionism is not to simply reject the assertion that evolutionism necessarily follows from scientific ideas. Rather, they tacitly or unconsciously accept the bundling of evolutionism with the science, and then see no option but to attack a part or all of the scientific ideas of evolution as a way of cutting the support for the philosophical claims of evolutionism.

In doing so, however, they find themselves in the awkward situation of attacking a solidly established science, ultimately motivated not by objections to the science per se, but by the illicit bundling of evolutionism with the science.

The author tries to distinguish between evolutionary biology, which is an accepted fact, versus "evolutionism", which often are bundled together with evolutionary theory by people like Richard Dawkins and, strangely enough, rabid creationists and ID proponents. So both of the extreme camps in this debate are actually doing the identical thing, and therefore, are the ones lobbing the loudest attacks and counterattacks at each other, with the rest of us caught in the middle.

It is a good article for one to read since it tries to clearly address various major issues in not only evolution, but also the various seemingly-contradictory aspect of evolution and theistic philosophy.