Monday, February 28, 2011

Science Drives Economic Growth

In chatting with a lot of people, I'm always surprised to hear that a lot of people simply do not realize how advancement in science is responsible for creating jobs and spur economic growth, at least within the last 50 years or so. I tend to guess that a lot of politicians, especially those who think that cutting back on science funding, might have the same ignorance as well. They do not realize that the iPhone and other electronics that they are using came out of innovations in science that not only created jobs, but also gave them the conveniences that they are taking for granted.

This article, which first appeared in 2005 to commemorate the World Year of Physics, clearly outlined the importance of physics in terms of economic growth.

This link is probably a seminar presentation, but pay attention to viewgraph on page 21. Look at how puny the funding for physical sciences is when compared to, say, the Life Sciences. And of course, compare funding for ALL of science when compared to other entitlements such as the military, etc. Yet, not only is this small sector responsible as the origin of a lot of the economic growth, it is also now a target for a horribly devastating budget cut! You're cutting your nose to spite your face!

There are many actions that simply do not make any sense, even after they have been explained to me. This is one such example. You have something that has been generally regarded as driving a significant portion of your economy, even if it has been poorly funded all this time. So what do you do? You cut it down under the guise of reducing your budget. Yet, you leave the most significant portion of your "expenses" untouched, or even give it an increase!


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Want Tender Asparagus? Use Physics!

So, being a foodie and also being a cook as a hobby, I already know about this, mainly because I watch a lot of cooking shows on TV.

Here's a cooking tip for asparagus. To know that you're getting only the tender part of the asparagus, apply physics by determining the "bending moment" (?) of the asparagus. How does one do that?

The first thing to remember about asparagus is that it is actually a tender shoot that was in the active and rapid process of turning itself into a woody stem before it was picked. The bottom part was already well on the way through the process, while the top part was still actively growing and is quite tender. From a materials perspective, those two parts have drastically different properties. The woody part is tough and resistant to breaking. It has the ability to bend a little without snapping, but is stiff enough to resist the bending. The tender, upper part is brittle and snaps easily. Most importantly, the tough part is able to withstand shear forces while the upper part cannot.
The only trick is to apply your forces correctly so that the maximum shear stress appears at the woody end of the asparagus and the minimum shear stress appears at the tender end. If you do it the wrong way, you’ll just break off the tip. So grip the tip in one hand, about an inch from the end. With your other hand grip the other end of the asparagus as close to the cut as you can. Hold the tip steady in one hand and bend the cut end, making sure that the axis of rotation is between your index finger and thumb. The asparagus will snap right at the junction between tender and woody.

Physics, and food. What could be a better combination? Well.... maybe physics and Disney, but that's another blog! :)


Friday, February 25, 2011

Metaphor At Your Own Risk

This is a very fascinating review of a paper[1]. It discusses the subtle effect of people's understanding and perception of something that has been presented using metaphors {link open for free only for a limited time}.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this study is that the participants were unaware of the how the metaphorical context affected their reasoning. Instead of acknowledging the image's effect, they found ways to rationalize their decisions on the basis of seemingly objective information such as statistics. "Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes," say Thibodeau and Boroditsky, "metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues."

To have this demonstrated and quantified is valuable — not least because it underlines something that politicians and their advisers have never doubted. If there is a spin doctor or speechwriter who does not already recognize that metaphors sway opinion, it is a mystery how they ever got the job.

In other words, people can certainly be swayed by STYLE rather than substance (sounds familiar?). How you present your statement, and how you metaphorically describe something, can have a profound influence on how it is perceived by the listener. As stated, this is quite well-known in politics and how some people who barely have anything to say can get away with it (and can get elected to, I presumed).

The examples given in this article focused predominantly on biology. The scary thing is that many of these metaphors tend to stick or become dogmas.

Books of life, junk DNA, DNA barcodes: all these images can and have distorted the picture, not least because scientists themselves sometimes forget that they are metaphors. And when the science moves on — when we discover that the genome is nothing like a book or blueprint — the metaphors tend, nonetheless, to stick. The more vivid the image, the more dangerously seductive and resistant to change it is.

Thibodeau and Boroditsky give us new cause to be wary, for they show how unconsciously metaphors colour our reasoning. This seems likely to be as true in science — especially a science as emotive as genetics — as it is in social and political discourse.

I would think that in physics, we do have plenty of such metaphors. Dark energy, dark matter, the god particles, etc. are some of the examples that popped into my head at this moment. These names carry a lot of connotations to the general public who have no clue on the physics. Thus, the names themselves are the descriptive that stick to them and what they understand these things to be. There are reasons to be concerned about this, as stated at the end of this article.

But the need for metaphor in science stands at risk of becoming dogma. Maybe we are too eager to find a neat metaphor rather than just explain what is going on as clearly and honestly as we can. We might want to recognize that some scientific concepts are "a reality beyond metaphor", as Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has said of DNA3. At the very least, metaphor should be admitted into science only after strict examination. We ought to heed the warning of pioneering cyberneticists Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener that "the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance".

This is another example on why the Helen Quinn's piece on a plea for the language that we use is so important for scientists to read.


[1] P.H. Thibodeau, P. H. and L. Boroditsky, PLoS ONE 6, e16782 (2011).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Optical Tweezer Software For The iPad

The iPad has found its way into serious science research. This video shows a software design for an optical tweezer that runs on an iPad that allows a lot more flexibility than using a mouse or joystick.


Quantum Criticality

A very useful resource article on quantum criticality. A shortened version of this, according to the authors, appeared in Physics Today.


Bill Nye the Science Guy At Epcot

I guess this video is suitable for the very young, which might be slightly outside the realm of what I try to cover in this blog, but what they hey.... They are never too young to realize this path, or discover this blog!

This is Bill Nye, The Science Guy, giving a presentation at Epcot theme park, Walt Disney World. It's from a hand-held video, and the audio isn't terrific. But it is still educational.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Pumps Remain Alive At Homestake Mine

NSF and DOE have come to some agreement with regards to keeping the pumps running at Homestake Mine, the proposed site for DUSEL.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have agreed to pay for pumping water out of the Homestake Mine near Lead so that it does not flood. That accord should preserve the site while the two agencies wrangle over how to transfer primary responsibility for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) from NSF to DOE. The real question is which, if any, part of the original $875 million multifaceted design will survive.

That is certainly the question on the future of DUSEL, especially now considering the enormous cuts being proposed to DOE's Office of Science budget. So having the DOE taking over the funding and running of this lab now could not happen at a worse time.


Beware of the Pseudogap

This is a terrific article on the puzzling pseudogap that has been observed in cuprate superconductors. It reviews a paper that claim to observe the signature of two different types of pseudogaps in the normal state.

A pseudogap is the pairing of electrons in the normal state of the material but without the long-range coherence that one gets when these pairs condense to form superconductivity. The question has always been whether these pairs are "pre-form" pairs (i.e. the pairs that will eventually condenses to form the superconducting fluid), or are these competing pairs, where these don't actually condenses, but rather, took electrons away from forming the condensate. Knowing which is which is crucial not only to know if something is a red-herring or not, but also in deciphering the correct mechanism that does cause the pairing that leads to superconductivity.

The new work reviewed in this article showed that these two types of pairing do occur and can be separated out[1].

One difficulty in the cuprates has been the determination of the temperature where the pseudogap opens. If it is due to spontaneous symmetry breaking, it should open at a well-defined critical temperature. If, on the other hand, it is caused by a fluctuation of the superconducting order (similar to a finite fraction of uncondensed Cooper-pairs above Tc), one may expect that increasing the temperature erodes the pairing-amplitude in a rather gradual manner. Kondo et al. report the observation of both phenomena in a single experiment: A pseudogap opens upon cooling below a relatively high temperature, which could be the consequence of a spontaneous symmetry breaking. The experiments do not reveal which symmetry is broken. When the temperature is decreased further, a temperature is reached where N(EF) starts to diminish more rapidly. The authors take this as an indication that a second (pairing) gap begins to open on top of the pseudogap already present. The work of Kondo et al is unique, in that these two temperature scales are revealed in a single experiment.

This result might help in deciphering and interpreting all previous experiments, and for future experiments to pay close attention to which pseudogap/paring that is being measured.

See a previous report on this same issue reported earlier.


[1] Kondo, T. et al., Nature Physics v.7, p.21 (2011).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jlab's Laser Breaks Power Record

We have news reports that the newly installed FEL system at Jefferson lab has broken its own record for laser power.

However, the news report may have a slight typo in describing the power that was reached:

Researchers at the Department of Energy's nuclear physics laboratory on Friday injected a record-breaking 500 kilovolts of power into the laser's accelerator. The previous limit set by Jefferson Lab researchers had been 320 kilowatts.

They may have meant 500 kilowatts of power. Kilovolts is potential difference, and it is also not kosher to compare kilovolts with kilowatts.

In any case, this is quite a significant increase! One would hope that the US Navy knows where to point one of these things if they ever build it on their ships.

BTW, in case people don't realize it, a free-electron laser (FEL) is an ACCELERATOR facility (i.e. it is not an optical/solid state light source). I'm simply highlighting another application/use of accelerator physics.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Could The Tevatron Be Shut Down Even Earlier Than Planned?

We all know that the DOE has decided not to continue the running of the Tevatron beyond FY2011. It turns out that with the proposed House of Representatives budget, the severe budget cuts being proposed for DOE's Office of Science would curtail a lot of the operations at all US National Laboratory, including Fermilab. This could adversely affect the running of the Tevatron and could possibly shut it down even sooner.

Now things are looking even bleaker for Fermilab and the Tevatron. The Fermilab Neighborhood blog reports that lab director Pier Oddone said at an all-hands meeting February 15 that budget cuts proposed in the House of Representatives would force a number of drastic measures at Fermilab. Among them: an immediate shutdown of all accelerators, two-month staff furloughs, and probable layoffs of some 400 employees.

Things just go from bad to worse.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Celebrating Marie Curie

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. So I found this neat little factoids about this amazing scientist.

* Her name at birth was Maria Sklodowska.
* When studying X-rays was the cool thing to do, Curie turned her attention to Becquerel rays, which are emitted from uranium.
* Curie's quest to find other elements that would emit these rays led her to discover the element polonium.
* Polonium was named after Marie Curie's birth country of Poland.
* Curie published a paper about the discovery of polonium, even though she wouldn't have been able to measure its atomic weight with the materials she had.
* She discovered radium in 1898.
* Her husband, Pierre Curie, refused to accept the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 unless Marie could be included - and then she was.
* The Curies could not attend the Nobel ceremony in 1903 because of poor health; they had been working in a laboratory with deplorable conditions.
* Marie Curie replaced her husband as professor of physics at the Sorbonne in 1906, after he was killed by a horse-drawn wagon.
* In 1911, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the first person to win a Nobel Prize in two categories.

So I didn't know that the Nobel committee actually did consider NOT giving her the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, based on her husband's insistence that she'd be included.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Scientists Searching For God?!

This is a rather "harmless" and benign article. I'm guessing it is an opinion piece of what we call "God of the Gaps".

Throughout history things that people could not understand were attributed to God. One by one this "God of the Gaps" eroded as science explained phenomena in the context of natural laws.

The laws of nature are, at the most fundamental level, subsets of the laws of physics.

Sir Isaac Newton published the first laws of physics in the late 17th century. His mathematical description of the motion of planets destroyed part of the church doctrine that included the dual universes of Aristotle and the geocentric paradigm of Ptolemy that had existed for nearly two millennia.

Not a whole lot of things to pick on (maybe I'm feeling a bit mellow this morning). But towards the end, there's a rather strange statement.

Today a group of scientists are undertaking a controversial search for God in the twisted logic of quantum mechanics.

I don't think this is true, even in light of Hawking's recent book. To be able to do research on anything, the premise must first be clearly defined. In other words, something must, first of all, be falsifiable for there to be a scientific endeavor on it. Can that criteria be applied to "god"? Considering also that there's so many different versions of that god, and the various "characteristics" of these gods, I don't think that can tackle such a thing.

Still, it is true that science will continue to address the gaps in our knowledge. After all, that is what science does best, and that is what scientists have been hired to do. And if by doing that, we are indirectly searching for the "god of the gaps" (or more like falsifying the god IN the gap), then so be it.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Catching A Lightning

This is a fascinating interview with physicist Joseph Dwyer, who studies lightning. It's a wonderful interview because you also learn a bit of the physics of lightning, and why it isn't identical to the spark one gets due to static electricity.

But isn't it just an electrical discharge between thunderclouds and the ground?
In a sense, but the big problem is that to get a spark, air needs to break down. It needs to stop being an insulator and start being a conductor. We commonly experience this if you touch a doorknob and you get a spark between your finger and the doorknob. What happens is the charges get concentrated into your fingertip and you get a big electric field. Then, as your finger approaches, the conventional breakdown field is reached, which is about 3 million volts per metre – and then air sparks.

The problem is if you look up inside thunderclouds, the breakdown field that you need to make a spark is never found. People have been launching balloons for decades, they've been flying airplanes, they've been launching rockets...but the fields they record are not even close to this strength.


Mad Scientists Recommend WHAT???!!!!

I belong to that insanely-addictive Groupon deals (and have had many amazing dining experience at half of the price). So yes, I look at the deals that are sent to me each day.

But this one kinda made my jaw dropped. It is a Groupon deal for a Japanese/Sushi restaurant near here called Maki Sushi & Noodle Shop in Park Ridge, IL. The Groupon notice starts off with this statement:

Though mad scientists recommend sticking chopsticks into electric sockets, rational scientists know the utensils are better used for sushi consumption.

What the hey.... ?

So, any knows where they would get this claim that "mad scientists" would "recommend sticking chipsticks into electric sockets"?

First of all, it makes no sense because most chopsticks (in fact, the majority, I would think) are made of wood, bamboo, ivory, plastic, etc. They are all insulators. So why would anyone want to stick a chipstick into electric sockets other than to ruin the socket? Besides, why is this "fun" to do, or even would create something that would satisfy someone's curiosity. Presumably, "mad scientists" only do things that would be fun, do something out of curiosity, and even something that could result in some sparks/explosion. Sticking a chopstick in an electric socket is .... er ... boring!

Man, I need to go out and get a life. I'm picking apart a mindless advertisement from Groupon!



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Threat To US Science - Your Immediate Actions Requested

If you are a US Citizen and concerned about the proposed 2011 budget and how it severely affects funding for science (especially physical sciences), your immediate action is kindly requested. The devastating cuts being proposed by the Republican budget will cause severe harm to research in the physical sciences, especially those that are being done at all US National Laboratories.

For more information on the breakdown of the proposed budget, please go to the APS webpage. It will include ways that you can contact your representatives to make your voice heard on this matter.

Thank you.


Vacuum Tubes Implosion

For those of us who work in photodetector science and technology, studies such as this can be immensely valuable. The last thing we want to have happen is the implosion of these phototubes. We all know how bad of a disaster it was when it occurred at Super Kamiokande several years ago.

Still, for everyone else, this series of videos of imploding phototubes are visual candies and can be a lot of fun to watch.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Walk Or Run In The Rain - Which Will Get You Less Wet?

So I totally love mundane problems like this, as I've mentioned on here repeatedly. This is the problem on what one should do when it starts to rain. Should one walk at a normal speed, or should one run as fast as possible, or is there a solution in between those two extremes to get one least wet?

This new paper[1] considers this old problem once again. It considers the rain coming down vertically and at an angle, and also considers the geometry of a person (being approximated by a cylinder).

Abstract: The question whether to walk slowly or to run when it starts raining in order to stay as dry as possible has been considered for many years—and with different results, depending on the assumptions made and the mathematical descriptions for the situation. Because of the practical meaning for real life and the inconsistent results depending on the chosen parameters, this problem is well suited to undergraduate students learning to decide which parameters are important and choosing reasonable values to describe a physical problem. Dealing with physical parameters is still useful at university level, as students do not always recognize the connection between pure numbers and their qualitative and quantitative influence on a physical problem. This paper presents an intuitive approach which offers the additional advantage of being more detailed, allowing for more parameters to be tested than the simple models proposed in most other publications.

It is a fun problem to play around in your head, especially when there can be a counter-intuitive answer.


[1] A. Ehrmann and T. Blachowicz, Eur. J. Phys. v.32, p.355 (2011).

1 In 6 Secondary Schools In England Offers No A-Level Physics

The education woes in the UK continues with the Royal Society condemning the A-Levels at "not fit for purpose". This follows reports on the drop of the number of students studying math and sciences at the A-Levels and the number of science/math degrees awarded.

Of last year’s 300,000 graduates, just 10,000 studied chemistry, physics, biology or maths, according to the Royal Society.

The celebrated research institution also said that one in six secondary schools had not entered a single candidate for A-level physics.

It said the A-level system was unfit for purpose and should be scrapped in favour of European-style baccalaureates.

It is disheartening to see that this problem, which had been recognized for many years already, doesn't seem to be handled and tackled appropriately. Here in the US, there are clearly politicians who distrust science, put very little importance to science, or simply ignores science. Some of them are put into position to determine science policies and funding. So one should expect that support for science to have some impact. Do we know the root cause for such a disarray in the UK/England, beyond just the tough economic times?


Monday, February 14, 2011

DOE Office Of Science Faces Severe Budget Cuts

As expected, the Republican's proposal for the 2011 Budget slashed a huge chunk of money from science funding {link open for a limited time}. The hardest hit, it appears, will be the DOE Office of Science, which is the major agency that funds research work in Chemistry and Physics, and also maintains the US National Laboratories.

Among the hardest hit in the Republicans' plan is the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, which funds research ranging from particle physics to chemistry and materials science. The Committee aims to slice a whopping $1.1 billion from the $5.12 billion requested by President Barack Obama for the Office of Science's 2011 budget.

"It's devastating," says Pat Clemins, director of the budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. "It definitely will affect the ability of the DOE to fill the discovery pipeline."

Look, I know that the deficit is enormous. However, I still cannot get the logic in making these huge cuts on programs that, in the scheme of things, is PUNY in terms of the amount of money allocated to it. Funding for science is an awfully small percentage of the budget when compared to spending for the military, for example. Yet, it is the one getting the brunt of the axe. Why? Well, this response is very telling on how some elected Republicans feel about the importance of science funding:

The difference of opinion on energy-related research spending is likely to remain in the spotlight as both sides dig in their heels. When asked why the DOE Office of Science was cut so much, Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said, "The chairman was asked to cut $58 billion. He looked at excess, wasteful, duplicative spending. This is one of the choices that he made."

Wasteful, he said. Ignoring the fact that billion of dollars are unaccounted for in Iraq and Afganistan wars that could have easily funded the DOE Office of Science for YEARS, I'd like to know what exactly that is being funded that this person considers as "excess, wasteful, and duplicative".


Sunday, February 13, 2011

E. Noether's Discovery of the Deep Connection Between Symmetries and Conservation Laws

OK, this is not new. This arXiv manuscript was uploaded way back in 1998. But I was looking for some reference for someone else regarding the historical development of Noether's theorem, and stumbled upon this. It gives that, and also the significance of Noether's amazing insight. In fact, if you have not been aware of the importance of symmetries and how they reflect the conservation laws that we have, this is a good paper to read.

Abstract: Emmy Noether proved two deep theorems, and their converses, on the connection between symmetries and conservation laws. Because these theorems are not in the mainstream of her scholarly work, which was the development of modern abstract algebra, it is of some historical interest to examine how she came to make these discoveries. The present paper is an historical account of the circumstances in which she discovered and proved these theorems which physicists refer to collectively as Noether's Theorem. The work was done soon after Hilbert's discovery of the variational principle which gives the field equations of general relativity. The failure of local energy conservation in the general theory was a problem that concerned people at that time, among them David Hilbert, Felix Klein, and Albert Einstein. Noether's theorems solved this problem. With her characteristically deep insight and thorough analysis, in solving that problem she discovered very general theorems that have profoundly influenced modern physics.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The 20th Anniversary of the Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes was first described in 1991, so 2011 is the 20th Anniversary of this amazing structure.

This lecture, I presume, was given in conjunction with this occasion. It presents a new nanotube not made of carbon, but rather, of boron nitride nanotube. If you have an hour to spend, it might be an interesting lecture to sit through, especially in the beginning that should give you a brief history and the physics of nanotubes.


Friday, February 11, 2011

A Movie About Einstein?

I suppose the question is, why not?

A biopic on Einstein is in the works and will be directed by Wayne Wang.

The film, tentatively titled “Einstein”, chronicles the true inspirational story of the trials, tragedies and vindication of the single-most celebrated scientist of the 20th century. Torn between the burdens of a family and his restless pursuit of unlocking the mysteries of the universe, he not only achieved unparalleled stature as a genius but he also changed the world forever - at no small cost to himself and those around him.

HSI Films will handle worldwide sales on “Einstein” and immediately introduce the project to distributors in Berlin.

They are still looking for an actor to play Einstein. So look in the mirror, folks. If you have that resemblance, send in your portfolio! Maybe you'll be called for an audition!


The Science of Cooking

Hey, remember way back when I mentioned the story that several haute cuisine and avant-garde chefs are coming to Harvard to participate in a gastronomy physics course? Well now we have a report on it.

In this exclusive interview with, one of the course organizers, David Weitz, professor of physics and applied physics in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, explains how cooking and food provide neat reference points for studying a variety of complex phenomena – from foams and emulsions to supercooling and complex phase changes.

"It's been beneficial and enjoyable for all of us," he says of the course, which completed its first run at the end of last year. "I'm pretty sure the students really enjoy it [and] it's certainly a wonderful way to teach freshman physics."

You can view the video interview at the link given above or see it here:


Tackling Global Temperature Data

It seems that Richard Muller has gone beyond teaching physics for future presidents, and now tackling the issue of global warming. This might be the more difficult task, I would think, considering all the controversy and brouhaha surrounding this issue lately.

He has formed a Berkeley Earth Group with an initial task to compile ALL of the available temperature data of the earth throughout history.

Muller came to the conclusion that temperature data - which, in the United States, began in the late 18th century when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin made the first thermometer measurements - was the only truly scientifically accurate way of studying global warming.
To that end, he formed the Berkeley Earth group with 10 other highly acclaimed scientists, including physicists, climatologists and statisticians. Before the group joined in the study of the warming world, there were three major groups that had released analysis of historical temperature data. But each has come under attack from climate skeptics, Muller said.

In the group's new study, which will be released in about a month, the scientists hope to address the doubts that skeptics have raised. They are using data from all 39,390 available temperature stations around the world - more than five times the number of stations that the next most thorough group, the Global Historical Climatology Network, used in its data set.

This will be interesting to see. But then, I wonder how many will pay attention to such data and change their minds one way or the other. I think it will be useful to scientists who are in the midst of working in such a field. However, I'm a skeptic in the ability of the average public to be able to decipher pure data. Data, without context, are meaningless. And the majority of the public often do not have the context.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

APS Journals Available To US High Schools For Free

The American Physical Society is making their journals available for free to US High Schools.

The American Physical Society (APS) announces a new public access initiative that will give high school students and teachers in the United States full use of all online APS journals, from the most recent articles back to the first issue in 1893, a collection including over 400,000 scientific research papers. APS will provide access to its journals, Physical Review Letters, Physical Review, and Reviews of Modern Physics, at no cost, as a contribution to public engagement with the ongoing development of scientific understanding.

The high school program is a natural follow on to last summer's offering to U.S. public libraries. "When we made our journals freely available to public libraries, we were happily surprised to receive requests for access from high schools as well," said APS Publisher Joseph Serene. "We are now delighted to share our journals and their archive with interested secondary school students and teachers."

While this is a nice gesture, I am not sure to what extent these journals are useful, either to the teachers or the students. I think journals such as Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, which is already available as an open source, would be more useful to educators/teachers. The AIP could provide journals such as the American Journal of Physics for free, and that would also be useful. But PRL? PRA, PRB, etc.? I don't see how these are useful in general.

If you are a high school student or teachers and have needed to access these journals, I would love to hear what you are doing.


"Wonders Of Physics" Returns To UW Campus

I mentioned earlier about the wonderful physics show/demonstration called "Wonders of Physics", of which I had the pleasure of being in attendance back in the early 80's when I was at UW-Madison. This show and grown in scope and popularity over the years, and even had a traveling road-show version.

This show is coming back to UW-Madison this weekend. I see that they are now doing it in Chamberlain Hall. When I was there, it was done in the huge lecture theater in Siegal Hall building. If you're near there, this is something not to be missed by young and old. It certainly beats seeing that new Justin Bieber movie that's opening this weekend, even IF it is in 3D!


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Airport X-Ray Backscatter Scan May Miss Hidden Objects

I've mentioned in a couple of blog entries regarding the airport full-body scans and the physics surrounding them (see here and here). We once again won't address the "emotional" issues associated with those machines. But we can certainly address issues related to physics.

Beyond the issue of radiation dosage, the other issue here is the effectiveness of such machine in detecting hidden objects underneath one's clothing. This question came up recently upon the publication of a new study[1] that showed (mainly via simulation), that depending on the type of material and where it is hidden on the body, such objects can missed in such a body scan. This new study was covered and reported here.

According to the report, the reasons contraband might not be detected are because of the X-ray exposure level produced by the scanner combined with how a substance such as plastic explosives are placed on a persons body. Those factors can prevent the material from being detected by the scanner, the study says. In addition, “because front and back views are obtained (in a scan), low Z (metal) materials can only be reliably detected if they are packed outside the sides of the body, or with hard edges, while high Z materials are well seen when placed in front or back of the body, but not the sides.”

You may read the actual paper at the link listed at the bottom of this blog entry. Of course, the TSA has a standard response to something like this:

Nonetheless, the TSA says, “Advanced imaging technology is a proven, highly-effective tool that safely detects both metallic and non-metallic items concealed on the body that could be used to threaten the security of airplanes.”

“TSA employs many layers of security that work collaboratively to form a system that gives us the best chance to detect and disrupt the evolving threats we face,” the agency’s statement says.

That is a non-statement that doesn't address the scientific study. A proper rebuttal would be to send a rebuttal paper to address the specific result of the paper. That's the only way the scientific result can be disputed, not by basically saying "it is effective because I said so". That might work in politics, but it doesn't work at all in science. And this is a scientific issue. The TSA should commission a study to either verify or dispute this work, not issue some bland, generic replies that really didn't say anything worthy.


[1] L. Kaufman and J.W. Carlson J. Transp. Secur. DOI 10.1007/s12198-010-0059-7 (a copy of the paper is available, at this moment, here).

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thermal Casimir Effect Observed For The First Time

I'm always astounded by these unbelievably delicate experiments that can detect such minuscule effects. It seems that for the first time since it was theorized by Landau, the thermal version of the Casimir effect has now been observed[1].

Whereas zero-point fluctuations occur at temperatures right down to absolute zero, an electromagnetic field also experiences an increasing number of thermal fluctuations at higher temperatures. In 1955 the Russian physicist Evgeny Lifshitz predicted that these fluctuations should have a similar effect on radiation pressure, leading to a thermal Casimir force.

Now at Yale University, Lamoreaux has teamed up with Alexander Sushkov and colleagues to measure the thermal Casimir force for the first time. Instead of using two parallel plates, the team looked for the force between a gold-coated plate and a sphere. This is the favoured method of measuring the Casimir force because aligning a sphere and plate is much easier than having to precisely line up two parallel plates.

A wonderful accomplishment!


[1] A. O. Sushkov et al., "Observation of the thermal Casimir force", Nature Physics doi:10.1038/nphys1909. (full citation will be included once it is available)

Science-Religion Forum

Northwestern Oklahoma State University is hosting its 4th Science and Religion forum this coming weekend.

Well, first of all, I had to go find where "Northwestern Oklahoma State University" is located. It is in Alva, OK, somewhere in the northern part of the state close to the Kansas border. Secondly, it is fascinating that the forum's "....purpose is not a debate between the two topics...." I guess this is sort of like the "Templeton Prize" as a forum.

Obviously, I will be unable to attend this forum, but I would be so appreciative if a reader of this blog who happens to be in the vicinity of Alva, OK, AND plans on attending this forum (what are the odds on that?) could provide a report on this forum.


Monday, February 07, 2011

The Sun Captured In 360 Degrees

This news coming out of NASA seems to be making it into many news media today. It's the report of a first ever 360 degrees video capture of our sun. This was accomplished by the two nearly-identical spacecrafts that is part of STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory).

You can read report in the link above at PhysicsWorld, and watch the video of it below.


"So You Want To Be A Physicist" - Update 02/06/2011

I've added a new chapter on my ongoing "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, which you can link directly from here or from my blog roster of links.

The new chapter is Part VIIIa (basically an insertion between two Parts). It deals with a question that I've been asked or encountered quite a number of times, which is the possibility of someone with a different undergraduate degree, going into a graduate program in physics in the US. Of course, the answer is that it IS possible and has been done. However, this answer depends entirely on the nature of your undergraduate degree and the classes you took. Certain majors, such as engineering (electrical, material science, etc.) naturally have many overlaps with physics. So those with that group of majors do not have as high a mountain to climb as other non-technical majors who wish to purse an advanced degree in physics.

So in this part of the essay, I present what I think is a simple and concrete self-test that one can try oneself if one happens to be in that boat. It should give a clear answer on one's level of knowledge, if one needs to take remedial classes to get up to speed, or if one should make a more realistic decision on the pursuit of such a goal.

I continue to edit and try to improve this essay, so feedbacks are very welcomed. This latest addition was in response to comments from other readers, so I am definitely listening.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Tackling Physics While Watching The Superbowl

The superbowl is tomorrow (Sunday), and while many sports fans will be watching it for the game, a bunch of students will be watching it from the perspective of Newton's Laws in action.

On Friday, former Oakland Raiders linebacker Mario Celotto treated students in Ann Shioji's science class to a lesson about the physics of football, focusing on Newton's third law of motion, published in 1687.

The law simply states that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction" -- meaning that forces, like pushing and pulling, always come in pairs and occur simultaneously. This explains why releasing air from a balloon propels it forward and why defensive tackles get a running start -- to generate more force for the takedown.

Well, not sure how the "...defensive tackles get a running start..." part is a demonstration of the 3rd Law (more like a demonstration of momentum), but that's OK. Hope the students get to learn something from watching the game.


Friday, February 04, 2011

Ever Wondered Why?

The IoP has released a series of videos on an educational outreach program to students. It deals with various simple things that some of us have often wondered why it behaves that way.

Pt. 1

Pt. 2

Pt. 3

Pt. 4

Pt. 5

Pt. 6

Pt. 7


"If You Can't Explain It To Your Grandmother....."

"... then you haven't understood it."

We all have heard variations of that. The idea here is that if you understood something, then you should be able to explain it in its simplest form to someone who has no background in a certain knowledge to be able to understand it. I've heard this told to physicists, and told by many people who should know better than repeating something unverified.

And that's the whole problem. The statement is mentioned and repeated AS IF IT HAS BEEN VERIFIED TO BE TRUE! So when it is uttered, most of us tend to get defensive and try to deflect it, rather than confront it directly and ask to show proof that the statement is true.

The problem here is that people confuse two things: (i) having knowledge and (ii) the ability to convey that knowledge in simple, understandable form. These two are NOT mutually inclusive! If it is, then someone needs to go out and proclaim that a physicist such as Dirac "doesn't understand quantum mechanics". Anyone who has read his biography could easily see that he wasn't much of an "explainer", and certainly not to the general public. So, who here in his/her right mind would like to proclaim that Dirac doesn't understand quantum mechanics? Anyone? How come this clear and obvious falsification to that statement never brought up? I have plenty more examples from where that came from.

Most of us who have been in physics for any considerable period of time have met people who we KNOW for a fact to be experts in certain areas, and yet, they suck at explaining what they do to us, much less, to someone who isn't familiar with the subject matter. This may happen for a variety of reasons: (i) lack of pedagogical skills (ii) laziness in figuring out how to present something at the level that the audience can understand (iii) or simply a complete ignorance of the fact that the audience is clueless to what he/she is saying. Being able to present something in understandable form is not a skill that comes with knowledge. It requires quite a bit of thought, a consideration to the level of knowledge of the audience, and a lot of consideration on how to present something that is in touch with what the audience already know. This takes  effort, and this is something not everyone realizes. Thus, you get brilliant scientists who could have a lot of trouble explaining something that a grandmother can understand. It has no reflection on his knowledge of the subject matter.

A few years ago, while explaining what we do to a group of general public visitors to our facility, one of our distinguished, senior theorist happened to be listening to my spiel. The next day, he walked into my office and told me that, after years of listening to my boss, and the previous boss of the group explained what the group's project is all about, yesterday was the first time he actually understood what we were doing! I was of course flattered, but also a bit shocked, considering that our group has been headed by people who are among the world's leading experts in this area! So to say that these people did not understand what they're doing is utterly false, because I KNOW for a fact that they do. And by that same token, just because I somehow have a bit of a skill in explaining such a thing, does that mean that I've understood it, and understood it more than they do? Nope, and certainly not to the same level as these experts that I look up to.

A lot of crap gets thrown out nowadays and accepted as "fact". The notion that the ability to explain things in simple is somehow commensurate with one's mastery of the subject is patently FALSE. It carries as much validity as claiming that if you can't sing very well the songs you wrote, then you're not a very good songwriter. One has nothing to do with the other!


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Astrology Is A Science ...... In India

Yes folk. The Bombay High Court has ruled that Astrology is a science and recommended that it is taught in schools and universities.

"So far as prayer related to astrology is concerned, the Supreme Court has already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is science. The court had in 2004 also directed the universities to consider if astrology science can be added to the syllabus. The decision of the apex court is binding on this court," observed the judges.

The judges also took on record an affidavit submitted by the Union government. The Centre had in its affidavit stated that astrology is 4000 years old 'trusted science' and the same does not fall under the preview of The Drugs and Megical Remedies Act (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954.

It will be interesting to know on what basis does such a court has used to rule that it is a science, other than simply based on its "history". If we use that twisted logic, all religions should also be ruled as "science" as well.

Too bad the fact that predictions of major disaster from the last eclipse event didn't count as counter evidence that these things are often glaringly wrong.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Graphene Gives Hints Of The Higgs?

That's what a new PRL publication seems to claim. In it, one can actually find, in graphene, an analogous situation to the electroweak symmetry breaking that characterizes the Higgs field[1].

Spontaneous symmetry-breaking lies at the heart of the analogy – graphene loses some symmetry in the transition from a flat shape to a rippled one, in the same way as the "activation" of the Higgs field is tied to the breaking of the electroweak symmetry. Compared with grand cosmological scales, sheets of carbon might seem a bit pedestrian, but San-Jose thinks otherwise. "Measuring the rippling of graphene under variable tension could give us information about the details of the intrinsic condensation of the Higgs," he says.

This is another example where condensed matter systems can provide important and fundamental information in physics. It is why I've always argued that condensed matter physics isn't JUST "applied physics". It is why systems such as the newly-discovered topological insulators are so fascinating and so rich. There are some very fundamental physics that can be studied and tested in such systems.


[1] P. San-Jose et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. v.106, p.045502 (2011).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Koosh Ball in Liquid Nitrogen

These guys are having way too much fun! The dynamic duo are back, and this time, they are testing a giant koosh ball in liquid nitrogen!

The poor koosh ball! It kinda reminds me of a sea anemone.


CERN Courier Jan/Feb 2011

The Jan/Feb 2011 of CERN Courier is now available. You can always get to this from this Blog's roster of links.


A Hole In The Wall Is Not A Barrier

Some time I am so picky, I hate myself! :)

This has all the good intentions, but the visual picture it has given is not correct. A student is attempting to demonstrate a "potential barrier" that we often have to deal with in a quantum mechanics class. She does this by creating a "snow sculpture" that consists of a wall of snow. But to show that an electron an tunnel through the barrier, she created a hole in the wall!

So the question is, is this a valid and accurate-enough visual representation of the phenomenon?

I claim that it is not. When I used to do point-contact tunneling, we pushed the tip onto the insulating barrier until we see a tunneling current. However, depending on how fragile the insulating barrier is, or how much force you push with the tip, sometime the barrier cracks and forms pinholes. These pinholes will then create Ohmic contacts and basically a short, where the current flow is the normal conduction. You no longer see tunneling current.

So when I look at the video in this demonstration, I can't help but see this hole in the barrier as not an illustration of electron tunneling, but rather, an Ohmic contact.

Oh well, I really should stop picking on students like this! :)