Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10 Things You Didn't Know About Steven Chu

Here are 10 things that you possibly did not know about Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate and incoming Secretary for the Dept. of Energy. There's nothing juicy or surprising, though. So if you're expecting any dirt, you'll be disappointed.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Roller Coasters as a Lesson in Physics

We have had many items posted here on the physics one can learn at theme/amusement parks. This Wired article had a very promising title: Roller Coaster as a lesson in physics. However, it really doesn't tell you much about the physics involved. Rather it just tells you that there's physics in a roller coaster ride.

Still, it has a very nice and exciting on-ride video of California Screamin' at Disney's California Adventure theme park. I've been on this ride a few times myself.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Doctor Atomic on PBS's "Great Performances" Tonight

If you are in the US and your Public Broadcasting station follows the national PBS schedule, Doctor Atomic will be broadcast at part of the Great Performances series tonight at 9:00 pm EST.

If you missed it, I mentioned about this opera (which to my knowledge, the ONLY opera that I've discussed in this blog) a while back.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seagate Scores a Patent Victory Over Siemens

Er.. no, I haven't gone "technology" on you. And even if I have, the technology that came out of this, as in "GMR", is right out of condensed matter physics and the Nobel Prizes awarded last year.

This press release describes a recent jury decision in favor of Seagate over Siemens, and also invalidate a Siemens patent. It's quite fascinating how these worked out and gave a glimpse on patent law.

Still, what intrigued me more was a rather big name in physics that was called to testify.

Siemens called on experts of its own, including Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, and Harry Manbeck, former Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Er... Sheldon Glashow? Isn't he here a bit like a fish out of the water for this particular area? What could he possibly testify or be an expert in that's relevant here? I can possibly understand if one calls, say, Albert Fert or Peter Grünberg, both Nobel Prize winners for the discovery of GMR, but Glashow? I would love to hear his testimony on this and am curious as hell his relevance in this case.

But obviously, his expert testimony didn't help Siemens at all.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Leap Second At The End of 2008

Don't celebrate too soon for 2009. 2008 is going to be 1 second longer than you expected due to a leap second.

On New Year’s Eve, the international authorities charged with keeping precise time will add a single second to our lives. It will be the 24th “leap second” since 1972, and the first since 2005.

Or you can kiss someone one second longer at midnight. :)


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Top 10 ScienceNOWs of 2008

ScienceNow, the daily news update of the Science journal website, has picked their top 10 science stories of the year that they have covered. Included in the list are two physics stories/discoveries - a new confirmation of non-locality of quantum entanglement, and the storage and retrieval of "squeezed vacuum" state.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Seasons Greetings

Happy Holidays to everyone! If you are traveling, hope you have a safe and hassle-free trip, especially if you're in the areas affected by the nasty weather here in the US. With the new administration about to take office, let's hope that 2009 will be a better year for physical science funding even with the current economic problems.

If you are not going to celebrate the season for to religious reasons, then maybe you could celebrate it as part of the 10 Days of Newton. Isaac Newton was thought to have been born on Christmas Day under the Julian calendar.

All very jolly — but then, ’tis the season. Yet things are not so simple. It turns out that the date of Newton’s birthday is a little contentious. Newton was born in England on Christmas Day 1642 according to the Julian calendar — the calendar in use in England at the time. But by the 1640s, much of the rest of Europe was using the Gregorian calendar (the one in general use today); according to this calendar, Newton was born on Jan. 4, 1643.

Rather than bickering about whether Dec. 25 or Jan. 4 is the better date to observe Newton’s Birthday, I think we should embrace the discrepancy and have an extended festival. After all, the festival of Christmas properly continues for a further 12 days, until the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. So the festival of Newton could begin on Christmas Day and then continue for an extra 10 days, representing the interval between the calendars.

So maybe we can add another "holiday" to this time of the year. :)


Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best of 2008

Inevitably at this time of the year, various groups, journals, institutions, etc. will try to compile highlights from the year that's about to end. PhysicsWorld has done so, and given their "Best" of 2008 from each month of the year.

See how many of the major stories listed that you've heard or have followed.


Students Know What Physicists Believe, But They Don’t Agree: A Study Using the CLASS Survey

I just found this paper and still reading it, but it is such a "fun" and interesting topic that I thought I should highlight it on here for you to read as well, and maybe we can comment/discuss this later.

"Students know what physicists believe, but they don’t agree: A study using the CLASS survey", K.E. Gray et al., Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. v.4, p.020106 (2008).

Abstract: We measured what students perceive physicists to believe about physics and solving physics problems and how those perceptions differ from the students’ personal beliefs. In this study, we used a modified version of the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey which asked students to respond to each statement with both their personal belief and the response they thought a physicist would give. Students from three different types of university introductory physics courses were studied. Students who have not yet taken physics in college have a surprisingly accurate idea of what physicists believe about physics no matter what their high school background and what physics courses they choose to take in college. These ideas are largely unaffected by their college physics instruction. In contrast, students’ personal beliefs about physics differ with varying high school physics backgrounds and college physics courses in which they enroll, and these beliefs are affected by college physics instruction. Women have a larger difference between their reported personal beliefs and their perceptions of physicists’ beliefs than do men.

You should be able to get the full paper by clicking on the hyperlink that I've given you above.


High-Tc Superconductors Are Very Kinky - Update 3

Another update of my compilation of papers on the nature of the "kink" in the band dispersion observed in ARPES measurement on high-Tc superconductors. This time it comes from a theoretical analysis with parameters extracted from the inelastic neutron scattering (INS) experiment and applied to the ARPES results[1].

What they found out was that the scattering mediated by the incommensurate spin excitation seen in the INS measurement could account for practically all of the ARPES observations on the YBCO compound. This includes the observation of the kinks and their temperature "evolution" (or non-evolution) with temperature across the doping range. The previous models that depended on the magnetic resonance that disappeared above Tc and strongly dependent on temperature is a red herring.

This paper has been accepted on Nature Physics. A complete citation to it will be added once it is published.


[1] T. Dahm et al.,

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Russia Licenses Faith Healers

While I've been known to question some of the silly things we do here in the US, I will admit that often, what I read elsewhere are even more astounding. Like this one coming out of Russia. I didn't realize that the government, at least in Moscow, actually issues licenses to "certified" faith healers! Honest!

For the past two years, the Federal Health Service has been issuing licenses to practitioners of what it calls "traditional medicine," meaning anything from the use of herbal treatments to the manipulation of "auras." His claims buttressed by officialdom, Fadkin charges patients 3,500 rubles ($150) per session.

If you think this is funny, wait till you read some more of it.

Andrei Karpeev, director of the Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing, which administers the tests, insists that folk medicine, including psychic healing, is backed by scientific studies. While he acknowledges some of the criteria for determining who has healing powers are subjective, he claims the tests are able to wean out "charlatans." According to Karpeev, there are perhaps 100,000 people in Russia offering to use magic, psychic or other extra-sensory methods to cure illnesses, read minds or cast spells.

Er.. what "scientific studies"? And who's checking up to see whether he himself isn't a charlatan? What is his expertise? Besides, why do they really need a committee to weed out the actual faith healer? Couldn't they use one of their certified psychic to weed them out? After all, these people could read minds, couldn't they? They should, by definition, be able to tell right away if that person seeking a license is a fake.

Oy vey, I'm taking this silliness way too seriously already! :)


Harvard Physicist is Top Contender for Obama's Science Advisor

John Holdren, a Harvard physicist and a noted figure in the global warming issue, has been reported as being the top contender for the position of Science Advisor in the Obama administration.

While not confirmed by Obama officials, the scientific community was abuzz with the news. The American Association for the Advancement of Science said on its Science Insider Web site that Obama was expected to name Holdren to the post on Saturday.

With the appointment of Steven Chu to head the Dept. of Energy, there will be two physicists heading two prominent science-related positions in the administration. One can only hope that the position of Science Advisor does not get relegated to a 'second class citizen' the way it has been in the Bush Administration.


Subtracting Photons From Arbitrary Light Fields: Experimental Test of Coherent State Invariance by Single-Photon Annihilation

This is such a cool experimental verification. They managed to remove single photons from light and demonstrated one of the predictions of Roy Glauber many years ago, that such removal does not destroy the coherence of the other photons within the light beam.

You can read a review of the paper in this PhysicsWorld article, or you can read the paper directly, thanks to New Journal of Physics open journal policy.

While this is certainly a wonderful result that is another experimental verification of QED, what astounds me even more is the fact that they could do these things. This is not something simple, ladies and gentlemen, not only in executing it, but in the ability to think about how to do it. I am always in awe of such ability.


Tough Times At The University of Tennessee's Physics Dept.

I suspect that many physics dept. throughout the country (and possibly the world) are having a similar difficult times, especially those at state universities that depend directly on state funding. However, this article, written by the head of the Physics Dept. at the University of Tennessee, brought home all the relevant issues being faced when the funding causes a lot of problem with their mission of education.

How has the tough economic times impacted your physics program?


Revamping the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory

I had a few responses to my personal project on possible ways to revamp the undergraduate physics labs. Those of you who have been following it will have seen it spread out over several posts on here. Because of that, I'm compiled all of them into a single document that you can access easily, even when I make changes and additions to it.

I will also put a link to it in the links section of this blog.

As always, it is an on-going project, and so there will be more additions to it as when the inspiration hits me, and as time permits.


Friday, December 19, 2008

"Gravity Weapons" A Nonsense

For once, something that could have been a crackpottery got snipped in the bud.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency actually commissioned a study to evaluate a dubious funding proposal on using gravitational waves from humans! I'm not kidding, and these things are way too stupid to make up.

The good thing out of all this is that a sane outcome prevails:

When the JASON team did the maths, however, results were not good for the plan's supporters.

The technique is so inefficient that it would take longer than the lifetime of the universe for every power station on Earth to produce a gravitational wave with the energy of one ten millionth of a Joule. Accelerating a spacecraft at 10 metres per second squared, a rate that just exceeds the pull of Earth's gravity, would require 1025 times (a 1 followed by 25 zeroes) the electricity output of the world.

The report (pdf format) concludes: "These proposals belong to the realm of pseudo-science, not science."

Phew! At least this report salvaged the "intelligence" part in the name of the agency. But this is not always the case.

But he quips that given the US defence establishment's history of funding bad science, over-long reports that rubbish such ideas at an early stage may not be a bad thing. "The Department of Defense always have a few projects on the go that disobey the rules of thermodynamics, so I wish they would commission this kind of in-depth study in more cases."

In the mid-1990s and early 2000s the Pentagon spent millions of dollars on developing a quasi-nuclear weapon called the hafnium bomb that was actually based on junk science. When put into that context, perhaps the money spent on a report that prevents similar spending on gravitational wave weapons was actually a good investment.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Undergraduate Internships

Science Career section has a series of terrific articles on internships for undergraduates, with listing on programs from various parts of the world.

1 Summer Internships for Undergraduates.

2. Summer Internships Resources.
This has a wide variety of resources that you may want to keep. Even if you missed the deadline for this year, they may still work for the one next year.


Want To Buy A Used Space Shuttle? Going Cheap!

Talk about a holiday Doorbuster event!

NASA is planning to sell the retired space shuttles. For $42 million (plus shipping and handling), you can have one!

Beware: NASA estimates it will cost about $42 million to get each shuttle ready and get it where it needs to go, and the final tab could end up much more.

The estimate includes $6 million to ferry the spaceship atop a modified jumbo jet to the closest major airport. But the price could skyrocket depending on how far the display site is from the airport. Only indoor, climate-controlled displays will be considered.

"The orbiters will not be disassembled for transportation or storage," NASA insists in its nine-page request for information.

I don't expect UPS or FedEx to deliver this to your doorstep.


Freezing Coherent Field Growth in a Cavity by the Quantum Zeno Effect

This is such an outstanding experiment and a testament to ingenuity of the experimenters.

A group in France has managed to show the Quantum Zeno effect in a rather "classical" system using a microwave cavity.[1]

Abstract: We have frozen the coherent evolution of a field in a cavity by repeated measurements of its photon number. We use circular Rydberg atoms dispersively coupled to the cavity mode for an absorption-free photon counting. These measurements inhibit the growth of a field injected in the cavity by a classical source. This manifestation of the quantum Zeno effect illustrates the backaction of the photon number determination onto the field phase. The residual growth of the field can be seen as a random walk of its amplitude in the two-dimensional phase space. This experiment sheds light onto the measurement process and opens perspectives for active quantum feedback.

They showed that even if the observation is "absorption free", the very act of such an observation will disrupt the phase of the microwave photons, causing the resonant build up to either be slower, or completely destroyed, depending on how often the observation is made.

Another experimental triumph of quantum mechanics!

[1] J. Bernu et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 101, 180402 (2008).

Galaxy Clusters Throttled by Dark Energy

I'm back from my vacation. It will take me a while to get back up to speed. I'm sure I missed a lot of important physics news while I was gone, but it was good to get away from it all some time.

In the mean time, it appears that the existence of Dark Energy has now an additional independent evidence.

That period was in fact a crucial moment in the tug of war between the outward push of dark energy and the inward pull of gravity. In other words, the universe had stretched so much by this point that its dark energy made it difficult for galaxy clusters to pull matter in from far away. Not only did existing galaxy clusters slow their growth as a result, the rate at which new clusters were formed also declined.

"What we saw was an unmistakable effect of dark energy," says Vikhlinin, whose team is publishing the results in two papers in the 10 February 2009 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The timing of dark energy's dampening effect on cluster growth coincides with findings by supernovae researchers showing that the universe's expansion had been decelerating before beginning to accelerate 5.5 billion years ago.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Vacation and New Energy Secretary

I'm currently on vacation and so, there won't be a lot of updates on here. Still, I hope everyone one has heard about the appointment of Steven Chu as the nominee for the Secretary of Energy. This is great news, because now, we have an actual scientist, rather than a career politician/manager in charge of a government body that deals mainly with science issues. And they got someone with the stature and prestige of a Nobel Laureate!

Looks like Physics is well-represented in the upcoming Obama administration. Now, if only he could appoint a person with similar credentials as his Science Advisor.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Rutherford’s Nobel Prize and the One He Didn’t Get

This is a fascinating look at the historical account surrounding the reasons why Rutherford got his Nobel Prize in Chemistry (instead of Physics), and the possible reason why he didn't get another one in Physics.

Cecilia Jarlskog of Lund University also presented a very captivating historical record surrounding Einstein's Nobel Prize during the 2005 Particle Accelerator Conference in Knoxville, TN. This was in conjunction with the World's Year of Physics to commemorate Einstein's miraculous year of 1905. So she certainly is quite an authority on the Nobel historical records of these prominent physicists.


Europe Plans Future Research Facilities

The European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures is recommending several major research facilities covering many different areas to be built in Europe.

The first roadmap in 2006 recommended 34 projects to be completed across all research areas within the next ten years. These included seven in the physical science such as the €950m European Extremely Large Telescope, an underwater neutrino detector in the Atlantic and the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR) currently being constructed in Darmstadt, Germany.

Let's hope the economic slowdown will not affect such plans.


Physics License Plates

Symmetry Breaking has a terrific and amusing article on physics-related license plates that various people (mostly physicists) have. Check it out. The most amusing one is the reaction by people to the license plate that read "E MINUS". That's hysterical! :)


Monday, December 08, 2008

Nobel Prize Presentation Ceremony for Yoichiro Nambu

The ceremony for Nambu will be held at the University of Chicago. He won't be traveling to Sweden due to his advanced age. While the event is by invitation only, you can see a webcast of most of the event at the University of Chicago website.

TIME: 1 p.m., Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Welcome — University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer
Replay of excerpts from Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm ( Due to restrictions by the Nobel Foundation, this will not be available for rebroadcast )
Presentation of Medal and Diploma — Swedish Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom
Remarks — Yoichiro Nambu, "My Road to Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking"
Closing — Robert J. Zimmer
Expected duration: Less than one hour


Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Tale Of Three Book Reviews

OK, I thought I put this thing to rest already. But when I read this book review, it looks like I have to revive it, and give Gilder's book even MORE publicity! :)

I already mentioned the two different reviews on her book, and how each one is perceived quite differently by me. Now along comes a third review of the same book, published in the Washington Post, but this time written by a "... an old-line physics prof...", which makes certain passages in the review even more puzzling. Try this one:

With one exception: the world inside the atom. I would suggest that this strange world is one place the brain is simply not wired to understand. Oh sure, we can write equations and predict the results of experiments to umpty-ump decimal places, but there remains something essentially unknowable about the inside of the atom. It is the challenge of taking on this world and, if not explaining it, at least explaining why it is unexplainable that Louisa Gilder tackles in The Age of Entanglement.

Some background: Inside the atom everything, including matter and energy, comes in little bundles called "quanta." (The name derives from the Latin for "bundle" or "heap.") The old word for the science of motion is "mechanics," so the science that applies inside the atom, the study of the motion of things that come in bundles, is called "quantum mechanics." The basics of the science were developed in the early 20th century, and a major shift in the field took place with the discovery of what is now called "entanglement," in the 1960s and '70s. Gilder, therefore, splits her narrative into two parts, one dealing with early developments, the other with entanglement and its ramifications.

I'm not sure if the reviewer is using the example of "inside the atom" because this is what Gilder is using, but this is rather misleading at best. QM isn't about everything "inside the atom". A free electron can also be governed by QM (see the double-slit expt using free electrons, or any low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), etc... etc.). Furthermore, technically, a conduction electron is not "inside the atom", but rather isn't localize to any particular atom or location. Yet, QM is certainly applicable and more accurate here.

One can, of course, see an inconsistent with the description because the book is also describing quantum entanglement, which typically is demonstrated using light OUTSIDE of an atom. So that passage quote above not only gives a misleading impression that QM is only inside an atom, but anyone paying attention would also be confused by it.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

What You Wrote Is Not What They Understood

Here's a clear example of what you write and intended is not what the general public understood. Even with something that has received numerous publicity and magazine/newspaper coverage, and with numerous articles being written about it, the LHC at CERN can still be severely misunderstood, and we're not talking about crackpot "blackhole will destroy our universe" type of misunderstanding.

I'm guessing that this article is simply a light-hearted, amusing news column. Still, it reveals what someone untrained in physics understood out of one of the many articles on the LHC. There are many strange and erroneous statements and understanding here:

When this carnival ride is cranked up, it will only operate when slightly above absolute zero, the temperature of way, way out deep space.
Remember, it all started with the atom, a unit of energy, and following every disintegrating blast, the shed energy particles got smaller—so small they are only theories.
Now, we’re down to the boson particle, named after a guy named Higgs who thinks the boson could be the base particle of all particles.
We have Nobel Prize winners who think this little spark is how it all began. If you have come this far, you have to take my explanations as simplified by ignorance, and very possibly incorrect, but like the blasting for bosons, I’ll keep theorizing.
The sneaky side deal in particle physics is chasing the single-deity, creation theory. The proof of a single spark theory could suggest a finite universe conclusion, putting pressure on the infinity argument.
If the Hadron Collider operates in its own curvilinear body, moving energy and particles to form new bodies and release energy, those creations diffuse in spherical fields, suggesting infinity to me.


Note that I'm not criticizing the author here. He understood what he understood. And he can only understand things based on the "frame" that he knows. That's how we all learn, i.e. we process information that we received based on the ideas that we had already built and understood. This author understood the concept of the atom, and that's why he thinks that's the "unit of energy" and everything starts from there.

What is important here is the need to realize, especially by those writing science articles to the general public, that the public often understands things differently than what is written and intended. I've seen this happens to many times that it is no longer funny. Just because there are numerous information on something, doesn't mean that they all could convey the accurate information to the recipients. The LHC had tons of articles written and mentioned about it, yet one can still understand it incorrectly.

Helen Quinn's essay on the plea about language is more relevant and appropriate here. A careful consideration of what is being mentioned is imperative, and a very thorough consideration of the level of understanding of the target audience must done. Scientists and science writers must not just pat themselves on their backs after presenting some science ideas to the general public. This, by no means, implies that they general public received the intended message. As we can see here, what goes in does not necessarily be the same thing that sticks and stays in.


A Tale of Two Book Reviews

I mentioned my disagreement and discomfort with an earlier review of "The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn" by Louisa Gilder. What was written in that review presented either erroneous view of physics, or something completely far out that appears to reveal the author to be someone who only understood her subject matter superficially.

Now, along comes another review of the same book. Compare to the earlier review, this one sounds benign, and almost completely positive.

Culling the letters, journals and published articles of the most accomplished scientific minds of the past two centuries, Gilder creates a movingly human and surprisingly accessible picture of the unveiling of the quantum universe—one of the most infuriating, counter-intuitive and yet crucial concepts of all time.

There's no interview with the author to reveal what she knows (or don't know) about quantum mechanics, and no silly extrapolation of QM into weird areas like "telepathy". If I had read only something like this, it would have been a book that I would have recommended and may even try to read.

This whole episode is an example on how doing a book tour or publicity can backfire.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Latest LHC Press Release

Here's the latest press release on the LHC:

LHC to restart in 2009

Geneva, 5 December 2008. CERN* today confirmed that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will restart in 2009. This news forms part of an updated report, published today, on the status of the LHC following a malfunction on 19 September.

"The top priority for CERN today is to provide collision data for the experiments as soon as reasonably possible," said CERN Director General Robert Aymar. "This will be in the summer of 2009."

The initial malfunction was caused by a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator's magnets. This resulted in mechanical damage and release of helium from the magnet cold mass into the tunnel. Proper safety procedures were in force, the safety systems performed as expected, and no one was put at risk.

Detailed studies of the malfunction have allowed the LHC's engineers to identify means of preventing a similar incident from reoccurring in the future, and to design new protection systems for the machine. A total of 53 magnet units have to be removed from the tunnel for cleaning or repair, of these, 28 have already been brought to the surface and the first two replacement units have been installed in the tunnel. The current schedule foresees the final magnet being reinstalled by the end of March 2009, with the LHC being cold and ready for powering tests by the end of June 2009.

"We have a lot of work to do over the coming months," said LHC project Leader Lyn Evans, "but we now have the roadmap, the time and the competence necessary to be ready for physics by summer. We are currently in a scheduled annual shutdown until May, so we're hopeful that not too much time will be lost."

Full details of the timetable to restart are available in the report published today.


Can Scientists Believe In Change?

A sobering article about all the optimism regarding a possible funding boost for science when Barak Obama takes over. While he certainly has made promises to boost science funding, and while congress certainly is "enthusiastic" about science, the reality of the current economic crisis certainly would cause everyone to pause and take stock, so to speak.

So how likely is Obama to bring science the new day that his ecstatic supporters expect? According to savvy Washington observers, the cost-free changes--several of them extremely important--will very likely happen as soon as the new Administration takes over. Obama is expected to swiftly end the ban on federal research using post-2001 embryonic stem cells and to restore the influence of mainstream science in the high councils of the government.

But his other, pricier promises--including the overall boost in funding, steps to improve opportunities for young researchers, and a greater support for risky research--will, according to savvy Washington observers, take a good deal longer to come true, if in fact they ever do. Obama will arrive in a capital beset by monumental challenges, including a huge budget deficit, a worldwide financial meltdown, a distressed populace demanding action on jobs and health insurance, a nearly decade-long backlog of undone infrastructure projects, and a pair of intractable wars. And he will have to fashion solutions to these immense problems using severely straitened resources.

I think everyone working in science is expecting things will be rough for at least another year in terms of funding. So I'm not optimistic about the FY09 budget that has yet to be formed. The only question is whether many parts of science can hang on for a while longer till things improve?


Demonstration of Newton's First Law on YouTube

I'm guessing that a lot of people have seen this, but in case you haven't, you should.

This is a clear example of Newton's First Law, which says that an object in motion will want to remain in motion with the contest velocity, or if it is at rest, will want to stay at rest. The example of the latter is when you can pull a table cloth very quickly from underneath all the plates and cups that were on it. In this video, think of the shopping cart as the plants and cups, and the floor of the truck as the table cloth, and you get the idea.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Pauling Blog

The good folks running The Pauling Blog at the Oregon State University kindly informed me of the existence of this blog, and I'm highlighting it now. Check it out. It covers a lot of issues and history surrounding Linus Pauling, including a very good historical documents on the development of quantum mechanics.

I have included the link to this the Pauling Blog in my collection of links as well.


Live Webcasts of 2008 Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies and Nobel Lectures

If you are into this or have nothing better to do, here's your chance to watch the webcast of the Nobel Prize ceremony LIVE., the official website of the Nobel Foundation, will provide live webcasts of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony from Oslo, Norway and the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony from Stockholm, Sweden on 10 December 2008. Nobel Lectures on 7-8 and 10 December will also be webcasted. will be bringing you closer to the 2008 Nobel Laureates as they receive their Nobel Prizes, by providing live webcasts of the 2008 Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies and Nobel Lectures as they happen. The schedules and links for the live webcasts are as follows:

Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies

10 December, 12:50 pm - 2:15 pm (CET): Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony at the Oslo City Hall, Norway.

10 December, 4:30 pm - 6:00 pm (CET): Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, for the 2008 Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and the Laureate in Economics.

Nobel Lectures

Sunday, 7 December at 1:00 p.m. - 3.30 p.m. (CET):

Nobel Lectures in Physiology or Medicine

Sunday, 7 December 5:30 p.m. (CET): Nobel Lecture in Literature

Monday, 8 December 9:00 a.m. - 11:05 a.m. (CET): Nobel Lectures in Physics

Monday, 8 December 12:30 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. (CET): Nobel Lectures in Chemistry

Monday, 8 December 3:00 p.m. - 3:50 p.m. (CET): Prize Lecture in Economics

Wednesday, 10 December, 1:00 p.m. (CET): Nobel Lecture in Peace

For the full schedule and titles of the lectures, please visit:

If you miss it, you can watch it later, on demand.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Google Maps Off On Argonne As Well!

This is getting way too hysterical.

I mentioned last time that Google Maps had pointed to the wrong location when one types "Fermilab" in the search box. That appears to have been corrected now.

So just out of curiosity, I tried other national labs. All my searches use the full name, i.e. Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, etc.

Brookhaven and Los Alamos came out accurately.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory pointed to me, at least initially, some place way wrong, and then when I shortened it to "Berkeley National Laboratory", it got it right. The same with Lawrence Livermore. I had to simply enter "Livermore National Laboratory".

But the funniest part is when I tried doing a search on "Argonne National Laboratory". If you think Google Maps was off by 15 miles for Fermilab, try getting it wrong by a whole state! "Argonne National Laboratory", according to Google Maps, is somewhere in the middle of the state of Wisconsin!

Go ahead and try it. :)

I think I have way too much time on my hands..... :)


The Placebo Effect

More results from studies involving the placebo effect. This time, there may be a genetic marker that causes someone to be more susceptible to the placebo effect than others.

This all boils down to how we accept something to be "real" or valid. This is an important aspect in science, and especially in the field of medicine.

To get a drug to market, pharmaceutical companies have to show that it works better than a placebo.

I think that is a very important statement, and something that the "alternative medicine" community seems to want to ignore. This is what we call careful, scientific study. If you claim that B causes A, then there must be a clear connection between A and B, and that A can only be caused by B in a controlled manner. In other words, A can not have been caused also by C, or D, etc. In alternative medicine, the effect is VERY small, and small enough that it can't discount not only the placebo effect, but also random chance.


What Is Science?

I don't think you can get a more compact answer on "What Is Science" than this article, even though I think that isn't the main purpose of the article.

In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.

Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.

This is why I proposed the revamping of the intro physics labs, with the aim towards the students that are NOT physics/science majors. It is one of the few classes they will have where they can acquire such skill that a scientist must have.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Google Maps Off On Fermilab?

This is probably old news as well, but it is rather amusing.

A report here mentioned that Google Maps got the location of Fermilab rather wrong.

Now officials at Fermilab are baffled by another mystery – why does Google Maps show Fermi National Accelerator Lab as being along Route 47 between McDonald and Burlington roads when its campus is located in Batavia, 15 miles east of that location?

That's funny! :)

Anyway, I think Google may have corrected it. I did a quick search on "Fermilab" using Google Maps, and this is what I got.

It points to an entrance into Fermilab, which is fine. At least it's not 15 miles away! :)


Japanese Nobel Prize Winner To Give Nobel Speech In...... Japanese!

I'm not even sure why this would be an issue.

Toshihide Maskawa, one of this year's Nobel recipients for Physics, will give his Nobel prize lecture in Japanese, simply because he isn't proficient in English.

I must admit that till now, I thought that it is common for Nobel prize lectures to be given in a language that the winner is comfortable in. Obviously, most tend to give such lectures in English since that is widely used. Still, I thought it would be more common than this that a non-English lecture would have been given.

But then again, in physics, English is such a "necessary" language if one wishes to publish in all the leading journals and get wide exposure. Still, great for Maskawa to stick to what he's comfortable with.


Monday, December 01, 2008

NAS Announces Initiative to Connect With Entertainment Industry

Remember the post on the Top 10 scientifically inaccurate movies? Well, there's no excuse from the movie industry anymore.

The National Academy of Sciences has formed "The Science and Entertainment Exchange" (SEE). The main purpose of this is to advice movie makers on accurately portraying scientific and technological concepts, and to make sure they don't make obvious science blunders, I suppose.

Relying on the special connections available to the NAS, the Exchange can make introductions, schedule briefings, and arrange for consultations for anyone developing science-based entertainment content. Endorsed by the Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and Women in Film, this new resource is being promoted to all levels of writers, directors, producers, and others in the entertainment industry. Professionals involved in the creative process may contact the Exchange to be connected with scientists, engineers, health professionals, and other experts for help with their productions and stories.

I'm not sure how popular this become. I can see how movies with a direct science/technology/mathematics/etc subject matter (i.e. Contact, A Beautiful Mind) would benefit from such accurate advice, but for movies without a direct science subject matter (i.e. action/adventure), why would they care of the movie is scientifically sound? Have you seen the latest Indiana Jones movie? How many times are you asked to suspend all knowledge of physics in that one? Would Lucas/Speilberg want to seek advice from such an organization?


Resolving Vacuum Fluctuations in an Electrical Circuit by Measuring the Lamb Shift

This is an amazing feat.

A group at ETH-Zurich and Sherbrooke, Canada, managed to show how quantum vacuum fluctuation can produce a Lamb shift type effect in a many-body system that is a superconducting electronic circuit[1]!

Abstract: Quantum theory predicts that empty space is not truly empty. Even in the absence of any particles or radiation, in pure vacuum, virtual particles are constantly created and annihilated. In an electromagnetic field, the presence of virtual photons manifests itself as a small renormalization of the energy of a quantum system, known as the Lamb shift. We present an experimental observation of the Lamb shift in a solid-state system. The strong dispersive coupling of a superconducting electronic circuit acting as a quantum bit (qubit) to the vacuum field in a transmission-line resonator leads to measurable Lamb shifts of up to 1.4% of the qubit transition frequency. The qubit is also observed to couple more strongly to the vacuum field than to a single photon inside the cavity, an effect that is explained by taking into account the limited anharmonicity of the higher excited qubit states.

Again, an amazing accomplishment. Note also that, as with the Schrodinger Cat-type experiment, this work also use superconducting system to be able to demonstrate the long-range coherence that is required in such an experiment. As Carver Mead has said, a superconductor is the clearest manifestation of quantum effects at the macroscopic scale. That's why it is typically used in these studies.


[1]A. Fragner et al. "Resolving Vacuum Fluctuations in an Electrical Circuit by Measuring the Lamb Shift", Science v.322, p.1357 (2008).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Virginia's "Flexbook" Update

I mentioned more than a year ago about the report on the state of Virginia (in the US) effort to produce an only wiki-style textbooks for the science classes. These flexbooks will be used by high school students, and edited/written by teachers in the various subject areas.

The Washington Post has a more recent article
on this effort. It looks like it is going online some time in February next year.

Virginia's experiment with the "flexbook," one of the first state-sponsored efforts to digitize course content with teachers, offers a glimpse at how the Internet could alter the curriculum.

The state is partnering with CK-12, a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley that offers "next-generation textbooks" in physics, math, and biology online. The nonprofit also offers software to help school systems develop their own content. In the District, an experiment with flexbooks is underway at Jefferson Junior High School.

This is not such a bad idea. However, there has to be a strict quality control with something like that, especially when it gets to be quite larger later on, as it inevitably will. That's the problem with Wikipedia. The advantage of this Flexbook is that it appears that the editing/writing will be done by experts/teachers in each field, and will be looked on by others as well. So quality control may be higher.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hawking Moves To The Perimeter Institute

The big news of the week, of course, was the announcement that Stephen Hawking has accepted a post at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario Canada. This follows an earlier rumor of his move (which Cambridge initially denied), and then his retirement from the Lucasian chair at Cambridge.

Hawking, who is due to retire as Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge next year when he turns 67, will however retain links with Cambridge. "I look forward to building a growing partnership between PI and our Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge," he says. "Our research endeavour is global, and by combining forces I believe we will reap rich rewards."

Besides, as theorists, do people really have to be at a particular location all the time? I know there's a lot of benefit at being able to talk to others and hash out one's ideas, or even gather ideas from other people. But this is definitely not the same as the case for experimentalists where one HAS to be at a particular location to be able to do the work. So Hawking can still be back at Cambridge, and make a few trips a year to PI.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Interview with Anton Zeilinger

My thanks to Simon at IoP for giving me the heads up on this video.

During Anton Zeilinger's visit to the IOP we took the opportunity to talk to him about his life, his interests and motivations, and his views on the future of quantum theory and quantum information. This interview is accessible to anyone who is curious about physics, and what it means to be a physicist.

Part 1

Part 2


Inside the World of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking needs another news review of his life/work/contribution like we need another crackpot on the internet. But here it is, another one. This time, a short look at the world of Stephen Hawking by Discover magazine.

To all those celebrating the holiday, Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

LHC Update

There was a meeting that took place on Nov. 25 between the CERN management, the LHC project managements, and the various experimental groups. Below is a summary of the current LHC repairs:

- A lot of progress has been made in developing diagnostic procedures (calorimetry) and tools to make sure that no other bad splices are 'hidden' in the machine.
- Moving out of magnets affected by the incident has started. It is foreseen to remove 39 dipoles, including 6 (3 at each side) in a buffer zone. These magnets should not be affected but will be re-tested just to confirm that the limits of the affected region are understood. 14 SSS quadrupoles will also be moved out.
- All magnets to be brought to the surface should be out before the Christmas shutdown. By then 20 dipoles should already be back in the machine. The plan is to install the first dipole (from the set of spares) already this week.
- The test bench (for cold testing) is a limiting factor. Capacity to be ramped up after connection of 18 kW plant (now 6 kW) in February 2009.
- Last magnet should be back in end of March 2009; whole machine cold again beginning of July. This means optimistically: first beam in the machine end of July.
- Many activities are going on in parallel in the tunnel, but are not (and should not come) on the critical path (work on flanges, relief valves, cabling).
- Point of concern of experiments: access conditions in experimental caverns and service caverns. Is being looked into by/with Safety Commission (SC).

So things are still on track from the initial estimate on when the LHC might be back up and running. Fingers crossed!


Fe-based Superconductors: Unity or Diversity?

This is a short review article on the Fe-based superconductor in conjunction with a paper published in Nature Materials. However, it provides a nice summary of the Fe-based superconductors, especially on the important question of whether the Fe-based superconductor shares a similar behavior with the cuprate superconductors, or if they are of an entirely new physics. Based on the paper of J. Zhao et al. (Nature Mater. 7, 953 (2008)) which is being reviewed here, the conclusion is that the Fe-based family is similar to the cuprates.

Of course, at this stage of the game, this is still controversial, and it will take quite a bit more work to have a consensus. With the cuprate superconductor still yielding many surprises and disagreement, this could take a while.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fermilab on Film

Here's a very good preview on the upcoming PBS's Independent Lens "The Atom Smashers". It is scheduled to start premiering on PBS stations in the US on Nov. 25, 2008 (today).

The documentary focuses on the period between early 2006 and late 2007, and there is plenty of material for filmmakers Clayton Brown, Monica Long Ross and Andrew Suprenant to explore here. Over the course of the film, scientific enthusiasm collides with sharp budget cuts and promising results that don’t pan out — all while a neon “doomsday clock” marking the days, hours and minutes to LHC’s first collisions ticks down in the background.

Certainly something to look out for.

Edit: link from Symmetry Breaking on this story.


Monday, November 24, 2008

High-Energy Physics in a New Guise

I pointed out an article on symmetry breaking in which many of the origin of the principle came from condensed matter theory and experiments. In an article that appeared on the APS's "Physics", it goes the other way in which a basic theory of elementary particle/field theory can be analogously demonstrated in a condensed matter system. The concept of axions can now be demonstrated in a class of topological insulators.

In a paper appearing in Physical Review B, however, Xiao-Liang Qi, Tayor Hughes, and Shou-Cheng Zhang of Stanford University [2] show that a term ΔL_axion, analogous to what was predicted in high-energy physics, is present in the theoretical description of a class of crystalline solids called topological insulators.

Here's another example where condensed matter system actually can be a testbed for many fundamental concepts that may not be as difficult to test when compared to what is required in high energy physics experiments.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Spontaneous Broken Symmetry

This is a very good article describing the importance of the subject area of spontaneous broken symmetry, in which this year's Nobel Prize was given for. In particular, it focuses on Nambu's contribution to it. What I find fascinating, and what I've been trying to argue all along, is the connection between what people normally associate with elementary particle physics, and condensed matter physics. The article explicitly described how the idea of broken symmetry actually came out of condensed matter, and in particular, out of the theory of superconductivity.

It was Yoichiro Nambu who introduced the concept of SSB in elementary particle physics, for which he has been chosen for this year’s Nobel award. In 1956, John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer (BCS) found the long-sought theory to understand the puzzle of superconductivity (Nobel Prize, 1972), a mechanism by which electricity suddenly begins to conduct with zero resistance in certain materials under certain conditions. They showed that in the quantum domain lattice vibrations caused electrons to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between them and combine to form bound states, called Cooper pairs. Nambu tried to understand the BCS theory in terms of the breaking of the gauge symmetry of electromagnetism. It took two years for him to solve this problem. Through this formulation, he discovered SSB in the language of quantum field theory used in particle physics.

Nambu realised the crucial fact that for SSB to occur the properties of the “vacuum”, or the ground state of the theory, were important. He observed that in SSB, while the fundamental equations respected a symmetry, the ground state need not. In superconductivity, he showed that the vacuum was a charged state, with a charge of -2, formed by the “condensation” of Cooper pairs and was not an empty state with zero charge. This broke the gauge symmetry of electromagnetism. The really bold assumption that Nambu made in 1960 was to extend the idea that SSB could also exist in theories of elementary particles. (“The term spontaneous symmetry breaking,” says Nambu, “is not a succinct one. But it has stuck for lack of a better one.”) It is the mathematical tools that he developed in this context that have found applications in the Standard Model and in the Higgs mechanism.

So if anyone ever argues with you that the study of condensed matter isn't "fundamental", you point to him/her this very fact.


Saturday, November 22, 2008


A few pictures of the ATLAS building/area at CERN.

The ATLAS Detector building

Entrance to the ATLAS building

The "fishbowl". The control room that has now become a public display area, much to the consternation of those who have to work there.

The infamous globe at CERN.


Friday, November 21, 2008

QCD - The Source of Everyday Mass

Reported in this week's issue of Science, a new ab initio theoretical calculation using lattice QCD has produced a good agreement between the mass of various nucleons and other hadrons. This work was done by Durr et al.[1]

As reviewed in the Perspective by Andreas S. Kronfeld in the same issue of Science, this means that the source of our everyday mass lies in QCD.

Almost all of the mass (or weight) of the world we live in comes from atomic nuclei, which are composed of neutrons and protons (collectively called "nucleons"). Nucleons, in turn, are composed of particles called quarks and gluons, and physicists have long believed that the nucleon's mass comes from the complicated way in which gluons bind the quarks to each other, according to the laws of quantum chromodynamics (QCD). A challenge since the introduction of QCD has been to carry out an ab initio calculation of the nucleon's mass. On page 1224 of this issue, Dürr et al. (4) report the first such calculation that incorporates all of the needed physics, controls the numerical approximations, and presents a thorough error budget. Because these accurate calculations agree with laboratory measurements, we now know, rather than just believe, that the source of mass of everyday matter is QCD.

It is now up to the LHC to show that this premise is correct.

Dürr et al. start with QCD's defining equations and present a persuasive, complete, and direct demonstration that QCD generates the mass of the nucleon and of several other hadrons. These calculations teach us that even if the quark masses vanished, the nucleon mass would not change much, a phenomenon sometimes called "mass without mass" (19, 20). It then raises the question of the origin of the tiny up and down quark masses. The way nature generates these masses, and the even tinier electron mass, is the subject of the LHC, where physicists will explore whether the responsible mechanism is the Higgs boson or something more spectacular.

Edit: there's a coverage of this on Nature's daily news. {the link is open for free only for a limited time}


[1] S. Dürr et al., Science v.322, p.1224 (2008).

Scientists As Financial Analysts/Quantitative Analysts

The timing of these two articles is all wrong, especially with the meltdown of the financial sector. Oh sure, each of them acknowledges this fact, but somehow managed to put a spin on it and seem to imply that this is the perfect time to consider a job on Wall Street. I'm highly skeptical of it.

In any case, these two articles from Science Career section actually do a good job in clarifying what scientists, especially theoretical physicists, can do in the financial sector, and why they are sought-after (before all the economic crisis, that is). It certainly explains what type of skills they are looking for.

Scientists as financial analysts
Scientists as quantitative analysts

At least now, you have a bit more information on your option if and when the financial sector recovers.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remains of Copernicus Found?

I didn't know that no one knew where Copernicus was buried. I got to read a bit more.

Anyway, there's news that they may have found the remains of Copernicus.

Researchers believe they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton they have found with that of hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books.

Jerzy Gassowski, an academic at an archaeology school in Poland, also says facial reconstruction of the skull his team found buried in a cathedral in Poland closely resembles existing portraits of Copernicus, whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Maybe now they can go look for Mozart next.


Excess of High Energy Electrons Coming From Dark Matter?

While PAMELA's results still have not been published yet, it appears that another collaboration has published a similar finding that detected the surplus of high energy cosmic ray electrons that can be attributed to a particular model of dark matter.

As reported in this week's issue of Nature:

The Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC), an experiment to search for charged particles from space, has spotted a surplus of high-energy electrons coming from somewhere in the cosmos. Although the interpretation is far from certain, the electrons could be produced by dark matter — previously undetected particles that physicists believe make up 85% of all matter in the Universe.

Whatever it is, this observation seems to be consistent with what PAMELA reported. We have to wait for PAMELA results to be published.

In any case, here is the complete citation for the ATIC paper:

J. Chang et al., Nature v.456, p.362 (2008).

Don't miss the News and Views article covering this work in the same issue of Nature.


The International Space Station Celebrates 10 Years (Yawn!)

The International Space Station (ISS) turns 10 years old today. Big Freaking Deal!

For $100 billion dollars, what did we get?

Its objective also has shifted over the years. NASA views the space station as essentially a place to learn more about astronaut health and other issues that could make or break future expeditions to the moon, Mars and beyond. Before, the emphasis was supposed to be on basic scientific experiments, like protein crystals and cell tissue.

I bet you that if it was sold in the very beginning as "a place to learn more about astronaut health and other issues that could make or break future expeditions to the moon, Mars and beyond", it would NOT have been funded, and certainly not for $100 billion, to build a glorified human lab.

The only saving grace for the ISS is (or was) the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and even that got canned until recently because they were more interested in finishing building the ISS (for what?) rather than actually making it useful.

The ISS currently is a symbol of wasteful spending on something disguised as science.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASA and DOE signed MOU on JDEM

If the acronyms in the title haven't lost you yet, then you may know something about it. :)

NASA and the US Dept. of Energy today signed a memorandum of understanding to implement the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM).

WASHINGTON, Nov 19, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire via COMTEX/ -- NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have signed a memorandum of understanding for the implementation of the Joint Dark Energy Mission, or JDEM. The mission will feature the first space-based observatory designed specifically to understand the nature of dark energy.

Dark energy is a form of energy that pervades and dominates the universe. The mission will measure with high precision the universe's expansion rate and growth structure. Data from the mission could help scientists determine the properties of dark energy, fundamentally advancing physics and astronomy.

"Understanding the nature of dark energy is the biggest challenge in physics and astronomy today," said Jon Morse, director of astrophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "JDEM will be a unique and major contributor in our quest to understand dark energy and how it has shaped the universe in which we live."

One of the most significant scientific findings in the last decade is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The acceleration is caused by a previously unknown dark energy that makes up approximately 70 percent of the total mass energy content of the universe. This mission has the potential to clarify the properties of this mass energy. JDEM also will provide scientists with detailed information for understanding how galaxies form and acquire their mass.

"DOE and NASA have complementary on-going research into the nature of dark energy and complementary capabilities to build JDEM, so it is wonderful that our agencies have teamed for the implementation of this mission," said Dennis Kovar, associate director of the DOE Office of Science for High Energy Physics.

In 2006, NASA and DOE jointly funded a National Research Council study by the Beyond Einstein Program Assessment Committee to assist NASA in determining the highest priority of the five proposed missions in its Beyond Einstein program. In September 2007, the committee released its report and noted that JDEM will set the standard in precisely determining the distribution of dark energy in the distant universe. The committee recommended that JDEM be the first of NASA's Beyond Einstein missions to be developed and launched. Following the committee's report, NASA and DOE agreed to proceed with JDEM.

The importance of understanding dark energy also has been emphasized in a number of other significant reports from the National Research Council, the National Science and Technology Council, and the Dark Energy Task Force.

For more information about JDEM, including the signed memorandum of understanding, visit:



God and Evolution Can Co-Exist?

This isn't as bad as I thought it would be, especially when you read the end of the news report, but I'm still not convinced.

This article reports on the point of view of Karl W. Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts, who "... remains a believer as well as a scientist..."

Read it, I guess he is more moderate and pragmatic than those blind fundamentalists. However, towards the end, when he's being questioned by Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, that's when things start to lose some credibility in my book:

Shermer followed up, asking Giberson, then why believe in God at all?

"It makes the world so much more interesting," Giberson said. "The mystery of God’s existence is a more satisfying mystery than the mystery of how can all this arise out of a particle."

That's very lame! But it got worse.

But what is your evidence, Shermer said, for belief in God?

"I was raised believing in God, so for me, the onus would be on someone to stop me from believing," Giberson said, adding that "there is a certain momentum that is already there."

Shermer said, so "you’re stepping off the page of science."

"Absolutely," Giberson said, but added that he thinks science will soon nail down a definition of consciousness that will make God's intentions more clear.

That's when he lost me.

Let's try this: "Giberson, I believe that you are crazy, mentally ill, and should be locked up. Now the onus is on you to prove to me that you're not". Or what about this? "Giberson, I believe that you'll commit murder at some time in the future and should be locked up now. Now the onus is on your to prove to me that I'm wrong."

He doesn't see how absurd that is? And he doesn't understand why religion and science doesn't get along?


Obama's Transition Team Begins Reviews US Science Agencies and Policies

It has been reported that the transition team for President-Elect Barak Obama has begun a review of the various US science agencies and their policies.

They are all filled with prominent people, but I see only one physicist on the team (Henry Kelly). I suppose every branch gets one representative....


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Physics And Chemistry Of Turkey Cooking

In the US, it is almost a week before the Thanksgiving holidays. With turkey being the traditional meal, I thought it would be timely and appropriate to highlight an article on the physics and chemistry of turkey cooking, or cooking an almost perfect bird.

Can't guarantee that you'll cook the perfect turkey after reading this, but it sure is informative! :)


The Scandal of Quantum Mechanics

I've came across this letter to the editor for about a month, but only now remember to make a comment on this, so it's a bit "stale". But what the hey....

This letter was published in the Nov. 2008 issue of AJP, written by N. G. van Kampen of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He was responding to an article published earlier in the same journal by Hrvoje Nikolić titled "Would Bohr be born if
Bohm were born before Born?".

I wouldn't say that van Kampen's views on this is exactly like mine, but I think I can concur with him at the minor annoyance at the continued problems among physicists at reconciling that the "quantum world" may not be anywhere similar to the "classical world", and that all of these conceptual difficulties could be entirely due to us using classical concepts and forcing it to work in the quantum regime. For example, he wrote this:

The difficulty is that the authors are unable to adjust their way of thinking—and speaking—to the fact that phenomena on the microscopic scale look different from what we are accustomed to in ordinary life. That two electrons far apart may be entangled seems strange to someone who still thinks of electrons as individual particles rather than as manifestations of a wave function.

This is what I mean by forcing our classical concepts into the quantum world. There's nothing a priori that indicates that such an exercise is meaningful, or even valid. We simply do it because we are familiar with the classical world, not that we know the classical concept works in the quantum regime. Thus, we still use the concepts of classical particle, energy, position, momentum, etc... in extracting information from the classical regime, mainly because we don't have anything else to use, but we shouldn't fool ourselves that these concepts are meaningful there.

van Kempen went on to tackle quickly the issue of the double-slit experiment, the "measurement problem", and possibly the "Schrodinger Cat".

If you access to AJP, this might be something you want to read.


Monday, November 17, 2008

LHC Repairs Is Expected To Cost $21 Million

So the repairs to the damaged sectors of the LHC is going to cost roughly $21 million. But that's $21 million out of $10 billion it costs to build it? Small change!


Friday, November 14, 2008

Astronomers See Exoplanets for First Time

Certainly the big news of the week is the direct observation for the first time of planets orbiting other stars.

The new observations required the latest, most sophisticated versions of two technologies. Large ground-based telescopes had to be fitted with so-called adaptive optics that compensate for the blurring effects of the atmosphere. These observatories and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope also needed equipment to block most of the light from a central star.

With such modified scopes, astronomers led by Christian Marois of the National Research Council's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, Canada, spotted three objects near a star 128 light-years away designated HR 8799. Another team, led by Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley, found an additional exoplanet near the star Fomalhaut, just 25 light-years away and one of the brightest stars in the sky. All of the objects appeared to orbit their stars, fulfilling one requirement for a bona fide exoplanet detection.

This is all well and good, but have they found ET's home yet?



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Quantum Physics Through Conversation

... but it's beginning to sound more like idle chat, rather than a rational conversation.

This news article is highlighting an appearance by the author Louisa Gilde to talk about her book "The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn". That's fine and dandy, but there's so many things that are wrong with the article itself, I don't know where to begin!

This reaction is called entanglement. Physicists have described it with words like telepathy, teleportation, ghost waves. And for more than 30 years, established physics denied that it existed.

Yowzah! Physicists have NEVER called it "telepathy". And for more than 30 years, established physics denied it? When did this happen? As far as I can tell, when EPR came up with the "paradox" for entanglement, no one denied that that is what QM tells us. Since that time, however, there was no way to make any experimental test of EPR-type phenomena until John Bell devised a cleaver way to check for a violation of local realism. That's when things took off, but before that, the discussion and debates were simply on a matter of tastes, since none of them can be tested. But who's denying what here?

Entangled particles can transmit information faster than light.

Not true. It is non-local, yes, but NOTHING is transmitted. We detect NO SIGNAL of any kind (no hidden variables either) that went from one particle to the other. So nothing gets transmitted faster than light. In fact, the whole process of entanglement cannot transmit signal faster than light. This is different than saying the process is non-local, which is not unusual in QM because one can also say that an electron in an atomic orbital is also non-local.

This tension, in fact, kept entanglement from being studied for decades. Even in the late 1990s, Gilder had never met the idea in a physics class, and it did not exist in the index of her textbook, though the first experiments that proved it were published in the 1970s.

In a philosophy of science class, Gilder read a paper by David Mermin explaining entanglement.

"I though, this is why I want to study physics. Why did my professors never tell me about this?" she said. "Clauser is eloquent on how much stigma there was and is" around the idea.

This is very strange. I don't know what she encountered, but entanglement is in any standard QM text even if it isn't called that way! For example, try setting up a 2-spin system and finding the Clebsh-Gordon coefficient. When you look at the spin state equation, those 2 spin are ENTANGLED! Or what about when one deals with a Fermi-Dirac systems? You set up a system with an asymmetric wave function, and often, the spin are aligned in such a way to preserve the asymmetry. When that happens, the spins are entangled! So entanglement is quite present in standard QM classes. She just can't find it the "index of her textbook" because it isn't always called that. But the phenomena is still the SAME and it is there!

Entanglement is a theory, Gilder makes plain, not a mystical vision.

Entanglement is NOT a theory. It is a consequence of the formalism of quantum mechanics, the same way superposition is not a theory. That was the whole point of EPR paper, to apply QM and show that it resulted in an entanglement whereby an apparent superluminal, instantaneous events can take place.

I always find it amazing that people can write whole books on something that they understand only superficially.


Revamping Intro Physics Laboratory - Part 7

{Note: If you wish to follow what has transpired so far in this series, here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3-Follow-up, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.}

This time, we do simple optics. Again, as a reminder of the whole point of this series is that the students should be given the ability to simply EXPLORE these things on their own (with minimal guidance), and come up with some sort of relationship between two different parameters, all based on the physics which they may or may not have learned. Each of these experiments do not require that they have encountered the corresponding material in class. So there really is no "theory" to "prove" or to verify here. It is pure "play".

Part 1

In this part, there is a lighted object, which will be the source, placed "far away". The students are given several convex lenses (with different focal lengths) and some papers as their screens. The object here (no pun intended) is to figure out how to get a focused image of the object onto the screen, without moving any closer to the object itself. The student can certainly vary the location of the screen and, to some extent, the lens itself. Ask them to record the position of the screen with respect to the lens when they find a focused image. Ask them to try it with the different lenses that they were given.

Part 2

Now ask them to start moving closer to the lighted object and see where they get a focused image on the screen using one of the lenses of their choosing. This time, they should record both the distance between the lens and the image and the distance between the lens and the object. Ask them to do this several times, each time getting closer to the object.

If they have the time or wish to explore some more, let them try this with a different lens.


1. Now, you tell them that they should put these numbers in a table, or a chart, or a graph, etc... anything where that might be useful for them to figure out if there is any systematic relationship between (i) the distance between the lens and the screen where the focused image is formed, and (ii) the distance between the lens and the object. Ask them if they can think of how these two parameters are related. Note that we don't expect them to be able to know the thin lens equation, and so, we should not expect them to be able to arrive at such a relationship. But they should be able to notice that as the move closer to the object (thus, the object distance is getting smaller), the focused image will be further away from the lens.

2. You tell them the focal lengths of the lenses that they used. Ask the students to think on how this number (which is a length) relates to all the data that they had collected. If the student is observant enough, he/she will notice that this number corresponds to the distance of the focused image when the objects is "far away", i.e. while they did Part 1 of the experiment. If the student notices this, then ask him/her what she would do if he/she is given a lens with an unknown focal length, and needs to make a quick determination, rough of the focal length.

3. When the students finally got introduced to the thin lens equation, ask them to re-analyze the data, plotting a graph, and using the data to extract the value of the focal length of the lenses. This would be a more accurate determination of the focal length.

Again, these experiments, the way they are designed, do not require any sophisticated knowledge of the accompanying theory. In fact, for this particular experiment, anyone off the street will be able to do it. It simply requires a bit of thinking and common sense to try and figure out the pattern in the observation and the data. The students may not be able to come up with the exact relationship between the parameters, but they need to notice the pattern on what happens to one and you vary the other.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

APS To Sit Down With Obama's Transition Team This Friday

The American Physical Society (APS) will be meeting with members of Barak Obama's transition team this Friday to discuss ways to improve the energy efficiency. I'm sure they will base their recommendation on the recently released report from the APS on energy conservation and efficiency.

Not a bad start if this can have a meaningful outcome. It is certainly more than what George Bush did when he took office.


What Is Worse Than A "Lost Soul"? An Ignorant Lost Soul!

Here's a hint to a freshman English/Journalism major: when you are trying to shore up support for your cause, it is always not a good idea to make a side-swipe at something else that is irrelevant to your point. Not only will you alienate those who could potentially support what you are trying to do, but it makes your case looks WEAK since you are trying to strengthen your case by putting down others, more so when it is done based on utter ignorance of what the others actually do!

This "writer" of an "independent" college newspaper (at least it was independent when I was a student at UW-Madison many years ago) is trying to argue why the study of humanities should be supported. I have zero issues with that. But his argument on why it should be supported took a nasty and condescending attitude towards the sciences, which of course, got my goat!

Today it seems like the emphasis put on math and science in our country has made students satisfied with learning by sitting in lecture and simply regurgitating facts on multiple-choice Scantrons in a mindless Dark Age of their own. Either that or the encouragement math and science students get has warranted their claims that students like myself studying the humanities are “lost souls” or that their degrees are “worthless.”

With math and science majors, their degrees make them highly qualified to many employers because those fields are directly related to the profitable technology industry. These types of students get through college studying the Krebs cycle and the calculus of motion only to reiterate it for their professors on their exams before forgetting it weeks later when a couple thirsty Thursdays wipe their memories clear, leaving them space for new information. Sure, they can dazzle with Darwin’s theory and calculate quantum physics, but in the area of critical thinking, they seem to be lacking.

Holy bunch of crap, Batman!

I won't tackle that issue with students and scientists only regurgitating what they have been taught, because I've already addressed this issue in one of my entries on "Imagination without knowledge is ignorance waiting to happen", and this guy certainly has a LOT of ignorant imagination, for a freshman! Now, the issue of "critical thinking" is something that I've mentioned many times on here, because it is the MAIN reason why I believe that more people should be studying physics/sciences because it emphasize critical and systematic approach to thinking and solving problems, and not just related to science problems. It is the impetus for my series on revamping the introductory undergraduate physics laboratories. I've even given specific examples on how the skill of thinking systematically can be acquired via studying physics and trying to work through a physics problem.

The author here is confusing between rote skills that one also need to be able to work through a problem in math and physics, and the analytical thinking skills that one can acquire when doing such problems. He seems to only see the former. The domain of "critical thinking" isn't a monopoly of the humanities. In fact, I would say that a large part of the sciences does nothing but critical thinking. How else can one explain how major shift in our understanding of the world we live in has occurred? To be able to understand some of the most complex and complicated phenomena in the world require such critical thinking, and not simply regurgitating what has been taught or known! It is why the boundary of our knowledge continues to expand!

In addition to that, even the humanities are coat-tailing on the sciences, especially physics. One only needs to look at various principles of physics that have been adapted into various fields of humanities, highlighted by the bastardization of physics by post-modernism.

Make your argument on why the study of humanities is important today, why it is a necessary component of a civilized society. Don't try to show your importance by taking a swipe at others. It only makes you look like a bitter and angry politician!


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

World's Shortest Physics Lecture? - Follow-Up

I've finally read a news report on what I reported earlier about a science festival that included a 2-minute lecture on quantum mechanics, billed as the world's shortest physics lecture. And from what I've read, it reinforced my earlier point of view that this is nothing more than a gimmick, and people who listened to it is no more informed about what QM is than when they came in.

So why even bother? Why not stop with trying to get the "World's shortest physics lecture" titled, and actually spend some time sitting with a few people, and just talk about physics? It IS possible to educate people that way. The Illinois Science Council project of presenting various physics topics at bars and clubs during their off-peak times looks very useful and promising (I attended one recently on "The Science of Spooky" around Halloween). I can see very clearly how many people learned something new that they didn't realize even existed before. It just that it requires patience and TIME to present the material AND to get questions back from the audience. Learning isn't a one-way street, and one must allow for such discussion. A 2-minute lecture is a useless gimmick.


Fuzziness Of Time May Manifest Itself In Gravitational Measurement Noise?

That seems to be what Craig Hogan of Fermilab/University of Chicago appears to claim in a rather intriguing paper[1] reported in Nature News this morning (link may be available for free for a limited time only). He's claiming that the noise seen in the gravitational wave measurement at GEO600 in Hannover, Germany, could have a predominant component from the limit on the scale of time.

The predictions are based on a lower-dimensional view of spacetime: two spatial dimensions, plus time. Spacetime would be a plane of waves, travelling at the speed of light. The fundamental fuzziness of the waves, on the order of the Planck length and time, could be amplified in large systems such as gravitational-wave detectors. The third spatial dimension of the macroscopic world would be encoded in information contained in the two-dimensional waves. "It's as if, in the real world, we are living inside a hologram," says Hogan. "The illusion is almost perfect. You really need a machine like GEO600 to see it."

Of course, this needs a lot of work and confirmation. Still, it would certainly be an intriguing twist to the search for gravitational wave.


[1] C.J. Hogan, Phys. Rev. D 78, 087501 (2008).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Religious and Scientific Faith in Simplicity

It took a while for me to be able to read through this whole article. At the end, I could have saved some time by simply reading the summary.

The author argues that both religion and science are based on the same fundamental principle of "faith", and this faith is on an assumption of "simplicity", as in Occam's Razor, of our world.

In particular, here I wish to emphasize how both religion and science share an unproved assumption in their common element of faith in simplicity, that simpler explanations for our observations are generally better. There is also the related tacit assumption that the world is at least partially intelligible.

At the end of the article, he re-emphasized again:

In conclusion, I believe both religion and science share a common underlying unproved faith in simplicity. One might argue that the assumption of simplicity has proved itself by working in the past. But this argument depends on the assumption that what has worked in the past is true and will work in the future, which is essentially a special case of the assumption of simplicity that I am arguing is not proved.

Of course, one can take the experience of its working in the past as evidence for its truth, just as one can take religious experience as evidence for the truth of religious beliefs, but ultimately one cannot prove this assumption and can only accept it by faith.

There are several point of contention here that are missing from this entire article:

1. Which part of physics, for example, has been "proved" in the same way that we do in mathematics? All of what we accept to be valid in physics are those that are based on PREVIOUS experimental verifications that have no falsified the valid description. There's nothing here that has been "proven" to the level of mathematical proofs. We know something to be valid within a certain boundary conditions because we haven't seen any experimental observation to the contrary. If and when we do, we will reformulate the theory to correct it, or we know under what conditions the current theory is no longer accurate. Nothing here is "proven". So to single out "simplicity" as cannot be proven is misleading as best. Why didn't he argue that the whole of physics cannot be proven if he's going down that route?

2. However, is the requirement for simplicity valid? It sure is because, as the author himself has said, it has worked before! Again, using purely empirical observations, until we see something to indicate that it doesn't work, we'll stick by it. To argue that something works is a very powerful argument that many, somehow, overlook. There really is not that many things outside of science (and especially physical sciences), where one can unequivocally argue that something works with the same degree of certainty.

3. He skipped the argument for equating what works in physics as being similar to "... religious experience as evidence for the truth of religious beliefs...". This is highly dubious. How does a religious experience be the evidence for the truth of religious beliefs, and how is this even anywhere near the nature of scientific evidence that support the validity of scientific principle? To compare and equate the two is utterly ridiculous. Valid science produces unique principles that everyone agrees on, and more importantly, produces repeated valid measurements. Religious experiences do not produce unique religious beliefs, as evidenced by the numerous religions of the world, and never produce any verified, reproducible evidence/measurements. To equate those two is absurd!

4. Did this person missed Lawrence Krauss's speech and Richard McKenzie's articles? I see no references to either of them. Those certainly would challenge the author's definition of "faith".

On a whole, I was disappointed with the caliber of this article, considering the author's affiliation. I was expecting quite a bit more, but what I read was on the level of a common argument we see on various internet forums and webpages that try so very hard to put science on the same level as religion. I've seen this argument before, so it isn't even anything original, and I've seen plenty of counter argument against it, some of which I've presented above. And if I'm going to present something like this, I certainly would pay attention to stuff already appeared on arXiv!