Friday, October 31, 2008

Pumpkins Prove That Gravity Still Works

As is common during this time of the year, a few pumpkins are sacrificed for the name of science. :)

This activity at Chico State University demonstrated that, lo and behold, gravity still works, and not because the earth really sucks. The fun part of the whole thing is that they had people dressed up as famous scientists - Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Galileo Gallilei and Isaac Newton - to explain the physics of gravity to the audience.

The thing we go to to get students and the public understand basic physics. And those poor pumpkins!



Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution

Continuing my argument on why economics isn't physics (or in the earlier case, why economics will never be like physics), this is such a delicious essay written by Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, head of research of Capital Fund Management and a physics professor at cole Polytechnique in France. The essay appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of Nature.

In the essay, he argued that economists have somehow adopted assumptions into axioms. He illustrated this in a number of ways. I'm trying very hard not to quote almost the whole essay, because it is THAT good, but I'll quote the very pertinent paragraphs that should be of interest:

Classical economics is built on very strong assumptions that quickly become axioms: the rationality of economic agents (the premise that every economic agent, be that a person or a company, acts to maximize his profits), the 'invisible hand' (that agents, in the pursuit of their own profit, are led to do what is best for society as a whole) and market efficiency (that market prices faithfully reflect all known information about assets), for example. An economist once told me, to my bewilderment: "These concepts are so strong that they supersede any empirical observation." As economist Robert Nelson argued in his book, Economics as Religion (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2002), the marketplace has been deified.

Physicists, on the other hand, have learned to be suspicious of axioms. If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient. So many accepted ideas have been proven wrong in the history of physics that physicists have grown to be critical and queasy about their own models.

Unfortunately, such healthy scientific revolutions have not yet taken hold in economics, where ideas have solidified into dogmas. These are perpetuated through the education system: students don't question formulas they can use without thinking. Although numerous physicists have been recruited by financial institutions over the past few decades, they seem to have forgotten the methodology of the natural sciences as they absorbed and regurgitated the existing economic lore.

Try to read the whole essay if you have the chance. It should cause blood to boil among a group of people that shall remain nameless. :)


The Science of Spooky - Follow-Up

I mentioned yesterday about the Illinois Science Council event on the Science of Spooky. I actually went to the event to hear the talk by Julia Mossbridge and Dan Hooper.

Before I write something on it, let me first of all declare (if you haven't been following this blog for a considerable period of time already), that I'm extremely skeptical of paranormal phenomena. So that should give you already the frame of mind that I was in when I attended this event. I don't pretend to have an "open mind", whatever that means. I did intend to listen to the presentation and analyze what I heard based on what I know.

Julia Mossbridge started the evening by describing various Psi research and presenting various 'evidence', based on a number of studies, of these Psi phenomena. I wasn't convinced. Many of these are extremely small effects, and these data were never shown with the statistical spread. So most of these masked the "degree of confidence" that one has on the results. But more on my annoyance about this later.

Dan Hooper then presented a very entertaining analysis of the properties of ghosts. I hope that the audience caught on something very important that could have easily been missed. Dan started out by describing ALL that we know about the properties of ghosts (i.e. it can appear out of nowhere, and it can go through walls, tables, etc.). Then using those observations, try to construct the nature of ghost. In other words, now that we now what it can do, can we figure out what is made of? This is extremely important because this is how science works, especially after an experimental discovery. Now that we know a number of things that it can do, can we formulate a theoretical description of what it is from First Principle? So what he did was demonstrate one way on how science works. To me, this demonstration of the methodology is as important as what he was describing. I just hope the audience realized that.

Anyway, back to these ghosts. He talked about all the various forces that we know of today (electromagnetic, strong, weak, and gravity), and none of them, it seems, can be used to describe ghosts, since all of these forces interact with matter, and since ghosts can pass through matter easily without interacting, then they can't be made up of these forces. So then he tries to look at other types of explanation, and he offered 3:

1. neutrino. In fact, neutrino has sometime been referred to as "ghost particles". Can ghosts be made up of neutrino? Nope. First of all, neutrino can't be localized. Since it barely have any mass, it moves extremely close to the speed of light. So to have it somewhere long enough for human to see would be impossible. Furthermore, neutrinos do have weak and gravitational interaction. So at some point, ghosts can only be detected this way, not by human visual observation. So that rules out neutrinos.

2. Dark matter. Can ghosts be made up of dark matter? This again suffers from the same issue as neutrino, where it requires the dark matter particle to actually be localized long enough, and be observed via EM interaction, which can't be done with dark matter.

3. Extra dimensions. Can it be that whatever particle that makes up ghosts actually live out in the extra dimensional space beyond our 3 spatial dimensions? Dan argued that there has to be something that turns itself on and off with these ghosts particles that will allow it to appear and then disappear from our 3D universe. That is a mechanism that is very hard to explain and be convincing.

In the end, he claimed that Physics cannot explain ghosts, which isn't a surprise to everyone who attended.

What was interesting was the Q&A session that follows. There were of course, a lot of entertaining questions and answers, but I was kicking myself (and I still am) about the response that Julia gave to a question on whether there was any explanation to what causes the Psi phenomena. Her response was that there's no explanation for gravity either!

Now, at that point, I was ready to say something, but since she was still going on with her answer, and other people also chimed in with other related questions, I didn't try to force myself into the middle of it and then at the end, simply let it go. DRAT! Now I'm regretting not responding to that type of response. So I will now vent my response here.

While it is true that at the very fundamental level, we do not know what gravity is, it doesn't mean that we do not understand it or have no clue on what it is. There is a HUGE difference between our understanding of gravity, and our understanding (or lack thereof) of psi. We understand gravity well enough to be able to describe it not just qualitatively, but also QUANTITATIVELY! That's very important, because when you can predict something by putting numbers, it implies that you have understood its behavior very well. However, the most important difference between psi and gravity is the FACT that our knowledge of gravity has continue to GROW. The boundary of our knowledge on gravity, ever since mankind first realize what it is, and ever since Newton and Kepler formulated it, have continued to expand. Einstein's description of gravity via his General Relativity is one prime example of how we know MORE and MORE about gravity, and the fact that we can send space craft to meet up with various celestial bodies and objects is ample proof that we know A LOT about gravity and continue to refine our knowledge of it.

The same can't be said about psi phenomena, and paranormal phenomena in general. After hundreds of years since its purported "discovery" and years and years of study, the field is trying to prove the existence of these phenomena. It is still stuck in first base in trying to show that these things truly are there. All that have been done (and this is certainly the message that I got out of the evening) is that there are now more varied and different ways to try to find it. That's it. After so many years, it is still trying to show that these phenomena truly are there and valid. They still are stuck in the "discovery" phase. This is not even remotely close to resembling what we know about gravity!

One can start to understand why it prompted physicists such as Bob Park to label the whole enterprise as "voodoo science" in his book.

So I regretted not being able to say that as a response. I'm glad that I can get my frustration out by writing it on here, but it is not the same. Still, I had an enjoyable evening, and I hope the Illinois Science Council does more of these things in my neighborhood more often.

Edit: My friend Ben over at Peculiar Velocity has written his version of this fun event.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Coupling of Science and Religion

While I don't quite agree with the conclusion of this article (and I'll explain why in a few minutes), it is still a very good read and I highly recommend it. The author explains why the conflict between science and religion is a rather recent phenomenon, and that throughout the history of human civilization, religion and science have complimented each other. He brought up specific examples from the Islamic and Christian histories where advancement in science and scientific methods were made by devout followers of those religions.

He then mentioned why this conflict is occurring only now, and that in some sense, the blame for such conflicts can be attributed to the extremes in both camps.

I actually don't have that much of a problem with this article, even if I can't fully verify the authenticity of the historical events. However, the conclusion that the reason why the science-religion conflict is only a recent event may not be complete. The author has failed to attribute the change in individual liberty whereby one can now speak against religion without fear of prosecution and even punishment of death! One can easily imagine that during the golden age of Islamic science, and during the Renaissance period, the discussion of the philosophy of science that contradicts such predominant religious beliefs would meant a nasty consequence for those who profess such point of views. The Galileo prosecution is proof of that. It has nothing to do whatsoever with the science. It has everything to do with the inability to voice a contradictory opinion. So it is not that there aren't any conflict between science and religion at that time, it is that climate that allows for one to do that without repercussion was simply not conducive to do that!

It is only within the past half a century or so that such personal liberty to speak on something that isn't widely accepted become common. Scientists now can, in fact, speak freely about scientific results and philosophy that contradicts various aspects of religion without being burnt at the stake. And scientists are also better organized to speak as a voice against the already organized religions. What we hear now is no longer coming solely from one source, but also coming from another source that may not necessarily always agree with the first.

It is like people claiming that in the "old days", there was very little crime such as wife-beating or child abuse, and that times are worst now because we here a lot of such disciple acts. Yet, what has changed is that there is now a better system and better environment where the victims can now report those acts and be protected, whereas back then, such acts remained predominantly unreported.

There is now a "conflict" between science and religion because for the first time in human history, scientists can stand up to religion and talk back. As Steven Weinberg has said:

One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.


The Science of Spooky

These things are always popular around this time of the year. The Illinois Science Council has planned for a fun event here at a very popular bar in my neighborhood. Titled "The Science of Spooky", it will take place at the Cubby Bear sports bar right next to Wrigley Field tonight, at 6:30 pm.

The panel will feature physicist Dan Hooper, an Associate Scientist in the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, along with Julia Mossbridge, Visiting Scholar, Visual Perception, Cognition, and Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Mossbridge will address the scientific evidence to date for anomalous perception, telekinesis and what is generally referred to as ESP. Dr. Hooper will discuss the properties and laws of physics as they apply to the concept of ghosts, specters, and possible witches ability to fly on broomsticks, etc.

It's intriguing enough that I may just show up! Who knows what "trouble" I can stir up, considering my utter skepticism of most paranormal phenomena.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Emergent Relativity

When I posted the link to the paper on Quantum Criticality and Black Holes, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind of reading something on a similar topic a while back. I couldn't quite remember where, and I also couldn't completely rule out that I was simply imagining it.

And viola! I wasn't! Last night when I was about to go to sleep, I suddenly remembered that it might have been something written by Robert Laughlin! So while that kinda ruined my ability to go to sleep immediately, I'm glad that I remembered this morning to look it up, and I found it. It was a speech to honor C.N. Yang's 80th birthday titled "Emergent Relativity".

In it he argued that Relativity is an emergent phenomenon. You'll have to read the paper to figure out how he can make such a claim. But here, he also made the connection between black holes and quantum criticality, just like Sachdev and company.

Of course, Laughlin and other condensed matter physicists such as Anderson and Pines, have always argued for the emergent phenomena as the dominating behavior of our universe. They have continued to argue against the reductionist method of elementary particle physics and string theory/etc. as being the "fundamental" knowledge.

Still, what I definitely like about this Laughlin paper is this particular passage that many people, and sometime even among physicists, often forget:

I believe that physics is an experimental science, and that theory acquires authority by confronting and conforming to experiment, not the other way around. Dealing with a rich experimental record day after day has the additional benefit of giving one a healthy respect for the natural world's ability to surprise and a healthy disrespect for the belief that all things can be calculated from first principles.

Them's fightin' words! :)


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spooky Science Saturday At NIU - Follow-Up

I mentioned earlier about the Spooky Science Saturday at the Northern Illinois University, which went on yesterday. Here's the first news report on this event.

The Haunted Physics Lab and its new companion, the Creepy Chemistry Lab, invaded two floors of Faraday Hall at NIU, tripling the amount of space devoted to 80-plus interactive displays of weird science. Hundreds of kids and their parents shrieked in amazement — not out of terror — as they explored these scientific mysteries.

Sounds like the event went off spooktacularly.


UC Riverside Event Aimed To Boost Physics Careers

The University of California-Riverside had what appears to be a fun physics event on Saturday aimed to boost interest in physics.

"The hidden agenda is to recruit people to think about physical science or engineering careers," said UC Riverside physics professor Harry Tom, chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

He said too many people see physics as a lofty, theoretical subject instead of one that can help them understand how the world works and serve as a gateway to good jobs in high-tech fields.

I have a slightly different take on this. I've done many events which introduced various aspects of physics to the general public and students, and my intentions were very seldom on getting them to major or have a career in physics (that would have been a bonus). Rather, the main intention when I do something like this is

1. Introduce the subject
2. Show how physicists, and scientists in general, tackle a problem or a complicated task/issue
3. Show how physics is highly relevant to our everyday lives
4. Describe how the skill in tackling a physics problem can actually be quite valuable in dealing with other aspect of our life.

The study of physics in school should not be geared towards getting people to major or have a career in physics. Most of us who had to take electives in social science, humanities, literature, etc. didn't take it because we intended to be experts or have a career in those fields. Rather, we take it because it may be an important aspect of a general education to be able to function in society. A physics class should be viewed that way. It should be an integral aspect of learning and living in today's modern society. A physics course, if taught properly, introduce a student on ways to deal with a difficult and new problem, on how to think things through systematically and logically, on how to figure out the main principle or concept involved, and how to translate those concepts into ways that can make the problem solvable. A physics course teaches the students to think things through rationally! These are skills that are not exclusively used only in physics, but everywhere. Someone having such skills would never except some superficial answer from politicians on their economic or political policy, for example.

So the importance of these events to the public and to young students should go beyond just getting them interested in physics to consider a career in it.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Hawking To Retire as Lucasian Professor

Stephen Hawking will retire as Cambridge's Lucasian Professor next year.

A spokesman said it was policy for the title holder to retire at 67. Hawking, who has held the position since 1979 and has worked at Cambridge since 1962, will be 67 in January.

I didn't know that there's an age limit of 67 for that position. That's rather odd! And why such an arbitrary number "67"? Were they only choosing prime numbers? :)


World's Shortest Physics Lecture?

Two people, one an engineer no less (why are engineers so keen on impersonating physicists lately?), are attempting to deliver a lecture on Relativity and another lecture on Quantum Mechanics lasting only 2 minutes each.

He added: "People sometimes ask for a concise account of some of the exciting concepts of modern physics.

"So we thought it would be a good challenge to try to encapsulate two of the key ideas into two minutes each. You could call it a kind of Very Brief History of Time."

This gimmick is rather silly, and it is a gimmick. It isn't a matter of how quickly one can deliver something. It's a matter of what was understood out of something like this. I can condensed anything in 2 minutes, but what have I communicated other than something utterly superficial and full of holes with no details? No where in here was there any consideration on how effective and ACCURATE the information that was passed to the listener.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Physicist and the Economist

I must admit, I don't get the whole point of this particular article. It is a "visualization" (can I call it that?) of a conversation between a physicist and an economist, all written by an engineer (go figure)! I don't get it. Why can't it be a conversation between an engineer and an economist? Especially when this engineer could not really ask questions and provide counter rebuttals that an physicist could?

For example, I would jump all over this one:

The Physicist: I have heard they call your profession the dismal science. Is economics really a science?

The Economist: Yes, I think it you, we start with empirical observations, and then use some of the same math that you use in physics.

Ah, but it is NOT the same. In physics, when we discover a new phenomenon and try to start to understand it, we usually start with some phenomenological model based on our existing understanding (i.e. our model will be crude, but it would not violate any known laws). At this point, yes, I can see how this would be similar to what economist would do. But this is where it differs. As our understanding progresses about the phenomenon, the theoretical description of it evolves until it can be DERIVED via First Principles. In other words, it is no longer simply a phenomenological model that appeared out of nowhere. The model has been replaced by a theory in which the description of the phenomenon has been derived from a set of well-established "axioms" or starting point in physics.

One can clearly see how this is done in the history of conventional superconductivity, for example. The phenomenological model of superconductivity from the London equation was in placed to extract the relevant parameters. It wasn't until the BCS theory do we have a complete description that gives us a complete understanding of the system starting from First Principle. Only then can one declare that we have a good understanding of that phenomenon. It is why we still say that we don't have an accepted understanding of high-Tc superconductors. We haven't figured out all the details and a complete derivation from First Principle that can account for all that we have observed, despite the fact that we have MANY phenomenological model already in place. Is this done in economics where it is derived out of an established First Principle (does "scarcity" have a fundamental mathematical model that is always used as a starting point?)?

Secondly, when we have an established theory, that theory in turn predicts new observations and new phenomena that have never been observed before. So physics also involves the investigation of uncharted territory, not just the description of existing phenomena. The existence of neutrinos and left-handed material are all predictions based on theory way before such things are ever discovered. ALL established theories, not just a few, do that, and do that accurately.

The "physicist" in the article makes another simple and naive statement:

The Physicist: Hmm...that's interesting, in the universe of physics there really is no scarcity...there just is...what is... For each interaction or change the total matter and energy is conserved, that is, we end up with the same amount of matter-energy we started with, so scarcity becomes a rather odd idea...

That's also momentum, charge conjugation, etc.. etc. symmetry/conservation laws to be considered here,not just "energy". And I don't even want to go into the "fundamental particles as building blocks" argument because it will involve a whole different can of worms with emergent phenomena. This whole thing just adds to my earlier point that economics will never be like physics.

I often wish that people would just simply represent things that they know well and leave others well enough alone.

Wow! Now that's already 2 rants for this morning. Am I in a bad mood or what? :)


Activists Decry Weapons Research at UNM

This is one of my "rant" blog post, so if you're not in the mood to hear something like this, I suggest you skip this one.

This article from an "independent" student newspaper for the University of New Mexico, reports on a rather quirky tour for the UNM campus. The tour highlights all the various facilities and parts of the university that received money and does research sponsored by the US military.

The free tours are part of Disorientation Week, organized by the Demilitarization Collective, which aims to raise awareness about weapons research at UNM.

The tours have seven stops from the Bookstore to Scholes Hall and run all week until 4 p.m. with a final tour Saturday at noon.

The tour stops at on-campus ROTC organizations and nuclear, computer and electrical engineering departments at UNM.

That's fine and dandy. I have nothing against people exercising their rights to highlights these things, and even to voice their objection against anything involving military fundings. However, what gets me is the FALSE premise on which this whole thing is built upon.

"Public universities, in particular, have been incorporated into the military-industrial-academic complex," said Andrew Marcum, a Ph.D. student majoring in American Studies.

Marcum said the "military-industrial-academic complex" is an agreement between universities and the military in which funding is exchanged for research that can be used to make weapons.

Whoa! Back up a bit here, Mary! "Military-industrial-academic complex" automatically means "make weapons"?!!!!! What sick, twisted logic school did we graduated from?

The US military is interested in a HUGE amount of things and areas, the majority of them probably have nothing to do with "making weapons". Light-sensitive eyepiece, chemical sensors, remote sensing technologies, even materials science to make better electronics and tougher, lighter material! Many of these things are already being done for civilian research! One can easily argue that a research on the fundamental physics of superconductivity can ALSO be used by the military. Does that mean that this is weapons research? Baloney!

A project called "Consortium for Laser Cooling in Solids," led by professor Mansoor Sheik-Bahae, received $3.4 million in government funding.

Sheik-Bahae said the research deals with cryogenically freezing sensors with laser technology to increase their sensitivity and that it may not be related to weapons research.

Sheik-Bahae said the work done at UNM and at other universities is basic research and isn't geared toward weapons development.

"There's always this misconception that anything that the Department of Defense funds is weapons-related," he said. "No one that I know is doing weapons-related research, and we wouldn't like to do it."

And there's plenty of evidence to show that Prof. Sheik-Bahae is telling it like it is. If this is really a part of a "weapons research", I can tell you that it will be classified, and the LAST thing the military would allow is for research work on this to be published. A quick glance at the citation index show that Prof. Sheik-Bahae has published many papers on this "laser-cooling" topic recently (example:
B. Imangholi et al. Appl. Phys. Lett. 86, 081104 (2005)). The military would NEVER allow for such free and wide decimation of this info if it has any connection to weapons research.

Besides, why would they want to involve a state/public institution in any weapons research when they have Los Alamos lab a few miles away and Sandia lab just next door, both of which have a much more well-established military research complex and more secure facilities? It makes no sense!

I even wonder if the people organizing this tour even understood what all the research is about? I mean, do these people actually understood what "laser cooling in solids" actually is? Are they able to decipher and analyze the type of research work being done before they simply label them as weapons research? Having someone with major in "American Studies" to tell people that these are are used to "make weapons" makes as much sense as John McCain having an economist as the point man for all of his scientific/technological policy.

But in the end, it feels like this whole tour, and the whole protest, is simply based on ignorance and wild speculation.

"Last week, $150,000 went missing, and then it turned up again," Marcum said. "The administration got caught messing around with our money. We need as much transparency as possible."

Marcum said the lack of financial transparency could be a sign UNM is conducting weapons research and profiting from wartime activity.

I mean, really! I bet if the financial officer gets a hiccup, it is also a sign that UNM is conducting weapons research. What delusional reality do these people live in? This whole thing reeks the smell of rumor-mongering with very little solid evidence, and falls on the same level as "evidence" collected by tabloid journalism.

Now, one can also argue against me by saying "But ZapperZ, you are also basing your opinion on very flimsy sources. After all, all you have is the news report. How are you to know that you got the full information on what their position is, and what the evidence they have?"

That is very true. I based my view entirely on this news source, which isn't the best place to get accurate information. So I would be more than happy if someone from that organization, even that "American Studies" fella, contact me or leave a comment. I would love to hear what evidence they have that UNM is conducting in weapons research beyond just innuendo and wild speculation. I'd love to hear an expert in these various research areas to tell me that these research work can be used to "make weapons".


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I just attended a very informative and entertaining seminar. It was on this proposed mobile neutrino detector under the project called "Hanohano", where "Hano" here means "Hawaiian Anti-Neutrino Observatory". Of course, it is led by the University of Hawaii.

It's a fascinating project of moving a large chamber full of scintillators on a barge to the middle of the ocean (or any place that has a deep ocean floor), and then sinking the detector chamber to the bottom of the ocean. You can read for yourself from the link why there is a significant advantage to having something like that. Not only is something like this useful in terms of studying the fundamental properties of neutrino oscillation, but it has also many other practical applications in terms of studying the structure and properties of our earth via the detection of geo-neutrinos, and even military monitoring of rogue nuclear detectors and detonation of nuclear weapons.

Always something new to learn every single day....


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Forum on Physics and Society Oct. 2008 Newsletter

The APS Forum on Physics and Society Oct. 2008 newsletter is now online. Hopefully, it doesn't generate the same brouhaha has the July issue.

In this issue, they addressed the controversy generated in the July issue with the Monckton's "article". Because of that debacle, the newsletter now carries this disclaimer:

"This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS."

This is to prevent certain unscrupulous individuals from using it as if it has been peer-reviewed (you know we are talking about you, Lord Monckton). There are other things being clarified as stated in the Editor's comment:

Our editorial comments in the July 2008 issue include the following statement: “There is a considerable presence within the scientific community of people who do not agree with the IPCC conclusion that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very probably likely to be primarily responsible for the global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.” In fact, we have not polled any scientific community (e.g., the climate research community, the physics community, or the general science community) as to the extent of its consensus regarding human-activity-caused global warming, and we apologize for making such a remark for which we do not have supporting data. We now do know that, in addition to the American Physical Society, the following scientific organizations have issued statements and/or reports in support of the IPCC’s main conclusion concerning the role of anthropogenic CO2 emissions in global warming: The National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That, I believe, clears up everything.


Is Physics Better Than Biology?

Well, not really. But some people from Sapienza University of Rome think that they have a way to evaluate the citation statistics across various disciplines, department, and even between academicians of different subject areas and make a meaningful comparison (link available for free only for a limited time).

The researchers collected data on how many papers were cited a certain numbers of times in a range of scientific fields, and found that the raw numbers varied widely from one discipline to another. For example, for papers published in 1999, articles with 100 citations are 50 times more common in developmental biology than in aerospace engineering.

But if the citation counts are divided by the average number of citations per paper for the discipline in that year, the resulting statistical distributions are remarkably similar. All fit very precisely on a single curve, corresponding to what statisticians call a 'log-normal' distribution. This relationship is "amazingly clean", says Fortunato. The method allows direct comparison between disciplines — for example, an article published in aerospace engineering in 1999 that gained 20 citations had more impact in its field than an article with 100 citations in developmental biology.

I suppose with this, the citation index, and the h-index, we have a lot of tools at our disposal to evaluate the impact of not just an individual, but also whole fields and whole departments.


Math and Science End Decline In The UK?

It appears that the recent "bailout" of mathematics and science program in the United Kingdom seems to be working. They have managed to stop the decline in enrollment of students majoring in those subjects.

It forecasts a 7% increase for maths in 2009, which will mean about 7,000 students entering university maths departments, against 5,300 in 2005.

There are also expected increases of 3.5% for chemistry and 1.3% for physics in next year's university intake.

However, it appears that in terms of proportion of the total number if incoming students, the percentage of students taking mathematics and sciences did not change that much. There's certainly more work to be done.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Quantum Criticality and Black Holes

I've always stated that the study of condensed matter physics is often as fundamental as any other other areas of physics, despite the connotation that condensed matter physics is "applied" physics and thus, not fundamental. One only needs to look at where Peter Higgs got the inspiration for the Higgs mechanism to falsify that erroneous view of condensed matter.

Well then, add this as another evidence. This article, presented as a talk (presumably by Subir Sachdev), makes a clear connection between condensed matter system and various fundamental physics in other areas of physics, including black holes physics!

Abstract: Many condensed matter experiments explore the finite temperature dynamics of systems near quantum critical points. Often, there are no well-defined quasiparticle excitations, and so quantum kinetic equations do not describe the transport properties completely. The theory shows that the transport co-efficients are not proportional to a mean free scattering time (as is the case in the Boltzmann theory of quasiparticles), but are completely determined by the absolute temperature and by equilibrium thermodynamic observables. Recently, explicit solutions of this quantum critical dynamics have become possible via the AdS/CFT duality discovered in string theory. This shows that the quantum critical theory provides a holographic description of the quantum theory of black holes in a negatively curved anti-de Sitter space, and relates its transport co-efficients to properties of the Hawking radiation from the black hole. We review how insights from this connection have led to new results for experimental systems: (i) the vicinity of the superfluid-insulator transition in the presence of an applied magnetic field, and its possible application to measurements of the Nernst effect in the cuprates, (ii) the magnetohydrodynamics of the plasma of Dirac electrons in graphene and the prediction of a hydrodynamic cyclotron resonance.

What this means is that many of the same physics in these astrophysical/String theory systems can actually, in fact, be studied via condensed matter systems. Fancy that!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's Cosmological Breakthrough: Unreality Is Expanding

Since we are really into politics, and since I'm in the mood for it (usually, I have very little patience for politics), let's get some millage out of this one, shall we?

This one has no scientific value, and may not even have any political value, BUT IT IS DAMN FUNNY! So you have got to read it!



More Differences Between McCain and Obama

To reinforce what was mentioned earlier, this is another opinion piece that highlights the differences between John McCain and Barak Obama in terms of their decision-making process for science/technology policies.

Neither McCain nor Obama is trained as a scientist so each relies upon a cadre of advisers to shape policies. Whom they choose as advisers is an interesting glimpse into the priorities of the candidates.

McCain's science and technology advisers include past governmental officials such as James Woolsey, James Schlesinger and Robert McFarlane and former CEOs of companies such as Meg Whitman of eBay and Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard. Obama's advisers include past Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, current professors from leading institutions (such as Sharon Long from Stanford, Don Lamb from Chicago) and Henry Kelley from the Federation of American Scientists.

The real difference in the people on these two lists is that McCain's group consists of people who have experience managing the people who make scientific discoveries while Obama's group includes those people who actually do the work, who are in the trenches pushing their fields forward. Do you want to get answers from the engineer or from his pointy-headed boss?

Again, my earlier emphasis on who is advising them on such thing becomes quite important and relevant. It isn't just who is advising them. It also reflects how important they put the issues of science and technology when they take office. The fact that McCain really does not have anyone who actually is a respected expert in the very field that he needs advice on should tell anyone how low of a priority he has on the importance of getting accurate advice. It's like he is sick, but instead of seeking a prognosis from his doctor who has all the pertinent information about his health, he's asking the hospital administrator who may not even be a medical doctor and without the detail information about this vital statistics.

You also have to wonder if he does this in other aspect as well, such as the military, the economy, etc. If he does, then it would be very scary. If he doesn't, then it shows the utter lack of respect for science, since he would seek experts in those other areas, but not in science.

I will not even go into the depressing scenario that Sarah Palin is more like George W. Bush than McCain. That's just way too much. And to think that Rudy Guilliani actually when on CNN and argued that Palin is an "expert in energy"?


Friday, October 17, 2008

Rating McCain and Obama on Scientific/Technological Innovation

The New York Times had an in-depth analysis of McCain and Obama's proposed policy on the US high-tech innovation.

Both presidential candidates, in their careers and in their campaigns, have made detailed arguments for how the nation should deal with technology rivals, sharpen its competitive edge and improve what experts call its “ecology of innovation.”

Yet their visions are strikingly different. They diverge mainly on the appropriate role for the federal government in education, in spending on research, and in building, maintaining and regulating the complex infrastructure on which innovation depends. The visions both face tough questions on their viability amid the nation’s deepening financial crisis.

You can read the news article on the major differences, and some similarities, of their respective platforms.

However, one of my major concerns appear to be coming true. I wrote a while back on the question on who are the people responsible for each candidate in drawing up their science/technology policy. Who are the people influencing these candiates on making up their science/technology platform? In fact, I even stated this:

If, for example, they instead rely on some "economist" to help them make a decision, then I already know that they simply have very low respect to getting accurate advice from people who should know the subject matter, and that they are more interested in the political aspect of the decision rather than being technically/scientifically sound.

Well, read towards the end of the NYT article and tell me that I'm not psychic. :)

Mr. McCain’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for information. According to the journal Science, he has “no formal structure” for seeking science advice. It reports that Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser and head of the Congressional Budget Office under Mr. Bush, serves as Mr. McCain’s “point man” on science, having been in touch with experts on climate, space and “science in general.”

On the other hand, Mr. Obama established a science advisory committee led by Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who is president of the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Varmus said the group’s leaders communicated almost daily with the campaign’s policy leaders. And this month, the campaign announced that 61 American Nobel laureates in science had endorsed Mr. Obama. (When Martin Chalfie, a Columbia biologist, learned last week that he had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, he said one of the first things he did was to call one of the 61 to ask how to add his name to the list.)

Now you can read and think for yourself. You figure out if there's something that you should be concerned here about McCain's neglect of science.


Eight-Month Delay for LHC

It certainly is longer than we would have hoped for, but it is also lucky that this is not a showstopper.

The damage to the magnets due to the helium leak last month at the LHC will delay the start of the the next phase of the testing till either May or June 2009 (like is available only for a limited time without subscription).

Officials at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, say that the time is needed to overhaul a sector of the 27-kilometre-long machine, after an electrical failure on 19 September caused some 6 tonnes of ultra-cold liquid helium to leak into its tunnel. A preliminary report issued on 16 October says that as many as 29 of the nearly 10,000 magnets used to guide the accelerator's proton beam will need to be replaced. Further magnets may need to be removed and inspected, and modifications must also be made to prevent future accidents. "It's a serious incident," says James Gillies, a spokesman for the laboratory.

Still, CERN is confident it has the resources to make the repairs. No more than 24 dipole magnets and 5 quadrupole magnets were damaged; CERN has 30 dipole magnets — each weighing 35 tonnes — in reserve, as well as sufficient quadrupoles, says Gillies. Replacement magnets are already being tested in a facility above the buried accelerator tunnel. Nevertheless, Gillies says that the damage will take all of CERN's winter shutdown period to repair. Not including labour and the spares, the work will cost an estimated 100,000 Swiss francs (US$90,000), he says.

We'll just have to wait a bit longer...


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quantum Physics and Winning Football Games?

Oy vey!

I was initially going to post this as another thread on the "Bastardization of Quantum Mechanics". But then again, the article didn't actually make a bastardization of it, but rather simply, and for no valid reason, mentioned that it is "quantum mechanics".

“Every year, each team has just as much chance to win every game as it does to lose every game,” Morris said. “It’s called quantum physics and the laws of chance and probability. Thirty-one other teams have already gone down in flames. But the Titans have a 50-50 chance each week to win, and those chances never improve beyond 50-50, because on any given Sunday, anyone can win. As long as you keep that in perspective, you have a chance to win every game.”

No, Mr. Sports Writer, it is JUST called "statistics and probability", NOT quantum mechanics, unless you think that "win and lose" actually is in a superposition of states, which would be absurd.

So far, I think that we have a very easy rule-of-thumb here. If there's any mention of quantum mechanics related to sports or sports figures, then there's a 100% probability that it will involve a lot of nonsensical application of physics. And yes, this is a Statistics and Probability issue.


Bush Signs Law Allowing Extra Shuttle Flight

... and thus, giving the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer a chance to get to the ISS and be installed.

The measure authorizes $20.2 billion for next year's NASA budget, including $1 billion specifically for work to help accelerate development of the Constellation program slated to replace the shuttles. The measure also gives NASA the green light to add an extra flight to the shuttle's current manifest to deliver a physics project, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, to the International Space Station.

Unfortunately, it doesn't allocate any money to it. So NASA will have to re-prioritize its program to include the launch for the AMS.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Spooky Science Saturday at NIU

This is such a great idea!

The Northern Illinois University one again is hosting their annual Haunted Physics Laboratory.

The darkened laboratories will feature more than 80 interactive displays, including floating magnets, a levitating ghost, a hair-raising electrostatic machine and a "witch's cauldron," filled with a concoction of water and chilly liquid nitrogen. Visitors can don "rainbow glasses," get creative with glow-in-the-dark face paints, ponder the lightning bolts in a plasma globe and make artworks that will only appear normal in funhouse-like mirrors.

A fog machine is used for visualization of lasers. Other light and optical displays include an electrical Jacob's ladder. Volunteer students and professors will be on hand to explain the science behind the demonstrations.

And, thanks to the NIU Chemistry Club, kids will have an opportunity to make take-home slime.

Take-home slime???!!! That's it, I'm there!

We do many things to get the public, and kids, interested in science, and physics in particular. This is one of the most clever way of getting across that message.


Propane Blast at Brookhaven

It appears that a propane tank exploded at Brookhaven lab.

It's amazing that, of all the things that Brookhaven has, the news just HAD to highlight the "particle accelerator", i.e. RHIC. What does that have anything to do with this blast in the first place? Maybe they want a catchy headline to tie in with the blackhole catastrophe scenario from LHC? If that is so, it is so, so LAME!

BTW, Brookhaven houses MORE than just ONE particle accelerator. There's the accelerator for the NSLS, and there's a research accelerator at the ATF.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Entropy and Evolution

I mentioned quite a while back of the very common abuse of the 2nd law of Thermodynamics by anti-evolution zealots. They claim that evolution contradicts the 2nd law simply because evolution ends towards more ordered (and thus, lower entropy) creatures. This is of course false in more ways than one, and I presented it as an example of "imagination without knowledge is ignorance waiting to happen".

However, not only that, but one can actually show that evolution can be successfully described by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This shows that there's nothing contradictory regarding evolution and the 2nd law. Notice that these creationist zealots never once tried to apply any laws of physics to their own beliefs on how the various living creatures came into being (can we say "violation of the conservation of energy"?).

Along comes a very good article by Dan Styer, published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Physics. Titled "Entropy and Evolution"[1], he tackled very much the same issue.

Abstract: Quantitative estimates of the entropy involved in biological evolution demonstrate that there is no conflict between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. The calculations are elementary and could be used to enliven the thermodynamics portion of a high school or introductory college physics course.

He basically calculate the change in entropy of the Earth due to evolution:

Presumably the entropy of the Earth’s biosphere is indeed decreasing by a tiny amount due to evolution, and the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increasing by an even greater amount to compensate for that decrease. But the decrease in entropy required for evolution is so small compared to the entropy throughput that would occur even if the Earth were a dead planet, or if life on Earth were not evolving, that no measurement would ever detect it.

An excellent article to read!


[1] D. Styer, Am. J. Phys. v.76, 1031 (2008).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where Have Our Nobel Physics Prizes Gone?

This article examines the recent drought of Physics Nobel prizes for UK physicists.

But you don't need a PhD in theoretical physics to appreciate one thing about this year's physics Nobel: it didn't go to the UK. In the ast three decades only one UK citizen has been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics: Tony Leggett in 2003. It's a conspicuous mismatch next to the 20 prizes accrued by UK physicists during the previous seven decades, and compares against six Nobels in chemistry and 11 in medicine picked up during the same period.

Meanwhile, Germany (population one third greater) has won ten, France (same population) four and the US (five times greater) a whopping 45 physics Nobels since 1978. Should we be concerned?

Since the fruit of the labor, in this case the Nobel Prize, tends to be awarded many years after the discovery, one also tends to wonder if the current funding issues in the US may result in the same drought in Nobel prizes in physics in the next decade or so. Has the damage been done?


Where's The Algebra?

At first, I thought this was a joke. But then, the writer is actually quite serious in asking where algebra is used in our everyday lives. And furthermore, this was written on the Washington Post, so it can't be a spoof (can it? :)).

Other than the fact that there are almost an infinite number of examples, the fact that this can even come up reflects the lack of not knowledge, but awareness of the things we take for granted, and thus, ever realize that we need them. This is true not only for algebra, but many aspects of physics as well. Many people think physics is only high energy/nuclear/string theory, without realizing that atomic/molecular and condensed matter/material science are also areas of physics that directly impact our lives every single day. Many people dismiss Special Relativity and General Relativity to the realm of exotic physics without realizing that we make use of those theories every time a GPS system is used. And let's not even start with quantum mechanics.

I suppose it is good that the writer actually ask such a question. At least, people can write in and tell her directly where algebra is used all the time. Hopefully, others who read the article will also come to a self-realization of how much we depend on algebra.

And oh, if she needs examples:

1. computing of one's interest amount in any financial account/credit.
2. when someone asks how long will it take to get some place that's such-and-such a distance away.
3. when you add, subtract, multiply, and divide a number or quantity (which should cover everything, shouldn't it?).


Princeton Materials Science Center Wins $20 Million NSF Award

In the atmosphere of declining funding, it is good to hear now and then of stories like this. The Princeton Materials Science Center has won a huge funding for its work from the National Science Foundation (NSF)

The grant provides six years of funding (2008 to 2014) for the Princeton center, which is one of 26 research programs in the United States supported by NSF's Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program.

The new funding represents the largest of the four such grants Princeton has received since the University first won the highly competitive award in 1994. The Princeton center brings together faculty and students from five science and engineering departments to explore the basic properties of matter and to use their discoveries to advance science and technology.

For condensed matter/material science, $20 million is a lot of money and can sustain a large variety of extremely important work for years. The NSF award is an outgrowth of the Science and Technology Centers funding that was established many years ago. It has funded everything from center for nanoscience to superconductivity during the heydays of high-Tc superconductors.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spallation Neutron Source Sends First Neutrons to 'Big Bang' Beam Line

While all the brouhaha has been swirling around the LHC, we all forget that the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge is also undergoing major milestones. This week, the first neutrons have been sent along the Fundamental Neutron Physics Beam Line.

The SNS is one of those unique facility where, while the major area of study will be using the neutrons as a probe to study condensed matter/material science properties, the FNPB will study fundamental properties of the neutron itself.

"While other beam lines use neutrons as a probe to study materials, the object for much of the work proposed at the FNPB is the study of the neutron itself," said University of Tennessee Professor Geoffrey Greene, who holds a Joint Faculty Appointment with ORNL and who leads the FNPB project. "Among the questions that will be addressed at the FNPB are the details of the internal structure of the neutron as well as a careful study of the way in which the free neutron decays. Such experiments have important implication for fundamental questions in particle physics and cosmology."

Greene explained that neutrons, which have no electric charge, may nevertheless have a slight displacement between internal positive and negative charges. The existence of such a "neutron electric dipole moment" could shed light on what happened in the early phases of the Big Bang. In particular it could help to explain why the universe appears to be made entirely of matter without any antimatter, he said.

Luckily, the catastrophic-scenario wackos haven't heard of it and can't understand it enough to create any noise.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Religion vs Science: Can the Divide Between God and Rationality be Reconciled?

If you have some time, this might be a very good article to read. It doesn't mean that I endorse it, or agree with everything that's said, but it is worth reading nevertheless because it touches upon a large swath of the issue, both in the US and in the UK.

What I find interesting, and possibly relevant, is the "conclusion" at the very end.

Perhaps the conflict is not between science and religion but between good and bad ways of doing both. In all of us there will always be a struggle between the craving for certainty, purity and closure and the acceptance of mystery, brokenness and provisionality. At their best, both scientists and people of faith are in a permanent state of awe-struck humility before the wonder and strangeness and messiness of things. At their worst, they are arrogant, dogmatic, and incurious. There's a bit of both in all of us, of course.

Now, if only those in both extremes of the debate would read and understand the article.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Why Economics Will Never Be Like Physics

I try to post something that often reflects the "times". And the times of lives right now has mostly been about the economic meltdown, especially driven by the spectacular collapse of the US financial markets.

It is during this time that, as scientists, when we try to make sense out of how things occur in economics, that we continually realize that it doesn't make sense, and that many of the things that occur often do not have clear rules and patterns. So I guess an article like this one, arguing why economics will NEVER be like physics no matter how hard it tries, really is a no-brainer.

My bet is that economics will always remain as squishy as anthropology, political science, history and other social sciences. The physical sciences address phenomena-ranging from electrons, elements and the nuclear forces up to stars, galaxies and gravity-that are relatively stable and well-defined. In contrast, economies vary wildly across space and time. The U.S. economy today is radically different than it was a decade or even a month ago. Economists are chasing a rapidly moving and mutating target.

It gets worse: Protons, plasmas, planets and other strictly physical systems don't care what scientists think about them. Social systems, on the other hand, consist of objects that read newspapers, journals, books and blogs and change their behavior as a result. Newton's model of planetary motion did not affect Jupiter's course, but an initially persuasive model of dollar-yen exchange rates may affect those rates in a way that soon renders the model totally obsolete.

In other words, the effort to understand economies or indeed almost any human social system changes the system! I'm not talking about some subtle quantum-observer effect but something much more dramatic. Marx creates Marxists, Keynes Keynesians, Hayek Hayekians, leading to wars and depressions, bubbles and recessions.

It is because of this that it irritates me whenever politicians (and even economists) can talk about many policies with such utter certainty. You see politicians arguing about this policy versus that policy which can (or cannot) create jobs, or doing such-and-such will cause taxes to fall, or people to lose jobs, etc, etc. And of course, the public will buy it, details unseen as always. It certainly is ironic that fields in "hard" sciences are more concerned about uncertainty and "error bars" in our work and experimental data, while "soft" science such as politics, economics, and social sciences that deal with less-verified principles are presented with such definite certainty.

Go figure.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Invest in Expanding Frontiers of Knowledge

This is an opinion article in the Des Moines Register written by John Hauptman at Iowa State University. While the article is more about the pursuit of knowledge, especially with respect to the LHC, I think what is more important is the message of international friendship that is naturally established in physics and other scientific endeavor.

It has always been my belief that high-energy physics and other forms of scientific, technological, and economic competition among nations is a good substitute for war at a tiny fraction of the costs. CERN has become a veritable "scientific United Nations" of young people speaking a hundred languages (but mostly French and English), with a common purpose: to figure out how nature works and be the first to tell the world.

Other nations, particularly European, strongly support their young people and their education in all areas, in particular in science. In sad contrast, we have squandered roughly $1 trillion on unwinnable wars, with no end in sight, while an Iowa high school physics teacher is given only a pittance for supplies for the year. We must be building solar and wind generators, developing non-petroleum liquid fuels and, yes, finding out why the proton has mass.

I would even say that a typical physicist, especially in North America, Europe, Japan, etc. have more "international experience" than just simply being able to "see Russia from my house". It is very common for physics majors to encounter students from all over the world. Here in the US and especially in smaller physics programs, it is not unusual to see more international students majoring in physics than US citizens. So there is definitely a very large international flavor in physics. A typical physics major would have encountered, and hopefully made friends, with several people from various parts of the world. That, to me, is a tremendous international experience.

Such diversity continues into the profession itself. Go to any major conferences such as the APS March and April Meetings. Without any international participation, the conference would be half-empty and major scientific contents would be missing. The international collaboration and friendship established within physics should not be underestimated.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

NOVA This Week: Space Shuttle Disaster

Here's something that you might want to watch if this is something that interest you.

NOVA is excited to partner with organizations which share our passion for scientific discovery as we spread the word about upcoming shows. This Tuesday, October 14, NOVA takes you back to 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas just sixteen minutes before it was due to land, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Looking back on the tragedy, NOVA probes the accident and the decisions stretching back four decades that made the tragedy almost inevitable. Through interviews with key NASA personnel who witnessed problems with the space shuttle program firsthand, we reveal the personal and professional stories behind NASA's human space exploration program. Today, as policymakers wrestle with a looming five-year "space gap" that separates the planned retirement of the shuttle from the first launch of the new Orion crew exploration vehicle, it is critical that we understand what went wrong in the past--and how to make sure it never happens again.

"Space Shuttle Disaster" premieres Tuesday, October 14 at 8pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings to confirm when it will be broadcast near you:

You can visit the "Space Shuttle Disaster" Web site, where you can read about possible rescue scenarios that might have saved the Columbia crew:


The Physics of Dragonfly Flight

We've heard all the brouhaha surrounding the bumble bee ability to fly in spite of the (erroneous) claim that physics says that it can't. This is false of course because the "physics" being used is based on a fixed-wing scenario.

In any case, it doesn't mean other flying creatures should be ignored! This is an informative and in-depth article on the physics of a dragonfly flight. There's even an avi video that you can view (scroll to the bottom of the article) showing a high-speed video of how the wings of a dragonfly move.

A fun article to read if you're bored.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

2008 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics has just been announced within the past 30 minutes.

Yoichiro Nambu, Enrico Fermi Institute, University of Chicago, IL, USA

"for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics"

and the other half jointly to

Makoto Kobayashi, High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), Tsukuba, Japan


Toshihide Maskawa,Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics (YITP), Kyoto University, Japan

"for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature"

The Thomson Reuters forecast for the Physics Nobel prize was completely wrong! :) And so was mine, but I think, in my defense, I didn't predict the graphene discovers will win it this year. I just think that they will win it some time soon, and as the importance of graphene emerges even more, then the discovery will be even more significant.

BTW, it is interesting to note that I highlighted recently issues regarding spontaneous symmetry breaking as the origin of mass. With this Nobel prize, and with the LHC looking for the Higgs, it clearly underlines the importance of the understanding of such symmetry breaking as one of the most fundamental aspect of our universe.


Monday, October 06, 2008

arXiv Hits The Half-Million Mark

I don't know how large of a file system they have, but congratulations to those managing the e-print arXiv. They have surpassed the half-million article submission.

Edit: SciAm coverage.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Quantum Physics of Baseball

This, really, has nothing to do with quantum physics, or even physics, for that matter. Still, for many of the long-suffering Cubs baseball fans who have been abruptly put out of their misery, this article is a small, and possibly humorous, consolation.

Don’t be intimidated by the name. Although closely related to the Quantum Theory of Physics, it is not nearly as difficult to understand. The principle is that since a Chicago Cubs World Championship cannot be inferred through direct measurement or observation, it must be thought of as a waveform and only expressed as a probability.


Sorry Tom. Your cross-town World Series ain't gonna happen this year.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

If the Big Bang Recycles, What Does That Mean About God?

This article started with reporting Roger Penrose's public lecture at the Perimeter Institute. However, it then goes into the theological implication of the various model of the origin of our universe, from the generally-accepted model of the Big Bang (it is NOT outdated yet, Mr. Brean!), to the more exotic and still highly-controversial models of what I like to call "multiple bounce" universe.

I've never liked such connection. This is because, more often than not, the people who make such connections actually never understood the physics, but rather understood only the superficial aspect of the physics. They use the "words" that they read in pop-science description of a physics, and that is what is used, rather than based on an intimate understanding of it. To me, that is not a sufficient base for one to actually extrapolate it, especially into something that science do not consider to be valid.

But the other point on why I dislike such connection is that the "matching" tends to be done simply via pick-and-choose. For example, a psychic can make many predictions. Just open any supermarket tabloid and read one of these things. Yet, when trumpeting their "successes", they only mention the ones they got "right" and never the ones they got wrong. By throwing out a lot of vague predictions, one is bound to get some of them correct simply via chance. Hell, I've have my share of correct predictions before (I predicted that Abrikosov will win a Nobel prize, and he did!). If I'm psychic, then my mother is the Queen of England!

The point here is that, if you read the article, they pick only ONE specific similarity between a particular religion's description of the origin of our universe and what is being described in the various theories in physics/cosmology. This one, or few, similarities does NOT validates a particular theology. They are ignoring all the other inconsistencies of their faith with what science has understood today. Just because two animals have tails does not make them the same animal.

The article did make a good point at the end of the risk of theology latching on to science that is ever changing and expanding its boundary of knowledge. I would also say that if you pay that much credibility to science to want to latch on to it whenever it appears that science agrees with you, then you also must face the risk that you have to abide by the same credibility when it disagrees with you. People who were anti-global warming learned that pretty fast when they jumped with joy due to the appearance that the American Physical Society may have changed its mind on the issue of Global Warming. This was demonstrably debunked with the recent release of the APS report on energy use and efficiency. If you put that much credibility into something to support your position, then you can't simply pick-and-choose when you accept it and not accept it.


Friday, October 03, 2008

JFK's Murder Solved by SMU Physics? - Follow-Up

I received an e-mail from the SMU News and Communications office regarding a Letter to the Editor that was written due to the story on the JFK Murder and LHC that I posted earlier.

When talking to a Daily Campus writer, we wanted to communicate that the work our students are associated with can have surprising consequences. We mentioned that a former SMU graduate student, Vitaliy Fadeyev, was working at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory several years ago when he developed an unusual application for sound recording preservation and analysis that the National Archives thought could be used for analysis of a recording made in the moments JFK was shot. Vitaliy was working on the ATLAS detector for the Berkeley Lab at the time, and saw some parallels between that work and sound scanning of old recordings.

The headline in your Oct. 2 story leads one to believe the SMU Physics Department may have solved JFK's murder. We have not. The story further implies that SMU's ongoing work on the LHC project and the ATLAS detector may help with analyzing more details about the day the president was shot. This is a leap of logic that we did not communicate to the reporter.

That should clear things up.

The problem here is that the writer of that piece just simply had no understanding of basic physics. At some level, you have to know something about what you are writing, or else you make very strange logic in your reasoning. And as we can see, it makes for a very puzzling article. One has to realize that a large cross-section of people will read it, especially when it's available online. Sooner or later, such errors will be pointed out and may come back to haunt you.


The Gravity Probe B Bailout

Thanks to a reader of this blog for pointing this out.

With NASA's budgets constraints, and with money being allocated to many useless projects (such as the ISS), many important programs that have a higher scientific value are being cut. The Gravity Probe B appears to be the latest casualty in all of this.

Luckily, just like the bailout of RHIC and Fermilab via private funding previously, Gravity Probe B is getting the same lifeline. Let's hope this is sufficient till someone realizes that for such a relatively small amount of money being spent, a number of extremely fundamental questions are being addressed here.


UK Physics: In Good Health, or Damaged?

I don't know! And I think no one seems to know due to all the contradictory reports.

I didn't write about this earlier because I wanted to wait and see what the reaction and review will be. I shouldn't have waited, because it has only created more confusion. The Wakeham Review, conducted at the behest of the UK Department of Universities Innovations and Skills, was done to analyze the health of UK's physics program after the budget disaster befalling the UK's high energy physics and astronomy/astrophysics programs. So what did the review panel's conclusion?

According to The Financial Times, it is in "good health". BBC News seems to also concur.

But The Register thinks that UK Physics has been damaged by the budget bloodbath. The same sentiment is also in the report at PhysicsWorld.

Are they all reading the same report?


Thursday, October 02, 2008

JFK's Murder Solved by SMU Physics?

I've been rubbing my eyes several times, reading this article at least twice, and smacking my face to wake me up in case I'm still in a daze. I know it is early in the morning, and I haven't had my coffee yet, but I can't be THIS much out of it to have absolutely no clue on what I'm reading here.

This article, obviously out of a college newspaper from Southern Methodist University in Texas, is describing how the ATLAS detector at the LHC can help in solving the murder of John F Kennedy.......







This is either bad physics or atrocious writing. Nowhere in that article is a clear connection being made between the ATLAS detector and how one goes about solving JFK's murder. If there is, it is certainly well disguised. For example, this is a very puzzling passage:

This experiment, although taking many years of hard work, will show the basic structure of matter and what new particles are out there. Using the technology, the recordings at the scene of JFK's assassination could someday be analyzed to learn more details about the shots and the events that took place that day, say scientists.

SMU senior Ashley Moore is very interested in the experiment. "I believe the expected results of the experiment are fascinating, and I cannot wait to see results applied to such conspiracies as the JFK assassination or the Watergate tapes," she said.

Er... what did I miss? How is the LHC experiment (the technology) somehow able to be used to analyze the "recordings at the scene of JFK's assassination"? What technology is this? The hardron calorimeter? Or are they talking about the "computer technology"? This connect was never made explicitly. The writer spent more time talking about the LHC/ATLAS and how it can give the basic understanding of our world. If it is really the computer technology, then it should be made extremely clear AND more should be devoted to the nature of this technology rather than just one scant paragraph!

OK, OK, I know that I'm being harsh again on some poor college student, but really, shouldn't someone writing for a college paper at least have some basic ability to write in a clear manner? This article does nothing but create confusion and questions. The connection between A and B was never made. I've seen better writing on Wikipedia (and that's not saying much considering my disdain against Wikipedia).


Thomson Reuters Forecasts Nobel Winners

It's October, and around many institutions, the guessing game for the next set of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences has commenced. Thomson Reuters, as usual, puts out their own list of probable winners:

*Chemistry - Charles Lieber of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who figured out how to build and use tiny, molecular-scale nanowires.

- Krzysztof Matyjaszewski of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who used electric charges to make artificial materials called polymers.

- Roger Tsien at the University of California San Diego, La Jolla, who figured out how to use the chemical that makes jellyfish glow green to track biological reactions in the lab.

*Physics - Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov from the University of Manchester for their work on graphene, the thinnest material ever discovered.

- Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, whose work measuring the rotation of galaxies shed light on so-called dark matter in the universe.

- Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford and Dan Shechtman at Iowa State University for their related discoveries of Penrose-tilings -- complex geometric models -- and a new kind of structure called a quasicrystal.

*Medicine - Shizuo Akira of Osaka University in Japan, Bruce Beutler of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and the President of the French Academy of Sciences Jules Hoffman for their research on toll-like receptors -- the chemical doorways that alert the immune system to germs.

- Victor Ambros at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Gary Ruvkun of Harvard Medical School were cited for their discovery and analysis of the role of microRNAs, tiny strands of genetic material that help control genes.

- Rory Collins and Richard Peto, who mastered the widely used technique called meta-analysis -- pooling many different research studies together to make the findings more powerful.

Note that I too have predicted, maybe not this year, of Nobel Prizes for Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. This is certainly a significant discovery. And after them winning the Europhysics Prize, it makes it even more likely.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking as a Basis of Particle Mass

As one can imagine, many of my friends have been asking a lot of questions about the LHC. Certainly the question about the "catastrophic black hole" came up, but I think most of them already kinda guessed that this isn't going to happen. But what they are most interested in, luckily, is what the LHC is supposed to be looking for. The conversation certainly got around to a discussion of the "Higgs" particle.

As someone who considers himself to have an "interactional expertise" in this area, I tried to give as accurate of an answer as I can to an audience that are not knowledgeable in physics. Still, it isn't easy to try and describe what is essentially the search for "symmetry breaking in the weak interaction".

In any case, for anyone wanting a deeper explanation of this, especially on the issue of the origin of mass, especially for the W and Z, there is a very good review by Chris Quigg of Fermilab that was published a year ago (C. Quigg, Rep. Prog. Phys. v.70, p.1019 (2007) or you can get the arXiv version of it here). It gives a very good overview on what many are looking for when the LHC starts its optimum collision.


Headfirst Slide to Base is Faster?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Here in the US, the baseball playoffs will begin today. And as someone who is living in Chicago and only 2 blocks away from Wrigleyfield, I can certainly not ignore such an event even if I tried, especially with both the White Sox and the Cubs in contention.

So it is very timely that we talk a little bit about one aspect of the physics of baseball - the slid into base. The question here is, which one will be faster: a head first slide, or a feet first slide? A Washington University physicist David Peters says that a headfirst slide is faster.

According to Peters, it's simple physics: As a runner slides headfirst, the body's center of gravity -- and therefore its momentum -- is thrust forwards. Slide feet first, and the body's center of gravity falls backwards, away from the base.

"It's basic, fundamental angular momentum and Newton's laws applied to a body in motion being flung through the air," Peters said. Fellow physicist Alan Nathan agreed, noting that it's easier for a runner's churning legs to generate force with head and arms leading, not trailing.

If you read the rest of the article, it points out that there's not a lot of convincing empirical evidence supporting either sliding technique, mainly because this hasn't been done in a controlled manner. Still, from my uneducated guess, I also think that a headfirst slide is faster. But is this worth doing at the risk of a higher probability of injury?