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!


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Molecules to the Max

Coming soon to an iMax theater near you, an adventure that you've never seen before - a journey through the world of molecules in a movie "Molecules to the Max".

I didn't find a date when this will be released at the iMax theater. If someone knows this, please let us know.


Friday, November 07, 2008

DoD Announces $400 Million Investment To Basic Research

Why funding for civilian basic research in the US is suffering, especially with a continuing resolution with a disastrous fiscal year budget, funding for basic research from the military is alive and well.

The Department of Defense today announced plans to invest an additional $400 million over the next five years to support basic research at academic institutions.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates secured the additional funding in the fiscal 2009 President's budget request to Congress to expand research into new and emerging scientific areas and to foster fundamental discoveries related to the DoD's most challenging technical problems. The DoD published a ‘Strategic Plan For Basic Research’ last summer, which built the case for this effort. Acknowledging this need, Congress authorized and appropriated funds to support these significant increases in basic research investment.

However, don't tell those misguided "activists" at the University of New Mexico. They'll think that no matter what research area you got money in, that you're doing "weapons research".

Joe the Plumber and the Postdocs

This is a rather interesting article that, in essence, argued for why a unionized graduate student and postdoctoral scholars makes sense. It is especially fascinating to see historically how the mentor-disciple situation has evolved and changed considerably.

Having gone through the system, I can certainly sympathized with the situation being faced by graduate students and postdocs, especially in universities where the pay scale is quite low and not commensurate with the level of expertise. While I'm not sure if being in a union would solve the problem, it certainly is something that should be addressed.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Science is Collective Effort 'To Read The Mind Of God'?

No, I didn't say that, but Michael Heller, the winner of this year's Templeton Prize, did.

"If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about the cause of mathematical laws," he said in March when he received the Templeton Prize, a $1.6 million US award given annually to those who advance scientific discovery on "big questions" in science, religion and philosophy.

"By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God's thinking about the universe; the question on ultimate causality: why is there anything rather than nothing?

"When asking this question, we are . . . asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God ..."

But why stop there? If it is fair game to ask where mathematical laws come from, and then how the universe came into being, which leads to the "ultimate causality", then it should also be fair game to ask how god came into existence! In other words, the so-called ultimate causality may not be that ultimate after all.

So there is a flaw in this chain of thinking. If we keep wanting to ask what causes each level of our understanding, then what is the rational that it should stop at "God", since the existence of God BEGS the question on what created it. If one were to answer "nothing created it and it has always existed", then why can't that be used earlier on to explain the existence of the universe? After all, one appears to be satisfied with a non-explanation of God, so why do we pick and choose at what stage to end the inquiry?

The assumption of the "ultimate causality" is not only untested, but also currently a myth.


The Higgs and the LHC

For anyone who needs a bit more "descriptive" idea on the Higgs and particle's mass (or lack of it in the case of the photon), Martinus Veltman has a very useful article in this month's issue of CERN Courier.


The Physics of Surfing

I find these to be strangely entertaining to read, even thought I am not a good swimmer, and I certainly haven't come anywhere remotely close to doing anything resembling a wave surfing (although, come to think of it, I do work with "wakefields" and make electrons "surf" on those wakefields. So I suppose that's close enough).

In any case, these are two parts of an article on the physics of surfing, in case you are curious about such things.

Part 1
Part 2


Not A Hologram

The word "hologram" is one of those often-bastardized word, much like "energy". However, while the latter is often used by pseudoscientists and crackpot alike, the former is often used in more "respectable" settings, but still wrong. This article highlights a number of instances where the objects that were claimed to be holograms, are in fact, not!

So it was a mild shocker when CNN claimed to have resurrected the "hologram," beaming its interview subjects across the country.

On Chicago's North Shore, where one of the leading experts in holograms lives, the whole business was more in a long series of frustrations.

"This is not a hologram," said Tung Jeong, a 76-year-old retired Lake Forest College physics instructor who now devotes his time to teaching holography. "Most of what media call a hologram usually is not. Something they don't understand, they call it a hologram. It's frustrating."

Another news article also put CNN to task with its false claim of having a holographic image.

Kreuzer said the images were tomograms, which are images that are captured from all sides, reconstructed by computers, then displayed on screen.

Holograms, on the other hand, are projected into space.

CNN officials could not be reached for comment.

Yeah, well, chalk that one for another example of media inaccuracy (or downright mistakes). We talked about this when the issue of "rate of speed" came up a while back.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Paris Hilton is Worried About Relativity

This is just way too ridiculous and hilarious not to be reported. In the November 7, 2008 issue of This Week, there is a report about Paris Hilton worrying about the effect of Relativity at work while on a commercial space-flight (I kid you not).

The hotel heiress is one of 157 people to have already paid a $200,000 deposit for a seat on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic commercial space-flight service, but this week confessed to being "very scared" that if the spaceship flies too fast, its passengers will experience relativity's predicted distortion in the passage of time. "With the whole light-years' thing, what if I come back 10,000 years later and everyone I now is dead?" said Hilton. "I'll be like, 'Great. Now I have to start all over'".

{falls of chair laughing}

I mean, c'mon! This is funny stuff! You can't make this up!


Both Physicists Keep Their Congressional Seats

Both Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey and Bill Foster of Illinois won their election and will continue to represent their district (and physics) at the US Congress. Bill Foster will get to serve a full term as a congressman after winning the previous election to replace Hastert for a few months.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) easily won re-election to his sixth term in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, garnering 62 percent of votes in New Jersey’s 12th district. His opponent Alan Bateman, deputy mayor of Holmdel Township, received 36 percent.

Holt, whose district includes the University, was the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory prior to winning his seat for the first time in 1998. In defeating Republican Congressman Mike Pappas in that election, he became the first Democrat in 20 years to represent his district.

University voters showed strong support for Holt. Roughly 79 percent of voters in Princeton Borough District 1 and Township District 12, where voters are predominantly University undergraduates, supported Holt.

Democratic Congressman Bill Foster will keep the formerly GOP seat he won earlier this year in a special election.

Foster beat Republican businessman Jim Oberweis in Illinois' 14th Congressional District in the race to hang on to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's old district.

With 65 percent of precincts reporting, Foster had 57 percent and Oberweis had 43 percent.

Foster is a Geneva physicist who first went to Washington in March after beating Oberweis in a special election to fill the remainder of Hastert's term after he retired.

We still have only 3 physicists in the US Congress.

Edit: Of course, I unfortunately left out Vern Ehlers, who won his reelection in Michigan. So all three physicists got through to another term in Congress.


Should a Photon-Photon Collider Precede the ILC?

Symmetry Breaking published a rather fascinating scenario presented by the former director of Japan’s KEK Hirotaka Sugawara. Sugawara proposed that the HEP community should build a photon-photon collider first ahead of the ILC.

Sugawara emphasizes that cost is the primary motivating factor for building a photon-photon collider first. The ILC can’t materialize unless organizers can get governments and funding agencies to support it. With high-energy physics suffering budget cuts world wide, and the LHC still trying to get on its feet, it’s a tough time to pitch such an idea. Sugawara predicts that the cost of a photon-photon collider would be well under half that of the ILC, making it more appealing to potential funders.

“If there is a financial threshold over which a government will not fund the ILC, and if that threshold is half the cost, then a photon-photon collider might make sense,” says Tor Raubenheimer, head of the Accelerator Physics Group at SLAC. But if governments are willing to fully fund the ILC, Raubenheimer says it is unlikely that the community will hold back from building it. Sugawara supports building one either way.

Then again, Sugawara argues that a photon-photon collider could also advance accelerator technology before the ILC is built. “From the time that it is decided to build a particle accelerator to the time the physics actually starts can easily be a decade,” Raubenheimer says. Right now the ILC would operate at 500 GeV, but by the time it is fully constructed scientists may well want it to operate at 1 or 2 TeV. Such an upgrade might not be fiscally or technologically possible on a fully constructed machine. As Sugawara puts it, “We would build the machine to study the machine.” In other words he believes the potential collider would advance accelerator technology and understanding before a major investment is made in the ILC.

I'm not sure if any of these can be answered yet. It still depends very much on what the LHC will produce, so at some level, the future of what the next major project for the HEP community depends very much on the results coming out of the LHC, be it positive or negative. Till then, I don't see any impetus from any funding agency (certainly not here in the US) to make a decision to build anything. But then again, countries like Japan and China can make their own unilateral decision and run away with it, leaving Europe, and especially the US, holding an empty bag.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Excess Muons Are Baffling CDF Experimentalists

Who knows, this could either turn out to be something profound, or another one of those mundane things thought to be something profound.

It appears that an excess of muon at the CDF detector at Fermilab is causing a bit of a stir. {Link is open for free only for a limited time}

But CDF physicists are flummoxed by a surplus of muons seen in their detector. Muons are heavy cousins of electrons and one of the most common by-products of particle collisions. An interpretation of CDF's data has seen a "much larger than expected" number of decays that produce excess muons.

"It just doesn't add up," says Jacobo Konigsberg, a physicist at the University of Florida at Gainesville and a CDF spokesperson. Konigsberg says that the collaboration struggled for months to explain away the effect, but in the end felt it was better to publish their data for others to see and debate. "It wouldn't have been responsible to sit on this for much longer," he says.

The data has been uploaded to the e-print arXiv. Not sure if it has been submitted for publication anywhere. I wonder if D0 is capable of making an analogous detection of this, and if it does, can it be corroborated? Or will this end up with the same saga as the pentaquark?

Edit: more coverage on this can be found at the Physics World website.


Brian Cox's Brief Introduction To Particle Physics

And when I said brief, I mean REALLY brief, as in an article in The Independent!

Particle physics tries to describe the forces of nature – that's the way that those particles talk to each other. There are four fundamental forces. There is gravity and the other three forces that work in the sub-atomic world: electromagnetism – fridge magnets and electricity; there is weak force which allows the sun to shine and is responsible for radioactive beta- decay; and there is the stronger nuclear force that sticks the nucleus together called "gluons".

Particle physics is the study or the search for the ultimate building blocks of the universe and, in a sense, I feel the wheels are starting to come off our picture of reality. This is why the Large Hadron Collider is being built.

You should be happy with that, or go to Perkin's "Introduction to High Energy Physics" text if you're not satisfied! :)


Monday, November 03, 2008

Has Bush Been Good For Science?

You're kidding, right?

No, I'm not the one making that claim, but the current (and outgoing) President's Science "Advisor" John Marburger argues that George Bush HAS been good for science.

You can read for yourself because I am still trying to close my jaw after reading this article in utter disbelief. I mean, after Fermilab almost shut down with crippling furlough, RHIC getting to run due to a "donation", and other US National labs suffering from severe budget cutbacks, I find it extremely difficult to understand how he could say such a thing with a straight face. If he is sincere, then there is an utter lack reality check on what is going on at the grass-roots level. The facts on what have happened do not match with the claim.

Is the administration THAT disconnected from what is going on that they actually think that they have been good to science? Honestly?


Q&A With Richard Muller

Physicist Richard Muller wrote the now-famous book "Physics For Future Presidents" that I've mentioned on here at least a couple of times. Wired has a short Q&A with him. It is very enlightening, especially when he was asked on the 3 issues that he would like to make the next president to understand (global warming, terrorism, and space exploration).

Q: If you could sit the candidates down and make them understand the physics of three issues, what would they be?

A: Let’s begin with terrorism. In terrorism, the fact is that gasoline has enormous energy. It has 15x the energy of TNT. What that means to me is that a likely terrorist attack is going to be like the World Trade Center where the damage was done by the fuel not the planes. Beware of the low tech!

In space, the glory of the last 40 years for NASA has been in robotics. Most scientists dread the thought that they have to have their instruments on a manned flight. For the extra cost of putting them on a manned flight, they could build 2 robots, the instrument itself and a backup.

Let’s do as much robotics as possible before sending humans.

Q: Is it just the cost of manned operations that is the problem?

A: No, most instruments work better when there are not humans walking around and shaking them. But it’s also the cost that it has to be so utterly safe for humans.

Q: And the third physics issue for presidents?

A: Global warming. There is a consensus that global warming is real. There has not been much so far, but it’s going to get much, much worse. The thing I would tell the president is that the global warming, according to the global consensus — that’s the IPCC scientists, who won the Nobel Prize — the global warming of the future is going to come from the developing world. It’s the exploding economies of China and India and Asia that are going to be responsible for the CO2.

This causes a political problem because they are poor and have a low standard of living and shouldn’t have to pay for emissions cuts.

So, the only way this is going to work is that we pay the expense of them cutting back. If all we do is set an example, the example we’ll have set is that once you’re a wealthy nation, you can cut back on CO2. If that’s the example, they will wait until they are wealthy and then they’ll cut back and it’ll be too late.

Of course, if either one of the candidates said, we have to send $100 billion to China, they’d lose. But after the election maybe they can talk about that.

Doing feel good things in the U.S. is fine. Going to biofuels is good for energy independence. Going to solar and nuclear is also good for energy independence and also good for global warming. But the U.S. is going to contribute less than 1 degree of warming to future warming. The future is primarily going to come from China. Their economy is growing at 10 percent a year. And their carbon footprint is growing even faster, 10 or 12 percent per year. The developing world is taking off.

The OECD countries [a group of wealthier nations] are now contributing much less than one-half of the carbon dioxide. The non-OECD countries are growing and growing in their energy use. And we have to be happy about that. It’s a good thing because it means their standard of living is getting better. It’s even a good thing for population control to have people who are happy and healthy.

Don't miss reading the whole article.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Skeptic's Guide to String Theory

Oooh, oooh! If you are in NY City today, you might want to check this lecture out as part of "Science and the City" (clever!) series.

Nov 1, 2008;1:00 PM
Shetler Annex, 939 8th Ave. Suite 204, at 55th St.

NYC Skeptics Public Lecture Series presents A Skeptic's Guide to String Theory with George Musser, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory," and his special guest John Rennie

Scientific American editor and writer George Musser will discuss his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory, the String Wars, and verifiability in science. Musser will also address how string theory helps illuminate skeptical issues, such as claims that quantum fields could be the energy fields of traditional Chinese medicine. Musser and Scientific American Editor-in-Chief John Rennie will then offer their thoughts on the the nature of science and the general relevance of basic physics to skepticism.

Anyone attending this, I need a report! :)