Saturday, January 31, 2009

University of Idaho Cutting It's Undergraduate Physics Program

I wrote more than a year ago report on the going-ons in the UK where Reading University was scraping its undergraduate physics program and the brouhaha surrounding it. If people think that that occurs only in the UK, think again.

University of Idaho has just announced that they may be dropping the undergraduate physics degree program there.

The bachelor of arts and bachelor of science physics programs may be cut as a result of the university’s Program Prioritization Process. The PPP is a part of the University of Idaho’s Strategic Action Plan — a long series of decisions affecting the university’s future that was implemented in 2005. Interim President Steven Daley-Laursen said the PPP is an effort to increase the overall financial and academic efficiency of the university. The Provost’s Council oversees the PPP.

College of Science Dean Scott Wood said he recognizes the physics cuts detailed by PPP are not without controversy, but he said he hopes the cuts made in the undergraduate program will lead to a more focused and viable graduate program.

“Current faculty and staff are disagreeing with the recommendations,” he said. “There is some controversy there.”

No kidding! The students certainly made their message loud and clear here:

{Photo from Idaho Argonaut}

So, considering that one still has to teach intro physics, even when no undergraduate physics degree is being offered (physics is a requirement for many other subject areas, such as pre-med), and considering also that these undergraduate intro classes are usually the largest-enrolled classes and the largest part of the work load for physics teaching especially for a small department with small undergraduate physics majors, the argument that cutting the undergraduate degree would save the faculty from the teaching burden and have them focus more on research is rather silly. This is before we even talk about the mission of a "University", and whether such attitude is in contradiction to the charter for such an institution.

Not only that, they literally insulted physics majors by saying something like this:

Jack McIver, UI’s vice president of research, said concern had been expressed that faculty would not have as much undergraduate student help with research opportunities. Undergraduates can be utilized from other science departments to conduct physics research, he said.

And this was uttered by a physicist, no less.

The thing that strikes me in all of this is that the people who are deciding these things appear to have almost no appreciation of the importance of physics. I mean, look, I'm not naive that many schools are having to cut back on programs due to financial issues. Every single program in a school can make cases for why it is important. I'd rather the administration flat out say "Look, your program is small, but it costs a lot to maintain you. We simply have to cut programs and you're one of it." At least it's honest. The way they justified it here is INSULTING, because they're justifying it by denigrating the importance and relevance of the subject area.


Edit 02/02/09: I corrected an error on my part that indicated that it was the University of Utah. Apologies for the error.

Physics, Math Provide Clues To Unraveling Cancer

Most of us know about the importance and relevance of physics already. But just in case there are still people out there who thinks that physics only deals with some esoteric questions that have no relevance with their lives, you can show them this as one of the evidence to falsify such a claim.

“The living cell is really a dynamic process. We need to consider the properties of physics to help us understand these data. In order to develop a drug directed against a given molecule that has real hope of treating cancer, we need to understand how that molecule is sitting in the cell, interacting with other molecules,” says Merajver, professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School.

After that, show them the computer they're using to read something like this as further evidence. :)


Friday, January 30, 2009

Learning and Scientific Reasoning

This is a rather interesting research and paper just published in Science today. It studies the question on whether the way we currently teach science, technology, enginnering and mathematics (STEM) subjects to students in middle and high school has any impact on their ability to perform scientific reasoning[1]. The way they tested this idea is to compare students in the US and in China. Both system are very different from each other, with students in China on a whole having a more rigorous coverage of science and mathematics subjects than students in the US.

What they found was quite interesting. They showed the expected differences in test scores in Mechanics and E&M between US students and Chinese students, with the Chinese students having higher peak scores than US students. However, when they used the standard test for scientific reasoning (LCTSR test), both groups of students essentially show no difference in their scientific reasoning ability!

The results of the LCTSR test show a completely different pattern. The distributions of the Chinese and U.S. students are nearly identical. Analyses (15) suggest that the similarities are real and not an artifact of a possible ceiling effect. The results suggest that the large differences in K-12 STEM education between the United States and China do not cause much variation in students' scientific-reasoning abilities. The results from this study are consistent with existing research, which suggests that current education and assessment in the STEM disciplines often emphasize factual recall over deep understanding of science reasoning.

I think this is very revealing. It is especially vital if we want to get students that can make such critical analysis. The researches went on to say:

What can researchers and educators do to help students develop scientific-reasoning ability? Relations between instructional methods and the development of scientific reasoning have been widely studied and have shown that inquiry-based science instruction promotes scientific-reasoning abilities. The current style of content-rich STEM education, even when carried out at a rigorous level, has little impact on the development of students' scientific-reasoning abilities. It seems that it is not what we teach, but rather how we teach, that makes a difference in student learning of higher- order abilities in science reasoning. Because students ideally need to develop both content knowledge and transferable reasoning skills, researchers and educators must invest more in the development of a balanced method of education, such as incorporating more inquiry-based learning that targets both goals.

I hate to sound like a broken record (do people even know what that means anymore?), but that is the main purpose for my suggestion in revamping the undergraduate intro physics labs. In those lab exercises, knowing the physics behind what they are doing is secondary to their ability to arrive at how things behave and how two variables are related to each other. So they have nothing to memorize, only things to observe and study.

So yes, I like this paper because it clearly confirms what I think is happening in our schools.


Edit: It appears that this work is getting quite a bit of media coverage. Here's one, and another one, for example.

[1] L. Bao et al. Science v.323, p.586 (2009).

Forum on Physics and Society Newsletter - January 2009

The January 2009 issue of the APS Forum on Physics and Society is now available online.

It looks like the issue of climate change, and APS's involvement in it, is continuing. Read Robert Levine's article in the newsletter.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

How the House and Senate Want to Stimulate Science

With the US House stimulus package passing the vote yesterday, and the Senate version making its rounds, what does each of them do for science funding?

Science Insider at the Science journal website has a very nice list of summary of what each stimulus package is proposing to stimulate science.

Can we get it passed already?


Another Vital Use Of A Particle Accelerators

Anyone following this blog will have seen me trying to dispel one of the most common misunderstanding about particle accelerators - that they are only for particle colliders. WRONG!

In any case, here's another vital application of a particle accelerator, to generate isotopes for medical use.

Accelerators cannot produce as much of the isotopes as nuclear reactors - one accelerator could supply just 5 per cent of world demand - "but this is outweighed by the advantage of using safer materials," writes Dr. Ruth.

The isotopes - used in a wide variety of procedures from cancer diagnosis to heart monitoring - come from the decay of a chemical called molybdenum-99.

Nuclear reactors create the material by bombarding highly enriched uranium - the same sort of uranium that is used in nuclear weapons - with neutrons. Accelerators can achieve the same results by firing photons at a much safer type of uranium, writes Dr. Ruth.

If you read the whole news article, you'll realize that there is an URGENT need and shortage of such medical radio-isotopes.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Despite Slide in World Share, U.S. Science Impact Still Looks Strong

I guess one can always look at SOMETHING and see a silver lining.

The latest Thomson Reuters analysis of 12 years worth of data from National Science indicators has confirmed what most of us have guessed, that the science output of the US is in slow decline.

In 2005, Science Watch noted that the U.S.'s output, as a percentage of world science, was in decline, with Asia-Pacific's output steadily rising. This latest analysis shows the trends continuing. In 2005, the U.S. contributed 32.8 percent of global research; by 2007 its share slid to 31.5 percent. During the same period, Asia-Pacific's share increased from 25.9 percent to 28.2 percent.

Still, the analysis managed to find something positive.

In all 21 science fields analyzed for this report, the U.S. markedly surpassed the world average in citation impact. Topping the list was Physics, where the U.S. exceeded the world mark by 55 percent, followed by Chemistry and Materials Science where the U.S. exceeded the world by 52 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

But is this number also in a steady and slow decline?

You can read the full analysis report here.


Perimeter Institute

I've added the Perimeter Institute to the Links section. Still, here are some useful links from them that you might want to take a look at.

Public lectures playback
Teaching materials
Perimeter Institute scholars
Archives of all seminars at Perimeter



Link Maps and Map Meetings: Scaffolding Student Learning

I mentioned earlier of several prominent institutions that have implemented or about to implement a different teaching method for introductory physics. Most of these require quite an investment, both in time and in money, since a number of them have high-tech solutions.

Still, could there be a low-tech approach to improving students' understanding of physics at the elementary level? These researchers think so. They describe an "intervention" session for students where an additional class is given to provide a wider view of the topics that the students were learning at that time.

By the end of the semester the persistent map meeters saw physics as a subject which links a few fundamental ideas in different ways rather than focuses on rote learning equations. These views were statistically significantly different to students who had not attended map meetings.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is the Pseudogap Competing With The Superconducting Gap?

The issue on the nature of the pseudogap in the spectra of high-Tc superconductors is one of the most puzzling aspect of this family of material. Briefly, the pseudogap is the gap seen in the single-particle spectrum ABOVE Tc, i.e. before it condenses into the superconducting state where the superconducting gap develops. The pseudogap occurs above Tc without any kind of condensation, and it is more pronounced in the underdoped regime. Not only that, as one go further into the underdoped regime, the upper temperature that the pseudogap exists also increases, meaning that you start seeing this gap in the spectrum at an even higher temperature as the doping decreases.

Since it was first discovered, the main question that has been circulating is whether this pseudogap is simply a precursor to the superconducting gap? Is this the signature of electron pairing, forming Cooper pairs, but without the long-range coherence needed to form the superconducting fluid? This is the pre-formed pair scenario. The other school of thought is that the pseudogap is simply a pairing that competes with superconductivity. The charge carriers that are forming the pairing are taken out of the "pool" of carriers that later on will form the Cooper pair and condenses into the supercurrent below Tc.

This question has continued till today, with evidence being presented for one camp or the other. One of the latest by H.B. Yang et al. using ARPES[1]. When they reconstructed the particle-hole symmetry, they arrive at the conclusion that the result supports the preformed pair scenario. However, another report J.H. Ma et al.[2] using STM and ARPES results reported two distinct gaps that behave differently from each other, supporting the idea that the pseudogap competes with superconductivity. This work even had a press release. So is this a done deal?

Not quite yet! Interestingly enough, just a few days ago, a theoretical preprint out of the Univerisity of Chicago discussed this issue[3]. They discussed how, within their preformed concept, that one can have different temperature dependence for the preformed gap that forms at the nodal and antinodal directions of the Cu-O plane of the cuprates. So such observation does not rule out the preformed pair scenario.

In other words, there is still no smoking gun to pick one over the other as far as the origin of the pseudogap. So the story continues.


[1] H.B. Yang et al. Nature v.456, p.77 (2008).
[2] J.H. Ma et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. v.101, p.207002 (2008).
[3] C.C. Chien et al.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Focus on Photoemission and Electronic Structure

I'm blogging this more for my own convenience of being able to find the link no matter where ever I'm at. But at the same time, this is also a very useful link to have if you are curious at all about photoemission spectroscopy, especially if you've been following my report on the "kink" that is observed in the ARPES spectra on high-Tc superconductors.

In any case, this was a series of review on photoemission that was part of the World Year of Physics in 2005. Photoemission was relevant because the photoelectric effect was one of the papers that Einstein produced in his miraculous year of 1905. This all the reviews were published in New Journal of Physics, which is an open journal, you should be able to access these articles for free (I think).

This supplements earlier reviews on photoemission spectroscopy that focused on high-Tc superconductors.



Suspected Thief Transformed Into A Goat

I've been sitting on this news story for a few days while I consider if I want to talk about what I REALLY had in mind. Against my better judgment, I'm going to.

This is actually a rather hilarious news account of something that occurred in Nigeria of an attempted automobile theft.

The paper quoted police spokesman Tunde Mohammed as saying that while one suspect escaped, the other transformed into a goat as he was about to be apprehended.

The newspaper reported that police paraded the goat before journalists, and published a picture of the animal.

Obviously, that is a scapegoat, and if convicted, he should be transformed into a stew.

Most of us reading it had a lot of fun with it, and we also, in the back of our minds, must think of what kind of a society that something like this is taken that seriously. We accept this as nonsense because (i) we haven't seen this occurring, and (ii) it violates so many of our understanding of science and how our universe works.

Still, try to compare with some of the beliefs, especially religious beliefs, that some of us hold. The resurrection of the dead, and other supernatural events that many of us believe in, is no different than what is believed by these folks who believed that the thief transformed into a goat. They could have easily turned around and point the finger at us and say "Look, you believe in other things that we find to be ridiculous".

We depend on science to separate between such ridiculous claims and facts. Whether one respects or accepts the role of science or not, we all consciously and subconsciously use it everyday to know what works and what doesn't! You do not go through everyday life expecting supernatural or miraculous events to occur all the time and continuously. What you do expect is the order and predictability of nature (predictability of human actions is another thing). Even unusual natural phenomena such as earthquakes, eclipses, hurricanes, etc. are no longer seen as "acts of god" or some supernatural phenomena, due to our understanding of our physical world.

So sure, we snicker at this news report, but we also should examine what our so-called "modern, civilized, and intelligent" society accepts that's no different than this silly claim.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

New CERN Chief Will Be More Cautious With LHC

The new CERN Director-General, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, has indicated that he will be more cautious in starting up the LHC this summer.

Heuer, who succeeded Frenchman Robert Aymar at the beginning of this month, said the LHC will be double checked by outside experts before any attempt is made to switch the machine back on, probably in July.

"I want to be sure that everything works," said Heuer of the six billion Swiss franc particle accelerator that runs through a 27-kilometre (17-mile) tunnel under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

"So I'll also let an external group make additional checks on the accelerator," he added.

We'll see if that will make a difference. It is such a complex machine, though. It is not inconceivable that there would be setbacks like this. But when it is that expensive, and in that much of a public limelight, every setbacks get amplified.


Bad Headline on "Quantum Teleportation Between "Distant" Matter Qubit"

Now, when you pick up a phone, and the sound of your voice traveled to another phone in another location, do you then conclude that you yourself have been transported to that location?

Of course not!

So if you read about the report on the recent demonstration of quantum teleportation between distance matter, do you think people draw up the SAME conclusion? Some news agency do. Look at the headline from this site reporting on the same quantum teleportation result.

Scientist Teleport Matter More Than Three Feet

That's bogus! It is even misleading at best!

Matter did not get "teleported" in this experiment. The ions were THERE already when one of them got measured. It is A PROPERTY of the ions that was the one that got "teleported".

That headline not only does not match the paper being reported on, it also does not match the content of the news article! If you read it carefully, the clearly mentioned that ".... Now the JQI team, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, has succeeded in teleporting a quantum state directly from one atom to another over a meter...." This is correct, and it clearly showed that only STATE of ion that got teleported, i.e. a particular property, and not the ion itself. So they either wrote this down without knowing what it means, or they simply copy-and-paste what was given to them.

And of course, people who don't know any better will not get this subtle difference and will simply latch on to the headline. And we wonder why we often come across people with very faulty understanding of physics and science.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Career Guidance for High School and Undergraduate Students

I get A LOT of questions from high school students and beginning undergraduates about career opportunities and income range for physics degree holders. I see this question being asked all the time on various online forums.

So it is appropriate to point out that the American Institute of Physics (AIP) has one of the most, if not the most, extensive data collected to address such question. They have a website specifically dedicated to answer this often-asked question (and other questions). They have everything that range from the amount of money a fresh undergraduate degree holder might make when compared to other subject areas, to where should one go to school, to writing a resume.

So for students who are trying to find answers to such questions, this might be a good place to start.


Friday, January 23, 2009

US Congress, Political Appointments, and Science

Here's the latest summary on the going-ons in US politics and science funding during this past week. It includes the confirmation of Steven Chu and other science-related appointment in the Obama Cabinet, and the progress on the $850 billion stimulus package that contains a sizable funding for science.


Fermilab's Cool Science Entertains Kids

Here's a "cool" news report on the recent Fermilab Open House.

Try to go to one of these if you can. Many US National Labs have some sort of a open house either annually, or every few years or so. It gives you a chance not only to see some of the things that are being done, but also to talk to the scientists who are doing such a thing. Even other scientists can learn something new about other fields.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Quantum Teleportation Between "Distant" Matter Qubit

Nice experiment! Looks like the distance they can separate the entangled particles are getting longer.

The new experiment reported in the just released edition of Science[1] shows a new record for the distance between two entangled matter particle, this time between two Yb ions. The separation is about 1 meter, which, of course is significantly smaller than what has been achieved with entangled photons. However, with matter particle entanglement, one can eliminate the detection loophole that entanglement with photons has, but due to the small distances (it used to be, before this, the order of microns), the experiment can't eliminate the locality loophole. So this experiment is definitely an important step not only for the possibility that it opens up for quantum communication, but also in decisively eliminating all remaining loopholes in the Bell-type experiments.

You can read a review of this work at the SciAm website, or at Science Daily.


[1] S. Olmschenk et al., Science v.323, p.486 (2009).

Brain Imaging Gets Another Black Eye

It looks like the fMRI technique that is commonly used to get brain imaging is getting another issue that, in my opinion, is even more serious than the one brought up earlier. In this case, it boils down to the evidence that the brain imaging via fMRI may be giving more than was is expected {news link is available for free only for a limited time}.

Das and Sirotin used an optical-imaging technique to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood and the rate of blood flow separately in the monkeys' visual cortices. They then compared the results with measurements of brain activity taken with electrodes inserted in the same area.

The electrode and blood measurements coincided when the monkeys were looking at a dot, as expected. But when they were expecting to see something, and nothing actually appeared, there was an increase in the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the visual cortex without a corresponding electrode signal.

"What caught us completely by surprise was that there was this huge anticipatory signal which appeared prior to us showing the visual stimulus," Das says. The purpose of this could be to supply cortical arteries in the visual region in time for the upcoming stimulus, he says.

The study was published in Nature[1].

This means that there could have been a lot of misinterpretation of the degree of brain activity correlated to certain events. I'm surprised that such a "controlled" study isn't done first before such a thing is used.


[1] Y.B. Sirotin and A. Das, Nature v.457, p.475 (2009).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Chu Confirmed As Energy Secretary

Not that there was ever any doubt, but Steven Chu today was confirmed as the new Secretary for the Dept. of Energy under the Obama Administration.

At the same time, Business Week has a more in-depth look at Steven Chu in what he has accomplished, and what he plans to do.


More Review of Dirac's Biography

I mentioned earlier about the first review that I've read on the new biography of Dirac. Scotland's Sunday Herald ("Scotland's award-winning independent newspaper") has a glowing review of Graham Farmelo's book.

Farmelo's splendid biography has enough scientific exposition for the biggest science fan and enough human interest for the rest of us. It creates a picture of a man who was a great theoretical scientist but also an awkward but oddly endearing human being. In Farmelo's view Dirac may have stood somewhere on the spectrum we now know as autism.

This is a fine book: a fitting tribute to a significant and intriguing scientific figure.

It's definitely something I plan on getting soon.


Thousands of Scientists Affirm Human-Caused Global Warming

This is a rather interesting, and rather telling, report. A survey of experts in climate science revealed that an overwhelming majority of these experts agree that there is a warming trend in our climate, and that this warming trend is caused by human activity.

The survey of 3,146 earth scientists from around the world found overwhelming agreement that in the past 200 years, mean global temperatures have been rising, and that human activity is a "significant contributing factor" in changing mean global temperatures.

Peter Doran, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with former graduate student Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, conducted the survey late last year.

The findings appeared Monday in the journal "Eos, Transactions," a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

"The debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes," the researchers conclude.
Doran determined that climatologists who are active in research showed the strongest consensus on the causes of global warming, with 97 percent agreeing humans play a role.

Petroleum geologists and meteorologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47 and 64 percent, respectively, believing in human involvement.
"The petroleum geologist response is not too surprising, but the meteorologists' is very interesting," he said. "Most members of the public think meteorologists know climate, but most of them actually study very short-term phenomena."

Doran was not surprised by the near-unanimous agreement by climatologists.

"They're the ones who study and publish on climate science," he said. "So I guess the take-home message is, the more you know about the field of climate science, the more you're likely to believe in global warming and humankind's contribution to it."

Like I said, this is a rather telling report. One can apply this to a lot of other issues, such as.... oh, I don't know.... catastrophic black hole at the LHC destroying our earth? You'll notice that the only people who are going nuts over such a thing are the ones who can't work through a simply QM problem.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review of Bob Park's "Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science"

Anyone who has read my blog for any considerable length of time will realize that Bob Park is my "hero". It isn't because I agree with him all the time, even though I do most of the time. But rather, it is because he was one of the first, if not the first, physicist to go after these crackpots and the silliness that tried to pass along as being legitimate. After battling crackpots all over the internet, it is nice to know that there's someone else with some authority that is doing the same thing and pointing out that the Emperor really has no clothes. Needless to say, I read his "What's New" column every week, and would say that he was one of the first physics blogger.

In any case, one of Bob Parks earlier books "Voodoo Science" is one of the books I highly recommend people to read. He now has a follow-up book titled "Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science" that will cause a lot of people to be unhappy, and that's just the way I like it! :)

I haven't had the chance to read the book, but there is a very detailed review of it written by Prof. Adrian Melott. You will get a very good idea of the nature of the book from the review. I just can't wait to get my hands on it and read it myself.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Physics Textbook Writing: Medieval, Monastic Mimicry

I must admit that this was a rather enjoyable article, even if I don't completely agree with the whole thing.

The article is a guest editorial in the February 2009 issue of American Journal of Physics. It is written by Craig Bohren[1], Prof. Emeritus of Meteorology at Penn State.

In the article, he blasted many physics textbooks authors for doing nothing more than regurgitating what has been done by previous physics textbooks authors without even bothering to look at the source. This often resulted in the prorogation of errors and misleading/inaccurate statements, especially with regards to the historical accuracy. He cited an example of the former using the case of the "...velocity of light in a medium with refractive index n....". He shows why "c/n" is not THE "velocity of light", because it is one of many. It also leads to the misleading idea of light slowing down in denser media.

Like I said, a rather fun read.

He could have taken another example of a possible confusing "error" that has also been propagated from E&M textbooks. Seymore Margulies in the early 80's published a paper, also in AJP, about the confusing argument regarding the force acting on a dielectric slab that is partially inside a parallel plate capacitor[2]. He pointed several things that are utterly confusing, and such a thing is either never addressed, or simply glanced over in many E&M textbooks, leading to the idea that each subsequent authors simply used what was already written in previous textbooks.

Although the calculation is simple, the accompanying textbook discussions leave much to be desired. Almost invariably, the textbook presentations ignore the physical origin of the force and treat the problem formally. In addition, the approximations used do not clearly justify the result of the calculation. As a consequence, the result obtained is misleading, an opportunity to teach basic physics is lost, and many students are left confused. For example, how can the force act to pull the slab into the volume between the plates when the electric field there is perpendicular to this direction? If this is explained - the force is of course, due to the fringe field - an apparent paradox arises: How can the virtual-work calculation yield an answer when it is explicitly based on the assumption of a uniform electric field existing only in the region between the plates, and so does not include the fringe field at all?

Not one of the many texts and monographs examined contains a complete discussion of this familiar example. Indeed, only four even indicate, however minimally, the role of the fringe field in this type of phenomenon.

So this is certainly something that was addressed more than 20 years ago.


[1] C.F. Bohren, Am. J. Phys. v.77, p.101 (2009).
[2] S. Margulies, Am. J. Phys. v.52, p.515 (1984).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Steven Chu Is Still Not Too Busy To Do Science

I certainly missed this one, which is understandable because it was uploaded in a section of ArXiv that I don't normally read.

On the day that Steven Chu was undergoing his confirmation hearing for the Secretary of the Dept. of Energy position, his research paper was posted on ArXiv by one of his co-author. Not that this is a surprise considering everything we know about him already. Besides, this was done when he is the Director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and it is not unusual for a Nat'l Lab director to still continue doing physics research work.

Still, I wonder how much of this can he still do after he becomes the head of DOE. Will he have time to continue doing or be involved in research work, even on the peripheral? Can it also be a conflict of interest? Or maybe he'll work alone and produce papers more on ABOUT physics, rather than physics itself, such as the one done by the out-going Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger.

In any case, he will have his hands full, that's for sure.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Acceleration Due to Gravity: Super Mario Brothers

OK, so I giggled through the whole time that I was reading this. This means that you have GOT to check it out.

This is an analysis of the gravitational acceleration g of the various versions of Super Mario Brothers game!!

I kid you not! :)

It's interesting how different versions of Super Mario Brothers have different values of g. They must have many brothers living in other planets.

You can make a physics lesson out of this. Since kids nowadays are addicted to video game in some fashion, why not make them learn physics at the same time!

Hey, it could happen! :)


Friday, January 16, 2009

Funding Research Means More Jobs

This is a follow-up to an earlier post that reports on the emphasis that Science can stimulate the US economy and create jobs. A more detailed report on the issues being put forth, especially on the funding picture, can be found in this week's issue of Science (Science 16 January 2009).

Specifically, they want Congress to spend billions on a long list of existing research projects and programs at several federal agencies as part of a massive economic recovery plan legislators are cobbling together this month. To their surprise, that message has received a warm reception from President-elect Barack Obama, his aides, and the Democratic congressional leaders who are shaping a plan that could cost more than $800 billion over 2 years.

The American Physical Society (APS), for example, is circulating a $3.5 billion wish list that covers research and training efforts funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The list proposes upgrades and new activities at DOE's national laboratories, investments in a range of renewable energy technologies, and bump-ups in competitive grants programs at all three agencies. The society's initial list, drawn up right after the November elections, totaled $1.5 billion; it was revised after Obama transition team officials "told us we should think bigger," says APS's Michael Lubell.

How much this will all be enacted remains to be seen. As I've stated earlier, we have seen such "enthusiasm" before from these very same politicians regarding science funding. But when push comes to shove, science will be the most convenient part that gets the ax.

So I'd say less lip service, and more actual funding actions. How about them apples, huh?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009

Is this for real?

In case you haven't seen it yet, the US House Appropriations Committee has released details of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009. The summary for the appropriations can be found here. A few salient points (at least for this blogger) are:

National Science Foundation: $3 billion, including $2 billion for expanding employment opportunities in fundamental science and engineering to meet environmental challenges and to improve global economic competitiveness, $400 million to build major research facilities that perform cutting edge science, $300 million for major research equipment shared by institutions of higher education and other scientists, $200 million to repair and modernize science and engineering research facilities at the nation’s institutions of higher education and other science labs, and $100 million is also included to improve instruction in science, math and engineering.

Department of Energy: $1.9 billion for basic research into the physical sciences including high-energy physics, nuclear physics, and fusion energy sciences and improvements to DOE laboratories and scientific facilities. $400 million is for the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency.

This is VERY nice. However, as we have seen before, it is one thing to WANT to do such a thing. It is another to have it approved, and another to actually GIVE the money that was promised. Remember the America Competes Act? After it was passed with so much promise, the science budget was summarily CUT instead of the promised increase.

So thanks, but I've heard this tune before. Show me the money, and then I'll believe you.


Astronomer Looks Back at Telltale Childhood

This article triggered something, and I'll tell you about it after I point out the article.

This is a brief (very brief) interview from an astronomer (astrophysicist?) who is now working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, probably at the Hayden Planetarium wing (if you haven't been there, you should really make an effort to go). One of the things that she talked about was the "clues" that, looking back, gave an indication that she would end up as a scientist of some kind.

There were other clues about her future as a scientist — De Marco would test the laws of physics, dropping stuffed animals out of her windows to see if parachutes she had constructed, made of plastic bags, would work.

Orsola De Marco: I myself jumped out of a window once with an umbrella, after seeing Mary Poppins. That didn’t work either — the umbrella flips. I can tell you the result of the experiment.

OK, now that's freaking scary because *I* too did almost the same thing AFTER I watched Mary Poppins (hum... does this mean that Mary Poppins is a good indicator of future scientists?). I think I once jumped from a window sill and also from a table with an opened umbrella. I survived! :) I also attached these small "parachutes" to various objects and tried to see how they all fall.

Of course, at that time and at that age, I had no clue on what that all meant as far as my "interest" goes. It is only when looking back did I realize all the various indicators that point to where I might end up.

So, do you had any clues or childhood telltale signs that you can point to that possibly indicate that you might end up with the profession that you currently have?


Rush Holt on Energy Policy, Barack Obama and John Holdren

I seem to be highlighting a lot of stuff from the NY Times lately, but it's not on purpose. They seem to be putting out a lot of relevant articles that I think deserves to be read, not because we have to agree with it, but because these are important issues and ideas that need to be heard and think about.

This time, they have a brief interview with Rush Holt, one of the 4 (?) physicists serving in the US Congress (I'm using NY Times numbers here, but I thought there were only 3 - Rush Holt, Vernon Ehlers, and Bill Foster. Who am I missing?). In the interview, he gave his opinion on several issues that are at the forefront of politics and science nowadays - Energy policy, President-Elect Barak Obama, and the incoming Presidential Science Advisor nominee John Holdren.

As far as the policy outlined by Barak Obama, he has this to say:

What’s your take on the energy portion of Mr. Obama’s proposed economic stimulus plan? Is there enough in it?

No, not enough. I think president-elect Obama has the vision. But the economists around him, and the people who are actually putting the economic recovery package together, despite good words, don’t have a deep appreciation of the role of research and development as a short-term, mid-term, and long-term economic engine.

I don’t think that they have an appreciation of the enormity of the response that is needed to address the energy and environmental problems we face.

I think the president-elect gets it, but the people who are putting together the package, although it has many billions of dollars for energy research, for energy conservation, and other things, it doesn’t have enough. I think they are lowballing what we should be putting into research, and what we should be putting into rolling out energy technologies.

Let's see who Obama listens to the most once everyone is in place.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Characterizing the Gender Gap in Introductory Physics

This is an interesting paper that just appeared online (you should be able to read it for free from the link below). It discusses the possible origin of the gender gap in physics, especially at the intro physics level.

L.E. Kost et al. Phys. Rev. ST - Phys. Educ. Res. v.5, p.010101 (2009).

Abstract: Previous research [S. J. Pollock et al., Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 3, 1 (2007)] showed that despite the use of interactive engagement techniques, the gap in performance between males and females on a conceptual learning survey persisted from pretest to post-test at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Such findings were counter to previously published work [M. Lorenzo et al., Am. J. Phys. 74, 118 (2006)]. This study begins by identifying a variety of other gender differences. There is a small but significant difference in the course grades of males and females. Males and females have significantly different prior understandings of physics and mathematics. Females are less likely to take high school physics than males, although they are equally likely to take high school calculus. Males and females also differ in their incoming attitudes and beliefs about physics. This collection of background factors is analyzed to determine the extent to which each factor correlates with performance on a conceptual post-test and with gender. Binned by quintiles, we observe that males and females with similar pretest scores do not have significantly different post-test scores (p>0.2) . The post-test data are then modeled using two regression models (multiple regression and logistic regression) to estimate the gender gap in post-test scores after controlling for these important prior factors. These prior factors account for about 70% of the observed gender gap. The results indicate that the gender gap exists in interactive physics classes at our institution but is largely associated with differences in previous physics and math knowledge and incoming attitudes and beliefs.

It seems that if both males and females student have the same pre-test scores, they both will also have the same post-test scores, meaning there's no gender difference in the way they learn. It appears that the background of the students have a significant role in how they perform, rather than gender.

Both the multiple-regression and the multiple regression models confirm this interpretation, showing that a majority of the gender gap can be accounted for by factors other than gender explicitly. From the multiple regression analysis we find that only 3 points of the 11 point gender gap cannot be accounted for by background factors. From the logistic regression analysis we find that the odds of a male and a female scoring above 60% on the post-test are not statistically different once background factors are accounted for. Taken together, the results of these models suggest that the persistence of the gender gap is due in large part to differences in males’ and females’ preparation and background coming into the introductory course and not explicitly due to their gender.

Interesting reading if you have the time.


Students Learn Physics Through Scuba Diving?

I'll explain in a few seconds why I put the "?" sign at the end of the title to this entry even though the news article that I'm linking to doesn't have it.

If you have followed this blog for any considerable period of time, you'll notice that I highlight a lot of this type of news report, where students are being instructed on physics using very innovative activities, such as spending a day making pumpkin projectiles or a day at the amusement park. I always try to read up on very creative ways that teachers try to make the subject not only easy to understand, but also fun!

So when I read a headline regarding students learning physics through scuba diving, I was of course, quite interested. This is certainly new that I've never heard before, and of course, the thought of buoyancy, the concept of pressure, and maybe even hydrodynamics started to pass through my head. And then I read that these are special education students that are deaf, and that made it even more interesting for me to see how this is done. That is when I got very disappointed.

While the title is about students learning physics through scuba diving, there is practically no mention about physics and how these were conducted in the news report. There is no mention on what exactly they were taught, and how such a concept was demonstrated during the scuba diving session. What was emphasized more in the article was the ability of the students to sign and communicate with each other under water. I learned nothing about physics education from this article, not even an idea on what was done.

If a law that applies against misleading advertising can be applied to news headlines, this article would have been guilty.


A New Kind of Big Science

This column in the NT Times discusses the increasing complexity in advancing our scientific knowledge these days, and the need for larger and more expensive facility to be able to push that boundary of knowledge. It results in what is called "Big Science".

In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. The governments that fund research have themselves become far more centralized, so perhaps science has been pulled along in the process. But even without that prevailing wind, science would, I think, head in the very same direction.

A young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can gather most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly what it must measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging fruit vanish, and the most precious of fruits are spotted high above, bigger investments in harvesting equipment become necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists’ reach.

I think I would draw a distinction between "Big Science" versus "Big Facility". While it is true that in many instances, "Big Facility" = "Big Science" such as the Tevatron and the LHC, there are instances where one could argue that they are not automatically the same thing. I would say that a synchrotron center is a "Big Facility" but not "Big Science". The science being done at such facility comes from such a large and varied subject area. Such a facility could easily accommodate fields as diverse ranging from pharmaceutical to biochemistry to material science. Many of these sciences are not what one would consider as "Big Sciences", i.e. they do not normally operate out of such huge facility. Material science/condensed matter, for example, often operates out of research equipments that can fit into a standard-sized laboratory space. The availability of a synchrotron facility simply adds another "probe" and capabilities that are convenient and useful as another experimental avenue.

So while the LHC and Tevatron and ITER are all "Big Science", synchrotron centers and neutron facilities etc. are merely "Big Facilities", not necessarily "Big Science".


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

50 Years of Condensed Matter Physics in The Physical Review Letters

I've only recently finished reading this GLORIOUS article by Marvin Cohen on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Physical Review Letters. Writing on the condensed matter physics aspect of this journal, he not only traced its history, but also articulated its importance despite being the "silent majority" in the world of physics.

The transistor was a hard act to follow. The 1956 Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor signified more than just the development of a device. It helped usher in a new era in which our understanding of materials using both basic and applied science was to have a renaissance. In 1958, when Physical Review Letters was born, solid state/condensed matter physics (CMP) began its growth spurt that continues to this day. This field is now the largest branch of physics, yet it is probably fair to say that its practitioners can be viewed as the silent majority. The media emphasize astronomy, particle physics, and biology far more than CMP. Part of the reason for that emphasis is the public’s desire to know how it all began, how atomic bombs work, and how living things function. The considerable interest in computers and devices does shine light on some CMP topics and, now and then, discoveries such as high temperature superconductivity or Bose-Einstein condensation do get coverage, but anything involving Einstein is news.

Perhaps a lack of media attention isn’t so important when considering that, over the past 50 years, 21 Physics Nobel Prizes were awarded to the silent majority working in CMP and associated fields, like optics and instrumentation, and that four Chemistry Nobel Prizes were awarded for subjects in CMP. The breakthroughs were both basic and applied, reflecting the view of CMP researchers that many advances in the field are truly fundamental and that the applied research in their field has changed society.

He has stated better than I ever could on not only the importance of this often-overlooked field, but also how its influences is central to many other field of physics and directly to how we live today.

A highly recommended article for you to read. Don't miss it!


A Change In How Physics Is Taught

This is a fascinating NY Times article on the revolutionary changes that's taking place in many universities in the US on how Intro Physics courses are taught. A specific example was taken from the intro physics class at MIT.

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

And I think there is an important point being made in the article, and that there's a difference between how things can be taught to physics majors who have the natural interest and inclination towards the subject, and to non-physics majors, especially non-science majors, who will get bored very quickly if things don't make any sense or presented in a dry manner.

The traditional 50-minute lecture was geared more toward physics majors, said Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard who is a pioneer of the new approach, and whose work has influenced the change at M.I.T.

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”

This is very true, and for most schools that cater to non-physics students taking physics classes, how the material is presented needs to be thought through very carefully. One has the risk of turning people off from the subject matter and lose the opportunity to make them not only aware of how science is done, but also to appreciate the importance of physics.

When I was trying to think through my self-project on the revamping the undergraduate intro physics lab, my sole focus was more on the non-physics majors students. How do I get them to engage they way they have already understood on what is valid and what isn't, and get them to apply that knowledge to a more controlled situation where they have to now make a conscious effort to "play" and figure out how they can understand something as much as possible. This, essentially, is what science is. Their awareness on how we arrive at the relationship between two properties of something is one of the most important realization and skill that one can have. If that's something they can get out of such exercises, then we have done our job.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Department of Energy Approves Construction Start of NSLS-II Project

DOE has given CD-3 status to NSLS II, which means the approval to begin construction on this new facility.

As someone who has worked at the NSLS before, this has to be one of the most over-subscribed and in-demand facility that I've ever seen. So they certainly need the upgrade and the expansion to allow for more users and better facilities, since I don't see the popularity of it to decline. It certainly is serving a large portion of users, especially in the Northeast area of the country.


New CERN Director-General Speaks to Staff

Symmetry Breaking has a nice summary of the first presentation made by the new CERN Director-General to the personnel at CERN. He addressed the obvious issues ranging from the LHC repairs to what in store for the future of the high energy physics lab.

Don't miss it.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

US Dept. of Energy - A Decade of Discovery

Many people do not know the impact of the Dept. of Energy on their lives. This might explain why there isn't a lot of brouhaha when someone who isn't a scientist or an engineer is appointed as the Secretary of the Dept. of Energy, unlike, say, the Director of the FBI. Yet, DOE makes a lot of important decisions that directly affects how we live today, and certainly how we will live tomorrow.

So it is appropriate at this time to highlight a very comprehensive overview of the DOE for the past 10 years. The department has just released a document titled A Decade of Discovery. It highlights all the various discoveries and research work sponsored by the DOE. You can read the press release here, and you can read the actual document as well.


The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

We have plenty of biographies of famous physicists. Einstein, I would think, leads the way, because it seems that everyone wants to write about him. However, we haven't heard, and I certainly haven't, a lot about Dirac, until now.

This is a review of Graham Farmelo's biography of P.A.M. Dirac. As far as I know, this is the only one (please let me know if you are aware of another such biography).

From just reading the review, it does seems that Dirac is a rather quiet and eccentric person. Still, I found an interesting passage that may be attributed to him that's written in this review:

For his part, he insisted that the quantum world could not be expressed in words or imagined. To draw its picture would be “like a blind man sensing a snowflake. One touch and it's gone”. Its beauty revealed itself only in mathematical formulae.

Kewl! I hope this is truly his sentiment, and not simply a conclusion made either by the reviewer or the biographer. This is because this is similar to my argument when I wrote "Why is QM So Difficult?", and why, the mathematical formulation of QM IS QM, whereas the conceptual aspect of QM is rather secondary.

I suppose I have to get the book and check it myself.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Experiment Resolves Century-Old Optics Mystery

Whoa! I must have been asleep at the wheel. I did not know until that this is still unresolved, until now.

The question here is how the momentum of light transfers to a material when light goes from one medium into another medium with a different index of refraction. Supposedly there are two different theoretical description for this process, and both of them gave contradicting results. Even the experimental results till now have not been conclusive or even at odds with each other. Until now, that is.

Since the early 20th Century physicists have known that light carries momentum, but the way this momentum changes as light passes through different media is much less clear. Two rival theories of the time predicted precisely the opposite effect for light incident on a dielectric: one suggesting it pushes the surface in the direction light is travelling; the other suggesting it drags the surface backwards towards the source of light. After 100 years of conflicting experimental results, a team of experimentalists from China believe they have finally found a resolution.

You can read the rest on what they determine and which one they verified. I'm just still surprised that this problem has been hanging that long, and that I'm not aware of it. What else have I been missing? :)


Satyendra Nath Bose

This is a very brief summary/biography of Satyendra Nath Bose, the "Bose" in Bose-Einstein statistics and condensation. It also has a brief historical development of the discovery of the BE condensation.

Why it is in the Yahoo Business section is anyone's guess. You could get a more in-depth description of this man and his work at the S N Bose project website.


Friday, January 09, 2009

The "Voodoo Science" of Brain Imaging

This certainly came out of nowhere. Since I am not an expert is this area (I know quite a bit about NMR/MRI, but not how it is applied in brain imaging), I will only cite the webpage and, I'm sure, we'll hear more about this in the coming months when many authors get to send in their rebuttals. Still, the paper cited is really rips apart many social science studies on human interaction/responses and the corresponding correlations with brain activities as mapped via fMRI.

The new paper (to be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science but available here) is called “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience,” which gives you a pretty good idea of its argument. Basically, the authors noticed that a lot of papers in social neuroscience that use brain imaging were reporting correlations between brain activity and social/emotional behavior or thoughts that looked too good to be true or, even, mathematically possible (kind of like the years of steady investment returns that Bernie Madoff reported). So the scientists, led by Edward Vul of MIT and Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego, picked 54 such studies, many of them published in prominent journals such as Science and Nature, and wrote to the authors, basically asking how they managed to get such impressive correlations.

More than half admitted using a statistical strategy that, write Vul and his colleagues, “grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams.” Other statistical snafus, they say, “likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases,” and they call on social neuroscientists who use fMRI to reanalyze their raw data “to correct the scientific record.”

This could almost be as embarrassing for Social Science as the Alan Sokal hoax in "Social Text"!


Thursday, January 08, 2009

News From San Francisco's Exploratorium 1-8-2009

1) Exploratorium Brings Hands-On Science to Dalai Lama's Monks in India

Science for Monks -- Exploratorium Brings Playful Exploration in Science to Tibetan Monks in India January 20-31, 2009.

Inspired by the Dalai Lama, a team of his monks are now ambitiously attempting to study not only in the traditions of Buddhism, but to also share in Western scientific inquiry and evidence on the physical plane. Enter the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The goal is to shape these already highly educated monks into science leaders.

An Exploratorium team consisting of neuroscientist Luigi Anzivino, and creative educators Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson, will be traveling to Sarnath, the Buddhist monastery in India where, fittingly, the Buddha gave his first lesson 2500 years ago. The Exploratorium team will fill up their classroom in India with mylar, light sources and simple mechanics. They will be using activities and curriculum based on light, sound and motion to transform the participating monks into hands-on science explorers. Once trained, the monks will eventually head up science study groups using similar materials and methods in their own monasteries. There are hundreds of monasteries scattered throughout the Tibetan communities in India, and potentially thousands of monks interested in studying science.

Go to:

2) $1.6 Million for Elementary Science Teachers from Moore Foundation


The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is taking a creative approach to the Bay Area crisis in elementary school science education, the subject of alarming headlines this past year. The Foundation is supporting a program, headquartered at the Exploratorium, that leverages the resources of the Exploratorium and the Lawrence Hall of Science, to support elementary teachers as they introduce a newly-adopted state science curriculum. The $1.6 million grant is a response to the recent study conducted by the Center for Research, Evaluation and Assessment at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, identifying, for example, that Bay Area elementary teachers feel less prepared to teach science than any other subject and revealing that Bay Area elementary students also receive half the science instruction of the national average. The grant specifically funds a two-year pilot program to provide on-going and targeted professional development support to teachers through a collaborative partnership with select Bay Area districts, demonstrating its effectiveness through improved teacher confidence and preparedness to teach science, improved quality and quantity of classroom science instruction, and increased student interest, engagement and positive attitudes for science.

Go to:



Casimir–Lifshitz Effect Causes Levitation

I suppose the big news making its round in the media this week is the work published in this week's Nature of the demonstration of the repulsive Casimir-Lifshitz effect[1] {the link is open for free only for a limited time}.

Casimir's original theoretical design and Capasso's group's experiment are different. Capasso's team replaced the vacuum with a liquid, bromobenzene, and, instead of metal plates, used a gold-coated polystyrene sphere attached to a cantilever, and a silica plate.

The key to the experiment is the dielectric permittivity of each of these materials. This property represents a material's ability to carry an electric field. To get a repulsive force out of the system, the dielectric permittivity of one plate must be higher than that of the surrounding liquid, and the dielectric permittivity of the second plate must be lower than that of the surrounding liquid. "We're talking about a repulsion that is controlled by the ordering of the dielectric properties of the materials, not the shape," says Capasso.

In the set-up used by Capasso's group, gold has the highest dielectric permittivity, followed by bromobenzene, followed by silica. The Casimir-Lifshitz force works so that the liquid is attracted into the gap between the two, forcing them apart.

Capasso used the cantilever attached to the gold-coated sphere to measure the size of the repulsive force. A change in a beam of light reflected off the top of the cantilever signalled movement in the system, and revealed that as the gold sphere was brought close to the silica plate it got pushed back. The results are published in Nature.

I suppose the reason why the media picked it up is the "sexiness" in the story involving "levitation".


[1] J.N. Munday et al., Nature v.457, p.170 (2009).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Physics of a Human Bottle Rocket

OK, don't even THINK of trying this at home.

This is just plain insane. As highlighted by, this Japanese video shows a projectile using water bottle rocket, which isn't unusual in itself. What is unusual is that the projectile is a person!

You can read the physics behind this insanity at the popsci website that I have linked to. All I can say is "Holy Flying Crap, Batman!"


Milky Way Heavier And Faster Than Originally Thought

New reports coming out of the American Astronomical Society's conference in Long Beach, CA this week indicates that our galaxy is spinning significantly faster than first thought.

It turns out that our solar system is moving nearly 100,000 miles an hour faster than previously thought — revolving around the center of the Milky Way at 568,000 miles an hour, Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced Monday at the American Astronomical Society's conference in Long Beach, Calif. Since velocity is related to mass, the 15% increase in solar-system speed translates into a near doubling of mass of the Milky Way, according to Reid's group — and all of that newfound bulk is composed of dark matter.

So the Milky Way might be a twin of Andromeda, eh? Nice to know that we have a sibling that close.


Brouhaha Over Leon Penetta's Nomination

I'm reading all these news reports on people not being very happy with Obama's nomination of Leon Penetta to head the FBI. I, for one, can understand the puzzlement of appointing someone to head something in which he hasn't had any knowledge of experience in. But what I'm even MORE puzzled is that, how come such a criteria (i.e. appointing someone to head something that he/she is knowledgable in) isn't applied to the various other appointee, especially before this?

Since we are dealing with science, let's look at the Dept. of Energy. Did Federico Peña and Bill Richardson, for example as former Secretaries of the Dept. of Energy, had any science background to head a deparment that deals with science issues? Do you hear people complaining about that? What about James Schlesinger, the first Secretary of DOE? Did he have a science expertise? What about Hazel O'Leary? Did she learn about physics while doing her law degree? Did people brought up the fact that these are non-scientists and people with no technical background who were nominated to head a science agency?

Or maybe, the reason why this did not cause quite a ruckus the way the Pennetta nomination is doing now is because the DOE doesn't create quite the "sexines" in terms of storyline the way and FBI story does. Or maybe people think that the FBI director has more of an impact on people's lives than the secretary of DOE? I will point to you all the appliances in your home (including your phones and iPods and GPS system and computers), and then you tell me which one actually has more of an impact on your lives.

If people are going to argue that someone who heads an agency must be competent in that area, then they should be consistent about it and not simply use it when it is convenient, or when the story is "sexy".

It is why the nomination of Steven Chu is DEAD ON accurate! No one can argue about his credentials (when was the last time you get a Nobel Laureate to head a US agency?), and he certainly has the managerial expertise.


Science Can Stimulate U.S. Economy

This news report describes the meeting between the President of Princeton University with various Democratic members of the US Congress, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The meeting obviously centered on the need for investments in science research by the US Government and how that translates into the economic growth of the country.

An increase in American innovation could reduce the rate of unemployment, Augustine said. Though only a minority of American citizens are engineers and scientists, their efforts affect the lives and the jobs of millions, he explained.

The nation should take advantage of the “opportunity that we have now to improve peoples’ lives and peoples’ well-being,” Holt said, adding that it’s “important to get leaders in science, science policy [and] academia to look at the role of research.”

While I don't doubt that these are true, I've often criticize politicians and mass media reports that skimp on the details. Whenever we read reports like this, a lot of things are stated without any justification or support. I some time wish they would say "...go to such-and-such website where there are many description on what we discover from basic science research that have translated into jobs, advances in our lives, and how we understand more about many parts of our world...". It gives people the evidence they need to be convinced, rather than just simply stating something as facts without any support, which is what many politicians and charlatans like to do.

And if you do want to find support on how basic physics research has produced jobs and improve your lives, go to the American Institute of Physics website and look around.


The Physics of Snow Plow

I got a good chuckle out of reading this letter. It was obviously from a very frustrated snow plow driver in Sheboygan, Wisconsin responding to a series of complaints from the residents about the way the snow in the area has been plowed.

Why we can't plow closer to the curb:

The snow will end up on your sidewalk, service walk, and/or driveway and further increase the number of complaints we get already.

Plow drivers should slow down:

The law of physics tells us the faster we go the further the snow goes. And the slower we go the less chance to get the snow up and over the banks and it falls back down and makes the street even narrower.

Good for him! And this is exactly the way to tackle these complaints head on. Tell them exactly why things are done the way they are, because unless one actually had to do these things, one can never get the full feel of the problem and how to solve it. This applies to everything, and it is why I get annoyed at crackpots who can't work their way out of a simple physics problem, but somehow think that they've found the theory of everything.


Monday, January 05, 2009

The Periodic Table of Videos

This is nutty enough that it becomes interesting! :)

The fine folks at the University of Nottingham decided to create a video for each of the element in the periodic table. They called it The Periodic Table of Videos. Their fine work has been reported in this month's online issue of Physics World.


2009 International Year of Astronomy

So we had the Year of Physics in 2005 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Einstein's miraculous year. In case you haven't heard, the UN has declared 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. You can visit the official website for the celebration here.

Interesting that they had a link to the speech by the Pope that also happened to mention about the upcoming celebration.


Desktop Atom Smashers Could Replace LHC

This New Scientist article has a rather outlandish title. Still, it highlights an important area of accelerator research that I've mentioned a while back - the plasma wakefield accelerator mechanism.

This, and other mechanism (mainly the dielectric-loaded structure) are at the forefront of trying to find another way for accelerating structure to work not only more efficiently, but also cheaply. This is crucial for the continuation of experimental high energy physics that will always require higher energies to probe.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

The 'First True Scientist'

This is a fascinating brief overview of the work and accomplishment of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham, which the physicist author has dubbed as the first true scientist.

Popular accounts of the history of science typically suggest that no major scientific advances took place in between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.

But just because Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, does not mean there was stagnation elsewhere. Indeed, the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries marked the Golden Age of Arabic science.

Great advances were made in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and philosophy. Among the many geniuses of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others.

Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method.

I think that most western civilization forgets that during the dark ages in Europe, a lot of significant progress in science and technology were being made in the Middle East and in the East. Muslim scholars during that time have certainly made significant contribution to the body of knowledge that later on was credited to other western scientists.

I hope the BBC series being made here will be shown here in the US eventually, or at least on YouTube. It will be fascinating to learn many other neglected aspect of this part of scientific history.



Scientific collaboration can break a lot of racial and political barriers. There is always a glimmer of hope that people who hate each other or at war with each other can actually work together in science. Certainly SESAME, being constructed right now in Jordan, is a facility that not only will produce beneficial science, but also a small impetus for people who cannot get along with each other to begin talking to each other, even if it is about science, something that they could already do outside the region of where they live.


Utter Nonsense

It is unbelievable what can pass as an "opinion piece" in our media outlets anymore nowadays.

And how do we start off the new year? With a piece done by someone trying to link physics (and trying to sound intelligent while doing it) and some sort of a "creater", the "who" that puts us here or designed our universe to be just right for our existence.

There's so many things wrong with this article, I don't know where to begin. To start with, let's look at this one.

Leon Lederman’s book, "The God Particle," explains particle physics to laymen. It’s great material, as is that of the late Stephen Feynman. Feynman, one of the guys who worked on The Manhattan Project in World War II and developed the plutonium trigger for the uranium atomic bomb. Or was it the uranium trigger for the plutonium bomb?

Pardon me, but who is "Stephen Feynman"?

Of course, if this person is referring to Richard Feynman. Couldn't he (or the editor) just double check on the name?

Now, you could say "But ZapperZ, aren't you nitpicking here? So what that he messed up Feynman's name?". It shows a lack of attention to DETAILS, and it calls into question how much homework this person has done to actually understand what he's using. For example read this crap:

Just a simple boy, while I appreciate Einstein and Feynman providing the nuts and bolts of how things work, it’s always been a matter of faith to me. Philosophers know the line between the physical and the metaphysical is so thin as to be nearly invisible. Through Pascal’s writings, among others, we find the gigantic "leap of faith" to actually be just a simple, small step. And, interestingly, Feynman, an agnostic most of his life, became a theist, chiefly because of his work in probability theory.

Feynman showed that if Earth orbited one degree closer to the Sun, it’d be too hot for life to develop; if Earth’s orbit were one degree farther away, it’d be too cold. His probability study questioned whether Earth could have been positioned totally by random accident in the one exact place needed to sustain life, and the results convinced Feynman that there was virtually no chance of that happening.

So the question was no longer what placed Earth, but who?

This is nonsense. First of all, there's nothing here to indicate a slightly different earth cannot sustain OTHER forms of life than what we know of right now. This person's is assuming a priori that we are unique and the ONLY type of living organisms that's possible in our vast universe. How typical!

Secondly, Feynman himself never said that his "probability study" has questioned such a thing from happening. What work that Feynman did that he is referring to exactly here? If he has been shown to be careless about details, and assuming he isn't a physicist, how does he know that he has understood and interpreted Feynman's work accurately and correctly?

And the author had the audacity to say that even after we know the "nuts and bolts" of how things work, that this is nothing more than a matter of faith? I'm not going to go into all the various entries I've had on this topic already, but there's a lot of nonsense in here. The author had already described how Feynman brilliantly demonstrated the failure of the 0-rings in the Challenger disaster. However, he seemed to have completely missed the POINT of the whole demonstration - that science, and physics in particular, is based on EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE to ensure its validity. It isn't just a matter of theoretical description of the nuts and bolts, it is a matter of experimentally demonstrating that the theory correctly describe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, what is observed. This is what is severely lacking with the "who" that this author is trying to argue. If science is simply a matter of faith to him, then the belief in his religion is at an even lower and more suspect "belief" if we simply look at empirical evidence.

Not only the fact that this person never bothered to check the accuracy of what he wrote, the editor of this crappy publication also never bothered to double-check the accuracy of the stuff that goes into such garbage. This is utter nonsense!


Fruitcake Missiles

Hey, this news article gives me a great idea on another way to teach physics, especially basic intro classical mechanics. Use a fruitcake as your projectile demonstration! :)

After all, people think it is a lot more fun!

“This is the fun part of physics,” Grant said. “The calculus and the mechanics are not the fun part of physics. So I’m an ex-physics major.”


Thursday, January 01, 2009

11 Questions for Obama’s Science Team

The New York Times has published a rather interesting set of questions aimed at the incoming US President's Science Team. They appear to be questions submitted by various people and covers a large swath of area in science and science education.

BTW, Happy New Year! I can only hope that this coming year will be better than last year, even with a challenging economy ahead of us.