Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkin Physics

With Halloween just a day away, many pumpkins are being massacred as part of physics demonstrations.

At the Chico State University, they had a annual pumpkin drop.

The Society of Physics Students at Chico State University held its 22nd annual Pumpkin Drop in front of Butte Hall Thursday. Students portray historical characters such as Einstein, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Igor as they explain and illustrate the theory of gravity to a large crowd of students.

Out in Utah, the Roy Junior High School has homemade trebuchets to launch projectile pumpkins.

As pumpkins were loaded into homemade trebuchets, launched into the air, and obliterated by the earth, students shivered in their Viking helmets and Scottish kilts and worried about their grades.

Trebuchets, physics, medieval warfare and pumpkins all contributed to a memorable learning experience for a trio of ninth-grade physics classes at Roy Junior High School.

The Mundelein High School in Illinois had "Peter" the catapult to toss the pumpkins.

Joining the fun this year are students from Mundelein High School, who along with physics instructor Michael Hickey and student teacher Mark Michalski created "Peter" the catapult (named after the nursery rhyme, "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater"). Painted bright red for Mundelein High, Peter spans nearly 10 feet across. Watch the pumpkins soar after being loaded onto Peter and launched into the air.



Thursday, October 29, 2009

Study Suggests U.S. Could Use Fewer, Not More Science Students

In a study that not only will cause many responses, but also contradicts many other previous studies, a new report argues that the US does not need more students to pursue STEM subject areas. You can read the actual report in that link, or directly here.

The supply has actually remained steady over the past 30 years, the researchers conclude from an analysis of six longitudinal surveys conducted by the U.S. government from 1972 to 2005. However, the highest-performing students in the pipeline are opting out of science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, suggesting that the threat to American economic competitiveness comes not from inadequate science training in school and college but from a lack incentives that would make science and technology careers attractive.

The researchers—led by Lowell and Harold Salzman, a sociologist at the Urban Institute and Rutgers University, New Brunswick—argue that boosting the STEM pipeline may end up hurting the United States in the long-term.
This happens, they say, by depressing wages in S&T fields and turning potential science and technology innovators into management professionals and hedge fund managers.

The one criticism against this study was stated in the article:

Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable criticizes the new study, saying that it gives an illusion of a robust supply because it bundles all STEM fields together. There may be an oversupply in the life sciences and social sciences, she argues, but there is no question that there are shortages in engineering and the physical sciences. The findings "are not going to make us go back and re-examine everything we've been been calling for," she says.

There are definitely indications that this is true. The exploding funding for the NIH has caused a huge surge in jobs related to that funding and therefore, gives the illusion that there is an increase in students pursuing STEM subject areas. That's why there may be an oversupply in the life sciences. I don't have any clue about the social sciences, and why this would even be considered as part of the STEM field.

As far as I'm concerned, my interest in physics education is more towards having student be literate in physics and how it is done, rather than trying to gear them towards specializing or majoring in physics. I don't care if they end up as physicist or not, but they shouldn't be ignorant of what physics is, and how we gather our knowledge.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Verification of Lorentz Invariance

Another key test of Lorentz invariance has been reported, and this time, it is a test that indirectly measure the Lorentz invariance "close" to the Planck length scale.

Granot and colleagues studied the radiation from a gamma-ray burst – associated with a highly energetic explosion in a distant galaxy – that was spotted by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope on 10 May this year. They analysed the radiation at different wavelengths to see whether there were any signs that photons with different energies arrived at Fermi's detectors at different times. Such a spreading of arrival times would indicate that Lorentz invariance had indeed been violated; in other words that the speed of light in a vacuum depends on the energy of that light and is not a universal constant. Any energy dependence would be minuscule but could still result in a measurable difference in photon arrival times due to the billions of light years that separate gamma-ray bursts from us.

The Fermi team used two relatively independent data analyses to conclude that Lorentz invariance had not been violated. One was the detection of a high-energy photon less than a second after the start of the burst, and the second was the existence of characteristic sharp peaks within the evolution of the burst rather than the smearing of its output that would be expected if there were a distribution in photon speeds. The researchers arrived at the same null result when studying the radiation from a gamma-ray burst detected in September last year, but could only reach about one-tenth of the Planck energy. Crucially, the shorter duration and much finer time structure of the more recent gamma-ray burst takes this null result to at least 1.2 times the Planck energy.

The paper appeared in Nature advance online publication today.

If this is true, several quantum gravity theories will crash and burn.

Edit: This paper has now officially appeared online. The exact reference is

A.A. Abdo et al., Nature v.462, p.331 (2009).


America's Accelerator Future

A wonderful article in Symmetry Breaking today on not only the future of accelerator research in the US, but also its importance beyond just the obvious application to high energy physics.

But behind the scenes, smaller and more modest accelerators have been cutting big swaths through the lives of ordinary Americans.

For instance, “The argument’s been made that accelerators have saved more lives than any other biomedical device,” with an estimated 10,000 of them being used to treat cancer, Tom Katsouleas of Duke University told the audience.

More than 18,000 industrial accelerators have been built over the past half-century and most of them are still in use, according to a commentary by Robert W. Hamm in the Oct 09 issue of symmetry; they sterilize medical supplies, analyze materials, toughen the rubber in tires, play a key role in manufacturing the semiconductor chips at the hearts of electronic devices, and even create shink-wrap, among many other things.

I think that I've tried many times on here to dispel the popular misconception of accelerator physics being tied only to particle physics by pointing out that particle accelerators are used in many doctors offices' x-ray machines. Hopefully, this article reinforces that point.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Einstein Versus The Physical Review

I did a search on this article because I remember reading it quite a while back. Luckily, it is available for free for everyone who does not have a Physics Today subscription.

I was searching for it because someone was criticizing the peer-reviewed process, and arguing that Einstein would not have been accepted for publication had he tried to publish his papers.

Neglecting the fact that Einstein did published his papers, and that all this person can offer is only mere speculation of whether or not Einstein's work could have been published (if he had lived today, he would have been quite familiar with the system and would have accepted how physics is practiced today), the paper above showed that the great Einstein himself could have learned a thing or two had he paid attention to the referee of the manuscript he submitted to the Physical Review.

The irony, of course, is that Einstein could have found that escape route months earlier, simply by reading the referee's report that he had dismissed so hastily. The referee had also observed that casting the Einstein–Rosen metric (as we now call this solution of the Einstein equations) in cylindrical coordinates removes the apparent difficulty.

The peer-review system isn't perfect, because it is done by humans. But it is the best we have now until a better system comes along. And there ARE valuable feedback done by referees who take their responsibility very seriously. I know that *I* try to be very fair when I referee any papers, and often when there's doubt, will err on the side of the authors. This particular incident with Einstein is one such example where Einstein would have done well to pay attention to the referee report, and where the system really worked the way it should.


The Medical Isotope Shortage

I've mentioned before on this issue regarding the Chalk River facility and also the possible alternative of using particle accelerator to produce such isotopes. This is a good comprehensive review of the shortage of medical isotope that will become critical soon if no new solution can be found.


The Particles Are Back At The LHC!

Well, it's about freaking time too, even though this is still way too early in the testing stages.

CERN successfully injected proton beams into the LHC over the weekend. They were at a significantly lower energy, and they didn't go all the way around. This appears to be more for beam diagnostics and to test out the magnets current supply. But at least they are on their way.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Spintronics Made Easy

... well, as easy as can be explained in an interview.

PhyicsWorld has released another video. This time David Awschalom of UC-Santa Barbara describes what spintronics is and why it is important.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Quantum Physics in 60 Minutes

While it is impossible to teach quantum physics in 60 minutes, it is certainly a possible task (barely) to illustrate it to the general public in that time. That's what Damien Pope of the Perimeter Institute tried to do during their Quantum To Cosmos Festival.

You can judge for yourself how successful he was in this video, assuming that you can get past all that long list of sponsors at the beginning of the video.


Friday, October 23, 2009

The Tevatron - The Collider That Refuses To Go Away

There might still be some life left in that big old lady. The Dept. of Energy is now requesting a budget that will allow the Tevatron to run until 2011. With the LHC being delayed due to the mishap, the race to be the first to detect the Higgs is still the major motivation for the Tevatron to continue running.

There is also a clear message by William Brinkman, head of DOE's Office of Science, on the fate of the International Linear Collider.

Brinkman, who took over the $4.9 billion science office in late June, also had some harsh words for advocates of the International Linear Collider, a 30-kilometer-long straight-shot particle smasher that would study in detail the new particles and phenomena physicists hope to glimpse at the LHC. "With all the contingencies, you're talking about $20 billion. In my opinion, that price pushes it way out into the future, and onto the backburner."

I'd say that the ILC in its current form, for all practical purposes, is DEAD, at least here in the US. It is also interesting that the muon collider is now back, considering that that too was thought to be dead several years ago. Now it is clear that, if the Higgs is found, either at the Tevatron or the LHC, an electron-positron linear collider will be needed to refine the discovery. It is just that the ILC design as it is now will probably not get a lot of support, at least not from the DOE.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

2008 Roster of Physics Departments

The American Institute of Physics has released the 2008 roster of physics degree-granting departments in the US. The statistics also includes total number of enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate students, number of degrees awarded for that year, and other fun statistics. It appears that the number of students getting their Bachelors degree has remained constant from the previous year, and so is the number of new graduate students.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spooky Science Saturday Returns to NIU Campus

This really sounds like a fun event, and educational as well.

Last year's successful Spooky Science event at the Northern Illinois University returns this year in time for the Halloween festivities.

Since last year’s event drew such a big crowd, this year’s event has been expanded to two campus buildings. Visitors will be allowed to take a tour of the labs in the Faraday Hall West. There will also be activities located in Faraday Hall.

The two buildings, which are adjacent to one another, are connected by a tunnel, which will be used for traveling between the two buildings.

The program’s original motive was to attract young people’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math before they reach the age where they can attend college.

This is such a tremendous opportunity not only to entertain young kids, but also to educate at the same time, all in a fun environment. So kudos for those who thought of such a thing at this spooky time of the year.


The Physics of Tom Stoppard's Movies

A rather interesting way to teach non-science majors some physics and literature at the same time. This article in Physics Central covers Prof. Brad Carroll's course at Weber State University in Utah that examines the physics in 3 of Tom Stoppard's plays/movies: "Arcadia", "Hapgood", and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead".

I wonder if these movies are included whenever people evaluate the science (or bad physics) in Hollywood movies? :)


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Focus on Dark Matter and Particle Physics

... or what is now called the field of Particle Astrophysics.

Don't miss this issue of New Journal of Physics that focuses on the marriage between the search for dark matter and our understanding of particle physics. There are several review articles on the current search for dark matter, and as far as I know, all the papers published in NJP are available for free.


Michael Green Replaces Hawking As Lucasian Professor

One of the co-founder of string theory, Michael Green has been slated to replace Stephen Hawking as Cambridge's Lucasian Professor.

Green, who works in the same department as Hawking, played a major role in developing a form of string theory that describes all of the different types of particles in the universe and how they interact with each other.


Ask a Nobel Laureate on YouTube

Hey, you can now ask questions to Nobel Laureates on YouTube! The Nobel Prize organization now has ways for you to ask questions to various Nobel Laureates on the YouTube channel that they run. The first Nobel Laureate up is the 2006 Physics Nobel Laureate John Mather.

YouTube viewers worldwide have the unique opportunity to "Ask a Nobel Laureate" a question on the official Nobel Prize YouTube channel ( Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2006, John Mather, an astrophysicist from NASA, is the first Nobel Laureate to participate and he will answer a selection of questions from the online community., the official web site of the Nobel Foundation, manages The Nobel Prize YouTube channel, and disseminates content from their vast archives gathered since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901. Besides spreading information about all the amazing discoveries, achievements and inspirational stories that have been rewarded by the Nobel Prize, is now offering anyone the chance to pose their questions directly to a Nobel Laureate via their YouTube channel.

You can watch the promotional video and the videos that have been submitted with various questions here.


Monday, October 19, 2009

P.A.M. Dirac: Some Strangeness in the Proportion

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Jeremy Bernstein's article in AJP this month[1]. The article discusses Dirac's life and is motivated by the recent biography of Dirac by Graham Farmelo, which I've mentioned on here.

As with many prominent figures in physics, Dirac had his own eccentricities, many of which are listed in this article. For those who have not read Farmelo's biography, this is the next best "Cliff Notes" version.

I see a movie being made of the book, probably directed by the Cohen brothers! :)


[1] J. Bernstein, Am. J. Phys. v.77, p.979 (2009).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Balloon Launch Scheduled for Today at Wesleyan

A group of physics students in Kansas will be launching high-altitude balloons today to study altitude effects and the atmosphere.

Over the past few years, members of Kansas Wesleyan's Physics Club have launched five high-altitude balloons in order to study various aspects of altitude and the atmosphere. Most recently, the group attempted to set an amateur balloon altitude record with its spring 2009 launch.

The balloons also have been equipped with cameras and GPS transmitters. The GPS transmitters allow team members to track the balloons during flight. Some of the team members have remained on campus and tracked the balloons via the Internet, while others have formed chase teams to follow the balloons.

Normally, this story would have not caught my eye. But after the recent brouhaha on the news of a kid floating in a weather balloon, and then the kid really wasn't in the balloon, etc., I just thought that I should offer an advice to these students to make sure that there's no one floating with the balloon!



Friday, October 16, 2009

Computers Have A Fundamental Speed Limit?

That's what two physicists have argued in a recent PRL paper[1].

Abstract: How fast a quantum state can evolve has attracted considerable attention in connection with quantum measurement and information processing. A lower bound on the orthogonalization time, based on the energy spread DeltaE, was found by Mandelstam and Tamm. Another bound, based on the average energy E, was established by Margolus and Levitin. The bounds coincide and can be attained by certain initial states if DeltaE=E. Yet, the problem remained open when DeltaE[not-equal]E. We consider the unified bound that involves both DeltaE and E. We prove that there exist no initial states that saturate the bound if DeltaE[not-equal]E. However, the bound remains tight: for any values of DeltaE and E, there exists a one-parameter family of initial states that can approach the bound arbitrarily close when the parameter approaches its limit. These results establish the fundamental limit of the operation rate of any information processing system.

In fact, if we go by with Moore's law, the prediction comes to roughly another 75 years before this speed limit is reached.

If components are to continue shrinking, physicists must eventually code bits of information onto ever smaller particles. Smaller means faster in the microelectronic world, but physicists Lev Levitin and Tommaso Toffoli at Boston University in Massachusetts, have slapped a speed limit on computing, no matter how small the components get.

"If we believe in Moore's laW ... then it would take about 75 to 80 years to achieve this quantum limit," Levitin said.

"No system can overcome that limit. It doesn't depend on the physical nature of the system or how it's implemented, what algorithm you use for computation … any choice of hardware and software," Levitin said. "This bound poses an absolute law of nature, just like the speed of light."

Still, 75 years is a very, very long time as far as technology is concerned. While a fundamental limit is a fundamental limit, I can certainly see new physics popping up in 75 years that will require a re-evaluation of this conclusion.


[1] L.B. Levitin and T. Toffoli, Phys. Rev. Lett. v.103, p.160502 (2009).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Standing Up For Science

And excellent article on the importance, and necessity, of fundamental, basic research in light of the Nobel Prize in physics this year.

The problem the country faces is that the conditions in which Charles Kao, Willard Boyle, and George Smith made their breakthroughs are harder to come by today. Kao, for example, made his breakthroughs in fiber optics (the thin glass threads that now carry a vast chunk of the world's phone and data traffic) while at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the U.K. Similarly, Boyle and Smith designed the first digital imaging technology while working at Bell Labs, the legendary research organization that was once part of AT&T.

What was so special in these corporate labs of the 1960s?

In these settings, world-class scientists were allowed to work on deep-going, "basic" research quite freely, albeit in close proximity to commercial product development. The result was uniquely productive. No wonder Energy Secretary Steve Chu — another Nobel laureate — often recalls fond memories of his time at Bell Labs, calling it a special place that promoted high-intensity collaboration and empowered scientists to conduct long-term basic research that could lead to new breakthroughs while also holding them accountable for delivering products to the parent company. Indeed, millions of jobs have resulted from such contributions to science and technology, including such Bell Labs inventions as the transistor, photovoltaic cells, and cell phone technology.

Unfortunately though, this sort of corporate research platform is in trouble today. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the tyranny of shorter-term horizons means big companies now spend much less on potentially risky long-term basic research. Meanwhile, much of the action in long-term research has shifted to universities that have a mixed record in commercializing breakthroughs for the good of the regional and national economy. The upshot: Corporations' shorter-term focus combined with universities' variable record at commercialization serves to limit society's overall innovation capacity and so its capacity for high-quality job creation.

Many of the type of research that was done at the old Bell Labs and are no longer done there are now being taken over by many US National Labs, which till recently, were themselves stretched very thin due to stagnant, or even diminishing budgets. These are basic research in which one simply can't immediately attach any kind of possible applications, much less, bring an quick, short-term profit to a company. Yet, as we have seen this year and repeated many times already, these high-risk endeavor can produce such a tremendous pay-offs that not only advance technology and produce fat profits to many companies, they also change our world and our lives directly.

If this isn't convincing enough for why an investment in such basic research must be supported, and why the economy depends on such a thing, then nothing will.


Fractional Hall Effect Observed in Graphene

Graphene has become almost the "aspirin" of condensed matter, exhibiting everything from "speed of light" electron transport, and now, fractional quantum hall effect.

Andrei and her team have finally spotted electrons in graphene getting together in the right way. To do it, the team suspended micrometer-sized bits of graphene to avoid interference from the underlying substrate. The researchers then used a special arrangement of electrodes to keep from shorting out their own measurements, they report online this week in Nature. They observed quasiparticles with 1/3 an electron's charge. In fact, Andrei says, the researchers saw the effect at higher temperatures and lower magnetic fields than are needed to see it in semiconductors, suggesting that the electrons in graphene interact especially strongly.

This is turning out to be such an amazing material, as amazing, if not more, than the high-Tc superconductors.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ThorLabs' "Lab Snacks"

Has anyone ordered stuff from ThorLabs? I have, and quite a few times. I ordered mainly optics equipment from them, and they provide good stuff and good service. But one amusing and fun things they do is that, when they ship the stuff that I ordered, they included this "care package", or what they call "Lab Snacks". This can be a small package or even a small box containing either candy, nuts, or other snacks. This always brought a smile to my face whenever I open a shipment from them. I always forget they do that and it is always a present surprise to see this extra packet or box along with your optics equipment. As far as I know, they are the only company that does that, and I routinely order stuff from many different vendors.

In any case, here are a couple of pictures of the most recent Lab Snacks that I got from them.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

US Nobel Domination Points to Brain Drain

This is nothing new or surprising. The article points out the fact that many of the US Nobel winners from this year and the past were born and probably educated from elsewhere.

According to research from Britain's University of Warwick, published last January, scientific migration is common, and vastly beneficial to the United States.

"Nearly half of the world's most-cited physicists work outside their country of birth," the study said.

A survey of 158 of the most highly cited physicists showed systematic migration to nations with large research and development spending, most notably the United States.

"At birth, 29.7 percent of physicists are in the USA. This increases to 43.4 percent at first degree, to 55.1 percent at PhD, and to 67.1 percent presently," the report said.

However, the number of science Nobel winners does not reflect the downward turn in the US, since the prizes are usually awarded for work done many years ago. The 8 years of very tough science funding in the US will have an impact, especially when Europe and Asia have significantly increased their funding of the sciences.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Follow-Up On "An Astronomer at the Vatican"

It seems that my set of questions that I would ask the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno didn't go well with some people (surprise!). There seems to be a misunderstanding that I was confusing some of the "fringe" aspects of Christianity with Catholics, etc.

No, nowhere in my article was there any implication that this was directed at Catholicism only. Whether this is offensive or not I don't know, but I directed the questions to be the view of Christianity in general. After all, the Intelligent Design movement was based on the Christian faith, and so was the Young Earth movement. If these are close to be heresy, then as a Christian, isn't it his or her responsibility to rectify that? Shouldn't the Catholic church stand up at one of these school board meetings to teach creationism and tell those rabid Christians that they're really barking up the wrong tree?

It is because of such lack of internal "self-consistency" that people like Richard Dawkins are making wholesale attacks not only against Christianity in general, but also on all organized religion. When you don't stand up against someone who shares your beliefs, but makes completely different interpretation of it, then you should be ready to being lumped together with him/her. We have seen the same backlash against Islam and other religion, simply due to the stupidity of a few.

The questions I would ask were direct, without any pussyfooting around. Such clear answers articulated by someone of that stature, would be of considerable importance when I'm in a "discussion" with another person who is advocating ID, etc. based on the Christian beliefs. After all, when I'm discussing physics with another person who disagrees with me, that person often tries to make quotes from Einstein, Feynman, etc.. Unless the "denomination" matters THAT much that it can change the age of the universe, what the Vatican astronomer says should carry quite a bit of weight.

But even if you disagree, I would say that my questions would have been a lot more interesting than the ones that were asked. I mean, just look at the feedback that I'm getting now!


Crisis of Thailand and Beyond from a Quantum Physics Perspective

I've often read things published in the mass media that simply made me scratched my head. This is one such example.

Apparently, a talk has been scheduled at the Thammasat University in Thailand on Oct. 18 that has the title: "Crisis of Thailand and Beyond from a Quantum Physics Perspective".

Here's an open invitation to a new talk show-turned-seminar series called "Head + Heart Walking Together!" The first event, on the topic of "Crisis of Thailand and Beyond from a Quantum Physics Perspective", will be held from 1 to 5.30pm, on Sunday, October 18 in the LT Room, Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, Tha Phra Chan campus. The speakers will be Sivinee Sawatdiaree, a physicist from the National Institute of Metrology; Attakrit Chatputi, founder of and the Thai translator of Fabric Cosmos; and Pramual Pengchan, philosopher and writer of Walk to Freedom. Thammasat law academic Kittisak Prokati will deliver a closing speech under the theme of "Scientific Worldview in Social Science".

Now c'mon, any physicist worth his salt would be utterly curious on how one can make such a connection between "quantum physics" and "crisis in Thailand". Of course, my skeptical instinct would be to think that this is another example of the bastardization of quantum mechanics, something that we see very often and something that I've tackled many times on here. Still, I would love to be the fly on the wall when this forum actually takes place. Will there be anyone, on the remote chance, reading this blog that will actually make it to this event? I would love a report on what was presented. Maybe we all can use quantum physics to tackle the crisis in the Middle East next!



Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Astronomer At The Vatican

This is an interview with the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno.

It sounds as if a high-school student interviewed him. I mean, is this the best that the reporter can actually ask him? The questions were amateurish and benign! I have tons of questions I would like to ask. For example:

1. How old do you estimate the universe to be based not only on your observation, but also the consensus among astronomers? Would this be contrary to the biblical interpretation on the age of the universe? What about the Young Earth's interpretation of the age of the universe?

2. What is your view of the treatment received by Galileo by the church? {Oh c'mon, you knew that one was coming, didn't you?}

3. If there are other life forms in the universe, do you think that they would have the same set of beliefs? I mean, if there is only one god, shouldn't they also had the same revelation? Does the bible predict their existence?

4. Does the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe contradict the biblical description? If it does, which one has the larger empirical observation in its corner?

5. etc etc...

Instead, all we get is this fluff of an interview.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cloudy with Meatballs Shines Light on Women in Science

While "Cloudy, with a chance of meatballs" is certainly a movie that has something to say about gluttony and greed, it also has a social commentary about how we treat smart girls in schools.

Messages about the troubles smart women have in science or engineering careers—channeled through perky, TV “weather girl” intern Sam Sparks—are also part of the lesson. “Meatballs” grabbed the alpha spot 2 weekends in a row since opening in September and is still holding a strong second place. A lot of kids—many of them girls—are seeing that film.

Conflicted about her intelligence and beauty, Sam (voiced by Anna Faris) reins in her left-brain for eye-batting cuteness to gain acceptance—until she meets Flint Lockwood, a lovable but misunderstood brainiac inventor, as both contemplate their failures at the end of the local pier.

This, of course, leads to a problem of under-representation of women in the sciences, especially in physics and engineering.

According to government studies, interest in science between boys and girls is similar until about fourth grade. Soon after, though, many girls turn away from science, math and technology subjects like computing and engineering. High-school girls make up only 17 percent of students in AP computer science and 7 percent in AP physics.

It takes a lot for young girls to not only be fascinated by science, but also to withstand the tease and stereotype of being someone who wants to do science. It doesn't take a genius to realize that this is a major factor in discouraging anyone from pursuing anything, given that kind of a social obstacle.


Friday, October 09, 2009

How To Do Bold, Audacious Science

Science Career section this week has an article on how an early-career scientist can pursue bold, risky, and audacious science research. In a nutshell, one should follow this:

Can a scientist just decide to do audacious science? It looks as though a person with a solid foundation and a good mind can, indeed, decide to become a bold scientist. Our conversations with, and the careers of, a few audacious scientists offer some rough guidelines. Scientific audacity starts with a passion for a topic. It requires the judicious selection of an institution and a mentor. And it necessitates searching for an important problem. Do these things and your chances of doing important science improve?

Note that that paragraph stated the necessity of finding an "important" problem, not just something "interesting". I've argued before that just because something is interesting does not make it important. I also think that this is why the old Bell Labs was such a fertile ground for any important discovery and innovations. It was precisely this ability to pursue such far-out problems that made it such a hotbed for creativity.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Physicist Wins 2009 Chemistry Nobel Prize

Physicist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan shares the 2009 Chemistry Nobel Prize for the study on the ribosome.

Brookhaven has released a video of a lecture given by him. It doesn't say where and when (edit: 2004) it was given, but he acknowledged Brookhaven as being instrumental in his research career.

In fact, both Ramakrishnan and another winner, Thomas A. Steitz of Yale, have Brookhaven connections. It also appears that all 3 of them have performed part of their work at Argonne as well! So it looks like EVERYONE is trying to prove their connection to the Nobel prize winners! :)


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Helen Quinn Takes a Deeper Look at Gravity and Science Education

Anyone who has read this blog for any considerable period of time would have recalled that I highly admire two of the essays written by Helen Quinn: Belief and Knowledge—A Plea About Language, and What Is Science? If you have a chance, you should read both essays if you haven't done so already.

Minnesota public radio airs an interview with Helen Quinn where she talks about gravity, and science education. It should be at the level that most people without much physics background can understand, although the topic being discussed was certainly not simple.


Yoctosecond Photon Pulse?

We have had attosecond and zeptosecond time scale for photon pulses, but now comes yoctosecond! I'm not all that up on these various terminology, and I had to go look up what yoctosecond is. It is 10^-24 second. A new paper published in PRL this week talks about the possibility of producing photon pulses of that time scale from heavy-ion collisions such as from the one at RHIC[1].

What comes after yoctosecond?


[1] A. Ipp et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. v.103, p.152301 (2009).

Edit : There's a coverage of this work in APS Physics. You might even get free access to the paper!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tough Funding Environment in the UK

Physics funding in the UK is facing very challenging times ahead as the STFC evaluates its funding priorities. This Physics Today summary of the funding woes highlights all of the current and previous issues regarding the funding shortage.

It has been a number of years now it seems that physics funding in the UK has been in the dumps. I can't believe that this isn't doing considerable harm not only to ongoing projects, but also in attracting more people into the profession. The US physics funding is slowly recovering after the influx of funding this past year, but it will take a sustained effort to really get it going after such a long period of barely surviving. So the effect of reduced funding isn't that easy to recover from.


Optical Communications Pioneers Win 2009 Nobel Prize

The 2009 Physics Nobel Prize has been awarded to 3 pioneers of optical communications.

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American, won half the prize for research that led to a breakthrough in fiber-optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibers.

Willard Boyle, a Canadian-American, and George Smith of the United States shared the other half for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

This is a terrific award, mainly because the one last year was more for "basic knowledge", i.e. the "LHC-type" physics. The award this year shows the "iPod" side of physics that is equally important. (For those of you who are not getting what I mean here, you probably didn't read an earlier blog entry).

More coverage and background at PhysicsWorld site.

Still, we continue to wait for a woman to win this prize again.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Records of the Nobel Prizes

This is a bunch of fun Nobel Prizes trivia and records. Wonder if any of them will change or be broken after this week.... For example:

Since 1901 when the first Nobel prizes were awarded, a total of 35 women have been honoured and 754 men. Since its creation in 1968, no woman has won the economics prize. In the past 10 years, two women have won the literature prize, and two have won the peace prize. No woman has won the physics prize since 1963, or the chemistry prize since 1964.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

Is Aurora Borealis Caused by Cherenkov Radiation?

First of all, this is not a blog entry that focuses on the answer to that question. Rather, it is more of a "puzzlement" on the PERSON who would ask such a question.

So if someone asks you that question online, or if you read a question like that online, what would be your first reaction? I'll be honest, my first reaction was : why is this person THAT lazy?

Let me explain why my reaction was like that. If this was asked, say, 15, 20 years ago or more, then I would not have that reaction. I would try to spend time and clearly explain why aurora borealis is NOT caused by Cherenkov radiation. Now, it is not obvious why, of course, to anyone who isn't familiar with physics. So that is a perfectly valid question to ask! Nothing wrong with that.

But when asked in this day and age, one wonders why the person never googled for the answer before asking. Now, I'm not talking about the question popping up over some casual cocktail party where someone just remembered the question and decided to ask it. After all, with all the conveniences and ability to look up practically everything imaginable, there is no longer any excuse for NOT having, at least, some answers in something. It would be a different matter if someone has read something that he/she didn't understand, and want a clarification. But asking questions like "What is the mass of a photon?" or "What is quantum mechanics?" etc.. etc. that are really either very general or extremely available online is rather puzzling.

Learning is a very PERSONAL journey. It is your own self-realization and understanding. So whenever one likes it or not, one has to do one's own homework. It can't be shoveled into you. My point here is that, at least from my perspective, if I don't know something, I look it up FIRST. Typically, if it is way outside of my area of expertise, I will always encounter something that I don't quite understand. Even then, I will try to look up other resources and see if I can find something that that would explain it better. Only when that fails, I will try to seek help. In other words, I don't go around posting online the very first question that goes through my head without first trying on my own to find the answer. With all the information available on the web, there's no reason for that.

Unfortunately, with such easy access to various information, are people simply getting too lazy? It is now no longer sufficient that most of what we want to find is only a few clicks away without having to leave our computer. Those of us old enough to remember going to libraries and hunting through card catalogs to find either a book or a journal certainly would not understand such laziness. I have seen way too many instances of people, especially kids in school, whose attitude borders on some notion of ENTITLEMENT to be given the answers to any question that they may have. "I have an question, so give me the answer!". That isn't learning.

So, is aurora borealis caused by cherenkov radiation? One can easily satisfies oneself that it can't be simply via logic. Our atmosphere is bombarded by a lot of high energy charged particles, all over the earth. Yet, aurora borealis occurs predominantly at the earth's poles. If this is nothing more than cherenkov radiation, it would be common all over the world. Yet, we don't see that.

BTW, we do detect cherenkov radiation from high energy cosmic rays. That's what many of the detectors such as the Auger Observatory are doing. Clearly, no aurora borealis accompanied such detection.


Friday, October 02, 2009

What To Do When Your Spouse Wins The Nobel Prize

This is just plain hysterical.

Anita Laughlin, the wife of Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin, has written a book titled "Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize".

....a light-hearted, behind-the-scenes account of what this sort of thing can do to a family.

One occasionally sees a spouse's-point-of-view title on the bookshelf, but this is likely the first such endeavor regarding the Nobel Prize. Says Laughlin: "It demystifies, clarifies and humanizes the Nobel experience."

The report also pointed to Anita Laughlin's website that includes, among other things, a hilarious video where both husband and wife "re-enacts" receiving the phone 2:00 am phone call from Stockholm. Don't miss that one!


Communicating Science to the Media

I had a good time reading this article. It is by Kathryn Grim from the Fermilab Office of Communications. It is meant as a guide to scientists, and physicists in particular, on how to deal with the media. She gives many very good advice here that all scientists should take heed, even if you don't think you'll ever talk to the media. You just never know when that might happen.

There is a little bit of an issue here though. Preparing for an interview with reporters from news media is clearly different than being interviewed by someone from the Daily Show. The latter is more of an entertainment/comedy show, rather than hard news. I'm not saying this because I'm an "expert" at being on the Daily Show just because I've appeared for 0.5 seconds on it! :) One can easily see the angle that they are going for in each of the segments of that show. It may be unfortunate that some of the laughs are directed at the science figure in that show, but that's certainly something that they would go for. So it is definitely a different beast here than your typical media outlet.


Nobel Prize in Physics - It's Time For The Women!

Since people are making predictions left and right on who would win this year's Nobel Prize in Physics, I'm going to make my own plug. It's not a prediction, because I am making the choices based on preference, and not based on who I think has the highest probability of winning.

I have mentioned this before earlier, that I believe there are at least 2 women who should be candidates each year for the Nobel Prize. And considering that I don't remember a woman winning one in my lifetime, such a win would be a major news coverage. I truly believe both Deborah Jin of JILA and Lene Hau of Harvard are strong candidates and deserve to win. They have made more than just one important discovery for each of them.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

"Mythbusters" Ready To Come Back For More Mythbusting

This article previews the upcoming season of Mythbusters.

While I do love the show whenever I catch it, I will admit that I'm not a regular viewer. A few of what they did have been highlighted on here, and I think they do a tremendous public service by examining many of these myths, some true but more often, not.

Still, what got me nodding my head in agreement is what was said at the very end of the article:

More to the point, he said, he and Savage attack their work with greater clarity now, and have a better sense of what the best process is for attacking a myth. Oddly, instead of doing better science, or making things stronger or taking more risks, it all begins with the very concepts for each myth.

"The most important thing to get straight is the question you're trying to ask in the first place," Hyneman said. "It seems like a simple thing, but it's hard to get to that point and, a lot of times now, we're spending much more time defining that question before we do anything else."

I think for many people, especially the general public and many students just about to learn science, and physics in particular, this is something that they don't realize. Many times, I get asked what appears to be a very simple question, but it is laced with many ambiguities and even misuse of physics. The one that stuck to my head right now because I was asked this recently is: "Is the electron real?"

Now, most people think that we can answer this with a simple "Yes" or "No", but really, if you think about it, it isn't that easy. You need to ask the question to the other person on what he/she means by "real"? Is your mother real? How do you know she's real, i.e. what criteria do you use to qualify that she's real? Now, use the same criteria on the electron, etc. The fact that you can't 'see' an electron with your eyes isn't sufficient to say that it isn't real, because the eye is a poor detector. Besides, we define everything based on a set of characteristics and properties (you define your mother based on what she looks like, how she behaves, what she smells like, etc.. ).

In other words, just trying to clarify the question and what is being asked can be an issue all to itself. So I definitely concur with that last part of the article. I certainly find that in many instances, trying to figure out what is being asked is half of the problem.


Nobel Prize Needs to be Overhaul?

There are news reports everywhere about an open letter to the Nobel board of directors to make changes to the Nobel Prize selection and categories.

The Nobel Prizes need an overhaul, according to a panel of scientists assembled by New Scientist magazine. In an open letter to the Nobel Foundation published today, the scientists say that the prizes, scheduled to be awarded next week, don’t sufficiently reflect today’s science. Too many important areas of research are left out of the categories that Alfred Nobel specified in his 1896 will, they say. They ask the foundation to establish two new prizes, one for the Global Environment and one for Public Health advances, and for both they suggest allowing organizations to be eligible, as they are for the Peace prize.

The first obvious restriction on what the Nobel Prize administrators can do is dictated by Alfred Nobel's will that endows such prizes. While they certainly have tinkered with it before (adding the Economic prize, which in my opinion, is a rather dubious move), they certainly can't do whatever they please. One also runs the risk of diluting the prestige of such prize (re: Economics) and what Nobel originally intended it to be.

For me, I'd rather see them expand the maximum number of winners in each category. There have been way too many deserving people left out when a particular area is being cited and only 3 people at most can be awarded the prize.