Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stephen Hawking Posted Help Wanted Ad

In a job that I would categorize as being the voice of the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking has posted a Help Wanted advertisement for someone to support and maintain his electronic voice system.

The famed British physicist is seeking an assistant to help develop and maintain the electronic speech system that allows him to communicate his vision of the universe. An informal job ad posted to the famed physicist's website said the assistant should be computer literate, ready to travel, and able to repair electronic devices "with no instruction manual or technical support."
The synthesizer's robotic monotone has become nearly as famous as Hawking himself, but the computer — powered by batteries fastened to the back of Hawking's wheelchair — isn't just for speaking.

It can connect to the Internet over cell phone networks and a universal infrared remote enables the physicist to switch on the lights, watch television, or open doors either at home or at the office.
There ya go! If you have the skills, you might get to travel all over the world and maintain the voice of this icon.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Fringe Physics

This is a very good review of "Physics on the Fringe". It has almost everything that I wanted to say whenever a crackpot tells me that I have to pay attention to his or her "theory".

Quantum theory and special and general relativity (which Carter, like many outsider physicists, rejects) aren’t entrenched for no reason. They seem to describe the world in a real way - having proven empirically robust and useful in various applications. Microchips, GPS satellites, and many other inventions rely on the remarkably precise predictions they make about how matter and energy interact. Wertheim points this out, but fails to adequately address the obvious question - given these theories’ successes, is it really all that much to ask that an outsider theory provide at least as much explanatory power?
No, it isn't too much to ask, but it is too much to ask of these crackpots. But the most annoying aspect is equating a field such as physics, where an objective verification and validity exist, to something in the arts, where subjectivity and personal opinion rule.

Some outsider theories of physics might be evocative and beautiful, but if their proponents haven’t done the legwork (read: math) to show why they can compete with other, more established theories, why should we listen to them? Why should physics be an open endeavor in the same way most people would agree art should be (an argument Wertheim hints at repeatedly)? Since she sidesteps these questions, “Physics on the Fringe,’’ while often fascinating, doesn’t quite reach its potential.
I'd say that anyone that equates those two fields is clueless to what science is.


Saturday, December 24, 2011


The title and content of this news article are a bit inaccurate, but it is still an astounding endeavor to do. A physics professor at the Neils Bohr Institute has gotten his students to build a replica of the ATLAS detector using, get this, LEGO!

Mehlhase has decided to help promote the LHC to students by taking the time to recreate a 1:50 scale model of it using Lego bricks. In total he spent 81 hours creating it, which was split between 48 hours of designing the model on his laptop, and a further 33 hours putting it together.
I'm not sure how this "promotes" the LHC, as if the LHC needs any more promoting lately. And as you can read from the comments, a lot of responses pointed to the fact that what has been created is the ATLAS detector, not the LHC, which is the whole complex itself that consists of several different detectors (physics professors shouldn't make such mistakes, or is this something that was due to the news reporting?).

Not sure if LEGO will start producing LEGO sets specific for building science structures after this.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

LHC Discovers Its First New Particle

It may not be the Higgs, but hey, a new particle is a new particle!

News reports are citing the uploaded ArXiv preprint that the LHC has discovered its first new particle, the chi_b.

The Chi_b (3P) is a more excited state of Chi particles already seen in previous collision experiments, explained Prof Roger Jones, who works on the Atlas detector at the LHC.

"The new particle is made up of a 'beauty quark' and a 'beauty anti-quark', which are then bound together," he told BBC News.

"People have thought this more excited state should exist for years but nobody has managed to see it until now. 
 This is an example of the argument that the LHC wasn't built just to find one thing. No one in their right mind would want to pay and authorize the building of such an expensive machine just to look for one thing. Even discounting the Higgs, the LHC is a machine that will reshape our understanding of fundamental particles. This discovery is merely the beginning.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Systematic study of student understanding of the relationships between the directions of force, velocity, and acceleration in one dimension"

I posted a rather straightforward question earlier that requires a good understanding of force, acceleration, and velocity in one-dimension. I asked readers of this blog to post a comment as to the answer to that mechanics question.

The answer is F, which means that all three scenarios are possible.

The question was taken from a physics education research paper with the above title, which you should be able to access for free. It has other questions on similar level that you might want to take a look. In fact, if you are an intro physics student, you might want to test your understanding by reading this paper and see how your understanding (or lack of it) is a serious topic of study.

Actually, if one understands the force, acceleration, and velocity at every part of the trajectory of a simple spring-mass system, one would see that the car-on-the-hill problem is no different.


Monday, December 19, 2011

The Need For New Physics, With Or Without The Higgs

John Ellis has written an intriguing opinion piece which argued that whether the Higgs boson is found or not, there is already a need for new physics beyond the Standard Model (link may be open only for a limited time).

It is too early to say whether these promising hints will be confirmed, but if they are, many people would take this to be a validation of the standard model of particle physics. There have been previous indirect signs from other data that the Higgs boson probably weighs less than 150 GeV, and CERN's possible observation would be in line with that. But I am a contrarian. I argue that whether or not the Higgs boson exists, we already know that there must be physics beyond the standard model.
I think most particle physicists are acutely aware that the Standard Model, as it stands, may need to be changed. But whether this is in the form of a tweak, or a major overhaul, that is still up in the air. The outcome of the Higgs search will certainly be a contributing factor to this.


Accelerator Research Center at Fermilab Broke Grounds

A new building to house the Accelerator Research Center at Fermilab broke ground this past week.

The goal for the new center is to build relationships between scientists and the private sector to develop accelerator technology that can be used in medicine, national security and other industries.

The facility will also work to address environmental issues, such as purifying wastewater, and providing energy-efficient sterilization of medical instruments and food packaging.
Kids, this is just one more example where, even when high energy physics/particle physics experiments are slowly "dying" in the US, the field of accelerator physics still flourishes. An early Symmetry article shows where this field is almost "begging" for people. Projects such as the one here in Fermilab shows how versatile and important a particle accelerator can be (read this). Someone who is in this field are not tied to one particular industry or field and thus, has a wide range of "employability".

So while Fermilab may no longer be colliding particles, it still wants to do research in accelerator physics. That should say a lot of the field of accelerator physics.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Car On A Hill

OK, I found a physics education paper that studied Intro Physics students understanding (or misunderstanding) of the concept of velocity, acceleration, and force in one dimension. One of the questions they used to test a student's understanding is actually quite interesting in the sense that it DOES appear to test how well a student actually understands the difference between velocity, acceleration, and force. So I thought, before I give the link to the paper, that I will ask the question here. If you are a student, or even just someone trying to learn physics, see if you can answer this:

A car is on a hill and the direction of its acceleration is uphill. Which statement best describes the motion of the car at that time?

A. it is moving uphill
B. it is moving downhill
C. it is not moving
D. both A and B are possible
E. both A and C are possible
F. A, B, and C are possible

Try it.

This is one example where one needs to understand something beyond just a superficial level. Many people will tend to pick the obvious answer because, well, it's obvious. But to understand why the correct answer is the correct answer will require an intimate knowledge of what velocity, acceleration, and force mean, and their relationships to each other beyond just a hand-waving understanding.

I'll give this a few days, and I'll edit this post to link to the paper in question. If you happen to have read the paper already, or better yet, one of the authors, please hold off your comment and let others try it first. Please post your answer on here, but I will hold off on releasing all comments with answers till AFTER a few days, so that no one will be influenced by any of the submitted responses. Comments that do not contain the answers will be released as usual.

EDIT: I'm getting a few responses already. Again, just a reminder, I'll keep the comments that contain answers moderated for now. I'll release those in a few days when I post a link to the paper. So if you don't see your comment appearing after you submit it, you'll know why.

EDIT (12/20/2011): I've posted the answer and the source paper that this question came from. Thanks to all those who participated and posted their answers.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

First Physics Experiments In Sanford Lab

Symmetry Breaking has a news report on the first physics experiments that will move into the underground facility of the Sanford Underground Laboratory.

Early next spring researchers will begin installing two experiments there—both of them at the leading edge of 21st-century physics. The Large Underground Xenon experiment, which already is taking test run data in a building on the surface, aims to become the world’s most sensitive detector to look for a mysterious substance called dark matter. Thought to comprise 80 percent of all the matter in the universe, dark matter remains undetected so far. The second experiment, the Majorana Demonstrator, will search for one of the rarest forms of radioactive decays—neutrinoless double-beta decay. Majorana could help determine whether subatomic particles called neutrinos can act as their own anti-particles, a discovery that could help physicists better explain how the universe evolved.
No mention of LBNE, the long-baseline neutrino experiment that was in limbo and some funding trouble.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Physics Envy?

This is a rather interesting article. It is actually a book review of Emanuel Derman's "Models Behaving Badly". In it, he looked at why mathematical models used for human behavior, such as in economics and the financial world, are really not the same as mathematical models and theories done in physics. And this is written by someone who has a background in physics, and has worked in the financial world.

Mr. Derman's particular thesis can be stated simply: Although financial models employ the mathematics and style of physics, they are fundamentally different from the models that science produces. Physical models can provide an accurate description of reality. Financial models, despite their mathematical sophistication, can at best provide a vast oversimplification of reality. In the universe of finance, the behavior of individuals determines value—and, as he says, "people change their minds."
The basic problem, according to Mr. Derman, is that "in physics you're playing against God, and He doesn't change His laws very often. In finance, you're playing against God's creatures." And God's creatures use "their ephemeral opinions" to value assets. Moreover, most financial models "fail to reflect the complex reality of the world around them."

Other than his unfortunate use of the term "God" in this case, this is a fairly accurate reflection of my view when something like this is used to model human activities and interactions. I find that the effort in trying to find analogies from physics to fit itself into such human fields to be a bit strange and sometime amusing, thus generating the possibility of some of them having this "physics envy".


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Higgs Boson Latest Update

This is a very useful video out of Fermilab on how we are looking for the Higgs boson.

Of course, this is on the heels of the latest news out of CERN that they many have seen "evidence" of the Higgs at 124-126 GeV. These results are still at or below 3 sigma, so we will have to wait a bit further while they continue to look at the data. No one is claiming discovery as of yet.



Hey everyone. I just got back from a 10-day vacation (and boy, did I need it!). I'll need a few days to catch up with work, and to figure out what's going on with the world of physics. Was there any big news that I missed? They found evidence for Supersymmetry yet? :)

Being on a cruise, and being completely cut-off from the internet and phones (unless I'm willing to pay exorbitant amount of money to get connected) for several days was kinda refreshing. As someone who tries to be plugged in to the news, especially physics news, it took only a couple of days to get used to. After that, it was easy to just let go. The huge amount of food they fed you also helped to distract from your internet withdrawals! :)

And now, let's see how big of a pile of work that I may have to dive into.....


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Physicist Parent

I've chatted with colleagues at work a number of time on their kids and schools. Often, this revolves around what they see of the math and science (particularly physics) education that their kids get from their schools. Obviously, being physicists, they certainly do know quite a bit more than the average parent about the math and physics subject matter that the kids are learning. My colleagues at work certainly pay close attention to making sure their kids are doing their school work, etc., but some time, they also notice "strange" or not-quite-correct material that the kids are learning. Most of the time, it is more of the education approach that the students are put through that they found a bit odd, but there were times where they had to correct a few misleading or incorrect idea that they had come across.

So what about you? Are you a parent of a child or children that are in school and learning math and science/physics? Do you monitor closely what your kids are learning, and have you found a few things that you had to correct? Do the teachers of your kids know who you are and what you do for a living?


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Crowd-Sourcing" Teaching Philosophy

A while back, oh let's say from some time in 2006, I mentioned that Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman had accepted a position at the University of British Columbia. The interview the article I cited gave reasons for his departure from Colorado.

This news article catches up on what has transpired since then, including his initiative in revamping how physics is taught in college. From the results cited so far, it seems to be working. But there's a long way to go to not only implement such a thing, but to convince everywhere that it is the most effective means to teach.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Physics of Parade Balloons

Many of us here in the US celebrated our yearly Thanksgiving Holidays this past Thursday. One of the yearly traditions on this holiday is the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. One of the most popular parts of the parade are the giant balloons consisting of different characters and items.

So here is a short article and a video on the physics involved with these giant balloons, in case you're interested.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Explicit Siphon

I'm not sure what "explicit" means in the title, but that's what we have in this latest paper by Binder and Richert published in Physics Education. This is a follow up to an earlier article that I mentioned a while back that tries to correct a correction on the physics of a siphon. It certainly turns out that a common phenomenon such a siphon can stir up (no pun intended) such lengthy discussion, which isn't that unusual in physics. In fact, some of the most fascinating discussions that I've had were on such "mundane" physics.


Can The LHC Test For Superluminal Neutrinos?

That seems to be the case in a new paper that is about to be published. A new theoretical model by Davoudiasl and Rizzo based on the earlier one by Cohen and Glashow indicates that the LHC itself, using their existing detectors (probably ATLAS and CMS) might be able to detect signatures of superluminal neutrinos, if they exist.

Now, Hooman Davoudiasl of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and Thomas Rizzo of SLAC National Laboratory in California have re-examined Glashow and Cohen's theory. True, the framework would open up neutrino decay in a vacuum, Davoudiasl and Rizzo say, but the OPERA neutrinos were travelling mostly through rock. Perhaps the rock stalls the decay for some reason – for example by making the neutrinos transform or "oscillate" into different types – which would mean Glashow and Cohen's theoretical framework would still be compatible with the OPERA result.

If so, then Glashow and Cohen's mechanism should turn up in other places – notably at the LHC, say Davoudiasl and Rizzo. Neutrinos are produced in the particle accelerator, for example when energetic top quarks decay, but they are not normally observed because they pass straight through the detectors. But if Glashow and Cohen's mechanism is at work, then some of the neutrinos should themselves decay, at roughly a metre from where they are produced. To someone studying the particle trails, this decay should manifest as an energetic electron–positron pair appearing suddenly, as if from nowhere. "This is a relatively easy signal to spot at the LHC," says Rizzo.
Easy? :)

In any case, I don't think this might be a convincing "evidence", whether such signals are detected or not. As stated in the article, the only convincing way to confirm or refute the OPERA results is for other long-baseline experiments, such as MINOS and T2K, to do the experiments. Until then, we will continue to go back and forth with model-dependent mechanism that will not be as convincing.


Liquid Nitrogen Show

This is a fun video of a liquid nitrogen demonstration to the public during the 2010 Jefferson Lab Open House.

Unfortunately, how many National Labs can do these Open Houses again? With the austerity measures being in place, and with the budget constraints, cutbacks, and uncertainty, such spending to educate the public and familiarize themselves with the National labs are gone. Open Houses at these labs are "luxuries" that they can no longer afford to do. And that's sad, because it is during such times that the public needs to know the important functions that these labs do, and why they deserve public support.


LIFE's Best Ever Science Photos

LIFE Magazine (anyone still remembers that?) has compiled what it calls its 37 best ever science photos. Many of them are certainly amazing and historical, such as the snapshot of Einstein's empty office on the day he died. It's a nice way to spend a few minutes just looking at pictures.



Monday, November 21, 2011

Searching For Supersymmetry At The LHC

We already know that the LHC still hasn't found any evidence for Supersymmetry. This report gives an overview of the search, and highlights the latest paper published in PRL from the CMS collaboration on their search for Supersymmetry. It also contains a free link to the paper in question.


Search for the Higgs Nearing an End?

There isn't that many places left for the Higgs boson to hide, if it exists. The latest result has ruled out large chunks in the range of energy where the Higgs could be. What is left now is the 114-141 GeV energy window, which is very small.

Nature has a short video interviewing the various people on the continuing search, and the possibility that there might be no Higgs.


Friday, November 18, 2011

OPERA Still Sees Superluminal Neutrinos

Well, they did a check, and they continue to insist that they see these superluminal neutrinos.

The new tests, completed 6 November, did away with the statistical analysis by splitting each pulse into bunches just 1- to 2-nanoseconds long, allowing each neutrino detected at Gran Sasso to be tied to a particular bunch produced at CERN. These tests were carried out over 10 days and provided 20 events. The researchers confirmed that the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds early, with an uncertainty of about 10 nanoseconds, comparable to that of the initial result.
What they had done is to see if the bunch length could be the source of the error. I think most people that I talked to think it is more of a timing/analysis error, which they haven't really looked into yet.

You may read the updated preprint of the OPERA paper here, which includes this latest short-bunch test.

A major concern among the dissenters is the fact that the "time window" within which neutrinos were detected by OPERA in the most recent run had a width of 50 nanoseconds, something that the leader of the superluminal analysis, Dario Autiero, only revealed once the tests had been carried out. It was initially assumed that this window was just 10 nanoseconds wide. This difference does not affect the final result itself, the source notes, but dissenters say it highlights poor experimental procedure. Some researchers are also unhappy that only a small fraction of the analysis, which was carried out by Autiero, has been independently checked by others within the collaboration. This leaves open the possibility, they say, that not all possible errors have been accounted for.
It will be interesting to see what happens during the referring process. I can certainly see this being published, but with a result this important and this controversial, the only way it will ever be accepted is if T2K and MINOS verify the result. It is as simple as that.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fermilab's "Physics For Everyone"

If you are around the area, there is no excuse to not make some time to attend one of these. The Fermilab's series of physics talks for the public is back.

So even when the Tevatron is gone, the lab isn't dead. But more importantly, they are continuing their effort on public education. This is the opportunity not only to listen to some of the best people around talking on a particular topic, but also to interact with scientists working there.

At least this isn't a dance performance depicting, say, Project X! :)


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

LHCb Sees CP Violation in D Charm Mesons

Forget the Higgs. The LHC has plenty of other physics to tackle.

New report out of the LHCb detector shows an asymmetry in the decay of the D and anti-D charm mesons that signify a CP violation. The CP violation events are thought to be a major candidate in explaining why our universe is populated by matter and not antimatter. We have already seen examples of such violations in Kaon decay. This observation, if it holds, is a stronger-than-expected detection in the charm meson.

You can read a more technical description of this at Cosmic Variance.

Plenty of exciting stuff ahead for the LHC, even without the Higgs.


Monday, November 14, 2011

What Is Antimatter?

You might learn something from watching this video.... at least, on the superficial level. :)


Cheating In UCSD Physics Lab Classes

Honestly, is this that surprising?

A group of researches discovered "widespread" cheating in undergraduate physics lab classes at the University of California-San Diego.

The study also says, "Overall, a large percentage of students perceive more cheating than they admit to. For example, while only about 11 percent of students admit to sometimes or frequently receiving unpermitted help, almost 66 percent perceive that other students are doing this."

In a survey, more than 65 percent of the students said that other students fabricated or falsified data in physics lab.

The researchers add that, "Perhaps the most disturbing finding of our study is the sheer number of students who perceive that teaching assistants ignore the copying that occurs. This is despite the fact that the teaching assistants receive extensive training on lab management, teaching laboratory concepts, and enhancing academic integrity in the lab. As a result of this training, we would hope that close to zero students would perceive a lack of integrity by the teaching assistants."
First of all, this issue of cheating is nothing new. I've reported news of such things already, and I will bet that this is not confined to just physics. The issue with being a TA faced with such a problem is also something that I've written a while back. It isn't easy, and it does require a lot of work.

I still say that one of the major problem is that students are given cookie-cutter laboratory exercises. There isn't an element of "here, investigate this on your own, and device your own way to do it"-type of exercise. When I proposed a revamping of undergraduate physics labs, one of the possible outcome is that there will no longer be a highly-structured laboratory work, and that in many of these, the students have to come up with their own way to tackle the problem. Till these laboratories have some variations to them from one year to the next, you will continue to have students who will try to get away with as much as they can without doing what they are supposed to.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Confluence of Physics And Dance

Ah yes, one of my favorite topics to ridicule! :)

Let's be honest here, I am NOT a fan of such "interpretive" dance that proclaim to somehow able to interpret some aspect of physics. When one understands a physics concept only superficially, and then one tries to demonstrate this visually, the result is often either hilarious, or downright puzzling. I've already criticized such attempts in previous blog entries (read here, here, here, and here). So there's nothing that I will say in this one that I haven't said before.

But still, it is worth repeating how ridiculous this all sounds. A dance titled "The Matter of Origins" has been performed as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Wait till you hear what this dance is all about. It's the doozy!

"Matter of Origins" explores that moral paradox, along with a technical one involving the nature of physical matter. If reality consists of tiny particles, how is it we don't fall through objects containing millions of gaps--a question raised by a contemporary physicist and his wife lying in bed in a scene projected on the work's giant curved screens, where images of the galaxy and the particle collider in Europe are also telecast.

Much of the dancing explores affinities between art and physics. A group approaches the front of the stage, the line of dancers moving their outstretched limbs together in a way that evokes the long debate about light--is it particles or waves? One sequence involves a woman and three men who keep moving a chair away from her--a blunt but keen illustration of the Uncertainty Principle.
Now people, c'mon! I dare you to either read that, or sit through something like that with a straight face! This is really some seriously funny crap here! That thing with the chair to illustrate the HUP. That is too hysterical! You can't make this up!

It is too bad that we can't introduce science, and physics in particular, directly to the people without having to go through such "interpretation". One can only wonder what the average public actually learn from viewing something like this. I hate to think that the HUP is now being depicted as a really bad game of musical chair!


Friday, November 11, 2011

Reporter Toured Accelerator Physics Facility, Thought It was "Particle Physics"

I've mentioned before when people confuses "accelerator physics" with particle physics, thinking that these two are synonymous with each other. They are not. Yet, these misindentification continues to dodge the field of accelerator physics.

This reporter got a tour of Jefferson Lab's accelerator complex that produces free electron lasers. FELs are in the domain of accelerator physics, because it is a study of beam dynamics, accelerating structures, insertion devices such as undulators/wigglers, etc.. etc. It has nothing to do with "particle physics", which is the domain of high energy physics/elementary particle physics. Yet, he is giving credit to it being about "particle physics".

I learned that research of ultraviolet and infrared lasers being conducted at Jefferson Lab could have numerous real-world implications, from medical research to producing hockey puck-sized miniature satellites. The satellites would have turbines the size of a penny.

The tour was fascinating, but I have to admit, when I got home, I had a "particle physics" headache that required two aspirin for treatment.
The funny thing here is that JLab is not even considered as a "high energy physics" laboratory, which is what is usually associated with "particle physics". It CEBAF is considered to be a "nuclear physics" facility, very much like RHIC at Brookhaven. Sure, they do particle collision, but these facilities are funded out of DOE Nuclear Physics division, not High Energy Physics, and are not considered as a "particle physics" laboratory the way Fermilab and SLAC were. So even neglecting the fact that this person was touring an accelerator physics facility in the first place, even JLab in general is not technically a "particle physics" lab.

Or maybe I'm just being too anal-retentive....but I'm still accurate! :)


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Physics Apps

So, what physics or physics-related apps do you have installed on your smartphones or tablets? Angry Birds does not count! :)

I think there's a tendency to try all those "physics equations" or calculator and stuff, but in my case, I don't find that to be that useful. So all in all, I only have two apps that I would consider to be related. One is more of a "useful" type that I can look up whenever I need to, while the other is more of an "amusement" type.

First of all, I have an Android phone. I would like to have an iPhone, but that's another story entirely. But so far, my Samsung Galaxy S II is working just fine, and it is slowly weening me off from wanting an iPhone. So all of my apps are obviously those available on the Android platform.

The apps that I consider to be useful is a periodic table app called Periodic Droid. I need this because, as someone who deals with materials issue often as part of my job, it is nice to be able to look up properties of elements on the spot, especially in a meeting. I tend to not carry my laptop with me all the time, so having access to a periodic table and search some of the basic properties is usually useful. The Periodic Droid is a free app, which means it comes with advertisement, but you can send in a donation and it will give you a code to change it to a no-ad app.

The apps gives a list of standard info for each element, such as: symbol, atomic number element category (metals, semi-metals, etc.), atomic weight, the phase state at 0 C, boiling point, melting point, electronegativity, crystal structure, period, group, electron affinity (in kJ/mol, but it would have been nice to have it directly in eV), valence number, first ionization potential (in kJ and eV, now that's more like it), atomic radius, covalent radius, ionic radius, sheer modulus, density, thermal conductivity, specific heat, heat of fusion, heat of vaporization, heat atomization (?), atomic volume, year discovered, abundance in sea water (?), abundance in Earth's crust, color, electron configuration, oxidation states, source, toxic or not, carcinogen or not, use (?), number of neutrons, electrons per shell, half-life, lifetime, name of discover/s, name of "first isolator", and monoistopic mass. Phew!!

I certainly don't need all of that, but knowing the electron configuration, crystal structure, electron affinity, first ionization, and conductivity are all useful at one time or another. So these are nice to have at my fingertips, or at least, close by.

The other app that I have is more of an amusement. It is Google Sky, and it is free. Google Sky lets you use your device to look at the known stars and constellations. You hold it up in any direction, and the screen will display all the known stars and constellations that are directly behind it in the sky! It is a very cool app! It will even show if one of our solar system planets is in that view. I've used it to identify a bright dot in the sky that I observed with my naked eye, and it happened to be Saturn. And guess what? I don't think there's an equivalent app for iOS. There certainly isn't a Google Sky app for that platform, since someone did try to look for it.

I've browsed the Android Market looking at other physics/math-related apps, and so far nothing else has caught my eye. So, do you have such an app that you would like to recommend?


Steve Koonin To Leave DOE

The US Dept. of Energy has announced that Steve Koonin will leave his post as Undersecretary for Science at the DOE.

Koonin's departure, announced in an 8 November memo from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, busts up something of a scientific dream team within the upper echelons of DOE. Its other members are Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and William Brinkman, the director of DOE's Office of Science, who was executive director of physics research at the storied Bell Labs. However, observers say they're not surprised to see Koonin go, as his position gave him little power.

"Steve's been looking around for awhile—it hasn't been a secret," says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society (APS) in Washington, D.C. "He has not been terribly happy at DOE for some time."

You may read the possibler reasons for his departure in the article. At first I thought this was one of the fallout from the Solyndra debacle. Luckily, it wasn't!


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Most Useful Major?

Oh, you have got to read this article. This was a "debate" held at Notre Dame University.

A diverse group of Notre Dame professors gathered Tuesday to defend their respective majors as the most useful tool to rebuild society if the world ended today.
Now, that sounds a lot of fun, doesn't it? :)

Since we're concerned about physics, let's see what the physics representative had to say:

Michael Hildreth, associate professor of physics, argued the merits of his field and said physics helps mankind at the most basic level, such as producing flame. Hildreth lit a piece of paper on fire in the debate to illustrate his point.

In addition, he said technology allows civilization to grow and thrive, and increasing technological progress has accelerated due to discoveries in the physics realm.

Hildreth said physics contributed to the development of the transistor that enabled the creation of computer chips, like those found in the iPhone.
I'm certain there's a lot more to this than what has been reported. For example, here's the one for theology:

Associate professor Gabriel Reynolds, a faculty member in the Department of Theology, grounded his argument for theology on a letter he found earlier in his office.

"What if every single person is precious to God?" he said, citing the letter. "Wouldn't it be cool if people discovered this God who cared so much that he cried for them? Wouldn't it be hopeful having this knowledge?

"I'm going to pursue the study of the real light of the world."
So guess which major the students voted as the most USEFUL? (Remember that word).  They voted for THEOLOGY!

I know!

Really? Useful? To do what? Feed your soul? Let's see how long you can stay alive by simply feeding your soul!

Regardless of the merit that each of the majors have, at some point, one also needs to wonder on whether these types of debates are dependent not only on the points being made, but also the STYLE and presentation. Would a more persuasive, charismatic person delivering the SAME message influence how people would vote? Sure it would! I've already mentioned many times that one needs to be shallow, perky, and superficial when conveying science to the public. The message itself can be empty. It is HOW you deliver it that is important. All bells and whistles. Or as Billy Flynt would say, "razzle dazzle them".

Theology more useful than physics and chemistry? Give me a break!


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Value of College Education, and Employment Rate and College Majors

I ended up spending way too much time reading these stuff, but this is rather interesting, especially if you're interested in college education and employment.

First of all, I came across this news article from the Wall Street Journal. It listed the employment rate for many different college majors in the US. There are several fields where the employment rate is 100%! Of course, it doesn't state if all those people who majored in that field are also employed in the same field. But hey, nowadays, a job is a job.

In reading this, I decided to find the source of the study, which came from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. I found the report, which you can read in full at this link.However, in search for this one, I also came across another report on the value of a college education here in the US, especially in terms of a "lifetime" income. That is another good reading as well, with tons of statistics. And then, there's a report on employment, income of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors. It is interesting to note that someone with an "lower" degree in a STEM field can earn, on average, higher than someone with a higher non-STEM degree.

Lots of stuff in here, and will keep you busy for quite a while!


Freezing Egg In Liquid Nitrogen

More fun video from those folks at Jlab! This time, based on someone's suggestion, they froze an egg.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of physics discussion in the video itself. If you go to the YouTube site for this video, you get a bit more of some of the physics surrounding this demonstration in the discussion and comments. The one thing they asked was why it took 8 minutes to freeze the egg, but it took 2 hours to thaw it, even when the temperature change is the same. This is a good question to ask the kids! :)


Monday, November 07, 2011

The Kilogram To Be Tied to Planck Constant

I've mentioned before of the issue related to the last of the 7 SI units that still is not tied to a fundamental constant - the kilogram. This is compounded by the fact that one of the standard mass that is being kept outside of Paris is changing mass. They think it is losing weight, but they're not sure now if it is a weight loss or a weight gain (really?!).

Still, at the end of the article in that last link, there was something that I didn't know about.

Mr Picard said the kilogram had gained (or lost) the equivalent of a small grain of sand in weight, but that was enough to throw out calculations in everything from precision engineering to trade.

It will be replaced by the Planck Constant, named after Max Planck, which is the smallest packet of energy (or quanta) that two particles can exchange.

Last month the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) agreed to use the constant to calculate the value of the kilo - but not before 2014.
Whoa! I didn't know they decided on that already! So I went and did a search, and found it immediately. This is a press release from BIPM.

A redefinition of the kilogram first requires highly accurate measurements of a fundamental constant of nature in terms of the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram, currently exactly equal to 1 kilogram. The numerical value of the fundamental constant will then be fixed and the same experiment will later be used to measure the mass of objects including the international prototype. Several facilities throughout the world capable of carrying out such measurements will be needed after the redefinition in order to make practical use of the new kilogram definition.

The target uncertainty for the most accurate of such measurements is 20 microgram per kilogram, which is the same as 20 parts in one thousand million. It is remarkable that at least two experimental approaches are very close to achieving this goal. One approach uses a special electronic balance – a “watt balance” – in order to measure the kilogram in terms of the Planck constant, which is the fundamental constant of quantum mechanics. A second technique compares one kilogram to the mass of a single atom of the chemical element silicon. Physics tells us that the results of these two seemingly different approaches can be accurately compared with each other and, of course, they should agree. The present situation has been examined by the CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants based on work published through the end of 2010. They conclude that the present uncertainty of the Planck constant from all relevant experimental approaches is the equivalent of 44 microgram per kilogram.

The CGPM will not adopt the proposed new definitions until present difficulties are resolved. However, on Friday 21 October 2011, the General Conference took a historic step towards the revision by adopting Resolution 1 and thereby outlining the proposed New SI as well as the steps required for the final completion of this project. The text of Resolution 1 is that of Draft Resolution A, which had been publicly available for some months on the BIPM “New SI” website, with only minor changes made during the Conference. One of these asks the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) to continue its work to render the language of the New SI as far as possible understandable for users in general, while maintaining scientific rigour and clarity and without altering the basic content and structure of the New SI as set forth in Resolution 1.
In the resolution of the most recent meeting, there is a bit more description on how the kilogram will be tied to the Planck constant.

the kilogram will continue to be the unit of mass, but its magnitude will be set by fixing the numerical value of the Planck constant to be equal to exactly 6.626 06X ×10–34 when it is expressed in the SI unit m2 kg s–1, which is equal to J s
the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram m(K) will be 1 kg but with a relative uncertainty equal to that of the recommended value of h just before redefinition and that subsequently its value will be determined experimentally,
Well, there ya go. Looks like some time in 2014, that standard mass will be nothing more than a historical, museum piece, just like the 1 meter rod.


Saturday, November 05, 2011

Three New Elements Join The Periodic Table

Please welcome the three new members of our Periodic Table Club: darmstadtium (Ds), roentgenium (Rg) and copernicium (Cn).

These elements are so large and unstable they can be made only in the lab, and they fall apart into other elements very quickly. Not much is known about these elements, since they aren't stable enough to do experiments on and are not found in nature. They are called "Super Heavy," or Transuranium, elements.

The General Assembly approved these name suggestions proposed by the Joint Working Party on the Discovery of Elements, which is a joint body of IUPAP and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).
Don't think most of us will be encountering these elements anytime soon.


Friday, November 04, 2011

Surface Tension

This is a nice video of a very good and simple demo of surface tension. Kids, you can try this at home!

Hum... iPhone grip? This was taped using an iPhone?



Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tunneling Experiment Proposed To Distinguish Superconducting Pairing Origin

It certainly was a nice coincidence that I mentioned about the paper on tunneling spectroscopy on superconductors earlier. It turns out that a new paper proposes an experiment using Josephson tunneling junction to distinguish between the pairing model proposed by 5 different theories.

Now, She et al. lay out in parallel the theoretical expectations for the pair susceptibility of 5 different theories of superconductivity in quantum critical metals. These scenarios include the orthodox BCS theory with a simple Einstein-oscillator pairing function, BCS with a Hertz-Millis-type criticality of the bosonic spectrum, BCS with a simple pairing function and quantum critical electrons, and two limits of the recently developed holographic superconductivity that borrow mathematical concepts from string theory [anti–de Sitter/conformal field theory (AdS/CFT) correspondence] in order to handle scaling near a quantum critical point.
It will be interesting to see which group gets to do this test first, and whether the results can actually distinguish one versus the others. Still, this is a prime example of the tunneling phenomenon being used to study other things.


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

So Many Science Careers!

Another hilarious installment of "Experimental Error" on the Science Careers section. This time, the topic is on the diversity of science careers beyond just academia.

While there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in the article, it is littered with quite a bit of reality. For example:

For example, there was the classic (and, in my experience, largely useless) question about how we each found our current jobs. I could tell that the students really wanted to hear stories about how we noticed a posting on Science Careers or, answered an ad, and survived competition with 200 random applicants -- because that’s their own best idea for how to land a position. Instead, each of the panel members talked about how we found our own careers through serendipitous meetings, friends-of-friends, and good old blatant nepotism.
It is why, kids, that I always tried to emphasize on the "intangibles" when you are in school, such as publishing, going to conferences, being social by meeting others in your field (and outside), etc.. etc. Being isolated and a loner in this field simply reduces your chances of landing a job. It is as simple as that.


Monday, October 31, 2011

LHC Concludes Sucessful 2011 Run

The LHC has successfully concluded its 2011 run. "Successful", you ask? They didn't find the Higgs! But that is besides the point. As far as the machine's and beam's performance go, it was extremely successful. The LHC is giving physicists everything they need, and more, in terms of luminosity and, consequently, data.

At the beginning of the year’s run, the objective for the LHC was to deliver a quantity of data known to physicists as one inverse femtobarn during the course of 2011. The first inverse femtobarn came on 17 June, setting the experiments up well for the major physics conferences of the summer and requiring the 2011 data objective to be revised upwards to five inverse femtobarns. That milestone was passed by 18 October, with the grand total for the year being almost six inverse femtobarns delivered to each of the two general-purpose experiments ATLAS and CMS.

“At the end of this year’s proton running, the LHC is reaching cruising speed,” said CERN’s Director for Accelerators and Technology, Steve Myers. “To put things in context, the present data production rate is a factor of 4 million higher than in the first run in 2010 and a factor of 30 higher than at the beginning of 2011.”
There is a greater reality that the Higgs may not be found. Certainly, it may not be found where we think it should be. This will make for a very interesting physics. While it isn't too much of a stretch to come up with a Higgless model for our elementary particles, there is also a nagging suspicions that even for such Higgless models, we should have started seeing signs of something else. And maybe we have, but that remains to be looked at in the humongous amount of data accumulated so far. There's still the 2012 run, and then eventually, a major shut down for an extended period of time to replace all those electrical issues that caused the earlier "disaster". Maybe when it gets to a significantly higher energy, we will get a clearer picture. But at this point, we don't have a clear picture on a lot of things.


Point-Contact Tunneling Spectroscopy

I came across this and said "Whoa! A major deja vu moment!"

This is a very nice paper on the principle of tunneling, and its use in tunneling spectroscopy that gives us quite a bit of information on the properties of a conventional superconductor. It describes an experiment for an undergraduate laboratory exercise. I had a deja vu moment because my PhD research was in tunneling spectroscopy using such point-contact method, but done on high-Tc superconductors which, at that time, was a "hot" commodity. I think we were one of the first groups that got a very clear V-shaped gap structure that was consistent with the d-wave symmetry.

In any case, this is a good paper to read if you want to learn an experimental technique, and certainly a good introduction to what we can learn by using such tunneling phenomenon. Of course, if you want to learn quite a bit more, than you have to read the same text that I used when I was a struggling graduate student - Wolf's standard text "Principle of Electron Tunneling Spectroscopy", which I think is still the bible for electron tunneling studies in solids.

This is also a very good opportunity to emphasize, especially those who are outside physics, of another example where a quantum phenomenon (tunneling) that is so well-known, that we are using it to study other things, in this case, the properties of a superconductor. While many may think that these quantum phenomena are nothing more than some esoteric properties that have no bearing on reality, the truth is that we make use of many of them, often to understand the stuff that we use everyday!

BTW, these undergraduate labs are getting to be more and more advanced. We already have an undergraduate experiment that showed the particle nature of light with a which-way-type experiment.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Physics PhDs: Skills Used and Satisfaction With Employment

The AIP has released the latest set of statistics on the nature of skills used and job satisfaction for new Physics PhDs in the US from the class of 2007 and 2008.

There's not a whole lot of surprises here. You can see the type of "Scientific and Technical skills" and "Interpersonal skills" that most of these graduates found to be useful. So if you think that you should be left alone and not have to deal with people, then going into physics is not such a good idea.


Friday, October 28, 2011

"Pair Creation Constrains Superluminal Neutrino Propagation"

I mentioned a while back of the most credible challenge to the OPERA result coming from ICARUS. ICARUS made use of the theoretical calculation of the superluminal neutrino energy spectrum that was proposed by Cohen and Glashow, as mentioned in the article reported earlier.

The Cohen and Glashow paper has now been promptly published in PRL, in case anyone is interested in the citation.


OPERA Encore

Hey, did you like my play on words? Cute, no? Oh well, I can always try....

It seems that CERN has started sending beams with different pulse time structure to OPERA during the past few days. This will enable OPERA to "redo" their infamous experiment and allows them to double check a number of things to either shore up their results, or to find possible sources of errors and uncertainties in their earlier measurements.

Dr Bertolucci, the director of research at Cern, told BBC News: "In the last few days we have started to send a different time structure of the beam to Gran Sasso.

"This will allow Opera to repeat the measurement, removing some of the possible systematics."
This is one of a crucial "assumption" of the experiment, that the neutrino pulse structure is the same as the proton pulse structure. Without a near detector (which is available for MINOS), they have to assume that the same pulse structure as the proton beam propagates all the way to Gran Sasso. It would be interesting to see if a different proton beam will show itself in the neutrino pulse.

It shouldn't take very long before we get initial results out of this one, one would think. It might even be ahead of all the other tests being done at MINOS and T2K.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Communicating Science Through Arts?

I've seen many of these attempts, and I have tried to hold my judgement on the effectiveness of such a thing, but really, I think someone should explain to me why this is a good idea.

This news items reports a seminar to be given on the topic of science and the arts. My guess is that the primary aim of this is to present science through the arts, either with painting, performance, etc.. etc. I don't get it. I've mentioned this before many times where I questioned the accuracy and effectiveness of such a presentation (read here, here, and here).

Maybe I am illiterate in the arts, but I thought that 'arts' are often subjective, and deal predominantly with emotional quality. How is this a reflection of what science is? Furthermore, how do you know how your "art" is  interpreted by the viewing public? After all, we already have seen how the public can misinterpret even when given a direct, English-language response. Interpreting it via some artistic expression will just makes it even worse, won't it?

I'm all for communicating science to the public in ways that can engage their attention and interests. I just don't think this is one of those ways, because I see it creating more confusion and misinterpretation than necessary.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Busting Myths to Learn Physics

Now this is one interesting way to not only teach physics, but also get students to do experimental work!

An instructor in Hamline University in Minnesota is making his first year students to a Mythbuster-type experiments to either confirm or debunk popular myths. In the process, they not only learn about the physics involved, but also learn how to properly do experiments to get reliable answers.

Physics Prof. Andy Rundquist gets the students access to the building materials and ballfields they need to answer life's pressing questions: Will tin foil scramble a speed radar? Can you climb out of a sandpit after being buried to the neck? Will a frozen golf ball fly farther?

The myths must involve physics and no strange materials. "He put the kibosh on a bunch of ideas," reported Summer Haag, a first-year student from Rochester. For example, he nixed the question of whether a duck's quack would echo. "We weren't allowed to get a duck," she said.
This is a terrific idea, and certainly is a heck of a lot more interesting than simply repeating the same experiments year in, year out. I don't know whether it will fulfill the basic syllabus for an intro physics class. I certainly think that something similar to this can be incorporated even in a standard set of the  usual undergrad physics experiments now and then, to keep things interesting. I think any experiment in which the students have to design their own set of methods to solve a problem is extremely useful.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Brian Greene's 'The Fabric of the Cosmos'

For better or for worse, a 4-part PBS TV series on Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" will air this November (at least in the US). Just barely 8 years after his series on String Theory "The Elegant Universe" aired, we will have another trip down the super-fantastic lane of speculation beyond experiment.

Don't get me wrong, I think TV series like this spurs the imagination of kids, and maybe even make them interested in physics. But I think there is a severe imbalance in areas of physics that get the publicity almost all the time, while the workhorse of physics, which occupies the MAJORITY of the subject area, does not get any type of publicity. Why? Because areas such as condensed matter seem to not be sexy enough to inspire such fantastic imagination, which is purely baloney.

So what we end up with is the impression on the public that physics is nothing more than these esoteric subject matter that has very little to do with their everyday existence. This gets very tiring very quickly.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Follow-Up To Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw Q&A

As a follow-up to the wonderful Q&A with Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, we now have an audio recording that focused on quantum mechanics specifically which, I'm guessing, was recently broadcasted on the BBC.

While I don't think quantum mechanics is THAT easy to comprehend, unlike what was stated in the interview, I do think it is important that it is presented early on in school. This is because familiarity with it, and how we think about the world, makes it more easily accepted and less 'strange'. I certainly share their views of what science is, and how, by its nature, it is a continuing progression of our understanding.

A good interview to listen to.


Random Physics Picture

Inside the window on the 6-way cross is a molybdenum plug. The left, flat surface of the plug is the newly-deposited cesium telluride photocathode. This plug will be transferred, under ultrahigh vacuum, to an accelerator photoinjector, where it will become the source of electrons for a research linear accelerator. The "spring" that you can see imbedded around the plug is to enhance electrical contact of the plug to the wall of the photoinjector.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Q&A With Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

This article started with the news of a new book written by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. However, what I find a lot more interesting is the Q&A they had in the article that directly answers many of the most common questions that we get, especially from the general public. It is worthwhile to read these Q&A. I'm hesitant to copy the entire Q&A and post it here due to possible copyright issues, but I'm also afraid that after some time, you might not be able to read the article at the link.

So, hoping that the Guardian will understand that this is entirely for educational and informational purposes, I will copy and paste the Q&A, and full credit and copyright of this article belongs to the Guardian.


Is there a centre of the universe?
Marjorie Ainsworth, via email
JF: It's a common misunderstanding of the big bang that the universe exploded into something, like a firework went off or something like that, and there was a centre that spewed out into something.
BC: That seems to imply that everything is flying away from us and we're therefore somehow in a privileged position; that isn't true. The way it's often described is if you imagine some bread with raisins in it that you're baking in the oven and as you heat it, it expands. On any particular raisin, if you look, you can see all the other raisins receding from it. So it's space that stretching, it's not that everything's flying away.
JF: It's the big stretch, not the big bang.

If everything came from a singularity, what created it?
bbmatt, via web
JF: What created the singularity? No idea. But that doesn't mean that some people haven't tried to come up with ideas. Anyway, everything coming from a singularity is a confusing line of questioning because the universe was probably infinite at the time of the big bang so it didn't really come from a singularity. It came from a singularity in the density, but I expect that the person who's asked that question imagined that the universe came from a point.
… but that's very unlikely. We don't know what happens deep inside a black hole, so when the density of the universe gets very, very large then our calculations cease to work, so the honest answer is that before we reach the singularity, our ability to calculate fails. But that's not to undermine how accurately we can calculate, because we claim to understand the behaviour of the entire visible universe winding back through the big bang to a time when it was the size of a beach ball. So that's all the billions of galaxies and all the billions of stars in the galaxies compressed to about the size of a beach ball, which is pretty impressive.
BC: General relativity, quantum mechanics, those things break down in there, so the idea that there is such a thing as a singularity in nature is unlikely. A lot of people think that if you have a proper theory of gravity that works smaller than the beach ball metaphor then you don't have these issues, but it's not known.
JF: Another misunderstanding, which stems from that question, is the idea that the universe was small at the big bang. What was small at the time of the big bang was the entire visible universe, so everything we can see now, which is about 14bn light years away, all of that was compressed to the size of a pinhead. But it was one pinhead in an infinite space, so there's an infinite amount of stuff, as far as we can tell, outside our universe. So it's right to say that it's 14bn years old, but it's wrong to say that it's 14bn light years in size because it's probably infinitely big.
However, the question that's probably been asked is what happened before the beginning and the answer to that is that nobody has a clue – so that's the honest answer.

If there exists some particle that can travel faster than light, then surely there should be a way of sending information into the past?
jamma88 via web
BC: Yes, that's true. If you don't modify Einstein's theory of relativity and you take it at face value and send something faster than light, then yes, you can send messages into the past. So, if the current result is shown to be correct, then probably what you're saying is that you want a new theory of space and time, and then, who knows?
JF: In a nutshell, if Einstein is right, then yes is the answer to the question. But you'd be very hard pressed to find a physicist who thought that Einstein is right if you find a particle travelling faster than the speed of light. What that means is that Einstein is wrong because you can't travel back into the past and so there's some new theory that comes into play, which protects the law of cause and effect. It's very hard to conceive of a logical universe in which cause and effect doesn't hold.

What does no Higgs mean for physics? What are the other theories?
Jason Mickler via email
JF: No Higgs would be very exciting.
BC: It could be more exciting than finding it. The favoured candidate for the something new that we know must exist at the Large Hadron Collider is the Higgs, but it could be something else.
We've written several papers together and our most cited one is what would happen if there isn't a Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider and how we might explore the physics that must be there if there isn't one. It's very rare that you get to build an experiment in science where you're guaranteed to discover something new. The Large Hadron Collider is such an experiment, in that the standard model of particle physics predicts that there's going to be a Higgs particle. But it's not necessarily going to be there and if you take away the Higgs particle out of our standard theory, you take away all the maths and throw it in the bin and see what's left… and what's left is a theory that doesn't make sense.
JF: Something will show up sooner rather than later. If the Higgs particle is relatively light, there's a range of masses we expect it to have and we should see it very soon, we could even see it before Christmas. If it's heavy or if the alternative to it is heavy, then it could take a few more years before we find it. We're closing in on it fast now though – the machine is working absolutely wonderfully, it really is.

How do you feel about scientists who blog their research rather than waiting to publish their final results?
Stephen Marks via email
BC: The peer review process works and I'm an enormous supporter of it. If you try to circumvent the process, that's a recipe for disaster. Often, it's based on a suspicion of the scientific community and the scientific method. They often see themselves as the hero outside of science, cutting through the jungle of bureaucracy. That's nonsense: science is a very open pursuit, but peer review is there to ensure some kind of minimal standard of professionalism.
JF: I think it's unfair for people to blog. People have overstepped the mark and leaked results, and that's just not fair on their collaborators who are working to get the result into a publishable form.

Scientists use supernova explosions to measure how far away supernovas are. The distance depends on how bright they appear against how bright they really are. How do scientists know how bright the supernova explosions should be?
Bas Bouma via email
JF: When stars explode in a particular way (called Type Ia supernovae) they do so in a remarkably consistent manner – that is to say one such explosion looks pretty much the same as any other. That means that if we can measure the distance to a "nearby" supernova using some other method (and not its brightness) then we can use that to calibrate things and determine the distance to more distant supernovae using only their brightness. Incidentally, these supernovae are remarkable events. White dwarf stars are small dead stars and they survive purely as a consequence of quantum mechanics but only if they weigh less than 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. If this thing accretes matter and sneaks past the magic 1.4 solar masses then the electrons within the star start to move close to the speed of light and that triggers a catastrophic collapse – the supernova.

If question-asking is so fundamental to science, why has there been no research into how we might improve question-asking for learners in our places of education?
Laurence Smith via email
BC: I think, for example, quantum mechanics should be taught in schools for this reason. One of the reasons is that it's a great way of seeing how the data from experiments can drive you to a rather counterintuitive picture of the world. For example, the rules of quantum physics are not by themselves complicated, but they are philosophically challenging. I think the scientific method is more important to teach than facts. I'm not that bothered if people know about the structure of the atom or whatever but I want people to understand how you get to these conclusions about the world.


My question is: I cannot perceive or understand infinity. For man, everything has a beginning and an end. Answer, please!
Harry, via web
JF: The reality is that we don't know for certain what's outside the 14 billion years' worth of what we can see, so there could be an edge to the universe, it's possible, but there's no evidence in any of the data.
BC: The universe was opaque about 380,000 years after the big bang and at that point became diffuse enough that light could travel through it. And we can see that light, people measure it in great detail, and you could see if the universe had an edge in that data, but there's no sign of it.

The physics behind the current understanding of the universe isn't complete, but do you think that a new kind of mathematics will be needed, and what kind of mathematics might that be?
John Read, via email
JF: There isn't a Nobel prize for mathematics, its equivalent is called the Fields Medal and people who are working on fundamental questions in physics, string theory in particular, have won that prize in recent times, so it already is the case that physicists are breaking new ground within mathematics. People are trying to understand the universe at its birth – the behaviour of phenomena down to mind-bogglingly small scales – we're talking like 10-40cm. So new mathematics may well be needed and people are inventing new mathematics.
But it should be stressed that the known physics, the physics that we've measured in experiments, none of that really has mandated in any particularly significant way our theories of mathematics. There are exceptions, such as the idea that numbers have the property of commutativity, which means that 2x3 is equal to 3x2, but the theory of elementary particles used, for example, at the Large Hadron Collider utilises a mathematics where in the product of two numbers the order matters, so X times Y doesn't equal Y times X.


How do we know what shape the Milky Way is? I've seen many illustrations of our galaxy as a spiral, but how can we tell what it looks like when we're deeply embedded inside it?
Chris Muggleton, via email
JF: If you lived in an omelette, and you lived on the edge of that omelette, you could measure the distance between all the pieces of mushroom in the omelette. If you were clever enough to work out how far it was to all the different parts of the omelette, you'd be able to reconstruct it. So it's all a question of measuring the distance between the stars. Because they don't move any significant distance in the time you're measuring them [relatively speaking], to get the shape of it, all you need to know is the distance.

How do you feel about amateur astronomers, in today's hi-tech society?
Duncan Jones, via email
JF: Years ago, amateurs played a big part in the understanding of the cosmos, with observations and the recording of events. Unfortunately, with the advent of modern technology, the role of the amateur has been left far behind.
BC: In things such as astronomy, there's always been a place for amateur observers because there's a lot of sky. Certainly in searching for things such as new comets, they do make a contribution.
In particle physics, it's impossible for amateurs to be involved in the data because there's too much infrastructure required. In theoretical physics, Jeff might want to comment, and in theory the amateur could make a contribution because you don't have to be an academic to submit to a academic journal. If the paper makes sense then it can be published.
JF: I get a lot of papers sent to me by amateur scientists. But they've usually not got the scientific background or the training to make a contribution in theoretical physics, so it's very hard unless you've got that training.

Politics and economics

How likely is it that we'll be able to harness fusion power before we run out of fossil fuels?
@craighitchings via Twitter
BC: If we were to invest in it properly, then I'd say very likely, because the technology has been proved. In fact, the most effective fusion reactor at the moment is still in Oxford, which is where it's been for more than 30 years – and it works.
The problem is that it's not a very good commercial option at the moment because no one's demonstrated that you can build a commercially viable reactor. That's why government money has always been needed – because it's a 20- to 30-year investment. That's not the way you do things in private companies but governments can certainly help; we're talking single-figure billions, not going to the moon. So in my view, the technology has been demonstrated and it's simply a question of working out how to build industrial-scale plants that can return profit.
The real problem is that you have to contain plasma that's at a very high temperature – dismembered gas, basically. So it's very difficult to model and there are real engineering challenges. We need to understand what happens to this plasma.

Is the €75bn spent on the Large Hadron Collider worth the investment?
Oliver Gerrard via email
BC: The UK spends about £70m a year on the LHC. We spend less in Britain each year on Cern than we do on peanuts, literally, so it's a very tiny amount of money. A lot of that money funds PhD students and a lot of it pays for academics in universities – the bulk of the money actually stays in Britain. So breaking it down, it costs very little.
The other thing to understand is that the LHC is often portrayed as the search for another esoteric particle and that's nonsense. It's been built to solve a specific problem in our understanding of three of the four forces of nature. And there are all sorts of theories about how that might work, the Higgs being one of them. To portray it as some kind of esoteric hunt for an elusive particle is nonsense: it's the mainline of physics, which has arguably created wealth beyond anyone's wildest dreams and will continue to do so.

Can science save the economy?
Andrea via email
Both: Yes!
BC: It's the foundation of the economy for a start, so it'll have to! Nothing else will save it. The modern world is based on science, so that's it – there is nothing else.
JF: Yes, I'd be that definitive. For example, a significant fraction of the global economy relies upon the existence of a transistor – the world has been revolutionised by fundamental research into quantum physics done 60 years ago and now there are billions of transistors inside very home computer. They are a key ingredient of the microchip.
BC: It's science and engineering, you've got to put them together. Science and engineering together are the economy. Earlier this month, George Osborne announced the funding for science projects, including £50m for research into graphene, a material that has the potential to revolutionise the 21st century. More powerful electronics, stronger aeroplanes… pretty much anything you can think of, graphene can improve.
We are one of the world's leading scientific nations and it's my view that we should aspire to be the best.
Actually, George Osborne and this government are beginning to show signs of believing that. I think a lot of credit goes to the science minister, David Willetts, for making his point over and over again. I think it's beginning to bear fruit and we're starting to invest even at this difficult time – in fact especially at this difficult time, as that's what you need to do.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Lifeline for Supersymmetry?

"The report on my demise has been exaggerated"

I suppose that could be the tag line for those who are in the Supersymmetry camp after the latest news out of the CMS detector at the LHC. After a summer of discontent and the possibility that supersymmetry could be in trouble due to lack of evidence coming out of the LHC, the latest result out of CMS is throwing a lifeline on the possibility that there are hints of excessive leptons being created out of the proton-proton collisions, something that could be an outcome of a supersymmetry prediction.

The most familiar lepton is the humble electron, though other, more exotic particles such as muons and taus also fall in this category. Producing a single one of these subatomic particles in the proton-proton collisions at the LHC is relatively rare, and generating two or even three at a time is even more unusual. Certain interactions predicted under supersymmetry could enhance the odds of triple lepton events, so seeing excesses is reason to raise some eyebrows.

Yet searching for triplets of leptons is a complex task. As with many results from the LHC, the finding is subtle and could potentially be overturned with further data. Therefore, the CMS team is cautious, stressing that all their observed data is consistent with background expectations and that there isn’t definitive proof of new physics yet.
As with anything coming out of such an experiment, we just cannot jump to any kind of conclusions at this moment (remember that anomalous bump in the CDF data?). We can only read the report, sit back, and let the process of verification does its job. But at the very least, there is a faint hope for supersymmetry, for now.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Let's Make Oobleck!

Ooooh.. green goo!

Those wacky people at Jefferson Lab are at it again. This time, they are making "Oobleck"!


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Strange Bedfellows - String Theory and Condensed Matter Physics?

We have heard of this. Some aspects of the mathematics of string theory somehow have analogous form in other fields, such as condensed matter physics.

This Nature article (link may be open for free only for a limited time) explores how concepts in String Theory are now being explored in other fields, and whether this is a symbiotic relationship between them.

Sceptics still question whether this strange alliance will actually lead to new insights, or whether it is just a marriage of convenience. String theory does hint at the existence of many new states of matter, for example. But those predictions will be difficult to verify, and decisive experimental tests are only now in the planning stages.
The condensed-matter partnership seemed perfect for that. If nothing else, it promised to make a virtue out of string theory's embarrassment of riches — the roughly 10500 solutions to its basic equations, each of which describes a possible universe with its own size, shape, dimensionality and physical laws. Through Maldacena's idea, says string theorist Jerome Gauntlett at Imperial College London, "each solution can be expressed in the countless materials yet to be discovered".

The rewards are mutual, says Zaanen. "If I talk about superconductors and black holes in a colloquium, folk are attracted to it like bees to honey," he says. "It's now bringing young blood to condensed-matter physics, as their first choice."
Just as with the fictional odd couple, however, this partnership still has plenty of friction. Everyone agrees, for example, that condensed-matter physicists are much more hesitant about pairing up than their string-theory counterparts. "I have been remarkably unsuccessful at getting condensed-matter physicists to let string theorists speak at their big meetings," says Zaanen. "They fear that they will need to learn string theory to talk to them. It's as though I am asking them to have coffee with aliens."

Polchinski admits that the condensed-matter sceptics have a point. "I don't think that string theorists have yet come up with anything that condensed-matter theorists don't already know," he says. The quantitative results tend to be re-derivations of answers that condensed-matter theorists had already calculated using more mundane methods.
I suppose only time will tell if these collaborations will amount to anything. There are certainly hints at systems in condensed matter that can exhibit such rich variety of physics, such as topological insulators. Whether insights from String Theory can be beneficial remain to be seen.

Still, I don't think any of these "applications" of String theory actually validates the theory in itself. As the end of the article stated, String theory could be the "new calculus", but this is simply indicating that String theory is nothing more than a "tool", the way mathematics is, and not physics.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Levitation Tricks With The Meissner Effect

This video has been getting a lot of attention, and rightly so, because they are showing magnetic levitation, but in new ways. We have seen many of these demos using high-Tc superconductors before, but these people are certainly showing it in ways that are quite unique, fascinating, and entertaining.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Most Credible Challenge To The OPERA Result

It's been only a few weeks, and while there have been dozens of papers either making use of the OPERA superluminal neutrino results (silly, foolish people), or trying to debunk that result. There have been many explanations offered on how the OPERA results might have been the result of an error here or there. However, I think this is the most serious and strongest challenge to the OPERA results so far, because it came from another experiment sitting quite close to OPERA at Gran Sasso, and using the same neutrino source from CERN.

The results came from ICARUS, and they looked at what is essentially the "dispersion" of the neutrino energies via looking at the dispersion of the created muons in a "neutral-currents weak-interaction" radiation. Tommaso Dorigo has a wonderful explanation for this whole process which you should read.

Essentially, what ICARUS found is that the muon spectrum is very much similar to what is expected for neutrinos moving at c, not at the speed that OPERA claimed.

They find that the energy spectrum of the detected neutrino interactions in ICARUS shows a very nice agreement with the expectation for well-behaved light-speed-moving neutrinos. A very dramatic distortion of that spectrum would instead be expected for the speed measured by OPERA, such that indeed ICARUS can place a very tight constraint on the superluminal speed of the CERN neutrinos: consistent with the speed of light, and not larger than that by more than four part in ten billionths. An order of magnitude looser than the limit obtained with the neutrinos from SN1987a, but still quite tight -and certainly excluding without argument the value of 50 millionths measured by OPERA.

If you are unfamiliar with millionths and billionths, I can make it easier for you: the ICARUS result says that the difference between the speed of neutrinos and the speed of light cannot be as large as that seen by OPERA, and is certainly smaller than that by three orders of magnitude, and compatible with zero.
The preprint on the ICARUS result can be found here. I'm sure there will be other experiments to be conducted that will try to verify the OPERA results, but this one certainly doesn't look good for OPERA.


Monday, October 17, 2011

The Neutrino Song

Holy crap! This is awful! I'm sorry I read this blog at PhysicsWorld and clicked on the link to listen to this tune. I suffered tremendously due to listening to it, so why shouldn't I subject you to the same torture? Here it is!

Now don't kill me. I'm only the messenger.

After listening to that one, the Fast Food Song doesn't sound so bad anymore!



Saturday, October 15, 2011

John Van Vleck

In my continuing effort to highlight the invaluable contribution to physics from physicists who are not household names, I would like to present, this time, the body of work done by John Van Vleck. This article is based on the symposium on his life during the last APS March Meeting this year.

What I found was fascinating was how the lives of 3 major physics figures intertwined through their parents.

The title of Charles Slichter’s lecture was “Remembering Van: Three Madison Families and other Tales.” In it, he spoke about the influential roles played at the University of Wisconsin by his grandfather, Charles S. Slichter, and the fathers of John Bardeen and John Van Vleck. The tale begins in 1903 when Charles Van Hise, a distinguished geologist, was named President of the University of Wisconsin. In 1904, Van Hise recruited Charles Bardeen, John’s father, to found a medical school at the University. In 1906, Van Hise appointed Slichter to head the mathematics department. Slichter’s first action as department head was to recruit Edward B. Van Vleck to bring strength in pure mathematics. John Bardeen and John Van Vleck did their undergraduate work at Wisconsin, finishing in 1920 and 1926, respectively. After Bardeen finished his Master’s in engineering, Van Vleck provided guidance and help, recommending him to Trinity College, Cambridge University for a fellowship and later to Harvard University for appointment as a Junior Fellow. Charles Slichter, who did his undergraduate work at Harvard, had Van Vleck as an advisor. Van Vleck recommended he remain at the university for his Ph. D. and later suggested that he do his doctoral research on magnetic resonance with Edward Purcell.
This goes to show that, while a lot of our success certainly depends on our own effort, how other things influenced our lives are certainly a matter of chance and serendipity.

And a brief "disclaimer", I am an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I continue to be amazed at how many important, historical figures in physics had passed through the same hallways that I had walked through many years ago.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Physics And Creationism

When I read the title of the article "What Physics Teaches Us About Creationism", I will freely admit that I was all set to dislike it based on what I thought it was going to lead to, which is a justification of creationism based on the bastardization of physics. Instead, what I read was an opinion that mirrors what I had already written.

This writer made several pointed argument against creationism, and supporters of creationism, who want to teach it as an "alternative" to evolution. In this case, he was using the example of the OPERA result to falsify this often-made claim against science.

Creationists regularly assert that science is a closed operation, that those offering opinions differing from the norm cannot get a fair hearing within the scientific community. They argue that it is impossible to publish papers in the technical literature that call the dominant paradigm into question. It is this narrow-mindedness, they continue, that keeps their "important" ideas from being shared broadly. I can't begin to count the number of notes I've received from creationists who rail against the biologists who refuse to consider what they have to say. The charge is always the same: scientists are biased and unwilling to consider any ideas that contradict their opinions.

The work arising from CERN demonstrates just how absurd this argument is. The scientists responsible for the work calling special relativity into question had absolutely no trouble getting their results in front of their peers. No one closed ranks and black-listed those who challenged the prevailing paradigm. Quite the opposite occurred. The physics community is abuzz with the results, and healthy discussion, meaningful skepticism, and plans for replication abound.
I had made practically the same argument before, especially in addressing what many crackpots have always made when their "theory" got debunked.  There have been many instances in physics where the strongly-held ideas at that time had to be revamped to make way for new and better/more accurate description of our world. So people who continue to make such arguments are utterly ignorant, and hope that those who hear their arguments are also utterly ignorant of such facts.

The other argument made is the fact that creationism/intelligent design offers zero experimental data and physical evidence in its support.

Creationists, on the other hand, simply make assertions. They offer no data and perform no experiments. As was pointed out by creationists themselves under oath in the Dover, PA intelligent design trial in 2005, no one is performing any scientific investigations of intelligent design. No one is publishing any empirical data on the subject. No one is doing anything at all other than saying, "wow, it seems really unlikely and counter-intuitive for evolution to work." What the creationists want is for an alternative theory of evolution to be accepted - and taught to our children - simply because they don't like the one that currently is supported by the data and by virtually every scientist in the field.
I think this is very important, and it also separates science from many other subjects, especially the standard, typically political banter where data seldom get cited, but personal preferences are used as valid justification for something. Don't believe me? Pay close and critical attention to any political speeches and debates. See how many times the superficial claims and assertions are given the support of actual data.

There's a lot to be learn from science, not the least of which is the methodology on how we arrive at a conclusion or knowledge. I can only wish other areas and most people make the same critical evaluation of what they accept as being valid.