Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Has Bill Nye, The Science Guy, Lost It?

Or did he ever had it in the first place?

My attention was brought to this via Hamish's blog at Physics World. He pointed out the sharp critique against Nye in Sabine Hossenfelder's "Back Reaction" blog entry. It all stemmed from Nye's video answering a question regarding quantum entanglement, where it appears that Nye got tangled in it himself.

You may read the criticism yourself (be warned, there are some "colorful" language being used in there).

I think that while Nye has done quite a bit in the media to popularize science, I often find his off-script or unscripted responses a bit suspect at times. This is another one such example. It is my impression that he knows the pop-science version of science, but not the intimate detail. Of course, you often do not need the intimate detail when dealing with the general public, which is why he could manage to do this for this long. But when confronted with something that requires a bit more in-depth knowledge, especially in physics, this is where he trips.

I don't know why he doesn't consult an expert when he responded to this person in this video clip. After all, I'm sure it isn't "live", and he could have easily checked if what he was saying was accurate, or nonsensical. Unfortunately, he went into the realm of nonsensical, and he didn't even realize it.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Solve QM Particle-In-A-Box Problem Using Code

Rhett Allain shows you how to solve the standard 1D infinite square well problem using numerical method.

I know he is using this as a simple illustration, but it is more useful, especially to physics students, if he solves this for a finite square well.

But still, for the general public, this might be complicated enough. I wonder if someone with just computer coding but little physics can code this successfully. If you fall under this category, let me know how you did if you took up this task.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Simple Physics?

I'm all for explaining things in simple terms that the general public can understand. I do that frequently, especially when I'm doing an outreach project or hosting visitors to the facility.

So when I read a review of this book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff In Simple Words by Randall Munroe, it sounds like something that can be recommended to a lot of people who are curious about how various things around them work.

However, this author, and the reviewer of this book, fall into the same cliche trap that is one of my pet peeve.

There’s a nice quote attributed to the physicist Ernest Rutherford (or is it Einstein?): “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics.” There are variations of the theme, such as, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”. In essence, keep it as simple as possible.

I had already addressed the fallacy of this statement (and yes, I am challenging Rutherford or Einstein if they actually said such a silly thing). I have plenty of evidence to point to the contrary. I wish people who keep repeating this would actually read my counter point, but hey, what are the odds?


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Professional Climate for LGBT Physicists

Many different issues have been discussed regarding challenges faced by women and minorities in physics. Unfortunately, very little effort has been dedicated to the challenges faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender physicists. And yes, there ARE LGBT physicists, even if you are not aware of their existence.

The APS, to their credit, has taken steps to address this. This study is the first such report to discover the state of the profession and how LGBT physicists fare in the current climate.

In the general membership survey demographic question (sent to a random sample of society members), just 2.5 percent of total respondents identified as LGBT over all, and 14 percent preferred not to provide such information. But U.S. respondents were twice as likely (3 percent) to answer as non-U.S. respondents. Respondents between 18 and 25 years of age were significantly more likely than the overall population to identify as LGBT, at 16 percent, suggesting a generational shift in comfort disclosing their status (just 6 percent of respondents in that age group declined to provide an answer).

Committee members found that LGBT physicists face uneven protection and support for legislation and policies, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some 50 percent of survey respondents rated their campus or workplace policies as “highly supportive” or “supportive,” while 30 percent characterized them as “uneven,” “lacking” or “discriminatory.” Only 40 percent of transgender respondents said their workplaces were supportive to some degree.
I personally have not observed any hostility towards LGBT physicists or even LGBT personnel in my professional career. Of course, the environment where I worked (US National Labs and Universities) already have policies strictly prohibiting discrimination and harassment against such group. I am sure others in various situations, such as private industries, will have a different atmosphere to deal with, So this study is definitely needed to have a snapshot of the situation at this point in time.


Monday, March 14, 2016

In Praise Of APS March Meeting

The APS March Meeting is the LARGEST yearly gathering of physicists in the world. Yet, as Chad Orzel has stated, it is hardly covered by the media.

In this article, Orzel writes why this is so, and why the media and the public should pay more attention to this gathering.

As with lots of things, though, the primary reason for the difference is probably money. Which, in a way, goes back to the irony noted above. Particle physics as a discipline puts a lot more effort into popularization because they have to in order to get funding. Fundamental physics experiments produce some spin-off benefits, but those are second-order effects, difficult to predict and harder to monetize.

Condensed matter research, on the other hand, leads to a more direct payoff, and thus comes with a more secure funding stream. You don’t have to work all that hard to convince wealthy industrialists that it’s worthwhile to spend money on developing new materials that will lead to new and improved commercial products. The funding stream for the field is a little more secure, thanks to the more direct path to applications, and thus there’s less need to make the effort to explain a complicated subject. Which then feeds back into the first two reasons.

This is kind of a shame, because when you dig into it, a lot of what goes on in condensed matter is just as amazing as what you see in particle physics. In fact, a lot of effort goes into creating analogues of exotic systems. And if you look at it the right way, there’s some quantum magic in the most basic aspects of the ways solid objects come together.

Certainly, the sexiness of the topic makes a big difference. But as I've stated many times on here, physics isn't just the LHC and the Big Bang. It is also your iPhone and your MRI. And it is about time the public is more aware of this.


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

"That Physics Show" Opens Off-Broadway

I mentioned this a while back. It is certainly an ambitious and daring move, to do a stage presentation of nothing but a series of physics demonstration. Would this get an audience, much less, a paying audience?

In any case, "That Physics Show" has opened off-Broadway in NY City.

That Physics Show officially opens March 9 for an open-ended run at the Elektra Theater Off-Broadway. The show, which began previews February 26, features "scientific magic" by physics demonstrator David Maiullo.

A regular on The Weather Channel, Maiullo brings more than 20 years of experience teaching physics at Rutgers University. The show is directed and produced by Eric Krebs. 

However, an early review of it hasn't been too enthusiastic.

Maiullo is not a natural performer, but once he starts igniting hydrogen balloons, smashing beer cans with ping pong balls, dunking fresh flowers into a deep freeze, and using a bowling ball as a pendulum, you don’t mind.

But that’s the extent of the “show” in “That Physics Show.” Maiullo pretends that his his geeky explosions and frenetic motion are meant to demonstrate several of the laws of physics, but he moves between the displays so quickly that he doesn’t end up connecting any dots.

We will have to see how successful this is. I'm more interested in finding out if people actually LEARNED anything from seeing this show. It is hard to produce an entertainment but also trying to teach people something new.


Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Did Physicists Failed To Explain Clearly To The Public About The LIGO Discovery?

OK, this came out of left-field, because I didn't read the Nature Physics editorial.

This is a Physics Today comment on an editorial that appeared in Nature Physics regarding the recent LIGO discovery of gravitational wave. In it, the Nature Physics editors seem to indicate that physicists have failed to clearly convey to the public what gravitational wave is and how the discovery was made.

In “a triumph of ingenuity and perseverance,” exulted the thumbnail summary atop a 1 March Nature Physics editorial, physicists “have finally detected gravitational waves.” The summary continued: “And now we need to explain them to the general public.” The editors charged that the public’s response was largely summed up in this Daily Mash satire headline: “Scientists completely fail to explain ‘gravitational waves.’” The editorial declared that physicists “should learn to explain the physics of these spectacular events to non-physicists.”

But that is where things get rather interesting and puzzling at the same time. You see, as the Physics Today comment indicated, there has been NO evidence that physicists have failed to clearly convey this discovery to the public. What Nature Physics editors have used as their "evidence", which is from the Daily Mash, is actually a satirical piece, very much like The Onion here in the US. The Physics Today comment brought up its own evidence on how this discovery has been covered and explained many different times and many different ways by a number of prominent physicists appearing in several media forms.

So, not only did Nature Physics editorial not able cite a single, valid evidence to back their claim, but there are clearly evidence to the contrary! For a "science" journal, this is a serious lapse, because the very basic method of having evidence to support one's claim is fundamental to having a valid idea or conclusion.

I'd like to hear Nature Physics response to this charge.


Friday, March 04, 2016

Socio-Economic Impact of the LHC

This is an interesting analysis of the impact of the LHC, especially in terms of economics.

I think many politicians and the general public do not realize that even for something that is built to study something that appears to be esoteric and no direct and immediate application, there can be immediate benefits socially and economically.

That is why I continue to be surprised and appalled that the US continue to not "care" about their loss in having any kind of high-energy physics particle collider on their soil anymore. This is especially puzzling in light of the fact that other parts of the world are seriously pursuing having such experiments within their borders, even if it is under an international collaboration. Certainly China is pursuing having such facilities, and Japan just announced the start of an electron-positron collider. As far as I'm aware of, Japan is the leading contender for hosting the International Linear Collider (ILC), something that Fermilab has also been pursuing.

But with the devastating budget issues in the US, this is looking to be very bleak. People seem to only see the money being spent on such facilities, without realizing the significant impact not only on the intellectual aspect of it, but the economic impacts, both short-term and long-term. An analysis done in this preprint may not make it to the people who hold the power, but it is certainly there to be seen.


Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Physics First

It is interesting that something  like this that has been pushed for for years, can still make the news.

A middle school in New Jersey has revised its curriculum and puts physics first, ahead of biology and chemistry, for students taking science classes.

Egg Harbor City is part of a movement to rethink how science is taught. Instead of taking biology, chemistry, then maybe physics in high school, students will take algebra-based physics first, at the same time they take algebra, then take biology and chemistry.

That's radical, dudes!

Or is it? Anyone who has followed the field of physics education would have remembered way back in the end of the last century and into this one of this effort to put physics first, championed by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman.

Of course, it is easier said than done. The ability to do this is very much tied to the ability of the teachers that conduct these classes. I believe that there were extensive training programs for these teachers in trying to implement this concept, and I don't know to what extent this is continuing, or even if this concept is even practiced anywhere else.

I've always told my students that out of the three science subjects, which are physics, chemistry, and biology, physics is the one they are most familiar with and should come naturally to them. Of  course, they look at me as if I said something outrageous, because everyone has the impression that physics is the most difficult out of the three sciences. I tell them that they are already familiar with the workings of physics, that the concept of mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, etc. are something they use everyday and even take for granted.

I tell them that they already have some QUALITATIVE idea of physics. What we do teach in physics classes is a way to describe these familiar phenomena QUANTITATIVELY. This is where we go beyond "What goes up, must come down" and add "where and when it will come down". That is physics. The mathematical description of many of these familiar events is what separate a pedestrian understanding of something and a physics description of it.

But these events and phenomena are familiar things. In chemistry and biology, you have to deal with things that are not often common, everyday encounters. Maybe if you cook everyday, then chemistry is indirectly something you commonly do. But still, you deal also with a lot of thermodynamics and mechanics. Physics is something you deal with every day and almost every second of the day. You are just not aware of it.

So it should be familiar, not foreign. And putting it first is logical, because it is that familiar.