Thursday, August 30, 2018

Where Do Elementary Particle Names Come From?

In this video, Fermilab's Don Lincoln tackles less about physics, but more about history and classification of our current Standard Model of elementary particles.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018

US National Academies Endorse Building Electron-Ion Collider

The US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have endorsed the building of an electron-ion collider in the US as the top priority for the nuclear physics community. The detailed report on the building and science of such facility can be found here.

An EIC slams electrons into protons or heavier ions to investigate the quarks and gluons inside the nucleons. A collider with high energy and luminosity—a measure of the rate at which particle collisions occur—would have the fine resolution needed to answer some of the big-picture questions cited by the committee. Those include elucidating the origin of the mass and spin of nucleons, learning how gluons hold nuclei together, and determining whether emergent forms of matter made of dense gluons exist.

Beyond nuclear science, an EIC would benefit astrophysics, high-energy physics, accelerator physics, and theoretical and computational modeling, the committee writes. Further, it is the only high-energy accelerator (excluding light sources) being considered for construction in the nation, and building it would help to maintain US expertise in accelerator and collider science. “An EIC would be a unique facility in the world and would maintain US leadership in nuclear physics,” the report states. Although there is no existing EIC, China is also considering building one.

While this facility has the word "collider" attached to it, this is not a high-energy physics facility nor will it be funded out of the high-energy physics directorate of the DOE and NSF. It will be a nuclear physics facility, just like RHIC, CEBAF, and the upcoming FRIB.

Now, if only the politicians in Washington can be convinced of the need to build such a thing... y'know, make America "great" again, even though we no longer have any high-energy physics collider on US soil.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Don't Go To The Movies With A Physicist?

OK, no one tell any of my friends that, or I'll be going to the movie alone from now on.

This article interviews professors Maxim Sukharev and Michael Dugger of the Applied Physics Lab at Arizona State University on the physics that they noticed in the movies. The article focuses on light, as in lasers, since these scientists are experts on them.

“Lightsabers? I don’t know what those are supposed to be,” said Dugger in puzzlement, as the two settled into Siskel and Ebert mode. “If that’s a laser, particles of light would never just stop abruptly like that."

“Of course, if you see somebody on the big screen with a Russian accent doing science, that person will turn out to be a bad character,” Sukharev said with a chuckle. He completed a doctorate in the Department of High-Power Lasers in the General Physics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “But what’s really laughable to me is when a spacecraft is shown speeding through the vacuum of deep space and yet we hear, ‘Zoom, zoom.’ 

I'm not that critical of the scientific mistakes or outrageous applications of science in the movies. They are, after all, fiction. But I can suspend my disbelief only so much, and if a movie takes too many liberties and transgression against science, then the movie is not longer that credible, because one can just make things up without regards to anything.

I can't wait for Avengers 4!


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Preaching Not To The Choir

I attended a faculty meeting last week and got to chat with faculty members from various departments. This had always been a fun occasion, especially getting to know people that I've never met before.

One of the topics of conversation inevitably was on the students that we get in our classes. As a physics instructor (and I'm sure it is relevant to other subjects as well), we get a wide range of spectrum of students, especially in courses not aimed for physical sciences/engineering students. I was then asked which group of students I prefer to teach to: the physics/chemistry/engineering students, or the life sciences/biology/pre-med/non-science students?

I actually surprised myself when, without hesitation, I replied that I prefer to teach the latter, i.e. the students who are not physical science majors. In fact, if I think about it more carefully, I prefer to teach a physics class to non-science students.

We had a lively discussion on this topic, and I have boiled it down to a simple reason. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I find it to be a challenge to run a physics class for students who do not really want to take that class, and who are there because they have to.

When you teach a physics class for physics/chemistry/engineering students, you do not need to sell the importance of the material. These students, whether they like physics or not, realize that the subject matter is relevant to their major. There is a clearer connection to their area of study to the various topics that we cover in a typical General Physics course. So stressing the importance and relevance of physics to these students is preaching to the choir.

This connection is not as apparent for life science/pre-med/non-science majors. More often than not, they take the class to fill their required electives, and given a choice, they'd rather take a different class. It also does not help that, among the students, a physics class is often touted to be one of the more difficult subjects. So for these students, there are already a lot of negative vibes towards a physics class. These students are not in the choir.

My philosophy in teaching physics to these students comprises of two factors
  1. I don't need to make then love, or even like, physics. However, I want to give them an appreciation of the importance of the subject matter. You do not have to like something to know that it is still important. I find the subject of Accounting to be a bore and something I can't see myself doing. However, it doesn't mean that I do not realize the importance of accountants, especially during tax time! The students to not have to like physics, but they need to be aware of its importance, and how it has affected their lives in a very significant way.
  2. I appeal to things that they already know, and show them that, whether they realize it or not, they already know a lot of physics. I ask them what will happen if I toss a ball vertically up in the air; ask then which one will boil faster: a kettle with a cup of water or a kettle with a gallon of water; query them of what will happen if I take a corner too fast while driving, especially if the road is wet or icy;, etc. Inevitably, many of the students will know what will happen next, because these are all part of their everyday experience, and this is what physics is.
When I teach a physics class for non-physical science students, I very seldom start with teaching the topic. I usually begin with either a demo, or an example of an application. If this is a class for biology/pre-med students, then the example will be from biology or medicine. It is in my experience that this type of motivation and relevancy are more effective and needed for non-physical science students to get them to pay closer attention to the physics topic being presented.

For non-science students, this, and the conceptual understanding of the physics come ahead of the mathematical description. Often, these students have very weak mathematics, and a few even have math/science phobia. So I resort to using mathematics only in the latter half of the class session after the students are comfortable with the concept being presented.

But the one important reason why my preference is to teach physics to these non-physical science students is because these are group of people who make up the majority of the population, and the group of people who may be in deciding the future of science funding, the public policy on science education, scientific results, etc. This group of people should not leave school with a distaste for physics, and for science in general. They may not want to do science, but they should be aware and appreciate why science is important, and how science plays a hugely significant role in their lives.

They may not be in the choir, but they should not be neglected and not preached to.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Another Superconductor Scandal Brewing?

I heard about this preprint and the reported result towards the end of July, and my reaction to this type of "discovery" is "wait-and-see". In the history of superconductivity, we have had MANY of such similar claims, and many of them amounted to nothing.

However, this one seems to have taken a life and a drama of its own. SciAm has a report on what has transpired so far.

I heard about the identical background noise in the data more than a week ago when Brian Skinner posted his ArXiv comment. The first thing that came to my mind was "Oh no, this is Hendrik Schon all over again!" Turns out, I'm not the only one based on what was written in the SciAm article.

The only way this will be determined is an independent verification. That is how science works, and this is how experimental discovery works. We simply do not accept something just because someone says so.


Friday, August 17, 2018

The Quantum Form of General Relativity's Equivalence Principle?

This is an interesting approach to one of the dilemma being faced in physics, which is trying to reconcile General Relativity, or gravity in particular, with the quantum mechanical picture. We have had String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity, etc. going through this effort. But in this paper that just got published in Nature[1], the authors tackled it in a different way, by examining the Einstein's equivalence principle and formulating the QM's version of it, which is different than the classical version.

The ArXiv version of the paper can be found here. However, I have not verified if it is identical to the published version. The ArXiv manuscript was submitted in 2015, while the version in Nature Physics has only been published recently (2018). There doesn't appear to be any updates to this version since its submission to ArXiv.

The best part about this is that the predictions are testable (gives dirty look at String Theory).

I'll let you explore this and see what you think.


[1] Magdalena Zych, Caslav Brukner, Nature Physics,

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

MinutePhysics Special Relativity Chapter 8

If you missed Chapter 7 of this series, check it out here.

This time, the topic is on the ever-popular Twin Paradox (which really isn't a paradox since there is a logical explanation for it).

You can compare this explanation with that given by Don Lincoln a while back. I think Don's video is clearer to me, since I can comprehend the math.


Thursday, August 09, 2018

Is Online Education Just As Good And Effective?

Rhett Allain is tackling a topic that I've been dealing with for a while. It isn't about learning things online, but rather is an online education and degree just as good and effective as brick-and-mortar education? Here, he approached this from the point of view that an "education" involves more than just the subject matter. It involves human and social interaction, and learning about things that are not related to your area. He used the analogy of chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies:

The cookie is the on-campus experience. College is not just about the chocolate chips. It's about all of that stuff that holds the chips together. College is more than a collection of classes. It's the experience of living away from home. It's the cookie dough of relationships with other humans and even faculty. College can be about clubs and other student groups. It's about studying with your peers. College is the whole cookie.
But wait! While we are talking about learning stuff, I have one more point to make. Don't think that you should acquire all of the skills and knowledge you need for your whole career during your time at school. You will always be learning new things, and there will always be new stuff to learn (no one learned about smartphones in the '80s). In fact, a college degree is not about job training. It's not. Really, it's not about that.

Then what is the whole chocolate chip cookie about? It's about exploring who you are and learning things that might not directly relate to a particular field. College is about taking classes that might not have anything to do with work. Art history is a great class—even if you aren't going to work in a museum. Algebra should be taken by all students—even though you probably won't need it (most humans get by just fine without a solid math background). So really, the whole cookie is about becoming more mature as a human. It's about leveling up in the human race—and that is something that is difficult to do online (but surely not impossible).

I have no issue with these points. However, we can even go right down to the jugular with this one instead of invoking some esoteric plea for a well-rounded education and social skills. There are compelling evidence that online-only lessons are not as effective and efficient as in-person, in-class lessons, if the latter is done properly.

I will use the example of the effectiveness of peer-instruction method as introduced by Harvard's Eric Mazur. Here, he showed how active learning, instead of passive learning, can be significantly more effective for the students. In such cases, student-to-student interactions are a vital part of learning, with the instructor serving as a "guidance counselor".

This is not the only example where active learning is more favorable than passive learning. There have been other students that have show significant improvement in students' understanding and grasp of the material when they are actively engaged in the learning process. Active learning is something that hasn't been done and maybe can't be easily done with online lessons, and certainly not from simply watching or reading the material online.

So forget about honing your social skills or learning about art history. Even the subject matter that you wish to understand may be more difficult to comprehend when you do this by yourself in an online course. There are enough evidence to support this, and it is why you shouldn't be surprised if you struggle to understand the material that you are trying to learn by yourself.


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Loop Quantum Gravity

This is one of those still-unverified theory that tries to reconcile quantum mechanics with General Relativity. I'm not in this field, so I have no expertise in it. But I know that for many people who have read about it, they are aware of String theory and it's competition, Loop Quantum Gravity.

In this video, Fermilab's Don Lincoln tries to explain LQG to the masses.

Keep in mind that this idea is still lacking in experimental support. The gamma ray burst observation that he mentioned in the video has been highlighted here quite a while back.

Without experimental verification, both String theory and LQG continue to have issues with their credibility as a science.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Ban Cellphone Use In Classrooms?

First of all, let me state my policy on the use of electronic devices (mobile phones, tablets, laptop computers, etc.) in my classrooms. I do not have an outright ban (other than during exams and quizzes) during class, but they can't be use in an intrusive manner that disrupts the running of the class. So no making phone calls, etc. So far, I haven't had any issues to change that policy. Many of my colleagues do have an outright ban on the use of these devices during class.

Now, a few weeks ago, I came across this paper. They studied students who used these devices for non-class related purposes during class. They found that the distraction of these devices, in the end, affects the average class grade that the student received at the end of the course (they were psychology courses). The distracted students, on average, scored half a grade lower than those that are in classes that ban the use of these devices for non-class related purposes.

But what is also surprising is that there was a collateral damage done onto students who were in the same class as these distracted students, but they themselves did not use these devices during class.

Furthermore, when the use of electronic devices was allowed in class, performance on the unit exams and final exams was poorer for students who did not use electronic devices during the class as well as for the students who did use an electronic device. This is the first-ever finding in an actual classroom of the social effect of classroom distraction on subsequent exam performance. The effect of classroom distraction on  exam performance confirms the laboratory finding of the social effect of distraction (Sana et al.,2013). 
 So this is like second-hand smoking.

The good thing about this is that, I can now tell my students that, while I allow their use in the class during lessons, there is evidence that if they choose to use them, their grades may suffer. I may even upload this paper to the Learning Management System. However, because of the collateral damage that might be done to other students who do not use these devices during class, I am seriously rethinking my policy, and am considering imposing an outright ban on the non-class related use of these devices during my lessons.

If you teach, what is your experience with this?


Sunday, August 05, 2018

APS's Don't Drink And Derive T-Shirt

I was cleaning my closet (I do that now and then) and came across this old shirt from way back when. This was bought during the 1999 APS March Meeting in Atlanta, GA, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the APS.

When I first saw it, I said to the person at the counter that all the formulae are wrong. And then, duh, it suddenly hit me why and I got it. So of course, I had to buy it.

I haven't worn it in ages, because of a small tear on the front. But I'll probably start wearing it around the house, especially if I'm working on the yard.

This t-shirt is the opposite of the one I bought while I was at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL. That t-shirt had all the correct formulae and shows my nerdy self whenever I wear it.