Top Ten Weirdest Cosmology Theories

New Scientist has an article by Stephen Battersby on their top ten weirdest cosmology theories. My first thought, beore reading the article was that they were going to have a lot of fun with this, but they seem to be rather conservative about their definition of “weird”. This means that they’ve focused on “weirdest” in the context (mostly) of existing scientific observational input, and published science academic circles, which you might think puts a damper on things… but read more below.

So here are the titles, under which the author writes a short paragraph describing the idea:

1. Clashing branes

2. Evolving universes

3. Superfluid space-time

4. Goldilocks universe

5. Gravity reaches out

6. Cosmic ghost

7. It’s a small universe

8. Fast light

9. Sterile neutrinos

10. In the Matrix

This means that the kind of whacky cosmology that you and I could think of in a flash for fun on a Friday (or other) afternoon are not allowed. Nor are the ones I constantly get in the mail from well-meaning citizens. All of which can be way, way weirder.

Oh well. I’m opening up this particular thread (note: no, not all discussion threads on this blog!!) to any fun/whacky/weird cosmology ideas you might like to share of your own. Serious or non-serious. I’m not going to rank them. Just feel free to share.

Here is a fun constraint (which has a serious point): Try as much as you can to make Click to continue reading this post

Digital Makeover?

Dear Reader,

I’m desperately wracking my brain to find some science in this, but I cannot. Nope, reading the article does not help either. Nevertheless, it is in New Scientist (a fact that means nothing on its own, from past experience – they’ve a technology for it’s own sake focus as well, which is fair enough).

Some researchers in Tel Aviv have developed an algorithm that can give a makeover to your digital photographs of human faces. Magazine editors do this by hand all the time, of course, but this algorithm might be able to speed this up, and -for that (I suspect scarily large) number of people who would actually want that kind of thing- allow you to do this to your own photos!

Quoting from Helen Knight’s article:

Software then analysed the images, measuring distances between facial features and ratios such as that between facial width at eye and mouth level, and the thickness of the eyebrows. It compared these with the attractiveness ratings given by the volunteers to create a set of rules, known as the “beauty function”, for assessing whether a face is attractive.

Leyvand has now written a second piece of software that applies this algorithm to a facial image to make adjustments to features so that they more closely obey the rules. It then analyses the results to determine which changes have been successful, and discard any that don’t work. Users can also adjust the severity of the changes.

You can go to the site yourself to look at an example of the results.

I’ve the following questions.

Click to continue reading this post

Kids and Chemistry

I’ve no idea what they were doing (I’ll try to find out and let you know), since I was at the concert, but it sure looked liked they were having fun out there in the Wednesday kids’ science picnic at the ACP:

kids science picnic

Two weeks ago, apparently they had the “Physics of Superheroes” author, James Kakalios, visiting for the picnic. I blogged about that book a while ago, at this link.

(Incidentally, I’m puzzled as to why a choice has to be made for the children: Go to the kids’ science picnic, or go listen to classical music….. It would be nice for a child to be able to go to both, but no scheduling is perfect, I suppose.)


Last of the Wild Flowers

The wild flowers seem to have peaked a lot earlier this year, probably due to a change in the rainfall pattern. Up on the way to Buckskin Pass yesterday, there were more deadheads than blooms. Perhaps other trails were doing better (such as the Cathedral Lake trail… look at the flowers I saw almost exactly the same time last year at this link).

Anyway, I’ve forgotten what these are called, but here are some lovely yellow flowers, just past their peak (but still lovely to see dotting the landscape here and there):

last wildflowers


The Anthropic Approach To String Theory

Since I wrote an article about this last year for the non-expert to get some idea of what the discussion was about, let me first point you to it via this link. Since in that article, by way of illustration of the “Landscape” idea, I used a picture of the Maroon Bells and the accompanying valley and lake, let me put here a version that I took today. (The supersymmetric vacua are no longer visible, you’ll notice. I’m hoping that maybe it is time we learned to stop focusing on those for guidance, but….)

maroon bells copyright cvj

Let me next point out a post I did about the panel discussion on “Naturalness” at the SUSY 2006 conference, hosted by UC Irvine, held at Newport Beach. There was a lot said about the Landscape there. Have a read.

Finally, let me point out that Science writer Tom Siegfried (who was also at the conference) has written an article on the science and sociology of the Landscape/Anthropic/String “issue” in the August 11th edition of Science Magazine. He has several quotes and interviews with the key players -such as with Joe Polchinski, particularly discussing his “conversion”- and he also has quotes from the perhaps-not-so-key, such as your friendly neighbourhood host/writer of this blog:

Other physicists, although reluctant to embrace anthropic reasoning, decry the acrimony and seek a middle ground. “It’s unfortunate that it has turned into a situation where you have to choose to be in one camp or the other,” says Clifford Johnson, a string theorist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It would be nice if we could explore some of those unpalatable ideas just in case that’s the way that nature chooses to go.”

Click to continue reading this post

There’s Music Beyond The Standard Model

In a rather splendid development, there’s been an arrangement made between the Aspen Center for Physics and the Aspen Music Festival and School, which (you might recall from a post of mine a long time ago) are in close proximity to one another. The result of the arrangement is that -as happened on Wednesday- the President of the ACP went down the corridor clapping his hands outside our offices to remind us that there was a concert down the hall. We all filed into the auditorium and were treated to a recital of a number of pieces of music from three extremely talented young players.

The first one up was 24 year old Alejandro Vela, who played extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (op. 75):

Alejandro Vela

I especially like the fact that nobody cleaned off the board, leaving some snatches of physics from the Phenomenology workshop’s discussions to be seen (hence the meaningless title of this post). Nice backdrop. For what it’s worth, I’ve left a larger version (click on above image) for you to look more closely at the equations at your leisure.

He also played Chopin’s Etude No. 12 in C minor (op. 25). Next up was the 14 year old Peng Peng, who, after playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor (op 52), played from Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux (op. 16). He was followed by Katherine Peterson (I don’t recall her age, but yeah, she was young too), who played Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (LW G16/2).

peng pengkatherine peterson

Everybody played marvellously. This is a really great idea that is set to be a standard part of the ACP’s Summer program.

I had only two small gripes with Wednesday’s concert. The first is that I’m pretty sure Click to continue reading this post

Physics Shoot ‘Em Up!

So it was all quiet in the Aspen Center for Physics offices.

Why? Tuesday family picnic outside…!

all quiet at the ACP?

Was it quiet out there? No! There were science experiments with the food of course!

diet coke erupting!

How did they get the diet cokes to erupt like that?

The instigator of this was Phenomenologist Josh Erlich, who is shown holding the secret ingredient… Click to continue reading this post

We’ve All Been There

You know, I’ve been calculating all day (and oooohhhh, what a calculation. I shall try to tell you about it sometime) and so when I did the previous post about that comic strip, and pointed to the site, I did not actually look through the site for more examples.

Luckily, JoAnne of Cosmic Variance noticed the post, and after reading more of the site (and, from what it sounds like, being overcome with mirth) she posted a few more of them, which came to my notice just now via a pingback. One caught my eye in particular, since we can all relate to it so much!!! Here it is:

been there

Haven’t we all been there?!


Alternatives to the Alternatives

People are excited about ethanol as an alternative to gasoline. You can just grow the basic sources needed as grain, for example. Can this solve all of our problems? Careful now: Do you know how much grain it takes to make the ethanol needed to fill up the 25 gallon tank of an SUV?

Enough grain to feed 1 person for a whole year!

I learned this on today’s Science Friday. Ira Flatow’s guest on this topic was Lester Brown, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute. It was an excellent discussion, covering several elements of the discussion, from economics to chemistry. Basically, we are on the verge of a real competition between growing crops for food and growing them for fuel. Is this wise? It could spell a major transformation of the world’s economy, and not a positive one from the USA’s point of view, given how much of the world’s grain supply is sourced in the USA.

Lester Brown is telling us to be very careful about the “gold rush” to ethanol that is happening right now. Is it globally thought out? Should we be looking at other sources, such as fast growing maple trees, switch grass, etc? Why are we not transforming our infrastructure to make more use of the energy that is available in the form of wind generated electricity? After all, with the efficient electricty storage devices that are available for vehicles right now, should we not be focusing more on doing a lot of our short automobile journeys on stored electricity?

Wind power can bring the electricity costs way down, Lester Brown says, to a point where ethanol will find it hard to compete. One of his key points is that we should be exploring this alternative a lot more than we are.

This is an excellent discussion, and Ira interviews Brown and raises discussion points very well. I highly recommend it. See the links to listen to it at the Science Friday page, here.

A somewhat biased point of view of my own follows, on part of this topic. (I apologize to Prius owners who actually bought theirs as part of a concerted program of efforts to do the right thing:)

Click to continue reading this post

Phenoms Vs Strings: The Game

Here is my report on how the challenge was met.

Well, we started shortly after 5:00pm. About 14 people were present, which was fun since everybody rotated in periorically, to give everyone a touch of the ball. This was welcome rest for the people who rotated out as well. Remember that we are at altitude here…. it takes a lot of effort to do physical things which would be much more trivial at sea level, the altitude we’re all more used to.

The Phenoms had people like Csaba Csaki, Jushua Erlich, Dan Pratt, Hsin-Chia Cheng, and Carlos Wagner and another couple of people whose names I’ll try to get for you…

The Strings deployed our main secret weapon, David Kutasov, along with solid offensive support from, Ofer Aharony and Jaume Gomis. With that trio up front, we should have been safe all the time…

David Kutasov with Ball
… but the Phenoms had some strong opposition, which meant that we had our work cut out for us. With David Berenstein, Jason Kumar (who can also actually shoot consistenly and so kept the other side guessing) and myself trying to move the ball around to feed it to our people at the front, both teams kept within one point of each other for most of the game.

We’d started playing half-court, since there was another game going on….

David Kutasov shoots ball
… but eventually (for better or worse) we moved to full court after the others left, which allowed more people to play at the same time. Then we faced the biggest enemy of all, the running at altitude:

The Running.... the running.....

This wore us all down, and I think the problem was that by time a team would get the ball all the way up to the other basket, they’d be too tired to focus on a good combination to force a score. So there were several rather wild shots and wasted opportunities on both sides, but we did have fun, which was the point! Sometimes we did do some good combinations, to be fair, but we still did not always finish. The breath and legs of our star shooters were beginning to fail, and so those jumpshots and drives to the basket were low on the percentage success rates.

At some point, we realized that nobody had been keeping track of the score for a while (this led to jokes about us fiddling around with all sorts of fancy strategies with nobody worrying about the actual measurements), and so since we were probably within a point of each other, we all agreed that we’d reset to an matched score of 0-0 and play on, keeping track from there on. This was about the same time that the Strings started getting things together. We had a couple of great fast break attempts, one of which came off, but more tellingly for the long term we started getting lots more rebound attempts, whcih compensated for our low shot percentage. (After we had a point where Jaume Gomis and David Kutasov managed to get a point after several attempts back and forth between them under the basket, I made a joke attempt about 10^500 vacua as we ran back…. I don’t think David was amused….!)

In this way, the Strings pulled to two points ahead, and we were looking good. Click to continue reading this post

What’s The Difference?

Computer Reconstruction of the aftermath of a particle collision inthe CDF experiment at the Tevatron, FermilabA commenter, Edward Hessler, asked for a bit of explanation about what the difference is between a phenomenologist and a more “formal” theorist, since I recently mentioned some of us overlapping during workshops at the Aspen Center for Physics.

I offered this (see below) as a starter explanation. (Feel free to refine, disagree, agree, etc, in the comments. It is always interesting to hear different people’s takes on this.)

Click to continue reading this post

What Jonah Heard But Did Not See

whale song wavelet images

What is this? It’s whale song, obviously! Not so obvious? Ok, let’s take a step back. You’ve heard whale song, no doubt. Either in the context of movies, a cheesy movement a decade ago of adding clips of them to pop and rock songs, wildlife documentaries, and so forth. It’s lovely and mysterious, and -new age poppycock aside- really quite captivating. There are a lot of scientific questions about whale song too. Are these noises random? Is there content? How much content? How individual-whale-specific is a whale song? If there’s information, is it wisdom of the ancients, directiions to food, or just gossip about whale celebrities?

All questions you’ve asked yourself too, I don’t doubt.

Well, some of our best minds are on the job, you’ll be pleased to know. One of them, Mark Fischer, is taking a new approach to the problem, with rather beautiful results. He is using a wavelet transform (Amara’s wavelet site, and , both giving information about what that is) to analyze whale songs and then colour coding them (among other things) to aid in visualizing the results. The results are quite striking, I hope you agree, and here’s another:

whale song wavelet imagery

There’s a New York Times article on his work that can be found here, and from which I quote: Click to continue reading this post

It’s On

Place yer bets, folks!

Here at Aspen, there’s a one week overlap between the workshop with mostly string theorists:

“String Theory, Gauge Theory & Particle Physics”

The workshop will focus on insights into particle physics and gauge theory dynamics from string theory. The proposed activities will concentrate on aspects of string vacua, both from the perspective of flux compactifications and D-brane gauge dynamics, as well as new insights into strong gauge dynamics from string theory. Given the recent progress and continued central interest in these research directions, we expect to have an exciting program. We also plan to keep the door open for any other exciting developments in string theory which may arise in the coming year and which touch on the themes of the current planned program.

… and the workshop with mostly phenomenologists:

“Particle Theory in Anticipation of the LHC”

There has been remarkable progress in the past few years developing new models of particle physics beyond the Standard Model and in developing innovative ways for testing these models in experiment. Much of the theoretical progress has been stimulated by more formal developments, leading to an increased collaboration and synergy between more formal and more phenomenological theorists. The goal of this workshop is to bridge the gap between theory and phenomenology by bringing together physicists with diverse expertise. We intend to bring together experts on the Standard Model (particularily collider phenomenologists), beyond the Standard Model (supersymmetry, extra dimensions), and string theorists with an interest in phenomenology. We expect that the collaborations fostered at this workshop would lead to new directions in model building, to studies of experimental signatures of new models, and to the development of new techniques for studying strongly coupled physics relevant for particle experiments.

So what? Good, yes, lots of cross-pollination of ideas, sitting in on each others seminars, historic calculations over lunch, and so forth.

But, significantly, at the family picnic today, one phenomenologist organizer came over to one of the string theory organisers and said

“Phenomenology Vs String Theory. Basketball. Thursday. 5:00pm. Be There”.

So which side is your money on? And what are your reasons, physics or otherwise?

I will try to report on the game, if I can make it.