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.


Why No Anti-War Rants?

There’s a post over on Arun’s Musings where he starts:

If you look at Cosmic Variance or CVJ’s new blog, Asymptotia, you wouldn’t know that a couple of wars are on. In contrast, there is SusanG’s lament about a loss of innocence on

and continues:

Which world do we live in? Is it the idyllic world biking to the farmers’ market for fresh veggies? Or is it the dangerous world, where one has to learn about a lot of things fast, and constantly, in a mostly futile effort, raise one’s voice against lunacy, where one cannot afford to be ignorant about anything?

This got me thinking a bit about what Arun was getting at. Does he really think that those two worlds (one supposedly idyllic, the other dangerous) are disconnected? They certainly are not in my mind. Quite clearly connected. See the example (only one of many) in my reply to him reproduced below.

And on the first extract: First, let me say that I’m pretty sure he was not being critical or anything… merely commenting on the contrast. Nevertheless, it got me thinking: Is it really that we must all lament and yell loudly about the situation in the Middle East all the time? Even while there are others -more informed than I- saying it better and more loudly? Even if one might not neccessarily think that one has anything original to yell? Actually, I don’t know. I’m not one for political rants just for the sake of it. I just end up sounding shrill. Although I have my moments when I don’t care, and I just go for it…… But mostly, my own thought is that I don’t think it would preserve my sanity to infiltrate every aspect of my life with the depressing situations, and so -while I am not apathetic- I don’t feel obliged to scream and shout about it in my blog posts. If I think of or spot something somewhat new, or poignant, I’ll pass it on. But sometimes silent contemplation is not a bad thing. If there was nobody talking about it honestly, or if there were scarce few sources of good information out there, that would be another thing altogether. Remember the early days of Katrina, and how slow real information took to start coming out. Blogs were great and valuable sources then. Risa over on Cosmic Variance led the blogging team there in putting up a lot of posts on the aftermath, which some of our readers found to be of value, since it only came out in the mainstream in partial form, or not at all. I don’t feel that is the case here, but I could be really wrong. People are now much more aware of the craziness of the situations in the Middle East, and I don’t imagine ever being the go-to source for information or informed comment about the situation on the ground. Me going “yeah, me too, I’m pissed off!” does not seem a valuable contribution. I can (and do) contribute in other ways, I think. But I love that some people do just yell. Howl! It is good. We need voiced raised in chorus, on any issue worth speaking about. And war and the accompanying needless slaughter is one.

So anyway, this is what I wrote to Arun, who I believe means well:
Click to continue reading this post

Punch and Judy Science Coverage

Punch and Judy

(Since I took the image from their site, and since they are making available lovely examples of the traditional puppets, I’ll make sure you can link to the punch and judy company I found.)

There is a style of coverage of issues which the media in the UK uses a lot, which is really loved by the viewers and listeners. I think it has to do with the tradition of Punch and Judy, which is deeply ingrained into the psyche of a child growing up in the UK. Basically, there’s a fair amount of conflict between two puppets -Punch and Judy- (sometimes coming down to beatings with a bat or truncheon, and yelling of “oh yes it is!” vs “oh no it isn’t!”) and the kids and adults sit and watch this and have a good laugh. Occasionally there are other traditional characters, like the crocodile, and the policeman, but it’s basically just an entertaining conflict between two traditional puppets with funny voices done by the person behind the screen.

Often, it is a lot of fun, actually.

What the BBC’s Radio 4 (especially) likes to do, is use this formula to sustain the listenership of their morning show called “Today”. Basically, a huge percentage of the population all listens to this show every morning. It is a pretty excellent source of news and current affairs that you listen to as you get ready for the day, and/or on your way to work/school/etc. There’s a bit of chatter in the studio, and a lot of reports from around the country and the world on various things, sent in by journalists.

At certain points in the programme, they have the Punch and Judy format. The primary one is the big interview just after 8:00am. These are most enjoyed when they have someone like the journalist John Humphrys to do the interview with some senior politician of the day. This is basically a blood sport that is appreciated by one and all, which has a useful primary output: You get real information about political positions, the unvarnished story behing matters of policy, etc., as a result of a skilled interviewer breaking past the fascade. Actual political decisions at the highest levels have been changed as a result of what has been brought out in such interviews. As an example of the style, see this post that I did about one example a while back.

When applied in certain other areas, the Punch and Judy style has serious shortcomings as a means of getting across real information. One constraint is that they are very mindful of appearing “unbalanced” and so oftentimes they will inappropriate put together two representatives to bring the argument for each “side” of the debate, producing a pairing which does no favours to either side, and ends up confusing or trivialising the issue in the name of, essentially, entertainment. (I’ve witnessed them use a popular comedian in a supposedly serious debate about an environmental issue, for example. Or pair a “research scientist” (male, of course) with a “worried mum” on a debate about immunization. I know what you’re thinking about this latter example: Seems like a reasonable choice of representatives, right? Not if the debate comes down to dryly digested facts and figures about trials and the history of immunization on the one hand, and “but will my Binky get autism?” on the other. Both valid concerns, but a useless set-piece debate to set up.)

One of those issues poorly served by this is science. It is not that the format fails in and of itself, but rather, the editors of the programme often simply give up on trying to do a good job of getting across good science information in favour of having a good Click to continue reading this post

Saturday Shopping in Aspen, II

vegetables from Aspen Market

Missing from the picture: $7.50 worth of long, colourful strands of flavoured pasta. I forgot them at the market stall at which I purchased them because I got into one of several conversations about the bike. Blast! I shall have to see if they remember me next week and believe that I forgot the pasta there.

Also missing: The roasted peppers! The roasted pepper people were not there! I shall have to roast some of these myself. (No idea what I’m talking about? We had a good discussion about them last year, in the comment stream of this post.)

Other vegetable shopping pics: Hollywood, Santa Monica, Aspen.


A Powerful Little Helper?

It’s late here at the Physics Center, and there is a hugely violent thunder and lightning storm outside. Good time to work.

While wandering the corridors in thought….. spotted this and photographed it for your viewing pleasure:

Einstein Doll

I did not pose this or anything. It was just standing there just like that, next to a public blackboard. Notice the chalk in his hand, and everything! Excellent. (The baggy jumper/sweater and chalk are nice details.) I imagine he was posed there by some other person (but consider ….what if not ?!)

Is it just me, or does this put you in mind of the excellent “Team America” as well? Does anyone know where this doll is from? Are there other scientists in this series? Maybe someone could do a whole series of short movies with them… moments of dialogue between famous scientists acted out by dolls…

Ok. Another crazy/stupid idea released into the wild. Back to work.


More Future Scientists Revealed!

Just like last year, I can reveal to you several pictures of scientists of the now and of the future:

Marie E. Nielson

That’s Marie E. Nielson (left), in grade 8, talking about her mathematics project on experiments with perfect numbers. More here.

The California State Science fair took place again this year at the California Science Center, across the street from USC. I was a judge last year, which is such fun. Please consider getting involved in your local science fair; see my description here, and here is an extract:

The judges come from all sorts of backgrounds, academic and industrial, and this brings its characters, […]

By about 8:15am you’ve forgotten the initial thoughts and feelings of dread and you realize that it’s just a great thing to be doing! Why? There are hundreds and hundreds of kids wide-eyed with enthusiasm about Science!!! These are the ones who’ve done well in their regional fairs, and now they’ve come to the Big City. They’re all over the place and you can feel their excitement and relish the taste of it because you remember what it was like to go to your first Big Thing and find that there are other kids just like you. You remember what it was like to go up to the Big Scary City for the first time. You remember what it was like to have Someone take an Interest in some Thing that you’ve been devoting your life to for the last year. There are kids with those feelings written all over their faces all around you.

This year I was unable to do so due to a trip across the Atlantic concerning the birth of my sister’s son (details of the london trip here, here, here and here; Last link has a fun trip to Harrods and to the Science Museum). But my USC colleague Chris Gould -the chief organisational engine behind the fair- has prepared hundreds of photographs again, and you can go and have a look here, and see some of the project descriptions also.

Here is the marvellous display of the project of Victoria Hutchins (grade 6), from Monterey, about using planetary observations to determine that the planets orbit the sun and not the earth:

display of the project of Victoria Hutchins

She built her telescope, and understood the role of the phases and apparent size of Venus in determining that the Copernican system is a better fit of the data than that of Ptolemy. This is of course one of the classic results of Galileo. More here.

Here’s a shot of several projects from Junior Zoology: Click to continue reading this post

Open Heart Surgery

For those of you who have been wondering, here are a few notes on various projects in the garden. You might recall (if you read my writings over on CV about a year ago on the subject) that I built a circulation system for the garden which drips water periodically at the roots of some of the plants. It has two control valves (one for the back and one for the front) that, after crawling around under the house with bits of string tied to my arms and a flashlight in my mouth, are connected by wired to a programmable timing device in the basement. Well this year saw me improve the system a little bit for the new season of heat.

I’d made one major silly mistake last year that as a physicist I should not have made. The pipes the run from the water supply to the pump (and are therefore under pressure all the time) were made of the same flexible black pvc as the rest of the system’s major arteries. most of the rest of the system is under leaves, dirt, or mulch, and therefore protected from the sun (and not under much pressure anyway) while this crucial section just sits there staring back at the sun all day. I happened to be home one day when the inevitable happened for the first time. The sun rapidly heated up and softened the pipes and the snug joints just slid open and there was water everywhere! If I was not home that day, hundreds of gallons of water would have been wasted (and poured into my foundations). Major design flaw. So I decided to do this year what I should have done then and replace the pipes with a heavier gauge white pvc, with secure joints.

I’d never done this before, and so I learned a lot that day. One of the things I love about this sort of project is how amazingly standardized all fixtures and fittings are. After wandering around the plumbing section of the hardware store for not too long, and consulting some sketches I’d made at home of what I wanted to do, it was pretty easy to get all I needed (various coupling joints, elbows, and lengths of pvc) to replace the old sections. Everything fits together snugly and one is reminded of ones childhood days of fun making things out of Lego, Mechano, and Better Builder (do I recall that latter correctly? does not seem to exist any more).

plumbing with pvcThere was some fun chemistry as well. I was puzzled for a while about how I was going to put threads on the plain pvc pipes and joints I’d picked out. First, the male and female parts did not seem like they wanted to go all the way into each other without a fight to make a secure joint, which was a worry. Also, there seemed to be no threading machine (to make screw joints), and I did not fancy the prospect of having to buy one, in case it was expensive. Silly me. There’s an entire system of chemistry that makes the joints secure! You paint Click to continue reading this post