Wednesday, December 03, 2008

We are all motherless children

The incomparable folk singer Odetta passed away this week. News reports say she was slated to sing at Obama's inauguration. Here are a few YouTube videos:

Odetta - Cotton Fields (A great version of the old Leadbelly tune.)

Odetta Playing the Guitar

Odetta - Water Boy

Odetta and Dr. John - Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (One of my all-time favorites.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Garrett Lisi on his theory of everything

Very cool and understandable discussion. Experts won't get much detail, but non-scientists should enjoy it. I especially like his video attempts to explain particle by charge spaces, and to portray higher dimensional versions of hypercharge. Plus he does his surfer dude schtick at the beginning.

Garrett Lisi on his theory of everything | Video on

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

2008 Nobel Prize for Physics

The Swedish Academy of Science has awarded this years Physics prize to Nambu, for work on spontaneous symmetry breaking; and to Kobayashi and Maskawa for..well..for the (Cabibbo-)Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix, which describes the mixing of quarks between the strong and weak interactions. All three are hugely deserving of the prize, having worked on some of the most fundamental ideas of the Standard Model.

So, one has to ask: What the fuck!?!? Has the Nobel committees gone completely nuts? First there was yesterday's explicit slap in the face to Robert Gallo, the man acknowledged by a joint Franco-American presidential declaration to be the co-discoverer of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus HIV. He excluded from the award, while the two French co-discoverers were cited From what I gather from news reports, while Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi indeed first published the HIV discovery, it was Robert Gallo who really nailed down the connection between HIV and AIDS. The prizes can be shared by up to three people, and while the recognition of Harald zur Hausen for the discovery of the link between HPV and cervical cancer is deserving (my own daughter has gotten the resulting vaccination) could it not have been a separate prize next year, and let this year's prize recognize all three HIV researchers?

But then we have this Physics prize, and where to start? It was Nicola Cabibbo who first introduced the weak mixing angle (it's CALLED the "Cabibbo angle" for cryin; out loud!) and developed the mixing matrix for two generations. Kobayashi and Maskawa extended it to three generations and showed that CP-violation could be incorporated as a phase angle in the matrix. Any sensible committee would have awarded the prize to the three of them and been done with it.

But no, they split the award with Yoichiro Nambu- a great physicist, but one who has toiled in the same fields as Peter Higgs and Jeffery Goldstone (Nambu-Goldstone bosons, anyone?) and for that matter Tom Kibble and Phil Anderson (at least Anderson recieved a Nobel, back in 1977). Why would you give a Nobel Prize to Nambu, citing spontaneous symmetry breaking no less, and not give a prize to Higgs? It is absolutely unbelieveable.

Add to this the recent explicit insult to American literature made a member of the literature selection committee, and you have to wonder if the Swedes have given into a Scandinavian sense of despair and self-loathing, and are purposefully trying to make the prizes less significant.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Dual Nature of Science?

(In which our intrepid blogger attempts to answer a few questions from the studio audience, well, actually his sister-in-law)

Hey you,
I am trying to help Allison with her study guide for her LIfe Science test on Friday, and we cannot find a couple of answers online, notes or book. So I thought I might ask you, as you may know them. Okay so here goes....
1. What is universality vs diversity
2. What is equilibrium within systems?
3. What is the dual nature of science?
If you don't know, it's okay, hopefully she will ask in class, but who knows.Hope all is well.

Talk to you soon,

Dear Tarilyn,

Gosh, you gave me some stumpers. Hope I'm not too late with the answers (such as they are):

1) I view universality and diversity to be fairly separate, complementary ideas. You have to remember that physicists and biologists sometimes use different language, even for the same concepts. To me universality refers to a trait or characteristic that cuts across different phenomena. Newton's law of gravity is "universal" in the sense that it applies to all kinds objects with mass, not only planets or only falling apples. In physics, universality means a property that is independent of the details of the system

Diversity of course means variation. In physics there is diversity in the configurations planetary systems (recent discovery, since extrasolar planets have only been known since the early 1990s) but there is universality in the underlying law of gravitation. In biology one would think about the diversity of species, all following a universal law of natural selection and evolution.

2) Ah, systems! Again, slightly different to a physicist than a biologist. To me, a system is in equilibrium if there is no net force acting on it. We talk about stable equilibrium, where a system returns to equilibrium if it is "perturbed" slightly, and unstable equilibrium, where a small perturbation causes it to roll away from the equilibrium configuration.

In biology I believe there is a similar idea, in that the biological/ecological forces are balanced. The term "homeostasis" is used to describe a living thing in which its energy consumption matches its output. Evolutionary biologists also talk about "punctuated equilibrium" which is a somewhat controversial alternative to classical Darwinism, in which evolution is viewed as occurring in sudden "spurts" rather than gradual changes.

3) I had not heard the phrase "Dual Nature of Science" before. The term seems to come from Eugene Lashchyk book, Scientific Revolutions, from 1969. This is a critique of Thomas Kuhn's famous book, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Not all scientists agree with Kuhn's interpretation of the nature of science, by the way. Lishchyk seems to say that science has two stages, one of which is a "normal" stage", the period of science research engaged in by the bulk of a scientific community "under the guidance of a cognitive matrix which defines the relevant problems, acceptable solutions, [and] admissible evidence". He characterizes the other stage as a "crisis", during which one dominate theory is replaced by a new one, Kuhn's famous "Paradign Shift". This is what Kuhn, Feyerabend and others characterized as revolutions, and Kuhn included it as part of the "normal" period of scientific research.

Hope this helps,


Update: Check this out -

For Dual Science of Nature, the answer that they all seemed to come to was "process=activity and Product =knowledge". I think that it is or something similar. It would have helped if the teacher had been there the two days prior to the test and had gone over all of it.

Yuck! That is the dual nature of science? No wonder no one wants to go into science. Give me jet packs and exploding chemistry labs!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The College Issue - The Thinker -

Hat tip to my colleague and avid NYT reader Dick Greenwood, who sent me this link -
The College Issue - The Thinker -

It is a great article about a professor at Auburn, Kelly Jolly, who seems to have single-handedly rebuilt the philosophy department there. I particularly like the following quote:

“My view is that you really fall into a trap when you start allowing what you believe about your students to dictate how you teach your discipline,” he answered. “Too often these days we end up setting up our courses in light of what we believe about our students and we end up not teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking them.”

Would that we all learned this lesson

Friday, September 12, 2008

Creationism Vs. Evolution: In-Depth Reports

Scientific American has a terrific series of articles on evolution which should prove useful to those of us who are not biologists but find ourselves debating the subject:

Creationism Vs. Evolution: In-Depth Reports

In particular, look at "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Obligitory Post on LHC First Beam

So, they got some protons go to both ways around the LHC ring. Only 14 years in the making, at the cost of canceling of the SSC and ending U.S. leadership in particle physics. That plus a little over $4 billion, with about $500 million coming from the U.S. Am I bitter? Do I regret having to fly to Geneva to work on an experiment, instead driving four hours west to take shifts? What do you think?

Here is an event display from our experiment, ATLAS, showing beam going through the detector:

Nature has a series of excellent news stories on the LHC :
LHC by the numbers : Nature News
Physicists flock to Geneva : Nature News
Particle physics: The race to break the standard model : Nature News

the last of which talks about other ways that are being used to probe the limits of the Standard Model, incudling the ongoing experiments at the Tevatron, neutrino experiments, and cosmological tests. (Gotta love the superhero pics that go along with the article!)

Black hole or stranglet production won't start until collisions begin, probably around the time of the presidential election. Rapture ready fundamentalists can make of that what they will.

Lastly, the great web comic xkcd:

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day 1, Year 4 A.K.

The semi-anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy has made some art in New Orleans, much of it on buildings damaged by Katrina, and it is fairly awesome.

While we are at it please contribute to the Ashley Morris Fund at
Ashley Morris was a scientist and activist and a fierce New Orleanian blogger post-Katrina. He passed last April.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Not the Alpha and the Omega, Just the Omega

This afternoon our experiment at Fermilab, the DZero collaboration, will announce the observation of the Omega_b baryon. This is an important discovery for DZero, the second major baryon state in as many years to be first observed by the experiment.

The discovery of the Omega itself was an important milestone on the development of particle physics, and this discovery of the related Omega_b state serves as a fitting bookend to a period of American dominance in accelerator-based particle physics. In 1964, the idea of baryons (particles like protons and neutrons) being made up of quarks was still very new and untested. The quark model proposed that year by Gell-Mann and Zweig was based on properties of particles previously observed, including a set of observation in 1962 of the Xi (related the last years discovery, the Xi_b). These observations seemed to predict a new baryon, which in the quark model would be composed of three strange type quarks, an (sss) system. It was a group at Brookhaven, led by future director Nick Samios and including Virgil Barnes, Bill Willis, and Ed Thorndike, who published the observation of a "Hyperon With Strangness Minus Three" in February, 1964, giving it the named proposed by Gell-Mann at the Rochester (now ICHEP) conference in 1962.

The Omega was the lynch pin in the establishment of the valence quark model. What followed was an intense period of research in the nature of quarks and their interactions, in which the quarks themselves became the main focus of research rather than the hunt for new meson or baryon states. The theoretical work of Feynmann, Glashow, Veltmann, Bjorken, and so many others in the later Sixties and Seventies, and the experimental observation of parton scattering at SLAC in 1969 by Friedman, Kendall, Taylor et alia, led to the development of a field theory for the quarks called Quantum Chromodynamics.It is the study of QCD and its predictions that is the main interest of our Markus Wobisch, and which is forming a key portion of our high energy physics group's analysis work at DZero and ATLAS. It is also key to the work of our medium energy particle group - Wells, Simicevic, Grimm and Johnston - as they try to understand such fundamental questions as the relative proportion of non-valence quarks such as the s-quark in protons.

Now, as we enter the twilight of accelerator-based physics in the United Sates, as our nation is preparing to no longer be the home of the highest energy collider in the world, in a beautiful act symmetry we find the cousin of the Omega, the (ssb) state known as the Omega_b, at the Fermilab Tevatron. Once again, the study of this baryon allows us the test the predictions of the quark model and the refinements possible from QCD, in the presence of the much heavier b-quark. It complements and fills in the elegant particle physics equivalent of the periodic table which is the various mesons and baryon "multiplets". But almost as importantly it forms a remarkable bookend to an unprecedented era of discovery and scientific research in this country, that proceeded in parallel with the Space Race and the breakthroughs in medicine and other fields, a time when the United Sates was the undisputed center of scientific research. We enter a new era when science well be more international and less centralized, with new nations like India and China playing an equally important role, and probably that is for the best.

But at the beginning, there was the Omega, and at the end there was the Omega_b.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tiny Bubbles

Bubble Fusion Researcher Charged with Misconduct: Scientific American

This is s pretty good article on the Taleyarkhan scandal. Fortunately SciAM gets it right and identifies Taleyarkhan as an engineer, rather than as a physicist. This is what ASEE did in it's daily news digest "First Bell" yesterday, running a report from the Los Angeles Times that made the same mistake. I sent an email to the LA Times reporter who wrote the story, but no reply - hopefully mine was not the only email he received.

I can understand an engineering organization like ASEE not wanting to identify this guy as an engineer. And I do not want to pretend that improper professional behavior has not happened in physics. We recall the famous cases of recent years, the fraudulent claim of discovery of element 118 (which was later legitimately discovered) and the Schon case at Bell Labs. These two cases caused the APS to go into full frantic mode and pushing professional education in physics curriculum and a number of other remedies.

But there are some differences here. In the Ninov case (element 118) there was every reason to believe that the result was plausible - indeed the element was eventually seen, including by some of the researchers who had worked with Ninov. The Schon results, although remarkable, seemed plausible as well. It took a young professor named Lydia Sohn to carefully compare papers and to document that the same plots were being reused with different labels (she gave a talk about this at the 2004 Sigma Pi Sigma Congress).

This case smelled bad from the beginning. Most physicists hearing about sonoluminescence-produced fusion were immediately skeptical. It was too far out and seemed to violate Sagan's Razor: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof. My guess is that Science would never have published it, except for the claim of confirmation from other groups, confirmation which we now know did not happen and which Purdue cited has scientific misconduct in their review.

Although I should probably not raise this question in this context, I have to wonder: Do engineers approach research differently than scientists? Do the two professions, while using the same language of experimentation and similar methodologies, place different weights on what passes for verification and confirmation? I know an engineering professor, a very good guy who I will not name, who seems to be only interested in proof of principle: If he gets a device working once, then the project is done. Systematic studies for others - he has moved on to the next topic. Is this an individual trait, or is this behavior widespread among our research engineering cousins? As engineering students get less exposure to basic science (at a time when they really need more science) will the perception of research methodology between science and engineering (continue to?) diverge in the future?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Google is really starting to piss me off

Google Sux!

Traveling again, and Google is trying to be too clever. When I connect from a French server I get the French language Google page, even if I am LOGGED INTO iGoogle! I drive across the border to CERN, Google knows I am in Switzerland now, and everything is suddenly in German.

Let's put aside the little fact that this is the French-speaking part of Switzerland. If I am logged in, and Google knows my language preference, then just leave me the hell alone! Stop thinking that I suddenly am fluent in German just beacuse I am connected to a wireless hub near Geneva.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

Independence Day Quotes

"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty."

- John Adams

“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Now, we may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, stand up for what's right, and there are many times in our history when that's occurred. But when our laws, when our leaders or our government are out of alignment with those ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.

- Barack Obama

Sunday, May 04, 2008

With Apologies to Rev. Neimoller

First they came for the evolutionary biologists, and I did not say anything because I was not an evolutionary biologist.

Then they came for the atmospheric scientists, and I did not say anything because I was not an atmospheric scientist.

Then they came for the biochemists and geneticists, and I did not say anything because I was not a biochemist or geneticist.

Then they came for the cosmologists, and I did not say anything because I was not a cosmologist, though our areas of research are related.

Then they came for the particle physicists, and there was no one left to say anything intellectually honest.

Now, here is a cathedral for you - the ATLAS experiment at the LHC. Click on the picture to go to the ATLAS movie -

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Persistence of Memory

OK, I want you to read this article:

It is a long article, ostensibly about Piotr Wozniak, a Polish programmer who developed a learning software program called SuperMemo. But the article contains much more than that: It talks about the history of cognitive neuropsychology, of the "spacing interval" effect in how we learn and forget, the reason cramming does not work, the reason why repetition does work, and lot more. If you are not familiar with this idea, below is the so-called "forgetting curve" from the article

A lot of the way we teach is based on a complete ignorance of some very basic psychology. Students need to see material again, and the repetition needs to come at increasing, rather than fixed intervals. And then there is this (from the discussion of the components to log term memory - retrieval strength and storage strength. Emphasis is mine) -

One of the problems is that the amount of storage strength you gain from practice is inversely correlated with the current retrieval strength. In other words, the harder you have to work to get the right answer, the more the answer is sealed in memory. Precisely those things that seem to signal we're learning well — easy performance on drills, fluency during a lesson, even the subjective feeling that we know something — are misleading when it comes to predicting whether we will remember it in the future. "The most motivated and innovative teachers, to the extent they take current performance as their guide, are going to do the wrong things," Robert Bjork says. "It's almost sinister."

Student evaluations, anyone? Anyway read the article, it is terrific.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


It has been spring in Louisiana for a good two weeks now. Around here the dogwoods are in bloom, bright splashes of impressionistic white dots in the emerging green of the woods. Great shoals of azaleas make their brief appearance. Redbuds have bloomed purple in the midst of oaks and sweet gums; the black gum in my backyard is tardy as always, the last tree to put out its leaves and the last to let them go.

Over Easter we made of our favorites trips, riding along the Tammany Trace "rail to trail" bike path. We parked on the middle of Abita Springs, one of the prettiest towns in Louisiana and home of a truly great brewery, and rode our bikes from Abita Springs to Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, and then over to Fontainebleau State Park. Jst as we were leaving we saw this Barred Owl just a few feet off the trail:

I love Fontainebleau - gorgeous ancient oaks that you cannot wrap your arms around, tired old limbs reaching down and growing into the ground. I was very afraid that they had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but those fears were misplaced. These old wonders have seen at least four or five Hundred Year Storms, and they'll see a few more. Only one of the great oaks seemed in bad shape, and I think it was sick the last time we were down.

The next day, Easter Sunday, we went down to New Orleans, touring the Aquarium of the Americas and the National World War II Museum. Both are open and in great shape. The WW II museum is always a very emotional experience for me, and it was the first time Carol and Ben had toured it. Afterwards we all felt drained, and decided to come back home that night.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Not much time to blog - I have been working on monitoring software for the ATLAS liquid Argon calorimeter and getting a talk together, which I gave this morning. Now, as I leisurely copy files back to LA Tech, I some time to put up a couple of links. Maybe if I have time I can type in my impressions of Geneva.

First off, a brilliant little animation on YouTube, a history of evil from the Greeks to today:

I really liked this illustration of the dynamics of being a super-delegate in the Democratic party - but then, I have a thing for superhero chicks in tight spandex, doncha know.

If you want a nice clear example of walkin'-talkin' evil, you need look no farther than the Rev. Benny Hinn, as sorry a corrupt piece of excrement as ever slimed his away across this planet. (But is David Kuo slowly becoming my favorite evangelical Republican? Hmm...)

And finally my hero Greg Peters of Suspect Device tears 'em a new one over, of all things, perfidiously assigning the La Republican delegates to McCain instead Mike "I Heart Fried Squirrels and Fundamentalism" Huckabee. And by " 'em" we mean our local state senator as well.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Reading Amsterdam in Amsterdam

I made it to Geneva yesterday. Long layover at Schipel in Amsterdam. I got to tryout the KLM Crown Club there, which was OK (free food drinks is always nice), but Schipol has a lot of nice places to sit compared to most airports, if you know where to look. Lost my power adapter plug to boot, had to buy a new for 15 CHF.

I am re-reading Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. I just finished On Chisel Beach, which I was not overwhelmed by. A very compact book about two idiots. I guess McEwan is making a statement about how missed communication can tear up our relationships, but I found it to be about how a couple of people's Britishness (ca. 1960) got in the way of their being human. Amsterdam is much better, also a lot of the theme about people talking around what they really mean (and ought) to say, but it isn't all that the book is about, fer cryin' out loud.

Geneva was right where I left it. I am staying at a nice, and pricey, hotel downtown, the Hotel Epsom. It was best bargain of what was left, the CERN hostel was booked up as were the hotels I usually stay at, like the Holiday Inn in Thoiry. I am saving a little by not renting a car - public transportation is basically free for visitors - you can get a free pass in the airport that gets you to you hotel, then the hotel front desk hands out passes for your stay. It takes about an hour to get from the hotel (located in an iffy neighborhood north of the Gare Cornavin train station called Paquis) to CERN, but with all the construction, I'm not sure a car would be much faster. I attended the last of the ATLAS Week meetings, then after lunch spent the entire afternoon, til about 7:00, working on calorimeter monitoring software with a Columbia U. postdoc named Francesco Spano.

Ate at a really good restaurant last night, called Carnivale do Venezia. Crappy way to spend Valentine's night, but food was good. Had Tartaglia al Carnonara and a 3 dl carafe of their house red (a Sangenovese, I think I overhead the waitress tell someone, but I was overhearing an Italian speaking French, so she might have said she was St. Anne from Vichy).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

RoI Trivial Pusuit

(RoI=Academic jargon for "Report of Invention")

What patents do the following people hold?

Abraham Lincoln
Heddy Lamar
Zeppo Marx

OK, I should make you go look it up yourselves, but the answers are: 1) A device for extricating paddlewheel boats from sandbars, 2) the frequency key shifting technology now used in cell phones, and 3) the Marman clamp.

What a guy

So, what do you call someone from an old Virginia family (related to Jefferson and Madison) who grew up in South Carolina, and who as a wrestler, a wartime R.A.F. pilot and Foreign Legionnaire, recipient of the French Croix de Guerre and the American Eisenhower medal, movie star, socialite, trumpet player, songwriter, composer, Amazon explorer, horseman, stuntman, artist, ladies' man— who traveled the globe to help resistance movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

You call him Charles Fawcett, the man who, along with Varian Fry and a handful of others, helped over 2,000 Jewish refugees flee the Nazis through Marsielles, including such famous intellectuals as Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, and Heinrich and Golo Mann (the brother and son of Thomas Mann) . He passed away a few days ago, at the age of 92. I hate to find out about people like this after they die.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wednesday Thoughts

I think I have the flu. I shouldn't have the flu - I had a flushot. Dammit.

One the many unique things about working for a Louisiana university is the fact you get Mardi Gras off. In fact, we got off Monday, Tuesday, and the students got off today. I think at one time the students had to come back on Wednesday, until the regents or whoever finally figured out that that wasn't going to happen.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans barely made it into the news, since the Super Duper Stuper Kerplooer Tuesday primaries were going on. What better time for the candidates to maybe mention that New Orleans is still suffering? But politicians don't give a sh1t.

Which reminds me of what the judge in the Corps of Engineers suit said (from

In his
ruling, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval wrote that the Flood Control Act of 1928 provides immunity to the corps and other federal agencies involved in building flood projects. He relied on 1986 and 2001 Supreme Court rulings that found the law "provides immunity where, as here, a flood control project fails to control floodwaters because of the failure of the flood control project itself."

Duval, however, issued a stinging condemnation of the corps and its actions in building the city's hurricane protection system.

"Here, the court must apply this broad immunity based upon the facts of this case," Duval said. "
Often, when the King can do no wrong, his subjects suffer the consequences. Such is the case here."

"This story -- 50 years in the making -- is heart-wrenching," Duval, an appointee of President Clinton, said in his 46-page ruling. "
Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the corps' own calculations."

But, Duval said, "it is not within the Court's power to address the wrongs committed. It is hopefully within the citizens of the United States' power to address the failures of our laws and agencies."


So let's change the country. The happiest outcome of Tuesday's primaries is that the election is still not decided. I am glad that I get to vote in a primary Saturday that will actually mean something! To all of you who say that prolonging the campaign helps the Republicans, I can only say 1) The Republicans are still tearing at each other, despite McCain's lead; 2) Every Obama-Clinton contest is free air time for them to present their views to the American electorate; and 3) F*ck you, this is America, and I am as pleased as I can be that the two candidates were not decided by freakin' Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Crackerlina.

Obligations & Responsibilities

The Edge ( sponsors a yearly question, which it poses notable thinkers and writers. Last year the question was "What are you optimistic about?" This year the question is "What have you changed your mind about?" The answers are found at (the list of contributors to date is given in the sidebar to the left). One answer apropos to our discussions was given by my academic grandfather(*) -


Physicist and Nobel Laureate; Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Coauthor, The God Particle

The Obligations and Responsibilities of The Scientist

My academic experience, mainly at Columbia University from 1946-1978, instilled the following firm beliefs:

The role of the Professor, reflecting the mission of the University, is research and dissemination of the knowledge gained. However, the Professor has many citizenship obligations: to his community, State and Nation, to his University, to his field of research, e.g. physics, to his students. In the latter case, one must add to the content knowledge transferred, the moral and ethical concerns that science brings to society. So scientists have an obligation to communicate their knowledge, popularize, and whenever relevant, bring his knowledge to bear on the issues of the time. However, additionally, scientists play a large role in advisory boards and systems from the President's Advisory system all the way to local school boards and PTAs. I have always believed that the above menu more or less covered all the obligations and responsibilities of the scientist. His most sacred obligation is to continue to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong.

Taking even a cursory stock of current events, I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today......

Just look at our national and international dilemmas: global climate change (U.S. booed in Bali); nuclear weapons (seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has over 7,000 nuclear weapons, many poised to instant flight. Who decided?); stem cell research (still hobbled by White House obstacles). Basic research and science education are rated several nations below "Lower Slobovenia", our national deficit will burden the nation for generations, a wave of religious fundamentalism, an endless war in Iraq and the growing security restrictions on our privacy and freedom (excused by an even more endless and mindless war on terrorism) seem to be paralyzing the Congress. We need to elect people who can think critically.

A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect. We need a national movement to seek out scientists and engineers who have demonstrated the required management and communication skills. And we need a strong consensus of mentors that the need for wisdom and knowledge in the Congress must have a huge priority.


* My adviser David Levinthal was Leon Lederman's graduate student at Columbia University.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Don't ask me to explain, just click this link.

And a star to guide me by

NASA will commemorate its 50th anniversary, and the 40th anniversary of the recording of the Beatle's song Across the Universe, by beaming the song into space using the radio telescopes of the Deep Space Network. As Phil Platt at the Bad Astronomy blog points out, there are better candidate stars to send the song to, if our intention is for some alien life to eventually intercept the signal. Polaris, an old star and part of a binary pair, almost certainly has no planets, and if it does they are unlikely to harbor life.

My personal pick would be Epsilon Eridani or 55 Cancri - both are known to harbor planets and are very close in astronomical terms - but there is something apt about sending the signal to Polaris, the Northern Star. Think George Harrison's It's Only a Northern Song, or the Beatle's publishing company, Northern Songs Ltd.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Across the Universe

Petr Ginz was born in Prague in 1928. His father was a clerk, and both of his parents were involved in the Esperanto movement - in fact, they had met at an Esperantist meeting. As a young boy, Petr was interested in science and space, read the novels of Jules Verne, and dreamed of one day going to the moon. He also wrote his own stories, even a novel when he was just twelve, and he drew and painted illustrations for his stories. He also learned Esperanto from his parents and became fluent.

Petr's mother was Czech, but Petr's father was Jewish, and when Petr was 14 he was taken from his parents and put on a train, which took him to a camp called Terezin. Although he was sad and afraid, he continued to study science and mathematics, and he continued to draw, and he even started a magazine in the camp, called Vedem, which means "In the Lead". He wrote an Esperanto to Czech dictionary, so he could help the others in the camp learn the universal language that would bring peace to the world.

While he was in the camp, Petr drew a picture. It showed what the Earth would look like when he was standing on the moon. The picture looked like this:

After two years, another train came to Terezin, and the guards told Petr to get on board. The train went north, into Poland and west of Krakow, to another camp called Auschweitz. No one told Petr, but his was one of the last trains that would be going to that camp. The guards made Petr wait with a large group of other children, women, and old men. Then they told Petr they were going to go to the showers.

Petr's picture survived the war, and eventually it was given to a man named Ilan. Ilan's mother and grandmother had also been in Auschweitz, but they had survived. Ilan was also a student of science, and like Petr, Ilan dreamed of going to space. He became a pilot for the Israeli airforce, and flew planes that probably would have seemed like spaceships to Petr Ginz.

In 1997, Ilan was told that he would really go to space, as a payload specialist on board the space shuttle. Ilan moved to Texas, and began training for his mission. When his spaceship, the Columbia, took off into space in January, 2003 - almost exactly 58 years after the Russians had liberated Auschwitz - Ilan had Petr's picture with him. It orbited the Earth 255 times, 15 days in space, and Ilan and his fellow crew members did a lot of experiments and took videos of dust glowing in the atmosphere of Earth.

And when that spaceship fell apart on re-entry, five years ago this morning, I was watching it on the television with my children, in shock and horror at the loss of life, never knowing that Petr's picture had also turned to smoke and ashes.

What The L Word Means

So, I have known for a long time, at least since high school, that when the average person calls someone a "liberal" he means "that person I don't agree with". The "liberals" are the "others", the people who have the whole thing wrong; since our hypothetical interlocutor is obviously right, and he knows he is a conservative, so anyone who disagrees with his must be one of those liberals.

Sure there are intelligent conservatives, but for every politically mature thinker who has read Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, there are at least 10 and probably 100 who wouldn't know William F. Buckley from Harry Dean Stanton. The mass of self-proclaimed conservatives are Republican voters who moved to that party as a response to the civil rights and associated movements, the "How dare the guvmint give out all that welfare money and hey where's my farm subsidy check" crowd, augmented in recent years by the "Kill a Fag for Jesus" and the "We're Pro-life Til the Kid is Born, Then F*ck Em" evangelicals.

A few days ago, a friend of mine (and yes, he's friend, though we probably do not see eye to eye on any political issues) sent me an email with The Wheel & Beer: A World History Lesson, which fortunately I have discovered he did not write, and which can be found several places on the web (I'll omit including it here). Reading through this, it finally struck me what these folks REALLY mean when they use the word "liberal" - they mean "nigg3r". It is the same jokes, the same lame stereotypes, the same mockery and hatred disguised as humor that I remember from growing in the south in the Sixties. There have always been code words in the South, and they have crept into the national political debate. For a large group of people, and I would dare say the bulk of Southerners who vote Republican these days, "conservative"="white" and "liberal"="nigg3r" or "niggg3r-lover" (a term I remember being called at least a couple of times when I was a kid).

Am I a liberal? Well, yeah, I believe in liberty guaranteed by law in a democratic nation with the greatest possible number of its citizens enfranchised to participate in the political process. I believe in a secular nation where freedom of conscience is an ABSOLUTE, and not a relative, right. I believe in small government, but in those instances where we have to work together corporately through government, the bias should be toward helping the least fortunate in our society rather than most well off. But most of all, yeah, I ain't one of these pseudo-conservatives, and I never will be.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Of Mercury's Sphincter and Cardiod Microphone Porn

There are some great pictures that already coming back from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, and this is just the first flyby - MESSENGER will not go into Mercurian orbit until March, 2011. In the meantime, we get great pictures like this one, of an apparent impact crater in the Caloris Basin region with trough-like ridges extending from it.

Now the mission folks are calling this one the Spider, but I am afraid a better name would be the Anus. But hey, maybe it's just me. The really big trough on the bottom could even be a hemorrhoid.

Which reminds me of something that happened in my acoustics class yesterday. I had started lecturing on microphones, and I was going through the various sensitivity, or pickup, patterns. Probably the most common pickup pattern is called "cardioid, and depending on if your mind resides in the clouds or the gutter it looks sort of like a heart or a butt. (Actually, Desmond Morris wrote about how the classic "heart" shape really is a sexual image in The Naked Ape.)

So anyway, I draw a cardioid pattern looks like this:

Then, I drew a microphone at the center of the pattern, which looks like this, of course:

Inadvertent hilarity ensued, much to my embarrassment - it's bad enough when I do these things on purpose.

I'm a mutant!

First the news, in 2005, that all light-skinned people trace back to a single mutation that occurred during the first major "out of Africa" exodus of Homo Sapiens, sometime between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Today researchers are reporting that all blue-eyed humans are descended from a single mutated forbearer. This common ancestor lived between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

I love it, I love it, I love it - white people are mutants, I always figured as much. (OK I'm being silly - we all originated in Africa, so of course our earliest ancestors were all brown-skinned. But it is extremely cool that scientists, using techniques like mitachondrial DNA sequencing, can trace back the process by which these changes in the human population took place.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Go Cubs! I mean Saints! I mean Richardson! No, wait...

So, the best way to judge who will not win a game/playoff/political race is to ask me who I am supporting. Am I just drawn to the underdogs, or is that the winners in life are usually so freakin' obnoxious?

I was initially supporting Bill Richardson for President - in every way the most qualified candidate and probably the most intelligent man to run for president since Adlai Stevenson. Unfortunately he did not generate even a Stevenson level of excitement. Maybe he'll the next Secretary of State, or maybe the vice-presidential candidate.

This morning Edwards has dropped out of the race. I was not as big a supporter of Edwards as I was of Richardson - I actually donated to Richardson, the first time I have ever sent money to a presidential campaign. But in fact, John Edwards is the closest to my own views of any of the candidates this year. Still, his departure solidifies my support for Barak Obama. Sure, he's kind of inexperienced, but in fact presidents don't actually do that much if they are successful - the least successful presidents have been the ones who tried to micromanage everything. The main thing about Obama is the huge boost to America's image abroad that he will provide, along with a renewed sense of optimism and hope here at home. But given my track record, maybe I should keep my mouth shut...

Well, we are still here, dammit!

So, asteroid 2007 TU24 did not hit Earth yesterday. Somehow, that same science that the creationist-types think cannot get the Big Bang or Evolution right, still was good enough to predict the orbit of a 250m rock to within a few meters Great animated GIF of the flyby from an amateur astronomer in Utah named Patrick Wiggens (found on - you have to click on the picture to see the animation.)

The bad news is that another asteroid did not hit Mars. That would have been pretty cool, particularly if had been within the horizon of one of the Mars rovers. Alas, the mean ol' scientists got that one right as well - we knew at least a month ago that there would not be an impact.