Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 - A Year That Science!

So looking back over the last year as a scientist, what stands out most in my mind? If anything, it was a remarkable number of events connected with the 1960s. More about that in a moment. Personally, the big event of the year was the restart of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. From the point of view of picking events that will have the greatest lasting effect on science, once again it was probably from the areas of astrophysics and particle astrophysics, namely new deep field images from the Hubble space telescope and several hints at the existence of dark matter (including the FERMI and ATIC results and the two CDMS events). Although it did not get much press coverage, I have followed the extremely long solar minimum, which extended into this year. (Only in recent weeks have a few sunspots from the new solar cycle began popping up.) Outside of physics, I would have to say the biggest science stories were the discovery of Ardi (Ardipithecus Ramidus), a common ancestor of hominids and apes; and the H1N1 virus outbreak, which has taxed public health systems across the globe.

A 1960s Redux

A few details are in order. The 1960s echoed in the science of 2009 in a number of ways: The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for work done in the sixties, to (with some controversy) Willard Boyle and George Smith for the Charge-coupled device or CCD, and to Charles Kao for the development of optical fibers for communications. The CCD was patented in 1969, based on work done by a Bell Labs semiconductor group formed in 1964. Work on optical fibers date back to 1958, when Sam DiVita of the US Army Signal Corps Lab began working on the idea of transmitting signals through silica fibers (he patented the idea - why did the Nobel committee not recognize his work?) Kao and another scientist, George Hockham, working at a British telephone company, proposed ways to reduce the attenuation in optical fibers, considered a breakthrough toward their practical use for communication.

July 2009 was the 40th of the greatest event in human history, the first human landing on another world, the Apollo 11 mission of Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. I have posted about this earlier, but in many ways this was a defining moment of my life. I may never get into space, particularly with the stochastic way that NASA's future is being planned, but I owe my career in science to the space program and the library card my mother got for me when I was still in kindergarten.

The Moon still holds interest, both scientifically and technologically as a future base for space exploration. The most important Moon-related discovery this year was the presence of large amounts of water at the lunar south pole. The LCROSS mission, which crashed two probes into a dark crater, threw up a plume of dust and vapor which, after careful analysis, showed the presence of significant amounts of water as well as sodium and other unexpected minerals. For the millions who watched the LCROSS impacts live (including me and my son) it seemed like a bust at first - no big visible impact plume - but in the end careful planning and and the hard work of painstaking science paid off, with clear evidence from both infrared and UV spectrometers that were trained on the impact.

The LHC, the LHC, Will I Live to See the LHC?

It was starting the become a running gag in high energy physics circles: The LHC will turn on next fall. Fall 2005, fall 2006, fall 2007, fall 2008,.... After the disastrous start last year, interrupted by a magnet quench that took out a sector of the accelerator and caused a year-long shutdown while repairs were made and new safeguards put in place, people actually began hypothesisizing semi-serious scenarios in which the Higgs itself (or God or future civilization) was trying to keep the particle from being detected. CERN was at a critical juncture - Austria temporarily withdrew from CERN, until the outcry within the scientific community forced the Austrian chancellor to reconsider - and needed to get the LHC started again as smoothly and error-free as possible. The CERN management decided to forego a big press event (unlike 2008) but the press caught wind of what was happening anyway.

Fortunately, the re-start has gone extremely well, much better than most of us could have hoped for. Personal anecdote: I took a group of students to Fermilab in late November. We were touring the lab, looking around Wilson Hall, when the first single beams were being injected into the LHC. I talked Judy Jackson into letting us go into to the CMS remote control room for a little while, and the students were very excited to watched the first "splash events" being recorded. I figured they would run in this mode for a week or so, injected one beam and then another. By the time we drove back that weekend, there had already been collisions!

The LHC has already run at energies higher than the Fermilab Tevatron (up to 2.34 TeV center-of-mass, compared to the Tevatron's 1.96 TeV collision energy) although most of the data taken so far has been at 900 GeV. The LHC was stopped without incident for the winter shutdown, will start operations again in February, and if the schedule holds will be colliding beams at 10 TeV by the end of the year. That is the point where interesting things (Higgs, supersymmetric particles, micro black holes, ????) should start happening.

And if they don't? Then the LHC becomes the world's last particle collider. Simple as that.

Whispers in the Dark

What is Dark Matter? Astrophysical evidence, including the WMAP data (second only to the Hubble Space Telescope in revolutionizing our knowledge of the universe) suggests that 23 per cent of the universe is a heavy, rarely interacting particle which we have dubbed "dark matter" for lack of a better term. There are candidate particles for Dark Matter, like the lightest supersymmetric particle (which would not be able to decay into ordinary matter) or axions or heavy sterile neutrinos. Whatever it is, it is nearly five times more common in the universe than the ordinary matter of protons, neutron, and electron.

The year started out with observations from ATIC high-altitude balloon mission that suggested a source of dark matter may lie relatively close to our solar system. In May, the former GLAST experiment, now re-christened FERMI, showed evidence for excess electron/positron production which would also be consistent with dark matter annihilation. The year ended with a tantalizing announcement from the CDMS experiment of two events consistent with weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs). All hints that something is out there, but at this point not conclusive enough to claim discovery.

While on the astro side of things, this year marked the return of a refurbished deep field camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, a result of the final re-servicing misison. One of the best, if not the best, astronomical photos of the year was an image of thousands of galaxies (extremely large high-res image available here). There were more great discoveries in the Saturn system, including methane lakes on Titan and incredible images from the continuing Cassini misison. There was the first evidence of a "water world", a super-Earth exoplanet with large amounts of water. The first sunspots of the new new solar cycle began appearing, after a solar minimum that was one of the deepest in a century.

The greatest scientist who passed away during the last year was Norman Borlaug. You probably never heard of him. He won a Nobel Prize, but not in one of the science areas. Instead, he was given a the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. This unassuming botanist, born in Iowa, was probably responsible for saving more lives than any other human who has ever lived. He is credited with creating the Green Revolution, bringing hearty crop strains to poor nations and changing their agricultural systems from subsistence to single-crop. It is estimated that as many as a billion people have escaped malnutrition and death from famine due directly to his efforts.

Another towering figure in science who passed away this year, this time from the social sciences, was Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern antropology. The French honor their intellectuals (perhaps too much) and Levi-Strauss was considered a French national treasure. He began his career studying native tribes in Brazil.

From the physics community, notable passings include
  • Kazuhiko Nishijima (particle theorist who helped develop the quark model),
  • Vitaly Ginzburg (Gizburg-Landau theory as well as the Soviet hydrogram bomb),
  • Joseph Purcell (NASA project director for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory satellites),
  • Aage Bohr (son of Niels Bohr and a Nobel Prize winning nuclear theorist in his own right),
  • Jack Eddy (who first imaged an individual atom),
  • Jack Good (one of the Bletchly Park code breakers),
  • Stanley Jaki (physicist and theologian),
  • Martin Klein (science historian), and
  • Frank Shoemaker (who helped design the Fermilab Main Ring).
In my younger, more religious days when I was giving serious consideration to becoming a theologian myself, I was influenced greatly by Stanley Jaki's writings. A Bendictine priest, he was an enormous intellect who was as comfortable writing about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem or Grand Unification in particle physics as he was the role of Mary on Catholic worship.

The Worst Thing to Happen in Science in 2009

The year in science started on a positive note. As part of the economic stimulus package, science funding was given a significant boost. Baseline funding for the main science agencies looks strong under the Obama administration, although the growing budget deficits threaten all discretionary spending.

But science has had it hard in recent years, and took a couple of body blows in 2009. I am not talking just about the continuing denigration of scientists in the eyes of the public (commercials for the "Geek Squad", the stereotype-laden TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Fringe). I also mean incidents that pint out a deepening divide between professional scientists and the general public. The worst incident was clearly the release of stolen emails from the University of Essex Center for Climate Research. First of all, where was the outrage over the lawbreakers who committed this theft? Nowhere, certainly not among the anti-science types who used this as a field day for conspiracy theories and charges for fraud. In the end, there was no evidence for anything approaching falsification of data or attempts to publish misleading conclusions. What the emails showed were simply people talking privately and colloquially about subjects that they would have spoken more careful about if they new their comments would be published. That is no different from any other professions, but somehow it comes off differently when scientists are involved. Perhaps it is the Mr Spock stereotype, that scientists are not supposed to have passions or emotions.

But my conversations with non-scientists have unearthed troubling and frightening misunderstandings of how scientists do their jobs, and of their motivations. Particularly among conservatives and the religious, there is a deep-seated animosity towards scientists, even when some of the particular advancements of science (the space race, high tech weapons, medicines) are appreciated. But even among some who might be considered liberals, there are growing signs of anti-science. Anti-vaccination hype no knows political bounds, for example, and some environmentalists seem more than ready to throw any scientist under the bus who challenges conventional wisdom in their circles. The fashion of most people today is to believe that science which re-affirms your preconceptions, and to reject that which you find uncomfortable or challenging. Curiosity, inquiry, and an open-mind to new discovery are sadly becoming the hallmarks of a bygone era.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Biology of B-Movie Monsters

I have read other calculations of bio-mechanical limits, but
The Biology of B-Movie Monsters
by University of Chicago biologist Michael LaBarbara has to be the best and most complete discussion on the subject I have seen.

Friday, November 27, 2009


This seems appropriate for Thanksgiving week - 10 views of the Earth, as taken by different solar system probes. Includes the very first picture of the Earth from the Moon, taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 mission in 1966.

10 Views of Earth from the Moon, Mars and Beyond [Slide Show]: Scientific American Slideshows

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Playing Catchup on a Busy Science Week

Wow, where to start:

1) Last Friday I got up early and watched NASA television's coverage of the LCROSS impact. There were plans to try to record the impact with Louisiana Tech's new observatory, but we have been socked in with rain for weeks now. Anyway, as most of you know, the actual impact appeared to be a dud. No bright flash or spectacular plume kicked up when the rocket booster and the LCROSS spacecraft itself crashed into the Cebeus craters near the Moon's south pole.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. While the news media moves on to other things (Lindsey Lohan's probation violation, missing kids who may or may not be in a hot air balloon) the scientists got to work on analyzing the data from the impacts. Now we know that there was a plume, just at the low end of what was expected in terms of brightness. And early spectroscopy indicated the presence of sodium, which was a surprise. Still no word yet on water vapor, but stayed tuned.

2) The LHC is back in the news, as we get closer to re-start at the end of November. My student, Ram Dhullipudi, who is stationed at CERN, is very busy these days with the software being used to monitor the data. Our experiment, ATLAS, is already taking shifts just like we will during data taking, recording cosmic ray events and trying to exercise the "machinary" of data taking and distribution. The final sectors were cooled down at the end of the week, now the whole accelerator is colder than deep space.

But the biggest news coverage came last week from the arrest of a postdoctoral researcher on terrorism charges. The physicist, who worked on the LHCb experiment and was employed by EPFL in Lausanne, was accused of having ties to Al Quaida in the the Maghreb, a North African terror group. The first I heard of ths was when all CERN users were sent an email from the Director General after the arrest in Vienne, France, reminding users that CERN is an open lab and did not engage in secret or military research.

Research at these large international labs produces an unusual and unqie environment. During the Cold War, Fermilab was the only U.S. grovernment-run site that flew the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet Union (along with the flags of all the other nations that had scientists working at the lab). At CERN an American and an Isreali might work side-by-side with an Iranian and a Pakistani. The science does not respect national borders, and to the extent possible with the real problems in the world, the labs also try to to produce an work atmosphere free of national rivalries.

3) Speaking of science that goes beyond borders, a team of researchers in Nanjing, China, have created an electromagnetic analog of black holes in metamaterials. There is a cool local tie-in, since this is experimental verification of an effect predicted by Louisiana Tech researcher Dentcho Genov in his recent Nature Physics article (which is reference no. 5 in the Chinese scientists' paper).

4) What is up with apparent magnetic monopoles produced in solids and so-called magnetricity? This is an effect in materials that behave as "spin ices", and as far as I can tell are like phonons and other lattice quanta in that they are not a "real" particle but a quantized effect in the lattice. But this is getting beyond my depth - something I will have to understand better before I teach electricity & magnetism again.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Physics Nobel Goes to Internet Porn Pioneers

Well, once again the discovery of the top quark, and my chance for residual glory, has gone unrecognized by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Instead they gave the award to Charles K. Kao(for the development of fiber optics), and Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith(for the development of charged coupled devices, or CCDs). Fiber optics, of course, are the transmission route for high speed digital communications. CCDs are used in digital imaging, everything from medical imaging to the camara in uyour cell phone. We used huge arrays of CCs in the tracking elements of high energy physics experiments like ATLAS, where they are sometimes refered to as pixel detectors. (Dick Greenwood here at LA Tech works on the ATLAS Forward Pixel Detector, for example.)

The Nobels in physics seem to have taken a decidedly applied turn in recent years. I wonder if tis is a trend, or if the acdemy feels they are making up for a lack of recognition of applied areas in the past.

This marks the eighth Nobel prize awarded for work at Bell Labs, which is no more. Bell Labs were spun off into Lucent, which subsequently got out of the research line. Industry does not do fundamental research, and really very little research, these days - another reseaon why strong funding of academic research is so important.

LA BESE Board Caves to Fundamentalists

I am a member of the LA Science Coalition (also on Facebook at They have been putting out some great updates on the way the Board of elementary and Secondary Education has completely caved in to the fundies, led by the Louisiana Family forum, as a result of the disastrous 2008 LA Science Education Act. Full details can be found at

If you are a Louisiana scientist or educator:
1) Join groups like the La Science Coalition and keep up with what is happening.
2) Can an open ear to what is happening in your community, partocularly if you have school age kids. My daughter is taking biology this year in high school, ans so far there has not been attempt to sneak any of the Discovery Intitute propaganda into her class, but I am worried.

It will eventually take professional organizations and others refusing to visit Louisiana for conventions and meetings, and companies refusing to locate in a scientifically illiterate state, to get changes. Here is one interesting quote - In August 2008, the president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which met in New Orleans in April 2009, had already called for scientists to protest such decisions “with our feet and wallets”:

I think we need to see to it that no future meeting of our society will take place in Louisiana as long as that law stands, nor should we hold it in any other state (are you listening, Michigan and Texas?) that passes a similar law. And I call upon the presidents of the American Chemical Society, the American Association of Immunologists, the Society for Neuroscience, and all the other scientific societies around the U.S. and the world, to join me in this action and make clear to the state legislators in Louisiana, the governor of the state, and the mayor and business bureau of New Orleans that this will be the consequence. (ASBMB Today [pdf], August 2008)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Good old Adri!

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Fossil finds extend human story

discusses the announcement of Ardipithecus ramidus, a early hominid ancestor with many characteristics of both humans and chimpanzees. It has taken 17 years of study to put the fossils in the correct context, but that is how science works - carefully, meticulously, building upon prior work.

UPDATE: This is a really good article from Science, discussing how the Ardi find fits in with the Lucy discovery in 1974. In a nutshell, Lucy showed us that early hominids walked upright, while Ardi showed that even earlier hominid precursors also had a form of upright walking, while also spending time in tress.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How cool is this? High school chemistry was right!

Well, this is neat: Scientists at the Kharkov Institute in the the Ukraine have released the first photographs showing the details of the electron configurations in a single atom. And guess what? The orbitals look exactly like the expectations from years of solving the Schrodinger Equation:

In the immortal words of the comic xkcd:

Please stay on the HOV lane until you reach Ganymede

A news story in the Daily Telegraph describes how mapping the Lagrange points for the planets and moons of our solar system will allow interplanetary and intersatellite travel with much less fuel consumption. I was amazed by the figure they quoted for the Genesis mission in 2004 (the only one to make use of this idea so far) - a factor of 10 less fuel used compared to a traditional mission profile.

Two things come to mind:
1) It could not happen with out computers. Dogin the three-body problem, even the restricted three-body problem in which one mass is much less than the other two, is hard. Gluing the various solutions together to make this map could have only hapenned n the era of high speed processor and large memory.

2) Why do British papers have such good science writers?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two August Anniversaries

I meant to post on this earlier, but life just got in the way. There were two interesting anniversaries in August, in the same week in fact, and I am not sure many people have noticed the significance of this particularly conjugation of dates.

The first, August 19, was the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess shale. For those of you who took biology in a Louisiana public high school, the Burgess shale is a fossil formation from British Columbia, dating back half a billion years to the middle of the Cambrian period, the time of the "Cambrian explosion" when life on the planet (exclusively aquatic at the time) underwent a tremendous increase in both the complexity and diversity, a veritable freak show of multi-tentacled thimgamubobs and toothy terrors and armor-plated doodads - OK, I'm a physicist, not a biologist, so I would have to go to Wikipedia to get names but the point here is that even biologists and paleontologists have difficulty classifying all the Cambrian weirdness. I mean, they named one of the species Hallucigenia, fer cryin' out loud. That's how weird it is! The famous trilobites date from this period, and they are some of the least strange creatures from the Cambrian period. Much of this fauna is unique to this period, dying out in one of the great extinction events that marked the transition from the Cambrian to the Ordovician period, when the first land plants begin to appear.

Let us sleep, and dream out our dreams, and hope those dreams are not disturbed by visions of chthonic monsters who dwell in the deeps. For when we awake, it is August 20, the birthday H. P. Lovecraft. In fact, it would have been his 119th birthday, had he not died at the relatively young age of 46 (an age of relevance to your humble blogger). Lovecraft is known, of course, for his contributions to the modern horror story, of creating the Chthulhu mythos and the Lovecraft school of writers, ranging from his contemporary August Derleth down to modern writers like Neil Gaiman, who has set more than one short story in "Lovecraft Country". It is Lovecraft who gave us the Necronomicron, the ghastly village of Arkham, Miskatonic University, the Dunwich Horror. He was the one responsible for turning romanticism and gnosticism on its head, imagining a universe where it is better not to know the ultimate reality, a universe in which ultimate reality is unspeakably evil, where secret cults pray to a mad sleeping god who will destroy them and everyone else when he awakens.

Lovecraft's first interest was in science, chemistry and astronomy in particular. He even published a Science Gazette when he was a youngster, but he could not do the math to become an astronomer. Alas, another life cut short by differential equations.

So here is an exercise for the reader: Which of these images are creatures found in the Burgess Shale, and which ones are the Old Ones from the Chthulu mythos? Has any English majors written any dissertations yet on how the paleontological discoveries in the Burgess Shale, first made as Lovecraft turned 19, influenced the imagery of his later writings?

(Answers: Top - An artists rendering of Cambrian sealife; Center - Anomolocaris, or "Unusual Shrimp", a meter long monster found in the Burgess Shale; Bottom - Old Chthulhu himself, said to be sleeping in the dead city R'lyeh.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Want to go to law school? Study physics!

A new study looks at the average LSAT scores of students with different undergraduate majors, sometimes grouping related fields together to gather a statistically significant sample. (Via.) And the best scores were attained by students studying:

  1. Physics/Math (160.0)
  2. Economics (157.4)
  3. Philosophy/Theology (157.4)
  4. International Relations (156.5)
  5. Engineering (156.2)

At the bottom of the list? Prelaw (148.3) and Criminal Justice (146.0).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

2348 B.C.

The biologist PZ MEyers, (in)famous for his "New Atheist" blog Pharyngula, was part of a group from the Secular Students Alliance who visited the Creationist "Museum" in Kentucky. I will leave you to read about the experience on his blog, but I was struck by something Myers describes as "A little taste of strangeness": All ofthe dinosaur exhibits carry geological strata information on the fossils (Jurassic, Upper Cretatous, etc) but all of the fossils are listed as dating from "~2348 B.C."

Why 2348 B.C.? Well, just do a quick Google search. You will see that it is the date of the Great Flood, according to Bishop Ussher's dating system, which he published between 1642 and 1644. You will also see that the Internet is chockablock with Fundmentalist crap that carries that dating system - books, wall posters, websites, materials for home schooling, etc.

Just out of curiosity, what do we know of the world of 2348 B.C., when our Conservative Christian friends tell us the population of the earth was wiped out, with only 8 survivors? Here is what Wikipedia has:
Under "Significant Persons" -
Boy, those Egyptians and Sumerians came back in a hurry, especially considering Noah and his crew were on a mountain side in Armenia just 35 years before Pepi II takes the throne! And what about those Chinese, maintaining records despite the worldwide flood? However, to be fair there is a flood mentioned as occurring in the time of Emperor Yao. Probably there was a devastating flood during this period, or a few generations previously, the memory of which was handed down trough oral tradition and embroidered until it became the Great Flood of the Bible, along with several other similar legends. But no, the human population was not entirely wiped out in 2348 B.C., and neither were those poor dinosaurs.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Advice on writing research articles

Andrew Gelman has a good article called Advice on writing research articles - Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

I am thinking about printing this out and giving it to my graduate (and maybe undergraduate) students. Here are his main items:

1. Start with the conclusions. Write a couple pages on what you've found and what you recommend. In writing these conclusions, you should also be writing some of the introduction, in that you'll need to give enough background so that general readers can understand what you're talking about and why they should care. But you want to start with the conclusions, because that will determine what sort of background information you'll need to give.

2. Now step back. What is the principal evidence for your conclusions? Make some graphs and pull out some key numbers that represent your research findings which back up your claims.

3. Back one more step, now. What are the methods and data you used to obtain your research findings.

4. Now go back and write the literature review and the introduction.

5. Moving forward one last time: go to your results and conclusions and give alternative explanations. Why might you be wrong? What are the limits of applicability of your findings? What future research would be appropriate to follow up on these loose ends?

6. Write the abstract. An easy way to start is to take the first sentence from each of the first five paragraphs of the article. This probably won't be quite right, but I bet it will be close to what you need.

7. Give the article to a friend, ask him or her to spend 15 minutes looking at it, then ask what they think your message was, and what evidence you have for it. Your friend should read the article as a potential consumer, not as a critic. You can find typos on your own time, but you need somebody else's eyes to get a sense of the message you're sending.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And that is the way it was...

I was a six year old kid, forty years ago this week, glued to a black and white television set as Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins headed to their rendezvous with the Moon and history. They were my heroes, the Apollo astronauts, I knew every experimental payload they would leave on the moon, every excursion that was planned, the pitch/roll/yaw of the spacecraft, the alphabet soup of NASA acronyms.

We only got two channels back then, and we almost exclusively watched the CBS affiliate. CBS news carried live coverage of the flight, narrated by two historic figures in their own right, both coincidentally named Walter: One was astronaut Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The other was Walter Cronkite. Cronkite was a towering figure - journalist, war correspondent, Morrow Boy, host of television programs like "You Are There", and the greatest news anchor in television history. His was voiced we listened to every night through the turbulence of the Sixties and Seventies, his soft Missouri accent carrying both authority and reassurance.

Good night, Walter Cronkite.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Gap in Appreciation, or Understanding ?

From this morning's "First Bell" email, a daily news round-up of science and engineering sent out by ASEE:

Survey Shows Gaps Between American Public, Scientific Community.

The AP (7/10, Schmid) reports, "The share of Americans who see science as the nation's greatest achievement is down sharply, even as the public continues to hold scientists in high regard," according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, which "indicates that 27 percent of Americans say the nation's greatest achievements are in science, medicine and technology, more than any category other than don't know." However, that figure is "down from 47 percent in a similar study a decade ago." Still, the poll found that, " remains well thought of by Americans, with 84 percent of respondents saying it has a mostly positive effect on society," even in cases "when they disagreed with some findings."

The New York Times (7/10, A16, Dean) reports, "On the whole, scientists believe American research leads the world. But only 17 percent of the public agrees." Additionally, "while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, general public is far less sure." Specifically, "almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists." Regarding climate change, "about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all." A large proportion of "science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem," and classified "coverage of science by newspapers and television" as "fair" or "poor."

USA Today (7/10, Vergano) reported that, regarding animal research, "52% of the public and 93% of scientists support drug testing or other experiments on animals." And, "51% of the public and 70% of scientists support nuclear power development." Science author Chris Mooney said the results were not "hugely surprising," but were "hugely important in telling people in science that maybe they need to reach out to the public better." Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) made similar comments, saying, "The results tell us we have a lot of work to do, not only on getting the word out about scientific findings, but about how science works."

The Christian Science Monitor (7/10, Spotts) reports, "Organizations like the AAAS are trying to encourage scientists to do a better job of communicating what they do to the general public," and frequently "focus on what the public and educators need to do to boost scientific literacy." However, Mooney argues that "people form their political positions based on a variety of factors, and scientists don't know how or don't try to reach out to them." He advocates greater "personal contact," which "may not change an individual's worldview...but it does have the potential to demystify scientists and the way they approach their world."

In the (7/9) Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle wrote that the poll's results "show that the situation is more complex" than a divide between two groups. For example, "the Pew study points out that most Americans really like science and think it's deserving of support."

Thursday, July 02, 2009

What Skepticism Reveals about Science: Scientific American

I love this quote they use from Leonard Nimoy on an episode of The Simpsons: “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”

What Skepticism Reveals about Science: Scientific American

Confronting Scientific Climate Change Deniers

It is easy for those of us in the sciences to dismiss climate change deniers as simply uneducated or scientifically illiterate. But what about the occasional scientist, like Freeman Dyson, who comes along and challenges evidence for global warming?

I am not expert in these areas and so it is hard for me to evaluate the criticisms competently. This article on the RealClimate
does so very nicely, showing the data and graphs that are being critcized and answering those criticisms in a scientific fashion. This is a good site for climate change information.

The sad fact is that we need to confront the changes to the environment, both natural and man-made, but instead we bicker and squabble. Calling the members of Congress who voted for the recent energy bill "Cap and Traitors" is typical of this very unhelpful attitude.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Future Map of South Louisiana?

In an excellent article on National Geographic's website, LSU scientist Michael Blum describes his predictions for coastal erosion between now and the end of the century: Mississippi River Delta to "Drown" by 2100?

The results is not pretty. Here is a projected map compared to today's coastline. It is not just New Orleans that is effected, Mandeville and the north shore, La Place, Donaldsonville, Houma - all gone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Possibly the greatest ad of all time

This is the sort of thing Sigmund Freud would have come up with after a six martini lunch, if he worked on Madison Ave. in the Sixties.

BKsevenincher.jpg (image)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Here are a couple of quotes that seem to sum up why the LHC is taking so long to turn on:

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.

- Poul Anderson (1926 - 2001)

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.

- Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001), Mostly Harmless

Monday, April 20, 2009

What’s Wrong with Education

A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education | Edutopia

If you want to understand a lot of why the American educational system is so bad (along with parental indifference) then you read this.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009


What is the French word for a backwater? You might think "bayou" but you would be wrong. It is "marigot". And here is a interesting sentence from the French Wikipedia article:"Le terme 'marigot' est parfois employé métaphoriquement pour suggérer des activités plus ou moins occultes, en eaux troubles."


How cool is YouTube? Here is Nancy Griffiths and the greatest collections of Texas songwriters ever assembled, doing Guy Clark's great ballad "Desperados Waiting for a Train"

This is a song I will never be able to sing. Nancy Griffith sort butchers the best line:"To me he's one of the heroes of this country..."

(I miss you everyday, H.L.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Guess who else was number 44? Hammerin' Hank Aaron! Awesome!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

We are one

Johnny was there.
Ray was there.
Marvin and Mahalia and Odetta were there.
Woody was there.
You couldn't see them, but they were there.
I heard them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Clarence B. Jones: The 80th Birthday of Dr. King and the Inauguration of Obama as President

I found this article on the Huffington Post very affecting. It is written by one of the speechwriters for Martin Luther King, Jr., and it gives his perspective on Barack Obama's election and the 80th birthday of Dr. King.

Much is made by some of the old Civil Right movement activists, and how Obama represents a new generation, and new style, of black leadership. Jones's gives his opinion of how Dr. King might have viewed the Obama election, with a lot of interesting insights and perspectives on King and his legacy.

Most Loathsome People of 2008

They're back! The annual list of the most loathsome people of the past year, courtesy of the Buffalo Beast. The list is at

I think last year's list was little better, but this one is still pretty good. How bad was 2008? George Bush only came in at #4, and Dick "Dick" Cheney is only the 7th most loathsome person of the year. Don't worry - you're on it, too.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Best Physics Department You Never Heard Of

This week, Louisiana Tech started back in session. The first several stories on the university webpage have been dominated about news about our Physics Program. And we are still putting together a press release about Tabbetha Dobbins getting a CAREER grant!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tech researchers and Italian National Nanotechnology Laboratory scientists recognized for collaboration - jroberts

Louisiana Tech and the Italian National Nanotechnology Laboratory’s joint project, “Nano-carriers for Cancer Therapy” has been selected among the 20 most important scientific projects for Italy-USA Collaboration by the Progetto Bilaterale Italia-USA. The collaboration was led by Dr. Yuri Lvov, a professor of micro and nanosystems at Tech’s Institute for Micromanufacturing, and Stefano Leporatti of the NNL.

The primary purpose of the collaboration was to develop new nano-carriers and to study their uptake in cells for development of new cancer therapies. The current project is based on NNL’s research on advanced optical and scanning probe facilities and Tech’s expertise in developing advanced nano-carriers for cancer drug delivery developed at the IfM benefited the work.

In addition to the medical applications, the project will be useful in the multi-disciplinary training of graduate students in the bio/nano technology environment.

Also, Leporatti and doctoral student Viviana Vergaro of the Italian National Nanotechnology Institute recently visited the IfM, when Leporatti delivered the lecture, “Engineering Micro/Nano Environment via Layer-by-Layer Composite Films for Breast Cancer Cell Controlled Growth.” On that visit, Leporatti also presented a seminar on using virus arrays for templated nano-lithography.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Louisiana Tech physicists highlight Top 10 science stories of 2008 - dguerin

Discover, one of the world's premier science and technology news magazines, released its list of the Top 100 Stories for 2008 and features two projects involving physicists from Louisiana Tech University in its Top 10.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, which involved over 5,000 scientists and engineers from 26 nations, ranked #2 on the list. Drs. Lee Sawyer, Dick Greenwood, and Markus Wobisch led a team from Louisiana Tech that is involved in the commissioning and operation of the ATLAS detector, which will allow scientists to tap into the physics potential of the LHC.

"[Tech] has three faculty members and two graduate students working on the ATLAS experiment, and our post doc at Fermilab has begun the transition to LHC-related work," says Sawyer, head of the physics department at Louisiana Tech.

The LHC accelerates two streams of protons toward each other at nearly 99.99% of the speed of light in an effort to prove, or possibly disprove, the "Big Bang Theory." It could also explain why some particles are massive while others are without mass, why there is matter and not antimatter, and whether or not other dimensions exist.

According to Sawyer, the same faculty members, along with several other undergraduate and graduate students, are also working on the D0 experiment at Fermilab. Their efforts played a significant part in the recent discovery of the Omega_b baryon.

Tech physics professor Dr. Dentcho Genov contributed to research related to technology needed to make an "invisibility cloak." Ranked #7 on the list, researchers are creating laboratory-engineered wonder materials that can conceal objects from almost anything that travels as a wave, including light, sound and, at the subatomic level, matter itself.

According to Discover, these engineered substances, known as "metamaterials," get their unusual properties from their size and shape, not their chemistry. Because of the way they are composed, they can shuffle waves away from an object.

"These metamaterials, undreamed of a few years ago, may prove to be one of the key technologies of the 21st century," explains Sawyer. "Already people are beginning to think of innovative ways of applying these materials. While a lot of discussion has been about 'cloaking devices,' there is a lot of promise in new optical devices and coatings."

In addition to the recognition by Discover, Time magazine also acknowledges the significance of these two projects, ranking the LHC story at #1 on its Top 10 of 2008 list and the "invisibility cloak" story at #7.

"This recognition by Discover and Time magazines confirms that the physics faculty at Louisiana Tech are contributing significantly to relevant and vital science discoveries," says Dr. Stan Napper, dean of Louisiana Tech's College of Engineering and Science. "Our students are directly benefiting from these outstanding researchers who are also outstanding educators."

"Person for person, we have the finest physics faculty in the country," adds Sawyer. "Our faculty offer students at both the undergraduate and graduate level a wide range of opportunities for research at the forefront of science."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Inspection technology by Louisiana Tech researchers to examine underground infrastructure - dguerin

An innovative underground scanning technology developed by Louisiana Tech researchers is the cornerstone of a technology development and commercialization project that has secured one of only nine Technology Innovation Program (TIP) grants awarded nationally by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

"$3.2 million has been secured for this project, of which nearly $900,000 will flow to Louisiana Tech over the next three years," says Dr. Erez Allouche, associate professor of civil engineering and associate director of Louisiana Tech’s Trenchless Technology Center.

Allouche, along with Drs. Arun Jaganathan, Neven Simicevic and Klaus Grimm, is partnering with Elxsi Corporation of Orlando to develop a deep-penetrating scanning system, based on a new technology called ultrawideband (UWB) pulsed radar. This technology will allow for the inspection of buried pipelines, tunnels, and culverts to detect fractures, quantify corrosion, and determine the presence of voids in the surrounding soil.

The project, called FutureScan, incorporates leading-edge simulation, electronics, robotics, signal processing, and three-dimensional (3-D) rendering technologies in a package that can be mounted on existing pipe-inspection robots.

A patent on this new technology is currently pending. This is the first attempt to commercialize UWB for the inspection of municipal pipes around the world.

Using highly directional electromagnetic pulses and special signal-processing algorithms derived from mine and bomb detection technology, the technique can "see" through solid objects and measure both surface and internal structural integrity.

"Our project will greatly increase the ability of municipalities and DOTs to detect developing sink holes around buried pipes before they propagate to the surface and cause collapse of the roadway," explains Allouche.

The consequences of pipeline failure range from disease-causing water pollution to sometimes fatal highway accidents. The United States has over one million miles of buried pipes carrying water to cities, towns, and homes.

"In addition to the federal funding [Louisiana Tech] receives, this award will also mean the establishment of new technical positions, the creation of a new start-up company in Tech's incubator, and the potential for a leading-edge technology, developed at Louisiana Tech, getting into markets around the world," adds Allouche.

TIP was created to support innovative, high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need where there is a clear interest because of the magnitude of the problems and their importance to society.

Allouche appreciates the prestige and exclusivity that this program carries.

"The high dollar value attracts proposals from the best academic institutions in the nation. This award is another example of the growing ability of Louisiana Tech to develop innovative technologies and bring them to a market-ready status."