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.