Friday, December 31, 2010

Science Wrap-up for 2010

Ah, that time of year again. Sit by the fire, sip a beverage, and reminisce over the significant events of the past year.

One decade into the 21st century, science (and physics in particular) has started to congeal into a very different model than was norm for most of the 20th century. We live in world in which anti-science sentiment seems to be on the increase, both from religious folk who turn to fundamentalism as a bulwark against modernism, and also from a large number of educated and secular people who seem to feel that science simply has not delivered on its promises. This is not just the "what have you done for me lately crowd" (although there are plenty of them), but "post modernists" who are skeptical of rationalism and the scientific method as world views. These are the folks who embrace the concept of multiple equivalent routes to truth, to which as a good empiricist my response is "prove it."

I wonder if the rise of scientific research and technological sophistication in Chinese, Indian, and other non-European societies may be affecting this point of view. I would like to see a serious study of philosophical and religious viewpoints among Chinese and Indian scientists. I have certainly heard very well-educated researchers claim to believe in some rather seriously flawed superstitions from areas outside of their area of expertise. These were nations that were not directly heirs of the European Enlightenment, and instead had very long-standing and entrenched philosophical systems (Confucianism, so-called Vedic Science, the Kerala School of mathematics) which mixed rational and non-rational elements. Of course, the move from rationalism is just as strong among Western academics, and you have to look no farther than the Huffington Post or Oprah to see people like Deepak Chopra or oz Garcia or Andrew Wyland peddling a mixture of science, pseudoscience and spiritualism.

But the irony is that this a time of remarkable scientific achievement. The by-word of early 21st century science is "interdisciplinary", and many of the most notable achievements of recent years, like those in nonlinear dynamics and metamaterials, cross traditional disciplinary lines. That is not to say disciplinary research is dead, and certainly in my own field of particle physics it has been a banner couple of years.

Particle Physics 
The biggest news in particle physics in 2010 was, of course, the turn-on of the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC had an initial short run, at lower energies, in late 2009, but starting March and continuing with remarkable efficiency until the scheduled Christmas shutdown, the collider operated at a center of mass energy of 7 TeV, half the target energy of 14 TeV. A short late heavy ion run in November demonstrated the LHC's ability to accelerate nuclei, and produced some interesting new results. I was at CERN just before Thanksgiving when my experiment, ATLAS, announced the measurement of "centrality-dependent dijet asymmetry" - no. I didn't know what that meant at first either, but it turns out to be an important signature of the formation of quark-gluon plasma. We were also able to produce first results for the summer conferences, also a remarkable achievement since usually there is a year or so between first data and finished analyses. We already have several papers published. No Higgs boson...yet.
My graduate student, Ram Dhullipudi (far right in tan jacket) in the ATLAS control room during first 7 TeV LHC collisions

The same week the ATLAS was finalizing the dijet asymmatery results from the heavy ion run, two other experiments at CERN, ALPHA and ASACUSA, announced the first sample of trapped antihydrogen atoms. Antihydrogen, fromed from an antiproton and an antielectron, was first produced in 1995, but it has taken until now to develop techniques to trap these antimatters atoms. The trapping times are only on the order of 0.1 seconds, but once the discovery is made, its just engineering after that.

The Tevatron is still running, and like a well-loved old car that just seems to keep running, the old collider continues to produce some interesting results. My experiment, D0, published on the most controversial results in particle physics this year - like-sign dimuon anomaly. This observation of an excessive asymmetry
A≡(N++-N--)/(N+++N--) between pairs of postive and negative like-sign pair of muons may signal a new and significant source of CP-violation, which leads to the excess of matter over antimatter in our universe. The result was summarized in an excellent "Editor's Viewpoint" editorial in Physics. I will let the editor, Roy Briere, summarize:"If this intriguing hint of new physics holds up to scrutiny and is confirmed elsewhere, it will join other significant milestones of high-energy physics. Even if it fades away, it can still live on as part of a testament to the proper workings of empirical science. Indeed, the advent of modern scientific methodology, which forms the root of all our work, is the greatest milestone of all."

A few years ago, the U.S. particle physics community came up with a pithy way of classifying the experiments we do. The devised three categories: The Energy Frontier, The Intensity Frontier, and The Cosmic Frontier. The Tevatron and now the LHC represent the Energy Frontier. The Intensity Frontier would be future neutrino experiments, for example from the Project X at Fermilab after the Tevatron shuts down. The Cosmic Frontier is the realm of searches for Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Just like last year, there were some intriguing hints from Dark Matter searches, particularly results from the Fermi experiment (named after the person, not the lab - it used to be called GLAST) and DAMA. In March 2010 Fermi announced that active galactic nuclei are not responsible for most gamma-ray background radiation. This leads to new models that have to include Dark Matter interactions. The DAMA experiment in the Gran Sasso mine continues to accumulate evidence for Dark Matter in the Milky Way galactic halo.

As I am typing this article, I just received an email update from Scientific American that the IceCube experiment has been completed at the South Pole. With 86 strings of detectors reaching down 2.5 kilometers i the Antarctic ice, this is the largest neutrino observatory ever constructed. An extension of the old AMNADA project, IceCube will look for neutrinos from cosmic sources such as supernovae and gamma-ray bursters.

Lastly, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland. What does this have to do with particle physics? Well, it happned the week of one of the largest conferences, the 18th International Workshop on Deep Inelastic Scaterring, held in Firenza. Several attendees were stranded or unable to get to the conference. Personally I made it as far as Barcelona, and ended up giving two talks over the phone from my hotel room. Barcelona is a nice city to stuck in, though...
Students demonstrators in London

Elsewhere in Physics & Astronomy
The search for exoplanets continues to be a great adventure. Astronomers discovered a potentially habitable planet of similar size to Earth in orbit around a nearby star, shown in this artist's impression. Gliese 581g is in its solar system's 'Goldilocks zone' – not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist. Personally, if this discovery pans out - some groups are skeptical of the claim - I prefer the other name the discoverers gave the planet: Zamira's World.
Artist's impression of Gliese 581g
Another exoplanet was discovered around a dying star HIP13044, that appeared to have originated outside of our galaxy.

Other Science News
Biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter and his team revealed that they had created the world's first 'synthetic life form', paving the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved. They synthesized the genome of an existing bacterium from scratch and used it to 'reprogram' another bacterial cell

We now know that, around 100,000 years ago, there were four distinct hominds lived simultaneously on this Earth of ours. Besides our Homo Sapiens ancestors, there were the Neanderthals, the Hobbits of Flores Island, and a newly discovered species in what is now Russia called H. Denisova. These Denisvoans may have interbred with H. Sapiens, according to genetic evidence announced late this year.

But maybe the biggest news in the long run came in late November, when researchers in Berlin announced that they had cured a man of AIDS using stem cell therapy.

Notable Physics and Astronomy Deaths

Georges Charpak - inventor of the wire chamber. An experimental particle physicist and detector developer, he turned to medical imaging later in life. A Polish-French Jew, he fought in the resistance and was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics

Nicola Cabibbo - should have won the 2008 Nobel Prize, with laureates Kobayashi and Maskawa. I mean, we call it the CKM matrix, for cripes sake! An outstanding Italian physicist who also fought for rationalism in Italian education.

I had the opportunity to see both Charpak and Cabibbo at CERN. One of the real joys of working in an environment like CERN.

Benoit Mandlebrot - another Polish-French Jew, who emigrated to the United States. And another giant of 20th century science who should have won  Nobel. Mandelbrot is best known, of course, for his work in maps, fractals, and nonlinear systems.

Andrew Lange - CalTech astrophysicist who worked on balloon-borne measurements of the cosmic microwave background.

Geoffrey Burbridge - astronomer and developer of the "quasi-steady state" model of the universe.

Ulrich Baur - was a friend of mine. An exceptional theorist who a professor at SUNY-Buffalo, I best remember Uli as someone who was willing to discuss physics with anyone, including a dumb graduate student. He will be missed by a lot of folks int he field.

Brian Marsden - director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which was founded by the International Astronomical Union in 1920.

Allan Sandage - made the first accurate measurements of the Hubble constant and the age of the universe.

Martin Gardner - the intellectual's friend. Mathematician and science writer.

Jack Horkheimer - popularizer of astronomy, the Star Hustler.

The Worst Thing to Happen to Science in 2010

The worst thing to happen to science is the continuing campaign of lies and mis-characterizations surrounding global climate change. The Right Wing in the United States (with allies globally) have indoctrinated their followers into rejecting any suggestion that climate change is happening, or if it is happening that it has any human-made causes. This is bad for all of science of course, since the methodology of our colleagues in climate studies are not so different than those employed by the rest of us. Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of one group of scientists is an attack on us all. Unfortunately the scientific community has been very timid in answering these attacks, and that can only spell trouble later on. Not mention, of course, that the whole business causes us to lose time in possibly combating climate change, while we may have the ability to affect outcomes over the next century,

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Do Universities Engage in Research?

In the course of the ongoing conversation over how much higher education budgets in Louisiana will be cut, and how those cuts will be distributed, there have been attacks on university faculty as being inefficient and unproductive. Two major claims of non-productivity are sabbaticals and research. I will leave sabbaticals for another post, except to say that at Louisiana Tech they are so rare as to be  a complete non-issue. In the six years I have been an administrator, there have been two paid sabbaticals in my departments, and one of them was taken at LSU (so that the state retained all of that faculty member's productivity despite the sabbatical!)

The other claim is that professors devote too much time to research, that they are paid to teach but instead engage in research rather than concentrating on instruction, and that when they do deign to teach their instruction is subpar because their real focus is on research. These views of university research are rooted in a misunderstanding of the role of research at a university, and are simply wrong. Research is not separate from educational instruction. In fact, research is a necessary and integral part of instruction. However, that is not to say that all institutions of higher education in Louisiana should be engaged in research. Let me explain.

I often use the expression "Research is the zenith of education". The last, best lesson a student learns is how to add new knowledge in his or her chosen field. This is a required educational component for students pursuing a graduate degree, original research being required for a Masters thesis, and even more extensive original research for a doctoral dissertation. All institutions which grant graduate degrees must have faculty who are engaged in ongoing research, in order for these students to complete their degrees. Research does not just start from scratch at a moment's notice either; it takes years to build a lab, to develop a publishing record, and to obtain the grants and other funding to operate a research program.

Research also involves undergraduates. At Louisiana Tech, all of our chemistry and physics majors have to engage in a research project by their senior year, as a condition for graduation. Other programs have similar requirements.  My own research group consists of three faculty (all of whom teach regular classes, by the way), two postdoctoral researchers, six PhD students, two Masters students, and four undergraduate students. When I am in the lab or at my desk working with these students, I am teaching in the oldest and best way: one on one, passing on my knowledge of the field to the next generation of scientists.

I have not spent a lot of time talking about research as a money-making venture for universities, because I do not believe it is the most important reason why universities have on-campus research. But it is a fact that researchers bring in money for the universities. Most people are unaware of what are called "indirect costs" - portions of grants that go directly to the university to offset the costs (electricity, staff support) of doing research. My grants generate enough in indirect funds each year to pay for one full-time employee at Louisiana Tech. In addition, grants generate funds to pay for graduate students to attend the university, and to pay undergraduates to work in our labs. They buy equipment, much of which is also used in courses, and pay for technical staff. Then there is the occasional big money prize: the research that turns into a commercial product. Louisiana Tech researchers have one of the best track records in the nation for producing commercial products and licenses, with the highest number of patents per research dollars expended.

The presence of research universities is directly tied to economic development. These universities can be engines of economic growth. From the North Carolina Research Triangle and the Alabama Tuscaloosa-Birmingham corridor to Austin and Silicon Valley, high tech enterprises are always associated with the presence of comprehensive (and well-funded) research universities. Universities provide the basic research, which industries then turn into applied R&D and, eventually, commercial products. Make no mistake about this - our competitors in the global market know this. China, India, Japan all are investing in university research.

What of the argument that research-active faculty are poor teachers? The opposite is more often the case. A professor who is engaged in his or her field, and who knows and understands the latest developments in it, is invariably better at communicating his or her passion for that discipline to students. In 1995, when an experiment I was on at Fermi National Accelerator Lab discovered the top quark, an article was published in the New York Times that addressed this question of whether researchers also teach. Entitled "'Top' University Scientists Do Teach", it found that all but 12 of 123  PhD faculty engaged in the search for the top quark had taught a class that semester (and eight of those 12 were scheduled to teach the following semester). Together they taught nearly 10,000 students during the term when the top quark discovery was announced.To quote from the article: "We are mistaken in portraying the university as a teaching institution. It is a learning institution, and learning must take place at all levels from the newest freshman to the most senior professor. How can one learn from someone whose own learning is a dusty, distant memory?"

If research is both a desired and a necessary component of education, then should all faculty at all of Louisiana's colleges and universities engage in research? Unfortunately, the answer to this has to be "No." Not all universities in the state are graduate-degree granting, and we have neither the resources nor the population to take them all to that level. Certainly research should be encouraged at LSU and at the three other research intensive universities - Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette, and the University of New Orleans. Other schools with a narrow offering of graduate degrees, like the pharmacy program at UL-Monroe, have to be allowed to have research-active faculty in that area and in allied disciplines. But many schools in the state are, and should remain, primarily undergraduate institutions. 

This state has hard choices to make. What kind of higher education system do we want? How will we pay for it? Which institutions will be allowed to function as comprehensive graduate universities? My hope is that these questions can be discussed and debated without attacking faculty for doing what they were asked to do when they were hired: Teach well, and do world-class research.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dear Science: Republicans are just not that into you...

Interesting and well-written read on the slow breakup between Republicans and Science. Only 6% of working scientists identify themselves as Republicans:



Saturday, February 20, 2010

Palin pwned by Actress with Down's Syndrome

I do not by any means wish to suggest that the former partial-term governor of Alaska, mayor of Wasilla, AK, and Action News sport reporter Sarah Palin is in any way retarded, but she did get completely burned by an actress with Down's syndrome who voiced the character of Ellen in a recent controversial episode of "Family Guy":

My name is Andrea Fay Friedman. I was born with Down syndrome. I played the role of Ellen on the "Extra Large Medium" episode of Family Guy that was broadcast on Valentine's day. Although they gave me red hair on the show, I am really a blonde. I also wore a red wig for my role in " Smudge" but I was a blonde in "Life Goes On". I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line "I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska" was very funny. I think the word is "sarcasm".

In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.

Rest of the statement is here.

Now, I have mixed feelings about Family Guy. It is really juvenile and low-brow and often I kind of dirty for having watched it. But like South Park, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons, it is about the only TV show that dares to push the envelope in social commentary and satire. I think it is a truism of satire that it misses more than times than it is on the money (SNL, anyone?) but at least they try.

(One of these women is more qualified than the other to comment on current events...)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is it a pioneer of a brave new world, or someone with OCD?

H+ magazine, which champions the idea of Transhumanism, has a blog by an anonymous author who has decided to take up the motto of "Just Do It" and take the step into transhumanism himself. He has started mounting various eletronic interfaces to his body. Is this cool, or disgusting or what? I realli cannot make up my mind about it. Reminds of a late 80s Japanese horror movie I vaguely remember.

Scrapheap Transhumanism | h Magazine

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Waaaaaay down the rabbit hole!

I teach a nonlinear dynamics course, and at some we talk about fractal dimensionality and self-similar structures like Mandelbrot sets. I LOVE this video, which zooms down into a Mandelbrot set through 214 orders of magnitude. I will let you figure out what an outrageous change in scale that is.

Mandelbrot Fractal Set Trip To e214 HD from teamfresh on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Word of warning - the last one is a climate-change denialist, but I suppose the Times Online felt they had to give "equal time to opposing views"(tm). The first one is great, full of steam punk style comics. I plan to read through the archives.

Times Online - Eureka Zone - WBLG: Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Me and Bobby Mcgee

This is probably the song I want to be listening to when I finally step off this train.

Now, all together -

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Science New Year's Resolutions

I have a few very specific science-related resolutions for the new year. Not sure if they will be of interest to anyone else, but maybe by writing them down, it will help me stick to them:

1) Publish the DZero jet ratios measurement I am working on with Markus Wobisch and our student Scott Atkins. This should be easy to keep, the analysis is pretty good shape. I expect we will have a preliminary result ready for the winter conferences.

2) Get my other student. Ram Dhullipudi, transitioned form service work to analysis on the ATLAS experiment. Lot of challenges here: not a lot of data yet, the work he is doing on calorimeter data quality is important and the group is small, there is a long line of ATLAS students who want to finish soon, and LA Tech is a relative new-comer in the experiment.

3) Develop a second Honors senior class for next winter, most likely a laser physics course. I have had several requests for this, but with the crazy budget situation and being short a faculty member, I am not 100% sure I will pull this off.

4) Do some more work on non-linear dynamics, try to get a few undergrad physics majors involved with this. I have one lined up who says he wants to work in this area, but family matters have taken up a lot of his time.