Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Energy Revolution-NOT

Randy Mills with his company "Blacklight Power" has been claiming for years he can generate power by putting hydrogen atoms in a "state below the ground state". As anyone who has studied quantum physics knows, you can't put a hydrogen atom in any energy state lower than the ground state. Its not physically possible and would violate the laws of quantum physics as we know it. Those laws have been repeatedly tested and verified to higher and higher precision over the past hundred+ years, and the theory of quantum mechanics is completely solid, so why should anyone believe this nonsense?

Apparently the goons at CNN don't care about the details of quantum theory. They'd rather get happy about Blacklight power's claim to no CO2 emissions, cheap power, 200 times more powerful than burning gasoline or coal. All based on a pseudo-scientific claim. CNN is supposed to be a news organization so they should have consulted some leading scientists in this report.

Blacklight Power

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hubble Photographs Extra Solar Planets

The Hubble Space Telescope was used to take a photograph of a planet orbiting another star, the first such photograph made. Its just a white dot in the picture, but its an astounding achievement.

Read About it on the NY Times

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Michael Crichton Dies

Bad news from the NY Times: Science fiction author Michael Chrichton has died.

Michael Crichton, the author of the blockbuster science-fiction novels “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain” and “State of Fear,” has died. He was 66. An obituary will follow on nytimes.com.
UPDATE: Mr. Crichton’s family has issued the following statement:
“Best-selling author Michael Crichton died unexpectedly in Los Angeles Tuesday, November 4th after a courageous and private battle against cancer.
While the world knew him as a great story teller that challenged our preconceived notions about the world around us — and entertained us all while doing so — his wife Sherri, daughter Taylor, family and friends knew Michael Crichton as a devoted husband, loving father and generous friend who inspired each of us to strive to see the wonders of our world through new eyes. He did this with a wry sense of humor that those who were privileged to know him personally will never forget.
Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand.
He will be profoundly missed by those whose lives he touched, but he leaves behind the greatest gifts of a thirst for knowledge, the desire to understand, and the wisdom to use our minds to better our world.
Michael’s family respectfully asks for privacy during this difficult time.
A private funeral service is expected, but no further details will be released to the public.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Advances in Neuroscience

I have to say one of the worst things that could happen to a person is paralysis. Even worse than that, how about ALS ("Lou Gherig's Disease"). Physics buffs are probably familiar with this disease from Stephen Hawking-and Kudos to him for having made a very productive life that took him well above his circumstances. But that disease totally sucks.

A cure has always seemed far off, but some recent advances in neuroscience that might be more akin to bioengineering have given some hope that might at least make the disease not so devastating. Scientists have been working on letting patients use the mind to manipulate objects-computers, wheel chairs and the like. This is a huge development, while it certainly isn't what an ALS sufferer would like-to have their body functional again, at least it gives them a window to the world and some level of control they could never have had before. These exciting developments are profiled in the 60 minutes video you can watch by clicking below.

Watch CBS Videos Online

Are humans still evolving?

The other day I stumbled on a post about the question of whether or not humans are still evolving. To put this question on the table, you are talking about the Darwinian type natural selection where offspring are put out there and some are more fit to reproduce than others. Over time this leads to changes in the species.

An alternative or perhaps complimentary view is "punctuated equilibrium". The basic idea is that a species reaches an equilibrium state where it basically remains unchanged for a long period of time. Then some dramatic or catastrophic event happens separating members of the species into isolated populations, and from there new species evolve. This makes a lot of sense to me, I have no doubt this is at least part of the way that species evolve.

In modern humans I have a hard time believing traditional Darwinian evolution has much if any influence. Here is a basic fact: in the modern world, just about anyone can reproduce. The picture put forward by Darwin of more offspring than can possibly survive leading to changes in the species simply does not exist in humans anymore.

Medical advances have ensured that infant survival is much higher than it was in the past. Moreover, medical advances have also ensured that survival of mothers during and after birth is much higher than it was in the past. Infant mortality can certainly be improved (in particular in the United States among industrialized nations) but the plain fact is a baby in modern society has a very good chance of surviving to adulthood. The days of a mom having 7 kids where only 2 made it to adulthood are long gone.

Getting to my other point, like I said the bottom line is anyone can reproduce. Sure maybe some people have trouble "getting laid" in high school but this is a problem that goes away in adulthood. Its almost like a cliche-there is somebody out there for everyone. It doesn't matter if you're fat, skinny, tall, short, dark, light, blonde, brunette, bald or have all your teeth-if you want to you can find someone to have kids with-despite the difficulties a committed relationship might entail. You might have to hit your local trailer park if you're lacking in teeth-but the reality is even then you're going to get lucky sometime.

This brings me to another point. If Darwinian evolution is at work, then what traits are being selected for in human populations? Is it intelligence? I think we can agree that intelligence is certainly a quality that contributes (but does not guarantee) to success. A person with high intelligence is likely to attain higher education, leading to a higher paying job which in Darwinian terms contributes to the acquisition of more resources. But does this lead to more reproduction? The answer in modern humans is probably not. In fact its actually the people in the slums and trailer parks who are actually reproducing more. This may be partly due to choice-an upscale lawyer can choose to have sex while using birth control while a teenager living in low class circumstances may not bother with it. So the teenager might end up having 5 kids while the lawyer has 1, 2, or maybe none.

Medical intervention has made a lot of physical characteristics that might have contributed to Darwinian evolution in the past has now become irrelevant. Suppose that a person has a tendency to succumb to bacterial infections (say ear infections) more so than the general population. Two hundred years ago, that person might have died in childhood from a runaway bacterial infection. Now, in the vast majority of cases a quick trip to the doctor and you're cured. The person who would not have passed on their genes in previous generations now makes it to adulthood where they can reproduce. Eyeglasses are another example that is commonly given. If you could not see ten thousand years ago, well that could be a real problem. Not today where anyone in a modern society can get their eyesight corrected and survive quite well into old age. So near blindness is not a selection factor for reproduction anymore.

I think the bottom line is most of us born in a modern society can be assured of making it to adulthood if not to old age. Reproductive access is also reasonable for the vast majority of people, these days if people don't reproduce its usually by choice. So has the human species stopped evolving? I would say definitely yes.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I love Global Warming

When it comes to global warming, its time to face up to the fact that we're going to enjoy warmer temperatures.

I Love Global Warming

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Practical Physics News

These days physics often seems far removed from reality-black holes, worm holes, particles being in two places at once, 10 spatial dimensions. So its a pleasant surprise that physicists at UCLA have found a new dramatic application for the scotch tape in your kitchen drawer: generating x-rays.

When the tape is peeled removing the adhesive-electrons are released generating electric currents. In the photo to the left you're seeing visible light emission from these electrons. It turns out they also emit x-rays, so many that its possible to x-ray a human finger. I was about to try an experiment and x-ray my painful tooth but that's on hold because apparently you have to do this in a vacuum.

OK here is the kicker-physicist Seth Putterman says the process could be used for nuclear fusion. I'm a bit skeptical about that given the history of table top fusion attempts so far. You can read the details here:

From a Strip of Scotch Tape, X-rays

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Models or Reality?

When I was a naive student first getting interested in physics, I was awed by its predictive power and took the theories themselves to be reality. On the blog Cosmic Variance Sean Carroll promotes this viewpoint when he writes:

"Right and wrong aren’t parts of the fundamental description of reality. That description has to do with wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics, not with ethical principles. That is what the world is made of, at a deep level."

This is exactly how I used to think about things. Lately though, I have become more of a positivist. This is the viewpoint that scientific theories are just models. A good model makes predictions that agree with experiment. The fact that the models often change with time as better data or ideas come to the fore shows that its naive to take the models as absolute descriptions of reality. For a simple example you might consider the Bohr atom. If you recall, Bohr thought of the atom as a little solar system, with the nucleus playing the role of the sun and electrons occupying fixed orbits at different distances from the nucleus. As they jumped from one orbit to another, they emitted or absorbed photons of light.

We now know an atom isn't quite like that, and that instead the wave function of the electron allows us to make probabilistic predictions as to where the electron will be found. Each orbit is described by a different wave function, giving the "electron cloud" picture of the atom. The Bohr model of the atom, even though it agrees with a lot of experimental data, isn't real.

The positivist would say that the electron cloud is no more reality than Bohr's atom was. It simply makes better predictions. At our current level of technology and predictive capability, it seems to work perfectly. But that doesn't mean that in the future a better model of the atom won't come about. And-despite its drawbacks-the Bohr model of the atom actually works quite well in many circumstances. In nuclear engineering its often if not always adequate enough to think of the atom in terms of Bohr's picture. On the other hand, if you're doing quantum chemistry then you need to think in terms of the electron cloud model.

This goes to show that taking "wave functions" and "Hilbert space" to be reality itself is a naive viewpoint. Wave functions and Hilbert space are just tools that allow scientists to make predictions. They are good tools to be sure, but confusing a good tool that exists on paper and only in the minds of arrogant physics professors to be fundamentally real is an extremely naive approach to life.

The positivist viewpoint makes a lot more sense. Stephen Hawking summed it up well in his best seller A Brief History of Time when he wrote:

"Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested… If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes."

At the time I read this back in 1990, I was disappointed Hawking felt this way. Now with some maturity under my belt I realize that this is a far better description of what science does than taking some equations on a blackboard-which are good, useful tool to be sure-to really be reality itself.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Progress in ALS Research

Lou Gherig's disease is a horrible illness. The best science fiction writer couldn't come up with something as bad as losing your ability to move everything except maybe your eyeballs, while you stay locked-up, fully conscious in your prison of a body. Offering any kind of treatment for this debilitating disease would be a big breakthrough in medical science that would help people who really suffer-so this story caught my attention.

Swamping Bad Cells With Good In ALS Animal Models Helps Sustain Breathing

ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2008) — In a disease like ALS - one that's always fatal and that has a long history of research-resistant biology - finding a proof of principle in animal models is significant.

This week, Johns Hopkins researchers report that transplanting a new line of stem cell-like cells into rat models of the disease clearly shifts key signs of neurodegenerative disease in general and ALS in particular - slowing the animals' neuron loss and extending life.

The new work supports the hypothesis that artificially outnumbering unhealthy cells with healthy ones in targeted parts of the spinal cord preserves limb strength and breathing and can increase survival.

Read the rest on Science Daily

Opera about the making of the Atomic Bomb

The Terror and Attraction of Science, Put to Song

Is it the horror or the beauty that makes science cool?

Sometimes it seems as if horror is the only story that science has to tell, or the only one we want to hear. Somebody has a gadget they have to build, an experiment too sweet to resist, forces they need to probe, regardless of the consequences. Think of Eve with her apple, Frankenstein with his monster, a stock trader with a foolproof get-rich-quick scheme.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that it usually ends badly.

The tug of war between beauty and horror is the theme of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars about the building of the atomic bomb, which opened last week at the Metropolitan Opera. It stars Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant philosopher-king of the secret society of scientists and engineers who were plucked from academia and assembled on a New Mexico mesa during World War II and told to make a bomb before the Germans did — a man as sung by Mr. Finley equally in love with the Bomb and his own inscrutability.

The opera follows events on two nights — one in June and then on the eve of July 16 during the countdown to the first test explosion at Alamogordo amid lightning and rain — as the scientists wrestle with doubts about whether “the Gadget,” as they refer to the bomb, will work, or work too well, setting the atmosphere on fire, and whether it should be dropped on humans.

As a love-starved Kitty Oppenheimer, sung by Sasha Cooke, sings, “Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war.”

“Doctor Atomic” was surely born on the dark side of science mythology. Pam Rosenberg, then director of the San Francisco Opera, wanted to do an opera about an American Faust, namely Oppenheimer, whose life certainly seemed to follow a tragic trajectory. Wealthy, articulate and effortlessly fluent in far-flung domains of learning and culture, he was the young American prince of the new science of quantum mechanics as well as a bohemian and a pal of communists (his brother Frank and his ex-lover Jean Tatlock). Less than a decade after he was hailed as the deliverer of Promethean fire and the symbol of American science, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and banished from government circles.

Read the rest on the NY Times

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It from Bit Speculations

Last night after watching some B. Allan Wallace lectures, I was wondering about the nature of consciousness. I am wondering if in some sense our consciousness (or the consciousness of anything) simply fundamentally exists in some sense, at least as information. Let's imagine a thought experiment. Suppose for the sake of argument that the technology existed where you could scan the atoms that make up a person, and any other information that might be relevant like say their energy states. Who knows how this could be done, lets say quantum computers turn out to be workable and that someday they have this capability. Furthermore lets say for the sake of argument that a memory device (maybe a quantum memory) is capable of storing all of this information for retrieval later.

So in the year 2050 a woman (we'll call her Betty) is scanned and her data saved. Now suppose that technology has also advanced enough so that we could read the information and assemble the atoms together into the same state as Betty in 2050. Suppose this is done in the year 2150 long after Betty has died.

It would seem to me that for all intensive purposes, if you could do this-arrange the same types of atoms/molecules together in the same state as Betty in 2050, the recreated Betty 100 years later would be completely indistinguishable from the original. I can't think of any scientific test that could be done even in principle that would tell you it wasn't really Betty, just a copy. So why not just say it is the original Betty? This would be a scientifically implemented resurrection.

What this says is that consciousness is more of an informational phenomenon, and in some sense it already exists in the universe and always exists provided the energy is there to do these sorts of things (i.e. arrange atoms together in the right way). In other words, the woman I've named Betty in the particular state she is in at some moment in 2050 including her conscious awareness is a packet of information. Rearrange the right atoms into the same state at any time in the history of the universe where it is plausible (not in the distant future when everything has decayed away though), that state is recreated and so is the consciousness that goes along with it.

You could ask what if we recreate Betty on the spot. Of course you couldn't do it instantly, no matter how advanced technology got there would be some finite time required to scan an organism and then construct the duplicate. So what would happen to Betty's consciousness then? Would it somehow split? Or is consciousness distinct and evolving, in other words you aren't really the same consciousness you were 2 seconds ago.

Maybe in the distant future it would be possible to even recreate previous states of the universe in some kind of quantum simulation. Then it might be possible for an infinitely advanced civilization to resurrect the past including its living inhabitants. Where would all this information be stored? In Hilbert space of course.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

B. Allan Wallace on Consciousness

SPEAKING OF CONSCIOUSNESS one of my favorite scholars in the area is B. Allan Wallace. The guy simply blows me away with his genius. He has a degree in physics and has studied neurosciences and is also a Buddist monk. A brilliant man with a lot of thoughts regarding the ultimate problem in science: consciousness.

John Hagelin on Consciousness

One of my favorite subjects is consciousness. I think it is the ultimate question in science. I actually spent some time in neuropsychology and worked in a research lab-and came away thinking that neuroscientists have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is about. Saying its "emergent" from "complexity" is a big non-explanation.

Anyway so the debate over John Hagelin (TM Fame) over on Not Even Wrong led me to these YouTube videos which include interviews with Hagelin. Honestly I don't think Hagelin is all that wacky. Some of his thoughts actually make more sense than reductionist biology which has completely failed to explain how consciousness has arisen from the brain (hint: explaining what brain cells are responsible for vision does not explain why there is an entity inside my head WATCHING the show).

Friday, October 17, 2008

More on the Creation Museum

Here the wacko Ken Ham debates physicist/cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on Fox "News" about the creationist museum and some more Ken Ham related videos.

The Quantum-Classical Connection

One of the biggest conundrums in modern physics is how does the classical world arise from the random and bizarre quantum world of superpositions and entanglement? Some light may have been shed on the issue by two mathematicians:

Mathematicians Illuminate Deep Connection Between Classical And Quantum Physics

ScienceDaily (Oct. 17, 2008) — In a seminar co-organized by Stanford University and the American Institute of Mathematics, Soundararajan announced that he and Roman Holowinsky have proven a significant version of the quantum unique ergodicity (QUE) conjecture.

Read the full story on Science Daily

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creationist Museum Draws Big Crowds

Apparently a museum touting the literal truth of the Bible is becoming very popular. Located in Louisville, KY the museum includes exhibits showing humans and dinosaurs co-existing. The museum is discussed in this recent msnbc article. Here is a favorite quote:

"One display shows humans coexisting with dinosaurs — despite the two species being separated by 65 million years in most science texts."

What? What science texts have humans coexisting with dinosaurs? The worst thing about this quote is its from the reporter who wrote the story-not from some nut that works at the creation museum. Visitor Bill Michaletz says:

"I do believe in creation, that God created it all," said Michaletz, who has five children. "I'm appreciative that there is a place to go for ourselves and our kids, to look at that view."

Can't we be sensible here? I think you have to be really deluding yourself to believe literally in Genesis and a 6,000 year old earth. A reasonable compromise is in order, you can believe in Christianity and accept the findings of modern science as Kenneth Miller shows. The museum was founded by wack-job Ken Ham, whom I believe is Australian.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Too much publishing?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine who has two PhD's (one in math, one in electrical engineering). He says way too many papers are published these days. Looking at the archive (xxx.lanl.gov) I would tend to agree. The idea of publish or perish combined with post-doc absurdity is putting too much pressure on people to write papers. The result is that too many papers are being published, and physics is by far the leading offender. In the old days a result had to be pretty significant to warrant a research paper. These days that isn't the case. As fast as a geek can type a new paper appears on the archive. It would be an interesting exercise to find out not only how many papers are really frivolous, but how many dupilicate other crap on some level that has already been published. String theory and "quantum information/quantum computing" probably lead the way for over production of papers.

I was also thinking about the Nobel prize. Maybe we shouldn't give one every single year. After all the Fields medal is only given out every 4 years. The Nobel prize has such an air about it, yet we have to give one year in and year out regardless of whether Nobel quality work is really being done. How many of the Nobel prize winners in the last ten years are really equivalent to say, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie? Probably none. Yet by giving a Nobel prize every year, we give many people an automatic stamp of genius that many don't quite deserve. It will never happen, but I think the scientific world would be better off if Nobel prizes were cut back to one every four years.

And stop publishing so many papers! Every calculation you do isn't worth writing up.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Physics Quote of the Day

"Although life may be the result of an accident, I do not think that of consciousness. Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else."- Erwin Schrodinger

Poll on Nuclear Power Plants

An interesting poll described here asked if people were in favor of building new nuclear power plants. They wanted to find out if remembering the three-mile-island accident would influence your view. Apparently not. Older people were more likely to favor nuclear. In fact the only group with more opposition to building nuclear power plants were those 18-31. That is, of course, due to "green" brain washing.

Wake up people. Building new nuclear power plants is going to be a necessity, not an option in the future. Coal and oil are limited resources. You can build "clean burning" coal plants, but nuclear is still going to be a far better option on that front since it releases no greenhouse gases. Of course uranium is a limited resource too, to help deal with that there will have to be reprocessing.

The great hope long term is really nuclear fusion.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ecstasy May Damage Brain in Single Dose

One day while home sick about ten years ago I stumbled across and episode of Oprah. They were talking about use of the drug ecstasy and did something quite dramatic-they took MRI scans of several heavy users. One young woman who had cleaned up her act so to speak and was dressed really nice turned out to be shock. When they scanned her brain there were literally large holes in it. Where brain cells used to be. Brain cells apparently killed by ecstasy.

I think many young people view the drug as harmless. Well here is something even more damning-recent research indicates that a single dose can cause permanent memory loss. The study indicates that not only does a single session with ecstasy damage your memory but that the amount of drug consumed is irrelevant. Sounds like a substance you want to stay away from, especially if you're interested in physics. You're going to need those brain cells to learn quantum mechanics.

Read about it here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Does God Exist? Sean Carroll Knows the answer is No

A recent conference on origins generated a lot of discussion over on Cosmic Variance. Something Sean Carroll said really caught my eye:

"I look forward to a day when discussions of deep questions concerning the origin of the universe and of life can take place without the concept of God ever arising."

Why would you look forward to that? This comment brings to mind something I've always thought-that atheism is actually a religion in itself. Strict atheism is actually a fanatical religion. Let's admit one fact. Its impossible to know whether or not God exists. Just because a causal chain for physical events can be taken back to the big bang, nobody knows with certainty that the universe wasn't made by a supernatural being. You may believe that the universe "just happened", and that's fine, but a more agnostic point of view is far more defensible.

Wanting a discussion of "deep questions" concerning the origin of the universe without the concept of God ever coming up is intellectually vacuous. The deep questions are not mechanical details, such as is the universe expanding, what is dark energy, is there a cosmic landscape. The fact is none of that matters to most people in a deep sense. What matters to people is meaning. Science will never give people meaning and that's why religious thought is still going strong.

The fact is there are lots of intelligent people, many of whom that are educated in science, that disagree with Sean Carroll. One of them is John Polkinghorne, a man with a PhD in physics that became an Anglican priest. John Polkinghorne is not some wacko, he is a very intelligent and thoughtful man who believes in everything modern science tells us about the universe but also believes that God created it. Polkinghorne has several books out that are thoughtful, interesting reads-not rants by a creationist fanatic.

As mentioned in this post Kenneth Miller attended the origins conference. I don't find Millers arguments very compelling, but he is another example of a scientist that accepts science just fine but he is also a very religious man. Interestingly, in that post Sean Carroll, who is supposed to be an intellectual leader, shows a bit of immaturity by stating that people that don't share his view are "crazy". In fact he uses the exact phrase:

"sheer unadulterated looniness of the remaining speaker, Hugh Ross. "

Describing someone participating in a conference this way is pretty much a "straw man" attack. It would be far more professional to say Hugh Ross is misguided, and I disagree with his views because of .....instead of simply stating he is loony. Ross has views that can be described as more extreme, and his views are not very defensible, but attack his positions instead of just labeling him a crackpot.

Many other professional scientists are believers in God. Francis Collins, who headed the DNA decoding project for NIH, is one of them. So while Richard Dawkins may be especially vocal, there are biologists that disagree with his viewpoint. The nuclear physicist Gerard Schroeder is also a die-hard believer who has been compelled to write several books on the topic.

The arguments of these people may or may not be persuasive, but saying they should be shut out of a debate on something that frankly can't be resolved scientifically is not productive. If you are really interested in the deep questions of the universe then the issue should at least be discussed. It was interesting that in "A Brief History of Time", while Stephen Hawking concluded (at the time anyway) that the universe was self-contained without much role for a creator, the book talks about God on almost every page. The issue can't be discussed without bringing God into the mix, and a mature, thoughtful debate will have views from all perspectives. The kind of discussion Carroll envisions-a bunch of athiestic scientists sitting around discussing what dark energy is, isn't all that deep at all.

Saying you look forward to a day when discussions about the universe will take place without God ever being mentioned is arrogant, immature, and out of touch with 99% of humanity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Good Professors are Hard to Find

Whether it was hard to understand non-English speaking TA's or boring-ass physics lecturers in freshman physics, good professors in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering are really hard to come by. For some reason, despite the mastery it takes to obtain a PhD in one of these subjects, professors in these fields seem to suffer from one or more maladies. They are often boring, uninteresting, pretentious and arrogant, unorganized, or just too hard to understand. Or maybe they just lecture on one thing but test on another leaving their students heads spinning. The bottom line is a lot of professors in science and technical fields just suck. Physics professors in particular. I've had some good physics professors to be sure, but many of them are pretentious jack-asses, or they were just downright dull.

Well today I would like to acknowledge a good, no make that great professor. The guy pictured here is Pedro Embid. Pedro emigrated to the United States at the age of 17 and obtained his PhD in applied mathematics at UC Berkeley. Somehow he ended up at the University of New Mexico. I was lucky enough to be attending UNM (often called the University of Nothing Much) and took one of his courses. I was completely BLOWN AWAY.

Pedro is a model professor. I ended up taking several classes from him over the course of ten years. All that time, I never saw him use lecture notes once. He was like a PhD in a subject field should be-a complete master of his topic. Whether it was a graduate level discussion of distributions and hilbert spaces or partial differential equations-Pedro just knows his shit.

Not only that he delivers clear, perfectly organized lectures. He knows exactly where each and every lecture is going and doesn't miss a beat. He talks with enthusiasm, writes clearly, and makes his expectations crystal clear.

I once had a graduate level differential equations class from Pedro. It was very tough-run like a boot camp. Every week we had a homework assignment due-each assignment was exactly 10 problems. This was graduate level math so they were all proofs/rigorous type problems. It was very tough-but you knew what was going on and what was expected, and if you studied your notes you could get through it. You learned a lot and came out of there feeling like you could conquer anything intellectually.

Pedro lectures off the top of his head, but if you brought a camera in you could just photograph the black boards and publish them as textbooks. He has had at least two visiting professorships at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Despite this, he is great with students. His office hours are packed with students clamoring to get every ounce of Pedro's mathematical wisdom they can get. I nominate Pedro as my first great professor of the month. Here are a summary of Pedro's skills:
  • He really KNOWS what he is talking about.
  • He delivers dynamic, interesting lectures.
  • He challenges the students.
  • His expectations are clear. He is tough but there are no left-field surprises physics professors love to dish out to make themselves look better.
  • He knows the history of physics and mathematics, and peppers his lectures with historical antecdotes.
Unfortunately a guy like Pedro is hard to come by. When you get into engineering, you end up with mostly boring drones. The field of physics is full of arrogant and pretentious types that think they're really special for figuring out the universe. Surprisingly, a lot of math professors are disorganized. I am thinking of starting a series called Pretentious Professor of the Week and posting websites of professors I couldn't stand in college. Care to nominate anyone?

I would like to hear people recommend good professors like Pedro.

Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded

Fitting that symmetry in elementary particle physics was chosen as the topic given the timing of the Large Hadron Collider. Also note that although the prize wasn't for string theory, Nambu has been a big contributor to string theory. From the New York Times:

1 American, 2 Japanese Share Nobel Physics Prize

An American and two Japanese physicists on Tuesday won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work exploring the hidden symmetries between elementary particles that are the deepest constituents of nature.

Yoichiro Nambu, of the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute, will receive half of the 10 million kroner prize (about $1.3 million) awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Makoto Kobayashi, of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) Tsukuba, Japan, and Toshihide Maskawa, of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics (YITP), Kyoto University, will each receive a quarter of the prize.

Ever since Galileo, physicists have been guided in their quest for the ultimate laws of nature by the search for symmetries, or properties of nature that appear the same under different circumstances.

However, in the 1960s, Dr. Nambu, who was born in Tokyo in 1921, suggested that some symmetries in the laws of nature might be hidden or “broken” in actual practice.

A pencil standing on its end, for example, is symmetrical but unstable and will wind up on the table pointing in only one direction or the other. The principle is now embedded in all of modern particle physics.

“You have to look for symmetries even when you can’t see them,” explained Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, who described his colleague as “the most humble man of all time.”

In 1972, Dr. Kobayashi and Dr. Maskawa, extending earlier work by the Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo, showed that if there were three generations of the elementary particles called quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons, this principle of symmetry breaking would explain a puzzling asymmetry known as CP violation. This was discovered in 1964 by the American physicists James Cronin and Val Fitch - a discovery that also won a Nobel prize.

C and P stand respectively for charge and parity, or “handedness.” Until then, physicists had naively assumed that if you exchanged positive for negative and left-handed and right-handed in the equations of elementary particles, you would get the same answer.

The fact that nature operates otherwise, physicists hope, is a step on the way to explaining why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, one of the questions that the Large Hadron Collider, the new particle accelerator now preparing for operation, is designed to explore.

Friday, October 3, 2008

China Launches First Willing Manned Mission Into Space

This is hilarious. China now includes food and helmets for their astronauts! What a crack up!

China Launches First Willing Manned Mission Into Space

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Large Hadron Collider Dismissed

Looks like catastrophic destruction of the earth this coming spring is back on, the legal challenge to stop the Large Hadron Collider from operating has been dismissed. In a surprise move, Judge Helen Gillmore concluded the court, which was located in Hawaii, U.S., had no jurisdiction over the collider, which is in Europe. The lawsuit was brought by a Walter Wagner, who is reported to be a "radiation safety officer" and Louis Sancho, a science writer and professor. Mr. Sancho was pleased that even though the lawsuit was dismissed it brought attention to the safety of the large hadron collider. He also credits their actions with the execution of the safety report conducted by scientists. One has to wonder why the suit wasn't brought forward in Europe. I am not a legal expert but maybe its a lot harder to file suit in Europe.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Global Warming Doomsday: Meat Rationing?

If you don't think global warming and climate change has political overtones, think again. Often people focus on those like Sarah Palin who don't "believe" in global warming, but attention also needs to be turned on scientists who are promoting doomsday views on global warming because they have an extreme leftist agenda. A recent example of this is a study by the "Food Climate Research Network which states that meat and milk will have to be rationed because of climate change. WOW. I'm sorry, but this is leftist nonsense. The study was led by left-leaning liberal wacko Tara Garnett, who says that since people won't voluntarily cut back on items like meat (and apparently alcohol and chocolate) the government should force them to do so. Sorry Tara, I think you're a lot more dangerous than global warming.

I'm not a right wing wacko at all. I accept that global warming is happening-I just don't think its the catastropic doomsday that some scientists are saying it is. In fact global warming might actually be a positive. First lets consider that in the past, many times in the earth's history, the planet has been warmer than it is now. Despite this life continued, even thrived during those times. Global warming will probably allow food production to increase and help reduce the need for things like home heating oil in northern lattitudes. It might actually make life a little easier. So what if sea levels rise? People can move inland if that happens. Ask yourself this. When has life on earth been hardest? One answer might be during ice ages. Global cooling is probably a much worse alternative to global warming. The little ice age that occurred circa 1400's or so in Europe was not good for agriculture.

With that in mind, I plan to eat a steak with 2 glasses of wine tonight, with cheers for Tara Garnett, left-leaning wacko that gives scientists a bad name.

Susskind lecture on Quantum Entanglements

Monday, September 29, 2008

First Order Differential Equations Math DVD/Video Tutor

Notice: This video is temporarily unavailable

Differential equations is the foundation of engineering, physics, and the other sciences. It allows us to solve problems involving rates of change, from population growth to radioactive decay to heat transfer. Despite its fundamental importance, differential equations can be intimidating when encountering it the first time (scroll down for sample video).

The Differential Equations Video Series
Solving Differential Equations on Video aims to change that. Available now on DVD, the first set is comprised of four one hour lectures that will increase your understanding of differential equations and show you how to solve problems. Each DVD is packed with multiple solved examples that will help you do your homework and take the fear out of differential equations.

Now Available DVD Set 1: First Order Differential Equations
This four hour video series includes:

Section 1: Introduction to linear differential equations
Section 2: Inhomogenous differential equations
Section 3: The integrating factor method
Section 4: The method of undetermined coefficients
Section 5: Solving separable ordinary differential equations
Section 6: Implicit solutions of differential equations
Section 7: Elementary Numerical Techniques
Section 8: Applications: Population growth, electrical circuits, and radioactive decay

All topics on these DVD's are approached using a teach by example method, developed for the Demystified series of books published by McGraw Hill. Homework and exam style problems are solved for the viewer in explicit detail, making the videos perfect for self-study, for exam preparation, as a tutorial aid, or to prepare for math qualifying exams.

The four hour DVD program on First Order Differential Equations is now available for just $34.95 plus $5 for shipping and handling (please allow 7-10 days for delivery). You can order now using Pay Pal, all major credit cards or eCheck accepted (international orders outside the U.S., please add $10).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Large Hadron Collider on 60 Minutes

I'm always afraid I'll miss something interesting on 60 minutes and this week I was right. They talked about the Large Hardon Collider. In case you missed it too, I've posted it right here.

Watch CBS Videos Online

Chinese Astronauts Space Walk

The New York Times reports that Chinese astronauts space walked for 18 minutes on Saturday afternoon. This bold step, somewhat reminiscent of NASA's early days with the Gemini program, carried China closer to their ambitions to build a space station and visit the moon.

I've been impressed with China's rapid progress. According to the article, they're first long-term goal is to build a space station by 2020 and then land on the moon, although no specific date has been given for that apparently. With the missions they've done so far, they've shown rapid progress and some boldness that seems to be lacking in America's space program. Who knows, maybe they'll beat us back to the moon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chinese Fake Space Mission

OK that's just a joke-a play on the people who think the moon landings were faked. Today China launched three former fighter pilots on a first ever space mission for the country that will involve a space walk. The Chinese space program seems to be retracing the steps of NASA during the 1960's. I wonder if they will beat us back to the moon.

Read the story here

Oldest Rocks Known Discovered

In a bit of news sure to leave creationists scratching their heads scientists have discovered what may be the oldest rocks on earth. As reported in Science and distilled into laymens terms in the NY Times, Richard W. Carlson and his colleagues have found bedrock which dates to 4.28 billion years old. If the discovery holds up, these rocks would be about 250 million years older than the previous find, in northwestern Canada. What is really significant about these rocks is not necessarily their age, but the fact that they indicate the earth had pretty much taken its present day form even way back then. The commonly held view is that at that time, the earth was a mess of molten lava. But this discovery puts that view in doubt, the form of the rocks indicates that the earth was pretty much like it is today, even 4.28 billion years ago. Regardless of whether that holds up, I find it amazing some idiots hold to the view the earth is just 6,000 years old.

Large Hadron Collider Operation Delayed Until Next Year

This morning the NY Times reported that the Large Hadron Collider will remain shut down until next year. In fact scientists say the collider won't begin operation until April, because of the need to repair electrical and other problems. One reason this takes so long is that the huge magnets, which are kept at near absolute zero temperatures, have to be slowly warmed up to make the repairs, and then cooled back down again. So I guess we'll have to wait to find out if there is a Higgs particle.

Read the details here

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leonard Susskinds Modern (Quantum) Physics Lectures

Leonard Susskind (famous string theory advocate at Stanford) teaches an interesting set of courses in physics in continuing education. I will be posting some of his lectures here. I will be posting his quantum mechanics lectures. The first lecture posted here is about 2 hours long. Susskind is a great communicator, so well worth watching-especially for those interested in self-study of quantum mechanics, relativity and string theory.

New Extra-Solar Planets Discovered?

In a publication put up as a pre-print today, astronomers announced they had discovered two Jupiter like planets around an F-type star which as at least two planets in its solar system, one at 1 Jupiter mass and one at 2.5 Jupiter masses. An F-type star is a bit larger and more energetic than our sun (a "G" type star) that is yellow-white in color and less energetic than the bigger "A" type stars. Astronomers remember the rather arbitrary star classification according to the moniker "Oh Be a Fine Girl and Kiss Me", or OBAFGAKM. So O stars are the biggest (blue) hottest stars, G stars like the sun are in the middle and yellow, and M stars are the smallest and least energetic (and hence red). So an F-type star is slightly larger, more energetic, and whiter than our own sun.

The abstract of this paper reads thus:

Extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs around A-F type stars V. A planetary system found with HARPS around the F6IV-V star HD 60532

Aims: In the frame of the search for extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs around early-type stars, we present the results obtained for the F-type main-sequence star HD 60532 (F6V) with HARPS.
Methods: Using 147 spectra obtained with HARPS at La Silla on a time baseline of two years, we study the radial velocities of this star.
Results: HD 60532 radial velocities are periodically variable, and the variations have a Keplerian origin. This star is surrounded by a planetary system of two planets with minimum masses of 1 and 2.5 Mjup and orbital separations of 0.76 and 1.58 AU respectively. We also detect high-frequency, low-amplitude (10 m/s peak-to-peak) pulsations. Dynamical studies of the system point toward a possible 3:1 mean-motion resonance which should be confirmed within the next decade.

You can download the original paper here:

Extra-Solar Planets

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Neandertal Extinction

One of the most fascinating topics in science is the extinction of the neandertals. After a pretty successful run in Europe during the ice age, they disappeared soon after modern humans arrived on the scene. In the greatest who done it in history, scientists have been trying to figure out for more than a hundred years what happened. Did neandertals get bred into humans? Did humans kill off neandertals? Or did they simply out-compete them gradually?

The interbreeding idea is currently in vogue among lots of anthropologists. But I think they're naive. Looking at some facial reconstructions of neandertals, I'm thinking you'd need some serious beer goggles to go down that road. Personally, I'm not seeing the mating argument as very persuasive.

The outright kill hypothesis doesn't seem that persuasive either, but my feeling is a combination of hostility and simple out-competition is probably what happened. In any case, some exciting DNA research is underway which might reveal whether or not we carry any neandertal genetics in our blood.

Molecule Important for Life found in Interstellar Space

Something that blows me away is scientists have found several complicated molecules necessary for life in interstellar space. The most recent of these is napthalene, a chemical composed of two benzene rings. Isn't that amazing that something that complicated would be formed in interstellar gas clouds? It was found by Susana Iglesias Groth and others in a region of star formation in the constellation Persius. Finding chemicals like this in interstellar space is good circumstantial evidence that life can probably be found in other solar systems.

Read the details here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Collider down for Two Months

CNN is reporting this morning that the Large Hadron Collider will be out of commission for at least two months. Engineers at CERN say that the damage from the two incidents described in the previous post is worse than they thought, and the device will have to be warmed up from its cold operating temperatures to repair it.

Hopefully they will wait until after Christmas to operate the machine again. It would be sad if an earth destroying black hole were to eat the earth on December 23d as we did our last minute shopping.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin says Teach Creationism

If there is one idea among all the pseudo-scientific and silly beliefs that permeate American Society that I hate the most-its creationism and in particular the notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old or whatever it is. People want to say that God directed evolution-fine. People want to say there is no God and evolution just happens-fine. But people who want to say evolution didn't happen, the fossil record is a trick of satan or that the earth is only a few thousand years old-well quite frankly you've got your head right up your ass.

Well one of those people with their head right up their ass is possibly our future Vice President-Governor Sarah Palin. Palin says he wants creationism taught in science class. That my friends, is reason enough for me to vote for Obama. All other issues aside, having a scientific education I can't put the nation and the world in a position where our President might be some young earth wacko who completely dismisses the past 500 years of scientific progress. Well, wait, we've already done that with George W. Bush. Funny how W is making his dad look like a great President the way the past 8 years has gone.

Apparently the Alaskan Repulican Platform goes so far as to explicitly support creationism and intelligent design. Are you kidding me? What would people say if the Democratic platform supported witchcraft? Is there a difference? I'm not seeing it.

Intelligent design, as a general idea, isn't really one I can argue with. Sure lets say a creator being ("God") directed the show and for some reason took 4. 5 billion years to grace the earth with its true purpose-mankind. But you have to wonder why there are so many fits and starts in the fossil record-a pattern that's really more of the rule than the exception. Honestly I don't think the fossil record supports intelligent design all that much. You could say that a God fired up the universe without any specific goal in mind other than intelligent life developing-that I can agree with. But postulating that God created the universe for the creation of us but took 5 billion years of earth history with myriads of now extinct life forms to do it, and calling this intelligent design, well that only rings true among the mentally ill if you ask me. That sounds like the creation of someone with manic-depressive disorder and OCD, than it does intelligent.

Palin, along with others of her ilk, say "don't be afraid of information". But Sarah, its you creationist wackos that are afraid of information. Something people don't understand about science is that scientists really don't care so much about a theory in particular so much as the evidence in support of it. In other words if some persuasive evidence that evolution was completely bull shit came out tomorrow morning, biologists would for the most part accept it and build a new theoretical framework that better explained the data. Adherence to evolution, relativity, or the big bang is not a religious adherence for most scientists (though there are some that do hold quasi-religious views about this stuff). No Sarah, its the creationists and religious wackos that are afraid of information.

Evolution in no way precludes the idea of God or a spiritual existence. What it does is put some constraints on the matter. The earth is not a few thousand years old, and species to change and develop with time. This is more characteristic of a God with an indirect temperament, one that set the universe off and running and is letting it run its course.

Is that such a bad idea? I tend to think of it like raising a child. You tend very closely to a child while the kid is young, but as they get older you let them go and find their own way in the world (in a healthy relationship that is). What if God created the universe this way? God gave the universe everything it needed for intelligent life to develop, but now its up to us to make something of it, and our ultimate fate isn't up to our parent, but up to ourselves. I think that is a more satisfying outlook than the neat and tidy and controlled fake 6,000 year old universe of Sarah Palin.

Quantum Doomsday Delayed

Problems at the Large Hadron Collider have delayed the first test actually involving the collision of particles until mid-October. It seems that a little transformer (30 ton) failed and in an unrelated incident, a bit of helium was spilled. Actual experiments are even further off, these initial tests will be low energy compared to what the collider will use when actually doing experiments. So please ignore any doomsday predictions for the month of October.

Scientific Illiteracy

The level of scientific illiteracy in this country is holding steady at stupendous levels. From the Republican Vice Presidential candidate all the way down to the man on the street, we've got people worrying that the world is going to end in 2012, whether we landed on the moon, or thinking that the earth is 5,000 years old. What kind of ass hat would think the earth is 5,000 years old? Sarah Palin?

A recent sampling of postings on Yahoo Answers brings to light the level of ignorance in our society. This dumb ass is one among millions who thinks the world is going to end in 2012. According to him, its a prediction of "Nostradamus":

Scientist say the earths magnetic field is starting to switch Could this be the 2012 doomsday fortold many years ago by Nostradamus Merlin, and many others. The earth is going to reverse it's polarity supposedly it has happened 1000s of times before it's an event that happens every 750000 years.

Of course most people get the 2012 date from the vaunted Mayan calendar:

The mayan calender ends on the winter soltice on dec 2012.There is evidence to support a grand alighnment of the sun,earth,and the center of the galaxy.Has this happened before?If so what were the effects?What are the predictions for this event?

And of course there is endless speculation we really didn't land on the moon. Some of the best evidence is that the flag on the moon was blowing in the wind.

It goes without saying that millions of people were afraid of death by the Large Hadron Collider. So where do all these ignorant, moronic views come from? I see two causes:

  • The Media/entertainment culture
  • Bad science education
OK I'm not a genius, but the media fills peoples heads full of crap day in and day out. There are a few bright spots, PBS, The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel. But they're lost in a haze surrounded by Brittney Spears, Tom Cruise, and endless entertainment drivel. And even the good cable channels promote pure bullshit all the time, presenting UFO shows and Ghost shows on the History Channel as if they had a basis in fact. Ratings rule because money rules.

Even good scientific programs suffer from some major problems. NOVA aired a good three part series on string theory. But the problem is, you have this magical thinking populace watching a show about extra dimensions when they don't even know basic astronomy and physics. So in a way a show featuring Brian Greene on string theory plays into their magical outlook.

When it comes to education, we've got some serious problems. Frankly I don't think some physics professors even give a shit. Many of them are so wrapped up in themselves and their imagined special, elite status as great thinkers they would rather get on with their research and don't care what the general public thinks. Others can't teach worth a damn. How often have you heard about boring, boring, boring, introductory physics classes? If you can't get the freshmen or high school students excited about physics, how are you going to create a scientifically literate population?

In any case, we've got a serious problem. We've got a major energy crisis on our hands thats only going to get worse. We live in a world with nuclear weapons and religious fanaticism. We have to make choices about space exploration and tools like the Large Hadron Collider. How can the population and their elected representatives make informed choices when they are completely scientifically illiterate? Most people are just along for the ride. They have a cell phone, a TV and a laser pointer and don't know or even care how they work or where they came from. And the scientists and engineers that made them don't care that the population doesn't know or care, they think non-scientific people are stupid and ignorant. This is a bad mix that's going to lead to trouble down the road.

String Theory Physics Lecture

This video is 20 minutes long, but is worth watching. Physicist Brian Greene talks about extra spatial dimensions, physics, and string theory.

Picture of Planet Orbiting Star

Astronomers at the University of Toronto believe they have the first ever picture of a planet in another solar system orbiting a star. The star, located about 500 light years away in the constellation Scorpius, goes by the obscure designation 1RXS J160929.1-210524. Some uncertainty still exists as to whether the object actually orbits the star in question and whether or not its really a planet and not a brown dwarf. More research will be needed to answer these questions in the coming months.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dr. Kaku on Big Thinkers Talks about String Theory

Michio Kaku is a rarity in physics, a man who not only mastered theoretical physics but who can communicate with the general public. This guy is not your typical physics professor, I mean he is like, normal?

A few years back Kaku appeared on a show on Tech TV called Big Thinkers. I'm not sure if it still airs, I got Tech TV several years back when I had Dish Network, but alas I switched to Comcast and don't get it anymore. Kaku talks about string theory in this 20 minute presentation broken up into four parts. Great viewing for those interested in physics!

Part 1: Michio Kaku lives for one goal: to find a single equation maybe one inch long which will summarize everything in the physical universe. This is the goal of a unified theory of physics: to "Read the Mind of God" as Kaku puts it. Kaku says physicists are the only scientists who can say the word "God" without blushing.

Part 2: Kaku describes how he feels the power of Newton's laws of motion while ice skating, and its relation to symmetry-a key idea in modern physics. Then he describes the problem in modern physics in that relativity and quantum theory are so different. The beauty of string theory is that unifies them into a single theoretical framework.

Part 3: Kaku describes the harmony of strings.

Part 4: Kaku says to test string theory rigorously, we have to recreate the big-bang, which is not possible. He also says nobody on earth is smart enough to solve the equations of string theory. But when someone finally comes along smart enough to solve the equations, our universe would appear as one of the solutions if string theory is correct.

Kaku artile on Large Hadron Collider on Forbes

Michio Kaku has also posted an article about the large hadron collider on Forbes.com. Amazing that the hype about the large hadron collider reached a level where Forbes would include commentary on it.

Survived Large Hadron Collider T-Shirts

A reader sent me a link to these LHC themed t-shirts:


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brian Greene and Michio Kaku on the Large Hadron Collider

In Yesterdays New York Times Brian Greene wrote a nice editorial outlining some of the more exciting things the Large Hadron Collider might discover. The list includes:

  • The Higgs Boson
  • Supersymmetry
  • Transdimensional particles-that is particles that carry energy away into "extra" spatial dimensions
  • and last but not least-Micro-Black holes
Read the details here.

My favorite physics writer, Michio Kaku has also chimed in, with a short post about the Large Hadron Collider on the Wall Street Journal.

Physics Lecture for poets (or future Presidents) on Relativity

The following video is of a lecture by Richard Muller from UC Berkeley on relativity I found on You Tube. It lasts about an hour and is focused on basic concepts.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quantum Entanglement for Detection

Science Daily reports that engineer Seth Lloyd has proposed using quantum mechanically entangled photons to develop detection systems that would be a million times more efficient than anything currently in existence. The quantum based photodection system would have widespread applications, from more efficient night-vision equipment to CT scanners that used lower levels of radiation.

For the more technically inclined, here is a paper by Lloyd and his colleagues on enhanced imaging utilizing quantum theory:


Just to note, this area of research was pioneered by Jonathan K. Dowling and others, who are not mentioned in the Science Daily article:


As an aside, here is a video of Seth Lloyd, talking about quantum computers, and interestingly their capacity (if one could be built) to surpass the capacity of a human brain. I am really interested in this point because I don't believe classical computers or current artificial intelligence (AI) can do this, no matter how advanced they become.

Something Lloyd says is "You don't have to understand the nature of things to build cool devices". OK, spoken like a true Geek. "Cool" devices are one thing, but personally, I am more interested in how the universe works and why it works the way it does rather than some engineering marvel. I want to understand the nature of reality like David Deutsch does.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How Do Black Holes Form?

The universe is full of mysterious objects called black holes-objects that distort spacetime so much that not even light can escape from their gravitational grip. Many people want to know:where do these mysterious objects come from? Can the sun become a black hole?

There are basically two known types of black holes. The essential difference between them is their size. At the centers of most if not all galaxies we find the supermassive black holes, black holes so big that they contain the mass of literally millions of suns. These black holes play a significant role in the evolution and behavior of galaxies, but we aren't going to talk about them in this post. We're going to talk about how most black holes form. These are smaller mass black holes, on the order of a few solar masses (8-10 solar masses). These small mass black holes are the remnants of stars, formed by complete gravitational collapse at the end of a supernova.

To understand how this happens we need to take a step back and learn a little about what a star is and how it operates. A star is basically just a big ball of gas. The center of the star is so hot and the pressures are so high that nuclear fusion, a reaction that combines two light atoms into a single heavier atom-takes place at the center of the star. Nuclear fusion has a couple of byproducts that are beneficial for things like life on earth: it gives off heat and light. Nuclear fusion is the power source of the star and is what makes stars shine.

Nuclear fusion is also the support structure of the star. Gravity wants to pull those outer layers of gas down towards the center of the star, and would do so if it were not for nuclear fusion. The heat and pressure produced by fusion basically prop up the outer layers of the star. A star lives its life in a delicate balancing act: gravity pulling inward and nuclear fusion pushing outward. When nuclear fusion stops, there is nothing to prevent gravity from taking over.

Just like your car runs out of gas, a star runs out of fuel. Its got a finite amount of hydrogen in its core. The first fusion reaction that takes place, which is the one happening in our sun, is hydrogen atoms are fused together to make helium nuclei. Eventually, there will be no more hydrogen to fuse. When this happens, fusion stops and there is no more heat and pressure propping up the star. The outer layers begin to collapse inward. Basic thermodynamics takes over, and the heat and pressure in the center of the star increases. This is good because to fuse heavier atoms, you need more heat and pressure. The star will collapse and gravity will squeeze the atoms of the core together until it becomes hot enough for a new round of fusion to begin: helium begins to fuse together to make carbon and oxygen.

Large stars run through their fuel much faster than smaller stars. Its kind of like the guy in the red sports car driving fast, he runs out of gas first. Hugely massive stars live fast and die young. This is because the higher mass makes conditions in the core hotter and generates higher pressure, so fusion reactions take place more rapidly and they run out of fuel faster. They are also able to fuse heavier elements because higher temperatures and pressures will be reached. The sun will only be able to make carbon and some oxygen, heavier stars will continue the fusion process toward heavier elements.

The sun is a mid-sized star, with an expected lifetime of around 10 billion years. There are smaller stars, so small and dim the sun makes them seem downright puny. They may be small, but they will be long-lived, they can have lifespans of a trillion years or more. In contrast, a large star destined to end its life as a neutron star will probably live a hundred million years. And a super-massive star destined to become a black hole will burn through its fuel in a mere million years.

At each point in the nuclear fusion cycle, a star burns up its fuel until fusion can no longer proceed. So a hydrogen core is fused until its entirely helium, then fusion stops. Gravity takes over and pushes the core closer together raising the temperature and pressure enough so that helium can fuse into carbon and oxygen. This continues until the core is entirely made of carbon and oxygen, then fusion stops again. Gravity takes over, crushing the core even more, raising the temperature enough so that a new round of fusion can begin. Now carbon atoms are fused together to make magnesium. The process keeps repeating itself. Heavier elements continue to be made: sulfur, silicon, and nickel. At each step, the temperature of the core soars to higher values, reachign 3 billion degrees. And the lifetime of the star shortens. When the core is made of magnesium and neon, there may only be a thousand years until the star dies. Eventually fusion proceeds until the core is a ball of iron, and fusion stops once again. But this is the end of the line. A reaction will proceed spontaneously if it liberates energy. Up to the fusion of iron, nuclear fusion liberates energy. But you would need to add energy to fuse two iron atoms together. In fact its something that just doesn't happen. So when the core of the star is iron, the days of nuclear fusion for the star have ended.

Now fusion stops and there is no more heat and pressure available to prop up the outer layers of the star. When the center of the star is a ball of iron, it may last another few days. Then gravity takes over and the outer layers of the star begin to collapse inward. There is one force left that can impact the outer layers of the star: the nuclear force. When the outer layers of gas strike the core the nuclear force leads to a rebound effect and creates a massive shock wave. This is a supernova: a cosmic explosion with so much energy that the neutrons and protons in the star are forged into the heavy elements so familiar on earth: copper, gold, and uranium are among them. The shockwave carries these elements out into the interstellar gases of the galaxy, where they are incorporated into later generations of stars and planets. Every element you're familiar with on earth was made this way, cooked in a supermassive star that lived long ago before our sun.

The fate of the iron core depends on how massive it is, and hence on how massive the original star was. If it wasn't that massive, it will collapse down until nuclear repulsion prevents the protons and neutrons from squeezing together any further, and nuclear reactions will convert the whole mess into a neutron star. But if the star was big enough, the force of gravity will be so strong that not even the nuclear force can stop it. The core will collapse down to a single point in space-time, producing a dimple from which not even light can escape. This is how small black holes are made: from the ashes of giant stars that once lived in the galaxy.

In future posts we'll talk about related topics from this article in more detail: neutron stars, supermassive black holes, and nuclear fusion.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Universe Slide Show

Some of NASA's best photos of bodies in the solar system and universe.

Moon Landing Hoax

I'm sorry, but if you believe the moon landings were a hoax your head has to be as far up your ass as it can go. I'm not sure if believing something that stupid is worse than worrying about the world ending in 2012 or not, or that black holes produced in the Large Hadron Collider will swallow the earth, but I imagine there is a lot of cross over among the various groups of wackos.

Here is a video I found on You Tube. Supposedly, someones granddaddy worked at NASA and they found this TOP SECRET video among his things after he passed on. The wackos elegantly point out that the official NASA clip has no static and better video quality. WOW what an observation. Now, supposedly there is a mysterious figure in black intruding onto the scene (a stagehand????). NASA apparently tried to crop this guy out but didn't entirely succeed.

Its amazing that NASA would declare a video TOP SECRET and let granddaddy take it home. Oh, I guess he snuck it out at great risk to his own life. Now tell me something, why should anyone believe some wacko who posts a video on You Tube? Wake up people. Only a moron would doubt the moon landings were real.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Space Travel to the Moon Slide Show

Notice: The World Isn't Going to End

I hate to say it, but all of this end of the world talk that sprung up around the collider is really starting to get on my nerves. The plain fact is people have been watching too much television without taking the time to learn science and get some idea about how the world really works. Aliens aren't going to come down and enslave us, the sun isn't going to explode, and the collider is not going to produce a super black hole that eats the earth or a goo of strangelets that turns the earth into green mush.

Things got worse this morning when I came across a post by a girl asking if the world was going to end in 2012. The reason? Because some old calendars ended before 2012. HELLO? Are you kidding me??? This has to be the worst example of magical thinking I've ever heard of. Because some old fart that lived in 1300 made a calendar that doesn't extend past 2012, the world is going to end? Are calendar makers that powerful? Maybe I should make a calendar with $ signs on it so I can get rich.

The origin of the 2012 myth comes from the Mayans. Their calendar had these cycles and the latest cycle happens to end in 2012. NEWSFLASH: The stuff the Mayans believed in is nothing more than a load of crap. The world isn't going to end in 2012 because the MAYANS SAID SO. Yes, the Mayans were great at making pyramids, but that doesn't mean they had some private line to the supernatural world the rest of us can't access. And where are the Mayans anyway? They abandoned their cities a long time ago because of drought the last I heard. Doesn't sound like they had everything figured out, does it.

The fact is the world IS going to end someday, but its going to do so way in the future. The end of the world isn't going to affect your life at all. Not one bit. Global warming isn't going to kill us all, the Large Hadron Collider isn't going to swallow the earth, and Mayans aren't going to reappear in 2012 to destroy civilization.

Life on earth will end. It will certainly end when the sun runs out of fuel and the solar system becomes a planetary nebula. That won't happen for another 5-7 billion years, but life on earth might end a lot sooner for other reasons. In a few hundred million years old, the sun might be pumping out more energy making earth really fricking hot. So hot that life won't be sustainable anymore, at least not complicated, multicellular life.

If technology allows advanced life to survive on earth, something that I find doubtful for a lot of reasons, maybe our descendants will pack up and move to another planet or solar system, avoiding death by a sunbake.

Just for good measure, I posted a picture of supernova 1987A with this article. Sure sometimes things do go wrong! But if you know science you know when they're coming. If there were any inhabitants of planets surrounding that star, I hope they studied astrophysics so they had some idea their star was going to explode.

The Death of Stars: Planetary Nebulae

The death of a star is one of the most fascinating topics in astronomy and astrophysics. Throughout its life, a star fights a battle against the force of gravity, which wants to pull in the outer layers of the star and cause it to collapse. This is prevented by nuclear fusion taking place in the core of the star. That provides an outward force against gravity with pressure produced by light and heat. This works as long as nuclear fusion continues.

In a massive star, there is more pressure in the core and so fusion proceeds rapidly and the star can fuse heavier and heavier elements. But this is the cause of the stars death. Nuclear fusion can only proceed up to Iron-56. When the core of a large star becomes composed of Iron, fusion can no longer continue and the pressure that used to keep the star upright is no longer there. The outerlayers collapse against the iron core and rebound-and the result is a supernova, one of the most violent events in the galaxy. Massive stars go through their fuel rapidly, they live fast and die young.

A star like the sun won't have a violent death, but its dramatic nonetheless. The sun is a smaller star, and paradoxically even though it starts out with less fuel it burns it more slowly so lives alot longer. Nuclear fusion of hydrogen in a star like the sun can go on for about 10 billion years, turning the hydrogen in the core into helium. As the helium builds up in the core, the energy output of the sun will decrease causing the outer layers to collapse in a bit causing a rise in pressure. The increased pressure saves the sun for awhile as fusion of helium begins. During this period, the sun will fuse helium into carbon atoms releasing as much as a thousand times more energy than it did when it was fusing hydrogen. This will cause the outer layers of the star to puff out or swell, and the sun will become a red giant perhaps swallowing the earth into its outer layers.

When the sun runs out of helium and fusion stops again, the outer layers will collapse down just like in a big star. But, there is a lot less material so the collapse isn't all that dramatic. The sun will collapse into a "white dwarf" which maintains its shape due to the laws of quantum mechanics, which basically say you can't force two electrons together into the same point of space (the "Pauli exclusion principle"). Since the sun is a lot smaller than a huge star that supernovas, there is not enough force in the collapsing gas layers to overcome the repulsion of the electrons. So the left over matter in the core forms a dense ball and the outer layers of gas kind of puff out into space. The planetary nebula may not be violent and exciting, but the images are quite dramatic. They are the ghosts of the universe, remnants of once vibrant powerful forces of life, stars like the sun.

This has already happened in dramatic fashion throughout the universe. Here are some pictures. The first one is the "cats eye nebula" pictured at the beginning of this article. The outward traveling gases produce an amazing picture, with the dying star at the center. There is some belief that this is actually a binary system. As a star dies, it blows off gas at different times and at different speeds, giving the amazing and unique patterns that make up these beautiful images. The variation in color is due to the differing elemental composition of the gas, for example Oxygen can lead to green colors.

This amazing picture is the Eskimo nebula, taken by the Hubble space Telescope.

Here is another one called IC418.

There is no doubt about it, someday in the distant future our sun will follow the same fate as the stars in these images. Makes you wonder if there was once life on planets that orbited these now dead stars. I wonder what they were like, if they had advanced civilizations, and what became of them. If life on earth gets very advanced maybe they will move to another younger star system or engineer the sun so this won't happen. But that is such a daunting prospect, and there is no evidence any stars have been "engineered", I doubt that will happen.