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 ( 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.