Saturday, December 19, 2009

Physics Groupie News

Founding Father Thomas Paine must have had the oft-tragic life of a scientist in mind when he uttered the words “These are the times that try men’s souls.” These simple words describe the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also the life of Paine himself. Throughout most of his life, his writings inspired passion, but also brought him great criticism. I can certainly relate.

The past couple of months have been nothing less than frustration and anxiety incarnate for the Physics Groupie for personal reasons I’d rather not delve into in a public forum. Suffice it to say life has been a struggle. I did manage, however, to submit an important piece of science writing this past Friday that I’ve been toiling over for months which is a huge load off my mind. Now, I’m about to start my first science book project (I’ve published three computer books in the past, but never a science title). This will likely become a year-long project, and I’m still debating how to integrate The Science Lifestyle Blog into the mix. Time will tell where I, this bag of molecular flotsam, will land, but I hope I can muster more posts here on this blog which has grown to personify me like nothing before.

Reasoned Greetings to all!

[PS. No more pen name!]

WISE Launch

One great thing about being a Physics Groupie is getting all excited about things that other people could care less about; it gives me a sense of being “special.” Case in point – the recent launch of the WISE space telescope was pretty low on most folk’s radar, but for me it was a huge deal.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE launched at 6:09am Monday, December 14, 2009 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The instrument rode atop a Delta II rocket into a polar orbit 326 miles (525km) high. WISE is designed to survey the entire sky in four mid-infrared bands (centered at 3.4, 4.7, 12, and 22 microns), a swath of spectrum dominated by emission from celestial objects that run the gamut from dark asteroids in Earth's vicinity, to brown dwarfs and interstellar clouds in our neighborhood of the Milky Way, to Ultra-Luminous Infrared Galaxies (ULIRGs) ablaze with intense bursts of star formation.

The spacecraft has a primary telescope 16 inches (40 cm) in aperture with a pack of frozen hydrogen needed to cool WISE's heat-sensing detectors to -447°F (7½ kelvins).

Yours truly along with Zoe, my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire, were invited to attend the launch. Needless to say we were VERY excited to see first-hand a launch of this magnitude. Our invitation was courtesy of the UCLA Physics and Astronomy Department whose very own Dr. Ned Wright is the principal investigator for the WISE project. My long ties with UCLA mathematics and physics paid off big-time.

Alas, we never actually saw the launch aside from good ‘ol NASA TV like everyone else. What we didn’t realize is the moving target nature of NASA launches. After one previous postponement, we headed up to beautiful Buellton, California a couple of days ahead of the launch that was scheduled for Friday, December 11. While there, we found that the mission center pushed the launch back to Saturday, then Sunday, and then Monday. The attrition due to the continued postponements was significant. From speaking to other people on hand for WISE, we found out that most NASA launches play this cat-and-mouse game with the weather, equipment failures, and preemption by secret military launches. We heard a rumor that it took the Spitzer Space Telescope two years to launch. Now that’s fortitude!

The trip up to Santa Ynez wine country where Vandenberg is located and made famous by the motion picture “Sideways” wasn’t a complete washout. The WISE team put on a couple of excellent briefings that included talks by some high-profile scientists. Plus, the food in the area, along with winery tasting room visits made the rainy days a lot more enjoyable.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Supermassive Black Hole



So what does a supermassive black hole sound like when put to music? The British rock group MUSE decided to broach this subject with their 2006 tune of the same name (see inset video).

The Physics Groupie has some scientific scuttlebutt that says the UCLA Galactic Center team plays the tune when on location at the Waimea control center for the 10-meter Keck telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii. Nice way to get in the mood for gazing at the monster lurking at the heart of the Milky Way!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tiger Woods and His Physics Book

A media maelstrom surrounds the early morning jaunt by golfer Tiger Woods as he sped down his driveway on November 30 and somehow ended up in the street semi-conscious. As fascinating as this frenzy of the press is, it’s even more captivating to learn of the paperback book found amidst the broken glass on floor of Tiger's Cadillac Escalade - "Get a Grip on Physics" by John Gribben (see inset photo).

Imagine that, Tiger reading a physics book that talks about the basics of physics from early developments through the latest subatomic particle discoveries and string theory. Maybe Tiger needs to know Newtonian mechanics to determine the optimal force necessary for this 400 yard drives. Or forget about allegations of an extramarital affair, maybe his wife Elin simply caught him reading the physics book a clocked him with the golf club to get him to stop. I've heard of being anti-science, but hey, this is going too far!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Prince among Math Teachers

The Steve Lopez column appearing in today’s Sunday Los Angeles Times highlighted the story of a local math teacher that should be awarded a prize for “Most Dedicated.” I feel a warm feeling each time I read it. The article “Retired Los Angeles teacher keeps at it, for free” is about Palms Middle School math teacher Bruce Kravets who is in retirement, but still teaches his seventh grade algebra class for no compensation. At 66, Kravets accrued a comfortable level of retirement income after 44 years of teaching, but he chose to stay on at the school because he loves teaching so much. That’s dedication!

I’m confident that a young person learning mathematics from a teacher who loves teaching for the sake of learning is going to take away much of value. Of course, a teacher can be dedicated without forsaking his/her salary, but someone like Kravets sets a pretty high standard for quality education. Knowing how much we need our young people to embrace math and science these days, I’m very encouraged by the results of his efforts. I very much applaud Mr. Kravets.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What's in a Name?

When it comes to the illustrious history of particle physics, names can often fuel interest in research directions. I’m talking about the names of the subatomic particles themselves. Case in point, consider the name “quark.”

Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann chose the name quark (which is the “squawk” of a gull) from a line in Irish author James Joyce's 1939 book of comic fiction Finnegans Wake (see page 383):

"Three quarks for Muster Mark."

Independently, the physicist George Zweig suggested a similar idea, calling the building-block particles "aces". Not quite as catchy a name, it didn’t take hold and quark became a permanent part of the physics vernacular (and Star Trek Deep Space Nine characters).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Human and Scientific Tale of Galileo

As a Physics Groupie on the prowl, I’m always looking for good public lectures to attend. Fortunately, there’s plenty happening here in L.A. with Caltech and UCLA. Last week, Zoe alerted me to an evening lecture over at Caltech’s new Cahill Astrophysics building. The subject was “The Human and Scientific Tale of Galileo” presented by Professor Alberto Righini of the University of Firenze. We headed over to Pasadena with high expectations.

When we arrived at the high-tech Hameetman Auditorium the hall was nearly full of science enthusiasts from all walks of life including a few children. An event organizer was busy passing out little orange raffle tickets for some unknown prize to be awarded at the end of the session.

Professor Righini was a stately, older gentleman with a thick Italian accent who on occasion needed to draw upon the expertise of his translator sitting in the front row. He presented a cogent talk that ranged from the scientific accomplishments of an exceptional scientist to the personal limitations and flaws of a man, bringing to life an extraordinary person who had the courage to champion reason in the face of persecution. He also touched on the political, cultural and religious environment existing at the time of Galileo’s birth, his formative years in Pisa and Firenze, and his tenure at the University Padova.

The event also included taped performances of actors doing readings from Galileo’s work and image from his life and times. The event was part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 in celebration of Galileo’s first use of the telescope.

It was a wonderful way to spend an evening with like-minded science people in tribute to mankind’s most famous astronomer. As Zoe and I walked from the event, I commented how great it is to have such ready access to Caltech for science education. Oh yes, the raffle prize for the evening was a Galileoscope, how fitting!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Polymath Project

An unusual experiment began on January 27, 2009. That was the day Timothy Gowers of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, University of Cambridge, announced The Polymath Project. The project had a conventional scientific goal, to attack an unsolved problem in mathematics, but it proposed to engage the mathematical research in a very new way – massively collaborative mathematics. In a manner modeled after the BOINC project with its massively parallel resources for computation, the Polymath Project takes advantage of the insights and efforts of a plurality of minds.

The specific aim of the Polymath Project was to find an elementary proof of a special case of the density Hales-Jewett theorem (DHJ), which is a central result in the field of combinatorics (discrete mathematics). A long and complicated proof already existed, but the mathematics community sought a simpler one so the collaborative approach was employed.

Gowers started the project by posting a description of the first problem, pointers to background materials and a list of rules for collaboration on a blog/wiki. Comments started to flow in at a steady pace. Participants from all over the globe began to take part. Even a Fields Medalist (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics), Terrance Tao from UCLA joined in. No one was specifically invited to participate and anybody could provide input, although by the nature of the problem only graduate students and professional mathematicians would have the requisite knowledge.

Progress towards the desired proof came far faster than anyone could have anticipated. By March 10, Gowers announced a proof had been found. A formal paper is being prepared describing the proof.

I recommend that math enthusiasts visit the Polymath Project website. It is fun and fascinating to follow through the comment threads to see how the group arrived at a final solution. This is an excellent way to learn about contemporary mathematics performed by leading mathematicians. The Polymath Project delivers rare insight into the world of mathematics.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Physics Groupie Down Under

Remember his name, Mike Hewson. No, he’s probably not a Nobel Laureate, or someone who will find the correct theory of quantum gravity. What is known for certain about Mike is that he’s a Physics Groupie just like yours truly – and there’s not too many of us around!

I found Mike on the Science forum over at Einstein@Home where he is the forum moderator. This is where folks from around the world who are gravitational wave enthusiasts can discuss the science behind the LIGO project. Mike is prolific with his posts on the forum and I greatly look forward to reading all that he has to say.

Mike is from Australia and I don’t know anything else about him other than he does an annual pre-Christmas book buy for physics books before the holiday rush, which is something I can very much identify with. Mike just bought a couple of excellent titles, the MTW classic “Gravitation,” and “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity,” by Sean Carroll.

I asked Mike to do an interview for this essay, but he did not respond. I can only assume he prefers to keep his interaction with the physics community confined to online forums. I can respect that. Since I don’t have any other information about Mike, I’ll treat this expose as a scientific experiment. I’ll make some hypotheses and see how close they come up to reality after future experimental evidence surfaces.

My hypothesis is that Mike is an educator, probably a high school physics teacher. I think this because of the level of detail he puts into his forum posts, often complete with references, diagrams, formulae, examples, etc. As a teacher myself, I believe I can recognize someone who seeks pedagogical purpose in his life. I’m sure he has a family and does his research and online participation after the kids go to sleep and the night is still with inquiry. And I’ll just bet he’s also an amateur astronomer taking advantage of those wonderful southern hemisphere skies.

Mike continues to be an enigma to me and I look forward to interacting with him in the future about physics in general and LIGO in particular. Mike is a great person to know and he’s a very helpful resource, plus knowing another physics groupie is certainly satisfying. I look forward to learning more about Mike personally so I can post an update here to see how accurate my hypotheses turn out to be. Of course I could be way off base. Experimental evidence can turn theories completely upside down.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Saving Mt. Wilson

As a Physics Groupie and science aficionado I’m always seeking out worthy scientific causes to support. Science needs benefactors and there are many ways to show your support for research groups, their personnel and their experimental direction. I’ve done this kind of thing for years, and I intend to continue as I believe it is vitally important for the general public to demonstrate their commitment to the areas of scientific research they favor. Of course it’s no secret my choice of areas are physics, mathematics and astronomy.

I recently found out about a very worthy cause, to help the famed Mt. Wilson observatory in southern California with repairs and fire protection. An informative article recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “A renewed effort to save Mt. Wilson” that reached out to me. I plan to add this to my list of scientific causes to support by joining the Friends of Mount Wilson Observatory in order to get involved.

Mt. Wilson, if you recall, was in serious danger of being destroyed by the long-burning Station fire back in August/September of this year. The L.A. Times story recounted the experiences of the observatory’s faithful superintendent Dave Jurasevich who braved the flames to stay atop the mountain during the direst of times to do what he could to assist firefighters around the grounds. The loss of Mt. Wilson would have been catastrophic to the world of astronomy. This was the site of landmark discoveries such as Edwin Hubble’s finding that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the universe and that the universe is expanding.

Please consider lending a helping hand to this venerable site of astronomical discovery. If astronomy isn’t your cup of tea, seek out ways to support your favorite areas of science. It certainly feels good to know you’ve done something in support of scientific progress.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saturday Morning Physics

As a member of a Science Lifestyle family, you are probably on the lookout for science related activities that the entire family can enjoy. Since Saturday mornings usually find the family together, what better way to enjoy some quality time than to attend an event like Saturday Morning Physics sponsored by the University of Michigan.

In 1995, the Department of Physics at the University of Michigan launched an exciting new lecture series to share some of the latest ideas in the field with the public. The lectures are free and open to the public. Designed for general audiences, the lectures provide an educational opportunity to hear physicists discuss their work in easy-to-understand, non-technical terms. The lectures are complete with multimedia presentations including hands-on demonstrations of the principles discussed, along with slides, video, and computer simulations. Then after the lecture, the whole family can sit down to a nice lunch and discuss all the concepts covered in the morning session. It makes for an excellent educational experience.

If you don’t happen to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, attending the lectures in person may present a problem. But not to worry, you can view all the lectures past and present from the department’s website (by clicking on the Taping link). You could set-up a large monitor in your living room and enjoy leading-edge physics in the comfort of your own home along with the kids and neighbors.

Caltech also has its Science Saturdays lecture series, so your own local university may have a similar Saturday program. It is worth while checking out as a great way to spend the weekend.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

LHC All Carbed-Out

As if the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) hasn’t seen its share of trouble, what with the spectacular failure last year on Sept. 19, 2008 just days after LHC’s launch that caused a year-long breakdown. On November 5 another, almost comical, accident occurred. This time around the device suffered serious overheating in several sections, causing a temperature differential that triggered an automatic shutdown sequence. It will be offline for the next few days as CERN restarts it.

So what’s so funny about this? It seems that somehow a piece of crusty bread, presumed to be part of a baguette, was found in a piece of equipment on the surface above the accelerator ring. It is thought that a passing bird dropped the morsel. The odd thing about it is that the bread was found inside one of the eight above-ground buildings at the site. Conspiracy theorists take note!

The extended downtime of LHC since original launch last year has proven a costly penalty in terms of funding and delays in experimentation. A whole generation of graduate students in particle physics is being affected due to lack of experimental results upon which their dissertations were to be based. Some have had to pack their bags and come to Fermilab to complete their work.

Let’s hope that this latest misstep isn’t a serious one.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

SyFy Addiction

I must say that I’m absolutely tickled by the various Science Fiction options I have this fall television season. Some seasons there isn’t much at all, but for some reason this fall has some great choices. First there is the continuation of Fringe, a quirky yet intoxicating series based in Boston (my favorite city notwithstanding my living in L.A.). Anna Torv, playing the Olivia character has become my favorite television actress. I still don’t know how she hides her native Australian accent. Fringe took a short break lately due to Fox coverage of the World Series, and I look forward to the next upcoming episode.

Then there is Stargate Universe, yet another installment in the long-running Stargate series. This time, all new characters and actors were chosen unlike previous Stargate programs that carried forward some characters. After a few episodes I’m a big fan and look forward to find out how they eventually get off that Ancient ship.

One oddity this season is the new series Defying Gravity. I really liked the show all about a crew travelling to Venus with a deep, dark secret that was withheld from them by mission control. The problem is that the show seems to have been canceled after only a handful of episodes, all without telling us what the deep, dark secret was! Painful.

And I finally got on board with the Sanctuary series. I’m not sure why I haven’t tried it thus far, but so far the few new episodes I’ve sampled are pretty good, if just a little bit silly in some places with the special effects used to create the “abnormals” running around Earth. One reason I like Sanctuary is that it stars Amanda Tapping who is from a couple of the older Stargate series.

Finally, I was looking forward to the premiere episode of V which debuted this week. I’ve seen a bunch of trailers for the show where Anna, the leader of the V’s, is projected worldwide as she preaches a phony message of hope, and peace. Too bad the “visitors” aren’t what they seem to be. The first episode was a bit ridiculous in places, but I’ll give it a few more tries before I pass judgment.

So are all Science Lifestylers also SiFi nerds? Tell me!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Feynman Halloween

As an avowed theoretician, I’m not much good at being an experimentalist (of any kind), so when it came time to plan out my costume for Halloween, I was drawing blanks. Luckily Zoe came to my rescue with a great idea to go as the late great Richard Feynman after he won his Nobel Prize in 1965. You’d normally think, what kind of costume would a formal suit be for Halloween and how would anyone know I was supposed to be Feynman? Fortunately, Feynman rarely followed the norm, and his attire for the Nobel Prize was no exception. He wore a dashiki, an often colorful men’s garment widely worn in West Africa that covers the top half of the body.

Being a Feynman groupie like myself, Zoe volunteered for the creative task of making me a Feynman dashiki shirt. Check out her handy-work in the inset photo. She found the shirt at a local clothier and hand drew all the cool Feynman diagrams and constructed a faux Nobel Prize medallion. I looked rather dapper as Feynman. I thought of carrying along my bongos to heighten the effect, but they are professional grade bongos and rather heavy to lug around all night. I donned the shirt and medal with pride, but never expecting to be recognized. I was right, although one person asked only be dazed over with my response.

Zoe and I went to the West Hollywood Halloween Costume Carnival, and for those of you not from this area the annual event draws a massive crowd. As we sat in a very happening bar on Robertson Blvd., we attempted to review the printouts that served as models for the Feynman diagrams on my shirt. Alas the madness, alcohol, and excitement of the evening were too overpowering so we moved on to see the sights. The creativity put into the costumes we witnessed on the street was stellar, but I felt in my own kind of creativity hot zone wearing Zoe’s design. I can safely say I was very likely the only physicist at the festival and loving every minute of it!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Space Exploration Debate

There has been much recent debate both by the general public and scientific establishment about priorities with the U.S. space program. Even the membership of the Planetary Society, an organization devoted to the exploration of space, is undecided in a recent article in the Planetary Report.

I thought it would be appropriate to open a similar debate here on the SLB. PLEASE REGISTER YOUR VOTE! Also, feel free to leave a comment with your perspective on the subject.

In your opinion, what should be the GLOBAL priority with respect to space exploration?
Manned missions to the moon.
Build a permanent moon base.
Manned mission to Mars.
Non-manned missions.
Space
telescopes.
pollcode.com free polls

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mathematical Modeling

As I’ve said many times before here on the SLB, I enjoy observing seeming incongruities with mathematics and science and the more superficial and overly socialized areas of everyday life, only to be surprised by curious intersections. Case in point, consider the television sensation America's Next Top Model - Cycle 13. Now I don’t actually watch this show! Rather I heard from some mathematical grapevines I hang with that there is a contestant who claims to be a mathematician. In fact, she makes a point of mentioning mathematics on pretty much every episode so far. Imagine that! My curiosity thus got the better of me and I had to find out more about this enigma of the runway.

The model’s name is Brittany Markert, 21, a student at Santa Clara University in Northern California. Markert is indeed a senior majoring in mathematics, although she had to take a temporary break from school to appear on the show. She does seem to be the real deal, valedictorian of her high school class, winner of the 2006 Freshman Mathematics Contest prize at SCU, and scored a perfect score on the math portion of her SAT exam.

A native of Livermore, California, Markert survived a ruthless nationwide casting process to become one of the 14 contestants on the popular reality series. She never thought she’d get the role due to the fact she is of subpar height for modeling at 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Being true to her nerdy upbringing, Markert spends much more time hitting the books than frequenting the gym (she realizes that it must drive other women nuts to hear that).

This Physics Groupie hopes that after all is said and done, a mathematician comes out on top of the modeling competition. Who said that couture and Calculus don’t mix!?

[The inset picture of Markert is from the show; however her 2005 college orientation picture is of pretty much the same caliber.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Moo Cow's Science Adventures

Zoe is originally from the East Coast and she has a big, wonderful East Coast family with whom she keeps in very close contact. Her family is complete with a charming brood of young nieces and nephews, and they enjoy knowing what Aunt Zoe is up to. One cute way Zoe came up with to communicate with all the kids is to take along a little Moo Cow doll belonging to one of the kids and take photos at different destinations here in So Cal. The kids love seeing their Moo Cow at all these interesting places.

This Physics Groupie thought that tradition was a fantastic idea so I decided to extrapolate the concept a bit and I came up with a new theme that all you Science Lifestylers might use – introducing Moo Cow’s Science Adventures. See the inset photo of friendly Moo Cow sunning herself over at Caltech. Moo Cow has also been to Mars, and I’m sure you can come up with all sorts of new science adventures for your own version of Moo Cow.

So if you have any kids in your life that you want to impress with your science escapades, bring your own Moo Cow along for the ride!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hubble’s Amazing Rescue

“Hubble’s Amazing Rescue” is a wonderful new film produced for the NOVA television science series documenting the compelling story of the mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The film presents an insider’s perspective of the May 2009 rescue mission starting a full two years leading up to launch all the way to the dangerous 12-day mission and its five pressure-filled spacewalks. The Space Shuttle Atlantis crew travelled 5,276,000 miles in 197 Earth orbits during the mission.

Filmmaker Rushmore DeNooyer crafts a fascinating story of scientific intrigue. After nearly 20 years in space and hundreds of thousands of spectacular images, HST’s gyroscopes and sensors were failing, its batteries running down, and some of its instruments were already dead. The only hope to save Hubble was a mission so dangerous that in 2004 NASA cancelled it because it was considered too risky. But after persistent urging by scientists and the general public, NASA revived the mission.

This story of the final Hubble repair mission and the end of space shuttle missions is one of human fortitude in the search for nature’s secrets. After witnessing a very successful repair mission, the viewer is excited about new images, information, and insights that will emerge from the powerful upgrades to the world-famous telescope.

The Physics Groupie previewed the film prior to its premiere Tuesday, October 13 on PBS. It is a tantalizing tale that will excite any Science Lifestyler with a sense of adventure in pursuit of scientific discovery. I wanted to stand up and cheer at the completion of the film, the significance to human scientific progress is that profound. I highly recommend viewing the film for an enjoyable family science evening at home. In preparation for the film, it would be fun to have the kids build a “hand-held Hubble” scale model of HST. The Hubble should be part of every family!

[Shown in the attached picture is astronaut and physicist John Grunsfeld who performed three of the mission’s five spacewalks. Dr. Grunsfeld is a graduate of MIT.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Galilean Nights

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has served its purpose well thus far, to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe. There have been many signature events this year in observance of the contributions the field of astronomy has given to the expansion of human knowledge. One upcoming event that everyone should try to attend is Galilean Nights on October 22-24.

During this time the world’s professional and amateur astronomers will be out in force to encourage as many people as possible to look through a telescope. The special spotlight is on the objects that Galileo observed namely the Moon and Jupiter with its four “Galilean moons.” It will be fun for the whole family to relive the revolutionary discoveries made 400 years ago.

For information about finding a star party near you, or about how to plan your own event, just visit the organization’s website (see above link) for all the details.

[Shown in the attached picture is an entry in Galileo’s notebook with drawings of Jupiter and its moons.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Physics Party Tricks

Being part of the Science Lifestyle means you have special capabilities to dazzle people at parties. For example, knowledge of basic physics means you can do all sorts of clever and amazing things that to some will be like magic (actually good magic is nothing more than good physics and applications of life sciences). In the attached video, you’ll see a nice little trick involving a spoon, a fork, a glass, and a toothpick. It is pretty simple but quite interesting.

For some more interesting physics tricks, check out the SmarterThanThat.com website. The site provides a variety of home experiments that demonstrate scientific phenomena and is run by Moriel Schottlender, a New York physics student almost done with her B.S. degree. Moriel (aka Mooeypoo) is also an aspiring astrophysicist, experimenter, and skeptical activist and is passionate about getting children excited about science - music to this Physics Groupie's ears!



Friday, October 16, 2009

Exoplanets!

I can't think of anything more exciting than to keep a close watch on the discovery of extra solar planets, so-called "exoplanets", planetary bodies circling other stars. It’s been a dream of astronomers since the early days of gazing up at the sky to find other Earth-like planets which may harbor life. Today’s exoplanet research is making this dream a reality, and soon now we’ll see an abundance of planets very similar in nature to Mother Earth.

Although work to find exoplanets began as early as 1988, the first confirm discovery of an exoplanet was in 1995 with the detection of a 51 Pegasi b by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory. Since that time, 369 exoplanets have been detected.

There are a variety of methods used to find exoplanets. The first and most common is the spectroscopic radial velocity or "wobble" method that infers the existence of an exoplanet as its gravitational pull makes the star move towards or away from Earth. Another popular method used today is the transit method where the brightness of a star diminishes by a small amount as a planet crosses in front.

About one quarter of the exoplanets found so far are so-called "Hot Jupiters," planets whose mass is close to or exceeds that of Jupiter and orbits very close to the host star (0.05 astronomical units, where AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun). The recent discovery of WASP-18b is a great example of a Hot Jupiter, 10 times the mass of Jupiter, and orbiting at a distance of just 0.02 AU. The orbital period (time it takes to circle its star) is only 22 hours. Just imagine something that large whipping around a star that quickly! WASP-18b is even more unusual because it is going to crash into its star in about 1 million years.

The smallest exoplanet to be discovered thus far surfaced in September 2009. Named CoRoT-7 b, it is the first rocky planet found outside our Solar System. It has a density similar to that of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth making it only the fifth known terrestrial planet in the Universe. Its star is a solar-type star at a distance of 150 parsecs from Earth. CoRoT is a space mission led by the French national space agency, CNES.

I like to monitor all the recent exoplanet discoveries by checking The Planetary Society's Exoplanet Catalog every few weeks. It can be a fun family activity to have the kids check the list on a regular basis. That way little Catherine can say "Hey Dad, they found another Super Earth today. I'll tell you all about it at dinner tonight!"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Curious Number Trick

Here is a little number trick you can use to amaze your friends. The idea is to pick any number between 10 and 1,000, and then carry out the algorithm below. The resulting answer will always be 42 no matter what number you choose. Imagine that! As someone devoted to a life of science and mathematics you realize there is no magic here so please submit your proofs here on the Science Lifestyle Blog. See who can come up with the correct proof first.

Tell your friend to pick a number.

[She picks 575]

Add the digits together.

[17]

Add the digits again.

[8]

Add 3 to the result.

[11]

Subtract this result from the original number.

[562]

Add the digits together once again.

[15]

Find the remainder left when you divide the result by nine.

[6]

Square the result.

[36]

Now add 6 to the result.

[42]

The result is always 42! Try it again to see.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

End of the World in 2012, Get Off Now?


One of the most valuable things about being in the Science Lifestyle is that you tend to be insulated from being bamboozled by incredible, unscientific claims appearing in the news, tabloids, e-mail spam, etc. A great example of this is the prediction that the world will end on December 21, 2012 based on the Mayan calendar.

Doomsayers observe that the Mayan calendar “runs out” in 2012. Therefore we are to believe that these ancient people, whose civilization ran its course from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., without the Calculus, Copernican heliocentric model, general relativity, or any other significant scientific apparatus to form a basis of that conclusion, were somehow able to formulate this end-point for human existence. Fantastic!

It is amazing that any rational person believes this wild prophecy. Even the current day Mayans think it is ridiculous, and quite frankly they are tired of Westerners asking them about it.

And yet people are scared. Why? It is because most people can’t employ the scientific method to discern for themselves the truth value of these kinds of inaccuracies. Heck, all someone has to do is use Google to zero in on rational explanations for mysterious claims, but I digress. Internet doomsday rumors terrify the timid, impressionable public who don’t have the intellectual toolset to make sense of the commonsense realities of nature. I hate to sound condescending, but I object when people can’t THINK for themselves.

One of the factoids behind the prediction is a rare astronomical alignment that happens roughly every 25,800 years – when the Sun lines up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy on a winter solstice. But the Mayans never said the world is going to end, and their calendar actually goes way beyond 2012 if one looks closely. Apocalypse is a very Western, Christian phenomenon, so maybe all the Western myths are exhausted and new ones required.

It doesn’t help folks to shape rational perspectives when Hollywood releases movies that support the myths. Next month the movie “2012” opens in cinemas, featuring earthquakes, meteor showers, and a tsunami dumping an aircraft carrier on top of the White House. Yikes!

I’m glad that all you Science Lifestylers out there can move past all this mental clutter and concentrate on something productive. Fear not 2012!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stargazing at the White House

On a recent evening on the White House South Lawn, President Obama, wife Michelle, and a group of about 150 middle-school students looked toward the heavens for some stargazing fun. The star party was eight months in planning and had many luminaries on hand, including former and current astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, John Grunsfeld, and Mae Jamieson; presidential science advisor John Holdren; and NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

In his remarks to the students, the president challenged those in attendance to strive for greatness, “What will your great discovery be?” he asked. “Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky. Now it’s your turn.” I am pleased to learn that President Obama is pressing for dramatic improvement in the quality of U.S. mathematics and science education. This is a refreshing change in encouragement for our nation’s young people.

You can view President Obama’s opening statement by clicking here and check out some of the stargazing, the Double-Double in Lyra through the Celestron CPC 800 8” SCT telescope used for the star party. The proceedings were broadcast on NASA TV.

The photo attached to this post pictures two exceptional teenagers, 14 year-old Caroline Moore who last year became the youngest person to discover a supernova, and high-school sophomore Lucas Bolyard who discovered a pulsar in archived radio telescope observations. What a superb head start these youngsters have in making a serious contribution to the field of astronomy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SETI Keeps on Listening

I greatly enjoyed the scenes from the movie “Contact” where Jodie Foster’s character Dr. Ellie Arroway was out sitting on the hood of her car near a giant radio telescope listening for signals from space. The scenes were shot at an actual radio telescope facility, the Very Large Array (VLA) located in Socorro, New Mexico. The powerful image of a researcher intimately devoted to scientific discovery gave me a warm feeling about the fact that a real-life organization like Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is diligently attempting to discover life beyond our planet. As much exhilaration as a movie can engender it is nothing compared to the reality of what SETI actually does.

SETI continues today, its search that began in 1960. Although no detection of an alien civilization has been made, there is much more of the sky to search at many more possible frequencies. Why there has been no signal detected is anyone's guess. It could be the radio silence found thus far is a function of SETI's limited search band, or the assumptions of the landmark Drake equation may be faulty, or maybe we just need to put more resources into the search.

The SETI project is employing two exciting new areas of technology to further the scope of the search. First, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is the latest technology being offered for use by the SETI organization through a generous donation of $30 million by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. ATA is comprised of 42 telescope dishes at a desolate location in Hat Creek, Calif. A total of 350 dishes are planned, but additional funding is needed to realize this goal. Current SETI is scanning the heavens at frequencies around 1,420 Mhz which is the frequency at which hydrogen emits electromagnetic waves. It is thought that this is the most likely frequency an alien civilization might use to transmit signals. ATA, however, will scan a much broader range, from 500 MHz to 11.2 GHz, a range of 10 billion channels.

The second new technology is the Lick Observatory Optical SETI Project which can detect very brief optical flashes from cosmic objects and technologies. This telescope will be located in the Cagnegie dome at the Lick Observatory and initially will consist of an ensemble of 7 Meade 16” LX200-ACF telescopes working in tandem. This is the first attempt at using the optical spectrum in the search for signals from alien civilizations.

The SETI Institute is located in Mountain View, Calif., and has involved many high-profile supporters and luminaries such as the late Carl Sagan, Intel founder Gordon Moore, Frank Drake, Manhattan Project physicist Philip Morrison, senior astronomer Seth Shostak, and many more. Dr. Jill Tarter, director of SETI’s research department, was the model for the Ellie Arroway character in the 1997 movie “Contact.” The SETI Institute is a nonprofit corporation that depends on sponsorship by a number of different organizations such as NASA and JPL, as well as donations from the public. SETI has an excellent “Adopt a Scientist” fund raising program that is described in detail on their website.

This Physics Groupie has been a SETI member for many years and participates in the search by running the SETI@Home screensaver 24/7, just to do my part. SETI is one organization that needs all our support. Please consider joining up to be part of something that may change humankind’s path forever.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Slamming the Moon

It is great being part of the science lifestyle because you get to look forward to cool astronomical and space events. It is even more fun if the event is well publicized in advance so the general public can take part in the experience. Tomorrow, Friday October 9, in the early morning hours around 4:30am PDT, is a great example. This is when the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will propel a rocket and slam it into the moon in order to find possible traces of water. A watery moon could pave the way for a future lunar base that would need water and breathable air which could be derived from water.

LCROSS launched in June and is now set to perform its experiment. LCROSS will send a Centaur rocket, a 5,200 lb. projectile travelling at 5,600 miles per hour, plunging into the 60-mile-wide crater Cabeus near the moon’s south pole (and dig a 13 foot hole in the process). Meanwhile, LCROSS will maneuver itself into position to fly through the dust cloud rising as much as six miles above the lunar surface. The debris will be analyzed onboard LCROSS to determine any water content.

This extraordinary event will be carefully watched by observatories around the world along with the Hubble Space Telescope. Even amateur astronomers can take part in the viewing with a telescope having at least a 10-inch aperture. The project is managed by the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. and a crowd of thousands of science enthusiasts are expected for an evening of music and movies that will culminate with a live video feed of the impact.

This kind of event is a perfect science-family activity, although getting the kids up at that hour may be a challenge. It will be well worth the effort however, especially if the presence of water is confirmed. Isn’t science wonderful?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hubble Continues to Amaze

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has captivated the world’s imagination since its launch in 1990. The images taken by HST over the years have opened up a level of unparalleled clarity into the cosmos. When it looked like the aging old dame of space telescopes was nearing the end of its life, I was relieved to learn there would be one final repair mission (HST-SM4, the fourth servicing mission) which would allow the telescope to function until at least 2014 when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch and take over the task of probing the universe.

The servicing mission was a great success but the science world held its collective breath as HST was put through its early paces. With a collection of new instruments and upgrades, HST recently began to show off its new talents. If the initial batch of images is any indication, we’re in store for some amazing science in the years to come.

HST already has demonstrated its rejuvenated powers with a stunning collection of new images. On top of the list are images of exploding stars, a stellar nursery, colliding galaxies and the lensing effect of a galactic cluster nearly half way across the universe. HST’s calibration just after the servicing mission was interrupted briefly on July 19th, for an unusual opportunity, to observe Jupiter in the aftermath of a collision with a suspected comet. HST's suite of new instruments now allows it to study the universe across a broad array of the electromagnetic spectrum, from ultraviolet light all the way to near-infrared light.

For HST, a new phase of full science operation commences. Demand for observing time will be intense. Astronomers look forward to using HST for a broad range of observations especially exoplanet research. There are also plans to obtain the deepest ever far-infrared portrait of Universe to expose new young galaxies that existed when the Universe was less than 500 million years old.

This Physics Groupie looks forward to the next Hubble decade as the stage is set for unparalleled discoveries from the distant corners of the universe. Thanks to the rebirth of Hubble, another generation of school children can grow up with a unique view of the cosmos never before witnessed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An Elegant Evening for Astrophysics

On a recent beautiful summer evening, Zoe and I attended a wonderful event hosted by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy to honor Professor Andrea Ghez with her appointment as the Leichtman & Levine Astrophysics Endowed Chair. The distinction is one of many awards bestowed upon Professor Ghez in recent years, the result of ground-breaking research contributing to a better understanding of the Milky Way’s galactic center. The endowed chair will allow Ghez more flexibility in her pursuit of her research goals.

The event took place atop the new Physics and Astronomy building in the open air 3rd floor patio. The patio is a perfect place for such receptions, with a beautiful view of the surrounding areas of campus including Powell Library. The dining tables were very well manicured, complete with name cards for all the attendees. Upon entering the patio, we were given name badges and a special card containing our table number. Our every need was anticipated as we were offered fine wine (my favorite Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was among the selections) and tasty hors d'oeuvres. As we mingled in the crowd, Professor Ghez was swamped with well wishers. We had a long, insightful chat with the department chair, Ferdinand Coroniti, who clued us in about the dynamics of leading his department into a new era, one where the department’s stature has risen to stellar heights in the past decade.

A variety of luminaries were in attendance for the cocktail reception and formal sit-down dinner – Department Chair Ferdinand Coroniti, UCLA Dean of Physical Sciences Joseph Rudnick, and even UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Of course Professor Ghez was the guest of honor and delivered a rousing acceptance talk. Ghez has an inordinate ability to communicate complex scientific subjects to the masses. If there is a short-list of candidates who could possibly fill the shoes of the late Carl Sagan in bringing astronomy to the public, Dr. Ghez has got to be a top choice.

After the excellent dinner, Zoe and I were able to greet Dr. Ghez at last. Gracious and humble as always, she accepted our felicitations. Having already won the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and election to the National Academy of Sciences, I mentioned to her that the limit of the number of feathers in her hat is approaching infinity (a very small math joke).

Next to my primary area of interest, gravitational wave astrophysics, I am most interested in following the progress of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. This dynamic group of researchers led by Dr. Ghez is, in my opinion, destined to do great things. Do I hear Nobel Prize in their future?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Life as an Independent Researcher (scientific misfit)

As a born again scientist, my main emphasis is doing independent research in astrophysics. I really love this area because it satisfies my desire for seeing the big picture, and it also caters to my appreciation of theoretical endeavors. There are a number of areas within astrophysics I enjoy exploring, the theoretical basis of black holes, dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, the large scale structure of the universe and galaxy clusters, and most of all gravitational wave astronomy.

The area that I spend most of my time researching is gravitational wave detection. Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s general relativity. To date, no direct detection of gravitational waves has been recorded. However the time is ripe for the first detection because by 2015 with the operation of Advanced LIGO, the detection of gravitational waves will become commonplace and gravitational wave astronomy will usher in a new era in the field of astronomy.

As an independent researcher, i.e. not employed by a research institution that is a member of the LSC (LIGO Scientific Collaboration), I have no access to the raw data collected by LIGO. When I inquired about why the data was not freely available, nobody could give me a solid answer. My feeling is that since pure science results that are not classified in terms of military secrecy should be open to the taxpaying public given that the project is being funded by the NSF. The only reason I could ascertain was that if they gave out the data and the public analyzed it and someone declared a detection of a gravitational wave, then the gravitational wave orthodoxy would have to verify it. Too many false detections would therefore waste the establishment’s time. I guess I can accept that, so I’ve had to work around this problem of being an independent.

One route I explored was to become a “free agent” in astrophysics. I was directed to several people in the LSC about my ideas of applying evolutionary algorithms to the data analysis task of LIGO. Each researcher I spoke to found merit in my suggestions. Ultimately, I was invited to make a presentation to the LSC at one of their regular group meetings. That way, I could be accepted as an independent member of LSC. Currently, there are no such members. Feeling like a square peg in a round hole (aka research misfit), I opted to look for another path.

One promising alternative I discovered was the Mock LISA Data Challenge (MDLC) project. LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is the future generation of gravitational wave observatories. It will be the first space-based observatory. The MDLC project is designed to take a head start on the data analysis task by inviting research groups to devise innovative detection algorithms using artificially generated LISA data, injected with waveforms predicted for a variety of astrophysical events that give off gravitational waves such as coalescing super-massive black holes. Participating with MDLC does not require membership in LSC.

The moral of this story and the valuable lesson I learned through my experiences an astrophysics outsider (you may meet with similar obstacles when trying to breach the boundaries of other scientific fields) is that the science establishment might not know what to do with you. In my experience the researchers are generally receptive of new ideas, and in my case, I was told that the LIGO data analysis group was actively engaging researchers from other disciplines to come up with fresh methods. This is a very good indication of openness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Life Changing Trip to LIGO

Sometimes just reading the newspaper can change the course of your life. That’s exactly happened to this Physics Groupie a few years ago and I’m quite grateful for the experience. The Saturday, June 10, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times ran a front page “Column One” article that served to significantly refine my scientific focus which at that time was a bit overly broad. The significance of the article is ironic given the budget cuts many newspapers have experienced of late, not to mention that science coverage is almost non-existent in most newspapers. Yet, there it was, “Gravity’s Field of Dreams” by John Johnson Jr., an excellent piece describing the search for gravitational waves and the project called LIGO (laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory) designed to detect the waves. This article served to direct me to the scientific field that I ultimately chose to devote my time to – gravitational wave astrophysics. The point is that the event or circumstance that pushes you to a specific field of research may come from an entirely unexpected source. Just keeps your eyes open for opportunities like this.

In early February 2007, Zoe and I decided to visit the LIGO Hanford observatory. I contacted the observatory’s education and outreach coordinator Dale Ingram to schedule a private tour of the facility. I found that LIGO is very open and enthusiastic to receive visitors. We flew into SEATAC (Seattle/Tacoma International Airport), and then took a short flight to the small town of Pasco. There is a tri-city area consisting of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. We decided to stay at a new, centrally-located motor lodge in Pasco. We took some time to explore the area and take in some local color at a microbrew and some good restaurants Zoe found for us. The next morning we were able to take a modest drive to the Hanford facility for our tour.

Upon arriving at the LIGO facility, I was greatly impressed by the uniqueness of the area. Hanford is located in an area of windswept desert very much unlike most of Washington State. It was cold, bleak and the featureless horizon stretched on for miles and miles. Due to very little precipitation, the entire area is devoid of vegetation. In a way, the stark environment would be quite compatible with ground-breaking scientific research. In a place like that it would be hard to get distracted from your work.

During our visit, Dale provided a wonderful all-encompassing tour of the entire facility that included a visit to the control room where scientists can monitor an impressive array of projection screens showing a wide variety of indicators, and system status displays (see the photo of me standing in the control room that is attached to my profile for this blog). The visitor’s center includes a large lecture hall where public presentations are made, and some fascinating displays about the science of detecting gravitational waves. The lobby even has a real life “Weber bar,” a device once thought to have made consistent detections (currently no direct detection has ever been made) of gravitational waves.

Dale graciously lined up a meeting for me with one of the resident scientists, Dr. Michael Landry. “Mike” as he likes to be called, was very receptive to my ideas of applying my background in data mining, specifically evolutionary algorithms, to the analysis of LIGO data. Mike was a stoic, contemplative experimentalist who headed up the Continuous Wave (CW) group for LIGO. His group monitors one potential source of gravitational waves, pulsars. I didn’t know much about pulsars at the time, but I made it a point to get up to speed with them. I noticed a book on Mike’s desk when I sat in his office. I asked him weeks later for the reference, “Pulsar Astronomy,” and now the book is one of my favorites. As I sat in Mike’s office, I couldn’t help but notice the austere view from his desk overlooking the Washington desert. This place would be perfect for conducting serious research.

Zoe’s and my short trip to this science facility proved to be very rewarding. I came away from the visit with vigor in my desire to learn more about the field and investigate ways I could participate in on-going research. This was probably one my most productive science trips ever!

[The attached photo shows the Physics Groupie shivering in the cold wind near the Y-arm of the LIGO instrument. LIGO consists of two perpendicular 4km arms.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In-Flight Quantum Mechanics

One area of science for which I’ve always held much mystique is quantum mechanics. So much of the quantum world seems unnatural to us macro-size bipedal eukaryotes. Even the simple “double slit” experiment that demonstrates the wave-particle duality of light can drive one batty. The theory even confounded Einstein with his “God does not play dice with the universe” exclamation because so much of quantum theory centers on probabilities.

I spent a good six months studying the subject and the mathematics behind it, read: Schrodinger’s equation and all its glory. I recall the time one autumn during my quantum education when I went to visit my sister who was living in Casper, Wyoming at the time. The whole trip, aside from visiting my big sis, was devoted to intense study of quantum mechanics.

Armed with a great textbook Introduction to Quantum Mechanics by David J. Griffiths, used for the undergrad course for physics majors at UCLA, I started reading during the plane ride from Los Angeles to Denver, and the puddle jumper flight from Denver to Casper. The latter segment was particularly memorable because I was flying in a small 14-seat turboprop through a snow storm with quite a bit of turbulence as we traversed the Wyoming countryside. But as I was bouncing along, clinging for dear life, it was quantum mechanics that kept me sane. At one point during the flight, we quickly lost some altitude just as I was trying to solve a particularly thorny wave function problem. I didn’t mind though because I realized that in some parallel universe (that is if you believe in multiverse theory) I would be in an alternative timeline with no turbulence whatsoever!

Once on the ground, I enjoyed a week of peace and tranquility studying quantum mechanics while regularly enjoying a hot pot of tea on the dining table of my sister’s house which overlooked a snow capped Casper Mountain. For some reason, I believe that hard core science and pristine nature go hand in hand. It doesn’t get better than that!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sidewalk Astronomers

It is wonderful when you’re walking along in some public place frequented by all sorts of people and you stumble across a little bit of science. Well that’s exactly what happened to Zoe (my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire) and me on a recent evening in a lively shopping district nearby Caltech. We were strolling along on a balmy summer night when we noticed a crowd on the sidewalk. As we got closer, I recognized what was going on. It was the Sidewalk Astronomers group with two large Dobsonian telescopes to delight the crowd.

Sidewalk Astronomers is a volunteer amateur astronomy association founded in 1968 by noted astronomer John Dobson. He is the inventor of the Dobsonian telescope. Although based in California, the group has members all over the world. The group designates high-traffic public locations and sets up telescopes to allow the public to gaze upon the heavens. In many cases, it is the person’s first experience in seeing the cosmos through a telescope.

On this night, both telescopes had lines ten deep with passersby to view the Moon and Jupiter with three Galilean satellites – Ganymede, Europa, and Calisto. Io had just dipped behind the planet so was not visible. The demonstration impressed many in the crowd. I overheard a group of teenage boys loudly exclaiming after their viewing, “I love Jupiter!” It is nice to see a young person react this way after an unexpected brush with science. Hopefully it will have a lasting impression.

This Physics Groupie thinks that Sidewalk Astronomers provides a very useful public educational service at a time when science is not on most people’s mind. Please consider contacting your local Sidewalk Astronomers group to attend a star party, or astronomy program. This group is very worthy of your attention.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nemesis


It is widely known that a majority of stars have companions. These so-called binary star systems seem to be the norm rather than the exception throughout the universe. A persistent question in astronomy has been why the Sun (our star) is not in a binary system? That is a matter of opinion according to Richard Muller, Professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley. Muller hypothesizes that the Sun actually does have a companion, a red dwarf star he’s named “Nemesis”.

The Nemesis theory was originally published in Nature by Davis, Hut, and Muller (vol 308, pp 715-717, 1984). The theory was created to account for the regularity of mass extinctions on Earth with a periodicity of 26 million years. According to the theory, a binary companion to the Sun in a highly elliptical orbit perturbs the Oort comet cloud every 26 million years causing comet showers in the inner solar system. A comet striking the Earth would cause mass extinctions. Nemesis is thought to orbit the Sun at a distance of 50,000 to 100,00 AU (astronomical units, the distance of the Earth to the Sun). Muller believes that Nemesis is currently 1-1.5 light years away.

Nemesis is most likely a red dwarf with a magnitude between 7 and 12. There are roughly 3,000 candidate stars in consideration for Nemesis. There are several all sky surveys underway (Pan-STARRS and LSST) that should confirm or rule out the existence of Nemesis in the next several years. So it is just a waiting game to see if our Sun has a sibling.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Antimatter on the Brain

Antimatter is usually thought of as the stuff of science fiction. The Star Trek series made good use of the concept; the warp drive was driven by antimatter. In the original series Star Trek episode Obsession, Captain Kirk tells an ensign that one pound of antimatter can destroy a solar system.

Let it be told, antimatter is for real. The positron, for example, is an antimatter particle of the electron with opposite charge. When a positron encounters an electron, the encounter annihilates both, producing a pair of photons. Although this explanation resonates for particle physicists, are there any real world applications of antimatter apart from a wayward warp drive? You betcha.

In fact there is a very real world application of antimatter that is in regular use in the medical field. It is call a PET scan that is used in nuclear medicine imaging. “Positron emission tomography” is a technique used for the diagnosis of brain tumors among other things. A radioisotope is injected into the patient that undergoes a positron emission decay which emits a positron. When the positron encounters an electron, a burst of light is created that is detected by the scanner. Imagine that, matter/antimatter annihilation happening right inside your head. That’s no laughing anti-matter!

[Image credit: Matt Chisholm]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alterraun Verner – Football Player and Math Major



The worlds of football and mathematics rarely cross paths, but in one recent case I’m pleased to find the fusion isn’t entirely impossible. Take student-athlete Alterraun Verner, member of the UCLA football team, as an example. Verner is a star senior cornerback and two-time academic All-American majoring in mathematics/applied science. He is as successful in the classroom as he is on the field. It is great to see how collegiate athletics can blend well with mathematics.

Verner may be one of the few on the defensive unit who can calculate the trajectory of the ball required to make an interception (one of his fortes). But then I’ve always held that a distinguishing characteristic of professional athletes is their brain’s innate ability to perform differential equation calculations in real-time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

QED

When doing mathematics, there is a feeling of exhilaration to confidently write QED at the culmination of an arduous proof. Whether attempting a direct proof, a proof by contradiction, or a proof by induction, the feeling is all the same when you proclaim QED at the end! The Latin phrase “quod erat demonstrandum” which literally means “which was to be demonstrated” is traditionally used to denote the end of a mathematical proof.

Alternatives to QED included a small black square, either hollow or solid. In some of my mathematics classes in college we also used three small dots arranged in a triangular fashion to denote the end of a proof. These days, I prefer the more classical QED for my proofs.

Getting to the point of writing QED is sometimes more significant than others. Some proofs are short and concise while others draw on for many pages. Thinks of how Andrew Wiles felt when he was able to write QED after proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, first conjectured in 1637 and remaining unsolved until 1995. In this case, QED spells “relief!”

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dr. George Abell - RIP

The point I’ve reached with my chosen areas of scientific interest, specifically astrophysics, is a great distance from my undergraduate Introduction to Astronomy class at UCLA with the late Professor George Abell (pronounced "A-bell"). The course was widely known as “Astro 3.” I enjoyed the class well enough, but I wasn’t actually that interested in the subject. It is too bad because had I got to know my teacher better, I would have known the foremost researcher in galaxy clusters of the day. Dr. Abell created the Abell catalog of galaxy clusters.

Dr. Abell had an infectious teaching style, full of enthusiasm. Sadly not all my peers were as responsible as they should have been while attending a world-class university. I recall how he would, in a moment of frustration, throw a chalk board eraser across the huge 300-seat lecture hall at a group of fraternity brothers who wouldn’t stop talking during his lecture after repeated warnings. Another memorable moment was when Abell personally illustrated the principles of force and inertia with the ubiquitous “bed of nails” demonstration.

My favorite Hubble image represents a golden memory of my late professor. The image is the Abell 1689 cluster. This Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) image is impressive because so much is conveyed in just a single picture. It dramatically demonstrates the immense nature of the universe, showing one of the most massive galaxy clusters known and which also acts as a gravitational lens.

The science world could use more people like Professor Abell and his significant contributions to the field, as well as his fine tuned ability to articulate the science to others.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Feynman’s Old Classroom

As a physics groupie in search of curious characters, I’m always pleased when I manage to catch up with a scientist whose research I’ve followed, or in some cases when I’m just in the right place at the right time (like when Zoe and I unexpectedly found ourselves in the presence of Stephen Hawking). Sometimes being around science greatness just can’t be planned. This is just what happened when Zoe and I attended the Pacific Coast Gravity Meeting (PCGM) in March 2007 at Caltech.

The annual PCGM attracts researchers from all over the world to a different west coast institution each year to discuss the latest developments in the field of gravitational physics, most notably classical and quantum gravity, general relativistic astrophysics and cosmology, numerical relativity, quantum cosmology, gravitational wave, and experimental gravity. Since this is my primary field of interest, I anxiously awaited the meeting to hear all the latest and greatest directly from the researchers themselves. But what I didn’t realize beforehand was that the affair was to be held in Richard Feynman’s old classroom in 201 East Bridge on the Caltech campus. The rickety old place has seen better days, but it is so steeped in physics history that just being there was motivating. The classroom is the same one depicted in a number of classic pictures of Feynman teaching his now famous classes for The Feynman Lectures on Physics books.

As I sat there soaking up the science, I felt the Feynman presence, the esteemed lore of the place, and the significance of what took place in that room.

[The Physics Groupie stands front center in Feynman’s old classroom in the attached photo.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Well first let me say that I didn’t really have a summer vacation. That is, I didn’t go anywhere special. But then, most of my days are relatively unoccupied and I’m free to pursue all the cool stuff in my scientific agenda. So what’s this essay about then? I’d like to revue how I’ve been setting the stage for my continuing life in science. Some of you may be going through a similar search for academic clarity.

Up until recently I’ve been somewhat undirected in my pursuits of science. It was just 2007 when my own personal outline of scientific interest areas covered three full pages. I’ve worked consciously to trim down the list. It isn’t that I’ve shed these interests; it is more a realization that I need to focus on fewer areas in order to establish myself in those areas and hopefully make a real contribution one day.

My new short-list is pretty straightforward - gravitational wave astrophysics and several related fields - general relativity, numerical relativity, and black holes. A close second is galactic center including the genesis of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* and the study of the structure and dynamics of stars surrounding the black hole. A couple of tertiary fields of interest are exoplanet discovery and cosmology. My short-list is still quite pervasive, but much briefer than a couple of years ago.

I’ve also come to the realization that in order to make a true impact in any of these fields I should have an advanced degree. Although my historic academic interests were solely related to computer science, I must now make the transition to astrophysics. I’m very motivated to do this, however I do have some constraints namely at my advanced age, the timing of this endeavor is critical. In addition, I still fully intend to pursue having children. If this sounds ambitious, well it is but as I’ve said, I’m very motivated.

For starters, I’ve been scouring the Internet for applicable Master of Physics degree programs. Some of the local schools I’d prefer such as Caltech, UCLA, U.C. Berkeley and Stanford want graduate students to head straight into a doctoral program. This would be fine with me; however, given my concurrent priority of having children, I think a masters degree is more realistic. But this route certainly does not preclude a Ph.D. in astrophysics at some later date.

Location is a big consideration. I shouldn’t be hampered by what academic alternatives are available here in Los Angeles, so relocation should be an option. I’ve been considering New England for one simple reason. There is no other region of the country where there are so many quality degree programs in such a small geographical area. In New England you have the big names like MIT, Havard but you also have an incredibly strong extended list – U Mass Amherst, RPI, Rochester Institute of Technology, Boston College, Boston University, Syracuse University, and University of Rochester. Many of the above institutions are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) which means they are active in gravitational wave research.

There is a lot to think about. I promise to keep you all posted. If one day I up and move east you probably won’t even know it as this blog will live regardless of my physical location.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Northern Exposure

One of my favorite all-time television series is “Northern Exposure” which ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995 with a total of 110 episodes. It is peculiar that I didn’t discover the show until 1996, but that didn’t hamper my enthusiasm for what I judged to be one of the best written shows ever.

The show was set in the fictional town of Cicely Alaska. Some say it was modeled after the Inside Passage town of Haines, Alaska while others claim that Talkeetna, Alaska provided the motivation for the town in the show. In any case, the show wasn’t filmed in Alaska at all. It was filmed on location in Roslyn, Washington.

The show developed a cult-like following and I must admit that I’m a card carrying member. It is the reason why I’ve always wanted to visit Roslyn. Fourteen years after the last season, fans still attend the Moosefest festival in Roslyn each year. Now that’s staying power!

For intangible reasons, the show led me to equate a small, rural town in the Pacific Northwest like the one depicted in the show with an openness to science. Why? In part, it is likely the nature of many of the main characters and their innate but understated intelligence. For instance, I loved the philosophical machinations of Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett), host of the “Chris in the Morning” radio show on the fictional KBHR station (pronounced “K-Bear”). Although not formally educated, Chris had time to engage in pure learning due to his time being incarcerated. I recall Chris on one particularly eloquent rant talking about the wave/particle duality of light. Then there was Maurice Minnifield (played by Barry Corbin), the Mercury program astronaut character. Several other characters carried their own intellectual weight such as Maggie O’Connell (played by Janine Turner) the bush pilot, Dr. Joel Fleischman (played by Rob Morrow) the New York doctor from Columbia University, Ruth-Anne Miller (played by Pet Phillips) the general store owner, and in his own way, Ed Chigliak (played by Darren Burrows) the native Alaskan film aficionado. All the characters had their own charm and memorable characteristics.

Another reason I connect the show with scientific research is due to the climate. I’ve always thought of doing research in cold, snowy environs like Alaska. There’s something about sitting around a raging fire late at night, pondering the secrets of the cosmos.

I guess I could see myself playing a role in that kind of community. I’m sure people in a small town like that would liken me to a mad scientist, the astrophysicist that stay’s up late at night doing who-knows-what. I could see myself hanging out at the local tavern (known as “The Brick” in the show, see the attached photo) and trying to educate the local folks in the ways of physics, astronomy, and mathematics as I was chowing down on a moose burger.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Smoot

Only at an institution the caliber of MIT could a fraternity prank still be internationally revered after 50 years. Of course I’m referring to the invention of the “Smoot.” Named after Oliver R. Smoot (class of ’62), the “Smoot” became a part of MIT lore when one frigid night in October 1958, Smoot and a group of his Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers laid his 5-foot, 7-inch frame end-to-end to measure the span of the Harvard Bridge along Massachusetts Avenue that crosses over the Charles River connecting Boston and Cambridge.

The idea was to use Oliver Smoot as a unit of measurement to determine the length of the bridge. As he repeatedly lay down and got up again, it turned out the 2164.8 foot bridge is 364.4 Smoots (plus or minus an ear). The original colorful “Smoot marks” painted on the sidewalk are touched up each year by incoming Lambda Chi Alpha students. A Smoot is recognized enough that it’s even possible to use Google’s calculator function to convert any measurement to Smoots. For example, in the Google search box enter “1 kilometer in Smoots” and click the Search button to find that “1 kilometer = 587.613116 Smoots.”

After graduating from MIT with a degree in Economics, Politics & Science, Smoot received a law degree from Georgetown University. Since then he has served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and president of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). Smoot claims the prank had little influence in his career path.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Biggest Physics Wagers

I’d like to report about a fun science adventure Zoe (my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire) and I had a couple of years ago. We had heard from a variety of sources that there was a hallway in the East Bridge building on the Caltech campus where all of the old wagers between Professor Kip Thorne and other scientists were hanging for all to read. We wanted to see this for ourselves and take some photos.

One weekday afternoon, Zoe and I took off in search of physics lore. It’s always fun to go hunting for physics tradition. We found the hallway right off. It was just down the hall from Professor Thorne’s office. We were in the hallway looking over the framed wager documents when an unknown person walked by and said “Someone has a serious gambling problem there!” We died laughing. How appropriate.

It was curious to discover that Professor Thorne’s favored form of payment in the event he won several of the wagers was a year subscription to Penthouse magazine – many interesting ramifications there.

We studied the half dozen or so wagers, took photos of each one, and then sauntered off together to ponder over what we had just experienced. It was great to witness the playful antics of some of the world’s most preeminent scientists including Stephen Hawking, John Preskill, and S. Chandrasekhar. We certainly found much evidence of curious characters that day.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Magnificent Auroras


One of the science destinations near the top of my list is to visit a northern (or southern for that matter) latitude to witness an aurora. Witnessing the so-called Northern or Southern Lights seems like a wonderful way to visualize a scientific process in action as well as take a pretty exotic trip.

Auroras are caused when charged particles (mostly electrons, but also protons and other heavier particles) from space collide with gas particles in the upper atmosphere (ionosphere, at altitudes above 80km). The phenomena are typical at higher latitudes because the particles follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines (see attached graphic). Notice how the field lines penetrate the atmosphere at the polar regions. The magnetosphere of Earth is a region in space whose shape is determined by the extent of Earth's magnetic field.

Scientists have always thought the north and south auroras mirror one another because magnetic field lines connect the two hemispheres. A new report by researchers in Norway (July 23 Nature) finds that the intensity and pattern of the northern and southern auroras can differ substantially. The differences were imaged by simultaneous satellite observations. Known differences in Earth’s magnetic field strength don’t explain the new data. There are some theories about the auroral asymmetries; they may be driven by large numbers of charged particles flowing between the northern and southern hemispheres along magnetic field lines.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory Threatened


[UPDATE for Sept. 5 - the Station fire that threatened several Southern California science locations appears to be under control at this time. After several very close calls, Mt. Wilson fortunately was not destroyed by the fire. The observatory's website is back in operation: www.mtwilson.edu with requests for donations to go toward the clean-up process.]

The national news these past few days has had significant coverage of the massive forest fire in Southern California, now determined to be the result of arson. As of September 2, the so-called “Station fire” had burned about 150,000 acres and destroyed 64 homes. From my lab/office nearly 40 miles to the southwest, I can clearly see the clouds of smoke and my car was covered with ash this morning. The moon the last few nights has been orange through all the smoky haze in the air. As tragic as all this is, I’ve been holding my breath for the potential threat to scientific research in the first area affected by the fire – La Canada/Flintridge, home of JPL.

JPL is located just a couple of miles south of where the fire originated. Fortunately, the fire took off to the north and spread rapidly. For the moment, JPL looks out of danger. I can’t even imagine what a loss it would be for JPL to disappear.

Another scientific installation that came much closer to being threatened is the famed Mt. Wilson Observatory. The fire crews knew what was at stake and waged a 5 day battle to save the facility. At one point the situation became so dire that firefighters were ordered off the mountain. Fortunately, the next day crews were back and conditions improved. Backfires were set within a few feet of the observatory’s dome. All that could be done was done, and it became a waiting game as the fire stayed below the observatory perimeter. Currently, the fire has retreated to a less-threatening distance, but there is still potential danger for a fire that rapidly changes directions.

It is unimaginable to me that the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory could be destroyed. Mt. Wilson is the storied location where Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch Hooker telescope, made the discovery in 1922-1923 that the universe was expanding. In addition, much research still happens at Mt. Wilson, such as the CHARA experiment that uses six telescopes to measure shapes and sizes of stars, an experiment to monitor changes in the star CIT 6, and a solar observatory. As many as 40 other projects are underway at Mt. Wilson.

It appears that the web server located at the Mt. Wilson observatory is down due to the fire affecting the T1 line connection to the Internet. This means the observatory’s website is not functioning: http://www.mtwilson.edu/. You can take a peek at the situation yourself using the Towercam run by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Situations like this make me reflect on the fragile nature of scientific experimentation. Decades of important work can disappear in a flash. I guess that’s why I greatly appreciate all the science I encounter every day.