Friday, July 31, 2009

Nanotech Revolution

I began my early fascination with nanotechnology significantly before my scientific metamorphosis. Circa 1986, I bought a newly published book called “Engines of Creation” by K. Eric Drexler. The book was absolutely groundbreaking in the sense that it laid out an incredible roadmap for a futuristic technology that would allow the manipulation of matter at the nanometer scale (one billionth of a meter). The passage in the book that hooked me was a description of a future manufacturing process for jet engines. Instead of today’s assembly line style manufacturing, nanotech manufacturing was described as being so different it was surreal. Imagine a big vat supplied with all the raw materials that constitute a jet engine. Add to that a mixture of nanoscale assemblers (robots that can manipulate matter on a molecular level) and the jet engine would literally “grow” out of the vat. The end product would be indistinguishable from a conventionally produced engine. In fact, the nanotech grown engine would be much better because there would be no seams or joints or flaws as with mechanical parts. Instead, the entire engine would be one, big single lump of matter, perfectly functioning as a jet engine. Wild, incredible!

Rewind nearly 30 years, and it was Caltech physicist Richard Feynman who gave a lecture for the American Physical Society in 1959 entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” This talk paved the way for consideration of the prospects of nanotechnology. And it was Drexler’s popular science book nearly 30 years later that provided the ideas and concepts to bring forth a new scientific revolution.

Reading Drexler’s book, I was captivated by the prospects of molecular level assemblers, computer controlled machines that could alter matter, and disassemblers that could deconstruct matter at the molecular level. The book included so many exciting applications of nanotech: manufacturing, medicine, clean energy, and even creating a better tennis ball. Responsibly, the book also examined the downside of being able to manipulate matter in this way. Think of the horrific weapons that could be built by rogue organizations.

It’s been nearly 25 years since Drexler’s vision came in print, and nanotech is quickly becoming something real. Baby steps can be used to describe the progress made in the field thus far, but you’ve got to lay a foundation for a science that could change the world in so many fundamental ways. Nanotech is a new field that draws upon classical physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, materials science, and engineering. It is pervasive by any stretch of the imagination.

Consider a future where inside our bodies, microscopic machines one billionth of a meter in size, hunt and kill cancer cells and regrow flesh and bone. They also may clean oil spills, make sea water potable, fabricate clothing, and be used in electronics, agriculture, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Imagine a graffiti-free future where walls are treated with nanotech paint that automatically senses spray paint and disassembles the paint molecules in a few minutes time to expose a clean wall once again.

The California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) located on the UCLA campus (see attached image) is a perfect example of the effort to make nanotech into something real. Opened December 2007, CNSI is one of only three nanotech centers in the country. The research is real, and so is the steady progress.

Nanotech has also provided fertile ground for SciFi authors. Take the late Michael Crichton’s creepy thriller “Prey” for example with its uncontrollable, self-replicating nanobots, or Greg Bear’s microscopic biological computers that go way wrong in “Blood Music.”

The nanotech revolution has already started and it’s not going away. The best thing to do is keep up with the progress. I think nanotech would be an excellent major field of study for any science-oriented freshman just starting out in college.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mission Central

I have this large white board in my lab/office that I call “Mission Central.” Here I keep track of all upcoming launch and completion dates for important missions and experiments – generally new space (and ground-based) telescopes, planetary exploration missions, and large-scale scientific experiments. I like to lay out my scientific plans years into the future, just like I did with the recent Kepler and Planck launches – I’ll read the original mission proposal document, science backgrounder, related papers and mission details. When launch date approaches I prepare to witness the event live on the Internet. All the launches are covered in great detail on the web which is wonderful for Physics Groupies like me. For families, you can make a whole family event around a launch date, culminating in a family viewing party. Heck, invite your extended family and neighbors too, spread the wealth.

Here is the short-list of upcoming missions that I’m tracking. Be sure to click on the links provided so you can drill down into all the mission information. Some of the launch dates are depressingly far off into the future, but like I said, it is comforting to have my science future all planned out years in advance. I’m excited that I received an invitation to be present for the WISE mission launch later this year. If you have any other important missions that are dear to you, please leave a comment here on the blog to share with other Science Lifestylers.
  • WISE – Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, projected November 2009 launch date. I was invited to the launch of this one and will make a full report!
  • GPI - Gemini Planet Imager, project launch date planned for 2010. Space telescope designed to image exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.
  • LHC – Large Hadron Collider – Restart late Oct. 2009 after the catastrophic accident last year.
  • JWST - James Web Space Telescope, scheduled launch in 2014.
  • GMT - Giant Magellan Telescope – scheduled for completion in 2018.
  • New Horizons – Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. Launched in 2006, with the first Pluto encounter in July 2015 (it takes a long time to get to the edge of the solar system!).
  • TMT - Thirty Meter Telescope – planned completion date 2018, recently selected Mauna Kea as site.
  • E-ELT – European Extremely Large Telescope – planned completion date 2018. Still in the process of selecting a site for the 42 meter scope.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mathematics and the Homeboy

As reported in several previous Science Lifestyle blog essays, I’m always on the lookout for interest in science and mathematics by the general population. I’m usually quite surprised when I find any interest at all here in Los Angeles, aka Tinseltown, La La Land, home of the beautiful people in Hollywood where screen writers and wannabe actors lurk around every corner. But on a recent past weekend, I witnessed something quite curious, almost unbelievable.

I was at the TRW Swap Meet in the South Bay, soaking up the local color of ham radio operators, electronics enthusiasts, and other miscellaneous misfits (although I was probably the only Physics Groupie in the crowd). I was browsing the selection of the only remaining used book seller for math, physics and astronomy titles. My concentration was interrupted when I heard a loud voice ask the proprietor “Off the top of your head, do you have any advanced mathematics books?” This comment was a non sequitur because of who was asking – a young Hispanic man with that distinctive East LA accent, tattoos, baggy clothes, shaved head. I was intrigued. The proprietor did a double take as well and mustered up a response, “Well, yes, I’m sure I do but what general area, maybe engineering?” The patron continued “Yea something like that. I was doing some Laplace transforms.”

OK, I love it when I witness mathematics out of context like that. It excites me. Somewhere, somehow, this unlikely mathematician learned some real math maybe in some “Stand and Deliver” type environment. So I had to figure this out. After chatting with the young man a bit, I found out he was enrolled in Los Angeles City College (LACC), a community college nearby the Griffith Observatory, and he indeed was taking a differential equations class. He had aspirations of getting into mechanical engineering.

I reflected on this random occurrence for some time and came to the conclusion that when it comes to math and physics, you shouldn’t judge a book by it baggy pants. Viva la mathematics!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Mystique of SciAm

From a very young age I remember holding a certain mystique for Scientific American magazine (some people in the know affectionately call it “SciAm”). The magic started when I was a kid and would go next door to swim in the Lieberman’s pool during the long summer vacation months. My younger and very good friend Ben would graciously invite me over for hours of refreshing enjoyment, a respite from those sweltering hot San Fernando Valley summers. This is the same pool I learned the art of swimming so I have much gratitude. But I’m also thankful for something more significant now as a Physics Groupie. This is when I was introduced to Scientific American.

Ben’s father was a psychiatrist and maintained a subscription to SciAm. I recall seeing a whole shelf in their living room library devoted to back issues of SciAm. I was oddly drawn to those magazines. They represented knowledge beyond what I could comprehend. I always wanted to sneak a peek in them. But at 10 years old, I would look at the pages in amazement and not understand anything. I secretly dreamed of the day when I could read a whole issue and understand everything. I guess that day has come. SciAm is my starting point each month for developments in a wide variety of scientific fields. And yes, if I put my mind to it, I can pretty much understand any article, although the life science topics are sometimes a challenge because I never took college level chemistry or biology.

I think that SciAm should be a requirement for any Science Lifestyler. If you wish to get a monthly dose of leading-edge research and trends in science, this is the magazine for you. I’m especially excited about SciAm issues that contain a feature about astrophysics, cosmology, or planetary science. Sometimes SciAm puts together “collection issues” centered about a specific topic. My recent favorite was the issue about black holes.

SciAm can be fun too when used as a social tool. Zoe, my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire, and I frequently settle down at a nice restaurant with a copy of the recent issue and discuss the various articles and news items. It can break the boredom on long flights as well. A science family can really benefit from a SciAm subscription. Parents can select a few articles each month to discuss at the dinner table, or science vacations can be planned around visiting science destinations across the country or the world.

Finding a new issue of SciAm in my mailbox always brings a smile to my face each month. Pick a copy at a newsstand. I guarantee you’ll become enamored too!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jupiter Slammed … Again!

The big astronomical news from last week was the dramatic visible evidence of an impact on Jupiter that suddenly appeared between July 17th and 19th. The attached photo clearly shows the new dark marking on Jupiter’s surface that is remarkably similar to the marks left when the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up into more than 20 fragments due to gravitational forces and slammed into the giant planet in 1994 (15 years ago to the day). The S-L 9 event was the first direct observation of two objects colliding in space.

The recent impact was first reported by amateur Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley on his backyard 14.5-inch reflecting telescope (helleva backyard scope!). There is compelling evidence that the dark mark is black dust resulting from the impact of an asteroid or comet. The spot is located near Jupiter’s southern pole and covers a 190 million square kilometer area, as big as the Pacific Ocean. If anything like this object had impacted with the Earth, it would have meant the end of life on our planet. Fortunately, the large gas giant Jupiter has long been known to be a cosmic vacuum cleaner, shielding the inner solar system of such objects.

As result of the impact, The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) team suspended calibration operations taking place on the recently retrofitted telescope and rushed its new Wide Field Camera 3 into service to image the impact mark. Check out the HST website for the most recent images. They are spectacular!

What strikes me as being very odd is that an asteroid or comet of sufficient mass to cause such a large impact on Jupiter would go unnoticed by sky watchers around the world. Imagine all the telescopes trained upward at the night sky, and not one was tracking the object before it hit. Actually, the situation presents a distinct opportunity for all you amateur astronomers out there – start scaning the solar system for other objects. I’ve always wanted to track such an object before an astronomical event of this sort. What a great honor for an amateur astronomer to get recognition for a discovery of this magnitude. Does this give you any ideas? If so, get out there with your friends, family, and kids and start looking!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sweet Deal for a Math Tutor

I take pleasure in seeing the fruits of an enterprising young man as much as the next person, but over the past few months I’ve been witness to quite the sweet deal for one particular math tutor. A little background first. I often find myself at a particularly large Starbucks coffeehouse in Santa Monica. This one is nice because there are a lot of tables for people like me who need a place to do some serious blogging. For quite some time now, I’ve observed a flourishing business operation taking place at one of the large tables. The business is mathematics tutoring and the proprietor is doing quite well for himself in these uncertain economic times.

His modus operandi is as follows. He uses Starbucks as his office nearly every day of the week. His tutees are generally young, attractive, self-absorbed high school girls who strut in with their Louis Vuitton purses, freshly done nails, and Blackberry cell phones. Typically, the girl sits down, opens her notebook, he scribbles down a math problem, and then leaves the premises or starts texting someone. The last time I saw him, he left for 15 minutes to walk down the street to grab a burger and proceeded to eat it in front of the distracted student. For most of the time he was gone, the student was busy texting or staring into space, definitely not focusing on her math problems. The tutor generally conducts half hour or one hour sessions. I estimate that he spends 10-20% of the time tutoring, and the rest walking around, eating, or texting. It’s a nice gig if you can get it!

The indolent tutor exhibits the fruits of a low-stress worker. He is a large, hulking young man having the stature of a line backer. His business apparel consists of cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. I’d estimate he is of college age, although I don’t see any evidence of him being in school.

With all this background information, let’s tie it all together. This entrepreneur has found the perfect situation. With a little ability in math (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt), he can surround himself with pretty young girls who pay him an hourly fee for doing very little actual work. Presumably, the parents of the girls pay him directly because I never see money change hands. The girls are happy because they are likely carrying out their parent’s wishes to get help with math. The parents are happy because they think they’re helping their child in school, albeit in an indirect way. And of course our friendly tutor is happy as a clam. If I’ve motivated anyone to start up a new tutoring business in this mold, I expect a 10% consulting fee!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More Math Humor

An age old question is “Do mathematicians have a sense of humor?” The answer sort of depends on the audience, other mathematicians or us plebeians. Since this is the Science Lifestyle blog with presumably some math-o-philes out there, let’s see how these jokes resonate with you. Your comments are welcome.

Q: What do you get when you cross a mountain goat and a mountain climber?
A: Nothing – you can’t cross two scalars.

Q: What is clear and use by trendy sophisticated engineers to solve other differential equations?
A: The Perrier transform.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip?
A: To get to the same side.

Q: What’s polar bear?
A: A rectangular bear after a coordinate transform.

Q: What is often used by Canadians to help solve certain differential equations?
A: The Lacross transform.

Q: What’s polite and works for the telephone company?
A: A deferential operator.

Top Ten Excuses for Not Doing Homework:
  1. I accidentally divided by zero and my paper burst into flames.
  2. Isaac Newton’s birthday.
  3. I could only get arbitrarily close to my textbook. I couldn’t actually reach it.
  4. I have the proof, but there isn’t room to write it in this margin.
  5. I was watching the World Series and got tied up trying to prove that it converged.
  6. I have a solar-powered calculator and it was cloudy.
  7. I locked the paper in my trunk, but a four-dimensional dog got in and ate it.
  8. I couldn’t figure out whether i am the square of negative one or I is the square root of negative one.
  9. I took time out to snack on a doughnut and a cup of coffee [and] I spent the rest of the night trying to figure which one to dunk.
  10. I could have sworn I put the home work inside a Klein bottle, but this morning I couldn’t find it.

Absent minded professor anecdote:

One day the Wiener family was scheduled to move into a new house. Mrs. Weiner, mindful of her husband’s propensity for forgetting, wrote the new address on a slip of paper and handed it to him. He scoffed, saying, “I wouldn’t forget such an important thing,” but he took the slip of paper and put it in his pocket. Later that same day at the university a colleague came by his office with an interesting problem. Weiner searched for a piece of paper and took the slip from his pocket to use to write some mathematical equations. When he finished, he crumpled up the slip of paper and threw it away. That evening, he remembered there was something about a new house but he couldn’t find the slip of paper with address on it. Without any alternative course of action, he returned to his old home, where he spotted a little girl on the sidewalk. “Say, little girl,” he said, “Do you know where the Wieners live?” The girl replied, “That’s OK, Daddy, Mommy sent me to get you.”

[Note: courtesy of “Foolproof: A Sampling of Mathematical Folk Humor,” from Notices of the AMS, Volume 52, Number 1.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Are You Reading?

I ask that question of all my friends. I like to know what people are reading. One reason is to find out if I’m missing something, and another is just to see if people read. I’m always surprised that some people don’t, sad. I’m reading constantly and I love it.

Last week I was having dinner with my old college friend Tom. I asked him the question. He was reading three books, two were history books, one was about the history of the borders of U.S. states (imagine anyone writing about that!). The third one, Tom hadn’t figured out what it was about yet, but he’ll get back to me. I was disappointed there were no science titles in the mix, but at least he was reading.

He naturally asked me the question back. I thought, and I thought. I always have so many things I’m reading concurrently. I narrowed it down to “Introduction to Modern Astrophysics,” and “Pulsar Astronomy.” But in addition to that, I’m always reading Physics Today, Nature, Scientific American, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and a multitude of individual research papers. As a treat, every few months I’ll start up a scientific fiction book.

So let’s take a poll. This will be the first of many polls we’ll take here on the Science Lifestyle blog. Make sure you get your vote in!

How often do you read something pertaining to science?
Once or twice a month if I'm lucky.
Once a week, maybe on the weekend or after work if I have time.
Several times a week, maybe during lunch, or before going to sleep.
Every day! free polls

My Pilgrimage to Keck

Pilgrimage [pil-gruh-mij] Def. a journey, esp. a long one, made to some sacred place as in an act of religious devotion.

It is curious to apply a term like “pilgrimage,” with religious connotations, to something involving science, but my “science pilgrimage” to visit the twin Keck telescopes was nothing short of sacred. In fact, standing in front of the august Keck I and II I felt a certain level of catharsis, a cleansing, an overwhelming calm. All was right in the universe at that moment. Sound familiar? Read on.

My trip to visit the Keck telescopes on top of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii started with my longstanding desire to see the Keck scopes first hand, so when the opportunity presented itself, I was on board in a big way. My anticipation for scientific nirvana was stellar leading up to my trip a few years ago.

I planned the trip quite methodically and I’ll recount it here for the benefit of all you Science Lifestylers so you may follow my path. My sojourn began with my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire Zoe, as we planned our flights. Fortunately, there are many direct flights out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to the Big Island’s Kona-Kohala coast. You definitely want to fly into Kona International Airport (KOA) on the western side of the island as opposed to Hilo on the east. There is a wide variety of accommodations in Kona during your stay. Huge, sprawling resorts are de rigeur. Our choice was the Four Seasons Hualalai, which is only 10 minutes from the airport and has a superb location with absolutely excellent guest services and facilities. Next, we managed to locate a well respected tour operator that routinely carries visitors up to Mauna Kea. The company is called Mauna Kea Summit Adventures: The pick-up point Zoe and I used was at the Queens Marketplace Waikoloa, a short cab ride from the hotel.

The trip up to the summit was long and filled with anticipation as we rolled along the Big Island countryside. With a pickup time around 4pm and final drop off just after 11pm, the adventure makes for quite a few hours of excitement. The tour company operates comfortable vans (having a capacity of 13 people) with very informative tour guides to point out highlights of the beautiful scenery along the way. The first destination is the Mauna Kea Visitors Center which is at an elevation of about 9,000 ft. It is there you are provided a nice meal prior to the ascent to the summit. But Zoe is a delightful chowhound and I regularly benefit from her culinary prowess, so she arranged to tote along our own special dinner prepared by our hotel. After dinner, it was time to suit up for the weather conditions up at the summit; a chilly 35 degrees (imagine that, in an island paradise no less). We were given arctic style hooded parkas and gloves, and the group piled up in the van for the final half hour drive up to the summit.

As the van crept up the unpaved road, we were told about the locals using the mountain for skiing. The tour schedule is designed to arrive at the summit just before sunset. The view from Mauna Kea is unbelievable. I noticed what looked like a small “rock” in the ocean. I was told that the rock was in fact the island of Maui!

Our brief stay on the summit, less than an hour, provided enough time to explore the pinnacle of astronomical discovery – an international collection of telescope facilities. Because of my excitement, I wanted to dash about to see everything I could, but I quickly realized that the 14,000 ft. elevation was not conducive to fast activity. Trying to catch my breath, I slowed down to a more seasoned pace to take in all the sights. We took some great photos of all the sights. All told, there are 13 telescopes spread across the Mauna Kea summit, supported by a number of countries and research institutions. Visitors can’t actually go into any of the telescope buildings, but with luck one of the dome’s doors will open up and you can see a giant telescope slew into position. Most of the science is not done at the scopes like days gone by with the astronomers peering through eyepieces. Rather, scientists control the telescopes remotely and access the observational results in the form of immense digital data streams. The time spent on the summit seemed all too brief, but what with the temperature, wind, and elevation, it was probably for the best to start our descent. For some reason Zoe wasn’t affected much by any of this, but she’s always been more of a hearty experimentalist in contrast to my being a theorist who is more comfortable next to a cozy fireplace to ponder the cosmos.

On the way back down, we stopped back at the Visitors Center for a snack, souvenirs, and stargazing with a nice sized 11” Celestron telescope provided for our viewing pleasure. On the long drive back to the pickup point, Zoe and I found much time for reflection on the spectacular events of the day. The pilgrimage to visit the Keck telescopes was an excellent choice for a vacation in paradise. There’s really nothing like a science vacation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Planetary Society

In today’s segment of the Science Lifestyle blog I’d like to introduce you all to an exceptional organization for anyone interested in space exploration and planetary science – The Planetary Society found at

I became aware of the Planetary Society years ago as a superb organization devoted to many areas of science I find fascinating including the many NASA missions such as the Cassini Saturn probe, and the Phoenix Mars Lander. I’ve been a member of the Planetary Society for quite some time and I’ve always been grateful for all the timely scientific information the organization imparts.

The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by world renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman with the mission “to inspire the people of Earth to explore other worlds, understand our own, and seek life elsewhere.” In my experience, the Planetary Society achieves this mission and much more. The Planetary Society is non-governmental and nonprofit and is funded by the support of its members.

The Planetary Society has many outstanding benefits for its members. The society hosts regular events and conferences coordinated with the culmination of NASA missions. I recall sitting in a huge auditorium at the Pasadena Convention Center on January 14, 2005 when the Huygens probe landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The crowd erupted as the probe start transmitting images of Titan’s surface. It made me feel as if I was a part of history. But not all missions were successful. I was also on hand for the 1999 Mars Polar Lander’s unsuccessful landing, and witnessed the same crowded venue full of disappointed and crestfallen faces. But that’s the good and bad of scientific discovery.The Planetary Society also plays host to an annual event called Planetfest, a great place for the entire family to appreciate astronomy and the science of space exploration. As a member of the Planetary Society I got my name etched on a silica mini-DVD disc that was mounted on the Phoenix Mars Lander. Finally, membership in the Planetary Society includes a quality monthly journal “The Planetary Report” containing excellent articles to keep you abreast on current developments in the field of space exploration.

The Planetary Society also has scientific space missions of their own, such as the solar sail mission the first publicly funded mission to space. The Planetary Society also developed the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) mission to send a collection of living organisms on a three year trip to the Martian moon Phobos and back to Earth. They also are working to recover and analyze the Doppler and spacecraft status data from the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to hopefully solve the mysterious “Pioneer Anomaly.”

The Planetary Society is a very worthy group of science enthusiasts that should attract your serious consideration. Highly recommended!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stargazing Fun

As the weather warms, and the nights become balmy this time of year, my thoughts naturally turn to upward to the night sky. Finding a dark sky location becomes a priority for some enjoyable stargazing outings. 2009 is a very good year for such activities as it is the International Year of Astronomy in tribute to Galileo’s first use of the telescope 400 years ago. If you are so inclined, you can buy your own “Galileoscope” at It would be great fun as a summertime activity for the family to have the kids retrace Galileo’s discoveries using such minimal equipment.

Amateur astronomy is an area that is approachable for anyone with an interest in the night sky. This past couple of weeks, I’ve explored some amazing sky objects such as stars like Vega, Arcturus, and Deneb, the Moon, and Jupiter with its four Galilean moons, Ganymede, Io, Europa, and Callisto. Armed with my modest telescope, a Meade ETX-90EC 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain with an Autostar computer controlled celestial object locating system, I am well able to effectively explore the cosmos. I also have an excellent Canon Digital Rebel XSi camera that I plan to add to the mix this summer for some dabbling in astrophotography. I went so far as to buy a special stargazing tent (a normal camping tent, with a special feature, a removable flap on the top to point a telescope through). This way I can observe in comfort and stay up late for those just-before-dawn sightings.

One other piece of equipment that I’ve found to be very useful during stargazing excursions is a GPS-driven astronomical computer. There are two excellent products in this area, the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium, and the Meade mySKY. These devices are amazing. You turn them on and they synchronize with the GPS satellite network. Then all you do is point the device’s view finder at a sky object that looks intriguing and push the “Identify” button. Immediately, the object is identified and all sorts of information is displayed on the screen, name, sky location, description, history, etc. Just plug in some earphones to listen to an informative narrative about the object. It is perfect for kids or anyone learning about astronomy. I use my SkyScout to scan the sky and locate objects I can clearly see, then once named I can use my Autostar to position my telescope to the object for gazing fun.

Location is just as important as equipment when it comes to stargazing, so I researched several local dark-sky locations for good stargazing. One location relatively close by is Malibu Creek Park along Malibu Canyon. I also have some old friends that live in Yucca Valley, another great dark sky location. I advise you to seek out your local astronomy club to get their list of select viewing locations.

If you like the group stargazing scene, I suggest that you contact your local observatory for a schedule of local star parties. In my town, the Griffith Observatory offers monthly star parties with telescopes supplied by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Sidewalk Astronomers.

For a while now I’ve wanted to take amateur astronomy a step further. One dream of mine is to build a backyard observatory, but of course then I’d need to invest in a much larger scope. Right now, my dream scope is a 12” Meade LX200-ACF, a sizable piece of equipment. Do you have a dream telescope?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Most Curious Character – Part III

On a lark one hot summer Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago, I stopped by a local music store and bought a professional set of bongo drums. I didn’t know anything about percussions instruments, but I felt closer to Richard Feynman just holding them between my legs and tapping away. I soon discovered that playing the bongos is not a simple thing, and I grew a different sort of respect for Feynman being able to play this instrument so masterfully.

On days of reflection, I throw the bongos in the back of my SUV and drive down to the beach to watch the waves and do the Feynman thing, read physics, beat the drums, and exercise my creativity in the face of nature. I’ll find a location with specific parameters – unobstructed view of the water, few people, slightly overcast skies if possible, and a gentle sea breeze. I swing open the back gate of the car, sit back, and savor the scene while I ponder the nature of quantum theory, cosmology, black holes, whatever. I keep a mini-library of select math and physics books in my car just in case I have some time and motivation to advance my knowledge. I also make sure I bring my laptop along with wireless broadband access to the Internet so I can quickly lookup articles (it’s more fun to be able to look up research paper references immediately whenever possible).

And since we’re talking about Feynman, one day at Caltech there was a lecture about Feynman at the Beckman auditorium. One of the big attractions that day was the famed Feynman van parked in front of the Beckman. I had heard of this famed physics coach, and now there it was. This was the homey van Feynman used for family vacations. It was distinctive because the side panels had a number of Feynman diagrams painted on them. I loved seeing that old van in all of its grandeur.

I became such a disciple of Feynman that I created a custom “Feynman diagram” baseball cap that included a simple Feynman diagram and a caption that read “Got Photons?” Yes, I am truly a Feynman groupie.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Physics Groupie Sighting

So there I was, waiting in an ATM line the other day, definitely not expecting any sort of science incident to occur. But science has a way of sneaking up on a person in the most delightful way. I sort of acknowledged the elderly woman in front of me in line with the large summer straw hat, the flowery sun dress from the 60s, and the red-painted toes and nails. OK, maybe I did notice her, she was quite a sight. But she didn’t register with me much at all until I noticed her climb into her car that was parked next to mine in the parking lot.

The car sort of matched her get-up. It was an aging red Mercury Grand Marquis, with a black leather top peeling off in large chunks. As she accelerated, the car floated along, as if suspended on a water bed, sloshing on barely existent shock absorbers. That car had seen better days, but then so did its owner.

Now in my own car, I edged closer to hers as she spent a long time negotiating a right turn out of the parking lot, I noticed something that entirely changed my opinion. There on the left side of her rusting bumper were some exquisitely old stickers. The one that immediately caught my eye was “Tuva or Bust!” Whoa! Another was a country sticker for “Tuva.” And the coup de grace was a sticker proclaiming “Feynman Lives!”

Small things in life make it all worthwhile.

[NOTE: Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton had a fascination with visiting the tiny country of Tuva. Feynman's attempt to visit Tuva is an allegory for his perpetual curiosity to discover new things. Sadly, Feynman died of cancer shortly before the visas finally arrived.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

Science means something very special to me. It is the key to our existence in this sliver of the cosmic timescale. When I need to get the world and its many intricacies (and frustrations) in perspective, I think of Carl Sagan’s immortal words about the “pale blue dot.” I have included his words estimating Humankind’s “true circumstances and condition” below in their entirety. The words are important and I can’t underestimate the power of these ideas. They’ve provided me solace on many occasions.

It was Sagan’s idea to turn Voyager I’s camera back toward Earth as it sped out beyond our solar system. In this immense sea of darkness, the stark vacuum of space, a dim pale blue dot is seen. The picture was taken on February 14, 1990 from a distance of 6.4 billion kilometers (see attached image).

Seeing our world from that perspective allows me to better understand the miniscule significance of my problems and the problems of our Earth. I feel strong and rejuvenated after looking at the blue dot, and it makes me think about how science is our best tool for allowing us to embrace the complexities of the future. I can think of no better way to embrace our world the way it truly is than to revisit Sagan’s words in moments of weakness, insecurity or self-reflection. I save it for special times, tears welling up inside me as I read the words, ponder existence, and seek a more reasoned future.

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

-- Carl Sagan

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Sky Server

Have you ever thought how wonderful it would be if you could conduct your own astronomical experiments right from your laptop computer? Or have you ever dreamed of being able to access the same telescope data that professional astronomers use in their research? Yea, me too! As a physics groupie, I’ve always wanted to be able to contribute some original research in the field of astronomy, but as an independent researcher with no formal ties to a university or research institution, I don’t have the luxury of submitting requests for time on the Keck telescopes up on Mauna Kea. Fortunately, there is now something called the Sky Server.

The Sky Server is an incredible public resource allowing anyone with an interest in astronomical research to play an independent role. The Sky Server is an open and free repository of astronomical data provided by the widely respected Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). All you need to use the Sky Server is a computer and an Internet connection. All experiments are performed online. You access the repository using the SQL (structured query language) database query language. The site publishes the database schema (an organization of related data tables) and data dictionary describing many of the data elements available to you. It is a perfect resource for anyone with a relatively deft knowledge of database systems, and with all the tutorial information made available to the public, you can get up to speed with modest effort. The site even provides problems to solve for high school students as well as more advanced users.

I enjoy using The Sky Server very much and it has become my favorite research tool. I like thinking up different experiments to conduct. In most cases, I need to research how to use the SDSS data to complete the experiment. This frequently involves an understanding of the science behind the data, which often requires reading research papers upon which the data are based. I find this aspect exhilarating because it provides the structure for real life science. The Sky Server provides a series of twenty somewhat complex SQL queries that were devised by other users. I use these queries as models for other queries I think up, but sometimes I need to start from scratch and write my queries from start to finish.

SDSS is a collaborative research project making the most complete map of the skies visible from the Northern Hemisphere. Microsoft Corp. is a major supporter of SDSS and the Sky Server. Microsoft’s database guru, the late Jim Gray, helped develop the database portion of SDSS so as a result The Sky Server is built on Microsoft technologies such as the SQL Server relational database.

To me, using The Sky Server is a dream come true. I can access the SDSS database from anywhere, at any time from my wireless laptop computer. Doing science has never been such a pleasure. I highly recommend this valuable resource to all Science Lifestylers.

[Tragedy struck the database world when Jim Gray was lost at sea on January 28, 2007 during a short solo sailing trip aboard his 40-foot yacht, Tenacious. He was sailing to the Farallon Islands near San Francisco to scatter his mother’s ashes. After an extensive high-tech search, no sign of Dr. Gray was ever found. Jim is shown in the attached photo standing next to one of the three SDSS telescopes located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. ]

Friday, July 10, 2009

UCLA Mathematics Department Career Day 2009

I was honored to be asked to be on the alumni panel for the 2009 installment of the UCLA Mathematics Department career day this past May 13, 2009. There were six of us on the panel, quite an eclectic group for sure, across a variety of industries – high school math teacher, Google employee, real estate maven, aerospace researcher, financial services manager, and a physics groupie (me). On the audience side, about 40 undergraduate students were in attendance, sitting on the edge of their seats and hanging on our every word. It’s great to influence young minds.

I really enjoy telling folks, especially young folks, about my quirky and odd professional history. My motto has always been “Why be normal?” as I love being on the fringe of the Bell Curve in most everything I do. The idea behind the career day was for us math alumni to showcase our professional experience and how we’ve used mathematics in our jobs. I truly think that math had a positive effect on just about every job I’ve had. I worked at a defense contractor that designed radar systems, so I needed to learn signal processing in designing algorithms. I then moved to a life insurance company and was faced with actuary math. Then I went into the financial software sector where complex yield calculations were de rigueur. So math was always there, at each turn of my career. In all of my jobs, I always felt more adept at problem solving with the analytical skills I took from my days at UCLA. I recounted for the group how I often would be shocked at how my coworkers, in some cases my bosses, approached solving a problem. I remember some pretty atrocious methods.

I think the group of math undergrads appreciated our input based on the questions they came up with. One young woman who was a JC transfer in her first year at UCLA as a junior had a particularly telling question. She meekly raised her hand and asked “I feel that some of the math classes I’m in now are so hard, and everyone else seems to be getting by, but I’m concerned. What should I do?” The panel was all over that question with helpful hints and tips. I told her to be sure to never miss a discussion session (led by a TA) and always attend the professor’s office hours. I remember how much I got out of office hours. A professor often gives useful indications about what will be on an exam during office hours. Plus getting to know a professor a bit more intimately makes the learning experience more personal and you feel like investing more of yourself in doing the best you can. As a freshman, I took this advice a little further. I used to see my calculus professor in the men’s weight room pumping iron. I would offer to spot him on the bench press, and we’d chat about class. Then in office hours, I’d bring up the weight room. It was a nice balance.

After the formal panel discussion, there was a reception where the students could mingle with the panel. I enjoyed that part of the event very much. I talked to a number of up and coming mathematicians who seemed to be very gifted. One young man was nearly through with his undergrad degree after only three years of intense study. He was planning to go on to grad school in math. A young woman asked about how I started my own business. And I brought up the Science Lifestyle to everyone I spoke to, trying to spread the word about living a life of science. I hope some of what I said stuck to a few of them.

[Of course one option after getting a degree in mathematics is to become a famous actress and then write math books for teenage girls! See the attached image of Danica McKellar who graduated from UCLA summa cum laude with a degree in math, then starred in “The Wonder Years,” and then wrote two excelent books “Math Doesn’t Suck” and “Kiss My Math.”]

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Social Aspects of Science: No Pie Please

I never know when to expect something curious to happen with respect to mathematics and science in my everyday life, but I keep my eyes open, and this morning was one of those special times that makes me think.

I was walking in the front door of my gym where I planned to do some spinning and running and maybe some weights (a fairly typical workout for me these days). There is usually one or more friendly greeters at the front desk and today there was Kyle (a very nice guy and fellow blogger in the NBA realm) and Sandy (the person who runs the child care room). Today I was wearing my Pi-Day T-shirt (see for observance on the next March 14) which has a large Pi symbol on the front. Sandy immediately recognized me and beamed with a big smile on her face and said "Oh, oh, that's a Japanese character on your shirt, what does it mean?" As I started to look quizzical, Kyle jumped in and added "No, that's Pi, you know 3.2 and a whole lot of 3's and 1's afterward. I'm a nerd so I know that." Sandy replied in her own defense, “But I’m close, it looks like a Japanese character!”

As I made my way to the locker room to get ready for my workout, I reflected on the exchange in the lobby. OK, Sandy is a young 21 year old woman who presumably graduated high school and maybe had some college. Do you mean to tell me she never saw the Pi symbol before? Incredible! Wearing that shirt all this time, I just assumed everyone that saw it would think I'm a math-guy. Now it seems that I might have been taken for Japanophile. Incredible again!

As for Kyle, at least he was on the right track, but I would think that anyone who knew the Pi symbol would know the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter out to at least two decimals places, 3.14. But maybe I expect too much of people!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Most Curious Character – Part II

From juggling to playing bongos, to conducting theoretical physics at strip clubs, Richard Feynman was the physics world’s most colorful figure for a very long time. Richard Feynman is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog as he epitomized scientific discovery and curiosity about nature and the physical world around us. Because of Feynman, I’m searching for other curious characters in his mold.

I became acquainted with Feynman through his famous three volume set of books, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” The so-called “red books” were the first physics books I owned and I quickly got the feeling that the books were special.

I became so enthralled with Feynman I felt the need to visit his old office at Caltech. With some help, I found out his office was located in the Lauritzen lab building at the south end of the Caltech campus. His office was 456 Lauritzen, a nice top-floor corner office with a window overlooking a secluded courtyard with a huge old classic Pasadena oak tree that seemingly stretched its arms high enough to grace the window of Feynman’s office.

I remember the first time I paid a visit to his old office, a weekday afternoon. I was filled with anticipation as I sought out his greatness. The office is now occupied by John Schwarz, a professor famous in his own right for helping create the field of string theory. This turn of events is ironic since Feynman thought little of string theory. That day the office door was closed, and the hallway outside was very quiet. The door directly across the hall was open with some graduate students and postdocs intently staring at computer screens. In the hallway adjacent to Feynman’s office is row of low white benches across from a long blackboard.

I found it exciting to sit on the bench and ponder over all the stirring theories that grew out of the office just steps away – path integrals, quantum electrodynamics, Feynman diagrams, the first notion of nanotechnology to mention just a few. I sat there assessing what was written on the whiteboard, scribblings no doubt by ground-breaking researchers and Nobel Laureates alike. Fortunately, I had my digital camera along and took a photo to bring home so I could make some sense out of it all. Over the years, I would return to Feynman’s old office every now and again to gain inspiration and take an incremental picture of the blackboard.

My fascination with Feynman only grew after that first visit to his old office. Fortunately, there is a publishing empire centered about materials relating to Richard Feynman. There are hard core physics books, biographical books, videos, music CDs, and even an art book. Caltech is very proud of their world renowned professor. The Caltech bookstore has a whole section devoted to just works of Feynman with some items only available at Caltech. Here you can even buy a CD with recordings of Feynman’s bongo playing. Feynman’s daughter Michelle has taken over the publishing empire of her father’s musings. I relish the regular posthumous book releases as there is never enough Feynman materials for my tastes. I can safely say that I own just about every Feynman publication available. The two most recent additions to my Feynman library are his original Ph.D. dissertation now available as “Feynman’s Thesis,” and a tough to find hardback copy of “Feynman Lectures on Gravitation.”

Are there any other Feynman groupies out there?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

San Pasqual and the Naked Lady

San Pasqual Street is a perfect example of academic nirvana. San Pasqual is a beautiful tree-lined street on the Western edge of the Caltech campus is Pasadena, Calif. The street runs parallel to the main thoroughfare California Blvd. and the section I appreciate the most is intersected by Wilson and Catalina. On one side of the street is a row of quiet, 60s-style, two-story apartment buildings, which would be very convenient for anyone with a Caltech affiliation. On the other side is an ivy-lined fence bordering a parking lot. I always park on San Pasqual whenever I go to campus because it offers 2-hour parking and there’s usually ample space to stow my car while I embark on a science adventure.

Another reason I like San Pasqual is its proximity to parts of campus that I frequent. I can be over at E. Bridge (the LIGO center) within a few minutes. I can easily walk to the new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics on California Blvd. The Spitzer Science Center is also nearby. Even if I want to head over to the Red Door Café or what used to be the bookstore, it only takes about 5 minutes. I even park on San Pasqual if I plan to eat at the venerable Pie ‘N Burger on California and Lake Boulevards.

I also envision Caltech luminary Kip Thorne strolling along San Pasqual the time when he was rumored to have wandered the streets of Pasadena late one November night in 1976 to ponder over whether to recommend that Caltech pursue the LIGO project. Of course he did, and Caltech is the center of gravitational wave research.

Aside from all these reasons and good will I hold for San Pasqual, there is one more reason the street will remain in my psyche for a long while. Early one balmy summer evening a couple of years ago, I was walking my familiar path among the olive trees back to my car. As I approached the intersection of San Pasqual and Wilson, I noticed the old-style street lamp on the corner, the kind with the dim, lemon-drop bulb atop. Walking slowly, comfortably, and confidently along the sidewalk was a naked lady with the only form of clothing being her pair of 4-inch heels. The very well-formed female came up to the street lamp, made a U-turn, and walked the other way in the middle of the street. I’m not sure where she was going, or why, all I know is that the image made an indelible imprint on my memory. Who knew science could be titillating as well as stimulating, or the other way around?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Physics Crackpots

There is a dirty little secret that scientists in the physics community field know all too well. It seems that physics conferences, seminars and symposiums tend to attract a small, but quite visible contingent of physics crackpots. These are individuals, many times with modest academic credentials and no real research experience, who show up at the various events in order to spread their half-baked theories that at best stretch scientific fact, and at worst are pure fantasy.

I had my introduction to these neer do wells of the physics academic scene when I attended the Pacific Coast Gravity Meeting (PCGM) at Caltech in March 2007. There were several crackpots in the audience who were also on the schedule of attendees making 15 minute presentations to the group. Actually, anyone could make a presentation without qualification.

One particular crackpot stood out. Aside from being a charlatan, he had the distinction of affronting me personally while standing in the coffee line during a break earlier in the morning (he became known to me as “button man” for unsavory reasons that will be left unsaid). His name was Alexander Mayer, and he claimed to have singlehandedly developed a new cosmological model and corresponding modification to Einstein’s relativity. Now that’s chutzpah! At the conclusion of his presentation, evidently the physics community is very tolerant of crackpots because they politely applauded regardless of their academic opinion of his theories. Here is Mayer’s website which offers his book describing these theories as a free download - You’ll notice that he claims affiliation with the Pritzker Family foundation for funding his research. Some time ago I took it upon myself to contact Dr. Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics and who is the Pritzker Professor of Science and he never heard of Mayer. He claims to have graduated with a bachelor’s degree from MIT and does have an MIT Alumni e-mail address, but it remains to be seen whether he actually has a degree.

Another gentleman at the Gravity Meeting stood out as more of a wacky, mad-scientist type. I had a bird’s eye view because I was sitting in the row right behind him. He was rotund, disheveled, hair tousled, and complete with a prominent plumber’s crack I wish I hadn’t witnessed. He covered his seat and surrounding area with papers and old-fashioned overhead slides (all other presenters used Powerpoint). When his name was called to make his presentation, he lumbered down the steps to the podium and proceeded to make a numbingly senseless and rambling talk. His slides were nothing original, just re-prints of other people’s papers in a font nobody could read. It was excruciating to watch.

Since the Gravity Meeting, I’ve been on the lookout for other crackpots. One in particular who seems to have some deep pockets by the size of the color, full-page ads he continues to run in major science publications like Science News is Terrance Witt. He’s a retired entrepreneur who has funded a million dollar ad campaign. Witt’s vision of grandeur includes his Null Physics theory that he claims to be a grand unifying theory, something the global physics community (including Einstein) has been trying to come up with for nearly a century. Witt holds a BSEE degree from Oregon State University. Witt’s website is found at -

Fortunately, the bonafide scientific community on occasion writes in-depth reviews of the crackpot’s pseudo mathematics and theories. Here is an excellent rebuttal to Witt’s theories by UCSB particle physics professor Benjamin Monreal: Null Physics Review . Reading this rebuttal is like watching those “Gottch-ya!” consumer reports on TV where the reporter catches fraudulent auto repair shops.

I spotted another physics crackpot running a small display ad in The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper. The ad is for a book “Uncommon Knowledge,” and proclaims a “new science of gravity, light, the origin of life, and the mind of man.” Whew! Imagine all that from one book, move over Bible and Koran. The ad goes on to tout new subatomic “spheritons” that conduct gravity and light. The author, whose name is never mentioned on this website, proclaims that the Theory of Relativity is invalid. Check out the site at: The author claims to have a Ph.D. but in business economics. The next time I talk to my banker, I’ll ask him about his own theory of quantum gravity!

A few other physics crackpots were identified to me by a scientist who took it upon himself to expose the crackpots. Here is a short list he provided me:,, and If anyone knows of other crackpots, please post a comment here. Physics, ya got to love it!

Friday, July 3, 2009


As a Science Lifestyler, you may find yourself asking yourself “how exactly can I participate in real life science projects if I’m not actually a scientist?” It is indeed a conundrum. Fortunately, I have a very good answer to this frustrating situation. The best part is that all you need is the very computer you’re using to read this blog. Enter BOINC.

BOINC is the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing and is officially touted as open-source software for volunteer computing and grid computing. This is quite a mouthful for non-computer types. Translated, it is a movement that is very exciting because it allows the public to be part of some big time science projects in a meaningful way. BOINC allows you to volunteer the resources of your personal computer to process scientific data. All you do is choose one or more projects to participate with, download some PC screensaver software, and then sit back and watch as your computer downloads project data, processes the data, and then sends back the results to BOINC. The screen saver program works only when you’re not using the computer. The software includes a variety of impressive displays (different displays for different projects) as it works diligently processing the data. For example, the Einstein@Home display (see included screen image) is a very cool rotating celestial sphere showing the known constellations, along with the current zenith positions of three gravitational wave detectors. Also shown are the positions of the known pulsars and supernovae remnants.

BOINC has been operating for years. The first BOINC project was the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), but the distributed computing model was so successful that other scientists took notice and added their projects to the mix. BOINC currently has nearly 30 projects to choose from spread out among a variety of disciplines such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, earth sciences, mathematics, computing, and games.

I have been a BOINC participant since the beginning. My favorite projects are: SETI@Home, and Einstein@Home (the search for gravitational waves). I have two computers in my office/lab devoted 100% of the time for running these projects. I would be ecstatic if my SETI@Home computer was the one to make the first detection of a signal from a distant civilization, or if my Einstein@Home detected the first gravitational wave. I plan to run some additional projects in the near future such as Cosmology@Home, LHC@Home, and Milkyway@Home.

BOINC has become a stellar success in terms of popularity by the general public and utility to the research community. As of this post, there were over 332,000 volunteers and the average aggregate computing throughput is measured at a surreal level of 2.24 PetaFLOPS. The magnitude of this computing capacity needs clarification. FLOPS is defined as “floating point operations per second” and is used to describe the number of scientific arithmetic operations that can be performed in one second. A PetaFLOP is 10^15 operations per second, which is pretty darn fast. In comparison, the fastest supercomputer in the world as of this post is IBM’s Roadrunner computer at the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and is rated at 1.105 PetaFLOPS. Not bad, BOINC beats the fastest of the fast!

I think that all Science Lifestylers should BOINC and start helping the cause by signing up for one or more projects. If you are so inclined, there are many research papers written about BOINC project results, just visit the BOINC project page for a complete list of articles. BOINC is fun and is a very altruistic way to be part of scientific progress.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Social Aspects of Science: The King of Pop

Sometimes I can’t help myself. I get fascinated by things that fascinate people. I try to understand what motivates people to be absolutely single-minded about something. And before I get too far ahead of myself, yes I know, I’m guilty of this myself with mathematics and physics, but we all think our favored use of brain cycles is singular above all others don’t we? So recent events provided the perfect stage for exacting some sense out of what drove folks into public displays of anguish and woe in reaction to the death of Michael Jackson.

Yielding to my sense of curiosity along these lines, I headed over to witness things for myself. Weathering 91 degree heat, I drove over to the Jackson Family compound located at 4641 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino, Calif. (I’m not revealing any closely guarded secrets here as I easily got the address using Google). I found the narrow residential street lined with enormous mobile news centers each with a satellite dish towering above the tree line. Each had a news anchor and/or field reporter trying hard to look professional in front of the camera with the sweltering heat. There were also the crowds to be discussed shortly, and really the purpose of this post.

But what elements of science could I glean from this experience? When in doubt, I always lean towards my academic background in data mining, machine learning, knowledge discovery in databases (KDD), and statistical inference. This confluence of disciplines serves the need to establish hidden meaning behind data. As a result I tend to collect data wherever I go and try to understand it. Here’s what I found. I determined that the crowd of hundreds of mourners present on this day followed a normal distribution when looking at a number of distinct attributes – age, race, gender, nationality, education, socio-economic background and likely many more. Yes, that’s right the crowd was statistically diverse and appeared to parallel the population as a whole in terms of these demographics. Agreed, the sample size was comparatively small, but based on additional data I observed on television newscasts, I think it was representative. To collect the data, I informally interviewed a number of grief-stricken onlookers who were crowded around the entrance of the gated estate while some of the data was gathered empirically.

Also, based on the commentaries I overheard while milling around the group, I tried to assess the concept of unbridled devotion to someone you’ve never met. For instance, one young woman was wailing with tissues in hand, but stopped long enough to proclaim to the crowd “None of you know how in turmoil I am! You don’t know what he meant to me! A member of my family just died.” These are strong statements. Is such sentiment empirical evidence of the “God gene” or the “God delusion”? Maybe both!

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.” – Bertrand Russell

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mathematical Humor – Silly Proofs

Here is little quip for those of you who appreciate a bit of mathematical humor along with your tea and crumpets for breakfast. This genre is especially fun when observing the common mistakes of non-mathematicians in attempting to construct valid proofs. These kinds of jokes, however, reflect some insecurity that perhaps one’s own work may be based on false premises. There are many fallacious proofs of the type purporting to prove 1 = 2. Here is one example. Can you locate the problem with the proof?

Theorem. 3 = 4

Proof. Suppose
a + b = c.

This can also be written as:
4a – 3a + 4b – 3b = 4c – 3c.

After reorganizing:
4a + 4b – 4c = 3a + 3b – 3c.

Take the constants out of the brackets:
4(a + b – c) = 3(a + b – c)

Remove the same term left and right:
4 = 3.

[Note: courtesy of “Foolproof: A Sampling of Mathematical Folk Humor,” from Notices of the AMS, Volume 52, Number 1.]