Monday, August 31, 2009

Meeting the Man on the Moon

Last Thursday was a great day because I met a great man. I met a man whose courage brought him to the pinnacle of space exploration by becoming the second human being to set foot on a celestial body other than Earth. I met astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. ScD.

Dr. Aldrin was at the Griffith Observatory here in Los Angeles for a public signing featuring his new book “Magnificent Desolation.” This was the phrase he used to describe his first impressions as he walked on the surface of the moon. Dr. Aldrin started the event with a motivating overview of his life and most remembered accomplishment. He specifically stressed that everything he was able to achieve in his life was due to fine education. He attended West Point and in 1963 received his doctorate in Astronautical Engineering at MIT. I was pleased he made this emphasis because of the number of young people in the crowd.

I arrived at the observatory a good two hours early so I could spend some leisure time doing research over at the Café at the End of the Universe, the food facility at the observatory with a superb view of the city. I thought it was appropriate to dig into some recent ideas in general relativity and cosmology as I waited for the event to start. I also purchased my copy of Dr. Aldrin’s book at the observatory’s bookstore. As I sat there, I noticed a sense of anticipation from the folks stopping in for a cold drink on what was a scorcher of a day (98 degrees at the observatory). Families with small children were also coming through, and I knew it was shaping up to be a very successful event.

After Dr. Aldrin’s half hour talk, the crowd lined up for him to sign some books. When I arrived at the top of the line (see attached picture of the Physics Groupie next to the famous astronaut) I said to Dr. Aldrin “Sir, my father worked at Rocketdyne for 35 years and some of the parts he designed were in the Saturn V booster rockets that carried you to the moon.” He smiled broadly and replied “Thank you! I appreciate that.”

As sunset arrived and the heat of the day started to dissipate, the L.A. Astronomical Society set-up several large Celestron telescopes appropriately pointed at the Sea of Tranquility where Dr. Aldrin walked. There was one particular tiny space enthusiast named “Aaron” who was dressed in full astro-regalia (see attached photo). His parents said the three-year-old was wild about space. Aaron anxiously climbed the step ladder to reach the eyepiece of the telescope to witness the first of hopefully many celestial wonders he will experience in a life of science.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Picture is Worth ...

As the saying goes, a simple picture can evoke instant recognition of complex feelings and emotions. There’s a definite power in imagery. For me, that realization was reinforced the first time I saw what has become my favorite painting of all time, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” a masterpiece oil on panel work by Dutch painter Gerrit Dou circa late 1650s. With very modest dimensions of 12 5/8 by 8 3/8 in., the painting is a powerful depiction of unadulterated devotion to science. The medieval astronomer works late into the night with his rudimentary tools and methods. But it is the allure of scientific discovery and mastery of the unknown secrets of nature that fuels his inquiry about the cosmos.

This simple piece has provided me hours of reflection about the purity of scientific inquiry. Luckily, the painting’s home is the Getty Center in my hometown of Los Angeles. I make semi-regular treks up to the mountain top art museum to sit in front of the painting, mesmerized by its commanding message. I even by buy stacks of special bookmarks sold at the Getty Center store with the painting on the front. This way I can mark my progress through various math and physics texts with an image that epitomizes progress in the scientific realm.

Gazing upon the astronomer’s diligence is in a sense a voyeuristic exercise in trying to crawl into his head as he measures the distance between two points on a celestial globe. He holds the only source of light, a candle illuminating his face, the manuscript containing an astronomical treatise, the hourglass, the beaker of water, and the precious globe.

I also equate the painting with late-night research. As a night owl, I do most of my hard-core research during the peaceful and contemplative silence of the late evening hours. The painting romanticizes this notion that the best science is done amongst the silhouettes and swirling shadows of a creative mind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gravitational Waves - Music to My Ears

As you all know, my area of scientific interest is gravitational wave astrophysics. So naturally, I like to find ways to bring this complex subject to the masses. What better way than to put the theory to music! The above video is just that.

In the Summer of 2009, 23 students from different universities around the world descended on Caltech to conduct research contributing to the LIGO Project. Some of the group came together in the interest of spreading the science of LIGO. A lot of work went into the production of this video as the group hoped to educate and entertain with LIGO science.

There is one small inaccuracy in the video's lyrics - Michelson and Morley never experimented with lasers. In the late 19th century, lasers weren't invented yet (the first working laser was constructed in 1960).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Academic Playgrounds

As I turned to a life of science in what seems like a lifetime ago, I discovered that one good approach to further immerse myself in the field is to become acquainted with the academic resources of local colleges, universities and research institutions. As a result, I spent so much time at various campuses I soon viewed such places as “academic playgrounds.” True to the metaphor, it is fun to be close to where the science is done and I became quite comfortable around universities in my search for curious characters.

Living in Los Angeles is a favorable place to be in this pursuit because the area has got a number of leading universities and research centers such as Caltech, JPL, UCLA, and UC Irvine. As my interests grew, I ventured beyond Los Angeles and visited a number of other well known institutions such as Columbia University, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley. Of course there are many other quality schools around the U.S. and the world, and each has its own areas of research specialization. It turns out that the schools I got to know best all have something important to offer based on my scientific areas of interest. Besides frequenting these institutions for scientific purposes, I typically try to explore the sights, cuisine, and local color of the area along with my science.

One rule of thumb when paring your particular areas of interest with an academic institution is to realize that most university programs have fairly specific areas of research focus. For example, Caltech is very strong in gravitational wave astrophysics, numerical relativity, infrared astronomy, but somewhat weak in pure mathematics. UCLA, on the other hand is very strong in particle physics, galactic center, number theory, and applied mathematics. It may take a while to get a handle on each school’s unique areas of expertise. I understand that depending on where you live, you might not have a choice in terms of selecting schools to frequent. Los Angeles is an exception with how many top flight schools are in close proximity (other exceptions being San Francisco, Boston, and New York City). In many towns, you might only have a single institution. That’s fine though, you’ll just have to adapt your scope of research in order to take advantage of the resources at your doorstep.

The protocol I’ve used to acclimate myself at my academic playgrounds is simple. I start with getting to know some professors and researchers. A good way to do this is by attending public lectures or departmental symposiums which are usually open to anybody that is interested. Get acquainted with their research before attending so you can talk intelligently when you meet them. Check out the school’s website and thoroughly review the department pages including professor pages, research pages, and news release pages. You c an also visit the school’s science library, and it has become fashionable for science departments to place research summary posters along the wall in the buildings housing the departments. You can even hang out at a campus coffeehouse that faculty might frequent.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the time I’ve spent at various institutions around the country in pursuit of greater understanding of mathematics and science. I highly recommend that you seek out your own local resources and have some fun of your own.

[Shown in picture is the new UCLA Physics and Astronomy Building.]

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Classical Music, Science Connection

When I went off to college in 1973 I was a “young” 17 years old with a matching taste in music that primarily consisted of so-called heavy-metal groups like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Robin Trower. Having never left the confines of the San Fernando Valley, my early experiences at UCLA were, to put it mildly, mind expanding. I joined the UCLA Computer Club as both an academic quest and social outlet. One of the first things I noticed about the culture of the highly intelligent members of the club was that they all had deep experience with classical music. The club had a makeshift stereo system that was always tuned to one of two classical stations available at the time here in Los Angeles (the only exception was when someone listened to the Dr. Demento show).

I didn’t know what to think of what I perceived to be these rather unusual musical tastes. Why did these people only listen to classical music? What was it about classical music anyway that attracted them so? I reflected long and hard to make sense of the situation.

It didn’t take long for me to experience my own awakening. Within months I found myself tuning the portable FM radio that sat just above my desk at home where I typically studied in the evening to a classical station. I started to “get it” with respect to classical music. I didn’t know any of the composers, and I didn’t recognize many of the pieces, but I appreciated the soothing melodies and found it actually helped me study my mathematics and physics.

Ever since those early days, I’ve enjoyed classical music immensely, and I’ve had a lot of time to figure out why I decided to broaden my musical outlook. Classical music has a certain mathematical precision not found in other genres of music. My favorite composer is Mozart. Mozart piano sonatas are a perfect example of the intricate and delicate numerical convergence that underlies this class of music. I also like Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Chopin, and others for much the same reason. I feel that classical music and mathematics are closely tied. The notes serve to organize my neurons in the most delightful way.

I can see why some people advocate playing classical music in the vicinity of unborn children. If the child’s auditory apparatus develops in the presence of mathematically precise music, it is no wonder that the child’s brain might be organized in a like fashion, or at least I like to think so.

Last week, I gave an old college buddy and his wife tickets to a classical concert at the Hollywood Bowl because I was unable to go. The concert featured Mahler selections. He, like me, comes from a computer science background and has a long-standing appreciation for science in general. After the concert he e-mailed me an excellent analytical perspective of the night’s performance, one that made me feel as if I had been there. My point is that my friend, with a similar science purview as my own, saw the performance as a mathematical exercise and I appreciated his report very much.

I estimate that any science or math enthusiast should entertain the idea of embracing classical music as artistic foundation of sorts for his or her scientific musings. It is a very enchanting path to follow.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Astronomy Cast

I rely on my iPod for a variety of science-on-the-go purposes, most notably Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent way to occupy your downtime when waiting in line, walking along, at the gym, or even driving (if you don’t use earphones). There is a plethora of science podcasts available through iTunes – Scientific American, Nature magazine, Science magazine, the Naked Scientists, NPR’s Science Friday, and many more. My favorite Podcast, however, is available from a small, grass-roots organization called Astronomy Cast. I enjoy this particular podcast because its focus is astronomy, physics, astrophysics, and cosmology – my very favorite subjects!

The format of the show is simple. It features the host Fraser Cain interviewing astronomy professor Dr. Pamela Gay about a variety of science related topics. The chemistry between the two is what makes the show work so well. Both show unbridled enthusiasm for their topics and they’ve developed a very successful formula in communicating complex scientific subjects to the masses. One aspect of Astronomy Cast that I particularly appreciate is that the segments are short, typically 5-15 minutes in length. This way I can hear a variety of subjects during a regular lunchtime. I usually keep a whole catalog of Astronomy Cast podcasts on my iPod so I can listen to my favorites over and over again.

Astronomy Cast offers a wonderful blend of topics. In the past few months, a sampling of subjects includes, ultraviolet astronomy, quantum mechanics, black holes, exoplanets, interferometry, and so many others. I also like the regular “Question and Answer” shows where listeners submit questions, and each one is given special consideration with a detailed, well thought out response. I couldn’t recommend this podcast more highly.

If you haven’t already done so, all you Science Lifestylers should climb aboard the science podcast bandwagon. It is a great way to fill in those interludes during the day when you could be doing something useful like learning about developments in science.
[Always seeking new arenas for mathematics in everyday life, today's segment is a new short story with math as a central theme. Enjoy!]

"Mama's New Recipe"

Mama was cooking again. No matter that it was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon with summer approaching. And no matter that Aunt Linda from across the street wanted her to come out front to chat about the new daffodils that just came up around the mailbox. Yes indeed, Mama’s cooking was top of her list, and the flowers and Aunt Linda would just have to wait a while.

I secretly loved to watch Mama in her kitchen. Old fashion New Hampshire cooking was in her blood, passed on from Grandma Wilson and years beyond. I had a habit of trying to figure out how she knew just what portions to use to make everything taste so right. Mama would use words like “dash” and “smidgen” when she sprinkled the oregano on the spaghetti. But I wanted to know the exact measurements of each ingredient. I wanted to know the formula for spaghetti. Mama always said I was such a curious child.

But I was afraid to let Mama know why I tried to figure out the measurements. She’d think I was at those math books of mine again, and she’d tell me again for the thousandth time, “Catherine, you know that math isn’t a lady-like thing to be poring over. You’re already fifteen years old and you should be doing something that your future husband will appreciate like learning to sew, and cook.”

Mama was real old fashion that way, and she thought she was looking out for me, but I didn’t pay her no mind. I didn’t care what Mama said about my math, and I didn’t listen to Miss Mason my teacher either when I’d raise my hand in geometry class ahead of the boys. I can just hear Miss Mason now, “Oh now Catherine, don’t show up the boys. Let them have a chance to answer some questions. Ya keep on doing that, you won’t find a husband in all of Dover.”

Mama had a big problem lately with her cooking though. She promised to host the next big family Father’s Day party at our house. Even though Daddy passed on a year and two months ago, Mama volunteered in front of all the rest. I didn’t understand why we’d have a party for Father’s Day when we didn’t even have a father. But Mama thought better, and wanted to do something to remember Daddy. But the problem I was telling you about was that Daddy’s death was a big surprise, and poor Daddy left Mama with barely enough to keep the house going, and this big party was going to cost a shiny dime for Mama and me.

Mama wanted to serve some of her special recipe smoked New Hampshire ham with potatoes, carrots, and turnips. But to feed all those people, we’d need several of those hams. Well, I’m old enough to know hams aren’t cheap and that we can’t afford them. So Mama stayed up late one night, checking her recipes and the checkbook, trying to figure out how we could make it so. She kept counting the number of people, and figuring so many people per ham. But it just wouldn’t work out, and she sat there shaking her head with that worried brow of hers. What she wanted to serve would just cost too much. I felt sorry for Mama and her big plans.

I wanted to help Mama so badly, but I’m just a kid. What could I do? Still, I thought hard and long one night after Mama went to bed, and came up with something that might help.

Last year in algebra class I was way ahead of the class and those boring word problems like “If Tom ran twice as fast as Chuck, …” I was sneaking a peek in the book I borrowed from the college library called “Number Theory.” I loved the math books I got from the college because they opened up a whole new world for me, with all the strange and mysterious names and words in them like “Riemann’s Hypothesis,” “Goldbach’s Conjecture,” and “Zeta Functions.” I wanted to figure it all out so much that my head would burn. But to me it was fun, and Mama couldn’t understand that.

Anyway, that night I remembered something I read in that number theory book, something about “partitions” which were used by famous mathematicians in figuring out interesting things about prime numbers. I read that this was a favorite topic of an Indian mathematician named Ramanujan who lived around 1919. My gosh, can you believe somebody that lived that long ago could help solve Mama’s cooking dilemma?

Partitions were easy enough to figure out. You take a whole number like 15 and think of all the ways you can add up smaller numbers to equal 15. Like 5 + 4 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 1 equals 15, but so does 6 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 1. It turns out there’s 176 different ways to add up numbers that equal 15. That’s what got me to thinking about Mama’s predicament.

Mama always split her recipes in equal portions, but I knew that Uncle Andy eats a lot more than Aunt Donna, or any of their kids. It goes the same with the other families too. What if we used partitions to help Mama divide up her special Father’s Day dinner for all the family? But if I told Mama what I thought of, she’d just tell me I was being silly. No sir, I had to let Mama to figure this out on her own.

The night before the big party, Mama set out the large one-size-fits-all dishes she saved for special occasions, and then went to bed early because she was going to be cooking all the next day. After I could tell Mama was fast asleep, I tip-toed into the kitchen and took out some other dishes for the next day and set the big dining table. I put a big dish for the adults who would eat a lot, smaller sized dishes for some others, and real small dishes for the kids. There were five sizes of dishes in all, and the size of each dish matched the numbers in the partition I had figured out was the best size for our family. Now, the table didn’t look too nice with all those different sized plates, because some of them didn’t even match, but I hoped that when Mama saw the table in the morning, a big ‘ol bell would ring for her.

The next morning, I made sure I was up eating breakfast before Mama passed by the dining room. You know what the first thing Mama said to me was? She said “Gee thanks Catherine, but doesn’t that table look nice. Thanks for helping out your old mother with our big Father’s Day bash.” Then she stared at those plates, all different size and designs. She went into the kitchen, and then came back to look again. I kept my head down in my cereal bowl, watching Mama out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, I could see the bell ringing in her head, and then she put out a big smile like she made an important discovery.

Our dinner was wonderful that Father’s Day, and everyone had a great time with the family and all the little kids playing bocce ball out in the yard. Mama was proud we could host the party, and everyone had “just the right amount to eat.” Nobody even mentioned the odd collection of plates, but I was beaming the whole time because I knew that my math had saved the day.

Aunt Linda was the last one to leave that night, after helping Mama and I clean up the mess. I followed Aunt Linda out to the porch and gave her a big kiss goodbye. I’ll never forget what Mama said after I shut the door, “Now Catherine, just remember this dinner tonight as proof about how important cooking is for your future family. Just keep away from those math books!” My big grin was hard to hide though, thinking about Mama’s new recipe.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Role as a Science Advocate

As a Physics Groupie and proponent of the Science Lifestyle, I always feel compelled to promote science and mathematics to most everyone I come in contact with. My role as science advocate is often a thankless task, but someone has got to do it!

A good example of my efforts surfaced the other evening as I dined with two dear old friends, Cary and his wife Sherry. It was a bon voyage dinner, the day before they were to wing their way to the Big Island of Hawaii on holiday. They had never been to the Big Island before and we were chatting about fascinating things to do during their stay. Of course I brought up visiting Mauna Kea and the international collection of world-class telescopes as a great thing to do. Cary responded very favorably and told me he had already checked into the tour company and schedules. I was pleased with the prospect that my friend even considered a science destination while on a tropical vacation. I emphasized how great it is to take the telescope tour and how much I enjoyed it when I went. He was all set to go with the other family members they were meeting in Hawaii, alas the group included a 9 year old child, and children under the age of 13 are not allowed due to increased incidence of high-altitude problems – too bad because this kind of family outing would be perfect for a child to get her science bearings in life.

I pressed on as a science advocate. I recounted to Cary that I had taken the trip up to Mauna Kea solo and it was a very enjoyable experience because you are with many likeminded people, all with a love for science. If he was interested, going alone shouldn’t be a limiting factor. He said he’d consider it. I hope he does because going up to Mauna Kea is an experience of a lifetime, never to be forgotten. Besides, it is a shame to be on the Big Island and not take in one of the most distinctive characteristics of the island, a scientific facility no-less.

My science advocacy has been with me for a long time. I routinely advance interest in science and mathematics whenever possible, which usually means whenever anyone will listen. I especially try my best with children. When I meet up with friends who are parents, I give tips about science events around town. I always ask parents what their child’s favorite subject is at school, hoping to hear math or science. I always try to steer kids to the possibility of a science career; a research scientist might not sound too glamorous to a young person, but maybe an astronaut!

It is pretty obvious that advocacy for a life of science is the overriding reason for the Science Lifestyle blog, and I’m hoping to spawn many other advocates through my tales of science adventure. If I’m responsible for just a few people picking up a science book, or attending a public star party, or taking their kids to the observatory, or deciding to major in a science field in college, I will feel my efforts are worthwhile.

Advocatus Scientia!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Faithful Photons

Have you ever looked up into the night sky on a particularly crisp, clear evening to witness the glittering symphony taking place above, from so very far away, from so very long ago? And just when the scene acts to take your breath away, do you contemplate what photons go through to travel unimaginable distances from their source to our retinas? It is a fun thought experiment. Let’s play along together.

Consider all the stars, nebulae, supernovae, and galaxies that emit visible light (photons), and consider that many of these photonic sources are found at great distances (high redshifts) and in some cases appear to us as they were some 11 billion years ago, or 80% of the Universe’s lifetime. Now think about the path these photons have taken to Earth. They pass through vast intergalactic voids, through expansive galaxies, through molecular clouds, and untold numbers of other obstacles. They avoid falling into the event horizons of supermassive black holes dwelling in the center of large spiral galaxies. They bend their paths as result of warped spacetime near strong gravitational fields surrounding stars. Eventually, these tired, travel-weary yet faithful photons arrive at the lens of our telescope to provide us exhilaration about learning something new about the cosmos. And now consider that these specific photons are unique in the sense that they have never been seen by another human being before.

Looking through a telescope can be a memorable experience, especially if the person peering into the eyepiece is properly instructed on how to see all that the telescope can reveal and is prompted to realize that the photons striking his or her retina have been traveling through space for seconds, or centuries, or a great deal much longer. And all those photons, now collected by the telescope and concentrated into your eye are in fact yours and yours alone to savor for as long as the memory lives.

This lasting effect is something to think about carefully. The photons enter your retina after sailing their long intergalactic voyage and stimulate your neurons in such a way as to produce a lasting memory, an experience to be remembered and treasured. Yes, powerful are these massless particles, photons that unlock the secrets of a very big universe.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Universe

TIVO is a wonderful device because it uses data mining techniques like association rules (the same ones used by retail websites such as to intelligently suggest shows you might be interested in based on what you’ve watched in the past. A while back it started recording The Universe show on the History Channel and I’m sure glad it did. It turns out this show is a great educational resource and I enjoy pretty every episode. Now I have a TIVO “Season Pass” to make sure I grab each Universe show. The range of topics is superb for an astrophysics enthusiast like me. Some of the recent topics I’ve watched are: origins of the big bang, the Milky Way, Mars, gravity, parallel universes, exoplanets, the outer planets, and many more.

I usually watch each show twice, one time all the way through just listening, and a second time taking notes. The show hosts a wonderful website at where you can watch full episodes, and participate in a discussion forum. You can also download episodes on iTunes and watch them on your iPod which is a great way to pass time while waiting around at the carwash.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Back in 2005 when the NUMB3RS television show premiered, I did a double take when I read that the show was to be based on mathematics in solving crimes. The premise was exciting to me, but I judged the probability of success for such a show would be quite low given the general public’s lack of interest in mathematics. Fast forward to the present and I’m anxiously anticipating September for the show’s premiere of its 6th season. The show recently celebrated its 100th episode. Imagine that, using mathematics as the underlying theme for a popular television show!

NUMB3RS has become one of my few favorite television shows because it is so unique and hits so close to home with my areas of interest. The show is about a group of FBI agents, specifically the lead character of the show Don Eppes (played by Rob Morrow) who draws upon his younger brother’s abilities with mathematics to solve crimes. The show is filmed at Caltech although instead of using the Caltech name, the show refers to the school as “Cal Sci.” Each episode is based on another field of applied mathematics used to solve a crime. The genius character, Professor Charlie Eppes (played by David Krumholtz), typically saves the day by pulling out yet another mathematical miracle out of his bag of tricks. Many areas of applied math have been highlighted throughout the seasons, mostly based on probability theory and game theory. I enjoy freeze framing sections of the show on my Tivo so I can check out the mathematics shown to the viewers – blackboards, glass-pane boards, and instructional graphics used to demonstrate the particular mathematical theory being employed. The science is believable because the producers use excellent consultants to make sure the math used roughly parallels the storyline.

The show hosts an excellent website that includes episodes for viewing online. Wolfram Research (makers of the Mathematica software) is the chief consultant to the show and hosts a companion website called “The Math Behind NUMB3RS” which has excellent reviews and analyses of the mathematics used in the various episodes.

My favorite NUMB3RS episode mentioned the LIGO lab for gravitational wave research which was depicted as being underneath the Cal Sci athletic field. I assumed it was just made up for the show, but I later found that there really is an underground lab near the athletic field. It is a second lab to the 40 meter interferometer used to test new optics for LIGO. The secret lab is for Dr. Ron Drever, one of the three original founders of the LIGO project and one of the arms of the interferometer actually does stretch out near the athletic field. On a couple of occasions I took a walk over there to see if I could see any telltale signs, but nothing yet.

For any other Physics Groupies out there, I highly recommend NUMB3RS as viewing fun for the entire family. I’m still waiting to find out when Larry (physics professor) will finally find a girlfriend!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Caltech Olive Harvest Festival

One of the many things I enjoy about Caltech is walking among the lovely olive trees lining the walkways that meander throughout the campus. They provide the perfect canopy during the often hot and steamy summer days that are part of the Pasadena climate. As beautiful as the olive trees are, they also have a more practical use, the olives! Instead of letting the olives drop off the trees and get smashed on the sidewalks, campus officials decided to host a volunteer Olive Harvest Festival in the fall. Anyone can participate and it is great fun for the entire family. The first festival in 2007, attracted over 350 volunteers who managed to pick 1,460 pounds of olives from 130 olive trees around campus. The olives are then processed by an outside vendor, and bottled to yield Caltech’s own special Olive Oil which is sold at the campus bookstore.

Recently Zoe, the culinary maven that she is, came up with her own special creation called “Caltech Crostini,” the nucleus of which is Caltech olive oil. It is a superb appetizer/hors d'oeuvres. She prepared her creation during a recent family visit to the East Coast. Zoe agreed to make her special recipe available to all you Science Lifestylers. Let us know how it comes out when you try the recipe!

“Caltech Crostini”


  • There are 3 parts - The Crostini, goat cheese, and topping.

  • Blend the Caltech olive oil 2/3 with 1/3 Whole Foods 365 Extra Virgin.

  • You can buy Crostini but homemade is much better. Just cut a baguette into 1/3 inch slices and brush with Caltech olive oil blend. Toast for 5 minutes per side at 400 degrees. Watch carefully as not to burn. Cool on cooling rack. They should be crusty outside, slightly chewy inside.

  • Top each Crostini with about a 1/4 inch slice/spread of goat cheese and spoon the topping over this. The topping is a mixture of roasted red peppers, whole roasted garlic cloves, chopped fresh basil, and capers in the Caltech olive oil blend.

  • Roasted Red Peppers: you can shortcut and buy these in a jar, but you might prefer to prepare from scratch. Just sear red (or yellow) bell peppers all around over a fire until the skin blackens and blisters. Put the peppers in a brown bag for maybe 15 minutes. It will then be easy to peel the skin off. Chop roughly (1/3" by 1" julienne is nice).

  • Roasted Garlic: slice 1/3" off the top of any several whole heads of garlic. Peel off the extraneous papery skin from all, leaving only the skin around each clove, and leaving the head intact. Put in a small baking dish, and thoroughly douse with the Caltech olive oil blend, rubbing it everywhere. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 375 for 35-40 minutes if the cloves are smaller, 50 minutes if larger. Let cool.

  • Roughly chop fresh basil. Thoroughly rinse capers so they are not too tart/vinegary.

  • Mix the roasted garlic cloves, roasted peppers, basil and capers in a bowl - heavy on the roasted garlic, very light on the capers. Pour in the Caltech olive oil so that it resembles a soup. Spoon this over the goat cheese on the Crostini.

  • The idea is to have about a 1/2 tbs of peppers, a couple of cloves of garlic, 1 tsp+ of basil, several capers, and a generous dose of olive oil on each.


  • If the hors d'oeuvres are to be hand passed, they can be assembled and served.

  • If they are to be served at an appetizer table, it's best to present deconstructed so they don't get soggy. Just put the Crostini on/in a platter/bowl. Pre-slice the goat cheese and plate, or smooth/fluff and serve in a bowl with a spreading knife. Put the topping in a bowl with a spoon.

  • You could also further deconstruct for an appetizer table by not pre-mixing the topping. Just put each of the topping ingredients - garlic cloves, capers, fresh basil, roasted peppers in their own little bowls with little spoons, alongside the goat cheese and Crostini platters. In this way, the Caltech olive oil jar can become part of the presentation.

  • As a nice touch straight out of the lab notebook for any scientists in attendance, prepare a little placard at the hors d'oeuvres table, with a title, listing ingredients, and how to eat if necessary.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Trouble with String Theory

String theory, which came onto the physics scene in 1984, is a theory that postulates that the Universe consists of tiny strings vibrating in ten or so dimensions (as opposed to the three spatial dimensions plus one time dimension that humans can see). But the theory has its share of problems. For one thing, recent calculations suggest that it generates 10^500 possible models of the Universe. According to critics, this renders the theory essentially meaningless. Another difficulty is that if strings exist, they would be detectable only at energies far above anything that today’s experiments can measure. The biggest hole string theory has failed to fill is the elusive link between gravity and quantum mechanics. In addition, many university research programs dedicate themselves to string theory research, forsaking other areas. Some physicists warn that the theory’s dominance could pose a threat to the scientific method itself. Moreover, many graduate students are compelled to drink the string theory Kool-Aid and follow suit if they want to progress in their graduate programs. But more physicists these days are starting to question the wisdom of placing all the physics eggs in one basket.

Two popular books lay out this contrarian rationale: The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin (a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada), and Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit (a mathematician at Columbia University in New York City). Smolin’s book promotes an alternative theory known as loop quantum gravity. The "Not Even Wrong" title is a phrase that physicist Wolfgang Pauli used to describe incomplete ideas. Both authors maintain that the theoretical community devoted to string theory will end up isolated with the rest of physics and point out that string theory groups rarely hire researchers working in any of the other approaches to quantum gravity.

As the two factions begin to draw a line in the sand, the string theorists aren’t taking the criticism lying down. For instance, Joe Polchinski, a string theorist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California claims that string theory has contributed to other areas of physics such as heavy-ion physics. Other theorists such as Warren Perkins of Swansea University in Wales point out that string theory provides far simpler approximations than its field-theory counterpart, and may be used to predict how particles behave at the LHC.

As a Physics Groupie, I love to see a heated science controversy. I think the result will be a more focused theory regardless of which side wins. The string theory debate is one that I intend to follow closely in the years to come.

[When I experienced my science metamorphosis years ago, string theory was the catalyst. I was so fascinated by string theory; I wanted to get up to speed with the math and physics to be able to understand string theory from the bottom up. As I got deeper and deeper into it however, the lack of potential for experimental evidence drew me away from string theory and into astrophysics.]

Friday, August 7, 2009

Exactly What Happened at LHC?

The much anticipated startup last year of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) resulted in a spectacular failure on September 19, 2008. The incident resulted in significant damage resulting in a year-long repair project. It was estimated that it will cost $21 million to repair the problem. A recent report indicates that LHC is due to be ready for beam injection by mid-November 2009. The incident wasn’t explained in much detail in the regular press so I sought to understand exactly what happened. What I found out was fascinating:
  • The LHC control center was slowly raising the current in the magnets in the LHC region called sector 3-4. This is where the failure occurred.
  • Monitor screens lit up with alarms that more than 100 magnets had "quenched" which means they lost their superconductivity.
  • It was known that uncontrolled quenches like this could be disastrous, so it was immediately realized that something serious had happened. It turns out that the magnet quenching was by design. LHC automatically brought the magnets out of their superconducting state to protect them.
  • Investigation showed that a single "busbar" connection on one of the magnets was improperly attached. Each dipole magnet is 15 meters long with a .5 meter diameter. The busbar is a small ribbon of niobium-titanium alloy, about as wide as a finger. The busbar supplies current to the magnet.
  • The bad braze of the busbar came undone when 8,700 amps of current vaporized a .5 meter length of the ribbon.
  • This punctured the LHC's heavy vacuum insulation.
  • The liquid helium the insulation protected boiled immediately.
  • The outer shell gave the gas boiling off nowhere to go and in places the pressure built up to 20 atmospheres. A leak formed with helium escaping into the tunnel.
  • This pried magnets loose of their steel anchors and all told, 53 magnets were affected.
  • Not only do the magnets have to be replaced, but relief valves need to be designed throughout LHC to prevent busbar bursts.

LHC is located at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) on the Swiss – French border. LHC is a circular particle accelerator that is 17 miles in circumference, and will accelerate protons to 7 trillion electron volts.

LHC is interesting because it could make important discoveries in a number of areas, one to solve the mystery of the origin of mass. Theory predicts the existence of a Higgs boson (the long time Holy Grail of particle physics), which gives mass to other particles. The LHC has been designed to cover the mass range where the Higgs is predicted to be. So if the Higgs exists, the LHC will find it. Other questions the LHC could potentially answer include the origin of the matter/antimatter asymmetry and the nature of dark matter and dark energy. It may also pick up evidence of super symmetry or extra dimensions. Plus, LHC could find many things nobody has even considered yet. LHC is a discovery machine. Of course there are the sensational stories in the mainstream press reporting that LHC could open up micro black holes and eventually swallow the Earth. Imagine that, death by black hole!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An Exciting Lunch for Physics Groupie

Something very exciting happened to this Physics Groupie the other day. I was extended an invitation by the UCLA Physics department to have lunch with the department Chair, Dr. Ferdinand Coroniti, and famed black hole hunter Professor Andrea Ghez. When I received the invitation I was on an emotional high because I have greatly admired Dr. Ghez and her work with black holes for quite some time. It was an unbelievable opportunity for me to have lunch with such a curious character.

Dr. Ghez was the astronomer who first confirmed the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy with the publication of her seminal paper from 1998. This important achievement put her name on the astrophysics map of current-day luminaries like Caltech’s Mike Brown the planetary scientist responsible for demoting Pluto as a planet, and Columbia’s Brian Greene the string theorist. Ghez also is very visible in her science outreach efforts to bring complex matters of astronomy to the masses.

Our lunch took place at the UCLA Faculty Center which hosts a very nice on-campus restaurant for the faculty and their guests. I was the guest of two very well known physicists and my intent was to make every minute count! I immediately dug in to find out more about Dr. Ghez’s current research directions. The resulting discussion was fascinating. I found Dr. Ghez to be very engaging, passionate, and articulate about her work. She continues to seek out increased understanding about our galactic center by using the Keck facility on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. She heads up the UCLA Galactic Center Group which is one of only two distinct groups focused on this area (the other group is in Germany). The group’s mission is to refine our understanding of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*.

Although the days of observing at the telescope itself on the summit are long gone, Ghez regularly goes on-site to the science center in Waimea (located just North of Kona on the Island’s western coast) in order to get face to face time with the people who actually operate the telescope.

After lunch we walked back to Knudsen Hall, one of the physics buildings on campus. There, I was shown a special room called the “Astronomy Remote Observing Room” where UCLA astronomers can control the Keck telescope during the group’s allotted observing time. This way, the team can control the telescope in the same manner they could in Waimea or on the summit. The room features a three-way video conferencing setup so that researchers at UCLA can interact with the personnel at the Waimea science center and telescope operators at the summit.

My lunch with these two brilliant representatives from the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy motivated me to add the Galactic Center Group to my short-list of astrophysics research to follow closely. The areas of star formation, stellar evolution, and black holes are congruent with my primary interest in gravitational wave astronomy. I already feel a close affiliation with Dr. Ghez and her group researchers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Ultimate Physics Party

Living in Los Angles, party capital of the world, each and every weekend the glitterati line up to get into high profile restaurants, bars, and clubs in Hollywood to see and be seen. Wannabes swoon over pop stars like Paris Hilton, and Lindsey Lohan. Paparazzi are pervasive. As a Physics Groupie, this rank of glitz means little to me. I definitely have my own agenda and my own perspective on who is a superstar worthy of admiration. A couple of years ago Zoe and I attended a physics party for the ages. You’ll see why shortly.

We had just attended an all-day Friday series of short talks at Caltech for the Pacific Coast Gravity Meeting 2007. It was an invigorating day providing glimpses at leading-edge research in the fields of quantum gravity, cosmology, gravitational waves, and general relativity. At the end of the day, the attendees had quite a surprise as the organizers passed out flyers announcing a party for the group to be held at Professor Kip Thorne’s house up in the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena just above the Rose Bowl. The flyer included a map to the location (which I saved for prosperity). The invitation was totally unexpected as the conference information never mentioned a party. Zoe and I looked at each other in heated anticipation. We’d never been to a physics party before. Of course we’re going!

We drove over to Kip’s beautiful hillside home and found a rousing party taking place. Hollywood, eat your heart out! The rooms were filled with Caltech grad students, postdocs, and faculty in addition to all the visiting researchers from around the country and the world. Zoe and I felt an electric fascination with everything going on. The party was ordinary in the sense that guests were milling around the catered meal and drinks in the kitchen, as small groups gathered in the living room and sun deck. We listened with interest to various conversations and then strolled down to the fire pit out back near the pool and Jacuzzi. Here we found the same physics crackpot we encountered earlier that morning schmoozing up to Professor Thorne in the Jacuzzi. We also witnessed a female grad student disrobe to her underwear to take a swim. Everyone was having a wonderful time. Zoe and I sat alone next to the fire pit and talked about how amazing it was to be at a physics party at Kip Thorne’s house. Little did we know the best was yet to come.

As we began to make our last rounds about the house, we passed by the living room and kitchen area one more time where we noticed a commotion. From across the room I noticed an oddly familiar wheelchair next to the food table. I thought to myself, “It couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be.” I felt flummoxed as I walked briskly over to the table to identify the newly arrived guest. It was! It was none other than Stephen Hawking, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.

Zoe and I were beside ourselves. Here, just inches from us was the most preeminent physicist in the entire world. Wow! We watched as one of the very responsible assistants of Professor Hawking helped with his dinner that included sips of Chardonnay from a spoon.

After the professor finished eating, I found out what a brilliant physicist has for dessert. Another assistant repeatedly held up small yellow Post-it notes in Hawking’s field of view. I saw at least half a dozen displayed for him. He would signal when he was finished with one, and ready for another. It was an intriguing process that was designed to address his limitations with having ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was reading notes from other researchers that included equations! Imagine such a mind that was able to digest mathematical equations in that manner. I was in awe by the whole concept.

After the party, I relished what had transpired that night. It was perhaps the most memorable party I will ever attend. For a Physics Groupie, could it get any better?

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Hubble Deep Field Image

Since its inception, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has achieved some amazing science, replete with the most captivating astrophotographs ever seen by human eyes. I’ve often perused the numerous image catalogs on the Hubble website with awe and inspiration. But there is no image so compelling to me than the Hubble Deep Field image. Taken in 1995, the image was the result of Hubble focused on the same tiny patch of the sky for 10 consecutive days. About 1,500 galaxies (not stars, but entire galaxies) are visible in this deep view of the universe.

The Deep Field image feeds the imagination and cultivates the mind. I can stare at the magnificent desolation and never get tired. The view represents something almost mystic in quality, depicting the immense nature of the universe, but also signifying how small and insignificant we are as we strive to understand the cosmos with tools like Hubble. The view gives an appreciation of the distances we face in our attempts to detect other locales in the universe similar to our own. The view demonstrates the high probability that life must exist … somewhere … out there … on a planet … circling a star … in one of the multitude of galaxies that can be seen in the Hubble Deep Field.

Now that the recent successful repair mission breathed new life into Hubble, we can look forward to ever more penetrating images that will endow us with an increasingly more precise view of our place in the expanding universe.