Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In-Flight Quantum Mechanics

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sidewalk Astronomers

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009


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

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Antimatter on the Brain

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

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

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

[Image credit: Matt Chisholm]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alterraun Verner – Football Player and Math Major

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2009


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

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dr. George Abell - RIP

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Feynman’s Old Classroom

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Northern Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Smoot

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

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

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

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Biggest Physics Wagers

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Magnificent Auroras

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

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

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

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory Threatened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Slice of Prison Pi

Mug shots can be probing statements of social mores gone wrong. You look at the face, the expression, hairstyle, and age-lines – all that tell a piece of the story. You wonder what sordid history and events led up to the individual’s incarceration.

Now consider the attached mug shot photo of the perp in an orange jail jumpsuit. That’s the first Pi tattoo I believe I’ve ever seen on anyone, let alone a jailbird. I always thought that if I ever got a tattoo it would be something along these lines. I was thinking more of a Feynman diagram. Imagine trying to explain that to a tattoo parlor worker! (No, you idiot, you drew it wrong, you can’t have two positrons!)

Anyway, seeing this guy with a Pi tattoo makes this Physics Groupie hypothesize about exactly what it means to this man. Was he a scientist brought down by a stint of academic rage? Was he a gang member whose hijacked moniker was the result of an ill-informed street credo? Did he select the Pi symbol from a catalog late one night on a drunken binge? What do you think?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Red Door

One of the most distinctly cool places on the Caltech campus is the Red Door café, which is centrally located in the student center building and what used to be the campus bookstore. The Red Doors is a great place. I love to hang out to study physics, play chess, or just science-people watch. The establishment also has some good food, pastries, espresso, and many other fine selections.

There are two seating choices at the Red Door, inside the café itself and outside in a large patio area. I like both, but the choice often depends on the weather conditions. Pasadena is often sweltering hot so I opt for inside on the warmer days. The café has a number of quaint tables and a love seat in the corner. You can overhear researchers and postdocs talking about their latest experimental results. It is a great place to spread out and ponder over a new theory of quantum gravity.

Outside the café you’ll find quite a few nice wooden tables with large umbrellas to shield from the elements. Although not appropriate for rainy days, on a nice warm sunny day this area can be quite exciting. You never know when a Nobel Laureate might stroll by. One day I saw famed relativist Kip Thorne sipping a drink as he conferred with a visiting speaker right after a talk at the new astrophysics building.

Visiting the Red Door can be a rewarding experience to be close to curious characters as they take a break from their groundbreaking research efforts.