Friday, May 29, 2009

The arXiv.org Preprint Server


When it comes to science, can there be too much of a good thing? Opinions may differ, but all I know is that I couldn’t survive long without the arXiv.org preprint server. I think that if I suddenly withdrew from using it, I’d go through the shakes. arXiv.org is the primary way I have access to bleeding-edge research on a daily basis. It is a wonderful alternative to waiting months until a paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal. In many cases, by the time a paper is eventually published in such a journal the news of the results is somewhat old hat.

The arXiv.org “e-print server” as it is called, is owned and operated by Cornell University and partially funded by the National Science Foundation. arXiv.org is well known in the scientific research establishment as the place to place leading-edge research results out in public before actual publication in peer-reviewed journals. The service is free to use, and constantly updated. Academics routinely use citations in the form arXiv/abs/0708.3818 which points to the paper available in PDF and Postscript formats. The preprint server is organized by scientific categories. My favorite categories are astro-ph (astrophysics), and gr-qc (general relativity and quantum cosmology).

I typically check my two favorite categories each morning to see what’s new. There is usually a lot new. For instance, on Friday, May 29, 2009 there were 60 newly submitted papers for the astro-ph category, and 20 for gr-gc. I’m normally looking for papers specific to my areas of interest, gravitational wave research, cosmology, and exoplanet discovery. There are at least several new papers per day for these subject areas, so the rate of availability of new research results can be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m quite tickled because I’m assured access to all the latest scientific results. That’s hard to beat for a physics groupie like me!

arXiv.org has many other physics categories, plus categories in mathematics, nonlinear sciences (such as automata), computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, and statistics. arXiv.org is a veritable treasure trove of scientific research. I could not recommend this resource more highly.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Bell Curve"



I met quite a few curious characters in the UCLA Computer Club when I was an undergrad. One club member stands out after all these years. He was an honors student and quite the enigma. I don’t recall his real name, but all of us in the club called him “Bell curve.” He was a tall (6’4” or so), lanky, acne-laden, disheveled looking kid with absolutely no social graces which could have been because he was only fourteen years old. He also had some kind of skeletal affliction because he walked around with hunch. He was considered a genius, so the rumor had it, and that’s why he was in the honor math series. I remember him carrying around the coveted Apostol honors calculus text (see Quarkbooks.com math section). Oh yes, we called him Bell curve because on the normal distribution of social intelligence, he wasn’t on either of the asymptotic extremes of the Bell curve!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Exercise and Mathematics


I realize that not many people connect physical exercise and doing mathematics, but I do. I suppose this quirky association follows my nonconformist views on most things, but with that said, this still is sort of farfetched. I find that just after strenuous cardiovascular exercise (although concentrated reps of various weights exercises contribute to the effect as well) I am better able to concentrate on doing mathematics than at other times. I’m still trying to assess the reasons for this effect, and I’m doing some analysis of what specific exercises and what duration yields the best effects.

Thus far, I’ve determined that after running at least 3 miles (either treadmill or track, it doesn’t matter), or after running one or more individual fast miles (my best time in the past year is 6:43), for several hours after exercising my mental acuity is much more pronounced. As a result, I’m not only able to concentrate very well on mathematics and mathematical physics, but my level of scientific creativity is more refined during this time.

I look forward to this heightened awareness just after exercising, so I make sure I have allotted the time to find a venue like one of my favorite coffeehouses, cafes, or libraries to spread out my research materials (e.g. yellow books, journals, pre-print articles, etc.) and get to work. On occasion, I will even drive over to a deserted stretch of beach, crack open the back of my SUV, and watch the waves and seagulls while I hunker down with a yellow pad and some cool equations. I notice that the effect diminishes after several hours so I try to optimize my “math super hero” stimulation by staying at it until I can feel myself coming down my geek euphoria.

Also quite odd, when I first began my science metamorphosis about ten years ago, I coupled the physical effects of exercise with audible stimulation. After discussing this habit with a number of other people both in and out of scientific fields, the consensus was they have no idea how I manage it. What I’d do is crank up rock music in my iPod while I’m doing math. It wasn’t just any old rock music, but a rather assaultive genre such as Rage Against the Machine, Third Strike, Korn, and the like. This went on for quite a few years, and then suddenly last year, I couldn’t tolerate the music anymore. There may have been a physiological change within me, although I haven’t identified it. So the net result is that there’s no more loud music going on during my math sessions, but the physical exercise effect is still very beneficial.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

MIT's Newspaper "The Tech"


I have a very serious fascination with MIT. There are some deep-seated personal reasons for this, but we’ll stick to the science here. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (or the “Institute” as it is affectionately called) represents established East Coast science so for that reason alone, I’m drawn to MIT. Besides I love New England in general and Boston in particular. Even though I’m a native Angelino, I root for all the New England teams, especially the Boston Red Sox. I should have been born on the East Coast.

Cambridge, Mass. is similar in nature to other pure college towns, but Cambridge is academics on steroids, being home to two world-class universities, MIT and Harvard. This is very rare. You can smell the brain-power just walking along Massachusetts Avenue, and approaching MIT from the Charles River Bridge is like entering into a high-powered academic zone. To say it is stimulating for a physics groupie like me is an understatement.

I chose to subscribe to the MIT student newspaper called “The Tech” so I could stay in tune with what’s going on at MIT. My copies arrive here in Los Angeles a few weeks after the publication date, but no matter, I still find the news items interesting. I believe The Tech to be a very good student newspaper, definitely one of the best for a math and science school. Having read the Caltech newspaper for years, I can safely say that MIT’s is better.

The Tech has a number of interesting sections. One of my favorites is the “Campus Life” section with its “Talk Nerdy to Me” column. I also like the “Police Log” section with reports of various crimes committed in the area (for example, one of the MIT police officers was arrested for drug trafficking). The Tech also has a strong comics page that include several Dilbert and Doonesbury comics stacked together, not to mention “P.h.D.” comics (Piled Higher and Deeply). I look forward to reading the letters to the editor to get a reflection of political leanings on campus. Finally, the sports page is engrossing to me because I can read about sports unknown here on the West Coast like lacrosse.

The Tech can be freely accessed online and downloaded in PDF format from The Tech’s website at: http://tech.mit.edu/.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The New Cahill Center at Caltech



After 60 years of waiting for a new facility to house their eminent physicists and astronomers, Caltech opened the new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics on January 26, 2009. The $50 million facility will become home to between 200 and 300 researchers and nearly 10% of Caltech’s faculty – 26 professors – will occupy the Cahill Center.

Previously, Caltech’s cadre of talented graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists were dispersed among several buildings across campus. During the past few years, I mostly frequented the historic East Bridge, home of many of Caltech’s world famous faculty such as Kip Thorne. Now with Cahill, the group will be brought together in a uniquely artful setting designed to promote intellectual collaboration.

The building’s distinctive purpose begins with its street address at 1216 California Blvd. near the southwest corner of the campus – 1216 being the wavelength, in Angstroms, of a far-ultraviolet line in the spectrum of hydrogen, known as the Lyman alpha line, that for decades has provided observational astronomers with a goldmine of information about a wide range of cosmic phenomena.

The center was named after benefactor Charles Cahill a retired producer of educational films who has followed Caltech astronomy since the 1950s. The Cahill Center is Caltech’s first building to achieve gold-level certification in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

I’ve been to the new Cahill Center twice already, both times to attend LIGO seminars sponsored by CaJAGWR (Caltech-JPL Association for Gravitational Wave Research). The seminars are held in the beautiful and very high-tech 148-seat Hameetman Auditorium. Whenever I’m there, it feels like a privilege to be in a place that arguably may be the center of the universe for astrophysics research.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stephen Hawking 2009


Because of his long term ties to Caltech, world renowned physicist Stephen William Hawking (born January 8, 1942, which was 300 years after the death of Galileo) visits Los Angeles once a year. He spends about a month each year at Caltech as the Fairchild Scholar, carrying out research and exchanging ideas with faculty. He also delivers a public lecture while he’s here and I make sure I always attend. Given his nearly life-long affliction with Lou Gehrig ’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), he was not given a long life expectancy so I go to see him every chance I get.

This year’s visit on Monday, March 9, 2009 was handled a bit differently than prior years. In the past, Caltech based Hawking’s lecture around the famed Beckman Lecture Series, a favorite of mine each academic year. The only problem is that Caltech’s Beckman auditorium, although quite large, is simply not of a sufficient size to accommodate all the people wishing to see the professor. This year, the event was held at the new Pasadena Convention Center. The convention center is located nearby Caltech and is significantly larger than Beckman and with ample parking. The new building was perfect for Hawking’s visit.

This year, Caltech sold tickets to the event for $10. Previously, the event was free but this resulted in extraordinarily long lines and attendees were not guaranteed entry. One year I recall waiting out on the lawn are in front of Beckman for over three hours, only to be told the auditorium was full just before the start of the lecture. Luckily, they opened an adjacent auditorium with a video feed for the overflow crowd. The second auditorium was also packed to capacity and quite a few people were left out completely.

On the night of the lecture I got to the convention center about an hour early so I could savor the event before it started. I walked up from the underground parking to the front doors of the convention center and sat down to observe the crowd as they arrived. The mood of the people arriving could only be described as electrified. Everyone seemed excited at the chance to see the most famous physicist in the world. People from all walks of life showed up. There were many children in attendance too which I viewed as a very positive thing since such an event would be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

With about ten minutes until the start time of 8pm, I found a good seat directly in front of the stage. I sat next to a nice couple. The man was head of the Caltech energy plant. I think a good percentage of the Caltech community attends the Hawking lecture each year.

At 8:15pm I was starting to get worried, but at long last the professor made a grand entrance on his motorized wheelchair from the rear of the immense auditorium. The event was completely sold out, and there wasn’t a single empty chair. With the help of assistants, Hawking made it up to the stage and began his talk “Why We Should Go into Space.” It takes Hawking a very long time to compose his words using a computerized speech synthesis device developed by Intel. The pre-recorded lecture lasted about 45 minutes and then there was a Q&A session that was also pre-arranged.

It was very satisfying to spend an evening with Stephen Hawking and thousands of his fans. Hawking is probably the most curious character alive today, so as a physics groupie, this was the perfect place for me.

Since 1979 Stephen Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the same post held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking is perhaps best known for his discovery in 1974 that black holes are not completely black, but instead emit “Hawking radiation,” and for his “no boundary” conjecture about the details of the birth of the universe. Stephen Hawking has three children and three grandchildren.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Father of the Dobsonian Telescope


One sunny, summer afternoon, I stumbled across a particularly curious character, John Dobson, the creator of the Dobsonian telescope (both shown in the associated photo) and noted founder of the Sidewalk Astronomers group. The first time I encountered Dobson was on a sunny weekend afternoon in December, 1996 when he was teaching a class on how to build a telescope, a Dobsonian telescope of course. The class included instruction on mirror grinding, not a trivial task! The class was conducted on the front lawn of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. He was with a dozen or so participants as they were in the middle of the arduous job of grinding the mirrors. He was barking out instructions and scolding an attendee who wasn’t, in his estimation, using enough “elbow grease” so he yanked the mirror away from the student and did it himself. Dobson is a distinctive character, a nonagenarian, long gray hair in a pony tail, and rail thin. After hours of hard labor, the fruit of the exercise, the finished product, was a complete Dobsonian telescope. I think every serious amateur astronomer should build their own telescope under John Dobson’s tutelage.

Dobson is known for traveling around the country, giving lectures, visiting astronomy groups, and being a follower of the Indian Vedanta religious philosophy. Early in 2007, Zoe, my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire, and I decided to seek out Dobson. We found out that he was staying for a period at a monastery in Hollywood so we called to invite him to dinner. We had heard that folks support his efforts in lecturing and travel by subsidizing him. He’s a pretty elderly chap, but with a quick wit and much energy. When we picked him up we gave him his choice of restaurant. He chose Denny’s. When we sat down and ordered, he asked the waitress to bring him “something green.” Our dinner was interesting to say the least, moving quickly from topic to topic in astronomy and astrophysics, and even some spirituality and mysticism thrown in for good measure.

Just before we drove him back, he allowed Zoe and me to borrow an original manuscript of a new book he had written, “The Moon is New,” a mélange of physics and mysticism. We felt quite honored that he entrusted us with his book, so we quickly read it, and Zoe promptly returned it to him.

It turns out that you can meet all sorts of curious characters in science if you simply extend them an invitation of some sort. In the future, I envision inviting all sorts of scientists over to my home for a home cooked dinner and rousing science discussions. So can you, give it a try.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Metamorphosis

It all started on February 22, 1999, my fascination with science that is and in particular physics. It was just over ten years ago. I attended a public lecture at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles where I’ve lived all my life. I’d been to the observatory many times over the years, but I never took advantage of their lecture series. I received a notice advertising the upcoming lecture by a professor of physics from Columbia University, Brian Greene. His topic for the evening was “String Theory.” The lecture coincided with his new book The Elegant Universe which was fast becoming a bestseller. I had heard about string theory in the mainstream press, but I didn’t know any scientific detail. All I knew was that it was highly theoretical and in a field I knew nothing about, physics. I took two quarters of physics at UCLA, but didn’t care for it much as I was devoted to computer science at the time and had little time for extracurricular academic interests. As an undergrad in mathematics I always favored abstract concepts (my favorite course was Abstract Algebra with rings, fields and groups) rather than applied techniques so this lecture in a field so obscure and esoteric appealed to me.

Arriving at the observatory I was immediately reminded of how much I missed science. Even with all the observatory’s aging and derelict displays of the planets, the moon and sun spots, I still felt a warm feeling of being close to science and discovery. I stood in the central rotunda just inside the main doors and looked down into the Foucault pendulum pit that demonstrates the rotation of the earth. I noticed a group of children looking down with me and asking questions and marveling at the demonstration. It was great to see kids excited about science and that energized me further.

I made my way to the ticket booth and then went into the theater to find a seat. In those days, the only place to hold a lecture at the observatory was in the planetarium. The ancient wooden seats creaked when you sat down and the hard headrests served only to elevate the head and not much more. These were the same wooden seats that were offered years later for purchase to potential donors for the new observatory retrofit project as a form of memorabilia. I looked around the large round dark room and stared at the 1964-vintage Zeiss Mark IV star projector in the center of the large round room. I strategically took a seat near the podium which was placed along one side of the room near the door.

Waiting for the lecture to commence, I stared up at the ceiling and recalled my history with this old place. Back when elementary schools still had funding for field trips, I remember loading up with my classmates in a yellow school bus and headed over the hill from the San Fernando Valley, rumbling past Hollywood and up Vermont Ave. to the observatory. Just about any field trip was exciting for a fifth grader, but my family had a predisposition for science because my father worked on the Apollo and space shuttle programs so I was firmly in tune with space, astronomy and the wonders of the night sky. This sense of science also rubbed off on my younger brother who became a talented amateur astronomer. Just being at the observatory was exhilarating and I recall being filled with curiosity and fascination. When I snapped out of my day dream and smiled when I thought how fortunate I was to have not lost the natural curiosity that kids have and frequently lose after being stymied by institutionalized education. So many kids have that curiosity ripped from them never to return and every parent should do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t slip away.

As the docent introduced Dr. Greene, I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe a stodgy older academician with a dry, leveled tone to his speaking style. But I remained open minded for the sake of science. Instead a young and rather dashing guy showed up and instantly captivated the capacity audience. You could tell Dr. Greene was accustomed to delivering his talk to groups consisting of laypersons. He brought down the subject to a level that pretty much anyone with an interest in science could comprehend. A year or so later I discovered his Nova television special on string theory and since then I’ve watched it several times whenever I feel I need a refresher on the subject. Dr. Green was enthralling as he opened up the universe of eleven dimensions, most of which are curled up into negligible size. As I understood it, he was speaking of the “theory of everything” and that was an exciting concept. I imagined a theory that established a link between Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics, something our best minds have been struggling with for decades. The most important thing I gleaned from the lecture was that to truly understand string theory, a very strong background in mathematics was required. I’m not just talking about Calculus which is beyond most people, but way beyond that. But for some reason, I felt challenged to understand this theory. I knew, however, that it would mean a major commitment in time and effort. I didn’t decide immediately, that would take several more months.

After the hour lecture plus Q&A session was over, I felt I didn’t want to leave. I wanted more. Fortunately, Dr. Green brought a pile of his brand new books and was selling them and autographing them for the attendees. Perfect! Not only did I enjoy a wonderful lecture, but now I could take something back home with me, a guide if you will, to set off on the path to understanding string theory. I took the shiny black book with the gold letters and enthusiastically left the observatory, bounding down the front steps to the grassy area where a few star gazers had set up their telescopes.

Although it was already around 10pm, I wasn’t ready to take the trek home. I want to take a peek at my new found treasure. So along the path down from the observatory on Vermont Ave. in the Los Feliz neighborhood I stopped at House of Pies, got a cozy booth, ordered my favorite banana cream pie and coffee, and began my journey. My metamorphosis had begun. Five cups of coffee later, I looked up and it was 2:30am! Yet I wasn’t tired at all. I was literally pouring over Dr. Greene’s book and didn’t want to stop. The more I read the more I got the feeling that this was something I wanted to pursue, not as a temporary interest but as a life-long pursuit. I know it is difficult to understand how a seemingly innocuous event can stimulate such feelings, but it did and that night began a completely new direction for me in the field of physics.

In the days that followed, I did research about what areas of mathematics and physics were required to gain a true understanding of string theory. The list, to my chagrin, was quite long indeed. I started from the top, string theory itself, and worked backward envisioning my pursuit of knowledge as an inverted tree structure where each branch led to simpler and more basic forms of mathematics. After a time, I wound up back at the basics (the leaves of my inverted tree): Calculus single variable and multivariate, linear algebra, differential equations, real and complex analysis and some mathematical statistics and probability theory thrown in for good measure. This was my starting point!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Yellow Books Rule!



I love the Yellow Books. For those of you into math, you know what I mean, the venerable series of mathematics texts from the Springer-Verlag publishing company. They come in all sizes, hardback and paperback, with a broad variety of topics, but the thing they have in common is that they are yellow (the most advanced ones have “Graduate Texts in Mathematics” in a white field on the top part of the cover. The yellow books represent the best of the best in mathematics.

I own a growing collection of yellow books and I buy them every chance I get, especially when I find them on sale or when they are in good used condition. There is a local independent bookstore called Alias Books (http://www.aliasbooks.com/) near my clubhouse office in West LA and I’ve told the owner that I’ll likely buy any yellow books he brings in. I’ve found some good ones there too, like “Tensor Geometry” by Dodson and Poston. I like that one because so much of general relativity depends on tensor algebra and calculus. So instead of paying near $100 per book, I can get an excellent used book for less than half that price.

A couple of years ago, an amazing independent bookstore in Santa Monica called Midnight Special closed after many years of serving the community. The store was one of very few that carried an extensive collection of yellow books. I would spend hours checking out their stash. During their going-out-of-business sale I found a bunch of excellent yellow books. I hated to benefit that way as result of the demise of a good bookstore, but all’s fair in love and math.

Another great resource for yellow books WAS the Caltech bookstore. The store had a huge selection of math and science books, but alas in May 2009, unbelievably Caltech decided to close their campus bookstore. All student textbooks must now be purchased online. This was a big disappointment to me because I looked forward to my bi-monthly trips to the campus to peruse all the yellow books they had in stock.

One of my favorite yellow books is “Complex Analysis” by Theodore Gamelin (to buy this book, check out the math section at http://www.quarkbooks.com/). Dr. Gamelin was a professor of mine while I was an undergrad at UCLA. I took the Game Theory and Linear Programming class with him. Isn’t his last name just perfect for teaching that class? I can still hear him saying the word “tableau.” Dr. Gamelin recently retired from teaching. He will be sorely missed I’m sure. Anyway, getting back to his book, I recall seeing at least two people reading the book at local Starbucks coffeehouses here in LA. Imagine that, in a town of Hollywood glitz and screenwriters at every turn, there are some thoughtful souls reading math books, in public no less! I really love that. So now I carry my Complex Analysis yellow book in the back of my car. You never know when the urge might come.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Social Aspects of Science: A Science Relationship?



Why not? Is it really so hard to imagine that a relationship can be based, at least in part, on science? Read on, you be the judge.

I was an invited speaker at the recent UCLA Department of Mathematics Career Day and I was milling around with the crowd of undergrads at the reception that followed. Some students came up to me and asked about my science lifestyle philosophy which I had talked about during my presentation earlier. One thing led to another and I described my concept of a “science vacation.” A science vacation is where you take a nice vacation and plan it around some science destination. I gave them some examples like visiting CERN (Geneva) to take a tour of the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator, or Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii to trek up to the twin Keck telescopes. One young man had an interesting response to science vacations:



Young male math undergrad: “You mean I’m supposed to tell my fiancé that we’re going on a science vacation?”

Me: “Well, uh, yes, what’s wrong with that?”

Young mail math undergrad: “Nothing wrong, but I may not be getting married anymore.”


That is quite a telling statement and it made me think about it. Is a science relationship so out of the question? I guess it takes the right couple, but I think it can work quite nicely. Let me give a few examples. Dates can be made quite pleasant when based on science. Instead of dinner and a movie, how about dinner and a science lecture, or maybe a picnic dinner and stargazing. Another fun thing to do is to visit your favorite bistro and share a nice bottle of wine while going over the current issue of Scientific American. Space launches are always exciting, so how about attending a Planetary Society or JPL event to witness some history. Heading out to see the space shuttle land is also a lot of fun, and you can couple the trip with a visit to a local winery for some wine tasting. Then there is coming up with some science experiments and going out shopping for parts and equipment. Or there are science and or math oriented theatrical plays or movies (like “Proof”) which can lead to some interesting conversation afterward. Or it is always a pleasure to visit your local observatory to check out the planetarium show or other displays. Don’t forget that the summer meteor showers present a good opportunity to stay out really late with your loved one, and warm up in a sleeping bag as the sky objects go zipping by.

The list of science things you and your like-minded partner can share is virtually limitless, it just takes common interests. But I guess that’s the point. To the bewildered math undergrad, I’d say maybe he should have chosen his fiancé a bit better because a life of science can cement a long-term relationship like little else. Try it, you’ll like it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

TRW Swap Meet


What do you get if you mix computers, electronics, amateur radio, science paraphernalia and lots of geeks? Easy, you get the TRW Swap Meet in beautiful Redondo Beach, California. The swap meet is every last Saturday of the month from 8am until 11am. It is located in the Northrup Grumman Space Technology parking lot near the corner of Aviation Blvd. and Marine Ave. I like to go a few times a year to pick through all the latest cool junk on sale such as used computers, components, tools, cheap CDs and DVDs, batteries, old test equipment like oscilloscopes, old lab equipment like microscopes, printer cartridges, and many surprises.

I go to the swap meet for a few reasons. First, it is a great place to buy my supply of batteries. Several vendors supply batteries of all types, including cell phone and camera batteries. I also go looking for books. One vendor in particular, brings hundreds of older, but still useful, science and math books. In the past, I’ve found some real gems like the 1st edition of the Halliday and Resnick physics text I used in college but unwisely tossed after graduation. I also found some great books on partial differential equations, statistical inference, and laser optics. For five bucks a piece, it is well worth the trip. On one visit I found a very cool digital circuits breadboard lab kit that I enjoy playing with. And then there is one vendor that just specializes in soldering equipment, tools, and accessories which is very handy for building my physics experiments.

The swap meet is entertaining for other reasons, namely the odd characters I encounter. There is a whole cast of regulars, so if you’re into geek-watching, this is the place for you. There is the “fallen body builder,” a snake-oil type salesman, about 6’2”, 250lbs. with bulging muscles that have seen much better days. He sells miscellanea such as digital meters, gloves, antennas, screwdrivers, etc. and he always drives a hard bargain. Then there is “the thing from Japan” a scruffy 4-foot man, or woman (really can’t tell), who speaks no English and spreads out a handful of ridiculous items like a rusty hammer, dirty power adapters, bars of soap, pens without their caps, and worn out bungee cords. I stand back to watch him/her like a train wreck. There is also the “gangrene man,” a long-haired, rotund, middle aged man who rides around in on electric scooter wearing just a hospital gown. For at least a year and a half now, one of his legs has been in a corroding cast with purple toes hanging out. It is a pretty disturbing sight.

I also go to the swap for a quick burger breakfast at the Daughters of Job U-haul truck set up with an outdoor barbeque to grill their self-proclaimed “Best Hamburgers in the World.” And every once in a while, I run into old acquaintances like Mike Stein, a guy I remember from the UCLA Computer Club circa 1978. He hasn’t changed a bit, still squinting through coke bottle glasses, a very brilliant guy with a Peter Pan complex who never got another job other than working at the computer center at UCLA.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Public School Math in Peril


For those of you outside the area, there is a serious state budget battle raging here in California. It’s nothing new. There is always a budget battle raging here in California. It was supposed to be cured six years ago after the Terminator (aka Arnold Schwarzenegger) swept into the governor’s office in what was arguably an unwarranted recall election to remove the just-reelected Gray Davis. Arnold accused Davis of condoning government waste and of instilling an expensive car registration tax. He promised to cut the waste in government and balance the budget, bringing health back to California’s coffers. But gee, all that never happened and the state is in worse shape than when Arnold won the recall (and the car tax is back too!). To be fair, Arnold’s term saw an unparalleled world economic downturn. But to be equally fair, Davis was conned by that little Texas energy swindler Enron, a debacle that cost California billions and was hyped by Arnold in coming up with reasons why Davis should go.

So what does all this have to do with math? Well, the self-proclaimed education-friendly Arnold is rumoring to cut funding of California schools to even lower levels, an action that will push student’s test scores below their already dismal ranking. Rumor has it that 9th grade math will be canceled in the near future.

Imagine that, no math in 9th grade! 9th grade is when I had my metamorphosis in my journey through public education. Prior to 9th grade, I was a very so-so, average student in math. I had no confidence, or interest for that matter, in math whatsoever, but then came the delightful experiment in education I became part of.

My junior high school, Patrick Henry in Granada Hills was one of two schools in the country in the late 60s to receive a federal grant to set up a fully equipped computer lab to see how the students would adapt to using computers in school. Now please take note of the year, 1968. This was a time of mainframe computers and mini-computers were just showing up in the business world. Public education, at the time, had no more exposure to computers than rocket science. We had a brand new DEC PDP-8e minicomputer in the lab and we could use it any way we wanted. Us kids adapted to computers in an instant, and surpassed the teachers’ own limited knowledge by a mile. I turned into a smart and admittedly precocious 14 year-old seemingly overnight. My confidence in non-computer subjects, most importantly math, also quickly benefited.

9th grade was when I took algebra, and I went from a solid C student the year before computers, to straight A’s after computers. If 9th grade math had been canceled that year, I probably would have languished the rest of my life with average math ability. It is amazing what confidence and momentum can do for a young person, and that is really the point with the possibility that California might cancel 9th grade math. Kids need math for basic problem solving and analytical skills. To take a year off, would be harmful and could in fact push some students into a math tailspin. For any readers living in California, don’t let this happen. Use your voting rights as a citizen to make sure the politicians understand your priorities.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saving Hubble


I’ve been following the exciting Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Servicing Mission 4 (SM4) that began this week with the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on May 11, 2009. It is exciting because there was a good chance that the mission might not have taken place at all due to the increased risk from space junk in the same orbit as the HST. But after lengthy deliberation, the mission was finally a go, and the astronauts are now busy at work upgrading and repairing the HST. The mission is supposed to prolong HST’s life another 10 years. The 11 day SM4 is the final service mission for Hubble.

The HST means a lot to me. There’s nothing in astronomy today that captures my imagination like Hubble does. Heck, I always thought that one day when I get a dog (my preference is a Chow-Chow) I’d name it “Hubble,” like “Hubble the bubble” in reference to a Chow’s puffy look.

The Hubble represents humankind’s crown achievement in terms of visible light astronomy. Some of the most mesmerizing photos of the cosmos have come from the HST. My favorite of all time is the Hubble Deep Field (HDF) image that was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) for ten consecutive days between December 18 and 28, 1995. Gazing into the small field of this image, Hubble uncovered a bewildering assortment of at least 1,500 galaxies at various stages of evolution. Whenever I stare at this photo, I’m in awe with what it represents, hundreds of galaxies each with billions of stars, each star with the possibility of a planetary system, each system with the potential of an Earth-like planet.

So as the mission specialists perform their spacewalks to refurbish the Hubble, I feel as if the old dame of astronomy is being given a breath of fresh air as it will continue to open up new vistas for the world’s astronomers. I know from talking to scientists who manage to obtain HST time, it is considered quite the rite of passage for an astronomer. The mission replaces all six of HST’s ailing gyroscopes, provides fresh batteries, repairs the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), installs the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, and much more.

Hubble’s successor will be the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that is scheduled to launch in 2014. JSWT is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope that will find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe. JSWT will have a large mirror, 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in diameter and will reside in an orbit 1 million miles from the Earth versus the 353 mile orbit of Hubble.

So after the successful completion of SM4, you can look forward to years of even more exciting glimpses of the distant universe coming from a revived HST that will go down in scientific history as the experiment that gave humans their most significant and most powerful view of the cosmos. With any luck, the new Hubble will feed the imagination of a whole generation of children in the potential of scientific discovery.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

OpenDatabase.info Needs Science Data

The Open Database Project found at www.OpenDatabase.info is a free public search engine for data. The homepage has a simple "Search for Data" box similar in nature to the Google homepage. Public users are invited to upload data or search for data. You can search for data by keyword or by category. The growing repository is especially in need of science related data.

As an example of how it works, you can enter the keywords:

galaxy clusters

The OpenDatabase search engine returns a database containing locations for 1,351 Abell galaxy clusters in SDSS DR5 (Sloan Digital Sky Survey, 5th data release). If you have your own science data, please consider publishing it on The Open Database Project.

I think the idea of a free data repository is a positive one especially for science data. I would love it if I could go to a single source for a list of all known exoplanets, or near Earth objects (NEOs), or gamma ray bursts (GRBs), or moons of planets in our solar system, or supernovas, etc. etc. You can probably find all this data with Google, but it would take you time to locate a good data source for any of the above. So I hope people take the hint and publish science data.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Physics of Surfing


It could only happen at UCSD, a renowned surfer school located in sunny San Diego, California, an actual for-credit course “The Physics of Surfing.” Really a 1-unit applied physics class for freshmen that blends coursework in physics with hands-on experiments, students take part in “wet lab exercises” designed to measure the physical forces at work when surfing. This is a far cry from the physics lab courses I remember from college where you'd have to do tedious data collection using an air track experiment. Newtonian mechanics should and can be made more interesting so maybe UCSD is onto something.

The students head down to the nearby beach with surfboards retrofitted with a GPS receiver and an accelerometer to collect data about the speed, direction and acceleration of the waves. I can't help but wonder if the surfing is done at the famed nudist beach "Black's Beach?" Imagine that, a clothing-optional physics lab!

The class is under the tutelage of David Sandwell, professor of geophysics at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography who enjoys hooking freshmen on the romance of scientific inquiry.

Students learn that surfboards follow the laws of fluid mechanics and see how physics works in the real world. The course is really an introduction to scientific research. The devices attached to the surfboards collect data that is uploaded to laptop computers and then analyzed in class where it is explained in terms of the underlying physical laws.

Whoever said physics isn’t fun?! I can envision a whole series of similar applied physics courses: the physics of sky diving, bungie jumping, snowboarding, just to name a few.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

UCLA Logic Symposium


On April 30, 2009 I attended the UCLA Logic Symposium sponsored by the UCLA Logic Center and the Department of Mathematics. The event was held in the stately Charles E. Young Grand Salon in one of the original buildings at UCLA, Kerckhoff Hall. Three speakers were featured, however the superstar that drew the largest crowd was Martin Davis, professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at New York University and now a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. Among the distinguished attendees were the UCLA Mathematics Department chair Christoph Thiele and the university's first Fields Medalist Terence Tao.

I love attending math events, I really do. I fee like I'm amongst people who are involved in pure thought. That impresses me. To me, intellectual purity is an evolutionary culmination of sorts, something like how the "Ancients" in the popular Stargate television series Ascend into pure energy after outliving their physical bodies. OK, well maybe I go to far with this analogy, but the people I met at the symposium were truly great thinkers. I had an illuminating conversation with Dr. Thiele about the strategies used by university mathematics departments to attract the best and brightest faculty members. It is easy now for UCLA because they have an automatic recruitment attraction in Terry Tao. Rumor has it, UCLA is in line to recruit a future Fields Medalist. Imagine that, two Fields Medalists at one school. I feel that my UCLA math degree suddenly rose in value.

Getting back to Professor Davis, he is renowned for his work on the unsolvability of Hilbert’s 10th Problem (Diophantine Equations). The unsolvability result is a consequence of the equivalence between two notions, one from logic/computability theory, the other, from number theory. Hilbert’s problems are a list of twenty three problems in mathematics put forth by German mathematician David Hilbert at the Paris conference of the International Congress of Mathematics in 1900. Most of the other problems have been resolved, but Problem 8, the Riemann hypothesis, remains the highest profile problem not yet resolved.

At the reception that followed the symposium, I was standing in the food line with Professor Davis and his very pleasant lady friend. I mentioned that I read his in depth interview in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. He humbly said that he was quite satisfied with it, and that he felt the interviewer came up with some rather insightful questions for him.

Later, still at the reception, I ran into a fellow math groupie that I see at science events around town. "Howard" is a nice enough chap. I'm grateful to him for turning me onto an excellent quantum mechanics book when I saw him lurking in the stacks of a local used book store last year.

I was happy to have attended the symposium. I make a point of attending these events when higher profile speakers are present, especially aging ones. I don't want to miss an opportunity to see famous scientists and mathematicians that may not be around much longer.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

JPL Open House


I had the distinct pleasure of attending the open house event today at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena (Saturday and Sunday, May 2 & 3, 2009). Driving over to JPL, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how popular the event would be since science has fallen out of favor in the population for the past 8 years. To my surprise, the open house was packed with people of all walks of life. But what was a complete surprise was that about half of the people in attendance were kids! As a result, the event is a perfect topic for this blog.

JPL is campus-like place, very similar in layout to a university. It is owned and operated by Caltech. The venues of the open house were spread out all over JPL. Since this was my first visit to the internal areas of JPL, I took the opportunity to explore the campus thoroughly. This was probably fortuitous because the lines to get into pretty much all of the venues snaked around for a long way, translating into at least an hour wait.

The venues provided an inside glimpse of hardcore science. Some of the venues were - Deep Space Operations, Journey through the Solar System, Mars Exploration, Spacecraft Assembly Facility, Robotic Technologies and my favorite Universe Plaza: Exploring New Worlds. In addition, there were many ongoing children’s activities. And if the event attendees got hungry, there were ample numbers of food kiosks, sorry no space-themed faire, just regular old burgers, tacos, and corn dogs.

The attendees of the open house had an overwhelming feeling of enthusiasm for all the science on display. Over and over again I overheard exclamations such as “That is so cool!” and the kids really got involved in the demonstrations such as the small makeshift rover vehicle that drove right over the backs of about 20 children lined up on the ground.

As I walked around the grounds observing the thousands of people on hand for a day of science and space exploration I reflected about how gratifying it is to see that science is still accepted as something exciting enough to invest time on your day off. Bully for science, space, and fun-packed day at JPL!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Higgs War Rages On

The race continues for who will see the first signs of one of the most sought after particles in physics – the Higgs Boson. Last year, it was a foregone conclusion that the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in CERN Switzerland would cross the finish line first. But then the LHC mishap happened and LHC is shut down until October 2009. This means that Fermilab has another chance (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago). Here are a couple of recent barbs from both sides in the April 2009 issue of the APS News:

“We now have a very, very good chance that we will see hints of the Higgs before the LHC will. It’s a race. Whoever is first is first,” says Dmitri Denisov, Fermilab.

"If they do find the Higgs, good luck to them. But I think it’s unlikely they will find it before the LHC comes online,” responds Lyn Evans, CERN.

Ah, nothing like a physics geek fight! The Higgs boson is important because it explains why all other particles have mass and is fundamental to a complete understanding of matter. The Higgs boson is thought to be highly unstable and, once produced, should quickly decay. The Higgs was first proposed by University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs and colleagues in the last 1960s. The importance of the Higgs to the Standard Model of particle physics has led some to dub it the “God particle.”