Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Prince among Math Teachers

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

What's in a Name?

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

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

"Three quarks for Muster Mark."

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Human and Scientific Tale of Galileo

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Polymath Project

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Physics Groupie Down Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Saving Mt. Wilson

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saturday Morning Physics

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

LHC All Carbed-Out

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

SyFy Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Feynman Halloween

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

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

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