Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Math Dance

The college admissions process has certainly evolved since I was a participant. In addition to being hyper-competitive for the best schools, it also has gotten very creative. A case in point is the fact that some schools encourage prospective students to submit videos to supplement their written application. Even YouTube links are submitted. Take for example Amelia Downs, the creative young woman appearing in the inset video who combined mathematics and dance in her application to Tufts University near Boston. My favorite is the little sine and cosine jig. Here is the note she included with the video:

Hello Tufts Admission person!

This movie shows me performing my math dances! The dances shown are:
Volume of a solid of revolution (y-axis)
Line graph
Scatter plot
Box and whisker plot
Pie graph
Bar Graph
Sin and Cos graph

I hope you enjoyed them!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Few Intriguing Science Lists

I hate to admit it, but I still look forward to David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists each late night even though a wide majority of the collections are pretty corny. I guess it is for the scant few that are hilarious that I keep coming back. Or maybe I just like lists, a reminder of a prior life as a computer scientist when my mind was occupied by data structures and doubly-linked lists. Nevertheless, here are some science collections that might amuse some SLBers out there:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New NOVA Special - Hunting the Edge of Space

I was very fortunate to receive a pre-release copy of an upcoming two part NOVA special called Hunting the Edge of Space. Like most everything produced by NOVA, I found this documentary fascinating and I’m happy to review it here on the SLB. The segments are scheduled to air in April: Part one will be shown on April 6 - The Mystery of the Milky Way and part two will be shown on April 13 – The Ever Expanding Universe.

Part one focuses on bringing the viewers up close with today’s powerful telescopes and embarks on a stunning journey to the planets and moons now being imaged as never before. A generous dose of astronomical history is also provided with an expose of Galileo’s simple spy glass and his important discoveries. Others mentioned include Isaac Newton, William Herschel (who we learn was actually a musician with a fascination with the night sky), as well as a couple of amateur astronomers who have made important recent discoveries. I think NOVA made a great move by highlighting the work of noted amateur Ron Bissinger who discovered seven exoplanets from his backyard telescope because it gives all of us science enthusiasts hope that we may one day make a serious contribution.

Part two centered on cosmological concepts such as the expanding and accelerating universe as well as dark matter and dark energy.

Hunting the Edge of Space packs a lot of content into just two hours and you may need some supplemental materials to make sense of some of the concepts covered, but at a high level this NOVA special is an excellent vehicle for introducing contemporary areas of astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics to the lay public. I think it would be a wonderful way to spend a family science evening at home with the kids. So fire up your DVR and be sure not to miss this one!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

Now here’s a book that needed to be written: The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence/Are We Alone in the Universe? by noted astrophysicist Paul Davies addresses the hard fact that after 50 years of searching the heavens for a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, absolutely nothing has been heard. Davies’ thesis is now is a good time to take a step back and reexamine the assumptions and craft new approaches.

I’ve been a big proponent of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project for years. I do my part by dutifully running the SETI screen saver on my various computers to process radio telescope data packets distributed to thousands of disciples around the world. I watch the beautiful display every day as it performs Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs) and hope I’ll be the one to make the big discovery. At the end of each day as I shut off the lights to my lab, the SETI program continues to churn away, faithfully, without question. I smile to myself knowing I’m doing a small thing to help move humanity forward in a very profound way.

Davies provides a penetrating analysis of the assumptions that underlie SETI and continues by concluding that the lack of a signal after 50 years of listening has several explanations. One is that life here on Earth might be so improbable that our planet is the only one hosting life. Or if life is common, then intelligence might be so rare that humans are the only such occurrence. Or it could be science itself, rather than life or intelligence, is unique to Earth. Or it could be that extraterrestrial signals could be everywhere, but unrecognizable by us. Or the eerie silence could be due to the inability of all past technological civilizations to survive their own technology.

My own view is that our human perception of the world may just be so Earth-centric, so specific to our evolutionary path that it simply differs in innumerable ways from the perceptions of other civilizations across the void. Our collection of senses may be too limited to ever be able to perceive the realities of the universe (think dark energy), but this is not to say another alien race can do any better. Each form of life may be predisposed to exist in its own realm and never be able to interact with any other life. That could be a sad reality, but I’ve prepared myself for that possibility for some time now.

Davies offer an optimistic voice by devoting pages to what will happen if a signal is received and how we should respond. We might as well be prepared, right? In the meantime, I plan to continue to run my SETI screen saver and prepare for the day when I see the welcome message on my computer screen – “Signal detected, please call your local SETI official.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy Pi Day!

I always like celebrating Pi Day each March 14 because so few other people do so. It is like celebrating The Festivus for the Rest-of-Us around the end of the year! In any case, it is the only pseudo-holiday devoted entirely to the recognition of mathematics, or at least one small yet pervasive mathematical principle.

Here are a few factoids to help you observe this important day:
  • Pi, the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle, has captivated imaginations for thousands of years.
  • Pi Day falls on March 14, which is also Albert Einstein's birthday.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting Pi Day in March 2009.
  • The record for calculation is 2.7 trillion digits (by Fabrice Bellard, December 2009).
  • Record for memorization: 67,890 digits (by Chao Lu, 2005). See the inset video for a demonstration by the U.S. nation record holder at 15,314 digits.
  • There are no occurrences of the sequence 123456 in the first million digits of pi.
So what you are you doing this fine Pi Day 2010?

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Open Telescope Revolution

Sometimes I catch myself dreaming that I’m at the controls of the mighty Keck telescope up at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. I fancy myself peering through its 10-meter aperture at some distant deep sky object feeling at one with the universe. I invariably fall back to reality though as I remember that a night of observing with the Keck runs about $475,000 – a bit outside of my budget. But what if the reality was that I could rent time on a top-notch telescope with a high quality CCD camera – all from the comfort of home? This is not fiction. This is real with the advent of some exciting new web-based observatories.

Pick from one of several new providers - Slooh, LightBuckets, and Global Rent-A-Scope, and you can take control of some pretty impressive astronomical equipment, all from your computer’s web browser. For the most part, these observatories are operated by small businesses owned by an astronomy enthusiast that wanted to bring professional astronomical equipment to the masses. Each company maintains multiple observatories located around the world, and each observatory has a variety of high-end telescopes.

Slooh has four observatories. Two are in the Canary Islands, one is in Chile, and one is in southern Australia. Both LightBuckets and Global Rent-A-Scope (GRAS) have two locations, one in New Mexico and another in Australia. All the vendors have nicely evolved web software interfaces to facilitate the remote observing experience. I would say, however, that the Slooh web interface is by far the most stylish and approachable to the widest audience including young people.

The equipment maintained by these providers is impressive. The largest LightBuckets instrument currently online is a RCOS 24-inch f/8 Ritchey-Chretien reflector fitted with a large format CCD camera. Slooh telescopes range from a 77-mm apochromatic refractor for wide-field imaging to a 20-inch Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain for deep-sky work. The GRAS scopes range from 16-inch Ritchey-Chreitien and 12-inch Dall-Kirkham reflectors to 4.2-inch refractors for wide-field imaging.

The approximate cost for access to a 12 to 15-inch telescope is - $50/year for Slooh, $35/hour for LightBuckets, and $37/hour for GRAS. All you need to do is register and pay-up in order to start observing.

Whether you are a beginner, a seasoned astrophotographer, a science teacher, or a researcher, there is an open telescope solution to meet your needs. It is great for people like me who live in light polluted areas. It also makes southern hemisphere observing a reality without hopping a long flight down under.
This concept is destined to make remote observing using top-notch instruments commonplace. Maybe one day I’ll actually get a slice of time on the Keck or similar telescope for a reasonable fee, but until then, any one of these web-based observatories will do just fine!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Math and Sociology? Yes, it Happens.

As I frequently do on my travels, I seek out evidence of public math awareness. Today, I encountered a student studying mathematics at a Starbucks I frequent and I conducted a quick interview. “Rebecca” is a student at a local community college called Santa Monica College. She is studying sociology and is required to take two math classes for the major: Finite Mathematics (which I knew as Combinatorics at UCLA), and also Statistics. It makes good sense that math is required for classes in the social sciences since most of these areas require the analysis of data to infer human behavior.

I asked Rebecca if math came easy to her, but she was quick to reply “No, I have to work at it.” Although she took pre-Calculus in high school, she still has to work hard to get by with college level math. To succeed, she’ll frequent the professor’s office hours (one of the Physics Groupie’s earlier recommendations for math success), and also attend a free math lab at SMC that is conducted by UCLA mathematics graduate students.

I inquired about whether she felt her math classes and experience with math in school had a gender bias towards males, but she indicated she hadn’t noticed any of that and that her current Finite Math class was evenly distributed with males/females. This is interesting. It’s the first time I’ve talked to a female who hasn’t acknowledge the math gender differentiation. Well, actually that’s a good thing. Maybe things are changing ever so slightly in favor of gender neutrality for mathematics. I’ll cross my fingers on that one.

I got a sense from chatting with Rebecca that math is just a tool, a means to an end for fulfilling her degree requirements and to transfer to UCLA at some point. She wasn’t aware of any additional math she’d be required to take at UCLA, but agrees it would be a good idea to find out.

It is great to encounter math while roaming about town. I’ll report more as I stumble across it!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Arrow of Time

I attended a delightfully thought provoking lecture yesterday hosted by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy – “Colloquium Thursdays” featuring noted theoretical astrophysicist from Caltech Sean Carroll. The theme for the talk was “The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time” which was right up my alley since cosmology is one of my chosen few areas to expend brain cycles.

The lecture hall was packed to the rafters with a standing-room-only crowd of graduate students, professors, and physics enthusiasts like me. It even attracted a handful of local crackpots, but I’ll get to those game highlights later.

Dr. Carroll delivered a fast-paced treatise of current cosmological thought. It was truly invigorating. He started with a discussion of entropy and the arrow of time, using the example of our ability to turn eggs into omelets but not vice versa and that we can remember the past, but not the future. He pointed out that this can be traced to the tendency of entropy to increase, in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Carroll presented an excellent example of entropy by showing a picture of inflationary cosmologist Alan Guth’s office, a hoarder’s delight.

Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann worked on entropy in the 1870s. Carroll showed a picture of Boltzmann’s grave. Did you know that Boltzmann has an equation on his grave’s headstone (see inset picture)? Not the Boltzmann equation surprisingly, but rather a probability equation that estimates entropy: S = k log W where S is the entropy of an ideal gas, W is the number of microstates corresponding to a given macrostate, and of course k is the Boltzmann constant. What equation would you like on your tombstone?

Carroll’s talk ebbed and flowed into discussions of quantum gravity, black holes, inflation, the multiverse, roughly paralleling his recent new book “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.” I’m still wading through this very thorough treatment of the subject but I can say that as a leading thinker in cosmology today, Carroll has come up with an excellent general audience book that can get you quickly up to speed. It does make your head hurt to think about these things though, so I warn you ahead of time.

Getting back to the unavoidable attraction to physics lectures by some crackpots, there was a short Q&A session after the talk and I felt like shrinking in my seat when an elderly woman sitting on the floor up front and wearing a large floppy purple hat asked how many dimensions Dr. Carroll thought there was, since various “religions” like Hinduism believed in a certain number. I was impressed by how calmly Carroll handled this kind of question by quickly bringing it back to the subject of the lecture and providing a respectful response. And not to be left out, Westwood’s local red-faced homeless surfer guy was also there and as per his norm (like he did with Nobel Laureate David Gross at a lecture a couple of weeks ago), he followed the speaker around like a hungry Schrodinger’s cat. He actually made some sensible comments this time, asking about Kaluza-Klein theory and recurrence times. This guy remains an enigma.

As I’ve said many times here on the SLB, take advantage of all opportunities (before entropy takes over) to see your favorite scientists in person, you won’t be disappointed!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Pluto Files Documentary

I get pretty ecstatic when I come across a good science program that serves to educate the general public in one of my favorite academic areas - astronomy. I recently reviewed an upcoming Nova documentary that is absolutely excellent. The program called “The Pluto Files” airs for the first time on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 8pm ET/PT on PBS. The show is wonderfully moderated by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City. In line with Tyson’s charismatic style, the show is an excellent choice for all ages especially children. I can see this program as an excellent way for the entire family to spend a nice educational evening at home.

The documentary focuses on the discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997), an Illinois farmer with no college education or astronomical training. Tyson visits Tombaugh’s hometown and visits with his friends and relatives, who provide a personal side to the famed discoverer of what was then known as “Planet X.”

The show had special significance to me because as a young boy, I fell in love with a children’s astronomy book called “The Search for Planet X” by Tony Simon (1962, Scholastic Book Services). I must have read that book at least 100 times because I was fascinated with the hunt for an unknown planet. To me, the search for Pluto presented the best in scientific discovery. I was hooked on science at age 8!

The program then turns to the story behind the demotion of Pluto as a planet with the 2003 discovery by Michael Brown of Caltech of a Kuiper Belt object called Eris (originally named “2003 UB313”), that is actually larger than Pluto (27% more massive than Pluto). The discovery turned the field of planetary science on its head because if the new Eris was to be classified as the 10th planet, then a number of other objects should be as well. It was then that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) held a vote to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet (or Plutoid).

The only problem I have with Tyson is that he likes to fashion himself as the “Pluto killer” because he started to challenge Pluto’s status as early as 1999, but it was really Caltech’s Brown who is credited with the science behind Pluto’s demotion.

In a very poignant part of the film, we learned that Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the New Horizons spacecraft headed to Pluto with an arrival date in 2015. I highly recommend this documentary!