Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Johnny Carson’s Time Dilation

Once upon a time, there was a great late-night comedian named Johnny Carson (predecessor to Jay Leno) on NBC's Tonight Show. One of my favorite all-time Carson jokes was given during his nightly monologue. It went something like this:

"Scientists have recently discovered the smallest unit of time that can be measured. It is the time between when a traffic light turns green and the guy behind you starts honking."
Delivery being king, Carson's dry-pan style made this joke quite humorous - ROFL!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Calculating in Antiquity

It is easy for modern scientists to take for granted the ability to perform intricate numerical calculations with the help of a calculator, a computer, or even a super computer. An area of research I’m interested in – numerical relativity is a field of physics entirely carried out in the belly of a supercomputer, namely simulating the interaction of two inspiral black holes that ultimately yield gravitational radiation as predicted by Einstein. Even with teraflop (1 trillion floating point operations per second) computing speed, such calculations take months to complete.

Now take a huge step back in history, to Ptolemy’s time, AD 90-168 and think about what even the simplest calculation, like computing a square root, might entail. Remember, this was a time when the language of mathematics was not nearly as defined as it is today. Calculating would take up a significant percentage of the time required for scientific inquiry. Science was tedious for this reason.

I attended a thought-provoking lecture the other night at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. – The Geocentric Man: Ptolemy's Scientific Treatises. The speaker touched upon this curious subject – calculating in antiquity. It became apparent that calculating was quite a chore in those days!

Much later, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) had it even harder because the calculations got tougher, but the tools for calculating still weren’t there. Imagine doing calculations for Kepler’s laws describing planetary motion – all by hand. Kepler did create tables that were helpful with repeat calculations and he initiated the creation of the first calculating machine by his friend Professor W. Schickard.

When I stop to think about it, I’m grateful to have computers to take the grunt work out of scientific calculation. With computers, I’m able to focus on the science rather than the drudgery of manual number crunching.

[Inset photo – for those of you who've never seen one, this is the slide rule that was first invented in the 1600s and its use continued to grow until 1974 when it was made obsolete by the electronic calculator]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Betelgeuse – Killer Star

I remember the first time I heard of the star named Betelgeuse in my Astronomy 3 class at UCLA. The professor was the late famed astronomer George Abell who pioneered the field of galaxy clusters (and now has whole clusters named after him). He started discussing the star but pronounced it “beetle-juice.” People love saying it that way. I certainly did.

Over the years, I’ve kept an eye on this red supergiant only 640 light years from Earth. This is one star destined for big things, like a massive explosion. Betelgeuse could become the closest supernova ever witnessed from our planet. Betelgeuse and its red coloration has been known since antiquity, even Ptolemy noted its color in his writings. But it was Sir John Herschel, in 1836, who first described its variable brightness. Betelgeuse is an easy star to spot in the night sky as it lies just above the famous belt of Orion.

But it is the fate of Betelgeuse that most concerns us Earthlings. It is a relatively young star at 8.5 million years old, but for its size-class it is considered old. At 18 solar masses, it will continue to burn and fuse elements until its core is iron, at which point it will explode as a Type II core collapse supernova leaving behind a neutron star remnant about 20km in diameter (it is possible that the star will end its life as a white dwarf if its mass is on the lower end).

A supernova in such close proximity to Earth could have calamitous results – a deadly gamma ray burst (GRB) pointed our way could damage our ecosystem and make most life on the planet extinct. Fortunately, astronomers have determined that we will not be in the line of fire.

For a long time, this was the same concern about a Wolf Rayet star called WR 104 which was thought to be ready to blow and appeared to be aiming right our way. In other words we were “looking down a rifle barrel” of deadly high-energy gamma rays. Fortunately, recent spectroscopic observations at the Keck Observatory showed the system actually is inclined 30-40 degrees away from us so we’re safe - for now.

The point about killer stars is that our planet is very susceptible to dangerous astrophysical events in our galactic neighborhood. So far, we’ve just been lucky, but given the vastness of astronomical timeframes, our luck will eventually run out. It will certainly run out in a few billion years when our own star will reach the end of its life and become a red giant and engulf the inner solar system, possibly even the Earth. The question is whether we will even be around by then to notice?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Promising Math Career Cut Short

This is a story of mathematics, a woman, and what could have been. Let me introduce Gioia De Cari who was a third of the way through her doctoral program in mathematics at MIT when she up and left. She became an actress and a playwright and hasn’t thought about research mathematics since.

What happened? Why would a promising female mathematician abandon a stellar program at MIT, a premier mathematical ability, and years of labor in order to start from scratch in the world of theater? Does the term “sell out” seem too harsh? I’m not all that sure.

De Cari’s recent claim to fame is her one woman play Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze where she depicts her experiences in t he MIT math department in the late 1980s. In the play she examines the exhilaration and the grind of research, her sense of alienation in a male dominated department, the supportiveness and remoteness of her professors, her struggle to connect with her fellow students, the sexism that she let grind her down, and her ultimate abandonment of the role of female mathematician.

I find it interesting that she gave up mathematics to write a play about how she gave up mathematics. That seems a bit self-serving to me. It is like, through her acting, she continues to whine about how she simply couldn’t hack it at MIT. I have no doubt she experienced sexism. Mathematics has traditionally been an alpha-male discipline, except for the hardy females who survived their programs to ensure positive change becomes manifest. De Cari could have been one of those trailblazers, opening up the field for other women who had the talent but encountered institutional roadblocks along the way. Instead, De Cari represents yet another female who let “the man” beat her down.

Think of the role model she could have been instead of the example of defeat she now represents. De Cari could have been doing nationwide outreach to thousands of young girls who excel at math but are dissuaded by societal pressure to go into the “arts” instead. She can’t serve in that capacity now. She says she found her “calling” but with Truth Values all she does is perpetuate a sense of defeat and capitulation.

Attention all middle school girls who love math: seek out your true role models, pay a visit to your local college or university, find the faculty directory, and go speak with one of the (few) female professors who persevered many academic obstacles . She is the true hero you seek.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review – Deep Blue Home

The new title “Deep Blue Home – An Intimate Ecology of Out Wild Ocean” by Julia Whitty (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a welcome new entry for the field of environmental science. Written in a methodical yet somewhat lyrical style that makes the book a surprising page-turner, Whitty proves herself worthy of attention. With her thirty-year career as a documentary filmmaker, she not only talks the talk, but also is truly in the game – Whitty writes about three prodigious adventures taken in the name of naturalism – her time on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico, a sojourn to Newfoundland, and a journey to a remote corner of Baja California. Any one of these treks could consume the wanderlust of a mere mortal, but Whitty is of another strata.

In Part I she describes her time spent with two female companions alone on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico in 1980 studying nature’s secrets while undergoing some serious hardships you might expect in such a remote environ. Imagine an extended stay on tiny Isla Rasa (28 degrees 49’N, 112 degrees 59’W), a three hour boat ride from the nearest remote fishing village on the Baja Peninsula.

Part II finds Whitty aboard a small sailboat “Ceres” in Cape Saint Mary, Newfoundland to film a population of 10,000 breeding gannets and a multitude of other local fauna. Her illustrative prose makes you feel the cold wind at your face.

The book examines an inordinate number of species, many of which are cross referenced with their endangered status. This feature uniquely expresses the enormity of the prolonged effects of pollution and environmental damage upon indigenous species around the world, especially in the context of the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many life science terms used in the book are annotated with their Latin roots, a nice touch.

I found Whitty’s intensely descriptive writing style to be both uplifting and fresh. Here’s a sample passage that is typical of Deep Blue Home [warning: you might need a dictionary on hand for this book].
A hard wind blows from the north. We list in our saddles, compensating. Much is in flight on the wind: the petals of orange poppies, bumblebees bouncing between the refugia of yellow cactus flowers, butterflies. We have no shelter, except in the haven of observation and in our leisurely pace – time enough to witness the ways the long eons have worn the youth from this landscape, worked it bones through at the joints, labored its muscles to sinew.
Part III takes place in the high desert mountains of Baja California’s remote Sierra de San Francisco. Whitty describes her excursion with guide Juan Carlos atop burros to explore the hundreds of “rockshelter” caves in the area. I found her narrative of the indigenous cave art, some of which is as old as 5,000 years, intriguing. I was excited to learn of one particular painting that depicted a “childlike sun” which turned out to be an account of the SN 1054, a supernova or “guest star” as Chinese astronomers called it. The remains of this core-colapse supernova are now called the Crab Nebula.

You might assume a book about natural settings of this extent would be loaded with photos of the author’s various destinations, but Deep Blue Home has none. I don’t see this as a negative however because Whitty’s verbal imagery is so vivid the book conjures up more than ample imagination from the reader.

I enjoyed Deep Blue Home for many of the same reasons I find other books of this genre so captivating. The stark images of pristine natural beauty coupled with the author’s instinctive ability to paint vibrant pictures with words are a winning combination. Deep Blue Home is a great choice for your summer reading list.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grigory Perelman and the Poincare Conjecture Revisited

The brilliant Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman, once again makes front page news by rejecting the $1 million prize money for his work toward the solution of the famed Poincare Conjecture. Known for his staunch austerity, Perelman notified the Clay Mathematics Institute of his decision last week. In a phone call to Jim Carlson, institute president, Perelman gave no reason his decision. In an interview with the Interfax news agency, Perelman was quoted as saying he believed the prize was unfair and that he considered his contribution to solving the Poincare Conjecture no greater than that of Columbia University mathematician Richard Hamilton.

“To put it short, the main reason is my disagreement with the organized mathematical community,” Perelman, 43, told Interfax. “I don’t like their decisions, I consider them unjust.”

The Poincare Conjecture was proposed in 1904 by French mathematician Henri Poincare. Deemed the most famous open problem in topology, the conjecture remained unsolved until 2002 when Perelman published a series of clarifications of Hamilton’s proof.

In 2006, the reclusive Perelman declined to accept the coveted Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of mathematics. Perelman is currently jobless and living with this mother in St. Petersburg. Jeepers, $1 million would go a long way toward paying mom’s Borscht bills!