Sunday, January 31, 2010

Breakfast Time Maths Musings

Do you ever think about maths (the Europeans refer to mathematics as “maths” not “math”) while eating breakfast? Normally I don’t as I inhale some caffeine to start my transition to a waking state, but the other morning my thoughts meandered to topology as I was eating an “Everything” bagel. It seems a lot of breakfast foods remind me of common topological shapes and their properties.

Take my bagel for example, it is really just a toroidal shaped piece of bread, or that matter so are a variety breakfast cereals that frequently have “loop” or “O” in their names. Of course there is the spherical “puff” or a random 2-manifold surface, the “flake.” The puffs have the distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous cereal for a toddler to have stuck up her/his nose.

My research shows (through anecdotal experience) that the puff, having the smallest surface area-to-volume ratio, absorbs milk the slowest. Flakes, on the other hand, soak up milk far too quickly and are generally soggy by the time I get to the bottom of the bowl no matter how quickly I eat. A further inconvenience is that due to their flat shape, flakes tend to spatter poured milk out of the bowl and all over anything that happens to be on the table, most likely a preprint research paper in gravitation or cosmology. Whether cereal or milk goes into the bowl first is not up for debate as far as I’m concerned. Milk first? Breakfast heresy.

Finally, there is the torus or “loop” if you choose a more banal moniker. I haven’t crunched the numbers on its surface area-to-volume ratio, either for Froot Loop-sized or Cheerio-sized pieces, but it doesn’t take too large a sample size to realize that loops are superior. They hold milk well due to the center hole, but also maintain a more broadly distributed crunchy center than a puff. I’ve also found that at a typical rate of consumption, the torus maintains a reasonable level of crunchiness until the end of the bowl.

See? Even in the early morning hours as you struggle for consciousness, you can have fun by considering abstract mathematics. Give it a try tomorrow morning!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Math Celeb Sighting

One of the very few benefits of living in L.A. besides being near to Caltech, UCLA, JPL, the Griffith Observatory, and the Mt. Wilson Observatory is that you really do see a lot of movie and television stars roaming about the city. I’m normally not star-struck except when it relates to my fields of interest. One of those rare moments happened to me this evening.

I had just attended a wonderful afternoon lecture on massive black hole formation over at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena and I decided to treat myself to a mouthwatering dinner at Pie N Burger near the Caltech campus. It was a pretty early dinner for me, around 5:30pm and the day was cold and rainy. I trundled in and sat at my favorite counter seat and was nearly finished with my burger when a frumpy dude came in off the street and sat two barstools away from me.

From the looks of him, I immediately judged the guy to be slightly off-center, and though not exactly homeless looking; he seemed to have seen better days. In L.A. you develop a 6th sense about these things, so I tried not to make eye contact and I continued reading my pre-print paper on massive black hole genesis. Out of the corner of my eye, the guy took out what appeared to be a late model cell phone, so I breathed some relief, if he had a nice cell phone he couldn’t be too weird. Then I saw his curly brown locks and profile that looked oddly familiar.

It was none other than David Krumholtz who plays the Professor Charlie Eppes genius character on the successful CBS NUMB3RS television show that just happens to be my favorite show! Just as I was going to say something, he darted up and headed to the men’s room and when he returned he was talking on the phone so I didn’t have an opportunity to meet him. Nevertheless, I learned a few things about Mr. Krumholtz. First, he does dress like a bum, sort of like the disheveled appearance he depicts on the show. He ordered a burger, with cheese and nothing else on it, but later he asked the waitress to add some bacon. He also looked kind of shifty, looking around like he was wondering if somebody would recognize him. And plus, he seems to hang out around Caltech (or “Cal Sci” as Caltech is known on the show).

It was great to see my fictional math hero in person. Pie N Burger is turning out to be a great place to hang out for this Physics Groupie!

Monday, January 25, 2010

First Light!

I wonder how many of you remember when you saw your very own “first light” of the universe through a telescope. It is a very personal experience, and everyone reacts to it in a different way. My first light experience was with my younger brother’s Celestron 6-inch reflector telescope when I was in my twenties. I probably took a peek through the Griffith Observatory’s original 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope when I was a youngster during a field trip circa late 1960s, but I don’t have a good memory of that experience.

Sometimes first-light experience can serve to overwhelm like what I observed when I was observing a group of Sidewalk Astronomers members in Pasadena’s Old Town one summer weekend evening. A few teenage boys around 14 years of age looked through the telescope that was trained on Jupiter and its Galilean moons. The boys were experiencing first light and they got so excited they literally danced through the streets in glee, exclaiming “I love Jupiter!” It was heartening to see the light go off in these young people’s heads. My hope is that they’ll remember this moment years hence and think of astronomy as an exciting and worthwhile endeavor.

Of course it is advantageous for children to have their first light experience early on in life. The important perspective that kids gain by this experience is a valuable one that can shape their life view in a very positive way. It is a delightful thing to see a child peer through a telescope’s eyepiece to gaze upon the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility and tell them that men have walked across its plane – wide eyes of enthusiasm!

Alas, I suspect that many adults haven’t seen their first light, even in this time of the 21st century with regular Space Shuttle launches, spectacular Hubble images, and the International Space Station completed at last. But all that this signifies is the importance of outreach efforts by educators, researchers, and amateur astronomers alike. The next time you’re out with your telescope, take a moment to look around and find someone who hasn’t had their first light experience. I guarantee you’ll feel quite accomplished.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

An Insider’s View of LHC

Continuing with my 2010 theme of science immersion, I attended with anticipation last week an excellent and very timely lecture at Caltech’s venerably Beckman Auditorium. Part of the on-going Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series, the lecture was named “Physics at the Large Hadron Collider – A New Window on Matter, Space-time, and the Universe” and featured speaker Harvey B. Newman, Professor of Physics at Caltech. Dr. Newman and his high energy physics group at Caltech have played central roles at CERN’s LHC, so the lecture was a great opportunity for an insider’s view of LHC.

I arrived to campus a couple of hours before the 8pm start time for the lecture, armed with my copy of “The Quantum Frontier” which is an excellent general audience book on the LHC. I headed over to Pie N Burger for a leisurely dinner while getting up to speed with the various LHC experiments. After dinner I strolled over to Beckman only to find a long line of particle physics enthusiasts winding out from the building. Much to my surprise, LHC is quite a popular topic with the Caltech community, so I felt right at home amongst my science brethren. I got in line and eventually entered the enormous Beckman auditorium. As 8pm approached, I couldn’t believe the crowd as the venue was standing room only with people of all ages. Excitement was definitely in the air.

Dr. Newman commenced the talk by leading us through a brief history of particle accelerators, LHC’s brief history and historic failure in 2008, and reemergence late last year to start doing science that could change the world’s understanding of matter. Newman spent much time going over the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment with which researchers hope to find evidence of the Higgs Boson thought to be responsible for mass in the universe. Newman’s coverage of LHC was excellent as he presented a panorama of LHC science, and the road to discoveries that may emerge as early as in the coming months.

I would highly recommend the Watson Lecture Series for anyone wishing to keep abreast of contemporary scientific efforts. The lectures are also very kid friendly, a great idea for a family outing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tale of Massive Stars

This is becoming a definite pattern for the New Year 2010, getting totally saturated in science that is. Today, I had an excellent Caltech lecture to attend. I took in an Astronomy Colloquia entitled “Massive Star Formation through the Universe” presented by Jonathan Tan of the University of Florida, Gainesville. Dr. Tan is one of those model researchers whose eloquent speaking style (coupled with an engaging British accent) is only surpassed by his quite evident brilliance in the field.

This is a fascinating area for me because of my new interest in Galactic Center research. Tan led the capacity audience in the new Cahill center auditorium through a discussion of several open questions in our understanding of massive star and star cluster formation. He described the current view of how the first generations of Population III stars were born (stars in the range of 140-200 solar masses). These stars, some believe, are the progenitors of supermassive black holes (in excess of 1 million solar masses).

Much of the work being done to understand massive star formation is through numerical simulations. One problem with this approach is that the calculations are so complex that modeling 1 year of a star’s formation takes 1 year of computer time! Tan quipped that it would take a grad student with significant longevity to model the desired goal of 100,000 years!

One particularly interesting massive star cluster is the Arches cluster (see inset artist’s rendering) lurking in the heart of the Milky Way. Arches is a 2.5 million year old luminous cluster of about 2,000 stars that is not visible in optical wavelengths. It is the densest known gathering of young stars in our galaxy. Infrared observations by Hubble and ground-based telescopes allow astronomers to peer into the depths of the cluster.

At the end of the lecture I got a chance to chat with Jessica Lu, Caltech postdoc originally from UCLA who is a member of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. I met Jessica last September when I attended a Keck II remote observing session at UCLA. She is interested in massive star formation because of the cluster of young massive stars found at the center of the Milky Way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Update on the Virgo Detector

It is always a pleasure to make a trip to Caltech. Fortunately, the weekly seminar sponsored by the Caltech-JPL Association for Gravitational Wave Research (CaJAGWR) gives me a good reason to make a weekly pilgrimage. Today, I attended this week’s lecture featuring an overview of the research, developments and plans for Advanced Virgo, a device that will become part of the second generation gravitational wave detector network that includes the U.S. based Advance LIGO.

Raffaele Flaminio, the speaker for the seminar, thoroughly went over the technical facets of Virgo+ (an incremental step) and AdVirgo – seismic isolation of test masses, increased laser power to 125W, the use of fused silica to suspend the test masses, larger 42kg mirrors for thermal noise reduction, and much more. It is amazing to me how the experimentalist continue to devise new techniques in laser optics to measure gravitational wave strain on spacetime down to a distance of one-thousandth the size of a proton.

The current Virgo detector has now reached its design sensitivity and is contributing to the international network of GW detectors. In order to increase the detection probability to the point where several tens of events per year are expected, and upgrade of the detector is planned to be implemented by 2014 for the first science run (Virgo+ will be ready by mid-2011). Virgo has achieved a record of 6 straight days of “lock” which is considered a feat all onto itself.

Virgo is sponsored by a European consortium called EGO (European Gravitational Observatory) and is located near Pisa, Italy (see inset picture). Gravitational wave astrophysics is this Physics Groupie’s number one focus, so keeping abreast of Virgo is fun, fun, fun.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Great Way to Start a New Year

As I prepare to embrace a new year and a new decade, I decided what better way to start anew than to experience some mathematics. The timing, therefore, was perfect as I received notice of the first installment of the UCLA Science Faculty Research Colloquium Series featuring long time UCLA mathematics professor Thomas M. Liggett who is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Liggett’s topic for the hour long lecture was “Stochastic Models for Large Interacting Systems in the Sciences,” which is a tremendously successful area of research in probability theory that has broad real life applications including cancer research and traffic flow. The supersized lecture hall in the Physics and Astronomy Building was filled with undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, professors, and mathematics alumni like yours truly. Even Field Medalist Terry Tao showed up. I grabbed a choice seat front and center and was thoroughly entertained as Dr. Liggett orchestrated the proceedings. It was a fascinating way to spend an evening.

After the lecture it was time for the reception and I got to meet a few people I hadn’t seen since the past fall quarter. First, I chatted with the new chair of the math department, Sorin Popa who takes the reins of the department whose graduate program is now ranked 3rd nationally. He described the new recruiting efforts underway to attract top-tier first year undergraduates for full academic scholarships, a strategy to be more competitive in the Putnam mathematics competition. The department is in great shape overall, however the budget crisis in California is adversely affecting all UC campuses.

I also got to speak to department communications coordinator Lisa Mohan who is in charge of the excellent department newsletter that apparently has great reach. I recently had dinner with an old UCLA college buddy who is also a mathematics alumnus and he brought a copy of the newsletter to tell me my picture was in it. How’s that for fame – math fame – got to love it!