Friday, February 26, 2010

Fear of Exponents

Have you ever met someone who simply can’t comprehend the difference between ten-to-the-sixth versus ten-to-the-ninth (aka millions or billions)? I have encountered many “expona-phobes” over the years. Being in the computer industry in a previous life, I recall one employee, a seasoned software developer mind you, kept getting tripped up with megabytes and gigabytes – “The hard disk is 100 megabytes,” he exclaim. I’d reply, “Really? That sounds pretty small, like something from the early 90s. Do you mean gigabytes?” He’d invariable respond defensively “Oh, megabytes, gigabytes, kilobytes, always confuse me!” Ouch, that’s sad.

I catch these mistakes all the time in the press. Take for example the time when the L.A. Times reported the losses for 1,600 investors suing Bernard E. Madoff as being $4.69 million. The correct figure, of course, was $4.69 billion. Budgets are frequently reported incorrectly, like California spending $59.7 million on education in 2008-2009. Again, it was really $59.7 billion.

These mistakes, shockingly, also happen in the science press. Take for example a recent news item that came out in the much respected Science News magazine about the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The article described the supermassive black hole in the Galactic center as being 4 billion solar masses! Wow, I didn’t know we had a quasar in our midst. The real value is 4 million solar masses, and even an experienced science journalist and presumably an editor let that one get past them.

I think one way to fight “exponent-itis” is to think in terms of exponents rather than long streams of zeros. Some people’s eyes glaze over when they see a lot of zeros. It would be harder to confuse 1,000,000 with 1,000,000,000 if you focus on the power of ten – the 6 and the 9.

So let’s all practice some diligence when speaking about very large numbers (like the U.S. deficit). It could save you a heck of a lot of money the next time you submit a bid for a new home.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Revolutions in Physics

What a great way to start my week by attending a public lecture hosted by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy – “The Coming Revolution in Fundamental Physics” by David J. Gross, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. Dr. Gross is Director of the highly respected Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics and Professor of Physics at U.C. Santa Barbara.

The late afternoon lecture was held at the NanoSystems Institute on the UCLA campus. The auditorium was standing room only due to the significant stature of Dr. Gross who is an international authority on string theory.

I grabbed an early seat directly in front of the podium (inset picture is from my cell phone) and as the luminaries arrived, I got to witness all the hoopla. Apparently Dr. Gross has quite a following in the physics academic community as there was an endless stream of physicists to offer greetings and well wishes.

The talk was a great overview of the current state of particle physics and string theory. Gross made it clear he prefers to call string theory a “framework” instead of a theory because of how it provides a foundation for so much surrounding quantum gravity. He also made a big point of how this field is at a pre-birth stage – “The most important product of knowledge is ignorance.” I really appreciated that honest perspective. He beckoned to the audience to realize that string theory is poised to do so much – determine the fate of black holes, determine the origin of the universe, work toward a unified theory, and much more.

Gross is, however, quite single focused in his outlook on string theory, ignoring the validity of anything contrary. For instance, when asked about a leading alternative field of quantum gravity – Loop Quantum Gravity, he exclaimed with a note of disgust, “LQG isn’t even worth talking about.” In his talk he also alluded to “two very bad books” that came out in defiance of string theory. Of course he was talking about “Not Even Wrong,” and “The Problem with Physics” (see Science Lifestyle Blog post), again dismissing the competition.

All in all, I really enjoyed the lecture. What’s not to enjoy with a Nobel Laureate in my midst. The lecture scheduled for one hour, stretch on to nearly two hours. At one point, the moderator moved to tell Dr. Gross he was running over in time, and someone in the audience shouted “Keep talking!” I was prepared to listen as long as he wanted to talk.

After the lecture, the department hosted a nice reception over at the IPAM building, complete with selections of food, beer and wine. Dr. Gross had a constant circle of disciples around him asking probing questions about theoretical physics. Imagine my surprise to see a local Westwood Village bum (who I normally see eating from trash cans in front of Starbucks next to the Village Theater, and who is also quite mad) in the crowd nudging up to Gross asking nonsensical and inane questions that made no sense at all. I think the department should invest in some bouncers for the next lecture with a Nobel Prize winner!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Great Equations

Last night I attended a delightful mathematics-themed lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library, central branch in downtown L.A. The lecture featured Dr. Robert P. Crease, author of a wonderful book “The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg.” It was part of the ALOUD lecture series hosted by the Library Foundation. I’ve attended previous ALOUD lectures and they’ve all been excellent and very well attended like last night which was standing room only. Admission to the ALOUD lectures is free, but you need to reserve a ticket ahead of time.

Dr. Crease led the audience through a fascinating tour of the topics in his book. As a philosophy professor, the focus was less technical and more historical, like the examination of Maxwell’s equations which had immense and far reaching application, but had to be narrowed down by a self-taught electrical practitioner, Oliver Heaviside, to yield the four familiar equations that are taught to physics undergrads today. Crease covered a very wide range of famous mathematical results dating back from the ancient Greeks, on to Newton, to Einstein, and to Heisenberg. The lecture was approachable to a general audience and there were many young people of high-school and college age in attendance. After the lecture there was a Q&A session and a book signing (I got mine made out to the “Physics Groupie!”).

As you all know by now, I greatly enjoy the opportunity to follow science and math events around the city in part because I get to encounter parts of town I rarely see. Before the lecture, I sat at sidewalk table at a coffeehouse near the library, contemplated the science lifestyle, and watched people pass by who actually still wear business suits. I was trying to work on my astrophysics book, but my experimental observations (aka people watching) got in the way.

If you live in the L.A. area, I would highly recommend the ALOUD lecture series, but if you don’t, you should check out the offerings of the public library in your own town. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Meade LightSwitch Technology

I love amateur astronomy, I really do, but there is an element of frustration that rears its ugly head after traipsing off to find some dark skies – it’s time to align the telescope – Ugh!

I know many purists believe that the alignment task is a rite of passage for the serious amateur, but for me it’s an annoyance that should be easily solved with technology.

Enter the new Meade LightSwitch technology. Two new scopes from Meade Instruments Corp., the LS-8 ACF and the LS-8 SC come with a feature that is long overdue. To align the scope you just flip a switch and the scope automatically aligns itself in the night sky. Built-in GPS, magnetic north sensors, level sensors and a CCD camera does all the work. Within minutes of powering on, you’re ready to start observing. This is what I’ve been waiting for a very long time.

The two scope models built around this exciting new technology offer a choice of optics. The LS-8 SC uses Meade’s high-performance Schmidt-Cassegrain optics, while the LS-8 ACF uses Advanced Coma-Free (tm) optical system. In addition to the 8-inch aperture scopes, Meade also offers 6-inch versions, LS-6 SC and LS-6 ACF.

Pricing for these new products is steeper than previous models, but remember you’re getting a built-in CCD camera, and of course – LightSwitch technology. Considering this, I think the scopes are fairly priced.

LS-8 ACF - $1,999
LS-8 SC - $1,799
LS-6 ACF - $1,499
LS-6 SC - $1,399

So if you’re considering updating your amateur astronomy footprint, you need to consider these amazing new products from Meade. This one is at the top of my shopping list. Happy stargazing!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mathematics - It’s Who You Hang With

If there is one critical aspect of academic life that I learned once I went off to college as a very young seventeen year old is that it’s important to hang with people who are smarter than you. This is a life lesson I believe all parents should instill in their children, and I have a theory which I’ll get to later as to why most don’t.

As one example, I quickly learned that by associating with the smartest kids in freshman calculus I’d get a sense for their insight and intuition for the subject. I’d pick up all sorts of tips and tricks toward the solutions of problems, proofs, as well as a general appreciation for the subject. A lot of times I’d pick up these tidbits during the professor’s office hours when many of the best students get face time with the teacher. At the same time, the professor starts looking at the small group of regulars that go to office hours as an elite group, the students who are most motivated to learn – so the professor starts associating you with the upper echelons.

I also had the opportunity to hang with some pretty darn brilliant people at the UCLA Computer Club. These are the people who’d read their textbooks without highlighting, or taking notes. Their textbooks would remain pristine, unlike mine that would become dog-eared and ragged at quite a rapid pace once the quarter started. I would love to listen to fast-paced conversations between several of these mega-minds. One particular whiz kid named Mike Stein had a photographic memory. He could open a book, stare at a page, close the book, and recite the text verbatim. Amazing.

Later in life, taking this lesson with me, I’d find myself gravitating to people higher up the academic totem pole. I’d seek out the research luminaries, and the academically accomplished – Ph.D.’s, postdocs, etc.

The lessons I learned proved very beneficial to me. The more I associated with people smarter than me, the more I inched forward in my own awareness and understanding. I pushed my own envelop by who I associated with. It really is logical that it works this way – “knowledge by association.”

I think a lot of parents make the mistake in believing that to shore up a child’s confidence, they should nudge them to associate with their “own kind” or with “average” kids instead of the more gifted ones. Why? They don’t want the kids to feel defeated, or discouraged. But I think this strategy is more due to the parent’s own insecurities and passing along such traits is a terrible thing to do to a child. Doing so is limiting a child’s potential.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Obituary: Andrew E. Lange, 1957-2010

This is my first Science Lifestyle Blog obituary. It’s not that I purposefully avoided obits in the past, but there are other publications that would probably do a better job of it. In this case, however, I have a specific agenda in covering the death of Andrew E. Lange who passed on January 22, 2010 – an apparent suicide. I’m having trouble comprehending the suicide of a world-class scientist who, for all intents and purposes, had everything to live for. Mankind, too, loses out for all of the science this man could have produced with his remaining years – he was 52.

Dr. Lange was a professor of physics at Caltech and in 2008 was named chairman of Caltech’s physics, mathematics and astronomy division (he recently resigned this post, a probable harbinger of his intentions). He was also a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Lange graduated from Princeton University in 1980, and earned a doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1987. Lange left behind three young children.

Professor Lange was best known as co-leader of project “Boomerang,” which in 1998 used a telescope, carried over Antarctica by a balloon for 10 ½ days, to study the so-called cosmic microwave background – radiation left over from the Big Bang. His contributions to the field of cosmology were considerable.

Lange checked into a Pasadena, Calif. hotel and the next morning housekeepers found him dead, apparently due to asphyxiation.

"He was the best possible scientist and person," Professor Marc Kamionkowski , a 10-year department colleague, said during an interview. Lange's death, he said, had left everyone shocked and confused.

Yes, I’m shocked and confused. I’ve followed Lange’s work for years. My questions is how could this happen? A research scientist of this caliber is typically so absorbed with his experiments that suicide is very low on the priority list. Some colleagues have said he was struggling with personal issues. But what problem could have seemed so insurmountable that he felt suicide was the only possible solution? I’ve read that suicide victims typically feel they’ve reached a point where the level of pain associated with living exceeds their comprehension of dying. Maybe I don’t understand that degree of despair, and hopefully I never will. I don’t have any answers what so ever, but I intend on reflecting on this loss for some time to come.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Openly Heliocentric

Galileo had a lot of trouble with authority. He was a closet Copernican for years. But he eventually followed his heart and his scientific senses to become a major affront to the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic system of the universe and indirectly the powerful Catholic Church. On April 12, 1633 he appeared for trial in the Vatican and was convicted of heresy and disobedience and spent his remaining years largely confined to his villa at Arcetri, near Florence. But the genie he released could not be put back in the bottle. Science would eventually prevail.

My point here is that scientists have to true to their discipline. Now I’m not talking about physics crackpots clinging to half-baked theories. I’m referring to scientific giants who offer theories as alternatives to the mainstream. A good example is astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge (1925-2010) who recently passed away at age 84 (see inset photo). Along with famed British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, he refused to accept the widely held view that the universe originated in a Big Bang, arguing instead that matter is continually created, emerging as quasars ejected from energetic galaxies. Burbidge and his wife Margaret, married since 1948, spent a great deal of time at UC San Diego from 1962 trying to support their point of view.

Burbidge suffered professionally because of his views. He was passed up for the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983 due to his views. Still he persisted, and never publicly expressed bitterness about his exclusion.

I believe scientists like Burbidge and Hoyle, in the mold of Galileo, keep the scientific establishment honest by offering up alternative theories. They ultimately may be proven wrong, but it is healthy to continue to explore the robustness of existing theories like string theory, quantum mechanics, and various flavors of quantum gravity. Science must resist being closed minded. There must be an openness to varied ideas, and I’m not talking about the climate change deniers who generally refute solid science for political, ideological, and religious reasons. Long live the essence of Galileo’s spirit of inquiry!