Wednesday, August 25, 2010

100 Best YouTube Videos for Science Teachers

The webmaster of the Bachelor of Science website, Beatrice Owen, recently contacted The Physics Groupie about a collection of videos she put together - 100 Best YouTube Videos for Science Teachers. I enjoyed checking out many of the videos myself and they are fantastic so I thought I'd share the wealth here on the SLB. A few of my personal favorites are: "Why is the sky blue?" (#29), "Traveling at Warp Speed" (#38), and "Star Spits Out Baby Planet" (#53).

It has become clear for quite some time the value of YouTube for teaching science, and this comprehensive list clearly demonstrates this tremendous resource. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: Punk Mathematics


So here is a book review about a book that hasn’t been written yet. No, I haven’t I figured out how to manipulate space-time by stepping into the future, I’m talking about a new book project that was recently posted on Kick Starter.com. You can check out the proposal by clicking on the widget. Maybe you’ll like it enough to make a pledge of your own.

Punk Mathematics is to be a book consisting of a series of mathematical stories. The author Tom Henderson describes it this way:

It is written for readers who are interested in having their minds expanded by the strange metaphors and implications of mathematics, even if they're not always on friendly terms with equations. Better living through probability; the fractal dimension of cities and cancers; using orders of magnitude to detect bullshit; free will and quantum economics; and the mathematics of cooperation in a networked world on the brink of a No Future collapse.
Sounds pretty surreal for a math book, but I’ll give Tom the benefit of the doubt. He is has a master’s degree in math from Portland State University and seems very committed to this project if the excellent project video is any gauge.

The way Kickstarter.com works is that accepted (read: considered worthy by the site’s owners) projects are featured on the site with a full description of the concept, a video and a list of pledge amounts and corresponding rewards if you decide to pledge a specific amount. Each person proposing a project decides on a goal amount. In this case Tom wants $2,400. If his project manages to meet or exceed the goal amount by a specific date, everyone’s credit card is charged, Tom gets his funding, and Kickstarter.com gets 10% of the proceeds. This is a pretty innovative resource for obtaining funding for your pet project. It’s free-market capitalism gone wild. Tom has done pretty well thus far, attracting over $11,000 as of today (he has 13 days to go). There is no upper limit of how much funding a project can secure.

Punk Mathematics has 8 different pledge amounts ranging from $2 for “a random index card from the first draft” to $400 for a “live performance” in the Portland area.

Most of the projects on Kickstarter.com have an artistic flavor, although there is a technology category where a project called “Diaspora” received 2006% of its goal amount for a whopping $200,641.84! I hope that Punk Mathematics results in a quality result. I’m rooting for Tom!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Math DREAM ACT

I’d like to tell you a story about an 18-year old young man named Erik who loves mathematics. He just graduated from high school where he excelled in his math classes and even completed a Calculus course. He’s the one in school that other kids go to for help with their math homework. Erik plans to continue on with math in college and he was accepted to U.C. Berkeley. After school he’d like to go into a math related field, or economics or engineering. This guy is bright and has worked hard for his achievements. In many respects Erik is a model citizen and the math field needs more young, enthusiastic people like him. The only problem is that Erik isn’t a citizen, he is an undocumented immigrant. This is where this story of promising potential gets a little murky.

Erik came to the U.S. with this family when he was only 8 years old. Obviously, he had no control over his immigration status at such a young age. What he did do was work hard in school, got good grades, excelled in math and was rewarded by getting accepted at UC Berkeley. But because he can’t apply for scholarships, or even work, Erik must go to community college instead and hope that in two years he can solve the financial obstacle of attending a first-rate university. But even if he manages to fund his academic career and graduate from a top university with a degree in math, it might all be for naught since he can’t work in a professional field. He'll be pushed out of the legitimate workforce because of his immigration status. By any measure this situation is sad and a waste.

This is where the DREAM ACT comes in. The Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is bipartisan legislation that addresses the situation faced by young people who were brought to the U.S. years ago as undocumented immigrant children by their parents and who have since grown up here, stayed in school and kept out of trouble. Each year, about 65,000 students would benefit from the DREAM ACT. After satisfying strict requirements, these students would be eligible for a 6-year conditional path to citizenship.

In the last few weeks, a group of these high-potential students moved to urge California Senator Diane Feinstein to champion the bill and push it from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate for a vote - by setting up an encampment outside her office building on the corner of Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards. It is a high-traffic area and the colorful tents and banners were a curiosity for many passersby. I stopped by a few times to lend my support and that is when I interviewed Erik who had just come off an 8-day hunger strike.

For those who would say that Erik is breaking the law by remaining in the U.S. and should go back to his native Mexico, think of it this way – for all intents and purposes, Erik is American since he’s lived most of his life here. He can’t go back to Mexico and apply for legal citizenship since according to U.S. immigration law he has broken the law by living in this country illegally. If he leaves the country, he can never come back. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I believe it is. If Erik is granted citizenship, he’s proven that he could be a productive member of society, especially with his aptitude in math.

I asked Erik what he’d say to an opponent of the DREAM ACT. He quickly responded by pointing out that if he were allowed to stay in the U.S. to attend a university and work in a professional field afterward that he could be a benefit to America by intelligently helping industry to create new jobs. It was heartening to hear him say this and the fact he had the wherewithal to focus on the biggest problem facing the country, unemployment. If you support the DREAM ACT I urge you to contact your congressman and let him/her know how you feel.

Monday, August 9, 2010

STORY: Gravity's Message

Hello SLB'ers - I've decided to self-publish my story that was submitted to editor Henry Gee, for the "Futures" column in Nature magazine back in April 2009. It was rejected on April 24, 2009 by Faye Fornasier, editorial assistant. The July 15, 2010 issue of Nature published a similar story "Gravity's Whispers" by Gregory Benford as reported earlier in a previous post. Here is a link to Benford's story.

“Gravity’s Message”
By Daniel Dean Gutierrez
(c) Copyright 2009 Daniel Dean Gutierrez

Dr. Charles Comreau was just finishing up the last session of his gravitational wave astronomy class at Caltech. It was a long, but very enjoyable semester and a number of the grad students held much promise as future postdoc researchers, especially Holly Prentice. Holly was a shining example of a budding theorist within an experimentalist wrapper. Holly came up after class to inquire about the summer internship with the Advanced LIGO project that had now been operating since 2015 and making history along the way.

“Dr. Comreau, I was hoping to hear about the internship by now, because I’m scheduled to head back to New Hampshire next week. Should I stay on the East Coast for the summer or, am I headed to Hanford?” Holly asked with a tone of confidence. Holly wouldn’t have minded to be in Boston to see a few Red Sox games and prowling around MIT, but her heart was with the project and she wanted dearly to make her own history with LIGO.

It had been three years since the first gravitational wave detection that set the scientific world on end, and meant a well deserved Nobel Prize for Dr. Comreau. Dr. Comreau was the founding father of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), the device that made history by confirming Einstein’s prediction that massive moving bodies emit waves that ripple through spacetime. LIGO and its partner in Europe, GEO600, were yielding triple coincident detections of gravitational waves coming from inspiral binary black holes with the detection rate of 1 every couple of days.

Now gravitational wave astronomy was a reality, and shaping the careers of up and coming brilliant minds like Holly Prentice.

“Well, I was going to give you this later at the department party,” said Dr. Comreau as he handed her an envelope with her name hand-written on the front. “Congratulations! You’re in and you report to Hanford in two weeks.”

“THANK YOU Dr. Comreau! You won’t regret this. I already have some new ideas about the data analysis phase, and I’ve come up with a modified F-statistic, and …” said Holly as she mentally sprinted into her new internship.

“Whoa now, you can save all that for our friends up at Hanford. Go enjoy yourself for a couple of weeks and have a nice summer.” replied Dr. Comreau.

Holly decided to hit the East coast for a couple of weeks and had a blast with her significantly large brood of little nephews and nieces. Then she flew directly from Logan to Seatac and on to Pasco, Washington which is a stepping stone to Hanford, home of LIGO.

Holly loved Hanford. She’d visited three times before. It was a stark existence in the desolate high Washington desert, where pristine extremes set the perfect stage for hard-core astrophysics research.

She checked into her Spartan dormitory-like room and immediately went to the control room.

“Hi Jason! I’m back and ready for more late night scrabble contests.” Holly said to one of the regular LIGO operators Jason Kupchek who she had befriended during her past visits.

“Holly! I heard you were coming for the summer. We’re going to have such a time. Have a sit. Let me show you what we’ve been doing lately,” said an anxious Jason who had developed an indelible crush on Holly that past November.

For the next three hours, Holly and Jason poured over the recent electronic logs, inspiral range graphs, and noise budgets. Most of the gravitational wave detections in the past year came at a range of 15 Mpc (50 million light years) in the Virgo cluster of galaxies, produced by the coalescence of two black holes.

It was nearly 1am when Holly left the control room and went back to her room. But she was too excited to sleep so she fired up her laptop and continued to examine the data streams. It was about 3am when she saw it, something she never noticed before. Nobody would have noticed this before because it wasn’t part of the normal waveform analysis process. Holly was looking at the data in a very different way.

“Damn, its e!” thought Holly to herself.

She rushed down the hall to Jason’s room and pounded on the door.

“Geez Holly, what couldn’t wait until morning? I was having that same dream I told you about last year, the one with the sun soaked desert isle, and the two scantily clad …”

“Jason! Will you shut up and come take a look at this?” she said as she led him down the hall, pulling him by his sleeve.

Back in Holly’s room, on her laptop computer was an analysis she had been running, the result of a new data mining algorithm she’d been using to detail the LIGO data stream.

“What are we looking at Holly? What’s so damn exciting?” Jason said, weary with his awkward awakening.

“It’s e Jason. If you look at the coalescence part of the waveform, the peaks of the nonlinear vibrations occur at these units of gravitational strain from a base of 10^-21: 2, 7, 1, 8, 2, 8, 1, 8, etc. I checked it every two milliseconds and verified the values to a thousand decimals, and its e!” Holly exclaimed, hardly believing what she was saying.

This meant that the gravitational waves of an astrophysical event millions of light years from Earth were somehow being manipulated. It was impossible for such a strain signature to be generated naturally. But what it implied was even more astonishing.

“Holly, do you know what this means?” Jason said wide-eyed.

“I think so. It means that some one or some thing is manipulating black holes of around 20 solar masses in such a way as to emit an unnatural strain signature in the gravitational waves! But why, to communicate with us?” Holly said, trying to fully appreciate the ramifications. “So someone would recognize the signature as Euler’s constant? Why wouldn’t they just use Pi, wouldn’t that be more universal?”

Jason leaned back in the chair, and said “But what kind of civilization could have done that? Well, at least we won’t have to worry about them, at 50 million light years away, they’re long dead.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A New Home for the Planetary Society

I attended a fun-filled event today on a warm, sunny afternoon in Pasadena, Calif. It was the grand opening and open house for the Planetary Society’s new headquarters. A couple of hundred space enthusiasts, including quite a few kids, were on hand to enjoy the festivities - including refreshing access to a well stocked ice cream truck parked on the street.

Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the non-profit Planetary Society inspires and involves Earth’s people in space exploration – through advocacy, projects, and education. The new headquarters at 85 S. Grand Avenue is a long time coming; the old classic Pasadena craftsman house that served as the society’s office for so many years finally had no room left. A change was mandatory, and what a change it is.

The new HQ isn’t just another pretty place (but it is mighty elegant looking). The two story structure has enough office space for future needs and the grounds are big enough to hold some very nice outdoor functions. I enjoyed browsing around the office and the informative displays they had set up for the event. They were showing off the science behind the upcoming LightSail solar sail mission, and a computer was set up to sign an electronic birthday card for SciFi author Ray Bradbury who turns 90.

The Planetary Society also gets a new executive director, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” who takes the reins from long-time director Louis Friedman who is retiring. I overheard the staff saying that even though Friedman’s stewardship has been superb, Nye will bring a whole different type of energy to the organization.

I’ve been a member of the Planetary Society for many years, and I feel it is a very worthwhile organization in terms of the advocacy for science that it provides.

[See inset photo of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting ceremony for the new HQ. The man with huge gold scissors is Bill Nye, to his right is Louis Friedman, and to his left is Robert Picardo, the holographic doctor from the Star Trek: Voyager television series. ]

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Creative Writing Foray

My first attempt at getting one of my scientific fiction stories published was a spectacular flop! I wanted to be unique, so I carefully chose a field that, to my knowledge, had no attention by Sci-Fi authors. Since I know a lot about gravitational wave astrophysics, I decided to write a short story about the pursuit of gravitational waves, the researchers in the field, and the LIGO detector itself. Sounds like a good plan right? Well, it could have been.

I chose to submit my story to the Nature journal’s Futures column. Futures is a very short, 900 word, regular section appearing on the last page of each bi-monthly issue. I’ve read the Futures column for a few years now, and I really enjoy many of the stories appearing there. Some, however, mostly by British authors make no sense to me, the prose being like an alphabetic soup or literary fugue. Nevertheless, I sent in my story with great hopes only to be quickly rejected by the Editor, Henry Gee, with a singular and content-free comment “Your story isn’t for us.”

OK, I’m a new creative writer and I was shooting pretty high to be published in Nature with the likes of some pretty famous authors gracing this page. I licked my wounded ego and continued on writing more stories. That was April 2009. Now fast forward to this last week when I received the July 20 issue of Nature. I eagerly turned to the last page and shock, there it was: “Gravity’s Whispers” by Gregory Benford! Benford is one of my favorite Sci-Fi authors with titles like “Artifact” to his credit, not to mention about ten Nature Futures column stories under his belt.

As I started to read his story, my mind raced with “It can’t be!” But sure enough he had independently come up with pretty much the same story as mine, albeit admittedly much better written. The titles were almost the same – his was “Gravity’s Whispers” and mine was “Gravity’s Message,” the protagonist is a young female researcher, the back drop was the LIGO detector, and even the theme was the same – intelligent signals embedded in the gravitational waves. In my story, Euler's constant “e” was found, and in his story it was  Riemann zeros.

So I threw caution to the wind and contacted Dr. Benford, a professor at UC Irvine and sent him a copy of my story. To my surprise he quickly replied and admitted “Your story is remarkably similar. Great minds, same channels, etc.” He also provided an unsolicited critique of my story and why he believed Nature didn’t buy it. My creative writing needs a lot of work apparently.

Since then, Dr. Benford has become a great mentor to me. He’s provided me excellent insights into how to develop my own writing style. He’s even forwarded me some new research papers he’s written about the SETI project. I’m quite honored to establish a connection with one of my favorite authors and a leading researcher. It just goes to show you, it can't hurt to ask questions.