Saturday, December 8, 2012

U.S. Politics - Galileo Revisited?

Now that all the hoopla surrounding the 2012 presidential election is over, maybe the scientific community can rest for another 4 years with the presumed assurance that science budgets aren’t in jeopardy by bastions of science deniers and other flat-worlders. But longer term is there cause for worry?

To answer that question, let’s see who the GOP may have in mind for 2016. I think the demographics of our recent election have proven just how much the country has changed in terms of racial makeup and thus voter participation. Republicans will wisely consider a Hispanic candidate, and their current golden boy is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. What do we know about Rubio’s views on science? [ Beware, what I’m about to report is not for the faint of heart].

During a political interview, Michael Hainey of GQ Magazine inquired of Rubio, “How old do you think the earth is?” This telling question produced a frightening response as follows:

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.” 

He went on with: “At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created, and I think this is country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.” 

It may have been a mystery back in the 17th century, when Archbishop James Ussher calculated from the age of the patriarchs and other sources that the earth was created on Oct. 22, 4004 B.C. Today’s best estimate for the aged of the earth, based on radiometric dating or meteorites, is 4.54 billion years. The real mystery is how a highly visible politician got himself into the position of suggesting that the two estimates are of equal value, or that theologians are still the best interpreters of the physical world.

Has there been no progress since Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and spend the rest of his life under house arrest?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Modeling Feynman

Always on the lookout for anything new about Feynman, I was delighted to read a short piece in the Nature, Sept. 13, 2012 “Books & Art” section called “Modelling Feynman.” It featured “All Possible Photons: The Conceptual and Cognitive Art of Feynman Diagrams,” a Manhattan gallery opening by Edward Tufte. Tufte is a statistician and possibly the world’s most celebrated information designer. His pursuit was to let loose his fondness of artistic explanation with sculptures recognizable to those with knowledge of particle physics. Included in the exhibit is Tufte’s most powerful piece, a collection of 120 smaller pieces that give the exhibit its name – a cluster representing all possible space and time paths of a particular interaction of photons (see inset image of Tufte at work). 

One of Feynman’s most memorable accomplishments was his elegant patterns of lines, dots and arrows to describe and predict how subatomic particles interact. Feynman had a sense of the diagram’s aesthetic appeal and in fact drove a large van adorned with hand-drawn diagrams.   

If you find yourself in the vicinity of the Big Apple, seek out: ET Modern until spring 2013 (official opening September 15, 2012).

Tufte’s mural-like piece reminds me of something similar I encountered earlier this year when I visited Feynman’s old home after a long absence due to extensive construction. Just outside his old office, 456 Lauritzen Hall at Caltech, is a wall mural of beautiful Feynman diagrams (see inset image). Very motivating indeed!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity - Do or Die Time

I’m writing and posting this latest entry for the Physics Groupie Blog a few hours before the big event this evening as the Mars Science Laboratory mission closes in on the planet Mars for the spectacular deposit maneuver of the Curiosity rover on the planet’s surface and the start of a 2 year mission to explore the Gale Crater for evidence of life on the 4th rock from the sun.

I decided to publish this ahead of the “7 minutes of terror” during which time a very complex series of events must complete in perfect unison otherwise NASA will experience some serious cosmic egg on its face. But why before?  Because I’m holding my breath in recognition of the importance of this mission and how its success (or failure) may signify the future of planetary science for the next decade or so.

At a price tag of $2.5 billion, a spectacular failure could fuel the critics’ efforts to quash funding for planetary exploration for many years.  I know what’s at stake here and my unbridled enthusiasm for space science and U.S. leadership in this arena makes me a tad bit queasy at times like this. 

I applied for press credentials to witness this nail-biter first hand at nearby JPL which is mission control for MSL. JPL’s press contact Guy Webster promptly replied to my request and welcomed my interest to cover the landing for the Physics Groupie blog. He turned me over to a formal credentialing process and alas that’s where the story ends. Apparently NASA is blogger unfriendly and I was flatly denied and instead was told to watch NASA TV. 

So that’s exactly what I plan to do tonight – NASA TV will be my official source of MSL news. There are a couple of cool Curiosity landing parties around town – at the Griffith Observatory and Planet Fest put on by The Planetary Society is hosting a gathering. The latter even held a special “Mars Party” last night over at the Paseo Colorado Promenade in Pasadena featuring Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Star Trek’s Robert Picardo to usher in the festivities leading up to tonight’s big event. 

But I decided to watch the Curiosity birthing-event in the privacy of my own broadband connection. It will be a late night. I’m crossing my high-gain antenna!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It’s Summer – Time for Math and Science Fun!

Since I was quite young, I always equated summer time with leisurely pursuing my intellectual interests. Since my parents didn’t believe in vacations, I found myself with an enormous amount of time during those sweltering summer months growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Usually I would spend most of my days in the air-conditioned halls of the engineering building at nearby CSUN with my childhood geek friend Eddy Schmerling. Fast forward a great many years as summer 2012 kicks into high gear, old habits die hard and I found myself walking to the UCLA campus today to once again pursue my interests – astrophysics, mathematics and other hardcore disciplines.  Just moments into my journey, I was met with a very pleasant surprise.

I was walking along Bruin Walk toward the north entrance of the UCLA Store and I heard someone calling my name, “Hey Dan!” Not expecting to see anyone I know in the middle of a work day, I glanced up toward a welcoming face – Professor Andrea Ghez, head of the famed UCLA Galactic Center Group. She had just completed an afternoon swim and was heading across campus to her office at the PAB. 

Talk about serendipity, just as I planned to shake up my summer-science juices, Dr. Ghez gave me a wonderful heads-up about her upcoming trip next week to the Keck observatory on Hawaii’s Big Island where she and her group has multiple nights of concurrent time on both the Keck I and Keck II telescopes. They’re trying something new that’s never been done before with some parallel observations of the galactic center. How exciting is that? I just checked the Keck telescope observing schedule and it shows the UCLA researchers have both Keck I and II July 19 through 22. It sounds like it will be quite a party over at the Waimea science center next week.

So today was a fitting prelude to what I hope will be a captivating summer of science. I hope you all choose to do the same with your summer!

[Inset image shows a group shot at the recent Crafoord Prize celebration event at the UCLA Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics last month, from left to right: James Rosenzweig, Physics Department Chair, Professor Andrea Ghez, Joseph Rudnick, Dean of Physical Sciences, Professor Terrence Tao, and Sorin Popa, Mathematics Department Chair.]