Friday, July 28, 2006

Catching up with

I'm trying to catch up with all the papers posted this week to, and I was reminded of this discussion over at Nanoscale Views (Apparently he's from Mars, which, I suppose means the rest of us physics bloggers are from Venus?).

So many papers get published you can't read them all. What are my criteria?

  • Does the paper discuss topics I've researched?
  • Does the paper discuss work I might be able to followup on, or get into myself?
  • Is the paper by someone in my field (even if it is of no real interest, I want to know what close peers are working on)?

Not too many papers get selected by the above, so it's a good screen. What's left then whether the paper deals with on an interesting topic or an interesting result, but that can be hard to tell just looking quickly at the title and abstract, so I also look at the author. And here, all the ugly, but arguably necessary, prejudices come into play.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

More on "Science is hard"

Over at Uncertain Principles is a worthwile discussion of the difficulties of research, as opposed to classroom work. Even beyond experimental physics, research is hard.

And the ability to get things done separates the good physicists from those that should do something else. Once, someone working with me was trying to explain that he had been working hard and explicitly mentioned the hours he had been working. He just didn't get it. None of that matters. You can either solve problems and get stuff done or not. Good physicists get things done quickly, and bad ones slowly (in the simplest of terms), but if you want to mention the hours you put in as if that means something, you need to go into a field where you punch a clock.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Scattered thoughts:

  • Lots of talk out there about blogging and tenure (see Dynamics of Cats and Uncertain Principles). Not too relevant to tenure process was a frustrating, surprising, and ultimately successful process. I'm not sure I see what's so funny about this slam on the CHE's first person columns.

  • Star Trek had their holodecks where people could create an imaginary environment in which to interact. That's pretty advanced though (I know, but play along). Say instead, we only had the technology to implant memories. So instead of going to Las Vegas for a vacation, you simply get memories of an imaginary trip implanted in your brain. That sounds somewhat feasible. Saves the cost of the trip and the time away from work.

    My question is: Do the memories serve the same function as a true vacation?

    On one hand, I'd think no because you haven't had any real stress relief. But what is stress relief? If you really took the vacation, then when you got back what else would you have besides the memories (say you didn't play tennis or anything, just laid on the beach or something so your muscles weren't involved)? Maybe this is a stupid question that a biologist can easily answer, but I'm just not clear on what the true effects of a vacation are.

  • Apparently rendering blonde hair is quite difficult. These folks found a faster way which compares well with the time consuming method as shown in the picture.

  • Why does Blogger's spell checker not recognize "Google" and "blogging" as words?

  • I have trouble coming up with titles sometimes, but I'm consoled by the fact that Glenn doesn't even have titles!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

An Exciting New Car Possibility

There's a whole slew of small, practical, inexpensive, fuel efficient cars coming out of Japan (e.g. Toyota's Yaris, Nissan's Versa, Kia's got one as well [well, that's Korea]). Which is of course good news for any academics out there because, with the exception of Lubos, we're all radical, left-wing, string-bashing tree huggers. Oh yeah, and we're cheap too.

Anyway, the Honda Fit just came out and is getting rave reviews, but the gossip is that a hybrid version will come out next year for less than $20k (US). Here's a picture from Not sure how legit the picture is. For more on the fit:

Oh yeah, and be sure to read about how a Hummer is better for the world than a hybrid!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Friday, July 21, 2006

More Perelman

If you've got a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, they've got a piece on Perelman's claim to the $1 million price money for his work on the Poincaré conjecture:

Like Torah commentaries, they dwarf the original. Dr. Perelman's 2003 paper is 22 pdf pages; the 2002 paper is 39. But "Notes on Perelman's Papers," in which Prof. Kleiner and John Lott of the University of Michigan explain them almost line-by-line, is 192 pages. A book on the papers is expected to top 300 pages. A "complete proof" of Poincaré, based on Dr. Perelman's breakthrough and published last month in the Asian Journal of Mathematics (which Prof. Milnor describes as throwing "a monkey wrench" into the question of who gets credit), is 328 pages long.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Online News

  • Robert Cringely usually writes some interesting columns about internet technology, and this week, he discusses some limits of online news:

    If it's a big story that's important to a lot of people, the Internet either beats it to death or misses it completely. This is the nature of the beast and it makes me sad because I sit here on the third floor of an old house in Charleston, South Carolina banging out these columns and people ask me "Where do you GET this stuff?"

    Not from the Internet.

    I talk to people on the phone

    I'm not yet sure what I think of his opinion, but it certainly opens my eyes a bit to the limits, especially since I've given up the print newspaper.

  • Was at Target today. Walking out to my car, I see a sign warning that the shopping carts lock their wheels when they pass some orange line. It was at this point that I notice a bunch of abandoned shopping carts. That's pretty cool...if only because now I know how far out I need to park to be free of rogue carts. Don't you just love the people who park their nice cars way out to avoid others' carts, but who then leave their own shopping cart to go rogue on someone else's car!?!

New Nikon DSLR Coming

Apparently we can expect a new Nikon digital SLR:

Nikon Japan has today started a teaser campaign promoting a new compact 10.2 megapixel digital SLR which will be announced in 20 days, we can only guess that this would be the natural successor to the D70/D70s. The teaser gives away few details other than the fact that the camera will have 10.2 megapixels (just in case you were thinking of buying a Sony Alpha). If any other significant details come out over the next 20 days we'll cover them.

I, for one, have never been too fond of the color balance on Nikon's digital lineup, but I've not gotten my hands on anything since the D100. Maybe it's gotten better.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gender and Underrepresentation in Physics

Over at Cosmic Variance is a worthwhile discussion over diversity in physics, if you're interested in such. I usually tire of such discussions quickly, but I enjoyed the comments. I'll just point out a couple interesting items:

  • This person argues that "science is more or less a meritocracy." I'd love to know more about this person's experiences to know how they could emerge so non-jaded.
  • This person thinks that homosexuals are underrepresented. People quickly ask for evidence of such a dearth. It certainly made me wonder. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is gay and who isn't, but certainly there are a number of likely candidates. I can easily imagine that the representation is roughly equal to that of the general population.
  • I think the goal of "Boost[ing] the self-confidence of girls" is indeed worthwhile, and not some nebulous, liberal, hogwash.

Anyway, a worthwhile discussion whatever your experience.

Update: For a contrasting, eh...opinion, you might get some entertainment from reading Lubos' latest concerning this discussion. As is usually the case, I couldn't make it through more than the first couple of paragraphs.

I liked this from Sean:

The real problem, though, is that the faculty-hiring stage is far too late. The damage is done in high school and earlier, and that’s the obvious target for trying to improve things.

And finally, you might find this test a fun distraction (as linked by here).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Missile Defense Test

Recently, the THAAD missile defense system succeeded in a test. That's great and all. I'm all for a strong defense. My problem is that some very conservative bloggers have touted the tests dishonestly (or stupidly, it's always hard to tell) as some kind of defense of President Bush.

Instapundit links to Captain's Quarters who asserts:

People also laughed when George Bush claimed this week that our missile defense systems could knock down the Taepodong-2. I think he knew a bit more than the media and critics considered at the time.

Well, actually no, he was wrong and the denials are a matter of record. Just in case he's not clear, he seems to think we've got a fully operational missile defense now:

Naysayers have constantly criticized the effort by pointing out that the system at this stage can't knock down 1,000 ICBMs with 100% accuracy, but this shows that the anti-missile system can take out inbounds on a one-for-one basis, and doesn't require a shotgun approach.

This whole missile defense business has been a total joke for a long time with all the very contrived tests and failures (...see various posts by Robert Park and this by Oliver Willis). While this test does appear to represent true progress, the problem is very hard...take a look at a report by the American Physical Society.

I don't want to get too partisan. This isn't an attack on President Bush, nor those who support his policies. Instead it's an attack on dishonest vitriol meant to forestall intelligent discussion from either the left or the right. I'm sure it happens on the left, but it seems that the most read and influential bloggers who engage in this kind of intellectual dishonesty occupy the right.


When I look back at my training in physics, there are three big things I didn't realize:

  • physics does not separate so easily into neatly separated sub-disciplines.

  • physics is far from a strict meritocracy, and, just as in the business world, networking/schmoozing are important

  • a tenured faculty position has a strange mix of stress and reward

It's this last item that I think confuses so many not "in the know" (such as my extended family). I'll try to describe the unique stresses associated with the job later, but what I want to discuss is the reward. More particularly, the feedback one gets as a professor.

My experience is that my job is a bit like being a housewife. You toil all the time; there's no escaping it. You are your own boss and if you don't fix something, or make progress on what you're doing, there's no hiding it. People with little idea of what the job is like give you respect for having your job, but then generally figure you loaf all day. But most importantly, you get very little feedback.

I'm not talking about students and their evaluations. I'm talking about your research. You can look at citations, but you look pretty ridiculous worrying about so-and-so's paper cited yours. You can be happy about being invited to conferences, but you inevitably go through dry periods and start to get cynical like me about the politics involved.

As I've mentioned before, it's a great job. On the worst of days when I'm pissed at someone or another, or sick of doing what I'm doing, or totally frustrated not getting something to work, I push back from my computer, lock my office door, crank up Pandora, and pull out Scientific American...

Update: Conincidentally, today the NYT has a good interview (free sub. reqd.) with a Stanford professor who mentions that women get lots of negative feedback in the sciences. He has first hand experience as a former woman.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Children's Black Hole Book

  • Over at Good Math, Bad Math, he's discussing children's books. I'd recommend you check out the great illustration work and the thought-provoking black hole in That Pesky Toaster

  • As a followup to this post about people surgically putting magnets into their fingers to create a new, magnetic sense, you might look at this guy's post who just glued a magnet to his fingertip.

  • Any Pharyngula fans may want to check out a quick blurb posted at the CHE which links to a profile on Minnesota Public Radio.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


  • Gizmodo points out some clever, astronomical advertising by McDonalds.

    The billboard made its debut on Friday, and it will stay in place until next month; by then the shadow angles will have changed so much it will cease to work properly. Great idea, unless it's a cloudy day, where the billboard will make absolutely no sense at all.

  • Gordon Watts discusses some of my posts. Yes, I'd like to give advice, but that sounds like I've got the answers. It's more that I'd like to get my experiences out there...I've had to deal with things in my career without the benefit of experience. I suppose that's always the case, but even when I talked to my unofficial mentors, they were of no help, being fairly dismissive of my concerns. Completing a PhD, in the best of all worlds, trains one to do research with maybe some ancilliary teaching experience. But it almost never teaches one how to get grants, how to network, how to interview, how to prep application materials, how to deal with hostile and/or incompetent faculty peers, how to get things you need from a school administration, how to balance teaching versus research, how to manage students/postdocs, etc.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Crappy Day

Today has been a pretty crappy day. Equipment which takes forever to order, finally shows up and gets delivered to the wrong place. And they can't move it without putting in a work order and hopefully it'll get done tomorrow! There is such a minimalist attitude at this school...meaning there's no sense of "let's get this done promptly and well so that, as a whole, the campus can be better and more productive." Am I becoming the crotchety, old professor who yells at everyone?

Then I get an email from a student with yet another revision, but not the revisions I had marked last time. How do you teach them that they should try not to waste your time?

And then I read some of these posts about a dumb joke by Chad (the offending post). Dumb jokes aren't hard to find, but those about string theory appear to now be taboo (what has the world come to when I can call Lubos too politically correct?).

And then there's Jacques' comments. He tries to take the high road:

Chad responded that the remark was intended as a harmless bit of levity, and an “attempt to drive traffic (because I almost always get a bump in traffic when I talk about string theory…).” Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a matter between Chad, his readers and his conscience.

And maybe it's just because of the day I've had, but this sounds awfully pompous. He continues, clearly self conscious that someone might think he took a low road:

Ordinarily, I would, therefore, not even bring it up, except that it got me to thinking about the temptations of popularity. I was somewhat taken aback by the response to my recent post about Loop Quantum Gravity. With 150 comments (and still counting), the temptation is, clearly, to write a lot more posts about LQG, and fewer posts about the boring stuff I usually write about.

And by "boring stuff" I assume he's talking about all the blogging/mathml/etc stuff.

For the record, I can see that some people's toes will feel a bit trampled at the joke, but Chad has responded admirably.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Dark Matter" in the common vernacular?

Saw in an interesting article in Time magazine about how much of who we are is determined by our siblings. What struck me though, was that in the introduction, when they were talking about scientists looking at the influence of both genes and parents, there was some missing effect akin to "dark matter":

The fact is once investigators had strip-mined all the data from those theories, they still came away with as many questions as answers. Somewhere, there was a sort of temperamental dark matter exerting an invisible gravitational pull of its own. More and more, scientists are concluding that this unexplained force is our siblings.

I think that it's great that such things can now be used for nonspecialists. There's also an article on some recently unsealed letters of Einstein which I'll have to read.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Soda geyser

You might have seen such soda geysers before, but here's a pretty neat video of a couple guys in labcoats and quite a number of 2 liter soda bottles. Seen via Scientific American's blog here, which has a nice explanation for the effect.

Flipping Tennis Rackets

When I teach non-science majors, I worry more about getting across to them the wonder that is science, rather than lots of details or explanations. I recently taught a class with mostly art, film, and literature majors, and I think I did a decent job of communicating to them that I do science/physics for pretty much the same reasons they do what they's wonderful, amazing, interesting, and beautiful. I think many are really surprised by this.

In any case, one of the really cool things showed up when I was a freshman in college. For some reason, most of my physics classes were at 8am. I didn't have any problem waking up that early, I just couldn't stay up! Fortunately, high school had taught me to sleep with my eyes open.

So I'm half asleep, and my internal clock, detecting the end is near, is slowly ramping up my consciousness, and then I start hearing what the whole lecture has been about....rotational dynamics and instability. The board is filled with equations and steps, and I realize we've explained something that's been an oddity to me for years.

Tennis players are always flipping their tennis rackets. When the other person serves, I spin my racket in my hand (along the axis through the handle). If I have to wait for something, I may spin the racket edge on, so you don't see the face. But if I'm really killing time, I point the racket out like I'm holding a tray, and then I flick it in the air. Almost all of the time, the racket then does a spin, like a high diver doing a twist. If I try real hard, I can usually flip it without the twist but it's hard. Why? Well, using just some chalk on a board, we had explained why a flip about (what turns out to be) the intermediate axis is unstable!

A more complete explanation of this effect can be found at Physics Central, but nicer videos (but with a board, not a tennis racket) is up here (the third axis is the one with the instability).

To a non-physicist this result may not elicit much excitement, and may even seem trivial. But for me, ...well, it's hard to explain, but it's powerful. It boils down to power. Physicists are so powerful, we have control. Like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, we have power because we have knowledge and understanding. It's a bit like a kid with one of those chemistry sets, or the adult who dreams of having all those power tools with lasers.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Superman in Extra Dimensions

  • Slashdot links to an article on the physics of Superman. I didn't know he travels at close to the speed of light, but if he does, the article points out, then the world will age quite a bit while he's flying around. For more on Superman, Phil Plait has a review up of the latest movie Superman Returns , but I've not read it because he's got spoilers in there.

  • The CHE has an article up (subscription reqd) which answers the question, "how much time do I waste?"...for many, the answer is already known:
    A survey of 6,000 university researchers found that scientists spend 42 percent of their research time filling out forms and in meetings. With those hard numbers to back his case, the professor who designed the survey hopes to persuade the federal government to amend its grant-making system.

  • Woit's latest has a quote about extra dimensions from Lawrence Krauss (of the physics of star trek fame, among other work):

    Many of the papers in particle physics over the last five to seven years have been involved with the idea of extra dimensions of one sort or another. And while it~Rs a fascinating idea, but I have to say, it's looking to me like it~Rs not yet leading anywhere. The experimental evidence against it is combining with what I see as a theoretical diffusion, a breaking off into lots of parts. That's happened with string theory. I can see it happening with extra-dimensional arguments. We're seeing that the developments from this idea which has captured the imaginations of many physicists, hasn't been compelling.

    I confess that I am one who does find it pretty fascinating, and in particular I've long been an admirer of the work of Eöt-Wash group looking for evidence of these extra dimensions. Their work is good science and they give good talks. There's also this today from the New Scientist describing a proposed experiment to do a similar measurement as the Eöt-Wash group, just to do it out in space! Good luck getting that kind of precision and getting it launched.

Update: Backreaction has a short tutorial on extra dimensions posted today.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Various (but not sundry)

  • Uncertain Principles talks about his work in the machine shop. I'd like to hear more. I imagine that many of the people reading these physics blogs are pretty current on the latest theories, but do they know what a machine shop is like? It's wicked cool, as my Massachusetts friends would say. Where are the machinists' blogs? I'd like to hear stories about what it's like to be in the control room of one of the big physics experiments.

  • This isn't physics, but I'm happy to report that Delay's name has to stay on the ballot for the upcoming election in Texas. What happened to the days when people simply disagreed about controversial issues, instead of the war we have now?

  • There's some discussion about possible changes to the introductory
    physics curriculum...started by Gordon Watts and continued at Uncertain Principles. My $0.02 is that it may all be for naught (a great word). "Six Easy Pieces" doesn't work, the material has to be covered even if covered in high school, and there's no good solution. Well, having a good teacher helps.

  • Having linked to a certain blog twice in this post, a good name for a group blog occurs to me..."Uncertain Principals"

  • What's going on at Cosmic Variance? First there was that strangeness with Clifford and now he's at a Monastery? And Sean goes to some strange, fancy-schmancy trip (seems kind of a like Hollywood's answer to the Jason group).
    And now Sean is discussing poker again (I've got the answer to his little question easily with no help from the comments!). Anyway, not sure from where Mark will turn up...maybe from a kibbutz in Israel?

    I propose we get a virtual game of poker among us physicists. Does Party Poker allow people to get their own table?

  • Finally, Big Brother gets going tonight. CBS sticks a bunch of meatheads together in a house with no TV or cell phones and boredom commences. Eventually, people start running around naked and screaming at each other, the perfect recipe for unscripted TV. But, and here's the rub....wait for it.....(and give me the royalties I'm due):

    What if some network did this with physicists and mathematicians?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gender and Sexuality

A couple thoughts about gender and sexuality:

  • Finally got around to reeding my Seed magazine, and found an interesting article about homosexuality in the animal world. Well worth a read, and then go read Pharyingula for some criticism (and for some positive things).

    I liked this quote of Phryingula:
    Many heterosexual couples elect not to have children, and many homosexuals elect to have them. This shouldn't be a surprise; all it takes to start a baby is a few pokes and a spurt, and it really doesn't take much effort to overcome an inclination for such a brief event. We are sex-obsessed animals, so redirecting an ejaculation to a particular orifice isn't that astonishing.

    As any good article will do, it got me thinking. What about doing some cellular automata model and seeing what happens? Probably been done before, I'm guessing. But Pharyngula also says:
    I think Roughgarden makes a good case that this has considerable utility in social groups, and she's done some modeling that shows that this is, theoretically, a valid path to stable communities.

    I wonder what type of modeling was done.

  • I saw a bumper sticker today: REAL WOMEN DRIVE TRUCKS. In how many ways is this offensive? It's bad enough that so many men feel defined by their vehicles. Now women? I suppose when women emulate all things bad that are male, perhaps we should celebrate some horrible form of equality. But more than that, women are now going to beat on other women for what they drive? Of course, the cosmetics industry is as big as it is precisely because women can be so harsh, but I still find it offensive. Perhaps not as offensive as seeing so-called "nuts for trucks."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

James Simons

A nice story about the very famous (in these circles, see relevant posts at NEW) mathematician/physicist James Simons:

"It was radical that it was a hedge fund, but not radical that he wanted more in this world than being a math professor," Kra said.

And for a discussion of the disparity of wealth occasioned by hedge funds, see today's post at Steve Hsu's blog.


One of the duties of a physicist is to review papers submitted for publication. You can call it "peer review" as Andrew Jaffe does in this post. But I prefer the term "referee" because often it boils down to it...I'm often sent already reviewed papers in which the authors are engaged in a heated argument with the referee(s). The Editors in these cases often send all the correspondence to a new referee, who has to referee all the arguments and reach some conclusion.

Anyway, I've got more I want to say about the referee process, and maybe tell a few, but I'll save it for later. But I wanted to address something Jaffe says in the post linked above:

It’s a safe bet that most of us think that our papers are generally not improved in the process, but in the usual self-congratlulatory way, most of us probably think that we’re in the minority of good referees who actually make useful suggestions, or catch egregious errors. We can’t be right about both, not most of us anyway.

I do think that many of the changes suggested/mandated by a referee for my papers have, in fact, improved my papers. However, those changes have been fairly few in number. The problem, as I see it, is that a number of authors seem to do some research, assemble some text and graphs and submit. They then rely on the referees and the revision process to attain a better paper. I think that's an abuse of the system.

Finally, for more discussion on refereeing and such see the discussions linked to in the comments of Andrew's post.

NYT: New physics coming

The NYT has a nice article (reg. required) by Overbye about hopes for new physics at the LHC.

With the LHC coming soon, with LIGO's sensitivity increasing rapidly, with all the neutrino labs, with searches for evidence of extra dimensions, with all the precision cosmology, there really is a lot to get excited about. I wonder if we're set to go through anything similar to the revolutions that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century (relativity, quantum).

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cool Bed

Gizmodo has another cool gadget, a levitating bed. For those who know such a simple levitating system should be very unstable, you needn't worry as they've secured it laterally to the walls. For those that don't, you can read a bit more at the Wikipedia.

The short explanation starts with the idea of a magnet floating above another one, say. The gravitational and magnetic forces have the same magnitude and cancel (as can be measured by observing zero students always think the magnetic force must be greater than the gravitational, but then the magnet would be zooming off into space). Anyway, say this magnet is perfectly balanced laterally. Fine, but you can see it's unstable by considering any small deviation from perfectly balanced. Say a slight breeze pushes it left just a bit. Does it come back to center? No, because now there's even more of the bottom magnet to the right pushing the levitating magnet to the left. So instead of coming back, it just gets pushed off further left. Hence, it is unstable.


I find all things Google pretty cool. I liked reading about Steve Hsu's trip there (and also. Well, the NYT has another article on Google's inventiveness both with respect to the possibility that they're designing their own chips and with respect to software. I liked this quote

Mr. Arnold, the consultant, said these tools created a significant cost advantage. "If you talk to guys who work in massively parallel computing operations, as much as 30 percent of their coding time is spent trying to figure out how to get the thing to run," he said. Google "has figured out how they can reduce a lot of the hassle and work of creating parallel applications."

Mr. Gates acknowledged that MapReduce was a significant technology, but he asserted that Microsoft was building its own parallel processing software, opening another front in the technological war between the two companies.

Make Bill Gates an also ran, I guess is the way to put it.

Update: Slate has a piece today predicting a Google PC:

But the real deal-breaker is trust: Are you going to let someone else handle all your data? If you use a Google-served computing environment, everything you upload, download, or type potentially passes through Google's computers. I'll be the first to sign up, but that's my blind faith in statistics. If there's a privacy breach at Google, I figure I'll be about 10 millionth in line to get hurt.

I pretty much concur, and plan on using Google's new spreadsheets program to do my grades so I have easy access from home and the office.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Brompton Folding Bike

Just got the latest issue of Consumer Reports which reviews folding bikes (online subscription required), and says of the Brompton (Clifford's favorite of Cosmic Variance, follow the link for pictures):

If you plan to ride mostly on flat terrain, and must pack up the bike often, consider the Brompton. It’s quick, folds easily to a compact size, and is the lightest bike in the Ratings. When folded, it’s the only tested bike whose chain is on the inside, so you’re unlikely to get grease on your pants.