Friday, July 06, 2018

Spiders fly via electrostatics

Interesting article on the spiders' ability to detect electric field and use it to propel themselves in air.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Black Hole Apocalypse

I just happened to see that my DVR recorded a new Nova special, Nova: Black Hole Apocalypse. It's hosted by Janna Levin, a physicist who is recently pursuing outreach via books and hosting panels and such.

The early part talks a bit about LIGO's discovery, and then transitions with the non-astounding line "Today we know more about black holes than ever." Good to know that we've not gone backwards!

I'm wondering what's the apocalypse? Falling into the black hole? So what's new? I just don't get the title.

And I get that making an effort to showcase female scientists is worthwhile because it makes sense to (i) work a systematic bias, and (ii) show young folks that physics need not be a dominantly male enterprise. But I've seen only two males versus at least six females so far. I just checked the "Participants" tab in the first link above and I guess things get more evened out later in the show.

More generally, I wish these shows gave a little info about why these particular scientists were chosen to speak on the show. In other words, why don't they tell us what each researches (even if just a couple sentences and no more than maybe ten seconds)?

Anyway, I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to finish the show, but I'm generally a big fan of Nova shows.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Physics in the News and Olympics

  • There are two kinds of people in the world (I have a number of these but of course can hardly remember more than one at a time):
    • those who keep open many tabs in their browser and those who can't stand to see tabs open
    • those who can pick up a foreign language easily and those who get passed by quickly in language class
  • I only tend to see commercials while watching sports. But they've either gotten worse or I've become even more curmudgeonly. My faith in humanity can't afford any more dings. As just one example, why does it seem that every SUV commercial espouses the ability to drive when you shouldn't be on the roads? I'm thinking specifically of the Jeep commercials in which they show weather reporters in the middle of saying "It's not safe to drive" while some yahoo drives his (always geared towards men) vehicle into a clearly constructed soft pile of snow that a Smart 2 could probably tackle. As a whole, these commercials seem to appeal to our anti-social and selfish instincts; I don't care what effect I have on the environment or on others, I just want what I want. Indeed, I think they want certain things because there is a cost to others to demonstrate their importance. I won't even comment here about those who support the NRA. I'm sure this can't be a new observation, but I need to be able to keep these thoughts at bay in order to be civil to those around me.
  • Olympics
    • First off, I really don't like the tally of medals by country that I see everyday on the pages of US newspapers. When watching an event with competitors with whom I'm not familiar, I'll tend to root for any Americans. However, if given a reason, I'll gladly root against the American (if he/she appears un-sportsmanlike for example, or if I'm simply moved by some compelling story for someone from another country). But even so, aren't the Olympics about countries coming together and not yet another country versus country competition (such as the Davis Cup (tennis), the Ryder Cup (golf), and others in less snooty sports [e.g. the World Cup])? Update: Here's a nice story that typifies the Olympic spirit so much better than these annoying medal tallies.
    • There's lots of physics in sports generally, and the Olympics in particular:
      • A speed skating race was so close they apparently had to use slow motion video to decide the winner. The frame rate seems to be an obvious determining factor in the timing uncertainty.
      • Curling involves friction in a non-trivial way with the sweeping (as noted below). Chad is discussing both friction on ice and other physics at the Olympics.
  • Physics in the newspaper:
    • In the sport of curling, should one maximize the normal force at the expense of speed? Try a smartbroom
    • I keep telling my students that they have some instinctual sense of physics, but was surprised by the animals in this article. I particular the comment that we're not so good at counting because instead we can understand the sentence: "There is no non-vanishing continuous tangent vector field on even dimensional spheres" (if you somehow you lack instinctual understanding [jk] of this sentence, perhaps see this Wikipedia page).
  • Students are always questioning why they need to take certain classes. A teen in high school was questioning having to take math with the usual whine, "when am I ever going to use trigonometry?" I'm not terribly inclined to participate on those terms because I think most people will never use trigonometry (and so perhaps the answer is to rethink what we teach and give options possibly more directly applicable to the world, like this math class as a substitute for Algebra 2).

    Indeed, I think people, at least in this country now, tend to pursue willful ignorance (more anti-social behavior) and laziness, trying to do nothing that uses their brain. Instead, I questioned the teen on why they need take any more classes at this point. Can it really be argued that what they learn in an English class at this point will benefit them or the country more than what they learn in physics or math or really anything? Certainly one could launch into a soliloquy about improved writing skills from English, more informed electorate from history, etc. But it's not working: the electorate is not only ill-informed but appears to believe in fake news. Maybe we can co-opt the conservative push to allow the immigration of only the good ones into an even more radical policy: a test to maintain one's citizenship to be taken at regular intervals (perhaps every ten years to match the census). A sort of "common core" for citizenship (I'm forgetting who was against common core but I think it was the conservatives, but that seems to be antithetical to their immigration stance).

Friday, February 02, 2018

Buying rubber duckies from Amazon for studying ocean currents

Amusing article in the Washington Post about scientists reviewing everyday products that they've used for science research (mostly biology).

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Still angry

Happy New year. I've been silent for a while. It's that time of year when one hears about a number of applications/proposals/etc. For me, one was successful, one passed the first round, and two were rejected (one agency doesn't return any feedback and the other won't make those comments available for a month or so).

Things about which I'm angry:
  1. The National Football League (NFL)
    • Teams blackmailing cities by threatening (and sometimes carrying-through) to move to some other city.
    • Paying their leader such ridiculous sums (did they give into Goodell's request for healthcare for his family for life? Interesting that such an expensive perk is a right in so many other developed countries).
    • Sports teams generally getting sweetheart deals on stadiums with special tax treatment (continued in the latest US tax bill)
    • Stupid rules about catches that ruin the endings of (US) football games (particularly that they always seem to go the Patriots' way).
    • The absurdity of the Kapernick conundrum. I can see that some would be bothered by his behavior as some inappropriate offense to the nation, but to act like he's being a selfish, spoiled, rich kid is simply to be in denial. And as much as you may disagree with how he's going about his protest, I can't see not being upset with a league which is clearly blackballing him for it. But ultimately, for all those who nevertheless find themselves lambasting this guy and the other NFL players following his lead, it's hard to listen until these same people:
      • Acknowledge that, at the very least, you can see that reasonable people might think there's a problem in how black people in this country are treated by some in law enforcement. Of course personally, I know there's a big problem, but, even for those who disagree, there's no way to argue it's not reasonable to suspect that there is. In the same vein, I can appreciate that some would worry about voter fraud, even if all evidence says it is absolutely not a problem.
      • If you're going to complain to me about the protest of these players offending you, then in the same breath, why aren't you complaining about the other offenses to this nation? One example among so many, is our President calling our justice system a "laughing stock" and a "joke." How is this not more offensive to our country generally, and our police officers in particular?
      • Why am I not hearing your complaints about all the players allowed to play in the league who have done things (e.g. assault) worse than taken a knee during the anthem?
      • I also don't hear complaints about non-players in the stadium failing to pay heed and stand for the anthem. Those at the concessions or otherwise not paying attention. Indeed, for those so upset, if the anthem plays on the TV for home listeners, what is their obligation to avoid offending you and to demonstrate their patriotism?
      • Finally, if you're going to complain about these players and their protest as inappropriate, then why am I not hearing suggestions for what an appropriate protest is. My sense is that the only appropriate protest is for them to do so in their own homes. They apparently should not block traffic or indeed gather in significant numbers lest you be inconvenienced.
  2. I was invited to a conference, agreed to attend, but then my name was left off the advertisement. The website notes that those invited "include" certain names. Why not list them all? Should I be offended?
  3. So what would you think if you met a biologist only for them to tell you that they study the afterlife? They might talk about hooking up electrodes and SQUIDs to some on hospice care to study what happens when they die. They might also talk to those who have had near death experiences (NDEs). They might consider theories of consciousness and somehow determine properties of our souls after death. Fair enough, they might learn something interesting. But would you trust what they have to say about the afterlife? Whether there is one and what it might be like? After all, the body (that is to say the brain) is either active or not, and I don't see why its properties when active should say anything about what happens after its activity ceases. And those who have had NDEs are alive and hence I would have serious doubts that they know anything about the afterlife.

    In any case, what sent me down this path is that I was thinking how studying a possible Multiverse is a bit like studying an afterlife. There are some interesting things to do, but none that seem like they can actually tell us about the afterlife. For example, arguing that a multiverse may exist and the particular value of the cosmological constant we observe is simply one which allows for life seems to have some useful content. But then extrapolating some how to argue the probability that any given universe has a constant that allows for's not at all clear that there is any hope of doing this.

    NB: I recently heard about a Netfilx show called The Discovery which is set in a future in which "there is now definitive proof of an afterlife."

    *Some quick caveats to this criticism of studies of the multiverse: (i) Collisions of universes that might produce observable signatures seems like good science. However, if two universes collide, they're not really different universes taking as my personal definition of a universe as the sum of all things and events that can affect anything else in that universe. (ii) I like certain Multiverse theories (e.g. many worlds), and I don't see anything wrong with considering a multiverse. I just can't see much beyond that. For example I cannot see that we can reasonably infer probabilities about other universes.
  4. A short article in The Atlantic on China's ambitions with a dark matter search from space.

  5. Just fair warning: There is a huge range in the cost of a refinance. Not only that, but the folks that "sell" you the refinances can be as crooked as the quintessential used-car salesperson. Even the well-respected bank USAA was dishonest about the costs, and when I complained they did nothing. I hear so many good things about USAA despite my negative experiences throughout the years, that I worry that there are simply too many suckers out there. For another example, I contacted Quicken Loans who advertise heavily on the various podcasts I listen to. Big mistake. Seconds after filling out a form, the phone rings despite having clicked that my preferred method of communication is email. And instead of approaching this with the seriousness that this huge amount of money demands, he's just asking about how much I can afford each month and how much cash back I need. Nothing about rates and fees and my longterm best interest. A couple days later an offer comes in the mail with a good interest rate. It is surprising for a few seconds until I found the fees which showed it thousands of dollars more expensive than my best offers. How many potential customers would spend those seconds to discover the exorbitant fees?
  6. I just finished a class for physics majors and the students did not do well. Was it me? Did my teaching suffer somehow? Or instead, was it just that the group of students wasn't very good? One indication in favor of the latter is that I got none of the questions that I usually get. My first thought when recognizing this is that the students were uninterested and perhaps unable to even get to the point of having the obvious questions. Of course, perhaps I was so dull and incompetent at explaining things to get them interested and asking questions.
  7. I keep meaning to re-read this entire post and publish, but the longer it gets, the more imposing that task becomes. Then I think of some new entry to this list which only makes things worse.