Monday, January 16, 2006

Cross Blogging

I have started playing with Word Press so I have been putting my entries here and at Cycle Quark on I am certainly the type of person who will let technology get in the way of the message.

There are several features at Word Press that I have decided that I prefer. The selection of templates is better. I am using Regulus by Binary Moon. I like the categories feature. I like that it can track the number of hits that I get other than my own, which is currently 0. The links can be managed without modifying the template.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Neutrinos and Me

I did my Ph.D thesis on a search for neutrino oscillations. Neutrino oscillations are a quantum mechanical phenomena where a neutrino is produced as one type but after it has traveled some distance it observed to be another type. In my thesis experiment we used a beam of neutrinos produced at the CERN PS that was almost purely muon neutrinos. We then looked for electron neutrinos in our detector. We found four of them, but that was also what we calculated to the
impurity of the beam, so nobody won a Nobel prize, but I still got my Ph.D in 1986.

Neutrinos were finally obcserved to oscillate by the Super K experiment in 1998.In this case muon neutrinos were produced by cosmic rays striking the atmosphere. Super K found that the number of muon neutrinos that came from the far side of the earth was smaller than those that came from directly overhead. If you do not know about neutrinos you might think that makes sense, but it turns out that very few neutrinos get stopped by the earth. Super K was able to look many different angles between straight up and straight down, which means the neutrinos went different distances through the earth. The pattern of neutrinos obcerved by angle was consistent with the muon neutrinos oscillating into tau neutrinos which are not recognized by the detector.

However, this oscillation was not of the type that I searched for so many years ago. That oscillation has still not been found. Two different groups hope to see that oscillation. One in the US called NOvA and one in Japan called T2K. These experiements are being planned and will use beams of neutrinosfrom accelerators and put detectors that are hundreds of kilometers

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

New Blogging Tool for Firefox

I have only been partly happy with the web based blog editor that blogger supplies, so I have been looking for something better. I have just upgraded to Firefox 1.5 and there is an extension available called Peformancing for Firefox. This is my first post using it so I do not have an evaluation yet. You can check HOW TO: Using Performancing for Firefox | for more info.

It has a WYSIWYG editor with similar features to the blogger web tool. It has a interesting split screen feature. When you start it, it splits the window and the page that you were viewing appears on top. The editing window appears on the bottom. This is a nice feature that lets you continua to see the page that you are commenting on. The spell checker is still under development.
If you are daring, and don't mind installing a beta extension, then in-line spelling is a must have for any spelling idiot like me.

[Install Spellbound Development Version]

You need the latest Spellbound development version from here, once installed you will have built-in spell checking in both Firefox and PFF ...

Update: My first post broke my Haloscan trackbacks. When I edited the post with the blogger web based editor, they came back.

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Good Lay Explanation of Dark Energy

In today's Wasington Post there is a story about using gamma ray bursters to measure the expansion rate of the universe. The discovery that the universe was expanding at an acclerating rate was a major discovery in 1999. Since we do not what is pushing the universe apart physicists have taken to calling it "dark energy".

It has kept physicists, cosmologists, and astronomers very busy trying to find new theories to explain the effect and design new experiments to give us more data on the effect. The story is about one new measurement that has just been announced and I will have to do more study to find out if it is a useful new technique, but I was very impressed by the Wasington Post article's explanation of the background to this new result. It was quite clear and correct.

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Nikon Phases Out Film Cameras

The Washington Post reports today that Nikon is getting out of the film photography business. The lineup of film cameras will be reduced from 9 to 2.
"To use a car industry analogy, it would be the same as Ford saying it is no longer producing an internal-combustion engine. It's really that revolutionary," said Mark Greenberg, a professional photographer who has shot for National Geographic, Life and this week's People magazine. "Film is done. Digital rules the world now."
Many years ago when I was a poor graduate student, I yearned for a Trek bike, a Sony TV, and a Nikon camera. Well, for Christmas I received a Nikon D50 camera which is a digital SLR. My first Nikon camera is digital. I guess this is why Nikon is giving up on film.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dispatches from the Culture Wars Has Moved

Ed Brayton has moved his blog to Dispatches is one of my favorite blogs. I am very impressed with the effort that Ed puts into understanding the evolution/creationism debate. I followed the Dover trial mostly through Dispatches. Ed dug into the transcripts to find all sorts of interesting details that you could not get in press reports. Ed plans no change in the content of his blog.
I have joined forces with a group of other popular science bloggers under the umbrella of Seed Media Group. As I've previously noted, all content here is still solely my responsibility. I will still write whatever I want about any subject I choose and no one has any authority over that but me.
In a previous post, Ed explained why he was moving.
Their plan is for all of us to move our blogs to their servers where they will handle all of the technical aspects of blogging and we would continue to do what we do. Each blog will remain independent of all the others, but they will be linked together in hopes of increasing everyone's readership. There will also be shared advertising, which will allow us each to be paid for our efforts.
I hope Ed will be comfortable at, because I fear that I will need to read Ed's blog for quite awhile.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Trackbacks and Tags

I have added trackbacks by using Haloscan. I am still using the native blogger comments though. I prefer to avoid having the comments in a popup whenever possible.

I used Haloscan to ping Cosmic Variance after I linked to them. It is not a convenient procedure. I may have to look for better blogging software, if I keep this up.

I have also started adding Technorati tags., which is also not very convenient either.

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Theorists! Bah!

The very interesting folks over at Cosmic Variance are selecting the Greatest Physics Paper ever written. My initial reaction was that the papers were all theory papers, and as an experimentalist myself I thought that seemed a little biased. The author of the post Clifford advised all to read the comments where the nominations were made before going off and ranting.
Before you write in with your terribly original observation that such a concept is silly, flawed, problematic, juvenile, etc, please consider reading my original post on the subject, and then the truly wonderful lively and informative 183-comment (to date) discussion that followed.
Well, I did, so now I can rant. The theory papers mentioned certainly outnumbered the experimental papers by a wide margin. Hubble's paper on the expansion of the Universe is mentioned as is Perlmutter's on the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe. While Noehter's theory paper on symmetries in physics ended up being in the five finalists, I saw no mention of the experimental discovery of parity violation or CP violation. The first set a pattern of searching for the limits of symmetery in the real world, and the second is needed to explain why we exist at all.

Oh, well what do you expect from a bunch of theorists.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Debate on the Origin of Life

Joel Achenbach writes for the Washington Post. He has a humor column in the Post's Sunday magazine, and he has a blog that is mostly humorous. So when I saw that he was writing on the origin of life I expected a satirical look at inteligent design. It was in fact a serious article mostly about Robert Hazen a scientist that is looking for the first chemicals or cells that might be classified as life in the geothermal vents deep under the sea.
Perhaps life didn't begin at the surface of the Earth, they say, but rather deep beneath the sea around a hydrothermal vent. Such geysers form along mid-ocean ridges, spewing hot water into a dark, cold, pressurized realm that teems with bizarre organisms, like giant clams and 6-foot tube worms. The ventists say the disequilibrium between the hot and cold water is a natural driver of interesting chemical reactions. This would be a good place to cook up organic molecules from which life could emerge and evolve, they say. Moreover, the deep hydrothermal environment would have been protected from harsh ultraviolet sunlight and the meteor bombardments common at the surface of the young Earth.
Turns out that this is far from a settled question and there is a very active debate. At times it has been a very nasty debate. Hazen has described it all in a new book. In addition to informing people about this fascinating research, he is also trying to show that science is a human enterprise in hope that it will make science more accessible to nonscientists.

I fear that this example is not the best to choose, because the great success of the scienitific enterprise is that debates do get resolved, and this one is not yet settled. Science is about a set of rules about how to argue and how to collect data so that people can convince one and another that there is a correct answer. The debates can be pretty unruly until a critcal mass of high quality data can be collected.

If I were trying to show a interesting scientific debate, I would want to choose an example where there was a great disagreement and then new data was obtained from experiments or observations that clearly demonstrated that one side was right. This would be a great example of just what science is.

The problem that scientists have in explaining what we do is that once there is agreement that the correct answer has been found no one talks about the debate anymore.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Is High School Science Turning Off Bright Kids?

A NY Times contributor explained how the study of evolution helped make the seemingly random facts of a high school biology class into a coherent whole. This was picked up by the blogosphere and discussed on some biology blogs. Then at Uncertain Principles the topic was turned towards physics, where Chad Orzel explained how a student who is successful at high school physics can be in for a rude shock when he starts college physics. The limitations of teaching physics without calculus mean that there is more memorization of formulas in high school physics. Since it is not possible to derive the right formula without the benefit of calculus one must memorize when each formula is appropriate. Once these students hit college the problems become more complex and not every applicable formula can be memorized. As Chad explains:
You can spot those students in the intro classes, because they struggle mightily with dynamics problems-- all those damn frictionless blocks sliding on frictionless planes connected by massles ropes over frictionless pulleys. Again and again I get asked "What equation do we use for this?," and the answer is always the same: "F = ma." Those aren't problems that can be solved by rote memorization-- each problem is slightly different, and there's no finite set of equations that can cover all of them. What they require is knowledge of the essential concepts that let you break a complicated problem down into a few simple equations.
Meanwhile the brightest kids who do not want to memorize things get frustrated that they cannot see the big patterns. Some get turned off by high school physics and don't give college physics a chance.

Just yesterday, I ran into a similar problem while helping my daughter with her math homework. She is working on the graphs of polynomial functions. She was given two concepts to work with. The sign of the coefficient of the highest power tells you whether the graph becomes infinitely positive or infinitely negative as x goes to positive infinity, and whether the highest power of x is a even or odd power tells you what will happen as x goes to negative infinity. She was trying to memorize the patterns and I told not to. I explained why the rules worked. If x gets very large the highest power term dominated the polynomial, and that is why it matters whether its coefficient is postive or negative. For the odd or even power part I said just think about the simplest cases. For f(x)=x the function goes in different directions at plus and minus infinity. For f(x)=x^2 the function goes in the same direction for both plus and minus infinity.

She was somewhat frustrated that I was telling her something differtent than she had been taught, but today she told me that it helped her on her quiz.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Comment Settings Changed

I changed the comment settings so that people who are not Blogger members can also comment.

Will There be Another Einstein?

The World Year of Physics has ended. The year 2005 was the 100th anniversary of the year that Einstein wrote five groundbreaking papers in quantum mechanics, relativity, and thermodynamics. This was a remarkable performance and is certainly the reason that Einstein is revered by physicists, but John Horgan in an essay in the New York Times points out that Einstein is the most well known and perhaps respected scientist of all time, because of he was also concerned with the moral and philosophical implications of science.

John Stachel, a physicist and editor of "Einstein's Miraculous Year," a reissue of Einstein's seminal 1905 papers, rejects the notion that no scientist will ever again evoke our awe and admiration the way Einstein did. "I hope and believe that the combination of technical, philosophical and, yes, moral concerns and talents, although extremely rare, will not prove to be unique," Stachel told me recently. The budding scientists and engineers I encounter in my job give me hope that science has a bright future. But I suspect that we will never see Einstein's like again, because he was the product of a unique convergence of time and temperament. Besides, Einstein didn't think he lived up to his own reputation either. "I am no Einstein," he once said. Of course, such modesty only makes us admire and miss him more.

I am hopeful, but it may take awhile. The time that Einstein lived was ripe for breakthroughs. Experiments were demonstrating problems with classical physics in both the realm of the very small where quantum mechanics applies and in the realm of light and electromagnetic radiation where special relativity would provide the solution.

Today we have a very interesting problem that most of the universe is made up of matter and energy that we do not understand. There appears to be matter that we cannot detect with telescopes but is responsible for holding galaxies together, and there is a force or energy that is driving the expansion of the universe faster than four known forces, gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces can explain. If someone made breakthroughs in both these areas, we would have a candidate for the next Einstein. Now if that person would take a high profile in international affairs we would have it.

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