Friday, January 26, 2007

Fight for your rights


What comes to mind? Maybe civil rights, gay rights, abortion legality, animal rights, immigration, war, poverty, religious freedom, environmental issues, physics...Wait, did that just say physics??

Most Americans know they shouldn't take their freedom of religion and freedom of the press for granted (even if we still do), but I didn't realize I was taking my ability to study physics for granted until recently.

I know what you're thinking. Photoshop. Although this picture would be a clever edit, this is real life. The picture and an excerpt from the news broadcast (see the full 10 Meg clip on Nepal News) show university students protesting in front of Nepal's Ministry of Education and Sports, holding signs that read "We want to study physics" and chanting:

Leader: We want...
Group: Physics!
Leader: We want...
Group: Physics!

Kinda crazy. Surface level I have to admit that I find it amusing. Pretty amusing actually, although the deeper issue is not quite so funny. According to the Nepal News, the students were protesting because spots in masters-level physics classes are so limited that many who want to take them can't. In addition, it is difficult for students that didn't start in the program to change over to physics.

According to a 2004 report on Physics Education in Nepal by the American Physical Society's Forum on Education, many students want to study physics because it can be their ticket out of a politically unstable country.

From the report: "Less than 10% of the physics graduates get government jobs inside or outside the Physics field, about 50% choose the teaching profession while the other 40% of them try to go abroad for further studies. Amongst those who seek greener pastures, most than 90% come to the land of opportunity, USA. The students with a degree in physics have better opportunities to go abroad for further studies."

Medicine and engineering are the high-paid professions in Nepal, but both are extremely competitive. Some students choose to pursue degrees in physics hoping to cross over into engineering - where the money is - in the future (see Hem Raj Sharma's profile).

We haven't been able to find any information on how successful the protestors were at achieving their goals, but I've got to hand it to them - you'd be hard pressed to find a student in the United States protesting lack of availability in a physics class - even if it's filled to the max.

It seems to me (and I fully admit that I'm about as ignorant as them come when it comes to Nepal), it seems to me that any place where students are ambitious enough to protest for the chance to study physics but don't have the opportunity to is in trouble. And I think it goes without saying that anywhere students are willing to study physics in exchange for a ticket out is in trouble as well.

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Ball Lightning Made in a Brazilian Lab

A group of physicists in Brazil have managed to create luminous balls of burning silicon that behave much as ball lightning has been reported to behave.

Click the photo to see a brief video of artificial ball lightning.

Although the glowing balls fall to the floor rather than floating, as ball lightning reputably does sometimes, the hot blobs duplicate other typical phenomena such as

- Following erratic paths, randomly speeding up or slowing down

- Breaking into smaller balls

- Bouncing off of the ground and obstructions

- Scorching cloth and other objects they contact

The researchers, who hail from the Universidad Federal de Pernambuco and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, created the artificial ball lighting by touching an electrode to a wafer of pure silicon and heating it with a high electrical current. When they pulled the electrode away from the wafer, it created an arc that spewed out a cascade of burning silicon blobs roughly once in every thirty attempts.

The experiment may confirm the hypothesis that ball lightning forms when normal lightning vaporizes silicon out soil, wood, metals or plastics. Theoretically, the vaporized silicon forms a cloud of nanometer-sized particles that glows as it oxidizes in the atmosphere.

Although the artificial variety is too dense to float, the researchers plan to test whether varying conditions lead to buoyant ball lightning. They are also checking to see if winds or electric fields that may accompany lightning strikes could carry the glowing balls through the air.

The work was reported this week in the journal American Physical Society journal Physical Review letters.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Getting back to my senses

A couple days ago I came across an article in Wired News about Luciana Haill. I think she's my new hero. Luciana records the activity of her frontal lobes by wearing a sweatband embedded with EEG monitors, which explore brain function by measuring voltage differences between different parts of the brain. This data gets fed to her computer via Bluetooth Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyser interfaces and, through a waving of the hand, is output as music.

Apparently Luciana became interested in the brain after a bout with Viral Meningitis, which eventually led to her interest in neurofeedback. Seriously, you can look at a graph of brain waves in a book or on a monitor, but listening to them this way is an entirely different experience.

I got a little uncomfortable when the talk started about how this technique is used in hypnotherapy and "invokes a real-time feedback loop between the conscious and subconscious" (this site), but I fully admit that I've only done a superficial reading on this stuff. Still, hearing your own brain activity - that's cool! I think I'd even put up with a sweatband for that.

This got me thinking about how much I am affected by my sense of hearing. Would a bowl a Rice Krispies taste as good without the snap, crackle, and pop? Would I feel differently about my car if it made a different sound? I know I feel differently about the washing machine now that it's started making a strange noise (and not working). The sound of the dishwasher always makes me better. It's a sign of a clean(er) kitchen. Ever been comforted by the sound of you child or lover breathing?

We listen to so many things each day, but rarely seem to include any sound in science teaching other than the teacher's voice and an occasional video. It might be worth bringing the sound of brain function into science ed - or the sound of space - or the sound of a hockey puck sliding across ice and the sound of a hockey puck sliding across wood. Hearing the difference in friction? That'd be cool. Way cooler than wearing a sweat band.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Want to live longer?

Win the Nobel Prize.

Forget the fountain of youth, winning the Nobel Prize can increase your lifespan - at least according to a study performed by Professor Andrew Oswald and government economist Matthew Rablen from the University of Warwick. They compared the lifespans of over 500 male Nobel Prizes nominees for physics and chemistry and found an average lifespan of 76 years. But, they found, those that won the prize tended to live about 1.4 years longer than nominees that didn't win.

Oswald attributes this to status: "Status seems to work a kind of health-giving magic. Once we do the statistical corrections, walking across that platform in Stockholm apparently adds about two years to a scientist's lifespan." (the gap widens to about 2 years when winners/not-winners within the same country are compared)

This study raises many questions in my mind. If status has that much influence on longevity, how do I raise my status?? Or that of my aging parents? Maybe insurance companies will have to start paying for people's education or guitar lessons because they help people achieve greater status and therefore, I infer, a healthier life...These results also put some pressure on the Nobel committee - can you imagine them all sitting around wondering whose life to extend?

Do movie stars and rock stars live longer than their counterparts (of course you'd have to take into consideration premature deaths by ODs)? Presidents versus candidates that weren't successful in moving to the white house? Will my younger brother live longer than me? Cause he's much cooler than I am...

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Smelling Space

Some people have unforgettable noses. Jennifer Grey (pre-surgery), Barbara Streisand, and Sarah Jessica Parker all make my list. Celebrity cosmetic surgeon Anthony Youn recently told Jane magazine that the most popular celebrity nose requested is Halle Berry’s. Of course our noses do more than define our faces; they allow us to explore a whole other dimension of reality.

I won’t go into the physics of smell, although you can a recent development here, instead I’m going to wonder out loud – why don’t we incorporate smell into science education? It might seem like a silly idea at first. I mean, who talks about the smell of a cell or the smell of space?

Well, as I’ve recently learned, more than one person has discussed the smell of space. Don Pettit, an Officer on the International Space Station wrote this in an article for NASA,

It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as "tastes like chicken." The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation.

Another astronaut, Jerry Linenger, explained on Fresh Air,

And it’s a uh, tough — you know, any aroma is tough to describe, but it has a distinct smell, and it’s sort of a burned-out, uh, after-the-fire, the next-morning-in-your-fireplace sort of smell.

(Some have suggested that this is the smell of the space program, rather than the smell of space, but I have not found any evidence to support or discredit this explanation.)

Can you imagine the difference between a chocolate-chip cookie that you can smell and one that you can’t? Or what Vieux Boulogne would be like without its smell?

What if we could add the scent dimension to discussions of space? Wouldn’t it be great if when your teacher taught you about outer space she sprayed a can of “space-scented” air freshener around the room? This idea might not be too far out of reach. In 1998 the International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc. (IFF) sent a miniature rose called “Overnight Scentsation” into orbit on the ISS via the space shuttle Discover. They found that the scent of the rose dramatically changed in space – probably because of changes in oil production in the plant due to microgravity. They called this scent “space rose” and it was used to create the perfume Zen by

IFF had plans to repeat the experiment with two more flowers, but all that I can find on the experiment is the following press release dated February 3, 2003.

On behalf of all of us at IFF, I want to express my condolences to the families of the brave astronauts lost in the Space Shuttle Columbia on Saturday. While we are of course disappointed that our second space experiment ended in this way, I think you will agree that the tragic loss of seven human lives is what we should be thinking about at this time…

Richard A. Goldstein
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

A sobering reminder that the unexpected does happen and that we should make the most of what we’ve got. Including our ability to smell.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Touching the Cosmos

Most astronomy books for the public are full of gorgeous, glossy pictures or star charts that help people navigate around the sky. Such books are so commonplace these days that it’s hard to find a Borders or Barnes and Noble that doesn’t have at least one on the “bargain books” shelf. But Noreen Grice’s astronomy books are not your typical books – in fact you may have to visit a library or order your own copy to get your hands on one. But it’s worth it, believe me.

Like many books, Grice’s books feature pictures of celestial objects and explanatory text. All the books are general introductions to their subject (stars, universe, sun) and don’t contain any new information or formulas. What is so unique about Grice’s books is that they don’t just let you see the universe; they let you touch it.

Grice’s books were developed for blind and visually impaired people. The motivation behind her books – allowing visually impaired people to explore the heavens – is inspiring and a story worth reading. But that story has already been written, I’ll refer you to the Smithsonian Magazine story.

What I wanted to bring up here is the value of these books for sighted people. I’ve played with Touch the Universe and Touch the Sun as well as astronomical pictures taken by SEE students that have been converted into tactile images by a Swell-Form graphics machine. Let me tell you, there is something about actually touching the images - feeling the solar wind spew from the sun and touching the rings of Jupiter - that adds a whole new dimension to the wonder I feel and to my understanding of the phenomenon.

Touch is a powerful sense. Imagine that, like Marie / Rouge in X Men: The Last Stand, you are in love with someone but can’t touch him or her…Yikes. Now imagine that you could touch that person but not see him or her...Or touch and see but not smell...Our sense have a way of working together to allow us to more fully experience the moment we're in-

Although you can’t (yet) feel the heat of the sun or the cold of space through Grice’s pictures, you can feel the outlines of the bodies and the irregularities in their surfaces. You can feel the relative differences in appearance between close and distant galaxies and you can follow some of their arms as they spiral around. You can feel the phase of the moon change over time. And you can feel your connection to the cosmos become a little deeper.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

One Dimensional Thoughts

I spent last weekend exhibiting for the American Physical Society at a joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and American Astronomical Society. Freebies are one of the main reasons conference attendees come to the exhibit hall and I certainly don’t blame them.

In the hall teachers load up on free posters, lesson plans, pens, luggage tags, stress balls, calendars, and even laser pointers - all decorated with the logos of publishers, non-profits, and other companies. At some of the larger meetings teachers roam the hall with crates on wheels to hold all of their goodies and bring extra suitcases to carry them home.

One of the things that impressed me at this meeting was the type of goodies the astronomy booths were giving away. I picked up some beautiful and very high quality posters and full calendars filled with images of planets, galaxies, and other cosmic objects. I found myself getting caught up in wonder as I paged through them, as was, I suspect, the intended reaction. Yet there is always some part of my mind that feels uneasy when I look at those pictures. They certainly inspire wonder and amazement, but in a way I feel like they can be a little deceiving.

Pictures of the whirlpool galaxy and the Hubble deep field show people a beautiful view - but lack the life and ferocity of that exists as a result of being a 2-D representation of what things look like through man‘s eye (okay, a telescope's "eye").

Zoos are great because they allow us to see exotic animals that we never would otherwise, but there is something unsettling for me about visiting a zoo too. I feel like they keep me from recognizing the animals for what they really are - wild, powerful creates often capable of ferocity and or skills completely foreign to us. Have you ever seen people on hiking trails walk closer to bears to get a better picture? Or try to feed deer from their hands? Zoos only expose us to one particular view of the animal world. Similarly, cosmic images only show us the objects from one point of view - by virtue of being images, of course.

It seems that different fields have their preferred means of engaging the public; for astronomy it’s clearly images and for physics its probably written words, but these methods are kind of one dimensional on their own and often don't provide the whole picture. I’d love to see science outreach engage peoples other senses - smell, sound, taste, touch - in addition to showing them beautiful pictures and eloquent articles. I think this would help us form a more complete picture of what's really going on out there.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

show me the money

2006 began with the promise of lots of new funding for basic research and science education, but ended with discouragement and disillusionment for many people in the science community.

With all of the talk about keeping America competitive in the global market there is relatively little to show for it as the new congress takes over. In fact, if the 110th congress passes a continuing resolution, as anticipated, for all areas of government except for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, science research will not only be unable to support many of the newly proposed programs, but many already existing projects will be in serious trouble.

I realize that making congressional decisions is much more complicated than I imagine it to be, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that despite President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and the Council on Competitiveness’ Innovate America report, our representatives can’t come to some type of agreement on the budgets for science agencies.

Seriously, with the ever deepening problem of global warming and the need for alternative energy sources - can’t they sit down and brute force pass something? Anything would be better than nothing at this point.

And it’s not like they’re completely lost on what to do. Last September a bipartisan bill was introduced to the Senate that addressed many of the recommendations of the RAGS report and was supported by over 35 senators - nearly equal numbers of democrats and republicans. “The National Academy of Sciences told us what we need to do,” said Senator Pete Domenici last fall, “and it is up to us on Capitol Hill to do it.” Or, I guess, to not do it.

The new congress makes the case for passing a continuing resolution by explaining that they need to “clear the decks quickly” so they can get to work on war funding and a new budget. They claim to recognize the negative consequences but insist that this is the best way forward. Maybe it is, but I hope they recognize the consequences of such a continuing resolution are greater than just delaying some projects - in many ways it is a deeply discouraging end to a year characterized by exciting hopes and possibilities. A deeply discouraging year for those people whose dreams keep America competitive.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Science Sense

Sense About Science, a charity that promotes "good science and evidence for the public", released a new leaflet today: Sense About Science for Celebrities. It turns out that politicians aren't the only ones that make rather interesteing statements about science - other celebrities do too! Okay, that was harsh and not in the spirit of the leaflet. My apologies.

Anyway, Sense About Science is encouraging celebrities to check the facts before they speak out on issues like organic foods, healing by touch, and vaccines - because many of them hold the same misconceptions that the average person does.

The leaflet quotes statements made by celebrities naked chef Jamie Oliver, Madonna, and many others that show a misunderstanding of science or conclusions at odds with the evidence. The leaflet then quotes professionals in the fields related to each statement - nutrition, medicine, plant science, toxicology, etc - explaining why the celebrity's thinking is wrong.

For example:

Carole Caplin, lifestyle guru on how to prevent breast cancer by giving women more information about "the importance of keeping the lymph system clear and unclogged".

Prof Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery, University College London: "Carole's idea of keeping the lymph system "clear and unclogged" has no meaning whatsoever. "It is not based on knowledge of anatomy or physiology of the human body, let alone of breast cancer."

According to the leaflet, "People in the public eye are often drawn into promoting theories, therapies, and campaigns that make no scientific sense." I think the statement would be just as true if the words "in the public eye" were removed. We are often drawn into ideas that lack scientific evidence but make sense based on our own observations and experiences.

Who hasn't embarrassed himself or herself by saying something absolutely wrong with great conviction? I remember working with a student who was convinced that Alaska was an island. This is amusing to us that have seen other maps, but like most of the blunders in the leaflet, it just reflects an opinion made without all of the information.
We all know people tend to listen to celebrities even when they talk about things completely unrelated to their fields. Sense About Science is encouraging celebrities to be scientifically responsible role models by making sure they aren't missing any crucial pieces of information before they express an opinion to the world. I wholeheartedly applaud this effort, but let me add that if the campaign makes a difference, I'd like the celebrities to be known for checking the facts and not for promoting the "right" ideas. After all, it doesn't make much sense for us to accept their opinions without doing our own fact checking.
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Vampire Physics

Got an undead enemy to deal with? Break out the garlic, the stakes, and your scientific calculator.

Battling vampires, werewolves, or skin-eating demons is as much about physics as the occult, according to the fascinating new (nonfiction!) book The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette.

The book is about the physics concepts illustrated in various episodes of the cult TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not the world's biggest Buffy fan, although I've seen and enjoyed an episode or two. But even with my relative lack of in-depth Buffy knowledge, I enjoyed reading the Buffyverse book thanks primarily to Ouellette's sketches of the show's scenes and plots to put it all in context, as well as her ability to creatively speculate on ways that a Buffyverse physicist might explain it all.

One of the most fascinating things about the book (beside the fact that it covers physics - which is just about my favorite topic) is that Ouellette makes it clear that the writers of the Buffy TV show worked hard to ensure that all the magic and occult at the center of the program's episodes followed consistent rules. Many of those rules are similar to the ones we deal with in real life science. Basically, it's physics with a twist.

So, what's the point in that? Well, have you ever thought to yourself "I wonder what the deal is with string theory?" or "What's so weird about quantum weirdness anyway?" If so, you could always buy some dried up physics tome to figure it all out. Personally, I think it's more fun to learn about physics by following Buffy and the Scoobies on their adventures. Sure the physics is twisted but don't worry, Ouellette does a great job of telling you where the twists are, as well as how things would work in the real world of untwisted physics.

It's a fun read, whether you're a Buffy fan or not. And in the end, if you're not careful, you might learn a thing or two about physics.

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