Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Interview with a Physicist: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

A few months ago we met an amazing young physicist at the annual conference for the National Society for Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Society for Hispanic Physicists (NSHP). Not only is she a fantastic physicist but she also has a great name: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.

Chanda is a graduate student at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada where she researches quantum theories of gravity.
Her research forces her to ask the BIG question like:
What is space and time?
How did the Universe start?
Here is an interview with Chanda talking students about the other questions that you rarely hear from a physicist: http://pirsa.org/08070049/
Does a physicist have a life aside from research?
What does a physicist actually do during the day?
What is it like as a female physicist?
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Masters of their Center of Mass

WOW! This new video of trick bike rider Danny MacAskill tearing it up around his hometown of Edinburgh is absolutely incredible.

Just as unbelievable is this video of unicycling champion Kaori Matsuzawa showing off her moves on only one wheel.

On the one hand, both of these videos show some pretty gnarly moves by their riders. With a repeat watching though, and an eye towards the physics of what's going on, you can see how these amazing professionals are able to pull off some of these tricks.

The key in both of the videos is balance. Some of the most amazing moves both MacAskill and Matsuzawa pull are when they're hardly moving at all, and just balancing on an almost stationary cycle. It takes years of practice, but the way they can stay up there like that is by perfectly aligning their body's center of mass over their bike's center of mass, supported over a stable surface. A center of mass is the position in an object around where all weight is evenly distributed. You can see MacAskill's center of mass, when he backflips off of the tree. It's the axis around which he and his bike rotate around as he flies through the air. It's a single point because he's firmly attached to his bike forming a single object, rather than two separate points, one for him and one for the bike.

In the second video, you can see Matsuzawa spinning around like a ballerina. Even though her center of gravity isn't supported, the angular momentum of her spinning creates a rotational force (torque) that stabilizes her. It's exactly the same principle that lets a spinning gyroscope stay straight.

Bicycles and unicycles are amazing devices that utilize a tremendous amount of physics to make them go. Tricks like these can only be done after years of practice. If you do want to start doing tricks, remember to start small, and work your way up over time. And always wear a helmet.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Free Energy and the Press

Science journalism is in trouble at a time that needs it the most. Over the last few years, budget crunches have forced the media has to scale back their coverage of science news across the spectrum. The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Columbus Dispatch to name just a few, have had to drastically reduce or eliminate their science sections.

This tragedy of timing comes at a time when knowledge about energy technology is most critical. The hunt for new sources of abundant and clean energy has opened up a veritable gold rush for new methods and processes to produce energy on a grand scale. Many scientists and researchers have attacked this with aplomb, looking at refining old techniques, or tapping a previously unused source of energy. But there are always those who are either misguided or only looking to make a quick buck and cash in on this expanding field of renewable energy research. It is normally the job of the press to weed through and prevent such people from cheating the public.

Take for example this piece from CNN last December. In a report for CNN, reporter Poppy Harlow highlights a company out to create a new energy source using water, salt and a few simple household chemicals. As with anything that sounds too good to be true, it is. Harlow mentions in passing that "Many scientists say the technology violates the basic laws of quantum physics."

Really, such a sentence is tantamount to saying "It doesn't work." Unfortunately, that was lost on Harlow, who continued reporting as if the laws of physics could be changed with a simple majority vote in the local town council. Simply put the Universe doesn't work that way. The problem here was this report aired at the same time that CNN announced it was closing down its entire science bureau.

When something sounds like it's too good to be true it usually is. Limitless sources of free energy clearly fall into that category. Last night's 60 Minutes had a long report on cold fusion, and again had scientist Michael McKubre tell reporter Scott Pelley "We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man."

Again, this sounds way too good to be true, especially considering cold fusion was debunked 20 years ago. Both reporters Harlow and Pelley, neither of whom have a strong background in science reporting, need to attack their respective stories with much more skepticism.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 5 of 5

Today we wrap-up our coverage of last week's Origins Symposium with part 2 of our Southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine's exclusive interview with acclaimed theoretical physicist Brian Greene.

Brian Greene Interview: Part 2 of 2

Alaina G. Levine: Getting back to the Origins Symposium, when you hear the word "Origins" what is the first thing that pops into your mind?

Brian Greene: It is always the origin of the universe because that's what I really hold out is the main reason why we're studying fields like string theory and quantum gravity, things of that sort.

AGL: Related to your research, what are you working on now?

BG: Trying to apply string theory to cosmology and see whether the unusual features of string theory like the need for extra dimensions and things of that sort, can help us resolve various puzzles and problems that the standard approach can't deal with.

AGL: Such as?

BG: The thing I'm working on now is a problem of string theory's own making, which is the theory demands more than three dimensions of space that we don't see. We often describe those extra dimensions as being small and curled up, evading detection, but you'd really like to explain using cosmology why three dimensions grew large and the others didn't. And that's a problem we've been working on for a while and I think we've made some progress recently.

AGL: Will we be seeing this in published papers soon?

BG: Yeah, we've been working on publishing a series of papers but they've all recently been negative, where various ideas that we thought would work that people had put forward we more or less established they didn't work. But now we at least found the glimmer of hope of one approach that seems to be doing good things, and yes we'll be writing that up in a week or two.

AGL: This reminds me of what (someone) was saying on the panel (at the Origins Symposium) about the idea that (there is a possible hope) that the Large Hadron Collider might produce nothing, because then you’ll at least be able to show that…something is wrong…with the theory that you have. Would you say that your "negative" papers are actually positive because they gave you an understanding?

BG: They definitely took our understanding further. I want to rephrase something: I wouldn't say that we hope that nothing happens at the LHC. We hope that great things happen. But what we are saying is that if nothing happens, that will be an interesting state of affairs where we'll be faced with some very big theoretical problems to solve, and yes that is exciting. So it's really a matter of "it will be what it will be" and almost regardless of what happens there's going to be interesting work to be done.

AGL: I know that you are interested in many, many different things, you took acting when you were in graduate school and have been involved with other things as well, but if you were…on a desert island and you could literally only do one subject, would it be physics?

BG: I think it's the only subject I can do.(laughs) Everything else is a hobby.

AGL: But do you think you do those things well?

BG: Some of them I do ok, but to my mind almost all the other things I do are means of recharging the spent fuel cells when the physics research is exhausted.

AGL: So perhaps when you reach an impasse?

BG: Or, it's hard to do physics research for many, many hours in a day, but there are many hours in the day, so what do you do with the rest of them?

AGL: I know there are some physicists, maybe many, who constantly think of physics…are you like that?

BG: Sometimes, like when a problem is very captivating. Certainly. But I have involved myself in other things that do require attention and do take away time from thinking about physics which is a hard thing. Finding the right balance for me is always a challenge that I don't always navigate particularly well. So yes, I love that experience when there's almost nothing else that matters when you're really involved in a problem. But I certainly do spend time thinking about other things.

AGL: What percentage of your time do you spend doing research?

BG: It changes from day to day. On good days, a lot. On other days, when I have to deal with say, World Science Festival things, or if I'm writing some article or some book or something and I have to pay attention to that, it's less. But it changes, and it changes in phases too. There are periods of time when I have no writing projects and very little else going on, and the majority of my time is on research. It just varies a lot.

AGL: When you are working on a problem in the very early stages, how do you work? Do you have a pencil and a paper and are you working out equations or do you go to the computer to work out simulations?

BG: It's almost always paper and pencil, paper and pen. Often people have the wrong impression - it's not just sitting there and free associating. Usually you're reading other people's papers, seeing what they've done, making sure you can derive all of their equations, then seeing how those equations are relevant to whatever puzzle you're trying to apply them to, so it's very incremental. But that's pretty close to it.

AGL: In Columbia Magazine in Spring 2006, there was a big article about you, and you said "I really view physics as the celebrity that people have newly discovered." Can you explain what you meant by that.

BG: I'm sure that was in response to a question that in some way shape or form indicated the possible interpretation of me as a celebrity, which I always recoil at because I work on this stuff, I'm involved in it, but ultimately in the public setting, I'm the messenger for what it is the community that I'm involved with has discovered, and the excitement and the focus is because of those ideas and because of the physics. And in that sense it's the physics is the celebrity. It’s the exciting new thing that people discover as opposed to the messenger.

AGL: On the panel, it was said "there is no other science, there's only physics."

BG: Yeah, that was Steven Weinberg.

AGL: So you agree with that?

BG: It can sound off-putting to other scientists and that's not what he really meant by that. What he meant when you get down to it, it's the laws of physics that are governing everything. Now the chemist does chemistry using the effective rules that are most relevant for the problems being studied, he was simply saying that if you follow those rules to their origin, you find the laws of physics.

AGL: Is there anything you want the physics community to know about this conference, what your views are on origins, or what's next for you?

BG: That's a really big question and I think the most overarching answer is that when we started out there's been a lot of progress in each of these origin-like questions but there's a tremendous amount still to be done. There is sometimes unfortunately a sense of, we're reaching the end of fundamental discovery, that we more or less sorted everything out, which is not only unfortunate and silly, but it's kind of dangerous.

AGL: The danger is to think that?

BG: Well it's dangerous to suggest that that's the attitude amongst scientists, which it's not. The attitude of scientists is the fact that the answer to this question opens up a whole new domain of questions that you didn't even have the capacity to ask until you went this step further. So young kids need to really be aware of the tremendous opportunities in fundamental science, not to feel "eh, its basically a done-deal, I'll go on to something else."

AGL: Is there a common misconception in physics that the public has that really irks you?

BG: Not any single one. I am asked a huge range of questions through email and letters and when I give lectures, and I'm actually impressed by and large that people do have a reasonably good grasp, at least the ones that are willing to ask questions. Every so often there are ones that sort of reflect a misconception, but that doesn't irritate me, it strikes me as wonderful that the person was willing to try. And (I) try to help them get to the next level.

AGL: A common thought right now is that the 20th Century was the "Age of Physics" and the 21st Century will be the "Age of Biology". I was wondering if you could comment on that.

BG: I think there's some truth to that, in that biology is getting to a higher level of maturity than it was in the 20th century, just as physics got to a higher level of maturity in the early part and middle part of the 20th century, and I think that's a stupendous moment for science, when it gets to that next level of rigor, that next level of quantitative analysis, not just qualitative analysis. Having said that, when you get to that level of maturity, physics got there first, to me it just opens up a new class of questions that are very, very far reaching and perhaps more difficult, so it's not that the opportunities are less in physics than in biology, it's just that the challenges are greater which means the payoff is greater. So it's really just a matter of personal taste, of which kinds of questions one likes to address, and whether one wants to be part of many, many incremental steps or possibly take a big giant step.

Yesterday: The Brian Greene Interview: Part 1 of 2

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 4 of 5

Today, we continue our week long coverage of last week's Origins Symposium with a real treat: The first half of an exclusive interview with renound theoretical physicist Brian Greene, all thanks to our southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.

Brian Greene Interview: Part 1 of 2

While in the Phoenix area attending the Origins Symposium, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Greene, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Columbia University, author, lecturer, and of course, string theorist extraordinaire. In town to present a few lectures about the origin of the universe, he was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about origins, science public outreach, and physics as celebrity. I asked him about the World Science Festival, which he co-founded and launched last year in New York City. Described by Claudia Dreifus of The New York Times as "monumental" in its approach and the fact that it involved the whole city, the Festival brought together a diversity of scientists, artists, musicians, and other performers and scholars to present four days of events dedicated to exciting the public about all aspects of science. 120,000 people attended in 2008, and it is expected to draw even more this year when it is held June 10-14.

Alaina G. Levine: What were you hoping to learn from coming to this conference?

Brian Greene: I think that the big three questions that in my mind drive almost everything that I find interesting are how did the universe begin, how did life begin, and how did consciousness begin. It's three questions about origins and this conference is all about origins, so if you ask what I'd hope to learn it would be where are we at the cutting edge on the two areas of that, namely life and consciousness. I have a pretty good sense of where we are on the first one, the origin of the universe.

AGL: Do you think you'll be able to get answers or spark some ideas from this conference?

BG: Talking to people in other areas is a very valuable way of having your own thoughts be steered in novel directions, so to me it's not so much about necessarily sitting and listening to presentations, but it's more the informal interactions…just to get a sense of how people approach the problems that they're focused on, especially when they're in a different area.

AGL: Do you think physicists relish the opportunity to interact with scientists from other realms?

BG: I don't think there's a uniform answer. I think maybe some people don't recognize this - physicists are just people. And just like there are some people who love to interact with a whole array of different people and learn about what they're doing and try to get a sense of their approach, there are others who are less enthusiastic about that. It's a broad range.

AGL: What do you hope your colleagues at this conference will get from you being here?

BG: Our particular panel was trying to get across not only the great accomplishments that our species can rightly be proud of (we understand the universe back to a 100th or a 1000th of a second after the beginning, which is pretty spectacular), but we also tried to get across the remaining problems which are severe and challenging, and I think we did that. Perhaps we emphasized that too much, as there seemed to be a sense of almost pessimism of some of the really, really big challenges we face, but I think our view is that big challenges are cause for big excitement because there's big opportunity.

AGL: What are you hoping to communicate to the public?

BG: Public events…are a great opportunity for people to recognize how exciting science is and to recognize that they can understand the basic ideas. A lot of people are intimidated by science. I think these types of gatherings have the capacity to change peoples' perceptions and make them realize that science is something they really can enjoy and gain much gratification from.

AGL: Claudia (Dreifus of the New York Times) was saying that one of the reasons the World Science Festival was so amazing and monumental and novel was that it communicated the love of science on a very large scale, it involved the entire city, and made it understandable and also fun and entertaining and relevant to the general public at all levels for all ages. Do you think the concept of presenting the World Science Festival could form a movement or that it could spread across the United States?

BG: Certainly. As we went around before the first Festival had happened and were explaining to people what the vision was, that was the language that we used: that the Festival does have the capacity to spark a movement of change that can really create a different kind of climate for science. And now with a new administration that itself seems to focus on similar goals, I think the opportunity is even greater.

AGL: So what can the average physicist do to further this concept?

BG: Science can be brought to the public on a huge number of different scales. The World Science Festival certainly does it on a relatively large scale but a program like NOVA does it on a yet different scale in a different way. So I think the individual scientist can do a variety of things, from these "Café Scientifiques" that have been happening all around…, which I think are a really good way for the individual to get out there, (to) organizing (like Larry Krauss is doing here) a day of public events where people come and immerse themselves in science…But it's not the case that everybody in science is or should be interested (in public outreach). But for those who are, there are a number of outlets where they can really have impact.

[Brian Greene (left) with Symposium organizer Lawrence Krauss]

AGL: Do you feel that it's the obligation of a scientist, and in particular a physicist, to do public outreach?

BG: No, I don't. It has to be something that comes from an internal passion as opposed to an obligation. I think if you're only doing it because you feel obligated to do it, then it's likely not to hit the mark. And I do think we have enough scientists that do either manifestly have the passion for bringing their work to the public, or in the right environment, would find that spark lit. We found this with the Festival- these scientists who were at first perhaps a little bit uncertain about (whether) this was something they wanted to be involved with, and then they were and they left the Festival with this energized sense of how exciting and important it was to be part of this. So I don't think it should be viewed as an obligation. I think it should be viewed as an opportunity for those who find it interesting and relevant.

Tomorrow Brian Greene Interview: Part 2 of 2

Yesterday: Other highlights, scientifically-based and not

(images courtesy of Origins-Edge)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Higgs: It's What's for Dinner?

In the Event That You Have Accidentally Swallowed the Higgs Boson...

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The Origins Symposium Part 3 of 5

The third part of our five part series on last week's Origins Symposium by our southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.

Part 3: Other highlights, scientifically-based and not

Discussions of life in the Universe: Everyone knows about the Big Bang. But Paul Davies, Director of ASU's BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, discussed some big holes in theories about life on Mars and Earth. He stated that in the histories of the two planets, both have been "contaminated" by rocks bouncing off one planet and hitting the other and vice versa. So if life is ever found to be on Mars, he claimed, we will not be sure whether that life is original to Mars or not.
There was much discussion about what other kinds of life, besides microbial, might exist in the Universe. Davies suggested that there might be another form of life on Earth that we just have not yet discovered, and "until we find that there's life on Earth that’s different, we cannot make the assumption that there’s life elsewhere (in the Universe)," he said. Wow. Kind of puts that Drake equation in a whole new light.

Arguments and humor amongst the scientists: During the Nobel Panel discussion for the public on Monday, moderator Ira Flatow (host of NPR’s Science Friday) recalled that on his very first show 20 years ago, a caller commented that listening to his show was the first time she had ever heard scientists arguing. Well, I've heard scientists argue before. I have even heard them scream and throw things at each other over points of scientific contention. Luckily at this conference, while the Symposium was marked by many arguments over the theories of our origins, all opinions were generally expressed with respect, and at times, a certain level of lightheartedness and humor. This was especially fun to witness.

For example, during the first panel discussion with the pregnant title "How far back can we go?, University of Chicago professor of physics Michael S. Turner established that 380,000 years is the farthest we can see into the past. Later on the same panel, Jim Peebles, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science Emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey (and one of the predictors of the cosmic microwave background radiation) questioned Brian Greene "Is string theory going to help us look back farther?" Greene responded "I don't know", and Peebles humorously countered with "Is that your (whole) talk?" causing a wave of chuckles to swell across the audience.

When Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg suggested that chemistry is not a separate science and that "there really is only one science - physics," there was a bit of an uproar, but again one characterized by laughter.

Lawrence Krauss, scientist and humorist: Krauss, in case you’ve never heard him speak, is a funny guy. During his public speech on Monday, which he delivered with great skill and flair, he zapped the audience with a number of terrific one-liners:
"Scientists want to be wrong, or more importantly, they want their colleagues to be wrong."

"Using Einstein's equations, we're going to solve the problem, so I've locked the doors."

"Hubble was a lawyer and then became an astronomer, so there is in fact hope for everyone."

"The Universe began 13.72 billion years ago, although not in Texas, where I was just speaking to the school board."

What if the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) finds nothing? During Friday's session on NPR, Flatow asked the panel what kinds of particles they would like to see when the LHC gets turned on. Of course, the Higgs Boson was the response by several scientists on the panel. But Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Physics at University of Texas at Austin had a different view. "The better outcome would be not to find the Higgs Boson," he said. In fact, "it would be really boring to find the Higgs Boson." Turner translated: "What Steven really wants is clues of where we should go next," he explained, and there was soon a discussion about how if nothing is found when the LHC starts running, that’s not a bad thing - except to the funders, said Greene with a laugh. They might not like to hear that the machine they bankrolled for so many years produced nothing, and still the scientists are fascinated by the result.

The discovery of Lucy in the glimmer of the sun: Donald C. Johanson is the Founding Director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins. His is a paleoanthropologist who is most famous for discovering the 3.18 million year old hominid skeleton known as "Lucy". Johanson conveyed during his public speech about the day he found her bones. He was about to leave an area near their current dig site in Africa when out of the corner of his eye, he recounted; he saw a piece of bone glistening in the sun. He immediately knew it was part of an elbow. And when he turned around and looked more closely at the site, he was visually able to follow a line of bones up a hill, all of which turned out to belong to Lucy. Her name came from the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" which was playing in the camp that night as he and his colleagues celebrated their find.

The graciousness of the public: Monday's public festivities consisted of 12 hours of lectures and panel discussions held in an auditorium with 3000 seats. The headliner was to be Stephen Hawking, and even though he ended up not being able to attend, many people stayed the entire day and into the evening to hear his "virtual" address. I am sure there were people who did not attend when they heard Hawking was going to be a no-show, but there were plenty of seats filled, and this was not lost on Krauss. At the end of the day, after 9:30pm, he concluded the Symposium by declaring it a success, and thanked the audience for coming and their graciousness. Their presence, he exclaimed, "showed what we were trying to do is worthwhile, and we will continue to do these types" of activities, he said.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 2 of 5

Today we continue our in our series on last week's Origins Symposium with southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.

Part 2: Hangin' with Mr. Wilczek

Upon viewing the schedule of speakers, one quickly sees that this truly was an intellectual extravaganza. So as I settled into my chair to listen to the first scientist-only discussions on the afternoon of Friday, April 3, I couldn't mask my elation. But I was especially enthusiastic to discover that Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Laureate in physics and Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, was to give the opening speech of the Symposium.

I had first met Wilczek a few years ago when he visited the University of Arizona, where I teach and direct a master's program. He was there to give the colloquium, and in speaking with him, I found him to be fascinating, open, and completely approachable. I followed up with him by email to arrange a phone interview about the importance of physics public relations and outreach, two subjects not only important to me, but also, as I found out, to Wilczek as well. We had a great conversation. I stayed in touch.

So I knew I was going to find the experience valuable as soon as Wilczek took the stage. Dressed in regular pants, sneakers, and a blazer over a t-shirt with a google-sponsored event logo, Wilczek began stimulating the audience's brains with "The Big Questions", like "Who's out there?" He postulated that if there is some intelligent life "out there", there could only be a couple of reasons as to why we don't hear from these aliens: Either their stupidity prevents them, or their wisdom dissuades them - perhaps they just don't want us to know they're there.

Moving to what he referred to as the intermediate scale of origins, he asked "can we engineer mind?" and "will the new minds become the best minds?" He also inquired about whether we can engineer "Quintelligence" which uses quantum mechanics to describe quantum computers that can explain quantum mechanics.

On the second day when I entered the conference room, the lectures had already begun. I quickly scanned the room and to my delight I found that the only seat available was next to Wilczek. He had the New York Times in front of him and had just finished the crossword puzzle and was playing KenKen (www.kenken.com), a suduku-derived game that involves arithmetic as well as logic. I myself am addicted to KenKen, so we chatted briefly on the subject.

Wilczek and I hung out all morning. We talked and laughed about questions and discussion points being made by the speakers. I asked him what he hoped to get out of attending the conference. "I'm not sure that I'm hoping to learn anything specific," he said. "I hope to get my mind expanded because we're going to think big and hear a lot of discussions of topics that physicists don't normally hear about." He, like other scholars in attendance with whom I spoke, was excited about the fact that he was surrounded by experts in a multitude of disciplines, including biology, sociology, and paleontology, he said. He looked forward to the potential knowledge he could gain or ember of creativity that could be ignited to help him with his physics, he said.

He hoped that he could spark some creativity in his colleagues' brains. "That's why in my opening talk I tried to pose questions that lots of people could relate to in different contexts," he said, "Questions like Can we engineer mind?…certainly has a physical component, and we want to build the appropriate kind of electronics that enables it and we want to design things in clever ways, but it also has components of how do you take these physical objects we…design well and hook them together, (and) what does it take to marshal a lot of computations together to make thoughts or other useful insights."

Does any of this scare you?, I inquired. "No, it really doesn't," Wilczek said with a laugh." It's awesome,…so in that case it's scary. Maybe a better way to say it is I believe in the future."

Yesterday: The Big Questions, Disagreements and Laughter Amongst Scientists...

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Monday, April 13, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 1 of 5

Attention Physics Buzz Blog fans. We've got a special treat for all of our loyal readers. This post will be the first in a series running all this week from the recent Origins Institute kick-off event. The four day event included presentations and discussions from leading scientists that delve into the origins of life and the universe. The following was written by our southwest correspondent Alaina Levine from The University of Arizona and Quantum Success Solutions. Stay tuned for full coverage of the physics of the meeting, culminating with an exclusive two-part interview with Brian Greene at the end of the week!

Origins: The Big Questions, Disagreements and Laughter Amongst Scientists, and Hangin' with Frank Wilczek

By Alaina G. Levine

While the nation is embroiled in economic woe and stimulus skepticism, famed physicist and author Lawrence Krauss launched a new type of stimulus plan in the desert of Arizona last weekend that has guaranteed results. The currency here was not money, but rather something some might argue provides much more wealth than any lucre: scientific knowledge, thought and discussion on the origins of everything.

How did the Universe Begin? How did life arise? How do 70 of the world's top scientists behave when assembled in a room together? These are some of the questions that were addressed, whether intentionally or by accident, at the first ever Origins Symposium, held April 3-6, 2009 in the Phoenix area.

Organized by Krauss, who until 2008 was a professor of cosmology at Case Western Reserve University, the symposium served as the kick-off event of Arizona State University’s (ASU) Origins Initiative, for which Krauss now serves as Director. The Symposium, which brought scholars (including Nobel Laureates) together from such diverse disciplines as physics, linguistics, planetary science, physical anthropology, and evolutionary biology, was organized with the most basic question in mind: Where do we come from?

For three days scientists gave lectures and led discussions and arguments on the fundamental questions of our origins, from the dawn of the universe to the genesis of social networks. While much of the Symposium was limited to the scientists themselves, the entire experience was webcast live and will be archived on the Origins (origins.asu.edu) website for anyone to view in the future.

There were also plenty of opportunities for the public to hear from and interact with the scholars. There was a live radio broadcast of NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow and two panels of notable scientists such as Brian Greene and Steve Weinberg, and a full day of seminars, capped with a virtual presentation by Stephen Hawking. (Hawking was originally scheduled to give his presentation in person, but a chest infection and a warning from his doctor prevented him from flying. Instead, he pre-recorded his lecture and his daughter Lucy Hawking, with whom he has written a children's science book, came and introduced his virtual address.)

Pre-symposium activities included a panel discussion for ASU students with significant science writers and editors from such publications as The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Washington Post. Claudia Dreifus, a Contributing Writer with the New York Times Science Times, commenced the panel by declaring "Lawrence Krauss has managed to assemble the largest amount of intellectual and argumentative people in the desert since Moses.

(images courtesy of Origins-Edge)

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Food Physics

Pizza has been on my mind a lot lately. On the one hand it may just be that I missed lunch today. On the other hand, it's on my mind a lot no matter what. Mmmmmmm. Anywho, it's also been on the minds of researchers at Monash University in Melbourne Australia. They just released a study of the physics of pizza tossing.

No joke! This is the first in depth analysis of the mechanics of pizza flight. I'm just sort of amazed it's taken this long for people to look at the mechanics of the most marvelous food in the world. I would have thought some engineering student at MIT would have tried late one night while pulling an all-nighter before a final exam.

I don't mean to make light of the work, because really it does have practical uses and applications. The pizza toss works almost exactly the same as an ultrasonic motor, except using an Italian chef rather than vibrations. In an ultrasonic motor, like ones found in an automatic camera lens, very fast vibrations rotate a ring of metal.

The Australian team mapped the mechanics of a pizza including trajectory, energy efficiency and stability during its four portions of flight, sticking contact, sliding contact, parabolic flight and impact.

Food physics is a subject very close to my heart (really just a bit lower and to the left). The chemistry of food has been probed for years and been the subject of great public interest. But the actual physics has really only had its surface scratched. The first landmark study came in 1995 at (appropriately) Rice University, as students launched into an in-depth study of the physics of Twinkies. You can read about their investigations here and their results (in Haiku) here.

I for one would like to see more research into the physics of food. I want to know about the magnetic fields of iron rich peppers. What would happen if I accelerated a parsnip to 99 percent the speed of light? What is it about gnocchi that makes gravity seem to pull on them extra hard? These are the questions that I need answers to.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

We are the Robots: not just German techno pop anymore

Last week we saw that robots are taking over the blogosphere. Not only will robots take the roll of writing blogs but it looks as though they will also read and comment on them too. This takes the burden off of us humans to read and write them... so why am I bothering to write this?

Even computer scientists are being replaced by computers that can write publishable research papers on computers. This almost sounds paradoxical. Just don't ask who shaves the computer.

A similar trend is growing in education. Computers are invading classrooms and will most likely replace students in the near future. Many schools now use computer simulations to replace actual physics labs because actual eqipment is costly and dangerous. They generate "empirical" data and perform calculations, leaving students with the only burden of making conclusions. Making conclusions and formulating a theory that encompasses fundamental laws is generally considered a profound human achievement. Certainly, this is the significant part that requires ingenuity and creativity. These are qualities unique to the human brain... until now.

According to a recent article in the Science Times, Researchers at Cornell University in New York and Aberystwyth University in Britain have created computer programs that analyze data and formulate conclusions about an experiment. The robot in Britain formulated a hypothesis about a particular problem in biology and chemistry and then designed its own experiment. The computer then performed the experiment, making necessary revisions and modifications along the way. In a similar experiment, the computer discovered a general principle but without any explanation. It's as if the computer said "the answer is 42" and left it at that. Although it is also like finding a yummy piece of cake on the sidewalk but having no idea where it came from. Would you eat it?

Now I know what you are saying: "Big deal. Those are chemistry experiments." However, this brings us to the Cornell robotic computer. This computer sifted through data from a swinging pendulum. Without any prior knowledge of Newtonian, Hamiltonian or Lagrangian physics, it discovered the laws of conservation of momentum and energy. Of course it didn't call it that. It just labeled its conclusion as Law 42.0. The computer also yielded similar results when analyzing data from more complex systems such as the double pendulum problem and the Hannah Montana/Miley duality.

According to current theories of consciousness proposed by Daniel Dennett and others, the human brain consists of little robotic cells. These tiny robots independently make mundane computations but natural selection allows for the appearance of a collective decision making apparatus that we call consciousness. This is a crude summary of the theory (and possibly inaccurate) , however the basic idea is that the human brain consists of many small robots sifting through mundane data. Eventually an idea emerges out of all the sifting an computing. Thus when a light bulb goes on above your head and you shout, "Eureka!", your ingenious idea was just the culmination of many random guesses and revisions. From this point of view, the latest research from Cornell doesn't come as a surprise. So don't be alarmed, robots have already taken over the world... or rather our brains.

Finally, the researchers tested the program by having it analyze random data. They were delighted to find that the computer could not formulate conclusions from nothing. That is something that only humans can do.
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Friday, April 03, 2009

Statistically Gtalk doesn't wear Capri pants

Hello everyone out there! I don't post much because I am usually busy telling people why they should keep paying us to keep posting for y'all. Quick bio, I am a physicist trained at University of Texas (hook 'em) who now works for APS and likes to knit, play video games watch reality TV.

Statistics are funny things. You read about statistics all the time in the media. "4 out of 5 dentists agree....." but what does that mean? How many dentists did they ask? Were they all buddies of the person asking? How were they asked? Are they real dentists or do they just play them on TV? These are all things you need to think about before believing a statistic. One of the biggest marketing ploys is to tell you that a correlation, meaning when one variable changes another seems to change at the same time, implies that one variable is causing the change in the other: causation. But why should it? Every time I mention Capri pants in gtalk, my gtalk crashes. Absolutly every time. So obviously there is bug in gtalk that hates Capri pants as much as I do. Now, really, does that make sense to you? Why would gtalk care about poor clothing choices? This is an absurd example, but hopefully one that gets you thinking. What are the stats you are seeing really telling you?

Statistics can lie to you, but they are also extremely valuable in science if used correctly. Stats are the basis for almost every scientific study, but only when used correctly. When physicists really investigate if correlation implies causation in the case they are studying they can learn about the world. But they have to work hard at learning what their statistical data means and throwing out the data that shouldn't be in there. This is one of the most important parts of the scientific method. What if you take some data and realize that for one or two data points you were standing on an important hose and blocking air flow (true story). Can you use that data in your statistics? This is what physicists have to ask themselves all the time.

So next time you look at a statistic, look critically and figure out what it is really saying. Oh, and if you want to stop global warming, become a pirate.
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Thursday, April 02, 2009

National Ignition Facility: All Fired Up!

On Tuesday the Department of Energy declared that the National Ignition Facility was completed and ready to go. This gigantic science experiment will use dozens of high powered lasers to recreate the processes that power stars.

At the heart of the NIF is a small chunk of hydrogen inside a small pill sized gold casing. Aimed directly at this little target, are 192 of the world’s most powerful lasers. All together the lasers will produce an estimated 1.8 megajoules or energy, that's over 60 times more powerful than any laser system that's ever been assembled before.

When all 192 lasers are turned on it will heat up the pellet of hydrogen to over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit; hotter than the core of the sun. That much energy will begin fusing the hydrogen atoms together to form helium atoms. When hydrogen atoms fuse together, extra neutrons are converted to energy. When Einstein postulated that E=MC² he proved that matter can be turned directly into Energy. So the net amount of helium coming out will be lighter than the hydrogen going in, because of the mass converted into energy.

What is everyone is hoping is that the energy produced by the reaction is greater than the amount it took to fire the lasers. If it is, that's huge. It means that there is a net gain of energy coming from the mass of excess neutrons. The ultimate goal is to harness this excess energy for power generation.

All lasers have only just been tested for the first time two weeks ago, and experiments with actual hydrogen should be coming up within a year or so. Already the next generation of this kind of fusion generation facility is being planned. The NIF is really a proof of concept, exploring to see whether this kind of laser fusion could work and deliver the important energy gain. If all goes well HiPER (Short for High Power Laser Energy Research) to try the process on an industrial scale will begin construction sometime in the next decade.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Top physics news stories of the day

House approves string theory bailout

The $14-billion measure faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where standard model opposition remains strong.

Washington D.C.
April 1st, 2009

The House approved a $14-billion bailout for U.S. string theorists Wednesday after White House and lawmakers finalized a deal empowering a government "theory czar" to force the universe into bankruptcy by next spring if they don't restructure.

But the fate of the plan -- and of some of the nation's most storied physicists and institutions -- remained uncertain because of deep-seated standard model opposition in the Senate, where theorists cannot pass the bill without the experimentalists help.

Many experimentalists are weary of government bailouts and worry that providing money to string theorists will lead other researchers to seek aid. Many on Capitol Hill also are convinced they should have attached more strings to the $700-billion Wall Street bailout.

We would like to credit the original article which can be found here.

Black Hole Creates LHC

Tucson, AZ

April 1st, 2009

Astronomers from Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona report today that they have observed a Large Hadron Collider forming on the accretion disc of a distant black hole. While this is a triumphant discovery for the scientific community, it is certain to spell doom for the black hole.

Physicist rejects PRL article

Ridge, NY

April 1st, 2009

Editors of the prestigious scientific journal, Physical Review Letters, received a surprising package today. The package contained the latest issue of the journal with a handwritten message that was scribbled: “Return to Sender!” Long time physicist and loyal subscriber to the PRL objected to one or more the articles published in the journal saying: “it was chalk full of notions about atoms and other small things which I found personally offensive”. While it is not uncommon for physicists to have their papers rejected by PRL, this is the first time in history that a physicist has rejected a paper from PRL.

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Higgs Boson Found

This news story just came in over the wires! It's incredible, I haven't seen it reported elsewhere yet so I'm just going to post it in full to the site!

Higgs Boson Found

The theorized Higgs boson, subject of intense research by physicists the world over, was discovered this morning wedged between the cushions of the Yonz family living room couch in Topeka Kansas. Scientists the world over have hailed the discovery as a tremendous advancement for fundamental physics, but have expressed surprise at some of the particles unique attributes.

"The boson is certainly larger than we expected. Our previous estimates had the particle pegged at about 1 millionth of a nanometer. Instead it turns out its closer in size to a ping-pong ball," said Dr. Adam Finder, researcher at Fermilab.

The boson, which is bright green in appearance, was discovered by the youngest member of the Yonz family, Barry age 9, when he was looking for the remote control to the TV. When Barry first happened on the particle, he was unsure of what it was.

"When I first pulled it out of the couch I thought it was the gobstopper I dropped in there last week," Barry went on to add that after further testing, his discovery was in fact the theorized Higgs boson which gives matter its mass, and that it tastes like raspberry.

"It does come as a surprise," said Finder. "We had been building particle accelerators for years trying to create one of the bosons in a lab by smashing protons together, but we were obviously just looking in the wrong spot."

In response to this discovery, scientists the country over have been applying for grants to begin a nation-wide search for any evidence of dark matter hiding behind old boxes in garages. The European Union meanwhile has just approved funding to build a gigantic, 13 km wide loveseat in hopes of discovering the even more elusive gluon.

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