Friday, July 30, 2010

The physics of futility

Open mic: Should science theorize about the unverifiable?

The cover of Shel Silverstein’s famous Book of Futilities depicts two men in an obviously hopeless predicament. Thoroughly chained to both the floor and ceiling in an inescapable room, one prisoner exclaims to the other “now, here’s my plan.” I was reminded of the old cartoon the other week when the front page of the New York Times science section had an article (albeit very well written and worth reading) on a physicist who claimed gravity didn’t exist. Of course he had zero experimental evidence and few in his field even understood his theory, but it got me thinking: Has physics reached the point of futility?

The greatest problem facing generations of physicists has been the inability to unite gravity - as described in Einstein’s general relativity - with quantum mechanics. Both theories work very well on their own in making predictions, but the common ground between them may lead to a description of our origins, allowing us to peer into the very first instants of the universe. String theory, quantum loop theory, M-Theory and a slew of other approaches have hacked away at finding a theory of quantum gravity that will make our understanding of the universe more complete.

And much like the search for the mythical El Dorado, the quest for a theory of everything has proven too much for many physicists to resist. While few would argue such a pursuit to be futile, the hunt has consumed the lives of many great minds while bearing very little fruit.

What's more, many of these approaches have attacked the problem from directions that can hardly be described as scientific. The first principle of cosmology Lee Smolin lays out in his book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity is that there is nothing outside of our universe (this is not to discount religion). If the universe is a closed system, then the answer to any question in the universe must come from the universe. String theorists throw such cautions to the wind; the theory predicts wide-ranging things like multiple other universes (can we please use universi?) and dimensions, as well as gravitational effects from outside our own universe. In fact, one of the few methods offered to move string theory from the "not even wrong" category relies on the remote chance of detecting gravitational effects from other universes using the LHC.

For decades the frontiers of physics has been occupied by such theories with profound promise, but little observational support. But can we really question their worthiness? Science rarely plays out the way we expect it to, and quite often the popularly dismissed route ends up being the correct one.

This is not an editorial meant to take a stand one way or the other because, honestly, I’m not sure how I feel. I’ve often taken Brian Greene to task for The Elegant Universe, which made millions of Americans cognizant of string theory and led many of them to believe it was more than just a mathematical framework. But I don't believe string theory is futile (though my friends' frequent questions about it may be), I just think it lacks context in the public eye. I’m very curious what other people think.

Is there such a thing as futility in science?

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Automotive X-Prize reaches final stages

Last week Indy Car racing legend Al Unser Jr. rounded the corners at the Michigan International Speedway in a car with a top speed of 75 MPH, and still managed to make it into the finals. This time the car wasn't an opened-wheeled, gas chugging race car speeding its way to a CART victory - Unser gave that up years ago. No, this was a battery electric car called the ZAP Alias competing for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize.

While the more famous X-Prize from a few years ago awarded $10 million for the first private craft to take people into space and return them safely, the automotive X-Prize is a series of awards for achievements in extreme automobile efficiency.

The 111 entrants were announced in April of last year, but by October the entrants had been narrowed to 49 before any on-track competition had begun. Every car in each of the three categories must achieve 100 MPG efficiency over a 200 mile range, the winners from each split a $10 million prize. The first group is the mainstream category which consists of commercially viable, moderate-mass market vehicles competing for a $5 million prize. The second and third are alternate classes that each carry a prize of $2.5 million, one for a side-by-side seating car and the other for a tandem seat car.

ZAP (for Zero Air Pollution), which is in the lead in on-line voting as the Fan Favorite for Most Practical (you can vote online through mid-august), is based out of Santa Rosa and is already taking pre-orders for its Alias. The company has supposedly sold over a hundred thousand of its other cars since its inception in 1994 (though most of ZAP's media coverage has been about its executives issuing themselves stock while failing to give their dealers cars). For perspective, Tesla Motors has only sold 1200 Roadsters as of mid-July.

On track competition concluded last week and the field has now been narrowed to nine vehicles from seven teams, with final announcements on winners coming in September. Other teams still left in comp include the heavily favored Virginia based Edison 2 car.

It should be interesting to follow the finalists and see if the cars ever make it to market. has had great coverage of the competition and you can view some of it here.

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log

Paul Eisenstein from Driver's Seat

Photo Gallery

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cylons riding an escalator

I think I can speak for the entire APS Comic-Con crew when I say that one of the best parts of the whole convention was seeing people do ordinary things in elaborate costumes. The Stormtrooper holding hands with his ballerina daughter, Flash Gordon bumming a light from Superman out back, anyone at all trying to drink from the water fountain; it was all hilarious. Of course, I was usually too distracted by the absurdity of seeing superheros have everyday experiences to come to my journalistic senses and capture it for all of you to enjoy too.

Fortunately, fellow blogger Uncountable was once again in rare form and captured perhaps the funniest moment of all: Cylons riding an escalator. I hope you all appreciate it as much as we do.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The most powerful idea in the world

On Monday's Daily Show with John Stewart, author William Rosen stopped by to discuss his new book The Most Powerful Idea in the World. What is this most powerful idea according to Rosen? The steam engine.

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The Most Powerful Idea in the World begins with how the engine came to be and then traces it through powering industry and factories, as well as fueling transport and other new inventions.

As he tells it, the engine was not only responsible for the start of the industrial revolution, but it also brought about the concept of owning an idea. Before then, it had never been accepted that an inventor should own their idea. Rosen says it's the not only the story of the birth of the steam engine, but also the birth of invention itself. While the engines had existed since the first century in Egypt, the act of ownership and commercializing an idea took it from Britain to the world.

Plus, he's quite a humorous fellow for being the author of a book on steam engines.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Who is Iron Man?

The modern envisioning of Tony Stark is based on a real life physicist and entrepreneur

Several days ago I reported from Comic-Con 2010 on a panel about whether Stark Industries was a good model for the blossoming new-space industry. Admittedly, the panel was more of an excuse to talk about the future of private space flight than an actual analysis of the Stark model. Then on Saturday Samuel L. Jackson surprised thousands of attendees when he marched out on stage at the end of a Marvel panel and announced the new Avengers characters Black Widow, Agent Ghoulson, Thor and Captain America; Robert Downey Jr. followed by announcing Hawkeye and Bruce Banner. Which still left me wondering: who would the real Tony Stark be?

It turns out John Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. are way ahead of me. In their search for character inspiration in their re-imagining of Tony Stark, they turned to none other than modern tech privateer Elon Musk. He is the CEO and Founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors (a pre-release Tesla Roadster has a cameo in the first film).

In 2009, the company he started with $100-million dollars of his own cash, SpaceX, sent the first privately funded satellite into space with a liquid-rocket. Musk's vision is give humanity the capability of getting off of earth. In a 2008 Esquire peice he wrote that "sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball - or go extinct." It's that visionary sentiment, coupled with his ability to pick which limb to go way far out on, that has enabled his enormous success.

At age 10, he was already programing computers. By age 12, he was already selling his first software. He left his birth nation of South Africa without his parents support at age 17 to avoid compulsory service in an apartheid military and settled in Canada. After working as a manual laborer at a Canadian wheat farm and as a log cutter at a mill, he was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he would eventually receive dual bachelors in economics and physics.

After two days at Stanford as a physics graduate student in 1995, Musk dropped out to found Zip2 with his brother, the payment services company was acquired by Compaq a few years later for $300-million. The same year Compaq acquired Zip2, Musk started the whole thing over again with PayPal, which he also sold a few years later. This time the asking price was 1.5 billion, and Musk was holding 12-percent of the stock.

In an interview he once said there were three important problems he wanted to work on when he left Stanford: the internet, space and clean energy. As John Favreau put it in his description of him for Time's 100 people who will affect the world this year, Musk is "a renaissance man in an era that needs them." No he didn't have an uber rich father to hand him a company, but selling two companies for nearly $2-billion by age 30 is hardly humble beginnings.

And he followed those successes with even greater far-sightedness by starting SpaceX. Small start up space companies are notorious for chewing up and spitting out rich young (and old) playboys. Starting your own space company is a great way to lose a few hundred million dollars. But Musk is not your average daydreamer.

He wasn't exactly tinkering with rockets in his basement laboratory like Tony Stark, but SpaceX is the polar opposite of your average Lockheed Martin (though SpaceX's HQ is used as Ivan Vanko's lab in Iron Man 2). They find innovative ways to build rockets and fuel them with an eye to providing the cheapest space transport possible. In June, when he posed for pictures with the President next to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, Musk was being used as a symbol of the president's new vision of spaceflight, one where American ingenuity and a willingness to fail miserably can bring outstanding success.

In the coming years, SpaceX rockets will carry supplies to the ISS with multi-billion of dollars in contracts and it's likely that after the shuttle retires next year, they will also carry American astronauts. Such a move will drastically reduce the cost of trips to space and quickly shift the U.S. off what will soon be our Russian dependence on space transport. All this from a guy who has yet to reach 40.

Most of us struggle with one job and our personal lives, but while Musk was preparing to launch the first Falcon 9 rocket in June he was also preparing to launch the first auto company IPO since Ford Motors a few weeks later. Of course, both were incredible success stories that were widely reported on. But that isn't even all of Musk's commitments. While many know the recent successes of Tesla Motors, few are likely aware of Musk's other clean energy bet, Solar City. The real-life Tony Stark is chairman of the company and put $10M of his own cash in the California start up in 2006. Within a year it was already the number one residential supplier of solar electricity in the state. It now holds the title of number one residential supplier in the nation.

Musk can't fly (though he does have his own Iron Man suit), and he doesn't have a secret identity (that he's revealed yet anyway), but the rocket scientist brings reality into the world of the superhero. He's already forced GM to make the Volt, enabled a new-vision of space policy and brought clean energy to many parts of the country - and if all that doesn't come with tights and a cape I don't know what should.

Watch out for the Musk cameo in Iron Man 2 (sorry, it's in Spanish).

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

It all started with the Big Bang!

They're cool, they're hip, and they're loved by 14 million for their quirky wit and intelligence. The cast of CBS's The Big Bang Theory has been everywhere at ComicCon this week, from signing autographs to doing interviews and panels, these guys are kings among nerds here (the title of queen surely goes to Olivia Mund). In fact I was inspired to post this video after the 4-millionth person asked me if I was a fan of The Big Bang Theory show and then told me how much they loved it. I've only seen select episodes, as I have no TV, but I can tell you that I love the Barenaked Ladies' theme song for the show, and they were on hand to play it for one of the panels.

It's curious what a hit TV show can do for the reputation of any particular group in this country. Based on my experience it's not at all true that physicists have less social skills than anyone else and it's also not the case that they're all geniuses either. But theatre is theatre and I'm willing to let those inaccuracies go for a television show that depicts physicists in a human light and shows them as sexy in their own weird way.

For three seasons, that's just what The Big Bang Theory has done. And they do so with an eye to accurate science. The show's science adviser is David Saltzberg, himself a professor of Physics and Astronomy from the University of California Los Angeles, who has received academic and career awards for his work in physics. His strange job at the show is to create props. That's right, in addition to reviewing the scripts for errors and helping with dialog, Salzburg puts fancy (though accurate) equations up for the show.

So, the creators and producers are at least making an effort towards real science and in Hollywood that means a lot. I say we cut them a break, if for no other reason than people seem open to the idea of physics as a result.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

CostumeCon putting on a show

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.
Comic-Con is nothing if not the biggest costume party on earth. The convention center is huge and the entire place is filled with people. Well over a hundred thousand of them. The building is large enough that if you lost your keys, it would take months to find them (it also looks much more airport-like than the actual airport for some reason). From steampunk to nearly-naked Princess Leia, all costumes are welcome so long as you check your toy weapons with security first. And with tens of thousands of people in such elaborate disguise, it's hard to assume ours are worthy of the masquerade.

However, my dad has requested some pictures of our costumes and fellow Buzz blogger Uncountable has put together a fantastic photo collection for you to sample the madness in addition to Ms. Alignment's Extreme Science Squad (AKA yours truly), so without further adieu...
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Nikola Tesla-The people's superhero

Few people pass up swag at a convention based around all the free stuff you can carry and most snatch up our "free physics comic books" as they walk past the booth. But we get the rest with our calls of "read about Tesla vs. the nefarious Thomas Edison!" Who's going to defend a man that electrecuted elephants as propaganda science demos?

Maybe it's the steampunk craze sweeping the geekdom, but people love Nikola Tesla. He's a nerd pop-culture icon around these parts. Tesla costumes, Tesla Shirts, Tesla the dog, Tesla theories about Tunguska; we've seen it all. One gentleman even came by the booth in a steampunk Tesla costume with his girlfriend dressed as a pigeon. Another's reponse to our accurate physics comic book on the history of Tesla and his battle vs. Thomas Edison for electric world domination was "awesome, everyone's doing that now!"

APS comics haven't gone "mainstream," but Tesla cartoonists really are more common than I could have ever guessed. Jeff Smith, the very famous cartoonist and creator of Bone, is our booth neighbor and he has a deep love for Tesla an upcoming Smith comic features the original mad scientist. Three or four other cartoonists have also stopped by the booth and told us about comics they'd done that involve Tesla.

I doubt APS is in danger of selling out, but it's nice to be appreciated. And sometimes it's even nice to ride the bandwagon, especially if it gets people excited about physics.

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Lessons from ComicCon: Is Stark Industries a good model for the new-space movement?

One of the more interesting panels from ComicCon has been a discussion among figures in the so called "new-space" community about whether or not Stark Industries from the Iron Man movies would pose as a good model for the private space movement.

One of the panelists was XCOR engineer Mark Street who talked about how after the first movie came out all the company's engineers went to see the movie together. Street said they all laughed hysterically when Tony Stark nearly kills himself in his basement labratory after he sets Iron Man's thrusters at 10-percent and sends himself flying. That's the way things are at XCOR he said, which is much different from the way Lockheed Martin or NASA operates.

"It never works exactly the way you think it's going to the first time," said Street. "The large companies use well established procedures and rules, and they develop the 787 and it flies the first time, but that's not the approach that will bring prices down."

While the group expressed varying levels of dis-sapointment in NASA's post-Apollo human space exploration, most agreed that it was lack of competition that was to blame. Because the current industries don't have any incentive to bring the prices of roackets down, they won't.

"The problem we have is that there's only one NASA, as long as it's like that we'll never have competition," said John Hunter of Quicklaunch.

The most striking thing I heard from the panel was about the freedom from regulation the FAA has given to new-space companies. As Street put it, it's not that they're blind to what's going on at these companies, it's that the FAA has built in a wide berth until the industry gets off the ground. That means that Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One and SpaceX's Falcon won't have to prove they are safe for their passengers if/when they try to take them into space, they simply have to demonstrate that they're not a "reasonable threat" to the public at large.

The Mars Society's Dave Rankin says that the competition from these scrappy companies experimenting with new and innovative methods of building things for cheap, is starting to pay off. NASA had a competition for its commercial orbtial transport system contract to determine what companies would be able to deliver things to the ISS and new-space won hands down.

"Lockheed did compete for the contract," said Rankin, "but they got beat out because they just couldn't do the job for cheap enough."

The panel was also in agreement that manned space exploration was inevitable and that being able to book a ticket and go into space was an unavoidable eventuality. Rankin described a wall at Meteor Crater in Arizona where the names of every astronaut to cross the threshold into space are inscribed. "I think people have dreams of going up there," said Rankin. "They don't build walls with lists of all the robots that have gone into space."

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Opening day at ComicCon

Wednesday was the panic before the storm here at ComicCon 2010 and while the masses waited outside the convention center in the thick San Diego fog, we frantically put our booth together. Our 10’x10’ chunk of real estate sits in a direct line between DC comics and the entrance and when the acres of exhibit hall finally opened for last night’s sneak preview, tens of thousands rushed onto the floor, eagerly grabbing up Spectra comics and stuffing them in their massive freebie swag bags.

Spectra is already an outstanding hit. That’s not too surprising, but one thing that is surprising is that every one fanatically loves our Tesla comics. When we describe how the righteous Nikola Tesla battles the evil, dastardly Thomas Edison at the world fair, people swoon. While the grown up’s love us, the kids go crazy for our “throwies.” We help them build a little LED light using only a battery, bulb, magnet and a Laserfest sticker; which they can wear around on their badges.

Constructing this nerd Disneyland was a massive undertaking and thousands of exhibitors worked from when they opened the doors first thing yesterday morning, until last night’s sneak preview at 5:30 p.m. Building our booth and organizing 35,000 comics was a group effort and took the six of us the entire day. Kerry Johnson, Director of Art and Special Publications for APS, did an incredible job designing our booth, which is the evil laser lab of Spectra villan Ms. Alingment. Rebecca Thompson, Head of Outreach for APS, and writer of Spectra, is dressed as the laser super-heroine herself and has been honoring frequent requests for photos. Thousands of exhibitors moved frantically through the aisles as the convention center workers brought supplies back and forth from the trailers. The sound of forklifts backing up and the smell of diesel fuel from the their exhaust still lingers in my head.

Our booth is in the independent press section and our immediate neighbors include Bone (who coincidentally also has a Tesla comic coming out soon), and 7G Studios, a Columbian comic book company who supposedly has created the first Latin American comic book. 7G studios even has a documentary film crew following them at all hours and their videographers seem to like us too. The group of us would often look up to realize there was a camera in our faces and a guy with a 6 foot mic boon standing in front of us.

We’ve already met high school physics teachers, scientists from various fields and even had one APS member try to renew his membership with us. All of them were thrilled to see us here, but the real opportunity for Comicon is reaching the people who we couldn’t of gotten too otherwise. Our comics are well, written, beautifully drawn and scream read me to young people. It’s nice to get praise from colleagues who approve of what we’re doing here, but it’s far more rewarding to see a group of kids literally light up after they’ve built their throwies and walk away clutching a comic book about Nikla Tesla and a laser superhero.

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Spectra on IMDB

Or own LaserFest superhero, Spectra, has truly arrived now! She joins countless celebrities, both major and minor, in getting a mention and a picture on the Internet Movie Database

She shares space with notables of the caliber of Sponge Bob Square pants, no less. Click the pic below to see what wonders await the lucky few (well, the lucky few hundreds of thousands, anyway) who have scored tickets to the most glorious Con in the western world.

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On Paper, the World's Smoothest Roller Coaster Ride

Swedish mathematicians draw the perfect loop

At the age of 74, retired roller coaster designer Werner Stengel still spends his days riding the latest loop-de-loops.

"Trying to explain the thrill of a roller coaster to someone who has never ridden one is like trying to explain color to a blind person -- you just have to experience it for yourself," said Stengel, who in 1975 created the first modern roller coaster loop, built for Six Flags' Magic Mountain in California.

But for summer vacationers who are tired of having their heads jerked around by the laws of physics, Swedish mathematicians have published new designs for what could be the smoothest, most comfortable way to flip head over feet.

Using the same equations that describe how the planets orbit the sun, Hanno Essén of Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm drew a series of potential roller coaster loops that have one thing in common -- the force that riders would feel pushing their stomachs down into their seats stays exactly the same all the way around the loop.

Riders would get the visual experience of a loop without any whiplash.

"If you were in a car without windows and the track were perfectly smooth, you would not know that you were in a roller coaster," said Essén. "You'd just be pressed to the seat by a constant force."

This force, the centripetal force, is the same one that prevents water from falling out of a bucket swung upside-down on a string. The shape of a loop determines how much of it we feel at different spots on the loop.

Early roller coaster loops -- including the first one, a 13-footer built in 1846 in Paris -- were simple circles. To make it all the way around without being pulled off at the top by gravity, coaster cars hit the circle hard and fast, shoving riders' heads into their chests as they changed direction with a sudden snap that occasionally broke their collarbones.

In the 1970s, Stengel talked to NASA to figure out how much force rider could safely tolerate. He created the modern standard: 6 G's, which makes a rider feel six times heavier than normal.

To improve safety, Stengel ditched the circle. He designed a new loop that pinched at the top, a shape borrowed from exit ramps on German highways. This clothoid curve -- which tapers from a gentler arc at the bottom to a tight curve at the top -- is standard in today's amusement parks, where loops are now up to 200 feet tall. It eases riders into a loop with a force of 3-4 G's at the bottom that gradually lessens on the side of the loop to, often, a feeling of weightlessness at the top.

The new Swedish design, which to the naked eye looks similar to a clothoid loop, would in theory smooth out these changes in force into one constant force, said Stengel. But he doubted that it could achieve this uniformity if actually built.

That's because roller coasters aren't as simple as a dot moving around a curve. They jostle on imperfect tracks and are slowed down by friction and wind resistance.

Even if the force could be kept constant, the riding experience would depend on where you sit. Passengers in the front and end cars feel greater G forces than those the middle cars at the coaster's center of gravity.

Different parts of a rider's body would also feel different forces, according to Ann-Marie Pendrill, who studies roller coasters at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

"Your head would feel a little lighter than your bottom," she said, explaining that the head is closer to the center of the loop, where the centripetal force is smaller.

For now, the new design will remain an academic exercise -- which, to veteran thrill seeker Stengel, is just as well.

"It sounds a bit boring to ride," he said. "Part of the fun of a roller coaster is being pushed around with changing forces."

Devin Powell
Inside Science News Service

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shutting Off the Large Hadron Collider

How particle beams are brought to a safe halt

On hilly parts of the Interstate highway system, road engineers provide steep-grade areas with gravel off-ramps for trucks that lose their brakes. The ramps bring the big rigs to a rough but safe halt.

Engineers at particle accelerators must also be able to halt intense beams of particles during routine shut-downs or emergencies. At the largest accelerator of all, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, researchers have devised an elaborate off-ramp procedure able to bring beams of protons (particles found inside every atom) traveling at nearly the speed of light to a dead halt in a fraction of a second. The beams carry enough energy to melt a ton of copper.

At LHC, the "road" the beams travel is a sixteen-mile ring-shaped tunnel, and the off-ramp looks like an immense pencil -- it's a piece of graphite about three feet wide, 26 feet long, wrapped with steel, water cooled, and encased in concrete.

The difficulty of stopping the proton beam isn't the large number of protons involved, a hundred trillion or more at any moment. That sounds like a lot, but all those protons -- if they were atoms at room temperature -- wouldn't be enough to inflate a basketball.

Rather, the difficulty lies in the amount of energy in the protons. "When the machine achieves full operation," said Robert Appleby, "the energy of the protons will be about 360 mega-joules, equivalent to the energy of an aircraft carrier moving through the ocean at a speed of 20 knots." And all that energy is concentrated in a beam that's thinner than a frail bit of thread. Appleby is one of the scientists who worry about seeing that the LHC runs smoothly.

The LHC is in the business of doing exotic physics -- using this energy to create unstable particles that, the researchers hope, will reveal information about the fundamental structure of the universe.

The protons in the beams (parceled into bunches) race around the LHC machine many thousands of times per second. When the machine is to be turned off, said Appleby, the beam can be siphoned off, bunch by bunch, and shot sequentially into the graphite dump. The bunches are aimed so that they don't all hit the graphite at the same place. This prevents a meltdown of the dump. This is how you can absorb an aircraft-carrier-amount of energy in a fraction of a second.

Appleby's study of what happens in the case of an LHC-shut-off will be published in an upcoming article in the journal Physical Review Special Topics.

Phillip F. Schewe
Inside Science News Service

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APS hits ComicCon with the first superhero science comic

For the rest of this week I'll be blogging from the madness that is sure to be ComicCon 2010. APS will be the first professional society to bring a comic book, so us public outreach folks are excited to be rolling in with 2.5 tons of Spectra comics. For you unacquainted, the convention combines all things nerd under one massive roof for a week every year. All those people in Princess Leah or Batman or Wolverine or extra #554 from scene 3 on Tatooine in A New Hope costumes? This is their summer sanctuary. I'm not knocking... okay maybe I'm knocking a little, but only to make myself feel better about the costume I'll be wearing all week. I'm positive a certain amount of fear and loathing is in store for us (google image search comiccon), but with 125,000 people in attendance we should be able to bring our laser superhero comic to a willing audience.

APS's most recent comic series, Spectra, takes its name from the comic's heroine, who has all the superpowers of a laser. The idea was to create a comic for Laserfest that would educate a middle school to high school audience about the yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser. In the past, APS had done comics that used historical figures in physics (i.e. PhysicsQuest), but the history of the laser is too complex for that. An enormous amount of controversy surrounds its origins even a half century later.

To avoid all that, APS designed spectra to make the science and history of lasers accessible to younger audiences with a colorful comic book storyline complete with heroes and villains. She can fly, cut through metal, diffract, refract, reflect and because excited lasers are blue and low-energy lasers are red, Spectra changes color based on how much energy she has. She can even play CDs with her bare hands.

Through the rest of the week I'll bring you all updates about the insanity and how Spectra's doing; I'll try to push my way into the Tron, Hobbit and Megamind previews; fill you in on what XCOR Aerospace says will be the future in NewSpace; sneak you some insights on the new BSG movie; report on abusing the sci in scifi with Phil Plait; and I'll attempt to snap a few paparazzi shots of Angelina Jolie and Jeff Bridges.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Cosmic rays explode tree at American Center for Physics?

According to the NOAA, lightning has been witnessed in volcanic eruptions, intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, snowstorms, large hurricanes, and now the American Center for Physics parking lot. Well, I didn't see it, but this tree did (or at least it would have if it had light-detecting organs).

Sometime over the weekend this little guy experienced an arboreal nightmare as hundreds of millions of volts of electricity shot through his body. Lightning strikes can be as much as 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun, and in an instant, that heat turned water into steam inside him-splitting his trunk vertically through his core and sending bark flying at least 50 feet in various directions.

Lightning strikes like this happen 4-million times a day on our planet, yet no one's sure what causes it (even the folks who park in this same parking lot).

According to this Scientific American post by lightning expert and physicist Joseph Dwyer, no measurement made inside a thunderstorm has ever found a strong enough electric field to cause a spark. However, some scientists-including a Russian physicist named Alex V. Gurevich-believe cosmic rays could stir movements of "large showers of energetic particles" and provide a conductive path that might possibly initiate a lightning strike.

Dwyer says that this phenomenon can be seen in spark chambers. When a significant voltage is applied across a gap it will spark, given that there are sufficient free electrons to start the process. However, as we've already established the electric fields inside of thunderstorms aren't big enough to cause a spark. To solve this with cosmic rays, Gurevich theorizes a process called runaway breakdown is occurring inside a thunderstorm.

"Runaway breakdown occurs when the drag force that electrons experience moving through air is less than the electric force acting upon them. In such cases, the electrons will "run away," gaining very large amounts of energy. As the runaway electrons collide with air molecules, they generate other runaway electrons plus x-rays and gamma rays, resulting in an avalanche of high-energy particles. Instead of rocks in a landslide, think of the runaway electrons as shrapnel tearing up a path through the storm cloud. According to the Gurevich model, this conductive path is what causes lightning.

Runaway breakdown can create large amounts of high-energy electrons, as well as x-rays and gamma rays. Interestingly, we know that runaway breakdown works for the low electric fields already seen inside thunderstorms. We also know that it does sometimes happen right before lightning, because we can see big bursts of x-rays and gamma rays shooting out of thunderstorms. In fact, these gamma rays are so energetic and so bright that they have been observed from outer space, 600 kilometers (373 miles) above Earth's surface."

Of course this still isn't proof and Dwyer himself goes on to voice skepticism about whether or not this is the solution. But I'm still sticking with my attention-grabbing, overly-speculative and wholly-unsubstantiated headline all the same. I'll even throw in this sweet Youtube video of what it might have looked like.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Don't be jealous of these physicists' boogie.

Long ago the Buzz Blogger, Agent Utah, challenged me to write a post on Ru Paul's Drag Race that fit the theme of the Physics Buzz Blog which is more or less about, well physics. She fulfilled her end of the challenge with an amazing piece on Project Runway. She is in fact a professional writer. So after many months of procrastinating and traveling to physics conferences I have stepped up to the challenge.

While I doubt that I can match wits with the awesome Agent Utah, this post will definitely change the way we look at physicists. That being said I should also mention that this will be my last post on the Buzz Blog. Yep, I'm heading off to math land. So what other way than to go out with a bang... a fabulous bang.Every Monday night this last spring, my friends and I would religiously huddle around the magical glowing rectangle at 9pm for Ru Paul's Drag Race on the LOGO channel. Even though the season triumphantly ended months ago, Ru Paul being the genius that she is, created the Dragulator.

What other way to demonstrate the intersection of physics and Ru Paul's Drag Race than to dragulate some fantastic, I mean FABULOUS physicists.Oh yes I did! And I hope this encourages you to dragulate your favorite physicists and comment with a link to your fabulous creation.
Time to lip sync for your life!

By day he is tackling the world enrgy crisis but by night she is Chu On This!

Hawking Radiance is her name and black holes are her game.

A minute with your hand on a hot stove will seem like an hour but an hour with Diva Relativa will seem like a minute.

And finally Isaac Newton. Oh that's how he normally dressed. Way to be ahead of your time -very fabulous!

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Musical Love for the Spitzer Space Telescope

Who would have imagined a nerdy tune could be so catchy, and yet accurately describe the Spitzer Space Telescope's capabilities and mission? The song even mentions that the telescope continues to send us images despite the fact the its liquid helium coolant reservoir is empty.

I've got the song stuck in my head, but that's OK for now. At least it's not MacArthur Park . . . uh oh. Dang it!
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Scientists Prove Cosmic Rays Are Made of Protons

Utah detector looks at particles a million times zippier than anything made on Earth

By Phillip F. Schewe
Inside Science News Service

WASHINGTON (ISNS) – Cosmic rays are made of protons, scientists found as they used a vast array of telescopes arranged across the Utah desert. Each telescope in the 67-unit arrangement sees the sky with a multifaceted eye. It’s no wonder they call it Fly’s Eye.

Scientists at the High Resolution Fly’s Eye detector, nicknamed HiRes, in the Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, determined that the positively-charged components found in the center of each atom are what make up cosmic rays. Previously they had not been sure that the high-energy rays hadn’t been something heavier, such as the nucleus of an iron atom.

Cosmic rays, originating outside our Milky Way galaxy, slam into our atmosphere, where they set up a shower of secondary particles. These particles cause nitrogen molecules in the air to glow slightly. The energy of the glow is recorded in sensitive photo-detectors attached to the telescopes. The particles made a conical pattern and deposited a characteristic energy spray in the detectors.

Cosmic rays have energies that can be much higher than anything produced by physicists. HiRes looks at the composition of cosmic rays with energies a million times greater than those generated on Earth, such as in the accelerator at the Large Hadron Collider.

The HiRes detector can even determine the direction of the incoming cosmic ray. John Belz, a team member from the University of Utah, says that setting two sets of telescopes provides the stereo “seeing” needed to trace the cosmic ray’s incoming trajectory. The two arrays, each covering several acres, stand about 7 miles apart. The ray’s origin can be pinpointed to a region about as big as the full moon.

The experimenters logged data for several years between May 1997 and April 2006 and recently published their work in the journal Physical Review Letters.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Best science fiction to watch online: Your guide to on-demand summer sci-fi

I'm guessing a lot of you students have some serious free time for the wasting this summer. I know at the end of my undergrad summers I was always trying to figure out how I wasted three months of my life. So, to help you along your way, I thought I'd facilitate your do-nothing-abilities with some summer sci-fi you may not have seen before. Most of it I'd suspect you die-hards are familiar with already. I also wouldn't try to argue all of these are "underrated," but I tried to reach for the less-than-obvious. I also gave a very strong preference to movies available on-demand (i.e almost all of these are currently on Netflix watch instantly or rentable on iTunes).

Metropolis (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Released in 1927, this is the first feature length science fiction movie ever made. Set in the year 2026, society is separated into two classes; an ultra wealthy futuristic high-society and a class of workers forced to live underground. One man rejects the privileges of his life to join the workers in revolution. This version is remastered and includes the original movie score. Not exactly light watching, but a pivotal piece of sci-fi history.

Moon (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Kevin Spacey stars as a HAL style robot companion and Sam Rockwell as homesick astronaut Sam Bell who has reached the end of his solo three-year moon mission and is eager to see his wife back on Earth. Mysterious things start happening on the base and Bell becomes aware his lunar mining company employer has other plans. This movie is creepy and mind-blowing, the whole product is amazing and it took down some awards at Sundance.

Serenity/Firefly (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

The tragically short-lived space western series and follow-up feature film are some of the best sci-fi to originate outside the mainstream in recent years. The stories are compelling and funny, the technology and science believable enough and the acting is more than tolerable. People pushed me to see this for a long time before I caved and became as disappointed as everyone else this show was canceled, but if you haven't seen them there's no better time than the present.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Rent on Netflix/Rent on iTunes)

I think every nerd's favorite Star Trek movie is the Wrath of Kahn, but this one's about the Bay Area (aka my home) so it takes the cake for me. An alien probe approaches earth, sucking the power from everything it passes as it sends out an unusual communication. Cpt. Kirk and company (somewhat miraculously) figure out that the ship is attempting to reach the now extinct Humpback whales to determine why they lost contact with them. The crew must go back in time on a Klingon ship and bring back a pair of whales to save the planet (the Wrath of Kahn and First Contact are streaming on WI).

Gojira (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Gojira is the original Japanese movie from 1954 that featured the monster that would later become Godzilla. However , the original movie is far from a silly monster action flick. Gojira is actually a story of unrequited love (not of giant lizards) and the ethics of scientific breakthroughs (alluding to the atomic bomb). The unrequited love subplot is one of the first and few portrayals of a scientist with human emotions as the love of his life falls for a ship captain. The scientist also struggles with the ethics of whether his method of destroying Gojira will be used against other people.

Gattaca (Rent on Netflix/iTunes)

Not unlike me and you, a genetically challenged man played by Ethan Hawke, always wanted to be an astronaut. However, in this futuristic setting everything in life is determined by your genetic make-up. He buys DNA from a paralyzed man (Jude Law) to make his dreams happen (can't say I wouldn't mind having some myself) and falls in love with a gorgeous high-society woman (Uma Thurman). Not unlike the rest of these movies, the future plays a convenient setting for making political statements about the present. Fantastic acting and killer narrative make this an obvious watch for the two of you that haven't seen it already.

WarGames (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

I suspect this is a generational movie, most nerds my age grew up on WarGames, The Last Star Fighter and Flight of the Navigator. A very young Matthew Broderick is a hacker who gets into the Air Force's supercomputer and starts playing a game of war under the impression that it's just a very hi-tech video game. The young genius accidentally orders a nuclear strike on Cold War era Russia and he and his girlfriend must warn the Air Force and stop the computer from launching.

District 9 (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Considering the film was nominated for best picture among other things it’s hardly underrated, but I've heard some science fiction fans didn't like District 9: I did. Aliens land in South Africa only to be placed in government forced slums. The alien ghetto conditions are horrific and speciesism abounds while world powers use their technology to turn massive profits. Through a sequence of odd turns, one government official is forced into an alliance with an alien and leads a resistance movement against the human government.

K-PAX (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Disguised in human form, a self-pronounced alien named Prot (Kevin Spacey) claims to hail from the planet K-PAX, which supposedly surrounds a binary-star. The alien meets regularly with a psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) who tries to show him he's not an alien and is in fact crazy. However, Prot shows strange behavior and seemingly supernatural abilities until the entire mental institution questions whether or not he is an alien. If explosions in space are what you're after, this isn't the flick for you. Spacey and Bridges are incredible in this movie, the drama they play out is hilarious and feels natural from start to finish.

Primer (Rent on Netflix)

This one was on Netflix WI forever, which is how I'd guess most anyone that has seen it was able to. You'll have to get creative to watch this one on demand, but it's well worth it. Talk about indy, this movie was made on $7,000 budget. A young engineer accidentally builds a time travel machine and a very bizarre suspenseful sequence of scenes follows. The chronology has to be the best/most plausible of any time travel movie ever made, and the dialogue and storyline are shockingly high-quality for a movie any college kid could afford on their credit card. As a testament, the film picked up the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. If you haven't seen it, the first time is incredible.

Bicentennial Man (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

This movie is only two hours long, but it feels like three. Not that the movie is slow, but 200 years is a long time to live. The movie chronicles the life of a robot (Robin Williams) from a family's household servant to a creative and intelligent being capable of complex emotions. Truly one of the highest quality sci-fi movies of all time and one of Robin Williams' greatest performances. Well worth a lazy summer afternoon.

It was decided these last five weren't Science Fiction, more like fictionalized historical science, so I threw them in at the end.

The Right Stuff (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

This is not just an epic movie about a time of major leaps in science, but a film classic in general. I'm surprised at how few of my friends have seen this. The film starts with the breaking of the sound barrier and moves up through the Mercury space flight missions. Tom Wolfe's version of history is entertaining, mostly accurate and incredibly inspiring.

Apollo 13 (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

I said they wouldn't be obvious, but really when was the last time you watched Apollo 13? I'm guessing it wasn't recently enough. This movie is an epic retelling of one of the most incredible tales NASA has in their storied history. The movie shows the unwillingness to accept failure and the determination to bring the crew back alive. This is what the public's perception of American space flight is about, it's also why everyone is so bored having our astronauts now confined to LEO. If only the agency still had this much guts today.

From the Earth to the Moon (Rent on Netflix)

Like the other highly successful HBO series, Band of Brothers, this one is also brought to you by Tom Hanks and company. Apparently, Apollo 13 wasn't enough for Hanks so he made a mini-series drama with each episode documenting one of the Apollo missions. Other than A-13, this is one of the few times I've seen a personal face put on our nation's first space heroes. These men will be built up into immortals as long as humans survive on this planet, so it's intriguing to see them warts and all. The series is equal parts tragedy and comedy, as well as inspiring and true to the times.

Fat Man and Little Boy (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Chronicling another historic event in science history, the Manhattan project, this film shows the clashes between Gen. Groves and famous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the race to build the very first nuclear bomb. The film follows the suspense felt at the time to build the bomb before the Germans and it's truly an intriguing dramatization of the dawn of the atomic age.

Thanks to Uncountable and Quantum for their help with this list.

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NASA launches hi-tech free online game Moonbase Alpha

Last week, NASA came as close to going back to the moon as it probably will for decades. The agency has launched Moonbase Alpha, a 3D lunar adventure available free through online streaming game service Steam. You can have teams of up to six players as you work to restore power and other critical functions to a lunar outpost struck by a meteor. This isn't your dad's Atari Lunar Lander, the game has some seriously wicked looking graphics. I couldn't try it out because it's not available for OSX, but the screen shots and game trailers make it look epic. The game has been in the works since 2005, taking its inspiration and using the expertise from fellow government outreach game America's Army.

Personally, I think one footnote that slipped out with the release is far more compelling than Moonbase Alpha. NASA is working on a much larger massively multiplayer online game project that will create a virtual world where players can work cooperatively to carry out missions and explore strange new worlds.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Big Brother 12: How to win a beautiful girl with physics

I'm not sure it's possible to say anything that could add to this, but I'm guessing this is the first time a guy has (successfully) used his thin films research as a pick up line. My sources can confirm that Brendon is actually a member of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine.

No word on Rachel's standing in the American Chemical Society.

Please, just enjoy.
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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Coffee Cup Secrets

Physicists from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and from the University of Bath in the U.K. took a close look downward into their mugs to find out exactly how cream blends with the coffee in a cup when stirred.

Using image tracking and infrared cameras, the researchers studied the swirl patterns formed when liquids of varying temperatures -- like cold milk and hot coffee -- are mixed together.

Alternating rings of the hot and cold liquids briefly form in the center of the container before moving outward toward the rim of the cup. This is the result of the slightly different viscosities of the hot and cold liquids separating out. As the temperature evens out throughout the cup, the rings break down and the liquids mix together.

By Mike Lucibella, ISNS contributor
Inside Science News Service

Read their paper on the arXiv 'Streaks to Rings to Vortex Grids: Generic Patterns in Transient Convective Spin-Up,' by Zhong, Patterson, and Wettlaufer.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

To catch a plagiarist

Scientific dishonesty is all the rage these days. No, the cool kids aren't doing it.

Amidst the public gnashing of teeth at the IPCC over the Climategate report and the science blogosphere reeling from Pepsigate, Nature ran a piece last week detailing how it and other publications had started cracking down on plagiarism in their journals.

The topic isn't new in science, but the ongoing plagiaristgate (copycatgate? cheatergate? Unattributed-recycling-of-previously-used-materials-gate? Sorry, part of being a journalist is unnecessary attachments of the word gate to any noun involved in a scandal.) shows that the problem isn't only confined to high school English classes.

In 2008, several thousand publishers organized a non-profit plagiarism checker called CrossCheck that draws on the collective power of 25.5 million articles from nearly 50,000 journals to catch would-be cheats. To date, 83 publishers have joined the database, with many supposedly holding out over fear of sharing content.

According to the Nature article, one publisher responsible for thousands of publications on a broad range of topics, Taylor and Francis, found that since they started using CrossCheck six-months ago on three of their journals; one had to reject 6-percent of submissions because of plagiarism, another 10-percent, and the third had to reject a whopping 23-percent (13 of 56 submissions). The instances ranged from taking a few paragraphs to just copying and pasting other people's articles entirely. However, the biggest problem they found was self-plagiarism.

The very small number of studies released so far have found much less rampant plagiarism than Taylor and Francis, but the most frequent violations are consistently self-plagiarism.

In the past, revealing a scientific fraud has left people sounding the trumpets of science's self checking nature. You can lie, cheat and forge, and you'll still get published. In the end though, someone will check your work. In an era of mega public-funding for scientific research, science can hardly afford to tolerate even these minor injustices when they threaten to undermine public support. The IPCC researchers were cleared of scientific fraud by several investigations, yet public confidence in all climate change research has dropped. That's despite mounting evidence that shows climate change is a major concern and some in the news media taking the rare step to admit they blew it.

In 2002, arguably the world's brightest young scientist, a physicist named Jan Hendrik Schön, was proven to be a monumental fraud. He deceived the most prestigious journals in the world like Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters (a publication of the American Physical Society who supplies this intern's paycheck), with articles detailing fascinating advances he had made in transistors, lasers and superconductors. His peers did eventually find him out when other researchers had trouble replicating his results and in addition to making things up, he was also found guilty of taking data from one paper and simply dropping it into another (Eugenie Reich has an awesome book out about it).

A Nature editorial also released last week lists some times when it claims plagiarism might be justified and cites human judgment as the ultimate decider on what is and isn't plagiarism. The editorial says sometimes a self-plagiarizing author might be bringing old material to a new audience, or other times a scientist with a poor mastery of English might paraphrase from the introduction of similar work.

Schön's example is far more alarming than a tenure-thirsty professor recycling old material to get their name in print more often. However, public trust for science has been eroded by scandals in recent years and journals at least using CrossCheck are taking steps to make it easier for reviewers to check suspect material.

Most publications haven't released data on how many submissions they're rejecting after checking in CrossCheck. Nature says it's only spot-checking its research articles and finds very little plagiarism, though it checks all of its review articles and has found higher instances there (still less than one-percent).

Someday CrossCheck's use might work as a deterrent for would be cheats, but considering the media's kneejerk reaction to the Climategate story, damage is easily inflicted and incredibly difficult to repair. Every publication should take at least the same steps as a tenth grade English teacher. Every field doesn't need its own cautionary tale of Piltdown man, Climategate or Jan Hendrik Schön.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

The Law of Attraction: I will meet physicists

Alaina G. Levine reporting from Italy.

You'd think in a conference the size of the Euroscience Open Forum, with thousands of scientists, students, and journalists from all over the world, that I might run into a physicist or two. But it seemed that throughout the event, which wrapped up yesterday in Torino, Italy, every time I sat down next to someone and cheerfully introduced myself, the person to whom I announced "Boun giorno" was a physicist.

First there was Marco, an Italian particle physicist studying at the University of Torino. I met him in a session about food science. Then there was Filomen, a Greek particle physicist with a position at a university in Roma, with whom I shared a meal at the food court in the mall above the conference center. Then I chatted with another member of the brethren in the press room, and yet another at a party. With so little experimental data, you might come to the conclusion that the place was crawling with these guys.

But any scientist worth his hat would not jump to that resolution, and I am happy to report that I did manage to meet quite a few other experts in areas as diverse as regenerative biology and science philosophy. And that's always the beauty of a meeting like this, particularly one as international as ESOF – you never know who you are going to bump into and from what nation they will come.

Why, just this evening, during a tour of the Royal Library of Torino, where we viewed the famous self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci and his Codex on the Flight of Birds, I met a leading Finnish expert on Leonardo's art. He whipped out a couple of articles he had written on the master's works and discussed with me the possibility that the self-portrait of Leonardo that we saw in La Biblioteca was not meant to be true to life, but actually was one of a number of self-drawn charactertures that Leonardo completed during his lifetime.

And speaking of meeting people from all over Il Mundo, then there was the journalist, a mentor to those of us who were attending ESOF on fellowships from the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Germany. Jim Cornell, the President of the International Science Writers Association, lives 10 miles from me in Tucson, Arizona, America. We met for the first time in a press conference in Italy.

Although I am still trying to condense all of the fascinating scientific knowledge I gained while here, I must confess that one of my top moments was when I ran into Harry Kroto in the hallway. In my continuing mission to have my picture taken with as many Nobels and scientific stars as possible, when I heard Harry speaking around the corner, I couldn't help but jump in front of him and block his path. I didn't tackle him to the ground, because like many of the Nobels with whom I have come in contact, he is very gracious and cordial and funny. Since I am a huge fan of buckyballs, having been mentored by Dr. Donald Huffman, one of the discoverers of the process to synthesize C60 in the lab, for most of my adult life, it's always a treasured moment when I have the opportunity to speak with a buckyball baron. Harry (don't call him Sir!), laughed with me for a few moments and then posed for this picture (I'm the one on the right). Ah, la dolci vita!

Tomorrow, which is now today, but will be yesterday, due to the time change across continents, I am heading to CERN for a one day trip. I am really getting a kick out of the fact that I am going to Switzerland, by bus, for one day. Why would anyone take a three hour tour across three countries in one day? It's madness, I tell you. But we will pass through the Monte Blanc tunnel, so at least I will get something out of it. I certainly hope they have some pens in there. And I'm bringing an empty water bottle, so I will see if I can grab some Higgs Bosons while I am at CERN. According to a documentary narrated by Tom Hanks that I recently viewed, it should be quite easy to sneak some fundamental particles out of the facility. Sorry ATLAS, you snooze, you lose!

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