Over the past two weeks, rumors have swirled around the web that the CDMS collaboration had discovered particles of "dark matter". [I have not yet written a promised post on dark matter, but there is this.] It all started with a single blog post which contained "facts", such as the statement that there was a paper in press at the journal Nature, which turned out to be false. One very connected person tweeted about the post, and it spread like wildfire. Soon the Nature editor sent the blogger a snarky letter denying the claim, which the blogger posted. Others speculated that the Nature editor was just trying to throw them off track. The next day the Nature editor posted a comment on the blog apologizing for the snarky nature of the letter, but again refuting the claims. Still rumors shot around the net about what result there might be.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
This post is directed at fans of Sarah Palin (if there are any amongst my readers!). It may help you to understand why the rest of us are so appalled at her success. I've tried to think objectively about why I find her rising star disturbing.
It is not because she is "folksy", which I suspect is a big aspect of her appeal. Nor does it have anything to do with her being a working mom--many of us admire the ability to balance work and family. No, it is because of her overt incompetence and shallowness. After having just lived through the worst presidency of modern times, that of Geroge W. Bush, where decisions were made on a political basis without regard for competence ("heck of a job Brownie") and as if the world were black and white, it is disturbing that another politician with very limited knowledge and ideological blinders could gain such popularity. It is also disheartening to have such a polarizing figure rise in prominence now. Whatever you think of President Obama, he has made an effort to restore thoughtful dialogue to our national debates. We can disagree, but let us not disagree with the gleeful venom of Sarah Palin.
Whatever you think about Sarah Palin's politics, or her ability to raise children while working, or whatever you perceive as positive, please recognize that she is not fit to be President of the United States. I don't know if she really believes what she says, or she is just an opportunist, but the scariest thing is that her ambitions seem to greatly exceed her abilities.
Monday, November 16, 2009
I attended a conference in Hawaii held jointly by an American and a Japanese physics society. Where else are you going to hold it? It was an incredible trip. This post is about the stuff I did before, after and during breaks in the conference. Here's the list of places I went on the Big Island:
The sulfur dioxide streaming up with the steam made the air quality poor, and several areas were shut down. Nothing grows in the caldera. Lava flows underneath it via a lava tube to the sea. We went on the lava field at night, and you can make out the lava in the distance (as close as one is allowed to go):
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Mere words cannot describe this. Watch it.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Fifty years ago, C. P. Snow lamented in his famous lecture, The Two Cultures, that there was a rift in understanding between the sciences and the humanities. He noted that ignorance of the laws of thermodynamics is akin to never having read a work of Shakespeare, and that such scientific illiteracy could prove harmful to society. How can our leaders solve our problems if they don't understand them?
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Scientific conferences have personalities. They shift locations and take on the color of the locale, but the canvass of a given conference is the same. I write this from a hotel room in Denver, CO, site of my society's annual meeting. It does not matter that it is in Denver, or that it's May, it is still the 'April meeting'. The April Meeting is not a cozy specialized meeting, nor is it a zoo that the largest meetings become. It covers just the subjects of particle physics, nuclear physics and astrophysics. So it is a chimera of the small and the large, the specialized and the very broad.
There is the same rhythm of expansive plenary talks in darkened ballrooms, and frenzied cryptic parallel session talks in small rooms which either are empty or overfull. There are talks on science and society. There are all the organizational meetings. There are the booths and posters. Yet at 1400 people it feels sparse.
The most exciting results this year are from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST). Launched in June 2008, it is already changing our view of the high-energy sky. Its main instrument, the Large Area Telescope, or LAT, has made a precise measurement of ultra-high energy electrons and positrons. A previous experiment had shown indications of an excess in number of particles detected, which was hard to explain with known physics. LAT has shown that that "bump" was likely just a statistical fluctuation. Alas, this is what usually happens--most coincidences are actually just coincidences. LAT also showed that there is some new source of high-energy positrons out there, which will surely launch a thousand papers.
Fun anecdote: One of the talks was given by a senior physicist (he received the Nobel prize for work done in 1964). He admitted that he had a habit of showing data before the large collaboration of which he is a part was ready to release it. After his talk, someone asked a question about the composition of the cosmic rays his collaboration had detected. He excitedly jumped to a slide he'd prepared because he "knew someone would ask that question". He explained that the collaboration would release the data soon, after further analysis, but he'd show the figure now. When the figure popped up there was a big "X" in place of the plot. He was astonished and confused and wondered aloud how it could have happened. Then one of his collaborators raised her hand and admitted to have hacked into his talk. She said, "we knew you might show this but we're not ready to release it yet". He laughed at being thwarted.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Sorry I haven't been writing much lately. My personal life has been evolving. More on that later. But I would be remiss if I didn't have some kind of post for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, which was on February 12th, 2009. To celebrate, let me give you evolution in a nutshell. I want to take a slightly different tack than most other treatments. I want to argue that Darwin's central brilliant idea is so close to a tautology that it can't be wrong.