Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Post of 2008

There are a multitude of dates which one might celebrate, ripe with meaning both personal and corporate; but this particular holiday has always seemed oddly useless to me. We choose to celebrate this arbitrary division of time, this calendar demarcation, despite its inanity. Birthdays and anniversaries are far more important. I suppose one could argue that New Year is close to the winter solstice, but that original celebration has been pretty well absorbed into Christmas, so there's no reason for a second holiday. In fact, why we should consider January 1st to be a "holy day" - for that's the etymology of the word holiday - is beyond me.
So happy arbitrary calendar division day, everyone. I hope the meaningless number 2009 (being 2008++) brings you cheer, good health, good fortune, and love. As if tomorrow was really, fundamentally, any different than today.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Christmas Note

"Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" - Dr. Seuss

We've all heard the exhortations to return to the "true meaning of Christmas," but when do we ever act upon it? Why do we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and then ignore the man sitting alone in the church pew during the candlelight service? The message of Christmas is a much more difficult one than we surmise, not because we are forced to "accept the Christ-child" or believe the nativity story, but because we are reminded - we are called - to treat one another with love and kindness, especially now in the depths of winter. The angel who appeared to the shepherds made his most important point first: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). The Christmas season reminds us that we, too, are to bring good news of great joy, by living it. That we are to love, as we ourselves have been loved.
So what if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more? What if Christmas means more than gifts, sumptuous dinners, snow and traveling? What if Christmas means more than celebrating the hope of spring warmth in the darkness of the winter solstice? What if Christmas means more than the second chapter of Luke, more than the nativity and the remembrance of the day God was made flesh? What if Christmas, perhaps, means even a little bit more than Christ? Christmas is God's reminder to us of the whole plan - the triumph of love in the midst of all hardship or suffering - and that the "Christmas spirit" can overcome Christmas. This is how we discover the "true meaning of Christmas," and how we learn to live it. The true meaning of Christmas surpasses Christmas, permeates every person and every day and brings salvation to the world, but only when we quit talking about it and do it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dark Matter

Here's a neat little story on NPR about the current research on dark matter. Watch the video and tell me it doesn't start out looking like a group of nerve cells. Physics is awesome.

Monday, December 15, 2008


East Lansing? Really? Sigh....

MSU officially gets FRIB. Sorry, Argonne.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why PhD degrees in astronomy and planetary sciences take so long

The citation below is for a preprint (accepted for publication in ApJ) which is the culmination of 16 years worth of observations.

The researchers have essentially confirmed, by examining the orbits of stars exceedingly close to the galactic center (called "S-stars," they are found within one arcsecond of the center), that a massive black hole (about 4 million suns in mass) exists in the center of our own Milky Way. The data were collected over a 16-year span using the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The near-infrared observations were "calibrated" using radioastronomy data from the VLA of known SiO masers, a topic with which I was once involved myself. Once the S-stars were related to known stars (in position and radial velocity, from the near-IR maps and/or spectroscopy of hydrogen lines in the K-band), their orbits could be deduced, and a gravitational potential could be constructed based on the way the observed stars moved. This Keplerian gravitational potential relates to the mass at the center of the galaxy via the parameters of those stellar orbits (the researchers find R0 = 8.33 +/- 0.17(stat) +/- 0.31(sys) kpc), since it is that mass which causes the stars to proceed along the paths they do.
It has been "known" (scientifically hypothesized) for several years that a black hole existed at the center of the Milky Way; these data show that, to within extraordinary statistics (for such an observation), that is indeed the case, and that it most likely is the radio emitter Sagittarius A*.
One of the researchers, Reinhard Genzel, was quoted on the BBC as saying:
"Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our 16-year study, is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that super-massive black holes do really exist.... The stellar orbits in the galactic centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt."
And I'd say that's pretty good for 16 years' worth of work.

S. Gillessen, F. Eisenhauer, S. Trippe, T. Alexander, R. Genzel, F. Martins, T. Ott (2008). Monitoring Stellar Orbits around the Massive Black Hole in the Galactic Center The Astrophysics Journal DOI: 2008arXiv0810.4674G

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


This reminds me of a code I wrote - Simulation of Protons from beam Interaction with Target, or "SPIT." I had to stretch the name to fit the acronym just so that I could have the output file be named "spitout." Sigh.
A list of many clever scientific acronyms is here, and a searchable database is here.
And for anyone who doesn't know, "onomastic" refers to the study of proper names and their origins.

Monday, December 1, 2008


As you may be aware, I am somewhat prone to ranting. And rant I will.

I just received my final, bound thesis in the mail, and the binders have made a mistake. My thesis title has nothing to do with a (p,y) reaction. I studied a (p,gamma) reaction. That's the lowercase Greek letter gamma. Not y.

I had no choice in the matter of book binding, and yet a large portion of my graduation fees went toward the binding of six thesis copies (only one of which I get to keep). And after all that money, I get something which is wrong. They didn't just do a sub-par job (like a poor choice of font or something), they did no job (it's completely incorrect). You would think that, after all of the time and effort I spent on my thesis, a book binding company could just engrave the thing correctly. How hard can it be? Given the opportunity, I'd have done it myself.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Why Nessie really could exist

There's a story on CNN (and elsewhere) about the rediscovery of a species thought to be extinct for over 80 years - the pygmy tarsier.
There is something wonderful about this story which may go unnoticed by most readers. A friend of mine, however, pointed out that one of the head researchers "would like her graduate student,... also on the expedition, to return to the field site for her dissertation...." Something as newsworthy as this, and the professor lets her graduate student be the one to continue the work.
Hats off to you, Sharon. Not only for finding the tarsiers alive, but also for so humbly requesting that your students continue the work in your stead.
And one last note, concerning the title of the blog post. We have found several species which were thought to be extinct (the coelacanth, for example), and often discover previously unknown species (unfortunately, just as often as we come across new species, we come across new species which are already near extinction). So who's to say that Nessie doesn't really exist?

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Wolf King"

A story on the BBC today speaks of rare wolves - only about 500 of them remaining - which have to be vaccinated against rabies because of the dog population which has, with its human overseers, encroached upon the wolves' original territory.

"The wolves reign there; I like to think of them as the guardians of the high mountains of Africa," said Dr. Claudio Sillero.

I won't get preachy. I just feel that it's important we recognize, and soon, how much of an impact, good or bad, we humans really have.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Jurassic Park is extinct

Michael Crichton, one author whose every publication I have read - including his autobiography - has died. The world has lost a talented, well-spoken genius.

John Wells, executive producer of "ER" called the author "an extraordinary man. Brilliant, funny, erudite, gracious, exceptionally inquisitive and always thoughtful.

"No lunch with Michael lasted less than three hours and no subject was too prosaic or obscure to attract his interest. Sexual politics, medical and scientific ethics, anthropology, archaeology, economics, astronomy, astrology, quantum physics, and molecular biology were all regular topics of conversation."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Results

Some interesting statistics from today's Morning Edition on NPR:
  • Obama won an overwhelming majority of black and hispanic voters
  • Obama won a majority of under 30 voters
  • Obama won a majority of voters who make under $50,000 a year in total income
  • Obama also won a majority of voters who make over $200,000 a year - yes, those people whose taxes are increasing.
Additionally, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, and other traditionally "red" states went true blue this election.

And, in the coup de grace of the election season, Colorado's Amendment 48 - the "personhood" amendment - has lost, with a compelling ~70% against the measure. Thank you, Colorado, for being reasonable. I love you more each day.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Why has the word "diet" become synonymous with self-imposed starvation, calorie-counting and Weight Watchers?
Oh, yeah, in a completely unrelated stream of consciousness: get out and vote.

Friday, October 31, 2008


I just returned from a week in the San Francisco area, and was stunned to find truth on a single sheet of paper tacked to a bulletin board. I took the pamphlet with me, and have copied it here so that it may be shared.

Do You Ever Doubt? Question? Wonder About God?

The great scholar William Temple once wrote, “Until we have reached the perfect understanding, which must be beyond our grasp so long as this life lasts, the wise man will alternate between these two activities, using his religion as the inspiration and guidance of his life unless he sees real reason for disregarding it, while he is as relentlessly thorough as his mental capacity allows in bringing to bear upon that religion the purging criticism of philosophic inquiry.” In other words, he's describing the wise man as someone who is continually doubtful. Sound strange? It's not.

Every one of us has felt, at some point in our lives, lost, confused, and unsure. Perhaps we thought we had the answers, but then learned we were wrong. Songs play over the radio every day about it, lamenting how we feel. In fact, it is a sin of pride to ever believe that we have the answers – even about God. If we close off our minds to ideas which do not fit our preconceived notions, we push ourselves farther down the dangerous path to arrogance than we ever intended. “Objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny,” evolutionist Steve Jay Gould explained, adding, “and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail.” The old idiom, “the more you know, the more you realize you don't know,” is true of God as well as life. “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt” says Bishop J.A.T. Robinson. Our duty is not to hotly debate whether God exists and whether any given religion is the only way to know him; our duty is to seek the truth, realizing that in the end, whatever little we think we know, there is an unending supply of that which we do not know. “Never, in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know,” argues Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware. Saint Irenaeus said, “not only in this present age but also in the Age to come, God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God.” Eternity signifies unending progress; as Eastern Orthodox bishop Newman puts it, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

But how do we reach this perfection? By seeking the ultimate truth; that is, by seeking God. The symbolism of death and rebirth is an image of change and transformation; it occurs repeatedly in all human history, all myth, all fairytale and folklore, all true religion. In seeking God, we will find that we are constantly being transformed, changing, growing, and thus striving toward perfection. But it is not entirely an intellectual pursuit; it must involve our whole being. “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,” the Muslim mystic Jalal-uddin Rumi wrote; “cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.” The Pali scriptures describe the true disciples as those who are “anxious to learn.” The Christian mystic Eckhart phrased it this way: “why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.” Similarly, the early Church father Evagrius warns, “God cannot be [fully] grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” Every facet we uncover leads us to the overwhelming truth that there are million more facets yet to be uncovered. Even the atheist Bill Maher glimpses this truth when he says, “there is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble.” Doubt is not only natural, it's honest, and it encourages us to keep attempting to find the answers, so long as we are not proud of our ignorance. We must always be learning, listening, growing, and we must learn to love growing, for in the ages to come there will be nothing more – or less – than this. “By doubting we come to inquiry,” states Peter Abelard, “and through inquiry we perceive truth.”

It is in my nature, not just me personally but as a human being, to be inquisitive and to seek to understand the mystery around me. I will continue seeking until I wake from the dream which is this life – but, in this life, I will not determine all the answers. Answers will evade me, even to the bitter end. But if there is to be no conclusion, no closure to this great and divine and spiritual mystery, then all is for naught. There is no meaning if there is no answer. Humanity would not intrinsically desire to find this ultimate truth, if it did not, in the end, exist; poet-saint Kabir described it thus: “behold but One in all things.” It is not enough to wait idly: “draw nigh unto God, and he will draw nigh unto you” (James 4:8). Mystic Tito Colliander writes, “it is for us to begin. If we take one step towards the Lord, he takes ten towards us – he who saw the prodigal son while he was yet at a distance, and had compassion and ran and embraced him.” If we search, honestly and with an open heart as well as an open mind, we will find in all of the true religions of the world, past and present, the same virtues: humility, self-denial, perseverance, charity, love. These are only small manifestations of the eternal truth, but they help to guide us toward that ultimate answer which we eternally seek. It is a long and possibly lonely journey, but it is one we must take. “Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life,” Christ taught, “and few find it,” because so few of us truly search for it. The taoist monk Chuang Tzu similarly stated, “great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses.”

“O nobly born,” reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “the time has now come for thee to seek the Path.” So long as we acknowledge that we have doubt and are willing to search, we are on the right path. So long as we are honest about being unsure, it does not matter if we follow Christ, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or Moses, or Ekeko, or Krishna, or Zoroaster, or Sango, or Baha'i Ullah, or Joseph Smith, or even Richard Dawkins. It is enough, then, to say: “all I know is that there is something ultimate to know, and that I do not yet know it.”

There is an anecdote recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and it goes as follows. One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony, and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said, “You have not yet found the answer.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “And what do you think the text means?” He replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: I do not know.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lament of the Frightened

'Tis not hope till it ceases to be reasonable,
A man once said. And what he meant
Was that in times of horrid dread
We must cling to our hope eternal - but, if things seem hopeful,
Hope is dead.

A simple man may not be bothered by
A complex fear, but I have found
That though I hold the simple dear
I cannot help but clutch at straws, gasping for air, until
Safety is clear.

But even faith cannot commit my restless
Heart to peace. The terror seeps
From heart to head and head to knees
Then to my hands, which clench in fists, so long I know
They will not cease.

My Death approaches! See him marching in full dress,
His aim in sight, and as I try to run
I trip, I stumble, I alight - 
In that escape which seems so far from where I am,
My Death takes flight.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A few words on the Left Behind series

The words are not my own (and are perhaps a little tardy, given the first book of the series was written in 1995), but those of Daniel Radosh, author of Rapture Ready!
To say the Left Behind books are badly written is like saying the Great Wall of China is long. I use this analogy - cliched, unhelpful, and awkward - because LaHaye and Jenkins use it themselves in the first book: "To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long." The comparison is even worse in this context - what does China have to do with Israel? - but what is most revealing is that the Cameron Williams character who wrote this sentence is supposed to be a brilliant and famous journalist. "To say the Israelis were caught off guard was like saying the Great Wall of China is long" is not just a random bad sentence, it's LaHaye and Jenkins's idea of Pulitzer-winning prose.
Cameron Williams is one of Left Behind's two main heroes. His friends call him Buck, "because they said he was always bucking tradition and authority." The other hero is Rayford Steele, an airline pilot. That's right, Buck Williams and Rayford Steele. There's also Steve Plank, Bruce Barnes, and Dick Burton. Apparently, having a porn star name is enough to keep you from getting raptured.
He later makes this point, something subtly lost on the series' target audience:
LaHaye and Jenkins protest vehemently when critics accuse them of bloodlust. They preach the unvarnished truth, they say, because they love non-Christians and want them to be saved. They take no glee in anyone's demise.
Let's go ahead and read an excerpt from the final book of the main series.
Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.... Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.
As Radosh says, "Suffice it to say that these claims are hard to square with what's in their books." Someone who truly understands Christianity couldn't in seriousness write something about "the unforgiving brightness... of Christ."

Radosh's description continues, unabashedly pointing out the idiocies and idiosyncrasies of the Left Behind books, concluding his poignant rant with this last, beautiful sentiment, which sums the entire series up in one sentence: "Gloria in excelsis Deo, motherfucker."

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Here is a fantastic quote from Stephen Jay Gould:
Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud's three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to ‘descent from an animal world’; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush—a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.
— "The Evolution of Life On Earth," Scientific American 271 (October 1994): 91.
The best part is Freud's arrogant statement about smashing the pedestal of human arrogance. Classic.

When smashing black holes looks like theoretical nuclear physics
A new article out in PRL describes the authors' numerical solutions to the problem of colliding black holes. Not just any black holes, either. Fast ones.
In general relativity (Einstein's famous spacetime; see a tutorial here), black holes are the objects so dense, so massive, that they warp spacetime to the point that no light can escape. All manner of strange physics takes place inside of black holes, including the smashing together of particles moving nearly the speed of light (the authors refer to this regime as "ultrarelativistic," which seems odd to me, like saying that something is "ultralogarithmic," but oh well). This is what connects black holes to the Large Hadron Collider - the conditions in the LHC, as well as in collisions between ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and the upper atmosphere, are ripe for producing events where large kinetic energies (kinetic energy is much greater than the rest mass energy) and small distances (such that the C.M. energy is beyond the Planck scale and gravity will dominate) will create outcomes theoretically similar to those within black holes. In particular, two colliding black holes would provide evidence for gravity waves (ripples in spacetime due to moving mass), the very thing LIGO hopes to detect.

(image credits: Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

The paper itself is short (as PRL articles are), but it describes the methods and solutions for several sets of initial conditions. The simulated collision starts with two non-rotating, "boosted" (in other words, moving quickly) black holes of equal mass, varying in speed from 36% to 94% of the speed of light. The amount of energy radiated - in essence, lost to gravity waves - is given as a percentage of the total mass of the two colliding black holes. Earlier estimates placed an upper limit on this fraction at 29%, but the authors find that 14% is more likely.

This discrepancy, according to the authors, is important to searches for gravity waves, both at LIGO and the LHC. If you're expecting to lose 29% of your total energy but really only lose half of that, you'll be looking for your data in the wrong place.

The thing I find most amusing is how similar two colliding black holes look, mathematically, to two colliding particles, like nuclei or nucleons. That, as you get into the strange regimes on either side of the energy and dimension scales (either extremely high or extremely low), particles, even black holes, behave more like waves. From my point of view, anyway, it feels elegant (although I know I don't have a full understanding of general relativity). It's a pity that Einstein never believed in quantum mechanics.

Ulrich Sperhake, Vitor Cardoso, Frans Pretorius, Emanuele Berti, José A. González (2008). High-Energy Collision of Two Black Holes Physical Review Letters, 101 (16) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.101.161101

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ha! Ha, ha ha!

Poking around the website dedicated to that science which "makes us laugh, then makes us think" for the 2008 Ig Nobels, I came across this little gem (a pdf is available on arxiv - see below). Beautiful. Just beautiful.

I find it rather painfully amusing, only because it is true. There is a push in journals of "high renown" for papers to have lots of references, to show the importance of your work (though this is obviously a skewed metric). This forces authors to "copy and paste" reference lists (PhD theses are particularly bad), leading to the conclusion that only 20% of authors actually read the article they're citing.

It makes one want to go back to that website that randomly generates computer science papers. That was fun.

On a similar note, the Physics Nobel prize for 2008 has been awarded for the prediction of symmetry breaking at the subatomic level. Congratulations... although, why on earth would one give a Nobel prize to only the K and M of CKM?

M.V. Simkin, V.P. Roychowdhury (2003). Read before you cite! Complex Syst., 14, 269-274 DOI: arXiv:cond-mat/0212043v1

Sunday, October 5, 2008

That's "Religulous," Bill

After dinner out on Friday evening, the boys and I went to see Bill Maher's Religulous, at the only theater in Knoxville showing the film. It was, as you might expect, inflammatory and unscrupulous, sparing no one, but funny as hell, and at times even approaching kernels of (if you'll excuse the term) miraculous truth. Maher has made his documentary in the same way that Ben Stein made his, in the same way that Michael Moore makes his. He picks those individuals who personify the extremes (truckers in a Baptist chapel in Raleigh and a anti-Zionist Jewish rabbi who was at Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent "there was no Holocaust" symposium, for example) and uses them to justify his position that religion is, on the whole, a dangerous and idiotic mass hysteria.

Instead of going into a rant on the many points on which I disagreed with Maher (there are certainly many - not all Muslims are violent extremists, for one, Christians and Jews are not required to believe that a man named Jonah literally lived inside of a whale/big fish for three days, and fairy tales speak to the human condition just as validly as do religious parables), I will point out his one major and manifestly brilliant truth, and his one major and manifestly impressive fault. A man's greatest virtue is also his greatest vice, as they say.

Five minutes from the end of the film, Maher quotes (and this is from memory, so I apologize that it is paraphrased):
There is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble.
This is an amazing gem of genius. He's right, and he's more right that he is probably even aware. All religions, whether we acknowledge it or recognize it or not, teach that God - the ultimate Truth - is also ultimately unknowable (and so he does misspeak when he calls it the "arrogant certainty of religion;" what he means is the "arrogant certainty" of anyone who believes they're right and everyone else is wrong). No one has faith so strong that they do not have doubt, for doubt is a part of our innate human nature. It is part of what makes us human. We are, and must always be, searching, learning, seeking, asking. We never know all there is to know, nor can we, for we are human. Doubt is not a sin, as perhaps many misinformed people would have us believe. Doubt is indeed inherently humble, because it is the explicit and implicit acknowledgement that we don't know all the answers, and this makes it virtuous.

Continuing, however, Maher then authoritatively tells his audience to grow up and "give up" religion before we destroy each other and ourselves. His doubt - that virtue which, for one brief, shining and glorious moment, he understood to mean that he didn't understand - had transformed into an ugly arrogance, the very kind he was defaming. When doubt is preached as the alternative to faith, it has become, not a virtue, but a false idol. His doubt, in his mind, had become worthy of praise. He spent the remaining five minutes of the movie showing file footage of war and people in "religious" hysteria, claiming that all evils had been wrought on the world by religion, and by supposition claiming that his anti-religious doubt was therefore the cure for the world's ills. From that one brief but beautiful truth, he descends into the pride against which he rallied, and that is his one major flaw.

In the end, the movie will make you angry, unless you agree with Maher completely. That's fine. It has served its purpose if it makes you question and think and want to do something about it. But if you approach the film with the wrong mindset, you are destined to only become angry, and have nothing good or productive come from it. It is only his pride which offends our own. Learn from it if you will; "whoever has ears to hear, let him listen."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Good dog

Here's to you, Claire.

I remember the day I first saw you. Your amber eyes reminded me of a wolf, and we gazed at each other through the glass of the kennel window, mesmerized.
I remember the day we brought you home; you were so excited that you tore up the stairs before we could catch you, and took a running leap from the stairwell right onto the nice oak kitchen table.
I remember the way you would chase squirrels so relentlessly that you ripped your own toenails trying to follow the little bastards up the tree in the backyard.
I remember when we first taught you bow, and shake, and beg, and sit, and down.
I remember how you'd never bark at dogs passing on the street until they were past the property line, as if to say, "and don't come back!"
I remember how ecstatic you'd become whenever one of us would ask if you wanted "to gofer." Ride in the car, walk, it didn't matter. You'd knock us down the stairs if we weren't careful.
I remember how adept you were at removing bandages from your leg. And how you shed so much, we would joke that we could make a whole new dog.
I remember the days when you were so lazy, you'd take up half the couch and refuse to move to let us watch TV.
And I remember the day my Mom told me you had cancer, and had to be put down.

"We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults. Heaven has accorded this to us in the uncritical canine attachment."
~ George Eliot

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The $700 billion "do-over"

I must admit that I have not followed this mess as closely as some, and I must also admit immediately that I am not at all trying to downplay the suffering which some Americans have felt. What I do want to say, however, is that anyone who plays the market knew at the outset that the stock market is volatile, and there are no guarantees. It was a risk, and it was a risk they felt was sufficiently small (or, at least, acceptable). So when the market turns and people everywhere throw up their hands in grief and exasperation, crying, "help us, we've lost all our money!" - when that day comes, you will hopefully excuse me for being a bit disconcerted. NPR's writer put it this way:
The Bush administration's plan to bail out the nation's financial institutions represents an unprecedented intervention in free markets. If the Wall Street bailout is adopted, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky said last week, "the free market for all intents and purposes is dead in America."

A fundamental principle of free-market capitalism is that investors take on big risks to reap big rewards — but they also assume any losses that occur. The government's plan would radically alter that model, leaving profits private while making losses public.

The Bush administration wants the $700 billion buyout so that those upper-middle-class Americans who so deftly tend to think they are "above" the market can continue living in the manner to which they are accustomed. Wake up, people! If you can't afford to lose money in the stock market, you can't afford to make money in the stock market. Why should my taxed be raised such that people with three cars and a nice home and a yard and 2.5 children and a golden retriever be able to continue their weekly shopping trip to the mall? I work hard and I save my money. I should not be penalized because a bunch of people who are well-off and comfortable feel less so because of mistakes they made themselves. Don't buy a house you can't afford! Don't opt for an adjustable rate mortgage! Don't put thousands of dollars into the stock market that you can't afford to lose! Why do we treat stupidity like an incurable disease?

I know there are many people out there who are - or will be - negatively affected by the downturn in the market, including (probably) family members. I knew people who lost thousands when the proverbial bubble burst back in the late nineties. And I know that it is decidedly un-Christian to complain about helping others. But we need to understand where the true need lies. Helping those in middle-class suburbia who vote Republican and want to have the nicest landscaped lawn on South Walden Street get out of their self-imposed debts is not the real need. Providing food, water, medical care, clothing and shelter ("basic necessities," for those of you who can't remember) for those who have nothing, those who live on the street or in homeless shelters or squeeze a dozen to an apartment in dirty buildings just a few blocks from the flashy facades of Wall Street, it is these poor souls who need are help. Put the $700 billion into better public schools, into soup kitchens, into grants to help the underprivileged get their GED and get a job. Put it into buying seed and livestock for dirt-poor farmers in developing countries and into providing cheap medical insurance and daycare for single parents.

If my ranting seems decidedly socialist, I apologize. I have no problem with capitalism, as long as those - and only those - who choose to play the game are forced to abide by the rules. A $700 billion buyout, funded by the tax dollars of someone like me, is not the solution.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


A record for the SWIFT telescope - they've observed a gamma-ray burst a whopping 12.8 billion lightyears distant. I wonder if this is a good time to mention 18F....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I suppose I should also mention that on Friday, September 12th, I successfully defended my PhD thesis, and this week have completed all of the necessary paperwork for the degree.

...That makes me a doctor! Huzzah!

Feels like home

Anyone who didn't see this coming, raise your hand. What can I say? Life at a physics lab.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Here's to the LHC - tomorrow will be a day of great scientific progress. As has been said: "the end of the world is not nigh."

UPDATE (September 10th): here


I love road trips like this one. The kind that remind you that all across Middle America there are Best Westerns with individual names, Holidomes with themed indoor pools, stands of cottonwoods and Russian olive that betray the presence of water, signs for "Adult Superstore" and "Gateway Fundamental Bible Church" juxtaposed across the interstate, and long stretches of highway that are so straight and so flat and so relentlessly windswept that they are often closed during inclement weather. There is a world unto itself that exists only within the two-mile wide swath of land that follows the course of the Eisenhower Interstate System across the country.
Last night included a stopover in Topeka, in a hotel full of army recruits and a marriage counseling seminar. I arrived late, but got a room. I slept on a superfluous pile of pillows. I was reminded of how the Holiday Inn hospitality facial soap smells a little bit like Fruit Loops.
I awoke in the night in a cold sweat, heart pounding, breath shallow. I awoke from a dream in which I was desperately trying to kill, or otherwise escape, a rattlesnake. It is unpleasant enough to dream of having a poisonous rattler twining around your ankles and striking at your heels, as you vainly throw rocks at its head. But when the dream is only one in a string over a week long of unsettling (if not explicitly violent) dreams which wake you and prevent you from returning to a restful slumber, then something is wrong. Needless to say, something is wrong with me.
I am preparing for my dissertation defense. Maybe that's it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Short story

A park. There is a small playground, sand contained within a rectangle of old railroad ties, with a creaking metal swingset and a broad metal tongue of a slide, the kind that burns you when you ride down it in the height of summer. It is not that hot now, thankfully; it is October, the air clear and cloudless blue, crisp and chilly with a slight breeze that childishly tousles your hair and wordlessly bids you draw your light jacket a little closer to your chin. The playground is surrounded by grass, too tall and full of weeds from weeks of neglect since the end of the warm season. Trees farther out in a concentric circle; narrow and tall deciduous trees, light-colored bark and varicolored leaves, some still green, more yellow and brown. Some on the grass below. Beyond that, a baseball diamond, and a paved path meanders around through the trees from the parking lot as far as the edge of the neighborhood, occasionally following a small creek, overgrown with underbrush and icy cold.

A small child is climbing the small fort of the playground equipment, the worn timbers shaking slightly under his heavy, unsteady steps. He is probably four or five, bundled in a coat far too large and too thick for the pleasantness of the sunshine. He pulls himself up the wooden steps, carefully maneuvers the rope bridge, attains the heights of his castle and then slides down, sometimes on his belly, others on his back. Repeats this cycle, endlessly amused. There is sand in his shoes.

His mother, a thin, brown-haired woman of her early thirties, sits nearby on an old park bench. She has dark-rimmed reading glasses and carries a bulky bag, laden with those items which an attentive mother always has in her bag. Kleenex. Granola bars. Her cell phone. A change of socks for her son. She has a crime drama novel with her, but she glances up from it to her son every few seconds, delaying her reading progress. He squeals with the delight of a young child at play and she smiles, making a mental note to run to the store and pick up a few stalks of celery before dinner.

The neighborhood is relatively quiet. It is the kind of morning that is brisk and compelling of silence. The breeze rustles leaves in the trees and pushes them halfheartedly along the grass, and birdsong is subdued, but not unreasonably so. There is a peacefulness here, a kind almost unknown at the airport on the other side of the city. It is a normal airport with normal passengers and a normal food court. One of these passengers finds herself gazing sleepily out the window that looks out over the tarmac, waiting for boarding to begin. Her connection was only a few minutes late. Nothing terrible like that evening spent in Dallas. Three gate changes and five extra hours of waiting, that time. And in Texas. It was nigh insufferable.

The plane, an average-sized Airbus with newer paint and two wing-mounted engines, arrives at the gate. Employees bustle, passengers disembark. Fuel, baggage, food, cleaning. She watches, silently. A lump rises slowly in her throat. It is almost time. She checks her boarding pass again.

“Anne?” She turns her eyes to the young man sitting next to her. He has lowered his book. “You scared?”

Anne sighs, inaudibly to everyone but herself. The lump remains. “Yeah.”

“You've done this a million times before. You made it here already. You know it's perfectly safe.”

“Yeah, I know.”

The young man takes her hand in his, gently, his book now closed. “Look at me.” She does. “I promise you, it will be just fine.” Anne flinches, just barely, at the words, but she sees her hand in his and trusts him. She searches for words, but he beats her to it. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” Her breath is short, shallow, painful.

There is a sorrowful look in the young man's eyes, something deep and buried. “It hurts me to see you like this. I love you too much to sit idly and watch you suffer.”

Anne feels a twinge of guilt. “I can't help it, Greg” she manages to whisper.

A woman with a strong Spanish accent is announcing the boarding. Others are already dragging their bags through the gate and down to the plane; Anne and Greg stand, slowly, and join the line. Anne twists the boarding pass nervously in her hands, which are clammy. All that therapy for nothing, she thinks to herself. They board. They taxi. She grips Greg's hand as the plane accelerates down the runway. Take off. The landing gear retracts, the engines are cut back, the flaps pulled in.

Anne stares willfully out the window next to her seat. She can still see the ground from here; look, there is the parking lot of the airport. A highway. A shopping mall, the parking lot still considerably empty. More roads, stores, a McDonald's. The plane rattles, and she draws her breath sharply. Greg takes her hand, squeezes reassuringly. A neighborhood, somewhat wooded. She exhales. A small, nice-looking park. They are banking slightly to the left now. The plane rattles. The plane explodes.

A tremendous explosion rocks the entire plane violently to the left. The smell of smoke, ozone, jet fuel. The plane is spinning about some imaginary axis, shaking and shuddering and filling with smoke. It is falling from the sky. Screaming and crying, the whine of one engine and the frightening mechanical rumbling of the other. Anne is hyperventilating, whimpering. She tears her stare from the sickeningly spinning horizon, looks at Greg. She's not certain she can even see him. Her stomach turns, the disgusting taste of bile stopped high in her throat. The noise is unbearable, and the smell of burning grows by the second. It is getting warmer, and they are falling. Anne squeezes her eyes shut. She prays.

It is suddenly silent. Not the sort of ringing silence that follows an explosion, but utterly devoid of sound. There is no sensation, either. Anne opens her eyes, cautiously. There is nothing but herself and a homogeneous background of white.

Anne becomes aware that she can see her own body as though she was still in it, but that it provides her no sensation except sight. She can hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, feel nothing. To her horror, the skin on her arms begins to blister, then crack and curl as if burning. But she can only see it and think it; there is no sensation. What is happening to me? she asks. Am I dead?

Dying, replies a Voice. It did not come from outside her. It was inside her head. Or, more honestly, coming through her head.

I don't want to die! she protests to the Voice, panic rising in her chest.

If you accept it, you will find peace, the Voice says.

Anne is terrified to find she can't seem to move. There is no reference for movement. Her arms are charred now, and her clothing torn. A deep gash, down to the bone, has appeared in her left leg. She cannot feel it. The Voice anticipates her question.

If you choose to return, you will feel it. It will be immensely painful.

Anne wants to cry, but isn't certain whether she is or isn't. I'm too scared. I don't want to die, she protests again.

Greg desires to stay, the Voice tells her.

Anne struggles with something within herself. That doesn't sound like him, she replies. He would want to be wherever I am. He's waiting for my choice.

You are correct, the Voice states, but he wishes for you to stay.

Anne surveys her body, broken and burned and seemingly detached from her. She feels as though she exists only in panic and this frightening, bleak whiteness. God, I'm not ready, she thinks, finally. What of my family?

There comes a sound that seems to surround her and eminate from her, all at once, almost like a chuckle. It is soothing in a way she cannot explain. That is the Anne I know, the Voice indicates. You are not so selfish, sometimes. Anne can almost sense that the Voice is smiling. Its approval is an inexplicable relief to her.

Where is Greg? she wonders.

Right beside you, if you will really look, the Voice replies. Anne glances to her right, and Greg is there, somehow, right next to her. In fact, their hands are still clasped tightly between them. He is smiling at her.

Anne, I will go where you go, he says lovingly. She doesn't understand how she can hear him. His lips do not move. But his voice is there, and so is he.

What happens now? she pleads the Voice. Again, the enveloping almost-chuckle.

Now, you must choose. I cannot choose for you. The Voice is more stern than she expects. She is still panicky and desires unbearably to relax. She hates not having control. You do have control, the Voice explains. Whatever you choose shall be.

Anne turns again to Greg, who is there and not there; a body and a mind but somehow unreal and distant. He is damaged like she is, but his eyes are clear and bright and assessing, as they are at the best of moments. You're stubborn, he laughs, unmoving. You want to go back.

Sentences ended with prepositions; she hates that. I want to return, Anne corrects him. Then everything is black.

A noise; something distant but growing closer, a repeating beeeep-beep, like an electronic heartbeat. It was beside her now. Anne forced her eyelids to rise, lead weights, both of them. It was an electronic heartbeat; a machine monitoring her pulse. A hospital bed. Voices, disembodied. A searing flash of pain in her leg, and she emitted an uncontrolled, weak and airy yelp, acutely aware of her body now. The voices approach. Not the Voice, but several, distinct, human.

“You're awake,” one says. Anne didn't know, but it was one of the surgeons, the husband of the woman who had witnessed the plane crash from her peaceful park bench.

The word was on her tongue, dry and unpalatable, but she shoves it out: “Greg?”

The voices speak softly amongst themselves. There is paper flipping. Anne drops her eyelids again; the weight of them too much, the brightness of the room exceptional. “He's here,” says another voice. “Down the hallway.”

Anne consciously follows her breathing, in and out, slowly and with tremendous effort. Labored. You're stubborn, she hears him say. And she cries.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conrad Noel

"When I was a boy, with others I used to sing with hearty delight: 'Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,' and I fear I thoroughly enjoyed the milk and honey, or rather milk and water tune, to which it was then attached. Both tune and words gave us a 'comfy feeling' and reminded us of that Heaven beyond to which we aspired. But as I grew older I began to feel rather ashamed of my love for such hymns, with the growing conviction that Heaven was not to be sought beyond the skies, but to be brought down from those same skies, and established upon the earth. I began to see what a hell men had made of this earth, and resented their telling the poor to keep quiet here, for all their wrongs would be righted above." - Conrad Noel in "Jesus the Heretic"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Fear of death

To Whom it May Concern:
I am deathly afraid. It is a fear which haunts me even in sleep; it grips the very heart and soul of me and refuses me respite. It is a fear which prevents me from living the life I was - or, at least, believed myself to be - intended to live. It is a fear which shakes my foundations and rattles me to the core, leaving me gasping for breath, palms clammy, muscles taught, jaw clenched, heart pounding. And now I am forced to face my own certain death once again.
Psychologists call it a "phobia." It is irrational at best. I know it is illogical, unreasonable; that it constitutes something within myself that I am completely and totally unable to control. I have a decisive lack of conscious willpower over one tiny unconscious thought, and so that one tiny thought is able to spread fear throughout my psyche as one small drop of yeast leavens the whole loaf of bread. Whatever the cause, the symptoms are obvious.
And so I am writing to request two things of those who know me and would call me friend. I am convinced, due in totality to this unnamed fear, that I will not live to see the sun rise on Monday morning. I humbly ask these two favors, then: that my book manuscript be published, and that my thesis be submitted. If, then, the world awakes to a new week in which I am no longer present, a legacy of me may still exist. Perhaps prideful or selfish, I know, but I fear being unable to complete those works which I have set out to do before my time ceases.
This is the last and most painful wish of a weak and frightened human being.
With all my love,

Friday, August 8, 2008

Shakespeare and sandwiches

Went for dinner with the boys last night, then over to Shakespeare on the Square. I realize that the production of The Merchant of Venice (and goodness, had I forgotten how antisemitic it was!) was not meant to be a highly glamorous or professional one, but - I hate to say it - I was at least expecting costumes. Antonio and his hacks are all played by young Tennesseans who think to be Italian is to be Italian American (think Tony Soprano), but Shylock's performance was decent enough to remind us of which play we were viewing. The evening ended with a pleasant bowl of ice cream before leaving Market Square.
On the way home, the strange topic of "southern" cuisine managed to work its way into the conversation. If you can't coat it in sugar, ketchup (or, equivalently, bar-b-que sauce) or gravy, you can deep fry it. This, for no reason, bid us delve into the strange world of the montecristo sandwich. Now I can understand the frying of individual, quantized, whole objects - a shrimp or a chicken breast or something - but whose idea was it to try and construct a sandwich out of many constituent parts, and then coat the entire thing in batter and fry it as a whole? "We're sorry, sir, it seems like a fine idea, but we build the sandwich and then go to fry it, and as soon as we do, it breaks apart and is no longer a sandwich." Does anyone else see the idiocy of this idea? At some point in time, someone had to engineer a solution that problem. We could be spending our time solving world hunger, but no! - we have to figure out how to keep this sandwich from falling apart when we deep fry it. What a marvel of human ingenuity.
Sometimes I wonder.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Science Rap at the LHC

This is what happens when you let a bunch of physicists make a movie.

CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.

I love it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


A story on CNN indicates that, in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the only two people in America ever to be put to death for the crime of treason, old testimony is now being reexamined. Experts say that Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, may have lied on the stand, accusing his sister of helping to type espionage notes for distribution. Although 46 witnesses gave testimony against the Rosenbergs, Greenglass's was considered the most damning against Ethel. Greenglass himself was working at Los Alamos, and was guilty, too, of providing secrets to the Russians - but, when arrested by the FBI in 1950, he was quick to implicate the Rosenbergs, and thus escaped a similar sentence.
Though the story here is involved and, without doubt, complicated, one thing stands out in my mind. We executed two people for, in essence, not being "patriotic enough." Where is the justice in that?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The religious "right"

Colorado officials have granted ballot status to Amendment 48, a document which, if passed and enacted, would change the legal definition of a "person" to be "any human being from the moment of fertilization."

Does this mean a miscarriage can be prosecuted as involuntary manslaughter?

Dark humor aside, this is a very serious issue. All manner of legal implications are entwined in this one little statement. Abortion, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, emergency contraception - even the jurisdiction of soon-to-be parents over their fetus in medical situations - and the rest of the proverbial "gamut" are capable of being involved. We don't even realize the full impact possible.
The timing here seems odd, given that, though Colorado is traditionally a red state (thanks to the relatively rich aerospace industry engineers who prefer to pay low taxes), it does, at the moment, have a liberal majority in the state legislative body. However, there is a growing number of "born again" Christians in the area around Colorado Springs, and this population may be behind the push for the amendment (I encourage readers to check out the movie Jesus Camp). An editorial in the Rocky Mountain News states that "the young woman who is credited with promoting this initiative believes that if a fertilized egg is declared a 'person,' she will be able to stop the use of many contraceptives and all abortions."

This is an utterly frightening concept for me.

I often joke with friends about defecting to Canada, but this just about clinches the deal. The government is formed by me (the people) and on my behalf. It is for my benefit. It's bad enough that I can't bring a bottle of shampoo on a plane; soon, the misplaced vindictiveness of fundamental Christians (don't forget, Jesus taught love and compassion) will prevent me from having any sort of control over my own body.

Never have I desired more strongly to say "my God, I'm pro-choice."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Story

As I drove to work this morning, I listened to the score to the movie The Rock and was reminded, once again, of how great music tells a story. But this trite consideration bade me pause. What does it mean that we appreciate a rollicking story or a narrative piece of music? We, collectively as a race, must be able to tell a good story before we can truly appreciate one, and conversely we must be able to appreciate a good story - if you'll excuse the expression, the Greatest Story Ever Told - before attempting to tell one. We think of such things as literature, art, music - culture - as commonplace, and yet we find it nowhere else in nature. Perhaps those elephants and gorillas which, at zoos, have been given a paintbrush and proclaimed painters, perhaps they are still developing the skill of storytelling so that one day theirs too may be told. But humanity, at the moment, is strikingly different, in that we assemble words and musical notes and brush strokes into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This collectively innate ability is not accidental. We have developed this ability in order to see our own existence as something which must, as a composite, become greater than the sum of its parts. Here, of course, is where the cynic sees pendantic philanthropy, but here is also where I see God. God bids us become "perfect, like your heavenly Father is perfect," to become one with the Tao, to become connected to the Atman and know "that art thou." God's creativity expresses itself through our own, and just as a talented author's story must lead us down a coherent path to a triumphant conclusion, so too must our story end in the redemption of all humanity to that state which is greater still than each of us can accomplish of our own accord.

Monday, July 7, 2008

IYA 2009

2009, the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first astronomical use of a telescope, has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. A link to the website is here. To quote the organizers, "all humans should realize the impact of astronomy and basic sciences on our daily lives, and understand better how scientific knowledge can contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society." I encourage everyone to get involved.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My hero

I have discovered myself at the intersection of two of my favorite things, xkcd and MacGyver (in "Macgyver Gets Lazy"):

"At the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a wonderful article titled 'List of problems solved by Macgyver'." It's here.

I heard once that Richard Dean Anderson didn't like playing the character of Angus MacGyver, and preferred his role in Stargate-SG1. I desire that would not be true; however, if it is, it is only proof that we are more interested in being commanders than being problem-solvers, financiers rather than physicists. It would appear, then, that my hero is merely a character, fictitious, having no counterpart in the real world. What a sad day that is.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Over the past couple weeks, they've been installing new transmission lines around the lab. Not sure why, really; perhaps the old wooden poles are rotted and weak, or perhaps the old wires are too few. Whatever the reason, the work proceeds unabated.
The new poles are gargantuan, brushed metal monstrosities with Vishnu-esque arms strung with cables that appear capable of constraining Leviathan (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). A forest of poles has spawned along two of the roads through the main campus, one every couple hundred feet, so intimidating and moliminous that one might suspect a bridge was to be built upon them, instead of only high voltage wires. I wonder haphazardly whether they have been erected merely to match the new air handling system atop the 5600 complex - an AC unit large enough to require stairs and handrails. One consistently feels the tiny droplets of water that shower off the unit's colossal fan blades when passing within a block of the building.
The entire outfit bids me ponder the point of our misplaced obsession with bigness. Not even limited to size, the desire for more manifests itself in all aspects of our lives. I think we choose to ignore our position as simply a part of the whole. Our desire is to be the whole.

The cap from the Jones soda I drank today said "a thrilling time is in my immediate future." I suppose, based on the fact that I have upcoming a beach vacation, a conference in Michigan and a conference in Germany, that the bottlecap is correct in its assessment. I only hope "thrilling" refers to a positive experience - not "thrilling" in the sense of "thriller" movies.

It has finally been raining a bit recently. Not enough, but it's something. I emerged from the counting room to discover the ground damp and the air fresh and cool. All of the colors surrounding me were deeper hued, washed of their mediocrity. I could breathe the newness of it all; consume it and hold it within my lungs like liquid oxygen. As Adam Duritz once sang, I am the Rain King.

I don't know what to tell Netflix when it asks me, "Has the prestige arrived?" For whom am I waiting? I didn't realize Netflix personally sent important diplomats to deliver my movies.

My thoughts get lost in a hazy atmosphere of rate parameterizations and arctangents. It's no wonder I can't seem to collect them anymore.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Happy Birthday!

For anyone who cares (as I do), Mathematica turned 20 today.
I grew up on Mathematica, so to speak; my first analytically solved wavefunction (for a wave packet incident upon a finite potential barrier) was animated in Mathematica. I drooled when version 5 was released. I did many a senior-level optics problem in Mathematica. Our astrophysics final project, to generate via simulation our own H-R diagram, was completed with none other than Mathematica.
Stephen Wolfram may not be the nicest guy in the world, but his computational platform is a thing of beauty.
Happy birthday, Mathematica!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Scientists Gone Wild!

Just in case anyone might think I have no sense of humor regarding my own chosen profession, here is a link to a recent news story on CBS Evening News. The video is absolutely hilarious.

What I want to know is: why haven't I been invited to these conferences?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another launch

Hats off to GLAST.
A video of the launch is available on the BBC website (reminds me of the giddiness I felt when Spitzer launched, or watching the live video feed from NASA mission control when the most recent Mars rovers landed).

Friday, June 6, 2008

Gullible (part 2)

Looks like we have discovered the next cold fusion. Do these people neglect to consider basic physics out of ignorance? Or is it spite?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I hear the word gullible isn't actually in the dictionary.
Here is a news story posted today on CNN. Here is the conclusion of a similar story from The Guardian (also discussed here).
And it's not even April Fools Day. Odd.
You grew a new, operational dog uterus, really? Where's the peer-reviewed journal article? Where's the medical therapy study? Why do I get the strange feeling that we've discovered the next cold fusion? I personally know scientists who tried - unsuccessfully - to replicate the University of Utah results. We refuse to learn these lessons, over and over again.
One should always be wary of "science" that first publishes its results in the popular media.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Virtuoso Paganini

Last night was (and tonight is) the season finale of the KSO for 2007-2008. Beginning with Elgar's fourth Pomp and Circumstance march, Paganini's first violin concerto was to follow, played by an illustrious Ilya Kaler.
Although tremendously impressed by the soloist's technical skill, I was decidedly unimpressed by the performance as a whole. It could be, perhaps, that my already sour mood was partly to blame; it could also be that Paganini wrote mainly for himself, and the concerto sounded more like a ridiculously fast and shrill version of those exercises one learns when first trying a string instrument than actual music. Either way, he received a standing ovation, reappeared on stage several times, and on the fourth reentrance decided to grace us all with an encore solo piece which, again, was brimming with technicality but devoid of soul.
The second half of the concert was the real reason I was there. Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. I listened to the Andante, as the theme started out soft and slow. Soon, the painfully familiar notes of Variation IX began. Richter took the movement slowly and I sank into it as into mud; as the theme swelled larger and stronger, I became aware of the blood pumping through my body, moving back and forth in heaving spurts, alternating warmer and cooler. The piece, as a wave on the shoreline, crashed right as it crested, and a tear fell from my eye. I was left trembling and breathless, my muscles achingly tense, my attention rapt but elsewhere, until the musicians broke from their still silence and turned pages, shaking me from the spell.
It is enough to recount what the program notes said of Variation IX to understand the gravity of the movement.
"Variation IX. Nimrod is August Jaeger, perhaps the closest friend Elgar ever had, other than his wife Alice. A German immigrant, he touchingly sustained the composer through frequent periods of self-doubt and depression. Understandably, then, this music is the very core of the Enigma Variations. 'Jaeger' is German for 'hunter,' and Nimrod, Noah's son, is the 'mighty hunter' referred to in Genesis 10. The variation recalls 'a long summer evening talk' with Jaeger concerning 'the slow movements of Beethoven... It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of [Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata].' Jaeger died a youn man in 1909, still sorely missed twenty years later as Elgar wrote: 'His place has been occupied but never filled.' "
It is a pain with which I am far too familiar.
The concert ended on Elgar's pompous self-portrait, the last of the Variations, and another standing ovation ensued. Taking the stage one last time, the orchestra played a rousing encore of a better known Elgar piece: the first Pomp and Circumstance march.
The night over, we battled the Sundown crowd once more to make our way onto the interstate, then headed home, a bit wistful, a bit sorrowful, but, in the end, glad to have been.
And, lest the post end on a depressing note, I woke this morning with a different tune in my head.

Friday, May 16, 2008

When acronyms go bad

For anyone in my line of work (I realize, of course, that this does not constitute a large fraction of the population), particle detection is of supreme importance. We need to know what reaction products we've made and where they went and with what energy. Specific to our lab, we run many experiments with beams of very heavy particles (like tin) striking targets of much lighter particles (like hydrogen). Typically, beams of light particles will be sent into much heavier targets, and that's what's called normal or forward kinematics. What we do, then, is referred to as inverse kinematics. It solves quite a few of the problems inherent with running in normal kinematics (like how to prevent a heavy but radioactive target from decaying away before the experiment is over), but it creates some of its own. Particle detection becomes somewhat more difficult, for one. In the case of (d,p) reactions like we often do here - taking a heavy beam, striking a target of deuterons (that's a hydrogen nucleus with an extra neutron), and detecting the outgoing proton (that's just a hydrogen nucleus) - we need to cover as much space around the reaction as possible with detectors, and they need to have very specific properties to determine important experimental conclusions. Hence, ORRUBA was born.

ORRUBA (the Oak Ridge Rutgers University Barrel Array) is, as the name suggests, in fact, not a resort town in Mexico, but instead an array of particle detectors, in the shape of a barrel around the reaction of interest. We set them up inside a vacuum chamber. We use them to detect the protons from these (d,p) reactions. The detectors look similar to the one shown below.

On a more technical note, the detectors, fabricated by Micron, are silicon wafers with either four position-sensitive resistive strips, eight non-resistive strips, or one large active area (for residual energy detection in a dE-E telescope), in thicknesses of 65, 500 or 1000 micrometers. The design is such that a position resolution of fractions of millimeters is not out of line, and an energy resolution on par with any silicon strip detector, ~50 keV, is to be expected. An early implementation was used here recently in several radioactive ion beam experiments. Another important aspect of the array is the number of electronics channels, which is small enough to be instrumented using conventional electronics. The array itself is designed as two rings, one forward of 90 degrees in the lab, and one backward; a target can easily be manipulated between the two rings. Together, the barrel covers 80% of the total solid angle.

Though the topic of particle detection in nuclear astrophysics may be near and dear to my heart, I think that certain things can be appreciated by nearly everyone. Like the way ORRUBA looks once every detector is in place. It's very sci-fi. It's very cool. Like GAMMASPHERE in The Incredible Hulk. Science isn't untouchable. There's certainly a little art in it. And yes, the first author is actually Dr. Pain. Who wouldn't appreciate that?

PAIN, S., CIZEWSKI, J., HATARIK, R., JONES, K., THOMAS, J., BARDAYAN, D., BLACKMON, J., NESARAJA, C., SMITH, M., KOZUB, R. (2007). Development of a high solid-angle silicon detector array for measurement of transfer reactions in inverse kinematics. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, 261(1-2), 1122-1125. DOI: 10.1016/j.nimb.2007.04.289

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Works of note

I have neglected to write about that which I have just recently finished reading: Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy and William Law's dialogues on The Way to Divine Knowledge. Here's why - both pieces are masterworks which have left me utterly speechless. The truth and wisdom and beauty contained within them is nothing short of inspired. Next on the list is Gospel for Asia by Kenneth Saunders.
All I can say is, go read them for yourself.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Congratulations, sir... it's a platypus
A large consortium of scientists have successfully mapped the genome of the platypus, one of the strangest creatures on the planet. The BBC news story is here.
The platypus is not just physically a strange combination of attributes - the animal displays a mixture of genetic attributes as well, which manifest themselves in its physical appearance, among other things.
If anyone has ever seen a platypus skull, they know what I mean.

(photo of a platypus skull, on display at the Smithsonian in DC)

It turns out, the platypus has ten chromosomes to determine sex, as opposed to the normal mammalian two. However, this doesn't mean the platypus has some unreasonable number of possible genders, since the ten seem to "link" in a way that allows them to always act as either X or Y. Though the outcome is the same - mammalian male or female - the chromosomes themselves are vastly different from the regular X and Y, such as we possess.

I am, even as a scientist, blown away by the progress made recently in the fields of genetics, biology and the like. Being in a field like physics, where much of what we know was learned 40, 50, even 60 years ago, it's exciting to see an area of study where new things are discovered daily. In a way, I'm jealous.
But then I remind myself of that horrid formaldehyde smell that emanates from all biology labs... and I don't feel so bad anymore.

And now, you too can own a piece of this momentous history, thanks to SnorgTees.

Brown, S. (2008). Top billing for platypus at end of evolution tree. Nature, 453(7192), 138-139. DOI: 10.1038/453138a

Friday, April 25, 2008


The boys and I started the evening at Barley's in the Old City (to avoid the Sundown traffic) with a few beers and a Greek pizza. The agenda for the evening: the KSO production of Hector Berlioz' Requiem.
And a production it was. A full chorus on stage, four timpanists and four brass choirs arranged in the corners of the audience. We sat perched on the edge of the balcony, stage right. The lights dimmed. The music began.
Immediately, and throughout the performance, I was taken aback at the overwhelming immensity of the piece. Though full of simple chord progressions and harmonies, some minor, others major, the unforgiving point of the entire Requiem was awe and fear. The piece was large, looming, awesome and terrifying, from the melodies of the flutes to the words of the chorus. Perhaps it was merely the mood in which I happened to be, but I was struck by the notion that a God who would demand such frightened reverence is not only a God I would not love and worship, but a God at whom I grew tremendously angry. I was reminded of a passage in Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy which described that god of fear and awe, the god of destruction as well as creation, the god of Job, of the Aztecs, Moloch and Kali, as a god trapped in time - the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world. How strange and appalling it is to believe in such a god, and to try and reconcile this divine wrath with divine love! Berlioz wrote singly to that god of power, not the God of power, wisdom and love. If we lose any portion of the Godhead in our perception of the Divine (in other words, if we allow our own clouded sight to define the boundaries of what is and what is not, instead of accounting for our limited understanding), it is no wonder we arrive at something which leaves us apprehensive of God.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mimosas and Floria Tosca

Sunday afternoon was the final performance by the Knoxville Opera of Puccini's Tosca. Met for brunch (and the attendant 25 cent mimosas) at DGB, then headed over, picked up our tickets at will call and made it to our seats, on the floor this time instead of the balcony. Although the angle was not optimum for viewing the stage, the closer approach gave the opportunity to see the performers' facial expressions, something which came in tremendously handy when Tosca sang of her painful choice regarding Baron Scarpia. I was moved almost to tears, able to feel her bitter anguish. "The loving Tosca is a prisoner...." She cried out to God, forlorn and forsaken, and when her trembling form finally fell silent and collapsed to the stage floor, the audience erupted into applause, and even I was not opposed to the unscheduled break in the story.
There were, of course, the occasional moments of unbridled idiocy (in case one forgot that one was in Tennessee). The woman behind us was constantly clinking her hefty metal bracelets together, and halfway through the third act, an older lady in the row in front of us decided it was a good time to use a lint roller on her blouse (because, as my friend pointed out, it's imperative to look one's best in the dark). Although I love tragedies (especially those, like Tosca, in which everyone dies), I still am less than enamored with Puccini's treatment of his villain, Scarpia; we already know he's the bad guy, there is no need to sing about his desire to conquest women. But I forget that the character is not speaking to us, merely musing to himself.
After the performance, the boys and I headed over to Market Square to enjoy a beer and the sunshine on the patio of the Preservation Pub, and then went our separate ways. It was a pleasant end to a pleasant day, the highlight of my strenuous (and unfortunately stressful) week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Do this in remembrance

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. It serves to remind us, not only of this horrific event, but of our own tragedies. We take a moment of silence, breathe deeply, perhaps even choke back tears of remembrance. I was a junior in a high school a mere 10 miles away when the Columbine shootings occurred, walking in to my AP English Language & Composition class to find everyone silently mesmerized by the looping news footage.
It is in our nature not to believe that this is the end; as it has been said, "eternity is written on our hearts." And yet, tragedies prod us painfully into questioning that very nature; how can we reconcile God and man, good and evil? It is a question which has troubled mankind since our inception, but still we remain distant from a true comprehension, as each new instance of suffering simultaneously draws us closer and pushes us farther away. It is true to say that only God understands the full nature of man, though probable that we will never fully acknowledge that only God can reconcile man to Himself, not the other way around.
Verily, verily I say unto you: only the living suffer death.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Methods and problems

There are several ways in which I can determine, in theory, the normalization for my data.

In practice, none of the aforementioned ways are consistent.

Being a graduate student really bites sometimes.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Drummer chimps
A new story on NPR discusses some recent research following a specific tribe of chimpanzees in Senegal.
The chimps have been observed creating spears from tree branches, as well as drumming rhythmically on hollow trees to attract possible mates and intimidate rivals. Additionally, chimps in Senegal have also been observed using caves for shelter.
The anthropologist involved in the research, along with a photographer companion, followed the band of chimpanzees for weeks, foregoing even a change of clothes in order to get closer to the group. Other tribes in the area studied by the researcher had been known to use the "ant-dipping" technique for catching termites (see the reference), but the cave use was almost unprecendented, as well as the use of homemade spears for hunting bushbabies. Other surveys have indicated the chimps use certain leaves for apparent medicinal purposes.
In truth, I'm not equipped to speak very profoundly on the subject, as my training is in physics. However, I would certainly argue that these studies argue very strongly - certainly in a natural sense - against a sharp and extensive distinction between humans and our closest genetic neighbors.

McGrew, W., Pruetz, J., Fulton, S. (2005). Chimpanzees Use Tools to Harvest Social Insects at Fongoli, Senegal. Folia Primatologica, 76(4), 222-226. DOI: 10.1159/000086023

Monday, March 31, 2008

"We're worse than the ancient Romans"

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in an age of scientific progress, flowering intellectualism and an all-around inproved standard of living, the female form was revered. Indeed, women were sources of awe and inspiration in their natural beauty. Women were the muses of some of the greatest painters of all time, and the artist would remain true to his subject, giving us priceless works of art.
Women of the Renaissance were portrayed beautifully because they were beautiful. One can always expect there to be a certain spread - not all women looked exactly alike, of course - but those living in the time of the revolution and rebirth knew that women are beautiful. Women, women who are natural and comfortable and full of life and love, are stunning. They're engaging. They're lovely. They were beautiful. They are beautiful.

Now, however, we are unscrupulously barraged with images of women who, by contrast to our modern standards (I loathe to call them standards), "just aren't good enough." Women now, through endless and pitiless repetitions of that same mantra, have come to believe that we are somehow remarkably unattractive if we are subject to our natural form. Instead of happily plump ("full figured," as some might put it) and naturally skintoned, we are to be painfully thin and tanned as leather. Advertisements like these pop up on my facebook page daily:

But why? Because, in today's society, we're not supposed to just be beautiful. We're supposed to work at it. We're supposed to struggle to be like those privileged few who have made the cut. Somehow (and, Lord knows, I apologize profusely for this photo, but I hope you'll understand its use), beauty has been redefined as this:

When did we become so ugly?
Some people have connected our own standards with those of the ancient Egyptians, or have associated them with some sort of evolutionary preference. But what evolutionary advantage is it to men to desire to mate with a woman so skinny, she'd probably die during childbirth (I am purposely neglecting the health aspect here, as it is equally unhealthy to be morbidly obese as it is to be anorexic)? And without a legitimate religious push (to become like a goddess and so persist into the afterlife), our motives are mere ghosts of the aspirations of the Egyptians. Interestingly, there seem to be connections between the social pressure of conforming to a more masculine-defined beauty (such as now, or in Egyptian times) and the legal rights and privileges enjoyed by women of the age. Does this mean, conversely, that if women are more socially liberated, we are not as legally free? It's a questionable link. Athenian and Spartan women (during the "classical" Greek period) enjoyed many freedoms, both social and political; in the Roman Empire, as is seen similarly elsewhere, liberties were tied more closely to wealth and stature than appearance. It is probably useful to note that the Romans put an undue emphasis on randomly chosen attributes of women as beautiful (nose shape, waist size, etc) during their empire's infamous decline.
My point is this (and I must conclude, as I am liable to rant indefinitely on such a touchy subject): women are beautiful. We are beautiful regardless of the dictated social norms, we are beautiful regardless of the flighty fancies of men, we are beautiful intrinsically.
And don't worry... I am fully aware, of course, of my own personal bias in the matter.