Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why I hate politics

First off, the tactics being used between Clinton and Obama are shameful. It's always comforting to know that, even though we're on the same side, we're not really on the same side. I thought the Democratic platform was to browbeat the Republicans, right?
Second, once again, here comes Ralph Nader. Are we really so surprised? Needless to say, as a hopeless liberal, I did waste a vote on him once (Green party, if you must know), but at some point we all come to our senses and realize that a vote for a "non" party is a vote for the major party that you dislike most. Every vote for Nader detracts from the Democratic party candidate.
Of course, if we actually had more than just the two "legitimate" parties, politics might not be half bad. Unfortunately for America, however, everything seems to come down to "us" versus "them."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Smetana, Misha Dichter and professorial dynamics

The boys and I had dinner down in Market Square last night, then headed over to the Tennessee Theatre for the night's Knoxville Symphony concert. The Smetana tone poem was wonderful; not only because of its simple yet powerful chord progressions, but also because I've played it before with the Jefferson Symphony back home, and so the piece served as a bittersweet invocation of times past. Following The Moldau, Misha Dichter (of Cipa and Misha fame) arrived on stage, and the audience applauded gaily. Having read the program notes ahead of time, I knew that a few of his favorite composers were Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky; since he had opted to play a three-movement Tchaikovsky piano concerto, I quipped to my friend that it seemed as though we had "gotten the short end of the stick" in this instance. Turns out, I was right. The pieces were muddy, repetetive and duly unimpressive. I joked, as soon as we had reached intermission, that the concert so far could be summed up by saying, "I went to see a world-renowned pianist play chopsticks." The concert concluded with Dvorak's 8th Symphony, a pleasant Slavonic tune which served to remove the Tchaikovsky left sloshing in my brain. Additionally, the older couple sitting directly in front of us continued to use opera glasses, though for what, I don't know; perhaps they were interested in seeing how sloppy the second violin's fingering was.
One of our favorite professors and his wife were in attendance as well; their seats were down below where we perched in the balcony. They waved up at us at intermission, and we waved back down, then proceeded to invent methods for striking them with projectiles from our beneficially elevated position. I suppose that's what happens when one is forced to listen to a famous pianist pound indiscriminately on a beautiful piano for forty minutes.
I'm just kidding, of course. About hitting the professor with objects from the balcony, anyway.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar eclipse

Tonight, peaking at around 10:30 EST.
More info from NASA can be found here.
Break out the popcorn!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The intelligent designer's thorn

Having researched and studied both sides of the evolution/intelligent design fiasco (known affectionately as a controversy, I suppose), it has recently occurred to me the underlying reason for the intelligent design supporter's reactionary and often pugilistic response to the so-called "materialistic and godlessly evil theory" of evolution (and let us not forget, lest history repeat itself, that this is not the first time science and religion have quarreled). In order to arrive at the cause of this animated name-calling, I pose the following question: why is it we can't detect God in the natural world?

The simple answer, of course, is that science, our methodology for detecting and dissecting the natural world (including, of course, the entire universe and all aspects of it which we can scientifically study), is, by definition, limited to said natural world. God, being supernatural, is thus (also by definition) outside of the realm of science, and thus would not be discovered in the same manner. This leads us, however, to a slight conundrum. Consider Romans 1:20, wherein Paul states that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." To the liberal spiritualist, this is true in the sense that we "feel" God's qualities, as opposed to "seeing" them, and no controversy seems to exist (though this does not provide an adequate solution). To the intelligent design supporter, however, we surely must be able to "see" - in a scientific sense - God's handiwork in the natural world (in the same way we can see man's handiwork in the faces on Mt. Rushmore, one of Dr. Behe's favorite examples).
The thorn in the ID supporter's side arises thus. If more and more of the world can be explained by natural means (and I'm not at all reverting to the argument that people now are more intelligent than any other time, because we're not, but we do have a much broader and deeper knowledge base) and we end up merely "detecting" God in the shadowy psyches of human beings, where does that leave us? Science can't, as we determined, prove or disprove God, but how do we know the "why" of what we are discovering? If we leave science to deal with the natural, it becomes solely an act of philosophical argument to prove God's existence, and we all know that philosophy leads to pointless sophistry, and truths are reduced to opinion (or, conversely, opinions are elevated to truths) - and here is where we are certainly not any more "learned" than in ages past. I am convinced (as a scientist) that intelligent design is not science, but the believer in me asks, shouldn't science, existing as a method for us to experience the natural world (as it has been "created"), convey to us things about God, and if not, are we left with no remaining argument against a scientism-like philosophy? Is God "demoted" to being simply a Force in the realm of the "heart" and "soul," completely segregated from natural existence in the same way that feelings, beliefs, preferences and philosophy are? Is this why the intelligentsia have such a problem "taking it all on faith," since feelings hold no sway in science (nor should they)?
Do we truly lose anything, as the ID supporters fear, by accepting that science and God are, in a sense, eternally and consistently exclusive to completely separate facets of existence?

"See the thorn twist in my side...."

Recommended books:
The Language of God (Collins)
The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins)
The Real Face of Atheism (Zacharias)
What is Life? (Shrodinger)
Recommended viewing:
Flock of Dodos: The Evolution - Intelligent Design Circus (Olson)

Patriarchal linguistics

As though the nuances of the English language weren't beautiful enough, today I'm greeted with this little gem. The word of the day is virago:

virago \vuh-RAH-go; vuh-RAY-go\, noun:

1. A woman of extraordinary stature, strength, and courage.
2. A woman regarded as loud, scolding, ill-tempered, quarrelsome, or overbearing.

The intrepid heroines range from Unn the Deep Minded, the Viking virago who colonized Iceland, to Sue Hendrikson, a school dropout who became one of the great experts on amber, fossils and shipwrecks.
-- Ann Prichard, "Coffee-table: Africa, cathedrals, animals, 'Sue'", USA Today, November 28, 2001
This virago, this madwoman, finally got to me, and I was subjected to the most rude, the most shocking violence I can remember.
-- José Limón, An Unfinished Memoir

Virago comes from Latin virago, "a man-like woman, a female warrior, a heroine" from vir, "a man."

I find it almost aggravatingly amusing that this should be the case; where else but in a male-dominated society would one find such a dichotomous use of a female moniker? The word of the day may as well have been "bitch" (said, of course, with a contented sigh).

Monday, February 11, 2008

La Forza del Destino

It somehow seems appropriate that the force of destiny should be feminine; English is one of the odd languages in which nouns are implicitly gender-neutral, something that I find amusing given the current atmosphere of uber-political-correctness (I'd argue, in my own politically correct way, that "correctness" should also be a feminine noun). Unfortunately, Verdi's opera was trite and his characters pallid and sadly underdeveloped. Overall, I suppose the time would have been better spent napping. I will say, however, that the soprano Leonora (Carter Scott) had a gorgeous voice, one which resonated in the very core of your being and left you with chills as she cried out, "God, have mercy on me!"
The weekend is over now, and my mind must make the shift from opera to physics, as now I find before me a mound of data awaiting a scientific analysis. I came in this morning, sat down at my desk, and wondered aloud what on earth to do next. My brain is still so fried from the weeks of insomnia and experimental hocus-pocus that I'm finding it difficult to recall the next order of business, but given a few days to reestablish the correct order of the universe (or my small portion of it, at least), I'll make some progress.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Around here, we are susceptible to what's affectionately known as "post-experiment syndrome." As of the last couple hours, I too have fallen victim to the infirmity. In purely technical terms, I have no idea what to do with myself now that the experiment is over.
This last run dragged on for four complete weeks. That's four weeks of constant work, 24/7, chasing electronics noise, pumping and venting and opening and closing valves, babysitting the data acquisition system, troubleshooting the flaky power supplies of the bending magnets and velocity filters, and relearning the multitude of various run/stop commands. In the last 48 hours, I've spent a mere 7 sleeping. Not my record (which, to date, has yet to be bested by anyone in the division - 41 straight hours of work), but still unpleasant.
But now, the experiment has ended, the power supplies are shut down and the data acquisition killed, the pumps off and the beam gone and the answers sitting in files saved to the hard drive, and the full wave of exhaustion I know is coming has still not reached its overbearing crest. So I sit here, complete with the knowledge that within these myriad data somewhere exists my dissertation, and I can't even move for the numbness of it all. Just like with physical shock, my body and my brain haven't yet communicated with one another that this really is it, finally, at long last, after years of waiting and working and hoping, this is emphatically it. I suppose I could start by eating lunch.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Introductions all around

You may be wondering to yourself, what right does a 26 year old graduate student have to write an autobiographical blog, among so many others who choose to embark on the same path of internet-based journaling? I asked myself that very question. But I have struggled through some things which are not unique to science, and some which are, and I hope that in passing along my own experiences and thoughts on them, perhaps I can make a difference to someone else.

The best way to begin, I suppose, is to describe life at a national lab. People seem to have this image burned into their brains of a bearded and bespectacled scientist, donned in a white lab coat with clipboard in hand, shuffling about his myriad of expensive and complicated looking instruments and test tubes filled with various colors of liquids boiling away. This is precisely how a national lab is not. If it was at all possible to describe the actual interior of the typical building on a national lab campus, I think the following anecdote would help give an idea.
The tandem accelerator at the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility (HRIBF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a 25 megavolt (25 million volt), 6-story tall metal tower inside of a similarly giant tank of sulfur hexafluoride. This enormous Van de Graff generator is used to accelerate beams of ionized particles to energies around those found inside of stars and supernovae. The US Department of Energy puts a quota on a large, money-grubbing piece of equipment such as this, requiring that it run a certain number of hours each calendar year as a user's facility. So how does one keep the tandem clean and running well? By enticing a group of a half-dozen foolish young graduate students and post docs with the promise of donuts to climb inside the tank, ride the elevator to the top of the tower, and slowly work their way back down while wiping the sides of the tower with 409 and paper towels. Exactly my point.
The lab in which I spend most of my time is one of the beamlines coming off of this tandem. The Daresbury Recoil Separator (DRS) is my home away from home, so to speak. In a back room which can only be reached via a rather long, narrow, poorly insulated and oft flooded hallway, tons of metal in the form of vacuum pumps, beamlines and giant electromagnets sit on a bare concrete floor. Black cables run from one side of the room to the other like a giant spider's web across the ceiling. Every flat or useful workspace is covered to within an inch of its life by spare parts, boxes of bolts, computers, extra cables, a multitude of tools, and of course the ubiquitous blue surgeon's gloves used for work with radioactive materials. The DRS can be attached to the output of the tandem, such that the accelerated radioactive beams can be sent into a pre-chosen target, and the resulting spray of protons, deuterons, tritons, alpha particles and heavy recoils can be detected, measured and analyzed. It is, in a sense, a laboratory simulation of what takes place every day in stars like the Sun or supernovae like the one which exploded in 1987. Along with a full-time support staff of operators, computer geeks, machinists, electricians, bureaucrats and health physicists, the research staff, post docs and graduate students who use the DRS facility, like myself, spend most of our time here experimenting. I have been coming and going from the lab here, for a week or two at a time, since the summer of 2005, and finally moved here full time to complete my PhD research in January of 2007. Before that, I completed my undergraduate BSc degree in engineering physics, left for a semester to pursue astronomy, then returned, bored out of my mind, to the applied physics PhD program at my undergraduate institution. Since, as a small university, we have limited resources to run our own experiments, we collaborate with places like TRIUMF in Vancouver, Los Alamos, Argonne, and ORNL. Which is why I'm here.

But there is something else that goes on here as well. Something much more fundamental even than the science which surrounds us daily. It is basic human dynamics. I'm learning, finally, to truly appreciate those dynamics, and my place in them.

And that is what I hope to elucidate.