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