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.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lukas, Lucas & Wolfgang

Before proceeding any farther, I must (if I am to be a considerate nuclear physicist) point out that today is the 29th anniversary of the incident at Three Mile Island (I recommend the reader check out the story and accompanying slideshow from NPR). I will use the opportunity to put in my two cents: nuclear energy is inherently safe, efficient, clean and (let's not forget) awesome.
The boys and I had dinner at DGB last night, then took in the KSO concert over at the Tennessee. The Salomon Rossi Suite was remarkably short (under 10 minutes), but clever; a timpani and harp duet in the third movement really struck me as rather ingenious. The concerto, composed by our own Lucas Richman, was predictable at times, but there were several moments, the "birth" and the final dance among them, wherein I felt that familiar swelling of simultaneous joy and despair, mirth and discontentment. In layman's terms, I was moved. The oboist, Cynthia DeAlmeida, was phenomenal, her tone and virtuosity carrying the Richman piece far above the rest of the concert. I will paraphrase the comments the boys and I shared throughout the rest of the concert: programmatically speaking, it felt intensely odd to lump two contemporary pieces with an old classic, not to mention closing with the Mozart (and what an overplayed symphony it is, the Jupiter) instead of the soloist piece. We had forgotten just how boring the third movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 is. We likened him to Charles Dickens. We laughed about how it felt like one of NPR's random 9am collections of classical pieces, as opposed to a connected concert.
All in all, however, the concert was (if nothing else) pleasant, and the evening out with the boys the highlight of my day. And our fine professor will be happy to hear that, when he attends this evening, the Jupiter Symphony is not played too slowly.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


I am almost ashamed to admit that I have failed - for, perhaps, the first time ever - at finishing a book. But I have my reasons.
I intended to read Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis as part of a fair and unbiased survey of the religion/anti-religion debate. I had just completely Wolpert's book (see my earlier post), and was ready to delve into the next project. I started reading. I found myself often disgusted and putting the book down, leaving it for days on end (this in and of itself is odd for me, as I read the Bible in four weeks). As a physicist, I looked up my supposed colleague; turns out, aside from his PhD, he hasn't actually been doing physics. His faculty appointment is in the philosophy department. His faculty webpage says nothing of class schedules, office hours and homework solutions, but instead is just a paraphrased outline of his anti-religion books. His last scientific publication was years ago, and only as part of a large international collaboration (meaning he probably wasn't directly involved). Ok, fine. I can deal with a non-practicing physicist calling himself a physicist. It's a shaky connection, of course; one wouldn't claim to be a professional homemaker merely because one had a baby. But I granted him the benefit of the doubt and attempted to continue reading his book.
When I had made it a mere couple dozen pages into the book and had already witnessed Stenger reference himself and his earlier books a dozen times, I grew more and more weary. His pretentious and egotistical manner was barely masked. His physics references grew more and more unsteady. I forced myself to sit down and continue reading, but found that I desired reading about the upcoming election on CNN more than I wanted to deal with the mounting idiocy I found. Lest you accuse me of choosing sides, I'd been upset at authors on the other side as well; stupidity seems to know no bounds. But this man was supposedly my peer. And then it happened. The proverbial back-breaking straw.
Stenger - a man who calls himself a physicist - referred to beryllium-8 as stable.
A breakdown ensued. An honest-to-God breakdown. I nearly cried. I physically hit the book. I screamed at it, "you're wrong!" My head hurt from the sheer disgust at such an obvious and glaring error. This isn't something that someone in the specific field might not know. This is common knowledge. This is Hoyle's famous work. This is why we exist. Because beryllium-8 isn't stable. It's not even bound. As a well-known physicist at the University of Surrey once said, "the meaning of life isn't 42. It's 92. The 92 keV by which beryllium-8 is unbound." I had to sit down in my bedroom with my copy of Jackson E&M (in case you're wondering, I flipped to a random page and read aloud the equations for electromagnetic wave scattering in inhomogenous media) in order to calm myself.
So that was it. I put the book away, half completed, never intending to pick it up again. I stepped out into the sunshine, wiped my eyes and walked down to Books-A-Million. Bought another Kathy Reichs novel. Hoped that, if sensible, reasonable human beings didn't exist here in the real world, at least they'd exist in fiction.
So my apologies to anyone out there who cares. I intended to read another book and give another book review. But I couldn't do it. I set out hoping to learn something, but instead I lost my faith in humanity.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I'll break your kneecaps...
Traditionally, the pelvic bone and skull are used in forensic cases and anthropological studies to determine the gender of given skeletal remains. Often, however, full skeletons are not available, and in many cases very few bones at all may have survived. Never fear, however; your kneecaps can give away your sex.
The patella (kneecap) is affected, in shape/size/etc, by the muscle mass of the legs, so it is a relatively safe assumption that these physical attributes would vary within a population; statistically, the patella also displays a sexual dimorphism (it's different for men and women, as are the skull and the pelvis). Studies had shown a relatively good separation of genders, from 67% to 85% in accuracy of determination. A new study out of UT Knoxville has, using a computer-algorithm based "automated feature extraction technique," achieved better than 93% accuracy in gender determination. To describe the very technical method in a very non-technical way, a base "library" of patella CT scans was built up and used to create a "template" kneecap. This allowed them to extract any differences between a given sample patella and the template. The differences were categorized, sorted and ranked, and gender determination (ie, sex classification) could be made using those differences.
So it turns out that even a single kneecap is enough to determine your gender, albeit with a tremendous amount of computing power. I wonder (very tongue in cheek, of course), could one get a discount by signing up for the knee-replacement/sex-change combo?

Mahfouz, M., Badawi, A., Merkl, B., Fatah, E.E., Pritchard, E., Kesler, K., Moore, M., Jantz, R. (2006). 3D Statistical Shape Models of Patella for Sex Classification. DOI: 10.1109/IEMBS.2006.259373

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"He made things seem real."

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, rest in peace.


There's a story on CNN about an extremely rare mummified dinosaur. What are the chances?

Candidly, the chances are almost impossibly slim. We rarely find the mummified remains of anything (even of Egyptian royalty, and they were mummified on purpose!), and fossils in general are not as ubiquitous as one might think. The implications of such a find are fantastic (and according to the story, it is only the fourth such find), giving a unique and quite amazing opportunity to peek through the window of 67 million years and see, with an unparalleled clarity, what these creatures were truly like.
Often, I think we don't appreciate just how difficult, statistically improbable, and incredible fossils really are. We have been given a natural time-capsule, so to speak, a chance to understand something for which we were not present. Nature does not owe us such opportunities. Children are awed by the idea of dinosaur bones; do we stifle our imaginations, ignore our wonder, gloss over our intrinsic reverence as immature? Or do we allow ourselves just the slightest giddiness at the prospect of experiencing something beyond us?

Monday, March 17, 2008


Traipsed around yesterday in the sunshine; drove the Perimeter Road loop around the enormous, silently decaying war machine that is the old K25 plant. It was humbling to know that, mere decades ago, the place buzzed with life as its own little city, aloof and self-contained, but now belongs only to the crows and hawks which inhabit it. Won't be too long before the hippies are out protesting in front of Y12, now that the weather is improving.
The good news is that the data analysis continues, even if I find it confusing at times. The spurious sunshine has helped to lift my spirits and clear the mental fog. Onward I go.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

As for me, I'm unbound
A recent article in Physical Review Letters (see the citation below) published by a group of researchers at GANIL reports the detection of "the most neutron-proton unbalanced system presently found." Hydrogen-7. Wow.
I won't pick at the details - the experimental group has done an excellent job, despite having used SRIM for their energy loss calculations (SRIM and I don't get along... 30% is not an acceptable error). Seven events is nothing to be sneezed at, nor is the use of a helium-8 beam or a cross section (the probability, if you will, of the reaction occurring) in the microbarn range (though, with such low statistics, errors are always appreciable). It should be noted that the researchers didn't actually detect the 7H, since it lives such a short time, but they instead detected the telltale remnants of the reaction from which the hydrogen would emerge (namely, the 13N and tritium from the reaction 8He + 12C -> 13N + 7H -> 13N + 3H + 4 neutrons), and reconstructed the reaction kinematics from there. I can't say that I've ever attempted to fit seven data points with a curve that requires two free parameters... it almost doesn't seem fair. It does amuse me, however, to wonder at what point we must acknowledge that it's not really hydrogen anymore. It's really more like a proton with six neutrons in its general vicinity, and with a lifetime of less than 10^-21 seconds (that's a decimal place, 20 zeros and then a 1 at the end), it almost doesn't count as a resonance. It's one of the most unbound resonances I've ever encountered. But, still, physics at the edge is great physics, even if the error bars remind me of my freshman-year introductory physics labs. As a brilliant man told me today, "7H is almost a neutron star, I think."

Caamaño, M., Cortina-Gil, D., Mittig, W., Savajols, H., Chartier, M., Demonchy, C.E., Fernández, B., Gómez Hornillos, M.B., Gillibert, A., Jurado, B., Kiselev, O., Lemmon, R., Obertelli, A., Rejmund, F., Rejmund, M., Roussel-Chomaz, P., Wolski, R. (2007). Resonance State in ^{7}H. Physical Review Letters, 99(6) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.99.062502

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My question to atheists

Read through a little pharyngula, a little from Greg Laden, a little from the angry astronomer, and you'll notice a trend. Everyone here is vying for the questionable position of top irate-religion-basher. Why so angry? I have read many books for and against religion (specifically Christianity), and have found, to my dismay, that (though no human, infallible as we may believe ourselves to be, has pure motives) those people who argue for Christianity do so mainly for your sake - "there is a God and He loves you, and it's important that you know" - whereas people who argue against God do so for their own sakes - "I'm probably more intelligent than you, and it's important that you know." I recognize, of course, that there are exceptions to this "rule," but (as long as everyone else is content to make broad, sweeping generalizations) the difference is there. I'd like to believe that there are rational, reasonable people out there, who constitute the majority, but it is the most vocal and most dogmatic (from either side) that we ever hear. So, you atheists, what are you trying to prove? What is it you hope to achieve? Do you intend to save me from myself? I'm immensely content (and, from the looks of it, substantially happier than any of you), and it is not ignorance which allows my bliss. I would not go so far as to say it is envy that drives your anger, of course, but perhaps there is something, some little voice in the back of your mind, that keeps questioning whether or not we Christians know something you do not? I, too, was once angry. God knows.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Set for launch (updated)

The space shuttle Endeavor is set to launch early tomorrow morning, dock with the ISS and install Dextre, a $200 million robot meant to assist astronauts during spacewalks (a brief overview can be found on CNN... leave it to the media, however, to try and forge a link between a robotic arm and Frankenstein's monster). Dextre is short for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, built by Canadian Space Agency contractors to be included as part of Canada's contribution to the ISS. Although the tools and capabilities of the robot are rudimentary at this point, improvements and upgrades will follow with subsequent shuttle flights.
In the end, I think it's great to see countries collaborating together on large scientific projects, such as the ISS or the ILC. We may appear different, but we share our fundamental human curiosity, the driving force behind science. And that is a beautiful thing.

UPDATE: You get what you pay for, I suppose. I wonder if the ISS is running Windoze....

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Celtic? Not quite....

Just returned from tonight's KSO pops concert featuring Natalie MacMaster. It was billed as a "Celtic Celebration," which it wasn't, but that does not at all detract from the talent and fire that the headliner brought to her show. She - and her playing - was stunning. The KSO percussionists seemed a bit off (I had the strangest desire to grab some mallets and play the bell part myself... who knew percussionists could have so little fun on stage with a fiddler?) and the mic job on the set left something to be desired (namely, everything save high hat), and, ok, the lighting was a little hokey, but overall the concert was wonderful.
After the first fiddle piece, I turned to my friend and said, "this feels all wrong. This concert should be outside, and people should be dancing." Sure enough, Ms. MacMaster would make the very same comment once she stepped up to the microphone, extolling people to not be shy and dance, should the urge arise. I have the feeling that much of the audience missed the humor and playfulness of her pieces; it was not until the last twenty minutes of the concert that people clapped along with her heel-tapping. She played a variety of airs and jigs, mostly Scottish in origin, being the traditional music of the area in Nova Scotia from whence she hails (her Canadian accent was rather pronounced, much to our amusement). The KSO played Dvorak's Slavonic Dance #1 to start the evening, and (much to my dismay; I sank down in my chair in embarrassment) began the second half with a medley from the movie Titanic. By the end of the evening, I had already filled in that space with a multitude of other pieces and composers (Copland, for one), but the high school Horner medley stuck in my head nonetheless.
Overall, I was impressed by Natalie's playing and her energy, was disappointed by Knoxville's placid and disinterested response, and found myself wishing - very, very much so - that I could once again have the chance to play. Anyone selling a xylophone?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Neutron stars and magnetars
Considering my PhD research, I can appreciate the importance of statistics, so when there are only 12 of something - in this case, magnetars - which have been discovered in the entire universe, I can understand why a possible thirteenth is an amazing discovery (a free article may be found here).
Neutron stars, objects so dense that they basically can't get any more so (they are supported merely by degenerate neutron pressure), exist throughout the universe. They are typically the remnants of supernovae explosions, a tiny, rapidly spinning core where a giant once stood. Pulsars specifically are those which, by their quick rotation, produce a telltale EM radiation of rapid, regular pulses (typically in the radio frequency range). Magnetars are theorized to be neutron stars with such strong magnetic fields that "the magnetic field actually slows the star's rotation and causes starquakes that pump enough energy into the surrounding gases to generate bursts of soft gamma radiation" (NASA) that exceed, in fractions of a second, the energy output of the sun in a thousand years. They are so rare that the first was not discovered until 1979, and only twelve are known, though millions to hundreds of millions could exist.

The discovery of a possible "evolutionary step" between normal (in, of course, a funny context) neutron stars, pulsars and magnetars is therefore a momentous one. Perhaps, since this intermediate form seems to have a strong magnetic field, but not quite as strong as the twelve known magnetars, there is some mechanism by which the magnetic field strength grows throughout the neutron star's lifetime. Perhaps all magnetars begin as pulsars, or perhaps they evolve completely separately, but to differing degrees.
Perhaps, since my research deals instead with novae and x-ray bursts, I should get back to work.

Gavriil, F.P., Gonzalez, M.E., Gotthelf, E.V., Kaspi, V.M., Livingstone, M.A., Woods, P.M. (2008). Magnetar-like Emission from the Young Pulsar in Kes 75. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1153465

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The next scientology?

Anyone else find it amusing that, upon searching for Terence Witt's Our Undiscovered Universe, the first thing that shows up is a science fiction novel?
I smell another L. Ron Hubbard....

Review: "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast"

"My aim in this book," writes author Lewis Wolpert, "is to try and understand what determines what people believe about causal events...." In short, the book (the title of which is stolen unglamorously from Carroll's Through the Looking Glass) is an exposition on the biological and evolutionary origins of belief. I was quite hoping for something that would live up to its highly stated expectations. As it turned out, I was quite disappointed.
Instead of attempting to weave together some artful treatise on the book, I'll choose instead to rant indiscriminately on several key points.
  1. "Science is unnatural and goes against common sense." This statement is made a multitude of times throughout the book. Perhaps if you're speaking specifically of quantum mechanics, sure, but this guy is a professor of "biology as applied to medicine." I can appreciate that he is trying (albeit desperately and with a characteristic disinterest toward evidence) to explain that science is not easy to grasp. But science is simple, even if the math necessary to communicate it is not. There is a certain subset of the population for whom, because the mathematics come more innately, become scientists. But that is not to say that all people are not, to some extent, scientifically minded. People experiment regardless of their ability to do vector calculus.
  2. "Beliefs are overwhelmingly irrational and clung to despite a lack of (or contradictory) evidence." I'll agree that, when he speaks of beliefs in ghosts or ESP or fear of genetically modified foods or having one's aura fluffed, people tend to be pretty stupid (ok, what I really mean is gullible, or suggestible). But he's applying this statement directly to religious beliefs in many contexts. His "hero philosopher" is David Hume, so this comes as little suprise (additionally, he found William James a "wonderful" author - wonderful, perhaps, if you like dry, tasteless table crackers). Within this context, he quotes a myriad of statistics without references or backing arguments, and makes a surprising number of contradictory statements within mere paragraphs of one another. He'll refer to religious beliefs as "delusions," then state on the facing page that religious people "enjoy better mental health" than their non-religious counterparts.
  3. "Science is basically in conflict with religion." Ironically, this statement is followed immediately with "yet many scientists have been and are religious." Here, Wolpert grows insufferably arrogant. He quotes statistics on the number of scientists who believe in God and the number of "scientists of distinction - the scientific elite" who believe (most do not). Does that include you, shall we presume? The entire book is peppered with statements meant to tell the reader: "believe this because I said so; I'm substantially smarter than you are." And yet, he talks about 'authority' being a common means of passing down religious beliefs (which, as he previously mentioned, are unfounded and irrational). Are we supposed to take you on authority? For if we are, you've undermined your own argument. There is no reason to believe that science conflicts in any way with religion, unless that religion is actually a form of mysticism that tries to unnaturally explain the natural world (for example, Shintoism or other polytheistic mythologies) instead of examine it. There is a fuzzy line here, of course, but no religious scientist will tell you that God exists within nature and can therefore be shown to exist in it (oddly, Wolpert quotes such prominent scientists as Isaac Newton, Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Collins, without honestly paying attention to what they said).
  4. Wolpert displays his ignorance of many religious beliefs as he writes. Despite his background, he writes as though he was an expert in anthropology, sociology and psychology; he even goes so far as to say that he "believe[s] the Big Bang even if [he] doesn't really understand it" and would, given about five years of study, be able to fully comprehend it. Should I mention at this point it would probably take me a mere two months to learn his profession? But this is merely my pride reacting to his, and I digress. Unfortunately, however, his lack of knowledge on certain religious beliefs leads him to make sweeping generalizations: all religious beliefs are simple (consider, in contrast, the Trinity), all religious beliefs lack evidence (which is why, I'm sure, so many early Christians were willing to die for what they knew to be true), all religious beliefs are essentially the same (so salvation by faith is a common theme, versus salvation by works?). It is a simple matter to deny something you do not bother to understand, but doing so will often expose your own intellectual weaknesses.
  5. "As we shall see." This phrase occurred with unsettling (nay, alarming) frequency. Who taught this man to write? We never did see, Lewis. Quit saying that.
I'm certain that, in my frustration and general "dirty" feeling with this book, I've neglected something in an unconscious effort to repress it from my active memory. I was disappointed with the way the book was written, with the broad and undefended generalizations made, with the disgusting presumptuousness permeating the entire discourse (which Wolpert even, in the introduction, tried to excuse), and with the obvious lack of understanding on key topics. I agree wholeheartedly that one should never assume one is right simply because one believes strongly enough - something is not made true or false based on how we feel about it. Wolpert, to his credit, tries to make this point, as well as attempting to explain that our perceptions are often selective or slightly misguided. But in doing so, he overlooks key issues and ignores glaring discrepancies between beliefs based on feelings versus those based on facts.
In the end, despite the fact that is lowers me to the same level as the author, I am forced to say: Lewis Wolpert is a pretentious British jerk. I certainly hope he's more pleasant in person.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Proof that strange things come out of Britain

CNN (to whom go the image credits) has a story about a strange sea creature - a six-legged octopus.
To clarify that statement (perhaps, instead, to correct the errors in it), I will elaborate: the octopus, named Henry, is actually a "hexapus" in that he only has six legs, and he is not technically a sea creature, since he lives in an aquarium at the Blackpool Sea Life Centre in England.
The lack of legs is actually a birth defect. This was not a case of losing the limbs to a predator or other accident, since octopodes have the ability to grow new limbs should that occur, just as certain species of reptile and amphibian can regrow lost tails or toes. What makes Henry so special is that he truly is one-of-a-kind; no records of any other six-legged octopus exist.
Our genes can cause very dramatic changes in our physiology (like, perhaps, a derth of limbs). Is it really so difficult to believe that variations like this could be passed to the next generation? Personally, I'd love to see an animal with an odd number of limbs, but I suppose that's why it's safer for me to study physics.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Evolution and the school board

The buzz this time is all about Texas; the Ft. Worth area, to be precise. The Star-Telegram has reported on a possible shift in the area's school board toward a more religiously conservative majority. As might be expected, the scientific blogosphere has been up in arms (even to the point of typing too fast to verify one's spelling... no offense, Greg), with PZ Myers and Greg Laden weighing in with their (perhaps a bit panicky) opinions. However, we have all seen what happened in Kansas, what happened in Pennsylvania, what happened in Montana, what happened in Florida... so no one should be surprised by the scientists' uproar over the possible changing of teaching standards.
Interestingly enough, I find that the original article is the fairest assessment of the situation (even if a little liberal), since all of the scientists' blog posts are, most certainly, reactionary. We should be cautious when the issue is partly with the person and partly with the person's stance. There's no need for name calling. We can, and should, be nice to one another. That, surprisingly, is what the religious sect should be teaching us (instead of trying to teach creationism as science): to treat others as we would like to be treated.