Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wiprud's Katrina

The boys and I took in dinner and the symphony this evening, witnessing the world premier of Theodore Wiprud's newest violin concerto, Katrina. I must say that I was impressed, especially since I'm not generally a fan of postmodern classical music.
In the first movement (Les Bons Temps), the imagery - of a city inundated by water - is palpable. The bluesy strains of the violin are overwhelmed by thunder.
The second movement (Acadiana) was, in a word, haunted. Whistling to yourself in the dark. A ghost of a melody.
The third movement (Fly Away), however, was the only portion of the piece which left something to be desired. A melody tried to build, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The concerto ends on the upward swing of a phrase, but without flourish. Weakly.
The audience response was lukewarm.

To be fair, a brand-new piece is a difficult sell in between Copland's Rodeo ballet and Dvorak's New World Symphony, but all in all the program (quite Americana) was sound.

But perhaps the ending is appropriate. Where have we gone since Katrina? What has become of New Orleans? While the city struggles to recover, still, from a devastating blow, what can they do but end on the highest note they can manage?

Incidentally, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the first movement of From the New World. We have so much spirit in this place... I can only hope we never truly lose it.

It's the end again

So it appears that this Friday is now the day the world will end - that's right, tomorrow - and while the prediction may have changed from horrendous doomsday to whimpering, quiet end, I wanted to say two things.

First, the entire idea of the Rapture is a tremendously selfish, individualistic and ultimately cruel and inhuman one.

Second, Harold Camping suffered a stroke shortly after his failed prediction in May.

Make of it what you will.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Nobel note

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics went jointly to three researchers, "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae." Supernovae (which are massive, old, exploding stars) are actually quite good as "standard candles" in observational astronomy, because they're so bright (they can outshine an entire galaxy, in fact, if only for a short while) and they appear to have a very predictable driving mechanism (such that the assumption of distant and nearby supernovae behaving the same seems to be a valid one). So finding supernovae of differing brightness indicates they are at different distances (dimmer = farther away), and additionally, looking at the shift of light output in terms of the light's wavelength (redshift) tells us how fast the supernovae are moving relative to us. If you look at distance (plotted in the figure as bolometric magnitude, which is another way of saying brightness) versus the speed (redshift, z), you find the following relationship (from the Nobel website):
Basically, taking different cosmological models with differing predictions about the content of the universe (how much is made up of matter, for instance), you can examine your data to see which of the models fit. The Nobel Prize winners interpreted their results to mean that the universe is expanding, and that expansion is accelerating. This has led to the now familiar term "dark energy," the hypothesis that some form of unseen energy is propelling the universe ever more quickly outward from the Big Bang.

But I don't particularly want to talk about the Nobel Prize. I want to talk about some current research which argues against, not the data the Nobel Prize winners collected, but their interpretation of it.

A recent paper by Christos Tsagas of Aristotle University of Thessalonika, building on previous work and observations by others, argues that it's all in your perception (or, more exactly, in your reference frame). You might be able to observe the universe expanding outward, and at an accelerating pace, even if it wasn't actually true - if you happened to be sitting in a local region of the universe that was moving relative to the average (a phenomenon now termed "dark flow"). Our relative motion, here in the Milky Way, could make the universe appear to be expanding faster and faster, when really it's just us moving. This is demonstrated in the figure from the paper:

We all are familiar with relative motion, even if we don't know the terminology. Imagine you're in your car, stopped at a red light, and you've been fiddling with the radio. Suddenly, you're rolling backward... oh no!... until you realize that your foot is firmly planted on the brake, and it's actually the car next to you moving forward, and not you moving backward. Or imagine you're walking on a moving walkway. If you walk in the direction of the moving walkway, from someone standing at Gate B17 you look like you're walking twice as fast. But Gate B17 guy sees that you're hardly moving at all, if you're walking against the direction of the moving walkway. Now imagine this on a larger scale. What if our whole galaxy - in fact, a huge, 2.5-billion-light-year chunk of spacetime - was moving relative to the rest of the universe? It's possible that we'd see relative motion and misinterpret it as absolute motion. In the case of the accelerated expansion of the universe (the topic of this year's Nobel in Physics), we generally assume we're the stationary observer at Gate B17, but perhaps we're really the idiot trying to walk against the direction of the moving walkway.

This isn't a crazy idea, nor is it based in fantasy. It's actually a very simple argument: we're moving relative to the actual rest frame, and this skews our perception. But it's in direct competition with the interpretation that just won the Nobel Prize. So what do we do? We do science. Keep observing, keep testing, and keep refining our interpretations until we figure out which answer is ultimately correct.

Tsagas, C. (2011). Peculiar motions, accelerated expansion, and the cosmological axis Physical Review D, 84 (6) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.84.063503

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What's wrong

If you're over 18 and you voted for American Idol and not the US Presidency, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you complain about the government's right to tax citizens while using public roads to drive to pick up your social security check, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you'd rather watch Dr. Phil than read Schopenhauer, you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you prefer watch any daytime TV over reading any book, your life depresses me.]

If you own a truck and have never hauled anything in the bed or towed anything with it, you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you own a truck and you drive around with the tailgate down because you think it improves your aerodynamics, you're an idiot.]

If you know less American history than the immigrant you're trying to keep out, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you think The Onion is a real news source and propagate its headlines based on this assumption, you're what's wrong with this country.

If the difference between there, their and they're eludes you, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you believe vaccines cause autism, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you agree that Fox News is "Fair and Balanced," you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you think most news reporting in the US is generally unbiased, I'm tremendously sorry.]

If you think the opinions of a scientist who has spent his or her entire career studying something in a systematic and in-depth way and a talk show host briefed on the topic five minutes before going on air are equally valid, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you cut people off in the parking lot of your church, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you rant about what's wrong with this country and fail to do anything about it, you're what's wrong with this country.