Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I encourage all of you to head over to the BBC to read this op-ed, and then to buy yourselves and everyone you know a subscription to Lapham's Quarterly.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ten years

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -
 wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew:
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The (academic) beaten path

Picture this scenario:

A young scientist (post PhD) meets up with some older colleagues at a conference. They laugh and joke and perhaps share a drink in the hotel bar; in the course of the conversation, one of the more senior colleagues asks: "so where are you (employed) these days?"
Our protagonist responds, "at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College."
Imagine the response - an immediate hush, an awkward silence, eyes turned toward the table - finally, someone asks, delicately, "so what prompted that decision?"

But why?

In academia, we never ask why people follow the beaten path. We only ask why they leave it. And if they cannot or will not answer, we assume answers for them: they had to do it to follow a spouse, or to be closer to elderly family members who need long-term care, or because they were fired or lost their grant.... In other words, because they are a bad scientist. There is only one way, and it's our way.

Even those who wish to study the so-called "leaky pipeline" fall prey to this mindset. They assume that the drop in the number of female students in physics (for example) is due to the same mechanism as the drop in the number of tenured or tenure-track female faculty in physics (that one is simply an extension in time of the other), and that our end goal should be to increase the number of women students and faculty. Because that is what everyone really wants, right? To be "successful" in science. Which has become synonymous with "to get a tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university."
Let's go back to our hypothetical situation. Our protagonist has reasons for choosing to work at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College which are just as valid as the reasons to work at Ivy League University. Perhaps this young scientist wants to make a difference in the lives of non-traditional students. Perhaps the overhead on research grants at WCSCTC is practically nil. Perhaps the "publish or perish" mentality doesn't taint every project, allowing our scientist to include students in research without fear of delaying scientific results. Perhaps the teaching load is light and the work flexible. Perhaps the college made a very generous offer, including salary, benefits, and ample lab space.
Our more senior researchers, however, work at Ivy League U. They had to choose this - something prompted that decision. Maybe they got lucky and the department cleared out some laboratory space in the basement. Maybe they get their choice of dozens of graduate students, many of whom will never be so "successful." Maybe they only have to teach the higher level courses. Maybe they only pay 50% in overhead on their research grants. Maybe there's even faculty parking that doesn't cost too much. And maybe, once they finally get tenure, they won't have to try and publish so often. But they get to write ILU next to their names when they go to conferences, and surely that's enough.

The point is, we should not scrutinize one decision over another simply because it does not conform with what we expect (socially, that is) - we should scrutinize all equally. If anything, it is those who choose to leave the beaten path who have the most valid reasons for doing so; "I took this job as a science educator because I wanted to get kids excited about physics" is a much better answer than "I took this job at Super Duper National Laboratory because I wanted to write Research Scientist under my name in my email signature" (..."I took this job at Ivy League because I wanted to have to compete for funding for the rest of my life!").

Part of me does want to "buck the odds" and get that tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university, but the larger part of me can see the futility of that struggle. It's time I started asking myself, "so... what prompted that decision?"

Friday, November 9, 2012

On collaboration

I am remiss in not writing since the election. Of course, I am glad to see Obama win a second term. But it is a microcosm of the US which I wish to describe.

Now that we have chosen (not that the act of choosing grants us reprieve), we need to set aside our differences and cooperate toward the greater good. It is not just a lesson to the wider US population, with regards to the President. It is also a lesson to me and my fellow physicists.

My "home" facility was shut down, as you may remember. We were cut in favor of other facilities, one of which has yet to exist. What smarted the most was that we felt ourselves singled out unfairly (sound familiar, Republicans?) - none of us saw it coming; instead, we all "knew" that it would be Argonne (ATLAS) that lost funding, not us. But that's not what happened in the end. We were cut, and ATLAS was directed to take up the slack. And we are fooling ourselves if we refuse to acknowledge that, aside from the politics, there was some reasonable basis for the decision: number of users, cost to operate, number of publications and citations, etc. (Of course, there were some dirty politics involved also, but that is never one-sided). Just like in the presidential election.
So now we are faced with an honest dilemma: how do we proceed? Do we continue to wallow in our self pity? Or do we stiffen our upper lips and start working collaboratively on real problems? The answer is obvious (even if, early on, we cannot see it through our emotion-tinted glasses).
And so I find myself here at ATLAS, working with those people whom once I considered competition, but since have been rendered cooperative by the nature of the larger system. Our shared situation requires that we collaborate instead of compete, and it is important that someone take that difficult first step - that one side reach out a hand first. I am trying to do just that.
We can solve our problems - and run some really great experiments - if we stop acting dogmatic and isolationist and instead focus on our common goals. Are we here to bicker over number of publications, or are we here to further scientific knowledge? Similarly, are we here to argue over precise tax rates, or are we here to make America a great place to live? It's up to us.

It's time to collaborate.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On polarization

With the third and final presidential debate behind us (finally!), I wanted to relate a story.

I voted already. The early voting here began last Wednesday, and Friday I made my way to the local early polling place around lunchtime, the sky a beautiful blue and the sun shining warmly among the freshly fallen leaves.
But voting was kind of strange. Here I was, standing in line with three dozen other people, and somehow all of us were laughing and joking and chatting, both with people we knew and people we didn't. Holding doors for others. Holding someone's place in line, even if we'd never seen that person before.

And yet the thing we'd all come there to do seems to be the most divisive thing in history.

It's all the more poignant that we were early voters - the ones who have already made up our minds, the ones who do not need to wait for the candidates to debate. We are perhaps the most fiery, the most stubborn, the most convinced (if not convincing). But we treated one another like the neighbors we are, warmly and with respect. Perhaps it is telling that we didn't actually discuss the election itself, but instead how many local candidates there were, or whether it was too early for a flu shot, or if we'd seen each other around town lately.

In the end, it was strange feeling that dichotomy. To know, firsthand, that we were there to purposely choose one or the other, to polarize the nation; and yet we were also human beings, not so polarized ourselves. It is an important lesson to remember: we are all human beings, no matter how much we disagree.
We are more the same than we are not.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nuclear fusion as social commentary

Good morning, starshine - the Earth says hello
You twinkle above us, we twinkle below...
If you don't know the song, well, you might as well go check it out. It's a bit weird. But I used to hear it all the time on the oldies station I listened to as a kid, and this morning on my daily jog it was stuck in my head (perhaps it's the nice weather). So I started to hum as I was running, and then stopped - are we really twinkling? With the presidential election looming, we haven't exactly been the sunniest of people lately.

But what is "starshine," anyway? Nuclear fusion is a violent and energetic process, by which billions upon billions of particles collide with one another constantly until a precious few are able to fuse, producing a new element and releasing energy to power the Sun.

And isn't that what we are, too?

Humans are particles, too, each of us with our own energies, colliding randomly with others, usually to no effect. But just often enough, we collide with another human particle and find we share a resonance - something that allows our combined efforts to exceed the sum of its parts - and we produce something great, something new, something that empowers. So human interaction does mimic nuclear fusion to a fair extent; the Sun twinkles in its way, as we twinkle in ours.

Good morning, starshine.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


It's that time again... Adopt-A-Physicist has begun for 2012 and will keep me occupied for three weeks. Communicating with these high school physics students always gives me hope for the future of science in this country - they're talented, smart, and eager to learn.
The one question that is always guaranteed to be asked in the online forum is some variation on this theme: "what prompted you to go into physics?"
Well, it just so happens I have an answer for that.

When I first became interested in science, back as far as, perhaps, birth, I wanted to work with animals. Later, around the fourth grade, I put a name to my future profession: field biologist. I wanted to live in the great, wide wilderness – yes, a little cabin in the woods – studying wolves. This desire outlived even the cruel joke that is middle school and those unpleasant days during sophomore and junior year when the hallways outside the high school biology labs smelled fearfully of formaldehyde. I dissected cow eyeballs, rat intestines, whole fetal pigs. I was determined. I even rescheduled the normal order of science courses so that I could take physics first and get it out of the way, leaving my senior year free for AP Biology. My afternoons were spent doing homework in front of the TV as my hero, Bill Nye the Science Guy, explained subsurface harmonics, biodiversity, and why the Arctic is so dry. I quit my summer job at the library and applied to work at the nearest state park. I read all of the material on wolves I could find, even wrote about them in other classes. And then I met Mr. Kern.

My junior year, during the algebra-based physics course, Mr. Kern (Herr Kern, as we called him, since he was a recent transplant from Germany) brought his wife's good china in and set it out properly on a satin tablecloth on the workbench in the front of the classroom. "She doesn't know I have this here today," he confided to us. We all leaned forward, our breath caught in silent anticipation. "I need you all to believe in physics," he said, gripping the edge of the tablecloth, knuckles white. Then came the agile snap of his wrists, and... he opened his eyes to behold the table setting just as it had been arrayed, except that the tablecloth was delicately draped from his clutching fingers. We cheered. I was trapped.

I signed up for the calculus-based AP Physics course my senior year. While we built rubber band powered catapults and laser-mirror mazes, my friends in biology memorized the names of animal cell components and made flashcards to discern between kingdom, phylum and class. We recorded movies about waves and friction, they watched movies on mammalian birth. There was no contest.

After graduating high school, I went on to a bachelor's in engineering physics, but once again found myself turning from the engineering and gravitating, if you'll excuse the pun, toward the physics. Graduate school was the obvious option. There was still so much more to learn, and I was inexplicably drawn to those most fundamental connections between all things which physics attempted so aptly to describe. I met a copious number of eccentric and exciting characters during my early years in the department, and the farther along I went, the stranger and, ultimately, better those friends became.

So... not much has changed. I study physics now, because it is a fundamental science from which all others are spawned and developed. But I never let go of my first dream, and the main emphasis of my original hope has been fulfilled. I do get to work with animals!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Science matters

If you haven't seen it already, I demand you check out ScienceDebate 2012's list of pressing scientific policy questions and the answers they have been given by the two contenders for President. That's right. I demand it.
Regardless of where you stand on the issues, the point is that we (as a "well-informed people") have the right (and the responsibility) to know where the candidates stand on the issues that affect us. As science is a tremendously important aspect of everyday life, we should know what the candidates believe regarding the use of science in policy, and the use of policy in science. You as a voter can't make an informed decision if the candidates are not - as the name implies they should be - candid about their views.
Hence ScienceDebate was born.

There are fourteen questions which were submitted to both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and a couple days ago, the two candidates responded. The questions ranged from Innovation and Economy to Energy and Climate Change to Space and STEM Education.
Both candidates were a bit more vague than I had hoped, but I suppose that is to be expected in politics. Certain party-line distinctions are clear, whereas other differences seem minor. In the interest of cutting through the political rhetoric and copious other unrelated nonsense ("Unfortunately, President Obama..."), I will summarize here. (I still demand you read the full questions and responses for yourself, at some point before the election. Also, keep in mind that just because someone talks longer doesn't necessarily mean they have more to say.) I have left what I consider to be important or telling quotations. [On occasion, I won't be able to contain myself, so I have put my interjections in grey.]

1. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
Obama: Double funding for "key research agencies" to support scientists and entrepreneurs; prepare 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade to teach the next generation.
Romney: Reform immigration system to attract and keep "highly skilled foreign workers;" permanently simplify the tax code and lower taxes (including corporate taxes and investments); reduce agency regulation and leave the private sector to "pursuing and applying innovation"; create a "Reagan Economic Zone" for free enterprise while "confronting" countries ("like China") which steal intellectual property [what exactly does he mean by "confronting"?]; reform education system; "focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization."

2. What is your position on policies proposed to address global climate change, and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Obama: "Climate change is one of the biggest issues of this generation;" established limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and on carbon pollution from new fossil fuel plants; invest in clean energy; continue to reduce oil dependence and use.
Romney: "There remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue - on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk - and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community. Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response;" oppose cap-and-trade or carbon tax; pursue "a 'No Regrets' policy - steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action;" robust government funding for low-emissions, efficient technologies; streamline regulatory framework for deployment of new technologies.
[While I can appreciate the desire to look into better alternatives, climate change is not something we can sit around and wait for. We don't have time to see what the "extent" will be.]

3. What priority would you give to research funding in your budget?
Obama: Proposed a goal of 3% of GDP research spending; $100 billion committed during Recovery Act; make permanent the R&D tax credit; prioritize investments in research.
[Of course, this "prioritizing" left me without a facility...]
Romney: "Continued funding would be a top priority in my budget" but it must be spent "more wisely;" "amplify" federal research in the private sector; reform FDA approval process [shrug].

4. What steps should America take to protect ourselves from global pandemics and other biohazards?
Obama: Strengthen public health systems to stop disease spreading and allow for fast and effective response; work with private sector to assess "potential vulnerabilities."
Romney: Invest in public health monitoring systems; "encourage advancements in research and manufacturing" to develop better countermeasures; "empower the private sector to pursue... breakthroughs."

5. Why are American students behind in STEM, and what can be done to fix it?
Obama: Strengthen STEM education via existing "Educate to Innovate" campaign; train 100,000 STEM teachers in next decade; national STEM Master Teacher Corps to support 10,000 teachers.
[Not a really satisfactory answer, since it assumes the problem is not with the method, but with the resources. That said, I don't know how best to approach changing the method, because it seems like every time we introduce vouchers we end up with creationists.]
Romney: "Rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars [pray tell me where teachers are getting millions of dollars from and why that money isn't going toward getting teachers better pay and benefits for what they do] to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve;" support charter schools and digital education providers; support voucher system; support state-level standards and "annual testing" to "hold both students and educators accountable" to those standards; support "policies for recruitment, evaluation and compensation" of teachers.

6. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
Obama: Support "all of the above" energy approach (natural gas, wind, biofuels, solar, oil, clean coal, etc); invest in clean energy and energy efficiency; proposed Clean Energy Standard to produce 80% of electricity from "clean" sources by 2035; proposed Renewable Fuel Standard to save 14 billion gallons of gasoline; development of natural gas resources.
Romney: "Dramatically increase" domestic energy production and partner with Canada and Mexico; open access to domestic energy sources; allow states to control onshore resource production, even on federal land; open offshore areas to development; streamlining of permitting/regulation (including nuclear); facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.
[Personal opinion: I am stridently opposed to opening BLM land to energy production. We set aside those lands to enjoy for generations to come, not pillage.]

7. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America's food supply?
Obama: Signed "most comprehensive reform of our nation's food safety laws in more than 70 years;" strengthen standards and improve monitoring; support organic farming and reduce use of pesticides and antibiotics.
Romney: Support "preventative practices" developed by "growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain;" "advanced research and continued scientific breakthroughs, state-of-the-art monitoring, and a collaborative instead of combative relationship between regulators and businesses."

8. What steps would you take to ensure America has clean, abundant fresh water?
Obama: Released a "national clean water framework" in partnership with communities to improve water quality and restore rivers/watersheds; support water conservation programs; invested in 5100 water and waste community infrastructure projects; streamlined process to improve water along borders.
Romney: "Modernize" federal regulation governing water use; support "combination of incentives, market-based programs, and cooperative conservation measures;" support public and private technologies.

9. What role should governmental play in management of the internet?
Obama: "A free and open Internet is essential component of American society and of the modern economy. I support legislation to protect intellectual property online, but any effort to combat online piracy must not reduce freedom of expression, increase cybersecurity risk, or undermine the... Internet;" recognize "civilian" nature of cyberspace.
Romney: "It is not the role of any government to 'manage' the Internet;" support relying "primarily on innovation and market forces;" "oppose any effort to subject the Internet to an unaccountable, innovation-stifling international regulatory regime. Instead, I will clear away barriers to private investment and innovation and curtail needless regulation."
[I'd like to point out that in the full-length version, Romney prattles on about how Obama "has chosen to impose government as a central gatekeeper in the broadband economy. His policies interfere with the basic operation of the Internet, create uncertainty, and undermine investors and job creators." It's obvious that the two candidates didn't get to see each other's responses. Obama says outright that it is a "free and open Internet" - precisely the opposite of what Romney alleges. I'm not sure exactly what this "innovation-stifling international regulatory regime" is... perhaps he's referring to the BBC website's propensity for using one-sentence-long paragraphs?]

10. How do you protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?
Obama: Established National Ocean Policy to "ensure proactive approach;" direct additional funding to Gulf Coast restoration; started Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and cleanup of Chesapeake Bay; invested $1.4 billion in Everglades restoration; "created or enhanced more than 540 public coastal recreation areas, protected more than 54,000 acres of coastlines and restored over 5,200 acres of coastal habitat;" invest in monitoring of fishing stocks.
Romney: Safeguard fisheries through federal science and input of fishermen, "seeking to accommodate the needs of these small businessmen wherever possible."
[Do I sense a Tragedy of the Commons coming on?]

11. How will you ensure that policy is informed by and adopts the best available scientific information?
Obama: Appoint scientific advisors based on credentials, not policy; directed OSTP to "ensure that our policies reflect what science tells us without distortion or manipulation;" expand public disclosure of environmental regulatory compliance; "ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, making scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology, and including the public in our decision making process."
Romney: "ensure that the best available scientific and technical information guides decision-making in my Administration, and avoid the manipulation of science for political gain;" pursue legislative reforms "to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account;" establish regulatory cap.
[It's the "cost" thing that really bothers me with this one. Is the future of humanity not worth a few extra bucks?]

12. What are our goals for space in the 21st century?
Obama: Extended life of ISS; invested $2.5 billion in Mars rover Curiosity; set goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s; support Orion deep space crew vehicle (test launch 2014).
Romney: Support "rebuilding NASA, restoring US leadership, and creating new opportunities for space commerce;" ensure NASA has "practical and sustainable missions;" invite international participation; strengthen space-based national security programs (ie spy satellites); revitalize aerospace industry.

13. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?
Obama: Support development of rare-earth alternatives; joined with Japan and Europe to bring trade case against Chinese restrictions on rare-earth exports; promote US-based electronics recycling; launching research "hub" to develop efficiencies and alternatives for rare-earth materials use.
Romney: "The United States was once self-sufficient in its production of critical natural resources like rare-earth minerals. But a decline in production, driven more by regulation than by economics or scarcity, has left the nation reliant on imports;" allow access to federal lands for energy resource production; allow states to regulate such production.
[This is, in fact, a strange question, in that Obama chose to focus on rare-earth materials and Romney chose instead to focus on oil and gas drilling. I would also like to point out that Romney's charge is not entirely true; it is economics that have caused the downward trend in rare-earth extraction in the US.]

14. What steps would you take to support vaccinations in the interest of public health?
Obama: Introduced Affordable Care Act to make routine preventative care such as vaccinations free of copay or deductible; created Prevention and Public Health Fund to transform health care system from focus on illness to focus on wellness; allow states to purchase vaccines at federally-negotiated prices.
Romney: Strengthen manufacturing capabilities to stockpile vaccines; "the vast majority of Americans need to take steps to receive vaccinations;" take "steps to ensure that America remains the most attractive place to develop and commercialize innovative, life-saving products like vaccines."

Now go read the whole thing. Do it. It's important.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Real Cost of Living

What began as a cost of living comparison ended in something of an epiphany.

I'd recently had a job offer, interesting and permanent work that would engage a larger portion of my skill set - in all respects, the kind of job that I seemed fated to take.
In considering my options, weighing the pros and cons of either choice, I determined that the cost of living increase was large, to say the least: 150% of the where I live now, with a near doubling of the property prices. It was a good offer, on the high end of the original range they quoted me, and it was certainly possible to live comfortably enough on that salary. But considering such cost-of-living increases, it was actually equivalent to less than I make now (yes, where I live currently is just that cheap!). Surely, however, such a job would be worth taking the financial hit? Even if it meant I would have to go back to living solo for the foreseeable future?
But then we went home, got on our bikes in the beautiful evening air and rode the two miles to our favorite local restaurant. The one with the buffalo and elk and ostrich burgers, the best hot wing sauce in existence, and the local beer on tap. The one where we're two of the regulars. It turned out that night was open mic night, and we stayed for several hours listening to amateurs sing and play guitar (I say amateurs, but they were quite good and we ended up giving them $10 in the tip jar). After dinner and a few drinks, we rode home, the air chilly along the lake, fog rolling across the path in places.

And I realized then that this was the kind of place I wanted to put down roots, and that, for better or worse, I already had.

It wasn't the monetary value of the cost of living that I discovered, but the true - call it spiritual or whatever you will - value of the place. All the while I seek happiness, I will not find it. You cannot seek it. You must seek something more meaningful, and happiness will find you. Like the fortune cookie said, "not having a goal is more to be feared than not reaching one." I have - had - no goal other than happiness, and certainly I will not achieve it.
What is more important to me? Doing something other than what I'm doing, or having my fiancé to read to in the evenings and the cats curled up on my bed every morning? Having the most amazing job ever, or having a garden full of tomatoes and friends to share them with? So my current work frustrates me, as does the funding situation surrounding it, but my life's meaning is not to be found in only my job. Surely I can find something here that will satisfy me, something that will provide at least the cost-of-living equivalent to the job offer I have before me. It could be managing the Books-A-Million, who knows? But here, despite the bugs and the heat, there is the house and the garden and the greenways, there is hill and river, there is bluegrass and osprey and the relatively surprising wonders of nearby Knoxville.
How can I leave here? I can only see leaving for something that is without doubt better (like getting an SFI faculty job in Santa Fe... hint hint...).

Better then to stay and see what I have foolishly been overlooking all along.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Hiroshima Day. But tomorrow is, for me, the day of death from the sky.
I don't have to think about it consciously. It's there all the time, fomenting just beneath the level of which I am fully aware. I am constantly unsettled – I must force myself to eat – and even in the midst of a conversation or engaging movie I cannot break away from the fear. There is no escape.
God, and it's just a flight to Dallas. Two hours, no more.
What I wouldn't give to become actually ill; demonstrably and unequivocally sick, too sick to travel, sorry, can't go, someone else needs to give my talk. It should be telling that I would prefer a real evil to a perceived evil. I know as well as anyone (perhaps better than most people, actually, as I am a physicist) that humans are terrible at correctly perceiving probability versus consequence. I know that this fear is not legitimate, not reasonable, not logical. And yet I know that I will not sleep tonight, and that I may vomit my breakfast back up before downing another lorazepam and driving, utterly defeated, to the airport.
The thing that seems strangest to me is that the phobia has gotten worse as I have grown older. I was not scared of flying in high school. But it bothered me in college, and then in graduate school it began to be a serious hindrance. Now it is flat-out debilitating. Now, just as my life seems the least worthwhile, I am the most scared to lose it. If this trend continues... I dare not think of it.
I don't want my experience to facilitate the fear of others, though. I can think of nothing so horrible as causing others to suffer from my suffering. Just because I am educated, no one should point at me and say, "but she has a PhD in physics, and she's afraid of flying, so it must be dangerous." It's not dangerous to the extend that I am afraid. The relative magnitudes are all wrong. What I hope is that, instead, people might point at me and say "she has a PhD in physics, and she's afraid of flying, so even smart people have weaknesses." If you are afraid, you're not alone. If you suffer a mental illness, you're not alone. And it doesn't make you less of a person.
It's hard for me to think. What if I did die tomorrow? I haven't done enough. I haven't achieved enough or shared enough or loved enough. Perhaps it is my youth that cries out against death; I am not ready, and therefore am certain that no one could ever be ready. I'm not ready to consider the possibility of my own non-being.
I've checked in online. I guess I should go home and pack.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Post - On shootings and firearm statistics

The following was written by the Evil Dr. Pain and originally posted on facebook Wednesday, July 25th.

On shootings and firearm statistics

Following the recent atrocity in Aurora, the latest in a sadly growing list of gun-related attacks on groups of the public (for which the US is growing increasingly infamous), there has been the expected surge in arguments between the pro-gun and pro-gun-control lobbies. Regrettably, a large portion of this argument has either been from people voicing opinions in the same tired catch-phrases or variants thereon (the various versions of "guns don't kill people, people kill people", for example), usually without anything substantial to support their argument, or a neverending sequence of memes telling us the same things, disguised in cheap derivative humour. Sure, this is Facebook, and is a great vehicle for generic siliness (A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men...), but when it comes to matters as grave as this, I hope we can put this aside and have a serious discussion about the issues.

The central question in discussing these issues must surely be: Just how dangerous are guns, on a societal level? We understand intuitively in individual cases - common sense tells us that a gun in responsible hands is no significant social danger, and a gun in the hands of the wrong person can be a terrible danger (these are the foundations of the arguments from the pro-gun and pro-gun-control camps, respectively) - but an answer requies not simply the consideration of the extreme cases, but the vast majority that lie between. The obvious thing to do is to look at some data.

Here, I'm focussing on gun crime only (ie excluding firearm accidents, suicides etc). Gun crime is quite a complicated issue, as it is tied to numerous variables, many of which hard to quantify (or even identify qualitatively). Consequently, the best this represents is a zeroth-order pass at considering gun crime statistics from a nation-by-nation standpoint.

The data

All data I've plotted here are sourced from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and theSmall Arms Survey, and can be found at this article in the Guardian. The data are far from complete (many developing countries are missing, along with Russia and China), but cover a significant fraction of the world, including most of the developed world, and thus shed light on some general trends.

For all plots I generated, data points in blue are the entire "global" data set. Because many of the factors which influence gun crime (and crime in general) are social factors which are hard to quantify (as yet, I've not included any quantitative metric for them), I've labelled a selection of countries in each plot, in order for the viewer to illuminte the data with their own social and political knowledge. For each plot, I've included an inset of an unlabeled plot, so that the distribution of the data may be seen without the distraction of overlaid text. Furthermore, in an attempt to clarify the effects of the varibles plotted, I've taken a subset of the data (plotted in red), labelled "Western World". This selection of countries roughtly represents the "First World" (Western Europe, USA, Canada, Australasia, Japan and South Korea) - countries which are relatively similar in social and political terms (on a global scale). Plots of only these data are discussed following the discussion on global data.

Global data

Fig 1 - Firearm homicide rate vs number of firearms per capita

Fig 1 shows the firearm homicide rate (per 100,000 people, per year) against the prolificity of firearms (guns per 100 people). It is immediately clear is that there is no correlation between these two raw varibles. This is perhaps unsurprising, as any underlying correlation between the availablity of firearms and the homicide rate is bound to be lost in the numerous social factors impacting on crime rates. The extent to which the US is a global outlier is clear here; it has the highest number of guns per capita of any country, by several standard deviations from the norm. On a global scale, its firearm homicide rate is low (especially considering the prolificity of firearms), although the countries dominating the firearm homicide rate are not First-World countries, and most have significant social/political problems. The First-World countries in red have a vastly lower firearm homicide rate than the global average.

Fig 2 - Total homicide rate vs number of firearms per capita

Fig 2 shows the total homicide rate (per 100,000 people, per year) against the prolificity of firearms (guns per 100 people). There's is no real correlation between these two raw varibles, for the same reason as before. Again, the First World countries in red have a vastly lower homicide rate than the global average, and the US lies at between the First World and the remainder of the globe.

Fig 3 - Percentage of firearm homicides vs number of firearms per capita

Fig 3 shows the percentage of homicide that involved firearms against the prolificity of firearms. Surprisingly here, there is not obvious correlation between these variables, and in this case the first world countries and are more evenly ditributed with the rest of the globe. Overall, the fraction of firearms involved in homicidal behaviour seems independent of the availability of the firearms.

Fig 4 - Firearm homicide rate vs total homicide rate

Fig 4 indicates the strongest correlation in the data; the firearm homicide rate as a function of the total homicide rate. The correlation is positive, and is well desribed with a quadratic term (plot to follow), indicating that the more violent a country is, the more guns are involved in the murder rate.

Fig 5 - Percentage of firearm homicides vs total homicide rate

This is demonstrated in Fig 5, which plots the percentage of firearm homicides against the total homicide rate. Here, a group of very violent countries can be seen to have a separate grouping (distinct from much of the world, including the first-world countries) with distinct positive correlative trend. Curiously, in this parameter, space, the USA lies at the cusp between the most violent, troubled countries, and the rest of the world.

The 'First' (or 'Western') World data

In examining the first world countries (in the plots, labelled "Western World"), we are able to examine data for which the distribution of social and political factors is much smaller (all the countries herein are relatively wealthy democracies), more clearly illuminating any correlations between plotted variables. In all these plots, it can be seen how much of an outlier the USA is compared to the rest of the First World.

Fig 6 - Firearm homicide rate vs firearms per capita, for the First World

Fig 6 shows the firearm homicide rate against the number of guns per capita, for First-World countries. Unlike Fig 1, where any correlation was lost in the vast variation in social and political factors, here was can see a direct positive correlation. Though there are still considerable variations in the data, it can clearly be seen that in the democracies of the First World, having more guns directly correlates with more people using them to shoot people. 

Fig 7 - Firearm homicide rate vs total homicide rate, for the First World

Fig 7 shows the firearm homicide rate against the total homicide rate for the First World. Though here there is more scatter than for the global data (Fig 4, dominated by the more politically/socially troubled  countries), there is some evidence for a positive correlation between the firearm homicide rate and the total homidide rate(ie the more people are killing each other, the more they are shooting each other).

Fig 8 - Total homicide rate vs firearms per capita, for the First World

Fig 8 shows the total rate of homicides against the number of firearms per capita, for the First World. In these data (excluding the USA datum), it is difficult to say if there is any correlative effect at all between the total rate of homicides and the number of firearms per capita (though with the USA point, it is not difficult to imagine a quadratic trend).

Thoughts on the data

On examining the data, it is probable that, though the prolificity of firearms appears to have an impact on the number of firearm-related homicides in the First World, it probably has little impact on the total rate of homicides. That is, having fewer guns around does not make you safer from being killed, but it does make you safer from being shot.

If, however, the number of guns in the US is not the major factor driving the homicide rate, it clearly is true that the number (and nature) of guns in legal circulation directly enables the large-scale firearm massacres, of which Aurora was the latest. Of course, whilst these massacres are very high profile, they contribute very little to the total statistics. The Aurora death toll was about 0.08% of the homicide toll for the US in a typical year. Twice as many people are shot to death daily in the USA (and almost four times as many homicides in total are committed daily) as were murdered in Aurora. Despite the fact that these events contribute so little to the total homicide rate in the USA, it is necessary that they be so strongly focused upon. There is something disturbing about the complete lack of discimination involved in such acts. There is something disturbing about the sheer magnitude of death an injury. They are a canary for social health. 

Returning to the data above, it is clear that the USA is a considerable outlier with repect to the remainder of the First World in almost all parameters. The percentage of firearm-related homicides is the exception, in which the USA actually does statistically well compared to other nations, considering how many firearms are around in the USA.  However, the fact that the USA does considerably worse in terms of homicidal statistics compared to the rest of the First Worldsuggests a significant social factor, which drives its homicide rate (gun-related and otherwise).

The irony, then, of this study is that the focus in the wake of such attrocities should not be solely on firearm control (which of course could help limit the ease with which these major atrocities can be conducted; most sociopathic lunatics are hardly well set to make easy in-roads with black-market dealers), but on identifying and correcting the underlying social problems which stand in the way of the USA reaching its full potential as a civilised (meaning full of civilians, who are able to live without feeling the need to be armed) member of the First World.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What it means - and what it doesn't

(from the front page of today's

You may have heard by now... researchers at the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN have announced today that they've discovered the God Particle. I wasn't surprised by the announcement, but I did come home from my morning run to find text messages from family members asking for explanations.
First off, let me point out that the researchers themselves are, while excited, much more hesitant to refer to the announcement as revolutionary. The media has made a run of it, but not the scientists themselves.
So what does it mean?
In the Standard Model of particle physics, the best understanding we have to date of the subatomic world, the Higgs field was predicted decades ago to be the mechanism by which other particles have mass (think of wading through a river with your clothes on - the farther across you get, the wetter the fabric is and the heavier you are because of it). In our understanding of the universe, every field is associated with a particle (in more technical terms, the particle is basically a bunched-up bit of the field), so the Higgs field has to be associated with a Higgs boson, and the Higgs boson has to have certain characteristics. And while this Higgs particle is important, and a key feature of the Standard Model, it's not really anything like a "God particle." It's one more piece in the puzzle, one more particle in the Standard Model pantheon.
Now, to the "discovery" of today's announcement. Aside from noting that discovery of the Higgs is not the be-all-end-all of science (what about dark matter? dark energy? unification of gravity with the other fundamental forces?), the data presented today needs to be taken with some hesitation. While the term often thrown around is "five sigma" - meaning that the signal has about a one in a million chance of being just noise - the CERN announcement and the associated figures doesn't show any individual 5-sigma data. That certainty of discovery only comes when taking all of the data together. The fact that CMS, ATLAS, and the Tevatron data from before the shutdown all seem to indicate a new particle in this particular mass region is convincing, though.
But what precisely was discovered? Here's another trick that the media are playing on you. The CERN (and Tevatron) researchers didn't discover the Higgs particle. What they discovered was an as-yet unknown particle with a mass of about 125 GeV. It could be the Higgs. It could be something completely different. What's necessary now is to go through as much data as possible to determine whether the new particle behaves like we theoretically expect the Higgs to behave. Does it have all the right characteristics? We don't know yet. We know that we've looked elsewhere and not seen anything, and we know that in this particular region the data look promising. But that's all.
So what does it all mean? The take-home message is this: they've found something, and it's pretty convincing, but nobody knows for sure what it is. And even if it is the Higgs, it's not the end of science.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Ok, time for a rant.

When I lived in Colorado, cyclists were treated with a sort of disrespectful contempt the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere else in the world. There are just so many people on bikes that they become a nuisance, a pest, an invasive species. The contempt isn't entirely ill-founded, either, given that cyclists use public roads and yet 1) effectively don't pay any tax to do so, and 2) tend to completely ignore the rules of the road, which apply equally to anything with wheels. During my stint as a park ranger, I would make a point of stopping anyone on a bike who wasn't riding single-file and remind them that the Colorado revised statutes required them to do so within 300 feet of any car. I knew a guy who, when making hay deliveries for the feed store he worked for, would purposely drive the flatbed truck just ahead of any cyclists on the shoulder, spraying them with fragments of straw. Another friend fashioned a prod from a boxing glove tied to the end of a broom handle, and would drive up and down the winding mountain roads near our college (popular with bikes) and poke at cyclists out the passenger window. There was revulsion, but it was mutual; bikers hated drivers and drivers hated bikers, and all was right with the world.
Ah, but Tennessee. Here in Tennessee, bikers still hate drivers, but drivers seem to treat bikers with the sort of frightened reverence usually reserved for large, man-eating predators. Perhaps it's sensible that here cyclists are considered an endangered species, as they do seem to be few and far between (for whatever reason - some are obvious, but not all are). I have seen drivers veer fully into oncoming traffic to avoid a bike on the shoulder. Of course, this makes no sense at all, and to me particularly it seems reason enough to revoke one's license. Strange as it seems, in this state I have probably seen more of those "Share the Road" signs and bumper stickers than I've seen cyclists.
Maybe the issue is that people in Tennessee don't actually have a good grasp of how far 3 feet is. Three feet is the legally required distance between a car passing a bike on the shoulder, but of course there are caveats. But I doubt it. My complaint arises in that the caveats apply to the cyclists, not the drivers, and yet the cyclists here never even appear to contemplate whether any laws might be in place. Let the idiot drivers move into the wrong side of the road, never mind riding single file or obeying traffic signals or staying "as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge" of the shoulder. Cyclists, beware - I know the rules that apply to you!
The system in Colorado, while never explicit, may seem brutal - but it works. Cyclists and drivers alike share the road in a sort of mutual unease, making everyone safer. But if drivers in Tennessee are willing to face 55mph oncoming traffic instead of being 3 feet from a cyclist, and cyclists are willing to let it happen, then we'll never reach any kind of mutually beneficial accord.
I think I have some boxing gloves in the attic...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top Five

Looking back through my recent posts, I feel I've been a bit serious. Serious isn't inherently bad, mind you, but in order to lighten the mood for the middle of the week, here are my choices for top five song spoofs. Enjoy.

#5 - Colorado Girls (parody of California Girls)
You probably won't find this as hilarious as I do if you're not from (or currently living in) Colorado. But anyone who grew up there can recite the Tom Shane radio commercials on command.

#4 - Canadian Idiot (parody of American Idiot)
Man, I love Canadians. I probably should have been one.

#3 - Tebowie (parody of Major Tom)
When I first saw Jimmy Fallon perform this (in costume), I almost cried.

#2 - White and Nerdy (parody of Ridin' Dirty)
This was a toss-up... #2 and #1 are very close. If I had to choose just based on video, this would be #1. Is it bad that I understand every single reference?

#1 - The Saga Begins (parody of American Pie)
I gave this one the top spot because it's impossible for me to hear the original without these lyrics instead. Weird Al is a genius.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Venus, once more

Just a shot of what we were watching yesterday (taken with Evil Dr. Pain's camera and some welding goggles).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Don't forget - today you'll get the opportunity to watch Venus track across the face of the Sun. It won't happen again for 105 years, so better get out there with your pinhole projector!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Let the Buyer Beware

"Modern societies are complex systems" may be the understatement of the year.

Obvious or not, however, it must be stated when attempting to model even some minuscule aspect of such a society. Take, for instance, the paper published today by T.P. Peixoto and S. Bornholdt from the Universitat Bremen in Germany, where the authors develop a model to simulate commodity buyers and sellers in an open, capitalist market. The model is based upon a "trust game," which, in a nutshell, assumes (as in real life) that each individual agent wants to choose what's in his or her best interest, but doesn't necessarily know which option is the most likely. Thus the decision must be made on the basis of trust: belief that the chosen option is the right option. Or, in the language of this particular model, "buyers must decide if a certain product is worth its cost, and sellers must decide which price they should assign for their products."
Add to this trust game a confounding factor: perhaps we don't have the option of choosing whether or not to buy, but only from where (or from whom) we buy. Think of gasoline or groceries. We may be able to shop at Safeway or Kroger or Fresh Market, but we can't realistically opt to not buy groceries. So we're looking at a system where sellers set their price, buyers choose their sellers, and hopefully (as capitalists would have us believe) the market works out to be maximally beneficial to all parties (more specifically, both buyers and sellers agree upon a fair price).

Here's where things get interesting.

Keep in mind that, in the model, all of the agents - the buyers and sellers - operate independently. The sellers' only goal is to maximize payoff, and the buyers' only goal is to minimize cost. The model doesn't assume that there's any difference in the actual quality of the commodity, only that each agent has some net (monetary) benefit from its interactions: an overall buyer's satisfaction and an overall seller's profit. In the modeling equations, each of these is related to the "value of money," which can be interpreted as a value of the goods/services purchased. With each iteration of the model (ie, the progression of time), the buyer's strategy is updated through comparison - "am I getting a fair price from this seller?" - and the seller's strategy is updated through repetition - "this seems to be a working market for me."
There's one final rule in the model which the authors can tweak: the sellers, essentially, react faster than the buyers. And when this is the case, the outcome is quite surprising.
The sellers are able to quickly opt for lower values of money, leaving fewer and fewer higher values available to the buyers (remember that your money "goes further" as a buyer when it's worth more). These values then remain low because the buyers are left with no other options, although there can still be substantial small-level fluctuation, brought about because the buyers are still forcing the sellers to compete. In plainer terms, the system has produced a cartel: a group of sellers who control the price of a commodity (the value of money) to their own benefit and to the detriment of buyers.
Now, it's very important to remember that the agents in this model are acting independently. There is no collusion between sellers, no implicit or explicit agreement as to setting the value of money. The behavior is what's known as emergent - it appears, simply and completely unforced, as an outcome of the rules of the game.

(a more appropriate caption: "just look at the value of money crash and burn!")

So the simple capitalistic trust game modeled by the authors leads us, surprisingly, to the behavior of a cartel; to unanticipated price-fixing (without collaboration among sellers) that is detrimental to all buyers. Sure, the model doesn't take everything into account, but the result is still shocking.

Like the authors themselves state, there's no need for conspiracy: it seems like simple, individualistic capitalism can lead directly to cartels. Caveat emptor.

Tiago P. Peixoto, & Stefan Bornholdt (2012). No Need for Conspiracy: Self-Organized Cartel Formation in a Modified Trust Game Physical Review Letters, 108 (21) : 10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.218702

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Can't help it... this must be shared!

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's About Time

I've just recently completed Adam Frank's About Time, and while I intended to write a full review, instead I feel that I must share with you two important stories recounted within its pages.

I will say this: I found the book a fascinating, enjoyable and well-researched read. I was disappointed to see no mention of some of the newest cosmological theories, which, as they include information theory (the entropy of a black hole being connected with how many bits of information it has inhaled, for instance), seem inextricably connected to the current cultural zeitgeist - the basic thesis of the entire book being the "braiding of science and culture." But it's no great loss. There is plenty already.

The two stories I wanted to share begin with Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre was an astronomer and physicist, the first to suggest a "Big Bang" (expansion) model for the universe, but also a Catholic priest. Lemaitre was thus more-than-averagely equipped to understand the connections between science and religion, and the dangerous weight that they could impress on one another. When Lemaitre learned in 1951 that Pope Pius XII gave full endorsement of the Big Bang cosmological model (as presented in the combined work of Lemaitre himself, Gamow, Alpher and others), his response is telling: he was "horrified." The pope proclaimed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that "present-day science... has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux.... Hence, creation took place.... Therefore God exists."
Lemaitre, understanding that any scientific hypothesis could be overturned if the data disagreed, traveled to Rome and "counseled the pope against linking the faith to any contingent scientific hypothesis" [pg 202]. Both science and religion were important to Lemaitre - so important, in fact, that he would not allow either one to direct or support the other. There's something to be learned here, even if the fans of Intelligent Design (and, in ironic fact, those vehemently opposed to ID) refuse to learn it.

The second story is about homeland security - long before the term "homeland security" existed. In the early 80's when Reagan was president, a burgeoning network of Earth-orbiting GPS satellites was finally coming into its own. More satellites were being launched throughout the 80's, but, at the time, GPS technology was limited to those with a security clearance: before 1983, GPS was entirely a classified military effort. But what happened next should be a lesson in how to correctly deal with international threats.
On September 1st, 1983, Korean Air flight 007, on the final leg of its journey from New York to Seoul, veered off course and strayed into Soviet airspace. Crossing over the Kamchatka Peninsula, the passenger plane was shot down by two Soviet fighter jets. All 263 passengers aboard were killed, including a US Senator. Reagan responded first with horror and outrage at the Soviets, but then did something which seems almost the opposite of his Republican legacy George W: he declassified GPS [pg 240]. Instead of responding to the perceived Soviet threat by tightening the leash on "secure" information (such as we do now, after 9/11), he made it openly and publicly available. And now, the Cold War is over and GPS is one of the most successful technologies out there. Perhaps we could learn by example and try opening up our files on nuclear energy.

I leave you with this thought from the book.
Rather than make claims of final theories, perhaps we should focus on our ever-continuing dialogue with the universe. It is the dialogue that matters, not its imagined end. It is the sacred act of inquiry wherein we gently trace the experienced outlines of an ever-greater whole. It is the dialogue that lets the brilliance of the diamond's infinite facets shine clearly. It is the dialogue that instills within us a power and capacity that is, and always has been, saturated with meaning.... With each step we gain a deeper sense of the awe and beauty that suffuse the universe's essential mystery.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Fireballs" Snuffed

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

(check it out! Editor's Pick on!)

Ok, I admit, the title is a bit misleading. That's journalism, right?
So the story begins thusly: somewhere out there in the universe, something is producing really high energy cosmic rays. I mean, really high energy. Energies above 10^18 electronvolts (that's a one followed by eighteen zeros). That's nearly a million times more energetic than the LHC upgrade. Boggles-the-mind high energy.
We've detected those high energy cosmic rays here on Earth. And we want to know where they come from.
There aren't many things we know of in the universe that are powerful enough to produce such high-energy cosmic rays. Neutron star mergers, perhaps. Supernova explosions. But gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) seemed like a really good candidate. These astrophysical explosions are tremendously energetic, and so, it was proposed, they could be producing the seriously high energy cosmic rays we've been seeing. But the IceCube collaboration published results this week that seem to indicate "no such luck."
In the fireball model of the physics taking place inside a gamma-ray burst, the production of the high-energy cosmic rays is accompanied by a flux of neutrinos. The number of neutrinos produced is related to the number of proton-photon interactions inside the GRB, and this is in turn related to the energetic cosmic rays produced (the cosmic rays observed are generally protons or neutrons). So if the model was correct, and GRBs are the source of the cosmic rays, then each cosmic ray event should be associated with a flux of neutrinos, coming from the same location in the sky and at a specified time and energy. And IceCube set out to look for just that.
The IceCube detector is itself a wonder of the universe (in my opinion, anyway!). Strings of sensitive electronics extend down into the polar ice cap over Antarctica to a depth of one and a half miles. These detectors look for the tiny flashes of blue light produced when a neutrino interacts with the ice. It doesn't happen very often - neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect, because they don't like to interact with matter all that much - but when you have a cubic kilometer of ice to work with, you're bound to see something!
That's where the results come in. The IceCube collaboration saw... nothing. No flux of neutrinos from gamma-ray bursts. In fact, they saw so much nothing that they were able to put an upper limit on the number of possible neutrinos that was nearly a factor of four lower than what the fireball models suggested. So either the fireball models are (at least partially) incorrect, or gamma-ray bursts are not the source of the high energy cosmic rays.
Something to keep in mind: scientists appreciate a negative result just as much as a positive one. Not seeing what you expected to see is still just as important (perhaps more so) than seeing what you expected to see. It means you have to go back to the drawing board, think through everything again, and potentially come up with a brand new model to explain what you did see.
As the authors of the study themselves say, "all such models - in which all extragalactic cosmic rays
are emitted from GRBs as neutrons - are now largely ruled out.... either the proton density in GRB fireballs is substantially below the level required to explain the highest-energy cosmic rays or the physics in GRB shocks is significantly different from that included in current models. In either case, our current theories of cosmic-ray and neutrino production in GRBs will need to be revisited."

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