To Seek A Newer World, Etc.

Science After Sunclipse has moved to a new home with a more cheerful colour scheme,

Really, there’s not much more to say than that. They asked; I said I could only move if they upgraded their software to allow equation support; they said an upgrade was in the works; eventually, I decided to get situated over there so that somebody who knows how the software is meant to be used is around to get it going. These things don’t happen until somebody pushes. Like Dad always said, the bitchy wheel gets the grease.

Oh, and I figured I should profit, even if only a tiny bit, from any traffic which goes to the Carnival of Elitist Bastards.

Calling All Elitist Bastards

It lacks ten days until the next Carnival of Elitist Bastards. The fourth instalment of this more-august-by-the-minute institution will be hosted here, at Science After Sunclipse, on the thirtieth of August. Entries for consideration should be sent to elitistbastardscarnival at gmail dot com by the twenty-ninth. If you’ve got writing which exalts the intellect; which details the life of sophistication and subtlety; which illustrates, by example, the pleasure and virtue of knowledge justly won — eh bien, alors, this carnival is for you.

INCIDENTALLY, if you’re looking for something to uplift your spirit, I have just been informed that the TV series Cosmos (1980) is available for sale on iTunes. I don’t have iTunes, so I can’t tell you much more than that.

Interlude, with Cat

Want to know why I never get anything done? It’s not just because I find myself volunteered to write a one-act musical entitled Harry Crocker and the Plot of Holes. It’s also because Sean Carroll linked to a whole bunch of physics blogs, mine included, thereby obligating me to read through all their archives, and in the backblog of High Energy Mayhem I found a pointer to a talk by Krishna Rajagopal (my professor for third-term quantum — small world) on applying gauge/gravity duality to strongly coupled liquids like RHIC’s quark-gluon soups and cold fermionic atoms tuned to a Feshbach resonance. It still counts as “work” if the videos I’m watching online are about science, right? Look, if you use the “Flash presentation” option, it plays the video in one box and shows the slides in another! (Seriously, that’s a simple idea which is a very cool thing.)

Anyway, while I stuff my head with ideas I barely have the background to understand, and while I’m revising a paper so that it (superficially) meets PNAS standards, and while I try to re-learn the kinetic theory I forgot after that exam a few years back. . . Here’s a cat!

\"Extra credit\"? Professor Cat is amused.

(This one is for Zeno, and was recaptioned from here.)

Right Skill, Right Time

OK, first of all, let me say that there exist few better ways to procrastinate than reading an essay on time management. Terry Tao has lots of suggestions; following a fraction of them would probably make me a better human being. One item, though, is worth special attention:

It also makes good sense to invest a serious amount of time and effort into learning any skill that you are likely to use repeatedly in the future. A good example in mathematics is LaTeX: if you plan to write a lot of papers, it makes sense to go beyond the bare minimum of skill needed to jerry-rig whatever you need to write your paper, and go out and seriously learn how to make tables, figures, arrays, etc. Recently I’ve been playing with using prerecorded macros to type out a standard block of LaTeX code (e.g. \begin{theorem} … \end{theorem} \begin{proof} … \end{proof}) in a few keystrokes; the actual time saved per instance is probably minimal, but it presumably adds up over time, and in any event feels like you’re being efficient, which is good for morale (which becomes important when writing a long paper).

The risk is that you might end up a freak like me: after you’ve defined a few macros for moments and cumulants and partial derivatives, you get bitten by a radioactive backslash key and start typing all your class notes in LaTeX while the professor is lecturing. That aside, thinking about the proper time to learn these “accessory skills” puts me in the mood for a rant. (Well, what doesn’t?)

MIT did an exasperating thing with its undergraduate physics programme shortly before my time. The way I heard the story, they’d been afraid of losing students to other majors, so they dumbed down the sophomore-year classes (virtually excising Lagrangian mechanics, for example). We were left with a “waves and vibrations” class which was rather a junk drawer of different examples; a quantum-mechanics course which lacked guts and thus forsook glory; a decent introduction to statistical mechanics; and a relativity class which, hamstrung by fear of sophistication, also suffered because it lacked a singing Max Tegmark.
Continue reading Right Skill, Right Time

Monday BPSDB: Null Physics

BPSDBA fellow named Terry Witt has been advertising his self-published book, Our Undiscovered Universe, in places like Discover magazine and Scientific American. Unfortunately, the ad pages aren’t exactly peer-reviewed, or even cross-checked with a nearby grad student; being businesses, magazines naturally care about revenue. Upon examination, Our Undiscovered Universe turns out to be brimming over with crank physics and general nonsense. Ben Monreal, who was one of the intimidatingly smart people in the lab where I did my undergrad thesis, has weighed Witt’s “Null Physics” and found it wanting; his review of Our Undiscovered Universe is quite a good read.

Witt’s book starts with pseudomathematics before moving on to pseudophysics. As Ben explains,

Chapter 1 is where Witt lays out a series of “proofs” derived from what he calls the “Null Axiom”. That axiom is: “Existence sums to nonexistence” (pg. 28)—something that Witt calls self-evident after a page of invalid set theory. The central mistake, if I had to identify one, is the claim that “X does not exist” is the same as “everything except X exists”. This is utter baloney, whether in formal logic or in set theory or in daily experience.

Actually, as the book unfolds, Witt doesn’t appear to use this dead-in-the-water non-axiom for anything. He does, however, pile on more pseudomathematics:

Chapter 3 contains such gems as Theorem 3.1: “The Existence of Any Half of the Universe is Equal to the Nonexistence of the Other Half” (pg. 66) and Theorem 3.9: “The Time Required for Light to Traverse the Universe is Eternity, infinity/c” (pg. 72). I am not making this up. Witt throws around “infinity” as though it were an ordinary real number; he multiplies and divides by it, etc., with normal algebraic cancellation. This is complete nonsense; there are two centuries of mathematical thought figuring out the mathematical properties of infinity, and Witt’s approach is valid in exactly none of them. (Witt later explained on his online forum—currently disabled—that he’s reinvented all of the mathematics associated with “infinity”. His reasoning, if that’s what you call it, was that his new definition jibed with a grand idea about math being dependent on nature; it was an argument from incredulity.)

When Witt does finally get around to physics, five chapters into the book, he doesn’t do any better.
Continue reading Monday BPSDB: Null Physics

Quantum Woo, Part N

BPSDBTime for a little BPSDB! The redoubtable Ben Goldacre has the dirt on Bill Nelson’s “QXCI machine,” a device for “bioenergetic health auditing,” a medical procedure well-known among specialists as an essential step in the surgical removal of cash from wallets. Best of all, though, is what QXCI stands for: Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface. Now, quantum physics has jack to do with consciousness, but more importantly, “quantum xrroid” just sounds. . . painful. Like a blood boil growing inside your X, if you know what I mean.

Maybe a “quantum xrroid” means that your X is in a superposition of inflamed and not inflamed and only settles on one or the other option when your doctor examines it.

(Incidentally, I met the redoubtable Ben Goldacre in Vegas a few weeks ago — and thereby would hang a tale, if he weren’t still hoarding the photo evidence.)

Currently Reading

Random fun items currently floating up through the arXivotubes include the following. Exercise: find the shortest science-fiction story which can connect all these e-prints, visiting each node only once.

Robert H. Brandenberger, “String Gas Cosmology” (arXiv:0808.0746).

String gas cosmology is a string theory-based approach to early universe cosmology which is based on making use of robust features of string theory such as the existence of new states and new symmetries. A first goal of string gas cosmology is to understand how string theory can effect the earliest moments of cosmology before the effective field theory approach which underlies standard and inflationary cosmology becomes valid. String gas cosmology may also provide an alternative to the current standard paradigm of cosmology, the inflationary universe scenario. Here, the current status of string gas cosmology is reviewed.

Dimitri Skliros, Mark Hindmarsh, “Large Radius Hagedorn Regime in String Gas Cosmology” (arXiv:0712.1254, to be published in Phys. Rev. D).
Continue reading Currently Reading

Maxwell’s Atlantic Telegraph

Hearing about what broke the Falcon 1 rocket made me think of a poem I once heard, a poem by James Clerk Maxwell — yes, he of the Maxwell Equations. Called “The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company,” it was written to honour a transatlantic telegraph cable, or rather the failure of said cable to work. Maxwell’s friend William Thomson was an engineering consultant to Atlantic Telegraph, and when Maxwell heard that the cable-layers had failed to follow Thomson’s advice and thereby snapped their cable, he was inspired to versify.

(When the next attempt to lay a cable worked, Thomson became Lord Kelvin, and his name lives on in the Kelvin scale, which measures temperatures in units the size of Celsius degrees but starting at absolute zero.)

“List to the new words to a common song,” Maxwell wrote to a friend, “which I conceived on the railway to Glasgow. As I have only a bizzing, loose, interruption-to-talking- &-deathblow-to-general-conversation-memory of the orthodox version, I don’t know if the metre is correct; but it is some such rambling metre anyhow, and contains some insignificant though apparently treasonable remarks in a perfect thicket of vain repetitions.” For the sake of efficiency, Maxwell introduced the notation “2(u)” for the refrain, “Under the sea, under the sea.”


Mark how the telegraph motions to me,
Signals are coming along,
With a wag, wag, wag;
The telegraph needle is vibrating free,
And every vibration is telling to me
How they drag, drag, drag,
The telegraph cable along,
Continue reading Maxwell’s Atlantic Telegraph

Quantum One

Michael Nielsen’s recent essay “Why the world needs quantum mechanics,” about the quintessential weirdness of quantum phenomena, provoked Dave Bacon to ask if there’s a better way to teach introductory courses in quantum physics. This question strikes a chord with me, since my first semester of college quantum — the class known as “8.04” — was rather remarkably dreadful.

It began with some fluff about early models of the atom, leaving out most of the ideas actually proposed in favor of a “textbook cardboard” version of the discoveries made in early TwenCen. If we can’t teach history well, why teach it at all? We’re certainly not promoting a genuine understanding of how science works if we only present a caricature of it. I doubt one could even instil an appreciation for the problems which Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and company solved in the years leading up to 1927: sophomore physics students can’t follow in their footsteps, because sophomore physics students don’t know as much classical physics as professional physicists of the 1920s did. To understand their starting point and the steps they took requires, oddly enough, subject material which even MIT undergrads don’t learn until later.
Continue reading Quantum One

String Theory and Atomic Physics

Physics, as Clifford Johnson recently reminded us, has a strongly pragmatic side to its personality: “If that ten dimensional scenario describes your four dimensional physics and helps you understand your experiments, and there’s no sign of something simpler that’s doing as good a job, what do you care?” As that “ten dimensional” bit might suggest, the particular subject in question involves string theory, and whether tools from that field can be applied in places where they were not originally expected to work. From one perspective, this is almost like payback time: the first investigations of string theory, back in the 1970s, were trying to understand nuclear physics, and only later were their results discovered to be useful in attacking the quantum gravity problem. Now that the mathematical results of quantum-gravity research have been turned around and applied to nuclear physics again, it’s like coming home — déjà vu, with a twist.

This is quintessential science history: tangled up, twisted around and downright weird. Naturally, I love it.

Shamit Kachru (Stanford University) has an article on this issue in the American Physical Society’s new online publication, called simply Physics, a journal intended to track trends and illustrate highlights of interdisciplinary research. Kachru’s essay, “Glimmers of a connection between string theory and atomic physics,” does not focus on the nuclear physics applications currently being investigated, but rather explores a more recent line of inquiry: the application of string theory to phase transitions in big aggregates of atoms. Screwing around with lithium atoms in a magnetic trap is, by most standards, considerably more convenient than building a giant particle accelerator, so if you can get your math to cough up predictions, you can test them with a tabletop experiment.

(Well, maybe you’ll need a large table.)

If you’ve grown used to hearing string theory advertised as a way to solve quantum gravity, this might sound like cheating. Justification-by-spinoff is always a risky approach. It’s as if NASA said, “We’re still stalled on that going-to-the-Moon business, but — hey — here’s TANG!” But, if your spinoff involves something like understanding high-temperature superconductivity, one might argue that a better analogy would be trying for the Moon and getting weather satellites and GPS along the way.

Moreover, one should not forget that without Tang, we could not have invented the Buzzed Aldrin.

The Walking Dead

I always prowled around the edges of science fiction. When I was fourteen years old, or thereabouts, I used up my fannishness on Isaac Asimov, which has left me with an all-too-encyclopædic knowledge of the whole Robot/Empire/Foundation business — the sort of story which they’ll never make into a movie, and which offers no opportunities to dress up as anybody. Now, I don’t have any passionate adoration left to spare for the stories which drive people mad, the ones which breed sub-sub-cultures and squirm like botflies in the brain. Taking film-studies classes to round out my humanities curriculum requirement left me watching Ghost in the Shell like a scholar.

(Or, worse yet, a poet.)

When I had time for fiction, I usually ended up among the authors who, you suspected, escaped the SF ghetto because they were more marketable outside than in. Late at night, in good company, the arguments would unfold over what exactly Kurt Vonnegut and Lois Lowry and Thomas Pynchon meant for the definition of SF, since the interesting problems with a definition always manifest at the edges. For a couple years, I had a subscription to Asimov’s, which I let lapse for the utterly humdrum reason that the stories in it never seemed to demand I make the time to read them. I felt episodically guilty about it — being such a nerd that I actually was seeking a career in science, shouldn’t I be keeping up with SF much better?

A beautiful and musical and cold-hearted young woman introduced me to Transmetropolitan, to illustrate what the graphic-novel format was capable of doing (Cosma Shalizi suggests, “[I]magine Hunter Thompson and John Brunner collaborating on the script for a movie to be filmed by Fritz Lang, Capra and John Carpenter, rendered by a Hogarth who has seen the future and loathes it”). This was my introduction to all things Warren Ellis, who — to make a long story much shorter — now argues that the numbers foretell doom for SF print magazines:

Cases are always made that in fact these magazines are on strong — or at least survivable — financial ground. Even ignoring the fact that the money they offer for fiction is pitiful, I think that matters less than that they are reaching massively fewer people every year. […] I live in hope that WEIRD TALES is preparing to post truly wonderful year-on-year figures. But, for the four magazines with available numbers (unless some communications failure has hidden a resurgence in INTERZONE numbers from the redoubtable Dozois)… it’s pretty much over.

As was stated over and over last year, any number of things could be done to help these magazines. But, naturally enough, the magazines’ various teams appear not to consider anything to be wrong. They’ll provide what their remaining audience would seem to want, until they all finally die of old age, and then they’ll turn out the lights. And that’ll be it for the short-fiction sf print magazine as we know it.

Time to focus on the online magazines, he suggests, instead of the “walking dead.” How do you make an online rag profitable? (I let my subscription to Baen’s Universe lapse, too, so I’m the wrong guy to ask.) More fundamentally, how do you make such a site anything more than a “fanzine by any other name”?