Thursday, April 12, 2007


Kurt Vonnegut died today. This makes me very sad, but his death itself is not the tragedy. He was 84 years old. His words have influenced multiple generations, and he was around long enough to see and feel that influence, and to have grown men and women tell him how much his books meant to their development as human beings.
The tragedy is that (if you believe CNN, FOX, REUTERS, etc.) he died in a time and place where people are indifferent to the fact that Kurt Vonnegut is dead. If America is truly indifferent to his death because we are ignorant of his life and work, then I am inconsolable.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Picasso and Planck

This weekend I heard an NPR story about two stolen Picassos, and it being 100 years since Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, they did a related story on the painting and its importance as the beginning of Modern art. You can imagine how the story went:
1) visionary creates something new
2) it's soundly rejected by a powerful establishment
3) years pass,
4) and magically it is the cornerstone of an entire movement.

That's how we tell stories of innovation, whether in the arts or in science and technology. We attempt to understand it in the context of an innovator versus an establishment. It's interesting to think about what actually happens in step 3 that makes the end result possible. An artistic movement is by definition a number of artists creating related works. Clearly many other artists (probably young at the time) found Picasso's cubism to be a powerful tool to express what they wanted to say.
Change the names and dates and you could tell the story of almost every scientific theory in the same way. Einstein's relativity is the most popular one to tell in this way, but Planck is a particularly good one as well. Not only did other scientists really dislike his introduction of an arbitrary constant to represent the lumpy nature of light in photon form, he personally hated his method as much as any of them, "... an act of despair ... I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics". He really expected the constant to turn out to be zero after all was said and done, but it wasn't zero, it was h. That didn't stop numerous other eminent scientists from taking his results and then setting h equal to zero. So he's the innovator, and a part of the establishment hating his own theory, and then years pass and he's a part of the establishment that found his theory to be a powerful tool to describe the universe (bonus: he still hated it).
It all seems to boil down to what's hidden in step 3. The realization by a number of people that the innovation is useful. This is where the interesting philosophical questions pop up. Does every idea get heard by enough open-minded, gifted people to ensure it has a chance to be an innovation? Is the increasingly interconnected nature of our society keeping us all on the same page to our detriment? Does the fact that we have immediate access to other people's thoughts and work mean that we are now more likely to think about the same things and therefore the scope of our thought as a society has narrowed? That might be the unpleasant truth of the information age. Humanity has fewer total thoughts than it used to. What might be even more unpleasant is the possibility that humanity is better served by narrowing our thoughts in this way. Maybe we make more progress by thinking very hard about a few things than by thinking more "softly" "less densely" about many more.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I'm sorry that...

Science, and especially physics, needs an apologist. Not in the sense of one who argues the viewpoint of physicists on their behalf, but instead a person to who actually apologizes for physics. I don't mean apologizing for the way physics is done, or how annoying physicists can be either. I mean that someone ought to apologize to everyone for the way the universe itself works. Don't be confused by those who claim that natural law is cool, or beautiful, or convenient; it is more often than not, none of those things. Sadly, nobody can do anything about it. We couldn't write an ammendment to create thermodynamic subsidies for those with cold feet regardless of the support it would garner. We can't make the distance between two points separated by A in one direction and B in another anything other than (A^2 + B^2+2*A*B*cos(theta))^1/2. In a one-dimensional universe, it would be A+B or 0. That's just the start. There are many creative people capable of writing laws to govern a universe that would result in a much more palatable environment than the one we live in. The entire gaming industry is based on this fact. And that's why we need a caring, compassionate person with a deep understanding of science to express a little sympathy. Just check out how theraputic this is.
I'm sorry that.... can't have Morgan Freeman to narrate your thoughts and Sean Connery to pronounce your pickup lines. matter how intensely you study Holy Scriptures, you will never obtain a holy aura or the ability to heal your freinds.
...crossbreeding cool animals will not give you a pet with the loyalty of a dog, the intelligence of a dolphin, wings, a trunk, a prehensile tail, small enough to fit in your pocket, and a hardy shell for when you forget he's in your pocket.
...physical beauty has outlived its usefulness as the primary method of attraction.
...people do not have reserves of magical power to be called upon to stun your enemies, or do dishes, or whatever.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

I will never create a webcomic

As much joy as webcomics bring me, and as accurately as I think my sense of humor might be conveyed by stickpeople + dialog scribbled in a paint program, I will never create a webcomic. The reason I will never create one is that this guy has achieved the exact webcomic I would aspire to do. I want to show off a few samples of the magnificence, but deciding which are most worthy is so difficult.

(note: if you read the comics at the original site, mouseover the comic for extra funny)
After discovering the Venn diagram comic featuring Vanilla Ice, I clicked on "About".
"Who are you?
I'm just this guy, you know? I'm a CNU graduate with a degree in physics. ..."
Sigh. This is what physics people do: we amuse ourselves in elaborate and deep ways. I'm not sure why exactly. I know we like deep things, and this sort of humor is deep but not deep like quantum mechanics is deep. This is deep in a way that satisfies. Share this with other physics people you know: spread the warm fuzzy feeling.
One last comic. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Drops of uranium you can play with

Below is a very interesting youtube video of a demonstration on the International Space Station. It involves a large sphere of water that is practically free-floating. The experiment shows how liquids actually behave under circumstances where surface tension and the liquid's self-attraction are signficantly stronger than outside influences like gravity. One reason I find this interesting is that this is a rough approximation to how an atomic nucleus behaves.

When physicists try to predict the properties of carbon-12 or other fairly light nuclei they typically account for the forces of all 6 protons and 6 neutrons individually. This is a difficult thing to do computationally as it requires doing math on a matrix with somewhere around 10^12 elements. To use methods like these on uranium-238 would require a matrix with 10^238 elements. This is not possible with modern computers, super or not. So instead they use models which approximate the behavior of the nucleus as a whole, and then worry about quantum mechanical corrections to this approximation. One important (rough) approximation of the nucleus is the liquid drop model. It basically says that the nucleus is governed by 4 effects:
1) Particles are attracted by the surrounding particles.
2) Particles at the surface are not surrounded, so don't have all the attractive energy.
3) Protons repel each other. Neutrons don't
4) An even mix of protons and neutrons is more attractive than a surplus of either one.
If you take a medium sized nucleus with equal numbers of protons and neutrons, then 4) has no effect and 3) has a small effect. What you have left is a drop of liquid very much like the one in that video. The way the sphere deforms and oscillates in 3 dimensions on the video also occurs in actual nuclei. It's also interesting to look closely at the droplet that is ejected from the sphere just after the puff of air. Energy is added and a portion of the sphere elongates until there are two distinct centers of mass, then the liquid connecting them shrinks to nothing and both peices close back into spheres. In short, it's nuclear fission.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Isaac chomping part 2

Here's another one that goes a bit faster.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Isaac goes chomp

He's a pretty vicious creature. Check it out. It cuts off before the end, but I doubt it will spoil anything to say the newt wins.

It's like a party, only sad.

Let the weekend of homework madness begin! From sunset until almost dawn again 2 days later it shall be an extravaganza of lab reports, problem sets, exam preparation, speech writing, fortran coding, and grading. Oh yes, there will be grading of lab reports. Grades will rain down like the judgment of a god on the unfaithful of his followers. It's general physics I, so it will have to be a benevolent god. A very benevolent and forgiving god who isn't bothered by english and science perverted into the deformed beasts that these kids hand in. sigh.