Infra-Rose-Colored Glasses

The World Looks Different Through an Infrared Camera

[I]t turns out that all objects are light emitters. It just happens that the light emitted from most objects is not visible to the human eye.

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Star dust casts doubt on recent big bang wave result

[O]ther things apart from gravitational waves, such as dust, can emit polarised photons.

To minimise the chances of this effect causing a false signal, the BICEP 2 team pointed their telescope at a patch of sky far away from the Milky Way’s dusty disc. Then they used models of the dust in that part of the sky to estimate its effect on the polarisation. They found that this could account for no more than about 20 per cent of the signal that they attributed to gravitational waves last month.

But Mertsch says the models they used didn’t account for dust shells produced as the expanding remnants of supernovae slam into surrounding gas and dust.

So the results may not hold up. This is bad, right? We get all worked up about a result, and it turns out it might not be correct.

Except it’s not. Procedurally, this is good. This is exactly the way science is supposed to work. You do your best attempt at the research and looking for confounding effects that might be giving you a false signal. You have it peer reviewed, and you publish. As I’ve talked about before, that’s just the first hurdle. After that comes feedback from other scientists, including attempts at replication. And that’s where we are now — some attempts at replication are already ongoing, and here we have someone who has new information that might affect the conclusion. This is how science moves to get things right.

The bad part is that the first results get hyped, because they’re new, and there’s no restraint for waiting for the weight of evidence to pile up. Sometimes the first results won’t stand up to scrutiny. I recognize that this might weaken the confidence some have in science, but in reality it should strengthen it: other scientists are willing (enthusiastic, even) to stand up and say, “Wait a minute!” when all the ducks don’t line up. There’s no conspiracy to conform. Scientists questioning loudly trumpeted results like this gives me confidence that all of science is subject to the same kind of feedback.

Starring an Inanimate Carbon Rod!

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Magnetically actuated micro-robots for advanced manipulation applications.

In rod we trust.

At the Tone, it Will be ‘Now’ O’Clock

The Problem of Now

I don’t spend much effort thinking about this sort of issue, since I’m much more interested in the experimental aspects of measuring time than the philosophical aspects of it, but I’ve run across some folks who think this problem of “Now” is so perplexing they can’t get past it. (again, because my interests lie elsewhere, this seems more of a dorm-room discussion, or possibly one involving a professor who looks like Donald Sutherland discussing whether atoms can be universes). My view of the utility of this is that while “It’s always now” may or may not be deep thinking, it doesn’t help GPS tell you where you are. (unless “You are here” is an acceptable answer)

[R]egardless of whether you use an external definition of time (some coordinate system) or an internal definition (such as the length of the curve), every single instant on that curve is just some point in space-time. Which one, then, is “now”?

Later on there’s also an interesting point about memory not needing consciousness.

Udderly Ingenious

These Backpacks For Cows Collect Their Fart Gas And Store It For Energy

Researchers put plastic backpacks on cows, then inserted tubes into their rumens (their biggest digestive tract). They extracted the methane–about 300 liters a day. That’s enough to run a car, or a fridge for 24 hours.

There’s More to Physics Than The LHC

Particle Fever is aptly named

[T]his equating of “physics” with “particle physics” not only plays along with the media myth that the only thing worth noting in physics is what is going on at CERN, but also explains outbursts like this one I received from a (non-particle) physicist recently: “Perhaps the poster child for overselling science should be high-energy physics. They oversold the most expensive toys that physicists have ever produced: high-energy particle accelerators… their arrogance when they talk about ‘the god particle’ and ‘the most important problems’ is disappointing.”

Plenty of Science Yet to Do

Science Is Running Out Of Things To Discover?

[H]aven’t we learned anything from the history of science? The last time someone thought that we knew all there was to know about an area of physics, and all that we could do was simply to make incremental understanding of the area, it was pre-1985 before Mother Nature smacked us right in the face with the discovery of high-Tc superconductors.

I have some serious doubts about the original article as well. When I say the claim the the time was getting longer for nobel awards I thought it was a typo, because in my atomic physics corner of the world, that trend does not seem to be in place at all. AMO physics has reflected a short gap between discovery and Nobel. And looking at that trend makes me doubt the physics graph presented in that paper.

The 1989 Nobel went, in part, to Norman Ramsey for his separated oscillatory fields method used in atomic clocks, developed in 1949. I don’t see a 40-year data point anywhere on the graph.

The 1997 Nobel was awarded for contributions to laser cooling and trapping, with the experimental start in the early/mid-1980′s. I don’t see any ~15-year data point for 1997.

The first Bose-Einstein condensate was observed in 1995. The Nobel was awarded for that in 2001 – a scant six years. No such data point exists.

The optical frequency comb was demonstrated in 1999, and the Nobel was awarded (again) six years later. That data point is missing as well.

I don’t know what’s going on, but this doesn’t smell right.

If Only it Mattered

British Columbia Enacted The Most Significant Carbon Tax in the Western Hemisphere—What Happened Next Is It Worked

Nice to see that this can work. If only facts mattered in US politics…

Induction in the Hole!

Another video of the Navy’s railgun (I did an analysis of an earlier test a few years back), which is slated to be tested at sea pretty soon.

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It’s Been Such a Long Time

Ask Ethan #30: Long-term timekeeping

In this week’s Ask Ethan, we take on perhaps the longest question of them all, and look at how to keep time for arbitrarily long times.

It’s a good post as usual, though there are a few things Ethan glosses over, which is where I step in.

[millisecond pulsars] are also the most accurate clocks we’ve ever discovered. They are so regular that we could watch one, look away for a year, and know — when we look back — whether ten billion pulses have gone by… or whether it’s ten billion-and-one. In fact, we can get down to around microsecond accuracy to their timing over periods of many decades, meaning we can get timing accuracy to around one part in 10^15!

This is bettered only by the most advanced atomic clocks on Earth

In terms of fractional stability that’s true (and I think he means precision rather than accuracy here), but Tom- man-made atomic clocks reach this stability in a matter of hours or days, not years. It’s only by having these good clocks that we can measure how well the pulsars are doing.

I have a recollection of a discussion about timing with pulsars from years ago (this isn’t a new idea). Pulsars don’t actually have an inherently stable frequency — they are slowing down, just like other macroscopic spinning objects, so the timing will show a drift. But pulsars do this at a very predictable rate, so you can characterize them and account for the drift. Some pulsars haven’t “settled in” and can undergo a star quake, which changes their rotation abruptly, but I think the ones under discussion are past that age.

From his followup post

Atomic clocks require a lot of power to continuously stimulate atomic transitions, and a lot of cryogenic fuel to keep the atoms at ultra-low temperatures. Not such a big deal when you’re talking about doing this in a continuously powered laboratory on Earth, but that’s a lot of resources to devote to keeping a simple clock running. The mechanism I gave in the original article — counting atoms or looking at a pulsar — has the advantage that all you have to do is look once at the beginning and once at the end, and requires no devoted power in the intermediate time.

The cryogenics part is a common misconception, since the best clocks are cold-atom clocks. So the assumption is understandable, but these clocks are all offshoots of laser cooling and trapping. Some crystal oscillators in frequency standards are cryogenic, but not in any continuously-runnung clock. That’s a logistical nightmare.

I think our clocks are not getting quite as much respect as they deserve — the pulsars have to be characterized to be useful, and no two pulsars are going to have the same frequency. You could, in principle make a stable reference from measuring several of them, but to actually tell time you have to tie it back to a standard, which means a man-made device.

The second part, about radioactive decays, stresses the longevity of the clock but ignores the precision of the measurement. Unless you have a huge chunk of the material and can determine the number of atoms precisely, your counting statistics will limit the precision of your measurement.

The upshot of all this is that timing is a little more subtle than having something that will tick for a long time. Accuracy, precision and durability aren’t interchangeable attributes. There are often tradeoffs between each of them, so it depends on which is more important.

How Do You Make an Aluminum Float?

Here’s a couple of videos I ran across involving magnetic levitation. You have a changing magnetic field, which induces a current in a conductor, making a field that gives you a net repulsion.

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So what happens if you let the levitating material continue to heat up? This second video starts a little slow, but be patient. It’s fun at the end.

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Obscure Trivia Question

How do I impress a physicist on a date?

The main answer is good, and related to What (not) to Say When You Meet a Physicist (especially the persistent idea that all we want to do is teach people physics), but there’s also this

Don’t – tell that great science joke you heard two years ago. We’ve heard it all. even the one about the neutron that walks into a bar.

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