Archive for February, 2008



Basic Research

An essay on basic research and budgets and making a case for the necessity of funding.

In truth, fundamental research is a necessity, not a luxury. Most of the technological developments made in the past 100 years have been fuelled by fundamental research into science.

It’s mostly about “Big Physics” and there’s a lot that can be discussed about the value of funding “big” vs “small” physics, which (to me) is a separate issue. Pulling funding of basic research is extremely short-sighted. What is getting lost is that applied research depends a lot on basic research having found interesting things about nature, that the applied research then exploits. It’s not exclusive, of course — you can have applied research find something new and exciting. But it’s a question of where you’re looking and what pressures are upon you. If you, as an applied science researcher, see or could see some interesting/unexplained signal in your apparatus, you aren’t likely to investigate it if it negatively impacts the deadline for finishing your project. It’s probably not a priority unless it’s an anomaly that threatens a milestone. You are better off with a person doing basic research, who is free to go and look at whatever they want, and for whom funding can be available if they do quality research.

The other problem is with beancounters that don’t understand the scientific process but unfortunately decide funding. I recall observing a review board when I was a postdoc at an accelerator lab, and there was a government representative on the review board (prioritizing funding and beam time). After the director gave an overall briefing of the lab, and highlighted some of the significant discoveries that had been made over the years, the government rep asked what discoveries were going to be made in the upcoming year. That’s the kind of question that makes my shoulders slump forward and my head hang. As my thesis advisor said on more than one occasion, “if we knew the answer, it wouldn’t be called research.”

via Physics and Physicists

PZ in the Crosshairs

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers is complaining that all the cartoonists are making fun of him

It’s true.

Before I even knew he existed, I drew a cartoon depicting cephalopod torture. It was a promotion for a talk on superconducting quantum interference devices, or SQUIDs. (I got criticism that it’s more an octopus-looking thing in the vat, rather than a squid. They’re physicists. They don’t know any better.)


In the thank-you note for I got for this, the author encouraged me to do more cartoons on physics topics, since (he claimed) physicists generally don’t recognize themselves in cartoons.

Solar Sails and Squirrels

Over at the XKCD blag, Randall discusses solar sails and levitating squirrels. And he’s absolutely right — the Back-to-the-Futuresque 1.21 Gigawatts will levitate about a kg, assuming perfect reflection. Assuming absorption, you vaporize the squirrel in a couple of milliseconds.

(1 kg of water requires about 2.5 million Joules to boil away, starting at body temperature. Or not — the latent heat of vaporization is the dominant term)

I think the XKCD cartoons are often quite funny, BTW. A link, if by some odd chance you were unaware of them. I just got a new light box to replace my broken one. Must find time to draw cartoons.

I Am Static Man

I’m shocked, shocked, to find that I’m getting shocked. My adventures with static electricity.

It’s winter, it’s dry and that makes for pretty good sparks. I haven’t been going to the gym the last few mornings (recovering from being unwell) but have been going to work, so that means peeling off some layers of cotton clothing in the dark. And that means some static electricity. I must roll around a lot in my sleep or something, because there are a lot of sparks a-flyin’ when I take my socks off, and also my sweatshirt. I used to have a blanket (when i was about 10) that would spark nicely if I covered myself and did a bicycle motion while on my back, so my stocking feet continually rubbed on the blanket; since I was covered it was dark, and there were lots of sparks. Slippers on the carpet were always good for sister-annoyance, too, back then. Or just scuffling along holding a fluorescent bulb and watching it flash occasionally, if you could find a dark room.

At the lab, I’m the one who usually peels off the sticky mats in the lab area. (I must have the lowest threshold of being bothered by them being dirty, partially conditioned by being the one who had to clean the optics before we transitioned to semi-sealed modular systems with lots of connecting fiber). Big, big zaps with those. You can get a similar result if you ever buy plexiglass that’s encased in plastic wrap. I bought some big ones (72″ x 40″ to cover some hallway posters near my office), and there were some packing peanut scraps nearby. Once you charge those puppies up, there are some styrofoam pieces that have a huge charge/mass ratio, and simply will not leave your hands until you’ve thoroughly discharged yourself. I had one that was just on the threshold, so when I flicked it off my hand, it would separate a little bit, but not far enough for the gravitational force to be larger than the attractive electrostatic force, so it would float back. Minutes of geeky fun.

For Christmas I got a shirt that’s made of teflon. Partially, at least. The instructions say not to use a dryer sheet with it and this shirt tumbling in the hot dryness really generates the static. And boy does it cling. The first time in the dryer it picked up some serious lint, and I had trouble picking it off because of the amount of charge — I pulled a small piece of string off of it, and when I tried to drop it in the trash can, letting it go about a foot away from the shirt, it flew back to the shirt. More minutes of geeky fun with that. I hesitate to admit that recently when I was ironing and generating some static charge, I empirically reminded myself that the ironing-board pad does not cover the edge of the ironing board, which is just below waist-level. I experienced a dramatic lowering of the potential difference between the ironing board and me, via the part of me closest to the exposed metal. (If you can’t paint a mental image of this, tough. I won’t draw you a diagram).


Check out this illusion over at Cognitive Daily, along with all the explanation that goes with it.

I think illusions are pretty neat. They are also a reminder to not trust what you think you are seeing, since our vision is relative and we also see patterns because we impress them on data.

Lycanthropus Interruptus

Lunar eclipse tonight

The entire event is visible from South America and most of North America (on Feb. 20) as well as Western Europe, Africa, and western Asia (on Feb. 21)

Unless your weather sucks, of course.

Snow showers in the morning will give way to a mixture of rain and snow for the afternoon. High near 40F. Winds SW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of precip 60%. A slushy accumulation of less than one inch.

Mmmmm. Slushy accumulation…

Seriously Stupid

The red flag proclaiming “I don’t understand science” goes up when the story sounds something like this:

The panel includes the word “evolution” in state science standards for the first time, but it is relegated to a place among a host of ideas, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Relegated? To the “lowly” place that includes relativity?

I think writing of the phrase “just a theory” or “merely a theory” in a science article should make one’s word processor/computer explode. If you don’t understand why, and you’ve graduated from college, you need to go and ask for your money back.

What's Bugging Me Now, episode 2-19-08

I fucking opt out already.

I buy stuff for my lab. I get email. I don’t care if your widgets are on sale — if we don’t need one, I won’t be buying any. I don’t make any “OMG, those 100 microfarad capacitors are to die for” impulse purchases for the lab. (well, not many) I don’t like the companies that spam me like this. You don’t get partial credit for letting me opt out after I’ve been slimed.

This goes for cold-calling, too. I’m an adult, who managed not to kill, maim or noticeably disfigure himself getting a degree in experimental atomic physics. I’m capable of ordering a new set of of whatchamacallits when I need them. Sometimes even before, so we have them on the shelf! So no, I don’t have any product needs you can fill today. Buh-bye.

The Comfy Chair, er, MOT

Over at Uncertain principles, Chad talks about how Nobody Expects Bose-Einstein Condensation, i.e. while the phenomenon had been predicted, the enabling technology was serendipitous.

What really made [magneto-optic trapping] take off, though, was that people figured out you could get the laser cooling wavelength for rubidium from diode lasers. And diode lasers are manufactured in mass quantities because they’re used in CD players, laser printers, and other commercial electronic devices. So, rather than needing to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to get a dye laser system up and running, you could get a working laser system for a couple of grand.

And it’s true. The main enabler was the availability of diode lasers. And their ability to be tuned electronically and thermally. Ah, two! The the two main enablers were their availability and their ability to be tuned, and their susceptibility to optical feedback. Oh, three! The three main enablers were their availability and their ability to be tuned and their susceptibility to optical feedback. Hmmm. Among their advantages are such diverse elements as their availability and their ability to be tuned and their susceptibility to optical feedback, and a nice red color. Damn.

The main enabler was their availability. Blah, blah,blah.

OK, I’m kidding a little, because without the technical advantages, who cares if it’s available? But it’s an excuse to do a Python bit, and talk about the other things.

Laser diodes are pretty neat, though somewhat fragile. In the days of building my own systems, I never knew one that died a natural death-from-old-age. They all got blown up somehow, and I wish that had been in the days of digital cameras, because I recall one that looked cool under the microscope, with one facet blown off but still the piece still hanging there, attached to a tiny wire that was part of the circuit. You had to remove the can that surrounded the diode before you could mount them in our homemade system, and that took some practice. But there were usually some dead or otherwise useless diodes around for practice for newcomers to the lab.
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