The Most Serious Crisis of Our Time

Cap’n Refsmmat’s Blog of Doom: Breaking News

The National Hyperbole Reserve, first established during the Cold War to ensure that the President’s speechwriters could perform their duties under any circumstances, is now nearly depleted; the National Academy of Sciences estimates only several years’ worth of hyperbole are left, and most of the supply is in the hands of Fox News.

Hyperbole supplies are essential for many organizations, such as news media, political think-tanks, and Congressional debates. Many political experts suggest that governments around the world may collapse without a new source of hyperbole being found.

This isn't the NFL

(The NFL likes parity)

Largest Parity Violation and Other Adventures in Table-Top Physics: Atomic Experiments Push Boundary of Known Physical World

Budker uses atoms of the rare Earth element ytterbium to observe the largest extent of parity violation ever seen in atoms, larger by a factor of 100 compared to previous tests. His goal is to improve the precision of this measurement so that researchers could begin to use the parity-violating process to help measure the distribution of neutrons in nuclei.

Previous experiments from a dozen years ago used Cesium. The parity nonconservation was probed by looking at transitions between S orbital states (6S and 7S for Cesium). The electromagnetic transition between these states is highly forbidden (both having the same angular momentum and even parity) But because the orbitals are spherical they include the nucleus, and the weak interaction mixes in a tiny bit of a P-state transition (odd parity), which is allowed. It’s a tough experiment because you are looking for the small difference between the transitions when you reverse everything, and you start out with a small transition probability. I recall this because we tried trapping Francium when I was at TRIUMF, with the goal of providing an atom with a potentially larger parity-nonconserving subject. The effect varies with Z, and Francium was expected to give an effect that was ~18 times larger than Cesium. We weren’t successful (then) at trapping any, though we did succeed at piquing the interest of a nuclear watchdog organization.

The Sure Thing

The Allais Paradox

[I]f we don’t make decisions based upon a complete set of information, then what are our decisions based upon? Which factors were actually affecting our choices? Kahneman and Tversky realized that people thought about alternative outcomes in terms of gains or losses, and not in terms of states of wealth. The gambler playing poker is only concerned with the chips right in front of him, and the possibility of winning (or losing) that specific amount of money. (The brain is a bounded machine, and can’t think about everything at once.) This simple insight led Kahneman and Tversky to start revising the format of their experiments. At the time, they regarded this as nothing but a technical adjustment, a way of making their questionnaires more psychologically realistic.

Physics Can Save Your life

Driver thanks man who hit him on purpose

“We realized he wasn’t slowing down, and if he hit someone at full speed, it would’ve been a very bad scene,” Innes said. The intersection with Southwest Grady Way was a few hundred yards away. “He could’ve very easily unknowingly taken out a whole row of traffic.”

Instinctively, Innes applied his 25 years of experience at Boeing, where he is a manager for the F22 fighter-jet program.

“The best-case scenario is I need to match his speed, get in front of him and let him hit me,” Innes remembers thinking.

Pace’s pickup hit the minivan, and Innes held onto the brakes to halt both vehicles. When they stopped, he knocked on the pickup’s window to alert Pace, who was by then semiconscious, and got him to unlock the door.

The Brain Stork

Steven Johnson: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’

Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

I’m not sure if he’s drawing the distinction between “thinking about a problem” and “coming up with the solution;” I’ve certainly had this happen on the much smaller scale of problems on which I work. You can be thinking about something, and making efforts to come up with a solution, and have a flash of insight which comprises the bulk of the answer. But the point about networks is, I think, well taken — it is invaluable to be able to bounce ideas off of someone and get feedback. It saves time to hear the fatal flaw that you have not yet discovered.

The broader thesis of needing certain other ideas, techniques or technology to be present before a solution is possible is something I thought was fairly obvious. “Conventional wisdom” has a way of setting in and restricting thought processes, and sometimes the best thing one can do is to find a person who doesn’t know a problem can’t be solved, and let them have at it. Experimentally you need certain technologies to exist before a phenomena can be investigated. Or, put another way, scientists tends to work on the cutting edge, but that cutting edge is defined by what is already known.

The Evil Twin Paradox

Twin Paradox a Paradox in Low-Earth Orbit

In March 2011, if all goes as planned, two twin brothers will meet in space for the first time ever. On Feb. 27, astronaut Mark Kelly (the one with the mustache) will launch aboard NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour to meet up with his twin brother Scott who’s currently flying aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Scott made the trip up to the orbiting laboratory on a Russian Soyuz rocket launched on Oct. 7 and will be on board for the next sixth months.

I’m obliged to report this not only for the physics, but also for the name-dropping. Mark Kelly was the commander of STS-124, which is the group that visited the observatory — and toured my lab — a few years ago. Now I find out he has a twin, which not only raises the question of the twin paradox, but also this: which one is the evil twin?

The article raises the question of which effect dominates for the ISS — the kinematic or gravitational time dilation? They have opposite signs, with rising in the gravitational potential speeding the clock up, and motion slowing it down. For GPS satellites, the gravitational term is much larger than the kinematic term, but the ISS and shuttle live in low-earth orbit, and the kinematic term dominates there, as shown in this analysis, so a clock on the ISS will run slow by about 28 microseconds per day.

In Celebration of Round Numbers

If it seems I’ve been light on original posts lately, it’s because the weekend weather has been absolutely gorgeous here lately, and I’ve been spending my free time outdoors (when I wasn’t jousting with a headcold, as I did over the holiday weekend). Anyway, I grabbed my 500th geocache this past weekend (woohoo!); Lake Fairfax Park had recently been repopulated with caches, so iI spent a rather nice couple of hours doing the ~4 mile loop to find eight containers. I’m really liking my new GPS receiver