Archive for April, 2013

No Time to Lose

An upcoming symposium, Time for Everyone

“Time for Everyone” is a unique opportunity to learn about the origins, evolution, and future of public time from some of the foremost authorities in many branches of time measurement. From its natural cycles in astronomy, to its biological evolution, to how the brain processes it differently at various stages of life and under different circumstances, to how we find it, how we measure it, and how we keep it, this symposium will explore many facets of this fascinating subject of unfathomable depth. The program has been designed for a diverse audience and the speakers carefully chosen not only for their knowledge, but also for their ability to bring their subjects to life.

Not surprisingly, I’ve met a number of the speakers and heard a few of them give talks (or parts of talks). That list includes Sean Carroll (Arrow of time), Tom Van Baak (amateur “time nut” who did the gravitational time dilation experiment I mention at the end of this post), Geoff Chester (Public Affairs Officer here at the Observatory), and Bill Phillips (Nobel Prize in ’97 for laser cooling and trapping) who is giving the keynote at the banquet.

It’s in the next fiscal year, so the probability of getting to go is not identically zero.

The Worst Idea in the Sad, Long History of Bad Ideas

This is even worse than thinking about taking dinosaurs off of Isla Sorna.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

The new chairman of the House science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.

Funding criteria chosen by the Republican congress, many of whom wouldn’t know good science if it bit them on the ass, and belittle any science they don’t understand or whose conclusions are disagreeable to their ideology. Which is most science.

… But it Probably Is

Speed of Light May Not Be Constant

Two papers, published in the European Physics Journal D in March, attempt to derive the speed of light from the quantum properties of space itself. Both propose somewhat different mechanisms, but the idea is that the speed of light might change as one alters assumptions about how elementary particles interact with radiation. Both treat space as something that isn’t empty, but a great big soup of virtual particles that wink in and out of existence in tiny fractions of a second.

The problem I find with articles like this is that they don’t place enough emphasis on the speculative nature of the work — something is being assumed about nature that hasn’t yet been observed, and the authors are investigating the consequences. From the perspective of science this is fine — that’s one way of going about it: think of some novel way nature might be structured, come up with a model, and test it. That’s valid science. But at this point that last part is missing, and as long as it is, one has to worry about over-selling the idea.

Yoda has Tenure

Rate My Jedi Master

Funny, it is.

Because I Can, That's Why

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

This is a chunk left over after I made some more jello treats (Han Solo and Easter Island, as before) this time with about 60% of the water called for in the regular recipe, so it’s much stiffer. (This was ~2 cups of boiling water and then 1/2 cup ice water aded in after dissolving the mix; normal recipe calls for 4 cups. It’s important to use as much ice as you can in that 1/2 cup to cool it down or you will lose quite a bit to evaporation, which matters a bit when you are using small molds)

Filmed at 240 fps. Lots of nice vibrational modes being demonstrated.

These Aren't the CP-Violating Meson Droids You're Looking For

CP Violation and the Information/Anti-Information Asymmetry

The logic is as irresistible as it is faulty: the process of baryogenesis, by which matter came to dominate over antimatter, requires that there be CP violation in the early universe; we are studying CP violation here in the late universe; obviously, what we’re doing helps us understand the matter/antimatter asymmetry. But that’s only true if the kind of CP violation we are studying is actually somehow related to baryogenesis. Which, most experts believe, it is not.

Quiz Time, Now With 1/3 Lasers!

Do you know more about science and technology than the average American?

(link fixed)

By the Pew Research Center (as opposed to the Pew Pew Pew research center) and yes, there is a laser question in it. One difference between this and earlier versions: there’s actually a science procedure question, so it’s not simply a bunch of factoids (reasonable factoids to know if one is to be scientifically literate, but factoids nonetheless). The downside is that the procedure question has only two choices, and the “correct” choice is still not actually correct. There are a couple of questions you can figure out if you know a little about science but haven’t memorized the answer, and that’s also a positive IMO.

PSA: Hollywood is Not Real

A Public Service Announcement on Guns and Bullets

What I saw there, while interesting from a mildly voyeuristic point of view, disturbed me in two ways. The first, and obvious one, was that I was upset that this was happening in my country, again. The second was concern, because it was really evident from some of the footage, that my fellow Americans watch way too much television and thus have a false understanding about bullets. So this afternoon’s public service announcement is to try and prevent possible harm that might otherwise be avoided.

An excellent article, as far as I can tell, with one caveat:

Power, with guns, is dictated by physics. As my father the physicist taught me at way too early of an age, F = M x A. Force = Mass x Acceleration. The striking, or penetrating, power of the bullet is determined by how heavy (mass) it is, multiplied by how fast it is moving. Thus, a small bullet, moving at extreme speeds, can cause a lot of damage. A large bullet can move at much slower speeds, and cause the same damage. All other things being equal, however, the higher the speed, the greater the penetration. Now, that word “penetration” is one you should think about.

He’s not describing F = ma here. Mass*velocity gives the momentum, but one also needs to look at the kinetic energy. A small bullet moving at some speed has the same momentum as a bullet of twice the mass, moving at half the speed, but it also has twice the energy, and that has some effect on penetration. The salient point, I believe, is that you don’t want that energy deposited in your body, and that’s true regardless of which case you have.

Jargon is the Scott Evil of Science Communication

Well it’s true! It’s true! You’re semi-evil. You’re quasi-evil. You’re the margarine of evil. You’re the Diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie, not evil enough.

Why do kidneys need cells?

My point was (and is!) that “jargon” is a relative term. My degree involved learning about evolution, so I am comfortable with concepts like “punctuated equilibrium” and “mutation rates”. To me, these are not jargon, because I know what they mean. But if I were to turn to someone at random in my office, they would most likely have a bit more trouble with these words. In this latter case, such terms move from being just technical vocabulary to being incomprehensible jargon.

The point is valid; I would characterize this as being similar to the dose makes the poison. The problem is that once you label everything as jargon, the adoption of the the attitude that jargon is evil means you can’t use any words. Which is silly.

It’s basically a no-win situation. If you underestimate your audience, you can sound patronizing and insulting — a mistake I recall when I was talking to Garrett Reisman, the astronaut (when the crew of STS-124 visited the lab), and I started into an explanation of laser cooling by describing the periodic table, something with which I’m sure he’s familiar. That’s when I mentally kicked my self.

However, if you assume some bit of knowledge and your audience doesn’t have the background, you lose them. The trick is to tailor your discussion to the background of the people to whom you are speaking; as the author says, speak the same language as your audience. Where I part ways with some is that I don’t subscribe to “jargon is evil” as an absolute — I think it’s OK, to some point, to insist that people speak a little science when they come to visit science-land. It limits your audience, but that’s OK, if that’s what you want to do

Nothing New Under the Sun

Energy-Harvesting Street Tiles Generate Power from Pavement Pounder

The marathon runners generated 4.7 kilowatt-hours of energy

That’s a little more than fifty cents’ worth of electricity

I’ve already commented on this system, but I’ll sum up:

– It’s converting roughly a dollar’s worth of food into a penny’s worth of electricity. If they weren’t stealing the energy from people, this would never save anyone any money.

– The energy they steal is not green, so this energy is not, despite the effort to “launder” it.

– It’s still not clear how long it would take to save enough to pay for such a system

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