Archive for May, 2013

That's Hot

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Spin Me 'Round and 'Round

NASA’S Swift Reveals New Phenomenon in a Neutron Star

Observations of X-ray pulses from 1E 2259+586 from July 2011 through mid-April 2012 indicated the magnetar’s rotation was gradually slowing from once every seven seconds, or about eight revolutions per minute. On April 28, 2012, data showed the spin rate had decreased abruptly, by 2.2 millionths of a second, and the magnetar was spinning down at a faster rate.

“Astronomers have witnessed hundreds of events, called glitches, associated with sudden increases in the spin of neutron stars, but this sudden spin-down caught us off guard,” said Victoria Kaspi, a professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal. She leads a team that uses Swift to monitor magnetars routinely.

Interesting. I had heard about stars “settling” and that’s fairly easy to imagine: if a star contracts slightly, its moment of inertia gets smaller. Because there is no external torque involved, angular momentum is conserved, and so it must speed up as a result. But a decrease in the spin?

I like that they call this an anti-glitch.

Is This a Joke?

Surely not.

Just ran across this, from 2005: The Feynman File, by his daughter Michelle

All the Curvature Without All the Mass

A nice little .gif that shows the concept behind a Fresnel lens

I'm Sorry, Did I Break Your Concentration?

Oh, you were finished? Well, allow me to retort.

OK, not really a confrontation at that level. Or even close.

On the heels of last week’s “Approximately No Science Journalists are Ed Yong” I will point you to two blog posts by Chad Orzel: On Journalists and Scientists Talking at Uncertain Principles and “How Journalists Can Help The Scientists They Interview” at physicsfocus. The two are closely related but not identical observations/suggestions on the subject of scientist-journalist cooperation. It’s not really a rebuttal of anything, just some advice on the subject, presented from the point of view of the scientist.

Copyright and Trivial Efforts

I am linking to How does copyright work in space? where I read the summary even though the actual article is at The Economist. That’s because while the subject of the complexity of copyright is interesting, or possibly depressing, what got me was this comment

We live in a world where sending a guitar into space is trivial while ironing out rights agreements is the tough part.

I understand the sentiment, but I’m also bothered by the characterization of sending anything into space as trivial (and besides, copyright is hard because we choose to make it so). Too often, “trivial” is a tag placed on an effort when someone else does it. It reminded me of a comment one of my previous commanding officers had made to the research group of which I am a member, which was basically that because of his past experience, he had the appreciation that most of the work that goes on in getting a job done happens behind the scenes. In our case, that building a top-of-the-line atomic clock isn’t easy, and that the uninformed often look at the final product (or result) without the comprehension that 90% or more of the project is invisible, like an iceberg. Making it look easy doesn’t mean it is easy.

Which is why I want to point out that putting a guitar into space, like many endeavors, isn’t trivial. I would also count some of the efforts of my former shipmates, such as operating a nuclear submarine, or landing an airplane on a tiny postage-stamp of a flight deck bobbing in the ocean. At night, even. A lot of really hard work and discipline go into achieving these things, and that you only rarely hear about failures of such efforts is pretty frikkin’ amazing.

Habits of Highly Successful People

… do not include studying the habits of highly successful people

Survivorship Bias

The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.

In general, the lesson that once you’ve applied a filter to your sample, you usually don’t have a normal distribution anymore. Taking those numbers as typical is like gathering anecdotal evidence.

Also, the story about analyzing bomber damage in WWII is one I’d heard before and liked. I’m glad it’s actually be true.

Give These Roses a Little Sniff

These Self-Assembling Nanoflowers Are As Beautiful As They Are Tiny

Harvard researchers grew these lovely microscopic gardens using delicate chemical reactions.

♫ The Periodic Table ♪

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As cute as this is, silicon and silicone are not the same thing.

However, showing a submarine for Hafnium scores a bonus point (reactor control rods)

Approximately No Science Journalists are Ed Yong

Journosplaining 101 (a commentary on Ed Yong’s A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists)

Read this as part Q in the never-ending series of scientists v journalists. I’m a scientist, so I see where Chad’s coming from.

But a comment on Ed’s article first.

There’s a reason you should take some of the advice in Ed Yong’s post with a grain of salt (as I’ve come to realize over several years of hearing or reading advice from Ed): because it comes from Ed Yong. Now, let me explain — this isn’t a dig at Ed. Quite the opposite. He’s an excellent science journalist, and the tips he gives other science journalists about journalism is quite good. But this is a different subject, and given that there are a lot of journalists out there, you probably aren’t going to be asked for commentary from Ed Yong. (To use some physics-y math, if there are N journalists and N >>1, approximately no journalists are Ed Yong)

So when I see advice like

I have read the paper that I sent you and understand it

I am not just trying to fill my story with a random cutaway quote to make it look like I did my job and asked around.

[W]hat you say will almost certainly end up getting cut and distilled. BUT, I won’t do that in a way that misquotes or misrepresents you.

that only applies to Ed, or some other similarly-talented journalist. You could find yourself in a situation where you follow the advice but with a lesser talent, and be disappointed in the result.


Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!
Well, I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.


Which means that Chad’s advice to close the information loop by giving a summary is good. It confirms that everyone is on the same page. You may say you understand the paper, but anyone who has taught knows students who swear they understand, and then bomb the test.

Ultimately, though, what rubs me the wrong way about this is a sense that the ways scientists talk to journalists are wasting the journalists’ time, which they would otherwise be using to do Important Journalism. Which bugs me because, ultimately, each party in one of these conversations is doing the other a favor by having the conversation at all. Yes, journalists are helping to boost the profile of scientists and science in general, but they’re also taking up time that the scientists could be using to do Important Science.

The thing of which I always remind myself in these situations is that Ed is presenting a perspective of a science journalist, and that’s a bias or perspective that needs to be accounted for when absorbing the information. I think that’s what is surfacing here.

Also there’s a bit about “This research is interesting but more work needs to be done” being the most banal quote one can give. That may be true, but we also suffer from way too many stories drawing conclusions from a single experiment that end up being contradicted by further investigation, or end up being anomalies. Again, a good chance that a top science journalist won’t make that error, but it’s worth pointing out that some study isn’t a final result, just to be on the safe side.

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