Archive for June, 2014

Return of the Living Brain-Dead

The DAMOP conference was good; the physics was excellent and the services mostly good (my one complaint is that the chairs turned my back into that Edvard Munch painting). There was an emphasis on precision measurement and fundamental constants, which included one session on atomic clocks (and “clocks”), and much of the rest included the kind of cleverness needed to do these precision measurements that is very engaging to me.

Not enough sleep all last week, long days of being engaged full-time and travel (with the inevitable travel delays) make Homer something something. I’m still too fried to discuss physics.

But ranting doesn’t require higher brain function, so I will point out shortcomings of the current bureaucratic implementation of travel. A lot of this trip was last-minute; I didn’t get my official travel approval letter until 11 days before the trip, which meant no early registration savings. I was required to stay at a lodging which cost government per diem, which meant no conference hotel (even though the rules allow an avenue for paying extra to stay at a conference hotel this was not approved, and getting one of the few government-rate rooms the conference organizers had arranged wasn’t in the cards at this late date). Having a rental car was specifically forbidden, and I thought the combination of the two restrictions had put the kibosh on the trip, but taking a taxi everywhere was approved (!) — which cost about twice as much as the expected hotel savings. The logistics of getting a cab to go in each morning also cost me some attendance time, so it was less bang for more buck. Penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Still to come is finishing up the wrestling match with the travel voucher system and the game of “Gotcha! You screwed this up and won’t get reimbursed!”

One the bright side, having professionals run the conference logistics was mostly a good thing, and there was beer at all of the poster sessions. Plus all of the physics…

Just Fade Away

Click and stare at one spot in this and notice the image fade away.

Fading Image

Lincoln the Geek

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blew off steam by looking at the stars

Lincoln himself saw the metaphorical opportunities in the cosmos. When he was asked during the Civil War if his faith in the Union was misplaced, he replied with his memory of a Presbyterian deacon he boarded with in 1833. One night, the deacon had knocked on the door, certain that Judgment Day was at hand: The sky seemed to be falling.

Said Lincoln: “I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”

It was probably the Leonid meteor shower that had so shaken the deacon.

I was at the ceremony mentioned in the article. Great stories. I don’t think any recent presidents have come a-knockin’, especially now that we’re further away, though Vice President Gore did avail himself of his proximity and visited the nascent clock development lab, and Cheney did make an appearance nearby wielding a giant pair of scissors (but didn’t venture into the more science-y areas)

This Particular Ship Has Sailed

Greenwich Mean Time could drift to the US, minister warns

Time will become meaningless and people’s experience of night and day will change fundamentally if the world goes ahead with plans to scrap leap seconds, the science minister has warned.


Most people can’t tell the difference; GMT is solar time and currently universal coordinated time (UTC) is atomic, but is adjusted to keep in synch with the sun, because the earth’s rotation rate is a tiny bit slower than it used to be, and the broad trend is that it continues to slow. But even if these are no longer tied to each other, so what?

Without them atomic clocks, which are used as the basis of international time, would fall out of sync with the cycle of night and day. Nearly 800 years from now, the sun would reach its highest point at 1pm, rather than midday.

Right now, the sun doesn’t reach its highest point at noon for the vast majority of the population, and I’m not even worrying about all of us who experience daylight “saving” (or summer) time, where we shift our clocks forward an hour, so that this nominal noon effect actually does happen at 1 PM (without any apparent hysteria or crumbling of empires).

The sun is only overhead (or on a line going overhead) at noon if you are on the actual meridian for your time zone, and then it’s only overhead at noon on the solstices, as I have mentioned a couple of times before — the overhead sun on the meridian varies by ± 15 minutes, and most of us live elsewhere. Meaning that a) this isn’t an actual problem, and b) it will take 800 years before we reach as much skewing as we presently inflict upon ourselves.

“Going purely for an atomic clock option would lose contact with time as we experience. My view is that the relatively frequent but modest corrections are better than allowing a discrepancy to build up. Greenwich Mean Time would slowly move west towards America. I want to keep it in Britain.”

Official time (UTC) is kept by the international Bureau of Weights and measures in Paris. So this is just more hyperbole.

Any of You Guys Know How to Madison?

I’m off to Cheeseland (Wisconsin) for the DAMOP conference, to fill my head overflowing with atomic physics.

A couple of posts in the queue, but that’s it until I return and recover. (Travel + time zone change + conference = exhaustion)

They Only Look Like the Best Illusions of the Year

The Best Illusions of the Year

Every year, the Neural Correlate Society (which promotes scientific research into how sensory perception affects the brain) holds a contest for the best illusions of the year, and they’ve announced their top ten such brain-benders for 2014. To qualify, the illusions had to be published no earlier than 2013, or be previously unpublished.

They’re really are fun to look at; it’s amazing how your brain can be tricked

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