The Swarm

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I found the paper for this project on my door Monday morning, and it made going into my office a tad more suspenseful.

It also makes me wonder when the robots will be combined with the technology that runs the carnivorous clock.

Next: To the Poultry Farm So I Can See Hot Chicks in My Area

A Review of the iPhone Infrared Camera: The FLIR One

The FLIR One is an infrared camera attachment for the iPhone (5 and 5s). It comes with a case so you can snap it on your phone. Once it’s on your phone, you can take awesome IR pictures

My FLIR One has arrived, and I have gotten my new phone. Unfortunately, I have no sim card (yet) and the phone won’t work without it (a detail the Apple sales person forgot to mention, grrr) … and customer service of my mobile provider has not gotten back to me about how to get a card. The internet has not been particularly helpful in this regard (though apparently if I were in Australia or the UK I’d be all set, because those are the search results that keep popping up)

I hope eventually I’ll have IR pictures to post.

Physics and Mermaids

One of the things I was thinking about this past week, in between talks (or possibly during) at ICAP was the connection with the “impossible” drive that was arguably not actually validated by NASA in the news recently. I think the seed of this was planted during a talk about trying to measure the electron’s electric dipole moment (EDM), in order to rule out some of the extensions to the Standard Model (SM). There’s no connection in the physics, but it’s the concept of ruling out certain measurements that struck me.

You might hear the phrase that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that’s true, as far as it goes. If scientists have not measured the strength of gravity a million km above the sun’s north pole, for example, it would not mean that there is no gravity there. But the aphorism doesn’t work when you have done testing and can reasonably expect to get a result if some model is true. Then your absence of evidence really isn’t an absence — you’ve measured something, and gotten a null result or a small result, which rules out a larger value.

Let’s say you wanted to make a determination of the existence of mermaids. This being a physics analogy, it wouldn’t be enough for a straight up-or-down statement of their existence — you’d have a model of the conditions under which they’d be found. Someone else might have a competing model, saying they existed, but under somewhat different circumstances. Then we could go out and search for the mermaids. We search the right kind of islands at the right time of day, and find nothing. Repeat as necessary, because statistics. That’s not going to absolutely rule out the existence of mermaids, but it puts a limit on how many mermaids are statistically likely to be out there. Depending on the conditions under which we searched, it might place stricter limits on one model over another — if another model said that mermaids existed in a somewhat different environment, our search of that “space” might not have been as thorough.

There is (not unsurprisingly) an xkcd cartoon related to this

We rule out phenomena, at increasingly better levels of confidence, the longer we properly observe and don’t see anything. (“Properly” because looking with blinders on, or the lens cap in place, doesn’t count. e.g. creationists will never find “transitional” fossils because they refuse to look.) Scrutiny in duration and/or in precision, yielding null results, pushes the limits back of where any new discovery might be.

We can also see this if we go back to the days of physics before quantum mechanics, over a hundred years ago. Albert Michelson had remarked, in 1894, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” Lord Kelvin had (supposedly) announced in 1900 that “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

The sentiment was wrong, of course: there was new physics lurking. But one part of this was correct: that new physics was lurking in the “sixth place of decimals” or beyond. One or two anomalies aside, the new physics wasn’t found where we had already looked — that’s physics we still use to this day, in the realm of what we typically observe — it was found as the tools got better.

Which is another reason why the “impossible” drive draws so much scrutiny. We’ve been down this road before, many times and not seen anything, which is why a claim that something is there (and was there all along) is met with so much skepticism. This doesn’t say that there can be new physics. What it says is that any new physics is going exceedingly likely to be found in the uncharted waters. Mermaid sightings were claimed in remote places, not the local beach.

Microwaving a Light Bulb

Microwaving Light Bulbs Is Genuinely Useful (And Entertaining)

The light is generated in light bulbs by electrons racing along the filament, heating it up and making it glow. Put the light bulb in a lamp, and the outlet the lamp is plugged into will yank electrons back and forth. Put the bulb in a microwave, and the electromagnetic waves will also pull the electrons back and forth. Enough of this, and the filament will light up.

Glad to see someone get this explanation right — I’ve run across far too many that try and invoke electrons hopping between states, as in a Neon light.

You Have Entered … the Physics Zone

I’m attending ICAP (International Conference on Atomic Physics) this week. I would say I’m at the conference, but it’s in DC, so I didn’t have any travel to get (t)here, but it means commuting to the conference site and that makes for a long day. An added bonus is no wifi at the site, so my contact with the digital world while I’m there is more or less limited to a few tweets on my phone.

Wow, A Free Lunch. Made by Unicorns!

While I was on vacation there were some ripples in twitter-land about NASA announcing a rocket propulsion system that didn’t need fuel. Here’s a representative sample: ‘Impossible’ Space Engine May Actually Work, NASA Test Suggests

Sadly, no. And I say sadly not because of disappointment that gizmos that can’t possibly work don’t end up working, it’s that NASA was involved and gave this two thumbs up. They need to be better than this.

This being the internet, rebuttals to the NASA report already exist. The one from John Baez is pretty good

The tl;dr version. Lots more detail in the link.

1. They tested a device that was designed to work and one that was designed not to work. They both worked.

2. They tested the devices in a “vacuum chamber”, but they didn’t take the air out.

3. They didn’t carefully study all possible causes of experimental error… like their devices heating the air.

That first one is mind-boggling. It’s as if you weighed something at two pounds, and when the scale was empty, it read two pounds, so you conclude the test object weighs two pounds. (Insert joke about not having to be a rocket scientist to understand calibration runs. But … apparently it helps to not be a rocket scientist, in this case) That’s some sloppy science.

So, no. You can’t get from

Thrust was observed on both test articles, even though one of the test articles was designed with the expectation that it would not produce thrust.


Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.