It Shows

So You’re Not a Physicist …

I’m a tad conflicted here. On the one hand, there’s technical accuracy. On the other, there’s poetic license, and on the third hand there’s “Meh”.

I do think there is a danger in this. People will end up perceive the wrong idea of a physics concept if their exposure is a bad analogy. Take “Quantum Leap” (please!). If your only exposure to the term came in metaphors and analogies in popular works, you’d probably think that “quantum” means “big”, rather than its correct meaning of “discrete”. (That is, not being quantum means being continuous. Not small.) That’s just one more misconception that science teachers and communicators have to tear down before you can get to the juicy science underneath.

Looking at this from another perspective, I think there are a few folks who balk at English in general being applied with imprecision — the ones who point out that rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, for example. That group counts the New York Times (different columnist, though) among its members.

Accuracy and precision in communication is important. So why give physics metaphors a pass?

Combing the Sky … for a Good Explanation

Finding Extrasolar Planets with Lasers

This ought to be better, and the fact that it isn’t reflects very poorly on the writer, and on the Planetary Society for not demanding better.

I find this particularly annoying because it has this “all these big words! Optical physics is Hard!” vibe to it. It would be easy enough to do the same thing with the astronomy side, cracking wise about stellar classifications and the like, but they would never consider doing that, because that’s their business. When it comes to physics, though, they have no qualms about dropping into Barbie mode, and I find that really annoying.

The hard is what makes it great.

Anyway, I agree — glossing over some interesting physics because it’s outside your area of expertise is one thing, but passing it off as magical gizmos is just lazy. I am biased, though — I’m an atomic physics guy, I’ver seen talks by both Ron Walsworth and Dave Phillips on the Astro-Comb and it’s pretty cool, and frequency combs are why I am of Nobel blood (via Ted Hänsch).

And even if you don’t want to (or can’t) write up something less awful than this hand-waving, here’s a radical idea: it’s the internet, so link to someone with a better explanation! I know, that’s blasphemy for a commercial publication — thou shalt not link outside your own ecosystem — but this is the Planetary Society (it’s a “dot org” not a “dot com”) so I’d think they’d be more concerned with getting good info out and less about external links at the tail end of an article.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

I was poking around on the internet, following up on something I had read about the longitude prize (300 years old as of this summer)

Thomas Jefferson and the search for the longitude in America

Not surprising: Jefferson was interested in the longitude issue. He was very scientifically minded, so it’s reasonable a major science/technical issue of the day would be of interest. But here’s the thing — as a prominent face of things scientific, he was a crackpot magnet. (Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say a crackpot lodestone)

Jefferson apparently rued his status as an unofficial scientific clearing house, writing to a friend after a longitude projector approached him in the street that his ‘false reputation […] has made me a kind of Vortex into which the projects of our country are very much emptied’. Although he responded considerately to most supplicants, he feared ‘the sacrifice of the remains of my life in the investigation for others of projects which very often require a great deal of consideration, much research, and sometimes elaborate calculations’.


One troublesome consequence of his undaunted advocacy of a “method of ascertaining the longitude by the moon’s motion without a time piece” was a flood of methods more controversial than his own. Among his papers are even more letters from discoverers of longitude than from inventors of perpetual motion machines. Fellow longitude addicts seem to have been particularly hard for Jefferson to rebuff.

I find it interesting that he referred to his as a “false reputation” as an expert — I’m guessing that he properly viewed it that no matter what he knew, there was much that he did not, so he didn’t consider himself as an expert, even if he had the ability to debunk. Also that he was an advocate of the lunar method of determining longitude (making him a lunatic, of sorts)

But mostly it’s interesting to note, although it should be thoroughly unsurprising, that crackpots existed back in the day, and they would pester someone with a public presence and some sort of science credentials to comment on (and presumably endorse) their ideas.

It Don't Mean a Thing …

King of the swingers: photographer builds giant pendulum to make amazing art

The [2D] swings combine with each other to create swirling designs called Lissajous figures.

The patterns are so stunning that machines like Blackburn’s Y-shaped pendulum were made commercially in the Victorian era. They became known as “harmonographs”, since the variation in images results from the variation in harmonies between the different swings.



(I can’t embed vimeo but this is better in a larger format anyway)

Online for a limited time as part of Vimeo’s presentation of TIFF Short Cuts!

Forced to care for her catatonic lover Malcolm after a secret quantum experiment goes awry, Erin is determined to uncover the cause of his condition — even at the risk of her own life. This riveting contemporary science-fiction story, from one of the writers of Orphan Black, bridges alternate dimensions as it explores how far a person will go for someone they love.

I liked it; I was expecting a particular plot twist based on pop-sci representations of entanglement. I won’t tell you if that’s what happens.

MAD is not a Viable Strategy

How anti-vaccination is like a nuclear bomb

How quickly the disease spreads, if it spreads at all, depends on the number of people vaccinated. Again, we find very simple math: if, on average, an infected person encounters less than one unvaccinated person while he/she is contagious, the disease will die out. If, however, an infected person encounters more than one unvaccinated person while he/she is contagious, the disease will multiply: each new infected person infects new ones.

A fairly decent analogy (even if I have a terminology nit: induced reactions are not decays)

Ready, Set, Go!

Special relativity aces time trial

The scientists made the moving clock by accelerating lithium ions to one-third the speed of light. Then they measured a set of transitions within the lithium as electrons hopped between various energy levels. The frequency of the transitions served as the ‘ticking’ of the clock. Transitions within lithium ions that were not moving served as the stationary clock.

On the one hand, very cool-sounding experiment. On the other, [yawn], Einstein wins again. Cool experiment wins, though. This blurb makes it sound like maybe they were doing spectroscopy and seeing the shift in the resonance, much like in the Pound-Rebka experiment which confirmed gravitational time dilation. I have to go get the paper at work and read it.