The Incredible Lightness of Paper

Rohinni’s Lightpaper Is Incredibly Thin, And Printable

In its current state, Lightpaper is manufactured by mixing ink and tiny LEDs together and printing them out on a conductive layer. That object is then sandwiched between two other layers and sealed. The tiny diodes are about the size of a red blood cell, and randomly dispersed on the material. When current runs through the diodes, they light up.

It’ll be interesting to see how people use this if the product becomes widely available.

Oh, Fudge

… except I didn’t say “fudge”

“Get Me Off Your F—ing Mailing List” is an actual science paper accepted by a journal

They don’t say fudge in the paper, either.

There are a bunch of journals out there, many advertising themselves as “open access” that will print basically anything — for a fee. Many claim to be peer-reviewed, as does the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, who accepted the paper.

IJACT … is a highly-selective, refereed journal. Manuscripts that appear in the IJACT Articles section have been subjected to a tiered review process. This includes blind review by three or more members of the international editorial review board followed by a detailed review by the IJACT editors.Although feedback ordinarily will be given, the editors reserve the right to reject a manuscript for publication without a rationale for their decision.

Oh, really? A reviewer marked its appropriateness as “excellent”. It was accepted; the only reason it wasn’t published was that the submitter didn’t want to pony up the $150 it would have taken.

The article chronicles other deliberately substandard submissions that were submitted to, and often accepted by, similar journals. Their sleaziness can’t be blamed on Schwartz.

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Hello, Boys. I'm Back!

Got my internet working (yay! It was the salmon mousse a dead modem) and completed a trip to a DARPA program review, where I got to see lots of neat things I can’t blog about. Sorry.

The Tension is So Thick, You Can Cut it With a GoPro

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During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman — along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst — explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station. The crew “submerged” a sealed GoPro camera into a floating ball of water the size of a softball and recorded the activity with a 3-D camera. (Video: NASA)

Note: You will need red-blue stereoscopic 3D vision glasses to view the video.

Bottom one is the 3D version, in case you couldn’t figure that out.

The big question for me is how my brother Steve kept being an astronaut a secret all these years.

One Person's Junk is Another's Treasure

When I was on vacation a few weeks back, a friend had related a story to me of a proprietor of an electronics shop who also repaired TVs, but was lamenting that TV repair business has been dropping off, for similar reasons as described by Rhett in The End of the Throwaway Appliance

Why would you repair an appliance if it is just a little bit more to buy a new one? Even if I did spend $100 to fix my washer, who knows – something else might break next week. In too many cases it’s just simpler to buy a new thing than to repair. I think this sucks.

I don’t share Rhett’s optimism that the problem of throwaway electronics can be fixed — his solutions will work, but only a sliver of the population has the technical skills and/or tools to implement them.

(Another reason the TV repairman’s business was dropping off was that it was taking weeks to get parts for one of the popular brands, and nobody is willing to wait weeks to get their TV back, when a new and bigger/better on is available right now.)

I can think of an alternative.

Here is the real problem. I wasn’t exactly sure which part was broken. The control panel costs about $100 and the control board has a price around $120. On a gamble, I could order the control panel (pretty sure that’s where the problem was), but what if I’m wrong? I could possibly return the piece but the whole process could take a significant amount of time.

What if you had ten broken washers, or TVs, or whatever, of the same make and model, or at least had compatible internal parts? They would probably not all have the same problem, so you could swap parts around and get some of them working, either as a diagnosis (you’d then buy the parts you needed) or as a working product. If people are just tossing their old products out, that may require a trip to the landfill or some other disposal site — an enterprising person could offer to haul them away — at no cost to the owner! — and then sell the fixed machines. It’s mainly a matter of how many you could fix and sell in a given amount of time, and having enough space to do the work.

I know back in grad school I’d seen ads saying “we’ll haul away your old washer/dryer”, so I assume that’s what they were doing, but I don’t know if that’s still a thing with the more computerized machines of today. I think that this is a more viable solution to the throwaway appliance — leverage some economy of scale to make it into a refurbished appliance.

You Keep Using That Word…

It’s time for another installment of “That’s Not A Clock (it’s a stopwatch)”

New Clock May End Time As We Know It. This is the same technology that I’d linked to back in January, and NPR did something back then, too. I thought maybe this was prompted by a new paper, but the story may have just been motivated by our daylight saving shift last weekend.

I completely agree with Tom O’Brian — time is a human construct, in that it’s abstraction we came up with (but then, so is length). But I have an issue with saying that NIST has America’s master clock, while ignoring the one that resides in Washington DC, run by the navy, and that Tom O’Brian is America’s official timekeeper (i.e. singular). Sins of omission.

This new clock can keep perfect time for 5 billion years.

…if it ran continuously. But it doesn’t. Jun Ye gave a talk on this at DAMOP this past summer, and someone asked him if/when any of these optical lattice devices were going to run as actual clocks, and how long they could run. The answer was (paraphrasing here) “about 24 hours, because people need to sleep.” NIST isn’t going to be pushing very hard to extend that, because that’s not their job. As he put it, once you get to the noise limit of the device, they sort of lose interest in running it any longer.

The rest of it is pretty good for a pop-sci piece, aside from the observation that (as Matthew Francis tweeted at me) “end time as we know it” seems a trifle hyperbolic. In other words, what do you mean, “we”? The issues of trying to synchronize clocks are not going to affect the vast majority of people. It’s a very interesting technical challenge, for reasons described in the article, and once people come up with applications that require picosecond-ish level of timing or better, it’s something we’ll have to solve. But it’s not going to affect whether you’re late for work or what time the game comes on.

How'd You Get to Be So Good?

I was trying to track down some details of some work-related history and ran across this, which just happened to have my search terms in it (though not in close proximity in the text). It’s a Congressional hearing from 2006 on how the recent NIST Nobel laureates view science policy.

This is not today’s congress, i.e. this was not chaired by Lamar Smith, and all that that engenders, so even though the GOP hasn’t been particularly cozy with science in some time, this dates to a time when things weren’t quite as bad as today. Plus, this hearing wasn’t discussing social science or global warming.

It’s a transcript, so it’s not polished and there’s a lot of fluff, but there are parts that are quite good. I know from experience that Bill Phillips (Nobel in ’97) and Eric Cornell (’01) are good science communicators; I can’t recall ever hearing Jan Hall (’05) give a talk but his testimony is pretty clear as well.

The hearing will address these overarching questions:

1. Why has NIST been so successful at cultivating Nobel Prize winners?

2. What are the implications of the Nobel Prize-winning research at NIST and how can that work get used outside of NIST?

3. What steps are most necessary to improve U.S. performance in math, science and engineering, and U.S. competitiveness?

What directed my attention to the transcript was related to Bill Phillips’ work on laser cooling and trapping

One application of low-temperature physics is technology to improve the accuracy of atomic clocks. By cooling atoms of cesium, scientists have made atomic clocks that are a billion times more accurate than an ordinary wristwatch.

From Bill’s testimony:

Today, laser-cooled atoms define time. At the naval observatory, they keep time for our military. They synchronize GPS, which guides everything from military jeeps to commercial aircraft. NIST’s standard clock is accurate to less than one second in 60 million years. We like to call this “close enough for government work.”

The naval observatory mention was one part that garnered the hit on Google; apparently he talks us up on pretty much every occasion. We invited him out to visit us last summer when we declared our fountain clock ensemble to be fully operational (and were not subsequently destroyed by the rebel alliance), and got to hang out for a while. One thing we talked about is what he discusses below on government investment in science.

Later on in his prepared statement he describes how he pursued laser cooling — first as a bit of a hobby, with scrounged equipment, but later on as a primary research investigation, with proper funding. And, I might add, with minimal interference from a bureaucracy which might demand immediate commercial application from research (just the normal government bureaucracy to inhibit work). He speaks of realizing the application to clocks, but those clocks and frequency standards didn’t come to fruition for several decades, and even then that was pretty fast for basic research to get going, to make a discovery, and for that discovery to have a significant impact. Such is the scale of science, and that’s the reason why scaling back on government investment will not be noticed at the commercial level for quite some time. Inertia is the problem here. We’re coasting on older investment, and we won’t be able to quickly (if ever) regain any lead we have should we lose it. You can’t recreate a decade’s worth of research overnight, even if you threw a lot of money at the problem. As the saying goes, it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, but you can’t get nine women together to make a baby in a month. There’s no substitute for continued, deliberate investment in basic research.

Bill Phillips, in his prepared statement

The invention of the transistor at Bell Telephone Labs set the stage for a booming electronics industry that has sustained much of the U.S. economy. It came from a strong and sustained program in basic research at Bell Labs, one that was mirrored in other industrial labs like RCA, Raytheon, Ford, Xerox, IBM, and so forth. Today, many business analysts seriously contend that AT&T never got a significant return on its research investment and denigrate the value of any long-range, basic research in any industry, focusing instead on very short-term return on investments. Today, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self in regard to basic research and that sort of far-sighted support of research has virtually disappeared from American industry. I don’t know if we can ever expect to return to the golden age of industrial research, but I strongly believe that we must, as a nation, regain and maintain that level of basic research if we are to remain competitive in a world economy. If industry cannot or will not take its traditional share of this responsibility, I believe that government must compensate.

I think that this is not happening, and things have gotten worse in the last several years as science funding has been cut. We’ll wake up in a decade or two and wonder why so much of the innovation is happening elsewhere and it’s going to be because the government stopped funding science at a level necessary to move forward, mainly because of a powerful few who hated science and blocked its progress. Our “return on investment” can’t be the criterion we use to decide on basic research, because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find.

From Eric Cornell’s statement

The big question is what is going to be the big new industry of 2020? If I knew the answer, I would not be here in front of you testifying–I’d be off setting up my own high-tech venture capital company instead. No one knows the answer for sure, that is why scientific research and discovery is so important. Without knowing for sure what the next big thing will be, we can remain cautiously optimistic that that big thing will be an American thing.

Remember, this was from 2006. I wonder if his take would be different today, given trajectory of science funding? But again, note the underlying thought here: it’s research, and you don’t know what you’re going to find until you go out and find it. Any and every interruption can stop research, but it requires time to get it going again. All too often you have to go back to square one and start over from scratch.