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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, October 26, 2002


Various updates of the blogroll, now that Blogger and Steelypips are both back up and running. Arts and Letters Daily is back, which is almost positive enough to offset the loss of What She Really Thinks. But not quite.

CalPundit is something of a rising blog star, for good reason. Sand in the Gears was added on the basis of a few things linked by Jim Henley, and seems generally interesting. Musings (via Aaron Bergman) is by a string theorist, but gets a blogroll link anyway, and via Musings, we have two additions under "Geek Stuff": Research Blogs, which is exactly what it sounds like, a list of blogs for or about research, and This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics by John Baez, which is only for the hard-core geeks.

Check 'em out. I'm off to the land of 14.4 dialup for the weekend, so won't be posting much of anything. I've got a long list of topics for when I get back, but can't say when I'll find the time to post about them...

Posted at 8:54 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

It's Funny 'Cause It's True

The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for graduate school.

It all makes sense, now. After all, Tolkien was an academic...

Posted at 8:27 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Global Warming, My Ass

As I type this, it's snowing. Not hard, and it's not really sticking, but it's definitely more snow than rain.

Yeah, it's not unheard-of for it to snow in late October in New England, but then we got an inch or so of snow on May 18th this year, too-- having had a short Summer, I was hoping for a little more time to enjoy Fall, before we segue back into Winter... It's like we're in Wisconsin, or something...

(Yes, I know that global warming models don't predict uniform warming for every spot on the globe, but rather more extreme weather patterns generally, which could lead to things like snow in October in parts of North America. I'm not going to attempt to hold this up as support for a global cooling theory, don't worry...)

UPDATE: I spoke too soon when I said it wasn't really sticking. I was at home when I typed that, but when I got to work, there was half an inch of slushy white stuff (the kind of snow that makes for really nasty snowball fights) on lawns and parked cars. Fun, fun, fun...

Posted at 7:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Cutting Edge of Science

Two quick items from SciTech Daily:

First, an unintentionally funny entry from the blog itself:

The Bush administration's policy of restricting the publication of "sensitive but unclassified" research threatens to stifle scientific creativity. Thousands of reports and papers have already been withdrawn from the public domain (registration required)

Evidently, the shadowy They have also gotten to stories about the removal of documents from public view. Curses!

(The actual article from the New York Times isn't as amusing, but it's not really surprising, either.)

On a happier note, it's good to see that NASA scientists are hard at work on the truly important problems that will face us as we move beyond the Earth: for instance, can you make beer in space? And Bob Park says there's no science worth doing on the International Space Station...

The answer to the question, by the way, is "Yes, you can make beer in space." Woo-hoo!

It's only a matter of time before we're all living in a Henry Kuttner story. Though given some of the goofs and gaffes in the space program, NASA may already be there...

Posted at 8:26 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, October 21, 2002

Albert Einstein vs. Michael Jordan

Regular readers will have noticed a drop-off in the amount of actual science-type content on this weblog in recent weeks. New readers are probably thinking "Where in Hell is the physics?" I haven't posted much science stuff lately, for the simple reason that I find myself thinking about physics all the damn time right at the moment (explaining the Schroedinger equation to sophomores is a tricky business), and when it comes time to write blog posts, I need a break. The recent run of political postings has come about for more or less the same reason that I wound up something like two courses shy of a History major back in college-- I need to take a break from thinking about physics now and again, and thinking about politics serves as a nice break.

In the course of all this, though, I've let the Nobel Prize announcements slip by without comment. Partly, this is because the Physics Nobel was far enough outside my field that I can't say much about it (I will recommend David Harris's coverage, though), but mostly it's laziness.

On the bright side, this delay does afford me the opportunity to piggyback off the contributions of others. Brad DeLong quotes a long article by John Irons regarding the Economics prize (which is not, strictly speaking, a Nobel Prize-- it wasn't established by Alfred Nobel's will, like the other prizes were, but was set up many years later as "The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel" (as noted in the official citation Brad quoted in another post)-- the story I heard is that the Nobel trust fund was running low on cash, and a bunch of Swedish bankers stepped in to save it, and were allowed to add a Prize in the process. I don't know if there's more truth to that than the "his wife ran off with a mathematician" urban legend-- I report, you decide...). Along with a sketch of an explanation for the current Economics prize, Irons notes:

Econ Nobels are more often than not awarded to "fields" - experimental and behavioral economics are very much "teams" in the sense that many, many people contributed to the foundations of the field. Amos Tversky was explicitly mentioned in the press release, but there are also many other people working away in these fields which have done very significant work. Smith and Kahneman were definitely leaders though.

That statement could easily be extended to most of the other Prizes as well, as noted in David Harris's comments on the Physics prize, and Derek Lowe's comments on the Chemistry and Medicine prizes. Contrary to the popular image, very little science is actually accomplished by lone geniuses working in basement labs late at night. Most research, especially experimental work, involves large-ish teams of people working together, if not a whole global community of people working in the same general area.

(Single-author theoretical papers are not unusual, but I can only think of one recent experimental paper by a single author presenting new results in a major journal (it was a Phys. Rev. Letter by the guy whose lab I worked in in Japan. The work is explained in this Physical Review Focus piece, and having worked in that lab, I can vouch for it being Prof. Shimizu's work alone...). It's not unheard-of, then, but it's rare enough to draw comments...)

The real art of the Nobel Prize selection then becomes figuring out which of the dozens of prominent researchers working in a given field get a share of the dynamite money. The number of people who can share a prize is limited to three, which inevitably leads to some controversy when the prizes are announced.

As Derek Lowe notes in another post, completely inexplicable Nobel Prizes are rare in the sciences. You have to go back decades to find a Physics prize that makes people say "What were they thinking?"-- the best example is probably Nils Gustaf Dalen who won in 1912:

"for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys"

(Dalen was Swedish, which probably explains the prize. Still, looking at what was going on in physics in that era, you might think they could've found somebody better...)

While major head-scratchers are rare, the annual round of "X shoulda gotten a share" is as much a tradition as the awarding of the Prizes themselves. Every year, there are claims, justified or not, that somebody else should've been on the list.

The historical classic example is probably Lise Meitner, who really should've shared Otto Hahn's Chemistry Nobel for discovering nuclear fission. A local favorite is the claim that Ralph Alpher (of Alpher-Bethe-Gamow fame) should've shared the 1978 Physics Nobel with Penzias and Wilson. Penzias and Wilson won for the observation of the cosmic microwave background radiation (a relic of the Big Bang), which Alpher had predicted. (Local opinion is perhaps a little biased-- Ralph used to occupy the office next to mine...) Other classics include numerous claims on behalf of the graduate students who carried out the experiments that won their advisors a trip to Stockholm.

In my own field, I know of a number of claims that are reasonably well justified. The 1997 prize, for laser cooling, went to Chu, Cohen-Tannoudji, and Phillips for crucial experiments, but the field traces its history to proposals by Haensch and Schawlow and Wineland and Dehmelt, as well as early work by Arthur Ashkin, any of whom could legitimately have claimed a share of the Prize. There were also a host of other experimentalists working on laser cooling experiments at the same time as the three winners, and some slightly earlier (Wineland, again, easily could've been cited for work on laser cooling of ions). In the end, the Nobel Committee decided that the critical contributions had been made by Chu, Cohen-Tannoudji, and Phillips, which most people accept as well-deserved.

(Name-dropping anecdote: When I first started at NIST, I once asked Bill Phillips if he thought laser cooling would ever be awarded a Nobel Prize. He said "No, because there are just too many people involved," and proceeded to list off fifteen other people who he thought would have to have a share of the prize. Not including himself.)

Bose-Einstein Condensation, the 2001 Physics winner was another slightly tricky one. Two of the laureates were clear-- Carl Wieman and Eric Cornell made the first observations of BEC in dilute gases, and there's no disputing that. A third was more problematic-- Randy Hulet at Rice University got BEC in lithium very shortly after Wieman and Cornell observed it in rubidium at JILA in Colorado, but Wolfgang Ketterle (who got the first BEC in sodium a few months later at MIT) has cranked out an incredible string of important experiments on BEC, while a decent case could be made to give Dan Kleppner (also of MIT) a share, for the long years he spent working to get BEC in hydrogen (BEC in hydrogen is achieved by a much different method than the other elements, and took a few years longer to get). Kleppner deserves credit for inspiring most of the current generation of BEC researchers, and Hulet headed the second group to get BEC, but ultimately, the Nobel Committee decided that Ketterle's amazing experimental prowess could not be denied, and gave him the third share of the prize. Again, it's a well-deserved prize, and most people agree with the award, but other combinations of names might've worked just as well.

Quibbles aside, for the most part, the Nobel Committee does a good job of picking out the right people to honor. And the occasional mis-steps (excepting, perhaps, gross slights like Lise Meitner) are less bug than feature-- ultimately, this whole thing is sort of the geek equivalent of arguing about whether the 1927 Yankees would've beaten the 1998 Yankees, or how Michael Jordan's Bulls would've fared against the great Celtics dynasty, or who should've won the Heisman Trophy in a particular year. All the arguing doesn't really amount to much, but it's a fun way to pass the time, for those so inclined.

Posted at 7:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Western Civilization Dead, Film at 11

One of the "features" of Clear Channel's dominance of the local radio market is a seemingly unending parade of stupid contests and giveaways. The radio business has always thrived on this stuff, but Clear Channel has taken it to new depths-- of the six stations on my car radio presets, four are owned by Clear Channel, and it's not uncommon for a sweep through to discover that all four are simultaneously taking callers for some stupid reason or another.

But the absolute nadir of this sort of thing has turned up on the "Oldies" station (which, annoyingly, has started featuring music made after I was born. Damn it, those aren't "Oldies"...). I don't listen to them in the morning, but they're running a trivia contest on their morning show.

"Nothing wrong with that," I hear you saying, "trivia contests are a fine tradition. Rewarding people's obscure musical knowledge, and all that."

The problem with it is that they give out the answers in advance. When I flip to the station for a Holland-Dozier-Holland fix on my drive home, I keep hearing the DJ say "Remember to listen to the morning show tomorrow, when the answer to the Oldies Trivia Question will be 'Tommy James.'" I haven't heard any of the actual questions, but I doubt they have enough of a sense of the absurd to ask the questions in some language that twins teach each other. Which they might as well do, having decided that their listeners are too stupid to be able to answer actual trivia questions without being prompted in advance.

If, as a society, we've truly fallen to the level where people who listen to Oldies radio stations-- Oldies stations, fer Chrissakes! The songs have been around for nigh on fifty years; you've had plenty of time to learn the answers to the goddamn questions-- are too stupid to be expected to actually know something in order to win a James Brown bobble-head doll, or whatever idiotic bit of kitsch they're giving away this week, then it's time for us to abandon the warblogger dream of total American hegemony, hand the keys over the the Indians and Chinese, and shuffle off to the Hall of Defunct Civilizations to play shuffleboard with the Etruscans.

Posted at 9:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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