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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Bronfman Two Twenty

One of the annoying features of the trimester system that Union runs on is that the alumni reunion weekend (dubbed "ReUnion" by some sad little person in the alumni office, who deserves to be slapped for about nine hours straight) ends up falling in the academic term. I missed it last year (I was out of town at some sort of wedding or something), but I'll be here this week to experience the extra-special parking crunch that comes from adding a few hundred fat-cat alumni to the campus population for a weekend.

Of course, it also serves to remind me of the fact that my own ten-year reunion is coming up in a couple of weeks. Which makes me feel both old, and vaguely nostalgic. Thus, I will inflict upon you a little mix-tape nostalgia.

The title of this one is taken from the room number of the lab I worked in my senior year in college. I don't recall exactly when this got made-- sometime in the late summer of '92, I think-- but it's done service as both a late-night thesis-writing tape, and a late-night driving-across-Pennsylvania tape. The writing on the label has started to fade a bit, but I just about know the song line-up by heart anyway, so that's no big deal...

Side One:

Side Two:

So there you go. Not as eclectic as some of the more recent tapes, but it's held up well over the years. It's one of the select few tapes that go in the built-in holder in my car, so it stays in easy reach for those times when the radio sucks, the rest of my tapes are buried under a pile of crap on the floor in the back, and I'd suffer a fatal loss of momentum if I were to stop the car long enough to look for them. It'll probably find its way into the tape deck when I head over Route 2 in a couple of weeks, too...

Posted at 10:14 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Game Eleven, Win by Two, Winner Gets Water Rights to the Potomac

The tagline up there says "Physics, Politics, Pop Culture," which probably has people wondering about the relevance of all this hoops chatter. Of course, physics is intimately involved in the playing of basketball, and sports in general are certainly an important element of American popular culture, but, Bill Bradley aside, is there actually any connection between basketball and politics?

Of course there is:

Bob Levey: You're well known as a big fan of playing pickup basketball. I've never seen you play, Governor--but I've seen ME play. I can tell you that once you hit 45, the old gray legs ain't what they used to be. Are you ever going to give up hoops and take up golf?

[Virginia] Gov. Mark Warner: My jump shot was never very good, but I do have sharp elbows and a big butt. So, my game has not gotten much worse, but I don't get to play nearly as often as I'd like to. Bob Ehrlich and I did discuss a one-on-one to resolve any areas of dispute between Maryland and Virginia.

I think this idea has some merit. At the very least, it would avoid some of the unsightly scandals that constantly rock the political scene. The whole "Killer D's" thing was entertaining, and all, but wouldn't it be more fun to see Tom DeLay and the Texas Democratic leadership engaged in a spirited game of "HORSE" for the right to re-district the whole damn state?

Of course, the whole system would be rocked to its foundations if Charles Barkley ever carries through on his threat to run for Governor of Alabama...

(Thanks to Kate for pointing this out.)

Posted at 10:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Howdya Spell "Biiillyuns?"

We do a lab in our introductory mechanics classes on karate. Or, more specifically, on the breaking of pine boards-- students hang a great deal of weight from the center of a board of the type used in karate demos, and measure how the board deforms under the stress. Eventually, of course, the board snaps (they usually hold something like 70 kg, or about the mass of a typical student), and from the data collected students can estimate just how quickly they would need to move their fist in order to punch through the board. The calculation gives an answer of something like 3-4 m/s.

(As an aside, I like this lab quite a bit, and not just because I get the chance to punch through wooden boards at the start of class, which is a wonderful attention-getter... The data they get are absolutely beautiful-- between thirty and forty points will fall almost exactly on a straight line. They generate the kind of plots that most researchers would kill to have, though of course, the students don't really appreciate this...)

In writing reports about this lab, we ask the students to say what they think this says about the difficulty of punching through a karate board. A number of them continue to insist that it's a difficult thing to do-- that it's somehow hard to move your hand at a speed of 4 meters per second. This is common enough that I've taken to just telling them the right answer ("It's not all that difficult") before they leave (and also pointing out that the real answer is a bit higher than 4 m/s-- 10-15 is closer, due to the approximations in the model they use, but that's still not especially difficult). A surprising number still hand in reports stating that only a trained karate expert should even think of attempting such a feat, but I'm gradually growing resigned to this.

The problem in this case is specifically an issue of metric conversion-- American students have no feeling for how long a meter is, or how fast a meter per second is. But it's emblematic of a larger problem faced by scientists in general, that of communicating the magnitudes of the things we deal with to the general public. The technique is almost always the same: you make some sort of analogy to everyday objects and phenomena.

In the karate board case, this is relatively easy. The problem is an issue of unfamiliar units, and the scale is fairly mundane. A speed of 2 m/s is equivalent to a brisk walk-- an "I'm late for Physics class" sort of thing-- so 4 m/s is basically jogging pace, or "the dining hall is about to close, and I haven't eaten yet," as I put it in class. 30 m/s is highway driving speed, so the 15 m/s you need to actually break through a karate board is sort of like driving through a school zone. Which seems hard to do if you think about moving your whole body at that pace, but all you really need to do is get your arm moving that fast, and just about anyone can throw a baseball that fast. (At 15 m/s, a baseball released horizontally at a height of 2m would travel about 30 feet. If you can get a baseball from first to second on the fly, you're throwing it faster than 15 m/s.)

I have a similar set of analogies for laser cooling-- atoms at room temperature move at the speed of sound, while laser-cooled atoms move at about the speed of a startled insect. Already, it's getting tougher, though-- the speed of sound is something that people have a vague conception of (from seeing jet aircraft, or the "five seconds is one mile" rule for locating thunderstorms), but it's already a large enough velocity that most people parse it as "pretty darn fast" and leave it at that.

When you start to get into the realm of really interesting physics-- describing things on the atomic scale, say, or trying to explain relativistic velocities and astronomical distances-- you quickly run into Detritus's Law of Large Numbers. The magnitudes get so ridiculously big that you might as well be counting "One, two, many, lots" for all the good a quantitative description will do. Even the analogy method starts to become a problem, and the contortions people go through to try to get concepts across start to resemble the winners of the Bad Analogy Contest the Post ran some years ago.

In addition to having a big stack of karate-board lab reports to grade, I've been reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (coming soon to a booklog near you...). Bryson, as anybody who has read his other books, is a supremely non-technical person-- "technologically challenged," you might say-- so when he sets out to write a science book for the general reader, he's got a very general reader in mind.

Bryson's lack of technical savvy hurts him in a few places, most notably in his aversion to scientific notation, which results in the occasional sentence of Saganesque gibberish, such as his description of 10-43 seconds as "one 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second," which is as unhelpful as it is hard to parse (though, to be fair, that's sort of the point of that sentence). In most cases, though, it's actually a weird sort of strength, as his lack of scientific expertise leads him to construct a huge number of colorful analogies to advance his cause.

The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, for example, is analogized thusly:

If you think of peering into the depths of the universe as like looking down from the hundredth floor of the Empire State Building (with the hundredth floor representing now and street level representing the moment of the Big Bang), at the time of Wilson and Penzias's discovery the most distant galaxies anyone had ever detected were on about the sixtieth floor, and the most distant things--quasars--were on about the twentieth. Penzias and Wilson's finding pushed our acquaintance with the visible universe to within half an inch of the sidewalk.

In other spots, he likens supernova hunting to "standing on the observation platform of the Empire State Building with a telescope and searching windows around Manhattan in the hope of finding, let us say, someone lighting a twenty-first birthday cake," (he's fond of the Empire State Building), explains the odds against spontaneous protein formation (or at least a naive version thereof) in terms of a Las Vegas slot machine with 1,055 spinning wheels, and tries to explain the remoteness of the Cambrian Explosion by noting that:

If you could fly backwards into the past at the rate of one year per second, it would take you about half an hour to reach the time of Christ, and a little over three weeks to get back to the beginnings of human life. But it would take you twenty years to reach the dawn of the Cambrian period."

(He also presents most of the standard analogies-- the weight of a teaspoon full of neutron star material, he number of books filled by the genetic code of an amoeba, the depth of the puddle of slime if all the subterranean bacteria inside the Earth were dumped onto the surface. My favorite of the book was attributed to someone else, and likened the number of visible galaxies to the number of frozen peas required to fill the old Boston Garden. Which was substantially larger than the number of holes required to fill the Albert Hall...)

I'm not sure whether any of this is actually helpful-- the time machine one doesn't do much for me, but it might help someone else-- but it's really about the best we can do. One of the big issues facing modern science is the problem of magnitude. Atoms and molecules are incredibly small, and the galaxy we live in is mind-bogglingly huge. And atoms are positively gigantic on the particle-physics scale, while galaxies are insignificant motes on the scale of the Universe as a whole. Light moves at a fantastic speed, and the sheer quantities of things-- atoms, molecules, microbes, stars-- that we have to deal with are simply incomprehensible.

(Econ types frequently lament the difficulty of getting people to actually comprehend the magnitude of the numbers involved in things like the Federal budget-- Kevin Drum has a whole series of recent posts attempting to explain economic issues in everyday terms (see, for example, here, and here, and links contained therein). Those problems are trivial compared to the difficulties scientists face. The age of the Universe (in years) is on the same rough scale as the budget numbers Kevin's dealing with (ten billion years versus a hundred billion dollars), and that trails the distance (in miles) to the nearest star by four orders of magnitude. Which, in turn, is roughly a million times smaller than the number of atoms in a cubic centimeter of air. And it only gets worse...)

The very best demonstration I've seen of the huge range of scales involved in modern physics is the Scales of the Universe walkway at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. It goes in stages from the scale of the Universe itself, through galaxies, stars, planets, atoms, and all the way down to quarks, and provides dramatic illustrations of the contrast in sizes between various objects.

Of course, that requires a giant metal ball 87 feet in diameter, which is a little hard to replicate at home, so the rest of us are pretty much stuck with analogies.

Posted at 9:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, May 26, 2003

Increasingly Visible

The other addition to the blogroll is (or will be, once Blogger stops being pissy about my template) the Invisible Adjunct, your one-stop-shopping source for all sorts of great material on academic politics.

I was led there by this Brad DeLong post, linking a specific item on the job market which in turn linked a USA Today article on the Ph.D. glut. All three articles are worth reading, and the comments to the weblog pieces contain some really interesting discussions.

I'm presently occupying a place on the Great Chain of Academic Being somewhere between Brad and the Adjunct-- I have one of those coveted tenure-track jobs, but I don't have tenure. These articles hit fairly close to home, but my view of them is probably a little different than theirs (also, life in the hard sciences is much different than life in the humanities). I will try to expand on this a little bit, as much as I can within the limits of my self-imposed ban on talking about local politics, but until I get around to that, go read their posts and comments.

Posted at 11:58 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

The Bombing of Room 120

I made some snide remarks a while back about Jack Balkin's blog. It's a very nice site, though, and provides an excellent source of thoughtful (if not entirely transparent) commentary about the law and legal issues.

In the unfortunate way that tragedy has of bringing out the best in everyone, he's got a couple of recent posts on the bombing at Yale Law School that are really good (he doesn't have permalinks at all, but then it's a Blogspot site, so it's not like they'd work if he did... The relevant archive is here, and the posts in question are on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd).

I don't have any strong personal associations with the specific room where the bomb went off, but I've been in the building, and know the place a little. It's always a shock to hear about horrible events, but somehow it's worse when they happen in a place you know.

Anyway, I'm adding Balkinization to the list of links over on the left (or at least I will once Blogger locates my template). It's worth visiting on a regular basis.

Posted at 11:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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