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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, July 10, 2004

"Luminiferous Aether" Would Be a Great Name for a Band

There's a new paper coming out in Physical Review Letters about neutrino oscillations, which I discovered in the usual way: from a comment at Making Light (scroll way down, as it's a JVP). That comment led to a ScienceDaily article, which isn't all that informative, but will do until I get back to work and have access to better sources.

More interesting than the actual article, though, were the ads provided by Google. Such an assemblage of cranks is rarely seen outside of an "Intelligent Design" workshop: we've got the Quantum AetherDynamics Institute, dedicated to introducing

a more sophisticated version of the ancient and universal idea of an Aether substratum to explain the highly successful Relativity and Quantum Field Theories. Our Quantum Physics Model provides a fluid version of Special Relativity, a non-Euclidean version of General Relativity, a topological version of Quantum Mechanics, and a vortice version of String Theory. As a result of the Quantum Physics Model, the term "Aether" is once again brought into the scientific lexicon as space is shown to include inverse mass, inverse charge, geometrical shapes, and is driven by a massive, dynamic force.

Well. There you go.

In the same vein, but not obviously related, we have an ad for a bunch of Velikovskian whack jobs hawking books that claim the aether exists. And that Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould unjustly smeared the genius of Immanuel Velikovsky-- who knew?

Finally, there's a site offering yet another Theory of Everything, explaining that quarks don't actually exist. This theory helpfully comes in two versions: one for physicists, and one for non-physicists. So, you know, there's something for everyone.

Now I know how the biologists feel.

Posted at 7:14 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Friday, July 09, 2004

Stevie Ray Vaughn is Dead, and We Can't Get Milli Vanilli Into a Helicopter?

Matt Yglesias is taking some heat for his cavalier attitude toward the Endangered Species Act, from blogs both serious and humorous.

As a liberal scientist type, I'm inclined to agree with PZ Myers. As one whose sinuses currently feel like they're stuffed with steel wool and vacuum pump oil, thanks to the mating practices of common weeds, however, I'd be all for Matt's position, provided we could arrange for the right species to be endangered.

That's the real pisser about biodiversity. The species that are in danger are never the ones you'd really like to see go down. If every last ragweed plant, mosquito, and yellowjacket on the planet were to disappear tomorrow, that would be cause for much rejoicing, as far as I'm concerned. But it's always pretty flowers and butterflies that are in trouble, while the nasty, useless plants and bugs just keep rolling along.

Posted at 10:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Thursday, July 08, 2004

I Didn't Spend Six Years in Evil Graduate School to be Called "Mister"

One of my most vivid memories from my undergraduate physics career was a lab in which we were supposed to make a dye laser, and do some spectroscopic measurements with it. We had a pulsed nitrogen laser, and a little bit of yellow-green dye in a cuvette, and were supposed to adjust the alignment of various optics until we got the dye to lase.

My lab partner and I spent hours tweaking mirrors and lenses, and got nothing. We'd see the occasional flash of green light from the cell, but we couldn't get it to stick around for very long. We enlisted the help of the TA (a really exceptionally bright senior student), and he couldn't get it to work, either.

After almost three hours of futility, the professor came in from helping other groups on different experiments (this was a class where we rotated through a half-dozen different labs-- others included looking at electron spin resonance (ESR), the Compton effect, and black-body spectra. Some of these later turned up on the list of experiments for Maryland's mandatory graduate lab class...), and asked how we were doing. We told him our tale of woe, and he said, "Well, sometimes it helps to tweak this cylindrical lens a little bit..." and rotated one of the optics in its holder.

In my memory of that day, the grean beam that resulted from that tiny adjustment bears a strong resemblance to the laser Val Kilmer makes at the end of Real Genius.

The point here is that any real experimental set-up will have so many variables in it that it's really difficult to cover all of them. And when you're trying to reduce a complicated apparatus to a level where undergraduate students can understand it, you'll almost certainly leave out a few of the adjustments, for time constraints, if nothing else. You'll tell the students what the most important adjustments do, but there are always a few things you'll end up leaving out, on the theory that they usually don't make much difference. Which is fine, except for when they do make a difference...

This continues into graduate school, as well, though to a lesser degree. There, it's usually a matter of personal style as much as anything else-- it's not that you're not trusted to understand what's going on, or anything, it's just that in a complicated experimental system, different people will end up adjusting things in different ways. It almost becomes a superstitious process, like the way that athletes will have pre-game rituals that make no sense to outsiders.

On one occasion in grad school, I needed to tweak up a Ti:Sapph laser to maximize the power output, and kept getting stuck a little bit below where I wanted to be. There were six main adjustments on the laser, and another eight or ten things that could be adjusted, but didn't have to be. Having exhausted the gains from the six main adjustments, I asked four different people who had experience with these lasers what to try next, and got four different answers as to what the Secret Final Adjustment was that would put me over the top. None of them worked, but the fifth thing that I tried (which none of them had recommended) worked, and I got the power I needed. And every time I had to tweak that laser up, that fifth adjustment was the one that did the trick to get that last little bit of power.

This all came to mind recently because one of my summer students is working with a high-power diode laser system, trying to get the beam passed through a bunch of different optics, and coupled into an optical fiber. And there have been five or six occasions in the last three weeks where I wandered into the lab after he'd spent hours beating his head on some problem, and said "You know, sometimes this other thing helps..." just like my professor did all those years ago.

At the time, of course, I thought he was an evil bastard. It'll probably take my students five or ten years to understand that I'm not actually diabolical, either. It's just part of the Black Art of experimental science.

Posted at 2:23 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Almost Enough to Send Me to CafePress

Sean Carroll offers a bumper sticker slogan that should sell copies in the mid-to-high single digits:

Bush - Cheney '04: Classical Leadership in Times of Quantum Uncertainty

OK, I found it amusing...

Posted at 2:20 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Monday, July 05, 2004

I Aten't Dead...

...Not that you could tell from looking at my sadly-neglected book log. It's not that I haven't been reading lately-- indeed, I've been reading more lately than I have in quite a while. I've been reading enough, in fact, that it's gotten in the way of actually logging the books that I read. It's a real connundrum.

Anyway, I will get back to updating the book log Real Soon Now, but given the back log of books that I need to write up, it may be a while before I get to some of the recent stuff. And after this call to action (via Sideout):

"It is not enough to give kids books. We must give them ones that don't suck ass."

I feel like recommending some books that are still in the booklog queue.

If you're looking for books to give to kids, of course, Lemony Snicket (Booklog entries: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, andThe Vile Village) is a good call. They might not be to all tastes, but they're fun reads. And if you get them now, you'll get to claim some hipster credibility by saying that you read them before the Jim Carrey movie version comes out. (We saw the trailer before Spider-Man 2 yesterday. They've got the look right, but there may be too much Jim Carrey. Time will tell.)

And when it comes to kids' books that don't suck ass, it's hard to go wrong with Terry Pratchett, who has another YA book (A Hat Full of Sky, sequel to The Wee Free Men) out. It's quite good, in both the British and American senses-- the book is very well executed, but it's not his best. It's sort of reminiscent of of recent Westlake (not The Road to Ruin, alas): admirable craftsmanship, but not Great Litratchure. Still, if you know a Young Adult who'd like something to read, you could do much, much worse.

Of course, I'm no longer a Young Adult, so most of what I read is pitched to a slightly older crowd (chronologically, at least). Moving to more adult fiction, I picked up a few books on a visit to Tor during our Manhattan weekend a little while back. Having said nasty things about one of his earlier books, I feel compelled to say that Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake is really good. It's a stand-alone space opera novel, featuring Scottish gangsters making a bid for control of the known universe, dogmatic Marxist terraformers, inscrutable post-human technological marvels, and theater on a grand scale. If you're trying to map MacLeod onto Iain Banks, this is Against a Dark Background, only the Shakespearean pastiche "The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy" is funnier than the Lazy Gun.

The other book from that visit that I've read was pushed by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who called it his favorite book that was published last year and did absolutely nothing sales-wise (or words to that effect): Kim Antieau's Coyote Cowgirl. This is a Southwestern magic-realist novel about a young woman who sets off in search of a stolen family heirloom with a talkative crystal skull for a companion, and ends up as a guest chef cooking magical food. The cooking scenes are sort of a literary equivalent of Big Night or Eat Drink Man Woman, only the recipes are provided in an appendix. It's enthusiastically blurbed by Charles DeLint, with good reason-- move his books a couple thousand miles south and west, and this is what you'd get.

Speaking of magic realism in the southern US, Sean Stewart's latest, Perfect Circle, is out from a small press. In terms of his other books, it's basically the male protagonist from Galveston dropped into the family-centered plot of Mockingbird, and it's very good. I have no idea why this is being published by Small Beer Press-- if it's because his publisher dropped him, they're idiots, because this is right in line with his other recent books-- but everybody should go buy a copy.

Sandwiched in between those two, I read The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler. This was recommended by Alex Irvine (author of A Scattering of Jades) on a panel at Boskone, as a book he'd been asked to write a blurb for. As with the DeLint blurb on Coyote Cowgirl, you can see why: this is sort of kitchen sink secret history. Every bizarre mystical conspiracy theory you've ever heard of turns out to be true, and only Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, and H. P. Lovecraft can save the world from a deranged killer stalking New York in 1919. It's a little bit Tim Powers, a little bit The Alienist, a little bit The Apocalypse Door, and an all-around good read. A review I read of it (possibly in Locus) observed that it's written in a way that would make it really easy to turn into a movie, and in this case, that's a good thing.

And that's about enough of that.

Posted at 8:50 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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