September 10, 2008

Still alive

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:39 PM

Today at work we were discussing the self-styled "simplest weather report ever", umbrellatoday.com. Also useful is the similarly-designed hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com (via a GChat status message). Personally, I keep meaning to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Oz on the subject: "But we know the world didn't end, 'cause... check it out."

In my new career the big question to ask is not whether the world will end, but whether one can make money off people's belief that it will. Intrade doesn't seem to have a futures contract on whether the LHC will destroy the Earth, but you can buy or sell the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Of course, if you are trying to destroy the Earth, and you've lost confidence in the LHC, you might find your Plan B at this page.

June 1, 2008

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:03 PM

I'm still occupied with other activities (like unpacking boxes, and discovering just how many bugs I can inadvertently cram into 100 lines of perl), but in the absence of blogging I invite you to enjoy the latest PhD Comics strip on fume hoods.

This rings especially true since my lab in grad school needed a fume hood only occasionally, and therefore had only one which sat mostly neglected in the fabrication lab. This made it a fantastic storage closet for unknown chemicals until somebody actually needed to use it for science, at which point hazmat teams would need to be called. (Note to Berkeley EH&S: joking!)

In contrast, the most hazardous chemical at my new job is the curry from Teriyaki Boy, a.k.a. "The Yak". (Angelenos: Picture the Japanese-food equivalent to Tommy's chili.)

February 18, 2008

Quantum Construction

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:19 PM

quantum construction, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

I spotted this sign while running in Berkeley this morning, and had to go back for a photo. From the slogan it looks like they're promoting energy-efficient home design, which is commendable; thus they probably want "quantum" to indicate "technologically advanced". But of course, "quantum" also brings to mind uncertainty, which maybe isn't what a contractor wants to associate themselves with. At the very least, I would expect Quantum Construction to be able to give a precise time estimate, or a precise cost estimate, but not both.

However, I assume their creation operators are top-notch.

February 6, 2008

Wall Street rethinks coal

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:53 PM

Via Stoat, the Wall Street Journal reports that some major investment banks are anticipating new regulations on carbon emissions:

Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley say they have concluded that the U.S. government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants sometime in the next few years. The banks will require utilities seeking financing for plants before then to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.

I'd like to interpret this as an expectation of a Democratic victory in November, but if I remember right global warming is one of the policy areas where John McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy. Thus it's more likely driven by his success in the primaries, making this kind of regulation more likely no matter which party wins the presidency.

This decision is driven by the political situation but I've often wondered how much the scientific consensus on global warming impacts the investment world. After all, major climate change will cause a lot of economic damage and so it seems like there's incentive for Wall Street to try to limit it. Probably, though, it's a tragedy of the commons where the marginal coal power plant brings more short term profit than long-term costs to the individual investor. (And a lot of the fossil-fuel industry's disinformation campaign on the issue is designed precisely to keep their stock prices up.)

Since I'm looking at some finance jobs, it would be nice to think that I could have a positive effect on this side of things, but in fact my skill-set seems more suited to high-frequency trading problems that don't have this kind of look-ahead.

Permalink | Tags: Energy, Politics, Science

November 30, 2007

Just call it entropy research

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:07 AM

I thought our lab was a mess, but it could be worse... via Chad Orzel, here's a chemistry professor (at UT San Antonio) whose lab had to be forcibly cleaned by the university:

"Clean your room or get out!" Words from a frustrated parent to a messy teenager? Not quite. The mess-maker in this case was a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, who ignored repeated warnings to clean up his dangerously cluttered lab space. When University officials decided to clean it themselves, the professor caused such a disturbance that campus police had to lead him away in handcuffs. The professor was eventually fired, which prompted a lawsuit claiming that the University retaliated against him and denied him equal protection.

The legal opinion notes that apart from the problems in the lab, the professor's office was an "extreme fire hazard", which still puts him a step below the physics professor here at Berkeley who actually set his office on fire. In any case, this makes me feel better about the disordered state of our lab. We cleaned it only a few months ago but it returns rather rapidly to equilibrium.

(I also want to point out that the legal blogger linked above is evidently a fan of Arrested Development, and has chosen the obvious pseudonym to use on his law blog...)

August 1, 2007

Academics and sex, or the lack thereof

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:31 PM

Via Shellock, there's a fascinating post at Gene Expression on various findings that show that intelligence is correlated with delayed sexual activity. There's a lot of interesting stuff in the post and I encourage reading the whole thing, but I want to point out the results I found surprising. Not because they go against stereotype—they actually confirm "science nerd" stereotypes, but I had convinced myself that these were just stereotypes without much basis in fact. These numbers indicate otherwise: (emphasis in original)

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

I was quite shocked that the numbers were this low; I obviously know a lot of grad students, and though I haven't polled them on this subject, I would have guessed a much higher percentage. (I'm not chauvinistic enough to suggest that MIT grad students are less sociable than those at Berkeley—I expect the populations are pretty comparable, at least in departments like physics.)

However, I may be thinking too narrowly in terms of the stereotype of scientists who are virgins because they are socially maladjusted. (There are people like this in the community, but it's a small fraction.) The Gene Expression post lists a number of other possible reasons this could appear as an aggregate effect, and argues for a few of them as contributing factors. (At an individual level, of course, it will be strongly path-dependent.)

One factor that wasn't mentioned there is culture. This could manifest in at least two ways. The first is that a substantial fraction of grad students in technical fields are immigrants from cultures that are much more sexually conservative. Thus, even if these students themselves don't hold conservative views, they may be less likely to have had sex. The second is that the culture in academia seems to me to be less sexually charged than in other spheres. This is not to say that it's sexually restrictive—as the Gene Expression post points out, most academics hold liberal views about sex—but it's less focused on going out and getting laid than, say, the Late Night Shots crowd. Our lab's monthly board game nights aren't terribly conducive to hook-ups (although surprisingly conducive to drunkenness).

Anyway, this might explain the results of the academic polls, but the original post is concerned with correlations with IQ rather than academic achievement. A logical extension would be to look at people in other intellectually-demanding disciplines, like law or medicine. Would the numbers be similar? My guess is no, but I may be stereotyping again.

May 6, 2007

Bad quantum press releases: this time, it's personal

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:19 PM

Scott Aaronson points out an overly-excited press release from NEC, which claims: "NEC, JST and RIKEN successfully demonstrate world's first controllably coupled qubits". This was indeed an exciting development when we published it five months ago. At best NEC has the world's fourth controllably coupled qubits.

That said, the stupidity seems to be limited to the press release, and the paper actually looks pretty interesting, apparently with time domain results that no one else has shown. (I haven't been on the campus network today so I haven't had a chance to read more than the abstract.)

April 22, 2007

Humans evolved for marathoning?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:28 PM

Here's an interesting theory that humans evolved for distance running:

Modern humans and their immediate ancestors such as Homo erectus sport several adaptations that make humans, instead of some ferocious, furry, or fleet creature, the animal world’s best distance runners.

...

Specifically, we developed long, springy tendons in our legs and feet that function like large elastics, storing energy and releasing it with each running stride, reducing the amount of energy it takes to take another step. There are also several adaptations to help keep our bodies stable as we run, such as the way we counterbalance each step with an arm swing, our large butt muscles that hold our upper bodies upright, and an elastic ligament in our neck to help keep our head steady.

...

Though those adaptations make humans and our immediate ancestors better runners, it is our ability to run in the heat that Lieberman said may have made the real difference in our ability to procure game.

Humans, he said, have several adaptations that help us dump the enormous amounts of heat generated by running. These adaptations include our hairlessness, our ability to sweat, and the fact that we breathe through our mouths when we run, which not only allows us to take bigger breaths, but also helps dump heat.

This ought to settle the long-standing distance running vs. sprinting debate I recall from high school track. We distance runners can just wait for a hot day and then persistence-hunt the sprinters into submission. However, as much as I like this theory, I have to question this statement from its proponent:

“Humans are terrible athletes in terms of power and speed, but we’re phenomenal at slow and steady. We’re the tortoises of the animal kingdom,” Lieberman said.

Um, surely the tortoises are the tortoises of the animal kingdom?

Permalink | Tags: Evolution, Running, Science

March 14, 2007

The Day Before the Ides of March

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:07 PM

Today is Albert Einstein's birthday. It's also Pi Day, but like T-Rex I prefer Pi Approximation Day on July 22, not to mention Euler's Number Day on February 71.

When I was advised to Google "March 14th" I expected something related to the above, but the first result reveals something else entirely.

Permalink | Tags: History, Randomness, Science, Sex

March 7, 2007

March Meeting, Days 2 and 3

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:06 PM

I thought about posting last night but this was pre-empted by the fact that the slides for my talk were unfinished (and also the Clarke group dinner). First I want to register a complaint:

This is how physicists (or maybe everybody) fill seating at conferences. The first people to arrive take the seats on the outside of the rows, and then fill in to the middle. This is really annoying when arriving in the middle of the session and having to climb over a bunch of people to get into the one empty seat. I am aware that this is a really lame complaint, but please, fill from the middle!

Now that I've got that out of my system: the last couple days were a blur of superconducting qubit talks. There's a lot going on in this field, and most groups had three or four (10-minute) talks in a row to have enough time to explain all their results. One experiment I thought was very neat was this one from Terry Orlando's group at MIT. In flux qubits like the ones we study, one can measure the temperature by sweeping the flux bias across the degeneracy point and measuring the population of the qubit states. Higher temperatures will give wider curves, as energies further away from the degeneracy point are more likely to be populated by thermal activation. When we measure this on our qubits we usually get something like 150 mK, mysteriously somewhat higher than the fridge temperature (roughly 50 mK).

What the Orlando group did was to apply an analog of laser cooling (as in atomic physics) to their qubit, using a microwave pulse to induce transitions that ultimately cool the system. As a result they were able to see these temperatures (as measured from the widfh of the qubit step) reduced by a factor of 100, from 300 mK to 3 mK. It was pretty impressive; I'm not sure how important it is for quantum computing or whether it's something we should be doing with our qubits, but it's a nice application of techniques from another field.

This morning I gave my talk, which was helpfully introduced by Frank Wilhelm's talk immediately prior, in which he said something like "the really important development for scalability is what Travis Hime will talk about next". So the pressure was on, but I think I did ok. After this was... more qubit talks, but I was mostly decompressing after finishing mine and didn't pay as much attention as usual.

Tomorrow I go to see talks by other Clarke group members, including John himself. And then, an evening flight back to Berkeley.

March 5, 2007

March Meeting, Day 1

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:50 PM

Actually I spent much of today working on my talk instead of going to sessions. The superconducting qubit sessions start tomorrow morning and basically run continuously until Thursday evening. I did go to some talks in the afternoon, though, mostly in D2: Ion Traps for Scalable Quantum Computation. (In some sense this is our competition.)

Ike Chuang, who is a big name in this field, gave the first talk, which laid out the challenges in making a practical quantum computer with ion traps. Most of this dealt with error correction; according to Shannon's theorem (or maybe a quantum information version thereof) it should be possible to build an error-free quantum computer out of qubits that do make occasional errors, as long as the failure rate is below some threshold. Unfortunately in some cases they've looked at this requires a prohibitively large number of operations, as many as 1020. One can try to implement various error-correcting codes, such as Shor's or Steane's, but certain operations that are needed for a universal quantum computer don't work within these codes. And in fact Chuang et al. have shown that there is no stabilizer code that allows a universal set of operations to be performed within the code—one has to decode first before performing at least one of the operations.

The other talks in the session were less abstract, and thus harder to understand (since I'm not terribly familiar with this architecture). The talk by Slusher described a proposal for a VLSI-based scalable ion-trap based quantum computer, which seemed impressive, except I'm pretty sure this is the one Chuang mentioned that would require 440 watts of laser power to operate.

I skipped out on the last talk to go to D8: Superconductivity: STM of Cuprates and see what the group I worked in as an undergrad was up to. However, I haven't thought about STM of cuprates for a while now and only had the faintest idea what they were talking about.

A tempting alternative for the end of the day was Session D33: Focus Session: Quantum Foundations II. It starts out as a perfectly normal session, but somewhere around 4:30 becomes the dumping ground for crackpots. For example:

D33.00014 : Do Particles have Barcodes?

If an elementary particle shown in Fig 2 of gr-qc/0507130 has an UNSTABLE quantum connection to the rest of the universe calibrated by nature in terms of Planck times, as also proposed in my separate MAR07 abstract, there exists a possibility that each particle has a barcode of its own. Instability implies varying periods of connections and disconnections of particles to the universe, which would be equivalent to the varying widths of white and black strips of commercial barcodes. Considering the high order of magnitude of Planck times in a second, each particle and the universe generated by its radiations may have their unique birth times registered in their barcodes. My quest for the cause of consciousness, in MAR06 abstracts, as an additional implication of physics/0210040, leads to the inquiry if these unique parallel universes are like the ones that give rise to consciousness as proposed by some physicists. With all due respect, the attempts to explain TOE of inert matter may not be attempts to explain one step to climb up on a stairway at a time. They may be attempts to explain only half a step at a time to on a stairway made with only integer number of steps. The search for TOE assumes such a theory exists. Mathematics has no barrels to fire bullets that can shoot down a non-existent bird. A Hamiltonian knows no consciousness, a missing ingredient of biology made of particles or vice versa, and of realistic TOE.

The talk after that one describes a theory of Atonic Physics [sic], which sounds like an outtake from Monty Python's bookstore sketch.

February 23, 2007

The brilliant unintentional comedy of Conservapedia

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:01 PM

I don't normally go reading crackpot right-wing sites for my own amusement, but Conservapedia is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. In fact, I'd be certain it's a parody if not for Andrew Schlafly's presence as a major editor. As the name suggests, Conservapedia is supposed to be a "fair and balanced" (in the Fox News sense) alternative to Wikipedia, which apparently suffers from liberal bias. The editors of Conservapedia have helpfully (and hilariously) listed their grievances against Wikipedia, which include such major offenses as:

1. Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D. The dates are based on the birth of Jesus, so why pretend otherwise? Conservapedia is Christian-friendly and exposes the CE deception.

and
5. Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words, even though most English speaking users are American. Look up "Most Favored Nation" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling "Most Favoured Nation", even there there are far more American than British users. Look up "Division of labor" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling "Division of labour," then insists on the British spelling for "specialization" also.[3]. Enter "Hapsburg" (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been "Hapsburg". Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

Now, this project is still fairly new so one doesn't expect to find extended entries on many topics. Nonetheless I was disappointed to find that many entries are... well, "half-assed" doesn't quite describe it. It's more like 1%-assed. A lot of entries consist of a single sentence lifted from an appropriately slanted textbook (sample title: Exploring Creation With Biology). (I want to mention that I hit the "random page" button once to find that example.) And a lot of the more likely fodder for entertainment (such as the entry for evolution) has already been edited by visiting liberals in an attempt to either correct or parody, either of which makes it less funny. Nevertheless, the best examples of teh crazy occur where you don't expect: these guys object not just to evolution but to relativity, and there are some other gems as well. (I'm linking to people who have quoted them, since the original entries have probably changed by now.) I recommend just clicking random pages until you find something good.

Although the temptation to troll the site is immense, I have to agree with those who say we liberals should leave it alone and see what develops. The intra-wingnut edit wars alone should be worth it.

December 29, 2006

2007 March Meeting Abstract

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:22 PM

The program for the 2007 APS March Meeting is now up. I have an invited talk this year; unfortunately it's in an early morning session. Here's the abstract:

Session N2: Progress in Superconducting Quantum Computing

8:00 AM–11:00 AM, Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Colorado Convention Center - Four Seasons 4

Chair: Robert Schoelkopf, Yale University
Abstract: N2.00002 : Solid State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling
8:36 AM–9:12 AM

Author: Travis Hime (University of California, Berkeley)

The ability to switch the coupling between quantum bits (qubits) on and off is essential for implementing many quantum computing algorithms. We have demonstrated such control with two, three-junction flux qubits coupled together via their mutual inductances and via the dc SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that reads out their magnetic flux states. The flux in each qubit was controlled by an on-chip loop, and the chip was surrounded by a superconducting cavity that eliminates fluctuations in the ambient magnetic field. By applying microwave radiation to the device, we observed resonant absorption in each of the qubits when the level splitting in the qubit matched the energy of the microwave photons. With the qubits biased at the same frequency, the interaction produced an avoided crossing in their energy spectrum. At the avoided crossing transitions to the first excited state were suppressed and transitions to the second excited state enhanced, indicating formation of singlet and triplet states in the coupled-qubit system. The observed peak amplitudes were consistent with calculated matrix elements. When both qubits were biased at their degeneracy points, a level repulsion was observed in the energy spectrum. A bias current applied to the SQUID in the zero-voltage state prior to measurement induced a change in its dynamic inductance, reducing the coupling energy controllably to zero and even reversing its sign. The dependence of the splitting on the bias current was in good agreement with predictions. This work was performed in collaboration with P.A. Reichardt, B.L.T. Plourde, T.L. Robertson, C.-E. Wu, A.V. Ustinov, and John Clarke, and supported by NSF, AFOSR, ARO and ARDA.

On a related subject, I still intend to write a post about the results in our Science paper, but I haven't got around to it yet.

December 13, 2006

The Man/Volts Relationship

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:59 PM

Today's Scary Go Round was highly entertaining for those of us who have to keep the volts happy:

November 30, 2006

Publication: Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:29 PM

As some of you know, we recently had a paper accepted to Science. The paper appears in the latest issue, and is now available online.

I will try to post something in the next few days that explains these results for the non-physicists in the audience. In the meantime, there's this post from March about these experiments (from before we had the major findings), and here's the abstract:

Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling

T. Hime, P. A. Reichardt, B. L. T. Plourde, T. L. Robertson, C.-E. Wu, A. V. Ustinov, John Clarke

The ability to switch the coupling between quantum bits (qubits) on and off is essential for implementing many quantum-computing algorithms. We demonstrated such control with two flux qubits coupled together through their mutual inductances and through the dc superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) that reads out their magnetic flux states. A bias current applied to the SQUID in the zero-voltage state induced a change in the dynamic inductance, reducing the coupling energy controllably to zero and reversing its sign.

October 22, 2006

NYT Magazine on science fraud

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:29 PM

The New York Times Magazine has a piece about another instance of scientific fraud, this time by a clinical researcher:

Poehlman pleaded guilty to lying on a federal grant application and admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging, much of it while conducting clinical research as a tenured faculty member at the University of Vermont. He presented fraudulent data in lectures and in published papers, and he used this data to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health — a crime subject to as many as five years in federal prison. Poehlman’s admission of guilt came after more than five years during which he denied the charges against him, lied under oath and tried to discredit his accusers. By the time Poehlman came clean, his case had grown into one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.

I was initially surprised by this passage describing the alteration of data from one experiment:
The fall that DeNino returned to the lab, Poehlman was looking into how fat levels in the blood change with age. DeNino’s task was to compare the levels of lipids, or fats, in two sets of blood samples taken several years apart from a large group of patients. As the patients aged, Poehlman expected, the data would show an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which deposits cholesterol in arteries, and a decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which carries it to the liver, where it can be broken down. Poehlman’s hypothesis was not controversial; the idea that lipid levels worsen with age was supported by decades of circumstantial evidence. Poehlman expected to contribute to this body of work by demonstrating the change unequivocally in a clinical study of actual patients over time. But when DeNino ran his first analysis, the data did not support the premise.

When Poehlman saw the unexpected results, he took the electronic file home with him. The following week, Poehlman returned the database to DeNino, explained that he had corrected some mistaken entries and asked DeNino to re-run the statistical analysis. Now the trend was clear: HDL appeared to decrease markedly over time, while LDL increased, exactly as they had hypothesized.

From this it sounds like Poehlman took potentially interesting data that went against existing hypotheses, and changed it so that it lined up with the conventional wisdom in the field. In other words, he fabricated data to make his results less interesting. This is the opposite of how scientific fraud usually works—consider the Jan Hendrik Schön case in condensed matter physics, where Schön invented spectacular and unexpected results that other groups were unable to reproduce.

But reading further in the article, it makes sense: this is how Poehlman was able to present fraudulent data for so long without getting caught. His results seemed solid enough to be impressive, but not surprising enough to draw too much attention.

The length of time that Poehlman perpetrated his fraud — 10 years — and its scope make his case unique, even among the most egregious examples of scientific misconduct. Some scientists believe that his ability to beat the system for so long had as much to do with the research topics he chose as with his aggressive tactics. His work was prominent, but none of his studies broke new scientific ground. (This may also be why no other scientists working in the field have retracted papers as a result of Poehlman’s fraud.) By testing undisputed assumptions on popular topics, Poehlman attracted enough attention to maintain his status but not enough to invite suspicion. Moreover, replicating his longitudinal data would be expensive and difficult to do.

It's a pretty sad story, and I wonder what medical discoveries might have already been made if this guy had not been obscuring these issues with fabricated data.

October 3, 2006

Berkeley Physicist wins Nobel

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:50 AM

UCB cosmologist George Smoot won the Nobel Prize for Physics today, for his discovery of anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background. He shares the prize with John Mather of NASA Goddard. Here's Berkeley's press release, the Nobel press release, and the AP article.

UPDATE: This, of course, was the Science: It Works, Bitches measurement whose data appeared in xkcd.

UPDATE II: Other bloggers writing about the prize: Sean at Cosmic Variance, Chad at Uncertain Principles, Steinn at Dynamics of Cats, Stefan at Backreaction, Andrew Jaffe, Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions, Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science (whose mother worked with COBE and shares some anecdotes).

Maybe I'll try to get some pictures at the champagne reception later today...

UPDATE III: From the physics department reception, when Smoot is asked to make some remarks (this is paraphrased):

Smoot: I've been making statements all day... but now I can say what I'm really thinking, because there's no press.
[Berkeley Chancellor] Birgeneau: There's always press.
Smoot: Yeah, I'm worried about bloggers.

Wouldn't want to disappoint... I did forget my camera, though.

Permalink | Tags: Physics, Science, UC Berkeley

September 29, 2006

Yet more on gender stereotypes

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:05 PM

Language Log is continuing their series of posts on gender stereotypes; I found this one on personality differences interesting. They look at a Science paper which ranks groups of men, women, and individuals with autism or Asperger's Syndrome in terms of an "empathizing quotient" and "systematizing quotient". Men on average score as more systematizing and women as more empathizing but there's a large overlap between the distributions:

Those are the SQ distributions but the EQ ones look similar from the scatter plot. It turns out that one can take this personality test online. I come up with SQ=69 and EQ=32; perhaps surprisingly I am within 1σ of the mean for the male population on both indices.

It's not entirely clear what these numbers say about me, other than that I'm more likely than most to have an organized record collection (alphabetized by artist, and each artist's records ordered by release date, in case you're wondering).

LHC as a black hole generator

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:04 PM

Backreaction has a substantial and intriguing post about the production of micro black holes in particle accelerators (particularly the LHC). It's a test for extra dimensions: in three-dimensional space it's not possible to generate enough energy to create a black hole with a particle accelerator, but for theories of gravity involving extra dimensions, gravity gets stronger at short distances and this enters the realm of possibility. WIth crude approximations it's possible to estimate that the LHC could produce one black hole per second.

This isn't dangerous, since tiny black holes evaporate almost instantly through Hawking radiation. In fact, it's a nice way to measure some properties of extra dimensions if they exist. However, it's a problem for collider experiments in that information about small length scales becomes inaccessible.

The whole post is worth reading; it's pretty cool even if supervillains looking for a Doomsday Device won't find it useful.

September 25, 2006

Newsweek on the gender gap at Berkeley

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:36 AM

Newsweek has an article on the gender gap in science, and looks at Berkeley's physics department in particular:

To get a sense of how women have progressed in science, take a quick tour of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a storied place, the site of some of the most important discoveries in modern science—starting with Ernest Lawrence's invention of the cyclotron in 1931. A generation ago, female faces were rare and, even today, visitors walking through the first floor of LeConte Hall will see a full corridor of exhibits honoring the many distinguished physicists who made history here, virtually all of them white males.

But climb up to the third floor and you'll see a different display. There, among the photos of current faculty members and students, are portraits of the current chair of the department, Marjorie Shapiro, and four other women whose research covers everything from the mechanics of the universe to the smallest particles of matter. A sixth woman was hired just two weeks ago. Although they're still only about 10 percent of the physics faculty, women are clearly a presence here. And the real hope may be in the smaller photos to the right: graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of them female. Every year Berkeley sends freshly minted female physics doctorates to the country's top universities. That makes Shapiro optimistic, but also realistic. "I believe things are getting better," she says, "but they're not getting better as fast as I would like."

Overall the description of Berkeley is positive; they highlight some of the female researchers here and mention policies that the campus is undertaking to improve the situation.

September 21, 2006

The Female Brain: not a zombie erotica title

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:42 PM

While we're on the subject of gender bias: One of my pet peeves is when people employ bogus neuroscience or evolutionary psychology arguments to back up gender stereotypes. This is distressingly common, and especially annoying when it only takes a few seconds to think about it and realize that the stereotype in question isn't even true. Sure, I may know a lot of eccentric people, but I doubt they're genetic mutants just because they don't conform to some "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" scheme. And of course, these kinds of false or socially-constructed stereotypes are one of the major factors driving the gender gap in the sciences.

Thus it was with some dismay that I learned of the recently-released book The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, which advertises itself thusly:

Brizendine reveals the neurological explanations behind why
• A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000
• A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened
• A teen girl is so obsessed with her looks and talking on the phone
• Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute
• A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can’t spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm
• A woman over 50 is more likely to initiate divorce than a man

From what I know about neuroscience, it struck me as extremely unlikely that there are "neurological explanations" for these things, even putting aside the fact that most of them aren't true of people who aren't lame sitcom characters. It turns out that my skepticism is well-founded: Mark Liberman at the excellent Language Log examined the claims in the book, and found that (despite lots of footnotes) there's little to no science supporting them. (There's a collection of links in this post.)

Unfogged's LizardBreath remarks, "I've reached a point with pop-science accounts of how women differ from men, where I firmly assume that any claim that science has shown a physical cause for behavioral differences between the sexes is bullshit." I've been at that point for a while now, too.

September 20, 2006

NAS Report on Women in Science

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:12 PM

A National Academy of Sciences panel on women in science finds:

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are “virtually absent,” it adds.

The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

(Via Bitch, Ph.D.) Although the conclusion is unsurprising to anyone who has followed this issue, it's good to see the gender gap getting attention at high levels beyond Larry Summers dismissing it as due to "innate differences". The NYT article is short on recommended reforms, but I don't know whether that is also true of the original report.

The panel included UC Berkeley's chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and the late UCSC chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide recently, had also been on the panel before her death.

Back in March we had a pretty good comment thread on this subject.

September 14, 2006

Shouldn't the companion be named Norton?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:31 PM

Via Dynamics of Cats, the "dwarf planet" whose discovery led to Pluto's demotion has been named Eris, losing its previous informal name of Xena. Steinn responds with an appropriate "Hail Eris!", but then wonders if dwarf planets should have dwarf names.

As a sometime-admirer of the Goddess (one of the patron deities of Kaos Alley), I am pleased to see her recognized here, even if it is a dinky little dwarf planet. (At least it has an appropriately eccentric orbit.) In her honor, I suggest going bowling, eating hotdogs (especially tomorrow), or generally doing something chaotic. Initiates can go here, and click randomly in the table of contents.

Via Pharyngula, the Bad Astronomy blog finds a wingnut who thinks that this naming choice is... a vicious liberal attack on George W. Bush. His argument is based on the fact that the Caltech is in California and therefore must be a major liberal enclave. I would like to propose a slightly more plausible theory, in which the game Illuminati is an accurate representation of world affairs, and the Discordian Society has just added the IAU to their power structure.

September 2, 2006

Clarke group research in Physics Today

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:35 PM

I'm late noticing this, but the August issue of Physics Today has an article (subscription required) about axion detection experiments, which mentions some work being done in the Clarke group:

An amplifier whose noise temperature approaches the quantum limit would dramatically improve the sensitivty and search rate of the axion experiment. To achieve that goal, our collaborator John Clarke and his coworkers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a new amplifier based on a microstrip-coupled superconducting quantum interference device in 1996. Unlike the noise behavior of heterojunction transistor amplifiers at low temperatures, the intrinsic noise of the SQUID is proportional to the physical temperature, the origin being thermal noise in shunt resistors across the SQUID's Josephson junctions. Cooling reduces the noise until it flattens out within 50% of the quantum limit. Newer SQUID designs with micro-cooling fins that enhance the coupling of electrons to the lattice are pushing these devices closer still to the quantum limit.

Unfortunately the full article is only available to subscribers, but those of you who are APS members can check it out. The quantum-limited amplifier is pretty cool and some groups are looking at using it for qubit experiments as well. Ironically, the vacuum pumps required to cool this low-noise amplifier are really loud, and so having to work in the same room as this experiment is sort of annoying.

Permalink | Tags: Lab, Physics, Science

August 27, 2006

Science apparel

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:28 PM

Stick figure webcomic xkcd, which was discussed in a recent open thread, is now selling t-shirts. The first one is excellent; I can't decide if the second is cute or just sad (speaking as someone who sometimes needs to make the clarification written on said shirt).

Since this post is too short, here are some other science-oriented webcomic shirts: Music + Science = Sexy from Questionable Content, and Professor Science from Dinosaur Comics.

August 22, 2006

Types of laboratory scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:49 PM

Via Syaffolee, an over-the-top but amusing list of personality types one encounters in a science lab. In fact, I believe I've met most of these people. I've put a lot of effort into not becoming #5 (the obsessive perfectionist with no life), but this probably just makes me closest to #1 (the antisocial weirdo)—although my personal hygiene isn't that bad and I've been more social lately. Of course it's not an exhaustive list, so maybe I need to add to it:

7. The Blogger
He seems quiet, but he's actually telling the world about the latest lab mishaps on the Internet. These scientists prefer highly automated experiments so as to spend more time surfing the web. They're good with computers and publicizing results to a broad audience. They are communicative provided the medium is e-mail or IM, and happy to come to parties if there's a proper Evite or MySpace announcement. If the network goes down they are likely to display withdrawal symptoms.

August 21, 2006

Dark Matter

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:03 PM

Recently (I think during my Connecticut visit) I was talking to somebody about whether dark matter is real, or just a kind of fudge factor reflecting something we don't understand about gravity. It turns out there's recent evidence that strongly points to the former case—there really is a lot of weakly-interacting stuff out there that can't be explained by modifying general relativity. Sean Carroll explains at Cosmic Variance.

August 16, 2006

Cuts from Team Planet

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:02 PM

It seems that some astronomers, perhaps lacking cryogens to play with, have been wasting their time on one of the dumbest controversies of the modern era: whether Pluto is technically a planet. Personally, I don't care very much. Tiny Pluto with its elongated and tilted orbit always seemed awkwardly tacked on to the list of planets anyway, and if it doesn't make whatever arbitrary cutoff the astronomers pick, I won't miss it.

However, the passion with which Pluto's status is defended in some quarters is astounding. Do people really attach such emotional weight to the issue? Maybe that glorified snowball has kind of an underdog appeal, or perhaps it's a laudable impulse not to throw the weird one out of the clubhouse. As scientists, however, we must be objective (ha!) and this post lays out the very convincing anti-Pluto case.

(Via Making Light, which quotes a sensible comment from one of Berkeley's own astronomers: “I am not attending the I.A.U. meeting, nor do I care about the outcome of any vote about whether Pluto and Xena are ‘planets.’”)

August 15, 2006

Measurements of gravity using cryogens [Updated]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:00 PM

This is what Chad Orzel refers to as a True Lab Story:

Condensed matter labs such as ours receive frequent deliveries of liquid nitrogen in one- or two-hundred liter dewars. Unfortunately, most of the Berkeley cond-mat labs are in Birge Hall, which has no loading dock, so that the LN2 dewars arrive on the first floor of neighboring LeConte where they must be wheeled over to their destination by some low-seniority student. Since the Berkeley campus is on a hill, the loading dock at the back of the building is one floor higher than the other entrances to LeConte and all the entrances to Birge. One can push the dewar around the outside of LeConte, but a shorter route is to take the elevator down one floor and go out the side door.

Yesterday the LeConte elevator was out of order, which for most of us would have meant taking the long way around. However, one undergrad, tasked with transporting a full 230L dewar, simply decided to take the stairs.

At about 80% the density of water, 230 liters of liquid nitrogen weighs about 400 pounds, not counting the additional weight of the steel vessel containing it. When rolled onto the stairs, the dewar promptly tipped over and plummeted downward on its side, knocking deep gouges in the marble steps and dragging along the unfortunate student, who inexplicably held on as his cargo began to tumble. Miraculously both student and dewar arrived at the landing without rupturing, but the dewar was still on its side and pressure was building up.

This was the situation when we got the frantic call from the building manager; once enough of us arrived at the scene we were able to pull the dewar upright and release the pressure. This averted any imminent explosion, but now we had a different problem: 400 pounds of liquid nitrogen stranded on a landing between the ground and first floors. Suggestions were floated including emptying the nitrogen out the nearby window, but ultimately we found another dewar which was wheeled to the top of the stairs on the first floor, and the nitrogen was transferred there through a long hose. The empty dewar was then carried up the stairs, a task requiring four men and gouging new (but shallower) grooves in the staircase.

Recalling what happens when a LN2 cylinder does rupture, it's the general consensus that this student is lucky to have survived and LeConte Hall is lucky to still have a staircase.

Photos below the fold [updated with photo of wall damage]:

Continue reading "Measurements of gravity using cryogens [Updated]"
Permalink | Tags: Lab, Photos, Physics, Science

August 9, 2006

Corrections large and small

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:41 PM

Last night I was struggling to reconcile several different measurements of our SQUID's critical current when I saw (via Rob Knop) that astronomers are revising their own estimates of the age of the universe.

This made me feel better, because I just had to account for a few hundred nanoamps and not a couple billion years. On the other hand, their percentage correction was smaller...

August 7, 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:24 PM

Since I tagged archived posts for the past year, I've put the category listing in the sidebar under the monthly archives. I may tweak the formatting some. I'd also like to tag posts further back in the archive—at least as far as the beginning of 2005—but it may not happen immediately.

I guess it's been a while since I posted an open thread, partly due to not having much to review lately and partly due to pure negligence. I need to listen to some new CDs so that I can get back to my usual schedule of posting reviews. (The new Sunset Rubdown album is good on first listen; I'll probably review it next week.)

An Inconvenient Truth: I finally got around to seeing Berkeley's most popular date movie, in which Al Gore delivers a Powerpoint talk on global warming. I'm not someone who needs convincing at this point, but I was curious to see what he had to say. Maybe it's just that I've seen too many scientific Powerpoint talks, but I thought it was rather disorganized—it seemed to jump around between different topics without a clear direction. The film is interspersed with vignettes from Gore's life, to explain why he's taken up this particular issue; I thought these were mostly just distracting, but for a popular audience maybe it helps humanize the issue. Visually the film is sometimes very compelling (especially the section showing various major cities flooding as the sea level rises—there's a GMaps app where you can try this yourself) but sometimes a little too twee (the polar bear, the frog). Gore is optimistic that global warming can be solved through what seemed like relatively minor improvements in energy efficiency and emissions reduction. Maybe this kind of ending is necessary to convince people the problem can be solved at all, but I'm much more pessimistic. Rating: 2.5/5

Metroid Prime: Hunters: I'm catching up on all those DS games now that I can play them. Unlike the Gamecube predecessors in the Metroid Prime series, this installment is focused much more on deathmatch than exploration. In the single-player mode the various maps are often clearly just the deathmatch levels stitched together, and the layout is more straightforward than is typical for a Metroid game. Combat is faster and more dynamic than in earlier Prime games as well. There's a steep learning curve for the stylus/d-pad control scheme, but once I got used to it I was suprised at how well I could move and aim. The game's biggest flaw is the bosses: a game this combat-oriented should have appropriately interesting boss fights, but instead of coming up with eight different enemies it keeps repeating the same two with slightly different capabilities. Apart from this, the single-player game is pretty solid. Now I just need to round up some opponents for the multiplayer. Rating: 3.5/5

August 3, 2006

Long-running experiments, or, sub-optimal thesis topics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:43 PM

I'm still catching up on my reading—this is from a Boing Boing post yesterday, so you may have seen it already. Anyway: three very long-running physics experiments. I had read about the pitch drop experiment before, but the others were new to me.

Unmentioned is the fact that the flood levels of the River Nile have been measured for thousands of years, providing the lowest-frequency data on 1/f noise in existence.

July 25, 2006

Mars, bitches!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:32 AM

Politics is everything with the Bush Administration, and in the latest effort to bring the government in line with the new political correctness, we have:

Earth dropped from NASA mission statement

NASA has reportedly eliminated the promise "to understand and protect our home planet" from its mission statement.

That statement was repeatedly cited last winter by NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who said he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

But NASA officials told The New York Times the elimination of the phrase that was used by Hansen was "pure coincidence." The statement now proclaims the agency's mission is "to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research."

I suspect the change is not directly related to Hansen, but rather, as the article mentions,
One observer noted results from NASA's increasing involvement in monitoring the Earth's environment have sparked political disputes concerning the Bush administration's environmental policies.

In other words, it's part of the "ignore it and maybe it'll go away" approach to global warming. (Via Warren Ellis.)

July 24, 2006

Santorum on scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:51 PM

Relatively few scientists are Republicans, but there are days when I wonder why there are any at all. Here's a quote from the reliably asinine Rick Santorum:

“[M]ost scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this [embryonic stem cell research], and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It’s a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.”

I'm used to hearing that atheists are amoral, but hearing this said about scientists is new to me. Well, maybe Santorum doesn't think there's much of a difference. However, it's a pretty sure bet that scientists have a higher approval rating than he does at the moment.

(Via Rob Knop via Mixed States.)

July 19, 2006

Bush vetoes stem-cell bill

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:37 PM

What an asshole. He finally locates his veto stamp halfway through his second term—I'm guessing he was carrying it around in his ass like the watch in Pulp Fiction—and he uses it to crush the hopes of people suffering from illness, all in the name of a completely incoherent claim about morality. (Not to mention the damage to scientific research in the U.S., but in that area it's just the latest in a long line of offenses.) The description of the event makes me physically ill. From the CNN article:

Attending the White House event were a group of families with children who were born from "adopted" frozen embryos that had been left unused at fertility clinics.

"These boys and girls are not spare parts," he said of the children in the audience. "They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small collection of cells."

All this does is emphasize the total incoherence of Bush's position. Unused embryos are destroyed all the time at fertility clinics. If Bush really believed what he claims to believe here, he'd close all these clinics down. It's certainly good that he's not doing that, but it means that this veto isn't a principled moral stand but a crass sell-out. Fuck you, Bush.

Democrats should make sure no one forgets about this veto. Stem-cell research is very popular and any Republican who opposed this bill should never hear the end of it. I can't say I'll be surprised if the Dems don't take advantage of this opportunity, but I can always hope.

July 10, 2006

Singing Sand Solved

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:58 PM

An interesting paper appeared in PRL a few days ago on the phenomenon of "singing sand" (I've also heard it called "booming sand"). Sand dunes in certain locales are known to produce sounds at particular frequencies, with the frequency apparently depending only on the size of the grains of sand. One can take a sample of sand out of the dunes (perhaps in Capt. Sparrow's jar of dirt) and reproduce the sound from it. This was a classic modeling problem in Caltech's Ph 11 class, but in this PRL the researchers actually did some experiments and found that the sand produces self-synchronized waves.

Song of the Dunes as a Self-Synchronized Instrument

S. Douady, A. Manning, P. Hersen, H. Elbelrhiti, S. Protière, A. Daerr, and B. Kabbachi

Since Marco Polo it has been known that some sand dunes have the peculiar ability to emit a loud sound with a well-defined frequency, sometimes for several minutes. The origin of this sustained sound has remained mysterious, partly because of its rarity in nature. It has been recognized that the sound is not due to the air flow around the dunes but to the motion of an avalanche, and not to an acoustic excitation of the grains but to their relative motion. By comparing singing dunes around the world and two controlled experiments, in the laboratory and the field, we prove that the frequency of the sound is the frequency of the relative motion of the sand grains. Sound is produced because moving grains synchronize their motions. The laboratory experiment shows that the dune is not needed for sound emission. A velocity threshold for sound emission is found in both experiments, and an interpretation is proposed.

Some things never change

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:04 PM

If quotes are too verbal, you can vote on your favorite fundamental constant at Uncertain Principles. Naturally I put a word in for Φ0.

June 20, 2006

Publication: Quantum theory of three-junction flux qubit with non-negligible loop inductance: Towards scalability

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:37 AM

Here's the latest publication on Clarke group qubit research, which appeared in Physical Review B at the end of May. Normally I give a non-technical explanation in these posts, but this paper is entirely devoted to working out gory technical details. It essentially goes through how to calculate a priori the properties of the flux qubits that I've written about previously. This calculation had been done for "small" qubit loops—small being defined in terms of the loop inductance but corresponding to a few microns on a side—our qubits are much larger than this (100 microns) and so we needed to figure out the more general solution.

The vast majority of the work in this paper was done by T. L. Robertson; my primary contribution was checking the math and the Mathematica code.

Quantum theory of three-junction flux qubit with non-negligible loop inductance: Towards scalability

T. L. Robertson, B. L. T. Plourde, P. A. Reichardt, T. Hime, C.-E. Wu, and John Clarke
Phys. Rev. B 73, 174526 (2006)

The three-junction flux qubit (quantum bit) consists of three Josephson junctions connected in series on a superconducting loop. We present a numerical treatment of this device for the general case in which the ratio betaQ of the geometrical inductance of the loop to the kinetic inductance of the Josephson junctions is not necessarily negligible. Relatively large geometric inductances allow the flux through each qubit to be controlled independently with on-chip bias lines, an essential consideration for scalability. We derive the three-dimensional potential in terms of the macroscopic degrees of freedom, and include the possible effects of asymmetry among the junctions and of stray capacitance associated with them. To find solutions of the Hamiltonian, we use basis functions consisting of the product of two plane wave states and a harmonic oscillator eigenfunction to compute the energy levels and eigenfunctions of the qubit numerically. We present calculated energy levels for the relevant range of betaQ. As betaQ is increased beyond 0.5, the tunnel splitting between the ground and first excited states decreases rapidly, and the device becomes progressively less useful as a qubit.

June 19, 2006

Quantum wiki

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:44 PM

Via Mason, some guys at Caltech have set up a quantum information wiki intended for the research community. I added a page for myself, a stub page for the Clarke group, and updated their list of blogs to include this page and Mixed States. At the moment there's not much there from the solid state angle, so I may be back to contribute a bit more.

June 14, 2006

Planetary infestations

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:58 PM

Stephen Hawking proposes that humans need to begin colonizing other planets in order to ensure the survival of the species. Now, I don't normally approve of beating up a man in a wheelchair, but I definitely enjoyed the verbal thrashing delivered to Hawking by Chris Clarke:

Let’s say you had a horrible cockroach infestation, and the bugs were trashing your house, spreading filth and eating the bindings of your irreplaceable antique books and breeding profligately and an electrician came to you one day and told you that they were eating your circuit breaker insulation, and you needed to do something about it or your house would burn down.

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction would not be to put a bunch of roaches in a Tupperware container and then release them into a neighbor’s house so that the species would live on.

We are the problem here.

The whole post is definitely worth reading.

Permalink | Tags: Science, Space, The Future

June 13, 2006

Helium is the sweetest of the noble gases.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:12 PM

Slate worries about the dangers of helium. Yes, innocent, inert helium. Apparently, you might pass out and hit your head on something. Maybe next Slate will do an article on the threat of the liquid phase, on the grounds that it's really cold. I once took a spray of liquid helium full in the face—it was cool and refreshing!

Permalink | Tags: Lab, Randomness, Science

May 17, 2006

Total Request Blog: My research in a nearby possible world

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:23 PM

In the requests thread, Kyle asks: If you had to research in a different area than you are now, what would it be? It can be as different as you want, but can't be too similar. At the least you have to be publishing in entirely different journals.

This is an easy one: philosophy of science. I took several great philosophy courses at Caltech (which you might imagine had a scientific focus in its philosophy department) and got really interested in issues of what science is and why it works. I still think about these topics in idle moments and I could definitely see myself doing research in this field if I hadn't gone for something more practical and experimental. Indeed, many of you have had to sit through my digressions on problems like the grue paradox (sometimes presented in Dinosaur Comics form). Imagine if I could get paid to do this—although I'd have to write serious papers, unless there's a Journal of Philosophical Letters as Presented by T-Rex. The downside is that I wouldn't get to play with expensive high-frequency electronics with lots of buttons, and having qubits to experiment on is pretty cool.

April 25, 2006

The physics of Built To Spill

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:44 PM

And while I'm thinking about timescales, yesterday iTunes reminded me of the relevant Built To Spill song, "Randy Described Eternity". The song starts out like this:

Every thousand years
this metal sphere
ten times the size of Jupiter
floats just a few yards past the earth
and take a swipe at it
with a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
til you've worn it down
to the size of a pea
Yeah I'd say that's a long time
but it's only half a blink
in the place you're gonna be

It's a cool metaphor, but the physicist in me has a few questions for this Randy guy if I ever run into him:
1. Wouldn't the gravity of the metal sphere crush the Earth into a thin paste? Or crush itself into a neutron star? Jupiter's diameter is 142,984 km, so the volume of the sphere in the song is about 1.5x1027 m3. Assuming the metal is iron near room temperature, and without accounting for gravitational compression, the mass of the sphere is 1.2x1031 kg, or 6 solar masses. I believe this is actually a little bit above the threshold to become not a neutron star but a black hole. On the other hand, maybe "size" means volume rather than radius, so that the mass is only 6% of a solar mass. In this case I don't think it turns into a neutron star, but gravity at the surface is still formidable. A quick calculation yields about 338 times Earth's gravity (at the surface of each object), unless I made a mistake.
2. Even ignoring the gravitational binding, would a swipe from a feather be enough to knock a non-zero number of atoms off the sphere? Maybe I could model this but it seems slightly difficult. Someone should do an experiment with a feather, some iron, and an atomic force microscope (or similar instrument).
3. Suppose the feather does knock some atoms off the sphere. Where do they go? If the metal sphere has gravity, of course they'll accrete right back onto the sphere. But if not, won't they pile up on the Earth? Given the size of the sphere that could be a problem. On the other hand, if there's magically no gravity from the sphere, maybe the individual atoms won't be affected by Earth's gravity either and they'll fly off into space.
4. Won't the momentum imparted by the feather strikes affect the motion of the sphere over time, as well as the motion of the Earth? Will the thousand-year period change after enough swipes?

Clearly this song raises more questions than it answers. If I ever teach an elementary physics course, I should totally assign a problem based on these lyrics.

Permalink | Tags: Music, Physics, Science

Slow and fast timescales

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:58 PM

Having just finished reading Spin (which I reviewed below) I found myself thinking about timescales. The novel did a good job of bringing long timescales into perspective, but what about short ones? In the book, the ratio between Earth time and solar time was about 108, one hundred million years outside the earth to each year in the Spin, or 3.17 years every second. This was an enormous ratio, with any timescale relevant to human civilization passing by in less than a day. It was mind-boggling to read about in the book. But I realized that I was sitting in the lab doing a diagnostic measurement in which I watched the response of a SQUID to an applied microwave field, and my software was acquiring about one point every second, at nanosecond resolution. That's a ratio of 109, ten times greater than the ratio in Spin. I usually don't think much about how long a nanosecond is, but it's really astonishingly short—as far removed from normal human timescales as stellar lifetimes.

It's not just in my lab—with gigahertz processors in wide usage, much of modern technology runs on nanosecond timescales. (And Windows still manages to be frustratingly slow at times, with billions of clock ticks in a second to work with.) Faster timescales are a bit harder to get to, at least in semiconductor electronics. The pulse generator I use in qubit experiments has a time resolution of 5 picoseconds, which always impresses me until I remember that the accuracy is only 250 ps. There's some research into a faster electronics technology using superconducting circuits and flux quantization, called Rapid Single Flux Quantum (RSFQ), which I believe gets to picosecond timescales. Berkeley professor emeritus Ted Van Duzer has been involved in this.

Anyway, I'm not sure I have much more insight into fast timescales than slow ones, but at least they're more accessible.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Life, Physics, Science

April 24, 2006

Serial psychoceramics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:06 PM

How not to earn credibility for your crackpot physics theories: spam them to physics graduate students, in paragraph-sized pieces sent every few hours, with subject lines like "Stephen Hawking died Today". And ask for monetary donations. For your amusement, here is the latest installment in the continuing series:

Subject: Stephen Hawking died Today (4-24-06)

The number two search Yahoo (4-24-06) result for "wave-particle duality" http://alpha.qmul.ac.uk/~zgap118/ states that:

"Light is a deformation of electric (E) and magnetic (B) fields in an area of space."

Maxwell states that light is not a substance but a process going on in an ether which forms an electromagnetic wave structure of light (Maxwell, vol 2, p. 765). Maxwell's ether does not exist in a vacuum yet light propagates in a vacuum which is proof that Maxwell's structure of light does not physically exist.

Maxwell's structure of light is represented with a continuous electromagnetic field structure where the planes perpendicular to the axis of propagation form a continuous electromagnetic field structure. A finite segment of the electromagnetic plane, of Maxwell's structure of light, forms an infinite number of positions. Each position, on the electromagnetic plane, forms an electric field; consequently, an infinite number of electric fields forms an infinite total energy. Maxwell's structure of light is not physically possible.

Maxwell, James. "The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell". Dover Pub. vol. 2. Edited by W.D. Niven. 1965.

I think at a minimum one should try to pass calculus before trying to overthrow Maxwell. I'd be eagerly awaiting the next episode (due sometime this evening) but I already instructed Thunderbird as to the appropriate destination of these messages.

April 20, 2006

The pro wrestling school of abstract composition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:25 AM

Via Christine Dantas: Now this is an abstract. From astro-ph/0604410:

Occam's razor meets WMAP Authors: Joao Magueijo, Rafael D. Sorkin
Using a variety of quantitative implementations of Occam's razor we examine the low quadrupole, the axis of evil'' effect and other detections recently made appealing to the excellent WMAP data. We find that some razors {\it fully} demolish the much lauded claims for departures from scale-invariance. They all reduce to pathetic levels the evidence for a low quadrupole (or any other low $\ell$ cut-off), both in the first and third year WMAP releases. The axis of evil'' effect is the only anomaly examined here that survives the humiliations of Occam's razor, and even then in the category of strong'' rather than `decisive'' evidence. Statistical considerations aside, differences between the various renditions of the datasets remain worrying.
Yes! I need to write more papers which use words like "demolish", "pathetic", and "humiliations" when describing the effects of my research on competing theories. Also, I am not sure whether I am amused or horrified that there is an "axis of evil" effect in astrophysics. (According to the paper this is "the embarrassing statistical anisotropy exhibited on the largest angular scales" in CMB data.) Who knew Bush was making contributions to this field?

April 10, 2006

Colloquium Blogging: Silly Edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:05 PM

Today's colloquium was Steve Chu, Nobelist and director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, giving an account of his biophysics experiments. However, rather than report on this I'm going to share a thought I had in the middle of the talk. At one point he was describing a standard optical tweezers technique in which ribosomes are engineered to stick to a tiny glass bead, which can then be manipulated with a laser beam. I was thinking there was something familiar about this, and I realized you could make a game out of it in which you have a biological sample with lots of components designed to stick to the bead, and then roll the bead around with the laser beam to pick them up... yes! Optical Trap Katamari Damacy!

On the other hand, I don't think the King of All Cosmos would be impressed by a 3 μm katamari.

Permalink | Tags: Colloquia, Games, Physics, Science

April 4, 2006

Innovations in Masculinity Quantification

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:33 PM

Chad Orzel directs us to Dylan Stiles, who demonstrates what bored Stanford chemists do with laboratory equipment. The Man-O-Meter Challenge is unlikely to catch on in this lab, since most of our pressure gauges are permanently attached to vacuum systems, and don't measure overpressure anyway. However, considering my winning record at Lloyd House blow-pong, I expect I would do quite well at this. (This is probably not something I should admit.) I wish I had a comparable story to tell from our lab, but while we have been known to misuse tools such as the implement we refer to as the Grabby Hand of Science, we've never accomplished a repurposing quite as interesting as the Man-O-Meter.

Also, I don't think I'd heard the term "manometer" before; we always just say "pressure gauge". Is that nomenclature a chemistry thing?

March 29, 2006

Wednesday Schrodinger's Cat Blogging: Coupled Qubits

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:45 PM

The slides for my March Meeting talk, "Variable Coupling of Two Flux Qubits", are now available online. As promised, below the fold is a non-technical explanation of the results presented there. This work builds on the single-qubit work, about which I posted in August; it may be helpful to review that post before reading the following.

Continue reading "Wednesday Schrodinger's Cat Blogging: Coupled Qubits"

March 20, 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:24 PM

My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I'm recovering—it was a busy week.

V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn't be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he's morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he's fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.

The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It's refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don't think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.

As for the film qua action movie, it's generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.

Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)

David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein's effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don't think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.

In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn't quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it's still pretty good. The major single seems to be "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but several others are equally good, like "Fake Tales of San Francisco".

March 10, 2006

More Postdoc Commentary

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:32 PM

Since this is becoming a theme around here, I'm linking to another perspective on the postdoc experience, this one embedded in a rant about public perceptions of scientists.

This is not reality. If you want to do science, you're in the lab. You're in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?

The underlying point seems to be that the academic career path selects for scientists who are dedicated and intellectually rigorous, although this is not explicitly stated. The author's "job description" for a neuroscience postdoc is amusing. (Via Pharyngula.)

March 9, 2006

Innovations in LN2 Storage

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:13 AM

It sounds like an Aggie joke: a Texas A&M chemistry lab had a liquid nitrogen tank with a leaky pressure relief valve, so some clever individual solved the problem by replacing the valve with a metal plug. This ultimately transformed the chemistry lab into a rocketry lab.

The cylinder had been standing at one end of a ~20' x 40' laboratory on the second floor of the chemistry building. It was on a tile covered 4-6" thick concrete floor, directly over a reinforced concrete beam. The explosion blew all of the tile off of the floor for a 5' radius around the tank turning the tile into quarter sized pieces of shrapnel that embedded themselves in the walls and doors of the lab. The blast cracked the floor but due to the presence of the supporting beam, which shattered, the floor held. Since the floor held the force of the explosion was directed upward and propelled the cylinder, sans bottom, through the concrete ceiling of the lab into the mechanical room above. It struck two 3 inch water mains and drove them and the electrical wiring above them into the concrete roof of the building, cracking it. The cylinder came to rest on the third floor leaving a neat 20" diameter hole in its wake. The entrance door and wall of the lab were blown out into the hallway, all of the remaining walls of the lab were blown 4-8" off of their foundations. All of the windows, save one that was open, were blown out into the courtyard.

Fortunately no one was working in the lab at 3 am when it went off, so no one was hurt. However, this certainly redefines the concept of blowing up the lab. I'll have to keep this story in reserve in case I need to explain an accident to my advisor. "Did you hear about the guys at A&M who plugged their nitrogen tank and destroyed the building? Aren't you glad I only broke a vacuum pump?"

March 6, 2006

Colloquium Blogging: Steve Koonin on the Energy Situation

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:57 PM

Some of you know Steve Koonin from his days as Caltech's provost. He's now chief scientist at BP International, and gave the colloquium at Berkeley today under the title "A Physicist's View of the World's Energy Situation". The talk was extremely interesting and seemed like a very realistic assessment. Some of the points I took away (in a bit of random order):

• Koonin estimates peak oil in about 30 years. Asked about the more alarmist estimates of 10-20 years, he basically says that BP has better data about the oil supply.
• On the other hand, there is 200 years worth of coal left in the ground.
• Coal is the worst fossil fuel for carbon emissions, but technologies exist to mitigate this.
• Oil in the US is mostly used for transportation, coal and natural gas for electric power.
• Energy use in transportation is very inefficient, but efficiency needs to be coupled to conservation: car engines improved efficiency by about 25% in the 90's but most of this went into heavier and faster cars rather than better gas mileage.
• Koonin first downplayed the evidence for climate change, then stated that he is 90% confident that it is happening and went on to treat it as a serious issue.
• However, based on projected fossil fuel use he feels that large quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100 are unavoidable, and we should focus on adaptation rather than prevention.
• Renewable energy is very far from being a realistic replacement for fossil fuels.
• There are two large numbers relevant to global energy use: the per capita energy consumption in developed countries (the USA is an outlier, but other developed countries are within a factor of two) and the population of developing countries. Efforts by Europe, the US, and Japan to control emissions only offset the effects of growth in China, India, etc. by a few years.
• The word "fusion" did not appear in the talk. A number of questioners brought it up and Koonin stated that it was at least 50 years away from replacing fossil fuels. "First you have to get it to work."
• In the extreme long run (200+ years, once fossil fuels are exhausted) Koonin predicts fusion and solar will be the dominant energy sources. Currently solar is much more expensive than almost all other sources of energy, but this is a materials problem and can potentially be solved.

The talk will eventually appear here as a webcast. I've been increasingly interested in energy issues lately and I found it to be a fascinating look at how the oil companies (or at least one of them) look at these things. Next week while I'm traveling I'll read Out of Gas and see what Koonin's fellow Caltech prof David Goodstein has to say about this. (Goodstein is clearly more pessimistic.)

March 5, 2006

Postdoc unionization

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:30 PM

Some excellent comments have been posted on my earlier entry regarding working in science and the gender gap. Much more insightful than what I wrote. On a related subject, I find via The Daily Transcript an article in Science describing moves towards unionization of postdocs. Berkeley is naturally one of the schools at the vanguard of this movement. The article is very positive towards this development and describes some significant improvements in conditions at one school (the University of Connecticut Health Center) that has unionized.

I think this is probably a good idea. The way postdocs are currently used as cheap labor strikes me as tremendously exploitative, and a union could alleviate this. Of course this will ultimately mean that it's more expensive to hire postdocs, and funding scientific endeavors will likewise become more expensive. But as a society we're willing to pay more for clothing that's not produced in sweatshops—we should also be willing to pay more for science that's not produced by overworked and underpaid scientists.

There is one problem that comes to mind, though: much of what currently drives the exploitation of postdocs is the scarcity of top-tier academic jobs in science, and the corresponding pressure to produce high-quality publications during the postdoc period. So you will get a lot of people who aren't willing to, say, go on strike, because they need to be taking data in order to advance their case for a tenure-track job. I'm not sure how to get around this.

March 3, 2006

"Why does anyone think science is a good job?"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:31 AM

Uncertain Principles links to an essay proposing a novel explanation for why there are so few women in science: jobs in science are terrible in terms of pay, working conditions, and job security, and women are put off by this.

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.
I don't buy it as an explanation for the gender gap: it doesn't explain the vast gender disparities between different fields within science. Women are being deterred from working in physics but not biology, and as far as I can tell everything that is said in this essay about science in general applies to both fields. On the other hand, it's good commentary on the serious downsides of pursuing a career as an academic scientist.

March 1, 2006

Mathematical Fashions

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:30 PM

While we toil away on our experiments in Birge Hall, the works of our mathematical colleagues in neighboring Evans become ever more mysterious.

The Sarong Theorem Archive: This page is an electronic archive of images of people proving theorems while wearing sarongs.

So what theorem would you choose when preparing a photo for this page? I would go with the proof of the error bound on Simpson's Rule, but I should give Mason first dibs on that.

Via Bitch, Ph.D.

February 27, 2006

A different take on quantum cuteness [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:32 PM

First, a follow-up link to the quantum interrogation post: Sean at Cosmic Variance explains the experiment in layman's terms. I'm guessing he wrote this post immediately after reading Cute Overload.

Anyway, it's now time to review the album I've been playing incessantly the last three weeks. No, not Loveless, the other one.

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit: I am hardly an unbiased source on this band, so when I say that the album is awesome you will probably not be surprised. At least I can say how it stands in relation to the other B&S records, which is what I spent the first ten or so plays trying to figure out. In general it has a somewhat different sound from their previous work. There's still the sunny mood that ran through most of Dear Catastrophe Waitress (in fact the word "sun" appears in two of the song titles), but without the orchestral feel that characterized the earlier LP's production. From a production perspective, it sounds fairly novel for this band. I'm not sure how I would descibe this new sound, but it's quite appealing and a good match for the themes of the album.

It feels very cohesive compared to Waitress (in which they seemed to be experimenting with various styles on the different tracks)—these songs flow into each other very smoothly, and when "Act of the Apostle II" picks up the theme from its predecessor halfway through, it feels completely natural despite the fact that the first "Act of the Apostle" played ten tracks earlier. This is not to say that there's no variety; "Dress Up In You", which sounds like an old-school B&S song, is sandwiched between "The Blues Are Still Blue" and "Sukie In The Graveyard", both of which are far peppier than is typical for this band.

On just about every Belle & Sebastian CD I've bought, there's been one song that I've fallen in love with and played to excess. Joining "Your Cover's Blown", "If She Wants Me", "String Bean Jean", and "Like Dylan in the Movies" is "The Blues Are Still Blue" from this record. I'm not sure what it is about this particular song (maybe the cowbell) but I can't get enough of it. Other highlights are "Funny Little Frog", "Another Sunny Day", and "Sukie in the Graveyard".

The iTunes version of this album offers two bonus tracks, neither of which is particularly essential. "Meat and Potatoes" sounds as if it was written for the Dr. Demento show, and "I Took A Long Hard Look" is forgettable. (Apparently these are also on the "Funny Little Frog" single.) Anyway, this only applies if you bought the CD but were considering getting the extra tracks; spend your $0.99 on "Your Cover's Blown" (from the Books EP) instead. February 23, 2006 Counterfactual computation Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:18 PM I've been neglecting the blog the last few days, in favor of things like data analysis. Although I might have preferred to be doing things like Half-Life 2 instead, the data came out very well, and you will certainly see it if you attend my March Meeting talk. In other quantum computing news, a group at UIUC has performed a very interesting experiment in which they combined quantum computing and quantum interrogation to get the result of a quantum algorithm without actually running it. (Via all over the place.) So at least one person will have a March Meeting talk that's much cooler than mine—for us "counterfactual computation" is when our qubits don't work—but in the spirit of quantum oneupsmanship I will note that my qubits are (allegedly) scalable. UPDATE: John Holbo speculates about technological advances that may follow from this. February 19, 2006 Battle of the [Energy] Bands Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:51 PM Oops, I meant to blog this a little bit earlier, but fortunately it's not too late: Chad Orzel is polling on the Greatest Physics Experiment from a set of eleven nominees (which have been described in some detail in earlier posts at Uncertain Principles). So go over there and vote! My endorsement is for Cavendish. (Also, I regret not nominating Onnes for the discovery of superconductivity.) Preliminary results are here. Permalink | Tags: Lists, Physics, Science February 13, 2006 Awesome Bible fact of the day Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:04 PM Via a comment at Crooked Timber, I learn that the Bible uses a unit of weight called the "homer", which, literally translated, means: "an ass-load". No, seriously: The word homer comes from a Hebrew word which means 'ass-load'. It may have been the amount that donkey could carry. The quail which fell in the wilderness were measured using the homer. The Homer or Cor contained 10 ephahs. Ezekiel 45:11,14 That would make it equal to about 6 bushels. So how many homers are there in a metric fuck-ton? Permalink | Tags: Randomness, Science, The Bible February 12, 2006 Darwin Day 2006 Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:28 PM Happy Darwin Day! After all the ID whack-a-mole lately, it seems especially significant this year. I'm not sure how to celebrate appropriately, but inkycircus has suggestions. Any others? Permalink | Tags: Evolution, Science February 8, 2006 Developments in FSM Cosmology Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:59 PM I meant to blog this story over the weekend, but was distracted by, um, football. Anyway: here's a pretty good illustration of why I said last week that the Bush administration should just stay away from science. So George Deutsch, an asshat Bush appointee (is that redundant?) to the public affairs office at NASA, took it upon himself to make sure that everything coming out of the agency was, well... "politically correct" would be a good term for it if it didn't have other connotations. This included trying to stop NASA's top climate scientist from speaking about global warming, and insisting that the Big Bang be referred to as "the Big Bang theory", because, like evolution, it's "just a theory". (I am pretty much the last science blogger to comment on this.) What happened next was sort of hilarious: a blogger discovered that Deutsch lied on his resume, claiming to have graduated from Texas A&M when in fact he never received a degree. This has resulted in Deutsch's subsequent resignation, which would be heartening if this administration weren't so good at finding even worse people to replace the ones who leave. And this would be why I'm suspicious of Bush's increased funding for physical science. How much of it is going to guys like Deutsch, or projects of which they would approve? (Is there a cosmological equivalent of Intelligent Design? Maybe The Onion's Intelligent Falling.) As has been pointed out by others, this administration just doesn't do policy. Everything is politics to them. UPDATE: I see we have nothing to worry about, now that Duke Cunningham's seat on the House subcommittee responsible for NASA's budget has been filled by... Tom DeLay. January 28, 2006 David Goodstein hits the Grim Meathook Lecture Circuit Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:22 PM Doug Natelson (via Mixed States) comments on a talk by Caltech prof David Goodstein. Goodstein is mostly known for bad physics puns, but is now brandishing a meathook and predicting the imminent end of civilization. Apparently he's written a book, Out of Gas, on the increasingly frightening subject of peak oil. Anyone know if the book is any good? I'm tempted to check it out, assuming he's foregone the puns this time. Permalink | Tags: Apocalypse, Caltech, Energy, Science January 26, 2006 Experimenting on my own software Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:16 PM On the software I use to run our qubit experiments, there is a checkbox labeled "Inverted Pulses". Two or possibly three years ago I added this feature to the software, so that the option is available to operate our readout scheme under the opposite electrical polarity. Normally our readout pulses go to positive voltage, but occasionally it is interesting to see what happens with negative voltage pulses. Ideally the behavior should be completely symmetric, but in practice there are asymmetries that should generate different results. But when I say "occasionally" I mean very occasionally; to the best of my recollection I used this feature for a couple of days after I installed it, and then never checked the box again. In the meantime I have added many other features to the increasingly bloated software, without caring very much whether they were compatible with the rarely-used inverted pulses. Of course, this has all come back to haunt me now that I again want to reverse the polarity on the readout pulses, and am faced with the question: Does the "Inverted Pulses" box still work? After some testing it's clear that the answer is "no", and furthermore it's not obvious why it ever worked. (The crucial command to the instrument contained a syntax error!) Or maybe it didn't ever work and I had forgotten this, or it was one of those pieces of software I wrote anticipating a potential experiment and then never actually used. I seem to have fixed the bugs, but there are still some quirks in the startup sequence that should probably be ironed out... (Since my former CS 1 TA reads this, I will remark that these problems could be avoided with properly documented and tested code. Ha! Unfortunately, the culture of experimental physics does not value properly documented and tested code. The culture of experimental physics values code which can be produced five minutes after a postdoc says, "Wouldn't it be interesting to try [a complicated new pulse sequence while sweeping over three separate parameters]?" And so three years later I'm looking at my own software wondering what the hell that switch does.) Permalink | Tags: Lab, Life, Science, Technology January 25, 2006 More Squid Apparel Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:39 PM This would be a good shirt to wear to my March Meeting talk, if t-shirts were appropriate attire. Oh well. Maybe my next group seminar, then. (Via Pharyngula, naturally.) Permalink | Tags: Randomness, Science January 21, 2006 Experimentalist bloggers and Joule heating Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:50 PM Yesterday Chad Orzel speculated about the relative absence of experimental physicists in the blogging community. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to comment until now, because I was busy working in the lab. (Actually we were gearing up for, and then undergoing, a major safety inspection. The inspectors, who were reminiscent of the consultants from Office Space, stood around trying to invent scenarios under which a graduate student could suffer oxygen deprivation folowing sudden helium vaporization in our dilution fridge.) Anyway, Chad's hypothesis was that theorists spend more time in front of computers on a daily basis, and thus blogging is just more convenient. This seems right to me: I'm one of the few condensed matter experimentalists who maintains a blog (and it probably helps that I'm a grad student rather than a postdoc or on the tenure track), and whether or not I have time to post mostly depends on how much time I'm spending on the computer, versus in front of an oscilloscope or soldering iron (or bolting power strips to desks two feet above the floor to satisfy safety inspectors). For a period of about 10 months last year, we did not have an experiment running as we were fabricating a new sample. And due to the division of labor among the grad students on this project, I was not closely involved with the fabrication process, and instead spent my time reading papers, writing papers and reports to funding agencies, writing software, designing circuits, and doing simulations. These were all computer-intensive activities, and I was able to get a fair amount of blogging done. For the last two months, however, we've been doing measurements on the chip we made last year, and I've spent a lot of time taking data, looking at scope traces, and reconfiguring wiring. Hence, I think up a bunch of posts over the week and write them up on Saturday night, which is a bit lame. Fortunately, I do frequently have the ability to post even under these conditions, due to the phenomenon of Joule heating: if a current I is applied to an electrical resistance at a voltage V heat will be dissipated at a rate equal to the product IV. Every time we make a measurement, we apply a current pulse to our device, which produces a voltage and a corresponding amount of heat. If this heat is allowed to accumulate on the chip, it will wipe out the quantum effects we're trying to study, so between each measurement we have to wait long enough for the chip to cool off. In practice, this means instead of taking a million measurements in a second we are reduced to about 2,000. Furthermore, to get good statistics and sweep over an interesting range of parameters we have to take a large number of measurements, so it turns out that to get interesting results we need to measure continuously for at least 12 hours. I've written an overly baroque computer program to automate all this, so once I know what I want to measure, I can push a button to start the experiment, do something else for a while (usually analyzing data from the previous run), and then collect all the data hours later (or the next day). (This is only when everything is working properly; otherwise it's back to the oscilloscope and wiring diagrams.) And in the gaps I can do a little blogging. These days, the trend in the superconducting qubit community is towards nondissipative readout—i.e., measurements which leave the device in the superconducting state and thus produce no heat. This might threaten to take away my blogging windows, except that it would also enable measurements that require even better statistics and broader sweeps, and so there will still be reasons to do 12- and 24-hour runs. (Actually, our record is about 48 hours, but we don't currently have the battery life to repeat that.) 2006 March Meeting Abstract Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:42 PM Less than two months remain before the APS March Meeting, which in terms of blogging means more short posts at odd hours, when I'm not in the lab trying to gather lots of last-minute data. Here's the abstract for my talk: Abstract: K40.00012 : Variable Coupling of Two Flux Qubits 5:06 PM–5:18 PM T. Hime, P.A. Reichardt, B.L.T. Plourde, T.L. Robertson, C.-E. Wu, A.V. Ustinov, John Clarke We report observations of variable coupling of two flux qubits. The qubits are coupled inductively to each other and to a readout Superconducting QUantum Interference Device (SQUID). By applying microwave radiation to the device, we observed resonant absorption in each of the qubits when the level splitting in the qubit matched the energy of the microwave photons. Using the two on-chip flux bias lines we adjusted the bias of each qubit so that the energy levels of the two qubits were equal; we then observed a splitting of the resulting absorption peak characteristic of coupling between the qubits. We varied the coupling between the qubits by changing the current bias in the SQUID in the zero voltage state, thereby changing its dynamic inductance and thus modifying the effective mutual inductance between the qubits. We compare the resulting changes in splitting with our predictions. This controllable coupling should be extendable to many qubits. I'll do a post explaining this in more detail around the time of my talk; some of this work is still, uh, "in progress". (In fact we have performed all the experiments mentioned in the abstract, but we are working on collecting more/better data.) The talk immediately before mine covers some other results from these experiments. December 25, 2005 363rd Newton's Birthday [Open Thread] Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:34 AM It's time once again for us to celebrate Newton's Birthday (which has a Wikipedia entry!). Some physics carols may be found here. Also check out that issue of Physics Today for physics songs. (Was it August '05? I don't have my collection here.) Enjoy the holidays! Here's an open thread. Permalink | Tags: History, Physics, Religion, Science December 24, 2005 The UC and national labs Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:03 PM The University of California, in partnership with Bechtel, has held on to the contract for management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. My thoughts: 1. I'm surprised the UC won the contract, given the recent political attacks on their management of LANL. However, I didn't know about the Bechtel partnership, which was undoubtedly a deciding factor. I don't know much about Bechtel, except that they're one of those huge corporations that always seems vaguely sinister. 2. Would the UC have been better off without managing LANL? Certainly there's some prestige that goes with it, but lately it seems more trouble than it's worth, with the UC having to fend off mostly trumped-up charges of financial irregularities and security breaches. Meanwhile, paranoia over these things is making life more annoying for those of us connected with other UC managed labs. (And I only have to deal with LBL, which is an unclassified lab—I'm sure it's even worse at Livermore or LANL itself.) Permalink | Tags: Politics, Science, UC Berkeley December 15, 2005 Tentacle Porn Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:48 PM Pharyngula has a post on squid sex. With diagrams and photos. Go on, click, you perverts. The SQUIDs I study never do this, although I have been studying qubit couplings for the past few weeks. The process is somewhat less titillating than actual squid getting it on, but when I have better data I may post about it anyway. (I named the two qubits Angelina and Brad in the hopes of encouraging them to couple; it seems to have worked.) Permalink | Tags: Science, Sex December 1, 2005 Science flees the country Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:36 PM The right-wing anti-science movement is succeeding in driving researchers to more rational nations: Fallout from the corruption of secular science by the Bush administration and its religious allies continues to pile up. The latest is a particularly harmful blow: Two of the world's best geneticists will leave the National Cancer Institute and move not to Stanford University, which had heavily recruited them, but to Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. The reason is simple: They will face far fewer restrictions on their research, which involves stem cells. (Via Pharyngula.) At a certain level it doesn't matter whether stem cell research is being done in the US or Singapore—science is a human endeavor, not a nationalistic one. But if there are scientists who feel they need to leave the country in order to work in this field, there are others who are choosing to work on other problems because there are so many barriers to stem cell biology. Not to mention that of the research institutions with the world-class infrastructure needed to do cutting-edge research, many are in the US and this infrastructure will be underutilized as a result. Bush's policies are slowing down the progress of the entire field, not just US science. On the other hand, this will have a deleterious effect on the US economy as biotech and medical companies relocate. One might think Bush's big-business allies would be uneasy about this, but one only need look at the US current account deficit to see that Bush's big-business allies aren't exactly taking the long view. November 28, 2005 Colloquium Blogging: Recent Neutrino Findings Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:21 PM Today's colloquium was Stuart Freedman on the latest results from KamLAND, one of the neutrino detection experiments. The experiment is basically a gigantic vat of liquid scintillator—an oil convenient for producing photons from exotic particles passing through—surrounded by high-efficiency photon detectors. Neutrinos are produced in huge quantities by the sun and nuclear reactors, but they rarely interact with matter, so to observe them one needs to construct a very large detector and wait for a while. I've always enjoyed following the neutrino experiments, since they came online about when I started to study physics, and since then they have made steady progress understanding this particle. It's a nice example of the incremental progress of science. Around my senior year in high school the story was "We've been assuming neutrinos are massless, but it's been suggested they do have mass and experiments are being constructed to look for it." (That was the year I went to IPhO, which was held in Sudbury, Canada, a town whose only distinction was that the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was being built there, so we heard a lot on this subject.) Over the next few years the line became "Neutrinos might have mass," then "Neutrinos probably have mass (but we don't know what it is)". And in today's colloquium, the word was: • Neutrinos totally have mass. There are three different varieties of neutrinos, named according to the lepton they're associated with in weak-force interactions: for example, the basic nuclear beta decay produces an electron and an electron neutrino. But KamLAND looked at neutrinos produced in this way by nuclear reactors, and found that neutrinos that start out as electron neutrinos oscillate between this type and the other two types (the mu and tau neutrinos). This can happen only if neutrinos are massive. • But we don't know what it is. Measurements on neutrino oscillations only tell you the relationship between the masses of the three types of neutrinos, and not the masses themselves. There are estimates of the actual masses based on this, but they are not very precise. • The electron, mu, and tau neutrinos are not mass eigenstates. Rather than having a single mass itself, the electron neutrino is actually a kind of mixture (technically, a superposition) of three neutrinos, each of which does have its own mass. The mass eigenstates have been creatively named ν1, ν2, and ν3. It's known approximately how much of each mass eigenstate is present in the electron, mu, and tau mixtures, but not how the masses are arranged—so ν3 could be the heaviest or the lightest. • There's still an undetermined parameter in neutrino mixing. It's a complex phase, and relates to a symmetry breaking? This is one of those things I'd be more informed about if I'd ever taken a course on the Standard Model. Freedman also spent some time on another angle of this experiment, in geophysics rather than fundamental physics. (I know I have some geophysicists reading, so you can correct me if I get this wrong.) There's a discrepancy between various estimates of the heat produced by the Earth, and one hypothesis (which is apparently not widely credited) is that the core of the Earth contains a natural nuclear reactor. Since KamLAND is built to detect neutrinos from man-made reactors, it could in principle look for one at the center of the planet as well. Except that KamLAND is (deliberately) built really close to a number of reactors in Japan, and any geophysical signal would be absolutely swamped by the signal from power plants. So in practice it looks like another detector would have to be built somewhere else to do this experiment. Permalink | Tags: Colloquia, Physics, Science November 27, 2005 Useful Physics Aggregators Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:34 PM Those of you who come here for the physics blogging (which has been somewhat absent of late) may be interested in a couple of links I found recently, via referrals and Technorati: Mixed States aggregates the RSS feeds of a number of physics blogs (including this one). Since the included bloggers are listed by their real name, it's a nice way to see who else in the community is blogging (although I didn't recognize any names that I knew from physics rather than from reading blogs). Coherence * is a blog reviewing work in superconducting quantum computing, something that should be useful to me professionally (perhaps more so than the cond-mat RSS feed, which is high volume and a bit tough to sort by topic). Above their blogroll they list professors working in the field, including former Clarke group member and current collaborator Britton Plourde, but strangely not John Clarke himself. (However, there are at least four of John's former students/postdocs there, among other familiar names.) November 15, 2005 Stringing along Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:18 PM Yesterday's colloquium was entitled "String Theory and Cosmology", usually a sign that I can safely spend that hour in the lab trying to get my qubits to work. If I had known that the speaker would be giving the talk from handwritten transparencies I definitely would have stayed away, figuring that the talk was so overly technical that Powerpoint couldn't handle it, and the speaker would be running through some incomprensible morass of equations and text that had been lifted from the Necronomicon and then translated a couple times by Babelfish. But fortunately I did go to the colloquium, which turned out to be pretty accessible. The speaker, Shamit Kachru, was very good and able to give sort of a hand-wavy outline of what string theorists are up to. String theory is a very difficult and jargon-heavy subject, and there was no way for him to get very technical without losing 95% of the audience (myself included), so I can't say that I gained much understanding of what string theories are actually about. However, I did at least grasp where the boundaries of knowledge are in this field, which I think can best be classified using the epistemological scheme invented by philosopher/poet Donald Rumsfeld: • Known knowns: The Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the behavior of particles in certain regimes (i.e. the experimentally accessible ones) to very high accuracy. And general relativity, which describes gravity in observable regimes. • Known unknowns: What gravity does at energies where it's comparable to the other three forces (it's normally much weaker). Also, various mathematical quirks and inconsistencies in the Standard Model. • Unknown knowns: Various string theories generate universes that look sort of like this one. But it's unknown whether any of them do describe the actual universe, because they only make interesting predictions at energies much higher than could possibly be tested. (I believe the number cited in the talk was 1017 GeV; the best accelerators run at 103 GeV.) The connection to cosmology in the talk was in trying to explain the origins of the universe using string theory; out of all of the potential verieties of theories, a few do make testable predictions on observable phenomena like the cosmic microwave background due to how they address the Big Bang. So if we're lucky enough to live in one of these universes, we could confirm it with certain astrophysical experiments. • Unknown unknowns: And then there's the possibilty that string theory isn't the right answer, but rather something no one's thought of yet. As Douglas Adams noted, "There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened." (String theory always reminds me of that quote.) Now, for serious string theory blogging you should be reading Cosmic Variance, since I don't really know much at all about the field beyond what can be communicated in an hour-long colloquium. However, I'm starting to understand why it's interesting. (Also, it turns out that the guys shambling down the halls around here muttering about "braaaaanes" aren't zombies but overworked string theorists. Oops.) I just discovered that there are videos of the colloquia on the physics department website, here, so you can actually watch this talk if you're interested. (It hasn't been posted yet but probably will be within a week.) Another good one from this semester was "Cycles in Fossil Diversity" by Rich Muller, which was a study of what causes species to thrive or die out at apparently regular intervals in Earth's history. Permalink | Tags: Colloquia, Physics, Science November 14, 2005 Clarke group research in ScienceMatters@Berkeley Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:25 PM My advisor was profiled in the latest issue of ScienceMatters@Berkeley, an online UCB publication written by Boing Boing's David Pescovitz. Most of you know about my work on the qubit project; the ScienceMatters article also covers some of the other research in the group. UPDATE: It's pretty cool to see one of our figures on Boing Boing, even if it is from the (admittedly more photogenic) MRI project rather than the qubit research. November 3, 2005 Reuters on US Anti-Science Attitudes Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:30 PM Via Shellock, there's a Reuters piece today outlining concerns about increasing anti-science sentiment in the US. I was glad to see this in a mainstream source; it's what scientists have been saying for a few years now. The piece is a bit disjointed but manages to hit several related topics: Bush administration abuses of science, the intelligent design battle, general scientific illiteracy and weaknesses in science education. They could have been tougher on the ID crowd but it's nice to see them correctly place ID in the larger anti-science trend. October 25, 2005 Exciting Adventures of a Science Journalist Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:48 AM Today's New York Times profiles a biologist who has been majorly influential in taxonomy through something called cladistics. Also he is slightly obsessed with spiders. More importantly, some of you will be interested in the byline on this article. Permalink | Tags: Science October 24, 2005 Symmetries Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:49 AM Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a great post on spontaneous symmetry breaking. It's a nice treatment for those of us who never got around to taking a Standard Model course. Carroll is actually in Berkeley today, giving the particle physics seminar, but the condensed matter seminar is at the same time so I won't be able to catch it. I probably wouldn't be able to follow his talk anyway, as it's a bit far afield for me. Permalink | Tags: Physics, Science October 13, 2005 Art/Physics collision Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:49 PM Via Boing Boing, some weirdly beautiful artistic renditions of elementary particles. I like the photon especially. Can we get the artist to do some condensed matter stuff? I'd love to see Cooper pairs, quasiparticles, and phonons... Permalink | Tags: Culture, Physics, Science October 10, 2005 Nobels explained Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:57 PM Chad Orzel has posted his explanations of this year's physics Nobels: here's the post on Glauber and here's the one on Hall and Hänsch. I don't have much knowledge of quantum optics so this was pretty helpful. Also, check out last week's open thread here for Jolene's explanation of the chemistry prize; she was a student of one of this year's laureates. I have no way to link to individual comments on my blog so you'll have to scroll past some scheduling chatter to find it. The economics prize is covered at Marginal Revolution: Aumann is discussed here and Schelling here; Tyler Cowen was Schelling's student. Permalink | Tags: Physics, Science October 7, 2005 Expensive Solitaire Console Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:14 PM My advisor has a powerful dislike of digital electronics, partly due to the additional electrical noise generated by such circuits. Another issue is that manufacturers of high-precision digital equipment are often tempted to add dubious "enhancements" to their products. Consider, for example, our Tektronix digital oscilloscope. It has a lot of useful features, most importantly a 1 GHz bandwidth. On the other hand, it runs Microsoft Windows. Now, this does allow me to play solitaire during an extended measurement. And in principle the ability to run programs like Labview could be very useful, and the scope connects to the network very easily. On the other hand, this means that the software that actually runs the core oscilloscope functions is Windows software. Recently, when booting up the scope, the aforementioned software has been exiting immediately with an "unrecoverable system error". This effectively converts the instrument into an ordinary PC with a tiny screen (and a$30,000 price tag). This was the first time I have attempted to repair a scientific instrument by reinstalling Windows. Unfortunately, this had no effect on the problem, leading me to guess that it was a hardware malfunction on the acquisition board. Time to run the scope diagnostics... which only exist inside the software that refuses to run.

So we're sending the thing to Tektronix where they will repair it for a hefty fee. Meanwhile, I am starting to appreciate the simplicity of purely analog electronics.

Permalink | Tags: Lab, Science, Technology

October 4, 2005

Frickin' Laser Beams

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:43 PM

The physics Nobel was announced today:

Nobel given for laser measurement

Three scientists have been awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physics for laser measurement and quantum optics.

Half of the prize went to John Hall of Colorado University and Theodor Hänsch of Germany's Max Planck Institute.

The laser-based spectroscopy they have pioneered allows the colour of light from atoms and molecules to be determined with exceptional precision.

The other half went to Roy Glauber of Harvard University for applying modern quantum physics to optics.

This is Chad Orzel's field, so I'll wait for him to post his explanation of their findings, and then link to it.

September 15, 2005

USGS destroys L.A.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:36 PM

Possibly of morbid interest to California readers: Results of a USGS simulation of The Big One hitting Los Angeles. (Via Fark.)

-The estimated fatalities could range from 3,000 to 18,000, with an average of 7,600.

-The total injuries could range from 56,000 to 268,000, with an average of about 120,000.

-The number of displaced households ranged from 142,000 to 735,000, with an average of 274,000.

But did they account for completely incompetent FEMA administrators? Also, I wonder if the equivalent study has been done for San Francisco. Or perhaps the Hayward fault, which runs under through the East Bay and directly under the Berkeley campus...

September 6, 2005

Speaking on Theory, Theory on Speaking

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:36 PM

You may be wondering where I disappeared to, perhaps imagining that I was pursuing adventure and excitement during the long weekend. This was true during the first half, but Sunday afternoon I had to face the fact that I had been assigned the first group seminar of the semester. (In fact, I was due to give a talk towards the end of last semester, but managed to put it off for about five consecutive weeks until I was saved by the end of the term. Unfortunately I was still at the front of the queue when we started up again.)

For a topic I chose to review an 18-page theory paper: partly because I had no better ideas, partly because I wanted to do something relatively impressive, and partly out of sheer masochism. I would have expected such a task to consume my entire weekend rather than just half of it (and much of today), but fortunately the paper was not as daunting as it looked. This was for several reasons:

1. As theory papers go, this one was not very dense. There was lots of text to go with each equation, and they mostly explained the algebra involved.
2. After establishing the major equations governing the problem, they confine their solution to a particularly easy special case.
3. For this special case, they give a "formal solution": i.e., when they get to a difficult integral equation, they declare themselves done with the equivalent of "if we knew how to solve this, here's what it would look like".
4. Having obtained the formal solution, they set their computers on the problem, leaving the second half of the paper primarily to an avalanche of plots illustrating the numerical results.

My strategy for assembling my talk was to start by putting the numerical plots on Powerpoint slides, so that if I ran out of preparation time I could do the rest of the talk on the whiteboard. It turned out I had time to put everything into Powerpoint, which was nice since my whiteboard handwriting isn't terribly legible. For a denser theory paper, I would certainly use the whiteboard since it's tough to get the pacing right for mathematical derivations in Powerpoint. Also it's annoying to construct equations on the computer; I try to copy them from the PDF of the original article when possible, but sometimes I have to fill in steps or rearrange something into a clearer form.

I've noticed lately that when I'm giving a talk or a speech I seem to go into a kind of trance where I construct and deliver sentences without thinking about them on a conscious level. (This is not normally the case unless I am sufficiently inebriated.) This is absolutely essential because I can shut down the conscious part of my mind and therefore not notice that lots of people are watching me. One might ask why I can't duplicate this in normal conversation, and the answer seems to be that I rely on the prompts from my prepared notes or slides or whatever, and in more free-form circumstances some more conscious thought is necessary. I used to have difficulties with freezing up during the question period following a talk and I think this is the reason. (I've since improved in this regard.)

August 30, 2005

"Yawning gaps in basic knowledge"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:00 PM

See those dents in my desk? There's one for every time I see the results of a survey like this:

Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Excuse me a minute... [bangs head on desk, labels new dent "2005"]

I should figure out what I, as a scientist, can/should be doing to improve basic science education. At least no one is trying to argue that science classes should "teach both sides" of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy... on the other hand, Biblical literalism demands a geocentric system just as much as it demands creationism, and the current Pope considers the Inquisition's persecution of Galileo to have been "reasonable and just", so maybe this is next once Intelligent Design gets established.

August 26, 2005

ID and Kuhn

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:38 PM

The other day I saw a commenter at Brad DeLong's blog assert that Intelligent Design was a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Once I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether this was a common belief among ID proponents.

I guess it is, since Matt Yglesias devotes a long post to rebutting this notion. I usually enjoy Yglesias' more philosophy-oriented posts, and this one is particularly good. Key paragraph:

Similarly, the brute fact that ID has a lot of problems doesn't refute it. The problem with ID is that, unlike real revolutionary science, it doesn't lead to any normal science. There are no ID-based research programs. Nothing has never been accomplished by applying the ID paradigm to a question in biology. All ID's scholarly (and "scholarly") proponents do is try to offer half-assed refutations of Darwin. You can quote Kuhn all you like, but you're not doing revolutionary science unless your purported revolution leads to some normal science. Intelligent design does not.

August 22, 2005

Follow-up on decoherence

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:14 PM

One of the comments on the flux qubit post asked an important question: where does the decoherence come from? I dealt with this a bit in the thread itself, but this post will be a less technical treatment.

In general, decoherence is a result of the fact that the qubit under study isn't in isolation, but interacts with some larger environment. Through this interaction, information that starts out concentrated in the qubit dissipates out into the environment, and likewise information in the environment mixes into the qubit. Of course, the state of the environment isn't known beforehand so the information that mixes in just looks random, and averages out over a large number of experiments.

In the case of our qubit, what matters is the electromagnetic environment—the electric and magnetic fields that act on the qubit. Any fluctuations in these fields can produce decoherence, and just about everything produces some level of field noise.

August 18, 2005

Publication: Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:36 PM

This paper contains the major results of my graduate research so far, compressed into four pages. Instead of the abstract I'm posting something closer to a layman's explanation, which is below the fold since it got a bit long.

Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines
B. L. T. Plourde, T. L. Robertson, P. A. Reichardt, T. Hime, S. Linzen, C.-E. Wu, and John Clarke
Phys. Rev. B 72, 060506(R) (2005)

Continue reading "Publication: Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines"

August 16, 2005

Bad Science of the Week: Ev Psych

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:05 PM

Slate has a nice piece up today pointing out flaws in evolutionary psychology. Long-time readers may remember that ev psych annoys me to no end, as it is usually someone making up some just-so story about life on the savanna to justify preconcieved notions about human behavior. All too often this is in service of some sexist claim or double standard. Hence I always love finding pieces that debunk ev psych. Here's an excerpt from the Slate article:

EP claims that our minds contain hundreds or thousands of "mental organs" or "modules," which come with innate information on how to solve particular problems—how to interpret nuanced facial expressions, how to tell when someone's lying or cheating. These problem-solving modules evolved between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. And there the selection story ends. There has not been enough time in the intervening millenia, EP-ers say, for natural selection to have further resculpted our psyches. "Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind," as Cosmides' and Tooby's primer on evolutionary psychology puts it. The way forward for research is to generate hypotheses about the urges that would have been helpful to Stone Age baby-making and then try to test whether these tendencies are widespread today.

What's wrong with this approach? To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, "We don't even know the number of species in the genus Homo"—our direct ancestors—"let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species." This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn't get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there's a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain's supposedly formative years.

Now I am aware that a small fraction of ev psych research is actually worthwhile. But the stuff that gets media attention is almost always total bullshit.

August 2, 2005

Bush, ID, and Republican scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:58 PM

There's a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Bush's statement that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Now, naturally I agree with the many commenters who have remarked that ID is not a scientific theory, and teaching it will only degrade the state of US science education.

On the other hand, my reaction is less outrage than a sigh of resignation. What, Bush rejected science in favor of an ideological and religious position? The same Bush who opposes stem-cell research, promotes abstinence-only sex education, ignores climate change, and suppresses inconvenient scientific findings by government agencies? We knew we were getting this back in November when Bush won the election. Certainly anyone who voted for Bush should have been prepared to accept this kind of dumbassery as a consequence. And didn't Bush say that "the jury is still out" on evolution back in, like, 2000?

Of course, we should vigorously oppose attempts to insert ID into actual curricula, but the mere fact that Bush supports it doesn't exactly seem new.

Matt Yglesias points out that Bush's view is very widespread among the American public. Some of you may recall a poll result that I blogged last November showing 45% support for young Earth creationism.