Thursday, December 21, 2006

Order in Disorder

I can't imagine how many times I've told myself to keep a cleaner desk, although I've always prided myself on knowing basically where to find everything I need, even in the midst of overflowing piles. Thus, I've always suspected that it was the sign that I was productive and keeping busy. But now now that I've changed offices, as part of an overall move from Chemistry into the BNL Physics Department, I'm worried that my desk (and office) is cleaner than ever, since I haven't had enough time to really get it messy. Thus, this piece in the times today seems particularly relevant -- Back to work.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Atoms for Tots

Atomic experiments for boys, indeed.
For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with three "very low-level" radioactive sources, a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson Cloud Chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a Spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an Electroscope to measure radioactivity. And what nuclear lab for kids would be complete without an Atomic Energy Manual and Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom comic book? (The latter was written with the help of General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project.)
From Radar's 10 most dangerous toys.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Year's Resolution?

New fiscal year, no budget. This is the story out of capital hill this week. Problem is, on a continuing resolution RHIC is on the same tight budget as last year, which didn't include nearly enough money for actual running. We were only spared from disaster (layoffs, etc.) by an infusion of money from James Simons and his colleagues at Renaissance Technology. It still boggles my mind that the continuing life and health of Brookhaven rests on relatively small fractions of its total budget. But this is how science is done: lots of fixed costs (especially salaries) and then the so-called "real work" on the margin. Unfortunately, even small shortfalls have dramatic effect (e.g. layoffs, deferred pay-raises) on the people at the lab who have given years of their lives to maintain the level of quality the government and the public (who are the real supporters, via taxes) expect.

It will be a frustrating knock-on effect from what I thought were otherwise satisfying elections if Congress simply leaves the hard decisions to individual recipients of government funding. Let's at least have a budget to argue about.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Both Sides Now (or, Tug of War?)

While you may not be able to see this for a few minutes (it's CPU load is too high!), anyone who has been following the great String Theory Debate of 2006, via the action and reaction to the Smolin and Woit books, might want to check out UCSB Professor Joe Polchinski's review of them. This is a 'web-only' enhanced version, with some very candid and informative footnotes. Having read Smolin's book recently, I am trying to apply a more skeptical eye to string theories claims, and especially their media hype. But this is science, folks, and there ain't no science without arguing (and sometimes the down-and-dirty, ad hominem type, but that's not here -- you'll have to poke around Lubos Motl's blog and comments on other blogs for that!)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Wondering about Wonders (VOTE NOW)

CNN posted an amusing series of articles last week on "Modern Wonders" of the world, taking stock of the great engineering feats of the last couple of decades. Near the bottom of the page, they give us the humble readers a chance to vote on our "choice", of which they give us seven possibilities. Now while it would have been more interesting for the readership to nominate their own, who can complain: CERN alone accounts for two of them -- the World Wide Web and the LHC itself -- and those are the two that have topped their informal poll on which is the "greatest wonder" of the seven.

It's gratifying that these two projects have been recognized by the public. Instead of just being a big bridge to admire, one of them spawned the largest "world mind" that anyone could have imagined, and the other will hopefully give that collective mind a few new things to rattle around in its collective brain for the next decade. Of course, I really hope the media avoids interesting non-sequiturs like this one in the future:
It is so powerful, it is capable of creating mini-black holes. The hope is that the collisions -- up to one billion per second -- will reproduce the conditions that were in existence immediately after the Big Bang some 10 billion years ago.
Really, I appreciate the interest of news outlets like CNN, but would a tiny level of fact-checking hurt anyone?

(Thanks, Howard)