Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Physics of Art Business

Sometimes one wonders why physicists tend to be prime candidates for banks and consulting firms. Then one sees a case like Paul So, a prof at George Mason University, outside of Washington DC.
So, currently on a sabbatical, bought the building at 1353 U Street NW, next to the Republic Gardens, last year for $1.3 million. It is his dream to provide a space and program for art students so they can learn the business side of art, like how to write grants and how to market their work. Those selected would get two-year fellowships that would also include lectures and seminars by local educators, gallery owners and artists, So said. He likens his idea to getting a post-doc in art...He will add office space for rent upstairs, and a couple of condos. That way, he said, he can afford to run the gallery and nonprofit group.
A physicist wants to show his paintings and support local artists. So he buys a building to create a self-sustaining nonprofit gallery. That's why. Awesome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Quark Matter Tapes (1983)

Speaking about how certain things become "invisible" in the online world, and thus nearly cease to exist, what about "audible" things which don't naturally interface to digital realities? Try and wrap your mind around what I'm holding up to my iMac: an audio tape of talks from one of the first Quark Matter conferences, held at BNL in 1983. These are perhaps the most important conferences in the field (although clearly the QM2002 organizers didn't think so...), and have been running since 1982.

My colleague, and BNL physicist, Carla found these in her office where they'd been sitting for 24 years -- in a box on the shelf. I spoke to graduate students yesterday who weren't even born when this happened. They might not have even known what to do with these things, although they might not be able to afford a car without something that can play them. Fortunately my car (a trusty Golf IV) still has one too (good for my iPod, natch), meaning I could drive home listening to the late David Schramm speak about the importance of heavy ion physics to Big Bang physics (via its help in forming Jupiter-mass black holes) and Piet Hut on "Disturbing the Vacuum" -- yes, the ur-RHIC-as-Doomsday story.

We are where we are now at RHIC because of what went on in the room when this tape was made. Even more, it's simply gripping hearing the past speak to you so directly (there's a lot that doesn't make it into the written proceedings, and memory is fleeting) and profoundly moving (didn't I mention the memory thing already?). I'm hoping these things can be made digital ASAP.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Invisible Visual Web

Hm, where does the time go? Last week it went to a trip to Toronto and a trip to California, where I gave a colloquium at UC Riverside (posted soon!). This week it's catching up time, and I have a lot to do.

But through my PHENIX channels (aka Bill Zajc, whom some readers may have met through his guest blog on Backreaction), I was alerted to this article from the Institute for Nuclear Theory on "The strongly interacting quark gluon plasma in a new light: photons at RHIC", written by my BNL colleague Raju Venugopalan. Now, it seems that no-one knew about this article through the usual means. But the usual means, of course, means Google. And how could Google miss anything, when at the rate it's going it'll have all of our baby pictures indexed visually in a couple of years. Or not -- it's still pretty mediocre at indexing images, and that's why this article didn't show up on my usual RHIC searches, despite it being full of RHIC-related keywords. All of the text and captions are images, rendered from LaTeX (our standard typesetting package) into PNG (a standard image format):

It's funny how the obviously visual becomes completely invisible to current technologies. Maybe someone should print it out, scan it, OCR it, and re-post it as text. Then I'm sure Google will get cracking on it pronto.

Or someone, e.g. I, could just post it as postscript (which Google will read...thanks, Raju!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nuclear Physics: Not Just for Men

Just a follow up to the story which ran in the Times last week. As Paul pointed out in the comment to my post, it was an unfortunate example of the perception of physics as ultimately a boy's game. In this case, the story made working at RHIC sound literally like "grown men gathering around wide-screen TVs to watch collisions" -- or Star Trek -- despite showing several women in the photograph. Two of my colleagues at BNL and Stony Brook -- Sally Dawson (the chair of the physics department) and Barbara Jacak (recently-elected Spokesperson of PHENIX) -- have justly objected to this somewhat-skewed portrayal, in a letter to the Times:
Nuclear physics experiments at Brookhaven Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider involve a lot more than men viewing wide-screen monitors in a control room rooting for collisions.

The Phenix and STAR collaborations at RHIC are large teams that run these experiments. They include about a thousand scientists — women and men, young and old — from around the globe. And though exploration of the moment just after the Big Bang may sound like science fiction, house-sized detectors, fast electronics and large-scale computers are in use here and now, revealing that the early universe was a dense liquid of quarks and gluons.

Women earn 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics and are as excited as men about looking so far back in time. The science, and the technology needed to do that science, will make them — and Long Island — future economic leaders.

Barbara Jacak
Stony Brook
Sally Dawson
The writers are, respectively, Phenix Collaboration spokeswoman and chairwoman of the physics department at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
While we still have a way to go before we reach the numbers of women one finds in countries like Italy or Spain (which were striking during my student days at CERN, after spending my life to that point in the US), the trends are clearly headed in the right direction.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Grey Lady, at CERN

Just a quick post from the Buffalo airport, on the way back from Toronto (family visit - lots to plan, lots to plan...). It seems the NY Times Science Times has the LHC story to end all LHC stories, a huge Dennis Overbye piece about his visit to CERN, chatting with many of the usual suspects from CMS and ATLAS, several satellite stories (the magnet diaster, the string theory connection), an interactive graphic about the machine and detectors (snazzy), and a video. A video. That's a wrinkle that I haven't seen yet from the other news and newsy outlets.

But I have to say, I'm a little frustrated by CMS stealing all the photo spotlight. Then again, I was told by colleagues recently that CERN orchestrated a major media event recently while they were lowering a section of the detector into the pit, so maybe it's just all about access. That said, there's quite a few images of ATLAS in the video. Even better, there's also a brief flash of a simulation of a heavy ion collision (the usual colorful billiard balls).

But look (reading and writing in real-time -- jetBlue calls!): there's the espresso drinking thing again (as seen in the New Yorker piece) although drunk this time in print by Michelangelo Mangano. Of course Nima Arkani-Hamed makes his appearance just before, talking about the sleeplessness induced by the prospect of new data. Considering his several-shot-an-hour habit he revealed Kolbert, maybe it's not just the science.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

RHIC Alert: New Yorker (what, no ATLAS?)

I keep forgetting to actually pick up the New Yorker and read it sometimes. Good thing I remembered this week, to catch the (now de rigeur these days, it seems) article on the LHC - rigorously rendered as "L.H.C." throughout Elizabeth Kolbert's article. So far so good, and even a mention of the old RHIC doomsday debate:
Worries about the end of the planet have shadowed nearly every high-energy experiment. Such concerns were given a boost by Scientific American—presumably inadvertently—in 1999. That summer, the magazine ran a letter to the editor about Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, then nearing completion. The letter suggested that the Brookhaven collider might produce a “mini black hole” that would be drawn toward the center of the earth, thus “devouring the entire planet within minutes.” Frank Wilczek, a physicist who would later win a Nobel Prize, wrote a response for the magazine. Wilczek dismissed the idea of mini black holes devouring the earth, but went on to raise a new possibility: the collider could produce strangelets, a form of matter that some think might exist at the center of neutron stars. In that case, he observed, “one might be concerned about an ‘ice-9’-type transition,” wherein all surrounding matter could be converted into strangelets and the world as we know it would vanish. Wilczek labelled his own suggestion “not plausible,” but the damage had been done. “BIG BANG MACHINE COULD DESTROY EARTH” ran the headline in the London Times. Brookhaven was forced to appoint a committee to look into this and other disaster scenarios. (The committee concluded that “we are safe from a strangelet initiated catastrophe.”)

“I know Frank Wilczek,” Engelen told me. “He is an order of magnitude smarter than I am. But he was perhaps a bit na├»ve.” Engelen said that CERN officials are now instructed, with respect to the L.H.C.’s world-destroying potential, “not to say that the probability is very small but that the probability is zero.”
Now that's an amusingly, um, American way of handling the problem.

But how did someone forget to show ATLAS to the New Yorker people. This is the LHC experiment which not only has involvement from several major New York universities and institutions (Columbia, NYU, BNL, Stony Brook, but not Rockefeller - hmmm....) but whose very logo is sitting in front of Rockefeller Center - holding the whole universe on his shoulders, to boot.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nuclear Fallout

Some people know it, some don't, but there was just an important meeting in Galveston, TX last week, in order to develop the priorities for the nuclear physics Long Range Plan. These priorities are crucial for all of us nuclear physicists since they determine the priorities of the community -- in order -- for the Department of Energy to use to make the hard choices in lean budget years. I've just been sent a powerpoint of the final recommendations, which are officially public and open for discussion. Let's make discuss.

Without further ado, here are the recommendations -- in order:
  1. We recommend completion of the 12 GeV Upgrade at Jefferson Lab. The Upgrade will enable new insights into the structure of the nucleon, the transition between the hadronic and quark/gluon descriptions of nuclei, and the nature of confinement.
  2. We recommend construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, FRIB, a world-leading facility for the study of nuclear structure, reactions and astrophysics. Experiments with the new isotopes produced at FRIB will lead to a comprehensive description of nuclei, elucidate the origin of the elements in the cosmos, provide an understanding of matter in the crust of neutron stars, and establish the scientific foundation for innovative applications of nuclear science to society.
  3. We recommend a targeted program of experiments to investigate neutrino properties and fundamental symmetries. These experiments aim to discover the nature of the neutrino, yet unseen violations of time-reversal symmetry, and other key ingredients of the new standard model of fundamental interactions. Construction of a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory is vital to US leadership in core aspects of this initiative.
  4. The experiments at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider have discovered a new state of matter at extreme temperature and density—a quark-gluon plasma that exhibits unexpected, almost perfect liquid dynamical behavior. We recommend implementation of the RHIC II luminosity upgrade, together with detector improvements, to determine the properties of this new state of matter.
Number 4. Ouch. More on this to come.

(cue Jimmy Webb's "Galveston"...)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Voyage to the 3rd Dimension

Speaking of the NYTimes, and Star Trek, there's also this fantastic article on three dimensional printers: "Beam It Down From the Web, Scotty"
Sometimes a particular piece of plastic is just what you need. You have lost the battery cover to your cellphone, perhaps. Or your daughter needs to have the golden princess doll she saw on television. Now.

In a few years, it will be possible to make these items yourself. You will be able to download three-dimensional plans online, then push Print. Hours later, a solid object will be ready to remove from your printer.
Really makes you wonder if the sci-fi actually drives the development of certain technologies by planting those seeds in our childhood minds.

STAR Shift Troopers

More like Star Trek. A day the life in the STAR Control room during RHIC Run 7, but as covered by the New York Times (regional). Holy moly:
Thomas A. Trainor, 62, a physics professor from the University of Washington, who was at the control panel, invoked another metaphor, likening the control room to the bridge of the Enterprise in “Star Trek.”

“That’s Captain Kirk over there,” said Dr. Trainor, pointing to the shift leader, a spry 81-year-old physics professor from U.C.L.A., George Igo. He was accumulating collision data from the experimental run and amassing an impressive pile of pistachio shells on his desk. “I’m just the bookkeeper,” Dr. Igo said.

Dr. Trainor continued, “You could say I’m Sulu, at the controls, but when the captain tells me, ‘I want things run this way,’ I do it.”

“He’s Chekov,” Dr. Trainor said, pointing to Jan Kapitan, 26, a doctoral student in nuclear physics from the Czech Republic. Then he turned to a tall man monitoring the alarm systems, Peter Filip, who works for a research group from Moscow.

“He’s Scotty,” Dr. Trainor said, “because if something goes wrong, he has to respond.”


“The ‘Star Trek’ metaphor is very appropriate,” Dr. Trainor said. “Did you know the idea for the show was actually based on the voyages of Captain Cook? It is evocative of what we do here. The detector is not actually moving, but this is a voyage.”
But seriously, not all of us watch Star Trek. Some of us watch...Battlestar Galactica. You know, the new series. So different than the older one, and so much better.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


The score has been settled, as of yesterday (look way down at the bottom). History: N, Time Fact Checkers: N-1 (to their obvious credit, N is presumably a very large number):

From Thomas L. Friedman’s column on April 27: Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for his “services to theoretical physics and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect,” not specifically for relativity. (Go to Article)

Unfortunately, you now have to pay to read the article (damn TimesSelect) but it's there. Of course, I'm sure my complaint was echoed by quite a few others, as it's one of the most bizarre examples of neglect in the modern history of the field (and to be kind, who wouldn't assume that he got the prize for E=mc2?). But it's nice to see that loop closed.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Nano Soda Bottle

Bizarre follow up to my post yesterday about the BNL scientists who have submitted a spintronics patent: This morning just before 9am, I (Steinberg) received this email:
Dear Mr Zalizyak

I have just read an article about your nano electron and the spin like double magnetic field.

I have already applied for patent on such technology and further I have used the concept and the technology for production of electricity.

I think you will find a very great areas of collaboration and conflict of patent.

My application for overall claim has been published , so I am sure we will create conflict of interest.

I produce nano materials in layers in SP3 multiplayer in a cola bottle in room temperature and atmospheric condition.

I am sure if you provided us with your patent claim number we will have covered this.

My claim goes back to October 2005.

Please contact me, that we can rectify the matter otherwise we have to take steps that you can not issue licences.

Best regards

M T Keshe
from someone whose address reads "c de roose (fb855828@******.be)" (I'll block out part of the email so as to not attract the robot again...). So "Mr. de Roose" sends a mail for "Mr. Keshe" (Ms.?)? Spin-like double magnetic field to produce electricity in a soda bottle? Looks/sounds like a scam to me. Anyone seen this kind of thing before?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rocks, Trees, Strings

I'm a little slow to catch this sooner, but Google news just dug up this new release from the Princeton press office, regarding a relatively new PRL from Igor Klebanov and collaborators (OK, a month ago, but this is Physics, folks, not political news). Believe it or not, "A Test of the AdS/CFT correspondence using high-spin operators" may well be about more quotidien objects than quarks, gluons, or strings. From the press release:
"These problems include describing the interactions among the quarks within everyday atomic nuclei," said Igor Klebanov, the Thomas D. Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics at Princeton and an author of a recent paper on the subject. "We have previously been able to study these interactions in detail only at the high-energy conditions within particle accelerators, but with these findings we may be able to describe what's happening inside the atoms that make up rocks and trees. We cannot do so yet, but it appears that the math of string theory could be what we need to bridge this gap."
I must admit that both this paper, and the Beisert et al work (in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics) on which it was based, are a bit beyond me due to the hard-core field theory, but times change: can anyone boil this down and explain the consequences for someone in the trenches? Here's one attempt, in the press release, explaining how these results bridge the weak coupling regime (the domain of perturbation theory) and strong coupling (the domain of string theory techniques):
"Beisert and his collaborators made an inspired guess based on sophisticated notions of gauge theory behavior," said Curtis Callan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Physics at Princeton. "Their equation allowed Igor and his colleagues to work out the 'transition' between the two regimes. They demonstrated that it exactly matched string theory's predictions at the strong interaction limit. That was the hard part."

GMMs, QGPs, and BNL (at the USPTO?)

I'm a little slow on the uptake this week, with all the interesting things to write about (and photos to take, etc. -- i have a fantastic new 50mm fixed lens for my Nikon...). But I didn't want to let this one pass me (and thus you all) by, since it involves one of those bizarre-but-true synergies you could only get at a place like BNL:
An interdisciplinary group of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has devised methods to make a new class of electronic devices based on a property of electrons known as “spin,” rather than merely their electric charge. This approach, dubbed spintronics, could open the way to increasing dramatically the productivity of electronic devices operating at the nanoscale — on the order of billionths of a meter. The Brookhaven scientists have filed a U.S. provisional patent application for their invention, which is now available for licensing.
The topic is doing spintronics (making logic gates, etc.) using "graphene-magnet multilayers" (GMMs), a 2 dimensional layer of graphite in a hexagonal pattern which can propagate spin excitations:

“Graphene is quite unique,” Zaliznyak says, “in that an ideally balanced sheet is neither a conductor nor an insulator. Related to this is the fact that electrons in graphene behave in such a way that their mass effectively vanishes!” In other words, he explains, they move without inertia, like rays of light or particles accelerated to relativistic speeds — that is, close to the speed of light.

Such relativistic particles are studied at Brookhaven at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a nuclear physics facility where scientists are trying to understand the fundamental properties and forces of matter. RHIC theoretical physicist Dmitri Kharzeev and condensed matter physicist Alexei Tsvelik have collaborated with Zaliznyak to gain a better understanding of the physics of magnetized graphene.

Now if only they'd forget about this patent business, I could actually tell you what they were talking about. But who knew RHIC physics would apply to 2D spin systems?...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

6-0 on Video

As promised, here is the view from the tower of all of us in "BNL 60" formation. Looks pretty good from up there -- and the time lapse video looks even better. I'm the dude in black who starts on the lower-left, then keeps making scouting runs to take photos...

In any case, I hope the lab gets this posted on YouTube sometime soon, so I can post the video right here!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

BNL 60 Photo

A whole lot of us gathered in the huge field near the BNL center today to commemorate BNL's 60th anniversary by spelling out "BNL 60" in huge letters. Roger, one of the long-time BNL photographers, perched himself on the huge blue water tower, looking down at us, and shouted down orders which some followed (and some didn't...)

Anyway, I hope we get to see one of the top-down photos soon. In the meantime, here are some of my bottom-up shots - in a Flickr set.