Monday, March 31, 2008

Wagner's Bona Fides [UPDATED]

What really bothers me about this recent flap with the lawsuit to delay the start of the LHC is the way Walter Wagner claims to be a "nuclear physicist", and how some journalists feel compelled to take that claim seriously, at least in part (e.g. the Register, who otherwise goes to town on him, calls him a "sometime physicist", although the Times is more careful and avoids it).

Let's be blunt: if you want to even start to call yourself a nuclear physicist -- and by this I mean someone who actually understands what is known fundamental forces well enough to make meaningful predictions as to what they might do in unfortunate circumstances -- you might want to actually have authored a paper in the subject.

In his brief submitted to the Hawaiian court, Wagner claims to be "credited with discovery of a novel particle only previously theorized to exist, namely a magnetic monopole." But Stefan, from Backreaction, had a look at the original paper and pointed out that Wagner is only thanked "for assistance", and is manifestly not an author. The Time magazine piece about this putative discovery (thanks again, Stefan!) calls him a technical assistant, albeit one who got "credit for first spotting the monopole's track), along with another assistant, Julie Teague.

So let's continue to be blunt: being a technical assistant on an experiment where someone else tells you to look through a stack of emulsions, when you luck out and find something, does not make you 1) a nuclear physicist, or 2) even necessarily an author. While one could argue that doing work for an experiment would normally get you on the paper these days, clearly Wagner was below threshold even in his particle-discovering heyday.

In general, a paper's authors are not just the guys who "did the work", but those who take responsibility not just for being right about the results (which can happen by dumb luck) but for being wrong as well -- which can be fatal, unless you understand why you were wrong and make into something productive down the road. And being wrong is something Wagner doesn't seem ready for yet, about anything. I contrast his unwavering belief in his own bona fides with William Unruh, who made real contributions to the theoretical explorations of Hawking radiation (and whom I discussed in a recent post) that Wagner is so quick to dismiss (from the NYT piece):
According to a paper by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 1974, they would rapidly evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles, and thus pose no threat. No one, though, has seen a black hole evaporate.

As a result, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Sancho contend in their complaint, black holes could really be stable, and a micro black hole created by the collider could grow, eventually swallowing the Earth.

But William Unruh, of the University of British Columbia, whose paper exploring the limits of Dr. Hawking’s radiation process was referenced on Mr. Wagner’s Web site, said they had missed his point. “Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate,” he said. “But it would really, really have to be weird.”
So here is a person who is considered to be an expert on the subject, but who is comfortable enough with how the process works to consider that his theories might be wrong, although everything he knows about the known (i.e. experimental) facts of gravity, quantum mechanics, particle physics, astrophysics, etc. reassure him that he is most likely not. Ultimately, it's Wagner's self-generated certainty, based on purely negative evidence (e.g. "I might be right because you might be wrong"), that makes him the weaker party in this argument.

And for the record, the "Cosmic rays" Wikipedia entry was started in 2002, but Wagner's "discovery" was only posted on January 13, 2008 by an unnamed author (which turns out to be a dialup connection in Honolulu - just 'nslookup'!), just in time for his re-entry into the blogosphere.

And next up, I'll try and deal with the substance of the issue, which is tricky when there's not much information supporting or rejecting a hypothesis...

(UPDATE: Wagner replies to my assessment, which is based only my reading of the publication record.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Baseball, Monte Carlo Style

How fun is this?: a Monte Carlo study of the history of baseball done by two Cornell applied mathematicans, using historical statistics, player-by-player.
Then again, this is the first time anyone has tried this?

This is exactly what we do in particle physics when we're trying to see how well a measurement will work -- we "try" (i.e. simulate) the measurement many times (i.e. often way more times than we actually do the measurement), and see how often we hit or miss (which tells us the efficiency of the procedure). We also like to calculate the probability of something looking like our measurement, just by a chance fluctuation of our backgrounds (which tells the the "purity" of our data). Maybe Bob Adair should have thrown some physicists at understanding the relative importance of various landmarks baseball's history, instead of just looking at the equipment?...

More on the Doomsday Lawsuit

Walter Wagner pointed out that my post and my opinion of him was too strongly worded, which I wrote in haste and so which I withdraw, so I thought I'd just quote a piece out of a Discover blog post, on the continuing story:
Prior to suing the LHC, Wagner had an accomplished past. The Register reveals that when he appeared (alongside a time-machine professor) on the “paranormal-matters talk show Coast to Coast (’America’s most fascinating overnight radio program’)” he claimed to have “discovered a novel particle in a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector, initially identified as a magnetic monopole.”

He may also be no stranger to lawsuits, The Register also noted, and is currently in a legal battle with the board of the World Botanical Gardens in Umauma, Hawaii, which he founded. “According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (free registration required), he and his wife were indicted last month by a grand jury on counts of identity theft and attempted theft relating to an alleged attempt to obtain $340,000 from the gardens company.”

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Slow News Day

Getting up early to get to the circus today (we live down the street from Madison Square Garden), I managed to catch this peach on the NYT website front page:

Slow news day, I guess.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Math meets Physics

I dropped by a interesting symposium yesterday at SUNY Stony Brook (a university near to Brookhaven, that is the academic partner of BSA, our management company), "The Stony Brook Dialogues in Mathematics and Physics: A Symposium in Honor of Chen Ning Yang and James H. Simons". It had a varied and interesting set of talks (none online yet, though) exploring the connections between mathematics and physics, by colleagues and friends of CN Yang (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, when Yang was 35[!]) and Jim Simons (former Chair of the USB Math department, and current president of Renaissance Technologies). That is to say, it was the highest wattage I've seen in a meeting in quite a while, with luminaries from pure math to string theory. And even speaking as an experimental physicist, albeit as one with a still-unread copy of Nakahara's "Geometry, Topology and Physics" on his office shelf, I found the talks quite fascinating. It was also a nice reminder that Simons is funding a major $60M center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook.

One forgets that mathematicans and physicists tend to discover and rediscover major findings in the other's territories, so it was nice to see a collegial set of friends reminiscing on some notable examples -- my favorite one being how the topology of 4 dimensional spaces can be determined using methods devised in the context of Yang-Mills field theories, while that of 3 dimensional spaces is done similarly, but using Chern-Simons theories. Of course, mere mortals like me have no way to put this to use, but you just never know when these things will reappear as something relevant to one's science.

I also took a few photos with my phone camera before the battery gave up: here's Cumrum Vafa's talk on "Strings on Geometry", which was illuminating, and animated.

Cross-Post: Doomsday, in the Court

Time to party like it's 1999, in 2008: it's Doomsday time again. The first lawsuit (that I know of) to hold off the LHC has been submitted in Hawaii's US District court. For more details (and links and links...), have a look at my report on the US-LHC Blog.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Symmetry Breaking

Neat, with Symmetry Magazine's new web redesign, they've also started a blog -- named "Symmetry Breaking".  Fun -- check it out.

p.s. for the record, when their editor sent out a call to the Symmetry Mag Facebook group (yes, I just admitted that use Facebook...but it's for work, not Scrabble, I swear), I suggested they call it "Critical Points" -- but I suppose that's too "RHIC-like" for them ;)  I'm still surprised no-one's grabbed that domain name yet.

Cross-Post: "Talkin' Black Hole Blues"

Here's something I posted on my US-LHC blog, on the various connections to black hole physics we may well establish both at RHIC and the LHC: Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, Starchild

So Arthur C. Clarke passed away today in Colombo, Sri Lanka at age 90.

I don't know about any of you but Clarke was enormously influential on me throughout my life, from childhood (before its End) to now.  My dad took me to see a revival of "2001" when I was 6 years old, and I probably spent the rest of my life
 fascinated by its themes (which I sort of picked up, if only by osmosis): the origin of intelligence and consciousness, the possibility of life "out there", space exploration, the possibility of artificial intelligence, and ultimately the overriding sense of mystery the whole experience conveyed.  So it's difficult to overstate just how much it probably contributed to my general sense that I wanted to do science, to understand those things "out there".  And I know I'm not alone in that -- he will certainly be missed.

And awesomely: Clarke wrote 2001 while staying at the Hotel Chelsea, just around the corner where I live now.  A nice reminder just how important the Hotel is to the neighborhood!
And speaking of not following Dave's orders, one of my colleagues used that conversation between Dave and Hal to torture me on a particularly ugly shift on my old thesis experiment in 1994, when the data acquisition system ("MONA") wasn't working and just wouldn't eject the malfunctioning tape from the Exabyte drive.  He transcribed the whole conversation ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...") into one between me and MONA ("Open the tape drive door, Mona") and tacked it on the wall under a copy of the Mona Lisa while I was running around the CERN experimental area, resetting various electronics crates.  Needless to say, we didn't get much data that year.  

The fight between man and his creations, indeed.

By the way, check out his 90th birthday video on YouTube (which only has 16,384 views at this point -- let's see what happens by tomorrow). Nice to see him still so lucid, and inspiring, after his 90 orbits around the Sun.  Although more impressive was how spritely he seemed just 7 years ago in this video from 2001.

And more fun from ACC: this timeline of the future, including a whole column for Physics, where gravity waves are discovered before we figure out subnuclear structure.  Did someone tell the LIGO folks that?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Movie Physics Report Card

Who can resist this (IO9 via Boing Boing)?

Talk Like A Physicist Day, but not on Wikipedia

A little late, but all us physbloggers are duty bound to talk up "Talk Like A Physicist Day", held today on "Pi" 2008 (i.e. 3/14/2008). While I feel like I talk like a physicist every day (or every once in a while on this blog), maybe I could consider a few of their suggestions:
Don’t say that “you are going to brush your teeth”; instead “I am going to apply the force of friction to overcome the electrical bonds between my teeth and foreign matter.”
Ahem, my wife won't appreciate that one.

That said, I hadn't realized how restrictive it is to speak about one's own work, once submitted to a prestigious journal. As New Scientist reports (via Slashdot):
Scientists who want to describe their work on Wikipedia should not be forced to give up the kudos of a respected journal. So says a group of physicist who are going head-to-head with a publisher because it will not allow them to post parts of their work to the online encylopaedia, blogs and other forums.

The physicists were upset after the American Physical Society withdrew its offer to publish two studies in Physical Review Letters because the authors had asked for a rights agreement compatible with Wikipedia . The APS asks ascientists to trasnfer their copyright to the sccoiety before they can publish in an APS journal. This prevents scientists contributing illustrations or other "derivative works" of their papers to many websites without explicit permission.

So, for now, feel free to talk like a physicst, but just not on Wikipedia. Let's see what happens in May.