Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Raw and the Cooked

Hm, my brain is shutting down now, since I just finished giving a long workshop talk here at BNL. The talk is linked above and is not a new topic for me (whether or not the initial state of a RHIC collision is smooth or lumpy, kind of like the green stuff in the image above). Still, it was a nice chance to highlight a relatively new paper we just had published in Physical Review C, and a great chance to catch up with colleagues who really like this stuff.

I know it sounds very academic, but it's not (I know I doth protest too much). When you try and "run the movie backwards", starting from this,
it's important to consider various scenarios of how things looked just as the collision occurred, and not just at the end of the day, when the particles arrived for your perusal.

Why Black Holes are Good For You

While I wouldn't want to eat one, they clearly make you think about many issues -- some scientific, and these days even moral. But some think more clearly and explain things more generously than others.

The only involvement I can claim with this excellent post by Sabine on Backreaction is finally pushing her over the edge (with this) to blog in public about her take on the non-dangers of black holes, micro or not. It's a great read -- with something to say to many people, including the folks in the media who have really been milking the doomsday story dry.

But who the heck made this crazy video of the earth being swallowed by a fictional black hole Beyond a certain point this goes beyond speculation, and becomes manipulative demagoguery.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Hm. Maybe MC knows something Stephen Hawking missed, as suggested by his (relatively famous) quote:
Although equations are a concise and accurate way of describing mathematical ideas, they frighten most people. When I wrote a popular book recently, I was advised that each equation I included would half the sales. I include on equation, Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. Maybe, I would have twice as many copies without it.
Maybe someone can construct an empirical test of this phenomenon?

And #1 hit record or not, shouldn't this have come out in 2005?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From a Racetrack to The Cold War Near Home

Funny how there are often amazing things around you, and you never notice until you trip over them.  I was chatting with a colleague today about how one could improve the commute to Brookhaven from NYC, and I started looking at Google maps to see how close the LIRR tracks came to the lab (a man can dream about a new train station just where he wants it, right?).  Then my network connection at home collapsed briefly (my mom is in town so I am telecommuting today), and I resorted to my ever-lovin' Google Maps Mobile on my Blackberry Curve (no iPhone for me, yet).  And lo, what did I see there -- and not on the normal version -- but "Suffolk Meadow Race Track", just southwest of the lab.  A little Googling got me to the interesting "Long Island Oddities" site, which has this neat article about the honest-to-god horserace track, which was open from 1977 to 1988.  

But then I saw "NIKE Missile Base", which led to this piece about an honest-to-god anti-aircraft missle base in Rocky Point, about 7 miles North of the lab.  From there, the research is straightforward, given all of the cold war buffs out there who seem to be keeping the Wiki pages complete.  It seems the program ended in 1974, with the SALT I treaty, and now it's a ball field and low-income housing.  That said, I'm still not absolutely sure the Nike missiles housed here were actually nuclear (although it was certainly an option for the Hercules), but I'm really staggered to hear about a missile site so close to home.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Passover Talk

Happy holidays, everyone.  Hectic weekend, with two seders to attend -- one of them even assigning homework, to present to the other guests.  Unable to resist the assignment, and unable to do anything without visuals, I found myself analyzing a passage from Exodus -- one about the covenant with Abraham, and how it is "remembered" by God just before the Exodus story gets rolling -- by means of a fairly ornate Keynote presentation.  Most interestingly, I found a connection to a neat etching I saw recently by Roman Opalka, a French-Polish artist who seems to have a real thing for recursion.  Anyway, have a look and let me know if you have any questions.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Higgs @ RHIC?

Now I know there are lots of connections between RHIC and the LHC, but finding the Higgs is not one of them.  Maybe someone should mention this to the photo editor for this Canada.com story on the LHC?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Spiderwebs, Everywhere

I've been writing all day, so the blogging is heavily on the visual side.  

And I know I'm just seeing what I want here in a totally unrelated (but interesting looking) show, at a frustrating but interesting place, but weren't we just talking about spiderwebs?

Is This What Physicists Do on Wall Street?

This looks more like a New Yorker cartoon contest than a New York Times editorial illustration.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider's Web

I swear I didn't make this up, and it's really a room-size set of connecting elastic rope segments by Tomas Saraceno at Tanya Bonakdar (way West 21st St), which are honestly meant to be imaginings of the early universe.
Investigating how the gossamer thin filaments of these intricate webs are able to suspend life by way of intricate geometry, Saraceno suggests at a conceptual architectural proposal that relies on this most delicate and prehistoric system of life to take us into our future. Of particular interest is the application of this phenomenon throughout the history of time. A keystone to Saraceno’s fascination with these web constructions was the recent discovery that suggests the early universe was a sponge-like form, with galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets on a spider's web.
I have to admit that it does a pretty good job evoking the images coming from dark matter simulations, where dark matter clumps up into filaments that sketch out a "spongy" structure.  What I find neat is that these filaments, seen in galaxy surveys, are thought to reflect inhomogeneities from the very early universe, propagated over billions of years.

I also wonder how the sponge soaked up all the perfect fluid we've been studying these last few years.  Ironically, one of these "sponge" images was also used in this 2005 article on RHIC

But speaking of art, I also recently managed to catch a half an hour of the Poussin exhibit at the Met.  Awesome.  Poussin was a famously astute observer of nature, which clearly dominates these enormous tableaux.  But beyond the obvious emphasis on the detailed imaginings of forests and mountains and lakes, out of which manmade cities seem to sprout, and little people frolic in the margins, he was apparently a real stickler for optics, as evinced by the precise rendering of the reflections in the water.  

Monday, April 07, 2008

Examining Life

Phew, a bruising weekend. But how great is this, for a Monday? Philosophy everywhere:
  • A NYtimes article about the resurgence in philosophy programs in US universities. I started out a philosophy major before mutating into a physicist, and I have never regretted it. To be somewhat glib, the experience with struggling with "big questions," even apparently unanswerable ones (e.g. life and death, soul vs. body, Sein und Zeit, the role of Geist in history, etc.), makes dealing with somewhat-answerable ones (the existence, and definition of the Quark Gluon Plasma) that much more satisfying.

  • Stanley Fish, remembering the rise of "French Theory in America" and the Culture Wars they inspired. I went to college in the 80's and lit theory was a temporary, but fascinating, stage in that aforementioned mutation. There's certainly a tension between the deconstructionist worldview (and its antecedents) and the "naive" (oy) scientific realist view most of us working scientist have to adopt (with some hardship, in my case) to stay sane -- as well as to write plausible accounts of our research. But when you notice that data never speaks for itself (even if we've all heard our colleagues claim that "the data say..." something or another, usually in support of their view of things), and that two different people can make equally consistent stories for data sets (until the decisive experiment arrives!) it's nice to know that you're not alone:
    ...[The] program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to [the deconstructionist way of] thinking, realizable...That’s a loss, but it’s not a loss of anything in particular. It doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.
  • And a statue of Aristotle has just arrived in Queens.
I always wonder if the life of the mind is under attack by the onslaught of media and the technology which delivers it. You see so many kids (and their parents) so focussed on keeping busy. But I always figure that the mind will eventually reclaim it's own (Word) as the busy generation starts to burn out and reflect a bit. Then again, maybe I'm still just a romantic -- from the Times:
Barry Loewer, the [Rutgers philosophy] department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.

As the approach has changed, philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy. Some, like Ms. Onejeme, the pre-med-student-turned-philosopher, who is double majoring in political science, see it as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools — something the Rutgers department encourages by pointing out that their majors score high on the LSAT.

Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology.
OK, philosophy as a means rather than an end. At least it's a start.