Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Plot Device of Mass Destruction

Don't be afraid, the likelihood of anyone gathering up even a fraction of a gram of anti-matter (as seen here in this still from the Angels & Demons preview) is pretty unlikely. The ATRAP experiment at CERN managed to trap 170,000 antihydrogen atoms, but that's still 18 orders of magnitude (1 with 18 zeros after it!) away from A&D territory.

Now, why was I thinking about this recently, since I'm not much of a Dan Brown fan (I survived Da Vinci, just to see what the fuss was about, but enough)? Dave Mosher, from Discovery Space, asked me to put together a little guest blog on anti-matter, and when the media asks, I deliver. Anyway, please have a gander at my piece, "Plot Device of Mass Destruction", and let me know what you think.

Two things I didn't manage to squeeze into an already-long article:
  1. My introduction to anti-matter was certainly via "The Counter Clock Incident", in the animated Star Trek series from the early 1970's. While the black stars on the white sky, and the total absence of annihilating anything, clearly miss the mark, they did somehow capture Feynman's insight that anti-particles in the matter universe are, in a sense, travelling backwards in time. Who knows if they were reading Bjorken & Drell, and it's sci-fi as all get-out, but it sort of feels like an inside joke for physicists (in a Saturday morning cartoon, no less)
  2. My reminder that people other than I watched Star Trek as kids came when I was visiting NYC from CERN in the mid-1990's. I was staying with a college friend who had gone into finance, and we ended up hanging out in Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon, with a guitar or two in tow. I vividly remember him playing for a bit, looking thoughtful for a second and then asking, "Now that you're a physicist, you can tell me: what is antimatter?" I gave a similar spiel as I wrote in this Discovery Space piece, but somehow he wasn't satisfied. The mystery was too great, and my experienced reality of anti-matter was far too mundane. Hope this try was better!
Anyway, enjoy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Yes, I broke down and started twittering. I used to find it quite pointless, compared to "normal" blogging, but then I started getting into updating my facebook status, and realized I actually enjoyed microblogging. Then I discovered how to link twitter and FB, and here I am, updating over and over, over on the right side of this page in the little box.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Starry Eyed

This is really fun (via Gizmodo): a picture how the sky would look if your eyes were as sensitive as a long exposure telescope image.
Explanation: Intricate, glowing nebulae that shine in planet Earth's night sky are beautiful to look at in deep images made with telescopes and sensitive cameras. But they are faint and otherwise invisible to the naked-eye. That makes their relative location and extent on the sky difficult to appreciate. So, consider this impressive composite image of a wide region of the northern winter sky. With a total exposure time of 40 hours, the painstaking mosaic presents a nebula-rich expanse known as the Orion-Eridanus Superbubble above a house in suburban Boston, USA. Within the wide and deep view are nebulae more often seen in narrower views, including the Great Orion Nebula, the Rosette Nebula, the Seagull Nebula, the California Nebula, and Barnard's Loop. The familiar constellation of Orion itself is just above the foreground house. Brightest star Sirius is left of the roof, and the recognizable Pleiades star cluster is above the tree at the right. A version of the big picture that includes simple constellation guidelines is available here.
One can get a sense of this even with the naked eye if you go way out in the desert, e.g. in South Africa. I once saw the large and small Magellanic clouds down there -- with my eyes -- and I was never the same again.

Quark Matter in the News

Holy moly, what have we here? Quark Matter 2009, on the news...and look there I am in the green down vest just as it begins! And there's Giorgio, breaking our hearts. And Kai and Spencer, trying to convince people that physicists know something about sports (well, some do). And that awesome guy at the end (see below...):

I'm sitting here and I got some things on my mind,
and we're sitting here at Quark Matter two-thousand-and-nine.
Now I can't really explain what all of it means,
I just hope they don't blow us all to smith-er-eens
Hear, hear! (Thanks, Mike!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Application (2008 Dirac Medals)

I missed this, but it's started bubbling up on the PHENIX lists: The Dirac medals were awarded a few weeks ago, and somehow it seems that being interested in the quark gluon plasma is no longer a handicap:
Professors Maldacena, Polchinski and Vafa are being honored for their fundamental contributions to superstring theory. Their studies range from early work on orbifold compactifications, physics and mathematics of mirror symmetry, D-branes and black hole physics, as well as gauge theory-gravity correspondence. Their contributions in uncovering the strong-weak dualities between seemingly different string theories have enabled us to learn about regimes of quantum field theory which are not accessible to perturbative analysis. These profound achievements have helped us to address outstanding questions like confinement of quarks and QCD mass spectrum from a new perspective and have found applications in practical calculations in the fluid dynamics of quark gluon plasma.

The dualities have also led string theorists to conjecture that the five different superstring theories in ten space-time dimensions are manifestations of one underlying theory, yet undiscovered, which has been named the M-theory.
So quark gluon plasma is now a "practical application" of string theory. While I completely agree with it in principle, imagine telling this to your aunt when she asks what your research is good for. Ironically, I usually argue that "helping string theory" is a practical application of studying the QGP at RHIC -- but it's all a matter of perspective I suppose.

In any case, a belated congrats to Maldacena, Polchinski, and Vafa. It's been pretty exciting to see all of this develop in the last decade.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Know Your Reference (Quark Matter 2009)

So much for those dispatches: I could barely figure out where I wanted to be at any given time, much less come up with reasonable summaries of what I had just seen. Conferences are like that. Anyway, I do have a few photos, but just a few. Above you can see Bill Zajc of Columbia University telling us a few things to keep us focussed, two of them not about heavy ions at all, but about the "control measurements" we do with smaller systems that we assume are "references".

Now that I'm home, it's interesting to reflect on how little attention we've questioned our reference systems as such. Generally, the less we worry about them, the better we feel, since they then remain "someone else's" problem (i.e. that of our particle physicist friends). However, the more I hang out in this neck of the scientific woods, the less I believe that nominally "simple" systems are that simple (even protons are made of many quarks and gluons), or are even that different than the bigger systems we create with huge (ok, still subatomic) nuclei. While it can be a little confusing, I find these ambiguities the most compelling aspects of this business.

I'll get to this in the next few posts. In the meantime, if you want to see the official summaries, check out the four rapporteur talks here.