Archive for the ‘science’ Category

So Kate and Will have chosen Westminster Abbey for their wedding on April 29, 2011. Among their wedding guests will be some of the greatest lights of British science who are buried in the Nave. The guest list includes Sir Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford, JJ Thompson, Lord Kelvin and Charles Darwin.

There could be some drama at the reception if Newton and Darwin get to arguing about religion and science. Newton was a devout biblical literalist who computed the age of the universe as being 6000 years by measuring the “begats” in Genesis. Darwin, on the other hand, gave us the scientific theory of evolution that is still upsetting people of Newton’s religious temperament today.

Sir Isaac Newton, 1689

Sir Isaac Newton, 1689

Since the bride and bridegroom majored in art history in college, they might be more interested in their guests in Poet’s Corner, where Tennyson, Dickens and Chaucer share a cozy nook with Rudyard Kipling and Laurence Olivier.

The Brontë sisters are only commemorated, not buried, in the Abbey, as are Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Paul Dirac.

Dirac was well known for his verbal brevity. One apocryphal story learned by every physics graduate student at some time in their education has a student raising his hand during a lecture, complaining that he didn’t understand what Dirac had just said. Dirac replied with a brief, “Yes,” and moved one.

But what Dirac doesn’t contribute to the conversation will be more than made up by Oscar Wilde, who is likely to have guests in stitches with his wry social banter, even though he’s been out of circulation since he died 110 years ago.

Adieu, Monsieur Mandlebrot


How long is the coastline of Britain?

It sounds like a simple question. We have maps. We have rulers. So just take out a map and measure! But which map do you use? The problem is, the more detailed a map you use, the greater your answer will be, because a coastline is not smooth. It is jagged. There are river mouths and bays and promontories to account for. The answer changes as the resolution of the map increases. Do you chart a path around each rock? Each stone? What about every grain of sand?

This is not the simple math problem of computing the circumference of a circle given the diameter. As a math problem, this is turned out to be an entirely new kind of beast that its discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot called “fractal geometry.” Mandelbrot assigned a “fractal dimension” to measure jaggedness in general.

Since most things scientists want to study in nature, such as clouds, proteins, galaxies, earthquake faults, are neither tiny particles nor smooth Platonic objects, of course it was important to have some kind of mathematical language for describing them.

Thanks to Mandelbrot, now they have one.

Fractals are also great for generating cool pictures like this one:

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot passed away Thursday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an instigator rather than a rigorous investigator, a rogue mathematician who left the proofs for those who followed in his maverick footsteps. He will be missed, but hopefully he’s inspired other rogues and mavericks out there to come and do their bit to shake things up.

One last thing — in the name of alumni pride, I’d like to point out that in addition to all the other famous places in America and France where Mandelbrot worked and studied, he found time to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics at my own alma mater Caltech.

Good job, Science is Vital

It’s normally hard to get scientists out of their labs for anything other than food or caffeine, but about 2,000 of them managed to make it to a demonstration outside the British Treasury today to protest the drastic cuts being made to the UK science budget in the name of deficit reduction.

Students of science around the world end up having to learn a lot of British names, like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin anmd Stephen Hawking, just to name three. That’s because UK has produced far more than its fair share of the world’s cumulative scientific knowledge, even while spending less on science per capita than other modern countries.

A scientific community has to be grown and nurtured across many generations. You can’t just add money to smart people and grow one overnight.

And scientists are mobile — they travel very easily from countries that don’t want them to countries that do. The countries that do want them end up more prosperous than the countries that don’t.

Now I have to be honest — there are a lot of British physicists I would be happy to see more of in America. But my pleasure will come at the UK’s expense, and I think the government needs to reconsider this decision.

You can read more about this topic at the Science is Vital website.

I remember back in the Yeltsin years when a group of young Russian scientists decided to exhibit themselves in the Moscow Zoo as an example of an endangered species.

We see now that this brilliantly adaptive species has managed to survive and even thrive by migrating to climates more favorable to supporting science and the kinds of free-thinking people who love to do it.

The ball is now in Putin’s court to determine the future of this species in its native land.

Here is the official Nobel site where you can read more about the winners and their fascinating work on graphene, the lightest and strongest material in the world, despite being only one atom thick:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2010

Nergis Mavalvala’s work is in quantum interferometry and its applications in the detection of gravity waves. She’s been a great help to the LIGO project. One of the obstacles to the detection of gravitational waves is the demand for a precision that exceeds the quantum limits of devices constructed to detect wave interference. Mavalvala has been developing a bag of tricks for evading those quantum limits.


Michal Lipson is an expert on etching optical waveguides into silicon chips in hope of creating information systems based on moving photons rather than elections. She works on both the theoretical and engineering sides of the field, showing the daring and flexibility of thought and practice that the MacArthur Foundation likes to reward.


To see the rest of the 2010 MacArthur fellows, go here.


First of all, hearty congratulations to Caltech biophysics professor and alumnus John Dabiri, who studies jellyfish propulsion and does theoretical mechanical engineering, a subject that makes my heart go pitty-pat and makes me long for my days as an engineering major before I switched to physics. He works out of the Biological Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech.



And another hearty congrats to Amir Abo-Shaeer, who left a job in industry to teach high school physics. He’s the founder of Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. He’s had enormous success in bringing girls into the field, something I can relate to personally as the kind of girl who always wanted to take stuff apart.

You can meet the rest of the 2010 MacArthur fellows here.

What is wrong with this picture?

A new organization called the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy has recently been formed by a group of scientists who are upset that the people who make drug policy don’t appear to be paying much attention at all to science.

I don’t think it reflects very well on the scientific communities of the world, especially America and Britain, that such an organization is needed.

This organization is needed partly because for the last 40 years, scientists have managed to duck drug policy as an issue that concerns science in any way.

Indeed, I have friends in science who get very worked up over creationism and the like, but make nasty faces at me when I try to bring up areas where federal drug policy completely ignores the physically measurable universe as described in peer-reviewed, published scientific journals.

I can understand this. Most people in science tend to be white and/or belong to the upper middle class academic elite, which places them out of reach of most of the negative consequences of the War on Drugs.

And the War on Drugs feels morally appealing — why not just ban everything that’s bad?

But government policy has to be evaluated according to a stricter standard than the mere sensation of moral well-being that contemplating such policy produces in the people who support it.

It’s time for scientists to stand up and demand that drug policy be held accountable to science.

There’s too much money and too many lives at stake for us to be content with moral hand-waving when it comes to justifying the continuation of a war that’s been going on for around 40 years now and still hasn’t been “won.”

The blog is back

I finally figured out a concept for this blog. My attention has always wandered between “the two cultures” as C.P.Snow called science and the humanities. The previous blog title was too far into the science camp. I’d like to write about fiction, too. Lately I’ve been thinking about the physics of fiction. If every story has a protagonist and a force opposing the antagonist, then every story can be described as a protagonist in a potential. Etc. More on this later. Goodnight.

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Our dear friend and former Caltech faculty member S. James Gates has just become one of the “cool people” in Washington. He’s been chosen by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Gates is the first African American to hold an endowed chair at a major research university. He’s currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I interviewed him the last time he visited Caltech. You can read or listen to the interview here.

I think President Obama is going to enjoy and benefit from the wise counsel of Professor Gates. I just want to say, “Hey Jim, don’t forget your friends out here in Pasadena. We’re thinking about you. Congratulations. Hope you visit us again some time soon. You can bring your new friend Barry too.”

Caltech has more than just one representative in PCAST. Caltech’s femtochemistry superstar Ahmed Zewail has also been appointed to the body. Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work using lasers to take pictures of chemical reactions occurring over time scales of 10-15 seconds, which is one millionth of one billionth of a second. Pretty darned fast!

Zewail is not only a genius and a darned clever man, he’s been active in the struggle for peace in the Middle East. So congratulations, Professor Zewail! Once again you’ve made Caltech proud.

I love books like a wino loves wine. So I feel pretty drunk every April when the LA Times Festival of Books rolls around. Critics say we’re all blond and superficial in Southern California. You can see just how wrong this stereotype is when you’re surrounded by bookworms and lit geeks of all sizes, shapes and cultures at the festival.

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

As a science geek, I felt morally obligated to attend the Real Science panel on Saturday morning. The panel was moderated by science writer K.C. Cole and featured her fellow science writer Carl Zimmer, odor scientist Avery Gilbert and theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind.

Susskind’s latest book is The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, his chronicle of the intellectual battles over the meaning of black hole entropy and the ultimate fate of decaying black holes.

Susskind told the audience he was grateful for the extreme intellectual puzzle posed by black hole entropy, given that his generation in physics was too young to have participated in the great quantum mechanics and relativity revolutions on the Einstein era. Instead they were left to “clean up the mess” left behind by their elders, turning the primitive and confusing subject of relativistic quantum mechanics into the elegant theoretical powerhouse of quantum gauge field theory.

Before I heard Carl Zimmer talk about his new book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, I had no idea that the humble and ubiquitous intestinal bacteria E. coli has won twelve Nobel Prizes in science — which is ten more than any multi-celled organism on record.

What scientists have learned about E. coli “challenges our assumptions about life,” Zimmer said. Despite their apparent simplicity, each E. coli cell acts like a distinct individual. If 747s behaved like E. coli, then two identically built planes would exhibit completely different behaviors when you tried to fly them.

Another surprising and philosophically challenging aspect of e-coli is their ability to organize socially into competing tribes that compete for food and make tribal war. I’ve always thought of war as a human behavior that was learned. If even single-celled organisms can organize into tribes and make war, then the instinct for war is an instinct that is basic to life itself.

Panel moderator K.C. Cole

According to the third panelist, fragrance scientist Avery Gilbert, , fresh oysters exude the same chemical responsible for the smell of pinto bean farts. That’just one of the peculiar things you’ll be able to learn in his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

Whenever we stress out over nuclear proliferation in the news, we’re feeling the legacy left to us by J. Robert Oppenheimer, our “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” His brother Frank left a more peaceful and enjoyable legacy in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a “museum of human awareness” that combines science education with art and just plain fun. K.C. Cole, a longtime friend of the non-nuclear Oppenheimer, drew on letters and extensive interviews for her personal portrait Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.