Field of Science

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider, the LHC, has booted up. Today they circulated two counter-rotating beams and detected particle collisions in various detectors. This is great news and honestly I have been reluctant to mention too much about the LHC only for fear of disappointment, but I think this time it is the real deal. It is hard not to get excited about the LHC. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the LHC is the largest and most complex machine ever built by humans. Here is a brief introduction to the LHC through some media:

BBC Horizons: The Six Billion Dollar Machine

Also see part 2 and part 3 of the documentary.

3D tour of LHC

A 3D virtual tour of the LHC by Peter McCready begins to give an impression of the scope of the machine.
LHC 3D tour

Brian Cox on CERN's Supercollider

Brian Cox gives a particularly smooth discussion for the impetus for the LHC in this TED talk:

Catastrophic Failure

I am not talking about microscopic black holes and the destruction of earth or all that nonsense, but various failures of the experiment itself. The reason I am hesitant about the LHC is because it is a complicated experiment so expecting proper performance and much less results any time soon is unrealistic. Last September the LHC broke down while ramping up current in the superconducting magnets that guide the beam. Precisely what happened leading to catastrophic failure was rather simple. There are connections between the superconducting magnets which can hold up to 12000 amps and their resistance is maintained at one billionth of an ohm, however, the resistance was some 200 times larger on the failed conductor connection. An electric arc broke out and the super fluid helium coolant was heated. A pressure wave resulted as and the helium warmed and expanded inflicting collateral damage on 53 (of 1232 total) other magnets nearby. There are 20,000 such connectors to rely on to ensure the proper function.  The LHC news explains:

Future Discovery

In the future I would like to discuss some of the implications of what the LHC may find. Consider this though: not finding what we are looking for, namely the Higgs boson, may be the most exciting discovery of all.
LHC beautiful detector

Landing on Titan

This strange movie is a visual aggregation of the data which the Huygens lander gathered when landing on Saturn's moon Titan on January 14th 2005. Huygens is part of the wildly succsesful Cassini-Huygens mission. Cassini is still taking fantastic pictures of Saturn and its moons while Huygens ended its journey on a methane riverbed and claims honors as the most distant touch-down ever made by a human built spacecraft. To the right here you can see the orange image that Huygens had as it came to rest stranded on the cold world; the rocks in the image are actually water ice. And further to the right is the grey image of a similary scaled image for comparison to the Moon's surface. I was struck by the flashing lights and strange sounds in the video. Every detail of the video expresses some aspect of the spacecrafts data aquisition. For a complete description of the data try this and here is an explanation for the sounds.
Sounds from a left speaker trace Huygens' motion, with tones changing with rotational speed and the tilt of the parachute. There are also clicks that clock the rotational counter, as well as sounds for the probe's heat shield hitting Titan's atmosphere, parachute deployments, heat shield release, jettison of the DISR cover and touch-down.

 Sounds from a right speaker go with DISR activity. There's a continuous tone that represents the strength of Huygens' signal to Cassini. Then there are 13 different chimes - one for each of DISR's 13 different science parts - that keep time with flashing-white-dot exposure counters.

A man of Seville

A man of Seville is shaved by the Barber of Seville if and only if the man does not shave himself. Does the barber shave himself?

Image from LOGICOMIX by Apostolos Doxiadis.


Leonids meteor shower 1833 RG Photo
The Leonids meteor shower by RG Photo.
The Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight in the early hours of this Tuesday morning.  The Leonids result from the earth's passage through debris left from comet Temple-Tuttle.  I would go into all this further, but the forecast for Seattle is rainy and cloudy for the next week, but perhaps you will have more luck observing the Leonids.  It should be a sight, around 500 meteors per hour, but it wont compare to the 1833 Leonid meteor shower:
One estimate was that over 240,000 meteors fell during that period, so many meteors in the sky at a time that many people were woken from their beds and stared at the sky in panic, believing the sky to be on fire. Many feared that it was the end of the world and dreaded what they would see at daybreak.
Update: I should clarify that when I refer to debris left by Temple-Tuttle I am referring to debris left by Temple-Tuttle's previous close passages to the sun which may have occurred long ago. For example the most recent close passage of Temple-Tuttle to the sun was 1998, but most of the meteorites seen in this shower were left by debris trails originating from passages in 1466 and 1533.  And finally here is a cool meteor detector that works by detecting reflected radio waves from the ionized trails created by particles of rock entering the upper atmosphere.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Detexify: Dymistify your LaTeX symbol

astronomy typesetting laTeX
I write a lot in LaTeX and I forget a lot of obscure symbols I need. The solution: Detexify.  Detexify will discover the LaTeX formatting of any symbol you can manage to scrawl with your mouse. If you don't know what LaTex is then your probably not in academia, a student, or a publisher; it is a digital typesetting package.  Ignore this then and move along, otherwise I ask you...
How else would you learn about: \bat

Or have a little: \Heart

Or make real numbers: \Re

Or that one symbol you can't remember: \Denarius

And who can remember angstroms: \aa

Detexify is the work of Daniel Kirsch.  There is an iphone app too, but I am trying to figure out who has LaTex on their iphone?

Punctuation, Grammar, Style

I place content over punctuation, grammar, or style. I say who cares if their not using they're grammar correctly if your not using you're grammar correctly? Well, today I am grading students midterms and I find it amazing how some insist on using MLA style to hide answers. Why can't they just write the number down? Perhaps, because the MLA has strict rules for these cases:
  • If your topic makes little use of numbers, "you may spell out numbers written one or two words" (Gibaldi 98). Otherwise, use arabic numerals. 
  • If your writing contains the recurrent use of numeric statistical or scientific data, use numerals for those numbers but write out other numbers in the text if you can do so in one or two words. 
  • Do not mix numbers that are spelled out with symbols, write out the term for the symbols as well. For example, write: 45%, or forty-five percent; $20 or twenty dollars.
There are times and places where formal punctuation, grammar, or style are not called for and I think those times include numerical responses and singing.

The Jodcast

The Jodcast Astronomy
I want to give a shout out to The Jodcast.  The Jodcast is an audio podcast about astronomy by astronomers at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank telescope. It discusses current science in twice-monthly shows.  They are great for listening to during commute or whenever, and you can subscribe for free of course on their website or here.  If you are a scientist and want to stay up on astronomy news, this is a powerful resource, so powerful that if you follow it regularly you will probably be more broadly aware of astronomy news than most astronomers.  Enjoy.

Explosive Morals: War Profiteer

jim mitchell
Image from The Hurt Locker.
Jim Mitchell is a war profiteer.  He is the head of London based ATSC which sells, basically, dowsing rods for finding explosives.  The Iraqi government is spending millions to purchase the devices for use at military checkpoints.  The devices really are quite magical, from the New York Times:
ATSC’s promotional material claims that its device can find guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies and even contraband ivory at distances up to a kilometer, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes three miles high. The device works on “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction,” ATSC says.
I am incensed by this electrostatic magnetic ion attraction device's outrageously unrealistic claims.  I would go into the physics of magnetic ions, but if you have ever used an Ouija board you understand already.  The real forces at work here are sociological, variable reinforcement conditioning is a powerful way to shape behavior; it is the reason that baseball players have absurd rituals before games and why even apparently logical people have illogical superstitions.  In this case if the device doesn't work it is explained as user error and when it does work it is the life saver.  In reality Iraqi soldiers are simply relying on their intuition to perceive threats.  Studies show the device performs no better than random chance.  People are dieing and we can do better.  Let's get the word out about this situation.  The people profiting from this need to get what is coming to them.  I have a feeling there will be blood before the dust settles. More from the article:
Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.

The sensor device, known as the ADE 651, from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Iraq has bought more than 1,500 of the devices.
The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.

Still, the Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the ADE 651, at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles.

With violence dropping in the past two years, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has taken down blast walls along dozens of streets, and he contends that Iraqis will safeguard the nation as American troops leave.

But the recent bombings of government buildings here have underscored how precarious Iraq remains, especially with the coming parliamentary elections and the violence expected to accompany them.

The suicide bombers who managed to get two tons of explosives into downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25, killing 155 people and destroying three ministries, had to pass at least one checkpoint where the ADE 651 is typically deployed, judging from surveillance videos released by Baghdad’s provincial governor. The American military does not use the devices. “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives,” said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., who oversees Iraqi police training for the American military. “If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.”

The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.

Dale Murray, head of the National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, which does testing for the Department of Defense, said the center had “tested several devices in this category, and none have ever performed better than random chance.”
Read on...