Archive for October, 2008

Last night I attended a fun event put together by the Illinois Science Council on the science of the spooky. My friend Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab, was presenting on “The physics of ghosts” (specifically: why they wouldn’t work), and it seemed like there might be some opportunity to heckle.

Before Dan, though, there was a talk was on the evidence for “psi” — which is just ESP, but called psi because the proponents know that people realize ESP research is bunk. It was, shall we say, typical of the form: Lots of plots showing effects that are just barely statistically significant, a discussion of how the methodology of previous studies was hopelessly flawed followed by a statement that this one was free of bias, and even a claim that Carl Sagan himself had agreed that psi was worth of study. (You’ll be shocked to learn that the last one was quote-mined.) Yawn.

Dan’s talk was much more entertaining. (more…)

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Today I ran across two incredible sets of images. The first is a set of “solargraphs” from a New Scientist story (via The Bad Astronomer). The photographer, Justin Quinnell, exposed a pinhole camera for 6 months. The resulting image tracks the sun as it moves across the sky. Each track is the motion of the sun over the course of a day, and the different tracks show how it moves through the seasons. The trick, of course, is finding a place where a camera can sit undisturbed for 6 months. If you have that, then the article tells you how to take your own. I smell science project.

The second, which I found linked at Swans on Tea, is a set of pictures of Fire Rainbows, a phenomena I’d never even heard about before. These are incredibly rare, requiring cirrus clouds with ice crystals aligned just so while the sun is at a particular angle, but the result is beyond spectacular. If you painted this for a class you’d be flunked for making something so unrealistic.

Take a look at the full sets; both are breathtaking.

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I remember five years ago hearing about an incredible new game that was coming out. In Spore, you would be able to re-trace the history of evolution from cells to galactic civilizations. From Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and The Sims, it sounded too good to be true: a game that would be fun and that would involve fundamental concepts from science into the heart of the experience.

It was too good to be true.


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As David Harris reports, someone has created a model of ATLAS, one of the 4 detectors at the LHC, in Second Life. Besides just being cool, I love the idea of having something like this as an educational tool. You could run tours, or just let people play around inside. From the video below it looks like it does a good job of conveying the complexity and enormity of a modern particle detector.

Unfortunately, the model was made on borrowed land, and needs a permanent home. (Is there a Second Life Craigslist? That would be a fantastic ad. “Friendly, black-hole free, particle detector seeking comfortable living situation in which to unlock secrets of the universe. 137 friendly. No helium leaks, please.”)

It’s creator, Professor Panda (Ryushimitsu Xingjian) made this video before having to take it down. See the post at Symmetry Breaking for more information.

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The continents move. That fact by itself is pretty incredible. Slabs of rock thousands of miles across are sliding on a softer layer deep below the surface. In the nearly 100 years since this Continental Drift was described by German meteorologist Alfred Wegener, geologists have discovered a host of information about how they’re moving, and about the dynamics within the Earth that are driving the motion. This picture of how geologic processes function is fascinating, but in science there are always more questions. When taking pictures, resolution matters. In modern terms, the more pixels you have, the better the picture looks; and if you’re doing science, the more you can learn. In a very rough sense, that is the premise of the Earthscope project. Earthscope is an ambitious project funded by the National Science Foundation. Earthscope is deploying over 400 seismometers, 175 strain meters, and 900 GPS units to around 1600 locations around the United States. There’s even a hole being dug through the San Andreas Fault in California, a part of the project called SAFOD (which sounds like an oblique Douglas Adams reference; if so, none of their liturature cops to it). The instruments are expensive, so there’s no where near the funding to deploy enough seismometer units to cover the US at the level of detail they want (you may have noticed a little discrepancy in the numbers above). The solution is to make a smaller number of portable seismometers, and slowly leap-frog them across the country over the next decade. It’s not like the plate will be dramatically changing direction in the next 10 years. (more…)

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LHC inauguration

CERN is holding the inauguration party for the LHC today. Jester has the details, and the current rumors for the new start-up date, Sept. 2009.

Update: Here’s an article in Nature about the accident, via The Gauge Connection.

(I’m currently in NY City, so blogging has been very light, and will be until I get home on Thursday.)

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The Atom Smashers, a documentary about physicists at the Tevatron searching for the Higgs boson, has won the Audacity Award in the Pariscience festival. This award is “for a film that shows originality in its subject matter or treatment.”
Congratulations to Clayton and Monica. You can find my review of this excellent film here.

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