Archive for the 'science & society' category

The End of Nobel Week

The Sunday (Dec. 11) after the Nobel Prize ceremony was a slow and quiet day. I slept in a bit (due to having gone to bed so late the night of the cermoney), but not as much as I had intended. That was fine, though, as late in the afternoon I fell asleep, to wake up briefly in the evening, only to fall asleep again. So, the day before yesterday, I slept a lot. (If only you could bank sleep.) The one fun thing I did on Sunday was head down to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was launched in the early 17th century, commissioned by the then-king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus II. Its trip didn't last long; on its first voyage, it tipped, took on water, and sank. In the mid-twentieth century, it was rasied again, and today forms the basis of a museum all about early 17th-century Swedish ships, shipbuilding, and life related to these things. The Vasa was a warship, loaded with cannon. At the time, Sweden was perenially at war with Poland (and sometimes Denmark as well). Ah, the Renaissance.

[Vasa]
The Vasa

On Monday, I did a bit more gratuitous walking about Stockholm, and then in the afternoon there was a symposium at the Albanova University Center. This is where SCP member Ariel Goobar is headquartered, along with the graduate students and post-docs who have worked with him and continue to work with him. The symposium was introduced by saying that we'd heard a lot from Saul, Adam, and Brian at the Nobel Lectures; for these two hours, we'd hear from other members of the team. The three laureates moderated, while four different panels representing four different eras of the whole supernova search business gave short talklets about the prehistory of the whole thing. That included Rich Muller talking about the LBL robotic search, as well as Rich's Nemesis idea that (if I am not mistaken) was the topic of Saul's thesis, and Bob Kirshner talking about supernova work "back in the day" when he was the thesis advisor for both Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss. It also included Richard Ellis talking about the original Danish high-redshift supernova search (which wasn't really succesful; they found only one supernova, and after maximum light). Mark Phillips talked about the genesis of the Calan-Tololo supernova search, which established Type Ia supernovae as calibratable standard candles suitable cosmology, and whose supernovae served as the low-redshift comparison set for both high-redshift teams.

[Saul on the Phone]
Many people commented on Saul's propensity for calling people at observatories, as Richard Ellis does here

The second panel was about the early days of the project. Carl Pennypacker, Brian Boyle, Heidi Newberg, and Warrick Couch talked about the early days of the SCP, when the weather was extremely frustrating, and Heidi figured she'd get a thesis out of it even if they didn't manage to find even a single supernova. (The first supernova was found in 1992.) Nick Suntzeff talked about the genesis of the High-Z team.

The next batch of people included Alejandro Clocchiatti and Chris Smith from the High-Z team, and Peter Nugent and myself from the SCP. After Peter told a very funny story abuot observing at the CTIO and neary running over Brian Schmidt in a runaway CTIO volkswagon bug whose brakes had failed, it was difficult to follow myself. In the SCP, we'd only been told what the program was and what we were going to be talking about an hour or so before the thing began, and I had no idea what anybody else was going to say, so I didn't really plan anything. The result was that I just blathered a little bit about Moore's Law and computer (and network) technology having made it all possible, and I completely failed to make any of the two or three points I was hoping to make about what it was like to adopt the search software from Alex Kim and Ivan Small, and spend 40-hour days processing the data as it came in during a search run.

Next, Alex Filippenko, Isobel Hook, Chris Lidman, Ron Gilliland, Saurabh Jha, and Alex Kim talked about spectroscopy (showing off how much better an 8m telescope is than a 4m telescope for the more distant supernovae), using HST to observe supernovae, and some other things. Saurabh told an amusing story about performing the supernova photometry. Adam Reiss had been put in charge of the analysis that lead to the High-Z team's discovery paper by team leader Brian Schmidt. Adam, in turn, had farmed out the work of getting the photometric lightcurves to several team members. When the due date came, he sent out an e-mail to all of them saying (I paraphrase) "thank you! Everybody but one (you know who you are) have turned in your data." This made Saurabh, a young grad student at the time, feel terrible, because he was the one. He went nuts over the next 36 hours, and managed to get his data in. Only after that, running into Peter Garnevich and Ron Gilliland, did he figure out that in fact nobody had managed to get their data in, and Adam's message wasn't entirely serious.

Finally, Ariel Goobar, John Tonry, Peter Garnevich, and Craig Hogan talked about the cosmology analysis. Craig Hogan, the theorist, went last. He pointed out, as we all know, that while we've established that the Universe is accelerating, we don't know why. "Dark Energy" is the name we give to the phenomenon, but we don't know what it is, or even if it is stuff at all; it may in fact be that we're seeing the breakdown of General Relativity. Craig and John did, at the end during a Q&A period, rain a bit on everybody's parade by saying that this field is more or less a dead field. I've had similar feelings myself for a few years, but few would agree with me. There are parameters about Dark Energy that can be measured; my suspicion is that we're just going to keep narrowing the errorbars around the default, not-terribly-interesting answer. (If the values are even slightly different from that answer, it's extremely interesting. However, you can never prove that that answer is right, you can only shrink the error bars around it. There are arguments, however, why it's not a waste of time to do this, and I won't get into it here.)

During the Q&A period, Hubble Space Telescope director Matt Mountain asked a leading question about "can't we all just get along?" He talked about repeated semesters where the HST time allocation committee would assign time to either Adam or to Saul; inevitably, he would then hear from the other one shortly thereafter. He suggested that with HST having only perhaps five years left, and nothing to follow it very soon, it was a crucial time for them to figure out ways in which the community as a whole could work together. Indeed, it sounded to me like he was inviting them to get together and put in a proposal to ask for a truly impressive amount of HST time, even more than the already-impressive amounts of time that has gone to supernova cosmology work. (This was what triggered Craig Hogan and John Tonry to caution that perhaps beating down the error bars on the two parameters we've identified, rather than trying to be more creative, might not be the best way to proceed.)

[Big Rodent]
For example, the human-sized rodent was pretty scary

After the symposium, both groups retired to the Junibcken museum, a museum dedicated to Swedish children's litrature, in particular the stories of Astrid Lindgren (the author of the Pippi Longstockings books). (I have to admit to being nearly compltely ignorant about those.) We all rode their Story Train (in little cars of 3), that took us through 15-minute tour of lovingly recreated dioramas of scenes from these stories... none of which I recognized. I was sitting with Shane and Stormy Burns as we made the trip, and we agreed that these would probably be delightful to kids who were fans of the books. We also thought that some of the scenes would be quite scary.

At the end of the train ride was a dinner, for both of the teams together. Of course, at the end of the dinner, there were some speeches, which were all quite nice. Alex Filippenko— who started collaborating with Saul on the SCP, but defected to the High-Z team in what I gather was a rather unpleasant falling-out— gave a nice speech crediting the two teams' differences with being strengths, as each team learned from the other. (And, of course, he mentioned, as did a man from the Royal Swedish Academy (whose name I didn't get) involved in the Nobel selection, that the fact that there were two different teams with the same result is part of why the world couldn't just dismiss it right away, as we so far have more or less done with the FTL neutrino result.) Several other peple told stories about various things, including Saul's father, and the woman from the Swedish diplomat service who had been appointed as Saul's liaison and shepherd during the whole process. She had only met Saul just this week, but said that she was impressed with how gracious he was talking to nearly everybody. Whether it was a 15-year-old or a colleague, he was always interested when talking to them.

[Santa Lucia]
Santa Lucia showed up to help banish the darkness; she brought with her a rather nice group of a capella singers who sang Christmas songs. At least, I think they were; but for "Deck the Halls", they were all in Swedish.

In the end, several people remarked that it was unusal for a group this large, especailly including collabortors, to come out to the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Brian, Adam, and Saul may be the ones with the glory, they may be the ones that history will remember, but they did a good job of sharing some part of the glory with the rest of us during this week. Somebody (I forget who, but it may also have been Alex Filippenko) commented that it's too bad that too many members of the public think that science is done by individuals working away all by themselves— antisocial individuals, even. For these groups that's certainly not the case, and indeed this science could never have been accomplished in such a mode. The fact that the Nobel Prize celebrates individuals only serves to cement this model in the public mind. However, as I said, Saul, Brian, and Adam were very generous with making it clear that there are a lot of people who share the credit for this discovery.

And now I'm on my way home; I've composed this post in fits and starts along my way home, and won't finish getting all the pictures embedded until after I'm home in Squamish. (I decided not to attend the Lucia Ball on the 13th, but to head home.)

This last evening, I also got what I think is the coolest souvenir of the trip. The Astrophysical Journal put out a special "Nobel" commemorative reprint of the Perlmutter '99 paper (as well as the corresponding Riess '98 paper, although I didn't see that one). We were all given copies of it. At the end of the night, those of us who were still there passed the copies around to each other to sign. A few signatures are missing, but I do have this Nobel commemorative reprint with the signatures of Saul and all the other authors (including myself). That's going to get framed and put on my office wall next to the Gruber prize!

[Signed Paper]
Perlmutter et al., 1999

I can't help but get a wee bit choked up when I think about this last week— when I think about the fact that I was a major contributor to one of the coolest discoveries in science in the last couple of decades, and that the world has now recognized that discovery with its highest honor. It's been quite a week.

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The Nobel Prize Ceremony and Banquet

[chair]
Saul's, Brian's, and Adam's chair

On the morning of Saturday, December 11, I walked down to the Nobel Museum, planning to have lunch with Shane Burns (my college thesis advisor at Harvey Mudd, and later a collaborator when I was a post-doc at LBNL). Because the English "tour" (really, lecture with people standing around) was starting just as I got there, I went along on that. Among other things, I learned that while there are 800 some-odd Nobel Laureates, only just over 40 of them are women. The Nobel Museum is only 10 or 20 years old. They have a rotating exhibit; right now, there's one about Marie Curie. (Ironically, even though the fraction of female Nobel laureates is small, Marie Curie is probably the most iconic physics laureate.) When the museum opened, and some laureates first showed up, they realized that they ought to have a guest book; they hadn't planned to do that, so at the last minute they decided to make the cafe the guest book. Somebody grabbed a white paint-pen, and got the laureates to sign the bottom of a chair. Now, if you turn over a chair, you can find signatures of laureates. (At lunch, I sat on the chair signed by David Gross. I felt very asymptotically free, and very colorful.)

At lunch, I chatted with Shane, sharing war stories about teaching on the block system, and telling him a little more about Quest. Shane teaches at Colorado College, the school that (decades ago) pioneered the idea of the block system, and the place Quest got the idea from. We also shared some stories about being bitter about tenure denials of years past. Shane was denied tenure at Harvey Mudd. I asked him if he was still bitter; he said he had been, but when he started at CC, he got over it. He's much happier at CC (among other things, he and his wife would much rather live in Colorado than Southern California), and it's where he always wanted to be. I feel similarly about Quest. I wouldn't say I'm over my bitterness from Vanderbilt (the experience of which provided so much great fodder for this blog during its glory days), but Quest is much more the sort of place that I've always wanted to be. (I just hope that stupid Canadian immigration doesn't prevent me from staying there long-term.)

[Shane & I]
Shane and I in front of a Marie Curie quote

After lunch, I hoofed it back to the hotel to put on my tails, and my way-too-tight shoes. I have a pair of shiny black shoes that I wear with my tux... although my use of the present tense is perhaps somewhat deceitful. While I've worn my tux recently, I'm not sure I've worn these shoes in over 10 years. And, just like the Universe, I've expanded in the last 10 years. Yes, most of that's at the waist, but when you get fat, you get fat everywhere. (This can lead to sleep apnea, it turns out, as you get fat on the inside of your windpipe.) What's more, I brought thick black socks, for very rational reasons. (Sweden, winter, ergo thick socks.) My feet were crushed in them, and I was in intense pain throughout much of the evening, especially when I had to stand up. At dinner, I took off my shoes (my feet were under the table, and nobody knew, so I didn't get ejected), which was quite nice.

From there, I went down to the Grand Hotel to pick up the bus for the Nobel Ceremony. It was quite nice. There were a lot of very well-dressed people about. Down on stage, there were chairs on one side for the Swedish Royal party, and chairs on the other side for the laureates. (That is, except for the three Peace laureates, who are three women from Africa and the Middle East, honored for their work in improving womens' rights. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway, each year, as it's a committee formed by the Norwegian Parliament that chooses the Peace laureates.) Behind them were chairs for what I assume were members of the committees that choose all of the Nobel prizes.

[Nobel Ceremony]
Left, front: a bunch of white guys about to get their Nobel Prizes. Right: front: the Swedish Queen, King, and Crown Princess.

I have to admit that I wanted to jump up and down and cheer and shout when Saul got his Nobel. Not only was it personally very exciting, what with my having been one of the core members of the team when we were doing the supernova searches and the analysis the last year or so before the announcement, but the man really deserved it. Yeah, in a sense, we all deserved it, and indeed we all got some recognition four years ago with the Gruber Prize. But, it was Saul who created this field. Adam and Brian, the two from the other team who shared the prize with Saul, also deserved it. They made an independent measurement of the acceleration, and the fact that there were two teams that came out with the measurement at the same time is the reason that people took the measurement as seriously as they did when it first came out. However, Saul was the one who was pushing it in the early days, back in 1988, and who persevered in pushing it through what sounded like several very early trying years. He kept pushing it, cajoling observatory time allocation committees to allow him to schedule the time the way he needed, even as some members of what would become the other team were still swearing up and down that it couldn't be done. I seriously doubt I would have had the perseverance to stick with the program for so long, taking four years before even one supernova was discovered, and another two before a batch of a mere 7 were discovered, and another three after that before the answer that he'd been looking for all along came out. But Saul is extremely optimistic, and extremely perseverant.

[Saul Getting the Nobel Prize]
Saul Perlmutter getting his Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden

I do have to admit, I took the opportunity to give in to my jetlag during the ceremony. Except for the first speech, all of the rest were in Swedish. My knowledge of Swedish is less than my knowledge of Klingon, for at least I know one word in Klingon. ("Kaplah!") We did have booklets with translations of the speeches. However, I could read those faster than those giving the speeches could say them, so I had a bit of time after each one to doze off.... As I write this, it sounds pretty horrifying to say that I napped during the Nobel prize ceremony, but, well, it was practical! I was always awake as the King gave each prize. (Everybody in the room stood up when the King stood up. I would hate to be King.)

After that was the Nobel Banquet, which was quite an exercise in pomp and circumstance. The banquet was in this huge hall at City Hall, which is nicely designed to look like an outdoor venue. The (very high) ceiling is a projection screen, on which are projected vaguely cloudy-looking things, and the inner walls look like outside walls of Swedish buildings, so the illusion is quite effective. (Yes, I couldn't help making a comparison to the ceiling at Hogwarts.)

[Banquet Room]
The room where we had the Nobel Banquet (after it was over)
[Banquet Ceiling]
The Hogwarts-style ceiling

During the three-course meal, there were some ballet/theater/music numbers, where performers would move through the room and do... something. I didn't completely follow what was going on, but it was fun. As they were finishing, an extremely efficient regiment of waiters would come, stand by every table, and then, all at once, serve everybody. I've been at many big events where the head table is served... and by the time the last table is served, the people at the head table have already finished, gone home, had a full-night's sleep, started their next day, quit their job, and moved to another city. Not here. Everything was very efficient, very synchronized, and very well managed by the professional cadre of waiters.

[Dessert]
Dessert had red hair

The dinner was quite good. Others at the table who I guess are much more into gourmet food than I was were poo-pooing it ("only a three course meal"), but hey, it was way better than I usually eat!

After that was over, there was "dancing in the Golden ballroom". On display were the medals and individually customized diplomas for the laureates. Had security not been watching, I would have grabbed a snapshot of it. (Indeed, we were not supposed to take pictures at all during the banquet, but I figure, what's the point of being an iconoclast if you can't take pictures when you aren't supposed to?)

From there, we retired to the University of Stockholm, where the students there put on the nightcap ball. This was a huge party and masquerade, attended it seemed mostly by undergraduates. Some people were in quite interesting costumes. There was a huge array of themed rooms, with different things going on in different rooms. Because my feet were utterly killing me, I spent a bit of time sitting in one place listening to a nice jazz combo. Later on, in another room, I found a stage where a string quartet plus a clarinetist (all with painted-on masks on their face) started playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. They were really quite good, but alas being in a party room where everybody was talking, I was able to sort of hear them standing right next to the stage. Saul, a violinist himself, was elsewhere in the same room; he didn't even realize that the chamber group was there playing. Sadly, I didn't get to stay to hear them complete even the first movement, because the SCP had planned to take more group photos at 1:15 AM.

[Quintet]
Masqued Swedish students playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet
[The SCP]
A Well-Dressed SCP Staircase Photo in need of some image processing to balance the contrast in the front and back

Next followed group photos. We started with what is a bit of an unofficial occasional SCP tradition: the staircase photo. We then did photos standing around, and then every conceivable combination of people had their picture taken with Saul. (I told Saul he was going to have to sign each and every one of the photos later.)

At 2AM, I took a taxi home, and took off my shoes, and then goofed off a bit on the computer to unwind. Ufda. My feet still hurt the next day. Excedrin helped me sleep through the night... that is, insofar as sleeping from 4AM to 8:30AM is "through the night". I sense a nap coming on.

A month ago, when I was in the throes of my third block in a row and reaching the burnout stage that all professors who teach on the block seem to at the very least flirt with when that happens, I was considering not coming. I'm not somebody who loves to travel, and having to deal with getting (and paying for...) the formal wear and all of that made the thing seem a bit like a pain. But, I'm extremely happy that I've come. It's been great catching up with members of the SCP (including chatting with Brad Schaefer about our mutual student, Andrew Collazzi, who did research with me as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt and just recently finished his PhD with Brad at LSU). The pomp and circumstance surrounding all of this is, really, a little bit silly (much as the Academy Awards in the USA are silly, or even for that matter the Presidential Inauguration), but it's a good kind of silly. It's celebrating the furthering of human knowledge, which is a great thing to celebrate. And, it's all a very classy kind of silly. Except for my still-tingling feet, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and although it's barely over 12 hours later, watching Saul being given that Nobel Prize is one of those life events I wouldn't want to have missed.

[SCPers from the Late-1997 Berkeley Analysis Team]
(Some of the) people who were in Berkeley during the 1997 push to complete the analysis that led to the discovery of the accelerating Unvierse. Front, L to R: Patricia Castro, me, Saul Perlmutter, Nelson Nunes. Back, L to R: Peter Nugent, Sabastien Fabbro, Robert Quimby, and Greg Aldering either completely wasted, or just facpalming at it all.

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Nobel Week Festivities Part 1

I'm out here in Stockholm for the ceremonies surrounding Saul Perlmutter's Nobel Prize. Most of the members of the group who were on the 1999 paper are here.

The Big Event (not to be confused with the Bang) comes tonight, when the prizes themselves are presented. However, there's been a fair number of festivities already. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon terribly jetlagged. It seemed odd that it was Wednesday to me, what with my having left early Tuesday morning. The flights were very long, but not that long. From this, I'm concluding that the Earth must be round, and that there must have been a 9 hour change in the clock time to account for the position of the Sun relative to my position on the planet. That it was already dark at 3PM didn't help much.... We're so far North that the Sun never gets very high in the sky in the winter, and it doesn't stay up very long. It was also cloudy when I arrived, so the deep twilight was even deeper.

I went to my room and crashed for a 1-hour power nap before putting on my jacket and tie and the shoes in which I'm not as happy walking as I am in my Birkenstocks, and, with Don Groom, wandered in the vague direction of the Grand Hotel, eventually finding it through not the most efficient route. From there, we went over to a reception at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. I foolishly forgot to bring my camera, and also didn't take any pictures with my phone, so no snaps from that night.


Susana Deustua before the Nobel Lecture

The next morning (Thursday, 8-December) was the Nobel lectures at the University of Stockholm. The physics lectures lasted about two hours. They started with Brian Schmidt, went through Adam Riess, and ended with Saul's. For the last 15 minutes of Saul's lecture, he made a point of describing how the whole team worked together. It evolved over time. Different members of the team were active in different eras. When he got to the era of the couple of years before the discovery, he was describing the distributed effort with people at telescopes all over the world, and the team in Berkeley working on a variety of things. What he said when my picture popped up was: "Rob Knop, who thinks, types, and programs faster than I talk." (Saul talks pretty fast, so this was a nice complement.)


Saul giving the Nobel Lecture

After the physics lecture, our team snuck out of the hall. (All due apologies to the Chemistry and Economics laureates.) We had scheduled a team lunch for the SCP at a smorgasbord restaurant. Where was it? I don't know... we got on a bus, and then on a boat to make our way over to the restaurant. The boat ride was nice, although up on the top deck it really was rather cold. Yesterday, I posted a group photo of the members of the SCP who were present at the lunch. There were a few people who were on the discovery paper who weren't there, because they hadn't arrived yet (I'm presuming), including Patricia Castro, Isobel Hook, and Matthew Kim. (Also on that paper was Alex Filippenko, but in 1996 he defected to the other team, so he hasn't been going to SCP team meetings for a decade and a half now.) Standing in for Gerson Goldhaber is his daughter, three from the right; Gerson died in 2010.


On the boat after lunch. Left to Right: Saul Perlmutter Alex Kim, Ivan Small, Julia Lee, Julia's Husband (Andrew, I think), and me

Joseph Calleja and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 Nobel Prize Concert

Finally, on the evening of December 8, I went to the Nobel concert. It's much easier to buy extremely expensive concert tickets when they're in a foreign currency, and you don't know the exchange rate. I blithely put down my credit card and was charged 1,500SEK, not realizing until later that that was in the neighborhood of $250...! I don't know if I've ever spent that much to go to a single concert before. The concert was good; I've been to other concerts that cost a quarter as much that were just as good, but you don't get the opportunity to go to the Nobel Concert very often, so what the heck. Tenor Joseph Calleja was the soloist, and he was quite good. I must admit, though, as a violinist myself, my favorite piece on the program was Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens. At the concert, I was sitting next to Rich Muller, about whom there's been a buzz in the science blogosphere recently because of his coming out and saying that, yeah, when he reanalyzed the data, it turns out that climate change is real just like all the people in the field who were working on it all along had said. I didn't talk to him about climate change, but I did talk about my general sense of despair about the world in general. (I feel more like we're screwed now than I did in the Cold War 1980s.) He doesn't share it at all; he thinks 2011 is the best time to be alive of all of human history. I must admit myself that I'm in a teaching job now that's more like the job I'm supposed to be in (and that I've always wanted) than any other job I've ever had, so perhaps 2011 is the best year for Rob Knop... but for the world at large? I honestly think that the world was a better place before Sep 11, 2001; not because of the terrorists directly, but because of how the world (mostly the USA) responded to it. But, enough gratuitous philosophizing.

Yesterday (Friday December 9) was a quiet day for me. There were events, but I didn't have tickets to any of them. There are finite tickets to each event, so Saul has been parceling them out. There was a reception at the Nordic Museum last night, but because I went to the December 7 reception, I sat out last night's. A bunch of team members also went to their national embassies for some sort of celebration or another. I'm not sure if I would have been sent to the USA or Canadian embassy... and, in any event, I spend too much time criticizing the government on microblogging platforms for them to want to be seen with me. I took the opportunity of the free day to sleep a lot...! Also, I had lunch with MICA director and Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski and his wife Leslie Maxfield (with whom I was in a production of Hello Dolly at Caltech a bit under 20 years ago); they were randomly in Stockholm for a conference.


George, Leslie, and myself

As an afterthought, I do need to read my camera's manual and figure out how to use it better. I've got blurry pictures of Saul and others from a great distance giving the Nobel lectures, and blurry pictures from the Nobel concert. It's not the world's most expensive camera, and it's already better than my skill with a camera for normal snapshot situations. However, I do know enough to be able to take advantage of some of its low-light tweaks, and to be able to take advantage of "focusing at infinity", so I should figure out what all the mysterious icons on the screen really mean when you're futzing with the settings.

Today (Saturday December 10) is the big event. Mid-afternoon, I'll start putting on my formal outfit. Once those two hours are done, I'll head down to the Grand Hotel, where we'll all get on the bus to go to the Nobel Banquet. After that is the midnight ball. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm sure it has something to do with "rolling without slipping down a plane inclined at angle ϑ". That's how I usually encounter a ball.

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Online Talk Tomorrow (12-03) About FTL Neutrinos

Tomorrow morning, December 3, at 10:00AM pacific time (18:00 UT), I'll be giving the MICA public outreach talk about the faster-than-light neutrino results from CERN and Grand Sasso. The talk will include an overview of the OPERA experiment that has led to the result, a summary of the result, my own headscratching about whether or not it's real, and some notes about what this does (and, more importantly, does not) imply about our confidence in the theory of Relativity.

The talk will be at the MICA Large Ampitheater, and all are welcome. Remember, a Second Life account is free!

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In Which I Compare the Slashdot Commentariat to the 17th-Century Catholic Church

I am regularly struck, when giving public outreach talks, or when hearing the topic of Dark Matter discussed amongst the general non-Astronomer public, at the separation between acceptance of Dark Matter between astronomers and the general (informed) public. (The general public at large probably doesn't have enough of a clue about Dark Matter even to have a wrong opinion, alas!) Most astronomers know the evidence, and accept that non-baryonic dark matter is a real component of our Universe. Many in the public, however, seem to view Dark Matter as a horrible kludge, an ex-rectum fudge factor that astronomers have invoked in order to explain discrepancies between observation and theory. Indeed, topics related to this will be the subject of my upcoming August 16 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

For a popular level discourse on the evidence for dark matter, I shall point you to two sources:

And now I can get to the snarky bits of this post. Yesterday, on Slashdot there showed up a post entitled CERN Physicists Says Dark Matter May Be An Illusion. In the paper indirectly referenced by the Slashdot article, a theoretical physicists explores the idea of negative gravitationally charged antimatter and the polarization of the vacuum as an explanation for the rotation speeds of galaxies (the mainstream explanation for which is, yes, Dark Matter).

What's interesting is the tone of the Slashdot comments. Some are informative, and ask exactly what I ask: what about the Bullet Cluster? However, a fair number of the comments show the same tenor as these excerpts:

I hope so. Dark matter is the ugliest kludge to the standard model ever.

Agreed. I have always had a hard time stomaching the theory that dark matter and dark energy exist. It seems far too much like aether, i.e. something made up to fill a gap in knowledge without much evidence backing it up.

Yay for phlogiston [wikipedia.org] and aether [wikipedia.org]. Dark matter might end up on the list of ideas that physcists turned to in order to explain things that had other explanations. La plus ca change

Dark matter, too, has never been observed, and possesses properties of matter previous unseen or indeed thought impossible, and exists solely to bridge a gap between our model of how things should behave, and how things actually behave. This does not bode well for it.

There is a strong general sense among a large (majority? hard to tell) subset of the Slashdot commentariat that astronomers are all on the wrong track and propping up a failing theory, and that dark matter is a kludge that just can't be right.

The thing is, they're wrong. They just know that Dark Matter can't be real, because they are not comfortable with the idea that a substantial fraction of the Universe is made up with stuff that we can't see, that doesn't even interact with light. Much as... the 17th century Catholic church just knew that Galileo (and others) were wrong about Heliocentrism, because it's obvious to everyday observation that the Earth is still and the Sun is going around it. (Also, the Bible says so.) And, just as the leaders of the Catholic church completely discounted (and indeed refused to look at) Galileo's observation of Jupiter's moons orbiting Jupiter (and, crucially, not the Earth), armchair pundits completely ignore (probably mostly through ignorance!) the wide range of evidence for Dark Matter that goes beyond the "accounting error" represented by the motion of stars in galaxies, and galaxies in galaxy clusters. (Those motions are indeed one part of the evidence for Dark Matter, and historically formed the first evidence for it, but they're far from all of the evidence nowadays.) They cling to notions of how science ought to work, and how the Universe ought to be made up in a familiar way that seems natural to us humans, and use this to assert that an entire field full of scientists must all be on the wrong track for having a different model.

Specifically with regard to comparisons to the luminiferous aether, I would point you to my June 2010 podcast: "Dark Matter: Not Like the Luminiferous Ether". (And, yes, I'm conscious that I've spelled aether two different ways in this paragraph!)

Indeed, I would say that the comparison between denial of Dark Matter and denial of Heliocentrism goes deeper than that. The Copernican Principle is that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of... well, today we would say the Solar System, but in Copernicus' day that was also what was thought to be the whole Universe (the stars not at the time being understood to be things like the Sun). An extension of this is the Cosmological Principle, which stated succinctly says "you are nowhere special". We're not at a special center of the Universe, we're just at a typical random place in the Universe pretty much like any other. Observations (of galaxy distributions, of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and so forth) bear up this assumption or postulate, which is why we call it a principle. Think about it in broader terms, though. We are made up of "baryonic matter", which is Physicist for "stuff made of protons, neutrons, and electrons". In light of the Cosmological Principle, however, why should we expect that most of the Universe is made up of the same general kind of stuff as we are? In the face of evidence otherwise, many still insist that most of the Universe must be made up of baryonic stuff that interacts with other baryons and our familiar photons. Is this not just as much hubris as insisting that the Earth, where we live, must be the center about which all the other Solar System bodies orbit?

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Climategate is a tempest in a teapot, but it may lead to worst tempests

Dec 06 2009 Published by under Politics, Science, science & society

The Tennessean has been publishing numerous letters to the editor and editorial columns talking about how "climategate" supposedly shows that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud. It's extremely frustrating. That conclusion can only be drawn from a deep misunderstanding about how science works and the language of scientists used in the e-mails, but sadly it seems that newspapers are interested more in presenting "both sides" than getting to the truth of it. Today, there is an egregious column from David Lipscomb professor Richard Grant repeats the same tired arguments global warming denialists have already been using, and completely misunderstands the impacts of the supposed revelations from the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

It's very frustrating myself to watch this happen. The people who are trumpeting about this are ignorant about science. When I read the excerpts from the emails that are supposedly the smoking gun about climate change being a fraud, I do not see anything extremely alarming. What's more, even if I did, the evidence for climate change has not come completely from the University of East Anglia; it has come from all over the place. If it hadn't, scientists would not be accepting it as strongly as they do! And, yet, the newspaper coverage of this is covering the scandal, the controversy... it does not seek to illuminate the truth of the situation, to explain what is really going on. And, this of course lends fuel to the politicians who are exploiting global warming denialism for their own ends. (To be fair, there are also politicians who exploit the fact of human-caused global warming for their own ends! That doesn't make the conclusions wrong, however.) It is sad to me to see so many in our population being manipulated in a way that will allow us as a society to act in ways that may very likely cause us tremendous pain in future decades.

Here is the text of a letter to the editor I wrote to the Tennessean in response. I don't know if it will get published; I hope it does, of course, because many more people read the Tennessean letters to the editor than this blog.

The numerous letters and columns that have been written suggesting that "climategate" undermines conclusions about anthropogenic global warming are all getting it very wrong. There are two important points.

First, no matter what the researchers said when venting frustrations in private e-mail, their final actions in what data was published showed no misconduct. Nothing was suppressed, nothing was fudged. The impact of the supposedly revealing emails is vastly overstated by those who deny man-made global warming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we throw out all of the climate data and conclusions from the researchers in question, the conclusions still stand. This is an important point about how science works. Cold Fusion generated a lot of headlines in the 1980's when first reported, but ultimately didn't stand because no independent scientists could reproduce the results. With climate change, there are multiple independent teams who have data that all point to the same conclusions. Even if something were to cast doubt on conclusions of the University of East Anglia, that does not in any way affect the independent data of the USA's NOAA, for example.

The climate change data is still robust. The leaked emails only show informal communication using the jargon scientists use, and normal human frustration with how obstinate so many seem to be against accepting the fact of man-made global warming. Given how science works, these emails do not in any way undermine those conclusions. It is only at our peril that we use these leaked emails to further political ends.

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The Moon in "Heroes" is VERY different from our Moon.

My wife and I tend to watch TV shows a year after they come out; we rent the DVDs from Netflix and watch them then. We're right now working our way through the third seasons of Heroes. If you've watched even the first season of Heroes, you know that Eclipses are a Big Deal and somehow cause or affect superpowers in humans. Well, there's another total solar eclipse coming in Season 3. Here's a screenshot (also showing a vapor ring left behind as Nathan Patrelli took off flying at high speed) of the moon about to eclipse the Sun:

heroes_badmoon

OK, first, the good. Yes, the Moon is apparently about the same size as the Sun in the sky. (Yeah, the Sun looks a little bigger, but that's probably because of the glare. There's about to be a total eclipse, so they've got to have about the same apparent size. In any event, the size is close.)

Now, the bad. When the moon is that close to the Sun in the sky, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny, very thin crescent, basically a new moon. You will not see it at all, until it starts to actively block out the Sun. The reason for this is that since they're so close to each other in a sky, it's almost a straight line from the Earth to the Moon to the Sun. The distance to the Moon is much less, so the Moon is between us and the Sun. Thus, the side lit up by the Sun is the far side of the Moon from us.

Yet, here, instead of an almost-new moon, we see an almost-half-full moon! For half of the moon to be lit by the Sun when we see the two right next to each other in the sky, the moon would have to be at about the same distance from us as the Sun.... Well, it's not quite half, so it's a little closer, but we're talking inside the orbit of Mercury here. And, for the Moon to look as big as as the Sun when it's that far away, it will have to be physically almost as big as the Sun!

In our Universe, the Moon is a satellite of the Earth, about 1/4 the diameter of the Earth, and orbiting the Earth. The Sun is about 100 times the diameter of the Earth. The reason they look about the same size in the sky is because the Moon is so much closer.

From the evidence in the image above, however, the Earth of the Heroes Universe is very, very strange. They orbit a binary "star" system, including the Sun and the Moon... although the Moon is not a satellite of the Earth at all, but a binary partner to the Sun. However, the Heroes Universe Moon is an extremely bizarre object, for despite being so large, it does not shed any light of its own in the optical. It's clearly not a large gas cloud, for you can see by looking at it that it's a solid object with "seas" and craters and all of that. So, it's something that has somehow managed to be as big as the Sun without triggering fusion inside to make it glow.

Wow.

Well, given that all these superpowers work, we already knew they were operating under different laws of Physics, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

My only fear is that people watching the show don't realize that the producers are being very clever here in showing us that the Moon is a gigantic object that is nearly as far away as the Sun, very different from the case in our own world. I fear that some people watching might either think that the producers of the show have done the typical Hollywood thing and made a boner of a mistake, or may think that it's entirely reasonable to see a near-half Moon right next to the Sun in the sky. I hope in upcoming episodes there will be dialog between the characters that more clearly reveals the nature of their Moon as a star-sized object close to the Sun.

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Physics GRE Considered Harmful

"As presently constituted, it's quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does more harm than good, and we should either fix it, or seriously consider getting rid of it altogether,"

A quote from Jennifer Siders in this article at aps.org, that really we ought to take seriously. I doubt we will, though, because the Physics GRE is well entrenched at most graduate programs across the country, and making changes like that is always tough. Indeed, the article I linked to (as a result of seeing it in Pamela Gay's Facebook status) was written 13 years ago, and yet the Physics GRE is still going strong.

I've been grouchy about standardized tests for some time. When it comes to things like the general GREs and the SATs, I believe that it does correlate with overall academic performance. Whether or not it's testing the right stuff, there seems to be some correlation between what it tests and what we'd really want to test. But, it's not perfect. That is, for (say-- I'm making this number up) 80% of students, the SAT and general GRE might a good indicator of how successful they'll be in college. As such, from a mercenary college admissions' point of view, it's worth keeping using them. Most of the time, they get the right students, and damn but it's really easy to cut down on the number of applications you actually have to put work into thinking about by sorting on a simple number. Of course, from an individual fairness and a humanity point of view, it's pretty sad to think that the other 20% (or whatever) who would have thrived at a certain college aren't even considered because of a bad test....

The Physics GRE, however, has bothered me since I started as an assistant professor. Now, mind you, this is not personal sour grapes. My Physics GRE score back in 1990 was 89th percentile. At the time, I felt a little bad about that; I was one of those geeks who always did well on standardized tests, and thought that I should get over 90% on anything math/science related. Much later, I realized that 89th percentile is damn good for the Physics GRE. I did not personally suffer as a result of the Physics GRE, so I'm not posting this out of bitterness.

But, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. It seems completely unsurprising. In grad school, you do well by doing well at research. Yeah, you have to pass your classes, but even there it's very different from what the Physics GRE tests. The Physics GRE tests your ability to think uberfast (which may be relevant in conference arguments, but is not terribly relevant for most research), your ability to recall things you've memorized, and your ability to quickly go through canned problems about basic physics. It's not completely irrelevant, but it's not testing what is most important about graduate school.

Of course, all the hand-wavy justifications for why it's the wrong test only mean so much. As I said, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. What's more, there's evidence that women who do just as well as men in grad school on average score lower on the Physics GRE. In other words, either because of societal conditioning or because of intrinsic differences, the Physics GRE is more unfair for women, on average, than it is for men. Given that we've got a recruiting and retention problem for women in Physics, we should take this very seriously.

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Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

[T-Shirt Image]

You've probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic "primate turning into human" motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn't even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can't help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn't mean that it's true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there's also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school "associates itself" with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn't necessarily lead to bad science. It's just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn't say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the "politically correct" argument. Yes, usually one associates "politically correct oversensitivity" with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it's just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn't agree with this doesn't make it any less true. If we're going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.

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The Silent Majority : It's OK to be both scientific and religious

Chris Mooney over at The Intersection has a post where he talks about The Silent Majority— the fact that there are a substantial number of people out there who have no trouble reconciling religion and science. The debate is dominated on one side by religious fundamentalists, who deny reality in their efforts to stay faithful to a literal (and, frankly, nonsensical) reading of the Bible. On the other side, that side which is loudest and most strident in the scientific blogosphere, are the militant atheists, the types who think that any form of religious faith whatosever is evidence of stupidity, ignorance, or childishness, and that any form of religious faith is incompatible with good scientific judgement.

However, the truth is, if you talk to the faculty of a science department at just about any college in the country, you'll find that a substantial number of them (probably well less than half, but not a trivial amount) are regular churchgoers. I suspect you'd find that most are agnostic. You'd find that those who are atheists by and large don't have a problem with their religious colleagues. There are people who have religious faith, but aren't fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn't have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they're good and rigorous scientists, but they haven't mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.

There are a lot of people out there either with religious faith, or without faith but willing to admit the intellectual worthiness of those with faith, and who also have no problem with the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for global warming, the face of the billions-of-years-old Unvierse, and all of the rest of the things that modern science has taught us. Chris Mooney is on the atheist side of this; I'm on the theist side of this.

Chris asks why the reasonable sorts who don't feel the need to "hit the rails" and go to one extreme or the other of the debate, aren't heard from more. Probably because of the Rush Limbaugh effect: those who have an extreme position that involves disdain for those who disagree are able to express it ever so much more entertainingly than those who see value in accomodation. Indeed, I made some posts about my own views on science and religion back when I was in scienceblogs.com, and when I did so I would receive many vicious attacks from the commenters there-- those who are to the militant atheist bloggers as "dittoheads" are to Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever you are convinced that you are absolutely right about something-- not pretty sure, not even very confident, but absolutely right-- you should question yourself. If the vast majority of people who've thought deeply about it agree with you, there's a very good chance that you really are right. For example, I am absolutely convinced that I am absolutely right in believing that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, as the vast majority of people who have seriously looked at that evidence would agree. However, when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God, and to whether acceptance of science forces you to the latter conclusion, look around and acquire some humility-- many people have thought a lot about this, and they aren't all coming to agree that science must equal atheism. Perhaps it is compelling to you, and that's fine... but if you think that therefore any thinking reasonable person would come to the same exact beliefs that you have come to, the weight of evidence indicates that you're kidding yourself, just as assuredly as a fundamentalist theist of any stripe is kidding himself about the absolute and universal truth of his faith.

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