Thursday, June 30, 2005

There is a Heaven After All

Anyone who regularly reads Orange Quark knows that I spend a fair amount of time outraged over the increasing encroachment of religion on the rational world. It's not because I'm a glass-half empty sort of guy, or that I love complaining (although it is true that neither of these help); it's just that it's amazingly rare that I see anything in the news these days to give me hope that reason will ultimately prevail. When something encouraging finally does come along, I can be all sweetness and light, honestly.

The New York Times has a wonderful, happy, feel-good story about a very special summer camp for kids. This delightful place is called Camp Quest and is in, of all places, southern Ohio. And what is it that makes me giddy for Camp Quest? As the Times reports
"Providing a haven for the children of nonbelievers is what Camp Quest is all about. As the camp's official T-shirt announces, it's a place that's "beyond belief." More precisely, it claims to be the first summer sleep-away camp in the country for atheist, agnostic and secular humanist children."
Isn't this great? I'd love it if this were all they did - just provide a place where kids aren't made to feel odd because they don't subscribe to others' fantasies - but it gets better. The camp sees it as part of its mission to celebrate and teach reason and rationality. For example
"At the opening campfire ceremony, Mr. Kagin issued a set of challenges for campers to respond to in skits on the final night of camp. One such challenge: Help residents of the faraway planet Questerion understand how life on earth came into being. Another challenge: Prove that the two invisible unicorns in residence do not exist.

As in years past, camp leaders also worked on presentations in science and other natural (as opposed to supernatural) phenomena. This year's subjects were raptors and meteorology, including a demonstration of a portable weather station. Also, Gene Kritsky, a biology professor at the nearby College of Mount St. Joseph, talked to campers about creationism, arguing that the theories used to try to disprove evolution fail to hold up."
I'm not going to rant about the pressures faced by nonbelievers in this country - it'd ruin my happy happy post. I'm just going to end with the words of Edwin Kagin, the camp's director and one of its founders
"We're serving as a night light in a dark and scary room"
Imagine me with a big goofy smile across my face.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

It's 8pm - Do You Know Where (Your Brain Thinks) Your Penis Is?

You just have to read this short article from New Scientist. It sounds like an unusual, but interesting piece of science. What made me laugh though is the description if the experiments themselves:
"Christian Kell at the University of Frankfurt in Germany has put eight men into an MRI scanner to help settle the question. Using a soft brush, Kell stroked parts of each volunteer's body while recording brain activity."
We need research like this in the U.S., because if the religious right got wind of federal funding for a guy sitting in a laboratory stroking other guys' penises with a soft brush, it's just possible that it would draw the totality of their fire and the rest of the scientific establishment could relax for a while.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Tell Joe Barton How You Feel

At the risk of being pedantic (Oh, who am I kidding, I'm going to go on and on about this stuff until it stops), the attack on science in the U.S. is going ahead full steam. Congressman Joe Barton (Republican, of Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is sending intimidating letters to the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and to Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation. It's true - take a look! Chris Mooney has some excerpts from the letters, so I won't reproduce them here, but will just comment that they are of a kind designed to make scientists think twice about undertaking research on such a politically sensitive topic as global warming.

Representative Barton's tactics are just part of the more wide-ranging assault on scientific evidence that the Bush administration is waging. I'm not going to go through them all again, but I'm not going to stand by either. The congressman has a web site through which you can send him a message, but it won't accept your comments if you're not from his district. However, you can send a message to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, telling them what you think of Barton's tactics, and I'm going to use it right now.

I just sent a message with the following content:
Dear Congressman Barton,

I have recently become aware of the letters you have sent to the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and to the Director of the National Science Foundation. As a scientist myself, I am extremely concerned by the tone and implications of these letters and consider them a thinly-veiled attempt to intimidate honest scientists into avoiding work that might lead to an opinion different from the current administration on topics that are politically sensitive.

I strongly encourage you to desist from sending letters of this kind in the future and to leave reputable scientists alone to pursue their research, regardless of the political import of its outcome. By attempting to cast unreasonable doubt on solid scientific evidence you are doing your constituents and the rest of the country an immense disservice.


Dr. Mark Trodden
If we all, scientists and non-scientists, don't fight back against these outrages, we can hardly complain as science is eroded in this country. I would strongly encourage you to send your own email, or even a version of mine, to the Congressman, via the link above. It'll only take a minute and will let him know that there are lots of people out there that don't think it's fine to treat scientists in this way. Please take a moment to do it. If you want to drop me a comment here telling me you did it, all the better; but in any case, please do it!

Friday, June 24, 2005

I'm Back, and Random Tenning

Early this morning I drove back to Syracuse from the Perimeter Institute. I had a wonderful few days there, enjoyed giving my lectures and seeing old friends, and spent quite a lot of time talking to students after my talks. Great fun! In addition, I got to hang out in Perimeter's cool, modern building, which I found to be both beautiful and extremely relaxing - I'll have to go back.

Since I need to deal with all kinds of backlogged issues here, and it just so happens to be Friday, I'm going to take the Friday Random Ten cop-out for the rest of this post. More tomorrow
1. Moby, Find My Baby.
2. The Jam, The Modern World.
3. The Beastie Boys, Tough Guy.
4. Lauryn Hill, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
5. Elvis Costello, Oliver's Army.
6. Miles Davis, Dear Old Stockholm.
7. Blondie, One Way or Another.
8. Anthony Hamilton, Comin' From Where I'm From.
9. Hot Chocolate, You Sexy Thing.
10. The Cranberries, The Rebels.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In the Land of the Almost Dead, the Not Yet Alive Reign

Here brother Bush goes again, trying to impose his religious "morality " (or at least that of the people who he'll need on his side for a presidential bid) on people. Just as with his persecution of Michael Schiavo, he's now coming out against stem cell research. Well there's a shocker. Apparently the Governor claims that no universities in Florida will perform embryonic stem cell research. Kind of ironic that this should happen in a state so disproportionately populated by those in desperate need of what this research promises.

Keep picking the crazy side of issues Jeb. Help us out. We don't need another of you in the White House hurting America.

ACLU Weighs in on the Attack on Science

The Washington Post is carrying an article on an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report stating that
"The Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has dangerously undermined U.S. scientific enterprise and national security by abridging the constitutional and academic freedoms that have long fostered the nation's technical superiority"
In my opinion this is clearly true. The most obvious damage can be seen in the drop in the number of foreign applicants for U.S. Ph.D. positions. On multiple occasions I have had colleagues from Europe and Canada tell me that there is, in fact, one thing they have President Bush to thank for, and that is the increase in quality foreign Ph.D. students they have seen over the last few years.

However, I actually think that the response to 9/11 is not the primary problem with the current administration's attitude to science. As I've mentioned before (a number of times), the main problem is with the willingness to twist, modify, ignore, politically manipulate and outright lie about any scientific results or approaches that conflict with the religious or corporate interests that have a stranglehold on our nation.

This attitude is harming progress on preventing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases; is a threat to women's health; is preventing us from aggressively addressing the causes behind climate change; is clouding public understanding of established scientific theories such as evolution and threatens to undermine the technological and scientific base crucial to a vital future for our country.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dinner with Friends

I just got back from a delightful evening - dinner and drinks with Don Marolf and Cliff Johnson (aka cvj). These guys are also lecturing at the Perimeter Institute summer school that I mentioned yesterday. Now I have to make sure I know what I'm going to talk about tomorrow and try to get a good night's sleep. So any hopes I might have had of posting anything profound here will not be realized.

Perhaps I can try to hold some people's attention by pointing them to the sad story of the solar sail. Let's keep our fingers crossed that a signal from the spacecraft is received over the next couple of days.

Strings, Gravity and Cosmology at the Perimeter Institute

Tomorrow afternoon I'm heading off to the Perimeter Institute (PI) to deliver a couple of lectures on cosmology at their Summer School on Strings, Gravity and Cosmology. The Perimeter Institute is an interesting place - a collection of theoretical physicists, working on foundational issues in a variety of different areas, from a variety of different directions. The facility was founded by Mike Lazaridis of Research in Motion (RIM) - the people who brought you the Blackberry handheld - and is funded from private donations by Lazaridis and two other RIM executives. This alone makes PI rather unusual.

The summer school should be fun, although I can only stay for a couple of days and will unfortunately miss what is sure to be a tremendous public lecture about string theory on Friday by Rob Myers. As well as giving a couple of talks, I'll also get to see some physicist friends (one of whom occasionally comments on my blog using the name "cvj") and see Perimeter's fancy new building. All of this will leave me with very little time for blogging, so I might be a little scarce for the next two days (I'll try though).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Real Journalism

From the Guardian, excerpts from the reports of George Weller, the first western reporter to reach Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped. I don't have insightful comments. It just makes for fascinating and rather sobering reading, and must have been extremely difficult work. Of course it's nothing compared to having to chase Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes around, but life was easier back then.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

How Low Can You Go?

Not content to have put Michael Schiavo through hell while he had already had to suffer for years caring for his brain-dead wife, Governor Jeb Bush is doing his best to make sure that Schiavo cannot pick up the pieces of his life now that Terri Schiavo's body is finally dead.

Because the recently released autopsy report showed results entirely consistent with the assertions made by the doctors who had examined her (but inconsistent with the claims of the doctor who is the Senate majority leader, and who didn't examine her), the Terri Schiavo case has turned into an even larger political mess for those who tried to use it as a cheap way to further their political ends. No matter though, the New York Times is reporting that Jeb Bush is now seeking an investigation into Michael Schiavo's actions on the night, back in 1990, that his wife collapsed.

This really is outrageous. What's the idea here? If Bush can make Michael Schiavo look like a callous, uncaring husband, who deliberately contributed to his wife's condition, is that supposed to draw attention away from the fact that Republicans violated this family's privacy in order to appease their rabid religious right supporters? I'm hoping that Americans are smart enough not to be fooled by such absurd tactics. Most Americans certainly saw through the original scheme, and the President's approval rating has taken a hit as a consequence. I'm hoping that his brother's is similarly affected - it might help us to avoid a third Bush disaster in the White House.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Blogging from Iraq

As I've mentioned before, my friend Teri Weaver is spending a couple of months in Iraq as part of her job as a journalist for Stars and Stripes. Teri has been in Iraq since late May and has posted a series of impressively written accounts of her time there on her blog. The most recent, posted just today, discusses, among other things, what happens when U.S. troops have to go to pay out money to the family of someone killed in crossfire.

Teri's writing provides fascinating and sometimes upsetting insight into day-to-day life in Iraq. Take a look.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Fathers of Modern British Cosmology

The Guardian has an article discussing a couple of new books concerned with the scientific legacy of Fred Hoyle, the remarkable British cosmologist who coined, albeit sneeringly, the phrase "the Big Bang". Hoyle was one of the people who founded modern cosmology in Britain, and his influence and research were behind the work of many of the great minds working there.

Hoyle is perhaps best known for the steady state theory of the universe, a serious model of an unchanging universe that ultimately was ruled out by the increasingly accurate observations that lent ever-stronger support to the Big Bang model. Hoyle developed the steady state theory in collaboration with Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. I never met Hoyle or Gold, but have had the privilege to meet Hermann Bondi on many occasions, although none of them recently. Bondi was the Master of my college, Churchill College, when I was a mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge University. In fact, I had seen him give a talk on humanism a couple of years before I went to university and been incredibly impressed with him even then. (I once sat next to Bondi's wife, Christine, an intellectual powerhouse in her own right, at a college dinner and she was also delightful, even going so far as to help me get a summer research job.)

What impressed me about Bondi is the same thing that impresses me about Hoyle when reading the accounts of his life. These guys were giants in their field, the same field in which I work now, but beyond that have been major intellectual forces beyond the confines of their research discipline. It is my impression (although I have no data and would be interested to hear what others think) that such widespread intellectual engagement is rarer in recent generations of physicists. I don't think the people are less smart or less able, I just feel that there are relatively fewer of them with such broad interests.

The Guardian article lists many of the areas in which Hoyle made contributions, but points out, in terms that I don't think one would see is a U.S. newspaper, that Hoyle was all these things
"and - in later life - a grade one batty boffin who argued that diseases were forged in space and delivered to Earth by comets and that the archaeopteryx specimen in London's Natural History Museum was a fake."
Well, you can't have it all. If I could have the impact of a Hoyle or a Bondi I'd be over the moon, and you could call me a batty boffin as much as you liked.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Assuage That Gaming Guilt

When I was in high school, my friends and I would often spend Saturday afternoons playing pool and video games in a downtown arcade in my home town (OK, we would also spend part of that time in several pubs that didn't seem to care how old we were, but that's not important right now). I enjoyed some of the more challenging video games, and was quite good at them, but I was in no way what you'd call an addict.

Fast forward to graduate school. One of my friends owned a home video game console, and none of the games interested me at all, until the now-famous Doom came along. For reasons that aren't clear to me, we spent inordinate amounts of time on that game, working through the many levels until we finally finished it. After that, I was once again uninterested in any games that my friend bought.

Fast forward another ten years, to this past week's vacation, to which that same friend brought his Xbox with, wait for it, the newest incarnation of Doom - Doom3. You guessed it - I became hooked again, and each day we spent a couple of hours working through the game. Once again I can't really say why it grabbed me, but it was wonderful escapist fun.

Now; the above admission goes against the unspoken academic code, which one might paraphrase as
"Do not engage in any activity that is part of popular culture. Such activities include, but are not limited to; playing video games, playing card games (bridge excepted), watching movies without a serious social message and watching television (PBS, in particular NOVA, occasionally excepted). Any violation of the above may lead to a stubborn stain on your intellectual reputation, which may only be removed by repeatedly attending highly experimental theater."
It is hard to articulate the amount of guilt academics suffer when they have violated this rule, especially if they've done so deliberately. But once one realizes that such guilt exists, it helps one to understand comments like
"Last night I was looking for the NOVA program on Flying Casanovas (the Bowerbird really is fascinating you know) when I accidentally turned NBC on and caught the beginning of some crime show. I think it might be called `Law and Order', but I'm not sure. Anyway, I was too lazy to change channels and ended up watching the whole thing. It was kind of fun actually, in a predictable, corporate way."
Well, before all you fellow academics out there jump all over me, I should say that I'm exaggerating a bit here. But every one of you knows what I mean.

Given all this, an article on allows those of us who have violated the video game clause to assuage our guilt somewhat. This article points out that the next generation of home video game machines would be perfect for a distributed computing project such as LIGO@home (searching for gravitational waves), SETI@home (searching for E.T.) or Folding@home (searching for the solution to protein folding), which already take advantage of down time on personal computers. These are raw data-crunching projects, for which the sheer computing power of huge numbers of machines is extremely useful. As puts it
"Distributed, or `grid,' computing breaks down complex computing problems into small steps that can be solved in parallel by thousands or even millions of machines at once. It is basically the difference between hiring someone to label 1,000 envelopes for you and asking your friends to each label 100 when they get the chance. In this example, the hired person is the traditional mainframe crunching numbers, while your friends are personal computers all over the world that offer to crunch small packages of calculations when they're not busy."
The article ends with the thought
"So, let my console fold proteins or search for E.T. when I'm not using it. Let the public take a larger role in innovative research efforts. Most importantly, let me be able to end any console debate with, `So what if your system lets you watch movies and TV, listen to music and play games? My system cures cancer.' "
This seems like a wonderful idea to me. Huge numbers of kids (OK, adults as well) own video consoles and think of the time that these machines spend idle while the kids are, for example, at school. In fact, with a little thought, one might be able to use this aspect of the consoles to inform kids about some interesting science. If one was to take this really too far, one might imagine marketing campaigns designed to pitch different distributed computing projects to gamers. Oh dear, there I go again, offending the wrong people.

Most importantly, the next time I take a vacation I'll also be able to say "Sure, I didn't personally do any physics while I was away, but the time that I spent on the beach and not blowing away Cacodemons with my BFG-9000, I was playing a crucial role in the LIGO data analysis project"

The Gravitational Lens, Issue 2

The second issue of The Gravitational Lens is now out. I helped out a little with the writing of this one. There are brief discussions of testing General Relativity with double pulsars, of gravitational radiation from strangely shaped pulsars and of primordial inflation and the accelerating universe. Enjoy.

Monday, June 13, 2005

I'm Back

I just got back from vacation and am realizing that I have a lot of blogs to read and a lot of writing to get down to. I'm going to do both as soon as I unpack.

Vacation was great. We were in Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and I had absolutely no internet access all week. The weather was beautiful, I was surrounded by most of my closest friends and we indulged ourselves like the hedonists we all are.

Sara and I spent last night in Philadelphia so that we could eat at one of my all-time favorite restaurants - Alma de Cuba - and drove back the rest of the way this morning.

OK; unpacking, then some blogging.

Friday, June 03, 2005


Tomorrow morning I leave for a week's vacation in North Carolina. Sara and I are joining ten friends in a great beach-house. I plan to read a lot, play volleyball, spend plenty of time in the ocean, drink lots of cocktails and do no physics at all. We academics don't take vacations often, so I'm really looking forward to this.

Since I still feel too new to blogging to pass things over to a guest blogger, I'm probably not going to post for the next nine days. I hope to make up for it when I get back. Next time I'm away for an extended period (China for two weeks in August) I think I'll try the guest blogger idea. I have plenty of good candidates in mind.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

More Cosmic Connections

If you're a regular reader of Orange Quark, you'll have seen not just one, but two previous posts about the Cosmic Connections exhibit at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MoST) in Syracuse. I promised that I'd post some photos of the opening when I finally got them, and they arrived today. Although I'm just showing a small selection here, I'm sure we'll have a larger choice on a web page some time soon.

This first one shows the original model of the exhibit, designed in collaboration (OK, they did most of the pretty stuff) with a class of students from the design program here at Syracuse.

This one shows the entrance to Stage I, which is the part we've just completed. You can just make out the side of our stunning laser-blasted sculpture of the galaxy. I don't have a great picture of this, but when I get one I'll definitely post it - it's well worth seeing.

Here's a picture of a random selection of members of our team, with Syracuse's new Chancellor, Nancy Cantor, second from left, and the director of the MoST.

Here, I'm explaining to the Chancellor the role that dark matter plays in structure formation. Behind her you see our hologram of an N-body simulation of large-scale structure. It really is a beautiful thing. Reflected in the hologram, you can see Sam Sampere, one of the people who worked long and hard to make this exhibit work.

We had a great time at the opening and, despite our excessive worrying beforehand; it seemed to be a real success. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and get stuck into Stage II.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Computing and the Cosmos

The BBC is carrying a nice little story about the "Millenium Run", a supercomputer simulation of cosmological structure formation, in which the dynamics of 10 billion dark matter particles were tracked over 13 billion years of cosmological evolution. Numerical simulations are a crucial part of modern cosmology, allowing us (where by "us" I mean people like me, but who know how to write huge, complicated N-body codes) to understand how well-defined interaction rules between dark matter particles, acting in an expanding cosmos, lead to the wonderfully rich, complex, and structured universe we see today.

Without the use of computers there are many ways to understand, in broad terms, how structure formation takes place. However, in order to make detailed comparisons between theory and observations, hard-core computational cosmology is a must. You might wonder why the simulation just tracks dark matter, but it turns out that dark matter is the crucial part of why clusters of galaxies form in the patterns they do. There is a lot more dark matter than regular matter (the stuff that glows). This dark matter gathers together under the effects of gravity, creating large conglomerations, the attraction towards which causes the regular matter to clump up into the clusters of galaxies we see today. It's a beautiful story, and one that is borne out wonderfully by the comparisons between the Millenium Run simulations and the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Carlos Frenk, who is one of the world's leaders in this area, is quoted in the BBC story, saying
"We have learned more about the Universe in the last 10 or 20 years than in the whole of human civilisation"
This is a big bold claim, but I think it is entirely fair. The tremendous progress in cosmology in the last couple of decades has given us a coherent picture of the universe; more detailed than many cosmologists had thought would ever be possible. This data is going to continue to flood in over the next few decades, further focusing attention on the fascinating question of how the observed cosmos connects to our theories of fundamental physics. It's a daunting task, but oh so much fun to be faced with.