Monday, July 18, 2005

A Brand Spanking New Blog

As promised on Friday, I have exciting news to announce. Today sees the launch of a new group blog - Cosmic Variance.

My esteemed new co-contributors are; Sean Carroll (of the widely-read Preposterous Universe) - another particle cosmologist; Risa Wechsler, who is a cosmologist from the University of Chicago, Clifford Johnson - a string theorist from the University of Southern California, and JoAnne Hewett - a particle phenomenologist from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

We've been planning for the last month or so, discussing in secret and designing the site in a restricted test area protected by the highest security (well, Risa's excellent computer skills at any rate). We were going to have Karl Rove leak the blog's existence to create a buzz, but he was busy with other, more treasonous leaks.

If you have read Orange Quark more than once, you'll already have a reaasonable idea of the kinds of issues I will be addressing on the new blog - science, science and society, science and politics, what it's like to be a scientist, plus smaller amounts of whatever takes my fancy. The other authors will all have their own voices and interests, although I fully expect the fact that we are all physicists will provide a central theme for the blog.

For now, I'm going to leave open the possibility that I will continue to post here also. However, realistically, I can imagine that time constraints will mean that pretty soon I will focus exclusively on Cosmic Variance. Even if I do cease active posting here, I'll still leave this site up so that, if needed, I can link to previous posts.

I'm excited about the new blog and the cosmo-particle-stringy rabble with whom I'm consorting. If you take a look, please let us know what you think.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Exciting News on the Way

I'm still traveling and not able to provide significant posts. I did, however, want to post a quick heads up that on Monday I will be announcing some exciting blog news right here. Hope you'll come back to see what it is.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Nuclear Physics, Cosmology and a Gordon Conference

I leave in the morning to spend a few days at the 2005 Nuclear Physics Gordon Conference. The Gordon Conferences are relatively small, intimate meetings, designed (so I'm told, having not attended one before) to facilitate discussion of cutting edge topics. They are typically held in small colleges all over New England, and the one that I'm attending is happening at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

It'll be interesting to be at a nuclear physics conference, since I don't typically attend them. I'm going to this one to give an invited talk titled "Connecting Fundamental Physics and Cosmology". This is the talk I often give to audiences predominantly composed of particle physicists, in which I discuss the issues raised by the energy budget of the universe, discovered through increasingly accurate observations over the last decade. I talk about dark matter, dark energy and the baryon asymmetry of the universe.

As I've mentioned before, the story with dark matter is a particularly interesting example of how microphysics and macrophysics - particle physics and cosmology - can work together to help explain one of the most fundamental questions about reality. If we're lucky, our colliders will discover the properties of new particles, which, with the help of data from dark matter detection experiments, may be identified as twenty percent of the missing matter content of the universe.

There is an interesting precedent for this connection, and it has a nice tie in with nuclear physics. In work beginning in the 1940s and continuing up to the present day, physicists have been able to use well-established nuclear physics data in the context of an expanding spacetime, to understand the abundances of the light elements in the early universe. This prediction of the hot big bang theory, and its remarkable confirmation through precision measurements of primordial Deuterium, Helium-3, Helium-4 and Lithium abundances, is one of the most stunning pieces of evidence supporting our modern cosmological model. Primordial nucleosynthesis (or Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN)), as this process is known, thus provides a compelling template for other cosmo-particle connections, such as the search for dark matter.

Given this rich history of the interplay between nuclear physics and cosmology, I expect to feel quite comfortable as a cosmologist at a nuclear physics conference. In fact, such interplay is not just historical. I'm looking forward to learning a little more about how nuclear physics can help us understand more about supernovae, neutron stars and neutrino physics, and even how the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) might unlock some of the secrets of matter at high densities that are so important to understanding the early universe.

The only downside to this trip is that I suspect that my Internet access will be very sparse over the next three days, and so I don't expect to blog again before Friday, although I will if I can. When I get back I'll give a more detailed report on the conference.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ian McEwan on the Impact of the London Bombings

As I've mentioned a number of times before, Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. I have enjoyed essentially everything I've read that he has written. The Guardian is carrying a small article that McEwan has written about the impact of the London bombings on everyday life in the capital. It would be pointless for me to try to describe his writing in my clumsy way here, but I think it's worth a read.

Café Scientifique Syracuse - a Teaser

I was intending to write a long post today about the upcoming inaugural meeting of Café Scientifique in Syracuse. This required me to finish the web site and use a number of files that are stored on the Physics department server. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that this server is down for almost the entire day while the switch to a new server is completed. I do still want to write something about this, in order to get the message out to anyone in Syracuse who may be interested and happens to watch this space, so I'm going to give the bare bones here, and then provide a lengthy discussion of it in a longer post very soon.

As explained on the Café Scientifique web site,
"Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings have taken place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

The first Cafes Scientifiques were held in the UK in Leeds in 1998. Since then, Cafes Scientifiques have sprung up in Newcastle, Nottingham and Oxford and the network has now begun to expand to other cities in the UK. We hope that by 2003 there will be a thriving network of 20 to 30 Cafes that meet regularly to hear scientists or writers on science talk about their work and discuss it with diverse audiences.

Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable."
The idea has now spread to a number of different places worldwide. The Syracuse branch is being organized by a group of us spanning the science departments at Syracuse University - myself (representing Physics), Ana de Bettencourt-Dias (Chemistry), Scott Samson (Earth Sciences), Paul Verhaeghen (Psychology) and a Biologist to be named very soon.

Our inaugural meeting will be held at Ambrosia restaurant in Armory Square in Syracuse on August 2nd at 7pm. There will be a $5 door charge, but this will cover some delicious snacks provided by Ambrosia, and our own bartender so that we don't constantly have to go into the main part of the restaurant to order drinks. For the first meeting, we will cover the door charge for the first thirty people who arrive.

When I write my long post about this I'll include links to our web site, the title and speaker and directions to Ambrosia, but, given my technological restrictions, I've written all I can for now.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

A Trotskyite Takes on Terror

I have spent most of today flipping between news sites and listening to the audio feed of the BBC news on my computer while trying to get a little work done. Needless to say, the latter effort was not particularly successful. It has been immensely saddening to watch the carnage in London, but at the same time it has been heartening to watch Londoners' remarkable response to this tragedy.

Today is not, of course, the first time London has faced bombs, and not even the first time it has faced terrorist ones. Nevertheless, in the midst of what must have been a terrifying situation, I thought people did as well as one could imagine.

Almost everyone who is anyone, and plenty more who are not (case in point right here) have had their say on television, radio and in the print media. Some responses have been touching and eloquent (actually the least eloquent I heard was from Donald Rumsfeld, one of the few native "English" speakers commenting) but the one that stood out for me was by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London.

Livingstone is the kind of guy who could never win office in the U.S.. I could go into a number of reasons, but it is probably enough to say that he is a self-described Trotskyite (Red Ken, as I recall him being called). I've sometimes found him to be a thoughtful and caring person and sometimes heard him say things with which I wholeheartedly disagree. However, his somewhat emotional response to today's events was nicely done. He said
"This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old.

It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.

That isn't an ideology, it isn't even a perverted faith - it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other."
This is a comment that certainly resonates with me. Livingstone's entire statement is somewhat longer, ending with
"Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfill their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail."
This is a little more simplistic but I can recognize its power nevertheless, and I'm glad Livingstone is saying things that generally make sense. Complex as the issues surrounding terrorism are, and as angry as I am with some of the nonsensical things we have done, such as the war in Iraq, in the name of the war on terror, I have found myself despairing over some of the silly comments made by people with whom I share many other views.

A case in point is Ward Churchill, who became infamous for his comments about the victims of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. I support Churchill's right to free speech and his academic freedom. His comments just made me sit and shake my head. I'd like to hear what he has to say about the London attacks, on people using public transportation to get to their varied jobs around the city. Somehow, after Livingstone's inspired comments, I think Churchill will be hard pushed to refer to these victims as "Little Eichmanns" or as the British equivalent of the "technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire."

An Attack on London

I have just woken up to the news of the coordinated bombs on the transport system in London. It's hard to say anything meaningful at this point, except the obvious - that one feels both saddened and angered to see such an appalling event. I've just sent out emails to family, friends and colleagues in London, to see if they are all safe, and I am now waiting for responses.

You can be sure I'll post more heavily about this in the coming days. For now, I'm hoping that the British response will be to identify who is responsible and then to do everything possible to apprehend or kill them. I'm also hoping that such an effort won't become diluted by an obsession with regimes in countries unconnected to these attacks. I don't make this as a flippant comment on Iraq; I just don't want my government to make the same mistake again.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Machine vs. Man

Time for blogging is a little short this week, for reasons I'll explain in the near future. I did want to point out an interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor though. There is quite broad agreement among scientists that scientific goals are far more easily, safely and cheaply attained through the use of robotic space missions, rather than manned missions. The CSM article discusses this from a variety of viewpoints. For my tastes, I liked the following quotes from James Van Allen, professor emeritus at the University of Iowa.
""I'm one of the most durable advocates for space exploration around," But beyond Apollo's moon landings and missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope, he adds, human spaceflight hasn't contributed as much to humanity's understanding of the cosmos as increasingly sophisticated unmanned probes.

"It's the cost," he says. "If it was easy to do, I'd be all for it." But with record federal deficits, an increasingly expensive war in Iraq, problems with Social Security, and other demands on the federal purse, the benefits to science from human spaceflight over the past 10 to 15 years have not justified the cost.""

Monday, July 04, 2005

The British Response to July 4th

While Americans everywhere were celebrating victory over my countrymen, The Guardian is reporting that, after waiting patiently for 229 years, a crack team of British special force troops has struck back. These brave souls have succeeded in penetrating White House security and retrieving Tony Blair's balls from the crystal display case in the Oval Office, in which they have been on prominent display for the last four years.

At least, this is the only explanation I can think of for an article titled "Blair May Snub U.S. on Climate",

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Celebrating Our Ignorance

The new issue of Science celebrates that magazine's 125th anniversary by exploring 125 major open scientific questions. I haven't had time for a thorough read yet, although I'm looking forward to it, but a couple of things have already caught my eye.

The subtitle of the Science issue is "What Don't We Know?", and this is one reason to be excited about the contents. For me, one of the great powers of the scientific approach to the world lies in the ability to say I don't know. This simple statement of ignorance drives scientists along, spurs new discoveries, keeps us awake at nights and, despite what those who do not understand science might say, firmly distinguishes science from any of the belief systems with which it is sometimes compared. New discoveries in science are triumphs for those directly involved, for science in general, and for humankind as a whole. They are rightly heralded by scientists, journalists and the public alike. But visit the office or laboratory of any practicing scientist the day after a major new discovery is announced, and you'll invariably see them sitting around asking "How does this cast light on other unanswered questions?", "How can this help us with other things we don't know?", "What next?!". It's all about moving on - we're excited by what we don't know.

Because of our sceptical attitude, and willingness to say what we don't know, there is a sense in which scientists know less than many other people in our society. I'm using "know" here in the sense that if someone truly believes they understand the answer to a question, independently of the actual evidence that that answer is correct, they truly think they "know" something. It is true that scientists know many fascinating, sometimes technical, sometimes arcane facts about nature. However, the broad strokes of many of these ideas are often also widely accepted by society. However, in addition to this knowledge, many members of society think they know vast "truths" about the universe beyond those established by rational enquiry. Because scientists are typically unwilling to sign on to such unwarranted beliefs, we often "know" less than others. Despite being frequently derided as "arrogant know-it-alls" (which we sometimes ask for), I think there's a reasonable case to be made that scientists are "humble know-nothings" (but I'm guessing people won't be clamoring to adopt this interpretation).

I've written before about the crucial role played by science journalism in our society. At its best, great science writing doesn't just provide a jargon-free, simplified, analogy-laden version of what scientists write in their technical journal articles. Rather, it helps frame the crucial issues, shows how they fit into the wider realm of scientific and human enquiry and, perhaps most crucially, conveys a picture of how science works, including the power of acknowledging the things we don't know.

I was therefore delighted to see that the Science issue contains an opening essay by one of my favorite science journalists, Tom Siegfried, titled "In Praise of Hard Questions". This is an extremely well written article, which I think presents science in an exciting and beautiful light. In a paragraph that partially quotes David Gross, one of the 2004 Nobel Prize winners in physics, Siegfried writes
"Science's greatest advances occur on the frontiers, at the interface between ignorance and knowledge, where the most profound questions are posed. There's no better way to assess the current condition of science than listing the questions that science cannot answer. "Science," Gross declares, "is shaped by ignorance.""
Science is not the study of a dead body of knowledge. The action is at the frontier and there are mountains of interesting questions and fascinating work to be done. One thing that Siegfried's essay accomplishes is to demolish the silly argument that some commentators have made - that we are approaching the end of science. It seems to me that we now realize that there is more science left to do than we ever realized before, and I hope that young people reading Siegfried's article and this Science issue can see that there's a place for them in the great endeavor. It would provide a fascinating focus for a class discussion led by an innovative science teacher.