Friday, February 12, 2010

Sounding Smart

For those of you looking for some physics phrases that might make you sound smart, here are a few good ones:

  • The degeneracy of the ground state is broken under first-order perturbation of the Hamiltonian.
  • Relativistic corrections are found to be on the same order as spin-orbit coupling.
  • This problem is best approached in the grand canonical ensemble.
  • For an exact solution, we must yield to the Dirac Equation.
  • When in doubt, you can always expand the potential into spherical harmonics.
  • The solution can easily be expressed as superpositions of harmonic oscillator eigenstates.
Here are some other guidelines:

  • In speech, avoid the phrase "Quantum Mechanics". When conversing amongst each other, most physics people just call it "Quantum".
  • Avoid the phrase "the laws of physics". For example, rather than saying that something is "in violation of the laws of physics", try to be more specific. If you're not sure which law to reference, just say "the second law of thermodynamics". You'll probably be right.
  • Other good words to use include "trivial", "sensitivity", "orders of magnitude", "in principle", and "methodology". For example: "This new methodology should, in principle, trivially yield improvements in energy sensitivity that are orders of magnitude above current levels."
  • When a friend of yours somehow manages to extricate himself from a tough situation, try the phrase, "How'd you manage to tunnel out of that potential well?" I bet people will think you're really smart!
A lot of people get into physics with the hope that it'll make them sound smart. My experience shows that this may not be the case. As a matter of fact, it is often difficult to converse in physics without sounding like an idiot. Take, for example, the words we use in particle physics:

The world of subatomic particles was once so simple. They started with atoms. These atoms turned out to be made of protons and electrons. Then came the neutron.

Then the photon, the pion, the muon, the neutrino, the tauon...

Then came the quarks. They started with just two (up and down). Another one came, and it was called "strange". The next one had "charm". Two more soon arrived and were named "top" and "bottom" (leading to searches for particles with "bare tops" and "bare bottoms"-no, I'm not making this up).

Quarks and antiquarks come in different colors and flavors. The theory that describes their interactions is literally called "Chromodynamics". The theory explains that there must be a particle responsible for gluing particles in a nucleus together. This particle was called the "gluon". Three gluons can join together and form something called a "glu-ball".

These particles were not only found, but classified. Now in addition to quarks, we have hadrons, fermions, bosons, and leptons.

It doesn't end there. Should Supersymmetry prove to be valid, we'll also have squarks, sleptons, and bosinos (which includes my personal favorite- the wino).

Other theoretical particals include the WIMP (weakly interacting massive particle), and the MACHO (massive compact halo object).

I'll leave you with one more.

Particle physicists should be familiar with one class of Feynman diagrams called "Penguin diagrams". This odd term has its origin in a bar room wager in which physicist John Ellis was on the losing end and was forced to include the word "Penguin" in his next publication. Ellis wasn't sure how he would manage to pull this off, but after smoking a bit of an unspecified illegal substance, he came to the realization that the diagrams he had drawn up for the paper kind of looked like penguins. The rest is history.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Good News!

So, the LHC is up and running, and has finally begun producing collisions! Seventh and Eighth-year high energy physics graduate students are celebrating (and working hard) around the world at the prospect that they might actually get their PhDs after all!

Oh, and the world hasn't been destroyed yet! For those of you who are still worried by the thought that the LHC will create a black hole and collapse the Earth in on itself, here's a web site with up-to-date information:

Has the large hadron collider destroyed the world yet?

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I like to think. A lot. Maybe too much.

Friends and family members always like to mention that I live in "another world". My in-laws, who speak primarily in Chinese, often like to stop mid-conversation to ask me if I understand what they're saying. My response is usually, "I wasn't listening".

Lest you think I'm being rude, it is very exhausting trying to listen to a foreign language for long periods of time. But that is not what this post is supposed to be about, so lets move on...

So, in those moments when my mind wanders, it takes me off into many directions. Sometimes they are simple thoughts like, "I wonder if I can play video games right now without my wife getting mad at me", or "How do we get the manic dog to stop barking?"

When I'm driving, I often marvel at the human brain and what it is capable of. We take for granted the complex motor skills that are required to make a simple turn. We learn the skills and practice to the point where we don't have to think any more. We think about turning and the practiced movements of our arms, feet, neck and eyes do everything for us.

I remember reading about an experiment where electrodes were placed in a monkey's brain, which transmitted signals to a robotic arm. With a little practice, the monkey could control the arm and use it almost as another limb- using the arm to grab treats and feed itself. I wonder if this skill is related to the ability to use tools that humans and monkeys have developed as an evolutionary boost.

But that is by no means the most amazing thing I've seen.

Watching a child grow is an amazing experience. It is definitely something that might make you believe in miracles. And my daughter truly is a miracle.

When she was just a few days old, I'd watch her sleeping and see the rise and fall of her chest in time with her breathing. I'd marvel at the thought of how much had to be made just right to keep that motor running. I used to have a small fear in the back of my mind that she'd suddenly stop. That sounds morbid, but I bet every parent has had the same thought at some point or another.

After all, if you really think about it, you might realize how complex the human body is. Modern science has worked tirelessly on understanding how life works, and we have only just begun. If a baby were engineered by humans, it almost certainly wouldn't work.

But my baby can not only breathe. She can see, feel, and hear. She can learn. Every moment, she observes and learns about pieces of the world around her. She practices the skills she will eventually need in order to function as a human being- all without prodding or any incentive other than her own basic need to do so.

Through years of scientific study aimed at understanding the processes my daughter has gone through, we have learned many things. In many cases, we have learned pieces of information that we already knew in some way or another. We have learned that children need love and attention in just the same way that they need food and water. We have learned time and time again that what is best for us just happens to be what nature has provided for us all along.

In my world, miracles are everywhere. They don't have to be divinely summoned to be so.

I'd better stop before I make someone throw up.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Physicists are Everywhere

For those of you who don't really know what goes on in the world of experimental physics, let me tell you about what I've been doing the last couple weeks.

So, I've posted about the KATRIN project before, but here's a recap: KATRIN is a project that aims to directly measure the neutrino mass by examining the beta-decay spectrum of tritium. The specific part I'm working on is the rear section, which is an important calibration piece of the experiment. For the output of the experiment to make sense, we need to know precisely how much tritium there is in the system at any given time. To accomplish this, we use a detector in the back wall to count the electrons that don't make it through the main spectrometer.

Now, I've been examining one potential problem with this picture- one having to do with electron scattering. You see, the beta decay electrons don't just travel around until they hit the detector- they can also scatter by interacting with the tritium in the column. These interactions make the electrons lose energy, and happen with more frequency when the tritium density increases. With less energy, the electrons are then less likely to be counted in the back end, and this introduces a systematic uncertainty into the measurement of the tritium density.

So, to explore the problem, I wrote a monte carlo program that shows the effect that electron scattering actually has. My program first randomly selects where the electron is emitted from, and at which angle. Then the program selects how far it gets before it scatters, and how much energy it loses. If the electron hasn't reached the wall, the process repeats until it does. Then, the program repeats the whole process again until it has simulated 100,000 electrons. Then, I ran my output through my professor's code, which does a similar thing with the detector design we're using. Altogether, these simulations show what we should expect as an output, should we see some variation in the tritium density, and gives a baseline for the systematic uncertainties we should expect. It also gives us some commentary on the feasibility of the detector design.

I have a point, but you'll have to read on.

At the beginning of baseball season every year, you can usually find some article online talking about computer algorithms that predict the outcomes of the coming season. These algorithms calculate how many games a team will win, how many runs they will score, their likelihood of making the playoffs, and much more. The way they do it is actually quite simple (in principle).

These algorithms merely take the rosters of each team, and uses each players' projected stats to calculate the likelihood of every possible outcome of any particular pitcher-batter match-up. Using these stats, the algorithms simulate every game of the season, one plate appearance at a time. They then repeat the algorithm about a thousand times to minimize uncertainties in random variations.

Hopefully you're starting to see a pattern. Here's another example:

Last fall, I watched a few episodes of a show called "Deadliest Warrior". The premise of the show is that they explore and analyze the weapons and fighting techniques of some of history's most famous warriors, and try to answer the question of who was more lethal. It's the perfect show for any guy who has ever sat around drinking with his buddies and asked the question, "Hey, if a samurai and a viking ever fought to the death, who would win?" The answer, of course- the samurai.

Anyway, so here's how the show went about answering this question: First, they invited experts and martial artists to showcase the weapons and techniques of each side, running tests on each weapon to determine its killing ability. Then, they put the data into a computer program that simulated the battle, blow by blow, a thousand times and tallied the wins for each side.

I'm not an expert in financial markets, but I'm pretty sure they do something similar there as well.

So, maybe my point is this: The work that goes on in the Physics world doesn't need to seem so distant and scary. There are many people out there who do very similar work in fields that are much more accessible to the general public.

As a matter of fact, my job is much easier than those that I highlighted earlier. My program is about 100 lines of Python code. Sports and battle simulations are much harder to do.

For example, those computer algorithms seem to predict the Yankees winning the world series every year. This year is the first since 2000 that they've been right.

...And I think we know what kind of track record the banking industry has...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Irrational Emotion

So, football season has been going for a couple weeks now, and as my wife can attest to, I think I've been a little too preoccupied over the weekends. I've been a little puzzled myself as to why.

Football never struck me as all that great a sport. I always thought there were too many players, too many positions, and definitely too many rules. I never liked how one player, the quarterback, can account for seemingly half of a team's success (and take all the credit). I especially despised those stupid touchdown celebrations. In baseball, acting like that after a hitting a home run would probably result in getting beamed in the hip by a fastball in your next at-bat.

But then I went to college and found out a fact that I hadn't even considered before- I suddenly had a team to root for. I followed my team's highs and lows (in that order) year after year until my head was about to explode.

Now I'm a little better versed in football terminology and have developed an appreciation for the game. After doing a quick search on wikipedia, I can tell you a little about the different positions. I can tell you the difference between the 4-3 and 3-4. I also notice a few basic things when I watch- like how bad things happen when you don't get to the quarterback and why good time management is so important.

That being said, I'm still a bit confused over a few things: What's the difference between a running back and a tail back? How do you tell a chop block from a crackback? Why are wide receivers the only ones with the attitude problems?

And I still get confused by lines like "great lead-blocking in the backfield." I also get fooled by play-action way too often. It's a good thing I'm not a linebacker because I have a habit of losing sight of the football.

And now, after a particularly gruesome loss by my once-promising team (for about the fifth year in a row), I'm pondering why I've once again decided to devote so much energy to this futile endeavor.

To answer that question, I'll refer to an experiment I recently learned about from the field of group psychology. In this experiment, participants were paired up and played several sequences of the prisoner's dilemma game through a computer interface (so they couldn't see each other). (If you're not familiar with the prisoner's dilemma, it is enough to know that each person is given the option of either cooperating or backstabbing the other participant).

What made this experiment interesting was that the participants were told one bit of information about their partners prior to playing. This bit of information could be one of several things, including race, gender, taste in music, favorite ice cream flavor, or just about anything else.

The experimenters found that people were much more likely to cooperate with their partners when the bit of information they were told showed similarities with themselves. In other words, they treated people better when they were of the same race, gender, or even liked the same ice cream.

Even more astonishing was the result of the next experiment. In this next experiment, participants played the prisoner's dilemma game once again, but this time, they were placed in random groups. The participants never met each other face-to-face, were aware that the groups were selected randomly, and never learned any information about their partners apart from which group they belonged to.

Despite the fact that these groups were formed randomly, the participants showed the same favoritism for those in the same group that they showed for those with the same race in the first experiment. In many cases they weren't even aware that they showed this favoritism.

What do we learn from this experiment? I think it has powerful implications concerning the nature of human existence. We underestimate the importance of our group memberships in our everyday lives. This experiment shows that we cannot help but identify ourselves as members of certain groups, regardless of whether or not the organization of those groups shows any sense of logic or reason. It is an interesting (and somewhat frightening) prospect.

So in the context of this experiment, I suppose it becomes perfectly natural to root for a team that represents your school or the area where you grew up. If you really think about it, those players really have very little in common with us fans (I've never seen a burly offensive lineman squeeze into a chair at one of my physics lectures), but I suppose I'm just looking for a reason to root for someone. Any reason will do.

That seems fine to me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The following will all happen within my lifetime:
  • The word "whom" will cease to exist, as will the spelling of the word "through" (to be replaced by "thru").
  • The words "they", "them" and "their" will officially be recognized as gender-neutral singular third-person pronouns (ridding us of awkward phrases like "he or she" and "his or her").
  • Theoretical Physicists will finally discover the ultimate theory of everything. Knowing their work to be over, they will attempt to save their jobs by withholding the final draft and publishing false theories in order to fool governments into rewarding more grant money.
  • A monkey sitting at a typewriter will write a bestseller.
  • Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh will both be admitted into mental institutions after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder characterized by an inability to discern one's mouth from one's rectum.
  • After a series of major advances in robotics, robots will take over the work of many occupations, including assembly line work, patient care and retail. Unemployment will skyrocket.
  • After a series of major advances in artificial intelligence, robots will gain the ability to design and build other robots. Unemployment will plummet as leagues of unemployed are drafted into the military to battle the robot armies. Will Smith, Christian Bale, and Keanu Reeves will each heroically attempt to save the human race from the brutal robot overlords. They will all fail.
We'll have to see how things work out. Sadly, I won't be recognized as the next Nostradamus until the aliens visit and find this post after the robots have used up all our resources and left the Earth a hollowed shell of a former life-giving planet. You'll just have to trust that what I've said is true.

Also, I've mentioned Glenn Beck in each of the last two posts (twice in this one if you include the monkey bit). I promise to try not to in the next post.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Critical Thinking

I recently came across something in a community college textbook that I found interesting. About three whole pages of this textbook was devoted to giving guidelines for intelligently reading articles of academic interest. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, since this is a very important skill to have for those of us in academic fields. However, I don't think there was anything included that any intelligent person shouldn't be able to figure out for himself. Here's roughly what it said:

When analyzing the claims that anyone is making, keep the following in mind:

1. Is the writer/speaker an expert in the subject on which he/she is talking about? If not, is there any reason you should trust what this person is saying? (I may be pretty picky, but when it comes to academic matters, an "expert" is someone with an advanced degree in the particular field- at least.)

2. Do the claims disagree with accepted knowledge or are outrageous for other reasons? Such claims are not necessarily false, but there has to be a reason that years of academic pursuit suggest otherwise. (This, usually along with #1, is a primary reason that you can immediately ignore crackpot theorists who make claims like "Quantum Mechanics is obviously wrong" without explaining why quantum mechanics predicts the result of every low-energy experiment ever performed.)

3. Does the writer/speaker provide evidence to support his/her claims? Does the evidence supplied hold up to the same scrutiny? (In academic papers, evidence is shown through the results of individual research, or through citing papers written by other researchers. Seriously- this should be the biggest no-brainer in this list.)

4. Could the writer/speaker have ulterior motives? There are many reasons that a person could make a certain claim, and the pursuit of truth is only one of them. The others include money, social status, political capital, embarrassment, and countless others. Don't be naive.

5. Does the argument contain logical fallacies? Here's a sample of a few:
  • Circular logic
  • Correlation implies causation
  • Sweeping generalizations
  • Bandwagon
  • Arguing from ignorance
  • Appeals to authority
  • Slippery slope
6. Does the claim seem too simple, given the complexity of the subject matter? If someone offers a one-sentence solution to an age-old problem, that usually means that the person ignored a few factors that contributed to the problem in the first place.
To be honest, I still don't see why this needs to be outlined in a textbook. After all, in the sciences, these are rules that researchers live or die by. These are things you pick up out of necessity. You either learn to apply them or are subject to ridicule by your peers.

But when it comes to our roles in mainstream society, there's no reason not to apply these skills to the best of our ability. Take politics, for example:

Do you think Sarah Palin is an expert in health care? What qualifications does she have to decide on issues that affect Americans, besides that time that she ruined McCain's chances of getting elected? How about Glenn Beck? What kind of pedigree is required to make up stuff on TV these days? Unless Glenn Beck is really Dr. Glenn Beck, Phd., it sounds like these two fail the critical thinking check number 1.

Saying that Obama wants to put your grandma to death is a pretty outlandish claim. So are claims that compare proposed health care reform to nazi eugenics. That's check number 2. Upon two failed checks, any sane person should be looking for number 3. Give me a quote from one of the bills (with a page number), and maybe I'll listen. Otherwise, I'd rather spend my time reading up on time cube or flat earth theory. At least those sets of meaningless blabber are moderately entertaining and don't influence the well-being of 47 million people.

Before I get down from my soapbox, I'd like to mention that I really wish I could find better examples from across the aisle. As much as I hate to say it, this isn't a problem with the Republican party, but more just politics in general.

Our political system is one in which "facts" are routinely carefully selected, spun, misinterpreted, or completely fabricated just to back up one's point of view. There isn't a politician alive who doesn't have ulterior motives. They will say whatever they can, just to improve the status of their party, or get a boost in their next campaign. That sounds an awful lot like check number four.

Here's something you can do- read up on the most common logical fallacies, and try to spot them next time you're watching cable news or a debate. Some are so prevalent, that they are named after political phrases that are used when they are committed (like "slippery slope"). Maybe a harder task is to spot an argument that doesn't contain a logical fallacy.

As for check number six, I think you'll agree with me that overgeneralization is not only common in politics, but is an accepted political strategy. For example, taking a thousand-page bill and calling it a "government take-over of health care" is certainly an overgeneralization.

None of these behaviors would be tolerated in any academic field. You wouldn't even tolerate it among your coworkers. Heck, you'd probably scold your kids for some of the same behaviors that are commonplace over on capital hill. And these are the people who are running the country. Go figure.

What's the most frustrating is the fact that this isn't just a big accident. These sorts of deceitful behaviors are nothing but politics-by-design.

Eh. Fuck it.