Michael Daugherity's Archive

Fun Friday – COFFEE Edition!

0 Commentsby   |  08.02.13  |  Fun

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”  Alfréd Rényi

Coffee, the greatest addiction ever, has been making the news recently.  Join me for a run-down of this greatest of the warm liquids:

1) How Coffee Affects Your Brain – PhD Comics

PhD Comics - How Coffee Affects Your Brain

PhD Comics – How Coffee Affects Your Brain

Short answer: very nicely, thanks.


2) This is your brain on coffee – NYT. From the story:

In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study. It’s not clear exactly what coffee had to do with their longevity, but the correlation is striking.

Apparently coffee makes life worth living.


3) Correlation, causation, and a suicidal link with coffee – Improbable Research.  The highly improbable take on the above story:

This is one of the few reports to explicitly state that coffee seems to cause (“Drinking several cups of coffee daily appears to reduce”) a life-or-death effect in people who drink it. In so doing, this report may be a watershed (and/or coffeeshed) in the history of biomedical science, and in the field of biological psychiatry….
BONUS: The report also says, a few paragraphs later, “In spite of the findings, the authors do not recommend that depressed adults increase caffeine consumption…”

The obligatory insight from XKCD belongs here.


4)  We have the benefits from coffee, so what about the cost?  Well, DataGenetics has you covered.  Here you can calculate the cost of coffee (or any regular purchase) with surprising sophistication.  Of course, if you deduct the costs of premature suicide and lethargy then coffee always works out to be a surprising bargain.

Stay caffeinated, my friends.

-Dr. D

Fun Friday Links


0 Commentsby   |  07.26.13  |  Fun, Physics News

Time for another Fun Friday!  Here’s my list of stuff too good to throw away but not good enough to warrant its own post:

1)  Need a break from grueling research/summer classes/debugging dodgy code/perusing the course catalog to optimize your Fall schedule/simulating DoTA line-ups/or taking victory laps around the lab?  Play a few rounds of arXiv vs. snarXiv!

snarxivThe arXiv is a free repository of physics, math, and computer science papers.  This is an online manifestation of the traditions of the “pre-print”, instead of waiting for your paper to be published you sent around early copies to your colleagues at other institutions.  Now anyone can upload anything to the arXiv, including legitimate science from world experts, outlandish speculation, and gibberish.  Following up on the Sokal affair and other attempts to get randomly generated papers published, the snarXiv takes an ever-evolving list of buzzwords in a context-free grammar, and then lets you guess which title is actually real.  As you can see, my ability to pick the real paper is only slightly better than a monkey.

Fun snarXiv facts:

  1. The two fakest-sounding real papers are “Highlights of the Theory” and “Heterotic on Half-flat“.
  2. My favorite selections from the list of fake-sounding papers are “Charging Black Saturn” and “Baby steps beyond rainbow-ladder“.
  3. The average over 750,000 guesses is 59% correct, so (mostly) real science apparently sounds (mostly) like gobbledy-gook.
  4. The suggested uses for the snarXiv are:
  • If you’re a grad­u­ate stu­dent, gloomily read through the abstracts, think­ing to your­self that you don’t under­stand papers on the real arXiv any better.
  • If you’re a post-doc, reload until you find some­thing to work on.
  • If you’re a pro­fes­sor, get really excited when a paper claims to solve the hier­ar­chy prob­lem, the lit­tle hier­ar­chy prob­lem, the mu prob­lem, and the con­fine­ment prob­lem. Then expe­ri­ence pro­found disappointment.
  • If you’re a famous physi­cist, keep reload­ing until you see your name on some­thing, then claim credit for it.


2)  From the world of engineering (which, as of 1996, is no longer boring), AeroVelo wins the Human Powered Helicopter Competition from the American Helicopter association.  The flight must be longer than 60 seconds, higher than 3 meters, and stay within a 10×10 meter box.  Watch the really, really cool video here.

AeroVelo wins the Human Powered Helicopter Competition

AeroVelo wins the Human Powered Helicopter Competition


3)  Fox News reports that Neil deGrasse Tyson will host another follow-up to Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking documentary 33 years ago.  Watch the trailer here.

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

I really like the backstory from geek-movie-critic Movie Bob:

Fox Television gave Seth MacFarlane a big leeway for “whatever he wanted to do” in exchange for keeping ratings-juggernaut “Family Guy” on the air. He decided to spend that clout on two passion projects. One wasn’t too surprising: A new version of “The Flintstones,” which is still pending. The other? “COSMOS,” a 13-part science documentary – a sequel to the legendary Carl Sagan series of the same name – hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Yes. The creator of “Family Guy” is going to run a science documentary on a major network because he can.


4)  And the excellence in science journalism for outstanding headline goes to: “EU boffins in plan for ‘more nutritious’ horsemeat ice cream: ‘Disused’ animal products ideal for sick, elderly”


5) Finally, because science is awesome, here’s how we intend to build the largest digital camera in the world and launch it into space:



Happy Fun Friday!

-Dr. D

NASA: Then and Now

0 Commentsby   |  07.24.13  |  Uncategorized

NASA Mission Control celebrates return of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission on July 24, 1969. http://www.nasa.gov/content/mission-control-celebrates-success-of-apollo-11/#.UfAPHo2siM4

NASA Mission Control celebrates the successful return of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission on July 24, 1969.

44 years ago today, the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission returned to Earth by splashing gently into the Pacific 400 miles off the coast of Wake Island.

This is the mission that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to become the first humans to ever set foot on the moon.   The achievement of reaching the moon with 1960’s technology is simply incredible.  For example, the Apollo Guidance Computer weighed 70 pounds, ran at 2 MHz (about 500-1,000 times slower than an average smartphone), and had 2K of RAM (one million times less than a modern computer).  NASA released this picture of the epic celebration in mission control when the mission ended successfully.

So, that was 44 years ago.  Where are we now?


Also in 1969, NASA developed a plan for reusable spacecraft called the Space Transportation System, which became unofficially known as the space shuttle.  The shuttles, typically credited for being the most complex vehicles ever built, ultimately flew 135 missions from 1981 to 2011.   But now the shuttle program is officially retired:

Abstruse Goose - history of flight

History of Flight, from Abstruse Goose

Even though humans haven’t been to the moon since 1972, but in the meantime, NASA has gotten to be quite good at launching robots into space.  This blog post is really about three really awesome images from satellites.

1.  If you were standing outside on July 19th, then the Cassini spacecraft took a picture of you.  Of course, it was 900 millions away behind the rings of Saturn, so it might be hard to pick yourself out of the crowd, but nonetheless the JPL was encouraging everyone to go outside and wave.  The picture is staggering:

Picture of Earth through Saturn's rings from the Cassini spacecraft

Picture of Earth through Saturn’s rings from the Cassini spacecraft

2.  This recent NASA Picture of the Day was taken two weeks after a tornado ripped through central Oklahoma on May 20, 2013.  In this false-color image, vegetation is red while roads and buildings are gray.   The tornado track leaves a jagged scar running across the middle of the picture.

Track from the May 20th tornado through Moore, Oklahoma

Track from the May 20th tornado through Moore, Oklahoma

3.  If zoom in a bit more on Cassini’s picture, we might get something like this:

Texas cities from space

This picture was taken from the International Space Station 240 miles above Earth.  Houston is visible near the bottom-right.  Near the top-middle you get the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, and I-35 running to left with Waco, Austin, and San Antonio.  Of course, the bright spot to the left of the metroplex is none other than Abilene.

The shuttle program may be over, but we are still exploring space.  Curiosity is waiting for us on Mars–time for a visit!

-Dr. D


The Research Special

0 Commentsby   |  07.16.13  |  Department, Research

We are proud to have students and Faculty at prestigious research labs and universities for summer research projects.  We can be found at our typical summer haunts working at ACU, Brookhaven National Lab in New York, FermiLab near Chicago, and the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany.  We also have a new project at the University of Illinois, and two students on summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) projects at Illinois and the Colorado School of Mines.

We are thrilled that ACU has produced a new video highlighting our summer research!  Enjoy this Wildcat Video Minute (ok, two-and-a-half minutes):

WVM header

Notice that this is linked to a playlist on our spiffy new Youtube Channel!

Want to learn more about our research?  Want to know what it is like to be an ACU student at the lab?  No problem, have some DANGO.  Here’s the June issues of our DANGO (the Doings ANd Goings On) newsletter–now with the picture of the week:


-Dr. D



Summer 2013 – DANGO #1


0 Commentsby   |  05.27.13  |  Department, Fun, Research

Happy Memorial Day!

This year, I am spending mine in the PHENIX control room at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York along with Dr. Towell and 4 ACU students.  We have been responsible for running a $100 million experiment from 8 am – 4 pm since last Tuesday.  So far, the all-ACU crew has done a great job: no explosions, no fire balls, no oxygen masks, no black holes, and lots and lots of physics.

There is a real chance that this year we will record enough data to make the first W-boson measurement with the muon arms which will give a very important clue on the structure of the proton.  Simulations for this measurement were started in 2002. A grant from the NSF was awarded to ACU, UIUC, and two other universities in 2005. The detectors were constructed and installed in 2011. If this run is successful and we can fast track the analysis, then hopefully we will finally publish results in 2014–making this a 12 year project that has involved dozens and dozens of ACU students.

For the last 18 years we have a long-standing tradition of writing a summer department newsletter called DANGO (the Doings ANd Goings On).  Today, we continue this hallowed tradition:

DANGO 2013 Issue #1

-Dr. D


Spring Break Projects

0 Commentsby   |  03.16.13  |  Fun

Spring Break 2013 is winding down, but don’t panic.  There is still time to pull off one last epic Spring Break Project.  Here’s a few ideas from around the interwebs to help get you started.

1.  Build an Oreo Separator Machine

Oreo Separator Machine #1 by David Neevel

Oreo Separator Machine #1 by David Neevel

 Have a spare hatchet lying around?  Need more “creme” filling for that recipe?  Have enough energy to eat cookies but not enough to separate them on your own?  Then you need an Oreo Separating Machine.

2.  Paint with Maggots

How to paint with maggots by 6legs2many

How to paint with maggots by 6legs2many

That huge pile of mangled Oreo bits in your garage might attract some unwanted attention from the insect world, so go ahead and harness their awesome power for Art.  All you need is some tempera paint and a strong stomach.

 3.  Get your marriage proposal peer-reviewed

Two Body Interactions

Two Body Interactions

This has been going viral around certain parts of the internet for the last few weeks.  It just goes to show that everything, simply everything, looks better in LaTeX.

4.  Develop a bizarre performance art piece to introduce quantum mechanics

Why does poor judgement always lead to performance art?

Why does poor judgement always lead to performance art?

The Columbia Spectator article puts it best:

First-years in Frontiers of Science were supposed to hear a lecture on quantum mechanics from renowned physics professor Emlyn Hughes on Monday morning. But what they witnessed first was a bizarre performance from Hughes that left many of them baffled and confused.

As students filed into the lecture hall, all of the lights were off, except for two spotlights on stage where Hughes was sitting. With Lil Wayne’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” playing in the background, Hughes stripped down to his underwear, then proceeded to change into a black T-shirt and pants. Afterwards, he sat down on the chair, hugging his knees in a fetal position.

Then, as a jumbled video that included footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11 continued to play on the screen, two figures dressed in black came on stage with long swords. One of them proceeded to chop a stuffed animal in half on a stool.

Students said they were shocked and confused by what was happening on stage.

Wow.  There are no words.  I think I will continue my firm no-performance-art policy from now on.

Well, I hope these help kickstart your project ideas.  Happy Spring Break!

-Dr. D

An Arm and a Leg

0 Commentsby   |  02.06.13  |  Uncategorized

Last Friday was March 1, 2013, the date of the budget sequestration.  Due to the inaction of congress, the U.S. faces an $85-billion budget cut which includes an 8% cut to scientific research.  PhD Comics, as always, does a good job of explaining the situation:

PhD Comics - Budget Sequestration Explained. Click to enlarge.

These cuts were originally slated to take place on January 2nd, but a last-minute compromise bill delayed the Fiscal Cliff until now.  The White House Fact Sheet explains the effect of the “sequester” this way:

Cuts to research and innovation: In order to compete for the jobs of the future and to ensure that the next breakthroughs to find cures for critical diseases are developed right here in America, we need to continue to lead the world in research and innovation.  Most Americans with chronic diseases don’t have a day to lose, but under a sequester progress towards cures would be delayed and several thousand researchers could lose their jobs.  Up to 12,000 scientists and students would also be impacted.

In science, funding equals jobs, and for every job lost there is a significant “brain drain” effect where people leave science careers for other options.  Much of the lost funding won’t be replaced by other sources–the cuts mean that some innovations just have to wait.

Even ignoring the direct technology benefits (such as the development of the internet) and the indirect applications (the iPhone is an excellent example of the combined results of physics research), fundamental science is a investment in the economy.  For example, FermiLab’s Tevatron cost about $4 billion to build, but returned about $40 billion to the economy.  For a clearer picture of the value of science, take a few minutes to read the response when a nun wrote a letter to NASA asking how we can justify the cost of the space program.  The reply begins:

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Regardless of logic and reason, we now must live with the consequences of the sequestration.  We now have to figure out how to do Science missing an arm and a leg.

-Dr. D


0 Commentsby   |  08.03.12  |  Physics News

I’ve traveled a long way this summer.  So far I’ve driven nearly 4,000 miles, mostly in a minivan bursting to capacity and two small kids along for the adventure.  This pales in comparison to the rover Curiosity which left Cape Canaveral on November 26th and lands on Mars in two days.  We can expect the landing either late Sunday (August 5) or early Monday morning, depending on your time zone.   Curiosity is a massive six-wheeled, ten foot long, nuclear powered science lab we are unleashing on the unsuspecting Martians:

One of the most fascinating things about Curiosity is the landing.  Their plan is formally called the Sky Crane, or more informally called the Seven Minutes of Terror You must watch this video.

Click for Seven Minutes of Terror

There is also an excellent PhD comics video on Curiosity.  The breakdown below shows the steps involved between flying 80 miles above the surface at 13,200 mph to being (hopefully) gently lowered to the ground on the Sky Crane.

Remember, there have been failures.  Let’s look at a few to see what can go wrong:

  • Mars Polar Lander – cause uncertain but crash most likely caused when descent rockets accidentally shut off while still 50 meters above the surface
  • Deep Space 2 – fate unknown, designed to tunnel a probe into the surface of Mars but all communications were lost
  • Mars Climate Orbiter – a story which I tell in class every year where a crucial piece of software used English units instead of Metric units causing the orbiter to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere

These three failures all happened between 1996 and 1999.  Since then the track record has improved with several successful missions.  Curiosity is the largest and most ambitious rover so far.

On Sunday night, find some friends, make some popcorn, and root for Curiosity.

-Dr. D

What If

0 Commentsby   |  08.01.12  |  Fun

Christmas has come early this year, but instead of Santa Claus we have Randall Munroe to thank.  He is a genius, a cartoonist, and interestingly enough, a physics major.  XCKD, his webcomic named by carefully choosing an unpronounceable four-letter name, is subtitled “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”   The warning at the bottom is also important: “Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).”  The comics are brilliant, and I’ve probably shown dozens and dozens of these in lectures over the years.  There’s plenty more I’d like to show, but are unsuitable for mixed company and un-tenured professors (the relativity of simultaneity joke comes to mind).  So how do we improve on ultra-geeky-and-funny web humor?  Why, with What If of course.


He has devoted every Tuesday to answering an interesting question with rock-solid physics.  His first post, Relativistic Baseball, explores a pitch at 90% the speed of light, and ends up with a fascinating result.  Yesterday’s post tackles a subject near to my heart (after just finishing a semester of Pattern Recognition), the Robot Apocalypse.

Have fun exploring!  If thinking about a mole of moles doesn’t get you through the week, then nothing will.

-Dr D



0 Commentsby   |  07.26.12  |  Uncategorized

Haven’t had your recommended daily allowance of DANGO?  Well, you’re in luck:

Research on, my friends.

-Dr. D

Michael Daugherity's Comment Archive

  1. I’m curious about what you mean, omi. If you’re referring to the stories about particle accelerators creating a black hole and destroying the Earth (the Daily Show did a great story with Steve Carrel when RHIC started, there have been many similar stories with the LHC start-up) then this is why I’m not concerned:
    There are naturally occurring collisions that are many thousands of times more powerful than anything we can create in a lab.
    Since cosmic rays with energies of 10^18 eV and above don’t destroy the Earth, we can’t either. This is our version of common sense.

    Personally, I’m rather fond of living on Earth. We plan on keeping it far away from black holes.
    -Dr. D