Archive for ‘Physics News’

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


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

Explaining the Higgs, or not…

0 Commentsby   |  07.26.12  |  Physics News

The Higgs particle is barely three weeks old (the baby photos are already up), and one of the hazards of being a particle physicist is that people will ask you to explain what the Higgs particle is.  So I issued a challenge on our Facebook page for the best Higgs explanations.  Here are my personal favorites:

1.  The gentle start – an Official FermiLab video provides a very nice explanation.  (I’m actually at FermiLab for the next few weeks, so I may be a little biased.)  This is called “What is a Higgs Boson?” by Don Lincoln

2.  The lunchtime chat – a video from PhD Comics (required reading for anyone thinking about grad school) with terrible sound quality, since it was literally recorded in the crowded CERN cafeteria at lunch, but cool animations called “The Higgs Boson Explained”.

3.  Fun, Short AND Technical – If you’ve made it this far, head over to Minute Physics and check out part 1 of a fantastic but slightly technical video series on “The Higgs Boson“.  I really like the motivation here for introducing spontaneous symmetry breaking, so this is the explanation I usually give to physics majors.  Incidentally, part 2 brings in some more interesting issues, so it’s nice but not required.

4.  How to Ruin Your Afternoon – If you’re yearning for theoretical minutiae, you can’t do better that Matt Strassler’s blog.  What I admire/fear about his Higgs explanations for the general public is that he refuses to gloss over any aspect, no matter how technical it may be.  Read through the “Higgs FAQ 1.0” and keep going with his other posts for an informative way to annihilate your afternoon.

Finally, I love the “Craziest Higgs Stories” by Hank Campbell for the failed attempts at reporting on the Higgs.  Time travel, teleportation, disproving religion, you betcha!  Behold what passes for journalism these days.

Got something better (or worse)? Pass it along.

-Dr. D


Fun Friday Links

0 Commentsby   |  07.06.12  |  Fun, Physics News

In all of my classes I take special effort to have a Fun Friday every week.  These classes are exactly like Mondays and Wednesdays except, you know… fun.  Here are some Fun Friday links from the Interwebs:

1.  Stephen Hawking loses $100 bet on the Higgs –


2.  My favorite Higgs predictions:

Fermilab scientists interrupt the announcement, saying, “Yo CERN, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish. But the top quark was one of the best particle physics discoveries of all time. One of the best of ALL TIME!”

Odds: 49 in 100

3. This cartoon by Walt Handelsman:

Quark's view of a RHIC collision


4. Published math paper retracted because it contains no scientific content:

The official notice says:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Publisher, as the article contains no scientific content and was accepted because of an administrative error. Apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

The abstract reads: “In this study, a computer application was used to solve a mathematical problem.”  The authors give emails addresses at and   The conclusion ends with:

In brief an impossible proposition was proved as possible. This is a problematic problem. Further studies will give birth to a new branch of mathematical science.

Happy Fun Friday!

-Dr. D

And the prize goes to…


0 Commentsby   |  10.04.11  |  Physics News

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess for measuring the acceleration of the universe with supernovae.

These American-born scientists ran two competing groups, the Supernova Cosmology Project started in 1988 and the High-z Supernova Search Team in 1994, which independently published breakthrough papers in 1998.  The motivation for their projects was based on one of the most vexing problems in astronomy: when you look at a star, can you tell how far away it is?  Obviously, they will appear dimmer the farther away they are, so if we know how bright the star really is we can guess its distance fairly accurately.  One classic solution to this problem which has been used since the 1930’s is to look for giant, pulsating Cepheid variable stars where we can infer their brightness based on the time between pulses.  These teams pioneered the use of Type Ia supernovae which are short-lived but extremely bright, meaning that they will be visible from far away.  They used telescopes with CCD sensors which power all of today’s digital cameras to scan a huge patch of sky, then they re-scan the same region a few weeks later to look for signals of a supernovae.  The key to this technique was that when they performed the re-scanned they would also book time at other, more powerful telescopes to zoom in on the supernovae they found.  Both teams were in fierce competition, often even using the same telescopes.

Brightness versus distance of supernovae. The blue dashed lines show accelerating universe models, while the solid black lines have no acceleration.

The second figure 1 (nobody’s perfect) from the summary paper shows brightness versus distance data of supernovae.  The lines show various universe models with different parameters.  These models take Einstein’s General Relativity equations and solve them assuming that the universe is completely homogenous and isotropic (which actually disagrees with current observations showing clusters, filaments, and voids, but these complications make the math unsolvable so we’re pretty much stuck).  We then throw in different ingredients such as matter which likes to stick together with gravity, radiation, and an outward expansion from a cosmological constant called dark energy.  The non-accelerating models with solid black lines show universes with differing amount of matter but no dark energy.  We might expect to be on the (1,0) line, but that disagrees with the data.  Instead, the blue dashed lines showing accelerating universes fit quite well, and seems to improve by increasing the ratio dark energy to matter.

Combination of results from supernovae (SNe), COBE and WMAP satellites (CMB), and spatial correlations of galaxies (BAO).

These measurements were a new take, and an interesting confirmation of, a result from the COBE satellite launched in 1989 to measure the background radiation left over from the Big Bang (but that’s another story), which incidentally won the 2006 Nobel Prize.  (One of the winners, George Smoot, later appeared on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” where he beat their brains out.  High fives all around.)  When you compare the COBE results to the supernovae results, something truly remarkable emerges.  The overlap of agreement leaves a teeny, tiny allowed region of a nearly-flat, accelerating, forever-expanding universe with roughly 75% dark energy and 25% matter.  (Curiously, the matter that we know of is only a small fraction of this, so we call most of this dark matter.)

Personally, the most interesting thing about these results is that they starkly reveal how little we actually know about the universe.  We know almost nothing about dark energy, and very little about dark matter.  The stuff that we know about comprises about 4% of the universe.  4 lousy percent!  This is 1/25th of the universe.  Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t nailing down the details of the details of the details of the answers, instead we’re just now trying to figure out what questions we should be asking (see this fantastic animation from PhD Comics for more).  Frankly, this makes the universe a much more interesting place to be.

-Dr. D



Funeral for a Collider

0 Commentsby   |  09.30.11  |  Physics News, Research

Today is September 30th, 2011.  Today marks the end of era in physics.  Today is the last day of the Tevatron.

The Tevatron at Fermilab

Fermilab, which sits outside of Chicago, has an interactive timeline showing some of the milestones of the Tevatron, which was one of the world’s largest atom smashers.  The final pieces were installed on March 18, 1983 (a few weeks after I turned four years old) and broke record after record.  The Tevatron will always be known for the discovery of the top quark in 1995.  In fact, nearly everything we know about the top quark today is due to Tevatron data.  The world’s best measurements of the W mass come from the Tevatron which tell us a great deal about the properties of the Higgs.  It is also noteworthy that the searches for a 4th generation of quarks or supersymmetric particles which turned up empty greatly constrained many theoretical models.  Finally, in a weird twist of fate, as of this moment the Higgs itself has run out of places to hide except for one tiny region just tantalizingly out of reach of the Tevatron.  One small upgrade, a few more years of data, and maybe the Higgs would have been ours.

ACU has worked with Fermilab for many years, and we are still running an exciting experiment which will provide amazing insight into what protons are made of.  Even though Fermilab’s collider program is over, they are still using the main proton beam for experiments such as ours, or the experiment which will check (and most likely overturn) the faster-than-light neutrino measurement from OPERA.

NPR has a nice story here, and for more technically-involved but bleaker updates there is live blogging today from the funeral here.

Texas Physics Programs on the Chopping Block

0 Commentsby   |  09.27.11  |  Physics News

An incredibly disturbing story from Nature News reports on the implication of an announcement by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  From the article:

…nearly half of the 24 undergraduate physics programmes at state funded universities could be on the chopping block if they fail to graduate at least 25 students every 5 years

If this goes through, we will do real and permanent damage to science education in Texas.  There are countless studies which show that science education is crucial to America’s economy.  I’ll give two specific examples:

  1. The 2008 Rising Above the Gathering Storm report
  2. The research that went into the development of the America COMPETES Act

Apparently our plan to address our economic downtown involves sitting in the middle of a storm, not competing.  To borrow a phrase, it seems kind of like cutting hospitals during a plague.

-Dr. D

PHENIX publishes 100th paper


0 Commentsby   |  06.23.11  |  Physics News, Research

We received word this morning that the 100th peer-reviewed paper by PHENIX has been published online.  To the best of our knowledge, every single paper includes at least one person from ACU on the author list.  The first paper was published in April 2001, and it is an amazing accomplishment by the PHENIX Collaboration to reach this milestone in 10 years.

View the complete list of published peer-reviewed articles on PHENIX’s web page.

The Art of Science

0 Commentsby   |  10.14.10  |  Fun, Physics News

What happens when 5 of the world’s leading particle physics laboratories open their doors to amateur photographers:  Particle Physics Photowalk.

A research lab can be an imposing place.  The fences, armed security guards, and radiation warnings are enough evoke fear in the public at what really goes on in these government facilities.  Are you conjuring up images of lab coats and death rays yet?

The truth is, the vast majority of scientists who work in particle and nuclear physics want the world to see what our research looks like.  We think our machines are cool, and we revel in playing with some of the world’s neatest toys.  The 200 Photowalk photographers did an amazing job of capturing life inside the lab.  Who knew that physics research could be so, well…, beautiful?

View the finalists on the InterAction Collaborations’s Flickr page.

-Dr. D

The Edge of Science, part 1: the system works


1 Commentby   |  09.02.10  |  Fun, Physics News

We spend a lot of time talking and writing about being on the cutting edge of science.  We tell colleagues, students, and (mostly importantly) funding agencies that we are dealing with the newest equipment, the biggest atom smasher, the latest technique, and the results hot off the press.  For various reasons I’ve been interested lately in the other edge of science.  For the next few posts I hope you’ll come with me on a journey to the backwaters, the murky regions, and some deep dark spooky places.  Let’s jump off the back edge of science and see what we find.

There is a recent article in the excellent physics magazine Symmetry (available free online, thanks to support from the Department of Energy and Office of Science) about the dismissal of a lawsuit in appeals court.  To get you interested, my favorite quote from last week’s article is:

Accordingly, the alleged injury, destruction of the earth, is in no way attributable to the U.S. government’s failure to draft an environmental impact statement.

More »