Science Feed

The 3rd grade with microscopes

The Westport 3rd grade got some microscope time today. First, my son Peter told them about his microscope adventures. Then they looked at commercially prepared slides. And then the looked at samples of pond water from Black Kettle, where they had gone on a field trip, and from Ted Cornell's art farm, both of which are in Wadhams, NY. (See yesterday's post.)

I had hoped to get some shots of what the kids were seeing, but both the kids and the wiggly creatures on slides were moving too fast for us to photograph the microscope views. But here are the kids.



Dad in New Scientist

My dad, John Cramer, was quoted in New Scientist this week in Lisa Grossman's article Expert panel urges NASA to revive futuristic think tank concerning NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Despite the current uncertainty in NASA's future plans and budget, the committee says that NIAC is still a worthwhile investment. "NIAC was efficiently run, there was no waste of money," says John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington and a former member of a council that reviewed NIAC projects. "NASA got an amazing amount of bang for the buck," Cramer told New Scientist.

manufactroversy: a word I've been needing

From Leah Ceccarelli at Science Progress:
Manufactroversy (măn’yə-făk’-trə-vûr’sē) 
N., pl. -sies. 
1. A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute. 
2. Effort is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.

I first encountered this in the Wikipedia entry for Artificial controversy:

An artificial controversy, or variously a contrived controversyengineered controversyfabricated controversymanufactured controversy, or manufactroversy is a controversy that does not stem from genuine difference of opinion. The controversy is typically developed by an interest group, such as a political party[1] or a marketing company, to attract media attention,[2] or to facilitate framing of a particular issue. Creating controversy is also a controversial legal tactic used to gain advantage in a negotiation or trial.[3] The controversy may stem from a minor incident blown out of proportion,[4] from a false claim of controversy where no serious dispute existed,[5] or no reasonable doubt remains,[6] or unintentionally from misinterpreting data.[7]

Writing on the politics of cancer and the influence of special interest groups on the public policy debate, Dr. Robert N. Proctorhistory of science professor at Stanford University specializing in scientific controversy and the cultural production of ignorance,[8] which he calls agnotology,[9] described the use of artificial controversy: "The relation between knowledge and ignorance in these matters is complex....The problem is partly that ignorance can be manufactured, controversy can be engineered."[10] In a 2006 interview regarding public perceptions of the press in the United States, journalist Carl Bernstein lamented, "Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff—gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy.... Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous."[11]  . . .

Writer Valerie Tarico, referred to Prof. Leah Ceccarelli's writings on "teach the controversy" as a manufactroversy.[35]

The Tarico reference is her article from The Huffington Post, Ben Stein: Front Man for Creationism's Manufactroversy, concerning the movie Expelled.

University of Washington professor, Leah Ceccarelli has pointed out that their "teach the controversy" strategy depends on a very specific sleight of hand: blurring the difference between scientific controversy and manufactured controversy or Manufactroversy.

You can say you first heard it here, well, if you haven't heard it already on MySpace or Facebook: Manufactroversy -- a made up word for a made up controversy. 

"alternate universes have to be good for something"

Network Stephen Wolfram has written a few thousand words on the structure of universes which is, as might be expected, quite interesting. My favorite passage is this one:

A good friend of mine has kept on encouraging me not to throw away any even vaguely plausible universes--even if we can show that they're not our universe. He thinks that alternate universes have to be good for something.

I certainly think it'll be an interesting--almost metaphysical--moment if we finally have a simple rule which we can tell is our universe. And we'll be able to know that our particular universe is number such-and-such in the enumeration of all possible universes.

As a science fiction editor, I know what alternate universes are good for!

Background to the Stuart Pivar Lawsuit: Money as "a Form of Behavior"

I've been following with some puzzlement the strange tale of millionaire businessman and art collector Stuart Pivar's lawsuit against science blogger PZ Myers claiming "Assault, Libel, and Slander" over Myers' negative review of Pivar's foray into evolutionary theory, a book entitled Lifecode:The Theory of Biological Self Organization, the only book published by one "Ryland Press, Inc."

I first read about the lawsuit on Making Light, but it has also been written up on Scientific American's blog, where Myers comments,

Huh. I'd heard some noise from Pivar threatening to sue, but this is the first I've heard of any formal action being taken. Since I'm a defendant (one who hasn't been notified of his status!) I suppose I should just shut up at this point and let justice run its course.

Since I'm a blogger, though, I can't completely shut up. I will just say that this is Pivar's attempt to squash a negative review of his book, which I posted here. Nothing in the review was motivated by personal malice, and I actually am inclined to favor structuralist arguments in evolution ... but I'm afraid my honest assessment of Pivar's work is that it does not support his conclusions. I still stand by my review, and now I'm a bit disturbed that someone would think criticism of a scientific hypothesis must be defended by silencing its critics.

One of the very first things I was ever told when my first book came out was never to respond to negative reviews. I have not entirely resisted the temptation, but have (I think) managed to limit myself to polite notes making what I felt were factual corrections. My first reaction, when reading about this lawsuit on Making Light was how much it reminded my of the Monty Python skit containing the line, He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.

Of course, life is stranger than fiction; stranger, even, than Monty Python. I've spent most of the day reading for our Year's Best volumes, but spent a few minutes looking further into the discussion of the lawsuit, and found some really odd stuff.

Pivar, it seems, is used to being noticed and making waves, though in very different circles than biology or blogging. According to The New York Times (2004) he has a "long-running feud" with the New York Academy of Art which he helped found and where he alledges  that "organized crime" has taken over.

In 2006, he alleged that Sotheby's showed negligence to its stockholders in relation a refund given a Japanese collector for a statue for which Pivar had obtained a 1 million dollar appraisal.

But  the most interesting material relates to his friendship with Andy Warhol, which he wrote about for the Sotheby's Andy Warhol Collection 1988 auction catalog. The Warhol-Pivar relationship merited a really startling passage in an essay published by Artnet entitled "What Art Says about Money" by Charlie Finch:

That is the call of money, the fear of art as exchange value. Conversely, Claude Monet, the original Andy, would crank out his haystacks, take a small number to Marseilles, telling his buyers, "There are only a few, buy them while you can." Then he'd float another dozen stacks back in Paris.

This is more than making a living, or refusing to: It is the love call of currency at its most fetishistic. Steve Rubell famously showered Andy Warhol with buckets of bills at Andy's birthday bash. No artist was more the victim, and yet exploiter, of money lust than Warhol, wandering the souks of Soho with Stuart Pivar buying up everything in sight then dumping the unopened packages in his closets at night, full of unsatisfied shame. The pull of mammon was murderous even on someone so intelligent. For money is a form of behavior, abstract, hidden and irrational.

Here's more on the Andy and Stuart social scene from accounts by Heli Vaaranen, a Finnish model:

What united Stuart and Andy was that they appreciated success, and only it. If someone tried to get started with his or her career, Stuart and Andy were certainly the wrong persons to try to use. Stuart Pivar had a very exclusive taste in his social life. For instance, he used to arrange classical concerts once a week in his home, in which artists like members of the New York Philharmonic performed. Only the best was good enough for Stuart.

Both Andy and Stuart selected the company they associated with. Very carefully. Andy used to say that 'It's great to buy friends'. Vaaranen agrees that Andy's famous friends were bought with his fame.

In the past few days, there are any number of people who have called Pivar an idiot for filing this lawsuit. That seems to me too easy an assessment.

The truth seems to be much more novelistic in a Jamesian sort of way: Pivar strikes me as a feisty, confident man, a fighter, who has honed his tactics in intellectually and aesthetically complex circles, who is unable to understand why his visual sophistication is not taking him where he wants to go, and why money can't take him the rest of the way if visual sophistication isn't enough. (I hope for the sake of everyone involved that he is a quick learner.)

"Bear with me as I unpack my indignation": Scientific American publishes an impassioned defense of science fiction

Cory Doctorow at the Nebulas

From the Scientific American blog: Science fiction is not obsolete--do you read me Bruno Maddox? by J.R.Mikel:

I strongly suspect that many of you who scan this web site regularly are fans of science fiction. Personally, I was a Heinlein kind of guy, though I made extensive forays into the worlds of Herbert, Niven and Bear, and sampled the ABCs: Asimov, Bester, Clarke. (Yes, I'm aware of Bradbury's work.)

I don't read the genre much anymore. Still, if you're anything like me, you screamed and stomped and pleaded with your girlfriend to understand the error of the August installment of Blinded by Science, an otherwise fine column in Discover magazine. The author, Bruno Maddox, was nominated for a national magazine award this year, and I have well enjoyed some of his writings. His riff on twins was singular. (Individuality is a construction--it's funny because it's true!)

Unfortunately for me . . . I must now heap punditocratic brickbats upon Maddox. For he has either let the zeitgeist slip through his fingers, or he has gone quite mad with power. Bear with me as I unpack my indignation.

Bruno Maddox attended the Nebula Awards weekend and was not impressed. Minkel gives a few examples of current sf writers whose work is highly responsive to and influential on science and technology. And I could do it to, in much more detail. I refer Mr. Maddox to our anthology The Hard SF Renaissance or to my chapter on hard sf in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.

Maddox spends a lot of wordage demolishing the importance of Michael Crichton as a writer. (Please see Nature editor Oliver Morton's essay on Michael Crichton published in The New Yorker in which Morton carefully and clearly points out how Crichton is distinctly and essentially not science fiction.)

But Maddox's piece, despite its stated thesis, isn't really about the relationship between science and science fiction. It's about a man finding himself at the wrong party and feeling uncomfortable. Apparently, he was bored. Maddox says.

Then again, it could also be the other thing--the thing that nobody's quite bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellowtail Merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.

Maddox did notice Charlie Brown's shirt, but if failed to convince him that we sf folk are prophets:

Other than this, however—the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a very old man investigating the bean dip over at the buffet table—this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a poky beige suite filled with the same cheap, gestural furniture you find in those fake rooms that get set fire to in fire-safety videos. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else.

(If Maddox had attended the LOCUS Awards instead, he would have seen a whole lot more Hawiian shirts.)

Maddox seemed to desire a confession of our own obsolescence in the form of arguments about whether sf was old and boring. If that's Maddox was after, he went to the wrong place. Never mind that there have been innumerable sf convention panels since at least the 1960s on the possible death of sf. The right place to have found this discussion would have been the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts held in March.

John Clute finishes Pam Zoline's dinner; people kissing in the background at Readercon
John Clute at Readercon

SF critic John Clute has been arguing for a few years that it  is basically over. My husband David Hartwell and others argue that it's not (though David edited an anthology, The Science Fiction Century, devoted to the proposition that science fiction was the characteristic literature of the 20th century). There is a certain amount of muttering that the reason Clute made this claim is that he finished the Science Fiction Encyclopedia in the mid-1990s and it would have to be revised and done again if sf wasn't dead, or become old and obsolete.

T'ffany: Valley Girl Klingon
Pink Klingon at Marcon

But I suspect a chat with Clute -- who despises SFWA and the Nebulas as much as Maddox apparently does -- wasn't  really what Maddox was after. Maddox was hoping for people dresses as Klingons. Again, he was in the wrong place. He should attend Marcon  in Columbus, Ohio where -- if you go to the right party -- you can even find people undressed as Klingons.

John Cramer at Apollocon

I didn't go to the Nebulas this year. We stayed home and frantically cleaned house. If I want vigorous, intelligent conversation  about sf and its relationship  to science, I go to, say, Readercon, or the ICFA, or Boskone, or smaller conventions like Confluence in Pittsburgh or Apollocon in Houston.

Maddox asks, "Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings into our future?" That's Hollywood, dear. We're book people, and not rich book people like the techno-thriller writers.

Kathryn, Greg and Elizabeth Brown Benford

In the Sky Church

But if you want that sort of venue, try the Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductions held in the Sky Church of the Experience Music Project, which was built with Paul Allen's money. I'm not sure this would satisfy, though: Charlie Brown, a former nuclear engineer, would still be around in a Hawaiian shirt picking over the hors d’œuvres.

Minkel concludes that Maddox, not the sf folk he encountered, is the one stuck in the past:

I expect better from my lauded commentators. You see, the world has not outpaced science fiction. Rather, science fiction has outpaced Bruno Maddox. In the spirit of grand prognostications, I hope at least it was a planned obsolescence.

Nonetheless, despite Maddox's unwarranted conclusions about the health of the genre, his description of a SFWA party is wickedly accurate. SFWA is a trade organization. The event is a business cocktail party. For the most part, people attend the Nebula weekend because they think it's a good business decision, not for the intellectual challenge and inspiration. I usually skip it.

Vernor Vinge in a Hawaiin shirt
SF writer and techno-prophet Vernor Vinge

An animation of how the I-35 Bridge could have collpased with the failure of only 3 pieces


Yifan Hu at Wolfram Research has come up with a computer model of the I-35 bridge that shows how the bridge could have collapsed with the failure of only 3 pieces. He explains:

The picture below shows the computed stresses in a simple 2D model of the I-35W bridge, with red meaning more stress. (I got the geometry from news pictures.) There are definitely aspects of the model that are not realistic. For example, the weight of the trusses themselves isn't included. And, of course, it's in 2D.

So what happens if one of the trusses weakens?

It's easy to include this in the computation by adding an upper bound on the stress in that truss. That just adds another inequality--which FindMinimum has no problem with.

One can actually compute all this in real time inside Manipulate. Here's an animation of the result:

One sees that when the truss with maximal stress weakens (shown in yellow), the stress spreads out to other parts of the bridge. If one weakens the next truss, then the stress propagates further. And when one weakens yet another truss, then the constraints can't be satisfied at all any more--so there is no static equilibrium for the bridge, and the bridge cannot stay standing.

See it HERE.

Conservapedia vs. Wikipedia

Did you know that there exists a "Conservapedia," a conservative reaction to Wikipedia? I discovered this fascinating fact via the Liberal Avenger, which was making fun of their entry on the Moon. My favorite page on Conservapedia is their entry entitled Examples of Bias in Wikipedia. Here are a few choice bits:

  • Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D. The dates are based on the birth of Jesus, so why pretend otherwise? Conservapedia is Christian-friendly and exposes the CE deception. . . .
  • Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words, even though most English speaking users are American. Look up "Most Favored Nation" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling "Most Favoured Nation", even there there are far more American than British users. Look up "Division of labor" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling "Division of labour," then insists on the British spelling for "specialization" also. Enter "Hapsburg" (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been "Hapsburg". Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words. . . .
  • Wikipedia has many entries on mathematical concepts, but lacks any entry on the basic concept of an elementary proof. Elementary proofs require a rigor lacking in many mathematical claims promoted on Wikipedia. . . .
  • The Wikipedia entry for the Piltdown Man omits many key facts, such as how it was taught in schools for an entire generation and how the dating methodology used by evolutionists is fraudulent. . . .

Oh, goodness. I wonder which mathematical claims were felt to be unchristian or subject to liberal bias.

Conservapedia is aparently a project of Andy Schafly, son of Phyllis.

(Notably absent from the Conservapedia entry on algebra is a discussion of the Arabic origin of the word.)

A Holiday Gift Guide from Action Potential, Nature's Neuroscience Blog

Seretonin_holiday_ornament From Action Potential:


The Unemployed Philosophers Guild has a whole page dedicated to Freudiana for that very special psychologist in your life. Among my favorites are Freudian Slippers, the Tickle Me Freud doll and the Freudian Sips mug. You can also get Freud and Jung finger puppets, but unfortunately no Ramon y Cajal. Made with Molecules features necklace pendants and earrings with the molecular structures of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators, including dopamine, serotonin, estrogen and caffeine. However, I am partial to the oxytocin baby onesie that says 'Cuddle' next to the molecular structure of oxytocin. MWM also carries a holiday greeting card with the mythical peptide P-E-A-C-E (proline-glutamic acid-alanine-cysteine-glutamic acid) gracing its cover. Finally, for the purist, the Anatomical Chart Company has a good old brain gelatin mold and a baseball cap covered with an anatomically correct illustration of the brain and the words 'Think, think, think' under the brim.

And I have just begun to shop!

MEANWHILE, the Onion is getting into the holiday spirit: Christmas Brought To Iraq By Force:

"Why am I supposed to feel joy for the world?" said 34-year-old Baghdad mechanic Hassan al-Ajili as he stood in line for his mandatory visit with Santa. "My country is still at war. I need an American identification card to get anywhere in my own city. Now, for some reason, men with machine guns have placed two rows of jingling antlered pigs on the roof of our house. This is insane."

"The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.": An Opportunity for the Republican Machine

Bedlam_t_1 Oh, goodness. A study of political preferences of psychiatric patients (conducted by a Reagan-Republican working on his masters thesis), apparently broken down by diagnostic category, reported on by the New Haven Advocate.

The blogosphere goes wild!

From the article, given the inflamatory title Bush Nuts: Are George W. Bush lovers certifiable?

[Christopher] Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

But before you go thinking all your conservative friends are psychotic, listen to Lohse’s explanation.

“Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader,” Lohse says. “If your world is very mixed up, there’s something very comforting about someone telling you, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

The study was an advocacy project of sorts, designed to register mentally ill voters and encourage them to go to the polls, Lohse explains. The Bush trend was revealed later on.

(Via Lot 49.)

The Neurontic grumbles about the popularity of this news story, especially with science bloggers:

Considering how much ink has been spilled in scientific circles over the Bush Adminstration’s willingness to skew science to further its political agenda, I find it appalling that normally levelheaded bloggers got swept away in this quasi-scientific brand of conservative bashing.

I understand Neurontic's irritation, but the Bush administration's industrial-scale denial of the scientific method is not comparable to leftish bloggers chuckling publicly over their morning coffee over a hilarious result from a seriously intended scientific study. A really good skeptical discussion of the issues involved in the design of the study can be found at Respectful Insolence.

Not nearly enough research is done about the political ideologies and theories of the mentally ill and how they play themselves out in the public arena. I'm tempted to say more research should be done, except for the dystopian scenarios that arise: the Far Right Hate Machine secretly obtaining lists of those prescribed Zyprexa and making sure they are all registered to vote and turn out at the polls. (This has the makings of some really dark political satire!)

Naked Science note's Tom Tomorrow's thought on all this:

Via Tom Tomorrow, who dryly notes: "Anyone who's spent any time reading right wing blogs already understood this to be true." Indeed.

Despite the fun and games to be had with this study, though, it does not make a statement about the mental health of Republicans, it does not say that Democrats cannot be psychotic, or anything of the kind, though the far-right blog Barking Moonbat Early Warning System is most amusing on this subject:

You’re mad ... all of you. Totally insane. Around the bend. Fruit loops, even! Or so says a new study out of Southern Connecticut State University. Yes, I’m talking to you - you certifiably insane Bush-lover. All of you need to have your heads examined. Maybe then you’ll wise up and vote for Kerry ... in which case you’ll not only be barking mad but certifiably stoopid ....

It simply observes that among a relatively small sample of the mentally ill, the more psychotic the patient, the more likely the patient-voter to support Bush.

I don't see this study as an attack on conservatives, so much as an unexpected result from a study focused on something else, resulting in a political opportunity for the Karl Rove wannabee sick enough to pursue it: Trust me! I know what I'm doing!

So how will the Republican Machine react to Christpher Lohse? Swiftboat him? Or offer to fund his next study? Or ignore him and make much deeper cuts in the treatment of mental illness?

The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.  —Michel Foucault

The American political landscape is a very strange place.

Hacking the Universe?

Sethlloyd An interesting paragraph. (I think Hector's first language is not English, so bear with him. The discussion is a followup on a presentation that took place at a conference in Berlin.)

Dr. Seth Lloyd’s work is very inspirational, and I am in the process of engage myself on a project inspired by related ideas mining the computational universe for uncovering Lloyd’s and others claimings. But I find that his theory about the universe, which by the way I agree with him (even when it seems the contrary) among many others that also think that the universe is Turing computable, assumes no less than any other conception of the universe, which leaves space for continue thinking on evocative hypothesis, including Church’s one while at the same time we achieve to hack the universe.

What You've Always Wanted to Know About Polonium

Theodore Gray's collection of elements.

In case you're wondering about that rare radioactive element Polonium, which was apparently used to poison ex-KGB agent turned author Alexander Litvinenko, I have just the web site for you.

Poster10x20jpg Theodore Gray, one of the founders of Wolfram Research, is a collector of chemical elements, and just this year did a really lovely poster of the periodic table.

He also has a terrific collection of the chemical elements, portions of which are in his office at Wolfram in Champaign, IL. (I spent quite a while admiring the collection last year, and when I went to take a plane home, my luggage set off the TSA's chemical alarm.)

Theodore Gray with his element collection

In his introduction to Polonium, Gray explains:

Polonium is a dangerous radioactive element that occurs only in minute quantities in nature. Before the invention of the audio CD quite a few people had a little bit of it in their homes in the anti-static brushes that were used to make LP records sound a bit less terrible.

Ah, the good old days!

Gray's site describes samples from his element collection:

Radioactive Sparkplugs.
For some crazy reason, in the 1950's Firestone made automotive sparkplugs containing radioactive polonium. Presumably the idea was that the ionizing radiation would allow the spark to travel more easily, making for better ignition. I think it's a fairly far-fetched idea.

. . . and  Antistatic brushes. See also Jeremy Wagstaff, who explains why you don't want to eat your anti-static brush. But this is Theo Gray again. . .

Antistatic brush.
These brushes, which you can still buy today (2002) are made for brushing static charge off of photographic negatives. The radiation from the polonium element (which must be replaced every year or so because the half life is only 138 days) ionizes the air around the brush, making it conductive and carrying away the static charge. . . .

Continue reading "What You've Always Wanted to Know About Polonium" »

Nigerian Spam about Quantum Mechanics

Someone in Nigera apparently read my most recent post, because I got a hillarious piece of Nigerian spam on the subject of quantum mechanics:

I am Civ Opopekim, the only son of the late Professor Lawrence Opopekim, of a much respected university in my country of NIGERIA, who was dedicated to the study of RETROCAUSALITY. Upon examining my father's scientific journals, I have discovered a matter of the most URGENT importance to your future (and past) well-being. As most of my father's work has not yet been published, I am counting on your discretion in this sensitive matter.

In the course of research, my father discovered the photons created in his experiments were entangled through QUANTUM MECHANICS with photons found in your locale. Further study revealed the break-through discovery of photon tilt patterns in the photons of your area based on experiments planned but yet to be performed by my father.

Alas since my father was poisoned to death with tainted YAK MILK by scientists from rival laboratories who lured him to GENEVA under the false pretense of a scientific conference, a financial situation has arisen where I can no longer assure the continuation of his research or the operation of his laboratory (it embarrasses me to admit this sad truth).

As a person of science, you are aware that even changes at the quantum level cause universes to take separate but parallel infinite paths. I fear that if I am unable to continue my father's schedule of experiments and therefore cause the photons in your immediate area to not have tilted in the way they already have, the life you have come to know and enjoy will cease to be and you will find yourself in a parallel existence unfavorable to you.

To this end, and for the sake of your past and current self as well as my father's research, I humbly ask you for the sum of US$10,000, which will allow me to keep for father's laboratory open for a time to carry out the scheduled experiments.

As an indication of your willingness, please forward to me your: full name, company, full contact address, phone, cell, fax, city, sate, zip code, occupation, SSN and all the necessary information will be sent to you on the acceptance of this arrangement.

His dad must have been a very important guy! It's not everyone who gets fed poisoned yak milk in Switzerland!

My father, John Cramer, remarks that he will know to avoid the yak milk at future physics conferences.

My Dad Is Cooler than Your Dad: "If the experiment works, a signal could be received before it's sent"

My Dad is Cooler than Your Dad

From yesterday's Seattle PI: Going for a blast into the real past: If the experiment works, a signal could be received before it's sent

If his experiment with splitting photons actually works, says University of Washington physicist John Cramer, the next step will be to test for quantum "retrocausality."

That's science talk for saying he hopes to find evidence of a photon going backward in time.

"It doesn't seem like it should work, but on the other hand, I can't see what would prevent it from working," Cramer said. "If it does work, you could receive the signal 50 microseconds before you send it."

Uh, huh ... what? Wait a minute. What is that supposed to mean?

Roughly put, Cramer is talking about the subatomic equivalent of arriving at the train station before you've left home, of winning the lottery before you've bought the ticket, of graduating from high school before you've been born -- or something like that.

Yaaay for the home team!!! (See also my previous post: Retrocausality.)

SEE ALSO Slashdot. (Daddy's been Slashdotted!)

My favorite blog post on this subject is from Correntewire: Science for Republicans! which first quotes from the article on my dad and then quotes John McCain' electoral regrets:

“We departed rather tragically from our conservative principles,” McCain lamented recently, offering his take on why the GOP fell from power in Congress. He urged a return to what he called the foundation of the Republican Party — restrained spending, smaller government, lower taxes, a strong national defense and family values.

Sorry guys, not this time out. This is just a physics experiment.

My dad, also a publshed novelist,  explains the excitement of experimental phsyics:

Even if this does fail miserably, providing no insights, Cramer said the experience could still be valuable. As the author of two science-fiction novels, "Twistor" and "Einstein's Bridge," and as a columnist for the sci-fi magazine Analog, the UW physicist enjoys sharing his speculations about the nature of reality with the public.

"I want people to know what it's like to do science, what makes it so exciting," he said. "If this experiment fails in reality, maybe I'll write a book in which it works."

Physicists John Cramer, left, and Warren Nagourney work in the lab. Nagourney says he has

(Also, I've added a Restrocausality photoset to my Flickr account!)

Superconducting Magnet Quench

These are pictures from the STAR detector at the RHIC facility at Brookhaven that my father, John G. Cramer, brought to lunch today.  He was running on the machine at Brookhaven as part of the STAR Collaboration.  The first two are from a "normal" collision of two gold nuclei, producing several thousand particles in the center of the detector.  The next four show the results of a superconducting magnet quench that happened at noon on March 25, 2006.

The quench dumped all the protons they were planning to use for the next four hours of collisions, which hit the accelerator walls and produced a flash of radiation picked up the the STAR detector. I'm told the accelerator recovered after a couple of days.

Here is the sequence of pix with his captions. Click on them to see bigger images:


1.  Central collision of two gold nuclei with collision energy 25,610 GeV as recorded by the STAR detector at RHIC in August, 2000. (End View)

And the second one . . .


2.  Central collision of two gold nuclei with collision energy 25,610 GeV as recorded by the STAR detector at RHIC in August, 2000. (Side View)


3.  Catastrophic superconducting magnet quench;  all stored proton beam dumped abruptly when magnetic field went to zero, as recorded in STAR detector (End View)


4.  Catastrophic superconducting magnet quench;  all stored proton beam dumped abruptly when magnetic field went to zero, as recorded in STAR detector (Side View)


5.  Next view of catastrophic superconducting magnet quench;  all stored proton beam dumped abruptly when magnetic field went to zero, as recorded in STAR detector (Side View)


6.  Next view of catastrophic superconducting magnet quench;  all stored proton beam dumped abruptly when magnetic field went to zero, as recorded in STAR detector (End View)

And here we are right after we came back from lunch.

Kathryn Cramer & John G. Cramer

See also these sites: MRI Scanner Superconducting Magnet Quench, a diagram with a video, & Superconducting Magnet Issues (CERN).

The Emergence of Science Blogging

Declan ButlerDeclan Butler has written a fine article in Nature about blogs by scientists: Science in the web age: Joint efforts

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, he saw it as a collaborative workspace for his fellow scientists at CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, and beyond. His creation went on to surpass his prediction that "the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use". But in the rush to develop the web as a flexible way to find information, the original concept of users interacting in real time was largely forgotten. Fifteen years later, the web seems to be returning to its roots.  . . .

Outside academia, blogs are taking off in a big way. A study published in October by the Guidewire Group, a research firm in new media, says that 90% of marketing communication companies have either launched, or intend to launch, internal blogs. There are now some 20 million blogs, permeating almost every sector of society. But science is a glaring exception, and today there are still only a few dozen scientific bloggers.

Scientists who blog see their activities as a useful adjunct to formal journals, not a replacement. "The standard scientific paper is irreplaceable as a fixed, archivable document that defines a checkpoint in a body of work, but it's static, it's very limited," says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, who blogs at Pharyngula.

"Put a description of your paper on a weblog, though, and something very different happens," says Myers. "People who are very far afield from your usual circle start thinking about the subject. They bring up interesting perspectives." By sharing ideas online, you get feedback and new research ideas, he says.

A senior US epidemiologist who blogs once or twice a day under the pseudonym 'Revere' on his public-health blog Effect Measure, has attracted a diverse readership. "About 1,500 people visit each day," he says. "If someone told me that I could show up at a lecture hall every day and deliver a short opinion, and that 1,500 people would show up to hear me, I'd be pretty satisfied — 1,500 is twice the subscription of many specialty journals."

But for most scientists and academics, blogs and wikis remain unattractive distractions from their real work. Many consider them an online version of coffee-room chatter, background noise that goes against the very ethos of heavily filtered scholarly information.

This post has been appreciated on a number of science blogs: Pharangula, Scitech Library Question, Nodalpoint, Aetiology, and Effect Measure.

On the subject of science blogging, here's what I want for Christmas: I want Wolfram Research to arrive at an arrangement with SixApart to have some version of WebMathematica run inside blogging software. I've told both companies. I have no idea if anything will come of this Christmas wish. But I think the possibility of having the math out there in a hands-on kind of way would give a big boost to scientific blogging.

As "merciless" explains in the comment section of Effect Measure,

One reason the scientific, mathematical, and engineering community has yet to embrace the internet is because it is still very difficult to type and disseminate math and scientific notation. Most people just have a querty keyboard and one or two scientific typesetting programs, which may nor may not translate well onto another person's computer.

The best solution right now is to convert everything into a pdf file, which is fine for reading, but cannot be manipulated (so it's like reading a book anyway).

New technologies are being created right now that will allow for real-time, editable mathematical and scientific dialogue. Once that gets out (that is, once publishers or somebody decides it's worthwhile to buy it and distribute it), then the internet can be a new and powerful force for worldwide scientific communication.

Come on Stephen WolframMena; come on Stephen: You can make this happen.

UPDATE: Last night I happened across an ISP,, that specializes in hosting webMathematica sites. I am trying to work out the details of how their services can be integrated with my Typepad account.

Viewpoint for the Burgess Shale at Emerald Lake

Here is an attempt to recreate the view of the Burgess Shale near Field, BC as seen from Emerald lake, BC. (Click here for overlay.)

Google Earth could really do with some better satellite photos of the Canadian Rockies. Also, I'm not sore how good their data for generating the terrain is, in that the mountains still didn't look quite right, even if you took the fuzzy satellite imagery into account.

However, the most significant problem was that the tools for adjusting viewpoint didn't work the way I expected. I couldn't get Google Earth to let me raise my gaze enough to see the mountain ridge when I seemed to be in the right spot to see the Burgess Shale from the lake side.

And here is what the view actually looks like. The Burgess Shale is located where the ribbons of snow are on the upper right of the ridge.

  The actual view of the Burgess Shale from the shores of Emerald Lake 
  Originally uploaded by Kathryn Cramer.

(By the way, I have more photos of the Canadian Rockies than you could possibly want to see in a Typepad photo album. And further to the subject of the Burgess Shale, the Royal Ontario Museum sells marvellous plastic Burgess Shale creatures. We collected the whole set.)

Young Jonathan Post on Whether to Duck and Cover

Bert2In the comments section, in the context of whether one is more likely to survive the collapse of a building using the duck-and-cover technique or the triangle of life technique (taking refuge next to furniture, not under it), Jonathan Post tells the following story:

When we had "duck & cover" nuclear drills at my Robert Fulton elementary school (P.S. #8), in the late 1950s, I refused to get under my desk, and got sent to the principal's office. I explained to him that we were directly across the East River from downtown Manhattan, and that Wall Street could be ground zero. I explained that the radius of the fireball varied with the 2/3 power of megatonnage, and that the desk would not give even a microsecond of protection. He agreed, and told me not to tell all this to the other students, as it might frighten them. For that matter, he advised me not to scare the teachers. I did not leave my baby teeth for a "tooth fairy." Rather, I had my Mom snailmail them to someone who was researching Strontium-90 levels in teeth, for fallout research.


Avian Flu Outbreak Maps

UnknownDeclan Butler, my current favorite science journalist, has updated his avian flu outbreak maps and added a network link. He says:

I'm getting the entire outbreak database soon, which is much richer in detail as to sizes of outbreaks etc, which I can extrude [from] the maps, so the who thing should be substantially better soon.

Declan Butler's Avian Flu Outbreak Map

And avian flu is a story that really needs good science journalism. Systemic health risks are very hard to understand for people without a good command of statistics.

Examples of health scare stories that were widely mispereived: When West Nile reached the New York area, Westchester moms panicked and for several weeks of glorious Indian Summer, wouldn't allow their kids to play outside. The real health risk in yards like mine was not West Nile, but Lyme Disease. Also, I had a severe lung infection requiring hospitalization just as the anthrax scare was peaking. I knew I didn't have anthrax, but very carefully went to my regular doctor an not to the ER because I was concerned I might be turned away as an anthrax hysteric. (At the time, NYC ERs were alleged to be turning away peole who said they had difficulty breathing.)

Butler has been tracking down the facts of the matter and putting a lot of them into his overlay.

UPDATE:  Here is his Connotea Avian Flu links page.

Yes, I could do with a change of climate, too, but I don't think that's what we're talking about.

The following passage nearly made me snort my coffee out my nose, except it seems the poor fellow is serious. The best way to prepare yourself for this is to get out your old Monty Python soundtrack albums (there must have been soundtrack albums?) and put on the little number from The Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." (OK, I don't have the record either, but imagine you do and you've just put it on.) Now we're ready:

Greens need to be more positive: Blair adviser

Porritt, who is now an adviser on sustainable development to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, makes the comments in his new book, "Capitalism: As if the World Matters", seen by The Observer and to be published this week.

The book argues that all sides should embrace capitalism as "the only economic game in town" and thus search for ways in making free markets work for a more sustainable future, the newspaper said.

Without change by environmentalists, "a continuing decline in (their) influence seems the most likely outcome", Porritt says in his book.

In an interview with The Observer, Porritt added: "Environmental organisations for many years (were) saying 'no' and protecting and stopping because in a way that became part of the culture of the movement.

"There's still a lot of criticising and blame-laying and not enough saying what solutions are available."

Instead, he argued, the movement must emphasise the positive, worldwide benefits of issues such as using clean energy to help tackle climate change.

"If you consider the way the environmental movement portrays climate change, it's the end of the world as we know it," Porritt told the paper.

"In reality, climate change could provide a stimulus to an extraordinary shift in the economy (and) it could improve people's quality of life. You never hear of all that," Porritt told the paper.

Regardless of one's opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, Porritt's punchline is, um, really strange. He's trying to tell us to look at the upside to Global Warming, isn't he? My personal quality of would be improved by migrating to the garden spots of the world at planned intervals over the course of the year. (I really could do without experiencing a harsh Northeast winter ever again.) But that isn't what's under discussion.

But if we are to take him at least a little seriously, I suppose we should imagine all the marvelous species that might evolve in time to replace us. I hear some species of squid are pretty smart.

(And yes, it is possible that he's been comically misquoted. Porritt sounds a lot more sensible here.)