The title of this particular post is what I am currently pondering, as I sit at a remote observing station in a forlorn basement, hitting a timer to ensure a telescope knows I’m still alive (as if an inanimate object cared) and praying that the star fields I’m observing will finally get to low enough air masses so I can take a two hour nap before I take the rest of the data at dawn.  Normally I have no problem doing crazy things in the name of science, but tonight I’m particularly whiny because I forgot to buy energy drinks and seem to have lost my ability to do arithmetic.

Ever since I made the decision to major in physics, everyone in my life has always asked why.  After all, my parents expected me to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something else of the sort.  Growing up, I had little interest in math, thought computer programming was for video game-obsessed boys, and wasn’t particularly enthused by my first physics class.  I actually wanted to be an engineer, simply because it involved math, which I was semi-decent at, and I could make a very comfortable living doing it.  Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be filthy rich, and now spend my days around chalkboards arguing with smelly boys and my nights in a basement, controlling a telescope across the bay.

What happened?  Well, I could tell you about my overly-romanticized notion of science, watching far too many PBS specials, or the cool toys I get to play with, but that’s not what changed my mind.  It was actually my sophomore year of college, on the last day of my introductory Electricity and Magnetism course.  It was an 8 AM class, so I was armed with my trustworthy cup of coffee and was fully prepared to frantically scribble down notes of what could possibly be on our imminent final.  Instead, our professor quickly stated that none of what would be an onslaught of equations would be on the exam.  I, like the rest of the class, was slightly annoyed, but figured that since I was already up, I might as well stay and watch my professor frantically scribble down math with no particular end in sight.  After all, it would be a shame to waste a perfectly good cup of coffee.  Well, as I would later discover, our professor happened to be deriving the speed of light from Maxwell’s equations; the very same equations we had spent the better part of a semester studying.  As I followed his steps, I came to an epiphany: this really isn’t very difficult.  While you need a lot of preparation in order to understand the equations (namely a year of calculus and a couple semesters of physics) but what you were learning was simply the grammar of a language; a language spoken by the entire universe.  The speed of light was not some magical number, determined by nerdy guys in lab coats measuring light in vacuums, it was a fundamental constant of nature, with all the components of the universe simultaneously agreeing on a single number (which, incidentally, is confirmed by nerdy guys in lab coats).  Furthermore, this deep realization did not come from some obscenely difficult calculation; it was something that lower division physics students could’ve done, with a bit of prodding.  It was simple, elegant, and beautiful.  After coming to that realization, I came to the conclusion that I had to know more.  If something that fundamental can come out of such simple manipulations, what else is out there, just waiting to be discovered?  I, quite simply, would never be happy doing anything else.

So, that’s my story.  What’s yours?

Incidentally, if you’re curious, this is a quick explanation of Maxwell’s equations and the derivation I’ve been rambling about.

Happy Cyborg Month!

September 13, 2010

The latest and greatest from Slashdot:

“In May 1960, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline presented a paper called ‘Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics.’ The proceedings of the symposium were published in 1961, but, before that, an excerpt of Clynes & Kline’s paper appeared in the September issue of Astronautics magazine (issue 13), entitled Cyborgs and Space [PDF]. Aside from a mention in the New York Times, that’s is the first time the word appears in print. This month is the 50th anniversary of that article.

Ah, cyborgs.  Such a rich topic.  With 50 Posts About Cyborgs and Kevin Kelly‘s essay on how we’ve been cyborgs all along this is going to be a great month.

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Update from New York!

September 2, 2010

So, for those of you not in the know, I’ve been gallivanting about New York City the past few days.  Thus far, I have concluded that the city is dirty, the drivers are jerks, the food is amazing, and the boys are cute… ahem.  Also, there is no sales tax on clothing, and a good number of museums and shows.  I think I could get used to this.

Artist's depiction of a black hole

I was in the Museum of Natural History the other day, when I stumbled upon the astronomy exhibit.  Everything was going fine, until I saw a short film on black holes and flew into a tremendous nerd rage.  The sentence that ignited this flurry of scientific fervor?  “If you went inside a black hole, you would see nothing.”  Argh!  While this could be true, it’s a mis-statement, really.  If you observe a black hole from Earth (or anywhere else outside the black hole), you see nothing emitted.  Everything that crosses the event horizon of a black hole, be it matter, radiation, etc. will not be able to return.  Since our observation techniques all require some form of emitted radiation for us to see, black holes appear, exactly as their name implies, black.  However, inside a black hole, it’s another game entirely.  Think about all the matter, all the light, that the black hole has absorbed.  There isn’t emptiness in a black hole, there is a good deal of matter being compressed to infinite density and light being shifted to shorter wavelengths (and thus infinite energy).  So, there would probably be a great deal of light produced, but it would only be visible to our eyes for a very short period of time.  However, all this light being produced will never be able to cross back over the event horizon and be seen by an outside observer.

Long story short, don’t see a kiddie science exhibit of something you’ve studied in-depth before.  Moreover, don’t bring your child to a kiddie science exhibit when there’s an infuriated scientist on the loose.  Whoops.  Well, we all have our moments, right?

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...
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At the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Malay Mazumder, a research professor in Boston University‘s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, presented research on solar panels that employ a self-generated electrical pulse to shake off dust.  That’s right, solar panels that clean themselves.  Frankly, I think the little Roomba vacuum they sell at Coscto is pretty exciting (I often wonder exactly which optimization algorithms they used for George; it’s a tricky thing to clean a whole room efficiently while avoiding arbitrarily-placed furniture and walls), so this absolutely blows my mind.

Since a dust layer of 4 g/m^2 can decrease solar power conversion by 40%, you can imagine the ramifications of a self-cleaning solar panel.  Mazumder and his colleagues have developed an electrodynamic transparent screen by depositing indium tin oxide (ITO)—on glass or a clear plastic sheet covering the solar panels.  Electrodes produce a traveling wave of electrostatic and dielectrophoretic forces that lift dust particles from the surface and transport them to the screen’s edges. The researchers found that 90% of deposited dust can be removed by the transparent screen in less than 60 seconds.

For the whole article, please visit:

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During my wanderings through the vast blogosphere, I am continually astounded by the sheer volume of science vs. religion rants posts out there.  I propose we all take a deep breath, calm down and think about what’s going on.  Many religious people view skeptics as cynical, close-minded people, incapable of seeing a larger truth; something beyond the sensory experience.  Skeptics, on the other hand, tend to view religious people as ignorant, close-minded people, jumping to conclusions without considering all the facts at hand.  As for me, I’m a member of that radical middle sect, the people who question whether or not the two camps really are separate, mutually exclusive entities.  After all, religion and science both aim for the same goal… to discover the truth, but go about it in completely separate ways.  With science it’s fairly straightforward.  In the words of Richard Dawkins, “Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence.”  Science removes your own sensory biases in favor of the unaltered truth.  With religion, it’s a bit more subtle.  Religion also seeks truth about the universe, but in a completely spiritual way.  The bible, prayer, meditation, and worship are nothing more than tools used to discover truth.  If both disciplines are striving towards the same goal, why is there such animosity?  If you want people from the other camp to believe you, regardless of which it might be, why would you alienate them further by spewing fire and brimstone?  All you really accomplish is widening the schism and promoting intolerance and close-mindedness, on both sides.  Why not speak a mutually understandable language, built on rational ideas and unbiased evidence?

Let’s start by talking about those crazy people who think evolution and global warming are skewed statistics, perpetuated by political agenda.  The most outspoken opponents of evolution tend to be conservative Christians.  While this by no means encompasses all the unbelievers, it’s a significant portion and we’ll just deal with them today.  Ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, it’s been a hot topic.  Many people had to alter their religious beliefs and perceptions of the world (e.g. the Bible’s claim that the world was created in 7 days) to somehow fit with evolution.  After all, the bible does state that God had already created the sun and the moon, and thus had clearly established days in place.  While some people claim that our days do not necessarily translate one-to-one with a “God day,” many Christians simply refuted evolution completely, since it failed to jive with their beliefs.  Roughly 53% of creationists claim that God created man exactly how the bible describes it, without the side-stepping “God days.”  (Admittedly that poll is 5 years old, but I sincerely doubt peoples’ beliefs have changed significantly in the past 5 years.)  Now, why would they do this, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?  Well, the obvious explanation is that they’re insanely stubborn and feeble-minded individuals, incapable of accepting truth.  While that may certainly be the case for some, I tend have a bit more optimistic of an approach.  Perhaps they’re just being skeptical of the scientific community’s ability to interpret discovered data, and why should skeptics, of all people, discourage skepticism?  While the majority of people who doubt evolution cite religion, roughly 14% of people who doubt evolution say that not enough compelling scientific evidence has been produced.  To understand why they would say such a thing, let’s consider one of the primary pieces of evidence in favor of evolution, the fossil record.  While I’m sure none of that 14% of people would contest the fact that fossils have been dug up, they might question how that is being interpreted.  After all, it was fairly recently that they discovered that the triceratops isn’t a unique dinosaur.  What was that but a misinterpretation of previously discovered evidence?  What’s to say there aren’t more mistakes like that floating around?  Many disbelievers in evolution aren’t stupid, just displaying perfectly natural skepticism.  I’m fairly convinced that with more public education about the matter, at the very least that 14% will change their minds about evolution, and perhaps convince the rest to follow suit.

By the same token, it is unacceptable for the religious right to claim ignorance, or worse, just make things up.  The latter is my only explanation for this gem that’s been circling around blogs for the past couple days.  With the wealth of readily available information, there’s no excuse for a scantily-researched article, with evidence that doesn’t even relate to the topic at hand or completely false.  (While I won’t discuss this horribly inaccurate article, this post does a great job of explaining all the many, many flaws.)  Furthermore, religious people need to understand that skeptics tend not to appreciate the bible as unassailable evidence.  They aren’t terrible, Godless people, they just need more convincing.  Take, for example, doubting Thomas, the bible’s classic skeptic.  While Thomas needed stronger evidence, to touch the nail marks in the risen Jesus’ hands, he wasn’t any less of an apostle, just a skeptic.  Why is Thomas so harshly chastised by believers?  After all, Satan did supposedly make it his personal mission to deceive man and draw away as many followers as he could.  Why is it so bad that Thomas showed just a little caution?  The first time the risen Lord showed himself, not only showed his hands and feet, which had nail marks but he also ate fish to prove he was human, and not some apparition (Luke 24:36-43).  Thomas wasn’t there for this event (John 20:24).  He wasn’t doubting Jesus, per say, but the words of the other apostles.  He needed impartial evidence; evidence that he could see and verify himself.  Like the words of the apostles, skeptics don’t necessarily trust the word of the bible.  They need more compelling evidence, like the nail marks on Jesus’ hands or feet.  Notice how Jesus does not condemn them, but simply blesses the faithful (John 20:29).  A skeptic will not go to hell for being a skeptic, just for not repenting, which is another matter altogether.  To convince a skeptic, you need more than just biblical proof, and your proof had better be accurate.

There is an enormous amount of animosity between the proponents of science and religion that I’ve never been able to understand.  The bitter, vehement posts will only be appreciated by members of your own group, who are obviously already convinced.  Why not treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and together, reach some new truth?  After all, we all want the same thing: to understand the universe in which we live.  What is the harm in setting aside our differences and reasoning together, like rational human beings?  Let’s just all get along, guys.

Notice anything interesting?

Notice anything interesting?

While I’m quite tired, I took a couple of interesting pictures whilst on campus today. These particular pictures were taken on my way to work of the back of the Brain Imaging Center. I passed by this place everyday for three years, without ever noticing what my friend pointed out to me a few weeks ago.

How about now?

How about now?

Those poles were not designed to contour with the design on the back of the MRI center, I assure you. That would be the effect of stray magnetic field from a 4 Tesla magnet. While it’s not immediately dangerous, I wouldn’t recommend prolonged exposure.  I particularly like the cautionary sign advising of the high magnetic field, conveniently placed in a central location.