Sunday, June 28, 2009

Homeless man acquited

And "justice" is served. "The jury just felt unable to really know what happened out there"...just like "quantum physics".

"Jury acquits in quantum physics assault"


Henry K. Lee

June 27th, 2009

San Francisco Chronicle

A homeless man was acquitted of charges that he smacked a fellow transient in the face with a skateboard as the victim was engaged in a conversation about quantum physics in South San Francisco, authorities said Friday.

Jason Everett Keller, 40, was found not guilty Thursday of attacking another homeless man, Stephan Fava, on the 200 block of Grand Avenue about 1:45 p.m. March 30. A San Mateo County jury deliberated for less than a day after a four-day trial in Redwood City before Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan.

Shortly before the incident, Fava was chatting with an acquaintance, who is also homeless, about "quantum physics and the splitting of atoms," according to prosecutors.

Authorities had said Keller joined in the conversation and, for reasons unknown, got upset. He was accused of picking up his skateboard and hitting Fava in the face with it, splitting his lip. Fava then fell and broke his ankle.

Deputy District Attorney Sharon Cho said the jury that acquitted Keller of assault and battery charges couldn't sort out the conflicting statements of prosecution witnesses.

"The jury just felt unable to really know what happened out there," Cho said.

Quantum physics "smackdown" in South San Francisco

An exam from May 9th, 1941

[Click to enlarge.]

"1941 science test shows how things have changed"


Dan Vergano

June 27th, 2009


Some of us might rather forget our old science exams. But sometimes they still have lessons to offer.

For example, take a 1941 exam unearthed by one anatomy professor. The test is a relic of a simpler time that tells us a lot about the evolution of studying evolution.

"I just found the exam in one of my wife's old textbooks," says Casey Holliday of Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Folded inside a copy of the 1937 Man and the Vertebrates by Alfred Romer (a sage in reptile anatomy circles), the acetate copy of a 13-question "Zoology 1B" exam, dated May 9, 1941, intrigued Holliday.

"Some things haven't changed, these are still questions we'd ask in an introductory class," he says. A little detective work with the names stamped inside the book suggest the test (or perhaps an exam review) was given by UCLA professor E. L. Lazier on that date to his students. At the time, biologists knew that fossil evidence showed that new species evolved from older ones, sharing many of their characteristics, but the discovery of DNA was still 12 years away.

"What they had were fossils, and the system of classifying species we still use today," Holliday says. The first nine questions of the exam could appears on tests today with the same answers, he says. "A lot of memorization, just knowing the different classes of species, that's no different that what I ask students on my exams."

Lampreys and hagfish, jawless fish belonging to an ancient class called Agatha figure in the exam, and are still often discussed in evolutionary biology, for example, where researchers debate the evolution of the jaw, necessary for eating all sorts of food.

What makes the 1941 test a fossil in its own right is that it doesn't mention DNA, or molecular biology, in its questions about evolution, he adds. A June report in the Nature journal about a newly-discovered dinosaur fossil, for example, feeds the measurements of the 155-million-year-old creature into debate about the evolution of bird digits. But today, evolutionary biologists also have a great deal of information about the genes driving development of those digits, Holliday says, illuminating unexpected links between species and complicating the argument.

As we all recall, tests work up to hard questions, and the 11th one on the 1941 exam asks whether whole new classes of back-boned species arise from unique, fairly recent ancestors or from early, more primitive life. "That's still a really big question today," Holliday says, although we can point to birds evolving from highly-specialized feathered dinosaurs and crocodiles (Holliday's specialty) evolving from highly-specialized reptiles that walked on their hind legs to support one side of the argument.

Paleontologists don't use the word "primitive" anymore to describe features on fossils, he adds. The word smacks too strongly of older views of inevitable progress in the fossil record, rather than acceptance that changes are driven by natural selection, with inherited traits that better the chances of survival making it more likely for creatures to reproduce and pass on those traits. "We only use 'primitive' when we are making fun of someone else's fossils," Holliday says.

Still, modern-day tests look like evolutionary descendants of the 1941 exam, he says. "It's old, but it sure looks like something from an introductory zoology exam we'd give today."

Retired quantum physicist and "Whatever Works"

Well, Woody Allen is still making films. And he appears to be following the same ole Woody Allen motif--existential angst. I mention this film only because it involves a retired quantum physicist...the rest is up to the viewer.

"Whatever Works"

Girls can be harder to understand than the quantum nature of matter

Ebert Rating: ***


Roger Ebert

June 24th, 2009

Chicago Sun-Times

Woody Allen said in "Manhattan" that Groucho Marx was first on his list of reasons to keep on living. His new film, "Whatever Works," opens with Groucho singing "Hello, I Must Be Going" from "Animal Crackers." It serves as the movie’s theme song, summarizing in five words the world view of his hero, Boris Yellnikoff.

Yellnikoff, played with perfect pitch by Larry David, is a nuclear physicist who was once almost nominated for a Nobel Prize, a statement so many of us could make. His field was quantum mechanics, where string theory can be described in the same five words. He's retired now, divorced from a rich wife who was so perfect for him he couldn’t stand it. He lives in a walk-up in Chinatown and works part-time as a chess instructor to little "inchworms," who he hits over their heads with the board.

Mostly what he does is hang out at a table in a coffee shop and kvetch with old pals. These scenes seemed perfectly familiar to me because of my long honorary membership in a group centering around Dusty Cohl at the Coffee Mill in Toronto. Boris doesn't talk with his friends, he lectures them. His speeches spring from the Jewish love of paradox; essentially, life is so fascinating, he can't take it any longer.

Midway in his remarkable opening monologue, David starts speaking directly to the camera. His friends think he's crazy. He asks them if they can't see the people out there - us. Allen developed as a standup comic, and the idea of an actual audience often hovers in his work, most literally in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), where a character climbs down from the screen and joins it. Boris gets up from the table and walks down the sidewalk, continuing to hector the camera about his own brilliance and the general stupidity that confronts him. It is too great a burden for him to exist in a world of such morons and cretins. He hates everyone and everything - in a theoretical way, as befits a physicist. Later that night, he is implored by a homeless waif to give her something to eat, tells her to be about her business, and then relents and invites her in.

This is Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a fresh-faced innocent from the town in the South, who still believes in the world she conquered in beauty pageants. I've seen Wood in a lot of performances, but nothing prepared me for this one. She's naivete on wheels, cheerful, optimistic, trusting, infectious. Reader, she wins the old man's heart - and wants it! She proposes marriage, and not for cynical or needy reasons. She believes everything he says and is perhaps the first person he has ever met who subscribes fully to the theory of his greatness.

This sets in rotation a wheel of characters who all discover for themselves that in life we must accept whatever works to make us happy. Boris and Melody accept each other. Then her parents separately find their way to New York in search of her, and they accept what they discover. They are Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who is Melody made middle-aged and church-going, and John (Ed Begley Jr.), to whom the National Rifle Association ranks just a smidgin higher than the Supreme Court. They are appalled at this human wreckage their daughter has taken to her side.

But ... whatever works. Both Melody and John are transformed by the free spirits of New York, as so many have been, although not, it must be noted, Boris Yellnikoff. The New Yorker and the Southerners have never met anyone remotely like one another, but the Southerners are open to new experiences. More that that I cannot explain.

It might be complained that everything works out for everyone a little too neatly. So it does, because this is not a realistic story but a Moral Tale, like one of Eric Rohmer's. Allen seeks not psychological insight but the demonstration of how lives can be redeemed. To do this, he uses Clarkson’s innate exuberance and Begley’s congenital probity to get them to where they're going. Once they are free to do so, Marietta indulges her feelings and John reasons it out.

Larry David is the mind of the enterprise, and Evan Rachel Wood is the heart. David is a verbal virtuoso, playing the "Woody Allen role" but with his personal shtick. He would be lonely if he couldn't confide in his invisible listeners. His opening monologue would be remarkable from any actor, let alone one without training or stage experience. Wood prevents the plot from descending into logic and reason with her character’s blind faith that everything is for the better. "Whatever Works" charts a journey for Allen, one from the words of Groucho to the wisdom of Pascal, who informs us, as Allen once reminded us, that the heart has its reasons.

Cast & Credits

Boris Yellnikoff--Larry David
Melody Evan--Rachel Wood
Marietta--Patricia Clarkson
John--Ed Begley Jr.
Joe--Michael McKean
Randy James--Henry Cavill
Perry--John Gallagher Jr.
Helena--Jessica Hecht
Jessica--Carolyn McCormick
Howard Christopher--Evan Welch

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Woody Allen.
Running time: 92 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Deceased--George K. Fraenkel

George K. Fraenkel
July 27th, 1921 to June 10th, 2009

"George K. Fraenkel, Pioneering Chemist, Dies at 87"


Dennis Hevesi

June 27th, 2009

The New York Times

George K. Fraenkel, one of the first chemists to use electronic techniques to explore the fundamental structure of molecules, a breakthrough that has led to advances in several fields of science, died in Manhattan on June 10. He was 87 and lived in Manhattan.

His wife, Eva Stolz Fraenkel, confirmed the death.

Dr. Fraenkel was chairman of the chemistry department at Columbia University from 1965 until 1968, when he was appointed dean of the university's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Starting in the early 1950s, when he was a professor, Dr. Fraenkel was one of several chemists who developed high-sensitivity, high-resolution spectrometers that could track the spin of electrons and thereby obtain information on very small structures.

"His work has laid the foundation for later work toward understanding the properties of many biological systems," Jack H. Freed, the Frank and Robert Laughlin professor of physical chemistry at Cornell University, said in an interview on Friday.

Dr. Fraenkel's research helped develop and apply techniques of what is called electron spin resonance for applications in chemistry research, including determining the electronic structure of molecules and how molecules move in liquids. Dr. Freed said the methods Dr. Fraenkel helped pioneer had since been applied to research in physics, biology and medicine.

Among other developments based on Dr. Fraenkel's work, "we are now determining the structure and function of medically important proteins implicated in Parkinson's disease, how viral proteins insert themselves into cells, medical imaging, memory function and quantum computing," Dr. Freed said.

George Kessler Fraenkel was born in Deal, N.J., on July 27, 1921, and grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was one of three children of Osmond and Helene Esberg Fraenkel. His father was general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dr. Fraenkel graduated from Harvard in 1942. His graduate studies at Harvard were interrupted when he was hired by the National Defense Research Committee and placed in charge of a team that developed electronic equipment to measure the explosive power of bombs. After World War II, he enrolled at Cornell, where he received his doctorate in 1949. Soon after, he was hired as an instructor at Columbia.

Dr. Fraenkel was dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1968 until 1983 and its vice president for special projects from 1983 to 1986. He returned to the chemistry department in 1986 and continued to teach until his retirement in 1991.

Dr. Fraenkel's first two marriages ended in divorce. Besides his wife, whom he married in 1990, Dr. Fraenkel is survived by his sister, Nancy Wechsler; six stepchildren, Patricia, William, Louis, Eva, Mary Anne and Charles Gilleran; and one step-granddaughter.

NASA's public appeal regarding von Braun's notes

It looks like that NASA is soliciting public opinion regarding Wernher von Braun's notes concerning early space history.

"NASA Wants Your Ideas for Digitizing Rocket Scientist's Notes"


Betsy Mason

June 26th, 2009


NASA is taking the rare step of reaching out to the public for help. The space agency is looking for the best way to analyze and electronically catalog a precious collection of notes that chronicle the early history of the human space flight program.

"We're looking for creative ways to get it out to the public," said project manager Jason Crusan. "We don't always do the best with putting out large sets of data like this."

The notes [pdf] are those of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the fist director of NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and are typed with copious hand written notes in the margin. According to the official request for information [pdf], NASA needs ideas on what format to use, how to index the notes and how to create a useful database.

The unique nature and historical value of the data, literally discovered in boxes six months ago, is what motivated NASA to ask the public for ideas.

"It's first-hand insight on how management and engineering decisions were made on a real-time basis," Crusan said. "It's quite scrawled upon all over the place."

Von Braun was born in Germany and led the German army's "rocket team" which developed ballistic missiles. His V-2 missile was used on European targets during World War II. When it became clear to von Braun that Germany was going to lose the war, he surrendered himself, 500 of his best rocket scientists, plans and vehicles to the Allies. The team moved to the United States and worked on missile development for the U.S. Army.

In 1960, rocket development was shifted to NASA where von Braun headed Marshall Spaceflight Center and led the Saturn rocket project. In 1970 he moved to Washington D.C. to lead the strategic planning of the project and in 1972 he retired from NASA.

The details of von Braun’s role in the German army (he received an honorary SS rank from Heinrich Himmler) and his conversion to a NASA pioneer are still being assessed, and his notes are considered a historically valuable source of information about Marshall.

"He was significantly important in the formation of the Apollo program," Crusan said.

If you have ideas, let NASA know. If that’s not your cup of tea, perhaps you can help NASA find a location for it's 40th anniversary "Salute to Apollo: The Kennedy Legacy" party or sell them that automated torque wrench calibration system you've been meaning to put on Craigslist.

Спутник-1 or Sputnik-1--science; politics

Close, but no cigar

Deceased--Charles H. Schneer

Deceased--Ernst Stuhlinger

Deceased--Konrad Dannenberg

Von Braun sketches for sale

Friday, June 26, 2009

Astronomy and the media

The Daily Mail released a few pullout sheets ["Moon Mail"] about the moon mission.

July 11th, 1969

[Click to enlarge.]


With the availability of nice images and amazing, dramatic stories, the fundamental questions it addresses, and the attraction is exerces on many, it is often assumed that astronomy is an obvious topic for the media. Looking more carefully, however, one realises that the truth is perhaps not as glamorous as one would hope, and that, although well present in the media, astronomy’s coverage is rather tiny, and often, limited to the specialised pages or magazines.

"Astronomy and the Media: a love story?" by Henri M.J. Boffin

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A. C. Gilbert--1960 commercial

Nearly fifty years ago this television commercial aired for the legendary toy science manufacturer A. C. Gilbert. That was a unique era of science sets especially for chemistry. This commercial covers microscopes, physics sets, chemistry sets, telescopes, and erector sets. Those days will never be again.

A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab"

Chemistry sets...back?

New Book..."Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments..."

The home chemist...long gone

Quantum physics "smackdown" in South San Francisco

Most interesting. Who is Jason Everett Keller? What was the crux of the argument? Such passionate arguments among the homeless.

"Physics discussion ends in skateboard attack"


Henry K. Lee

June 25th, 2009

San Francisco Chronicle

A homeless man is on trial in San Mateo County on charges that he smacked a fellow transient in the face with a skateboard as the victim was engaged in a conversation about quantum physics, authorities said Wednesday.

Jason Everett Keller, 40, allegedly accosted another homeless man, Stephan Fava, on the 200 block of Grand Avenue in South San Francisco about 1:45 p.m. March 30.

At the time, Fava was chatting with an acquaintance, who is also homeless, about "quantum physics and the splitting of atoms," according to prosecutors.

Keller joined in the conversation and, for reasons unknown, got upset, authorities said. He picked up his skateboard and hit Fava in the face with it, splitting his lip, prosecutors said.

Fava also fell and broke his ankle, although how this happened wasn't known, authorities said.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Deceased--Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald

Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald
1957 to June 23rd, 2009

A time to be humble and attempt to fathom the psyche and suffering of the human species.

"Doctor In Dramatic South Pole Rescue Dies At 57"

June 24th, 2009

Associated Press

Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer before a dramatic rescue from the South Pole, has died. She was 57.

Her husband, Thomas FitzGerald, said she died Tuesday at their home in Southwick, Mass. Her cancer had been in remission until it returned in August 2005, he said Wednesday.

She was the only doctor among 41 staff at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter 1999 when she discovered a lump in her breast. At first, she didn't tell anyone, but the burden became too much to bear.

"I got really sick," she said in a 2003 interview. "I had great big lymph nodes under my arm. I thought I would die."

Rescue was out of the question. Because of the extreme weather conditions, the station is closed to the outside world for the winter. She had no choice but to treat the disease herself, with help from colleagues she trained to care for her and U.S.-based doctors she stayed in touch with via satellite e-mail.

She performed a biopsy on herself with the help of staff.

A machinist helped her with her IV and test slides, and a welder helped with chemotherapy. She treated herself with anti-cancer drugs delivered during a gripping mid-July airdrop by a U.S. Air Force plane in blackout, freezing conditions.

In a headline grabbing rescue, she was lifted by the Air National Guard in October, one of the earliest flights ever into the station when it became warm enough — 58 degrees below zero — to make the risky flight.

After multiple surgeries in the U.S., including a mastectomy, the cancer went into remission until 2005.

"More and more as I am here and see what life really is, I understand that it is not when or how you die but how and if you truly were ever alive," she wrote in an e-mail to her parents in June, 1999 from the South Pole.

Nielsen FitzGerald never lost her adventurous spirit and even returned to desolate Antarctica several more times.

"She had incredible zest and enthusiasm for life," said her husband, whom she first met 23 years ago when they were both on vacation in the Amazon. "She was kindest soul I ever met, she was intelligent, with a great sense of humor, and she lived each day to the fullest."

She documented her ordeal in the best-selling book Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole. It was later made into a TV movie.

The disease made her stronger, she said in November 2001.

"I would rather not have it. But the cancer is part of me. It's given my life color and texture. Everyone has to get something. Some people are ugly, some people are stupid. I get cancer," she said at lecture in Denver.

Nielsen FitzGerald spent the last decade speaking around the world about the cancer and how it changed her life, and also worked as roving ER doctor in hospitals all over the Northeast.

"She fought bravely, she was able to make the best of what life and circumstance gave her, and she had the most resilience I have ever seen in anyone," said her husband. "She fought hard and she fought valiantly." The couple would have celebrated their third anniversary next week.

In addition to her husband, the Ohio native and graduate of the University of Toledo Medical Center is survived by parents Lorine and Phil, brothers Scott and Eric, and three children from a previous marriage, Julia, Ben and Alex.

Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole


Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald

ISBN-10: 0786866845
ISBN-13: 978-0786866847

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Royal Observatory...the beginnings

I almost forgot but today is the official beginning of The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as decreed by King Charles II.

"Greenwich Becomes Royal Pane on the Stars"


Randy Alfred

June 22nd, 2009


1675: Britain's King Charles II issues a royal warrant establishing an observatory at Greenwich. The Royal Observatory, then on the eastern outskirts of London, will enjoy a long and storied history and become a Prime piece of real estate.

Charles had a navy and a large merchant fleet. They needed better ways of navigating. Latitude could be determined by the angle of the sun in the sky at midday.

Longitude was a trickier matter. The hope was that accurate star charts, coupled with a table of the moon's position, would allow navigators to see how far east or west of Greenwich they had sailed.

So, the king decreed:

Whereas, in order to the finding out of the longitude of places for perfecting navigation and astronomy, we have resolved to build a small observatory within Our Park at Greenwich.

His Majesty also appointed John Flamsteed as the first Astronomer Royal. Architect-astronomer Christopher Wren designed the first building on the hill above the royal palace at Greenwich. Construction began Aug. 10 and was completed in 1676.

Edmund Halley — of comet fame — succeeded Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal in 1720. The lunar-distance method of charting longitude was proving none too reliable, and Parliament had established a 20,000-pound prize in 1714 for anyone who could find a better means.

If you had an accurate timepiece that told the time at Greenwich when you were on a ship hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away, you could figure out the longitude. Problem was, the accurate timepieces of the day were pendulum clocks, which aren’t accurate on a ship pitching and rolling at sea.

Clockmaker John Harrison eventually solved the problem and met the specs (half a degree of longitude or 2 minutes of time) with a series of highly accurate spring-driven clocks. But Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth Astronomer Royal, refused to believe that watchworks could compute longitude more accurately than the lunar-distance method. He kept insisting on more testing.

Harrison's four decades of work were finally recognized in 1773 by a begrudging parliamentary grant of 8,750 pounds (about $1.4 million in today's money). Several of his original timepieces are now on display at the Greenwich Observatory.

A century later, almost three-quarters of global commerce used nautical charts based on Greenwich, and an international conference in 1884 declared it the Prime Meridian of the world. The growing metropolis of London, however, soon enveloped Greenwich, and urban light and air pollution are not conducive to star-gazing.

The scientific institution known as the Royal Greenwich Observatory abandoned Greenwich in the mid-1950s, fleeing to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. RGO moved again in 1990, to Cambridge. The observatory buildings in Greenwich are now part of Britain's National Maritime Museum.

What's more, the Greenwich meridian is several hundred feet off zero degrees longitude on GPS systems. The Maritime Museum cites several reasons for this: variations around the globe necessitated by the Earth not being precisely spherical, the move to Herstmonceux, and inaccuracies in Doppler-satellite reckoning in the 1960s and 1970s.

But the grandly titled post of Astronomer Royal lives on. After 297 years, the position was separated from directorship of the observatory in 1972. The Astronomer Royal's post is now largely ceremonial, although the incumbent may be called on to give astronomical or scientific advice to the reigning king or queen.

"The Royal Observatory, Greenwich; a glance at its history and work" by E. Walter Maunder

John Flamsteed


Astronomers Royal

John Flamsteed (1675-1720)
Edmund Halley (1720-1742)
James Bradley (1742-62)
Nathaniel Bliss (1762-4)
Nevil Maskelyne (1765-1811)
John Pond (1811-35)
Sir George Biddel Airy (1835-81)
Sir William Henry Mahoney Christie ( 1881-1910)
Sir Frank Watson Dyson (1910-33)
Sir Harold Spencer Jones ( 1933-55)
Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley (1956-71)
Sir Martin Ryle (1972- 82)
Sir Francis Graham Smith (1982-90)
Professor Arnold W. Wolfendale (1990-1995)
Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow (1995-present)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lunar mirror to be retired

"Among the project's unlikely achievements has been the discovery that the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of two-and-a-half inches a year." A significant disclosure. In time the moon will lose its effect on the Earth and will alter Earth's physics.

"After 40 years' reflection, laser moon mirror project is axed"

US research that began with the first Apollo landing - and helped to prove that the moon is moving away from Earth - is to be axed.


Robin McKie

June 21st, 2009

The Observer

An experiment, begun when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a mirror on the lunar surface 40 years ago to allow Earth-based astronomers to fire lasers at it, has been ended by American science chiefs.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) last week wrote to scientists working at the McDonald Laser ranging station at Fort Davis in Texas to tell them the annual $125,000 funding for their research project was going be terminated following a review of its scientific merits.

The decision means that four decades of continuous lunar laser research at the McDonald Observatory, run by the University of Texas at Austin, will be halted by the end of this year. Among the project's unlikely achievements has been the discovery that the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of two-and-a-half inches a year.

The mirror's existence, and the fact that astronomers can bounce lasers off it and detect the returning beam, has also provided Nasa and other scientists with compelling evidence to refute the claims of moon-landing deniers who claim the Apollo lunar mission were hoaxes filmed in an Earth-based studio.

"It is a bitter-sweet feeling to know this is going to come to end at McDonald," said Peter Shelus, head of the laser ranging project. "We have done a great deal of important work using the moon mirrors but it is clearly time for it to end. However, we are hopeful that this work will be continued at other astronomy centres."

The mirror left by Aldrin and Armstrong after they landed on the Sea of Tranquillity on 21 July 1969, was one of five known as "corner mirrors" or "retro-reflector arrays" that were taken to the moon in the later Sixties and early Seventies. Two other corner mirrors were brought to the moon by astronauts on later manned lunar flights, on the Apollo 14 and the Apollo 15 missions. In addition, a second pair were built by French scientists and flown to the moon by the Soviet Union on their robot Luna probes.

Corner mirrors are important scientific instruments because, when struck precisely by a laser beam, they reflect that beam in a parallel path straight back to the source of the laser.

"Essentially, we measure when that beam goes out and when it comes back," said Shelus. "We know the speed of light, of course, so that timing allows us to calculate the moon's distance with incredible precision."

After these laser measurements were amassed for years, calculations by astronomers at the McDonald Observatory showed that as the moon orbits Earth, it creates a bulge of water that travels round the planet behind it. This bulge - which we experience as tides - exerts a gravitational pull on the moon, slowing it down as it circles Earth at a distance of 240,000 miles.

As a consequence of being held back by this pull, the orbit of the moon becomes altered and it moves slowly away from Earth - at a rate of two-and-a-half inches a year. These measurements have, in turn, allowed scientists to carry out valuable tests of theories about relativity and gravity, added Shelus.

A spokesman from the NSF told the Observer last week that, after carrying out two reviews, it had decided there was no longer "a strong science case" for continuing its 40-year support for the lunar laser ranging project. The spokesman added that two other astronomy centres - at Apache Point in Texas and Observatoire de la Côte d'Azure in France - were expected to carry out lunar-ranging experiments in future.

"These are very good centres," said Shelus. "However, it does mean that the continuity of our measurements, which we have established since the Apollo missions, will now have to stop. It is, rather sadly, the end of an era."

Katie McAlpine...remember her?

Surely you remember Katie McAlpine, Large Hadron Collider rap fame. Now she has a new tune..."Rare Isotope Rap".

Dennis Overbye of The New York Times wrote:

For those who like their science with a little rhythm, the rapping science writer Katie McAlpine, a.k.a. Alpinekat, has struck again. Her previous rap explaining the physics behind the Large Hadron Collider has been viewed more than 5 million times since its debut on YouTube a year ago.

Alpinekat’s new rap (above) is about nuclear physics,­ the field of science that explains why the Sun shines, stars blow up and radioactive nuclei disintegrate. The rap was commissioned by Michigan State University, Ms. McAlpine's alma mater, to celebrate a $500 million laboratory that will be built there, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or F-RIB — the theory apparently being that no organization or project is complete these days without its own rap.

"Yeah, it seems to be the thing to do in accelerator physics, if you want the project taken seriously," Ms. McAlpine said jokingly in an email message from Michigan where she works as a science writer for CERN, which built the Large Hadron Collider. The dancing, which seems a little more lively here than on the LHC video, features a crew of her friends, graduate students and faculty at Michigan State, including Brad Sherrill, the associate director of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, on eyebrows.

As the rap video explains, F-RIB will collide atomic nuclei together to produce beams of rare isotopes ­ versions of elements that have more or less than the usual number of neutrons in their nuclei. By studying the properties of these isotopes, physicists hope to learn more about the strong nuclear force that binds quarks into protons and neutrons together and how these isotopes affect the thermonuclear evolution of stars. They also hope to use the beams as tumor killers.

Or as Alpinekat says:

A more powerful machine can push the frontier.
The physicists here,
They get nuclear.

Deceased--Frank J. Low

Frank J. Low
November 23rd, 1933 to June 11th, 2009

"Frank J. Low, Who Helped Drive Field of Infrared Astronomy, Dies at 75"


Dennis Overbye

June 21st, 2009

The New York Times

Frank J. Low, who helped astronomers extend their vision beyond visible light into a vast realm of previously invisible colors, revolutionizing the study of the birth of planets, stars and galaxies, died on June 11 in Tucson. He was 75.

His death, after a long illness, was announced by the University of Arizona, where he had been a professor since 1965.

Starting as a young physicist at Texas Instruments in 1961, Dr. Low spent his career developing devices to detect and measure infrared, or "heat," radiation from stars and getting them deployed in telescopes, airplanes and satellites.

Using Dr. Low's devices and their successors, astronomers have been able to peer through dust clouds to find the birthplaces of stars; discover galaxies and quasars invisible to ordinary telescopes; discern rings of dust and, recently, even planets around other stars; and study what is believed to be residual heat left over from the Big Bang.

NASA's next big effort, the James Webb Space Telescope, destined for a 2014 launching, is an infrared space telescope built in a design Dr. Low created.

Dr. Low helped drive the field of infrared astronomy with his enthusiasm and an intuitive knack for solving technical problems, said George H. Rieke, a longtime associate at the University of Arizona. Along with Gerry Neugebauer of Caltech and the late Harold L. Johnson of Arizona, Dr. Low was a co-father of the field, Dr. Rieke said.

Frank James Low was born in Mobile, Ala., on Nov. 23, 1933, and reared in Houston. He studied physics at Yale University and then Rice University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1959.

He then joined Texas Instruments, where he developed a low-temperature thermometer made of the rare-earth element germanium doped with trace amounts of gallium. Dr. Low realized that the device, which responded to absorbed energy by changing its electrical resistance, could be used as an infrared bolometric detector that could measure heat from stars.

Every object in the universe — from a fevered brow to an exploding star — emits some of this heat, which consists of electromagnetic waves longer than visible light waves but shorter than radio waves. For several years, astronomers, including Dr. Johnson, had been trying to tap into this radiation.

Dr. Low's bolometer was more sensitive than previous detectors, and he was eager to put it to work. In 1962, he moved from Texas Instruments to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va. There, he tested his bolometer on a radio telescope.

Besides being invisible, infrared rays also are absorbed by the atmosphere, especially water vapor, so a high, dry place is necessary for infrared astronomy. Dr. Low solved this problem by going above the atmosphere's water vapor and initiating airborne astronomy, using ever larger and higher-flying laboratories: a U.S. Navy Douglas A-3 bomber carrying a 2-inch telescope in 1965 and 1966; and a NASA Learjet, Dr. Low's favorite, with a 12-inch telescope.

With the Learjet, he discovered that Jupiter and Saturn emitted more energy than they received from the Sun, which meant they had some source of internal energy. In 1975, NASA began operating the Gerard P. Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a converted Lockheed C-141 military cargo plane, but Dr. Low continued to use the Learjet.

The Kuiper is soon to be replaced by a modified Boeing 747SP, called SOFIA, for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Yearning to be completely free of atmospheric interference, Dr. Low, along with other astronomers, pushed NASA to build and launch the Infrared Astronomy Satellite, IRAS, which did the first infrared sky survey from space. Dr. Low was its chief technologist.

When an accident at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory destroyed the preamplifiers for the satellite's detectors, throwing the project into a crisis, Dr. Low built new and better ones at his own company, Infrared Laboratories Inc., which he had founded in 1967 to supply astronomers around the world.

Launched in 1983, IRAS — a joint venture by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands — pinpointed more than half a million sources of infrared radiation in the sky, many of them galaxies. Indeed, astronomers now say that half of the energy released by galaxies is in the form of infrared emission, created when interstellar dust absorbs light from young stars and re-radiates it as heat.

IRAS also discovered rings of debris and dust around other stars, in particular Vega, suggesting that the same processes that had formed planets close at hand were at work deep in space.

Astronomers later found a similar debris field, the Kuiper Belt, which lies beyond Neptune. Dr. Rieke called it "certainly the first example of discovering a feature in other planetary systems before we found it in our own."

NASA planned to follow IRAS with a Hubble-class infrared satellite called the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, now known as the Spitzer Space Telescope. Dr. Low was named the facility scientist, but the project was stalled for years by cost concerns.

At a retreat for the project scientists and engineers in Colorado in 1993, Dr. Low had a midnight inspiration for how to build the telescope more cheaply.

Previously, to keep infrared telescopes from being swamped by their own heat, the telescopes were encased in a giant thermos bottle and cooled to nearly absolute zero by liquid helium. Dr. Low proposed leaving the telescope out in the open and letting it radiate its heat to space naturally. Only the detectors at the focal plane of the telescope needed to be cooled with liquid helium.

Dr. Low's design saved the project and opened up a new way to build space telescopes, including the coming James Webb Space Telescope, Dr. Rieke said.

Dr. Low retired from the University of Arizona in 1996, after 31 years; he also maintained a connection with Rice University from 1966 to 1979. He remained active in his company until 2007.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Edith Low; three children, Valerie Rossiter of Tucson, Beverly Fjeldstad of Oslo, Norway, and Eric Low of Rogers, Ariz.; a sister, Sallie Beckner of Washington; and six grandchildren.

Friday, June 19, 2009

ToyBox Physics Video Contest Winners

The winners for the ToyBox Physics Video Contest are:

Physics Central Grand Prize Winner: James Lincoln and Chris Lincoln for their video: Smoke Rings, Zombies and Dolphins

The Viewers Choice Winner: James Tangredi for his video: The Physics of the Ollie

Physics Central Grand Prize Winner

Toy Box Physics: smoke rings, mushroom clouds and vortexes

James Lincoln and Chris Lincoln

The Viewers Choice Winner

Toy Box Physics: The Ollie

James Tangredi

Physics Central

Mr. Wizard and "electricity"

Here is another classic Mr. Wizard episode...on "electricity".

Mr. Wizard

Mr. Wizard...missed mentor

Mr. Wizard--more

"Watch Mr. Wizard"--1954 episode

Congratulations...Ms. de Oliveira

Congratulations to Ms. de Oliveria on her first co-authored paper "Electron-phonon bound states and impurity band formation in quantum wells" by Bruna P. W. de Oliveira and Stephan Haas. Ms. de Oliveira is a graduate student from Brazil working on her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. I have known Ms. de Oliveira for several years and am confident she has a bright career in physics.

Bruna P. W. de Oliveira

The abstract as it appears in The American Physical Society's April 3rd, 2009 Physical Review B:

A generalized propagation matrix method is used to study how scattering from local Einstein phonons affects resonant electron transmission through quantum wells. In particular, the parity and the number of the phonon mediated satellite resonances are found to depend on the available scattering channels. For a large number of phonon channels, the formation of low-energy impurity bands is observed. Furthermore, an effective theory is developed which accurately describes the phonon-generated sidebands for sufficiently small electron-phonon coupling. Finally, the current-voltage characteristics caused by phonon-assisted transmission satellites are discussed for a specific double-barrier geometry.

"Electron-phonon bound states and impurity band formation in quantum wells"

[NOTE: I was notified by Ms. de Oliveira that the above link is a prepublish paper and not the final corrected version. The corrected version is available from Physical Review B for a fee.]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Candle physics demonstration

This is truly amazing.

Thanks to old WHB radio buddy Larry van Hecke.

If you have a similar video, send the link.

China and academic plagiarism

Is China getting soft on [academic] crime?

"It's plagiarism, all over again"


Chen Jia

June 17th, 2009

China Daily

A major university in Beijing has thrown a student out of its doctorate course for plagiarizing a research paper and smearing a vice headmaster's name in the process, in the latest case to mar academia in the country.

Beijing Normal University student Yang Lun, a PhD candidate in the school's philosophy and social science institute, plagiarized more than 80 percent of another researcher's work and published it in the leading Philosophy Research monthly in April, according to the Oriental Morning Post Tuesday.

Yang's tutor, Liaoning University vice headmaster Lu Jierong, was also disgraced as his name was on the plagiarized work, the paper's original author said.

"Their behavior deeply hurt me and tainted the country's academic landscape," said Wang Lingyun, a lecturer at Yunnan University in Yunnan province.

"They only revised a few sentences at the paper's beginning and summary part, and added some footnotes and references," he said.

The copycat case is among the growing number of plagiarized papers colleges have identified from students or professors.

In March, an associate professor at Zhejiang University's college of Pharmaceutical Science reportedly wrote eight theses by plagiarizing the research result from a former doctoral supervisor.

In the latest case, Wang said he wrote the plagiarized paper in 2002 and used it in a public lecture. Academic websites have also published the paper, he said.

He found the plagiarized paper last Friday, and asked the two to apologize to him in the media.

He also demanded financial compensation, though he didn't reveal how much money he planned to ask for.

Yang has apologized to him over the phone, and said he signed his tutor's name on the paper as it was hard for a student to publish a paper in a core academic magazine.

"My tutor helped revise the paper, but he didn't know I published it with his name," he said.

Yang said he didn't think he would be caught. "I have felt upset every day since it was published in the magazine."

The magazine and Lu both refused comment Tuesday.

Huo Qingwen, an education expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University's language education testing service, Tuesday said some students take chances due to their lack of awareness of academic discipline and loose surveillance from their tutors.

Xu Mei, the spokeswomen of the Ministry of Education, earlier said that universities should handle these kinds of cases in a fair and open way, and order institutes to set up workshops for teachers and students to improve the awareness of academic discipline.

A national supervision committee was established in 2006 to curb violations of academic rights in social sciences, while the Ministry of Science and Technology also founded a new organization to supervise the financial integrity and efficiency of State-level programs.

Deceased--John A. Eddy

John A. Eddy
March 25th, 1931 to June 10th, 2009

"John A. Eddy, Solar Detective, Dies at 78"


Bruce Weber

June 18th, 2009

The New York Times

John A. Eddy, a solar astronomer who studied the history of the sun and demonstrated that it is not a constant star with a regular cycle of behavior but rather one that has periods of anomaly, died June 10 in Tucson, where he lived. He was 78.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Barbara, said .

In 1976, Dr. Eddy published an article in the journal Science in which he confirmed the speculative and largely unknown observations of 19th-century astronomers that for seven decades, from 1645 to 1715, the surface of the sun was inordinately calm, with the magnetic storms that often roil it — as indicated by the presence of sunspots — peculiarly absent.

Dr. Eddy called the peaceful interlude the Maunder Minimum, after E. W. Maunder, an English scientist who, along with a German, Gustav Spörer, first noted the presumed anomaly in the 1890s.

"I have re-examined the contemporary reports and new evidence which has come to light since Maunder's time and conclude that this 70-year period was indeed a time when solar activity all but stopped," Dr. Eddy wrote.

His research consisted largely of digging into historical documents — including accounts of telescopic observations going back to Galileo; reports of the aurora borealis from centuries past; visual observations of sunspots recorded in Asia and historical descriptions of the appearance of the sun's corona during solar eclipses — all pointing with overwhelming coincidence, if not outright scientific proof, to the same conclusion.

But lastly, Dr. Eddy found confirmation of his findings in measurements of the concentration of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 found in tree rings, which is known to correlate with solar activity. The carbon-14 evidence also indicated earlier periods of solar quiescence, before the first telescopic observance of sunspots, including a period from 1450 to 1540, which Dr. Eddy called the Spörer Minimum.

The Science article was a striking repudiation of the generally held belief that solar activity is relatively consistent, with the number of sunspots rising and falling in an 11-year cycle, and it raised the possibility that irregularities in the behavior of the sun could have an effect on Earth and its climate. Dr. Eddy pointed out, for instance, that both the Maunder Minimum and the Spörer Minimum coincided with the coldest intervals of the Little Ice Age, a period of brisker-than-average temperatures, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, from 1450 to 1850.

"This behavior is wholly unlike the modern behavior of the sun which we have come to accept as normal, and the consequences for solar and terrestrial physics seem to me profound," Dr. Eddy wrote, and though the idea that the climate is in flux is still a matter of scientific debate 33 years later, satellite observations of the sun have determined that its irradiance is variable.

"The observational evidence that the climate responds to the sun's variations has continued to grow," said Dr. Judith Lean, a former colleague of Dr. Eddy, who was at the University of Colorado while he was at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colo., and who is now a solar-terrestrial physicist at the United States Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. "His vision has been validated."

John Allen Eddy, known to all as Jack, was born on March 25, 1931, in Pawnee City, in southeastern Nebraska, where his father managed a cooperative farm store. It was a small town, but it happened to be the home of a senator who sponsored him for the United States Naval Academy. At Annapolis, he took a course in celestial navigation, which engendered his love of the sky. After four years as a naval officer during and after the Korean War, he entered the graduate program in astrogeophysics at the University of Colorado. He received his doctorate in 1962.

Dr. Eddy's first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1992, he is survived by a brother, Robert, of Longmont, Colo.; a sister, Lucille Hunzeker of Humboldt, Neb.; four children, Alexandra Eddy of Longmont; Amy Gale of Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Jack Jr., of Laguna Beach, Calif., and Elisabeth Walker of Kirkland, Wash.; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Eddy's historical research also led him to demonstrate that the wheel-like formation of stones and cairns on a Wyoming mountain top — known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel — was a purposeful, sky-oriented arrangement of stones, a crude astronomical observatory crafted by Native American inhabitants of the Western plains.

He spent his later years advancing the study of the relationship between Earth and the sun, and he had just completed a book on the subject, "The Sun, the Earth and Near-Earth Space: A Guide to the Sun-Earth System," which is to be published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Dr. Eddy explained why he named his most famous discovery after a second-tier scientist who was not even the first to notice the hiccup in the sun's behavior. Spörer’s observations preceded Maunder's, but Spörer Minimum just didn’t sing. "Maunder Minimum," with all those m's, he said, did.

"You know, the temptation was to think that it might someday be called the Eddy Minimum, that is, to call it nothing in the hope that someone else would do that," he said in an oral history interview for the American Institute of Physics, "but being from Nebraska, I could never do anything like that."

Maunder Minimum