Oct 05

And the winner is …

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2005 Nobel Prize in Physics
2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

I know vitually nothing about organic chemistry, but their work sounds incredibly significant.

I won’t speculate on the politics of Glauber’s physics prize (i.e. why he got recognized instead of other contributors to the quantum theory of light, or why they didn’t award the Prize to three theorists instead of a theorist and two experimentalists) but the work of all three is outstanding, to be sure. I saw a talk by Haensch about a year ago and it was mind-blowing stuff — the most precise measurements ever made. He also talked about his *other* very famous field of expertise — building BEC’s (Bose-Einstein Condensates, for which the Nobel Prize was awarded in 2001) on tiny two-dimensional chips!

May 05

You Are What You Listen To

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You Are What You Listen To

In response to the findings in the article, the whole world commented, “DUH”.

“Another participant was worried about what his co-workers would think of the Justin Timberlake and Michael McDonald music he had purchased for his wife and included in his library.” — dude, guilty pleasures don’t exist on ILM! Somebody forward this guy a link! Because let’s face it, nobody in his office will buy the “b..b..b..b..but, this music is for my wife … honest!” excuse, even if it’s true.

Apr 05

Brian Eno — Physics Superstar

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Humph. At Toronto, we had to settle for hearing Ed Witten, a guy who basically invented his own field and is the most cited physicist of the past twenty years. However, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo got a visit from … Brian Eno??!!!?!!!!

I have to find out if I know anybody who saw this talk …

(and I must thank DJ Martian, who, from across the pond in London, alerted me to a lecture that happened in my own backyard!)

The Science of Sexy

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To summarize:

Men want hot chicks, who in turn want money and power. It’s evolution, baby!

Girls, your looks will fade after you hit 30, but don’t despair, just wear lots of makeup, pad your bra, and you can fool guys no sweat — they’ll have no idea that your fertility is on the decline!*

Amongst all this grandmotherly advice, there’s actually some decent science in the article — namely, the section entitled “Do the Math”. I’ve encountered the “0.7 ratio” study before and it was supposedly done over many cultures and was found to transcend all of them.

* Much of this is true to some extent, but I hate the way it is presented in the article.

Apr 05

Edward Witten — Physics Superstar

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Professor Ed Witten gave a series of talks in various departments at the University of Toronto this week. He is arguably the most famous physicist in the world. That is, he is the most well-known physicist amongst physicists, for I doubt that the general public (or even other scientists) know who he is (for instance, as far as I know, he’s never written a popular science book a la Hawking, Weinberg, etc.). Witten is the principal architect of String Theory, which many believe is our best shot at a formalism toward a Theory of Everything — describing all the fundamental forces in the universe using one theory. In other words, the long sought-after melding of the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. The field of String Theory expanded rapidly following Witten’s pioneering work some 25 years ago, and today his papers are cited more than any other physicists’ in any other field — by a long shot.

One day, it would be nice to get some experimental verification of String Theory so that Witten can get his Nobel Prize (unless ST is wrong, in which case, never mind). His talk to the physics department centred on exactly this topic, i.e. what do we look for with the next generation of particle accelerators? He prepared this particular talk for a general physics audience so it was very non-technical. Anyhow, to summarize: Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, what if we can’t find the Higgs OMG no let’s not even speak it. His talk was a bit dry (a lot of it was just him reading text from his slides) but he’s a patient, calming speaker with a sharp sense of humour.

Since Witten is a physics rock star, the room was packed. Talks by guys of his stature often attract people from other departments, and talks on sexy subjects such as particle physics also tend to bring in the freaks. These are non-physicists who have been to Chapters to read a few books on the subject and always blow their cover by asking esoteric questions that have nothing to do with what the speaker talked about. “OH YEAH, WHAT ABOUT NEGATIVE ENERGY, SMART GUY? WAS HAWKING RIGHT ABOUT BLACK HOLES?”

Most surprising thing I learned: apparently nobody believes in the existence of magnetic monopoles anymore.

Mar 05

The Physics Detective Part Ten — The Mystery Is Solved (and I Hate to Say I Told You So, But …)

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The Physics Detective Part Ten — The Mystery Is Solved (and I Hate to Say I Told You So, But …)

I told you so.

We have now reached the end of this two-month mini-blogging journey. Now I can go back to writing to amuse others rather than to amuse myself. A return to dedicated posts about science rather than embedded science stories within installments of the Physics Detective! For instance, I never got around to discussing last week’s huge announcement about the sequencing of the X chromosome. Let the wild conjecture begin!

Mar 05

The American Chemical Society held their annual National Meeting last week

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The American Chemical Society held their annual National Meeting last week, March 13 – 17. It was held in San Diego and around nine thousand papers were presented. The ACS and APS (physics) meetings are quite different. At the physics meeting, most of the talks are twelve minutes long, and many of those talks are given by students. It’s a friendly meeting and people aren’t out to make their careers or ask ball-busting questions. Therefore, it’s a good atmosphere for students to gain experience giving talks.

In stark contrast, at the chemists meeting very few talks are given by students. Many of the talks themselves are given by invited speakers (i.e. major players in the field) and are longer, 30-40 minute talks. This leads to a greater number of heated discussions and a more serious tone for the talk sessions. Of course, longer talks means fewer talks overall, and therefore most of the student contributions are shunted into the massive poster sessions. Of the talks I personally saw, only one (other than my own) was given by a student.

In conclusion, physics > chemistry.

The Physics Detective Part Nine — de Bruijn is Mr. Cranky

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The Physics Detective Part Nine — de Bruijn is Mr. Cranky

He certainly doesn’t pull any punches.
This week, I started getting a funny feeling that this story will end with Lister declaring that Jaeger committed suicide, or some similar type of cop-out ending. OTOH, do you know what’s not a cop-out? This:

“That damn Ludmilla princess. She’s gorgeous and she knows it. I have five times her publications, but I get recognized with ‘Ahh ? you’re that guy who works with Ludmilla!’ We may know maths, Inspector Lister, but we are still apes.”

“And you and Ludmilla…”

De Bruijn gave a bitter laugh. “No, Inspector, you are in a blind alley there. I think Ludmilla knows to bestow her favours where she stands to gain the most.” He glanced pointedly at Jaeger’s file on the table. “Although I tried warning her to keep a professional distance.”


I didn’t expect this. Honestly. Most of my Ludmilla comments have a combination of silliness/annoyance (ask yourself, how was it for you?) and wishful thinking.

A few loose ends were tied up. de Bruijn addressed my laser inquiry from several weeks back, i.e. why were they using such a powerful laser for this presentation? We heard yet another confirmation that Jaeger was a dumbass professor who had little or no good ideas, therefore relying on his students and postdocs for the upkeep of his reputation, even if it meant throwing them to the wolves when he felt that the pursuit of pristine self-preservation demanded it. Of course, these sorts of scientists do exist.

We could spend all day expounding on the line “We may know maths, Inspector Lister, but we are still apes” — probably the most confounding and provocative line of the story thus far.

One more week …

Mar 05

The Physics Detective Part Eight — Feng is Bond, James Bond

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The Physics Detective Part Eight — Feng is Bond, James Bond

Didn’t the guy seem a bit too smooth? Up until now he’s been portrayed a bitter person who jumped to the enemy camp looking for vengeance against his former boss. But under questioning, he’s verbose, eloquent, enamoured with his research, has nothing but praise for everyone he’s ever worked with, and hangs out with cute Asian babes during coffee breaks. That’s not a physicist, that’s a MYTH.

The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” started running through my head while reading this week’s installment …

Anyhow, Feng didn’t drop any bombshells … so I’ve got a nagging feeling that the bombshell details are in there but I’m missing them, and I’m stumped as to what they are …

… unless … :

Some measurements were confused as they accumulated in the spectrometer; I took them for mine but they were someone else’s. I made up a great theory assuming they were mine.

Huh? How can this happen? How can you not know what your own data looks like? Have you ever been on the job and confused your own work with somebody else’s — five minutes after you supposedly worked on it? Methinks Feng is lying … so what else is he lying about??

[footnote: I have searched the internet looking for other science blogs, journals, or whatnot that are covering this serial scientific mystery theatre, and I haven’t found any. This sort of commentary is a world exclusive for Proven By Science. I hope you were sitting down for that one — try to contain your excitement. In the meantime, your fix of real science for the week is here.]

Mar 05

The Physics Detective Part Seven — Ludmilla, I Am Your Father

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The Physics Detective Part Seven — Ludmilla, I Am Your Father

Truly, we are not worthy. I thought I had concocted a scandalous resolution to this story, but it turns out that my dirty thoughts have been soundly trumped. Clearly, the likes of Professor Spaldin are ten times the scientist that I am. The gender-reversed Oedipal insinuations really take the cake, and leave my comparatively pithy ideas in their dust.

There are three more installments — how will they top this?