Archive for the 'Physics' category

Help high school "nerds" visit the Large Hadron Collider.

Last week, I got a really nice email, and a request, from a reader. She wrote:

I am a high school senior and an avid follower of your blog. I am almost definitely going to pursue science in college - either chemistry, physics, or engineering; I haven't quite decided yet! I am the editor of my school's newspaper, and I frequently write about science topics; I find science journalism interesting and possibly will pursue it as a career. 

I'm writing because this spring, 32 physics students from my high school will hopefully be taking a trip to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. We are extremely excited to make the trip, as it will allow us to glimpse some of the most groundbreaking physics research in the world. Twenty-two of the 32 students going are girls, and we are all involved with the physics department at our school. Women are overwhelmingly outnumbered in the science classes at my school, especially the tougher Advanced Placement classes; thus, taking this trip with a majority of women feels like a triumph.

My correspondent is, this year, the president of her high school's science club, which is affectionately called "BACON: the best All-around Club of Nerds". If you look at the BACON website, you will see that they do some pretty neat stuff. They field a bunch of teams for competitions like the Science Olympiad, Zero Robotics, and the Spirit of Innovation Challenge. And, they launch weather balloons to capture video and still photographs in a near space environment, have a day of launching model rockets and flying model airplanes, and have created a giant tank of ooblek to run across.

Basically, the kind of science-y stuff that might make high school not just tolerable but fun, which I think is a pretty big deal.

Here's where we get to the request.

The planned high school trip bringing the 32 students from Virginia to CERN will be exciting, but expensive. So, as students have come to do for pretty much every field trip, the BACON members are doing some fundraising. Here's their fundraising page, from which we learn:

As we speak, scientists at CERN are conducting groundbreaking research and rewriting the science textbooks for future generations. It is imperative that our students gain an interest and understanding in such endeavors. A two-day tour of CERN will surely aid in our students’ comprehension of particle physics, the study of the mechanisms and interactions that underlie all chemical, biological, and cosmological processes. But more importantly, through exposure to the leading edge of physics research, this trip is intended to excite students about scientific progress and demonstrate the power of experimentation and collaboration outside of the classroom. ...

We need money to cover the cost of travel, lodging, food, and tours. Specifically, the cost breakdown per student is as follows: $1000 for travel; $300 for meals; $300 for lodging; $100 for tours and exhibits. Thirty-two students are scheduled to attend, and without fundraising the total cost is $1700 per student. Unfortunately, not all students can afford this. Any donations are welcome to lower the per-student cost and facilitate this trip for all who want to go!

For donations of various sizes, they are offering perks ranging from thank you cards and pictures of the trip, to signed T-shirts, to something special from the CERN gift shop, to a video to thank you posted on YouTube.

If you want to help but can spare the cash for a monetary donation, you may still be able to help these plucky science students make their CERN trip a reality:

Tell your friends! Share this link with others: There are also other ways to help us besides monetary donations. Do you have any objects, gift certificates, coupons, or other items you could donate for a raffle? Do you have an idea for a fundraising event we could host? If you want to get involved, please email us: We are really looking forward to this amazing opportunity, and we appreciate any help you can provide. Thank you!

I know I'm looking forward to living vicariously through this group (since no doubt I'll be grading mountains of papers when they're scheduled to tour the LHC). If you want to pay some science enthusiasm forward to the next generation, here's one way to do it.

Meanwhile, I will inquire about whether the BACONite can share some highlights of their trip (and their preparations for it) here.

Cross posted at Doing Good Science

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Evaluating scientific reports (and the reliability of the scientists reporting them).

One of the things scientific methodology has going for it (at least in theory) is a high degree of transparency. When scientists report findings to other scientists in the community (say, in a journal article), it is not enough for them to just report what they observed. They must give detailed specifications of the conditions in the field or in the lab -- just how did they set up and run that experiment, choose their sample, make their measurement. They must explain how they processed the raw data they collected, giving a justification for processing it this way. And, in drawing conclusions from their data, they must anticipate concerns that the data might have been due to something other than the phenomenon of interest, or that the measurements might better support an alternate conclusion, and answer those objections.

A key part of transparency in scientific communications is showing your work. In their reports, scientists are supposed to include enough detailed information so that other scientists could set up the same experiments, or could follow the inferential chain from raw data to processed data to conclusions and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

Of course, scientists try their best to apply hard-headed scrutiny to their own results before they send the manuscript to the journal editors, but the whole idea of peer review, and indeed the communication around a reported result that continues after publication, is that the scientific community exercises "organized skepticism" in order to discern which results are robust and reflective of the system under study rather than wishful thinking or laboratory flukes. If your goal is accurate information about the phenomenon you're studying, you recognize the value of hard questions from your scientific peers about your measurements and your inferences. Getting it right means catching your mistakes and making sure your conclusions are well grounded.

What sort of conclusions should we draw, then, when a scientist seems resistant to transparency, evasive in responding to concerns raised by peer reviewers, and indignant when mistakes are brought to light?

It's time to revisit the case of Stephen Pennycook and his research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In an earlier post I mused on the saga of this lab's 1993 Nature paper [1] and its 2006 correction [2] (or "corrigendum" for the Latin fans), in light of allegations that the Pennycook group had manipulated data in another recent paper submitted to Nature Physics. (In addition to the coverage in the Boston Globe (PDF), the situation was discussed in a news article in Nature [3] and a Nature editorial [4].)

Now, it's time to consider the recently uploaded communication by J. Silcox and D. A. Muller (PDF) [5] that analyzes the corrigendum and argues that a retraction, not a correction, was called for.

It's worth noting that this communication was (according to a news story at Nature about how the U.S. Department of Energy handles scientific misconduct allegations [6]) submitted to Nature as a technical comment back in 2006 and accepted for publication "pending a reply by Pennycook." Five years later, uploading the technical comment to makes some sense, since a communication that never sees the light of day doesn't do much to further scientific discussion.

Given the tangle of issues at stake here, we're going to pace ourselves. In this post, I lay out the broad details of Silcox and Muller's argument (drawing also on the online appendix to their communication) as to what the presented data show and what they do not show. In a follow-up post, my focus will be on what we can infer from the conduct of the authors of the disputed 1993 paper and 2006 corrigendum in their exchanges with peer reviewers, journal editors, and the scientific community. Then, I'll have at least one more post discussing the issues raised by the Nature news story and the related Nature editorial on the DOE's procedures for dealing with alleged misconduct [7].

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Friday Sprog Blogging: the new science unit in four panels.

The younger Free-Ride offspring's class is apparently just about to move on from sediment-related issues and start a new science unit. Indeed, this week they even did an experiment as a preview of the new unit, which the younger Free-Ride offspring recounts with these four panels:


"First, blow up a balloon and tie it."


"Then rub a wool cloth on it."


"Finally, rub it against a wood cabinet."


"And it stayes up."

* * * * *

So, clearly the experiment was about static electricity, and we can look forward to more content on electricity (and probably magnetism) in the coming unit. And, I'm hopeful that there will be detailed discussion of some of the underlying physical structure that leads to these fun regularities in nature.

For instance, it would be cool if they talked about why charging a balloon enough to get it to cling to the cabinet or wall seems to be easier in winter. Why should cold, dry weather be better for generating a charge separation than warm, wet weather?

Using the wool cloth (as opposed to the hair on your head, like we did when I was a kid) is pretty fancy. If they examine the permutations of wool cloths and silk cloths rubbing glass rods and rubber rods, dare I hope that there will be some discussion of why certain materials are better at grabbing up electrons and others are better at depositing them?

(And just now, I'm wondering whether it's a safe assumption that the fourth grade science class will even discuss electrons in the context of electricity.)

Also, why, in the fourth panel, does my childe spelle like Isaac Newton?

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 and monster muscles.

Oct 01 2010 Published by under Kids and science, Physics

Today, the younger Free-Ride offspring's account of another workshop from Kids Day @ SLAC 2010.

Dr. Free-Ride: What did you do for the levers part of the day?

Younger offspring: Levers and pulleys? Well, they put us into three groups, after we went to another part -- it was in the same building, but we had to walk, so we went to the levers and pulleys. They put us into groups of three.

Dr. Free-Ride: And?

Younger offspring: And I was in the group where first, we got to sit in the chair, put our legs up, wear gloves and safety goggles also, and pull ourselves up.

Dr. Free-Ride: How high?

Younger offspring: Up to the red tape on the rope.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh huh. How high was that, would you estimate? Was it pretty far up?

Younger offspring: Two or three feet, I think.

Dr. Free-Ride: That's significant. That's enough that if you fell from that height you would feel it.

Younger offspring: No, but we were sitting on a chair.

Dr. Free-Ride: I understand.

Younger offspring: And we kept our legs up, so then we let go slowly and let our hands slip down.

Dr. Free-Ride: Mmm hmm.

Younger offspring: It made it feel warm but it didn't make it have a burn.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh huh. Friction, baby!

Younger offspring: Don't say that! I'm not a baby!

Dr. Free-Ride: I didn't mean it that way. OK, go on. What else did you guys do with the levers and the pulleys?

Younger offspring: Well, for the levers, there was, like, one person standing on one side -- a grown-up standing on one side, and it was on the blue tape, which meant "one". The blue tape was in the middle. So, I was on the other side, and I even walked to the edge and it wouldn't work, so I was like, "Move it to two."

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm.

Younger offspring: The green tape. So, we moved it to two. He stood on the edge and I stood, like, not on the edge. I was like this (trying to push down), and he was like, "Nope." And I moved back and moved back until I was on the edge, and he was like, "You did it!" Or something like that.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, so basically you moved further and further back on the lever and then you were able to lift a grown-up.

Younger offspring: I have something it connects with, kind of. In martial arts.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes?

Younger offspring: When sensei gets a sword --

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh huh?

Younger offspring: A foam sword.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes.

Younger offspring: He swings it, and he tells us not to go near the end, 'cause the end's faster and it will hit you if you go near the wall, where he is.

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, so if you're going to get hit by it, it's better to get hit by it closer to the the handle than to the end?

Younger offspring: No! You're not going to get hit by it. It's a timing practice.

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, it's a timing practice.

Younger offspring: You have to time when you're going, and he says, if you don't want to get hit, go near the shoulder.

Dr. Free-Ride: Got it, because it's moving slower there.

Younger offspring: When he's like this -- he's swinging his arm, like this -- and when he goes right here --

Dr. Free-Ride: When it goes near the shoulder.

Younger offspring: When it goes right here -- that's where you are -- when it goes right here, you walk past and around him so you won't get hit.

Dr. Free-Ride: And get near the shoulder rather then going out near the end.

Younger offspring: No, and also getting close to him. You go like this once you get past the shoulder.

Dr. Free-Ride: So you go right around his back. OK.

Younger offspring: So you have to go close to him.

Dr. Free-Ride: That's very smart. That's a good connection to make. So was there anything else awesome in the levers and pulleys part of the Kids Day that you want to tell us about?

Younger offspring: There was also a tug-of-war.

Dr. Free-Ride: Mmm hmm.

Younger offspring: And if you were on the side that was the winning side, it was because there was a pulley.

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh.

Younger offspring: That's why you could beat a grown-up at a tug-of-war.

Dr. Free-Ride: Awesome.

Younger offspring: And it was called "Monster Muscles!"

Dr. Free-Ride: Were there actual monsters involved, or were you the --

Younger offspring: No!

Dr. Free-Ride: You were the monsters?

Younger offspring: No! We had muscles, like monsters' muscles. We had big muscles!

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. Or was it just that you were making smart use of the muscles you had?

Younger offspring: No, we had monster muscles. We got to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps!

Dr. Free-Ride: But was that not just clever mechanical use of the muscles you came with? Or did they really inject monster DNA into you to make your muscles somehow magically stronger?

Younger offspring: Does it matter?

Dr. Free-Ride: I think to Sprog Blog readers it might matter.

Younger offspring: OK, then, Sprog Bloggers. You guys ... I am not going to tell you. I don't know what she just said. OK? Do you hear me? Do you hear me, DrugMonkey? Do you hear me, Isis?

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, bye.

Younger offspring: Bye!

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 and magnets.

The younger Free-Ride offspring continues recapping Kids Day @ SLAC 2010 with a report on another workshop:

Dr. Free-Ride: Tell me about the magnets at Kids Day.

Younger offspring: Well, the magnets ... first we got to make our own magnets, and we had a piece of steel or something -- a bar of steel. We wrapped a lot of wire around it; the two ends were sticking out. We also got a battery with it, with two chicken clips.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK. We used to call them alligator clips, but I understand that reptiles and birds have a common ancestor, so chicken clips works.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 and the saga of Mr. Marshmallow Man.

The younger Free-Ride offspring reports on one of the workshops at Kids Day @ SLAC 2010:

Dr. Free-Ride: Tell me the story with Mr. Marshmallow Man.

Mr. Marshmallow Man

Younger offspring: Mr. Marshmallow Man got put into a vacuum chamber, and it was also kind of like a time machine, 'cause when they put him in, he was, like, porking out on all these marshmallows. Except, he wasn't eating himself. And then, the time flew fast and he turned eighty. Then he porked out some more. And then, time flew more fast, and then he turned a hundred, and then his head fell off and I came to his funeral. (In a dramatically sad voice) I'll never forget you, Mr. Marshmallow Man!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, but can you tell me what was happening in terms of the balloon in the vacuum? What actually happened?

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 hazards and mitigations.

Longtime friend of the Free-Rides LO has been instrumental in hooking the Free-Ride offspring up with Kids Day @ SLAC. Finally the year has come when the younger Free-Ride offspring meets the age requirements to join the elder Free-Ride offspring. As is our practice, we prepared by reviewing the safety information:

Dr. Free-Ride: So, we're talking about Kids Day @ SLAC. I'm showing you the logo for this year's Kids Day @ SLAC. There seems to be some sort of -- I don't know if that's a laser beam or something. Looks interesting. But, the part we need to discuss has to do with the safety information. "All children must wear long pants, Kids Day T-shirts" -- which you guys will get from LO and put on when you get there -- "closed-toe shoes, no jewelry, and long hair must be pulled back. Please review the hazards and mitigation information on the workshops." Younger offspring, let's look at workshop B.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: taking physics for a spin.

Jan 01 2010 Published by under Kids and science, Physics

Dr. Free-Ride: So tell me about that device of yours? How did you make it and what does it do?


Elder offspring: There is a cut piece of a drinking straw. You also need two pieces of tin foil and a long string.
Dr. Free-Ride: That's really aluminum foil, isn't it?
Elder offspring: They call it tin foil.

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Physical phenomena, competing models, and evil.

Over at Starts with a Bang, Ethan Siegel expressed exasperation that Nature and New Scientist are paying attention to (and lending too much credibility to) an astronomical theory Ethan views as a non-starter, Modified Netwonian Dynamics (or MOND):

[W]hy is Nature making a big deal out of a paper like this? Why are magazines like New Scientist declaring that there are cracks in dark matter theories?
Because someone (my guess is HongSheng Zhao, one of the authors of this paper who's fond of press releases and modifying gravity) is pimping this piece of evidence like it tells us something. Guess what? Galaxy rotation curves are the only thing MOND has ever been good for! MOND is lousy for everything else, and dark matter -- which is good for everything else -- is good for this too!
So thanks to a number of people for bringing these to my attention, because the record needs to be set straight. Dark matter: still fine. MOND: still horribly insufficient. Now, maybe we can get the editors and referees of journals like this to not only do quality control on the data, but also on the reasonableness of the conclusions drawn.

In a comment on that post, Steinn took issue with Ethan's characterization of MOND:

Ethan - this is not a creationism debate.
Hong Sheng is a top dynamicist and he knows perfectly well what the issues are. The whole point of science at this level is to test models and propose falsifiable alternatives.
MOND may be wrong, but it is not evil.
Cold Dark Matter is a likelier hypothesis, by far, but it has some serious problems in detail, and the underlying microphysics is essentially unknown and plagued with poorly motivated speculation.
MOND has always approached the issue from a different perspective: that you start with What You See Is What You Get, and then look for minimal modifications to account for the discrepancies. It is a phenomenological model, and makes little attempt to be a fundamental theory of anything. Observers tend to like it because it gives direct comparison with data and is rapidly testable.
I think Leslie Sage knew what he was doing when he published this paper.

In a subsequent post, Ethan responded to Steinn:

Yes, Steinn, it is evil to present MOND as though it is a viable alternative to dark matter.
It is evil to spread information about science based only on some tiny fraction of the available data, especially when the entire data set overwhelmingly favors dark matter and crushes MOND so as to render it untenable. It isn't evil in the same way that creationism is evil, but it is evil in the same way that pushing the steady-state-model over the Big Bang is evil.
It's a lie based on an unfair, incomplete argument. It's a discredited theory attacking the most valid model we have at -- arguably -- its only weak point. Or, to use a favorite term of mine, it is willfully ignorant to claim that MOND is reasonable in any sort of way as an alternative to dark matter. It's possibly worse than that, because it's selectively willful ignorance in this case.
And then I look at the effect it has. It undermines public understanding of dark matter, gravity, and the Universe, by presenting an unfeasible alternative as though it's perfectly valid. And it isn't perfectly valid. It isn't even close. It has nothing to do with how good their results as scientists are; it has everything to do with the invalid, untrue, knowledge-undermining conclusions that the public receives.
And yes, I find that incredibly evil. Do you?

I have no strong views on MOND or Cold Dark Matter, but given that my professional focus includes the methodology of science and issues of ethics in science, I find this back and forth really interesting.

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Anatomy of a scientific fraud: an interview with Eugenie Samuel Reich.

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a reporter whose work in the Boston Globe, Nature, and New Scientist will be well-known to those with an interest in scientific conduct (and misconduct). In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, she turns her skills as an investigative reporter to writing a book-length exploration of Jan Hendrik Schön's frauds at Bell Labs, providing a detailed picture of the conditions that made it possible for him to get away with his fraud as long as he did.
Eugenie Samuel Reich agreed to answer some questions about Plastic Fantastic and the Schön case. My questions, and her answers, after the jump.

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