Live-blogging from the lab

By Sean Carroll | December 12, 2005 12:51 pm

Hopefully Mark’s post explains why there hasn’t been much content from this occasional blog lately — at least three of us are distracted by the New Views symposium (about which I also hope to say something substantive soon). While you’re all waiting for our ungrounded speculations about the universe to return, why not cleanse the palate with some real experimental physics? Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles has just completed a week’s worth of blogging about the work in his lab. Check out the entries to see the unpredictable hazards of hands-on research. (For a theorist like me, a typical unpredictable hazard is when the barista uses 2% instead of whole milk in my latte.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science
  • Plato
  • Ponderer of things

    Does anyone agree that some parts of physics are over-represented in terms of bloggers – most bloggers do theory (esp. high-energy/string theory/cosmology). Some experimenters, thanks to quantum diaries – but mostly high-energy/nuclear experiment. Whatever happened to condensed matter guys – both theory and experiment? Nanoscience, correlated systems, low-T, scattering, scanning probes, optics? In most physics departments those represent at good 50% of students/faculty, but in terms of blogging it’s more like 10%. Or is it just my slanted view? Chad (AMO) is about the only non-particle experimenter that comes to mind. Have CM experimenters yet to figure out how to blog?

  • Uncle Al

    Theory predicts what observation demands. The only notable exceptions, cart before the horse, were an old paper containing no citations and that paper’s sequel,

    Annalen der Physik 4 XVII 891-921 (1905)
    Annalen der Physik 4 XLIX 769-822 (1916)

    and look at all the trouble they eventually caused. Do you want String theories and M-theory to be relieved of goo and dribble, about 10^500 potential inconveniences at last estimation? Wait for an experimentalist to find two small bodies that locally free fall along non-parallel trajectories in hard vacuum. That constrains the symmetries of your maths and taut theory follows thereafter.

    Show us an ab inito calculation of Newton’s G. You cannot! The full armamentarium of physical theory is powerless before a stepladder, some nylon fishing line, and some lead weights,

    Theory is no stronger than its postulates. It is increasing obvious that something we know to be true in fact is not. (Green’s function and Gauss’ theorem do not behave in finite volumes of curved spacetime.) While the varietyand volume of theory is staggering, its origins are compact. An experimentalist could set it all right. (Given consistent vacuum chirality in the mass sector, make that “set it all left.”)

  • PhilipJ


    *shameless plug, follow link above or click here for BioCurious*

    My co-blogger and I talk about the experimental biophysics work we do in our respective labs as interesting things crop up, amongst the typical science weblog banter. We’re both doing single-molecule work, as you might expect for physicists who are interested in biology.


  • Count Iblis

    Uncle Al:

    Show us an ab inito calculation of Newton’s G

    G, like all dimensionful constants, is just an irrelevant conversion factor. Trying to calculate ratios of particle masses to the planck mass does make sense, though.

  • LambchopofGod

    Whatever happened to condensed matter guys – both theory and experiment?

    They work on boring things so they have nothing interesting to talk about.

    Sorry, someone had to say it.

  • Ponderer of things

    They work on boring things so they have nothing interesting to talk about.

    Ha-ha. In all seriousness and all jokes aside, I have a feeling that this kind of superiority complex is rather common among high-energy theorists. I don’t think I heard as many denigrating comments from cond matter guys doing fundamental physics about folks doing materials science, chemistry or biophysics.
    In fact typically I see a lot of mutual respects among most scientists – from atomic/nanoscale to mesoscale, regardless of whether it’s AMO, correlated systems, electronics, materials, chemistry or bio.
    But I did hear many comments from HET guys about how all other fields of physics are “stamp collecting”. Why is that?

    Let’s face it – in terms of impact on humanity and our lives, solid state/condensed matter research, materials/chemistry, biophysics, never mind medical research, would be many-fold more influential than all high energy or astrophysics.

  • fh

    The stamp collection goes back to Rutherford:

    “All science is either Physics or stamp collecting.” – Ernest Rutherford

    The implication of course being that physics is the only science that has gone beyond classification. An assessment that was less absurd at the beginning of the 20th century when the statement was made.

    Still, nobody but high energy physicists have succesfully unified their field to such a degree. Experimentalists work under the clearest condition any experimenter in any science could hope for. To have as your task to scatter a single particle from a single particle…
    And theoreticists have managed to distill all this data down to an amazing small set of highly abstract ideas, in the Standard Modell and GR.

    I think these achievements are quite unique.

    They are, of course, in the subject matter rather then in the abilities of the people in the field.

    Perhaps it’s that HEP lives often so close to philosophy and philosophy and thus some of their arrogance has transferred to us.

    Anyway, I loved the posts about experiment! Fantastic! Such a richness of phenomenons and techniques! Tedious, yes, but hey, it’s actually physics! He’s actually working with reality! Wow!

  • Plato

    I just wanted to add to my post linked after Uncertain Principles. I expand on the benefits here.

    The “Future book” still comes to mind here. In a new, and dynamcial way. :)

  • Ponderer of things

    as we celebrate a year of physics, which is all about Einstein, it makes me wonder if our obsession with Einstein and mathematical approach to physics distorts perception of the world. What about Rutherfords, Comptons, Kelvins, Thompsons etc. – are they someone’s idol too?

    Seems like everyone wants to be an Einstein – figure out universe by just thinking about it – but as appealing as it may sound, it’s a dangerous path. Sometimes I wish more time was devoted to people constantly uncovering secrets of universe on other lengthscales than sub-atomic or cosmological.

    Stamp-collecting quote is extremely arrogant and short-sighted in my opinion. Would Rutherford consider Watson and Crick stamp-collectors? Somehow I seriously doubt that.

  • A condensed matter theorist

    Condensed-matter physics, especially, has been feeling lately that they have a bit of an image problem with the public, and would like to replicate the success of HET in getting nonscience folks interested. In the last few years there have been numerous proposals for a “top ten” list of big questions in condensed-matter physics to rival similar lists of big questions for HET. Which, of course, we all know is a copy of a similar list of big questions in mathematics.

    I think the nonphysicist public doesn’t realize the strong thread of common ideas that runs through all fields of physics, and in particular theoretical physics. They seem to think theoretical physics is all about studying fundamental questions of the universe and experimental physics is all about technology. The truth is, we’re all in the same department and we all really do speak the same language. And there is a lot of cross-fertilization between different fields.

    Still, there are some differences. Condensed-matter types (esp. experimentalists) need a lot of money to keep their groups working. If the money doesn’t flow, the jig is up, and anything that can be perceived as hurting that flow of money (such as blogging) just won’t happen. Of course, blogging may not have that effect, but it’s new and it’ll take time to get people to change their ways. Same goes for students and post-docs. I wouldn’t touch blogging with a ten-foot pole until tenure (and frankly, feel a little uncomfortable commenting on a blog too). I have no evidence that it will actually hurt me (except by taking away time I could be working), but since I don’t know, why should I take the chance? That said, there are quite a few quantum computing blogs too.

    Come to think of it, could you use blogging as part of the education component of your grants? Any ideas on how to make that work?

  • Ponderer of things

    Good comments, CMT.
    Quantum computing (theory) is a lot closer to mathematics than condensed matter theory, but that’s my feeling.

    Perhaps one way to make blogging a part of education component is an outreach, which is rewarded by NSF and other agencies. One could setup a blog where they answer basic questions from undergrads and high-schoolers on physics of everyday life, for example (why the sky is blue, why water and oil don’t mix, why ice is slippery – that kind of stuff).

    I think non-science people can be as fascinated with nanotechnology or biophysics as they are with cosmology or string theory. The trick that good lecturers use is convincing the audience that the science is very simple and make it seem like they understand what is being discussed, even when in reality they are not. It always comes at the risk of dumbing it down to the point when primitive analogies are detrimental to understanding (elemental particles are just like spaghettis or violin strngs, and we are just like ants going along a piece of paper not realizing it’s actually 3D instead of 2D – that kind of stuff), but it’s better than nothing.

  • Plato

    Can these things degenerate into philosophical discourse? By our very names we can implicate ourselves?:)It had to start from someplace. A simple idea to have a greater context and meaning established from previous statements and experimental positions.

    Of course by desire of experimentation, we don’t want string theory to degenrate into a religion, or anything else for that matter.:)


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar