Category: News

UC Davis Physicists to Chancellor Katehi

By John Conway | November 22, 2011 4:16 pm

Chancellor Linda Katehi
November 22, 2011
UC Davis

Dear Chancellor Katehi:

With a heavy heart and substantial deliberation, we the undersigned faculty of the UC Davis physics department send you this letter expressing our lack of confidence in your leadership and calling for your prompt resignation in the wake of the outrageous, unnecessary, and brutal pepper spraying episode on campus Friday, Nov. 18.

The reasons for this are as follows.

• The demonstrations were nonviolent, and the student encampments posed no threat to the university community. The outcomes of sending in police in Oakland, Berkeley, New York City, Portland, and Seattle should have led you to exhaust all other options before resorting to police action.

• Authorizing force after a single day of encampments constitutes a gross violation of the UC Davis principles of community, especially the commitment to civility: “We affirm the right of freedom of expression within our community and affirm our commitment to the highest standards of civility and decency towards all.”

• Your response in the aftermath of these incidents has failed to restore trust in your leadership in the university community.

We have appreciated your leadership during these difficult times on working to maintain and enhance excellence at UC Davis. However, this incident and the inadequacy of your response to it has already irreparably damaged the image of UC Davis and caused the faculty, students, parents, and alumni of UC Davis to lose confidence in your leadership. At this point we feel that the best thing that you can do for this university is to take full responsibility and resign immediately. Our campus community deserves a fresh start.


Andreas Albrecht (chair)
Marusa Bradac
Steve Carlip
Hsin-Chia Cheng
Maxwell Chertok
John Conway
Daniel Cox
James P. Crutchfield
Glen Erickson
Chris Fassnacht
Daniel Ferenc
Ching Fong
Giulia Galli
Nemanja Kaloper
Joe Kiskis
Lloyd Knox
Dick Lander
Lori Lubin
Markus Luty
Michael Mulhearn
David Pellett
Wendell Potter
Sergey Savrasov
Richard Scalettar
Robert Svoboda
John Terning
Mani Tripathi
David Webb
David Wittman
Dong Yu
Gergely Zimanyi

CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Science and Society


By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2011 6:36 pm

You’ve probably heard that protestors at Occupy UC Davis were pepper-sprayed by police during a non-violent protest. (It’s very likely that you have heard but it hasn’t registered, as there have been many similar events nationwide and it’s hard to keep track.)

After the incident, UC Davis police chief, Annette Spicuzza, had this to say:

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.”

Imagine in your mind the kind of “volatile situation” to which this description might apply. Now here’s the picture:

Having never been pepper-sprayed, I have no idea what it’s like, although it doesn’t seem pleasant. But these protestors can take some solace in the idea that this kind of display will bring more support to their movement than a million chanted slogans. The police were obviously badly trained, but the ultimate responsibility lies with UC Davis Chancellor Linda Kaheti, who ordered them in. It’s a horrifying demonstration of what happens when authority is unchecked and out of touch. I’m not sure where the propensity of local authorities to call in police dressed like Storm Troopers started, but it has to end. This isn’t what our country is supposed to be about.

Here’s the video:

Update: On the question of since when are all protests met with police in riot gear freely dispensing pepper spray, Alexis Madrigal has researched the answer, which is: since the 1999 WTO/anti-globalization protests. Apparently police training is not flexible enough to accommodate the fact that different situations call for different responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, Politics

Where there's smoke…

By Daniel Holz | June 30, 2011 11:38 pm

It turns out the Los Alamos fires are world news, even making it to the front page of the BBC online (right next to the Duke and Duchess visiting Canada). Who knew? I guess everyone’s really worried that my theory of quantum gravity, which is of course sitting in my desk drawer at work, might go up in flames. My office is just below and to the left of the green glass building in this photo:

Or perhaps the world is genuinely concerned that a lab of historic significance might burn? Or maybe, and I’m going out on a limb here, everyone’s worried that the lab’s nuclear material might catch fire? A quick sanity check is in order. Most of the seriously radioactive material is in “hardened” bunkers at the lab. These are built to repel terrorist attacks and the like. They are surrounded by large buffer zones, and it would be difficult for a forest fire to get close, much less around/over the bunker, since there’s nothing flammable nearby. And, needless to say, massive slurry drops from the air would also discourage the fire from even thinking about approaching. And even if the fire did somehow surround the structure, my understanding is that the facility would survive virtually unscathed. So this material is probably safe.

In addition to the stores of radioactive material, however, there is also waste consisting of items such as gloves and the like with trace amounts of radioactive contamination (much of it left over from the cold war). This stuff is stored in 55-gallon barrels in “Area G“, which is only ~10 km from the lab boundary (which presently constitutes the edge of the fire). The barrels are being systematically transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Southern New Mexico. However, there are still thousands of barrels left on lab property, and this stuff isn’t housed in the same bomb-proof bunkers as the high-level radioactive material. So if the fire were to get to this material, and somehow compromise one of the barrels (which are supposed to be fire proof), it could conceivably incinerate some of the contents and generate radioactive smoke. Although highly unlikely and not an unmitigated disaster, this is nonetheless something to be avoided if at all possible. The barrels are stored on pavement surrounded by a large area which has been completely denuded of vegetation (partially because of the previous fire, and partly because of lessons learned from the previous fire). There is very little to burn in the immediate surroundings, and the fire would have to jump some canyons to get to the barrels. And, again, the potential intervention of helicopters and airplane drops of fire retardant material make it even less likely that anything could go amiss. So the general feeling is that Area G is also safe. Over the last few days the lab has been doing a remarkable job of keeping everyone apprised as to what’s happening (e.g., twitter, flicker, website; also see links in my previous post [and comments])

But, perhaps most importantly, it seems like fire fighters have gotten the upper hand over the last day or two, and the area around the laboratory and town seems to be relatively secure. Extensive fire breaks have been built, with back burns helping to clear out potential underbrush and ensure an appropriate buffer. And, in the latest positive development, this evening we had some fairly spectacular thunderstorms and rain. One side effect is that the smoke has completely dissipated, and from my living room (in Santa Fe) we now have a clear view across the Rio Grande valley to the Jemez mountains above Los Alamos. After two weeks of hearing about the fires, and seeing the smoke, now for the first time we can actually see the flames themselves. This came as quite a shock. It is a scary but strangely beautiful sight (from ~30 miles away).


Playing with fire

By Daniel Holz | March 29, 2011 8:22 am

Last week I saw a performance of Frankenstein at the National Theater in London. I watched it in a beautiful venue in Santa Fe; the play was an HD video stream from a performance a few hours earlier. Frankenstein is directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and his stamp was evident throughout. The play starts with a desolate and dark stage. You eventually become aware that a placenta-like bag towards the back has a body inside. There are some bright flashes of light, and a monstrously disfigured man emerges. For what seems an interminable length of time, the monster grunts and flops around the stage, eventually learning how to stand and stagger. No words. No plot. Just a creature, all alone, trying to find his way. Finally Frankenstein appears, is horrified by what he has created, and the creature is cast out into the darkness.

Frankenstein is one of the great scientific novels. Mary Shelley wrote it in the early 1800s, when the study of electricity was at the forefront of science. It was considered, quite literally, the spark of life. In the play this science was represented by hundreds of lightbulbs hanging over the audience. The birth of the creature arrives as a brilliant electric spark, with all the bulbs burning simultaneously, so bright as to wash out the rest of the world (and, momentarily, saturate the digital projector). I saw the play a few days after the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, as the nuclear incident was unfolding, and fear and uncertainty hovered over Japan. The parallels with the play are unmistakable. The full title for the novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. For his crime he was condemned to have his liver eaten by a giant eagle every day, only to have it grow back at night (the Greeks were nothing if not creative). Frankenstein “steals” the spark of life, bringing the gift of creation to humanity. For this, he suffers at the hands of his creation. Now, as we struggle to contain the nuclear fire at the center of the Fukushima reactors, there is a similar feeling of dread. What monster have we unleashed on the world?

The novel only remotely resembles the conception of Frankenstein in the popular imagination. It is not a gothic horror story, so much as a comment on science, humanity, and society. The story is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human. The monster is sympathetic and compelling, in a similar manner to Satan in the unadulterated genius of Milton’s Paradise Lost (a poem which Frankenstein’s monster reads and is profoundly affected by). One forgets that “Frankenstein” is not the name of the monster, but rather the name of the scientist and creator. This misconception is perhaps appropriate, since in many ways Frankenstein is indeed the true monster. He denies and betrays his own creation, and is incapable of showing him love or understanding. His creation becomes a complete outcast, being the only one of his kind on Earth, instantly loathed and detested by all who see him. Frankenstein, by casting out his child, creates a monster where none was present before.

Despite the dangers of fire, we would not turn our back on Prometheus’ gift. Frankenstein’s creation is not inherently evil. He is endowed with the spark of life, and becomes twisted into a dark and inhuman creature through mistreatment, abandonment, and neglect. The nuclear spark is similarly indifferent. Although it can have terrible consequences, it also offers the ability to power our civilization without warming our planet. The dangers attendant with nuclear power almost certainly pale in comparison with the dangers of global warming. The challenge is to learn to control our discovery, rather than become engulfed by it.



By Daniel Holz | March 20, 2011 11:15 pm

This afternoon I was passing through the Albuquerque airport, and a very large crowd of people was glued to the television. The past days have shown an unprecedented (at least in my lifetime) series of newsworthy developments. Which of the many possibilities could warrant such a rapt audience?:

One of the largest earthquakes on record, unleashing a devastating tsunami

Thousands of Japanese casualties, with hundreds of thousands displaced, and untold suffering

An ongoing serious nuclear accident, with the potential to become a nuclear disaster of global proportions

A popular uprising in Bahrain, put down by troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia

Egypt overwhelmingly voting for constitutional changes towards a democracy, in its first real election in decades (after overthrowing its dictator of 30 years in a popular uprising)

Crude oil crossing $100/barrel, with impact on global markets

Global food prices at record highs, and rising, leading to concerns about global unrest

The UK, US, and France are now at war with Libya (with the UN’s imprimatur)

None of the above. It was a basketball game. I guess there’s some sort of tournament going on. Must be important.


Don't lose your cool

By Daniel Holz | March 16, 2011 11:54 pm

Japan is in the midst of a slow-motion nuclear meltdown. Each new day brings word of further problems. At this point three reactors have been flooded with seawater, and appear contained (at least for the time being). The news reports are incoherent and conflicting, and nobody seems to really know what’s happening. This may be because the information is not public. Or it could be because the situation on the ground is fundamentally incoherent. You can’t exactly walk up to reactor #2, open the door, and take a peek inside. Amazingly, the best up-to-date resource appears to be wikipedia (which incorporates the useful summary tables from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum).

The earthquake happened at 2:26pm. Two minutes later, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant went into SCRAM mode, and shut down. The control rods were inserted. The diesel generators fired up. Everything worked to plan.

The Fukushima-Daiichi plants are boiling water reactors. In simplest terms, this is just a pile of radioactive material (generally uranium) which gets hot (literally hot, not just radioactive). You run water over it, generate superheated water and steam, drive a turbine, and produce electricity. Instead of burning coal, you use radioactive decay as the source of heat, but otherwise the basic mechanism is surprisingly similar to a conventional power plant. You turn off a nuclear reactor by inserting control rods, which absorb a lot of the neutrons, and inhibit further fission reactions. So, two minutes after the quake, the control rods were inserted, and the reactors were no longer undergoing nuclear fission. However, one of the peculiarities of nuclear power is that even after the reactor is shut “off” there is still a significant amount of residual radioactive material. This material continues to decay, generating significant heat (>10 megawatt; by now [almost a week later] it’s ~1 megawatt, enough to power a thousand homes). Thus, even after turning a reactor off, it still generates significant power for a few weeks, and the resulting heat needs to be removed and the radioactive core kept cool . And to do this, you need to pump in a lot of water (ideally thousands of gallons/min) at high pressure. And this requires a fair amount of power.

The plant was working perfectly for roughly 30 minutes after the earthquake. The tsunami was on its way, but the plant operators were blind to it. Had they known, they could have depressurized the nuclear cores in anticipation. But they were focused on riding out the earthquake, which they did admirably. And then the tsunami hit. Just a few years ago, after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was upgraded to deal with a worst-case, 5.3 meter tsunami. The wave that hit the plant last Friday was roughly 10 meters high. It swamped the diesel generators, as well as the fuel tanks and the switching station. The system was “live” because of the SCRAM, and the local electrical grid got fried. Fortunately there were backup batteries, which lasted another 9.5 hours. At around midnight the batteries ran out of power, and the plant was no longer able to cool its reactor cores. At this point, the Troubles began.

As the core starts to heat up, it boils off the surrounding water. Eventually the fuel rods are exposed to the air. This causes the core to heat up even faster, and also causes a reaction with the zirconium cladding (which holds the uranium fuel pellets in place), generating hydrogen gas. Without any cooling, the fuel gets hot (> 1500 K/2200 F), and starts to melt. The hydrogen gas collects, and eventually explodes (think Hindenberg). This happened in reactor #1 on Saturday, blowing the roof off of the reactor building, but leaving the containment vessel (which is ~1 meter thick steel) intact. On Monday a similar explosion happened to #3, and on Tuesday there was an explosion at #2. Both of their containment vessels were probably compromised. Rupturing a containment vessel is very bad. So long as most of the radioactive material is contained, the damage to the outside world is similarly contained (modulo venting of various radioactive gas, which has been happening, but not at profoundly dangerous levels). Once a containment vessel is ruptured, the radioactive material can end up anywhere; the sky’s the limit. Chernobyl did not have a containment vessel.

The current situation seems to be that seawater is being pumped into all three broken reactors (#1–3), and they are in thermal control. It seems likely that all three sets of fuel rods are partially melted and damaged. It also seems likely that the containment vessels in #2 and #3 have been compromised, although probably not severely. There are some concerns about spent fuel rods in pools near reactors #3 and #4. So long as the rods are covered in sufficient water, they are stable. If the rods are exposed, they heat up. And when they get hot, they start to burn through their cladding, and emit radioactive material. These pools are not within containment vessels, and therefore they are potentially even more dangerous than the cores of active reactors. Their radioactive emission goes directly into the surroundings. But so long as there is water in the pools, they should be fine. The latest claim (by the Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission) is that the storage pool at the #4 reactor has little to no water. If true, this is a very ominous development.

This is by far the most dire situation on the planet at the moment. It has the world’s attention. We’ve had almost a week. Why can’t we just fix it? There are a number of serious complications. First, there’s the issue of radiation. People are unable to walk up to most of the buildings and see what’s going on, lest they get immediate and severe radiation poisoning. There are remote sensors and cameras, but fundamentally everyone is guessing as to what’s happening inside. Even if we knew exactly how things looked, it’s still a major engineering feat to get the appropriate amount of water running through these highly complex systems to do the cooling. There have been explosions, there are stuck valves, there are broken pumps, there are ongoing fires. The world’s resources are focused on this problem. Millions of lives potentially depend upon the outcome. And, thus far, progress has been haphazard and halting, despite heroic efforts on the part of the Japanese crew. The engineering challenges may simply be too great.

The worst-case scenario for the Daiichi reactors plays out something like this: 1. the storage pool at #4 is indeed dry. Because it’s uncontained, the radiation levels in the area get very high. Everyone needs to evacuate the complex. 2. Without anyone manning the cooling systems, the cooling stops. Everything overheats. 3. There are various explosions, resulting in a breach to a containment vessel. 4. There is a subsequent steam explosion, and a plume of radioactive material is generated. 5. Wind carries the plume in the direction of Tokyo (world’s largest metropolis), a mere 140 miles (225 km) away. We can’t even contemplate trying to evacuate and treat a city of 35 million people. As far as I can tell, things do not appear to be headed in this direction. But such an outcome is unfortunately not outside the realm of possibility, and just contemplating this should freak you out. But, to reiterate, it’s very unlikely, and a lot of things would have to go catastrophically wrong. I’d love to quantify just how unlikely, but cannot. My guess is that nobody can, since there are too many uncertainties, and we’re fundamentally in uncharted territory.

The best-case scenario, and probably most likely, is that the Fukushima-Daiichi plant will limp along, but without any catastrophic events (such as a major Chernobyl-style radioactive explosion and fire). The fuel will continue to cool, the fires will be put out, the amount of radiation will subside, and eventually the entire site will be entombed and become a testament to human hubris.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Technology, Top Posts


By Daniel Holz | March 14, 2011 10:35 am

The magnitude of the disaster in Japan is starting to sink in. The photo that drove it home, at least for me, was the one that graced the front of yesterday’s New York Times (see right). The Japanese prime minister tells us that it is Japan’s worst crisis since World War II. He has ordered the largest mobilization of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces since World War II. Emphasizing the magnitude of the event, Japan is now measurably closer to the US. As if recovering from an earthquake and a tsunami were insufficient, the people of Japan are now confronted with their worst nuclear accident ever. There are officers in radiation suits scanning residents near affected nuclear power plants with Geiger counters. The authorities are evacuating over 200,000 people, and are preparing to hand out iodine pills (so that the thyroid is flooded with “normal” iodine, rather than radioactive Iodine-131). According to news reports, three people are already showing signs of radiation sickness (if it has manifested itself so quickly, it is probably a very bad sign for these individuals).

Information about the ongoing nuclear crisis is surprisingly scarce. Google, as usual, is operating as a clearinghouse for information (including details on the rolling blackouts and a person finding database). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing its best to keep the world apprised. There is also Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Other places to check are Reuters and the BBC.

These are the sorts of events that highlight our shared humanity. There are many ways to help, including the Japanese Red Cross (donate through google) and Doctors Without Borders. Our hearts go out to the people impacted by this tragedy. Science is a particularly international endeavor. I have friends and colleagues in Japan, and thankfully they and their families appear to be okay (although shaken). Many thousands have not been so lucky.

We have scenes of complete devastation of the Japanese homeland coupled with ongoing concern of radiation exposure. Echoes of a previous time are unmistakable and unavoidable. I’ve put together the following montage (on the left is Hiroshima in 1945, on the right is Sendai today):

I am by no means trying to imply that these events are in any way equivalent. They most certainly are not. But the images are scary, and give a sense of the scale of the disaster.


Propagating Waves

By Sean Carroll | March 11, 2011 9:59 am

A devastating earthquake, 8.9 on the Richter scale, hit Japan today, causing extensive damage and a large tsunami. I can’t imagine what it would be like to look out your window and see something like this headed your way. Our thoughts go out to everyone affected by the disaster.

A force this big propagates around the world, so beaches here in Southern California were expecting heightened wave activity — nothing very serious, but certainly noticeable. Scientists of course immediately leapt into action to estimate what kind of effects should be expected. The National Weather Service circulated this map of predicted wave heights. Click to embiggen.

Naturally, the House of Representatives is trying to cut funding for tsunami warning centers.


Bloodbath for Science

By John Conway | February 13, 2011 3:55 pm

Last Wednesday the House Appropriations Committee released a list of proposed cuts totaling over $74 billion to be attached to the continuing resolution under which the government is presently operating. The next day, the committee promised even deeper reductions in the present fiscal year funding, which began last October, and which is nearly half over. The committee is set to propose some $100 billion in cuts, the rationale being “to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

Among the cuts is $1.1 billion from the Department of Energy Office of Science, the agency which funds the majority of basic physics research at universities and national labs. This is out of a total proposed budget of $5.12 billion for basic research. That request for FY2011 was slightly above the FY2010 actual appropriation, meaning that the proposed cut for FY2011 represents more than a $890 million decrease relative to FY2010.

If enacted (and what happens next is a high-stakes game of chicken), clearly, this represents a 20% rescission half way through the fiscal year. Effectively it’s a 40% cut. Imagine you are a national lab director, or a university PI like me. If I am told that I will not get the money we were awarded by the DOE, we will need to let people go, no question. People are talking about closing the national labs for some period, and I have heard rumors that the Tevatron at Fermilab, scheduled to shut down in September, will actually be turned off in a couple weeks on March 1, ten years to the day that Run 2 began.

The exact programs within the DOE Office of Science to be cut will be detailed by the committee soon, I expect. But this is utter devastation for the people that form the bedrock foundation of our high tech economy, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is breathtakingly stupid.

And how does cutting $100 billion in government spending “help our economy grow and create jobs”? The immediate result will be the loss of something like a million jobs. This is just an order of magnitude guess, based on the notion that all government spending supports jobs one way or another, at about $100k per job. Maybe it’s 600k, maybe it’s 1.5 million – I don’t know. But to say this creates jobs? I am totally baffled by this logic. I am no economist, but maybe one out there can enlighten me.

As far as I can see, we cut federal spending so the ultra-rich can keep their tax breaks, and they invest the money they keep overseas where labor is cheaper. So we are killing American jobs – some of the best ones we have in high-tech and alternative energy – and sending them out of the country. This is incredible.

The administration’s FY2012 request will be released tomorrow. No doubt the house majority party will declare it DOA…

The End of the Tevatron

By John Conway | January 10, 2011 2:48 pm

It’s the beginning of the end for the Tevatron at Fermilab. In the fall, the Department of Energy’s High Energy Physics Advisory Panel recommended that the Tevatron be funded to run for three years beyond the planned end in September of 2011, largely in order to provide additional information in the search for the Higgs boson. The recommendation was contingent on there being new funds, about 5% above current levels, in order to staff and operate the machine and the experiments. But in a letter to day to the chair of HEPAP, the head of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, William Brinkman, wrote that “Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate is very challenging, and additional funding has not been identified. Therefore…operation of the Tevatron will end in FY2011, as originally scheduled.”

The dream for a superconducting proton synchrotron at Fermilab goes back to at least 1976, when it began to become clear that the interesting mass range to explore in order to understand the weak interaction would be around 100 GeV. The lab was engaged in a wide range of fixed target experiments, using the Fermilab Main Ring proton synchrotron as its workhorse, and in 1977 the b (or bottom) quark was discovered there. This meant there had to be a top quark, as well as very massive (80-100 GeV) W and Z bosons.

But Europe pulled ahead – it already had the Super Proton Synchrotron, and plans to convert it into a proton-antiproton collider. Whoever did so first would have the energy to produce W’s and Z’s directly, and nail down their masses. And maybe, whoever managed to create the first high energy proton-antiproton collider would be able to find the top quark, whose mass could be, well, just about anything above the b quark mass of 5 GeV, but probably at least 20 GeV.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Science, Technology, Top Posts

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