Category: Science and the Media

The Carbon Map and Data Visualization

By Mark Trodden | March 29, 2012 5:36 am

How best to represent data is a question that physicists spend a lot of time thinking about. While theorists like myself are not the primary examples of this, I do find it striking when I stumble upon an example of data visualization that gets the pertinent facts across in a significantly clearer way than I’ve seen before.

For a terrific example of this, see the Carbon Map. The idea of Cartograms has been around for a while, of course, and in particular, I recall them being used extensively here in the US to represent the voting tendencies of regions of the country in the lead up to the 2008 presidential election. For example, here’s one in which the sizes of counties have been rescaled according to their population.

What is nice about the Carbon Map is that it is an animated cartogram, in which one can choose different datasets and have the world map dynamically rescale to represent the new data. The screen shot below is of the scaling of areas by population, but as you can see there are other possibilities.

Obviously, this example (the first I’ve seen) is meant to get across a particular point, but that isn’t what I’m discussing here. What impressed me is the clarity and power of representing the data in this way. I’m sure there are many other ways in which this technique would be useful, some of them in physics and astronomy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media

Journey to the Exoplanets

By Sean Carroll | March 5, 2012 7:31 am

My first contribution to Download the Universe, our collaborative site that reviews ebooks on science, is now up. It’s a review of Journey to the Exoplanets, a snazzy and fun iPad app from Scientific American. Teaser:

When I was your age, we didn’t have any of these fancy hand-held portable ebook readers. We didn’t have any such thing as extrasolar planets, either. Planets orbited the Sun, and books were printed on paper. And we liked it that way.

I’m assuming here I was about your age in 1992 or maybe earlier, because that’s when the world changed forever. Sony introduced a “portable” device called the Data Discman, arguably the first hand-held ebook reader. That same year, Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail made the first discovery of extrasolar planets, orbiting a pulsar with the romantic name of PSR 1257+12.

It’s been a busy twenty years. Everyone and their dog is reading ebooks, and astronomers are discovering planets around other stars (exoplanets for short) by the bushelful — 760 as of this writing, if we go by the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia. Which is why it seems perfectly appropriate that one of the first and snazziest ebooks devoted to science is Journey to the Exoplanets, written by Edward Bell and illustrated by Ron Miller.

Check it out.

Everything is Connected

By Sean Carroll | February 23, 2012 10:09 am

They do things differently over in Britain. For one thing, their idea of a fun and entertaining night out includes going to listen to a lecture/demonstration on quantum mechanics and the laws of physics. Of course, it helps when the lecture is given by someone as charismatic as Brian Cox, and the front row seats are filled with celebrities. (And yes I know, there are people here in the US who would find that entertaining as well — I’m one of them.) In particular, this snippet about harmonics and QM has gotten a lot of well-deserved play on the intertubes.

More recently, though, another excerpt from this lecture has been passed around, this one about ramifications of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. (Headline at io9: “Brian Cox explains the interconnectedness of the universe, explodes your brain.”)

The problem is that, in this video, the proffered mind-bending consequences of quantum mechanics aren’t actually correct. Some people pointed this out, including Tom Swanson in a somewhat intemperately-worded blog post, to which I pointed in a tweet. Which led to some tiresome sniping on Twitter, which you can dig up if you’re really fascinated. Much more interesting to me is getting the physics right.

One thing should be clear: getting the physics right isn’t easy. For one thing, going from simple quantum problems of a single particle in a textbook to the messy real world is often a complicated and confusing process. For another, the measurement process in quantum mechanics is famously confusing and not completely settled, even among professional physicists.

And finally, when one translates from the relative clarity of the equations to a natural-language description in order to reach a broad audience, it’s always possible to quibble about the best way to translate. It’s completely unfair in these situations to declare a certain popular exposition “wrong” just because it isn’t the way you would have done it, or even because it assumes certain technical details that the presenter did not fully footnote. It’s a popular lecture, not a scholarly tome. In this kind of format, there are two relevant questions: (1) is there an interpretation of what’s being said that matches the informal description onto a correct formal statement within the mathematical formulation of the theory?; and (2) has the formalism been translated in such a way that a non-expert listener will come away with an understanding that is reasonably close to reality? We should be charitable interpreters, in other words.

In the video, Cox displays a piece of diamond, in order to illustrate the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The exclusion principle says that no two fermions — “matter” particles in quantum mechanics, as contrasted with the boson “force” particles — can exist in exactly the same quantum state. This principle is why chemistry is interesting, because electrons have to have increasingly baroque-looking orbitals in order to be bound to the same atom. It’s also why matter (like diamond) is solid, because atoms can’t all be squeezed into the same place. So far, so good.

But then he tries to draw a more profound conclusion: that interacting with the diamond right here instantaneously affects every electron in the universe. Here’s the quote: Read More

Books Made From Electrons!

By Sean Carroll | February 21, 2012 8:47 am

[Updated to provide a better link for DtU overlord Carl Zimmer.]

The conventional presentation of a book — words and images printed on sheets, bound together in a folio — is a perfected technology. It hasn’t changed much in centuries, and likely will be with us for centuries to come.

But that doesn’t mean that other technologies won’t be nudging their way into the same conceptual space. Everyone knows that the practice of publishing is being dramatically altered by the appearance of ebooks — a very broad designation for book-length content that is meant to be read on an electronic device. At the simplest level, an ebook can simply be a text file displayed by a reading program. But the possibilities are much more flexible, allowing for different kinds of images, video, interactivity with the user, and two-way connections with the outside world. The production and distribution process is also much easier, which opens the door to books that are faster, shorter, longer, and quirkier than the usual set of hardbacks and paperbacks. If I put my mind to it, I could meander through this blog’s archives, pick out a few posts, and have an ebook published by this evening. It would suck — editing and presenting a good collection requires effort — but it would be published.

In the current state of the market, one question is: how do you find good ebooks to read, ones that don’t suck? Into this breach leaps Download The Universe, a new website devoted to reviewing ebooks about science. Not just “science books with electronic editions,” but books that only exist in the e- format. (Apparently we have already passed through the awkward hypenation phase, and gone from “e-book” right to “ebook.”) Because it would be embarrassing not to, we also have a Twitter account at @downloadtheuni.

This brand-new project has been led by our inestimable blog neighbor Carl Zimmer, who has assembled a crack editorial team consisting of some of the world’s leading new-media science journalists and also me. We’ll be contributing regular (one hopes) reviews of ebooks old and new, all with a science focus. Suggestions welcome, of course.

The world is going to change, whether we like it or not. It always feels good to help channel that change in constructive ways.

From the Tau to Dark Energy: Martin Perl's Blog

By Sean Carroll | November 2, 2011 9:22 am

Physicists have certainly been ahead of the information-technological curve at times. The web was invented at CERN, and of course we mastered open publishing simply by doing it, while other disciplines have struggled to come up with workable models. But senior physicists — not youngsters, who are always eager to try new things, but more established types — have generally looked askance at blogging, for hard-to-discern reasons. In math we have Fields Medalists blogging up a storm, in economics there are multiple blogs by Nobel Laureates, but physicists on the far side of the “young and striving”/”senior and respected” divide have largely stayed away. (My colleagues here at CV are enormously respected, but in my mind they will always be youthful.)

So we’re extremely happy to note that Martin Perl (at an enthusiastic 84 years young!) has jumped into the blogosphere, with Reflections on Physics: From the Tau to Dark Energy. Perl shared the Nobel Prize in 1995 for the kind of result that every physicist dreams of achieving, but few actually do: the discovery of a new elementary particle. In particular, the tau lepton, the heaviest of the three charged leptons (along with the electron and muon). Not too shabby.

Martin’s first post is on Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos and the Dynamics of the Internet. He finds the OPERA results intriguing, but thinks that figuring them out is going to require new experiments, not clever outsiders trying to figure out where they went wrong. I would tend to trust his judgment here.

It’s fantastic to have another great physicist taking the time to reach out to a broader audience. Note that Martin is at SLAC, along with our own JoAnne and Risa. Something about the Palo Alto coffee that nudges one toward blogging?

Fire Up Your Virtual Realities

By Sean Carroll | October 5, 2011 9:22 am

To celebrate my birthday today, I’m heading back into Second Life to do a chat with Alan Boyle of fame. Alan has previewed some of the topics we’ll be discussing in a post at Cosmic Log. It’s possible the Nobel Prize will be mentioned. (The physics one. Don’t expect any insight from me on quasicrystals, except that they’re awesome.)

We’ll be chatting at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific, at the Stella Nova Theater. If you’re not already on Second Life, it’s super easy (and free) to join. (Here’s some very useful information for beginners.) And you get to design an avatar that looks like you would want to look, rather than your inevitably-disappointing real self.

The chat is part of the Virtually Speaking series hosted by FireDogLake, in this case co-produced with the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. Alan does a regular series of interviews on science, so you may get hooked. Our chat will be a multi-media extravaganza, so you can choose to listen in various ways:

Yes I know, very complicated. If simplicity is more your bag, here’s a guest video on dark energy that I did for the wonderful Minute Physics series.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science and the Media

Make your opinion known

By Daniel Holz | September 8, 2011 8:49 am

Risa already blogged about James’ Op-Ed piece in the LA Times. We should also mention another excellent Op-Ed piece by an astronomer in the past week: Priya Natarajan discussing math education in the Huffington Post. She starts:

This has been the summer of our numerical discontent.
As a nation, we’ve been riveted by the debates over the debt-ceiling crisis, the credit downgrade, the dizzying ascents and descents of the stock market. But how many people actually understand the numbers they’re watching?

Priya decries the general innumeracy we see everyday, writ large and small. She argues persuasively for an increased focus on math education, especially in light of the current fiscal troubles.

It is critical that the science community reach out to the general public, and opinion pieces in newspapers are an incredibly effective way to do this (blogs aren’t too shabby, either). Op-Eds allow individuals from all walks of life to communicate directly with the public, without being mediated by reporters, radio hosts, or TV producers. And they reach literally millions of people. These two terrific examples from Priya and James will hopefully help encourage other scientists to get involved, and make their opinions known.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media

Astro Coffee Briefs from Ohio State

By Sean Carroll | August 23, 2011 7:48 am

Kris Stanek alerted me to this fun idea from the astronomers at Ohio State: when they submit a paper to arxiv, they accompany it by a simple YouTube video that explains the basic idea. Called “Coffee Briefs,” there is only one such video so far, for a paper by Jennifer van Saders and Mark Pinsonneault. But they hope to make it regular series.

The Sensitivity of Convection Zone Depth to Stellar Abundances: An Absolute Stellar Abundance Scale from Asteroseismology
Jennifer L. van Saders, Marc H. Pinsonneault

The base of the convection zone is a source of acoustic glitches in the asteroseismic frequency spectra of solar-like oscillators, allowing one to precisely measure the acoustic depth to the feature. We examine the sensitivity of the depth of the convection zone to mass, stellar abundances, and input physics, and in particular, the use of a measurement of the acoustic depth to the CZ as an atmosphere-independent, absolute measure of stellar metallicities. We find that for low mass stars on the main sequence with $0.4 M_{odot} le M le 1.6 M_{odot}$, the acoustic depth to the base of the convection zone, normalized by the acoustic depth to the center of the star, $tau_{cz,n}$, is both a strong function of mass, and varies at the 0.5-1% per 0.1 dex level in [Z/X], and is therefore also a sensitive probe of the composition. We estimate the theoretical uncertainties in the stellar models, and show that combined with reasonable observational uncertainties, we can expect measure the the metallicity to within 0.15 – 0.3 dex for solar-like stars. We discuss the applications of this work to rotational mixing, particularly in the context of the observed mid F star Li dip, and to distguishing between different mixtures of heavy elements.

This example might not be immediately accessible to non-experts, but I think the idea is to pitch the video at the level of astronomy grad students. Certainly the participants deserve a lot of credit for trying out an innovative way to talk about their research.

The key to the ambition of making this a regular even is keeping it simple and easy. If it takes a couple of hours to put it together, no problem; if it takes a couple of days, enthusiasm will flag. I’m not sure what software was used to make the video and the simple graphics — iMovie, maybe? For the DNA computer video we showed some time back, it was quite an elaborate job, and you would worry that it would be onerous to do something like that for every paper one writes.

Hawking and God on the Discovery Channel

By Sean Carroll | August 2, 2011 10:23 am

Last week I got to spend time in the NBC studio where they record Meet The Press — re-decorated for this occasion in a cosmic theme, with beautiful images of galaxies and large-scale-structure simulations in the background. The occasion was a special panel discussion to follow a Stephen Hawking special that will air on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 7. David Gregory, who usually hosts MTP, was the moderator. I played the role of the hard-boiled atheist; Paul Davies played the physicist who was willing to entertain the possibility of “God” if defined with sufficient abstraction, while John Haught played the Catholic theologian who is sympathetic to science.

The Hawking special is the kick-off episode to a major new Discovery program, called simply Curiosity. I predict it will make something of a splash. The reason is simple: although most of the episode is about science, Hawking clearly goes all-in with “God does not exist.” It’s not a message we often hear on American TV.

The atheistic conclusion is really surprisingly explicit. I had a chance to talk to someone at Discovery, who explained a little about how the program came about. The secret is that it was originally produced by the BBC — British audiences have a different set of expectations than American ones do. My completely fictional reconstruction of the conversation would go something like this. Discovery: Hey, blokes! Do you have any programs we could use to launch our major new series? BBC: Sure, we have a new special narrated by Stephen Hawking. Discovery: Perfect! That’s always box office. What’s it about? BBC: It’s about how there is no God. Discovery: Ah.

[Update: Alas, reality is intruding upon my meant-to-be-funny imaginary dialogue. The episode was actually originally commissioned by Discovery, not by the BBC, although it was produced in the UK. More power to Discovery!]

At first, I will confess to a smidgin of annoyance that an opportunity to talk about fascinating science was being sacrificed to yet another discussion about religion. But quickly, even before anyone else had the joy of pointing it out to me, I realized how spectacularly hypocritical that was. I talk about religion all the time — why shouldn’t Stephen Hawking get the same opportunity?

The more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought the episode really was. I can’t speak for Hawking, but I presume his interest in the topic stems from similar sources as my own. It’s not just a coincidence that we are theoretical cosmologists who happen to go around arguing that God doesn’t exist. The question of God and the questions of cosmology arise from a common impulse — to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level. These issues naturally go hand-in-hand. Pretending otherwise, I believe, probably stems from a desire on the part of religious believers to insulate their worldview from scientific critique.

Besides, people find it interesting, and rightfully so. Professional scientists are sometimes irritated by the tendency of the public to dwell on what scientists think are the “wrong” questions. Most people are fascinated by questions about God, life after death, life on other worlds, and other issues that touch on what it means to be human. These might not be fruitful research projects for most professional scientists, but part of our job should be to occasionally step back and look at the bigger picture. That’s exactly what Hawking is doing here, and more power to him. (In terms of his actual argument, I’m sympathetic to the general idea, but would take issue with some of the particulars.)

Nevertheless, Discovery was not going to feature an hour of rah-rah atheism without a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Thus, our panel discussion, which will air immediately after the debut of Curiosity (i.e., 9pm Eastern/Pacific). The four of us had fun, and I think the result will be an interesting program — and hopefully I did the side proud, as the only legit atheist participating. Gregory seemed to enjoy himself, and joked that he might have to give up politics to do a weekly show about cosmology. (A guy can dream…) But we all agreed that it was incredibly frustrating to have so little time to talk about such big issues. The show will run for half an hour; subtract commercials, and we’re left with about 21 minutes of substance. Then subtract introduction, questions, some background videos that were shown … we three panelists had about five minutes each of speaking time. Not really enough to spell out convincing answers to the major questions that have troubled thinkers for centuries. Hopefully some of the basic points came across. Let us know what you think.

Blog Shout-out: Planet of the Apes

By Mark Trodden | July 22, 2011 8:19 am

Last year, friend and fine Philly science writer Faye Flam wrote a guest post for us here at Cosmic Variance, in which she chronicled her experiences writing about climate science as part of her brief at the Philadelphia Inquirer. You may recall that her articles on this hot-button topic led to quite over-the-top responses, including a death threat. And our comment section after her post was certainly lively, although relatively well-behaved.

Planet of the Apes banner

Well, now Faye is tackling a new controversial (although it shouldn’t be) topic. While continuing with her regular writing, she has, over the last few months, begun writing a blog for the Inquirer on the topic of evolution. Titled Planet of the Apes, the blog features Faye’s writing paired up with illustrations from the paper’s staff editorial cartoonist, Tony Auth.

It’s a fun read, and covers current news in evolution as well as taking on some of the questions that come up when discussing the topic with those who, for whatever reason, are resistant to this established branch of scientific knowledge. Take a look at the back catalog to see some of these.

I wish Faye the best of luck with this new endeavor, and hope that we’ll see another guest post here from her soon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and the Media

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