Archive for: March, 2009

Why no press on Y(4140)?

Mar 30 2009 Published by under Physics

Earlier this month, I came across  a healthy number of articles on the observation at Fermilab of a single top quark, produced by interactions involving the weak nuclear force.  As a scientist who dabbled in particle physics in graduate school, I still like to see what's going in that field (if enough people ask, I may share the story of why I left particle physics).   The top quark, the heaviest of the set of six quarks, is typically produced in quark/anti-quark pairs via the strong nuclear force.  The production of a single top is a much rarer event and, although predicted theoretically, was very difficult to see and a great achievement.

I was surprised this week, though, to see (via StumbleUpon)  that Fermilab has made another, potentially more significant discovery: an unpredicted resonance with a mass of 4140 MeV (mega-electron volts).   I use the term "resonance" to describe an extremely short-lived "particle" which rapidly decays into other, less massive, components. This particle has been named "Y(4140)", for lack of better description.  Dorigo at A Quantum Diaries Survivor has a good description of the physics.

The interesting thing about this discovery is that it is previously unpredicted "particle".  Presumably it is still made of some combination of fundamental quarks and anti-quarks, but it is a combination which hasn't been seen before, and the exact composition is still unknown.  The thing is, I haven't seen much talk about Y(4140), in the press or the blogs.  Though the single top quark discovery was a monumental and significant achievement, I would have thought that Y(4140) would have garnered more attention.

Is there some reason I haven't heard more about this?  Are unknown hadron resonances more common than I realize?  Am I just not reading the right physics blogs?  Any particle physicists want to weigh in?

10 responses so far

Surprising fact about... Louisa May Alcott!

Mar 30 2009 Published by under Horror

One of the fun things about studying pulp horror stories is learning unexpected trivia about the authors.  Just as often, though, the trivia learned is that a famous author ever indulged in such "sensationalist" writings!

As a case in point, I point the reader to the story, Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse, written by none other than Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), probably best known for her novel Little Women:

"And what are these, Paul?" asked Evelyn, opening a tarnished gold box and examining its contents curiously.

"Seeds of some unknown Egyptian plant," replied Forsyth, with a sudden shadow on his dark face, as he looked down at the three scarlet grains lying in the white hand lifted to him.

"Where did you get them?" asked the girl.

"That is a weird story, which will only haunt you if I tell it," said Forsyth, with an absent expression that strongly excited the girl's curiosity.

"Please tell it, I like weird tales, and they never trouble me. Ah, do tell it; your stories are always so interesting," she cried, looking up with such a pretty blending of entreaty and command in her charming face, that refusal was impossible.

"You'll be sorry for it, and so shall I, perhaps; I warn you beforehand, that harm is foretold to the possessor of those mysterious seeds," said Forsyth, smiling, even while he knit his black brows, and regarded the blooming creature before him with a fond yet foreboding glance.

Forsyth describes how, on an expedition to Egypt, he and his colleague were lost within a maze of corridors within the great pyramid.  To escape, they are forced to defile the funerary trappings of one of its mummified inhabitants.  Their actions set in motion an ancient curse, which is fulfulled after Forsyth narrates his dark tale.

The story is charming, albeit possessing an ending which I found a little disappointing.  According to the Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, the story was written in late 1868 or the first week of 1869, around the same time that Little Women was written, and published in the Jan 16th issue of Frank Leslie's The New World, for which Alcott received $25.  The Encyclopedia further notes that a hint of the inspiration for the story can be found in chapter 27 of Little Women itself:

She was just recovering from one of these attacks when she was prevailed upon to escort Miss Crocker to a lecture, and in return for her virtue was rewarded with a new idea. It was a People's Course, the lecture on the Pyramids, and Jo rather wondered at the choice of such a subject for such an audience, but took it for granted that some great social evil would be remedied or some great want supplied by unfolding the glories of the Pharaohs to an audience whose thoughts were busy with the price of coal and flour, and whose lives were spent in trying to solve harder riddles than that of the Sphinx.

The character of Josephine "Jo" March is based on Alcott herself, and this passage hints at the inspiration Alcott herself used for the story.

Alcott is not the only author to have written "sensational" tales of horror.  I'll come back to others in upcoming posts.

5 responses so far

Optics basics: Young's double slit experiment

Mar 28 2009 Published by under Optics, Optics basics

As I've so far been restricting my 'optics basics' posts to discussions of fundamental concepts related to optics, it might seem strange at first glance to dedicate a post to a single optical experiment.  What will hopefully become clear, however, is that Young's double slit experiment is connected to so many basic concepts in optical physics  (and still provides surprising new results to this day) that one post is hardly enough to describe all the interesting insights that can be gained by studying the experiment and its implications.

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15 responses so far

OpenLab 2009 submissions open...

Mar 24 2009 Published by under Entertainment, General science

I keep forgetting to note this, but submissions for The Open Laboratory 2009 are now being accepted and can be nominated at this link:


The Open Laboratory is a printed collection of the 'best' science blog writing of the year, and contains a lot of great entries.  Think about nominating your favorite scienceblog posts for 2009; nominations are accepted through December, I believe.  This year should be particularly excellent because it is being guest edited by the excellent blogger (and cool person) Scicurious!

Of course, if I have written/write  anything you've thought particularly compelling in 2009, feel free to nominate it!  I would consider nominating some of my own posts, but I'm still feeling the shame of not making the cut for the 2008 edition... 🙁

P.S.  It is also interesting to note that OpenLab has inspired an anthology of a different sort: the best blog writing about roleplaying games, Open Game Table! Considering I have a history in both science and RPGs, I find the connection oddly appropriate...

9 responses so far

A miscellany of science-related stories

Mar 23 2009 Published by under Science news

I've been stocking up on a collection of fascinating science stories which I couldn't think of enough to comment on in a blog post.  I've finally hit critical mass, though, and thought I'd dump them all at once:

  • Four Spanish high school students, supervised by their science teacher, strapped a digital camera to a weather balloon and sent it up 20 miles to take pictures and atmospheric readings.  The pictures are simply wonderful.
  • The recession has hit science and scientists just as hard as everyone else, but there's no excuse for this: a well-known paleontologist will plead guilty to stealing a fossil find from federal lands with intention to sell it.  Earlier in the month, he had already plead guilty to stealing fossils from private lands.
  • A reminder of why science is important and superstition is dangerous and counterproductive: the skeletal remains of a 16th century victim of the plague, and suspected vampire,  were uncovered in Venice.  The body was buried with a brick wedged in its mouth, which was done to corpses which were suspected to be vampires.  This reminds me that I've been doing some historical reading on witchcraft and witch trials that I have to blog about soon.
  • Yes, we need better volcano monitoring: Mount Redoubt, which has been showing signs of imminent eruption lately, had seemed to quiet down.  It is now back on "watch" status for eruption, after activity increased again.

UPDATE:  Is my timing great, or what?  Mount Redoubt started erupting Sunday night.

5 responses so far

A. Merritt's The Face in the Abyss

Mar 22 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction

I've been continuing my reading of the works of A. Merritt (1884-1943), which began with his first serial novel The Moon Pool (1919), continued to his masterful The Metal Monster (1920) and most recently visited The Dwellers in the Mirage (1932).  I was originally planning to step away from Merritt for a little while, but one other volume caught my eye: Merritt's 1923 serial novel, The Face in the Abyss:


I have to say that I really enjoyed The Face in the Abyss (to be referred to henceforth as FIA)!  Though not as brilliantly otherworldly as The Metal Monster, it tells a great adventure story filled with wonderful and haunting imagery, all set in a science fiction world of appreciable complexity.  Though the hero of the tale is still more or less a pulp-fiction stereotype, several of the other main characters have a surprising amount of complexity to them.

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2 responses so far

Terminator and Dollhouse surprised me tonight...

Mar 20 2009 Published by under Entertainment

I just finished watching Terminator and Dollhouse and just felt compelled to write a short comment.  Both shows were really good tonight, in their own way.

Terminator resolved a number of huge plot threads and the same time it opened a number of intriguing new ones.   The coolest part, though, was that John Connor was finally given a moment to really shine and show the potential to be that "great leader of the future" he's supposed to be.  The scene I'm talking about -- and you'll know it when you see it -- completely captured my attention, and I pretty much never focus on one thing at a time.

Dollhouse was really good in a similar way.  Some big new aspects to the plot were introduced, and there were a number of really great twists that I didn't see coming.  Perhaps best of all, I think I finally see how the show can work as a series.  As you may know, lots of people have expressed doubts that a show which focuses on a main character who is basically a blank slate can ever be compelling.  Though it is clear that the 'heroine' Echo is slowly retaining more of her past memories, this episode made it clear to me that the supporting characters may turn out to be the real focus of the show.  Echo serves as a mirror through which we can see reflections of what the other characters see themselves as, or what they want to see themselves as.  There's a wonderful scene where a 'villain' looks sympathetic at the same time he calls the motives of the 'hero' into question.

I've been hooked on Terminator, and I'm glad to see that it has been living up to my expectations.  Dollhouse, I think, has finally snagged me.

I was going to joke and ask: is it a sweeps week?  But, it turns out, it is!

4 responses so far

Infinite series are weird!

Mar 18 2009 Published by under Mathematics

I'm in the mood to do something a little more 'math-y'!  A few weeks ago, Tyler at PowerUp did a nice post about the divergence of the harmonic series, and that got me thinking about the weirdness of infinite series.  Since I've been working on a book chapter on infinite series anyway, as a part of my upcoming 'math methods' textbook, I thought I'd talk a little about infinite series and some unusual results associated with them!

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13 responses so far

M.P. Shiel's The House of Sounds and Others

Mar 16 2009 Published by under Horror, Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft was not only a writer of weird fiction, but a voracious reader of the genre, as evidenced by his classic essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature.  He collected a voluminous library of weird titles, many of which have not been available for almost a century.  In recent years, Hippocampus Press has been reprinting a selection of these in a series descriptively named "Lovecraft's Library" edited by the most awesome authority on Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi.  The first of these I read was the magnificent book by A. Merritt, The Metal Monster, and I've been curious to see what other members of the series are like.  The next one which intrigued me was M.P. Shiel's The House of Sounds and Others (cover of the Hippocampus edition):


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2 responses so far

The Giant's Shoulders #9 is up!

Mar 16 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

The ninth edition of The Giant's Shoulders is up at The Evilutionary Biologist! Many thanks to John for assembling it.

The next edition will appear on April 16th at Stochastic Scribbles.

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