Archive for: January, 2010

To describe, or not to describe...

Jan 29 2010 Published by under Physics

In a recent post, Chad at Uncertain Principles addresses an interesting criticism of one of his posts.  In short, he attempted to summarize the essential features of quantum mechanics that set it apart from other, classical theories of physics.  As Chad notes,

So, what's the issue? The strongest single objection probably comes from Peter Morgan, who didn't like my element 2):

2) Quantum states are discrete. The "quantum" in quantum physics refers to the fact that everything in quantum physics comes in discrete amounts. A beam of light can only contain integer numbers of photons-- 1, 2, 3, 137, but never 1.5 or 22.7. An electron in an atom can only have certain discrete energy values-- -13.6 electron volts, or -3.4 electron volts in hydrogen, but never -7.5 electron volts. No matter what you do, you will only ever detect a quantum system in one of these special allowed states.

He commented:

NOOOO!!!!! You need to talk about measurement operators, not about states, if you want to say "discrete".

Perhaps: Measurement operators that have discrete spectra are used to represent measurement apparatus/procedures that produce discrete measurement results. Measurement operators that have continuous spectra are idealizations that do not correspond to real experimental data that is written in lab books or in computer memory.

The state space is usually taken to be vectors in a Hilbert space over the complex field, or density operators (arguably always one of these, by quantum physicists?), which are pretty much continuous linear spaces.

Leaving aside the technical details, the real issue between poster and commenter is one that's often on my mind: how much description is necessary to properly explain a physical phenomenon?  This is relevant not just to authors of blog posts, but also to educators in general.  Science is complicated, and we want to simplify it as much as possible for our students/readers.  There is clearly some point, however, at which the simplifying just becomes misleading.  The question, then, is: how does one draw the line?

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: Noble savages, dark materials, and artistic science

Jan 25 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

I'm a little delayed this week, because I'm at a science conference in San Francisco and, surprisingly, internet access is somewhat scarce. Nevertheless, here are this week's selections:

  • Were the Maya noble savages? Everyone knows that the Mayan civilization collapsed around 700 AD, but people are still not sure why. The most popular explanation is that the Mayans wrecked their own ecosystem through deforestation, but were they really that careless? Thomas Kluyver at Thomas' Plant-Related Blog considers the cons of the explanation.
  • Dark Materials. From Brian Koberlein at Upon Reflection, we get a nice discussion of the idea of dark matter and the evidence for its existence -- including in our own galaxy.
  • Can science be artistic? Finally, nuclear.kelly at Miss Atomic Bomb describes a challenge in science communication given to her graduate students: write a fictional story about your research! She illustrates the challenge with her own story.

Check back next Monday for more miscellaneous selections!

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Visiting San Francisco!

Jan 23 2010 Published by under Personal, Travel

This post chronicles two firsts: my first trip to San Francisco and my first iPhone-written post!

I'm in town to attend Photonics West and meet with colleagues; today the wife and I were wandering around to see the sights.

I'll post some pics and a travelogue, though it may take a couple of days - my $200/night hotel only has wired Internet, which they charge $12/day for. They also provide only a 2 ft Internet cable.

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Richard Marsh's A Spoiler of Men

Jan 21 2010 Published by under Horror, Mystery/thriller

I have yet to be really disappointed by the works of Richard Marsh (1857-1915)!  Over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time reading A Spoiler of Men (1905) , which has recently been reprinted by the always great Valancourt Books, complete with a scholarly introduction and a facsimile of the original cover:

Marsh was a quite versatile writer: his books range from supernatural horror, to murder mystery, to comedy, to adventure, to the genuinely unclassifiable.  Marsh continues the trend in A Spoiler of Men, where the primary character is in fact an anti-hero, and the story is a bizarre thriller involving, among other things, chemical zombification!

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Scienceblogging-related news!

Jan 19 2010 Published by under Science news

Back from ScienceOnline 2010, I'm currently suffering from a nasty cold and pretty much comatose.  Partly from both of these factors, I've been remiss in noting a few bits of scienceblogging-related news:

  • The Open Lab 2009 results are out! The Open Laboratory is the annual print compilation of highlights from the science blogosphere.   I had several posts submitted but... was not a finalist.  I was, however, a judge for the compilation, which means I get to boast this cool badge:

    I'm not sure when the compilation will be out, but you can keep an eye on Bora's blog for news of it!

  • At ScienceOnline, another exciting announcement was made: The Research Blogging Awards 2010!

    Cash prizes will be awarded for the "best" blogging in a variety of categories.  Anyone can nominate a blog for the awards, including their own, provided that the blog has been involved in peer-reviewed research blogging according to the ResearchBlogging guidelines.  Nominations are due by February 11, 2010; click here to nominate your favorites!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: Prehistoric ballistics, prehistoric food delivery, a big boom and chemophobia

Jan 18 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Prehistoric ballistics, or Mythbusters meets archaeology. The Mythbusters have been amazing promoters of science, but who knew that they actually do peer-reviewed science?  Julien Riel-Salvatore of A Very Remote Period Indeed describes a collaboration between archaeologists and Mythbusters to answer the question: is there an advantage to stone arrows over wooden ones?
  • Importing food. In modern times, we have grown accustomed to eating food that has been brought to us from a great distance.  Teofilo of Gambler's House describes fascinating research that suggests that early Native American dwellers of Chaco Canyon had their corn brought to them from a significant distance!
  • A new, bigger kind of boom. Though there's one word that is used to describe a star going kablooie ("supernova"), there's more than one way that such a kablooie can occur!  Niall at we are all in the gutter describes recent evidence for a rare and unusual type of boom.
  • Chemophobia and risk. Finally, David Bradley at Sciencebase describes a proposal to perform a more comprehensive type of chemical risk assessment, and provides some personal reflections on the subject.

Check back again next week for more "miscellaneous" highlights!

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Slender loris at the Duke Lemur Center

Jan 17 2010 Published by under Animals

ScienceOnline 2010 had a variety of "lab tours" to attend on Friday afternoon.  With all the options available, I chose to return to the Duke Lemur Center that I visited last year!  I wanted to show my wife the lemurs, and I simply wanted to seem them again myself!

Winter is not the best time to see the lemurs, because the staff construct an additional winter shelter around the enclosures and keep the lemurs indoors.  However, the nocturnal house never changes, and I managed to get a decent video of the movement of the slender loris:

The slender loris comes from the rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka.  Though they are not classified as lemurs, they are prosimians like lemurs.  Sadly, like lemurs, they are quite endangered.

I love the almost unearthly way they move through the branches; the slender loris would make a good model for a creepy alien monster!

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Back from ScienceOnline 2010!

Jan 17 2010 Published by under Personal

Well, I'm back home from ScienceOnline 2010!  I only stayed for the first day of the conference this year, but I enjoyed all of the sessions that I attended and collected a lot of food for thought.

It was especially nice to catch up with blogging friends that I met last year, meet in person for the first time plenty of people I've only interacted with on the internet, and meet lots of new folks as well!  It was a fun time, and I hope to run into all of you again soon!

P.S.  Things went by so fast, Blake, we didn't get a chance to watch The Prisoner or MST3k!  Next time, hopefully?

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The Giant's Shoulders #19 is up!

Jan 16 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

The nineteenth edition of The Giant’s Shoulders is up at The Renaissance Mathematicus!  Many thanks to Thony C. for assembling a great edition!

The deadline for the next edition is February 15th, and it will be held at The Lay Scientist.  Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

Incidentally, we're running low on future hosts for the carnival; if you're interested in hosting in the next few months, please leave a comment or send me an email.

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Off to ScienceOnline 2010!

Jan 14 2010 Published by under Personal

After work this evening, the wife and I will head off to ScienceOnline 2010.  We'll probably be arriving around 9:00, too late to make the 'early bird' event, but I plan to pop by the hotel bar soon after to see if anyone is around.

Hope to see some of you there!

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