Welcome to the 13th installment of Philosophia Naturalis, or, as Jen-Luc Piquant (resplendent in her spiffy vampire costume) prefers to think of it, the Physics Carnival of the Damned. Superstitious sorts might be leery of the number 13 — a staple of horror movies and urban legends — but we here at
Cocktail Party Physics laugh in the face of danger — or at least, we
snicker and giggle light-heartedly at the concept of letting numerology rule our lives.
Speaking of superstitious beliefs, there’s been a wee bit of a kerfuffle in the physics blogosphere over whether or not "the God particle" is an apt term for the elusive (to date) Higgs boson. Many scientists are uncomfortable with that whiff of theism in their physics. It started with a New York Times article by Dennis Overbye, and Overbye’s ensuing essay defending his use of the term. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, who coined it, would probably side with Overbye. (Mr. Deity has yet to issue an official statement outlining his position.) Also weighing in on the issue were Gordon Watts and Peter Woit, among others. Those who can’t see what all the fuss is about can take comfort in the fact that the naysayers are probably going to hell. Either that, or they’ll suffer Stephen Hawking’s satirical fate at the hands of the Vatican, as reported by The Onion.
Chalk it all up to the age-old tension between science and religion. It arises, in part, because science is still full of dangerous ideas. Some of the latest ones are featured in a new anthology by Edge editor John Brockman, based on the magazine’s Big Question of 2006. Bea at Backreaction and Blake Stacey both dissect the various essays.
Here’s another dangerous idea: "Framing." It might sound fairly innocuous, but trust me, it’s the new "F-word," at least in the science blogosphere. Champion framer Matt Nisbet points to the signing of a major science bill this past week as evidence of the effectiveness of framing a debate — in this case, involving science policy. There’s also an online discussion in progress at The Scientist, for those who want to leap into the fray.
Framing is part of the broader issue of effective scientific communication, of course, and bloggers have been addressing that topic too. Mary at The Accidental Scientist ponders whether scientists can ever be great communicators, while Scientific Curiosity explores science communication using Web 2.0. C-SPAN did its part for the cause by broadcasting the science panel at the YearlyKos blogger’s conference held in Chicago two weeks ago, which featured talks on climate change, dark matter/dark energy, and battling the encroachment of Intelligent Design in public schools. Panelist Chris Mooney offers his recap of the session over at The Huffington Post.
Getting the public’s sound-bite-sensitized attention in an age of information overload is quite the challenge, which might be why Discover magazine sponsored a contest for the best video explanation of the basics of string theory — in two minutes or less. Element List points us to the winner — "String Ducky!" — announced by none other than Brian Greene.
When it comes to education and outreach, there’s no denying the appeal of the "wow" factor in science. The Virtual Curiosity Shop obliges with the latest cool stuff in biomechanics, while Phillip Alvelda offers a nifty video clip of a bionic hand. Taking more of a frat-boy approach, Suicide Bots debuts Chassis, a "fully mobile remote beverage dispensing unit," providing drinks in response to either flirting or bribes.
Even education and outreach can be a bit controversial. Take the recent discussions over actress and math major Danica McKellar’s new book for middle-school girls, Math Doesn’t Suck. Tara at Aetiology not only obliged with a review and follow-up on some of the issues raised, she also snagged an interview with McKellar herself. I admit, even I gritted my teeth over the bit about what your astrological sign can tell you about your personal "math style," but I recognize what McKellar’s trying to do. Effective outreach framework, or needless reinforcement of girly stereotypes? You decide! On the decidedly non-girly front, Sally Ride has a new blog, currently following the adventures of educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan.
The long-standing tension between concrete physics experiment and abstract theory
spilled over into a series of posts at Cosmic Variance, in which Sean (a.k.a. Future Spouse) outlined how he goes about writing a theoretical paper in three lengthy posts, giving people like me a much better idea of just what it is that he does all day. His co-blogger, Julianne, countered with a rebuttal of sorts, pointing out that all of theory’s Big Ideas would be nowhere without real-world experimental data. Much heated discussion ensued. Hey, at least the issue isn’t as muddled as it is in economics, according to Stein at Dynamics of Cats.
Doug Natelson at Nanoscale Views also got into the act, with a great post on how to write an experimental paper in condensed matter physics. Taken together, all these posts provide a rare, inside peek at how science actually gets done in varying fields. But no science would be done at all without the all-important federal research funding. The Quantum Pontiff ponders a possible solution to the problematic supply chain economics of university physics departments. [UPDATE: Chad just posted an excellent commentary on federal funding of basic science — right after we posted the carnival. That’ll teach me to be an early bird.]
New father Lab Lemming (another experimentalist) demonstrates the broad range of the scientific method by applying it not only to diffusion and melt inclusions, but also to investigate the burning nappy question: cloth or disposable? Bea at Backreaction offers some thoughts on her favorite example of physics-speak — self-consistency — a topic that causes Chet at Science Musings to wax poetical, comparing the scientific endeavor to a crossword puzzle. Sample quote: "The very best crosswords have a satisfying consistency, and that is what we look for in science, too."
There’s been lots of cool astronomy and astrophysics stuff this month. Clifford at Asymptotia and Astronomy Blog are just two science bloggers keen on the Perseids meteor shower, while Geek Counterpoint is more intrigued by the dust devils on Mars. Amara Graps gives us a crash course on two lesser-known celestial bodies: Ceres and Vesta. Everyone’s favorite Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, reports on news that astronomers have spotted the most distant luminous galaxies, while Centauri Dreams offers philosophical thoughts on our cosmos and the Fermi Paradox.
The astro stuff is a perennial public favorite in part because of all the pretty pictures. Systemic gives us a peek at Jonathan Langton’s visually arresting climate models for extrasolar planets, showing the wide variety of vorticity patterns on their surfaces. The cosmos has some interesting sounds as well as sights. BLDGBLOG rhapsodizes over the interesting acoustics scientists are uncovering on other planets. Not to be visually outdone by the astro-folks, Karmen at Chaotic Utopia offers a fractal tribute to Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, with references to Botticelli and, um, Monty Python. No, really.
Still cringing in embarrassment over last weekend’s happy hour debate on the pros and cons of biofuels? Saifedean Ammous of 3 Quarks Daily
comes to the rescue with everything you need to know to conduct an
informed barroom discussion on the topic. And here’s a more creative
energy source: Via Physics Buzz,
we learn that South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia are
tapping into an unusual energy source for pumping clean water:
merry-go-rounds. They’re called PlayPumps, and while children spin on
the playground equipment, that energy pumps clean water from
underground into a tank above the ground.
At Quantum Diaries Survivor, Daniele Bortoluzzi offers a guest post
summarizing LISA and its challenges, including a mysterious thing
called "stickiness issues." (Wanna know what that means? Read the post!) LISA is the next step — coming on the heels of LIGO — in the quest to detect gravitational waves, thereby providing further support for Einstein’s general relativity. Of course, even if LIGO/LISA succeed in their respective missions, physicists still need to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics. Need a review of where we currently stand on the subject? Chad Orzel reviews Robert Oerter’s book, The Theory of Almost Everything, which outlines the Standard Model in physics to date.
So there’s still plenty of mysteries left to solve in science, such as this optical illusion, courtesy of Molliska — exactly how did they make the banana disappear? Jen-Luc Piquant is convinced it’s not really a trick; rather, it”s because, per XKCD, the world doesn’t really make sense. (This will come as a profound disappointment to Dinosaur Comics’ T-Rex, who gets a naughty tingle from the thought of entropy decreasing in a closed system — the ultimate taboo!) Those pesky laws of physics? We made them up just to mess with people’s heads. Sshh! Don’t tell anyone else! The more people who are in on the secret, the more it cheapens the experience for the rest of us.