of particles, pringles, and fat cats

FrazzledJen-Luc2 Our Friday Fodder link-fest is a bit later than usual because I got distracted by the whole curve ball extravaganza. (Damn you, David Dobbs!) Please forgive me for beginning on a slightly crankly note; I promise fun things will follow!

In Which I Am a Debbie Downer. The big physics news this week kicked off with a New York Times article by Dennis Overbye about an intriguing new result from Fermilab's Tevatron hinting at new physics beyond the Standard Model. Overbye's careful reporting included repeated statements from his sources emphasizing, "If it holds up…." This nuance was quickly lost in what struck me as an inexplicable rush of "ZOMG! New physics!" reactions as the story spread through Twitter and the blogosphere. If you're looking for the best coverage (IMHO), check out this article in the Los Angeles Times (which also has the best headline: "Research points to a fundamental change in physics — or else a fluke"), and Amanda Gefter's New Scientist article if you're interested in more of the scientific specifics.

What's my beef? Look, I'm rooting for the Tevatron to go out with a bang just as much as everyone else. These days, with the Large Hadron Collider casting such a long shadow, it's the Plucky Little Particle Accelerator That Could. And I don't want to harsh everyone's mellow. But we are talking about a 3-sigma signal here, people. You don't need to be a particle physicist with deep knowledge of the data analysis to realize that the gold standard to claim discovery in the field is at least 5-sigma. Over the years, my physicist sources have drilled into me, over and over again, that 3-sigma events usually vanish under subsequent analysis. The point, as the Time Lord (and others) have emphasized, is that yes, this new Tevatron result is certainly interesting, and — since it's hinting at physics beyond the standard model, possibly even a new force — genuinely exciting, but it's a bit early to break out the bubbly in celebration, and most of the physicists I've talked with over the last few days agree with that assessment.

So why all the sudden excitement over this 3-sigma event, as compared to, say, all the other 3-sigma events that have cropped up over the years? It's puzzling to me. Sorry, but I think it's premature to get too worked up about it; if it does, indeed, hold up, I'll be dancing joyfully in the streets like everyone else, I promise. That won't happen for at least a few months — if the LHC remains on course in its data collection and analysis — and possibly even a year or two, if we're unlucky. My favorite Twitter response came from Charles Seife (@cgseife): "My theory: #Fermilab 'discovery' is a 'budgeton': a particle that always appears — at 3 sigma levels — just before a machine gets shut down." Now that I've got that off my chest….

Awesome Video of the Week. Via Neatorama: "A wooden ball plays Bach’s Cantata 147 in a forest just by rolling down a track designed by Kenjiro Matsuo. No splicing or video magic -this is the actual music played by a contraption that Rube Goldberg or any musician would be proud of."

Mediocrity Wins March Movie Madness. Maybe you haven't been following io9's March Movie Madness rankings, pitting various top science fiction films against each other in a series of elimination rounds. It's a bit discouraging: at the end it came down to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Serenity. Serenity won. If you're like me, you wouldn't have picked either of those two for the finals (although I enjoyed both films immensely). I watched in dismay as such visionary films/perennial favorites as Brazil, Inception, Moon, Alien, Galaxy Quest, District 9, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, Minority Report, and Terminator 2 fell by the wayside. And Blade Runner, which deserved to take the whole shebang? It didn't even make the first cut! Where was Contact, for that matter? Fortunately Esther Inglis-Arkell feels my pain and responded with her own Top Ten List for those of us who felt cheated. It's pretty good. (Not sure what Batman is doing on there, but we'll let it slide.)

And speaking of io9's always-excellent coverage of science fiction movies, here's something for all you TRON fans: "Software developer JT Nimoy has an amazing collection of images from Tron Legacy on his site, where he explains all the math, physics, and old-school computer geekery that he put into making Flynn's digital world."

If you're thinking hey, maybe I should just start writing my own damn science fiction and thus make millions, Paul McCauley has some advice for you on How To Write a Generic Sci-Fi Novel. "[I]nclude either a kickass woman who can do the unacceptable things that would make your hero unlikeable, or a wise old soothsaying woman who speaks in parables and knows things that can’t be found on the internet. See also: sidekick comedy robot."

Pringles Pringles Gets Hi-Tech. Alexis Madrigal hits another home run at the Atlantic with this story about Mark Pringle of Amsterdam, New York, "who co-patented a 'method and apparatus for processing potatoes' in 1942 that bears a striking resemblance to later methods of potato chip manufacture. He was, actually, trying to solve the same problem that Pringles later did. Namely, actually frying regular potatoes leads to irregularly-shaped chips of varying crunchiness that don't last on the shelf for very long."

Schroedinger's Fattest Cat. Via Discover's 80 Beats, we learn that "scientists have shown that if conditions are right, a molecule of a record 430 atoms can be in two states at once, like Schrödinger’s infamous cat. … This molecule, which was created by a team at University of Vienna and their collaborators for the experiment and is larger than insulin, is the largest on record."

When Bad Breaks are Good. Donna Nelson, technical advisor for the awesome series, Breaking Bad, talks about her experiences injecting good science into fictional worlds — and how sometimes you need to get things wrong, i.e., you don't want your series to become a how-to manual for home meth labs. Amirite?

Gross-Out of the Week. Mo Costandi over at Neurophilosophy features an illustrated history of trepanation, as well as an interview with self-trepanner Heather Perry. You're welcome.

Just How Much is a Dragon Worth? Forbes' Michael Noer breaks down his criteria for calculating the value of imaginary fortunes for the magazine's annual Fictional 15 ranking of the richest fictional characters. He is not just making it up! He swears!

It Don't Make My Brown Eyes Blue. Stop the presses! Turns out blue eyes aren't really blue after all, and physics (optics, to be precise) can prove it. "When people say that their children's eyes are sky blue, they're telling the truth. Blue eyes are blue for the same reason the sky is blue – scattered light." (I have no idea what color my own eyes are — bits of green, bits of blue, bits of brown — and usually opt for the catch-all "hazel" designation.) Related: apparently,  X-ray analysis on a 19th century painting reveals the artist initially painted a vivacious blonde woman.

Processorrrrr Phase Anatomy. Via HiLoBrow comes these stunning "light paintings" by Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott in their 12:31 project. The artists used the body-slices of the male cadaver from The Visible Human Project. Per the 12:13 Project's Website:

"This animation represents the entire data set (1,871 slices) of the male cadaver from the Visible Human Project. The animation was played fullscreen on a computer, which was moved around by an assistant while being photographed in a dark environment. The resulting images are long-exposure “light paintings” of the entire cadaver. Variations in the movement of the computer during each exposure created differences in the shape of the body throughout the series."

Prime Numbers and the Cicada Principle. Apparently this is common knowledge among math-y sorts, but cicadas, while spending most of their lives underground, will emerge en masse every 7, 13, or 17 years to mate, depending on the species, and then die soon after (bummer!). They're not quiet about it, either: I lived in DC during one such season, and their incessant humming filled Rock Creek Park 24/7. The point is, those periods are all prime numbers. Coincidence??? Well, there's an explanation for the pattern, as this post explains, before extending the Cicada Principle to Web design — a unique twist!

Isaac Newton Treads the Boards. Three versions of Newton come to the London stage: the young man, the ambitious scholar, and the elder statesman. It's all part of a new play, Let Newton Be!, by British playwright Craig Baxter.

Love as a Not-So-Controlled Experiment. This small independent film by a former scientist looks quite charming, although I'd recommend not having sex in the lab. From the official description: "Losing Control is a quirky romantic comedy about a female scientist who wants proof that her boyfriend is 'the one.' Written and directed by Valerie Weiss, it is loosely based on her experiences getting a Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School before switching careers to full-time filmmaker."


Losing Control from Valerie Weiss on Vimeo.