• The Importance of Failure in Science

    In my recent interview with Professor Lawrence Krauss, I was particularly impressed by our discussion of scientific education, and the importance of not knowing something to the process of science:

    "... we teach kids as if the answers are important. It's the questions that are important. And I think that not knowing is a wonderful thing and more parents and more teachers should be willing to say that. "I don't know the answer. Let's figure out how we might learn what the answer is." Because that's what we're trying to teach in schools. It's a process. Science is a process of trying to take this complicated world and figure things out and that means not knowing things and try to figure out how to get the answer. And not knowing is what I do for a living."

    This idea has an ancient pedigree. Socrates is attributed with recognizing that the core of wisdom is recognizing that you know nothing. While saying that you know nothing is perhaps a bit extreme, I think it's a better starting point than assuming that you understand pretty much everything.

    The need to know everything, to be right, to not fail has extremely damaging ramifications to the pursuit of knowledge. Any knowledge, but particularly by science. Science progresses by trying ideas out, disproving earlier conceptions, and gradually getting closer and closer to the truth at the heart of the phenomenon being studied.

    Along these same lines is one of my favorite moments from the NBC television drama The West Wing. It is from an episode called "Galileo," which focused on a spacecraft that was going to land on Mars. As it approached Mars, however, NASA lost the signal from it. The President was supposed to be on a national broadcast to schoolchildren across the country for the event, but with having lost the signal, he wanted to cancel it. His press secretary gave the following response:

    "We have, at our disposal, a captive audience of schoolchildren. Some of them don't go to the black board and raise their hand 'cause they think they're gonna be wrong. I think you should say to these kids you think you get it wrong sometimes, you should come down here and see how the big boys do it. I think you should tell them you haven't given up hope, and that it may turn up, but in the meantime, you want NASA to put its best people in the room, and you want them to start building Galileo VI. Some of them will laugh, and most of them won't care, but for some, they might honestly see that it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand."

    Yes, that is it exactly. In science, in school, and in life ... it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand.

    The Importance of Failure in Science originally appeared on About.com Physics on Friday, May 30th, 2014 at 18:45:09.

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  • Superheroes and Science

    Physics of Superheroes coverSome of my earliest scientific knowledge was gleaned from the pages of comic books, as I learned that The Flash was unable to move faster than the speed of light and that, when he did move this fast, time actually moved faster for him than it did for the surrounding world ... principles that are scientifically grounded in Einstein's theory of relativity!

    And I'm not the only one. Firmly rooted in the golden age of science fiction, developed alongside the transformation in technology that came along with the nuclear age in the middle of the twentieth century, comic book origin stories incorporate all manner of scientific causes ... usually some form of radiation bombardment. The same forces that created the terror of Godzilla also created Spiderman, The Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. The science related to superheroics in traditional comic books is described in great detail by physicist James Kakalios in his entertaining book The Physics of Superheroes.

    In this March article from Symmetry magazine, the connection between particle physics and superheroes is specifically called out ... in a really engaging way. They hired experienced an experienced comic book writer and artist to create new characters, the "Quantum Family," to highlight some of the key connections to fundamental scientific concepts, such as dark matter, neutrinos, and positrons. It's really a fun article, so if you haven't read it yet, you should check it out.

    Related Articles:

    Superheroes and Science originally appeared on About.com Physics on Friday, May 30th, 2014 at 14:55:05.

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  • Quantum Consciousness and the Danger of Aging Physicists

    Physics in MindI have long been intrigued by the notion of quantum consciousness, which is to say that the mysterious nature of consciousness could somehow be linked to quantum phenomena taking place within the human brain. I have been intrigued, but highly skeptical. The reason for this skepticism is that there's really no evidence to suggest that this is the case, and the most sophisticated arguments along these lines have been heavily theoretical and strained. In fact, there is no proof that any theory of quantum mind has any real basis in reality, despite numerous books about quantum consciousness.

    Which leads me to a recent article on the Slate website, which is extremely critical of the quantum consciousness approach. It makes the point, among other things, that part of the problem is when aging and successful physicists begin trying to apply their insights into entirely different fields of study, in which they are not experts. I think it may date back to the Renaissance, when scientists tended to transform a variety of fields, many of them completely unrelated to each other. That time has certainly passed, and current efforts of a scientist to transform another field has generally proven to be quite ineffective.

    I would love to believe that quantum physics is deeply rooted to the basis of human consciousness ... but my desire to believe it has no bearing on the actual evidence that exists or does not exist. And not even the "spooky" features of quantum physics can change that.

    Quantum Consciousness and the Danger of Aging Physicists originally appeared on About.com Physics on Friday, May 30th, 2014 at 14:16:41.

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  • Introducing the Tetraquark

    elementary particlesThough the Higgs boson has garnered the biggest headlines, more groundbreaking particle physics results are coming out of the Large Hadron Collider. Among the most impressive of these findings is compelling experimental evidence for the existence of a whole new class of matter particle, called a tetraquark. As the name suggests, this composite particle is created by four quarks (actually, two quarks and two anti-quarks). The evidence is strong, but further research is needed to understand how it works, since it seems to decay much more quickly than would be expected by other evidence and theoretical predictions.

    Introducing the Tetraquark originally appeared on About.com Physics on Sunday, May 18th, 2014 at 22:24:00.

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  • Inflation Theory Evidence Update

    BICEP2 History of the UniverseThe last couple of months have been amazing as the scientific community has looked at the results from the BICEP2 telescope and what its implications are for our understanding of cosmology - the development of our universe on the broadest and smallest scales. In a recent article at the PBS Nova Physics "The Nature of Reality" blog, I discuss how this evidence might have implications for a theory of quantum gravity.

    I've read a lot on this subject, and so decided to pull together a lot of the links and quotes that I've found into one location. These provide some great insights into the sort of things the physicists are saying about it.

    In essence, if additional research confirms these results, it really has the potential to be the most important scientific discovery since the 1998 discovery of dark energy. It's great to see this unfolding in real time across the scientific community, as they try to understand what, if any, implications it may have for our broader understanding of science ... and also thrilling to take part in that conversation, even in some small way.

    Image: The bottom part of this illustration shows the scale of the universe versus time. Specific events are shown such as the formation of neutral Hydrogen at 380 000 years after the big bang. Prior to this time, the constant interaction between matter (electrons) and light (photons) made the universe opaque. After this time, the photons we now call the CMB started streaming freely. The fluctuations (differences from place to place) in the matter distribution left their imprint on the CMB photons. The density waves appear as temperature and "E-mode" polarization. The gravitational waves leave a characteristic signature in the CMB polarization: the "B-modes". Both density and gravitational waves come from quantum fluctuations which have been magnified by inflation to be present at the time when the CMB photons were emitted.

    Source: BICEP2

    Inflation Theory Evidence Update originally appeared on About.com Physics on Saturday, May 10th, 2014 at 11:49:47.

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  • US investigates after lab improperly ships nuclear material
    U.S. regulators said Friday they are launching an investigation into the improper shipment of nuclear material from the laboratory that created the atomic bomb to other federal facilities this week, marking the latest safety lapse for Los Alamos National Laboratory as it faces growing criticism over its track record.
  • Utah evacuees watched flames draw closer, smoke get thicker
    A wildfire menacing a southern Utah ski town for nearly a week flared again, doubling in size for the second night in a row and torching more homes after residents fled the flames, officials said Friday.
  • Mars rover Opportunity on walkabout near rim
    NASA's senior Mars rover, Opportunity, is examining rocks at the edge of Endeavour Crater for signs that they may have been either transported by a flood or eroded in place by wind.
  • New 3-D model predicts best planting practices for farmers
    As farmers survey their fields this summer, several questions come to mind: How many plants germinated per acre? How does altering row spacing affect my yields? Does it make a difference if I plant my rows north to south or east to west? Now a computer model can answer these questions by comparing billions of virtual fields with different planting densities, row spacings, and orientations.
  • By far, men garner most coveted speaking slots at virology meetings
    Ann Palmenberg and Rob Kalejta heard complaints at one too many virology conferences about the perceived lack of women among the invited and keynote speakers. So, they did what all good scientists do: They tracked down the data.