Wednesday, August 24, 2011

This Post Intentionally Left Blank


Wow... the things that keep me up at bed time!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Janus Christ!

Recently I have been doing research related to a type of constructed object called a Janus particle.
During the course of this research I get to play around with very cool equipment, like lasers, confocal microscopes, magnetic fields, laser traps etc.

Janus particles are named after the Roman god of change or transition, and is usually represented by a figure with two faces.
Likewise, Janus particles are constructed with two faces, each having a different physical property.
Many interesting and useful properties can be explored in such systems.

My task was to study such systems, comprised of silica spheres approximately 2 to 3 microns in diameter. In studying such systems  I get to observe so very cool physics, and to see surprising images.

One afternoon, after a long and trying period of gazing through the objective of our polarizing microscope, I came across the following particle

"Woah! This is better than that grilled cheese Jesus I read about!"

Now wait a minute... I am studying a particle named for a Roman god, and instead I see something that looks strikingly like Jesus?

Is God trying to tell me something?
If he is, I do not have a clue what it is, or why He chose such an obscure medium. Of course, this is a personalized message if there ever was one. Only I could see such an object at that particular place or time!
Now I know how those NASA scientists must have felt when they saw the face on Mars!

Or, perhaps natural selection has simply programmed my visual cortex to recognize patterns that look like faces, and cultural bias has programmed me to find such a recognition in a surprising location to be the work of a higher power?

I sit for a while, focusing and refocusing on the particle,and as I watch, I notice the image is sort of shaking its head at me.
"A message from God!" Perhaps He must be very disappointed that I would dare assert such things as evolutionary biology and cultural biases as to why I saw Him in His glory... in a microscope image of a silica sphere imbedded in 5CB liquid crystal.

Or, perhaps the shaking and nodding of the head is due to thermal fluctuations... Brownian motion? Humm... now the image seems to be nodding its head.


I debated weather to show these images, as I was ill at ease with the idea that people may decide to make a pilgrimage to my lab in order to see the face of Jesus. (Kidding)

Like most people, I get a thrill and goosebumps when I see a face suddenly and spontaneously appear in a cloud, or a shadow pattern, or in the random alignment of light and color in a glass pane. A parasympathetic response to perceived danger, or the cognitive dissonance of seeing a face where none should exist.
As a scientist, I can step back and appreciate the physics and biology that goes into having perceived the face in the first place. I can think about the cultural programming I have undergone, and must overcome in pursuit of science, that goes into perceiving something of the numinous in a play of light.
This cultural programming leads to some falling to the comfort of religion to explain the face, while leading to others invoking aliens, or spirits.

In any case, when I see a sheep in the clouds, or a face in a cheese sandwich, I can enjoy the thrill, and the subsequent analysis of what I am seeing without resorting to religion or superstition.
Some say this is my loss, and that I am missing out on deeper understanding.
That is something I don't quite see.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fermi Problem: Why Are Christian Radio Stations So Loud?

My wife likes to listen to a small shower radio during her morning routine, and she laments the fact that she can only get one decent classical station in, and none of the popular music she likes. However, the Christian radio stations come in loud and clear, as do a few particularly awful country stations, and a long string of Spanish language stations. (Neither of us are fond of modern country music it seems.)

We were discussing this phenomena, that the stations we did not like seem to come in very strongly across the dial, but the "good" stations had short range or were weak in comparison.

"Perhaps the reason why the bad stations are clearer is because fewer people listen to them, and are sucking up all the good stations." My wife commented.

I found this a bit funny and started smiling. "It does not work that way!" I stated confidently, but then I though about it a bit...

"Why do you think that?" I asked?

"Well, my cell phone gets worse signals in areas with lots of users, and the WiFi networks get slower when there are a lot of people using the connection." Why not radio stations.

Why not?
Do radio stations have a set bandwidth, like the cell phone towers or WiFi hubs?
Well, not really. The power a radio station puts out is attenuated mostly by distance from the tower, and the amount of matter absorbing, scattering and reflecting the radio waves.
Also, given the fact that a receving radio antenna is sucking down all the radio stations at once, and it is the tuner that is filtering out the unwanted stations, one could make the claim that an receving antenna would attenuate all the stations equally. One could get picky about how antenna lengths are better at resonating with particular frequencies than others I supposed.

But one may still wonder... does a receiving antenna that is actively tuned to a particular frequency absorb more power from the signal than one that is not active, or tuned to another station?
And if so, how much power?

----- Start Fermi Problem ------

Estimate how many radios there are within 20 miles of a transmitter in any given city.

Estimate how much power a single receiving antenna attenuates from the signal.
When it is active? When it is not tuned to the station?

Calculate the difference in power a receiving antenna would observe at 20 miles if suddenly all the other antennas were to physically disappear!

----- End Fermi Problem -----

There are probably many other reasons for a perceived signal to noise ratio for certain types of stations. And this is a fun topic to think about.

Perhaps country music just seems louder to those who do not want to hear it.
Perhaps country music stations cater more towards a demographic that travels more during the day, and thus they are simply transmitted at a higher power than popular music stations.

Perhaps Christian radio stations like to be louder to catch your attention! After all, they are trying to get their message out and save your soul!

But more listeners would seem to be a very small contribute to relative signal strengths, at least from a physics standpoint.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I see dumb people #7 A Monster Under the Bed!

Having just posted my rant about the WHO classification of cell phones as a possible carcinogen, and suffering through the crash after my endorphine rush, I have decided to make an analogy to the statement Dr. Sanjay Gupta made on CNN.

Neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says Tuesday's announcement, "dealt a blow to those who have long said, 'There is no possible mechanism for cell phones to cause cancer.' By classifying cell phones as a possible carcinogen, they also seem to be tacitly admitting a mechanism could exist."

This statement, and what WHO did in general is similar to a parent checking under their childs bed for monsters, so that the children can sleep better.

The child, not understanding that there are no monsters under her bed, is frightened, and asks daddy to please check under  the bed for a monster.
"Please daddy! I know there is a scary monster under my bed... can you check and make sure it won't get me?" The child pleads.

"Sweetie, you know there is no such thing as monsters, and you are perfectly safe. All that are under your bed are some little dust bunnies. Now go to bed sweetheart." Daddy responds gently.

"But daddy! There are mean monsters under the bed! The dust bunnies could become mean monsters, and I am scared! Just check!"

The father knows perfectly well there are no such thing as monsters under the bed, but cannot stand to hear the fear in the voice of his child. He checks under the bed, and on verifying there are indeed no scary monsters, only some dust bunnies, tells his daughter she is safe, and kisses her on the forehead good night, tucks her in, and leaves the room... not forgetting to keep the door cracked and the night light on.

However, by checking under the bed, the father is tacitly admitting to the child that there may indeed be monsters.

Neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says Tuesday's announcement, "dealt a blow to those who have long said, 'There is no possible way there are monsters under the bed. By classifying dust bunnies as a possible monster, they also seem to be tacitly admitting that monsters under the bed could exist."

It is time we grow up, and be able to sleep without the nightlight.

Fuck you, it's magic.

I am tired. I am simply worn out.

I am so sick of people with positions of authority in one field claiming expertise in another.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a Neurosurgeon and correspondent to CNN is scaremongering about cell phone radiation again, and the morons at WHO are classifying cell phones as a possible carcinogen.

Neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says Tuesday's announcement, "dealt a blow to those who have long said, 'There is no possible mechanism for cell phones to cause cancer.' By classifying cell phones as a possible carcinogen, they also seem to be tacitly admitting a mechanism could exist."

What bullshit.

I could spend a bit of time explaining the theory behind Albert Einsteins Nobel prize winning work on the photoelectric effect, and how microwave radiation is simply not energetic enough to ionize DNA and causer cancer.

I could explain how the human body is perfectly capable of thermal regulation of the small amount of heating caused by a cell phone.

But I have been doing so for years on years... and all I get is some dumbshit saying "I don't believe" that cell phones do not cause cancer. As if belief has any effect on physical reality.
Reality is not religion people...

Or some twit will argue that Albert Einstein came up with the photoelectric effect 70 years before cellphones came out... as if that really negates the theory.

I am so fucking tired of this.

Pearls before swine it seems.

More money will be spent on useless fucking studies to salve the fear of the those who cannot think critically.

And as for Dr. Gupta... since you cannot understand the basic physics...

You are like the plethora of pre-med students I have seen that think of physics as a class to get out of the way by whatever means needed. It never fails... every semester the students that bitch and moan about their grades are the pre-med students who are afraid of losing their scholarships because they finally came up against a class that makes them think rather than regurgitate.
The ones caught cheating are usually the pre-med students. The ones who think they can blow-job their way to a good grade... pre-meds.

So, I am tired... and sick and worn out of constantly trying to educate twits on a subject that really and honestly is not that hard to understand. So I decided to instead spend my time venting... because at least in this case I get something out of it... the endorphin rush of a good venting.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

No More Tricks, Mr. Nan Guo! (A Physicists Perspective)

There are a wealth of stories throughout history and cultures that are meant to teach a lesson:
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the story of Icarus, To Serve Man... ;)

Recently I have been exposed to various Chinese fables, which strike me as very well written and pertinent event today. Their beauty lies in their brevity and directness, yet their ability to paint an image in my mind is just as strong as other fables I have read.

A few days ago I was told a fable by a colleague of mine that applies very well to situations I have experienced, and I am sure many of my readers will recognized the theme, if not recognize a player in their life's stage who reflects the actions of one Mr. Nan Guo.

Story and images copied from

In the Warring States period of China (475-221 B.C.), there was a state called Qi, the king of which was very fond of listening to music, especially the music played on the Yu, a wind instrument. So he convened a band of more than 300 players from his state. Everyday the band was called in to play the Yu for his Majesty at teatime. And the king seemed to be very satisfied with the band and the harmonies performed.
As a matter of fact, one of the players, Nan Guo, knew nothing about the instrument. But he did manage to pass himself off and went on well with his tricks that each time he tried to seat himself behind and pretended to be playing the Yu together with the others. And everything seemed good for him. He had never been exposed.
Finally, his days were gone when the prince ascended the throne. As the latter would enjoy solo rather than harmony, the players were called each in to play alone before the king. This time, as we have guessed, Nan Guo was embarrassed to find there was no place for him any more. As soon as Nan Guo got wind of the news, he sneaked away as fast as he could.

Mr. Nan Guo had the sense to run away in shame, or perhaps there were other consequences in store for fakers in the waring states period of China.

This story was told to me in response to having run into my very own Mr. Nan Guo, and I was struck by how well the story fit.

Substitute the lack of musical skill for a lack of physics ability in someone who somehow obtained a Masters in physics, and remove the common sense of leaving in shame and replace it with arrogance and violent protesting, and indeed my own personal Mr. Nan Guo was exposed!

Oh well. =(

Every endeavor, every field of study must have it's Mr. Nan Guo. Some fields seem to have a greater percentage than others, but I am still distressed whenever I find one in the sciences or particularly in physics.

Run away now Mr. Nan Guo.... please.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"You are RACIST!" is not an argument.

This morning I stumbled out of bed and fell in front of my computer, so I determined I should do some perusing of CNN and other news sites. I came across the following article in the opinions section on

Black women ugly? Says who?

The post, by sport columnist LZ Granderson, discusses a somewhat controversial blog post by author and Psychology Today blogger Satoshi Kanazawa on the topic of relative attractiveness between woman of different races.
The blog, titled Why Are Black Woman Less Physically Attractive Than Other Woman was removed from the Psychology Today website, but can be found here.

On reading Mr. Granderson's opinion article, and the many comments posted in response, I was struck by how much hatred and bile there is on both sides of the topic, and how reasonable people posting their opinion were attacked from members of both camps.

Lets start where I did, with LZ's post.

My mother is a black woman.
And she is beautiful.
So to the editors of Psychology Today who thought it was a good idea to post a blog item calling black women ugly, I suggest you watch your back... my mother's cubs are looking for you.
And we are not happy.

A sports writer writer making veiled threats towards the editors of Psychology Today over a blog he finds insulting? Talk about fortifying a stereotype of the angry black man. At this point I skipped over to the blog that had caused such a response.

The basic gist of the blog is that the author believes that statistics he presents show that people feel that black woman are less attractive than woman of other races. Note that the source of the statistics were done by survey, and taken from population samples that are not clearly defined in the blog. His methods, data and experimental construction are not alluded to in his blog, nor are there any references cited.

At this point, Satoshi attempts to determine and speculate on the mechanisms for this data, and does so by some pretty murky and unsupported reasoning, including a reference to a prior blog of his as a supporting datum. 

The blog post was a laughable piece of so called science, and easily attacked and dismissed scientifically even on first glance. Regardless of the validity of the observations, i.e. if in fact statistically black woman are less attractive than other races, he did not present his data in a way that can be examined independently nor tested, and thus the data, not to mention his conclusions, are highly suspect.

Note that I was not immediately pissed off by the title of the blog, or its message. The author could have stated the same conclusion about asian woman, or white woman etc. Since it was proported to be on a website run by a scientific journal, I was interested to see the data. (Lets see the data is the principle response of a scientist after all.)

Personally, I am not attracted to most black woman, or most native American woman. I prefer brunets over blonds, smaller breasts over large breasts etc. Those are my personal preferences, and the roots of those preferences are a complex interaction between genetic programming, my cultural and social up-bringing, and who know what else.

Understanding those preferences, and indeed how such interactions on a wider social scale may contribute to the perception of attractiveness is an interesting topic for science to investigate.

However, according to LZ, and many people who commented on his blog, such a preference is "RACIST!"

Back to LZ's blog post.

I do not dispute Kanazawa's credentials as an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, but I do wonder why he even approached the topic.

Hey LZ... why not approach the topic?
In science, no topic is verboten. Any subject, no matter how distasteful, or politically incorrect should be explored, discussed, researched and evaluated. Scientific censorship is a large contributor to scientific illiteracy.

Also, if you cannot dispute Kanazawa's credentials, then dispute his data in a fashion that is not attacking his character. If the data is trash, then any conclusions are trash. At this point step off, because the topic is over with, and your point made.

If a well thought out and implemented study shows that indeed black woman are found to be less attractive than woman of other races, then that is empirical data that can explored for causative reasons.

Calling the study "Racist" is incorrect. The root cause of the trend may be in part due to cultural racism, or it may not be, but to call people who conduct such studies racist, or to attempt to suppress such study as racist is wrong. Debate the science methodology, do not suppress it as politically incorrect. And yes, from your editorial, you would attempt to suppress such research. Shame on you.

I challenge LZ to aquatint himself with the scientific method (and Satoshi would do well with doing the same it seems) so that he can challenge the merits of the statistics and the study rather than taking the lazy (and cowardly) way out and yelling out "Racist!"

Finally, LZ should consider how his call to arms for people to suppress scientific discourse of uncomfortable topics is itself the epitome of scientific (and cultural) illiteracy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jaded? Geeking Out!

adjective /ˈjādid/ 
Tired, bored, or lacking enthusiasm, typically after having had too much of something.

Becoming jaded is a frightening state to contemplate. What is the point of life if one is bored of it? What is the point of learning if nothings surprises or inspires?
If one does become jaded, are there degrees of this condition? A way back?
Are those states a defense mechanism to over-stimulation.. the brains way of prioritizing information?

I have been accused of being so interested in everything, that I can derive no special pleasure from any one topic. Can interest in everything lead to a "relative jadedness?"

However, recently I have experienced situations that seem to border on the truly jaded, and was a somewhat new experience.

My wife is taking cello lessons, and is captivated by the instrument. She is striving to master and enjoy playing the cello, and experience a new creative outlet.
During this process, she asked me to attend her first recital, and afterwords I had a chance to have a conversation with her instructor.

I firmly believe the ability to "geek out" on a subject is the key indicator of a persons love and enthusiasm for a subject. Geeking out is not only the pervue of techno-geeks, or of Harry Potter fans. Geeking out can encompass any topic of interest and is indicated by a person being able to discuss the minutia and wonders of a topic. One can geek out over music, or the cello, or butterscotch taffy!

I also suspect that if one can induce a person to start "geeking out" about something, one is on a good start to making a new friend.

I started asking some questions of the music teacher, who immediately started geeking out music, the cello, and music theory. His topics ranged to how digital music could never fully replicate the natural sound of a cello with perfect fidelity, do discussion of the golden ratios, musical scales theory, even tempered tunings and Pythagoras.

It was fun, and I was happy to learn his opinions, discover things I did not know, and experience how a musician experiences and thinks about physical topics.

In particular, he was very excited and wanted to show me something cool about a piano string.

He lifted the foot mute pedal on a piano, pressed down the lowest note on the piano (B) and played several other notes. He then muted all the other strings, and noted how the string was able to vibrate and "hum" at those other pitches simultaneously.

"Isnt that cool?" He enthusiastically asks.

All I could think to myself at this point was. "Umm... yeah?"

I did not share his awe and enthusiasm of this observation. This was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, could explain, and have observed many times.  I felt bored, and impatient with him, wanting something more than the twist the discussion had taken. Here he was about to show me something really cool, and he shows that a string can support multiple resonance modes at the same time?

But at the same time I had a small frisson of fear, and a little guilt. Here was someone who had noticed something about the world that was not trivial, and I was offhandedly dismissing his observation as trivial, boring, and not pertaining to my enjoyment or excitement.
This was the beginnings of being jaded.

I believe that begin jaded starts when one is dismissive of the pleasure someone gets in observing or doing somethings which you have done or observed many times before. Being jaded is forgetting the thrill of experience, the joy of discovery. Being Jaded is thinking you know all there is about a subject.

I caught myself at this moment in time, and realized that there was no way I should be bored about the music teachers observation of higher resonance modes of the open B string of a piano. If I was bored about the topic, that should be a signal that there is more I can learn about it, more depth to the topic I could explore!

Or, at the very least I could enjoy vicariously the thrill of discovery and learning that the music teacher was experiencing and appreciate his need to share this with me.

I can only hope that I can catch myself before entering this state more often than not, and not let "jadednes" ruin my life experience, or dissuade others from sharing theirs. Find a way to geek out, and one finds a cure for being jaded.