Monday, September 29, 2008

POLITICS- Confused by the Financial Crisis?

Well join the club. But here is an excellent article explaining the whole thing in a page. Well worth reading if you have, use, or are affected by money.

And here's the actual text of the agreement.

And here's an example of what kind of silliness it has generated on the web.

SCIENCE- Robert Heinlein Would Be So Proud

Elon Musk's company SPACE-X has launched a privately financed and designed rocket into orbit.

Head over to for more details.

POLITICS- I Wonder If the Ceremony Will Be in the Rose Garden?

After “terrorist fist jabs” and “Obama won’t say the pledge of allegiance” and “or wear a flag pin on his lapel” the McCain campaign continues to see just what ridiculous shit will stick to the wall when thrown. The latest “vote for me because of this silly thing that has nothing to do with being president” idea is…

…wait for it…

…riding to election on the coat tales of a Bristol Palin wedding.

If you don’t think this is a joke, I submit that Bristol and Levi are registered at J.C. Penneys, the most expensive gift is $150 (an air hockey table), and that not one, not two, but three items prominently sport American flags. It’s a joke all right. I just don’t know if it’s a joke by the Republicans or on them.

Now I have to give the GOP credit. They have started two wars, instituted a surveillance program that Stalin would have been proud of, given the rest of the world the finger, and wrecked the economy. And yet, in spite of the fact that nothing (NOTHING) has really been done in the last eight years to advance the agenda of the religious fundamentalist “base” they still have their support. Why? Is it because nobody ever failed by underestimating the intelligence of the American people (to paraphrase Henry Ford). That seems to be the opinion in other countries. I’d hate to think so. Instead I believe it’s just that these people are so motivated by bigotry that their leadership’s disregard of their agenda and all the other failures are inconsequential. If it’s bad, it must be the “libruls” fault.

There, I said it.

The south has a long history of motivation by prejudice. Republicans found that out after Lincoln. Democrats after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s (prophetically saying at the time that the Dems had lost the South for a generation- he was a southern boy, he knew). While hatred for blacks has lessened in the south, it’s been replaced by hatred of gays, “elites”, and liberals. This isn’t a classic conservative difference of opinion on the role of government, its just finding someone to blame for everything you don’t like. Xenophobia is a strong force in human nature. And since the Republicans seem to have abandoned their traditional values (small government, free markets) all they have left are identity politics and fear.

No wonder so many of us that used to be Republicans are voting for Obama.

Friday, September 19, 2008

SCIENCE- Paul Dirac and the Big Number Theory

So what did Dirac do that was so all fired great? Some mundane stuff like predicting the first antimatter particle. (Though he didn’t think of it as a particle, he called it a “hole in the Dirac Sea”. Didn’t like poetry my ass.) But the thing I’ve always thought was the coolest thing Dirac ever came up with is called the BIG NUMBER HYPOTHESIS.

Dirac was a born mathematician. In fact he once said that “getting beauty in one's equations” was the path to progress. Often he found himself playing with numbers and equations for the simple joy of it; the way a gifted pianist might sit and noodle at the keys. And just like that pianist might stumble onto a classic melody, Dirac stumbled onto one of the great mysteries of the universe. A mystery that is sometimes pointed to as evidence that the universe is a constructed thing.

In other words- evidence of God.

He realized that the ratio of the electromagnetic force and gravitational force between a proton and an electron was on the order of 10 to the 40th power. That’s a 10 with 40 zeros after it. A big number. Human beings have a hard time comprehending large numbers so we look for things to compare them to in order to get a sense of scale. What do you compare such a number to in a person’s experience? It’s a big number, so how about all the grains of sand on the beach? Problem is that it wouldn’t even be close. All the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world? That’s about 7.5 x (10)18th grains of sand.

which is still only (10)-21st of Dirac’s number.

So all the sand on all the beaches on the entire earth is such a pitifully small number in comparison that it can’t help us. What else might he compare it to?

How about the ratio of an electron to the radius of the Universe? That’s got to be a pretty big number. The calculated radius of an electron is (10)-15th and the radius of the universe is about 10)23rd resulting in a final ratio of (10)40th.

Wait. That’s a really good comparison. In fact it’s within the same order of magnitude. It’s unusual to find anything that matches up that closely when dealing with numbers of this size.

So, The relationship between the interactions of protons and electrons is about the same as the relationship between the size single electron and the size of the universe. Interesting.

What else might be a number that big? We’ve compared two of the four basic forces of the universe and we’ve compared a unit of distance. So, what about time? The universe has given us a fancy stopwatch in the form of the speed of light so let’s compare the length of time it takes a photon to travel the length of the radius of that electron we measured earlier and the length of time that the universe has existed since the big bang.

And guess what. That turns out to be about 10)40 as well!

Things were starting to get really weird.

What about a comparison of the mass of a proton to the mass of the universe? Well that doesn’t wind up being on order of magnitude of 10)40 instead it winds up being roughly the square of 10)40. That’s a little odd too. How about the number of elementary charged particles in the universe. That also winds up being about 10)80, the square of the number that kept cropping up.

By now Dirac was getting pretty excited. As he started comparing the fundamental constants of the universe the number 10)40 just kept cropping up. I’m sure he was beginning to feel a little like Jim Carry in the movie THE NUMBER 23. He figured that anything with this close a correlation must be important. But the connections were so odd. Why would the age of the universe and the size of a proton be related? Dirac continued to fool around and eventually figured out that all this could be the result if the Universal Gravitational Constant varied with the age of the universe. So he immediately set out to do what physicists do when they hit upon a new idea. He built a universe around it.

In 1937 Dirac published his paper on the Large Number Hypothesis and the possible Cosmology it implied. The problem was that his cosmology didn’t seem to support the big bang and for the next 20 years big bang was to become all the rage in cosmology. So most physicists said yes, that’s interesting, but it’s just a coincidence. Scientific numerology, it was called.

But the story didn’t end there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

SCIENCE- Paul Dirac and the Big Bang Theory

I occasionally catch an episode of The Big Bang Theory on television. (I've loved Chuck Lorre since Cybil.) It’s a little broad for my tastes but I respect the fact that they seem to go out of their way to get both the geek references and the pseudo-scientific double talk in the ballpark of plausibility. But I wonder sometimes if the biggest joke in the series is intentional or not.

You see, I’m convinced that the tall skinny geek is modeled on 20th century physicist Paul Dirac. (I confess that I don’t watch the thing enough to know the names of the two main characters. For the purposes of this post I will refer to them as the tall skinny geek and the whiny Roseanne alumnus.) Even in the time of Einstein and Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Oppenheimer, Paul Dirac stood out as an intellect (he shared the 1933 Nobel Prize with Schrödinger) and also somewhat of a character. He was tall and slight, considered extremely shy and a little socially awkward. Someone once joked that 90% of his vocabulary was “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”. He once introduced his new bride to a friend by saying “This is [Hungarian physicist Eugene] Wigner’s sister, who is now my wife.”

At another time he was talking to a colleague (either Rudolf Peierls or Peter Kapitza, depending on who’s telling the story) who’s wife was in the room knitting. After watching her for a while he tells her that “There is a topologically inequivalent way of doing what you are doing.” Of course she asks him what he’s talking about and he shows her an alternate knitting stitch. The woman then informs him that what he’s doing is called purling.

Replying to a student who had told him “I don’t understand the second equation.” He once said “That is a statement, not a question.”

Dirac kidded Robert Oppenheimer about his love of poetry. He once said, "The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible."

But there are two Dirac stories that make me sure that the tall skinny geek on The Big Bang Theory is based on the erstwhile physicist. The first is when someone making small talk with him at a banquet mentioned that the weather was blustery. Dirac got up and left the dinner table only to return in a few minutes to say that, yes, he had checked and it was indeed windy outside.

The second story could have come straight from the show itself. Dirac once postulated that there must be a optimal distance from which to view a woman’s face. Not so close that minor wrinkles and blemishes are too apparent or that the face is distorted but not so far away that one bit of the important detail is lost. After explaining his theory at a party once, another physicist asked him how close he had ever BEEN to a girl.

Holding his hands a couple of feet apart he said, “About this close.”

Maybe I’m just projecting Dirac onto the tall skinny geek. I don’t think the whiny Roseanne alumnus is actually a caricature of Einstein (though the hair is suspicious). It’s not likely that the creators of the Big Bang sitcom purposefully styled the character on an actual person. But the parallels are there. Even down to the character’s inherent sweetness. Niels Bohr said that of all the people in physics, Dirac had the purest soul.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

POLITICS- Include Me Out

...of the incessant BS of the campaigns.

You notice I don’t write much about politics even though it’s something that I think is important. What is there to say when most of the dialog is like listening to a couple of four-year-olds argue. For instance, this morning the news is about how Barrack Obama used the phrase “you can put lipstick on a pig but that doesn’t make it anything but a pig.” He wasn’t referring to Gov. Palin but the Republicans were quick to say that it was sexist. Because of the joke she told at the convention about hockey moms and pitbulls (lipstick apparently makes the difference, and the legendary scarcity of AK females would imply that it’s funny because it’s true). I’m so sick of this crap. Mommy, he’s talking about me! I don’t like it! He’s being mean to me!

I’ve seen this happen on the playground a few times so let me explain it to you. Imagine that you are seven years old again. There are two boys at the edge of the parking lot having an argument that might become a fight. You know the types. One boy is a lout, a bully. He’s in these situations frequently but somehow they usually don’t seem to come to blows. But he calls a lot of kids out. The other boy is a slightly nerdy boy who “started” all this by saying something the brute didn’t like. It’s usually a different lout and nerd each time, picked seemingly at random from their subsets of the school’s general population. (Funny that I don’t remember many fights where both contestants were from the same group. I guess louts don’t fight louts and nerds don’t fight other nerds.) Anyway, the two are squaring off. There’s a lot of talking. Insults are thrown, there’s some speculation about family customs and heritage. This is the boring part of the fight. The subjects are varied, true. I remember one fight was over whether the British had ever captured the White House, with the lout taking the side of America. Another was sparked when some kid correctly answered about things falling at the same rate regardless of weight. That particular lout fancied himself brainy so there had to be a confrontation. Anyway, the subject was always something different but the argument was always the same. The nerd would start out thinking he could set the guy straight with facts and figures. The lout would grow frustrated that the nerd didn’t realize he was there to grovel, not make the same mistake a second time. This is phase called “one boy is afraid to fight and the other is glad of it” as we used to say. At this point it is the crowds job to try to help by shouting encouragement to one or the other in the hope that he will have an irrational surge in confidence and throw the first punch. Somebody would get called a fag and depending on how secure the person on the receiving end of that bon mot was in his sexuality, an actual fight would sometimes break out. Eventually someone in authority would arrive to break up the fight. If this happens before anybody gets hit, then the audience disperses to decide who was the bigger coward.

So that’s the campaign season in a nutshell. It rarely comes to blows but other than that…

And that’s why I don’t write about politics unless I’m addressing some purely wrong idea. And even then, the campaign brings it into sharp relief that most people aren’t listening and a whole lot of people are just rooting for their side to throw a punch. Doesn’t matter who’s right.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

abbreviated post this morning because I’m in away from home.

Cool tech thingie- an ink-jet printer for concrete buildings.

An article at the NEW YORK TIMES website where Peter Leeson (in their Freakanomics column, and if you haven’t read the book go to Amazon or your local library and do so right now) realizes that UFO sightings and Bigfoot sightings statistically occur in the same states. (bonus surprise, none of them is below the Mason-Dixon line). This either means that (a) UFOs are actually looking for bigfoot, (b) wookies are piloting UFOs, or (c) this should be a three dimensional (or three-dementia-onal) graph where the third axis is alcohol consumption.

In a UFO thread on FARK I was the only person to get a song lyric challenge.

And yet more astronauts are saying that the government has been covering up UFO contact. (And shame on for not having a dateline on the story.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

POLITICS- The Answer to Hurricanes is More Offshore Drilling

This morning, in the wake of Gustav hitting the LA coast, President Bush is calling for increased offshore drilling.

Do I have to even point out why this doesn’t make sense?

Seems that you can sum up the Bush presidency in two ways. The story of a guy born on third base who thinks he hit a triple. And “give a kid a hammer and everything becomes a nail”.

Monday, September 1, 2008

POLITICS- U.S. attack on Iran?

Hope it’s not true. But as Lily Tomlin used to joke, “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”

Any why? In case you think its because they are some sort of threat to us