Ask Me Easy Questions

As noted earlier, I’m not at my sharpest, thanks to this past weekend’s festivities. Which means I don’t have any deep-thinking blog posts in the queue, and the hundreds of posts piled up in Google Reader since later Thursday were just marked read without more than a cursory glance.

Since I’m at a loss for material, here’s your chance to program the blog:

Leave a comment asking me a question, and I will answer it either in comments or in a post.

The one important qualifier here is that the questions should be easy. I’m too tired for hard questions, today. There are no topic restrictions– physics, pop culture, politics, other sciences, academia, anything you want– but I’m not going to answer anything that requires more than a paragraph or so.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    July 13, 2009

    What is your prediction for what will happen over the next several months at LHC? Will it start up and run for a while? Minutes then break again? Will there be a great discovery in weeks, or in years? I’m not asking anything too specific, just your general thoughts in two paragraphs.

  2. #2 steve s
    July 13, 2009

    What do you think of this research out of McMaster University

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/can-you-get-fit-in-six-minutes-a-week/?em

    that suggests that about a minute of hyperintense cardio could produce the same benefits as an hour of moderate exercise?

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2009

    What is your prediction for what will happen over the next several months at LHC?

    I think they’ll start it back up more cautiously this time, and it will end up working fine. The nature of the business, though, is that it will take several months at least to pile up enough data to say anything really new about particle physics. I wouldn’t expect to see any solid evidence of new physics before 2011, to be honest.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2009

    What do you think of this research out of McMaster University [...] that suggests that about a minute of hyperintense cardio could produce the same benefits as an hour of moderate exercise?

    I think the idea of short but intense workouts has some appeal, but the necessary intensity makes it less likely that people would stick with the program for any length of time. The level of pain involved is potentially a big turn-off.

  5. #5 smijer
    July 13, 2009

    Inflation/big bang – are there parts of the universe that did not undergo inflation – if so, are they in principle observable? Does inflation=big bang? If, as I read somewhere recently, inflation “caused” big bang – any ideas about what “caused” inflation?

  6. #6 Brian
    July 13, 2009

    Pumpkins: Thread? or menace?

    sorry, I’m half asleep at work myself, and this is what you get.

  7. #7 steve s
    July 13, 2009

    I think the idea of short but intense workouts has some appeal, but the necessary intensity makes it less likely that people would stick with the program for any length of time. The level of pain involved is potentially a big turn-off.

    True dat. I’ve done that workout a few times, but after two bursts of 1 minute as hard as I could possibly go, I was very near throwing up. very unpleasant. On the plus side, I felt invigorated all day, then sore for the next 2.

  8. #8 Dr. Kate
    July 13, 2009

    Yeah, all that physics-y and exercise-y stuff is great. But what I really want to know is, how do Emmy and SteelyKid get along? You haven’t said much about it, and the last I remember, Emmy was a little bit ambivalent.

  9. #9 h
    July 13, 2009

    1) Why would a nuclear reactor ever have waste heat? I.e. why the heck do they have cooling towers? Couldn’t that ‘waste’ heat just be used to preheat input water, or even (assuming it’s in the form of hot water) just re-cycled through the turbines?

    2) Chemists always talk about combustion as “a form of burning with oxygen” or something to that extent. What other form of burning is there? Is there “sulfur combustion”? What happens if you heat something up in an oxygenless atmosphere? Will it “burn”?

    3. Setup: Michelson-Morley interferometer. Adjust the phases such that the two beams interfere destructively at the output (as setup in standard intro phys textbooks). You now have LaserPowerIN!=0 and LaserPowerOUT=0. How does that conserve energy? (this is an easy one)

  10. #10 The Science Pundit
    July 13, 2009

    H.P. Lovecraft or Robert Heinlein? Why?

  11. #11 John Novak
    July 13, 2009

    I can’t find my socks. Where are my socks?

  12. #12 Harry
    July 13, 2009

    What type of pen do you use? Also, when was the last time you used a pencil?

  13. #13 milkshake
    July 13, 2009

    Why do you subscribe to views that could be summarily described as political correctness?

  14. #14 Tony Zbaraschuk
    July 13, 2009

    Isaac Asimov’s pop science books: good, or dated?

  15. #15 cisko
    July 13, 2009

    What’s your favorite new (to you) band for 2009 so far?

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2009

    #5: Inflation/big bang – are there parts of the universe that did not undergo inflation – if so, are they in principle observable? Does inflation=big bang? If, as I read somewhere recently, inflation “caused” big bang – any ideas about what “caused” inflation?

    In order: “Maybe,” “probably not,” “not as I understand it,” and “I said they should be easy questions.”

    #6: Pumpkins: Thread? or menace?

    Maybe.

    #8: Yeah, all that physics-y and exercise-y stuff is great. But what I really want to know is, how do Emmy and SteelyKid get along?

    SteelyKid finds Emmy fascinating, Emmy is less enthusiastic. She dislikes having a baby crawl at her toys.

    #9: 1) Why would a nuclear reactor ever have waste heat?

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics. You can never have a 100% efficient heat engine, and some heat will always be lost– if nothing else, there are things like friction in the turbines and conduction losses in the wires. I think the cooling towers are primarily used to recondense the water that’s boiled to turn generators, though I could be mistaken.

    2) Chemists always talk about combustion as “a form of burning with oxygen” or something to that extent. What other form of burning is there? Is there “sulfur combustion”? What happens if you heat something up in an oxygenless atmosphere? Will it “burn”?

    No clue. Sorry.

    3. Setup: Michelson-Morley interferometer. Adjust the phases such that the two beams interfere destructively at the output (as setup in standard intro phys textbooks). You now have LaserPowerIN!=0 and LaserPowerOUT=0. How does that conserve energy? (this is an easy one)

    I know the answer, but I’ll swipe this for a pop quiz, if you don’t mind.

    #10: H.P. Lovecraft or Robert Heinlein? Why?

    Heinlein. I’ll take blatant Libertariansim over creepy racism any day.

    I’ll get to the rest later.

  17. #17 Excited State
    July 13, 2009

    Most interesting/enjoyable class you’ve taught recently?

    Least enjoyable/most frustrating class you’ve taught?

  18. #18 Brian (the other one)
    July 13, 2009

    2) Chemists always talk about combustion as “a form of burning with oxygen” or something to that extent. What other form of burning is there? Is there “sulfur combustion”? What happens if you heat something up in an oxygenless atmosphere? Will it “burn”?

    Short answer – yes. Usually we (chemists) refer to combustion as an exothermic reaction that occurs in the presence of oxygen. Similar reactions can occur in other gasses, although what combusts and what the products are, are different from oxygen combustion reactions.

  19. #19 Amber S
    July 13, 2009

    1. Do you yoga?
    2. When was the last time all the clean laundry was in its rightful place?
    3. When did you realize you had a book on your hands? Had you set out to write a book?

  20. #20 Eric Lund
    July 13, 2009

    If you could attend a dinner with any major political figure in the world, who would it be, and why?

  21. #21 becca
    July 13, 2009

    What one item for steelykid was most surprisingly useful?

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2009

    #11: I can’t find my socks. Where are my socks?

    Did you look under the dresser? That’s usually where mine end up.

    #12: What type of pen do you use? Also, when was the last time you used a pencil?

    I use whatever sort of pen we have in the department stock room when I run out of pens in my office. I’m not much of a writing implement geek. I do have a really nice pen that I got from the Williams alumni office for agreeing to be class secretary. I use that at home sometimes.

    I hate writing in pencil, and try to avoid it if possible. I’m not a fan of chalk, either.

    #13: Why do you subscribe to views that could be summarily described as political correctness?

    Because “political correctness” is a nebulous rhetorical boogeyman that can be applied to any views that a right-wing culture-warrior happens to dislike.

    Isaac Asimov’s pop science books: good, or dated?

    The only one I’ve read (the Collapsing Universe, reviewed here some time back) was good, and not too horribly dated.

    What’s your favorite new (to you) band for 2009 so far?

    The Gaslight Anthem, hands down. Found via the Last.fm “artists similar to the Hold Steady” playlist. The 59 Sound is a great record.

  23. #23 Pel Mel
    July 13, 2009

    Can you recommend any books or series for a high school student that wants to actually learn some physics?

    In the physics section of my local library, there are no books to actually teach physics. They are all popular science books! Some, like The god particle, are interesting themselves, but they don’t teach any physics.

  24. #24 milkshake
    July 13, 2009

    What were the most important pro-science influences in your childhood and when did you decide to major in physics?

    Do you have close family members, colleagues and friends that hold extreme left-wing views – and are afraid to disagree with them?

  25. #25 Harry
    July 13, 2009

    From h: “Chemists always talk about combustion as “a form of burning with oxygen” or something to that extent. What other form of burning is there? Is there “sulfur combustion”? What happens if you heat something up in an oxygenless atmosphere? Will it “burn”?”

    To supplement Brian’s response, combustion is just an exothermic reaction of something with oxygen. Some materials can react with sulfur instead of oxygen. But to have a gaseous form of reactive sulfur, you need hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Unlike oxygen, sulfur is a solid at room temperature. It melts at 115ºC (232ºF) and evaporates at 445ºC (833ºC), so you’d have to be somewhere incredibly hot before it would “sulfurize” within a gaseous sulfur environment. A few metals, such as lead, zinc, and molybdenum, are sometimes smelted from their naturally occurring sulfide minerals found in the ground. These sulfides exist from high temperature reactions with sulfur, either within volcanoes and deep within the Earth’s crust.

    As for what happens when you heat up something without oxygen: it gets hotter. Eventually, depending on the material, it will melt and finally evaporate into a gas. There are some other types of rearrangement of the atoms that can occur, but let’s leave it at that for now.

    Just a little materials science there for you…

  26. #26 Avi Steiner
    July 13, 2009

    #23: The Feynman Lectures are really good.

  27. #27 Johan Larson
    July 13, 2009

    Of the courses typically required for an undergraduate degree in physics, which most deserves to be dropped (or made optional)?

  28. #28 Matt Springer
    July 13, 2009

    When heating something organic in the absence of oxygen, you get pyrolysis. Thanks, professional arson-investigating dad!

  29. #29 Jason Failes
    July 13, 2009

    Where will string theory be in five years; Supported by new evidence, contradicted by new evidence, or striving for ever-higher levels of unfalsifiability?

  30. #30 Katherine
    July 13, 2009

    What is the most common question people ask you that shows they don’t understand the subject that they are questioning you about?

    (I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately where people get mocked/ignored/their understanding of the subject called into question because they ask a question in the comments, and I want to see if this lack of understanding occurs in every area or just a few specific ones. Yes it happens in more than one area too.)

  31. #31 LionDancer
    July 13, 2009

    I hate the term right-wing because it makes them seem…well right. I think riiiight-wing (said like a teenager would) is more accurate. Do you agree?

  32. #32 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2009

    #17 Most interesting/enjoyable class you’ve taught recently?

    Recently? Probably Modern Physics this past winter. I generally enjoy that quite a bit.

    Least enjoyable/most frustrating class you’ve taught?

    Intro Mechanics was kind of a drag this past spring, but external factors had a lot to do with that.

    #19: 1. Do you yoga?

    No.

    2. When was the last time all the clean laundry was in its rightful place?

    Sometime in 2003, I suspect.

    3. When did you realize you had a book on your hands? Had you set out to write a book?

    The book was a complete accident. After the Many Worlds, Many Treats hit Boing Boing, an agent contacted me and suggested that it would make a good book, which is what set the whole thing in motion. This is far and away the strangest thing that has happened to me in my life.

    #20: If you could attend a dinner with any major political figure in the world, who would it be, and why?

    Living political figure? Barack Obama, just to see if he’s really that good. Bill Clinton would be a close second, for similar reasons.

    #21: What one item for steelykid was most surprisingly useful?

    The pacifier-with-a-stuffed-dog-attached, suggested by somebody in a comment here, has been absolutely essential.

    #23: Can you recommend any books or series for a high school student that wants to actually learn some physics?

    It’s hard to suggest books without knowing your background. The best way to go for somebody with a good high school background would be a good intro textbook. I’m fond of the Six Ideas That Shaped Physics set, and Matter and Interactions is good, especially if you have a computer and can play with VPython. If you’re looking for more narrative and fewer homework problems, I really enjoyed Robert Oerter’s The Theory of Nearly Everythng which gives a terrific introduction to the Standard Model of particle physics, starting at a pretty basic level.

    #24: What were the most important pro-science influences in your childhood and when did you decide to major in physics?

    I decided to major in physics after taking physics in high school. I literally do not remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science, making the most important influence question difficult, and thus not germane.

    Do you have close family members, colleagues and friends that hold extreme left-wing views – and are afraid to disagree with them?

    No.

    #27: Of the courses typically required for an undergraduate degree in physics, which most deserves to be dropped (or made optional)?

    While I enjoy teaching modern physics, the classic sophomore-level survey of a grab-bag of modern topics is something that I think can be eliminated with proper curriculum design. It’s not a coincidence that this is how my undergraduate curriculum was organized.

    #29: Where will string theory be in five years; Supported by new evidence, contradicted by new evidence, or striving for ever-higher levels of unfalsifiability?

    I said easy questions, damn it!

    #30: What is the most common question people ask you that shows they don’t understand the subject that they are questioning you about?

    I’m not sure I can come up with a generic formulation, but it’s usually something about basic quantum that indicates confusion about the dual wave and particle character of material particles. That’s edging toward “hard question.”

    #31: I hate the term right-wing because it makes them seem…well right. I think riiiight-wing (said like a teenager would) is more accurate. Do you agree?

    If you’re looking for derisive terms, “wingnut” takes less time to say, and is easier to convey in print.

  33. #33 CCPhysicist
    July 13, 2009

    You say you don’t like chalk. Do you like white board markers? If so, which color do you think erases best?

  34. #34 John Novak
    July 14, 2009

    (The socks were behind the couch.)

  35. #35 estraven
    July 14, 2009

    How much time do you devote to blogging, on a daily/weekly basis?

  36. #36 Anon
    July 14, 2009

    Given the number of molecules in a synaptic vesicle, the level of exitation required to initiate an action potential, and the number of simultaneous channels at work in any given instance of thinking (or other behavior), how many orders of magnitude is Penrose asking us to jump in order for him to pretend that the seeming atemporal nature of mind is a quantum process, and not mere illusion?

  37. #37 Kate
    July 14, 2009

    This won’t be practical knowledge for you for some time, but…

    What do you tell a fourteen year old girl who’s growing one breast at a time?

  38. #38 Rich
    July 14, 2009

    2) Chemists always talk about combustion as “a form of burning with oxygen” or something to that extent. What other form of burning is there? Is there “sulfur combustion”? What happens if you heat something up in an oxygenless atmosphere? Will it “burn”?

    There are also hypergolic fuels, which burn in the absense of oxygen. They’re used frequently in rocket engines which fly too high in, or outside of, the atmosphere — so there’s no oxygen for the combustion. But hydrazine + dinitrogen tetroxide (for example) results in hypergolic ignition. The space shuttle’s OMS engines are used for orbital maneuvering, and they use hypergolic fuel.

  39. #39 Kevin Sooley
    July 17, 2009

    I’ve got a question! This might be too late though.

    My girlfriend asked me how far underwater a lightning strike penetrates underwater. I was thinking you could either model it as a capacitor and get the distance under water. Maybe?

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