Free Thought

The image below is a phylogram, illustrating the degree of variation in a sequence of mitochondrial DNA. The concept is fairly simple: if two DNA samples are from individuals that are evolutionarily distant from one another, they'll have accumulated more differences in their mitochondrial DNA, and will be drawn farther apart from one another. If the two individuals are closely related, their DNA will be more similar, and they'll be drawn closer together. That's the key thing you need to know to understand what's going on. There are other, more complicated analyses going on in the figure, too…
Over at Backreaction, Bee has a nice piece on our current age of virality. Toward the end, she discusses some of the ways this applies to science, specifically a quote from this Nature article about collaborative efforts to measure "big G", and a story about a Chinese initiative to encourage collaboration. She writes of the latter, "Essentially, it seems, they’re giving out salary increases for scientists to think the same as their colleagues." And I agree that this can be a problem-- there's a famous paper I can never find looking at the evolution of the accepted value of some physical…
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its official prediction of what this winter is going to be like. And yes, it is in ALL CAPS!!! I've pasted it below, but first a summary of the relevant points. According to NOAA El Nino There will be a weak El Nino, late Autumn or Winter. Or, there could be a moderate EL Nino. Or, there could just be this thing that might someday be an El Nino but doesn't quite do that for an indefinate period of time. November, December, January Temps Warmer along the West and Northwest, all the Northern State and New England, and the…
This is one scary book. Never mind The Exorcist or Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain trilogy, this is the real thing. And that's because unlike those authors' fevered dreams of gods and devils and vampires and plagues, the nightmare that all of our governments are spying on is really real. And we can thank Edward Snowden for uncovering and releasing information about the extent of the spying and Glenn Greenwald (and others) for spreading the word far and wide. Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is the story of…
The second day of the "Quantum Boot Camp" was much lighter on talks. The only speaker was Ray Laflamme from the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, who gave a nice introduction to quantum technologies. While he did spend a bit of time at the start going through Shor's algorithm for factoring numbers (following up a discussion from Wednesday), he mostly focused on ways to use quantum physics to improve sensors of technological interest. So, for example, he talked about how efforts to develop techniques for error-correcting codes in liquid state NMR quantum computing led to the…
Since this part of the trip is actually work-like, I might as well dust off the blog and post some actual physics content. Not coincidentally, this also provides a way to put off fretting about my talk tomorrow... I'm at the Nordita Workshop for Science Writers on quantum theory, which a couple of the attending writers have referred to online as boot camp, though in an affectionate way. The idea is to provide a short crash course on cool quantum physics, so as to give writers a bit more background in subjects they might need to cover. The first talk was from Rainer Kaltenbaek (whose name I…
In which Rhett and I talk about awful academic computing systems, Worldcon, our Wikipedia pages, and AAPT meeting envy. Some links: -- Rhett's Wikipedia entry -- My Wikipedia entry -- The 2014 AAPT Summer Meeting -- LonCon 3, this year's Worldcon -- My puzzling Worldcon schedule We have some ideas for what to do next time, when our little hangout is old enough to drink, but you need to watch all the way to the end to hear those.
Given the recent Feynman explosion (timeline of events), some people may be casting about looking for an alternative source of colorful-character anecdotes in physics. Fortunately, the search doesn't need to go all that far-- if you flip back a couple of pages in the imaginary alphabetical listing of physicists, you'll find a guy who fits the bill very well: Enrico Fermi. Fermi's contributions to physics are arguably as significant as Feynman's. He was the first to work out the statistical mechanics of particles obeying the Pauli exclusion principle, now called "fermions" in his honor (Paul…
A couple of years ago, the Templeton Foundation funded the New Frontiers program to pose "Big Questions" in some areas of science. This is a slow liveblog - part II will be tomorrow with more cosmology and life in the universe Seed funding was provided to 20 investigators and small groups to start exploratory research, and, now, it is time to say what they found. This follows up from the New Frontiers kick-off conference back in 2012. The New Frontiers conference to report the hint of the beginning of the draft of the answers is under way... most of the investigators and about half of the…
"All one can really leave one's children is what's inside their heads. Education, in other words, and not earthly possessions, is the ultimate legacy, the only thing that cannot be taken away." -Wernher von Braun After another outstanding week here at Starts With A Bang, it's time to take a detailed look at what you've had to say about everything we've talked about. From the expanding Universe to galaxies near and far, to the future of NASA and more, here's the weekly recap, just in case you missed anything (or want a second look): Why does light stretch as the Universe expands? (for Ask…
There's another comment by Andy Lacis at Climate Etc., and just like the original its deeply under-appreciated by the residents. Indeed it would have been unappreciated by me because I don't read her posts much less wade into the comments unless someone draws my attention. Before we go onto AL's wise words, lets read some very silly ones: Climate and weather model share the same underlying mathematical dynamic. So models are undoubtedly chaotic - this is the kind of stuff that JC chooses to highlight at the top of her posts. You'd be better off with my Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear: chaos,…
I've been setting up schedules with my summer research students lately, and the main constraint we're facing with that is that I'm going to spend most of August in Europe. Part of this is pure vacation-- Kate and I are going to the UK for a couple of weeks. Part of it is the World Science Fiction Convention in London, in the middle of that trip, where both Kate and I expect to be on programming (though there aren't any set items this far out). And the last bit has just been officially announced: I'm speaking at the Nordita Workshop for Science Writers organized by Sabine Hossenfelder from…
By Travis Earles, Lockheed Martin Senior Manager, Advanced Material and Nanotechnology Initiatives “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.” -Carl Sagan, famed astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist   Imagine a world where we have the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. A world where novel materials enable entirely new approaches to design and production that is faster and better than ever before. The nanotechnology exhibits at the upcoming USA Science & Engineering Festival will provide a…
I'm always interested in the present and future of libraries. There's a steady stream of reports from various organizations that are broadly relevant to the (mostly academic) library biz but they can be tough to keep track of. I thought I'd aggregate some of those here. Of course I've very likely missed a few, so suggestions are welcome in the comments. Shaping the Future of Monograph Publishing in the Liberal Arts: Results of a survey to Oberlin Group Faculty 2014 Planning Guide for Data Management ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2013 Higher Education's Top-…
Earlier this week I was invited (er, invited myself, really) to give a talk to a class of first year computer science students about open access and open science. Sadly, there was a partial snow day that day and I was unable to actually give the talk. Which is too bad, because I've done similar talks before for undergrads and really enjoy the opportunity. In particular, the challenge I wanted to set forth for those budding computing professions was to be a part of developing software solutions for science on the web be they open access journals systems or web data hosting or whatver. In any…
I have a son who's in the middle of his second year as a physics undergrad. As you can imagine, I occasionally pass along a link or two to him pointing to stuff on the web I think he might find particularly interesting or useful. Thinking on that fact, I surmised that perhaps other science students might find those links interesting or useful as well. Hence, this series of posts here on the blog. By necessity and circumstance, the items I've chosen will be influenced by my son's choice of major and my own interest in the usefulness of computational approaches to science and of social media…
In which Rhett and I talk about color vision, undergraduate research projects, blog networks, outreach activities, and how thermodynamics is a lie. Things mentioned in the discussion: The Flame Challenge My post about looking at computer monitors with a spectrometer Physics Quest I'm inadvertently doing a bit of product placement here-- the T-shirt I'm wearing is from Surviving the World, and the water bottle I'm drinking from is from the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo. I expected it to be colder in my office on campus, but it was actually pretty warm, so I took off the other…
This year's "Flame Challenge" is to explain color in terms an 11-year-old can follow. I have opinions on this subject, a background in AMO physics, and access to scientific equipment, so I'm putting something together. In the course of this, though, it occurred to me to wonder how my different portable computing devices process color. And since I have access to an Ocean Optics USB4000 spectrometer, I can answer this question in more detail than anybody needs. So, I have three principal electronic devices that I use to do computer-type things: a Moto X smartphone, an iPad, and a Lenovo…
Taking a Longer View Why librarianship is difficult and contentious Schism in the Stacks: Is the University Library As We Know It Destined for Extinction? The Future of Libraries: Harvard Students Are Thinking Outside the Box Why piles of bad applications may not portend disaster Silencing, librarianship, and gender: sticking up for stories Making Space for the Silenced A New Year’s Vision of the Future of Libraries as Ebookstores How Users Search the Library from a Single Search Box 5 Futures for Libraries How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood Who needs facts? We appear to be in the Post…
X-STEM - presented by Northrop Grumman Foundation and MedImmune - is an Extreme STEM symposium for elementary through high school students featuring interactive presentations by an exclusive group of visionaries who aim to empower and inspire kids about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These top STEM role models and industry leaders are sure to ignite your students’ curiosity through storytelling and live demonstrations. Our spotlight on our X-STEM Speakers continues with Robotics Engineer Dr. Hod Lipson from  Cornell University's Computational Synthesis Lab…