Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two Cultures--C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures

ISBN-10: 0521457300
ISBN-13: 978-0521457309

"Fifty years on, CP Snow's 'Two Cultures' are united in desperation"

In a famous lecture 50 years ago, CP Snow warned that science and arts were becoming 'two cultures' - but the problem now is far, far worse


Robert Whelan

May 4th, 2009

On May 7 1959, the celebrated novelist C P Snow mounted the podium in the Senate House in Cambridge to deliver that year's Rede Lecture. The title was "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", and his theme the dangerously wide gap that had opened up between scientists and "literary intellectuals".

He spoke of scientists who could scarcely struggle through a novel by Dickens, but more importantly of humanities professors who were ignorant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, who sneered at science as an inferior branch of learning that no really cultured person needed to trouble with. "If the scientists have the future in their bones," he claimed, "then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist."

Snow compared Britain unfavourably with the US and USSR, in terms of numbers of young people who remained in education to the age of 18 and above. The British system, he argued, forced children to specialise at an unusually early age, with snobbery dictating that the children would be pushed towards the "traditional culture" and the professions, rather than science and industry.

He compared Britain with Venice in its decadence: "Like us, [the Venetians] had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident… They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it."

These were important themes, but no one could have predicted the extent of the debate that "The Two Cultures" provoked, with articles and arguments springing forth in countries around the world. And then, in 1962, the literary critic F R Leavis chose to pass judgment on Snow's thesis. His counter-lecture was so astonishingly vitriolic, seasoned with an almost toxic dose of the most vulgar abuse, that people were still talking about it in shock and awe when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge 10 years later.

Leavis began by criticising the confident tone of Snow's lecture. He went on to assure the audience that: "Not only is [Snow] not a genius, he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be… 'The Two Cultures' exhibits an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style." Although Snow had trained as a scientist before becoming a writer, his novels were mediocre – and Leavis was not interested in any literature that was not great. As the academic Stefan Collini put it: "A malevolent deity, setting out to design a single figure in whom the largest number of Leavis's deepest antipathies would find themselves embodied, could not have done better than to create Charles Percy Snow."

Leavis's lecture was reprinted in The Spectator on March 9 1962, and later in the year in book form by Chatto and Windus. Both publishers, seeking to avoid an action for libel, contacted Snow to ask if he required any changes. To his eternal credit, he said that the text should be published as it stood: perhaps he felt that whatever the hurt to his feelings, Leavis's contribution would keep the debate going.

If so, he was right. The controversy has been turned over and pulled apart by commentators from all points on the academic and political compass for nearly half a century. Such was the intensity of debate that it might be supposed that these were age-old themes: but in fact, the idea of separating academic disciplines into groups known as science and humanities was no older than the 19th century. The term "scientist" was only coined in 1833, and it was not until 1882 that another Rede Lecturer, Matthew Arnold, discussed – under the title of "Literature and Science" – whether or not a classical education was still relevant in an age of great scientific and technical advance.

Arnold was responding – with infinitely more courtesy than Leavis – to an earlier lecture by T H Huxley, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his rumbustious defence of evolution, who argued that science was as valid an intellectual training as the classics.

It was not a popular opinion. As late as my own childhood in the Sixties, the bright boys were expected to read classics at Oxford, and the less bright steered towards the labs. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Andrew Huxley recounts that, when he switched from classics to physics, the headmaster of Westminster School accused him of "forsaking virtue for pleasure".

"There is only one way out of all this," Snow had argued. "It is, of course, by rethinking our education." In September 2006, such an attempt was finally made, in response to a perceived crisis in science education. Fewer students were taking science at A-level; the majority of science teachers in schools lacked a relevant degree; university departments were closing or being threatened with closure; and industrialists were complaining that it was becoming impossible to find good scientists.

The new science GCSE was designed to persuade more students to take science at A-level and university by making it more interesting and relevant. The three disciplines of chemistry, physics and biology were conflated as "scientific literacy"; children were encouraged to discuss topical issues such as global warming and MMR vaccines, with particular reference to media coverage.

David Perks, a physics teacher, criticised this approach. Writing for the Institute of Ideas, and later my own think tank, Civitas, he argued that it treated science as a branch of media studies, rather than as a group of discrete bodies of knowledge to be transmitted to the student; it assumed that children can relate only to what they know, and that they should not be challenged by new concepts; it gave too much weight to what children say they enjoy, rather than stretching them to develop their capacity for abstract thought; and it replaced the controlled laboratory experiment – "the backbone of modern scientific enquiry" – with field studies.

He was right on every count: students are now less likely to say that they are interested in science and intend to study it at A-level, and independent schools are bailing out of the new science GCSE in favour of the international GCSE, which retains the three separate sciences. This is contributing towards what Perks describes as "educational apartheid", with state school pupils less likely to read for science degrees at university because they simply won't know enough.

This would have appalled Snow, who came from a lower middle-class background and grew up with few material advantages, attending the local grammar in Leicester and feasting on the books in the public library.

His astonishing progress – a fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge, by the age of 25 – would be almost impossible to imagine today, for all sorts of reasons. Most of the grammar schools that provided a ladder out of poverty for bright children from poor families have gone, while the academic rigour that characterised all kinds of teaching is also largely a thing of the past.

Indeed, the problems that characterise our education system are no respecters of subject boundaries. A history don at Cambridge told me that he was teaching undergraduates who did not know what the Renaissance and the Reformation were, or which came first. Secondary schools complain that they have to do catch-up when children join them from primary schools; universities have to teach the basics of writing an essay.

This is a situation that would have appalled Leavis and Snow equally. The old debate between arts and sciences, to which they gave the most pungent expression, is now completely out of date. It is no longer a question of whether children should be taught to translate Horace or to solve algebraic equations: it is a question of whether they are to be taught anything at all.

So is there any point in going over this famous debate again? I think the answer is yes, because the Snow/Leavis controversy raised the most profound questions about the nature of education and what we expect it to achieve.

Snow was right to criticise the supercilious dismissal of science as not fit for gentlemen: scientific understanding can be both beautiful and vital for our culture. Leavis was right to call attention to the need for science to operate within the framework of moral values that a humane education can generate: the fact that science permits us to do certain things doesn't mean that we should.

More importantly, the gentlemanly disdain for science that irritated Huxley and Snow was as nothing to the extraordinary suspicion of science that has more recently emerged. Science now faces the charge that it is only one way of understanding the world, not necessarily superior to rival conceptions – and moreover, that it is to blame, among other things, for a potential environmental holocaust in the shape of global warming, because it has enabled more human beings to live on the planet.

In his 1959 lecture, Snow said that if intellectual Luddites wanted to turn their backs on the benefits of industrialisation, go hungry and see most of their children die in infancy, they were free to make that choice. "I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion," he said. "But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose."

At the heart of a liberal education is the notion that human beings are capable of moving from barbarism to civilisation by using their intellectual and moral capacities – and that is an idea which ought to unite scientists and literary intellectuals alike.

[Dedicated to a nameless British physics website who are not advocates of academic knowledge for the populace.]

The Two Cultures

C. P. and the humanities

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Physics contest announced June 5th

We have now reached the submission deadline for the Physics Central Toy Box video contest. Thanks to everyone for the fantastic entries. We will review the Toy Box videos and announce the winners on June 5th!

Physics Central

Physics, art--Leonardo style

Particle events depicted as books. The few stacked neatly in piles are events selected by the CMS high-level trigger system for further study; more than 99 percent have been rejected and tossed in a pile.

"Channeling da Vinci"

A physicist sketches science in the style of an old master.


Lisa McCarthy


Sergio Cittolin is first and foremost a physicist in search of answers to the mysteries of the universe. Yet he also has an artistic bent, and his talent for drawing has woven itself nicely into his 30 years of work at CERN. The result is a collection of Leonardo da Vinci-style illustrations that brighten CERN hallways, a book, and the covers of a number of technical documents.

Cittolin has been an incessant doodler since his early years in Vittorio Veneto, Italy. He has sketched his way through school lectures and professional meetings. Now in charge of trigger and data acquisition for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, he tends to chair meetings rather than just attend them; "This has made it more difficult to find the time to sketch," he admits.

In 1992 the first of Cittolin’s da Vinci-style drawings appeared on the cover of a CMS experiment design report. With collider operations still years away and key technologies not yet invented, "I thought that the Leonardo style was suitable to give the feeling of anticipation of new ideas," he says. "Da Vinci was the father of all engineers and described many of his inventions a long time before technology was ready to realize them."

As a naturalist, da Vinci probed, prodded, and tested his way to a deeper understanding of how organisms work and why, often dissecting his object of study with this aim. "I thought, why not present the idea of data analysis to the world within the naturalist world of Leonardo?" Cittolin says. In the drawing below, the CMS detector is the organism to be opened; the particles passing through it and the tracks they leave behind are organs exposed for further investigation.

Cittolin brings a sense of humor to his work. For example, after betting CMS colleague Ariella Cattai that he could produce a quality drawing for the cover of the CMS tracker technical proposal by a given deadline, he included in the drawing a secret message in mirror-image writing—which was also a favorite of da Vinci's. The message jokingly demanded a particular reward for his hard work. The completed picture was delivered on time and within a few hours Cattai cleverly spotted and deciphered the message. She promptly presented him with the requested bottle of wine.

Paris Sphicas, physics coordinator for the CMS experiment, says of Cittolin's artwork, "The graphics are amazing in numerous ways. Foremost is the depiction of modern-day systems and actions in terms of medieval elements: the tons of data are drawn as piles of books; lasers become oil lamps; complicated systems, typically electronic, find mechanical analogs which are ingeniously conceived. Second, all these elements are combined in a way that the drawing gives, literally, a very short summary of what takes about 500 pages to describe. Third, it’s the art itself: it's all drawn in the da Vinci style. From the text—which, of course, reads backwards and can only be deciphered in front of a mirror—to the line technique, the drawings look and feel like genuine works of Leonardo himself."

Even with 10 technical manual covers to his credit, having his illustrations published in The Particle Odyssey by Oxford University Press, and seeing his artwork exhibited on the walls of CERN, Cittolin is all about the physics. "The biggest pleasure is to complete what I’ve started and see it working at the LHC," he says. "It is a real adventure to build something so unique and maybe fundamental."

As for his drawings, Cittolin modestly insists that they are "just pictures," adding, "Maybe I will find more time to draw in retirement."

Like a body on the anatomy table, the detector is dissected to extract information about particle events.

One slice of the CMS detector is cut away to expose the magnet coil.

In the first stage of sifting particle events to find the most interesting ones, algorithms in a two-dimensional matrix are used to identify electrons, jets and muons.

A drawing of the innermost part of the CMS detector, bristling with silicon tiles, took inspiration from the nine circles of hell in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

The CMS detector is lowered into the experimental hall.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kavya Shivashankar..."Laodicean"...Scripps' Spelling Bee winner

Congratulations to local girl Kavya Shivashankar the 2009 Scripps' Spelling Bee winner.

"Spelling Bee 2009: Kavya Shivashankar Wins on Laodicean"


Michael David Smith

May 28th, 2009


Kavya Shivashankar, an eighth grader from Olathe, Kansas, correctly spelled L-a-o-d-i-c-e-a-n to win the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday night. Kavya won after a championship round in which runner-up Tim Ruiter was eliminated on "maecenas" and third-place finisher Aishwarya Pastapur was eliminated on "menhir."

Making her fourth appearance in the national bee, Kavya looked calm and collected throughout, never wavering as she spelled words like "phoresy" in the championship round. (The other championship round words that were spelled correctly were antonomasia, bouquiniste, oriflamme, guayabera, isagoge and sophrosyne.)

In earlier rounds, Kavya effortlessly rattled off seemingly challenging words like "hydrargyrum," "blancmange" and "baignoire."


[Indifferent or lukewarm especially in matters of religion.]

"Kavya Shivashankar, 13, Kansas Girl, Wins National Spelling Bee"


Joseph White

May 28th, 2009

Huffington Post

Mirle Shivashankar, left, hugs his daughter Kavya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, after she won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, on Thursday, May 28, 2009. At right is his wife, Sandy Shivashankar.

WASHINGTON — Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to "Laodicean" to become the nation's spelling champion.

The budding neurosurgeon from Olathe, Kan., outlasted 11 finalists Thursday night to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge champion's trophy.

After spelling the winning word, which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics, Kavya got huge hugs from her father, mother and little sister.

Kavya was making her fourth appearance at the bee, having finishing 10th, eighth and fourth over the last three years. She enjoys playing the violin, bicycling, swimming and learning Indian classical dance, and her role model is Nupur Lala, the 1999 champion featured in the documentary "Spellbound."

Second place went to 12-year-old Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va., the only non-teenager in the finals. He misspelled "maecenas," which means a cultural benefactor.

Aishwarya Pastapur, 13, from Springfield, Ill., who loved to pump her arm and exclaim "Yes!" after getting a word correct, finished third after flubbing "menhir", a type of monolith.

The 82nd annual bee attracted a record 293 participants, with the champion determined on network television in prime time for the fourth consecutive year. There was even a new humorous twist: Organizers turned the sentences read by pronouncer Jacques Bailly into jokes.

"While Lena's geusioleptic cooking wowed her boyfriend, what really melted his heart was that she won the National Spelling Bee," Bailly said while helping explain a word that describes flavorful food.

Then there was this gem, explaining a room in an ancient Greek bath: "It was always a challenge to tell whose toga was whose in the apodyterium."

But the laughter turned to shock when the speller, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., flubbed the word, spelling it "apodeiterium." Sidharth was last year's runner-up and a favorite to take the title this year. He buried his head in his hands for about a minute after he took his seat next to his parents, while the audience and other spellers gave him a rare mid-round standing ovation.

This year's finalists were all 13 years old, except for 12-year-old Tim. Otherwise, they were a diverse group, with hometowns from New York to California. One was born in Malaysia. Another can speak Hindi and wore five good-luck charms. Tim is a science fiction buff who apparently does a great impersonation of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, kicked off the championship rounds by telling of a bout with nerves that caused her to drop out of a sixth-grade spelling contest.

"I know that confidence is the most important thing you can give a child," she told the audience.

The only speller to hear the telltale bell in the first championship round was Tussah Heera of Las Vegas, who left out an "r" in the surgical term "herniorrhaphy." She took a seat in her mother's lap and wiped a tear or two as the competition continued.

Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., spelled the economic term "ophelimity" as if she were asking a question, then exclaimed "Yes!" and raised her arms when told she had spelled the word correctly.

Then the words started getting harder. The next round claimed three spellers, including Neetu, who finished her attempt at "derriengue" by smiling and saying "ding" because she knew she was going to hear the bell.

Kennyi Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind., added a novel flair to the bee, demonstrating the kind of confident showmanship one would expect from a professional athlete. The nearsighted boy would think aloud, scratch his chin and sometimes put on glasses so he could see the pronouncer's lips. After spelling a word correctly, he would strut to his seat, point to supporters and mug for the camera.

Kennyi was finally eliminated on the "palatschinken," an unusual type of pancake. He shrugged and said "tried my best" after he heard the bell, then shook his head bemusedly when told the correct spelling.

As an amendment, did you ever wonder how the words are chosen for the spelling bee?

Scripps' Spelling Bee 2006

Finola Hackett [left] placed second after misspelling "weltschmerz" [
mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state]. Katharine "Kerry" Close [right] won by correctly spelling "ursprache" [a reconstructed, hypothetical parent language, as Proto-Germanic].

"How Do They Pick the Words for the National Spelling Bee?"


Nina Shen Rastogi

May 28th, 2009


The final round of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee will be broadcast Thursday night on ABC. Contestants in the preliminary rounds have already faced such lexicographic puzzlers as onychorrhexis, mostaccioli, and schottische. How do bee organizers come up with the tournament's word list?

By committee. The highly guarded process is coordinated by Carolyn Andrews, the bee's "word list manager" since 1998. (Andrews, a former English teacher and technical editor, is also the mother of the 1994 bee champion.) Twelve people are involved in compiling more than 1,000 words for the national bee over the course of the year leading up to the event. The group's membership remains mysterious, though Paige Kimble, the director of the spelling bee, did confirm that she is ultimately responsible for the content of the list and that James Lowe, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster—whose Third New International Dictionary is the bible of the bee—and Barrie Trinkle, the 1973 champ, both participate.

Details on how the group does its work are fuzzy. Two sources provide some insight into the process from a few years ago—a 2007 document that used to be hosted on the bee's Web site and James Maguire's 2006 book American Bee. According to those sources, members of the "word panel" would spend the summer months keeping their eyes open for good spelling-bee words as they read, listened to the radio, and went about their daily lives. (Shopping catalogs, which often feature arcane words in their product descriptions, seemed to be a particularly fruitful source.) In the fall, the panel would meet for two days to compile a rough draft of the list. Each word would be rated by level of difficulty, using factors like length, whether it can be spelled phonetically or has obvious etymological roots, and how "fashionable" it is. For example, cortege, meaning "funeral procession," got knocked down in the rankings after Princess Di died and the term appeared in numerous press reports.

In the winter, Andrews would prune the list. Then there would be another two-day panel meeting in February before the list went to Jacques Bailly, the bee's official "pronouncer." Bailly would spend the next several months practicing pronunciations and compiling his own set of notes. In May, the bee judges would review the final word list and, in a final meeting the day before the bee, approve it for competition.

The process may work somewhat differently today, however. Kimble, the spelling bee director, stressed that the process described above is out-of-date, though she declined to elaborate further. She did tell the Explainer that the panelists never consult old spelling bee lists as they come up with new words. After 84 years of competition, some words do end up reappearing. You can look for these in the 794-page "Consolidated Word List," which was compiled in 2004 and includes competition words dating back to 1950. Some examples: campodeiform (having an elongated and flattened shape), firkin (a British unit of weight for butter equal to 56 pounds), and wobbulator (a testing device for radio sets).

Words with foreign origins—like 2006's winning word, Ursprache—are always popular. (Foreign roots can be wielded in tricky ways, though: One contestant got dinged in the preliminaries this year for misspelling kakistocracy, or "government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens," with a c, like cacophony—both Greek-derived words come from kakos, meaning "bad.") Carolyn Andrews has also expressed a fondness for eponyms—words derived from proper names, like sandwich and malapropism—and blended words, like netiquette.

Scripps' Spelling Bee

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paperback books--sci-fi

Ace, Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Berkley, Dell, Fawcett Gold Medal, Gold Eagle, Lancer, Panther, Penguin, Perma, Pocket Books, Pyramid, Signet--just a few trade publishers of science fiction paperbacks. They featured the giants of science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Cummings, Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer, Fred Hoyle, Fritz Leiber, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon. Here are some covers from the days of paperback popularity.

A Short History of Paperbacks

Paperback Books

Paperback Books in the 20th Century: A Resource Review

Paperback Revolution

Sex in space--redux

Fusion methodology--again?

[Click to enlarge to read.]

Amused that cold fusion and kith and kin are back.

"In Hot Pursuit of Fusion (or Folly)"


William J. Broad

May 26th, 2009

The New York Times

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Here in a dry California valley, outside a small town, a cathedral of light is to be dedicated on Friday. Like the cathedrals of antiquity, it is built on an unrivaled scale with unmatched technology, and it embodies a scientific doctrine that, if confirmed, might lift civilization to new heights.

"Bringing Star Power to Earth" reads a giant banner that was recently unfurled across a building the size of a football stadium.

The $3.5 billion site is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. For more than half a century, physicists have dreamed of creating tiny stars that would inaugurate an era of bold science and cheap energy, and NIF is meant to kindle that blaze.

In theory, the facility's 192 lasers — made of nearly 60 miles of mirrors and fiber optics, crystals and light amplifiers — will fire as one to pulverize a fleck of hydrogen fuel smaller than a match head. Compressed and heated to temperatures hotter than those of the core of a star, the hydrogen atoms will fuse into helium, releasing bursts of thermonuclear energy.

The project's director, Ed Moses, said that getting to the cusp of ignition (defined as the successful achievement of fusion) had taken some 7,000 workers and 3,000 contractors a dozen years, their labors creating a precision colossus of millions of parts and 60,000 points of control, 30 times as many as on the space shuttle.

"It's the cathedral story," Dr. Moses said during a tour. "We put together the best physicists, the best engineers, the best of industry and academia. It's not often you get that opportunity and pull it off."

In February, NIF fired its 192 beams into its target chamber for the first time, and it now has the world's most powerful laser, as well as the largest optical instrument ever built. But raising its energies still further to the point of ignition could take a year or more of experimentation and might, officials concede, prove daunting and perhaps impossible.

For that reason, skeptics dismiss NIF as a colossal delusion that is squandering precious resources at a time of economic hardship. Just operating it, officials grant, will cost $140 million a year. Some doubters ridicule it as the National Almost Ignition Facility, or NAIF.

Even friends of the effort are cautious. "They've made progress," said Roy Schwitters, a University of Texas physicist who leads a federal panel that recently assessed NIF's prospects. "Ignition may eventually be possible. But there’s still much to learn."

Dr. Moses, while offering no guarantees, argued that any great endeavor involved risks and that the gamble was worth it because of the potential rewards.

He said that NIF, if successful, would help keep the nation's nuclear arms reliable without underground testing, would reveal the hidden life of stars and would prepare the way for radically new kinds of power plants.

"If fusion energy works," he said, "you'll have, for all intents and purposes, a limitless supply of carbon-free energy that’s not geopolitically sensitive. What more would you want? It's a game changer."

NIF is to fire its lasers for 30 years.

Like the dedication of a cathedral, the event here on Friday at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is to be a celebration of hope. Officials say some 3,500 people will attend. The big names include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Energy Secretary Steven Chu (whose agency finances NIF) and Charles Townes, a Nobel Laureate and laser pioneer.

In preparation, workmen here last Thursday washed windows and planted flowers on the lush campus, the day auspiciously sunny.

Dr. Moses, who runs science programs for high school students in his spare time, broke from his own preparations to show a visitor the NIF complex.

In its lobby, he held up a device smaller than a postage stamp. This is where it all starts, he said. From this kind of tiny laser, beams emerge that grow large and bright during their long journey through NIF's maze of mirrors, lenses and amplifiers.

The word laser is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. And each particle of light, or photon, is amplified, Dr. Moses said, to "around 10 to the 25th" photons. Or, "10 million, million, million, million."

A nearby stand held a thick slab of pink glass about the size of a traffic sign — an example of an amplifier. NIF has 3,200 in all. Dr. Moses said the big step occurred when giant flash tubes — like ones in cameras but six feet long and 7,680 in number — flashed in unison to excite the pink glass. Laser photons then zip through, stimulating cascades of offspring, making the beam much stronger, such amplification happening over and over.

Photons moving in step with one another is what makes laser light so bright and concentrated and, in some instances, so potent.

Dr. Moses picked up a mock capsule of hydrogen fuel. It was all of two millimeters wide, or less than a tenth of an inch.

"It heats up," he said. "It blows in at a million miles an hour, moving that way for about five-billionths of a second. It gets to about the diameter of your hair. When it gets that small, that fast, you hit temperatures where it can start fusing — around 100 million degrees centigrade, or 180 million degrees Fahrenheit."

Hair nets, hard hats and safety goggles were donned before entering NIF proper. Repeated steps on sticky pads pulled dirt from shoes. Dust is NIF's bane, Dr. Moses said. It can ruin optics and experiments. He said the 33-foot-wide target chamber was evacuated to a near-vacuum, much the same as outer space — a void where light can zip along with almost no impediments.

Dr. Moses said the team fired the laser only at night and did maintenance and equipment upgrades during the day. "This is a 24/7 facility," he said.

The previous night, he said, the laser had been fired in an effort to improve coordination and timing. The 192 rays have to strike the target as close to simultaneously as possible.

The individual beams, he said, have to hit "within a few trillionths of a second" of one another if the fuel is to burn, and be pointed at the target with a precision "within half the diameter of your hair."

The control room, modeled on NASA's mission control in Houston, was buzzing with activity, even though some consoles sat empty. Phones rang. Walkie-talkies crackled. The countdown to firing the lasers, Dr. Moses said, took three and half hours, with the process "pretty much in the hands of computers."

The operations plan for NIF, he added, is to conduct 700 to 1,000 laser firings per year, with about 200 of the experiments focused on ignition. There is no danger of a runaway blast, he said. Fusion works by heat and pressure, not chain reactions. Moreover, the fuel is minuscule and the laser flash extraordinarily short. During a year of operations, Dr. Moses said, “the facility is on for only three-thousandths of a second,” yet will generate a growing cascade of data and insights.

Next on the tour, after more sticky pads, was the holy of holies, the room surrounding the target chamber. It looked like an engine room out of a science-fiction starship. The beam lines — now welters of silvery metal filled with giant crystals that shifted the concentrated light to higher frequencies — converged on the chamber's blue wall. Its surface was dotted with silvery portholes where complex sensors could be placed to evaluate the tiny blasts.

"When it's running," Dr. Moses said, "there's a lot of stuff at the chamber's center."

Despite the giant banner outside and its confident prediction, it is an open question whether NIF’s sensors will ever detect the rays of a tiny star, independent scientists say.

"I personally think it's going to be a close call," said William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University who directed federal energy research for the first President George Bush. "It's a very complicated system, and you’re dependent on many things working right."

Dr. Happer said a big issue for NIF was achieving needed symmetries at minute scales. "There's plenty of room," he added, "for nasty surprises."

Doubters say past troubles may be a prologue. When proposed in 1994, the giant machine was to cost $1.2 billion and be finished by 2002. But costs rose and the completion date kept getting pushed back, so much so that Congress threatened to pull the plug. Today, critics see the delays and the $3.5 billion price tag as signs of overreaching.

Dr. Moses, who was put in charge of NIF a decade ago in an effort to right the struggling project, said that a decade from now, as NIF opened new frontiers, no one would remember the missteps. He compared the project to feats like going to the Moon, building the atom bomb and inventing the airplane.

"Stumbles are not unusual when you take on big-risk projects," he said.

Dr. Moses added that the stumble rule applied to cathedrals as well.

Having grown up in Eastchester, close to New York City, he noted that the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was still under construction after more than a century. Is it worthwhile, despite the delays?

"Of course it is," he said. Taking on big projects that challenge the imagination "is who we are as a species."

Cold's back!

"Hydrinos" energy source????

LENR or "Cold Fusion"--same charlatan

Rusi Taleyarkhan--falsified research?

6 years later and Mount Stromlo Observatory reopens

Perhaps you remember the terrible Australian fires of 2003 that demolished most of the Mount Stromlo Observatory complex.

On July 13th, 2003 Penny Sackett, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, wrote:

The fires destroyed much of our infrastructure, but left our most important asset intact - our people,....

The day after fires, we committed to restoring Stromlo and its network of facilities as a pillar of Australian science.

Three weeks after the fires, our staff were back at work on the mountain, working in two office buildings which were largely undamaged.

We can not and we should not reconstruct a carbon copy of the old Stromlo. This new design is overwhelmingly oriented around meeting the needs of staff, students and visitors - while also ensuring Stromlo retains its status as an internationally important observatory.

For decades, Stromlo and Siding Spring have been operated as integrated observatories, combining the virtues of a control base close to ANU, close to the nation's capital and accessible to the community with a primary observation base offering optimal astronomical and climatic conditions.

The new design retains telescopes and the research hub at Stromlo, but provides even stronger integration with the University’s Siding Spring resources, ultimately providing a more powerful research facility for Australia.


Part of Mount Stromlo Observatory has been rebuilt.

"Eye of Mount Stromlo rises from the ashes"


Yuko Narushima

May 26th, 2009

The Sydney Morning Herald

UNRAVELLING the mysteries of the skies will be made easier for scientists worldwide by something of a $13 million phoenix.

A giant telescope was unveiled yesterday, an improvement on equipment lost to Canberra's bushfires six years ago.

The Skymapper is the country's first new optical research telescope in 25 years. It will be used to create a digital map of the southern skies, using detailed pictures taken over the next five years.

The telescope will be based at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in NSW and research will be shared freely with scientists overseas via the internet.

The Minister for Science and Research, Kim Carr, said the Skymapper added to Australia's impressive capabilities in astronomy. "It is fantastic to see Mount Stromlo reborn as a centre for internationally significant astronomy after the horror of the 2003 bushfires," he said.

Supporting space science helped people to understand their place in the universe and inspired technology that improved lives, he said.

The lead scientist on the project, Professor Brian Schmidt, said astronomers would use data retrieved by the telescope to make new discoveries. "Everything from dwarf planets like Pluto in our solar system to the first black holes in the universe," he said.

The project began in 2002 when the Australian National University applied for a grant to survey the southern skies using a telescope at Mount Stromlo. Only 18 days after it won the grant, a bushfire ripped through the observatory in a blaze that claimed four lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

The telescope is also Australia's most sensitive digital camera and can take snaps of a patch of sky 25 times larger than the full moon.

Professor Schmidt called it a "268 megapixel behemoth" with sensitivity 5 million times greater than the human eye.

Space sciences and astronomy projects received $160.5 million in the last Federal Budget, including an $8.6 million pledge to create a Space Policy Unit.

Wikipedia gives this historical outline...

The observatory was established in 1924 as The Commonwealth Solar Observatory. The Mount Stromlo site had already been used for observations in the previous decade, a small observatory being established there by Pietro Baracchi using the Oddie telescope being located there in 1911. The dome built to house the Oddie telescope was the first Commonwealth building constructed in the newly established Australian Capital Territory. Until World War II, the observatory specialised in solar and atmospheric observations. During the war the workshops contributed to the war effort by producing gun sights, and other optical equipment. After the war, the observatory shifted direction to stellar and galactic astronomy and was renamed The Commonwealth Observatory.

The ANU was established in 1946 in nearby Canberra and joint staff appointments and graduate studies were almost immediately undertaken. A formal amalgamation took place in 1957 with Mount Stromlo Observatory becoming part of the ANU.

On January 18, 2003 the devastating Canberra firestorm hit Mount Stromlo (which is surrounded by a plantation pine forest) destroying five telescopes, workshops, seven homes and the heritage listed administration building. The only telescope to escape the fires was the 1868 15-centimetre Farnham telescope.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rereko, Electopia=electricity physics

The Manga Guide to Electricity


Kazuhiro Fujitaki

ISBN-10 1-59327-197-2
ISBN-13 978-1-59327-197-8

[Click to enlarge to read.]

This isn't the first time that the medium of comic books has been used to teach something--especially science. Kazuhiro Fujitaki's big-eyed Manga character Rereko attempts to introduce the physics of electricity.

"The Manga Guide to Electricity Shows You, And Big-Eyed Manga Girls, How It Works"


John Baichtal

May 24th, 2009


The latest in No Starch's "Manga Guide to" series, the The Manga Guide to Electricity introduces electricity to neophytes in a fun yet informative manner. You’ve heard the 'water' method for teaching electricity — the hose is a wire, water is current, a bucket is a capacitor, and so on. It's necessary because electricity really isn't a simple subject, though it's something everyone should learn about because it so profoundly affects our everyday lives. Well, this book doesn't bother with analogies, instead it softens the impact of the mind-numbing jargon with an amusing comic-booky subplot.

Rereko is just your average high school girl from Electopia, the land of electricity. But she's failed her final electricity exam! Now she has to go to summer school on Earth. And this time, she has to pass.

Smartly, the manga starts with electricity found in the home. How does the electricity that comes out of your outlet compare with the juice that powers your flashlight? What about circuit breakers and fuses? Soon, however, the book delves into technical stuff, explaining about Ohm’s law, diodes, and magnetic fields. Do you know how fuel cells work? How about capacitors? This book will teach you. This is not a fluffy book, regardless of the romance angle.

Wait, romance?

This is a manga book and seemingly no manga is complete without at least a token romantic plot. Rereko, the impressionable young student, has become the pupil and maid (!) of Hikaru, a nerdy but mojo-laden young scholar who has been hired to tutor her on electricity. It goes without saying that Rereko gets sweet on her tutor and he seems somewhat fond of her as well. When Rereko's robot aide Yonosuke informs her it’s time for her to return to Electopia, the robot mysteriously suffers a catastrophic accident, forcing Rereko to stay on earth a while longer. Aw shucks!

The story is silly and unnecessary, but nevertheless, adds an wonderful charm that takes the edge off of a rather technically demanding subject. How many textbooks have managed to bore students to tears with their wooden, excessively technical ramblings? The Manga Guide to Electricity makes accessible a very intimidating subject, letting the reader have fun while still delivering the goods.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Television report on the death of Albert Einstein

"Plymouth News Caravan"

April 18th


John Cameron Swayze delivers the passing of Albert Einstein on NBC's "Plymouth News Caravan" [April 18th, 1955].

Heddy Lamarr, George Antheil..."frequency hopping"

Part of the schematic for "frequency hopping" patent number 2,292,387.

Heddy Lamarr, George Antheil, World War II, and the development of "frequency hopping"...a methodology to scramble radio communications . Legend holds that they were the creators of the methodology but that may be somewhat doubtful. Wikipedia offers...

Perhaps the earliest mention of frequency hopping in the open literature is in radio pioneer Johannes Zenneck's book Wireless Telegraphy (German, 1908, English translation McGraw Hill, 1915), although Zenneck himself states that Telefunken had already tried it.

The German military made limited use of frequency hopping for communication between fixed command points in World War I to prevent eavesdropping by British forces, who did not have the technology to follow the sequence.

A Polish army officer, Leonard Danielewicz, came up with his own version of the idea in 1929. Several other patents were taken out in the 1930s, including one by Willem Broertjes (Germany 1929, U.S. Patent No. 1,869,659 (issued Aug. 2, 1932)).

During World War II, the US Army Signal Corp was inventing a communication system called SIGSALY, which incorporated spread spectrum in a single frequency context. However, SIGSALY was top secret communications system so its existence did not become known until the 1980s.

The most celebrated invention of frequency hopping was that of actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil, who in 1942 received patent number 2,292,387 for their "Secret Communications System." This early version of frequency hopping used a piano-roll to change between 88 frequencies, and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or to jam. The patent was rediscovered in the 1950s during patent searches when private companies independently developed Code Division Multiple Access, a civilian form of spread-spectrum.

Nevertheless, I prefer the Lamarr/Antheil story.

Definition [TechTarget]:

Frequency hopping is one of two basic modulation techniques used in spread spectrum signal transmission. It is the repeated switching of frequencies during radio transmission, often to minimize the effectiveness of "electronic warfare" - that is, the unauthorized interception or jamming of telecommunications. It also is known as frequency- hopping code division multiple access (FH-CDMA).

Spread spectrum modulation techniques have become more common in recent years. Spread spectrum enables a signal to be transmitted across a frequency band that is much wider than the minimum bandwidth required by the information signal. The transmitter "spreads" the energy, originally concentrated in narrowband, across a number of frequency band channels on a wider electromagnetic spectrum. Benefits include improved privacy, decreased narrowband interference, and increased signal capacity.

In an FH-CDMA system, a transmitter "hops" between available frequencies according to a specified algorithm, which can be either random or preplanned. The transmitter operates in synchronization with a receiver, which remains tuned to the same center frequency as the transmitter. A short burst of data is transmitted on a narrowband. Then, the transmitter tunes to another frequency and transmits again. The receiver thus is capable of hopping its frequency over a given bandwidth several times a second, transmitting on one frequency for a certain period of time, then hopping to another frequency and transmitting again. Frequency hopping requires a much wider bandwidth than is needed to transmit the same information using only one carrier frequency.

The spread spectrum approach that is an alternative to FH-CDMA is direct sequence code division multiple access (DS-CDMA), which chops the data into small pieces and spreads them across the frequency domain. FH-CDMA devices use less power and are generally cheaper, but the performance of DS-CDMA systems is usually better and more reliable. The biggest advantage of frequency hopping lies in the coexistence of several access points in the same area, something not possible with direct sequence.

Certain rules govern how frequency-hopping devices are used. In North America, the Industrial, Scientific, and Medial (ISM) waveband is divided into 75 hopping channels, with power transmission not to exceed 1 watt on each channel. These restrictions ensure that a single device does not consume too much bandwidth or linger too long on a single frequency.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has amended rules to allow frequency hopping spread spectrum systems in the unregulated 2.4 GHz band. The rule change is designed to allow wider bandwidths, thus enabling Internet devices to operate at higher speeds and fostering development of wireless LANs and wireless cable modems.

Movie star Hedy Lamarr is generally credited as co-originator of the idea of spread spectrum transmission. She and her pianist were issued a patent for the technique during World War II. They discovered the technique using a player piano to control the frequency hops, and envisioned it as a way to provide secure communications during wartime. The pair never made any money off the invention and their patent eventually expired. Sylvania introduced a similar concept in the 1950s and coined the term "spread spectrum."

The complete patent

Thanks to Patrick Neas for the tip.