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End Of Year Gift From the Tevatron December 31, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in D0, Fermilab, science.
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About a week ago or so the Tevatron developed a vacuum leak. The accelerator can’t run under conditions like that: the protons whizzing around billions and billions of times a second would collide with the air or Helium that had leaked in and would go crashing out of the accelerator. It wouldn’t take long before all the protons and anti-protons were lost and there would be no collisions.

So, there is only one thing to do — shut down and fix it. Unfortunately, because of the leak’s location, they had to warm up a superconducting magnet. A controlled warming (and the required cool-down) take about 4 days. Then you have to fix the leak — so at least a week with no beam.

As a side note – I think the timing was rather interesting. Clearly, the Tevatron was complaining about the budget situation in Washington DC. 🙂

At any rate, no one expected beam until tomorrow. This has been great: I’ve not had to do my owl shifts since I got here! But yesterday it started to look like they might make it. In the electronic logbook things like “lets get a store in this year!” started to appear everywhere. As a result, I was on shift from midnight until 8am last night, just in case. And they were busy. And even worse – they were calling all sorts of experts when they had problems – so a lot of people got woken up.

And lo – I just read they did it! That was a lot of work! But it is exactly the right way for an accelerator to end the year: making physics!

Happy New Year!


Use logic and data to run your country December 31, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

There is a blog entry in the nytimes examining how crazy air travel security has become these days. Here is one of many great quotes.

At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit.  Now, the assumption has to be that the materials materials in those containers are potentially hazardous.  If not, why were they seized in the first place?  But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash?  They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away.  The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless.  But it’s going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it or you don’t fly.

To me this is emblematic of the times we line in. First, we react and implement procedures without adequate research. Actually, that is fine when we are in the middle of a panic-as we were after the liquid bomb scare – though I wish we’d react with panic a bit less. But even then there were liquid bomb experts who would have pointed out how crazy the possibility was. Were they even consulted? If so, why was their advice rejected? Other experts gave different advice? Was there accountability when it turned out to be bad advice (are we still listening to them?).

Second, the lack of ability to change course. Now that the panic is over, what are the chances we will see an adjustment of the policy? Little, I’d say.

Grand policy ideas – like how to negotiate with the prickly leader of another country – those are places where intuition and got instinct are needed. The running of the basic services of a country, however, requires a cooler head, real data, and a whole lot of logic. Really similar to engineering or science research, actually!

Finger Print Reader December 29, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in computers.

I finally got a new portable to replace my old one – a nice shiny new Lenovo X61 tablet. It comes with a fingerprint reader. Of all the features, this is one I thought would be least useful. Boy was I wrong.

In order to make it convenient to use my current Toshiba M200 tablet I’ve disabled almost all the passwords. The only one I have to type in is when I initially log in. Since the computer gets rebooted about once a month this isn’t very often. It also means that if anyone picks up the computer they have immediate access to everything on it – including some personal information. But I left it in this state because when the PC is in tablet mode typing in a password is a bit painful & slow – as in this configuration the keyboard is completely hidden by the screen.

I didn’t occur to me that the finger print reader would address this problem – but the fingerprint reader solves this problem! I don’t have leave my computer unlocked all the time just to make it easy to use. One quick swipe and about 10 seconds later I can start writing on the tablet surface. I wonder how secure it is compared to a good password?

Every tablet should come with one of these things!

Bashing Science December 28, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, science.

I’ve not seen the new Will Smith movie, I am a Legend. I’d had no real plans to see it. My mother-in-law handed me a Dan Gardner column on the movie (warning: it contains spoilers). I’m even less inclined to see the movie now.

But Gardner’s thesis is interesting: bashing science in a popular movie doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Bashing religion does:

As the controversy over The Golden Compass amply demonstrated, it’s impossible for a major movie to include even veiled criticisms of Church and Faith without generating angry denunciations and calls for boycotts. But release a movie that explicitly scorns Science and Reason, a movie that vilifies technology, a movie that claims there is superior wisdom in prophecy and superstition – do that and there won’t be a peep of protest.

The plot of this movie sounds a lot like Jurassic Park — arrogant scientist tries to over rule the “natural order” and is wiped aside. However, unlike JP, this movie sounds like faith and religion and belief there-in are what saves (read the column to find out more if you aren’t planning on seeing the movie).

In the first place, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to have the same sort of protests and calls for boycott when a movie like this comes out. Science can stand on its own two feet — it must be, by its very nature, self consistent, and so should be able to withstand any sort of attack like this. Besides, this is a movie. It is entertainment. I like science fiction – even Star Trek. Warp speed? Clearly a fiction (warp speed is faster than the speed of light). Star wars? Same thing.

On the other hand, I’m uneasy. Look at the doubt that the Bush administration has been able to sow in the USA by repeating over and over, very loudly, that climate change is not a problem. There is no scientific evidence for that position. Yet, a good fraction of the US believes it (fortunately, that fraction is dwindling by the minute).

Gardner has another good point, which matches both Paula and my readings of the various movie reviews out there:

Reviewers often mentioned that the movie touches on deep themes but none that I know of spelled them out.

I think the reviewers could easily have brought up the “themes” without spoiling the ending: science and religion and their roll in society, or similar. Why not (ex: NYTimes)?

In the end, I love entertainment. Movies, TV shows, the web, stories, fiction, etc. And I don’t really care what people write or film – but as a society we have to keep them separate from real life. Science is science, and sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us what we want to hear.

Have you seen the show House? A seriously dysfunctional pain-killer-popping diagnostician goes around solving those cases that no one else can — he sees patients only after everyone else has given up? I think of that as a science-positive show. House and his team uses science, logic, and sometimes gut instinct to solve various medical cases. They don’t always make it. And they leave room for faith in there too – there was one episode (which I can’t find) where shear faith by another doctor (Cuddy) saved the day. I remember the end of that when Cuddy says something like “see — I was right” and House responds with something to the effect of “No, that was a bad decision – the statistics all go against what you did; I was right all along; you were lucky.” That is keeping science in its proper place.

Or maybe I’m taking this waaaay to seriously. 🙂

I’ll end with another quote from Gardner:

Of course, it probably didn’t occur to the makers of I Am Legend that many of them would be dead – or would never have been born – if it weren’t for those well-meaning but foolish scientists. Ditto for the audience. Our ingratitude for the bounty of science is boundless.

Trains are so much better December 27, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.
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I flew to Chicago today, from Ottawa, and was reminded why taking a train to get from Marseille to CERN is a so much more pleasant experience. First was the 30 minute drive to the airport. Then I stood in line for almost 40 minutes – because the ticket agent for United Express had gone on break. And there was only one ticket agent. I think there were over 50 people queued up by the time she got back (United Express — what were you thinking!?). Indeed, the backup was big enough that our flight was delayed departing. Then there was security – shoes off, portable out, cell phones out. I didn’t get selected for an extra search, including a pat down, but the person behind me did (and it was her first time flying – how do you get to 22 and not fly!?). And then waiting for another 35 minutes to board.

But I’m back in the good old USA. I shouldn’t complain: there is no way to deal with travel any other way but planes and cars. But I can dream…

And I have home made fudge with me… I was going to share it with people on the owl at the Tevatron, but it looks like my shift might be canceled!

Christmas Underpants December 26, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in life.
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I’m in Canada this Chirstmas, with Paula’s family. Look what I’m missing back at my family in New Jersey:

I can’t decide if I’m glad I’m up here in Ottawa or not. 🙂 BTW, the guy with the best kick? That is my Dad, a now-retired professor of physics at Rutgers…

Old Europe… Good December 23, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in Marseille.
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DSC00008Marseille is either the 2nd or 3rd largest town in France (depending who you talk to) – it is a big town. But they seem to go out of their way to present you with goods and wares made by small home businesses. Take these cards, for example. While they are designed and printed locally, in Provence. Just like the USA, however, you won’t find them in a mall or a shopping center – unlike the USA, however, you will find them in the so-called Christmas market.

They do this in Marseille every year. All up and down the main drag, the La Canebiere. They set up lots and lots of small wooden huts (lots is about 50 or 60 of them). In one section they sell everything from Corsican sausages to these cards. Another section is devoted to Santons, which are basically little nativity figurines. Most of these wooden huts are not run by large chains but by small shops located around the region. I want to call it an arts-and-crafts fair – but it is professional rather than amateur.

To make it even better they sell hot spicy wine (vin chaud) and hot chocolate! 🙂 At any rate, it is definitely cool – and something I wish the US did more of.

Science Debate 2008 December 21, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

Wouldn’t it be cool if the presidential candidates had a debate about science? I’d love to see them address:

  • How do they see the connection between science and our country’s future?
  • What should science’s funding be?
    • Many of you are voting members of congress: what do you think of the current science funding train-wreck? (no, there is no bias in that question!)
  • Peer review vs. Pork?
  • Evolution, Creationism, and ID. I’d like to see this posed in such a way that if anyone waffles to avoid pissing people off it is clear they are waffling (I don’t hold onto the illusion that one can pose the question in a way to prevent waffling).
  • How can our space program further science goals? Man vs Machine missions?
  • Immigration, visas, and their connection to scientific research.
  • What should the role of the science advisor to the president be?
  • What is the proper balance between applied research (i.e. hydrogen cars) and pure research (i.e. much of what goes on in science departments around the country).

I’m sure there are other things we should ask them. But seriously, it is time for science to enter the conversation.

There is a petition up to try to force the issue, or at least focus our wrath… Science Debate 2008. Sign it if you are willing. And spread the word to any like-minded friends of yours!

I note with some pride that Mark Emmert, the President of the University of Washington, signed it.

The Difference between Paula and I December 20, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in life.
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I’m not sure how we have managed to stay married for all of 2.5 years:

Me: When we land in Ottawa we will have five cell phones: 2 from France, 2 from the USA, and 1 from Switzerland. And all of them will have outrageous roaming charges.

Her: When we land we will have no gloves or mittens.

So. Who has their priorities right??!?

Better than YouTube? December 20, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, life.

I’m sick of the really grainy videos that YouTube has. They are good for what they are there for – but I have (had, will have) a nice high resolution camcorder and I’d like to be able to show off the food splatter that Julia is so good at making in its full detail.

Are there sites around like YouTube that let you post in DVD or HD resolution and serve them up in a similar way/interface? Cross platform is a must. If I find anything I’ll post about it. The site doesn’t have to be free. I’m looking for something like Flickr… It doesn’t have to be free.