March 4, 2007

Saturn: it was real after all

Here is one of those lousy diluted posts I was just promising.

-I seem to have beat the actual physics bloggers to the punch with that Jim Carey-Conan O'Brien Quantum physics about a week. I also managed to figure out (and get confirmation) that the paper they discussed was Phys. Rev Lett. 83 (1999) by
L. J. Lapidus, D. Enzer, and G. Gabrielse: "Stochastic Phase Switching of a Parametrically Driven Electron in a Penning Trap." To summarize: I'm amazing.

-Obligatory shot of the sixth planet recently captured by Cassini. Two observations:
1. I have recently been teaching assisting an intro astronomy course that involves looking at Saturn through a telescope. A partially mechanized and difficult to align telescope in an awesome 19th century shed with a roof that opens by a crank on the wall. A lot of the students first react when looking through the eyepiece by saying something like "it looks so real!" I can partially understand this impulse; when first visiting famous locations or monuments I have usually had a similar reaction, where I'm not really astonished by the sight itself, but primarily at the familiarity of it and the novelty of beholding say, the Lincoln Memorial, in person. It must be some kind of side-effect of being extremely familiar with things that ought to impress us that makes this the first thought to come to our minds in these situations--still, people should try not to vocalize their bewilderment at the existence of well-known objects. You just sound retarded.
2. Cassini may be the only NASA mission which is way more famous than its namesake. Think about it, you have Galileo, Apollo, Ulysses, Hubble, Chandra, and so forth. Chandrasekhar may not be known to the general public, but the kind of people who are aware of the telescope certainly know who he is. All I ever knew about Cassini was that he discovered the gap in Saturn's rings, and some further research shows that he discovered of Jupiter's Great Red Spot as well. Let's face it Cassini fans, they would have found those sooner or later anyway.
(Credit goes here)
(Updata: Astronomy Picture of the Day is riding my coattails--as usual)

-Some clever cognitionists have determined that 17 is the most random number. Inspired initially by the good folks at Cosmic Variance they set out to compile poll data confirming the original suspicion that given a choice from 1 to 20, 17 is the most frequently picked "random" integer. It is indeed so, with roughly four times the popularity expected in a truly random distribution. Even numbers and multiples of 5 scored poorly, and similarly prime numbers like 7, 13 and 19 were the runners-up. They were able to get around ~350 responses from people who were presumably not aware of the hypothesis being tested (they put a poll on their site without explaining why--hopefully they weren't biased CV readers). They also found some other effects like a preference for primes and little preference for odds. I would like to see more data though, I am betting that the primes thing is only true for these low numbers and that with a larger range you would see significantly more odds than evens as well as a severe allergy to multiples of 10. They do a round up here.

-Far, far overdue acknowledgement of "How to Tell a True Lab Story," a parody of this Tim O'Brien vignette that I only today encountered. Anyone who, like me, has ingrained high school memories of the disjointed Vietnam stories in The Things They Carried will recognize and appreciate these paragraphs.

A true lab story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper scientific practice, nor restrain graduate students from doing the things that graduate students have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a lab story, you feel uplifted, or if you feel that you have learned some useful fact about science, you have been made the victim of an old and terrible lie...

You can tell a true lab story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, and afterwards you ask "Can you really destroy a bathroom with liquid nitrogen in a soda bottle?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer