February 27, 2005

Sceptical Environmentalists

If I didn't want to spend so much time with my kids and had more of a chip on my shoulder I would write a detailed criticism of Michael Chrichton's book 'State of Fear' based on the pages of notes I made while reading the book. But the good folks at http://www.realclimate.org/ have already done it:
Please my friends, don't be taken in by the smear campaign of right wing polemicists. The case for global warming is on firm ground, and there are lots of sceptical objective scientists looking into all the details. I know-- I am coadvisor for a PhD student who is looking into the theory that a small fraction of climate variation may be explained by natural causes--changes in solar activity and cosmic ray flux. They have built a climate chamber the size of a living room to look for aerosol particle formation from atmospheric ions, and have plans for experiments at CERN, the world's largest particle accelerator in Switzerland. I will let you know if they come up with anything interesting.

February 25, 2005

5 (+1) weeks of vacation a year

How do people here get anything done with so much vacation?

I'm on vacation today. Here's my to do list:

Take Fredrik skating
Go to the recycling center-- Christmas tree, lilac bush knocked over in storm, cardboard boxes, glass jars, newspaper, batteries, paint cans
Put up shelves
Shovel driveway
Read the New York Times I bought two days ago
Proofread article
Work on book
Iron shirts

The recycling center is really cool actually, run by the city. Separate containers for everything from toasters to combustables to bricks.

February 23, 2005

Its that time of year

Those of you who were out shoveling may not have heard-- two out of three east-coast hedgehogs agree: six more weeks of winter. Winter has arrived to my part of the globe (with gusto). This afternoon we are slated for high winds and about a foot of snow. I'm going to go home early before they start cancelling trains.

But I just wanted to let you all know that this is the time of year when you need to be most careful. Its grey, dark, cold, windy, and its been like that it seems since the beginning of time. Of course this doesn't apply to those lucky few of my legions of regular readers who live in Florida, but having known Bick for many years I am comfortable saying, Bick, be careful you too, you are not immortal. So anyway, for the rest of us, this time of year, your brain starts to feel like a muddy sponge. So just take it easy. Spring will come along this year too.

February 20, 2005

Why global warming is not natural

From the latest meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (America's leading professional organization of scientists), 'Why global warming is not natural':


February 19, 2005

Its all in a name

Call me crazy but I'm all for a good public health scare now and again. And the best part is that the whole thing depends, absolutely, on the name of the pathogen. The latest name that has been gripping my mind is 'monkeypox.' Straight out of the David Letterman show. Monkeypox. And Creutzfeldt-Jakob just doesn't have the same entertainment value as 'Mad Cow Disease'. Just think of all those angry cows staring down farmer Brown. And the mental image of having the disease and turning into a mad cow, chewing your cud and bucking the boards on your stall. When I think of the Bubonic Plague, part of the fun is the word 'bubonic'. What does it mean? Must be awful, especially given the way bubonic bubbles across the tongue. One disease that really got shortchanged in the name department is smallpox. It just doesn't sell tickets, 'smallpox.' Another good one is Whooping Cough. Its one heck of a whooping cough.

The little weasles

My wife and I bought two mugs with caffeine molecules on them ages ago. I'm a chemist, so I think they are kind of fun. I've even made the caffeine molecule into the logo for the class I'm teaching on the physics of molecules. Yesterday I gave a lecture in that class and talked about fun stuff like randomness and entropy, and I was drinking coffee from my caffeine mug. After the lecture the students walk past the front of the room to get to the exit, and I packed up my things, and my mug was nowhere to be found! I can only conclude that one of the little weasles also thought it would be fun to have a mug with a caffeine molecule on it.

February 17, 2005

Desk Reference

The Natural Science Faculty in its infinite wisdom has decreed that we are no longer allowed to buy things ourselves, even using a personal research grant. Instead there is a two stage process by which you put in an order to a 'buyer' who takes it to a certified 'approver' for approval. All purchases, from advanced lasers costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to filter paper have to go through the system and meet the approval of administrators who are not qualified or active researchers. So last week I ordered a copy of The Physicist's Desk Reference, a collection of formulas and tables, and was pleased this morning to open my office door and find a rectangular package waiting on my chair. Which upon further inspection turned out to contain The Physician's Desk Reference. Imagine that two months ago I could have just walked over to the bookstore, gotten a little fresh air, and bought the right book myself (and given the receipt to the secretary). I toyed with the idea of keeping the wrong PDR in order to spice up my lectures with tales from the world of medicine, but since they cut our budget for incidentals to hire more administrators, I can't afford to do that.

February 16, 2005

The golden age

Way back when there was an argument between a young idealistic Socrates who held that it is always better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, and Callicles, who maintained that 'might is right' and that morality is an invention of the weak to protect them from the strong.

Classroom update

My new class on the chemical bond or the physics of molecules is now in its second week. It is always a lot of work to teach a course for the first time-- to write new lectures and come up with new problems. I've been doing a lot of reading. This week we are studying statistics and the statistical behaviour of molecules-- very interesting, if it happens to be your cup of tea. Today I ran across this piece of trivia while reading about how energy is distributed between molecules. If you are at a restaurant and 'n' people check their hats with the waiter, and the waiter loses the check stubs and redistributes the hats at random, the chance that no-one receives their own hat is 1/e or a little more than 1 in 3. The odds are the same, no matter how many people give their hats to the waiter. Just imagine that mathematicians have such fun jobs so they can spend their time thinking up results like that!

February 11, 2005

The Four Forces

I thought it was really fun to hear from Dave Bickford that there are four fundamental forces in biology:

migration, mutation, selection, drift

a nice parallel to physics, where there are four particles:

photon, boson, gluon, graviton

that mediate the four forces:

electromagnetism, weak nuclear, strong nuclear, gravitation

I started looking for other groupings of four forces. It turns out that there are four forces that govern aeronautics:

lift, drag, thrust, weight

And of course, in the ancient world, there were four elements:

air, water, fire, earth

If you have small children at home, there are also four forces guiding your life:

sleep, food, diapers, teeth

February 10, 2005


There was a park by our old apartment that ended in a kind of wild area by the railroad tracks. We used to go walking there. Once 5 or 6 years ago my wife found a mistletoe growing in a tree, except it was a birch tree, remarkable because the Eurasian mistletoes only like a few hosts, including apple, poplar, willow and hawthorn, but as far as people know, not birch. So Karin told some people down at the botanical garden about this tree. A few days ago she was back walking in this park, and the city had put a engraved plaque on the tree saying that it was an 'eternal tree', never to be cut down.

Mistletoe is a fun kind of a plant, a parasite on its host, slow growing but persistent, living until the host dies. Mistletoe was known to the druids and is supposed to be good for kissing under-- there is a legend that this inevitably leads to marriage. Mistletoe causes the 'witches broom' collection of branches you see growing in trees sometimes. The American dwarf mistletoe likes conifers and sometimes oak. There is even one kind of mistletoe that grows only as a parasite on other mistletoes, themselves parasites.

February 07, 2005

Two steps backwards

I was watching Anders, and then he started walking backwards, the whole length of the hall. Before my very eyes.

Went skating with Fredrik yesterday. I was watching him, and he just started skating backwards. Pretty soon his friend Anton was doing it too. Where do they get this stuff from?

M?ns Klint

Last spring we took a little vacation to a place in Denmark called M?ns Klint, or Moen's cliff. It is a huge chalk formation ending in dramatic cliffs by the ocean. It's a great place to find fossils, especially when fresh material is uncovered by the winter storms. Fredrik had a hammer and goggles, and we found some cool looking worm and anemonie fossils.

After that we went to a castle nearby to see the gardens. In the parking lot we saw a peacock inspecting the grills of all the cars, one after the other. Couldn't figure it out. What did the peacock care about bumpers, headlights and license plates? It turned out he was eating the insects the tourists had collected during their travels.

February 05, 2005

It's all so very simple

There's not really all that much to it, is there?

Everything can be accounted for by four fundamental forces:

1. The weak nuclear force
2. The strong nuclear force
3. Gravitation
4. Electromagnetism

The weak nuclear force is responsible for radioactivity. Interestingly enough, it breaks 'parity' meaning that a machine built as a mirror image of a machine built to detect parity will produce a different result from its twin.

The strong nuclear force affects only quarks and antiquarks, and holds protons and neutrons together.

Gravitation is (almost) always attractive, since mass is (almost) always positive.

Electromagnetism accounts for everything from the northern lights to the international power grid.

Now, if we believe Sir Isaac Newton that every action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction, what is the reaction to these four laws? If these laws are yin, what is yang? How to identify the missing part?

February 02, 2005

February 2, 2005

My high school physics teacher was a guy named Dick Schleich who reminded us 15-year-old wags of Barney Fife. Once he told us of a little game he liked to play by turning the day's date into a poker hand. Today, 2/2/2005 would be a full house. God bless the high school teachers. Once he showed up for work in a nice black suit and we started giving him a hard time. 'I'm dressed for a funeral,' he said and the room fell silent, '--yours.' And then he handed back our latest exam.

To blog or not to blog? According to Fr'esca (who is sure not to mind if I share this), blogging is a yes in the face of despair, nihilism, materialism and mediocrity, and if you keep showing up, every once in awhile, you will see a flash of truth and beauty and the atoms will dance. Wow!

This morning at breakfast Fredrik said how he was going to take his brain out and clean it, and then sit in bed for 9 days until it dried off and he could put it back in. We asked him what he was going to clean it with and he said vegetable soup because it has so many nutrients.

February 01, 2005

On Teaching

My new course starts next week and I was just thinking about an episode of the Simpsons. Homer looses his job at the power plant and they need some money, and Marge comes up with the idea of giving piano lessons. Lisa says, 'But Mom, you can't play the piano!' and Marge replies, 'All I have to do is stay one lesson ahead of the students.'

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