Friday, April 13, 2018

What is the Universe Made Of?

Good question.  I gave a public lecture (more specifically, the Lois McGlothlin Donaldson Endowed Lecture in Physics) on this subject at the University of Memphis last week -- if you are interested you can watch it here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

How Did We Survive the 1980s?

I just finished writing a short story that had to be set, for various reasons, in the early 1980s.  And I could feel my characters' pain.  How does one character find out about another one when there's no internet??  I couldn't have anyone type into a computer, call each other on cellphones, or look up facts on Wikipedia.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

I met Stephen Hawking a few times over the years -- the most memorable was in the early 1980s when I was a grad student at the University of Chicago. Stephen was visiting the university, but he also wanted to take a side trip out to Fermilab -- a one-hour drive outside of Chicago. This being the days before GPS (back when we had to navigate by the stars) I was assigned by my Ph.D. adviser to ride along with Stephen and his driver and direct them to Fermilab.

I showed up at the hotel in Hyde Park at the appointed hour and went to the lobby, but Stephen was nowhere to be seen. What to do? Had this been an ordinary theoretical physicist, I would simply have asked the hotel clerk to phone his room. But this was Stephen Hawking -- one does not simply go and knock on his door. So I just waited in the lobby, assuming that Stephen would make his appearance when he wished. After quite a bit of time had passed, Stephen's assistant/driver popped into the lobby and asked, "Why didn't you call up to our room? We've been waiting up there for you!"

Meanwhile (I learned later) one of the senior scientists in the astrophysics group at Fermilab was pacing back and forth, muttering that if anything happened to Hawking, he would "send Scherrer to Tuscaloosa" -- presumably a form of internal exile. But Stephen Hawking, his driver, and I finally did make it out to Fermilab (late) and all was forgiven.

Many years later, I finally got a chance to visit Tuscaloosa to speak at the University of Alabama. It's really a very nice town.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Was the Early Universe Lumpy?

When the universe was only a few minutes old, was it smooth, like Cream of Wheat (yum!), or was it lumpy, like oatmeal? (Yuk!)  British cosmologist John Barrow and I explored this question in this paper, posted yesterday. Most cosmologists think that the matter in the early universe was smooth, not lumpy, and there's no compelling reason to believe otherwise, but it's always important to look at alternatives.

How can we even say anything intelligent about the universe when it was only a few minutes old? Our best probe is the production of elements in the early universe, which goes under the tongue-twisting name of "primordial nucleosynthesis." Most of the atomic nuclei on Earth were made in stars, but a small number, including helium, deuterium, and lithium, were manufactured in the first few minutes of the universe. And the amount of each element produced is exquisitely sensitive to the density of protons and neutrons when the universe was just a few minutes old. If the universe were lumpy rather than smooth, then the element abundances would fluctuate up and down in a predictable way, and we can average these out to get a prediction for what we would see today.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Bayesian Coin Flip

Anyone who's spent any time at all with the scientific literature has encountered the phrase "Bayesian statistics." What's that all about?  How can there be more than one kind of statistics? Isn't statistics just a branch of mathematics, where everything is cut and dried? Alas, no. In his book Numerical Recipes, Bill Press describes statistics as "that gray area which is as surely not a branch of mathematics as it is neither a branch of science." Statistics is all about using data to derive conclusions, but there's no single "right" way to do this. So the world of statistics resembles Europe during the Reformation, divided into various factions and sects, one of these being the Cult of the Bayesians. The key idea of Bayesian statistics is that one needs to incorporate prior assumptions about reality into any modeling of data.

Here's an example.  Suppose that Alfred flips a coin 20 times, and he gets 20 heads in a row (this is very unlikely -- the probability of 20 heads in a row is less than one in two million).




Now Alfred flips the coin one more time. What is the probability that this coin flip will come up heads?  Is it

(A) Less than 1/2?  Alfred has used up all the heads.
(B) Exactly 1/2?  Past performance tells you nothing about future returns.
(C) Greater than 1/2?  Alfred is on a roll!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Why I am not a Biologist

I diligently avoided biology throughout my high school and college years. Why? Well, for starters biology is the smelly science. Also wet, sticky, and generally disturbing. Contrast that with the clean, crystalline clarity of physics. But I've also come to understand that there's a fundamental difference between the way that biologists and physicists think about the world. Maybe you've seen this famous poster of "metabolic pathways":

I have to admit that the first time I encountered it in the hallway of my university, I thought it was some sort of a joke. What kind of Rube Goldberg machine is this anyway? Of course, it's very real, but my reaction shows the gulf between the way that physicists and biologists think.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Interstate Traffic Jams and Galactic Structure

Last fall I drove up to Williamsburg and Washington with a couple of my kids. It was a pleasant trip, except for the stretch of I-95 between Richmond and Washington. There, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we encountered a series of sporadic traffic jams. Each time we hit a slowdown, I expected to see an accident by the side of the road, but no such accident ever appeared. Instead, the traffic simply speeded up again a few miles down the road for no apparent reason. So what was the origin of this mysterious roving I-95 traffic jam? I suspect it's the very same thing that produces these beautiful structures in spiral galaxies:


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Is Dark Matter Hiding Right Under our Noses?

Consider the lowly neutron. Neutrons make up about half the mass in your body, but they contribute nothing to chemistry. They just lounge quietly inside the atomic nuclei and get carried along for the ride. But this past week, two physicists at the University of California, San Diego, suggested that the neutron might be the key to unlocking the mystery of dark matter in the universe.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Doris Day Becomes Radioactive

The three stages in the life of a Netflix subscriber:

1.  Wow, look at all of these great movies I've always wanted to see! I think I'll rent all of them!
2.  Hmm, I didn't get a chance to see this when it came out last summer. Now I can finally watch it.
3.  Well, there's nothing I really want to watch. I guess I'll just pick something at random and see if it's any good.

We have, unfortunately, been mired at stage 3 for quite some time. Thus it was that, after working our way through all of the classic Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire musicals, we found ourselves watching Doris Day in My Dream is Yours. It's an insipid and derivative musical comedy, and hardly worth your time, except, early in the movie, when Doris Day goes nuclear.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mindset List, Faculty Version

This week Beloit College posted their annual Mindset List -- it's designed to provide a guide to the cultural experiences of this year's new college students, and incidentally to highlight the widening divide between those students and their aging professors. I was ahead of the curve -- I was already out of touch with my students when I started my first faculty job at age 30.

This year, I decided to return the favor and provide a humorous list of my own experiences on campus in the late 70s and early 80s. Inside Higher Ed ran it as an opinion piece this week, and you can read it here.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Our Eclipse Experience

We watched yesterday's eclipse from home. Totality was only a little over one minute, but you can't beat the fun of seeing a total eclipse from your own front yard.

Here we are banging on drums and trash cans to drive away the dragon eating the sun:


Some people have described a total solar eclipse as a life-changing experience. I won't go that far. Raising a child is a life-changing experience -- a total eclipse, not as much. But it was an amazing spectacle. We managed to see the shadow snakes wiggling up our street just prior to totality. The thing I found most impressive was the suddenness of the darkness -- after half an hour of gradual dimming, totality was like turning off a light bulb. The solar chromosphere (I think) was visible as a red band at the edge of the moon, although some of my kids thought it looked more purple than red. And what about our chickens?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Myths

There are some absurd myths about today's eclipse circulating on the internet. One claim is that your pets will stare at the sun and go blind. This is ridiculous -- animals just don't do that. However, watch out if you own chickens. During eclipses they tend to spontaneously combust.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Are Scientific Conferences Obsolete?

Many of you have seen this iconic photo, which hangs in physics departments all over the world:


It's the Solvay Conference of 1927, the formative era for quantum mechanics, when giants walked the Earth: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Curie. I've often wondered what it must have been like to be one of the two or three people in the photo that no one has ever heard of. At least you'd get your photo on lots of physics department walls.

Recently, I attended a physics conference myself, TeVPA 2017, hosted by Ohio State University. The conference covered the overlap between particle physics and astrophysics -- my main interest was dark matter. But the conference itself was something of a Rip Van Winkle experience for me. I've stepped down as department chair after 13+ years (hurray!), so I am just now getting back onto the conference circuit. And I've noticed one tremendous difference between the conferences of my youth and the one I just attended.

Let me first take a step back and talk about a quiet revolution in the way that physicists do their work. It's something that most people aren't even aware of, but it's had a profound effect on the way that physics gets conducted.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Norse Mythology

Lately I've been reading a collection of Norse myths to my youngest child. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Norse myth makers clearly stole all of their best material from J.R.R. Tolkien, I've been struck by the fact that compared to the classical Greek/Roman myths, the Norse myths are very, very weird.

At the beginning of the Norse universe, the heat from the land of fire melts some of the ice in the land of frost, producing an enormous giant, Ymir, and an enormous cow, Authumbla. Did I hear that correctly -- a primordial cow? But the zaniest part involves the occupants of the world tree, Yggsdrasil. There's an eagle perched at the top of the tree, looking out for trouble, and serpent under one of the roots, gnawing away at it. Nothing wrong with that -- it sounds appropriately dark and moody, as Norse mythology should be. But running up and down the tree is a squirrel named Ratatoskr, who carries insulting messages back and forth between the eagle and the serpent. A mythological squirrel? whose only job is to trade insults? I think the reason my daughter enjoys these stories so much is that they sound like something a 7-year-old would make up.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Grand Unified Theory of Bureaucracy

Today marks my final day as the chair of my department - I am stepping down after 13 years, 7 months in office. (Longer than Franklin Roosevelt was President, if you're keeping score, but not quite as long as the reign of Queen Elizabeth).

I've learned quite a bit during this time about the way that organizations function, and I wanted to share one insight. Humans are particularly good at picking out signals from noise. Academics are even better, and academic scientists base their entire careers on this ability. But sometimes that's all there is -- just noise and nothing more.