Monday, August 31, 2015

Computer Nostalgia c. 1970

Growing up in St. Louis, one of my favorite places to visit was the local science museum.  This wasn't the huge St. Louis Science Center that currently straddles I-64 in the heart of the city -- it was just a couple of small buildings in a park in the suburbs.  But to my 10-year-old self, it was a wonderland.  There was the "Hall of Matter" with a UV light to make rocks fluoresce, a microscope to read writing on the head of a pin, and a large mechanical eye that could be distorted with a lever to illustrate myopia. And one day, some time around 1970, my family showed up at the museum to find a travelling exhibit with lines snaking across the room.  What marvel could have attracted such huge crowds?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Good News Everyone! The Earth Won't Go Flying Out of the Solar System

One of the most memorable science fiction stories I read as a child involves a family holed up in a makeshift shelter after a passing star has flung the Earth out of its orbit. One of the children has to go out every day with a bucket and bring back the day's supply of frozen oxygen to be thawed out in the shelter. Despite remembering the story so vividly, I completely forgot the title and author, but an Internet search reveals them to be: "A Pail of Air," by Fritz Leiber.

But this is just fiction, right?  The Earth couldn't really be flung out of its orbit, leaving us to freeze to death in the icy blackness of space. Or could it?  Well, it's complicated....

Let me digress a bit before getting to the punchline. The laws of physics mostly boil down to collections of differential equations, but these come in two flavors: linear equations and nonlinear equations. Linear equations are, in the parlance of physics, "well behaved."  They are the obedient children who do their homework on time and don't talk back to their parents. But nonlinear equations are the bad boys of physics. They smoke. They drink. They probably carry switchblades. More to the point, they exhibit "chaotic" behavior -- a tiny change in one place can quickly grow to produce huge consequences somewhere else. The classic example is the "butterfly effect": a butterfly flapping its wings in California could theoretically alter the weather so much that five years later, a hurricane strikes Florida. And here's where things get interesting. The equations governing the motion of the planets around the Sun are nonlinear and could, in principle, exhibit just this kind of chaotic behavior. The planets could orbit the Sun happily for billions of years until a small change in their orbits gets larger and larger and expels one or more planets entirely.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Peculiar Writing Style of Scientific Journals

Most scientists I know are very good writers. But you'd never know it from the articles they publish in scientific journals, where the prose is turgid, convoluted, and downright scary. I'm not talking about popular science magazines like Scientific American -- I mean the journals where scientists publish their latest results -- places like Nature and Science, or, in my own field, Physical Review and Astrophysical Journal. These journal articles are the currency in which scientific research is measured -- they get us tenure, government grants, and an unrealistically inflated sense of our own importance. And the writing style in these journals is very, very odd.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Evading the Speed of LIght: Karl Schroeder's Lockstep

Just when you thought there was nothing new to be said about evading the speed limit imposed by relativity, science fiction comes up with a completely original possibility. I just finished reading Karl Schroeder's Lockstep, which proposes yet another way to get around Einstein's cosmic speed limit. Lockstep was serialized in Analog about a year ago and has recently been published as a novel.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Wacky Names that Scientists Give Their Experiments

One way in which science fiction falls short in depicting "genuine" science is in the names that scientists give their experiments. Experiments in physics or astronomy are often labeled by whimsical acronyms that spell out the names of animals or cartoon characters, or that produce clever puns. You won't see this very often in science fiction, because science fiction writers' hands are tied -- if their fictional scientists emulated real life and gave their experiments silly names, the readers would automatically assume that the story was intended to be humorous. This is one time that truth really is stranger (or at least funnier) than fiction.  (One exception is Larry Niven, who somehow manages to give his planets and alien races playful names in otherwise serious stories).

I was reminded of this at the physics conference I attended last week. One of the speakers presented a new experiment, called "Project 8." It's designed to measure the minuscule mass of neutrinos by detecting radiation from electrons ejected with the neutrinos in radioactive decay. But why "Project 8"?  Were the first 7 projects abject failures? It reminded me of a bizarre Japanese cartoon that I used to watch as a kid: Tobor, the 8th Man, which played endlessly on after-school TV when I was growing up in the days before Sesame Street came along and ruined children's television. The 8th Man was a superhero cyborg, who, when he got into trouble (which happened in every episode), would smoke "energy cigarettes" to recharge his powers. Energy cigarettes??? What was he really smoking? You can check out the unforgettable theme song (which I still can't get out of my head) here.

But back to the issue at hand. After the director of Project 8 finished his talk, I asked him where the name of the experiment came from. He told me that he made it up out of thin air! He was tired of names of experiments composed of silly acronyms. I have to admit that it certainly sounds cool.

What are some of the other whimsical names of physics and astronomy projects? Here are just a few:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Science Research Funding: A Story

I was at a physics conference at the University of Michigan last week, and, sadly, I spent more time thinking about research funding than about the research itself. But it reminded me of this story of mine, which appeared in the April, 2008, issue of Analog. It's the only science fiction story I know of that hinges on the topic of research funding! That's what happens when scientists write science fiction -- you learn what really obsesses them. One of the characters is loosely based on a real person who spent time at the National Science Foundation -- those of you familiar with my own research field should be able to spot him.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

If We Blew up the Earth, Would Anybody Else Notice?

That question was raised last week in a scientific paper by Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan, and Jack O'Malley-James. They're really interested in the opposite question: if a distant civilization destroyed itself, would we see any evidence of it? This question arises because one of the answers to the Fermi paradox (why don't we see any other civilizations out there?) is that advanced civilizations tend to destroy themselves, either accidentally (oops, I dropped my hammer on that big red button) or on purpose (I've genetically engineered a virus that kills only annoying people....)