Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Origins of an Old Physics Joke

Here's a joke that often makes the rounds of physics departments:

The 3 stages of a newly-published result are

1.  It's wrong.

2.  OK, it's not wrong, but it's trivial.

3.  OK, it's correct, and it's important, but I did it first.

(I think every theoretical physicist has experienced all three of these, although at different times and on different research projects). It turns out that the origins of this joke are more hoary than I could possibly have imagined -- it dates back to a 19th-century scientist!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Get Ready for the Great American Eclipse

In just under a year (Aug. 21, 2017) a total solar eclipse will darken the skies across a wide swath of the U.S. Solar eclipses are exceptionally rare events -- the last one in the U.S. that I can remember occurred in 1970 along the East Coast.  Growing up in St. Louis, I had to watch it on TV, but we were promised a Midwestern eclipse in 2017, and I have been waiting patiently ever since then.

There are dozens of websites devoted to this eclipse, but there's a particularly good one at space.com. The path of totality passes near or through several major cities, including my ancestral home (St. Louis) and my current residence (Nashville). If you can travel to view the eclipse, do it! And be sure to buy some eclipse glasses for safe viewing. The danger in viewing an eclipse is not so much from looking at it during totality, but when the eclipse is still partial -- the problem is that people start looking at the eclipse before it is really total, or keep looking at it after the totality ends. Just don't! You don't want to permanently damage your eyes. Eclipse glasses are cheap and easy to find -- we've already gotten 20 pairs. I imagine they'll be harder to find and the price will go up significantly as it gets closer to the actual date. We'll be selling ours for $100 a piece on Aug. 20.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Life on Earth Began on.... Venus???

In the Golden Age of science fiction, Venus was the jungle world -- full of hot, steamy swamps populated by hot, steamy aliens. Ray Bradbury ("All Summer in a Day") imagined a world of constant rain. C.S. Lewis even set a version of the Garden of Eden on Venus in his novel Perelandra.

But the real-life Venus is no Eden -- it's blanketed by clouds of sulfuric acid (ouch!) with temperatures well above 800 degrees F. The surface of Venus is both dark and hot -- not too different from classical conceptions of hell. And did I forget to mention the atmospheric pressure? It's almost 100 times higher than the Earth's.

A typical Venusian, as portrayed on The Twilight Zone
But it's easy to see why science fiction writers were free to speculate about jungles and swamps all those years -- the surface of Venus is hidden by constant cloud cover (that sulfuric acid again!) making it impossible to probe until the advent of the space program. But now scientists at NASA have come up with a startling new idea: they suggest that Venus was at one time a balmy, hospitable place after all, and possibly suitable for life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

New Particle at the Large Hadron Collider: It's Dead, Jim

For the past few months, the world of particle physics has been holding its breath.  The experimental groups at the Large Hadron Collider had reported possible evidence of a completely unexpected new particle with about 750 times the mass of the proton, and everyone was waiting for new data to either confirm or rule out this discovery. In the meantime, theorists churned out hundreds of papers explaining this particle. (I make no claim to moral superiority here -- I didn't write anything on this subject only because it's outside of my specialty). Well, the new data has come in, and the verdict is.... no such particle.

The Large Hadron Collider. Nothing to see here. Please move along.
Which leads to an interesting question: when was the last time that a completely unexpected new particle was discovered at an accelerator? The answer is shocking.