Archive for the ‘Science’ category

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Next Week!

October 27, 2015

Hey all,

Shameless self promotion coming up.  Leave now if you want…

A reminder: I’ll be talking Vulcan, gravity, Einstein, and General Relativity at 100 with my quite wonderful colleague, David Kaiser, one week from today.


It will all happen on Tuesday, November 3, starting at 6 p.m. at the MIT Museum.  Free and open to the public of course.  We’ll be done by 7:30, and, yes, there will be books to buy (and have signed)>

The occasion, as you may have guessed, is the publication of my new book, The Hunt for Vulcan.  Early reviews have been kind.  Here’s Kirkus, and here are the results from the Amazon Vine program — new to me — in which prolific Amazon reviewers get a pre-publication crack at the book.

Shortest form, David and I will talk both about the story of the planet Vulcan, which really should have existed; how Einstein disposed of it when he invented his truly radical new conception of gravity; and what Vulcan’s repeated discovery tells us about the difference between how we think science works, and how it really does in the hands of the human beings who do the labor.  It should be fun.

If you want a little more background on the Einstein part, by the way, you can take a look at a piece I published in The Boston Globe on Sunday.  A taste:

Einstein’s gift for mental imagery showed itself when he tried to explain to his son how mere geometry could produce what we feel as the tug of gravity. Imagine, he said (at least so the story goes) a blind beetle. When it “crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved.”

Or imagine living on a vast, seemingly featureless plain, so flat that you know only two dimensions, length and width. Out for a walk one day, you find that your steps are coming harder. You begin to puff and labor. You sense that you’re being pulled by something — a force you could call gravity. It tugs you back as you walk along what you’re sure is a straight line. To anyone able to perceive three dimensions, not two, there is a simpler explanation — or as Einstein told his son, “I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”

I can promise you that the evening will beat rearranging your sock drawer.  By what margin?  Only time will tell.

PS:  If you’re interested by conflicted next week, I’ll be doing an event at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. on November 12.  Much the same stuff to be discussed.  And support for a good local bookstore thrown in!

Image:  Benjamin Cole, The Copernican or Solar System, 1759

Happy Mole Day

October 23, 2015

Yo! Avogadro fans!

Today is our day!

I’m a little late getting this post up, as Mole Day ends at 6:02 p.m

Remember:  that equal numbers of molecules of a gas occupy equal volumes under the same temperature and pressure is not just a good idea.


…for which insight Amadeo Avogadro received the honor of having his name attached to the number of molecules that make up one mole of a substance, a number set by convention as the number of carbon 12 atoms that add up to 12 grams of the substance. That number:  6.02*10^23.  Hence, Mole Day, running from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m on 10/23.

In Avogadro’s honor, a tune:

Geek out, my friends.

Yes. It Really Is Brain Surgery

May 4, 2015

To this. Except you can’t.  No selfie you will ever take can trump what Steven Keating achieved:

[Warning: not (to me) gross stuff in the video below. But graphic. Front row seats and all that.]

I love the utter commitment to the prinicple that more knowledge — even tough truths — is always better than less.

Consider this a valentine to your afternoon, in celebration of the first truly warm day of this too-long postponed spring in your humble blogger’s neck of the woods.

So You Want To Win A Nobel Prize…

April 7, 2015

Excellent advice from one who has.

Rule number two in this list of ten commandments goes beyond the needed snark (and the first principle, which might be called the Tao of science: the only way to achieve Nobelity is not to strive for it).


This second principle actually says something dead on point on where discovery happens, in an argument that I think bears on much beyond science itself.  It requires that the prize-aspirant should “hope that your experiments fail occasionally.”  Why?


There are usually two main reasons why experiments fail. Very often, it is because you screwed up in the design by not thinking hard enough about it ahead of time. Perhaps more often, it is because you were not careful enough in mixing the reagents (I always ask students if they spat in the tube or, more recently, were texting when they were labeling their tubes). Sometimes, you are not careful enough in performing the analytics (did you put the thermometer in upside down, as I once witnessed from a medical student whose name now appears on my list of doctors who I won’t allow to teat me even if I’m dying?). These problems are the easiest to deal with by always taking great care in designing and executing experiments. If they still fail, then do them over again! But the more interesting reason that experiments fail is because nature is trying to tell you that the axioms on which you based the experiment are wrong. This means the dogma in the field is wrong (often the case with dogma). If you are lucky, as I was, then the dogma will be seriously wrong, and you can design more experiments to find out why. If you are really lucky, then you will stumble onto something big enough to be prizeworthy.

And with that, a chance to think about non-stupid things for a while.  Open thread, y’all

Image:  Diego Velasquez, The Drunkards, or the Triumph of Bacchus1629.

A Sunday Nerd Humor Break

January 18, 2015

Via the indomitable xkcd: Have to admit that it was…




before I snorted.

Damn that Heisenberg fella, always dodging about.

Got any good nerd/science jokes in your repertory? Put it in the comments, please.

We Are (Mostly) Star Dust

January 17, 2015

Have some brain-food-fun this a.m., courtesy of a friend of mine, Ben Lillie, recovering physicist and the man behind the lovely Story Collider effort.  Here he gives a TEDx talk on element number 3, lithium, an audio essay ranging from Evanescence (the band, not the property) to the universe and back to human nature.  Enjoy:

Don’t know about you, but every now and then I need a complete break from the not-funny comedy that is current US politics.  This worked a treat for me.
Any great science popular media among your favorites?  That’s what comments are for.

What Not To Wear To A Comet Landing

November 12, 2014

Amidst all the (justified) celebration of Rosetta and Phylae today — it really is a big deal when a ten year mission ends with the first landing on a comet evah!) — there  was one truly sour note.  This:

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 4.59.54 PM

That’s Matt Taylor, Rosetta project scientist.  If you read the profile at (where else) The Daily Mail, you’ll get two impressions. One, that Dr. Taylor really loves his job, his science and this mission — all of which is great.  But two:  he and his interviewer are oblivious about what it might mean to stand in front of millions of science fans, wearing that schmatte.

Nah, this is just dudebro fun, no worries, no-harm-no-foul, why don’t you have a sense of humor stuff.

But it’s not.  There’s not a lot to say that isn’t f**king obvious.  This was and is a truly special occasion.  Lots of people thrilled to watch human reason and ingenuity reach towards the stars have been playing really close attention. Many of them are women.  Some, lots, are girls who might be thinking science could be a really fine life’s work.  That shirt tells them, pretty explicitly:  science ain’t no crap-free zone.

We’ve ample evidence that’s true, sadly.  But damn, way to drive the message home, Matt!

I’ve had friends, women in science, contact me today, asking when this shit will ever stop.  I don’t know.  Not soon enough.

My son is taking his first high school physics class this year.  Last night I was helping him with his homework on momentum, impulse and collisions — kind of relevant to today’s events.  I don’t know if his teachers broke with the curriculum today to watch the Rosetta live feed — but now I’m almost hoping they didn’t.  The girls — and the boys too, dammit — in that class deserve better.

I’ve never met Taylor.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s against discrimination in science (or anywhere else),  one who would defend any woman on his team.  I don’t know.

Maybe he’s just clueless stem to stern, with no idea how what he might say or do affects anyone around him.  Or, in fact, he could be a sexist asshole.  Still don’t know.  I generally, perhaps naively, default to that “clueless” rather than “f*cked-up” explanation, until I have affirmative evidence to the contrary.

But as we’ve learned over and over again in issues of race, of gender discrimination, of same-sex rights, it’s not what you believe that matters.  It’s what you do — and Taylor chose to wear this shirt in front of the largest audience he’s ever likely confront.  He may or many not be a sexist guy; he did a sexist thing, one with real world implications.

Repair work is needed.  The ESA/Rosetta folks should to do some, and so should Matt Taylor, however much of a goof he thought he was having.

Oh, and just in case he might accept some fashion advice, here’s Skepchik’s Dr. Rubidium with some very good natured suggestions.  A possible path to repair lies there, Dr. Taylor.


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