The Standard Model is the Duke Basketball of Physics

August 24, 2010

As I was reading an article on quantum mechanics in New Scientist the other day, Ann asked me why I still read quantum mechanics articles since the pace of discovery has slowed so much. I told her that mostly I was hoping that a flaw with the standard model might be found, opening up at least the possibility of new physics and cool technologies. Today it occurred to me that I am a standard model hater. Just as Duke draws television viewers hoping to see them lose, I am hoping to see the standard model fail.

This should sound familiar: Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the amazing achievement that the standard model represents. I am not trying to disparage it. I just would like to see it upset.

So it was with a bit of glee that I heard about the following series of papers. Apparently the decay rates for heavy isotopes varies slightly as the earth orbits the sun. This variation is consistent with the position of the earth relative to the sun and may be consistent with the rotation of the core of the sun, assuming that that rotation is slightly slower than the surface. What’s really cool is that the decay rates seem to alter a day and a half before solar flares hit the earth, implying a wave of faster moving particles washing over the earth’s surface. What they are and how they interact with nuclear decay are unknown.

As in His Master’s Voice, the discovery was made after searching for a good random number generator.


“I have the stripes, but where is the zebra?”

October 29, 2009

piglickerHi Everyone.  Sorry I haven’t posted anything in the long time.  My apology is a post that even longer and more meandering than usual.

I’m at Indiana University for the Biocomplexity X workshop on Quantitative Tissue Biology and Virtual Tissues.  It’s been great — perhaps because there are many physicists converted to biology.  There have been several talks that touched on non-linear elasticity, though most people’s background is in foams and not granular matter.   Rene Doursat gave an especially good talk today on agent-based models of morphogenesis in which he mentioned another alleged quotation, attributed to Alan Turing, who made either the titular comment or said “The stripes are easy, it’s the horse part that troubles me!” in reference to the ability of certain systems of equations to create seemingly biologically-relevant patterns without necessarily providing biological insight.  Brad has Read the rest of this entry »

Our Shrinking World

July 24, 2009

The schools of Duke and Coastal Carolina continue to get closer together. The first overtures were made when I went from graduate school in the Triangle to a job in the Grand Strand. Since, the link has remained strong. John and Ann visited in the spring to speak to my physics seminar classes, and I’ll be venturing back up to Duke very soon to collaborate with my former advisor, both activities I hope will become standing. An extensive interstate system will simplify the route between home cities. But perhaps the most important link between the two happened just this past week: CCU just got its very first Jimmy John’s.

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Brontosaurus in Need

July 15, 2009


Brontosauruses have a lot of problems these days.  Foremost being that they don’t exist.  But that had never stopped the Durham Brontosaurus at the Musuem of Life and Science.  Unfortunately, some teens were too much for it and decapitated the landmark (well, a landmark in my mind, at least) last month.  Fortunately the museum has hired a sculptor to repair the behemoth.  It make actually work out for the best since the mueseum had been letting the elements have their way with the brontosaurus for quite some time (somewhat understandable given the upcoming dinosaur trail, which I expect will be awesome).

If the sculpture meant anything to you (having your wedding pictures taken there is not a prerequisite, please think of making a donation or buying a t-shirt at the Farmer’s Market this Saturday.

Grant Wishes

May 22, 2009

I suppose I can now call myself a real scientist. I have applied for funding from the NSF.

I’m listed as a co-PI on a Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grant proposal. We’ve called it Improving the APplied Physics Laboratory Experience, or iAPPLE. The purpose of the grant would be to create a junior-level lab course sequence,

Artist’s conception of iAPPLE.

Artist's conception of iAPPLE.

which hasn’t existed to date. Instead of doing the “classic” experiments, though, students would propose, design, and carry out independent projects. They would have to create mathematical models (using Mathematica, naturally) for the phenomena they’re investigating and produce some sort of physical apparatus of demonstration equipment-level quality. In turn, these would be folded back into the introductory courses, and the lab students would be responsible for assessing the quality of their work as it’s used in the intro classes. Therefore, a feedback loop is created, in which students come into the program and learn from materials more advanced students have made, then they make more materials for the next “generation”. These educational materials would accumulate in our department over time. It’s win/win/win… or so we believe.


The grant-writing process itself has been hectic, especially toward the end. I was gone on vacation for a week, though, so I missed a lot of the slog of writing and editing. I feel a bit guilty about it, but my responsibility in the actual execution of the grant is quite significant. But the last few days since I’ve gotten back have been a constant cycle of re-writes and edits and meeting to talk about grammar and re-formatting. We submitted it today, though, so the pressure’s off. We think we have a very good shot of getting funded. We’re all very excited about the project anyway, regardless of the NSF’s decision.

Now, it’s on to write another NSF grant about starting an REU program here…

Apocryphal or not…

April 27, 2009

Last week I attended both the first ever workshop on Virtual Tissues conveniently (for me) held at the EPA’s RTP campus (though it was a EC-US Task for on Biotechnology event) and a partial reunion of the Lunchtime! crew. Dr. Tighe and Tina were in town and we managed to make it to the Ale House, though with no Martha and Dr. Bunton busy dealing with fires in Conway, some of the old magic was missing.

Efforts to create virtual tissues are certainly ambitious. The idea is to create a sufficiently accurate simulation of biology that the effects of perturbations (such as a toxic substance) are emergent;, rather than hard-coded. There are numerous challenges ahead and it may or may not even be possible, but as I mentioned tot he Ale House attendee’s someone presented an extremely pithy pair of quotes. They may or may not be apocryphal (a word whose own meaning is apparently somewhat dubious), since I cannot find either quote outside of this pairing, but it’s certainly an entertaining idea relevant to ;any technology on the cusp of feasibility:

On October 9, 1903 two interesting things happened.

The New York Times wrote “Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings… the flying machine that will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years…”

On that same day in North Carolina, Orville Wright wrote in his diary.

“We unpacked rest of goods for new machine. We started assembly today.”

PS: I found a reference to the NYT quote!

In Memory of Sir Olaf Pol

April 1, 2009
Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sad news, everyone. I heard from his son today that Sir Olaf Pol passed away early this morning. As you may or may not remember, Sir Pol lived in Durham for many years. He was an amateur quantum physicist who presented his findings to a group at Duke several years ago, coincidentally on this date. His most striking—and controversial—contribution to his science was taking the “gedanken” out of the “gedankenexperiment” of Schroedinger’s Cat. A shocked audience listened to him describe how he took in stray cats of the streets of downtown Durham and Chapel Hill for these practical applications. Sir Pol’s son reports that three and a half of the cats survive.

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