Saturday, June 30, 2007

Standard Model again

John Baez has written another nice piece on the Standard Model of particle physics, and its possible connection to triality, the octonions, and the exceptional Lie groups. Baez refers in his article to the ideas of Garrett Lisi, who he describes as "a cool dude who likes to ponder physics while living a low-budget, high-fun lifestyle: hanging out in Hawaii, surfing, and stuff like that." So me and Garrett have a lot in common.

Steven Spielberg

There's no Culture Show today because Lauren Laverne is off having Eddie Murphy's baby, or something, so instead, here's a superb Mark Kermode interview with Steven Spielberg. He asks all the questions you want him to ask.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Spice Girls re-union!

"Fookin Hell, Pat, we've only gone and got re-united! Yur bastards, yur!"

So said Mel B today, as the Spice Girls announced their re-union for a world tour. Noticeably, with the exception of Geri, they seemed to be dressed and hair-styled in the manner of Girls Aloud. Never a good idea to go from being leaders to followers...

Kubica saved by papal miracle!

According to certain church 'sources' in Krakow, Robert Kubica survived his violent accident in the Canadian Grand Prix due to Pope John Paul II's intervention. Kubica races with the late pontiff's name upon his helmet, apparently.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dawkins and Krauss on science and religion

Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss debate the approach science should take towards religion in this month's Scientific American. Here's a typical piece of Dawkinology:

I am happy to agree with you that I could, and probably should, have put it more tactfully. I should have reached out more seductively. But there are limits. You would stop short of the following extreme:

"Dear Young Earth Creationist, I deeply respect your belief that the world is 6,000 years old. Nevertheless, I humbly and gently suggest that if you were to read a book on geology, or radioisotope dating, or cosmology, or archaeology, or history, or zoology, you might find it fascinating (along with the Bible of course), and you might begin to see why almost all educated people, including theologians, think the world’s age is measured in billions of years, not thousands."

Let me propose an alternative seduction strategy. Instead of pretending to respect dopey opinions, how about a little tough love? Dramatize to the Young Earth Creationist the sheer magnitude of the discrepancy between his beliefs and those of scientists: "6,000 years is not just a little bit different from 4.6 billion years. It is so different that, dear Young Earth Creationist, it is as though you were to claim that the distance from New York to San Francisco is not 3,400 miles but 7.8 yards. Of course, I respect your right to disagree with scientists, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt and offend you too much to be told—as a matter of deductive and indisputable arithmetic—the actual magnitude of the disagreement you’ve taken on."

Superheavy islands of stability

This delightful diagram was produced by Russian physicist Georgy Flyorov in 1974. It depicts the search for stable atomic nuclei heavier than uranium. It is hypothesised that such an 'island of stability' will be found beyond nuclei with a proton number of 114, and a neutron number of 184.

Between 1981 and 1984, a group in Darmstadt, Germany, synthesized the elements Bohrium (proton number 107), Hassium (108), and Meitnerium (109). In 1994, the same group reported the synthesis of Darmstadtium (110) and Roentgenium (111), and, in 1998, a Russian team in Dubna claimed to have synthesised 114. Although the isotope produced had insufficient neutrons to be stable, and possessed a half-life of 30 seconds, the isotopes of elements in the range 110-114 which have been synthesised, are slower to decay than the isotopes of nearby nuclei on the periodic table, so hope remains that the island of stability is in sight...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nature and F1

For perhaps the first time ever, the cover story in this week's Nature concerns Formula 1. Specifically, the article discusses Formula One's plans to introduce regenerative braking systems from 2009, and an energy-flow formula from 2011. One startling fact revealed in the article is that, for each million dollars spent on aerodynamic development in Formula 1, a car gains only 20 milliseconds in lap-time!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Gordon's flood

On the eve of Gordon Brown's ascension to Chief Moose of the Clan, the firmament of the Earth is rent in agony, and is hurling a Biblical flood down upon our benighted land. Already Sheffield has been obliterated by the rising waters, and Hull is set to follow within hours. Pestilence will surely ensue unless we find some way of usurping this prudential necromancer from our midst.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Peter and Christopher

Peter Hitchens and Christopher Hitchens appeared together on Question Time this week, and most entertaining they were. Like a type of posh Ant and Dec, in fact. You can tell how posh someone is by the degree of upper-lip movement when they speak. And when cotton-wool falls upon a feather-bed a mile away, it deflects the human eardrum by a greater degree than the Hitchens upper-lip movement.

Conceptual Art

Here's an excellent review of the philosophy of conceptual art. There are, perhaps, two principal principles expounded here:

1) Artworks acquire their status by virtue of their relations to the historical and social context, constituted by the practices and conventions of art, our artistic heritage, the intentions of artists, the expectations of the social class interested in art, etc. Art and non-art are not perceptually distinguishable, but a function of social relations.

2) Conceptual art performs a cognitive function rather than an aesthetic function.

Quote of the week

Courtesy of David Mitchell:

"If I knew how I know what I know, then I'd only know half as much as I actually know!"

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Despite being endemically cool, and despite my entrenched penchant for 'roughing it', my first visit to Glastonbury festival remains securely locked in the realm of the potential future. Hence, I settled down this evening to watch Lauren Laverne present Killers, live from the Pyramid stage.

Now, I really love Killers; Hot Fuss was the sort of album which Pulp should have done after Different Class, and Sam's Town was excellent as well, but their performance tonight reminded me that they really are a rubbish live band. The key melodies seem to wash out, and Brandon Flowers's voice veers all over the place. Watching on Friday, actually, I was really impressed with the Arctic Monkeys, who I've previously derided for being pretty average. They were actually above average.

The Quantum Vacuum

There's much talk in the popular physics literature about the 'quantum vacuum'. Fluctuations of the vacuum purportedly give rise to observable effects such as the Lamb shift in the energy levels of a Hydrogen atom, or the Casimir effect, an attractive force between closely-separated parallel conducting plates. However, the popular literature tends to speak only of the vacuum, and neglects to explain that:

(i) Each different theory tends to have its own notion of the vacuum, and

(ii) Each different field within a fixed theory has a vacuum associated with it.

So, for example, quantum field theory and general relativity have different concepts of the vacuum, and within quantum field theory, there is the vacuum state of the electromagnetic field, there is the vacuum state of the electron field, and there is the vacuum state of the interacting electron-electromagnetic field, and they are all distinct.

Nevertheless, the various vacua of all the fields in the standard model of particle physics (an application of quantum field theory) add up to give a vacuum energy density which is many orders of magnitude greater than the upper bound placed upon the vacuum energy of empty space ('dark energy') by cosmological observations. This is the 'cosmological constant problem', superbly analysed by Rugh and Zinkernagel in 2001. The accelerating expansion of the universe can be explained by some sort of vacuum energy, but not that predicted by quantum field theory.

Rugh and Zinkernagel suggest that the existence of the quantum vacuum has not actually been demonstrated. And, indeed, the fact that the purported vacuum fluctuations do not contribute to the 'scattering amplitudes' (i.e., the probabilities of various outcomes of a collision) between, say, photons and electrons, requires an explanation from those who believe in the reality of the quantum vacuum. Rugh and Zinkernagel also propose that there may be some false beliefs about the assumed relation between quantum field theory in curved space-time and general relativity.

However, another possibility, that provided by supersymmetry, seems most intriguing. There are two types of elementary particles: bosons and fermions. Supersymmetry postulates that each type of boson with which we are currently familiar, has a supersymmetric fermionic partner, and each type of fermion with which we are currently familiar, has a supersymmetric bosonic partner. So, for example, the photon (a boson) has a supersymmetric partner called the photino (a fermion). The idea is that at some time in the universe's early history, the higher energy levels were such that each supersymmetric boson-fermion pair were merely different states of the same type of elementary particle. As the energy levels dropped, supersymmetric symmetry breaking took place, and, as a consequence, the particles with which we are currently familiar, interact very rarely with their supersymmetric partners. These weakly-interacting supersymmetric particles provide a nice candidate to explain the existence of dark matter in astronomy and cosmology. Moreover, as Rugh and Zinkernagel point out "In a supersymmetric theory the fermion and boson contributions to the vacuum energy would cancel to an exact zero (they are equally large and have opposite sign), so if we lived in a world in which each particle had a superpartner, we would understand why the vacuum energy vanishes." Sadly, supersymmetric symmetry breaking seems to produce a non-zero energy density which exceeds that required to explain dark energy. Perhaps we need to combine supersymmetry with a refined understanding of the link between quantum field theory and general relativity. Food for thought...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Kubica again

Robert Kubica has been prevented by the FIA doctors from taking part in this weekend's American Grand Prix, following his violent accident in last Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix. There is therefore no need for me to be impressed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Blind light

Today I happened to be in London, and the opportunity arose in the afternoon to visit either the Star Wars exhibition, or Antony Gormley's exhibition, 'Blind Light', at the Hayward...

There were some very cool installations at the Gormley exhibition. The centrepiece is 'Blind Light', a room suffuse with water vapour and bright fluorescent light. Within moments of entering, you lose sight of anyone else, and everything becomes a complete white-out. Coughing in the water vapour, you stumble forward until a subtle darkening indicates that you're approaching one of the glass walls. Eventually your outstretched hand touches glass, and you begin to feel your way around.

Also very cool are the sentinels placed on various buildings around the Hayward. There are even some in the far distance, on buildings across the Thames. And in terms of a demonstration of craft, I was most impressed by 'Matrices and Expansions', a collection of 3-d polygonal wireframe meshes, with human figures embedded within.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Kubica's accident

Poland's Robert Kubica intends to race at the American Grand Prix on Sunday, after this accident yesterday. I'd be impressed.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kinaesthetic sensations

The philosophy of perception has very little to say about kinaesthetic sensations. These sensations tell us about the inertial forces and spatial motion of our bodies. The semicircular canals within the inner ear function as a set of accelerometers in three perpendicular planes. Each canal detects angular acceleration about an axis perpendicular to the plane of the canal. Whilst the semicircular canals detect rotational acceleration, linear acceleration is detected by adjacent organs within the inner ear, called the otoliths. These are small particles of calcium carbonate, suspended in space, which move and deflect sensitive hair cells when we undergo a linear acceleration.

So we know when we're undergoing a linear or rotational acceleration, and we also know our orientation relative to the gravitational field of the Earth: we know when we're upright, or lying horizontal, or hanging upside-down. These kinaesthetic sensations surely have implications for any philosophical claim that space is a merely a geometrical mental construct, rather than something which objectively exists, and defines inertial forces.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Air Traffic - Shooting Star

This is Air Traffic, Bournemouth's most impressive musical export since Max Bygraves. I really like this song, although it's all a bit Coldplay, and the bloke even sounds like the execrable Chris Martin. Some nicely built guitar riffs though. Although I'm not totally sure what a riff is.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Millennium Simulation

Here's a nice animated 'flythrough' of the current distribution of galaxies and galaxy clusters, produced from the results of 2005's Millennium Simulation. This simulation was able to take the initial distribution of matter, inferred from observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and by applying a 'cold dark matter' model, was able to reproduce the current galaxy distribution some 10 billion or so years later. No doubt, there was some 'parameter-fitting' going on, but it's impressive nevertheless.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Schwinger limit

Physicists are threatening to boil the quantum vacuum! The quantum vacuum is, purportedly, a seething foment of 'virtual' particles and anti-particles; each particle--anti-particle pair is created spontaneously from nothing, and mutually annihilates shortly thereafter. These particles are deemed virtual because they describe trajectories in space-time which violate the relativistic relationship between mass and energy-momentum; they are said to be 'off the mass-shell'.

However, if a force field can be created with a potential gradient greater than the Schwinger limit of 8 x 1018 volts per metre, then this will be sufficient to move the virtual particles onto the mass shell, and for the particle--anti-particle pairs to separate. In effect, these particles will begin to boil from the quantum vacuum. Some physicists are starting to think that high intensity laser technology will, within a few decades, be able to generate electromagnetic fields which exceed the Schwinger limit.

Rain on Neptune!

It seems there's a 40% chance of rain on Neptune in 8 billion years! That's got to be the best long-range weather forecast ever!

Sunday evening radio

Why is the radio so turgid on a Sunday evening? It's full of self-absorbed people discussing their 'relationships' and personal problems. For chrissake, ditch the yapping and play some decent music! That'll cheer people up, not this mawdling, insincere, sub-counselling rubbish.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


The LA Times recently printed this spectacular photo of a moonbow over Yosemite falls at night, (courtesy of Dr Karl and Radio 5's 'Up all Night' programme). A moonbow is a rainbow at night. Light from the full moon, shining upon water vapour in the air, can produce a rainbow via the same mechanism by which light from the Sun produces a daytime rainbow. The full Moon is required to produce sufficient light to excite the colour receptors in the eye.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The new Bonnard sallies forth again

Sadly, today was the final day of our drawing course. I would love to be able to draw as well as some of the other people on the course, but, still, it's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.