Experimental Physics for Morons, #47

I spent the bulk of yesterday afternoon doing vacuum system work, specifically working on the system to feed gas into the atomic beam source. My feelings about this can be inferred from the Facebook status message I set at the time: “Chad Orzel abhors a vacuum.”

The apparatus I’m building uses laser cooling to decelerate an atomic beam of krypton atoms in a particular metastable state. This works brilliantly to slow metastable krypton atoms down, but the only atoms affected by the laser are krypton atoms– everything else continues along unimpeded. As a result, the entire experiment needs to be carried out in an ultra-high vacuum chamber, so I have a large and shiny apparatus with multiple vacuum pumps to ensure that all the air is removed from the path of the krypton atoms:


Of course, in order to work with metastable krypton, I need to get krypton into the system and excited to the proper state. And that’s where the “moron” part comes in.

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The First Church of the Best

After reading my LiveJournal friends list, I wander downstairs to talk to Kate. “I have an important question. Are we going to let FutureBaby read those agonizing kids books where the dog dies at the end?”

“I certainly hope not!” says the dog. “We don’t like those books. Books where the dog dies. We don’t like those books at all.”

“Well,” Kate says, “I don’t know how we’ll avoid it. They keep assigning them in schools, after all.”

“That’s a good point.” We’re quiet for a minute, except for the dog, who mutters darkly about the bad lessons taught to young humans.

“I suppose we could claim some sort of religious objection to books where beloved pets die,” I say.

“Ooooh! Yes!” says the dog, “That’s a good plan! The Church of Me! I’m the best, and I demand worship!”

“Hush, you,” I say.

“Thou Shalt Rub the Belly!” she says.


Well, we need it to be a plausible religious objection, after all…

links for 2008-02-29

Notes Toward a Discussion of “Story of Your Life”

Yesterday’s cheery hypothetical came about because I’ve agreed to do a guest lecture in a Science Fiction class in the English department. I’m going to be talking about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” whose connection to the hypothetical should be obvious to people who have read it, but is a spoiler for those who haven’t.

My guest spot will be this Friday, and I sat in on a class last week (where they discussed a Zelazny story and one of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles) to get an idea of what the class is usually like. This will be a different experience for me. It’s been fifteen years since I took a literature class, and I’ve never really taught a discussion class. My usual mode involves lecturing and equations, so trying to lead a discussion of a literary work will be an unusual experience.

So that I don’t make a complete ass of myself, I’m making some notes about the important features of the story. Since I have this blog, I figure I might as well post them, and see if anybody has any useful suggestions (beyond “That’s way too much for one hour-long class…” which I already know). This will include MASSIVE SPOILERS, so don’t click through unless you’ve already read the story.

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Earlier Alcohol Prevention?

EurekAlert tossed up a press release from the University of Minnesota yesterday with the provocative title: “U of Minn researchers find primary alcohol prevention programs are needed for ‘tweens’” and the even more eye-popping subtitle “Study recommends that prevention programs occur as early as third grade.” What, you may ask, is the problem this is intended to solve?

The study found that adolescents who already use alcohol are less receptive to prevention programs aimed at all students. Intervening at earlier ages, specifically between third and fifth grade, would allow for truly universal anti-alcohol messages that would also provide support for high-risk students.

“Children who use alcohol in sixth grade respond differently to messages about alcohol use than those have not used alcohol,” said Keryn Pasch, M.P.H., Ph.D., University of Minnesota School of Public Health and first author of the study. “By sixth grade it’s too late; we’ll miss many of the at-risk kids.”

It’s not clear to me, though, that this is the right solution to the problem. That is, if “adolescents who already use alcohol are less receptive to prevention programs aimed at all students,” it seems like the problem might be with the prevention programs, rather than an indication that the intervention is coming too late.

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William F. Buckley is dead, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden is glad to see him go. I can’t say I’m all that broken up, either.

I saw Buckley speak once, when I was in college. I remember very little about the context– not even what year it was– but he came to campus at the invitation of the college Republicans (one of whom was a good friend of mine), and gave a short talk to a packed house, then spent a long time doing Q&A. The talk was mostly just him throwin ideas out, and the only specific thing I recall was his suggestion that we ought to legalize the sale of all druge– alcohol, pot, heroin, whatever– to people over 18, and institute the death penalty for anyone providing drugs to anyone under eighteen.

I’m not entirely sure whether that was a sincere belief, or just something he said because it would reduce all the students in the audience– liberals and conservatives alike– to spluttering incoherence (which, admittedly, is a little like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel). It’s hard not to feel some grudging admiration for the sheer gall required to stand up in front of a crowd and say something that far out there (though he had been doing that sort of thing for forty years by that time, so it’s not like anyone was going to seriously fluster him). It’s just a pity that he put that talent in service of such loathsome ends– as Patrick said, “Racism and power-worship–and, from first to last, uncompromising defense of the idea that society should be structured into orders and classes.”

What’s really sad, though, is that Buckley looks fantastic compared to the rabid weasels who have taken over the American conservative movement. Hs goals were appalling, but he at least pursued them with a modicum of dignity and a peculiar sort of honor.

links for 2008-02-28

Hypothetical Scenario: Love and Death

Say you were offered the chance to be introduced to the great love of your life, your absolute perfect soul mate. The two of you will be perfect together– compatible personalities, the same taste in movies and books, sex so good you’ll temporarily lose the power of speech– but you’ll only be together for five years. At the end of five years, your partner will die, absolutely and inevitably– you’ll be told the time, place, and manner of their death, and nothing you do can stop it.

This person is perfect for you, but there is absolutely no way you will ever meet by chance. The only chance you have of meeting is to be introduced by the person who will also tell you the time, place, and manner of your soul mate’s death. Or, you can go on with your life as it is now, and just make the best you can of what you have.

Do you take the offer?

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It Snows In Detroit, Right?

i-4b583edadd5c7d08b1302b9bae972656-ford_07freestyle_angularfront_Regular.jpgI’m very happy with my 2007 Ford Freestyle, but there’s one major design flaw that drives me nuts. It’s only a problem in the winter, though, which makes me wonder what the hell the folks in Detroit are smoking.

If you look at the picture, you can just make out the antenna, on the passenger side of the windshield. It’s attached to the car just an inch or two from the lower right-hand corner of the windshield, seen from inside the car.

Now, take five seconds, and think about what you would need to do, and where you would need to stand, in order to remove snow or ice from the windshield. Do you see the problem? If so, congratulations, you’re smarter than an American car designer…

The State of Science Blogging

We haven’t had a good navel-gazing kerfuffle around here in a while, but not to worry– Bayblab comes to the rescue with a broadside against the current state of science blogging, as epitomized by ScienceBlogs:

If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That’s right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I’m afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

I don’t think I’ve ever attempted to conceal the fact that I get paid by Seed for doing this. That’s why I moved to ScienceBlogs, after all.

So, yes, we’re paid for blogging. Does this mean that we’re sitting around lighting fat cigars with $50 bills and chuckling at the collapse of public discourse?

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