26 May 2009

Forca Barca!

Tonight is the Champions' League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, so I'm heading over the the Mbassy to watch. I've been reading both Soccernet in English and Marca in Spanish, and they have correspondingly different takes on the outcome of the clash.

Anyway, I'll be rooting for Barca since 1) I'm sick of English teams winning everything, and 2) Thierry Henry gave Arsenal many good years, so I want him to win.

Addendum: Barca wins 2-0! It feels great to pick the right bandwagon.

Science by press release sucks!

Just a quick thought while I try to get myself to focus again after lunch - this will mostly be links to other, better writers:

Many of you, I'm sure, have heard about the new fossil "Ida." This fossil was supposed to be so hugely important that it was kept under tight wraps until the simulateneous publication of the paper and press fiasco.

Not only did the media reports grossly misstate Ida's significance, but even the contract signed by the researchers forced them to directly contradict their analysis of the fossil.

This happens a lot, but fortunately there is a large online army of irritating science bloggers working hard to set the record straight. The problem in general is that science doesn't progress by thrilling leaps and bounds. It takes two steps forward and one step back as information is reanalyzed and reinterpreted.

Beware of science by press release - the first conclusions are rarely the same as the last.

24 May 2009


The Irish embassy in Krakow is not actually an embassy at all, but instead is perhaps more appropriately a pub called the Irish Mbassy. A watering hole for English-speaking expats and visitors, the Mbassy has three floors full of wide-screen televisions and draws crowds by showing sports games, mostly soccer.

They also sponsor their own team in the Cracow Sunday Football League! I was fortunate enough to find out about this and join up for the last 5 or 6 games of the season. The level is reasonably good - just last week, we were lucky to come away with a 3-0 loss to Kadra GAP. This team apparently has 3 former professionals as well as this dapper gentleman.

Anywho, we finally pulled out a 4-2 victory over Vamos! this morning. It felt really good, but I'm super that my camera is out of commission because I wanted to have some pictures for you guys. The field is right on the Vistula river, it was a beautiful day, and there was a 5k race going on right around the Planty. Anyway, stay tuned and eventually you'll get to see how beautiful Krakow is. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking it out on Google Maps or Google Earth.

20 May 2009

New feature!

To my readers (all 3 of you): this blog is for you, and I want to write stuff that you want to read about! I've added a feature beneath each post where with just one click you can tell me how you liked it. This'll help me keep my blog interesting for you guys. Of course, comments are always welcome, too!


As I was clearing space on my camera for new pictures to put on this blog, I carelessly kicked the cable connecting the camera to the computer, causing it to crash and crush the lens cover. Consequently, my camera cannot currently capture pictures. Catastrophe!

19 May 2009

The International Linear Collider

For my friends and family who wonder what the heck I'm doing, hopefully this post will clarify my research project and its place in the larger goals of particle physics.

First, I should probably say that no, I'm not working on the LHC. While the LHC is totally sweet and not going to destroy the world, I'm working on the next particle accelerator, the one that will come after the LHC. It's called the International Linear Collider, and it hasn't even been built yet, but it's pretty exciting to see such a huge project in its infancy.

Why do we need the ILC? Isn't the LHC enough? Well, it turns out that in order to reach the energies needed to test for stuff like the existence of extra dimensions, dark matter, and the Higgs boson, the LHC is actually the quick, dirty, and cheap solution. The folks at CERN basically just upgraded the cavern holding the old Large Electron-Positron collider to make space for the new LHC equipment. Okay, so maybe "just" is an understatement, but all the basic infrastructure to support a new accelerator was already in place.

The LHC's limitation, however, is that CERN is circular: Because of this, the LHC is really only good for smashing protons (when you spin particles in a circle, they lose energy in an inverse proportion to their mass, so it would be very inefficient for electrons and positrons). Unfortunately, protons are really messy. Instead of being a point particle like an electron, a proton is actually made up of three quarks stuck together by the strong force.

Shooting electrons at each other is like playing pool - it's easy to follow the chain of collisions. Shooting protons together, however, is more like throwing two bags of billiard balls at each other - it's a messy process and it's hard to tease out what happens afterwards. So while the LHC is a good way to get a first look at terascale energies, if you want any kind of precision you need a linear electron-positron collider - and that's what the ILC is for:

(sorry for the small size; click 'er for bigger)

Obviously, there are still some questions. For example, the LHC energy goes up to ~15 TeV; why can the ILC get away with only 500 GeV? I don't actually know the answer. I suspect it has to do with the efficiency of energy transfer during collisions (as per the previous paragraph), but I'm not sure. Hey, I just work here, you know?
(Actually, part of my motivation to write this blog is to force myself to find these kinds of answers. It's not like you go study physics for a couple years and suddenly everything becomes clear.)

For the next three years (almost 2.5, yeesh!), I'll get to grind through every agonizing detail that goes into making an experiment like this work. My responsibility (and that of my research group) is to design one of the particle detectors, called LumiCal for "luminosity calorimeter." I'll post some other time about how what this is and how it fits into the ILC as a whole and how being a code monkey is actually a great thing to do right now (it is, I swear!); right now, this is a decent summary of the big picture surrounding my research job.

Addendum: Symmetry Magazine has a pretty good article describing the design of the ILC

13 May 2009

Objects in space can be really, really big

I really need to be better about this blog thing, so here's a quick post to help me out.

There is a whole lot of space in space, that's no joke, but it's hard to really wrap your brain around just how much space. Our lovely Milky Way, for example, is 100,000 light-years wide, which is about 58,784,998,100,000,000 miles. By that point, it's really just a number. Here's a quick story that really drove home, to me, the kind of scales that exist out there. It involves the Hubble Space Telescope, and moon landing hoaxers! I'll be brief here, but you can read a much better post (and blog) here.

The premise is that we could prove the moon landings were real once and for all by pointing Hubble at the Apollo landing sites and taking pictures. Of course, it's so simple! Unfortunately, even though the moon is just down the street compared to Hubble's usual targets, it's still too far away to make the moon landers visible. The angular resolution of Hubble's mirror is, in the best case, 0.05 arcseconds, but the moon is 400,000 kilometers away. So, the smallest features that can be seen have to be over 100 meters wide! Needless to say, we did not ship an aircraft carrier to the moon. There is no chance that we could directly observe the moon landers without going there ourselves.

But my purpose here is not to prove or disprove the moon landings, it's to give you a sense of the enormous scale of things in the universe. Take a look at this awesome picture of some galaxies 400 MILLION LIGHT-YEARS AWAY. What amazing detail! There are stars, nebulae, even interstellar dust!

NGC 5679:

We can't even see the Apollo landing modules in our own back yard, but we can see dust trails in a galaxy four hundred million light-years away. Stuff in space is really, really big.