Sunday, February 24, 2008

One thing fueling Obama's amazing run

The Democratic primary campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been moving along at warp speed. Obama, of course, has produced an unexpected and most impressive run of decisive wins, and now has Clinton desperate to win both Texas and Ohio a week from Tuesday. In addition, Clinton's once expected dominance of the superdelegates is in question, as many have recently claimed suport for Obama; he has picked up 25 and Clinton has lost 2 just in the past two weeks. How could this be the case? Clinton, back in the fall, was the absolute favorite to win the nomination, as President Clinton is still seen by most Democrats to be the leader of the party. With his network, his command of the establishment, and the many Democrats who owe him their careers and favors, along with his pack of wealthy liberals who can raise great amounts of money, her nomination was inevitable.

To date, I would have to say that Obama has yet to stray off his campaign theme. He has been the most consistent major candidate among Democrats, to be sure. The experienced Clinton, on the other hand, has changed themes and personalities so frequently in the past two months, it seems difficult to anticipate what will be the theme of her latest stump speech. She has been forced to this state because she needs to find something that can break Obama's nearly overwhelming momentum. One of the latest tactics arose in Wisconsin. The Clinton campaign unleashed the "plagiarism" label on Obama, for using lines a national co-chair had given him to use. This came up in a big way in the recent Texas debate, where Clinton labeled Obama as a "xerox" candidate. But these negative attacks have not worked. I suspect this will once again back-fire on Clinton. In fact, just minutes after Clinton attacked Obama at the debate, she used two sets of lines, one from Bill Clinton and one from John Edwards, which were nearly word for word identical! Watch the video, as shown on Meet the Press this morning. Virtually all politicians use and borrow lines from each other, from friends and spouses, so using that to attack an opponent only hints at hypocrisy. This is something many Americans are very tired of, and what I feel is one more reason many have jumped behind Obama.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Texas and Ohio, as well as the smaller primaries in Rhode Island and Vermont. If Obama were to win even one of those states, it will be nearing the point where the delegate mathematics must be considered to see if Clinton even has a chance at the nomination. Even if Clinton wins both states, but only by small percentages, that is a virtual win for Obama, as the delegates will be more evenly split and he would maintain the lead in delegates. Keep in mind Clinton had strong double-digit leads in both states just a couple weeks ago, and now some polls have them even in Texas and almost halved in Ohio.

Now we just need to weed out the Right's attempts to spread complete false statements about Obama being a 'radical Muslim' and 'unpatriotic insurgent.' I can't imagine why so many qualified people stay out of politics, where blatant lies can be the norm. I do hope this year, unlike the many Rovian smear campaigns of 2000 and 2004, the electorate does not fall for the attempts at smearing candidates. This goes for the Left, as well.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Grid Computing

In one of my classes today, the topic of next generation supercomputers came up. As the conversation developed, I brought up the notion of grid computing, as the amount of data humans will need to collect, store and analyze continues to expand exponentially. I want to point those who are interested in this topic to an old post from 2005, which is on grid computing. This also will become more real to the general public as the LHC turns on in Europe in the next month or two. 'tis another example of how cutting-edge pure science research is helping drive real-world technology.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Our Use of Light

Because of some topics jsut studied in my junior classes, here is an old post (Feb. 10, 2006) about light and our use of it to figure out how the universe works.

I was having a conversation with a colleague at school when the topic of light came up, and how our use and manipulation of it has allowed us to reach a level of knowledge and understanding of our universe that is really remarkable. Understanding the properties of light and being able to detect light has allowed us to explore the world of the big and small, over a remarkable range of size scales (if you have never seen it, do check out the 'powers of 10' site...very cool!!), so we are at a point in human knowledge where we can not only begin to wonder about how the universe began and how it is put together (man has always wondered about these things), but actually test ideas and learn some of the truths about these questions.

By light I refer to not only the obvious visible light our own eyes detect, but rather all the forms of electromagnetic radiation within the larger spectrum. Radio and microwaves, infrared (i.e. radiant heat) and ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma radiation are all exactly like visible light, only with different wavelengths and frequencies. When it comes to exploring the solar system and beyond, the only information we have comes from these forms of energy. This is the only way to gather any data at all...we detect the tiny amounts of energy in the form of little packets (both a particle and wave) called photons that make it to the earth over countless numbers of miles of space. We cannot physically make it to the places we look in the universe, but in some cases we literally rely on handfuls of photons from the most distant objects we know about and can gather an enormous amount of information from that ancient light.

With light we can determine what stars and galaxies are made of. Putting light through a prism fortunately breaks apart into the rainbow, and by carefully looking at the rainbow of the light from heated elements we see unique patterns appear for each chemical element. For instance, light from hydrogen will break up into four visible lines, one that is red, one that is a blue-green color, a bark blue and violet color. No other type of atom will make this pattern of colors, so when we look at an object that is a billion light-years away and see that same pattern, we know it is hydrogen. Even looking at light from the sun tells us that stars are the producers of the heavier elements we are made of. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, all the way up to iron, are made in the nuclear furnaces of stars. Elements above iron are produced when stars explode, and these elements then fly out into space, available to form other objects.

Not only can light allow us to know what distant objects are made of, but we can tell how objects that are seemingly at rest are actually movng at great speeds. The great distances between objects in the universe gives the illusion of everything remaining fixed in a static universe, for it takes far longer than a human lifetime for a distant star to change position to our naked eyes. This effect even fooled Einstein originally, when he included a cosmological constant in his general relativity equations. However, Hubble discovered, through an observation of star light and a common wave phenomenon called the Doppler effect, that stars and galaxies are really moving at high speeds away from each other. Just about everything we can see with our telescopes outside our own Milky Way galaxy has a 'red shift,' meaning they are moving away from us and causing light waves to stretch a bit to become more reddish in color. This is no different than a police car with its siren on moving away from us and hearing a decrease in the siren's pitch, as the sound waves are stretched out because of the relative motion between the siren and us. This observation has led us to Big Bang models of nothing less than the creation of the universe...remarkable! Since Hubble's breaktrough observations dating back to the 1920's and 30's, we have added the capabilities to look not just at the visible portion of the spectrum, but the entire range of light. Detecting radio and microwaves from around the universe has allowed us to test predictions of Big Bang theories (such as the cosmic microwave background radiation distributions) with ever better precision. Looking at frequencies above visible light, in the x-ray and gamma regions, has allowed us to search for the most violent and powerful objects we can imagine, black holes. By looking at light to determine the motion of stars within galaxies, we can compare that motion with our known laws of gravity to conclude that there needs to be more matter than we can detect with light, so now scientists speak in terms of dark matter and dark energy. Again, remarkable that we can even begin to ponder these concepts by looking at the few photons that happen to make it to earth! Only one of our senses can be used to explore space, and by employing a bit of technology to help our sense of sight we can talk somewhat intelligently about how the universe came to be.

While light has helped us observe the macrocosmic heavens, we also use light to develop an understanding of microcosmic world of the basic constituents of matter. The development of quantum mechanics came directly from a few scientists' attempts to understand a basic feature of light. When objects are heated enough, they begin to glow. When one looks at the light emitted by heated objects, we quickly find a particular distribution of the brightness of colors (i.e. blackbody radiation). The only theoretical way to explain this required the introduction of a concept where light had to come in packets (Max Planck, 1900), rather than being a continuous wave, and quantum theory was born. Einstein used his genius to develop relativity and the theory of photons, beginning in 1905. The other key use of light to develop what eventually evolved into quantum mechanics was Niels Bohr's theory to explain the characteristic patterns of light from each element mentioned above. The only explanation for such patterns requires electrons to orbit a nucleus with a particular, finite set of energies. Whereas objects orbiting the sun can have a continuum of values of radius and energy to chose from, electrons orbiting nuclei are restricted to very specific values; those values are quantized. Quantum mechanics continues to be one of the areas of study in physics, and its effects and consequences have moved into the worlds of chemistry and biology, as well as engineering and technology. All of this has been possible by a few observations of light. As with space, light is our only sense that is relevant in the study of the microcosm, whether it is loking at the nature of atoms with spectroscpes or by using microscopes to discover new things about cells.

Perhaps in the future we will have the technologies to add to our observational arsenal. Perhaps we will one day open new astronomical fields of neutrino astronomy or gravity wave astronomy (check out, for example, the LIGO experiment). Perhaps nanotechnology will develop nanomachines that will allow us to extend our sense of touch to the world of the small, so we can add to ur sense of sight in this realm. Time will tell, but it is nice to step back for a moment and reflect (no pun intended) on how relatively simple and basic observations of light have brought us to where we are in our understanding of the universe

Top 14 Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century

An expert panel has selected their top 14 engineering challenges for the 21st century. Check it out here. The group, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, was asked by the National Science Foundation to develop the list of challenges, so they may begin to plan and funnel funding to various efforts. The list has many of the same challenges I posed to our present-day students, but mine were in the form of science-related policy concerns for the near and long-term future. A couple I did not include on my list are enhance personalized learning/education and managing the nitrogen cycle (for agricultural reasons). Check it out...further motivation for young people to go into the sciences and engineering, as the quality of life in the future will continue to depend directly and, I would say, primarily, on scientific and engineering advances. We just need the will to provide resources for these efforts, as well as the qualified personnel to do it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

One of the Earliest Galaxies Ever Observed

Many of my students are fascinated with the concept of gravitational lensing. In general relativity, Albert Einstein conceived the idea that gravity is not a force, in our sense of the word, but rather a consequence of matter warping the space-time continuum. This is indeed very abstract and weird for one to comprehend, as our brains are unable to picture things in four dimensions. However, a prediction based on this model was that light should then be 'bent' by gravity since photons must travel through space and time. It is like a ball rolling on a hilly will 'bend' its direction of travel because it must follow the surface. In the case of gravity, this was very different from what Newtonian gravity predicted, since photons do not have mass.

Gravitational lensing is now used on a daily basis by astronomers to help them see very distant objects. Now, a galaxy has been observed at some 13 billion light-years from the earth. This galaxy would have existed fairly soon after the Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago), and I would have to guess it was a first generation galaxy with first generation stars. Chalk up another discovery for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Friday, February 01, 2008

More on Science Funding Woes

I just found another article from Scientific American dealing with funding cuts for basic science research. It, too, points out that such cuts in this day and age are entirely counterproductive for our nation. Such cuts affect:

  • economic development and growth (our economy is largely driven by scientific innovation and technology development;
  • competitiveness and standing in the global community (we have reached superpower status largely because of the gap in science infrastructure and discovery between the U.S. and the rest of the world);
  • scientifically literate workforce decline (we risk having our own 'brain-drain' as scientists leave the U.S. to go to the top facilities, which are being located in other parts of the world...for example, we have already seen this in high energy physics, stem cell research, and at some level the world of alternative energy technology and development);
  • hurting our future scientists (cuts at the national lab level, for instance, have resulted in some 700 projects being terminated; national labs play a significant role in providing a training ground for young scientists and students);
  • may have a negative effect long-term in our ability to do 'big science' of any kind (we have pulled funding on ITER, the experimental fusion reactor being built in France; science research has become international in many fields, and requires monetary contributions for many larger projects from multinational collaborations...we now have sent the world a message that we may not be trusted to partner in future projects);
  • hurts industry (there are countless contracts between labs in academia/national labs and private industry, because researchers at the company/industry level are 'users' at these other labs, where large, sophisticated scientific machines and facilities exist; we are cancelling some of the projects and shutting down several facilities that some industries also need...the worry is, will industry R&D groups relocate overseas where they have access to similar, better funded facilities?)

Let's hope the funding woes will improve after the November elections.