I’m in a magazine!
Physics is largely a matter of finding patterns in natural processes and translating that to mathematical expression. That’s a horribly oversimplified view, of course, but there’s no question that physics (and other branches of science) seeks to find symmetries. The huge successes of modern particle physics have largely arisen from identifying symmetries — and when those symmetries break down. To cite just one: physicists understand the weak force, which governs neutrinos and processes like nuclear beta decay, using a mathematical symmetry. That symmetry isn’t perfect, however, and one outward manifestation of that imperfection is the Higgs boson.
This pattern-seeking behavior among physicists is the theme of Dave Goldberg’s book The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality. I reviewed the book for Physics World, which marks my first publication in a print magazine. (It also may be the first time The Decemberists were quoted in Physics World.) You can read my review online, though the site requires a free registration to do so. In brief, I enjoyed the book, but found a few problems with it as well.
Inevitably, Goldberg’s explanations vary in quality. I found his discussion of the Casimir and Unruh effects (weird quantum phenomena in the vacuum) to be very good introductions for non-specialists. He also provides an excellent summary of the problems facing attempts to unify the different forces of nature, and specifically the question of pro- ton decay. On the other hand, his explanation of Lagrangians and the principle of least action (both essential topics in a mathematical sense) falls short, since it requires him to define a lot of new terminology in just a few pages, most of it barely mentioned again. The book also misses an opportunity to explain how specific symmetries shaped the development of the Standard Model; while it outlines a few of the important symmetries (including parity or reflection symmetry, time-reversal, time-translation, and exchange of matter and antimatter) early on, it fails to bring them back into the picture when the Standard Model is discussed. [Read more…]
The more money we raise to help us go to GeekGirlCon, the more places I will go wearing my Cthulhu hat.
Welcome to the weekly round-up of stories I wrote this week, wherever they hide.
- A tour of physics, Angry Birds style (Double X Science): The odds are good that you’ve played Angry Birds, even if (like me) you don’t own a device that will run the game. My colleague Rhett Allain wrote a book for kids, using Angry Birds as an invitation to learn quite a bit about physics, from particle trajectories to cosmology. I reviewed the book for Double X Science.
- My book-in-progress, Back Roads, Dark Skies, hit a major snag, and its future is unclear. Based on the responses I’ve received, I will not be able to find a publisher without changing the book in an essential way, so I’m feeling a little stuck. So, to show myself (if nobody else) that I’ve accomplished something in the 18 months I’ve been working on the book, I published two excerpts from Chapter 2: Of Bosons and Bison at Galileo’s Pendulum.
- Microcosmos: My tour of the DZero detector at Fermilab, with a digression on my favorite New Yorker cartoonist.
- Naming the animals in the particle zoo: The hows and whys of particle detection, in the context of the Tevatron at Fermilab. This excerpt also includes what may be my best joke yet, if I can say that about my own writing.
- The Milky Way’s black hole, like Cookie Monster, loses more than it eats (Ars Technica): Astronomers have known for many years that our galaxy harbors a supermassive black hole. Yet, it’s a very quiet black hole: the material surrounding it emits very little light compared to other galactic nuclei. A new X-ray observation may hold the key: only about 1 percent of all the material swirling around the black hole is captured, making it a Cookie Monster-level messy eater. (And yes, I’m proud of combining Cookie Monster and black holes in one article.)
- This doesn’t count as my writing, but I’m joining a number of friends and colleagues at GeekGirlCon in late October for some do-it-yourself science! Well, I’m going if I can afford it; you can help with that by donating to our cause. We’ve already raised more than $400, so I’ve begun photographing myself around the city wearing my Cthulhu hat. If you give us more money, we’ll do even more embarrassing things. You can’t lose.
- Atmospheric science in a bolt of lightning (Galileo’s Pendulum): Lightning is powerful enough to split molecules into their constituent atoms, and strip electrons away. For a brief moment, lightning can heat air to 30,000° C, more than 5 times the surface temperature of the Sun. An astrophotographer took an amazing snapshot of a lightning flash, with a twist: he used a diffraction grating to split the light into its component colors. The result is that we can identify some of the chemical components of air produced when the molecules and atoms were blasted by the powerful electric discharge.
This week also marked both my parents’ birthdays. Happy birthday, Mom (Monday) and Dad (Friday)!
I won’t lie: I love Mary Roach‘s books. She is likely the funniest nonfiction writer working today; her beat is the weird side of science. I reviewed her most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, for Double X Science:
Consider this question a 6-year-old might ask: Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? After all, the human stomach contains hydrochloric acid, which is uses to break down some pretty tough substances for digestion. The answer, as Roach points out, is that it does: The acid dissolves the lining of the stomach over the course of a few days, but new cells replace the destroyed ones. When a person dies, no new cells are born, leaving the acid to work undeterred…with predictably gross results.
However, Gulp isn’t a gross-out book, though I don’t advise you read the chapter on coprophagia (poop-eating) during lunch, as I did. [Read more…]
My review of Brian Switek’s forthcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is up at Double X Science!
Suffice to say, these are not the dinosaurs I learned about as a young kid—and in my opinion, they’re much more interesting. Over the last few decades, the basic realization that modern birds are living dinosaurs has grown, and helped us understand their extinct uncles and aunts: the dinosaurs of the distant past. (Many scientists even refer to the classic dinosaurs as the non-avian dinosaurs, meaning these are the ones that aren’t recognizably modern birds.) For example, hollow yet sturdy bones allow modern birds to fly, but they also allowed sauropods to grow into the biggest animals ever to live on land. We also know now, thanks to a number of recent finds, that probably every dinosaur lineage had feathers of some sort. As Switek wrote, “Just think of how cute a fuzzy little Apatosaurus juvenile would be.” I concur. [Read more…]