They are good at it

Workout notes: though the weather was great, I went inside for my “faster” running segment:
treadmill: 5 min at 5.2, 5 at 5.3, 10 min at 6.7, 6.8 to 2 miles (28:xx), 6.9 to 35 minutes, and 7.0 3.75 and 7.1 for the final .25 (37:35 for 4), then 15 minutes at 15 mpm to get to 5 miles in 52:35.
Then 1 more mile of walking outside.

Weight: 191 on the gym scale prior to running. I don’t think that my weight training is helping my marathon prospects.🙂

Science: Three physics Nobel Prizes were awarded, and these physicists used topology to help them understand what they were studying:

David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for discoveries in condensed-matter physics that have transformed the understanding of matter that assumes strange shapes. All three were born in Britain but work in the United States.

Using advanced mathematical models, the three scientists studied unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Their findings have relevance for materials science and electronics.

Dr. Thouless of the University of Washington, Dr. Haldane of Princeton University and Dr. Kosterlitz of Brown University were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that change only in increments. In the early 1970s, Dr. Kosterlitz and Dr. Thouless “demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures,” the academy found.

In the 1980s, Dr. Thouless showed that the integers by which the conductivity of electricity could be measured were topological in their nature. Around that time, Dr. Haldane discovered how topological concepts could be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

“We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials,” the academy said. “Over the last decade, this area has boosted front-line research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers.”

I think that “Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that change only in increments.” refers to “continuous functions”. Of course, analysis and geometry uses continuity also, therefore I find this statement puzzling.

But to the reader who might wonder “what doesn’t change in increments”, consider electron orbitals (you studied these in chemistry). The electron energy levels are in discrete units and change in a quantum manner (“jump between discrete levels”).

October 4, 2016 Posted by | physics, running, science, walking | , | Leave a comment

Human evolution and cross breeding

I recently joked about new discoveries on humans mating with other homo species. There is more detail here, including how scientists figure this stuff out. Of interest is that we had mating with other homos both in the “failed migration” out of Africa, and again in the successful one (65 K years ago), and these conclusions are possible because of modern genome sequencing techniques.

On a more mundane (but still fun) level, here is a little video describing an evolutionary trajectory that lead to modern humans.

Science humor: a joke about curved spacetime:


February 19, 2016 Posted by | evolution, human sexuality, physics, science | , , | Leave a comment

Cats, gravity waves and politics

I had an excellent evening; I had dinner with 2 friends (Sanders supporter and a Republican) and I completely enjoyed it. We didn’t hold back, but kept it civil due to the genuine mutual respect that we have for each other.

Oh, the food was pretty good too.

As far as politics, here is one millennial women’s rant about Hillary Clinton (and Paul Krugman…and about anyone who well, actually KNOWS anything)

On the other end, here is the National Review saying that Carly Fiorina actually helped her party (note who they called “heavyweights”). Yes, Rick Perry …a heavyweight.

As far as me: this is one reason that I think that I have more of an affinity for Clinton than Sanders: she has a stronger belief in merit:

But what Clinton suggested in place of a more expansive welfare state illuminates another difference between her politics and Sanders’. Where Sanders tended to focus on inequality and inequality-reducing policies, Clinton focused heavily on increasing opportunity, repeatedly expressing a desire that all Americans be able to realize their “God-given talents,” as she and her husband have. “I have spent a very long time—my entire adult life—looking for ways to even the odds to help people have a chance to get ahead, and, in particular, to find the ways for each child to live up to his or her God-given potential,” Clinton said in her opening remarks, revisiting the idea throughout the debate.

Here we have an interesting hypothesis about a parasite making a chimp less wary of a large predator, thereby helping the parasite reproduce in the predator’s gut.

Hear the news about the detection of gravity waves? Here is an expert’s article for the lay person and here is Stephen Hawking discussing (short video) about the role that the colliding black holes played and how it relates to his work.

February 13, 2016 Posted by | evolution, Friends, nature, physics, political/social, politics | , , | Leave a comment

Science, Republican debaters and “good guys with guns”

Workout notes: swim: 4 x 250 on 5 (barely made these at first), 5 x (25 fly, 25 free, 25 back, 25 free) on 10-15 seconds rest, 5 x (25 side, 25 free, 25 side, 25 free), 200 in 3:22.

Then I had a pleasant 2 mile walk outside followed by light yoga; “wheel: a brief pain in the right shoulder; better stretch it prior to trying that pose again.


THIS is one major problem with the dumb “good guy with a gun” idea: they often shoot innocent people, or EVEN THE VICTIM of the crime.

Politics: No Republicans, the Democrats didn’t get easier questions than you did. Just watch.

And yes, Donald Trump is coming to Springfield, IL. Yes, I have a ticket. Actually, I have two, but my wife doesn’t want to go, for some reason.🙂

Science: yes, it works. check out these interesting videos:

What happens when a truck going 60 mph shoots a cannonball going 60 mph in the opposite direction?

What happens when a spring is dropped?

Here you go:

November 4, 2015 Posted by | 2016, physics, science, swimming, walking | , | Leave a comment

End of the semester academia posts…

This is an article about string theory. The upshot: while string theory has been an unqualified success in explaining many things about physics and cosmology and while it has generated some super interesting, super difficult mathematics, it is not a “theory of everything” and it increasingly looks like it won’t be:

The final results that we found successfully incorporated various established features of particle physics and so were worthy of attention (and, for me, a doctoral dissertation), but were far from providing evidence for string theory. Naturally, our group and many others turned back to the list of allowed shapes to consider other possibilities. But the list was no longer short. Over the months and years, researchers had discovered ever larger collections of shapes that passed mathematical muster, driving the number of candidates into the thousands, millions, billions and then, with insights spearheaded in the mid-1990s by Joe Polchinski, into numbers so large that they’ve never been named.

Against this embarrassment of riches, string theory offered no directive regarding which shape to pick. And as each shape would affect string vibrations in different ways, each would yield different observable consequences. The dream of extracting unique predictions from string theory rapidly faded.

From a public relations standpoint, string theorists had not prepared for this development. Like the Olympic athlete who promises eight gold medals but wins “only” five, theorists had consistently set the bar as high as it could go. That string theory unites general relativity and quantum mechanics is a profound success. That it does so in a framework with the capacity to embrace the known particles and forces makes the success more than theoretically relevant. Seeking to go even further and uniquely explain the detailed properties of the particles and forces is surely a noble goal, but one that lies well beyond the line dividing success from failure.

Nevertheless, critics who had bristled at string theory’s meteoric rise to dominance used the opportunity to trumpet the theory’s demise, blurring researchers’ honest disappointment of not reaching hallowed ground with an unfounded assertion that the approach had crashed. The cacophony grew louder still with a controversial turn articulated most forcefully by one of the founding fathers of string theory, the Stanford University theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind.

On the other end of things:

There is evidence that Bill Cosby didn’t even write his sham thesis.

And…well, I’d expect any teacher to have cardiac arrest when they read this at their school:


A principal has been reassigned after a misspelled sign was displayed for more than a week outside a New Jersey public high school.

The message on the sign above the entryway to Paterson’s Public School Number 20 included three mistakes: December was spelled “Dicember,” report as “reepor” and a “1” was placed backwards.

The errors drew the ire of school Paterson Board of Education member Corey Teague, who saw a photo of the misspelled sign on Facebook.

“At first I didn’t believe it,” Teague told CBS New York. “I thought it was Photoshopped or something.”

When Teague found out it was real, he shared the photo on Facebook.

“How can we expect our children to learn how to spell when the administration can’t?” Teague wrote. “We must be held to a higher standard.”

“We can’t assume because it’s an urban district — inner-city — that things like this can be swept over,” he told the CBS affiliate. “If it were a suburban neighborhood, parents would be outraged.”

School officials told that the lettering “was placed by a custodian and the sign was near an entrance not normally used by staff.” It was later corrected.

After the gaffe was picked up by several local news outlets, Antoinette Young, the school’s principal, was reassigned as a vice principal at a different school.

The school district did not disclose the reason for her demotion, but according to, Young was already under review for unrelated performance issues.

What troubles me is that someone ….even a student…a parent…would have noticed and said something.

And speaking of learning: It is common to get bombarded by the old “different learning styles” canard; I suppose that when you have a calculus class with 35 students in it, you need to accommodate all of their individual “learning styles” (which some might classify as, say, 3-4 distinct ones, or whatever). BUT…there is no evidence for this:

A search of the literature on learning styles reveals thousands of journal articles, books, conference presentations, magazine articles, websites, and so on. The sheer volume of the literature may suggest that the hypothesis at the heart of the theory, that matching instructional style to students’ learning style leads to improved learning, has been well studied, but that would be incorrect. Scholars who have taken inventory of this literature have noted that the vast majority of it is theoretical and descriptive in nature rather than empirical and tends not to appear in peer-reviewed journals. Worse still, very few of the empirical studies were methodologically strong and featured a randomly assigned control group. The few remaining studies, including this most recent one, do not support the learning styles hypothesis.

At best, the instruments which purportedly measure learning styles really just measure studying preferences. What’s more, a growing body of psychological research on metacognition demonstrates that our beliefs about how we process information and how we learn can actually be quite wrong, with people predicting superior performance with instructional methods that ultimately produce inferior results. Therefore objectively-measured improvements in performance, rather than self-reported perceptions of effectiveness, are ideal.

An evidence-based approach is necessary to prevent wasteful spending on ineffective educational interventions. Learning styles theory, despite its continued popularity, has failed to produce sufficient evidence of being a valuable educational tool. By focusing on teaching to students’ strengths this approach misses an important opportunity to encourage students to work on developing their weaknesses as well. The learning styles approach also provides an excuse for poor performance to the detriment of students who will not recognize the need to make changes or seek help.

You can see a rigorous study here.

This rings true for me, but of course, that isn’t evidence either. The study I cited is.

December 20, 2014 Posted by | education, mathematics, physics, politics/social, science | , , , , | Leave a comment

Science: mimicry and Maxwell’s Equations

If you have spent time on a campus that has a physics department, you might have seen t-shirts that have this on them:


These equations are called Maxwell’s equations and they describe electromagnetism. Ok, ok, here is integral form:


Here is a brief history of how they came to be; as you may have guessed, the early version was messy and considered incomplete. You are seeing the result of a lot of work and polishing.

Not for a different kind of science: Jerry Coyne’s website has an interesting article about what appears to be mimicry in bird nestlings: they resemble a toxic caterpillar while they are still nestlings. Of course, the science jury is still out as scientists usually require a high standard of proof before they declare something to be “true”.

December 11, 2014 Posted by | biology, mathematics, nature, physics, science | , | Leave a comment

Most of us are pretty anonymous….

I admit it: when I think of “scientists”, I think of the big names that you see on television or on the internet; I think of Nobel Prizes, National Academies, MIT, Berkley and the top laboratories.

But the reality is different. I read a good New York Times article about the scientist who discovered francium and ended up dying from the radiation exposure that she encountered during her work. True, that happened to Marie Curie too. But Marie Curie is famous; the vast majority of scientists who toil for results are not:

Her sacrifice filled a hole in the periodic table, but it did not change cancer medicine, as she had hoped. And after francium, elements were no longer discovered first in nature but were increasingly made artificially. They became curiosities — though still significant to physicists — rather than insights that changed the world. Science moved on, as it does; in 20 years’ time, much of the work that makes headlines now — neuroscience, string theory — may have a totally different meaning from what it does today.

In general, scientists whose risks pay off in the ways they expect are the ones who become the most famous, who get their stories written in romantic and memorable terms. This is particularly true if those expectations are grandiose and the risks they take are tragic. But such people represent a vanishingly small part of those who dedicate their lives to science. “We have this selection bias on when it does work out in an extraordinary way,” Lynette Shaw, a sociologist who studies how we assign value to ideas, objects and people, told me. Perey’s story “gets to this deep question about what’s the value in doing things? Is it the end result? Or is it just because it has inherent worth to pursue them?”

We should celebrate scientists not solely for their accomplishments but also for their courage and the tenacity required to discover anything at all. There are brave people out there working right now. They are brave not because they are killing themselves slowly or leaping from airplanes or catching rare tropical diseases, although scientists have done all those things. They are brave because of the intense emotional risks of trying to do something no one has done before by following your own lead. Radiation is a potent allegory for human life. Everything is always, inevitably falling apart; we are all in arrested decay. Our greatest achievements may become at best footnotes; few people remember us; we can’t know what will eventually come of our work.

December 6, 2014 Posted by | physics, science | , | Leave a comment

Math/Science humor

Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 8.14.19 PM

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October 12, 2014 Posted by | humor, mathematics, physics | , , | Leave a comment

PC’ness, mathematics, quantum mechanics and other stuff….

Shameless fluff: I really like President Obama:

(yes, I know; it is probably edited)

Confession: when I am around a really accomplished mathematician or scientist, well, I end up acting a bit like Chester…..🙂

Quantum Mechanics
Little Boy Boo collapses Leghorn’s “position” wave function:

Of course quantum mechanics uses a lot of mathematics. And mathematics uses things like equations and formulas. But equations and formulas are a relatively recent invention in human history (relative to the time humans have been using writing). Prior to that, an equation such as 4x + 3 = 7 would have to be written as “a number, when multiplied by 4 and subsequently added to three yields 7” or something like that. You can see how mathematical progress would have been glacially slow!

For more on this, read this Guardian article.

Academia: It is nice to see an accomplished liberal academic speaking out against smothering “political correctness. Jerry Coyne talks about some instances that were lampooned by the Wall Street Journal. He then notes:

The WSJ is, of course, a conservative organ, and goes on to decry the “loopiness” of the left wing and the ostracism of conservative professors, as well the tendency of universities to allow “the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.” That’s an exaggeration, but still, it’s disturbing that we see the left attacking, in effect, freedom of speech. If you don’t like Condaleeza Rice (and I sure don’t), that doesn’t mean you should mount such a protest against her that she has to withdraw. Are all speakers to be vetted for signs of cryptic conservatism? Are students that loath to hear views that might disagree with them?

I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own. At my own commencement at William and Mary in 1971, we had an undistinguished state legislator as speaker—and this after many of us wanted a more leftist person. But we didn’t shout him down, or pressure the university to withdraw his invitation. Instead, we organized a “counter commencement,” held at a different time and place, and our class invited and paid for Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

On one point the Journal has it right:

No one could possibly count the compromises of intellectual honesty made on American campuses to reach this point. It is fantastic that the liberal former head of Berkeley should have to sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America’s Red Guards.

Indeed. The remedy for speech you don’t like and have rational arguments against, is this: more speech—counter speech.

However the “Red Guards” snark is an exaggeration; after all, these people can be stood up to; no one is going to shoot you.

Personal life
Where I was wrong: there was a time when I was part of “a calorie is a calorie” crowd. I was “sort of” right. After all, one cannot get fat if one doesn’t ingest calories; the fat has to come from somewhere.

But though the energy balance is still true, some foods have no available energy for us at all (at least for humans: think “grass”). Some foods are put to work making energy and some foods are more prone to get stored as fat and NOT be immediately used. Hence the new conjecture as to why fat people might be hungry all of the time. Note: I am no longer morbidly obese but I not only cut back how much I eat, I changed what I eat (drastically).

Personal note

Do we sometimes benefit from doing what we don’t want to do? This essay argues “yes”. This is similar to the line in John Denver’s song “Thank God I am a Country Boy”: “fiddle when I can, work when I should”. This essay has an interesting paragraph:

Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something “higher” was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires.

Perhaps you relish running marathons. Perhaps you even think of your exercise regimen as a form of self-improvement. But if your “something higher” is, say, justice and equality, those ideals might behoove you to delegate some of the many hours spent pounding the track on tutoring kids at the youth center. Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.

He also mentions the situation in which a skilled doctor saved up so much money he could retire and roller blade full time (his true passion) which, while it is what he wanted to do, ended up depriving patients of his life saving skills. I really can’t weigh in as, well, I really don’t have “essential skills”. But I can do things like volunteer (as I do to help new runners build to a healthy life style) and give blood (and I hate that, but will keep doing it…and complaining about doing it).

Note: My body can no longer can stand training for hours on end so the “marathon” paragraph really doesn’t apply to me.

May 23, 2014 Posted by | Barack Obama, mathematics, obesity, physics, political/social, science, social/political | , , , , , | Leave a comment

About those gravitational waves and ripples in space-time

Physics Professor Mano Singham directs us to this Nature science video.

It is a good video; note that it appears that what is actually being detected is akin to a type of vector calculus curl.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, physics, science | | Leave a comment