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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seeing How the Science Process Works - A Possible Colossal Discovery?!

As we will see in class when we look at some relativity, Albert Einstein developed the theory with 2 assumptions, which we tend to call Einstein's postulates. The first is that the principle of relativity holds true (this dates back to Galileo and Newton), and that the speed of light is a constant and the speed limit in the universe.

A new result at a CERN neutrino experiment has a neutrino moving faster than light! Now, prior to announcing the result, the scientists on the experiment spent months going through their data, their analysis methods, the hardware and software that were used to make measurements, checking uncertainties, redoing calculations, and so on. They were well aware that announcing this was going to make the physics world go ballistic, so they double and triple checked everything they could think of. And now, with the news out there and the world paying attention, they want the scientific world to scrutinize their work and try to either confirm or dismiss the result.

This is a wonderful example of how science is supposed to work! There is a century of tests that confirm relativity's predictions and implications. Now comes a single result that concludes a foundational assumption of the theory is flawed. The science world, which grew up with relativity as one of the two fundamental theories on which the entire discipline rests, are, of course, naturally skeptical of any attempt to displace Einstein. I am admittedly part of that camp, as my own work at Fermilab required relativistic predictions and outcomes...and it all held up under our measurements. But, at the same time, we need to be able to accept new information and knowledge and results from good experiments. Nothing in science is absolutely sacred! In fact, one could argue that we already know that relativity and quantum mechanics are not the absolute final theories of Nature - even relativity breaks down inside black holes, for example. We know we need some new physics at some point in time.

So let the confirmation games begin, as I would imagine a good number of physicists are already thinking about how to reproduce the experiment. Only two labs in the world will be able to do similar experiments, those being Fermilab and a Japanese neutrino experiment. Will the results be confirmed or dismissed? Most scientists are 'biased' and believe something must be wrong with the experiment making this claim. But never say never in science. Instead, we will need to do our job and try to find the truths of the universe, whatever those may be.

Addendum (10/8/2011):
There is tension within the OPERA Collaboration, which is the group that did this work at CERN. Nearly half do not want to formally publish this result yet in a professional journal since they think more tests and re-tests need to be done in order to have additional confidence in the results. Check out this article for more details.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Check Out Some Opportunities

Here are some possible activities you may have some interest in. Check them out and let me know if you are interested in pursuing it.

For Writers:
If you are interested in a specific science issue or topic, and enjoy writing essays, check out the DuPont Science Essay Contest. Students can research and write a 700 - 1000 word essay about that science topic, and possibly win national recognition. We have had students win this in the past, so it is possible!

Some of you who enjoy writing and do not want to submit to a national contest could instead try for publication with The Triple Helix. This will be open for anyone who wants to try and write a multidisciplinary article about science issues and how the science affects society. See Doc V for further information about The Triple Helix.

Team Contests:
Exploravision, sponsored by Toshiba, is an interesting contest that allows small teams of students take a technology and project what it will look like in 20 years! If you enjoy thinking about futurism, or science fiction and how so many of those once 'impossible' ideas in sci-fi stories have actually turned out to be true, this could be a neat activity to take on. Let Doc V know if you are interested!

The COMAP High School Mathematical Modeling contest, better known as the 36-hour problem, will have numerous teams of 4 students take on challenging, open-ended problems, and develop math-based solutions to those problems. Since all of you are beginning to gain some programming skills and knowledge, this could be a neat way to apply it in creative and original ways. See Doc V.

As always, just let Doc V know if you ever want to sit down and chat about how to start an independent science research project. Perhaps we can find something very cool and interesting to you where you can do some original work! Check out a variety of papers from former students if you want to see what research can look like in the end. Go here, and then click on Student Research Papers.

In due time, if you want to participate in bridge building or the photo contest (where ETHS students had some success this past year!), let me know and we'll get you going on it! A more comprehensive list is outlined here.

Never hesitate to talk with me if there are things outside of class you want to try. I am always amazed at what high school students are capable of, and it is typically a matter of simply having a chance to try something of will amaze yourselves, as well, and have a lot of fun and learn a ton in the process!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Searching for Gravity Waves Using 'Squeezed Light'

There is a neat article (click here) that describes a new technique that is to be used to search for gravitational radiation, the strange effect predicted by Einstein some 90 years ago in his general theory of relativity. The essence of this technique of 'squeezed light' is that a special crystal splits a photon into two, meaning they are then entangled. It is the entanglement that can amplify the effect and sensitivity of the detector, and distinguish an unbelievably weak effect from gravitational waves from the effects of the vacuum (such as virtual photons being produced out of the vacuum of space - something called quantum fluctuations).

This is obviously weird. The concepts come out of the mathematics of quantum mechanics, certainly no easy task to solve. While that may not be so comprehensible to you right now, just know that these strange predictions have been confirmed in countless experiments over the past century. As technology continues to advance, fields such as quantum computing and quantum optics continue to progress, and in this case may help in the construction of the most sensitive measuring device ever built to try and test Einstein's predictions about gravitational radiation. It will be fun to see this develop and, perhaps, produce one more staggering confirmation about Einstein's theories from nearly a century ago. Stay tuned...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Self-Assembly of Machines?

Here is a talk about self-assembly, similar to what Mr. Sinkovits works on (in concept, but at large scales. Check it out.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Video for Derivatives

Here is a quick link to a 'how to' video on defining derivatives. I hope it helps!