make war, not bosons

I try to keep things apolitical around here, and its not my intent to change that policy. But this is an issue of science funding as a national priority, so I feel it is relevant: Fermilab funding ends in September.

U.S. researchers will soon abandon their search for the most coveted particle in high-energy physics because of a lack of funding.

Researchers working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, had wanted to run their 25-year-old atom smasher, the Tevatron, through 2014 in hopes of spotting the so-called Higgs boson before their European counterparts could discover it with their newer, more powerful atom smasher. But officials at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which funds Fermilab, informed lab officials this week that DOE cannot come up with the extra $35 million per year to keep the Tevatron going beyond September.

“Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified. Therefore, … operation of the Tevatron will end in [fiscal year 2011], as originally scheduled,” wrote William Brinkman, head of DOE’s Office of Science, in a letter to Melvyn Shochet, chair of DOE’s High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) and a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Fermilab is, as far as I am concerned, a national treasure like the Hoover Dam or Mount Rushmore. It’s about 50 miles from my home growing up and I still remember a childhood visit there 20 years ago.

The worst thing about this is how science is a victim of political climate. As others have pointed out, even the reduced spending on Afghanistan as we draw down there still means we spend more in six hours there than we’d need to keep Fermilab funded through 2014. I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend the money in Afghanistan (which puts me at odds on my other blog communities, as some of you are aware). But I am saying that maybe in the grand scheme of things, with a deficit in the trillions anyway, we shouldn’t be penny wise and pound foolish.

end rant.

quantitative analysis of gold farming

This is a fascinating academic study of gold farming networks in EverQuest2. I am sure someone is doing something similar for WoW. I love this kind of stuff. These virtual worlds are not just fantasy worlds, the fact that humans are the primary characters makes them into fascinating real-world models for various behaviors.

Recall that MMORPGs have also been used to model disease epidemiology – for example, the “Corrupted Blood” in World of Warcraft which got published in Lancet!

solar cells from powdered donuts and starbucks passion tea

I am not a chemist, so it would take me at least an hour to verify that the following has some basis in actual science, and even then I wouldn’t be able to really tell you for sure that this is kosher. But anyone who has access to a rudimentary lab setup should be able to reproduce the experiment.

I don’t think they were serious about the “lightning setting” on the multimeter, though.

NASA rover in the Inaugural parade

This was a cool moment in tonight’s (ongoing) coverage of the Inauguration festivities:

That’s the prototype of NASA’s new electric moon rover under development. It’s not actually due to be launched to the moon for another 12 years and the design might change and we might not even go to the moon if the economy doesn’t get better – but assuming we do, as a nation, avoid some sort of Shoe Event Horizon scenario, then something like this might end up on the moon someday.

Obama’s face was shining when the rover came along. I can’t blame him. It’s the coolest thing in the parade by far.

the very, VERY large Hadron collider

This Onion story about the Very Large Earth Collider is hilarious for all the right reasons:

“There will always be Chicken Little types,” theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku said. “When the first nuclear reaction was achieved, there were those who said its very existence made it a weapon of unspeakable power, and there is evidence they may have been right. It’s probably worth asking if the Very Large Earth Collider may in fact pose some minute danger to the Earth.”

While the project remains controversial, physicists agreed in late November to reconvene and evaluate the risk factor of the project after a small-scale field test, during which the Very Large Earth Collider will be turned on at 10 percent capacity, catapulting Earth into the moon at only half the speed of light.

Of course, since a hadron is just a bound state of quarks, then protons and neutrons are also hadrons (specifically, baryons which are a subset of hadrons). Which means that in a sense the Earth is a big hadron itself… hmm. Has anyone checked the website of the LHC to see just exactly what they have in mind?

energy alternatives

Solar power is good enough for the biosphere, so by golly it’s about time it was good enough for human industry! Of course, photosynthesis is only 6% efficient. That number includes the biological losses, the absorption ratio (if I understand the numbers from that link correctly) is 34%. According to various sources the absorption efficiency of solar panels seems to max out around 40%, with power conversion efficiency of 6%, so state of the art is roughly comparable to nature (though of course, manufacturing cost is another matter). However, a new nanomaterial-based coating seems to have been developed that boosts absorption by ~40%:

The new RPI solar cell is a normal cell covered in a special anti-reflective coating which traps sunlight from nearly every angle and part of the spectrum. The new cell is near perfect; it absorbs 96.21 percent of the sunlight shined on it, while a normal cell could only absorb 67.4 percent. That 43 percent efficiency boost, coupled with mass production, if properly implemented could place solar on the verge of competing unsubsidized with coal power, at last.

Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer and a member of the university’s Future Chips Constellation describes the breakthrough, stating, “To get maximum efficiency when converting solar power into electricity, you want a solar panel that can absorb nearly every single photon of light, regardless of the sun’s position in the sky. Our new antireflective coating makes this possible.”

This is pretty exciting, especially if the mass production can work out. Even if power conversion efficiency stays the same, improving absorption by 40% should boost the total power output by the same amount.

LHC – It’s the end of the world as we know it

These pictures of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN are awe-inspiring, but also make me a bit sad. It’s depressing to think that Big Science like this can’t be done in the US anymore. Or rather, won’t be done.

these are just a few of the amazing photos available. For captions, and many more, check out the original link.

I visited Fermilab as a kid and then actually worked on some hardware for an experiment there as a summer student in college at UW. I don’t know much about particle physics but I do know that every square foot of those massive, intricate assemblies is the product of some grad student’s or researcher’s life work. It’s humbling to think of the intellectual capital invested in this machine, built to answer what amount to such fundamental, even basic questions.

I had a similar reaction when I visited the Saturn V on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, TX. That was once functioning hardware; had there been the money, it could have flown to the moon. Instead it rusts in a placid Texas field.

It occurs to me that I’ve never seen the equal of these pictures of the LHC in any science fiction, on TV or film. Nothing in the imagination of our storytellers has equaled the sheer complexity and power of the simple photos here.

instant blog carnivals

Aziz’s recent post mentioned how blog carnivals allow blogs in the long lonely tail to bootstrap their readership and links. He mentions his real-time Carnival of Brass as a possible improvement. This is a pretty funny coincidence since I’ve been meaning to write about a similar science post aggregator since he invited me to do some guest posts (quite a while ago now [I don’t have many meta thoughts apparently]).

Anyway, the site I was going to mention is It’s a real-time carnival (although I don’t think they call it that) that aggregates posts from people blogging about peer reviewed science (e.g. articles in Nature, Science or other journals). I hadn’t ran into any real-time carnivals before so I thought it was a pretty nice way to let small blogs on specific topics get some attention.

I thought it was kind of interesting how the two instant carnival implemented things differently (if you don’t you could skip this part). CoB uses to let anyone (even people without a blog) add links to the carnival. Pretty cleverly it does this using only the features of and without any programming. on the other hand programmed up their own web site and aggregator. Blog authors have to come to the website, submit the paper they are reviewing and copy and paste a custom tag into their blog entry. Their aggregator then watchs that blog’s RSS feed for the custom tag to appear. Although this sounds like a big hassle, does manage to turn it into a benefit by looking up and formatting all the bibliographic information for the article. It must have taken a good bit of work to set up but they do have full control of the system and can add in things like validating articles.

Instant blog carnivals either custom-coded or taking advantage of look like a good way to connect long tail bloggers to audiences specifically interested in their topic. I wonder what other real-time carnivals are out there?

The Drake Equation

XKCD pays homage to the Drake Equation, with their characteristic style:

It should be noted though that the new term Bs is redundant with L. That’s really the only parameter for which there is essentially no way to formulate any reasonable estimate. When I learned about the Drake Equation in college, we basically came to see that the Drake Equation was uttterly dominated by the assumption for L, even if fl, fi, and fc were all assumed to be 1. It’s a sobering thought that time, not space, is our greatest barrier to finding someone else Out There.