Monday, October 29, 2012

back to blogging soon.

Just a quick note that I'm finally done w/ my NSF proposal, and I will be back to blogging about science soon.  One quick link for you all:  My faculty colleague (and general wise person) Neal Lane has a very nice editorial in today's NY Times about the importance of federal support for basic research.

A second fun link:  if you haven't seen this or this or this, you have been missing out on a great series of math videos by Vi Hart.  I want to grow up to be clever enough to make videos like this about condensed matter physics.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Everything you wanted to know about Data Analysis and Fitting but were afraid to ask"

This paper posted to the arxiv the other day provides a very readable, practical discussion of error analysis and curve fitting.  While I have not had the time to go through this in detail, at a quick read it looks like it is the sort of thing every physics student should know and use as a refresher. 

The point is, far too many people who really should know better never learn the right way to think about uncertainties or how to properly fit data.  For example, in the world of economics, some people actually think that the curve on this graph actually has some statistical significance.  (That's not a political statement - I'm laughing at their innumeracy.) 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Condensed matter experimental position at Rice

Pardon the use of the blog for advertising, but it can only help broaden the reach of the ad:

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position in experimental condensed matter physics.  The department expects to make an appointment at the assistant professor level. This search primarily seeks an outstanding individual whose emphasis is on neutron or x-ray spectroscopy of hard condensed matter systems, who will complement and extend existing experimental and theoretical activities in condensed matter physics (see  A PhD in physics or related field is required. Applicants should send a curriculum vitae, statements of research and teaching interests, a list of publications, and two or three selected reprints, in a single PDF file, to with subject line “CME Search” or to  Prof. Douglas Natelson, Chair, Condensed Matter Search Committee, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy – MS 61, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX  77005.   Applicants should also arrange for at least three letters of recommendation to be sent by email or post.  Applications will be accepted until the position is filled, but only those received by December 1, 2012 will be assured full consideration.  The appointment is expected to start in July 2013.  Rice University is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer; women and underrepresented minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.

On a tangentially related note, I encourage people who want to understand more about how the faculty job search process works to read my previous posts on the topic.  This is a good place to start, followed by this and this.  As commenter Charles Day pointed out, here is a Physics Today article freely available on this topic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bits and pieces

Several links to bide time while I try to write to many things.

Congratulations, of course, to this year's Nobel winners in physics! Great stuff, and it was lots of fun trying to give a simple explanation of the work to the freshmen in my class.

Grad student Barbie is a bit too on the nose.

It's become abundantly clear that the US House science committee is populated in part by people who are not just ignorant (like those who dont understand how biology works) some simply think that science itself is evil and literally a trick by the devil (!) to mislead them. Other people have pointed this out. This is just unacceptable. We deserve better. It's a damned disgrace that Congress actually rewards these people by placing them on a committee where their ignorance can formulate policy. I don't know how to fix it except by shaming them, and we all know that shaming the current House leadership is impossible. I'm close to having a Howard Beale moment here.

This was a cool nano physics story to hear on the way to work this morning.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Science and its self-correcting nature.

Eight years ago, Moses Chan of Penn State made big news by publishing experimental evidence that appeared to be consistent with supersolidity - a hypothesized state in which atomic vacancies in a solid (in this case, pressurized crystals of 4He at very low temperatures) could move without dissipation, analogous to the quantum coherent, viscosity-free flow of atoms in a superfluid.  I've mentioned this before (1) (2).    Now, as written up in the latest issue of Science, it seems like supersolidity (at least in the system that had been studied) is dead, and a major killer was a paper by the original authors of the first claim. 

This happens sometimes.  Observations and their interpretation can seem very very compelling, and yet later someone will think of some subtle issue that had not been considered previously.  That's the nature of science.  Unfortunately, sometimes the popular impression that gets conveyed is that because of these rare situations, science is no more trustworthy than random guesses or opinions.  My own thesis advisor told me more than once that it's ok to be wrong in science occasionally, and the best outcome is to be the one who discovers your own mistake!  (He and coauthors had published a PRL claiming that an effect they saw was taking place in solid 3He, when it turned out that it really was happening in the liquid, which they then also published, correcting their own mistaken interpretation.  It worked out well for them.)

That reminds me:  time for the annual Nobel speculation, since the physics prize comes next Tuesday.  Place your bets below....  (blogging will continue to be slow due to multiple other writing constraints right now)