From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Jazz of Teaching

Quite awhile ago, a former student suggested I write a piece on the physics of jazz. I decided not to, because a session with that title was scheduled at a then upcoming American Association of Physics Teachers national meeting. But his suggestion started me thinking.

I’ve listened to jazz for a long time. Take a look at my music collection, and it’s obvious I like jazz, and the more I thought about the student’s suggestion, the more I came to believe that I might be a jazz teacher; that is, I think I approach teaching the same way a jazz musician approaches music.

When I began teaching so many years ago, I always prepared lecture notes, but I’ve always encouraged questions from students. Today, I use notes for just one lecture a semester. That’s when I show students the solution to Schrödinger’s equation for the hydrogen atom. The math is too intricate to me not to use notes.

Duke Ellington Big Band
CREDIT: Unknown
I liken lecture notes to a musical score, but just because there’s a score, doesn’t mean a musician must play the notes as written. 

One of the oldest forms of jazz is swing.* When jazz was becoming more popular in the 1920s and became of mainstay of dance bands, it became necessary for arrangements to written down, but improvisation remained an integral part of the numbers.

Listen to Duke Ellington’s band play Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. Catch tenor sax player Paul Gonzales’s solo.

CREDIT: Columbia Records
Hard bop is probably my favorite form of jazz. Hard bob arose from bebop. In bebop, musicians improvise on the chords instead of the melody. With hard bop, there is usually a well-defined melody, many times a quite simple one. The rhythm section were released from keeping time.

What I usually do in class is come in with an idea of what I want to cover that period; that’s the melody. The depending on what students ask, I can deviate from that. Even get entirely away from the topic and discuss other related physics.

When it comes to hard bop, you can’t get any better than Miles Davis.

John Coltrane
CREDIT: Francis Wolff/
Mosaic Images — Corbis
Occasionally, I’ll come into the classroom, and students will start peppering me with questions. My favorite time. In my Physics 120 course, Physics For Everyday Use, I feel free to completely ditch my plan for the day. So when the students start throwing off-the-wall questions, I can go right off with them.

When you listen to avant garde jazz, you will have trouble differentiating what is composed and what is improvised. In fact, many listeners might not hear music; avant garde is an acquired taste. Listen to John Coltrane’s Ascension.

Jazz Professor.

* My source for the musical discussion is the All Musics Guide: The Definitive Guide to Jazz.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Live Chemical Free Now

I did a quick Google image search for chemical free. Here are some products that advertise themselves as chemical-free.

And if you want somewhere where your children can play free of chemicals, there is this park.
This is all simple fear mongering. Chemicals are BAAAAAAAD. Except the good ones. Here's an image that has popped up on the internet showing all the chemicals that naturally occur in a banana; no evil corporate chemist needed.
I came across a scientific paper entitled A comprehensive overview of chemical-free consumer products available from Nature Chemistry.* The abstract for the paper states
Manufacturers of consumer products, in particular edibles and cosmetics, have broadly employed the term ‘Chemical free’ in marketing campaigns and on product labels. Such characterization is often incorrectly used to imply — and interpreted to mean — that the product in question is healthy, derived from natural sources, or otherwise free from synthetic components. We have examined and subjected to rudimentary analysis an exhaustive number of such products, including but not limited to lotions and cosmetics, herbal supplements, household cleaners, food items, and beverages. Herein are described all those consumer products, to our knowledge, that are appropriately labelled as ‘Chemical free’. 
This paper is incredibly easy to read. No prior knowledge of chemistry is needed. I encourage everyone to download a copy here.**

*In the interest of full disclosure, the paper comes from the blog The Skeptical Chymist published by Nature Chemistry.

**If you don't wish to download the paper, I'll let you in on the joke. It consists off two blank pages.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Entire State of Oklahoma is Quarantined for Ebola Outbreak

An Oklahoma teacher traveled to Rwanda. Some parents want her quarantined for 21 days before she can return to the classroom.

You see Rwanda is in Africa. So is Liberia, Sierre Leone, and Guinea where the outbreak is located. But let’s look at a map.
Rwanda is 2500 miles from Liberia. It’s only 3000 miles across the United States.

I think we should quarantine the state of Oklahoma. Look at this map. Oklahoma city is just 190 miles from Dallas.
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. You still have zero chance of contracting Ebola. Now cover your mouth when you sneeze and wash your hands. I don’t want a cold this winter.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Political Science

I haven’t been terribly prolific in my blog writing, but I did keep bookmarking items as I came across them. So in an attempt to clean up my bookmark folder, here is a run down of political science.*

Not the academic field of political science. I’m writing about what happens when politicians let their political ideologies override common sense.

So, in no particular order…

Former Massachusetts Senator and New Hampshire Senatorial candidate Scott Brown can’t seem to remember the research on climate change. In 2012 during the Massachusetts race against Elizabeth Warren, Brown “absolutely” knew that climate change was real and anthropogenic (man made). But now in 2014 in the NH contest, he’s sure that there is no climate change.

Instead of citing the scientific journals, Montana Congressional candidate Ryan Zinke referred to the Wall Street Journal when he declared that climate change is not settled science. On another issue, Zinke thinks that fracking is environmentally friendly.

Rep. Joe Barton is in the Hall of Fame of science deniers. In 2007, Barton shows his vast knowledge of climate by pontificating on the effect on temperature by cloud shapes. “Tall clouds or skinny clouds, short clouds, fat clouds, high clouds, low clouds.” Ignoring the nearly unanimous scientific consensus of climatologists, he opposes any legislation on climate, because "You can't regulate God. Not even the Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress can regulate God."

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe says that climate change is really a harmless act of God.” This came during a debate on unemployment benefits. In a different debate, Inhofe cited a petition that proclaims that greenhouse gases do not cause climate change. Fortunately not everyone elected to the Senate is an idiot. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse noted that the petition includes future Nobel Prize winners, The Spice Girls.

Did you know that it’s all a complete hoax anyway. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher stated
Just so you know, global warming is a total fraud and it is being designed by—what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives. That’s what the game plan is. It’s step by step by step, more and bigger control over our lives by higher levels of government. And global warming is that strategy in spades.… Our freedom to make our choices on transportation and everything else? No, that’s gotta be done by a government official who, by the way, probably comes from Nigeria because he’s a UN government official, not a US government official.
So climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a Nigerian. Rohrbacher also thinks that a dramatic change in climate 55 million year was caused by dinosaur farts. 

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith. Smith doesn’t understand a review of the scientific literature. “The IPCC does not perform science itself and doesn't monitor the climate, but only reviews carefully selected scientific literature.”

Then there’s Lenar Whitney, Louisiana state representative and Congressional candidate. She really thinks the Earth is getting colder and that a ten-year-old-child can disprove climate change with a thermometer. When a Washington Post reporter asked her to back up her claims, “she froze and was unable to cite a single scientist, journal or news source to back up her beliefs.

In Kentucky, state Sen. Brandon Smith was able to disprove the nearly unanimous consensus among climatologists. He knows that “the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody would dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There’s no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.”

Finally, there is Rep. Dan Benishek. “Well, I am a scientist. You know, I believe in peer-reviewed science. But, I don’t see any peer-reviewed science that proves there is man-made catastrophic climate change.” Let’s review his credentials. Benishek graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in biology. Okay. UM is a prestigious university. He went to Wayne State University’s medical school, received his M.D. in 1978, and has worked as surgeon. That’s actually pretty impressive. Except there no evidence he has any experience in climatology or any of the related fields.

What do real scientists say on the matter of climate change? A meta-analysis of the literature found that out of 11,944 articles published between 1991 and 2011, only 0.7% rejected anthropogenic global warming. Among the articles expressing a position on the issue, 97% of researchers in the field - not some ransom petition signed by the Spice Girls - are convinced that humans are a driving force in climate change. Of course, if you'd like to read some of the climatology literature for yourself, you should first visit the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Here’s a quick roll call of other non-scientists who openly ignore the vast research that conclusively shows climate change is happening and is man made.
  • Sen. John Boehner
  • Gov. Rick Scott
  • Sen. Marco Rubio
  • Senatorial candidate Joni Ernst
  • Gov. Bobby Jindal
  • Rep Michael Grimm
And the list will goes on. I wonder what other settled science these morons will dispute.*

*I have so many items bookmarked that I could only deal with climate change here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Are Dinosaurs a Renewable Energy Source?

Greg Gutfeld is the guy on Fox’s The Five who supposed to provide jokes that are intentionally funny. More often I find him humorous when he’s not trying to be funny.
CREDIT: Fox News
Last week during a discussion on climate change on The Five, he asked, "Isn't fossil fuels the ultimate renewable energy? It's renewed once. It used to be a dinosaur. Now it's fuel. How is that not renewable?"

Notice how the other four completely ignore Greg.

Now forget the fact that dinosaurs are extinct; petroleum doesn’t even come from dinosaurs. Both petroleum and natural gas was formed by the decomposition of phytoplankton and zooplankton   many millions of years ago. Coal on the other hand was formed by the decay of terrestrial plants during the Carboniferous Period 360 million years ago.

Can someone explain to me what is so difficult to understand about petroleum, natural gas, and coal being non-renewable energy sources?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Impossible Is Still Impossible

I saw this article in Wired referenced on a couple of science pages on FaceBook. 

NASA validates 'impossible' space drive

Let me give you the short version of how this engine is supposed to work. Microwaves are beamed into a cone-shaped cavity. They bounce around the cavity and produce a force on the cavity in a direction perpendicular to the direction they were beamed in. Imagine  turning on the microwave oven and watching it push itself off the kitchen counter.

Why is it impossible? This violates one of the basic laws of physics. 

The Conservation of Momentum

The conservation of momentum isn’t your ordinary law of physics. It is one of the most fundamental principles in science. It is intimately related to spatial symmetry. Roughly speaking, the laws of physics here are the same there. You may know this as Newton’s third law of motion or for every action, there’s an equal but opposite reaction.

To obey the conservation of momentum, propellent is pushed out by the rocket and the rocket is pushed by the propellent. This engine is said to produce thrust without any propellent. 

So I was immediately skeptical. So I dug around a little bit. I found a short description of the experiment. One thing I found interesting is that the authors did not lecture on “”physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster.” All right, that’s fine; if the results were groundbreaking, the explanation might come later. Something similar happened in 1986. Researchers at IBM discovered ceramic materials that lost all electrical resistance (superconductivity) at surprisingly high temperatures. There is still no complete explanation for why this happens. What is different about these two cases is that the superconductivity ceramics didn’t violate any basic principles of physics.

What made me laugh however is the authors claim that their device may be “demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.” I have no idea what they mean by a quantum vacuum virtual plasma. 

I also found their paper. This made me giggle, too. They built two devices: one was designed to work, the other was designed not to work. Both versions produced the same amounts of thrust.

Phil Plait in his Bad Astronomy blog at Slate says this episode is reminiscent of the faster than light neutrinos and the mysterious force slowing down the Pioneer spacecrafts.

It reminded me of an article that caught my attention while I was in grad school. I remember getting all excited about this revolutionary paper published in one of the premier physics journals. The authors had data that showed that a gyroscope rotating in one direction weighed less than if it were rotating in the opposite direction. Finally, an anti-gravity device!

My research advisor wasn’t nearly as excited. His comment was something along the lines of “systematic error.” But still I held out hope.

Then four months later, my anti-gravity hope were dashed. Others trying to replicate the results found there is no anti-gravity.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

KCAL 9 And The Supermoon

I was watching the KCAL 9 news at 10 p.m. They had a report on the super moon. (yawn)

But then Serene Branson said this:
And they say that with the full moon like that, that if you’re feeling a little tired, a little sluggish, that it’s because of the pull. Just like how the moon has an effect on the tides, it has an effect on us, because we’re mostly water. And that’s when the crazies come out.

Despite what Bill O’Reilly thinks, the tides have a well-known cause. The tides are due to the difference in the strength of the gravitational force on opposite sides of the earth. 

There is no measurable effect on the moon’s gravitational field on us. UCLA astronomer George Abell calculated that a mosquito on your arm would exert a greater gravitational force on you than the moon.

As to the supposed lunar lunacy, that too was debunked long ago

I thought that maybe KCAL meteorologist Amber Lee might correct her, but no. That got me to thinking about Lee’s credentials. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in journalism. No degree but a certificate in  meteorology through Mississippi State University’s Broadcast Meteorology Program. To earn this certificate, she had to pass an online exam consisting of 100 multiple choice questions.