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A new study of citations, coauthorships, and other bibliographical data suggests that science is becoming less international.
Who will be getting congratulatory phone calls from Sweden next week? Physics Today's online editor, Charles Day, makes his picks.
Online editor Charles Day investigates what became of the research he wrote about in three news stories from ten years ago.
The ability to travel between different universes or between different dimensions of the same universe is a common plot element in speculative fiction. Multiple worlds not only boost the variety of settings that an author can depict, they also set up plot-enriching paradoxes, conflicts, and choices.
Most of the multiple-world works that I've read or watched present the worlds as an intrinsic and unexplained feature of the work's fictional universe. The Q Continuum of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, is an extradimensional plane of existence whose powerful, intelligent, and immortal inhabitants, the Q, can jump into our mundane plane to cause mischief. I've tried in vain to find a physical description of the Q Continuum.
But there are exceptions to the take-it-or-leave-it approach. In Ian McDonald's 2007 novel Brasyl, Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not just an imaginative theory to account for the physically awkward notion of collapsing wave functions; it's also a description of how the world works.
Jeff Smith's comic-book series RASL goes further in exploring the physical basis of multiple worlds. Originally published in 15 black-and-white issues from February 2008 through August 2012, RASL was reissued this month in a single hardbound full-color volume. I read it in one sitting over Labor Day with much pleasure.
Like McDonald, Smith makes use of a speculative theory, in his case a unified field theory that the elderly Nikola Tesla claimed in 1937 to have completed. RASL's main character, a researcher named Robert Johnson who later assumes the name RASL,* gains access to Tesla's lost notebooks. In one of them, he finds the unpublished theory expounded in full.
Miles Riley (holding the bottle of champagne) and Robert Johnson discuss their respective research projects, both of which are supposedly based on Nikola Tesla's theories. RASL™ is © 2013 Jeff Smith. CREDIT: Cartoon Books
In flashbacks, the reader learns that Johnson and his childhood friend and fellow researcher Miles Riley worked together for the US government on two military projects that exploit another of Tesla's theories: That electrical energy pervades the space between atoms. One project, called the St. George Array, is designed to extract the energy and use it as an antiballistic missile shield. The other, the T-suit, is a teleportation device for individual soldiers.
Johnson doesn't need Tesla's unified field theory to see that testing the St. George Array could result in a deadly, destructive disaster. And he perfects the T-suit by incorporating ideas that Albert Einstein described in the 1928 paper "New possibility for a unified field theory of gravitation and electricity." But Tesla's unified theory helps Johnson understand what the T-suit does: Transport its operator between parallel universes.
Johnson (as RASL) outlines Tesla's theory to a mysterious young girl and her companion after she draws a Venn-like diagram that also appears in Tesla's notebook:
The 3-D world is created and powered by the interactions of the higher-dimensional clouds. [Tesla] wrote beneath it. "All energy comes from outer dimensions and is pervasive throughout."
That overlaps with current string theory. Anywhere these clouds—or membranes—collide will create a new universe. Tesla discovered parallel universes.
Ironically, he rejected them. He preferred to believe the higher dimensions were actually energy fields within the confines of our own universe.
RASL encompasses more than speculative theories and experimental devices. Smith weaves in the history of Tesla and his rivals, the Tunguska event, and the Philadelphia Experiment, in which the US Navy is alleged to have rendered one of its destroyers entirely invisible in 1943. The Pentagon's non-imaginary High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program also gets a mention.
The novel's plot is far richer than I've hinted at here. It unfolds like a film noir and contains such noirish staples as flashbacks, love affairs, betrayals, and bar-room fights. Jonhson's principal antagonist is a sinister agent from the Department of Homeland Security.
I won't disclose any more of the story lest you want to read the book yourself. But it's not giving too much away to say that in RASL the physical nature of the parallel universes is in dispute. Indeed, the dispute and its ramifications constitute a major source of dramatic tension.
Although RASL is a science-fiction thriller, it's not devoid of comedy—at least for physicists. Whether he meant to or not, Smith captures the disdain of physicists and engineers for the social sciences in this exchange between Johnson (as RASL) and Uma Giles, a museum curator whom he meets in a parallel universe:
RASL: Have you ever been interested in science?
UMA: Of course. I'm an anthropologist!
RASL: No, I mean physics. Or electricity.
RASL retails on Amazon for $23.97.
A liberal website demonstrates how to be grossly misleading while being scientifically accurate.
The July 1997 issue of Physics Today included an obituary for historian of science Viktor Frenkel. The obituary was being finalized during my very first week on the magazine's editorial staff. I read it and the five others in the issue with especial attention. Obituaries editor was to be my new job.
Frenkel was born in 1930 in Leningrad. He survived the German army's siege of his hometown, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944 and remains the deadliest siege in human history. When he graduated with his physics degree from Leningrad Polytechnical Institute in 1953, he faced another trial: Joseph Stalin's persecution of Jewish artists, writers, doctors, and scientists. He was unemployed for a year until he found work at a factory that made radio tubes.
Back in 1997 I knew little about post-war anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. But as I edited more obituaries, I learned of more of its victims. Like Frenkel, Vladimir Gribov was born in Leningrad in 1930. He would later become a leading field theorist, but anti-Semitism delayed his appointment to his first research position by two years.
Andrei Zhdanov (shown here with Stalin) died in 1948 of a heart attack. Accusations that the doctors treating him had deliberately given him the wrong drugs triggered the arrest and torture of hundreds of doctors, mostly Jewish. Their crime: participating in the Doctors' Plot, a fictitious Zionist conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders.
Grigory Pikus earned his physics master's degree in 1951. After graduation, he had to work for three years in a Siberian electronics factory. Like Gribov, he became a leading theorist, but of semiconductors not elementary particles.
Given anti-Semitism's murderous historical precedents, forcing someone to interrupt his career by a few years is a mild manifestation. The three young physicists were luckier than 13 Jewish writers who were arrested in 1948 and 1949 on bogus charges of espionage and treason. On the night of 12 August 1952, after three years of brutal incarceration and a secret trial, they were executed by firing squad.
Although the persecution of Russian Jews relented somewhat under Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, it did not disappear. Born nine years after Frenkel and Gribov, Michael Marinov was able to complete his physics education and progress through the ranks of Soviet academia. Then, in 1979, it all changed. To quote the obituary that Mikhail Shifman and Arkady Vainshtein wrote for Physics Today:
In pursuit of his lifelong dream of living in Israel, Marinov applied for exit visas from the Soviet Union for himself and his family. In those days, such applications were considered high treason in the USSR. Denied permission for the visas, Marinov became a refusenik, with all the ensuing political consequences. The only “crime” committed by refuseniks was that they had applied for and been denied exit visas for Israel. And yet the Soviet state treated them essentially as criminals—fired from jobs and blacklisted, with no access to work (except low-paid manual labor), constantly intimidated by the KGB, and on the verge of arrest. In fact, the most active refuseniks, those who tried to organize and fight to reclaim their rights, were imprisoned.
The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The largest surviving fragment, Russia, calls itself a democracy, but lacks a free press and an impartial legal system. Corruption is pervasive and largely unchecked. There is, however, one feature of democracies that Russia has in the extreme: The willingness of politicians to foment and exploit xenophobia and other popular prejudices.
Russia's official campaign against homosexuality is the tendency's latest example. On 11 June 2013, following the path laid by 13 regional assemblies, Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, passed a law that fines people or business for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18 years of age. Such "propaganda" includes advocacy for gay rights.
The law, unfortunately, appears to have popular support. But that does not make it right. Nor will popular support insulate Russia from the law's likely repercussions. Earlier this week, Hollywood actor Wentworth Miller declined an invitation to attend the St Petersburg International Film Festival. "I cannot in good conscience participate in a celebratory occasion hosted by a country where people like myself are being systematically denied their basic right to live and love openly," he wrote to the festival's director.
In 1947, before Stalin's postwar campaign of anti-Semitism began, Jews made up 18% of Soviet scientific workers. By 1970, the fraction had fallen to 7%. Now, in Vladimir Putin's Russia, gay scientists and their allies will be more inclined to leave the country. Gay scientists from outside Russia and their allies will be less inclined to visit. Even if the effect is modest, Russian science will suffer.
You might think that I'm a Russophobe. I'm not. I've long revered the country's many contributions to civilization. Dmitri Shostakovich is my favorite composer. Anton Chekhov is my favorite writer. Indeed, it's because of my admiration for Russian culture that I am so dismayed.
I started work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in November 1990. Not counting the two years I spent as a postdoc, it was my first job, and it lasted seven years.
Looking back, the 1990s were perhaps an anomalous period in NASA’s history. Space shuttles flew 63 missions during the decade and assembly of the International Space Station began in 1998. But it was NASA’s unmanned scientific missions that, in my view, characterized the space agency in the decade of Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and Jiang Zemin.
The Cosmic Background Explorer measured the spectrum and spatial distribution of the cosmic microwave background with unprecedented accuracy. That coup de recherche ushered in a new era of precision cosmology and earned Nobel Prizes in 2006 for COBE‘s two principal investigators, John Mather and George Smoot.
From 1990 through 2000, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory mapped and characterized the high-energy cosmos. Its instruments discovered hundreds of new sources. Data from CGRO proved that gamma-ray bursts originate at vast distances outside our galaxy and therefore release more explosive energy than any other phenomenon in the universe.
Barring the losses of Mars Observer due, most likely, to a fuel-tank explosion and Mars Climate Orbiter due, embarrassingly, to the inconsistent use of Imperial and metric units, NASA’s planetary probes also had a good decade. Launched in 1989, Galileo arrived at Jupiter in 1995 and spent the next seven years studying the gas giant and its moons. Mars Global Surveyor mapped the red planet’s surface, revealing features that looked as though they’d been formed by the action of liquid water.
This image of the Martian surface was taken in November 2012 by the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Rover.
Of NASA’s 1990s missions, the Hubble Space Telescope, which remains in orbit, loomed largest. Once the telescope’s faulty optics had been fixed at the end of 1993, the observatory went on to make a string of discoveries. The two deep fields of 1995 and 1998 showed that galaxies in the early universe look very different from their mature counterparts in the local universe. Before HST, astronomers knew that the Hubble constant was somewhere between 50 and 90 km/s per megaparsec. HST determined it to be 72 ± 8 km/s/Mpc.
I’m not sure whether the general public was as excited by the discoveries as my fellow astronomers and I were, but HST‘s images of nebulae, galaxies, and other photogenic cosmic objects became iconic artifacts of popular culture. In the absence of manned missions outside low-Earth orbit—an absence that has lasted 41 years—NASA stopped being an exploration agency to become what it remains today: a science agency.
Although I’m happy that NASA continues to fund unmanned science missions, the agency also needs an ambitious program of human spaceflight. The discoveries in the 1990s of dark energy and the first exoplanets were momentous, but nowhere near as inspiring as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon or even, perhaps, as the late Sally Ride’s first spaceflight in 1983.
Unfortunately, as many commentators have observed, NASA lacks a visionary mission. Returning to the Moon or landing on an asteroid doesn’t qualify. NASA should aim at Mars.
Granted, NASA or any other space agency doesn’t have the technology to transport astronauts to and from Mars safely. Nor does it have the budget to develop the technology without cutting back on its other activities, including unmanned science missions. And even if NASA had enough money to develop a mission to Mars, the launch would be decades away.
Money and time aren’t—or shouldn’t be—a problem. At around $18 billion, NASA’s annual budget is 40% smaller than those of NIH and the Department of Energy. As for time, I think the public would understand that such an ambitious project might not be realized until the middle of the century. The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe took decades, sometimes centuries, to complete.
I would not be surprised if, sometime in the next few years, astronomers discover an Earth-like exoplanet capable of supporting life, maybe even harboring life. When they do, we humans will want to visit. In person. Getting to Mars would be a first step.
New evidence points to neutron-star mergers as the origin of short-duration gamma-ray bursts.
You know you're at Comic-Con when: One of the bigger rounds of applause goes to the show's technical adviser. (Dr David Saltzberg of UCLA, we salute you.)Physics isn't prominent—or even present—in every episode of the show. Still, Saltzberg vets all the scripts before shooting. If you'd like to learn more about Saltzberg's work on The Big Bang Theory, I recommend his interview with Brad Hooker, which appeared last year in Symmetry magazine. Ender's Game In and around the exhibit hall I counted 10 people dressed as Doctor Who. Most opted for the time traveler's current incarnation, the eleventh, or the tenth. But one Whovian came proudly as the Doctor's least popular incarnation, the seventh.Wearing costumes is not the only manifestation of fandom. Some attendees queue for hours to get into popular panels. Among the most sought-after this year was the one devoted to Game of Thrones, HBO's tale of swords, sorcery, and dynastic strife.To arouse the same level of enthusiasm for new shows and movies, studios arrange for directors and actors to appear at Comic-Con. Thanks to my press pass, I was invited to a press conference about Ender's Game, a film based on Orson Scott Card's eponymous novel. The US release date is 1 November. At the kind of press conference I usually attend, scientists present their latest results and science writers ask technical questions. With the exception of a question about Card's public opposition to gay marriage, the questions put to the stars and director of Ender's Game tended to be simple and open-ended. Fortunately, the answers were interesting and thoughtful. Harrison Ford, who plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, tied the movie's central plot element—the recruitment of video-game-playing children to work as military tacticians—to drone strikes in Afghanistan and child soldiers in Africa.Card's novel was published in 1985, 12 years before Garry Kasparov lost a chess tournament to IBM's Deep Blue. I didn't get the chance to ask Ford and his fellow panelists my question: Whether that feat of 20th-century computer science imperils the plausibility of the movie's premise. If future humans can build interplanetary spaceships, can't they also build artificial intelligences whose strategic and tactical abilities far exceed those of any human?In fact, it's not unusual for science fiction movies to include future gadgets and weapons that are less capable than their current, real-world counterparts. If Ridley Scott's 2012 movie Prometheus were your only guide to remote sensing, you wouldn't know that NASA can already map the surface of Mars, Earth's Moon and other rocky bodies with a resolution of a few tens of centimeters.In George Lucas's 1999 movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation's droid army lines up to battle Jar Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans in neat, Napoleonic formations. George Patton would be appalled. The droids' handguns and the cannons on their armored fighting vehicles seem only as destructive as the weapons Patton's 4th Armored Division used in 1944–45 to fight the Battle of the Bulge. Genius Just before flying to San Diego, I read Teddy Kristiansen and Steven T. Seagle's graphic novel The Red Diary . By coincidence, the pair were at Comic-Con to promote their latest collaboration, Genius . Whereas The Red Diary concerned a British artist who fought in World War I, Genius is about an American physicist who is burdened with a dark and powerful secret. Neither Kristiansen nor Seagle has a background in science, let alone physics. Seagle told me that his editor's husband, who is a physicist, helped him improve the graphic novel's verisimilitude in a crucial and surprising way. To make the fictional physicists seem more convincing, Seagle was advised to portray them speaking less about their work and more about quotidian concerns such as mowing the lawn, shopping for groceries, or coping with a disagreeable father-in-law.Having read up on the language and practice of physics, Seagle was reluctant to abandon some of the fruits of his research. But the advice proved sound. A Caltech physicist who'd read the book congratulated Seagle on his accuracy.
Boston Metaphysical SocietyMy encounters with Saltzberg, Ford, Kristiansen, and Seagle were all scheduled. I bumped into Madeleine Holly-Rosing, author of the steampunk webcomic Boston Metaphysical Society, by chance. She and her husband were buying lunch at a concession stand in the convention center when I spotted them. Intrigued by their t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the webcomic's title, I approached them for a chat. Set in a version of late-19th-century Boston where airships ply the skies and rudimentary computers are powered by steam, Holly-Rosing's story pits its three heroes—ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Hunter, spirit photographer Caitlin O'Sullivan, and scientist Granville Woods—against the Shifter, an evil supernatural entity.When I admitted to Holly-Rosing that I'm more interested in physics than metaphysics, she told me about one of her previous projects, a short documentary about astronomer Williamina Fleming. Born in 1857 in the Scottish city of Dundee, Fleming emigrated to the US with her husband James in 1878. A year later, he deserted her and their unborn child.Fleming later found work as the housekeeper of Harvard astronomer Edward Pickering. Recognizing her intelligence, Pickering paid her to perform calculations for the Harvard College Observatory. Her responsibilities and achievements increased. By the time she succumbed to pneumonia in 1911, she had devised a new classification system for stars, served as the curator of the observatory's astronomical photographs, and, with Pickering and Henry Norris Russell, discovered white dwarfs.Fleming's life unfolded like the plot of a Victorian novel. I wonder if it will be made into a movie, graphic novel, or even an educational video game. I'll look out for her at next year's Comic-Con.
As each software, also this project should have a name. To find an acronym that would represent SPM analysis software and starts with the letter âGâ (as GNU GPL) was really hard. Try it.
Finally, we decided not to use acronyms. After some Googling for unused fancy names we have chosen the name Gwyddion [gwid-ee-ohn] (which would turn out to be not-so-unused later, unfortunately).
Name Gwyddion comes from Welsh mythology. According to information on the internet, he was referred to as master of illusion, a helper of humankind and a fighter against the greedy and small-minded. He supported the cultural arts and learning, and tried to stamp out ignorance.As you can tell from this list of quantum chemistry and solid-state physics software, names as interesting as Gwyddion are rare. My favorite, until I encountered Gwyddion, was Schoonschip.Devised in the early 1960s by particle physicist Martinus Veltman, the program was among the first capable of manipulating algebraic symbols. The name isn't especially meaningful; it's Dutch for "clean ship." Veltman chose it because it would be annoyingly hard for nonspeakers of his native language to pronounce correctly.