Category Archives: Science

Still alive

Today at work we were discussing the self-styled “simplest weather report ever”, umbrellatoday.com. Also useful is the similarly-designed hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com (via a GChat status message). Personally, I keep meaning to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Oz on the subject: “But we know the world didn’t end, ’cause… check it out.”
In my new career the big question to ask is not whether the world will end, but whether one can make money off people’s belief that it will. Intrade doesn’t seem to have a futures contract on whether the LHC will destroy the Earth, but you can buy or sell the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Of course, if you are trying to destroy the Earth, and you’ve lost confidence in the LHC, you might find your Plan B at this page.

Adventures in fume hoods

I’m still occupied with other activities (like unpacking boxes, and discovering just how many bugs I can inadvertently cram into 100 lines of perl), but in the absence of blogging I invite you to enjoy the latest PhD Comics strip on fume hoods.
This rings especially true since my lab in grad school needed a fume hood only occasionally, and therefore had only one which sat mostly neglected in the fabrication lab. This made it a fantastic storage closet for unknown chemicals until somebody actually needed to use it for science, at which point hazmat teams would need to be called. (Note to Berkeley EH&S: joking!)
In contrast, the most hazardous chemical at my new job is the curry from Teriyaki Boy, a.k.a. “The Yak”. (Angelenos: Picture the Japanese-food equivalent to Tommy’s chili.)

Quantum Construction



quantum construction, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

I spotted this sign while running in Berkeley this morning, and had to go back for a photo. From the slogan it looks like they’re promoting energy-efficient home design, which is commendable; thus they probably want “quantum” to indicate “technologically advanced”. But of course, “quantum” also brings to mind uncertainty, which maybe isn’t what a contractor wants to associate themselves with. At the very least, I would expect Quantum Construction to be able to give a precise time estimate, or a precise cost estimate, but not both.

However, I assume their creation operators are top-notch.

Wall Street rethinks coal

Via Stoat, the Wall Street Journal reports that some major investment banks are anticipating new regulations on carbon emissions:

Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley say they have concluded that the U.S. government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants sometime in the next few years. The banks will require utilities seeking financing for plants before then to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.

I’d like to interpret this as an expectation of a Democratic victory in November, but if I remember right global warming is one of the policy areas where John McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy. Thus it’s more likely driven by his success in the primaries, making this kind of regulation more likely no matter which party wins the presidency.
This decision is driven by the political situation but I’ve often wondered how much the scientific consensus on global warming impacts the investment world. After all, major climate change will cause a lot of economic damage and so it seems like there’s incentive for Wall Street to try to limit it. Probably, though, it’s a tragedy of the commons where the marginal coal power plant brings more short term profit than long-term costs to the individual investor. (And a lot of the fossil-fuel industry’s disinformation campaign on the issue is designed precisely to keep their stock prices up.)
Since I’m looking at some finance jobs, it would be nice to think that I could have a positive effect on this side of things, but in fact my skill-set seems more suited to high-frequency trading problems that don’t have this kind of look-ahead.

Just call it entropy research

I thought our lab was a mess, but it could be worse… via Chad Orzel, here’s a chemistry professor (at UT San Antonio) whose lab had to be forcibly cleaned by the university:

“Clean your room or get out!” Words from a frustrated parent to a messy teenager? Not quite. The mess-maker in this case was a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, who ignored repeated warnings to clean up his dangerously cluttered lab space. When University officials decided to clean it themselves, the professor caused such a disturbance that campus police had to lead him away in handcuffs. The professor was eventually fired, which prompted a lawsuit claiming that the University retaliated against him and denied him equal protection.

The legal opinion notes that apart from the problems in the lab, the professor’s office was an “extreme fire hazard”, which still puts him a step below the physics professor here at Berkeley who actually set his office on fire. In any case, this makes me feel better about the disordered state of our lab. We cleaned it only a few months ago but it returns rather rapidly to equilibrium.
(I also want to point out that the legal blogger linked above is evidently a fan of Arrested Development, and has chosen the obvious pseudonym to use on his law blog…)

Academics and sex, or the lack thereof

Via Shellock, there’s a fascinating post at Gene Expression on various findings that show that intelligence is correlated with delayed sexual activity. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the post and I encourage reading the whole thing, but I want to point out the results I found surprising. Not because they go against stereotype—they actually confirm “science nerd” stereotypes, but I had convinced myself that these were just stereotypes without much basis in fact. These numbers indicate otherwise: (emphasis in original)

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

I was quite shocked that the numbers were this low; I obviously know a lot of grad students, and though I haven’t polled them on this subject, I would have guessed a much higher percentage. (I’m not chauvinistic enough to suggest that MIT grad students are less sociable than those at Berkeley—I expect the populations are pretty comparable, at least in departments like physics.)
However, I may be thinking too narrowly in terms of the stereotype of scientists who are virgins because they are socially maladjusted. (There are people like this in the community, but it’s a small fraction.) The Gene Expression post lists a number of other possible reasons this could appear as an aggregate effect, and argues for a few of them as contributing factors. (At an individual level, of course, it will be strongly path-dependent.)
One factor that wasn’t mentioned there is culture. This could manifest in at least two ways. The first is that a substantial fraction of grad students in technical fields are immigrants from cultures that are much more sexually conservative. Thus, even if these students themselves don’t hold conservative views, they may be less likely to have had sex. The second is that the culture in academia seems to me to be less sexually charged than in other spheres. This is not to say that it’s sexually restrictive—as the Gene Expression post points out, most academics hold liberal views about sex—but it’s less focused on going out and getting laid than, say, the Late Night Shots crowd. Our lab’s monthly board game nights aren’t terribly conducive to hook-ups (although surprisingly conducive to drunkenness).
Anyway, this might explain the results of the academic polls, but the original post is concerned with correlations with IQ rather than academic achievement. A logical extension would be to look at people in other intellectually-demanding disciplines, like law or medicine. Would the numbers be similar? My guess is no, but I may be stereotyping again.

Bad quantum press releases: this time, it’s personal

Scott Aaronson points out an overly-excited press release from NEC, which claims: “NEC, JST and RIKEN successfully demonstrate world’s first controllably coupled qubits”. This was indeed an exciting development when we published it five months ago. At best NEC has the world’s fourth controllably coupled qubits.
That said, the stupidity seems to be limited to the press release, and the paper actually looks pretty interesting, apparently with time domain results that no one else has shown. (I haven’t been on the campus network today so I haven’t had a chance to read more than the abstract.)

Humans evolved for marathoning?

Here’s an interesting theory that humans evolved for distance running:

Modern humans and their immediate ancestors such as Homo erectus sport several adaptations that make humans, instead of some ferocious, furry, or fleet creature, the animal world’s best distance runners.

Specifically, we developed long, springy tendons in our legs and feet that function like large elastics, storing energy and releasing it with each running stride, reducing the amount of energy it takes to take another step. There are also several adaptations to help keep our bodies stable as we run, such as the way we counterbalance each step with an arm swing, our large butt muscles that hold our upper bodies upright, and an elastic ligament in our neck to help keep our head steady.

Though those adaptations make humans and our immediate ancestors better runners, it is our ability to run in the heat that Lieberman said may have made the real difference in our ability to procure game.
Humans, he said, have several adaptations that help us dump the enormous amounts of heat generated by running. These adaptations include our hairlessness, our ability to sweat, and the fact that we breathe through our mouths when we run, which not only allows us to take bigger breaths, but also helps dump heat.

This ought to settle the long-standing distance running vs. sprinting debate I recall from high school track. We distance runners can just wait for a hot day and then persistence-hunt the sprinters into submission. However, as much as I like this theory, I have to question this statement from its proponent:

“Humans are terrible athletes in terms of power and speed, but we’re phenomenal at slow and steady. We’re the tortoises of the animal kingdom,” Lieberman said.

Um, surely the tortoises are the tortoises of the animal kingdom?

March Meeting, Days 2 and 3

I thought about posting last night but this was pre-empted by the fact that the slides for my talk were unfinished (and also the Clarke group dinner). First I want to register a complaint:
hund's rules for conference seating
This is how physicists (or maybe everybody) fill seating at conferences. The first people to arrive take the seats on the outside of the rows, and then fill in to the middle. This is really annoying when arriving in the middle of the session and having to climb over a bunch of people to get into the one empty seat. I am aware that this is a really lame complaint, but please, fill from the middle!
Now that I’ve got that out of my system: the last couple days were a blur of superconducting qubit talks. There’s a lot going on in this field, and most groups had three or four (10-minute) talks in a row to have enough time to explain all their results. One experiment I thought was very neat was this one from Terry Orlando’s group at MIT. In flux qubits like the ones we study, one can measure the temperature by sweeping the flux bias across the degeneracy point and measuring the population of the qubit states. Higher temperatures will give wider curves, as energies further away from the degeneracy point are more likely to be populated by thermal activation. When we measure this on our qubits we usually get something like 150 mK, mysteriously somewhat higher than the fridge temperature (roughly 50 mK).
What the Orlando group did was to apply an analog of laser cooling (as in atomic physics) to their qubit, using a microwave pulse to induce transitions that ultimately cool the system. As a result they were able to see these temperatures (as measured from the widfh of the qubit step) reduced by a factor of 100, from 300 mK to 3 mK. It was pretty impressive; I’m not sure how important it is for quantum computing or whether it’s something we should be doing with our qubits, but it’s a nice application of techniques from another field.
This morning I gave my talk, which was helpfully introduced by Frank Wilhelm’s talk immediately prior, in which he said something like “the really important development for scalability is what Travis Hime will talk about next”. So the pressure was on, but I think I did ok. After this was… more qubit talks, but I was mostly decompressing after finishing mine and didn’t pay as much attention as usual.
Tomorrow I go to see talks by other Clarke group members, including John himself. And then, an evening flight back to Berkeley.