Monthly Archives: April 2006

Friday Non-random 18

In conjunction with my weekend plans, and the long drive required to get there, I have made a mix CD using bands that will be appearing at Coachella. I prioritized recent music since this is most likely to be played; as a result none of the songs here are older than 2004. I also tried to avoid songs that have appeared on some previous mix CDs. A couple tracks are unrepresentative: Devendra Banhart sings in English most of the time, and TV on the Radio normally use instruments. A few of these have been posted here with recent music reviews. Here’s the tracklist:
High Noon Sun (Coachella 2006)

  1. The Go! Team, “Junior Kickstart”

  2. Sleater-Kinney, “Wilderness”
  3. My Morning Jacket, “Off The Record”
  4. Mylo, “Zenophile”
  5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Cheated Hearts”
  6. Bloc Party, “Banquet”
  7. Wolf Parade, “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son”
  8. Devendra Banhart, “Quedateluna”
  9. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, “In This Home On Ice”
  10. Franz Ferdinand, “L. Wells”
  11. Cat Power, “Love & Communication”
  12. Mogwai, “Glasgow Mega-Snake”
  13. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, “Me And Mia”
  14. TV On The Radio, “Ambulance”
  15. Sigur Rós, “Gong”
  16. Dungen, “Panda”
  17. Ladytron, “Beauty*2″
  18. Animal Collective, “Turn Into Something”

Copies available on request. (Those of you who are going to Coachella with me are likely to be handed copies whether you want them or not.)
As Lemming has already noticed, Sleater-Kinney and Bloc Party are playing at the same time. Originally I was simply planning to decide between them, but then I realized that I have a quantum mechanical solution available to me. I just have to stop by the lab before I leave…

I don’t even have a sock drawer!

There were a ton of LaRouche disciples on campus yesterday, with their card tables set up in Sproul Plaza and huge stacks of LaRouche literature to hand out. At one point I think there was some kind of LaRouchie a capella performance. What’s up with this? Is it a big recruitment drive? (There are always a few hanging around but this was far more than usual.) It’s not well timed on their part since this week is also ASUC elections, and the campus is already crammed with placard-bearing students who want to annoy you about politics. The LaRouchies are nearly lost in the crowd. Fortunately, there are a number of secluded pathways through campus for those of us who merely want to walk to lunch unmolested.
I’ve always wondered where LaRouche manages to find all these intense, aggressive young people that are always shouting from their card tables. They’re very passionate about a guy who is obviously batshit insane. (Dave Barry once remarked: “Where you have a brain, Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., has a Whack-a-Mole game.”) I’m guessing they snap up gullible college freshmen and indoctrinate them early, hence this big campus appearance. They’ve also been capitalizing on anti-Bush sentiment, although they seem especially obsessed with Dick Cheney (maybe he figures in the grand LaRouche conspiracy theory).
Ideally the LaRouchies and the ASUC campaign people will end up shouting at each other, and the rest of us can slip by unnoticed.

The physics of Built To Spill

And while I’m thinking about timescales, yesterday iTunes reminded me of the relevant Built To Spill song, “Randy Described Eternity”. The song starts out like this:

Every thousand years
this metal sphere
ten times the size of Jupiter
floats just a few yards past the earth
You climb on your roof
and take a swipe at it
with a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
`til you’ve worn it down
to the size of a pea
Yeah I’d say that’s a long time
but it’s only half a blink
in the place you’re gonna be

It’s a cool metaphor, but the physicist in me has a few questions for this Randy guy if I ever run into him:

  1. Wouldn’t the gravity of the metal sphere crush the Earth into a thin paste? Or crush itself into a neutron star? Jupiter’s diameter is 142,984 km, so the volume of the sphere in the song is about 1.5×1027 m3. Assuming the metal is iron near room temperature, and without accounting for gravitational compression, the mass of the sphere is 1.2×1031 kg, or 6 solar masses. I believe this is actually a little bit above the threshold to become not a neutron star but a black hole. On the other hand, maybe “size” means volume rather than radius, so that the mass is only 6% of a solar mass. In this case I don’t think it turns into a neutron star, but gravity at the surface is still formidable. A quick calculation yields about 338 times Earth’s gravity (at the surface of each object), unless I made a mistake.

  2. Even ignoring the gravitational binding, would a swipe from a feather be enough to knock a non-zero number of atoms off the sphere? Maybe I could model this but it seems slightly difficult. Someone should do an experiment with a feather, some iron, and an atomic force microscope (or similar instrument).
  3. Suppose the feather does knock some atoms off the sphere. Where do they go? If the metal sphere has gravity, of course they’ll accrete right back onto the sphere. But if not, won’t they pile up on the Earth? Given the size of the sphere that could be a problem. On the other hand, if there’s magically no gravity from the sphere, maybe the individual atoms won’t be affected by Earth’s gravity either and they’ll fly off into space.
  4. Won’t the momentum imparted by the feather strikes affect the motion of the sphere over time, as well as the motion of the Earth? Will the thousand-year period change after enough swipes?

Clearly this song raises more questions than it answers. If I ever teach an elementary physics course, I should totally assign a problem based on these lyrics.

Slow and fast timescales

Having just finished reading Spin (which I reviewed below) I found myself thinking about timescales. The novel did a good job of bringing long timescales into perspective, but what about short ones? In the book, the ratio between Earth time and solar time was about 108, one hundred million years outside the earth to each year in the Spin, or 3.17 years every second. This was an enormous ratio, with any timescale relevant to human civilization passing by in less than a day. It was mind-boggling to read about in the book. But I realized that I was sitting in the lab doing a diagnostic measurement in which I watched the response of a SQUID to an applied microwave field, and my software was acquiring about one point every second, at nanosecond resolution. That’s a ratio of 109, ten times greater than the ratio in Spin. I usually don’t think much about how long a nanosecond is, but it’s really astonishingly short—as far removed from normal human timescales as stellar lifetimes.
It’s not just in my lab—with gigahertz processors in wide usage, much of modern technology runs on nanosecond timescales. (And Windows still manages to be frustratingly slow at times, with billions of clock ticks in a second to work with.) Faster timescales are a bit harder to get to, at least in semiconductor electronics. The pulse generator I use in qubit experiments has a time resolution of 5 picoseconds, which always impresses me until I remember that the accuracy is only 250 ps. There’s some research into a faster electronics technology using superconducting circuits and flux quantization, called Rapid Single Flux Quantum (RSFQ), which I believe gets to picosecond timescales. Berkeley professor emeritus Ted Van Duzer has been involved in this.
Anyway, I’m not sure I have much more insight into fast timescales than slow ones, but at least they’re more accessible.

Serial psychoceramics

How not to earn credibility for your crackpot physics theories: spam them to physics graduate students, in paragraph-sized pieces sent every few hours, with subject lines like “Stephen Hawking died Today”. And ask for monetary donations. For your amusement, here is the latest installment in the continuing series:

Subject: Stephen Hawking died Today (4-24-06)
The number two search Yahoo (4-24-06) result for “wave-particle duality” states that:
“Light is a deformation of electric (E) and magnetic (B) fields in an area of space.”
Maxwell states that light is not a substance but a process going on in an ether which forms an electromagnetic wave structure of light (Maxwell, vol 2, p. 765). Maxwell’s ether does not exist in a vacuum yet light propagates in a vacuum which is proof that Maxwell’s structure of light does not physically exist.
Maxwell’s structure of light is represented with a continuous electromagnetic field structure where the planes perpendicular to the axis of propagation form a continuous electromagnetic field structure. A finite segment of the electromagnetic plane, of Maxwell’s structure of light, forms an infinite number of positions. Each position, on the electromagnetic plane, forms an electric field; consequently, an infinite number of electric fields forms an infinite total energy. Maxwell’s structure of light is not physically possible.
Maxwell, James. “The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell”. Dover Pub. vol. 2. Edited by W.D. Niven. 1965.

I think at a minimum one should try to pass calculus before trying to overthrow Maxwell. I’d be eagerly awaiting the next episode (due sometime this evening) but I already instructed Thunderbird as to the appropriate destination of these messages.

Spin echo [Open Thread]

I’ll be going to Coachella this weekend, and I will definitely be blogging about it afterwards. I may try to do some liveblogging by phone barring technical problems.
Robert Charles Wilson: Spin: Next time Zifnab recommends a book I’m just going to clear my weekend schedule. This novel was nearly impossible to put down and I devoured it in two sittings over the last two days, mainly at the cost of sleep. The central premise is very compelling: an unknown entity enshrouds the Earth in a bubble that alters the flow of time inside, so that for every year that passes on Earth a hundred million years elapse outside. The efforts of human scientists to understand and work around this, and the reaction of society to the event and the threat of the expanding sun, were what kept me turning the pages. Unlike the last sci-fi novel I read, this one had thought through the science a little more carefully, and most of the issues that came to mind related to slowing down time on the Earth were addressed in the book. (I suspect there are some problems related to general relativity with the way the Spin worked, but I’ve not studied GR.) I also felt that the author had an astute political eye; depictions of societal development under the Spin were entirely plausible.
On the other hand, I didn’t like the characters very much. I’m not sure they were meant to be likable—one of the recurring themes is the psychological stress imposed on the generation growing up under the Spin, and the Spin itself makes a good metaphor for the emotional difficulties of the protagonist. But the fact that I found him annoying meant that I didn’t care very much about the more personal storylines, and preferred to read about the large-scale effects of the Spin and the central mysteries of the book. Fortunately, there was plenty of interest to be found there.
The book has some comments to make on sustainability, and even though the ending seems optimistic, it was only optimistic in the context of the fictional universe, whereas back in the real world we’re still pretty much fucked when the planet runs out of resources. It’s sobering to come away from the novel and realize that we may really be facing the end of the world in a few decades, albeit via resource exhaustion or global warming rather than an expanding sun. Rating: 4/5
Pretty Girls Make Graves: Élan Vital: Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, PGMG have calmed down a bit, but in this case it has led to their best album yet. Their tone has moved from angry to confident, while mostly preserving the dark elements of the music. I was unimpressed by “The Nocturnal House”, which was released early and appears as the opening track, but it is followed by four excellent songs. “Pyrite Pedestal” is my favorite of this set and of the album, but labor anthem “Parade” is nearly as good. The second half of the disc (after an interlude) is not quite as strong as the first, but is notable for “Pictures of a Night Scene” and “Selling the Wind”, the latter featuring an accordion and sufficiently piratey lyrics to be added to my Sept. 19 playlist. I feel like there’s a bit of a fall-off in quality for the final two songs, but the initial quality level is very high indeed. Rating: 4.5/5