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April 2009 Archives


Swine flu is no joking matter, so I'll keep this one short and to the point, and just comment that the spread of the virus (or, for that matter, any virus) is another example of a stochastic system. Partly predictable, and partly random. The spread of viruses such as SARS have been well studied by mathematicians and physicists, and, I strongly imagine, there are physicists who are right now analysing the way the current outbreak is developing.

That, I am well aware, will be of little comfort to those who have or suspect they have the virus.

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WARNING: This entry relies entirely on my memory, and as such I make no guarantee of its authenticity.

I recently read an article in NZ consumer magazine about  LCD televisions. What ones are worth the price etc. That prompted a memory from years ago (I think end of 1992 but I might be mistaken) when, as a PhD student, I attended a physics conference in Sheffield, UK.  Conferences usually have displays from industry - and this was no exception. I remember seeing there an LCD display screen; I marvelled at how big the screen was (maybe the size of a lap top screen), how clearly it showed its full range of colours (black and white) and how thin the display was (twenty centimetres or so). The guy proudly showing it off did concede that applications for TV were a long long way off, if, in fact, not impossible. Too much wiring, and they would be prohibitively expensive.

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Carrying on the big number theme I will now tell you that three is a good working approximation to infinity. Yes, three, you know, the number that comes after two.  As in one, two, infinity.

So you are thinking I've finally lost my marbles.



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So this week I said that there weren't a googol of things in this universe to count.  That might not be quite true. It really depends on what you mean by a thing. If it's something tangible, that you can hold in your hand (like a grain of sand), then that is true. But we can construct intangible things that far exceed a googol in number.

Imagine you are watching a cross-country race with 100 competitors. How many different finishing orders are there? For example, runner number 23 might cross the line first, followed by number 55, then 38, 93, 17 all the way down to 43 who trails in last. Or maybe runner number 2 takes the tape, just beating number 95 and 52 and so on.

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I've just been reading this article on the BBC website about the puzzling lack of sunspots. The sun should be entering a period of high activity (equals lots of sunspots) but observations show otherwise. Maybe it's just a bit late, or possibly our star is doing something rather different to normal. I'll leave discussion on what this might mean for global warming to the people who know what they are talking about (it is a highly debated issue) and instead look a few more years into the future (a few billion to be more precise).

Life on Earth is fundamentally temporary. If God doesn't end it first, it will get ended by the sun. In about five billion years time, the sun is likely to become a red giant star, and pretty well swallow up the earth. Not that there will be anyone around to see it - the planet will have got so hot that it will be uninhabitable long before then. We are well and truly doomed.

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My niece, the one who was interested in reflections, is now into maths. She's recently added the number 'googol' into her vocabulary. As in "Uncle Marcus, I'm going to count from one to a googol; one, two, three, four..." - though I'm not convinced she's actually done it yet.

A googol (not to be mistaken for google) is a large number, specifically ten to the power one hundred. That is, in our conventional decimal notation, a '1' followed by a hundred '0's. Or:

10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000.

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I was marking some of my third year students' work last week. One would have thought that by the time a student had reached third year at university, he or she would know the basic rules of answering an exam or assignment question. But apparently not.

I know it isn't exam season for you school students out there, but experience tells me this is advice well worth repeating until you are utterly sick of it:

Read the Question, and then Answer the Question.

Too often I see students throw away easy credit because they have  not read the question properly, or waste time by including with their answers stuff that simply wasn't asked for. You might write a page of utterly correct material, but, if it wasn't what was asked for, you are doing nothing except lifting paper and ink manufacturers out of recession. So, please, read the question, and then answer it.

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Being Easter, blogging may take a back seat for a few days. Be assured that like governer Schwarzernegger, I'll be back.

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No, this isn't about Chris Martin's batting performance at the Basin Reserve.

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I might have discovered a new phenomenon in biophysics. I won't bore you with the details, but it concerned the behaviour of neurons (brain cells) under external stimulus. Now, I could have rushed out and tried to publish my results, but a few things about it just didn't seem to make sense, and I took some time to examine my results a bit more closely. To my dismay (or maybe relief) I found that my new phenomenon could be attributed to the way I'd processed the data. No new phenomenon, no Nobel Prize coming my way. Such is science.


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No time to make an intelligible comment just now, but this BBC report describing the new 'gravity satellite' looks a good read.

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(Yes, this entry is about physics, but it takes a little while to get there, so please bear with me...)

Last night I attended a talk on nutrition. It was focused towards a particular health issue, but was also reasonably general in places. Now, I emphasize that I am a physicist not a nutritionist, so I will refrain from commenting on the specifics of what was said in that regard.

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So daylight savings is over for another year. Back to boring old standard time.

Now's a good moment to comment on what time zone New Zealand sits in. In 'winter time' it sits twelve hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, GMT (or Univeral Time, as astronomers like to call it). Is that reasonable?

In Greenwich (south-east London), in GMT, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at 12 noon (give or take a few minutes depending on time of year - see my comment on the equation of time and analemma). Does it do the same in NZ?

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I've just been reading in 'Physics World' magazine (IOP publishing, of one of the less well-known side effects of the delay on the Large Hadron Collider: many PhD students, who hoped by now to have that final bit of data to conclude their PhD theses, are stuck.  A PhD is a research degree - and lack of results, due to whatever reason, is a major stumbling block to getting it.

One student at CERN is quoted as saying "It breaks my heart that I'll have spent four years doing a PhD with no data".  And so it should. In fact, I would question the integrity of those academics who have taken on PhD students for experimental work with the LHC well before the LHC's supposed switch on date. The risk of no data was surely a big one, and it is not one that should be borne by a student probably living close to the 'breadline'.


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The holy grail of power generation is nuclear fusion. That's the process by which stars are powered - simply put, hydrogen turns into helium and releases energy in the process. What makes it so perfect is that there is pretty-well a limitless supply of hydrogen on the Earth, tied up in the copious quantities of water in our oceans.

However, realising nuclear fusion in practice is rather tricky. The problem is to get it to work you need to get your hydrogen hot. Really, really hot. The kind of temperature inside the sun sort-of-hot (10 million celcius or so).  Actually, even hotter than that, because the pressure on earth is a lot less than inside the sun.

One method for trying this has just been 'set-up' in the US. It involves heating a small pellet of fuel with lasers - the idea is that the small pellet will get hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur, and release far more energy than put in. This ambitious concept is, however, only a proof-of-principle - to provide usable power on a large scale there needs to be a continuous supply of fuel. At this point the skeptic in me starts getting a bit active. Can this really be achieved?


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