19 December 2004

I have a dream...

One of my favorite pastimes is ice skating. This evening, I was thinking that I should skate in as many cities as possible. So far the list is:
  • Boston, MA
  • Cupertino, CA
  • New Haven, CT
  • San Jose, CA

I was thinking of trying Rockefeller Center in New York City next. Judging by the crowds I saw today, I should go early in the morning on a weekday for maximum enjoyment.

My ultimate dream is to skate on the frozen-over Netherland canals. Unfortunately, the last freezing over was in 1997. But when it does happen, you can skate for kilometers on end. For more information about ice skating in the Netherlands, check out these links from Travel Intelligence Co. and the Holland Ring.

10 December 2004

News flash!

David Gross, David Politzer, and Frank Wilczek were formally awarded their Nobel Prizes in physics this week.

The Nobel prize website has links to their lectures. I haven't had time to watch them yet, but I'll report back when I do. There are videos of David Gross's and Frank Wilczek's talks. David Politzer (apparently a recluse) has chosen not to have the video of his lecture available to the public, but the title of his talk is provocative: "The Dilemma of Attribution." Earlier this year, in a bizarre turn of events, Politzer chose not to attend his own press conference for the Nobel Prize. I learned from a former collaborater of Politzer that the man has only published two papers in the last decade. Strange.

On a humorous note, check out R. Shankar's physics standup comedy. Some highlights:

- "At that rate, Bill Gates could buy 450 pounds of Evander Holyfield's ear."
- "Yo mama's so massive I could use her as an ultraviolet cutoff."
- The origin of Puff Daddy's rap moves
- The Shankar duality between W theory and M theory

Movie review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

First, the Netflix summary:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Jim Carrey stars as Joel in this offbeat romantic comedy about a guy who opts for a procedure in which memories of his girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), are erased after he discovers she's opted for the surgery, too. But as his doctor (Tom Wilkinson) begins to wipe out traces of Clementine, Joel decides he doesn't want to lose what's left of their relationship, so he squirrels away the memories he wants to keep somewhere else in his brain.

The film's title is taken from a quote by Alexander Pope:
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.
This movie is founded on an intriguing premise -- what if you could erase your most disturbing, painful memories? [Ironically, I was once in a research group meeting where a professor said he wished he could erase the memories he had of his mother. I responded that you can't selectively delete memories. As a counterpoint, I pointed out that he wouldn't want to lose the memories of his two-year old daughter.] Returning to the subject at hand, the movie seems to say that even if one could selectively erase memories, one could not really escape life's problems. Joel and Clementine are an unhappy couple. Their relationship is hanging by shreds. They have their memories of each other blanked. Yet the next day, they end up meeting and hooking up -- purely by chance. Or is it really chance? We're attracted to certain people for certain reasons and cleaning the slate does not change our predispositions. I'm certainly not an advocate of this extreme form of therapy. Painful memories teach good lessons (most of the time). As some famous philospher said, you can't know happiness without sadness.

Stylistically, the movie has many flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness moments, from Joel's point of view. The nonlinearity of time makes for an entertaining mind trip (though not as crazy as Memento). Also, there is some weirdness -- technicians running around in their underwear while erasing a man's memory.

Overall, a very unique and fun movie. Thumbs up.

08 December 2004


According to the New York Times, corporate America doesn't know how to write.

I'm not sure how much poor writing skills plague science, but my master's thesis advisor used to repeatedly praise my writing. I don't believe my words are particularly incisive or eloquent, so if my writing is truly the gold standard, I don't really want to see bad scientific prose. Fortunately, I've been lucky to work with students and researchers who are good writers, so I haven't had to face the music yet.

What does it take to be a good writer? From my experience, the first thing is to "omit needless words!" as Strunk exclaims in his famous manual on style. Another piece of advice is not to be sloppy. Don't drop punctuation or capitalize words that are not supposed to be capitalized. Third, use your common sense. Once you know the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure, you will come across situations where the punctuation may be ambiguous. For example, a common problem is whether to put a comma after/before a clause. The best way to decide is to read the sentence out loud and only insert a comma if there is a pause in the speech. Finally, make sure there is a logical flow to the prose. There's nothing worse than a paper that reads like bullet points.

After that, writing is very audience dependent. I avoid using "big words" in scientific writing because the reader is likely to be a foreigner. Also, prose that is quite passable among scientists often looks sophomoric to sophisticated humanities professionals (at least in my experience.) Of course that doesn't mean that people in the humanities always write better, but on the average, humanities graduate students are much better writers. Scientists only do technical writing for the most part which is formulaic and restrictive. For instance, I can't use "big words" in scientific writing because it would be difficult for a non-native reader to understand.

The majority of my recent writing has been scientific with the benefit that my writing has become more clear and logical. Unfortunately, I feel that I'm losing my vocabulary and literary eloquence compared to my high school days. I suppose I should try my hand at writing some short stories or beautific descriptions in my blog entries. And take some time out of my day to read classy literature. It's like watching British movies and shortly afterwards realizing that your brain is thinking in a British accent.

07 December 2004

What number are you?

I found a survey from Ms. Allyism's blog. Here's my result. I don't see what the number has to do with anything. I suppose it's just a label for a category.

You Are the Reformer


You're a responsible person - with a clear sense of right and wrong.

High standards are important to you, and you do everything to meet them.

You are your own worst critic, feeling ashamed if you're not perfect.

You have the highest integrity, and people expect you to be fair.

Gee, the description makes me sound like this guy.

06 December 2004

String theory, its enthusiasts and its critics

String theory is the idea that the world, at its smallest scale, consists of eleven dimensional strings. The theory is commonly thought to be one of the best approaches to finding a "theory of everything" -- a single theory to describe all the known forces of nature (gravitational, strong, weak, electromagnetic interactions). I'm still waiting until I learn more before I decide what I think. However, it is safe to say that string theory is an incredibly controversial field in physics. Most people either love or hate it. The critics have good reason to complain. Not only is there no experimental evidence for string theory, there are very few plausible ways to test it. Physicists have been blessed with a remarkable theoretical understanding of their science, but this progress has always been motivated by experiments. String theory is stretching that boundary by propelling itself forward not by experimental results but by theoretical intuition. This sort of guesswork has sometimes been incredibly successful, but I have to agree with the critics -- twenty years is a long time to spend on a theory with no experimental evidence. I guess my opinion is kind of negative so far, but I haven't studied string theory, so that's why I'm still holding out.

If you have the time and interest, take a look at two recent articles in the New York Times and Science Magazine (you need a subscription).

05 December 2004

Movie review: "His Secret Life"

My Italian friend has been suggesting (surprise) Italian movies. I've been getting them from Netflix for him and also for myself since I'm curious about foreign movies.

Here's the summary of the latest movie (taken from Netflix):

His Secret Life (2001)

While recovering from the shock of her husband's death, an Italian woman (Margherita Buy) discovers that her husband had had a secret lover for the last 7 years. But she's even more surprised to discover that he and his lover (Stefano Accorsi) were part of an extended "family" of gays, transgenders and other social outcasts … a family she finds herself drifting toward as she overcomes the emotions of her husband's passing.

As you can tell from the summary, this is sure one strange movie, but I think it came off as believable. I personally have never been part of a gay community, so I can't judge if the movie did a good portrayal of the "gay family" in the movie. The Italian wife was very sweet and likable. It was an interesting idea to have a wife and her husband's lover bond over their shared memories of the man they loved. All in all, I liked the movie and think it was worth watching.

Rhapsody delivers Christmas cheer

I got a complaint that my blog was too "nerdy." So today's topic is internet music.

I have a great service called Rhapsody. For a small monthly fee, it delivers on-demand streaming music over the internet. You can choose from over 50,000 albums. As someone who is always looking for new music, I like how you can browse top ten lists to see what other people are listening to. The catalog is well-organized so you can find artists that are similar to your favorite musicians. You can also create your own "radio station" by picking ten artists you like. Rhapsody will then randomly choose songs by these artists and similar musicians. Of course, the best part of using Rhapsody is trying out lots of different music without having to blindly buy CDs.

Personally, I think that music will eventually fall into this on-demand model. The concept of buying CDs is a bit outdated in the digital age.

Lately, I've been enjoying two Christmas albums suggested by the Rhapsody editors. They are "Merry Christmas" by Andy Williams and "Wishes You A Swinging Christmas" by Ella Fitzgerald.

28 November 2004

QCD told by one of its own architects

Apologies for not writing anything in depth lately. But if you have a good connection and know some physics, it might be fun to watch Frank Wilczek's "2004 Nobel Prize" MIT colloquium. MIT World Video did a nice job.

In case you hadn't already heard, Frank helped to discover the right theory to describe the strong interaction which binds nuclei together. In particle physics speak, he, David Gross, and David Politzer figured out that to match physical observations (that quarks are "asympotically" free at close distances/high energies), you needed a non-Abelian gauge theory. From the work of others, it was known that the non-Abelian gauge theory had to have SU(3) color symmetry. Today, the theory of the strong interaction is known as quantum chromodynamics (QCD). The talk was good, but mostly I think it was just a nice celebration of Frank's great achievement being recognized. MIT physics alums (2000-present) can be proud!

21 November 2004

Link of the day: cochlear implants

There's a great video of a Fermilab colloquium about cochlear implants. The talk was given by Ian Shipsey, who uses a cochlear implant himself.

It's really cool that Fermilab tapes all their colloquium talks. I wish other universities would do the same. Sure, there are books and papers out there, but nothing beats the experience of listening to another human being tell you something!

Are you subconsciously prejudiced?

To find out, take one of the tests at implicit.harvard.edu. It works by measuring your response time to associating certain words with certain groups of people.

I found out that I have a strong preference for straight over gay people and that I have no or little prejudice associating women with liberal arts and men with science. The latter makes sense as I am a woman physicist!

14 November 2004

How does a watch/clock work?

I haven't had too much time to think about this question yet, but I thought I should make a note of it here to remind myself to do more research. The little I've read on the web indicates that there are two kinds of watches, those that run on a quartz oscillator and integrated circuit (powered by a battery in general) and those that are purely mechanical. Here are some good links about how quartz watches and mechanical watches work. The Swiss watch industry also has a page that shows the internal parts of quartz and mechanical watches. Supposedly over 90% of the world's watches are based on quartz oscillators.

Quartz watches are known to be so accurate that they only change by a minute over a year. But as a physicist, I know that even better time keepers exist -- that's right, atomic clocks. But it's late, so I'll report on those devices another time.

12 November 2004

Today's interesting link

I was reading Michael Nielsen's blog earlier and found an interesting link to Eugene Wallingford's blog. In one entry, Wallingford describes an inspiring talk by computer scientist visionary Alan Kay. The thrust of Kay's talk was that computer science as a field was falling into a lull and forgetting about how to be creative and innovative. What I found especially interesting was Ivan Sutherland's PhD thesis. Apparently, in one very intense year, Sutherland created the first user interface for graphics, object oriented programming, etc. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to read the thesis sometime.

Particle physics

As an undergraduate, my education was heavily influenced by particle physicists. They taught my classes, I did research with them, they were my mentors and heroes. In the end, I decided that particle physics wasn't for me, but I still think about it from time to time.

This year, I finally got around to taking a class in quantum field theory -- the subject that lies at the heart of particle physics. Between reading Peskin and Schroeder, sitting in class, and talking to the lecturer, I am starting to get a clearer picture of what is going on.

I'll just list a few of the interesting things I've learned so far.

1) People often say that quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is a beautiful theory because it only has one adjustable parameter (the strength of the coupling between quarks and gluons). This is because QCD is a non-Abelian gauge theory. Once you add in the fact that QCD obeys SU(3) symmetry and that dimensions of the operators have to have be less than some critical number for the theory to be renormalizable, the QCD Lagrangian is almost completely constrained. However, the constraint that the theory must be renormalizable is debatable. There could be some terms in the Lagrangian which are not renormalizable but are extremely weak in our low-energy observation range.

2) If you read any introductory book on particle physics, the first thing that is mentioned is that lepton and baryon number are conserved. That is why when a neutron decays to a proton and electron, it must also produce an electron neutrino. A muon or tau neutrino is not allowed. It turns out that this conservation might be approximate. The physics we know about (the Standard Model) only has Lagrangians which conserve these numbers. In addition, the dimension of the coupling constants are less than four (I think) which implies that we know about these interactions because they are important at low energies. But there could be other terms in the Lagrangian which only kick in at high energy beyond our current observation range. And these terms might not conserve lepton and baryon number.

3) According to the lecturer of my class, proton decay is a very strong constraint on grand unification theories (GUT). [In most GUTs, at very high energies, protons can couple to other interactions which make them decay.] The fact that the proton lifetime is experimentally limited to being greater than 10^33 years makes these theories unlikely. Of course that is his opinion. He also thought that the non-unification of quark energies was also a strong indicator that GUTs are implausible. I asked him whether future experiments might clear up the mystery. He thought that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN would be able to see something but not with great precision. The Next Linear Collider (an experiment being planned) has the technological power to do precision measurements, but currently no country wants to fund it. All-in-all, a rather depressing outlook!

My conclusion so far is that particle physics is a fascinating subject, but until there are experiments at higher energies, it is impossible to say anything coherent about speculative theories like GUTs. Of course, bona fide particle physicists say the same thing, but I'm just now starting to realize why.

I realize that this post will not make sense to 99.99% of the population. A few months ago, I wouldn't have understood it earlier. I would say that to really understand particle physics at any meaningful depth, it's imperative to take a field theory course.

11 November 2004

Hello world!

The first thing you might be wondering about is the origin of this blog's title. Well, I'm a physicist, but unlike many physicists, my work actually has some practical applications. Specifically, I study superconducting devices that are capable of quantum computation. So that makes me a "quantum mechanical engineer." (Plus, I have a degree in engineering in addition to my physics degree.) I got the idea from Seth Lloyd, a professor at MIT who works on the theory of quantum computation. People often ask him why he's in the mechanical engineering department, and his reply is that he's actually a quantum mechanical engineer.

Perhaps one of these days, when I have more time, I'll try to say a few words about quantum computation. For now though, you can try Michael Nielsen's blog. Michael is a well-known quantum information theorist.

I'm not exactly sure what I will be writing in this blog. I suppose it will be a way for me to keep a scrapbook of random thoughts.