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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, April 23, 2005

If You Buy It...

Jim Henley links approvingly to a Radley Balko column at Fox News suggesting that the new stadium being built in DC to house the Nationals (or the new football stadium in Indianapolis) be named "Taxpayers' Field:"

But time and again we’ve seen stadiums sell naming rights to corporate sponsors, essentially selling over a city’s cherished identity for a few more bucks in the public coffers. See the venerable Hoosier Dome’s conversion to the "RCA Dome," or Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium’s switch to "CINergy Field."

Just this once, why not recognize and show some appreciation for what will be each stadium's biggest contributor?

It's sort of surprising that Jim approves of this, because it's a very non-libertarian approach to the problem: hoping fervently that the government will, of its own good will, make a positive statement. Jim (and Radley, though I know less about his politics) is missing a golden opportunity to put his principles into action. Why wait and hope that the government does something good, when you could buy what you want?

ESPN provides a helpful table of naming rights data, indicating the per-year contract costs for various stadia. There are a few really astronomical values (why in hell is Phillips paying $9 million a year for naming rights to the arena where the Atlanta Hawks play? The Hawks, for God's sake...), but most of the big ones are in the $1-2 million range. Both of the places Radley cites by name are going for $1 million a year.

Now, that sounds like a lot of money, but as Howard Dean could tell you, all it would take to raise $1 million is to get 10,000 people to pony up a hundred bucks each. Surely it ought to be possible to find that many libertarian sports fans. You can probably even find 10,000 libertarians who aren't too cheap to cough up $100.

And if you were to shoot for a more reasonable naming goal, such as "Hoosier Dome" (in Indy) or "Veterans Memorial Stadium" (just about anywhere), the PR value of the attempt would probably let you get a lower rate for the name.

So don't sit around wishing and hoping that Anthony Williams will do the right thing-- go form a corporation, and start collecting donations. And if you can't get it together in time to buy the DC or Indy naming rights, according to ESPN, San Francisco's stadium deal expires in 2007, and you should have no trouble at all raising enough cash to buy back "Candlestick Park." I'd probably kick in a few bucks toward that one.

Posted at 10:01 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, April 22, 2005

Un(in)formed Thoughts on Health Care

Close to a month ago, the night before we left for the cruise, I had muscle spasms in my right shoulder that were so bad, I wound up having Kate take me to the emergency room. We sat around for several hours, had some X-Rays taken, and got a prescription for painkillers and muscle relaxers.

Today, we got a bill from the hospital for all that: $1,100 (give or take). Only it wasn't, really, because I've got good health insurance through work. All they're really hitting me for is the $50 co-pay.

My first thought was that this is a really dramatic demonstration of the common observation that handling health care issues by emergency room visits (as many uninsured people do) is really just about the worst of all possible systems. There's no way that what we got there was worth $1,100, but I understand why they have to charge that amount.

As a person with insurance, though, I also have to wonder if the way this is handled isn't part of the problem. When you think about it, I really haven't been billed $1,100 for an emergency room visit-- my insurance company has, but it's not real money to me. Which means I see the whole thing from a distance-- if I had had to pay $1,100 out of pocket for that visit, I'd be outraged. As it is, I'm out $50, and somebody else (ultimately my employer, by way of payments to the insurance company) has paid $1,050. It's still outrageous, in the abstract, but it's really not my problem.

And I wonder if that isn't part of how our health care system has become such a mess. Talking heads have been saying for years that health care costs are out of control, but to somebody with employer-provided insurance, it's not really a concrete problem (unless their insurance runs out, or won't cover something). It's only when the costs get to the truly ridiculous level where insurance companies and employers start to balk at paying them that it becomes a concrete crisis.

It's the same basic deal as first-class airfare, or those $600 hammers the Pentagon was buying. If somebody else is putting up the money to buy whatever you're getting, you don't have much of an interest in keeping the costs down, as long as they don't start to complain. So doctors and hospitals can increase their fees for years without the general public making much fuss about it, because people are (by and larger) not really buying it with their own money.

I don't have any policy prescription to draw from this, mind. I'm just thinking out loud.

Posted at 8:28 PM | link | follow-ups | 25 comments

Not In a Good Way

I may have inadvertently deleted an actual comment while cleaning up the online casino comment spam that's been showing up with depressing regularity. If you posted a comment about something other than online poker, and it's not there now, sorry. I don't see so clearly at 7:30 in the morning.

Whoever's doing this, I have to say that they sure are persistent (I've been deleting a poker comment every hour or two for the past few days). Happily, the comment software we're using is obscure enough that they don't seem to have an automated way to make a hundred spam posts at a time.

Of course, that just makes their persistence seem vaguely pathetic, as if there's some loser guy getting ten cents a comment for typing "Online casino" in by hand. Over, and over, and over...

Posted at 7:55 AM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Don't You Blaspheme In Here

For reasons that don't really bear going into, I wound up spending a bunch of time hanging around a medical office this morning, and because I'm a complete chowderhead sometimes, I didn't bring any reading material. In a fit of foolish optimism, I thought they might move quickly, so I spent an hour or so desperate for something, anything, to read.

Sadly, the magazine selection provided was not really aimed at my demographic, consisting mostly of tattered old copies of Redbook, a couple of AARP publications, and a handful of coloring books. I had a momentary flash of hope at one point, though, when I spotted a magazine with a picture of a young kid dressed up as a scientist (lab coat, goggles), and the word "Experiments" on the cover. On closer inspection, however, the magazine turned out to be Children's Ministry ("The leading resource for people who serve children in the church." Insert your own Damon Knight reference.).

I put it down, but after a few more minutes of staring at the walls, I decided to read it anyway. And, actually, the article (titled something like "Experiments for Truth" or "Truth Experiments"-- I'd link to it if I could, but their archives are subscriber-only) didn't start off all that badly-- it mentioned that the public sparring over evolution and creationism was causing many Christians to turn away from science entirely, and that this was a Bad Thing. Which sounded pretty reasonable, so I kept going.

They went on to suggest that science can provide an avenue to expose children to the wonders of God's creation, and that the article would describe several experiments that could be done to provide a link between science and faith. Now, at this point, many people would get kind of twitchy, but I don't think there's anything wrong with that. After all, many of the great early scientists were men of faith, and felt that by attempting to figure out the operating principles of the universe, they were doing God's work, that advancing human understanding was a means of giving glory to God. It's an admirable tradition, and a return to those principles would be very welcome indeed.

And then I looked at the "experiments." The scare quotes are there for a reason. Oh, they looked sort of like the sort of things you find in science-with-kids handbooks (though in addition to the usual lists of materials, they included scripture verses associated with each experiment(*)), and some of them were actual experiments that I've seen in those kinds of books. One of the ones that sticks in my mind (I'd link to the article, but it's subscribers-only) was a classic surface tension demo, where you float two small objects on the surface of a glass of water, and then dip a toothpick with a trace of soap on it into the water (the soap changes the surface tension of the water, and the objects will fly to the sides-- it works really well with a sprinkling of pepper).

The problem started with the presentation, which suggested identifying one object as God, the other as the child, and the soap as sin. When sin is introduced, it pushes people away from God. OK, fine. I mean, it's dorky as hell, but whatever floats your boat.

But they don't explain the trick. The words "surface tension" do not appear anywhere in the article. There's nothing at all about what makes the two objects separate on an actual, rather than a symbolic level.

It's even more maddening with their version of the egg-in-the-bottle trick (which is meant to show that with God, nothing is impossible), which includes the explicit instruction to ask the child "Why do you think that happened?" and then doesn't provide the answer.

This isn't science, it's stage magic. I mean, sure, God could force the egg through the neck of the bottle, but He didn't, save in a very Deist sort of sense.

The really depressing thing about this is that it's not necessary. There's no reason why faith and intellectual curiosity can't co-exist, and if you wanted to, you could do a perfectly legitimate version of this, with actual science. The universe we live in is a wonderful and endlessly fascinating place, and if you want to see the hand of God in some of that wonder, more power to you. I obviously can't speak for all scientists in this, but if you choose to see divine purpose in the surface tension of water or the action of atmospheric pressure, go right ahead. I happen to think it's pretty cool without needing to invoke God, but I can understand how someone so inclined could see it as evidence of the elegance of creation, and that doesn't really bug me.

But to not even provide an explanation is just wrong. It's beyond wrong-- it's practically blasphemy.

If you want to engage in this sort of foolishness, go ahead. But don't attempt to pass it off as science, or call these cheap magic tricks "experiments"-- calling the article "Cornball Conjury for Truth" would be more accurate.

((*) And why is it that the people who write this stuff invariably provide only the citation? It's not like they're citing an entire chapter-- it's rarely more than a couple of sentences. Would it kill them to actually write out the verses, for the sake of people who are stuck in a doctor's waiting room without a Bible?)

Posted at 9:01 PM | link | follow-ups | 23 comments

At Long Last, 1905...

I left off last time with the dismal failure of classical theory to describe the photoelectric effect. A purely classical model manages to predict only one of the six major trends you can identify in the experimental data. This stood as a pretty significant mystery, until 1905, when Einstein published a new model that explains all of the results.

The model starts by assuming that Planck's model of quantized oscillators actually applies to the light field itself. That is, rather than being a single, continuous wave, a beam of light can be seen as a stream of particles, each carrying a discrete amount of energy. The energy per particle is given by Planck's constant h times the frequency f of the light (E=hf, symbolically).

After that, you lump the various processes involved in getting the electrons out of the metal together in a thing called the "work function," which is different for different metals, and you've got the whole thing. A single light quantum (Einstein didn't coin the term "photon," and reportedly never cared for it) supplies all the energy needed to knock loose one (and only one) electron.

The energy from a single photon (whatever Einstein thought, it's easier to type than "light quantum) is split between a single electron and the work function-- the electron leaves the metal with whatever energy the photon had beyond the work function energy. If the photon energy is less than the work function, the electron can't escape-- you're not allowed to add together multiple photons to liberate one electron.

Taking the experimental results one by one:

It's a great model. It's simple, it's elegant, it fits all the data. And it requires taking Max Planck's mathematical sleight-of-hand seriously, not to mention overturning a century or so worth of conventional wisdom saying that light is a wave, not a stream of particles.

This was deeply troubling to a lot of people. In one of the great instructional stories in science (assuming that the history I've been told is correct, anyway), a number of eminent physicists set out to prove Einstein wrong, including Robert Millikan, who was already known for the "oil drop" experiment that found the charge on the electron. Millikan spent something like ten years doing extremely careful photoelectric effect experiments, and wound up verifying Einstein's theory in every detail. He wasn't particularly happy about this, but he still published his results (including the best experimental measurement of Planck's Constant to that point) in 1916, and Einstein's place in science was secure, even without that pesky relativity stuff. Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 (actually, he shared it with somebody I've never heard of), with the citation highlighting his work on the photoelectric effect, and Millikan got his own Nobel Prize in 1923, again partly for the photoelectric effect (score one for scientific integrity).

Einstein returned to the idea of photons later on, in the 1917 paper that Dan Kleppner talked about in Physics Today a couple of months back. It's not anywhere near as well known as the 1905 papers, but it's really one of the seminal works in quantum optics. I'll talk more about that next time.

Posted at 7:30 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Papal Quandary

All hail Giblets I Palpatine I Benedict XVI. Or whatever the appropriate phrase to greet the accession of a new Pope is (the last time we had a new Pope, I was seven (give or take), and wasn't really paying attention, and now, I don't particularly care).

I find myself in sort of an odd place regarding this news. I don't really consider myself much of a Catholic any more, so it's hard to work up much emotion over the choice. Ratzinger wouldn't've been my first choice, but it's not like it's going to make me any more or less likely to go to Mass on Sunday.

On the other hand, though, I retain just enough residual Catholicism to find a lot of the snark from various atheist types to be poor taste at best. Yes, fine, he's a conservative, and religion is evil. But, really, is there anyone the College of Cardinals could've selected who would've made you happy? (Please note, Richard Dawkins is not eligible.)

My only really strong feeling about the whole matter is a sense of relief that they picked somebody fairly quickly, sparing us another week of "Pope still dead!" stories. Not that there's any cheerier news out there to report, but at least it's likely to be new.

Posted at 6:24 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

"Photo" as in Light...

This is a somewhat delayed continuation of the lengthy explanation of the history of photons. In our last episode, you may recall, I talked about Max Planck and the introduction of quantized "oscillators" to explain the spectrum of black-body radiation. Planck himself thought it was just a mathematical trick-- he described it as an act of desperation-- and nobody attributed very much reality to the idea of quantization for a few years.

The first person to really run with the idea was Albert Einstein, in one of his famous 1905 papers. It's less famous than the Special Relativity paper, though it was every bit as important (and, indeed, was the official reason he won the Nobel Prize in 1921). It also concerns a completely different problem, so I'll describe that first, and come back to Einstein's solution in a later post.

The problem that led Einstein to the idea of photons was the photoelectric effect. In typical physics fashion, it means pretty much what the name suggests: If you shine light on a piece of metal, you can get electrons coming out of the metal. It's not all that significant for ordinary metals and visible light, and it's pretty much impossible to see in air, but if you start playing around with bits of metal in vacuum, and ultraviolet light, it shows up pretty quickly.

Now, the physics theories of the late 1800's were reasonably well positioned to make some predictions about this. Electrons were known to be bound to atoms, and it was known that light was an electromagnetic wave, so it's easy to set up a model of what's going on: A light wave comes along, encounters an electron, and causes it to wiggle back and forth. The electron acquires some energy from the light wave, and after a little while, it comes loose from the atom.

Without going into the details of how things really work, there are two basic experiments that you can do with this system: you can shine light on a piece of metal, and measure the number of electrons that come out, or you can shine light on a piece of metal, and measure the energy of the electrons as they leave the metal. There are also two things you can control: you can vary the frequency of the light (which determines how fast the electrons are shaken back and forth), and the intensity of the light (which is a measurement of how much energy is contained in the total light beam. Sticking with the mechanical analogy, the greater the energy, the harder the "shaking" of the electrons.).

Given those variables, and those ideal experiments, you can make some concrete predictions for what you expect to happen according to the classical model:

Simple, right? Nice, clean, falsifiable predictions.

So, people go out and do some photoelectric effect experiments, with lots of different intensities and different wavelengths. And they get some clear and concrete experimental results:

(There's a little variation from one system to another-- the cut-off frequency is different for different metals-- but the pattern is always the same: no emission below some frequency, a linear increase in energy above the cut-off, and no change in energy with intensity.)

So, the four nice, clean predictions of classical theory lead to a combined score of one-for-six when you start looking at the experimental data. And it's not like it's just missing a few details here and there-- at least two of the observations directly contradict affirmative predictions of the classical theory. It's not even close.

Even in baseball, 0.167 doesn't get you much, and it's downright wretched in science. Something is seriously wrong with the attempt to construct a classical picture of the photoelectric effect, but it's not even clear where to start trying to fix it. Until 1905, when Einstein comes up with a model to explain the whole thing. Which I'll explain in the next post in this series.

(This is more or less a transcription of the lecture I give on this subject (without the math), and owes a great deal to Thomas Moore's Six Ideas that Shaped Physics texts, which have the best presentation of this material that I've seen anywhere.)

Posted at 7:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Monday, April 18, 2005

Would You Take This Class?

I'm currently scheduled to teach an upper-level elective class (one of our "Special Topics in Physics" classes) next Spring term, which should be fun-- next year's seniors are a fun bunch, and the juniors are pretty cool, too.

Of course, I've never taught this particular class before. Actually, nobody here has. So I get to make it all up, including the catalog copy:

Quantum Optics: The study of the interaction of light and matter in systems where the wave nature of matter and the particle nature of light must be taken into account. Topics to be covered may include single-photon interference; correlated photons and the EPR paradox; quantum computing, quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation; atom optics and atom interferometry; laser cooling and Bose-Einstein Condensation; and the implications of quantum mechanics for nanomaterials and nanodevices.

That's a draft, and I don't really expect to get through all of that (I'm not even sure what the last item means...)-- I'm just listing cool stuff that I might like to talk about.

Now I just need to refine the topic list, find something that can serve as a textbook (suggestions are welcome), develop a syllabus, get a better handle on the math background of those likely to take the class....

At least I've got the better part of a year to figure this all out.

Posted at 7:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Links Dump

It's a beautiful sunny day here in the Capital District, with temperatures expected to get near 70, and I'm faced with spending the afternoon in my (windowless, basement) lab. So I'm doing what any responsible scientist would in this situation, and procrastinating madly. Here are a bunch of things that have caught my eye recently, but haven't made it into blog posts:

And that's enough for this week.

Posted at 9:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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