Archive Page 2


The Value of Empty Space

If memory serves, my family was sitting around after dinner one evening back during the W. Bush years, and the subject of space exploration came up.  The context, I believe, was that the President’s Moon base and manned Mars mission proposal had been publicized not too long beforehand.  One of my aunts wanted to know what we thought of the proposal.  The ensuing discussion boiled down to the two positions that always seem to come up when human exploration of space is discussed by anyone: (1) manned space exploration is cool, is cheap relative to various other budget items, and usually invents a bunch of useful technology along the way, and (2) the manned space program is billions of dollars we could be spending to try and solve all our very real and immediate problems here on the homeworld.  I was backing position #1, but my memory is that I was a bit outnumbered and definitely out-articulated1.

Of course, it became clear the President’s proposal was largely meant to sound dramatic and ambitious rather than actually be dramatic and ambitious.  No wonder, given what else was going on in January 20042.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget did get a mild bump in inflation-adjusted dollars during the Bush presidency (about 15% over the course of eight years), but not near the kind of investment that would be needed for the task3.  President Barack Obama’s re-focus of the projects dropped the Moon base, but kept the manned Mars mission on the distant horizon (2030’s).  I was always a little ambivalent about the Moon base – sort of a we’ve-already-been-there thing – but the extended timeline of our next great manned mission, combined with the not-so-selective austerity measures taken by Congress, has allowed NASA’s budget to slowly shrink both in current and inflation-adjusted dollars.  I argued/am-arguing that this is a bad thing. As for why, and why we shouldn’t just pile NASA’s money into aid programs and the like, here are a couple of reasons.

One, NASA is cheap4.  About one half of one penny of every tax dollar to pay for the entire organization.  This amounts to about $18 billion out of the $3.5 trillion annual federal budget. 12% of the budget goes to “safety net” programs, not including Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.  A weirdly unpopular 1% of our federal budget goes to non-security-related foreign aid.  So by a pretty conservative estimate, NASA gets $1 to every $26 spent on the betterment of our fellow (pre-dominantly American) humans.  If one slices and dices further, the ratio becomes even larger.  Large chunks of Social Security/Medicaid/Medicare are clearly meant to prevent poverty and human suffering.  If it is just the manned space exploration part of NASA’s mission that is the problem, then the ratio goes up again. I’m not discounting the value of spending money on aid programs, far from it, but perhaps there are better places in the federal budget to go looking for funds than NASA5.  As for how much to spend on NASA, 1% is a nice, admittedly arbitrary ballpark figure that Neil deGrasse Tyson recently mentioned to Congress.  A whole lot can get done for that kind of money.

Two, NASA is valuable.  Personally, I think the idea of sending humans flying through the passively hostile emptiness of space to visit (and perhaps stay in the future) other astronomical objects is of intrinsic value. Few things are as difficult a task or as inspiring an achievement.  In more practical terms, NASA projects and research have a tendency to spawn useful technologies.  The best tasting of these: freeze-dried (Space) ice cream6.  These projects also produce a wealth of fundamental science, which can be interpreted as science for science’s sake (enough justification for me) or perhaps a little more optimistically as knowledge about our universe that might change our world 20+ years from now.  Beyond these reasons, I see manned space flight as crucial to our survival as a species.  This is meant both directly (“Well, there’s an asteroid the diameter of Texas headed this way and no Bruce Willis to take care of it.  Guess we should’ve colonized Titan after all.  Oops.”) and indirectly (“Sorry Mr. President, but spending half a trillion dollars on the new F-885 fighter/bomber didn’t poll as well as spending that money on terra-forming Mars.  Fortunately the Chinese and the Russians had the same problem, so we should be ok.”7).

At a more basic level, and this gets back to the intrinsic value part of my point, it would be a terrible shame to ‘see’ all of these other worlds, all the myriad of strange and beautiful things that clever astronomers have enabled us to observe, and never go to any of them.  It’s akin to continually looking at a map, observing all the lovely towns, roads, rivers, mountains, oceans, and shorelines, then folding the map up, popping it back in the glove compartment, and turning the car toward home.


1 “But, but, uh, SPACE! It’s awesome.  And our descendants could be Jean-Luc-Picard-ish.”
2 We may have been fighting a couple of wars, and there may have been an election ‘coming up’ by USA standards.
3 There is an argument to be made that sufficient funding (in aggregate) was in NASA’s budget already, but this supposes a flexibility that NASA might have had but did not want to have.  The simple version is that, yeah sure, we might have been able to do the Moon base and manned Mars mission over a reasonable timeframe, but at the expense of cancelling or delaying pretty much everything else NASA had previously been tasked with doing.
4 Yes of course I mean this in relative terms.
5 For some insight into where the money goes, and thus where it might come from for NASA and and other worthy programs, check out the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
6 Sadly and contrary to popular belief, Tang and Velcro, among other items, were not invented by NASA scientists.  For various actual technologies, check out the NASA Spinoff website.  The 1977 edition has bonus sideburns and moustaches in the photos.
7 I can fantasize, right?


Avoiding Graphing With Calculators

As anyone required to buy a graphing calculator for pre-calculus knows, those calculators’ second-most important function was to allow their owners to play games. I can honestly say that I did almost none of this because I was a good student1 and was too cheap to buy the data transfer cable for the TI-82.  However, I was definitely fascinated by my classmates’ ability to play Pong in the back of class.  Or at lunch.  Or in the hall.

Technology has of course continued its inexorable march since the days of my TI-82 usage (circa 1998)2, and now the proud owners of the TI-83/84 series of graphing calculators can play a version of Portal in the back of class.  For the uninitiated, Portal is a gaming classic that came out in 2007 and was published by Valve after Valve hired the group of students who wrote and coded the original ‘portal’ concept in 2005.  The player controls a protagonist who is “armed” with an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, which is a teleportation device that allows the player to place the entrance and exit points of the teleport.  This can lead to some entertaining physics – stepping through an entrance portal on the floor with the exit on the ceiling above causes the player to fall faster and faster and faster as the player goes through the floor up to the ceiling, falls to the floor again, back up to the ceiling, etc, etc.

Anyway, all this good, clean, thought-provoking fun is available to slacking TI-83 owners everywhere thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of one Alex Marcolina (handle: Builderboy2005) at UC – Santa Cruz.  I figure Builderboy2005 is going places in the future.  In addition to figuring out how to program the game, he managed to shove a 2-D version of Portal into the 24kB3 of user available RAM in the TI-83.  That’s efficient programming.

1 Or at least I was deferential to authority.  Must be all that the fluoride in the drinking water impurifying my precious bodily fluids.
2 What, you think those graphing calculators come in handy after pre-calculus/calculus?  Hahahahahaha.  No.  Or at least you can become a physicist without ever using one.  Of course, you just graduate to more complicated crutches like Mathematica and Matlab.
3 This massive pool of RAM was only recently surpassed by a cutting-edge desktop computing device called the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I.  In 1977.  Though you did need the optional expansion card interface to get the extra 32kB of RAM.  This thing also had the same processor as the TI-83, albeit at about a quarter of the TI-83’s blistering 6 MHz clock speed.  You have to love Texas Instruments’ business model.


Particle Physics and Boobs

So, when I first heard about the story I’m about to discuss, it was in the context of my favorite newspaper, the American Physical Society News.  I think at the time the details of the story were still in dispute and APS News tends to be about the least sensational news outlet I know1, so although I remembered some mild weirdness, it didn’t make me sit up and take notice quite like the article sent to me more recently by a friend.  In summary (though I would recommend reading the full article yourself) a notable theoretical particle physicist, Paul H. Frampton, has been sentenced to about four years in prison for (1) meeting a woman claiming to be Denise Melani on a dating website, (2) over a period of weeks being convinced that this was in fact the actual Denise Milani2 and that she was in love with him despite only communicating via Yahoo Messenger, (3) flying to La Paz, Bolivia to meet her, (4) being told that she had a last minute photo shoot in Brussels, that he could come and join her there, and ‘oh by the way could you bring this empty suitcase that I just happen to have left in La Paz’, and finally (5) being caught in the Buenos Aires airport with a suitcase full of his dirty laundry and two kilos of cocaine sewn into the lining.
Despite Dr. Frampton’s continually professing his complete ignorance of anything illegal or strange about the situation, subsequent court testimony and documents seem to indicate that he had more than an inkling of what at least might be in the suitcase.  Still, this 68 year old professor from Chapel Hill had seemingly convinced himself beyond much doubt that this glamor model was willing to drop everything, marry him, and have children with him.  He’s a bit young for dementia – after all, he was publishing papers in good scientific journals in 2011 with abstracts like

We examine models in which the dark energy density increases with time (so that the equation-of-state parameter w satisfies w < -1), but w approaches -1 asymptotically, such that there is no future singularity. We refine previous calculations to determine the conditions necessary to produce this evolution. Such models can display arbitrarily rapid expansion in the near future, leading to the destruction of all bound structures (a “little rip”). We determine observational constraints on these models and calculate the point at which the disintegration of bound structures occurs. For the same present-day value of w, a big rip with constant w disintegrates bound structures earlier than a little rip.3

He has a reputation for being a bit prickly and terribly arrogant, but these characteristics make him more likely to try and fluster some poor particle physics grad student during a conference talk rather than take on the occupation of drug mule.  The man also, by his own admission, “rarely listens to the opinion of others”, which is probably why he ignored a more worldly physicist friend who told him before he left Bolivia that he was being duped into carrying drugs.  The only thing that suggests to me that he might be a little more street smart and calculating than he appears are the facts that he had little in the way of savings, so needed money, and that the text messages he was sending to ‘Denise’ from Bolivia made specific references to his concern about drugs and drug-sniffing dogs4.
Personally, despite his conviction, I’m inclined to believe most of his side of the story.  The man certainly has a rational and penetrating mind, but one that had been cloistered and focused for decades on questions that have almost nothing to do with the world as most humans understand it.  As with any ability that is rarely or never used, his ability to interact with and read people who weren’t his peers in the academic community had clearly atrophied to the point of being nonexistent5.  As for his motivation, well, it could have been money.  To me though, his apparent complete naivete and not inconsiderable arrogance actually fits well with the story of his ‘finding love’ over the Internet with a glamor model he’d never met.  He thought of himself as a brilliant and famous physicist: a wonderful match for a famous, large-chested glamor model who was half his age.  Right.  One pubescent fantasy that was never outgrown, and so began the tragi-comedy that describes Dr. Frampton’s career change from respected professor to (perhaps unwitting) drug trafficker.  I would say something like, ‘let this be a lesson to you’, but it’s hard to come up a useful takeaway other than, “Well, sometimes people say things that aren’t true. So don’t believe everything you hear.”  Most of us, however, learn this earlier than Dr. Frampton did.  Unfortunate for him.

1 Which simultaneously explains why I enjoy reading it and why almost no one reads it.
2 An internet search will provide plenty of scantily-clad photos of this very pretty and, er, top-heavy glamor model.
3 I’ll see if I can get back to you on the meaning of that.
4 He, unsurprisingly, claims he was merely joking around with his beloved.
5 Kind of a scary thought, really.


Nuclear Fallout

My typical pattern in playing games is focus the vast majority of my ‘efforts’ on a single game at a time.  I am not one to flit from one game to the next unless I’ve picked a series of uninspiring ones, and that hasn’t happened for months, maybe years*.  Recently, my focus has rested on the game Fallout: New Vegas, which by my count is the fourth in the Fallout series (ignoring a few silly spin-offs).  For those who aren’t familiar with these, the setting is a world in which the Chinese and the Americans got into a war which ended with everyone pressing all the available Big Red Buttons. The games are set in post-apocalypse America, with the first two set in the western United States, the third taking you to the D.C. metro area, and the fourth taking you to its namesake and the surrounding hostile wasteland. I’ve played through the latter half of the series, and in both cases (Fallout 3 and New Vegas) found myself hooked.

This should come as no surprise to those that know the games and me. It’s science fiction, it’s action, it’s role-playing, and it’s a bit of dark humor from time to time.  This combination rates well with me.  Still, there are other games that have ticked most or all of those boxes but haven’t made it into my playlist.  I’ll spend the rest of this post trying to articulate what makes Fallout: New Vegas** special.

The thing that most distinguishes New Vegas/Fallout 3 in my mind is the sense of place that you get.  I’m not talking about realism here.  The plotline occurs some 200 years after the bombs fell and there’s still intact buildings with books, empty pop bottles, tin cans, and “pre-war” money stuffed in desk drawers or strewn across the floor***.  I’m talking about being transported to a place, no matter how fantastical the details are.  It’s a world where the mantle of the Scary Communistical Person was smoothly handed from the Soviets of the 20th century to the Red Chinese of the 21st century.  The build-a-bomb-shelter, school-children-duck-and-cover-under-your-desks, watch-out-for-labor-union-zealots kind of thinking from actual 1950’s America has run itself to the worst possible conclusion.  The backyard bomb shelter industry evolved into the Vault industry where a small town’s population of specially selected people were put into bomb-proof structures buried beneath the earth’s surface.  Propaganda posters.  Architecture.  Radio programs.  McCarthy-style “watch out for commie infiltrators” announcements on posters, employee computers, and old audio recordings.  All of it lifted from cold war America of reality and spun out to oblivion and beyond.  The bombs came raining down, and now, here your character and some other (sort of) lucky survivors are, wandering and living through the remnants of something that feels weirdly familiar.

This is helped along by the accuracy with which the game developers reproduce geographical details.  For a single example among many good ones, zoom in to the Las Vegas area on your favorite Internet map.  Follow Interstate 15 south and west until you see Jean Airport.  That, and the town of Goodsprings up Route 161 a few miles west, is in the game, albeit in bombed-out, post-apocalyptic form.  Now this type of detail is nice, though not terribly difficult to do…but they went one extra step: put the Jean Airport into your favorite search engine and you’ll get links to (1) A Wikipedia page, and (2) a page for Vegas Extreme Skydiving.  Both note that the Jean Airport is largely used for skydiving, glider rides, and hobbyist flying.  Wander down the road from Goodsprings in the game, and lo, there is a flat, bombed-out area that might have been an airport at some point and a shack that is the former headquarters of “Jean Skydiving”.  Awesome.  Again, not about realism****, but a sense of place and enough detail to give you a shiver if you’re aware of this little connection to pre-apocalypse reality.

There are a lot of other things I like about the game. The story is engaging. The characters, though a bit shallow in many cases, do the job adequately in all cases, and are exceptional in a few cases.  The world, in addition to being detailed, is vast.  …but the example of the Jean Airport encapsulates a big part***** of what I love about the game.  The developers had to know that there are precious few people that would ever notice that detail.  That they took the time to do it tells me (or at least implies to me) that the developers loved making the game as much as I love playing it.  That goes a long way.

So, hey, for those readers who are interested and haven’t played it, it’s not as if the game doesn’t have flaws.  There are balancing issues.  The game gets pretty easy in the late game stages.  If you play it longer than a half hour at a time, your chances of a crash-to-desktop are unusually high.  Still… If you like these RPG-type games, rush out and buy it this game right now******, or more realistically these days, open another browser window and buy a digital copy with a click or two.  Well worth it.

* I’m not really attributing this to any particular skill of mine.  There is just a deep backlog of good games out there for anyone who doesn’t play video games 24/7.  Or maybe I’m just easily entertained.
** Most of the following applies to Fallout 3 as well, but I’m trying to focus here.  We’ll see if I’m successful.
*** In fairness, at least these things are somewhat abandoned/dirty/rusty/cracked/rotted.
**** To illustrate, shortly after this your character will probably be attacked by bandits throwing dynamite and packing 9mm pistols.  Or giant mutated geckos.  Or both.
***** Another part I’m sure has something to do with the psychology of my month-long period of unsettled nervousness during 7th(?) grade after I saw Terminator 2 and did some subsequent reading and viewing about nuclear bombs. Now that I’ve grown up, post-apocalypse is fun!  Huh.  Maybe I was smarter when I was younger.
****** Right now.


The New Year

So, it has certainly been a while since I’ve posted anything.  Best laid plans and all that.  It is, however, a NEW YEAR, and among my many New Year’s resolutions is posting more to this blog.  There will be physics, likely of the electricity and electronics flavor, because that’s the majority of what I’m teaching this semester.  There will be discussion of adult beverages, because giving up alcohol was not one of my New Year’s resolutions.*  There will also be a few review-ish posts about the fine and not-so-fine video games I’ve been playing, starting with a post about Fallout: New Vegas, which has the lowest ratio of gameplay to crashes-to-desktop of any game I’ve played in a long time, and yet is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.  Some odds and a few ends will fill the gaps between all that.
Happy New Year.

* Shocking, I know.


A Bit of Automobile Physics

A couple days ago, I sat down to write a physics problem that would quantitatively illustrate the concept of power to my students.  Those of you with some physics education know that power is work done per time or the rate of consumption/expenditure of energy.  Here’s the setup:  the proud owner of a new Porsche 911 Turbo S* decides to test Porsche’s claim that the car will achieve 60 mph (~27 m/s) in a mere 3.1 seconds.  The approximate mass of the car is 1350 kg.  Determine the average power that will achieve this goal.  The problem can be done in a couple ways, but the simplest is to apply the work-energy theorem, which equates the net work done on the car to its change in kinetic energy.  Kinetic energy is 0.5*mass*velocity^2.  Go through this calculation, and the result is about 160kW or about 210 horsepower.

On the face of it, this is pretty standard introduction to physics stuff.  Nice and simple.  Illustrates how to use the new equation for power they’ve just been shown and relates it to something in the real world.  For me (and hey, maybe my students too once I talked about it**), the interesting bit is when the result is compared to the horsepower rating that Porsche gives to their engine, which is 530hp.  Now, Porsche isn’t lying.  These things can be checked, and often are.  The big difference between the two figures comes from a couple of things:  (1) Our calculation incorporates all the other forces acting on the car during its 0-60mph sprint.  Drag and contact rolling friction are forces which oppose the propulsive force delivered from the engine to the wheels, and what we’re reading out (210 hp) is the propulsion minus those energy sapping effects.  (2) 530 hp is, at least as far as I can tell, brake horsepower, which is the power that the engine delivers directly to the output shaft.  From there, bits and pieces of that power are used up by all sorts of things before it ever gets translated to the wheels.  Power steering, air conditioning, fuel pump, water pump, alternator, frictional losses in the transmission, the differential, etc, etc…all these get a piece.  All these effects combined take us from 530 hp at the engine to 210 hp “on the road” so-to-speak.

But wait, you say, that isn’t so bad!  We’re still about 40% efficient in terms of translating raw engine power to the road even with all those parasitic effects!  Indeed, that is a testament to the engineering prowess of Porsche (or any other major car company).  Of course, the real inefficiencies come from the fact that we’re using a heat engine to produce that 530hp in the first place.  I’ll write a follow-up on that subject whenever I get a little sad about heat engines not being in the curriculum*** for Physics 100 at Cal Maritime.

* If you’ve got a spare $160,000, you too could be the proud (and possibly broke) owner of this car.

** Hope springs eternal.

*** Physicist rage!!!


Enjoying Some Adult Beverages

I have recently been enjoying the powerful brews of the North Coast Brewing Company.  These guys hail from Fort Bragg, CA, and in my opinion make one of the finest line-ups in the microbrew industry.  I’ll limit myself to what I’ve tried:  the Old Stock Ale, the Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, the Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, the Le Merle Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale, the Pranqster Belgian Style Golden Ale, the Red Seal Ale, and the Scrimshaw Pilsner.  There’s a few others, but I haven’t seen them, and the just-a-bit-too-long three hour pilgrimage to the actual brewery means that I haven’t tried their “Barrel-Aged” varieties.  (I think I’ve got my lovely wife sold on going up there sometime though, so stay tuned.)  Anyway, they are all very good.  If I had to pick a least favorite, it would be the Pranqster, partially because of the odd-ball name, but mostly because I don’t think it stands out, particularly when compared to the Le Merle.  Sure, they’re slightly different styles, but at least from my experience, Le Merle captures a lot more of what it’s attempting to emulate, i.e. the Belgians and their oh-so-tasty-but-oh-so-expensive golden ales.  If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be ‘the Brother’.  A bottle of that stuff, and well, the Brother starts talking to me.  So to speak.  It’s in the dark, ‘dubbel’ style, and it is very strong without being too alcohol-y.  Great label art as well.  To my taste, it might benefit from a little more carbonation, but I suppose adjusting that part of the brewing process might get rid of all those delightful flavors that it currently possesses.  Not that I would know.

Along those lines, it has occurred to me, that despite drinking and, most of time, enjoying beer with some regularity, I know only a little about it.  You know, the brewer guy takes some malt and some water, boils it, adds hops at some point, waits some period of time (longer for lagers), and voila, there be beer.  Simple.  Of course, at this level, when I drink a bad beer*, there’s very little in the way of critical thought about why it is bad beyond, “Ugh.  Won’t get that one again.”  I’m going to try and give specific beers and the science behind beer a semi-regular slot on this blog.  I hope readers will find those future installments of interest.  In the meantime, go buy yourself a bottle of Brother Thelonious and let him speak to you as well.

* Pick any “macro” brew that isn’t ice-cold for an example of this.  Or Dogfish Head’s ‘Black and Red’ that they brought to the Portland Brewfest a couple years back.  Blech.