Friday, March 9, 2007

The 2007 APS March Meeting is in the Can

Be sure to come back to this site to read our impressions of the 2007 April APS Meeting coming up in a few short weeks in Jacksonville, Florida.
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I Think the Giant Bear is Gonna Miss Us

I never got around to checking out just why this huge blue bear is peaking into the Colorado Convention Center, but he seems to be having trouble reading the APS March Meeting sign hanging just in front of him.

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Tipping Point

Physicists as a rule are model citizens. Local cops have told me in my very unscientific sampling that when the APS meetings get into town crime declines, the streets quiet down, and there's less trash on the sidewalks. Drug dealers and most other petty criminals generally take the week off or move to more lucrative neighborhoods (except for the pick pockets who find us to be easy marks), the security forces here say.

But the APS isn't good for some of the locals in Denver. Cabbies, restaurant wait staff, and even buskers complain that physicists are bad for business.

"You folks know all kinds of stuff about science, but you don't know nuthin' about tipping," said a clerk at one of the coffee bars in the Denver Convention Center. "Yesterday, we split a total of six dollars in tips between the two of us after a whole day."

She went on to say much worse things about us, which encouraged a physicist standing next to me to pitch a quarter into the tip jar (more out of fear at the vitriol I had managed to unleash in the clerk, I would guess, than out of generosity).

The cab drivers are just as upset. Some of them express their feelings with strings of obscenities that verge on a kind of performance art when I ask them about tipping.

So who tips well?

"Sports fans tip the best," says one coat check girl in the Convention Center referring to groups that come to town for major sports tournaments. "I'd say three quarters of them or more tip, but only about a third of the physicists tip."

My cabbie yesterday told me that the folks in town for a recent electronics convention tipped well, when he could manage to pick one up. A lot of them had private cars or high-priced limos, he said, so he didn't have lots of fares. Most of the people in town for other conventions tipped fine during the day, and got a good deal more generous after dark, when they'd had a few drinks or were returning from dinner or a show.

The fact that more of us tend to stay in for the evenings, and drink with more restraint than other visitors, may be a large part of the problem from the point of view of folks who rely on tips to get by. Because of generally high mathematical aptitudes, sober physicists are less likely to miscalculate and over-tip in the rush to exit a cab or cafe.

But accurate tip calculation isn't the biggest problem, according to one older gentleman working at the Convention Center coat check. Most physicists, he says, simply don't tip at all. "It's a very diverse crowd," he said with a nonchalant shrug, "it might not be their custom, back home. I just do the best job I can, and if I get a tip, that's great. If not, I'll be all right."

Update: Just to show you how inexact a science tipping research can be, Geoff Brumfiel of Nature magazine got entirely different feedback on tipping when he was out at a bar last night.

In case you're confused about tipping, here's a guide to typical tip rates and practices around the world.
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An Impassioned Plea for Nuclear Reason

In this photo, the sage physicist Sid Drell concludes his look at the reasons (or more precisely the lack of reasons) behind the size of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.

In a talk that was more emotionally engaging than most at the March meeting, Sid pondered whether we really need thousands of nuclear warheads in the post cold war world. Perhaps only a few hundred would be enough to dissuade anyone with the capacity to threaten us militarily to think twice before making a move.

Officially, the US and Russia are seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles completely. Just when that might happen isn't clear, but it won't be soon. The next milestone for both countries is to get total numbers of weapons down to about 2000 or so.

In the meantime, the US is on the verge of completing plans for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). Although it sounds scary, Sid and the other speakers in Session H7: Nuclear Weapon Missions in the 21st Century made the RRW seem pretty reasonable. As I understand it, the RRW is intended to be a more robust replacement for aging warheads, and will be built with an eye toward cleaner production, as well as safer and more stable weapons systems. In addition, the cold war era demand for the largest possible explosive yield in every bomb is being dropped, according to speaker General Kehler of Strategic Command. Many of our older nuclear warheads were fine tuned for maximum yield, which makes them delicate, expensive, and high maintenance devices.

The whole idea of the RRW seemed pretty reasonable, even to a left leaning peacenik like me. But I'm glad we have folks like Sid around who encourage us, and more importantly our politicians and military brass, to stop and think about what we're really trying to accomplish with something as potentially devastating to life on Earth as nuclear firepower.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Small Welcome for the APS

It's not a lot, but we appreciate the thought. . . someone in Denver arranged for these little welcome signs to the APS hung on lamp posts around town. You might have to click the picture to see the larger version in order to find the sign.
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Football Physics on Denver TV

Physics football expert Tim Gay (far right) explains some of the finer points of classical dynamics to Denver's Channel 4 sports anchor (and former Broncos running back Reggie Rivers, far left).

Reggie has a deep appreciation for Newton's second law (F=ma) from years of ramming himself against Bronco's opponents.

Reggie's interview of Tim should air this coming weekend in Colorado.

Tomorrow morning, Tim will be a guest on Denver's channel 9 morning news program bright and early at 6:20AM in an interview with sports anchor Susie Wargin.

And tomorrow night, Tim will be giving a lecture that is free and open to the public.

So if you can make it to the Adam's Mark hotel in Denver at 7PM Thursday, come on out!
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Quantum 411

This is guest post from Ben, one of our good friends at the American Institute of Physics.

This year's meeting features a lot of new developments in quantum information and quantum computing. Ten years ago, quantum computing was mainly discussed at the DAMOP (Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics) meetings. But now, condensed-matter researchers are getting into the game, making progress with quantum-computer designs based on superconductors and semiconductors, for example. In a Reese's peanut-butter-cup kind of development ("you put chocolate in my peanut butter!" "you put peanut butter in my chocolate!"), DAMOP physicists are coming to the March Meeting now, too. Helping to bridge these two communities further is a recently created APS unit devoted to quantum information (called GQI).

This morning's APS news conference on quantum information featured a "Murderer's Row" of some of the top researchers in the field. Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois gave a nice introduction to the topic to science reporters from newspapers and magazines. He explained superposition by taking out a coin. "Tails" would represent 0, and "heads" would represent "1". To illustrate the superposition of the two states, he spun the coin, which he said was analogous to the coin being heads and tails at the same time. He liked the analogy because the coin eventually settles into heads or tails, just as a quantum superposition always collapses into a single state. Along this same theme, Kwiat discussed a new random-number generator that uses photons, or specifically the random timing intervals between photons hitting a detector, to generate random numbers.

Next up was David Wineland of NIST. His group traps ions with electric fields, then manipulates them with lasers. These ions can act as bits in a future quantum computer. Ion traps are the currently the most advanced quantum computation technology, but as Wineland modestly told me, it's like being two feet ahead at the start of the marathon. Ion traps were once big and clunky. Wineland showed miniature computer-chip like designs, from his lab and others around the world, that can potentially manipulate many ions for a more scaled-up and advanced quantum computing approach.

Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Heidelberg in Germany and Hefei National Laboratory in China unveiled a six-photon quantum computer. Pan is also a master of quantum teleportation (he's giving an invited talk on the topic on Thursday morning). After the news conference, he expressed the hope that quantum teleportation of ions, rather than just photons, would someday be possible over long distances. Star Trek is coming closer to reality all the time.

Batting cleanup was Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna in Austria. In a recent dramatic display, he and his collaborators transmitted a quantum-encrypted message between two Canary Islands at a distance of 144 km (about 90 miles). He showed future plans to transmit quantum keys via the International Space Station to ground-based receivers spaced thousands of kilometers apart. Quantum cryptographic systems, he pointed out, are already commercially available. He actually convinced a banker he knows that quantum cryptography was the best way to transmit sensitive information. But the banker, he says, is being a bit cautious. He's going to let one of his competitors adopt the technology first, and see if his customers will demand the same quantum service.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Bubble Logic and Artificial Viruses

Each day during the APS meeting, we arrange for a few of the meeting attendees to give special press conferences. The topics of the conferences represent just a few of the 7000 or so papers presented through the week.

One of the coolest presentations I was able to catch today was a look at bubble-based devices that perform many of the functions common in microelectronic circuits. Manu Prakash, a graduate student from MIT showed how they have built channels that control the flow of bubbles in a fluid stream. The bubbles interact to create analogs of transistors, electronic flip flops, oscillators, and just about any electronic component you can name. The ultimate goal of the research will someday be bubble-based CPUs and memory.

Bubble logic is much slower than conventional electrical logic, so why would anyone want such a thing? Because the bubbles can carry chemicals, biological samples, and other tiny payloads. A bubble logic device could be programmed to perform complex tasks in lab-on-a-chip systems for testing and analyzing chemicals and biological samples. Instead of building specialized devices, a researcher could buy a bubble CPU and memory, and program them to suit any analysis application (monitoring for toxins, manipulating DNA, etc.)

Bogdan Dragnea of Indiana University is doing equally cool stuff - he's making artificial viruses that lack the dangerous genetic core of living viruses, but look just like the real thing to your immune system. Someday soon, Bogdan and his colleagues may replace the vaccines we currently use, which are made from viruses, with completely artificial versions. The advantage is that there would be none of the risk associated with live-virus vaccines, which can cause occasionally cause the diseases they are intended to prevent.

There were several other fascinating press conferences today, but it's getting late so I'll tell you about those tomorrow.
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Rock On

I just came back from a physics sing-a-long...

If a picture is worth a thousand words then these videos are quite priceless (they are actually much clearer than the front images leads one to believe).

I think this one is especially catchy-

Walter Smith, "the man in charge", is a Professor of Physics at Haverford College and runs the PhysicsSongs website. He led the enthusiastic crowd of physicists through songs about electricity, nano science, magnetic fields, circuits, physical constants, and MANY other physics-y topics throughout the 1.5 hour event.

Smith was accompanied by University of Maryland Physics Professor Victor Yakovenko on drums (who also plays in a Russian-American rock band) and Denver musician Derek VanScoten on guitar.

If you're not at least a little amused yet, I'm afraid I really can't help you.
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Tuesday Snapshots

Intense Chattering

All around the conference center there are groups of people huddled around computers solving problems I didn't even realize existed.

Check yes or no.

Although nearly all of the meeting attendees have cell phones and laptops (and there is free wireless here), they still communicate with one another by posting handwritten notes on the message boards.

Holding our Own

There may be more males here, but us girls know how to represent.

Arm Twisting

"You should write to your congressmen (and women) every day. What should you say? That depends on how much you like 'em..."
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Monday, March 5, 2007

Greatness and Obsession

My first task here at the March APS meeting was to help out with the prize and awards ceremony. Okay, not really help out with the ceremony - more like put programs on chairs. Which, by the way, wasn't really necessary since nearly everyone that walked into the room grabbed a program off the table outside first...

I like to watch prize winners and I'm always interested in who they credit for their success. For some reason the "thank you to my family for putting up with me" comments got me thinking this year. Probably because I read Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie for 2.5 hours on the plane today (a great read).

The story of two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie is about great triumph over adversity, but it's also a story of how loneliness, depression, and isolation (even from her children) was the price she paid for her work obsession.

I don't know any of the APS prize winners personally and have no idea what they have or have not sacrificed to become the leaders and contributors they are today. Let it be known that I have great admiration for them and they should be very proud of their work. But I do have a question for them as well as the many others who excel in their respective fields: Is greatness possible without obsession?


On a lighter note, one of my favorite things about meetings is meeting new people and hanging out outside of the office with co-workers. Tonight I had a dinner with a great crew of old and new friends. Here we are chillin' in Denver. (Thanks to Shawn for the picture - he shoulda been in it too!)

FYI - We're not nerds ALL of the time. Very little physics came up at the dinner conversation - we covered the best place to buy cowboy boots, America's Next Top Model, buffalo "sanctuaries", the APS attendee looking for the "exhibitionist hall", politics, and MANY other topics.
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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

I arrived in Denver this afternoon--a beautiful, warm, and sunny afternoon. After all the weather news that Denver has made this winter, it's a relief to see low 60s in the forecast for the week.

After checking into my hotel, I wandered down to the convention center. Just the pre-meeting events (workshops, tutorials, etc) are happening today. Oh, and a little thing called registration... this is quite an operation. Afterall, there are over 7000 meeting attendees, and each one of those has to be "bagged and tagged". (That's my expression for getting your badge and program). Not to mention the large number of people that don't pre-register. I'm always amazed by the long lines for "On-site Registration"... especially since the registration fees are much higher when you don't sign up ahead of time. For the past seven years of March Meetings, I've seen a professor from my alma mater in the on-site line (now when I see him there, he just hangs his head in shame). If that were me, I'd wait in that loooong, sloooow line once, and then never again forget to pre-register. But to wait in that line at least

I'm sure there will be something more interesting to talk about tomorrow. Right now, I'm feeling a bit addle-brained from the travel and altitude. So, I'll leave you with the lyrics to the Warren Zevon song that inspired the title to the Andy Garcia movie, "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead":

I called up my friend LeRoy on the phone
I said, Buddy, I'm afraid to be alone
I got some weird ideas in my head
About things to do in Denver when you're dead

I was working on a steak the other day
I saw Waddy in the Rattlesnake Cafe
Dressed in black, tossing back a shot of rye
Finding things to do in Denver when you die

You won't need a cab to find a priest
Maybe you should find a place to stay
Some place where they never change the sheets
And you just roll around Denver all day

LeRoy says there's something you should know
Not everybody has a place to go
And home is just a place to hang your head
And dream up things to do in Denver when you're dead

You won't need a cap to find a priest
Maybe you should find a place to stay
Some place where they never change the sheets
And you jut roll around Denver all day
You just roll around Denver all day
(Warren Zevon/LeRoy P. Marineli/Waddy Wachtel)

By the way, that line about staying in a place where they never change the sheets? I really hope that isn't the case here...
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Friday, March 2, 2007

Ya'll Ready for This?

For some reason I can't get that ubiquitous sporting event anthem out of my head. "Ya'll ready for ba. ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. ba. ba...." Beginning this weekend, over 7000 physicists are storming downtown Denver, Colorado. It's the annual ritual know as the APS March Meeting, and it runs all next week. For many physicists, this is The Big Show. It's the place to show off what you've been doing over the past year and to learn what others have been doing. This is also a time of controlled chaos (that's an oxymoron if I ever heard of one) for the APS staff, who strive to make this event run as smoothly as possible. Throughout the course of the meeting, spacekendra, Buzz Skyline, and I will be dishing all the juicy stories.... ranging from the long lines for coffee to the most buzz-worthy physics results to the break-neck speed at which any free food disappears. It is our hope that you will be able to get a feel for the excitement that is the March Meeting. So, once again I ask, "Are ya'll ready for this?" I just hope we are...
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