How the neutrino went from ghost particle to vital physics tool – a tale of bombs, espionage and subtle flavours

David Kaiser in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2759 Jul. 20 19.57Every fraction of a second, invisible particles called neutrinos whiz past the vans and Winnebagos on Highway 169 headed toward McKinley Park in northeastern Minnesota, just shy of the Canadian border. Having begun their journey at Fermilab, an imposing physics laboratory outside Chicago, some of those speeding neutrinos smack into 5-ton slabs of steel within an underground mine in the town of Soudan, Minnesota (population: 446), sending sparks of charged particles arcing toward sensitive detectors. Quite unlike the camper vans and RVs, the neutrinos complete their journey – 735 kilometres across the Upper Midwest – in less than a 3,000th of a second.

Neutrinos are fundamental to the construction of the Universe. They are tremendously abundant, outnumbering atoms by about a billion to one. They modulate the reactions that cause massive stars to explode as supernovas. Their properties provide clues about the laws governing particle physics. And yet neutrinos are among the most enigmatic particles, largely due to their reticent nature: they have no electric charge and practically no mass, so they interact only extremely weakly with ordinary matter. Some 65 billion of them stream through every square centimetre of your body – an area the size of a thumbnail – every second, without your ever noticing them.

Through elaborate sleuthing, physicists have identified three distinct types of neutrinos, which differ in their subtle interactions with other particles. Stranger still, the neutrinos can ‘oscillate’ between types, shedding one identity and adopting another as they travel through space. That discovery led to a significant expansion of the standard theory of how particles behave.

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The Problem With Helicopter Colleges

Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2758 Jul. 20 19.46As a coda to yesterday’s article on Harvard University, where a committee is trying to ban undergraduates from joining social clubs, readers may be interested in a dissent offered by Steven Pinker, the influential psychology professor, who declared that the recommendation of his colleagues is “at odds with the ideals of a university.”

If you’re catching up, the Harvard committee argued that “allowing our students pick their own social spaces and friends,” while not without value, is at odds with principles of “inclusiveness and equality,” and should be sacrificed in the name of progress.

Pinker’s response:

This is a terrible recommendation, which is at odds with the ideals of a university.

1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.

2. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.

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Thursday Poem


There was a woman in Ithaca
who cried softly all night
in the next room and helpless
I fell in love with her under the blanket
of snow that settled on all the roofs
of the town, filling up
every dark depression.

Next morning
in the motel coffee shop
I studied all the made-up faces
of women. Was it the middle-aged blonde
who kidded the waitress
or the young brunette lifting
her cup like a toast?

Love, whoever you are,
your courage was my companion
for many cold towns
after the betrayal of Ithaca,
and when I order coffee
in a strange place, still
I say, lifting, this is for you.

by Leonard Nathan
from Carrying On: New and Selected Poems
University of Pittsburgh Press

The strange topology that is reshaping physics

Davide Castelvecchi in Nature:

Gyroid ONLINECharles Kane never thought he would be cavorting with topologists. “I don't think like a mathematician,” admits Kane, a theoretical physicist who has tended to focus on tangible problems about solid materials. He is not alone. Physicists have typically paid little attention to topology — the mathematical study of shapes and their arrangement in space. But now Kane and other physicists are flocking to the field. In the past decade, they have found that topology provides unique insight into the physics of materials, such as how some insulators can sneakily conduct electricity along a single-atom layer on their surfaces. Some of these topological effects were uncovered in the 1980s, but only in the past few years have researchers begun to realize that they could be much more prevalent and bizarre than anyone expected. Topological materials have been “sitting in plain sight, and people didn't think to look for them”, says Kane, who is at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Now, topological physics is truly exploding: it seems increasingly rare to see a paper on solid-state physics that doesn’t have the word topology in the title. And experimentalists are about to get even busier. A study on page 298 of this week’s Nature unveils an atlas of materials that might host topological effects1, giving physicists many more places to go looking for bizarre states of matter such as Weyl fermions or quantum-spin liquids.

Scientists hope that topological materials could eventually find applications in faster, more efficient computer chips, or even in fanciful quantum computers. And the materials are already being used as virtual laboratories to test predictions about exotic and undiscovered elementary particles and the laws of physics. Many researchers say that the real reward of topological physics will be a deeper understanding of the nature of matter itself. “Emergent phenomena in topological physics are probably all around us — even in a piece of rock,” says Zahid Hasan, a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey. Some of the most fundamental properties of subatomic particles are, at their heart, topological. Take the spin of the electron, for example, which can point up or down. Flip an electron from up to down, and then up again, and you might think that this 360° rotation would return the particle to its original state. But that’s not the case.

More here.

An errant boyhood in the Texas borderlands

44ea8054159099b6b90b5528233befe0_XLRoger D. Hodge at The Oxford American:

When I was eighteen years old, I packed up my car and left Texas forever. Maybe not forever, but I’m still gone. I spend as much time there as I can, and its landscapes inhabit my imagination, but since that bright, sunny day in 1985 when I drove off to college in Tennessee, unconsciously reversing my family’s long-ago westward migration, I haven’t lived in my home state for more than a few months at a time. The Texas that I keep in mind is largely defined by the Rio Grande and from my hometown perspective stretches westward from Del Rio—which sits at a crossroads of Texas geography, on the northern shoulder of that intermittent stream that we insist on calling a big river, where the rolling grasslands of the Edwards Plateau give way to the great Chihuahuan Desert—through Comstock and beyond the Trans-Pecos creosote flats and the steep draws along the canyons of the Rio Grande and the wide volcanic vistas of the Big Bend to the barren, sandy wastelands of El Paso. But also and especially it includes the rugged canyons of the western Hill Country that drain into the Devils River as it winds its way toward the Rio Grande. Beyond the immediate range of my boyhood domain, that long riverine landscape drops below the Balcones Escarpment to encompass the flat savannas and harsh Tamaulipan thorn brush of South Texas and the fertile lowland vegas of the lower Rio Grande valley. Beyond the Hill Country to our northwest, the Llano Estacado rises up and opens the infinite expanses of the high plains, whence the Comanches came down their raiding trails toward the rivers, where they preyed on their ancient enemies the Apaches as well as the precarious settlements and ranches of Texas and northern Mexico.

Above all, I think of Juno, now just a name on a map, a spot on a perilous winding road, no longer a town. The post office and the school, the hotels and the saloons and the old country store are all long vanished, the stones and the lovely old hardwood washed away by floods, carried off by interior decorators and “reclaimed,” or gone to dust.

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Tom Stoppard’s heartfelt high jinks

GettyImages-142766655_webAndrew Dickson at Prospect Magazine:

It is sometimes said of Stoppard’s work that it is all head and no heart; that his fascination with verbal high jinks and conceptual fireworks doesn’t mine the deepest truths about human existence. Yet few writers have engaged so passionately with the big issues of our time—faith, politics, revolution—or pushed the boundaries of theatre so far. And in a period of nervy global uncertainty, perhaps a few high jinks are what we need.

Later in that BBC interview, Stoppard recovered his old wit. Maybe his response to the surreal absurdities of the current moment might be a farce, he added—“several vicars dropping their trousers in walk-in wardrobes.” Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past him.

Stoppard’s life story is as unlikely as anything he has put on stage. Born Tomás Straüssler in July 1937 in Zlín in what was then Czechoslovakia, his father was a company doctor for a firm that made shoes. Forced to flee two years later by the Nazi invasion, the family ended up in Singapore, before fleeing again, this time from the Japanese. Tomás’s father remained behind, and was killed; on reaching India, his mother remarried a major in the British Army, Kenneth Stoppard, who gave her two boys his surname and brought the family to England in 1946. Thomas—as he now was—had only learned to speak English a short while before.

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meditations on the midwest

27848-Greenfield-VillageMeghan O'Gieblyn at The Point:

Greenfield Village describes itself as a “living history” museum. Unlike most museums, where artifacts are displayed in vitrines, the park is emphatically “hands on.” Not only can you visit a nineteenth-century print shop where a man dressed in overalls operates a proof press with real ink, you can also attend one of the interactive workshops and make antique broadsides with your own two hands. On that summer morning, the Village was alive with the bustle of people making things. There were men tinkering in workshops, bent over bootjacks. There were women in calico dresses peddling flax wheels and kneading actual bread dough to be baked in functional coal ovens.

The park, completed in 1929, was the vanity project of Henry Ford, a man who years earlier had declared that “history is more or less bunk.” Later, he would clarify: written history was bunk, because it focused on politicians and military heroes rather than the common men who built America. Greenfield Village was his correction to the historical narrative. It was a place designed to celebrate the inventor, the farmer and the agrarian landscape that had given rise to self-made men like him. Ford had a number of historically significant buildings relocated to the park, including the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, both of which still stand on its grounds. But the park was never really about history—not, at least, in any objective sense.

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Peter Singer Interview

From What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?:

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne…

Where did you grow up?

In Melbourne, Australia, in a typical Australian suburban home, single-story, with what Americans call a yard, but Australians call a garden, and for my father, it was definitely that – he spent a lot of time planting a garden with trees, flowering shrubs and annuals.

What did your parents do?

My father had a small business, importing coffee and nuts. My mother was a doctor, a general practitioner.

Was your family, were you, religious?


Did you ever seriously consider it?

Not really. There were periods when I was open to the idea that there might be a god, but I never got further into religion than that.

In general, how did your family, or where you grew up, shape your worldview, you think?

My parents were of Austrian-Jewish origin. When the Nazis took over Austria, they soon realized they had no future there, and as a result of a chance meeting with an Australian who had come to Austria to ski, were able to get visas to go to Australia. Their parents stayed, and only one of them survived. Obviously, that family history had an impact on me. It led to strong support for racial equality, the rule of law, democratic government, a cosmopolitan outlook, and an abhorrence of violence and cruelty.

Crazy. Did you encounter discrimination in Australia?

Australia was still largely an Anglo-Celtic community. I came from a different background. I also looked different – I had darker hair and skin than most other kids. Most of my parents’ friends were also Jewish refugees from Central Europe, so the culture around my home, and the food we ate, was different from that of my schoolfriends. At a local swimming pool, I remember a group of boys picking on me and telling me “go home.”

More here.

Where Did Time Come From, and Why Does It Seem to Flow?

John Steele in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2756 Jul. 19 19.46Paul Davies has a lot on his mind—or perhaps more accurate to say in his mind. A physicist at Arizona State University, he does research on a wide range of topics, from the abstract fields of theoretical physics and cosmology to the more concrete realm of astrobiology, the study of life in places beyond Earth. Nautilus sat down for a chat with Davies, and the discussion naturally drifted to the subject of time, a long-standing research interest of his. Here is a partial transcript of the interview, edited lightly for length and clarity.

Is the flow of time real or an illusion?

The flow of time is an illusion, and I don’t know very many scientists and philosophers who would disagree with that, to be perfectly honest. The reason that it is an illusion is when you stop to think, what does it even mean that time is flowing? When we say something flows like a river, what you mean is an element of the river at one moment is in a different place of an earlier moment. In other words, it moves with respect to time. But time can’t move with respect to time—time is time. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the claim that time does not flow means that there is no time, that time does not exist. That’s nonsense. Time of course exists. We measure it with clocks. Clocks don’t measure the flow of time, they measure intervals of time. Of course there are intervals of time between different events; that’s what clocks measure.

More here.

The Broken Ladder: Keith Payne on How Inequality Affects Our Behavior

Shannon L. Bowen in Signature:

9780525429814Americans believe strongly in personal responsibility. It’s one of the underpinnings of our culture—and of all of Western thought—and rightly so. But Americans also believe deeply in fairness, and it’s increasingly difficult to square either of these American values with the dramatic rise in income inequality that this country has witnessed over the last fifty years.

According to nonpartisan policy and research institute the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the 1970s, income growth for high-earning households has vastly outpaced that of low- and middle-earning households. Over the last ten years, the wealthiest one percent of households’ share of before-tax income “has climbed to levels not seen since the 1920s.” And when it comes to households’ wealth—the value of assets minus debts—the top three percent possess more than half of all wealth in the United States.

Keith Payne tackles inequality and its wide-ranging effects in his timely and illuminating new book, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. In America and all over the world, more inequality correlates to more health and social problems. It influences how we think about social justice, how we vote, how we save for retirement or don’t, what illnesses are likely to afflict us, and how long we can expect to live. But inequality is about more than just the amount of money in a person’s bank account. “Inequality is not the same as poverty,” Payne writes. “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

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Petrified Forest: Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:

DesperateSpeaking to citizens of what in 1933 was still a democratic republic, Roosevelt sought to strengthen the national resolve in the depth of the Great Depression, “preeminently the time,” he said in his first inaugural address, to tell “the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” no need to “shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” His fellow countrymen took him at his word, and the national resolve proved strong enough to emerge from the Depression, in 1941–45 to win the war against Germany and Japan, in the years since to bring forth the wealthiest society and the most heavily armed nation-state known to the history of mankind. Heroic resolve, but not heroic enough to surmount the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception. The force of mind rooted in the soil of adversity didn’t take hold in the flower beds of prosperity; placed under the protective custody of the atomic bomb and sicklied o’er with the pale cast of money, the native hues of resolution lost the name of action.

Fear itself these days is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of a tweet. Popularly priced at conveniently located checkpoints on drugstore and supermarket shelves, at airports and tanning salons. Diligently promoted by the news and fake news bringing minute-to-minute reports of America the Good and the Great threatened on all fronts by approaching apocalypse—rising seas and barbarian hordes, maniac loose in the White House, nuclear war on or just below the horizon. Our leading politicians and think-tank operatives shrink from both truth and falsehood, regard mental paralysis as the premium state of securitized being. Our schools and colleges provide safe spaces swept clean of alarming, unjustified speech, credit a rarefied awareness of nameless, unreasoning terror as evidence of superior sensibility and soul.

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This Man’s Immune System Got a Cancer-killing Update

Jim Kozubek in Nautilus:

Cancer-a-238William Ludwig was a 64-year-old retired corrections officer living in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in 2010, when he received a near-hopeless cancer prognosis. The Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania had run out of chemotherapeutic options, and Ludwig was disqualified from most clinical trials since he had three cancers at once—leukemia, lymphoma, and squamous cell skin cancer. In a later interview, the scientist Carl June described Ludwig’s condition as “Almost dead.” Alison Loren, an oncologist at Penn, had been taking care of Ludwig for five painful years. If chemotherapy is not effective early on, each new round brings diminishing returns, and it becomes more and more toxic, she told me. In Ludwig’s case, its toxic side-effects were outdoing any progress scaling back the battalions of cancer cells. The chemo was suppressing Ludwig’s immune system, since it was his immune system’s B cells, precisely the cells being targeted by the chemo treatments, that were cancerous, expanding uncontrollably in his bone marrow. An infection from an old chicken pox virus broke out in his right eye. And the cancer now appeared to be mobile, or what doctors call “motile,” riddling far-flung sites in his body. Ludwig’s skin cancer looked to Loren as if it had spread, or metastasized, from his bones.It was about that time when Loren approached Ludwig about a new arrow that doctors at Penn had in their quiver. It was an indigenous strategy, and a radical and dangerous one. “William is the most lovely, humble human being,” Loren said. “I don’t think he realized how groundbreaking this would be at the time. He was almost casual about it. He looked at me, and shrugged, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’”

In short, the Penn scientists wanted to use engineering tricks to replicate the precision targeting ability of antibodies—Y-shaped proteins that come in billions of varieties—to target a marker on Ludwig’s cancer. Antibodies normally bind to molecular markers called antigens, tagging them to be disposed of by scavenger cells. B-cells and other antigen presenting cells can also lock onto the antigen. Then other immune system cells, such as helper T-cells notice the resulting structure, lock onto it, and unleash a powerful wrath of signaling molecules called cytokines to stir up the immune response. Killer T-cells also carry out lethal attacks on microbes carrying unauthorized antigen badges. T-cells carry a powerful thwack on their own, but they’re less effective without the precision targeting of the antibodies.

More here.


48f4496a-4968-43e0-96f4-284f2dc2ee01Fredric Jameson at Public Books:

Neuromancer is now more than 30 years old, a considerable time to remain a classic. Its publication in the Orwellian year will seem ironic and laden with symbolism only for those who think Orwell has remained a classic, or that he had anything to do with science fiction or reflected any serious political thought. But at least in one respect the juxtaposition is useful in showing how dystopia can swing around into the utopian without missing a beat, the way depression can without warning become euphoria. Indeed, I’ve suggested elsewhere that much of what is called cyberpunk (which begins with Neuromancer) is utopian and driven by the “irrational exuberance” of the ’90s and a kind of romance of feudal commerce; but I had Bruce Sterling in mind rather than the more sober Gibson, whose postmodern overpopulation (“the sprawl”) comes before us rather neutrally, even though its tone is radically different from the older Malthusian warnings of Harrison and Brunner. But Neuromancer and the novels that followed it were certainly not utopian in the spirit of the blueprints of More and Bellamy, or Fourier and Callenbach. Indeed, I would argue that the Utopian and still energizing work of the latter, Ecotopia(1968), was for the moment the last of its kind. And that, for a fundamental reason that takes us to the heart of our present topic, namely, that since Callenbach, the utopian form has been unable to take onboard the computer, cybernetics or information technology. Ecotopia was conceived before the Internet, and whatever utopian fantasies the latter has inspired—and they are many, and often delirious, involving mass communications, democracy, and the like—those fantasies have not been able to take on the constitutive form of the traditional Utopian blueprint. Meanwhile, more recent Utopian work, such as Barbara Goodwin’s remarkable Justice by Lottery (1992) or Kim Stanley Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy (1993–1996), however suggestive and influential in their Utopian features, have not seemed to incorporate cyberspace as a radically new dimension of postmodern social life.

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Humboldt’s New World Landscape

Flower-e1493743493351Dean Flower at Hudson Review:

Frederic Edwin Church, born in Hartford, Connecticut, is now generally regarded as America’s greatest landscape painter—either of his own time, 1826–1900, or any other—but he is not usually recognized as an innovator. He was the only pupil Thomas Cole was ever persuaded to accept and is usually understood as carrying forward if not epitomizing Cole’s vision, the one we like to identify with the Hudson River school. But it turns out, when you read far enough into Andrea Wulf’s new biography of the German explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt, that Cole was not Church’s master, either aesthetically or spiritually.[1] Nor did Church espouse the usual Hudson River school teachings, like the Emersonian theme of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, for example. Church’s real master was Humboldt, and he found his calling spelt out for him in Humboldt’s Cosmos, Volume 2 (1850):

He who, with a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature manifested in mountains, rivers, and forest glades, has himself traveled over the torrid zone [as Humboldt did in South America, 1799–1804], and seen the luxuriance and diversity of vegetation, not only on the cultivated sea-coasts, but on the declivities of the snow-crowned Andes . . . or in the primitive forests, amid the net-work of rivers lying between the Orinoco and the Amazon, can alone feel what an inexhaustible treasure remains still unopened by the landscape painter . . . ; and how all the spirited and admirable efforts already made in this portion of art fall far short of the magnitude of those riches of nature of which it may yet become possessed.

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