a non-linear space for students of chaos and fractals....


Do E-fields Cause or Hinder Cancer?

Field near a TNT molecule. Click to enlarge
With the ongoing debate about potential health hazards of living near radio/TV towers, or the dangers of extensive cell-phone use, it is reassuring to see the latest news on the efficacy of electric fields in slowing down some cancers.  (Of course a skeptic might claim that the news is a spin job by cell operators to get activists from fighting the placement of towers and cell sites near population centers.)

Nevertheless, the study is intriguing because it describes a set of potential reasons why the E-fields might be the causal agent for the stunted cancer growth.

In vitro, the electric fields were seen to have two effects on the tumor cells.

First, they slowed down cell division. Cells that ordinarily took less than an hour to divide were still not completely divided after three hours of exposure to an electrical field of 200 kHz...

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Tessellatin' Rhythm and Fractal City Maps

Portland - The Fractal (Click to enlarge)
One of the craziest art efforts out there is the geospatial art of Nikolas Schiller. Schiller takes satellite photos of cityscapes and melds them into quilts, morphs them onto spherical surfaces, and, basically anything else he can think of. The net result is a set of amazing images of familiar cities looking as if viewed through kaleidoscopes. Many of the images remind me of Escher, only with buildings and landscape features serving as the interlocking escher-figures, receding to infinity at the edges.

Maybe more insane is Schiller's pace: a new map every few days for several years now, all posted on his Daily Render blog, subtitled A Digital Scrapbook for Past, Present, and Future.

Schiller also works with old maps, e.g. combining 16th century maps with current images.

The fractal connection is an obvious one, and Schilling has a special section devoted to images that are more fractal-like. (See the Dupont Circle tessellation, e.g.)

Schiller's motivation is artistic and political. As described in a Washington Post article by D. Montgomery,

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Who Judges Science?

courtroom_1_sm.gifAs more technologically complex issues that are based on current scientific research end up in the courts, it has become increasingly apparent that judges now need to have an almost-impossible mix of scientific acumen in addition to juridical expertise.

In When Questions of Science Come to a Courtroom, Truth has Many Faces, NYT writer Cornelia Dean presents a detailed look at the changing face of scientific cases over the past century. Including a history of morphing rules for the legal includability of scientific evidence and outside experts, the article is a stark warning about the dangers of scientific cases being judged by those least able to judge the science. (This is not an argument for knowing science content, but rather the process of science, from data to theory and acceptance.) In some cases, bad science rules the day in court because some judges don't know enough about the scientific process to direct juries appropriately.

As Dean quotes at the end of her piece:

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The Right of First Recusal

fractal_tree.jpgSome odd serendipity at work (isn't serendipity always just a bit odd?). While cleaning out an incredibly messy office that I can't stand being wink-wink-nudge-nudge described as chaotic, I came across an article written by Lance Morrow for Time magazine in 1990. Titled Let Us Recuse Ourselves Awhile, it is a paean to removing ourselves from all of the random facts, emotional baggage, and general neuronal detritus that clutter our brain, in effect stunting our ability to be curious and creative.

The closing paragraphs may be one of the first metaphorical appearances of fractals to appear in mainstream print:

History proceeds in gossip and fractals. Fractals are the mysterious and apparently irrational forms proposed by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who says that reality has shapes undreamed of by Euclid and surprises that ridicule the idea of order. The shape of a mountain is not a cone. Clouds, coastlines, tree branches, commodity prices, word frequencies, turbulence in fluids, stars in the sky, reputations, fame, the passage of history itself (think about the past ten months) -- all these are fractal shapes.

The mind is the grandest, most mysterious fractal. It takes its shape from what it holds, and therefore, Zen-like, sometimes grows more graceful because of what it has kept out.

While reducing my own physical clutter I find justification to reduce my mental clutter, which frees my fractal-like brain to post about reducing clutter, allowing me to throw away the Morrow article which sat in a drawer for 17 years, uncluttering my fractal-like brain enough to undertake a more massive drawer cleanup, a drawer which containing endless layers of yellowed articles torn from old magazines, fractal-like. Serendipity, indeed.

And what type of cranial clutter did Morrow wish to recuse himself from?

The answer is frighteningly obvious, because we all suffer from the same flotsam callosum: any and all news of Donald Trump.


Intelligent String Theory Design - Patently Falsifiable

String Theory by Marlene Healey
Prediction plays a crucial role in the continuing debate of whether string theory and intelligent design are linked by a common lack of falsifiability. Here's how this argument goes:

1) ID does not make predictions that are testable, and therefore not falsifiable, failing Popper's main criteria for categorization of a theory as scientific.

2) String Theory has not produced a prediction that is testable because it requires that there exist objects that are simply not observable - e.g extra dimensions. Therefore it is also not a scientific theory, making it analagous to ID (in a falsifiability sense).

It follow then that if you dismiss ID, you have to dismiss string theory. (See, e.g. W. Dembski's Uncommon Dissent blog)

But do you? An interesting argument against this conclusion is provided by Amanda Gefter's editorial in the Philly Inquirer titled A Scientific Leap Without the Faith. Gefter points out the distinct difference between string theory and ID as one of explanatory power combined with the internal elegance of the mathematics. In fact, it is the presence of mathematics that provides the oomph that catapults string theory over ID:

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Hurricane Prediction, Pt. 2 - Path and Intensity

Projections for Hurricane Dean (NOAA)
This post continues the discussion of hurricane prediction begun in my recent post.  There I described efforts at predicting hurricanes before they actually start, and the use of correlates such as el niño and sand in the Sahara.

What about predictions once the hurricanes are on the scene? The recent news surrounding the potential path of Hurricane Dean, and the predicted intensity, are different types of models.

There's an informative article today by Matt McGrath for BBC News that discusses the issues surrounding these predictions. (See The Science of Hurricane Prediction ) Of interest is the fact that it easier to predict the ultimate path of faster-moving hurricanes. In effect, when hurricanes "hang around" too long, their motion can be affected by many other factors - throwing off the model predictions. 

The BBC News site has a number of clever animations, including an animated guide to how hurricanes form. This is a nice applet - one of a set of applets for many natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and volcanoes.


The Green Lantern and Quantum Poetry

GreenLantern.jpgA recent book of poetry by A. Van Jordan titled Quantum Lyrics has received a lot of favorable press. From the publisher's (AP Norton) site:

This provocative, ambitious collection explores the intersection of the infinite world of physics with the perplexities of the human condition.

For more on Van Jordan, including how he came to include physics in his latest works, see his interview in nat creole.magazine.

I am very interested in Jordan's work for a number of reasons:

a. I am a sucker for all things quantum. The idea of poetry with a quantum flavor, or poetry trying to describe quantum theory, seems to be the most natural fit in a world that appears highly unnatural because of quantum theory

b. Einstein is heavily featured. QL contains a set of poems about Albert as he "wrestles with his marital infidelities as he both reinvents physics and becomes a pioneer in race relations" (Read some excerpts here.)

d. How can I not react to the fractal reference by Linda Gregerson in the following review?

"The superheroes of DC Comics meet the Nobel laureates of particle physics: Charlie Chaplin meets Albert Einstein, who gives shelter to Marian Anderson when no hotel in Princeton will have her; the fractal repetitions of branching twig and leaf vein haunt the son of a father who did or did not teach him cruelty to women: all fuel for the sustained nuclear reaction of Quantum Lyrics. A. Van Jordan's is one of the most capacious, deep-structural imaginations in American poetry today. These poems are radioactive."

c. The Green Lantern is mentioned. Along with The Flash, this was my favorite comic growing up. I could recite Hal Jordan's Lantern Oath by the time I was 6:

In Brightest Day, In Darkest Night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power - Green Lantern's light

Which always has been poetry to me...

Check out Perry Crowe's LA Citybeat article on the very upsetting changes to Green Lantern over the years.


Saharan Sand & Hurricane Prediction

sandstorm_gallery.jpgI have written before about modeling earthquakes and hurricanes - two phenomena are often not covered in homeowners insurance because they are Acts of God. There is still a long way to go before these are understood to the satisfaction of a predominance of scientists.

But what about prediction? With hurricane season about to start in earnest in the Atlantic, it has been pretty quiet. How are hurricanes predicted, and how good are these predictions?

El Niño events and hurricanes are highly correlated, and hence the Niño is part of every hurricane forecasters toolkit/ There has been a lot of publicity of late indicating a strong correlation between Saharan sand storms and hurricane activity, suggesting that sand activity would complement El Nino as a predictor.

While no one would dispute the value of another correlate for hurricane activity, I did notice the typical media confusion between understanding what was going on, and what was purely a prediction based on a correlation. I was just about to write one of my typical rants when I came across a blog that already took the media to task back in 2006. Written by Daniel Collins from UW-Madison on his Down To Earth blog, the post title says it all:

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Unplugging Plug and Chug

Yo - Memorize This!
In a disturbing coincidence, the stomach-turning "Plug and Chug" phrase cropped up in 2 situations this week.  In physics class on Wednesday, a student made a comment about "plugging and chugging" to get a solution. I stopped him at that point and did my typical rant against that type of approach to doing physics. (Note - he was NOT advocating it!)

In short, there's nothing more revolting to me as a physics teacher, and a physicist than the thought that somehow physics can be taught, and learned, by memorizing formulas and simply plugging in numbers and calculating.

How then to explain a quote by Erika Gebel in the Aug, 3, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer? In an article titled "Masters of 'spring' theory: Physics Teachers embrace a new method", Gebel is describing exciting new changes to the way that physics is taught in high school. Citing the approach known as modeling physics , which had just been taught to local physics instructors in a faculty-development workshop in the Philadelphia area, Gebel reports that

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Einstein vs. Quantum Orthodoxy, Revisited

Bob and Alice go spinning?
Essential reading for all those reading the current Einstein biographies is a NY Review of Books article titled The Other Einstein by Lee Smolin. Smolin, a theoretical physicist, takes the biographers to task (although he does prefer Neffe's biography, as I have - see my review) for not really answering the most essential questions about Einstein. One such question is whether Einstein's childishness in later years was pre-meditated. Smolin writes:

The question that needs to be answered, although none of the biographers do so, is how this arrogant, charismatic revolutionary turned into the otherworldly sage who was said to be an "emblem...of the mature and reflective human being." The man who was once seen as childish became admired for being childlike. How did this happen? Had Einstein become resigned after facing political and personal tragedies, or was his new character, as Overbye and Neffe both suspect, at least partly an act? "Einstein the lonely genius," as Neffe writes, "was partly a creation of his own making."

Smolin does provide some fascinating stories that lend credence to this suggestion. He also has a very interesting take on Einstein's later years - years though to be "wasted" by many scientists and biographers because of Einstein's failed attempt to find a unified theory, and his stubborn battle against the probabilistic and non-realistic view of quantum mechanics in the Copenhagen Interpretation. According to Smolin, Einstein's "act" worked against the acceptance of his fight against quantum orthodoxy:

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