Iraqi TV Debate: Is the Earth Flat or Round?

You be the judge.  Many thanks to Boing Boing and for this one.

Here’s a snippet:

Statement by a round-earther physicist: When you watch a ship sailing towards the shore, all you see at first is the mast. Then you see the bow, and eventually the entire ship.

Fadhel Al-Said: When you stand on the beach and look into the distance, everything you see is in the visible distance. In the blurred distance, you cannot see a thing. Later on as the ship gets closer to the shore or the harbor, you see the upper part. How do you see it? The eye, as I have said, no doctor has succeeded in understanding how the eye works.

Can you find the flaws in the flat earth “astronomy researcher”?  My favorite part is where he explains that since the moon covered the sun partially in 1999, he has been able to conclude that the moon is 1/2 the size of the sun.  🙂

Just a little fun on a Friday.

Why Everyone In My Family Has Blue Eyes, Except Me

Today, I discovered “The Spitoon“, the blog from 23andMe, the company dedicated to personal genomics.   Really interesting material.  I found this article particularly eye-catching:

SNPwatch: One SNP Makes Your Brown Eyes Blue

I’m curious about this, of course, because while I have green eyes, my wife Carolyn & my two sons have blue eyes.  It seems that this isn’t even due to a single gene – it’s literally a single nucleotide pair.  From the article:

Three recently published papers (here, here, and here) report that a single SNP determines whether a person’s eyes will be blue; every blue-eyed person in the world has the same version. The findings also suggest that the blue-eyed version of the SNP can be traced back to a single ancestor that lived about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

It’s been known for a while that eye colors like green and hazel (deviations from the brown color found in the majority of people) can be explained by SNPs in a gene called OCA2. The protein made by this gene is involved in the production of melanin, a pigment found in the cells of the iris. This is the same pigment that gives your hair and skin their color. Darker eyes have more melanin than lighter colored eyes.

But none of the known variations in OCA2 could explain blue eyes. The new research seems to have solved the mystery. A SNP near OCA2, but not in it, determines whether a person will have blue eyes.

The SNP, rs12913832, is actually in a gene called HERC2. Scientists think that instead of affecting HERC2, the SNP controls how much protein will be made from the nearby OCA2 gene. Low levels of OCA2 protein, caused by the G version of the SNP, lead to lower levels of melanin, which in turn leads to blue eyes. 23andMe customers can check their genotype at this SNP in the Genome Explorer or in the Gene Journal (Note: In the Gene Journal you’ll see other SNPs also associated with eye color. The combination of these SNPs with the blue-eyed version of rs12913832 can end up giving a person green eyes instead of blue).

What a great blog.  Sign me up for that feed.

As a side note, Michael Arrington has posted his account info from 23andMe on TechCrunch, so you can live vicariously through him in case you are short $1000.  I have to admit, seeing those results makes me jealous – I’d love that kind of genetic detail on myself & my family members.

The Limits of Quantum Computers by Scott Aaronson

I had a business trip to Boston this past week, which means I got a lot of good reading hours in on the plane ride across the country.  As a result, expect to see some intellectually inspired posts this week.

Tonight, I’m going to start off with an easy one – the most recent issue of Scientific American.  It is a great issue.

Actually, three of the articles were blog worthy.  Tonight, I’m going to highlight the great piece by Scott Aaronson called “The Limits of Quantum Computers“.

Here is a synopsis, from the top of the article:

  • Quantum computers would exploit the strange rules of quantum mechanics to process information in ways that are impossible on a standard computer.
  • They would solve certain specific problems, such as factoring integers, dramatically faster than we know how to solve them with today’s computers, but analysis suggests that for most problems quantum computers would surpass conventional ones only slightly.
  • Exotic alterations to the known laws of physics would allow construction of computers that could solve large classes of hard problems efficiently. But those alterations seem implausible. In the real world, perhaps the impossibility of efficiently solving these problems should be taken as a basic physical principle.

Nah, I don’t think that does it justice.

I’ve been following Quantum Computing off-and-on since the mid-1990s.  I took my first Automata & Complexity course at Stanford (CS 154, from Rajeev Motwani) back in 1995.  One of the truly mind-opening courses in the Computer Science undergrad.  Recognizing that there are mathematical frameworks to not just solve problems, but to describe their complexity is fascinating.

Quantum Computing is fascinating because it takes advantage of the truly strange physics of entanglement, a state in Quantum Mechanics where particles can share a matching, but unknown, fate.  A separate branch of algorithmic mathematics has sprung up around analyzing what types of problems, if any, would be simpler to solve on the basis of a computer that leveraged these “Quantum Bits” or QuBits, for short.  At the same time, molecular scientists have struggled to make progress building very small quantum computers.

To date, there are a small number of algorithms that Quantum Computers have been proven to be able to solve significantly more efficiently than traditional computers.  Interestingly, most of them revolve around factoring, which happens to be the one area that we base most of our security algorithms around.  It turns out that factoring a very large number into two primes is very difficult for normal computers, but very easy for quantum computers.

I don’t think I can summarize an 8-page detailed article here, but let’s just say that in this short article, Aaronson manages to:

  • Give a high level overview of basic complexity theory
  • Give a background on what Quantum Computing is, generally
  • Give a background on what makes Quantum Computing different, algorithmically
  • Give examples of the types of problems that QC will significantly improve
  • Give examples of the types of problems that QC will not significantly improve
  • Give interesting mathematical & physics implications of QC algorithmic theory
  • Intersperse the above with incredibly useful diagrams and drawings

Here is my favorite chart in the article – a simple one that maps the changes that quantum computing introduce in the world of algorithmic complexity:

And that’s just one of the sidebars!  🙂  It’s interesting to note that, after scanning this, I discover from Scott’s blog that he had to fight to get that diagram included!

The complexity class inclusion diagram on page 67 was a key concession I did win. (Apparently some editors felt a Venn diagram with P, NP, BQP, and PSPACE would be way too complicated, even for readers who regularly gobble down heaping helpings of M-theory.) As you can imagine, exposing people to this stuff seemed pretty important to me: this is apparently the first time P, NP, and NP-completeness have been explained at any length in Scientific American since articles by Knuth and by Lewis and Papadimitriou in the 1970’s.

Much appreciated, Scott.

Scott Aaronson has his own blog:

and he also runs an online encyclopedia for complexity classes:

And to think, I was just at MIT and missed the chance to meet him. 🙂

The article is not yet fully online, but if you have a chance, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the issue.  Scott has posted an early draft of his article, in PDF, here.  Or better yet, subscribe.  It really is the one scientific magazine to subscribe to if you want to keep up-to-date on a broad range of scientific discovery.

Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) Suspends Tours

Just caught this late breaking news tonight… makes me really sad.

San Jose Mercury News: SLAC to suspend public tours

In the course of an hour Monday, retired physicist and tour guide Dave Grossman compared the research done at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to major league baseball pitches, the hydrogen bomb, walking ants, a pool table and colliding Snickers bars. “Now I’m going to review the history of physics in three minutes,” Grossman said – and did.

Grossman is one of the 18 tour guides, many of whom are graduate students, who lead roughly 40 public and 500 private tours each year of the renowned research facility that takes up 5 percent of Stanford’s land, held the first World Wide Web address in the United States and has scored four Nobel prizes since it opened 41 years ago.

But beginning next month, the center’s popular tour program will be “temporarily suspended” due to both federal budget cuts that have already resulted in layoffs of 200 employees and a shift in the center’s scientific focus, said Lee Lyon, director of human resources.

While reluctant to say how much the center will save by suspending the tours, Lyon did confirm the program costs more than $25,000 and employs one full-time staff member.

“The actual tour is relatively limited,” Lyon said Monday. “It doesn’t cover the core science we’re doing here.

I remember my first tour of SLAC when I was a local seventh grader, and we toured the facility for our science class.  I still remember the lecture, and how they explained the discovery of Quarks to us.  I was only 10 years old, but I distinctly remember them explaining the 3 “colors” of quarks, and the 6 “flavors”.  I remember them explaining the fractional charges of the quarks – a down at -1/3, and an up at +2/3.  One up, two downs, and you get zero, a neutron.  Two ups, one down, and you get +1, a proton. Each of the three had to be a different color (red, green, blue).

It was another five years until I would take AP Physics, but it was a little taste of the future for me, and I never forgot it.  Over a decade later, I even took my fiancee on the tour, just to share the experience.

Fortunately, it sounds like there is some good news here.  In 2009, they will finally be opening the new research facility:

Much of the 0.5-square-mile facility is under construction to build the roughly $400 million laser, which will among other things, enable researchers to study the interior of white dwarf stars and take 4 quadrillion pictures per second, allowing scientists to do freeze-frame photography of chemical reactions, Grossman and Lyon said.

Due to open in 2009, the new laser facility is not on the center’s tour, nor are many of the other buildings, whose equipment is being used to study everything from gamma ray astronomy to what happened to the anti-matter produced in the Big Bang.

The tours, said Lyon, “don’t need saving. They need reconstitution.”

He said the center hopes to bring the tours back in 2009 and will still conduct quarterly public lectures, as well as the popular tours over Stanford’s graduation weekend which have drawn as many as 600 people on the Saturday before commencement, he said.

So, it sounds like there will still be opportunities to see SLAC.  You might want to take advantage of them while you can.

The Traveler’s Dilemma: Irrational Choices, Altriuism, or Implicit Collusion

One of the things I love about travel is that I tend to get a chance to catch up on back issues of Scientific American.  This trip is no exception.

Over lunch, I read an article in the June 2007 issue called “The Traveler’s Dilemma”, by Kaushik Basu.  In it he explains research on why people give what seem to be irrational responses to the game called, “The Traveler’s Dilemma”.  I’m going to use the forum of this blog post to propose an alternative answer, one not suggested in his article.

First, it will help to define what “The Traveler’s Dilemma” is.  Many people are familiar with “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, made famous by recent interest in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, about John Nash, one of the original theorists behind Game Theory.  The Traveler’s Dilemma is defined well in the article, so I’ll quote it here:

Lucy and Pete, returning from a remote Pacific island, find that the airline has damaged the identical antiques that each had purchased. An airline manager says that he is happy to compensate them but is handicapped by being clueless about the value of these strange objects. Simply asking the travelers for the price is hopeless, he figures, for they will inflate it.

Instead he devises a more complicated scheme. He asks each of them to write down the price of the antique as any dollar integer between 2 and 100 without conferring together. If both write the same number, he will take that to be the true price, and he will pay each of them that amount. But if they write different numbers, he will assume that the lower one is the actual price and that the person writing the higher number is cheating. In that case, he will pay both of them the lower number along with a bonus and a penalty–the person who wrote the lower number will get $2 more as a reward for honesty and the one who wrote the higher number will get $2 less as a punishment. For instance, if Lucy writes 46 and Pete writes 100, Lucy will get $48 and Pete will get $44.

What numbers will Lucy and Pete write? What number would you write?

Before I give away the answer… think about what number you would guess.  For whatever reason, I didn’t recognize this game, and I immediately jumped to the answer 98 for some reason.


Mathematically, there is only one rational guess.  It’s 2.

The article also gives a great explanation of why 2 is the right answer:

To see why 2 is the logical choice, consider a plausible line of thought that Lucy might pursue: her first idea is that she should write the largest possible number, 100, which will earn her $100 if Pete is similarly greedy. (If the antique actually cost her much less than $100, she would now be happily thinking about the foolishness of the airline manager’s scheme.)

Soon, however, it strikes her that if she wrote 99 instead, she would make a little more money, because in that case she would get $101. But surely this insight will also occur to Pete, and if both wrote 99, Lucy would get $99. If Pete wrote 99, then she could do better by writing 98, in which case she would get $100. Yet the same logic would lead Pete to choose 98 as well. In that case, she could deviate to 97 and earn $99. And so on. Continuing with this line of reasoning would take the travelers spiraling down to the smallest permissible number, namely, 2. It may seem highly implausible that Lucy would really go all the way down to 2 in this fashion. That does not matter (and is, in fact, the whole point)–this is where the logic leads us.

The rest of the article dives into detail about different experiments that were executed to try and understand why people reliably do not guess the rational answer.  I won’t repeat it all here, but it was a very impressive set of empirical studies.

The one that impressed me the most was the experiment in 2002 by Tilman Becker, Michael Carter, and Jorg Naeve at the University of Hohenheim in Germany.  They actually played this game, for real money, with 51 members of the Game Theory Society – all of which who were professional game theorists!

But with real money at stake, 45 of the 51 chose a single number to play every round, and of those, only 3 chose the Nash equilibrium value (2).  10 chose 100, and 23 chose numbers between 95 and 99 (phew, I’m not completely off base).

Now, this is where I think I have some value to add.

The rest of the article theorizes that the unexplained choice of strategies of either 100 or the high 90s is based on an evaluation of altruism, an intrinsic human trait that may be hard-wired into our brains.

The author gets close to what I believe the right answer is here, in the last paragraph:

If I were to play this game, I would say to myself: “Forget game-theoretic logic. I will play a large number (perhaps 95), and I know my opponent will play something similar and both of us will ignore the rational argument that the next smaller number would be better than whatever number we choose. What is interesting is that this rejection of formal rationality and logic has a kind of meta-rationality attached to it. If both players follow this meta-rational course, both will do well. The idea of behavior generated by rationally rejecting rational behavior is a hard one to formalize. But in it lies the step that will have to be taken in the future to solve the paradoxes of rationality that plague game theory and are codified in Traveler’s Dilemma.

So close… but let me put my own words around the concept:

Implicit Collusion

What if we, as humans, are hard-wired to “collaborate”.  Collaboration, cooperation… these are nice words.  Collusion is the variant where two parties actually pool efforts to control the outcome of a situation their personal advantage.

My guess is that we are wired, either genetically or socially, to infer collusion opportunities when they present themselves.

The rational choice might be 2, but even without talking to the other person, I might guess that they know, without talking, that if we just both guess 100, we will both win.  Collusion without communication.  The fact that the price for being wrong is just “2 dollars” is a relatively low price to pay versus the gain of “98 dollars” if I’m right about the implicit collusion opportunity.  Even with loss aversion of 3:1, I’m going to guess 100.  The guesses in the high 90s are likely a slight nod to the goal of squeezing out a couple of dollars of upside, but without risking the large $90+ upside of the collusive opportunity.

In fact, I believe that the ratio of loss aversion and evaluation of the probability of silent collusion explains the guessing ranges displayed.

Loss aversion is well known, but I’ve never considered the idea of implicit collusion before.  It seems like a powerful idea to explain human behavior in games where communication between parties is prevented.

Did You Miss the Lunar Eclipse? Gorgeous Photos from Eric.

I was feeling really bad on Tuesday.

A gorgeous lunar eclipse took place that was visible from most of Asia-Pacific, and even stretched to full visibility over California.  But with peak viewing at just past 3:30am, I just couldn’t make it.  One of the liabilities of having two kids under 3 and a full-time gig at a start-up, I guess.  🙂

Fortunately, Eric did stay up, and since he is an incredible photographer, I’m feeling better about it.  Tell me that these aren’t gorgeous shots:

Eric’s full post on how he took them is here.  His web gallery, where you can buy his more famous prints, is here.  Full data from NASA on the eclipse is here.

Scientific Illiteracy at Disney’s California Adventure Theme Park

My apologies for not posting more in the past week – we took the family down to LA (10 hours of minivan fun each way) to go to Disneyland for my father’s 60th birthday. This was the first trip to Disneyland for my 2 1/2 year old son, so needless to say, we were all quite excited.

My dad pointed out this silly mistake at Disney’s California Adventure theme park. In the bear country, they have these oil drums all over the place in a pseudo-frontier environment. Check this one out (courtesy of my Blackberry Pearl):

Really? Knowing that it was someone’s full time job to set up the props for this theme park, and that several million people have likely walked by this, it’s still messed up?

The irony is that I imagine some effort around not just labeling the drum water:

“Hey, let’s get fancy here. What’s that thing they call water sometimes? H2O?”

“Yeah, but they make the 2 little, like this”

“Oh, that looks cool. Awesome. Thanks.”

sigh. I really liked the book Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos, which focuses on the incredible lack of numerical competence for most educated people. Seeing this drum made me feel like whatever the situation is around mathematical ignorance, my guess is that the ignorance around science is even worse.

Just so I can’t be accused of spreading ignorance, a water molecule is represented chemically by its components, 2 Hydrogen atoms, and 1 Oxygen atom. H2O. As always, Wikipedia is here to the rescue. You can find an entire page on it here.

This prop is a silly mistake, of course, and not an indictment of our society. But it bugged me so much that I decided to post it here. Maybe a few thousand page views of embarrassment will get Disney to fix it.

So, Digg this link… maybe we can shame them into fixing it.

Diamond is NOT the Hardest Material (Who Knew?)

News flash. Two years late. Diamond is not the hardest known material. There are at least three known substances that are harder: Rhenium Diboride, Ultrahard Fullerite and Aggregated Diamond Nanorods.

I’m a little worried. I think this is what happens when you grow older. Technology has just outdated one of those simple scientific truths I learned about in school. What’s worse is that it took me almost two years to find out about it.

But before I get into a self-pitying “science is for the young” groove, let me tell you what I’ve learned so far.

First, a big thank you to Business Week. Yes, that’s right, Business Week. Not known for it’s scientific coverage, but the May 7, 2007 issue had a snippet on page 79 about the successful effort to create a substitute for industrial diamonds for slicing through steel. Apparently, the diamond reacts with the steel to form by-products that dull the blade. Scientists at UCLA have discovered a mixture of Boron and Rhenium that is hard enough to scratch diamond, and doesn’t react with steel. Press release dates to April 19, 2007, so it’s a pretty recent discovery.

In all fairness, Rhenium DiBoride is only harder than diamond in certain directions, due to its layered structure. But reading about it sent me to the web – what other substances have been discovered that are harder than diamond? Somehow, learning that diamond wasn’t the hardest material bar none made me realize that I last took Material Science coursework at Stanford in 1992.

Fortunately, in the 15 years since that coursework, a lot has happened to help me get up to speed in a matter of minutes. And I am glad I did, because new materials are just too cool.

First, let’s start with the simpler one: Ultrahard Fullerite. Fullerene is a form of carbon based on the C_{60} structure of buckyball-fame. From Wikipedia:

Ultrahard fullerite (C_{60}) is a form of carbon which has been found to be harder than diamond, and which can be used to create even harder materials, such as aggregated diamond nanorods.

Specifically, it is a unique version of fullerene (which is a class of spherical, ellipsoidal, or tubular carbon molecules) with three-dimensional polymer bonds. This should not be confused with P-SWNT fullerite, which is also a polymerized version of fullerene. It has been shown[1][2] that when testing diamond hardness with a scanning force microscope of specific construction, ultrahard fullerite can scratch diamond.

Very cool, but now, of course I’m thinking, “Tell me more about these aggregated diamond nanorods!” (I’m sure you were thinking the same thing.)

That, my friends, is a thing of beauty. According to this article at the European Synchotron Radiation Facility, Aggregated Diamond Nanorods are the least-compressible known material. To be specific, the density of ADNR is 0.2% to 0.4% greater than Diamond. ADNR is also 11% less compressible than diamond, and has an isothermal bulk modulus of 491 GPa (gigapascals) compared to just 442 for diamond.

Of course, I’m only reading about this now. had the coverage on this discovery in Germany back on August 26, 2005. (it’s actually a very clear & well written piece.) You can bet that the PhysicsWeb RSS feed is going into my reader tonight…

Wikipedia has a very nice summary here as well.

Oh well, better late than never. My guess is that one or two people out there also missed this, which is why I’m posting it tonight.

Now, I think we just need to find a way to start a luxury jewelry business that specializes in ADNR-based engagement rings. Why settle for diamond, which can get scratched so easily? We could make a fortune on this one on the high end…

Update (1/4/2010):  See the comment from January 2010 below, but it seems Rhenium DiBoride is no longer assessed as harder than diamond.

New Horizons Spacecraft Swings by Jupiter. Next Stop, Pluto, Charon & the Kuiper Belt

One of my first posts on this blog was about Pluto, namely the incredibly stupid move to re-classify it as a dwarf planet. For the first month of my blog, that post generated a surprisingly large amount of traffic.

Since then, I’ve posted about the New Horizons spacecraft, and the current mission to send a probe to fully explore Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt.

This is just a quick post to highlight the fact that the spacecraft hit a major milestone today. According to the NASA press release:

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of Jupiter early this morning, using the massive planet’s gravity to pick up speed for its 3-billion mile voyage to Pluto and the unexplored Kuiper Belt region beyond.

“We’re on our way to Pluto,” said New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md. “The swingby was a success; the spacecraft is on course and performed just as we expected.”

New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter at 12:43 a.m. EST, placing the spacecraft on target to reach the Pluto system in July 2015. During closest approach, the spacecraft could not communicate with Earth, but gathered science data on the giant planet, its moons and atmosphere.

At 11:55 a.m. EST mission operators at APL established contact through NASA’s Deep Space Network and confirmed New Horizons’ health and status.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons is gaining nearly 9,000 mph from Jupiter’s gravity – accelerating to more than 52,000 mph. The spacecraft has covered approximately 500 million miles since its launch in January 2006 and reached Jupiter faster than seven previous spacecraft to visit the solar system’s largest planet. New Horizons raced through a target just 500 miles across, the equivalent of a skeet shooter in Washington hitting a target in Baltimore on the first try.

You can find up-to-date mission pictures and information here on the New Horizons website.

July 2015 is going to be a lot of fun.

Sonofusion: Could the Key to Fusion Lie in Bubbles?

This week’s Science Times in the Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007 edition of the New York Times was just phenomenal. So many things worth writing about!

I’m just going to write one tonight, but I had to give a shout out to their cover story, and one of the coolest technologies I had the chance to investigate years ago, sonoluminescent fusion.

New York Times: Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble

The basic concept behind sonofusion, also known as bubble fusion, is to take advantage of a unique behavior of liquids when exposed to sound waves. The sound waves can create spontaneous bubbles in the liquid, which then collapse with such force that they actually generate light. This behavior is called sonoluminescence. Here’s the innovative idea: if you use heavy water, which features radioactive forms of hydrogen, it may be possible to actually use sonoluminescence to actually create temperatures high enough to create fusion. And with fusion comes a 50-year dream of using the ultimate form of clean energy, not for weaponry, but for commercial and personal use.

When I was in venture capital, I specialized in software companies, not experimental physics. When you work for a top-tier firm, you get hundreds of unsolicited business plans submitted to you, by email, on a weekly basis. In most cases, an unsolicited submission is the worst possible way to connect with investors.

However, one day I got an email with a business plan for a company in Grass Valley, CA called Impulse Devices. It wasn’t every day I got a plan for a new energy company (this was 2002, and the recent boom in clean energy companies hadn’t begun yet.) Imagine my surprise to find the founders with credible backgrounds, and published material in peer reviewed journals.

Over the course of a few months, I took a few calls with the company, both to better understand the technology and the potential opportunity. It wasn’t a good fit for the firm I worked for, but I was nonetheless curious.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to deliver the addition orders of magnitude improvement in energy generation to generate viable fusion where other approaches have failed. The NY Times piece has a nice summary of current fusion efforts, which, while successful, currently take in more energy than they produce.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2016 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

However unlikely it is that a maverick approach like sonofusion will be the one to succeed where others have failed, there was a great quote in the article I wanted to spotlight:

“It’s really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program,” said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year’s budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department’s acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. “Since the mid-’90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy.”

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

“I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded,” said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. “Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off.”

This is the problem with large, centralized-planning-based approaches to big science, and the reason why private capital markets can be so much more effective at generating innovation.

The big dollars, whether they are from large corporations or from governments will always go to the most practical, the most developed, and the most accepted approaches. The idea of funding 100 ideas, knowing that 90% will fail is not something that seems prudent to stewards of public capital. This is what the venture capital industry, however, enables in the aggregate, and society benefits heavily from that 1 in 100 approach that actually does change the world.

I am so excited now for space exploration, because for the first time, the great giant shackles of centralized government planning for the industry are being broken. Vanity contests and start-up capital are generating more innovation in spacecraft and related technology than the entirety of the post-Apollo space program. That same approach is breathing incredible new life into technologies around clean energy.

So, just in case sonofusion ends up being the miracle that brings practical fusion to the world, just maybe you read about it here first. If not, let’s all hope that another 99 ideas as out-of-the-box as this one get funded.

WordPress: Easy as PI

Sometimes, just impresses me.

An announcement today that WordPress now includes inline support for LaTeX. If you’re not familiar with LaTeX, it’s a typesetting language, designed to easily produce complex, mathematical statements for sophisticated academic documents.

I don’t know LaTeX, but it’s going to be neat to be able to properly represent mathematical equations here on a simple blog, particularly when I post about how to evaluate investments, etc.

For now, I’m just going to close with my all time favorite equation:

e^{\pi\i} + 1 = 0

The five most important numbers in math, all together in one equation. Euler’s Identity.

Blogging with math is going to be fun.

Pangea Ultima: A Look at the Earth in 250 Million Years

I love the Science Times, issued by the New York Times every Tuesday. It’s just 8-10 pages of really interesting new discoveries, insights, and analysis of modern science.

Unfortunately, I rarely have the time to read the paper regularly during the week. As a result, I don’t often get to read the Science Times on the day it’s published. However, my mother just gave me a pile of the last 15 or so Science Times, and I’ve been reading through them. (Thanks, Mom!)

One article caught my eye tonight – it was the cover story on Pangea Ultima, Dr. Scotese’s name for his future estimation of the movement of the continents over the next 250 Million Years.

Dr. Scotese has a full website showing the continental configurations ranging from 200 Million years ago (Pangea), all the way through the modern world and beyond. This includes some nifty Java applets that actually let you rotate a 3D globe.

This site is the best – it shows you a drag-based animation of the next 250 million years, all the way to Pangea Ultima.

Very cool. Some tidbits from the analysis:

  • Africa seems to get wedged upward, between North America & Eurasia
  • Antartica moves back up, collides with Australia, which is headed back into a collision with Eurasia
  • Los Angeles moves to be side-by-side with San Francisco in 50M years. By 250M years, it’s up by Alaska, and California is now part of the west coast mountain range
  • Mediterranean sea is gone in 50M years. The Indian Ocean is on its way to becoming an inland sea itself.

It turns out that our current understanding of planetary techtonics takes us more easily into the future of 50M years, and that the complexity of projecting beyond that is still very high. Still, it’s neat to see an informed attempt at the projection. It makes you realize how small & unique our little window into Earth’s history really is.

As an aside, Wikipedia, as usual, has an incredible write-up of Pangea Ultima. I’m beginning to use Wikipedia more than I use Google – I’ve even made it the default in my search bar in Firefox. Anyone else finding themselves using Wikipedia more often these days?

Mission to Pluto: New Horizons Craft at Jupiter

I am a huge supporter of space exploration, and a big fan of the recent boom of entrepreneurial activity around space. For example, I’m the type of person that gets excited when I see that the Blue Origin spacecraft managed a very successful test recently of their new launch vehicle. (Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ pet space company).

However, I have a special connection with the ongoing mission to Pluto, dubbed “New Horizons”. The spacecraft has been in the news lately because the ship will soon be passing Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with Pluto (which is a planet).

The reason is kind of quirky – it has to do with my activity on the Speech & Debate team in High School. I went to a very small high school (less than 200 students), but it had, at the time, a very successful and well-recognized Speech & Debate team. I was successful enough on the team to be both President of the team (about 40 students) and Captain of the Policy Debate team (sometimes called Oxford debate).

I had a lot of success in individual speech events – my specialty were the variants where there was little to no preparation. Extemporaneous speaking was an event where you had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speach on a topic, typically current events or policy. Impromptu, my favorite, gave you only 2 minutes to prepare a 5 minute speech on anything. Literally anything – a quote, a person, a place, an item. One of my best speeches ever was the final round of the Stanford invitational, where I won first place after picking my topic out of a Stanford bookstore bag (it was a condom).

One area where the team had struggled historically had been the annual, official statewide competition for policy debate. Unlike college invitationals, the state competitions tended to have “lay” judges – parents, friends, locals. As a result, winning had more to do with persuasive speech, and less to do with well thought out policy or evidence.

Our senior year, at the qualification tournament at Bellarmine High School, my partner and I had prepared a special case – one that was less technical, inexpensive, and incredibly compelling. It was a secret – we had never used it before at a tournament (we typically did 15-20 tournaments across the country, per year). The topic that year was space exploration.

The policy proposal? Send an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto. It was inexpensive (under $200M), obvious (it’s the only planet we haven’t explored close up), and it had urgency – there was a specific window in Pluto’s orbit that makes it economical to launch only once every decade or so. Pluto goes through a unique atmospheric event every 200 years, and it turned out that sending the craft immediately, in the next decade, made the most sense.

Not as grandiose as a moon base. Not as compelling as a manned mission to Mars. Not as exotic as developing solar sails. Not as economically valuable as beaming solar energy down from orbit to provide clean, inexpensive power.

But it won. And we qualified for the State tournament that year.

We didn’t end up winning the State championship that year, although I did pick up 2nd in the state in Extemporaneous. But I still look back on that case fondly; it was our last one.

That was spring of 1991. And as it turns out, it was a good idea, and we really are doing it. And now the ship is racing across the solar system, due for its rendezvous with Pluto… in July 2015, when my oldest son will be 10.

See you in 2015.

Nintendo Wii? Nah. Buy me a Personal Blimp!

Just finished reading the December 25, 2006 issue of Forbes magazine, and found a real gem for my “gifts I’d like” column.

It’s a personal blimp.

Actually, besides just being extremely cool, it has a fantastic back-story too.  Daniel Nachbar, a former Bell Labs software engineer, returned to his true love of aviation, and came up with an incredible new design for a 205,000 cubic foot hot air ship that leverages a unique frame design and propellor placement.  The end result is a quiet ship that can seat two, travel at 12mph, and fold up like an umbrella when you are done (granted, a very large umbrella).

Check out his site for more details.  Estimated price?  $100K-$200K.

Here is the Forbes article (no pictures).  Here is a nice blog post at GadgetOff about the personal blimp, with some additional color & detail.

(P.S.  I’m just kidding about the Nintendo Wii.  I still want one.  Thanks.)

Sequencing the Neanderthal Genome: 1 Million Down, 2 Years to Go

A very exciting article was published in Nature magazine today:

Analysis of One Million Base Pairs of Neanderthal DNA

This is really more of a report of a proof of concept, the ability and technique to sequence ancient DNA from a 45,000 year old specimen.

There is also some good coverage on the Science Blog:

The veil of mystery surrounding our extinct hominid cousins, the Neanderthals, has been at least partially lifted to reveal surprising results. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) have sequenced genomic DNA from fossilized Neanderthal bones. Their results show that the genomes of modern humans and Neanderthals are at least 99.5-percent identical, but despite this genetic similarity, and that the two species cohabitated the same geographic region for thousands of years, there is no evidence of any significant crossbreeding between the two. Based on these early results, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis last shared a common ancestor approximately 700,000 years ago.

Most of the coverage goes out of its way to say that there was no inter-breeding between  Neanderthals and modern man.  However, for some reason, the Gene Expression blog is reporting the opposite.

The most exciting news is that they are kicking off a 2-year program to fully sequence the Neanderthal genome.  The New York Times has the best article on the topic I can find online.

We are going to learn an incredible amount about hominid evolution and ourselves through this process.  I’m also quite excited about the eventual ethical debates about whether or not we should at some point try to clone a real Neanderthal.  In particular, I’d be very interested to hear the arguments from the anti-evolution crowd about whether or not they would consider this cloning a human being.

Purely theoretical at this point, since we don’t have the technology… yet.