Hitting the Links

I added a bunch of links to my work today, and it occurred to me that two of the items I posted do an excellent job of representing the kind of complementary writing I’m trying to do in this blog of letters and science. I wrote them both a few years ago, but I’d still love any feedback you might have.

Wisconsin Engineer: “Mercy mercy me”

I took two courses this summer. The first was Afro-American Studies 156: Black Music and American Cultural History, taught by UW-Madison’s Professor Craig Werner. The second was Nonproliferation Issues for Weapons of Mass Destruction, a symposium at the University of Missouri. In retrospect, I’m grateful the order wasn’t reversed.

As I have argued in the past, I believe courses from both ends of campus can complement each other in sophisticated ways. For instance, I certainly expected that my year of studying some history of science would have prepared me for a class on WMDs, and it did to a certain extent. Not long after I got to Missouri, though, I found myself much more grateful for my newfound knowledge of black music than for my perhaps more applicable knowledge of Niels Bohr’s idea of the complementarity of the atomic bomb or Donald Mackenzie’s commentary on the history of weapons testing. That’s because, by the end of the first day of the symposium, I was in need more of emotional support than historical or scientific background information.

Read on…

Wisconsin Engineer: “Resonant frequencies”

In February, Scientific American reported what fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien had written half a century before. The creation of the universe, it seems, might be better summarized by “Give us some music” than “Let there be light.”

It’s high time Tolkien agreed with a scientist.

The article, entitled “The Cosmic Symphony,” described how cosmologists have come to reason that the big bang “triggered sound waves that alternately compressed and rarefied regions of the primordial plasma.” Scientists have a record of this compression wave phenomenon in the form of the cosmic microwave background, a nearly uniform spread of radiation that has guided cosmologists in their quest to explain some of the mysteries of creation.

Read on…

Point of Contention

Is The Tipping Point‘s central tenet–that “‘social epidemics’ are ‘driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people'”–correct? Some networks theorists writing in Journal of Consumer Research don’t think so.

I won’t start my “Network Flows” class until the end of the month, but I think these guys’ central point makes sense:

Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. ‘If it had been raining,’ Dodds says, ‘that same match wouldn’t have had an effect.’ Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.

In other words, they’re claiming that it’s better to find a way to reach “a critical mass of easily influenced individuals” rather than a few “exceptional people”.

This is disappointing news, if you ask me. I’d rather hear about trends from well spoken experts than a gang of easily influenced chumps.

In other news, it turns out I’m not the only one who watches video on his lunch break. Then again, I’m in grad school, so I do plenty of non-lunch-hour video watching as well. You try sitting at a desk 12-14 hours a day debugging code without a few Power Thirst breaks. Unacceptable!

Molten Swing

This article from Power Engineering caught my attention today. One common claim about renewable energy is that you can’t use it to make “base load”–the electrical power you need available all the time: day or night, rain or shine, wind…or no wind. My gut tells me that the claim is effectively true, though of course I’m biased and there vehement detractors (some of them Australian, apparently). My (developing) expertise in systems analysis–nuclear fuel cycle systems analysis, though, not the power grid–says that the question’s probably harder to answer definitively than either side is willing to admit.

Anyway, the game would totally change if energy produced from renewables such as solar and wind could be efficiently stored. One interesting idea for storing solar power is to use the collected energy to heat up molten salts, which are suitable thermal-hydraulic fluids because of their high heat capacity and good conductivity. This is one of those great “now why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, although the news note is a bit light on details. Let me know if you know anything about how the currently-employed technology (in the Nevada Solar One plant) works.

Speaking of molten salts as thermal-hydraulic fluids, I was (as usual) fairly impressed with the Wikipedia article on molten salt reactors. Check it out.

And on a totally unrelated note, here’s some news about our continuing, tragicomic insistence that spending billions of dollars on missile defense is a good idea. (And as long as we’re talking about missiles and whether they hit their targets, I can’t help but point you toward “Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy” by Donald Mackenzie, which I read some time ago in Richard Staley‘s excellent history of 20th century science class.)

New Year’s News Wrap

Mourning yesterday’s Badger loss in the Outback Bowl due to a “gutsy” but selfish and foolhardy performance by Tyler Donovan, subpar secondary play, and questionable play-calling (you guys had all three of your gifted running backs available and this is the best you could do?!), I decided to just do a quick news wrap-up today. (By the way, congrats and thanks to Michigan; you guys helped the Big Ten manage to not look like total chumps yesterday.)

USA Today:Tech could reduce coal facilities’ emissions

I didn’t know USA Today wrote stories this long. Anyway, this one’s worth a read just to keep tabs on this important technology (integrated gasification combined cycle). Any honest nuclear engineer will tell you that nuclear alone isn’t going to solve all our energy problems, so everyone should be rooting for the carbon-capture potential of IGCC.

Chicago Tribune:Space power could be bright idea

The hallways of UW-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute (which takes up most of the floor I work on) are decorated almost exclusively with framed articles about the interesting but rhetorically nightmarish idea of mining the moon for helium-3 to fuel fusion reactors (“but you haven’t even gotten one to work yet!” the critics would rightly decry). This power-from-space idea seems slightly less far-fetched, though still a little frightening (“but what if you point your one megawatt microwave transmitter in the wrong direction?”).

New York Times:Rock Is Back. Give Him a Cookie.

Review of that show I mentioned earlier. Glad to see Jill Scott opened. By the way, not that I’m any authority, but I’ve never read a disappointing article by Kelefa Sanneh.

New York Times:The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen

This article contains a half-dozen book ideas for some food-loving engineer. It reminded me of the time I had a homework question that asked for fluid mechanics and heat transfer arguments for why fryers and convection ovens cook turkeys faster than traditional ovens. (Come to think of it, that might make a good holiday post next Thanksgiving; this past year, CSC didn’t exist yet, plus my friends Carl and Brenna and I were too busy eating Thanksgiving burritos at Las Iguanas in Toronto).

New York Times:Web Playgrounds of the Very Young

When judging the recent regional Ethics Bowl Madison hosted, I heard the argument that “marketing is not brainwashing.” While I’m inclined to agree most of the time, the way the suits talk about “instill[ing] brand loyalty in a generation of new customers” in stories like this makes me not so sure. Those new customers are, like, seven.

Challah! Hallah! Holla!

As I’ve written elsewhere, my sister is a baker. Yesterday, to fulfill some Church-charity-auction-related obligation, she was baking a couple loaves of Challah (not to be confused with Ciabatta, as I eventually found out). Dutifully typing away at the terrific kitchen counter where I do all my work when I’m at my parents’ house, I paused to bug her a bit about this bread (whose name, as you probably know, is pronounced like the repeated word in the first line of John Legend’s “Used to Love U“) and get a feel for what things must be like at her school.

Kyle: So are people as obnoxious about Challah as I would be?
Rachel: What do you mean?
Kyle: Holla!
Rachel: Oh, yeah, totally.
Kyle: Good. I mean, that’s not a word I usually use, but how do you turn that down?
Rachel: My friend has a shirt that has a picture of one and says Holla, spelled the other way. She says she only wears it at school because nobody gets it.

I’m so glad people are nerdily goofy whatever their discipline. For our part, we nuclear engineers tend to hang a lot of Onion science stories on our office walls. “Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill” is my all-time favorite (except, of course, for this bit of non-science genius). More recently, “Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing” included a hilarious illustration that used drawings of a “science thing” many people in my group actually work on (the unwisely named and recently defunded International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

Pryor Precedent

Great article in the Times today about Chris Rock and his upcoming New Year’s show. I’ve been thinking about Rock lately in light of Dave Chappelle’s mostly MIA status. It reminds me of an interesting Rock/Chappelle moment from when a good friend of mine was in UW-Madison’s course Black Music and American Cultural History (which was created by the visionary Craig Werner, who taught the summer session of the class that I took, once told me I’d done a nice job on an especially tough midterm, is buddies with my friend Eric over at Streaming Media, and gave a killer introduction for Michael Eric Dyson when he spoke at Madison this fall [the gem, when mentioning that the intro to Dyson’s new Know What I Mean? was written by “a guy you may have heard of” named Jay-Z: “That’s a pretty good blurb. The best blurb I ever got was Michael Eric Dyson.”]).

My friend tells me that someone in the class made the comment that Dave Chappelle seemed like “the new Richard Pryor. ” The TA responded that Chris Rock “would be sorry to hear that,” since that was a role he had aspired to. It made me realize that while I’m a fan of both of these heirs apparent, I know embarrassingly little about Pryor beyond some superficial stuff: that honky sketch with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak, the cameo in The Muppet Movie, the mention in “Chocolate City” (a song Werner introduced me to), and one of the documentaries–the one where his wife tells the story about the time she tried using the n-word.

As I was doing a little research on Pryor and Chappelle v. Rock, I learned that Pryor himself had actually answered the question (his ruling: Chappelle). I also learned a hell of a lot more, mostly from an excellent article by William Jelani Cobb at seeingblack.com (not to be confused with this Cobb, who I occasionally read). Cobb’s distinction about Pryor and Chapelle’s primary “concern[] with humanizing Black folk” is key to the debate, if there even is much of one given that perhaps the most appropriate judge has already ruled and, as Cobb points out, is sadly no longer available for comment.

The Bohr Identity

I have a favorite physicist. While that puts me in a relatively small subset of the American population, I suspect that among members of that subset my choice is relatively common. After all, few physicists this side of Einstein and Newton are more well known than Niels Bohr, and even fewer of them have had a greater effect on physics.

The title of this blog, Contraria Sunt Complementa, is the motto on Bohr’s coat of arms. It means “opposites are complementary.” As is well documented by, among others, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics), Bohr was fascinated by paradox. Take, for example, the dual nature of light and other electromagnetic radiation. One of the more fascinating mysteries that modern physicists had to sort out is the observation that light behaves sometimes as a wave (it reflects, refracts, interferes, etc.) and sometimes as a particle (it collides, billiard-ball-like, with electrons in a phenomenon known as Compton scattering. Because it obscures imaging and delivers unwanted dose to patients, Compton scattering is the bane of medical physicists everywhere, but it’s OK by me because deriving the formula for its scattering angle helped get me though my modern physics qualifying exam for the doctoral program in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Engineering Physics.).

What made Bohr a visionary physicist was his readiness to see this dual nature not as a contradiction but, in the words of one physicist I know, as “two sides of the same coin.” What made him an influential physicist, though (at least in my opinion), were two of his other traits that captured my interest: his insistence that the language with which we describe physics is as important as the physics itself and his warm and collegial relationships with his students, many of whom became great physicists themselves.

This is not a blog about Niels Bohr. In fact, as time passes, I’ll probably talk less and less about him. But I hope his playful, collaborative, often interdisciplinary approach to a range of subjects (physics, writing, philosophy, and world affairs, to name a few) can inspire and serve as a model for much of what goes on here.

I’m not a first-time blogger, but it has been a while since “X-ray”ted Summer, the blog I wrote about my time as an x-ray repair man in New York, came to an end. In the mean time, I’ve read an awful lot of blogs. The most interesting ones, in my opinion, are those that refuse to treat their respective subjects as islands. I think Bohr, who agreed with Schiller that “Nur die Fuelle fuehrt zur Klarheit” (“only wholeness leads to clarity”), would appreciate that sentiment. Thus, with Bohr as my epistemological guide, I’ll be offering up thoughts and analysis on the subjects that make me whole: science, engineering, teaching and tutoring, writing and editing. Maybe a little music and baseball for good measure. I hope you’ll join me.