January 4

For an explanation of this project, read here.

When Rudy Giuliani ran for mayor of New York City in 1993, he campaigned on a platform of bringing down crime and making the city safe again. Rudy Giuliani never misses an opportunity to remind people about his track record in fighting crime as mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001. For decades, researchers have known that lead poisoning lowers children’s IQs and puts them at risk for severe learning disabilities and more impulsive, sometimes violent behavior. The steep drop in crime in America is one of the most noteworthy sociological trends of the last twenty years. Sandy Banks notes today that crime rates in Los Angeles are way, way down. In hundreds of neighborhoods across the United States, children are living and playing near sites where factories once spewed lead and other toxic metal particles into the air. One obvious question about my story on the link between lead poisoning and violent crime is why I focus so heavily on gasoline lead. If you’re a science or math geek like me, you can’t help but like Nate Silver. Skywatchers may be in for a rare treat in 2013 — a newly discovered comet is expected to pass very close to the sun, putting on what could be the celestial show of a century. A comet blazing toward Earth could outshine the full moon when it passes by at the end of next year – if it survives its close encounter with the sun. At the moment it is a faint object, visible only in sophisticated telescopes as a point of light moving slowly against the background stars. Today, the newfound comet seen above is just a tiny dot in the sky beyond Jupiter. 2013 is looking to be a promising year for potential naked-eye comets, as a new comet has been discovered that will likely skirt close to the Sun, and could provide a stunning display late next year. A new comet has been discovered that is predicted to blaze incredibly brilliantly in the skies during late 2013. A newly discovered comet has the potential to put on a dazzling celestial display late next year, when it will be so bright you may be able to see it briefly in the daytime sky. Within days after a new comet is first discovered, astronomers can tell you exactly what its path through the solar system will look like. There is almost a year to go before Comet Ison reaches the inner solar system, yet excitement is already running high. The Mayan calendar turned out to be a joke and the Twilight Zone marathon is over. There were some great skywatching events visible even from the brightly lit city of Houston last year — most notably a rare, partial solar eclipse. Next year’s most eagerly awaited shows in the skies above might not happen — but that’s exactly what makes them so eagerly awaited. A newly discovered comet from the farthest reaches of the solar system could become a sky spectacle in 2013, astronomers say. As 2012 comes to a close, some might wonder what is looming sky-wise for 2013. Astronomy forums are buzzing with speculation about newly-discovered Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). Nine in 10 internet users in the United States turn to search engines to find information (1), and 60% of the U.S. public seeking information about specific scientific issues lists the Internet as their primary source of information (2). A new obstacle to scientific literacy may be emerging, according to a paper in the journal Science by two University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. People who read newspaper and magazine reports on science “may be influenced as much by the comments at the end of the story as they are by the report itself,” a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers says. A science-inclined audience and wide array of communications tools make the Internet an excellent opportunity for scientists hoping to share their research with the world.

January 3

Since his first extraordinary work, “Migraine,” was published in 1970, the neurologist Oliver Sacks has been writing a particular kind of medical literature. Siri Hustvedt has long explored the intersections and interplay of science and storytelling. Of the many specious arguments against gun control, perhaps the most ridiculous is that what we really need is the opposite: more guns, in the hands of more people, in more places. As the nation’s leaders devise new gun control strategies following the Connecticut shooting, they should look for ways to strengthen state laws that govern the possession and use of firearms. Maybe this time will be different.

January 2

Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012 — more than Americans spent on iced tea or sports beverages like Gatorade. The Food and Drug Administration said in a letter released on Tuesday that it was likely to seek advice from outside experts to help determine whether energy drinks posed particular risks to teenagers or people with underlying health problems. On this day that fetishizes finitude, that reminds us how rapidly our own earthly time share is shrinking, allow me to offer the modest comfort of infinities. We are learning how to watch the news through tears. As practicing pediatricians who have lost patients to gun violence, we join our colleagues in mourning the 20 children and their teachers who were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. In the aftermath of the great tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the mental health community is responding to our own and others’ desperation to understand why this event occurred and is advocating for strategies that might prevent similar events in the future. Plenty has been written this year about the history of medicine through the lens of the New England Journal of Medicine, which celebrated its 200th anniversary. A century ago, Elsie Scheel was the perfect woman. So said a 1912 article in The New York Times about how Miss Scheel, 24, was chosen by the “medical examiner of the 400 ‘co-eds’ ” at Cornell University as a woman “whose very presence bespeaks perfect health.” Being a little overweight may tip the odds in favor of living a long life, according to a new analysis. Folks who are just slightly overweight but have resolved to lose weight in the new year may give their plans second thoughts in the wake of a controversial new federal analysis. It’s a common medical refrain: Carrying extra pounds raises the risk of ills such as heart disease and diabetes and therefore the risk of a premature death. In a review of almost 100 past studies covering nearly three million people, researchers found that being overweight or slightly obese was linked to about a 6 percent lower risk of dying, compared to people considered “normal weight.”

January 1

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Here are some of the people, places, and events that helped shape the world of science in 2012. No recent scientific advance has generated more hoopla than this one. We found the God particle, learned to make clean energy work, tapped the healing power of germs, explored ancient streams on Mars, and made 96 other stirring advances. There were many really big moments in science this year. Lesula found in remote forests is only the second new monkey species to be discovered in Africa in 28 years. The storm on 29 October killed more than 125 people after making landfall in America, paralysing the lower half of Manhattan, and obliterating entire neighbourhoods in New York and New Jersey. In a year that saw Britain suffer double-dip recession; when crippling debt has risen to threaten a record number of households; when the nation faces losing its triple A credit rating; and the economy of the entire planet continues to flounder, it is hard to find many reasons to be cheerful. The year in science news was dominated by the discovery of the Higgs boson, ending a 50-year search for the keystone in our best theory of physics. This year saw many climate-related stories making headlines. Astronomical discoveries in 2012 have reshaped what we know about the universe and pushed some instruments to the very limits of their observing power. 2012 has been a big year for science: people sank to record depths, a private company made it into space, NASA landed something the size of a car on Mars, and physicists finally found the particle that could unify science once and for all. NASA/JSC is implementing an advanced propulsion physics laboratory, informally known as “Eagleworks”, to pursue propulsion technologies necessary to enable human exploration of the solar system over the next 50 years, and enabling interstellar spaceflight by the end of the century. The Universe is beautiful. Sex is a part of life — and a subject of scientific research. When you read about medical breakthroughs in the newspapers, you shouldn’t get your hopes up. Despite covering 70 percent of the earth’s surface, the ocean doesn’t often make it into the news. As we grow older, it gets harder and harder to believe how quickly time passes by. If you ask journalists about how they choose the stories they cover, many will talk about importance. It was a good year for Stephen Hawking. Many more than 10 events took place during 2012 that reveal how science and technology play integral roles in our lives. Scientific American named the top ten science stories of 2012 — a list that touches on big topics like climate change, technology and daredevil attempts that stretch the limits of humanity. Recent years have brought considerable riches for those of us interested in human evolution and 2012 proved no exception. For scientists, an answer to a question, or solution to a problem, is not true until proven so. A lot of things happened in 2012, including scientific breakthroughs, a presidential re-election, and a tragic school shooting. As the year comes to an end, it’s time to look back at the grossest, oddest and simply most fascinating animals to make the headlines in 2012. Every December the online world is replete with Top 10 lists, reminding us of the year’s best sports plays, TV moments, and blockbuster movies. As 2012 draws to a close, CJR writers brainstormed the year’s best reads in their beats. When it came to choosing the year’s best stories, the editors of Science News applied a simple criterion: We picked the ones that kept us up at night. This was an incredible year for science and engineering. From faraway planets to the deepest depths of the ocean, 2012 has been an exciting year for scientific achievements and milestones. In July, scientists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider announced they had spotted the subatomic particle that could explain some of the deeper mysteries of the universe – The Higgs boson or “god particle”. As an increasingly connected world generates ever-more data sets, and the tools to examine and analyze those data sets become easier to use, the fields of data visualization and illustration (called infographics as a catch-all term), have enjoyed something of a renaissance. It’s been a great year for science–Curiosity! The Higgs Boson!–and intrepid photographers have been there all along to document it. As 2012 draws to a close and the new year begins, now is a good time to wrap things up and recapitulate the year just passed. From unprecedented heat waves that shattered “Dust Bowl” era records from the 1930s, to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated coastal New Jersey and New York, 2012 was the year Mother Nature had it out for the U.S. This was the year that the word “derecho” (pronounced de-Ray-cho) went viral, after an unusually powerful storm with an uncommon Spanish name name ripped through 12 states in a single day.

Reading science news

What is happening in science news today? There’s too much of it to follow and sometimes we just want the gist of it. As an experiment in “Uncreative Writing” (See Kenneth Goldsmith’s book of that name), I’m presenting a take on the science news of the day.

To generate this look at the news, I’m starting with the Knight Science Journalism Tracker‘s (most excellent) posts, as a proxy for what is science news-making, and then following the links to the all the stories it highlights. Then I extract the first sentence from each of those articles and concatenate the whole lot in order for each day.

I skip links that lead to lists of links, to other KSJT pages, or to purely photographic pieces, and just use links that lead to what might reasonably be called an “article”.

Reading these pieces is a slightly surreal experience, but one tinged with an impartation of the key science news of the day.

This project ran from January 1 to January 31, 2013 but has now concluded.

You can read the collection of posts here.

Standard Model of Cocktail Physics

Standard Model of Cocktail Physics

The fundamental laws of the universe create recipes for how particles combine to create other particles. Why not make these recipes a step more literal and make cocktails based on the laws of physics? A kind of “Quantum Mixology”.

Each fundamental particle is mapped onto a cocktail ingredient, whether a liquor, a mixer, or a garnish. Then compound particles, which consist of combinations of fundamental particles, have a recipe for a cocktail built in.

We have matched cocktail ingredients to fundamental particles in a way that the properties of the particles match the properties of the ingredients as much as possible. For example, the electron and the electron neutrino are often found together in particle decays so those two particles map on to gin and tonic respectively. In addition the neutrinos are much lighter particles so they correspond to the mixers rather than the alcohols. A wealth of choices like that underlie the mapping from fundamental particles to cocktail ingredients.

The cocktails are presented as a set of recipes, defined by compound particles, but we have also done a back translation and adapted classic cocktails to a quantum theme, identifying these new recipes by their particle ingredients.

The translation from particles to ingredients is presented in a poster showing “The Standard Model of Cocktail Physics”. The recipes are also available through a website that does the translations of particles into ingredients for you.

This work was completed during the 24 hours of #sciencehackday 2012 in San Francisco by a team consisting of
David Harris, Julyanne Liang, Matt Bellis, Moon Limb, Morris Mwanga, Oksana Timonin, and Yevgeny Binder.

The slides from the presentation of the hack, including recipes, are at http://www.slideshare.net/physicsdavid/quantum-mixology

The Higgs recipe isn’t on the slides but we determine it via a prominent decay of the Higgs via two Z bosons, which can then decay into muons and electrons. That translates to whiskey plus gin with a hint of lime juice (for the remnants of the Zs!)

For physicists: You can generate a cocktail from any Feynman diagram so try your hand at seeing what a beta decay is, for example.

You can get more info about the project from physicsdavid (at) gmail


A Journal of Brief Ideas

Update Oct 12, 2013: We are actively developing the Journal of Brief Ideas now at briefideas.org. The journal will allow you to submit but most of the functionality is not there yet, sorry. We’re only beginning. But drop me a note @physicsdavid if you want to see it developed further!


One thing slowing down the flow of research information is that the quantum of research, or the smallest publishable amount, is actually quite large, meaning that a lot of good ideas don’t get published (i.e. spread). Ideas stuck in a mind are no use to anybody except that one individual, and that limits the power of the idea.

Furthermore, in some fields it can take five years of work or more for a postdoc to gather enough data and do the analysis for a single strong paper. The quantum is definitely too large in those fields.

The idea of a long paper of many pages is an evolved phenomenon with the original “papers”–letters in early journals–often taking half a page or less to print. But those days are long gone.

Ideas which might be important but are small in size don’t have a natural home. So what if there were the equivalent of a journal, or more specifically the equivalent of the arXiv, for these briefly-expressible ideas?

The key features of such a journal would be:

  • time and date stamped submission, for claiming priority
  • revisions allowed with a new date stamp
  • easy to cite like arXiv entries
  • include citations to other ideas in the journal
  • allow good search
  • have RSS feed for individual authors so you can follow one person’s ideas if you like the way they think
  • have a tag folksonomy with the responsibility being on the idea submitter to tag well so that their ideas can be found appropriately
  • ideas should be rateable by others
  • limit to the size of what can be presented. If it takes too much space to write down it is probably breakable into smaller ideas. Ideally each entry should be a single idea.

In one sense, you could just replicate the arXiv adding tagging and you’d have a nice workable system.

One of the issues to face would be dealing with spam and users who might overload the system with crap. I’m not sure how to deal with the latter at first and it’s not clear how big a problem it would be. Perhaps a rating system could help deal with that.

Of course, there is also room for a peer-reviewed version of such a journal with the emphasis on brief communications. Having peer review would weed out a lot of the rubbish that could potentially collect.