Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Shopping

I finally got off my ass and decided to wrap the gifts I got for everyone for Christmas. Although I'm not entirely done shopping (I have at least one more item to get), I figured I shouldn't put off wrapping until the last minute, that can only lead to a mad rush which results in terrible wrapping.

Did I say terrible wrapping? I meant horrible-did-a-troll-wrap-that wrapping. I am admittedly a bad wrapper... I can never cut straight. So either I'm mildly retarded or I have a crooked head. But things got wrapped that's for sure! The only thing I was missing was tissue paper for gift bags, which I've decided are made for people like me; those too inept to wrap anything with wrapping paper. The best wrapping jobs that I have were not done by me... but gift wrapped by lady at the store... but my wrapping paper is better (Snoopy!).

I also ran a quick check on how much I ended up spending on gifts. I miraculously hit my target... I didn't think it was possible. And yes, that's including the gift I still have to get. I still may splurge if I find something perfect for someone, so who knows. I could be predicting a victory way to early.

Null Physics

I had, for some time, been saving a bookmark in Firefox for a subject entitled "Null Physics" created by Terrance Witt. Now I do not remember where I first heard of this, I think it was probably an ad on Facebook which already had me doubting, but I thought, hey, scientists are supposed to be open minded and look at everything with equal validity a priori. So I did. Boy was that a waste of time.

There are numerous inconsistencies with Witt's theory and observation as well as his logical deductions which have no mathematical foundation, just his rationalization. Take for instance, the neutron. By the Standard Model of particle physics it is posited that the neutron is composed of three quarks who's fractional charges sum to zero. His "theory" however states that the neutron is a proton and a "bound electron". The bound electron, he believes, is fundamentally different than a "free electron" that we are usually accustomed to. In fact, this bound electron changes from a fermion with spin 1/2 to a boson with spin 0 although he has no mathematical reasoning as to why or how this happens. He simply asserts this and assumes it's validity because it's "logical". Right... well last time I looked p + e = H. Yes, a proton and an electron is that mystical element known as Hydrogen! Wow, this is amazing. And no, you don't need the electron to change it's spin in order to get this to work out.

When confronted with this argument and various other arguments on neutron decay and other experiments verifying that indeed a neutron is made up of three quarks, Witt scoffs at the notion. With neutron decay, a n -> p+e+v where v is an (anti)neutrino. This was a theoretical prediction which remained unproven for years until the neutrino was finally discovered. Now, Witt doesn't have any theoretical framework to encompass neutrinos in his original work. But on a forum that I read through, Witt asserted that the neutrinos could be explained as "bound photons" which exist in an excited state. HUGE problem with this. If neutrinos are actually photons, this would asserts that neutrinos would be massless, since photons are massless. But in fact, there is strong experimental evidence that neutrinos have mass, it's just a very, very small amount.

So, right there, his theory falls apart. Although I never read a post that included neutrino mass as an argument against his theory, several other arguments were made and he could not successfully defend his theory against any of them. In fact, he was even audacious enough to suggest that his theory does not reduce to any currently accepted mathematical theory under limiting conditions and that it does not need to. This is because his theory is not mathematical. Now... I'd disagree along with EVERY other physicist in the world. Take classical Newtonian motion... it's a limiting case of Einstein's Special Relativity where the speed of the object is much much less than that of the speed of light in a vacuum. For a theory to be logically consistent it must agree with experiment and observation.

What is sad is that he readily urges people to read Lee Smolin's book, "The Trouble with Physics" and argues his foundational ideas on the material in this book. Now, it just so happens that I read this book, for reasons not related to Null Physics, and Smolin does indeed point out where current theory falls short and where there is room for improvement in the current state of physics. But, Smolin is also a well known theoretical physicist who has worked on both String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity which are both highly mathematical theories which seek to unify the laws of physics into one grand theory. But using Smolin's book as a theoretical backdrop to a theory which is supposed to lead to why and how the universe was created is utterly unacceptable.

This is the kind of bad science that Smolin talks about in his book... except his deals with ACTUAL mathematical theories which have shown signs of being consistent. The worst part of all is that Witt has spent, apparently, large amounts of money to advertise his book and his idea on Facebook and in magazines like Smithsonian. I surely hope that the public is not reading his jibberish and believing for a minute that it constitutes a consistent theory. Witt refuses to publish ACTUAL journal articles or to approach the scientific community for reinforcement... mostly because he knows that he won't get it, although he sites Smolin's book as to why instead of accepting that he won't because the theory is jibberish.

So all in all... Null Physics is just that, Null... nothing, pointless and a waste of human time, effort and resources. Go Google it if you wish... read up on it, and then see for yourself. But I tell you, you are wasting your time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


As an astronomer, there is one thing I dread... installing IRAF. The Image Reduction and Analysis Facility software package is a linux environment, essentially, that aids in the reduction of image data. For astronomers, this basically means taking raw, observational data, and converting it into a usable form by ridding the data of bad pixels and any other detector and telescope anomalies.

The thing is... it sucks to install! I've had to do it three times now, every time I update my linux system I have to reinstall it. Now this could be avoided by following their guide to placing the files in a convenient place so that an upgrade does not overwrite them... but I always do a fresh install because if anyone has ever updated linux, they know that when you upgrade your system... it will stop working. Packages on the "old" system are somehow more recent than package for the "new" system and thus the new system's packages do not get installed and it's just a mess... especially because those packages always seem to be the GCC packages... kind of essential to the ENTIRE system.

So as a result I'm always stuck reinstalling IRAF. This time is went slightly more smoothly, the packages were installed in the correct directory the firs time! Normally, they end up in a wrong directory or you're not quite sure where to put them the first time you install the packages, so they end up in a wrong directory and all hell subsequently breaks loose. As I said, I got the packages in the correct spot, this in itself was amazing. Next, all I had to do was run the installer as the IRAF user (yes it needs it's own user account on the machine, do not ask me why, I just follow instructions). Easy enough, right!? No... of course not. It keeps telling me that it won't be available to all users because it doesn't have the correct permissions so only the IRAF user and root will be able to run the software. At least it told me before it installed! I can be thankful for that. So after about 15 minutes of searching for the correct permissions to grant the files, I found it and was able to get it installed; wonderful!

The last and final step, test run the packages to make sure it all work and to great your IRAF login file. So I hopped back over to my user account to do this, ran mkiraf, which makes your login file... then I ran cl, which is the command to essentially start the program... didn't work. It said I was missing a file, "" which is a library file apparently needed by the IRAF environment. Great... this is fantastic... enter Google. I found the library rpm file on RPM Finder, there we go, problem solved. Except... the file won't install on my system, apparently it's not a REAL rpm (it is but my system didn't believe it). After some more searching (a solid 2 or 3 hours worth) on the IRAF user forum (where everyone posts their numerous issues with installing IRAF), I found the answer.

In Fedora 9 the package was succeeded by the ncurses libraries. So after making a symbolic link from to, all was happy and everything works! I'm now just waiting to see what the next devious error IRAF has in store for me!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

One Down

While my first term at Dartmouth has been at an end for a little over a week, only now, I believe can I actually consider complete. Today I received my last grade. I have to say I was nervous about how I was going to do... not that I doubted my ability to pass, but no matter what, no matter how well I did in a class during the term, I always get nervous about the final grade. Luckily, graduate school at Dartmouth does a little to ease that worry by sticking to a pass/fail system.

Now, the pass/fail system is a little different, in that they have certain levels of pass: HP - High Pass, P - Pass, LP - Low Pass, and NC - No Credit. Sounds like a grading scheme that we've seen before, A=HP, so on and so forth. Now, I would agree, to an extent, except that the Pass grade encompasses basically everything and HP is difficult to achieve. So here is how my grades broke down:

Stat. Mech. - P
Math Methods - P
Classical Mech. - HP

I must say, I'm very excited about the HP in Classical, I put a lot of effort into the class and it seems to have paid off. I probably could have put more effort into math and stat. mech., but I'm not too worried about it since it's about what you learned and not about the grade... especially when you either pass or you don't!

One term down... 19 more to go (if I get out in 5 years!).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Classical Mechanics

I have just realized that I never complete what I set out to do a couple months ago; to tell you about each one of my classes were about. Since I'm sure you are so excited about the prospect of reading about physics, I will enlighten you on yet another one of the courses, classical mechanics.

Classical mechanics is basically what people learn in the introductory physics classes, except in a new formulation. First off, some people may be wondering, well, what makes the physics "classical". The short answer is that classical physics is done on scales that render quantum effect negligible. For instance, the dynamics of planetary bodies or spinning tops are such that any quantum effects are suppressed and we can analyse the systems ignoring quantum contributions.

For this class we used two textbooks, of which, one is a classic, having been used for practically every graduate level mechanics course since it was written. The two textbooks were as follows:

1) Theoretical Mechanics of Particles and Continua - Fetter and Walecka
2) Classical Mechanics (3rd ed) - Herbert Goldstein et al. (the classic)

I must say, that we actually did not utilize Goldstein much, except as a supplement to our readings and to provide a clear understanding of material that Fetter and Walecka (FW) were brief on. FW had a good organization to it, the material was presented in good order, but they were too terse most times and their problems were ridiculously hard given their description of the material. Goldstein on the other hand, was almost too detailed, going off on numerous tangents, but it's a very complete text with problems that range from moderately easy to "wtf hard".

The material presented in the course began with Central Force problems (planetary orbits, particle scattering) presented in a fashion that was note too much different than introductory physics in FW. FW's chapter 1 was Goldstein's chapter 3, but Goldstein introduced the Lagrangian formulation in chapters 1 and 2 while that was left for FW's chapter 3. So here is how the material progressed with chapter numbers indicated:

A) Central Force (FW 1, G 3)
B) Accelerating Reference Frames (FW 2, G 4)
C) Lagrangian Formulation (FW 3, G 1+2)
D) Small Oscillations (FW 4, G 6)
E) Rigid Body Dynamics (FW 5, G 5)
F) Canonical Transformations and Hamiltonian Dynamics (FW 6, G 8+9+10)
G) Canonical Perturbation Theory (G 12)

Basically, most of the course is focused, as is the undergraduate classical mechanics course, on the lagrangian formulation of classical mechanics. Whereas in intro. physics we utilize force diagrams and compare forces using the Newtonian formulation (F = m*a), we utilize the energy of the system and define what is called a Lagrangian (L = T - V) were T is the kinetic energy of the system and V is the potential. Now this can be done in any coordinate system, but we always wish to transform to generalized coordinates, so instead of an x-y-z system, it may be easier to utilize spherical polar coordinates to describe the system (r-theta-phi). It can be shown that (and I will show you if you'd like) using an equation known as the Euler-Lagrange equation that the Lagrangian leads to Newton's second law immediately with little fuss over forces. The biggest downfall is that friction becomes a bear to work with so most all examples and problems are frictionless, but the mathematics is much easier to work with than is Newton's formulation for complex systems.

Is it really that much better? Well, here is an example that would be a bear in Newtonian mechanics. This is also an easy example off of my mechanics final.
A bead of mass M is threaded on a hoop, also of mass M and is free to move about the hoop. The hoop is attached to a bearing system that allows the hoop to swing like a pendulum. If we tap the system it goes in motion. Describe the motion of the bead on the hoop.

With Newtonian mechanics this would suck. With Lagrangian formulation it's really straight forward.

We also focused on the Hamiltonian formulation, which is just another way to formulate mechanics. It actually does not really make solving the problem any easier, it's just easier to work with at times since you try and make all of your variables constant using canonical transforms. No new physics involved, just a mathematical construct.

The course was really interesting, I particularly enjoyed the Hamiltonian formulation of mechanics and the subsequent Hamilton-Jacobi theory along with action-angle variables. Might not mean much, but it was fun and interesting to me.

Winter Day

Now that I have finished my finals and have completed my first term here at Dartmouth, I find myself able to relax, for once, and enjoy my time however I wish. Over the past couple days I finished the majority of my Christmas shopping, something I normally do not complete until right before Christmas, like most. Being located near Hanover (or in it if I'm at my office) has it's advantages. It is very easy to find unique gifts for everyone from the little stores that have nestled into town. There are no chain stores in Hanover, even the Barnes and Noble bookstore is called the Dartmouth Bookstore and all ties to Barnes and Nobles are blocked out. I enjoy these little shops, though. They seem to carry products of greater quality, on average, although you will most certainly pay a higher price. That is alright, though, it's Christmas time and people are worth the few extra dollars.

I also did my shopping at the usual chain stores, including Walmart and Borders. As much as the small stores have unique gifts, some of the most practical can be found in a place like Walmart for a fraction of the price. Why would I pay more for the same product in a smaller store when I can get it in Walmart for much, much less? I mean, grocery stores around here charge $9.00 for Starbucks coffee... it is $7.00 in Walmart. I by no means need Starbucks coffee, but it is good, I have to admit.

I have also taken the time to enjoy watching the snow fall, as I am now, sitting on my couch drinking my afternoon coffee. I have always enjoyed winter, especially the snow. There is no more magically time of year where grumps and scrooges are mystically transformed into moderately less grumpy and scroogy people. I have also been able to enjoy books once again... I mean, aside from textbooks. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy my textbooks and the material is great, but it's a lot more relaxing to read whatever you want instead. A

Anyhow, I have tons more I can say, but I get sick of typing and I'm sure you're sick of reading about my monotonous life. So I'll let you escape... for now.

Friday, December 5, 2008


As a user of the Linux operating system, Fedora 9 currently, I find myself, at times, frustrated by the fact that the software for Linux is not always as solid as that for Windows or Mac. Now, this is generally expected, and it is truly amazing the software packages that Linux has considering it is all open source. I also like to rub it in the face of die hard Windows users that my system uses staggeringly less memory... and to those who use Mac... you'll find your way out of debt sometime in the next two centuries, I promise. Anyway, the real purpose of this post was to say that, finally, iTunes has come to Linux!

Well... not really. In fact, it's not even made by Apple. It is however, made by one of the best open source companies in existence, Mozilla. Yes, first it was Firefox and Thunderbird, now it's Songbird. Songbird is an open source media player and web browser combined! Yes take iTunes and a lower level Firefox, smash them together and you get Songbird, minus a few features of each that happened to fly off in either direction.

Still, Songbird 1.0 is thus far fantastic. I have yet to have any issue with it, although I'm sure bugs will occur eventually. But for a first release, the web browsing capabilities are solid, based off of the Gecko engine. Speaking of a bug... I just held my backspace key to delete one of my numerous mistypings and the player tweaked, but found it's footing again. Wow, am I good to predict a bug or what!? Not an issue I'm too concerned about... just tried to replicate it with no success.

So I say, if you are looking for a "light weight" iTunes, try Songbird, you might find that you enjoy it's layout and web capabilities and decide to go the way of Mozilla instead of Apple for your media player. Now if you like "super light weight" media players, this is not for you. It has flashy graphics, if you'd like it to, and is still very similar to iTunes... in fact, here is a screenshot with the iTunes theme installed. Very slick, I highly recommend this player, especially to those who run Linux and have found that Apple's lack of interest in releasing iTunes on Linux to be upsetting.

Thanks Mozilla!

And yes, I am using the Songbird browser to write this, as you may have guessed from the bug earlier!