Book Review: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

by Lisa Randall

(Viking, 416 pages, $28.95, July 28, 2015)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review was originally published in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

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Sixty-six million years ago, a mountain-sized space rock struck Earth. For the previous 100 million years, dinosaurs had thrived, rising in the Jurassic Period to become the dominant land animals on the planet. Their reign ended abruptly in the environmental catastrophe that followed the impact. They left no successor species other than birds.
To scientists like Harvard Physics Professor Lisa Randall, the real excitement about that event is its scientific backstory. The seemingly outrageous hypothesis of an extraterrestrial impact ultimately proved to be the most plausible explanation of the mass extinction. The key evidence came from a team led by Geologist Walter Alvarez and his Nobel-laureate father Luis Alvarez, who discovered an anomalously high iridium content in a thin layer of clay deposited at that time.

Randall writes in her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs that the scientific method “allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.”

The quest for knowledge is rarely a direct route. It’s usually a meandering but often challenging hike, and it helps to share it with friends. That’s been Randall’s experience, and this book is her invitation for readers to join her on the trail to a surprising follow-up to the Alvarezes’ work.

Randall studies the theory of the very small–subatomic particles–and the very large, the origin and evolution of the universe. Those two seemingly different realms are actually intimately connected through the Big Bang from which our cosmos emerged.

Her current work centers on the quest to understand dark matter. Normal matter consists of subatomic particles that interact through electromagnetic and two types of nuclear forces to form nuclei, atoms, and molecules. They also carry mass, which, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, creates a distortion of spacetime. When enough mass is gathered in one place, that distortion is detectable as gravity.

Normal matter’s properties cause it to interact with and produce light and, more generally, other electromagnetic waves. It can absorb light, reflect light, or refract light. It glows with a spectrum that depends on its temperature.

Dark matter, on the other hand, is oblivious to electromagnetic and nuclear forces. It reveals itself to us by its gravitational effects, which are apparent in the structure of the universe, the internal motion of galaxy clusters (where it was first detected), and the rotation of individual galaxies.

Astonishingly, though we are only aware of dark matter through those massive structures, there is approximately five times as much of it in the universe as normal matter.

But what is it? And what does it have to do with the demise of the dinosaurs? That is where the meandering begins. After beginning the book with questions of dark matter and its relationship to our galaxy, Randall’s narrative diverts in what appears to be a completely different direction.

She writes about the formation of our solar system, life on Earth, and how long-period comets originate in the distant Oort cloud. She explains why astronomers think that those comets, rather than asteroids or short period comets that come mainly from the Kuiper Belt (home of Pluto), are most likely the source of major impact events. And she explores the tenuous but credible evidence that both mass extinctions and increased cosmic impacts occur at periodic intervals of roughly 30 million years.

Then she returns to her latest work and its unexpected connection to the doomsday comet. She and her colleagues have developed a model of dark matter that suggests that some of it would concentrate within a thin disk aligned with the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy. Whenever the solar system’s up and down motion took it through the galactic plane, the excess of dark matter could induce a greater than average influx of Oort cloud comets.
That passage through the galactic plane occurs at roughly 30 million year intervals. It was happening 66 million years ago.

Is that timing coincidental, or did dark matter unleash the dinosaur-doomsday comet? A soon-to-be-launched spacecraft called GAIA will study the distribution of mass of the galaxy. No one planned for it to address that question, but it may soon tell us whether that crazy-seeming hypothesis is worth pursuing further.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including an updated Kindle version of Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth available in English and German.

Review of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki Life After Nuclear War

by Susan Southard

(Viking, 416 pages, $28.95, July 28, 2015)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review was originally published in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

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Looking at the title of Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, many readers are likely to ask, “Hasn’t this story been told many times before?”

The answer, surprisingly, is no. Though the first atomic bomb attack on Japan and its aftermath have been well documented, the story of the second target city has, until now, remained in Hiroshima’s literary shadow.

So what better time to remedy that deficiency than next week’s 70th anniversary of the twin attacks? Southard’s book, the result of more than a decade of detailed research, follows the lives of five teenage hibakusha (bomb-affected people) from the hours immediately before the explosion of “Fat Man” above Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, to the present.

In the first chapter, readers meet the central characters. Streetcar driver Wada Koichi survived because of a twist of fate. A derailment elsewhere in the system diverted him from his normal route which would have taken him to the heart of the devastation.

Nagano Etsuko spent most of her lifetime blaming herself for persuading her parents to bring her younger siblings home from their grandparents’ home outside the city where had been evacuated for safety. Her brother died almost immediately after the attack; her sister weeks later when radiation sickness set in. She finally forgave herself after exchanging apologies with her mother in 1995.

“Wild child” but fashion-conscious Do-oh Mineko left the safety of her home five miles inland to work in a Mitsubishi Arms Factory plant. She was wearing her hated wartime clothing when the blast hit a mile away.

Night-shift postal worker Taniguchi Sumiteru awoke from a nap on a tatami (mat) on the post-office floor. Instead of having time off until noon, he covered a superior’s route. At 11:02 a.m., he was riding his red bicycle in the Northwest of the city when the bomb exploded about 1.5 miles to his south.

Of the five, Yoshida Katsuji was the youngest and closest to the blast, only a half-mile from ground zero. He was lowering a bucket into into a roadside well near the Urakami River when he looked upward and saw something falling from the sky. Southard uses his to words bring the chapter to an ominous close: “‘The parachutes floated down saatto,’ he said. Quietly, with no sound.”

Then with the turn of a page, Southard plunges her readers—and the protagonists—into horror. In gruesome detail, she describes the fireball and its aftermath: Total destruction of neighborhoods, factories, places of worship, and human bodies; survivors with burned flesh and seeping wounds that will not heal for years; radiation-induced illnesses that appear unnanounced weeks, months, or even years later; revulsion in the faces of others.

The survivors’ anger is palpable, directed only not toward the Americans who dropped the bombs but also toward their own militaristic leaders who had “fed propaganda to the Japanese people about their country’s supremacy and its innate destiny ….”

That destiny turned into defeat, occupation, and particular humiliation to the hibakusha. The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission offered medical care but treated them as experimental subjects. Southard notes that “Autopsy… tissues, slides, and body parts… were extracted, examined, and quickly dispatched to the United States,” where they were treated as classified information. As a result, ABCC’s own physicians were unable to get medical reports that were essential for proper treatment of their patients.

Late in life, many hibakusha took on a new identity. They became “karatibe–storytellers in the centuries–long Japanese tradition by which selected individuals pass on historical information to their fellow citizens and future generations.”

They had a mission and a message: No one should ever again become a hibakusha. Do-oh died of cancer in 2007 but left behind a collection of essays entitled Ikasarete ikite (Allowed to live, I live).

In 2010, a rapidly speading cancer claimed Yoshida as well. Before his final illness, he had been planning to speak at that year’s United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Hayashida Mitsuhiro, an eighteen-year-old activist and grandson of a hibakusha, took up Yoshida’s mantle. He now shares Yoshida’s story with American audiences, closing every speech with Yoshida’s signature words: “The basis of peace is for people to understand the pain of others.”

Through this book, Southard has also become a karatibe, enabling her readers to understand the hibakusha‘s pain and commitment that no one should ever again experience what they did. It is not easy reading, but it is essential in today’s world.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including the newly released eight-book series Exploring the Subatomic World.

Review of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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This review originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

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“I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas,… do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

Thus at a time when more than 8000 wildfires burned across the Lone Star State, destroying more than 400 homes, engulfing 1.8 million acres, and bringing about numerous business failures, the governor responded to a drought that rivaled the 1930s Dust Bowl by calling for Easter weekend prayers.

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett, who highlights that proclamation in the opening of a chapter called “Praying for Rain” in her new book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, was not criticizing Rick Perry’s personal faith. Her concern was the rejection by a Presidential candidate of the findings of his state’s leading atmospheric scientists who declared that human-caused global warming was exacerbating their state’s already difficult situation.

The political controversy over global warming and its cause persists despite an overwhelming scientific consensus. Although that is not Barnett’s central theme, it echoes in the background throughout the book and returns dramatically at the end.

In less skilled hands, that gloomy sub-theme could doom the book to failure. But Barnett never loses her readers as she weaves together a compelling set of human tales that carry them through millennia and around the world, often in vivid and lyrical prose and leavened with humor.

Rain, usually in tales of flood or scarcity, is part of the central narrative of every culture as well as many of their everyday conversations. “With its hurly-burlies and nor’easters,” Barnett writes in a chapter about meteorologists and other weather watchers, “rain’s eccentric vocabulary connects to the soggy literary landscapes of Ireland and England: Jonathan Swift is credited with the earliest published version of ‘raining cats and dogs’ in 1738, though an English dramatist named Richard Brome had his dialogue raining ‘Dogs and Polecats’ a century earlier.”

Those phrases, she continues in a long paragraph tracing vocabulary around the world, “seem practically ordinary compared with ‘raining young cobblers’ in Germany. It rains shoemakers’ apprentices in Denmark, chair legs in Greece, ropes in France, pipe stems in the Netherlands, and wheelbarrows in the Czech Republic…. Afrikaans-speakers have a version that rains old women with knobkerries (that would be clubs),… and the Spanish: esta lloviendo hasta maridos–it’s even raining husbands!…”

Those colorful colloquialisms are no doubt in the mind of readers in the last section of the book where they encounter a chapter on “Strange Rain.” The chapter features anecdotal and documented instances of frogs or fish plopping from the sky, as well as colored rains. In that chapter we meet one of the book’s many colorful characters, Charles Hoy Fort, who gained minor fame in the early twentieth century for his books of oddities.

“Fort spent years digging up reports of strange rain,” Barnett notes. “He would meticulously source his weird findings…that corroborated rains of toads, frogs, snakes, eels, spiders, stones, pebbles, salt, cinders, coal, and gelatinous goo.”

But that chapter is not all about natural curiosities. It leads up to the story of how acid rain caused by human activity led an environmentally conscious U.S. Congress to enact the Clean Air Act of 1970. Still, as Barnett notes, the world’s environmental problems are hardly solved. “If Fort is right that society shall be judged by the health of its frogs, we’re in for a harsh adjudication. Frogs have survived in more or less their current form for the past 250 million years…. Today they are vanishing…. The rain-loving little bioindicators are definitely trying to tell us something.”

In a brief but pointed final chapter, Barnett describes the political obstacles we face in responding to the challenges of climate change, particularly criticizing powerful Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, whose fundamentalist religious position on climate and his “sense of duty” to the oil and gas industry stands in the way of action.

Barnett’s epilogue is a quiet call to action. Written as a travel essay, it takes readers to a resort that celebrates the rain in India’s state of Meghalaya during monsoon season. But there, as in most locations of the world, previously unusual and extreme weather conditions have become almost commonplace. The historically rain-cooled region is sunny, hot, and oppressive. Barnett titles that epilogue “Waiting for Rain.”

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly thirty books for young readers, including the newly revised Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch: Create and Run Your Own Weather Station, coauthored by the host of TWC’s “Weather Geeks” program, Prof. J. Marshall Shepherd.

Review of Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $26.00, July 2014)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz.
Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

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We live in a remarkable high-tech world, surrounded by objects with extraordinary properties that are only possible because of fabricated materials. We have silicon microchips, fiberoptic glass cables, airplanes made from ultralight but ultrastrong composites and alloys, and of course, chocolate.

That is the take-away message from Mark Miodownik’s entertaining and informative Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. Miodownik holds two titles at University College London, both of which will evoke a curious smile: Professor of Materials and Society and Director of the Institute for Making.

Those titles alone are enough to make readers want to know him better. And to their delight, the book delivers on both the scientific and personal levels. Its anecdotes, inviting prose, and unusual choice of chapter titles introduce both the author and his field of research, materials science.

It is a field that is inseparable from the roots and evolution of human civilization. It goes back to a time when discoveries were empirical, long before scientific and engineering approaches had emerged.

It goes back to our earliest technology. With its Greek root “techne-” for making things, technology leads to both artistry and craftsmanship, to beauty and utility. Miodownik puts it this way: “The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.”

He goes on to note the importance of materials to civilization underlies “the names we have used to categorize the stages of civiliztion—the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age—with each new era of human existence being brought about by a new material.”

Today, materials both new and old are being transformed by science and technology, and they continue to reshape the way we live. To tell that story, Miodownik invites his readers to his London rooftop where he sits wearing a comfortable sweter and sneakers, reading a book, sipping tea from an heirloom china cup, surrounded by potted plants, with antennas and multistory buildings in the background.

Each chapter opens with that same picture with an arrow highlighting a particular man-made material, followed by a personal story that leads in a sometimes circuitous but always fascinating path to his main point about a class of materials.

The titles of each of the first ten chapters are evocative adjectives. It opens with the arrow pointing to the “Indomitable” steel support of his table and an anecdote about meeting a man named Brian in a Dublin pub who had invented an electronic machine to sharpen blunt razor blades.

It may have been a crackpot idea, but it was possible that Brian had stumbled upon a useful process, just as our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age ancestors had. “He explained that he had invented his machine by trial and error, with no appreciation for the physics and chemistry at play,” Miodownik writes, “and yet it seemed he had somehow succeeded. What he wanted from me was to measure the sharpness of the razors before and after they had been through his process.”

From there, Miodownik moves to the science of various iron-carbon alloys, decribing how each one’s properties depends on details of its composition and crystal structure, and to the history of metallurgy and its empirical roots.

Other chapters include materials from “Trusted” paper to “Fundamental” yet remarkably high-tech concrete, to “Imaginative” plastics, “Invisible” glass, and “Unbreakable” yet soft and slippery graphite and its multitude of carbon cousins.

“Delicious” chocolate and “Refined” porcelain are also on the menu, followed by a dessert of “Synthesis,” which notes that materials are “complex expressions of human needs and desires. And in order to create those materials,… we have had to master the complexity of their inner structure.”

The book ends with a repeat of the rooftop photograph above a caption noting the author’s hope that “as a result of reading this book, you’ll see it a little differently.” Neither Miodownik nor his readers will get up from that table disappointed.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly thirty books for young readers, including the American Institute of Physics Award-Winning Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels.

Why all the buzz about inflation?

If you are not a physicist, you may be asking yourself why so many science reporters are suddenly abuzz about gravitational waves and the phenomenon known as Cosmic Inflation. Perhaps this blog post can help answer that question.

As an author of nearly 30 science books for young readers, I may be well equipped to simplify and clarify both without losing too much depth. If you want more after this, I recommend this link from Stanford University, which includes a video of a key scientist, Andrei Linde, getting the news in person from one of his colleagues.

Let’s start with the idea of Cosmic Inflation, which is represented by the lower portion of the Stanford University graphic below. The horizontal axis is time from the Big Bang, which is at the extreme left end. The vertical spread represents the size of the universe.

As proposed originally by Stanford Postdoctoral Fellow Alan Guth (now a professor at MIT), inflation happened less than 10-32 seconds after the Bang Bang. At that point, the universe abruptly inflated faster than the speed of light would permit. The explanation is that space-time itself emerged from the Big Bang, and it was space-time rather than matter or energy that inflated.

Inflation is needed to solve a cosmic puzzle. When we look at deep regions of the universe in opposite directions, we are seeing parts of the universe that are too far apart to have communicated with one another, even with signals that travel as fast as light. Yet somehow, they are at the same temperature; that is they are in thermal equilibrium. Inflation explains how that can be possible. The entire universe was in thermal equilibrium in the tiny bit of time before inflation began.

The idea of that faster-than-light inflation did not sit very well with some physicists, who wanted observations that directly showed evidence of the inflationary event. The upper part of the graphic helps explain that evidence. According to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, changing the distribution of mass or energy in space creates ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves. Linde, then living in Russia, proposed that if the gravitational waves created by inflation could be detected, they would reveal details of that brief but critical period in the history of the universe. A remarkable collaborative observation of the Cosmic Microwave Background in a project known as BICEP2, has done precisely that.

I predict that this discovery, if confirmed, will win a Nobel Prize for Physics for Guth and Linde very soon–if not the next one, then the one after that. No wonder this announcement is creating such a buzz!

ADDENDUM: Confirmation seems to be unlikely, given that serious doubt has now been cast on these results. See this article in Scientific American for a clear explanation of why dust may be responsible for the BICEP2 results.

Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power

At a Nobel Forum in December 2013, several past laureates discussed the future of nuclear power. Their conclusions were far from unanimous. All agreed that nuclear power is the only current technology capable of replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large enough scale to mitigate the risk of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

But as I note in my 2012 book for young readers,
Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future
, the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns hangs heavily over the future development of the industry. The political and technological questions are intertwined. These include:

Should we continue to use uranium reactor technology or replace it with thorium breeder reactors?

Are we capable of properly assessing the risks of nuclear power?

Should we consider nuclear technology a permanent piece of our energy future, or should we consider it a bridge to a late 21st-century electric power industry dominated by wind turbines and solar energy–or perhaps even nuclear fusion reactors?

For people seeking clear answers, the forum might be considered a disappointment. To them, I respond that the most important issues of technology and society rarely have clear-cut approaches. The best we can do is to continue to raise open questions and compare them to the physical, political, and economic environment not only of the present but of the future in which those technological approaches will be applied.

The forum raised those open questions. It will be up to future leaders, who make up the target audience for my books, to grapple with them.

Book Review (Physics): Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggott
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Modern physics is in trouble. Just when we think we are on the verge of sewing everything up, we tug on a loose end and whole sections of the tapestry unravel.

This is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, thanks largely to breakthrough ideas of Einstein, physicists were replacing space and time with spacetime. Mass and energy, once so obviously different, became a single property related by the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2.

Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was the first glimmer of an emerging new subfield, quantum physics. Meanwhile the first subatomic particles had been discovered, and many more were to follow.

Great minds proposed new theories. And those theories were challenged and shaped by great experiments. Gradually, physicists accepted the evidence that both relativity and quantum mechanics are valid descriptions of nature, and they developed the “Standard Model” to describe the properties of emerging array of subatomic particles.

Together, those remarkably successful descriptions of the physical universe comprise what physicist and author Jim Baggott calls “The Authorized Version,” which he describes in detail in the first half of his critique of current physics, Farewell to Reality.

The Authorized Version has flaws and missing pieces as well as strengths. For example, it suggests ways to unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces, but gravity remains in its own realm. Likewise quantum mechanics and relativity should both apply to the extreme conditions of the Big Bang and Black Holes, but their mathematics do not mesh.

And although the recent (apparent) discovery of the Higgs boson has strengthened the Standard Model, the latest astronomical measurements suggest that the model leaves out most of the universe. Approximately 95 percent of the cosmos is either “dark matter,” which we observe through its gravitational attraction on the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters, or “dark energy,” which produces a kind of anti-gravity on the cosmic scale.

Those defects in The Authorized Version are not the reason for Baggott’s challenging subtitle, How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Truth. Rather, he asserts that modern physics has said “Farewell to Reality” in the attempts to fill in The Authorized Version’s gaps with theoretical leaps and multiple conjectures that he calls “fairy-tale physics.”

He uses that characterization to take on Stephen Hawking directly. In a 2010 book, Hawking calls Superstring or M-Theory The Grand Design, presenting it as his favorite candidate theory of everything. Baggott, however, contends that M-Theory is built on an astonishing sequence of speculative assumptions, with no supporting experimental evidence for any of them.

He argues that M-Theory’s proposal of a “multiverse” is implausible in the extreme. The M-Theory multiverse is a vast set of universes with different physical constants. By chance, a few of those turn out to be suitable for the formation of stars, planets, and the atoms and molecules of life.

What bothers Baggott and attracts Hawking is that the number of possible universes in the multiverse is approximately ten to the five hundredth power! The advantage of such a large number is that even an exceptionally unlikely event, such as the evolution of a living world with intelligent life, becomes inevitable.

Baggott looks at it differently. “Scientists (even theoretical physicists) should not be afraid to say they don’t know…. We want them to speculate, to push the frontiers of their science. But when their ambition to give answers drives them to tell fairy tales,… let us all be clear that we have left science far behind.”

Loose ends, he argues, are not a bad thing. And he eagerly begins to tug.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of twenty books including Physics: Decade by Decade, a history of physics in the twentieth century.

Is this the year for Peter Higgs?

A little more than a year ago, I blogged about the possibility of a Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs and others. I was premature, probably because the deliberation about the 2012 prizes was well underway when the researchers announced the likely discovery on July 4, 2012.

Also, the committee probably wanted to wait for subsequent announcements that would strengthen the discovery and provide more insight into the presumed particle’s properties. Many are now calling it the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson because of a slightly earlier publication by Robert Brout and François Englert (August 1964 vs. Higgs’ October paper) that discussed the mass-giving field but did not specifically include the boson.

Now the speculation about the winner of this year’s Nobel Prizes has begun. Thomson Reuters, which publishes an index of research paper citations, predicts that this is the year for Higgs and Englert. (Brout is deceased and the prize is only awarded to living scientists.)

Since others contributed significant papers soon after (notably Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble, who published their contribution in December), and since the Nobel can be shared up to three ways, I have to wonder whether there will be an additional winner.

Since physics is an interplay between theory and experiment, I also wonder how the experimentalists who designed and conducted the experiment that ultimately led to the boson’s discovery will be honored. I think it is likely that another Nobel Prize for that work will be forthcoming before the end of this decade.

Stay tuned.

P.S.: Recommended reading about the quest for the Higgs Boson, The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample

P.P.S.: If you are interested in my perspectives on the recent history of Physics and a look ahead to the discoveries waiting to happen in the next several years, please look for my 2007 book Physics: Decade by Decade in the Twentieth-Century Science collection from Facts on File.

Remembering Hugh D. Young

Many readers of Science Blog will recognize the name Hugh D. Young from the textbooks he wrote. I was lucky enough to know him as a professor and friend.

He left us as the age of 82 on Tuesday, August 20, 2013. His official obituary is here. I won’t repeat its details. Instead, I will share a few personal thoughts.

When Hugh retired in 2004, I was one of a small number of past students who were able to present a brief remembrance. Here is what I have on my computer from that ceremony. I’ll follow it with additional thoughts that I would not have included at that ceremony.

The request was simple: “We’re making a video for Hugh Young’s retirement tribute. Would you say a few words about him?”

“I’d be honored,” I replied. Then I realized what I had committed myself to: a few words.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to be concise. I know how important it is to distinguish my remarks from others. I know how essential it is to know my audience and connect with them. And I know it wouldn’t hurt to leave them with a smile.

We all know that Hugh Young is a great teacher, and I’ll include a few words about that. But because my career path has taken me from the practice of physics to writing about it and about other sciences, I want to focus on Hugh Young the writer and the influence his books have had on me.

Not every good teacher writes well, and not every good writer can teach. But they share some important common traits. Every student who has had the experience of a course with Dr. Young knows that this professor loves his subject. He prepares each lecture and demonstration with thorough attention to detail. At the heart of each is a question, because that is the way physics reveals the universe.

But good teaching is more than academic. Hugh’s students know that he is personally concerned about every one of them. Even in a 200-seat lecture hall, every bleary-eyed undergraduate pays rapt attention. They have to do their best in his class. They can’t disappoint Dr. Young.

Hugh Young’s books convey both enthusiasm for his subject matter and concern for the students who grapple with it. Most of you know him for his work on the massive Sears, Zemansky, and Young University Physics text. But I remember three earlier works that I encountered as an undergraduate, a graduate assistant, and a young professor.

I still have all three. The two hardcover texts — Fundamentals of Mechanics and Heat and Fundamentals of Optics and Modern Physics — are models of clarity. They provide detail without overwhelming the students, and they never fail to hold the reader’s interest. I am sure their approach was influential in my own writing about an important and complex subject, Materials Science and Engineering, for a somewhat younger readership.

The result was Techno-Matter, for which I won the 2002 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for works intended for young readers. The award not only included a cash prize but also an inscribed Windsor chair similar to one that might come with an endowed professorship. It is clearly so special that some visitors to my home ask permission to sit in it, but Hugh would be welcome to plop his posterior there without asking.

The paperback Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data was the text for Dr. Young’s sophomore course in Physical Measurements. Before that course, I treated measurements as numbers to be put into formulas. Afterwards, I realized that measurements provide an imperfect perspective on the physical universe, but it is the only perspective we can have.

That is something that fourth graders can appreciate on their own level, and so I begin my one and only project book, Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch, with a section on measurements and what they mean.

The illustrator and I used a bug-eyed space alien to help me get the point across. If I ever revise the book, I’ll ask the artist to give the alien a buzz haircut, a long face, owlish glasses, a prominent Adam’s apple, and a great Hugh Young smile.

Thanks, Hugh, for everything!

Thinking about Hugh’s life would not be complete without the legends that swirled around the Carnegie Tech campus when I was a student there and Hugh was an age 30-something professor. Apparently, he was a straight-A undergraduate student who belonged to a fraternity sometimes known for its outrageousness. And the undergraduate Hugh was known for his writing with a distinctive brand of humor. Though I never saw a copy of the alleged document, I heard that the fraternity had the original copy of “Hugh Young’s Dirty Ditties.”

The only excerpt I recall was called “The Night of the King’s Castration.” It began, if memory serves, “It was the Night of the King’s Castration. The Royal Ball was about to come off.” He described those in attendance at the event, including “Counts, Viscounts, and No-Accounts.” And I am sure the story had much better–and much bawdier–material.

But we also knew that our very bright and very personable professor also had a soft spot in his heart for many people, most especially his wife, who survives him. I’ll never forget the dedication of one of his books, “To Alice, who shares her Wonderland with me.” Perhaps that is why I strive to write meaningful dedications in my own books.

Perhaps I should dedicate my next one in his memory.

Tornado Chasers and TV Networks

Over the past two weeks, the Oklahoma City area has been hit by two tragic tornados, and although the first one was more deadly, the second one provides us with the more important lessons.

In the first one, which struck the city of Moore, was classified as in the most powerful range (EF-5). The largest cluster of deaths were, unfortunately, eight people in a school that took a direct hit. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They staff of the school did its best to keep everyone safe, but there was no tornado shelter.

What bothered me most about the news coverage was the focus on people who picked their kids up at school and went driving away. These people were not smart, but lucky, since they actually put their kids at greater risk.

I had to wonder if that coverage was responsible for the large number of people out on the road in the most recent outbreak. As noted meteorologist Matt Daniel notes in his blog at EarthSky, eight of the nine people who died during that outbreak were in cars.

That outbreak splashed this picture of the Weather Channel Tornado Hunt 2013 car that was caught in a tornado all over the Internet. Fortunately, the reporters survived, not because of skill but pure luck. Tim Samaras of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, his son, and storm chaser Carl Young, were not so lucky. They lost their lives when a storm cell blossomed into a tornado that they were unable to escape.

The fact that major networks see fit to have tornado chase cars is an important issue. Professional tornado chasing should have only one purpose: research. If Tim was doing research, then he lost his life taking a risk he understood for benefits he also understood. But if he was doing it for a TV network, then you have to question the value of his activity. Those deaths will be in vain if we don’t learn from them, and that requires asking the hard question about his motivation. That is not disrespectful, but it is painful, especially in the moment. We need to acknowledge both the pain and the importance.

Did Samaras need network money to fund his research and thus take unnecessary risks? If so, that says a lot about the state of meteorology research funding. I will be looking for information that sheds light on why he took a risk that ultimately cost him his life.

But I have little doubt that about the journalistic value of having storm chasers. It is zero. Having a storm-chasing vehicle allows the networks to get sensational images that add nothing to the news story but attract “eyeballs”. First responders don’t permit journalists to enter burning buildings because of the pointless risk to themselves and the possibility that they will get in the way of the firefighters. The same should be true in the case of storm chasing by networks.