Friday, September 14, 2012

Great Science: measuring the retreat of prehistoric glaciers.

This is simply a great video explaining how scientists go about reconstructing the history of the retreat of prehistoric glaciers. It's really good science and it's all part of a MASSIVE effort by scientists to understand how the Earth works so that we can better predict future changes to the Earth's climate.

Make sure to watch in HD and fullscreen to appreciate the amazing scenery.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Mania!

CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory based in Geneva, Switzerland, today announced the discovery of a new fundamental particle, which appears to be the long sought after Higgs boson. They are been very cautious about actually declaring that it is the Higgs particle as described by various theories, as they need many more experiments and data to fully understand all the properties of this new particle.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, even for somebody like me with a formal education in physics, it's really not easy to fully grasp the underlying concepts. In simple terms, the discovery of a Higgs particle allows particle physicists to confirm that their star theory, The Standard Model, is a very good description of how the Universe works. This particular part of the puzzle allows them to better understand why some fundamental particles have no mass (i.e. no "weight", such as the photons that make up light) while others do (like the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons that make up you and me). During the press conference, which I was able to follow live this morning, the CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer, gave a brilliant and insightful analogy into how the whole thing works:

Speaking to the room full of journalists, he said to imagine themselves (the journalists) as representing what's known as the Higgs field. This is a field (a bit of a mysterious field, but let's leave that for another day) that permeates the entire universe. Now, imagine that some regular Joe walks into the room. This person will be able to make his way through room without been bothered. This is analogous to particles with no mass, such as photons, that do not interact with the Higgs field and can therefore reach the ultimate speed: the speed of light. Now imagine that a well-known person (e.g. Peter Higgs, the "father" of the theory) walks into the room and wants to make his way to his seat. Well, the journalists begin to crowd around him and poor Peter finds it difficult to walk very fast. This is analogous to particles with mass (e.g. quarks and electrons) that end up interacting with the Higgs field. It is this interaction that slows them down and it is this "slowing down" that we call mass. Simple, eh? But where does the Higgs boson fit into all this? Well, in physics, all fields are capable of producing their own particles and the Higgs field should be no different. Staying with the analogy of a room full of journalists, imagine that somebody whispers a rumour in to the room (like, "I heard there's free coffee and biscuits after the press conference!"). This rumour will cause many of the journalists to clump together to get more information on this important piece of news. Similarly, the Higgs field can be made to clump together if enough energy is available, and this clump of Higgs field is what we call a particle. By proving the existence of this Higgs particle, physicists at CERN have proved the existence of the Higgs field and the Standard Model theory that predicted its existence!

Right, here's a selection of news and blog articles on the event that I found useful:
A Quantum Leap, ( by well-known physicist Lawrence Krauss
Higgs! by the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait
Happy Birthday, Higgs Boson! by ZapperZ on his blog "Physics and Physicists"
Physicists find new particle, but is it the Higgs? by Matthew Chalmers at
Stop calling it "The God Particle"!, by Dave Goldberg over at

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dilemmas of a climate denier

The scientists over at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN may announce the discovery (or likely discovery) of the Higgs Boson tomorrow. I've been quite amused reading the comments beneath an article on the subject over at WUWT. Some of the folks there are having trouble reconciling their disbelief and distrust in climate science and climate scientists, with the possibility of accepting the scientific discovery of another group of scientists. They're trying to have their cake and eat it too, but it's not that easy. After all, many of those CERN scientists will have colleagues and friends that work on the issue of AGW.

Most of the attacks on the blogosphere and on conservative media against climate change predictions are not actually attacking the science, but instead focus a lot on portraying the various well known scientists and the climate science community as being dishonest and even fraudulent. I do think that one of the better arguments to use against such nonsense is to point out that the same reasoning used to criticize the climate scientists could also be used to criticize all other disciplines in science, from particle physics, to medical science and even my own field of plasma physics. Yet, for some (not so) mysterious reason, the climate deniers don't harass the folks in those other fields. The comments over on WUWT about the LHC seem to expose that dilemma in all its ugly glory.

Anyhoo, I decided to add my own tongue-in-cheek comment. I'm not sure everybody over there will get the joke. Here's what I said:

Obviously there’s no Higgs boson. It’s a hoax. It’s existence is derived from “models” and the experimental “evidence” is not directly linked to the Higgs. Instead, they use theoretical “simulations” to infer the particle’s existence from the data. If we start believing in this sort of science, then we’re on a slippery slope to believing that other models and simulations (such as those in AGW) could infer scientific “facts” from data. We can’t have that now, can we?
They’ll probably also want to build a bigger “laser” and ask tax payers for a million … sorry, strike that … a billion dollars!!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Taking a dip in the Climate Wars

I'm over halfway through reading Michael Mann's recent book "The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines". It's a fascinating read and I hope to write up a full review once I'm finished. I'm just writing this post to get the ball rolling and to set the stage.

It turns out that I ended up getting a bit more involved in those climate wars sooner than I thought I would. It started after I had a knee-jerk reaction to reading an article over on WUWT. That reaction was to send a tweet to Mann expressing how amazed I was that the people commenting below the WUWT article could actually bring themselves to defend the question posed to Mann by a certain Roger Sowell (who I know nothing about, at least for now). To my delight, Mann replied and we struck up a short Twitter conversation (below; read from the bottom up; click on image to embiggen).

As you can see from the end of that conversation, our initial tweets sparked a reply by Anthony Watts over on his website. I've been writing several follow up comments over on that article to point out the laziness and sloppiness of the question put forward by Sowell to Mann. One person in particular (some guy called Bill Tuttle) has attempted to knock down my arguments but he keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Every reply seems to expose the fact that he hasn't even bothered to look at the articles by Mann (known as MBH98 and MBH99) that Sowell was trying to refer to. He's even gone as far as using McIntyre and McKitrick's work as "proof" of errors in the work by Mann et al., even though the various analyses by M&M have all been shown to be flawed or without incidence on the final hockey stick curve.

This small dip into the morass of the Climate Wars has been an interesting experience for me. The back and forth comments over on WUWT forced me to research more into the debate over the hockey stick (am slowly building up a bibliography of relevant scientific articles). It has also, however, been very informative of just how powerful the Internet can be in getting one's own armchair opinions out into the world. Although I'm somewhat flattered that my conversation with Mann made a small ripple on WUWT, it's also a lesson to me to be wary of what I post online in the future.

If you want more info related to Mann's book, I see that he is beginning to use a new hashtag dedicated to it on Twitter: #HSCW

Links to the HSCW on:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A must-read article on the Climate Wars

Popular Science magazine ( just recently published a very lengthy article entitled "The Battle Over Climate Science". It goes into great detail over how a large number of climate scientists "routinely face death threats, hate mail, nuisance lawsuits and political attacks". 
Here are two excerpts that particularly caught my attention, in a bad way:
A climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory answered a late-night knock to find a dead rat on his doorstep and a yellow Hummer speeding away. An MIT hurricane researcher found his inbox flooded daily for two weeks last January with hate mail and threats directed at him and his wife. And in Australia last year, officials relocated several climatologists to a secure facility after climate-change skeptics unleashed a barrage of vandalism, noose brandishing and threats of sexual attacks on the scientists’ children.
 “When I get an e-mail that mentions my child and a guillotine,” Hayhoe says, “I sometimes want to pull a blanket over my head. The intent of all this is to discourage scientists. As a woman and a mother, I have to say that sometimes it does achieve its goal. There are many times when I wonder if it’s worth it.”
But there was some positive news in the article:
Some conservative think tanks have since begun to soften their positions. Jeff Kueter, the current president of the George C. Marshall Institute, which has been advocating against mainstream climate science since the 1980s, told me in his office in Virginia last month that “climate change is not a hoax” and that “human activities undoubtedly have an impact on climate change.”
Public opinion in the U.S. about anthropogenic climate change is also changing. This spring, four major universities released polls showing that a clear majority of American citizens now say that the world is warming and that the country should take action. Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications at Stanford University, conducted one of the polls. He found that 83 percent of Americans say they believe that the Earth has been warming. One significant factor, he suggests, is that Americans can finally see and feel climate change happening. 
I've been reading quite a lot about climate change and the climate "debate" recently. A lot of the stuff I read makes me a bit angry because, as a working scientist, I feel like some of the hatred against climate scientists is directed at me and my colleagues too. This PopSci article doesn't help me abate that anger.

On the bright side, I 've been watching quite a few videos by Peter Sinclair over at (it was a recent article by Peter that linked to the PopSci article above). He has a series of videos called "Renewable Energy Solution of the Month". They make for very positive viewing and help give me great hope for the future.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Falcons and Dragons reaching for the stars

Today marked a major milestone for the private space company SpaceX in their quest to launch the first commercial spacecraft, the Dragon, to the International Space Station. The milestone in question was a dress rehearsal test fire of their rocket launch system known as the Falcon 9. For the uninitiated, this is a pretty mundane event, but for spaceflight geeks everywhere this was nail-biting stuff. A recorded video of the test is up on SpaceX's LiveStream account.

I followed the event on the SpaceX stream, on Twitter and on the forum. According to the manager of NSF (Chris Bergin) the number of visits to the forum came close to about 50% of the number of visits for a big Shuttle launch! Remember, today was only a test fire, so interest in the upcoming launch is massive and the number of visits to sites such as NSF may end up breaking past records.
Artist’s rendition of the Dragon spacecraft separating from the Falcon 9 upper (2nd) stage. Image credit:
I'm not gonna go in to too much details on the event as that's best done by the professionals (for example, here and here). What I will say is that it's days like this that I get true confirmation that I'm a space geek! I spent almost two hours to follow a two-second rocket fire test! It's difficult to explain to those who aren't space enthusiasts just where the enthusiasm comes from. Moreover, with today's communication networks of forums and social media, space geeks the world over can come together to share in the excitement. For me, reading the various forum posts and tweets really amplified my own personal enthusiasm for the event.

Now we all have to wait another seven days for the real thing and it's gonna be hard not to keep checking back on the forums and Twitter for every little update. In fact, this kinda all goes to show that sometimes it's the anticipation of something, and not the thing itself, that brings the greatest joy. Still though, I'm really looking forward to seeing that rocket and spacecraft ride into the Floridian sky next week! Go SpaceX!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Asteroid mining!

The coolest thing ever was just announced a couple of days a go: a group of rich billionaires have started up a venture which has the ultimate goal of sending robots to mine asteroids for water and precious metals! As Jon Stewart on the Daily Show said, this is a news story that looks and sounds in 2012 what we thought it would look and sound like in 2012. Also on that same Daily Show episode, astrophysicist gives the project his own version of a thumbs up by calling it "not bullshit" :)

Characterizing an asteroid’s value and preparing for mining operations
(image copyright: Planetary Reources)

Anyway, I'm not going to rant on about this too much, except to say that I'm pretty excited and hopeful about this project. We are now getting to a situation where private billionaire investors are starting to embarrass some (though not all) of the current efforts by the big space agencies (NASA, ESA and Roscosmos). Here are some more links about this whole story: - official website of the venture, called "Planetary Resources"

Phil Plait's (aka The Bad Astronomer) take on the announcement.

Forum discussion by the space enthusiast community over at

Monday, April 23, 2012

Psychoanalysis in France

The website recently posted an excerpt from the following article in the New Statesman:
Simon Singh also linked to the article on his Twitter account. The article follows right on the heels of a BBC report where France is criticized for still applying Freudian psychoanalysis techniques to treat autism. This whole subject area is very new to me, and I have to admit that I know very little about Freud, psychoanalysis or autism. Before I began digging some more into the issue, this is what I knew: that Freudian techniques are outdated (though I wasn't quite sure of all the details as to why they are outdated) and that autism is a neurological disorder.

The New Statesman article decides to bring the criticism of France to another level by accusing the French of a "difficult relationship with evidence-based science". Now, I do have some misgivings about science and scientists here in France, but the arguments and "evidence" put forward by the author, Michael Brooks, just come across as plain silly. Here's one of his arguments:
According to LSE researcher Martin Bauer, support within a population for science is inversely proportional to the strength of that country’s scientific research. As Bauer and his colleagues put it in this paper, “if the national science base is strong… science initiatives find less support and vice versa.” And, as it turns out, the French are highly supportive of science initiatives – suggesting their science base is actually rather weak.

Have you ever heard of such a silly proposition. To take this argument all the way to ad absurdum, one could conclude that to get a population to support science, one should aim to weaken the country's science base. Is it just me that finds that logic preposterous? So, if I'm understanding this right, countries that are extremely weak in science, say Mali, should have a population that protests on the street for more science initiatives? 

He then digs himself into a deeper hole with this nonsense:
I can offer some arbitrary and rather unscientific figures to back this up. Here’s the question: how many members of a population does it take to create a Nobel prize-winning scientist?
Taking 1970 as the cutoff for modern times, in Sweden, it’s 1.5 million people per scientific Nobel prize. In the UK, it’s 1.7 million. Germany has a prize for every 3 million people (reunification will no doubt have pushed that figure up). France? Since 1970, one scientific Nobel prize per 5 million people.
(bold emphasis mine)

Note to Mr. Brooks: if something is arbitrary and "rather unscientific", then don't use it to back anything up. Also, choosing arbitrary start dates (1970?) puts you on the same level as climate deniers who choose time intervals to "prove" that the Earth is cooling. Finally, one of the foundations of science is an understanding that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, a smaller number of Nobel prize-winning scientists in France compared to other countries is a long, long way from concluding that the French have a difficult relationship with evidence-based science.

There is an anti-pseudoscience association in France known as the "Association française pour l’information scientifique" (AFIS), or in English the "French association for science information". Their website can be found here: They also have a recent article on the issue of autism and psychoanalysis which you can try to read by using the Google translate tool.
In December 2010, the AFIS published a special magazine issue on psychoanalysis. Quickly skimming over the issue summary, it tries to tackle the reasons for why psychoanalysis is still prevalent in France, but that its decline is underway. 
Today (April 23rd, 2012), I just bought the recent edition of Le Nouvel Observateur which has on its front page the title "Faut-il brûler la psychanalyse ?" ("Should psychoanalysis be burned"). Within is a dossier of several articles that strongly criticize the discipline. 

There are criticisms to be made of both science culture and scientific research in France, but this article shows that the author is completely unaware of what those problems are and why they exist. I'll try to come back to that subject in another post.

"Scientists and Astronauts" criticizing NASA's global warming policy

I follow the climate change debate a lot and, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I follow a variety of blogs on both sides of the debate. One of those blogs, Watts Up With That by Anthony Watts, posted this article yesterday:

In that article, Anthony posts a press release entitled:
Joint letter to NASA Administrator blasts agency’s policy of ignoring empirical evidence

The letter in question is signed by "49 former NASA scientists and astronauts" who admonish NASA for "it’s role in advocating a high degree of certainty that man-made CO2 is a major cause of climate change"

In the following post, I will lay out my criticisms of the letter. Just to be clear before you read any further, let me state that I am a strong advocate of the general consensus that human actions are leading to global warming.

Anthropogenic Global Warming - a testable hypothesis

I follow several climate change blogs and two of them recently published some interesting articles on what we knew about global warming back in the early 80's and how the models of that time predicted the changing climate of the past 30 years.

From Climate Denial Crock of the Week, by Peter Sinclair, comes the following video:

In that video we get to see how the scientific predictions from 1982 have been validated. What I found really interesting in that video was the explanation of the "fingerprint approach", which is the method used to distinguish warming caused by carbon dioxide from warming caused by other factors.

On the Real Climate blog, two contributors wrote a post about a paper by James Hansen and co-workers (here's the pdf) that was published in 1981. The real eye-opening part of that post is a graph (click here for a direct link as I'm not sure about permissions for reproducing images) where they superimpose the temperature data of the last 30 years over the model predictions by Hansen et al from 1982. The correlation is astounding! It's not perfect, but I can tell you from experience that in science, such an agreement between two curves is considered a home run. If I could get experimental data that fitted just as well with models, then publishing science papers would be a breeze!


  • J. Hansen, D. Johnson, A. Lacis, S. Lebedeff, P. Lee, D. Rind, and G. Russell, "Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide", Science, vol. 213, 1981, pp. 957-966.

First post

Ok, time to bite the bullet and post some of my musings on this new blog of mine. To start, I've got three blog posts that have been lying idle and are ready to be published. Allons-y !