How Fast Is That Shuttle In The Window?

Answer: pretty fast, as you can see in the following totally awesome youtube video.

This footage, shot from the window of a commercial airliner that happened to be leaving Florida just as the shuttle took off, is some of the most striking video I’ve ever seen of a space shuttle launch (factor in the fact that this will be Discovery’s last trip into orbit, and it makes it all the more special). In it you can clearly see the space shuttle appear as a bright light in the distance, and then climb upwards until, about 30-45 seconds into the clip, it’s already about as high up as the airplane.

Actually, according to my old pal, it takes the real shuttle about a full minute to reach the cruising altitude of a 747 (about 35,000 feet) so the video footage must have started 15-30 seconds after the actual launch. Still, it’s hard to deny the sheer velocity with which the six people packed into that tiny point of light have caught up to the airplane, particularly if you compare the time it took the shuttle to get up there with the amount of time you spend on an airplane waiting for the flight crew to tell you it’s safe to use your electronic devices again. And get this: the space shuttle is still accelerating at that point. By the end of the clip, which is two minutes in, it will be about five times further from earth than the airplane.

Oh, and as a side note, how cool is it that this guy has a phone in his pocket that lets him take high-quality video at a moment’s notice, just in case he’s minding his own business and accidentally stumbles upon a space shuttle launch? Thanks iPhone. You’ve made my day.


Who Do You Write Like?

Via a couple of Facebook friends, I just stumbled upon this website which seeks to statistically answer the above question. You put in a sample of your writing, and it tells you which author you resemble stylistically. Apparently it’s been making its way around the interwebs for some months now, but I guess I’m getting old enough it’s okay if I’m not always a first adopter anymore, right?

Anyway, the website is frustratingly “black boxish” for a geek like me who likes to know how things work. It tells us only that, through some sort of statistical analysis, it looks at a writing sample you submit and tells you which famous author has the most stylistically similar prose. Fair enough; it’s easy enough to imagine a number of ways in which such a program could be written But that’s not the interesting part. What sort of statistics do they use? What is their metric of “distance” between styles? I wish it would tell me. It’s not as though that could be some kind of proprietary secret. But being a bit of a dork I’ve tried to find out anyway. The results were curious but inconclusive so far.

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The Baffling, Frustrating Ignorance of John Horgan

Sigh… I’ve been taking a bit of a break from reading and/or thinking about politics during the last 10 days or so (I know, I know– ironically the past week has been full of some of the year’s biggest geopolitical headlines!) and had decided just to concentrate on science, physics, and a new origami technique I’m learning. The whole thing has been very relaxing. Granted, I’m usually one who enjoys a good debate, and hence tends to enjoy reading people’s opinions about politics, because even if it’s some one stupid making shockingly fragile arguments, I get a weird rush from thinking about all they ways I could expose their intellectual osteoporosis if I ever got to go toe to toe with them in a battle of wits. Unfortunately, it seems to me that something about the increasingly high political tensions in America today has caused even people with access to the mass media to say incredibly, insultingly idiotic things, regardless of whether they themselves are actual idiots. And there’s something about that which spoils the fun for me, because if these people are too smart to sell the kind of partially-hydrogenated snake oil* they’re traficking, then I can’t comfort myself by imagining a fantasy world where I get to rebut their arguments right before their eyes and convince them of their own ignorance. These people are sharp enough that they should have been able to see through their lies and elisions as easily as I can, so they must either be peddling falsehoods on purpose or else their subject to some kind of mass delusion. Either way, I don’t think anything I could say to them would affect their thinking in the slightest, so I just end up wishing they’d loan me their spare brain cells if they aren’t going to be using them for their own purposes.

So anyway, it was precisely because I’d had enough of smart people saying braindead things that I had been restricting my reading list to science blogs and textbooks lately. And then I encountered this piece by John Horgan, which was actually published last year but had recently been republished in the campus newspaper of the Stevens Institute of Technology and thus made it’s way into my daily reading. On the plus side, I guess it helped convince me that I might as well start reading about politics again.

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Sour Grapes (Or At Least A Reduction Thereof)

Here’s something that may surprise you: you’ve probably never tasted balsamic vinegar.

Oh, sure, I bet you’ve bought and cooked with your fair share of stuff called balsamic vinegar. And probably it was even fancier, more expensive stuff than the Heinz bottle pictured at right. It may even have said “aceto balsamico di Modena” to impress you. But unless you’re prepared to make some really annoying arguments about how changes in pop-commercial usage redefine language at will (are all sad things really ironic just because Alanis Morisette thinks so?) then I’m afraid you’ve been slightly hoodwinked.

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Things I Learned While Eating Cookies: Black-Holes-as-the-Key-to-What-We-Can’t-Know Edition

So it’s taken me quite some time to decide what aspect of last week’s colloquium I could turn into a blog post. Although from a string theorist’s perspective I the material was “dumbed down” to be accessible to a general physics audience, it was a fairly technical talk and hard to excerpt nicely. Seeing as it is already time for the next cookie-filled colloquium, however, I’ve decided just have a go at explaining the broad overview of the talk rather than trying to pull out a particular detail.

The speaker last week (Princeton’s Steve Gubser, a real up-and-coming theorist and the quintessential American nerd) certainly knew how to play to an audience. His talk, titled “On the sometimes-happy relationship between string theory and heavy-ion physics” could not have been better tailored to the Stony Brook department, which is excellent in many areas but outstanding at string theory and nearly unparalleled in nuclear physics (shut up, people at U Michigan). The fact that our school excels in these two areas, however, is largely a coincidence, since up until a few years ago they were considered widely different disciplines of physics. But that was before the discovery of the aDS/CFT correspondence, which formed a bridge between the two and is the concept I want to explain in the rest of the post.

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Nine Planets After All?

You’ll have to fogrive me; tonight was supposed to be the night I finally got around to blogging about what I learned at last week’s colloquium. But then I stumbled upon a really interesting paper that I just had to spend some time reading, and that wound up taking a large portion of the evening. Large enough that now I just want to go to bed. The colloquium post will be along tomorrow afternoon (it’s already half finished).

But for now, let me at least tell you about this paper. John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, both astrophysicists at U-Louisiana Lafayette, are claiming that, even without Pluto, the solar system may have nine planets after all.

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Geeks Only, Please

No, seriously. The following post will affect your opinion of me, unless you truly share my geekery. Note that I said for “geeks” only, not nerds only, which in my book means people obsessed with sci-fi and pop technology rather than people who like science and math.

You’re still reading, aren’t you. Alright, fine. Have it your way. Over the weekend I discovered a new version of “Star Wars.” It is terrific. I watched it twice.

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