“So, when will you be able to teleport me out to visit you?”

That’s a question my friends and family ask me (jokingly) on a regular basis, given that my graduate studies involve quantum mechanics and given that “quantum teleportation” is perhaps second in popularity only to “exoplanets” as a topic for  popular science writing.

Seriously, there are so many articles about it. And that’s not a bad thing: I love anything that gives more exposure to the genuine awesomeness of quantum physics. Plus the field is undeniably hot right now: just as it seems like a new exoplanet is discovered every month, so to are different teams of physicists seemingly breaking teleportation records for size and distance.

But despite the current media exposure, the idea is, I think, still poorly understood. True, most folks  are all well-informed enough by now to understand that when physicists say “quantum teleportation,” they don’t intend you to imagine them saying it in a Scottish accent, because just about every article on the subject dutifully clarifies that this ain’t quite the same thing as that shimmery trick Scotty does on “Star Trek.” But while everyone’s clear on what quantum teleportation is not, understanding just what it is can be a mite more difficult.

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A “Human Wormhole”

No, this is not about physics, despite the title. It’s a phrase borrowed from Jason Kottke, who claims he thinks it isn’t quite right. But it seems perfect for what I’m about to present. Just watch it– it’s five minutes and it speaks for itself.

That’s right this is footage that you’re watching on youtube in 2012, of a television show taped in the late 1950s, featuring a man who remembers being there the day that Abraham Lincoln was shot.

If that’s not a human wormhole, a little narrow bridge made entirely of people forming an astonishingly short path between two extremely separated points in time, than I don’t know what it is. I suppose it’s also a bit like six degrees of Kevin Bacon played out through history, but that expression is just so much less compact!

By the way, this came to my attention through the excellent blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, (I’m a shameless blog thief today) who noted it as part of his ongoing effort to remind us that slavery is hardly that far into the past. Indeed, it’s hard for someone my age to wrap his brain around the fact that there are plenty of folks alive today, including the parents of many of my friends, who can probably clearly remember when the civil rights act was passed. So to find out that some of them might have, in fact, watched a TV program as a young child about a man who saw the assasination of Abraham Lincoln…. It boggles the mind. I mean, Abe Lincon, the man so far back in history that he has become the stuff of legends. A man from such a distant time that there are fewer than 200 known photographs of him in existence….

These “human wormholes” are wonderful. Because I’ve always been a little facsinated about the past and am constantly in search of ways to make it feel a little more accessible to me, I confess I’ve noticed a few in the past but just failed to blog about them. Until now. Rest assured, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for them in the future. For now, I’ll leave you with one more to tide you over, also from Mr. Coates: There are two men alive today who are the grandsons (not great-grandsons!) of President John Tyler. That’s the Tyler who was president in 1840, and who was himself born in 1790. In other words, there are men alive today who might reasonably be able to say “I bet my grandfather was really excited when he heard that they were building a special white house for President John Adams to move into.”

The Very Model of a Modern Maser General

This past week I had the rare experience of realizing that the government was going to do something that I’ve thought for a long time would be a really good idea. On September 13th, the inaugural “Golden Goose Awards” were given out on Capitol Hill. The awards, brainchild of Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper, are a response to the Golden Fleece “awards” used by Senator William Proxmire to draw attention to projects he saw as wastes of government spending– hence the vaguely unserious name. But aside from the unfortunate decision to trade gravitas for snarky wordplay, I could not be more excited about them.

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Pulling Out All the (F)Stops

I remember when I was about five my parents took me to the Denver Natural History Museum, which was doing an exhibit, aimed at kids, based on superheros. One of the set-ups was a screen which showed how quickly various animals– and superheros, of course– could run. When you pushed “start,” you could run along side them, and see how you stacked up. The machine also had a setting for “light,” and after trying it out, I remember being a little skeptical that anything was moving at all. Sure, it was one thing to realize I couldn’t keep up with Flash Gordon, or even a plain old Cheetah. But was the light really travelling? Or was it just showing up instantaneously at the finish as soon as I pressed the button? I was so astonished by the thought that light actually took time to travel that when I got home, I tried to repeat the ‘experiment’ to get my head around it: I stood by the front door with a flashlight, aimed the flashlight at the opposite wall, then turned it on, dropped it, and ran as quickly as I could to see if I could ever “beat” it to the end of the hallway. Sorry, Mom and Dad: I’m pretty sure I broke at least one of our flashlights that way. 

As you can imagine, I never did get my “proof” that photons have to travel at a finite speed just like everything else in the universe. As I grew up, and light became less mysterious, the idea became less difficult to grasp. Still, some small part of me (the part that still likes superheros, I assume) has never quite come to terms with the idea as anything other than a mathematical abstraction. Or, I should say, HADN’T come to terms with it. Until today.

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Et Tu, Wasabi?

A good while ago I wrote a post about my discovery that, despite my fondness for the exotic, tart-but-sweet condiment that I splash into olive oil whenever I have bread that needs dipping, I’ve never actually tasted balsamic vinegar. Instead I’ve just had a condiment made with regular wine vinegar and flavored with artificial caramel. It was sad news but perhaps at the same time comforting: I certainly still enjoy the taste of the “cheap” imitation and now I know that perhaps some day I can look forward to trying the real thing.

And thus it was with mixed emotions that I recently made a similar discovery: in spite of all the sushi I’ve eaten since getting up the nerve to try it during my freshman year of college, I’ve never actually eaten wasabi either.

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Are You Smarter Than an Italian Education Minister?

You are if you read my previous post about neutrinos, or really any account of the neutrino experiment that has been published in any of the newspapers I’ve seen

After all, I bet even those of you that didn’t have time for my 3,500 word treatise on the subject picked up on the fact that the scientists were just watching these particles do their thing, measuring their speed as they go about their business, only to discover that this speed was larger than the speed of light. I bet you also know by now that neutrinos can travel through the earth itself, because they’re so unwilling to interact with other matter.  If you’re really on the ball you might even know that this is considered a perk: Since neutrinos alone possess this extreme earth-tunneling power, a detector buried deep underground can be certain it’s seeing almost exclusively the neutrinos it wants to see, and not something else like a pion or a cosmic ray.

On the other hand, as some of my Italian friends have pointed out to me, anyone who got their news exclusively from Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini might have a different impression. Here‘s her official statement on the subject, which I would translate as follows:

 

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Faster Than a Speeding Photon?

So all the buzz in the physics department yesterday was this announcement by organizers of an experiment called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) that they’ve measured the speed of the neutrinos being produced at LHC particle accelerator in Europe– and that the speed is larger than the speed of light, Einstein’s famous speed limit for the universe. The one advocated by the bumper sticker above.

For some reason, the story really seems to have taken root outside the scientific community as well; it was featured prominently on a Washington Post, my family tells me it made the front page of the Denver Post, and to top it all off, an acquaintance I know only indirectly posted about it on my Facebook wall– a sign of total societal penetration if ever there was one. I don’t know quite why this bit of news has had such an impact, but I would guess it’s because the story lives in a happy place between being intriguingly futuristic and prohibitively complex. Lots of folks are aware of the “cosmic speed limit,” and the idea of someone breaking it (even someone subatomic!) is the kind of thing that would be right at home in an episode of Star Trek. Indeed, science fiction writers have made such prolific use of the concept of a “tachyon” (a blanket term for hypothetical particles that might travel faster than the speed of light) that there’s an entire wikipedia page devoted to their appearances in popular fiction.

But unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of the concept seems to have lulled the media into a false sense of security, with the result that many of the mainstream articles fail to give any of the interesting details, the context, or the implications, to the point that many of them could just be replaced with an extended headline reading “Scientists See Particles Moving Faster Than Light; Einstein Wrong? Carl Sagan Once Said Something About Extraordinary Claims.”

They aren’t all so bad. This piece from ScienceNow, reprinted in Wired, is the best I’ve seen in popular press, and not just because it quotes a professor I currently work for . And of course one can always turn to the actual publication of the result. But just in case your taste for detail falls somewhere between the two, I’d like to offer some clarifying information about the context of this little puzzle.

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