Global warming is more classical than quantum

First, let me say that it baffles me that the debate over global warming is being waged by utilizing statistical climate analyses.  True or not, they’re never going to convince anyone because the error bars are generally too large.  What people ought to be trying to get across is the fact that this is a well-understood and mathematically proven process.  Specifically, carbon dioxide and water vapor absorb infrared radiation while oxygen and nitrogen do not.  Carbon dioxide and water vapor are products of any chemical reaction involving the burning of fossil fuels.  There’s more burning of fossil fuels than ever before in Earth’s history so, hmmm….

Anyway, it turns out that while the process I described above is essentially quantum mechanical, there is a classical twist to it.  Apparently when the molecules are in motion and are involved in collisions with other molecules, the absorption can, in fact, be explained classically!  In essence, the collisions modify the absorption spectra of the molecules involved in those collisions.  The latest paper provides a precise mathematical derivation of this phenomenon.  This will ultimately be a huge boon to climatologists in their attempts to better model global warming and ultimately raises the question again of why there is even a debate about global warming.  It’s a cold, hard mathematical fact.  Somehow, however, a certain contingency has managed to turn the debate into a liberal v. conservative debate when it shouldn’t be.  Science isn’t subjective or political and science doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you’re a liberal or a conservative.

Beyond frustration

I’ve been working very hard on a particular idea for about two years now – the idea that the Cerf-Adami inequalities are, in fact, another statement of the classical second law of thermodynamics.  I thought I had done a pretty good job proving it in the latest version of my paper on the topic, but, alas, yet another reviewer gave it short shrift.  What I think is so frustrating is actually a general complaint I have about the whole process.

Having recently spoken to someone who was upset about a particular paper that actually did get published, it has occurred to me that the peer-review system has one very serious flaw: people seem to be so immensely busy these days that reviewers just don’t give papers the attention they truly deserve.  Whomever the reviewer of my paper was, it was someone who was familiar with it since they hinted at the fact in the review (I have a hunch I know who it was, but I’m not sure).  

In any case, there were some surprisingly odd comments from the reviewer including one in which he/she states “While the log used to define the entropy is arbitrary, it gives units to the entropy.”  Say wha??  A logarithm is a purely mathematical function.  Units are physical.  Perhaps he/she means that the choice of base determine what units can be used, which is true to some extent, but is really an arbitrary choice.

Also, there is this annoyingly persistent notion (given by all the reviewers that have reviewed it over the past couple of years) that I have confused quantum and classical entropies which I have not.  For instance, the reviewer says “This is roughly where I gave up reviewing this paper.  Unfortunately for the author, this is BEFORE he argues for the Cerf-Adami inequalities as an alternative formulation of the 2nd law. But note that there is no 2nd law in quantum mechanics.”  Well, the latter point is debatable (see Nielsen & Chuang for example) but I’m not that dumb.  Anyway, the whole crux of the paper appeared after he/she gave up and I fail to see how the second sentence has anything to do with the first in the reviewers comments since I never say anything about QM until the end and thus fail to see how I could have confused these two points.

OK, enough of the specific griping.  Now to the more general issues that this highlights.  The world is so incredibly busy these days that people have little or no time to spend on anything remotely outside their immediate sphere of influence, so to speak.  As such, people, by and large, tend to gravitate toward what they know (or what they think they know).  So, reviewers often skim papers or are so biased against a result right from the abstract that they’re not willing to be swayed.  I have a suspicion in my case it may be that the reviewer assumes I am so “green” that I really don’t know statistical mechanics very well (e.g. this quote: “the author needs to educate himself some more about the relation between thermodynamics and statistics”), despite the fact that I have been teaching an advanced course in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics for many years and purposely teach the relation between them because half the class are physics majors and the other half engineers. In addition, I am convinced that reviewers have a tendency to readily approve, with little oversight, work they are familiar with, even if it is suspect.

This actually goes beyond the review process, though.  I am fairly new to the quantum information field (3-4 years or so), but have had an impossible time finding anyone (with one exception) willing to really give me the time of day on any of my papers, though I have gotten a bit of interest on my latest paper on qubits on closed time-like curves.  People are all friendly and outgoing until I mention work and then they’re too busy.  I genuinely think they are busy and I don’t think it’s necessarily personal, but it is a serious problem if we have any hope of expanding our field.  In addition, it marginalizes people like me who took a non-traditional route to get where I am.

Since I’m tired I’m not articulating this very well, but the basic idea is there.  Something needs to be done to change the way the system works.  Hopefully the new open peer-review (OPR) process being tested by will prove to be a step in the right direction, but it’s tough to get people out of the ruts they fall into.  For instance, I’ve been blogging for two years and, though I’m not nearly as good as The Pontiff, you’d think I’d have picked up a larger readership by now.  At this point, the main reason for continuing is because I find it cathartic.  Otherwise, I’m at a loss.

Quantum mechanics could cure cancer – seriously

I saw this on 60 Minutes last week and was blown away.  The idea is deceptively simple – so simple one wonders how in the world it hadn’t been thought of before.  Since certain metals are known to absorb electromagnetic waves in the radio spectrum, this guy John Kanzius came up with the idea of injecting tumors with metal and then zapping them with high intensity radio waves.  The advantage is that there wouldn’t be any damage to surrounding tissue because radio waves are harmless to biological material.  That’s in contrast to current treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy that kill both healthy and non-healthy cells.

The story did not answer one important question, however, that my father picked up on when I told him about it: what happens to the residual metal in the body?  Could it cause long-term problems?  However, the story did answer the question of how well the surrounding tissue faired, i.e. whether the metal nanoparticles leaked into healthy cells.  The answer seems to be a resounding ‘no.’

In any case, this really could be it – the cure for cancer – and the ultimate idea is purely quantum mechanical.

Reminiscing about John Wheeler

It has been about a week since John Wheeler passed away at age 96.  Plenty of blogs (including The Pontiff) and other sites have deftly reported on various aspects of Wheeler’s enormous influence on physics and/or have written worthy obituaries.  I will not attempt either.  Rather, I will share my one and only John Wheeler story (that pales in comparison to most others, but is at least genuine).

I used to attend the APS’ April Meeting (as opposed to the March Meeting) and, in 2002, the Forum on the History of Physics, in conjunction with a few other APS units, sponsored a Eugene Wigner Centennial Symposium.  Wheeler spoke on Wigner’s changing view of quantum theory.  

When I entered the conference room, without realizing it at first, I happened to sit next to him and his son.  Part of the way through his talk, something he was talking about triggered a memory of his brother who had been killed in the invasion of Italy in WWII.  The memory brought him to tears and he couldn’t continue.  While I’m sure many people in attendance wrote the incident off to old age and perhaps even felt sorry for him, the moment touched me greatly since it was very obvious, regardless of its manifestation at that moment, that his brother’s death had affected him greatly.

After the session a number of people approached him simply to shake his hand since he was a bit of a celebrity to physicists and astronomers.  For whatever reason, despite sitting right next to him, I did not.  Sometimes I can be oddly shy and reticent in situations like that but I also think part of me thought that introducing myself would have been a wholly selfish act.  He was already 91 at the time and looked tired.  I suspect shaking his hand would have only been meaningful to me, though there are times (such as now) that I wonder if I should have taken that fleeting opportunity to shake hands.

In any case, he was a giant among physicists and has left an enduring legacy as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.


A sure sign of the Apocalypse

While they are careful to refer to it in business-like terms, the city of Portland (Maine) has taken to accepting donations.  Since when did government become a charity?  Don’t they already have enough of my money? Well, I guess Portland doesn’t have all that much since I don’t live there, but my sister does.  Something tells me she’s not going to be all that generous.  I think I’ll be counting down the hours to the apocalypse if I start to see donation jars on the parking meters next time I’m downtown.

This does give me an idea, though.  If the city of Portland can beg for donations (sorry, “establish public-private partnerships”), why can’t I?  Anyone feel like helping to fund my trip to Montana?  I’ve been meaning to get to Vienna (Austria, not Maine) so I’ll gladly take donations for that.  This is all for the public good, of course.  The Montana trip is for a conference (though I will be playing hooky for a day to go fly fishing on the Gallatin River) and the Vienna trip would be to spend some time working with Zeilinger’s group.  Since quantum computing and quantum information are the future of technology, there is a public element to it.  Checks can be made out to me and mailed to my office address…

Nerds, devils, and more…

Despite being a physicist and mathematician (or, perhaps as a result of it), I have always been fascinated by the origins of certain words and phrases.  One of my favorites is the origin of that most ubiquitous of affirmations, ‘OK’ (or okay).  Technically the correct version is the former, but the latter has become accepted in practice.  The reason the former is correct is due to its possible origin in a campaign slogan for former US President Martin Van Buren (1836-1840).  Van Buren was an old New Yorker (witness his Dutch name) being from Kinderhook, a small town on the Hudson a bit north of New York City.  While there is some evidence that a similar sounding term pre-dated Van Buren’s reelection attempt in 1840, there is no doubt that when his supporters began referring to him as ‘Old Kinderhook’ or ‘OK,’ the term gained a foothold in the English lexicon.

More recently (as in just today) I learned the origin of the phrase ‘devil to pay’ as in ‘There will be the devil to pay if you do that!’  After a few years hiatus, I have finally moved on to the fourth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, The Mauritius Command, certainly as good as the previous three.  In any case, as Captain Aubrey explains to Dr. Maturin at one point, the devil ‘is the seam between the deck-planking and the timbers, and we call it the devil, because it is the devil for the caulkers to come at: in full we say, the devil to pay and no pitch be hot; and what we mean is, that there is something hell-fire difficult to be done – must be done – and nothing to do it with.  It is a figure.’

But, perhaps my absolute favorite, is the origin of the word ‘nerd.’  The first written instance of the word occurred in one of my children’s favorite (and my wife’s least favorite) books, Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo, written in 1950.  In describing some of the fanciful creatures he wanted to bring to the zoo, the narrator Gerald McGrew, adds ‘And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!’  The creature depicted by the good doctor looked more like a crotchety old Mainer than today’s prototypical nerd and it is likely that the present meaning was taken from another word.  Nonetheless, there is no question that Dr. Seuss is responsible for its first appearance in print.  Since I am both a sometimes crotchety fellow residing in Maine (can’t say I’m a Mainer since, like Van Buren, I’m really an old New Yorkers and true Mainers would object) as well as a physicist and mathematician, I’m a nerd, whether you take Dr. Seuss’ implied meaning or the presently accepted one – and, either way, I’m proud of it!

Inching closer to scalable quantum computing

Today in my quantum cryptography class I was drawing parallels between the development of classical computers and their quantum counterparts.  I am of the opinion that there will need to be, in the language of Thomas Kuhn, some sort of paradigm shift that brings about some discovery that is a bit like the quantum computing analogue of the transistor (not necessarily in the specific logic-related sense, but rather in the scalability sense).  Apparently a group in Britain is inching closer to that goal (though they’re not quite there yet) having now developed an optical quantum controlled-NOT gate for processing individual photons that resides on a chip of silicon a few millimeters across.  The gate consists of six parallel silicon waveguides that are brought close enough together at certain points (less than a wavelength of the light passing through the guides) such that the photons can leak out in a process known as evanescence, thereby entangling two of the photons.

Previous optical quantum CNOT gates have required large lab benches consisting of beam splitters, mirrors, etc.  As such, this is one small but crucial step in the quest for scalable quantum computing.  There is some work to be done, of course, even on this particular setup.  For example, the photons only become entangled about 1/9 of the time.  Nonetheless, additional qubits can be used in an error correction scheme in order to clean up the results.

While I don’t want to get overly excited, we need to remember points such as this.  As an occasional historian of science, I would like to remind people that things like this often turn out to be crucial and it is fascinating to be able to say sometime down the road, “I remember when _____ happened back in…”

Big Brother – and everyone else – is watching you

There’s a new plan being championed by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff that would allow domestic agencies such as DHS to use data from CIA, NSA, and DoD spy satellites for domestic surveillance.  Now, as a libertarian I am obviously opposed to any such plan, but I wonder why no one has said anything about the very public satellite services such as those provided by Google.  As an example, here is a relatively recent photo that includes my house.  It is so close a shot that you can see my neighbor’s boat in his driveway!  I just find this to be a tad bit creepy.  Note that despite appearances, I live on a typical 2-lane road, not 4.

Why do astronomers insist on using ergs?

I’m a long-time member of my local amateur astronomy club, the Astronomical Society of Northern New England (ASNNE), and last night we hosted Dave Batuski from the University of Maine who gave a talk on the present state of precision cosmology.  Of particular interest is the nature of the so-called ‘dark energy’ that is entirely different from dark matter, and that seems to make up about 73% of the apparent mass of the universe.  Based on measurements of the accelerating expansion of the universe, the density of this energy, as given by Batuski in his talk, is about 10-8 erg/cm3.  Quantum field theory apparently (I have long since forgotten so I’m trusting his numbers) predicts 10120 erg/cm3, a glaring difference.  The quantum prediction is based on spontaneous pair creation.

In any case, my first question is: why do astronomers insist on still using ergs (not to mention cubic centimeters)?  According to Batuski a single erg is about as much energy as is exerted by a flea when jumping.  As a physicist and mathematician I understand that some things are just intuitively easier to interpret using some units over others, but, to some extent, this is a matter of conditioning.  As such, it would make sense for astronomers and physicists to speak the same language, considering that, in many cases, they are in the same department.  While it may seem I am biased against ergs simply because I am a physicist and mathematician, there is a practical side to all this.  I teach my students to focus on SI units in my courses since it makes it much easier to check one’s calculations if no conversions are required.  Since, officially, combined units such as Joules, Newtons, Watts, etc. are all interpreted in terms of the base kilograms, meters, seconds, etc., it seems most rational to me to do that everywhere.

Now, as for the science itself, Batuski, of course, took the line that the quantum prediction was flat-out wrong.  While I am sympathetic to the idea that observational evidence trumps theory every time, the measurements being made are so phenomenally difficult that this acceleration wasn’t discovered until 1998.  The corrections due to localized mass distributions, lensing effects, etc. are all so difficult (forget even the dark matter problem) that I would be hard-pressed to be absolutely assured that the astronomers’ figure of 10-8 erg/cm3 was dead-on correct.  I’m not saying the quantum field theorists’ figure is any more reliable, simply that it seems absurd (though rather typical, in fact – see Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos) for the astronomers to be so self-assured about that number.

My own theory is this: a true theory of quantum gravity may suggest that the fabric of spacetime itself is quantized and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some manner similar to spontaneous pair creation, though not symmetric, these spacetime quantons are self-replicating in some manner but not annihilating.  I envision a cellular-like structure similar to a growing mass of bubbles.  Of course, we’d need a full theory of quantum gravity to even theoretically play around with this idea, but it’s an intriguing prospect nonetheless since it might be able to explain these anomalies.  I honestly think Ken Wharton’s on to something, but only time will tell.

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