1975: The year that quantum mechanics met gravity

Since the revolutionary development of both theories in the early twentieth century, it is fair to say that general relativity and quantum mechanics have had a rather hostile relationship to one another.  One reason for this is simple a matter of scale: gravitational effects, described by general relativity, are essentially negligible in particle interactions.  It is rather straightforward to calculate that the gravitational force between a pair of electrons is 39 orders of magnitude smaller than the electrical force.  That is,

\displaystyle \frac{F_{gravity}}{F_{electric}} =0.000000000000000000000000000000000000001!

This is a very small ratio!  In interactions between quantum particles, then, gravity plays no role whatsoever.  Furthermore, on cosmological scales at which gravity is the dominant force, quantum mechanics has no noticeable effect.

The problem is more than just the relative size of forces, however.  Quantum mechanics and general relativity just don’t seem to fit together very well, like pieces of completely different jigsaw puzzles.  There are many challenges in formulating a perfectly consistent theory of quantum gravity, and we only mention one of these here.  The force of gravity is determined by the distance between two massive objects, but the Heisenberg uncertainty relation of quantum mechanics states that this distance is fundamentally an uncertain quantity.  An attempt to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics is one of the fundamental driving forces behind the continually-controversial string theory.

But there have been some crude experimental glimpses at the relationship between gravity and quantum mechanics.  In 1975, a collaboration between Purdue University and Ford Motor Company, of all places, researchers measured the effect of gravity on the wave properties of matter*.  Though they verified quantum-mechanical predictions, their results also left some perplexing theoretical and experimental questions that are still being investigated today.

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Posted in History of science, Physics | 5 Comments

Mary SanGiovanni’s “Chaos” and “Thrall”

My first encounter with the work of Mary SanGiovanni was her dark and elegant chapbook No Songs for the Stars, and it left me intrigued and interested in reading more.  Fortunately, I had a short vacation to Mexico a few weeks ago and it was a perfect opportunity to sit on the beach and do nothing but read.  During the trip, I was able to read quite a few books, in fact, and among them were two of SanGiovanni’s more recent novels, Thrall (2013) and Chaos (2014).


Both books are best categorized as supernatural or unnatural horror, though they are quite different in their plots and overall pacing.  Both are compelling reads, and I found it difficult to put either of them down.

Since I read them back to back anyway, I thought I would blog about them together!

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Posted in Horror | Leave a comment

RIP Goldie, 2002(?)-2015

This morning, at about 8:45, our beloved cat Goldie passed away.  Only the day before, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was affecting her movement and cognitive functions, and she had deteriorated rapidly over the course of the past 4 days.  She was scheduled to go into surgery this morning to remove the tumor, but passed away as they were prepping her for the surgery.

Often the most beloved pets are the ones that you never planned for.  Two years ago, we were fostering for a rescue group in our area, and a rescue group further north called to say that they had a pregnant cat that they needed help with.  We’ve had experience with such situations before, so we volunteered to help, and went and met the lady with the cat we would name Goldie in the parking lot of a local Starbucks.  Goldie was scared, but docile, and Beth held her in her arms for the whole ride home.

Goldie, when she first came to us in March of 2013.

Goldie, when she first came to us in March of 2013.

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Posted in Animals, Personal | 3 Comments

The GOP war on higher education: a running tally (updated)

My apologies that I continue to go on about Republican attacks on higher education, but it really has become clear now that this is a major goal of 2015 for the GOP: weaken and/or destroy public universities as much as possible.  I’ll use this post to keep a running list.

  • North Carolina Senate Bill 593.  This is the bill discussed in the open letter that I previously blogged.  In short, Senator Tom McInnis has proposed that all state university professors be forced to teach a 4/4 course load.  If strictly implemented as proposed, it would kill all graduate programs throughout the state.  One wonders if this is even possible: there simply aren’t that many courses available to teach, as on average this would require doubling or tripling teachers’ courses.  But this brings us to another aspect of the bill: professors who don’t teach the full 4/4 load will have their pay cut proportionally, which makes this bill a rather unsubtle way to slash faculty pay.  Unsurprisingly, this bill is not advocated by anyone who cares about higher education, but is enthusiastically supported by the right-wing “Pope Center for Higher Education,” whose goals include “Increase the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus.”  Translation: “Force more discredited right-wing ideas on campus.” Unsurprisingly, this think-tank is supported by Art Pope, the billionaire who bought himself a conservative legislature in NC.
  • University of Wisconsin $300 million budget cut.  The truly horrible Governor Scott Walker has slashed $300 million from the University of Wisconsin’s state funding over the next two years, a stunning 13 percent reduction.  This is expected to produce hundreds of layoffs and sure as hell won’t make education any better.  It doesn’t even make economic sense: a recent study showed that every dollar spent on UW-Madison produces $24 for the economy.  These cuts are apparently not even necessary, considering that Walker is planning to spend $500 million on a pro-basketball stadium.  Walker has his own billionaire benefactors in the Koch brothers, who supported his election and reelection campaigns and now enthusiastically endorse him for President.
  • Iowa universities become the “Hunger Games.”  Just brought to my attention yesterday, Senate File 64 in Iowa, proposed by Republican Mark Chelgren, would force minimum teaching loads on all professors as well, though not as severely as in NC.  Even worse, however, is that it would allow tenured professors to be fired by students, as the lowest 5 ranking professors in teaching evaluations would have their jobs put up for a vote by said students.  This bill has immediately been renamed by astute critics as the “Everyone gets an A” bill.  You see, this bill would give students the power to blackmail teachers into giving them good grades, and would destroy the quality of education.  Learning is hard, and it will often make students unhappy.  Teaching evaluations, in general, measure the happiness of students, not how much they’ve actually learned.  I suspect that this bill is also just a barely-disguised way to weaken tenure at public universities and make faculty fearful and quiet.  As the Senate is Democratically-controlled right now, I’m hoping this bill will die a quick and painful death.
  • Union busting in Ohio.  Proposed by GOP Representative Ryan Smith, Substitute House Bill 64 will bar faculty at public universities from unionizing. Lots of states — NC included — already have laws on the book prohibiting public sector unions, but Ohio has thankfully avoided that fate until now.  So what’s the big deal?  Well, eliminating the right to unionize cripples the ability of the faculty to respond to other attacks on their jobs and the quality of education in their institutions.  This is likely the first attempt to “soften up” the institutions before a full-fledged attack begins.
  • Privatize everything in Illinois.  Republican Senator Bill Brady has proposed privatizing the entire public university system in Illinois, converting state appropriations ($1.2 billion indirect appropriations) to the university into student grants.  It’s hard to imagine this resulting in anything other than increased tuition for students and overall increased costs for the university system.
  • Bankrupting Louisiana’s university system.  As just reported yesterday as of this writing, many if not most of Louisiana’s public colleges may be forced into what is effectively bankruptcy conditions.  The conservative legislators seem utterly unwilling to do anything that might make up the financial shortfall, such as (gasp!) reduce tax credits or raise taxes on the wealthy.  This seems like a plan of death by inaction.  As noted in the linked article, “The status makes it easier for public colleges to shut down programs and lay off tenured faculty, but it also tarnishes the school’s reputation, making it harder to recruit faculty and students.”

What am I missing?  Let me know if there are other major attacks on public education in the United States.

Posted in ... the Hell?, Politics | 2 Comments

An open letter to NC State Senator Tom McInnis

Dear Senator McInnis,

I recently read with some concern, first in The Daily Tarheel and then on Slate, about your proposed Senate bill 593, ironically titled “An act to improve the quality of instruction at the constituent 3 institutions of the University of North Carolina.”  This “improvement” would come by forcing all university faculty, whether at an undergraduate or graduate institution, to teach a full 4/4 load of courses during the academic year, 4 courses in the Fall, 4 in the Spring.

Let me get right to the point: this bill would do exact the opposite of what it claims, and would quite rapidly end quality education in the UNC system.  In fact, it is quite accurate to say that there really won’t be a university system at all in North Carolina if this bill were passed and its plan implemented.

It is hard not to see this as a direct and punitive attack on the university system and the faculty and staff who work hard to run it.  The recent removal of Tom Ross as President of the UNC system was widely seen by most faculty as the beginning of an attempt to weaken and dilute higher education in our state.  Even our Governor has made no secret of his disdain for higher education, and once stated his view that universities should be no more than vocational schools.  More recently, Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has been targeted for closure, along with several other centers. This last action is clearly a direct attack, as the center does not even receive direct state funding, operates on a minimal budget, and directly serves the needs of North Carolina.

However, let me be charitable* and assume that your bill was not sponsored out of partisan ideology, but out of genuine ignorance concerning the amount of work, and the type of work, that university professors actually do.  I would like there to be no misunderstanding, so that your motives in the end, if this bill passes, will be clear to everyone.

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Posted in ... the Hell?, Politics | 2 Comments

A one-act play about a study in hiring practices in STEM

Scene: A table at Starbucks

Man #1, a wealthy benefactor
Man #2, an enlightened guy

Man #1: Let me ask you a hypothetical question: given the choice, would you rather have world peace or a billion dollars?

Man #2: Oh, world peace, of course!  It would end the suffering of so many.

Man #1: Well, it turns out that I have a billion dollars on hand.  I can either give it to you, or I can spend that billion on world peace initiatives.  What do you think?

Man #2: Hmm… give me the money.  I trust myself to make better “world peace” decisions than you would.



A recent study, published in PNAS, suggests that sexism in science and engineering hiring is over, or even reversed, with women favored over men.  From the abstract:

National randomized experiments and validation studies were conducted on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, engineering, economics, and psychology at 371 universities/colleges from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. In the main experiment, 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., single without children, married with children).

The problem, for me: if you question people on their hypothetical preferences for hiring, it seems obvious to me that you’ll get very different answers than what you’d get in an actual hiring process.  Hence the one-act play above.

In a hypothetical, a person can give whatever answer makes them or others perceive them in the best light, since there are no real-world consequences for the choice.

A nice detailed discussion of perceived problems with this study is given at Other Sociologist.

Posted in ... the Hell?, General science, Women in science | 1 Comment

One more anecdote about Kathleen Lonsdale

My last post hardly scratched the surface of Kathleen Lonsdale’s amazing life & career. Before moving on to other topics, I can’t help but share one more cool story about her from her biographical memoir, which incidentally is free to read online after a free registration.  I have noted that Lonsdale was an anti-war activist, and that she traveled the world in her lifetime both for work and activism.  From the memoir:

In no country that she visited did she receive a more moving welcome than in Japan.  She found when she arrived that so many flowers had been sent to her they filled every room in the small hotel in which she was staying.  She discovered that it had been reported in the papers that she had gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb.  This incorrect statement naturally worried her.  She immediately had the report corrected saying that, of course, she would have gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb, but nobody had, in fact, asked her to do so.  The result of this announcement was that more flowers came in than ever.  They had to be stood in buckets all down the street.

And with that, I’ll leave Kathleen Lonsdale alone and move on to other topics!

Posted in History of science, Women in science | Leave a comment