Saturday, January 31, 2015
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Nashua;19.0;;2015-01-31 15:52:02

The finest tourist attraction in New Hampshire


This is the first picture I took with my new iPhone - at a convenience store just off I-83 Exit 33 in Lincoln, not far from the state marker for the Barney and Betty Hill alien abduction.

I just stumbled across the picture and thought: "This is too wonderful not to share" - "share" being the modern term for "shove into other people's faces."

There's a UNH mathematician in the latest New Yorker - I bet you can guess which one

UNH mathematician Yitang "Tom" Zhang has now officially set the record for Most Unwanted Attention Devoted To New Hampshire Mathematician: He is profiled in the latest New Yorker. The article (online here) is quite good once you get past the irritating and cliched "Golly gee, I'm no good at math" intro by the author, Alec Wilkinson.

Wilkinson answers some questions such as what brought Zhang to UNH in the first place (a friend of a friend) and more details about his life in China before coming to the U.S. and getting a Ph.D. Interestingly, he also says that the seemingly insulting position of teacher, not professor, was good for Zhang because it left him lots of time to work, year after year after year. As Zhang put it when i interviewed him in 2013: “The most important thing is to keep thinking, for hours, for days, for weeks, for months, whenever you have time. ... Even when I’m sleeping.”

In 2013, Zhang published his proof of a weak version of the twin-prime conjecture, a longstanding unsolved problem. This startled other mathematicians, who had never heard of this shy, quiet 57-year-old (which is old for a mathematician) calculus teacher from a semi-obscure school, and as his work became appreciated he received a torrent of prizes, including the prestigious Cole and Ostrowski prizes and then a MacArthur "genius" grant.

As I noted in my May 2013 column, Zhang shuns publicity - the UNH website didn't even have a photo of him when he became famous - which makes it kind of funny that the publicity keeps coming. Wilkinson notes that Zhang has three favorite answers to questions: Maybe, Not so much, and Maybe not so much.

Part of Zhang's appeal is his story: He learned math by himself in China when such ivory-tower work was frowned on, and worked as an accountant for a friend's Subway chain after getting a Ph.D. in math from Purdue when he couldn't get an academic job. He has a good reputation as a teacher, despite his strong accent, and says he's working on something new.

Invented laser, won Nobel Prize - but what's really interesting is that he owned Frog Rock in NH

Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for helping develop lasers, died this week. Among all the news reports about this interesting California man, none mentioned his New Hampshire connection: More than 500 acres of preserved forest in the town of New Boston that was donated by him and his wife, Frances.

As reported on the New England Forestry Foundation website:

In 1974, Dr. Charles and Mrs. Frances Hildreth Townes of Berkeley, California donated to NEFF the first of several parcels of old pastureland growing up to white pine. Over the years, Dr. Townes, a 1964 Nobel Prize physicist, and his wife have added to their original gift. ... The parcel includes a stretch of the South Branch of the Piscataquog River, used during spring runoff by white water canoe enthusiasts, and two local curiosities: Frog Rock, 10 feet high - giving its name to Frog Rock Road, an abandoned county road which runs through the property - and the nearby 6-foot-high Teetering Rock, which can be rocked by hand.

The Townes owned a summer house on South Hill Road in New Boston, during his time teaching at MIT, before he went to Berkeley in 1967. Some of their children still live in the area, I'm told.

NH High-Tech Council pushing to build a tech community for girls and women

From NHHTC: The New Hampshire High Tech Council has created TechWomen|TechGirls, a new forum focused on building a strong community of women enthusiastic about technology and supporting efforts where girls are exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as a career or area of study.

TechWomen|TechGirls will hold programs for professional women to connect, collaborate, and explore ideas around career development, technology initiatives, and innovation. The community will also deploy volunteers and mentors to support academic STEM initiatives and events for girls across New Hampshire.

"The national data is staggering for women: Google's workforce 30 percent, Yahoo 37 percent, Facebook 31percent and LinkedIn 39 percent female," said Catherine Blake, president and founder of Sales Protocol International and a NHHTC board member. "The tech sector is sorely behind because too few girls are pursuing studies in these growing and well-paying fields related to STEM."

Led by Blake, TechWomen|TechGirls is building a committee that will be planning a series of events to support networking, education, and outreach. The first formal effort for TechWomen|TechGirls is the Council's sponsorship of Girl's Technology Day March 18 at the New Hampshire Technical in Concord and March 19 at Manchester Community College. Organized by the New Hampshire Department of Education and the Community College System of New Hampshire, this statewide event will promote careers in technology and support student awareness of post-secondary offerings in support of such careers. The event will attract over 500 girls who were nominated by their teachers to attend

For more information about TechWomen|TechGirls, contact Catherine Blake at or 603.828.7312.

Report: Biofuels (plants into liquid fuel) make little or no sense

The World Resources Institute has issued a report which says that deades of research into biofuels - turning parts of plants into liquid fuel as a replacement for petroleum - is an expensive failure and should be largely abandoned. Here's the report.

From the NY Times: Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand, the report found. It added that continuing to pursue this strategy — which has already led to billions of dollars of investment — is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population.

The best-known NH connection to this field is Mascoma, a Dartmouth College spinoff that tried to use bacteria to break down cellulose so that wood (rather than corn) could be turned into biofuel. After years of not-quite-success, it sold the technology and name to a Canadian firm last fall.

Tiny UNH satellites to be launched, probing microbursts in Earth's radiation belt

From UNH News Service: Two tiny (4x4x6-inch) satellites built in part at the University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center will be launched into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. on Thursday, January 29.

The Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst Intensity, Range, and Dynamics (FIREBIRD II) “CubeSats” will be launched as independent, auxiliary payloads on a Delta II rocket carrying NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission satellite.

They will orbit 400 miles above Earth to probe a mysterious physical process within our planet's dangerous radiation belts. That process, known as microbursts, involves electrons moving at nearly the speed of light during short-duration (100 milliseconds) events. Microbursts are thought to be one of the primary mechanisms by which the outer radiation belt loses energetic particles to Earth's atmosphere after the occurrence of powerful solar storms. Such storms can dramatically change the intensity of the radiation belts and thereby pose hazards to space-based technology.

At a 13-1 ratio of water equivalence, no wonder the snow was so fluffy

I ended up with 14.5 inches of new snow in my yard - I am west of the heaviest snow - which melts down to 1.16 inches of water - a roughly 13-1 ratio, which is very, very light. As a rule of thumb, 10-1 is normal and 5-1 is heavy.

This is why the whiteout was so bad yesterday, as shown in the photo on this post; the snow wasn't just falling fast but was blowing around like crazy. That's also why there were so few power outages - it wasn't a bring-down-the-tree-limbs wet snow.

Science pub on Thursday: "What to make of all those food studies?" 

Dartmouth isn't getting all that much snow from this storm, which is very coastal-centric, so they're already thinking about future events. On Thursday comes the monthly Science Pub in Lebanon, overseen by Dartmouth University, with an interesting event titled "What to Make of All Those Food Studies?"

Eating an apple a day has been linked with lower levels of “bad” cholesterol and lower risk of stroke. But wait – what about recent studies showing that some brands of apple juice contain arsenic, a known poison? If you switched to brown rice years ago, because whole grains are more nutritious, what do you make of the news that brown rice may be a significant source of arsenic? Fish eaters who pay attention to the latest news stories about eating fish also have decisions to weigh: which fish contain the oils linked to better cardiovascular health – and which ones are high in mercury, which poses a risk to our health? What do scientists say about those food stories in the news? How do you make decisions on food choices?

Starts at 6 p.m. in the Salt Hill Pub, 2 W. Park St. in Lebanon. Free, of course. Sounds interesting.

This is how bad the white-out is (embarrassing self-reported error follows)

Driving to work (the news never sleeps!), I was thinking "wow, the white-out is pretty bad - it's hard to tell what's going on" .... then I realized I was driving on the wrong side of a divided highway that is normally crammed with 25,000 cars a day (Daniel Webster Highway, for you locals).

The only reason I realized my mistake is that I saw the stoplights were backwards.

Chat at the Alan Turing movie has been postponed a week by the storm

New Hampshire is shutting its state liquor stores tomorrow because of the storm - egad!!!! - do you know it's going to be big. That's why Red River Theaters in Concord has postponed Tuesday's discussion following a showing of "The Imitation Game", the movie about Alan Turing. It's now going to be held the following Tuesday, Feb. 2.

I'm going to moderate a discussion about it with Terry Wardrop, who is the St. Paul's School teacher of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics, and an expert on Turing. It'll be sort of like a Science Cafe, exept with a movie beforehand - questions and answers will rule the day.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.


Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, Feb. 18

TOPIC: The science of sugar

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).



January: Geothermal energy.


November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"


Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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