Posted by David Brooks | Monday, May 20, 2013
UNH professor Tom Zhang's proof of a weak version of the twin-prime conjecture - one of those important, old, hard to prove yet easy to understand math problems - came last week, as I noted in a blog post, but there's plenty for mathematics fans like me (and you too, I trust) to chew over.
I interviewed Zhang last week - a bit reluctantly on his part since he's obviously uncofmrtable with even minor celebrity-hood - and enjoyed the talk, although I wasn't able to understand the methods of his proof at all.
I wrote about him in my Telegraph column this week (check it out here). Here's the lede, to whet your appetite:
How do you do your job? This is how Tom Zhang does his:
“I just start to think about the question. I walk around the room, maybe outside,” said Zhang, a UNH mathematics professor who drew global attention last week for making a big step toward solving a number-theory problem that dates back to the ancient Greeks. “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.”
Posted by David Brooks | Monday, May 20, 2013
The Boston Globe reports that MIT is ending its fusion research program for money reasons, putting about 70 peple out of work and derailing a half-dozen graduate students (ouch). The story is here.
MIT's Alcator C-Mod tokamak reaction uses a magnetic field to contain plasma and try to smash particles together.
The story says the US goverment is shifting much of its fusion funding to ITER in France.
Fusion - creating energy by combining atoms instead of splitting them, as fission does - is, famously, an energy technology that has been 20 years away for the past half century; there are legitimate scientists who think pursuing it is a fool's game. This quote from the story probably could have been printed verbatim at any fusion research project in 1990 or 1970:
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, said the loss of the program will hurt the country’s position in a critical field — one that won’t be producing energy in the short term, but could be critical in helping to diversify energy production over the next two decades.
On the other hand, if fusion worked it would be an energy breakthrough even bigger than fission atomic power, so perhaps it's worth the bad odds and cost. This piece published by Yale in 2010 provides a good overview. Here's a Forbes article about the field.
Posted by David Brooks | Friday, May 17, 2013
Hydropower - electricity from dams - remains by far the dominant renewable energy source in New Hampshire, New England and the U.S. as a whole, despite all the attention and money given to solar and wind. That's due to its head start, of course; new dams aren't common hereabouts (although Northern Pass, should it ever get built, would bring down a gigawatt of hydropower from Quebec).
Slate.com put together a nice interactive map based on federal data about total BTU output. You can see it here. Here's a quickie chart I put together from that data; it shows how far ahead Mass. is in terms of solar power compared to the rest of northern New England, and how far Maine has gone with wind and its large historic hydropower resources:
STATE - solar - wind - hydro-geothermal - total (in BTU)
NH - 172 - 642 - 15,600 - 27 - 16,433
MA - 763 - 596 - 11,161 - 962 - 13,482
ME - 355 - 6860 - 38,660 - 68 - 46,000
VT - 238 - 322 - 13,850 - 27 - 14,430
Posted by David Brooks | Thursday, May 16, 2013
One of the frustrations of moderating Science Cafe NH is that I can't take notes during the discussion, so I sometimes forget the really interesting information that flies around the room for two hours. Last night's session on post-traumatic stress disoder and traumatic brain injury, particularly in veterans, was typical: I knew little about the subject going in, know a lot more now, and wish I could remember even more of what was discussed.
One nugget that sticks with me is Dr. Jim Whitlock's description of PTSD as large a "disorder of remembering". The processing of memories, both the ability to put aside old ones and the ability to create new ones, can be disrupted by physical, neurological changes which occur as the result of extreme or extended stress.
Another tidbit that I recall: A common symptom among returning combat vets is driving at high speed down the middle of the road and running stop signs - because that is the safest way to travel is Iraq and Afghanistan, where roadside bombs and snipers are a constant fear.
Then there's eye-gaze tracking - a diagnostic tool (PTSD sufferes often don't look where "normal" people do while interacting) and also a therapeutic tool (working on changing gaze patterns, incredibly, can change brain patterns). I'd never heard of it; fascinating.
Next month's SCNH in Nashua is about flying robots - drones, if you will - in non-military usage.
Posted by David Brooks | Wednesday, May 15, 2013
UPDATE: My story is either really timely or else behind the curve, now that the feds have taken action against Mt.Gox, the biggest Bitcoin exchange.
Local trio makes a Bitcoin ATM - if that ain't a geeky story, I don't know what is. I've got it in The Telegraph today, starting thus:
MANCHESTER – Entrepreneurs developing new products often face an uphill battle explaining value to customers, but the learning curve doesn’t get much steeper than when you’re working with Bitcoin, the digital sort-of currency that has drawn fascination, uncertainty and derision since it exploded on the scene this winter.
“First there’s wrapping your head around the technology … then there’s wrapping your head around what this means for the future of payments and financial institutions,” said Zach Harvey, of Manchester, one-third of the firm Lamassu Bitcoin Ventures, which is about to unveil the first ATM that can turn paper money into Bitcoins. “But once you realize how powerful it is, it makes other technology feel ancient. We want to give you the tools for a new financial world that may not need currency the way we need it today.”
Posted by David Brooks | Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The latest Science Cafe NH in Nashua is tonight (Wednesday, May 15), on a more sombre topic than we usually handle: Post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, in veterans and others.
There's a lot of interesting science in this issue, from biology to psychology; the panel includes a couple of doctors, a social worker and a representative of the Brain Injury Association.
It's sponsored by Vetflix, a local company that does short films with and about veterans.
Starts at 6 p.m. in Killarney' Pub, off Exit 4 in Nashua. Free, of course - see you there.
Posted by David Brooks | Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Prime numbers are cool, and infinity is cool, so the mathematics of measuring the infinity-ness of various prime numbers is exponentially cool, right? No wonder the twin-prime conjecture, which dates back to the ancient Greeks, is so interesting: It hypothesizes that there are an infinite number of twin primes (prime numbers separated by 2 - such as 3 and 5, or 2,003,663,613 × 2195,000 − 1 and 2,003,663,613 × 2195,000 + 1.)
Nobody has been able to prove the conjecture, but now word has come out that professor Yitang ("Tom") Zhang of UNH has outlined a proof of a 'weak' version of the twin prime conjecture. As Nature reports: "He finds that there are infinitely many pairs of primes that are less than 70 million units apart without relying on unproven conjectures." This sounds not useful, but getting the conjecture into the realm of a finite separation is a very big step. "The jump from 2 to 70 million is nothing compared with the jump from 70 million to infinity." as Nature notes.
I hope to talk to Zhang about this - and am much buoyed by the uniform praise he gets on RateMyProfessor, where he's described as funny and an excellent calculus teacher. I'll need all the explanatory help I can get.
Posted by David Brooks | Monday, May 13, 2013
As a cook I'm a terrific mathematician - accurate measurements, crummy food - but recently I hit new heights when my wife and I made reasonably successful Mexi-HexaFlexagons for some friends.
The photos above don't do them justice; it only shows the intial tortilla folding. After this I was too busy cooking to take pictures - not being part of the lifeblogging smartphone generation, I haven't developed that multitasking ability.
The process: We took commercial tortillas (we made our own but they weren't flexible enough) and shaped them into hexaflexagons, a wonderfully counter-intuitive orgami-ish shape into which two different ingredients could be magically folded and made to disappear, before being eaten. It was pretty cool, although unbelievably messy.
If that description baffles you, check out explanatory videos from the wonderful Vi Hart. This one explains hexaflexagons; this one goes further in the explanation; this one explains the food we made, Mexi-Hexaflexagons. Now try it yourself!
Cinco de Mayo will never be the same.
Posted by David Brooks | Friday, May 10, 2013
I am not a car guy: As far as I'm concerned, they're boxes on wheels. Life presents many better things to get excited about and/or spend money on.
I admit that I make an exception for electric cars because of their geek novelty factor. And even I admit that the Tesla electric roadster is proving to be a category by itself.
For one thing, the company seems to be making money, or at least not going bankrupt, which is interesting in the small-automotive business. For another, as I found when I did a story about a local Model S owner, the car is very cool with its tablet-like interface on the dash and massive trunk space due to lack of internal combustion engine. Plus it has truly neck-snapping acceleration, which is pointless in the real world and thus kind of stupid, but which still makes your lizard brain go "wow!"
Even the brand name is just right: The right amount of in-joke geeky with a hint of rebel (Nikola Tesla was a true genius and also a true lunatic - much more interesting than Edison).
Slate's tech pundit, Farhad Manjoo, argues today that the really interesting thing about Tesla is the way it is trying to build an electric-car infrastructure:
So how can Tesla persuade General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, and other car giants—not to mention other car startups that are similar in size to Tesla—to all work together to improve the world’s electric vehicle infrastructure? By licensing its tech to its competitors, in the same way that Google gives Android away to every phone-maker in the world.
Intersting in many different ways. But it's still not worth spending two years of my salary!
Side note: Consumer Reports said Tesla is just about the best car they've ever tested. One point: "This car's overall balance benefits from mounting the battery under the floor and in the lowest part of the body. That gives the car a rock-bottom center of gravity that enables excellent handling, a comfortable ride, and lots of room inside."
Andother side note: Slate's Will Oremus points out that one very important piece of data is lacking about the Tesla cars: Their reliability. In three years we'll know if they're truly great cars, but not before then.
Posted by David Brooks | Thursday, May 9, 2013
Cicadas are erupting throughout the East Coast in one of their prime-number-periodical swarms, but here in New England we can only look and sigh. About 20 different swarms of periodical cicadas have been identified in the eastern U.S., but none are up here.
The closest was Brood XI (like the Super Bowl, they get Roman numerals), last seen in Massachusets in 1954. The assumption is that it went extinct for unknown reasons.
As I have mentioned before, and probably will again, I experienced the eruption of Brood X, by far the largest of the periodical cicadas in the Easter US, back in 1987 - they literally welled up around our feet during an outdoor party. it was awesome, in the best sense of the word.