Review: Deep Down Things

I finished reading Deep Down Things by Bruce Schumm a few days ago. This is the book about particle physics I mentioned awhile back. I majored in math in college and took a year of introductory physics and astronomy, so the particle physics background, is there, elementary though it is. This book gave me a chance to expand on it, and my mind is now so blown that I’m going to have to reread parts of the book and take in other physics materials to absorb everything.

Schumm explains a lot of material in the book in order to introduce the Standard Model of particle physics. He does a great job at reminding the reader of things that were first brought up many pages back, which is a good thing because the field has a lot of terms that can be confusing at times. The book begins by explaining the forces of nature, then moves on to relativity and quantum physics and the history of these fields before introducing subatomic particles. I really wish I had paid more attention to the chapter on subatomic particles–not that I didn’t pay attention, but the book exists because of those particles, and I was already familiar with some of them. Others flew out of my memory a few minutes after I read them. Maybe I should have gone back to the chart at the end of that chapter.

You probably already know that math is extremely important in physics; physics, after all, is mostly math, and you’d think I would have done better in my physics classes for this reason. I probably did so badly in physics because the emphasis was on knowing a bunch of formulas and not on math, or at least the abstract math that I love, particularly algebra. Abstract algebra, specifically Lie groups (pronounced “Lee” after discoverer Sophus Lie), has applications in particle physics, and the next chapter devotes itself to explaining Lie groups from the very beginning. By “very beginning”, I mean that Schumm assumes the reader has no clue what a group is, which is one of the first things an abstract algebra student learns. Schumm even explains complex numbers when the need arises, thus assuming even less mathematical background. Mathematical terms that the layman probably wouldn’t know are uncommon; I found myself filling in the blanks when he explained things. “Oh, they’re isomorphic,” I’d think to myself when he made the case for two groups being the same. The casual reader doesn’t need to know that term to understand, so leaving it out is perfectly fine. Even though I have no experience with Lie groups, I still found myself spoiling things for myself while Schumm explained them in a nontechnical way. This isn’t a bad thing, just a comment for those going into this book with knowledge of abstract algebra.

Schumm also has a good sense of humor that finds it way into the text. I found myself turning to the notes in the back every other note or so because every now and then they’d have little to do with the text at hand. The notes would recommend a carousel in Santa Cruz (where he teaches) when he explained a physics concept or tell a story about a physicist. He’d crack a joke now and then in the text, too, and we all know that humor is the best teacher.

If you have any interest in particle physics, read this book, but be warned: It won’t be a speedy read unless you’re already familiar with particle physics. I probably should have read it more slowly than I did to absorb everything, but even at the rate that I did read it, it still took an entire evening to read some chapters. That’s not because they were poorly written but because the material wouldn’t stick to my brain. Reviewing the material is definitely in order.

A ring of bubbles

You’ve blown bubbles before, right? I do it all the time. You know how it goes: you blow bubbles, and then many things can happen.

1. You try to blow as many bubbles as possible in one bubble session.
2. You try to blow one big bubble.
3. You try to catch as many bubbles as possible on your bubble wand, preferably in a funny shape.
4. You pop the bubbles as soon as you blow them.

If you choose the fourth option, congratulations. There’s a science behind that. Chances are you just pop the bubble and move on. What you’re not seeing is the ring of bubbles that forms after you pop the bubble. This creates a lot of tiny bubbles.

This doesn’t affect your normal bubble-blowing activities. The bubbles do affect your everyday life, though. Think about bubbles that can form in glass and get trapped there. This is actually very important. And while very little surprises me when it comes to science, what impresses me is that people get to spend their careers studying the things we play with when we get bored. How cool is that?

Announcing a boobquake

You may not know this, but according to an Iranian cleric, women who dress provocatively cause earthquakes. If women dressing promiscuously causes earthquakes, there must be a way to test this.

Enter the Boobquake.

Dress immodestly on Monday, the 26th of April. Join a large group of fellow immodest dressers and see if an earthquake happens.

Of course, an earthquake may still happen. Earthquakes are even more common than what the mainstream media will have you believe. This experiment will have to be repeated for accuracy and to make sure we’re not playing the correlation and causation card. For now, it’s just a fun experiment and a good day to embrace ourselves.

Pluto’s Hate Mail

I took a year of astronomy in college, and during the introductory course we had to do one of two things for our semester project: make a sundial or write a paper connecting astronomy to a field of our choice. Art and I do not get along well, doubly so in the fall when I have a NaNoWriMo novel to write on top of school, so the paper was definitely the better choice.

All my obviously interesting choices were too broad or overdone: astronomy combined with math or literature (I considered Harry Potter, but there were already several excellent essays on the topic at the time) or history. Luckily, the year was 2007, and Pluto had just been declassified as a planet. Thanks to my obsessive bookmarking habit and knowledge of online communities (and memories of where different reactions happened), I began my research and wrote a paper on a topic that was still fresh: Pluto’s deplaneting and the Internet community.

That’s why I find The Pluto Files so interesting: a documentary about Pluto’s history and change in planetary status. To me, the most fascinating part is the mail that children sent in, angry that their favorite planet had been demoted. These are kids who learned mnemonics like My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, and some of them sent hate mail to a museum that demoted Pluto before the IAU did. Real mail on real paper!

It makes me wonder: if Pluto had been demoted during my childhood, would my peers and I have taken it upon ourselves to protest? I think so; a lot of us like to root for the underdog, especially since not everyone can be the cool kid. It’s what makes the rooting-for-the-underdog movies popular. We would definitely have asked a lot of questions about our old friend Pluto. But as the last letter says, “That’s science.”

(Oh, and if you’re wondering, the paper got an A. I even presented it at my college’s research symposium that spring.)

Spiders!

Spiders are vicious creatures that want to bite you to bits, right?

Not always, according to a group of scientists who discovered a vegetarian spider. While the researchers are pondering questions of scientific importance, I’m pondering the possibility of my vegetarian friends being Spiderman. That’s one obstacle out of the way for this childhood dream–unless you wanted to be Superman instead. No one has worked out the flying thing yet.