Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

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Paul & Babe & Us

It’s the holiday season, so Merry Christmas, Chappy Chanukkah, Happy New Year, and so on!

People are pretty down on 2016, with good reason. Personally though, it was a pretty good year for me, and hopefully for many others. I got married (was my co-blogger a groomsman? of course he was!), and many people I care for got engaged, married, had children, and/or any other variety of personal milestones–which is great!

Among the fun things was visiting my wife’s home of Minnesota (a state you are only allowed to enter following marriage to a current or former resident). I wrote about visiting Prince already but when we were up in the northern part of that state we got a photo op with a local hero (inspired by my new brother-in-law & his fiance), and it is one of my favorite photos. I only wish that I had known to wear blue pants! So I’m going to post it as a way of bragging that I had a pretty good 2016.


Happy 2017!

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What We Leave Behind


Pictures of David & Ryan, within hours of their defenses. The psychological toll is evident. Photo credit (left to right): Ryan, Dave. (Posted without Dave’s permission.)

As I bragged about in the post I wrote two days after my doctoral defense, one of the things that I was proudest of was slipping a bunch of jokes past my thesis committee. Sure, it was gratifying to receive the acclimation of accomplished physicists on the culmination of 5 years of research and over a decade of scientific training. But sometimes, at a moment like that, what matters the most is getting some solid goofs preserved in perpetuity upon a dusty shelf in the corner of the esteemed library of my and Dave’s elite Rhode-Island-based university that Aitchbar refuses to mention by name for some reason.

Despite this, my dissertation, with the catchy name Quality-Selected Lensing Analysis of Galaxy Clusters in Subaru Telescope Fields hasn’t gotten the kind of internet heat I would have expected. So I felt like I ought to come up with a primer to point interested parties to the comedy gold. You, dear reader, can be assured that these things are funny, because they have been approved of by astrophysicists in terms of their scientific content. As much humor writing is.

So here’s a rundown for someone who might want to skip all the way more interesting astrophysics parts. This is the link to that dusty library’s online pdf. Here’s the rundown:

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We Went to Paisley Park

We spent Thanksgiving in my wife’s home state of Minnesota this year. It was a really fun trip, between visiting her family in the snowy far north, photo-ops with giant Midwestern statues, and taking in some culture in the Twin Cities. The highlight of that culture part was definitely visiting the home of one of Minnesota’s brightest lights, the late Prince Rogers Nelson.

Paisley Park, his recording studio, base of operations, and home, opened to the public less than a month before we visited, on October 28th. It was only announced that it would become a public museum in August. It wasn’t clear how much preparation for turning it into a museum was done prior to his untimely death this April, but my wife observed that he was already basically living his life as a public performance, and there were already probably plenty of glass cases holding memorabilia around beforehand anyway, so it’s hard to know.

We went in the early evening on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Currently, they give tours most days going until 11 pm or so. When we got there, a guard stopped us at the gate to ask whether we had tickets. We didn’t, and he informed us that they can only be bought online, so we were turned away, and proceeded to buy them on a phone while idling in a nearby CVS parking lot. We idly pondered whether Prince had ever stopped there to buy Vitamin Water.

Tickets acquired, we were ushered through the gates and parked in front of this blurry purple wall.

Purple wall, purple wall

Purple wall, purple wall

Phones were not allowed on the tour, so I snapped the only other picture I was able to take:

Purple wife, purple wife

Purple wife, purple wife

Ironically, although they are extremely paranoid about phones, the only way to get in was to show them the QR code for your ticket…on your phone. After you do, they put your phone in a little “locked” pouch that they unlock at the end of the tour. I strongly suspect that they were already in use back in the days when he would throw massive parties here as well. I entertained the thought that Madonna had once been forced to use my pouch to lock up her phone when she came to an impromptu party/performance in one of the party/concert events he held for celebrities and cool people.

To start with, in case you’re not familiar, Paisley Park looks more like an office complex than a house. It’s a big white boxy structure on the corner of a ordinary street in the suburbs outside Minneapolis, in a pretty sparsely populated sort of place with occasional strip malls and empty lots. Here’s a picture I found on the internet.


Unlike a normal house, it had the kind of glass double doors, HVAC, and other stuff that you usually see in commercial buildings. Which makes sense, I suppose, since lots of people work(ed) there in a professional sense, but it is still a little crazy that someone extremely famous lived here for nearly 30 years. Also, because there were multiple displays which looked like they were created for a museum, and yet, other things which we were told had been there for years but looked carefully presented, we frequently wondered how much had been changed for the public tours. Our assumption was “less than you would expect.”

Security was omnipresent. They were both gruff and jocular and I strongly suspected that they were mostly people who had already been working there and were now getting used to dealing with the public on a daily basis.

About half of the tour group was wearing at least some purple, and the makeup of us tourists was diverse in every sense—reflecting the fact that Prince was a rare artist who appealed to people from every background and walk of life. He really united people in a cool way.

While waiting for our guide, we were allowed to peruse the wall of gold and platinum records hanging up around the entryway. My brother-in-law noticed that a quote/drawing beside the doorway was clearly from a blown-up image, and you could see the sloppy pixelation (he asked about it later, it had been there for many years).  My wife was especially happy to find the platinum record (with accompanying platinum tape cassette) for ‘Batdance’. Across from these in a small frame was a condolence letter from the President that he and Michelle had signed in purple ink. I can’t find an image from it online, and I wish I remembered it better, but it probably included something like “‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative” which is from a quote Obama made publicly at the time. It was characteristically eloquent.

Our tour guide eventually arrived, wearing, as all the guides did, a loose Prince-ish, purple shirt with long loose sleeves. I noticed that he had a Prince symbol tattooed on his forearm and wondered whether the folks leading the tours were chosen from local super-fans. (This article seems to confirm that they were.)

He ushered us into a large room with a kitchen on one side and doors going in every direction. The second level ringed most of it, and on the upper level there was a birdcage holding two of Prince’s doves. We did not witness them crying.

Via this site the room was much like this, but the doors with Prince paintings have been replaced with memorabilia displays and a pedistal with a Paisley Park model and his remains now sits in the center of the photo.

Via this site the room was much like this, but the doors with Prince paintings have been replaced with memorabilia displays and a pedestal with a Paisley Park model and his remains now sits in the center of the photo.

We were told that this is where Prince spent a lot of his time, and it was where he had given a famous interview to Oprah in the 90s. The kitchen was frequently used when the musicians were in long recording sessions, and also held a couch and TV where he spent nights watching the Timberwolves. In recognition of that, the TV was playing a recording of an old game. Despite the seeming incongruousness of it, he was an avid supporter of Minnesota sports, as people in the area can attest.
On the opposite wall (where the photo above faces), there were several inlaid displays with guitars and hand-written lyrics (in place of those pictures of him), and several small rooms with the same kind of thing, and some of his bonkers outfits (these were in most displays and they were always quite small). Another room held his relatively normal-looking office. The phone on his desk was purple.

A small replica of the Paisley Park building sat in the middle of the large room (around the end point of the arrow on his symbol, as seen above), and contained a small black box holding his remains. (My brother-in-law, a funeral director, mentioned that the box would have been far too small to hold the entirety of a cremation, so the rest of His Purpleness must be somewhere else.)

We were led into a large wood-paneled recording studio. Prince had been recording a new collaboration jazz album there less than a month before his death in April. The guitar he was playing was still there, as was the lyric sheet in his own handwriting. The guide played an unmixed section of one of these tracks. It was extremely funky. In the mixing room, the original drum machine used on Purple Rain could be seen. The guide also egged someone on into asking about a little door about 10 feet off the ground…only to reveal that it was just for storage. We were baffled why he was so intent on telling us this.

We then passed through a room with memorabilia from and screens showing Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. It had previously held promotion offices and been set up for the museum. Half of the room was monochromatic in a nod to Cherry Moon, a black-and-white movie. Graffiti Bridge, apparently a spiritual sequel to Purple Rain, was mostly filmed in this building, something he asked us to keep in mind, as the scale of the production, from the film clips playing, was clearly made in a very large studio space. Where could this space be?

This led to a long hallway (I might be mis-remembering the sequence) with his various awards over the years in inset cases in the wall. We noticed that the Grammy award trophies apparently got larger at some point in the early 90’s and got to see an MTV moonman statue up close. It was a long hallway, and, unsurprisingly, there were many awards.

Next we saw another less ornate recording space where they had created a display which included one of his outfits, a motorcycle (seen on the covers of the “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy” singles), and his Oscar from Purple Rain. Then an antechamber for a large concert space, where a strange piano sat among strange organic sculptures. They mentioned that it was one of only a dozen or so examples of this unusual pianos ever made, but not knowing the name for this unique instrument, I could only find this single photo online. From my angle, it was reminiscent of black sea creature.


Prince at his cetacean piano, via this site

This was the entryway into an enormous concert-space/airplane hanger. In about half of the room, outfits and instruments from various tours were arranged on platforms, as were some giant chairs. A concert video played on the distant movie-theater screen. This was where he threw private concerts. It was incredibly large, with a very high ceiling—it felt like they could have fit a space shuttle in here, and if Prince had wanted to, they probably would have. It was staggering to suddenly emerge into a gigantic mostly-empty room.

Our penultimate room was full of couches and large screens. Our guide told us that Prince would sit up on an upper-level walkway looking down over his parties from a chair–which was still present. The area below was full of intimate couch-tables that would belong in a small jazz club, and psychedelic patterns played on the walls.

Near the exit, a neglected wall held some of the offerings left by fans after his death. They seemingly scooped up what was left outside (signs, drawings, tickets) and arranged it in a tapestry of raw grief, with names and addresses still visible on printed-out tickets scrawled with messages of what he meant to them.  The flowers, cast about loosely on the floor, though dry, were not yet completely withered.

In this final area, a large flat-screen TV played his virtuoso Superbowl performance. In 2007, the Superbowl in Miami was played under heavy rain. As halftime approached, the organizers, worried if the weather would effect the show, asked him if there was anything they could do to help. His response:

“Can you make it rain harder?”

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In Which I Pretend to be a Theater Critic

Providence actors Derek Smith and Victoria Ezikovich explore space hallucinations in The Final Voyage of X Minus One. Photo by Bert Silverberg.

Providence actors Derek Smith and Victoria Ezikovich explore space hallucinations in The Final Voyage of X Minus One. Photo by Bert Silverberg.

My wife* has a pretty cool gig writing theater reviews for the website Broadway World. For doing this, she gets all sorts of free tickets to various productions around town and yours truly comes along to a good fraction of the performances. She’s gotten pretty good at it, and recently even joined the American Theater Critics Association and got to travel to New York to participate in their yearly event where she moderated a lunch talk with Susan from Friends, her new best friend!

Last weekend we went to The Final Voyage of X Minus One by Counter-Productions Theatre Company at AS220 in Providence and my lovely wife asked me to pinch-hit on the review, since the show was a sci-fi anthology and I’m a huge dork. It was easy to write since the play was really excellent and fun. It’s not a new Aitchbar post, per se, but it’s a thing I wrote on the internet, so check it out! (And if you’re in the area, go see it!)

BWW Review: THE FINAL VOYAGE OF X MINUS ONE at Counter-Productions Theatre Company

(*): Oh, by the way, since I last posted here, I got married. Hooray!

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I Wrote A Book

I can pour liquids

I can pour liquids

Like my co-blogger, I recently, finally, finished my physics thesis. Mine took 1.333(…) years more than his because: (a) I started with my research group in my 3rd year of grad school (instead of the summer before our 1st, like he did), (b)  I did all sorts of distracting/fulfilling outreach activities for funding over the course of my years at [Semi-Prestigious East Coast University You Can Find by Googling My Name Or Looking at My Mini-Bio and Remembering Which Famous Colleges Are in Rhode Island] which diverted my attention a bit, (c) Because I am a perfectionist who also realizes that he is lazy, and therefore made every bit of code I wrote idiot-proof for the idiot I knew I would be several months after I wrote it (which turned out to be time-consuming but useful, because I was right about that idiot thing), (d) My project ended up being nearly as large as things accomplished by groups composed of dozens of astronomers—but with just me working on it, (e) Dave is smarter than me.

This picture is me pouring champagne after the confirmation (which is always obvious to everyone other than the person presenting their PhD) that it’s all good, and you’re now a Doctor. I am, conveniently, standing in front of a case displaying former department heads. Other than the guy with the cool chemistry setup on the bottom, I’m the only one who got to know that the universe is much larger than the Milky Way and that the Big Bang happened. I mean, it wasn’t a thing I discovered myself, but it’s still weird.

With one day of distance from this experience I have two major observations. The first is that the passage of time has expanded drastically since the day, weeks ago, when I submitted my dissertation. My perception of time was strongly affected by how much I’d added to my thesis, and when I spent a few days getting something to work, but didn’t contribute pages to it, I felt like I was stuck in a moment and I couldn’t get out of it. Now that I’m done, time is again like it was when I was 8 and each new day was a new world of beautiful experiences to be savored. This whole PhD thing happened yesterday and it feels like years.

Secondly is the fact that my reviewers were fine with the several snide remarks and jokes that I sneaked in there. This, in itself, is ~50% as gratifying as the whole doctorate thing itself. I quoted Donald Rumsfeld and Stephen Colbert. I wrote snide footnotes about Albert Einstein and The Dress. And it will all be on a shelf on the [Semi-Prestigious East-Coast University] Library in perpetuity. That is the sweetest victory of all.

And yes, that is a tie with constellations on it. Because I’m a fucking astrophysicist.

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Eponymity in Physics

This is a re-post of a piece I wrote on my old blog, Topography of Ignorance, back in 2007. It’s a list I compiled of the types of things you could get named after you that come in the form [Name][Type of thing], as in the word “Law” from “Moore’s Law.” There are the obvious ones like “equation” but the unusual terms are more interesting because there might be only a single example. The title is itself an adaptation of an obscure word, eponym, which I loosely interpreted to mean “anything named after someone.” I don’t think it’s a real word, and using it probably confused readers (it also could have confused them that it’s basically just a massive list with very little prose). To preserve the classic 2007 “feel” of the original post, I’m keeping the poorly-chosen title and format.  Plus, lists are now back in a big way! (What with your Buzzfeeds et al.) So it seemed like an appropriate time to bring it back. Will animate with Jennifer Lawrence GIFs as soon as I’m able…


A physicist wanting to make an impact on the field most often imagines his or her name attached to an Equation, or a Theory. Or even, if they really want to move mountains, a Law. I have no idea what mathematicians think about, but I would assume that they are hoping to come up with Theorems and Conjectures. Of course, not everyone is an Einstein or a Kepler, able to remake a subject and declare a Law. But if you carve out a niche for yourself, or invent a novel way of dealing with a certain topic, you’re virtually assured of getting something. For an elegant discovery, you could have an Angle named after you, or a Number. Or in a more bizarre direction, a Sea or Paradox. de Sitter has an entire Universe! Me? If I could become the first person since Isaac Newton with an eponymous Bucket I would consider myself a success. There are so many strange things you could find named in your honor that I have compiled an extensive list of them with some examples namesakes on the right-hand side.

First, some of the most common:

[A Unit] Newton, Gauss, Joule
[A Constant] Planck, Boltzmann
Function Riemann-Zeta, Bessel
Effect Mössbauer, Stark, Bohr,
Gunn-Peterson, etc.

And then of course, there are rarer terms. These trend very roughly from less to more obscure.

Field Fermionic, Bosonic, Higgs
Matrix Kobayashi, Cabibbo
Relation Heisenberg, Tully-Fisher
Principle Copernican, Pauli Exclusion
Model Schwinger, Bohr
Method Schrödinger
Postulate Planck, Weyl
Approximation Born
Minkowski, Fock, Hilbert
Metric Friedmann-Robertson-Walker,
Distribution Wigner, Bose-Einstein, Fermi-Dirac
___-on Fermi, Bose
___-ian Laplace, Hamilton, Riemann
Notation Dirac
Potential Coulomb, Yukawa
Action Stueckelberg, Proca
Inequality Minkowski, Bell
Limit Chandrasekhar
Tensor Riemann
Scalar Ricci
Gauge Newtonian
Diagram Feynman
Radiation Cherenkov, Hawking
Cycle Carnot, Born
Interpretation Bohm, Copenhagen
Paradox Einstein-Podolski-Rosen,
Olber, Fermi
Problem Rabi, Fermi
Experiment Milikan Oil Drop
Spectrum Mössbauer
Conjecture Witten
Interaction Yakawa
Amplitude Feynman
Operator d’Alembert
Particle Higgs, Planck
Neutrino Majorana, Dirac
Motion Brownian
Length Jeans
Number Avogadro, Chandrasekhar, Euler
Surface Fermi
Condensate Bose-Einstein
Radius Schwartzschild, Bohr
Convention Einstein Summation
Transform Forier, Laplace
Series Balmer, Lyman
Line Lyman, Balmer
Rules Slater
Scattering Compton, Rayleigh, Thompson
Variable Cepheid, RR Lyrae
Diffusion Bohm
Junction Josephson
Expansion Taylor
Manifold Riemann
Topology Picard
Mechanism Higgs
Peak Wein
Test Tolman surface brightness
Repulsion Coulomb
Epoch Planck
Parameter Hubble
[An Element]
Einstein, Fermi, Curie, Mendeleev, Lawrence, Nobel
Wavelength de Broglie
Boson Higgs
Profile Hernquist
Criterion Landau
Rigidity Born
Cross-section Thompson
Zone Brillouin, (also see, List of Zones)
State Hartle-Hawking
Angle Weinberg
Universe de Sitter, Lemaître
Sea Dirac, Fermi
Splitting Zeeman
Forest Lyman-alpha
Blob Lyman-alpha
Swindle Jeans
Trough Gunn-Peterson
Window Gamow
Cage Faraday
Engine Carnot
Bucket Newton
Tuning Fork
Golden Rule Fermi
Pancake Zel’dovich
Brain Boltzmann
Demon Maxwell

If anyone else is able to repeat that last one, I will be highly impressed. I would also like to point out that the Higgs boson may be the only phenomenon or concept that has two namesakes, since the term boson originally comes from Satyendra Bose! If you can think of anything else let me know and I’ll add it.



Pairs       . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Cooper

Focus      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Cassegrain, Nasmyth

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In which I answer the evolution questions of hopeless people living without access to the internet

Buzzfeed has a collection of “questions”/smirking ignorance from people who consider themselves creationists. Since these are all such pat, easily-answerable questions I can’t resist taking a break between doing science, and helping teach science to people who are interested in learning it, to throw up a few answers to the questions of people who aren’t. None of the actual science ones ought to take a minimally interested person more than 30 seconds to find online, but since I can do each in 5 sec or less, let’s all save some time together! (Spelling mistakes faithfully transcribed!) (Smirkiness levels matched!)

1. “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?”
I’m not him, but yes he is.

2. “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?”

3. “Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? I.e. trees created with rings… Adam created as an adult…”

4. “Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?”

5. “How do you explain a sunset if their is no God?”
Earth’s rotation.

6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?”
They don’t.

I’ll try anything once.

8. “Where do you derive objective meaning in life?”
From being right about science.

9. “If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By Chance?”
By natural processes. Also, ‘chance’, given millions of years and the right conditions, guarantees such a thing occurring. Also also, not fully understanding an event doesn’t imply that God did it.

10. “I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said it and BANG it happened!”

11. “Why do evolutionists/secularists/huminists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their being a creator Gob but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens of other extra-terestrial sources?”
They don’t, you’re thinking of the film Prometheus.

12. “There is no in between… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccessary for an ‘official proof’.”
The non-existence of “transitional” fossils is a myth. There are thousands of pre-human fossils. I will forward your objection to the Official Proof Commission.

13. “Does metamorphosis help support evolution?”
The Metamorphosis is a surrealistic short-story by Franz Kafka. Published in 1915, this German novella depicts the unexplained transformation of salesman Gregor Samsa into a horrific cockroach-like insect and his efforts to deal with his mysterious and terrifying condition.

14. “If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why is Evolution taught as fact.”
‘Theory’ and ‘fact’ are not mutually incompatible concepts. Also, the Bible is a book, not a theory.

15. “Because science by definition is a ‘theory’— not testable, observable, nor repeatable’ why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?”
See #14. Theories are all of those things and evolution has been tested and observed in a myriad of ways.

16. “What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?”
Not an expert here but I’d venture the existence of forms of life with less complex genetic code. Also, if this is a reference to entropy, it only has to increase overall within an environment, not within every organism.

17. “What purpose do you think you are for if you do not believe in salvation?”
I’m pretty decent at parallel parking.

18. “Why have we found only 1 ‘Lucy’, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?”
There are literally thousands of other hominid fossils.

19. “Can you believe in ‘the big bang’ without ‘faith’?”
I do. But I ‘believe’ in it because there is evidence that it happened. If new evidence showed that it didn’t, I would change my mind.

20. “How can you look at the world and not believe Someone Created/thought of it? It’s Amazing!!!”
Cool story.

21. “Relating to the big bang theory…. Where did the exploding star come from?”
The big bang was a star exploding? I don’t even…

OK, these have been rough. Just one more left. Hopefully it’s not a super-dumb misunderstanding of one of science’s most important and beautiful theories that anyone can understand if they bother to take a couple seconds on the internet or ask a grown-up.

22. “If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”
Gosh, that’s a good one. That really sounds like a thoughtful new angle on this whole issue that biologists surely haven’t considered. I haven’t lost patience with this exercise or anything.
You know what? This cactus here is like, really old and wise and stuff. He says he’s been around hundreds of millions of years and he’s seen pretty much all of human history so why don’t you just get really close to his knowledge port and he can whisper it to you. Don’t be shy. Yeah, right in there…