I read popular physics: The cosmic crisis

Someone went and got me a subscription to Scientific American, so for the past few months I’ve been covering physics articles, now with the benefit of a PhD. Perhaps it’s a way to keep in touch with my physics roots as my career has moved on to other things.

In this month’s issue, the cover article is “A Cosmic Crisis“, about a discrepancy between two measurements of the age of the universe.

Funny thing, there’s always a letter from the editor in chief where he introduces all the major articles, and here he contrasts the “cosmic crisis” with another ongoing crisis, that thing between US and Iran. Yep, this sure is an article that was written last month! FWIW, I could do with some reading that has nothing to do with COVID-19.

I thought I’d review the article in approximately the order in which I read it: pretty pictures first, walls of text last if at all. For serious, this is the correct way to read a science article, I can say that as a person with a PhD.

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I read popular physics: Giant Atoms

Someone went and got me a subscription to Scientific American. So I’ve been looking at these popular physics articles, marveling at what they look like post-PhD. I will continue doing this until I get bored.

Today, I will look at an article in the February issue, titled “Giant Atoms”, by Charlie Wood. It’s a short article about the MAGIS-100 experiment, which I was previously unaware of.

I got two main points from the article:

  • The MAGIS-100 experiment drops atoms down a 100 meter vacuum tube, creating “room-length” atom waves.
  • The experiment will eventually be sensitive to gravitational waves, and new forces that interact with dark matter.

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I read about the triple slit experiment

Someone went and got me a subscription to Scientific American, which is nice. Haven’t read one of those since before my PhD. In theory, I should be able to understand it a lot better. In practice, popular articles often omit crucial details or use “creative” explanations that would confuse most professionals.

So I went straight to the physics section and found an article titled “The Triple Slit Experiment” by Urbasi Sinha. Already this has me a bit confused. What’s so special about three slits? And why stop at 3? You can just have slits repeating indefinitely. It’s called a diffraction grating, and I had one when I was a kid (from this book).

Lightbulb as seen through a diffraction grating. A rainbow ring appears around it.

Diffraction gratings turn everything to rainbows, and are great toys. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So I looked through the article to see what was going on. The article makes three main points:

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Intrinsic value of choice

I know that this question has practical and political implications, but for now, I’m treating it as a “just for fun” philosophical question.  Just wanted to be upfront.

What is the value of freedom of choice?  Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

A thing has “intrinsic value” if it is valuable in itself.  It has “instrumental value” if it is valuable because it is a means to get something else of value.  For instance, suppose we have a choice between mushroom and cheese pizza.  This choice has instrumental value, because it’s a means for people to have the kind of pizza they most prefer.  But does the choice also have intrinsic value?

Under an initial analysis, I thought the answer was “no”.  If I’m presented with a one-time choice between A and B, and I choose A, did the other option B do any good?  At least within a consequentialist ethical framework, it sure doesn’t seem like it.  After all, option B had no bearing on the consequences.

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Measuring musical dissonance

An empirical approach

When we hear two musical notes played together (either in succession, or simultaneously), we often characterize those notes as “dissonant” or “consonant”. But instead of having a sharp dichotomy between dissonance and consonance, it might be more useful to speak of a spectrum between the two. Then, the question before us is how to quantify the dissonance of any pair of notes.

12tone is a cool music theory channel, and he recently published a video discussing the solution thought up by the 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler. I include the video below, but be warned that I’m going to trash Euler’s answer. I believe that any measure of musical dissonance must, at some point, refer to empirical observations of dissonance. Euler’s answer relies on mathematical supposition, and thus I would deride it as numerology.

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Paper: Gaming’s Queer Economy

In my last link roundup, I pointed to a paper called “Coin of Another Realm: Gaming’s Queer Economy“, by Christopher Goetz. I’m all over this, because I’m really interested in the economics of video games, and what this means for people with minority tastes. That’s not the direction Goetz takes, but still.

But I must warn you, you may find this paper infuriating. It shows some of the most frustrating tendencies of critical theory and queer theory. For example, in queer theory, “queer” often does not refer to sexuality, but instead means something like, “against norms”, “relating to oppressed groups”, or “in opposition to reproductive futurism”. Frustrating, as an activist, but also frustratingly standard!  And it’s not really much of an economic analysis–the paper quite literally uses a child’s understanding of economics. It’s a “literary” view of economics: myths, not maths.

But my purpose is neither to attack nor defend the paper (although I may do either incidentally), but to engage with it in good faith. The reader is welcome to quit in frustration at any point, and tell me about it in the comment section.
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That time IFLScience wrote about my field

As you can see, I took a brief blogging break… and during Asexual Awareness Week too.  But I don’t believe in apologizing for that sort of thing.


Two years ago, I spotted an IFLScience article about my particular field of research.  The article’s title?  Crucial Superconducting Theory Confirmed.  I remember chortling over the absurd idea that superconductivity would be solved, and that the first place I’d hear about it would be IFLScience of all places.

As I read the article, I realized how familiar I was with the research being discussed.  I knew Chandra Varma, a famous superconductivity theorist.  I had already read the scientific article they were talking about.  And one of the authors on the paper was a close colleague.  Small world, eh?

Anyway, I found the article interesting as a tiny little case study on science popularization.  Let’s go through the article, starting with the title.

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