Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Physics with a Bang

Modern physics is on a roll. Less than two years ago: the discovery of the Higgs boson. Providing evidence long sought for the mechanism through which (some) particles exhibit the property known as mass, this discovery led to a Nobel prize the very next year. That must be in record time.

National Ignition Facility
Last month: the quest for a sustainable fusion reaction reached an important -- if interim -- milestone: a fuel gain greater than one. Deep within the National Ignition Facility, tiny fusible pellets, blasted by 172 synchronized laser pulses, yielded more energy than had been input. Meaningful nuclear reactions are happening after each pellet is imploded/crushed so as to raise its internal temperature to 50 million degrees Celsius.

(Alas, we remain far from the Holy Grail of fusion R&D: exceeding end-to-end energy breakeven. The input of the recent milestone is very narrowly defined as that part of the incident laser-beam energy absorbed through the pellet surface -- because a fair chunk of the beam energy gets reflected. To reach end-to-end breakeven, the energy produced will have to exceed all energy pumped into the lasers. Ditto, there must be an allowance for the fraction of fusion energy that goes unrecovered -- because no process is 100% efficient. The quest continues.)

But the truly magnificent news, reported just last week by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: "First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation." A Nobel in the making, almost certainly.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sorry that I was so right

The background of my 2012 novel Energized includes an energy supply shock triggered by Russian meddling in the Middle East. The crisis is further complicated by many energy-consuming countries having become dependent upon Russia for gas and oil. They are unwilling or unable to risk angering their supplier.

Several critiques of the novel commented on an "obsolete" Cold War mentality. Post-Soviet Russia wouldn't act that way. Right?

Wrong. And, to be honest, those comments continue to rankle.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Choosing among my "children"

Any author will tell you, it happens to them. Often.

A friend, friend of a friend, relative, relative's in-law, coworker, neighbor, new acquaintance, long-lost schoolmate, out-of-the-blue emailer, LinkedIn connection, con-goer coming up after a panel, ... asks,  "I'd like to try one of your books, so which do you recommend?"

And, as any author will also tell you, that's like asking a parent to choose among his children. (It may be coincidence, but nine months is about how long the average novel takes me to write.) Okay, this isn't exactly Sophie's Choice. It doesn't even risk my answer getting back to one of the "children" and scarring them for life.

Still, answering that question is hard. I can't imagine putting nine months or so into a book without forming an emotional bond. One's first book, of course, is special. So, in another way, is the most recent book. So, in yet a different way, are the ones that went on to have sequels. Some books become special to me for the fascinating research involved, or the particular subject matter, or yet some other personal association.

But, just as I opened this post, people do ask -- and I'm flattered they do. So, although I can't bring myself to pick one child, perhaps I can help someone else to decide.  The remainder of this post is adapted from the answer I sent to a recent "what do you recommend?" email.

Prospective readers, please continue ...

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Because a distraction seems therapeutic

I'm glued to the latest news, rumors, and speculations about events in and surrounding Ukraine. On a lesser scale, I also can't look away from the collapse of Mt. Gox and the turmoil attendant to the markets for bitcoins (and other virtual currencies). 

So: in search of diversion -- for myself, in any event, and perhaps for you -- herewith, a few interesting items of science and technology news.

On at least one topic -- the proper etiquette for the use Google Glass -- Google shows signs of listening. See "Google: How not to be a 'Glasshole'."