Sunday, June 25, 2006

Megapost ?

The time is 21:44 on my windows XP clock at the bottom right corner. The location, I don't know exactly: somewhere above Pennsylvania, at a height of 36,000 feet. I am flying from New York back to Los Angeles on a Friday evening, after 4 weeks of experiment at Brookhaven Lab.

The aircraft does not have internet; I am writing these words in Wordpad and I will upload later. But I do want to try something new. I will just keep writing until the battery of my laptop runs out. It should need an hour or two; we'll see.I will write about whatever comes into my mind. I tend to do a lot of thinking in airplanes. And I do love writing. Due to the nature of the task though it will be more of a collection of random thoughts rather than a coherent sum.

I woke up at 9am today (I actually slept at 5am after killing and removing at least 8 bugs, spiders and ants that were occupying my room - they surface when it gets hot). I went to the lab to take some more data with Vitaly (the director - Russian, smart, abrupt, thoughtful). We tried to measure the so-called CTR signal: it is a form of radiation (light) emitted when an electron crosses a surface.I had to leave at 2:15pm to catch my flight from JFK. As it has happened many times before, everything started working perfectly at 2:10pm and we started getting data. It's always the best experience when you see a measurement for the first time. You look at the data points and ponder: what does nature want to tell me? Why is there this shape? Why so much noise?

Vitaly was joking about the fact that I should have booked a next day morning flight to leave (not cool for me though). But then I am *sure* that everything will just start working later, just before you have to go. He explained how they got some data just before they had to close once: every year the shutdown the major accelerator machine in the lab to perform maintenance, and it stays like that for 2-3 months, and then they need another month or so to get back up to speed. So all the data and experiments have to be done by the shutdown day.

On that summer (98 I think( the electrician was to come at 7am to shutdown the power. They have been trying for weeks to get the data they needed, and they only succeeded at 6am of the shutdown day! They published 2 Physical Review Letters Papers from those data (This is pretty much the best journal you can publish at other than Nature and Science).

I left the lab at 2:45, after taking some interesting pictures. Vitaly hopefully will email me the rest of the data.

(Battery level: 85%)

Next to me this time I have the best passenger I ever had in any flight. She is a 25 year old classic Californian blonde, with long hair, tight teared-up jeans, and a small t-shirt that barely cover the top half of her body. She is pretty and interesting to discuss with. There are 3 seats together in the middle of the plane. I am in the rightmost one, she is in the center to my left, and another guy on her left. Right now she is sleeping so I am able to write about her without her realizing it. (But I may have to switch at any moment). The guy next to her works as a cartoon designer in LA. He is handsome, blonde, in his thirties, and muscular. He is trying to talk to her as much as possible (he shared his iPod and his laptop with her). The Californian girl said when we sat down: "I feel very safe between two men" (she's also scared of flights a bit).

(Battery level: 83%)

I also made a new good friend over this trip. Sumer Banna (With who we went to the Broadway show together last week) is an very clever 0.5*Israeli+0.5*Arab postdoc here. He had 8 publications by the end of his phd, and, like me, he is deeply a theoretician although he does experiments now. He is also one of the very few persons I know that know about the Wiener-Hopf technique - a mathematical method to solve some complex electromagnetics problems. Professor John O'Brien at USC (from Caltech) and my friend Thodoris Dikaliotis are the other two people that have discussed with for this method. With Thodoris we took this class together back in Greece on Wiener-Hopf. Al semester long we solved 3 problems - that's it! But I since then I can now always remember that a sine function can be written as a product of two Gamma functions! The gamma function is essentially the factorial function (you know: 4!=1*2*3*4, 3!=1*2*3 etc) extended to non-integers (you can have 3.5! for example). That mathematical property of the sine function has always intrigued me since then, I think it is my most fun mathematical property ever. Now that I think about it I promise I will find a way to put it in my thesis somewhere.

Back to Sumer now. We discussed a lot about science and the politics of publications. For example, there is the question on who do you put in the author list in your paper. It is easy when the paper is theoretical, where you just have the people that worked in the theory, usually not more that 2-4. But in an experimental paper it is not so obvious. For example in our case we have Ilan, the former director of the lab that initially proposed the experiment. He had to leave the facility immediately after the experiment was approved. He has never had any contribution whatsoever in the experiment, and he doesn't even know what the progress is. However he is the father of the idea we investigate. Do we put him in the author list? (We will probably do). Then there is the other end of the spectrum. Karl is a technician at the lab. He manages the gases, installs various equipment here and there, sets up computers etc. He is a permanent there, but although he has done stuff without which our experiment couldn't be performed, he does not know much about the real science behind it. He just does what has to be done in terms of everyday (yet useful) tasks. Do we put him in the author list? Sumer will not do so, because he says this is a facility that has to provide equipment to the users (Sumer and me), and you can't have everyone in the author list. On the other hand I think that we will have him in the authors, because at the end we need him for what he does, despite the fact that he will not even probably read the paper (when we are fortunate enough to write it). In this way Karl has more publications than me, since his name is mentioned in every experiment these guys do. It all comes down to this: What is the criteria to have someone as author? Do you have everyone that has even the slightest contribution as author, or you have a threshold of contribution and have everyone above the threshold as authors?

(Battery level: 75%)

(The Californian girl is sleeping. Shhh....)

Actually, the bathroom looks empty and there is no turbulence - I should pay a short visit.

OK, I am back. Last night I finished watching Sex and The City (SATC). I mean ALL the show, all 6 seasons. I started watching from episode 1 with Dora, with who we watched up to season 3 (a little bit of it in the Chinese bus on our way from New York to Boston back in March). During my stay in Brookhaven the last 4 weeks I gradually watched the last 3 seasons with an average of 2 episodes per night. And I have to say I am impressed.

I didn't give the show much credit before, but it is awesome. The characters are unique, and the dialogue is to die for. I haven't seen more natural flow of dialogue in any series - it just keeps going very naturally and it never feels weird and it never feels pushed. Another great pus is that everything is filmed on Manhattan, my favorite city in the world (with Barcelona #2 - gaudi is just splendid!) - the 5th girl of the show, as they call it. They also cover pretty much everything there is to cover about sex - I really can't think of anything else. Their best season was #4 BY FAR, where on top of the parties and the guys they also have a good story for each girl that they follow through: The marriage, the child, the boyfriend. Seasons 5 and 6 were not so good, I think they ran out of ideas and it is a good think they finished the show before it was too late. I also liked the (admittedly Hollywood) ending, with Carrie being back with Big (or should I say, John?)

(Battery Level: 68%)

(She is still sleeping. The stewardess came to give her the change from a sandwich she bout on board, but of course she wasn't available)

(let me put some music on. What do I have? Bolero de Ravel, Παπαρίζου, Λούφα και Παραλλαγή, Carol of the Bells. hm.)

At the airport I purchased 3 magazines to read on this flight (after my battery dies). The new Wired and the new Scientific American. I also subscribe to them, but I couldn't wait to go back home first - I really needed a good science read! Wired always has some amazing articles - it is the most popular technology magazine in the US. They had a great article about pigs. Apparently they take a pig, open it open, cut two arteries, remove all the blood, and replace with some special cryogenic mixture, and then they seal everything again. The pig remains almost dead (but alive!) in the so called suspended animation state: almost dead but not quite. They leave the pig like that for 1 to 2 hours, and then they reverse the process and put the blood back in. Amazingly enough, the pig regains life and continuous to live normally. They have done this to over 200 pigs and never observed anything unusual.

Why is this useful? (and not scary?) Because with suspended animation you can "pause" the state of an organism, even for humans (in principle, no actual facts there yet). What if someone is going to die soon and there is not enough time to be treated properly? What about the person who will die because he is in the wait list for an organ (these lists are HUGE)? You can perform any operation you want without the stress of time, and then be back to life again. Of course this technique has poses some serious moral issues (playing with god etc) but if we get past this, it is one of the holy grails of medicine if it is applied properly.

(Battery level: 57%)

(She woke up for a bit, but now she is back to sleep. At least she removed the blanket)

Last Friday I presented some of our data measurements to the rest of the people in the facility. Among them is Igor, another Russian that is 70 years old - a very respected and experienced scientist with lots of publications and great ideas. So his comments are, to me, as a phd student, very important. So I present a graph with about 20 data points (dots) that although they do not vary very much, there is some significant deviation between 50%-100%. It doesn't look very pretty, but hey, this is a raw measurement. It can't be perfect.

What was his comment then? "When you have such scarce data, you should plot them in a logarithmic scale so that they seem closer together". Boing!

After 40 years of doing science and experiments, a senior scientist's advice was to try and manipulate the data so that it doesn't look ugly! I cannot that. First, this graph was not for a publication or a paper, it was just an informal presentation of the results. The point is that I should try and present the bare facts, so that we can discuss about them. We can't hide behind our finger, it is like cheating in an exam: you only hurt yourself at the end. Second, the proper thing to do is to try and explain why the data looks weird. There must be a reason behind it (there always is), and if we understand it we will better understand our experiment, and ultimately we will be better prepared next time.

I say all these nice things now, but is there a chance that I will become like Igor in 40 years and realize how wise he was back in the 2000's?

(Battery level: 47%)

(She is now leaning towards her left, the other guy. She wears a Victoria's Secret bra). She had to wake up once because of an announcement to fasten the seat belts, but now she's back to work)

There are discussions about allowing cell phone calls in flights lately (once they make sure that they don't interfere much with the equipment of the aircrafts). I don't like that: then the flights will become like the bus, where every once a while a phone rings waking you up, and then you have to sustain all the talking. I actually like the silence and privacy of an airplane flight. I prefer to do my usual stuff: Read books, watch a movie, solve Sudoku, play some gameboy, read a magazine. An then again and again, especially on trans-atlantic flights until you reach the other continent.

(Battery level: 42%)

(he is also looking at her breasts. Hm.)

It recently dawned on me: no great work of art can come without its maker having a personal strong experience that he or she wants to let other people know. I don't think anyone that has a normal, happy life could produce a great work. You need to have some kind of life-altering experience, and then you decide to put it on the paper (or whatever) in order to let other people know about it. Even if most of the times it is not clear at all what the original cause is.

Someone happy shouldn't bother writing a book, making a movie, or writing a song (unless you do it for money; but then it may be good but not great). However someone that has had problems, someone that is struggling to survive, someone that THINKS (and you usually think because you need to make something better or because something is troubling you a lot), that someone wants to do something about it. He wants to let people know his feelings. He has a vision, and he wants to accomplice it. It is not an accident that all great structures, buildings, temples, etc, from our ancient history on this planet was done for one of two reasons. First, love. Second, God.

The Parthenon was a temple to worship Athena and Zeus. The Taj Mahal was built because the guy lost his beloved wife. The Pyramids of Egypt were huge temples and cemeteries. Stanford build his university to honor his beloved and lost too early son. Most of the great paintings in history are religious one way or another. The list is endless, but there is always a common denominator.

(Battery Level: 30%)

(The battery level drops nonlinearly I think. Or is it the music?)

Once I was returning back to LA from Greece, and we were flying over Greenland. I could see some seemingly large blocks of ice floating of the water. I wondered: how big are they?

I decided to measure it. I extended my right arm out, and then raised my finger. I placed the finger in view between me and the block of ice, looking through the window. I noticed that my finger almost completely covered the ice block. That should be enough to estimate its size.

Basic geometry is all I need. My finger has about 1cm thickness, and my arm extended is about 1m. So the angle projected by my finger is approximately 1cm/1m, or 0.01 radians. We were flying at 60,000 feet, or about 20km above the surface. Since the angle projected has to be the same (the finger is covering the view of the ice block), the size of block of ice must be angle times the distance, or 0.01*20,000m = 200m.

I love real life calculations!

(Battery level: 25%)

(She woke up for a second. "Oh, you write a lo tof stuff, don't ya!" Then went back to sleep.)

The first time I came to Brookhaven for this experiment I though everything would be set and we would do all the measurements within a week. Clearly, I was faaaaaaar from the truth. 2 years later, we are struggling a lot, and we have devised and improved a lot of our measurements. But we will still need time to get to the ultimate goal.

It is like a good RPG. You have a main quest, for example to kill some ultimate bad gut or save a girl. But then as you move on there are sidequests. You see things that are interesting and you start looking closer. You also meet other people and exchange items and talk to them, and sometimes you may devote some time to help on their quests too. Before you know it, you are investigating areas that you were not supposed to, but they look interesting and will give you extra armor and spells. And of course, not matter which sidequest you pick, you always gain experience. And you need the experience and the armor in order to fight the big bad guy, because you can't do it if you are weak.

Everything from the above applies to an experimental thesis. You have a main goal, but on the way you find other interesting things to do. So your main target may take a while to be reached.

I don't know whether we will see the ultimate effect we seek in this experiment by the time I have to finish my phd (which is 2 years from now). But on the way I will have learned so many stuff, so many *new* stuff, that just the trip will be worth all the attempts and sleepless nights (όπως θα έλεγε και ο Καβάφης). And if, by any chance, at the end I am able to contribute a small tiny piece of new knowledge to mankind, that will be even better.

(Battery Level: 19%)

(She asked me whether she can use my arm a bit to lie her head on, since her leg is sleeping (μούδιασε το πόδι της ελληνιστί). "Go ahead, I'll survive". Now she is sleeping again.)

World Cup. I was lucky that in the east coast I could in principle watch all the games in normal times. There were matches at 9am NY time, which is 6am LA time. I could have never watched these matches in the west coast so early. Tomorrow the match between Germany and Sweden initiates the round of 16, and it is live at 8am. I tried to convince Stavros to watch with me, but he doesn't seem likely to wake up so early. I'll try to talk to my German neighbor, Mark, who told me he wanted to watch the games with me (but I left for Brookhaven shortly after).

Tomorrow is also the world premiere of pirates of the Caribbean 2 in Disneyland, just 45min away from my home. My lovely Keira will be there, along with a bunch of celebrities. I tried to convince Dimitri to go there and watch the red carpet arrivals (it's impossible to watch the movie itself, it comes out in 2 weeks for the public), but he wasn't in the mood. ^%^&&*&*^%^(&%#@@

I also reserved 2 tickets for the premiere of Superman:Returns next Tuesday. The show is one day before the official wide release at 10pm, in IMAX, and in 3D! It is the first live action movie that will be at least partially in 3D. According to my sources 20 minutes of the movie have been converted to IMAX 3D, and there will be indicators on the screen to let us know when to put our 3D glasses on. I went to watch Matrix:Revolution in IMAX on that theater almost 2.5 years ago with Yao and his friends. It was the very first commercial movie to be released in IMAX and it was a lot of fun, but the picture was actually kind of grainy (because the screen is bigger but not the quality and resolution of the film too, they mostly just expand it). I am curious to see if the technology and quality has evolved since then, now that almost everyone captures the movie in digital CCD arrays (rather than film) and truly everyone edits in digital domain (with the sole exception of Steven Spielberg - he is the only one in Hollywood to edit his movie analog - by cutting and pasting pieces of film together).

I need to find a second person to go with...

(Battery level: 13%)

(She is still asleep. I try not to move my arm at all, it is very tough to write like that. The guy fell asleep too.)

I think I will save the last 10% of the battery. The time is 00:15 in NY time, and the movie they project (8 below) is 2/3 in. We still have 2 hours of flight I think.

What am I looking forward for in the next few days? First, watch the World Cup (ALL the remaining 15 matches) in beautiful 92" High definition picture in our home, rather than the crappy 23" CRT TV I had in my room at Brookhaven. Second, I have to carefully go over the data we got and prepare a presentation for Friday's group meeting (I asked explicitly to present, because it forces me to go thoroughly over the material and learn it well. Then I can understand better). I also have to prepare my apparently first conference presentation for the week of July 10th. It is in a resort at Lake Geneva, and on the weekend me and Erdem will drive to Chicago and spend 2 days there. Because of the World Cup final on Sunday July 9th at 11am local time, we had to book afternoon flights (6pm or so) which means that we will reach the resort around 2-3am. Brilliant! We also decide to return with a 6am flight on the next Monday morning, so we probably won't need to pay for a hotel on Sunday night.

(She is still asleep, although she thanked me first for letting her rest on my arm. She hugs the pillow. And we do have some turbulence. See you back in LA.)