Monday, November 27, 2006

Just came back...

... from Lake Tahoe with 6GB of pics and videos. I will post our great adventures soon (which includes one of the funniest moments ever captured on video), but the most important thing is that I came back inspired.

"We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on."
- Richard Feynman

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Paris Hilton, Nintendo Wii and a Tokamak

What could Paris Hilton, Nintendo's new game console and a fusion reactor have in common? Well, they are all in my focus of interest in the past week.

On our way to UCLA with Jessi and Xiaodong

Last Wednesday (that was 10 days ago!) we visited with our plasma class the biggest fusion reactor in the world, the UCLA Tokamak (Tokamak is a type of a fusion machine). Probably the most important application of plasma is fusion, and the guy explaining it was pretty funny about it. He says we walks out of his house every day and looks at the sun of LA and says "How do you do it"? Fusion is simply the process of trying to generate energy in the same way that the sun does, it is exactly the opposite of nuclear fission (were you break an atom apart). In the sun the huge gravity forces the atoms together, while here people try to use huge magnetic fields to confine them.

He said that in the 1950s when fusion was first proposed people said it is a matter of 2-3 years for it to become reality. Then in 5 years they had failed, and they said it may take more like 10 years to achieve. In 15 years they hadn't done it, and they said it may take more like 20 years. And then, 20 years later (which is today) they have failed, and they say they will need more like 50 years to get it. It is not a good growth rate:-)

In front of the UCLA Tokamak:
Still, fusion is really our only hope for our long term energy needs. Oil and carbon will run out in 30-60 years, and then nuclear fission can burn for another 2,000 years. But then Uranium and Plutonium runs out, and we are literally back to the horses, with no energy left to consume.

On the same day it was the half-season finale of Lost. It had me on the edge of my seat for the whole hour; it's just great stuff. Season 3 will continue from February with 16 episodes in a row (they found out viewers were complaining with the reruns). In the meantime, Scott (our undergrad's friend) brought us DVDs of season 2, which we will give to Jessi in exchange with season 1 divx's. That is mainly for Reza in our office to get acquainted with the characters better (by the way, we now print one photo from each episode and put it up on our wall in the office. We will have 24 pictures and a beautiful wallpaper by the end of the year).

On Saturday, me and Dora went to Hollywood. I had read that the premiere of Fountain would take place there. Indeed, we spent about one hour and we got a glimpse of some of the actors, including the leads Hugh Jackman (aka Wolverine) and Rachel Weisz. (thank you 12x zoom of Canon S2!).

The red carpets is not such a big deal after all. There is a red carpet laid down (duh!), it is surrounded by metal bars, and behind the bars there are reporters for interviews and photographers. It takes about 45minutes for the lead actors to walk around everybody, along with some other big or small names of the film industry.

We didn't watch the movie itself (it opens officially next week), however I have very high expectations for it. Aronofsky, the director (π, Requiem for a dream), decided to make a sci-fi movie and battle teh biggest problem of all sci-fi movies: that their special and computer effects get outdated very soon (just look at 2001 or the original Star Wars, or even the Matrix: you can tell they are somewhat old).

So he decided to make a sci-fi movie without a single computer generated effect! For example, the frame on the left looks amazing and in completely naturally made. They used a technique called microlensing that they take pictures of very small drops of water that they have dissolved other substances in there. The results are so amazing that the light-years wide nebula on this picture is actually only a few millimeters size in real life! If you take a look at the trailer you'll think it is impossible to create these images without a computer. And yet...

Let's move on. The Victoria's Secret fashion show was to take place today, for the first time in LA, and specifically at the Kodak Theater (home of the Oscars ceremony too).

We actually went there just to watch a movie (Borat), but since we saw people we decided to stay and take a look. We only watched the last 30 minutes of the arrivals, but during that time we did manage to see and take pictures. The two most notable appearances were Dean Kane (former Superman series lead):

...and, to out big surprise, Paris Hilton:

It was a lot of fun! The list of celebrities I've seen here in LA is growing:

Paris Hlton (@ VS Fashion Show Arrivals)
Dean Kane (@ VS Fashion Show Arrivals)
Rachel Weisz (@ The Chinese Theater Premiere of the Fountain)
Hugh Jackman (@ The Chinese Theater Premiere of the Fountain)
Mathew Perry (@ The Cattle, Sunset blvd)
Jessica Alba (@Taverna Tony, Malibu)
Will Smith (@Jay)
William H. Macy (@Jay)
Charles Barkley (@Jay)
Forrest Whittaker (@Huntigton Park)
Shaquille O'Neal (@AMC Movie Thaters)
Tom Hanks (@Agia Sofia)
Carmen Electra (@Jay)
Ralph Fiennes (@Jay)
Harrison Ford (@Jay)
Tony Shalhoud (MIB, Monk, @LAX)
Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, Dogville, @Jay)

When we returned back home, we returned to the everyday world of common mortals. I was struggling with the dishes:

and Andrew was confirming his natural state of being:

And how about Nintendo Wii? The Sony PS3 is debuting in the US tomorrow, and the Nintendo Wii on Monday. The Wii does not have the technical specs of the PS3 or Xbox 360, but it is a pure gaming machine, and it costs half the price of PS3. I wrote about the upcoming battle this year before, but when I ask myself "which console would I buy now?" I tend to go for the Wii. Nintendo has a great tradition in home games, and unlike Sony and Microsoft they are not trying to make a computer but rather make a fun machine to play with. The Wii is tiny, it has a revolutionary gyroscopic motion-detecting controller that changes the way we play games, and it also has the Legend of Zelda! At $299, can it win the next-gen console race? I believe so.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nature, at last

So out group finally got a publication in the most prestigious scientific journal Nature. I am not personally involved in this experiment, but almost one year ago I wrote about how using plasma accelerators they managed to accelerate electrons by 15GeV, the fastest electrons so far from a plasma accelerator. They didn't publish the result; instead they went back, increased the length of the plasma and got some more data. Then they managed to double the energy of the 3,000m long SLAC accelerator in just 1m of plasma (from 42GeV to 85GeV).

They sent the paper to Nature, and after disagreements among the first two referees it went to a third one who finally also approved it. It should appear in the journal soon.

Although out group has published in the News & Views and in the Brief Communications (single page) of Nature, in is the first time it will appear in the letters section. Great job, guys!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Saturn Solar Eclipse

It is a very cool picture... When the Cassini spacecraft (on its way out of the solar system) looked back at Saturn, it got a picture at a point where Saturn was eclipsing the Sun. That is one of the best (and amazing in conception) pictures ever. I don't think a total eclipse from another planet has ever been recorded.

And imagine that I found that in a celebrity forum.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Philadelphia Impressions

View from the Art Museum, aka Rocky's steps:

Every time I takeoff, I still find it hard to believe that airplanes do actually fly. I feel the acceleration, I feel the speed, and then slowly the plane leaves the ground and rises in the air. It feels impossible, despite the fact that I know Bernoulli’s equations and that the shape of the airplane wings is such that air moves faster on the bottom side, thereby applying more pressure that the top side and thus lifting the plane up.


The conference was much different than any previous one. I guess that the most important item was Chan Joshi’s award of the Maxwell Prize. This is a huge award, equivalent to the Nobel Prize for plasma physics. He is the same guy that wrote that Scientific American article on plasma accelerators a few months ago. Although John Dawson, the theoretical father of the field proposed in the 1970s the techniques that are now performed every day to accelerate particles using plasmas, Joshi was the first guy to experimentally discover them. In fact, the first few attempts to perform plasma acceleration had failed, and many people had moved out of the field. Joshi insisted that the techniques could indeed work, and eventually he succeeded in the late 1980s. Since then many many group came back to work those aspects, and I am one of the PhD students working on them too. Katsouleas (my advisor) worked with Joshi while at UCLA until the early 1990s, and he admitted me in 2003. I guess that I wouldn’t be here now on this flight if it weren’t for Joshi (that thought only scares the hell out of me).

There was a reception on Wednesday for him, unofficial, just for the “close” friends. Many people wanted to speak out and talk about Joshi and his character, including my advisor Tom who came just for this day only to talk about Joshi and his “Hollywood” moments. His wife and family were there also, and his wife in particular made for him a nice painting where she included 3 leaves that she had picked years ago when they went with Joshi in England and he pointed out at some place that “this is Newton’s appletree”. Then the conference banquet followed where they awarded him the prize in front of the whole plasma physics community. For us, young scientists of the field, these are the most inspiring moments you can get, imagining yourself being recognized from your own community. I have here a few minute video with some of the moments of that day.

Then there was Francis Chen. The guy is a legend in the plasma community, as he has written the best entry-level textbook on plasma physics and also he was the first student to get 1GeV energy particles, back at Brookhaven Lab. We told us a story on how one evening he was late at the accelerator lab and as he was high up gazing the machines, he saw a poor man moving lead bricks around to shield the machine (lead blocks the harmful x-rays produced all the time). He talks to him: "May I help you with the bricks, professor Fermi?"

Picture with the legend:

The poster sessions were most interesting. I helped and was helped from other people, mainly on the plasma side of my work, and I learned a lot of new plasma stuff. I still can’t help feeling stupid when I watch what all these other guys are working on for which I have no idea about.

It is impossible to still realize that 90% of the talks are presented in a very crappy way. People just don’t know how to do a proper presentation. In the last talk in the last day of my session, the guy’s first slide (after the names) was a maze of equations, pictures, explanations, graphs, approximations. Useless! How can you expect people to follow that? I just left the room immediately. On the other hand, the most interesting talk seemed to be the one on Antihydrogen, which I mentioned earlier. Joshi gave a great review of plasma accelerators too. If a presentation is properly structured, you don’t need to know the field in order to understand the material.

Now let’s move on to the city.

Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in the US, but it is by far my least favorite. I was unpleasantly surprised. Although the downtown area (which the locals call “center city” for whatever reason) is kind of nice, with European style streets and buildings, I could never get rid of the feeling that I was not safe. I never felt relaxed like walking in a promenade or busy street, even around the university area (which we visited on Halloween night to watch Saw III). Maybe it has to do with the 50% of black people that live there; maybe with the fact that most of the non-downtown areas are severely under-funded (as one of the local that we chatted with promptly explained to us when I asked her why is the population constantly declining in the past 20 years).

As an east coast city it has many old buildings and “historic” (for American standards) places. The first US government was formed here and also the declaration of Independence from the British Empire was signed here. The most popular item is the “liberty bell”, a bell that is correlated with the declaration since it rang when the declaration was first read to the public on July 8th of the independence year (it also has a very famous crack). However for a non-American all these places are not THAT interesting after all.

Here are some insider tips: Walnut and Chestnut streets have very nice shops and restaurants. We ate at Moriartys (an Irish restaurant pub/bar) located at Walnut and 11th, very close to the theaters there. On 12th and Arch streets (just two blocks below Chestnut), right below the convention center there is a great lunch place, Farmer’s Market style, that serves all kinds of food (and it’s pretty good too). I had one of the best crepes there this morning before we left. The other interesting thing was the Art Museum.

Philadelphia is home of Rocky and the Rocky movies. He is supposed to be from South Philadelphia. Remember the famous scene where he wakes up at dawn, eats 5 raw eggs in a glass and then goes out to run in the streets, up until some stairs from where all Philadelphia can be viewed? These stairs are the Art Museum stairs, and many people go there and climb them as a reminder of his movies. There’s also a statue of his nearby (the one that was used in Rocky III I believe).

The Museum itself is the 3rd largest art museum in the country, I am guessing after New York's Metropolitan (check) and Chicago's (check). Although they do have some decent impressionist paintings (which has now become my second favorite item in a museum), the modern section is not that great (which is my favorite section in every museum!). What is great are the whole rooms that they have transformed into places from other ages.

For example, there is an impossibly perfect 1600s Japanese Tea house (brought directly from Japan). The whole thing is built inside a museum room. When I walked in, I was awed since I felt I was teleported to Japan for a few minutes. Everything looked original and real (because it was real!). They did the similar transformation by building 100% an Indian temple and a French 1100s middle age monastery. Also, along these lines, in many places instead of modern doors they had installed original archways from that age. The whole impression was simply astonishing.

Overall, Philadelphia is not a family oriented city (like Boston), it isn’t nearly as vibrant as New York or Chicago, it doesn’t have LA’s carelessness, it doesn’t have Miami’s vide and party atmosphere. We had a great time with our group, we bonded better, we learned a lot, and most importantly we got inspired by Joshi’s paradigm for the future.

Finally I show here a video of two things. First, right after the nominations at the conference banquet it was 9:20pm (on a Wednesday night) , so me and Erdem ran at out nearby hotel in order to catch Lost! In addition, I have my running along the Rocky steps (along with original footage from the movie). Enjoy!