Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Science is back on TV...well, web TV

Ever pine for the days when the Discovery channel and PBS showed nature documentaries and fun, yet educational shows about science? I'm talking actual science as opposed to The Science of Monster Trucks vs. Sharks!!!

Well, Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame, together with Caltech Planetary Sciences grad student Alex Lockwood, are coming to the rescue with a new web TV series called PhDetours. Here's the first episode. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Twinkle, twinkle

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

By Julia Kregenow and Jason Wright
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
I know exactly what you are

Opaque ball of hot dense gas
Million times our planet's mass
Looking small because you're far
I know exactly what you are

Fusing atoms in your core
Hydrogen, helium, carbon and more [Note that these have to be pronounced as quick triplets for proper scansion, i.e. "hy-dro-gen, hel-li-um, car-bon-and, more"...]
With such power you shine far
Twinkle twinkle little star

Classed by their spectroscopy
Oh, Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me
Bright when close and faint when far
I know exactly what you are

Smallest ones burn cool and slow
Still too hot to visit, though
Red stars dominate by far
Twinkle twinkle little star

Largest ones are hot and blue
Supernova when they're through
Then black hole or neutron star
I know exactly what you are

Our Sun's average as stars go
Formed 5 billion years ago
Halfway through its life so far
Twinkle twinkle little star

(new verse! 7.23.12)
Sunspots look dark but they're bright
Slightly cooler so less light
Temporary surface scar
I know exactly what you are

(new verse! 7.23.12)
Swelling up before it's dead
Cooling off and growing red
Then its end is not so far
Twinkle twinkle giant star

(new verse! 7.23.12)
Outer layers float away
Planetary Nebulae [pronounced "NEH-byoo-LAY"]
Wispy gas is gossamer
I know exactly what you were

(new verse! 7.23.12)
Interstellar medium
Recycled ad nauseam
Gas and dust are spread afar
Twinkle twinkle little star

Forming from collapsing clouds
Cold and dusty gas enshrouds
Spinning, heating protostar
I know exactly what you are

(updated 7.23.12)
Two stars make a binary
Or a triple if there's three
Some are solo just like ours
Twinkle twinkle little stars

Often forming multiply [pronounced "MAHLT - eh - PLEE"]
Clusters bound by gravity
Open type or globular [pronounced "GLAH-byoo-LAHR" to make the rhyme work. Note this is a slight variant on the standard pronunciation "GLAH-byoo-ler"]
I know exactly what you are

Two hundred billion stars all stay
Bound up in the Milky Way
Dusty spiral with a bar
Twinkle twinkle little star

Stars have planets orbiting
Rocky or gassy, moons or rings
Earth's unique with life so far
I know exactly what you are.
Lyrics copyrighted Julia Kregenow and Jason Wright, 2011. For educational purposes only. If you reproduce these lyrics in whole or in part, please credit this original source (http://mamasdukesofhazard.blogspot.com/2011/06/twinkle-twinkle-little-star.html). Also please make note of [pronunciation hints] embedded within, to retain the intended meter and rhyme.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Profound musings

In a recent post about reference frames in the universe and the cosmic microwave background, my friend and fellow astronomer recently wrote:
This "dipole" signature in the cosmic microwave background represents our motion (mostly the Milky Way's motion) through this omnipresent gas of photons left over from the explosion that created the Universe.  This means that the stuff in the Universe does have a preferred frame of reference, even if the laws of the Universe don't.  Crazy.  Sometimes I wonder:  how did the Universe pick that frame?  Other times I wonder whether that question has any meaning at all.  Other times I wonder which of those wonderings is more profound.  Then I get back to changing my daughter's diaper and my priorities are rightfully restored.
Well stated!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Dueling Lasers

I received this email and photo the other day from a collaborator of mine:
Last night, Andrea Ghez's group [at UCLA] had both Kecks using LGS-AO on the supermassive black hole at the Galactic Center. Check out this image.
UPDATE: The photo was taken by Dan Birchall (Subaru Telescope Operator). Check out his blog here.

Check out this post for more about the Keck laser adaptive optics system.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Newton's Cannonball

by: Lori, via the Exolab Blog

A deafening boom. A rush of air. The smell of gunpowder. And suddenly a cannonball was arcing through the air. This hypothetical cannonball, launched by Isaac Newton in a thought experiment, could be considered the shot-heard-'round-the-world heralding the arrival of the theory of gravitation.

Newton reasoned if one shot a cannonball off the top of a mountain at a relatively low velocity, it would travel some distance and fall back to Earth. Faster velocities would mean the ball travels farther before it hits the ground. But of course, Newton did not stop there. What if the radius of the ball’s trajectory curve matched the radius of the Earth? The ball must keep falling, but it would never reach the ground. Essentially, it would orbit. So technically, we are falling around the sun, while the moon falls around the Earth! This particular thought experiment that led to Newton’s theory of gravity was only made known after his death. He published very few works, though they were in high demand by some scholars; most of his writings were released only posthumously. But those he did publish, like the enduring Principia in 1687, sent waves through the scholarly community.
Though there were only a few hundred copies in print, Principia could be heard discussed in coffee-houses across England. It held so much information on so many different arenas of science and mathematics, that Marquis de l'Hopital declared of Newton, “Does he eat and drink and sleep? Is he like other men?”

Indeed, Newton was not like other men. As a teenager, he was constantly inventing curious contraptions, such as a mouse-powered miniature windmill, and doodling sketches of animals, people, and shapes on the walls of his boarding home. It says something of his brilliance that in grammar school, he was never taught natural philosophy and only basic forms of arithmetic and math, and yet approximately four years later he discovered calculus! He was raised in a relatively well-off economical situation, but his life was devoid of human connection. Raised by his grandmother, his father passed away before his birth, and his mother left her only son for a new husband many years her senior. In grammar school, the other boys were everything but friendly--likely put-off by Newton's unusual intellectual superiority. Lacking friends at such a young age, he devoted all mental faculties to the pursuit of sciences, and having been scorned by his peers, he carved his name into every school bench he occupied. Later in life he would suffer from several breakdowns, causing his contemporaries to question the soundness of his intellectual abilities. Newton was thus an enigma to those around him. His wildly creative nature was incomprehensible to many, leaving him quite alone.

Through all this, Newton found solace and inspiration in God. While working on Principia, he and one of his few friends, John Locke, would exchange letters, in which Newton would dissect various Biblical passages and their meaning. Newton’s view on the physics of the universe, similar to Kepler’s, were strongly connected to his devout, yet unorthodox Christianity. He would point to God as the answer to many cosmological curiosities, such as how "dark matter" (planets, rocks) was so distinctly separated from "light matter" (the sun, stars): "I do not think explicable by mere natural causes but am forced to ascribe it to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent."


Surviving through an emotionally turbulent childhood, Newton first studied mathematics until the Great Comet of 1680 turned his eyes heavenward.  Johannes Kepler's existing three laws of planetary motion provided a basis and reference for Newton to postulate his own three laws of universal motion.  Newton set off to discover the force which consistently drew objects downward, toward the center of the Earth. The theory of gravitation was, consistent with the famed legend, born out of a contemplation of the trajectory of a falling apple (though the apple never actually hit him on the head), which later spawned the cannonball theory. And, if gravity worked on the Earth, why shouldn’t it be applied to the moon and the rest of the cosmos? Newton declared that the heliocentric model was in fact correct, with one caveat. It was not the Earth that revolved around the Sun, nor the Sun that revolved around the Earth, but rather, both revolving around the system's center of mass. In his own words, "the common centre of gravity of the Earth, the Sun and all the Planets is to be esteem'd the Centre of the World."

For all his eccentricity, Newton died quietly in his sleep in 1727. His equations for the motions of the planets and other celestial bodies are crucial foundations for exoplanetary science. In addition, his stipulation that components of a system orbit about a center of mass is the cornerstone of the radial velocity method of detecting planets. His crowning achievement is his theory of gravity, and if you were to fire a cannonball from the top of a mountain today, you’d find that the results would not have changed from Newton’s original postulations. However, almost 200 years later, gravity would be radically expanded to address high energies and speeds, permanently changing our perspectives on astrophysics by a German man with disheveled hair, who would come to be known as the father of modern physics: Albert Einstein.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Isaac Newton

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aiming for the unexpected

The other night I received an email from my friend Avi Loeb, the director of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, sharing one of his regular non-refereed astro-ph opinion pieces. Avi likes to share his non-standard opinions and ideas in these short little papers, and I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from his previous contributions, such as this one about taking the road less traveled in ones research.

In his most recent posting, Avi avocates for national funding for "open research without a programmatic agenda establishes a fertile ground for unexpected breakthroughs." This would be in addition to funding for traditional, low-risk endeavors. 

I really like this idea, especially since it resonates with what I'm trying to set up within my own research group at Caltech. I try to make sure that my students and postdocs have primary projects that "pay the bills," as my advisor Geoff Marcy liked to say. But I also encourage open discussion, outside-the-box brain-storming, and inter-group collaboration. Nothing makes me happier than when a student comes to my office with a new idea, or when summer undergrads start up collaborations among themselves and sometimes even with older group members. 

Many of my group's best papers have sprung up while we were pursuing totally different science. For example, earlier this year Phil Muirhead announced the smallest planets ever discovered. He found those planets and their sizes not by searching for the smallest signals in the Kepler mission data sample, but instead by trying to characterize the properties of low-mass stars in the Kepler field. Further, it should be noted that the NASA mission directive for Kepler team is to find Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. Meanwhile, my group has hit pay dirt by instead studying planets around some of Kepler's least Sun-like target stars. 

Avi writes:

It is common to think about short-term goals in funding physics, but nurturing data-driven research with no programmatic goals promotes innovation and brings unanticipated profits...Over long periods of time, decades or more, the benefits from a data-driven culture without programmatic reins are so great that even profit-oriented businesses may choose to support it.

From here he goes on to describe the stunning historical success of Bell Labs:

This corporation assembled a collection of creative scientists in the same corridor, gave them freedom, and harvested some of the most important discoveries in science and technology of the 20th century, including the foundation of radio astronomy in 1932, the invention of the transistor in 1947, the development of information theory in 1948, the solar cells in 1954, the laser in 1958, the first communications satellite in 1962, the charged-coupled device (CCD) in 1969, and the fiber optic network in 1976. Such long-term benefits require patience and the foresight of paying it forward.

The solution Avi proposes is that funding agencies should set aside a fraction of their funding (say 20%) for centers of excellence with no programatic direction. Instead, people working in these centers should be free to pursue high-risk projects with no clear goal that will inevitably lead to unexpected discoveries that drive science forward, such as those made at Bell Labs. This would be a welcome change from the strict programatic aims of most national funding agencies and the ultra-conservative bent of their grant review panels. 

As someone who has been hitting the grant-writing circuit hard over the past three years with little to show for it, I've become accustomed to reviewers who worry about projects being "too risky." The joke goes that the best way to get funding is to propose for things you've already done; of course, having already done the work necessarily reduces risk. Given the six-month review period of proposals, I basically make this joke my reality with every project I propose. It's pretty frustrating to think that as these negative reviews were being written by some panelist, my group was busy actually doing the "risky" science project described in the proposal! 

Maybe I should start soliciting venture capitol. 

Three levels of pain

I received a similar image via the Facebooks by Linda Y. Google showed me this one. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spinning food

Image caption: Little Pea is a handy tool for getting your kids to eat their veggies.

Parenting is tough. The moment you figure something out, the logarithmic evolutionary timescale of your kids' development surpasses any gains you've made over a similar timescale. Pardon my technical writing just then, I'm writing three papers and two proposals right now. Basically what I'm saying is that a 1-year difference between, say, ages 3 and 4 is enormous in terms of a kid's development in comparison to the meager gains that I, as a parent, make over that same period. After all, when you're 34, one year feels pretty short, and let's face it we parents aren't learning at the rate we used to! The moment you finally learn a new parenting trick, your kid is an entirely different person.

I remember how this effect was especially acute when the boys were babies. A baby basically has only four things that can go wrong. They need: a new diaper, food, burping, sleep. But I can vividly recall the frustration of systematically working through this list (Diaper dirty? Nope. Want baba? Nope...etc), and by the time you reach the end of the short list, it's 10 minutes later and a new need/problem has emerged.

Anyway, I'm writing all of this as an intro to a list of useful tactics for getting my kids to eat. I'm writing this list because I think it's kinda funny, and because other parents might find it useful.

Drinking orange juice with pulp

Owen: "Mom, can I have some orange juice?"
Mom: "Sure."
Owen: "Does it have pulp in it?"
Mom: "Um, just a little, not a lot."
Owen: "Ew! I don't want it."
Dad: "WHAT? Don't you realize that pulp has tons of vitamin C? Vitamin C is like weapons and ammo for your immune system. When you drink pulp, it's like delivering machine guns and bazookas to the front line. Your white blood cells are all, 'Hooray! Reinforcements!' They grab the machine guns from the vitamin C and they start blasting away at cold viruses. One squad of white blood cells is like, 'Help! I'm pinned down by the flu.' And the Bravo Squad rushes in with a vitamin C bazooka and its all 'Fwoosh, KABOOM!' No more flu virus!"
Owen: "Marcus, let's drink lots of pulp so our white blood cells can have bazookas!"

Eating vegetables (Owen)

Owen (picking at his thai curry): "Ew, what are these?"
Dad: "Oh! Those! Those are Super-Happy Peppers."
Owen: "What do they do?"
Dad: "Well...it doesn't really matter. You might not be old enough to handle the explanation."
Owen: "Yes I am! I'm 7!"
Dad: "Oh yeah, I forgot! Okay, Super-Happy Peppers are bright colors like red, green and yellow. These colors are caused by happiness. When you eat them, the happiness gets into your blood and carried up to your face where they stimulate your smile muscles. Watch." (I then eat a bell peper, wait a few seconds and then start smiling goofily.) "See there! I can't stop smiling!"
Owen: "Oooh! I want to try that! Look, I'm smiling! I like Super-Happy Peppers!"

Eating vegetables (Marcus)

Marcus (picking at his jumbalaya): "Ew, what's this?"
Dad: "That's a green pea. It's all, 'HA HA! Little boys don't eat us, so we're safe!'"
Marcus (smiling devilishly while eating the pea)
Dad with high-pitched voice: "OH NO! He's eating us! Please don't eat us!"
Marcus (smiling even more while eating more defenseless peas)
Dad: "OH NO! We misjudged this little boy!"

Eating vegetables 2 (Owen)

Owen (holding up a carrot): "What vitamins does this have?"
Dad: "That? That has a lot of vitamin A, which helps you see further. Watch. Right now I can't read that box over there." (eats carrot) "Okay, whoa! Now I can read it. It says 'rice.' Wow, I can see so much better now!"

Owen (eats carrot): "I can see better now, too! Mom, look. I can read that sign way over there!"

Full disclosure: I'm not sure what vitamins carrots have. D? C? But it totally doesn't matter as long as he eats his damn vegetables. Fortunately, he usually buys my silly explanations and he eats his veggies. Yes, I do occasionally worry about his performance in his future biology and health classes...

A New Perspective

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On the Penn State Scandal

My good friend and close collaborator Professor Jason Wright is a relatively new prof at Penn State. He recently wrote about the scandal on his family's blog (on which I lurk :), and he agreed to let me repost his thoughtful and thorough writeup here. I have a lot of thoughts myself, but I have neither the experience nor writing skillz to say it as well as Jason. I will say that

  • The admixture of child sexual abuse and unlimited power/trust placed in the higher-ups bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic church's ongoing sexual abuse issues 
  • It is the near worship-level football culture at Penn State (and other big schools) that lead to the unlimited power/trust placed in falible human beings. I've recently been giving a lot of thought to things like celebrity and sports fandom. When you stop and think about these things, they're really strange concepts! Why do we care so deeply about things that ultimately have no direct affect on our lives? (Of course, this doesn't stop me from being a die-hard Clippers fan and dropping hard-earned cash on basketball tickets.)
  • We should focus our anger on those in power, not those who merely attend and work at the school. At any University there are a few with real power, and many who are normal people with normal priorities, hopes and dreams. When criticizing Penn State, keep in mind that there are people like Jason who had no knowledge at all of the rot occurring higher up in the administration, and students who are just like students at colleges everywhere in the U.S. 
  • It's going to be funny-sad to watch how the NCAA weighs in on all this. As they issue their high-minded opinions and impose sanctions on PSU's football team, keep in mind that this scandal involves no specific NCAA rules violations. So this craven, money-grubbing organization's inevitable putative actions will be strictly for show as a means of A) maintaining the appearance of importance and B) maintaining the cash flow from all of the other football programs that generate so much money from essentially free labor.
Whoa! That was way more than I expected to say. Okay, on to Jason's post:


As a (newish) Penn State employee hired not long before the scandal broke, I get asked about it a lot, so I thought I'd share some of my ambivalence here.  

It could but should not go without saying how monstrous were Sandusky's years of abuse of boys in our community.  Those who knew about it and did nothing are guilty of grievous moral failure.  I am horrified by what happened both on campus and off by a former employee.  I am disgusted by the actions of the four principle (former) officials who did not blow the whistle.  I am saddened to be an employee of a University that let this happen.  

Regarding Paterno's firing, at the time I thought it was badly bungled and probably unjust.  Having read the report I it is clear, in retrospect, that the firing was appropriate, but I'm still not sure that the Board really knew that at the time.  At any rate, his reputation for moral rectitude is appropriately ruined.

Also, I am proud of many of the positive aspects of Penn State culture, especially those on display since President Spanier's departure.  For instance, from what I can tell, the new president has done an exemplary job of navigating the crisis (and presiding, generally), and of consistently doing the right and moral thing not just for the university and its employees and students, but also for the victims here.

I am pleased at how the Freeh report as assembled and disseminated: independently, transparently, and with full accountability.  The Board hired the investigative committee and gave it complete access to all University records and employees, and waived attorney-client privilege.  I and the rest of the public read the report for the first time at the same time as the Board that commissioned it.  The lawyers probably see this as a foolhardy act, a self-inflicted wound that exposes the university to substantial liability.  So be it; this is what accountability looks like.

None of this ameliorates the damage done, but for me it is evidence that I am not currently a member of a corrupt organization.  This community is eager to excise the rot, and the results so far are encouraging.

I am also disappointed at how Penn State students have been represented in the media.  The students here are a diverse bunch, but by and large they felt simultaneously horrified by the severity of the abuse, and defensive about their institution's reputation.  Yet they were demonized as a whole by the media as mindless Paterno worshippers, indifferent to the suffering of children.  There were lots of stories about misbehaving students outraged at Paterno's firing, but not so many about the "blue out" in support of child abuse victims at the next home game, or so many about the fact that Penn State undergrads raise millions for children's hospitals every year in the nation's largest student charity event (THON).    

There has been a lot of talk lately about sanctions.  Giving the football team the "death penalty" seems to make sense, but would do a lot of harm for little benefit beyond serving as a warning to others.  It's not clear on what basis the NCAA could do this, but it probably has the discretion to do whatever it wants, even without pointing to specific rules violations.  The new coach has largely replaced the old staff, and the new president has made it clear that the football-first culture is over in Old Main, and I believe him (he comes from the academic side of the administration).  It seems more appropriate to me to focus on civil and criminal liability.  

When it comes to the many victims, I recommend reading Slate's article on how Penn State should handle victim compensation.  It strikes me as the right, moral, and just approach here.   I hope Penn State follows this template.

When it comes to civil and criminal violations, certainly the living central three figures should be punished for their crimes.  The focus on the institution itself is now for Clery Act violations, both specifically for not reporting the Sandusky incidents they knew about and more generally for not training staff to comply with this federal law, as required.  The penalty for noncompliance is a civil fine of $27k for each infraction.  It's not clear how infractions would be counted here, but in the past "appropriate" punishment has been negotiated with prosecutors and a judge.

More disturbingly are reports that the DOE could cut off federal financial aid to Penn State students, or, according to some reports, "all federal funding," which would basically shutter the school.  A lot of our support comes from overhead on federal grants to do research;  without this we lose a huge part of our budget and a large fraction of our workforce.  The above link also suggests that the DOE could withhold the school's accreditation, meaning we stop being a school.   

But I can't find any reference in the Clery act to such sanctions; perhaps there is language somewhere that the DOE can shut off future funding for past violation of any federal rules, but it seems to me that as long as we come into compliance with federal rules, we will be eligible for federal funding, period.  If anyone knows the basis of the above speculation, please let me know.  

I dearly hope that the University follows the recommendations of the Freeh report.  Or perhaps I should write: I expect my university to follow these recommendations because they are the right thing to do.  

The Freeh report shows how Penn State culture was responsible for aggravating the scope of the crimes.  I am reproducing here the section on the necessary changes to Penn State culture (pp. 129-130), because I endorse it.  I especially appreciate the emphasis given to having greater transparency, something I have been pushing for since I arrived:

The University is a major employer, landholder and investor in State College, and its administrators, staff, faculty and many of its Board members have strong ties to the local community. Certain aspects of the community culture are laudable, such as its collegiality, high standards of educational excellence and research, and respect for the environment. However, there is an over‐emphasis on “The Penn State Way” as an approach to decision‐making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution.

University administration and the Board should consider taking the following actions to create a values‐ and ethics‐centered community where everyone is engaged in placing the needs of children above the needs of adults; and to create an environment where everyone who sees or suspects child abuse will feel empowered to report the abuse.
1.1 Organize a Penn State‐led effort to vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture in order to: 1) reinforce the commitment of all University members to protect children; 2) create a stronger sense of accountability among the University’s leadership; 3) establish values and ethics‐based decision making and adherence to the Penn State Principles as the standard for all University faculty, staff and students; 4) promote an environment of increased transparency into the management of the University; and 5) ensure a sustained integration of the Intercollegiate Athletics program into the broader Penn State community.
This effort should include the participation of representatives from the Special Faculty Committee on University Governance; Penn State’s Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics; Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute; students, alumni, faculty and staff; as well as representatives from peer institutions with experience in reviewing and improving institutional culture in academic settings.
1.2 Appoint a University Ethics Officer to provide advice and counsel to the President and the Board of Trustees on ethics issues and adherence to the Penn State Principles; develop and provide, in conjunction with the Rock Ethics Center, leadership and ethics training modules for all areas of the University; and coordinate ethics initiatives with the University’s Chief Compliance Officer.* (See also Recommendation 4.0)
      • 1.2.1 Establish an “Ethics Council” to assist the Ethics Officer in providing advice and counsel to the President and the Board on ethical issues and training.
      • 1.2.2 Finalize and approve the proposed modifications to the Institutional Conflict of Interest Policy; identify the senior administrative and faculty positions to which the policy should apply, and implement the policy throughout the University.
1.3 Conduct open and inclusive searches for new employees and provide professional training for employees who undertake new responsibilities.
1.4 Continue to benchmark the University’s practices and policies with other similarly situated institutions, focus on continuous improvement and make administrative, operational or personnel changes when warranted.
1.5 Communicate regularly with University students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community regarding significant University policies and issues through a variety of methods and media.
1.6 Emphasize and practice openness and transparency at all levels and within all areas of the University.

Humans used to dream of flying

Wouldn't this be an awesome way to commute down the mountain after a long observing run?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Don't screw this up for me, LeBron

I've been combing through Jay Smooth's archives at The Ill Doctrine and I came across this gem about the silly illusion of importance that all sports fans share:

Friday, July 20, 2012

99 Problems

From my brother-in-law, a.k.a. MC Law-talkin'-guy:

I thought I would send you a summary of one of the best legal pedagogical tools I've come across in recent years: Jay-Z's second verse to the song 99 Problems.  I recently became reacquainted with the song while listening to the Jaydiohead mashup 99 Anthems [Youtube link not safe for work or innocent ears], a mix of the lyrics to 99 Problems and the music of Radiohead's The National Anthem (which is a great combination, in case you haven't heard it).  I noticed that the second verse raises a lot of issues concerning the scope of law enforcement authority when they pull over your vehicle, and, lo-and-behold, a law professor and former Assistant United States Attorney from the Southern District of California recently wrote an article based on this very concept (PDF document).  Hopefully you find some of this interesting and helpful, and, remember, when in doubt about what you can and can't do and what limits there are on the police activity around you, ask a lawyer. 

Here are the lyrics and my synopsis of the points of law I recognized and the author of the article points out:
1. The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw
2. In my rear view mirror is the mother fucking law
3. I got two choices yall pull over the car or
4. bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
5. Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with jake
6. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
7. So I...pull over to the side of the road
So, Jay-Z is getting stopped by police while in the car.  He's in the process of transporting cocaine, and he is weighing whether to try and flee, or whether to pull over.  He decides to pull over, which is probably the right choice becuase if you try to run from the cops and they catch you, your decision to flee provides them with a new, legitimate reason to suspect criminal activity, and you lose the opportunity to challenge the legality of the initial stop.  United States v. Garcia, 516 F.2d 318, 319 (9th Cir. 1975).  If he runs and tries to ditch the contraband (which is unlikely to work since they are in his trunk) and the cops later find what he throws out of the car, he has no basis to suppress that evidence because he has "abandoned" it for Fourth Amendment purposes.  California v. Hodari, 499 U.S. 621, 629 (1991).  If you are pulled over illegally and want to fight it later, you have to submit to the show of police authority.    California v. Brendlin, 551 U.S. 249, 253 (2007).      
8. And I heard "Son do you know why I'm stopping you for?"
9. Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low
10. Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Jay-Z suggests that he has been profiled as a drug dealer when asked why he is being pulled over.  While enforcement of the law based on purely racial reasons violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, if there is objective probable cause for the traffic stop, even if the cop provides a pretextual reason for pulling you over, pretext is not a basis for Fourth Amendment suppression.  Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Jay-Z's response to this question from the officer is spot on: he gets to find out what the officer is going to say about the stop and it does not admit any misconduct.  There is no reason when you get stopped to tell an officer that you are sorry for speeding.
11. Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?
It's good to find out if you are under arrest.  If you are placed under arrest, the police can impound your car and do an inventory search of the vehicle and also an inventory search of your person, clothing, and bags without any suspicion of illegal activity at all.  Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 370-71 (1987); United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235-36 (1973).  If you aren't under arrest, then the police need probable cause to search the car.  If the cops do not have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your car, then you can suppress any contraband seized if they search it anyway. 
12. "Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four"
As a matter of law, if you are even one mile per hour over the speed limit, that's sufficient justification to pull you over, write you a ticket, and arrest you if the officer chooses, even if the offense you committed was a misdemeanor not punishable by jail time.  Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001).  That the officer had a basis to pull you over is what matters for suppression issues, and given the litany of traffic regulations, a cop can follow you for about 3 blocks and almost certainly find some reason to pull you over.  See Paul Butler, The White Fourth Amendment, 43 Tex. Tech. L. REv. 245, 252 (2010) (discussing a ride along with police where the author tells the cop to stop a car and within a few blocks the officer finds a valid legal justification for the stop).
13. "License and registration and step out of the car"
14. "Are you carrying a weapon on you I know a lot of you are"
15. I ain't stepping out of shit all my papers legit
Jay-Z refuses to step out of the car as ordered by the officer.  However, a driver does not actually have the right to refuse an order to exit the vehicle during an ordinary traffic stop.  Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 n.6 (1977).  The question about the weapon is interesting because the police have a right, during a legitimate traffic stop encounter with an individual, to do a weapons pat-down under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).  The police can also do a "frisk" of the car itself, i.e., search the interior passenger compartment of the car for readily available weapons.  Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983).  The rationale for these rules is to protect officer safety--if the person they stop is a criminal, they might be attacked with a weapon if not permitted to do a limited search for weapons.  Good thing for Jay-Z his dope is not in the passenger compartment, but in the trunk of his car. 
16. "Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"
Here, the officer is asking Jay-Z for consent to search the vehicle.  If you give the police consent to search, that renders moot any other problems that might arise with the search that might later arise, such as a later determination that the police lacked probable cause.  Shneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973).  And, you don't have to know that you have the right to consent for your consent to be knowing and voluntary as a matter of law.  Shneckloth, 412 U.S. at 224. 
17. Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back
18. And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that
19. "Aren't you sharp as a tack are some type of lawyer or something?"
20. "Or somebody important or something?"
21. Nah I ain't passed the bar but I know a little bit
22. Enough that you won't illegally search my shit
Here is Jay-Z's biggest error in the song, and the myth that the essay attempts to debunk: locking your trunk will not keep the cops from legally searching it.  There is no warrant requirement for car searches.  All the cops need is probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is in the vehicle.  California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580 (1991).  
23. "Well see how smart you are when the K-9's come"
The cops cannot unreasonably extend a traffic stop for legitimate reasons, i.e. to investigate the violation of the traffic law write you a ticket.  Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 408-09 (2005).  This means that the cops can't hold you there for an unreasonably long time while they wait for a dog unit to arrive and do a sniff on your car.  Caballes, 543 U.S. at 407.  To avoid the dog sniff, it helps if the individual clearly asserts his rights and says that he does not agree to the prolonged detention while the K9 unit arrives. 
24. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
Jay-Z refers to the bitch in this line as the cop and the K9 dog that are on their way to the scene.  He also says that nowhere in the song is he referring to a woman when he uses this refrain.  

-Jay-Z, Decoded 61 (2010).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Scary Smash!

Via Jenn@losbike, a story written by a kid.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kepler: The Archetypal Nerd


From the Exolab Blog

Modern technology has enabled us to find thousands of planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun, only within the past few decades. Most of these planets fall into three broad categories: ice giants, gas giants, or hot super-Earths. The most intriguing kind of exoplanet, the holy grail of exoplanet discovery, Earth-like planets in their respective habitable zones, is less commonly found. The Kepler Mission is a NASA Discovery mission that is responsible for finding a majority of the planetary candidates we know of today, and is designed to find these diamonds in the rough over the course of its full mission lifetime. Kepler has taken us leaps and bounds beyond the big puffy hot-Jupiters we were first aware of, and its success is taking large steps toward discovering extraterrestrial life. So who was the eponym, Kepler? It’s a name we’ve all heard, but it doesn’t carry with it the same stories the other giant names of science carry: Newton’s apple, Galileo’s finger, Archemides’s “Eureka!”

Contrary to popular belief, Kepler is not holding chopsticks

There is not much hype about Johannes Kepler, and perhaps that's because at first he just wasn't the most popular guy. Being born premature and constantly sick wasn't really conducive to running around with the other boys in grammar school, and his bookworm tendencies left him with few admirers. As a bit of a misfit, he set himself to the pursuit of knowledge, and while the others would ridicule him, Kepler voraciously set his mind to a myriad of subjects, such as poetry, astrology, theology, and mathematics . He kept a detailed daily journal, and many sections were on his quarrels with and hatred for his classmates. As he would write later, "they were always rivals in worth, honors, and success.” Yet for all the disapproval, Kepler’s unorthodox approaches to problems were an advantage in his scientific endeavors. He was one of the first to defend the Copernican heliocentric system using a theological basis, and he consistently came out on top intellectually. His first landmark work, Mysterium Cosmographicum, in which he discussed the geometry of the universe, was published when he was only twenty-four.

Like Newton, who would come into the picture some fifty years later, Kepler’s early life was marked by a combination of scientific brilliance and childhood unpopularity, and also like Newton, he was a devout Christian. Kepler attended seminary for much of his early life, and he was usually not far from a theological text. In fact, in all of his scientific achievements he would take both a philosophical and mathematical approach, believing that the cosmos was the ultimate revelation of the glory of the creator. Even his defense of the heliocentric model of the universe had its theological foundations. Seeing the universe as a portrait of God, he viewed the Sun as symbolic of God the Father, the "stellar sphere" as the Son, Jesus, and the space in between everything as the Holy Spirit. This was all originally included in Mysterium Cosmographicum, until his publisher later removed it. He journaled regularly about his daily life, which has been quite useful for modern historians. He was as much of a philosopher as a scientist, and he frequently combined the two disciplines. Always remaining true to his theoretical side, he wrote in a letter, “Don't sentence me completely to the treadmill of mathematical calculations. Leave me time for philosophical speculations, my sole delight!” Arthur Koestler writes in his modern biography of Kepler: “[he was] the most reckless and erratic spiritual adventurer of the scientific revolution.”

In the midst of his theological studies however, he was asked to teach mathematics, and accepted a position at a Protestant school in Austria. It was there he completed Mysterium Cosmographicum. Henceforth he held many prestigious positions, including the one previously held by Tycho Brahe of Imperial Mathematician. Brahe’s death allowed Kepler access to his highly protected data, thus heralding Kepler's most prolific age. In Astronomia Nova, he published his first two laws of planetary motion:
1. Every planet follows an elliptical orbit with its host star at one focus.
2. A line drawn from the star to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
Despite all his mathematical genius, his works were praised by few and scoffed at by many. There was much discussion over the first law. Some of Kepler’s contemporaries believed that this shattered the “circularity and uniformity of motion” and could not comprehend the depth of the work he had done. And when Kepler theorized that the moon had influence upon the tides, Galileo himself remarked, “That concept is completely repugnant to my mind.” Still, he rose to fame as a scholar.

Ten years after the publication of the first two laws, Kepler’s third law, arguably the most significant for modern planetary scientists, was unveiled in his book Harmonices Mundi.
3. The square of the orbital period is directly proportional to the cube of its semi-major axis.
This law, made concrete by Newton as 
is an essential ingredient to our modern understandings of planetary systems. And ever the philosophical scientist, Kepler also discussed literally the “music of the spheres” in which he revealed the physical harmonies found in the motion of planets.

As a Protestant during The Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, Kepler was forced to leave his home and travel during his last years. He died without pomp and circumstance, but his work would build a foundation for great scientists to come. Though Kepler now is considered one of the keystone figures of the Scientific Revolution, at the time he was criticized for combining physics and astronomy, generally considered two separate branches of philosophy and natural science. He was one of the first to see the necessity to link philosophy and science, and he remained a devout Christian to the end. His life shows that philosophy, theology, and the scientific method aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; in fact for Kepler, each was essential for a complete and holistic perspective on the others.

I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure
Skybound was the mind, earthbound the body rests.”
Kepler’s epitaph

xkcd's United Shapes of America

My favorite part is how Georgia's and Missouri's shapes are interchangeable. Somehow, I never noticed that before.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Caltech Athletics: Can't Win For Losing

Did you hear the story about the small science and engineering school in Southern California that turned itself in to the NCAA for rules violations? Have you heard all the jokes about having to vacate wins it didn't have, and giving up off-campus recruiting that it never did?

Well, as with much that happens at Caltech, I had to hear about this from an off-campus source. Jason Wright posted the original story on Facebook a couple days ago, and another friend pointed me to this LA Times article. A snippet

While other programs often falsely brag that they're winning the right way, seemingly only at Caltech do they have the guts to lose the right way. 
"This is our integrity at stake here," said Betsy Mitchell, who discovered the violations shortly after she was named Caltech athletic director last summer. "It stinks, but we did the right thing, and we're going to take our medicine." 
You know what stinks? This Pasadena brain boutique is essentially being punished because its classes are so difficult. 
The NCAA has a rule that student-athletes must be taking a full course load to be eligible. Though Caltech students are studying from the moment they set foot on campus, they don't officially take a full course load until the end of the third week of every term because they are allowed to shop the difficult classes before making final decisions.
I have to admit that I initially joined in the jokes. After all, it's too easy to have fun with a school that has such a rich tradition of coming up short in athletics. However, upon reflection I feel bad about the jokes. Caltech's past athletic failures do not at all reflect the modern-day efforts of the new athletics director and recently-hired coaches. The men's basketball coach Oliver Eslinger has worked hard over the past years to build his team into a respectable outfit, primarily through agressive off-campus recruiting. I play basketball with "Doc" every Monday, and I've seen him walk off the court when one of his players wants to play. Why? Because it would violate the NCAA's rule against off-season practices!
Now his efforts will be stymied by these NCAA sanctions. 
Caltech initially decided to punish itself by placing a 2012-13 postseason ban on 12 sports, vacating wins achieved by teams using ineligible athletes during that four-year period, eliminating off-campus recruiting for the upcoming school year and paying a $5,000 fine.
That should have been enough, but, of course, the knucklehead NCAA jumped in with that public censure and three-year probation. One would think officials there could have quietly shooed Mitchell away after she devised their own penalties, but, oh no, monstrous Penn State thus far goes untouched while Division III Caltech gets publicly ripped.
Want another example of why this is more sad than funny? One of my star undergraduate research students replied to my Facebook post,
 This is really sad. No postseason means no SCIACs or NCAA regionals for [cross country], among other sports (I would say no nationals, but as Caltech, we never qualify anyway). There goes a month of our season. I have been looking forward to those races quite literally since last year, I really wanted to compete again and finally make all-region. Argh silly NCAA... 
This student has an A-average in Astrophysics, and she just completed the Caltech Core, which includes 5 quarters of Physics and 5 quarters of proof-based mathematics. Here's what Freshman Math looks like at Caltech:
Ma 1 a,b,c. Calculus of One and Several Variables and Linear Algebra. Review of calculus. Complex numbers, Taylor polynomials, infinite series. Comprehensive presentation of linear algebra. Derivatives of vector functions, multiple integrals, line and path integrals, theorems of Green and Stokes. Ma 1 b, c is divided into two tracks:  analytic and practical.
She is working on finishing up her first refereed paper on secular dynamics of a three-planet system, which she started as a freshman SURF student with a colleague of mine in the planetary science's dept. Now my group relies on her to reduce our NIR spectroscopic observations from Palomar and she's working on a multiplicity study of B-type stars. 
She managed to do all of this while setting records in cross country. My point: the students who will be punished under NCAA's silly rules are not your typical sociology-majoring NCAA athletes. If there is a true "student athlete" anywhere in the US, they're right here at Caltech unable to compete in the post season for the next few years because its courses are too hard, and because it followed its own honor code.

The NCAA is a joke. It's a money-grubbing cartel. History shows that the notion of the "student athlete" was invented as a way for the NCAA to avoid paying disability insurance to injured football players while making a fortune off of their achievements, and likenesses, without paying them a dime. Don't believe me? Read just the first part of this long-form article about the history of this evil organization. A snippet:
Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”
Or, if you don't have time to read the article, just think about how a tiny university with 900 students was compelled by its own honor code to turn itself in on a technicality, and how that will result in a stand-out astrophysics student from running in the post-season. Think about this story during the next commercial break of an NCAA sporting event.