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White to move and win February 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in Art, books, chess, games, internet, personal.
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Minutes ago I logged on the Internet Chess Club for some evening fun, after an evening spent playing with my kids, feeding them, and reading them a chapter of the first book of the Harry Potter saga (which, I hate to say, is excellently written). And here is the position I worked out with a similarly rated player (I am white):

White to move. Can you spot the move I played ? Mind you, I did not analyze with a chess engine the position yet, and I just spent a minute looking at it post-mortem, so I do not claim that my move is the best one in this position. It might even be flawed. But I am darn proud of it… The game ended two moves later. I will leave this little riddle on for tonight, and will give the solution tomorrow. In the meantime, do write below what you’d have played. But beware: this was a 5′ blitz game, and I had less than two minutes left for all my moves – investing more than 30 seconds of thought on the position would cost you the game in most situations.

Christmas present for the inspired December 17, 2008

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In my department mail is distributed in the mailboxes lining the west wall of the entrance hall during the late morning, and I usually get it when I leave the building. This is what happened today, when I found a package sent from Auckland, New Zealand. I allowed myself a minute to wonder who could be sending it, while I walked to my car: could it be Marni ?

It was not from Marni, although the contents made me think of her. The box contained a few christmas cards, plus two vouchers and a note.  It was from Morag Hickman and Chris Leonard, editors of Phys Math Central, PMC A to be precise, a online free publishing, peer-reviewed journal of which I am an editorial member. I have reviewed two papers from them in the last two years, and I am happy to help such endeavours, when the scientific publishing world is dominated by greedy Elsevier.

The vouchers are waivers of the submission fee for papers sent by January 2009 to the editors; in alternative, they can be used to get a 50% discount for later submissions (I think until June 2009). Now, I do not have to pay for paper submission fees when I publish, because my institute gladly provides the necessary funding; but I know many out there are not in the same luxurious situation. I am thinking in particular at independent researchers such as, indeed, Marni (but not for long yet!), or Garrett, or Alejandro.

So here is my offer. You can get one of those vouchers as a Christmas present if you submit a title, an abstract, and a proof of any kind that you do know what to write in the paper, plus your statement that you intend to use it as soon as possible, and no later than June 2009. You can submit directly to the comments thread below: I will take your word for it. Of course, anonymous entities should not apply. I also reserve the right to turn down a request without the need to explain my motives. Moreover, since I would hate these vouchers to go unused, I am opening other channels to find suitable recipients, so if you have a good idea of how to use them, please hurry!

Just a note October 23, 2008

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Just a note to say that i regret not having participated in the threads developed from the recent “political” posts – I am going to answer the comments today, if I have something meaningful to say.

Yesterday was a rather stressful day, since I left Venice at 8AM, flew to Zurich, then to Geneva, had a tough meeting at CERN, talked to a few people, jumped on a flight to Munich, then to Venice, and came back home at 11PM. Under those circumstances, I can well say I feel excused…

PS: I could not resist filing this post under the “jet-flying clown” tag. That is how Robert Rathbun Wilson, then Fermilab Director, addressed Carlo Rubbia and David Cline in 1976, during a rendez-vous which was later dubbed by Cline “the Tuesday evening massacre”. Rubbia was then teaching at Harvard, and flew to Geneva and to Chicago on a weekly basis. Cline and Rubbia were proposing a proton-antiproton collider to Wilson: the machine which won Rubbia a Nobel prize, and the idea on which the Tevatron was later based. In earnest, Wilson was right to be mad at the guys -they would have pissed off almost anybody with their continuous attempts at manipulating the lab schedules and plans-, but his timing was wrong… The full story is masterly told in the book I am reading, “Nobel Dreams” by Gary Taubes. A must-read.

Francis Durbridge’s “The Other Man” September 20, 2008

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Yesterday I watched the fifth and last part of a long TV movie, “Lungo il fiume e sull’acqua” (along the river and on the water), an italian rendition of Francis Durbridge’s novel “The Other Man” (1958). The movie, produced by RAI (the italian national TV) in 1972 and directed by Alberto Negrin, had been shown on italian TV in January 1973, achieving a big success, with 20 million people watching.

The poster of the TV movie

The poster of the TV movie

The movie is a spy story with a very complicated plot (spoiler alert -avoid this paragraph if you will one day watch the movie). It unfolds in Hampton, a small town south of London, where the corpse of an italian scientist, Morani, is found in the “Happy Time”, the house-boat of a friend, his face maimed by blows. Police inspector Mike Ford (Giorgio Albertini, bottom right in the poster above) investigates with the help of his brother-in-law Bob (Renato de Carmine), who is a retired policeman visiting Ford. They are soon led to Henderson (Sergio Fantoni, left in the poster), a professor of science at the Hampton college, who has been seen around the house-boat after the homicide, and who had been a colleague of Morani. A beautiful young lady who owns a boat next to the Happy Time, Billie (Nicoletta Machiavelli) also saw Henderson carrying a body inside the boat, but she does not tell it to the police. She is found dead in the river a few days later. Everything converges against Henderson, especially after Billie’s brother is also found dead in the college -he was blackmailing Henderson using Billie’s diary. Instead, it turns out that Henderson has been collaborating with MI5, the secret service. With the help of Henderson the team had tried to hide Morani, who had discovered a very important formula for de-salinizing sea water, a project worth the interest of a criminal organization of industrial espionage. MI5 had organized the fake death of Morani, who was to be brought to Canada, but the criminals had found Morani and kidnapped him. In the end, Billie’s diary betrays Bob, who is the head of the espionage organization. Bob is shot by Henderson during a gun confrontation with Ford, but Ford then finds proof among Bob’s belongings that Henderson had been the mole, informing Bob’s organization of the location of Morani. Henderson is arrested, and Morani is free.

House-boats in Hampton

House-boats in Hampton

In 1973 I was a seven-year-old kid, and I watched the episodes with my brothers and parents on the BrionVega TV set which my father had bought not long before. I did not understand much of the plot at the time, but a few images of the movie stuck in my memory. There are actually several reasons why that movie got stuck in my mind.  First of all, there was a lot of tension in my family in 1973: my mother was about to part from my father, and I would soon go and live with her.

Francesco Carnelutti

Francesco Carnelutti

Second, the soundtrack is the beautiful, sad song by Don Mc Lean “Vincent”: every time I hear that song it reminds me of the TV movie. Third, the journalist in the movie (played by Francesco Carnelutti, right) plays with pencils with his fingers in a way that I’ve learned to imitate in my youth – I saw that trick in the movie first. Basically, you keep the pencil between the fingers of one hand, and rotate it without using the thumb. With some practice, you can keep the pencil moving endlessly.

Watching the movie episodes was a dive in the past for me. It was definitely a strong emotional experience. Of course, now the bit of mystery which surrounded the story is gone, and the whole thing has lost some of its charme. However, I am quite happy I did it. It took me a while to find the two DVDs for sale: the movie was never commercialized, and it rested on a dusting RAI archive. However, it turns out that it was finally fished out of oblivion and broadcast less than a year ago on a pay-TV channel. Somebody recorded it and is now selling it online.

My obsession with this story is not over, however: yesterday evening I found a used copy of the 1958 novel by Durbridge on Amazon.com.uk, and I bought the book. I am curious to see how different the plot is in the novel.

Wladimiro Dorigo donates his library and scientific archive to the University of Venice July 29, 2008

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This morning I attended a very important meeting in the offices of a notary in Venice, together with my two brothers and the rector of the University of Venice. After two years of complicated negotiations, funding proposals to participating institutions, reviews of draft documents, walk-throughs, and miscellaneous diplomacy, we finally agreed to a document with which the University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice accepts the donation of the personal library and archive of my father, consisting in about 10,000 volumes, thousands of periodicals, and a sixty-year-long scientific archive of his research activities. Wladimiro Dorigo passed away on July 1st, 2006, after having spent the last months of his life attempting to organize his vast material in the prospect of a donation to the University, which was his workplace for the last thirty years of his career.

I am very happy of finally fulfilling that desire of my father, but the hard part has not started yet. After the move of the material, which in Venice is not a trivial thing to do, a very detailed inventory and cataloging are estimated to take two more years. Then, the books and the scientific archive will finally be made available to researchers and students in the BAUM, the library of the University, which already arranged the area where the donation will be kept.

The BAUM already collects the volumes which were originally dispersed in the various departments, for a total of about 250,000 books. Today’s addition is a fairly small one, but the symbolic meaning is not negligible: Wladimiro Dorigo worked for all his life for Venice: for its history, its culture, and its future. He was an administrator in the fifties, a journalist in the sixties, a director of the archive of the Biennale di Venezia in the seventies, and a professor of medioeval art history and a researcher for the rest of his life. With his library, the University accepts his legacy of a lifetime spent desperately loving Venice.

Dr. Lederman, the luckiest Nobel prize winner July 13, 2008

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One of the many good things of being on vacation is that I find the time for light reading. No, not novels – those take too much time! I mean books that, in a way or another, have something to do with my job, but have nonetheless rested on a waiting list for months.

One such book, which accompanied me to Sardinia, is “The Rise of the Standard Model“, by L. Hoddeson, L. Brown, M. Riordan, and M. Dresden (eds.), Cambridge UP 1997. It is a collection of pieces from the main characters in the history of the discoveries that brought, during the sixties and the seventies, to the universal acceptance of the unified theory of electroweak interactions and its merging with strong interactions.

Today, laid on a reclining chair on the side of the pool where my kids kept swimming like little fishes for a whole afternoon, I enjoyed reading Leon Lederman’s contribution, centered of course on the discovery of the fifth quark. In it, Leon comes clean with his belief -which I totally share- that a successful discovery in particle physics requires as the main ingredient a disproportionate amount of luck.

Leon explains that the discovery of the Upsilon mesons -particles decaying to pairs of muons which were immediately recognized in 1977 as bound states of a new quark-antiquark pairs- was done twice: the first time when he and his colleagues were fooled into dubbing “Upsilon” a pile of background events eerily piling up at a reconstructed mass of 6 GeV. He also readily explains, with a good display of modesty, that by the time he got convinced that what had initially appeared as another fluctuation at 9.5 GeV was really a new resonance, a bottle of Mumm champagne with a big “9.5” handwritten on it by “super-postdoc” John Yoh had rested in a fridge for many long months already.

Luck did play a part in Lederman’s Nobel prize. He has been a very skilled and brilliant particle physicist, but for every Lederman there are a hundred unnamed individuals of no less insight and capacity, who lacked the good fortune of being at the right moment in the right place.

In any case what I found most surprising was the very beginning of Lederman’s piece, where he makes the case against himself strong and unrefutable. In 1968, Lederman had been conducting an experiment in Brookhaven which reconstructed the mass of muon pairs in proton collisions against a fixed target. In his own words,

“I was so excited bythe properties of virtual photos that we decided to study them specifically and we set up this ingeniously stupid detector in order to study muon pairs.[…] the simple Brookhaven apparatus was so dumb that there was no way you could change it to improve the resolution even a little bit. Every element was designed to match the distorsions generated by multiple scattering in ten feet of steel. This took a minimum of thought, so no matter what you did you were stuck with 15% resolution.”

The lousy mass resolution turned thousands of J/Psi meson decays to dimuon pairs resonating at 3.09 GeV into a broad, featureless shoulder in a falling mass distribution:

“I think that after the shock of seeing Ting’s data, I sent around a note saying that any apparatus that can convert this towering peak to our mound of rubble should be proscribed by SALT talks.”

Lederman had the charm discovery in his own hands six full years before the November 1974 revolution, but he claims he had designed the detector stupidly, and so all he got named after him was a shoulder!

“IF our mass resolution had been 10% […] This experiment, properly carried out, would have produced results that won five Nobel prizes!”

I think this is remarkable! Nature -for once not a bitch- must have liked Leon so much that she gave him a second chance: he had failed her miserably on the fourth quark, but by the time the fifth showed up, he did know better after all.

Venice lagoon pictures June 14, 2008

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Today I brought my family to a tour of the Venice lagoon by boat. Not one for tourists! Rather, a very interesting excursion organized by Co.ri.la, a research institute which studies the lagoon and the impact of human activities on the environment. Its director, Pierpaolo Campostrini, is a friend (and also a colleague amateur astronomer). He invited us together with other researchers and affiliates to a boat trip to explore some little-known parts of the lagoon, be lectured on the research going on, and spend a nice day together.

The weather was way less than good at the start. Forecasts gave all chances for a nice afternoon, but the sun slept on the job, and rain poured mercilessly until 2 PM. But it was not too bad, since in the morning a visit had been scheduled to the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where Meckhitarist Armenian monks have had their home since 1717. In that year, on the eve of a defeat of the venetian empire by the Turks and the loss of the territories formerly home of the Armenians, the venetian Senate offered Mechitar the island to settle a monastery and build a place which could be used also for the secular activities of diffusing culture in the east. There, along with the church of San Lazzaro, visitors are welcome in a wonderful library with 200,000 books and 5000 manuscripts, and a museum. The island was home to a very important typography shop which printed books on science, literature, and religion in dozens of different languages since 1786 and was quite successful in carrying out the plan of diffusion of culture designed by Mechitar. The business stayed in the island until 1989, when it was finally moved it to Treporti because of economical reasons.

Another fact about the monastery: Lord Byron spent six months in the island in 1816 to learn Armenian, and he assisted armenian monks in writing a first English-Armenian grammar, which he tried to publish later in England. He was deeply impressed by the armenians and their culture, as he wrote “These men are the priesthood of an oppressed and noble nation…. It would be difficult, perhaps, to find the annals of a nation less stained with crimes than the Armenians, whose virtues have been those of peace, and their vices those of compulsion. But whatever may have been their destiny … their country must ever be one of the most interesting on the globe; and perhaps their language only requires to be more studied to become more attractive.

After San Lazzaro, we had lunch in another small island nearby, San Servolo. This island was home to a psychiatric hospital until a few years ago, and is now home to the Venice International University, whose members are Venice, Duke, Timisoara, Tilburg, Waseda, among others.

The weather finally cleared after lunch, and we left toward the northern part of the lagoon. I took a few pictures from the boat, which I paste below without commentary. The Venice lagoon is home to many human activities (fishing, agriculture) but also a delicate environment where many animal species live unbothered: birds, fish, even small mammals. Moreover, the archaeological importance of virtually every square meter of its floor -which has seen a millennium of human activity- calls for interdisciplinary research between history, archeaology, religion, art, oceanography, climatology, and geology, of the kind that my father, the late Wladimiro Dorigo, has been an acknowledged master. I am bound to cite here two decades of his research on the history of this fascinating place, particularly in two important books, “Venezia Origini. Fondamenti, ipotesi, metodi” (“Venice origins. Foundations, hypotheses, methods“, Milano, Electa 1983) and “Venezie sepolte nelle terre del Piave: duemila anni fra il dolce e il salso” (“Venices buried in the land of Piave: two thousand years between fresh and salty water“, Roma, Viella 1994).

Above, the campanile of Torcello.

Seagulls love to stand atop these poles, which provide temporary clinch to boats and signal the boundary of canals

From a distance, the silhouette of the Colli Euganei (very old volcanic formations) stand on the background of towers in Porto Marghera

A wrecked building in a deserted island

Above, one of ten monitoring stations installed throughout the lagoon for environmental studies.

A view toward the north, with the alps barely visible in the mist.

A seagull lingers over the “barena”.

The Corfu 2005 proceedings online April 10, 2008

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, books, games, humor, internet, language, mathematics, music, news, personal, physics, politics, science, travel, Uncategorized.
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Just a note to post here the permanent link to the proceedings of a conference I attended in Corfu (Greece) three years ago. This is a long (32 pages) report on “High-P_T Physics: from the Tevatron to the LHC“, now published in the Journal of Physics: Conference Series [Tommaso Dorigo 2006 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 53 163-194]. I think I did post a draft of the paper on this blog a couple of years ago, but then I forgot to post the final version as well.

The paper is a bit dated in some parts, where the most recent (back then) results from the Tevatron are discussed; however, some parts -especially a discussion of the usefulness of Tevatron data for LHC physics- are still readable IMHO. Also worth noting is the fact that the acknowledgments section mentions the late Riqie Arneberg, a friend who passed away last fall, who had accepted the offer I had made to all readers of this blog to proofread the manuscript, and contributed in several places to the clarity of the text.

The publisher has now made available online all its 100 open access volumes through the JPCS home page. Of course I salute this contribution to the free diffusion of science with enthusiasm.

Does God Play Dice With the Universe ? – A review April 8, 2008

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About a month ago I received in my mail box a copy of a small, good-looking book, titled “God Does Play Dice With the Universe“. Author: Shan Gao, in his own words “an independent research scientist, or more accurately, a natural philosopher who aims at understanding the mysterious universe“. Shan is a reader of my site. He had previously contacted me to ask if I would be willing to review his new work.

Despite being a lazy reader and having no experience in reviewing books, I promised him I would: my curiosity won, as it usually does in such circumstances. So, as I unpacked the parcel that the British publisher Abramis had crafted for me, I had mixed feelings: the object I was unwrapping meant something new and potentially stimulating to write about – but it also meant work ahead.

The book turned out to consist in a bit over 100 pages neatly written in a pocket 9″x6” size, cleanly printed
and illustrated, and featuring a starry background on the cover. Does God play dice with the universe ? I admit I started browsing the book with a definite bias – the way I had been contacted, the title of the book, and the very fact that somebody should select me as a reviewer made me lean toward the idea that the author was some sort of a crackpot.

Now, I have to say I have nothing against the “category” in itself. People who try to understand reality and build their own theories have my deep respect; that is, until they become arrogant and presumptuous. Shan had been kind and unassertive in his communication with me, so my bias was not putting me in a bad mood by itself.

However, after a first quick look, I was left wondering about the soundness of my pre-judgement. For one thing, the book contained no formulas at all. I mean none, not even a few. This did not quite fit the crackpot idea I had put together. Secondly, the descriptions of quantum phenomena I came across by random browsing appeared actually rather well put together, even if of course simplified and not rigorous, and I could detect no obvious flaw in their presentation. I have to warn the reader here: I am no theorist, and my studies of quantum mechanics date a century back; however, usually I can still smell a fallacious statement if I read one.

I decided I would really read the damn book. It took me a while despite its light weight, because my reading time is scarce these days, but today I finally got to the last page, and can present some considerations in a less handwaving form than I thought I would at the beginning.

“God Does Play Dice With the Universe” is a book which builds on a few general principles of quantum mechanics and their contrariness to common sense to propose a bold, even cunning explanation of motion at the microscopic level. One which, I must add, is not scientifically justified or proven in any way; but the author’s ultimate goal is philosophical rather than scientific. That, in essence, is the reason why one feels one can accept without question the multitude of unproven hypotheses, which are presented as unquestionable facts, in the discussion of random motion and the concept of a discrete fabric of space-time.

Shan Gao’s goal is to understand the universe in a philosophical way, and indeed the book describes several views of motion from past thinkers ranging from Zeno to Aristotle, from Al-Nazzam to Bergson (“Movement is composed of immobilities“) and Bertrand Russell (“Motion consists merely in the occupation of different places at different times“). And even if one feels nervous to be confronted with divine actions while reading about quantum-mechanical concepts, and the G word appears a bit too often in the text, in the end the author can be appreciated for having put together his own “theory” and a imaginative way of looking at space and time and the way objects move. Rather than trying to summarize his ideas, let me quote an extended passage:

In a word, even if no concrete cause exists, a change can still happen as long as the change is purely random. In order to further understand this conclusion, it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of causes. One is concrete causes that relate to time, and the other is universal causes that are irrelevant to time. The former is our familiar causes appearing in the principle of causality. Such a concrete cause will result in a lawful change at a concrete time. The latter is a new kind of causes, which are similar to Aristotle’s final causes. A universal cause can result in ceaseless random changes. As a consequence, both lawful changes and random changes have their causes.

So, the principle of causality and indeterminism can be unified in a generalized principle of causality. […] To sum up, we find an appealing solution to the long-standing puzzle of indeterminism. The existence of uncaused events is actually logical. So it is comprehensible that God plays dice with the universe.

The last chapter of the book is one I did enjoy, despite -or maybe because of- the lack of physics or pseudo-physics arguments. Here, Shan Gao takes his ideas of motion and confronts them with the philosophical views of Aquinas, Newton, Aristotle, and the concept of a First Mover:

In Newton’s physical world, God has a new position […]. A moving object needs no mover. So there is no need for Aquinas’ First Mover. However, Newton’s First Mover still exists. […] No object has the ability to move itself. Then who moved the first moving object ? How did it start off if no object can move itself ? So, as Newton thought, the universe still needs some original thing that set it all in motion […] Indeed, Newton warned against using his mechanics to view the universe as a mere machine […]: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

He concludes:

According to the new picture of random motion, objects can move by themselves. What is the
position of God in the new universe then? […] So God seems to have no position in the spontaneous universe. If God did exist, He would need to do nothing. In the profound words of the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place“. This is the very Tao of the universe.

I liked this finish. After setting the stage with an almost mystical view of the universe, Shan Gao drops the curtain, and there is no God behind it. Or, if there is one, He is certainly not doing much for us.

17P/Holmes continues the show November 8, 2007

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, Blogroll, books, news, physics.
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Below is a picture of the surprising Holmes comet taken on November 5th by Bob Yen, a contributor to the comment threads of this and other physics blogs around (more of his photos here). As you can see, the comet has developed a faint, diffuse tail, and its coma is continuing to expand at a rate of about 2km/second. It is easy to detect the increase in size by comparing its appearance with that of just one week ago, even with no optical instrument. It now is a distinct “fuzzball” in Perseus, while earlier it looked much more star-like.

Comets are really among the coolest objects of our solar system… Unpredictable and always really beautiful objects. And they bring us some of the most spectacular meteor showers every now and then! I wonder if the outburst of Holmes will produce some meteor shower. It depends on the comet’s orbit… Hmmm I think I know where to look: Peter Jenniskens’ book. I will give it a try.