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!! Moving !! April 15, 2009

Posted by dorigo in news, personal, travel.
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Effective today: after forty months of service on wordpress, my blogging activity is moving to scientific blogging, an excellent site which collects many top-notch science writers. As soon as I manage to work it out, I will provide here a widget with links to my posts on that site, and possibly I will keep this site from being reported as mature by making a monthly entry with a link to the most interesting read in the new site. Other necessary adjustments are also in order, fixing some external links etcetera. But really, if you love me, please follow me there now.

I know, I can almost hear some of you complaining about this uncalled-for, unanticipated decision: this has indeed been a quick resolution, and quite un-characteristically the idea has not been submitted in advance here, to make a dry run and hear your opinions on the plan before it became a fact.

So, why am I doing it ? There are several answers to this question, and you may pick the one you like the most.

1) Blogging for me is about reaching as large an audience as possible, because I do conceive it as an educational mission. I have repeatedly explained here that I do not feel guilty for the time I invest on blogging, because my research position does not require me to teach, and I am glad to distribute through the internet some of the knowledge I have had the chance to accumulate through my studies and my job. Now, the target site of this move will increase my reach of potential readers, especially ones that might be interested in particle physics but have so far not realized it is not beyond their understanding capabilities. This by itself is a valuable asset.

2) While this blog has served my large ego extremely well, providing me with surprising opportunities and gratifications over the course of these forty months, I have realized that in its present form its further growth is problematic. Moving to scientificblogging.com will supply fresh air, new ideas, and a possibility to interact more closely with a stimulating crew of writers.

3) The real question is, why not ? I am not losing paternity or rights on my writings, the interface and functionalities at the new site are no worse, the freedom to write what I like is assured to stay unchanged. There are paid ads there, that is true; however, I have decided to trust the owner of the site that it will remain as non-invasive and reasonable as it looks now. As for the slight loss of control that the move entails, there are a couple of things to say also against wordpress itself, for instance the obligatory, auto-generated “possibly related” links that are supplied to every post, or the arbitrary taking down of this site I have experienced due to my failure to delete spam comments.

4) As for money, that is really not the reason. No, really. I will indeed get paid in the new site, but the sum I will earn is not going to change appreciably the depth of my pockets. Rather, I see the higher visibility I am expecting there as a reward, which will possibly help any future endeavour I might be entertaining myself with fantasizing about. Like writing a book.

So, it is your turn now to speak up and tell me what you think of this. I know, nobody likes change. But change is a fundamental ingredient of life, and specifically, one associated with growth.

Neutrino Telescopes XIII March 8, 2009

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, cosmology, news, personal, physics, science, travel.
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The conference “Neutrino Telescopes” has arrived at its XIII edition. It is a very nicely organized workshop, held in Venice every year towards the end of the winter or the start of the spring. For me it is especially pleasing to attend, since the venue, Palazzo Franchetti (see picture below) is located at a ten minute walk from my home: a nice change from my usual hour-long commute with Padova by train.

This year the conference will start on Tuesday, March 10th, and will last until Friday. I will be blogging from there, hopefully describing some new results heard in the several interesting talks that have been scheduled. Let me mention only a few of the talks, pasted from the program:

  • D. Meloni (University of Roma Tre)
    CP Violation in Neutrino Physics and New Physics
  • K. Hoffman (University of Maryland)
    AMANDA and IceCube Results
  • S. Enomoto (Tohoku University)
    Using Neutrinos to study the Earth
  • D.F. Cowen (Penn State University)
    The Physics Potential of IceCube’s Deep Core Sub-Detector
  • S. Katsanevas (Université de Paris 7)
    Toward a European Megaton Neutrino Observatory
  • E. Lisi (INFN, Bari)
    Core-Collapse Supernovae: When Neutrinos get to know Each
  • G. Altarelli (University of Roma Tre & CERN)
    Recent Developments of Models of Neutrino Mixing
  • M. Mezzetto (INFN, Padova)
    Next Challenge in Neutrino Physics: the θ13 Angle
  • M. Cirelli (IPhT-CEA, Saclay)
    PAMELA, ATIC and Dark Matter

The conference will close with a round table: here are the participants:

Chair: N. Cabibbo (University of Roma “La Sapienza”)
B. Barish (CALTECH)
L. Maiani (CNR)
V.A. Matveev (INR of RAS, Moscow)
H. Minakata (Tokyo Metropolitan University)
P.J. Oddone (FNAL)
R. Petronzio (INFN, Roma)
C. Rubbia (CERN)
M. Spiro (CEA, Saclay)
A. Suzuki (KEK)

Needless to say, I look forward to a very interesting week!

Greek lessons online February 22, 2009

Posted by dorigo in internet, language, travel.
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Just a short entry today, to mention that I found an excellent resource on the web to learn modern greek. The site is completely free, and it makes available to users a full set of audio lessons, complete with study material. The lessons are easy to follow -I listened to four of them this afternoon already.

The site is http://www.kypros.org/LearnGreek/ . Have a look…They deserve some advertisement. You need to register but everything is free of charge.

A beautiful photograph February 5, 2009

Posted by dorigo in Art, personal, travel.
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A friend of mine recently took the photo shown below, in a long traboule in vieux Lyon. I was mesmerized by the beauty of this shot, which looks rather like a painting, and felt compelled to share it with you here.

Kudos to Federica Scalabrin, whose qualities as a photographer were otherwise unknown to me – this is definitely a picture worth a poster. Note the delicate interplay of light and darkness, and the suggestive geometry they make with the architecture of the vaults.

Watch the acqua alta in Venice today! December 1, 2008

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Oh, I love the feeling.

I was woken up this morning at 6.30AM by the sirens, but then forgot about it and tried to concentrate on a last half hour of sleep. Then I got up, showered, checked my mailbox, had a quick coffee, and got ready to go to work. Then, upon getting down the stairs into the flooded atrium, I remembered. Acqua alta!

Venice is constantly under siege, particularly between September and December. Low barometric pressure, heavy rainfalls, a south-eastern wind, or the phenomenon of “Sesse” -a coherent oscillation of the waters of the Adriatic Sea basin- these are all possible sources of the phenomenon called “acqua alta”, a sea tide which surpasses +80cm above average sea level. That is enough to flood part of the streets, in their lowest points. When the tide is predicted to get above 110cm over average sea level, Venice inhabitants get an early warning with high-pitch sirens which they cannot ignore -and which usually wake them up, since the highest tides usually occur in the morning hours. And when the water is predicted to get to 130cm above sea level, as this morning, or above that level, well -things get ugly.

130cm above sea level, as will happen in about three hours in the Venice lagoon (see graph above), is enough to flood 80% of the town, and make unusable some of the highways created for pedestrians with wooden gangways (see picture below). A few commercial business will get in trouble because water will soar above their protective bulkheads. Some places will be basically unreachable unless you wear thigh-high protections -or swim.

It should be fun for an outsider to visit Venice today. The city will appear under siege. People wandering around, trying to figure out how to go from A to B; public transportation making detours to avoid low bridges; water a bit everywhere; and a general feeling of disconcert. If you want to have a peek, there are webcams around. Try this one, looking down to Piazza San Marco (a place which is only 75cm above sea level, so it is already flooded right now):

S.Marco square in real time

UPDATE:Another webcam showing a canal in Cannaregio, with the water almost closing in on the passage under a bridge.

You can find many others around… Have fun.

UPDATE: the water is now predicted to get to 140cm above sea level, which configures itself as a real flood, one of the twenty or thirty highest in Venice’s history. For a comparison, the highest ever measured was 194cm on November 4th, 1966 -but that was a real catastrophe. Check the updated graph below:

UPDATE: the tide should be peaking right now (at noon, so a bit later than expected), and the level it has reached is the fourth highest, ever: 156 centimeters above average sea level. That means about two feet of water over most of the streets of the city.

World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 October 28, 2008

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The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 will be held at Central Hall, Westminster, in London from June 30th to July 3rd, 2009. According to the banner in the conference site, the conference

“will bring established and aspiring reporters, writers and science communicators from around the world to debate, network, develop their professional skills and report on the latest advances science and technology.”

I am quite pleased to have been invited, since the event will be the first of the kind I allow myself to follow. I will be one of the three opening speakers of Session V, which will then be followed by an open discussion. It will focus on the LHC as a case study for science reporting, and how this may change in a world where there are increasingly more otulets for information and commentary. I think the chair of my session will be Matin Durani, editor of Physics World. A list of confirmed speakers is here (darn it, where’s my name?)

This should be an interesting event for me also because lately I have been fiddling with the idea of plunging in the publishing world myself. So far, if you exclude the about 350 scientific publications which bear my name (often concealed inside a long list), I only published:

  • a few dozens photographs (some made the cover) in the italian magazine “Scacco!”, a chess publication which had maybe a few thousand copies sold monthly, now terminated. This was 1987.
  • Also in 1987, an interview with Grandmaster Ulf Andersson. Again, in “Scacco!”.
  • I interviewed Viswanathan Anand, then just become Junior World Champion, in 1988. Not published though… But here is an account.
  • Last year (on March 18, 2007) I published, under the pseudonym “democrito“, a 5-column piece titled “In cerca della particella Dio” (oh well, I did not choose the title!) for Il Sole-24 Ore, a daily newspaper in Italy.
  • I must be forgetting something! Ah, lousy memory…

Anyway, I will most definitely like to travel to London. London is always pleasant, despite the horrible weather – I have been there twice last year, not even once in 2008. I think I will bring my family with me this time.

Just a note October 23, 2008

Posted by dorigo in books, personal, travel.
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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.

Radiation over Atlantic (reprise) October 19, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, physics, science, travel.
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Earlier this month I pasted here a graph showing the level of radiation over the Atlantic ocean, recorded by a digital dosimeter I carried with me. I like that device: it is fun to see it becoming alive and counting real cosmic radiation as the plane climbs up the atmosphere (at sea level the thorium contamination inside buildings is the largest source of counts).

On that occasion, I found a strange effect toward the end of my trip over the Atlantic ocean, flying westward. It looked as if there were two dips in the intensity, which I was unable to explain (a list of possible effects was given in the other post). I did the same experiment on my flight back yesterday, with a halved integration time (half-hour intervals instead than one-hour intervals), as suggested by a reader. The results are shown in the graph below, which is collected flying eastward this time:

As you can see, there is a clear dip in the integrated dose (the blue curve) two and a half hours into the flight. Other features of the graph are the remarkable smoothness of both the integrated dose and the maximum recorded flux (the purple line). I am even a bit surprised by the smallness of the fluctuations of the latter: the maximum flux is basically a record of the highest deposited energy, the tail of the distribution of recorded rates. It all goes in the direction of confirming that the measurements are trustworthy.

The location of the dip approximately coincides with the region where the former graph showed one of its two dips, so the new data somehow agrees with the hypothesis that those dips are real variations in the cosmic-ray flux, maybe due to disuniformities in the magnetic field and/or solar wind effects. In other words, while the new data cannot really tell which is the source of the dips, I think they strengthen the hypothesis that the dips are not instrumental artifacts. The instrument in question is, I believe, one of the best devices available in commerce to record personal radiation exposure, and I would indeed be surprised if it failed so clearly.

Radiation over Atlantic October 8, 2008

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Swamped by last-minute obligations before leaving to Fermilab for an owl shift as a Scientific Coordinator in the CDF control room, I was prevented from contributing to the recent discussions on the Nobel prize in Physics, other than providing the original post below. After an uneventful trip, I find myself jet-lagged this afternoon in my good-old office in the CDF portakamps. Everything looks and feels as always: home.

Anyway, I want to report on a small scientific experiment here. I brought with me in my trip a digital dosimeter, which records exposure to ionizing radiation as a function of time. The device (which I described here) is a nifty little thing I bought some time ago, and still carry around when I work around particle physics experiments. It measures radiation in milliRem, but is actually very sensitive – it can signal doses in increments as small as 100 nanoRems, which I figured out correspond to about a dozen minimum-ionizing particle hits.

So, about the experiment: I set integration times of 3600 seconds, and turned the device on before leaving Munich with LH434, a flight departing to Chicago at 9AM this morning. The plane actually left with a half hour delay, and finally arrived at O’Hare at about noon local time, ten full hours later. Below are the radiation doses recorded by the instrument during the flight.

As you immediately notice, the purple points describe a quickly rising function, which levels off and finally goes back down. The maximum instantaneous levels of radiation recorded by the instrument appear in line with what one would expect: as the plane takes off and gains elevation, the screening effect of our atmosphere is reduced, and the radiation increases. Local effects may have an impact in the distribution, and they thus depend on time, while the plane traveled above Europe, Greenland, Canada, and the north-western US; but they are not observable given the uncertainty in the points -0.1 mRem is the smallest digit provided when rates are measured in the logs.

The blue line instead puzzles me. It is the integrated dose per hour, and it should be a much more accurate description of the radiation field. But it bounces back and forth, after leveling at about 0.25 mRem/h. What are the causes of this funny behavior ? Here is what I can think of:

  • a real fluctuation in the flux of cosmic rays, due to magnetic field effects
  • an erroneous recording of data by the instrument, specifically at 14h and 16h (Munich time)

I instead discard the option that the fluctuations are statistical in nature: 0.01 mRem corresponds, as I noted above, to roughly a thousand hits.

Any other idea ?

PS (mainly for the record): another simple experiment I performed with the dosimeter is discussed here.

The new bridge by Calatrava in Venice October 1, 2008

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Two weeks ago, after several years of straggling with respect to the original due date, the “Constitution Bridge” designed by Santiago Calatrava, and built on the Grand Canal between Piazzale Roma and the train Station, was finally opened to the public. The construction was ridden by many problems, and the initial cost almost increased by a factor of four, to a respectable 16 million euros. However, I have to say it is a really, really beautiful bridge! Below, some pictures I stole from an italian newspaper.

The tormented story is not over, apparently. First of all, the project includes a means of transportation for the walking-impaired, which has not been installed yet. This caused a protest which prevented the inauguration ceremony from taking place as planned upon opening the bridge to the public: Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano had originally been invited, but the ceremony was waived after being threatened by a demonstrative action by a group supporting the rights of people with disabilities. So the bridge was opened without any ceremony, an oddity which is after all not so bad news: Napolitano deserves everybody’s respect, and his presence had a symbolic meaning (he has always been and still is a strong defender of the italian Constitution, which is more and more threatened by the present government); but the usual depressing show of politicians cutting ribbons and smiling on TV, and then proceeding with praising themselves, has for once been avoided.

Second, the bridge appears unsecure. Many citizens have reported missing a step and falling, in the places where the pace of the steps halves (a few points along the arch): they expected a step, found none, and fell down. The direction of construction work has assured they will quickly solve the problem, although from what I understand this will mean that some of the very nice glass steps will be replaced by ones made of stone.

Third, blind men might risk running into the large blocks of marble set at the feet of the stairs, on each side. These have a protruding, sharp edge (it is the only part of the bridge I do not like, indeed). Again, this will be solved soon, by applying some suitable floor markings around the obstacles.

Despite all these troubles, I must say that the area has been greatly improved both in functionality and in the aesthetics. First of all, the bridge allows for a quick commute from the train station to the buses: what was once a 12′ detour takes now less than five minutes. This also eases the congestion of boats carrying people across the grand canal. The bridge provides also a revitalization to an area next to the train station which had been left in disuse -rumors have it that a big building just across the bridge, next to the train station, will become a large mall. Finally, the bridge itself becomes a meeting point. The very architecture of the construction, with a center wider than the entrances, creates room for people who desire to linger around or have a look from a vantage point at the most beautiful town in the world.