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John A. Wheeler, Giant of Physics (1911-2008)

The physicist who coined the term black hole to describe the densest phenomenon in the cosmos has passed away at age 96. John Archibald Wheeler worked with some of the most important figures in the history of science and eventually became, himself, one of the towering giants of 20th-century physics.

According to an online account from the Associated Press earlier today, Wheeler succumbed to pneumonia Sunday at his home in Hightstown, N.J., not far from Princeton University, where he served as a professor of physics from 1938 to 1976, alongside some of the world's most renowned theoreticians.

Wheeler received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933 for his research into the properties of helium. In 1937, after a year of study in Denmark under the tutelage of Niels Bohr, he formulated the scattering-matrix, which relates the initial state and the final state for an interaction of particles. Also called the S-matrix, Wheeler's formula became a fundamental tool in the field of quantum physics.

His understanding of the basic forces at work at the subatomic level led Wheeler to join a growing cadre of advanced physicists in the late 1930s who believed that a sufficiently large fission event could produce a chain reaction capable of great destruction. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Bohr relocated to the United States and joined Wheeler to work on a model of nuclear fission.

When hostilities escalated into World War II, Wheeler suspended his academic career to participate in the American atomic bomb endeavor, the Manhattan Project, offering key insights into the physics involved. Afterwards, he volunteered to work on the next-generation nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb in the late 1940s.

With his government research finished, Wheeler returned to Princeton, where he collaborated with Albert Einstein in the waning years of his life on a unified field theory of the physical forces of nature. Continuing in this elusive pursuit after Einstein's death, Wheeler described a theoretical curiosity he called a "wormhole" that should exist in nature if the principles of relativity were correct. This same research led him to posit, in 1967, that extremely large masses throughout the universe could collapse under the force of their own gravity to form what he termed a "black hole."

Further pursuit of the role of gravity in a Grand Unified Theory of physics led to his collaboration with Bryce DeWitt on the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, which he later described as the "wave function of the Universe."

Later in life, Wheeler became a champion of a form of cosmological anthropism, which states that humans should take into account the constraints that human existence as observers impose on the sort of universe that can be observed. His version of this line of thinking is known as the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

Recently, he stated: "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what's happening in the distant past why should we need more?"

Throughout his career at Princeton and later the University of Texas, where he served out his last years in academia before retirement, Wheeler was known for the enthusiasm he exhibited for education. Even after he had achieved fame, he continued to teach freshman physics, telling protégés such as Richard Feynman, that young minds were the most important to inspire.

He inspired many.

DARPA's 50th Birthday Present: Hyp-hop-notherapy

What do you get the advanced research projects agency that has it all?

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A persistent rumor haunting DARPA has it that the agency has a tough time finding program managers for its high-risk, high-reward research. In what was possibly a self-aware nod to that rumor, but was more likely a crushingly obtuse PR move, every table was adorned with pens and several sheets of paper titled "New Ideas."

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"no more fish at banquets."

Every table was also adorned with several bottles of wine. That coincidence can't have been accidental. I settled on snark and made my case against serving 1600 individual pieces of salmon at enormous events (although there might be a DARPA grand challenge in there: how do you keep 1600 pieces of salmon perfectly cooked and warm through three speeches?).

If only the trusty Danger Room readership had been at the party with me.

"How can I find out more about sending the Army a proposal of my own?" writes one intrepid Danger Room reader. "I created, "hyp-hop-notherapy", self-empowering poetry using acrostic writing."

Read the whole letter.

Airline maintenance games are old news

atccover.JPGBack in 1986 IEEE Spectrum took a long hard look at the state of the U.S. commercial aviation system. As part of that effort, I spent several months researching air traffic control along with fellow writer Paul Wallich, who also was talking to the folks that maintained the aircraft themselves. I remember being horrified at how the airlines and sometimes even the FAA played fast and loose with maintenance rules. Paul and I learned all sorts of new language. â''Put the timber to it,â'' meant to sign off on work that was never done, assuming itâ''ll be noticed on the next inspection. â''Discrepancy,â'' was the FAA word for overlooking a defect noticed by mechanics, or putting a plane back into service before a set of repairs is complete. Paul talked to a lot of mechanics, and found out that inspection documents often didnâ''t reflect the true state of the aircraft. An example one mechanic gave: a check at American Airlines found that an emergency exit door was stuck. He got it through an FAA inspection with a liberal spraying of WD-40, but shortly thereafter discovered the door was sticking again. Still, he had signed paperwork in hand, so released the plane to fly.

This kind of thing happens all the time, mechanics said. And sometimes FAA inspectors, assigned to remote regional offices, go along; John Oâ''Brien, then representing the Air Line Pilots Association, told Paul, â''The further from headquarters you are as a inspector, the more on your own you are. Unless youâ''re very independent and strong-willed, you may be subject to all kinds of pressures and influence.â''

Since then, Iâ''ve flown with my eyes wide open. I know that broken lights and loose compartment doors arenâ''t going to get fixed any time soon, and that a lot more is broken than I can see. I know that a lot of maintenance can be legally deferred until an aircraft reaches a maintenance base or parts are available, and airlines play games with what that means. And I reassure myself that redundancies mean that the plane wonâ''t come crashing down out of the sky, and that pilots are smart enough not to take off if things are really bad. Though I had to wonder when I was on an aircraft that made an emergency 1 a.m. landing at a closed, icy, Midwest airport because it lost one of its hydraulic systems, if maybe a minimum requirement that two of three hydraulic systems needed to be working wasnâ''t quite enough.

And last month, when I got a 5 a.m. phone call that my 9 a.m. flight was being canceled for a â''mechanicalâ'', and I was rebooked on a conveniently half-empty afternoon flight, I shrugged my shoulders at yet another airline game. It was clear to me that the airline was going save money by combining two empty flights, and was using the â''deferred maintenanceâ'' list as an excuse to pull a plane out of service. After all, what passenger would want to go ahead and fly on a â''brokenâ'' plane, never mind that, had that flight been sold out, the maintenance would have continued to be deferred.

So now the FAA is cracking down and making the airlines do all the inspections and maintenance they were supposed to be doing all along. And flights are being canceled, and tens of thousands of passengers inconvenienced. Of course, with the high cost of fuel, many of those flights were likely not making a profit anyway, so stranding passengers isnâ''t costing the airlines anything but good will, something thatâ''s been in short supply for a while. Not that making the industry do the job that itâ''s supposed to do is a bad thing, but come on, does anyone really think the FAA would continue to force planes out of service if most of those flights were profitable?

Itâ''s simply a convenient time right now to do a little deferred maintenance and enforcement. And during this little contraction, airlines will be able to jack up prices because of seat shortages while they tout their concern for customer safety. And flying may really be safer, for a while, anyway, until profit margins again prompt airlines to â''put the timberâ'' to problems instead of really dealing with then.

China Counterfeiting Casts Pall on Nuclear Power Revival

Though signs abound that the U.S. energy industry is expecting a nuclear energy renaissance, sharp questions have been raised about the ability of the domestic power plant construction industry to deliver. Now ace energy reporter Rebecca Smith is reporting in The Wall Street Journal evidence of substandard counterfeit components being sold to operating atomic power plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has alerted utilities of two cases.

One case involved sale of circuit breakers designed to protect equipment from electrical surges: in all, 140,000 breakers sold in the United States as products of Franceâ''s Schneider Electric Co. turned out to have been made in China, and a few may have found their way into a nuclear power plant operated by Duke Energy Corp. A second case involved water valves for the Southern Companyâ''s Hatch nuclear power plant in Georgia.

At present, according to Smith, applications for 15 new U.S. nuclear power plants are pending in eight states. But how fast could manufacturers actually deliver all the parts needed? The NRC chairman notes that the number of U.S. suppliers has declined from 1,350 in 1977 to about 700 today. Last year, an executive with Southern Company told this reporter that the U.S. industry could initiate at most two or three new reactor projects per year, for the time. In terms of energy delivery, that is roughly equivalent to the rate at which wind power currently is being expanded in the United States.

DARPA's 50th birthday

So that's the sound of one hand clapping

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DARPA celebrated its 50th anniversary on Thursday night in the windowless basement of the Hilton Washington; 1600 academics, research scientists, defense contractors, and political heavyweights crowded into a huge subterranean oval ballroom for some dry salmon, slimy julienned carrots, and speechifyin'. The hotel's event team had gone to town-- yellow and blue bunting adorned everything, and the cavernous ceilings were undulating with blue projections of the famous DARPA logo. The effect was rather Star Trek. You could also be forgiven for thinking you were inside an aquarium.

Because the Vice President was speaking at the event, the only way into the party was through metal detectors. Ladies handed tiny beaded purses to officers wearing pastel latex gloves-- a postmodern blend of black tie and airport security.

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At least we didn't have to take off our shoes.

Drink and bathroom lines intertwined and were inseparable from the rest of the mass of humanity crowded into the no man's land between the metal detectors and the ballroom. The pot of gold at the end of the drink line, I have to say, was disappointing.

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[insert Defense Department spending joke here]

The Vice President's speech was amusing yet boilerplate, but as former secretary of defense, this is a popular man in these parts. Lines like "when I was Secretary of Defense -- the good old days, when I had real power in this town" were met with stampeding roars of approval.

But then, a bit of unintended drama: Cheney told the assembled samurai that he brought them "congratulations and good wishes from the President of the United States, George W. Bush."

An audience that until then had clapped at every word including "and" and "the" suddenly found its hands paralyzed. A silence ensued-- not one of those on-purpose protest silences, but the kind that happens organically when no one in particular can quite bring himself to clap. Then everyone begins to second guess his clapping instincts-- like not knowing when to clap at the moments of silence that perforate a symphony. And yet, the VP is not continuing his speech, so clapping must be required. And yet-- will you be the first to clap? What if you're wrong?

1600 of these individual thought bubbles filled that windowless ballroom, so it was getting a little thick when suddenly a frenetic applause burst from somewhere in the back of the oval. One man had taken it upon himself to knock down the first domino. The rest of the 1600 followed with tepid clapping and Cheney moved ahead with his speech. Disaster had been averted.

Wind Energy Just Niche? Disabuse Yourself Now!

If youâ''re still one of those people who tend to think of wind energy as a bit exotic, only suitable for exceptional situations, even then not likely to contribute much to the big picture, itâ''s time to stop being that kind of person once and for all. According to a report this week from Worldwatch, about 20,000 megawatts of wind capacity was installed in 2007, bringing the world total to 94,100 megawatts, or, more concisely, 94 GW. Wind was the leading source of new electricity in Europe and second only to natural gas in the United States.

Allowing for the customary factor-of-three discounting of wind capacity to account for wind's intermittency, 94 gigawatts is the equivalent of about 31 GW of baseload coal or nuclear generationâ''the same thing, in other words, as building 31 standard nuclear power plants. In terms of average household use rates, which often are put at about 1 kW, 31 GW is enough power for 31 million homes.

The United States led the way last year, adding 5,244 megawatts of wind, followed by Chinaâ''a surprise! (see next issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine)â''and Spain. Overall, Germany still has the largest wind total, more than 22 GWâ''the equivalent of four or five 1 GW baseload plants, taking into account that the discounting is higher for Germany (more like a factor of 4 or 5) because, having pushed wind harder, theyâ''ve installed turbines in some less than ideal locations.

Even so, Germanyâ''s socialist and green leaders believe that wind can continue to meet most of the countryâ''s additional energy demand in the coming years, though more conservative leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel do not agree.

According to another Worldwatch report, wind investments accounted for 47 percent of global investment in renewable energy technology last year, followed by photovoltaics, which was about 30 percent. New solar PV capacity came to 2.8 GW in 2007, according to Worldwatchâ''s estimate, and about 3.43 according to a recent Lux report. Both estimate the cost of the new PV investments at about $21.2 or 21.3 billion.

The value of wind investments last year came to $31 billion. On a dollar per watt basis, that means that new wind is costing about $1.55, new PV between $7.6 (Worldwatch) and $6.2 (Lux). In other words, per unit capacity, photovoltaic energy is between four and five times as expensive as wind.

Thinking of Running for Political Office?

By Kieron Murphy

Becoming a public official isn't just the pre-ordained career path of those with law degrees. Serving the people is a responsibility available to all in a democracy. And scientists and engineers very often make outstanding representatives for those they live among.

Take the current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, who is a trained electrical engineer. He is widely regarded by his constituents as one of the most popular public servants in recent memory, thanks to his problem-solving acumen.

So, in this jam-packed election year in the United States, featuring a race for every office from President to County Commissioner, from sea to shining sea, there are opportunities for you to consider the big jump into politics. Where do you start, though? Like anything else in life, you're going to need to learn from the masters.

That's why the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is inaugurating [pun intended] its first annual Campaign Education Workshop on 10 May in Washington, D.C. -- please see Campaign Workshop Offers Practical Advice to Scientists Interested in Political Office.

According to the AAAS announcement, this non-partisan meeting will focus on the practical considerations of running for office, as well as the specific ways that technologists can become more involved in political campaigns.

Sponsored by Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA), AAAS, and several other research societies such as the IEEE, it follows up on the success of an informal workshop held last July during the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows meeting.

"We had invited a number of our partner scientific societies to observe the event last year, and there was such enthusiasm that we thought we should be doing this for our members in general, not just fellows," said Cynthia Robinson, director of AAAS's S&T Policy Fellowships.

The May workshop will offer more detail and specifics on how to run a campaign, including how to hire a staff, how to create a budget, how to craft media messages, and how campaigns differ from the school board to the congressional level, Robinson noted.

Featured speakers include: Dean Levitan, of the political consulting firm MSHC partners; Kevan Chapman, communications director for Michigan congressman Vern Ehlers; and Joe Trippi of Trippi Associates, a veteran of several U.S. presidential campaigns, most recently the Democratic primary run of John Edwards.

If you're interested in learning more about this unique opportunity, please visit the SEA Campaign Education Workshop page on the Web.

Then get out there and try to make your community (and the world) a better place to live. After all, you've got the know-how to make a difference.

Kieron Murphy is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum. He lives in New York City.

Run for your lives, â¿¿Self assemblyâ¿¿ is coming!

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Some hopeful research for treating spinal cord injury was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in which peptide amphiphile (PA) molecules self-assemble in vivo into supramolecular nanofibers that inhibit the formation of scar tissue at the injury and help the spinal cord fibers to regenerate.

John Kessler, M.D., and Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Northwestern and his team of researchers are quite encouraged by their successful research with mice and believe that it has the potential for treating human spinal cord injuries.

This news was picked up by a number of the nanotechnology blogs, but the blog over at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the University of California Santa Barbara had an interesting take on it.

The CNS concerns itself with nanotechnology and its impact on society, and societyâ''s impact on nanotechnology. So, they are experts on this sort of thing. They noted how one of the articles covering the story from Stem Cell Research News opted to use the term â''building blockâ'' as opposed to â''self assemblyâ'' in describing the gel under discussion.

As I said, they are experts on this kind of thing, so I tend to believe them when they say this is significant. What is alarming is that the general public may have become so skeptical--or just plain fearful of everything--that they can be presented research that may help alleviate some of the most detrimental effects of spinal cord injury and they would turn away because of the term â''self assemblyâ''.

One has to really stretch oneâ''s imagination to figure out how â''self assemblyâ'' can be construed into such a monstrous concept that even it helps spinal cord injury victims walk again it should be avoided.

New York State Energy Plan: Credible or Wishful?

New York stateâ''s new governor David A. Paterson, who took office just weeks ago, replacing disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer, deserves great credit for moving fast to address the regionâ''s long-term energy needs. In a plan issued yesterday, April 10, Paterson re-established a state energy planning board, told the stateâ''s two largest power authorities to aggressively pursue conservation, and said Long Island would build some kind of large solar facility.

The major immediate news in Governor Patersonâ''s announcement was his decision to firmly oppose construction of a large liquefied natural gas terminal, Broadwater, in Long Island Sound. â''Shame on us if we cant develop a responsible energy policy without sacrificing one of our greatest natural and economic resources,â'' the governor said, referring to the stretch of water separating Long Island from southern Connecticut.

Broadwater has attracted sensible criticism from many city and regional opinion leaders, including The New York Times. But those leaders have not always coupled that opposition with realistic ideas about how to meet the regionâ''s long-term energy needs without aggravating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Paterson takes an important step in the right direction by re-establishing an energy planning board, which he said will consider other proposals for LNG terminals, among other things.

Possibilities for conservation may be limited in energy-efficient New York City, but on Long Island and upstate, where automobile use is heavy and population sprawled, much more will be achievable. Paterson said that the Long Island Power Authority is preparing a $1 billion, 10-year conservation plan, and that the New York Power authority has promised to double conservation spending to $1,.4 billion through 2015.

Paterson announced that LIPA will be issuing a request for proposal for a major solar facility on Long Island. It will be interesting to see what the RFP looks like. Central solar generation has not so far proved cost-effective, and where itâ''s been triedâ''cloudy Barvaria, for exampleâ''itâ''s been a boondoggle. But perhaps LIPA will come up with something that at least points the way to a brighter solar future, perhaps a decade or two down the road.

Nanotechnology and Solar Power

What is there not to like about solar energy? There is ample capacity, for example, in one day enough energy comes from the Sun to meet the planetâ''s energy needs for one year. Its lifetime is indefinite. There are little to no negative environmental impacts from using it. And, the technology obstacles are not insurmountable.

The thing not to like is cost, despite industry analysts predicting a boom for solar companiesâ'' bottom line. To give you a comparison to other energy sources electricity produced by solar (or photovoltaic) cells costs about $0.30 per kilowatt hour (kWh), while electricity from wind costs about $0.05 per kWh and from natural gas about $0.03 per kWh. Thatâ''s 10 times the cost to get electricity from solar cells than from natural gas.

But back in 2005 in a report written by George Crabtree and Nathan Lewis for the US Department of Energy, it is predicted that we can expect to see the price for generating electricity from solar cells drop to $0.02 per kWh inâ'¿wait for itâ'¿20â''25 years' time.

Over the last 30 years the price for photovoltaic electricity has decreased by a factor of 20 mainly due to incremental improvements to single-crystal silicon solar cells, and the 20-25 year timeframe that Crabtree and Lewis predicted is based on the idea that these incremental improvements to creating cheaper crystalline materials will eventually lead to a cheaper kWh price point.

The slow development predicted in this model could be accelerated dramatically to as early as 2015 if nanotechnology can deliver in improving photovoltaics.

This kind of leap in technology will require moving beyond first-generation solar cells (single-crystal silicon wafers) and second-generation solar cells (thin-film semiconductors), which while cheaper to produce lag significantly in their efficiency to first-generation technology.

Instead a third-generation solar cell will need to be developed that can exceed the 32% Shockley-Queisser Limit.

One of the nanotechnologies being experimented with to overcome this limit has been quantum dots.

One area of research with quantum dots is to use them for achieving photon multiplication, which involves making multiple electronâ''hole pairs for each incoming photon. This moves electrons from the valance band into the conduction band. Victor Klimov at Los Alamos National Laboratory has been able to use quantum dots to achieve up to seven electron-hole pairs per incoming photon, and Klimov claims that this could lead to solar cells with efficiencies of up to 40%.

Another area in which quantum dots could be used is by making so-called â''hot-carrierâ'' cells. Typically the extra energy supplied by a photon is lost as heat, but with â''hot carrierâ'' cells the extra energy from the photons result in higher-energy electrons which in turn leads to a higher voltage.

As appealing as these solutions are they are estimated to be still 10-15 years off from commercial use. While industry gurus may be touting â''green technologyâ'', which in turns leads to the general public expecting to be getting solar-powered electricity off the grid in the near future, the reality is that is still somewhat far off. It will require a huge commitment to developing these technologies, and despite recent national initiatives and subsidies in Germany, Spain and Japan in solar power there remains a huge gap between where we are now and when we can expect electricity that comes from the Sun.

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