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“Moses Chan shows how science should be done.”

18 Oct

On a good day in the science writing business it’s not so much the breakthroughs that impress us. It’s the process, and the people.

Back in 2004, when Penn State’s Moses Chan and his graduate student Eun-Seong Kim reported the “probable observation of a supersolid helium phase” in a letter to Nature, they made headlines around the world. It was, as Science News noted this week, “one of the most exciting physics discoveries in recent years.”

What Chan and Kim had apparently discovered, after all, was nothing less than a brand new state of matter, “a mysterious substance that could float through ordinary solids like a ghost through walls,” according to Science News’ Alexandra Witze calls it “the stuff Nobel prizes are made of.”

In the eight years since, Chan, one of the University’s most distinguished (and most personable) researchers, has been attempting to repeat that amazing result. So have his colleagues in other condensed-matter labs around the world: trying either to uphold Chan’s finding or to knock it flat: this, after all, is the sober majesty of science.

Over the years, Witzke reports, there have been some experiments that seemed to confirm Chan’s observation, and others that did not, but none that has been found to be conclusive. John Beamish, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Canada, whose own work cast doubts on Chan’s result, notes, “It was continually surprising to those of us working in the field just how hard it was to confirm or disprove the existence of supersolidity.”

Chan himself went back to the drawing board relentlessly, rebuilding his experimental apparatus again and again, trying to eliminate any possibility of distorting effects. Repeating the initial experiment.

Last week, in a paper published in Physical Review Letters, he announced his new findings. They do not confirm his earlier conclusion, but reverse it. It was not the behavior of a supersolid that he and Kim observed in 2004, Chan now contends, but the ordinary stiffening of helium at extremely low temperatures.

I find Chan’s accompanying comments, reported in, to be quietly compelling. He expresses, understandably, a sense of disappointment. It was “embarrassing, in a way,” he says, that the reinterpretation had taken so long. “It would have been nice,” he adds simply, [if supersolidity had held up], “but Mother Nature had her own way.”

Maybe all this is just par for the course. Maybe it is (or ought to be) less than remarkable. Moses Chan surely doesn’t need me to commend him, at any rate. But if we science writers are—and well we should be—ever quick to sound the claxons when a researcher cheats or cuts corners, I think it’s also worth noting when one of them so clearly models diligence and integrity.

Chan’s colleagues apparently agree. In the article, Beamish praises him for pursuing the science “with amazing energy, even when his new experiments disagreed with his interpretation of his initial experiments.” An accompanying photo of Chan, lecturing recently in University Park, includes a fitting caption. It reads:

“Moses Chan shows how science should be done.”


Wanted: Global Strategy that works

4 May

“If one considers where America was 20 years ago and compares that to where the United States is today, in terms of its ability to achieve its own stated, high-priority objectives in the world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the United States is a declining power.”

That’s Flynt Leverett, professor in Penn State’s School of International Affairs, in a recent public lecture at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

U.S. power is waning, Leverett added, “because, since the end of the Cold War, American political and policy elites have failed to do their job as strategists.  They have failed to define clear, ‘reality-based’ strategic goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military tools at Washington’s disposal to realizing these goals in a sober and efficacious manner.”

Leverett speaks from more than an academic perspective. Before coming to Penn State in 2003, he held positions with the CIA, the State Department, and most recently as senior director for Middle East affairs with the National Security Council. His opinion pieces have appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and Politico, and he is a frequent guest in national media ranging from “Charlie Rose” and “Frontline” to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

In his talk, part of a yearlong series on national security sponsored by the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, Leverett identified two competing strategic models: a “global leadership model, whereby the United States seeks to maximize its international standing and influence through adroit management of regional and global power balances,” and a “global transformation model, whereby the United States seeks not to manage the balance of power but to transcend it.”

The chief reason why American policy is failing, he argued, “is because, since the end of the Cold War, the global transformation model has gained almost complete ascendancy over the global leadership model in American policy circles.

“The pursuit of hegemony,” Leverett added, “in the face of objective, material reality, is not just quixotic—it is deeply counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position… Pursuing hegemony actually ends up making you weaker.  And that is the story of American foreign policy over the last 20 years.”

Want more? You can catch the whole talk here.

Or check out, a prominent online forum for policy analysis regarding Iran and the broader Middle East that Leverett publishes with his wife and frequent co-author, Hillary Mann Leverett.

American Master

27 Apr

A mid-afternoon crowd packed Foster auditorium in the Paterno Library last Friday for the world premiere of a film honoring one of America’s lesser known great artists.

Lynd Ward was a name I recognized from The Biggest Bear, a book I’d read as a boy and more than once in recent years to my son. The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge is another Ward-illustrated children’s classic. But “O Brother Man,” a 90-minute documentary by Michael Maglaras and 217 Films, revealed  dimensions of Ward that I had never suspected.

An artist of prodigious output and acute social conscience, Ward quietly produced a gigantic body of work over a 60-year career ending with his death in 1985.  His wood engravings, in particular, combine mastery of craft with imaginative depth and feeling to mesmerizing effect, especially in the magnificent series of six  “novels without words” he created between 1929 and 1937, limning the causes and effects of the Great Depression. The books, which have been called “a multigenerational saga worthy of Faulkner,” were recently reissued by The Library of America, and Ward is now regarded as the father of the American graphic novel.

Writer/director Maglaras introduced his documentary. Also in attendance was Ward’s daughter, Robin Ward Savage, whose voice is prominent in the film. Savage lives in nearby Philipsburg, and it was she who, with sister Nanda Weedon Ward, donated to the Penn State University Libraries the extensive collection of Ward’s wood engravings, original book illustrations, and other graphic art that now forms the Lynd Ward Collection. A subsequent gift from 217 Films has helped to digitize Ward’s work, expanding research opportunities for interested scholars.

In 2011 the Libraries and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, in celebration of the Ward family’s gift and in recognition of this American master, established the Lynd Ward Prize for Graphic Novel of the Year.

The film will be available in June on DVD. A ten-minute trailer can be viewed here.  

Fascinatin’ Rhythm

24 Apr

Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead fame is known for pushing boundaries. A prime force behind the ethnically diverse genre known as world music, Hart won a Grammy for 2007’s “Global Drum Project.” His brand-new album, “Mysterium Tremendum,” goes way beyond globetrotting to encompass the rhythms of the entire universe. And some of the most far-out sounds on the record, literally, were created by Penn State’s Mark Ballora.

 Ballora, who teaches music technology at Penn State, creates “sonifications,” aural patterns in which data sets are represented as sound. As he explains, they’re “just like visualizations, except they’re aimed at the ear instead of the eye.” His compositions are incorporated as backing tracks on Hart’s new album.

In this fascinating TED talk given in December, Ballora shares examples of his oeuvre, taking rapt listeners on a sonic tour from the surface of the sun through the solar system and beyond, arriving at last at sounds that represent the echoes of the Big Bang. Though we can’t see them, he says, these are “the rhythms of space time that underlie the pulsations of our existence.”

Unlike composers of the late-night “Hearts of Space” genre, Ballora says, he strives to be true to the actual data, to create sonifications that are “both musically compelling and scientifically informative.”

Is it music? Is it science? Does it matter?

Pythagoras and Galileo, Ballora points out to his TED listeners, never saw the two as separate.

“The distinction is a recent imposition.”

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