Re-birthed as adjunct

It has now been three weeks since my teaching schedule commenced at the University of Iceland. As my postdoc applications abroad crashed and burned, I managed to procure an adjunct position here at home. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the gargantuan workload that follows. I’m lecturing in two courses (which totals 480 minutes of lecturing weekly) and as an added bonus, extra 160 minutes were added to my teaching schedule for the past two weeks for good measure. These lectures of course require adequate preparations (i.e. time and effort) and I’ve also started to measure on the new apparatus I’m working on for my new research group (more time and effort).

If that wasn’t enough, the deadline for the Marie Curie actions is in a few days and I’ve been carefully preparing an application for a Marie Cure fellowship in hopes of my scientific career to properly take off (again, time and effort). Oh yeah, and one of my bands, Naðra, was playing a gig yesterday.

As a result I haven’t written a single word on my blog for a few weeks.

I stumbled upon this tweet a couple of days ago and I feel it describes the situation aptly.


I have a gazillion ideas for blogs but limited time. I’m getting back on that horse soon.

Very soon.

The Neutrino Hunters

The Neutrino Hunters by Ray Jayawardhana

For those without an advanced degree in science jargon, neutrinos are elusive, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny little particles who rarely interact with matter. MATTER of fact… *pause for laughter, followed by immense self-loathing*… trillions of neutrinos pass through the human body each second, and have done so every day from the moment we were born and will continue to the day we’ll die. Alarmed yet? Don’t be.

Neutrinos are byproducts of the nuclear reactions that fuel our sun (and the rest of the stars in the Universe) and they, like the neutron, have no charge. They are sort of like the Switzerland of atomic particles; small, neutral, and come in three flavors. (Wait, what?) Neutrinos are way smaller than other subatomic particles like the neutron or proton, but almost never interact with any matter, which, incidentally, is why we haven’t noticed the approx. quintillion neutrinos that have passed through your body in your lifetime.


The Neutron Hunters in a superb mix of biography and science and covers the neutrino’s history; how its existence was initially postulated, how it came to be detected and what can be learned from them. It’s a massive subject but aptly abridged to approx. 200 pages and could have easily been longer. I seem to be finding it  more and more as a fault with books that they aren’t as long and detailed as I would have wished. (Maybe because I’m also reading Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix concurrently).

In his book, Jayawardhana visits massively ambitious laboratories built for the sole purpose of detecting neutrinos. These massive detectors are mostly built in abandoned mines where small, underground lakes are created; filled with various funny substances, such as dry cleaning fluid that neutrinos, on rare occasion, interact with to form new elements which are then detected. These neutrino events are few but give us nonetheless accurate depictions of their multitude as well as their origins.

We also travel to IceCube in Antarctica… which apparently is an actual place, where long steel cables with sensitive phototubes are buried deep into the ice to trace the paths of newly liberated neutrinos by observing other strange particles called muons. (Muons are 200 times heavier than electrons but way less abundant due to their lack of stability).


An info-graphic of the IceCube neutrino observatory.  

In my opinion, the most enjoyable passages in the book follow the exploits of Wolfgang Pauli and Bruno Pontecorvo, respectively. Pauli was a brilliant physicist who postulated the existence of neutrinos to account for the differences in masses of radioactive elements and the products of their decay. Pauli himself said that he had done a terrible thing. He had postulated a particle that couldn’t be detected.

The story of Pontecorvo, however, is something straight out of a spy novel. He had theorized how to actually detect the shy neutrinos by an indirect observation. See, when a neutrino collides with a Chlorine atom (a rare event, but just so that we can observe a few of them), a radioactive Argon atom is formed. (Chlorine and Argon are next-door neighbors in the periodic table so if we change a neutron in a Chlorine atom to a proton, by colliding it with a neutrino, the Chlorine atom becomes an unstable Argon isotope that subsequently decays). By observing the radioactive decay of the Argon atom, we indirectly observe the work of the neutrino.


Okay, so a down quark in a neutron turns into an up quark, to form a proton, which triggers the release of an electron and an anti-neutrino, which is pretty much the same as a neutrino. Okay?Yeah, uhm. Particle physics is really friggin bizarre.

But Pontecorvo’s story is much more elaborate. He flees the increasingly fascist regime in Italy to the U.S. There he is not trusted due to his socialist leanings. He then takes up a professorship in Liverpool, England, but instead of returning there from holiday in Italy, he flies with his family to Stockholm, Sweden, then Helsinki, Finland. And that’s when he disappeared. Later, it was revealed that he defected to the Soviet Union. Like I said. Spy novel, only true.

The book is enjoyable and informative all throughout and through another of its countless anecdotes of scientists, it introduced to me an insult that I’m going to start taking up. “A spherical bastard”. I.e. a bastard seen from all sides. If anything, I’m going to start adding ‘spherical’ in front of all my name callings. E.g. spherical fart goblin, spherical demon toilet, etc.

Like I said, I would have liked some of the science-y parts of the book to be a little more elaborate, but this is a solid read for anyone interested in modern science in general, and especially, the hunt for neutrinos.

Rating: 87/100

Mr Freeze’s Freeze Gun

Before I start, I have to make one thing perfectly clear. I fucking love Batman and Robin. It‘s so bad. But its enjoyment value exceeds any of the other Batman films made, in my humble opinion. The endless insufferable puns, its campy action scenes, the incredibly ominous architecture of Gotham wreathed around eyeless statues. But best of all. ARNOLD EFFING SCHWARTZENEGGER. I know his dialogue in the movie pretty much by heart and whenever I watch it, I practically scream along with his lines in my horrendously inept Schwarzenegger impression. But the thing that fascinates me most. His Freeze Gun.


Like, reeeeaaaaally bad puns.

The freezing gun shoots a cryogenic laser beam which freezes his victims, encapsulating them in ice. (According to the film, once a person is frozen by the gun you have exactly eleven minutes to thaw him/her in order to save his/her life. For brevity‘s sake I shall omit this silly point for now).

Okay, so could we make this work? Let‘s delve deeper.

The ice that forms around the victims of the freezing gun is in all likelihood, condensed water from the atmosphere. Like how water condenses on the windows inside your car when it‘s raining. But in order for the ice to form, we need to lower the temperature significantly so that the atmospheric water molecules are quickly aggregated around the victim, leaving it stupefied in ice. Lowering the temperature means that the kinetic energy of all of the gas phase molecules is lowered or dispersed. This is where we meet our first obstacle. The laws of thermodynamics.


Yubb. We’re gonna science the shit out of this ‘freeze-a-ma-jigg’.

The first law of thermodynamics states (in layman‘s terms) that energy can not be created, nor destroyed, it can only converted into a different form of energy. I.e. potential energy can be converted into kinetic energy, electrical energy can be converted into chemical energy, mass can be converted into nuclear energy (via E = mc2), etc. So, to decrease to temperature of all the atmospheric molecules, we can not destroy the excess energy, but perhaps we can convert it or displace it… somehow.

But then there‘s the second law of thermodynamics. The entropy of a system will always tend towards maximum. Or in other words, the universe‘s entropy always increases. Entropy is really a measure of the randomness of all of the infinitesimal constituents of any thermodynamic system. When an ice cube melts on a table, the newly liberated water molecules scatter over the table. If we freeze these water molecules again, they don‘t reemerge into an ice cube‘s lattice structure. Upon liquification, the water molecules had enough kinetic energy to randomly scour the table‘s surface. Randomly. Assuming the table‘s surface is relatively smooth and not under an incline, the water molecules don‘t all go in the same direction. They‘re randomly distributed. This randomness „makes sense to the molecules“ and this behavior epitomizes the second law. When a system is presented with a bundle of energy, the bundle is randomly distributed onto the system‘s substituents.


Yeah. No. This doesn’t happen.

So what does this mean for our freezing gun? Well, when the temperature locally decreases around the freezing beam we are decreasing the entropy around the victim, leaving it vulnerable to formation of killer ice cages. (Dramatic, right?) But that means that we have to increase the entropy of something else to drive the ice formation forward. I.e. fuel.

A freezing gun might employ some sort of cold liquid, like liquid helium, but considering how many targets Mr. (or Dr.) Friese manages to…freeze with the weapon indicates that this is unlikely. That amount of freezing liquid can not be stored in the gun itself. The gun itself does not either work as a reversed heat engine. I.e. that it employs absolute cold temperatures into which the atmospheric gas molecules are diverted to, via the freezing ray.


So, there’s no tank of liquid nitrogen?

Let‘s say that inside the freezing gun we have some ultracold reservoir. Opening up the gun‘s barrel then subjugates the ultracold reservoir to the atmosphere. Simple thermodynamics then dictate that the gaseous molecules surrounding the barrel will be the first one‘s to enter in order to reach some thermodynamic equilibrium. If we want the gaseous molecules around a target at a distance to be the first ones to enter the reservoir we need some sort of distance selective vacuum cleaner gadget… which is just plain silly. I mean let’s be serious about this Freeze Gun!

The answer: Laser cooling.

To answer your question. Yes, lasers can be used to cool things, just like they can be used to heat up things. A weird and funny thing about photons is that despite they have no mass, they do possess momentum. For those of you unaware, momentum equals the mass of an object multiplied with its velocity. Zero velocity equals zero momentum so zero mass equals zero momentum… or does it? Not in the quantum realm. Just google Heisenberg‘s uncertainty principle if you don‘t believe me.

A photon‘s momentum can actually be used to decrease an atom‘s velocity. If an atom moving in one direction clashes with a photon moving in the opposite direction, it will slow down the atom. This is how laser cooling works. By carefully tuning the laser‘s wavelength just longer than the required wavelength to achieve absorption by the non-moving atom, you can steadily slow down the atom against the direction of the laser beam. Check out this video by Physics Girl for details.

Physicists at MIT have achieved cooling down to under 1 K for as much as 1 g of matter. Of course in order to do this, they needed 6 separate laser beams to cool atoms in every single direction. If we were to scale this up with a freezing gun, we still would need cooling beams from five other directions. Or do we?


Even the laser cooling lab at Columbia university reminds you of the Freeze Gun!

The temperatures achieved by modern laser cooling are far lower than the temperature needed to freeze water. Did Mr. Friese hit upon precisely the right wavelength needed to freeze enough molecules to create a freezing domino effect around the frozen molecules? If you get enough molecules to form a cluster, that cluster might work as a reflective surface, scattering the beams into more directions, thus slowing down a greater number of molecules. A veritable domino effect. I may have to do some calculations.

Anyway. In principle, the freezing gun might be constructed one day. Which is cool. (Get it?)


HA. HA. HA. HA. (Sarcasm inferred) 

On a tangent, I totally understand how a Nobel laureate would succumb to an endless torrent of terrible puns. He‘s a friggin scientist. The profession known for its appetite for bad jokes. Give a Nobel laureate the power to take over the world and he/she‘ll be spouting the dumbest shit you’ve ever heard. I totally buy it.

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles by Dr. Joe Schwarcz

When a chemist writes a book with this title, you know he is going to explain to you in chemical terms, exactly, how the cookie crumbles. Dr. Joe Schwarcz, renowned science promoter and professor at McGill University in Montreal, has decades worth of experience dealing with the public, enshrouded by misinformation to varying degrees of hilarity. Some of the most outrageous claims (presented in this book) include: “this energy breaks large water molecules into smaller ones, releasing trapped toxins in the process.”  The dybbuk of hogwash and balderdash spares no uninformed soul.

The book itself is like a collection of short stories, divided into four categories: Healthy Science, Everyday Science, Looking Back, and Poppycock. These categories pretty much speak for themselves; the chemistry of food, the chemistry of households appliances, historical chemistry and demystifying the bullshit of mountebanks who make fortunes of those they manage to maliciously misinform.


The short stories offered in this book make good sense as they all tackle subjects that hit close to home. These include microwaves, oatmeal, sweeteners, ice cream, spinach, GMOs, alcohol, nerve gas, well you get the picture; everyday stuff. The anecdotes and bits of history in each chapter are mesmerizing and make it a difficult task putting the book down. If I had to choose a favorite it would be in the chapter concerning the bacterial flora of our intestines. To cure a case of severe diarrhea, Dr. Lawrence Brandt of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, mixed stool samples from the patients husband in saline and deposited them at 10 cm intervals along the patients colon. This restored the microflora in the patients gut and she was cured. Seriously… this happened… in real life… seriously…yes.

If I had to complain about anything in the book, I’d say that some of the subjects felt more skidded through than others. The chapter about Fritz Haber, the father of gas warfare and mass production of crop fertilizer, is a mere 3-4 pages and his complex and malcontent relationship with his first wife is summarized in only one sentence. But again, if this is to be a collection of short accounts, then delving too deep can land you in… well deep.

The chapters in ‘Looking back’ and ‘Poppycock’ could all have been longer and more numerous. But as it stands, The Way the Cookie Crumbles is a delightful and informative read. Dr. Schwarcz tells it like it is, whether the subject is light at heart or as weighty as death. As a science educator myself, I will have to browse through this book several times more to help me remember all the funny anecdotes, like Dr. Kellogg’s yogurt colonoscopies, the discovery of phosphorous by the inspection of dried up urine, and more.

Rating: 85/100