12 October 2001
1. 2001 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS: THE BOSE-EINSTEIN CONDENSATE.
Two Americans, Eric Cornell of NIST in Boulder and Carl Wieman
of the University of Colorado in Boulder, both at JILA, shared
the prize with Wolfgang Ketterle, a German citizen on the faculty
at MIT. Based on the work of S.N. Bose, Einstein predicted this new,
very-cold state of matter in 1924, but Bill Phillips at NIST had
yet to invent laser cooling. It won him the 1997 Nobel Prize.
2. PASCAL'S WAGER: THE PODKLETNOV GRAVITY SHIELD STRIKES OUT.
In 1992, Russian physicist Eugene Podkletnov claimed that objects
above a spinning superconducting disk show a 2 percent loss in weight.
Why this should be so wasn't too clear, but it would be great for
launching spacecraft, and you could build a perpetual motion machine.
There are two possibilities: either this obscure Russian was mistaken,
or the First Law of Thermodynamics is wrong. NASA put its money on Podkletnov
(WN 15 Aug 97).
Four years and $1M later, NASA thought maybe they saw a weight change of 2
parts per million, but couldn't be sure. "Maybe you need a bigger disk,"
Podkletnov suggested. That led to another $1M and another four years.
Finally, at a conference on propulsion this year, NASA said that tests
on the new shield were "inconclusive." That's NASA-talk for "it didn't
work," but if NASA just said, "it didn't work," they would have to explain
why they spent all that money an idea that violates the First Law.
In fairness, however, we must point out that NASA also supported Ketterle's
beautiful work on BE condensates. Hmmm. Perhaps there's more than one NASA.
3. HIGH ENERGY: GIANT ACCELERATOR FACES A COST-OVERRUN CRISIS.
The cost of developing the superconducting magnets for the Large Hadron Collider
at CERN has led to overruns approaching $1B. Sound familiar? Building the
"world's most powerful accelerator" means pushing magnet technology to a new
limit. Cost overruns linked to the magnets doomed Isabelle in the early 80's,
and the Superconducting Supercollider a decade later. Another decade has passed
and the LHC is projecting a major overrun on magnet costs.
4. SECRECY: BUSH BACKS DOWN ON KEEPING INFORMATION FROM CONGRESS.
In times of grave national threats, people in every country trade freedom for security.
It is, however, often difficult to restore those freedoms once the crisis passes.
Angry that some lawmakers had apparently leaked classified information to the media
prior to the attacks on Afghanistan, the President issued an order that barred all
but a few key members from briefings. Senator Daschle insisted, however, that to
fulfill its oversight responsibility, several committees must get secret information.
In some cases, the law specifically identifies which committees must be kept informed.
Still, it seems that in the present crisis, briefings on national security matters will
be more limited.