Saturday, March 11, 2017

LZ Collaboration Meeting at SLAC

Carmen presents an update on the LZ Dark Matter sensitivity projections at the LZ Collaboration Meeting at SLAC (Menlo Park, CA)!

Monday, February 27, 2017

LZ on Penn State News!

"Assistant Professor of Physics Luiz de Viveiros and the LUX detector inside the water tank just before it was filled with 72,000 gallons of ultra-purified water, which helps to shield it from cosmic rays and other radiation that would interfere with a dark matter signal. LUX was removed in 2016, and the tank will be used to house the LUX-ZEPLIN detector."
Our press release got published on the Penn State News!

This is a note about LZ being given CD3 approval by the Department of Energy (DOE). This is of special importance because it indicates approval of the final design and formally launches construction of the experiment!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Davey 012 – New Lab ready!

Profs Carmen Carmona and Luiz de Viveiros in the first of their new labs at Penn State, Davey 012.

Our group is getting two new labs in the basement of the Davey Lab building, and the first one (Davey 012) is ready for occupancy!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a surprisingly good read! I only picked up on a friends very strong recommendation; based on the title, melodramatic cover and trite premise, it looked like it was going to be just another trashy sci-fi story; wow, was I wrong!

The beginning is very well written and very intriguing, it pulls you in right away. The book tells a story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world, where the thing that destroyed mankind was *blindness*, not the titular Triffids. After a strange meteor shower, the vast majority of people wake up blind, and only a few are left with sight. Society quickly disintegrates, people turn against each other, or abandon each other to misery and death. And as the world crumbles, a new power emerge: the triffids, giant walking killer plants that suddenly find themselves at the top of the food chain, so to speak (they don’t actually eat people, just kill them). This happens over a long time, the title is actually misleading - the rise of the triffids doesn’t happen in a single day, but over a long period. They are not a catastrophe, but rather a constant threat that keeps the remainder of mankind on its toes.

This is one of the first books of post-apocalyptical survivor horror, a precursor to the zombie apocalypse genre -and true to the genre, the scariest monsters are not the triffids, but other people! The description of the end of society is quite chilling: everything falls apart because of a single detail (blindness), which turned out to be crucial to pretty much everything. Questions of what is right and wrong are constant themes, and never quite resolved: how do you help so many helpless people? is a quick death better than a slow one? how do you rebuild? who do you rescue? what morals are artifacts of our comfortable lives, which ones are worth keeping? This might cause the reader some discomfort, and possibly some nightmares about going blind. The story really makes you think; at first, “no, it wouldn’t be so bad”, followed by “oh my god, it would be that bad!”.

The book is not without its weakness. For example, some of its sci-fi aspects are very strange and unlikely (like the blindness), although the author leaves the mechanism unspecified, so one can imagine it freely. The author is also an elitist and seems to think that helping others is ultimately a recipe for disaster (and he tries very hard to make that point, heaping misfortune upon misfortune whenever sighted people try to help the blind). However, the biggest weakness of the book is the clear and pervasive sexism of the author and characters; the description of gender roles are a firmly planted in the 50s, when the book was written. It might feel a little dated, but then again sexism is still everywhere, so it’s not that dated.

In the end, though, it’s still a very good story and a well written book!

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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is widely recognized as one of the great American novels, and it is certainly a good read. However, I personally don’t think it aged well, and the humor and adventure is sometimes lacking. Still, it paints an interesting and complex picture of the period. It tries to be funny and enjoyable at times, like the dialogue with Jim, and the parts with the “Duke" and the “King”; and it also depicts some dark moments, like Hucks imprisonment and beatings by his father, and the lot of runaway slaves. However, even these dark moments are described in such a matter of fact way, and surrounded by so much irony and little morsels of humor, that completely remove the drama from the story. The best example of this is the ending, which has already been heavily criticized by other readers: after Jim is captured, Huck and Tom Sawyer come up with the most ridiculous plans to rescue him, delaying the escape for weeks and putting Jim through a lot of trouble, which he innocently puts up with. It makes light of Jim’s situation, but I think this is done to symbolize the almost total blindness of the white people to the plight of the slaves; Tom Sawyer is the symbol of how entitled and detached the people with money are, even when they are the nice guys.

Regarding the story as a whole, I will only say that it is a series of coincidences and weird situations that Huck gets into, sometimes humorous, sometimes hinting at some lesson, sometimes verging on the ridiculous. Instead of a deeper analysis, I will just quote the author:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

As for the language, I think it’s wonderful that Mark Twain tries to capture the way people thought and talked at the time, and makes reading this book even more interesting. After all, I think this book is worthwhile for its historical significance and depictions, rather than for its story.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s an excellent book, with a story blending sci-fi and fantasy: a love story about a witch and a mad scientist. It's not a unique style, as some reviewers say - I think it reads like a Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams book (minus the absurdism of the latter two). The beginning is whimsical like a Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, and it’s peppered with the sci-fi that you are likely to encounter in Terry Pratchett’s or Douglas Adams’ books - nothing too technical nor hard science, but enough realism to make it interesting. The world in the book is similar to our own, a few years in the future, but where magic is real and sci-fi staples are common; for example, time machine schematics can be downloaded from the web, and built by anyone with enough engineering skills. This world is very Bay-area-centered, not only because the story is geographically centered in San Francisco, but also in its ideas, themes, and the feel of it. The author is a well-known techie, so this makes sense. Sometimes this is cool, as it drags the classic sci-fi and fantasy elements into our modern world; sometimes it’s a bit annoying, as it describe life as a series of social events, going to the latest precious restaurant/artsy party/coffee house, which might be what is life is like for some people, but in this book it’s like that for every single character; and sometimes it’s completely non-sensical, like having the latest physics theories and breakthroughs happening in tech start-ups, rather than in universities and research institutes where they actually happen in reality. I guess the author is enamored with the idea that Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are the new rock-stars/prophets/saviors of the world, but it’s still jarring to see such basic misunderstanding of the enterprise of science.

However, the world and world-building are secondary to the book; this is really a love story, and the book pays a lot of attention to the two main characters, their background, and their relationship. Although there are huge gaps in the continuity, I think it does an excellent job of following the main couple and their character growth (and sometimes lack thereof), taking it slow whenever possible, and throwing in some fast paced action. Although sometimes the book is annoying in its world-building, and sometimes annoying in how obtuse the main characters are (a lot of grief could have saved by a simple conversation early on), for the most part it’s a sweet story, and a lot of fun too!

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book *exactly* because I enjoyed the movie “Gone Girl”, and lots of reviews characterized this as a grittier and faster “Gone Girl”. I have enjoyed it, and the comparisons to the aforementioned hit is unavoidable. Since I didn’t actually read “Gone Girl” (only saw the movie), I cannot say whether it’s grittier and faster-paced, but it didn’t strike me as either.

What did strike me was the character building in the book. The small cast is well developed, with layers upon layers of reasons, secrets, regrets, desires, and all sorts of emotional baggage. Not that there aren’t any holes in the characters stories - there are huge gaps in their history, in their thinking, there are many things that get only alluded to but never explained. Also, I get the impression that the author (a woman) and her characters are all basically sexists; the women are defined by their relationship to men, and by their pregnancies and kids, while the men are mostly misogynist sociopaths. Still, they are all complex, realistic and generally messed up individuals (hey, all societies are full of women and men just like that!).

The story centers on Rachel, an alcoholic whose life is in shambles, but that one day witnesses something from the train that puts her in the middle of a murder mystery. Her story is tortuous, sometimes torturous; it’s painful to hear it. This is not an action-packed thriller, it’s a slow unraveling of people and mysteries. I found it very enthralling; I suppose it’s a car-crash rubbernecking effect. The denouement is not specially surprising, but the execution is good enough. In the end, it’s an interesting read.

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