The Reply

Explorer 1 SpacecraftToday is the 50th anniversary of the day the USA replied to the world-changing Sputnik launch by the USSR almost four months earlier (see my post), as well as Sputnik 2 (carrying the dog Laika) a month after. In some sense, the space race began in earnest with this launch of the craft called Explorer.

A great thing about the Explorer 1 craft was that it even did some groundbreaking […] Click to continue reading this post

Oliver Sacks on Music

Oliver Sacks must have a new book out or something*. I’ve heard him twice in as many days in radio pieces, and that usually means only one thing. He’s always an interesting interviewee, and this time the focus is on music. The first piece I heard was one of those amusingly produced pieces by Robert Krulwich, on NPR’d Morning Edition. It was all about people who essentially hallucinate music – it spontaneously appears in their ears and there’s often nothing they can do about it. The audio for the piece can be heard here. It was quite a good piece and I recommend it.

The next thing I heard was on the BBC World Service (my usual late night listening) the segment called “The Interview”. This is a much longer piece, talking about the role of […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Communication

At the Science Blogging conference earlier this month, there was a very interesting discussion about communication of science, science and the media, and science in politics. It was led by Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines, and Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney (both of The Intersection), who each did a mini-presentation (Sheril and Chris doing a sort of tag-team double act, starting off with discussing Sciencedebate 2008, and moving into discussions of “framing” science, the separation of the cultures, and so forth – and of course, opportunities for bloggers). Happily there was a video made, and I’ve embedded it below (the quality is mixed, but overall […] Click to continue reading this post

Near Enough

asteroid 2007 tu24It’s not going to be naked-eye visible, but give a thought tonight to the 250 metre asteroid (2007 tu24) that is going to swing by close to earth tonight! Or, if you have a “modest” telescope, go and look at it. It’s going to scrape by at 1.4 times the distance of the moon. That’s pretty close, by astronomical standards, and gives scientists a chance to see a near earth object rather more closely than usual. From the […] Click to continue reading this post

Almost Back

Well, I’m standing here at 11:45pm slowly stirring some tasty custard I’m making to pour onto a slice of steamed homemade date pudding. A while ago the wonderful Margaret Atwood was on the radio (talking about an influential editor who died recently – can’t recall the name), which is bliss for me since I love hearing her talk about anything. Absolutely anything. I just love her voice, tone, and turns of phrase. There’s a cold wind blowing outside…

Why am I doing all this? Well, it’s really cold outside for a start (yeah, I know) so I need some warm comfort food, but mostly I’m treating myself after a long night of writing php scripts and css code, remembering stuff I learned two years ago, with the aim of rebuilding the old look for the blog. I’m really tired of the clunky default style I’ve had […] Click to continue reading this post

Gandalf, Balrog, Physics…

So while you have a look at the following enthusiastic and amusing discussion about how far the Balrog and Gandalf must have fallen (in the film version of the Two Towers), involving discussions of terminal velocities and Balrog profile approximations for air resistance estimates (and so forth)…

(links here, here, and here*)

…ask yourself why on earth nobody in the discussion (as far as I can tell from a quick […] Click to continue reading this post


While the wonderful downpour carries on outside (the whole of Southern California is in the grips of a powerful storm), I’ll continue with the discussion of the re-invigoration of the study that I started a short while ago

study project - plane
(One of my all-time favourite wood-working tools. The good old-fashioned plane. Planing a bit of wood is jolly good therapy too.)

One of the main things I envisioned, and put into my sketches, was lots of space for books. Lots. I wanted big bookcases that fit the room, and so I planned a simple but robust design that stretched them eight feet from the floor to the ceiling. Of course, I wanted to make them myself – Building them myself would be more fun and much […] Click to continue reading this post

Planck Meets Fleming

So yesterday at Pinewood Studios they announced the name of the upcoming second James Bond film in the new series that (excellently, in my opinion) re-envisions the Bond movie universe. Last year’s first one was “Casino Royale”, you may recall. Did you hear what the next one will be called? […] Click to continue reading this post

Clinton Fun

Taking a break from scribbling equations, I confirmed the he-must-be-crazy suspicions of people around me in a cafe the other day by bursting out laughing out loud at this Onion article: Bill Clinton: `Screw It, I’m Running For President’:

After spending two months accompanying his wife, Hillary, on the campaign trail, former president Bill Clinton announced Monday that he is joining the 2008 presidential race, saying he “could no longer resist the urge.”

You’ve probably heard about it already (it was even mentioned on today’s Morning Edition on NPR), but in case you have not, it’s a timely read. My favourite bit:

“No longer will I have to endure watching candidates like Hillary Clinton engaging in single-pump handshakes with voters, as I use every last […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Science Goes Hollywood

Reza Aslan at Categorically Not!The next Categorically Not! is on Sunday January 27th (upcoming). The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole Reza Aslan at Categorically Not! – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area.

Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events. (Above right and left: Reza Aslan speaking on the origin of various ideas in Religion at the event entitled “Beginnings” on 16th December, 2007. Click right one for larger view.)

The theme this month is Science Goes Hollywood. Here’s the description from K C Cole:

Despite our prejudices to the contrary, Hollywood and Science have a lot to say to each other. Take special effects: Nothing Disney dreams up can […] Click to continue reading this post

Lousy Book

louse by louis de vosWell, actually it sounds like a really lovely book, and the louse to the right (among other creatures) is featured. (Photo by Louis de Vos.)I read about it in a splendid little article in LA Weekly today on the bus home on a wonderfully rainy afternoon here in LA. The book’s all about the common creatures in our homes – “bugs” of various sorts, and the LA Weekly article by Gendy Alimurung is mostly an interview with the authors, Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer. The book is called “A […] Click to continue reading this post

Asymptotia Attacked!

Sigh. It was too good to be true. Hours after updating the site (and feeling pleased with myself) because I caught a whiff of something threatening it, a blistering attack came along, in the form of essentially a denial of service attack from hundreds of separate machines/robots all from the same referring site. (See Josh Davis’ report on such things for the Wired Science TV show last year. Video here.) I tried everything I could think of to get rid of it and could not win. In the end, my hosts shut down my account and suspended the domain (fair enough – actually might have helped), and (not cool) one of their fine technical support people blamed me for the problem […] Click to continue reading this post

Not Science Fiction

Anti-matter. Seeing the previous word, you immediately glance back at the title, right? Strangely, it has been 80 years since the discovery of anti-matter, and we use it routinely in our technology. Nevertheless, anti-matter is still thought of as something from science fiction (and mostly bad science fiction at that).

dirac_equation.jpgIt all goes back to one of my favourite theoretical physicists, Paul Dirac, and you might like how he found it (roughly). He essentially did it by […] Click to continue reading this post

Put Yourself In Their Shoes

alan alda and kc cole

Excellent evening on Wednesday night. As I expected, KC worked her magic and steered the conversation in many interesting directions, with Alan Alda turning out to be – not unexpectedly – quite the character. I suspect that it was recorded (on video) and so I will update this post or do a later post with a pointer to it later. Alda was swamped by people buying his book and getting is signed and so forth at the reception. It was great to see such a good attendance at this Visions and Voices event all about science and the arts – very much in the spirit of what this is all supposed to be about.

  alan alda and kc cole  alan alda and kc cole  alan alda and kc cole

Among the many things of note that were said, one thing I liked a lot was the telling by […] Click to continue reading this post

Messages from Inside

Inside meaning the inner part of the Solar System. Messages meaning the new pictures from MESSENGER spacecraft.

MESSENGER is short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. Now you and I know that they spent a bit of time coming up with the unpacking of the name, wanting of course to have the name MESSENGER because that’s what the Mercury of mythology was – the messenger of the Gods, among his other duties. Nice. However I’d have been really impressed if they’d managed to call it QUICKSILVER, and found a way to unpack that – any takers?

Anyway, I digress. In more news showing the triumph of the wisdom of relatively cheap unmanned exploratory craft, MESSENGER sent some wonderful pictures of Mercury this week, along with lots of other scientific data that will help us learn a great deal about the innermost planet. Here’s the one that’s been going around a lot (click for impressive larger version):

mercury by MESSENGER

Image credit to NASA. Caption taken from a article reads: This photo supplied by NASA shows […] Click to continue reading this post

Lecture One

lecture notes

So it is that time. A new semester is upon me, and a totally new course to deliver. Today was my first day back on campus after the break (at least during a regular working day).

Sunday saw me sitting down (in the newly completed study) thinking about how I was going to structure the course. This usually has me sitting with the textbook, a pen, a hand drawn calendar on a big sheet of paper, and a frown on my face trying to figure out roughly what topics I will cover, how many lectures I will devote to each, how many class worksheets (see earlier post) I might have, when the midterms will be, and so forth.

What I am teaching? Why, only one of my most favourite topics to teach in the entire […] Click to continue reading this post

Alan Alda Chats With KC Cole

kc colealan alda scientific american frontiersTomorrow afternoon at 4:00pm there’s be an interesting conversation on campus for sure. It’ll be between the science writer and journalist KC Cole and the actor Alan Alda. He’s such an interesting person, and (among other things) currently presents Scientific American Frontiers.

KC’s always so good at steering these conversations, so while I’ve no idea […] Click to continue reading this post

Two Rings

Now have a look at this object (and its enlargement on the right):

double einstein rings

What is it? It’s a double Einstein ring! An Einstein ring is formed by gravitational lensing – the bending of light from one object by the gravity of another object – and is typically formed when a distant galaxy lines up with another, closer galaxy. The result is a rather nice ring shape.

To find a double Einstein ring is rare! In fact, this is the first one that’s been announced. Not only is it novel, it can also use used to do a good deal of science, such […] Click to continue reading this post

Physics and Whiskey

jameson irish whiskeyBeing a loyal fan of Scottish single malt whisky, I never thought I’d be blogging about Irish whiskey, but this is why we get out of bed in the morning – we seek the stuff we can’t guess*.

So I was going to point out to you an amusing distraction. The series of radio ads for Jameson Irish Whiskey that you can listen to here. There’s one featuring a physicist, you see, and a friend of mine sent me the link for that reason**. There’s the idea of attraction, and so gravity is brought in by the ad man trying to use the concept to sell the product, and the physicist is obviously not having it… a short bit of fun play between segments of some program on some station somewhere or another. I can see that they’d work rather well. Have a listen.

That was going to be it, until I found another – real – physics connection. Turns out that Guglielmo Marconi – he of the use of electromagnetic waves for telegraph communication, Nobel prize, and so forth – is the the key to the connection. Do you know what it is?
[…] Click to continue reading this post

In Which I Fail Physics 101…

… but pass it on a retake!

While quickly building an ad hoc washing line pulley assembly from a bag of hooks, eyes, and pulleys, and a 2×4, I put this together at first (blotted out some background for privacy of myself and neighbours – click for larger view):

bad design

Huh. Does not want to hang level. Why? A tenth of a second after the thought, I burst out laughing loudly at my error. Ironic since I love teaching about pulleys in basic physics, and for some reason students are scared of pulleys. (Not as scared as they are of torque (why?), but scared nonetheless. I try to help them overcome those fears.) I made an obvious mistake. (Do you see it?)
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry XVI – Correlations Meetup and More

It all began over dinner on Thursday night, before the rains began. Some of us met up at Ciudad (a favourite place of mine to eat in downtown Los Angeles, primarily for the mojitos) and the began to get to know each other in person, as opposed to online. I’m talking about the Correlations bloggers, and members of the team who work on the entire Wired Science website (which is excellent, by the way) with which Correlations is embedded. I met most of the latter group at various KCET events (the first screening of episode 1, the wrap party a few weeks ago I never got around to blogging, etc). This however, was the first time I got to meet Sheril Kirshenbaum, although we’d got to know each other so well online I have to say that it sort of felt as though we’d already met. Co-blogger (and show producer) Damon Gambuto arrived a bit later – I’d met him before at the party. The other bloggers coming from out of town to the meeting, Tara Smith and Michael Tobis, I would meet the next day since Michael’s flight was coming in late, and Tara was not feeling well. Tamsin Gray, being stationed in Antarctica, was not going to attend. Of the show host co-bloggers, Chris Hardwick (who I’d already met at the wrap party) would be there next day too. Ziya Tong was away.

Here’s a shot of some of us chatting at dinner (see also Sheril’s thoughts on this here):

correlations meetup dinner

Damon Gambuto is second from left, and there’s Sheril Kirshenbaum and cvj on the right – click for larger view. There’s also Liz on the left, and Philip Dunn in the centre, both from New Media.

The main purpose of all of this from the bloggers perspective was simply to meet and […] Click to continue reading this post

Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold

Has the ring of a Harry Potter novel’s title, doesn’t it? Well, it’s about physics. The history of the physics of cold, particularly its extremes. It’s a TV show on PBS’ Nova (based on the Tom Shachtman book of the same title), to appear this week, and it looks rather good! You can see the PBS website for it here. The good news is that this program has been a while in the making, with lots of physicists involved behind the scenes to get it right, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will not just be entertainment for the moment, but actually a rather good information resource (as well as being entertaining – the two are not mutually exclusive). It first airs on January 8th and 15th (there are two hours, one on each day). There are preview videos to look at […] Click to continue reading this post