Don’t forget that there is a total solar eclipse tomorrow. Been wondering where the moon’s been, and why you’ve been having all those lovely clear dark nights perfect for star-gazing? Well, the moon’s been busy preparing for one of its big acts. It’ll pop in front of the sun and bring a little darkness to some regions during the day tomorrow. Put differently, the dark side of the moon will be stealing some of our rays on August 1st.
Who will get to see it? Well, full totality will be available mostly for the “midnight sun” Continue reading ‘For Some, The Dark Side’
Now playing: I’m Confessin’ (That I love You), Thelonious Monk [Solo Monk]
Well, I’m now beyond the halfway mark of my retreat and I’ve been on the one project all this time. I’ve made progress here and there, had some setbacks, and have got very stuck at times. It’s just one of those things with this sort of work. Par for the course.
There are times when you think that if you do just a bit more on the project, it’ll get over the hump, as it were, and then coast along. So far I worry that there may be simply an infinite set of equally spaced humps of similar height all the way down the road**, in that every now and again I discover a rather pretty little gem of a result that’s quite encouraging, but these gems don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. So it’s a little scattered gravel pit of gems as opposed to a lovely… Ok, cvj, enough with the gem metaphor.
Now playing: Totem Pole (Alt. take), Lee Morgan [The Sidewinder]
The issue here is whether I should jump ship and use the last of my quality time here Continue reading ‘Humps’
Well, since they’ve actually done a press release about it, I suppose I don’t have to be so coy as I was in the last post. This is about the film company I was doing some consulting work for on an interesting project with and interesting screen-writer.
The company is called Hero Pictures, and they have an interesting mission statement, and a rather splendid website (which I recommend… love the little hero guy) which tells you more. One of their projects is a film about Einstein. Working title is “The Private Lives of Albert Einstein”. They’ve bought the rights to a couple of books on him, brought in a screenwriter (see my thoughts on him and working with him in the previous post), Ron Bass, well known for his work on projects like Rain Man and The Joy Luck Club, Snow Falling on Cedars, among many other films.
It was fun to work with him on this, however briefly. He’s super sharp and gets the Continue reading ‘Tales From The Industry XXI – Another Go At An Einstein Film’
Well, you know I almost missed it: Asymptotia, this little blog that you come to read from time to time, is two years old today! It has been a pleasure and an honour being part of this community we’ve formed, made up of you the reader and maybe sometime commenter, and me tossing up a few things to look at, consider, laugh at, and/or discuss from time to time. I really enjoy the kind of connections that are made, and seeing people brought together (both on- and off- line) using Asymptotia as a focal point. Have a look at what I said on this date last year, and in the inaugural post.
For those of you who are not regulars, assuming you’ve already read the about page, let me mention that I think of this blog as a bit like a gathering (a party, if you will) in a comfortable home, with people in several rooms carrying out (or just listening to) conversations of various sorts. Some rooms just have things to look at. Some people Continue reading ‘Two!’
Ok. I suppose I ought to say something about “The Dark Knight”, since a lot of people are expecting me to, and well, I’d like to. Of the many (too many) big films of the genre that have come out this Summer, it is the one I’ve actually been waiting for, with high expectations, based on the excellent work they (Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, etc) did on Batman Begins. So, following is my verdict, after going to see it on opening night at a regrettably substandard theatre due to not being in Los Angeles.
I thought it was wonderful to see a big Summer blockbuster that is so successful that is entirely about ideas. Whether you think you have any interest in the genre (and see below), you should consider supporting it and going to see it on that fact alone, since it might encourage the big studios to green light to more projects that engage your brain. It is about ideas – the consequences of our actions, the use of power, the fabric of a society and what motivates us to behave well or badly toward our fellow citizens. In pretty much every scene. And it is not done in an unfortunately preachy and naively over-simplistic way that I think was the case for the highly flawed film version of “V For Vendetta” of a few years back.
Finally, the (big headline) movies of the graphic novels and comics have caught up with what the actual graphic novels and comics did ever so long ago – transcend the genre. It is not a superhero movie. It’s a movie about highly conflicted moral questions Continue reading ‘It’s Not A Superhero Movie’
I love “do-overs”. Not because I want to change anything in particular about my life, but because they are so rare, and so interesting. On my way to Vancouver on Monday, I got to do one.
We (myself and the other passengers) boarded our flight at Denver. I usually get on the plane early, and so have the change to watch people go through their routines of boarding and all that entails. After that was all, the plane full of passengers waited for the plane to get ready, doors to close, and so forth. It did not happen. After a while, the pilot came on and explained that they were trying to fix the radio, and it would be another half an hour. So we waited. After another long while, the pilot came on and said that they did not expect that the radio would get fixed in a timely manner after all, and so they were going to try something else. We would “de-plane” (a word I hate by the way – what is wrong with the perfectly good word “disembark”?) and all make our way to another gate where eventually another plane would arrive, and we’d take that one. It would be exactly the same type of plane. We would keep our ticket stubs and just re-board an hour and a half later.
I wandered for a bit, found something not too repulsive to nibble on (seems to get harder and harder in some airports), was disappointed by the meagre bookstore once again, and otherwise killed some time. Then the boarding started again. A “do-over”. Everybody would be going back to the same seats, it would be exactly the Continue reading ‘On “Do-Overs”’
Here’s something I found rather unexpected. It all begins a little more than a year ago in Los Angeles. I was chatting with a friend, Aimee Bender, about our respective modes of work, and about how Summer fits into that in general. As you may know, Aimee’s a fiction writer, (and you may have picked up somewhere that I’m a theoretical physicist), and there are a lot of parallels to be found between professions that both involve lots of sitting around, crafting with symbols, folding fragments of inspiration together into larger nuggets, and so forth. So we chat about that from time to time.
A lot of how that works can be tied to the environment in which you do it, and so we got to talking about the long dry Summer in Los Angeles, with a particularly hot spell we were going through at the time we were talking. It affects how you work, what part of the day is most productive for you, and so forth. We agreed that a rather nice thunderstorm would be a good thing to have come along, even though that was highly improbable. Just the sound of a thunderstorm is a wonderful thing, and then there’s the relief it brings from the conditions before, and the smells in the air during and after. We carried on with the hot LA work cycle, stormless.
I left a week or two later for Aspen.
Shortly thereafter, Aspen went into a typical daily cycle of sunny for most of the day with a rainy downpour in the afternoon. Very refreshing. One of those days, that downpour turned into a long super-violent thunderstorm that lasted well into the Continue reading ‘Sharing the Storm’
Dandelion seeds just outside my door. (Click for larger view.) Continue reading ‘Delicate Star’
Well, as I said in the previous post, I’m leaving my hideaway/retreat mode and popping over to Vancouver for a short spell to help out at a Summer School. It’s the PIMS (Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences) Summer School on Particles, Fields, and Strings. I’m giving four lectures on some of the techniques in string theory that it helps to know in order to do some of the fun things we do to get at interesting physics (such as the topic of the post before). My title is something like “Perturbative and non-perturbative string theory”, and I’ve no clue what the level of the students really is, so goodness knows how far I will get in four one hour lectures. But it does not hurt to try. I’ll be laying the groundwork for several of the lecturers who will be talking about the more advanced stuff closer to their research work, and so I hope to at least help the students gain confidence with ideas and language that will show up all over the place in the two weeks following my presentations.
So what will I cover? Well, I’m going to tailor things to the responses of the students as Continue reading ‘A Hop Over To Canada’
A depiction of a lithium trap from the Kastler Brossel laboratory, in France. Details here.
[Despite appearances, I did not choose the music in what is to follow. I just put on iTunes set to random, and started typing, reporting on what was playing as I went along. Nevertheless, there were some nice resonances.]
Now playing: Mr Day, John Coltrane.
So. I must put the Aspen time on hold for a short while, as I promised to give four lectures in Vancouver starting tomorrow. While I sit here in a lounge in Denver at 8:00am, wondering why I booked a 7:00am flight out of Aspen, and also wondering exactly what is in this muffin that I picked up to have with the (rather good) tea they have here this morning, I thought I’d tell you about a little bit of really nice physics that’s going on in the neighbourhoood of my world. Since I’m too cheap and too disinterested to pay for a connection to the web, this’ll only get uploaded quite a bit later when I get a free hookup. (This is a bit more technical in places than usual. Please don’t give up too easily. Oh, and you might have to read some things I point to from earlier to get everything I’m saying – I’m not one for endless repeating myself I’m afraid.)
You can think of this as another story in the line of development I’ve been pushing (and telling people about here and elsewhere) for many years now. Applications of string theory to a broader range of physics areas than the popular discussions of the topic seem to touch upon. I told you last year about the exciting work going on in understanding properties of new phases of nuclear matter being unlocked at the Brookhaven experiment RHIC (colliding heavy nuclei together to create a sort of hot quark-gluon soup). That work continues. This new work pertains to experiments as well, and this time, these are closer to the human scale bench top experiments we all get misty-eyed over (ok, I do, maybe no-one else). It is super-cute stuff. I should Continue reading ‘Atoms and Strings in the Laboratory?’
Today’s going to be a slow day, with a bit of pottering about town (groceries, new novel), sitting at home (laundry, reading, writing), and working on some physics things here and there. It’ll be good to slow down. I went on another long hike yesterday, back in my more usual solitary mode. Last week’s to Willow (see a couple of earlier posts) was with my friend and colleague Albion Lawrence who I’d not seen for a long time, and so we spent a very pleasant time catching up on things (mostly sharing about books and film, as we do) as we walked.
Yesterday’s hike, following (initially) the West Maroon trail, was taken up with conversations with myself, both internal and external, and that’s something I enjoy a great deal. I thought I’d spend a lot of time thinking over various issues in physics that I’ve been puzzling over in my work, or that I’d learned about from various conversations and seminars while here at the Center. But I did not, surprisingly. Or not much. It was a very physics-free day, even though I was out there struggling along in the West Maroon area for over five hours (out and back to the bus).
Part of this might be because due to the large amount of snow on the ground in places, I lost the trail, and so spent a lot of time following the river trying to pick it up Continue reading ‘Recovery Time’
Spurred by the previous post showing M-theory’s possible relation to matters Chiropteral, Joe Polchinski (who I think, in 1995 or 1996, first drew the diagram that I messed with in that post) emailed me* to say that there is a quite striking appearance of batman-ology in the string theory literature. It’s from one of the classic Mirror Symmetry papers of 1990 by Candelas, De La Ossa, Green, and Parkes, “An Exactly soluble superconformal theory from a mirror pair of Calabi-Yau manifolds.” (you can find it via here). Here it is:
What is this? It has to do with spaces in string theory called “Calabi-Yau manifolds”, which are important (in some approaches) as starting points for constructing models Continue reading ‘Chiropteral Mirror Symmetry?’
Very crunchy bit of mountain, on the final approach to the overlook of Willow Lake this weekend. It’s like a reward of a giant piece of Cadbury’s Flake after a long hike over Continue reading ‘Crunchy’
Somehow, I only learned about this today, and it is already standby tickets only, but you never know. If you’re in LA and interested in a different kind of conversation, consider taking in the event (part of the Aloud series) at the downtown Los Angeles Central Library tomorrow night at 7:00pm. It’s between two friends and colleagues of mine, the science writer K C Cole and the scientist Lenny Susskind! The event is entitled, “The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics”, and presumably will be about Lenny’s reflections on some of the exciting squabbles over various important issues in black hole physics that took place (and still take place) in our field of physics. The above turns out to be (I just learned from a Google search) the title of a book he’s written, so you might be interested in it for your Summer (or other) reading.
Some of you may recall her really great conversation with Alan Alda that took place at USC earlier this year. I reported on it here. K C tends to run these sorts of Continue reading ‘Black Hole Battles’
A commenter, slim potato, implicitly asked a really good question earlier. It was a comment on a post I did yesterday about my struggles with a computation I was working on. I gave an answer, but since I know that a lot of readers don’t read the comments, and because one of the missions of this blog is to give a window on what scientists such as myself do and (importantly) how we do it, I thought I’d elevate the comment and my response into a post. Feel free to add your own thoughts to it in the comments, either as a non-scientist, a scientist, a specialist from another field, or other.
I would have assumed that most of your time when working on a paper was involved on catching good ideas, not getting muddled with conventions and calculations.
Thanks. That’s a common misunderstanding of what we do. What makes a field of physical science like physics work is computations – all of that business with calculations (including checking that your computations conventions are internally consistent) is vital to the field.
Frankly, “Good Ideas” are a dime a dozen. Anyone in my field ought to be able to think of at least six of them before breakfast. What makes a good idea go Continue reading ‘On Good Ideas’
Ugh. A night of computing (while making and eating dinner and recuperating from a strange day-long headache – dehydration? side effects from the big hike the day before?) and muttering to myself at various points left me in a state of confusion last night. I went to bed tired and confused after getting into a muddle and realizing that I’d been probably mixing conventions in parts of my computations over the last few days, leaving me with a flipping minus sign in a result. No, I really mean “flipping”, since sometimes a 1/16 was -1/16, and sometimes that represents a physical truth and other times it represents a computational mistake – and I got confused as to which was which. Ugh.
All of this was coupled with occasionally wandering outside into the late night air filled with hungry insects in order to seek the fragment of wireless signal (I accidentally discovered it nearby on the weekend) in order to download the odd reference to check an idea or a fact. I’d have a few minutes before the bugs would find me and start to chew (I suffer from being particularly tasty to insect life – always the first person to be multiply bitten at any outdoor evening gathering), at which point I’d have snagged the download of the paper and can then run back in to the safety of indoors, flapping my arms around my head like a madman. It is an amusing dance, since I can find the Continue reading ‘Once More Unto The Breach…’
I don’t know what they’re called [update: glacier lillies*], but they were so lovely, I thought I’d share:
They look a lot like little street lamps, if you look closely, having a lovely curve to their Continue reading ‘Yellow Lamps’
You might be interested in this for all sorts of reasons, whether you’ve interest in science education in the UK or not. It relates to similar issues elsewhere, such as the USA. It’s a rather good (if a bit depressing) report on physics education in the UK, and how the UK does in the international Physics Olympiad compared to other countries. There’s a visit to the “training camp” for the Olympiad, and interviews with students and teachers. Have a listen – it is only nine minutes long.
The UK does not do very well, to cut to the chase. Not very well at all. China is the powerhouse, with the US and Iran also being very good. Notably, all three countries invest heavily in serious training and educational programs for the Olympiad, and it is also notable that Iran has very strong female representation.
More worrying, perhaps, is the decline of students’ knowledge of physics overall, since Continue reading ‘UK Physics Education and the Olympiad’
Well, of course I made it to the Aspen farmer’s market. Why would I pass up the opportunity to pay $3.50 a pound for assorted squashes? (And that was some of the more reasonably priced stuff…) I like to support these things, and mingle with the people, so I go anyway. Also some of it is very good, even though there are very few actual fresh produce vendors compared to the farmer’s markets I’m used to in Los Angeles. (This latter fact is not entirely traceable, I think, to having a smaller target population, or being at high elevation.) (Of course there’s a lot of selling of knick-knacks of various sorts of the tourists…. you know: hand carved dual dog bowls with Western outdoor themes and so forth…)
Here’s the (half-folded) bike with some of my findings:
You can get a closeup on the basket by clicking the image on the right. Some apricots, Continue reading ‘Some Saturday Shopping’
Well, I was supposed to go for an early morning hike to start off the day, but it has not happened. It was just meant to be a short one, since I’m staying in a little cabin out of town not too far from the start of a lovely trail. Then I was to go to the farmer’s market (more on that later) and then after lunch go to pick up my ticket for the chamber music concert I’m to go to this afternoon. (I say “pick up” and not “buy” since I was the lucky winner (well, one of them) of a little ticket lottery at the Aspen Center for Physics for tickets to concerts in the neighbouring Aspen Music Festival. Hurrah!)
Well, the hike did not happen. Why? Well, at about 6:30pm yesterday while scribbling fragments of equations and furrowing my brow while sitting in a cafe in town (a change of venue after a day at the Center(re) sitting in the office, you see), I began to realize that a computation I was stuck on might actually be becoming unstuck! Various parts Continue reading ‘Altered Saturday Plans’
The Union of Concerned Scientists is running a science cartoon contest* (mostly political cartoons, really), and would love you to vote. Here’s one:
Continue reading ‘Science Cartoon Contest!’
…(as the saying goes) it’s nice to get the real thing from time to time.
I’m almost fully in retreat mode now, being back at Aspen and settled in to my office at the Center and so forth. It’s good to see some familiar faces and catch up a little on physics news, and gossip (still waiting for some good juicy stuff there). I’ve settled into my accommodation (which on the plus side has no wireless or other web connection, but on the minus has HBO, which I shall have to studiously avoid), and have done a quick cycle around town (brought the Brompton again of course) to check that everything is in order. So by mid-afternoon on day one, yesterday, I was settling into my project(s). All good.
The good news of the title? Well, usually when someone contacts me about my book, Continue reading ‘Although No News is Good News…’
Spent Sunday intensely preparing to leave on a trip, starting at 6:30am, with few breaks. This involved time spent preparing the garden to look after itself (I’d added several plants over the last six months that were not on the drip system), preparing various rooms to be more easily traversable for some contractors to do some plumbing and other work while I’m away, doing endless bits of paperwork and related things that I don’t want to deal with while I am on retreat thinking (almost) exclusively about physics, and so forth. At 3:30pm, in a panic I began the run around the house grabbing all the stuff I wanted to take with me, and going down to storage to bring up the two large bags I always take with me to Aspen.
Stuff includes notebooks, computer, hiking boots, bike, helmet, books, water bottles, drawing equipment, raincoat, umbrella, sketchbooks, shorts, t-shirts, underwear (yes, I did fly to a workshop one time and discover that I’d forgotten all my underwear…), various cables for charging various bits of consumer electronics, consumer electronics, shopping bag, small hiking pack, the pens I like to write with, the pencils I like to draw with, good tea, medium hiking pack, cloves, black peppercorns, good sea salt, whole nutmeg and a big stick of cinnamon (sort of hard to explain why these last several are important unless you’re also into a certain sort of cooking, and are familiar with Continue reading ‘Stuff’
Have a Fantastic Fourth of July, to everyone who is celebrating it!
It’s been several days since my last confession. Sorry about the silence. I’m honestly not sure exactly what I’ve been doing, since it has been a mostly fragmented set of things, coupled with a generally down mood of introspection over matters personal. Hmm… So nothing new there.
Physics-wise I’m a bit stuck. Not on a particular project this time, but stuck on Continue reading ‘Fourth Thoughts’
150 years ago today, Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution to a group of his peers for the first time. It was read at the Linnean Society, and the reading didn’t really rock the world. That came later when Darwin published the Origin of Species. Either way, it is quite an anniversary today, since evolution is without question one of the single most important scientific discoveries ever made about how our world works. (Have a look at my earlier post on the Darwin Online Project, by the way. Lots to see there.)
Actually, Wallace had the idea some 20 years before Darwin, it is said, but few remember him. A recent NPR piece quotes the author David Quammen (“The Reluctant Mr Darwin”):
Continue reading ‘Launch of an Idea’