Just the other day, while coordinating some work being done on my house, I was thinking that it is time I learned Spanish. Most of the people working in the construction industry here in Los Angeles have Spanish as their first language, and besides the usefulness it would give in communicating difficult ideas about a piece of work to be carried out, I really don’t like the feeling that I’m disconnected from them. I’d like to be able at least to, in Spanish, offer a cup of coffee, or a glass of iced water, and have a little small talk – treat them like fellow human beings as opposed to “the help” as is done so much in this city, to my disgust. I interact a lot with the Spanish-speaking parts of the city through my use of public transport, places I go to grab tasty food from time to time, and so on, but there is still a sense that there is an entire alternative Los Angeles out there that I am only barely touching upon by not knowing the language.
Then yesterday this whole Spanish language issue came up again in a big way. There was a phone call to the department from Univision, the Spanish-language TV network. Probably most of you are wondering what that is. You know those several channels that you never watch and when you flick by them, all clustered together, they’re always speaking Spanish and discussing issues or people that you seldom (if ever) have heard of? Yes. This is one of those channels. There’s a huge part of America (and elsewhere) that tune to those channels primarily.
Well, the people at Univision had heard about the excitement about the Large Hadron Collider (see, e.g. last post) and wanted to do a piece on it, and have someone in the studio to talk about it live on their breakfast show. They were looking for a researcher in the field, and I returned the call. The producer, Dina, wondered if I spoke Spanish. I did not. I saw the problem and immediately offered to try to find her a Spanish-speaker who could come to the studio and do the work. I asked all my colleagues. None of us speak Spanish. I called a couple of people at UCLA and Caltech and left messages, but got no responses. Then I went to teach. By time I finished that at 7:00pm, there were no leads, and so when I spoke later with Dina, there was no option but to do it myself. They decided that they’d simply have someone there during the interview to translate what I said.
I decided that this fits in perfectly with what I talk a lot about here (and elsewhere) when it comes to matters of science outreach. It is really important to try to put some science in the unusual places – not just the places where there’s already a willing audience. I love writing for science magazines, but I get an extra buzz when I can sneak some science into a magazine about something else, like hip-hop culture. I love talking to a public audience about science in leafy Aspen, or Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, but I absolutely love trying to communicate science in an inner-city school or community church. I just feel that we need to more to reach beyond our comfort zone, and our already self-selected audience. What about all those people who have not realized that they are interested in science? Anyway, given what I read about their audience, I was especially happy help out, especially considering (ironically) how hard it was to find a native Spanish speaker (specifically, Latino/Hispanic) in my field, working in a city with so many such people.
I got home shortly after 9:00pm, and I had to be at the studio near the Howard Hughes complex close to LAX (17 miles or more across town) at 5:00am. Ack! I’d not even eaten dinner yet, and I’d have to get up at 3:15am to give myself time to get ready, make myself beautiful, and so forth, and leave enough highway time. (Yeah, I know, I’d have to get up waaaay earlier to make some of that happen….)
Somehow, at 11:30pm I managed to make my way to bed and to sleep, and at 4:36am I was on the road. Los Angeles is a different city at this time. I’ve noticed it before, and it’s quite fascinating to me. The whole “city never sleeps” thing said about various other cities does not apply here. Everything is closed, and the roads are (relatively) empty. This is the sort of time you realize why the freeways, in days of old, (with lack of foresight) must have seemed like a magical and truly marvellous idea for the city. They are like wormholes that you can use to cover vast distances in a huge city (and the city responded by getting more huge, of course). While I should have been concerned about being late, I was comfortably doing a smooth 85 for most of the journey, arriving at the building. Here’s another funny thing. I noted from the address that I’d passed the address so many times on the way to the Bridge cinema and never really noticed, and therefore it must be a small doorway or part of another office suite, or something. No. It is a huge building screaming Univision at me with multiple neon signs, and I’d never really noticed it before – that other Los Angeles again. As soon as I saw it I remembered seeing it, and where it fit in the space in my mind that forms a representation of that part of town… I’d just not registered it.
There was only a handful of other cars in the building’s huge parking structure that I was buzzed into via the intercom (lost five minutes figuring that out since it all looked completely locked up and totally dead when I arrived). So I was sitting in the waiting lounge of the organization by 5:03am. I sat there for a while, alone, until I was joined by a lady with a child in a wheelchair. We greeted each other, and then sat waiting. I looked at the monitors for a while and realized that one of them was showing the show that will be on.
I watched for a minute or two and then they showed a variety of clips, presumably of things to come later in the show and I could see for a moment some images of a piece of the LHC, with a caption containing “Big Bang” and then they went to a commercial break. I wondered if I’d get the opportunity to tell them that it should not be called the Big Bang or the Big Bang machine, as people are now pushing all over the world.
Moments later Dina came to get us, (she called out “Dr? Dr? You are here for the Big Bang?” – I simply said yes), and led us through a few corridors and elevators directly to the studio. I always love (and have described to you before) the theatre of these things, since it it great to see what goes on behind the scenes to give you the mostly polished products that you see at home. There’s random (sometimes crazy) stuff going on just out of shot in most cases.
The actual studio space was moderate to small in size, with three robotic cameras dancing around each other, controlled by one guy off to the side. There was a wide desk for the presenters and newsreaders, and then a large sofa off to the side. There was also a large green-painted space in one corner, which they presumably use as a green-screen for dropping people into various virtual environments. (Indeed, later on, I got to sit right next to (just out of shot) the presenter who did her interpretive dance to the weather. She is (as you know) totally pretending to be looking at all those weather graphics. It is well known, but still amusing. I am glad I did not burst out laughing.)
The studio director or floor producer (who later revealed herself to be an enthusiastic Trojans fan when I said I was from USC) walks around wither her clipboard lining up everything to go, and constructing and deconstructing new sets (sometimes with help) for various segments. During the actual segments she was counting down transitions, or guiding the eye lines of the guests to where they should be looking, or talking into her microphone to her colleagues. There was one point (they sat me there to watch the show from the sidelines for a while) where there was hunt for a missing chalkboard, and I wondered (since I still had no idea what they wanted from me exactly) if this was for my piece(s). They want me to write equations? Draw diagrams? This’ll be fun.
Turned out it was for a segment about schools. It fit with a cute set they built in five minutes in one corner of the tiny studio that now looked a bit like a classroom. They had another presenter, and a striking woman who was, I think, a teacher getting ready to do the segment, and the chalkboard and chalk was for them. (The nice teacher lady and I smiled at each other and I was hoping to talk to her a bit, but then someone came to fit my microphone, and the moment was lost since that segment were right after me. Oh well.)
The lady and the child in the wheelchair were up first, and they went over to the sofa. Interestingly, they separated the boy (about 13 or 15 perhaps) from his (I assume) mother so that he could have a camera roll up to his chair and get some shots of him while the interview with his mother went on. It was interesting to see the director waving her arms and doing entertaining things with her hands in trying to keep his attention away from all the stuff that was going on off camera (people running around, the robot cameras doing their orchestrated dance, and so forth) and looking toward his mother. The piece, I gathered later, was about the effects of the California budget crisis on important services such as care for children with disabilities. Their segment ended and they went to a commercial break.
Then I was on the sofa. The whole Good Morning viewers thing. It was almost time and I was a bit worried. No-one had been introduced to me as a translator. It had not been mentioned at all. Had they forgotten? Would there be this embarrassing moment on live tv all around the Spanish-speaking Americas where I stare like a deer in headlights not understanding a word? Then I heard my name mentioned by one of the presenters (there are three attractive TV people at a desk who were, presumably the famous personalities that front the show), and looking at the monitor I could see a few clips of one of the LHC detectors. They were announcing what is coming next – but no translator yet!
Then one of the personalities said “Hello Professor”, and I realized that the mics are not live, as the monitor is showing some video. I was introduced to two of the presenters and one of them was identified as going to sit with me on the sofa and chat, and he’d simply translate as we went along. I noticed at about the same time that the teleprompter above the monitor has my details up, and in parentheses, “Does not Speak Spanish”. (I only just realized that it is odd that it was in English! Did I just translate that and it said it in Spanish? I can’t recall.)
Anyway, the floor maestro counted us in and they played a short video about the, uh, Big Bang, showing the LHC and Martin Rees saying the standard stuff (I presume… I could not hear) about it. While that was on, the presenter sitting on the sofa with me turned and asked me whether this was a big deal or not, and what the experiment was going to do, and I mumbled back the rough ideas. He smiled, liked what I said about the machine being designed to seek for the origin of the mass of all the elementary particles, and said we’d go with that.
We went live, and I found myself slightly smiling and lightly nodding in that TV way you see when two people are on camera and one is talking (the presenter) and the other is listening (me). It is largely borne of not knowing where the hell to look for a few seconds (never look at the camera -better to look at the person talking and appear interested in what they are saying), and is accentuated by not knowing in detail what is being said about you.
We spoke for maybe five minutes about the marvellous opportunity the LHC is going to give us to learn more about Nature, the remarkable scale of the machine and the collaboration, and why there shouldn’t be worries about the scares about dangers. While not saying that it was impossible that we destroy the earth, I gave an example of the idea that we can’t claim something is impossible, but proceed with confidence anyway. The sun might not come up tomorrow for some unknown catastrophic reason, but we’re pretty confident that it is extremely likely to rise tomorrow. But there’s a tiny chance that it won’t. Really tiny. Then they cut, with seconds to spare, to the first of the minutes of silence in memory of the events of 9/11, and then started prepping for the teacher segment.
I left the set, and went to sit in another room for a while. They wanted to do a second segment on this in the next hour of the show, shortly after six. There was a woman with two kids in that room, and we spoke for a little while. She was also there to talk about the effects of the budget crisis on essential services for children with special needs.
The cup of coffee that I’d hoped for never materialized, and I was wondering if I was going to go and see if I could find one (expecting that I’d be waiting another half an hour) when Dina came back and said that I was just about to go on again. So we trotted off to the studio, the maestro miked me up again, and I was on the sofa again. This time the more voluble of the two male presenters was going to chat with me. He wanted to explore more the issue of the benefits to humanity of this sort of work, and again discuss the issue of whether people should be worried. We went live, and chatted about this. He talked about fears about lots of wonderful science and its dangerous side effects, such as genetic modification, and I agreed that there are concerns, while explicitly declining to say that it cannot happen that the world will be destroyed. I explained that it is not the business of science to make such statements. We talk about what is likely, and what is unlikely, and we can place confidence on these outcomes, and that is all we do. He was intrigued by this.
I then added that this is somewhat different than genetic modification (although one might argue it is a matter of degree, but I think it is maybe more than than). All we are doing with this experiment is trying to create collisions that Nature already does all over the earth (cosmic rays entering our atmosphere from space produce even higher energy collisions that the LHC ever will), but in a place where we can study them. So we are not changing anything, or modifying anything. We’re just doing the collisions where we can look closely at them. As to the benefits, I talked about the benefits of just knowing where we come from, what we are made of, and our place in the universe. That’s the main goal. If spinoffs happen that give other benefits, that’s great. I gave the example of electricity. Research was done on electricity and magnetism about 150 years ago just for its own sake. Few at the time, if any, could imagine our electricity and electronics-filled world now. I did not use the following anecdote, but it is always a nice one to bring up in these conversations: It is said that William Gladstone, then British Minister of Finance (Chancellor of the Exchequer) asked Michael Faraday in 1850 what the use of his work on electricity was, to which he replied that he did not know, but that Gladstone would one day tax it.
And so we ended on that note. I said goodbye to everyone, and found my way to the parking and back on the road by 6:30am. There was still time to cut across the city before the traffic jams began. I made it close to my neighbourhood in half an hour and decided to see what one of my favourite stretches of Sunset Boulevard is like when it is waking up.
An early riser is the Casbah Café, a favourite haunt of mine, so I went in, said hi to some familiar faces behind the counter and had a lovely cup of coffee and an apple turnover for half an hour, watching as the activity in the street slowly began to quicken.