Tales From The Industry XXIV – Equation Wrangler

I’m sitting in one of my favourite cafes (Groundwork at Cahuenga) after a couple of hours work with some filmmakers. I’ve mentioned them to you before, you may recall. Eric Salat and Philip Shane are making what is gearing up to be a really fantastic documentary. I’m still not sure whether I’m supposed to talk about the content just yet, and so I won’t be to specific. As I mentioned before they are really trying to tell the science story in some depth. They’re illustrating the development of an idea, the wrong turns, the frustrations, the moments of elation, depression, and everything that goes into the process of doing the sort of work we do. And here, “everything” includes the confrontation of the ideas with the elation of seeing the success of a long struggle to understand Nature. I’ve spent some time chatting with Eric and Phil about the physics ideas, as have other scientists, and I have a good sense that they are so keen to tell the story well, and give the science and the scientific process a chance to shine – something that can often get neglected in some of these shows.

What was I doing today? I was in front of the camera for them again. We’d done some head-and-shoulders type work to camera a while back in the Springequation wrangler with me talking directly to camera about various ideas and concepts (recall that they’d even visited one of my upper division undergraduate lectures back in the late Winter) but today they wanted to do something really fun – have me write equations. There are various things they want to illustrate with equations, and while there will be some bits and pieces with those equations written out in computer graphics, they also wanted to see the equations written out in good old fashioned pencil, pen, and chalk. So that’s what I was doing. I guess it makes sense..in this town, in making films there’s always “that guy” (whether man or woman) you call who is a specialist who parachutes in to design the set, or do makeup, or build a deck of cardboard boxes for the stunt man to land on, or indeed do the stunt. So why not call in a professional equation-wrangler? Someone who works with them for a living. That was my role today.

So for two hours we played with various equations, written in notebooks, on the board, even on a tablecloth. I was shot at various angles and speeds, and degrees of lighting… It should be fun to see how it is all used to tell the story. Tablecloth? Ah, well, that part was an extra they may put in to connect to the now. equation wrangler The show is talking about a chapter of scientific history, but one of the things that they want to get across is that there are still scientists carrying on in much the same tradition as the subject of their story, asking similar questions, or the successor questions. That the work is still alive and carries on. I mentioned at some point in the past that one of my typical working modes (as you know from reading here regularly) is to scribble equations in restaurants and cafes. I mentioned that I (and many others who do this kind of work, I suspect) especially like working in places that have paper tablecloths, because then you can just scribble all over the table. They remembered this! And so when we were finished with all the other historical work, they said that they wanted to film some shots of my doing just that sort of scribbling, and so (if hey use it) you’ll see some bits of me working away on some of the things I’m thinking about in my research right now. I’m puzzling over what I think are some new string theories. They look like string theories, behave like string theories, but I can’t yet show that they really are in all the ways I’d like. More on that later.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. Phil and Eric, thanks for the labour of love you guys are putting into sharing this wonderful scientific story with the rest of the world..


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3 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXIV – Equation Wrangler

  1. Tommy says:

    I’ve always felt there can be a certain art to various equations. When others were doodling airplanes I would oftentimes end up doodling contour integrals and the Schrodinger equation. Awhile back you posted about a great New Yorker cover with a blackboard and some equations. My girlfriend was kind enough to track it down and get a copy framed for me as a gift.

    What equations were you working with? I have my own personal favorites (from an aesthetic point of view, I have different favorites for amazing equations expressing physical principles), but I’m curious to hear if any other people have some.

  2. Clifford says:

    Hi Tommy, I can’t really tell you yet, since the film-makers want the precise subject matter of the show kept a bit low profile until the parent channel makes an announcement, and so I want to respect that.

    But yes, I loved doodling equations as a student. I loved the look of the symbols, even when I did not know what they meant.



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