Midterm One

electrodynamics midterm preparationWell, it is that time again. The first midterm exam for my electrodynamics course is scheduled for Thursday and I have to decide today what to put on it.

A key factor is that it is an open book exam. Last week I explained to the class (I have another excellent group this year) that an open book exam is in fact more challenging than a closed book one, since some of them seemed to be under the opposite impression.

The point is that since we all know that if they have the textbook and their class notes and so can look things up, I certainly can’t ask them anything that they can lift from those sources without thinking. Therefore I will be able to focus on testing their ability to think and apply the techniques that they have been (I hope) studying. This is, after all, the point of the exercise, isn’t it? More so than remembering equations, in any case. (Although one hopes that all physics students can remember Maxwell’s equations…)

The drawback to all of this is that I myself have to think harder in preparing the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Bikes and the City, 2

blog on a bikeYou’ll notice that I often talk about alternatives to driving everywhere in Los Angeles. Sometimes I talk about bikes (see for example the last post) as part of a range of options. Well, in December last year a student at USC doing a project in journalism (Lauren Lee – she’s at the Annenberg School) did a short report on bikes and the city for her project. (See also some of my posts about this issue, such as here, here, here, and several posts in the list at the bottom of this one). In her research, Lauren found this blog, gave me a call, and I agreed to make a few comments to camera for her as part of her larger report on some of the changes that are happening here in Los Angeles. (She also interviews Adam and Josef Bray-Ali, owners of the Flying Pigeon LA bike shop (hey, they have a blog)- a bike that might interest you.)

I should preface it with some remarks of my own. It is a nice report, but she edited out all the things I said that I think get at a central and key point. (To be fair, she was trying to make a two minute report, and I was babbling on enough for a Spike Lee four-part documentary…) I’m not advocating that everyone cycle everywhere they need to get to. Instead, I’m trying to get across the idea that cycling works really well in combination with the public transport system that already exists. One of the reasons people give most often for not using public transport is that the bus or subway stop is not quite close enough to where they want to get to, and/or close enough to their home. Leaving aside the cases where that sometimes this means “more than one block” or “not right next to my garage”, I’m trying to get across the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Daily Planet

ziya tong on daily planetHey, remember Ziya Tong, my colleague at the short-lived blog Correlations, and one of the presenters of PBS’ inexplicably short-lived science show WIRED Science? Well, I heard from her the other day and we caught up a bit on what each other is up to. Turns out that she’s the new co-presenter of Daily Planet on Canada’s Discovery Channel! [...] Click to continue reading this post

Some Articles

Well, as I mentioned in the last post, Sunday’s symposium at the AAAS meeting in Chicago went very well, and we successfully communicated a lot of the physics results, ideas, and excitement to the audience. One of the team, Peter Steinberg, did a blog post, and he’s also got some more pictures that you’d perhaps like to see.

Some of the journalists who were there have already produced some pieces reporting on the physics. It is actually interesting to see all their different takes on the same presentation and discussion event. So far, I’ve seen the one by Glennda Chui at Symmetry Breaking, which had the mixed blessing of being tagged by Digg (the server was down for hours as a result!), one at Physics World by Margaret Harris (this one sort of missed the key physics point a bit – see below), one at the Discovery Space Blog by Dave Mosher, and one by John Timmer at Ars Technica (He misquotes me a little here and there, but I do like the “String Theory Officially Useful” phrase in the title!). [Update: There's also an AAAS publication here.]

Anyway, as I said, I think that the Physics Today one sort of got sidetracked a touch and so I placed a comment there to clarify some points. I realized that they might be useful to some reading here, and so I reproduce it here. Enjoy: [...] Click to continue reading this post

24 – Physics Edition (Day Two)

February 14th 2009: Valentine's Day.

9:00pm – 10:00pm

…Must be here somewhere. Maybe inside the monolith? No. Seems it is not inside the jumbo suitcase, which I have not used since Aspen last year anyway, and I’m pretty sure that I did not use it on that trip. Where can it be? That box over there? No. (But I found that bag of plastic book covers that I’ve been using sparingly since I left Preston for London in 1986. Excellent. The things I don’t throw away…) Well, never mind, would be silly to make myself miss a flight over an inflatable pillow that I have not seen in over a year. If I play my cards right, I won’t need it anyway….

9:10pm Now to put all those things I set aside earlier into my trusty little day trip bag. Change of clothes, electric shaver, toothbrush and so forth. I suppose I will bring the laptop. And some bits of equipment that might be useful as backup for Peter’s plan. Or whatever. You never know. Yes, I throw in my copy of Accordion Crimes. Almost finished it, and if I do, would be good to get another Annie Proulx to continue enjoying her wonderful writing…

9:17pm Will someone tell me how I managed to be perfectly on time, and then fritter away some of it to make sure I’m slightly panicky late again? Sigh. I was more or less ready at 9:00, when I should have left. Despite all the events of the previous 24 hours ((Day One) – Valentine’s Day Diary – Available on DVD) I got everything together on time, and wouldn’t it be rich if I missed the flight?

9:23pm I leave finally, using the batcave, slowing to check that entrance closes, then vanish into the night toward the airport. Saturday night late in LA. Surely everyone is out having awkward dates? The roads will be clear this late on a Saturday night, right? I can make my 10:07 check-in cutoff, I’m sure.

9:33pm. 101 Freeway. Full of traffic. Don’t you people have dates you’re supposed to be on!!?? This is my road! My! Road! [...] Click to continue reading this post

Sketching

sketching for an articleThe things I do for a living. Or whatever.

You see me at the end of a two hour process of watching some YouTube videos of a sport, thinking, reflecting, doing some analysis, and then (pictured) working up some sketches of some of the physics going on.

This is for a magazine doing a piece on various techniques in this sport (which I won’t mention since I don’t know if they want their thunder stolen). I’ve no idea whether they’ll use it in the end, but they needed the help pretty fast, and how could I say no? [...] Click to continue reading this post

From the Earth to the Moon?

bill stone at TED 2007Bill Stone is quite an engaging speaker, it has to be said. I heard him on the BBC World Service, being interviewed about his hopes and plans to change the way we do things in space. It is a spirited case that he makes, where he deliberately invokes the spirit and the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton and other great explorers going off into the unknown. The audio is here. (If you come to this late, search their archive here.)

Then I checked and sure enough there was a TED talk from him last year. See here. You can see him in action as well, although the BBC interview is complementary [...] Click to continue reading this post

Happy 200th Birthday, Darwin!

Well, as you’ve read here and elsewhere, this is a big year for (among other things) Darwin celebration. There are all sorts of wonderful essays, documentaries, discussions, lectures and so forth all around. Be sure to look at some of this work, and get involved. In addition to it being the 150th anniversary of the release of the Origin of Species, it is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday year, and the actual birthday date is today, the 12th February. [...] Click to continue reading this post

Polenta Adventure

It was an evening of reflection, a quick dinner, a nap, and then a moonlight walk until midnight. What was dinner? Some spontaneous improvised polenta squares. It’s been a while since we’ve been to the kitchen on Asymptotia, so come along…

polenta adventuresTake some of the coarse ground cornmeal that’s great for making polenta (or tasty breakfast porridge, for that matter), and sprinkle it into some water, stirring immediately. Only then do you bring the water up to a boil, on a low flame. Putting the meal into hot water will make a lumpy mess. How much water to how much meal?

To be honest, I don’t really measure this. Just… enough. I use a small 5 inch shallow [...] Click to continue reading this post

Once More, With Feeling?

Well, the good news is that there’s a definite schedule in mind for the restart of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). (See related posts below for more.) We can resume licking our chops in anticipation of exciting new physics of various sorts! I learned about this from US LHC Blogs with posts by Steve and Peter. Some key things (apparently from a widely circulated email that heralds an official press release to follow soon) are as follows. First, Steve’s synopsis of the schedule: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Light Thoughts

Last night, for one reason or another, I decided on the spur of the moment to head to the beach, in order to wander there with the darkness clinging to me while I faced the bracing wind and cleared my head of many things. Although not quite like walking, for example, the Northumbrian coastline, even this part of the Pacific can be wonderfully restless, rugged, and alive when there are strong storms in the air, as is the case right now in the area.

santa monica led ferris wheel

On my walk, heading Northwest, I saw the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, with its new (as of last Summer) Ferris Wheel sporting some 160000 LEDs (I read this – did not count them) and putting on a light show. It is interesting to look at for a number of reasons. They’ve programmed in a lot of patterns that it cycles through, some of which are nice, but the most interesting thing to me (and not depicted in my snaps) [...] Click to continue reading this post

Another Approach?

No, it’s not my solution to things (you know, when patient, tiring, endless, circular discussion and explaining that it is work in progress does nothing to stop the whining of those who’ve made up their mind in advance…) but it certainly makes me laugh out loud! Enjoy:

arguing with a string theorist by abstruse goose

(Click to go to larger version.)

Taken from Abstruse Goose, which is hilarious!* This follows on nicely from [...] Click to continue reading this post

So What Is String Theory, Anyway?

The usual answer you’ll get from the person on the street (as it were) includes lots of nice words about wiggling strings that look like particles, and so forth, and that’s fine. However, the [informed] next level answer, when you’ve worked enough in the field, is that we don’t know. I’ve told you why (at least in part) in previous posts and so I’ll let you read them. We’re still working on it.

While we work, we’ve learned that it is a quite marvellous thing (from the bits of it we’ve come to grips with) that is teaching us a lot about all kinds of physics, and mathematics too. Some of this may be good for describing things about Nature, and we’re still working out lots of that (although see some of the exciting things I’ve been talking about in my previous post and the links therein).

So what do we put on the T-shirt? (You know, the analogue of Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism – light, etc – that every physics undergrad likes to have on their T-shirt). Well, we don’t know yet.

polchinski what is string theory

But that’s all my opinion. Every now and again it is good to hear from one of the masters about what they think of string theory*, and what it is and so forth. Happily, Joe Polchinski has been known to agree to stand up and give an exposition on this [...] Click to continue reading this post

Brainstorming

presentation preparation in the sunI had quite a marvellous brainstorming session today. You’ll recall I was preparing a presentation for the February 15th symposium at the AAAS meeting the other day. Well, all of us concerned (the four of us presenting as well as various Brookhaven staff who will take part in the symposium discussion as well) got together over the phone for a teleconference today. It took almost three hours (but happily I was sitting in the sunshine while doing it, as you can see). We wanted to chat about the distribution of ideas and results that will be presented.

There are four of us presenting at the event, with only a short time each to get across some of the key ideas and so we need to make sure that we don’t do too much [...] Click to continue reading this post