Just thought I’d share with you a snapshot (click for larger view) of my thinking process concerning my office move. I’ve been in the same tiny box of an office for 12 years, and quite happy too. For various reasons (mostly to do with one large window with lots of light), over the years I’ve turned down offers to move to nicer digs… but recently I’ve decided to make a change (giving up some of the light) and so after much to-ing and fro-ing, it seems that we’ve settled on where I’m going to go.
Part of the process involved me walking over there (it’s an old lab space from several decades ago, hence the sink, which I want to stay) with a tape measure one day and making some notes in my notebook about the basic dimensions of some of the key things, including some of the existing […] Click to continue reading this post
Snapshot of my doodles done while talking on the phone to a BBC producer about perhaps appearing in a film discussing anti-gravity*. I explained lots of things, including why General Relativity does not seem to like negative mass, partly because they have something called a “naked singularity”, which is a big problem. Only after the call ended did I recall that in 1999 I co-authored a paper in which we discovered […] Click to continue reading this post
I’ve been a bit quiet here the last week or so, you may have noticed. I wish I could say it was because I’ve been scribbling some amazing new physics in my notebooks, or drawing several new pages for the book, or producing some other simply measurable output, but I cannot. Instead, I can only report that it was the beginning of a new semester (and entire new academic year!) this week just gone, and this – and all the associated preparations and so forth – coincided with several other things including working on several drafts of a grant renewal proposal.
The best news of all is that my new group of students for my class (graduate electromagnetism, second part) seems like a really good and fun group, and I am looking forward to working with them. We’ve had two lectures already and they seem engaged, and eager to take part in the way I like my classes to run – interactively and investigatively. I’m looking forward to working with them over the semester.
Other things I’ve been chipping away at in preparation for the next couple of months include launching the USC science film competition (its fourth year – I skipped last year because of family leave), moving my work office (for the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here), giving some lectures at an international school, organizing a symposium in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s General Relativity, and a number of shoots for some TV shows that might be of […] Click to continue reading this post
So Tuesday night, I decided that it was imperative that I paid a visit to one really good restaurant (at least) before leaving Santiago. My duties at ICMP2015 were over, and I was tired, so did not want to go too far, but I’d heard there were good ones in the area, so I asked the main organizer and he made a recommendation.
It was an excellent choice. One odd thing: the hotel is in two separate towers, and I’d noticed this upon arrival and started calling it The Two Towers in my mind for the time was there. Obviously, right? Well, anyway, the restaurant is right around the corner from it plus a two minute walk, and…. Wait for it…it is called Le Due Tonni, which translates into The Two Towers, but apparently it has nothing to do with my observation about the hotel, since it got that name from a sister restaurant in a different part of town, I am told. So… An odd coincidence.
I will spare you the details of what I had for dinner save to say that if you get the fettuccini con salmon you’re on to a sure thing, and to warn that you don’t end up accidentally ordering a whole bottle of wine instead of a glass of it because you’re perhaps used to over-inflated wine prices in LA restaurants (caught it before it was opened and so saved myself having to polish off a whole bottle on my own)… Another amusing note is that one of my problems with getting my rusty Spanish out for use only occasionally is that I get logjams in my head because vocabulary from Spanish, French, and Italian all come to me mid sentence and I freeze sometimes. I’d just been getting past doing that by Tuesday, but then got very confused in the restaurant at one point until I realized my waiter was, oddly, speaking to me in Italian at times. I still am not sure why.
It was a good conference to come to, I think, because I connected […] Click to continue reading this post
…to Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks. It’s great. Angry, but justifiably so, and right on point. Just have a look here.
(Image: poster -click for larger view- is by Jen Golbeck.)
P.S. The #DistractinglySexy hashtag campaign is brilliant. Worth looking at, here. Click to continue reading this post
I’ll be on family leave this semester (because… see here), so that means I’ll be intensely busy with other matters most of the time, and will be doing a lot less in the areas of teaching, events, committees, etc. But there will be some things here and there, including things that I’d promised to do before I knew I’d be taking leave. One of them is a discussion on graphic novels for the Harman Academy of Polymathic Study here at USC. (While sitting up bleary-eyed with a very small person in the wee hours of Monday morning I designed the graphics for the postcard they will use for advertising the event. They kindly asked me if some samples of my work could be used, and so the graphic above is what I came up with (they added the logos and event info), made from parts of pages of the work-in-progress book.)
In various ways, the graphic novel is a nice example of the confluence of lots of disciplines and different modes of communication, and as such is a good “polymathic” topic to discuss with the students of the academy (part of the point of the enterprise is for them to learn about how going beyond the narrow constraints of subject or discipline can be of tremendous value, so they study people and creative endeavours that have benefited from that approach – see their website for more). I’ll be joined on the panel by Professor Henry Jenkins (from the Schools of Communication, Cinematic Arts, and Education), and Professor Dana Johnson (from the Department of English), both of whom are real experts in the graphic novel – they are involved in teaching the form, and […] Click to continue reading this post
One of my favourite Mark Twain sayings: “cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education”. Spotted these in the Hollywood farmer’s market on Sunday:
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There has been quite a bit of discussion of the realisation that the exciting announcement made by the BICEP2 experiment back in March (see my post here) was based on erroneous analysis. (In brief, various people began to realise that most, if not all, of what they observed could be explained in terms of something more mundane than quantum spacetime fluctuations in the ultra-early universe – the subtle effects of galactic dust. A recent announcement by another experiment, the Planck team, have quantified that a lot.)
While there has been a bit of press coverage of the more sober realisations (see a nice June post on NPR’s blog here), it is (as with previous such cases) nowhere near as high profile as the initial media blitz of March, for better or worse. I think that “worse” might be the case here, since it is important to communicate to the public (in a healthy way) that science is an ongoing process of discovery, verification, and checking and re-checking by various independent teams and individuals. It is a collective effort, with many voices and the decentralised ever-sceptical scientific process itself, however long it takes, ultimately building and broadening the knowledge base. This self-checking by the community, this reliance on independent confirmation of […] Click to continue reading this post
Saw this the other day:
Eek! Better get around to writing my remarks before Saturday!
In case you’re wondering, find out more about the Bridging the STEM Divide […] Click to continue reading this post
It is a new semester, and a new academic year. So this means getting back into the routine of lots of various aspects of the standard professor gig. For me this also involves being back in LA and taking the subway, and so this means getting (when it is not too busy as it seems to get a lot now) to sketch people. The guy with the red sunglasses was on his way to USC as well, and while he was reading or playing a game on his phone (such things are a blessing to sketchers… they help people hold in a fixed position for good stretches of time) I was able to get a quick sketch done in a few stops on the Expo line before we all got off. The other guy with the oddly trimmed beard was just briefly seen on the Red line, and so I did not get to make much of him…
I’m teaching electromagnetism at graduate level again this semester, and so it ought to be fun, given that it is such a fun topic. I hope that the group of […] Click to continue reading this post
In case you missed it, Maryam Mirzakhani has been awarded the Fields Medal! This is regarded as the most prestigious prize in mathematics. Here’s a Guardian article covering it at a general level, and here is the page on all the award winners, with more detail on each, at the International Mathematical Union website. The reason this is a big deal (and why it is newsworthy) is because it is the first time the prize has been awarded to a woman. In a world where, despite the number of excellent women mathematicians out there, there is still a perception problem in the general populace about who (or more to the point, what gender) is associated with achievement in mathematics, it is important to note and celebrate such landmarks.
I also note that one of the other 2014 awardees, Artur Avila, is from Brazil! While not covered as much in the press as far as I can see, this is another big […] Click to continue reading this post
In fact, the last several days have felt like this, with regards big decisions about various administrative roles I’ve been asked to consider taking on. It never seems to end, and I am terrible at saying no to as many things as I should. And I have a bad habit of doing things to the best of my ability and hence I get a reputation as the guy to ask to do a task since I did a good job last time, and so it gets me sucked in deeper into the administrative quagmire, and so on and so forth.
Rather like the “entrapment events” that happened in the La Brea Tar Pits so long ago (have a read of what I wrote about those on a field trip to the Page Museum a while back). I was wandering around the LACMA and Tar Pits grounds yesterday evening after a shoot for a show (a fun thing coming that I’ll let you know about shortly) and made a phone call to say, after ten days of […] Click to continue reading this post
It is Commencement on Friday, here at USC. Thousands of students will be dressing up in gowns and taking part of the ceremonies marking the ending of their time here at USC and the beginning of the rest of their lives. It’s an exciting time.
Merrill Balassone and a team from USC Media Relations came by my office a few weeks ago to take 15-20 minutes of time to do a prototype of a project on this very subject of commencement. The result was fun, and apparently they used it to build onto in order to make the final short video you can see below. They did a great job! It is a group of USC professors and staff** giving brief thoughts to graduating students upon their graduation. You’ll maybe guess what I say in my segment. It is a theme I mention here a lot, as part of my personal war on people being shut out of (or shutting themselves out of) participation in aspects of our society.
The summary of the piece is here and the YouTube video is embedded below: […] Click to continue reading this post
Well, it is that time of year. The Jacarandas peaking is one of the many LA markers of the seasons for me. It means that classes will soon be over (in fact they are now) and I’ll be saying goodbye to a group of students, either because a class is over, or because students I’ve taught in earlier classes are graduating and leaving USC. Either way, it is always a time of mixed feelings, and a sense of being in transition in a number of ways. The Spring is already beginning to feel like it is rolling into Summer, and I’m clearing my desk of one set of things and making way for other things.
(Oh, and of course, the other thing that happens this year is that I seem to end up doing a post like this at around this time, right down to within a few days. It usually involves a picture of a Jacaranda tree. See here and look at the list of related posts below.)
I had an extraordinarily good group of students in my Spring class this year. As you may recall it was an undergraduate General Relativity class (see earlier posts on this by searching on that topic). We ended up having a lot of fun with the topic itself, and things were extra good because the students were very […] Click to continue reading this post
It is Martin Luther King day today. I noticed something I’d like to share. A team at the USC School of Cinematic arts in collaboration with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute created an excellent animated mural (for want of a better term) to accompany the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I recommend checking it out, here. From a USC news article about it, I learned that it:
“… allows viewers to scroll through the speech while learning about its history and context. Viewers can move phrase by phrase, see where King broke away from the written text …”
It is decorated by lovely drawings (which, as you might guess, is of course what caught my eye in the first place) and text and images. It uses a suite of software called Scalar, a platform designed at the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at the school. It looks rather wonderful actually.
Go and re-live the speech once again, here.
-cvj Click to continue reading this post
Creating a structure for benefit of the students (for no reason other than it seems like something that can do some good) – a structure in which they can participate entirely voluntarily, and after almost two months of advertising it, and showing up in all sorts of classes to tell people about it, doing interviews about it, and so forth, and not knowing if anyone really will be bothered to get involved… getting lots (still counting) of teams of students registering. With lots of enthusiasm in various emails! Thanks everyone! It’s going to be great to see your projects develop. I hope you enjoy collaborating on making films about science – it will stay with you throughout your careers as a hugely valuable and fun thing to have done. Thanks to those faculty and staff who helped me spread the word by circulating emails, letting me show up to your classes, suggesting ideas, etc!
Dealing with faculty and staff who, despite the jobs they hold, really don’t have much interest in a new structure put in place for the benefit of the students especially if it means even slightly going out of their way to help out… some would rather come up with mountains of reasons and/or rules why they can’t or won’t help, or why I’m making their life hell for asking them if they might. They helped make this all far more stressful and difficult than it really should have been. Ugh… is all I can say. UGH!
Meeting with a student today who is a freshman in physics. New to the city, new to the country, and new to this level of education. Enthusiastic about the subject and […] Click to continue reading this post
This morning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced, and it was given to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for the 1964 theory of what’s now often called the Higgs mechanism, recently directly confirmed experimentally by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (as you might recall) by the finding of the Higgs particle. You might recall that the mechanism, also associated with the term “symmetry breaking”, is responsible for the masses of the elementary particles, as has been discussed here and elsewhere a lot. (And recall, that it has little to do with the mass of everyday objects, as people sometimes say. That’s a different matter… everyday objects’ mass is dominated by their binding energy… coming from the forces that hold them together… not the Higgs mechanism.)
The first thing to say is “Congratulations!” to the winners. It is sad that Robert Brout (Englert’s co-author) passed away before he could get the prize as well. A nice thing you can do is take a look at the actual papers that are central to the citation in Physical Review Letters right here, as the APS have made them specially available. It’s good to take a look at what the actual papers look like, to get a sense for how our field works, so go ahead. I also recommend the lovely book of Frank Close, “The Infinity Puzzle” for a very good presentation of much of the ideas and history of this and related chapters in the field of particle physics.
My own thoughts on all of this are mostly of delight, but there’s something else there as well. Without a doubt, it is great to see particle physics and the pursuit of […] Click to continue reading this post
Well, it is still in progress, as you can see from the picture, but my work on rendering it is completed, more or less. (One never stops tinkering at these things, but I’m going to move on.) This is the more refined version of the rough I showed you a couple of posts ago here. This panel is part of the opening splash page for this particular story of the graphic book project and so what you’re actually seeing is one of three tiny inserts on top of a larger establishing-shot kind of splash/bleed page. So the truth is that it’ll be so small on the page that almost nobody is likely to […] Click to continue reading this post
I recently spent a bit of time (quite a bit of time) carefully reconstructing details of a certain Institute in Europe from memory (I visited some years ago) and some photos in order to set the opening scenes of one of the stories for the book project. (What sort of details? Things like what the layout of the rooms are, the style of the building, the number of radiators along the walls, types of windows and black boards, chairs, and so forth. I’m a tiny bit detail-oriented at times, you may have noticed.) I’ve been laying out the opening splash page and the inset panels have a seminar in progress. This was fun to draw. I started out with this view partially roughly constructed with pencil and then since it was small and fiddly, decided to pop it onto the ipad (legacy model) and finish and refine aspects of the drawing digitally.
I remain in two minds about sketching digitally like this. One the one hand, it does […] Click to continue reading this post
I get a lot of unusual emails each day. Typically, offerings of alternative theories of the universe with requests/demands to review them (sorry – please send them to a journal), discoveries of remarkable forms of energy saving or propulsion systems (People, I have my own crazy sh*t to work on – don’t ask me to work on yours too), offers of marriage and/or marriage-related things (Ladies (and, yes, some Gents), no thanks, I’m just fine.), and so on and so forth. But yesterday’s email is up there among the recent highlights. It was sent out to an anonymous group, so I have no problem sharing it here (I have removed the name of the sender):
[…] Click to continue reading this post
I noticed that over on Backreaction, Bee talks about a letter she wrote to Time Magazine to respond to a spectacularly uninformed remark by Jeffrey Kluger about women in physics. It was made in one of the “Person of the Year” runner-up articles surrounding a description of Fabiola Gianotti, one of the physicists who presented the Higgs particle discovery announcement at CERN last year. The spectacularly uninformed remark? Here it is:
Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t.
But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.
I should say that it is nice to see an article about physics in this context (Time, person of the year, etc) since it gets the general public interested, but it is dismaying to see such a hugely important issue brushed over. I don’t think it helps the younger people trying to get into the field, and it certainly is frustrating and unhelpful for people already in the field who are having to deal with all the preconceptions and […] Click to continue reading this post
Well, yesterday evening turned out to be very interesting. I went to two things, my main mission being to get the chance to stand up in front of the groups of students and tell them about the USC Science Film Competition. The first was at the Academy for Polymathic Study (what better set of students to interest in this than the ones signed up to do things in the spirit of polymathy?), during the late afternoon “Polymathic Pizza” series. (I’ve presented in that very series myself, talking about the idea of “Play” in science and how important it is for creativity and discovery.) Happily, my friend and colleague Tara McPherson from the School of Cinematic Arts was presenting, and so after I told the students about the competition, I sat and listened to her presentation, since I had some time before the next thing. It was marvellous, and the students were very engaged. Tara took them through the arc of her academic interests over the years of her career, showing how she morphed from (mostly) traditional humanist to someone who researches and explores the role of all kinds of media in popular culture, helping to explore and create new forms of journal, new ways of presenting data, and studying the impact of media. I recommend looking at the journal Vectors for an example of a journal that is designed to present works that would not work as well in traditional print (e.g., being able to have a scholarly discussion of a piece of video media is helped a lot by being able to show it alongside your argument – not so easy in a print journal), and then head over to Scalar, created by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (which Tara directs) which is collaborating with a number of University presses on various approaches to new platforms for new media in academia. She also mentioned various examples in the scientific side of things with regards using distributed media for things like crowdsourcing important data.
I had to leave before she finished, so did not get to ask her the question on many of your minds: what is the origin of the (playful?) choice of names Vectors and Scalar?
Then I went over the School of Cinematic Arts to meet another friend and Colleague, […] Click to continue reading this post
There’s a nice piece* over in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Don’t Confuse Technology With College Teaching”, by Pamela Hieronymi. I like it because it expresses nicely some of the thoughts I try to inject into the discussion when people begin to go all gaga over technological supplements in teaching, going too far and thinking that somehow it can be used to replace classroom teaching.
Hieronymi talks about the online lectures that are being rolled out with great fanfare in recent times by some of the famous institutions. (Online lectures have been out there for a while, but have been making the news more now that the big names have been doing it…of course.) The issue of the use of technology in the classroom itself (clickers and so forth) is not discussed in her piece, and rightly so… I think there are more nuanced discussions to be had there, and it should not be confused with the matter of online lectures.
Overall, I think that the online lectures are really excellent services that different people can use in a variety of ways, and it is great to have them out there. But […] Click to continue reading this post
Have you heard about Losing Control? It is a film that’s being released this year with a lot of promise to be unusual, interesting, and sure to tackle an area that you don’t see covered much in the mainstream: the choices facing a young female scientist when it comes to her career and her personal life. I was introduced to Valerie Weiss, the writer/director/producer of the film not long ago in the context of a project I was doing concerning science and film. Valerie is an award-winning filmmaker who has a background as a research scientist, and so is in a great position to tackle such subject matter. I’m looking forward to the film a lot. I want to see more of this sort of thing, as you know from my writing here about science and scientists in the media. This is (I think) Valerie’s first feature film, so let’s hope it does well so that she can be encouraged to do more work on this sort of subject matter.
It’s going to start with limited releases in cities in the US such as New York, Sacramento, Tacoma, Boston, Los Angeles, and Tempe, and go on from there, so try […] Click to continue reading this post
I’m sad to say that Ken J. Barnes died recently. My sympathies and wishes of comfort go to Jacky and the family.
There are many theoretical high energy physicists who will tell you of their wonderful time as students in the theory group in Southampton, England. I’m one of them. I think a huge component of that is due to Ken. He founded the group, nurtured it, and led it for many years. As a nearly completing undergraduate who was somewhat certain about what I wanted, after a lot of fastidious researching of various options, I picked the Southampton group very carefully back then. I had it set in my mind that I wanted to do research in string theory, and was looking for a group that felt dynamic and energetic, and while I got offers from some good places (including the excellent group at Durham which I was later to join as a faculty member 11 years later), there was a spark that I felt when I visited Southampton’s group, the group Ken founded way back in the early ’70’s.
The group was more than just Ken, of course, but the fact that such great faculwho and staff were there, and doing great work, was part of his building process. Tim Morris, who was to be my advisor, and who was doing interesting things in string theory, was one such person who impressed me greatly. I was so glad I went there, from the moment I first arrived, and I loved those days so dearly.
It all began (as many will tell you) with Ken’s “pep talk” where he would tell the prospective students who were visiting the group about the possibly crazy decision they were making (to go into a highly technical field with few employment prospects in academia)… essentially reminding us that we’d better be doing it for the love of the subject. I think that we all were in awe of him, and perhaps a little afraid early on, but later […] Click to continue reading this post
(1) If I did not already have a long set of deal-making reasons why the iPad is a marvellous tool for work and more – see some of the things I said in a post or few last Summer (here, here, here) – there’s a new reason. The New Yorker on the iPad is wonderful. It is so beautifully laid out and feels like the magazine, and then, rather than just reproducing the magazine, it goes beyond it. It has been around for some time now, but previously you had to pay for the iPad app for it even if you were a print subscriber, which seemed utterly ridiculous to me. They changed this at some point, and now, you just enter your subscription details and you can get the latest issue, and every issue going back several decades. More things to read on the bus, without any extra weight to carry around. Hurrah! (Will this cure my New Yorker Problem? My inability to throw old print issues away? Make me get rid of all the issues I’ve received since I was a postdoc in the early 90s? Er… I doubt it…)
(2) There’s an excellent article, in the June 6th New Yorker, by Louis Menand entitled […] Click to continue reading this post
Going to the movies this weekend? Lots of interesting choices, but perhaps you especially want to see some portrayals of people in academic careers by some of the hot young phenoms. Well, here are two you might not have considered, both films released May 6th.
1. Observe Nathalie Portman as an astrophysicist in Thor. I don’t find this to be too much of a stretch since the actress always seemed to me to radiate an intensity and intelligence that would help make such a role believable, even in films where everything else is rather a disaster as far as believability is concerned. (cough, cough, Star Wars prequels, cough, cough) Well, it turns out that Thor is not the disaster I thought it would be and is rather well put together, all things considered (this is one of several Marvel characters that I was underwhelmed by in the old days). So go for Portman, stay for the hammer, lightning bolts, and other stuff. Turns out the physicist aspect of her performance was not as well studied as her ballet in that other film, but oh well. It was not like it was the central issue of the film. But enjoy all the Einstein-Rosen bridge mentions!
2. Observe Jessica Alba as a mathematics teacher who loves numbers in An Invisible Sign. Now, er, this for me was casting that did not bode well, but to be fair,[…] Click to continue reading this post
Some of this weekend was spent in the mountains a few hours East of the city, where we had a departmental retreat for a short while. It was fun – lots of fun. There’s a lot to be said for going off to some other place with your work colleagues, being together with them for meals, business, and recreation, and getting to know people you had not met before, or getting to know better people you’d already known.
There were several short talks from people sharing a bit about what they or their research group have been up to, with coffee breaks and meal breaks. The latter were signaled by a nice gong, and we were served tasty vegetarian food that everyone seemed to enjoy (even those who eyed longingly the In ‘N Out Burger in the town at the bottom of the mountain before making the trip up – you know who you are!) with wide ranging conversation among ourselves and occasionally with the Buddhist monks and volunteers who run the centre. (Hence the sitting cross-legged on mats in the above picture…)
The evening had a few more talks and then was free for socializing. A large game of trivial pursuits broke out and hilarity ensued in one corner, along with chatting, guitar strumming and drawing (me) in other corners.
After what was a cold and windy night outside (I was glad of the extra layers I brought), Sunday had an early start for breakfast, 7:30am, and then a large group headed off for a hike. I decided that I needed to get some work done on The Project and stayed by the toasty fire in the dining room and did some drawing and inking, listening to […] Click to continue reading this post
It was quite a busy week for me, and so all those moments I meant to stop and post thoughts and observations seemed to evaporate as I went from one thing to the next, with rather full days. I hit the ground running on Monday with several extra things on the calendar including being an external member of the committee for a thesis defense in the Chemistry department. Always useful and instructive to look in on what one’s colleagues are up to, and it was a rather nicely written thesis well defended.
The evening saw me at Bovard Auditorium to attend a pleasant visit by author Michael Ondaatje. My colleague from English and Comparative Literature, Hilary Schor, always super-enthusiastic about great authors, gave an introduction and then he came onto the stage and read a few extracts from his work before having a rather nice conversation with Hilary. Then the audience joined in with questions and comments of their own. While it was not full, it was a decent audience for this event, given its type, and I was happy to get the perfect seats I got. I had not done an RSVP, and came as a walk-in only to discover that some of the people on the door knew me and arranged for me to sit in the reserved seating for special guests. Only then did I remember that I’m on the committee that partly was responsible for this event […] Click to continue reading this post
I just saw on the USC news site that DJ Strouse, one of our excellent current physics majors, has been selected as one of 14 students in the USA to get a Churchill Scholarship this year! He is the first USC student to get one, actually. DJ is one of those students who reminds you why teaching is such a delight. He engages with the material in class and beyond, exploring it extensively on his own, and […] Click to continue reading this post