Sabbatical Dreams Fulfilled!

NYT_Simons_fellowship_announcement_2016Well, today’s hunt for a print copy of the New York Times (click for larger view) was easier than the Wall Street Journal hunt a couple of months back. Been a while since I was in the Science Times, and I’ve not been in it in this capacity before. The Simons Fellowship announcement was today, and I was awarded one. I’m honoured to be in such fine company! Nice to see my friends Lawrence Hall, Jeff Harvey, Petr Horava, Andy Strominger among my fellow Fellows, and congratulations to everyone!

This is a major part of my sabbatical planning for next academic year (half book-completing, half research), and it sure is great to get it. There aren’t many fellowships of this sort for my area of work. Thanks Simons Foundation and all concerned.


*And when I say fulfilled… Well, there’s still the matter of actually doing the thing and getting all my planning to work out… Click to continue reading this post

Gown Uses…

Well, finally since arriving here in 2003 I’ve found a good use for the academic gown that sits on a hook on the back of my door! It is a master’s gown from Durham University. I had it while I was on the faculty there as I’d joined the excellent University College (housed in the awesome Durham Castle) so that I could have dinner at high table there from time to time (largely because of the aforementioned Castle). Since leaving there and coming here, it has sat largely undisturbed. But today, while crossing campus in a wonderful downpour, my trouser legs got rather soaked (umbrellas and trenchcoats have their limitations), and so I’m now sitting in my office trouser-less while they dry. Needless to say, my door is closed, and just in case […] Click to continue reading this post


office_musings_2 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


negative_mass_thoughtsSnapshot 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

Fresh Cycle

brompton_30_08_2015I’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

Almost Done

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.

imageIt 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

A Special Graphic Novel Panel!

graphic_novel_event_postcardI’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

Dusting off Last Spring’s Excitement

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

And Back…

subway_sketches_27_08_2014It 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

Outstanding in Their Fields…

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

How I Sometimes Feel

tar_pits_entrapment_eventIn 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