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

Advice at Graduation

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. advice_film_stillThey 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

That Time of Year

jacaranda_april_2014Well, 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

Freedom’s Ring

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

Highs and Lows

High:

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!

Low:

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!

High:

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

Englert-Higgs

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

Completed Seminar

institute_seminar__finished_smallWell, 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

Seminar in Progress

institute_seminar_smallI 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

Maybe one of the best emails yet?

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

Hurdles

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

While Appearing

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

Technology, Teaching, and the Difference

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

Losing Control

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

Goodbye Ken

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

Learning Goals

Two things:

(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