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

Movie Notes

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


photo1_output_smallSome 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…)

photo3_output_smallThe 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

Quite a Lot On

michael_ondaatje_1It 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

Congratulations DJ!

DJ StrouseI 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

Week Ending

No, I’ve not forgotten you. It has been a rather busy and very stressful few days, and I’ve only just arrived at a place I can take a break, sit down, and type a bit to the blog. I do not know how long this break will be before the next thing comes up. I’m going to reflect a bit, with no particular aim in mind, so beware.

After a not too hectic Sunday, which saw me shopping and preparing the house for visitors, ending in a Holiday dinner gathering at the President’s house where I finally met Murray Gell-Mann (more later, I hope), things descended into a crush of colliding events. Monday saw a long job search committee meeting and then the big final exam for my Physics 151 class. Due to delays and various earlier logistical constraints on my part during the booking of the flight, the exam of course coincided with the landing at the airport of my mother, who is going to be visiting from England for a few weeks. So that was quite a hectic time, in the end (saved by some substitution help), as was the grading of the exam the next day, which involves (with my colleague who also teaches on this course) organizing several TAs, getting them to solve the problems first so that they can properly understand how to grade them, writing solutions, and so on and so forth…

Beyond that, Tuesday is all a blur, except for one sharp point that obscured everything else. While driving along from one place to another (yes, I do drive from time to time), there was a small dull thumping sound and suddenly my dashboard went a bit weird, showing symbols I don’t see during normal operations, followed by a loss of power steering…. I focused on getting home, as I’d left my mum home on her own all day (not very hostly of me), wrestling the car around the corners I needed to take – amazing how much we rely on power steering. Then the engine started to overheat, the temperature gauge measuring in the red… Was that a real reading, or […] Click to continue reading this post

The Project – 1

It is midnight and I really should get to sleep in order to wake up and work some more on editing the final exam for my class so that it can go to the printer by noon. But I’ve got several pokes from people clamouring to find out what The Project actually is, and I promised yesterday I’d start to spill the beans. Thanks for the interest! I think I’d better get at least some of it out there or I’ll have an angry mob by morning! So here goes. I will drag out the draft I sketched yesterday and beat it into shape:

So, as you may have guessed, The Project, which I’ve been mentioning here since a post way back in February, is a writing project, but it is somewhat different from what you might expect. The bottom line is that I hope that at some point into future you will be able to purchase a copy of your own, and that you will find it instructive, exciting, and enjoyable. At least.

Yes, it is a book about science. However… Well, here’s the thing. Over many years, people (friends, colleagues, potential agents and publishers, blog readers, etc) have been asking me when I am going to write my book. You know, the popular-level book that every academic who is interested in the public understanding of their field (as you know I am from reading this blog) is expected will write at some point. To be honest, I have given it some thought over the years, and it has been something I figured I might do at some point. In fact, several different ideas have occurred to me over the years, and I may well implement some of them at some point.

But a major thought began to enter my mind well over ten years ago. In my field, there is a rather narrow range of models for the shape of such books, usually involving about 80% of it being a series of chapters covering all the standard introductory material (some relativity, some quantum mechanics, and so forth) for the lay reader, before culminating in a chapter or two of what the researcher really wants to tell them about: some aspect of their research. This is a fine model, and it is great that people continue to write such books, and I will no doubt use that model one day, but to be honest, I don’t think there is any urgency for me to add to the canon yet another one of those books. Moreover, if you line examples of that type of book up against each other, you see that the […] Click to continue reading this post

What are We Doing?

This is a really excellent talk* about how we educate, why we do so, and what has changed about what’s needed in education and society and why we may not have changed our methods enough to keep up with those needs. It is by Sir Ken Robinson, and was given at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) earlier this year. I love the way it is produced – using an animation/whiteboard-writing overlay for the visual concepts – partly because I had an idea of doing a series of short films with a filmmaker friend some years back that would do a similar thing (I had chalkboards)… but in a much less beautifully accomplished way than this! More examples are here. But, enjoy the talk… it is a superbly framed discussion, including many of the frustrations I’ve found myself expressing (sometimes here) about the system of which I am part! Thoughts welcome.
[…] Click to continue reading this post



A lovely morning in Griffith park, overlooking the city, with a splendid view of downtown Los Angeles. In this photo (click for larger view), everything is lovely and clear after the recent rain. I’ll admit that I took this last Sunday and not this one. Somehow, procrastination, two loads of laundry, a batch of sweet potato biscuits, and staying up until 3:00am all contributed to me not getting up there this morning. Perhaps later.

For me, overviewing physically (as in the above) is always welcome, but it is also good to do so in other ways. I’ve been in that mode recently too. Friday and Saturday saw me brainstorming in a group of 20 or so other USC professors at a retreat over at a […] Click to continue reading this post

Crazy Al

So I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day about science and scientists, and in particular what on earth we theoretical physicists actually do.

She (mostly jokingly I think) said we’re really all a bit weird, just sitting around thinking about quantum physics all day. einstein_imagesI tried to begin to explain that we don’t sit around thinking about quantum mechanics all day any more than a tailor sits around all day thinking about needles. (Or how many angels or demons can fly through the eyes of said needles at the same time.) No, we’re mostly getting on with using the needles in the making of new suits and so forth. (To continue the allegory.)

But I did not get to that analogy, because another thing came up. She went on to say “…like Einstein, with crazy hair…”, to invoke her primary example of the crazy quantum scientist. Now, given that she was talking to me (er… no crazy hair, in case you are wondering), she was clearly joking, but in my view, at the core of all that is a serious image problem that science has to deal with – bizarre cliches about who we are and what we look like. So I thought I’d point something out.

The most famous image of the crazy/eccentric scientist is largely based on a lie (or […] Click to continue reading this post

On Art, Fairy Tales, and Creativity


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Do you know who said that? I’ll break the post here to give you a moment to think about it. I’m not going to ask for the answer in the comments since you have Google on your side, but you can, if you like, share in the comments whether you knew or guessed it right before you moved to the rest of the post below to learn the answer. (Image above is an illustration by Walter Crane for ‘Snow White’ (1882).) Continuing… […] Click to continue reading this post

On Science and Politics

No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent debate that has been raging about whether or not the scientific case for climate change has been exaggerated by various scientists, in the light of the content of a long series of emails. It’s all over the news, and so I am sure I don’t need to point to all the news stories, commentaries, and – sad to say – convenient distractions that have been constructed on the basis of them by the climate change deniers, especially those with vested interest in the status quo. (Follow the climategate tag at The Intersection for some of the links, and a sampling of the discussions, and do look at the Nature editorial for example.) This matter, and the debates it has reignited, is of course a major issue in view of the upcoming work to be done by the leaders of the world’s major economies in Copenhagen later this month.

A key point here is to realize that when science intersects with politics – especially the kind of rabid, personal, dirty politics that surrounds the climate change issue – the grey areas that are already present in honest science can get further muddied by the fact that scientists are human beings who don’t always act perfectly in all situations, and whose actions (well emails suggesting certain actions) can also be subject to question (especially when we don’t have all the facts concerning context, etc, on several of the emails which seem very ambiguous to me).

There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that there is a global community of scientists at work here, with so many different approaches, motivations, contexts, data sets, and so forth that have been brought to bear on the matter of climate science. To think that a series of emails from some small subset of them (that may or may not suggest that data have been presented unevenly, for whatever reasons) can undermine a huge body of work and conclusions from an entire worldwide scientific community is to seriously misunderstand what science is about, and how it works. jenga_gameIt is not a tall, tottering late-stage game of jenga, where there’s a danger that at any moment one of the little wooden sticks will wobble and bring the whole game crashing to the ground. Instead, it is a highly interwoven collection of findings, ideas, analysis, and conclusions that are supported by a wide variety of pieces of evidence, all arriving at the same striking picture – Our world is changing fast and our actions are highly relevant to these changes both past, present and future. Instead of a jenga construction, think more of a woven tapestry. Pulling out a few threads changes it a little bit, but it does not make the whole thing unravel and destroy the picture. Or, if you like, think of a pyramid structure, like the lovely Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (image borrowed from here). […] Click to continue reading this post


It was Darwin’s birthday earlier this week, with lots of celebrations of the man and his work going on in many places (in addition to the year-long celebrations for Darwin year). On the other hand, there was at least one events last week that were rather sad and definitely not cause for celebration. You may have heard that evangelist Ray Comfort decided to launch an anti-science campaign on 100 university campuses by distributing copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species with a 54 page introduction written by Comfort which is basically a poorly written misleading piece of nonsense.

The day after this happened (I’d forgotten all about it as I am on a mission in Europe right now) I got an email from a USC student, Arvind Iyer, who was not only concerned about the content of what was being given out, but the very idea that such access could be given to the Comfort group. He wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan, about this, but they chose not to take up the issue at all. I’ll reprint it (with Arvind’s permission) and the end of this, and you are free to discuss with him in the comments what you think of his thoughts.

The issue of access (and freedom of speech, etc) aside for a moment, there is the issue of what kind of response is worthwhile. Most people just ignore the issue, saying that it does not matter, or that we should “live and let live”, etc., and in an ideal world where our society has a better grasp of basic science education, and where science and religion are not so tangled up in so many political discussions, I’d have agreed, but we do not live in that world. As a result, there needs to be some […] Click to continue reading this post

Peer Review Reactions

hitler_peer_reviewAh yes. I’ll admit it: Except for the moustache and a few other details, the scene is eerily familiar… 😉 (The embed for the video is below.)

Does anyone know who originally started this brilliant series? For those who don’t know it is a 4 minute clip from the 2004 film Der Undergang that several people have periodically re-subtitled with words that have Hitler reacting to an event of some sort. (Warning: Many of them are full of language some might find a bit strong, so watch out!!)

Here it is*: […] Click to continue reading this post

There Goes the Weekend

viscosity_scatterI’ve no idea why I do this to myself. I was just about managing things schedule-wise and aiming to make sure I have some fun on the weekend when the following thing happened. I went to Monday’s departmental colloquium and before it, ran into Moh, our organizer this year. I’d been trying to see if there was still room to schedule a speaker I’d thought of inviting, and he mentioned that the dates we’d earlier discussed had all been filled. Then he mentioned that he was desperately trying to find a speaker for next Monday, and was thinking that he’d have to simply cancel it that week.

This was at 4:05pm. Now watch how rapidly I move to ruin a perfectly good schedule […] Click to continue reading this post