One of the things I want the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH) to do more of is field trips – Exploring the city together! We’re an LA resource (as I’ve said in earlier posts) and so we should visit with and strengthen our relationships with some of those other LA resources, whether they be physical places, or groups of people (like us), etc.
Friday saw us take a wonderful field trip to the William A. Clark Memorial Library. It is another of those classic LA things – an amazing gem hidden away that you pass every day and don’t see. It is not far from USC, and in fact a number of USC faculty I know have used it regularly for research, since it has several important collections of papers and rare books of various sorts (Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, etc).
A lot of these were put out for us to see by Head Librarian (and LAIH Fellow) Victoria Steele and her staff, and they gave us a guided tour. During the tour […] Click to continue reading this post →
That podcast from the Bedrosian Center series that I contributed to is now live! I mentioned it here, remember, and talked a bit about the book we discussed, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. In the discussion I chatted with the Center’s Director Raphael Bostic, who also hosts, Deborah Natoli, and David Sloane, all in the USC Price School of Public Policy. It was a fun discussion, and I hope you find it interesting and useful. As I said in the previous post:
It is by no means a perfect book, as we discuss in the podcast, but it is in my view a book that is worth reading since it lays out rather nicely the history of the conversation that has been going on about this issue in America dating back to Jefferson and before. This is, to my mind, a conversation we will always need to have, an issue that is self-renewing and that has to be revisited, and we should all be part of it whether we are educators, parents, students, potential students, or employers. (Frankly, I think every new faculty member at a university that claims to be giving a liberal education should be given a copy of this book (or a book like it) in their arrival package. Existing faculty as well, if possible! Why? To get everyone involved in education thinking about the point of what it is they are doing, if nothing else.)
The podcast can be found on Soundcloud, iTunesU, and iTunes podcasts, but I’ll point to it on the Center’s page here since there are other […]
For a while back there earlier this week I was in a storm of reading duties of the sort that I hope not to see again in a while. A lot of it had to be put off at the end of the week before because I wanted to prepare my talk for Sunday, which took a little more time than I’d planned since I wanted to do some drawings for it. All of it had a deadline. Monday was to see me participating in a podcast at the USC Bedrosian Center to discuss the book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. I had the book for about six weeks, and started reading it when I first got it… but found that I was getting through it too fast too early and wanted to have it fresher in my mind for the podcast, so I held off until closer to the date. Unfortunately, this then clashed with two promotion dossiers that got scheduled for a Tuesday meeting, both from book-heavy fields, and so that added three books on language, representation, business and history (tangled up in a fascinating way) that I can’t tell you about since the proceedings of the relevant committee are confidential. Then I remembered that a Ph.D. thesis exam had been moved from the previous week to that same Tuesday (and I had put off the reading) and so I had a thesis to read as well. (Not to mention all the dossier letters, statements, committee reports, and so forth that come from reading two promotion dossiers…)
A lot of the reading is also fun, but it’s certainly hard work and one is reading while taking careful notes for later reference, in a lot of the instances. I always end up surprising myself with how much fun I have learning about topics far beyond my field when I read promotions dossiers for other areas. I’m certainly not an expert (and that is not why I’m called into service in such cases) so I’m reading with an eye on seeing what the quality of scholarship is, and what the voice of the person writing is like. These are things that (if you are not of the tedious point of view that your own field of inquiry is somehow king of the disciplines (a view we physicists all too often seem to have)) can be glimpsed and sometimes firmly perceived by wading deep into the pool of their work and keeping an open mind.
So while at a hotel somewhere down South for a few days (pen and watercolour pencil sketch on the right), I finally found time to sit and read Graham Farmelo’s book “The Strangest Man”, a biography of Dirac. (It has a longer subtitle as well, but the book is way over in the next room far from my cosy spot…) You may know from reading here (or maybe even have guessed) that if I were to list a few of my favourite 20th century physicists, in terms of the work they did and their approach and temperament, Dirac would be a strong contender for being at the top of the list. I am not a fan of the loudmouth and limelight-seeking school of doing physics that seems all so popular, and I much prefer the approach of quietly chipping away at interesting (not always fashionable) problems to see what might turn up, guided by a mixture of physical intuition, aesthetics, and a bit of pattern-spotting. It works, as Dirac showed time and again.
I’ve read a lot about Dirac over the years, and was, especially in view of the title of the book, a little wary of reading the book when I got it four years ago, as I am not a fan of going for the “weren’t they weird?” approach to biographies of scientists since they serve too […] Click to continue reading this post →
As you know from my writings and sketches, I like to carry a notebook. People often ask me what types I use, or assume that I use the (increasingly fashionable) Moleskine books. I like Moleskine books (the little 3inx5in ones for example), and have used them a lot in the past, but actually I prefer the books by HandBook Journal Co., (made by Global Art Materials). The surface of the paper is more flexible, in my opinion. It has a little more tooth than standard Moleskine, which makes mark-making with pencil much surer, and it also takes wetting better, so you can work with a little wetness as well, such as lots of ink, or watercolour (paint- or pencil-based). That allows for crisp drawings like the one on the right (click for larger view – more about these sketches here), right alongside physics research musings and computations in pen and ink line on the pages shown below on the left (those notes pertain to the paper I discussed here.)
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
…Yeah. Somehow sending proposals and samples of manuscripts around by email does not really feel super-exciting to me. But it is the way things are done now, it seems. But this afternoon, I found myself doing something very old-school, which I rather enjoyed, perhaps because it connected me with writers through the ages: Printing up some special packages (proposal, samples, etc, of the book project), putting them into envelopes and schlepping them down to the post office, getting in line, and […] Click to continue reading this post →
It is nice to see the variety of authors at a book fair event like this one, and it’s great to see people’s enthusiasm about meeting people who’ve written works they’ve spent a lot of time with. The long lines for signings are remarkable! As you might guess, I’m very much a supporter of the unsung authors doing good work in their own small way, not anywhere near the spotlight. An interesting booth caught my notice as I was wandering… The word “science” caught my eye. Seems that a mother and daughter team wrote a science book to engage children to become involved in science… Hurrah! So Jalen Langie (the daughter, amusingly wearing a lab coat) gets to be […] Click to continue reading this post →
By the way, for those of you in the area, don’t forget that the LA Times Festival of Books comes to the USC campus again this month. It is next week – the 12th and 13th April. The book prizes ceremony is the night before, as usual. on the 11th, and as usual there is an interesting selection of finalists in various categories that you can see online here, for example.
(Happily, there is no clash with a CicLAvia this year! – You might remember the craziness last year – The next Ciclavia is this coming Sunday, the 6th, and it is along Wilshire again. Sadly, I will not be able to attend since I must be away on a trip and do not return until the afternoon on Sunday, leaving little time to get on my bike and get down there. Do head there and enjoy it… the Wilshire route is particularly nice.)
So, I don’t know why, but in addition to the catalogues I get in my work mailbox from publishers of physics books or lab equipment, I’ve started getting a lot about books in the Humanities and related subjects. Is this because those publishers know of my tendency to dabble in other subject? I’ve no idea. In any case, all of those things tend to end up pretty swiftly in the recycling bin nearest the department mailboxes. A suite of lovely new books on teaching Art History is about as valuable to me as a shiny sets of vacuum pumps or electronic controllers. I’ll admit to sometimes looking through and longing for the time I’d need in order to explore such things (vacuum pumps or Art History texts)… but then into the bin they go.
Well, earlier this week a catalogue arrived and one might be forgiven for thinking that they are really trying to get my attention with this one. It is a catalogue of Gender and Sexuality texts from Ashgate, and if the image on the cover is representative (uh, as far as I know it is not!) they’ve really developed some fancy techniques in the field!
Some of you are wondering what I’m working on while on retreat. Well, actually there’s a nice coincidence here. I’m working on the graphic book that you may have heard me talk about a bit. “The Project” as I sometimes call it. I’ve been doing things on various aspects of it, such as reworking the description of it for various people to look at, writing new bits, and spending a bit of time pulling together various bits of the prototype story I used to start all of this back in 2010. The prototype bits have all of my experimentation and development of style and technique all over them, and so there are pages that needed a bit of rework (to say the least). So, on Monday, […] 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 →
There’s a busy weekend coming up. Somehow, two of the largest events on the LA calendar have been put on the same weekend – rather unfortunately in my opinion. The LA Times Festival of Books (held on the USC campus) is on Saturday and Sunday, and I’m excited about that (as you know I am every year). I recommend exploring the site for the things you might visit (including the book prizes shortlists – awards will be given out tonight, including special ones to Margaret Atwood and to Kevin Starr!), and then go along and have some fun – all in the name of books, reading, and the worlds that are opened up through books and reading. It should be a great day or two out, and the extra great news is that you can take the subway there. The Expo line goes right up to ten feet from the Festival. You step off at the USC/Expo stop, cross from the platform to the sidewalk, and there you are! Books! Food! Music! Etc…
CicLAvia, another event that brings thousands of people together in the city, is on Sunday. It is extra exciting this year since for the first time it has a route that fully fits with where I think the event should be in the life of the city – it runs from […] Click to continue reading this post →
Well, yes, I’ve been a bit busy and so posting has been slow over the last week. But I am still alive, and here I am with a sample of one of the several things I was doing. It is some work on the graphic book project. (You’ll be happy that I am sparing you details of tedious committees, faculty meetings, confusing snippets of physics, incomplete musings and computations, etc…)
As mentioned recently, I’ve been doing thumbnails and rough page layouts on one of the stories, and that has been useful for editing and rewriting. I went further and improved an earlier story that I’d written that had mostly been drawn already, and so that encouraged me to do slightly tighter page layouts so as to fit them more closely to the story as it was already drawn, for a smoother final read. I’ll need to find […] Click to continue reading this post →
So one of the reasons I love this blog is the community of people who read, sometimes occasionally making comments or suggestions. On my original post saying I was visiting in Amsterdam a while, there was a suggestion from commenter Kramer to try a restaurant somewhat off the beaten path, but worth a visit. I cautiously did my research, decided that it looked good, and on the last night of the trip, went along with a friend to try it out.
My goodness what an excellent place! It was just wonderful, and one of the things that was great for me was that the restaurant – Marius – is a spiritual cousin of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley that I’m a fan of. (See also an article in the NY Times about it here. Since that article was written, the restaurant has moved to slightly larger premises down the road, and now takes cards.) The chef-owner of Marius, Kees Elfring, worked at Chez Panisse for some time a while back. The same philosophy of locally sourced fine ingredients fuels the place, and (as Kees Elfring told us – he came and sat at the table for a while to chat) Marius is one of the […] Click to continue reading this post →
Just as I left for my shootingtrip last week, I had a moment of indecision. I wanted to take something to read during airport and airplane downtime, but wanted to travel light. The books I wanted to take felt a bit big in my bag, somehow, largely because I could not decide what I was in the mood for and so was in danger of bringing more than one. Then I remembered that I was behind on New Yorkers, and was taking my iPad anyway. So I made sure the New Yorker was updated on it, and what did I see waiting for me to delve into on the plane? The special issue on Science Fiction!
It is an excellent issue, with contributions from lots of authors, including several short reflective pieces from legendary authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson and newer authors like China Miéville and Karen Russell talking about things like how they found their way into fiction and science fiction, and its role as a gateway to the larger literary world. Of course, there are also the usual reflections about the snobbery and separation into high and low culture that existed in the early days (and that still persists today) for literature as well as film and TV when it comes to science fiction (see a related discussion here), many of which are humorously done, and will be familiar to many readers from their childhood…. I strongly recommend getting that issue if you do not already subscribe. It may well still be on magazine stands…
You know, I’d love to pretend that I’ve just come in from hanging out at the Edison, or the Blue whale, or some other fun place, feeling a bit concerned about my morning class on how to write equations for the shape of the universe (we do some cosmology in the General Relativity class tomorrow)… but instead I’m up at almost 1:00am because of a persistent dry cough, indigestion, and a noisy mockingbird in a tree just outside. Are these connected? I do not know. All I know is I cannot sleep.
So I blog.
It has been, once again, a crazy week. There are times when I wonder if this has become the norm, which usually leads me to valiantly fight a bit to ensure that is not the case, resulting a a withdrawal from a lot of stuff to regroup. I hope to do that soon. Although I’ve said yes to so many things, it is looking like July or August before that can happen. That’s bad.
Right now I can only remember back as far as Wednesday, where the day began with a last check of the midterm I wrote for the GR class (second midterm for them) before setting it at 10:00am. (Perhaps the most interesting thing on it was perhaps the computation of the surface gravity of a static black hole, working in Eddington-Finkelstein coordinates…) At 10:25 I snuck out of the classroom to meet with a screenwriting student who is working on a screenplay featuring a physicist character. She was seeking some advice and wanted to exchange some thoughts about the work she’s doing… I got to gripe a bit about my pet peeves about scientist characters (not just the scarcity of well drawn ones – although things have gotten better in recent years) in TV and film. Somehow the rest of Wednesday (after the seminar ended at 1:40) is a bit of a blur, but I think it did involve me leaving campus to head home to hide and do a bit of finish work on a page I mentioned in the last post. Maybe. (Oh, there was also the official opening party for Umamicatessen (new restaurant downtown) in the evening, that kept me out to almost midnight. I’ve been meaning to blog about the place since the official “soft” opening party about two months ago, but had not got to it yet.)
Don’t forget the big event of the Spring! The LA Times Book Festival is the weekend of the 21st and 22nd April, and we’ll be hosting it on the USC campus. The website is here for more information, and start booking your tickets (free) for the various panels you plan to visit.
I’m also looking forward to the Book Awards on the night of the 20th. It’s always fun and interesting, with a great reception at the end. I’ve no idea if I’ll get tickets to all that this year (but I hope so, since three friends of mine are presenting [update: see here to purchase some]), but in any case it’ll be interesting to hear the results of the awards in the various categories again this year. The list of nominees is here. […] Click to continue reading this post →
Well, it’s a time-consuming process (continuing the new work on The Project mentioned in a recent post), especially when you put in more detail than really needed on what is supposed to be a rough layout. Sigh… Anyway, I’m several pages along in layouts for a story I wrote a while back, and I’m flipping ahead from time to time and wondering how long this beast is going to end up being! In any case, it’s a fun topic (or topics) being explored in this one. I’m wondering if I should try to find a way of splitting it into two stories or perhaps […] Click to continue reading this post →
So here’s an interesting sequence of events. On Tuesday in the QFT class I finished the lecture on Renormalization Group Flow, and the idea of a “beta function”, unpacking the results we’d accumulated from QED and quartic scalar field theory to use as illustration. The key result, for those of you about to scroll away (or the few of you who have not, but are hovering over the scroll bar), is as follows. Never mind what a beta function is right now. The issue at hand concerns whether it is positive or negative for a force of interaction being studied. A positive beta function tells you that the strength of the interaction between constituent things (particles, etc) gets weaker as you work at lower energies… This is an important result in understanding how Nature behaves in a variety of situations… one way of seeing variety is to look at different energy scales, and sometimes what seems familiar takes on different character. The converse is true… that positive beta function tells you that the interaction gets stronger at higher energies… Energy is also rather like the inverse of distance scale too, so high energy is akin to shorter distance scales (higher resolution), and low energy like longer distance scales (grainier resolution). In other words, looking at stuff in really tiny detail means using higher energy… and the nature of that stuff can change when you look at that sort of resolution since the way things interact changes… For electromagnetism, for example, we see that it gets stronger the closer we look, digging more deeply into the structure of the atom, say, probing the charged constituents of the nucleus once we’ve understood electrons. The result is that you see the electromagnetic interaction changes, ultimately turning into something else… (it merges with one of the nuclear forces, in fact…but that’s a story for another day)
Somehow after Wednesday I lost track of time, in a sense, in the natural course of having another very busy week. There were several things competing for time, and some of them may be of interest to you. (Left: Some lovely pink gladiolus flowers that have sprung up in my garden.) The Nobel Prizes kept coming, of course, with some very interesting winners announced. In addition to the ones I mentioned already in two earlier posts, I’ve got to find some people among our faculty who’ll be willing to spend 10 to 15 minutes making some informal remarks about the Who/What/Why aspects of the prize at one of two lunches I’ll be hosting in the coming weeks about the Nobel Prize. I’ve mentioned this before. It is an annual event I’ve tried to get going as part of the Dornsife Commons (formerly known as College Commons) series. I’ve locked in Physics and Peace, and want to get people for all the others. This year I know that if I have problems with Chemistry, I can step in if need be, although I’d rather not have to do that – I want to broaden participation, not do everything myself. Look out for those lunches (see here) and come along!
Speaking of doing everything myself, I’ve been continuing the weeks long struggle to get support, interest, and participation for the Science Film Competition I told you about earlier. Having spent a lot of time meeting with many faculty and other parties to build support and understanding, getting lots of faculty to make announcements (one time even coming down from Santa Barbara to campus to give a ten minute announcement in a class at the film school and going up again after!) and so forth – and thanks everyone who has helped! – I decided to amplify my focus on tackling […] Click to continue reading this post →
In addition to the CMC staff handbook, I also got the mechanical crew handbook, which was originally drawn by Jim McEleny, and then revised in 1974 by Ted Mullings, who I told you about in the earlier post. The pages are more sparsely done in this one, but there’s still some great humour here and there… (Click for larger views….) […] Click to continue reading this post →
Not long ago I was in Leadville, a mining town you get to from Aspen by going over Independence pass and then down into the valley. (It is apparently North America’s highest -in elevation- incorporated town, being at over 10K feet… Its roots are in gold and silver mining, starting back in the mid 19th Century.) I love visiting the big store that sells all sorts of curiosities and antiques there, and then after wading through lots of bits and pieces, going to the saloon bar for Irish coffees.
This time I actually bought something. Two things in fact – Some old handbooks for mine crew personnel of the Climax Molybdenum Company, from 1978. They are quite small, about 5 by 4 inches, but they are packed with delightfully presented dos and don’ts about how to do the job, including safety practices, and warnings about what might go wrong if you do things the wrong way. I particularly love the fact that the pages are […] Click to continue reading this post →
On Monday evening I chatted with Deborah Cloyed, author of the recently released novel “The Summer We Came to Life”, which I finished reading over the weekend. The conversation was recorded for Rare Bird Literature’s Rare Bird Radio site, and so you can listen. (Embed at the end of this post.) We talked about her use of various physics ideas (Copenhagen and Many Worlds quantum mechanics interpretations, parallel worlds) in her skillfully crafted novel about four friends, loss, the afterlife, and friendship.
At this point, some of you are yelling “Run, run for your life, Mr. Scientist!”. But No. No, no, no. I think that’s a mistake. Deborah is, first of all, writing a novel, not trying to push some self-help book that cherry picks a few ideas from science, conflates them with some stuff people want to hear, and trying to make a buck out of it. Second of all, she really loves the science, and seems to have read a lot about the subject, unusually widely. You don’t ignore someone who really cares about the subject and wants to know more, especially when they want to include it in the work they are producing. So when we were introduced a while back, she thought it would be fun and interesting to have a conversation about various things, and I agreed. I got the chance to comment (at her request) about what I thought she was doing with the science, and how the final result worked, I got to ask her what she thought of it, and from there we talked about lots of related topics, including the whole idea of mixing […] Click to continue reading this post →
Been back on The Project a bit more in recent days, mixing it in with various physics thoughts, projects, physics related duties, and so forth. More on some of that later. I’ve been writing some new pieces for the work, and have been flowing nicely at times. I write both in words (scribbling in my notebook in H pencil) and images, this being the point of some of what I’m up to. (See my discussion about the nature and intent of the whole business in earlier posts collected here.) So I write words, but also think about how the reader’s eye will move around the page, communicating intent, story, emotion, and concept, and so the words are supplemented by -and often guided by- little “thumbnail” images I scribble as well. (Actually, this is not so different from how I do my physics research, and I know that this is quite common. We think and reason using a mixture of words, images, equations, and so forth, and looking in my notebooks on physics will show a lot of commonality with my notebooks for The Project. Part of what I hope The Project will achieve is to help the general reader learn that this happens, while also benefiting from it by reading the form/medium they are reading…)
In the more familiar language of film, in my job as writer and “artist” at this stage, I’m directing the action as I write, and sort of doing the first pass at editing too, keeping in mind also things that will be taken over by my director of photography, costumer, editor, set designer, and so forth. Oh, those are also me in this case, since […] 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 →
Ah. Should have mentioned this before. Tomorrow I’ll be talking at Revolution Books. No, I won’t be stirring up political buzz or anything like that, rallying the troops, singing the songs and so forth. Sorry to disappoint. I’ll be there doing what I usually do – trying to put a bit of science out there among the rest of the culture where it belongs. I ran into Keith James of Revolution Books in the market one day some time ago and he recognized me from a tv show explaining science – and I was hanging out with a writer friend whose work he was a fan of, and so it was a two-birds-one-stone thing for him, stopping us to say hi. He raised the idea of me coming and explaining Einstein’s Relativity at the bookstore, and I readily agreed. It has been a long time in the making -largely due to me- but we finally settled on a date, and it is tomorrow. I also suggested that I put them in touch with a friend at the Griffith Observatory so that after my […] Click to continue reading this post →