Inside Out from the Inside

Last night’s Categorically Not! – Inside Out event was just great. The three topics contrasted really nicely, were very well presented as individual topics in their own right, and there were resonances between the different topics through the main umbrella theme – “Inside Out”.

Science writers Sandy Blakeslee and her son Matt Blakeslee did a sort of tag team presentation, taking turns to build up several aspects of the subject (covered in their new book “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own”) of one’s sense of self and that all-so-important division between inside (ourself) and outside (the rest of the universe) that we make with our minds. sandy blakesleeIt’s very dynamic, of course – you extend it a lot when you use tools, from a fork when eating to the car you’re driving in (everyone grunted in recognition when Sandy mentioned how you have the instinct to duck when driving under a low ceiling in a parking garage….). One of the things that I think resonated most with the audience is the description of the work on showing how many celebrated “out of body” experiences that people get have a foundation in […] Click to continue reading this post

Even More for my Reading List

Aha. I’ve been meaning to get around to some Doris Lessing for a long time. The Academy is trying to tell me something:

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2007 is awarded to the English writer Doris Lessing “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Do you have any favourites of hers you recommend?

Here are some passages from her biography on the Nobel site, talking about some of the works that really got her a great deal of wider recognition, emphasizing her important intersection with other genres such as feminism and science fiction (to pick […] Click to continue reading this post

Lookin’ For Some Hot Stuff

___________________________________________________________________________________
Hot, hot, hot, hot stuff
hot, hot, hot
hot, hot, hot, hot stuff
hot, hot, hot

– from “Hot Stuff”, by Donna Summer (1979). I refer to not only the physics but the c. 100 oF temperatures we’ve been having here every day recently.
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On my way back from the conference, I spotted this book (left) last Saturday in Foyles (the booksellers) in London 1. Quark Gluon Plasma book It is a collection of reprints of a lot of the papers forming the foundations of the physics of the quark-gluon plasma (QGP) idea, going back the early to mid 1970s with such papers as Collins and Perry (Gosh, I had no idea Malcolm was one of the early workers on this idea. He’s much more thought of as associated with black holes, gravity, strings and so forth, ideas which – ironically – have recently turned out to be relevant to the discussions of the physics too. See my recent post, and there are also various popular articles to be found2).

Putting aside the usual ridiculous price that Springer Elsevier charges for books, I found myself in two minds about this book, in view of the surprises being uncovered about the properties of this remarkable state of matter at the RHIC experiment. Is this collection of early papers a useful working tool, or is it now just of historical interest, since many of the basic expectations about the properties of the plasma seem now to be incorrect?

rhic collision of gold ionsWell, after a bit of thought, I decided that the latter view would be way too hasty. First and foremost, on a general level, even if some of the computations in some papers were done in the “wrong” light (it’s a strongly coupled liquid that flows, not a weakly coupled gas of quarks and gluons), much of their content will still be useful in many ways – good and correct calculations last for all time, it is the sense of the words decorating them that may crumble over time. More specifically, one can worry about whether there were assumptions (and approximations based on those) that went into the computations that will render […] Click to continue reading this post

Showing a Different Way

danica mckellar from and AP articleDanica McKellar (the actress who played the girl “Winnie” in that show “The Wonder Years” that many of you might remember) has been working to try to encourage young girls to go more for “Cute and Smart”, as opposed to “Cute and Dumb”. Bottom line: Less Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton, and more…. well, Danica. (I’m sure there are other Tinseltown examples here… can I have some help?).

Danica sets an excellent example of why the two (being considered attractive on the one hand, and smart on the other) are not mutually exclusive, while not suffering from the “geek” or “nerd” label that is attached by the entertainment industry to certain groups of people who enjoy using their brains a lot. She trained as a mathematician, in fact, doing her undergraduate work at UCLA so well that she did rather good published research work (NPR piece here – Update: It is actually more of a theoretical physics problem, it appears). This is from someone who struggled with the subject in sixth grade. Why is she in the news? She’s written a new book “Math Doesn’t Suck”, the aim being to encourage girls to avoid the (social) barriers to getting into mathematics. Excellent title. (I wonder if they’ll change it to “Maths Doesn’t Suck” if they publish it in Britain? “Suck” British kids have adopted from the USA cultural juggernaut, but “Math”? Not yet.)

danica mckellar math doesn't suckActually, looking at her site, I see that the full title appears to be “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail”, which is more of a mouthful, a bit less zippy, but oh well. It’s all very Clueless, in a good way. Here’s a link to the book’s site, and it is due out tomorrow.

There’s an article1 on her recent Newsweek quote at CNN, from which I grabbed this:

“When girls see the antics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, they think that being fun and glamorous also means being dumb and irresponsible,” the 32-year-old McKellar told Newsweek for editions to hit newsstands Monday.

“But I want to show them that being smart is cool,” she said. “Being good at math is cool. And not only that, it can help them get what they want out of life.”

but you should go and read the whole thing, by clicking here. [Update: Much better article here, by Corey Binns in Good Magazine. Extract:

“The book hones in on middle school’s trickiest points-––like fractions, ratios, and percentages—and presents them in a style that’s appropriate for the cool kids’ lunch table. Figure out your “type” in boys and you’ll understand greatest common factors. All of those iced lattes celebrities drink make multiplying fractions tasty. Plus, savvy shopping requires killer decimal skills.”

]

Go Danica!

In other news, I learned2 that particle physicist Lisa Randall (author of the popular book with the curious title “Warped Passages”) appears in Vogue this month. Lisa […] Click to continue reading this post

Henri Poincaré and the Order of the Polynomial

I’m conflicted. I read the first Harry Potter book and decided that while it is a good thing that many people are reading more as a result of them, I could not really recommend it highly as great work because it’s just so derivative. Having grown up reading all those boarding school books J. K. Rowling borrowed from (for example) without adding anything to them much, I was frustrated

Well, of course, in the scheme of things, it does not matter. Not all things we like have to be Great Works. And I eventually convinced myself that there’s nothing wrong with people (who did not read those works that she’s imitating) discovering the genre for themselves in the pages of her books. Then others told me that the books got better. harry potter special relativityThey got darker, and more grown up (do they approach the excellence and relative originality of the once largely ignored Philip Pullman books I wonder?), and better written, I’ve been told, by people whose opinion I trust. Well, good.

The films came out and they were all very ho-hum and then happily Chris Columbus stopped directing them after the first two and – Wow! They were suddenly really rather good. (The third one was by the wonderful Alfonso Cuarón, so – of course!) (Clickable above right for clarity: Extract from my own attempt to tap into the mania some years back by using characters from the books/films to illustrate the derivation of time dilation in a class on Special Relativity.)

Anyway, I saw the fifth one last night, and I was very impressed with it as a film. Not having read the book, I find myself hoping that there was more to it than the film, since it still seems all rather derivative. There’s a bit of 1984 and a lot of Lord of the Rings mixed in with the Boarding School motif. I suspect that’s all as a result of stripping it down to look for something to hang a film on? I’m going to assume that, since there’s an awful lot of transparent (but entertaining) dark motifs about the […] Click to continue reading this post

The Cat

The Cat

  by Ryan Alexander

She came to me skittish, wild.
The way you’re meant to be,
surrounded by cruelty.
I did not blame her.
I would do the same.

A pregnant cat, a happy distraction;
some sort of normal thing.
Calico and innocent.

The kittens in her belly said feed me.

And I did.

She crept with careful eye,
Body held low to the dirt,
Snagged a bite,
And carried it just far enough away.

She liked the MREs,
the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork,
but she did not like canned sardines.
I do not blame her.
I would do the same.

She came around again and again
finally deciding that I was no threat,
that this big man wasn’t so bad.

I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us. […]

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Back To the Future

fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the […] Click to continue reading this post

Get One For A Friend

Science and Society… Science Education. You’ve heard me speak of this issue so many times here, so I won’t repeat myself too much. Seems that Natalie Angier is in agreement – So much so that she took matters into her capable hands and wrote a book to try to change things: “Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science”. I have not read it, but I’ve heard a lovely NPR interview with her today, and she read an extract. You can hear it at this NPR site, and also read an even longer extract there.

natalie angier's canonIn the interview, she backed off a bit from saying that everyone learning a bit of basic science literacy is of vital importance (increasingly so in this day and age, I’d say), although she acknowledges that there are a number of us in the scientific community who do think so. You’ll notice the -perhaps understandably- lighter approach (”these things are fun…” ) that is taken in the book blurb I quote below. While I agree that the fun part is very important indeed (and we really need to get that across a lot!), and that one should always try to persuade rather than scare, I do think that we’re in a dangerous situation sometimes with regards the overall science education and attitude to science of our citizenry. We should definitely not be reluctant to say it. I think that she thinks so too, but does not – when promoting a book – want to make the book seem like it is bitter medicine, but rather, a bit of tasty candy. I’d prefer to think of books like this as a delicious piece of fruit: both tasty and good for you. To be fair, I should mention that in the interview, while declining to subscribe entirely to the view herself, she mentioned a scientist acquaintance who considers the issue as analogous to the urgency for everyone to acquire literacy when the world changed and printing and the written word became common currency. While we are not quite there yet, I’m inclined to agree with that view, on balance…

Well, rather than repeat myself endlessly on this interesting matter, here’s the blurb from her website: […] Click to continue reading this post

Chocolaty Book Fun

Ah yes, it is that time of year again. The LA Times book festival is on, starting today, and it was kicked off with the swanky Book Awards festival last night, followed by a reception. This all takes place on the UCLA campus, in Westwood. You might recall that I went last year and reported on it. [(Update: A version of the post is here.] (If in town, go to the LA Times website for more information and find your way over there either today or tomorrow!)

So I went to the Awards show again because:

  1. I enjoyed it last year,
  2. I like “book people”,
  3. I like the idea that in the city where there’s a swanky Awards ceremony for everything else, they have one for books,
  4. I like the unashamed delight that everyone takes in the value of the word on the page… there were some very nice speeches from the master of ceremonies (Jim Lehrer this year) and the various presenters in each category (all authors themselves) about the various aspects of this (all the way from history to Children’s books, to Science…)
  5. I wanted to see if they would have chocolate fountains again. They did.
  6. I wanted to see if they had old typewriters embedded inside ice sculptures again. They did.
  7. I can never be mistaken for an actual author at the reception too many times,
  8. I like dressing up, from time to time. (Never let it be said that I am not honest with you on this blog.)

book prizes   book prizes

(Above: MC for the night, PBS Newshour host Jim Lehrer, and the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan, on the set/stage. I really like the work of both of these guys…)

Spent most of the evening after the ceremony at the reception talking with LA Times (or related) people and their spouses. This was not my intention, but it was a happy occurrence, as they were all really interesting people – two science writers (Rosie Mestel and Alan Zarembo, who I’d not met before and who were just great to talk to) and also some more general columnists, such as (novellist and essayist) Meghan Daum and others whose names escape me now. K C Cole, my friend and USC colleague – and ex-LA Times science writer – was there for good conversation, as was Tom Siegfried. So it was just excellent to stand around and munch on the excellent food, drink the wine, and talk (and yes, sometimes gripe) a bit about science coverage and science writing. Briefly chatted with poet and author Michael Datcher (remember him from the point of view event?) and his wife as well, who told me about an upcoming event I’ll be mentioning later, I hope.

Rosie and I turned out to have some interesting points of commonality, which was a pleasant surprise, and so we talked about not just science and science-writing, but England, gardening, and the East/West divide in Los Angeles.

book prizes

(Above: Available light (sorry) shot of Alan Zarembo dipping a bit of pineapple into the chocolate fountain. Meghan Daum and Rosie Mestel look on.)

Some friends and colleagues from USC were there in an official capacity as well, such […] Click to continue reading this post

New Tolkien!

tolkien novel coverI don’t care what they say – I’m excited!

Having consumed (a number of times) the several books worth of J. R. R. Tolkien material scraped together from his papers by his son Christopher Tolkien (they sit here on my shelves…. The Book of Lost Tales (I and II), the Lays of Beleriand, Sauron Defeated, Morgoth’s Ring, and so forth…), and thirsted for more, this is just excellent news:

From Reuters, in an article by Mike Collett-White, I read:

More than 30 years after his death, a “new” book by J.R.R. Tolkien goes on sale on Tuesday which may well be the author’s last complete work to be published posthumously.

Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher, now in his eighties, constructed “The Children of Hurin” from his father’s manuscripts, and said he tried to do so […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Vulgarization

The next Categorically Not! is Sunday 25th March. The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. There’s a new website showing past and upcoming events here. You can also have a look at some of the descriptions I did of some events in some earlier posts (such as here and here), and the description of some of the recent special ones on Point of View and Uncertainty that I organized with K. C. as USC campus events (here, here (with video) and here).

Here is a description from the poster for the upcoming programme: […]
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