Summer Reading: Falling For Science

(Yes, I know it is not Summer (here), but I love the idea of Summer reading lists so much that I will continue to discuss some books under this series title, whatever the time of year.)

I just heard a piece by Robert Krulwich on NPR about the book “Falling for Science: Objects in Mind”, which is a collection of essays with an introduction by Sherry Turkle, who’s a social sciences professor at MIT. Krulwich says:

“…written by senior scientists (artificial intelligence pioneer Seymour Papert, MIT president and neuroanatomist Susan Hockfield, and architect Moshe Safdie, for example) and by students who passed through her classes at MIT over the past 25 years. They were all asked the same question: “Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?”

And after a tidal wave of Legos (7 different essays), computer games and broken radios, I found a few wonderful surprises. One MIT student reported how she couldn’t stop braiding her My Little Pony’s tail, weaving the hairs into endlessly repeating patterns (a clue, perhaps, to her fascination with mathematics)….[…]”

He goes on to interview software designer Joseph Calzaretta about his childhood encounter with stop signs. It’s a really nice story. The whole radio piece is here, with audio and transcript. (There’s another version here with the excellent “Eggs in a Basket” story emphasized instead.)

This is actually an issue that fascinates me, and I don’t think that the question should be quite as narrow as above – focusing only on people who went into science. I think that -especially as children- we are all scientists, exploring the world around us, […] Click to continue reading this post

Summer Reading: Fresh Air From Pollan

I’ve been meaning to tell you more about Michael Pollan. I’ve been planning a post or two about Summer reading, and was going to discuss the books of Michael Pollan to kick off a possible series. That plan was hatched in the late Summer of 2007… then the Fall came, and then the Winter and Spring… then Summer of 2008… never got around to it. Drat. (Checking back, I see that I started the series by talking about Haruki Murakami, here. So I’ll call this part of the series too, even though it is not really Summer.)

Anyway, the good news is that Pollan was on Fresh Air (NPR) yesterday, and as usual he was excellent:

In an open letter to the next president, author Michael Pollan writes about the waning health of America’s food systems — and warns that “the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close.”

The future president’s food policies, says Pollan, will have a large impact on a wide range of issues, including national security, climate change, energy independence and health care.

Here’s the link to the audio. Before you rush off to that, let me continue what I was going to say, at least in brief.

Pollan has risen to prominence, justifiably, mostly as a result of his excellent book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals”. It is a delightful examination of the food industry, charting the route of much of the food that you eat […] Click to continue reading this post

One in the eye for Big Textbook?

Well, back to teaching issues. Textbooks. I know the following is illegal, but I will admit to being hopeful that this will supply a much needed kick in the rear end for the “textbook industry”. (The very term makes me a bit ill sometimes.) In teaching the big courses at freshman or sophomore level to classes that have a couple of hundred students (broken into sections – we don’t like super huge classes here at USC) enrolled, it is hard not to notice that there’s something slightly insidious about aspects of the textbook game. Despite the fact that we are teaching subjects (Newtonian physics, thermodynamics and a brief bit of “modern physics” that is mostly from no later than 1905) at levels that have not significantly changed for over a century (in some parts, several centuries), the Industry (shall we call it “Big Textbook”?) keeps finding new excuses to come up with new editions. These editions get more and more expensive, and heavier and heavier to carry around. I don’t know why this is necessary, except to force new students to buy the books all over again.

Additionally, the new hook is to combine the book with an access code for further […] Click to continue reading this post

Thoughts During Break Time

Ah. I see that it’s been three days since my last confession. Gosh.

Well, it’s been a quiet weekend here in, er, my part of the universe. Good time for reflection and rest. I had a couple of posts I was going to do but in the end decided to break the pattern and change up my Saturday and Sunday, and the “change up” did not include the blog. So sorry about that.

I’m taking a break between an interesting meeting (that I will tell you about) and my office hour. The sun’s shining outside and it is not oppressively hot, surprisingly, so I’ll keep this short and poke my head out there again before my Physics 151 visitors arrive.

Some of the things on my mind: […] Click to continue reading this post

E.Coli Stories

e.coli image from http://www.foodpoisonblog.com/Not long ago, science writer Carl Zimmer spoke at the Zócalo series. He was talking about the subject of his new book, E. Coli, and wove a lovely story of how the E. Coli have taught us so much about life over the years, and how they continue to do so. So much of what we know about the workings of DNA, for example, came down to studies of a very clear model system, and E.Coli was the system chosen by Biologists (and Physicists interested in fundamental issues surrounding the nature of life, DNA, etc.) (Updated attribution: Image left is a painting from here. Worth looking at that site for more such images.)

The talk, for a general audience, is highly informative. It is only about an hour long, and worth your time. It was broadcast last night, and I found it rather good indeed. I […] Click to continue reading this post

Black Hole Battles

lenny susskind, kc coleSomehow, I only learned about this today, and it is already standby tickets only, but you never know. If you’re in LA and interested in a different kind of conversation, consider taking in the event (part of the Aloud series) at the downtown Los Angeles Central Library tomorrow night at 7:00pm. It’s between two friends and colleagues of mine, the science writer K C Cole and the scientist Lenny Susskind! The event is entitled, “The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics”, and presumably will be about Lenny’s reflections on some of the exciting squabbles over various important issues in black hole physics that took place (and still take place) in our field of physics. The above turns out to be (I just learned from a Google search) the title of a book he’s written, so you might be interested in it for your Summer (or other) reading.

Some of you may recall her really great conversation with Alan Alda that took place at USC earlier this year. I reported on it here. K C tends to run these sorts of […] Click to continue reading this post

Seven Hours of Wonder

One great thing to do when it is super-hot outside is to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre. Yes, and watch a movie. And when its really hot, do it for a really long time. How about seven hours?!

movie poster of Bondarchuk's War and PeaceOver the last two nights I watched something wonderful on screen, at the Bing Theatre at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). A rare gem, in fact*. Sergei Bondarchuk’s film of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, (Voyna i mir) released (USA) in 1968, and in four parts (matching those of the book), each a full movie. I went with three friends (M, R, and R), since movie marathons are fun in company. The full print, in Russian and French with English subtitles, is seven hours long. This is not to be mistaken for the relatively paltry dubbed version cut down to a fleeting six hours duration. This is (closer to) the proper original version. It is rare…apparently not shown in the USA for a very long time, and apparently not available on DVD. (Arguably, it shouldn’t be seen on DVD on a screen that is inappropriate to the task, and without good company. This is a movie theatre movie if there ever was one.) It’s a national treasure, and frankly I have no clue how they made it so well.

The cinematography, set/production design, art direction, and – of course – direction […] Click to continue reading this post

Salman Rushdie on Song

Libby Lavella performing at Categorically Not! June 8th 2008The artist and musician Libby Lavella, in her presentation about ambiguity in art and music on Sunday night at the Santa Monica Art Studios (in the Categorically Not! series – see my description here), ended by reading a lovely extract from some writing of Salman Rushdie. It really resonated with me, and so I thought it would share it with you. I found out from her where it was from. It’s from his novel “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”. You can see a longer extract in January Magazine here, but I’ll place here the part that she read: […] Click to continue reading this post

Summer Reading: Distance Writing

Haruki Murakami by Elena SeibertI’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami’s writing. (Photo right by Elena Seibert). A huge fan, even though I’m only on a second book by him.

I read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” last year and am on “Kafka on the Shore” right now. In each case, I read the opening paragraph and was immediately sucked right into the book.

The writing is, quite simply, wonderfully stirring, with stunning light, chilling darkness and everything in between (including, notably, a great sense of humour). The light and darkness are to be found in the interior worlds of the characters that are explored in the writing and how they connect to the rest of the world as they move through it. A person’s place in the world, relationship to the world, and how they affect the world […] Click to continue reading this post

The LA Times Book Festival

Don’t forget – The LA Times Festival of Books is on this weekend. As I said earlier:

LA Times Festival of Books ImageIt’s a Los Angeles celebration of the written word, done in wonderful sunshine, with hundreds of marvellous events in three days for young and old – Yes, it is the LA Times Festival of Books, coming up the weekend starting April 25th. The main daytime proceedings take place on the 26th and 27th (Saturday and Sunday) […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Loops

The next Categorically Not! is on Sunday April 27th (upcoming). 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. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events.

The theme this month is Loops Here’s the description from K C Cole:

“When you come right down to it, just about everything is loopy: planets, proteins or life stories, things have a way of coming around again, always with a slightly different spin. This month’s Categorically Not! was conceived as a tribute to Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I am a Strange Loop, which uses […] Click to continue reading this post

Head in the Clouds

clouds near amarilloThis was not the time to break my over a decade long run of not flying American Airlines. I pretty much only fly United when doing most travel, but I had no choice for this trip from LA to Amarillo, Texas. It was a quick hop there and back in about 36 hours to take part in a rather important event – Andrew Chamblin (a friend and colleague who, you may know, died tragically in 2006) was being inducted into the Hall of Fame of his old High School and so I went along to take part in the ceremony with his family and some of his friends, and address (briefly) the assembled student body (it was such an honour to be asked […] Click to continue reading this post

Festival of Books

LA Times Festival of Books ImageIt’s a bit more than a month away. It’s always fun every year. It’s a Los Angeles celebration of the written word, done in wonderful sunshine, with hundreds of marvellous events in three days for young and old – Yes, it is the LA Times Festival of Books, coming up the weekend starting April 25th. The main daytime proceedings take place on the 26th and 27th (Saturday and Sunday) and I recommend them to you if you’ve not been. Mark your calendar. (Once you’re over there on Sunday, stay for the Categorically Not! event in the evening (entitled “Loops”), which will involve among others, science writer Dava Sobel!!) (Above right: One of the 2008 theme images from the Festival’s website. More here.)

The Friday evening will see the book prizes given out, kicking off the festival as usual. I remembered this just now because I found myself curious about the shortlist of books in the Science and Technology category. I wondered if there was something on […] Click to continue reading this post