Tales from the Industry XXXX – Relative

relativity_shoot_1(Click images for larger view.)
Last Tuesday was a bit unusual. I’ve been chatting for a while with the people making a new BBC/PBS(NOVA) special in celebration of it being 100 years since Einstein’s presentation of the field equations of General Relativity, and that was the day we’d arranged to have an interview of me saying a few ideas to camera, and also doing a demo or two for fun. It was a very tight schedule, and a lot had to be arranged since one of the demos involved me sitting on the back of a flat bed truck at a desk (apparently in an office), looking up and explaining something, only to have the camera reveal the larger context in which the conversation was taking place. Well, the office set and desk were abandoned for various reasons, and then we got held up for almost two hours because the campus safety people turned out to have been confused (?) by the director’s careful notes in advance of the shoot and did not realise that the flatbed truck with me and the furniture and the cameraman would actually be moving. Even though it was intended to move at only a snail’s pace, it violates their safety rules to not have everything strapped down with safety harnesses. It qualifies as a “stunt”, and they were not expecting one. So there was a lot of back and forth over walkie talkies and in person and so forth, and persons with little golf carts coming and going, until some of the crew dashed off to Autozone to buy several cargo straps that, after application, seemed to make everyone happy.

I climbed up and allowed myself to be strapped in too. Before it all got started I asked about how exactly I was to unstrap myself if for some reason the flatbed […] Click to continue reading this post

Podcast on “Beyond the University”

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 […]

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Reading Storm…

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 09.55.07For 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.

I strongly recommend the Roth book about what the point […] Click to continue reading this post

Major Honours

On Friday I had to give the keynote address at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony held here on the USC campus. I did not know what that really was when asked, perhaps because my educational environment as a student was in the UK. (Although for all I know there are such things over there too, but perhaps I did not notice.) After a bit of googling I learned that this is an honours society and it is devoted to excellence in the liberal arts. It is the oldest one of its sort, apparently (founded in 1776), and these days although science was there at the start, the practice is to add “and sciences” when you say liberal arts now. Students who maintain a certain standard of grades through their undergraduate degree in a liberal arts and sciences area are invited to 20140401-093450.jpgbecome members and then there is an induction ceremony. Sadly, no secret handshakes and strange behind the closed doors practices… Well, as far as I know. (In fact, as a thank you for giving the address, I get added to the membership as an honorary member, so perhaps a packet will arrive with my instructions about handshakes and so forth, but I doubt it.)

My speech was to be something about the liberal arts and to celebrate that and to impart some wisdom to the students and their assembled parents and so forth. I was happy to oblige and after letting it stew in background in my head for some time, come Friday morning I sat down at the computer and something nice flowed out through my fingers onto the page. People liked it – a lot, I was later told. I’m still a bit surprised (pleasantly) by that. There may be a story about it later, so I’ll post a link to that when/if it appears.

To my delight I recognised several names in the list for the ceremony. There were in fact five physics majors inducted (is that the right word?) all at the […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Films Galore!

Sorry that it has taken me so long to get to posting the results of the USC Science Film Competition. It has been super-hectic. In addition to the usual things I have to do, I had to give a talk about science education to the Society of Physics Students – that went well, I heard – read and examine another PhD. thesis (twice in one week), do battle with two fronts of vermin attacks on my house, and prep a whole lot of other things I won’t trouble you with… Also, oddly, the time change seems to have left me in a state of exhaustion each day.

Enough with the excuses. What are the results, you ask? And is it true the winner was controversial?!

usc_science_film_showcase_2014_1Well, first and foremost we had a fantastic time celebrating the work of all the students in the competition. About 75 or so people turned up, making all my frantic buying of things in Trader Joe’s and so forth all worth while, and there were two screening sessions separated by a coffee and snacks break. Since there were twelve films this year (a 50% increase!) there were six per session (I curated things so that the sessions were about the same length), which worked rather well. A lot of the films used quite a bit of their 10 minute allowed duration, and so given that I pause between films to give each team a chance to take a bow, it was in danger of being a long evening, and for that I apologize to everyone, but I do think that the students should get a fair amount of individual recognition for their hard work.

Anyway, to cut a long story to medium, the standard was quite high this year, with several good films at the top that were hard to choose between, but I think the 15 judges (from academia and the film industry, with scientists and filmmakers and scientists-turned-filmmakers on both sides) got it right.

The first prize winning film has resulted in raised eyebrows from some, including the filmmakers themselves who apparently were sure that their film would be overlooked due to its content. I think that the judges got it exactly right. It is a fine example of exactly what I’m looking for in this competition- a […] 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.

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Quantum Physics for Everyone

Last year I mentioned the fantastic work of Julien Bobroff and his collaborators in developing an impressive science outreach program that does wonderful demos of the physics of the quantum world, using superconductors (and other things). He gave a talk about it at the Aspen Center for Physics and took part in some discussions about outreach at a nearby conference that David Pines had organized. Well, he’s written an article about the program and it appears in this month’s Physics Today and it seems that you can get it for free if you go here. I strongly recommend it since it might give you some ideas about how you might go about explaining some of the science you do to people (if you’re a scientist) or it might excite you to learn more about the science if you are not already familiar with it. Maybe even a show featuring science that might be coming near you one day, and/or go to a science fair.

THe great thing about the article is that it is passing on lessons learned – sharing both good and bad news. One of the the frustrations for me about the whole science outreach effort that is done by so many of us is that we’re largely reinventing the wheel every time we decide to do something, and moreover it isn’t actually always the wheel. We’re trying stuff and we’re not measuring its effectiveness, and we’re not sharing much about what works and what does not, so the outreach effort goes only so far, largely. It is one of the reasons you read me writing a lot about trying to do different things beyond just the usual- putting science where you don’t always expect it, since most of what is done is picked up by people who are already predisposed to pay attention to the science, which does not expand the reach of the outreach very much. Julien picks up on an aspect of this issue nicely. Quoting […] Click to continue reading this post

Abacus Cadabacus! – Flash Anzan

sorobanI was quite stunned by this. For the first part, it is great (and charmingly bizarre) that there is a craze based around the abacus that has such a following (abacus or “soroban” championships), and for the second part… it is nothing short of remarkable when they get to the stage where they go “beyond the abacus”, and are just doing it in the head, but using abacus moves. And so fast!!! The radio program “Land of the Rising Sums” by Alex Bellos that I learned this from is here. There’s also a Guardian article here. It is all mostly about how numbers and arithmetic are taught in Japan. I think it is great that (from the people they interviewed) there’s a sheer love of calculation and of numbers and that there’s none of the lamentable “I’m not good at this I’m a languages/sports/art person” attitude that is so common in our society and which is responsible for poisoning children’s education so early on. I also love that the abacus is so fundamentally old-fashioned – […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXIX – Magnetic Weather?

Today (Tuesday) saw me up at 6:30am to prepare for an 8:00am call time for a shoot on a special episode of – wait for it – Deadliest Space Weather. It is original programming for the Weather channel, and before you dismiss it because of the title, it turns out that it is not a bad idea for exploring various scientific concepts. The first season ended a few weeks ago. I’d not realized it was airing until recently, and actually those recent demos I told you about were used in examinations of planetary conditions on Venus and on Mars. (Two separate episodes.) The idea seems to be to consider what it would be like on earth if the conditions were like those on Venus, or consider what what happen if you went outdoors on Mars.

So you might think it is silly, but if done well, it is actually an opportunity to
explain some science to an audience who might not have been the usual science audience…in which case I’m happy to be on board! In addition to spectacularly showing what happens when sugar and sulphuric acid meet, I got to show how to boil […] Click to continue reading this post

So Good They Named It Twice

Well, it is great to be back in New York. Multiple times this year – hurrah! I’ve just got back from the Times Center where all the speakers have been running through their talks to smooth out kinks of various kinds (technical glitches, run time, etc). The senior TED people are here sitting in the auditorium and one by one we come up and go through things to give us a chance to get familiar with the stage, and to hear any thoughts or comments. (See tiny picture on the left.) People have done really good jobs preparing, and so most comments are simply ones of congratulations, with some small suggestions here and there with regards points of confusion, or sound levels, or run time. We’ve got six minutes. You heard me right – I must explain all of particle physics and research in string theory in six minutes. I like my challenges… Well, I spent a lot of time designing the content of the talk […] Click to continue reading this post

TEDYouth Approaching!

Ack! As you know, it has been an incredibly busy semester for me, but I still try to find time to tell you a bit of what is going on. Not long ago I got an email from the TED people asking me if I’d like to talk at one of their events. This event is for young people, called TEDYouth. It’ll be on November 17th. Well, this is such a good cause – how can I not do this?

TEDYouth speakers photoYou can see the announcement of the “incredible lineup” of speakers on TED’s site here. (I linked the photomontage they used there.) I’m looking forward to being in the audience to hear some of these guys talk!

So of course, I now find myself a week behind where I should be in terms of preparation, and in the middle of a whole bunch of other deadines… […] 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

In Defense of Teaching Algebra

Over at HuffPo, my colleague Nick Warner has posted a piece about why we teach algebra to people who supposedly “won’t need it”, and he makes some excellent points. (Recall the silly New York Times piece by Andrew Hacker entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” that I mentioned a few posts ago.)

I recommend Nick’s piece.

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New York Times Nonsense

I can’t decide whether to be annoyed or amused by the opinion piece by Andrew Hacker entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” in the New York Times on Sunday*. Annoyed because it is such an obviously flawed piece of writing, essentially saying that since (in the US) the system is failing to teach lots of people basic mathematics in school, the solution is to stop teaching it rather than figure out what is going wrong with the teaching process, while at the same time very lamely trying to make the case that it has no use anyway. Amused because it’s obviously flawed, and hopefully anyone reading it will laugh – one’s first thought has to be that it is not a serious article, given that it it is published in a respectable newspaper with reasonably educated editors.

But one can’t – shouldn’t – laugh, since there are (sadly) many people (lots of whom […] Click to continue reading this post

Superconductivity for You!

I was very impressed with the presentation Julien Bobroff gave in Monday’s public dialogue here at the Aspen Center for Physics. It was all about Superconductivity, and he and his team have done a tremendous job of putting together lots of materials for exploring this topic. Its a great example of some really careful thinking producing very accessible ways into understanding a remarkable quantum mechanical phenomenon that has quite a bit of striking and direct impact on a number of walks of life. This makes for great material for everyone, whether you are an expert physicist (who might want to show some of this to others), a teacher who wants some good materials to your classes, or simply someone who is not an expert but just find yourself curious about the world.

Have a look at their excellent website where everything is collected together, […] Click to continue reading this post

H4 Project – Kickstarter

I’d like to draw your attention to an exciting project that my dear friend Harry Lennix is working on. It is called H4, and combines the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV into a film. I have mentioned it in previous posts once or twice, (I did a few vista to some of the locations), and now it is post-production. There’s an effort to raise extra funds to allow the film to be completed and find its way to audiences where I expect it will be both entertaining and educational, given the goals that Harry has for the project. Have a look at the film below to have it all explained to you, and then head over to the kickstarter page if you want to help out!


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Bringing Science to Schools

Here’s a nice article (by Ambrosia Brody) about some of the work the Joint Educational Project (JEP), Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (all here at USC) have been doing to get school students excited about science. It looks like a fun and valuable program, and it is always great to see the look of wonder on the faces of the students as they explore (see film below). (Photo is by Nick Pittarides for USC News.)

A nice aspect of it that caught my eye is that one of the films that got made for the […] Click to continue reading this post


This was a fun assignment. I’m giving a talk (“Graphic Adventures in Science Outreach”) on Friday to my colleagues and friends at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and they asked me to send a graphic to them to use for the poster. So I spent a bit of time digging into my database of drawings for The Project and threw something together pretty quickly. I rather like it. (You will maybe recognize that drawing from an earlier post – I added in an earlier stage, and then a drawing of a hand I’d done for something else…) By the way, it is not an event open to the general public and is by invitation only, so just showing up won’t get you in.

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Tales from the Industry XXXVI – 3D at the Fun Fair

Thursday’s shooting day was tiring, but fun overall. It started in the (highly unusual) June rain that we had in the first area we shot in – Griffith Park. We were at those famous (man made) caves that you may well have seen in one or other movie Western, or TV series like the classic old Batman show, where they played the role of the batcave. Don’t ask me why we were there. I think it was just a nice backdrop for the physics I was talking about to camera, between rain showers and screaming bouts from some, er, Angry Birds*. Crows, I think they were. It was cold, and I was a bit low-spirited and off my game as a result. I did not even remember to take a picture for you…

Then we headed South -and warmer- to Knott’s Berry Farm. Now, I’d vaguely heard of such a place, but I will admit that I had no idea that it was so close to Los Angeles. We were there to shoot lots of moving, interacting bodies, as a series of analogies for some other physics issues…and this is the perfect place for that, with all the various fun rides there are within easy reach. It was fun to enter the park through the service entrance, and then emerge through a secret door in the middle of the special universe they’ve created for the customers! We wandered off to find the various things we […] 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

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.
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Inspiration and Dedication

jaime_escalante_by_robert_gauthierYou might not have heard of him, so I thought I’d mark the passing, on Tuesday, of the mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante. (Photo on right by Robert Gauthier.) He was an extraordinary teacher who passionately believed in the abilities of the many East Los Angeles students from disadvantaged and traditionally ignored backgrounds he taught, enduring the ridicule of his colleagues to press on with the job of teaching them as well as he could, challenging them to reach impressive heights of mathematical ability, especially considering given the circumstances. Some people might know some […] 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


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

Ask a Nobel Laureate

mather_youtubeHere’s a fun thing to get involved with. You can ask John Mather (2006 Physics Nobel Prize) a question on YouTube! Go and submit yours!

What might you ask him? Something about physics, or something else? Religion, art, politics? His favourite colour? If you consider asking a question, and whether you go ahead and ask it or not, feel free to mention in the comments what you might ask.

This is how to proceed (from NASA education)*: […] Click to continue reading this post

Dawkins, Atwood and More – On Darwin!

As you may know I’m a Margaret Atwood fan (read my immoderately breathless account here), and I also think that Richard Dawkins is an excellent scientist and science communicator. On the other hand, as you also know from earlier discussions, I don’t think that his take-no-prisoners approach to the science and religion discussion is the best way forward. Anyway, I found this marvelous Newsnight special from last month. A celebration of Darwin and his work. It has lots of discussion about Darwin then and now, cultural and scientific impact, the ongoing debates, a new staging of a play, a recent film, and participating is Atwood, Dawkins, and the Rev. Richard Coles and the poet Ruth Padel (who is also a descendant of Darwin.) It is in four parts and […] Click to continue reading this post


emergence_snapYou might remember a post I did back in January from Cambridge (the one in England), mentioning what I was up to on that quick trip.

It was a board meeting of the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter (ICAM), and I said, among other things:

ICAM has a great deal of interest in outreach -communicating science to the general public- and education, and this is one of the reasons I’ve been added to the board, since I’ve some experience and ideas to share in an advisory role. I’ll be giving a talk about some of these things using some projects of mine as examples (ASTI, blogging, etc). They’ve already been doing wonderful things in education and outreach, and have made it a priority to make it a major part of future activity. […]

I mentioned that one of the projects under development was their site called Emergent Universe, which promised to be rather fantastic to explore. It was under development at the time, and we (the board) spent some time at the meeting commenting on and making suggestions for its improvement. Well, it is finished, and boy it looks great! Suzi Tucker and her team should be immensely proud of their accomplishment.

There’s so much material there, beautifully presented (a still taken from it is […] Click to continue reading this post