What Matters?

palm flower frondsI’ll let you know.

Huh? Today, I’ve to think about two things I have to talk about over the next couple of days. I’ve to give a physics seminar on Thursday at UCSB, but more urgently, I have to think about What Matters To Me and Why. Why? This is because in the Spring I agreed to be one of the presenters of the four-times-a-semester USC event of the same title, hosted by the Center for Religious Life. This excellent series is run by Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the Dean of Religious Life, with a committee of students. Here’s how it is supposed to work (extract from their site):

At each WMMW session, the featured guest spends about twenty minutes addressing the topic “What Matters to Me and Why,” and then the floor is opened to informal dialogue for the remainder of the hour. Just as there is no one way to address the topic, so there will be no one direction in which dialogue will proceed. The student contact from the WMMW committee introduces the speaker and makes sure that the session goes forward in a professional yet friendly manner. An indirect purpose of WMMW is to maintain an arena in which people can talk about important, personally charged questions in an open, mutually respectful way.

A typical session is described here. This is going to be a tough one. Not because nothing matters to me but because everything seems to matter, and I cannot effectively rank these things to say what matters most in any way. I only learned yesterday that I only have about 20 minutes to say what it is that matters. This either makes things harder or easier, I can’t decide yet. Probably harder. Now I really have to think.

I jokingly thought a few months ago that I ought to just look at my last few blog posts the day before and just talk about what’s in those. What can I see… Well, there’s public transport, community and the environment, composting and gardening, science and television (and scientific honesty). Not bad. (Good thing I did not do that post on dating. Probably not a good topic for WMMW…) I can probably weave something out of those. Do I blog about those things by accident, or because there are some themes there that are being brought out? What are the big themes in those then? Random scattered thoughts follow…. […] Click to continue reading this post

Monolith Not Spotted, Yet

iapetus flyby image by cassiniDrat.

Well, maybe on the next flyby. Flyby page here. AP (via Yahoo) story by Alicia Chang here. Interesting extracts:

The international Cassini spacecraft went into safe mode this week after successfully passing over a Saturn moon that was the mysterious destination of a deep-space faring astronaut in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

..and intriguingly: […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Mistakes!

Julia Sweeney during a Categorically Not! eventThe next Categorically Not! is Sunday September 9th. 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. (Above right: Julia Sweeney performing an extract from her play “Letting Go of God”, in the event with the theme “Uncertainty”.)

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

Blunders, boo boos, bloopers, errors, slip-ups, goofs, misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Everyone makes mistakes. In science, the notion of “mistake” is often itself misunderstood. Frequently, a “mistake” often turns out to be nothing more than a limited or skewed perspective. Or as Einstein put it, discovering a new theory is not so much like tearing down a house to build a new one as climbing a mountain from which one can see farther; the old “house” is still there, but is seen in a vastly different context. Mistakes in personal life and […]

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They’re Out There (Probably)

alien from the movieLet’s talk about aliens. I don’t mean people coming across the borders of whatever your country happens to be (although I did giggle a decade ago when I was given an official “alien number” by the powers that be back then – though I always regretted bypassing the “alien with extraordinary ability” status that the O1 visa gives you), I mean living creatures from beyond planet earth (it’s also interesting to consider the possibility that the seeds for life on earth may also have come from elsewhere).

It’s one of my favourite topics to consider, which is why I like to follow a lot of the remarkable things we are learning about our neighbouring planets (and other bodies like moons, asteroids, comets, and, yes minor planets like our old friend Pluto), and of course the ever-increasing variety of extra-solar planets (the ones we are discovering orbiting other stars). Overall, it gives one the sense that it is overwhelmingly likely that we are not alone (to use the tired old phrase), which to me is tremendously exciting.

I think we’ll find lots of compelling evidence that there’s lots of simple life on other bodies relatively soon, and I think that when people on the street hear of this, they’ll find it interesting enough. But I suspect that this will completely different to an […] Click to continue reading this post

Live Radio Footie Film Fun

football soccer ballradio dynamoSo you’ve already read my opinion about the Bourne Ultimatum after I returned from seeing it on the opening night – (In short, it’s just brilliant!) Well here’s something related that is rather funny, especially if you are a football (soccer) fan, although that is not necessary (I have little or no interest in it myself). If you don’t already listen to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo every week (most conveniently via their podcast), let me say right away that you should, since it is just an excellent and often highly entertaining discussion of film and movie releases. As a film reviewer, Kermode is not as good with words as, say, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane (although it is not a fair comparison – the media are different), but his rants can be just great to listen to when he truly hates (and occasionally loves) something -whether you agree with him or not. Simon Mayo is sometimes thought of as his sidekick in this duo, but he’s really the anchor of the whole thing (and often the pragmatic link back to the everyday that keeps the whole show rooted), and from time to time the focus shifts to him. He’s also into his sports, while Kermode is not, which also makes for an amusing backdrop since the broadcast (on Radio 5 Live) is usually done live from some sporting context or other, which takes a sort of backseat role while they talk about movies. Anyway, it is an excellent podcast to listen to every week. I highly recommend it. You can find it on iTunes. (They also have started doing occasional video podcasts too, but the thing to go for is the radio show. – another convenience of it is the fact that you can keep the podcast until after you’ve seen the films if you like (this is what I usually do – I mostly prefer to not hear anything about a film before I see it), and then listen to it and shout at Mark if you so desire.)

film roll images from usdojAs I mentioned, Mayo is a big sports fan, and his team, Tottenham, apparently got slaughtered by Crystal Palace and are now at the bottom of the premier league (can you tell I’m faking this and I’ve no idea what I’m talking about?) The next day, he’s interviewing (not with Kermode though) the director Paul Greengrass and the actor Matt Damon (both of the Bourne […] Click to continue reading this post

DNA on Sunset

dna film festival posterAs you may know from some of my earlier writings, I dream of the day when science is just as much a part of the typical person’s conversation as, say, the latest antics of Paris Hilton1. This is not just because I happen to be a scientist, but because we’re increasingly becoming less of a democratic society when on the one hand there are more and more issues dominating our lives that are basically science issues (energy sources, aids and cancer research, stem cells, global warming, air and water quality, food safety, etc) and on the other hand science is still largely feared, and left as the province of the “geek”, the “nerd”, and all those other select few people in business and politics who are essentially controlling our everyday lives by being handed the scientific reins of society. So, as part of reversing that trend and restoring equal opportunity in the broadest sense, I like to think that we can have increased comfort with science concepts and images infiltrating and enriching our everyday language.

I was delighted therefore to see (a couple of months ago now) the poster campaign of the Los Angeles Film Festival for 2007. It is a perfect example from that society that lives in my dream. It unselfconsciously has encapsulated the two big themes they wanted to convey quite marvellously. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that it is about film (you don’t even need the rest of the poster to tell you this) as there is the film reel, and on the other hand, they want to remind you without a doubt that this is a land of film, and they did this with a simple slogan that put to rest any doubts about their intent in twisting the reel to bring out a double helix structure: “It’s in our DNA”. Excellent. I’d like to shake the hand of the designer(s) who came up with this. (Read a bit about the DNA molecule -which contains our biology’s “blueprint”- and its double helix structure at the Nobel Prize site.)

Here is the detail from one of their posters that I snipped from their website: […] Click to continue reading this post

Because Everyone Wants to see the Woman with the Gun for a Leg

Last week, Friday night was movie night. (Actually, so was Saturday night, but that’s another story.) The venue: The wonderful Vista theatre, one of the great old movie palaces. The movie: Grindhouse. Why? See title (let’s be honest here), and I love well made terrible films (if you see what I mean) but also because I really do enjoy (overall) Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue1.


To get to the Tarantino segment (a movie called “Death Proof”), you have to wade through Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror”, the first part of the double bill. This is a very well done (but maybe half an hour too long?) celebration of the Grindhouse spirit, complete with missing reels, scratchy film stock with burnt out patches, the works. (Clever idea to put in the technical difficulties – including using a missing reel excuse at a pivotal moment – the second film uses that joke too). The level of humour was very high indeed, through all the remarkable and cartoonish slime and gore… It was just the perfect venue that I (with two other friends) had chosen to see this in: Friday night at the Vista with an appreciative Silver Lake/Los Feliz crowd (from the neighbourhood).

Combine Planet Terror iwht the long and marvelously terrible spoof trailer for the movie “Machete”, and that would have been a fun night out on its own. But Planet Terror ended, everyone took a deep breath, and the opening credits Tarantinos’ “Death Proof” began to roll. […] Click to continue reading this post


the namesakeSaturday night, after a quick trip to catch the end of a pleasant reception down at the Santa Monica Art Studios (they’re featuring a new set of artists), I went to the Arclight (hurrah! – it’s been a while) and saw a quite wonderful film: Mira Nair’s “The Namesake”.

I laughed and cried in turn at the joy and the sadness of it. It’s a very simple film about so many key things, explored marvelously: Family, home, leaving home, leaving your country, […] Click to continue reading this post