Festival of Books!

what_are_you_reading(Click for larger view of 2010 Festival “What are you reading?” wall.)
So the Festival of Books is 18-19th April this year. If you’re in or near LA, I hope you’re going! It’s free, it’s huge (the largest book festival in the USA) and also huge fun! They’ve announced the schedule of events and the dates on which you can snag (free) tickets for various indoor panels and appearances since they are very popular, as usual. So check out the panels, appearances, and performances here. (Check out several of my past posts on the Festival here. Note also that the festival is on the USC campus which is easy to get to using great public transport links if you don’t want to deal with traffic and parking.)

Note also that the shortlist for the 2014 LA Times Book Prizes was announced (a while back – I forgot to post about it) and it is here. I always find it interesting… for a start, it is a great list of reading suggestions!

By the way, apparently I’m officially an author – not just a guy who writes from time to time – an author. Why? Well, I’m listed as one on the schedule site. I’ll be on one of the author panels! It is moderated by KC Cole, and I’ll be joining […] Click to continue reading this post

Meanwhile, Somewhere Down South…

hotel_down_south_1st_Sept_2014So 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

Copenhagen Address

copenhagen_address_aLast night’s event was wonderful. The actors had such passion, and it was all done with great pacing and flow. This was a most marvellous play reading – the cast’s performances felt so fully inhabited by the text of the play that it hardly felt like a reading at all.

They (Nike Doukas as Margrethe Bohr, Arye Gross as Neils Bohr, and Leo Marks as Werner Heisenberg) and director Jack Rowe, should be very proud. They did very little rehearsal for this, which is makes it all the more impressive.

I gave an opening address* (and also introduced the evening**, as usual forgetting to introduce myself…) and the text of my address follows:

Good evening and welcome!

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize in Physics was announced. You might recall that it was for the discovery of the mechanism that gives all elementary particles their masses. A profound mystery about the universe was solved. While that’s a wonderful thing, and many people acknowledge that, many people don’t connect anything about that quest to understand the universe to themselves.

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One Today

I *loved* the Inauguration Poem by Richard Blanco, and I loved the way he read it at the ceremony. It was by far my favourite thing of the day, although there were several things I liked about the event (or collection of events). Of course, you’ll have guessed that the phrases about teaching geometry in class, or about windmills generating electricity, or about having equations to solve, were highlights for me, but it was not just those things that delighted. The overall ideas of sharing and community (One sky, our sky; one ground, our ground, etc.) just fit so well with my view of the world, as you know from this blog. I’ve included the text in full below, and at the very bottom, an ABC video of him reading it. I hope you read it too!


“One Today” – Richard Blanco

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper — bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives — to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Fiction Special

Just as I left for my shooting trip 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…

In related news, Ray Bradbury died on Monday, I heard on the radio yesterday. This is […] Click to continue reading this post

On Physics, Spiritualism, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

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

Festival Activities, 2

A week has passed since the festival and I’ve not posted any more information about it. This is partly a result of being preoccupied with several other things, including organizing yesterday’s workshop… which seemed to go very well, by the way. See previous post for an update.

I thought that the festival was simply great. I attended many more panel discussions than I had before, and that may have been a good thing since it meant that I mixed outside and inside a bit better than I have in the past, meaning that I was less likely to get tired from the heat or from simply being on my feet all day. I ran into several friends out enjoying it, some themselves on their way to or from panels or presenting at stages. It works really well at USC, and it seems that people were really enjoying the new layout, and the better access to the festival overall afforded by the numerous public transport links I saw people enjoying (had to miss a 200 bus on the way from MacArthur Park to the campus because it was full of people heading to the festival before 10:00am on Saturday. Nice to see.)
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Festival Activities, 1

Well, it was wonderful yesterday. Maybe my best time at the festival over the several years I’ve been going, possibly because I visited more of the ticketed panels, mixing those in with the wandering outdoors looking at the stalls and stages. Might do some more today…

In the meantime, here’s my favourite picture from yesterday. I like it for several reasons, not the least because it symbolizes a major aspect of the whole thing that I consider important – family and the joy of reading – but, well, have a look and see what you can see… (click for a larger view).


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Festive Weekend!

It has been another rather busy week this week (including a marathon seven-hour video interview!) and so posting was a bit light. I apologize for this, including for not getting to blogging about an event (or cluster of events) that I’ve been gleefully waiting for since the news broke last Fall that (as I’d mentioned back then) the LA Times Festival of Books is now being hosted by USC. This is something I fantasized about many years ago, in fact – I simply think it is a better fit for the city of Los Angeles for many reasons.

Anyway, the first festival of the new era is tomorrow and Sunday, with a wonderful program that can be looked at on the LA Times website. It will continue to be the largest literary festival in the USA (and perhaps beyond?), and it is hoped that it will get even larger… Next year, we’ll have the new branch of the subway system running, giving three stops at the campus (hurrah!), but in the meantime there’s a dedicated shuttle bus connecting USC to Union Station downtown and the Convention Center (not to mention all the many regular public transport links), and so you don’t have to bring your car to the area to deal with parking issues.

As you know from my blogging about all this in previous years (see list of links at the end), in a sense the whole thing kicks off the Friday night before (tonight!) with the […] Click to continue reading this post

Weekend Poetry and Cycling

cicLAvia picture from 10-10-10For those of you located in the area, I should mention two events close to my heart that are taking place this weekend. One is the Dead Poets’ Slam, this Saturday at 7:00pm at the excellent Skylight books. This is one of the always great Smart Gals events, organized by Christine Louise Berry. She’s got together an excellent collection of readers to throw down against each other under this year’s theme, “Monarchs vs. Minions”.

You should know that these annual slams are slammin’. They are not simply people sitting around reading poetry, but animated passionate people really breathing living flame into the poetry and throwing it at each other for points and glory! There’ll be judges* giving out these points, famous victories, and fragments of the defeated left […] Click to continue reading this post

Major Moon-Milk Opportunity!

Tomorrow’s full moon is going to be the closest to us in 18 years, apparently. It’s called a supermoon by some, and no doubt some will try to link it to many major events here on earth, both natural and man-made (if you’ll forgive the distinction). I won’t do a long post about this issue, but instead refer you to Phil, who is excellent on the science of this and related subjects.

What I will say instead is that all commentators seem to have missed that this is the best opportunity in years to gather moon-milk! Get out your ladders and buckets and go for it!

What am I talking about? At my last birthday I was given* a lovely collection of stories by Italo Calvino, and the first one is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It begins with a description of the fact that a long time ago the moon orbited much closer to the earth, as you may know, and then weaves a delightful story from there. The story involves reminiscences, by the narrator Qfwfq, about those good old days when the moon came so close that once a month (yes, I know) the earth’s inhabitants would take boats out onto the sea to the where the moon came close and climb up a ladder to its surface to gather the much-desired substance known as moon-milk. A lovely extract follows: […] Click to continue reading this post

The Project – 1

It is midnight and I really should get to sleep in order to wake up and work some more on editing the final exam for my class so that it can go to the printer by noon. But I’ve got several pokes from people clamouring to find out what The Project actually is, and I promised yesterday I’d start to spill the beans. Thanks for the interest! I think I’d better get at least some of it out there or I’ll have an angry mob by morning! So here goes. I will drag out the draft I sketched yesterday and beat it into shape:

So, as you may have guessed, The Project, which I’ve been mentioning here since a post way back in February, is a writing project, but it is somewhat different from what you might expect. The bottom line is that I hope that at some point into future you will be able to purchase a copy of your own, and that you will find it instructive, exciting, and enjoyable. At least.

Yes, it is a book about science. However… Well, here’s the thing. Over many years, people (friends, colleagues, potential agents and publishers, blog readers, etc) have been asking me when I am going to write my book. You know, the popular-level book that every academic who is interested in the public understanding of their field (as you know I am from reading this blog) is expected will write at some point. To be honest, I have given it some thought over the years, and it has been something I figured I might do at some point. In fact, several different ideas have occurred to me over the years, and I may well implement some of them at some point.

But a major thought began to enter my mind well over ten years ago. In my field, there is a rather narrow range of models for the shape of such books, usually involving about 80% of it being a series of chapters covering all the standard introductory material (some relativity, some quantum mechanics, and so forth) for the lay reader, before culminating in a chapter or two of what the researcher really wants to tell them about: some aspect of their research. This is a fine model, and it is great that people continue to write such books, and I will no doubt use that model one day, but to be honest, I don’t think there is any urgency for me to add to the canon yet another one of those books. Moreover, if you line examples of that type of book up against each other, you see that the […] Click to continue reading this post

Nobel Prize for Literature 2010

This morning’s announcement reminds me of an author I’ve yet to read any works from:

nobel_picture_literature_2010The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.

The press release is here. I hope to hear more about this man and his work next week. I’m organizing the Nobel Lunches again this year (and event I told you about last year that I started with the support of the College Commons) and so I will be spending the next several days trying to find […] Click to continue reading this post

West Hollywood Book Fair

west_hollywood_book_fair_1The West Hollywood Book Fair was fun to visit yesterday, even through the huge heat wave we’ve been having. I struggled through the heat to a bus stop and was rewarded with one almost immediately I arrived, to my relief. Even the bus seemed tired as it trundled along through the sweltering city to West Hollywood, where I jumped off and wandered into the grounds of the event. I poked around the stands with books, authors, and other people on display, chatting here and there with interesting people.

I was not on a panel this year (see last year’s report here and here – I don’t think there was anything on science or science-writing this year), so decided to listen to a […] Click to continue reading this post