I Dare!

sunday_assembly_3(Click photos* for larger view)

Yes. I dare to show equations during public lectures. There’ll be equations in my book too. If we do not show the tools we use, how can we give a complete picture of how science works? If we keep hiding the mathematics, won’t people be even more afraid of this terrifying horror we are “protecting” them from?

I started my Sunday Assembly talk reflecting upon the fact that next year will make 100 years after Einstein published one of the most beautiful and far-reaching scientific works in history, General Relativity, describing how gravity works. In the first 30 seconds of the talk, I put up the equations. Just because they deserve to be seen, and to drive home the point that its not just a bunch of words, but an actual method of computation, that allows you to do quantitative science about the largest physical object we know of – the entire universe!

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It was a great audience, who seemed to enjoy the 20 minute talk as part of […] Click to continue reading this post

Sunday Assembly – Origin Stories

Sorry about the slow posting this week. It has been rather a busy time the last several days, with all sorts of deadlines and other things taking up lots of time. This includes things like being part of a shooting of a new TV show, writing and giving a midterm to my graduate electromagnetism class, preparing a bunch of documents for my own once-every-3-years evaluation (almost forgot to do that one until the last day!), and so on and so forth.

Well, the other thing I forgot to do is announce that I’ll be doing the local Sunday Assembly sermon (for want of a better word) this coming Sunday. I’ve just taken a step aside from writing it to tell you about it. You’ll have maybe heard of Sunday Assembly since it has been featured a lot in the news as a secular alternative (or supplement) to a Sunday Church gathering, in many cities around the world (more here). Instead of a sermon they have someone come along and talk about a topic, and they cover a lot of interesting topics. They sound like a great bunch of people to hang out with, and I strongly [..] Click to continue reading this post

Nobel Prize for a Bright Idea!

The Nobel Prize in Physics this year is to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura, for the blue LED. Seems like a small thing, but it is hugely important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the issue of producing energy efficient light sources for everyday use. We’re all benefitting from this recent discovery (how to actually make them!) already.

See the Nobel Press release here, and Congratulations to the winners!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Save “Krulwich Wonders”!

As readers of this blog who appreciate the idea of putting science into the daily routine for a balanced diet, of mixing in sketches here and there, of good humour and a wondering eye on the world…. you’ll agree with me that we need to raise our voices and call out to NPR to Save “Krulwich Wonders”. According to Robert Krulwich, they are planning to cancel his blog as part of cost-cutting… this would be a big blow for the (always in danger) mission to improve the public understanding of science. Many suggestions are in the comments to that post I liked above, so feel free to read them and follow the ones that make sense to you! [Update: I’ve put a hashtag #savewonderNPR into the accompanying tweet of this post, so feel free to use that in your own raising awareness efforts on this…]

Act fast to let your voice be heard. The axe is on its way down!*

-cvj

*I learned this from the blog Nanoscale Views.
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Dusting off Last Spring’s Excitement

There has been quite a bit of discussion of the realisation that the exciting announcement made by the BICEP2 experiment back in March (see my post here) was based on erroneous analysis. (In brief, various people began to realise that most, if not all, of what they observed could be explained in terms of something more mundane than quantum spacetime fluctuations in the ultra-early universe – the subtle effects of galactic dust. A recent announcement by another experiment, the Planck team, have quantified that a lot.)

While there has been a bit of press coverage of the more sober realisations (see a nice June post on NPR’s blog here), it is (as with previous such cases) nowhere near as high profile as the initial media blitz of March, for better or worse. I think that “worse” might be the case here, since it is important to communicate to the public (in a healthy way) that science is an ongoing process of discovery, verification, and checking and re-checking by various independent teams and individuals. It is a collective effort, with many voices and the decentralised ever-sceptical scientific process itself, however long it takes, ultimately building and broadening the knowledge base. This self-checking by the community, this reliance on independent confirmation of […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
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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

Outstanding in Their Fields…

In case you missed it, Maryam Mirzakhani has been awarded the Fields Medal! This is regarded as the most prestigious prize in mathematics. Here’s a Guardian article covering it at a general level, and here is the page on all the award winners, with more detail on each, at the International Mathematical Union website. The reason this is a big deal (and why it is newsworthy) is because it is the first time the prize has been awarded to a woman. In a world where, despite the number of excellent women mathematicians out there, there is still a perception problem in the general populace about who (or more to the point, what gender) is associated with achievement in mathematics, it is important to note and celebrate such landmarks.

I also note that one of the other 2014 awardees, Artur Avila, is from Brazil! While not covered as much in the press as far as I can see, this is another big […] Click to continue reading this post

Metro Goes for All the Science Tropes

science_metro_poster I think the people at LA Metro were trying to go for all of the visual science tropes in one cliché-filled glance! I’m a big fan of LA Metro, as you know from several posts about it here, so don’t misunderstand my poking fun at their ad I spotted on a bus stop bench. I think it is to do with helpful apps for your phone – presumably they help you use the system more easily, because of…science? More generally, I’d love to believe that people will take the train more because scientists are involved in designing the logistics, but there’s so much evidence against this on both counts, like having the Blue line and the Expo line – that share the same main platform – both boast BLUE as their colours. But put that all aside for now, and let’s simply count off all the sure-fire imagery that will […] Click to continue reading this post

Young Author Meeting!

20140413-110946.jpgIt is nice to see the variety of authors at a book fair event like this one, and it’s great to see people’s enthusiasm about meeting people who’ve written works they’ve spent a lot of time with. The long lines for signings are remarkable! As you might guess, I’m very much a supporter of the unsung authors doing good work in their own small way, not anywhere near the spotlight. An interesting booth caught my notice as I was wandering… The word “science” caught my eye. Seems that a mother and daughter team wrote a science book to engage children to become involved in science… Hurrah! So Jalen Langie (the daughter, amusingly wearing a lab coat) gets to be […] Click to continue reading this post

Harmonics Can Make Metals Flux

I’m sitting on the bus, on my way to the LA Times Festival of Books. I’ve opened my notebook to maybe sketch a face or two, but then I spot an algebraic error on a page from a few days ago, so I set about correcting it….(you know, either for those historians who will argue about my intentions while poring over these once-lost manuscripts…. Or more likely for me in a few weeks, likely to get confused by my own blunder-in-haste with a kindergarten level variation.)

20140412-122335.jpgA bearded fellow had boarded the bus and sat next to me while I was doing this. He eventually glances my way, then away, then he does a double take. I’ve been watching him out of the corner of my eye. He starts to speak to me.

Calc or Trig?
Excuse me?
Calc or trig?
Er…. Physics.
What are you studying?
I’m not…studying. It is my research.

Silence from him for a few beats, then:

Into what?
Charged black holes.

I should say at this point that I get this a lot. No matter who I meet out there in the random world, or what they see me writing, the assumption is always that I am taking a class in high school mathematics. Why is that? People, at least guess for some of the time that I might be at least teaching it, even if you can’t imagine people doing research in this area. The grey hairs in my beard are a guide to your assumptions.

Another gripe: if you see someone writing words, and want to engage them in conversation about it, you don’t assume they are practicing the basic structures… Imagine the analogous exchange: Are you practicing joined-up writing madam, or spelling? Neither, I’m writing poetry.

Anyway, back to the conversation. So, as you recall, I said Charged black […] Click to continue reading this post

Talking with Dinosaurs

20140401-095516.jpgThursday’s event at the Natural History Museum went very well. There was a great turnout, and the audience was very enthusiastic. As you can see from the photos*, there were two fierce-looking large dinosaurs in attendance in the audience, but it did not have any effect on the overall time-keeping, and the lectures ran over the allotted time quite a bit.

But people had fun, and the museum staff were very kind and flexible, so that’s ok. I actually learned a lot from Ed Krupp’s talk about the astronomy and astronomical objects along the Silk Road from the Far East to the Middle East especially. Laura Danly gave a talk that was mostly a detailed history the Internet including at least three internet cat videos as illustration (an emphasis that I found unexpected, I’ll admit, since I was expecting more about contemporary astronomy). It was certainly a modern perspective on the Silk Road, as we promised the audience, and it seemed to go down well. The observation opportunity that Laura arranged outside (with the telescopes that were set up in the new gardens) was also well received. Jupiter and its […] Click to continue reading this post

Under Silk Road Skies

I’m doing a disturbing amount of speechifyin’ this month. One of the occasions is tomorrow, and is open to the general public. Have you been to the Natural History Museum’s “Traveling the Silk Road” exhibition yet? I went to have a look a couple of days ago and it is rather nice. I recommend it. There are even live silk worms!

griffith observatory city view at nightI’ve been coorganizing an event as part of their series of lectures that accompanies the event and I am delighted to announce that I have connected two of the most awesome spaces and institutions in the city for this one. The Griffith Observatory will team up with the Natural History Museum for this one, with a lecture and Q+A session, and then (weather permitting) a bit of stargazing in the new gardens! Please spread the word and come along: […] Click to continue reading this post

Summing Numbers in a Small World

So here’s a slightly weird thing. So there’s been all this excitement over the web about the old old “shocker” that the sum of the positive integers is -1/12. You know, not even an integer, and not even positive. Apparently there have been articles in the New York Times and Slate and goodness knows where else… and I’ve been ignoring it all since I’m tired of what it often leads to: People wilfully using it as a device to manipulate people’s ignorance about subtleties with infinite processes to make the tired point that string theory is somehow wrong since it is based on “funny math”. I called Lawrence Krauss (who should have known better) out about it some years ago when he did that at an event I happened to attend. It’s a bit tedious, not the least because it is actually part of a wonderful field of mathematics that can get misrepresented, and of course because it has nothing to do with string theory.

So I ignored it all. Then some students in my class asked me about it. And I explained why it is interesting and so forth… Then I carried on ignoring it all.

Then a day or two ago a mathematician colleague emailed me to ask what […] Click to continue reading this post

Celestial Card Games

celestial_cardsI did not get to read the instructions about the games, but pictured are some cards (apparently from about 1830) for a game set. They have images of stars and planets on them, including one planet called Herschel. This is of course the planet to later be called Uranus. It took a while for the planet’s name to be agreed upon.

These are some of the objects from the Doheny Libary’s collection that will be […] Click to continue reading this post

Collecting the Cosmos

i_2014_01_24_CollectCosmos_150x200Don’t forget that on the USC campus on Friday at 4:00pm, we’ll be kicking off the Collecting the Cosmos event! It will be in the Doheny library, and there’ll be a presentation and discussion first, and then a special opening reception for the exhibition. Be sure to get yourself on the waiting list since there’s some chance that you’ll get in even if you have not RSVPed yet. (The image is from the Visions and Voices event site, and includes parts of the artworks – by artists Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada – to be included in the exhibition, so come along and see.) The event description says, in part: […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 11 – Failure

crystal_adam_cvj_patrickThis episode of Fail Lab gets down to the bone of the matter: Failure. The whole point of this excellently conceived series was to look at the fail videos all over the web (as everyone does) and instead of just laughing at the people in them (as most people do), take a different path and try to see the positive in the failure. Sometimes with humour, and/or with tongue in cheek, but with an eye on looking at things a bit differently. Now this special episode turns and looks the issue directly in the eye. I have the honor of being a co-presenter of this one again, again with the excellent Crystal Dilworth, and this time we break the pattern and have yet a third person as a co-presenter – Adam Steltzner from JPL, the chief engineer of the landing stage of the Mars Curiosity mission, you might recall. Crystal and Adam are on the left. (You might also recall that we teamed up for an event earlier this year at the Natural History Museum…)

Together, we talk in the episode about the whole idea of failure, making mistakes, and of course, experimentation. We highlight how it underpins all innovation, scientific, technological, artistic… all corners of human […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 9 – Aggression

fail_lab_ep_9_stillFail Lab Episode Nine, all about Aggression, is now online. See earlier posts (listed below) for thoughts about this excellent series on Discovery’s Test Tube.

(By the way, (spoiler alert) in the video they analyze this week, that looks like a bit like a Wing Chun move (and stance) to me… albeit a tad sloppy. And I note that it was used to end the aggression. A win for positive use of martial arts!)

Embed below:

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Why Do I Study Physics?

why_do_I_study_physics_stillI was sent* this delightful short film recently. It is by Shixie (Xiangjun Shi) done as a graduation project at Rhode Island School of Design. It seems that it won prizes – quite understandably! – at a number of short film festivals, including one about science communication (which reminds me of the one I run). The film is entitled “Why Do I Study Physics?” and it is a lovely piece of writing and hand drawn simple animation that’s very […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 8 – Testicles

fail_lab_ep_8_stillHere’s the next episode in the excellent web series Fail Lab, on Discovery’s Test Tube Channel. It’s all about testicles. Clearly no more motivation is needed to encourage you to watch. It’s in a slightly different style than the previous ones… An amusing format change, in fact. Of course, there’s still amusing shenanigans going on in the lab…

Here’s the embed! […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 7: Tribalism

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Fail Lab, the web series on Discovery’s TestTube channel that I’ve been telling you about, is growing in popularity. People are hearing about its unusual charms as an edgy, funny, quirky, smart vehicle for some food for thought and are going to see. That’s great. There was a review on VideoInk today that seems to “get” series creator Patrick Scott’s “Zoochosis” point of view that informs his particular style of filmmaking, and that was good to see (although I don’t agree that the hard science can get lost sometimes – this is the online world where the viewer can take charge – if you miss an idea, just scroll back and watch it again. That creates opportunity for density in making intelligent programs, and hopefully steers us away from shallow, lowest-common-denominator programming).

Anyway, episode seven is now up, and fueled by a remarkable video it delves into ideas about how we relate to each other, within and without social groups. Here’s the embed: […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 5 – Rodents!

Tuesday means there’s a new episode of Fail Lab, the online series on the Discovery channel Test Tube that I’ve told you about! (See several previous posts, listed below.)

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Today’s excellent episode is about rodents. This is a subject I care about a bit since I’m in constant battle with them in the garden, as some of you who follow that part of the blog know… This might be why I think the actual “fail” video this episode is based on is hilarious!! Have a look at the episode, which is a lot of fun:
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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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Copenhagen Tonight

I’ve been thinking about the early 20th Century recently, and the development of quantum mechanics, as a result of re-reading Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. There’s going to be a staged reading of it tonight at USC, put on by the School of Dramatic Arts, and I’ll be giving an opening address. I sat in a bar late last night over a fine oatmeal stout, thinking a little bit about what I might say in the address, and I expect I’ll put the finishing touches on the brief sketch of ideas while sitting on the subway to work this morning. We shall see. I’ll try to remember to post the text of it here if it turns out to be not entirely dreadful.

I’ve very clear memories of this play, and my first encounter with it. I was lucky to get to go to a special pre-opening performance of it when it debuted in New York (in the year 2000) I and got to meet and talk to Michael Frayn (and if I recall correctly, Claire Tomalin) about the writing of the play at the after-party at Sardi’s – a very interesting conversation it was too. I also (by a happy coincidence) got to sit next to Freeman Dyson during the performance, and was able to glance over occasionally to see the delight on his face at seeing old acquaintances of his brought back to life. (Well, I learned afterwards that this was the reason for the delight…)

-cvj

(Image from Playbill.com) Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode Four!

fail_lab_ep_4_stillThis is by far the most provocative (and cleverly playful with your expectations) of the episodes so far. See my earlier posts for background on this creative, playful, and grown-up web science series. (List of posts below.) Have a look at the new episide, and stick with it all the way through before passing judgement. Warning – if you’re of the squeamish persuasion, maybe don’t look at it over lunch.

Well done, once again, everyone involved!

Episode embedded below: […] Click to continue reading this post

Interview about Science and Film

cuatusc_interviewI did an interview last week Tuesday with the channel CU@USC. It is a chat show, and so I did the sitting on the couch thing and so forth. All very amusing…

…And hopefully useful. I am spending many hours each day building awareness for this year’s USC Science Film Competition, an annual project you might remember me starting back in 2011, and stressing over a lot. And then again in 2012. It continues to survive for another year. This is year three, and although it has given me many grey hairs, I fight on, because I think it is of value to get students from all fields, whether scientist or engineer, writer or filmmaker, journalist or artist, to learn to collaborate in the art of telling a story that has science content. (Actually, learning to collaborate to tell a story about any issue of even moderate nuance is an important skill, science or not.) Anyway, the interview material is now up online and so you can have a look here. (The site uses flash, so might not work on some devices.)

I speak about the competition and also my own take on bringing science to film both fact and fiction (which for the latter especially is probably different from many others in that I don’t think it is always productive for a scientist in a film project to be […] Click to continue reading this post

No more comments at Popular Science

Interesting (and not surprising) decision over at the Popular Science website* concerning comments on articles. It’ll probably remind you a little bit of my post from a few days ago about the kinds of behaviour surrounding blog discussions of research in my field. At some point, especially for a complex subject and in times when people are not inclined to really dig deeply to learn the issues, it all can get very counterproductive.

-cvj

*Thanks Mia! Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode Two – Sexual Selection!

fail_lab_ep_2_stillEpisode two of Fail Lab is up now! (I told you quite a bit about this new series on the Discovery web channel Test Tube last week.) This is another excellent quirky and fun one, talking about the dynamics of sexual selection that’s going in all those fail videos you see online, where the guys are making a pig’s ear of some trick or other. This week you get to see the show’s brain on display too!

Embed below. Enjoy! […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab

So episode 1 of the new show I told you about, Fail Lab, is live!

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And now I can tell you what it is about.

I think the core concept is a nice idea. You know all those “fail videos” that are so popular online? It’s all about laughing at people who’ve been filmed with something going wrong… they’ve been trying a trick that fails and they get hurt, or an accident happens, or something like that. Well, rather than just laugh about it and make fun of the people in the video, Tosh.0 style, the show is (in a fun, and yes, decidedly edgy, way) built around trying to find a bit of science in the fail video. In fact, the idea is that at the end of the segment, presenter Crystal Dilworth (a smart young scientist on the neuroscience PhD program at Caltech) discusses (and in some instances, argues) with the guest scientist presenter about whether the video is a success or a fail, and sometimes it is a success for showing science! Each week on Discovery’s new(ish) TestTube Channel (excellent name) there’ll be a new episode (Tuesdays around 9:00am) coming up, so stay tuned. Episode 1 is here.

It’s fun (with puppets, dancing, music, and a great eccentric set for the lab!), and will be definitely playing on the edge for some (perhaps too much for those who are skittish about mixing sexuality with science), but from what I’ve seen, the show looks to be on […] Click to continue reading this post