Speed Dating for Science!

youtubespace panelLast night was amusing. I was at the YouTubeLA space with 6 other scientists from various fields, engaging with an audience of writers and other creators for YouTube, TV, film, etc.

It was an event hosted by the Science and Entertainment Exchange and Youtube/Google, and the idea was that we each had seven minutes to present in seven successive rooms with different audiences in each, so changing rooms each seven minutes.

Of course, early on during the planning conference call for the event, one of the scientists asked why it was not more efficient to simply have one large […] Click to continue reading this post

Calling Shenanigans 

I hadn’t realized that I knew some of the journalists who were at the event at which Tim Hunt made his negative-stereotype-strengthening remarks. I trust their opinion and integrity quite a bit, and so I’m glad to hear reports from them about what they witnessed. This includes Deborah Blum, who was speaking in the same session as Hunt that day, and who was at the luncheon. She spoke with Hunt about his views and intentions. Thanks, Deborah for calling shenanigans on the “I was only joking” defense so often used to hide behind the old “political correctness gone mad” trope. Read her article here, and further here.

-cvj

(Spoof poster imaged is by Jen Golbeck) Click to continue reading this post

Space Travel Thoughts…

opinions_about_space_travelOn Wednesday (if I recall correctly – last week is a blur) I spoke on camera to producer Peter Savodnik about challenges involved in mounting space missions to colonise distant planets. It was a fun and short shoot -Peter kept it relaxed and conversational- and it will be part of film that will be released by an online property I’m sure you know well some time in the coming year (I think). I will give you more details when they emerge.

One theme that I kept bringing up that you might find interesting (thoughts welcome): Space is a big place. It takes a long time to get from one place to another – even if you are moving close to the speed of light (and we’ve no foreseeable technology to get us even close to that any time soon). That makes the journey itself a huge challenge, and that is often the part that is most neglected in popular (fictional) films about space travel, and so it also affects our perception of how things must be in the real world of space travel. Result: an under-appreciation of (and possibly false expectations about) the whole business of the journey itself.

Of course, in fiction, much of this business is avoided by inventing propulsion systems that use physics that we’ve no good reason to believe actually exists to shorten the journey – warp drive, hyperspace jumps, wormholes, and the like. That’s all fun, sure, (and I spoke about such things and their place -or lack thereof- in the real world of near future travel) but I think that there can be some really creative challenges for fiction films by focusing on the long […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXXI – Puppet Black Hole

Yeah. Not sure how to best title this post or fully explain the picture [edit: Picture taken down temporarily until the show is ready to be promoted]. Let’s just say that I spent a bit of this afternoon explaining some of the science of the Large Hadron Collider to a bright orange puppet that was determined to not believe whatever I told him/it. It was fun, and was done to camera at Los Angeles Center Studios downtown. (I was actually speaking about things that intersect with the subject of yesterday’s post, if you’re interested.) It is for a new show on a channel that I can’t mention yet*, and I’ll let you know as soon as I know what the air date is, etc.

Well, one more thing, in support of the old “It’s a small world after all” saying. I noticed from the call sheet that this morning they were shooting a fun segment that was hosted by my friend Hal Rudnick the host of Screen Junkies! (Have a look at some of the science-meets-movies things we’ve done together here, here and here.) Also, a friend I’d not seen in […] Click to continue reading this post

In Case You Wondered…

Dear visitor who came here (perhaps) after visiting the panel I participated in on Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books. (“Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”) What a fun discussion! Pity we ran out of time before we really began to explore connections, perhaps inspired by more audience questions.

In any event, in case you wondered why I was not signing books at the end at the designated signing area, I thought I’d write this note. I was given the option to do so, but the book that I currently have out is a specialist monograph, and I did not think there’s be much demand for it at a general festival such as the one on the weekend. (Feel free to pick up a copy if you wish, though. It is called “D-Branes”, and it is here.)

The book I actually mentioned during the panel, since it is indeed among my current attempts to grasp the “ineffable” of the panel title, is a work in progress. (Hence my variant of the “under construction” sign on the right.) It is a graphic book (working title “The Dialogues”) pitched at a general audience that explores a lot of contemporary physics topics in an unusual way. It is scheduled for publication in 2017 by Imperial College Press. You can find out much more about it here.

Feel free to visit this blog for updates on how the book progresses, and of course lots of other topics and conversations too (which you are welcome to join).

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Beyond the Battling Babes

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 14.03.58The recent Babe War (Food Babe vs Science Babe) that probably touched your inbox or news feed is a great opportunity to think about a broader issue: the changing faces of science communication. I spoke about this with LA Times science writer Eryn Brown who wrote an excellent article about it that appears today. (Picture (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times) and headline are from the article’s online version.)

(By the way, due to space issues, a lot of what we spoke about did not make it to the article (at least not in the form of quotes), including: […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon with Amy Parish

LAIH_Amy_Parish_10_April_2015_2 For Friday’s Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities luncheon we had a presentation from anthropologist/primatologist Amy Parish (an LAIH Fellow) on the work she’s been doing with bonobos at a zoo in Stuttgart. She updated us on how bonobo societies work (of all the apes, bonobos are our closest cousins, genetically), and then told us about recent experiments she’s been doing with getting them to watch films, giving them control over what they watch, and observing the effects of this on social patterns. (There’s a brief article here about Amy’s recent work.) It was an excellent talk, well attended, with lots of laughter – the result of a pretty potent mixture of food, sex, and humour!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Field Trip: The Natural History Museum!

LAIH_NHM_Field_Trip_3On Friday the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities went on another field trip. This time we went to the Natural History Museum. (Click the image for a larger panorama from one of the dinosaur halls.) If you’ve not been there for a while, this is not the museum you remember. It has been transformed, under the leadership of Jane Pisano (President and Director of the Museum, who gave us a splendid talk over lunch), adding several new spaces, a special garden, and new foci in its programming (such as special displays and research programs highlighting urban ecosystems – featuring coyotes, rats, squirrels, possums, Cooper’s hawks, doves, skunks, parrots, etc., (basically my back garden on a typical day, as you know from this blog), along with snakes, bedbugs, termites… The Nature all around us in the city of Los Angeles – fascinating actually.)

We had a tour of some of the spaces, breaking up into two groups (there were around 40 of us) and taking turns on two mini-tours (as we did for the Clark Library in December), one looking at the new dinosaur halls, the other the space dedicated to the urban environments I mentioned above. We learned a lot from our guides about what’s going on in the forefront of research in both […] Click to continue reading this post

A Contract With…

Good News Everyone!

contract_sign

The other day I put my signature on a contract to publish The Book!! Some of you might know about my somewhat unusual book project. It is a graphic book, written and drawn by me, all about science. Please tell your friends about it, especially the ones who think that the standard popular science book is not for them. This is very much not the standard popular science book, precisely because I want to broaden the range of people who read about science. The graphic book form has been stunningly underused in my field (physics) and I want that to change.

I used to say “graphic novel style book”, but because of the (well known) problematic naming convention for the form, I’m trying to stay away from that term, because people get confused about what the book is. (Not a novel, for example.) Anyway, it is a highly unusual project that I’ve been excited about for some time, and blogging about from time to time. The last year has seen me doing less on production and more on trying to explore the publishing world to get it in print. (I really do mean printed on actual paper, or I’d have explored other options by now: The self-publishing world has matured interestingly, I’ve discovered in my researches.)

That venture into the world of dealing with publishers turned out to be a huge adventure I ought to write a book about… All I will say here is beware of pitching too original an idea to traditional publishing people. If they can’t […] Click to continue reading this post

The Universe Lives!

the_universe_returns
(Seems a highly appropriate title to use when up at 4:00am listening to the excellent violent wind and rain storm that’s going on outside.) This is mostly a note for fans of the show The Universe, on the History channel, or H2, and channels by other names internationally. I just wanted to say that the show is going to carry on, with a new season coming out early next year!

I mention this because it looked for a while (at least a few times) like there wouldn’t be another season (after a solid 7 or 8 seasons over as many years), and then at the last minute they greenlit that short season that aired earlier this year with the subtitle “Ancient Mysteries Explained” or something worrying like that (because it sounds a lot like the “Ancient Aliens” show which, well, I’d rather it did not sound anything like…) Then it was not clear again whether that was just a last hurrah or not…

Well, it was not, since we’ve been shooting for several episodes this last month or so! Looks like there will be at least a short season coming, with the same subtitle. I’ve done some work on a few segments that will appear in two or three episodes. They wanted me to do more but I had a rather busy period coming up and so declined to do any more shooting days after November, so I’ll be somewhat fleeting in my appearances, but hope that the physics I did get to talk about is clear and interesting – assuming they use those bits at all (you can never tell).

My favourite day was when we were out at Zuma Beach, which I think I mentioned in a short post a while back. The episode focuses on contrasts between Astronomy and Astrology, which is certainly a good topic! I came up with a fun analogy with which to explain a certain idea and we enlisted a group […] Click to continue reading this post

The Imitation Game – Thoughts

[caption id="attachment_16600" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd. (Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd.)[/caption]

Since this time I don’t think I’ll be getting the call from the folks at Screen Junkies to talk about this one, I’ll do a quick post on my thoughts while they are still fresh. (There are no real spoilers in what follows, but if like me you like to know as little as possible about a film before going to see it, forming your own opinion before having to see the film filtered through those of others, do wait until you’ve seen it before reading beyond the second paragraph.)

I enjoyed the film very much. As a piece of human drama, it was a great story to tell, and frankly it does fill me with dismay that few people seem to know the story, so I am glad it is getting mainstream attention. It was done extremely well, in terms of standard things like all the acting performances (more or less), photography, and the overall tone of the direction. Given the subject matter – its social and historical importance – this was a beyond the ordinary human drama well told. I enjoyed it.

But. BUT

But it missed an opportunity to not just be “beyond the ordinary” but truly exceptional and ground breaking. All we needed was about 5 or so minutes of extra screen time to achieve this. I’m talking about the ironic fact that Interstellar, which is I remind you a science fiction film (which many scientists […] Click to continue reading this post

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!

sunday_assembly_1

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.
Click to continue reading this post

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):
[…] 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

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