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:

[…] Click to continue reading this post

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


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.)


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:
[...] 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.

[...] Click to continue reading this post

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…)


(Image from 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.


*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!


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

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

Tales from the Industry XXXX – Comedy Moments and More

crystal_D_and_cvjWhat happened here? Who is that, and what exactly made her so annoyed? Read on!

There are a number of new things coming out on screens near you (or may have already aired) that might interest you. For fans of the History Channel’s The Universe (thanks so much for all the emails with kind remarks, and so forth, by the way) there’s a new show in the works that’ll mix science and history (and other disciplines) in an interesting way. I’ve no idea when it is set to air though, and frankly I’m very confused as to what is on History and what is on H2, the companion channel, so I’ll just say watch out for that. We shot a lot of material for that earlier this year, and I hope you enjoy the show overall, despite my mumbling mug appearing on your screen a bit!

Apparently the many of the Weather Channel’s science-y segments were shown, in a series called “Deadly Space Weather”, which imagines what would happen on earth if you brought various prevailing conditions on other planets back here. Yeah, I know… but actually it’s a good opportunity to think about science ideas, at least in principle. You’ll recall that I did some demos for that which were rather fun – and hopefully interesting too. I saw a piece of one of them online (10:44 or so), and got rather annoyed at one point. There’s a segment where I demonstrate – with real sulphuric acid – the effect it has on organic compounds, using sugar. It is quite spectacular. And of course quite dangerous, so I’m actually wearing a lab coat (yes, there are occasions where real [...] Click to continue reading this post

Franklin Vs Watson and Crick

Wow! This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been hoping to see more of! When the report on this started on NPR about having students do music and video about science topics, I groaned a bit (while making breakfast) when I heard the Watson and Crick mentions in the clip in the background, saying to myself that it is so unfair that once again, Rosalind Franklin is being forgotten and a whole bunch of kids will miss the opportunity to learn about the nuances involved in doing science, and miss that she did such crucial work on this most important discovery…. I continued making my coffee, listening to the report with half an ear…. and then! …more of the clip was played and a girl’s voice came on, singing a bit about Rosalind Franklin, and then I realized that this was exactly the story they were telling in the video*. The whole NPR report, by Adam Cole, is here, with a short video doc. It is about not just the Rap B.A.T.T.L.E.S. doing songs and videos about various science topics, but also about other programs as well, started by people such as Christopher Emdin at Columbia, and others. Excellent.

I’ve embedded the Franklin/Watson/Crick video below. It was made by students in the Bay area, guided by Tom McFadden at Stanford. I think this is great piece of work since they did a great job on production, particularly with casting and costuming everyone to play the principals, cutting in reaction shots and so forth… It’s a real film! And for a change, for a popular rap about science that a wide variety of young people might be attracted to, this time the music is actual contemporary rap (which usually means well thought out lyrics combined with rhythmic devices that are definitely post 1980s, and not just a bunch of lines recited over a corny background beat – see another excellent example at the end of this post) which is great! An amusing and poignant extract:
[...] Click to continue reading this post

Science Slams!

One of the things that came up in conversation in my meeting at the APS on Tuesday was Science Slams. These are a lot of fun, and are growing in popularity and frequency. Maybe you might want to take part in one, or organize one. There’s a lot of great theater to be had, and its fun for wider audience, just as poetry slams when done well can be fun for an audience that might not have chosen to study or listen to poetry. (See earlier posts on the local Dead Poets’ Slam, for example.)

My friend Herbi Dreiner, at the University of Bonn in Germany, (he’s in the photo at the right, used with permission) is one of the most active and experienced people I know of in the area of successfully combining physics, theatre, and (if you like) performance art. If you don’t know about his herbi_dreiner_slamminphysics show, that has even gone on tour internationally, have a look at an article he wrote about it (with links to video and photos) for the journal The Physics Teacher here (arxiv version here).

Herbi’s been getting involved in physics slams too, and he wrote a very nice piece about his own participation in the Guardian. Have a look here. He went into some nice detail about how (with the help of the audience) he illustrated the issues [..] Click to continue reading this post

On July Landmarks

So, last July, we had a huge landmark with the discovery of a new particle key to how our universe works – we now know it is a Higgs particle, something we’ve been waiting for a very long time. See many earlier posts about that.

This July, just this weekend, we had another huge landmark – a British tennis player won Wimbledon!! (Ok, I’m only partly serious about listing this alongside the Higgs result…) I am actually doubly excited about this, because in addition to Andy Murray actually winning, my old favourite player Ivan Lendl was coaching him. Lendl, a fantastic player, was a symbol of determination and hard work during his playing career, but never won Wimbledon, so [...] Click to continue reading this post

100th Birthday Fun!

[caption id="attachment_14281" align="aligncenter" width="499"]The crowd watching Devo on stage at the Natural History Museum's 100th  Birthday celebration (click for larger view) The crowd watching Devo on stage at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday celebration (click for larger view)[/caption]The 100th Birthday party at the Natural History Museum was fantastic! Adam Steltzner’s talk was excellent and it was a pleasure to be the MC and introduce him and run the Q&A. (It was a tall order for me to fill Michael Quick’s shoes, but I gave it a shot.) The audience was really great, and there were several great questions. The wide shot (click for larger view) at the top is a panorama shot of the outdoor concert stage, with Devo just starting their set (GZA of Wu-Tang Clan was on just before). I took it* while standing under the fin whale skeleton that is the centerpiece of the new Otis Booth entryway pavilion that was unveiled just minutes earlier. (See more about that space and other new exhibits here.) Here are a couple of shots (click for larger view) from Adam’s session, where he gave an inspiring talk about the engineering of the landing of the Curiosity Mars rover, with reflections on space exploration in general**:

[caption id="attachment_14261" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Adam Steltzner talking about the Curiosity Mission at the Natural History Museum's 100th Birthday bash Adam Steltzner talking about the Curiosity Mission at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday bash[/caption] [...] Click to continue reading this post

Bad Luck for Kepler

Steinn has a nice post about the sudden ending of the Kepler mission, due to a crucial component failure. As he notes:

“Kepler has discovered almost 3,000 planetary candidates, of which about 100 have been confirmed through a variety of techniques, and, statistically, most of the rest are likely to be real planets.

Kepler has not quite found earth like planets in the habitable zone, yet.
It is heartbreakingly close to doing so.”

Sad to see, especially at a time when science is being hurt so badly by continued [...] Click to continue reading this post

TED Youth Talk – Hidden Structures of the Universe

cvj_TED_YouthYou might recall that last year I gave a talk at TED Youth, in their second year of short TED talks aimed at younger audiences. You’ll recall (see e.g. here and here) I made a special set of slides for it, composed from hundreds of my drawings to make it all in graphic novel style, and somehow trying to do (in 7 minutes!!) what the TED people wanted.

They wanted an explanation of string theory, but when I learned that telescopesI was the only person in the event talking about physics, I kind of insisted that (in a year when we’d discovered the Higgs boson especially!) I talk more broadly about the broader quest to understand what the world is made of, leaving a brief mention of string magnifytheory at the end as one of the possible next steps being worked on. Well, they’ve now edited it all together and made it into one of the lessons on the TED Ed site, and so you can look at it. Show it to friends, young and old, and remember that it is ok if you don’t get everything that is said… it is meant to invite you to find out more on your own. Also, as you see fit, use the pause button, scroll back, etc… to get the most out of the narrative.

I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, except for one thing. WHY am I rocking [...] Click to continue reading this post

Another Quantum

So were you, back in 2008, among the many wondering what a Quantum of Solace was, and probably coming up blank? Did you eventually give up and put it out of your mind? Well, there’s another quandary at large that might trouble you for a while, and for the same reasons as before. Royal Caribbean International have launched the new name for their new oceanliner(s).

It is… wait for it… “Quantum of the Seas”. (I learned this from an ad break during the Oscars last weekend.) Now, the “of the Seas” bit continues a tradition of names over the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Science on Screen – Primer

Well, that was a hugely fun evening! The Cinefamily screening of Primer was sold out to a packed and enthusiastic audience. (That alone was worth it…) I met Shane Carruth back stage for a few minutes and immediately was impressed. I like people who take the time to think carefully about what they are going to say before saying it, visibly carefully weighing what was just said in the conversation and then adding to it in an interesting way. He’s one of those people. So I knew that the panel discussion was going to be great.

[caption id="attachment_13780" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_13782" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption]

We started off with an introduction from the executive director of Cinefamily, Hadrian Belove, who introduced us and asked me to say a few words before the film began. I kept it brief, and started by congratulating Cinefamily on doing the Science on Screen series, saying that it is an important thing to do (which it is -it is part of a Sloan funded national program; more here) and then went on to say [...] Click to continue reading this post

Primer, and More…

I learned last week that there’s a new regular item in the New York Times’ science section where Jascha Hoffman does a round up of a few notable Science events, books, etc., around the nation. It is noted this week that Cinefamily starts up its new Science on Screen series (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) starting starting Wednesday night with the excellent film “Primer”. (Photo is from the website.) If you don’t know it, and if you’re in the area, go and see it! As a bonus, you’ll have the writer/director of the film, Shane Carruth, present for introductions and Q&A. He’ll be accompanied by some scientist dude called Clifford V. Johnson who, according to the website, will [...] Click to continue reading this post

100 Registered!

So one of the things that has been taking up my time is the USC Science Film Competition. Well, last week, an important (slightly nail-biting) deadline passed, and that was the date by which interdisciplinary teams should have formed (finding each other due to the awareness campaign I’ve been running around doing since August – with the help of faculty who kindly spread the word in their classes, the blog I set up, an article by Pam Johnson in the Dornsife News, and ads in the Daily Trojan), come up with a film idea, and registered it.

So the day came, and (of course) within 20 minutes of the appointed cut-off hour [...] Click to continue reading this post

USC Science Film Competition – A New Year!

…And here we are again! I’m launching the second year of the USC Science Film Competition as of, well, a few seconds ago. Please go to the website to learn more. You’ll find a collection of links at the very end of the main page, along with a slide show, talking a bit about last year’s successful inaugural competition. I’m hoping for a competition at least as exciting and interesting (er, in all the good ways!) as last year.

If at USC, spread the word, please! I especially need faculty to help encourage [...] Click to continue reading this post

Nostalgia for the Light

Have you heard about the film “Nostalgia for the Light“, by Patricio Guzmán? As you know, one of my main cares in the business of communicating science broadly is having it be mixed up nicely with the rest of the culture (not making it a lecture all the time). This helps reach broader audiences, for a start. In a sense, this looks like a film that is doing that. It seems it was released in 2010, but is appearing on some big screens for the first time this year, in some places. I’ve not seen it, but it is soemthing I intend to see, based on the synopsis alone. I thought I’d mention it to you.

The summary from the Guardian film site says “Drama in which a group of Chilean astronomers’ search for the origins of life is contrasted with local womens’ efforts to find the bodies of loved ones killed by the Pinochet regime.”

There’s a trailer here:[...] Click to continue reading this post

The Future of Physics

On Saturday we had another series of celebration events for the 50th Anniversary of the Aspen Center for Physics. It began at 2:00pm with a discussion in Paepke auditorium entitled “The Future of Physics”, and it was introduced by Michael Turner, and moderated by Lisa Randall, with three Nobel Prize winners forming the panel: David Gross, Bob Laughlin, and Adam Riess. (I decided to do a short sketch during some of it, and then quickly splashed on some colour later in the evening*. The result is above. The sketches are meant to give a sense of the stage and people on it, not be representative likenesses, so I refer you to pictures of them for actual portraits…)

There was an excellent turnout, and audience members were treated to a good and wide-ranging discussion. It was a difficult subject to grapple with, and Lisa started out in a good place, by getting each panelist to take turns to describe their way into physics, then around again to talk about the areas they got their Nobel Prizes in. She supplemented their contributions with some of her reflections on her own experiences and points of view, and tried to unpack some of the concepts brought up here and there when she thought it might help the audience.

From there, things became a bit tricky, since there were several directions in which to go and it was not clear what the best structure to follow was, given the time allotted and that they needed to stop and get members of the audience involved. Like I said, it was a difficult assignment for all of them. What emerged was a loosely structured series of interesting reflections from each of them at various points, some healthy disagreements there and here (I think it was good for the public to see that we’re not all cut of the same cloth) – for example between David and Lisa on the meaning of [...] 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.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

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

Becoming Engaged…

It turns out that a really great way of passing the time when listening to someone give a talk is to do some sketch practice. [... wait, what? The post title? Oh! No, no, don't be silly. Ok., let me continue ...] If the subject matter is right, it’s a good thing to do while you focus on what’s being said. This last couple of days I’ve been in Aspen, Colorado, and I’m starting out my visit here with a three day conference entitled “Becoming Engaged: Initiatives That Can Change Science Education”. You can see more about it on a dedicated website hosted by ICAM. One of the people behind it is David Pines, and we’ve had many conversations about science outreach and science education over the years, and so he invited me to participate. I’m supposed to be here at Aspen for my visit to the Aspen Center for Physics, and so I’m only partially attending, opting to to listen to some talks, and take part in some discussions… then going back over to the center to hear some LHC and Higgs chatter on the LHC workshop that is starting up this week.

There are a lot of interesting people talking about science education, and science outreach, many describing their various approaches and projects in short talks and presentations. (I will tell you about some of them in future posts.) It is great to meet several people who are passionate about outreach too, and see what others are up to and share ideas… so this is a valuable time. Hopefully, some action ideas will come of this meeting that [...] Click to continue reading this post