Ok, so which one of you is responsible for this? (Since I started writing the post, I’ve since learned the answer – see below.)

futuramas professor farnsworth with wittens dog

I was watching the 1999 Mars University episode of Futurama some nights back. It’s the one where Professor Farnsworth teaches (among the many excellent lines: “I can’t teach, I’m a professor…”) a course entitled “The Mathematics of Quantum Neutrino […] Click to continue reading this post

Where Many Paths and Errands Meet

[Typed in a cafe on Tuesday at about 3:45pm. It’s just a rough collection of thoughts about various recent meetings and activities:]

Interesting day so far. One of those “my office is everywhere” days. I’m on the West side, in Santa Monica, where I’ve a number of errands to do. Also I get to work and have some meetings in between. I try very much to corral everything to one part of town so that I am not driving around too much, adding to the general junk that we all pour into the air without thinking. So I brought my bike with me to connect the dots that I intend to go between while in the area (a couple of cafes (coffee and work), the beach/boardwalk (lunch and work), a mechanic (they’re changing brakes on my car and diagnosing a Noise), one of the English shops (for tea supplies), an electronics store (to shop for memory), a grocery store, possibly a bookstore, possibly the public library (to work and ‘cos it’s just really nice)…).

While reading some notes by one of my students on a project we’re working on, and eating lunch down on the boardwalk/beach wall near the chess-players, I reached for my phone to send him a text with a question. As I did this I looked up at the passers-by and one of them was familiar! It was someone who used to be a postdoc in one of the other groups in the department, who used to share an office with the very student whose notes I was reading! Funny when that happens… We chatted for a while about things (such as career stuff concerning the interesting research life that can often found in various commercial settings), and he seemed interested in my […] Click to continue reading this post

Ferrous Thoughts

I spent an awful lot of time as a child and teenager tinkering with various projects. I’d have lots of projects on at any one time, brewing in my head for a while, and making their way to notebooks and scraps of soldering iron, meter, …paper, then to elaborate drawings showing the technical details, and ultimately to some sort of realization in the real work, some percentage of the time. In the Summer time, I would probably have one Big Project and that would occupy my thoughts for a great deal of time, and would involve a lot of hiding away doing things. Lots of these projects would involve electronics (increasingly as time went by and I Learned more and my various part time jobs could support more) and there’d be lots of tinkering with all sorts of items, and a constant feature would be the soldering iron, one not so different from the one that you see to the right.

Well, one of the many things I liked about the Iron Man movie (yes, I was right there to […] Click to continue reading this post

We Interrupt This Broadcast…

One of my favourite topics to think about, since I was very young, is the effect that direct contact with intelligent alien life would have on our society. It would be transformative, I think, whether it be initially seen as for good or ill. Of course, most imaginings of such an event usually considers the “ill” aspect. I was chatting about the issue recently with a friend of mine while hiking the other day and then I recalled that I forgot to do a blog post on last week’s Sunday night radio listening, part of which was about just this very topic!

war of the worlds tripod illustrationThe show was in two parts (both good… more on the second later) and the first was a 1994 recreation of the classic War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. You know the one, I hope… It was a CBS radio broadcast by the Mercury Theater company, masterminded and led by Orson Welles, and was a Howard Koch radio adaptation of the 1898 H. G. Wells novel. As you may know, the radio show created a huge panic among the listening audiences at the time, brought on by a combination of the relative newness of the medium (it was done in the style of a series of on-the-scene breathless news reports) and the general atmosphere in world politics at the time. (There’s a rather good Wikipedia collection of information about it here.)

All of this puts me in a nostalgic mood, since during some of my school days I loved that War of the Worlds rock musical concept album by Jeff Wayne from 1978 (I knew of it only in the early to middle 80s), with a star-studded cast of musicians (Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington, David Essex and Chris Thompson), and the wonderful voice of Richard Burton as the main protagonist (a journalist). Anybody else remember that? From so many listenings to it, I used to be able to sing along to every note and word of that album! Probably still can, even though I’ve not heard it in so long. Altogether now – Uuuu-Laaaa!!!, or Come on Thun-der-child!!… Here’s a Wikipedia link.

Anyway, I highly recommend the recreation of the broadcast. Find an hour and curl up next to your computer and pretend it’s a warm old valve radio. Leonard Nimoy plays […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From the Industry XVII: Jump Thoughts

A commenter asked how the aforementioned movie viewing and panel discussion went on Friday (movie: Jumper), and so I thought expand a bit on the answer I gave:

It went very well. We were at the School of Cinematic Arts, at USC. We had a full house in the Norris Theatre, which was great to see. Most of the audience was students from the SCA, I think, with some of the faculty present, and people from the film’s parent studio, and several others. For the panel, present were two of the film’s producers, the visual effects supervisor, costume supervisor, production designer… basically, the perfect people to have a discussion with about the physics! I won’t try to list all names since I did not catch all of them and don’t want to mis-credit people for being there who weren’t.

Teleportation physics aside for a moment, I’m very impressed with how they realized […] Click to continue reading this post

Planck Meets Fleming

So yesterday at Pinewood Studios they announced the name of the upcoming second James Bond film in the new series that (excellently, in my opinion) re-envisions the Bond movie universe. Last year’s first one was “Casino Royale”, you may recall. Did you hear what the next one will be called? […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Science Goes Hollywood

Reza Aslan at Categorically Not!The next Categorically Not! is on Sunday January 27th (upcoming). The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole Reza Aslan at Categorically Not! – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area.

Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events. (Above right and left: Reza Aslan speaking on the origin of various ideas in Religion at the event entitled “Beginnings” on 16th December, 2007. Click right one for larger view.)

The theme this month is Science Goes Hollywood. Here’s the description from K C Cole:

Despite our prejudices to the contrary, Hollywood and Science have a lot to say to each other. Take special effects: Nothing Disney dreams up can […] Click to continue reading this post

Alan Alda Chats With KC Cole

kc colealan alda scientific american frontiersTomorrow afternoon at 4:00pm there’s be an interesting conversation on campus for sure. It’ll be between the science writer and journalist KC Cole and the actor Alan Alda. He’s such an interesting person, and (among other things) currently presents Scientific American Frontiers.

KC’s always so good at steering these conversations, so while I’ve no idea […] Click to continue reading this post

I Am Cranky

will smith in i am legendSo I took my mum and my brother (passing through on his way to the CES) to the new Arclight (Sherman Oaks) to see “I Am Legend” last night. I’ll admit that it has some things going for it. Overall it is not the disaster one might expect, given the direction in which big-budget “science-fiction” projects like this headed by action stars usually go. Furthermore, it might be said to be a bit of progress to have the main character be a scientist, and one of African descent as well, although I’d have been more impressed to see the scientist character actually using the scientific method – inference, deduction, hypothesis testing. The placeholder for being a scientist here was still the usual – surround the character with fancy equipment, give them glasses and a lab coat, and get them saying a few sciencey-sounding things. Hollywood – please listen up: That’s not what science is!!

So it was basically an action movie with more than the usual puddle’s worth of emotional depth, for a change. Very good performances and so forth and more or less well put together. It did not have the feeling of being written by committee, and so forth. So worth a look.

On the other hand, one main thing has been bugging me all day. If the rabid infected […] Click to continue reading this post

Odd Direction For Compass

AlethiometerOn Friday after a very busy week (the last teaching week of the semester), I decided to go to a 21+ screening at the Arclight. This splendid event is held in a special part of the Arclight complex which means that you can buy a cocktail (gin and tonic in my case, made with Tanqueray No. Ten) and wander into the movie theatre with it and relax in a comfy chair and watch a movie for two hours.

Hmm… Sounds good. Was good. Why don’t I do this every Friday?

What I saw was about multiple universes and particle physics. Oh, and fighting polar bears. […] Click to continue reading this post

What Matters?

palm flower frondsI’ll let you know.

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

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

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

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

Tales From The Industry, XII – A Shooting Diary

Here’s my promised report/diary on yesterday’s adventures in film-making.

history channel shoot september6:45am Got up a bit earlier than perhaps I should have, given that I got to sleep at 1:00am. Spent a while reading a ton of email, and sending some more. Will be away from my regular professoring duties for the whole day, and so wanted to make sure the fort was held. Prepared some appropriate TV clothing (pretty much what I wear normally anyway – simple solid colours), and so forth. Attempted to beautify myself just a tad (with the usual…inconclusive results). Shower and so forth. Coffee and oatmeal, sprinkled with NPR… Read a bit of stuff on dates of historical background on material I’ll be talking about. I often forget that sort of thing, and its never ever needed whenever I do remind myself of it, so after a few minutes I decided not to bother. The core physics ideas are more important, ultimately. Spent time looking for rain gear (the micro-brolly, basically), since supposedly there’s going to be a rainstorm later (hurrah! finally!). Ready to go.

8:45am Fifteen minutes later than I intended to (how did that happen?), I set off to walk to the Sunset/Vermont Red Line subway station. Waved to a neighbour, and we exchanged pleasantries about how nice a day it was.

8:47am Walked past surprised neighbour back toward home…. briskly.

8:52am Riding the Brompton (the folding bike, for those of you not keeping up), I cycled off to the Sunset/Vermont station.

9:01am Arrive at said station on schedule (one minute late does not count in LA), and […] Click to continue reading this post

They’re Out There (Probably)

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

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

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

A bit of Sex with your Higgs

Remember that Nick Evans (physicist at Southampton University) wrote a mystery/thriller (set in and around the exciting particle physics at the LHC at CERN) that you can download from his website? It’s called “The Newtonian Legacy”, in case you were not aware of it. It was notable for (among other things such as the pedagogical explanations, in a fictional setting, of the particle physics such as the Higgs particle being discussed a lot in the press of late – see related articles at bottom of the post) not being shy to blow the covers off the remarkably exciting life of sex and drugs we high energy physicists lead1.

Well, having got some sex and murder into the Times Higher Education Supplement[…] Click to continue reading this post