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

LHC Podcasts: Science Meets Science Fiction

Confession: I’ve no idea what Torchwood is, and I find the current Dr. Who shows annoying overall (there have been some good episodes that I’ve seen, but they’re swamped in a sea of such poorly thought through and simply phoned-in crappy episodes that I find it too annoying to take the risk of wasting an hour I could have better spent with my head in the oven…) Feel free to disagree with me, and I have not seen the most recent season, so maybe things are better.

LHC You TubeBut anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Someone called John Barrowman (apparently one of the stars on those shows? He plays a scientist? I honestly don’t know, but you will, if you’re a fan) took a visit to CERN (the particle physics lab in Europe you often read about here and elsewhere) to better inform himself about the intersection between science and science fiction. One of the resulting jumpy noisy and (reportedly) fun videos can be found on YouTube here. There are some somewhat interesting animations alongside some of the, er…jolly madcap fun, illustrating the physics. Following the particles along the beam-pipe to the collision is not a view I’ve seen before, I’ll admit.
Much more interesting is something they mention at the end. A series of podcasts on the LHC (the big experiment at CERN we’re all interested in and excited about). This is driven by Brian Cox (no, not that one, this one, the physicist), and seems to be in a […] Click to continue reading this post

Back To the Future

fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the […] Click to continue reading this post

Novel Physics

Well, I got an email from my dear friend and collaborator Nick Evans on Tuesday, and in all the craziness of my work week, I forgot to do this post. In the email, he says:

nick evansWe talked on a few occasions about the need for physics to meet popular culture… sooo.. over the last 2 years I’ve put together a novel about particle physics… it’s quite high level – aimed at A-level science students really… but hopefully it’s fun… I was really playing with mixing a novel and popular science… it’s mainly LHC science …[…] … we’ve done it as a web book Outreach project. [link here]

If it intrigues have a read…

So I’m passing it on to you. I’ve not found the time to read it, but I trust Nick enough to know that it is certainly worth a look. (To resolve a possible transatlantic confusion, I should mention that “A-level science students” in what he said does not refer to “grade A science students”. It refers to a specific subject level in the UK school system.)

Enjoy! (Come back and let us know what you think…)


(See also blog comments by Nick’s former student, Jonathan Shock.)
Click to continue reading this post

Poincaré on Studio 60

sphererabbitDid anyone else spot the Poincaré conjecture reference on Monday’s episode of Aaron Sorkin’s excellent Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? (Recall that I mentioned another science reference on this show in an earlier post.) A writer is trying to find a punchline to a joke. The joke is supposed to be in the style of the headline news on Saturday Night Live… […] Click to continue reading this post

Work on the Play Day

science play cartoon cvj“The Play’s The Thing!” you yelled, as you got out of bed this morning. Well, at least for today. Today, you’ll mostly be sitting in one place with manuscript, paper and pencil. Scribbling. Crossing out. Scribbling some more. Making notes, etc.

Yes, today is work-on-the-play day and it will be very interesting, since you’ve not looked at the thing for a long time due to other commitments. Certainly not since it was read by real actors with real people in the audience at the Pasadena Playhouse during the Summer, although you could not attend, due to being out of town. You wonder if it was as fun as the other public reading, and whether readings will ever be as magical to you as that first private one.

Looking at the manuscript with fresh eyes, you’ll form the opinion that it has become a bit […] Click to continue reading this post

Strings on Sunset

So I heard something on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip just now. (This is the new show written by Aaron Sorkin that I instinctively started to watch a couple of weeks ago because I like his writing, and it is actually a drama about the process of writing, so what’s not to like? -Ok, I’m a bit bothered by the overall annoyingness of the lead actress’ performance, but I imagine she’ll get better.)

I caught a line that went something like “we’re not looking for a girl with a phd in… string theory or anything, ok? There’ll be at least half a dozen women there who’ve […] Click to continue reading this post