Yesterday I sneaked on to campus for a few hours. I’m on family leave (as I mentioned earlier) and so I’ve not been going to campus unless I more or less have to. Yesterday was one of those days that I decided was a visit day and so visit I did. I went to say hi to a visitor to the Mathematics Department, Sylvester James Gates Jr., an old friend who I’ve known for many years. He was giving the CAMS (Center for Applied Mathematical Sciences) distinguished lecture with the title “How Attempting To Answer A Physics Question Led Me to Graph Theory, Error-Correcting Codes, Coxeter Algebras, and Algebraic Geometry”. You can see him in action in the picture above.
I was able to visit with Jim for a while (lunch with him and CAMS director Susan Friedlander), and then hear the talk, which was very interesting. I wish he’d had time to say more on all the connections he mentioned in the title, but what he did explain sounded rather interesting. It is all about the long unsolved problem of finding certain kinds of (unconstrained, off-shell) representations of extended supersymmetry. (Supersymmetry is, you may know, a symmetry that […] Click to continue reading this post
Here is a page of a lovely set of (public domain) images of comets and meteors, as depicted in various ways through the centuries. The above sample is from the famous […] Click to continue reading this post
I’ll be on family leave this semester (because… see here), so that means I’ll be intensely busy with other matters most of the time, and will be doing a lot less in the areas of teaching, events, committees, etc. But there will be some things here and there, including things that I’d promised to do before I knew I’d be taking leave. One of them is a discussion on graphic novels for the Harman Academy of Polymathic Study here at USC. (While sitting up bleary-eyed with a very small person in the wee hours of Monday morning I designed the graphics for the postcard they will use for advertising the event. They kindly asked me if some samples of my work could be used, and so the graphic above is what I came up with (they added the logos and event info), made from parts of pages of the work-in-progress book.)
In various ways, the graphic novel is a nice example of the confluence of lots of disciplines and different modes of communication, and as such is a good “polymathic” topic to discuss with the students of the academy (part of the point of the enterprise is for them to learn about how going beyond the narrow constraints of subject or discipline can be of tremendous value, so they study people and creative endeavours that have benefited from that approach – see their website for more). I’ll be joined on the panel by Professor Henry Jenkins (from the Schools of Communication, Cinematic Arts, and Education), and Professor Dana Johnson (from the Department of English), both of whom are real experts in the graphic novel – they are involved in teaching the form, and […] Click to continue reading this post
Happy New Year! So, it is the second of January. You’ve spent all of the day yesterday recovering from the euphoria (and perhaps revelry) of New Year’s Eve, and so today it is time for the traditional next thing on the new calendar: Planning what you’ll do next New Year’s Eve, of course!
Before doing that however, if you are a research physicist, I’d like to invite you to consider doing something else: Plan your Summer research travel. What I am really trying to do is to make you aware that the end of this month is the deadline for applying to attend the Aspen Center for Physics during some period inside the Summer operating dates Memorial Day (in May) to around Labor Day (September). Now, a lot of people (too many, in my and the opinion of others who care about the ACP) just assume that the place is not for them, for a number of reasons that are really not good ones. So let me address one or two quickly right now.
First, it is not an old boy’s country club. It is for everyone, working in all* fields of physics. Don’t apply and you have zero chance of getting in. Apply and there is […] Click to continue reading this post
Good News Everyone!
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
(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
A quick note I made over on facebook, concerning the recently released public archive of Einstein papers…
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Found in the box for a ball I bought. Wondering if perhaps our Universe was made by the same company…
P.S. Concerned now, because this was a replacement ball. The first one developed a mysterious rift in its fabric and rapidly deflated.
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Since people were asking for copies of my slides from my colloquium chalkboard-style talk on black holes and the things I call “holographic heat engines” last month at Harvey Mudd College, I decided to export them as a movie. You can find it on YouTube. Link below. It was a 50 minute talk, but all the builds are compressed down to a 6 minute file! I try to keep the bulk of the narrative in my head and speak it with the slides as visual aids (instead of writing everything on the slides as is often the practice) and so I do not know […] Click to continue reading this post
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(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 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
Yesterday’s graduate class in electromagnetism had a bit of extra fun. We did a particular computation in some detail, and arrived at a pair of results. We thought about the main features of the equations we’d derived and I then asked the class if they could think of an example. An example with those equations essentially written all over it. It was the sky. Not just the blueness of the sky (for which the result supplies a partial answer) but the pattern of blueness on the sky, especially when looking through your polarised sunglasses. (You know how you tilt your head when wearing them and you can darken or lighten the sky a bit? Well, that effect is way more effective if you are looking in a direction at right angles to the sun as opposed to either toward or away from the sun.)
So I took the class outside to gaze upon the sky in person, rather than just sit and talk about it. Actually, a little bit of knowledge about the pattern of blue in the sky is useful in a lot of ways. For example it is amusing to me to see how often architects and their artist collaborators get the sky wrong in renderings of […] Click to continue reading this post
I love chalkboards (or blackboards if you prefer). I love showing up to give a talk somewhere and just picking up the chalk and going for it. No heavily over-packed slides full of too many fast moving things, as happens too much these days. If there is coloured chalk available, that’s fantastic – special effects. It is getting harder to find these boards however. Designers of teaching rooms and other spaces seem embarrassed by them, and so they either get smaller or disappear, often in favour of the less than magical whiteboard.
So in my continued reinvention of the way I produce slides for projection (I do this every so often), I’ve gone another step forward in returning to the look (and […] Click to continue reading this post
As promised on Tuesday, below you will find my Screen Junkies interview where I chat with Hal Rudnick about some of the science in Interstellar. We covered a lot of topics and went into a lot of detail, but a lot of that is on the cutting room floor in order to make a svelte (but relatively generous) ten minute cut. I hope you enjoy it. (See my earlier thoughts on why I think scientists need […] Click to continue reading this post
The UCLA group is hosting the next Southern California String Seminar, the long running once a semester (mostly) regional event that roves around the various high energy groups in the region (more here). It is on Friday!
There’s schedule and other information here. The schedule goes something like this: […] Click to continue reading this post
Just finished another enjoyable hour of chatting about movies and science with the Screen Junkies guys! You’ll recall the fun results of the last two (see here on Time Travel and here on Guardians of the Galaxy). We were talking about… wait for it… Interstellar! Their legions of fans have been shouting at them to do something about the science in Interstellar for weeks now, and they heard them, and called me in to chat. In the course of an hour we talked about a lot of fun things, but remember – they’ll cut it all down to 5 minutes or so, and so we won’t get to a lot of things. I do not know what bits will be used… (It will be different from my spoiler-free recent Interstellar discussion.)
In my previous visits there I’d never got to see the famous Screen Junkies wall in front of which they have conducted so many fun interviews (see their site […] Click to continue reading this post
After emerging from a spectacular 70mm viewing of Interstellar at the Arclight Dome last night, I was grinning from ear to ear, which is unusual these days after seeing a film in this subject area (science fiction, space travel, the future of humanity, etc). (And by science fiction here I mean proper science fiction, not space opera or space adventure. There’s a lot of that and some of it is fun and makes me grin too, like this Summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s not at all the same sort of thing.)
I’m not going to go into any details, since I am very tired of the practice of talking about films to the extent that you say so much of what happens that it is impossible for someone to enjoy watching the film unfold in front of them without knowing what comes next, the way I like my films best. So I’m not going to ruin things for you.
Everybody keeps asking me “what did you think of the science?” since they know that there’s a lot of stuff in there that relates to my subject area and interests. Many seem to want me to pronounce on what’s “good” and whats “bad” about the science, as though I’ve (like many scientists in the public sphere seem to have done) elected myself some sort of guardian of scientific ideas. Let me say two things. The first is that this is a science fiction film, not a science documentary. I’m already hearing all sort of humourless declarations about this and that and the other being wrong and how shameful it is, as happened with Gravity last year. Done right, such discussions can be an opportunity to teach a bit about science ideas, but most often it just comes across as being a smartass, which is a bit tedious, and leads me to my second point.
The second point is something I say a lot and needs to be said a lot more: Scientists don’t own science and its concepts and ideas. We should be careful […] Click to continue reading this post
I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.
But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know of the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.
Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). The film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down […] Click to continue reading this post
(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!
It was a great audience, who seemed to enjoy the 20 minute talk as part of […] Click to continue reading this post
My guess is that most of you don’t know that you can find original science programming on the Weather Channel. (Just like, say, 8 years ago most of you would not have been tuning to the History Channel for original science programming about how the Universe works, but many of you know better – (and thanks for watching The Universe!)) Well, this week one of the series that they have that does do some science, Secrets of the Earth, comes back for a new season.
I made some contributions to several of the episodes, and I think I appear in at least two of them as a guest. So look at the whole season for some tasty bits of science about the world around you, and if inclined to, do […] Click to continue reading this post
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
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!
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I’m on the road. I gave a seminar at the University of Michigan yesterday, and spent the working day chatting with various physicists at the department there, exchanging ideas, catching up on what people are up to, etc. The seminar itself went ok. I’ve been talking about extended gravitational thermodynamics, the subject of all my papers so far this year. I think I paced things a bit poorly (trying to squeeze in results from two papers while at the same time being pedagogical about the basic material since it is not familiar to most), so had to rush at the end, but I got the main points in. Lots of good questions.
At the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised by the offer of whiskey in the break room. Apparently it is a Friday tradition. I began to wonder, and made some inquiries and found out to my delight that it is a direct decendant of a tradition that I (co-) started back in the mid-90s in Santa Barbara!
It was a long time ago, so I am hazy on who the core people were who regularly kept […] Click to continue reading this post
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!*
*I learned this from the blog Nanoscale Views.
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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
So I discovered a terrifying (but also kind of fascinating and beautiful at the same time) new element to the garden this morning. We’re having a heat wave here, and so this morning before leaving for work I thought I’d give the tomato plants a spot of moisture. I passed one of the tomato clusters and noticed that one of the (still green) tomatoes had a large bite taken out of it. I assumed it was an experimental bite from a squirrel (my nemesis – or one of them), and muttered dark things under my breath and then prepared to move away the strange coiled leaf that seemed to be on top of it. Then I noticed.
It wasn’t a leaf.
It was a HUGE caterpillar! Enormous! Giant and green with spots and even a red horn at one end! There’s a moment when you’re unexpectedly close to a creature like that where your skin crawls for a bit. Well, mine did for a while […] Click to continue reading this post
You may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
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So 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
Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set […] Click to continue reading this post
Back in LA, I had an amusing day the other day going from this* in the TV studio…
involving a laser and liquid nitrogen (so, around -320 F, if you must use those units), to this in the kitchen:
involving butter, flour, water and shortening… (and once in the oven, around +350 F) which ultimately resulted in this: […] Click to continue reading this post
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