I just learned* that Ken Wilson died a few days ago (June 15th). Wilson is another of the giants that you don’t hear much about in the popular media coverage of the great ideas in Physics that form the bedrock of so much of what we do. You still get people saying utter nonsense about “hiding infinities” in physics and so forth (often in discussions on blogs and various similar forums (fora?)) because what he taught us all about effective field theory and the renormalization group still is only taught in some advanced classes on quantum field theory (and still not as well or frequently as it should be in such classes … it has only relatively recently begun to be put at the forefront in textbooks on the subject, such as Tony Zee’s). In the cut and thrust of the mainstream of research though, I’m happy to see that so much of Wilson’s legacy is in the most basic fabric of the language we use to discuss results and ideas in particle physics, condensed matter physics, quantum gravity, string theory, and so forth.
I had the distinct privilege of having Joe Polchinski as a mentor for some of my postdoc years, who is known as being one of the current giants on the scene who Continue reading ‘Effective’
I spotted* this lovely post from a year ago about colour, culture, and language that I thought I’d share. What does the map of colour and colour names look like as you move from culture to culture. And are there universal aspects to it, or is it pretty random?
I find this a fascinating topic, and so was delighted to see this post, which addresses a lot of the questions. (You’ll find links there to an episode of Radiolab that was on a similar topic. I recommend that too.) Coincidentally, two pages before the part of my notebook where I’m doing a computation right now is Continue reading ‘Colour and Culture’
The crowd watching Devo on stage at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday celebration (click for larger view)
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**:
Adam Steltzner talking about the Curiosity Mission at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday bash
If you’re in town on Sunday 9th June, I strongly recommend coming along to this! The Natural History Museum is having its 100th Birthday celebration with an all day series of events. There’ll be new spaces and exhibits opening, including the new gardens they’ve been building for some time, and so there’s plenty to explore that will be new, and partly outdoors on a (hopefully) lovely day. (See here for an LA Times article on some of the changes.) As the day draws into the evening, there’ll be a real party brewing, with bands, DJs, bars, and so forth (see below). Kicking off the evening part of the proceedings at 6:30pm will be a talk and Q+A with JPL’s Adam Steltzner (of the Mars Curiosity Mission), in a spot hosted by me.
Friday’s Southern California Strings Seminar was a success! Thanks to all who came, who spoke, and the UCLA organizers. I enjoyed all four talks that were put on, and learned a lot from each. (Sera Cremonini is giving her nice talk about duals of hyperscaling violating theories in the photo.)
A creative team at IBM made a rather elaborate little stop motion film recently*. “Little” is a key word here. The moveable elements are atoms (well, actually CO molecules), moved with a scanning tunnelling microscope! They are calling the project “Atomic Shorts”, it seems. (Pause…) Yep, on reflection, I think I will stay away from all the obvious juvenile jokes that spring to my mind…
Yeah. Scary, right? I woke up one morning to this result (see earlier posts here, here, and here) from a night of an intensive computer run. It was not meant to be a straight line, but pretty close to it, so I knew that something was wrong with my code. Took me a good long while to trace the problem, but I did in the end. My signal was being swamped by both Continue reading ‘Something’s not quite right, perhaps?’
It has been a while since I shared a snippet of the book project with you, so here’s an update:
Yesterday I completed a short burst of activity in which I re-did two pages in a story that were just horrible to behold. This is a panel form one of the pages. I’m pleased Continue reading ‘Ok, Here Goes’
Well, I’ve got to say goodbye to another excellent group of students from my undergraduate electromagnetism class. We had the final today (starting at 8:00am – ack!), and given the lack of rioting, tears, and throwing of rotten fruit during the exam itself, I assume that it was not too bad an exam to sit. Of course, the real measure of what they thought will be how they did in the actual answering of questions, and I’ve not looked to see how that has turned out yet.
Again, I feel a bit sad since it was a good group of students and it was fun to teach them this material. While it is certainly good to move on to other things (I’ve too many projects I want to work on, as usual), I will miss the twice weekly classes with them. Highlights this year include (in no particular order):
(1) The thing I love to do when we are studying dipole radiation – taking the class outside (surprising them somewhat) to look up at the blue sky and connect why it is blue to the computation we just did, including understanding the pattern of the blueness Continue reading ‘Final’
So I’ve moved on to curved lines now, in case you’re wondering. (See previousposts.) The last several days (the research parts) have been taken up with more computations. A lot of the time has been spent calibrating the programs, and trying to assess and understand and characterize the inevitable errors that show up, by running the programs and checking the resulting plots of data points against expectations shaped by hand calculations. Calculating on the train to and from work, I’ve filled several pages of my small notebook with computations, alongside sketches of some of my surroundings as usual (people mostly). As a result (fingers crossed) I think I’ve now understood all the key aspects of the results I’ve been getting, and have good numerical control of things. To get such control, I’ve had to push the error tolerance and the size of the grid of points I’m computing on to regimes where I’m back again to waiting for the better part of an hour for each data point. (One sets up the problem on the computer by making continuous variables, such as space and time, into discrete ones, forming a grid. The problem is then to use various Continue reading ‘Lines of Thought’
How is the line coming along? It is very kind of you to ask (if indeed you were). Well, there it is to the left. (See the previous post for background.) In the end, I abandoned Maple since it was taking way too long to do each point, and just for the simple example. (When I tried to do one sample point of the complicated example it took 24 hours and I stopped it before it was done!) The point is that Maple does not easily Continue reading ‘A Much Shorter Straight Line’
I’ve been multitasking in an interesting way. Sort of. I’ve reached a certain point with some computations I am doing that I cannot go beyond by analytic means. This means that I can’t extract the physics I need by doing algebra and other exact manipulations on paper any more. Progress can continue however by using numerical means, employing a computer to solve the highly non-linear equations and extract the juice. There are several steps involved, and ultimately, I want to determine how a certain physical quantity depends on another physical quantity. (I’m sparing you the trouble of knowing what the details of the physical quantities are, since it does not matter for the thing I am trying to tell you. It relates to quantum field theory, gravity, and string theory, which connects the two.)
I can see that dependence quite clearly if I simply plot a graph of one versus the other, and in this case I need the computer to work out what the points on that graph are. I actually don’t know the answer for the cases I really am interested in, nobody does (that’s why it is research!), and so that’s what I want to find. I want lots of points to get a nice smooth graph, so the computer has to compute a lot of points, and I need to run it for a long time since I want it to compute the points very accurately. So I wrote a program (in Maple) to work on the problem, studying just one Continue reading ‘A Very Long Straight Line’
You 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 I 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 theory 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.
Well, yes, I’ve been a bit busy and so posting has been slow over the last week. But I am still alive, and here I am with a sample of one of the several things I was doing. It is some work on the graphic book project. (You’ll be happy that I am sparing you details of tedious committees, faculty meetings, confusing snippets of physics, incomplete musings and computations, etc…)
As mentioned recently, I’ve been doing thumbnails and rough page layouts on one of the stories, and that has been useful for editing and rewriting. I went further and improved an earlier story that I’d written that had mostly been drawn already, and so that encouraged me to do slightly tighter page layouts so as to fit them more closely to the story as it was already drawn, for a smoother final read. I’ll need to find Continue reading ‘How is that Supposed to Work, Exactly?’
Waveguides are fun. I mean on the page, although I imagine that they are fun to play with as fully realized physical objects too. But I was talking about them in the context of teaching undergraduate electromagnetism, as I am doing on my class this semester. I tell the class after the second week of class or so that we’re essentially done, and can all head to the beach since by then we’ve completed the derivation of Maxwell’s equations, which describe fully all electromagnetic phenomena. The rest of the class is essentially a semester of picking various situations in which we deploy the equations and study particular solutions. Of course, they realize that there is reason to stay, since that’s really the heart of it – studying those various situations and appreciating the range of delights those equations can yield. Among the most fascinating and delightful of those, er, delights, is light. Electromagnetic waves in general, and we study them in a whole lot of situations, including nipping along unfettered in free space, in conducting materials Continue reading ‘Lecture Thoughts’
In other interesting announcements today, the great physicist Alexander Polyakov has been given the Fundamental Physics Prize. (See the announcement here.) There was a remarkable award ceremony in Geneva yesterday, hosted by Morgan Freeman, and with lots of Physicists and others celebrating great work in various areas of physics. Polyakov has been a key and brilliant leader in many areas of theoretical physics, and influenced so many ideas and techniques that have fed into the whole field, and so this is a well deserved recognition.
I must note that it is a bit sad (to say the least) to do a google search on the news about this prize and see so many articles with a lot of just plain stupid focussing on a big prize going to a “string theorist”, as though this is somehow negative or ironic, and also missing the fact that Polyakov’s contributions are so broad and far-reaching Continue reading ‘Congratulations!’
Well, the day is here. The Planck collaboration has announced a huge amount of results for the consumption of the scientific community and the media today. The Planck satellite looks with unprecedented precision at the very earliest radiation (“cosmic microwave background radiation”, CMB) from the universe when it was very young (a wee, cute 380,000 years old) and helps us deduce many things about what the universe was like then, and what it is like now. Here’s one of the representations of the universe using the new sky mapping Planck did (image courtesy ESA/Planck):
There’s a ton of data, and a raft of papers with analysis and conclusions. And there’s a very nice press release. I recommend looking at it. It is here, and the papers are here. The title of the press release is “Planck reveals an almost perfect Universe”, and some of the excitement is in the “almost” part. A number of anomalies that were hinted at by the previous explorer of the CMB, WMAP, seem to have been confirmed by Planck, and so there are some important things to be understood in order to figure out the origin of the anomalies (if they ultimately turn out to be real physics and not data artefacts). [Update: Andrew Jaffe has two nice posts I recommend. One on the science, and the other on the PR. Jester also has a nice post on the science from a particle physicist's perspective.]
What is the title of my post referring to? Well, the refined measurements have allowed us to update some of the vital statistics of the universe. First, it is a bit older than previous measurements have indicated. The age is now measured as 13.82 billion years. (I’m already updating pages in the draft of my book…) Second, the proportion of ingredients Continue reading ‘Known Unknowns Decreased a Bit’
So it’s very much worth noting that there are some new announcements from earlier this week concerning last years’ landmark discovery at the Large Hadron Collider. The news is that a Higgs particle was discovered. There were several news stories about it in the last few days. This might be a bit confusing, and many of you are thinking that this is recycling news from last year concerning the discovery of the Higgs. It is not recycling. If you go back and look at the results that were announced last year, there was an important note of caution, notable in the fact that the particle discovered was referred to as “Higgs-like”. More analysis was needed to be sure that it was indeed a particle that fits the name Higgs. Well, that analysis has been done, with more data included and so forth, and both experiments (CMS and ATLAS) are now sure that they are seeing a Higgs particle, and indeed it is one that is very close to what you’d expect for the Standard Model of particle physics.
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.
Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)
Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)
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 Continue reading ‘Science on Screen – Primer’
Today (Tuesday) saw me up at 6:30am to prepare for an 8:00am call time for a shoot on a special episode of – wait for it – Deadliest Space Weather. It is original programming for the Weather channel, and before you dismiss it because of the title, it turns out that it is not a bad idea for exploring various scientific concepts. The first season ended a few weeks ago. I’d not realized it was airing until recently, and actually those recent demos I told you about were used in examinations of planetary conditions on Venus and on Mars. (Two separate episodes.) The idea seems to be to consider what it would be like on earth if the conditions were like those on Venus, or consider what what happen if you went outdoors on Mars.
So you might think it is silly, but if done well, it is actually an opportunity to
explain some science to an audience who might not have been the usual science audience…in which case I’m happy to be on board! In addition to spectacularly showing what happens when sugar and sulphuric acid meet, I got to show how to boil Continue reading ‘Tales from the Industry XXXIX – Magnetic Weather?’
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 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 Continue reading ‘Primer, and More…’
A while ago I got an email out of the blue from an enthusiastic young fellow who wanted to do an interview with me on camera for his YouTube channel. After we bounced emails back and forth a bit and I got a sense that this was both legitimate, worth supporting, and that I had time to do it, we agreed that we’d meet to do it. So we met at the excellent Mystery and Imagination bookshop in Glendale, and he set the camera running and threw a bunch of questions at me. We talked about all sorts of things from dark matter, the LHC, supersymmetry and string theory to trumpets, jazz clubs, and noir films.
It was fun, and you can find the results on his YouTube channel (here), that he hopes to populate with more interviews with people working in science and other topics. He’s got an interview with mathematical physicist John Baez up there already, so go and look.
Below I’ve embedded the interview with me, for your convenience.
There’s a news article out about the results of the USC Science Film Competition that you might like to read. It is by Susan Bell and it is in USC Dornsife News here. In there, you’ll find interviews with one of the winning teams of students, as well as with me. I talk about my reasons for running this competition each year and what I hope to achieve. (Photo courtesy of USC Dornsife.)
The showcase and awards ceremony, held on January 23rd, was a success, and it was a pleasure to meet with many of the students who participated, and feel the buzz of excitement in the room. Thanks everyone who participated, including the panel of judges for their hard work. Once again, the Anton Burg Foundation supported the competition (funding things like the large prizes I had the pleasure of giving away) and we’re all very grateful for that.
The showcase and awards ceremony for the Science Film Competition is tomorrow (Wednesday)! It’ll be in the film school, at the Stark Family Theater (SCA 108), at 7:00pm. I’ll be screening films that were entered into the competition, and then at the end of the evening, giving out large prizes! $3000 first prize, $2000 second, and $1000 third. Should be a fun evening, with refreshments after the ceremony!
At my meeting in San Antonio, I just saw a nice article by Brian Jacobsmeyer on APS’ Physics Central with an interesting take on art mixing with physics. (A subject you know is close to my heart, given The (graphic novel) Project) (The article was the subject of part of the meeting, ao I was paying attention!) It is actually about fluid dynamics and Rayleigh-Taylor mixing, if you want to be specific, and you’ll recognize it in other images in astronomy, and elsewhere. There’s an interesting film associated with it too, which is linked in the article. Here’s an extract to get you started (link at the end):
(Photo: Taken during the break in the back room at Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. The Hot 8 were playing late into the night – super loud and energetic in the tiny space – and it was great. A really classic New Orleans sound.)
Having returned from the (excellent) New Orleans trip (lots of food, lots of music), I started to turn my attention to things like the final preparations for the Science Film Competition – the submissions are due Monday and the showcase is on the 23rd – and preparations for the lecture course on Electromagnetism I’ll be giving, starting Monday. But then I got hit by a virus, and yesterday was lost to the violent swings between freezing cold and boiling hot that accompanies an intense shivering fever. Continue reading ‘Music Matters’
I was interviewed by an online publication called The Arts and Entertainment Magazine for their 1st January edition. You might find it interesting, since I talk about some of the themes I bring up here a lot, such as trying to improve public understanding of science, and various projects connected to that sort of thing. It is here. Enjoy!
Actually, they’ve started doing a series of spotlights on various scientists, so browse through the website for other interviews, if that interests you.
…of Mexico. It was an excellent evening again this year (November 30th, actually). This was the second one (the first was in 2010) and I think the idea is to try to make it an annual event. It is in that great space downtown, Vibiana, the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana (now de-frocked, I suppose).
Anyway, the fellow (photograph right) making something (whatever it was) using liquid nitrogen caught my scientist’s eye (I usually carry a couple with me when I go out). It reminded me of the ice-cream people used to make at various departmental parties in physics departments in my past. (Always seemed like a good idea for novelty, but I never ate any of the ice-cream. I think I’m a fan of making things like that the slow way, letting the flavours settle in…) I wondered what he was making, but did not wait to find out since I was not on my own and a crowd immediately formed around him.
What? The final exam I set on Friday. I spent a lot of time trying to get this final exam right. The problem is that I tend to decide at some point that I want to set an “interesting” exam, and then this usually ends up being more work for me than for the students, since I not only have to think of the questions and make them the right level of difficulty (made harder by being open book and, in this case, a take home -well, take to where ever for 4 hours), but then endlessly debug to see that it has no mistakes (since I won’t be present to answer questions). This time, I spent a lot of time on units, since I wanted to set an exam that kept all the factors of c and mu and epsilon present in all the relativistic notation and right down to the final unpacked Maxwell equations and all the quantities they computed in various examples. I decided to have them explore a little non-linear electrodynamics, since everything they’d seen was mostly linear. You start with the familiar (Maxwell) form of the equations:
Well, Thursday’s meeting was a blast! I had decided not to try to get people to RSVP for the meeting this time, and so when it came down to the day before, I had no idea how many were going to show up. This meant that I had to make some guesses about how much coffee and tea and cookies to organize, which was a little bit of a challenge. But just before 9:00am people began to show up, and kept showing up, and by time I was ready to start off the day’s meeting, there was a really good crowd!
You might remember that during the Spring and early Summer I was deeply embroiled in making a film. (See several earlier posts, e.g. here, here, here, and here).) It was a short film to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Aspen Center for Physics, and I was keen (in my role as filmmaker) to give it a treatment that benefits from my being a theoretical physicist, and one who is familiar enough with the Center, all in order to get the right tone of the film. (Jump to the end of the post if you want to see it without more background thoughts.) There’s a spirit of the Center that is quiet, reflective, and inspiring of thoughts that need time to be explored, so I definitely did not want the usual loud, buzzing, overly busy type of film that you often see about science activity. It did not seem appropriate. Working with Dave Gaw (who was an awesome principal cinematographer and editor for the project) and with Bob Melisso (who shared some of the production and direction work with me), I think the result strikes the right note overall. A fun side note: I got to design a number of unique (and definitely handcrafted) elements for the look that I think you’ll like and recognize from other visual work of mine you’ve seen on this blog, and just as with my earlier film projects from 2009 (see here and here) it was a real buzz to help figure out how to make them fly, and then see the elements come together in their final form up on screen.
People really seemed to like the film a lot, from what I’ve heard. (It was shown extensively at many of the Summer events celebrating the 50th at the Center.) So while it did take a lot of my time, it seems like it was time well worth spending since Continue reading ‘Premiering…!’
The next Southern California Strings Seminar is on Thursday 13th December! I’ve now made the website for this one and it is here. Come back to it from time to time to see the updates of talk titles as speakers let me know what they are. It is a one-day event filled with five talks and plenty of time for discussion. I’ve snagged a lovely room in the Doheny library again. (Photo left has a shot of the room we used last time it was at USC in May 2011. The most recent one was over at UCLA.)
Recall the mock science doc I pointed you to earlier, the Fifth Feeling? Well, all the episodes are now online in HD, on Funny Or Die. You can see the remaining episodes (3, 4, and 5 since I posted) now, or watch them all, since they look great in HD. (Or maybe because you’re simply a huge Ray Wise fan from the good ol’ Twin Peaks days..?) Here’s episode 1 again to get you started if you’ve not seen the setup, and from there you can jump to the others*:
…Again. I’ll be on the road again this morning. Heading to California State University Long Beach. They invited me to give a colloquium a while back and I agreed, and when I returned from New York last week I realized I needed to urgently spend a chunk of time thinking about what I was going to talk about, and designing a set of slides for it. The last couple of days saw me devoting a lot of time to it. Eventually I decided to dig back into ancient times (the 1990s) surveying some of the interesting things we’ve learned about strong coupling phenomena (involving unexpected reorganization of degrees of freedom and the number of spacetime dimensions at times), and then discuss what it all might be good for in view of work going on in the last decade or so.
Come to think of it just this moment, this is a chance to do a tribute to David Olive, who passed away earlier this month. (He was one of my professors when I was at Imperial College in the ’80s.) Ideas of strong/weak coupling dualities and their utility were given a huge boost by his work in this area from decades ago, perhaps the most famous being Montonen-Olive duality… I must remember to mention that in the talk. (See here for an archive of 2004 talks in celebration of his work. I borrowed the image to the right from there. I do not know who took it.)
Here’s the first slide of my TEDYouth talk from Saturday. It was time consuming but fun to draw all those hands and tiny items of various sorts. The whole talk was about what I call “hidden structures”, which in a sense is what my field (high energy physics, particle physics, cosmology, string theory, etc.,) is all about. To help motivate it all, I started by talking about opening up your smart phone and figuring out how it works by taking it apart and discovering the components inside, and using the rules of how to put them together to deduce the structure of other things (see that second stage of the slide being delivered on stage*).
That was a fantastic day! Worth all the preparation. I am too exhausted to tell you much about it in person, but why not look at some of the descriptions of the talks and other activities that were put up on the TEDYouth blog? You can see a report from session 1 here and from session 2 here. In my photo you can see the two main hosts Kelly Stoetzel (who also co-curated the event, as she does for other TED events) and Rives getting everyone ready for the whole day that lay ahead. I was super-impressed with the standard of all the talks, and the variety. And I got to talk to a lot of the speakers at a reception afterward, which was great! The young people seemed really excited to be at the event and meet the speakers, and I enjoyed talking to them too – so many great questions!
Congratulations to all of the TED people for putting on such a great event.