Sunday Assembly – Origin Stories

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

On the Road, with Whiskey…

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!

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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

STEM Keynote

keynote_at_stem_divide_cvjAs I mentioned, a couple of Saturdays ago I gave the keynote address at a one-day conference designed to introduce STEM Careers to underrepresented students from various neighboring schools. The event* was co-sponsored by the Level Playing Field Institute, but sadly the details of it seem to have vanished from their site now that the event has passed, which is unfortunate. It was good to see a room full of enthusiastic students wanting to learn more about such careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and I tried to give some thoughts about some of the reasons that there’s such poor representation by people of color (the group I was asked to focus on, although I mentioned that many of my remarks also extended to women to some extent) in such fields, and what can be done about it. Much of my focus, as you can guess from the issues I bring up here from time to time, was on battling the Culture: The perception people have of who “belongs” and who does not, and how that perception makes people act, consciously or otherwise, the images we as a society present and perpetuate in our media and in our conversations and conventions throughout everyday life, and so on. I used my own experience as an example at various points, which may or may not have been helpful – I don’t know.

My experience, in part and in brief, is this: I went a long way into being excited [...] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou 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):
[...] Click to continue reading this post

Meanwhile, Somewhere Down South…

hotel_down_south_1st_Sept_2014So 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

And Back…

subway_sketches_27_08_2014It is a new semester, and a new academic year. So this means getting back into the routine of lots of various aspects of the standard professor gig. For me this also involves being back in LA and taking the subway, and so this means getting (when it is not too busy as it seems to get a lot now) to sketch people. The guy with the red sunglasses was on his way to USC as well, and while he was reading or playing a game on his phone (such things are a blessing to sketchers… they help people hold in a fixed position for good stretches of time) I was able to get a quick sketch done in a few stops on the Expo line before we all got off. The other guy with the oddly trimmed beard was just briefly seen on the Red line, and so I did not get to make much of him…

I’m teaching electromagnetism at graduate level again this semester, and so it ought to be fun, given that it is such a fun topic. I hope that the group of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Making and Baking….

Back in LA, I had an amusing day the other day going from this* in the TV studio…
photo_laser_mirage_shoot_small involving a laser and liquid nitrogen (so, around -320 F, if you must use those units), to this in the kitchen:
tasty_things_1 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

Mountain Sketch

I went for a little hike on Sunday. Usually when I’m here visiting at the Aspen Center for Physics I go on several hikes, but this year it looks like I will only do one, and a moderate one at that. I had a bit of a foot injury several weeks ago, so don’t want to put too much stress on it for a while. If you’ve looked at the Aspen Center film (now viewable on YouTube!) you’ll know from some of the interviews that this is a big component of many physicist’s lives while at the Center. I find that it is nice to get my work to a point where I can step back from a calculation and think a bit more broadly about the physics for a while. A hike is great for that, and in all likelihood one comes back from the hike with new ideas and insights (as happened for me on this hike – more later)… maybe even an idea for a new calculation.

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So I took the bus up to the Maroon Bells and hiked up to Crater Lake and a bit beyond into the West Maroon Valley, hunting a few wildflowers. I will share some pictures of those later. (I’ve heard that they are great up at Buckskin pass, and I was tempted to push on up to there, but I resisted the temptation.) I brought along several pens, watercolour pencils, and a water brush (for the watercolour pencils) because I’d decided that I would do some sketches at various points… you know, really sit with the landscape and drink it in – in that [...] Click to continue reading this post

Café Talk

cafe_sketch_27_06_14 Here’s a quick sketch I did while in Princeton last month, at a new café, Café Vienna. (See earlier posts here and here for sketches in an older Princeton Café. I’m using a thicker marker for this one, by contrast, giving a different feel altogether, more akin to this one.) This new café promises to recreate the atmosphere of the Cafés of Vienna and so I kind of had to have coffee there before I left. Why?

Well, two reasons, one obvious and the other less so: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Triply Dyonic

dyon_phase_diagramsI thought I’d mentioned this already, but I could not find anything after a search on the blog so somehow I think I must have forgotten to. It is a cute thing about a certain favourite solution (or class of solutions) of Einstein’s equations that I’ve talked about here before. I’m talking about the Taub-NUT solution (and its cousin, Taub-Bolt). Taub-NUT is sort of interesting for lots of reasons. Many, in fact. One of them concerns it having both mass M and another parameter called “nut charge”, N. There are several ways to think about what nut charge is, but one curious way is that is is sort of a “magnetic” counterpart to the ordinary mass, which can be thought of as an “electric” quantity.

The language is based on analogy with electromagnetism, where, in the usual [...] Click to continue reading this post

Hey, You…

page_extract_27_07_2014_2Today (Sunday) I devoted my work time to finishing an intensely complicated page. It is the main “establishing shot” type page for a story set in a Natural History Museum.

This is another “don’t do” if you want to save yourself time, since such a location results in lots of drawings of bones and stuffed animals and people looking at bones and stuffed animals. (The other big location “don’t do” from an earlier post was cityscapes with lots of flashy buildings with endless windows to draw. :) )

Perhaps annoyingly, I won’t show you the page_extract_27_07_2014_1 huge panels filled with such things, and instead show you a small corner panel of the type that people might not look at much (because there are no speech bubbles and so forth). This is seconds before our characters meet. A fun science-filled conversation will follow…(Yes these are the same characters from another story I’ve shown you extracts from.)

[Update: I suppose I ought to explain the cape? It is a joke. I thought I’d have a [...] Click to continue reading this post

Pot Luck

pot_luck_25_04_14_6Here in Aspen there was a pleasant party over at the apartment of one of the visiting physicists this evening. I know it seems odd, but it has been a while since I’ve been at a party with a lot of physicists (I’m not counting the official dinners at the Strings conference a fews weeks back), and I enjoyed it. I heard a little about what some old friends were up to, and met some spouses and learned what they do, and so forth. For the first time, I think, I spoke at length to some curious physicists about the graphic book project, and the associated frustrating adventures in the publishing world (short version: most people love it, but they just don’t want to take a risk on an unusual project…), and they were excited about it, which was nice of them.

pot_luck_25_04_14_1It was a pot luck, and so although I was thinking I’d be tired and just take along a six-pack of beer, by lunchtime I decided that I’d make a little something and take it along. Then, as I tend to do, it became two little somethings…and I went and bought the ingredients at the supermarket nearby and worked down at the centre until later. Well, first I made a simple syrup from sugar and water and muddled and worried a lot of tarragon into it.

pot_luck_25_04_14_2 Then in the evening, there was a lot of peeling and chopping. This is usually one of my favourite things, but the knives in the apartment I am staying in are as blunt as sticks of warm butter, and so chopping was long and fretful. (And dangerous… don’t people realise that blunt knives are actually more dangerous than sharp ones?) [...] Click to continue reading this post

74 Questions

open_questions_cvjHello from the Aspen Center for Physics. One of the things I wanted to point out to you last month was the 74 questions that Andy Strominger put on the slides of his talk in the last session of the Strings 2014 conference (which, you may recall from earlier posts, I attended). This was one of the “Vision Talks” that ended the sessions, where a number of speakers gave some overview thoughts about work in the field at large.

Andy focused mostly on progress in quantum gravity matters in string theory, and was quite upbeat. He declines (wisely) to make predictions about where the field might be going, instead pointing out (not for the first time) that if you look at the things we’ve made progress on in the last N years, most (if not all) of those things would not have been on anyone’s list of predictions N years ago. (He gave a specific value for N, I just can’t recall what it is, but it does not matter.)

He sent an email to everyone who was either speaking, organising, moderating a session or similarly involved in the conference, asking them to send, off the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Fireworks!

It is the 4th of July, and I hope you who are celebrating it have a good time today!
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I can’t really let the day pass without sharing with you the episode of Fail Lab in which we examine fireworks and pyrotechnics with an appropriate cautionary note, and a dash of humour. Enjoy it again if you’ve seen it before, and don’t forget to check out all twelve episodes. You can read my discussion of the whole series (excellently made by Patrick Scott) starting here, and there’s more here. Click below for the episode: [...] Click to continue reading this post

It’s Dynamical Cosmological Constant Day!

airline_sketch_28_06_2014As you may know from three previous recent posts on research (here, here, and here), I’ve been thinking and calculating a lot in the area of dynamical cosmological constant – concerning mostly (but not entirely) thermodynamics and quantum gravity. Specifically, the cosmological constant becomes the pressure variable in the thermodynamics. I think it is important, and will teach us something about things like gauge/gravity duality, string theory, black holes, and perhaps even cosmology, but I am not sure what yet. I’ve made some suggestions in recent papers, and computed some interesting things along the way.

Anyway, the larger community has not been following this story much, since: (1) It means a break with some powerful and still very fruitful frameworks where the cosmological constant being fixed is a given – like AdS/CFT – and it is not clear what that means yet, so the motivation is not super-strong; and (2) Let’s be honest, there’s no superstar working on it, so it is not going to get anyone any points. So I’ve been trying to shout about it in my little way from the periphery, as I think it might be useful, and since several people have been doing really good and interesting work on this issue for many years and it is worth more people seeing what they’ve been up to.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I looked on the listing of new papers on the arXiv for today and saw three (!) papers on the subject, moving things forward in various ways. (They all seem to have noticed some of what I’ve [...] Click to continue reading this post

Strings Talks

20140627-080640-29200119.jpgThe conference is really rather good, with a varied program involving topics and speakers from all over the map. This includes the parallel sessions we had on Wednesday, which were held down at the Institute. Those were a lot of fun, because of the dodging back and forth between different auditoria at the IAS to get to talks of interest. I was chairing one of the sessions, and so did not get to dodge about in the first 90 minutes, and had to miss some interesting talks, but did a little talk-surfing in the second 90 after the break.

It had been many years ago now since I began to talk about there being a need for parallel sessions at strings conferences. Some people would object to them, saying that it would somehow be damaging to the field’s connected nature, where everyone is following many strands and topics in the field. To me that concern was always balanced by the problem of only having a small cluster of people and ideas represented each year due to the constraints of only having five days to present the activity of such a diverse population of researchers in the field. The main objection to having parallel sessions were, to my mind, based on a view of the field left over from when the field was smaller in terms of both people and thriving ideas. I think the conference organizers this year found a way of combining the two models rather well, with the single afternoon of parallel sessions, along with well chosen sets of half hour talks for the main sessions where we all sit together, roughly grouped by themes. There were three one hour big marquee plenary/summary talks. Theses are really useful. If I were to make a change, I’d perhaps have four or five of those, putting the two half hour talks that were displaced into the parallel section.

There is a two hour session of “Vision Talks” this afternoon. Should be interesting to hear what is said. We will perhaps get some good discussion going about where various ideas may be headed. I hope there is a lot of audience participation.

Poster sessions and the “gong show” were also great things to have as part of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Swoosh!

swooshWell, I sort of disappeared there for about a week. I got lost in some really interesting physics and had a lot of fun doing it.

I kept walking away, and it kept bringing me back. There’s that fun groove one can get into that other theorists will recognise: You hit an interesting vein where you can calculate interesting results in a particular model, and you just can’t help yourself computing more and more [...] Click to continue reading this post

Stockpiling Notebooks

notebook_supplyAs you know from my writings and sketches, I like to carry a notebook. People often ask me what types I use, or assume that I use the (increasingly fashionable) Moleskine books. I like Moleskine books (the little 3inx5in ones for example), and have used them a lot in the past, but actually I prefer the books by HandBook Journal Co., (made by Global Art Materials). The surface of the paper is more flexible, in my opinion. It has a little more tooth than standard Moleskine, which makes mark-making with pencil much surer, and it also takes wetting better,airline_sketches_9th_july_2013 so you can work with a little wetness as well, such as lots of ink, or watercolour (paint- or pencil-based). That allows for crisp drawings like the one on the right (click for larger view – more about these sketches here), right alongside physics research musings and computations in pen and ink line on the pages shown below on the left (those notes pertain to the paper I discussed here.)

I tend to carry one of the 8.25inx5.5in landscape ones (although I love the 5.5in square ones too). (See more chat about them here.) They allow a good [...] Click to continue reading this post

Honest Time Travel?

On Tuesday I hung out with some of the Screen Junkies folks who you may know from the hilarious “Honest Movie Trailers” web series (seriously, if you’ve not seen any of them, please go right now and have a look). We had a fun chat about time travel in movies, and presenter Hal Rudnick and I bonded over various movies old and new. The final version of the show is up on YouTube (embed below), and I’m bummed that I did not get to meet the other guest, Christina Heinlein (JPL), who seems fun – and is a descendant of, yes, that Heinlein. I love the idea that she works at JPL, helping make possible the space exploration that Robert Heinlein helped inspire us all about in his writing. Anyway, enjoy the short piece (I wish you could see a bunch of the other material too… we really had a great chat about the ins and outs of time travel, but a lot of it inevitably ended up not making the cut…)

I could not resist talking about my view of this (perhaps growing) trend of using time travel as a means of resetting movie franchises (see Star Trek, X-Men…). It’s a great way of repairing writing and other filmmaking wrong turns. Feel free to imagine your own version of this – Star Wars anyone? Another pass at [...] Click to continue reading this post

How I Sometimes Feel

tar_pits_entrapment_eventIn fact, the last several days have felt like this, with regards big decisions about various administrative roles I’ve been asked to consider taking on. It never seems to end, and I am terrible at saying no to as many things as I should. And I have a bad habit of doing things to the best of my ability and hence I get a reputation as the guy to ask to do a task since I did a good job last time, and so it gets me sucked in deeper into the administrative quagmire, and so on and so forth.

Rather like the “entrapment events” that happened in the La Brea Tar Pits so long ago (have a read of what I wrote about those on a field trip to the Page Museum a while back). I was wandering around the LACMA and Tar Pits grounds yesterday evening after a shoot for a show (a fun thing coming that I’ll let you know about shortly) and made a phone call to say, after ten days of [...] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front XII: The Nuts and Bolts of Enthalpy in Quantum Gravity

So it happened again. I got musing to myself about something and decided to do a quick computation to check it out, and it took me down an interesting rabbit hole, which resulted in me writing a nice little paper at the end of last week that appeared today on the arxiv. I think the physics is really really nice. Let me tell you a bit about it. It is in the same area of ideas that I mentioned last time, concerning that paper I wrote last month. So let me pick up the story there, since I did not really touch on the core of the story. [Note: for non-experts, the following will get somewhat technical and full of terms and ideas that I will not explain. Sorry.]

One of the things that might have struck you (if you’re an expert in the area) from my proposal to make heat engines out of black holes that do real mechanical work like the engines you read about in physics textbooks is that there ought to be no actual mechanical work since there’s no pistons – no pistons changing volumes and so forth. That is (or rather, was) a missing ingredient in the standard thermodynamics of black holes in quantum gravity. Well, that all changed a short few years ago with the work of a number of authors, particularly with the clear suggestion of David Kastor, Sourya Ray, and Jennie Traschen, and work by Brian Dolan, with a fair bit of followup investigations by various other authors including some I’ll mention below. (Update: Two reviews, with different foci, can be found in here and here.) The general idea is that if you allow the cosmological constant \Lambda to be a thermodynamical variable as well (and there is a long history of authors considering this in various contexts), where it naturally acts like a pressure p = -\Lambda/8\pi G, (G is Newton’s constant, and I’m setting various other constants to unity in the usual way) then you naturally include a conjugate to that variable that should be the pressure.

For a simple static black hole like Schwarzschild, the volume turns out to the the naive volume you get by taking the radius of the black hole and forming [...] Click to continue reading this post

Making Marks

Been a while since I got to do some sketching. It is good practice to try to do something every day, but that fell by the wayside a little as far as proper sketches went. It has been busy the last week and a bit, and my subway time has been during very busy times when there’s not enough space to get out pen and paper and sketch a person without becoming a spectacle… and during the moments where I might have caught something, I’ve actually been calculating – working out questions for the final exam in the General Relativity class, and (more recently) doing some computations for a paper I’ll tell you about shortly.

Anyway, when time is short, I sometimes like doing quick sketches with a thicker pen. Stops me from digging into the details too much. In fact, I’m really liking that as a sketch mode these days… You make your lines boldly and you’re stuck with your choices, and so it gets you thinking about what’s globally important carefully before jumping in.

montage_of_marker_drawings_05_2014

It is great and satisfyingly distracting fun. Anyway, between this and that over the last day or two I did a few quick faces based on some photos I found in a [...] Click to continue reading this post

Commencement Capers…

bromptons_and_robesIt is Commencement day today at USC! In celebration of that I thought I’d post a picture of my colleague Krzysztof Pilch and I, being a bit silly. We each have one of those excellently practical Brompton bikes (splendidly finished in British racing green, of course) you sometimes have read about here, and Krzysztof suggested that we take a picture or two of us in academic robes riding our bikes. Krzysztof had his academic full gear ready because [...] Click to continue reading this post

Advice at Graduation

It is Commencement on Friday, here at USC. Thousands of students will be dressing up in gowns and taking part of the ceremonies marking the ending of their time here at USC and the beginning of the rest of their lives. It’s an exciting time.

Merrill Balassone and a team from USC Media Relations came by my office a few weeks ago to take 15-20 minutes of time to do a prototype of a project on this very subject of commencement. The result was fun, and apparently they used it to build onto in order to make the final short video you can see below. advice_film_stillThey did a great job! It is a group of USC professors and staff** giving brief thoughts to graduating students upon their graduation. You’ll maybe guess what I say in my segment. It is a theme I mention here a lot, as part of my personal war on people being shut out of (or shutting themselves out of) participation in aspects of our society.

The summary of the piece is here and the YouTube video is embedded below: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Old School Writer

posting_stuff…Yeah. Somehow sending proposals and samples of manuscripts around by email does not really feel super-exciting to me. But it is the way things are done now, it seems. But this afternoon, I found myself doing something very old-school, which I rather enjoyed, perhaps because it connected me with writers through the ages: Printing up some special packages (proposal, samples, etc, of the book project), putting them into envelopes and schlepping them down to the post office, getting in line, and [...] Click to continue reading this post

That Time of Year

jacaranda_april_2014Well, it is that time of year. The Jacarandas peaking is one of the many LA markers of the seasons for me. It means that classes will soon be over (in fact they are now) and I’ll be saying goodbye to a group of students, either because a class is over, or because students I’ve taught in earlier classes are graduating and leaving USC. Either way, it is always a time of mixed feelings, and a sense of being in transition in a number of ways. The Spring is already beginning to feel like it is rolling into Summer, and I’m clearing my desk of one set of things and making way for other things.

(Oh, and of course, the other thing that happens this year is that I seem to end up doing a post like this at around this time, right down to within a few days. It usually involves a picture of a Jacaranda tree. See here and look at the list of related posts below.)

I had an extraordinarily good group of students in my Spring class this year. As you may recall it was an undergraduate General Relativity class (see earlier posts on this by searching on that topic). We ended up having a lot of fun with the topic itself, and things were extra good because the students were very [...] Click to continue reading this post