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, since 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
It 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
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
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.
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
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
I 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 and another parameter called “nut charge”, . 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
Today (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 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
Here 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.
It 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.
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
Hello 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
… in my own book! This is one of the more amusing emails I’ve received in recent days. Apparently there is no algorithm that checks you are not recommending to an author a copy of their own book.
And no, I’ve no idea why this version is so expensive. Did they print this one with gold leaf illumination on the first letter of each chapter?
-cvj Click to continue reading this post
It is the 4th of July, and I hope you who are celebrating it have a good time today!
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
As 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
The 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
Longest day of the year? It sure felt like it. I spent about 6 hours of it standing high above the city in the sun talking about physics and astronomy to camera… Super tiring.
It is for a new show I’ll say more about later.
Click to continue reading this post
Well, 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
As 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, 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
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
In 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
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 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 , (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
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.
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
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien.
[...] Click to continue reading this post
It 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
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. They 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
…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
Well, 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
This diagram is the cycle for another heat engine (using a black hole as the working substance) that I studied in the recent paper. It is a path made of two constant pressure legs (isobars) and two constant volume legs (isochores) that happen (due to the properties of static black holes) to also be adiabats. See the post.
It got included in the paper as another example where one could compactly write down something useful about the efficiency, since, as it turns out, you can write closed form expressions [...] Click to continue reading this post
On Monday 28th April at 8 PM Eastern time (5 PM Pacific) I’ll take part in a live radio interview that you might want to listen to, on a show called Alpha Centauri and Beyond. I guess I’m in the “Beyond” bit? I don’t really know anything about the show except that they like to bring people on to discuss ideas, and when I get a call to come and help sprinkle a bit of science, you know I’m likely to say yes if I can spare the time.
You can see a link to the details here, and you can listen online. As you can see it is advertised as being about me explaining string theory. Well of course that billing is nothing to do with me – I can’t hope to explain any complicated subject like that in the time available – but if asked I will do my best to try and motivate some of the ideas behind the subject. I hope it will be a fun interview and that [...] Click to continue reading this post
Yes, you heard me right. Holographic Heat Engines. I was thinking recently about black holes in universes with a cosmological constant and their thermodynamics. I had an idea, it led to another, then another, then some calculations, and then a couple of days of writing, calculating, and thinking… then a day to cool off and think about other things. Then I came back to it, decided it was still exciting as an idea and so tidied it all up as a paper, made some diagrams, tidied some more, and voila! A paper submitted to the arxiv.
I’m sort of pleased with all of it since it allowed me to combine a subject I think is really fun (although often so bleakly dull when presented at undergraduate level) – heat engines – with contemporary research ideas in quantum gravity and high energy physics. So I get to draw some of the cycles in the p-V plane (graph of pressure vs volume) representing the inner workings of engines of particular designs (just like you might have seen long ago in a physics class yourself) and compute their efficiency for doing mechanical work in exchange for some heat you supply. It is fundamental that you can’t do that with 100% efficiency otherwise you’d violate the second law of thermodynamics – that’s why all engines have to have some exhaust in the form of heat, giving an efficiency represented by a quantity that is less than one, where one is 100% efficient. The diagram on the left illustrates the key pieces all engines must have, no matter what working substance you’re using. The details of the design of the engine are what kind of cycle you taking it through and what the properties (“equation of state”) your working substance has. In the case of a car, for example, the working substance is cleverly mixed up with the source of heat – the air/gasoline mix forms a “working substance” that gets expanded and compressed in various ways (in the green bit of the diagram), but the fact that it also burns releasing heat means it is also the source of the heat that comes into the engine (the flow from the red bit) to be (in part) turned to work, and the remainder flowing out to the blue (exhaust). Very clever.
The cool thing here is that I’m using black holes as the working substance for [...] Click to continue reading this post
We had a midterm in the undergraduate General Relativity class this week. Midterm II. We’d just come off a batch of lectures on black holes (focussing on Schwarzschild and Kerr), and so it seemed very natural to focus on that as the topic. Schwarzschild is the most basic (vanilla) black hole and Kerr is the case of having rotation for a bit of extra flavour. They are both hugely important in real physics – the former for the basic phenomena and then the latter since most objects out there in the astrophysical realm are actually going to be rotating to some degree (and after gravitational collapse, probably a high degree). So I focussed on those in class.
For the midterm therefore, I got the opportunity to have them discover properties of the (less astrophysically important perhaps) charged black hole – the Reissner-Nordstrøm solution:
…and do a few computations with it analogous to what they did for the other cases in class and in homework. I hope they had fun (like discovering that for a [...] Click to continue reading this post
It was the departmental retreat this weekend, and we all went off on a boat to an island! On the voyage back I decided to practice a little sketching, and found myself surrounded by good subjects, because a lot of people were sitting still during the crossing (it was a small boat). Since the boat was rocking [...] Click to continue reading this post