Grin and Bear It

illustration by Deanna StaffoWell, it is midnight and I am only on page 12 of the notes I am writing to present as a talk in the Southern California String Seminar tomorrow at 9:15am. Don’t try this at home – prepare talks early, ok?

Where is the seminar being held? UCLA! What University am I from? USC! What event happens tomorrow besides my (hopefully not too terrible) talk? The big USC vs UCLA head to head in College Football. If USC wins, they go to the championship game, apparently. Yay.

So the usual articles about the cross town rivalry between the two institutions have shown up this week in print and on National radio and TV. There are two amusing (and interesting) ones that I looked at – one in LA Weekly (about academic performance, faculty recruitment, student acheivement, and much more – illustration above from it, by Deanna Staffo), and one in the LA Times (mostly about nightlife). Have a look. There are dozens of others -just type USC into the LA Times search engine for example. You learn things about both universities as well from those two, so it is not without some point. For example, our young ones clearly go to cooler bars, for a start, as you can see from the pictures in the LA Times article.

(Strange that the articles do not mention the cooperation and general fun had when their high energy physics groups get together to discuss topics in string theory and other physics. Very odd omission indeed.)

I would say a lot more about the articles, but time is not on my side, so I will instead leave you with […] Click to continue reading this post

My Powerpoint Advice

Chad is giving more “Powerpoint technique” tips over on his blog.

I’d like to give a few tips of my own:

  1. Learn to give a good 55 minute chalkboard (or whiteboard) talk first. Only then learn about how to give a talk with a computera.
  2. Powerpoint?! Don’t use Powerpoint, for goodness sake! Use Keynoteb!!


[aRegardless of program you are using to project the talk. And am I the only one who […] Click to continue reading this post

Grand Clues All Around

Today in my Physics 100 class (I’m preparing it right now), we’ll be re-discovering the structure of the atom… It’s nice to consider the clues that are around us in our everyday life. This picture (click for larger… and yes, I was down at Grand Central Market again on Sunday) will start my discussion of one set of important clues…. Any thoughts about what aspect of it I’ll be talking about?


-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry, IX

Friday saw me involved in the shooting of two more segments for a television show. Seems that the ones from last time did not work out too badly, so the program makers wanted to do more. Hurrah!

[image from Friday shoot]

This session was also a lot of fun, and one of the segments (especially) could end up being a particularly good example of getting a good chunk of a whole science story – showing the actual processes involved in doing science – on TV, er, depending upon how it is edited, of course. This is one reason I do this sort of thing. At least as important (in my opinion) as talking, as I also sometimes do, to the press about the fancier things we do (perhaps involving the origin of mass, and whether the universe may or may not have extra dimensions, etc) is the process of getting involved with people in the media to help them bring the cornerstones of all of science to a general audience. No fancy stuff, just the basic but ever so important connection between the physical world around them and simple scientific reasoning. This achieves some very important things, which I bet will last longer in a person’s mind and everyday life than […] Click to continue reading this post

When Chaos Goes Quantum

Mark SrednickiNot many Mondays ago we had a colloquium entitled “Quantum Chaos and the Foundations of Statistical Mechanics”, by Mark Srednicki, of UCSB.

This was a double treat for me, since I’ve known Mark since my days in Santa Barbara, and remember many happy lunchtimes sitting at lunch with him overlooking the lagoon talking about everything from physics to Bablyon 5. That was during those truly amazing days of being a postdoc in string theory at the time when D-brane technology was turning the field upside down, and a lot of the torque needed for this was being generated right there in Santa Barbara, sometimes in lunchtime conversations. I was reminiscing about those days just a week before in Cambridge, having run into Karl Landsteiner and Roberto Emparan, two other postdocs from those fantastic times. The reason for us all being in Cambridge was to attend the Andrew Chamblin memorial conference, which I told you about in an earlier post. Andrew was also a postdoc there, around the same time as us, and we rapidly forged the good friendships that you’ve read about in a number of earlier posts linked from the previous link.

Mark used to tell me a bit about Quantum Chaos back then too, and I found it interesting, but always wanted to hear the story laid out properly, and to hear what he […] Click to continue reading this post

The 2006 Nobel Prizes: Who, What and Why!

Not long after the colloquium on the Fields Medal work, we had a joint presentation by three colloquium speakers on the topics of the three science prizes awarded from the good folks in Stockholm this year. This was another very popular Monday talk, with people from various other departments joining us, given the topics being discussed. The speakers talked about the science of the prizes, and also reflected upon how it drives or interfaces with future research, perhaps their own research program.

First up was Lin Chen, of Chemistry and Molecular and Computational Biology. He told us about the Chemistry prize, awarded to Roger Kornberg, “for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription”.

Starting out by reminding us about the basic chain of relationships within organisms concerning the movement of genetic information, (the “Central Dogma”) he explained […] Click to continue reading this post


Yesterday in Physics 100 we started a discussion of the structure of matter. This inevitably brings up the early ideas from 400 BC about atoms, from Democritus (and others) at least in the Greek line of thought. These ideas were later brushed aside by Aristotle who declared that the elements from which everything can be constructed were Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

Of course, one is obliged to show a slide at this point. I could not resist this one: […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry, VIII

“So are you the Talent?”
“Uh… Yes… Maybe.”
“You’re the Physicist?”
“You’re a real Physicist? Not just playing one?”
“I’m… real.”

Snippet of conversation between myself and a woman from the art department at the studio, while we stood waiting for our green tea to brew. The floor is full of tables all around, mostly occupied with various people sitting at them fiddling with Macs. (Macs everywhere, as I’ve come to expect from the people in the Industry.) There’s a serious-looking table with more senior looking people discussing something in earnest, and another serious-looking table with people editing video on more Macs. All the tables are serious, of course, but overall there is a fun atmosphere. There’s also a big situation board that is consulted regularly by groups of people. It is covered in bright yellow stick-notes covered in writing that are being moved around. There are people coming in and out with a sense of purpose, and some of the crew I am with are milling around with bits of equipment. All very exciting-looking. It is all made a bit comical by this totally out of place and thoroughly splendid trio of bright red chandeliers that are hanging down from the ceiling over what looks like the head table for the senior folk. Strange but well-appreciated quirk of decoration, for what is otherwise a high-ceilinged warehouse-type space.

The situation? Shooting some fun things about physics for a TV show. It will air on a station near you (in the USA) next year some time. Details then. We converted a corner of one of our teaching labs at USC into a mini-studio: […] Click to continue reading this post

Pause for a Pint of Guinness

Well, it was only yesterday that I was telling the physics 100 class all about Special Relativity (lots of incredulous looks…. lots of reassurances, including: “You’re confused? That’s ok! It is one of the greatest pieces of science of the 20th Century… It’s not supposed to be trivial….”), but it seems like an age ago, and very distant. That’s because I’m in Dublin today. (Pesky wormholes.)

Just for a few days.

Guinness will be involved, I imagine (yeah!), although it will not be the primary focus. (The pint in the photo to the right is from a previous trip.) [ … ] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front, IV

So imagine the following:

You’re walking along the street, minding your own business, and somebody walks up to you and tries to sell you a string theory. So you stop and examine the goods, since you’re in the market for string theories, on the lookout for any that might be novel, useful, bright, or shiny, etc. You never know when one or other property might come in useful.

Question: How do you know that it is a string theory? Let me be sure to point out that it comes with a lot of the defining path integral done for you. In other words, you don’t have to do the integral over string world sheet metrics and world sheet fields. This was done in the factory for you. What you have access to are parameters such as the coefficients of the operators in the theory, and you can also adjust the value of the string coupling.

So a lot of the stuff you would recognize as a string theory in your typical string theorist’s notebook have been cleaned up. They’ve been integrated over. The observable physics actually never cared about them (the technical details of summing over metrics – slicing up the moduli space of inequivalent metrics properly at each genus, etc etc…. all done), assuming you’ve done the integrals properly. The factory did it all for you.

So what criteria do you use to decide that it is a string theory at all? Actually, this is not an idle question. Think about the issue in the context of trying to understand some […] Click to continue reading this post

Field Trip, I

As part of the Freshman Seminar I told you about earlier (e.g., here, here and here), we went on a field trip to MOCA in nearby downtown LA.

We went to see the exhibition of drawings by Eva Hesse. Hesse is very well known for her sculpture, and among the things she did, I think that a rather splendid one in this context is the one below. It is an example of those that resemble three dimensional renderings of her interesting use of line on the paper.


This one (not in the exhibition) is called “Metronomic Irregularity” (I think it has a number as well… there are several pieces of this title done by her).

The group is standing in front of the sculpture I posted about earlier. There’s Ashley and Adam, left and middle. Jeff (on the right in the picture) -who is not a freshman, but a senior who does physics research projects with me- came along as well. We had a rather good time, taking […] Click to continue reading this post