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

Elemental

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

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“So are you the Talent?”
“Uh… Yes… Maybe.”
“You’re the Physicist?”
“Yes.”
“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.

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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

New Colleagues

Ah! The joy of new colleagues! I have somehow forgotten to tell you one piece of the great news that we had here at USC Physics and Astronomy recently. We got three new faculty, and one of them is here in action (I’ll tell you about the others later), telling us about the physics behind the 2006 Physics Nobel Prize. This is Cosmologist/Astrophysicist Elena Pierpaoli:

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She’s one of those people who works closely on (among other things) the data from […] Click to continue reading this post

Lighting Up Your Quantum Class

I forgot to tell you about this last week, so here goes. The colloquium last week was given by John O’Brien. One of the perks of the job of having to organize the department’s colloquium series is that you can use it (on rare occassions) as a blunt tool to find things out. I’ve always been curious about connecting the name I saw on one of the labs downstairs to a face. John’s lab, primarily part of the Engineering department, uses a little of the space in our building, you see, but I’ve never really made the connection between the face and the name. It certainly seemed that the USC Center for Photonics, of which he is part, was certainly up to some interesting and fun stuff, and so, egged on by another curious colleague, I sent him an invitation to give us a colloquium. He generously accepted, and here he is:

The talk -see the abstract here- was excellent. As you can see from the website listing the faculty in the centre, they are concerned with all sorts of fun things to do with very small scale devices which do rather clever things with light, such as nanoscale semiconductor lasers. The reason that the talk was excellent, in my opinion, was because it was not a standard device+engineering talk that you can often get from very good engineers who nevertheless don’t neccessarily appreciate what aspects the physicists care about. Those talks can often be pretty pictures and […] Click to continue reading this post