Not Improbable

elaine chewOn Wednesday night, accompanied by Tameem, a student of mine, I wandered across campus to attend the “Mathematics in Music” event. I blogged about it earlier. I don’t really want to talk about the event itself in this post. It was a nice enough recital of three pieces. I don’t know why, but the promised “mathematics” was disappointingly virtually non-existent. I’m not exaggerating, I’m afraid.

Keep in mind that it may simply just be my misunderstanding of the intent of the event, but there’s simply next to nothing to report in the way of what was said about mathematical aspects of music. There were plenty of opportunities, but (almost) none were taken. I got out my notebook and pen, all excited at what the presenters might say at various points… and the mathematics never showed up. There were a few extremely elementary remarks about tonal ratios in chords, about scales, keys, and time, and that was it, more or less. This was a bit of a shame, since I suspect that Elaine Chew could have talked at length and with some authority on the matter (given the projects she’s involved in see e.g. here), but mathematics was almost completely missing in the event – despite the title. I imagine there were what seemed like good reasons for this. I was not party to decisions made behind the scenes, so cannot comment further.

More interestingly on that front was what took place in the minutes leading up to the delayed start of the event. First, although it was a free event, they pointed us to the box office where an attendant printed us two tickets from the computer so that we can show them to someone at the door who wasn’t really looking anyway. Fine. We got into the recital hall, but rather than sitting at the obvious available seats, I suggested that we move to the other side of the room where one can get a better view of the piano keyboard. I’m less than happy when I can’t see what a musician is doing, you see, so I always try to sit with the pianist’s view of the piano. So we did that, and found two seats. While we chatted and looked around us at the growing assembly, I spotted a friend and colleague of mine, the composer Veronika Krausas. She was in the company of someone who she introduced as Brian Head, who is a composer, performer (guitar) and music theorist (a “triple threat”, Veronika joked), also in USC’s Thornton school of music. They were looking for seats and there was one on either side of the two we were sitting in, and so they joined us and we chatted some more.

When the event start was about ten or fifteen minutes late -they were trying to get the reassuringly large crown all seated, they announced- Veronika idly looked at her ticket, pointed out that they were numbered, and wondered if we should have been […] Click to continue reading this post

I Love It Every Time

I love teaching undergraduate electromagnetism. It has such an elegance, logic, and completeness about it. It introduces such a host of powerful techniques and ideas to the student, taking them across the threshold into maturity in their physics studies: Once you’ve done electromagnetism, you don’t usually think about large chunks … Click to continue reading this post

Unexpectedly On YouTube

third law jet demoI don’t know why this possibility did not occur to me before. So let me give you a heads up if you do demos in your lectures. In Physics 100 (which I taught last semester) and in Astro 100 especially, we do a lot of demos to demonstrate various physics concepts. I did a post on the Newton’s third law jet propulsion demo some time ago (linked photo right). My colleague Ed Rhodes did this same demo in his Astro 100 class.

He received an email from one of the students in the class recently saying “Congratulations, you’ve been YouTubed…”.

Apparently, one of the students in the class used his or her mobile phone camera to […] Click to continue reading this post

All Hands on Deck

all hands on deck Well, it’s the middle of the Bleak Midwinter, and the first day of classes of the new semester. Mine start tomorrow. It is time to get myself back into the classroom-teaching frame of mind -although to be honest I don’t think the break was long enough for me to have got sufficiently far removed from it: 85% of the research tasks that I wanted to do during the break remain undone.

Anyway, I must sit and contemplate what I am going to talk about in the graduate course entitled “Selected Topics in Particle Physics”. It’s my lunch break, so I thought I’d chat to you for a bit.

Rumour has it that everyone is expecting some sort of string theory course, reasonably complementary to the one that my colleague Nick Warner taught here two years ago. I’ve no interest in just teaching the standard string theory topics – a good and motivated graduate student can just look them up in a book if motivated enough (if they can’t they’re in the wrong business) – and so I’d like to throw in some material that is not packaged together in the standard way, and give them an education that emphasizes powerful ideas and techniques that are relevant to more than just standard string theory research, but theoretical physics in general.

You see, this is one of the wonderful things about the topic that you don’t hear about much when people say things (and write books for a general audience) about how much it is supposedly taking over smart young minds and leading them astray: It is a fantastic framework for training good physicists for whatever new and useful ideas and physics will come along in the future, whether it is string theory or some other topic. The point is that string theory has developed in so many different ways, and […] Click to continue reading this post

Last of the First

The other day, in a nice cafe on the boardwalk at Venice beach, I was working with Veselin Filev, a student of mine, on a paper that he would later submit to the arXiv. The end of the year was approaching and I wandered off into some irrelevant anecdote or other (as I am wont to do), explaining to him a bit about little traditions concerning the arXiv, from the “old days”. I mentioned in passing that one last tradition will come to an end because the numbering system for papers will all change sometime this year (apparently the mathematicians are close to producing too many papers in each month – more than the 1000 the system can handle1.)

I explained that in days of yore, some people would try to get the very first paper of the year, so that they would have a rather special number, of the form hep-th/XX01001, where XX denotes the year. By far the coolest of these was […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry X – Wired Science

Well, there was something I could not tell you about before that I now can. There’s a new TV show called “Wired Science” about to launch. It is made by the PBS affiliate KCET, and will air on your local PBS station (on Wednesday, January 03, 2007, 8:00-9:00 pm ET). It looks like it is going to be informative and fun!

wired science banner

Here’s some of their blurb from the press release:

WIRED SCIENCE is a one-hour program that translates Wired magazine’s award-winning journalism into a fast-paced television show. WIRED SCIENCE brings Wired magazine’s cutting-edge vision, stylish design and irreverent attitude to the screen with breakout ideas, recent discoveries and the latest innovations. The pilot episode takes the viewer into the world of meteorite hunters, where space, commerce and art intersect; travels to Yellowstone National Park to harvest viruses that may hold the key to a technology revolution; and dives underwater to explore NEEMO, NASA’s extreme astronaut training program. Viewers will meet rocket-belt inventors, stem cell explorers and the developer of an electric car that goes from zero-to-60 in under four seconds. As a series, WIRED SCIENCE hopes to span the globe to uncover novel developments in biomedicine, space exploration, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, robotics and military technology.

wired_sciecne_trailerAnd you can go to the site to see stills from some of the location work they did in making the show, and some of the studio work too. You can go to this Wired blog post to see the rather nice title sequence of the show, and the teaser trailer. To the right, there’s a screen shot I made just now (click for larger).

I don’t think that they have the go ahead to make a full series yet. This is a pilot. I imagine that whether they get the full series go ahead depends upon whether it is well liked and supported by you, the viewer. I’d say support it. the people behind it really care about getting good science programming out to you.

So what’s the big deal? Why did I not tell you about it if I’ve known about it for so long? Well, nobody told me not to tell you, but it seemed the right thing to do. You see, I have a little secret. How do I put this? I’m going to get so beaten up in the playground for this. […] Click to continue reading this post

Research Blogging

Time to talk briefly about other uses of blogging. Some time ago I spoke about the idea of using blogging as a sharper tool for exchanging and even developing research ideas. The conversation about the suggestion degenerated into vapour, at some point, and having floated the idea and learned from the conversation, I left it alone. In public at least.

In private, I continued. The fact is that I have other blogs on the go. I’d like to tell you about one of them, since it might be a useful tool for you too. The way I use it is simple. I run my “lab” with it. It’s my virtual lab-space. I have about five students working with me, and a million and one projects, and not enough hours in the day. The students all are working on several projects with me, with each other, and alone…. but all under the umbrella of being part of my little “subgroup” of the larger high energy theory group here at USC. I want us all to have conversations, point at new papers, throw out ideas, show partial computations to each other (and definitely to me) for comment, share drafts of papers with each other, etc.

So far so standard. Normally, this is all done with emails back and forth, one on one conversations, etc. Sometimes those conversations can be supplemented by one or other person from the group (me, or anyone else) dropping in and setting the whole thing straight with a comment. Sure, you can do this with email in the “reply-to-all” mode, but…. […] Click to continue reading this post

Out West

Well, yesterday I handed in my grade sheets for my courses, so I’ve finished all undergraduate teaching duties for the calendar year! Time now to turn to all those things that have been piling up waiting to be done. Eventually, this will mean research, but in between there are various tasks, from writing letters of recommendation to reviewing grants, fellowship applications, and more.

Mostly, I just want to disappear for a while. Leave the planet for a bit and go walkabout, like I did last year’s holiday season. That might happen, but I have to be partly available for a little while for a number of duties. Either way, I need to get out of the old mode, and into the more contemplative one. In order to begin the resetting, I decided to hide away from campus entirely and in the afternoon visit one of my other offices… the beach.

I had some errands to run out in Santa Monica, such as picking up my boots from that great boot repair place (where I’d dropped them off to get stretched a bit… the miracle repair I told you about before had resulted in them a bit stiff and slightly tighter on the slopes, and so I thought I’d try a stretching of a few days), and so this fit well. I figured I’d just stay there until the evening.

I have a love-hate relationship with Santa Monica. It sometimes annoys me a lot, and seems to be a place that is so squeaky clean that all the flavour of real life has been drained out of it, to be replaced by mostly smugness…. but at other times, I’m very happy with it, since it has a number of gems that I like a lot.

If the truth be told, one of the main reasons that I like to go over there is the tarts. […] Click to continue reading this post

How To Make It Stop?

Ok, I know that in a post a while ago I said:

I don’t know about you but I melt each of the (very few these days) times I receive a real letter, by post…

So you’d think I’d be delighted with this pile (it is more than three layers deep – and I’ll get at least this many again over the next month or so):


Well, yes and no. What are they?

[…] Click to continue reading this post

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