The Awesome Power of Theoretical Physics in Your Everyday Life

“Yeah, this string theory stuff is nice and all, but what does it have to do with the price of eggs?”, is not one of the questions I’ve had to field at the end of a public lecture, but it could have been.

If it had come up, I could have pointed the questioner to this post by Robert. Please, please check out this fine example of how we use scaling laws in physics and in everyday life, with remarkable effects.


P.S. After reading it, I bet you’ll consider contacting your local government representative to get them to urge for more tax dollars to be put into theoretical physics. It’s really the best way to be sure that more of us are kept off the streets… 🙂

All Done

Well, I gave the talk and I’m back at my temporary apartment. I’m exhausted, as is always the case for me after general talks. Does that happen to you?

I think I managed to get across everything I wanted to (see the previous post) and it was a nice complement to the TV interview. I was pleased to get to talk about the exciting research applying string techniques to strongly coupled gauge theory, and emphasize the storm-in-a-teacup nature of the current media obsession with the “Landscape issue”.

There were several excellent questions, which included staying after the lecture answering several questions into the night. A worthwhile evening, it must be said. If interested, in addition to the TV interview already showing daily since Wednesday, there are several opportunities to see the entire talk on Grassroots TV starting this weekend (check their online schedule for times).

Now to get back to the huge number of things to be done before the Summer ends for me this year. Only problem is, I’ve only one non-weekend day of the Summer left. The insanity begins on Monday.


Why Do I Love Jurassic Park So Much?

Well, it has been a really long day, and I have yet to finish all I need to do before tomorrow. I’ve just had dinner, and am finishing off my splash of wine while waiting for my tea to brew (making it slow in a pan with spices -chai-style-, to combat the aforementioned altitude-induced flavour problem.) The plan is to get back to work for a few hours…

I’m not a huge TV watcher, but occasionally I want to look away from a long day of books, papers, notepad, and computer and distract myself over dinner. Especially when in a hotel or other short stay place. More fascinating then somehow. I don’t know why. So I switched on the TV.

… and Jurassic Park is just beginning on AMC.

I can never resist this film. Never.

I don’t know why I love this film so much. It is Spielberg at his best (and he packs in every single one of his signature tricks, camera angles, and other story-telling devices), and John Williams’ theme -another set of almost inversions of his other well known themes- is just perfect.

It is not a perfect film, but somehow the imperfections are over-ridden for me by:
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Twelve Planets!

[Update1…. Oh no it’s not official! See here.] [Update2: The vote is in… see here.] [Update3: (7th June 2010) Moved the updates 1 and 2 one sentence earlier since, bizarrely, some readers (ahem! you know who you are…) don’t seem to read further than one sentence, or check the posting date, before entering their findings into their homework.] It’s official!* There are twelve planets in our Solar System (so update all the posters, such as the ESA one on the right).

ESA diagram of solar system (outdated)Count ’em:

  1. Mercury
  2. Venus
  3. Earth
  4. Mars
  5. Ceres
  6. Jupiter
  7. Saturn
  8. Uranus
  9. Neptune
  10. Pluto
  11. Charon
  12. 2003 UB313

In addition, you’ll have to add a new word or two to your vocabulary, such as “pluton”, of which Pluto is the prototype. From the 16th August press release of the International Astronomical Union:

16-August-2006, Prague. The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), have concluded two years of work defining the difference between “planets” and the smaller “solar system bodies” such as comets and asteroids. If the definition is approved by the astronomers gathered 14-25 August 2006 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague, our Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come: eight classical planets that dominate the system, three planets in a new and growing category of “plutons” – Pluto-like objects – and Ceres. Pluto remains a planet and is the prototype for the new category of “plutons.”


(Thanks Amara!)

(*almost official. It has to be approved, it says.)

Watch That Space!

chandra x-ray observatory (NASA image)NASA is about to make an exciting announcement, apparently. On Monday 21st August there will be a press conference, and there will be actual information (they say) at several places mentioned in this link.

I have not the slightest idea of the details of the announcement [but see update below], except that the title of the page is “NASA Announces Dark Matter Discovery”! It concerns observations with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The Chandra site says “Astronomers will announce how dark and normal matter have been forced apart in an extraordinarily energetic collision at 1 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 21.”, so I infer from this that they might not have completely pinned down the nature of the Dark Matter so much as found a completely new kind of smoking gun pointing to its existence.

On the other hand, Click to continue reading this post

Talking Heads On Strings

Well, I had the “Aspen Physics Preview” interview for the station called “Grassroots TV” this afternoon. It was a pleasant chat with host Sy Coleman about aspects of research into fundamental physics and string theory. I don’t have a good sense of what it was like since I was focusing on answering questions, but I do believe that I was able to get across some of the key ideas that I mentioned earlier, although we ran out of time before we got into the details of the Landscape “controversy”, but it was mentioned as a sort of teaser for the main talk. We just talked for 27 minutes non-stop, and it will be broadcast as recorded -unedited- warts and all.

My main mission in a lot of this discussion is to point out that:

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Aspen Talks

I’m going to try to tell you a bit about a few of the talks (physics and otherwise) that I’ve seen here at Aspen, but not now. I’ve got rather a lot to do right now…. But I will try later in the week. In the meantime, here is a shot of one of the talks we had on the patio, with the sounds of the rehearsals for the Music Festival coming from the tent nearby. It is of David Berenstein (one of the organizers of the earlier string workshop) telling us about an idea for doing phenomenology directly using brane constructions. You can see Hirosi Ooguri listening intently at the front of the audience.

David Berenstein in action

David’s proposals were bold (there is a paper coming) and he was given a rough time here and there, but he persevered to the end. Looks a bit like he is emerging from Elsewhere in a flash of light, doesn’t it? Hmm…


The Last Procrastination (Today)

aspen talk preparation smallOk, after procrastinating the whole afternoon, I’ve finally got around to getting down to phase one of preparing this talk. Going to give myself a few hours of sitting sifting through things I want to recycle from my database of old talks…. thinking of new themes I want to explore which will require whole new slides, etc. Next session will be the design of new slides and updating (if necc.) of old.

I’ve got the pen and paper (essential for me), the computer, the ipod on random (Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” playing right now – great early solo by Miles), a supply of Carr’s water crackers, a generous lump of Saint Andre soft cheese, and -I know it might not quite fit- a glass of a Ravenswood Zinfandel. Oh…. and nice evening light on some distant mountain. Surely, I’ll get a lot done…. no?


The Blurb

Well, I dashed off a lecture summary to be printed out in time for the public lecture on Thursday:

Title: Strings Everywhere?

Hold it right there. What is the meaning of the title? I’m riffing on two things, one physical and the other sociological. The first, vastly more important theme is the fact that strings are powerful tools that represent one of the major steps in modern “technologies” (like quantum field theory) that are useful in several areas of theoretical physics, and -I suspect- may well become useful in several other areas as the field matures. I have in mind the idea of an “effective theory”: that there are physical phenomena that are not as easily (or in some cases -not at all-) described by standard particle-like theories (quantum field theories, relativistic or otherwise) as they are by string theories. Stringy techniques -quantum mechanics of extended objects- have and (I suspect) will continue to show up in diverse places in physics, and not just particle physics where it began. I hope to give some indication of this in the talk. One of my primary examples will be the contrast between electromagnetism and the strong interactions, I imagine. There are phenomena like quark confinement that are rather hard to describe using standard QFT, but seem to be extremely natural in a string theory framework…

The second, which to my mind is a storm in a teacup, is the issue of strings showing up all over the press, and increasingly (because the press -editors, some writers, and publishers- love a controversy and a David-vs-Goliath fairlytale, sadly sometimes at the expense of painting an accurate picture; see e.g., here) in a negative light as being some useless juggernaut-come-cult. I’ll talk about that a bit too…

Anyway, here is the blurb I dashed off for the background to the lecture:

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Hard To Avoid

Well, I have to face up to it. There’s been this embarrassing thing all around town here in Aspen that I have not told you about, but I have to get it done this week. Everywhere you go around town -and I mean everywhere- there are little piles or pinboards of free flyers telling you what things there are to do in Aspen this Summer, along with other information about bus routes, timetables, etc. So you’ll see things for the Summer Films, the Theatre series, the Music Festival, the Music School, the talks going on at the Aspen Institute, and…. the Summer Public Physics Lectures at the Aspen Center for Physics. I’m pleased that the latter gets such wide distribution, since…. well you know how I feel about getting more Science out to the Public. But here’s the embarrassing bit:

flyer at large

closeup of flyerI’m giving one of the Public lectures this Summer, and they decided to use an image of me as the cover of the flyer! So everywhere I go, there I am smiling back at me, holding up some strings. (Closeup on right, if you click.) It is actually quite an honour to be chosen to give such a talk, and more so that they wanted to use my photo for the series this year. Of course they got my agreement before using the photo, but it is still a shock to see it all over the town, but a bit embarrassing when asked about it by my colleagues! (I admit that am very pleased -given my passions in this area- to be alongside useful information about public transport. I like that a lot somehow….Perhaps I could have supplied them with a picture of me with the Brompton.)

The image they used, which is by the excellent photographer Phil Channing, has haunted me for years since it pops up to the front page of the USC website at least once a day -as part of a thing they do where they feature their faculty on the front page- which is always a shock when I need to go there for something. I have to explain to people from time to time that I am not always on the site and that I am not the face of USC. (You know, like Susan Sarandon and Halle Berry for Revlon, or Whoever-it-is-now for Maybelline, or Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz for L’Oreal… although if USC wanted to pay me their level of salary to do so, I’d be pleased with that… I could do the theoretical physicist’s equivalent of a supermodel swoop of the hair (write a long equation with brightly coloured chalk maybe) and say, in an annoying way, “Because I’m worth it”.) To be fair, the photo does a good job, since it gets people asking questions about what that thing is I’m holding up, and why.

(The backstory there is that the USC people in charge of the website project asked some of us to come to a photo shoot, and Click to continue reading this post

Top Ten Weirdest Cosmology Theories

New Scientist has an article by Stephen Battersby on their top ten weirdest cosmology theories. My first thought, beore reading the article was that they were going to have a lot of fun with this, but they seem to be rather conservative about their definition of “weird”. This means that they’ve focused on “weirdest” in the context (mostly) of existing scientific observational input, and published science academic circles, which you might think puts a damper on things… but read more below.

So here are the titles, under which the author writes a short paragraph describing the idea:

1. Clashing branes

2. Evolving universes

3. Superfluid space-time

4. Goldilocks universe

5. Gravity reaches out

6. Cosmic ghost

7. It’s a small universe

8. Fast light

9. Sterile neutrinos

10. In the Matrix

This means that the kind of whacky cosmology that you and I could think of in a flash for fun on a Friday (or other) afternoon are not allowed. Nor are the ones I constantly get in the mail from well-meaning citizens. All of which can be way, way weirder.

Oh well. I’m opening up this particular thread (note: no, not all discussion threads on this blog!!) to any fun/whacky/weird cosmology ideas you might like to share of your own. Serious or non-serious. I’m not going to rank them. Just feel free to share.

Here is a fun constraint (which has a serious point): Try as much as you can to make Click to continue reading this post

Digital Makeover?

Dear Reader,

I’m desperately wracking my brain to find some science in this, but I cannot. Nope, reading the article does not help either. Nevertheless, it is in New Scientist (a fact that means nothing on its own, from past experience – they’ve a technology for it’s own sake focus as well, which is fair enough).

Some researchers in Tel Aviv have developed an algorithm that can give a makeover to your digital photographs of human faces. Magazine editors do this by hand all the time, of course, but this algorithm might be able to speed this up, and -for that (I suspect scarily large) number of people who would actually want that kind of thing- allow you to do this to your own photos!

Quoting from Helen Knight’s article:

Software then analysed the images, measuring distances between facial features and ratios such as that between facial width at eye and mouth level, and the thickness of the eyebrows. It compared these with the attractiveness ratings given by the volunteers to create a set of rules, known as the “beauty function”, for assessing whether a face is attractive.

Leyvand has now written a second piece of software that applies this algorithm to a facial image to make adjustments to features so that they more closely obey the rules. It then analyses the results to determine which changes have been successful, and discard any that don’t work. Users can also adjust the severity of the changes.

You can go to the site yourself to look at an example of the results.

I’ve the following questions.

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Kids and Chemistry

I’ve no idea what they were doing (I’ll try to find out and let you know), since I was at the concert, but it sure looked liked they were having fun out there in the Wednesday kids’ science picnic at the ACP:

kids science picnic

Two weeks ago, apparently they had the “Physics of Superheroes” author, James Kakalios, visiting for the picnic. I blogged about that book a while ago, at this link.

(Incidentally, I’m puzzled as to why a choice has to be made for the children: Go to the kids’ science picnic, or go listen to classical music….. It would be nice for a child to be able to go to both, but no scheduling is perfect, I suppose.)


Last of the Wild Flowers

The wild flowers seem to have peaked a lot earlier this year, probably due to a change in the rainfall pattern. Up on the way to Buckskin Pass yesterday, there were more deadheads than blooms. Perhaps other trails were doing better (such as the Cathedral Lake trail… look at the flowers I saw almost exactly the same time last year at this link).

Anyway, I’ve forgotten what these are called, but here are some lovely yellow flowers, just past their peak (but still lovely to see dotting the landscape here and there):

last wildflowers