Bleep Bleep Yet Again

If, like I am, you’re tired of people getting ensnared by the nonsense in the “What the Bleep…” movie, and asking you to explain it….(I scared myself just now by looking at the technorati tags for and …yikes)… please please help out Jennifer Saylor, a blogger who is a freelance writer with a passion for science. She wrote a post about the movie recently, which you can read here. She let me (and my colleagues over on CV) know about it, and -more importantly- let us know that she’d like to do something more than just blog about it expressing her annoyance. Let me reproduce some of her email:

Click to continue reading this post

So Do We Need a New Planetary Mnemonic?

So you’ll recall that when we thought we had twelve planets we started trying to think of new mnemonics to help people remember the planets’ ordering.

For example, from Yvette:

My Very Educated Mother Can’t Justify Someone Using New Planetary Conventions… oh no, they haven’t named the last one yet!!!

Or from Amara’s friend Damien Broderick:

My very eccentric mother’s cook just served us nine pastry coated xylophones

(On the assumption that the last planet would be named Xena.)

Or from astromcnaught:

My View Embraces Moving Classifications, Just Stop Uncovering New Planets Called 2003 UB313

Or from Alan Hamilton (via Robert Greenham):

Most Victorian Euphoniums Make Cats Jump Suddenly Unless Neighbours Play Calming Xylophones.

Click to continue reading this post

Eight Planets!

Ok… Let’s try this again shall we?

It’s official! There are eight planets in our solar system. The vote has taken place. Last week’s proposals have been rejected. Pluto has been demoted, apparently.

They were voting on the following (I got this here):

1) A planet1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A dwarf planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects3 orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

1The eight planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
2An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planet and other categories.
3These currently include most of the Solar System asteroids, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets, and other small bodies.

That was resolution 5A, and then there is 5B:

Insert the word “classical” before the word “planet” in Resolution 5A, Section (1), and footnote 1. Thus reading:

(1) A classical planet1 is a celestial body . . .

And then the Pluto-specific resolutions (actually, 5B seems to lay the groundwork of the attempt to save Pluto):

The IAU further resolves:

Pluto is a dwarf planet by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects.

The following sentence is added to Resolution 6A:

This category is to be called “plutonian objects.”

Anyway, from what I heard, looks like these attempts to keep it have been rejected – those last few resolutions were voted down – and Pluto has been given the chop.

More later…

[Update: BBC story on it here.]


It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over

The saga continues. Nobody yet knows how many planets we have. There has been fierce argument at the International Astronomical Union. As a result, the definitions of last week have been revised. “Pluton” has been discarded as a term (partly because of the clash with a geological term, a clash which was also swiftly noted by one of Asymptotia’s readers), and the vote is very soon.

IAU meeting photo

Pluto and all the loveable little bodies might now in trouble because a revision to the definition says that a planet must be the “dominant body” in its orbital zone, clearing out any little neighbours. New Scientist’s website reports that

Pluto does not qualify because its orbit crosses that of the vastly larger Neptune.

Quoting further:

Click to continue reading this post

International Cooperation Can Work

nasa ozone hole pictureApparently the hole in the ozone layer above Antartica is stabilizing. Some of you will remember the late 80s, when the hole was discussed a lot in the popular press. It was a huge problem. The hole we made meant that we were losing our protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. We identified that chloroflourocarbons -CFCs- which at the time were used everywhere (such as propellants in aerosol cans, refrigerator coolants) were the chief ozone-depleting substances that we produced.

What did we do? We sat down in Montreal and decided -as a global society- to change our behaviour. International agreements were arrived at to stop producing CFCs (and a range of other related molecules), to serve the greater good.

It seems to have worked. See the article I spotted on the BBC’s news site. Quoting:

Click to continue reading this post

Why I’m Sometimes Sure We’re Doomed

Some days I’m optimistic, and I think we’ll change our behaviour in time. We’ll be able to stop destroying our environment quite so recklessly. We’ll stop our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. We’ll stop fighting ridiculous wars over such fuels…. etc.

Other days, stuff like this happens, and I think “We’re Doomed”.

The scene: Two Fridays ago at Aspen airport. I was there to pick up a rental car that I had ordered over the web. It was needed for a trip I will tell you about. Of course, I had booked for a compact car, and was hoping to get one.

So I filled in the paperwork as usual, checking the boxes, declining the insurance (since I have my own), etc. The usual drill. Then the agent gave me one other form to sign which was weird. It is an agreement to accept a financial penalty if I brought back the car within two hours of renting it. I asked about this and he mumbled something about breach of contract, etc, etc. After giving him a hard stare, I thought nothing more of it.

Transactions with paper done with, the agent smiled at me and handed me the keys. Now remembering what just took place (see end of previous paragraph), observe what he said:

“Well, we don’t have any cars left sir, so we’re giving you a free upgrade to a Chevy Humongous. It is an SUV”.

“But I don’t want an SUV, Chevy Humongous or otherwise”.

He looked at me like I’m nuts.

Click to continue reading this post

MOND Laid to Rest?

Well, the press conference I told you about has happened! This is so exciting! There’s new and very direct proof from observations of the Bullet Cluster with the Chandra X-ray Observatory that Dark Matter really exists.

Bullet Cluster Composite

So the need to make modifications to how gravity works on large scales in order to explain observations seems to be something we can put aside for now.

Your mission: Go to the press release website for more information, and lovely Click to continue reading this post

More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, I

Aaron Bergman has written an extensive review of Peter Woit’s attack-book on string theory. I’ll let you read the thoughtfully written 11-page pdf document linked there. I think that Aaron deserves some sort of medal or other award for making the effort. Peter responded here.

Note from the title that this post is part I of II. Part I was to be a quick rundown of my thoughts on the recent Science Friday program featuring a head-to-head between Brian Greene and Lee Smolin over string theory research. I never finished writing it. I’ll try again in a day or two, and make it part II of this.

You can pretty much tell from the title of this post what I’m going to say. This is all just mostly media-inflated nonsense, which will continue for some time. In case it is not obvious why, I’ll summarise my reasons for saying this (again) in that post.

Summer has ended for me. Tons of stuff to do during first day of semester tomorrow.


(Spotted at Uncertain Principles.)


Below (nearer the end of this post) is the description of the “Uncertainty” event (Thursday 31st August, 7:00pm, USC’s Annenberg auditorium; much more here) part of USC’s Visions and Voices program I told you about in the previous post.

These are, as I said, events that build upon the Categorically Not! series held at Santa Monica arts studios on Sundays, and about which I have blogged extensively on Cosmic Variance (see some recent descriptions here and here). The old Categorically Not! series will not stop. The Santa Monica series will continue, but there will be some gaps to accommodate the USC events. We hope that the regular Santa Monica crowd will make the short trip across the city to USC on those nights. For more information on all Categorically Not! – type events, visit the Categorically Not! website.

We will start on the USC campus -in the Visions and Voices program- with Uncertainty, and we will do this theme twice this semester. We did this theme before, actually (we had K.C. Cole, Jonathan Kirsch, and Julia Sweeney) and it was very successful. We were planning to redo this first event with the same presenters, but at the time of planning, Julia (who did extracts from her monologue/show “Letting Go of God” (which you must see if it comes to a theatre anywhere near you)) was thinking of leaving LA for a bit -nooooo!- to go away for a year to New York to do her show there. So we modified things and added a different component – from actress Chloe Webb instead (which will no doubt also be thought-provoking, entertaining, and funny …see below). (I’ve since heard from Julia that her plans have changed and she’ll be staying in LA -hurrah!- and so I’m already thinking of some ways of collaborating with her on arts-meets-science related projects in the near future, which I’ll probably tell you about – as soon as there is something to tell.)

Why redo the theme? Why twice? What other themes will we do there? Have a read of the Science and Serendipity blurb at this link to get an idea of what we had in mind. An extract:

Science, Serendipity and the Search for Truth puts science on stage in an informal series of conversations and performances alongside music, theater, journalism, religion, film, dance and other disciplines to see what serendipitous connections might bubble up. The informality of the presentations and discussions will encourage intellectual risk-taking–both on the part of the presenters and the audience. People will feel free to “play” with ideas in any way they like–falling on their faces if need be, rather than bending over backwards to please some arbitrary convention. Nothing will be rigged, staged, hyped or in any way polished and sanitized or overly practiced. Because of this, we have reason to believe that real discoveries can be made.

“Uncertainty” is just an excellent theme for this, and we’ll use it this Fall semester. “Point of View” is also an excellent theme, and we’ll use that in the Spring Semester. We did that latter theme before too. We’ll get a chance to revisit both with performances and presentations similar to the ones done before, and then we and the participants will look at themes all over again with a fresh set of performances and presentations, having had time to discuss everything over the intervening weeks (maybe on this blog if you’re game?). It should be fun and instructive, I hope you agree.

Here is the blurb for the first Uncertainty event:
Click to continue reading this post

Visions and Voices

This year, there’s going to be even more to do on the USC campus to broaden your mind, and several events which link USC with off campus venues such as theatres, museums, and performing arts centers. The (then) new Provost, Max Nikias, announced his “Arts and Humanities Initiative” in his installation speech last year, where he reminded us of USC’s core values and then said:

These core values represent USC at its very best. They form its foundation and drive every aspect of President Sample’s creative vision for our future. And so we must pointedly ask: how can the university incorporate the rigorous exploration of these values into each student’s experience at USC, regardless of discipline? I believe we should turn to the arts and humanities. These disciplines fully capture the values of the university and provide students with an outstanding opportunity to examine their own relationship to these values on a truly personal level. The arts and humanities bring these values to life- illuminating their complexities and nuances…

and that this series is intended to:

affirm what is most essential and most enduring within the human spirit.

He then invited faculty to write letters of intent (and later, proposals) describing programs that they might want to see (and help make) happen on campus. In collaboration with other colleagues, I put in three. Actually, as I type, I recall that I blogged about this last year in my “Three Proposals of Marriage” post.

Tara McPherson, KC, and cvjWell, one of them was selected! When a campus news story was being prepared to announce it, somehow the Annenberg School’s K.C. Cole, the Cinema-Television School’s Tara McPherson (who chaired the selection committee) and myself were chosen to be the poster children of the event. This explains the purpose of the photo shoot, about which I blogged some time ago at this link. We had some fun with it, you might recall. (Official photo they used is to the right; contrast, if you will, with the one I showed back then.)

You can find a lot about the events from the news story that Diane Krieger wrote, linked here. Here are all the events (not all the descriptions are totally accurate, including the one of our event):
Click to continue reading this post

How Does Your Garden Grow?

corn!Speaking of fresh produce, some of you are probably wondering how the garden is doing. I’ve not seen it for a long time. I told you about the fig tree, but not of other things.

Well, there’s more to come, but here are a few pleasant things to come home to (as a result of the improved drip system I mentioned earlier):

I’ve got corn! I have not grown corn since I was a child, so this has an extra buzz for me. If you want to teach a child the value and wonder of gardening -and more seriously, give them a key component of an appreciation of how our planet’s food supply works- get them growing something easy and fast-growing like corn, or beans. It’s just magical, even as an adult, since these things grow and change so fast, you can almost see them progressing in front of your eyes. Please consider getting a child involved in something like this (or just yourself if you’ve never grown anything!) It is fulfilling, and easy – and you don’t need a garden. You can do it on a window-sill, or on the doorstep, with a deep pot or two.

Another good and easy thing to grow that gives results that are easily appreciated are various things from the squash family. Cucumbers, pumpkins, patty pan squash, etc. Here are some zucchini (courgettes) coming along nicely in the shade of the leaves of their parent plant, not so far from the stovetop pot:

Click to continue reading this post

Superstring Beans

Final day of Summer for me. Second day of my return home from travelling. Market Day! Time for a trip to the market to get supplies for the first week of the semester.

The loot (which includes, hidden under the leeks, some of the last of the white peaches of the season from the peach people I like):

market day 20_08_06

superstring beans chinese long beansBe sure to note (click on right for larger) these extra extra long beans- Superstring beans I think they must be called (quickly goes back and changes the working title of the post).

(“Chinese long beans” the lady selling them said. My first thought: Sure. Trick from produce-seller-101. If you ever want to sell a slightly unusual-looking vegetable, just make up a name like “Chinese something-or-other”, or “Guatemalan doo-dad”. But it is actually an accepted name, along with yardlong bean, asparagus bean, snake bean, etc. I prefer superstring bean henceforth. Given the popularity of string theory in the popular conciousness now (the horror!)… it might catch on…)

Some other pictures (click on thumbnail for larger):

market day 20_08_06 market day 20_08_06


(Update: On reflection (hot Sunday afternoon and don’t want to think about planning the busy week ahead) maybe I should have called them “Cosmic String Beans” since they are much larger than normal string beans, as opposed to having an extra remarkable internal symmetry…. at this point, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one still following the joke, which was already stretching it.)

And So It Begins…

Last year long after a Summer’s decent crop of figs I heavily pruned back the fig tree, and pulled it clear of some trees it was tangled in, cut those back a bit to give it some light, and tied two if its main branches to a post to try to train it to grow in a new direction.

It’s payback time! All through the Spring this year I’ve been watching it grow back even stronger and more happy, fed by more light and the knowledge that someone cares. It was covered in several tens, mabe hundreds, of green figs when I last saw it. Now that I have returned, (first day back – straight out to the garden to see what’s up) I see that I am more or less just in time! A few have over-ripened already, and some animal or other has helped themselves to several more, but there’s more than enough for desert for me and my guest tonight at dinner. Yum!

figs galore from cvj's garden

There are many more where those came from…. Dee-licious!


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.