As I mentioned, a couple of Saturdays ago I gave the keynote address at a one-day conference designed to introduce STEM Careers to underrepresented students from various neighboring schools. The event* was co-sponsored by the Level Playing Field Institute, but sadly the details of it seem to have vanished from their site now that the event has passed, which is unfortunate. It was good to see a room full of enthusiastic students wanting to learn more about such careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and I tried to give some thoughts about some of the reasons that there’s such poor representation by people of color (the group I was asked to focus on, although I mentioned that many of my remarks also extended to women to some extent) in such fields, and what can be done about it. Much of my focus, as you can guess from the issues I bring up here from time to time, was on battling the Culture: The perception people have of who “belongs” and who does not, and how that perception makes people act, consciously or otherwise, the images we as a society present and perpetuate in our media and in our conversations and conventions throughout everyday life, and so on. I used my own experience as an example at various points, which may or may not have been helpful – I don’t know.
My experience, in part and in brief, is this: I went a long way into being excited Click to continue reading this post
So I discovered a terrifying (but also kind of fascinating and beautiful at the same time) new element to the garden this morning. We’re having a heat wave here, and so this morning before leaving for work I thought I’d give the tomato plants a spot of moisture. I passed one of the tomato clusters and noticed that one of the (still green) tomatoes had a large bite taken out of it. I assumed it was an experimental bite from a squirrel (my nemesis – or one of them), and muttered dark things under my breath and then prepared to move away the strange coiled leaf that seemed to be on top of it. Then I noticed.
It wasn’t a leaf.
It was a HUGE caterpillar! Enormous! Giant and green with spots and even a red horn at one end! There’s a moment when you’re unexpectedly close to a creature like that where your skin crawls for a bit. Well, mine did for a while Click to continue reading this post
You may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
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I get questions from time to time about where the drawings on the site come from, or how they are done. The drawing I had in one of last week’s posts is a good example of one that can raise questions, partly because you don’t get a sense of scale after I’ve done a scan and cropped off the notebook edges and so forth. Also, people are not expecting much in the way of colour from drawing on location. Anyway, the answer is, yes I drew it, and yes it was drawn on location. I was just sitting on a balcony, chose which part of the view I wanted to represent on the page, and went for it. I wanted to spread across two pages of my notebook and make something of a tall sketch. See above right (click for larger view.) A quick light pencil rough helped me place things, and then a black Click to continue reading this post
Saw this the other day:
Eek! Better get around to writing my remarks before Saturday!
In case you’re wondering, find out more about the Bridging the STEM Divide Click to continue reading this post
So while at a hotel somewhere down South for a few days (pen and watercolour pencil sketch on the right), I finally found time to sit and read Graham Farmelo’s book “The Strangest Man”, a biography of Dirac. (It has a longer subtitle as well, but the book is way over in the next room far from my cosy spot…) You may know from reading here (or maybe even have guessed) that if I were to list a few of my favourite 20th century physicists, in terms of the work they did and their approach and temperament, Dirac would be a strong contender for being at the top of the list. I am not a fan of the loudmouth and limelight-seeking school of doing physics that seems all so popular, and I much prefer the approach of quietly chipping away at interesting (not always fashionable) problems to see what might turn up, guided by a mixture of physical intuition, aesthetics, and a bit of pattern-spotting. It works, as Dirac showed time and again.
I’ve read a lot about Dirac over the years, and was, especially in view of the title of the book, a little wary of reading the book when I got it four years ago, as I am not a fan of going for the “weren’t they weird?” approach to biographies of scientists since they serve too Click to continue reading this post
It is a new semester, and a new academic year. So this means getting back into the routine of lots of various aspects of the standard professor gig. For me this also involves being back in LA and taking the subway, and so this means getting (when it is not too busy as it seems to get a lot now) to sketch people. The guy with the red sunglasses was on his way to USC as well, and while he was reading or playing a game on his phone (such things are a blessing to sketchers… they help people hold in a fixed position for good stretches of time) I was able to get a quick sketch done in a few stops on the Expo line before we all got off. The other guy with the oddly trimmed beard was just briefly seen on the Red line, and so I did not get to make much of him…
I’m teaching electromagnetism at graduate level again this semester, and so it ought to be fun, given that it is such a fun topic. I hope that the group of Click to continue reading this post
Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set Click to continue reading this post
Back in LA, I had an amusing day the other day going from this* in the TV studio…
involving a laser and liquid nitrogen (so, around -320 F, if you must use those units), to this in the kitchen:
involving butter, flour, water and shortening… (and once in the oven, around +350 F) which ultimately resulted in this: Click to continue reading this post
I promised two things in a previous post. One was the incomplete sketch I did of Crater lake and West Maroon Valley (not far from Aspen) that I started before the downpour began, last weekend. It is on the left (click to enlarge.) The other is a collection of the wild flowers and other pretty things that I picked for you (non-destructively) from my little hike in the West Maroon valley. There’s Columbine, Indian Paintbrush, and so forth, along with Click to continue reading this post
In case you missed it, Maryam Mirzakhani has been awarded the Fields Medal! This is regarded as the most prestigious prize in mathematics. Here’s a Guardian article covering it at a general level, and here is the page on all the award winners, with more detail on each, at the International Mathematical Union website. The reason this is a big deal (and why it is newsworthy) is because it is the first time the prize has been awarded to a woman. In a world where, despite the number of excellent women mathematicians out there, there is still a perception problem in the general populace about who (or more to the point, what gender) is associated with achievement in mathematics, it is important to note and celebrate such landmarks.
I also note that one of the other 2014 awardees, Artur Avila, is from Brazil! While not covered as much in the press as far as I can see, this is another big Click to continue reading this post
I went for a little hike on Sunday. Usually when I’m here visiting at the Aspen Center for Physics I go on several hikes, but this year it looks like I will only do one, and a moderate one at that. I had a bit of a foot injury several weeks ago, so don’t want to put too much stress on it for a while. If you’ve looked at the Aspen Center film (now viewable on YouTube!) you’ll know from some of the interviews that this is a big component of many physicist’s lives while at the Center. I find that it is nice to get my work to a point where I can step back from a calculation and think a bit more broadly about the physics for a while. A hike is great for that, and in all likelihood one comes back from the hike with new ideas and insights (as happened for me on this hike – more later)… maybe even an idea for a new calculation.
So I took the bus up to the Maroon Bells and hiked up to Crater Lake and a bit beyond into the West Maroon Valley, hunting a few wildflowers. I will share some pictures of those later. (I’ve heard that they are great up at Buckskin pass, and I was tempted to push on up to there, but I resisted the temptation.) I brought along several pens, watercolour pencils, and a water brush (for the watercolour pencils) because I’d decided that I would do some sketches at various points… you know, really sit with the landscape and drink it in – in that Click to continue reading this post
So tonight (meaning the wee hours of Monday morning and the next few mornings, for optimum viewing – more civilised hours might work too, of course) the Perseid meteor shower will be on view! Have a look at this site (picked at random; there are many more) for more about how to view the meteors, in case you’re not sure. Well, here’s an interesting thing. The moon will be at its brightest as well, so that’ll mean that the viewing conditions for meteors will not be ideal, unfortunately. And it really will be extra bright (well, slightly, to be honest) because tonight’s full moon is during the moon’s closest approach to Click to continue reading this post
I just got back from the Aspen Art Museum‘s new building. They’ve been having a members-only series of nights before the big opening to the public in a few days, and an invitation was sent along to Aspen Center for Physics people to come along, and so (of course) I did. It was a nice thing to do at the end of a day of working on revising drafts of two papers, before settling down to a nice dinner of squash, green beans, tomatoes, and lemon-pepper pasta that I made, all from the Saturday Farmers’ Market. But I digress.
Let me say right at the outset that the building is fantastic. There will no doubt be arguments back and forth about the suitability of the building for the town, and so forth (and there have been), but as a space for both art and community (and to my mind, those should go together in a city’s main art space) it is Click to continue reading this post
Back in Aspen. I went back to LA for a long weekend, and my travel back to Aspen today gave me a lot of good thinking time. Also, I got a few very quick drawings done, such as the one on the right of a cooperative fellow (looking at his phone) on the subway on my way to Union station to take the LAX Flyaway bus.
I’ve been thinking about two projects, one physics and the other about physics, going back and forth between the one and the other, trying to not let them interfere with each other. The “about physics” one is of course the graphic physics book project. In itself it is in two parts. I’m adding more pages from time to time – drawing, inking, and painting/colouring when I can – and I’m also having the odd conversation with potential publishers from time to time, and sending off proposal packages to appropriate places that accept them… trying to explain the nature of the project to those who are willing to listen to something new and exciting. As I’ve said before, “new and exciting” are not words that most publishers want to Click to continue reading this post
Here’s a quick sketch I did while in Princeton last month, at a new café, Café Vienna. (See earlier posts here and here for sketches in an older Princeton Café. I’m using a thicker marker for this one, by contrast, giving a different feel altogether, more akin to this one.) This new café promises to recreate the atmosphere of the Cafés of Vienna and so I kind of had to have coffee there before I left. Why?
Well, two reasons, one obvious and the other less so: Click to continue reading this post
I thought I’d mentioned this already, but I could not find anything after a search on the blog so somehow I think I must have forgotten to. It is a cute thing about a certain favourite solution (or class of solutions) of Einstein’s equations that I’ve talked about here before. I’m talking about the Taub-NUT solution (and its cousin, Taub-Bolt). Taub-NUT is sort of interesting for lots of reasons. Many, in fact. One of them concerns it having both mass and another parameter called “nut charge”, . There are several ways to think about what nut charge is, but one curious way is that is is sort of a “magnetic” counterpart to the ordinary mass, which can be thought of as an “electric” quantity.
The language is based on analogy with electromagnetism, where, in the usual Click to continue reading this post
Today (Sunday) I devoted my work time to finishing an intensely complicated page. It is the main “establishing shot” type page for a story set in a Natural History Museum.
This is another “don’t do” if you want to save yourself time, since such a location results in lots of drawings of bones and stuffed animals and people looking at bones and stuffed animals. (The other big location “don’t do” from an earlier post was cityscapes with lots of flashy buildings with endless windows to draw. )
Perhaps annoyingly, I won’t show you the huge panels filled with such things, and instead show you a small corner panel of the type that people might not look at much (because there are no speech bubbles and so forth). This is seconds before our characters meet. A fun science-filled conversation will follow…(Yes these are the same characters from another story I’ve shown you extracts from.)
[Update: I suppose I ought to explain the cape? It is a joke. I thought I’d have a Click to continue reading this post
Here in Aspen there was a pleasant party over at the apartment of one of the visiting physicists this evening. I know it seems odd, but it has been a while since I’ve been at a party with a lot of physicists (I’m not counting the official dinners at the Strings conference a fews weeks back), and I enjoyed it. I heard a little about what some old friends were up to, and met some spouses and learned what they do, and so forth. For the first time, I think, I spoke at length to some curious physicists about the graphic book project, and the associated frustrating adventures in the publishing world (short version: most people love it, but they just don’t want to take a risk on an unusual project…), and they were excited about it, which was nice of them.
It was a pot luck, and so although I was thinking I’d be tired and just take along a six-pack of beer, by lunchtime I decided that I’d make a little something and take it along. Then, as I tend to do, it became two little somethings…and I went and bought the ingredients at the supermarket nearby and worked down at the centre until later. Well, first I made a simple syrup from sugar and water and muddled and worried a lot of tarragon into it.
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Hello from the Aspen Center for Physics. One of the things I wanted to point out to you last month was the 74 questions that Andy Strominger put on the slides of his talk in the last session of the Strings 2014 conference (which, you may recall from earlier posts, I attended). This was one of the “Vision Talks” that ended the sessions, where a number of speakers gave some overview thoughts about work in the field at large.
Andy focused mostly on progress in quantum gravity matters in string theory, and was quite upbeat. He declines (wisely) to make predictions about where the field might be going, instead pointing out (not for the first time) that if you look at the things we’ve made progress on in the last N years, most (if not all) of those things would not have been on anyone’s list of predictions N years ago. (He gave a specific value for N, I just can’t recall what it is, but it does not matter.)
He sent an email to everyone who was either speaking, organising, moderating a session or similarly involved in the conference, asking them to send, off the Click to continue reading this post
…in my own book! This is one of the more amusing emails I’ve received in recent days. Apparently there is no algorithm that checks you are not recommending to an author a copy of their own book.
And no, I’ve no idea why this version is so expensive. Did they print this one with gold leaf illumination on the first letter of each chapter?
I was sent an interesting link a while ago* that I thought I would share with you. It is a really good discussion about Dark Energy – what do we think it is, why we think it exists, why some think it does not, and how to move forward with the discussion of what is, after all apparently *most* of our universe. It is a panel discussion that was hosted by the Institute for Arts and Ideas (which I *love* the idea of!). The discussion is described on the site as follows:
Dark energy is supposed to make up two-thirds of the universe. But troublingly CERN has yet to find any evidence. Have we got our story of the universe wrong – might dark energy be the aether of our time? Do we need a new account of the universe, or is it too soon for such radical solutions?
The BBC’s Sue Nelson asks Templeton Prize winning cosmologist George Ellis, Cambridge physicist David Tong and mathematician Peter Cameron to seek the invisible.
Ok, the “troublingly CERN has yet to find any evidence” part puzzles me a bit, since nobody’s really expecting CERN to find any evidence of it, in any large scale experiments that I’m aware of (please correct me if I am wrong)… Is the writer of the abstract confusing Dark Energy and Dark Matter? Even then I think it is an odd phrase to lead with, especially if you don’t mention the huge amount of evidence from astronomy in the same footing… but I imagine the abstract was maybe not written by a physicist?
Nevertheless, I strongly recommend it as a thought-provoking discussion, and you can find it embedded below. Do also check out their many other interesting Click to continue reading this post
Sorry for being a bit quiet the last week. I’ve ben working hard on a project and a lot of other things, and got snowed under. One of the things that has kept me busy has been the garden, and I am getting good rewards for my efforts. More later.
The fig trees have begun their production of fruit, even after being trimmed back quite sternly earlier this year. The photo shows figs of both varieties. I don’t think I will be able to net either tree this year given the spread of the branches and so I anticipate a lot of frustrating battles with critters of several types (Fluffy, Flitty, etc…). The figs are worth it though. There is simply nothing quite like the flesh of a fresh fig off the tree, still warm from the sun…
It is the 4th of July, and I hope you who are celebrating it have a good time today!
I can’t really let the day pass without sharing with you the episode of Fail Lab in which we examine fireworks and pyrotechnics with an appropriate cautionary note, and a dash of humour. Enjoy it again if you’ve seen it before, and don’t forget to check out all twelve episodes. You can read my discussion of the whole series (excellently made by Patrick Scott) starting here, and there’s more here. Click below for the episode:
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Yep. This is an exciting new discovery for me. No, it is not what you think! I’m talking about gardening matters. It seems that a lot of my cucumber and squash plants are not producing a great deal this year, (with several small squashes not developing much before falling off) and I could not figure out why. On the other hand, I’ve done a better job of building sun shields for them, to stop them being fried by the intense heat over the course of a hot day. I now think that maybe these things are connected. First of all, I’m not seeing a lot of bees of any sort in the garden, and so I wonder if it is simply that there’s not a lot of pollination going on. Couple this with the fact that the sunscreens (some quite low) are probably hiding them from some bees that might be passing by, I’ve begun to wonder if it is time to help things along a bit. Click to continue reading this post
As you may know from three previous recent posts on research (here, here, and here), I’ve been thinking and calculating a lot in the area of dynamical cosmological constant – concerning mostly (but not entirely) thermodynamics and quantum gravity. Specifically, the cosmological constant becomes the pressure variable in the thermodynamics. I think it is important, and will teach us something about things like gauge/gravity duality, string theory, black holes, and perhaps even cosmology, but I am not sure what yet. I’ve made some suggestions in recent papers, and computed some interesting things along the way.
Anyway, the larger community has not been following this story much, since: (1) It means a break with some powerful and still very fruitful frameworks where the cosmological constant being fixed is a given – like AdS/CFT – and it is not clear what that means yet, so the motivation is not super-strong; and (2) Let’s be honest, there’s no superstar working on it, so it is not going to get anyone any points. So I’ve been trying to shout about it in my little way from the periphery, as I think it might be useful, and since several people have been doing really good and interesting work on this issue for many years and it is worth more people seeing what they’ve been up to.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when I looked on the listing of new papers on the arXiv for today and saw three (!) papers on the subject, moving things forward in various ways. (They all seem to have noticed some of what I’ve Click to continue reading this post
The conference is really rather good, with a varied program involving topics and speakers from all over the map. This includes the parallel sessions we had on Wednesday, which were held down at the Institute. Those were a lot of fun, because of the dodging back and forth between different auditoria at the IAS to get to talks of interest. I was chairing one of the sessions, and so did not get to dodge about in the first 90 minutes, and had to miss some interesting talks, but did a little talk-surfing in the second 90 after the break.
It has been many years ago now since I began to talk about there being a need for parallel sessions at strings conferences. Some people would object to them, saying that it would somehow be damaging to the field’s connected nature, where everyone is following many strands and topics in the field. To me that concern was always balanced by the problem of only having a small cluster of people and ideas represented each year due to the constraints of only having five days to present the activity of such a diverse population of researchers in the field. The main objection to having parallel sessions were, to my mind, based on a view of the field left over from when the field was smaller in terms of both people and thriving ideas. I think the conference organizers this year found a way of combining the two models rather well, with the single afternoon of parallel sessions, along with well chosen sets of half hour talks for the main sessions where we all sit together, roughly grouped by themes. There were three one hour big marquee plenary/summary talks. Theses are really useful. If I were to make a change, I’d perhaps have four or five of those, putting the two half hour talks that were displaced into the parallel section.
There is a two hour session of “Vision Talks” this afternoon. Should be interesting to hear what is said. We will perhaps get some good discussion going about where various ideas may be headed. I hope there is a lot of audience participation.
Poster sessions and the “gong show” were also great things to have as part of Click to continue reading this post
I’ve been looking at some of the many changes to Princeton, as I get the chance between sessions at the conference. A significant one for me is that Small World Coffee has really thrived and grown significantly. I can’t over emphasize how big a deal the place was to the lives of many in Princeton when it opened in 1993. Believe it or not, there was no real cafe in Princeton when I arrived the year before. The arrival of small world was a huge deal. It meant not just decent coffee, but a gathering place, a place to hang out, and a little art and performance space. Such places existed before, but on campus, and mostly for the benefit of the student population. I was not a student at Princeton, although many of my friends were, so although I went to such places as well it was nice to be in a cafe that was part of the actual community that was the town of Princeton. Several postdocs loved that the place opened, and we went there a lot. Perhaps it helped balance out the ratio of trips up to New York to choosing to stay in town… Ok, just a little bit, but a significant amount. I remember my friend (and fellow IAS postdoc and neighbour at the time), Marc Kamionkowski, playing his saxophone there (sometimes putting on his “Cat in the Hat” hat for a number – he may not forgive me for mentioning this), and I’d go along to support him.
I sat there yesterday and was pleased that the expanded seating at the back meant lots of nice vistas from which I could look at other patrons without being Click to continue reading this post
Today is day one of Strings 2014, this year’s version of the official annual conference about the latest research in string theory. There’s a feeling that there is a buzz of excitement in the air, in part because (I’m guessing): (1) Well, it is the annual conference, you’re going to find out more about what’s been going on in the various corners of the field, and (2) everywhere you look there walks a giant of the field, and (3) more generally, people just like you who “get you”, and whose papers you’ve read that you’ve spent a good portion of your life thinking about, so it would be odd if you were not excited, and (4) it is in Princeton, which is sort of equal to Mount Olympus in our field, where a lot of the giants live, if you’ll permit me to mix metaphors a bit, and (5) apparently this is the largest Strings meeting since Paris in 2004. (I’ve heard that it is maybe 600 people registered, making it the biggest Strings ever?… Not sure.)
I could go on guessing about the buzz felt by others, but instead I’ll mention Click to continue reading this post
Longest day of the year? It sure felt like it. I spent about 6 hours of it standing high above the city in the sun talking about physics and astronomy to camera… Super tiring.
It is for a new show I’ll say more about later.