Wider and Warmer

Los Angeles Panorama

Los Angeles. Click for an expanded view.

The last post had a nice picture of the city that I enjoyed sharing with you. However, on Sunday I ran to the top of one of the highest points of the park and happened to take a much nicer photograph, showing more of the surrounds, and with warmer light. I’m sharing this one with you for sure. If you click on the image you’ll get a more detailed view. This was at about 4:15pm, in case you’re wondering.



Evening Glow

It was a particularly crisp and clear afternoon in Los Angeles today. Usually one has to wait for some rain to come through to clear things up this much. But that hasn’t happened properly for sometime. Anyway it was great to be able to see all the way down to Long Beach where the tiny forms of the cranes down at the port were clearly visible, or all the way out over the ocean seeing it sparkle in the low late afternoon sunlight.

It might seem that I’m making a big deal out of something rather mundane but I would respectfully disagree. The fact is, Summertime here, and indeed well into the mid Fall, has increasingly (in the last few years and more) become a relentless pattern of dryness, wildfire smoke, heat, and essentially zero rain, so this sort of cool(er), clear weather is especially welcome when it arrives. It should be marked when it does.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been other kinds of pleasure to be had from the weather recently. There have been some lovely misty days as well – in fact I think they have been the best markets of the transition from the summer/fall heat dryness to what I hope we will be seeing more of for some months.


Looking Forward

[I do so love an “unfinished” sketch.]

I found a few minutes to sketch a few days ago. Just a little bit of time. And it was one of those drawing episodes where – after three or four lines -things just fell nicely into place rapidly and I could see the way all the way to the end of the drawing, and it was fine. Like happens in a good chess game, incidentally. And like chess, that kind of moment rests on all those numerous other games/drawings that don’t work, that frustrate, enrage, make you laugh with how bad they are, etc. In other words, practice. I just so very much need to do this more, and so much more. To get back to the daily habit of just making sure that I drew something of the world, as practice, as meditation, as portal into the world, as portal for the world to enter me, as fun, and as preparation for a project.

So also yes, I am planning a new project, and pulling it off will require me to re-learn my drawing skills.

So let’s see how this goes. Maybe I’ll start with a goal of 15 minutes a day? Ok, deal.


It’s Black in Physics Week!

It is #BlackInPhysics week, and be sure to check out the various special activities at https://blackinphysics.org. It is a joy to see the faces and stories popping up on twitter under #BlackInPhysicsRollCall as physicists around the world introduce themselves. Join in! Share! Use it when people in your department tell you that they can’t find any black candidates for their job search. And check out various articles throughout the week appearing in Physics Today and Physics World, including an interview with some of the organisers here: Thank you organisers!!

Dairy Diary

stages of yogurt makingYesterday’s kitchen science experiment was this morning’s breakfast! In explaining to my young son about microorganisms that we live with (in our bodies, and as tools of transformation we deploy in various applications like cuisine) I suddenly remembered trying to make yogurt when I was myself very young (although not as young). So I had the idea – why not just make some!? Show as well as tell! What could be easier?

So the photomontage shows the steps, and the result:

First, sterilising (using boiling water) all the things we were going to use: the main container to go into the incubator (see below) for incubation, the measuring spoon, tongs, lid, measuring cup, and the pouring lip of the pan the milk will be heated in.

Second, warming a few cups of whole milk to 180 degrees (F). This will help remove various of the organisms that we *don’t* want to thrive in the incubation stage.

Third, cooling it down to about 110-115 degrees (F) with the aid of an ice bath. (Had to do this twice as I over-cooled the first time.)

Fourth, taking a few tablespoonfuls of live yogurt from a routine store-bought tub of plain. Mixing it with some of the milk, then adding it to the whole lot of milk and stirring it into the glass container.

Fifth. We needed to make an incubator where it could be left for at least 5 hours. The bacteria need a nice, still, warm environment to multiply and grow as they ferment the milk, turning it into yogurt. I decided upon a large lidded tupper-ware that was a bit larger than the glass container. I put the (open) glass milk+yogurt containing container inside. I filled the remaining outer space with hot water, covered the big tupper-ware with its lid, and then wrapped it all in some towels for insulation, and then put the whole thing into a microwave as a nice cosy enclosure, and shut the door. (Note: the microwave was not turned on!!)

Then we left the whole thing for 5 hours (actually maybe 5.5, but 5 is apparently the minimum), checked it (looked great!), left it for another 2 (it got a bit thicker), and then tasted it (thick and nice and tart-tasting!) and put it into the fridge.

Next morning: breakfast!

Best and tastiest science experiment for some time!


Early Career Musings

Because of a certain movie from earlier this Summer (which I have not yet got around to mentioning here on the blog), I’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently, so sorry in advance for my face showing up in all your media.

And I know many will sneer because many of them are to do with movies and little bit of science (sure, extra sneering when superheroes or time travel mentioned).

But sometimes this stuff enables valuable conversations to be had about other things too. (The less cynical will realize that this is, of course, the point).

This interview for Inverse was for a piece about careers (part of their “Rookie Year” series) and some have found it somewhat useful, so do please share with others who might find value in it.



Shaping the Future of Scientific Conferences

The beautiful Strings Cape Town 2020 logo/poster.

The beautiful Cape Town Strings 2020 logo/poster.

This year’s big annual flagship conference in String theory, Strings 2020, ended two days ago. It was a massive success, and it was held entirely online. There were more than 2000 registered participants from all around the world, with sessions where a large portion of that number were engaged simultaneously! This conference’s attendance more usually ranges at around 300 – 400, as far as I remember, so this was a spectacular change. The success was made possible by -most importantly- the willingness of many people to take part and engage with each other to a degree that was foreign to most participants, combined with smart and tireless effort by the team of organizers in Cape Town, where the conference was originally going to be held physically. There were excellent talks (selected by the programme committee) and many illuminating discussions.

Due to the pandemic, the conference was originally going to be cancelled (or at least postponed to much later in the year), but organizer Jeff Murugan announced at relatively short notice that they were instead going to attempt to do it online on the original dates, and it is wonderful that so many people around the world engaged, instead of just shrinking away into the Covid-19 gloom.

The other major component of the success is what I want to discuss here. It was the use, sometimes in concert, of tools such as Zoom (for talk delivery and live “face to face” interactions), the chat component of Zoom (for text exchanges), Slack (for text exchanges, organized differently), and YouTube (for live casting the Zoom sessions or seeing them later). (Of course, email too, but we’ve come to accept that mode of communication so routinely that we don’t tend to list it among “novel” remote tools, but it is one too.)

As one of the large international advisory committee for this year’s Strings (and for the record, I’d done pretty much nothing on this committee except nod electronically from time to time, as is standard in this role), I’ve been watching the various emails of congratulations go out to Jeff and his co-organizers post-conference (also standard), and also various thoughts about the role of the Zoom necessity, and what role it ought (or ought not) to play moving forward. The next annual conference, Strings 2021, will be in Sao Paolo, and of course, the orgnanizers for that will need to start planning soon (also standard).

There have been strong opinions on both sides about Zoom, and remote participation in general. (I started a Facebook and Twitter thread with such a discussion earlier in the week, anticipating (not particularly presciently) that such discussions will need to be had.) It is interesting to see what people think, and where various people lie on the spectrum of opinions. Everybody is genuinely interested in doing what they think is best for the science, but (as often happens) clearly there needs to be some convergence as to what that “best” is supposed to look like.

Anyway, I am certainly not going to report specific parts of others contribution to the committee’s discussion here, but I can report to you my own thoughts, that I wrote in the form of an email to the whole committee soon after the exchanges of thoughts began. I invite you to read it, share it if you want (using the link to this whole post), and even contribute some thoughts in the comments. Or start your own conversations elsewhere. Some of the issues are generally applicable to conferences in any field, but note that there are aspects of the discussion and concerns that are very specific to what has been a (relatively) close-knit and small community of theoretical physicists, where sharing computational techniques, traditions, folklore, and tricks of the trade has been hugely important in producing the many (and ongoing) spectacular discoveries that have been made over the decades.

Here’s the email message that I sent (I made a small but important addition where I say “update”.):

(Saturday 4th July 2020, 09:41 PST)

Dear All,

What a wonderful strings meeting! Thanks to all, both organizers and participants. It is engagement in both directions that makes for a great success like this. The fact that many people (including so many on this email thread) actively and visibly supported the meeting helped enormously.

On the Zoom issue I think we are at an important decision point. First, I think it is key that we recognize that nobody is suggesting that we suddenly do all such meetings using Zoom. We should approach the issue from a position of looking to see how it can help us do what we do even better.

Yes, face to face discussions, serendipitous encounters, chats over drinks, experiencing new cuisines together, etc., all make for a lovely and highly valuable conference experience. These are core social modes of discourse that glue us together and make us strong as a community, and scientifically. We should not try to *replace* those things, but *enhance* them, and to find ways of sharing some the benefits of them with those who cannot take part directly. And, very importantly, we should also consider our environmental footprint as a community, and show leadership in that regard too.

I’ll simply list a few things to consider before we dismiss the massive benefits that an online component of significant size can bring to our scientific community.

(1) Inclusion of many people who do not have the funds to attend such meetings, but whose voices can and should be part of the community’s conversations.

(2) Inclusion of people who have family constraints, and who cannot easily disappear for 10 days to fly across the world. Again, they can and should be part of the community’s conversations. (Update: Consider also people with health or accessibility constraints here too.)

(3) Inclusion of groups who are either not or are barely on the radar of our community right now, but who should be. (They intersect with the previous two categories in some cases, but not in all cases.)

(4) Incorporating these tools in our meetings will also allow for entirely new kinds of conversation and interaction that most of us in this email conversation can’t fully imagine. The young people that have been mentioned a lot in emails so far have -in addition to the traditional modes- quite different ways of communicating ideas and starting conversations. This often involves the kinds of tools (zoom, slack, etc) that we’re discussing now. (E.g. the “I want to speak with X about Y” type planning can happen even in this mode.) So I think we should seek opinion from younger people about what could be useful in such meetings too.

Again, let me say that we don’t do these things by replacing the core physical aspect, but we make the electronic tools a large and significant component of the meeting in order to enhance them, and extend their reach. If we can have the usual ~400 people physically present, but 1200 others or more also participating (live) electronically, I’d say that would be a great mix.

Looking more broadly than just Strings meetings, again we have an opportunity. Yes, we all get Zoom fatigued at times, but I’d say it has been (and can continue to be) a net positive for our field, in a way that may be as significant as the Arxiv was when it was launched (~1990). For those of you at well connected places and who are well funded, it might not seem as significant, but all of a sudden (speaking for myself and for many others I’ve spoken to) I’ve been able to give seminars in places I’d not been invited to before, and to attend such seminars as well, and to invite speakers to our own seminar series and have an international audience, sparking all sorts of interesting conversations that simply would not have happened. I’ve also had valuable one on one physics meetings (through Zoom) with colleagues far away that would not have happened were it not for the Covid situation. We could have done this as a community long ago, but it needed a pandemic to force us to realize it was just that we had not taken the time to learn to use the tools well enough.

So that brings me to the tools themselves. Zoom seminars and meetings especially. A lot can be got out of them, but it is a matter of learning the best practices that can make them most useful. Keeping as many live faces on screens as possible can be good for both the speakers and the participants, and so forth, and so encouragement for participants to do that (when possible) is essential. As is building in longer breaks between zoom sessions, and so forth. There are ways of having lively Q+A too, but I won’t go into all that here.

Sorry for the long message. I just wanted to say that we should consider Zoom (and other long range tools) as a major opportunity to enhance our community and the science we do, as opposed to a necessary evil.



Raisin Urgency

cinnamon--raisin bread making montageReplenishing critical supplies of cinnamon-raisin bread for the household, a couple of days ago. Not a bad result, given that it is so long since I’ve made this kind of loaf. The recipe turned out a little raisin-poor for my tastes, and it was a little dry (possibly my fault), so I will be improvising some variations on the recipe and baking method to improve these aspects.


Spectral, II

plot of spectral density of (2,2) JT SupergravityWhat’s that now? You want more physics teases? Ok. That dotted line is a (known) JT gravity Schwarzian spectral density. That red line? It’s the fully quantum corrected result! To all orders in topology and beyond! See my paper that appeared today on the arXiv.

(For experts: The red line is made up of about 2000 points for each of which I know the energy, and the full wave function for an associated problem. Using those I can compute lots of things, to good accuracy. One example is the full non-perturbative spectral form factor, that I showed last post.)


Spectral, I

Ok here goes. Been bursting to tell you this for many weeks. Ever wondered what the fully non-perturbative spectral form factor for a JT gravity model looks like? For real? Not in some special limit or simplified model? Here you go*.

Paper out on Monday! (I plan on doing a post or two about what this all means.)


*For the experts, note that this shows both non-perturbative and strong coupling effects, which are usually hard to get at. I show how in the paper.