Friday, June 30, 2006

Promising site

Continuing in the "kids and science" theme, I happened to see the web site on CNN this morning at the gym. In their own words:

Howtoons are cartoons showing kids of all ages "How To" build things. Each illustrated episode is a stand-alone fun adventure accessible to all. Our Howtoons are designed to encourage children to be active participants in discovering the world through Play-that-Matters -- fun, creative, and inventive -- and to rely a lot less on mass-consumable entertainment.

Much like MIT has OpenCourseWare distributing curricular materials for college students worldwide, our Howtoons are OpenKidsWare, with practical build-it projects letting kids learn-by-doing, MIT-style!

So far not a lot of videos, but this morning they only 5 and now they're up to 7. Extrapolating, they should have 30 by the time you click through.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cool lasers

Over at Uncertain Principles he's got a couple posts about lasers and getting them to do what you want. As I've mentioned before, I think posts such as these are great examples of what physics blogging is about.

Of course, he calls it "Fun With ... Lasers" and I suppose if you go read it and think it's fun, you are (or are destined to be) an experimental physicist. If you think "cool" then you're probably theoretical. And if you think, "I wonder if I could use that to make such-and-such" you're probably an engineer type. I'm tempted to continue this train of thought, but I'm sure I'd start offending people pretty soon.

Keep Asking Questions

In addition to worries about sex, drugs, alcohol, strangers, and obesity, parents might reasonably hope to keep their kids alive with wonder in the face of an academic system which tries to pound it out of them. So in light of this, I thought I'd mention a question one of my nieces staying with us this week asked at breakfast:

Why, when I move this way while looking in my cereal bowl, do I see myself move the other way?

I'm paraphrasing (she's only 5.5 years old), and it took me a bit to understand what she was asking. She was eating cereal in a reflective, metal bowl and looking at her reflection on the inside (concave) part. When she moved left, her reflection moved right.

So she had observed this (kids seem infatuated with reflections), fine. But for her to ask this question, she had to know that in a flat mirror, the reflection follows you. I'm not sure how impressed to be, but I am pretty impressed.

I had a tough time explaining it without math, and I don't think she really understands the answer. I just hope she keeps asking questions.

Epilogue: I pulled out a flashlight to try and explain a bit...the kids love playing with it so it might make for a good gift.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Business Travel with Aliens because of Global Warming

I saw mention of this USA Today article about the stress on families from frequent business travel. Reminds me of meeting a well-known cosmologist who went on and on about all his upcoming travel. I was going to say something like, "Oh, you must not have any kids." Some sense told me to hold back though, afterall there are lots of ways that could come off badly...maybe he had had trouble having kids, maybe he was gay, etc. Anyway, I later googled him, and was quite thankful I had held back. Of all the ways I could see that comment as obnoxious, I missed the most obvious...he has kids! (In other words, I would have been saying he was an absentee father who cared nothing for his family).

Slashdot has a post about distributed computing and SETI, seemingly saying that the SETI search is a waste of time.

Finally, I saw this last night on CNN saying that Gore got the science right in his movie An Inconvenient Truth. For a contrasting opinion, you might follow Lubos' link.

Do not waste time!

Since I like to think I'm helping young physicists out there, I'll frame this post as advice. Here are some things you definitely should try to avoid so that you actually get some work done:

  • googling old class mates or yourself
  • browsing the wikipedia
  • scanning html access logs or sitemeter for your blog
  • checking your latest cite summary at Spires
  • keeping up with the rapid fire linking of Instapundit
  • browsing FatWallet
  • reading LQG papers (if Lubos-aligned) or String papers (if Woit aligned)
  • checking the rumor mills ( astro or theory) or the jobs sites (e.g. APS)
  • Worst time killer of all: writing to a blog!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Two Stephens

The Colbert Report made some fun of Stephen Hawking last week and it's up over at YouTube. Not hilarious, but it's nice to see some theoretical physics in the mainstream. The Colbert Report must have some physicist(s) on staff because they actually have a fair amount of physics creep into the show in an intelligent way. Maybe they're hiring?

A few months back, Colbert talked about how, if we really wanted to attract kids to careers in science, that instead of the law not applying to celebrities and athletes (have you heard the latest about Limbaugh?), we should allow scientists to do as they please. Doesn't sound funny the way I rehash it, but it was.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Strominger's Talk

After Chad posted the link to the online talks from Strings 06, I took a look at Strominger's* opening talk (looks like he's got a more technical one further down), and thought I'd point that one out in particular. It's nice and fairly easily understood by someone with a basic idea of the state of modern physics.

Two things I also wanted to mention:

  • His talk is of the "hand drawn" type much preferred by some in the community. Not sure if there's as much consensus here as in global warming! The lesson isn't that physicists should hand draw their slides, nor that they should use presentation software. Instead, you should make a good and visible presentation.
  • I liked the slide "Contradiction leads to progress." Besides looking nice, I think it's important to get this idea across to the general public.

*Update: As pointed out in the comments, it's a pretty big file. I don't notice these things much since everything just downloads in the background.

Update 2: A couple other notes now that I've had time to look through some of the other talks. Dijkgraaf has a summary talk posted which starts out a bit funny (and a bit un-PC as well). While he's talking about how this is a remarkable time for many fields, he mentions the Ricci Flow work under the slide title "In the meantime in mathematics"...I mention this in support of my argument with Lubos (see the comments of this post). Finally, he finishes by mentioning that Lubos is locked behind the Great Wall (well "firewall") but that Woit is not.

Google Hack

According to the CHE, some school district is claiming that Google's web scanning robots hacked their systems to expose student information:

Judith Ray, Catawba’s chief technology officer, told the Winston-Salem Journal that one of Google’s Web-scanning robots hacked into a secure server and posted the personal information online.

I'm pretty confident in Google's claim that the charge is total "hogwash." It's easy enough to check the logs of web server and see what these search engines are doing. There's also the robots.txt file which they all seem to obey (the file specifies what not to search).

I have some colleagues, though, who found a draft of an as-yet unpublished paper some competitors were working on through Google. Apparently these competitors were either unaware the paper was in a directory being served by a web server or otherwise thought search engines wouldn't find it. No hacking involved though.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Saw Thomas Friedman's "Addicted to Oil" Last Night

Happened upon the premier of Friedman's show on the Discovery channel as I turned on the TV trying to relax before going to bed. Very watchable, but certainly almost no depth. For a better critique, see the NYT's piece. I think they're going to be rerunning it quite a bit so you might want to catch it.

Letter of Recommendation

Writing letters of reference is a major time drain, so to help all those out there, I thought I'd put this one out into the public domain. Such letters require care to really bring out the positives and avoid saying anything that would get one in legal trouble. As is usual for these letters, you really have to be able to read between the lines.

To whom it may concern:

I write to recommend Sloh Moronk for a research position at your institution. I have been Sloh's adviser for a number of years now, and he has made quite an impression on me. I am confident that his addition to your department will greatly improve my productivity.

Sloh latches on to problems quite well with much eagerness. One problem I put to him occupied most of his time for almost an entire year. During that time we discussed the problem repeatedly in our meetings. Sloh, being the independent thinker that he is, continually tried to do it his way. With all this time invested, it was quite easy for me to solve the problem by the end of that year.

He is also remarkable in his ability to communicate. It seemed that everyday he would have some question or another, most of which were easily answered with just a couple more emails to explain the solution.

Were I to compare Sloh to his peers, I would have to say there is no comparison. I therefore hope that he can contribute to your program.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Woit makes Slashdot!

Peter Woit's book and the WSJ's review of it made Slashdot! (they refer to him as "Mr. Woit"...he's got his PhD, right?).

Nothing much to see there except some comments incredibly dense with both grammatical and "physic"al mistakes. I just wanted to beat Lubos and Peter to the punch (so-to-speak).

Why students suck

The Chronicle of Higher Education has some wonderful "first person" accounts from the academic world, and I really liked this one. He describes how students consider the professor essentially as a waiter and tuition as the tip:

Today, nearly all my students work -- many of them full-time -- and class attendance and homework are things they squeeze in as long as it doesn't interfere with the rest of their lives. I have received complaints that a mere 10 pages of reading for the next class were too many because the students were so busy. They expect you to provide make-up lectures, exercises, and tests at their convenience. Most drive nice cars, wear the latest fashions, and have both a cell phone and an iPod yet tell me they can't afford a $25 textbook.

I'm amazed how students behave even when they don't mean to be disrespectful. Students who can barely add or put together a coherent sentence pulling out Soduku or crossword puzzles in the middle of a lecture.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Presumption of Dumb

A big part of the social interaction among physicists is how you are perceived. And sometimes such perception can be very important, such as whether or not you get invited to a conference, to what extent people seek you out for collaborations, etc. Don't get me wrong, much of those depend almost entirely on politics and power, but not all.

Maybe lots of young physicists know this, but there must be some out there like me who have to get whacked in the face with this kind of stuff. In high school, people thought I was smart. Not because I answered all the teacher's questions or tried to show how smart I was. In fact it was the opposite. The less I interacted, the smarter they thought I was. It was the not-so-bright people who were always
trying to show how smart they were.

But in physics, it seems the presumption is that one is dumb...well not dumb, but not so bright. So those who jump up at conferences, and ask probing questions, they get the respect. Those who gush over the latest physical results, especially those slightly out of one's field, they get respect. This may sound obvious, but what confounds me is that even these same people who say things incorrectly do not seem to get penalized for the mistakes! And even when they expound about stuff that surely everyone in the conversation already knows, they get respect. That makes no sense to me.

I avoid making mistakes. I don't try to act like the smartest one in the room. I want my performance (i.e. papers) to speak for themselves.

Anyway, so my advice to the youngins for whom the above is not obvious is to practice this early. Learn to speak like a physicist. Always have questions ready and don't be paranoid that they're obvious. Practice talking about all sorts of physics as if you're an authority. It probably helps to try it the first time on inconsequential people.

Hope I don't sound too cynical.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

String Theory is Not Only Right But Is Responsible for all Continuum Mathematics

Lubos has a post about Ricci Flow and its use to prove the Poincare Conjecture.

I'd hazard to argue that this is the most ridiculous "sketch" of a mathematical proof I've ever seen:

The proof is then rather simple and here's a sketch: take a non-linear sigma model (string theory) on your simply-connected three-manifold, and flow it to the infrared. The manifold can be seen to become increasingly smooth and the only possible endpoint is the three-sphere.

But my problem is more that Lubos tries to argue that this wonderful work (largely due to Hamilton and Perelman) is somehow part of string theory!

(in his comments, someone "predicts" that Lubos' critics will find a way to bash this post!)

NBA Basketball Finals

In most sports these days, I don't have any favorites, just teams I can't stand (e.g. Yankees). In basketball I do have my favorites, but they were eliminated early.

Over at Uncertain Principles he's happy the Heat won. Not me. He's right though that the basketball was, for the most part, pretty boring. The Suns play the most fun basketball to watch, and Shaq is basically the antithesis of that.

I don't hate Shaq, but it's hard to have too much respect for him. Gary Peyton is getting shipped around looking for a ring, and I guess he finally found one. I suppose I shouldn't begrudge him that, but it just doesn't seem too classy. In contrast, consider Robert Horry who has the most rings of any active player (6) and who really seems to help his teams get them.

Monday, June 19, 2006


We are Scientists sounds like a great name for a band. Never heard of, nor heard, them though.

Lubos is going from bad to worse over Sean's denunciation of his tactics in the comments of Sean's blog. For the record, I pretty much agree with Sean.

All I can say is at least no one is doing repugnant Glenn's "Ouch."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Gaming helps Computational Science

The gaming market has always been of great help in bring computational scientists great video gear at cheap prices. Now there's hope for the same benefit in terms of CPU with the new Cell processor to be used in upcoming Sony's PS3.

Ars discusses how some Berkeley scientists studied a model of the Cell and found that in single precision, the Cell totally blasts the competition (Opteron, Itanium, etc) out of the water. The actual performance is likely to be better. The only sticking point is that the double precision performance (which isn't needed for gaming) is still up in the air.

Of course, Microsoft is saying the Cell sucks (for gaming anyway), but they obviously "have a horse in this race."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Human Exploration at the cost of science

Update: Slashdot has the latest from Stephen. Apparently he asked
How can the human race survive the next hundred years?
and got many answers.

It's funny how so often in the media you find instances of "what does Stephen Hawking say" always about something not related to his areas of expertise, say, something like, "Women who are able should definitely breastfeed."

Anyway, in this instance, it's Slashdot with a story saying that Hawking thinks mankind has to spread to other orbs to hedge its bets against nuclear war, pandemic, or something I've not heard of before called "sudden global warming." I'm sure Lubos is going to jump all over that one. Let's see if I can predict his behavior as well as Woit can.

And Nasa is doing so well financially, I'm sure 20 years is plenty to have a base on the moon. Oh wait, Hawking isn't American, maybe ESA can do the human exploration and leave NASA to do science?

Gambling physicists?

Sean mentions his poker playing while in Vegas for YearlyKos. Didn't know he gambled.

In fact, I know very few physicists who gamble. The (non-gambling) skeptics may think only the bad physicists would gamble, but that's very much not the case. I wonder what it's like in math...I recall a good book on that MIT blackjack team
Bringing Down the House : The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.

Core requirements, good or bad?

Over at Uncertain Principles, they're discussing whether math should be required at Smith College. Ideally, not having any core distribution requirements is a good thing. For a mature student with good advising, they'll find an education which is broad enough (depth comes from fulfilling a major).

That being said, many students are not mature and such a lack of a core would be disastrous for the lazy and incurious. However, I'd imagine Smith attracts some good students.

One more thing about core requirements, it's hard to make them work well. I've been on a Core Curriculum Committee and it's not fun. And one of the biggest downsides to having those requirements, is that you get students who can't fit, let's say, astronomy into their schedule because it won't count as a lab course. And they might really want astronomy! Or you encounter a student who switches majors from earth science which requires non-calculus physics into biology which requires the calculus based version. Do they have to retake introductory physics now?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

NSF Review Panels

Over at Nanoscale Views, he talks about NSF review panels. I think these provide lots of good info for young physics to see how/why something gets funded. Unfortunately, those that need such info the most are likely not there so it's good that such info is now out there. The question is whether young folks are looking for it.

As for such panels, as in most things, things can be pretty political, at least in my field. At the last, there were a couple of PIs under review who are pretty much worthless. They simply copy what others are doing, or, at their best, they happen to have some good postdocs. Once the postdocs leave...But they are good self-promoters (not in a good way, but a slimey way), so the panel was all gung-ho to give 'em money.

Anyway, so in the discussion, how negative should you be? Will people start thinking you're just an "angry physicist"? Will your negative comments get back to these powerful PIs...most definitely. It's good to have an established friend in the field with whom you can talk about such matters.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Interesting guy

Strange, but the link about impedance matching comes from a guy who runs a science toy company and who works at Google. See an interesting article about him. It's not often I bump into someone of whose jobs I'm envious at all. He's also got his blog to which I've already linked.

Impedance Matching w/ the Simpson's

So I'm watching the Simpson's episode where Marge's brakes have been cut and as she speeds down a hill, she encounters a speed bump a bit taller than her car. Geek that I am, I'm thinking, "what an impedance mismatch!"

Now the Simpson's has lots of good physics in it, but this is a bit of stretch. But you can imagine that if a car is going fairly slowly and comes a rather large bump, it could conceivable bounce backwards. Big reflection means big mismatch. And a car, even if moving rather fast, if the suspension is appropriately tuned, may go over the bump with little effect from it...a good match.

Anyway, searching around for a good qualitative explanation of impedance matching I came across this.

Anyway, if you know your Simpson's, Marge doesn't bounce back, but instead breaks right on through the speed bump!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A sixth sense...why not a magnetic one?

Wired (by way of Gizmodo) has an interesting article on some people (well grad students, anyway) installing magnets in their finger tips to extend the number of fundamental forces we can sense.

Hey, not to be too pedantic, but how many can we? We can sense acceleration, and hence gravity (according to Einstein, not Newton). Can we sense electromagnetism? If we rub something, we can feel the friction (both the heat and movement of our skin). But friction is, at the fundamental level, E&M.

Blogging a threat to an academic career?

First Sean, and now Juan Cole having their academic careers affected by writing a blog?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What physics blogs are all about

This post exemplifies the best that a physics blog can offer (arguably). Present a graph ubiquitous in some sub-field, and explain what it's all about and why it's important.

This post begs the question, "what's the worst example of a physics blog?" Oh, I don't know, maybe someone who ridicules nearly everyone, and who, at the same time, thinks he's actually censoring himself? (I'm kidding a bit because I find Lubos' tirades funny, and find Woit's restraint quite remarkable.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Long Way Down

Just recently finished listening to Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down.
I enjoyed it. Different than much of what I've picked up at the library recently, and, despite its subject matter (people that want to commit suicide...perhaps because of it), pretty refreshing.

Friday, June 02, 2006

School administration and their bureaucracy!

I've been trying to buy some equipment for a month now and the vendor still doesn't have the purchase order. Not even with the school's money, but my own grant money. At every step, it needs someone else's signature, or it gets bounced back for some silly reason. Is it this bad at all schools?