Friday, December 22, 2006

Lazy Blogging

  • Interesting: Adviser letters

  • Condolences to Lubos who got linked by Instapundit. It's a huge hit to his credibility, but I'm sure it can take it.

  • Not a Hybrid Fit but a new hybrid in two years. Crash tests... presumably logic would dictate that we all go out and buy cars bigger than everyone else. Or, god forbid, have the government infringe on our inalienable right to drive whatever we want (on whose roads, btw?)

  • Chad will be getting tenure. Congrats! Now you can look forward to a long life in the same position. Tenure is great, but once you have it how likely are you to ever go out and try something new. The calcification begins...sorry to be such a bummer.

  • Donald Trump is such a wiener, I don't know how anyone can stand to watch him on TV, let alone on a show where he acts like he knows how to conduct business business.

  • I've been tagged. So here goes:

    Careful inspection of this graph and comparison to the graph of 100 percent amplitude modulation shown in Figure 5-4 will reveal a slight difference between the shapes of the envelopes, especially for values near zero. In addition, the final DSBM wave undergoes a phase inversion each time the modulator passes through zero. The graph of balanced modulation is identical to the graph of beats shown in Figure 2-37.

    from The Physics of Sound by Berg & Stork. I'm not a big fan of chain-like things, but I suppose this falls short of a chain-mail, so what the heck....I'll tag Doug, Josh and, what the heck, good ole Glenn.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cycle of Life (Insurance)

First Decade Parent's health
Second Decade Parent's health; Auto
Third Decade Employee's health; Auto
Fourth Decade Employee's health; Auto; Term Life
Fifth Decade Employee's health; Auto; Term Life; Umbrella
Sixth Decade Employee's health; Auto; Term Life; Umbrella; Long Term Care
Seventh Decade Retirement health; Auto (if you're lucky); Whole/Annuity/Trust Life; Umbrella; Long Term Care; Social Security

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


  • An interesting article on hardware purpose-built for n-body simulations.

  • A while back there was much discussion on who was the biggest geek based on some silly quiz which asked, among others, whether one preferred RPN. Well, here's the modern day much joy would you experience if you could only use LaTeX in your comments? What's that? LaTeX is for sissies, you only use TeX? Oh what's that, markup in general is for sissies you communicate in binary? I present the geek's pissing contest.

  • If nothing else, perhaps George Bush's time in office might demonstrate how much the actual person in office can matter opposed to just voting for a party.

  • So we're going to the moon, eh? Lots of discussion flying back and forth..."don't take money away from science to fund it"..."why not just go to Mars?"...Well, now I hear that Steven Squyres (he of Roving Mars fame [a good book, by the way]) says:

    The best way to explore Mars is with humans.

    I don't know what assumptions go into a statement like that, but I sure would have thought that, of all people, he would believe that machines provide the most bang for the buck. Maybe he means "explore" in a very particular in having a person there!

    On a related note, there's a slightly amusing spoof of Mars on Phil's site.

  • Some interesting comments on the tenure process by the tag-team of Chad & Rob. I don't have much to add (or subtract).

Friday, December 08, 2006

Missile Defense Fails Again

Yep, I feel safe already with that missile defense system. What's that? Oh, it failed? Well, at the least the interceptors didn't fail in flight, they simply failed to launch. It would seem that those problems should be surmountable. The job of actually hitting the right target in the air, that's the tough part.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A couple more powerpoint tips

It's that time of the year when students end up presenting class projects. I've been sitting through some math talks, and a couple pointers came to me. Probably fairly obvious, but...

Plan your ending! And do it in a way that lets the audience know you're done. Why? Well, there will always be some fraction who isn't paying much attention, but will perk up and applaud when they sense you're ending. The reason this is important is because you want a reasonable reaction/applause when you're done. Not for your ego (necessarily). It may seem superficial, but even for people paying attention, without that applause, they might get a sense that other people didn't enjoy it and that will affect their opinion.

I'm not big on a long summary of key points, but I do try and generalize to some big, broad point even if it's as silly as "research is going well." Maybe it gives them something to "take away," but at least by doing this I key the audience in to the fact that I'm finishing.

The second point is to try and act like you enjoyed your project/research. Again, this might be easy for a research talk, but for students it's not. Especially as a teacher, if you get the sense that the speaker enjoyed it, it's easier to forgive mistakes and apparent lack of effort.

Oh, one more thing before I go. There's an illustrated version of Gravity's Rainbow out now for all you Pynchon fans.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hopelessly, Hopelessly...

I'm way behind on things with barely a moment for catching up on the latest of our small corner of the blogosphere. Apparently, our country finally has some vague plans to go to the moon but no money to pay for it. I haven't seen Sean's post yet about his invite to be among the first to go up there but I look forward to hearing about those "peregrinations"! (I kid! I kid!)

Less importantly, Clifford egged Peter into a fight and now Clifford and Jacques are tag teaming.

Chad got a new car that is not a Honda Fit and he and Phil are getting interviewed. I think we need to develop a physics versions of that French guy's quiz. Job I would most not want to do? Host of a morning program ala "The Today Show."

Oh, forgot to add that people are looking for plagiarism on the arXiv but not finding much...that's good news.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


  • The CHE has a short piece up with links to humorous videos of professors behaving badly in class.

  • For those who love personality tests, you can find a link to one for autism over at Freakonomics. I got a 25, but I easily could have answered some of those questions differently. For those that click-thru, why would cousins have the same hyphenated last name? Oh yeah, and so that I get lots of crazy Google search-hits, I'll mention that Sasha Baron-Cohen shows up.

  • Doug discusses some not-very-nice behavior when it comes to two groups publishing about the same topic at about the same time. That's certainly happened to me. A certain group published at the same time as us without any reference...they were pissed off that we were even looking at the problem. We took the high road and referenced their work (not just in the paper but in talks and such), but this work led naturally to a similar problem. So we were somewhat confronted with the same issue again when both groups published. This time they were nicer. We've since met and bad feelings seem to be left in the past.

  • Nice story by Doug.

  • More powerpoint tips (via Pharyngula)

  • Big war brewing? No, not string theory again, but we've got Phil linking to a funny article tearing Microsoft's Zune apart while everyone's favorite pariah praises all things Microsoft.

  • Overbye (NYT; free sub. reqd.) has a book review of a curious book with Einstein.

  • Haven't had enough about the travels of physicists? Do you know what peregrinations means? Well head over to Andrew's blog.

  • Colbert junkies might get a laugh at what some conservatives think of it. Fox is apparently going to do a conservative skewed comedy/news show. I'm genuinely looking forward to see what they can do with it, but some might argue that some of the sincere conservative shows are already pretty funny.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More links

  • Chad discusses some of the problems with intro physics classes. I pretty much agree with all that is said. There's much to cover, not much time to do it, and lectures aren't very effective. With that said, it seems to me the answer isn't to change how much is covered. The answer is to say "You want to be a science major? Well, handle it." There will be many who cannot. Within the confines of this, however, it would be nice to find out how to make lecture more effective (short of slowing things down).

  • Story out about a measurement of the spin of a distant black hole. I wish they would always have a link to the journal article at the heart of the story, but alas I have found it at the The article points out that since black holes have no hair (and because we don't expect to find a charged hole), black holes that have actually been observed are described by just the mass and the spin. More importantly then, the mass of the black hole serves only to set a physical scale, but the spin of the black hole actually produces qualitatively different holes. I can't come up with a great analogy, but I suppose you could think of round balls. The radius simply sets the scale of the ball. To get a different kind of ball you've got to change the surface/feel to go from, say, a kickball to a basketball. Not the best analogy, but what the heck.

  • Why aren't spam filters better? I can recognize spam so easily. I can understand the filter having problems with new messages not seen by the filter, but I've marked otherwise identical messages as spam. Yet, it continues not recognizing these as spam. Furthermore, the filters have access to the internet, so can't they use information from elsewhere to confirm they're spam? I was pretty happy about a year ago, but it seems over the last six months or so, the filters just can't hack it.

  • A nice article at the NYT (free reg. reqd.) on the Mythbusters show.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Around Town

  • Take a look at some of these pictures of this incredibly big machine. It looks like a special effect right out of a movie. Update: Well, the picture doesn't seem to work, but click through.

  • Well, you know how I've been a bit obsessed with Sean lately. So I was so disheartened to hear that someone has snatched Sean up (in particular the blog world's own). I'm guessing with Sean's record of ubiquity, she invited him to their wedding! Seriously though, congrats and good luck to both of them.

  • Umm, not sure what to say about this post, but if there's any place for such...colorful analogies, it must be the web. If older than 15 years old say, check out Dorigo's recent contribution.

  • This essay on Who Can Name the Bigger Number? has apparently been around a long time, but I just recently saw it and liked it.

  • Here's a nice, but somewhat unrealistic idea that we should submit code and data along with our manuscripts. One nice thing is that then someone else would be responsible for not losing track of the stuff years later.

  • Pharyngula points us to a "science for pre-schoolers" cartoon "Peep and the Big Wide World." I saw it once, but I don't recall much science. I think the characters were chasing a blowing leaf to great comic effect, but I don't remember much science.

  • Doug has the second installment of his wildly popular series (who knew?) on faculty searches. The third installment is promised, but I suspect we still won't get the real dirt :). Reading through the discussion makes me think I should post some of my horror stories from days long gone. Suffice it for me to say that it's grueling (on both sides of the search, but more so on the applicant).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Physics Digest of Slashdot

Slashdot has some physics articles:

  • An apparent debunking of a recent article in the UK trying to argue man made global warming isn't happening. I've read neither...I'm just happy to be wearing shorts in November.
  • Magnetic areas of the Moon's crust might help shield future settlements there.
  • Slashdot loves them some space elevator news. It seems someone realized a leisurely ride in a space elevator might be a bit dangerous when going through the Van Allen radiation belts.

Stupid Questions

One often hears that there is no such thing as a stupid question. But that's ridiculous. I get asked stupid questions all the time. Like when a student, during a multiple choice test, asks "I get the quantity 15, but do you want it with Joules in (a) or millijoulesin (c)?" And there are a whole slew of questions which are, at the very least, very annoying such as when they ask what chapters are on the upcoming test when I just answered the question.

But of course the expression that such stupid questions don't exist is just a cliche to encourage students to ask questions. That's a worthwhile goal, but I doubt its use has any effect.

The real problem I see concerns physics majors. I think we can turn out better physicists (and perhaps a better and more diverse group of them) if we can somehow get them to see that physics is all about asking questions (a good question mentioned previously here).

I may be a little physics-centric here, but I think physics majors face a double-whammy when it comes to overcoming fears and asking questions. The normal reticence of any college student aside, physics majors face a culture of confrontation. The physics instructors I've had made a habit of ...well, let's just say that many of them were obnoxious jerks. I don't think they meant any offense, I just think the atmosphere is one of one-up-man-ship. If my experience is at all generalizable to others, I suspect such an atmosphere would play a big role in discouraging diversity.

In any case, I've mentioned before that I find that physicists talk in this fairly confrontational style (mentioned previously here). I wonder, is there anything to be done about it?

I somehow made it through and became a physicist, and now I've got a small bit of power. Am I being obnoxious/confrontational? Can I encourage more questions? I try to acknowledge students when they ask questions which get to "the heart of the matter," but is this signaling to those who ask the other questions which don't get so rewarded that their questions are too simple? How do I get across that to be a good physicist one needs to be constantly asking questions and not taking things on faith...that their job isn't to digest the material we throw at them, but instead to process it, check whether they buy into it and whether it makes sense. They are the ones who need to see what everyone else has overlooked. Just telling them doesn't seem to do the trick. And of course, there will always be students who don't get it and who don't have what it takes, but who will, upon hearing such encouragement, dutifully ask plenty of questions of the type found in the title to this post!

Monday, November 13, 2006


I read Cosmic Variance regularly, and I'm a big fan. However, lately I've found all the discussion of travel a bit strange. So when I saw a comment to this effect today in response to Sean's latest I had a good chuckle. And then when I saw Sean's response, I figured that my day must be going better than his! Plus, Sean's wonderful use of irony in lecturing about the lack of importance of blog hits in the same post which celebrates the links to their blog...classic!

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Rob opens up again giving people a glimpse into some of the stresses of this kind of job. Make sure to look at the comments.

Clifford is officially out of Cosmic Variance. Strange affair. Update: Clifford announces same without any commentary.

Doug describes faculty searches at Rice. That sounds like how Rice would do it. Don't expect such professionalism elsewhere.

Chad has a few posts recently about how to give a good presentation. In particular, he asserts, and I concur, that Powerpoint is no more evil than any other method of presenting. Good talks can use Powerpoint. As for his admonition against multimedia/movies, I don't share that prohibition. Instead, one just has to be ready and aware of the possible difficulties. For important talks, I usually generate the talk on one machine, transport it to another, virgin machine using flash drive, CDR, or some such, and see if everything works as is.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Vehicle Safety

This recent talk of seat belts in buses (I think Steinn mentioned it recently, but I won't dig up the link) reminds of a good article on vehicle safety in Physics Today which appears available to all.

In particular, the figure which shows acceleration with and without different types of seatbelt very informative. This is the kind of information that is very relevant to students and quite understandable even at the introductory level.

The figure really brings home the point that acceleration (ie decceleration) kills.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Guy Fawkes Day

Steinn reminds us that today is Guy Fawkes Day, November 5.

Reminds me of the movie V for Vendetta which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of course, no relation to current events or the timing of Saddam's verdict.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Academic Bill of Rights

Many might not be aware of the campaign (neh, crusade) by the likes of David Horowitz and his ilk to "embiggen" government to counteract the horribly corrosive work of us ultra-liberal professors. It's a pretty silly thing, but like so many other silly movements, it has already done some damage.

Anyway, the Washington Post has a well-written opinion piece arguing against these efforts by a senior undergrad at a small school in a state that wants to force heterosexuals to get divorced, or something like that.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Chillin' over your H-Score

Chad, Steinn, Scott, Rob, and probably many others are stressing/discussing their H-score. Chill. Only certain places would resort to such a crude measure.

I looked up my score. I won't reveal so as not to brag :) (or likewise, so as not to embarrass myself, depending on one's perspective). And then, of course, I looked up others. Plugged in a couple well respected, well established researchers who had comparable numbers to me.

Then I plugged in a couple of real know people who copy what others do, add nothing new and publish. Then they tweak the smallest of things which really should have been in the paper they just put out, but they make it into a new paper. The people in the field see they're just padding their CVs, but to those outside, it's much more difficult to see there's nothing there. Of course, their numbers are significantly higher.

I really don't see that this metric avoids the gaming of the system that people do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Phone Interview Thoughts

There's a blog by a programmer that many readers here probably don't have much experience with, but he tends to make a lot of sense about things related to programming in the real world. Anyway, the reason I mention it is that he has some perspective on the phone interview as a filter of applicatnt. It might benefit those on the physics job hunt. In particular, I was very happy to see this quote:

During this stage, you should be looking for evidence that the candidate is a problem solver: the kind of person who gets things done.

That's one thing I find separates good physicists from bad. Not how smart they are, but whether they get things done. The worst offenders don't have any clue that they get nothing done.

Sean is everywhere

I see Sean is giving a talk at NSF next January titled Dark Energy, or Worse: Was Einstein Wrong?.

And he also shows up in Overbye's latest today in the NYT (free sub. reqd.) defending the Big Bang theory (which seems in excellent shape).

Nothing against Sean, but these invites and mentionings tend to coalesce to the same people. The "deciders" start seeing the same name, and when they need a cosmologists (in this case), they figure they can't go wrong picking this person. One might say these people get their name out there for a reason, which is certainly partly true. The thing is, a few years back, I saw the same person invited to something like three conferences in a row and this person gave essentially the same talk. Nothing new, and nothing groundbreaking. So it can get out of hand and can be pretty demoralizing to others.

But, again, it's not the invitee's fault, it's those in power. And Sean is a very good speaker. So do go see him if you're near Arlington, VA.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Brian May? Anyone? Anyone?

Guitarist for the rock group Queen, Brian May used to be a doctoral student in astronomy. Cool. Well, he's back to astronomy putting out a book on the Big Bang with others, saying

"I think there's a sort of purity about both of them," he said recently, according to The Guardian newspaper. "Because you can immerse yourself in thoughts of the universe, or in music, and you're really abstracted. You're a million miles away from all your worries and personal problems and the dust and smoke of where you are."

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Cocktail Party Physics has a nice post on bridges and traffic. Some comments:

  • GI Jane was a very good movie, no matter what any movie snobs might think.

  • The new Woodrow Wilson Bridge (the link takes you to some online video clips) was the feature of a recent Extreme Engineering show on the Discovery Channel. It was pretty cool. There's another episode on the new Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge.

  • I liked the site she links to concerning the effects on our own driving. I only had time for a quick look, but it looks spot on.

Tillman Brothers

You heard the story about Pat Tillman? Not the manufactured one (I'm anxious to see Eastwood's Flag of Our Fathers), but the real one? There's a very good telling from last month at Sports Illustrated.

The reason I mention it because of a piece by his brother (who was with him in Iraq) railing against the current Administration.

I struggle against thinking my opinions are simply better than others who disagree with me, but I've pretty much given up that struggle and agree with Kevin Tillman when he warns

So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not much

Well, I think the "string wars" are settling down (at least on the blogosphere). I was getting a bit tired of it. Sean over at CosmicVariance is giving advice on what to take in college and which college you might want to attend. I don't really agree with most of it, but I've forgotten the particular points...let's see if I can remember any of them. Well, for starters I think lab is important. Not that I liked it, nor that I didn't try my darndest to get out of it. But I certainly learned important stuff (if nothing else, that I shouldn't try to make a career in the lab). I'm probably stretching the analogy, but you don't coach football having never may not have to be a good player, but it seems you should have played it. And core curricula? Ugghh, I was on our core curriculum committee once. Biggest waste of time ever. Sure there are lots of immature students out there for whom it makes sense to dictate what they take. But for the likely intended audience of his blog, who wants to have these selections crammed down their throats. Foreign language? Certainly if you're gonna say no required physics lab, you don't want to force this...some people suck at foreign languages and hate it.

Anyone watching Lost? Lot's of hokey, physicsy (kind of like "truthiness") stuff? Have some time to waste? Check out what people way too into it have to say.

Even more time to waste? Check out your tax dollars in action on this Mach 10 scramjet.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Speaking of Atheism

As I mentioned recently, I'm fairly sympathetic to religious people. I can appreciate that people want some comfort in what is, at a fundamental level, a very cold universe. For me it's really no comfort once you realize it's just a constructed fairyland...I am much more comforted in the thought that I may be the only thing which actually exists. Of course, people having faith is one thing, and organized religion is quite another.

Anyway, I was reading this Salon article (free if you view their ad), and liked this quote by Richard Dawkins:

Why do you call yourself an atheist? Why not an agnostic?

Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

Oh, and for the record I am literally surrounded by quite religious people (well a significant number of them, anyway)...yes, in physics and in academia. It would seem I am not typical.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Physics Intrigue

Anyone see 60 Minutes last night? The indicted former head of HP was blaming former HP board members Tom Perkins (real rich dude who sent venture capital money Google's way) and his friend Jay Keyworth. Of interest here:

  • Perkins took off on his ultracool looking sailboat. I can't find any pictures with a quick search.
  • The story makes it seem that the superwealthy have immeasurable power...Perkins is accused of bring in the Feds, controlling the media, etc...something I can easily believe (and find quite distasteful of course).
  • They had the previous female head on to promote her book, who basically echoed similar sentiments about Perkins and Keyworth.
  • Finally, it was mentioned that Keyworth is a physicist.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Blogger-Blogger Criticism

A couple bloggers out there are saying things I don't agree with, but that's what all this blogging is about, right?

Clifford has a series of posts knocking Lee Smolin...well, he starts with Lee's appearance on a radio program, but it quickly devolves into more than that. I sympathize with Clifford...strings are his livelihood and Lee's attacking it. I think string theory and some string theorists deserve some criticism. And I think Lee is going about it in a fair way, even if I don't fully buy into all his arguments. I don't want to say too much more given that I just argued with Sean about string theory's dominance not being entirely deserved and because I'd like to see such arguments outside the Woit-Motl boxing ring be confined to civil discussion of the merits of the case.

And there's Pharyngula's comments about the Amish's views on the afterlife. PZ is calling a certain Amish guy a "kook" because he believe the dead children are better off than the survivors. If that were so, he argues, then parents should just kill their children straight away.

I'm as much an atheist as the next person and I think religion is a pretty awful construct of people coming together for protection from the dinosaurs and needing a tool to beat the underlings into submission. But PZ's on a pretty high horse with this argument. He comes off as an obnoxious, know-it-all who sees himself as better than those whom he judges.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hiring String Theorists

  • I occasionally teach liberal arts majors, and I try to impress on them that we all think scientifically to some extent. In particular, everyone needs to be able to evaluate risk such as when they pick what car to drive, decide whether to pay for bottled water, or whether to support various anti-terror measures.

    Gizmodo links to an article about how extended warranties aren't worth their price. In other words, their price reflects a ridiculously high risk of product failure. But then many of us already knew that.

  • Sticking w/ Gizmodo, they've got a wonderful piece about an elevator car painted so that it looks like there's no floor! Very convincing picture making it look like you'd step in and fall to your death.

  • Just a quick note that I'm using Google's spreadsheets for my grades and it works quite well, saving me from having to transfer grades from work to home or from one OS to another.

  • Gordon Rails against email (what's the origin of that expression: "rails against"?). Well, not so much email per se, but spending too much time emailing. I suppose that's fair, but I will say that I've gotten through many an obstacle by the simple act of writing someone who could help me with it....about three quarters of the way into it, after carefully describing what I'm doing it hits me "eureka" what I'm forgetting.
    He also describes a busy day, lamenting "Poof! It is 11pm." Yep, being an adult can really suck. If there were a way to communicate to kids (ie. if I could only go back in time and tell myself as a kid) how nice it is to have so much free time.....

  • The NYT (free sub. reqd.) has an article about the irony of NASA winning a Nobel Prize at the same time that most of its science has been cut or cut back in the budgetary shadow of the space shuttle, the ISS, and dear leader's pet project.

  • Sean gives a pretty critical review of Smolin's latest. I haven't finished it so I'll hold off commenting too much. However, he makes a point that I tend to disagree with:

    if string theory were suddenly to fall out of favor, it seems much more likely that jobs and money would flow to particle phenomenology, astrophysics, or other areas of theory than to alternative approaches to quantum gravity.

    But then he follows with a paragraph I very much disagree with:

    It seems worth emphasizing that the dominance of string theory is absolutely not self-perpetuating. When string theorists apply for grants, they are ultimately judged by program officers at the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy, the large majority of whom are not string theorists. (I don't know of any who are, off the top of my head.) And when string theorists apply for faculty jobs, it might very well be other string theorists who decide which are the best candidates, but the job itself must be approved by the rest of the department and by the university administration. String theorists have somehow managed to convince all of these people that their field is worthy of support; I personally take the uncynical view that they have done so through obtaining interesting results.

    Yes, this is "uncynical" it's also naive and just plain silly. Yes, the program officers are the ultimate "deciders," but it is regular physicists who are doing the reviews (either by mail or by panel).

    And when the great preponderance of theoretical high-energy physicists are string types, then who gets the invitations to talk? Who writes review papers? Who gets called up by Scientific American? The string theorists set the entire stage of deciding what and who is important. The program officers aren't off in an ivory tower deciding what to fund. They're listening to their respective community members and when the dominant voice is strings, then guess what happens?

    Now, I'm not saying string theory doesn't merit funding from "obtaining interesting results." But to suggest as Sean does, that string theory's dominance doesn't self-perpetuate is ridiculous.

    Sean is almost as wrong to suggest that the hiring process is so meritorious. From what I've seen and experienced, a department will get a position to hire and then decide in which field it will be. Lot's of politicking, and some of these lines will fall to the high energy theory group. And that's about it...they're going to hire whom they want, the rest of the department be damned (to some extent). You think Susskind is going to hire an LQG guy because the rest of Stanford wants it? No way. And you think Ashtekhar is going to be hiring Lubos anytime soon?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Can You Guess Which Sexy Woman Has a crush on Einstein?

I'm not one to frequent such magazines, but I came across this teaser in Esquire about the sexiest woman of 2006. They're not giving a name yet, but answered thusly:

Historical person you have the biggest crush on?

Albert Einstein.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hilarity in Physics

I find Stephen Colbert pretty funny. I've watched his show from the beginning without much enthusiasm, afterall, who wants to see someone emulate Bill O'Reilly, even if completely in mockery. But it's been hilarious. The Daily Show, though an excellent show, tends to bring me can so many people allow the world to get like this and not punish those in power responsible for bringing it upon us? But not so with the Colbert Report.

So the show's success got me thinking that maybe the greater physics community would benefit from similar mockery...someone along the lines of an O'Reilly in physics. That person would have to act a bully, take extreme positions and act like dissent only comes from traitors and idiots. Someone capable of shoving some theory down other physicists throats as dogma all the while keeping a straight face as he (or she) castigates us as not knowing what real science is.

But of course, there's someone in the blogosphere very much like this, and who is, in his own way, pretty entertaining. And of course his recent post speaking for the entire Harvard Faculty is hilarious:

As a typical average member of Harvard faculty, I want to say that we admire Bill O'Reilly tremendously. We are proud about him and consider him to be one of the shining examples for all of us and for the students who will make it into the top ten list sometime in the future. ;-)

He just needs to be a little careful. You can't break character even with just a little emoticon at the end!

As a postscript, let me also say that there was no humor in his tasteless comments about Sean and I'm glad that Lubos has pulled them. I'm not sticking up for Sean, he's a big boy and can withstand such matters, but I would hate to see any other bloggers out there getting silenced out of intimidation.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tales of Success and Woe

Rob Knopp has a very worthwhile post concerning his fears of not getting tenure because of an inconsistent track record of getting external funding. Unfortunately, he follows it up with bad news from the NSF. He laments that us faculty can't be open and honest about such fears. The thing is, I worry that indeed his honesty will work against him.

Chad recently pointed out that the MacArthur Awards were announced. It's interesting looking at who gets them, but people may not have seen that recent Fields Medal winner Terrence Tao got one. Not a bad year for him, eh?

Speaking of Chad and Rob, are they both coming up for tenure at the same time? If they both do get it, are we going to have an online tenure party?

Personned Space Flight or Not?

Whatever you may think of DailyKos, they usually have a good science posting every Friday. Today's addresses the resulting science per dollar spent in which unpersonned space flight wins easily. There's more to the story of course, being that there are things to be gained by putting people up there, space tourism and advertising golf balls excluded. I can accept that some people sent up is not a bad thing, but in terms of what we actually have people doing up there, we ain't gaining sufficiently with the shuttle and ISS to justify the price paid. And, inexcusably, the science is really suffering.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Students, Arghh!

I thought things were going pretty well...that is the students seemed to be paying attention and actually working through their difficulties.

Of course, now that I'm finally grading some of their work I have an awful yucky feeling inside. It doesn't help that I'm already way behind on my grading. But that awful feeling consists mostly of this frustration that there really is no point to my teaching. It's kind of like making your bed. What's the point?

So I take a break and go get some food. But I don't feel any better. Then you start to wonder "Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I just suck as a teacher." It doesn't matter that I've been doing this for years. Well, I console myself by hoping that at least they should get better since it's so early on...they can't get worse. Plus, the weather will get worse and that usually Spring, it's the opposite.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy teaching, though there are plenty who just can't stand it. And I don't need the best students. I just wish they tried a little harder.

On a related note, I'm thinking about putting together an elective for nonscience majors on modern know the cool stuff such as quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, and some other things...using popular level books. Am I nuts? Any recommendations for which books? Other tips?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Stoner Geeks?

There's some discussion of just how nerdy us physcists are...for links you might start with Clifford. It's a bit strange that while bloggers are competing for just how nerdy they are, Sean comes along seemingly scolding them for not aspiring to be socially well adjusted grown-ups. No judgement here, I just find it amusing. But what seems especially ironic is seeing Phil's post apparently equating drug use with being cool:

Drugs aside, a lot of astronomers are cool, too.

Maybe I'm just parsing things wrong, because it's almost like he's saying "Exclude the use of drugs by astronomers, and you can consider them cool." But then what am I to make of the "too"? He's saying astronomers are cool in addition to something else? What? Phil, are drugs cool, too?

....Sincerely, William Safire :)

Jobs Links

There's a pretty standard article about a job search in math over at Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Most of it is applicable to physics. I skimmed it quickly, and didn't seen any really good nuggets. But, I did like some of the links it provides.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Physics on Slashdot

Slashdot has a couple posts relevant to physics:

  • The first is a review of The Physics of Superheroes. I don't have the energy (or interest) to read it, especially since I just saw a review of the same book in Physics Today that was not favorable, but I often find Slashdot's comments funny.
  • The second mentions fears of the LHC producing black holes that will devour us. Nothing too interesting, until I clicked on the Board for this Lifeboat Foundation. Frank Wilczek is on there as is one or two other people I know or know of. Not sure what to make of them, but if you're interested, I'd suggest you look at their FAQ which answers the very important question:

    I only have $10 in the bank. Is there a chance I could get on a lifeboat?

Friday, September 08, 2006

DOE Awards Announced

The DOE has moved more into funding academic-type work, and has announced some new, big awards in astrophysics, lattice QCD, turbulence, and petascale, distributed computing.

An unrelated postscript is that it looks like the plot for the season opener of The Simpson's is out (apparently airing in just a couple days). For some funny moments as remembered by physicists see the comments of this post.
Update: CNN has a piece up on Groening's desire to keep making the show because it's fun and which mentions the movie due out next summer.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mental Health of Physicists

I'm in a bit of a funk. A paper of mine got accepted recently which serves to thoroughly kill the high from getting it written. So while I'm coming down from that, I'm also passed the mild excitement of encountering new students. This crop has less wonder than previous generations, and boy do they look young (which makes me feel old)! I'm on the verge of some cool new physics that I can just barely see, but every effort to really see it keeps failing and I'm starting to lose hope that things are robust enough to get me there. Plus, I think my allergies and the upcoming change of seasons is taking a toll on my mood as well.

Anyway, hopefully it'll pass, as they have in the past. At least I'm better off than some others who have had nervous breakdowns.

And Andre Agassi finally lost (his nasty comments on Sampras so long ago really turned me off him), Lindsay Davenport and Andy Roddick won. Of course, trying to find any coverage of tennis is pretty difficult...PTI has hardly any coverage, and if you got CNN's sports page, you've got to first click "more sports" and then "tennis". Can you believe that during the U.S. Open they can't even give a link on their main sports page?

Jaffe links to a quick piece at the NYT (free reg. reqd.) on why professorships are so desirable:

But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most common factor in job satisfaction.

I'm not sure I buy this as the most important or even common factor, but once when I was interviewing for an "industry" job that paid quite a bit more (but nowhere near the double pay mentioned in the article) than my faculty job, I quickly lost interest for two main factors: prescribed working hours and prescribed research topics.

You know, one thing that did cheer me up a bit came from an unlikely place. Usually reading Clifford's posts just makes me jealous...all the hiking, traveling, eating, etc. But I liked this post, and was amazed at the resurrection photos, and enjoyed the pun in the title.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Missile Defense

Remember a few months back how great our missile defense is (I think it was a different system, but you get the idea)? Remember this is something that got implemented despite the fact that it wasn't passing the tests (or maybe "because" is the better word)?

Well, a recent, contrived test got cancelled "because of bad weather." I think CNN should be sanctioned for helping rogue nations... after all, CNN is basically telling nations that if you're going to launch an ICBM attack against North America, you really got to do it in bad weather!

Update: It looks like the test was carried out yesterday and was successful. How do I know? Lubos of course! I really hate to pick on Lubos because he's so entertaining, but he doesn't mention the weather delay. Nevertheless, he asserts:

This $85 million test has increased the measured reliability of the system slightly above 50%.

Huh? What in the world is he talking about? This test was very contrived? Well, the Pentagon won't release the details. So I have no idea where Lubos gets this 50% number (maybe Bayesian probabilities?). Maybe it's something like if Iran launches in clear weather, sends no decoys, and transmits the missile's trajectory 3 hours ahead of time, we then have a 50% chance of destroying it. Something like that I guess!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Big Brother Allstars

So I'm pretty safe admitting that I watch Big Brother All-stars for certain reasons. For those who do not know what it is, they pick a bunch of people and keep them confined in a house. No TV, no books, and they have to scheme to get food and to vote out housemates via various competitions. This is the seventh season, so there tends to be some universal behavior. Winning competitions helps you stay in the house as does scheming with others in "alliances." However, laying low and doing badly has its benefits because you appear not to be a threat. Keeping your emotions in check and being able to adapt to benefit those in power that week is key.

Anyway, in my more cynical moments, I'm amazed at how much this whole physics world is like that. With whom do I align? How do I possibly work with people for whom I have no respect? I've learned not to hold grudges...I don't let certain people know how upset I am that they screwed me because there's no point. I see my relationships basically as just how do I get what I want from them without giving up too much.

It sounds pretty bad, but remember that I pretty much suck at these games, so I'm sure I'm pretty tame compared to those who find this stuff obvious.

While I'm on the topic let me just list the best shows on TV (go Season Pass them now):

  • Simpsons
  • Modern Marvels
  • Scientific American Frontiers (when it's actually on)
  • Nova (not all of them)
  • Colbert Report
  • Pardon the Interruption (when it's not baseball or football seasons)
  • Mythbusters
  • Daily Show
  • Extreme Engineering
  • How It's Made (just stumbled on this recently)

Thinking about TV, the other day they had the Simpsons on in which Lisa becomes a vegetarian, causing a big rift with her father Homer. This one has the funniest Simpson's line ever:

The whole family is at the table, Homer is trying not to talk to Lisa because she sent his grand, roasted pig down a hill during his big BBQ, everyone starts fighting, and Homer yells at Bart to go to his room, and Lisa yells "Why don't you just eat him!".

Friday, August 25, 2006

Selling Yourself

I've been meaning to write about selling one's was going to be a good way to procastinate and put off writing a couple proposals, but unfortunately I got too busy. For those that missed it, that's my dry humor.

Coincidentally there are other posts today on selling yourself. Doug is talking about people promising the moon in grant applications. And Chad is posting his CV in prep for coming up for tenure. I think people might be more interested in seeing his research and/or teaching statements...the majority of career advice questions I get concern those two statements.

Anyway, so when you apply for a job, you have to sell yourself. When you apply for a grant you have to sell yourself. Some of you are going "duh!" so don't read. Others are going "why?" Those are my "peeps" (did I spell that correctly hipsters?).

So, say you've got lots of papers, done really well, and feel like you've been very meritorious. Why do you have to sell yourself. There are two main reasons. The first is that there are plenty of people with lots of papers whom you may not want to be around. In other words, it's tough to tell how good someone is. Maybe the papers are of no consequence, or come from a single line of research. Or maybe they were in collaborations in which you played little role.

The other reason is that no matter how good you might be at using Backlund Transformations to find new solutions to certain equations, people may not care about that ability and very likely don't care to fund it.

So start early. Don't go overboard, but know a good way to motivate why someone should take interest in the work you do. I've never really learned to do this, and you know what they say about old dogs. Don't be an old dog. Oh, there's very common advice you might hear, and I can hardly believe I'm about to say this, but ...."elevator speech."

I'll end by mentioning that theoretical physicist Janna Levin "acquitted herself quite well" (as they say) on the Colbert Report last night (although I could have used a bit less of the nervous laughter). It's not on YouTube yet, but I'm sure Chad or Steinn will have a link soon enough. There's no way I could have done that well on TV.

Finally, there's some talk on the blogs today about how students should address you. I think two more practical questions are: (1) How do you enforce whatever choice you make? (2) How do you sign your email consistent with this choice? Say you want to be call Professor Brainiac, do you really sign your email "Professor Brainiac"? I can't bring myself to do's akin to my aversion to referring to myself in the third person which means I'm not suited for reality television.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Peer Review

Wow, lot's of stuff going on, that's why I've been pretty silent. All that Perelman stuff (and the Fields' Medals) to read, and the direct evidence for Dark Matter. Exciting times.

And if I have to read one more post by Lubos insinuating that String Theory is responsible for the great results in Ricci Flow, well...well...I'll just have to call him out on it (again), that's what.

Physical Review now provides a link for a referee to see the results of all their reports...which manuscripts ultimately got published in Phys Rev and which are no longer being considered. I was a bit stunned by how many papers came my way, and more than a bit happy that so many never got published. I kind of figured the ones I rejected just asked for a new referee and got through.

Of course, as Peter Woit points out, is getting slammed because that's where Perelman "published" his papers (and only there). Referee reports, schmreports.

And links, shminks.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Cosmos (apparently "the biggest-selling Australian science magazine") has an article about string theorist Michael Kaku. I've never been a huge fan of him, but it's an interesting article describing how he

"Because my parents were poor, I knew from a very early age that I would have to be self-reliant. Hence, in high school, I built a 2.3 million electron volt atom smasher, which helped me to get into Harvard. My parents did not understand at all what I was doing, but they realised it was important, and helped in any way they could. The atom smasher used up 22 miles [35km] of cooper wire, which my parents and I wound on the high-school football field over Christmas vacation."

The atom smasher consistently blew the fuses at his parents' home. But it also impressed atomic scientist Edward Teller, who arranged a scholarship at Harvard University for the young Kaku.

Later, one finds the quote

...tediously having to memorise Maxwell's eight hideous mathematical equations that describe electromagnetic fields

and one hopes these are the author's words not Kaku's. Presumably the author is trying to contrast Maxwell's original equations with that written in covariant form ala Kaluza-Klein, which shows up a few sentences further down.

Anyway, a bit more on string theory shows up, and some comments and quotes about Kaku's thoughts on God appear later.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Yet more Perelman

Slate has a quick read on Perelman's work on the Poincare Conjecture Theorem. In particular, he mentions that people may see all the press this is getting and think there's some practical benefit, something that hadn't occurred to me:

Perelman's work isn't important because of its applications. It won't help anyone build a bridge, aim a rocket, crack a code, or privatize Social Security. Mathematicians, no dummies, like to point out that, in some unspecified future, Perelman's theorem might pitch in to help with these problems in ways that aren't obvious now. But its real significance is like that of the fact that a times b is equal to b times a; it's a basic structural statement about how the world is organized. If you prefer order to chaos, that's something worth caring about.

The obvious thing to say w/r/t this is the remarkable utility of Einstein's theory of gravity for geolocation (GPS) (Ashby has written much about this). Who would have expected in the early 1900's that a theory of gravity which provides very small corrections to the marvelously useful Newtonian theory of gravity would turn out to be essential for modern navigation and positioning?

But more than that, and it's hard to say this without sounding incredibly corny, this is a tremendous and unexpected achievement of our species as a whole. I'm not sure to what to compare it, but imagine someone comes along and runs a 2 minute mile. No practical benefit, but golly, what an achivement.

Funny stuff at Slashdot

I don't usually read the comments at Slashdot, but a post there about the magazine Consumer Reports' efforts to test antivirus software for the PC by creating slight variants of existent viruses engendered some funny ones. Apparently, the makers of the software aren't happy, claiming that it's not responsible to create new viruses.

Perhaps I found them so amusing because they make light of such a depressing state of affairs in this country:

Testing security only emboldens the terrorists!

Why does Consumer Reports hate America?

I hear the Yale company is still furious over the time Consumer Reports tried a bunch of random combinations on their locks.

And there's even a funny one, presumably in opposition:

Be sure to read our other Consumer Reports articles, where we:
Test the efficacy of burglar alarms by attempting to break into consumers' homes,
Test the efficacy of the 'morning after' pill by creating unwanted pregnancies,
- and -
Test the skill of your local emergency room doctor by randomly stabbing people outside the hospital.

Thanks, Consumer Reports. Thanks bunches.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dark Matter Announcement

Yet more Chad...
(terrible joke alert: I haven't seen this many "chads" since Florida circa 2000!)

He mentions an upcoming announcement about dark matter...the sizable part of the Universe that we can't see directly because it doesn't interact with light (it doesn't reflect, emit, etc) but for which we do see evidence of its mass. Anyway, here's the NASA announcement which shows our good friend Sean Carroll as a participant. Not sure in what capacity he's participating (especially since he is supposedly on vacation!).

Varied thoughts

  • Over at Chad's blog (so much easier to type than Uncertain Principles), there's an answer to why mathematicians are so weird...the commenter's answer that "it's hard." Which begs two questions:

    Which is harder, math or physics?

    On the whole, who is weirder, mathematicians or physicists?

    Clearly, the answers are "the latter" and "mathematicians" (the proof is left to the reader).

  • Apparently Blogger is getting a long overdue revamping...though it's not clear how long it'll take for the upgrade to make its way here.

  • Chad is on a tear with interesting he's looking for a new car. Lot's of people are recommending the Fit, though I suggest he wait for the (rumored) hybrid. It's interesting looking at what people drive. I know of a pretty senior faculty who wears jeans and untucked button-downs everyday, and what does she drive? Just a brand new, 7-series BMW. Of course, there's also the younger faculty member having trouble getting through the tenure process driving a new-ish 3-series.

  • More Chad...he solicits musical suggestions. If I were younger, I'd try out the suggestions in the comments. But no, I'm old and lazy, and addicted of course to Pandora (free, internet radio). Update: Oh, I forgot to suggest Tanita Tikaram...probably a bit too mellow for some, but....

Where has Perelman gone?

The NYT (free sub. reqd.) has an article on the "elusive" Perelman mentioning how he's a favorite for the Fields medal but has turned down awards before. I had not seen his picture before (he's described in the article as appearing like a "Rasputin").

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Not the best time

This was not the best weekend to fly! (but perhaps we should be thankful people are still dressed on the plane). And, since it was a quick trip, I didn't check any bags which helped with all the flight changes, but it meant that not only did I have to buy all new sundries including toothpaste when I got there, but then I had to throw them out on the return!

Was reading Susskind's latest The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, and one of the flight attendants asked me about it. She knew a bit about string theory and was very interested in time. I was impressed, though I did find it strange that she kept insisting something about how physicists need to take time into account, despite my protestations that time indeed plays a pretty big role.

I'm not done with the book but my general impression is favorable. Some of his explanations seem better than other popularizations, and has narration is less dry. He's got a goal for the book and simply needs to educate you to get you there. Other books take an approach which seems more along the lines of "let's keep feeding you different stuff till you explode." I've got a few issues with some of his arguments, but I appreciate hearing them.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More cool gifts

Continuing in the tradition of pointing out cool gifts for kids take a look at this one:

Unfortunately, this is not a real gift, but instead a gallery of the worst toy ideas (via Gizmodo).

That thing you do

  • Camera news: Nikon is out with it's new D80 and Gizomodo has lots of links. What's more, they've got the scoop on a new camera by Fuji which can see in the infrared and ultraviolet. Apparently they're marketing to scientists (among others). (insert requisite dumb string theory joke here)

  • Universe News: Good discussions of some recent studies of the age of the universe can be found at Rob Knop's place and Bad Astronomy. Bottom line is: we'll stick with the current 13.7+/-0.2 billion years, but there's an interesting result that conflicts with it. I always like to ask my students what their uncertainty would be if they were to guess my age? How does that compare to the percent uncertainty quote above? Pretty amazing, huh?

  • Career News: Steinn and Chad discuss the problems of the physics track and whether people should go into physics. I'd like to add my thoughts, but I just don't have the energy to go into it at any length. But here are some quick thoughts:

    • I know plenty of postdocs who have been out of grad school for close to (or in some cases past) ten years.
    • Some have an easy time of things, but you should expect a rather painful process at low pay as you watch your friends go off and buy sports cars and such.
    • You should be prepared for other options at almost every step. You should always try to keep your options open, or at least know what the options might be. There's the financial industry: derivatives pricing, risk analysis, etc. There's biological stuff (protein folding, drug design, etc).
    • My experience has been that senior people made us undergrad and grad students aware of the bleakness of the job market. To their credit they acted a bit like a Jewish Rabbi confronted with a potential convert...a good friend who was marrying a Jewish guy talked to a rabbi about converting and was "turned away." Apparently, the tradition is for the potential convert to be turned away three times. The moral being only those "destined" to be physicists will persevere in the face of such bleakness.
    • And, at the same time as I acknowledge many out there are stuck in a postdoc rut, I'm amazed at the number of people I know who have gotten faculty jobs.

    Oh, also check out this post about blogging professors at Hsu's place.

  • Political News: Lieberman lost in the primary as did Delay in his quest to get himself off the ballot.

Monday, August 07, 2006

PTI and Salary

I was watching PTI today (who knew Wikipedia would turn up before an ESPN link and would have so much detail on the TV show!), and Wilbon wondered how much someone in the pit crew for NASCAR drivers made annually. I'll defer posting the answer till tomorrow (unless someone cares to put it in the comments) so that people can ponder it for a while.

However, I thought I'd take the opportunity to mention physicsist/professorial salaries. Taking my extended family as a small sample, people have little idea what a professor makes. Some people seem to think I should be well-off, and others offer to lend me money! You can take a look at some averages over at the CHE, but there's a fair amount of spread. I've seen advertised starting salaries at podunk, rural colleges in the mid-$40Ks, and I've seen senior salaries top $120K. And apparently some fields get paid lots more, but in physics, I'd hazard that the bulk of us make between $50K and $90K (that's not including any summer salary).

Update: No PTI watchers out there? $75K plus bonuses. Not sure what I make of it. I wouldn't want to risk my life to change tires and fill gas, but I'm sure lots of people would love to be so close to the action.

August is like Sunday

It's August which means we're at the tail end of summer. Next month school starts. Reminds me of Sunday with the "oh boy, another week of school coming." As a researcher with a nonvanishing teaching load, there's always a balance one seeks in terms of effort in teaching versus research. This is well exemplified by when you decide to start preparing for the Fall classes. Mark Trodden has already started, but I know the earlier I start the less efficient I'll be. And so I wait.

But I ran across the following that I'll have to remember to check out:

when I start getting ready.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More links

  • Looks like U. Chicago has begun the process of finding Sean's replacement. I would think you'd have to be pretty confident to go in there expecting tenure.

  • I wonder what history will ultimately say about so many things related to 9/11, and it would seem the released tapes concerning United 93 will help unravel some of these.

  • Here's a neat toy that would probably make for a good gift for a kid. I had seen mention of it once somewhere and had meant to get for someone. Never did, and saw it again today on Gizmodo.

  • The NYT (free reg. reqd.) has an article up about a photographic post-processing technique I hadn't heard about: high dynamic range photography. You take a series of photographs with a wide range of exposures which are (as close as possible) otherwise identical. The software then combines these so that the brightest and darkest spots are similarly captured. Here's an example.

  • I am a bit dumbfounded by Lubos's commentary about some rich guy named Jeffrey Epstein involved with some female minors. I've got no idea if this guy is guilty or not but the Crimson article reports

    According to a police report, the Palm Beach Police Department believes it has probable cause to charge Epstein with four counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and of lewd and lascivious molestation.

    What does Lubos think? He seems to think the guy should get off because the whole prostitution must have been a misunderstanding common among the billionarie-set and regular folk:

    The kids and others who have had some kind of contact with various billionaires almost always think of possible ways to get a lot of money from their partners. The billionaire always thinks that every single act is consensual and supported by mutual feelings and permanent confidentiality - except that the non-billionaire frequently reveals that everything has been a theater.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding Lubos, but is he saying that the kids faked interest in this guy, had consensual relations, all with the intent of getting some money? Surely he has a problem with an adult having relations with young minors (if that's what happened) whether or not they get paid?

    Update1: Lubos has added a clarification about his position, and thankfully does want protection for minors:

    ...let me make it clear that I am absolutely supporting important laws protecting children from sex and from other activities for which the children are not ready.

    Update2: Peter Woit (see the comments as well) and Tommaso Dorigo also discuss this episode.

Who would want to major in Business?

I've been meaning to comment on the fact that so many of the youngin's I know going off to college these last few years have gone off to college to major in, of all things, "business." Many of these same people have shown lots of ability in actual fields of study, but then they seemingly abandon all reason and, I'm guessing here, go for the money and/or supposed job stability.

I'm pleased that Uncertain Principles echoes this disappointment:

I also can't help wondering how useful a generic degree in "Business" could really be, compared to, you know, actually knowing how to do some particular thing, and then learning management skills to complement the knowledge of an actual specific business.

I'll enter my curmudgeon mode here:
College is about getting an education, not a job. If you want training for a job, go to vocational school, or a vocational program at a community college, or perhaps an apprenticeship. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's great. Not everyone is meant to go to college. The fact that so many default to going to college appears to have diminished what a college degree is all about.

Poor astronomy security

Apparently 3,000 students at California Polytechnic State University are endanger of having their social security numbers used for identity theft. These stories aren't uncommon, but then I read:

The students whose information was exposed all took physics and astronomy courses under John Mottman, a professor at the university

So what, did he enter their SSNs along with their name in a grade spreadsheet? That seems overkill. Maybe if his classes are huge, something like this becomes necessary?

It had crossed my mind that giving professors listings of student names, addresses, and SSNs probably wasn't the best of ideas, not just because someone might lose the list off SSNs. I'm not so cynical to suspect nefariousness so widespread, but there are just so many profs, adjuncts, instructors, etc, that something bad was bound to happen. And it's so unnecessary. The good news is that it seems all schools are moving away from using the SSN as identification.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Catching up with

I'm trying to catch up with all the papers posted this week to, and I was reminded of this discussion over at Nanoscale Views (Apparently he's from Mars, which, I suppose means the rest of us physics bloggers are from Venus?).

So many papers get published you can't read them all. What are my criteria?

  • Does the paper discuss topics I've researched?
  • Does the paper discuss work I might be able to followup on, or get into myself?
  • Is the paper by someone in my field (even if it is of no real interest, I want to know what close peers are working on)?

Not too many papers get selected by the above, so it's a good screen. What's left then whether the paper deals with on an interesting topic or an interesting result, but that can be hard to tell just looking quickly at the title and abstract, so I also look at the author. And here, all the ugly, but arguably necessary, prejudices come into play.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

More on "Science is hard"

Over at Uncertain Principles is a worthwile discussion of the difficulties of research, as opposed to classroom work. Even beyond experimental physics, research is hard.

And the ability to get things done separates the good physicists from those that should do something else. Once, someone working with me was trying to explain that he had been working hard and explicitly mentioned the hours he had been working. He just didn't get it. None of that matters. You can either solve problems and get stuff done or not. Good physicists get things done quickly, and bad ones slowly (in the simplest of terms), but if you want to mention the hours you put in as if that means something, you need to go into a field where you punch a clock.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Scattered thoughts:

  • Lots of talk out there about blogging and tenure (see Dynamics of Cats and Uncertain Principles). Not too relevant to tenure process was a frustrating, surprising, and ultimately successful process. I'm not sure I see what's so funny about this slam on the CHE's first person columns.

  • Star Trek had their holodecks where people could create an imaginary environment in which to interact. That's pretty advanced though (I know, but play along). Say instead, we only had the technology to implant memories. So instead of going to Las Vegas for a vacation, you simply get memories of an imaginary trip implanted in your brain. That sounds somewhat feasible. Saves the cost of the trip and the time away from work.

    My question is: Do the memories serve the same function as a true vacation?

    On one hand, I'd think no because you haven't had any real stress relief. But what is stress relief? If you really took the vacation, then when you got back what else would you have besides the memories (say you didn't play tennis or anything, just laid on the beach or something so your muscles weren't involved)? Maybe this is a stupid question that a biologist can easily answer, but I'm just not clear on what the true effects of a vacation are.

  • Apparently rendering blonde hair is quite difficult. These folks found a faster way which compares well with the time consuming method as shown in the picture.

  • Why does Blogger's spell checker not recognize "Google" and "blogging" as words?

  • I have trouble coming up with titles sometimes, but I'm consoled by the fact that Glenn doesn't even have titles!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

An Exciting New Car Possibility

There's a whole slew of small, practical, inexpensive, fuel efficient cars coming out of Japan (e.g. Toyota's Yaris, Nissan's Versa, Kia's got one as well [well, that's Korea]). Which is of course good news for any academics out there because, with the exception of Lubos, we're all radical, left-wing, string-bashing tree huggers. Oh yeah, and we're cheap too.

Anyway, the Honda Fit just came out and is getting rave reviews, but the gossip is that a hybrid version will come out next year for less than $20k (US). Here's a picture from Not sure how legit the picture is. For more on the fit:

Oh yeah, and be sure to read about how a Hummer is better for the world than a hybrid!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Friday, July 21, 2006

More Perelman

If you've got a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, they've got a piece on Perelman's claim to the $1 million price money for his work on the Poincaré conjecture:

Like Torah commentaries, they dwarf the original. Dr. Perelman's 2003 paper is 22 pdf pages; the 2002 paper is 39. But "Notes on Perelman's Papers," in which Prof. Kleiner and John Lott of the University of Michigan explain them almost line-by-line, is 192 pages. A book on the papers is expected to top 300 pages. A "complete proof" of Poincaré, based on Dr. Perelman's breakthrough and published last month in the Asian Journal of Mathematics (which Prof. Milnor describes as throwing "a monkey wrench" into the question of who gets credit), is 328 pages long.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Online News

  • Robert Cringely usually writes some interesting columns about internet technology, and this week, he discusses some limits of online news:

    If it's a big story that's important to a lot of people, the Internet either beats it to death or misses it completely. This is the nature of the beast and it makes me sad because I sit here on the third floor of an old house in Charleston, South Carolina banging out these columns and people ask me "Where do you GET this stuff?"

    Not from the Internet.

    I talk to people on the phone

    I'm not yet sure what I think of his opinion, but it certainly opens my eyes a bit to the limits, especially since I've given up the print newspaper.

  • Was at Target today. Walking out to my car, I see a sign warning that the shopping carts lock their wheels when they pass some orange line. It was at this point that I notice a bunch of abandoned shopping carts. That's pretty cool...if only because now I know how far out I need to park to be free of rogue carts. Don't you just love the people who park their nice cars way out to avoid others' carts, but who then leave their own shopping cart to go rogue on someone else's car!?!

New Nikon DSLR Coming

Apparently we can expect a new Nikon digital SLR:

Nikon Japan has today started a teaser campaign promoting a new compact 10.2 megapixel digital SLR which will be announced in 20 days, we can only guess that this would be the natural successor to the D70/D70s. The teaser gives away few details other than the fact that the camera will have 10.2 megapixels (just in case you were thinking of buying a Sony Alpha). If any other significant details come out over the next 20 days we'll cover them.

I, for one, have never been too fond of the color balance on Nikon's digital lineup, but I've not gotten my hands on anything since the D100. Maybe it's gotten better.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gender and Underrepresentation in Physics

Over at Cosmic Variance is a worthwhile discussion over diversity in physics, if you're interested in such. I usually tire of such discussions quickly, but I enjoyed the comments. I'll just point out a couple interesting items:

  • This person argues that "science is more or less a meritocracy." I'd love to know more about this person's experiences to know how they could emerge so non-jaded.
  • This person thinks that homosexuals are underrepresented. People quickly ask for evidence of such a dearth. It certainly made me wonder. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is gay and who isn't, but certainly there are a number of likely candidates. I can easily imagine that the representation is roughly equal to that of the general population.
  • I think the goal of "Boost[ing] the self-confidence of girls" is indeed worthwhile, and not some nebulous, liberal, hogwash.

Anyway, a worthwhile discussion whatever your experience.

Update: For a contrasting, eh...opinion, you might get some entertainment from reading Lubos' latest concerning this discussion. As is usually the case, I couldn't make it through more than the first couple of paragraphs.

I liked this from Sean:

The real problem, though, is that the faculty-hiring stage is far too late. The damage is done in high school and earlier, and that’s the obvious target for trying to improve things.

And finally, you might find this test a fun distraction (as linked by here).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Missile Defense Test

Recently, the THAAD missile defense system succeeded in a test. That's great and all. I'm all for a strong defense. My problem is that some very conservative bloggers have touted the tests dishonestly (or stupidly, it's always hard to tell) as some kind of defense of President Bush.

Instapundit links to Captain's Quarters who asserts:

People also laughed when George Bush claimed this week that our missile defense systems could knock down the Taepodong-2. I think he knew a bit more than the media and critics considered at the time.

Well, actually no, he was wrong and the denials are a matter of record. Just in case he's not clear, he seems to think we've got a fully operational missile defense now:

Naysayers have constantly criticized the effort by pointing out that the system at this stage can't knock down 1,000 ICBMs with 100% accuracy, but this shows that the anti-missile system can take out inbounds on a one-for-one basis, and doesn't require a shotgun approach.

This whole missile defense business has been a total joke for a long time with all the very contrived tests and failures (...see various posts by Robert Park and this by Oliver Willis). While this test does appear to represent true progress, the problem is very hard...take a look at a report by the American Physical Society.

I don't want to get too partisan. This isn't an attack on President Bush, nor those who support his policies. Instead it's an attack on dishonest vitriol meant to forestall intelligent discussion from either the left or the right. I'm sure it happens on the left, but it seems that the most read and influential bloggers who engage in this kind of intellectual dishonesty occupy the right.


When I look back at my training in physics, there are three big things I didn't realize:

  • physics does not separate so easily into neatly separated sub-disciplines.

  • physics is far from a strict meritocracy, and, just as in the business world, networking/schmoozing are important

  • a tenured faculty position has a strange mix of stress and reward

It's this last item that I think confuses so many not "in the know" (such as my extended family). I'll try to describe the unique stresses associated with the job later, but what I want to discuss is the reward. More particularly, the feedback one gets as a professor.

My experience is that my job is a bit like being a housewife. You toil all the time; there's no escaping it. You are your own boss and if you don't fix something, or make progress on what you're doing, there's no hiding it. People with little idea of what the job is like give you respect for having your job, but then generally figure you loaf all day. But most importantly, you get very little feedback.

I'm not talking about students and their evaluations. I'm talking about your research. You can look at citations, but you look pretty ridiculous worrying about so-and-so's paper cited yours. You can be happy about being invited to conferences, but you inevitably go through dry periods and start to get cynical like me about the politics involved.

As I've mentioned before, it's a great job. On the worst of days when I'm pissed at someone or another, or sick of doing what I'm doing, or totally frustrated not getting something to work, I push back from my computer, lock my office door, crank up Pandora, and pull out Scientific American...

Update: Conincidentally, today the NYT has a good interview (free sub. reqd.) with a Stanford professor who mentions that women get lots of negative feedback in the sciences. He has first hand experience as a former woman.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Children's Black Hole Book

  • Over at Good Math, Bad Math, he's discussing children's books. I'd recommend you check out the great illustration work and the thought-provoking black hole in That Pesky Toaster

  • As a followup to this post about people surgically putting magnets into their fingers to create a new, magnetic sense, you might look at this guy's post who just glued a magnet to his fingertip.

  • Any Pharyngula fans may want to check out a quick blurb posted at the CHE which links to a profile on Minnesota Public Radio.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


  • Gizmodo points out some clever, astronomical advertising by McDonalds.

    The billboard made its debut on Friday, and it will stay in place until next month; by then the shadow angles will have changed so much it will cease to work properly. Great idea, unless it's a cloudy day, where the billboard will make absolutely no sense at all.

  • Gordon Watts discusses some of my posts. Yes, I'd like to give advice, but that sounds like I've got the answers. It's more that I'd like to get my experiences out there...I've had to deal with things in my career without the benefit of experience. I suppose that's always the case, but even when I talked to my unofficial mentors, they were of no help, being fairly dismissive of my concerns. Completing a PhD, in the best of all worlds, trains one to do research with maybe some ancilliary teaching experience. But it almost never teaches one how to get grants, how to network, how to interview, how to prep application materials, how to deal with hostile and/or incompetent faculty peers, how to get things you need from a school administration, how to balance teaching versus research, how to manage students/postdocs, etc.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Crappy Day

Today has been a pretty crappy day. Equipment which takes forever to order, finally shows up and gets delivered to the wrong place. And they can't move it without putting in a work order and hopefully it'll get done tomorrow! There is such a minimalist attitude at this school...meaning there's no sense of "let's get this done promptly and well so that, as a whole, the campus can be better and more productive." Am I becoming the crotchety, old professor who yells at everyone?

Then I get an email from a student with yet another revision, but not the revisions I had marked last time. How do you teach them that they should try not to waste your time?

And then I read some of these posts about a dumb joke by Chad (the offending post). Dumb jokes aren't hard to find, but those about string theory appear to now be taboo (what has the world come to when I can call Lubos too politically correct?).

And then there's Jacques' comments. He tries to take the high road:

Chad responded that the remark was intended as a harmless bit of levity, and an “attempt to drive traffic (because I almost always get a bump in traffic when I talk about string theory…).” Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a matter between Chad, his readers and his conscience.

And maybe it's just because of the day I've had, but this sounds awfully pompous. He continues, clearly self conscious that someone might think he took a low road:

Ordinarily, I would, therefore, not even bring it up, except that it got me to thinking about the temptations of popularity. I was somewhat taken aback by the response to my recent post about Loop Quantum Gravity. With 150 comments (and still counting), the temptation is, clearly, to write a lot more posts about LQG, and fewer posts about the boring stuff I usually write about.

And by "boring stuff" I assume he's talking about all the blogging/mathml/etc stuff.

For the record, I can see that some people's toes will feel a bit trampled at the joke, but Chad has responded admirably.