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.