Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spouting Off

  • These discussions on the blogosphere of inherent ability versus work ethic (oh, to have both!) such as at nanoscale views and CV, bring to mind my advice for college choice. As an undergraduate, there's not going to be lots of differences among good schools, state flagships included (Berkeley, UMich, UTexas, UVA, UNC, etc). *However*, that is to say there won't be much difference in terms of the quality of instruction, equipment, etc. The biggest difference will be among your fellow students. That's one reason many of these schools have honors programs. The better your peers, the more the instructor can expect of you, and that's important. Not only that, the environment you immerse yourselves is largely made up of your peers. I interview for my alma mater and they want to know whether the applicant would contribute to that environment. And one shouldn't just concern yourself with quality. If you're lucky enough to have the choice between Stanford and Harvard, there's no concern for which has better students. The issue then is the *type* of student the school attracts. I'm not that fond of those who go to Stanford. Yes it's a horrible generalization, but I've found people that go to Stanford are competitive, driven, and true believers in metrics (test scores, etc). Those that go to Harvard are more of a mix, usually a bit strange, not well rounded, but of course extremely talented in some way. So come all 'ye Googlers looking for school advice!

  • I'm starting to have some faith that this "voting site" for will be worth something.

  • Chad made me chuckle today with this quote about baseball (a sport which ranks with golf for watching, but which is otherwise fun to play):

    Back in the day, stat-wanking was mostly confined to baseball, which is so ridiculously boring that calculus seems like a fun way to spice things up.

  • Oceanographers have it easy. They always get to put cool pictures of them in exotic locales into their talks. But I had never heard of this ship that literally flips itself vertical in the middle of the ocean. Gizmodo has a nice YouTube video for you.

  • I just got a hold of the movie "Shut Up & Sing" about how those Dixie Chicks were so vulgar as to criticize our prez during a time of war. I really look forward to watching it.

  • The problem with digital cameras is the same as a fundamental problem in quantum mechanics. Don't believe me? Try and take a spontaneous picture of a young kid these days. Once they see the camera, they rush over *behind* camera to see the LCD viewfinder! You're lucky to get one picture.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Good post

I saw this posting over at CV soon after it got posted and went back to read more of the comments. A very worthwhile read. To be sure, I wasn't sure how common such thoughts are. So many of us growup being the smartest kid around...that is until college. How we face up to being just one of many smart kids makes for interesting discussion.

It was so long ago, yet I think I'm still dealing with it now (I know, I know, it sounds pathetic). Just the other day I posted how I can get in a bad mood reading good work from "competitors." Am I among the top in my field? Or not? Should I content myself to be just one of many physicists contributing just a small piece to this global endeavor, try to make some ground-breaking discoverer at the risk of coming up empty-handed, or perhaps leave the field?

I am insecure about these things, going so far as to make somewhat ridiculous rationalization such as "Oh, that person is a postdoc so the pressure is on and s/he doesn't have to teach or attend faculty meetings." But, at least I'm not one of those jerks who tries to out talk others as if they know it all. I've been lucky to have good examples in grad school of famous & high powered theory people who, nevertheless, were down to Earth and could admit when they weren't getting something.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Late bloomers

I'm not sure how much this Wired article on the disparity between young genius and late bloomers applies to the world of physics. I might know better if I could slog my way through the whole article. But I will take this opportunity to mention that I get in awful moods sometimes when I see a good paper out by a "competitor." I sometimes do feel like an "also ran"...I wonder what movie actors feel like. You make a movie, and then you wait to get another offer or script (unless you're real hot). Do you immediately have doubts? I used to get in a great mood when I started writing up a paper, only to feel bad once it was accepted (well a couple days later). And I'm not a real competitive person. I wonder if I could fully accept my rung on the totem, whether that would mean I'd get really this competitive streak necessary to the self-discipline needed in academic research? Is there anything similar in industrial/commercial physics, or is it just "my salary is bigger than yours?" kind of rivalry?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lost and Heroes TV Shows

I stumbled upon this site recently (don't ask): which gives a veritable catalog of "alternative" theories on the web (I love using that word "veritable"...connection to Harvard's motto be darned).

Speaking of alternative, Lost this week featured a plotline ostensibly involving time travel. The reputed accidental time traveler visits his physicist friend asking if he's nuts or if it's possible. My hopes of anything interesting physics-wise vanished when the somewhat stodgy physicist tells him, in no uncertain terms, that time travel isn't possible. This just a week after the episode in which someone is seen reading A Brief History of Time. This is no endorsement of the show though...the writers have long abandoned any reasonable adherence to even the smallest modicum of self-consistency.

The show Heroes, by contrast, presents an interesting story which seems to keep fairly strictly within its own bounds. Mind you, these bounds are fairly wide, including a character who can warp space and time (if only they would say in the show that such a separation is meaningless and instead use "spacetime"!). But the plotlines are so tightly woven together one truly (veritably, even) feels like the writers are unfolding an integral story, not simply rolling out episode after episode with new tricks.

And what's the deal with choosing males of Indian descent (i.e. South Asian) as scholarly professor types? Heroes has a father/son team of professors of some sort of genetics from India and this physics professor in Lost appears to be South Asian as well.

For those keeping track, the power words for this post:

  • veritable
  • ostensibly
  • modicum

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentines!

Who better to discuss love in the physics universe today than our community's own newly christened love couple?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


  • Anyone know of any good online/free tax info for a professor? I've gotten a 1099-Misc and I'm wondering what I can deduct. Not the usual "itemized deductions" (on schedule A) but instead it's Schedule C-EZ stuff. Anyone? I'm not looking to cheat, but I needs my broadband.
    Update: Nada. Bupkus. Great, well at least I've got a wonderfully unhelpful link to a Q&A at Kiplingers.

  • I've always been a bit uncomfortable with toll roads. Sure I love using them, but they seem so classist...the rich get to pay to use roads that poor folk cannot. Kind of like if we denied medical help unless you could pay for it...oh wait, never mind. Anyway, this article has a somewhat different perspective.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pithy Quote

I'm not a big fan of blogging about blogging (though I'm interested what comes from Mark@CosmicVariance's recent post about the *uses* of faculty blogging). But, part of the reason I've blogged so little is that I'm losing focus of what the point is. Is there benefit to me or anyone else?

My two main motivations were to vent and to flesh out what it means to compete in the academic physics world. As to the first, the Incoherent Ponderer (sorry I'm too lazy for links, and I have yet to add him/her to the blogrool) is doing a much better job than I. I don't always agree with him but I find him pretty spot on when he/her (boy this non-gender specific stuff is a real pain and I'm not going to use "it") is railing against whatever.

As to the second, are we not a closed system? Are there really any newbies/undergrads out there reading this stuff so that they can enter grad school having read the right books, being able to pick a reasonable advisor (are there more than a couple out there?), and understanding what they may be in for?

For my own part I get some benefit from some of these blogs. Some physics I probably wouldn't see otherwise, some gossip, some complaints I share which are always nice to hear from others, some news (ala NSF budgets). But there's a lot of...what do they call it..."chaff" through which I must sort.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


  • Why do construction companies use a one dollar toilet flush handle made of plastic that will certainly break when another couple bucks gets you a metal one that will presumably last forever? I don't think the companies around here build enough so that the couple bucks per toilet saves them signficantly (especially in light of the frustration of its customers).

  • Why would visit statistics remain about the same when no posting has happened for weeks? That's surely not a good sign.

  • Why do these motifs come in cycles? A while back all the bloggers were talking about their travels, and now it's all about the great food they eat when interviewing.

  • Why do I keep accumulating more media to digest? I've got a stack of Scientific Americans, Physics Todays, and Seed magazines waiting to be read. I'm behind on lots of blog feeds. I'm so far behind on keeping up with the arXiv that I'm thinking I'll just ignore three months of papers and start fresh. I've got a paper to referee and another one just came back from the authors correcting things from the last round. Add to all this the fact that I've begun listening to various podcasts on my MP3 player at the gym.

  • Why is the NYT trying to make me feel bad for watching Lost tonight? I don't believe in the's just entertainment.