Sunday, April 30, 2006

Visions in Collisions, Hummingbirds, etc.

So last night I finally had my chance to teach "Physics for Filmmakers" and the results kind of look like this. The whole thing was a real 'hail mary', in that I came up with the title in mid-March before I had any idea, but eventually the actual content somehow nucleated around the title. I first tried to show how physicists image the fleeting traces of particles, which are not visible to the human eye, by means of various detector technologies. Lucky for me that even cursory Google searches yield troves of classic particle physics images. Then I tried to sketch out how we take these images of particles and "run the movie" backwards to understand the primordial event that yielded them. I tried to keep the tone breezy and the focus on the visuals (and make wisecracks whenever possible), and I hope it worked. I had a lot of fun giving the talk to this audience of filmmakers and friends and I think they had fun too. I even got a few questions during the wine & cigarette break (all the smokers took an unplanned exit when we had a few video problems at the start of my talk...).

Other highlights for me were:

  • The Thereminvox performance by Anthony Jay Ptak (who turned out to have gone to high school just down the road from Brookhaven...)
  • An unbelievable archival film of Edgerton's high speed stroboscopic films. Smoke, birds, snakes, insects - one always forgets the richness of physical and biological phenomena when one sees them at "human" speeds. 6000 frames a second can show a lot...
  • Liquid crystals filmed by Jean Painleve
  • Void Ratio by Ray Sweeten - the funniest oscilloscope tutorial I've ever seen. Should be a part of every freshman physics course, including the extended visual freakout in the second half.
  • I also liked Jennifer's The Garden Dissolves into Air, a montage of images from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden processed through the "optical printer" (and a Macintosh, of course...)

A fun evening, all in all. You can find my slides here.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Please don't take my silence as indications that I'm giving up. It's just been insanely busy, with trips to Chicago and Toronto, and various projects at work coming together asynchronously. And I got tenure. Tenure.

Anyway, one of the projects I've been working on has been a short public talk I'll be giving as part of the show "Aerodynamics of the Hovering Hummingbird: Science, Cinema, and Ways of Seeing". It's on Saturday, April 29, 8 pm at Millennium Film Workshop and is curated by Jennifer MacMillan and Bradley Eros. Please come and check it out -- I saw a previous evening Jennifer curated and it was really fun and interesting.

My talk is called "Visions in Collisions", and will be a few reflections on the ways particle and nuclear physicists see both particles, and the underlying dynamics that created them. Think of us as trying to reconstruct a whole movie when we only have access to the last few frames.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Like Steve

Many people who know me professionally know that I have quite a few, um, obsessions which aren't exactly related to physics. One is that I'm a tireless Apple booster, having gone all-Mac all-the-time in the last year and evangelizing where possible. Another is that I'm a serious nut-case perfectionist about the talks I give at meetings and conferences. Although I'm all too aware that it's not necessary to get everything right both in terms of contents and visuals, I've long felt that it never hurts. (I have a clear memory of reading an article about...well...Eddie Van Halen when I was a teenager. I didn't even like Van Halen that much (that has grown with time), but he explained why they rose to rapid fame in the late-70's: they treated every gig, even in tiny bars, as if they were in Madison Square Garden.)

And when it comes to getting presentations (especially the visuals) right, it's hard to beat the instincts of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple (especially, as manifest in Keynote, Apple's homegrown presentation software). And now, you too can know the secrets of Steve Jobs, at least as divined Carmine Gallo in BusinessWeek. But here's the thing: while I am not interested in turning scientists into Powerpoint-wielding corporate drones, it surprises me how often scientists ignore common-sense when preparing and delivering talks. I know I'd enjoy conferences so much more if people could just be a bit more like Steve.

(from TUAW)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

RHIC on the Radio

Now here was a surprise. I was doing my occasional wanderings through that Internets thing trying to see if there was anything on RHIC out there in the media that I had missed. And lo, while I was poking around the WNYC website, I noticed a link to "Radiolab", a show I've heard advertised but never heard (a problem now solved for me with radioSHARK...), clicked on it, and found myself drawn to this quote:
A Simpler Time
Have you ever wished you could time travel, like in the movies? Artist Terry Wilcox asks us to imagine 1,594 years into the future, when his sculptural clock will chime. A particle accelerator jockey at Brookhaven National Laboratory takes us 45 feet away from the beginning of time. And Swedish producer Marcus Lindeen introduces us to David McDermott, an artist who devotes his life to ignoring the present.
"45 feet from the beginning of time"? Holy incompatible units, Batman (but maybe they just suppressed the "c", like pro physicists do?). Anyway, after a bit of fiddling around to find a link to the show which actually worked, I got to hear about RHIC on the radio.

The piece was unfortunately introduced by means of the aforementioned Terry Wilcox, who was worried about those "scientists at Stony Brook making a universe". OK, he missed hitting Brookhaven by about a 45 minute drive, and was attributing a scientific goal I haven't heard much of since Benford's sci-fi novel Cosm. But there we were, with Robert Krulwich interviewing one of my RHIC colleagues, Todd Satogata, about the collider. OK so a few details were botched (like RHIC colliding nuclei to study the properties of the early universe, and not protons), and some of the verbal imagery and sound effects made it sound like we were doing some serious universe creating around these parts. Still, overall I found the piece to have a surprisingly light touch and conveyed a lot of the enthusiasm we feel about our physics. Let's do some more fact-checking next time, Radiolab!