Friday, March 23, 2007

Oh, Lordi (I'm in Finland)

Another quiescent period, but I've been at CERN all week (ATLAS trigger/physics week) and now in the land of Lordi (Finland for those who don't pay attention to Eurovision winners, or read articles in the Times about them...). Actually, I'm at a workshop in Jyvaskyla, a few hundred kilometers north of Helsinki, staying in a gleaming, white hotel on an frozen lake. And there's a suspension bridge just in front that leads to the gleaming, white Physics Department here at the University of Jyvaskyla.

It's looking like a rough week, with a student lecture to deliver on Monday ("Introduction to Hydrodynamics" - and I don't even do hydro) and a talk to give on Tuesday morning ("Consequences of Early Thermalization" etc., so once again, with feeling -- and more details). But no pain, no gain, I suppose.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Extra Extra

If you have a fixin' for RHIC news, and find yourself scouring the arxiv after Quark Matter conferences, you need look no further than the just released "RHIC News". It's planning to be a bi-weekly release, with new content from RHIC scientists and updates from the machine and experiments. For more on the philosophy, and even how to contribute (that means you, RHIC scientist!), you can read John and Susan's introduction.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

String Debate '07

The String Wars of 2006 continue, but are kicking it up a notch in 2007 with the first (that I've heard) String Debate. And not just debate as in "let's argue in journals or magazines or newspapers" but debate as in:
String Theory: Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss Debate Co-sponsored with the Department of Energy’s Office of Science
It comes down to this: Are all things in nature actually super-tiny bits of strings that are vibrating strands of energy? If so, string theory would merge general relativity and quantum mechanics, and would explain the origin of space, time, and the universe itself. Or is the theory, as some critics claim, just extraordinarily complex mathematics which may have nothing to do with physics and a theory of nothing, not everything? If so, physicists are back to the drawing board in their quest for the Holy Grail of physics—an ultimate theory of everything.
For those of you in DC in a couple of weeks, this will be happening at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, moderated by Michael Turner.

But seriously folks, who benefits from these kinds of debates, besides the obvious rock-star experience seeing two charismatic speaker/performer/scientists argue in real life? Then again, who wants to imagine Greene and Krauss snapping fingers at each other, going "Bring it!"? In sum, I'm not sure (as it's mildly fun to watch smart people argue, despite the inevitable vacuousness of any result from this particular debate...kind of like the WWE, right?). All I know is
Greene is a professor of physics and professor of mathematics at Columbia University; Krauss is Ambrose Swasey professor of physics and a professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University; and Turner is the Rauner Distinguished Service professor in the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago.
so Greene, lacking a titled chair, which even the moderator has, is already racing to catch up.

(Thanks, Burt!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mistakes Were Made

I generally try and avoid politics in my blogging, but the political firing of federal prosecutors really irks me, reeking of the anti-democratic odors one has picked up emanating from this administration for years. That said, how often does a national figure (i.e. AG Gonzales) quote Matt Groening's Life in Hell: "I accept that mistakes were made"? OK, seriously, Groening was was quoting Reagan but was Gonzales (who gets mixed style points for combining active and passive voice in the same sentence)?

In trying to remember where that phrase came from, I found a blog post by Caterina "Flickr" Fake on the subject, and she found a great excerpt from Charles Baxter on the subject. Totally relevant now, and totally excellent.
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? ... Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or "We did that." You can't reconstruct a story — you can't even know what the story is— if everyone is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess.
(Please don't ask me where I got a copy of LiH, since more people should be allowed to see them online! Google will reveal all.)

UPDATE: Gee those New York Times reporters know lots of stuff about mistakes.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Freeman (Dyson) in New York

Why do I ever leave the apartment without a camera? K and I left the house on Sunday afternoon with a few errands and some work to do, but knew that our final destination was the Guggenheim Museum. The goal was to see "El Greco to Picasso" (at least for 15-20 minutes after bumping into one of my oldest college friends who lives in Turkey, etc. -- can anyone reading this quantify the effective area of the entire planet, once network effects are taken into account?), find somewhere to eat on the Upper East Side (Cafe Alsace, found by accident given Saigon Grill's unexpected renovations, was pretty great), and then to see Freeman Dyson talk about "How We Might Have Gone To Mars in 1965."

Freeman Dyson. I nearly jumped when I got the email announcing this late last week. Here's a guy who has made a mark in real science (QED, Schwinger-Dyson equations etc.), real science & military policy (JASON, test-ban treaties), and even science "fiction" (Dyson spheres, Dyson trees -- on comets no less) and written more than a few books for general consumption. And he's 84, so no time to waste. Then again, K and I saw him being guided through the main exhibition and he looked pretty spry, regardless of age.

Anyway, no time today to go into how great his talk was, or to explain the context in detail. Bottom line: Project Orion - a spaceship to explore the solar system (carrying real scientists in addition to astronauts, even, a la the Beagle) powered by several thousand 1-kiloton nuclear bombs, deployed via what was planned to be essentially a Coke-bottle dispenser (General Atomic even consulted with Coca-Cola about this!). The powerpoint (prepared by his son George, one famous child among six, who wrote the definitive history about Orion several years ago) was incredible, simple and full of 1) archival images, many declassified for George Dyson's book, and 2) honest-to-God information, which he would let us read. And finally, he answered questions, lots of them, and even the ones which were completely off topic. After we left the theater (downstairs at the Guggenheim and clearly unaltered Frank Lloyd Wright -- itself worth the price of admission) and the post-talk reception (an extremely gracious touch, but where K noticed that no-one seemed to be getting Dyson a glass of water -- so she brought him one!) we basically flew home. It was a really well-executed Sunday event by Dyson and the Guggenheim, and we'll be back.

So back to that camera. I normally post my own images from these kind of things (e.g. the theater, Dyson, his slides, etc) But no luck this time, having left said camera at home. But frustratingly, I can't find any images online of Orion as it was shown in Dyson's talk. All one finds are images from the NASA-influenced "final" design, which was ultimately cut. Dyson didn't have many nice things to say about it, so I will just show something based on Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon", which was, according to Dyson, literally how they imagined the Orion spaceship for most of its project lifetime.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Two Minutes or Less

In a group meeting yesterday, my colleagues pointed me to this interesting, um, contest, from Discover Magazine.
The Challenge
Just over a century ago, Albert Einstein published three groundbreaking scientific papers in one year, any one of which could have won him the Nobel Prize.

Taking a cue from The Great One, is now challenging armchair theorists to produce a similar feat of inspired - and speedy - brilliance.

Your goal is to create a video that quickly and clearly explains perhaps the most baffling idea in the history of the world: string theory.

And the best part is that you have just two minutes.

The Opportunity
The winning video will be selected by Columbia University physicist Brian Greene, best-selling author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, and broadcast via a prominent spot on the homepage of

The individual or team who submits the best video will be featured in an upcoming issue of Discover Magazine.

The Rules
The video should present an accurate, basic understanding of string theory that will stick in the brains of relatively intelligent non-scientists.

You can use any teaching aides you like (props, animation, etc.)

Submissions will be accepted from individuals and teams (subject to the terms and conditions).

Don't go over the time limit.
I wish I could explain anything in two minutes. My only question is why you wouldn't just go straight to YouTube...