Preposterous Universe

Thursday, March 31, 2005
The ragged edge of hipness

The good news is: Brad DeLong was right. Madeleine Peyroux does an amazing cover of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Sufficiently good that I went out and got the whole CD, which is a treat. Peyroux sounds like a young Billie Holliday (sometimes too much so, but okay, you could pick worse role models), with just the hint of a French accent. Simply but jazzy arrangements of clever songs, sung with a sly inflection. "Don't Wait Too Long" and "Weary Blues from Waitin'" are other highlights.

The bad news is: After getting the CD and congratulating myself for finding new music in such an esoteric fashion (I mean, what's hipper than reading blogs by economists?), I go to grab a coffee and find that Peyroux is in heavy rotation at my local Starbucks. And there's the CD for sale, prominently displayed at the checkout counter. Just another commodity being pushed by the corporate machine.

I will never be cool.

(On the other hand, part of this post was written while connected via wireless in the waiting room of my local auto shop, where I am getting a flat tire fixed. So that's pretty cool. Not the flat, but having wireless in the auto shop.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Conservatives adopt ignorance and irrationality as official positions

Okay, I suppose there is no official "conservative platform" that people get together and vote on. But it's clear that mainstream conservatism is increasingly comfortable with the idea of attacking science and supporting creationism. The latest indication is this notice for an upcoming Heritage Foundation event (from Pharyngula and Political Animal):
A growing number of scientists around the world no longer believe that natural selection or chemistry, alone, can explain the origins of life. Instead, they think that the microscopic world of the cell provides evidence of purpose and design in nature — a theory based upon compelling biochemical evidence. Join us as Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, a key design theorist and philosopher of science, explains this powerful and controversial concept on the mysteries of life.
What a blatant pack of lies. And not lies about contestable political opinions, either. (You will not be surprised to learn that Dr. Meyer has no degrees in biology.)

The Heritage Foundation isn't a fringe group devoted to promulgating superstition -- it's one of the most influential conservative think tanks. I know there are plenty of people who are educated and intellectually honest and think of themselves as conservative -- at what point do their heads begin to explode?

Friedmann fights back

For those of you interested in the attempt by Kolb, Matarrese, Notari, and Riotto to do away with dark energy, some enterprising young cosmologists (not me, I'm too old to move that quickly) have cranked through the equations and come out defending the conventional wisdom. Three papers in particular seem interesting:
  • Éanna Flanagan, hep-th/0503202
    "Can superhorizon perturbations drive the acceleration of the Universe?"
  • Christopher Hirata and Uros Seljak, astro-ph/0503582
    "Can superhorizon cosmological perturbations explain the acceleration of the universe?"
  • Ghazal Geshnizjani, Daniel Chung, and Niayesh Afshordi, astro-ph/0503553
    "Do large-scale inhomogeneities explain away dark energy?"
I think the general lesson seems basically in line with my earlier suspicions. (Not that I'm claiming any sort of priority; the people who do the work should get the credit.) I mentioned the idea of the vacuole models, which give you exact solutions for large-scale perturbations without any spatial gradients. In that case you recover precisely the ordinary Friedmann equation governing cosmological evolution, just with a set of cosmological parameters that differ from the background values. Of course this isn't the end of the story, because in general perturbations will have spatial gradients, even if they are expected to be small for very long-wavelength modes. If they're not small, they should probably show up in other ways -- as spatial curvature, or as large-scale anisotropies.

The new papers seem to demonstrate that this is indeed the case. (See also comments by Jacques and Lubošš.) You can use a GR trick (the Raychaudhuri equation) to define what is basically the "locally measured Hubble constant and deceleration parameter," and relate them to the locally measured energy density and pressure, as well as the "shear" and "vorticity" of the fluid filling the universe. The important thing, of course, is that everything is defined at each tiny region of spacetime, without appealing to what is happening far away. For a perfectly homogeneous and isotropic universe, the shear and vorticity vanish, and you recover the ordinary Friedmann equation (that's the lesson of the vacuole models). Perturbations with spatial gradients will generically induce both shear (stretching) and vorticity (twisting) of the fluid, and these can indeed lead to deviations from the Friedmann relation. But the effect of shear is always to make the universe decelerate even faster, not to make it accelerate. Vorticity can lead to acceleration, but it is usually small; indeed (as mentioned by Hirata and Seljak), in the KMNR set-up the vorticity is zero all along. So there can't be any acceleration. In fact Hirata and Seljak claim to have found exactly where the higher-order perturbative analysis of KMNR went astray; I haven't checked it myself, but they're most likely right.

You will have noticed, of course, that there weren't very many days in between the appearance of the original paper and the appearance of various refutations. I can imagine what these folks all went through, working diligently through the weekend. I did that myself once, when a misleading paper (much much worse than KMNR) was getting a lot of attention and needed to be set straight, but I'm glad it's not my standard operating procedure.

What would be really nice, even if the ultimate consensus settles down to a judgment that KMNR weren't right, is if people understood that this is the way science works. Individual papers may be right or wrong; but they are put out there for the community to debate about, different critiques are put forward, and eventually the truth comes out. Everyone is after the same thing, trying to figure out how the universe works. Something our creationist friends will never quite appreciate.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Song of myself

This Thursday I'll be giving the physics colloquium here at UofC, on "Why is the Universe Accelerating?" Not that I know the answer, but I'll be running through some of the possibilities. Talk at 4:15, cookies upstairs at 3:45; anyone in the area is welcome to drop by.

This announcement brought to you as part of the proud blogospherical tradition of shameless self-promotion. (In spite of which, the outside world manages to pretend that substantive liberal bloggers don't exist. What do we have to do?)

Dressing to be a physicist

Scientists, even more than most people, like to believe that appearance is irrelevant; it's the substance of a person's work that counts. Of course this is rubbish. Substance does count, but so does presentation. This maxim holds for everything from how you write papers (where a clear and honest presentation can make your paper much more influential than it would be if it were confusing) to how you dress from day to day. Whatever we might want to pretend, people will judge you by how you look. Of course, this truism is complicated by the fact that different people will judge you completely differently, but they'll be judging you nonetheless.

As with many things about being a scientist, it's significantly more problematic for women. Here is one woman's take on the issue; this is an extract from an essay by Heidi Newberg, a physicist at RPI (and one of the few scientists you'll find who've appeared in Glamour).
Women know that the way we dress has a big effect on others’ first impression of us, and there are many pitfalls involved with dressing to give a lecture. The most serious wardrobe mistake that can be made by a young woman giving a professional talk is to wear clothing that is designed to make men think about sex. While you might get away with plunging necklines, bare midriffs, low-cut pants, shirts without sleeves, mini-skirts, spiked heels, and overly dangly jewelry in other contexts, even in the workplace, this clothing is far too distracting for a presentation in which you are already the focus of attention. Wearing suggestive clothing is guaranteed to focus your audience on various parts of your anatomy, rather than listening to the message you are trying to communicate. This is confusing to young women, since women are routinely expected to wear such things when they dress up for a “formal occasion.” When men dress up for work, they wear a suit. When men dress up for romance, they wear a suit. Women must make a distinction here between appropriate professional clothing, which can look feminine and pretty but not sexy, and appropriate dating-wear, which is supposed to look sexy if you want it to work. I have been at talks in which a young woman has worn clothing that is so distracting that even I have had some difficulty paying attention to what she was saying – and of course when she was finished there was not a single question from the audience.
I think there is a lot of truth there, although I wouldn't be as directly prescriptive as Heidi. The clear point, applicable to persons of any gender, is that, if you are wondering whether people judge you on the basis of how you look, the answer is an unambiguous "yes." But it's up to you to decide what to do with that fact. Maybe you want to be sexy, or maybe you just want to blend into the woodwork; but there is no simple neutral place to stand at which no judgments are being made of you. What do you want those judgments to be? Do you care?

There is a range of complex possibilities on both sides (you and whoever is looking at you). If you put some effort into your clothes, some people may judge you to be frivolous, while others will treat you with greater respect. Academics in general, scientists in particular, often implicitly attach a kind of moral superiority to nondescript clothing. If you look like you actually put some kind of an effort into how you look, you are automatically suspect. Especially if you are female, some of your colleagues will not take you as seriously if you are perceived as stylish, not to mention sexy. (For many people, one of the attractive features about science is that it can serve as an escape from all the terribly messy and ambiguous features of human interactions, and if you remind them of these things they can become insecure and defensive. Or jealous. Or intimidated.) At the same time, others might tend to take you more seriously, for better or for worse -- they might perceive you as just a little bit more with-it and competent than your slovenly colleagues. The only certain mistake is to think that it doesn't matter at all.

In a similar discussion, profgrrrrl concludes that "the most important thing is to be yourself." After all, just because someone is judging you on the basis of how you dress, doesn't mean you have to care. Only by flouting the various unwritten rules that surround us can we ever hope to change them. Whether that's important to you is for only you to decide.

Monday, March 28, 2005
Quote of the day

Sometimes the truth just slips out. (Via atrios.)
"We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture."
That would be Patror Ray Mummert, who wants to put Intelligent Design creationism in the schools of Dover, PA. Let's hope that segment keeps attacking.

Human Rights report

I will go one tiny step further than Ogged and claim that it actually is funny, and perhaps even ironic: China's Human Rights Report on the U.S.

And of course, because this is the internet, the obvious cannot be repeated clearly enough: yes, the United States has a much better record on human rights than China does, or indeed than many parts of the world. And the Chinese report is not exactly a paragon of objective analysis. Doesn't mean we're perfect, and certainly no reason to be happy about our own situation. Any American who is not angry and embarrassed at the conditions of African-Americans in this country is just not paying attention.


Another great American holiday is upon us: the Final Four. In which the flower of our nation's youth, in the form of the best men's college basketball teams in the land, engage in fierce combat for hoops supremacy.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is easily one of the most entertaining sports events we have, far surpassing the overhyped Super Bowl for actual excitement. The one-and-done format with sixty-five teams leads to thrilling games, especially because on any given night some plucky underdogs can get it together to topple a heavily favored basketball power. Except, of course, when you have to play seven-on-five, because the referees are blantantly against you. Such an episode occured on Friday, when the valiant Wildcats of Villanova were completely robbed in their upset bid against haughty North Carolina, when the referee hallucinated a traveling violation against Allan Ray in the final seconds. The Tar Heels will go on to play Michigan State on Saturday.

The other game will feature Louisville against the University of Illinois. The latter is the state university of my adoptive home, so I should be rooting for them. But I won't. The reason why is a long-standing embarassment that the university refuses to abandon: the tradition of Chief Illiniwek dancing around at halftime.

As you might expect, there are those who take offense at some white college student in face paint and fake feathers pretending to be a Native American chieftain (who never really existed) in order to fire up the fans at a basketball game. There are others who smirk at this excess of political correctness, and will argue with a straight face that the Chief is actually honoring the strength and determination of the native tribes of Illinois.

Except, here's the funny thing. It's kind of hard to argue that the Chief's dance is in honor of Native Americans, if you look at the history of the thing. You see, the Chief's halftime show dates back to 1927, a time when the Civilization Act of 1819 was still law. You remember the Civilization Act, don't you? Among other things, it made it illegal for any actual Native Americans to perform their own tribal dances, since that amounted to a practice of their religion, which was banned. (Thanks to Philip Phillips for telling me about some of the history.) So, it's hard to construe the dancing white guy in face paint as anything other than an offensive caricature.

Everyone knows this; the faculty and the student goverment of the university have voted resoundingly to drop the Chief as their mascot. Not to mention Native American groups, of course. These bodies, unfortunately, are not the ones of primary importance to the university trustees; and the alumni (who donate money) love the Chief. And Native Americans don't have nearly the visibility or clout that other groups have; it's easy enough to imagine the uproar if various other racial stereotypes were used as sporting mascots.

Who knows, maybe the heightened publicity from the Final Four will finally force Illinois to do something about the Chief. That was Larry Summers' secret plan to get people talking about women in science, wasn't it?

Sunday, March 27, 2005
Sunday Felix Krull blogging

John Holbo shares a quote from Thomas Mann's Felix Krull, Confidence Man, about Felix's days as a pimp. My favorite part of the book was the account of Felix getting an impromptu lesson about cosmology.
. . . Meanwhile, Being celebrated its tumultuous festival in the measureless spaces that were its handiwork and in which it created distances congealed in icy emptiness. And he spoke of the gigantic setting of this festival, the universe, this mortal child of eternal Nothingness, filled with countless material bodies, meteors, moons, comets, nebulas, unnumbered millions of stars that swayed one another, were ordered by the effect of their gravitational fields into groups, clouds, galaxies, and super-systems of galaxies, each with enormous numbers of flaming suns, wheeling planets, masses of attenuated gas, and cold rubbish heaps of ice, stone, and cosmic dust . . .

While the Earth wheeled around its sun, so I was privileged to hear, that earth and its moon wheeled around each other, and at the same time our whole local star system moved, and at no mean pace, within the framework of a vaster but still very local star group. This gravitating system in turn wheeled with almost vulgar velocity within the Milky Way; the latter, moreover, our Milky Way, was traveling with unimaginable rapidity in respect to its far-away sisters, and they, the most distant existing complexes, were, in addition to all their other velocities, flying away from one another, at a rate that would make an exploding shell seem motionless --- flying away in all directions into Nothingness, thereby in their headlong career projecting into it space and time.

This interdependent whirling and circling, this convolution of gases into heavenly bodies, this burning, flaming, freezing, exploding, pulverizing, this plunging and speeding, bred out of Nothingness and awaking Nothingness --- which would perhaps have preferred to remain asleep and was waiting to fall asleep again --- all this was Being, known also as Nature, and everywhere in everything it was one.
Published in 1955, the year Mann died. He didn't know about dark matter and dark energy, but that's okay.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is one of my favorite images -- a composite view of the Crab Nebula, created by combining images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

The real nebula wouldn't look precisely like this, unless you have X-ray vision. (When I was growing up, pictures of the Crab Nebula looked like this. And we thought it was cool when they started to look like this. Kids today are so spoiled.) The blue part of the image comes from the X-rays observed by Chandra, while the red part is the optical light measured by HST; you can easily make out a disk, several light-years across, as well as a jet being emitted perpendicular to the disk. The energy driving the emission comes from a pulsar at the center of the disk. The pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star, the remnant of a supernova explosion observed here on Earth in 1054. Interestingly, the event was recorded by astronomers in China and also by Native Americans, but not by any European or Arab astronomers.

Don't miss the movies of ripples propagating through the jet and disk.

Friday, March 25, 2005
Humble Boy

On Sunday I gave the Literary Lecture for the performance of Charlotte Jones' play Humble Boy at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. The acting and presentation are great, it's well worth seeing if you're in the area. One of the many relatively small-scale companies that make Chicago such a fantastic theater town.

My job was to chat a little about the science background of the play. The protagonist, Felix, is a theoretical physicist at Cambridge, trying to use string theory to unify gravity and quantum mechanics. (The author was inspired by hearing an interview with Brian Greene.) Felix is presented as rumpled, stuttering, socially awkward, tending to appeal to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in difficult situations -- pretty much your typical physicist. I talked a little about the use of scientific concepts as fertile source material for metaphors; in this case, the irreconcilable differences between gravitation and quantum mechanics are presented as analogous to the irreconcilable differences between Felix's mother and father.
Felix: It's like my mother was the big force -- gently warping everything around her. And my father was the little force, fizzing away quietly on a microscopic level. But I can't bring them together. I mean, I know the geography of it. It was outside the exam halls of the school of B-biology, London University. My father had just finished his Finals and he walked out and my mother was just p-passing. She'd p-paused to light a cigarette. She was on her way to sign up to a modeling agency. He went up to her and asked her if she'd dropped from the sky. She never got to the agency.

Rosie: That doesn't sound so extreme.

Felix: But that's not the physics! The physics of what attracted them and what kept them together.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the two forces came together outside the biology building. When I gave my talk at the Santa Barbara conference, I noticed that this was a consistent theme: writers seem to enjoy hinting that physicists would have an easier time unifying the forces of nature if only they would get out and have more sex. From the audience, Steve Girvin chimed in with "Wouldn't hurt to try."

Thursday, March 24, 2005
Rule of law and the laws of nature

Look, I'm as big a fan of the rule of law as the next guy. So I sympathize when people get upset because the religious right wants to toss the law out the window when it appeals to them; for a not-notoriously-liberal example see Andrew Sullivan (via uggabugga).

But, let's be honest. Imagine that something I thought was terribly immoral was happening, in full accordance with the rule of law. Laws banning gay marriage, for example. Then I would work as hard as I could to get the laws changed. As Will Baude points out, that's basically what DeLay and his cronies are trying to do in the Terri Schiavo case; they're working fully within our constitutional machinery, trying to alter the laws to get the outcome they desire. (Of course, they're doing it for ghoulish political reasons, not moral ones. And they're not doing a very good job, passing legislation that is blatantly unconstitutional, ignoring separation of powers, and so forth. But because these are such shoddy and desperate measures, they will ultimately fail; that's the way the system works. Nobody is manning the ramparts and ruling by force.)

Put another way: let's imagine that an actually qualified doctor (and no, random Nobel Prize "nominations" don't count) invented a miracle cure that could truly restore Schiavo to her pre-heart-attack state, with full mental faculties. Then I would be all in favor of keeping her alive until the cure could be tried, no matter what Michael Schiavo wanted to do, or was allowed to do by the law. And toward that end, if I were a legislator, I'd be trying everything I could think up to keep her alive.

So the crux of the matter is really that there is no such miracle cure. Terri Schiavo, the person, is gone. Her cerebral cortex has been destroyed. There is no possible way for her to be restored. It's really an appreciation of this fact about how reality works, rather than an abstract respect for the rule of law, that separates the different sides of this issue. Those who think that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed, in accordance with her own wishes and those of her legal guardian, understand the blunt fact about her state, namely that she is for all important purposes dead. Those who think there is a moral imperative to keep the tube in are under the misimpression that there is still a functioning person there, and that letting her die would be murder.

Those people are wrong. Over at Shakespeare's Sister there is an interesting discussion of how secular and religious liberals can relate to each other. I think that to many of us secular types, we can easily get along with religious liberals on almost any issue; but there will always be an underlying difference, because (to us) they are getting wrong some basic features about how the universe works. Most religious liberals are not in favor of dramatic intervention in the Schiavo case, but it wouldn't be intellectually inconsistent for them to be -- perhaps God will somehow work a miraculous cure. An acceptance of the fact that the laws of nature really are laws, and that the universe isn't going to put them aside for occasional interventions in our personal interests, sometimes does affect how we live our everyday lives.

Update: For discussion of what it means to be lacking higher-brain functions, read Chris at Mixing Memory.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005
U.N. Refugee coordinator for President

The folks at Wonkette, finger on the pulse as usual, have noticed this important Business Week poll concerning the Presidential prospects of leading statespeople of a certain gender. You know, the gender that some people don't think have as much intrinsic aptitude at science (or blogging about politics, it would appear) as that other gender. Whatever, one day one of those folks is going to be President, and we should decide now who it's going to be.

Like Wonkette, this blog is impressed with Business Week's ability to think outside the box in including Ms. Jolie among the list of Presidential aspirants. Unlike Senators Clinton and Dole, she first made a name for herself on her own merits, rather than through a relationship with a powerful male figure. (Although her relationships have been rather public and somewhat, um, colorful.) And unlike Secretary Rice, her expertise is in helping refugees, not in starting preemptive wars. (Both have impressive fashion sensibilities, one must admit.) And unlike any of the other contenders, Ms. Jolie has won an Academy Award and multiple Golden Globes. Which is better than Ronald Reagan ever did.

More unsolicited campaign advice

Apostropher has a revealing quote from Representative Chris Shays (R-CT):

"My party is demonstrating that they are for states' rights unless they don't like what states are doing," said Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of five House Republicans who voted against the bill. "This couldn't be a more classic case of a state responsibility."

"This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy," Mr. Shays said. "There are going to be repercussions from this vote. There are a number of people who feel that the government is getting involved in their personal lives in a way that scares them."

Meanwhile, Sisyphus Shrugged documents the strange alliance between conservative Republicans and the ACLU, brought together by the overreaching provisions of the Patriot Act:
It was a Washington rarity to see the American Civil Liberties Union line up with conservative lions like David Keefe of the American Conservative Union and former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. But they were among those at a Washington press conference held to assail such Patriot Act provisions as those allowing law enforcement agents to look at library users' records or to conduct unannounced "sneak-and-peek'' searches on homes or private offices.

"It is not, and never should be necessary, to surrender our rights under the Bill of Rights to fight the war on terrorism,'' said Barr, who as a House member voted for the Patriot Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and provoked only one dissenting Senate vote.
I think the Democratic campaign philosophy in the next few elections should be obvious: smaller government. A government that is more responsible, less intrusive, more humble. Under the Bush administration, the national debt has escalated alarmingly; we have become aggressively unilateralist abroad, alienating people worldwide; protections of the privacy and human rights of citizens have been steadily eroded; and the federal executive and legislative branches have been increasingly willing to trample on prerogatives of the states and the judiciary. It's time to put some grownups in power who know how to balance a budget and will keep their noses out of people's personal lives.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005
Doing away with dark energy?

The universe is accelerating, and we don't know why. The most straightforward explanations involve dark energy -- some source of energy that is spread smoothly throughout space, and whose density constant (or nearly so) as the universe expands. But there are problems with the dark energy idea, especially in its magnitude; a back-of-the-envelope calculation says that the amount of energy in the vacuum should be larger than what we observe by a factor of about 10120. Inexcusable, even by cosmology standards.

So we might try to be even more dramatic -- maybe Einstein was wrong, and we have to modify general relativity on cosmological scales. But of course we should keep in mind the possibility of less dramatic resolutions; maybe an explanation for the acceleration of the universe can be found in the context of conventional physics, without invoking dark energy at all. That's the hope expressed in a recent paper by Kolb, Matarrese, Notari, and Riotto (KMNR).

The paper has already garnered some attention -- here's the press release, and a note at Peter's blog. And it's reached the media, albeit with some skeptical notes: here's an article that quotes Michael Turner, and here's one that quotes me. (Poor Rocky hasn't even convinced his Chicago colleagues!)

Why the skepticism? My original notion was not to comment in any detail until I actually understood the paper better. But then I remembered -- this is a blog. Withholding comment until I understood what was going on would be unbloggy of me.

So, even though I certainly haven't gone through their equations, the basic idea seems to be clear. We often talk about the fact that our universe is very smooth (homogeneous and isotropic) on large scales, but of course it isn't perfectly smooth. There are slight differences in the density of matter from place to place, even when we average over huge distances. It is convenient to think of the actual deviation of the density from its background value as arising from a sum of many contributions, each taking the form of a sine wave with some specific wavelength and amplitude; we can then describe the effects of each of these modes independently. These perturbations are thought to originate in the early universe, and are responsible for the existence of galaxies and clusters today.

The KMNR idea is simply this: there is some fluctuation mode with a wavelength that is much larger than the radius of our currently observable universe, that also has a large amplitude. The effect of this mode is to alter the relationship between our conventional cosmological parameters, such as the mass density and the expansion rate. In particular, it is possible to find realizations (so the claim goes) in which we would observe our local patch of universe to be accelerating, even if there weren't any dark energy.

The derivation of this result involves a lot of math. But it should be possible to understand the reason why people are skeptical. In general relativity, no influence can travel faster than the speed of light. Since there is only a finite time since the Big Bang (14 billion years), there is only a finite piece of universe that possibly could affect what we see today. (The observable universe actually has a radius of about 46 billion light years, not 14 billion light years, because of sneaky expansion effects.)

Now, it's certainly possible for some perturbation with a wavelength much larger than our observable universe to have an effect on us, but the effect only comes from the piece of that perturbation that is inside our patch. KMNR claim that the effect is to change the relationship between the observable cosmological parameters (such as the density, spatial curvature, expansion rate, etc.). I find it hard to believe. My hunch is that such a perturbation should change the values of the parameters, but they should keep the same relationships that they had before. For example, if we measure the density and the curvature of space, conventional cosmology tells us that we can figure out the expansion rate using the Friedmann equation. I think that an ultra-long-wavelength perturbation will shift the values of the density/curvature/expansion from their values in the unperturbed background, but will do so in a way to preserve the Friedmann equation. KMNR claim otherwise.

Even though I haven't gone through their math, I do have some evidence on my side. A long time ago cosmologists developed the "vacuole" models as ways to understand cosmological perturbations. (See e.g. this paper paper by Hammer.) To make a vacuole, start with a spherical region of a perfectly uniform universe. Now take the matter inside your spherical region and squeeze it a little, rearranging it into a smaller uniform spherical distribution with a higher density. There will be a region in between your overdense sphere and the external universe that is completely empty. It turns out that you can solve Einstein's equation exactly for this situation. The outside universe acts completely conventionally with whatever cosmological parameters it had to start, unaffected by your rearrangement. The empty thick shell you have created will be the Schwarzschild solution, since Birkhoff's theorem says that any spherically symmetric vacuum solution to Einstein's equation is Schwarzschild. And the interior region will behave exactly like a homogeneous and isotropic universe in its own right, except with different values of the cosmological parameters. These parameters will exactly obey the conventional Friedmann equation, and someone who lived inside there would have no way of telling that those parameters didn't describe the entire universe.

This is by no means a proof that KMNR are wrong; the vacuole model describes one very specific type of perturbation, and it may be that only other kinds of perturbation give their effect. But before I buy into it, I would need to understand better how local physics inside my observable patch can violate the conventional Friedmann equation. The good thing about science is that there is a right answer; in the case of the accelerating universe, it's well worth exploring all possible avenues to getting it.

So you want to be an astrophysicist?

Yet more science blogging. All the cool kids are doing it.

Steinn Sigurðsson is an astrophysicst at Penn State, with a new blog called Dynamics of Cats. He already has some good posts up on the crucial question of how to become an astrophysicist: Part 0, Part 1.5. Okay, so he's an astrophysicist, not a mathematician.

I should also point you to Electron Blue, where Pyracantha explains how your world-view changes when you begin to think in terms of vectors. I would describe it as a shift from Aristotelian to Galilean intuition -- the world is a different place once you've internalized the conservation of momentum. Quantum mechanics is another shift entirely.

And another thing: as mentioned in the comments to the previous post, Kriston at Grammar.police found some great negatively-curved spaces, made of yarn. (For mathematical details see section 3.9 of Spacetime and Geometry.)

Monday, March 21, 2005

You can't spend all your time reading about torture and the rule of law and creeping superstition. Take a break and read a little about astronomy, why don't you? And pause to admire this perfectly useless, somewhat grainy, but undeniably beautiful picture.

Contrary intuitions

The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the places you hope to be able to go for intelligent conservative commentary in the blogosphere, is on a roll. And not a good one.

First, Eugene Volokh comes out in favor of torturing especially heinous criminals before they are executed, like they do in Iran. As a law professor, he understands that this would run counter to the prohibition we have against cruel and unusual punishment, so he suggests amending the Constitution.
I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.
Many responses back and forth. Eventually, after considering arguments made by Mark Kleiman, Volokh slightly retreats, but only because he doesn't think his proposal would be workable; not because he thinks it's horrifying.

As Volokh himself says, this actually isn't an issue that is likely to be resolved by rational argumentation; it's a matter of "moral intuitions and visceral reactions." He's right. My own moral intuition wishes that people in general, and law professors in particular, understood retributory bloodlust as a natural human reaction, but one that we should learn to suppress, not to indulge in. That's supposed to be one of the features that makes this a better country to live in than most.

Yesterday, David Bernstein expressed outrage that the public schools are wasting money on actually paying salaries to teachers -- as much as $45,000 per year for starting teachers. Kleiman again took him to task. (This could become a full-time job.) Not as morally repugnant as Volokh's intuitions, but another remarkably depressing position.

It's the usual set of arguments: teachers get summers off, work short hours, get raises that are not based on merit, generally aren't as smart and talented as, say, lawyers. I think there's a case to be made that a combination of the teachers unions and the bureaucratic tendencies of local governments introduce a degree of sclerosis into the system. But really, do the people who make these arguments sit down and think about the directions in which the causal arrows are pointing? Yes, teachers can get summers off. Are they supposed to pick up a part-time lawyering job over the summer to supplement their income? The fact is, there's very little reason under the present system for a talented and ambitious college student to aim at a career as a public school teacher. Isn't it an important job, for which we should try to attract the brightest practitioners possible?

Elementary and secondary school teaching is one of the worst-paying jobs that a college student can shoot for. Are we surprised that such a system produces some teachers who are under-qualified or under-motivated? And do we really think that cutting their salaries is the way to make it better?

Sunday, March 20, 2005
Outrage calibration

Sometimes my expectations need to be re-adjusted, and other times they're right on.

Even in the face of all the assaults against teaching evolution in this country, this story mentioned at Pharyngula took me by surprise: science museums that won't show IMAX films that mention evolution, the Big Bang, or geology.
The fight over evolution has reached the big, big screen.

Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject - or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth - fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.

The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say - perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film's bottom line - or a producer's decision to make a documentary in the first place.

Okay, science museums. That are afraid to talk about evolution, the Big Bang, and geology. Institutions whose nominal purpose is to educate people about science. I just can't quite wrap my head around this idea. And somehow I don't think that squeals of outrage from elite Northern liberal bloggers are going to make them change their minds. I'm going to redouble my efforts to help promote the Project Exploration science center that we're planning here in Chicago, and suggest a greater emphasis on traveling exhibitions of some sort or another.

On the other side of the ledger, we have the Terri Schiavo melodrama. (Good articles at Majikthise and Alas, a Blog.) The last thing the blogosphere needs is more comment about the case. But I was struck by the mention by Ezra Klein (that he got from No More Mister Nice Blog) of a set of talking points being passed around by Republicans.
ABC News has obtained talking points circulated among Republican senators explaining why they should vote to intervene in the Schiavo case. Among them: "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited..." and "This is a great political issue... this is a tough issue for Democrats."
In all honesty, my reaction upon reading that was, "That seems like a pretty straightforward memo; I'm not sure what is so notable about it."

Finally I realized: the thing that was supposed to be shocking is that the GOP is consciously using the case to score political points. The thought that they weren't -- that Frist and DeLay were actually motivated by concern for the woman -- had simply never occurred to me.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Sidney Coleman is one of my heroes, too. So you should go read Jacques Distler's liveblogging of the mini-conference being held in Sidney's honor.

Sidney was not my thesis advisor (that was George Field, another hero), but he was on my dissertation committee. I had arguably the briefest defense in the history of Harvard's astronomy department. Bill Press asked all of the questions, and Sidney answered all of them, while I stood there politely. Eventually Bill gave up and they awarded me my degree.

I spent a lot of time in Sidney's office, and he was always ready to answer questions. This little recognition is long overdue.

Update: Luboš also has a report, with pictures. Also Peter Woit, Serkan Cabi, and David Guarrera.

Deepen the Mystery

Blogging is breaking out all over! Lauren Gunderson, a playwright and actor from Atlanta, has started a blog called Deepen the Mystery. (Aside: why is someone who "writes" "plays" called a "playwright"? I mention this only as an excuse for consistently misspelling this elementary word.)

I met Lauren at the Santa Barbara conference; her special expertise is writing plays with scientific themes. One of them, Background, tells the story of Ralph Alpher, who, along with Robert Herman and George Gamow, pioneered the Big Bang model. They more or less figured out the whole story, including predictions for primordial nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background. Absolutely ground-breaking work, well above the conventional standard for winning the Nobel Prize and much more -- but when the CMB was actually discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1965, there was practically no recognition of their work. To this day, although the names of Alpher, Gamow, and Herman are certainly mentioned, they aren't emphasized as much as they should be. (Alpher and Herman have written a slightly bitter book about the whole thing.) The play tells Alpher's story backward in time -- just as we reconstruct our understanding of the Big Bang.

Lauren's new blog features a picture of the author jumping with enthusiasm for the new medium. Mark Trodden's does not. Does this reflect a difference between women and men, or between humanists and scientists? Whatever the explanation, we should be grateful.

Thursday, March 17, 2005
Ten-dimensional black holes created?

Black holes? On Long Island? The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory smashes together heavy ions (no surprise there) in an attempt to re-create the quark/gluon plasma state of the early universe. Horatiu Nastase, a bold theorist, has suggested that certain features of the resulting fireball can be understood in a "dual" description, in which the fireball becomes a ten-dimensional black hole! Duality in this sense means that there is a one-to-one map between the dynamics of the real-world fireball and the completely-imaginary black hole. This seems to be a long-shot suggestion, at best; but certainly an intriguing idea, and worth pursuing. But not in any sense an honest black hole here on Earth. (Not that we should be worried, as the little guys would presumably just evaporate away in a jiffy.)

Peter Steinberg at Quantum Diaries has a fuller explanation.

Update: in the comments, cvj (the nom de internet of Clifford Johnson) mentions that he and his collaborators have been pushing similar ideas for quite some time now. Clifford has set up a web page that talks about the phase diagrams of charged black holes in anti-de Sitter space, which could be dual to hot nuclear matter.

Words are accessible to all

Patricia Barber is of course one of my favorite jazz musicians. She was recently asked by Poetry magazine to write, as an outsider, about poetry. Her comments are reprinted at the Chicago Public Radio website.
I am a songwriter, which is not the same thing as a poet. Poetry is a passion, my ever present guide and inspiration, though I indulge in very little of the lingua franca of the art. The truth is that I guard a deep well of ignorance; I deliberately protect an anti-position.

Music is a demanding but mysterious discipline whose clubhouse is exclusive. Membership is inherited more than earned. It is a gift endowed by blood, then perfected by tremendous desire and perseverance. The best a music teacher can do is lead by example or perhaps draw the student's ear toward general musical patterns. The task of finding a musical path is left to the student. All musicians understand that even after years of musical scholarship, in the end, composing successfully is a lot like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Unlike the musical language, words are accessible to all. Accessible to too many. There is a myriad of poetry teachers and books on books. Better to stick my fingers in my ears when encountering cocktail chatter about iambic pentameter. "Wonder" has great power, like jet propulsion, like pleasure, and self-discovery is a path to wonder as well as a profound path to knowledge.
"Accessible to too many"? Discuss.

Two small pieces of truth

Truth! In the U.S. Senate, no less! Don't get too used to it, would be my advice.

First, a sense-of-the-Senate resolution, the Nelson amendment, which read:
It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should reject any Social Security plan that requires deep benefit cuts or a massive increase in debt.
The vote split exactly fifty-fifty, with every Democrat voting in favor. In other words, fifty of fifty-five Republican senators are on the record as favoring either deep benefit cuts or a massive increase in debt. Probably both!

Meanwhile, in committee, Alan Greenspan tries to slip one by:
Alan Greenspan and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton clashed briefly Tuesday over rosy surplus forecasts the Federal Reserve Chairman relied on to support President Bush's 2001 tax cuts, estimates that turned out to be considerably off the mark.

"It turns out that we were all wrong," Greenspan conceded at a Senate hearing.

"Just for the record, we were not all wrong, but many people were wrong," Clinton, D-N.Y., quickly shot back.
I love this tactic (also popular in discussions of Iraq's WMD) -- make some bombastic claim, ignore the opposition, and when you are proven wrong, claim that everyone agreed with you in the first place. Genius.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Mark Trodden

My friend and frequent collaborator Mark Trodden has buckled under the pressure and finally started a blog of his own, Orange Quark. "Orange" because he is in the Physics department at Syracuse, a Big East power and longtime rival of my alma mater, Villanova. Both schools somehow made it into Slate's list of NCAA basketball teams we hate, which makes little sense to me.

Mark's humor and intelligence will be very welcome in the blogosphere. His first post introduces himself, but I should also say that the graduate students at the Cosmo-02 conference voted him "Best-Dressed Cosmologist" in a contest that wasn't really very close. Okay, so the competition wasn't all that fierce. There was also a vote for worst-dressed, which had a rather more crowded field. And I'm going to keep the winner of that one secret.

Rumors persist that Lisa Randall will also start blogging soon. I think it would help with her book sales.

It's hard, hard work

Tom Toles.

Exam week

From Zev at 3w:
How Many U of C Students does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. Shhh! We're trying to study!

Last night at 10:36 the lights in the Reg went off for a good ten minutes and no one budged. Everyone insisted on working by the light of their laptops and that was that. A true UofC moment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
The Divine Right of Nino

Via Brad DeLong, Don Herzog at Left2Right is taken aback by a remark of Justice Scalia's during oral argument in Van Orden v. Perry (one of the Ten Commandments cases, from Texas).
JUSTICE SCALIA: And when somebody goes by that monument, I don't think they're studying each one of the commandments. It's a symbol of the fact that government comes -- derives its authority from God. And that is, it seems to me, an appropriate symbol to be on State grounds.
Did you all know the "fact" that our government derives its authority from God? I remember being taught in school something about that authority being derived from the consent of the governed, but those were more permissive times.

Read what Herzog and DeLong have to say, there's very little to add. If you are wondering whether Scalia's ravings stem from some internally consistent theory, Ed Brayton will set you straight. And a great series of posts at Blondesense demolishes the notion that the Ten Commandments are somehow the basis for our laws: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.

Hard numbers

George Musser is an occasional Preposterous commenter, and in his spare time is also an editor at Scientific American. Lacking a blog of his own, he recently contributed to SciAm Perspectives, a blog by Scientific American editors. (Bet you didn't even know they had a blog, did you?)

George writes about his efforts to follow up on a provocative number he found in the January 8th Economist: "The United States Geological Survey reckons that the economic losses from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion by investing just one-seventh of that sum in such measures [as planting trees, building dikes, and strengthening houses]." That's a lot of money we could save! But what happens when you try to chase down the source of the claim?
With the written trail having grown cold, I turned to several experts on disaster preparedness, at USGS and elsewhere, and started going down a chain of contacts. It took nearly a month to reach the conclusion that no such report exists, at least not in the collection of any of the researchers who would have been involved in preparing it. The numbers, instead, appear to have come from a Munich Reinsurance report and it is not at all clear that they prove what they were later claimed to prove.
The sad but unsurprising lesson being that you can't believe everything you read. This is the unfortunate side of the speed with which "memes" can spread in our hyperconnected world -- it's much easier to make an exaggerated claim and get it out there into the meme pool than it is to stamp it out once it's public. And obviously, this is far from the most pernicious example.

Monday, March 14, 2005

So it turns out that I'm quite wealthy. Not because of any recent windfall, just because I'm a middle-class citizen of a country that is really rich, compared to other countries. Think of it this way: if your annual income is $1,000, you're solidly in the top 50% of people in the world. Personally, I'm in the top 1% of wealth, with only about 40 million people richer than me worldwide (compared to about six billion who are poorer).

Go check your own position at the Global Rich List (via 3 quarks daily). The idea, of course, is to guilt you into giving more money to charity. I'm a strong believer in donating to charity, but am remarkably guilt-free about being well-off myself. (We won't get into other things I feel guilty about, like the final exam I gave to my GR class.)

Of course, maybe we could actually do something about it. Jeffrey Sachs thinks we could end extreme poverty worldwide for a mere $150 billion per year. As Daniel Drezner says, this is something we should be talking about more. (He also says that academics can be bloggers, which is good to hear. There does, however, seem to be some risk of alienating your senior colleagues.)

Sunday, March 13, 2005
Name the universe

In the most recent issue of symmetry magazine, Joe Lykken talks about how physicists give names to the things they invent and discover, and he calls out cosmologists for their most embarrassing failure.
The cosmologists have the worst of both worlds. They are plagued by non-serious cutesy names, from the Big Bang all the way to Wimpzillas and the Cardassian Expansion. At the same time, they have decided to adopt the name Standard Model to refer to the currently favored cosmological scheme, apparently because their previous name, the "LambdaCDM Concordance Model" was even worse. Should we charge them a licensing fee?
He's right, of course. We have this amazing model of the universe, with ordinary matter sprinkled lightly amidst the dark matter and dark energy, expanding in accordance with Einstein's equation from an initially hot, dense state. Using only physics we know, we can extrapolate back fourteen billion years to what the universe was doing when it was just a few seconds old, and make predictions that fit perfectly with observations. And yet we can't come up with a good name for the mode. ("The Preposterous Universe" is fun, but too cutesy. Likewise "the cosmic martini," in which ordinary matter is an olive, dark energy is the gin, and dark matter the vermouth. Too goofy, sorry.) The idea is to be both inspiring and descriptive without being silly. Any suggestions?

Saturday, March 12, 2005
The road to democracy

Here I thought that you knew you had a functioning democracy when the ruling political party voluntarily steps down after losing an election. Ben Sargent is much more sophisticated.

Friday, March 11, 2005
Planning ahead

Damn Michael Bérubé. This talk-show idea is too much fun. I spent the drive to campus thinking about who to invite on the show. Here are my choices for the first couple of weeks: I could go on forever. Didn't even get a chance to invite Amartya Sen, Umberto Eco, or Nigella Lawson. Admit it, this show would rock. We would be crushing Jay Leno like a little bug. Mike Ovitz, call me!

Update: Now with links. Because you're too lazy to google for yourself, you know you are.

Programming notice

Awesome. Michael Bérubé rewrites the evening TV programming schedule in our new, ideologically-balanced world. I get the coveted 11:00 p.m. slot, which means that I don't score the prime-time audience, but I have more freedom to explore edgy avant-garde humor. And Dennis Miller is welcome to my office at the Enrico Fermi Institute, I'm cool with that. I have a pile of final exams for him to grade, too.

Like Michael, I'll be taking suggestions for guests on the show. Probably for the first episode, I'll invite Steven Weinberg, Jeanette Winterson, and Angelina Jolie. Musical guests will be Medeski, Martin and Wood. Anyone want to audition for the role of fawning sidekick?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A post you shouldn't miss (and likely have already seen) from Kevin Drum. This is a map of links between political blogs, taken from this study. Blue for liberals, red for conservatives.

There's been a lot of discussion about the fact that conservatives tend to link to each other more than liberals do; I have no idea why. But the obvious disconnect between the hemispheres is more obvious as well as more interesting: liberal blogs tend to link to each other, as do conservative blogs, and not so much across the divide. (The bloggy version of a phenomenon that has already been noticed in book-buying habits.) And it's a shame, much as I am guilty of it as anyone else.

Not that it's an original thought, but I believe this fragmentation is going to have a larger and larger effect on how people view the world. Instead of being forced to get our news through bland, centralized media, Americans are going to be increasingly dependent on sources that are strongly filtered through some ideological lens or another. It will become increasingly impossible for people with different politics to even have sensible conversations, as their impression of the facts will be as different as their impression of what the important issues are. I had a brief glimpse of this when I mentioned to someone of a different political persuasion (you know, the persuasion that considers Fox News to be a reliable source) that I was traveling to Colorado. The immediate response was, "you're not meeting with that lunatic Ward Churchill, are you?" I worry that moments like this will only grow more common.

Of course, there's also this:
The study also found (unsurprisingly) that blogs are primarily a medium based on criticism, not support [...] Donald Rumsfeld, for example, is cited almost exclusively by liberal bloggers, while Michael Moore is ignored by the left but widely cited by the right.
Right. Keeping in mind, of course, that Michael Moore is a guy who makes movies, while Donald Rumsfeld is the Secretary of Defense. (At which point I realize that this post embodies everything it decries.)

Discover the Nutwork!

Via Bitch, Ph.D. (although I would have found it at Crooked Timber, honest): Discover the Nutwork, John Holbo's brilliant counterpoint to the helpful guide to leftism compiled by everyone's favorite disillusioned leftist, David Horowitz. It's an important contribution, since we all need to keep track of the secret connections tying together the conspiracy of patriots on the Right.

The Glove! I had almost forgotten about him. Thank goodness for the internet.

I bet this was the most fun anyone ever had making a web page, ever.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Black hole/deity factory on track

The good news is: the first superconducting magnet has been lowered into the tunnel for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It was a big one, coming in at 15 meters long and 35 metric tons. Now there are only 1,231 identical magnets left to install. The magnets will be used to accelerate beams of protons zipping in opposite directions around a 27-kilometer tunnel, before they collide with an energy of about 14 trillion electron volts. (For comparison purposes, using E=mc2, the energy of a proton at rest is about one billion electron volts.)

The project is a few months behind schedule, which can cause problems for an undertaking of this magnitude:
Rossi said he was delighted to be able to proceed with the installation. The delay has left CERN with a massive backlog of equipment -- 800 huge magnets that had to be stored outside because there were no buildings large enough to warehouse them.
But the hope is to get back on track and start colliding particles on schedule in 2007.

The bad news comes in the form of the cringe-worthy sound bites that accompany the articles. One tech-blog posting is entitled CERN's Black Hole Maker LHC on Track, which is a tad misleading. There is a chance, if various optimistic speculations all come out just right, that we might be able to make black holes at the LHC; but it's an awfully small chance, and you don't want that to be your standard of success. The BBC refers to the Higgs boson as the God particle, a horrible quip for which we can all blame Leon Lederman. Unlikely as black holes may be, I'm quite certain we won't be making God at the LHC. Yet another article is entitled New physics tool 27 kilometres long, accompanied by an unmistakably phallic picture. Those crazy Canadians.

the lesson of the moth

This is by John McKay's namesake archy, as typed to Don Marquis.
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Hans Bethe

As you already know if you read any other physics blogs, Hans Bethe passed away Sunday at the age of 98. His remarkable career included work on the Manhattan project as well as providing the crucial insights into how stars are powered by nuclear fusion. He was a constant source of inspiration within the community for how he remained active at the cutting edge of research through such a long career.

Bethe was one of the many physicists of Jewish heritage who fled Germany in the 1930's, and his moral and political convictions remained a primary motivating factor in his life. As mentioned in the New York Times obituary, Bethe was "the liberal counterpoint (and proud of it) to Edward Teller, the physicist and conservative who played a dominant role in developing the hydrogen bomb." David Appell has a representative quote: "Whether or not their governments respond to their advice, scientists have an obligation to speak out publicly when they feel there are dangers ahead." Although he fought against development of the hydrogen bomb, he was an advocate of the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

See other posts by Matthew Nobes, Jacques Distler, Peter Woit, and Mok.

Monday, March 07, 2005
Six scientists in search of an author

Here's a simple way that academia could be greatly improved: humanities professors should stop reading their papers out loud, and start talking from notes like normal people. I will never understand why they do this in the first place. There is no reason why humanists, trained in the arts of rhetoric and communication, should be even worse at giving talks than scientists are. It's certainly not because it's easier to read a pre-written paper word for word; I tried it at an humanities conference once and found it to be utterly awkward and unnatural. I thought the Western tradition was supposed to valorize speech over writing. Does this go back to Plato's battle vs. the Sophists or something?

So it was great fun talking to the humanists during coffee breaks at the STAR conference (consistent with conferences generally), but the highlights of the formal program came largely from the physicists and the theatre folks. There was only one talk about physics itself, a brief tutorial on quantum electrodynamics by Joe Polchinski. Joe got into the narratological spirit of things, presenting Feynman diagrams as little "stories" about the interactions of electrons and photons. Of course these stories have special properties -- for one thing, every allowed version of the story actually happens, and reality arises as a sum of all of them. For another, the same story can be told in different ways, including different orderings of events in time. I'm not sure if anyone has tried to write a play whose dramatic structure was inspired by these features of quantum field theory, but there's room for something interesting.

We also had several readings from works of fiction, including Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, and Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams. But the most memorable performance was turned in by none other than David Gross, playing the role of Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell's play QED. It's difficult, in dramatic depictions of scientists, to get the science itself right, but even harder to get the voice right, the unmistakable dialect in which scientists talk about their work. But David's Feynman was spot on (although he didn't attempt the Far Rockaway accent). As Janna Levin said, it was the best dramatic performance of the conference.

David also made an interesting point during the discussion, when he claimed that both science and theatre have retreated from their ambitions over the last few centuries. Theatre, of course, had a somewhat loftier status during the Elizabethan period than it enjoys today. Science, we might think, has only been growing in importance over the years, but one could argue that it has backed off from its Enlightenment aspirations to remake the way we live. David pointed out that basic research in fundamental physics shares with art a certain purity in its search for underlying truth (accompanied by some snarky comments about the earthier pursuits of business and politics). He's a big fan of E.O. Wilson's Consilience, which argues for a reconciliation of the sciences, arts, and humanities. I think Wilson goes too far in leveling the very real differences between science and the other fields, but since I'm operating under the disadvantage of not actually having read the book, I should keep quiet.

Excerpts from Janna's own book were read by Kate McConnell. How the Universe Got Its Spots is a unique work, combining an accessible introduction to certain ideas in modern cosmology with an honest portrayal of the real life of an actual scientist. Everyone should read it. Most science books don't talk so much about the scientist's personal life, but at least this one has a happy ending -- Janna and Warren are now married and living in Manhattan with their little boy, and she is thinking of a good title for her next book.

I was the moderator for a panel on "Intertextual Einstein," and one of the panelists was Dennis Overbye. Besides his regular gig as a science reporter for the New York Times, Dennis is the author of Einstein in Love, and he talked about how our image of Einstein as a cuddly genius is dramatically at odds with reality, especially in his relations with women. (There is a letter from Einstein to his first wife Mileva that must be seen to be believed -- an itemized list of the conditions under which he would continue to live with her, including that she never bother him in his office or say anything bad about him to other people.) Dennis also wrote Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, one of my all-time favorite cosmology books. He confirmed the rumor I had heard long ago, that negotiations were underway to turn the book into a movie, with Tom Hanks starring as Alan Sandage. (As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.) Sadly, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. But show business is unpredictable, so who knows?

At the end of the conference I suggested to David that, now that he had the Nobel Prize, perhaps it was time to conquer new worlds by moving to Hollywood and taking up acting. He admitted that he had dabbled in theatre in high school. He also noted that Feynman himself was constantly performing, and contributed quite consciously to his myth-construction. And then he pointed out that he himself was performing all the time, and he couldn't help noticing that I did as well. (Moi?) Indeed, isn't everybody? We are all postmodernists now.

Friday, March 04, 2005
Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader

Checking in from the auditorium of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics here in Santa Barbara (not to be confused with the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at Chicago, or the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford -- Fred Kavli gets around). The KITP, where I did my second postdoc, is a utopian space overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where theoretical physicists from around the world come together to drink coffee and discuss the universe under the steely but benevolent gaze of director David Gross.

For these few days, however, the KITP has been taken over by humanists, for the conference on Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader: Theoretical Physics in Drama and Narrative. Many of the participants are humanities professors of some form or another, but there are a number of hybrid types who are either physicists who write actual fiction, or writers who specialize in scientific themes, including Alan Lightman, Penny Penniston, Sidney Perkowitz, Janna Levin, Lauren Gunderson, and Jeremy Lawrence. And a few of us science types who have so far stuck to non-fiction.

One of the nice things about the conference is that there is little feeling of turning-the-crank, trudging through the rituals of a typical professional meeting. Bringing together writers and scientists and English professors in this kind of setting is pretty much new to everyone, and we're all seeing how it goes. Despite the unavoidable presence of some less-than-gripping talks, I find the overall atmosphere quite exhilarating, since there is a tangible feeling of common intellectual pursuit. Although theoretical physics is a wildly impractical endeavor, compelling largely for the pure thrill of discovering how the universe works (at least on the fundamental-physics side of things), physicists don't typically think of themselves as intellectuals in a broader sense. (Over-generalizing here, but okay.) It is much more common for them to be fairly focused on the technical aspects of their particular field of expertise, than to have wide-ranging interests in all sorts of scholarly activities.

This is despite the fact that there are certainly strong role models for theoretical physicists with broader academic interests, from Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg on down. The much more compelling counter-role-model is Richard Feynman, who was a brilliant physicist and charismatic figure, but resolutely non-intellectual. By which I mean not that he was obscurantist or non-rational (which would be crazy), but that he didn't have wide-ranging intellectual interests outside of science, and indeed would cheerfully denigrate other fields without making any real effort to appreciate them. His acolytes will undoubtedly squawk with indignation, but it's just what Feynman himself always said -- he was a pretty narrow guy. And he's the one who young physicists tend to hero-worship.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't think there's any real sense in which having broad interests would make someone a better physicist. Some of the best physicists out there are extremely narrow technicians. But it might make them better human beings, and there's something to be said for that.

Thursday, March 03, 2005
Bubble chamber art

Via MetaFilter, via Syaffolee, something that is pretty cool, but also annoying, because it could have been so much cooler: bubble chamber art. Beautiful images generated to resemble pictures taken from bubble chambers, the devices that physicists used to use to observe elementary particle interactions before we switched to fancy electronics.

Here's the problem: the particle identities don't make any sense. "Axions exist in a slightly higher dimension and as such are drawn with elevated embossed shadows. Axions are quick to stabilize and fall into single pixel orbits axions automatically re collide themselves after stabilizing." Nonsense both grammatically, and as physics. (Axions, if they exist at all, do so in our ordinary dimensions, but they are stable neutral particles, and as such they wouldn't make any tracks in a bubble chamber at all.) I don't mind if people take license with scientific truths in order to make interesting art, but here it just seems so gratuitous -- the pictures would look just as beautiful if the interactions had made sense, and the descriptions would have sounded even more intriguing. Another lost opportunity for bringing the two cultures together.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005
The formula for all the future

For the last two months I've been pretty good at staying in Chicago, with only the one jaunt to Aspen and DC. Now it gets hectic again, with multiple trips per month for the foreseeable future. But it's going to be quite the world tour this year: France, India, Turkey, Canada, Korea, and China, not to mention various exotic domestic locales.

The fun begins today, when I fly to Santa Barbara for the previously-mentioned conference on Theoretical Physics in Drama and Narrative, where I get to pretend to be a literary critic. To set the mood, here's a short excerpt from one of the central texts of the conference, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. (Thomasina is a precocious thirteen-year-old, and Septimus is her tutor; the year is 1809.)
Thomasina When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?

Septimus No.

Thomasina Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it for ever. This is known as free will or self-determination.
He picks up the tortoise and moves it a few inches as though it had strayed, on top of some loose papers, and admonishes it.

Thomasina Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?

Septimus An Etonian? Almost certainly, I'm afraid. We must ask your brother to make it his first enquiry.

Thomasina No Septimus, a Newtonian, Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?

Septimus No.

Thomasina I have not said yet.

Septimus `If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton's law of motion, what becomes of free will?'

Thomasina No.

Septimus God's will.

Thomasina No.

Septimus Sin.

Thomasina (derisively) No!

Septimus Very well.

Thomasina If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Septimus (pause) Yes. (Pause.) Yes, as far as I know, you are the first person to have thought of this. (Pause. With an effort.) In the margin of his copy of Arithmetica, Fermat wrote that he had discovered a wonderful proof of his theorem but, the margin being too narrow for his purpose, did not have room to write it down. The note was found after his death, and from that day to this--

Thomasina Oh! I see now! The answer is perfectly obvious!

Septimus This time you may have overreached yourself.
They hadn't, of course, read my ideas about the arrow of time. What I'm not quite sure of is, should they have been talking about "atoms" in 1809? (And I still don't understand what's up with the tortoise.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005
A bold move

Never let it be said that I don't listen to the voice of the people.

I'm sure you've all heard the big news: my beloved Philadelphia 76ers, stuck playing .500 basketball and nipping at the edges of making the playoffs, made a bold move at the trade deadline when they dealt for Chris Webber. Philadelphia fans, hardened by generations of disappointment, will nevertheless consistently allow their hopes to be lifted by a big transaction, and this definitely qualifies.

As realistic as I might want to be, this was just about a perfect move for the Sixers. They gave up three solid players who just weren't that important to the team (Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson, and Brian Skinner). In return, they get a five-time all-star who essentially addresses all of their major needs at once: height, passing, rebounding, and a second scorer to complement Allen Iverson. There is some risk, of course -- both Webber and Iverson are aging, have huge contracts, and Webber in particular has knee problems that keep him from playing at 100% effectiveness. But if you can average 21 points, 9 boards, and 5 assists while playing on a bum knee, I'll take it.

For the first time in a long while, the Sixers have a starting lineup that actually makes sense, with nobody playing out of position. Their two veteran stars are joined by three extremely talented youngsters -- athletic prodigy Samuel Dalembert at center, sharpshooter Kyle Korver at small forward, and promising rookie Andre Igoudala at shooting guard. Sure, I'd like to see Dalembert play smarter, Korver be a little more versatile, and Igoudala be a little more aggressive on offense, but it's great to know that we won't be automatically outclassed at some position coming into most games. With veteran savvy coming off the bench (Aaron McKie, Marc Jackson, and Rodney Rogers), there's absolutely no reason why this team can't make serious noise in the playoffs. Suddenly, instead of wondering if we will make the postseason at all, we're a contender to march through a weak Eastern Conference all the way to the NBA Finals. Where, as you know, anything can happen in a seven-game series. (Trying to fit in all the cliches I can here.) Kudos to general manager Billy King for pulling this one off. It will be remembered when he runs for Governor some day.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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