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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, November 16, 2002

Be Careful What You Wish For

College Hoops is back. OK, November isn't really college basketball time, but they're playing again, and there are even some decent games. After forty years of nothing but baseball, we're out of the Summer Sports Desert. Hallelujah, thank you Jesus. Fast breaks, big dunks, jump shots, blocked shots, tough defense. There's snow on the ground, and basketball on tv, and all is right with the world.

But to every positive development, there's a Dark Side. The return of college basketball means the return of Dukie haigography, idiotic and inexplicable NCAA rulings, and, worst of all, Dick Vitale, hands down the Worst Color Guy Ever (Yes, Mike, that includes both Dan Dierdorf and Paul McGuire). There was a time when he actually knew something about basketball, but that's long gone, and whatever knowledge he still has is drowned out in an endless flood of high-decibel shtick.

Happily, Mike Patrick is still tied up doing football for ESPN, sparing us The Single Worst Announcing Team in All of Sports for another couple of months. Time enough for me to figure out how to replace Vitale with the streaming audio from Maryland's radio broadcasts for the games I actually care about...

Posted at 10:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

G.R.O.S.S.: Get Rid of Slimy GirlS

It's almost redundant to link this, since everybody else has, but what the hell: Calpundit has a nice dissection of the flap over Augusta National's refusal to admit female members, and the failure of the right's vaunted sense of humor. The money quote is near the end:

So forget the Junior League and the YWCA. Forget Augusta National's legal right to exclude women. Forget Martha Burk's scare-inducing "radical feminist agenda." The real issue is simple: Why? Why do they feel that admitting women would ruin their club?

It's also the one question that ought to be part of every press conference on the issue between now and the Masters.

On a related note, ESPN did a beautiful take-down of Augusta National's obnoxiously stupid poll on SportsCenter the other night (alas, I can't find it on their site), with Rich Eisen sitting in an armchair with a green jacket and a pipe reading questions from the book of "Great Moments in Masters Polling History." A tradition unlike any other, indeed.

Posted at 9:35 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

NyQuil is the New Absinthe

Despite being sick and all doped up, Jim Henley has been on fire recently. He's stayed on top of the sniper story, and has some great stuff on Afghanistan (beginning with a WWRAHD? moment).

The best of his recent posts, by far, is an open letter of sorts to the neolibertarians who are suddenly shocked to find that being on the Republican's side doesn't mean that the Republicans are on their side. It's good stuff. Go read it.

I'm coming down with a bit of a cold myself-- maybe I should get some of what Jim's drinking...

Posted at 9:15 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Friday, November 15, 2002

Grand Theft Auto for Geeks

Andrew "The Poor Man" Northrup has a post about "physlets," little Java applets to demonstrate physics concepts. These show two of the major features of physics: first, that physics is best taught through interactive demonstrations, which can be very effective if done right; and second, that physicists have a regrettable fondness for cutesy little bits of jargon. Was "Physics Applet" really so cumbersome as to require blighting the language with "Physlet"?

(While I'm on the subject, I sincerely hope that whoever it was who came up with the names for the "ket" notation in quantum mechanics was slapped repeatedly for it...)

I've used a couple of the Davidson applets that were mentioned in the Poor Man post, and they're good. While I'm on the subject, I'll mention a couple others that are pretty cool: a colleague swears by the Visual Quantum Mechanics collection of stuff, which he uses to teach a freshman seminar module on the subject; the Physics 2000 project at Colorado (which has a nice set of stuff on laser cooling and BEC), despite being so last millennium, has some good popular-level stuff; and, of course, there's the always-popular sodaconstructor.

The last two are less pedagogical tools than "physicist traps"-- I'm not sure anybody actually learns much of anything from them, but actual BEC physicists will spend hours dinking around with the evaporative cooling videogame... That's why they're linked under "Geek Stuff" over on the left, and the others will join them on the next template update.

Posted at 8:31 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

I Recall Central Park in Fall...

Lest I start to slip in the Google rankings for "Jan Hendrik Schoen" (leaving aside the fact that I'm nowhere near the top if you use the heavy-metal "o"), I'll note that David Harris has an item about the new ethics guidelines released in response to the Schoen mess.

As always, the actual guidelines are sort of vague and platitudinous. But then, given the largely-volunteer nature of the peer review system and physics authorship in general, that's only to be expected. This isn't a case where anybody has real power to legislate anything to fix the situation; rather, things will improve only with an attitude change on the part of those who write and review papers, which will probably come without press releases.

Posted at 8:14 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, November 14, 2002

I Said, Are You Talkin' to Me?

The most important elements of a job as a faculty member at a small liberal arts college are also the most visible parts: teaching and research. Obviously, I spend a great deal of time teaching classes, and another huge chunk of time working on setting up a research lab. The third component is less immediately noticeable, and gets the vaguely euphemistic description "service": being on various committees, and doing some of the organizational tasks that keep the department running.

The departmental tasks range in difficulty from the jobs that are essentially figurehead positions (somebody has to be designated "library liaison," a job whose purpose is not entirely clear to me), to things that can eat up most of your time if you let them (in which category I'd put "department web master" and "faculty advisor to the student club"). Somewhere toward the more difficult end of the spectrum is my job for the year: colloquium organizer.

This is one of those jobs that pretty much has to exist, but you never really think about until you get stuck with it. Most academic departments, particularly in the sciences, try to schedule weekly research colloquia, where people from other institutions who are doing interesting things drop by to give presentations about their research. It's a way to give students some idea what the current state of the field is, and some vague idea of the range of research topics in physics (and, incidentally, help the faculty keep their hands in, as it were).

The problem is, somebody has to pick speakers to invite, and schedule their talks so that they don't all show up the same week. That somebody is me, this year.

It's a harder job than you might think. On some level, physicists all enjoy talking about their research, and are generally willing to do it, but in reality, there are a couple of major roadblocks. The biggest problem is that it's hard to schedule these things-- everybody has responsibilities that tie them to their home institution, and it's not easy to find a date when you can pry a good speaker loose to come to Schenectady and give a talk. This is compounded by the fact that we don't have a very large budget to pay for speakers (we generally don't do honoraria at all, and provide some sort of college-themed "gift" instead, but we do pick up the travel costs).

I've sort of managed to get around this problem by being extremely flexible on the scheduling front. Our colloquia are nominally held on Fridays at lunchtime (we provide pizza and soda as a bribe enticement to students who attend), but you wouldn't be able to tell that by this term's schedule, which has featured one Friday talk, two Wednesdays, and a Thursday, with student presentations coming up on a Monday and Tuesday to round out the term. (Weirdly, the attendance has been best for the Wednesday talks. I may consider moving the default day of the week next term...)

The other big obstacle is much harder to get around: the level of the talk. Most working researchers have canned talks they can break out and modify slightly for graduate seminars or research conferences, but those don't really work here. By nature, talks given for our department have to be pitched at an undergraduate level-- we don't have graduate students, so any students who show up will be completely at sea in the normal graduate-level colloquium talk. That means a good deal of extra work for the speaker, to cut the presentation down to a level our students can hope to follow-- as a general rule of thumb, I tell potential speakers that they can assume the students know classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and very rudimentary modern physics (relativity and quantum mechanics), and that's it. Pitching current research to that level is extremely difficult, and it makes my job hard on two levels: first, finding speakers who I think could do a good job of it, but also convincing them to actually come here and give such a talk.

The speaker choice issue can at least be farmed out to other people-- I ask my colleagues to suggest people who might be good speakers, or even to directly invite people they know who could be good (this also helps stave off the problem of having a whole term's worth of talks from the same sub-field, which is what happens when one person does all the inviting. One of the most tedious semesters of my academic career was spent listening to talks about protein folding at a required seminar series in graduate school-- the organizer did protein folding calculations, and invited what seemed like a dozen speakers who all gave the same talk: forty minutes of grinding detail about the computer model and approximations used, with a five-minute coda explaining that experiments showed that the configuration they had calculated was completely wrong. It was excruciating, and I hope never to subject students to that...). This lightens the burden, but it's still my job to find people to fill the open slots, which means a fair amount of begging and pleading.

I've been able to call in a few favors thus far, and it helps that my undergraduate alma mater is a small liberal arts college an hour's drive from Schenectady-- I know the faculty there, and I know that they can give talks at an appropriate level, because, well, they're teaching the same sorts of students we are... It's still a tricky business, though, because I'd like to keep an ace or two in the hole to invite in future terms, and I'm already running out of people I know well enough to pressure. I'm going to have to move out a degree of separation pretty soon.

It's gone pretty well so far-- the last two colloquia we had were really good-- but that just raises the bar for next term (happily, I get most of December to work the phones, as it were). And, of course, it wouldn't hurt to come up with a few people who aren't atomic physicists or astronomers (last year's colloquium organizer was an astronomer)... The fun just never ends around here.

(Any physicists who read this, and would like a free trip to New York's scenic Capital District (within reason-- we can't buy a whole lot of plane tickets out of our speaker budget...), feel free to contact me at the email address over on the left...)

Posted at 8:01 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Pondering the Imponderable

Physics has a reputation for studying the Big Questions-- Why is the Universe the way it is? How will the Universe end? What was going on before the Big Bang?-- but this one is beyond me. Perhaps one of the crack pop-culturists at the Poor Man Project can answer this:

Joe Cocker. Why?

I heard Joe Cocker covering an INXS song ("Never Tear Us Apart") yesterday, and realized that not only could I not figure out why anybody thought it was a good idea to record and release that, I'm not sure why anybody thought it was a good idea to release much of anything he's done. I mean, they all end up being sort of the same-- a ragged-voiced cover of somebody else's song, with the same basic instrumentation and backing singers. "With a Little Help From My Friends" was OK, and Belushi's parody of it was inspired, but Cocker seems to have spent the last thirty-odd years trying to score again with the same basic formula. Sort of like Rod Stewart with "Maggie May," actually...

Cocker's one of those people who float along at the Tito Jackson level of celebrity ("I say you you 'Tito Jackson,' and you say 'Yeah, what about him?' And I say, 'Exactly! What about Tito Jackson? Why do I even know his name?'"). It's like he's trying to be the poor man's Tom Jones, but then I'm not sure why we have Tom Jones, either... That whole category of moderately-but-inexplicably famous people is a recurring source of puzzlement to me when I really ought to be thinking about other things.

Of course, having just learned more than I had ever planned on knowing about cold atomic collisions in an atomic beam, I think I've earned the right to squander a neuron or two on nonsense...

Posted at 8:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Monday, November 11, 2002

Great Moments in Spell-Checking

I use the free-with-ads version of Opera to surf the web at work. The connection here is fast enough that the slight drag placed on my browsing by the need to download the occasional ad is a minor irritation at best, and they do provide occasional amusement (for instance, last week, I seemed to be getting ads exclusively in German and Japanese, for no clear reason...).

Today's ad du jour is for "," which is plugging "The finest anit-spam service on the web." I'll keep that in mind, the next time I want to spam anits...

Somebody out there is having a worse Monday than I am, at least...

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Selling College

A couple of weeks ago, I was one of a handful of faculty attending an "open house" run by the Admissions office. The idea was to get local high schoolers and their parents to come to the campus and learn a bit about the college in the hopes that seeing the campus will entice them to apply and enroll (one of the bigger recruiting problems the college faces is the fact that Schenectady isn't the most attractive city in the world-- the campus, however, is much nicer than you'd expect from Schenectady's reputation). They had a program of talks about the college, and various college programs, followed by a punch-and-cookies reception, at which various members of the faculty, and most of the Deans, were available to answer questions.

This wound up being a really weird scene. Most of the conversations I had with prospective students could be divided into two rough groups, the stranger of which was the three-way conversation. These all follow basically the same trajectory:

"My daughter's got a question for you," announces a parent (generally the mother, for whatever reason).

"I'll try my best to answer it," I respond, looking at the daughter, who's standing a few feet away, trying her best to look as if she's not actually associated with any of the adults in the room, and is just hanging about for reasons of her own.

"She wants to know about the eight-year medicine program." The mother again, while the actual student stares vaguely off in the general direction of the pictures on the walls. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. The parent asks questions, I direct the answers at the student, who looks bored and doesn't say much of anything. An even more annoying variant of this conversation involves the forced involvement of the student-- "Go on, ask him, honey!" or "She's interested in biology, aren't you?"

This is a dynamic I understand perfectly well. It's fifteen years (give or take) since I was a high schooler being dragged to these events, but I remember enough of what it was like to know what's going on-- like all teenagers appearing in public with their parents, the silent students are suffering from the certain knowledge that their parents are about to do something utterly humiliating to them. So they stand there being sullen and unresponsive, in hopes that that will somehow speed the whole process up, and get them out of there before the baby pictures come out.

These would go a whole lot more smoothly if there were a graceful way to get rid of the parents. I spent a bunch of time trying to think of one, but couldn't come up with anything that wasn't a transparently obvious way of saying "Look, mom, shut the hell up and let your daughter talk..."

Of course, the actual student-dominated conversations, while less socially awkward, are probably worse. The students who do come fired up to ask questions directly of the faculty are almost all the scarily-motivated sort who, as seventeen-year-old high-school students, already have their lives planned out to age 35 or so (the majority of these plans involve medical school; most of the rest involve law school).

I have a hard time dealing with these students, mostly because I just can't relate to that sort of obsessive drive. I wasn't completely directionless at that age-- I knew I wanted to do something in the sciences, and physics was a leading contender-- but I didn't have a real solid idea what I wanted in a college, let alone plans for graduate school and my future career. And, looking back on what a clueless goof I was at the time, I'm not convinced of the wisdom of making detailed plans at that age for anything farther off than the next school break.

The hardest ones to figure, for me, are the people who plan to get through college as quickly as possible, using AP credits to shave a couple of terms or a year off their time in college. I always want to grab these people, shake them back and forth, and say "Good God, WHY?!?!" Being in college was probably the most fun I've ever had-- not just the drinking and partying, but the whole package. Just being surrounded by smart people all the time was a kick, and something that I wouldn't've cut short for any amount of money. College is one of the rare environments where you can sit around with a bunch of people until four in the morning, debating the nature of God and how that nature is made manifest in the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and nobody will think that's weird. You should enjoy it while you have the chance.

(My enjoyment of this sort of thing is a big part of why I wanted and got a job teaching at a liberal arts college. We had a faculty happy hour the other night, and I had a great time hanging out with a couple of mechanical engineers and an anthropologist, discussing brewing, the history of human civilization, the many and varied problems with the French language, and how exactly you go about making steel...)

I really can't for the life of me figure out why someone who views college as a mere stepping-stone to a carefully pre-planned career would even think about coming to a small liberal arts college in the first place. That sort of obsessive determinism just strikes me as counter to the whole liberal arts ethos-- the whole point of a place like this is to take a wide range of classes in different fields. The student who told me she was interested in double-majoring in Physics and East Asian Studies (she was specifically interested in Chinese art) made more sense as a potential student than any of the eight-year med people did (though even the med students have more freedom in their scheduling than some of the engineers, who have something like three free electives over their full four years).

After all that, it was really refreshing to run into a student at the end of the night who had absolutely no clue what he wanted to do with his life, and wasn't particularly afraid to admit that to a couple of professors (myself and an economist). We spent an enjoyable ten or fifteen minutes talking up the wide range of options, and the flexibility of the curriculum, and the idea that you don't actually need to know what you plan to major in before you set foot on the campus. It also turned out that we had somewhat similar backgrounds-- he was just starting basketball season at a tiny school in a rural district-- so we spent a while talking about small-town hoops (which seemed to interest him more than most of the academic stuff).

In the end, the dedicated careerists are the ones who excite the admissions officers. They've got the transcripts that boost the US News ratings, and they'll make big bucks down the road, some of which will find their way back to the College coffers. But, all in all, I think I prefer the Chinese-art-loving physics students and undecided rural hoopsters.

Posted at 7:58 AM | link | follow-ups | 25 comments

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Cosmological Turing Test

Via Musings, a "spot-the-real-data" challenge involving COBE sky maps. It's probably a little unfair-- the same game could be played with lots of data in different subfields-- but then the COBE results are the classic hard-science example of high-profile data with a signal-to-noise ratio near 1.

This is probably a useful cautionary example to keep in mind when I start castigating economists for drawing sweeping conclusions from erratic data...

Posted at 10:11 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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