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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Pattern Recognition

There are two college basketball teams that I root for: I adopted the Maryland Terrapins when I went there for grad school in 1993 (after watching a skinny kid with a generic name explode onto the scene in an early-season game against Georgetown), but the Syracuse Orangemen (I'll resist the name change for another year or two, thanks for asking) were the team of my youth, and I continue to root for them. Happily, they play in different leagues, so I rarely have to choose between them (it looked for a little while like Syracuse was going to join the ACC, which would've been a disaster in so many, many ways).

Now, as a scientist, I realize that there really isn't any sort of cosmic connection between these teams as a result of my joint fandom. But you've got to admit, there's kind of an eerie pattern here, ever since I arrived in the Captial District.

First, there's the Maryland story:

Now, look at the last few years for Syracuse:

Cue the creepy music...

Also, I apologize in advance to all the other Syracuse fans out there, if Gerry Macnamara should completely flake out next year, and they end up missing the Tournament. But, hey, Big East Championship! Jim Boeheim almost smiled!

Posted at 10:17 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

A Thousand Curses on Dan Shulman

With about 12 minutes to go in the Big East semifinal game last night, Syracuse scored to take a 21-point lead over UConn. At that point, play-by-play guy Dan Shulman proclaimed "The rout is on!"

Within minutes, Hakim Warrick had picked up his fourth foul and gone to the bench, and Syracuse went into their patented disappearing act, including a five-minute stretch where they didn't score a point. UConn stormed back, cutting the lead to four in the final minute, before falling, 67-63.

Clearly, Shulman has never watched a Syracuse game. Nothing is ever certain with these guys.

Take tonight, for example. Last night's victory puts the Orangemen into the Big East final to face West Virginia. On paper, they ought to win handily: it's the Mountaineers' first-ever trip to the final (and Syracuse's league record twelfth), West Virginia is playing their fourth game in four days (and nobody who had to play four games has ever won the tournament), they already lost to Syracuse once this season, etc.

Still, there are two good reasons for Syracuse fans to worry about this game:

1) West Virginia not only has that "team of destiny" thing going on, they're also the All Name Team, with star players named "Pittsnogle" (which sounds like a name out of a Harry Potter book) and "Herber" (pronounced "Air Bear"). That's a lot of psychic baggage for the Orangemen to deal with.

2) More importantly, this is Syracuse we're talking about. No #15 seed had ever beaten a #2 in the NCAA's until the Orangemen honked a game to Richmond fifteen years ago, and Boeheim is 3-8 in Big East title games. If there's a way to screw this up, they can find it.

But if Dan Shulman will keep his stupid mouth shut, they just might have a chance...

Posted at 7:34 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, March 11, 2005

World Year of Physics Flash Cartoons

Via one of my students:

Jokes With Einstein

Jokes With Einstein 2

Amazingly, he hadn't heard the joke about what you get when you cross an elephant with a mountain climber...

Posted at 9:21 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments


(It's another Links Dump post, really, but I'm getting tired of calling them that...)

Via Technorati, I found the Node of Yan Feng, who points out RSS feeds for the Physical Review, and more importantly links to a blog dedicated to identifying bad Chinese characters in pop culture. If you've ever wondered what that dragon tattoo really says, Tian has the answer: probably gibberish.

William Tozier has his own links dump post, which offers a wealth of material if you're looking to waste time. For example, there's David Goldberg talking about the relationship between cost and error in making models. He's definitely got a point about the science part, as anybody who's seen the way that theoretical atomic physics tracks Moore's Law could tell you. I'm not as sure about the engineering side.

Of course, elsewhere in that list of links, he misunderstands the nature of academia when he asks:

Why aren't more academic leaders blogging their brains out? Blogs are bully pulpits for expressing a point of view, for highlighting your work or that of your organization, If I were the head of an academic unit (a dean, a department head, a president) I'd be blogging til the cows (or donors) come home. Maybe this says less about blogging as an idea and more about the vision and creativity of those who lead our academic institutions.

I think it has nothing to do with the character of department chairs, deans, and presidents, and everything to do with their workload. They're not blogging for the same reason that my blogging tails off at exam and lab report time: because they're busy.

Speaking of lab reports, I realize that it would be the very pinnacle of unethical behavior to use a distributed proofreading system to deal with student lab reports, but it's oh, so very tempting...

Speaking of pedagogy, Mind of Winter wants discussion in math classes, and has posted some interesting thoughts on the subject. I've been meaning to comment on this issue for a while, throwing in a link to the tutorial program at Williams. Those tutorial classes (I took a couple, back in the day) have a lot of the elements Paul's looking for, and they're pretty intense. Also, for trivia buffs, the picture with that article shows my undergrad advisor.

Finally, what would a links dump be without a post from PZ Myers? It's a two-fer this time, coupling together a comment on the weird insistence of humanities types on reading from prepared scripts (bouncing off Sean Carroll's earlier comments), and some comments about student bathroom breaks, starting from an exceptionally cranky article from Inside Higher Ed.

Quick comments on each of these in turn: On the speaking issue, I think the humanities situation is improving, as the last couple of faculty colloquia I've gone to have had humanities faculty speaking from notes. One of them even had visual aides. This may be a local thing, or it may be that they treat faculty colloquia differently than formal academic conferences, but I lean toward thinking it's partly generational-- the speakers involved were all relatively young.

On the issue of bathroom breaks, I'm somewhere between PZ Myers and Terry Caesar on this. I frequently have students getting up to go to the bathroom in class, and it annoys me a bit, but I don't make a big deal out of it. I think this is a disciplinary issue, though (in the sense of academic disciplines, not "learn some bladder control").

Science classes tend to be much more lecture-based, and require students to learn a well-defined set of material. If a student runs out to the bathroom for a few minutes, he or she can pick up whatever was missed from the textbook, or another student's notes. In many humanities classes, on the other hand, the classroom discussion is the main thing, and students really need to be present. If a student runs out to the bathroom for a few minutes, they're not just hurting themselves, they're changing the entire character of the discussion for everyone involved.

I think it really is a bigger deal for students to be leaving classes that are based around discussion than to miss a few minutes of a lecture class. It's not just that humanities types are fundamentally more uptight, presumably from listening to all those boring conference papers over the years.

And that's what I've got for this week.

Posted at 7:36 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Grad School Chicken Creole

Our department secretary is a big lover of social events, and once or twice a term organizes potluck lunches, for which all the faculty members bring in a dish to share (usually with some theme), and the students and faculty come hang out and eat. We've got some pretty good cooks in the department, and it always ends up being a lot of fun, wrapped around a lot of overeating.

I tend to use this as an opportunity to cook things that I like but Kate doesn't, generally dishes involving bell peppers, lots of spice, or a combination thereof (such as Unqualified Offerings Chili). I was really surprised, though, when my contribution to the last luncheon turned out to be a huge hit. Given that tomorrow's potluck is nominally a St. Patrick's Day luncheon, I had been planning to make Mormon funeral potatoes, which struck me as vaguely similar to what people think of as Irish food, and also not that much work. But I was more or less ordered to bring the same thing as last time, and who am I to go against the will of the masses (particularly when the masses include the secretary, who is the only truly indespensible person in any academic department)?

Still, it was a surprise. It's not that I don't think I can cook-- I'm no gourmet chef, but I do all right for myself-- it's that the dish in question was chosen as much for requiring very little effort to slap together as for any culinary virtues it may possess. And yet, it was well-liked enough to be specifically requested for a later luncheon (the only other things I've been asked for were Kate's chocolate chip cookies, and the aforementioned chili). Go figure.

I think of this recipe as "Grad School Chicken Creole" because it was a staple when I was a grad student. I originally got the recipe from the Washington Post Food section, but being the incredibly organized person that I am, I promptly lost the clipping. It was dead simple to make, and reasonably cheap, so I reconstructed the dish, but it's remained a sort of Zen cookery thing ever since. Which accounts for the vagueness in the following:


A package or two of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (more than 1 lb, less than 3 lbs.), cut into small pieces.
One good-sized white onion (or two small ones), chopped into small pieces.
One good-sized green bell pepper (or two small ones), chopped into small pieces.
Some celery, two or three ribs (about the same amount as the pepper), chopped into small pieces.
A bunch of garlic. 4-6 cloves, maybe more. A couple of tablespoons, minced.
A bunch of butter. Half a stick or so.
One or two bottles of chili sauce (I use Heinz most of the time, but I imagine anything would work).
A can of diced tomatoes, or a small can or tomato sauce, or both, or neither. Whatever it takes.


1) Melt the butter over medium-ish heat. Add the garlic and onion, and cook until the onion is sort of translucent.

2) Add the chicken, and cook until the chicken is no longer pink. This takes something like five minutes, stirring constantly.

3) Add the pepper, celery, and chili sauce. I've started adding diced tomatoes recently, and that works well, too. If it doesn't look like there's enough liquid, you can add some tomato sauce. Or another bottle of chili sauce. Whatever you like. Stir this all together, and let it get hot.

4) Reduce the heat to low-ish, and simmer for as long as seems necessary. More than ten minutes, but usually less than 30.

Serving: Serve hot, usually over rice. It makes a good bit of food-- usually about a week's worth of meals (mixed with a lot of rice), when I was in grad school. It's chicken, so how bad for you can it possibly be?

It comes out slightly different each time, because it's such a vague recipe. This time around, it looked awfully thick with just the chili sauce and tomatoes, so I added some tomato sauce as well, and it ended up a little soupier than the last batch. It's hard to really screw up, though, and it's well within the capablities of even a culinarily inept grad student.

Posted at 9:09 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

There Is a God

A proof of God's existence, from the world of college basketball: Oral Roberts U. lost to Oakland (a college in Michigan, not the Raiders) last night, denying the vanity university of everyone's favorite 80's televangelist an NCAA bid for another year.

Oakland won the game on a last-second three-pointer from Pierre Dukes, who wasn't even on the team as of September 1. And the Golden Grizzlies "boast" a 12-18 record this season-- only three teams in the modern history of the Tournament have gotten a bid with worse.

Really, what further proof do you need?

Posted at 10:36 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Hans Bethe, 1906-2005

A few years ago, when I was a postdoc at Yale, John Wheeler came to give a talk at a symposium in honor of Gregory Breit (at least, that's the context I remember, though he's not on the list of speakers given at that site). It wasn't what you'd call a great piece of oratory-- Wheeler was pushing 90 at the time, and not in very good health. He mumbled at a barely audible level, and at one point got the order of two pages of his talk switched, and didn't notice, which made for a surreal listening experience.

But his talk was peppered with references to a lot of the Capital-N Names in our business. Not in the usual "So-and-so developed such-and-such" manner, but more personal comments, like "When I suggested this, Bohr told me I was crazy..." or "I was visiting Wigner at his house, and..."

As my boss said after the talk, you won't get too many more chances to hear people say that sort of thing.

The list of possibilities has gotten one shorter: Hans Bethe died a few days ago. Dave Bacon, Sean Carroll, and Jacques Distler (among others) have posted tributes.

I can't claim to have met Bethe, though I did attend a talk he gave about the Manhattan Project when I was at Maryland. From all reports, he was a great man, and it's well known that he was a wonderful physicist (though it's funny to hear the Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow paper cited in all the obits, as Bethe's presence on that was mostly due to Gamow's weird sense of humor). His death marks the breaking of yet another link to the wild days of quantum theory's birth. There aren't many left, if there are any at all.

Posted at 8:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, March 07, 2005

Emergent Properties

Via Notional Slurry, an article that considers the burning question "How is the modern professoriate like a slime mold?"

My colleagues may resent being compared to single-celled organisms and ants -- "stupid elements" whose intelligence emerges only in the aggregate. And outsiders to the academy may think that nothing could be more centralized than a university, with its hierarchy of assistant, associate, and full professors; department chairs, deans, provost, and president.

Yet ants aren't stupid in any absolute sense; they're stupid only in the sense that they're less intelligent than the colony. In the same way, professors are individually less intelligent than their disciplines. And the disciplines -- amorphous, decentralized swarms of scientists or scholars -- are the important systems in the academic world; universities are much less important. The disciplines drape themselves across universities like ant colonies traipsing over logs on the forest floor: the logs may be most salient to the casual observer, but the colonies are where the action is.

Unfortunately, the cold that I've come down with has left me feeling rather like my brains have been sucked out and replaced with old gym socks, which makes me a little cynical. As a result, I'm thinking more about my favorite motivational poster than about the wonderful things that can be accomplished by academics in groups...

If I can make it through tomorrow without collapsing or strangling someone, the outlook should improve.

Posted at 7:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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