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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Once again, I've piled up a large number of things that I really ought to comment on, but haven't found the time:

Via Notional Slurry, a transcribed article from 1914 confronting one of the eternal struggles of academe.

Arcane Gazebo and Pharyngula both offer posts on the stupidity of the new SAT essay section, which is apparently graded mostly on length. This is more or less inevitable, given the number of tests they need to grade, but it's still sort of depressing.

Of course, back when Kate was studying for the Bar, her review course gave a factoid on how much time is spent grading each essay-- it was a small number of minutes, something like two (Kate has blocked that whole period from her memory, and thrown away all her Bar Review materials, so I can't verify the number). Their advice, as I recall it, was to skimp on "the whole grammar thing" (to cop a phrase from a student), and make sure that the important facts were really obvious on a quick skim of the essay, which is the other way to go with mass grading of essays.

Turning to science, I'm half ashamed to note that Matt McIrvin's Steam-Powered World of Yesteryear and James Nicoll's LiveJournal have become my go-to sources for astronomy-related news. You'd think that I'd get my updates from the astronomers down the hall, but not so much.

Sean Carroll spent a little time discussing the need for in-person colloquia, and posts some of his talks on-line. On-line talks in general are a poor substitute for the real thing, as many physicists use slides that aren't especially readable by themselves. And, of course, there are side benefits to having people make in-person visits to give talks: the NSF money that I've been spending the last couple of weeks is in some sense a direct result of a colloquium visit by my collaborator on the ATTA paper. Had Dan not come to campus to give his talk, we probably wouldn't've started this project.

Elsewhere, Sean deals with crank cosmology, a nice reminder that biologists don't really get all the loons, just the ones holding public office. On a similar note, Chris Mooney links a Chronicle article by Sanford Lakoff calling for more educational outreach from scientists. I'll have more to say on this later, but the Chronicle piece will vanish behind the paywall soon, so look quick if you want to read it.

In linking the Chronicle piece, Mooney is skeptical that education can really work. I go back and forth about whether I think the general public can achieve greater scientific literacy (my opinion of my fellow man is inversely proportional to the amount of time I've spent recently on line at the grocery store with people who can't count to ten), so it's a tough question to answer. Of course, there's an easier solution: Accept Giblets as your Lord and savior. Bow before Giblets NOOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!!!

And that's enough of that.

Posted at 8:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Friday, May 06, 2005

Now We're Talking

This morning's spam sweep shows signs of increasing sophistication, as this header jumped out at me:

Need 532nm green laser?

Now that's what I want in spam. Don't try to offer me billions of ill-gotten African wealth in a transparent Spanish Prisoner update. I'm all about illicit laser technology...

As it happens, I don't need a 532 nm green laser at the moment. But if you throw in a Ti:Sapph laser to go with it, you might just get me to click a link.

Posted at 8:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


On a happier scientific note, two groups at the University of Toronto have achieved Bose-Einstein Condensation: Aephraim Steinberg's group, using a TOP trap, and Joseph Thywissen's group, in a microfabricated Ioffe trap.

You can tell they've got BEC, because they have 3-D plots. You can tell that atomic physics is a small community, because I know at least one member of each of the two groups personally.

(Nathan got BEC a while back, winning the all-important race for first BEC among research groups headed by former NIST postdocs in North America...)

Sadly, the BEC Homepage that Mark Edwards used to maintain at Georgia Southern seems to have been shut down. It used to be amusing to check in from time to time to see what the world condensate total was at. I'm not sure what the country list is looking like these days, either-- I know there are at least seven countries with BEC (USA, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, and I'm pretty sure at least one of the UK and Australia) and I'm probably missing a few.

Of course, we've still got a long way to go before the integrated total of condensed atoms equals one mole...

Posted at 9:21 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Tenser, Said the Tensor

Sean Carroll was denied tenure. This comes as a complete shock, not only because he seems like a really sharp guy (what with jetting all over the world to talk about cosmology), but because I just assumed he had tenure. After all, he never talked about the process, which is the usual hallmark of a junior faculty member.

(OBPython: "He must be a king." "Why?" "He hasn't got shit all over him.")

Rationally speaking, there's no reason for this to increase the ambient anxiety level around Chateau Steelypips. Tenure decisions are independent events, and the standards vary greatly from one institution to another. And, indeed, part of the reason I work where I do is that I didn't want to deal with the downright brutal tenure requirements at a place like Chicago.

(We'll leave aside the fact that Chicago never would've hired me in the first place...)

Nevertheless, this is yet another thing to amp up my stress level. After all, if a bright guy like him didn't make it, what chance does a clown like me have?

Posted at 9:10 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

All About Elegant Solutions

So, I was having this RF noise problem, that led to a lot of RF-geeking in the commetns to a previous post.

That has now been solved, by a combination of a 3dB attenuator and a poor man's Faraday cage. Or, putting that last bit into layman's terms, by wrapping the whole thing in aluminum foil. That by itself cut the noise by a factor of four, and the attenuator knocks it down to roughly the same level as the next largest source of noise.

Research is a high-tech enterprise here in Chateau Steelypips.

Posted at 1:51 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Monday, May 02, 2005

Aaron Sorkin Writing Star Trek

In response to all the geekly wibbling about Serenity, I finally got around to borrowing the Firefly DVDs from one of my students (who had offered to loan them to me a while ago). We watched the first disc worth of stuff (the two-hour pilot, which was stupidly aired much later, and the first two one-hour episodes) over the weekend.

My initial one-sentence summary provides the post title. (For the record, I've never watched much Buffy the Vampire Slayer-- people rave about it, so I'll watch a little every now and then when I run across it while channel-surfing, but it's always failed to grab me. I gather the dialogue and action in Firefly is pretty typical of Whedon's other shows, but as I've never watched those, so I can't very well use them for comparison.) There's lots of lovely (and somewhat less than realistic) snappy dialogue, reminiscent of the banter on The West Wing or Sports Night, and at least in the early episodes, there's the same sort of "Enjoy the ride, but try not to think about astrophysics" feel you get with the better Trek efforts.

Looking at this site (via Kate) was a huge mistake. I'm not usually one to quibble about bad physics in video entertainment, but some of the comments there really make my teeth itch. At least they make it easy to ignore that stuff.

It's very much the sort of thing where once you get started nit-picking, you can quickly suck all the entertainment value out of the show, but they do a good job of hiding the weak points. The character interactions are a lot of fun, and they've got the look and feel of space opera down as well as anything I've ever seen. Of course, they've also lifted a lot of stuff directly from the western genre (to the detriment of the second episode, "The Train Job"), but I suppose you could see that as a hat-tip to the "horse opera" origins of space opera. Or something.

Anyway, it's good stuff. It suffers a bit from the constraints of serial fiction (the pilot tries to do too much scene-setting, while if you've seen the pilot, there's some clunky as-you-know-Bobbing in the next couple of episodes), but it's not a big stretch to say it's the best televised SF ever (not that there's a lot of competition).

Posted at 2:27 PM | link | follow-ups | 15 comments

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