The Spherical Cow Company Presents … The CMB

By Mark Trodden | September 28, 2010 1:32 pm

Friend of the Blog (and Dark Energy Song performer) Lloyd Knox, Professor of Physics at the University of California Davis, has teamed up with undergraduate students David Gribble and Justin Smith and graduate student Damien Martin to launch a new endeavor – The Spherical Cow Company – which

… produces short documentary videos to demonstrate the explanatory power of simple physical models and to help us understand and aesthetically appreciate the natural world.

Their first video discusses the Cosmic Microwave Background – a central feature of modern cosmology, and one of our most important tools for exploring the universe.

In this episode, Lloyd shamelessly follows the well-worn path of other entertainers before him in pushing their children – in this case his son Teddy – into the business. Lloyd and Teddy explore what the CMB means on their kitchen table with a pen and paper, cutting to more high-tech descriptions of the material where appropriate.

It’s entertaining stuff, while retaining the nice feel of sitting down to an informal chat with an expert. I think you’ll enjoy it and, if so, I hope you’ll return to take a look at their future efforts.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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  • Rhacodactylus

    Is the spherical cow company name based on that joke about “it only works with spherical chickens in a vacuum” or I guess in this case “spherical cows.” Or am I missing the allusion.

  • Woody Tanaka

    Oh, my. You know, if I just decided to “wing it” in physics, Mr. Knox would probably rightly chastise me and say that there are probably a few basic things that I should know so that I don’t look like a complete tool of a beginner. The same is surprisingly true of media production. With an hour’s reading and the purchase of some basic equipment, this mess of a video wouldn’t sound like it was recorded at the bottom of a barrel and look like he shot five minutes after coming up with the idea, without even a minute of pre-production. Uggh. I mean, if you are going to start a company to produce videos, shouldn’t you actually know how to, you know, produce videos?

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  • kiwidamien

    Hi Woody,

    Our goal has not been to set up a professional media company. Instead the goal is much more modest; to connect with people who are curious about how the world works, but are following other careers and cannot spend a large fraction of their time on this. We are catering to the audience which likes to go to the planetarium but don’t want to become astrophysicists or (professional) astronomers.

    Having said that, if there are easy (and inexpensive) ways of improving sound quality we would be very happy to hear them. To push your physics analogy a little further, most physicists would be happy to suggest books to learn physics (there are many, and some are better than others). If you are willing it would be constructive to suggest some resources that we should be reading.

    You can contact me privately on djmartin at (don’t include this bit about the cows) ucdavis dot edu, or leave some suggestions in the comments on this blog to help other physicists that may want to help educate the public.


  • kiwidamien

    @ Rhacodactylus:

    I believe the spherical cows come up in the joke more often as the spherical chickens (after all, for the purposes of the joke it really doesn’t matter what the animal is!) For example, this book starts with the spherical cow:

    The other reason for us going with this name is that UC Davis is an Ag school (as well as many other things). We thought this tied in the campus identity with our idea of presenting a simplified description of the early universe.

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  • Woody Tanaka


    I apologize if I came across as being harsh.

    If you want the basics, digital video for dummies will give you basic information (a basic as you would expect in a dummies book). Not great, but a good place to start. filmmaking for dummies, likewise. Get a basic video production book and a program like Celtx (free), so you can plan the video and maybe put together a script.

    As for sound, you must, must, must get an off camera mike. Camera mounted mikes have to be useable in many situations, so they suck at all of them. Since you are doing documentary stuff you can get away with a lavaier (the little clip-on mikes that newscasters wear) or you can get a directional mike on a boom. I would even use a handheld over a camera mike.

    Finally, there’s about a billion web sites with free info on the basics of doing this. Google.

    Hope this helps.

  • Brian

    To me, Teddy is the most impressive part of this video. It seems like he was either primed with intelligent questions and answers beforehand, or carefully edited, or just happens to be an anomalously clever kid.

  • Jdhuey

    Is it not an error to say that the CMBR is 13.7 billion LYs away? The ‘fluid’ became transparent then but in the meantime the universe has been expanding so the sphere (circle in the drawing) that represents that event has expanded as well. So the CMBR is currently 78 billion LYs away.

  • Sean

    That’s right — although it’s one of the most difficult basic things in cosmology to explain clearly.

  • Reatha Boker

    Read this comment carefully – it’s not on topic it’s just a little something to give you a smile and say thanks for your hard work on this blog!
    Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math. :)

  • Lloyd Knox

    @Jdhuey: That’s a very good point, Jdhuey. Saying it’s 13.7 billion light years away is not an error though — though only due to a technicality. There are MANY different ways to define distances between two points in an expanding Universe. As you point out, the distance between two points depends on time. Currently, the distance from the ‘last scattering surface’ to us is about 40 billion light years (I see that article you reference says 78 — not sure why). That’s larger than 13.7 billion light years due to the expansion that happened while the light was traveling. When the light was emitted, the same two spatial points were separated by a distance about 1100 times smaller, because the Universe has expanded since then by a factor of 1100.

    So why do I claim it is not an error? We consciously went with this simplification, so we could avoid talking about the expansion of the Universe, and knew our butts were covered because it was correct for one particular distance measure. There is a distance measure, called the look-back distance, which, by definition, is the light-travel time between the two events times the speed of light. This is the ‘distance’ that we meant. Cheap, I know. But it allowed us to avoid that complication. We hoped someone would ask about it so we could explain!

  • Lloyd Knox

    @Brian: Teddy was not primed in any way ahead of time. We did shoot 28 minutes of interaction between Teddy and me and then edited down from that. It was one take so that the interaction would be fresh and genuine. I think Teddy did do an impressive job of asking very good questions and understanding the material, but I also believe the editing process ended up making his understanding seem an even more impressive feat.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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