Breathless press reports notwithstanding, string theory is very far from being dead. If you’re interested in what it is and what’s going on within the field, I can recommend a new website called Why String Theory? (And of course, accompanying twitter feed @WhyStringTheory.) It was set up by Oxford undergraduates Charlotte Mason and Edward Hughes, working under Joseph Conlon. It’s a very engaging and professional-looking site, featuring a great deal of explanatory material.
Developing pedagogical sites like this is a great project for undergrads; the only looming issue is keeping the site going once the students move on to bigger and better things. Hopefully this one is kept up — I think an initial surge of interest has already been taxing the poor web server.
I was the judge for this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize; here are the results. Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily, obviously.
I want to thank Abbas and all the 3QD crew for inviting me to judge this year’s Science Prize. I can’t help but thinking that after having Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Lisa Randall judge the previous years, a certain phase transition has occurred; but I’m happy to be associated with such an amazing group.
Let me start by saying something obvious but nevertheless true: the entries this year were of extraordinarily high quality. Some excellent blog posts among the initial nominees didn’t even make the final ten, and any one of the nine finalists would have been a worthy choice for number one. But I will resist the temptation to declare a nine-way tie.
There is no simple and objective standard for what makes a blog post “the best.” “Blog is software,” as Bora Zivkovic likes to remind us — blogging is a medium, not a genre. Successful blog posts can be one word or ten thousand; a personal reflection or a rigorous analysis; an original idea or an insightful commentary; a devastating take-down or an inspirational message. But within these flexible parameter, there are certain aspects of blogging that make it special, and I looked for posts that took advantage of those unique capabilities. I wanted to choose posts that would be hard to imagine finding in any other medium, but whose quality measured up to the best of journalism or science writing. One frustrating aspect of a contest like this is that the prize is given to posts, rather than to blogs — for many of the most successful blogs, their charm comes from the accumulated effect of reading many posts over a long period of time. But okay, enough with the throat-clearing.
Without further ado:
First place this year goes to Empirical Zeal, for “The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.” With many different criteria in mind, this post by Aatish Bhatia stood out among the rest. It’s just about the perfect use of a blog. For one thing, it looks gorgeous: all those colorful images, each of which actually serves a purpose. The writing is playful and clever; once you see the mantis shrimp telling you “DEAR MORTAL, YOUR RAINBOW IS PUNY,” you’re not likely to forget it. And most of all, the science is fascinating and important. To a physicist, there is a continuum of colors; but to our eyes and brains, “rainbows have seams,” and that affects how we think about the world. A completely deserving winner. (And don’t forget that there is a Part II.)
Second place goes to Three-Toed Sloth, for “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You” (cross-posted at Crooked Timber.) Cosma Shalizi doesn’t bother with colorful pictures; he even uses a slightly gray font on a white background, presumably because black on white would come off as too florid. But this is a creative and original essay that brings the theory of computational complexity to bear on the practical problem of managing a planned economy. (Conclusion: it can’t be done.) The flexibility of blogs doesn’t just mean the ability to post videos; it also means the freedom to explore ideas outside traditional disciplinary comfort zones. Not a light read, but a true contribution to intellectual discourse. The kind of post that nudges the rest of us to be better bloggers.
Third place goes to The Mermaid’s Tale, for “Forget bipedalism. What about babyism?” In another great use of the medium, Holly Dunsworth takes creative advantage of the blog format to make important points both about science and about how science is done. How much can we learn about a species just by studying a few bones in its feet? Does a particular anatomical feature represent a crucial adaptation to circumstances, or is it just an ancestral remnant? Also: adorable pictures of baby monkeys, as well as real data with error bars. Everybody wins.
In very different ways, these three posts serve as proud examples of what blogging can be at its best — feel free to share them with any of your friends who still remain skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but cheat just a little bit by offering two “honorable mentions.” At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson’s “Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence” is a polished and fascinating look at natural selection and the behavior of human crowds. And at Quantum Diaries, Flip Tanedo’s “Helicity, Chirality, Mass, and the Higgs” is an original take on explaining an abstract but central point in modern quantum field theory. All of these posts — as well as the other finalists! — are impressive achievements. My hat’s off.
Each year, 3 Quarks Daily sponsors prizes for blogging in different areas: science, arts & literature, politics and social science, and philosophy. This year, the excitement surrounding the science prize will be even greater than usual, since it will be judged by me! Previous judges include Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Lisa Randall. Not sure what their qualifications were, I don’t think any of them have a blog. (Well, Lisa did guest-blog for us.) Maybe they have had productive careers as scientists or something.
I will do my best to live up to the lofty standards of the previous judges. Please help the contest along by spreading the word, and submitting your favorite posts. And yes — you’re perfectly welcome to submit things you’ve written yourself.
Entries close June 9, so don’t delay!
Physicists have certainly been ahead of the information-technological curve at times. The web was invented at CERN, and of course we mastered open publishing simply by doing it, while other disciplines have struggled to come up with workable models. But senior physicists — not youngsters, who are always eager to try new things, but more established types — have generally looked askance at blogging, for hard-to-discern reasons. In math we have Fields Medalists blogging up a storm, in economics there are multiple blogs by Nobel Laureates, but physicists on the far side of the “young and striving”/”senior and respected” divide have largely stayed away. (My colleagues here at CV are enormously respected, but in my mind they will always be youthful.)
So we’re extremely happy to note that Martin Perl (at an enthusiastic 84 years young!) has jumped into the blogosphere, with Reflections on Physics: From the Tau to Dark Energy. Perl shared the Nobel Prize in 1995 for the kind of result that every physicist dreams of achieving, but few actually do: the discovery of a new elementary particle. In particular, the tau lepton, the heaviest of the three charged leptons (along with the electron and muon). Not too shabby.
Martin’s first post is on Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos and the Dynamics of the Internet. He finds the OPERA results intriguing, but thinks that figuring them out is going to require new experiments, not clever outsiders trying to figure out where they went wrong. I would tend to trust his judgment here.
It’s fantastic to have another great physicist taking the time to reach out to a broader audience. Note that Martin is at SLAC, along with our own JoAnne and Risa. Something about the Palo Alto coffee that nudges one toward blogging?
I’m leaving early in the morning for the annual meeting of the Division of Particles and Fields (DPF) of the American Physical Society, which is being hosted by Brown University in Providence. Later in the week (9am Thursday, to be precise) I’m delivering a plenary talk with the assigned title “Early Universe and Cosmology“, which I’m looking forward to, and which I’ll report on after it’s over. I’m also just generally looking forward to being in Providence again, having studied for my Ph.D. at Brown a long time ago.
The meeting begins tomorrow, and a new and interesting event taking place on the first day is a lunch-time forum (noon to 1:30pm) on Physics and Modern Media. University of Washington Professor Gordon Watts, who blogs over at Life as a Physicist, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Ken Bloom, who blogs at Quantum Diaries, were nice enough to ask me to be on this panel. But unfortunately my travel constraints mean I’m almost certain to miss it, and so I had to decline. Despite this crushing blow, they’re going ahead anyway, and have invited several others to discuss how physicists interact with the public in the world of blogs, tweets, and other social media. Their intention is to discuss some general issues, such as how these can be used to better communicate science to the public, as well as tackling some of the better known controversies, such as the appearance of unofficial “results” from particle physics experiments on blogs.
As if this acknowledgement of the modern world wasn’t enough, the DPF has also encouraged its members to use Twitter to engage other DPF members and the broader public during the conference, using the hash tag #DPF2011. They intend to monitor this through the forum and relay comments to the panel. While I don’t tweet myself, this certainly seems like an efficient way to get questions in real time to the moderators. I know a lot of you out there have strong opinions on these issues, one way or another, and I hope you’ll take this opportunity for an open discussion.
I’ll be back later to report on the meeting, but for now let me just wish Gordon and Ken luck with this new addition to the DPF meetings.
Last year, friend and fine Philly science writer Faye Flam wrote a guest post for us here at Cosmic Variance, in which she chronicled her experiences writing about climate science as part of her brief at the Philadelphia Inquirer. You may recall that her articles on this hot-button topic led to quite over-the-top responses, including a death threat. And our comment section after her post was certainly lively, although relatively well-behaved.
Well, now Faye is tackling a new controversial (although it shouldn’t be) topic. While continuing with her regular writing, she has, over the last few months, begun writing a blog for the Inquirer on the topic of evolution. Titled Planet of the Apes, the blog features Faye’s writing paired up with illustrations from the paper’s staff editorial cartoonist, Tony Auth.
It’s a fun read, and covers current news in evolution as well as taking on some of the questions that come up when discussing the topic with those who, for whatever reason, are resistant to this established branch of scientific knowledge. Take a look at the back catalog to see some of these.
I wish Faye the best of luck with this new endeavor, and hope that we’ll see another guest post here from her soon.
Woke up this morning to the happy news that my post “The Fine Structure Constant is Probably Constant” walked away with the Charm Quark (i.e., tied for third place) in this year’s 3QuarksDaily science blogging prizes. Many thanks to Lisa Randall for judging and Abbas Raza and the 3QD crew for hosting. And of course congrats to the other winners:
I already have a great nominee for next year’s contest. One of the most confusing things in particle physics is the notion of “chirality.” The related notion of a particle’s “helicity” is relatively easy to explain — is the particle spinning in a left-handed or right-handed sense when compared to its direction of motion? But a massive particle need not have a direction of motion, it can just be sitting there, so the helicity is not defined. Chirality is the same as helicity — left-handed or right-handed — for massless particles moving at the speed of light, but it’s always defined no matter how the particle is moving. It had better be, since the weak interactions couple to particles with left-handed chirality but not ones with right-handed chirality! (And the opposite for antiparticles.)
It all gets a bit heady, and you can’t give a real explanation without going beyond simple pictures and actually talking about the quantum wave function. But Flip Tanedo at Quantum Diaries has given it an heroic effort, which I insist you go read right now. I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing — Flip was more careful and thorough than I ever would have been, anyway — but I will tease you with this one picture.
Isn’t that the cutest pair of elementary particles you’ve ever seen? I smell a Quark in this lepton’s future.
Okay we’re a little late with this, so be quick if you want to participate: it’s time for the Quark, the 3quarksdaily annual prize for science blogging. The deadline for nominations is tomorrow (Tuesday) night, so hurry up and nominate if you are so moved! This year’s judge is Lisa Randall — great to see a top-notch physicist in there.
Part of the process involves a vote by readers, which I think is something that just doesn’t work on the internet. Bloggers with large followings and sufficient shamelessness to prod them into voting will always dominate over the negligible number of readers who actually read every post and try to make a fair decision. But so be it — it’s not stopping me from nominating one of my own posts! (I can’t imagine that anyone else keeps track of all the science blogging I’ve done over the last year.) But it would be great if the winner came from one of the other awesome bloggers out there. Just to pick a few semi-randomly, let me steer potential nominators to have a look at some of my favorite blogs:
Sorry to all the great blogs I’m not including, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. If you think I’m missing something, go nominate it! And then upbraid me in the comments here for my lack of fairness and good taste.
And while we’re on the subject, Open Lab 2011 is also open for nominations. This is an ongoing process through 2011, so there’s no hurry — keep your eyes peeled for good blogging out there. Many submissions will be chosen to be collected into a published anthology, and this year they have a serious publisher — Scientific American Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The editor will be the lovely and talented Jennifer Ouellette, so being included carries an extra cachet this year.
It started with an innocent, and possibly joking, request on Twitter: “Can you explain M-theory?” Having previously been asked to defend the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics and various other topics, I didn’t take it very seriously.
But upon further reflection — why not? Obviously nobody is going to give a full and comprehensible account of any reasonably complex topic when limited to 140 characters, but it might be fun and even useful to try to distill the basic point of something down to its tweetable essence. Still, in a single tweet there is almost no chance to do much but introduce jargon, so I decided to allow myself three tweets. Here’s my go at summarizing M-theory. (Remember chronology is bottom-up.)
Obviously, there is more to be said, but I think some actual information is conveyed. Different people might choose different aspects of a subject to spend their precious three tweets on, but that’s part of the beauty. As someone pointed out, a poetic aspect results from subjecting yourself to such stringent limitations on what you can say.
And if it works for M-theory, what else? And thus a hashtag was born: #3tweets. Yesterday I took a stab at the Higgs boson.
This reminded me that quantum field theory is probably the single most under-popularized subject in all of fundamental physics. Particle physics, yes; string theory, sure; quantum mechanics, endlessly; but the structure of QFT itself is rarely explained in its own right. It’s worth at least a few tweets.
I certainly hope to try a few more examples. But — it’s everyone’s internet. Feel free to join in, with new topics or ones previously covered. I’m sure someone has a different take on quantum field theory than I do.