Category: Entertainment

Time and Space, Remapped

By Sean Carroll | November 14, 2012 2:47 pm

A short two-person dance, with a twist. Or more accurately, a shear: time is remapped so that there is a delay that increases as you move from the top of the frame down to the bottom. Or in math: (x’, y’, t’) = (x, y, t – y), in some units. Via Terence Tao and Alex Fink.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Mathematics

Dismal Global Equilibria

By Sean Carroll | June 14, 2012 12:00 pm

The Civilization series of games takes players through the course of history, allowing them to guide a society/nation from way back in prehistory up through the near future (say, 2100). You develop technologies, choose political systems, and raise armies. There are various ways to “win” the game: military conquest, achieving a just and happy society, or building a spaceship that will travel to Alpha Centauri. It’s a great pastime for any of us who harbor the suspicion that the world would be a better place if we were installed as a benevolent dictator.

Although the game is supposed to take you to the near future, apparently (I’ve never played) you can keep going if you choose to. Which is exactly what one commenter at Reddit did: he has been nursing a single game of Civilization II for ten years now, bringing his virtual global society up to the year 3991 AD. (Via It’s Okay to Be Smart, a wonderful blog.) At which point we may ask: what have we learned?

The news is not good. If you’ve ever read 1984, the outcome will be eerily familiar. I can do no better than quote:

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
  • The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

It gets better from there.

What we actually learn about is the structure of the game. We have one player against the computer (who manages multiple civilizations), each with certain goals — a paradigmatic game theory problem. Such games can have “equilibrium strategies,” where no player can make a unilateral change that would improve their situation. Assuming that this player isn’t simply missing something, it’s likely that the game has reached one such equilibrium. That could be the only equilibrium, or there could be a happier one that might have been reached by making different decisions along the way.

What we would like to learn, but can’t, is whether this has any relevance to the real globe. It might! But maybe not. The Earth isn’t a closed system, so the “escape to another planet” option is on the table. But the Solar System is quite finite, and largely forbidding, and other stars are really far away. So limiting our attention to the Earth alone isn’t necessarily a bad approximation.

Right now the human population of the Earth is very far from equilibrium, either politically, or technologically, or socially, or simply in terms of sheer numbers. A real equilibrium wouldn’t be burning through finite resources like fossil fuels at such a prodigious rate, continually inventing new technologies, and constantly re-arranging its political map. But it’s possible (probably unlikely) that we could reach a quasi-equilibrium state in another couple of centuries. With a system as complicated as human civilization on Earth, naive extrapolation of past trends toward the future isn’t likely to tell us much. But “sustainable” isn’t a synonym for “desirable.” If there could be such a near-term equilibrium, would it be a happy one, or the game-prognosticated future of endless war and suffering?

Not clear. I have some measure of optimism, based on the idea that real people wouldn’t simply persist in the same cycles of conflict and misery for indefinite periods of time. It only seems that way sometimes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Technology, World

Avengers Assemble!

By Sean Carroll | May 4, 2012 11:25 am

Mostly I’m holed up at home these days, pounding out paragraph after paragraph about the LHC and the Higgs boson. But even the most dedicated author needs a sanity break, and mine is coming tonight, in the form of The Avengers. I won’t bore you with an explanation of what the movie is about, as 99% of the potential audience has pre-decided on geeky enthusiasm and/or hipster disdain (or both!). But I will take the opportunity to post a clip featuring everybody’s favorite Marvel character: Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD. (And one of those leather-clad superheroes people seem to like so much.)

In case you can’t get enough, Clark Gregg has collected all his favorite Agent Coulson moments. (Just ask the professional screenwriters: “I’m sure avengers is great, but the only marvel movie i’d truly kill or die to see is Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment

ATLAS Peeped

By Mark Trodden | March 26, 2012 5:19 am

Not wanting to let Sean get away with the only marshmallow-related post this year, I’d like to bring to your attention that, for the fifth year running, the Washington Post recently held its Peeps Diorama Contest. This would be a pretty strange topic to cover on this blog were it not for the fact that one of the entries was the wonderful ATLAS Peeped!

Designed and Constructed by Marilena Loverde and Laura Newburgh, ATLAS Peeped is a painstaking and delicious reconstruction of the detector and its environment, with great attention to detail in adapting it to the peep universe. For example, please note the textbooks in the following (click on the photo for a full-size version)

I really hope Michael Peepskin is reading this.

As a theorist, I can’t help but leave you with a detail with equations

See! And I had thought peeps would naturally gravitate towards the soft sciences.

Update: I had earlier referred to a third person helping create this, but was mistaken, and have edited the post accordingly.

Robot Helicopter Electrik Band

By Sean Carroll | February 29, 2012 12:23 pm

Sometimes a label conveys it all: “Robot Quadrotors Perform James Bond Theme.” This video was shown today at the TED conference by Vijay Kumar of Penn. (H/t Al Seckel.)

Note that the little helicopters are pre-programmed; they’re not being remotely controlled by any human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Music, Technology

A 3.8-Sigma Anomaly

By Sean Carroll | February 4, 2012 9:33 am

Every professional football game begins with the flip of a coin, to determine who gets the ball first. In the case of the Super Bowl, the teams represent the National Football Conference (NFC) or American Football Conference (AFC). Interestingly, the last 14 coin flips have been won by the NFC.

Working out the numbers, the chances of 14 coin flips in a row being equal is 1 in 8,192. (The linked article says 1 in 16,000, which comes from 2^14; but that first coin flip has to be something, so the chances of 14 in a row are really 1 in 2^13. The anomaly would be just as strange if the AFC had won every time.) That’s a better than 3.8-sigma effect! Enough to call a press conference, if this were particle physics.

The question is … is this really a signal, or did we just get lucky? Is it a fair coin and the NFC has just been the happy recipient of a statistical fluctuation, or is there something fishy about the coin? Remember Barry Greenstein’s parable about how different people compute probabilities.

And let it be a lesson the next time you’re excited about 3-sigma anomalies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Science, Top Posts

Mind = Blown

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2012 8:37 am

Apologies that real work (to the extent that what I do can be called “work”) has gotten in the way of substantive blogging. But I cannot resist sharing the amazing things I learned this weekend — amazing to me, anyway, although it’s possible I’m the only one here who wasn’t clued in.

Thing the first is that Morgan Freeman, many years before he went through the wormhole, was a regular on The Electric Company, along with performers like Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby. (Via Quantum Diaries, of all places.) This was public television’s show from the 70’s that was meant for kids who had moved on from Sesame Street — I was more of a Zoom kid myself, but I must have seen Electric Company episodes with Freeman playing hip dude Easy Reader.

Thing the second is that Easy Reader’s theme song, sung in the clip above, is a dead ringer for Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” Flip back and forth between playing them if you don’t believe me. So much so, I am told, that DJ’s in clubs will sometimes mix the two tunes together. Not at the clubs I go to, I guess.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Music

Good News/Bad News: Nobel Edition

By Sean Carroll | January 13, 2012 8:59 am

The good news about winning the Nobel Prize: you get better parking on campus.

The bad news: Sheldon Cooper makes fun of you on national TV.

Of course you don’t need to watch the ceremonies to learn what all the scientists are wearing this year. I am reliably informed that a regular tuxedo is not good enough; you need to go full white tie and tails. (Interestingly, the Peace Prize is more casual; black tie or “national costume” is perfectly acceptable.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment

Scientists: Scamming America

By Sean Carroll | October 27, 2011 9:17 am

From The Daily Show, via Why Evolution is True, here’s a hard-hitting expose on the slick con called “science” that is scamming America.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights – Science – What’s It Up To?
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

I am generally a fan of the two-party system. Sadly, at the moment in this country, one of the parties is completely crazy.

Update: Sorry that the video isn’t available outside the U.S. Note that Lisa Randall was a guest earlier on the show.

How Probability Works

By Sean Carroll | September 5, 2011 9:25 am

From Barry Greenstein’s insightful poker book, Ace on the River:

Someone shows you a coin with a head and a tail on it. You watch him flip it ten times and all ten times it comes up heads. What is the probability that it will come up heads on the eleventh flip?

A novice gambler would tell you, “Tails is more likely than heads, since things have to even out and tails is due to come up.”

A math student would tell you, “We can’t predict the future from the past. The odds are still even.”

A professional gambler would say, “There must be something wrong with the coin or the way it is being flipped. I wouldn’t bet with the guy flipping it, but I’d bet someone else that heads will come up again.”

Yes I know the math student would really say “individual trials are uncorrelated,” not “we can’t predict the future from the past.” The lesson still holds.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Mathematics
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