This is an actual TV show in the UK (based on a Japanese program), broadcast on a channel called Dave. In it, Dara O Briain and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, along with special comedy guests, take on math puzzles (and compete against school-aged math whizzes in the process).
Watch at least the first segment, to see Dara come up with a frikkin’ ingenious solution to a geometry problem.
Could there be a show like this broadcast on TV in the US? Of course not. We only have a thousand channels, there’s no room!
I’m about to leave Melbourne for Auckland, where I’ll be speaking at and participating in a workshop Richard Easther is organizing, called The LHC, Particle Physics and the Cosmos.
I’ll have a little bit more to say about the ICHEP conference, but for now, I’ll leave you with a link to a very brief interview I did on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National Drive Radio show a couple of days ago. I found it hard to get much across in the short time, but it is nice to think that people driving home from work might have been hearing about ICHEP, the Higgs and dark matter.
Tomorrow I get to go to my office, after being forbidden to do so for the last week and a half. Although the fire is still burning and only 27% contained, and is clearly visible in the hills above Los Alamos, the “containment lines are secure”, and the mandatory evacuation order has been rescinded.
The fire itself was international news. Now that the immediate threat to Los Alamos National Lab has passed, the news cycle has moved on. But there is perhaps an equally compelling story: The largest wildfire in New Mexico history, which burned 50,000 acres in 24 hours and has now consumed over 125,000 acres, came right up to the lab’s perimeter but did no damage to the lab. It easily could have swept through Los Alamos, which although not a Fukushima-scale disaster, would nonetheless have been highly undesirable (and not just because of all my precious notes at work). The real story here is that this laboratory did a remarkable job of protecting itself, with the help of an outstanding group of firefighters (over 2,000 people from all over, aided by a small army’s worth of planes and helicopters).
Although the fire continues to threaten (including Cochiti and Santa Clara Pueblos), the worst seems to be over. The fire won’t be fully extinguished until the rains come in earnest, which could easily take another month. For the time being, the fire breaks appear to be holding, and life is slowly returning to normal. And the sunsets have been spectacular:
Even if that work is writing.
A weird commotion has broken out in the comments on Mark’s post. Unfortunately not about new forces and interactions in the dark sector, which would be great, but about the grave evil done by the profiteering meanies at Scientific American and their witting collaborators, Mark and Jonathan Feng. These two upstanding physicists have apparently written an article that you have to pay to read. It appears that the article is in some sort of “magazine,” an archaic collection of periodic writings that traditionally charge fees for people to access. Bizarre! (The comedy is kicked up a proverbial notch by people blaming the argument on “the extreme left.”)
There is an interesting and important discussion to be had about the best way to efficiently organize an economy of writers and readers in the internet age. This isn’t that discussion. The interesting discussion would consider the tradeoffs between systems with fees, paywalls, advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, micropayments, and so on. This discussion, in contrast, was kicked off by “paying money for knowledge is plain idiotic” and went downhill from there. (Of all the Laws of the Internet, the firmest is the Second Law of Commentodynamics: in an isolated comment thread, disorder and waste heat only increase with time.)
Paying for knowledge happens all the time. We buy books and magazines, we pay to enter museums, we pay tuition at colleges and universities, and so on. Information on the internet is not, in principle, any different. There’s a lot that is available for free, and that’s great. It does not follow that it should all be free.
If enough resources are free on the internet, it will certainly become more difficult for outlets such as traditional newspapers and magazines to charge for content. They have to both 1) make the case that they add some sort of substantive value, and 2) make the fees small enough and unobtrusive enough that people won’t mind paying. It’s not the only model; at the moment, giving things away but associating them with advertising seems to be more prevalent. We live in an era when the timescales over which technology is changing are substantially less than the time it takes for new economic structures to emerge and mature into equilibrium. This doesn’t change the basic fact that people like getting paid for the work they do, or they might not do it. Which, if that work consists of providing useful services like interesting articles about science addressed to the general public, would be too bad.
A couple of years or so ago, Jonathan Feng at UC Irvine, George Musser from Scientific American and I began discussions about an article for the magazine. This week, that article finally hit the newsstands in the November Issue.
Back in 2008, Jonathan and I had for quite a while been interested in the connections between particle physics and cosmology, and in particular how experiments at current, upcoming (the LHC at that point) and future colliders could inform and be informed by modern cosmology. In fact, I’d written about these connections a number of times here on the blog, discussing, for example, the nature of WIMP dark matter, and the origin of the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe. And these were the starting point for our interactions with George about a SciAm article.
The journey from these initial musings to a final article was a mostly enjoyable and interesting one, and for me it contrasted greatly with the vast majority of writing that I do, presenting my own current research for journals. In those efforts, the editorial input is generally small. One receives referee reports that are hopefully mostly positive, and can sometimes (although rarely, to be honest) contain excellent suggestions that improve the final version of the paper. The editorial role is mostly in the selection of referees by a scientist serving on the editorial board, and in general grammatical editing of the paper and verification of references as it nears the publication date.
But writing for a magazine is a different experience. From the beginning it was very much a collaborative effort, with Jonathan and I honing our ideas about what should appear in the article, and George pushing some ideas and downplaying others, to fit with his experience of the kind of article that most readers want. We were all searching for the right mix of background material, new directions in the field, and connections to work that Jonathan and I had been directly involved in, and so could comment on from direct experience. Although we didn’t always agree, it was definitely a constructive process, and the final content was a consensus in the best sense of the word, with what to emphasize and what couldn’t make it into the article for space reasons (which are very tight) the outcome of lengthy, but useful negotiations between us and George. That it took a couple of years from inception to publication is partly a reflection of the natural time it takes for a lot of back and forth between editor and authors who have busy day jobs, and partly because in the middle I moved institutions, putting me out of action for a while.
What we ended up focusing on is the intriguing possibility that the dark sector of cosmology might exhibit a considerably richer structure than our usual simple descriptions of a plain WIMP candidate for dark matter, and a cosmological constant, or sequestered dark energy component driving cosmic acceleration. Rather, it is possible that the dark sector contains it’s own set of new particles and forces, and that our detections, gravitationally based so far, have not yet been able to probe this underlying structure. We wrote about interesting possibilities for dark matter, some of which are related to work Jonathan has done, for much of the article, and at the end turned to the possibility of interactions with dark energy, which I’ve worked on and have occasionally written about here. As we concluded the article:
The only matter we know anything about, visible matter, comprises a rich spectrum of particles with multiple interactions determined by beautiful underlying symmetry principles. Nothing suggests that dark matter and dark energy should be any different. We may not encounter dark stars, planets and people, but just as we could hardly imagine the solar system without Neptune, Pluto and the swarm of objects that lie even farther out, one day we might not be able to conceive of a universe without an intricate and fascinating dark world.
The article isn’t perfect, of course. For example, there is a heading for one of the figures that reads “Experiments that claim to have detected dark matter”. We didn’t write that, but we should have caught it in proofs. It is wrong, of course, and should read something like “Experiments that are searching for dark matter”. Also, after being so close to the material for a while, there are some ambiguities that you don’t notice unless someone else reads them a different way and lets you know. But in all, I think Jonathan and I are pretty happy with the final article.
For me, it was an enjoyable experience, with several highlights. First and foremost, we had an engaged and sympathetic editor who understood both the science and the target audience. Thanks George! Second, it is wonderful fun to receive some actual draft page proofs, after months of exchanging a visually unappealing text file, and to see the art work that has been designed to accompany the article. We had some very rough ideas regarding one or two of the figures, but most of the visual parts of the article were created with no initial input from us. We helped tweak at the end, and certainly helped with text in the figures, but the gorgeous graphics were essentially all the magazine’s work. And finally, George never even hinted to us, but when we received copies of the actual magazine a few days before it appeared, we were shocked and delighted to see that our article was the cover article. I can’t tell you how thrilled my mother will be!
Just like the newsstand version, the online version of the article costs money of course. But if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it.
Great post yesterday by fellow Discover denizen Ed Yong, asking “Should science journalists take sides?” Honestly, it shouldn’t be a hard question, although the answer depends on how you visualize the sides. If you have in mind
He said vs. She said,
then the job of a journalist is not to take sides. But there’s another possible dichotomy that is much more crucial:
Truth vs. Falsity.
In this case, it’s equally clear that journalists should take sides: they should be in favor of the truth. Not just passively, by trying not to make things up, but actively, by trying to figure out whether something is false before reporting it, even if it’s been said by someone.
All sounds kind of trivial, but it’s easy to lose sight of this principle by hewing to a misguided definition of “objectivity.” Ed pulls an extremely damning quote from medical journalist Jeremy Laurance:
Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.
That sounds about as wrong as it it possible to be wrong. It reflects a kind of lazy pseudo-objectivity that stems mostly, I would uncharitably suggest, from fear — the fear that one will make a mistake in trying to judge whether someone is lying or telling the truth. If journalists are just mindless stenographers, they can’t be accused of making that particular mistake. But they are actually making a much more serious mistake, abandoning the search for truth in favor of the goal of not being blamed.
It’s hard to argue against this mindset, which is often mis-labeled as “objectivity.” So maybe we should be defending the New Objectivity: the crucial duty of reporters to separate what is true from what is false. If a scientist says “this drug will cure cancer,” but the peer-review study doesn’t back that up, it should be a journalist’s duty to make that clear. If a politician says “my plan will cut the deficit,” but a GAO report suggests otherwise, it should be a journalist’s duty to highlight the inconsistency. “Objectivity” shouldn’t mean “report what is said and don’t pass judgment”; it means “uncover the truth, no matter who says what.”
I feel like I have successfully negotiated a Hollywood rite of passage. I was being interviewed on camera for a TV pilot, when I took off my microphone, tossed it aside, and stormed off. How awesome is that??
Not so awesome at all, actually, but it did happen. I much prefer a low-drama lifestyle, and it takes a certain kind of talent to get me that annoyed. Nothing to be proud of; I should have been more careful in learning what the show was about in the first place.
The backstory is that I was called on the phone by producers at a company I had never heard of, but that means nothing, as I haven’t heard of the vast majority of TV production companies. [Update: name of the company removed because I signed a non-disclosure agreement. They didn't complain, just being cautious.] They wanted to come to campus to interview me for a pilot they were producing. I’ve done the drill before, for respectable outlets like the History Channel, Science Channel, and National Geographic. It’s a couple of hours of work, no heavy lifting, and hopefully you get to explain some cool science that will be seen by a much larger audience than I could possibly reach by giving a thousand public lectures. And it’s fun — I get to be on TV, which growing up wasn’t the kind of thing I ever thought I’d get to do.
They explained that they wanted me to talk about quantum teleportation. I countered by mentioning that there were surely better experts that they could talk to. But they really just needed some background information about quantum mechanics and relativity, and were comforted by the fact I had appeared on camera before. And the producer emphasized that they knew perfectly well that teleportation wasn’t realistic right now, but thought it was interesting to speculate about what might ultimately be consistent with the laws of physics. So I agreed. There was a slight hint of sketchiness about the operation — they seemed to be unable to come to an agreement with Caltech in regards to consent forms, which National Geographic or the History Channel never had trouble with. But my antennae weren’t sensitive enough to set off any alarm bells.
So the taping was this afternoon, and it consisted of me chatting informally with the show’s two hosts, while taking a leisurely walk around Caltech’s quite lovely campus. But as soon as we started talking, things went rapidly downhill. The first question was what I thought about claims that people had actually built successful teleportation devices. When I expressed skepticism, one of the hosts challenged me by asking whether I would just be repeating the “party line” of the scientific establishment. I admitted that I probably would, as I think the party line is mostly right. And that we have very good reasons for thinking so.
They next asked whether it wasn’t possible that people had built teleporters by taking advantage of extra dimensions. I explained why this wasn’t possible — extra dimensions are things that physicists take very seriously, but if they are macroscopically accessible they would have shown up in experiments long ago. From there, the downhill spiral just continued. They asked whether I was familiar with the “black projects” conducted by the CIA and the military? What about eyewitness testimony of people who had been to Mars and back? Was it possible that ghosts and/or extraterrestrials used quantum mechanics to travel through walls?
It sounds even worse in retrospect than it did at the time, because they would intersperse the craziness with relatively straightforward questions about physics. But I think that even the straightforward questions were just an accident — they were trying to be goofy, but didn’t understand the difference between what is possible and what is just crazy. (“Do you think it’s possible to travel into the future at a faster rate than normal?”) The producer would occasionally interrupt with some sort of suggestion that they actually say something about quantum teleportation. “I don’t really know anything about that,” replied the host to which I was speaking.
Eventually one of the hosts mentioned psychic remote viewing, and smirked when I tried to explain that it’s easier to disbelieve a few eyewitness reports than to imagine a complete breakdown of the laws of physics. With that, after having resisted the temptation for a good fifteen minutes, I cut it off and walked away. The producers tried to get me to come back, but there was no way. I don’t know whether they will go ahead and use any of the footage from my interview; I don’t think I said anything I would later regret, but I did sign a consent form. Hopefully they will try to salvage a shred of their own respectability, and not use me on the show.
The problem for me wasn’t primarily the credulous attitude toward craziness — although there was that. The real problem was dishonesty. In their last-ditch effort to get me to come back, the producers tried to explain that they really were interested in quantum teleportation, and the hosts had simply wandered off-script. The show wouldn’t be biased in favor of the paranormal, they assured me. The problem is, nowhere in talking to me about the show was the word “paranormal” ever mentioned. I was given the impression that it was a straightforward science show, and that was simply untrue.
There is a perfectly reasonable debate to be had, concerning the extent to which respectable scientists should publicly engage with pseudoscientific craziness. Under the right circumstances I could conceivably be willing to participate in a show that discussed paranormal phenomena, as long as I could be convinced that it was done in a sensible way and my views would be fairly represented. This was nothing like that — all of my pre-interview communication with the producers was strictly about quantum mechanics and teleportation, with no mention of pseudoscience at all. Once the cameras started rolling, it was all ghosts and remote viewing. Completely unprofessional; hopefully next time I’ll be more careful.
Also, for future reference: no brown M&M’s in the green room!
You may have heard that a major climate bill — the “American Power Act,” sponsored by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman — is trundling through Congress. Its prospects for passage are highly unclear; it’s a giant mess of a bill, which would have important consequences for any number of sectors in the economy, and the country’s attention is largely focused elsewhere at the moment. (A substantial fraction is focused on Justin Bieber, but I don’t really blame him.)
So what does the bill say? Here’s the very short version, from our sister blog 80 Beats:
The carbon emissions targets are: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That’s made to match the goals in the House bill that passed in 2009. In addition, the bill proposes putting a price on carbon.
23 ‘‘(B) WITHHOLDING ALLOWANCES.—
24 ‘‘(i) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding
25 subparagraph (A), subject to the condition
1 described in clause (ii), the Administrator
2 shall withhold from distribution under this
3 paragraph a quantity of emission allow-
4 ances equal to the lesser of—
5 ‘‘(I) 14.3 percent of the quantity
6 of emission allowances allocated under
7 section 781(a)(1) for the relevant vin-
8 tage year; and
9 ‘‘(II) 105 percent of the emission
10 allowances of the relevant vintage year
11 that the Administrator anticipates will
12 be distributed to merchant coal units
13 and long-term contract generators
14 under subsections (c) and (d).
There are good reasons why bills are written in turgid legal language; but it means that very few concerned citizens are going to be curling up with a good piece of legislation in the evening. That’s okay; we have multiple high-profile media outlets that are here to help us understand the complexities of these important changes to how our country does its business. I mean, right?
Sadly, no, as a wise person once said. CNN had a sit-down interview with Kerry and Lieberman last night, and here’s what we get:
Last night, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman appeared on John King’s CNN program to promote their climate bill, the American Power Act. The transcript is fairly lengthy, but at no point does King ask them to explain the provisions of their bill. Instead, he begins by asking whether they have 60 votes, tries to get them to explain why John McCain isn’t on the legislation, and then asks them to comment on the Sestak-Specter race in Pennsylvania. In fact, the clip the John King show posted online (which I embedded above) doesn’t even mention the climate bill.
Isn’t there room in the media landscape for just one TV news channel that would take seriously the responsibility of actually providing their viewers with useful information? It might be a small, niche market, but if the Golf Channel can thrive, surely it’s an experiment worth trying? I refuse to believe that providing useful information is of necessity such a tedious and boring activity that it can’t be made interesting, no matter how hard we try. We need to get Stephen Spielberg and Jay Rosen in a room together to figure out how to make a news channel that would honestly inform people in an entertaining way. Have them call me.
The final book club installment is still percolating, don’t worry. I’ve been traveling like a crazy person, which has pushed blogging into the background. In the meantime, here are a couple of interviews elsewhere in the infosphere.
First is a New York Times interview with me. It’s very short, but we cover a lot of ground — science education, time travel, entropy, the movies, and my love life. Such plenitude of topics in a tiny piece will necessarily lead to compression, and Jerry Coyne is already complaining that I give short shrift to the complicated reality of aging — and he’s right!
Second and more fun, in Wired I am on the other side of the interviewer’s table, talking to Lost creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. How cool is that? That was a great time, as we chatted excitedly about time, narrative, wormholes, fate and determinism, the role of science in television, and so on. These guys have given an incredible amount of thought into their show at every level — the characters, the mythology, and what it all means. And they wanted to ask me questions about cosmology and how scientists think, which I’m always happy to talk about. I got hooked on the show only after participating in Lost University, but now Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. is the high point of my week. Only a few more episodes to go — which means that people who haven’t seen it can finally order the complete DVD selection, which is really the way to see it. (Just note that Season Three drags a bit, especially near the beginning.)
Something in their business model is working. And I have a hard time imagining that NPR listeners won’t watch televised news programming as a matter of principle.
So where is the NPR of cable news?
To me, the reason seems dead obvious. Radio is the only delivery mechanism that you can absorb while doing something else. Driving? Check. Cooking? Check. Reading email? Check. Lingering in bed after the alarm goes off? Check.
I don’t have a “principle” against watching televised news. I just don’t have time. You could have Ira Glass and Carl Kassell doing the Hustle surrounded by frolicking puppies and I still wouldn’t make the time to sit down and watch.