Category: Media

Report from Colbert

By Sean Carroll | March 10, 2010 8:56 pm

Reporting back from a hotel in midtown Manhattan, having made it through the Colbert Report basically unscathed. In fact the experience was great from beginning to end. Update: here is the clip.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Sean Carroll
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations

Monday morning I talked on the phone with Emily Lazar, a researcher for the show. I was really impressed right from the start: it was clear that she wanted to make it easy for me to get across some substantive message, within the relatively confining parameters of what is basically a comedy show. From start to finish everyone I dealt with was a consummate pro.

We got picked up at our hotel in a car that brought us to the Colbert studio, and hustled inside under relatively high security — people whispering into lapel microphones that we had arrived and were headed to the green room. Very exciting. The green room was actually green, which is apparently unusual. I got pep talks from a couple of the staff people, who encouraged me to keep things as simple as possible. They made an interesting point about scientists: they make the perfect foils for Stephen’s character, since they actually rely on facts rather than opinions.


Stephen himself dropped by to say hi, and to explain the philosophy of his character — I suppose there still are people out there who could be guests on the show who haven’t ever actually watched it. Namely, he’s a complete idiot, and it’s my job to educate him. But it’s not my job to be funny — that’s his bailiwick. The guests are encouraged to be friendly and sincere, but not pretend to be comedians.

We got to sit in the audience as the early segments were taped, which were hilarious. I feel bad that my own interview is going to be the low point of the show, laughs-wise. But I went out on cue, and fortunately I wasn’t at all jittery — too much going on to have time to get nervous, I suppose.

I had some planned responses for what I thought were the most obvious questions. Of which, he asked zero. Right off the bat Colbert managed to catch me off guard by asking a much more subtle question than I had anticipated — isn’t the early universe actually very disorderly? That would be true if you ignored gravity, but a big part of my message is that you can’t ignore gravity! The problem was, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t use the word “entropy,” resisting the temptation to lapse into jargon. But he had immediately pinpointed an example where the association of “low entropy” with “orderly” wasn’t a perfect fit. So I had to go back on my pledge and bring up entropy, although I didn’t exactly give a careful definition.

As everyone warned me, the whole interview went by in an absolute flash, although it really lasts about five minutes. There was a fun moment when we agreed that “Wrong Turn Into Yesterday” would make a great title for a progressive-rock album. Overall, I think I could have done a better job at explaining the underlying science, but at least I hope I successfully conveyed the spirit of the endeavor. We’ll have to see how it comes across on TV.

I shouldn’t end without including some good words about the bag of swag. Not only does every guest get a goodie bag that includes a bottle of excellent tequila, it also includes a $100 gift certificate for Donors Choose. How awesome is that?

And as we left the studio, there were some young audience members lurking around hoping for a glimpse of the great man himself. They had to settle for me, but they sheepishly asked if I would pose for a picture with them. Not yet having perfected my diva act, I happily complied. I hope they take away some great memories of the night.


The measure of a man

By Daniel Holz | April 21, 2009 9:13 am

John Archibald Wheeler embodied the golden age of physics. He was perhaps unique in having made foundational contributions to both pillars of modern physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. He helped develop the theory of nuclear fission, and then was an important participant in the Manhattan project. He discussed quantum mechanics with Bohr, relativity with Einstein, and electrodynamics with his student, Feynman. One of Wheeler’s particularly nice calculations (on asymmetrical nuclei) got scooped because Bohr sat on it too long. The person that scooped them, James Rainwater, subsequently won the Nobel prize for the result. In Feynman’s Nobel lecture, he credits Wheeler with many of the key insights. Wheeler mentored over one hundred students, and those students (and grand-students) now populate leading physics departments throughout the world. In addition to his facility with physics, Wheeler displayed a wondrous command over language. His career is partially encapsulated in his coinages: wormhole, black hole, the planck length and time, quantum foam, the sum over histories, the S-matrix, It from Bit, the wavefunction of the Universe.

john wheeler

John Wheeler passed away almost exactly a year ago. In commemoration of his tremendous contributions to physics, the current edition of Physics Today (the monthly magazine of the American Physical Society) is dedicated entirely to his memory. [Sadly, only select articles are public, which I find incomprehensible.] The issue includes an article on Wheeler’s early work on particles (written by Ken Ford), as well as one on his later work on fields, gravity, and information (by Charlie Misner, Kip Thorne, and Wojciech Zurek). There are also two reprints of articles authored by Wheeler, one on nuclear fission (describing his pioneering work with Niels Bohr), and one “introducing” black holes (written with Remo Ruffini). As a sign of Wheeler’s enduring legacy, the magazine ends with an article (by Terry Christensen) focused on his tremendous mentorship.

It is impossible to summarize Wheeler’s impact, both as a physicist and as a human being. How do you reduce someone to a few paragraphs, or a few articles, or a few interviews? Wheeler was unique in his insight, his breadth, his generosity, and his humanity. For those that were fortunate enough to spend time with him, he left an indelible mark. As one of Wheeler’s students put it in the acknowledgment to their thesis:

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the tremendous support and encouragement given to me by John A. Wheeler. Over the last two years he has introduced me to the world of physics research and shaped the way I think about physics. I have benefited greatly, both as a physicist and as a person, from his example, and will carry this with me always. John Wheeler has had a profound impact on my life and I am deeply indebted.

I wrote that over 15 years ago, and it is no less true today.

Of markets and weather

By Daniel Holz | January 26, 2009 11:36 pm

The day after the inauguration I picked up a copy of the Washington Post. Right on the front page, below the article on our new President, was an article about the performance of the stock market on Inauguration Day (including a handy table of the performance over the last 15 inaugurations). The markets tanked, with the Dow shedding 4% of its value. The Wall Street Journal also ran some commentary noting the connection between Obama’s election and market performance. Is there an important message here? No. stocks drop There is essentially zero causation between Obama’s installation in the oval office and market performance on the same day. It’s not like stock brokers woke up that Tuesday morning, flipped on their TVs, discovered that Obama was about to become president, and decided to dump their portfolios. Obama’s election has been incorporated into market valuations for months. These articles are tantamount to talking about the weather on inauguration day (brutally cold, I can assure you). Obama had little to do with the miraculous break in the clouds and sunshine that immediately preceded his swearing in. Newspapers are unlikely to devote an article to the weather on 1/20. And they’re certainly not going to put such an article on the front page. So why are the markets so fetishized that their performance is considered front-page “news”, even on a day with plenty of other notable events?

The market drop is indeed relevant, not as a sign of what Obama will do to the financial markets, but rather, what the financial markets will do to Obama. We are in an era of immense volatility and huge losses. In other times a 4% drop would be highly unusual and notable. But, sadly, in the present climate it has become routine. The economic downturn will almost certainly impact essentially every aspect of Obama’s time in office.

As it happens, the weather can also play an important role in the inauguration of a President. It was bitter cold for President William Harrison’s inauguration in 1841. His speech lasted for almost two hours (a record length), with him standing outside with little shelter. He caught pneumonia, and within a month was dead. There was undoubtedly little correlation between the cold and his death. But it makes for a perfect apocryphal story.


Mischievous or Moronic?

By Mark Trodden | December 26, 2008 7:55 am

If you’re a friend of a Brit, then you’ll undoubtedly know that we’re a dry people, and you may sometimes find yourself doing a double take and wondering whether we’re joking or serious. But after reading yesterday’s Guardian, I’m wondering whether I’ve spent enough time out of the country to lose my own edge. Perhaps I can on longer distinguish finely-crafted satire from mind-numbing stupidity.

This crisis of self-confidence was brought on by reading Michele Hanson’s article, as part of Cif charades “:A special Christmas series in which Cif regulars write about a counterintuitive topic suggested by our readers” I’ve looked at others in this series, but unfortunately they haven’t provided me with the appropriate humor/bullshit compass necessary to divine the meaning of Hanson’s column. I’ve even checked myself against coumns that I know to be humorous, such as David Mitchell’s recent fun rant, but I can’t find a problem.

So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’ve lost the ability to tease out the dark humor in

Quantum physics is a bit of a black hole to me. You jump in and where do you get? Nowhere.


I wonder whether there weren’t better things physicists could have been doing over the last century. Just look where their work has got them. Niels Bohr, whose research led to quantum mechanics theories, went off to work on the Manhattan Project, and we all know where that got us. Thank you Oppenheimer, Bohr et al for the atom bomb.

For a moment, I thought I recognized something familiarly jolly in Hanson’s closing remarks

I asked another friend out with her dog. Her knowledge of plain, never mind quantum, physics was fairly basic. “Apples fall on your head,” she said. “Heat rises except in my oven, and E = mc².”

I can manage that, except for the last equation. Let’s not go there.

until I realized they just reminded me of a lazy undergraduate who claims they can’t do addition because they’re “not a math person”.

So I’m stumped. Surely The Guardian wouldn’t green-light a thoughtless and meaningless column by a patently ignorant and anti-intellectual author, would they? So how come I’m not finding it funny?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science and the Media

Kicking it Old School

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 19, 2008 1:49 pm

Google is now serving up more than a hundred years of photographs from Life Magazine. The pictures of the early days of astronomy are just spectacular. The archives contain images of many astronomers who were critical figures in the development of the field, but who have yet to have telescopes named after them. A large fraction of them also seemed to smoke pipes.

A huge hero of mine is Walter Baade. Baade was the guy who essentially took over observations at Mt Wilson during the blackouts of WWII. With the lights of Los Angeles snuffed out, and unable to serve in the military himself, he pushed the telescopes on Mt Wilson to their limits, and established the study of stellar populations in nearby galaxies.


There are some terrific pictures of Walter Adams working at Mt Wilson. In the picture below, he’s holding the telescope controls used for guiding. During an astronomical observation, you have to move the telescope to compensate for the earth’s rotation. Nowadays, your computer can take care of it by adjusting the position to keep a bright star at a fixed position on a CCD camera. Back then, you looked through a little spotting scope, and manually adjusted the telescope position to keep it pointed at the right part of the sky. If you let it drift, your image would be blurry. No pee breaks for you, Dr. Adams!


The guy kneeling in the figure below is Gerard Kuiper, working on a telescope at McDonald Observatory. He was a planetary astronomer, and the guy for whom the “Kuiper Belt” in the outer solar system was named, although Edgeworth probably deserved more credit for it. (Kuiper actually does have an airborne observatory named after him).


And you have to love this picture of Frank Drake, working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank West Virginia. You really can never have enough toggle switches. FYI, Drake is the guy behind the “Drake Equation”, used to estimate the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.


And finally, a wonderful overhead shot of the 100″ telescope at Mt. Wilson

Mt Wilson overhead

The pictures above are a tiny fraction of the available pictures of working scientists. Cancel your afternoon appointments and dive in.

British Multiculturalism

By Mark Trodden | October 17, 2008 8:10 pm

The Guardian has carried out a quite fascinating project. They have identified children raised in Britain, but originating from almost every country in the entire United Nations’ list (omitted were San Marino, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Naura, Paulu, the Central African Republic and North Korea), photographed them, taken their stories, and posted them on the Guardian web site.

It is remarkable to me to see such a collection of children, from every corner of the planet, gathered in my home country; a tiny island off the coast of mainland Europe. Their personal tales are intriguing – some heartwarming, others heartbreaking – and provide a sampling of some of the world’s recent history.



By Julianne Dalcanton | October 5, 2008 12:25 pm

I had the pleasure the other day of talking with science writer Jennifer Ouellette, blogger at Cocktail Party Physics, who also happens to be a black belt in jujitsu (!), and Sean’s wife. The conversation was recorded for, which is a (to me) peculiar project to record bloggers talking to each other. I admit to being baffled that people actually want to listen to bloggers talk into their computers. However, people seem to actually watch these discussions, and given that I enjoy talking about science (and had never had the opportunity to meet Jennifer before), it seemed like a fun thing to do. If you’re interested, the discussion is here:

While I enjoyed the actual discussion, I confess to finding it disconcerting to have a recording of myself floating around the internet. I still have a bit of the anxious 13 year old stuck in my head, replaying years-old conversations where I wish I hadn’t said something, or said something different. The rational 40 year old part of me knows these conversations were long forgotten by everyone but me, but with the internet, they’re actually not. Instead, people can replay them over and over, and (even worse) comment on whether or not I misused a particular word (I did — I said “spurious” when “serendipitous” would have been more appropriate), or whether or not it’s distracting that a hunk of my hair tends to fall down and cover my one non-functional eye. It’s like my middle school nightmares actually coming true. I’ve progressed enough in the intervening two decades that I’m not paralyzed or depressed over it, but the desire to get everything just right, and feeling faint flips in the stomach when you fall just a little bit short, has never completely gone away.

The Blue Screen of Nonsense

By Sean Carroll | September 29, 2008 9:44 am

If you’ve run across Microsoft’s new ads, which aim to counter the witty “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” series by Apple, you might have noticed this tweedy academic-looking guy near the end:

Years back, I had the idea that Apple should include more famous-for-academia types in its Think Different ads. Ed Witten, Jacques Derrida, Amartya Sen, people like that. But I didn’t actually call up any ad agencies to make the pitch. So I figured that Microsoft had the same idea, and was including some professor-type among its self-declared PC’s in order to lend some gravitas to the proceedings.

Yeah, not so much. The somber mug above belongs to none other than Deepak Chopra, celebrated purveyor of quantum nonsense. He did, of course, win the 1998 IgNobel Prize in Physics for “for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.” So there is that. (In certain religious circles, there is an increasingly popular teaching known as the Prosperity Gospel. I wonder if I could make money writing a book about “The Prosperity Hamiltonian”?)

The construction of jokes comparing Deepak Chopra’s understanding of quantum mechanics to Microsoft’s understanding of software is left as an exercise for the reader.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science and Society

Premiere of The Atom Smashers

By John Conway | September 26, 2008 4:21 pm

The documentary film The Atom Smashers, which I posted about earlier, premiered at the Museum of Science and Industry last week, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with Mark Oreglia from Chicago, Ben Kilminster and Marcela Carena from Fermilab, Robin and me from UC Davis, and the two filmmakers, Clayton Brown and Monica Ross. We took individual questions from a moderator, Sylvia Ewing, and then from the audience. I have to say that my favorite question came from a student who asked if our quest to understand nature at the particle level was never-ending, due to Godel’s Theorem or something like that. That question is worth a post all by itself, and I want to apologize to than young man for not answering it more fully. Bottom line answer: it probably is never-ending, but more like an infinite series is never ending, rather than the truth being out there, never accessible to experiment.

Ben Lillie, a theorist from Argonne/Chicago who attended the premiere, wrote a very thoughtful review and captures a lot about what folks have been saying. Julia Keller wrote an article about it two days before hte show for the Chciago Tribune. The film was shown at Fermilab yesterday, and overall we’ve gotten a lot of great positive feedback on it.

Robin and I only saw the movie the night before the premiere for the first time, and had only 24 hours to get over the weird feeling of seeing yourself in a movie. But Clayton and Monica did a great job of picking out some of the more interesting and intelligent things we had to say, and they fit well into the overall story line of the film.

This is a truly new approach to making a science documentary, rarely if at all pedagogical about the science itself, but rather digging a level deeper into what it’s like to do what we do, what motivates us, and the never ending struggle to maintain funding. There is kind of a bittersweet feeling at the end – no Higgs, no funding – but the fact that we all still hope that we will break through some day soon to the next level of understanding about our universe is palpably present at the end.

The film will be shown on PBS’s Independent Lens on Nov. 25. Bravo, Clayton and Monica and all the rest at 137 Films!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science, Science and the Media

"I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself"

By Risa Wechsler | July 13, 2008 10:11 am

Several months ago, in the heat of the republican primary, Yahoo news asked the candidates: Mac or PC? McCain’s response was revealing… and disturbing.

Neither. I am an illiterate who has to reply on my wife for all of the assistance I can get.

Now come some even more impressive quotes in an interview with the New York Times.

He said, ruefully, that he had not mastered how to use the Internet and relied on his wife and aides like Mark Salter, a senior adviser, and Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to get him online to read newspapers (though he prefers reading those the old-fashioned way) and political Web sites and blogs.

“They go on for me,” he said. “I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don’t expect to be a great communicator, I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need.”

Mr. McCain said he did not use a BlackBerry, though he regularly reads messages on those of his aides. “I don’t e-mail, I’ve never felt the particular need to e-mail,” Mr. McCain said.

I know the internets are confusing and all, but I’m frankly a bit baffled by this. He needs help “getting on”??? To read newspapers? Hard to imagine that there’s not a computer he could use somewhere, already attached to the internet, and probably even with the browser already installed. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have to learn how to set his DNS servers in order to read the New York Times. Is it typing the URL that’s difficult? My grandmother, by the way, who is more than a decade older than McCain, seems to have figured this out just fine, even without a campaign staff to help.

The level of cluelessness here is deep — not only does he admit that he’s completely illiterate, he demonstrates a basic lack of familiarity with the terminology (he also mentioned that his staff shows him Drudge, because “Everybody watches, for better or for worse, Drudge.”), much like his colleague Senator Ted “series of tubes” Stevens, opposer of net neutrality.

And it’s important. At the risk of stating the obvious: Internet policy has direct relevance for our most fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, privacy, and democratic access to information. Computing is increasingly critical to our increased understanding of the Universe, financial markets, and disease. The internet and social networking tools are rapidly revolutionizing the way we interact with each other, citizen’s access to and engagement in government, and government accountability. These things are central not only to innovation and the global economy, but to 21st century democracy in America and the world. It’s really hard to see how you can fully appreciate these issues if you don’t know the most basic things about operating a computer. Leadership matters.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has a twitter account. (He also hired one of the Facebook founders to start his myBarackObama site, which has clearly been responsible for a good deal of his internet fundraising and organizing.) He gets it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Media, Politics, Technology
MORE ABOUT: internets, McCain

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