Category: Miscellany

Decline of America, One in a Continuing Series

By Sean Carroll | July 6, 2011 11:59 am

Tidbits of news, depressing enough on their own and adding up to a bigger picture.

  • The James Webb Space Telescope, having gone so far over budget that large swathes of NASA’s science program has been shelved to make room for it, is now in danger of being cancelled.
  • Everyone knows that education is of paramount importance, especially for economically disadvantaged kids. Therefore, communities across the country are — cutting back on school time, especially for economically disadvantaged kids.
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon — the climactic conclusion to auteur Michael Bay’s explosive trilogy of awesome explodyness — grossed over $116 million over the holiday weekend.

On the other hand, Google+ was launched. So it’s not all bad.



By Daniel Holz | July 5, 2011 12:17 pm

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visible in the hills above Los Alamos, the “containment lines are secure”, and the mandatory evacuation order has been rescinded.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:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Miscellany, Personal

I Get Email

By Sean Carroll | July 2, 2011 9:37 pm

Few things warm the heart of a scientist more readily than a query from a young, curious mind, eager to learn about our universe. Why, just now I received this inquiring email:

R xxxxxx to me


Neutrons have no chemical properties and reflect no light, but they do have mass and occupy space =matter, and clouds of them will never be visible in space!

I find it difficult to believe people who are supposed to be so smart are suck fucking retards!

Cheers Retard ,


For the curious:

Always happy to help a fellow seeker of knowledge.


Here and There

By Sean Carroll | April 15, 2011 4:46 pm

Collected things before I hop on a plane for France:

  • I’m hopping on a plane for France. Spending next week at the Pope’s old palace in Avignon, conferencing with fellow cosmologists about the latest and greatest in the field. I have apparently been appointed to honorary Grand Old Man status, as I’m giving the closing talk at the conference. The title is “White smokes and Dark smokes in cosmology,” and I presume you all understand the reference. I didn’t pick the title, I swear. No live-blogging, but if I’m feeling energetic I might drop in with updates.
  • I’m still thinking about the Open Science idea, haven’t forgotten. But I haven’t really homed in on an appropriate project if we were to try it out. Ideally (I think) you would have something relatively modular, where people could work on separate sub-tasks and then bring them all together. But my own kind of research really isn’t like that; it’s more like I have a single idea that works or doesn’t, and we work out the basic consequences. But still contemplating.
  • Subsequent to the post about NASA giving up on LISA, more official words have come from NASA itself. (The original posts here and elsewhere were based on emails from officials to scientists.) You can read more at Steinn’s blog, or some words from project scientist Robin Stebbins at Jennifer’s Discovery News blog. As far as I can tell, NASA has indeed given up on LISA, but they’re saying that “funding for gravitational wave astrophysics is unchanged,” which is certainly great news.
  • Also at Discovery, Jennifer blogs about Silent Sky, a play by Lauren Gunderson about Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Well worth checking out for you Southern Californians. Amazing what ground-breaking scientific research the women “computers” at Harvard College Observatory managed to do, essentially in their spare time.
  • Sad news out of Yale: an undergraduate physics and astronomy major was killed in a machine shop accident. Thoughts go out to her family and friends.
  • U.S. Federal prosecutors, clearly sitting around bored with nothing better to do, have indicted leaders of online poker sites, and attempted to shut down the sites entirely. There is some legal confusion concerning the status of online poker, stemming from a silly piece of legislation called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. It’s fairly clear that the people who wrote the bill intended to make online poker illegal, but the sites contend that they’ve found ways around the constraints, and have been operating openly for quite a while now. (I personally play at Full Tilt Poker.) Even more clear is that people should be able to play poker for money legally if they want to, and this is an absurd overreach by the government. But it might very well be the end of online poker, at least until the legislation is repealed.
  • Interesting in giving a TED talk? Here’s your chance: they’re accepting auditions. Make a one-minute video that blows them away, and you might find yourself speaking in front of a global audience. Think of it as American Idol for ideas instead of voices.
  • And while we’re talking about videos, the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto has a new effort to put science videos online. Right now mostly focused on their own videos, which have an astronomy slant, but they’re planning to branch out. Worth a look.

Off to Old Europe with me, see you on the flip side.


I love my students

By Julianne Dalcanton | April 6, 2011 5:00 am

Of the thousands of these I’ve received, this is perhaps my favorite student evaluation ever. Thank you anonymous student, for your helpful feedback.
This class needs more cowbell!

(And if this makes no sense, please watch here, or, if you must, read about it on wikipedia)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Humor, Miscellany
MORE ABOUT: cowbell

Danny Hillis on Richard Feynman

By Sean Carroll | March 11, 2011 4:36 pm

One more video from TEDxCaltech. Danny Hillis is the founder of Thinking Machines, the Long Now Foundation, and Applied Minds. Touching and inspirational.

See also Lenny Susskind’s reminiscences.


14 billion years in 7 minutes

By Risa Wechsler | March 4, 2011 5:12 pm

You’ve already heard about TEDx from Sean here and here. The main TED conference for 2011 has been going on this week, in Long Beach, and rumors have it that it’s been great. Physicist Janna Levin gave a talk, which is not yet posted. A few of the talks are, though — check out this inspiringly optimistic view of the current situation in the Arab world from Wadah Khanfar. More TED talks here, the ones from this week are starting to appear.

In any case, one of the first very large TEDx Events was organized as a part of Universal Children’s Day in November, with a whole bunch of simultaneous organized events called TEDxYouth. I had the opportunity to give a talk at one of the events TEDxYouth Castellija, to about 400 middle and high school students, about how the Universe works.

Because of the younger audience, they cut the standard ted talk time of 18 minutes to 6 minutes, which made it even harder — at least for those of us used to having a whole hour to say something! Anyways, I managed to try to explain dark matter, galaxies, and the last 14 billion years in this short time. You can take a look here:

The rest of the speaker lineup was really great, and very diverse, including a graffiti artist, the founder of guitar hero, the google chef, and a super compelling biochemist.

My favorite talk was by Garang Akau, one of the lost boys of Sudan, who has subsequently graduated from Stanford and started his own NGO called New Scholars, focused on incubating youth-led enterprise in Africa. His fearlessness and optimism in the face of incredible hardship was seriously inspiring. Check it out:

The best part of the whole thing was meeting and talking with some of the kids, who were truly engaged and curious. Lots more awesome talks are available from TEDxYouth Castelleja and from the rest of the TEDxYouth events. Looks like the day was a smashing success all around, and will be happening again next November.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, Personal, Science


By Sean Carroll | December 16, 2010 12:02 pm

Everyone knows about the TED talks — the great, and mercifully short, presentations whose videos are among the most-shared on the web. Even clicking on a completely random talk, you’re likely to be rewarded with something interesting. Part of that is the extraordinary level of quality control — not only in choosing speakers, but in working with speakers ahead of time to fine-tune their presentations. And holding them to a time limit.

Besides the big TED conferences, there are also independently-organized events known as TEDx. Caltech is going to host such an event for the first time, TEDxCaltech, on January 14. The theme is “Feynman’s Vision: The Next 50 Years.” In practice that means three groups of talks: Conceptualization and Visualization in Science, Frontiers of Physics, and Nanoscience and Future Biology. Check out the list of speakers. If it weren’t for the fact that I am on it myself, I’d emphasize what a great program this is — any event that includes both Scott Aaronson and Lyle Mays shows quite a bit of promise. Throw in Leonard Susskind and Craig Venter, and it might be worth a special trip.

All are welcome to come! The flip side of the fact that so much work goes into making the talks successful is that a corresponding level of commitment is asked of the audience — so you don’t simply buy a ticket, you apply, and it does cost money. But who can put a price on inspiration?


The Beginning – A Halloween Tale

By Mark Trodden | October 31, 2010 6:42 pm

It was a dark and stormy night, two years ago to the day – All Hallows’ Eve indeed. As the rain pelted the windows of my mansion, I gazed out at the common folk scurrying around with their tricking and their treating. Allowing the briefest of smiles to flicker across my lips, I picked up my phone and dialed the number.


“Jonathan, it’s me – Mark. Don’t speak, just listen. I’ve figured it out.”

“What are you …?”

“Remember what we always talked about? How one day we’d crack the system? How we’d ride this cosmology gig all the way to the bank? And how we’d make these poor saps so very very sorry for taking all that free knowledge for granted for all these years?

“Oh yes – that I remember! And when that day comes, we’ll squeeze the cash from those rubes so hard that the streets will run red with their blood!”

“Well my friend, that day has come.”

“Don’t toy with me Mark!”

“Listen carefully. We begin tonight. We write, slowly but steadily. This will take two years. It will require patience, dedication and hard work, but I know we can do it if we keep our eyes on the prize. We are going to be rich beyond our wildest dreams, and we can bankrupt those losers at the same time. Jonathan, we’re going to write a Scientific American article!”

A stunned silence followed from Jonathan, as I began my trademark cackle, imagining sucker after sucker shelling out their hard-earned cash for nothing but knowledge! It was beautiful – just perfect. A crack of lightening and almost immediate rumble of thunder drowned out my joy before it reached its enviable crescendo.

“Was that a cackle?”

“Yes Jonathan, it was.”

“No Mark, this is a cackle!”

And so it began.

Happy Halloween!


Give, Give, Give

By Sean Carroll | October 29, 2010 9:29 am

It’s been days since we’ve hit people up for our Donors Choose 2010 Challenge. As you know, this is our favorite cause. It’s also Stephen Colbert’s favorite, as if you needed any extra motivation.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2' Fear Drawings
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Our challenge page has had a great response so far — many, many thanks to everyone who has donated. Every donation is rewarded with a direct thank-you from the classroom that you helped. Here are a few of our responses:

“I simply cannot thank you enough for your selfless donation for much-needed supplies to use in my classroom. I know that your generosity will allow students with learning disabilities to engage in hands-on activities that relate to their everyday lives in reading, writing and math.” — Ms. S, Columbus

“I AM SO EXCITED about this project being funded! I have always wanted this Lakeshore kit to assist my instruction in science. I know that the students will be excited when they are able to work in groups and pairs to understand scientific concepts using this set. Words cannot express how thankful I am to each and every one of you for your contribution to our classroom!” — Ms. L, Forsyth, Georgia

“The items that you will provide for my students will help them with counting. Can you imagine the look on their faces when they see all the resources that they will get? I can. Its a look that I constantly get when I introduce a new concept and they are interested in learning more.” — Mrs. B, Los Angeles

We’re kicking serious butt in the Discover Blogs sub-challenge, which is nice, but our collective behinds are in turn being kicked by the pretenders at Seed, especially the squid people. Do you really want to stand for that?

And while we’re stooping to cheap psychology, did you notice this recent study that women give more to charity than men? Guys, are you going to just sit there and make these scurrilous accusations become reality?

More seriously, I love the big donations, but it would be nice to see more at the $5/$10/$20 level. Doesn’t cost too much, and it can mean a lot to kids without basic school supplies. You’ll feel good!

Last but certainly not least, we wanted to give huge thanks to everyone who helped spread the word via blogs or Twitter. Here’s the roll call of honor:

Louise Butt
Swans on Tea

and who could possibly forget

Janiece at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men.

Thanks! Every little push helps.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance, Miscellany

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