This isn’t an easy post to write, but it’s time for me to leave Cosmic Variance and Discover and go back to blogging on my own. It’s a move I’ve been contemplating for a long time, essentially unrelated to the recent website update here. After having blogged for many years, I’ve decided that I’m happiest when I feel the least amount of responsibility, and the greatest freedom to be personal and idiosyncratic. Even though I’ve always had perfect freedom here, there was inevitably the (correct) feeling that our efforts represented a group, not just my personal quirks. If a month goes by and I don’t feel like blogging, I don’t want to feel that I’m letting anyone down other than myself.
So, I have a new blog at my personal site, which I’ll update as the spirit moves me. I’ve imported copies of all my previous blogging to there, so it doesn’t look completely empty right from the start. Add me to your RSS feeds if you like.
We are still in shakedown mode here at Discover Blogs, although hopefully things are mostly working well. One change is that from now on people will have to register to leave comments. Maybe that’s for the best? Let’s see how it goes, at any rate.
Last night I had the privilege of once again appearing on the Colbert Report to talk with our nation’s leading pundit about the frontiers of modern science. I can’t seem to embed the video (shakedown, remember?), but here’s the clip. I’m not sure you’d want to use it to help explain how the Higgs mechanism works, but I think we had fun. The joke about “massive” at the end makes sense only if you know that Colbert has a running gag, referenced earlier in the show, in which he has been trying to get people to say “massive” as a synonym for “cool.”
Many writerly friends of mine swear with a straight face that they never look at reviews of their books. I have tried but failed to comprehend the inner workings of these alien minds; personally, as much as I know it might pain me, I can’t help but read reviews. Sometimes I might even learn something! Or at least be gratified, in this nice review of The Particle at the End of the Universe by Adam Frank at NPR.
Or, on the other hand, simply be amazed and astonished. The most amusing “review” so far has come from one of the good readers at Amazon, working under the nom de plume “Chosenbygrace Notworks,” and coming with the to-the-point title “Arrogant atheist `science’.” Apparently Chosenbygrace is not handicapped by actually having read the book, but did hear me talk on Coast to Coast AM. Here’s the opening:
Sean Carroll is a typical atheist physicist who arrogantly disregards creationists to the point where he does not even acknowledge they exist unless prompted (like happened on Coast to Coast AM tonight). The liberal media and filled with money sapping money-obsessed morons like this, willing to indebt any generation of Americans into becoming slaves. It’s already happened, and Americans in general are all debt slaves because of atheism-theoretical-physics cultists like this, and the idiot atheists who worship delusional morons like this.
It goes on, but, you know, probably the gist has been conveyed. The physics/atheism connection is a classic, of course, but I hadn’t been aware that we in the cult were also responsible for plunging Americans into debt. 5 out of 425 people found the review helpful, so at least someone is being helped! (In fairness, the Amazon review by Ashutosh Jogalekar probably does a better job of conveying what’s in the book than any I’ve yet seen.)
Other reviews are puzzling, and I have to mention one in particular. Read More
This afternoon, 6pm Eastern/3pm Pacific, is the fun event I mentioned before: a “virtual book tour” discussion on a new-ish platform called Shindig. The idea is that I sit here with my webcam, talking to you and showing some pictures; you sit where you are, with your own webcam, as a potentially-participatory audience member. You can virtually “raise your hand” to ask a question, either by text or by audio in the post-talk Q&A. Different audience members can break off into groups to chat about things by themselves. It’s all free and open and quite experimental, so we’re trying to coax as many people into participating as possible. Certainly saves time (and fossil fuels) in comparison to jetting around the country.
The topic, of course, will be the new book, or really just the basics of the Higgs search and the Large Hadron Collider. I will give a brief overview, very casual, and anyone there should feel free to ask whatever they like.
Here’s an example of a Shindig event, featuring A.J. Jacobs.
Should be fun. Join us if you can!
Publication day! In case it’s slipped your mind, today is the day when The Particle at the End of the Universe officially goes on sale. Books get a bit of a boost if they climb up the Amazon rankings on the first day, so if you are so inclined, today would be the day to click that button. Also: great holiday present for the whole family!
A very nice review by Michael Brooks appeared in New Scientist. (It’s always good to read a review when you can tell the author actually read the book.) Another good one by John Butterworth appeared in Nature, but behind a paywall.
Brief reminder of fun upcoming events:
FAQ: Yes, you should have no trouble reading and understanding it, no matter what your physics background may be. Yes, there are electronic editions of various forms. Yes, there will also be an audio book, but it’s still being recorded. No, nobody has yet purchased the movie rights; call me. Yes, I know that the Higgs boson is not literally sitting there at the end of the universe. It’s a metaphor; for more explanation, read the book!
Writing this book has been quite an experience. Unlike From Eternity to Here, in this case I wasn’t writing about my own research interests. So for much of the time I was acting like a journalist, talking to the people who really built the Large Hadron Collider and do the experiments there. It’s no exaggeration that I went into the project with an enormous amount of respect for what they accomplished, and came out with enormously more than that. It’s a truly amazing achievement on the part of thousands of dedicated people who are largely anonymous to the outside world. (But for the rest of their lives they get to say “I helped discover the Higgs boson,” which is pretty cool.)
Of course, being who I am, I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to try to explain some physics that doesn’t often get explained. So once you hit the halfway point in the book or so, we start digging into what quantum field theory really is, why symmetry breaking is important, and the fascinating history of how the Higgs mechanism was developed. (I had to restrain myself from going even deeper, especially into issues of spin and chirality, but this is supposed to be a bodice-ripper, not a brain-flattener.) At the end of the book, as a reward, you get to contemplate the role of the internet and bloggers in the changing landscape of scientific communication, as well as all the fun technological breakthroughs that we will get as a result of the Higgs discovery. (I.e., none whatsoever.)
Hope you like reading it as much as I liked writing it.
Now that you’ve voted, I know what question you must be asking yourself: where can I go to hear Sean do things like relentlessly flogging his new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, in stores November 13? Well you’ve certainly come to the right place. Here are some upcoming opportunities in various media.
And that’s it for 2012, as far as I currently know. Come January I’ll be in the UK for a bit, which should be fun. The above looks like a long list, but several of them are local and/or electronic, so I have high hopes for continuing to get actual work done over the next couple of months.
I’m very sad to report that Wallace Sargent, a distinguished astronomer at Caltech, died yesterday. Wal, as he was known, was a world leader in spectroscopy and extragalactic astronomy, with a specialty in studies of quasar absorption lines. He played a crucial role in numerous major projects in astronomy, including serving as the director of the Palomar Observatory. He was awarded numerous major awards, including the Bruce Medal, the Helen B. Warner Prize, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, and the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics.
A glance at Wal’s home page will quickly reveal that he led an active an extraordinarily productive life. Those who knew him, however, will remember a warm and enthusiastic personality who was always happy to talk. He mentored numerous students, and contributed greatly to the spirit of Caltech’s fantastically successful astronomy program. Our thoughts to out to his wife Anneila (also a distinguished Caltech astronomer) and all his friends and family.
Here at CV, we have proven ourselves willing to wade into the fray on contentious topics — religion, gender politics, the reality of string theory. In honor of National Pit Bull Awareness Day, I thought I’d take on another one, and explain how a rational adult with elementary school kids could wind up adopting a pit bull.
A few years ago, while picking up my youngest daughter at kindergarten, I passed a brindled pit bull, tied to the fence. I immediately got my judgey-mom hackles up — “Who would tie a pit bull up in front of a school?!?! Where there are kids?!?!!”. Before I could go inside, the dog’s family came out of the school, and it took about 3 seconds of observation to recognize that what I was perceiving as a threat was actually an incredibly sweet affectionate dog. Who just happened to have a skull the size of a brick.
We later all became friends, and I found out more about Daisy’s backstory. Daisy had been adopted from the shelter, where she had been rescued from being a “bait dog” (used to train other pit bulls to fight). In spite of the scars on her face and neck, she remains a sweet trusting dog. She lives happily with a cat, and deals patiently with all the vigorous “love” that young kids can deal out. In short, Daisy was “proof of concept” — that not every pit bull was a danger, and that one could potentially be a real family dog.
About two years ago, my husband and I started talking about adopting a dog. The kids were lobbying hard, and we’d always loved dogs, and were finally feeling like we could handle a new logistical challenge. We were pretty clear about what we wanted — a fairly calm dog, who was good with kids, active, not too large, and who didn’t bark much. However, we still kept pushing the idea into the future. During this time, I would frequently write papers in a local dog-friendly coffee shop. While working there one day, a man walked in with a buckskin colored pit bull wearing a blue “Adopt Me” vest.
I’m a sucker for a dog in a vest, but in spite of my experience with Daisy, I still went into an instantaneous high alert at the presence of a pit bull. But, like with Daisy, it was impossible to retain any anxiety, after watching the dog affectionately lean on anyone who offered to pet it, wag at anyone who talked with it, and lick curious children who doddled up to it. The dog was incredibly calm, sociable but not excitable, and openly affectionate with everyone.
I went home and told my husband that I may have found our dog.
We brought Zack home not long after.
If you read accounts of people living with pit bulls (see here, or here, for lovely descriptions from better writers than I, or here, for a video testimony from a veteran with PTSD), they all say similar things — “Snuggly”, “Hilarious”, “Loyal”, “Smart” — all of which describe our experience to a tee.
The first thing about having a pit bull is that your lap is no longer your own. If we’re anywhere close to ground level, Zack comes running hoping for an invitation to climb aboard. If you’re seated in a chair, or a couch, he’s making strategic plans for how he can join you. If you’re standing, he’s leaning against you. Even in these bids for affection, however, he remains extremely well-mannered. He’s extraordinarily patient, and given that he shares the house with a particularly exuberant kid, that patience is sorely tested on a regular basis
Another aspect of pit bull ownership is that you’re not exactly invisible. Zack tends to get two major reactions when we’re out in public. The first is the “pit bull swerve”, where on-coming pedestrians will cross the street rather than pass you. The second is the complete opposite. Zack is bait for dog lovers, who can sense a Good Dog from a block away (and for unknown reasons, he seems particularly popular with men). Pretty much every walk features a random man giving a gruff nod of approval and a deep throated “That’s a good lookin’ dog”. He’s had a carload of people pull over and come out of the car to meet him (to which he responded by crawling into the back seat so he could sit on their laps).
But the final bit of living with a pit bull is being aware. I’m not blind to why these dogs can be raised for aggression. Any dog has the potential to bite, and any large dog has the potential to cause serious harm — pit bulls are no exception to this rule. But moreover, like many other working breeds, pit bulls are known to be extremely “game” — if they get an idea in their head, they don’t let it go easily. (The phrase “stubborn as a bulldog” did not come out of vacuum.) This trait can be positive, in that it makes dogs like pit bulls very easy to train — they stay focused on a task, and work hard to succeed. It can be neutral in a family dog, where the worst we have to put up with is Zack’s strong opinions about where we go on walks. But, if a highly game dog is also aggressive, you wind up with every pit bull horror story. So, even though Zack has never shown signs of aggression (to people, dogs, or cats), we’re still careful about putting him in any situation where he can get too focused or wrapped up in what he’s doing. He’s strong and athletic, and can do damage unwittingly, so it’s just not worth the risk of letting him off leash in a dog park, or getting him too riled up while playing.
That said, I haven’t found the pit bull-specific adaptations we’ve made to be any bigger than those I adopted for my black lab. The lab had a different set of triggers to deal with (no rollerbladers, no linoleum floors, no young kids, and no men in uniforms with hats), but required the same basic acts of a responsible dog owner — knowing your dog’s limits and keeping them out of situations where they are less likely to be successful.
The reason I’m bothering with writing this is that if you want to adopt a dog in an urban area, a huge fraction of the dogs that will be up for adoption will be pit bulls. Shelters are not full of 8 week old golden retriever puppies. They are full of adult pit bulls desperately in need of loving homes with responsible owners. More than half of dogs currently euthanized in the US are pit bulls. I’m sure some are dogs who have been abused to the point where they’re unadoptable, but many are dogs like Zack, who wound up in a shelter though no fault of their own, and stand a chance of being the best dog you’ll ever own.
Just a couple of things in closing. I probably wouldn’t have chosen a pit bull if I wasn’t used to having large dogs, wasn’t willing or able to train a large dog, and wasn’t willing to spend a lot of time hitting the pavement to get the dog a lot of exercise. I also wouldn’t necessarily recommend bringing just any pit bull into a house with other pets or kids. I was much more comfortable adopting Zack because he’d been in a foster home for several months, living a life style very similar to what he’d be living with us (in the city, lots of walking in public, frequent exposure to other people and dogs, etc). He’d been placed in a foster home because he was going crazy in the shelter, and giving the appearance of being an “unadoptable” dog. Instead, it was just that he just really needed to be in a home, and it wasn’t until he was placed in one that his true nature could be seen. Many cities have pit bull rescue organizations that can help give guidance, and that frequently do extensive temperament testing before placing dogs up for adoption.
ps. I’m closing comments on this one, because every single pit bull comment thread turns rapidly into a crazed shouting match between “Kill them all!” and “They’re the best dogs ever and they’d never hurt a fly!!!!”. I’d rather enjoy the rest of my weekend than moderate the inevitable.
Just in time for the holidays (Halloween totally counts as a holiday), the Teaching Company (a/k/a “The Great Courses) is releasing a new course I recorded — Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the format (and my previous course, Dark Matter and Dark Energy), this is a set of 24 lectures, each half an hour each, modeled on an undergraduate college course for non-scientists. Note that both are hugely discounted at the moment, by 70% off the ordinary price, which isn’t always the case. Unlike the previous course, this new one is available in an audio-only format as well as on video. But in the last few years they have upgraded their graphics and animation considerably, so the video version might be worth a look. Here’s the teaser:
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the course follows the outline in From Eternity to Here. But it’s also pretty different; the organization has been switched around, and the course has a lot more emphasis on time in everyday life and the psychology of time, less on cosmology and the multiverse. Here are the lecture titles: Read More