Von Freeman, legendary jazz saxophonist, passed away Sunday. He was 88 years old.
Here he is at the 2002 Berlin jazzfest, when Von was a spry 78: Mike Allemana on guitar, Michael Raynor on drums, and Jack Zara on bass. Playing one of Von’s tunes, “Blues for Sunnyland.”
From 2002 to 2007, listening to Von play live was an integral part of my life in Chicago. He had two regular gigs: once a month at Andy’s downtown, where tourists would squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder to experience something only Chicago had to offer, and every Tuesday night at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street, in one of the sketchier neighborhoods on the South Side. Andy’s was great, but the Apartment was special. A tiny little bar, no cover charge, where you could sit within three feet of the band as they explored the outer regions of improvisational possibility. Starting at 10:30, going into the early morning hours — I went often, but never managed to stay for the whole thing. An eclectic crowd of locals, jazz freaks, and University of Chicago students mixed with the musicians who would make the weekly pilgrimage, because after finishing his set Von would turn the stage over to a jam session that nurtured generations of jazz players.
This video was taken in 2010 by someone who was apparently sitting in my old seat at the Apartment. Matt Ferguson is now on bass.
Von was absolutely unique, as a saxophonist and as a person. As a musician he managed to intermingle an astonishing variety of styles, from classic ballads to bebob all the way to free jazz, with more than a few things you would never hear anywhere else. Some thought that his playing was an acquired taste, full of skronks and trills and lighting-fast tempo changes. But once you “got it,” you could hear something in Von that you just couldn’t hear anywhere else. This isn’t just formerly-local pride talking; when John Coltrane left Miles Davis’s band in the 1950’s, Miles tried to get Von to replace him. But Von never left Chicago for more than a few days at a time.
As a person, Von was charming, roguish, stubborn, warm, irascible, and utterly compelling. Sometimes on stage he would get in the mood for talking instead of playing, and honestly it was hard to tell which you preferred. The wisecracks, the wisdom, the Billie Holiday stories, all mixed with the smoke and the cheap beer to create an unforgettable atmosphere.
There wasn’t anybody else like him, and there never will be. We’ll miss you, Von.
Hard to believe I wrote another book. How did that happen? But it must be true, as The Particle at the End of the Universe is now available for pre-order on Amazon and elsewhere. Back to real work for me, for the foreseeable future. (Unless someone wants to give me a million dollars, which to date they have been reluctant to do.)
I’m actually putting finishing touches on the copyediting as we speak. Events have prodded the publisher to move up the release date quite a bit (as I expected), so now it’s coming out in November rather than in February. So we’ve been in a mad dash against the clock, although I’ve tried my best to be careful in the actual writing. And many people have been extremely generous with their time, reading over chapters and talking with me about the issues. Compared to From Eternity to Here, this book is obviously less about presenting a novel take on some deep issues in physics and more about helping people understand why the Higgs boson is important, and how the experiments actually look for the thing. But there are a couple of chapters in there where I get to try to explain gauge invariance, connections, and symmetry breaking. I can’t help myself; it’s in my nature.
Speaking of generosity, even with the short timescale I scored pretty big with the back-cover blurbs. Check these out:
“In this superb book, Sean Carroll provides a fascinating and lucid look at the most mysterious and important particle in nature, and the experiment that revealed it. Anyone with an interest in physics should read this, and join him in examining the new worlds of physics to which this discovery may lead.”
–Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk
“Carroll tells the story of the particle that everyone has heard of but few of us actually understand. After you read his book — an enticing cocktail of personal anecdote, clever analogy, and a small dose of mind-bending theory — you will truly grasp why the Higgs boson has been sought after for so long by so many. Carroll is a believer in big science asking big questions and his beliefs are infectious and inspiring.”
–Morgan Freeman, Actor and Executive Producer of Through the Wormhole
“The science is authoritative, yet bold and lively. The narrative is richly documented, yet full of human drama. Carroll’s saga pulls you aboard a modern voyage of discovery.”
–Frank Wilczek, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics
If only the actual writing in the book could be that good! “Obtain blurbs from Oscar winner and Nobel laureate for same book” is now checked off my bucket list.
Here’s a short video, courtesy of NOVA, that we made on our trip to Geneva. Hopefully the excitement of the moment comes through… (Note: might be hard/impossible to view the video outside the US, sorry.)
Back in Los Angeles, after my brief action-packed jaunt to Geneva. Higgsteria continues, and I’ll be on NPR’s Science Friday later today to talk about it. That’s 2pm Eastern, 11am Pacific time. Hope to do justice to the palpable air of excitement at CERN and around the world.
After that, I think certain parts of my book are going to need some re-writes…
One thing I don’t want to get lost in all the hubbub. Amidst all the many impressive aspects of the work the physicists and machine-builders did to make the LHC happen and achieve this fantastic discovery, I was very struck by how eager people were to give credit to other people. In their main talks, both Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela went out of their way to give credit to the machine builders, the technicians who worked on their experiments, and the thousands of colleagues within each collaboration who contributed to the result. But that eagerness to share credit went well beyond the official announcements — everyone we talked to was quick to point out how far-reaching and international the project really was. The very quintessence of a group effort.
Unfortunately, at least in the sciences, large groups can’t win the Nobel Prize. There will be much discussion in days to come about who deserves a prize for inventing the theory behind the Higgs; I think it’s complicated, and I’m not going to push for any particular set of people. When it comes to the experiments, the matter is easier: there’s no fair way to give it to anyone, really. There was a lot of Nobel-quality effort, without question, but I can’t see how it’s possible to narrow it down to just three people, which is the strict Nobel rule. What we really need to do is change that rule, but the folks in charge are (probably correctly) very conservative about such things, so I don’t see it happening soon.
So let me throw out one name that should at least be in the conversation: Lyn Evans, “the man who built the LHC.” Evans was in charge of the project for many years, and it was his dedication and ability that brought it to successful completion. He is now officially retired as a CERN staff member, although he’s still working as a member of the CMS collaboration and the leader of the effort to build a linear collider. He didn’t play a central role in the actual experimental effort to find the Higgs, but there’s no person who deserves more credit for enabling the conditions under which it could be found. People who are much more informed about the detailed history of the LHC and the ATLAS/CMS experiments will be in a better position that I to render such judgments, but I think the Nobel committee could do a lot worse.
Tomorrow (Friday, that is, in case it needed specifying) I’ll be on Science Friday as part of a discussion of dark matter vs. modified gravity, as well as NASA’s new gifts from the spymasters. I think most places SciFri is at 3:00 Eastern/Noon Pacific, and my little segment is scheduled for 20-minutes-past-ish.
Live radio! Anything can happen, really.
Also, I’m embarking on a new campaign to get more content on the blog by turning things I tend to simply Tweet into tiny blogposts. For example.
Update: here’s the amazon page, where the book is ready for pre-order.
Speaking of writing popular books, I’m at it again. I’m currently hard at work writing The Particle At the End of the Universe, a popular-level book on the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. If all goes well, it should appear in bookstores at the end of this year or beginning of next. (Ideally, it will go on sale the same day they announce the discovery of the Higgs. I’m trying to bribe the right people to make that happen.) The title is somewhat tentative, so it might change at some point.
This will be a somewhat different book than From Eternity to Here. While both are aimed at a general audience, FETH was a rather lengthy tome that made a careful argument in a hopefully novel way. Anyone could read it, but to get the most out of it you have to really sit and think about certain ideas. Particle, on the other hand, aims to be a fun and narratively gripping page-turner — a book that makes you eager to move quickly to the next chapter, rather than taking a few minutes to let the last one sink into your head. A bodice-ripper, if you will. It will be full of stories and fun anecdotes about the human beings who made the LHC happen and have devoted their lives to searching for the Higgs and particles beyond the Standard Model. A book you would be happy to give to your Grandmom in order to convey some of the excitement of modern physics. (Unless your Grandmom is a particle physicist, in which case she might think it’s at too low a level.)
At the same time, of course, I’m going to try to illuminate the central ideas of the Standard Model in as clear a fashion as I can manage. It won’t just be a list of particles; I’ll cover field theory, gauge bosons, and spontaneous symmetry breaking. All in fine bodice-ripping style. (Maybe get Fabio for the cover?)
If you are a particle physicist yourself, I’m happy to take input. This could take the form of a favorite analogy you like to use to explain some subtle concept, or some physics idea or piece of history you think really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the popular media. Even better if you have some personal involvement in a fun story — you lost your virginity in the LHC tunnel, or you discovered asymptotic freedom but didn’t get around to publishing it. I’m talking to as many physicists as I can, but I can’t talk to everyone. I’m looking for tales that will make the human side of physics come alive.
Also happy to take input if you’re not a particle physicist! What are the concepts that we don’t do a good job explaining? What are the buzzwords you’ve heard about the don’t make sense? The questions you really want answered?
I sincerely believe the search for the Higgs and whatever might lie beyond is a Big Deal in the history of science, and I hope to convey some of the importance and excitement of this question to as large an audience as possible. I’ll be flitting around the country giving talks when the book comes out, so let me know if you have a big lecture hall full of eager minds that want to hear the latest dispatches from the particle trenches. Should be a fun ride.
[Update added below. Further update: here’s the video.]
I’m participating this afternoon in an intriguing event here at Caltech:
Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and myself, while negating it will be conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and MIT nuclear engineer Ian Hutchinson. We’ll go back and forth for about two hours, after which Sam Harris will give a talk about his most recent book, Free Will.
Festivities begin at 2pm Pacific time (5pm Eastern). I hadn’t previously mentioned the debate here on the blog, because tickets sold out pretty quickly, and it didn’t seem right to taunt people by mentioning an event they couldn’t come see. But the Skeptics folks have been working hard to set up live-streaming video of the event, and it looks like they’ve succeeded! So you should be able to watch all the fun live on YouTube — and feel free to leave comments here.
[Live-streaming didn’t work, but here’s the video.]
I’ll come back when it’s all over and add some post-debate thoughts.
Update after the debate: first off, very sorry that the live stream didn’t seem to work for many people. (Although the YouTube comments are occasionally funny.) That’s just what sometimes unfortunately happens when you try something new. Pretty sure that video will eventually be available, I’ll link when it appears.
Also I deleted a bunch of comments about string theory from people who don’t take instructions well.
As for the debate, it’s very hard to judge when up on the stage, but I hope there were some enlightening moments. I’m not sure it worked well as a “debate.” I tried to engage a bit with what Ian and Dinesh were saying, but I didn’t feel that they reciprocated — although they might make the same claim about our side. I’m thinking that four people is just too much to have in a debate; it could have been more direct confrontation if there had only been two, with twice as much time for each little speech.
I don’t think I did a very good job in the cross-examinations, but hopefully the actual speeches came across clearly.
The audience was pretty clearly biased toward us from the beginning. Which is great in some sense (go forces of reason!) but I’d actually like to do something similar before an audience that was tilted the other way, or (best of all) completely uncommitted at the start. Preaching to the choir is fun, but doesn’t really change the world.
We had a great crowd, and I very much appreciate everyone who braved the not-that-great-by-Southern-California-standards weather. Would love to hear reactions from people who were actually there.
Sorry for the light blogging of late. Actual work intervenes, and it might remain that way for a while. But I’ll try to pop in whenever I can.
Stephen Hawking is celebrating his 70th birthday today. That in itself is an amazing fact, just as it was amazing when he celebrated his 40th, and 50th, and 60th birthdays, as well as every other day he’s lived and thrived with a debilitating neuron disease. The extra fact that he continues to make contributions to science pushes beyond amazing to practically unbelievable.
Everyone likes to tell Hawking stories, and this blog is no exception. So here is mine, meagre as it is. I’ve gotten more than enough mileage out of this one in person, I might as well put it on the blog so I won’t be tempted to tell it any more.
At the end of 1992 I was a finishing grad student, applying for postdocs. One of the places I applied was Cambridge, to Hawking’s group at DAMTP. There is a slight potential barrier for American students to travel to the UK for postdocs, so they like to get out ahead of things and offer jobs early. Unfortunately I was out of my office the day Hawking called to offer me a position. Fortunately, my future-Nobel-Laureate officemate was there, and he took the call. He explained that Stephen Hawking had called to offer me a job — I was thrilled about the offer, but understood “Hawking called” as metaphorical. But no, Brian later convinced me that it actually was Hawking on the other end of the line, which he described as a somewhat surreal experience. Of course after the initial introduction the phone gets handed over to someone else, but still. Read More
To celebrate my birthday today, I’m heading back into Second Life to do a chat with Alan Boyle of MSNBC.com fame. Alan has previewed some of the topics we’ll be discussing in a post at Cosmic Log. It’s possible the Nobel Prize will be mentioned. (The physics one. Don’t expect any insight from me on quasicrystals, except that they’re awesome.)
We’ll be chatting at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific, at the Stella Nova Theater. If you’re not already on Second Life, it’s super easy (and free) to join. (Here’s some very useful information for beginners.) And you get to design an avatar that looks like you would want to look, rather than your inevitably-disappointing real self.
The chat is part of the Virtually Speaking series hosted by FireDogLake, in this case co-produced with the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. Alan does a regular series of interviews on science, so you may get hooked. Our chat will be a multi-media extravaganza, so you can choose to listen in various ways:
Yes I know, very complicated. If simplicity is more your bag, here’s a guest video on dark energy that I did for the wonderful Minute Physics series.
I’ve decided I need to become a programmer again. As an undergrad, and to a lesser extent as a grad student, I wrote code all the time. But since I started doing research, it’s been pencil-and-paper almost all the way through, with occasional dips into Mathematica or plotting programs.
That must end, so I’ve decided to learn Python. I just need something simple for number-crunching and graphics, and everyone in the know seems to have nice things to say about the language. (Secretly I would like to play around with genetic algorithms and cellular automata, but I’m not going to admit that.) I tried to get Fortran, my previous language of choice, up and running on my Mac … it didn’t go well.
So… any tips? Pointers to well-written resources and tutorials (online or in print) would be especially helpful. Keep in mind that the target audience is an aging theoretical physicist who hasn’t programmed in 20 years, and for that matter has been pretty much command-prompt free (working on my Mac) for the last five.
The things I admit in public on this blog, sheesh.