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
I feel the need to comment on a war — a war, I tell you! — that has broken out on the Twitters.
It all started when @JenLucPiquant put up a very thoughtful and important blog post at Cocktail Party Physics, about the importance of math education even for people who are not math-o-philes. Being the supportive spouse that I am, I took to Twitter to spread the word:
Sean Carroll @seanmcarroll
Math is part of what makes us human. Don’t withhold it from kids just because it’s hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/
The irrepressible Ed Yong, being helpful, forwarded the message to his own followers:
Ed Yong @edyong209
MT @seanmcarroll: Maths is part of what makes us human. Don’t withhold it from kids just because it’s hard. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/08/14/make-us-do-the-math/
Notice the sneaky move here. Read More
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.
I was the judge for this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize; here are the results. Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily, obviously.
I want to thank Abbas and all the 3QD crew for inviting me to judge this year’s Science Prize. I can’t help but thinking that after having Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Lisa Randall judge the previous years, a certain phase transition has occurred; but I’m happy to be associated with such an amazing group.
Let me start by saying something obvious but nevertheless true: the entries this year were of extraordinarily high quality. Some excellent blog posts among the initial nominees didn’t even make the final ten, and any one of the nine finalists would have been a worthy choice for number one. But I will resist the temptation to declare a nine-way tie.
There is no simple and objective standard for what makes a blog post “the best.” “Blog is software,” as Bora Zivkovic likes to remind us — blogging is a medium, not a genre. Successful blog posts can be one word or ten thousand; a personal reflection or a rigorous analysis; an original idea or an insightful commentary; a devastating take-down or an inspirational message. But within these flexible parameter, there are certain aspects of blogging that make it special, and I looked for posts that took advantage of those unique capabilities. I wanted to choose posts that would be hard to imagine finding in any other medium, but whose quality measured up to the best of journalism or science writing. One frustrating aspect of a contest like this is that the prize is given to posts, rather than to blogs — for many of the most successful blogs, their charm comes from the accumulated effect of reading many posts over a long period of time. But okay, enough with the throat-clearing.
Without further ado:
First place this year goes to Empirical Zeal, for “The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.” With many different criteria in mind, this post by Aatish Bhatia stood out among the rest. It’s just about the perfect use of a blog. For one thing, it looks gorgeous: all those colorful images, each of which actually serves a purpose. The writing is playful and clever; once you see the mantis shrimp telling you “DEAR MORTAL, YOUR RAINBOW IS PUNY,” you’re not likely to forget it. And most of all, the science is fascinating and important. To a physicist, there is a continuum of colors; but to our eyes and brains, “rainbows have seams,” and that affects how we think about the world. A completely deserving winner. (And don’t forget that there is a Part II.)
Second place goes to Three-Toed Sloth, for “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You” (cross-posted at Crooked Timber.) Cosma Shalizi doesn’t bother with colorful pictures; he even uses a slightly gray font on a white background, presumably because black on white would come off as too florid. But this is a creative and original essay that brings the theory of computational complexity to bear on the practical problem of managing a planned economy. (Conclusion: it can’t be done.) The flexibility of blogs doesn’t just mean the ability to post videos; it also means the freedom to explore ideas outside traditional disciplinary comfort zones. Not a light read, but a true contribution to intellectual discourse. The kind of post that nudges the rest of us to be better bloggers.
Third place goes to The Mermaid’s Tale, for “Forget bipedalism. What about babyism?” In another great use of the medium, Holly Dunsworth takes creative advantage of the blog format to make important points both about science and about how science is done. How much can we learn about a species just by studying a few bones in its feet? Does a particular anatomical feature represent a crucial adaptation to circumstances, or is it just an ancestral remnant? Also: adorable pictures of baby monkeys, as well as real data with error bars. Everybody wins.
In very different ways, these three posts serve as proud examples of what blogging can be at its best — feel free to share them with any of your friends who still remain skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but cheat just a little bit by offering two “honorable mentions.” At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson’s “Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence” is a polished and fascinating look at natural selection and the behavior of human crowds. And at Quantum Diaries, Flip Tanedo’s “Helicity, Chirality, Mass, and the Higgs” is an original take on explaining an abstract but central point in modern quantum field theory. All of these posts — as well as the other finalists! — are impressive achievements. My hat’s off.
The price of university textbooks (not to mention scholarly journals) is like the weather: everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. My own graduate textbook in GR hovers around $100, but I’d be happier if it were half that price or less. But the real scam is not with niche-market graduate textbooks, which move small volumes and therefore have at least some justification for their prices (and which often serve as useful references for years down the road) — it’s with the large-volume introductory textbooks that students are forced to buy.
But that might be about to change. We’re very happy to have Marc Sher, a particle theorist at William and Mary, explain an interesting new initiative that hopes to provide a much lower-cost alternative to the mainstream publishers.
(Update: I changed the title from “Open Textbook” to “Nonprofit Textbook,” since “Open” has certain technical connotations that might not apply here. The confusion is mine, not Marc’s.)
The textbook publishers’ price-gouging monopoly may be ending.
For decades, college students have been exploited by publishers of introductory textbooks. The publishers charge about $200 for a textbook, and then every 3-4 years they make some minor cosmetic changes, reorder some of the problems, add a few new problems, and call it a “new edition”. They then take the previous edition out of print. The purpose, of course, is to destroy the used book market and to continue charging students exorbitant amounts of money.
The Gates and Hewlett Foundations have apparently decided to help provide an alternative to this monopoly. The course I teach is “Physics for Life-Scientists”, which typically uses algebra-based textbooks, often entitled “College Physics.” For much of the late 1990’s, I used a book by Peter Urone. It was an excellent book with many biological applications. Unfortunately, after the second edition, it went out of print. Urone obtained the rights to the textbook from the publisher and has given it to a nonprofit group called OpenStax College, which, working with collaborators across the country has significantly revised the work and has produced a third edition. They have just begun putting this edition online (ePub for mobile and PDF), completely free of charge. The entire 1200 page book will be online within a month. People can access it without charge, or the company will print it for the cost of printing (approximately $40/book). Several online homework companies, such as Sapling Learning and Webassign, will include this book in their coverage.
OpenStax College Physics’ textbook is terrific, and with this free book available online, there will be enormous pressure on faculty to use it rather than a $200 textbook. OpenStax College plans to produce many other introductory textbooks, including sociology and biology textbooks. As a nonprofit they are sustained by philanthropy, through partnerships, and print sales, though the price for the print book is also very low.
Many of the details are at a website that has been set up at http://openstaxcollege.org/, and the book can be downloaded at http://openstaxcollege.org/textbooks/college-physics/download?type=pdf. As of the end of last week, 11 of the first 16 chapters had been uploaded, and the rest will follow shortly. If you teach an algebra-based physics course, please look at this textbook; it isn’t too late to use it for the fall semester. An instructor can just give the students the URL in the syllabus. If you don’t teach such a course, please show this announcement to someone who does. Of course, students will find out about the book as well, and will certainly inform their instructors. The monopoly may be ending, and students could save billions of dollars. For decades, the outrageous practices of textbook publishers have not been challenged by serious competition. This is serious competition. OpenStax College as a nonprofit and foundation supported entity does not have a sales force, so word of mouth is the way to go: Tell everyone!
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.
When I wrote From Eternity to Here, I was faced with a perennial problem for pop-physics authors: how to write a book that will appeal to the aficionados (although not scientists themselves) who have already devoured everything Brian Greene and Lisa Randall have ever written, but also be understandable and interesting to folks who don’t know much more about Einstein than the fact that he rarely combed his hair? I came across a short blog review that claims I wasn’t entirely successful in balancing the competing requirements, and it might be a fair criticism.
But one small complaint is I’m not sure if he’s quite exactly worked out his audience. Early in the book, I was starting to fear it would be a rehash of stuff I already knew. It’s not. But there were some elementary rehashes that, frankly, I think if someone went into the book not having that knowledge already, they aren’t going to be able to grok the rest. This is not a mathematically demanding book, but it is a conceptually demanding book, and I am not sure if someone who doesn’t have some limited grounding in the mathematics side will be able to make it through the conceptual side without missing a lot.
The diagnosis is completely accurate. On the one hand, I do spend time going over the basics of relativity, quantum mechanics, and logarithms, in ways that hopefully make these ideas accessible to people who haven’t ever tried to understand them before. On the other hand, the meaty middle section of the book is conceptually very challenging for almost everybody, even if you are a regular consumer of popular physics books. We are simply not used to thinking in ways that don’t presume the arrow of time from the start, and some of the issues that arise are highly non-intuitive. I tried to keep things fun and engaging, but there’s no question that certain pages of the book require careful thinking and brain work.
What to do? I’m not sure that, given the material I wanted to cover in this book, there is much else one could do. Probably I could have had less about the basics of relativity, and moved what there is until later in the book. But although the central ideas are conceptually very challenging, I don’t think they’re actually inaccessible to anyone who is willing to put some thought into them, regardless of mathematical background. So I don’t regret that I didn’t write a leaner and more challenging book aimed only at the aficionados, although I appreciate that something along those lines might have been more focused. I think that the aficionados just have to get used to reading introductions to GR and QM from a wide variety of different books — at least until those topics become part of the standard high-school curriculum.
“Despite the unrivaled empirical success of quantum theory, the very suggestion that it may be literally true as a description of nature is still greeted with cynicism, incomprehension, and even anger.”
Adrienne Rich, one of the leading American poets of the 20th century, died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Anything you read about her will emphasize her identity as a feminist and a lesbian, which is perfectly appropriate, but don’t let it get in the way of the fact that she was an amazingly inventive and affecting poet. She was also widely admired as a lecturer and essayist. (And I can only imagine she would have cringed at the line in the NYT obit where it says she “burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.” Is bursting something one can do genteelly?)
This is the ending of “Planetarium,” about Caroline Herschel; the entire poem is here.
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife, wrote a beautiful piece for the Skeptical Inquirer back in 2003. It’s about science and religion, from a naturalist point of view, expressed in graceful and uplifting prose. An excerpt was shared around on Facebook recently by Michelle Agnellini Yaney, and is worthy of wider distribution. It’s a personal note at the end of the piece — as good a summary of how naturalists view the preciousness of life as you’ll find anywhere.
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
I can’t resist tacking on the previous paragraph, worthy of contemplation for its own sake:
And there were other instances of Carl’s remarkable persuasiveness. One was a great story of a so-called “creation scientist” who watched Carl testify at a hearing about creationism in schools. Carl testified for about four hours. It was somewhere in the South, I can’t remember where. And six months later a letter came from the “creation scientist” expert who had also testified that day, saying that he had given up his daytime job and realized the error of what he was doing. It was only because Carl was so patient and so willing to hear the other person out. He did it with such kindness and then, very gently but without compromising, laid out all of the things that were wrong with what this guy thought was true. That is a lesson that I wish that all of us in our effort to promote skepticism could learn, because I know that very often the anger I feel when confronting this kind of thinking makes me want to start cutting off the other person. But to do so is to abandon all hope of changing minds.
It’s hard to live up to Carl Sagan’s example.