I was told on friday that Sidney Coleman’s famous Quantum Field Theory course was actually videotaped in the 70’s and now exists online, and it’s true ! It’s kind of awesome, but also a little bit depressing, like when someone gives you the most recent season of the Wire on DVD–you know you have to now devote a huge amount of time to it (75 hours of QFT!). I just watched the first lecture, and the man is compelling, even when talking about sign conventions! The video doesn’t pick up the board real well (I remember a while back, there were some written circulating notes from this course, does anybody know where I can get them?). I haven’t felt so learned in black in white since that one summer when I stumbled upon the oddly magnetic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on public television (for the good bishop on the subject of temptation, see here . I love his blackboard work!). A few comments about the Coleman videos:

1. Man, the 70’s looked like they sucked. Glad I didn’t live through them.

2. Sidney Coleman is a nerd’s nerd right from his Wallace Shawn voice to Urkel-esque laugh.

3. He’s also kind of a badass. Throughout this first class, I think he must smoke about twenty cigarettes. He also gets obvious glee from twisting his moustache at several points. And there’s nothing not awesome about that.



LHC Fever! (And more bad science journalism)

The LHC has turned on! W00t! Last night a few of us had an LHC “party” where we stayed up until 3 am to watch the webcast of the machine turning on. Of course, the webcast didn’t work, and we all just went home and today I’ve been exhausted and gotten no work done. 

I’ve been impressed by the media coverage of the LHC; with a few exceptions. Once again James Owen Weatherall has graced the pages of Slate with his dubious writings on particle physics. His articles continue to baffle me. In his  most recent one,  the main points seem to be:

1. The discovery of the Higgs is bad for particle physics because then the standard model would be complete, and there would be nothing else.

This was the subject of his first article which came out last year here, and which I tried to refute  here. Let’s reiterate: no. Everyone (at least, everyone who knows what they’re talking about) expects some new TeV physics besides the Higgs. There are all sorts of indications that this should be the case, from cosmological constraints on dark matter, to suggestions from the hierarchy problem.

2. Even so, there’s no reason to expect us to find the Higgs. Glashow, Weinberg and Salam included it as the simplest way to induce electroweak symmetry breaking (ok, he doesn’t quite put it this way), but there are many other possibilities. 

Well, sort of. There are many other ways of inducing electroweak symmetry breaking (a higgs sector, little higgs, technicolor, etc), but my understanding is that precision electroweak constraints can rule out a lot of these models (for example, I think technicolor is mostly considered ruled out), and that plain old vanilla Higgs still looks like the best bet. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s not really the point. When physicist say the “Higgs” what they really mean is “the Higgs, or something very much like it” (a higgs sector, little higgs, technicolor, etc, i.e. a particle or particles responsible for electroweak symmetry breaking). 

Again, Mr. Weatherall might have cleared up his numerous misunderstandings had he talked to any actual physicists (Glashow, Weinberg, Salam, Higgs seem like good possibilities, since he’s talking about them all over the article). In what sense is this man qualified to write articles about particle physics?!

I leave you with an  article  about what some actual physicists think the LHC will find.

A wave is more than its equation

When I first started at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography a year ago, I was a complete novice when it came to ocean-related activities.   California thrives on these things and I stuck out as a rather puzzled (and pale) foreigner from an industrial town in the north of England.   “We don’t ‘av sea up thur, lad.   In’t that where them fish down at chip shop come from?”     So I thought I’d at least better learn to surf, so as not to look quite so out of place.

I went to some classes organised by the university.   I did all right, considering that I had never actually seen anyone surfing in real life and so I genuinely had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.   It’s amazing how hard it is for a proper Californian to understand that concept.  ” No, I really don’t know… where does catching a wave actually happen and how do I make it happen?”    I did enjoy it as well, except for the class with really high surf when I swallowed more ocean than anyone could possibly have intended and consequently felt like vomiting for most of the last 20 minutes.     I didn’t give up though and I did learn to surf.

Mostly, I learned that surfing is an amazing example of physics in action.   You have all these wavepackets coming along, steepening as it gets shallower and all travelling at a speed which depends on their wavelength.   You see waves interfering and you see when the waves start to become non-linear as the assumptions of the simple wave equation break down.   And you are in the middle of this, frequently (at least in my case) upside-down a metre or so beneath the breaking wave crest, experiencing turbulence in a very personal way.   I thought back then of writing a piece for a physics magazine at home about how all 1st year undergraduate students should be taken off to a beach and taught to surf, so that they could experience wave physics first-hand, and appreciate what all the equations really mean in practice.

And now I discover from the video below, that someone actually teaches this class at Scripps and I never knew.   Good for them, but boo hiss that I didn’t find out until now.    I really think that this sort of class should be offered to all physics undergrads, so that they don’t forget that it all connects to the real world.    I wish that I’d known – I’d have asked for a copy of the course material so that I could see how it was presented.   I’m going to push for things like this to be more common when I get back to the UK.   I admit that surfing in the UK might not seem as attractive, and indeed might put off those fainter of heart, but so what?

Go forth, physicists of the world, and surf…

it seems that embedded video won’t work on this site so here’s the link:

Mazel Tov!

Let’s not let this blog die, posters!

It’s my pleasure to congratulate co-blogger, Dr. Bonna Newman, who successfully defended last week. Congrats Bonna! 

I think one of the Homer’s is up next.

Meteor Shower Zenith Tonight

Tonight is the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower, which is the roughly annual result of the earth passing through trailing debris from the Comet Swift-Tuttle.  In Hamburg its cloudy as usual, but I’ll be outside for a bit around 2am if it isn’t raining.  Tonight is just the peak, so tomorrow night it might also be worth stepping outside if you don’t live near a lot of light pollution.

Time to pick out some appropriate stargazing music….

Where’d You Get That Supercollider Shirt?

I was skimming an old review of the Coachella Festival today and I couldn’t help but notice that a singer from the band MGMT was wearing a Supercollider shirt on stage. The Superconducting Supercollider was a proposed hadron collider in Texas, and was cancelled after about a quarter of the the tunnels were dug due to US federal budget limitations. It would have been bigger than the LHC, explored higher energies, and been running by now, but so it goes. Construction started in ’91 and terminated in ’93, so that’s probably when the promo shirts were made. I’ve got one too, which I discovered in a box in the server room in at the Pheno Institute in Madison a few years ago. I keep it in a nitrogen vault to preserve it, and mostly only wear it to conferences. I’ve been debating scanning it and getting it reprinted or recreated, just ’cause its so ridiculously awesome.

Social Instability

When you work at an international lab, most of the people you meet and become friends with are only on a 1+1 or 2+1 postdoc, or need to go home every few months for exams, or are only out on a two week or two day assignment. People on permanent assignment also go to at least one conference each year. This does mean you get to meet lots of interesting people from interesting places, but also means your personal interactions also carry an explicit sense of instability. This is also true at any major university, but there’s sort of a communal experience via the academic year. Even though people make friends with students from different years, there are aways people with the same timescale as you. The instability is there, but there are enough people on the same schedule that I found it less isolating and unpredictable.

Here its a bit different, for better or worse. Students and postdocs normally arrive individually, adjust, work and leave on a schedule dictated by their particular institutions. When I first arrived I made a big effort to learn the language fast and make friends off site but, none the less, scientists who aren’t from this city still form the core of my friends. What’s kind of nice is that its like an extended vacation for many people. They come here with few or no local personal attachments or responsibilities, and view their time here both as a career opportunity and simply a great personal experience. Combine this with incessant welcoming parties, going away parties, housewarming parties, and someone-is-back-in-town-for-an-editorial-board-meeting-lets-get-battered parties, and you get a pretty good time. When I was still living at the university we had all these things, but they weren’t so frequent or uniformly spread in time. Then again, scheduling a regular card game or road trip on a weekend when everyone is in town is a bit tricky.

This week is an extreme example, but it gives you an idea. On Sunday, one friend got back in town for after being at her home univeristy for two months. She’ll only be here until the fall, I think. On Monday a friend I haven’t seen in a year came back for just two days to sit in on a meeting. Last night was the probably the last time I’ll play cards with two guys working on the ILC Alignment and Survey project, which recently lost its UK funding. Tonight I go see my a friend who used to be a postdoc for my group, who I haven’t seen since he moved to LHC business a year ago. Its great to see people graduating, getting new and exciting jobs and all, but its a bit sad at the same time. I also notice it when people ask how my thesis writing is going, and where I’m looking at postdocs.