I Can’t Seem To Stop Blogging Tonight…

I guess I’m overcompensating for how long I was away. Still don’t have time to write much, but here’s something interesting I can communicate only through pictures. This famous logo:

I actually saw the original draft of this in an exhibition at the MoMa a month or so agoand this slightly less-famous one:

Were both designed by the same person, famed graphic artist Milton Glaser. You may also know a Bob Dylan poster he’s behind.

See below the fold for a T-Shirt I saw the other day which was not designed by Glaser.

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Making Things Too Simple

I’m all for efforts to make cutting-edge science accessible to people without technical training. Slicing away layers of jargon and technobabble is an important part of that process, but there’s a second edge to many of the rhetorical blades used for that kind of pruning. Without meaning to, I’m sure, sometimes authors seriously undersell the magnitude and significance of the science they’re trying to describe, which can leave the public feeling unimpressed and, consequently, uninterested in helping with funding for important projects. Here’s a short piece I wrote for class recently reacting to something I saw in “Newsday.” Yes, Newsday, the “Chicken Wyngz” of actual news sources. I don’t read it regularly; stop judging me. Anyway, here’s a short piece in defense of a cool piece of technology in my backyard:

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Things I Saw in Stony Brook: Awesome Sunset Edition

Student Activities Center on the left. Colors have not been retouched at all, I promise.

Actually probably about 4 of the last 7 days here have had stunning sunsets like this. It’s just that it took me until now to figure out how to take a good picture of one! I tend to notice them only in the evening, when I’m at my apartment, at which point I am (like every other place of residence on Long Island) surrounded by trees. But luckily for me, I was stuck on campus pretty late yesterday, and I discovered that when you stand smack in the middle of campus, there’s enough of a clearing in the trees that you can actually take a pretty good picture :-).

A view looking Northeast below the fold.

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Things I Saw In Stony Brook: Dueling Poster Edition

I feel like this is a famous image, but I can't find the source of it. Looks like something that would have run in the New Yorker in the 40s. Anyone know?

So in response to some pretty vicious program cut proposals, as well as some substantial fee hikes, there’s been talk here about the research assistants going on strike (remember, Stony Brook is a New York state school). I’m not taking a stance either way, and don’t actually have to, since I’m paid to teach and not to research at the moment. But there are two things I love about this that made it postworthy. First, I love anytime that someone gets to trump someone else’s argument using a combination of their own imagery and some slightly goofy, lunchbox-based humor. On the other hand, I also love that the “no strike” people got their bulletin up first, particularly because, to be honest, a research assistant strike would be hilariously hard to take seriously. Particularly in the physics department. I mean, a lot of these people are borderline geniuses, who could be making huge amounts of money in the private sector but voluntarily agreed to spend several years working for an astonishingly low salary just so they can have the privilege of spending more time doing research. And… yeah… we’re supposed to believe that NOW they’ll quit working until they’re paid more?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually think that some of their demands are pretty reasonable and legit. I’m just saying, even if they claim they’re striking, I’m positive 80% of them will be crossing the cyber-picketlines every evening so that they can keep reading the latest articles in  Physical Review Letters :-).

Things I Learned While Eating Cookies: Mouse-Neurons-Automatically-Know-the-Chinese-Remainder-Theorem Edition

I’ve decided to try a new feature on WLOG blog this semester. Every week the physics department hosts a colloquium where a guest speaker from some other university or research institution gives a talk to all the faculty and graduate students, as well as anyone else who’s nerdy enough to want to sit in on it. Of course, at Colorado they had something similar and I always liked to attend, in part because in addition to an interesting lecture, there were always free cookies and tea served beforehand (if you are, for some reason, needing to lure me into a trap someday, consider baking some peanut butter cookies). And I was delighted to discover when I got to Stony Brook last semester that the “cookies and colloquia” pairing seems to be a staple of the physics community at large.

So my new blogging goal for the semester, both to help ensure that I post things regularly and to give myself a chance to practice giving nontechnical explanations of science concepts, is to report to you one interesting thing I learned each week while eating the department-sponsored cookies. This week, Ila Fiete of UT-Austin was here telling us how she’s applying coding models and information theory to the neuroscience question of how mammal brains keep track of our location. If you’re a nerd with access to journal articles, you can start checking out her work for yourself here. But if you’re not, I offer the following cover version, complete with dorky pictures.

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The Return of WLOG Blog (with free bonus preview of my semester)

Welcome back.

That’s addressed to me, not to you. For all I know you have been here all January. I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t here. I was at home in Colorado, hanging out with my family, who still have a dial up connection that only aspires to 56 kBps. In the past I’ve been very frustrated by this, but, perhaps in part because I’ve been realizing lately how rare it is to truly get some distance from the world, this time I found it kind of liberating. So I took a break from blogging, and for the most part also from Facebook, even though I know that so many people’s afternoons revolve around wondering what minuscule piece of science I might be about to trick them into thinking about. To all the people in that category, I apologize deeply, and encourage you to sit tight and wait for tomorrow afternoon’s post; It’ll be just what you’re looking for, I promise.

If by some chance, you also fall into the category of people who are curious about my day-to-day life, or at least about the life of a physics graduate student, the rest of this post is for you, because now that I’m settled back in at the Brook for some reason I feel like sharing a bit.

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∫ A Real Stumper of a Puzzle

Here’s your chance to try to outsmart the vasy majority of the Stony Brook physics department (including a Dirac Medalist, several Guggenheim fellows, and so on). At our colloquium on Tuesday, a speaker from UMass-Boston, Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft,  gave a talk about physics education strategies, and along the way posed the following problem to the audience: consider a pendulum which consists of a large bathtub (filled with water) swinging back and forth. Now imagine the pendulum is positioned next to a faucet, such that every time the tub swings back to the right, it comes under the faucet and a little water is added to the tub before it swings away:

Ignore the fact that the force of the water pouring in will disturb the oscillations a little bit, and the fact that the water will slosh back and forth. Imagine perhaps it’s a very thick liquid like honey instead so that it doesn’t move much while it is in the tub: the point is that the volume of fluid in the tub (and therefore the mass of the pendulum) is gradually increasing a little bit with each swing.*

The question is, as time goes on, does the pendulum speed up, slow down, or stay the same?

Dr. Eisenkraft asked us to vote on what we thought the answer was by show of hands, and I would say about 70% of those of us in the audience (self included!) turned out to have gotten it wrong. Granted, we were working on the fly and with slightly more time to think about it, I’m sure some of them would have worked out the right answer (and I’m pleased to say, two of the three fellows who I think of as potential thesis advisors got it right right off the bat!). Nevertheless, it’s a bit harder than it looks. Make your guess, then check the answer below the fold:

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