Archive for April, 2009

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Professor Gates can advise President Obama on supersymmetry.

Our dear friend and former Caltech faculty member S. James Gates has just become one of the “cool people” in Washington. He’s been chosen by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Gates is the first African American to hold an endowed chair at a major research university. He’s currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I interviewed him the last time he visited Caltech. You can read or listen to the interview here.

I think President Obama is going to enjoy and benefit from the wise counsel of Professor Gates. I just want to say, “Hey Jim, don’t forget your friends out here in Pasadena. We’re thinking about you. Congratulations. Hope you visit us again some time soon. You can bring your new friend Barry too.”

Caltech has more than just one representative in PCAST. Caltech’s femtochemistry superstar Ahmed Zewail has also been appointed to the body. Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work using lasers to take pictures of chemical reactions occurring over time scales of 10-15 seconds, which is one millionth of one billionth of a second. Pretty darned fast!

Zewail is not only a genius and a darned clever man, he’s been active in the struggle for peace in the Middle East. So congratulations, Professor Zewail! Once again you’ve made Caltech proud.

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Halde

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Haldeman

I was a sci-fi fan when I was a little girl. I wish I could say when it all started. Maybe it was the giant pile of comic books at my babysitter’s house that turned me into a Superman co-dependent just like Lois Lane and Lana Lang. Or maybe it was the time I got the flu and someone gave me The Princess of Mars, the first book in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All my dolls traveled to Mars, even if I couldn’t.

Whatever it was that got me started, I lived more or less with my nose buried inside a science fiction book from the ages of eight until 21, when I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude
and abandoned sci-fi for magic realism. So I felt like I was coming back home after being away on a long trip when I listened to the Science Fiction: The Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books on Saturday.

Writer and blogger Scott Timberg moderated the panel, which included three prodigious producers of prime science fiction dating back to the 1950s era of pulp novels and Amazing Stories: Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison and Joe Haldeman.

Silverberg began his journey as a child in New York City, enchanted first by the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum and then by the stars and galaxies in the Hayden Planetarium.

Silverberg's most acclaimed novel has been restored and reissued


“But not even a New Yorker can say `show me a live dinosaur’,” he said.

After reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, he realized that “fiction can take you anywhere.”

He found science fiction listed under “pseudo-scientific fiction” in the library and became a fan.

“Many kids had imaginary friends,” said Robert Silverberg said of his childhood sci-fi fandom, “I had imaginary galaxies.”

When he was 13, he got the idea that he could write science fiction for a living. “It was a silly idea,” he said, “but it turned out to be true.”

Silverberg’s greatest work is considered by critics and fans alike to be Dying Inside. First published in 1972, the novel has just been reissued in trade paperback with a preface by Silverberg. You can read more about the author this recent LA Times article by Timberg.

Harry Harrison’s novel about an overpopulated Earth Make Room! Make Room! made a huge impression on me as a young fan. I appreciated strawberry jam a lot more, for example, despite being allergic.

The film Soylent Green is based on the novel, but changes the story in several important ways. For example, in the novel, “soylent green” really is made from soy.

Harrison remembers being a sci-fi fan before sci-fi existed, when it was just pulp novels. He and his friends lived a “grim and grey” existence until they opened up a book and “light poured out.”

Joe Haldeman reminisced about “books with rocket ships on the spine.” I remember those books! I read every single one of them in the library, just like Joe did.

After he’d read every sci-fi book in the library two or three times, he started buying books from a used bookstore in his neighborhood.

“It was like having a heroin dealer next door,” he said.

Haldeman’s most acclaimed work is The Forever War, recently reissued in a “definitive version” with a large chunk of the story restored that had been cut out before it was published.

I missed Ray Bradbury’s talk because I didn’t get my tickets in time. They went on sale at midnight but I waited until 9am to hit Ticketmaster. Foolish me. The man is popular, let’s just say that.

Bradbury typed up the manuscript of his most iconic work Fahrenheit 451 in the Powell Library at UCLA.

He usually signs books on Halloween at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. He signed my copy of Farenheit 451 there.


I love books like a wino loves wine. So I feel pretty drunk every April when the LA Times Festival of Books rolls around. Critics say we’re all blond and superficial in Southern California. You can see just how wrong this stereotype is when you’re surrounded by bookworms and lit geeks of all sizes, shapes and cultures at the festival.

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

As a science geek, I felt morally obligated to attend the Real Science panel on Saturday morning. The panel was moderated by science writer K.C. Cole and featured her fellow science writer Carl Zimmer, odor scientist Avery Gilbert and theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind.

Susskind’s latest book is The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, his chronicle of the intellectual battles over the meaning of black hole entropy and the ultimate fate of decaying black holes.

Susskind told the audience he was grateful for the extreme intellectual puzzle posed by black hole entropy, given that his generation in physics was too young to have participated in the great quantum mechanics and relativity revolutions on the Einstein era. Instead they were left to “clean up the mess” left behind by their elders, turning the primitive and confusing subject of relativistic quantum mechanics into the elegant theoretical powerhouse of quantum gauge field theory.

Before I heard Carl Zimmer talk about his new book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, I had no idea that the humble and ubiquitous intestinal bacteria E. coli has won twelve Nobel Prizes in science — which is ten more than any multi-celled organism on record.

What scientists have learned about E. coli “challenges our assumptions about life,” Zimmer said. Despite their apparent simplicity, each E. coli cell acts like a distinct individual. If 747s behaved like E. coli, then two identically built planes would exhibit completely different behaviors when you tried to fly them.

Another surprising and philosophically challenging aspect of e-coli is their ability to organize socially into competing tribes that compete for food and make tribal war. I’ve always thought of war as a human behavior that was learned. If even single-celled organisms can organize into tribes and make war, then the instinct for war is an instinct that is basic to life itself.

Panel moderator K.C. Cole

According to the third panelist, fragrance scientist Avery Gilbert, , fresh oysters exude the same chemical responsible for the smell of pinto bean farts. That’just one of the peculiar things you’ll be able to learn in his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

Whenever we stress out over nuclear proliferation in the news, we’re feeling the legacy left to us by J. Robert Oppenheimer, our “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” His brother Frank left a more peaceful and enjoyable legacy in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a “museum of human awareness” that combines science education with art and just plain fun. K.C. Cole, a longtime friend of the non-nuclear Oppenheimer, drew on letters and extensive interviews for her personal portrait Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.


The ancient and mysterious Himiko

The ancient and
mysterious Himiko

The most fun you can have in science is when someone discovers something that nobody can explain. It’s been a long time since we had that kind of fun in particle physics. In particle physics we’re usually running experiments to test what we think we already know.

Astronomers and astrophysicists get to have all the fun today with the announcement of the “giant mysterious object” named Himiko, after an ancient mysterious Japanese shaman-queen.

Light takes time to travel across the universe. Astronomers figure Himiko existed when the universe was an 800 million year old toddler. According to existing models of the Big Bang, small clouds of gas formed first and then took time to coalesce into bigger clouds that eventually formed galaxies and stars.

Is Himiko a proto-galaxy? Is there a black hole inside? Is it going to change our understanding of the Big Bang?

Whatever the answers are, one thing is sure — many research projects will be launched, seminars given, papers published, and young careers shaped, before the puzzle of Himiko is solved.

Happy Birthday, Sir Michael Atiyah!

Sir Michael, showing his enthusiasm for mathematics

Sir Michael, showing his enthusiasm for mathematics

Thanks to Luboš Motl at The Reference Frame for reminding me that today is the 80th birthday of Sir Michael Atiyah, an extraordinary mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on physics.

I interviewed Sir Michael the last time he was at Caltech. You can listen to him here.

I was upset, by the way, to see that Luboš recommends “shoot your environmentalist today” as a way to celebrate Earth Day. If he took himself seriously, then he’d have to wipe out 90% of theoretical physics, including many of the people he admires the most.

The fact is, conservatives like Luboš are a minority in physics. It’s not because of any discrimination, or because conservatives aren’t as good at math as liberals are. Studies have revealed that the brainy people with conservative personalities tend to feel more attracted to careers in business or law rather than academia.

The job of upholding old traditions is one that naturally appeals to conservatives. The job of discovering new knowledge tends to appeal more to people with a liberal disposition.

I’ve come to believe that evolution made humans separate into liberals and conservatives for a reason. We liberals need the conservatives to hold us back from accepting too many new ideas before they can be proven to be good ones, just like the conservatives need us liberals to keep society from choking to death on old outdated tradition.

Global warming won’t be the last debate we ever have, but it’s a debate that I wish I didn’t feel so confident at winning. I love to ski. I hope the vast majority of practicing professional climate scientists are wrong. Unfortunately, I think they know what they’re doing. I think they’re right and I think we need to pay attention to them now, not later when conservatives finally see the light.

Get well soon Stephen Hawking

Me in Woody Creek

Me in Woody Creek

There’s a photograph buried in my closet that was taken in the old days of analog photography and has never been digitized and hopefully never shall be. It shows a much younger me reclining on the sand at Club Med in Marbella, topless, as is the norm in such places, holding in front of me a copy of “The large scale structure of space-time” by S.W. Hawking and G.F.R. Ellis.

The sublime Mediterranean sunshine, the water skiing lessons over the glittering waves, the entwined aromas of salt air and freshly caught fish sizzling on the grill — it all went away for an hour or so while I took a swim in Chapter 4 — The Physical Significance of Curvature.

This is an extremely sexy chapter, and not just because curves are sexy. What’s especially sexy about this chapter is the way it begins with the simple idea of the spacetime paths of massive and massless objects, and ends up laying out the basic mathematical conditions for spacetime singularities and time travel.

Now how does this happen? The key to all this is known as Raychaudhuri’s equation, discovered independently by Indian physicist Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri and Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau. This fantastic equation, also known as the focusing equation, tells us when the spacetime curvature of a given gravitational system will force light cones to collapse and form spacetime singularities and when the curvature will keep them from converging, allowing conditions to develop where time travel is at least theoretically possible.

Time travel, water skiing and grilled fish make for quite a day at the beach.

Here’s to a beautiful man and to all of his beautiful books!

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Is quantum gravity an oxymoron?

Quantum mechanics forbids a quantum system from being both knowable and objectifiable. But quantum mechanics and quantum field theory assume that the spacetime metric is both knowable and objectifiable. If the metric is not knowable or not objectifiable, then it’s impossible to define a quantum theory precisely. In that sense it seems like the term “quantum gravity” is oxymoronic. String theory demands that the graviton exist, but so far it hasn’t enlightened us on the ultimate resolution of this apparent oxymoron.

Quantum reality

In classical physics we assume the world is both knowable and objectifiable. In quantum mechanics, we have to choose one or the other. The mathematics behind quantum mechanics will not let us have both at the same time.