Monday, October 31, 2016

Bilbo Dies

William Bowen, who served as president of Princeton when I went there, has died. A very important fact went missing from the published obituaries: all of the students (and who knows how many professors) habitually referred to him as "Bilbo." The card catalog for the main library (yes, there were card catalogs back then) even had the following entry:  Bilbo, see Bowen, William G. I don't know if this entry vanished when the university library catalog went electronic -- it would be a pity if it did.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Day They Nuked Mississippi

Once upon a time, the U.S. government detonated two nuclear bombs in Mississippi.

Was this the sequel to the burning of Atlanta? Did Ulysses S. Grant possess a secret nuclear arsenal? No, these were underground explosions near Hattiesburg back in the 1960s, designed to see how easy it would be to detect nuclear tests using seismic data.

The U.S. engaged in all sorts of wacky nuclear high jinks back in the day. There was Project Plowshare, which explored the possibility of using nuclear bombs for the purposes of earth moving. Just imagine if we had built the Interstate Highway System that way -- you wouldn't need street lights because the highways would glow in the dark.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Chinese Science Fiction - The Three-Body Problem

Traduttore traditore. That was a favorite saying of one of my college Russian professors. It means "the translator is a traitor." Or at least I think that's what it means. I don't speak Italian.

I almost never read science fiction in translation from another language. And the main reason is that most science fiction is written in English. If you can read English, as many readers of this blog can, then you automatically have access to 90+% of the world's published science fiction. There are a few exceptions -- there has long been a thriving parallel world of Russian science fiction -- but most science fiction remains stubbornly Anglophone.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pokemon? Or Prescription Drug?

My nephew, a fourth-year medical student, is visiting for a month to do an externship at Vanderbilt. He told me about a game that the medical students play: one person announces a name, and the other person has to guess whether it's the name of a Pokemon or a prescription drug.

Here's a sample for you to try.  See if you can figure out which of these are Pokemon, and which are the names of drugs:

A. Remelteon
B. Remoraid
C. Empoleon
D. Zingo

Answer after the break...

Monday, October 10, 2016

In Memoriam: Debbie Jin

I was saddened to learn of the death of Debbie Jin several weeks ago -- she was only 47 years old. Debbie worked at NIST (what used to be called the Bureau of Standards) in Boulder, Colorado. I first met her in my previous incarnation as an Ohio State professor, when we tried to hire her into a faculty position there. Over the years, I've tried to keep track of all of the young superstars who turned down our job offers -- Debbie became by far the most outstanding of all of the "ones who got away."

Debbie worked on ultra-cold systems of atoms. These are the famous "Bose-Einstein condensates" -- bosons are particles that like to clump together, and when you make them cold enough, they all pile into the same quantum state. Fermions, on the other hand, hate each other and don't like to be together. Debbie was the first to produce a "fermionic condensate" in the laboratory. Had she lived, I think she would have been a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. I invited Debbie to give our 2011-12 Slack Lecture here at Vanderbilt, and she gave a spectacular talk. She was also one of the nicest people I've met in the world of physics.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity: Why are Senior Mathematicians so Calm?

Time for some amateur psychoanalysis. I recently saw The Man Who Knew Infinity, which tells the amazing story of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan and his relationship with the English mathematician Hardy. It's an excellent film, but I won't spoil it for you -- let's just say that if it were fiction instead of a true story, nobody would believe it. The movie does an amazing job of portraying the actual process of doing mathematics. (I wrote earlier about the difficulties of writing math-based science fiction in this post.)

I should admit at this point that I thought seriously about going into mathematics in college.  But I was a good enough mathematician to realize that I was not a good enough mathematician to do mathematics professionally. So I went into theoretical physics instead. I've never regretted my decision, but I do envy the more senior members of the mathematics community for their relative calm, as compared to those of us in theoretical physics. What do I mean by that? You'd think that senior tenured physicists would eventually kick back and relax, instead of continuing to seek awards and other kinds of validation for their work. But it ain't so (and I am as guilty as anyone else). On the other hand, I've found senior mathematicians to be relatively more relaxed about such things. And I have a theory as to why this is the case.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Marvel Superhero Day at School

My daughter's school is sponsoring "Marvel Monday," when everyone is supposed to dress up as a Marvel superhero. What to do? I suggested that she go as the Fantastic Four's Sue Richards, who can turn invisible. Then just skip school that day.