Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Are Scientific Conferences Obsolete?

Many of you have seen this iconic photo, which hangs in physics departments all over the world:

It's the Solvay Conference of 1927, the formative era for quantum mechanics, when giants walked the Earth: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Curie. I've often wondered what it must have been like to be one of the two or three people in the photo that no one has ever heard of. At least you'd get your photo on lots of physics department walls.

Recently, I attended a physics conference myself, TeVPA 2017, hosted by Ohio State University. The conference covered the overlap between particle physics and astrophysics -- my main interest was dark matter. But the conference itself was something of a Rip Van Winkle experience for me. I've stepped down as department chair after 13+ years (hurray!), so I am just now getting back onto the conference circuit. And I've noticed one tremendous difference between the conferences of my youth and the one I just attended.

Let me first take a step back and talk about a quiet revolution in the way that physicists do their work. It's something that most people aren't even aware of, but it's had a profound effect on the way that physics gets conducted.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Norse Mythology

Lately I've been reading a collection of Norse myths to my youngest child. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Norse myth makers clearly stole all of their best material from J.R.R. Tolkien, I've been struck by the fact that compared to the classical Greek/Roman myths, the Norse myths are very, very weird.

At the beginning of the Norse universe, the heat from the land of fire melts some of the ice in the land of frost, producing an enormous giant, Ymir, and an enormous cow, Authumbla. Did I hear that correctly -- a primordial cow? But the zaniest part involves the occupants of the world tree, Yggsdrasil. There's an eagle perched at the top of the tree, looking out for trouble, and serpent under one of the roots, gnawing away at it. Nothing wrong with that -- it sounds appropriately dark and moody, as Norse mythology should be. But running up and down the tree is a squirrel named Ratatoskr, who carries insulting messages back and forth between the eagle and the serpent. A mythological squirrel? whose only job is to trade insults? I think the reason my daughter enjoys these stories so much is that they sound like something a 7-year-old would make up.