The Exotic Physics of an Ordinary Morning: My TEDxAlbany Talk

So, yesterday was my big TEDxAlbany talk. I was the first speaker scheduled, probably because I gave them the title “The Exotic Physics of an Ordinary Morning,” so it seemed appropriate to have me talking while people were still eating breakfast…

The abstract I wrote when I did the proposal mentions both quantum physics and relativity, but when I actually wrote the talk, that made for a really awkward transition, so it’s all quantum, all the time. I cover quite a bit of ground– the no-animation-effects version of the slides is 42 slides and Word has it as just over 2500 words written out– but I’m happy to say that I hit the time mark, and I wasn’t even the fastest-talking speaker at the event.

This went about as well as I could’ve hoped. I fumbled the delivery on one small point, but not in a way that anybody who isn’t me would notice. People said nice things about it afterwards, which is always good; they livestreamed the talks and at least one person said on Twitter that they’d watched it. They promise to post video at some point; you can be sure that I’ll post it here as soon as it’s available.

The above photo of me speaking is cropped down from this tweet:

(not the greatest facial expression, but I can’t don anything about that…)

Here are the slides on SlideShare:

Being a TED-type talk, though, those probably aren’t much use to anybody who doesn’t have the text memorized– just a collection of images with next to no text. So, here’s the approximate text (approximate because I was speaking from memory, and changed the wording here and there in small ways):


When I say “Quantum Physics,” the phrase probably conjures up some intimidating images. Particles that behave like waves and vice versa. Cats that are alive and dead at the same time. Spooky interactions connecting particles over large distances. Quantum mechanics has been around for a hundred years, and is the subject of innumerable books, but the theory remains famously difficult and troubling. One of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, is frequently quoted as saying “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it,” and that’s just as true today as when he said it in the 1930’s.

There are only a few things that everybody thinks they know about quantum physics: It’s hard to understand. It’s really, really weird. And it’s very far removed from our everyday reality.

Except, that last item isn’t true. It can’t be true. Physicists inhabit the same everyday world as everybody else, and we don’t make theories up for no good reason. The modern theory of quantum mechanics exists because physicists were led to it by observations made right here, in the everyday reality we all deal with.

You might be surprised to learn just how familiar you are with these observations. In fact, you probably see one of the key phenomena every morning, when you cook breakfast. Everything we know about quantum physics starts right here, with the red glow of the heating elements in this toaster.

The glow of a hot object is a very simple and universal phenomenon. Take an object, any object, and heat it up, and it will glow red, then yellow, then white. The precise color depends only on the temperature. Physicists call this “black-body radiation” because it doesn’t matter what the object is made of, or how you get it hot. No matter what you have, if you get it to the same temperature, it will glow in exactly the same way.

This sort of simple, universal behavior is like catnip for theoretical physicists, because it seems like it should have a simple and elegant explanation. And in the late 1800’s, a lot of really smart people tried to explain the light we see from hot objects; all of them failed.

The guy who finally succeeded, in 1900, was the German physicist Max Planck, but to do it, he had to resort to a weird mathematical trick. He found an equation that perfectly described the black-body radiation, but to get it, he had to pretend that the object was made up of imaginary “oscillators,” each emitting a particular frequency of light. And each of those oscillators could contain only discrete amounts of energy—one unit, two units, three units, but never two-and-a-half, or pi. This is what puts the “quantum” in quantum physics—it’s Latin for “how much,” and refers to the fact that in Planck’s model, energy comes in discrete amounts.

The energy unit for each oscillator depends on its frequency, and that’s what leads to the colors we see. Red light has a low frequency, and thus a low energy, so it’s easy to produce at relatively low temperature. Blue light has a much higher frequency, so you need a much higher temperature before you get any blue light at all.

Planck’s model works brilliantly, but he was never completely happy about the trick he had to use to get it, and hoped something better would come along. In 1905, though, Albert Einstein picked this idea up and ran with it. Einstein was trying to explain the photoelectric effect, where light falling on metal knocks electrons loose, another of those phenomena that seem simple but turn out to be surprisingly hard to explain. Einstein’s solution was to apply Planck’s idea to the light itself. He said that light, which everybody knew was a wave, is actually made up of tiny particles, each carrying one “quantum” of energy, with the energy related to the frequency according to Planck’s formula.

This is a radical suggestion—Einstein himself called it his only revolutionary contribution to physics—and lots of people hated it. Including Max Planck. But Einstein’s model passed every experimental test physicists could throw at it, so people had to take it seriously. The idea of light as a particle—nowadays we call them photons—became part of physics, and quantum mechanics was off to the races.

So, quantum physics isn’t as remote as you might think. Any time you toast a piece of bread for breakfast, or wait impatiently for a pot of water to boil, you’re staring directly at the place where it all began.

Now, you could argue that the quantum-ness of the black-body radiation from hot objects is sort of incidental. After all, you don’t need to understand quantum physics to build a toaster. People were working with hot, glowing objects for a long, long time before Planck explained the origin of the spectrum.

But this points out the way that quantum physics does manifest in the everyday world, if you know where to look. And there are numerous examples of ordinary, everyday objects that do rely on quantum physics to operate properly. For example, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning if not for quantum physics.

That’s a picture of the alarm clock whose beeping wakes me up every day. It’s nothing all that special, as clocks go, it just sits there marking the passage of time, second by second into the future.

But the very definition of time is based on quantum physics. Which we owe to this guy, the Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, who followed Planck and Einstein with a radical leap of his own. Bohr was trying to explain another phenomenon relating to light and atoms, one that’s a little more obviously quantum. If you take a gas of atoms of a particular element, they will emit light only at very specific frequencies. If you spread out the different frequencies, you’ll see a discrete set of colored lines. Each element in the periodic table has its own unique set of these “spectral lines,” and these were being used to identify new elements as far back as the 1870’s. But nobody understood why different atoms had different characteristic frequencies.

Bohr picked up on the idea of connecting energy to frequency from Planck and Einstein, and made a radical suggestion about the structure of atoms. Bohr proposed that the electrons inside an atom don’t orbit the nucleus in just any old way they like, but are restricted to certain very special orbits. Each of these orbits has a particular energy, and atoms absorb and emit light only when their electrons move between these orbits. The frequency of the light depends on the difference in energy in exactly the way that Planck and Einstein introduced.

This was a revolutionary idea, and kicked the development of quantum mechanics into high gear. And while Bohr’s initial proposal wasn’t completely correct, the basic paradigm of electrons occupying only certain special orbits remains central to our understanding. It explains the absorption and emission of all forms of light, from radio waves to gamma rays, and provides the conceptual basis for all of modern chemistry, from the periodic table to the formation of molecules.

Bohr’s idea is also the foundation of modern timekeeping. The second is defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the light absorbed by cesium atoms moving between two particular orbits. Every cesium atom in the universe is identical to every other, and their characteristic frequencies are fixed by the laws of physics, making them perfect time references—that number of oscillations of that light defines one second, always and everywhere. The official time for the world is set by atomic clocks that shine microwaves on cesium atoms and adjust the frequency to perfectly match cesium’s characteristic frequency. We can do this to astonishing precision—the best cesium clocks would run continuously for almost a billion years before drifting off by a single second.

And all of this trickles down to the timekeepers we use to start our day. If you use an alarm on a smartphone, you’re getting your time from telecom networks, which are deliberately synched to atomic time. Even if you’re relying on a cheap electronic alarm like mine, it’s measuring time using the alternating current in your wall, and that’s kept at an impressively stable frequency that can also be traced back to atomic clocks. So ultimately, I’m able to get to work on time thanks to the quantum physics of cesium atoms.

Now, maybe that doesn’t seem “spooky” enough. I mean, it’s a little weird that atoms have these special states and all, but my alarm clock isn’t obviously using the magical-seeming properties of quantum physics. But those properties play a key role in another step of an ordinary morning routine—after I get out of bed, and get my breakfast, I sit down to check my email and social media. And the Internet that I use to do it would be impossible without Schrödinger’s Cat.

Schrödinger’s Cat is probably the most infamous thought experiment ever devised, taken from a 1935 paper by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who had grown disenchanted with quantum physics for philosophical reasons. To demonstrate the absurdity of quantum predictions, Schrödinger imagined placing a cat in a sealed box with a device that has a 50% chance of killing the cat in the next hour. The question he posed is, at the end of the hour, just before the box is opened, what is the state of the cat? Common sense would seem to say that the cat is either alive or dead, but Schrödinger pointed out that quantum physics says the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, right up until it’s measured.

How does the theory end up in such a bizarre place? Well, it goes back to Niels Bohr and his special orbits. These work brilliantly to explain what’s going on with spectral lines and chemistry, but have one tiny problem: there’s no obvious reason why those orbits should be special.

But a French Ph.D. student named Louis de Broglie pointed out that you can easily explain Bohr’s rule for picking out the special orbits if electrons behave like waves. Bohr’s special orbits are ones where an integer number of electron wavelengths fit perfectly around the circumference of the orbit. For those orbits, the wave reinforces itself, and is stable, while other orbits get wiped out.

Wave nature for electrons is a radical notion, but there’s a nice symmetry to it, when paired with the particle nature of light introduced by Planck and Einstein. If light, which everyone knew is a wave, behaves like a particle, then it’s not unreasonable to think that an electron, which everyone knew is a particle, might behave like a wave. It’s also an eminently testable idea, and within a few years of de Broglie’s proposal, physicists in the US and UK had seen direct experimental evidence of electrons behaving like waves.

These days, we can beautifully demonstrate this dual nature, by firing electrons one at a time at a barrier with slits cut in it. Each electron is detected on the far side in a particular place at a particular instant, like a particle, but if you repeat the experiment over, and over, and over, all of the electrons together trace out a pattern of bright and dark stripes that’s characteristic of wave behavior. Electrons are particles that behave like waves, and vice versa.

By 1930, physicists knew that electrons have both particle and wave nature and are properly described by a quantum wavefunction,; Schrödinger himself shared a Nobel Prize for developing one of the equations physicists use to calculate those wavefunctions.

How does this lead to half-dead cats? Well, the thing about waves is that they can’t be nailed down the same way particles can. Particles are found at one position at any instant, but waves are necessarily spread out, a disturbance filling some region of space. So, quantum particles like electrons with wave nature can occupy multiple states at once, not just here or there, but here and there, until they’re measured. The idea that quantum objects exist in multiple states, and observation picks out the single reality we see was deeply disturbing to classically trained physicists like Schrödinger and Einstein. These philosophical issues drove them to abandon the theory they had helped create.

But this spreading out to multiple states is essential for understanding solid objects. The electrons in an atom behave like waves, extending over space. If you bring two atoms close together, the electrons end up shared between the two. An individual electron, like Schrödinger’s Cat, isn’t stuck to just Atom A or Atom B, it’s on both A and B at the same time.

This continues as you add more and more atoms. An electron inside a chunk of solid silicon, say, isn’t associated with a single atom, but spread through the entire thing. This profoundly changes the way electrons move inside materials. Fully understanding that motion demands quantum physics.

And because we understand quantum physics, we can use it to control the way electrons move inside materials, which lets us make transistors out of chunks of silicon. And packing millions of those together lets us make the semiconductor chips that power all our computers and telecommunications devices. Without quantum physics, none of that would be possible. So, the Internet isn’t just for sharing pictures of cats, it’s possible because of the physics behind Erwin Schrödinger’s infamous zombie cat.

Those are just a few of the ways that the exotic physics of quantum mechanics manifests itself in the course of an ordinary morning. It’s all too easy to fall into thinking of exotic physics as something with no practical relevance, that only matters in giant accelerators or around black holes. This is partly the fault of physicists, who are prone to over-emphasizing the weird and extreme.

It’s important to remember, though that as weird as quantum ideas may seem, they profoundly affect everything around us. There’s no separate “quantum realm” where the weird stuff happens; we live in a quantum world, from top to bottom. From the alarm that gets me out of bed, to the appliances I use to cook my breakfast, to the social-media apps that help me ease into the day, getting off to work in the morning would be impossible without quantum physics.

I’m telling you this not because I want to take away the magic of quantum physics, and drag it down to the mundane level of a weekday breakfast. Quite the contrary. I’m telling you this to enhance the everyday. Knowing how ordinary, everyday objects trace their behavior back to quantum physics can add an element of awe and wonder to even the most mundane morning.

Quantum physics is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in human history, and that’s something we should appreciate more. The great thing is, it’s everywhere, all around us, if we just know where to look.

TEDxAlbany Talk This Thursday, 12/3

I’ve been a little bad about self-promoting here of late, but I should definitely plug this: I’m speaking at the TEDxAlbany event this Thursday, December 3rd; I’m scheduled first, at 9:40 am. The title is “The Exotic Physics of an Ordinary Morning“:

You might think that the bizarre predictions of quantum mechanics and relativity– particles that are also waves, cats that are both alive and dead, clocks that run at different rates depending on how you’re moving– and only come into play in physics laboratories or near black holes. In fact, though, even the strangest features of modern physics are essential for everything around us. The mundane process of getting up and getting ready for work relies on surprisingly exotic physics; understanding how this plays out adds an element of wonder to even the most ordinary morning.

(This is slightly inaccurate, as I was originally planning to get some relativity into this, but that ended up being awkward. So the final version is all quantum.)

I believe they’ve streamed the talks in past years, though I don’t have any information on that at the moment. They have video of all the past speakers, so I assume the same will be true this year; once it’s up, you can be sure I’ll point to it.

Anyway, that’s the Big Thing I’m stressing out about this week… If I get useful information on how to stream the video, I’ll share it; if you’re in the Albany area, and free that day, they may still have tickets if you want to check it out live…

Me in the Media: Two New Interviews

I’ve been slacking in my obligation to use this blog for self-promotion, but every now and then I remember, so here are two recent things where I was interviewed by other people:

— I spoke on the phone to a reporter from Popular Mechanics who was writing a story about “radionics” and “wishing boxes,” a particular variety of pseudoscience sometimes justified with references to quantum mechanics. The resulting story is now up, and quotes me:

It is hard to investigate the ethereal thinking around radionics, but physics is something that can be parsed. So I got in touch with Chad Orzel, a physics professor at Union College in New York and the author of several popular science books, including How To Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. This sounded about my speed, and I ran a few ideas about physics and radionics past him, particularly “quantum entanglement,” which several people offered as evidence that radionics is possible.

“Entanglement is a very strange phenomenon,” says Orzel. “But it’s a very real thing.”


“People try to invoke this as a way of justifying ESP sorts of things: ‘Well, maybe electrons in your brain are entangled with electrons somewhere else.’ There’s a couple of problems with it,” Orzel says.

You’ll have to click through to see what the couple of problems are, though…

— A little earlier, Irene Helenowski interviewed me by email. This went live last week, when I was in California, which is my excuse for not posting it until now.

Professor, how is Emmy doing these days?

She’s doing well. She’s getting on in years for a dog– she’s 13– so she’s slowed down a bit. But she’s still pretty spry, and can about pull me off my feet when she really wants to get to something on one of our walks.

You discuss simulating a black hole at CERN. What is the current status on the scientists’ progress with that project?

It’s not so much simulating, as trying to _create_ a black hole. The idea is that if you can pack enough energy into two colliding protons, you can create a situation where they get close enough together, and have enough total energy that they form a tiny black hole.

This is very much a long-shot possibility at the energy of the actually existing LHC– if nothing exotic is going on, there’s no way the LHC energy is enough to make a black hole. There are some exotic theories where gravity gets dramatically stronger at short distances, though, and if one of these turned out to be true, there’s a chance you could get a black hole. This would evaporate through Hawking radiation almost immediately, spraying out a burst of particles that could identify it as a black hole rather than a more typical collision.

There have been some searches for this in data from the first LHC run, and no sign of black holes has been seen. They just recently re-started at a higher energy (by a factor of two, not enough to make mini-black-holes likely), and I’m sure there will be more such searches. Nobody really expects this to pan out, but it would be tremendously exciting if it did.

Again, click through to read the rest.

And while you’re clicking on things, please consider taking a few minutes to respond to Paige Jarreau’s survey of blog readers. It’s for SCIENCE!, specifically her postdoctoral research on communicating science online.

Science Talks and Pick-Up Hoops

Over in Tumblr-land, Ben Lillie has an interesting post on all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a science talk. It’s an intimidatingly long list of stuff, in quite a range of different areas. But this is a solved problem in other performance fields:

And that raises and interesting question, since aside from the science section (and not even all of that), all of these apply to any other performance or production. So how do those people master all of those things? The short answer is that they don’t. Almost any production that requires a long, and more importantly disparate, set of skills is produced by a team, each with their own specialty. A play is created by: playwright(s), dramaturge(s), actors, a director, set/lighting/stage/audio designers, producers, executive producers, stage hands, front of house staff, and more. Even something like the Daily Show, which appears to be one person talking to a camera making fun of the news is the product of a massive production staff, including a team of writers.

We’re getting used to the idea that science is the product of teams, not lone geniuses. Is it time to start thinking of public science performance as a team production as well? I think it might be.

It’s an interesting post, and I’ve been opening and closing that tab for a few days now, trying to formulate a coherent response. I’ve been lucky enough to give public talks at a wide range of places, and Ben’s absolutely right that the best of these– the TED@NYC event I spoke at, the talks I’ve given up in Waterloo– have professionals who take care of a lot of those fiddly details for you. They do sound and media checks in advance, and take care of lighting the stage appropriately, and all that. This can’t completely avoid disasters– one of the worst tech failures I’ve had was in Waterloo, with highly professional production people– but most of the time, it makes things go much more smoothly.

And a lot of the things on that list are things that every speaker can do, in terms of talk writing and slide design. You should check the readability of your slides from the worst seat in the biggest room you can find, and give at least one practice talk to someone who can simulate your intended audience. I don’t think I’ve ever given a public-lecture talk without making Kate sit through it at least once; usually, I go through it a couple of times in the hotel, too.

At the same time, though, I’m not entirely comfortable with the implicit suggestion, here, because I’ve given a lot of talks at places that simply don’t have the resources to do many of the production things for their speakers. Where the A/V tech was handled by a professor who borrowed a mic from another department that morning, and the lighting is done by a student sitting near the dimmer switch for the lecture hall.

While it’s harder to do a good presentation under those circumstances, it’s not impossible. And in some ways, it’s more important to do those kinds of talks than the ones with really great production values, because a lot of the time, this is the only big public science performance that audience is going to see.

It’s really valuable to have had the experience of speaking in big slick professional contexts, because I know some stuff from those that can be helpful when I’m talking in smaller places. I can’t do all the production things that real professionals would, but I can get enough of the essentials to make things go a little more smoothly than they otherwise might.

Ben naturally goes for theatrical analogies, because that’s what he does with the Story Collider (which is excellent). When I think about teamwork, though, it’s usually in more of a sports context, specifically basketball. I think of the split here as being the difference between a league game with coaches and uniforms and referees and a pick-up game where you make the teams based on who showed up that day, and call your own fouls.

League games and pick-up hoops are the same basic game, but there are a lot of subtle differences in what you can do and how you have to play. There are some dominant pick-up players who go all to pieces in a game with real officials, and a lot of players who were very good in an organized context who are miserable assholes to deal with in a pick-up game.

But the most relevant difference, for this purpose, is that if you only know how to play in an organized league, you’re not going to get to play very often. It’s not hard to find a pick-up game basically anywhere you go– all you need is a ball and a hoop. If you need uniforms and officials, though, that requires a much bigger time commitment and some cash up front.

So, while I’m all in favor of increasing the general professionalism of science communication efforts, there’s also an important place for the pick-up version, with the dodgy A/V set-up and slapdash lighting and everything. And it’s useful to know a bit of all those disparate skills in order to be able to function well in those circumstances. You don’t need to fully master the intricacies of setting up a stage, but you should know what shows up well on video (light blue is a good default), make sure you wear something that has a place to put a lapel mic (and for God’s sake, don’t clip it to your shirt right next to a name badge on a lanyard), mark the edges of the field of view if you’re being recorded, and so on.

So, yes, by all means, let’s put take more of a team approach to talk design and writing, and do as much as we can to elevate the production level for public science events. At the same time, though, remember that it’s important to know how to play pick-up.

The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

Last weekend was our APS-funded outreach workshop The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction, held at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. The workshop offered a three-day “crash course” on quantum physics to 17 science fiction writers from a variety of media– we had novelists, short-story writers, screenwriters, and at least one poet. The goal was to provide a basic grounding in quantum physics and a look at current research in hopes of informing and inspiring new stories that will, in turn, inspire the audience for those stories to look more deeply into the science.

While this involved the usual complement of scrambling around with the planning– including some locked doors, a canceled tour, and frantic searching for demo equipment– the workshop came off wonderfully. The speakers were uniformly excellent the writers were actively engaged, and everybody got along swimmingly. One or two demos didn’t quite work as intended, but those were handled smoothly enough that I doubt anybody noticed.

Speakers were a mix of faculty from Maryland and JQI (plus me; I split the introductory material with Steve Rolston) and JQI post-docs, and we tried to cover a wide range of topics from the basic theory behind quantum physics to the concrete applications of the technology used to study the cool phenomena. Everybody did a great job, but I was especially impressed by Raman Sundrum, who did a very informal presentation, fielding questions and speaking off the cuff about a variety of theories beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. His presentation spilled over into the lunch hour, and if we hadn’t cut him off at the start of the final talk, they might still be at it.

As I said, the talks were excellent across the board. This was in no small part due to the overwhelmingly positive response from folks at Maryland– my fellow organizers say they’ve never had that quick an affirmative reply to any request for volunteers before. This is a nice counter to two common myths about science: first, that scientists are poor communicators, and second, that scientists only grudgingly take part in communicating their work more broadly.

(Even though I already knew the basic physics being discussed, I found the talks really useful for illuminating new-to-me ways of getting some of these ideas across. I fully intend to steal a bunch of the metaphors and explanations people used, particularly Trey Porto’s Plinko-based explanation of quantum statistics, Andrew Childs’s introduction of Deutsch’s algorithm with an interferometer, and Mohammad Hafezi’s magic-box analogy for quantum measurement.)

Thanks are, of course, due to all our excellent speakers: Mohammad Hafezi, Paul Hess, Elizabeth Goldschmidt, Chris Monroe, Andrew Childs, Steve Eckel, Jim Gates, Jimmy Williams, Raman Sundrum, and Allen Stairs. I’m also very grateful to Steve Rolston for going along with this crazy idea I had. Most of all, though, thanks to Emily Edwards of JQI, who did an amazing job dealing with all the logistics of housing, parking, food, transportation, A/V and demo gear, and all the rest. It very literally could not have happened without her.

We’re going to let the dust settle a bit before deciding when we’ll do this again, but things went well enough that I’m fairly certain it’s “when” not “if.” So, watch this space (and several others) for news of the next time.

And here are a few photos, because I have a fancy camera and I’m not afraid to use it:

Prof. Mohammed Hafezi lecturing about quantum measurement at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Prof. Mohammad Hafezi lecturing about quantum measurement at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Tour of a laser cooling lab at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Tour of a laser cooling lab at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Prof. Raman Sundrum talking about exotic theories at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Prof. Raman Sundrum talking about exotic theories at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Attendees and some presenters at the Schrodinger Sessions.
Attendees and some presenters at the Schrodinger Sessions.

All We Are Saying Is Give Physics a Chance

Last week, the blog Last Word On Nothing did a piece on the best and worst sciences to write about, and the two writers tapping physics as the worst said things that were really disappointing to hear from professional writers. I nearly wrote an angry rant here in response, but Jennifer Ouellette covered it more diplomatically than I would’ve, so I opted to try for a more positive response over at Forbes: Four Reasons to Not Fear Physics.

Would’ve been better to get this out much earlier in the week, but it’s the next-to-last week of the term, and I was buried in grading all this week, and it’s not all that time-sensitive a response. Anyway, if that sounds interesting, go over there and check it out.

(I also did a post there earlier this week on the evaluation of teaching, that I see I didn’t flog here, so if you didn’t notice it because you only follow this blog, well, there’s some more weekend reading for you…)

On Toys in Science

The big social media blow-up of the weekend was, at least on the science-y side of things, the whole “boys with toys” thing, stemming from this NPR interview, which prompted the #GirlsWithToys hashtag in response. I’m not sorry to have missed most of the original arguments while doing stuff with the kids, but the hashtag has some good stuff.

The really unfortunate thing about this is that the point the guy was trying to make in the interview was a good one: there’s an essentially playful component to science, even at the professional level. I took a stab at making this same point over at Forbes, only without the needlessly gendered language to make people angry.

(Which, of course, will cut into its readership, but I’m not so far gone that I’ll resort to deliberately offensive clickbait…)

Hyperactive Dogs and Fancy Motorcycles

I’m still in the late stages of an awful cold, but shook it off a bit to write a new conversation with Emmy, the Queen of Niskayuna over at Forbes:


“Emmy! Stop barking!” I sit up. She’s at the gap between the fences, where she can see into the front yard.

“But, those poodles..”

“We’ve had this conversation. It’s a public street, other dogs are allowed to walk on it. No barking.” She comes over, sheepishly. “Why can’t you just lie down and enjoy the nice day, hmm?”

“Well, I would. But, you know… Quantum.”


“I would love to just lie in the sun, but I can’t. You should understand– it’s quantum physics.”

I look at her. She looks back.

I rub my temples. She wags her tail cheerfully.

I’m going to regret this. “Oh, fine. How does quantum physics explain your inability to quietly bask in the sun without getting up every two minutes?”

“I’m glad you asked. See, it’s all about confinement…”

There’s also a human-centered explanation, after the conversation with Emmy, that brings in Richard Thompson:

So, if that combination sounds interesting, well, head over to Forbes and read the whole thing

Recommended Science Books for Non-Scientists

Last week, Steven Weinberg wrote a piece for the Guardian promoting his new book about the history of science (which seems sort of like an extended attempt to make Thony C. blow a gasket..). This included a list of recommended books for non-scientists which was, shall we say, a tiny bit problematic.

This is a topic on which I have Opinions, so I wrote a recommended reading list of my own over at Forbes. I’m more diplomatic about Weinberg than Phillip Ball was, but I have ego enough to say that I think my list is way better…

I won’t pretend that it’s a truly comprehensive list, though, so please, feel free to suggest books I should’ve included but didn’t, either in comments there or comments here. If I get a lot of additional recommendations, I may compile them into another list, because, hey, easy blog post!