Big Blog News: I’m Now Also at Forbes

I hinted once or twice that I had news coming, and this is it: I’ve signed up to be a blog contributor at Forbes writing about, well, the sorts of things I usually write about. I’m pretty excited about the chance to connect with a new audience; the fact that they’re paying me doesn’t hurt, either…

The above link goes to my contributor page there, which will be your one-stop-shopping source for what I write at Forbes. There are two posts up this morning, a self-introduction, and an attempt to define physics and what makes it unique. The “Follow” button has an option for an RSS feed; this isn’t full-text, but that’s not my decision to make. I can’t do anything about the inspirational-quote splash pages, either, so don’t ask.

What does this mean for Uncertain Principles here at ScienceBlogs? Less than you might think– I’m not moving the whole operation, mostly because Forbes is interested in a specific set of things, and some of what I do is more appropriate for ScienceBlogs. In particular, more math-y physics education sorts of things will stay here (like last week’s angular momentum posts), and a lot of the inside-baseball stuff about academia. I’ll be sort of feeling out what goes where for a while, I’m sure, but you can expect new content in both places.

I have been and continue to be happy with ScienceBlogs and the folks who run it; they’ve done right by me over the years, and I’m happy to continue to support them. This move is a chance to write for a new platform, reaching a different audience than we get here at SB, and I’m excited to have that opportunity. And, of course, many thanks to Alex Knapp for inviting me to write for Forbes.

So, that’s the exciting news in Chateau Steelypips. The other big news is that today is the first day of Spring term classes, so I need to get back to my day job, now…

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science”

That’s the title of the talk I gave yesterday at Vanderbilt, and here are the slides:

The central idea is the same as in past versions of the talk– stealing Robert Krulwich’s joke contrasting the publication styles of Newton and Galileo to argue that scientists spend too much time writing technical articles aimed at an audience of other experts, and need to do more “Galileian” publication aimed at a broad audience. And that social media technologies offer powerful tools that can enable those who are interested to do this kind of communication with relatively little effort.

This version of the talk is a little more image-based than older versions, reflecting a general shift in the way I give talks these days, which might make it less comprehensible from just the slides than older versions. But then, that’s just more reason to invite me to give it live and in person at your place of work…

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs” at Vanderbilt, Thursday 3/26/15

I mentioned last week that I’m giving a talk at Vanderbilt tomorrow, but as they went to the trouble of writing a press release, the least I can do is share it:

It’s clear that this year’s Forman lecturer at Vanderbilt University, Chad Orzel, will talk about physics to almost anyone.

After all, two of his popular science books are How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. Orzel, an associate professor of physics at Union College in New York and author of the ScienceBlog “Uncertain Principles,” is scheduled to speak on campus at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 26.

As is the custom among my people, I sent them a title and abstract:

Title: Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science

Abstract: Modern social media technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to engage and inform a broad audience about the practice and products of science. Such outreach efforts are critically important in an era of funding cuts and global crises that demand scientific solutions. In this talk I’ll offer examples and advice on the use of social media for science communication, drawn from more than a dozen years of communicating science online.

This shares some DNA with the evangelical blogging-as-outreach talk I’ve been giving off and on for several years, but that was getting a little outdated. So I decided to blow it up and make a new version, which I nearly have finished… with less than 24 hours before my flight to Tennessee. Whee!

Anyway, if you’re in the Nashville area or could be on really short notice, stop by. Otherwise, stay tuned for Exciting! Blogging! News! early next week (give or take).

Upcoming Talks: New Paltz Tonight, Nashville Next Week

I keep forgetting to mention these, but I have two talks coming up:

1) Tonight, March 17, I’m talking about Eureka to the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association on the campus of SUNY New Paltz. This is a version of the talk I gave in Bristol, UK over the summer, but with the soccer content replaced with American football.

2) Next Thursday, March 26, I’ll be giving a Forman Lecture as part of the Vanderbilt University Physics Colloquium (following in Rhett’s footsteps…). This is going to be a revised version of the social-media talk I’ve given in the past. I need to blow that up and put it back together, though, because it’s gotten a little stale. Also, I need to send them a title and abstract.

So, if you happen to be in the Hudson valley tonight, or Tennessee next week, and want to hear me talk science, stop on by.

(Also, this is it for today’s blogging, as I need to do a bunch of talk prep…)

The Schrödinger Sessions: Now Accepting Applications

I’ve updated the detailed blog post describing our summer workshop introducing writers to quantum physics to include a link to the application form. For the benefit of those who read via RSS, though, and don’t follow me on Twitter: the application form is now live, and will be for the next few weeks. We expect to make acceptance decisions around April 1.

So, if you make up stories and the idea of spending a few days at the Joint Quantum Institute learning about quantum physics from some of the world’s leading experts sounds like fun, well, send us an application.

Announcing the Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

A few years back, I became aware of Mike Brotherton’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and said “somebody should do this for quantum physics.” At the time, I wasn’t in a position to do that, but in the interim, the APS Outreach program launched the Public Outreach and Informing the Public Grant program, providing smallish grants for new public outreach efforts. So, because I apparently don’t have enough on my plate as it is, I floated the idea with Steve Rolston at Maryland (my immediate supervisor when I was a grad student), who liked it, and we put together a proposal with their Director of Outreach, Emily Edwards. We didn’t get funded last year, but the problems were easily fixed, and this year’s proposal was funded. Woo-hoo!

So, we’re very pleased to announce that this summer we’ll be holding “The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction” a workshop at the Joint Quantum Institute (a combined initiative of the University of Maryland, College Park and NIST in Gaithersburg) to provide a three-day “crash course” in quantum physics for science fiction writers. The workshop will run from Thursday, July 30 through Saturday August 1, 2015, on the Maryland campus in College Park, with housing, breakfast, and lunch included. There’s a fake schedule up on that web page, that we’ll fill once we get JQI scientists signed up, but it gives the basic idea: three days of lectures and discussions with scientists, and visits to JQI’s labs.

The web page is a little sketchy, because we were using a pre-existing template to speed things up, but that’s why I have a blog: to provide much more information. Which we might as well do in semi-traditional Q&A format:

This sounds cool, but what does this have to do with public outreach? The idea is to bring in science fiction writers, and show them some of the latest and greatest in quantum physics, with the goal of inspiring and informing new stories using quantum ideas and quantum technology.

We know that science fiction stories reach and inspire their audience to learn more about science, and even make careers in science– things like this astronaut’s tribute to Leonard Nimoy are a dramatic reminder of the inspirational effect of science fiction. Our hope is that the writers who come to the workshop will learn new and amazing things to include in their fiction, and through that work, they’ll reach a wider audience than we could hope to bring in person to JQI.

But why quantum physics? Well, because we think quantum physics is awesome. And because quantum physics is essential for all sorts of modern technology– you can’t have computers without Schrödinger cats, after all. And most of all because the sort of things they study at JQI– quantum information, quantum teleportation, quantum computing– could have a revolutionary impact on the technology of the future.

Isn’t quantum too small and weird to make good stories, though? Hardly. Quantum physics has figured prominently in stories like Robert Charles Wilson’s “Divided by Infinity”, and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (SPOILERS), and Hannu Rajaniemi just completed the trilogy that starts with The Quantum Thief, which you can tell from the title is full of quantum ideas.

The weirdness of quantum physics is a bit off-putting, but then that’s the point of the workshop: to bring in writers to learn more about quantum physics, and see how it works in practice. The hope is that this will make writers who come to the workshop more comfortable with the subject, and thus more likely to write stories with a quantum component.

OK, but why Maryland? Well, because the Joint Quantum Institute is one of the world’s leading centers for research in quantum mechanics and its applications. Just check out their collection of news stories about JQI research to get a sense of the range and impact of their work. If you want to see quantum physicists at work, it’s one of the very best places in the world to go.

Yeah, but isn’t the weather awful hot in July and August? Look, you can’t have everything, OK?

OK, let’s get to practical stuff. When you say “writers,” you mean people who do short stories and novels? No, we’re defining “writer” as broadly as we can. We’d love to have people who write for television, or movies, or video games, or online media. Really, anybody who makes up stories about stuff that hasn’t really happened is welcome, regardless of the medium in which that work appears.

How many of these writers are you looking for? The budget in the proposal called for 15, though that depends a bit on how much money we need for food and housing; if more people than we expected are willing to share rooms, we might be able to take one or two more.

So there’s going to be an application process? Yes. I mean, we’d love to have a huge number of people, but we have logistical constraints to deal with. We’ll take applications online starting later this week (my other major task for today is to put together the application web form), continuing for a couple of weeks, and hope to make decisions around April 1, so attendees will have plenty of time to make travel plans.

Speaking of travel, what’s included in this package? We plan to provide housing for attendees in the dorms on Maryland’s campus, and breakfast, lunch, and coffee/snack breaks will be included. We left dinners open, in case people want to explore the DC area a little (great restaurants there, that’s one of the things I miss from grad school…), but might look at doing one group dinner with a fun talk of some sort. The schedule is still being sorted out.

There is a possibility that a limited amount of funding might be available for travel support, but again, it depends on a bunch of other factors that affect the overall budget.

And what will the selection criteria be? Well, the ultimate goal of the workshop is public outreach, so we’ll be trying to invite participant whose work will be able to reach as broad an audience as possible. That means we’ll be looking for a mix of established and up-and-coming writers, and as much diversity as we can manage in terms of audience, subgenre, media, etc. I can’t really be any more specific than that, though.

What if I’m busy on those days, or just can’t afford it this year? Will this happen again? Can’t you at least let us get through one of these before asking that?

If it goes well, we’d certainly be open to that possibility, but it’ll depend on a lot of factors, mostly involving money, but also level of interest, success of the workshop, etc.


And that is the big news I’ve been sitting on for a while now. I’m pretty excited about this, and hope it will be a great program. If you know anybody who might be interested in this, please point them in our direction.

Division of Labor in Science Communication

Paige Brown Jarreau, who blogs at From the Lab Bench is in the throes of writing her dissertation about science blogging, and plowing through a lot of interview data. She’s sharing some of the process on the blog, and a lot more on Twitter, where it’s prompted a good deal of discussion.

One of the big things she’s brought up recently is the question of why scientists seem to blog about their own research only on rare occasions (Storify link). My own answer is in there somewhere: blogging about something you’re actively working on doesn’t feel like a departure from doing work. If you’re going to be writing about your own work, it might as well be in the form of a paper or proposal, or one of the many other forms of writing that are officially part of the job. Blogging about somebody else’s work, on the other hand, is both an escape from the daily grind of your own work, and arguably sort of useful in that it helps you to keep on top of what other people in the field are doing.

In a similar sort of vein, another tweet of Jarreau’s kicked off a bit of an exchange yesterday between me and the Twitter account for the National Society of Black Physicists (I know the name of the person who runs it, but not whether that’s public, so I’ll refer to him as “NSBP”). My part was kicked off by this tweet, and I think you can see the whole conversation there, but since Twitter kind of sucks, I’ll expand on it here.

Her comment that started things was the observation that most science blogging seems to be aimed at outreach rather than at doing science. I remarked that this isn’t such a bad thing, as it’s always seemed to me to be kind of a waste of an open global communications channel to use a public blog to communicate with only a handful of other scientists. If you want to share results with a handful of collaborators, email is great; if you’re going to post on the World Wide Web, it makes more sense to me to do it in a way that’s accessible to the whole wide world. This is, of course, an old argument– I got into this with Cameron Neylon several times six or seven years ago, and we basically agreed to disagree.

NSBP responded to my comment by suggesting that blog posts (or podcasts, or videos) should be made an integral part of scientific publishing. I’m really not in favor of that, and tried to explain why, but I can probably do a better job via the blog than in Twitter-friendly chunks.

So, on the one hand, I agree that communicating scientific results is an essential part of the scientific process– it’s the fourth step in that book you’re probably sick of me talking about. I don’t think, though, that it’s necessarily an important part of the responsibility of individual scientists to communicate with a broader audience. Rather, communicating results to the public is a responsibility of the scientific community as a whole.

There are a couple of reasons why I wouldn’t push for making blogs/videos/podcasts a formal part of publication, starting with the fact that we already dump an enormous amount of stuff on scientists, particularly in academia. Doing this kind of work would inevitably fall on younger scientists, who already have more than enough stress in their lives.

More than that, though, communicating results effectively to a broad audience requires a fairly specialized set of skills (feel free to read this paragraph in a Liam Neeson tough-guy voice, by the way), skills that some people develop over many years. Skills that are not all that widely shared, or selected for in the scientific training process.

As it is, the requirement that scientists write papers for other scientists is only partially successful in producing effective communication. Anybody who’s tried to dig into the literature knows that there are a lot of papers out there that seem to have been written only grudgingly, with minimal concern for the eventual reader. The better journals and referees weed the worst of this out, but there’s a ton of it in print.

Now imagine what those people would do if forced to generate a blog write-up. It’s not pretty.

So, while I’m generally in favor of doing more to bring research results to a wider audience, I’m not in favor of making that a universal process. I’m happy to have some element of selection involved, and some division of labor, so this valuable work is done by people who have the right skills to do it, and for papers that generally deserve in.

What we need isn’t a requirement for more blogging, but a recognition of the value blogging has to the general scientific community, and a way to reward those who are good at it for doing that work. Which is why I specifically mentioned Physics from the American Physical Society, which is sort of a cross between a science blog and a journal. They pick papers from forthcoming issues of APS journals, and get other researchers from the field to write up more general descriptions of the papers. The resulting articles are basically what you get in the better class of research-blogging posts, but they’re published on an APS site, with DOI’s and all the other hallmarks of an official publication that you might list on a CV.

That strikes me as a really nice balance between the various goals here. It’s not forced on the authors of a particular paper, but invited from other people, presumably with some selection for communication skills on the part of the editors who commission these write-ups. The results are generally good, informative, and reasonably readable (not quite general-public level, but probably college-physics-student level, and on a good day science-blog-reader level). And the end result is something that lets a scientist with an interest in broader communication add a line to their CV.

So, on the whole, I like this model, and would like to see it used more widely. (Science and Nature have similar features in the magazine parts of their journals, though these tend to be much shorter than the good “Viewpoints” pieces from Physics. They’re also paywalled, which Physics is not.) Let people who are good at and enjoy communication to a broader audience do that, and reward them for it.

Why Is Snow White?

It didn’t make the news, because skittish media types are mostly based in New York City and thus don’t care about anything north of Westchester County, but we had a big snow storm yesterday. It started snowing Sunday night, though, and kept up through pretty much dinnertime Monday. Both the local schools and the snow-day day-care program we signed the kids up for were shut down, with good reason- I had to go to campus for my 10:30 am class, and that two-mile drive was pretty nerve-wracking.

Since the kids were home for the day, we did a bit of playing outside, even though the temperatures were in the low double digits Fahrenheit. At one point in this, the Pip asked “Daddy, why is the snow white?” I didn’t give a great answer to that at the time, but it’s one of those little-kid questions that is sneakily really good, so it’s worth a blog post (even though it’s not like he’s going to read this…).

The whiteness of newly fallen snow is, of course, one of its primary defining characteristics, so it’s tempting to just say that, you know, that’s the way snow is. But it’s actually a pretty good question, because snow is really just frozen water, and frozen water tends to be transparent:

A row of icicles, photo from Wikimedia.
A row of icicles, photo from Wikimedia.

There’s a little bit of reflection off the surface of the icicles in that photo (from Wikimedia), which is what allows you to see the icicles at all, but for the most part the ice is clear.

Now, you might want to say that snow is different than ice in some way, but in fact, if you look closely enough, you see that single snowflakes are also mostly clear ice:

A single snowflake, photo from Caltech's gallery of these.
A single snowflake, photo from Caltech’s gallery of these.

I picked a relatively flat flake for this illustration, but Caltech’s snowflake gallery has dozens of these photos, and they’re all fundamentally similar. On a microscopic level, snowflakes are transparent, just like icicles.

So why is snow white, then? Well, it’s white because you’re basically never looking at just one snowflake, unless you’re in Ken Libbrecht’s lab taking pretty photos. When we look out the window at great drifts of snow and contemplate either jumping in them or shoveling the driveway, we’re seeing millions and millions of individual snowflakes all heaped together.

For both icicles and snowflakes, we see a little bit of reflected light coming from the surface where the air stops and the ice begins (or vice versa). With an icicle, there are only two such surfaces, so we only see a small bit of reflected light off the front. Most of the light that hits the front side of the icicle passes through, so we can clearly see light coming through from the other side and know that the ice is transparent.

A snowdrift, on the other hand, contains millions of such surfaces. Each individual snowflake only reflects a tiny bit of the light that hits it, passing most of the light through, but the light that gets through hits another snowflake, then another, and another, and another. The end result of all those tiny individual reflections is that the majority of the light hitting the front side of the snowdrift ends up bouncing back. And so, drifts of newly fallen snow appear bright white, and very little light makes it through to the other side.

(Snow isn’t completely opaque, of course, as anyone who has ever built a snow fort knows. Even a fairly thick block of snow will pass a little bit of light, providing a diffuse illumination inside. Also, all those billions of snowflakes are reflecting light in slightly different directions, which is why you can’t see your reflection in a snowdrift.)

So, why is snow white? Because there’s just so much of it. A snowflake is basically clear, just like an icicle, but a billion snowflakes in a pile look white because all of their individual reflections combine to send all the light coming in back where it came from.

Particle-Wave Duality for Eight-Year-Olds

Over at Scientific American’s Frontiers for Young Minds blog, they have a great post on what happens when you ask scientists to explain key elements of a different research field. It’s pretty funny, and rings very true, as SteelyKid asks me tons of science questions, very few of which have anything to do with atomic, molecular, or optical physics. so I spend a lot of time faking my way through really basic explanations of other fields.

Of course, even pitching stuff from my own field at the right level for small kids is a challenge. Which reminds me, I never did explain my presentation for the young kids at the Renaissance Weekend, and I probably ought to say something about that.

When I signed up to do stuff there, I said I’d be happy to talk to kids about science, not entirely realizing what level I was getting myself in for. they put me down to do “What Every Dog should Know About Quantum Physics” for their “camp” program, which turns out to be ages 6-12. And I had half an hour, instead of the usual hour. Which presented what you might call a formidable challenge…

I decided to try for something at least somewhat active, rather than just PowerPointing at them. Since the goal was to get a little sense of the weird-and-cool part of quantum physics, I opted to try to explain particle-wave duality via the double-slit experiment.

The wave part is easy– I carry a green laser pointer in my laptop bag basically all the time, and I borrowed a couple of double-slit slides from the teaching labs, one to pass around, and one to shine the laser through. Laser pointers in general are endlessly fascinating to little kids, and seeing it go through slits and make lots of spots is way cool.

How to do the particle half, though? Well, I remembered a public talk I saw at the Perimeter Institute ages and ages ago where one of their outreach folks gave a talk on quantum, and talked about doing the double-slit with progressively smaller things. At one stage, he was imagining doing it with grains of sand, and passed a pinch of sand to people in the front row, “In case you need to remind yourself how big a grain of sand is…”

So, I latched onto that, and produced this:

Experimental set-up for the double-slit experiment with classical particles (salt crystals).
Experimental set-up for the double-slit experiment with classical particles (salt crystals).

That’s a double-slit experiment done with particles that are small, but undeniably classical particles. For this test at home, I used table salt; at the actual event, I used colored sugar. I cut a couple of slits in a piece of cardboard, propped it up on a stand (actually the box for my laser pointer), and poured particles through. You can see a big pile on the top, because only a fraction of the particles made it through the slits, and two distinct piles down below. Which is exactly what you expect for classical particles that have to go through either one slit or the other.

So, I had live demos for both particle and wave behaviors, and could then go to Hitachi’s awesome single-electron interference video to show the quantum version. Which I think works to make the key point: when you get down to really small things, the rules change, and you get the weird quantum case, that’s both particle-like and wave-like at the same time.

How did it work in practice? Kind of a mixed bag.

For one thing, I had somewhat overestimated the audience– the median age of the kids was probably eight. The handful of slightly older kids were duly impressed, but the younger ones mostly just wanted to eat the colored sugar. I also had had to remove most of the dog material, which was a mistake– if I ever need to do this again, I’ll lead into it with some additional cute-dog photos.

I’m not quite sure how I would end up needing to do this again, but I’d be willing to give it another shot, so if you’d like me to talk quantum physics to second-graders, drop me a line. But really, if I go to Charleston again and find myself speaking to the campers, I’ll probably stick with the classical physics of sports equipment

(Completely independent of this, I do have an idea for a way to introduce quantum physics to the picture-book set, which I’d be happy to talk about to anybody who might have the art skills to help make such a thing…)

Science Stories: Commercial Instincts

(When I launched the Advent Calendar of Science Stories series back in December, I had a few things in mind, but wasn’t sure I’d get through 24 days. In the end, I had more than enough material, and in fact didn’t end up using a few of my original ideas. So I’ll do a few additional posts, on an occasional basis, to use up a bit more of the leftover bits from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist…)

One of the things I was reacting against in writing Eureka is the popular idea of scientists as a sort of unworldly elite, off doing their ivory-tower idealized thing without worrying about real-world concerns. In fact, science is an intensely human activity, and scientists are just as embedded in the real world as anybody else.

But then, sometimes, there is a bit of truth to the stereotypes…

One of the greatest experiments of the 19th century in physics was done by Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Hertz devoted most of his far too short career (he died of sudden illness at 36) to studying James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, confirming its various predictions about the induction of currents and the transmission of electromagnetic waves through free space.

The 1887 experiments are a beautiful piece of work. Hertz generated waves using a spark gap, which is pretty much what it sounds like– two electrodes with a gap of a centimeter or so between them. This was connected to a high-voltage oscillating circuit, which would generate a spark across the air gap at regular intervals. He detected the resulting waves with a smaller gap, a simple loop of wire with a small gap in it. The electric field of a passing wave produced by the original spark could induce a tiny visible spark in the receiver, which Hertz used to show the presence of fields emanating from the source. He also tested the strength of the field by varying the gap– bigger fields allow the generation of longer sparks.

Using this basic apparatus, he proved a whole bunch of Maxwell’s predictions– that waves were produced by the spark, that they were reflected by conductors but mostly unaffected by insulators. He also showed clearly that these were waves by generating standing waves and measuring the wavelength (I dimly remember a colloquium in grad school arguing that he was aided in this by the regularly spaced metal pillars in the hall where he did the experiment, but not more detail than that). Along the way, he incidentally discovered the photoelectric effect, from the observation that it was easier to generate sparks when there was a clear line of sight from the source spark to the receiver, allowing ultraviolet light to strike the receiver and knock loose some electrons. It’s a wonderful body of work, and the unit of frequency is named in his honor because of it.

The one thing Hertz lacked, though, was any kind of commercial instinct. Asked about the possible applications of his result, he famously replied:

It’s of no use whatsoever[…] this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right—we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there.

Within a decade, of course, a whole bunch of people had followed up Hertz’s experiments and Marconi and others had demonstrated wireless telegraphy, which would soon lead to the development of radio.

So, as much as I like to push back against the popular image of unworldly scientists, I have to admit, there’s some basis to it. Hertz was a brilliant experimental physicist, but no kind of businessman…


(“Featured image” cartoon from a 1922 book taken from this Wikimedia page.)