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The future of this blog and website

From what I’ve read in books about Asperger’s Syndrome and girls, it appears that there is a measurable difference between boy and girl geeks. Boy geeks tend to focus mostly on numbers. Girl geeks apparently divide their focus between numbers and language.

That describes me pretty well even today, when I’m trying to divide my time between keeping up with theoretical physics, expanding my website, working on this blog, and writing a novel.

It takes a lot of time to write a novel. So periodically I have to just forget that physics exists and enter the brain state necessary for writing fiction.

This blog is still in what I would consider a rough draft. I’m still going to experiment with themes and styles and features. I might move the location as well, so the url could change.

In the future, there will be more physics and math. I intend to blog through The Black Hole Wars chapter by chapter, starting in a few weeks.

I’ve migrated the Superstringtheory.com website to a new server and fixed many of the broken links and features. Eventually I intend to update the page code and the content and add new content on loop quantum gravity and so on.

I’ll be taking a fairly demanding fiction writing workshop over the summer, so the website update will probably not be happening until next fall.

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Save Sarah Conner from Termination

I just read at CNN that Fox is considering canceling my favorite TV show Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles.

TSCC: Season 1

I agree with Josh Levs that TSCC is worth saving. This show offers what I’ve always been looking for in science fiction, since I was a little girl: sci fi with a strong independent female point of view.

But it’s more than just that. One could imagine a shallow, empty TV show with a strong female POV. The POV is just one element in the total package.

TSCC has come up with the total package: an array of strong characters with heartfelt emotions and mysterious agendas engaged in a fight to the death that somehow manages to offer a rich and detailed commentary on human nature and the ongoing human relationship with technology.

As was pointed a number of times by the esteemed sci fi authors in the Sci Fi Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books:

Since the future hasn’t happened yet, all stories dealing with the future are really about the present.

TSCC: Season 2

TSCC manages to say more about the present than any previous entry in the Terminator franchise. That’s partly because the story is set in the age of Internet worms and programmable unmanned military drones. We’re closer to building SkyNet purely by accident than we’ve ever been before.

This rich proximity to technology is both an advantage and a threat to Sarah’s campaign to keep her son alive and stop SkyNet. Sarah and John can find information on the Internet, but a Terminator’s brain can now travel online and search online records to find them too.

In addition, the advent of AI now gives us a reason to empathize with the machines. When Arnold came back as a reprogrammed Terminator to proptect John Conner, he was an appealing character, but there was never any ethical dilemma for John or Sarah as to whether he should be treated as equal to a human.

TSCC offers us Cameron, the girl version of Arnie’s Good Robot. Cameron is written as more than just a reprogrammed robot. She acts like a super-intelligent young woman who lives somewhere on the autism spectrum, as was pointed out by a child psychologist who interviewed the “Conner family” in one episode this season.

This seemingly casual reference to the autism spectrum digs much deeper into the human relationship with technology than any of the Terminator movies would have the time or energy to dig.

It appears that there is a new generation of TV writers out there who have some deep and complicated things to say about the human relationship with technology, and they’re using science fiction to say them.

I could go on and on about my love for this show. Instead I’ll just say — this is a show worth saving.

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Regarding gender bias by physics students

I was not surprised by the research described on the sciencegeekgirl blog the other day showing that both male and female physics students systematically rate female instructors more poorly than male instructors regardless of their own success in the class.

She linked to research published here.

The abstract of this article concludes:

Such a bias may negatively impact female students and contribute to the loss of females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

I have felt this bias before and I have to say — it certainly did impact me negatively and it certainly did contribute to my fear of teaching physics in a classroom F2F situation.

Back when I was a TA at Caltech, I taught a recitation section of sophomore wave mechanics. Almost every student in this class was a sophomore, and many of them were non-majors — with the exception of three senior physics majors.

These three seniors decided to take this sophomore class not because they needed to learn the material, but because they needed a few extra units to graduate and they wanted to earn those units in the most pain free way possible.

I know this for a fact because they told me this when I advised them that the course, being aimed at sophomores, was not going to be taught at a senior physics major level.

These three seniors didn’t once ask a question in class. They didn’t participate in the solving of any in-class problems. They didn’t speak up to help any of the sophomores in the class who were asking questions and trying to understand the material.

The only thing these three seniors did was sit in class and stare at my breasts and pass notes to each other, every single course session, for the entire session.

But all three of these seniors did show up on the one day Caltech set aside for students to air grievances about their instructors.

What was their grievance with me?

I taught the class at too low a level, they claimed. That was my sin. That was why they got out of bed that morning and brushed their hair and shaved and got dressed — so they could show up just to complain about me.

They were seniors — complaining that my recitation section for sophomore non-majors wasn’t tough enough for senior majors.

Since I was just a TA, I wasn’t even the one to decide the level of difficulty of the course. The textbook, assignments and exam questions were all chosen by the male professor. Yet the students didn’t complain about him. They complained about me. The seniors acted like I was the one who made the outrageous decision that a class for sophomores should be taught at a sophomore level.

This distressing episode scared me away from teaching physics in a university. I learned that people interested in learning physics aren’t always the nicest people in the world.

Some of them have strong prejudices against women and other groups they perceive to be inferior. Sometimes they lack the emotional capacity for understanding how their prejudice impacts the people they target.

What I love about my website superstringtheory.com is that I can teach physics to everyone in the world and I don’t have to listen to any of the people who are out there who might be looking for some easy opportunity to intimidate or devalue a woman.

My commitment to physics education comes from my heart, and I will not have my heart broken by sexism.

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Congratulations to Jim Gates and Ahmed Zewail

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.

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Happy Geek Day at the Book Festival, Part II

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.


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Happy Geek Day at the LA Times Festival of Books

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.


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A day for physicists to be jealous of astronomers

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.

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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.

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