Live Q&As, Past and Future

On Friday I had a few minutes free, and did an experiment: put my iPhone on a tripod, pointed it at myself, and did a live video on my public Facebook page, taking questions from anyone who happened by. There were some technical glitches, as one might expect from a short-notice happening. The sound wasn’t working when I first started, and in the recording below the video fails (replacing the actual recording with a still image of me sideways, for inexplicable reasons) just when the sound starts working. (I don’t think this happened during the actual event, but maybe it did and everyone was too polite to mention it.) And for some reason the video keeps going long after the 20-some minutes for which I was actually recording.

But overall I think it was fun and potentially worth repeating. If I were to make this an occasional thing, how best to do it? This time around I literally just read off a selection of questions that people were typing into the Facebook comment box. Alternatively, I could just talk on some particular topic, or I could solicit questions ahead of time and pick out some good ones to answer in detail.

What do you folks think? Also — is Facebook Live the right tool for this? I know the kids these days use all sorts of different technologies. No guarantees that I’ll have time to do this regularly, but it’s worth contemplating.

What makes the most sense to talk about in live chats?

Particle Physicists and Cosmologists on Twitter

Katie Freese, a well-known particle cosmologist who has a new book coming out, was asking if I had an tips about publicity. Short answer: not really, no. I haven’t really figured that one out. But one of the most obvious things to do, in terms of possible benefit per unit effort, is to join Twitter and start talking about science with the other denizens there.

I thought I would suggest to her a dozen or so good scientists to follow — after all, there aren’t that many working physicists in this field who are active on Twitter. I went to send her a few recommendations, at which point I realized there are actually quite a few! Some of whom deserve a lot more recognition.

So here is a list I compiled, consisting of people who are (1) active researchers in particle physics or cosmology; (2) on Twitter; (3) known to me. (More specifically, “recalled or noticed by me while making this list.”) Obviously one could compile a much longer list if we expanded it to include science communicators of all stripes, or even active scientists (or even just physicists) of all stripes. But I’m only one guy here. If I’m missing anyone who certainly qualifies, leave a comment; I’ll be happy to add them if I feel like it. I’m sure this isn’t more than half of the people who might be included in such a list. Obvious systematic error in favor of English-speakers, sorry. Entries listed in no particular order.

See also Lucretius’s lists of physicists, astronomers, and philosophers on Twitter, and CERN’s list of physicists.

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Online Complexity Course from Santa Fe

MOOCs are all the rage these days. That would be Massive Open Online Courses, for those of you still stuck in 2007. Apparently Bucky Fuller was pushing the idea back in the early Sixties? These days, with everyone spending most of their waking hours looking at a computer screen, the time has come to get our education on.

The Santa Fe Institute, always in the vanguard, is stepping up to the plate. Melanie Mitchell, a computer scientist at Portland State and external professor at SFI, will be leading an 11-week online course titled Introduction to Complexity, starting January 28. Details are explained in a handy FAQ. Lectures given over video, but you can watch them at your leisure, and they will stay online indefinitely. If you want to get a certificate of completion and participate in the student chat room, you have to sign up and follow along as the course progresses.

Seems like a great way to spread some specialized knowledge to a wide audience using a novel format. This course is aimed broadly at the interested public, which is great for the interested public but too bad for me, as I would really love to see a version with all the glorious equations. Maybe next time?

Why String Theory?

Breathless press reports notwithstanding, string theory is very far from being dead. If you’re interested in what it is and what’s going on within the field, I can recommend a new website called Why String Theory? (And of course, accompanying twitter feed @WhyStringTheory.) It was set up by Oxford undergraduates Charlotte Mason and Edward Hughes, working under Joseph Conlon. It’s a very engaging and professional-looking site, featuring a great deal of explanatory material.

Developing pedagogical sites like this is a great project for undergrads; the only looming issue is keeping the site going once the students move on to bigger and better things. Hopefully this one is kept up — I think an initial surge of interest has already been taxing the poor web server.

3 Quarks Daily 2012 Science Prize: The Winners

I was the judge for this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize; here are the results. Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily, obviously.

I want to thank Abbas and all the 3QD crew for inviting me to judge this year’s Science Prize. I can’t help but thinking that after having Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Lisa Randall judge the previous years, a certain phase transition has occurred; but I’m happy to be associated with such an amazing group.

Let me start by saying something obvious but nevertheless true: the entries this year were of extraordinarily high quality. Some excellent blog posts among the initial nominees didn’t even make the final ten, and any one of the nine finalists would have been a worthy choice for number one. But I will resist the temptation to declare a nine-way tie.

There is no simple and objective standard for what makes a blog post “the best.” “Blog is software,” as Bora Zivkovic likes to remind us — blogging is a medium, not a genre. Successful blog posts can be one word or ten thousand; a personal reflection or a rigorous analysis; an original idea or an insightful commentary; a devastating take-down or an inspirational message. But within these flexible parameter, there are certain aspects of blogging that make it special, and I looked for posts that took advantage of those unique capabilities. I wanted to choose posts that would be hard to imagine finding in any other medium, but whose quality measured up to the best of journalism or science writing. One frustrating aspect of a contest like this is that the prize is given to posts, rather than to blogs — for many of the most successful blogs, their charm comes from the accumulated effect of reading many posts over a long period of time. But okay, enough with the throat-clearing.

Without further ado:

First place this year goes to Empirical Zeal, for “The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.” With many different criteria in mind, this post by Aatish Bhatia stood out among the rest. It’s just about the perfect use of a blog. For one thing, it looks gorgeous: all those colorful images, each of which actually serves a purpose. The writing is playful and clever; once you see the mantis shrimp telling you “DEAR MORTAL, YOUR RAINBOW IS PUNY,” you’re not likely to forget it. And most of all, the science is fascinating and important. To a physicist, there is a continuum of colors; but to our eyes and brains, “rainbows have seams,” and that affects how we think about the world. A completely deserving winner. (And don’t forget that there is a Part II.)

Second place goes to Three-Toed Sloth, for “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You” (cross-posted at Crooked Timber.) Cosma Shalizi doesn’t bother with colorful pictures; he even uses a slightly gray font on a white background, presumably because black on white would come off as too florid. But this is a creative and original essay that brings the theory of computational complexity to bear on the practical problem of managing a planned economy. (Conclusion: it can’t be done.) The flexibility of blogs doesn’t just mean the ability to post videos; it also means the freedom to explore ideas outside traditional disciplinary comfort zones. Not a light read, but a true contribution to intellectual discourse. The kind of post that nudges the rest of us to be better bloggers.

Third place goes to The Mermaid’s Tale, for “Forget bipedalism. What about babyism?” In another great use of the medium, Holly Dunsworth takes creative advantage of the blog format to make important points both about science and about how science is done. How much can we learn about a species just by studying a few bones in its feet? Does a particular anatomical feature represent a crucial adaptation to circumstances, or is it just an ancestral remnant? Also: adorable pictures of baby monkeys, as well as real data with error bars. Everybody wins.

In very different ways, these three posts serve as proud examples of what blogging can be at its best — feel free to share them with any of your friends who still remain skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but cheat just a little bit by offering two “honorable mentions.” At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson’s “Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence” is a polished and fascinating look at natural selection and the behavior of human crowds. And at Quantum Diaries, Flip Tanedo’s “Helicity, Chirality, Mass, and the Higgs” is an original take on explaining an abstract but central point in modern quantum field theory. All of these posts — as well as the other finalists! — are impressive achievements. My hat’s off.