Belated March Meeting Wrap-Up

I did one sketchy update from Portland last Tuesday, but never wrote up my impressions of the rest of the March Meeting-- when I got back, I was buried in grading, and then trying to put together Monday's presentation. And, for reasons that will become apparent, I was unable to write anything up before I left Portland

Anyway, for those who care, here are my impressions from the rest of the meeting:


In the 8am session, I went to the polymer physics prize talk by Michael Rubinstein, which was a sort of career retrospective, talking about how he wandered into the disreputable field of industrial polymer physics (as opposed to more "pure" physics of simpler systems). It was funny and engaging, though as I overheard somebody say on the way out, he definitely got bitten by the PowerPoint bug, hard. I'm not sure there was an animation effect or piece of clip art that didn't make it into his jam-packed slides somewhere. He was charming enough to pull it off, though.

Sadly, the introduction at the prize session took long enough to throw the schedule off, and while I had planned on going to some talks about single-molecule manipulation, I only managed to catch part of one, and then the final speaker hadn't been able to make it, so the session ended way early. I stopped by a session on transportation science, which was interesting, but not at all physics-y, as the two speakers I saw were pretty much straight-up urban planners.

The late morning session was my session, so I spent a while fretting and fidgeting with A/V equipment before giving my talk. I always feel obliged to stick around for the rest of the session when I do this. Fortunately, the session was very good, with presentations from Paul Gueye on his outreach efforts with the Society of Black Physicists, Hal Metcalf about the Stony Brook Laser Teaching Center, Stephen Jacobs on the Optics Suitcase, and Miriam Deutsch on the SPICE summer program at Oregon. Deutsch wins the quote of the session for observing that "the whole point of going to camp is to set things on fire."

After that, I was starving and kind of drained, so I went back to my hotel, stopping to buy some samosas from a food cart. I took a short nap, answered some student emails (they had an exam on Thursday), then went out, first to a reception in honor of Kiko Galvez, then to a bar to drink good beer and talk about small-college life and the history of QM, then to a McMenamin's brew pub/ pool hall with folks from the APS, where I demonstrated once again that knowledge of basic physics is necessary but not sufficient to play pool.


Despite being up waywayway too late playing pool, I managed to make it to the 8am talk by David Saltzberg about working with "The Big Bang Theory." It was a very entertaining talk, with a bunch of clips from the show, and anecdotes about what it's like to work in tv. It also included a few recommendations for literature about science in the media, particularly "Scientists on the Set" by David Kirby (PDF available here, partway down the list).

Saltzberg was funny and engaging, and got me to finally watch an episode of the show. My immediate reaction was "Meh," mostly because I'm pretty sure there are Sumerian clay tablets containing a version of the "nervous guy needs to give a big speech, ends up getting drunk and making a spectacle of himself" plot. The characters were fine, the plot was tired. Enough smart people like it, though, that I'll probably give it another shot.

I had said I wasn't going to go to DAMOP-sponsored sessions, but I made an exception for Fermions at Unitarity: Gravity, the Quark-Gluon Plasma, and Ultra-Cold Atoms, mostly because Peter Steinberg was speaking about RHIC. As it turned out, the session also featured a very nice explanation of the whole AdS/CFT business by Allan Adams, who couldn't be bothered to provide an abstract, so no link.

This was probably the clearest explanation of the whole business that I've heard, though it still had its "I'll never understand theorists" moment. I missed the first few slides, but as far as I could tell, the whole thing goes like this: Calculating the behavior of a gas of strongly interacting particles is a Hard Problem, and depends very strongly on the strength of the coupling, which in turn depends on the energy. If you want to know what's going to happen in an experiment, you need to be able to move over a range of energies. This requires a whole bunch of different theories with different couplings, which is difficult to do.

However, you can treat these geometrically in some ways, and what's really important is that if you treat the coupling strength as an extra dimension (running from very weak to very strong coupling), then the mathematics that describe the geometry of the whole stack look like the mathematics that describe gravity in one more dimension than the theory you're starting with. And there are a bunch of tricks you can use to solve problems involving gravity in arbitrary numbers of dimensions, so that can help.

So far, so good. The "I don't get theorists" moments came when he talked about applying this model to some test systems, at which point, he said that a perfectly sensible simple interacting gas model maps onto a gravitational system that contains an unstable black hole with undesirable properties. And beyond that, there's no known recipe for getting from a field theory for interacting particles to the gravitational analogue, or vice versa. Which leaves me kind of wondering what all the fuss is about.

(I have this reaction to a lot of high-energy theory. I went to a seminar back at Yale by a nuclear theorist who was positively vibrating with excitement that a supersymmetric model had been used to predict a set of nuclear states in gold (or maybe it used known states in gold to predict the states of something else). The set of predicted states had energies that were at least 20% off the measured energies, and as a bonus, they were in the wrong order (that is, the state predicted to have the highest energy had the lowest energy in reality, while the lowest predicted state had the highest energy). I'm still a little puzzled by that talk.)

I shook hands with Peter Steinberg briefly, and his talk about RHIC was very good, but I didn't get to stick around to talk to him, because I had to run to the bathroom, and after that, another session was starting. So while I technically met three science bloggers I hadn't met before (I met up with Dave Bacon Monday night, and see below), he only barely counts.

The later session on Wednesday featured talks on Science Literacy, the Nature of Science, and Religion. I waffled a bit about whether to go to this one, but I wanted to say "hi" to Sheril Kirshenbaum, and I decided that it would be worth hearing about this stuff at a higher level of discourse than the typical blog pissing contest.

I'm glad I went, on the whole. A particular highlight was Jon Miller's talk, in which he argued that scientific literacy, as measured by his surveys and tests, has actually improved over the years (the fraction of people getting 70% or better on his little quiz has gone from 10% to 28% since 1987, and is 42% for young adults). He also wins the session with the quote "The most important thing for civic scientific literacy is the ability to pick good parents."

Judith Scotchmoor's talk was also very interesting. She spoke about the Understanding Science project, which uses a bunch of new pedagogical techniques and good graphic design to give students a clearer picture of what the "scientific method" is really like in practice. It looks like interesting stuff.

Alas, this session also included my fatal mistake, which was ducking out of a talk to run down to the food court in the convention center for some chicken fingers and fries. This seemed like a good idea, as I was pretty hungry, and it was the only food available on-site, but I came to regret it later. I had made plans to meet a colleague and get dinner before going to James Kakalios's public lecture on the physics of superheroes, but while I was waiting for him to arrive, I started to feel distinctly ill. So, rather than having a good dinner and seeing a public talk, I spent the evening in my hotel room, the less said about which the better.

So, that was my March Meeting. If I talked to you there, and didn't mention it, sorry. If you were there and I didn't run into you, well, it was a gigantic freakin' geekfest. I can't be everywhere at once.

More like this

I've seen Kakalios's talk before. Just read the book, it's the same thing.

Oh, and I was also at the Big Bang Theory talk. Too bad I didn't see you there.

I do watch the show, not because I like it but because my wife likes it. She says that the occasional outbursts of science-language on the show (along with the comics, sci-fi movies, and video games) remind her of me and my friends. So be aware that the show might not be directed towards you, exactly.

Oh, and I was also at the Big Bang Theory talk. Too bad I didn't see you there.

You probably did, if you stuck around for the question period. I'm the guy who asked what his colleagues at UCLA think of his work on the show.

(His answer was that all of his colleagues who have watched the show, agree that it does a good job portraying science. Which isn't quite what I was asking, but is fine.)