I Need a Pointless (But Cool) Graphic

At last weekend's Hidden Dimensions event, Brian Greene had a graphic of a Calabi-Yau object (it wasn't this one, but it's the same idea). He put this up several times, but never actually explained what the hell it was supposed to show. It just looked kind of cool.

Last week's Through the Wormhole program segment on Garrett Lisi kept showing an animation of some sort of graphical representation of the E8 group, shifting between some collection of circles and that giant mandala-looking thing they use to illustrate every story about the guy. Again, there was no explanation of what the hell this was supposed to represent, it was just kind of there.

The lesson of this is clear: if I want to become a rock-star scientist who gets tv interviews and profiles, I need a pointless but cool graphic I can show. Something that looks, you know, all science-y and impressive. Cute dog pictures aren't going to get it done (though I'll throw one in here for fun)-- it needs to look cool but inexplicable.

Suggestions of potential pointless-but-cool graphics are welcome in the comments.


(I can't let a mention of pointless graphics go by without a tip of the hat to Lawrence Krauss, who did a nice job of deflating the graphics at the Hidden Dimensions panel with his one visual aid, as described in Discover's report:

[H]e took a soft approach, presenting the audience with a picture of an anthropological find, a 33,000-year-old wood carving of a half-man, half-lion creature. "Who knows what the artist was thinking when he--or she--created this?" he mused. Perhaps the artist had seen a lion before, and had also seen people, and had imagined the existence of a combination-type-creature.

"Maybe that's what string theory will look like in another 33,000 years," Krauss suggested.

(Obligatory name-dropping anecdote: Krauss was scheduled to sign books shortly after me at the Festival, so I stuck around to say hi to him, and tell him I appreciated his contribution to the event. "I know," he said, "I read it on your blog."

(He's not a regular reader, but had seen it on a Google News alert he has set up so he can see what's said about him and his appearances.)

More like this

Well, a diagram of the link topology of people who have Google News alerts of mentions of Google News alerts on each other's blogs might be good, if it didn't give the universe an aneurysm first...

Ive always wondered if that pic really is a representations of a 11 (10, 26?) dimensional object. Or if it's just made it up. The wikipedia page of string theorie shows it too.

This trick is harder for experimentalists to pull off. Maybe a photo of your vacuum chamber would do the job. Or you could go with some representation of an argon (or whatever gas you are actually working with) atom. In both cases, it would be something meaningful to those in the know but likely to look pointless to someone who isn't a specialist in your niche of physics.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink

Judging by talks I have been to, the official pointless graphic for talks to do with entanglement is the colored circles you get from a parametric down-conversion experiment, e.g. see the bottom half of http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v416/n6877/images/416238a-f1.2.jpg

What you really need to compete with those guys though is an intricate geometrical construction. One possibility is to take an orthogonality diagram from a set of rays involved in a proof of the Kochen-Spekker theorem, e.g. the original construction is depicted here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kochen-specker/#sketch (see second diagram down).

If you want to go with a quantum computing angle, then you could look at some of the schemes to generate a CNOT gate via braiding in topological quantum computing, e.g. this Scientific American article has such an image http://marcuslab.harvard.edu/otherpapers/SciamTQC.pdf but you will find more intricate constructions in the research literature.

A final possibility is to look at projections of the manifold of pure states in a Hilbert space of dimension >2 down to 2 or 3 dimensions. Of course, the 2d case is just a sphere, but in higher dimensions it gets much more intricate. There is a paper floating around on the arXiv with examples from 3 dimensions, but I couldn't find it just now.

Nick: It is. It's projections of an 8 dimensional object (E8 root diagram) to changing (time-dependent) axis, thus the "twisting" effect. If it was the same movie I have in mind, there's some stills that are specific axis that are relevant for one or the other reason (don't ask, can't recall).

Am I the only person on the planet capable of visualizing 11 dimensions, or any number of D's? It's easy. I'll explain how at the end of this post reply.

But first, that Calabi-Yau manifold whatziz is horrible. It's confusing, and I think that's intentional. Mathematicians are so caught up in their equations, they abhor "others" from trying to see what they're doing. They're a club, an elite club. They may be the smartest people on the planet, but they distrust outsiders. That includes Physicists, and doubly so for Computer Scientists. They're still mad that Numerical Methods can compute the area under the curve (definite integral) faster and better than they can. And string theory is intriguing mathematics, nothing more. It's not physics, I wish they'd stop trying to sell it as such.

But whatever, here's how to visualize extra D. You can even build a model of it.

Take some wire. No, a lot of wire. Or zero wire if you do it in your head. Save the Planet and all that.

Stretch a wire out straight. Call that structure Dim1.
Wrap another wire around that wire in tight coils. Call that structure Dim2.
Make a bunch of Dim2. Lay one out straight. Wrap another Dim2 around the straight Dim2 in tight coils. Call that structure Dim3.
Then repeat the process till you get up to Dim11.
Or Dim6, because we already have the three large known dimensions, and the 11th is spooky supergravity.

Was that so hard? Let's call it Dim theory. ;-)

I'll up Steven Colyer. You're in your kitchen inside a rectangular prism for five minutes: 4 dimensions. Now imagine every temperature from -5 to 35 F, every possibility for five minutes: 5 dimensions. Add every relative humidity from 5% to 95%. Pretend you're allergic if you're not and imagine everything from no allergens to can't-breathe. Every light density from pitch-dark to painfully bright. It's a little hard imagining different possibilities from here on, at least for me, but imagining hyperdimensional misery is at least possible, and it makes me very happy I am tracing only one of these lines in my life.

By Sherman Dorn (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink

Hmmm...sorry to be all contrary and stuff, but the most famous rock-star scientists I can think of don't have one -they just use pictures of themselves.

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Bill Nye - they all just have their faces plastered all over TV and the Internet.

What you need is a top Hollywood scriptwriter who likes the idea of dog-as-physicist.

Really, you have a fantastic, totally mass-sellable concept already with your book: Physics for the dogs. If there was ever a workable idea for a TV series that would be it.

Consult with Bill Nye and Micho Kaku. Get their recommendations.

Forget the graphic. Get your face plastered all over the place. Stephen Hawking is proof that you don't have to be a super-model if you're a scientist (really, Stephen is beautiful - but you get the idea). None of the rest of them are Playgirl centerfold material either, for that matter (although Michio has that cool long hair). hahaha.

No, I say - you've got your dog, and that's all you need to conquer the world of celebrity science-ed. PBS and Discovery should be all over it.

Let loose the Dogs of Physics!

Geoff, that's great! I'm hesitant to accept the label of genetic programming though. Evolutionary algorithm seems to be a more accurate fit. It sure would be great to see that in a video format. Very cool. How long did it take? Was it self-running or were you able to intervene at points you didn't feel it was taking the right direction?

By pam Townsend (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

Two suggestions for your image:

1) George Gamow wrote Mr. Tompkin's Wonderland, with 1800's style cartoons explaining physics and science in his time, including quantum mechanics. In one of them a pair of hunters are trying to shoot an ibix or antelope or something, but the creature appears to be 5 places at once. In the middle is the ibix leaping, next to it on either side is the same ibix half faded out, and on the outside the same ibix one quarter faded out. Gamow used it to illustrate what the world would be like if Planck's constant was bigger. You might try the same with multiple Emmys changing a squirrel, or a single confused Emmy chasing multiple squirrels. Ah, but that would have a point, wouldn't it? (A picture of the cartoon can be found on page 37 of The New Quantum Universe 2009 revised and updated edition by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters.)

2) Spend a day with the Mrs. at the contemporary art galleries in NYC (Chelsea or Soho, I forget) between 10th and 11th Avenues, on either side of 21st to 29th Streets, for, tons of ideas. It's about 4 blocks from Penn Station. The creativity is astounding. They're free, too, and pretty much cool-and-pointless Central. Then there's MOMA.

@ pam Townsend
Yup, you're right, evolutionary is much closer to the mark.

Just to make it clear, the link I provided is for somebody else's work, not mine. Mine is based on much the same idea though, except I'm using two child generations each iteration and picking the best. I'm also using ellipses rather than polygons, purely out of interest, see if it produces a different style of image at the end of it.

My version is PHP based, relying on a single linux shell command (perceptualdiff) for the image comparison. It was originally designed to work with humans doing the picking, I'm going to try to get it running as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival next year and see if humans can beat the software equivalent I'm running at the moment. I'm on about 12k iterations at the moment and have a very rough outline of the original, it seems to be on par with Alsing's work.

Yup, there will be a video. Each "best so far" image is being stored, so I'll just run them together into a video - keep an eye on my blog, I'll post it up there and drop a comment in here too. I'm guessing a week or two should do it...if my £150 computer doesn't blow up in the process *eek* ;)