Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wedding Photos

Very many thanks to all those who made our wedding day so enjoyable.

Thanks for not stomping on the train, for not hijacking the bride, and for teaching my husband that I never intended to become chancellor.

As promised, we put some of the photos online here.
You find more in this folder.

Very special thanks also to our best man and woman for signing in the right places.

And to the brothers for taking care of the organization.

And to the crew from Hotel am Rosenberg for the excellent buffet and the service.

Update July 9th: Much much more photos

I still can't believe I wore that dress a whole day!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Gravity's Relentless Pull

Have fun:

Gravity's Relentless Pull

An interactive, multimedia website about black holes for Education and Public Outreach

Authors: Roeland P. van der Marel (STScI), David Schaller (EduWeb), Gijs Verdoes Kleijn (Groningen Univ.)

We have created a website, called "Black Holes: Gravity's Relentless Pull", which explains the physics and astronomy of black holes for a general audience. The site emphasizes user participation and is rich in animations and astronomical imagery. It won the top prize of the 2005 Pirelli INTERNETional Awards competition for the best communication of science and technology using the internet. This article provides a brief overview of the site. The site starts with an opening animation that introduces the basic concept of a black hole. The user is then invited to embark on a journey from a backyard view of the night sky to a personal encounter with a singularity. This journey proceeds through three modules, which allow the user to: find black holes in the night sky; travel to a black hole in an animated starship; and explore a black hole from up close. There are also five "experiments" that allow the user to: create a black hole; orbit around a black hole; weigh a black hole; drop a clock into a black hole; or fall into a black hole. The modules and experiments offer goal-based scenarios tailored for novices and children. The site also contains an encyclopedia of frequently asked questions and a detailed glossary that are targeted more at experts and adults. The overall result is a website where scientific knowledge, learning theory, and fun converge. Despite its focus on black holes, the site also teaches many other concepts of physics, astronomy and scientific thought. The site aims to instill an appreciation for learning and an interest in science, especially in the younger users. It can be used as an aid in teaching introductory astronomy at the undergraduate level.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Science and Democracy II

Concerning the nature of men, my friends know me as a very optimistic and patient person. So, here is the continuation of my earlier post on

You also find an interesting, and remarkably reasonable, discussion at CV on Sean's post about Peter Woit's book and Lee Smolin's (upcoming) book

  1. Disclaimer
  2. Why now?
  3. My Concerns
  4. What now?

1. Disclaimer

I have to admit that I am not entirely happy about the way I was dragged into the discussion by Lubos, who concluded, based on a comment I made on his blog, that what I suggested would make any country 'scientifically inferior' and 'much like the Nazi Germany'.

Though the question of democracy in science is a topic I have annoyed my friends and colleagues with since at least my MS, I can't give you a working proposal. What I try to advocate is simply that we need a reasonable discussion how science in the 21st century works best. It is probably because of the books by Peter Woit (Subtitle: The failure of String Theory...) and Lee Smolin (Subtitle: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science,...) that the present discussion returns again and again (and again) towards the string theory community, and the group theory of string theorists.

Therefore, I want to start by saying that the reason for me being concerned about democracy in science was and is not the string theory community.

Instead, the reason for me becoming concerned was that I (and many in my generation) felt that research funding in Germany was severely dominated by nuclear physics and (considerably older) nuclear physicists. Generally, it was easy to continue ongoing projects, almost irrespective of outcome and prospect, whereas new research projects were very hard to establish.
    Side remark:
    I should add that the situation has improved since, even though there is lots left to do. I would attribute that to the sad fact that many of those young researchers who wanted to something new (e.g. physics beyond the standard model) went to the US. This problem was realized - maybe too late.
    However, taking the US as fashion guide is not a solution, neither in theoretical physics, nor in any other field. After some years in the US, I have the impression that the problem here is extreme in other ways. Where Europe tends to be too conservative, in the US hot topics keep coming and going, and the challenge of the game is to get on and off board fast enough.

The reason for me still being concerned also is not string theory, but the general question of whether our community has appropriately adjusted to the demands of the modern world.

So, this post is not about string theory.

In a comment over at Cosmic Variance, Eugene Stefanovich expressed this more clearly than I could ever have done:

Eugene Stefanovich on Jun 20th, 2006 at 1:13 pm
"Dear string theorists,

Please understand that these are not deeds of some evil antistringy types like Woit or Smolin. In the absence of deliverables, sooner or later the field would come to the same point even if Peter and Lee didn't write their books and blogs.[...] they are just messengers of the inevitable change. Please appreciate the fact that the message was delivered early and you have some time to make a graceful exit out of this situation. Don't shoot the messengers."

2. Why now?

As I pointed out in my earlier post, I think the present perception of the so-called-crisis in theoretical physics is not surprising. It is due to the changes that research has undergone during the last decades:
  • The increasing amount of people working together in larger groups
  • The large output of publications (papers as well as books, including popular science books)
  • The long time the education takes until you can contribute to the front of research
  • Or maybe just the fact that it takes only seconds to send an email - or to write a silly comment on a blog.

Then there are also the changes in the society that we are a part of, it's demands on scientists, and it's notion of progress. Money, power and being famous have replaced ancient values like wisdom and tranquility. These changes have not been accompanied by appropriate changes in the administration of our communities research.

But whether we like it or not, these changes have taken place.

3. My concerns

A phrase that has been used by Sean as well as by Lubos is the 'free market' of ideas which compete among each other until it is clear which one is the fittest and which survives.

But where do the ideas come from, and how is the 'freedom' of their competition guaranteed?

Always being the optimist, I actually agree that some self-regulating mechanism will eventually set in, and the so-called-crisis will be replaced by a so-called-revolution. It might however take quite some detours before this self-regulation sets in. Waiting for a market to collapse costs time, is a waste of effort, and money. Not to mention, that it is frustrating. It could very well be that the present discussion about string theory is such a case of delayed collapse, making it a prime example to analyze the failure of the present regulating process (or its absence).

    Side remark:
    To my eyes, the focus on string theory is a dominating topic mostly in the US-part of the community. I can't avoid having the impression that the quarrel strings/loops could well be translated into US/Canada. When I made my MS in Germany (in 2000), string theory was not at all a dominating topic in any regard, and it still isn't. I recall it was considered to be 'breadless' (brotlos) and detached from reality. A lecture on string theory held at my university was mostly attended by mathematicians. Around the same time, the maths department had seminars on Quantum Gravity about the Ashtekar formalism. This also was very suspicious for the physicists, simply because the mathematicians liked it (physicists and mathematicians hardly spoke to each other, as far as I know, they still don't).

    Meanwhile, I was sitting among nuclear physicists with the reality constraint to do 'butter-and-bread' physics, and sneaked out to the maths seminars every now and then, before we set up our group on LXDs. At latest by the time the RS model came up (98) it seemed pretty clear that the string-community was going to be deflated. It is surprising for me that it took from 98 until now to happen.

    I found another comment from someone who apparently shared this impression:

    EU on Jun 19th, 2006 at 3:35 pm
    "here in Europe the topic "failure of string theory?" is informally discussed since 8 years at least. Discussing this topic turned out to be much less dangerous than what I was alerted. Although a few string theorists prefer avoiding discussing this issue, most string theorists agree with the main points. The ones that successfully moved towards less stringy physics didn't kill their academic career."

In the comments to my previous post, I have been taught that Capitalism is an example how the free market works. However, the economical system needs a political counterbalance to guarantee the freedom, and the fairness of competition.

"What drives real progress of the society - and what was necessary for you to write your communist utopias today - has always been the free market of ideas and products. Exactly the things that you want to attack, deny, and abandon.

Best wishes


The reason why most political utopias fail is that they require an idealized, utopian type of humans, or maybe just inhuman humans.

The ideal scientist is a seeker for truth, driven by his love for science, and not by the distribution of research grants. Ideally, he or she follows the passion to understand nature, ideas that are compelling, beautiful, or otherwise just fascinating.

Most of those who have worked in theoretical physics know that in practice researchers are not entirely logical in their believes and convictions. At least I am sometimes quite irrational and stubborn. Sooner or later however, evidence or mathematical proof should sort out the crap. This process has worked for centuries, and it did so fairly well. In a certain sense this is natural selection -- no matter if achieved with or without method.

But the availability and quality of positions does without doubt influence people who work, or want to work, in theoretical physics.

a) The Hierarchy Problem:

For example let us have a look at an average non-ideal postdoctoral researcher in the 21st century. Being in an early stage of his education (meaning, less than 10 years after his MS), and due to the complexity of modern research, he is unlikely to have an overview on the whole field of theoretical physics. He might have his own ideas for research projects, but he needs a job. So, he looks for a field that seems interesting to him, and hopefully also has available positions. Let's assume he is lucky and gets a position.

If his supervisor tells him he wants him to investigate the stability of higher dimensional bumpy thingees in 7 dimension, will he say: "Uhm, well, we don't even know there are extra dimensions, how they are stabilized, or whether there are black holes in these extra dimensions. And, actually, I am not so into thingees. I'd rather think about why we live in 3+1 dimension?"

If his supervisor tells him to run code alpha-beta-pi with the k-factor set to 2.8, to leave out the results that don't fit the data and just keep those which do, because publications are needed for the grant a whole group is paid of. Will he say "I'd rather spend the next 10 years trying to find an analytical approach to non-perturbative QCD. I will probably fail, but thanks for paying me meanwhile."

He probably wouldn't.

He will of course have in mind to work for his employer for some time, but eventually to come back to his own ideas. After some years. Or after the next position. Or after that. Or after his first evaluation. Or after that.

I know many physicists, very many, who think so.

I know many physicists, who tell me they would rather work on something else than they do. Some have their own ideas, unfinished drafts in a drawer, some would prefer other fields which lack funding. Most feel the constant pressure to produce output in a fashionable field.

    For fairness I should add that almost all of them are under the age of 40. Those I know older than that seem to be constantly busy with lectures, administration, giving interviews, or writing books. (Forgot to mention, some of them have a life as well).

    Okay, I crudely exaggerate: please don't send me your list of exceptions, I am aware they exist. I hope you get the point.

This is what concerns me most: the large detour. The economical pressure on young researchers and the resulting conformity. The waste of time. The waste of ideas. Even though I don't like to hear it, it's a fact that the human brain has it's best time in the early to mid twenties. Why do we waste these best years?

Lee Smolin on Jun 22nd, 2006 at 1:59 pm
Few think about these questions long and hard enough to get anywhere before the next “hot topic” takes everyone’s attention away.

This was a very productive style of research when high energy theory was driven by many new experimental results but it has clearly failed over the last 30 years to go beyond the standard model. [..]"

However, I also want to point out that guidance by a supervisor is one of the best ways to learn science. Some months ago, Petr Haijeck wrote to me in an email (and I hope he excuses that I cite it here):

"Of course, one could object that young people wishing to learn a craft are to serve for the first time their masters similarly as Tizian had to ground colours for Bellini. There is also something true in that. I think that there should be some equilibrium, but I do not know, how this could be achieved."

Neither do I. But I do think that the situation as it is now is not optimal. And that it can be improved.

b) The Backlash Problem

There is no point in switching from one extreme to the other, and repeating the same mistakes again and again. This is exactly what is likely to happen if we don't figure out what goes wrong, and how to avoid it in the future. I can already notice that there is a sometimes quite violent demand for instant falsifiability of theories, for closeness to experiment, etc.

I don't think pushing this too extreme is a good solution either. Phenomenological models might be more applied, but in some regards it's questionable what is there to learn from them. Just tuning some extra parameters to describe a data set is not what I think 'understanding' means.

Peter Woit on Jun 21st, 2006 at 1:47 pm
Steuard, [...]
I strongly disagree with your idea that the answer to overhyping string theory is to overhype other ideas. The respect that the public has for science is based on the fact that scientists have been able to sort out what is true about the world and what isn’t. If we decide that upholding standard scientific norms about this is less important than generating enthusiasm for what we do, we will ultimately destroy our credibility and turn science into science fiction, a subject which lots of people are enthusiastic about, but is very different indeed.

c) The Selection Problem:

Besides the above hierarchy and backlash problem, there are the apparent weaknesses in the selection process. Hiring decisions are currently in a non-negligible manner based on criteria like

  • Top-ranking university were the PhD was obtained
  • Renowned supervisors and letters from them
  • Numbers of publications in high-impact journals
  • Famous co-authors on these publications (which basically guarantees a high cite-index)
  • Or in generally: relations to influential people.

Taken together, this means also that the land of origin is an important factor. It also implies that it is complicated, if not impossible, to change the field after the PhD, because you will know nobody in the new field, have no connections, no letters, no publications anybody will know of. You are nobody, you have to start all over. This makes interdisciplinary work almost impossible, amplifies the specialization and incest in sub-fields.

A part of this problem is the quality of peer reviewed papers, i.e. the question in how far the publication list, or cite-index, actually is a measure for scientific excellence. However, though this is an important issue, taken alone, it won't solve the problem.

4. What now?

It is pretty obvious, isn't it? After all, we are scientists and know how to analyze problems. Here are my propositions:

  1. Formulate goals of research in theoretical physics.

    These are not static goals, but are necessarily influenced by sociological questions like Where do we come from?, What are we made of? etc. Questions that in one way or the other were the reasons why we studied physics in the first place, and we should not loose them out of sight.

  2. Formulate ways to best reach above goals by supporting researchers.

    • a) How:

      This means not only positions, but also the quality of available positions (e.g. contract length), technical support and equipment of institutions, libraries etc. One major point that is often neglected are grants for international cooperation (for the US-citizens, with 'international' I mean 'worldwide'). It has become hard, if not impossible, to do good research without inviting seminar speakers, travelling to conferences/workshops, working visits in maybe far away places. The importance of which is often underestimated.

    • b) Who:

      Investigate whether the currently applied criteria to select researchers are successful. Lee Smolin has more to say about this, so I will just give you a link to his Physics Today Article and ask you to think about it, if you haven't yet done so. If you have problems thinking on your own, read Lubos or Peter's comments, to jump start your brain.

  3. On a regularly base, evaluate current research fields as to their progress regarding the goals from point 1.

    I do not think evaluation merely by experts on a sub-field is a good way to objectively judge on progress in a wider sense as given by point 1., under consideration of points 2a) and 2b). As I mentioned earlier, I would find it a good idea to have an advisory committee to provide an annual report, and to make recommendations.

In my experience, most scientists are reasonable people, and act to their best believes to ensure progress in research. However, currently it is poorly understood how science works best in the 21st century, and I think it is necessary to formulate some guidelines. Not as laws, but as recommendations.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute to the discussion, on this or other blogs.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Black - Red - Gold

My younger brother just came back to Germany from a vacation in Sweden. He also said, he almost didn't recognize Germany! Within only a couple of weeks, German flags appeared everywhere. Flags are hanging out of windows, on street lamps, trees, and cars. (The latter apparently breaks off easily -- I have seen them frequently flying around on the Autobahn.) Yesterday, we drove through Frankfurt after the soccer game was over, and everywhere people were waving flags. Some wore them as skirts, some as capes, some knotted them around their dogs. I saw many people having flags painted to their cheeks.

In the stores you can literally buy everything in the national colors: T-shirts, bags, hats, caps, shoes, scarves. But we are lacking behind of the US - I haven't yet seen cookies in black-red-gold...

Temporarily the German flags were sold out. But Taiwan quickly delivered more...

To me this is really stunning. If you didn't grow up in Germany, it might be hard to believe, but before this summer, you could hardly find a national flag anywhere. I remember a comment on my post Excuse me

The one thing I noticed in West Germany and West Berlin in the 1980's, was that the German national flag was almost nowhere to be seen. [...] In other countries like America, England, France, etc ... the national flags were everywhere.

Indeed, if you had been driving around with a national flag on your car, you probably would have been stopped by the police and been asked if you have a problem. The national flag has been displayed so rarely, many people apparently didn't know which side is the upper one, some others bought Belgian flags instead.

Two days ago, I found in the Frankfurt Rundschau the article I had been waiting for. The delegate from the PDS (the former communist party) Julia Bonk call the flags a 'nationalist's symbol introduced through the back door' which 'causes suppression of those in our country who think different'.

Yesterday, we took off the flowers and balloons from the car and Stefan bought a flag to attach to his window. (At least he tried. He then noticed that he forgot his purse.) Some days ago, I just had to get a flag and walk through the streets with it. I admit I was kind of afraid someone would start accusing me to be a Nazi. Instead, I got smiles and cheers, people waved at me from cars and houses. A small child pointed at my flag and said: Daddy, what is that. And daddy said proudly: It's the German flag. It's black-red-gold.

I don't particularly like the colours of the German flag (I actually find the US flag much nicer), but it's great to see Germany in such a good mood.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Beautiful design

Among the many beautiful little things my future wife has brought along from her trips, one of the most remarkable souvenirs is a pair of small seashells she has found last week on the sandy beaches of Southern California. I have never seen clam shells like these before, although I have been collecting lots of them for myself at every occasion I have been at the seashore.

The shells have such a fine, creamy colour, with radiating lines painted in cafe au lait, and a beautiful shiny surface, they are just small little pieces of fine design no human artist could improve on.

If I got it right, these shells are a variety of shells of the Pismo clam (tivela stultorum), which is quite common in Southern California. Moreover, the mechanisms responsible for the formation of seashell patterns seem to be, in principle, understood. Complex, beautiful patterns can be reproduced by simple algorithms that model the growth of the shell and the spatio-temporal pattern of the deposition of pigments.

But the results are just marvellous.

Thank you, Bee :-)

Monday, June 19, 2006

World of Wonders

When I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt, I dropped into the next store to get a Coke. And there it was: the print version of Welt der Wunder (World of Wonders), with an article titled 'The worlds most dangerous experiment' about the creation of black holes at the LHC. Citing me as 'expert for mini black holes at the University of California, Santa Barbara' in a completely misleading context.

Some months ago, I gave an interview by phone to the journalist, Mirko Herr. He repeatedly asked me whether the mini black holes could possibly grow and swallow the whole earth. A catastrophe scenario he seemed to be very interested in. I patiently explained him that to our best knowledge this is extremely unlikely, and gave numerous arguments. Being a scientist, at being pushed, I said that the possibility can not be completely excluded. I mean, there is a certain possibility that the world might end tomorrow at 10:30 GMT, it's just extremely unlikely. Maybe time is just a finite coordinate and tomorrow we run out of it?

By reading the article, my worst expectations were confirmed. Apparently, he had heard my arguments before and was instead looking for someone to take the opposite site, and warn that the LHC is 'the worlds most dangerous experiment'. I explained him extensively why this is not the case.

Two weeks after the interview, he wrote me an email, explicitly saying that even though I told him the danger is minimal, he would like to know how a 'worst case scenario' looks like, as a 'Gedankenspiel' (game of thought).

Here is what I am cited with from my answer to this mail :

"Sollte es moeglich sein, dass das schwarze Loch mehr Masse aufnimmt, wird es schlicht wachsen, bis alles in erreichbarer Umgebung hinter dem Horizont verschwunden ist -inclusive dem LHC, Genf, der EU, China und den USA. Das passiert dann aber sehr schnell, und um meine naechste Einkommenssteuererklaerung muss ich mirdann keine Gedanken mehr machen."

The translation is roughly:

"Should it be possible that the black hole gains more mass, then it would grow until everyting in its sourrounding vanished behind the horizon, including the LHC, Geneva, the EU, China and the USA. At least, this will then happen very fast, and I don't have to worry about my next income tax return."

I looked up the email I sent him. What I wrote was: "Should it be possible that the black hole gains more mass THAN IT LOOSES, then it will grow... "

More important however, is the full context of the above quotation, in which I again explain quite lenghty the unlikeliness of the event. I attach the full text below (sorry, it is in German).

The second quotation attributed to me 'Es existiert in jedem Fall ein Risiko. Man kann ein Unglueck nicht mit letzter Gewissheit ausschliessen' ('There definitely is a risk. It is impossible to exclude a catastrophe completely'), caused my mother to look puzzled. Though I might have said something roughly like this in the context mentioned above, that it is just not possible to make 100% statements, I am reasonably sure that I never said this exact sentence. It is just not my vocabulary and not a choice of words I would have used.

I am very, very disappointed about the low scientific content of the whole article and it's dumb search for sensation. Though, I should add for fairness, Mirko Herr seemed to be quite a nice and reasonable man.

If you want to read a sensible popular article on mini black holes and extra dimensions, I can recommend the double-sided article which appeared recently in the Sunday edition of the FAZ: 'In anderen Dimensionen' (In other Dimensions), by Ulf von Rauchhaupt. In contrast to the article by Mirko Herr, the scientific quality of the FAZ article impressed me very much. It is clearly written without going into too many messy details, and it cites me with sentences I actually said, and in the correct context.

This will teach me to be more careful with journalists. Indeed, the journalistic world, is a world of wonders.

I also realized that for some reason or the other I did so far not write any post in my blog about the mini black holes, though I have been working on the topic for several years. I will do so in the next week.

Here is the full context of the above quotation in the article in Welt der Wunder:

Lieber Herr Mirko,

damit Sie das Gefahrenpotential richtig einschaetzen, moechte ich folgendes voranstellen: die Produktionschwarzer Loecher am LHC ist moeglich, falls es extra Dimensionen gibt (was nicht feststeht) und dieseausreichend gross sind (was nicht feststeht).

Wir wissen zwar nicht viel ueber den endgueltigen Zerfalldieser Loecher, koennen aber aus Hawkings Herleitung der Strahlung schwarzer Loecher deren Temperaturrecht verlaesslich angeben. Die Temperatur dieserkleinen schwarzen Loecher ist extrem hoch, ca 200 GeV(das sind etwa 2*10^12 Kelvin). Werden diese Objektein der Kollision produziert, so zerfallen sie direktim Kollisionsbereich, noch lange bevor sie die Detektorwand erreicht haben. Die typische Lebenzeitsind etwa 10 fm/c, oder 10^-22 Sekunden. Darin unterscheiden sie sich nicht viel von den meistenanderen 'Dingern', die in so einer Kollision produziert werden. Fast alles ist sehr kurzlebig, je schwerer, destokurzlebiger.

Selbst wenn ein solches Loch in Materie geraten sollte, so wird es nie mehr Energie aufnehmen koennen, als es durch die Verdunstung abgibt. Daher koennen diese winzigen Loecher auch nicht wachsen auf der Erde.Sie koennen auch nicht wachsen, in irgendeinem uns bekannten Medium (selbst die Dichte eines Neutronen-sternes, inetwa vergleichbar zu der des Quark Gluon Plasmas, ist nicht ausreichend).

Mir ist nicht ganz klar, wie Sie sich ein solchesGedankenspiel vorstellen? Sollte es moeglich sein, dass das schwarze Loch mehr Masse aufnimmt als abgibt, wird es schlicht wachsen, bis alles in erreichbarer Umgebung hinter dem Horizont verschwunden ist -inclusive dem LHC, Genf, der EU, China und den USA. Das passiert dann aber sehr schnell, und um meine naechste Einkommenssteuererklaerung muss ich mirdann keine Gedanken mehr machen.

Sollten Sie weitere Fragen haben, zoegern Sie nicht, mir zu schreiben.

Mit freundlichen Gruessen,



The first semi-conscious act after leaving a plane with a nine hour jet-lag was to fix my parents wireless. Something is seriously wrong with me. Maybe not even wrong. I noticed that Christine unfortunately removed her top-ten lists on String Theory and LQG, apparently due to a whole lot of annoying comments. This is really a pity, cause I did not have the time to completely read her posts, and follow the links, and was kind of looking forward to it.

I also noticed there is a discussion on CIP's blog, as well as a follow up on wolfgang's blog, based on comments in my post Science and Democracy, which circles around Lubos' state of mind. Considered the fact that my post tried to communicate that this is exactly what we do not need to discuss, I find this quite ironic.

Also, it seems that blogger still has some technical problems. I would like to strongly advise you to make a copy of your comments (at least into the clipboard) before you click 'submit'.

Besides this, I am currently in Germany which I hardly recognized. Every street corner and every second car has a German flag. I heard, they are sold out! It seems, after all, the Germans rediscovered their national pride. Apparently, it came in a soccer ball.

More after the jet-lag. Best,


Note added: Christine put her lists back online. Here are the links

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Black Hole Bag

If my blog had categories then this would be a non-scientific post.

It's a Sunday and - again - I am sitting at an airport, this time waiting to be squeezed into a Boing 747 with what looks about 1 Million of Indians, currently dancing in the boarding area.

Today, a good friend sent me an email reminding me that I have only 5 days to go to my wedding. I realized, she is right. So, I decided it's about time to get in the mood, and bought a bridal magazine. Among other things, I learned that I can insure my wedding against rain, and the latest must-haves in dinnerware: contemporary collections enhanced by stylized designs to help me create dinner parties that reflect my personal style. Wow. I am very worried about my current personal style.

The magazine also has a countdown calendar! Some highlights from this:

  • 12 months: Choose a wedding theme and style, meet potential wedding consultants
  • 11 months: Research and interview florists
  • 10 months: Select and order your wedding gown, discuss attebdants' duties with your maid of honor and bridesmaids
  • 9 months: Register for gifts, dicide on food and liquor to be served at your reception
  • ...

... and so on, and so on. Can we make that days instead of months?

So far the only contribution I made to my wedding organization was to pick the dress. Scheduled between a visit at PI, a seminar in Frankfurt, and a conference in Paris, this was undoubtly the most entertaining event my mother had in the last month.

The shop assistants were horrified to hear that the wedding would already be in no more than four weeks. After we calmed them down, assuring that we would be uncomplicatd, they called two tailors. One of them one with needles pinned everywhere hardly spoke a word, but vanished every 30 minutes for a cirarrette break. The other a chatty women with an accent from Sachsen, whose eyes began gleaming when she saw me: She's tiny, she said, she will fit in EVERY dress. I was about to run away and marry in jeans.

They placed me on a stool, and dragged a dress over me. Great, I said, it's white, I take it! - Nonono, the assistants, both dressed in pink, said, you have to try this, and this and this. It went on for endless hours, in which they put me in and out of dresses, attached things to my hair, around my neck, and shoes on my feet, while my mother was served coffee and cookies. She had a really good time. I was tought how to sit in a dress, how to make turns with the full armor, and to never, never, never, move backwards.

The shop assistants found everything gorgeous, other customers made comments like: Isn't this absolutely LOVELY? or How cute! A postman who delivered a parcel remarked I look like Cinderella. I definitly felt more like the beast than the beauty.

After f-o-u-r hours we settled on the first dress. Then, one of the shop assistants placed a bag in my hand. I had never seen a bag so tiny before. It was white and a bit shiny. My patience was pretty exhausted, so I asked What the fuck am I supposed to put in this 'bag'? The assistant shrugged her shoulders and insisted, it looked nice. Cigarrets, the quiet tailor said. My mother vetod on that, I doubted the plural 's'. Tampons? the other assistant suggested, not very convincingly. A cell phone, the postman yelled from the back.

Actually, I thought, good point. It would look much better to have the cell in a bag than to attach it to the train or so. Yes! the chatty tailor giggled So her lover could call last minute!, my mother looked appropriately disgusted. I instead saw myself getting a call from my coworker, upset, because he had just scanned the arxiv, telling me that we have been scooped on our new paper. Then I would shout into the ceremony 'I DO, I DO, can you hurry up a bit, where do I sign?', and run away, looking for a wireless network.

Anyway, my mother decided for the bag. Now I read in this bridal magazine, what has to be in the brides bag:

'Don't leave for the ceremony without an emercency kit packed with essentials for tackling common wedding-day mishaps like torn hems or broken heels. Some must haves:

  • Double sided fabric tape
  • A small sewing kit
  • Superglue
  • Deodorant
  • Breath mints
  • Clear nail polish
  • Nail Kit
  • Band Aids and Painkillers
  • Tissues

To this we add the 'Emergency Beauty Kit: comb and brush, hair spray, nail glue, nail polish topcoat, pressed powder, mascara and lipstic.' Also, I am supposed to take off my glasses for the photos, these go in the bag as well. Together with the cell phone, cigaretts and tampons. Not to mention worldly stuff like purse, and keys, and the required legal documents (you want to make sure you marry the right person). And my memory stick, without which I never go anywhere, in case the new paper gets scooped...

All this seems to imply that it takes a black hole bag rather than a tiny, shiny, white bag. At least the interior needs infinite volume. So I googled for it. And guess what? Here it is, the black hole bag:

I also found the black hole vacuum cleaner, which I should maybe put on the gift list. That is, if I had registered for one around the time when men still dragged their women around on their hair or so.

When I think about it, the double sided tape acutally could be handy to stop the uncle from talking too much.

Note added: I have been told that 'I DO, can you hurry up!' is not exactly the right thing to say, but that I have to say 'Yes' loud and clearly. Not 'Sure', not 'I think so' or 'That's why I'm here'. It's like when you end up sitting on the plane in an emergency exit row. If you are willing and able to perform the required actions in case of an emergency, please say yes lound and clearly.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Impressions from the SUSY 06

The SUSY conference is always my favourite conference of the year. Despite the title indicating a closeness to sypersymmetry, the topics cover a very broad range - which means it is impossible to find a day completely covered with uninteresting talks and to go to the beach.

Besides sometimes technical supersymmetry and string-session, there are the phenomenological talks about Cosmology and collider physics. I myself favour the parallel sessions about models and alternatives, which are usually quite mixed up. My talk usually ends up being an alternative.

On Wednesday we had an evening plenary session about Naturalness. Naturally, this year the collider signatures are a hot topic, which was also addressed in an evening discussion yesterday. I can not avoid noticing that the closeness of the LHC start-up in 2007 seems to have triggered an increased output of predictions and simulations based on more and more models, which might or might not have something to do with susy, or string-theory. It's like the concern is either now or never, so lets publish some predictions as long as we are are not outruled. The recurring question is of course whether available data would actually allow to distinguish between various scenarios. The amount of work that goes into details of simulations of completely unconfirmed (and sometimes even unmotivated) models, is frightening.

The atmosphere this year is full of good vibes (definitly not those of the wireless which is rather mediocre), though the word 'landscape' is used very carefully, and most often in a defensive tone. I was not even able to depress people with my worst case scenario that they find nothing at the LHC, not even the Higgs. Instead, this morning we had a very good talk by James Rosenzweig (UCLA), about future prospects for the next generation accelerators. Among other things, he talked about the creation of high quality beams through plasma wave excitations with a laser. As he said: "Lasers cost only a few Million $, you can do this essentially at home."

This year, the conference is accompanied by a constant series of flashlights. It is impossible not to notice byen00 with the heavy equipment and the video camera, who seems to be present everywhere at anytime, a living proof for the existence of parallel universes. He has probably been to more talks than many of the participants, certainly to more than I. As I learned from the recent post on Cosmic Variance

he calls himself 'chimpanzee'. He told me he wouldn't do the reporting on scientific events for money, coz then it would stop being fun. You find the pictures

It's rather disturbing to be hit by a flashlight in the middle of a sentence! During my talk yesterday, I lost at least two sentences with every photo, and forgot about half of what I wanted to say. At least I finished in time, which I otherwise hardly ever manage.

Here is a photo taken at the reception on Tuesday evening. I can't quite remember what I said to have everyone look at me as if I am nuts. It might have been that I find it possible that gravity maybe just does not have to be quantized.

Note added: I just remembered that the discussion on the above photo turned towards blogging when byen joined us, and then inevitably spiraled towards Lubos. I caused the plain disbelieve you see on the other's faces by saying that I don't think Lubos is totally crazy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Squeeze my brain

Here, in Newport Beach, the weather is gorgeous, the amount of talks is incredible, and the whole conference SUSY 2006 is very inspiring.

Among other things, this year's bag is equipped with a spare brain, which you can squeeze when things go anthropic.

Yesterday at the reception, I noticed a guy hanging around with a camera. He came up to us and asked "What's going on at the conference? LHC is coming, huh?". We said, "Yeah, that's about it." He said, "cool", turned around and filmed an empty table instead. This was about the most conclusive discussion about the status of physics I have had in the last years.

To find some of the pictures from the conference, go to

Or make a scenic detour and go two blogs this direction.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Science and Democracy

While I was sitting at the coast throwing stones into the ocean, it seems Lubos has written a very interesting post about an important topic: Science vs Democracy.

I don't quite share the perception of the so-called-crisis-in-theoretical-physics, but we are currently in a situation that requires adjustment to the changes that front research has made during the last decades. Without doubt, the number of people working in theoretical physics has increased a lot. Research fields have become more and more specific. It takes a long time to gain enough knowledge to be able to contribute to the front of research.

This has caused the community to fall apart into many distinct fields. Most often, people working on one field don't know much about other fields. Worse, I even noticed that the basic knowledge that postdocs should have, already begins to be filtered by the supervisor they had, or the topic they were focused on. This is not only annoying, but it also hinders progress.

Reading Lubos', Peter's and other blogs, following articles in newspapers, or recent books, it is pretty obvious that currently there is some controversy about which direction research in theoretical physics should take in the future. This is a question that most likely won't be answered by calling each other names in comments on blogger's posts.

It concerns me very much that this discussion is lead on such a level, without serious attempts to resolve the problem in a constructive way. Our work is based on the support of the society we live in. Research funding has to be distributed to the most promising researchers. These decisions have to be made based on something. These decisions ARE made on the basis of SOMETHING. But something is not good enough.

This is the context in which I mentioned the advisory committee. Not to decide on the number of critical dimensions, as Lubos indicates, but to decide which researchers and projects are worth supporting.

Besides this minor misunderstanding, Lubos essentially agrees on what I say.

Lubos: it is absolutely critical that scientists have the freedom to reveal the truth whatever it is and they are unconstrained by the pre-determined truth defined by someone else...

If that alone was the base on which researchers are supported, I would be very happy! However, one might keep in mind that 'truth' is something to search for in mathematics as well as in physics.

To clarify another statement:

Lubos: The blogger mentioned at the beginning has even proposed to establish "advisory committees" that would be deciding what research directions are promising and what conclusions about general questions that scientists are allowed to make and what conclusions they are not allowed to make. I just can't believe she's serious ...

I certainly never said someone should decide what conclusions scientists are allowed to make. I want to point out again that there ARE people deciding what research is promising in terms of financial support. It is definitely possible, and necessary, to improve this decision making process. It requires an objective analysis of what science is, what it should be, and how it can work best.

Lubos: The more specialized and advanced questions in science we try to answer, the more devastating effect the committees would have. It's simply because the very specialized topics in science are always correlated with very small groups of people who understand these things well.

I am very glad that Lubos understands the problem. Groups of people specialized on things they understand will most likely fail to appreciate important contributions outside their line of thought. Candidates picked on this level are most likely those which pursue research topics the group of people who understand these things well understands well. I.e. when things go wrong, they go really wrong.

Lubos: But it is completely crazy for deciding about highly difficult science questions.

To make this clear one more time: truth is not decided about by committees. When truth remains to be found, and resources are limited, decisions ought to be made where the resources go. How this can be done in a way that hopefully leads out of the so-called-crisis-in-theoretical-physics is exactly the discussion that we need.

Note added: This discussion originated from the comments on Lubos' post Dean of crackpots, Hitler's Pope, and string theory.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

SUSY 2006

Next week, I am in Newport Beach at the

14th International Conference on Supersymmetry and the Unification of Fundamental Interactions

or, short, the SUSY 06. I am looking forward to an interesting meeting, and hope to find some time (and some wireless) to report on it.

Since it's another rainy Sunday here in Santa Barbara, let me recommend a CD I bought recently:

Lights Out

"I'm just another casualty of casual insanity."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Talks on Planck 2006, Paris

Apparently, the world did not end yesterday. Too bad, I was really looking forward to it. Now I will have to pay all the past due bills that accumulated in my mailbox while I was away.

As I mentioned earlier, I was in Paris last week, on the Planck 2006. The conference was fairly well organized, everything went without major disasters. The only annoyance were the security scans at the entrance every morning, where some uniformed guys repeatedly looked through the trash in my backpack.

Here are some comments about my personal favourite talks:

Most interesting theory talk:

Keith Dienes
Temperature, Duality, And the Hagedorn Transition

Is based on the papers hep-th/0312216, hep-th/0312217, and hep-th/0507201 with Mike Lennek from the University of Arizona. The idea is roughly to find a formulation of thermodynamics that is compatible with string-theoretical expectations by construction. Remember how a finite temperature description is achieved in QFT. One goes from zero, T=0, temperature to a finite temperature, T>0, by compactifying a timelike coordinate on radius 1/T.
Now, to get stringy thermodynamics, assume that T-duality (symmetry under replacing the radius R with a dual radius ~ 1/R) holds for the compactified time-like coordinate. This consequently results in a duality under the replacement T -> Td2/T, where Td is some dual temperature.

However, standard thermodynamics unfortunately does not respect this duality. Instead, it is necessary to introduce a 'covariant' exterior derivative to generate thermodynamical quantities that respect the symmetry. Here, the covariant derivative just defined such that it respects the symmetry.

I will write more about this topic at some point because I really like it. Once the string-compatible thermodynamics is formulated, it provides a useful effective description of stringy effects at high temperatures. This in turn can be quite useful for cosmological implications.

I still wonder why this nice work has gotten so little attention.

Most interesting phenomenology talk:

Ann. E. Nelson
Mass Varying Neutrinos and Neutrino Oscillation Tests

Is based on the very readable paper Dark Energy from Mass Varying Neutrinos (astro-ph/0309800). The possibility that neutrino masses vary with the medium they propagate in has recently received increased attention. Though I don't particularly like this model, it is an interesting proposal.

The concept of the mass-varying neutrinos assumes a relation between neutrinos and the dark energy of the universe through a scalar field, the so-called acceleron. This implies then that the neutrino oscillation parameters in vacuum and a medium could be very different (this is not the standard MSW-effect).

Nelson discussed the implications of these models for neutrino phenomenology, for example in the sun, for cosmology, and astrophysics. Maybe most importantly, it could also explain the LSND data. However, she also pointed out that tests of mass-varying effects are very difficult, since the different experiments obtain data under different conditions, and little or no direct information is available on oscillation parameters in vacuum or air.

I should add that I personally don't like to fix problems by introducing additional, fairly unmotivated, scalar fields. Also, the precise predictions of the mass-varying neutrinos seems to be rather model dependent. For my taste, there are too many ambiguities in the

However, in principle, the idea to connect the dark energy to the smallness of neutrino masses is nice, and it is a reasonable phenomenological model which is experimentally testable.

Most entertaining talk:

John March-Russell

Spoke about the always fascinating topic of TBA. Based on the paper Signals of Inflation in a Friendly String Landscape (astro-ph/0604254), it was a talk delivered with humor and an non-negligible amount of self-confidence.

Nevertheless, it left me with the impression that the consequence of the anthropic principle is that we now look for probability distributions of parameters that favor correlations we observe. Should it happen that a distribution has a high probability for correlations we don't observe, well, then we better look for another distribution. But in any case, there is no need to worry, coz the universe can always be just unlikely.

It seems to me that we have replaced looking for theories with looking for probability distributions. Given some distribution, hopefully motivated in one way or the other, a vacuum energy of value of so-and-so is with probability x correlated to a curvature of this-and-that value. But what do we learn from that?

Most deafening talk:

H. Nielsen
Fine Structure Constant relation and multi Point principle

Despite the enormous volume the talk was delivered in, I have not the slightest idea what it actually was about. I only vaguely recall that the speaker repeatedly mentioned some cheat, where he put factors 3 or 1/2 when necessary.

The lesson I learned from this talk is that with some accent, cheat sounds suspiciously like shit.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Paper Recipe


1 arxiv mirror
1 12-pt document.
2-3 topics of general interest.
A couple of standard textbooks.
1 handful of good taste.
2 teaspoons of symmetry groups.
1/2 cup of superlatives.
1 box of parameters.
1 scalar field.


The previous day, check the recent papers on the arxives hep-ph / hep-th/ astro-ph and gr-qc. Peel and cut the titles, don't bother with abstracts. Pick out frequently used words, irrespective of their physical content.

Our this year's seasonal recommendations are e.g. 'duality, hidden, AdS, noncommutative, black hole entropy, deconstruct, landscape, emergent, ..."

Also, take the parameters out of their box and pair them with values, e.g. Q_eff ≤ 1/3 and \sigma(2,2) = \sin^2(\Pi/3). For best results, make sure your superlatives contain the all-time favourites 'promising', 'groundbreaking', 'exciting', 'significant' and 'of high interest'.

The Following Day:

1) Prepare the Title.

Prepare the title by using as many of the previously found frequently used words as possible. Mix several of them. Colleagues should ideally feel obliged to cite your paper, but not qualified to actually judge on it.

2) Prepare the Abstract.

Take the 2-3 topics of general interest, wash them thoroughly, until completely free of criticism and discussion. We recommend today 'Dark Energy', 'Quantum Gravity', and 'Large Hadron Collider', or whatever this week's special offer of your local blog scene is. Unwrap the prepared frequently used words, and carefully check whether some have become stale over night.

In a large, non-stick pan, warm the topics of general interest over medium heat. Add the frequently used words and cook until thickened to less than 10 sentences. Add ½ cup of superlatives and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon. Gradually stir in the parameters and simmer together for 4 to 5 minutes.

The result might look as follows:

We examine 'topic of general interest #1' within the 'superlative' scenario of 'frequently used word #1' by taking into account the recent 'superlative' results on 'frequently used word #2'. The relations to 'frequently used word #3' with an additional sector of 'frequently used word #4' are carefully investigated, and allow us to draw 'superlative' new conclusions about 'frequently used word #1'. Using an improved version of the 'frequently used word #2' standard approach, we find Q_eff ≤ 1/3, and \sigma(2,2) = sin^2 (\Pi/3). Furthermore, we discuss the relevance for 'topic of general interest #3'.

Add one handful of good taste. Pour into a 12-pt document. Sprinkle with PACS numbers and keywords.

3) The introduction

Google the topics of general interest and copy and paste for at least 3 paragraphs. Then, claim that recently the importance of 'frequently used words' has been realized. Cite the references looked up the previous day. Refer the interested reader to the reviews. Stir in a little of history. Mix well, but carefully. Make certain not to mash crucial details. Put in a warm spot and leave to rise.

4) The Main Part

Start your investigation by some undoubtedly correct formula, using the standard textbooks. Such might e.g. be the FRW metric, the equal time commutation relations, or the QED Lagrangian. Let stand for one hour. Meanwhile get some coffee. Look up the references from the previous day, hit 'cited by' and randomly repeat various equations from citation #50 and up. Make sure to rename all variables, and not to copy the text prior and after the equations. Add appropriate citations to all equations. Do not interpret the calculation. Knead until you have a smooth text. Let rest for a while, then roll out thin on a clean board.

Add the scalar field. Cut into symmetric shapes, then hide some parts and deconstruct the rest. Sprinkle with symmetry groups. Twist carefully several times.

5) The Results

Preheat the universe. Take main part and cover the entire standard model, let several parameters overhang, and give them unintuitive names. Redefine the variables multiple times, use plenty of not introduced abbreviations, and don't hesitate to apply unmentioned mathematical theorems to rewrite your derivations. Introduce at least one new notation, and drop irrelevant factors 2\Pi or \sqrt{2}.

Stir until smooth and bubbly.

Should open questions appear on the surface, add citations to yourself 'in preparation'.

Plot a random correlation between some parameters, then pick a couple of values you like. Call them typical, and put them aside for later use. Fill the rest of the parameter space into the main part. Cover with discussion. Garnish with footnotes and references to 'private communications'. Bake 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

6) The Conclusions

Take the abstract and punch a hole in the middle. Fill in the typical parameters you put aside earlier. Spell check the document several times.

Best served with a prominent co-author, and acknowledgements of hospitality at top-ranking universities.

PS: Don't forget that the world will end tomorrow 06/06/06, so wear a clean shirt and give your last dollars to the homeless guy on the sidewalk.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Leaving Home

This weekend is a holiday in Germany - Pentecost, including sunday and monday - and I decided to visit my parents' place. They' re living in a small village in the countryside, a two hours' drive from Frankfurt. It is a very peaceful place in the green, and I really enjoy going there every few weeks or so. At this time of the year, lots of birds are singing all-over in the trees and shrubs, and are feeding their offspring in the many nest boxes my father has put up in the backyard.

Yesterday evening, after arriving and when strolling around in the garden, I was attracted by an especially loud cheeping coming from a nest box in an old cherry tree, just at eye level. This was the home of a family of great tits (Kohlmeise in German, or Parus major), and the youngsters were just about to leave, peeping curiously out of their nest box while waiting for their parents bringing food. I was quite amazed that they were not shy at all, at least against humans, and that I could take photos from a very short distance.

This morning, I wanted to take more pictures, with better light, and I was very lucky: there were two youngsters left in the nest, and they were just about to leave the shelter of their home and to take the step out in the world.

Here it was sitting, the chicken bird, still quite unsure, clamping to a shrub below the nest box, and cheeping for food.

A few minutes later, it was already exploring the lawn nearby.

So, young little bird, good luck to you and your siblings, and beware the cats and magpies...