Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bubbles of Nothing

----- Original Message -----
From: "D**** S*****" ds*****[@]
To: "Sabine Hossenfelder" sabine[@]
Sent: Friday, November 03, 2006 1:19 PM
Subject: FedEx

There is a FedEx box at reception for you.
Come pick it up!


----- End of Message -----

To my surprise, the FedEx box turned out to be pretty large and heavy, with a sticker saying CUSTOMS CLEARED that covered the sender's address. After struggling with some kilometers of duck-tape, I exhibited my forwarded mail from the department at UCSB. I threw away a non-negligible amount of the usual advertisements, and was left with two large envelopes, in which there were further boxes, in which there were again envelopes.

One was from Houghton Mifflin, and contained the long awaited copy of Lee's book. But more interestingly, it came with an information sheet. Actually, it's not so much information but advertisement for some book that reveals allegedly shocking details about faith based science that penalized young physicists. It seems, I've read a different book. At least that explains the contents of many reviews I've seen since September, which basically repeat what's written on these accompanying pages. Well, the publisher know their job: ''In the coming months a heated debate raging on the Internet and at physics conferences is poised to break wide open, and THE TROUBLE WITH PHYSICS will serve as a rallying cry.''

Speaking of crying, I took off the book's cover, under which the book actually looks like a book, and not like a cleaning agent.

The other envelope contained the complete Particle Data Review, and the physicist's pocket diary, which is another step back to a normal life here in Waterloo.

Besides this, the box contained a significant amount of bubble wrap. With confused thoughts about valley-seekers or tree-climbers on the marketplace of ideas, and the backlashes of advertisement campaigns, I popped some bubbles.

I recalled that some months ago I read a story about the history of bubble wrap1. Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 in a garage in Somewhere, New Jersey, where the engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes took two plastic curtains and ironed them together. The original intention for bubble wrap was to use it as a fancy and easy to clean wallpaper. Well. It seems, Americans are weird when it comes to interior decoration, but not completely nuts, so it didn't quite work out with the wallpaper idea. And if you've ever tried, you'd notice that bubble wrap isn't exactly easy to clean.

They then tried to market it as a greenhouse insulation, but that didn't work out either. It was only in 1960 that that they had the idea to use it as a wrapping for fragile items, in which it was very fast an enormous success. Marc and Alfred founded Sealed Air Corporation, and according to their website '[T]oday, Sealed Air is a leading global manufacturer of a wide range of food and protective packaging materials and systems with annual revenues in excess of 4 billion dollars.'

I love stories like this. They seem to capture such an essential part of the American spirit. This equally stubborn and arrogant conviction that you can make it if you only try hard enough. This equally naive and charming believe in your own ingenuity. This equally foolish and tough pursuit of new ideas2.

To add my European view, this story tells you also that the best advertisement isn't going to make bubbles of nothing into something they are not. And it tells you that sometimes it takes time until a good idea finds it's place in the world and can prove it's usefulness.

And what a sad place the world would be without bubble wrap!

I remember how my younger brother and I sat around popping bubbles. In some cases however, the air would only shift into the next closest bubble. As I learned from Wikepedia3, popping bubble wrap not merely silly, but actually a 'stress relieving activity'.

So, if you're troubled by physics or ideas that don't quite sell, how 'bout you pop some bubbles :-))

(if the embedded source does not work with your browser, go to

They even have twin bubbles :-))

And don't forget, Jan 27th is bubblewrap appreciation day...

Footnote 1: After a lengthy period of mind twisting, I recalled that I read the story in an airline magazine. Obviously, that memory didn't include the name of the airline, the magazine, the title of the article, or its author. But thanks to Google, I was able to actually find the article I read: Smart Stuff, by Dan Gross, in the US Airways Magazine.

Footnote 2: This equally stupid and ignorant praise of the merits of capitalism.

Footnote 3: You also learn from Wiki that bubble wrap has an appearance in the song White and Nerdy by Al Yankovic, see also Clifford's post at Asymptotia.



  1. Hi Bee,

    Speaking of advertisement and the marketplace of ideas, running a Google search on "avertising" gives 1.2 billion web pages. Almost one for each person in China. Seems we humans do a lot of that.

  2. Hi Kris,

    at least those humans who dominate the internet. If you ask me, extreme advertisement is an indicator for the decline of a civilization. And it's a self-accelerating process that's destined to hit the wall. The more people are yelling, the louder you have to yell to be heard. In the end everybody is yelling, and nobody listening. E.g. I am sure the coming generation is largely immune to any advertisement. If there's an ad in a magazine, I skip over it without even noticing. I fail to notice 10x30 feet ads, skip radio stations as soon as they start babbling nonsense.

    Bottomline is: most of the money would be better invested in the product and not in advertisement.

    That's not to say that ads are completely useless, but as so often, its a question of balance. Which seems to be far off in this part of the world, in this part of the century.



  3. Hi Kris,

    I just looked at your profile... Interesting, very interesting... Excuse the question but how on earth did you manage to produce 23 versions of that paper? And why 23? Best,


  4. Hi Bee

    Do you know why Christine's blog has been deleted?

  5. Hi Bee,

    Ich kann kein Deutsch. Is 23 a good movie?

    Why 23 versions of an arxiv paper? ( ) Partly because I'm a crummy writer! When I add something new it often takes a few tries to get it right. But the additions have been driven mostly by interactions with referees.

    Gravity journals at first refused to review it. Then John Wheeler sent a nice letter of support, which changed that. Several referees declined to comment, so the first reports took about six months. Those said the paper was interesting, but I hadn't shown this and this. It took a year's work to show those things, but I did, and sent it back.

    The editor said it's been a long time, so I'm calling this a new submission and sending it to new referees. The new ones said I hadn't shown that and that. I eventually did and sent it back again. The editor said too bad, the same paper can only be submitted twice. So I went to another journal, experiencing a similar sequence of events. And so on. Each time the paper gets a little bigger.

    Have you seen The Wizard of Oz? The wizard tells Dorothy he'd be happy to send her back to Kansas if she'll do him one small favor -- bring him the broomstick of the wicked witch of the west. She does the impossible, brings it back, then he tells her he wants another favor. (At this point Toto pulls back the curtain.)

    In my case, I've got a pile of broomsticks. (I'm happy to show the referees' reports to interested parties.) I've posted several follow-up papers to the archives:

    There's a lot that can be done with this theory. Beyond what's described in these four papers, I've found at least two additional cases where it makes quantitative predictions agreeing with data, where general relativity doesn't. But what I'm writing up now is version 24 of the original paper, because I need that published to get the others into print journals.

    If that doesn't happen before the results from Gravity Probe B are announced, I'm counting on that to change things. It's my Toto.



  6. Hi Kea,

    Do you know why Christine's blog has been deleted?


    Oh no!

    I can't believe that.

    I shouldn't have written that comment. If I'd listen to what my mother told me I'd have learned by know to keep my mouth shut. Gee, I'm so sorry.



    What is this -- the first confirmed murder of a blog?




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