Friday, September 28, 2007


Communication is the glue that holds our society together. It is the interaction that makes the whole more than a sum of the parts. Communication - over increasingly longer distances in space and in time - is maybe the most important factor that sets humans apart from other species, and allows us to very efficiently use acquired knowledge. The word 'communication' goes back to the Latin 'communicare', which means 'to impart, share' and has the same roots as 'common', 'community' and 'communism' [1].

An exchange of information between the sender and receiver is the goal of a successful communication, which in most cases takes place on many levels. If my neighbor's wife is upset I can tell even without understanding the words, and if my husband had a second glass of wine he strats mingling up lettersin his emials. (Yes, you do!)See?

Not all channels (phone, email, pantomime) support every form of communication. An essential part of communication is the feedback that allows the sender to find out whether a message was received (given that he is interested in finding out). The possibility for such feedback is the Web2.0's large potential. However, evolution has trained us for face-to-face communication, and the absence of this visual channel is a severe drawback. Together with a multitude of cultural and social backgrounds in the virtual community (that most often are unknown), this poses a difficulty which gets significantly enhanced by being unaware of the problem. Though there are notable efforts to make use of more communication channels on the internet [2], the written word has without doubt an enormous importance in online discussions.

Yet how many people manage to express themselves in the written form? Do I? How many people actually try to find out the message that a writer had? How efficiently can one do this without knowing the person, at least from reading more than a paragraph? If I look around me, I see a lot of people sending out badly encoded information that, if received, is never decoded. It's a failure on both sides. What I'm trying to say is...

Of course, most of our communication is casual and has not a high information density. Many of our daily exchanges have simple meta messages, like: small talk to make somebody feel comfortable, listening to stories we already know just to be polite, or asking the same question again even though nothing can be added to it (some call it research). This however relies on a shared social understanding (your way to be polite might be my way to be insulting) - a 'common' ground, that occasionally needs to be confirmed.

Unfortunately, today we also have to deal (... new email...) with an increasing amount of background noise (... haven't I already refereed that paper?...) that is as distracting (... seminar in five minutes, do I finish this post? ...) as annoying (... can I drop in around 3pm?...). Our attention span (... I think I misunderstood him, does that matter?...) is getting increasingly shorter (... was that already the hard deadline? ...). It takes patience to understand (...yes, I got your email, but I don't have time...), and in a world where being hot is cool (... can I call back later, I'm somewhat short on time...) and being busy makes you look important (... no time...), being connected is ( time...) just another icon (...time...) in the (...time...) sidebar (...time... time... time...).
Can you read between the lines?

Hence, the glue that communication provides has turned our society into a strongly coupled system with long range interactions [3]. But the actual information exchange fails in many instances due to multiple causes. When a large part of communication fails (nobody understands me!) for unrecognized reasons (they are all stupid!), the 'Zoon Politikon' [4] makes mislead attempts to improve the situation. What characterizes our century is not communication, but trying to get attention by all means, be that paid links, deliberate insults, undressing on TV, or shooting several classmates before committing suicide (the feedback doesn't really work optimally in all examples). All these are more or less desperate tries to be heard, and to be understood.

Exchanging information on the other hand has become a self-purposeful action. It's not about the actual content of the information, but about passing it on. It's not about what you say, but whether you are the first to say it. You can see this in the internet, on TV, on the blogosphere and you can witness it sinking into scientific research: Credits are increasingly given to working on the hot stuff, and having good networking skills - the scientific community after all is only part of our society. All that exciting talk about the Web2.0 looks to me like exchanging information about exchanging information, and I am waiting for such a glueball to collapse and form a black hole.

Along with the opportunities the online community offers us there come dangers that, when they remain unrecognized, can hinder instead of support progress and a healthy society. As in many other cases, these dangers are known and have been pointed out, yet are not appropriately addressed. For example Daniel Goleman wrote in his contribution 'Cyber-disinhibition' to the Edge annual question 2006 'What is your Dangerous Idea?':

"The Internet inadvertently undermines the quality of human interaction, allowing destructive emotional impulses freer reign under specific circumstances [...] The tech problem: a major disconnect between the ways our brains are wired to connect, and the interface offered in online interactions.
Communication via the Internet can mislead the brain's social systems. The key mechanisms are in the prefrontal cortex; these circuits instantaneously monitor ourselves and the other person during a live interaction, and automatically guide our responses so they are appropriate and smooth [...] In order for this regulatory mechanism to operate well, we depend on real-time, ongoing feedback from the other person. The Internet has no means to allow such realtime feedback (other than rarely used two-way audio/video streams)."

Research, as every other human activity, is affected by these developments, for better and for worse. The changes in our ways to communicate influence our daily lives noticeably. Yesterday, I sat in a seminar and looking through the audience I noticed there were several nodders among them. It's a funny habit I have myself, unconsciously nodding or shaking my had depending on whether I agree with the speaker. (Most of the time though I frown my forehead - in case I listen that is - but this is hard to tell if one sees others only from the back.) I have a friend who told me when he gives a talk he always picks out somebody to check whether he got his message across, and a frowned forehead dissolves into an AHA! Most often, he said, women are easier to read than men, and younger people easier than older people. This kind of feedback which can significantly improve the information exchange in talks poses a severe challenge for audio conferences (like e.g. the ILQGS). Understanding how human communication works best matters for our daily lives, also in the scientific community. If our ability to communicate is what sets us apart from other species on the planet, shouldn't we take great care for it to work optimally?

Maybe you are wondering why I am writing this. Well, at least I do. You see, besides my wish to share my thoughts and my hope for feedback (looking forward to your gluons), writing this blog is partly an autocommunication. And I had to notice lately that I've begun to only sloppily read other people's posts or comments before I leave a silly remark. Because in most instances it doesn't matter anyhow - the only fact people notice seems to be whether I leave a comment or not, nevermind the content. But I don't like myself for it. So here, besides trying to get my message across, I am telling myself I don't listen carefully enough, I am not patient enough, I fail to take into account other people's encoding system, and end up being insulted for no good reason. I deliberately misunderstand others and turn their words against them (I am really good with that). I don't take time enough to think about what others write (so that's why this blog is going slower the last months). Now that I am writing this, I think I should start listening to myself ;-)

Either way, despite my suspicion about the internet and its emerging properties, the glue it provides has without doubt opened exciting opportunities for our social lives. I - as many of you - got to know people all over the world, made friends online, and staying in touch is just a click away. Through this and other blogs, I had many interesting discussions, and learned a lot [5]. The Web2.0 definitely has a lot of potential, also for scientific research, and - if used wisely - can be a very powerful tool for our 'community': from Lat. communis "common, public, general, shared by all or many". You got it.

    "The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished."

Meta: What I was trying to say
  • Successful communication requires effort on both sides, the sender and the receiver.
  • Most of online conversation happens in written form. Yet not everybody who writes is able to express himself clearly, and we don't all share a common social and cultural background to build upon. This significantly affects encoding and decoding. It requires patience and good will to have a constructive exchange.
  • Priority has been shifting from content of information to novelty of information. The exchange of information has become a self-purposeful action that (though it serves social purposes similar to small-talk) is of little value to increase knowledge.
  • The rapid technological developments of our century have a vast potential. But not all of these developments are necessarily good and can, if left without attention, lower instead of improve the quality of our lives.
  • These developments reflect in the scientific community.

[1] The German word 'Kommunikation' is essentially the same.
[2] That is only slowly extended to other means, like audio/video support for chats or use of avatars. SecondLive e.g. allows a set of hand gestures and facial expression. I personally like emoticons a lot :-). They efficiently abbreviate lengthy explanations to indicate a joke or a confusion. Unfortunately, they are considered silly and not suitable for a 'serious' communication. But seriously, how many discussions you had online went seriously wrong because a joke wasn't properly decoded?
[3] High viscosity.
[4] Unfortunately, the
Wikipedia site to 'Zoon Politikon' seems to exist only in German. The expression 'Zoon Politikon' (greek. ζῷον πολιτικόν, 'social animal') goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who used it to characterize human beings as animals that build social communities. According to his philosophy, the embedding in and organization of the communtiy is essential to the development and fulfilment of the human existence.
[5] If only about human communication ;-)

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Did you know ...

... that there are more than 1000 varieties of apples, and that the world production of apples has roughly doubled since 1980? In 2005, world apple production was 62.4 million tons [1], or about 10 kg per capita of the world population.


I guess the apples from the many trees my parents and grandparents have planted in the gardens and the meadows at my native village are not included in the FAO statistics - but this year, harvest will be exceptionally plenty, approaching probably half a metric ton. That's most likely due to the very warm and sunny April and May, and the warm and wet July and August. There are many different varieties, such as Boskoop, Reinette Gris, Ontario (yes, it's also an apple - and I like it best) and one called "Countess of Paris" - unfortunately, I do not know all of them. We have even one tree out of the bunch of varieties of the globalised apple market - a Golden Delicious. While this seems to be the top variety in production worldwide, the tree in the garden seems not to like the place, or the climate - its apples are quite poor.

So, this year, there will be plenty of fresh apple juice, and apples to store in the cellar for long into next year - no need to go to the grocery store.


While in general the large harvest is a good thing, and most Germans will be happy to find plenty of home-grown apples this fall and winter, keeping all these apples fresh and juicy for consumption until next spring and summer poses an interesting problem, related to the "food mileage" debate: is it better - from an ecological point of view - to buy local groceries even if conventional, or to relay on imported organic vegetables? The problem was called the "apple dilemma" by the German weakly newspaper ZEIT: I was quite surprised to learn that shipping large containers of fresh organic apples from, say, Chile to Germany in April or May requires less energy and does less harm to the environment than to store the local harvest in refrigerated warehouses through the mild German winter.

Then, it's good to know to have your own home-grown apples in your cellar - at least until next spring, when I will again ponder about buying them in the supermarket (Chile? South Africa? Germany? I don't know yet...). Anyway, the most important thing about apples:
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.


[1] Number from the FAOSTAT database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - choose "apples" as commodity, and "World +" as the country


Monday, September 24, 2007

This and That

  • Perimeter Institute is now accepting postdoc applications for the next academic year. More info on the website. The deadline is Nov 5.

  • The German Media Group Burda joins the Seed Media Group to introduce science blogs in Germany. According to they call their target group 'Leonardos', defined as 'young people who are interested in science, but also politics and arts' (you further ought to be living in a metropolis and have a decent salary, just so you know). Marcel Reichart, Burda's CEO in Research and Development, hopes 'science blogs as media markets of the next generation could bridge the gap between science and the public'. (Thanks to Stefan).

  • Flip has started an interesting series of posts around the Web2.0, so far there is Part I and Part II. Since I was about to utter something about that topic as well, I encourage you to read these really informative exposes first.

  • In the spirit of yesterday's discussion about the many mathematical worlds, here is a remark from Achim Kempf that I thought might humor you, made at the end of Max Tegmark's colloquium here at PI last Winter (the very last minute of the audio):

      "If I understood you correctly there would be part of the universe where everything is pretty much the same as here [...] You would be there, we would be here, but you'd be telling us exactly the opposite - so why should I believe you?"

    According to Garrett, the answer is that a Tegmark telling the opposite wouldn't be as pretty.

    Saturday's talk that caused me to wake up in the early morning from a dream in which I was a holomorphic function, is now online.

  • Spell check wants to replace 'holomorphic' with 'Hallmark', so much about the Mathematical Universe.

  • Neil informs us that today CBS starts a new series Big Bang Theory - according to their website 'a new comedy that shows what happens when two hyperintelligent scientists meet a beautiful woman'. Once again, I am happy not to own a TV. Let's hope they explain at least the basics of string theory, it could come in handy every now and then.

  • If one turns the PI logo around it reads Id.

  • I got a salary increase for sitting around a whole year without doing anything too obviously embarrassing. Therefore, here is my conclusion from the Many World's at 50 conference that ended today:

      "We are

      Living in a material world
      And I am a material girl
      You know that we are living in a material world
      And I am a material girl"


  • Have a nice day

Friday, September 21, 2007

First Day of Fall 2007

The first day of fall this year will be on September 23, 2007. More precisely, the autumnal equinox will be at 9:51 UT that day, which means that the Sun will be crossing the celestial equator from north to south at that moment sharp. Thus, on September 23, the Sun will rise exactly in the East, and set exactly in the West, for all places in the world. Moreover, the time span between sunrise and sunset will be 12 hours, and equal the time span between sunset and sunrise - this equality of day and night is at the origin of the Latin name "equinox", which means equal night [1].

When I was a kid, I could understand fairly well how the seasons come about because the Earth's axis is tilted by roughly 23° with respect to the plane in which it is orbiting the Sun, called the ecliptic by the grown-ups. Playing around with a torch and an apple is good to get a feeling what is going on, and what happens when the days and nights are roughly equal. So, I could make sense of September 23 as the first day of fall - however, I remember I was extremely skeptical when my mum told me that the beginning of fall that year was at, say, 12:21 sharp. What a nonsense, I thought, how on Earth can on know this date so precisely, to the minute? Today, I know that there is an easy answer, but that, in fact, this answer just hides the question I had asked myself more than 25 years ago.

Relative orientation of the Earth and the Sun at the first days of spring, summer, fall, and winter, respectively, The first day of fall corresponds to the position of Earth in the foreground. (Source: Wikipedia on the Equinox)

The easy answer as to the exact moment of the equinox goes as follows: If we want to introduce a coordinate system on the celestial sphere, in order to denote the positions of stars and planets, we can use longitude and latitude as we do on a globe: The North Pole is the point around which the night sky seems to rotate - close to Polaris - and the equator, where, for example, the stars of Orion are located, is the great circle corresponding to the equator on Earth. On the sky, these coordinates are called right ascension (corresponding to longitude) and declination (corresponding to latitude).

Now, because of the tilt of the Earth's axis, the declination of the Sun changes during the year (the right ascension changes also, giving rise to all kinds of astrological complications, but that doesn't play a role here). In the summer of the Northern hemisphere, it has a declination of up to +23.5°, which means that it rises high in the sky, and doesn't even set below the horizon at polar latitudes. In the Northern winter, declination will be negative, down to -23.5°, meaning short days and low culminations at noon. Thus, between summer and winter, the declination of the Sun has to change smoothly from about +23.5° to about -23.5°. Of course, there should be one precise moment when the declination is exactly 0.00° - that's the equinox. This year, this will happen at 9:51 UT - more precisely even, at 09:51:08 UT, according to the data of the US Naval Observatory.

The declination of the Sun since March 1, 2007. At the solstices, the declination takes extreme values: the Sun reaches its highest, respectively lowest, position in the sky. At the equinoxes, the declination is exactly zero. The curve looks similar to a sine curve, but it is more complicated function. (Data from the US Naval Observatory)

Of course, this easy answer isn't a real answer at all. There are two obvious questions left open: How can one, first of all, define a coordinate system in the sky that is that precise that it makes sense to define the exact moment when the Sun will cross the celestial equator? And then, how precisely can the actual position of the Sun be known? These are, in fact, difficult questions, and to answers them was one of the main tasks of the big National Observatories, such as Greenwich, or the US Naval Observatory.

Defining coordinates in the sky is a subtle task, because of the problems to identify some really fixed points. The right ascension for example is measured along the celestial equator starting at the vernal equinox. However, the tilt of the Earth's axis is not fixed in space - due to the torque of the Sun and the Moon, the Earth is precessing, and for this reason, the point of the vernal equinox wanders around the celestial equator once every 26,000 years. There are other problems with the motion of the Earth's axis. Even the ecliptic is not completely fixed with respect to far-away stars, because not all planets are exactly within one plane, thus causing so-called secular variations of the inclinations of the orbits. And then, as astronomers in the 19th century had to notice, even the "fixed stars" are not fixed: Some of them have proper motions so large that they cannot easily be used as references to define a coordinate system.

Defining celestial reference frames today is achieved by sources much further away than stars: Quasars are radio sources in cosmological distances, and thy do not move in the sky. Fortunately, combining radio telescopes by Very Large Baseline Interferometry allows an extremely precise determination of the position of quasars, which is used to fix a coordinate system. The orbits of the planets, and the coordinates of the Sun, can be calculated and measured very precisely with respect to this coordinate system.

What leaves me with one question I am scratching my head about: How does one measure to a high precision the position of the Sun on the celestial sphere? After all, it is not a neat small pointlike source, but has quite a large extension. From a quick search at the ADS database, I have learned that in the 1970s, this was still done in the traditional way, using a zenith tube at Herstmonceux, then the location of the Greenwich observatory in England. It may be that also in the measurement of the position of the Sun, VLBI methods have taken over: For example, precise timing of the occulations of quasars by the Sun may provide very reliable solar coordinates. So, there are still enough puzzeling questions to think about on long autumn evenings. Perhaps someone of our readers knows?

There is one good news, at least for those of us living in the Northern hemisphere: Because the Earth is closer to the Sun in winter, with the perihelion reached around January 3, fall and winter are shorter than spring and summer. And in 179 days, we will be again at the vernal equinox, and spring will begin.

[1] Restrictions apply: The Sun will rise exactly in the east on those places on Earth where sunrise is at 9:51 UT, i.e. along a line somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, due to the extension of the Sun's disk and the effect of atmospheric refraction, the Sun is visible already when in fact it is, geometrically speaking, still below the horizon. This means that actually, the day is a little bit longer on September 23 than the night.

[2] Plenty of data can be obtained from the Data Services of the Astronomical Applications Department of the U.S. Naval Observatory. For example, from the table of Earth's Seasons Equinoxes, Solstices, Perihelion, and Aphelion, here is an excerpt covering the next few years:

d h d h m d h m
2007 2007
Perihelion Jan 3 20 Equinoxes Mar 21 00 07 Sept 23 09 51
Aphelion July 7 00 Solstices June 21 18 06 Dec 22 06 08

2008 2008
Perihelion Jan 3 00 Equinoxes Mar 20 05 48 Sept 22 15 44
Aphelion July 4 08 Solstices June 20 23 59 Dec 21 12 04

2009 2009
Perihelion Jan 4 15 Equinoxes Mar 20 11 44 Sept 22 21 18
Aphelion July 4 02 Solstices June 21 05 45 Dec 21 17 47

2010 2010
Perihelion Jan 3 00 Equinoxes Mar 20 17 32 Sept 23 03 09
Aphelion July 6 11 Solstices June 21 11 28 Dec 21 23 38

2011 2011
Perihelion Jan 3 19 Equinoxes Mar 20 23 21 Sept 23 09 04
Aphelion July 4 15 Solstices June 21 17 16 Dec 22 05 30

Moroever, there is a very nice feature to plot maps and views of Earth that show day and night across the globe.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007


Late March, I saw a paper on the arXiv with the strange title 'Unparticle Physics' by Howard Georgi (hep-ph/0703260, Phys. Rev. Lett. 98:221601, 2007). The idea outlined there is that our world could contain fields that have very unusual properties - properties that no particle field could have. Georgi's paper is based on a scenario that goes back to Banks and Zaks in 1982 (Nucl. Phys. B 196:189, 1982) which investigates a class of scale invariant fields later termed 'BZ fields'. In the low energy limit, these could couple to the fields of the standard model with fairly unusual coupling of fractional dimension. Since their interaction with the known Standard Model particles could possibly be very weak, they might have gone unnoticed so far.

Scale invariance means roughly speaking a theory is the same no matter how close one looks. This typically is not the case with things we observe, but theoretically a possibility that is compelling because of its simplicity that is the very absence of such a scale. A nice example for scale invariance is e.g. the Koch curve (pictured to the right), where one can zoom in arbitrarily and the structures just repeat. In contrast to this, if we zoom in on things around us, structures change considerably, from Quarks to Quasars.

The presence of such unusual fields would, because they can not be understood as particles, lead to phenomenological consequences different from all other expectations. E.g. cross-sections would display an energy dependence that could not be explained with theories so far considered. This could be observable even if one had only a missing energy signal.

I did not really look into the details of Georgi's proposal, but I have to say the paper is pretty much ingenious. It's a very original work that outlines a scenario with a couple of well made arguments, points out the interesting phenomenology and ends with a list of further possibly interesting things to examine. It's a paper whose destiny it is to become a top-cite.

One month later, there was a follow up paper "Another Odd Thing About Unparticle Physics" (Howard Georgi, arXiv: 0704.2457) about the propagator of the Unparticle fields. After this, there started a steady flow of further investigations of the properties of such fields and their phenomenology for particle physics, astrophysics, cosmology, CP violation, lepton flavor violation, muon decay, or neutrino oscillations, Unparticle fields became supersymmetric, colored, got deconstructed and topped off - just to give a very incomplete list [1]. The number of papers with Unparticle in the title up to now is
  • March: 1
  • April: 3
  • May: 15
  • June: 7
  • July: 16
  • August: 12
  • September: so far 7

The Unparticles are a theoretical possibility that has observable consequences, a splendid example for physics beyond the standard model, and an excellent playground. One can set bounds on the model from the absence of evidence in observations made so far, which will occupy people for some more while. On the other hand there is not the slightest indication that these things actually exist. Unlike e.g. supersymmetry, extra dimensions or GUT models, which attract a lot of people because of their multi-faceted motivations, there is to my knowledge no motivation for Unparticles besides the mere possibility of such a scenario. Reasons to work on the topic then sound like "Recently there has been much interest in the possible existence of ..." or "The possibility of a non-trivial scale invariant sector [...] was advocated by Georgi...". A very similar peak of interest followed on the proposal of extra dimensional models in 98 and 99 (for more details see here).

Here we have the visionary standing on the sea-shore, whilst the great ocean of truth lies all undiscovered before him [2]. A mission is planned to sail into the far distance, ready to leave the harbor in May 2008. The visionary points towards infinity and says: "It could be there is a civilization in the West. But it might be different from all we've imagined so far. Maybe they live on the bottom of sea, and what we will see of their cities are the tops of their skyscrapers."

Six months later, people have made detailed drawings of the undersea creatures, they have tried to find out how they would move, how they would live, how they would make love (and of course they would wear Levi's). And we would know their skyscrapers couldn't be too high because otherwise we had already seen them. And their music couldn't be too loud because otherwise we had already heard them. And their sex life couldn't be too wild because otherwise there was a lot of troubled water.

It kind of makes me wonder who's going to pick up the pebbles left behind.

See also: T. Siegfried's Why files.

[1] I apologize profoundly, but I did not read all of these papers, so please don't ask me for the details. For a more complete list, see here.
[2] "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

~ Isaac Newton, In Brewster, Memoirs of Newton (1855), vol II, Ch. 27

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Trouble With Physics: Aftermath

One year ago Lee Smolin’s book “The Trouble with Physics” was published in the USA. One year I followed with astonishment the discussions, the accusations and the insults. One year later the excited state of the community has conveniently settled down, back into the ground state.

I can hear a great *sigh* because I bring up the topic again. But now that hormone levels had time dropping to normal, I see a somewhat better chance to communicate why I find the book important.


Last week my friend Stefan Hofmann cleared out his office and returned the key card [1]. He is leaving the postdoc-life, and starts his new position in Stockholm with a ‘Prof.’ in front of his name. As Justin Khoury said so aptly in the good byes, Stefan will be closer to the Nobel Prize than all of us here at PI. Stefan is one of the very few that I know from college who is still in academia. Each year when I return to Germany, more and more of my friends with a PhD in physics have left the academic world. An astonishing amount of them turns into ‘quants’ [2].

When I was an undergrad, Stefan, I, and some other few of us students would frequently sit in our much too small kitchen, scratching our heads over textbooks and ask all these question we wouldn't dare to ask our profs. Okay, so now we have a measurement prescription, but what actually is a measurement? And what is a particle? Why is there a ‘now’? Are singularities real? And whose turn is it to wipe the floor?

Stefan was the first to tell me what I would hear a many more times: It's okay to ask these questions. But try to keep them to yourself, don't spend too much time on it, it won't get you anywhere. Our conclusion was it's not how science works these days. We're not living in the 19th century. Grow up, stop dreaming, finish that homework, wipe that floor.

Faced with this depressingly realist view, I had a brief flirt with the department of philosophy. Without going into the details, it was a very temporary liaison. The philosophers had the greatest parties on campus (they really had STYLE!). But up to today I find it hard to argue with things that end on - ism, and since I keep forgetting names and mingle up foreign words, I'm philosophically seen a complete loser.
"I'm not aware of too many things,
I know what I know,
If you know what I mean.
Is the talk on a cereal box,
Is a smile on a dog."

Besides this, I didn't want to export my questions outside of physics. I wanted them to be part of physics.

I then found that mathematicians were the better philosophers. And since it was ironically not the institute of theoretical physics (ITP) that offered a seminar on quantum gravity, but the mathematical physicists, I almost got stuck with them - hadn't it been that the maths department was chronically broke, whereas the ITP knew how to get grants, and offered me a job.

Well, this planet must be full of people who work for the money, so I just chose the way that got me closest to my interests. I am really grateful for the opportunity and for the support that I received at the ITP, though it meant for me I was the odd one out (and the only women for quite some while). However, I managed to ask the right questions, produced satisfactory annual reports, and a decent thesis.

"dein leben dreht sich nur im kreis, so voll von weggeworfener zeit, und deine träume schiebst du endlos vor dir her. du willst noch leben irgendwann, doch wenn nicht heute, wann denn dann, denn irgendwann ist auch ein traum zu lange her." ~Wolfsheim, Kein Zurück
Yes, I know how to calculate Feynman diagrams, but actually Feyncalc helps a lot. And yes, I know how to calculate all the components of the Riemann tensor, but actually the tensor package helps a lot. And yes, I know how to write a c++ code, but I didn't want to make a living running simulations of heavy ion collisions. So I moved to the USA, looking for a place where I would fit in better.


About ten years after we sat in that kitchen, I got to read Lee’s book:

“When I entered graduate school at Harvard in 1976, I was a naïve student from a small college. I was in awe of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger […]. I now found myself at the center of particle physics, surrounded by the leaders in the field […]. In lectures, I never heard them talk about the nature of space and time or issues in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Neither did I meet many students with these interests.

This lead me to a personal crisis […] I was confident that I could do the work. But I also had a very particular idea of what a great theoretical physicist should be. The great theoretical physicists I was rubbing shoulders with at Harvard were rather different from that. The atmosphere was not philosophical, it was harsh and aggressive, dominated by people who were brash, cocky, confident, and in some cases insulting to people who disagreed with them.

During this time, I made friends with a young philosopher of science named Amelia Rechel-Cohn. Through her, I came to know people who, like me, were interested in the deep philosophical and foundational issues in physics. But this only made matters worse. They were nicer than the theoretical physicists, but they seemed happy just to analyze precise logical issues in the foundations of special relativity or ordinary quantum mechanics. I had little patience for such talk; I wanted to invent theories […]”
(p. 289/290)

I was born in 1976. I have never been at Harvard, I grew up in a different country, and I belong to a different generation. But it seems the prevailing atmosphere I encountered twenty years later in theoretical physics wasn't all that different. And it still isn't all that different today.

Philosophy used to be part of the natural sciences – for a long time [3]. For long centuries during which our understanding of the world we live in has progressed tremendously. There is no doubt that times change, but not all changes are a priori good if left without further consideration. Here, change has resulted in a gap between the natural sciences where questioning the basis of our theories, and an embedding into the historical and sociological context used to be. Even though many new specifically designed interdisciplinary fields have been established, investigating the foundations of our current theories has basically been erased out of curricula and textbooks. Those who scratch their heads are the ones that are just too stupid to understand – and many questions fell into the domain of pop science. Thus the eye rolling among my colleagues whenever someone brings up one of these topics (the free will in quantum mechanics, anybody?) .

Admittedly, if I talk to Lee his *oohm* philosophical tendencies are somewhat more pronounced than mine (mildly speaking), so similarities end here. Look, I am a phenomenologist, and I like my theories neat and compact, and without any Isms. I am not saying you should be interested in Lee’s questions, or in my question what actually is a particle (a vector in a Fock space? - come on). I on my behalf don't see why I should be interested in the projective superspace and hyperkähler sigma models on cotangent bundles of hermitian symmetric spaces, just to give a random example. But hey, you know, it’s live and let live.

No, I am definitely not claiming the world needs more Lee Smolins. That’s not the point. The point is its not a good idea to neglect an approach to understand nature, especially one that has proved to be so important during the history of science:

“Science does need different styles, in order to address different kinds of problems. [The] competitive, fashion-driven style worked when it was fueled by experimental discoveries but failed when there was nothing driving fashion but the view and tastes of a few prominent individuals.

When I started my studies of physics, in the mid 1970s, […] there were not many places for people who wanted to develop their own solutions to the deep foundational issues about space, time, and the quantum, but there were enough to support the few who had good ideas. Since then, while the need for [their] style has grown, their place in the academy has shrunk […].”
(p. 263)

Searching for our place, Stefan and I both decided not to stay with the nuclear physics folks and left Germany. Five years, several jobs, and many moves later, our paths would cross again - at Perimeter Institute. And at least two of the guys I knew from the maths department in Frankfurt have shown up here as well, both working today on quantum foundations.


I've been here for a year now. There are many things I could criticize about this institute, but this is neither the time nor the place to do so. One of the things that makes PI exceptional is that it provides a refuge for those who don't easily fit into the present academic system. The questions that I as a student was scratching my head over, I found them here, where they are a part of the environment and complete the picture. From all the places where I've been PI comes closest to what I naïvely thought theoretical physics would be.


Note how carefully I have avoided any mention of string theory. If you've followed my earlier posts, you will know why. I don't think string theory is the problem. I found it very unfortunate that a big part of ‘The Trouble With Physics’ is dedicated to the string community. It’s unfortunate because a single case study isn't a very good (scientific?) style to justify a fairly general conclusion about the way science should be done, and I wish that investigation had been broader. It was imho plain obvious it would push many people into the defensive, hindering a constructive discourse. And can I blame them for being afraid of losing grants? But more importantly, I also don’t think such a fairly harsh criticism on the community should have been raised in the public domain before all other means had been exhausted. I guess if I was a string theorist, I'd have been pissed off as well.

But what's done is done. Should I ever write a book, it certainly won't have a subtitle. Now you can dislike the book cover, Lee Smolin’s photo, or his papers. You can dislike the template of this blog, me, or my papers. I don't care. If you're a scientist, you should be able to step beyond that, and ask yourself honestly: might it be that Lee had something to say in his book that is worth thinking about?

One doesn't write threehundred-seventy-something pages like a comment on a blog, and he has spend a considerable amount of time on his arguments. You can't wipe that off the table by saying ‘it's because he wants their money’. You can't argue against that by saying CNS goes ‘glub glub glub to the bottom of the sea’, his papers are ‘word-ideas’, or the guy is a crackpot to begin with.

None of that changes the fact that he is right. The research environment on universities has changed during the last decades. The prevailing atmosphere does support a specific way of doing research, and dismisses others. It selects some qualities, and discourages those who don’t fit in. Shouldn't we ask ourselves whether the balance is good as it is? Does the procedure work optimal? Is it good that many promising young people leave the field, and become ‘quants’ because they dislike the environment, the networking, the lacking independence of junior researchers? Is it good to scare away those who are not sufficiently eager to work on the topic of the month?

And can the ones that stay constitute a well functioning body of the scientific community?


“Science was not invented. It evolved over time […] Science […] is the way it is because of the way nature is – and because of the way we are.” (p. 298)

It's in our nature to ask. Curiosity and the desire to understand is the driving force of our civilizations. If foundational questions in physics have no place in today's research institutions, they won't vanish. They will just move elsewhere [4] to the disadvantage of all of us. (By the way, the foundational guys, they are quite entertaining to have around. It's kind of funny how every one of them thinks everybody else is really weird.)

Anyway. Look, if you're happy where you are, if you've made your life and feel comfortable within the academic world as it is today, I am very glad to hear. But does that mean everybody else has to fit into your scheme as well?

If you're not happy, well, do something about it. The environment you work in is subject to change, and you don't have to shrug shoulders and accept it. You think I'm nuts because you have to write a proposal that you'll have to live from? Let me assure that a) I am nuts indeed and writing this should be proof enough, nevertheless b) I know that tension and can relate to your problem. But why not send in that idea you've been wanting to work on since you were a graduate student? You have a responsibility for your group? Well, talk to them. You might be surprised. Keep in mind you have a responsibility for contributing to our understanding of nature as well, that's what you're being payed for. Concerned about your reputation? Come on, you only have that one life. As long as you don't start writing a blog, you should be fine.

If you're a student: Don't give up on your dreams, and don't stop asking.

"Take your passion. And make it happen"

See also: My last year's review with an (incomplete) list of further reviews, and our posts on Science and Democracy part I, II and III.

[1] At least that's what he was supposed to do. When I saw my friend from Frankfurt Bronx last time Friday evening, his office still looked like Bei de Hembels unnerm Sofa. For more info see the 'Hessian-English Dictionary'.
[2] Not a joke.
[3] Some relics. Thanks to Larry and Stefan.
[4] 'Elsewhere' can also be spelled 'Waterloo'.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Science Coverage in Newspapers - the Understatement of The Globe and Mail

Usually I don't read printed newspapers anymore. From time to time, I enjoy perusing weekly papers, such as Die Zeit, or the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine: I discard parts labelled "Money and Financial Markets", "Travel", "Cars", and work through the rest of the journal. Things are different if I travel. Then, I try to read local newspapers to get a better impression of what's going on in the country I am visiting. So, when visiting Waterloo last week, I tried not to be in the way of Sabine unpacking boxes, and studied The Globe and Mail instead.

Of course, I was curious about the science coverage in that paper, which, as I learned, is one of the leading and most widespread ones in Canada. To my disappointment, there was no such thing as a section labelled "Science", not even once a week in, say, the Thursday edition. I was quite sure that I had not just missed it.

But then, I realised something quite remarkable: The Globe and Mail may have no special "Science" section, but it runs a science-related story in every issue, in the main part, often on the title page, and even above the fold: There was detailed reporting about Craig Venter's genome, the SABLE-3 balloon experiment, the asteroid scattering event that may have triggered the KT impact. The Saturday edition on the photo featured a story about new measures to fight multiple-resistant pathogens in Canada's largest research hospital on the title page!

Now, I do not know if The Globe and Mail once had run a specific science section that has been economised - the online edition has such a category. But, anyway, this way of presenting science stories "undercover", without specially labelling them as such, appears very appealing to me: It could make people read the stories, and learn something interesting about science, who otherwise would have ignored them right from the beginning, as I do with stories about cars and money in the Sunday paper.

By removing the potential barrier created by labelling a story explicitly as "science", this may foster interest in scientific topics and appreciation and understanding for science among people otherwise discouraged to read such news. It also conveys very nicely that science is not something detached from everyday life, but, in fact, an integral part of it.

It may be a great idea in general for newspapers to dismantle explicit science sections, and relocate the science stories among the other parts of the journal!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Future of the Book

Sometimes I buy a book just because I want to get upset. That's because too low blood pressure runs in my family, and the Canadians are just so damned nice. In some instances however, I can't even make it through the preface. Here is an example, from the preface to the 2nd edition of N.M. Taleb's book 'Fooled by Randomness':

    "The rules while writing the first edition of this book had been to avoid discussing (a) anything that I did not either personally witness on the topic or develop independently, and (b) anything that I have not distilled well enough to be able to write on the subject with only the slightest effort. Everything that remotely felt like work was out. I had to purge from the text passages that seemed to come from a visit to the library, including the scientific name dropping. I tried to use no quote that did not naturally spring from my memory and did not come from a writer I had intimately frequented over the years. [...] These rules remain intact."

Hey, if you don't yet know what to do next weekend, why don't you write a book? Everybody can do it! We certainly need more printed redundancies.

Luckily the man has friends, so it continues:

    "But sometimes life requires compromises: Under pressure from friends and readers I have added to the present edition a series of nonintrusive endnotes referring to the related literature."

So, I might give the book a second try. Maybe just skip the preface, he must have something to say after all. But for now I will continue reading one of these old fashioned things where the author at least doesn't proudly proclaim he avoided looking right and left while writing down his arguments.

For more on the future of the book, please consult the helpdesk.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Voyager's Grand Tour

Launched from Cape Canaveral (Credits: JPL/ NASA) on September 5, 1977, spacecraft Voyager 1 has reached ...

Jupiter on March 5, 1979, transmitting splendid photos of the cloudy giant (Credits: JPL/NASA), and

Saturn on November 12, 1980 (Credits: JPL/ NASA), before leaving the plane of the Solar System. Its sibling Voyager 2, launched a few days earlier on August 22, 1979, visited Jupiter and Saturn and went on to ...

Uranus (Credits: JPL/ NASA) - arriving there on January 24, 1986, just days before the Challenger catastrophe - and beyond to ...

Neptune (Credits: JPL/ NASA). Following the encounter with the other blue planet on August 25, 1989, it is now heading towards somewhere in the constellation Telescope. Even after the ...

... long journey (Credits: JPL/BEACON project) of now 30 years ...

... both spacecraft (Credits: JPL/NASA) are still intact, exploring the outher reaches of the heliosphere, and transmitting data to Earth.

Voyager 1 has now reached a distance more than 100 times further away from the Sun than Earth, while Voyager 2 has covered more than 80 times this distance (Credits: Heavens Above).

If ever someone should pick up one of the probes, the curious alien might listen to sounds from a distant planet, encoded in a strange way in a funny golden disk (Credits: JPL/NASA).
Travelling to the stars is not difficult, if we believe what we see in science fiction movies. Push some button, and a miracle occurs: The starship will rush away at warp speed, or take a shortcut through hyperspace - bringing us in no time to whatever destination we would like to in our interstellar neighbourhood. In the real world, unfortunately, things are not that easy.

Last week, we were reminded of the space probe that is currently the most advanced human-made object heading for the stars: Voyager 1, a satellite that has started its journey 30 years ago, on September 5, 1977, is now 104 times further away from the Sun than the Earth, and aiming towards some point in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Voyager 1 is leaving the Solar System at a speed of 17 km per second, and in about 40,000 years, it will come "close" - within 1.7 lightyears - of a red dwarf star currently in the constellation Ursa Minor called AC+79 3888.

Of course, the main purpose of Voyager was not to reach some obscure star in an incalculable future, but to explore the outer planets of the Solar System. In the 1960s, scientists and engineers at the NASA recognised that they could seize the opportunity of a quite unique constellation of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and send a space probe on a Grand Tour visiting all these planets in one journey. Thus, the Voyager program came into being. Voyager 1 paid a visit to Jupiter, transmitting splendid pictures of its stormy cloud cover, and detailed views of its moons, and to Saturn, catching the first close-up views of its ring, before taking the bearing of its current course. Voyager 1's sibling Voyager 2, launched two weeks earlier, took a more leisurely itinerary, and following its visits to Jupiter and Saturn,it became the first space probe to reach Uranus and Neptune. I vividly remember being fascinated by the photos of Uranus and its moons - transmitted just days before the Challenger catastrophe - and stunned by the white cirrus clouds on top of the blue gas cover of Neptune.

The Voyagers' science mission was not completed with the exploration to the outer planets: Voyager 1 has, over the last years, transmitted data that help to understand the outer rim of the heliosphere - the region around the Sun dominated by the solar wind, the stream of particles constantly blown into space by the Sun. The zone where the diluting solar wind is finally stopped by the interstellar gas is called the termination shock. Voyager 1 is supposed to have passed the termination shock in December 2004, and Voyager 2 will explore this frontier soon, in a slightly different direction.

For energy supply to keep alive their instruments and transmit data to Earth, the Voyagers can't count on solar panels. The Sun is reduced to a mere bright spot in the sky for Voyager 1: At a distance of 100 Astronomical Units, thus, a hundred times further away than Earth, the Sun's shine is 10,000 times fainter than it is for us, and plain daylight has dimmed to roughly 45 times the light of the Full Moon. Technically speaking, the Sun's apparent magnitude has dropped by 10 from -26.7 to a mere -16.7, as compared to -12.6 for the Full Moon, where a difference of 5 on this logarithmic scale corresponds to a factor 100. Hence, energy is supplied by a so-called Radioisotope thermoelectric generator: Heat produced by the decay of radioactive nuclei is converted into electric energy using the Seebeck effect. The Voyagers have been equipped with plutonium 238. The device yields a maximal electric power of 160 Watt, and, given a half-life of 88 year for the isotope, is sufficient to keep running the electronics of the probes until the 2020s.

Communication with the Voyagers is maintained by radio telescopes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) at Tidbinbilla near Canberra, Australia - once a month with Voyager 1, and on a daily basis with Voyager 2. The CDSCC is part of NASA's Deep Space Network, which maintains contact on a regular basis with a multitude of space probes exploring our Solar System - you can check out the schedule on this website. Communication with Voyager 1 requires patience: a radio signal takes 14.4 hours for the one-way trip between the spacecraft and the Tidbinbilla antenna!

The Sidney Morning Herald had a very interesting article a few days ago (thank you, Kerstin) about the Tidbinbilla space tracking station, and the problems facing the engineers there to maintain communication with a spacecraft from the early years of the electronic age. Tidbinbilla's spokesman Glen Nagle is cited stating "The Voyager technology is so outmoded, we have had to maintain heritage equipment to talk to them." John Murray, an engineer who has been working at the telescope for 40 years and now explains to younger technicians how to maintain the hardware, finds it funny that the equipment and machines that are older than them.

When the Voyagers will finally get out of reach in 15 years or so, they will be far out, but most probably, they will not even have left the outskirts of the Solar System. Dwarf planet Eris is currently at a distance of 100 AU, only a bit closer to the Sun than Voyager 1, and although Eris is now next to its aphelion, there may be many other, similar transneptunian objects further out.

The golden disks with recordings of sounds from Earth onboard the Voyagers will have to travel for thousands and thousands of years before they might come into the realm of other stars, and maybe into the reach of some intelligent aliens. Timothy Ferris, in his thoughtful NYT essay The Mix Tape of the Gods, reminds us that "358,000 years will elapse before Voyager 2 approaches the bright star Sirius", and that "Out there, our concepts of velocity become provincial."

Indeed, the speed of spacecraft would have to increase by a factor of 1000 at least before one could reasonably start thinking about interstellar travel. Blueprints for such spaceships might even exist already - as, for example, for the Project Daedalus - and they might even be scientifically sound. However, if I think about the problems to maintain such a small-scale endeavour that is the International Space Station, or to ignite nuclear fusion on Earth - problems that should be overcome before a fusion-driven 50,000 ton spaceship could be assembled in orbit - such proposals appear as the daydreams of enthusiastic engineers, easily bursting at the confrontation with reality.

This is a last, humbling lesson the Voyagers can teach us: to remind us of the incomprehensible vastness of Space, and how difficult it will be to reach the stars.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The picture below shows point defects in a film of liquid cristals; the color depends on the thickness of the sample. Note how they come in pairs, the one defect in red and yellow, the other one less colorful in the green-ish.

[Picture Credits: Oleg Lavrentovich from the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University, for more pictures see here. Click to enlarge.]

A liquid crystal like the one pictured above is an anisotropic fluid formed by rod-like or disk-like molecules, typically some nanometers in length, that tend to be parallel to a common direction, similar to the ones used in an LCD screen. The properties of these crystals depend on the temperature, the above one is in the nematic phase, where the molecules have no positional order, but they have long-range orientational order. That is, though the molecules positions are randomly distributed as in a liquid, they all point in the same direction within each domain. This ordering is not perfect on sup domain scales. For more information on the arising defects, see e.g.

and if somebody can tell me why this paper belongs in a 'Philosophical Magazine' (Vol. 86, Nos. 25–26, 1–11 September 2006, 4117–4137), I'd really want to know. Oh well, I can give you my philosophy: defects are interesting, and beauty is not just in simplicity.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys brains in the 90ies, and since then further research using EEG and fMRI techniques (for a brief intro see here) indicates a similar function is present also in the human brain. Mirror neurons get active not only if we perform a certain task, but also if we see somebody else performing a task. This watched action is 'mirrored' in our brain, helping us to understand and learn by looking. It's what makes the 3 year old stick a pen in his mouth and pretend to be smoking like his father, and it's what makes me go OUCH if my officemate bangs his head on the bookshelf (newcomer, beginner's mistake).

NOVA science has a very nice video on the recent research (~14 min), which searches for the origin of empathy (whoo-hoo take care with that boxes), and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran speculate it's the development of mirror neurons that was the important evolutionary step setting us apart: It's a system that allowed us to learn fast from others, an the passing on of information didn't have to be hardwired. You can read an essay about his work at EDGE:

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution

where he calls his research 'the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade' (not entirely sure though which decade since the website is undated). Well, we will see where it goes. But there seems no doubt that humans are, as Aristoteles called it, a 'zoon politikon', and if I look at modern cities the word TOGETHER can be read imprinted in their skyline, reaching high and higher. And if you sit there in this chair rubbing your nose I can tell I gave you something to think about.

As it is pointed out in the NOVA clip, mirror neurons are a part of our brain that simply doesn't make sense to have if we were alone. I recall an article that I read a long, long time ago in the beginning of internet when people were still surprised about the boom of this feature. You see, skeptics have been saying the internet would be a nerdy thing where a couple of people that haven't seen sunlight for a week pushed data through their network, and there are only oh-so-many people who can get excited about computers. But look at the internet today. It's not about computers, it's about people. It's about communication, it's all about together. That's why it's so successfull. Not because we care about our computer's internal life, but because we care about our inbox, and like to watch others doing stupid things captured on YouTube. Mirror, mirror, ...

And the rise of visual media has definitely boosted our sense of 'connectedness'. I am not sure whether this is an entirely good development - e.g. read Marco Iacoboni's piece on Imitative Violence, which certainly has some truth in it. But whether we like it or not, technological progress has brought the world closer together, for better or for worse. And if we share part of our consciousness through watching, then 9/11 has left a scar on our global neural network.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Wings of Paradise

Hey, I uploaded a video!

"Wings of Paradise" is a butterfly conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario (roughly 15 km from Waterloo). It hosts over 2000 free-flying butterflies in a tropical garden that reminds me very much of the Palm Garden in Frankfurt. Over 85 species of butterflies from Costa Rica and the Philippines are represented. Despite it being a sunny Saturday, the place was not too crowded with people.

Quite amazing what one can do nowadays with a digital camera the size of a cigarette box (the original movie had 45 MB and a considerably better resolution). Some of the photos you can find here:

For more info visit:

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Einstein's Bees - Update

Back in April, under the heading "Einstein's Bees", Bee reported on the speculations about the mysteriously vanishing honey-bees, a phenomenon dubbed the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and the alleged Einstein quote about bees.

While the origin of the Einstein quote will probably remain a mystery - there are good reasons to be convinced that it has been fabricated, see for example Albert Einstein, Ecologist? in the Gelf Magazine - there is some news concerning the cause of the colony collapse:

This week's edition of Science presents the results of a study by Diana L. Cox-Foster and her colleagues, A Metagenomic Survey of Microbes in Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1146498; the abstract is free), where they describe how "they have found an imported virus that may be associated with the sudden disappearance of honey bees in the United States" (Science News of the Week, September 7, 2007).

The team has screened bee colonies from all over the US for a wide range of pathogens, and found a specific virus in most of the tested colonies affected by CCD, but in almost no healthy ones. The virus is called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) - it was first identified by Ilan Sela, a plant virologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, from dead bees taken from Israeli colonies.

The IAPV was most probably imported to the US from Australia - since 2005, U.S. beekeepers have imported large stocks of bees from Australia, especially to keep up with the growing demand for almond pollination in California.

However, another group of scientists has found no link between IAPV and CCD. The Science News pieces cites Denis Anderson, an entomologist with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research, as saying "This paper only adds further to the confusion surrounding CCD."

I am not sure either whether the IAPV from Australia can explain the collapse of bee colonies in Germany - but, as Bee mentioned in the comments of her post, somebody should check whether the North American bee breeders sold or shared colonies with Europe. Anyhow, I was surprised to learn that also bees are subject to globalisation and shipment all over the planet - including the risk of a rapid spreading of potentially deadly diseases.

So, a Virus Is Seen as Suspect in Death of Honeybees, as the New York Times puts it, but the issue is not completely settled yet - the story will go on.

Links to more information can be found at

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A View from the Stratosphere

A stunning photo taken from a height of 117600 feet, or 35850 metre, above Alberta, Canada, by the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment #3 (SABLE-3). (Credits: Tony Rafaat for the SABLE-3 collaboration)

Ballooning has a long and outstanding tradition in scientific research - from the early heroic ascents of Jacques Charles and Joseph Gay-Lussac to the discovery of cosmic rays by Victor Hess and the modern-day experiments such as Boomerang.

Never mind if you have not heard before of the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment #3 (SABLE-3) - it's not really a large scale experiment, but the endeavour of a group of avid Canadian amateur scientists. What they do, though, is extremely stunning:

Take a standard KCI 1200 Sounding Balloon, add as a payload a digital camera and a FM transmitter coupled to a GPS receiver, and let it fly! The camera takes a photo every minute, while the balloon climbs to a height of roughly 33 km, where it will burst and fall down on a parachute. Due to the tracking device, the position of the balloon and the camera is known during the whole flight, and the payload can be recovered.

During the flight over Alberta on Saturday, August 11, 2007, the balloon reached a top height of nearly 36 km, and travelled a distance of about 100 km. The SABLE-3 website shows much more stunning photos taken during the flight, and documents the preparation of the launch and the recovery of the camera. It shows also a map of the flight path of the balloon.

It's really amazing what you can do with quite inexpensive equipment and a lot of enthusiasm - I just wonder if one needs the vast open spaces of Alberta to do such an experiment!

UPDATE (September 7, 2007): Thanks to SABLE-3 collaboration member James Ewen (VE6SRV), here is the link to a radio interview with Tony Rafaat (RealPlayer) by CBC Calgary - you should absolutely listen to it: Tony Rafaat tells about how he came to the idea, some mishaps with SABLE-1 and SABLE-2, and explains exciting details about the SABLE-3 flight, the tracking, the fear that the falling balloon may cause some harm, and whether the camera had survived the freezing cold of the stratosphere ...

  • The idea of the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment goes back to Tony Rafaat, a photographer based in Hanna, Alberta, Canada. The experiment was covered, for example, in The Globe and Mail - from where I have borrowed the catchy title - , and the Edmonton Journal.
  • For a great overview of scientific ballooning, see Julian Nott's talk Intellectual Courage and Scientific Ballooning - Exploring Landscapes Near & Far at the KITP.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Name Game

When I got married last year, I decided to keep my last name. I don't particularly like it, it's bulky and neither properly pronounceable in French nor in English. In addition to this, as it happens, most of my family doesn't even share the name any longer. Several years ago, I had briefly considered to register the domain, which is now registered by a guy who apparently seems to be a spiritual healer. Healing days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays [1].

The reason why I kept my last name nevertheless is simple. All my publications are under it. And I myself have come repeatedly across publication lists of women who did change their family name, and apparently had to invest considerable effort in clarifying the confusions. In addition to this, my name would have been 'Sabine Scherer'. As googling shows, there is most prominently a Sabine Scherer who is a photographer living on the US West coast. I have middle initials that I usually omit (my name is long enough as it is), but still I'd have to compete with others.

Now I recently read this very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal "You're a Nobody Unless Your Name Googles Well", which reflects the current trend to increasingly rely on search engines that has a noticeable impact on our life and work. The article starts with an example:

"Before Abigail Garvey got married in 2000, anyone could easily Google her. Then she swapped her maiden name for her husband's last name, Wilson, and dropped out of sight.

In Web-search results for her new name, links to Ms. Wilson's epidemiology research papers became lost among all manner of other Abigail Wilsons, ranging from 1980s newspaper wedding announcements for various Abigail Wilsons to genealogy records listing Abigail Wilsons born in the 1600s and 1700s. When Ms. Wilson applied for a new job, interviewers questioned the publications she listed on her résumé because they weren't finding the publications in online searches, Ms. Wilson says. (See Google results for
Abigail Garvey and Abigail Wilson.)"

The article goes on

"[S]ome of the "un-Googleables" say being crowded out of search results actually carries a professional and financial price. That's because people increasingly rely on search engines to find things they want to read, music they want to hear, people and companies they want to do business with."

So far this trend has not swapped over into science. But I guess I am not the only postdoc who wonders whether a potential new employer will, upon receiving application forms, Google my name and get a first impression based on the search results. This is definitely a development I don't welcome, as it is clear that a Google search is not the most reliable source.

Google searches often bring up misleading information that would require the reader to further investigate the origin, which I am afraid most people won't do. And the more interesting the result, the more likely it is to be passed on, whether it correctly reflects a personality or not.

E.g. one of the reasons why I started writing this blog was that somebody (I never found out who) posted several potentially professionally damaging comments in an online forum (that did not require registration) under my name. Luckily, the forum was in German and not a very prominent one either, but these comments that were allegedly mine showed up in a Google search. Then there was a thread at Physicsforums by Marcus, where the discussion evolved into the direction of who I am and what car I drive etc. Though it was a nice and polite thread I found, and still find, it very disturbing being discussed by strangers. So I thought the easiest way to avoid such things is to have a prominent web presence on my own, and give people a chance to find out who I am first hand.

Lifehacker has a poll on the above mentioned article, and you find there quite a lot of comments on the issue, many of which express the wish for anonymity:

"BY SHADOWHAMLET AT 05/09/07 06:02 PM
I think the article has it the wrong way. Anonymity is the real power. So long as I Google my name, and it doesn't show up, I am relieved. Sure I am being tracked a thousand different ways. But the fact that the media, and the net at large, has no idea who I am, makes my life a lot easier"

I too would have preferred to keep it quite (I might have blogged under a pseudonym), but having to choose between strangers writing about me, or writing myself, I found the latter preferable. By now I have been repeatedly called an 'extrovert' and 'a gossiper' by people who know I have a weblog but don't bother reading it. That admittedly is a side-effect I did not anticipate.

In my opinion, things are often worse if somebody does not have an own homepage where one could find research interests, or clarify whether some other information is to be trusted. However, having a website can be tricky as well. I mean, would you consider hiring a guy whose website features poetry of the type "Urinal. A urinal. A well kept East German urinal. New strangers but the same eyes." [2]? Just asking... And will we come to a point where it pays off to hire professionals for our web presence, and get a consultant for Search Engine Optimization? And would that be tax deductible?

Such, after 30+ years of cursing a long and complicated name, I have come to appreciate it for the simple reason that, as far as I know, I am the only person with that name (if one includes middle names), and a simple query Google search leads towards my blog and my private homepage [3].

Besides a belated thank you to my parents, I am writing - as I apparently do so often - to point towards a development and want to ask you 'Is this good?'. I have expressed previously my concern about our increasing dependence on certain features of the internet in 'The Right not to Know', and this post is in a similar spirit. The very least I want to do is raising awareness for the issue.


If you're an employer: Googling a name it temptingly easy but there is no short-cut to getting to know a person. It takes time to judge somebody.
If you're a looking for an employer: Don't sell yourself as something you're not. It doesn't pay off. You only have this one life to be what you are.


The title of this post should have been 'Bezahlen Sie einfach mit Ihrem Guten Namen' (Just pay with your good name), which used to be a slogan for American Express that I've always found very ironic. However, it seems this slogan was not used in English speaking countries so the joke would have been lost on many readers. Those who are confused by the title, I want to refer to the Wikipedia entry on the Name Game, and have some fun with your first name here.

During the last week, I have received several emails (and comments) by readers, who have advised me to be careful with my writings as I could potentially damage my reputation. I appreciate your concerns very much. I am afraid you are right, and I find this very sad for as I've expressed in this post I think this is not a good development.
However, admittedly I am not so very bothered by the prospect of damaging my so-called career with uttering sentences that offer potential targets, since I wouldn't want to work in a place where people have judged me by reading only a couple of sentences that Google brought up, or where somebody has a problem with me having an opinion that occasionally is uncomfortable. I am not saying that because I am proud of it, but because it's simply the truth. I would be very unhappy having to work in a place that doesn't accept me the way I am. That's awful poems, puns, and blogging included.

[1] Despite him living close by where I grew up, I've never met him, and I'm not related to him, just in case you wonder.
[2] By Max Tegmark.
[3] In fact, I just checked that at least the first 17 pages indeed all refer to me in one way or the other. Disturbingly enough, searching at brings up my old Arizona address including the cell-phone number, thereby explaining an enormous amount of annoying phone calls I used to get.