Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dance your PhD

"Dance your PhD," believe it or not, is a contest for the best presentation of a PhD topic as a dance video in the categories physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences. Dancing mathematics, it seems, would have been too easy. Here's an example from physics: "Generation and detection of high-energy phonons by superconducting junctions" by Irwin Singer:

Electrons and Phonons in Superconductors: A Love Story. from Irwin Singer on Vimeo

You can look at more submissions on this website.

The topic of my PhD thesis was "Black Holes in Extra Dimensions: Properties and Detection." (IsMyThesisHotOrNot?!) I'm afraid a video wouldn't have properly captured extra dimensional dancing. I suppose I would have tried to represent collapse and subsequent radiation, increasing temperature, and a final decay with dancers coming together in the center of a room, and later leaving the scene again. More likely though, I wouldn't have spent time on this.

I'm not really sure what to think of such efforts to bring science closer to the public. The above video about the superconductor, frankly, would have been equally instructive without the dancers. Most of the other videos, if you check them out, don't communicate more than a sentence or two of information about the thesis topic. Not so surprisingly - dancing is hardly a good way to get across complex science.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure everybody has had a lot of fun with these videos, and one or two people learned a complicated new word they hadn't known before. But let's reverse the roles of art and science for a moment here. It's like trying to get people interested in a Van Gogh by showing them a spectral analysis of the colors used. Science is beautiful in itself. But to see the beauty you must understand. The value of artists representation is in skilled art being able to capture more than the written or spoken word alone. But these dance videos, at least to me, are less. In any case, they might serve as a weekend distraction ;-)


  1. Hi Bee,

    Although an art lover myself, as believing that aesthetics holds more of the truth than most appreciate, I would agree with you this dance does little to increase ones understanding in respect to a particular aspect of physical reality. We could also make the argument that as many insist that random lies at the heart of nature that choreography ultimately has nothing to do with it; with this though of course I have never agreed;-)



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  4. ”*Yawn”

    Yes I would have to agree I also found this having more utility as that of a sedative than one of inspiration. However it did hold for me as having a slight resemblance to the dance of a renown fairy that I’ve always held to be more insightful in respect to the actions of nature:-)



    P.S. Perhaps the third time is the charm:-)

  5. Hupfdohlen suffering from Hupfdohlitis.
    Or, as Martin Angermayer puts it:

    »i hab ma's do glei denkt! A Schlawiner, a Tanzmoasta!...«


  6. "All I ever wanted to be was a brass pole in Thailand."

    Interpretive dance of a US hard sciences PhD must include a flail, a Berkely horse, and a gallon of molassis. A few sparklers, and their placement post-ignition, are the only independent variables.

  7. /*..As temperature decreases, the lattice vibrations connects electron pairs together ...*/

    ..does someone REALLY understand this?

    Testing question:

    why lattice vibrations in sodium doesn't connect electrons into pairs even at the lowest possible temperature - whereas in another metals yes?

  8. OK, I can still see no answers here...

    The primary reason of superconductivity is the compression of electrons between atoms. When electrons get compressed, their repulsive forces are compensating mutually and electrons can move freely. It's an analogy of liquefaction of metals under high pressures.

    The metals, which doesn't exhibit superconductivity even at the lowest temperatures exhibit only one type of spherical orbitals with movable electrons at their surface.

    Whereas other atoms have two types of orbitals: the spherical with conductive electrons and the elongated ones with valence electrons, which are serving like handles. These long orbitals are binding mutually and they shrink during cooling, thus exerting a pressure to conductive electrons within spherical orbitals.

  9. As the creator of the above video, I'd like to respond to the above comments, which I'll say in advance I do appreciate.

    "I'm not really sure what to think of such efforts to bring science closer to the public." REPLY: The above video about the superconductor, frankly, would have been equally instructive without the dancers." Sure, but would my wife, kids, cousins, neigbors watch my text summaries and animations? My wife told me that after watching the video, she finally understood that electrons were yellow.

    "I would agree with you this dance does little to increase ones understanding in respect to a particular aspect of physical reality."
    REPLY: It depends on how many times you watch the video and how well you absorb the lessons taught. How many non-scientists appreciate that as the temperature decreases, the kinetic energy of the particles decreases? Did you see that? Also, electron-electron interactions and electron-phonon interactions change dramatically below Tc, from antagonistic to cooperative. Explain that to non scientists.

    Cooper pair formation was easy to depict with dancers; have you seen Cooper's paper - Leon N. Cooper, "Bound Electron Pairs in a Degenerate Fermi Gas," Phys. Rev. 104, 1189 (1956).
    In principle, simple physics allows electons to bond if the bonding force (phnon mediated) outweighs charge replusion. Cooper provide the math to describe this (above); The 'warped sheet' video explains this pictorally see "Model of Cooper pairs: coupling of electrons" at ; I did it with dancers.

    The expression 'break a Cooper pair' is easier to visualize than to describe mathematically. Similarly, the notion of 'exchanging energy' between electrons and phonons is easier to dance than to express in equations.

    In all physics studies, experimental and theoretical, the state of the system depends on scalar or vector fields. Experimentalists play with accessible fields, like temperature and electric fields. In the video, I tried to show effects of two parameters, temperature and voltage, on electron, phonon and Cooper pair states. There was also a time parameter that I could show explicitly. The final scene, where an incoming phonon (from a Sn junction) broke a cooper pair in a Pb junction, was the event that guaranteed me a PhD thesis after nearly 10 years of grad school.

    "I also found this having more utility as that of a sedative than one of inspiration." REPLY: Vivaldi's four seasons, a sedative??

    Bottom line: Story telling is fun. Good writers do it with words; amateur videographers/choreographers can blend music, motion and text into stories.

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  12. Hi Irwin,

    First I would like to say that I appreciate anyone who explores their artistic side, as finding art synonymous with one of our species most admirable qualities, with that being its creativity. However when it comes to the nature of things like phonons and electrons, whose physicality and action are defined within quantum mechanics, I find the key aspect of wave-particle duality being a difficult one to depict within the confines of this classical framework, being simply the motion of dancers and thus for me holds little semblance with the feature of the action that truly needs to be communicated in such circumstances.



  13. The role of Cooper pairs should be explained with dance, but you should choose quite different choreography.

    Try to imagine dancers, which are trying to squeze through spaces between another dancers, who are dancing at place, thus representing the atom lattice. The movable dancers will be forced to move slowly first, then fast while squeezing through holes between statical dancers because of repulsive forces between dancers - such irregular motion is indeed connected with energy dissipation and ohmic lost.

    But when the movable dancers will form a pairs at the distance, corresponding the distance of statical dancers ("lattice constant"), their motion becomes suddenly a much easier, because one of dancers will pull , then push the other dancer in pair, when he would pass through the space between dancers.

    Actually here you can find a computer simulation (runs on MSIE only), which explains the choreography of electrons motion inside of pair better, then my poor English.


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