Tuesday, August 07, 2007

String theory at Scitalks

I'm extremely happy to be working with Scitalks, which I've spoken about in several previous posts (see here for more). Lee Vodra and I have been in frequent contact. I was asked to set up a possible curriculum of video lectures on string theory for them to have as a featured set over the next month. I think this is a great idea and I hope that people will a) become interested in the subject and possibilities and b) ask questions about the material as it comes up.

At the end of the month I will act as guest blogger on the Scitalks blog where I will answer questions that people have raised. I urge others to come over to the blog and add their thoughts too. I hope to find an open-minded discussion developing.

One thing I pointed out was that it's not possible to create a curriculum in string theory which can start you out with the very basics (pop-science level) and in a month of videos work you up to cutting edge results in the subject. I hope however to be able to put together videos which will satisfy all levels. Those who are new to the subject will take most from the first sets of lectures. I hope that those at first year graduate level will gain most from the second week where there will be more prerequisite knowledge and then the final sets of lectures will be chosen as lectures on more advanced topics, for which knowledge of the foundations of the subject are expected.

I must point out that the lecture on 'Imagining the tenth dimension' featured on Scitalks is not one of my chosen videos and has nothing to do with the ten dimensions of string theory. This confusing video by musician and author Rob Bryanton is Rob's ideas of what extra dimensions may mean. Sadly this a) seems to have no mathematical formalism behind it and b) is completely unrelated to extra dimensions in the perfectly well-defined sense, discussed in string theory (though not exclusive to string theory).

In Rob's poll on his blog he is pleased that many people see his ideas as a combination of physics and spirituality. As a physicist, spirituality has absolutely nothing to do with my research and so anyone who claims to be motivated by this automatically loses a large amount of credibility in my book. Sadly this video is a great example of the clash between faith and science.

One thing I should note is that in Scitalks, just as in Wikipedia, though videos will appear which don't tie in with what most of us think of as good science, there will be voting and comment sections where people can voice their opinion about given videos. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but I feel positive that as long as people take up this great opportunity to build a library and social network of great videos and great minds that Scitalks will be a huge resource for those coming into as well as already established in science. As Flip Tomato points out, watching videos of a conference is not the same as being there, but it's vastly better than having nothing at all. The interactive aspects of Scitalks, due for release in the not too distant future will only add to the possibilities.

Anyway, I hope that this experiment will be a good chance to share some of the excellent videos out there on the subject. I have already suggested a fair few videos but am always keen to learn of more, so please tell me if you know of good recordings of string theory talks, at all levels.

4 comments:

Flip said...

Hi Jon! Your Scitalks string course sounds very exciting. I think there's a big opportunity to be a very helpful resource for the community, especially graduate students and the general public. Best wishes with your project, Flip.

Jonathan Shock said...

Hi Flip, I think so too.

Blake Stacey said...

I look forward to seeing the string-theory videos as they come out, and I will certainly try to (a) spread the word and (b) ask the best questions I can think of.

As for the Bryanton video. . . .

The scientists I know who call themselves "spiritual" use the word in a Saganesque sense: a "spiritual moment" is one when your knowledge of the Cosmos lets the grandeur of nature break through and resonate emotionally. I've noticed other scientists say that they've had such experiences but the word spirituality has become so tainted by organized religion and/or New Age woo that it's a terrible word to use. Either way, the experience comes from knowing the facts, and it depends upon getting them right, not making up nonsense willy-nilly.

Spurious invocations of "quantum physics" are legion in woo; for examples, see oodles of discussions at ScienceBlogs.com or the more scholarly take by Alan Sokal. I have seen the weighty name of string theory tossed about a few times in a similar context, particularly the notion of "extra dimensions". A typical remark might go, "String theory seems much more likely to open the possibility of other dimensions, like the dimension of the spirit."

Jonathan Shock said...

Hi Blake, I'm unsure of the current format for the month but there are many good videos out there at different levels so I look forward to seeing a response.

Indeed, I can understand the Saganesque (or indeed Einsteinian) meaning of the word 'spiritual' but in the current climate where people will jump on any link between religion and science to bolster their argument I think it's dangerous.

I have had people ask me if the extra dimensions could be related to hope, love, empathy etc. I generally try my best to explain the scientific process but it's often not an easy challenge.

J