Friday, August 31, 2007

Near misses

Things have been utterly non-stop recently. I haven't seen the inside of my flat for more than about 5 minutes this week while not sleeping or trying to forget about the day's events and attempting to sleep. This isn't to say that anything has been bad, just very busy. I'm finishing up some work which has to be done really very soon and have written a couple of long posts about how I got to be where I am now (not in the Darwinian sense) and a little background to what I do, or maybe why I do it.

In the mean time I've been helping friends move house and running round the city saying goodbye to people leaving Beijing, teaching, attempting to start learning Spanish and continuing with the Chinese. Tomorrow I go out of town for a party, back on Sunday, take a friend to the airport and then straight back to work. September is looking to be very full with three couchsurfers staying at my place for a continuous period of 10 days. Also we have the string cosmology conference coming up all month at the KITPC, which I'm very much looking forward to. (first week's lectures here).

Today as I ran out of the office and caught a cab to get to my friend's house to help her move house my blood began to boil as the Beijing roads mingled with my already high pressure state.

I usually spend my time in a state of calm chaos, but just occasionally it boils over - in fact in the UK it very very rarely happens but the bloody stupidity on the roads in China just got my goat today. I love cycling and I know that I'm not a very safe cyclist. This has improved since I learnt to drive and realised how much I must terrify drivers as I speed around as fast as possible. Anyway, with however many million non-driving cyclists on the roads in Beijing combined with 3 million cars all of whom think that they have the right to get from A to B faster than everyone else, cutting up all who are in their way and slowing the roads down for all, the situation is often unbearably frustrating.

After several near misses (both my driver's fault and that of others) he got out of the car and had a fight with another road hog - a full on slamming each other against the bonnet fight, red-faced arm waving and general macho nonsense. I was either going to laugh or cry as I waited in the car for the frivolities to end so I laughed at them and they split up and got back in their respective cars.

So, we continued to weave our way through the ever-honking traffic and an hour later had deposited more clothes than you can possibly imagine to their temporary residence. The taxi driver left and I went back to the office.

As we reached the traffic lights I saw something which I so often see here in Beijing. A cyclist somehow forgetting that there are two sides to a road. She looked left, seeing that there was a gap in the traffic and pulled out to cross the road. However, she seemed hypnotised by the lack of traffic on the left, presumably thinking this to be a good enough omen. As she got to the middle of the road without appearing to slow down I looked in horror as the speeding oncoming car didn't notice her behind the central bollard. She pulled out, still looking left as the car slammed on its break, turning the wheel as it did so. The car screamed to a halt, in a haze of tyre smoke centimeters from the girl on the bike, who just sat there, looking puzzled at the car.

The police driving the police car, which had been the offending missile, shouted at her as she sat in the middle of the road, still looking unperturbed but a little angry at being shouted at.

The police car sped off and she stayed, sat in the middle of the road as other cars honked at her to move. Normally I would have put this down to shock, but Beijing cyclists get into these situations so damned often that she just seemed annoyed at the whole affair and couldn't be bothered to move.

I'm writing this having let myself calm down a little. My heart has left my throat and my pulse has dropped below 200.

ok, rant over - it just winds me up no end and sometimes I need to vent.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Google having hiccups in China

Things are very busy at the moment, still with a paper on its final stages along with various other responsibilities I'm involved with.

However, today there seems to be major problems with Google, here in Beijing at least. I can't open, or Google Reader. This is the biggest block I've seen for a long while and with wikipedia being blocked again last week it seems that somethings up. I'm currently writing this in blogger using the phproxy add on, which is a savior for fast, easy viewing when you don't want the trouble of using Tor.

Anyway, if anyone else knows more details about this then please let pass on any information!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Large hole in the Universe

There seems to be a big hole in the universe. A gap where there isn't matter, where there should be. There isn't much that I've found with any explanation simply because I don't think anyone knows. I'd be interested in speculative answers from experts though.

The hole was found by the very large array telescope which sees virtually no stars between 6 and 10 billion light years in one particular direction.

sparse details can be found at:
Lubos Motl's reference frame.

More advanced string theory lectures

Some wholesale copy and paste from the Scitalks blog which I've been contributing to over the last few weeks. I'll be taking a more active role next week too. In the series of posts on string theory video material, working up from pop-science through to basic introductory lectures, to more advanced topics I gave the following suggestion:

First I will give some ideas for lectures which are mostly in my area, the AdS/CFT correspondence.

Eric D'Hoker's lectures from TASI are great.

Though I would suggest that just about every lecture from TASI is worth watching. I haven't seen them all but most of the lecturers are really very good. I've been watching Mina Aganigic's lectures on topological string theory which are very good. David Tong's lectures on vortices, monopoles and kinks were excellent in 2005 and I would imagine they are still both entertaining and clear.

Also on AdS/CFT those by Mark Van Raamsdonk at the PIMS are good.

But again, the level of this school is just right for those who have are just about familiar with the previous material.

I can't view these lectures by Juan Maldacena who first developed the AdS/CFT correspondence but they may well be good.

I've seen Eva Silverstein talk a couple of times on string cosmology. She's one of the leading researchers on the subject. Again, I haven't seen this particular video of her but she's usually a good, clear speaker:

A little old now (2004) but still excellent is this workshop on QCD and string theory from UCSB, and the conference here.

My work is most closely linked to Rob Myers' talks on holographic mesons.

Trying to give a broad range of stringy subjects, the lectures on string phenomenology are here.

More on stringy cosmology here.

and some of the more mathematical aspects here.

As before I haven't seen all these videos but I've seen a few from each conference and can say that there are certainly some which are worth watching. We really need more, interested people to watch them and then advise which are the best. I'm just giving a general selection of some of the more cutting edge areas of the subject.

Note that there's a big jump between the previous set of lectures and this set. There's really a gulf between learning the basics and understanding the more advanced topics which is why a full length online course would be excellent.

Anyway, I'll be posting something about, eh, me, soon over at Scitalks to give some context to me work in the subject.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Emergent chaos

I've been swimming a couple of times over the last week, late in the evening before heading home. The Chinese are not known for their queuing skills, something which I, along with every other expat blogger has commented on ad nauseam in the past. However, it turns out the spending time in a swimming pool here allows you to see the lack of queuing skills writ large.

The chaos in a laned swimming pool is just incredible. One may have thought that having a single side of a lane for each direction was a relatively sensible setup, however, not only does this not happen, but when people do self-organise into something resembling a clockwise rotation, the vortex created seems to attract wayfarers who then swim into the middle of the lane, in the centre of the pool and tread water, gently watching as the lane swimmers attempt not to bump into them, sometimes. On the occasions that these self-imposed traffic wardens were hit by a particularly careless swimmer, the swimmer was severely chastised for not watching where they were bloody going. On other occasions swimmers would drape themselves over the lane dividers, letting their legs float in the middle of the lane, completely oblivious to those around them who may find this distinctly awkward.

I got strange looks as I laughed while watching this bizarre spectacle of disorganisation, and the life-guards sat around smoking. I'm happy to say that this sort of thing more amuses than annoys me as it seems to to many other expats. I don't think this is a comment on my higher tolerance levels, but perhaps the fact that I have a low threshold for base humour (Thanks Phill).


Sometimes it's hard to tell the ratio of irony to Chinglish in signs here in Beijing. I'm sitting in a cafe at the moment finishing off a talk for tomorrow and tidying up a paper. The cafe is very quiet with comfy chairs and tables and a few students sitting round working hard (we're next to Qinghua university - the top university in China). The sign on the stairs on the way up to the cafe states boldly that: "A climax a day keeps the doctor away". I'm not sure if this is a tongue in cheek statement talking of eureka moments, or simply the obvious interpretation. These days I simply don't know.

On the topic of language. Today's Wikipedia article (not viewable in China where Wikipedia has again been blocked) is on the Gwoyeu Romatzyh Latinisation of Chinese, in particular an alternative recipe for showing the tonal system. It looks far more complicated than Pinyin, which is relatively straight forward once you are able to reproduce the tones. I'll be discussing learning Mandarin soon as I've just reached a bit of a personal goal.

Over at the Scitalks blog I have given a series of suggestions for more advanced string theory lectures, mostly on AdS/CFT, but on other topics too. I've been watching lots of the TASI courses which are excellent.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Air pollution in Beijing

I just heard from a friend that on CCTV 9, the English language channel on the Central Chinese Television network, that the trial run to remove a million cars from the roads has worked marvelously. The quote came through to me that:

BizChina (CCTV 9) states that "air quality has improved dramatically over the past three days" apparently, the particulate count dropped from 116 (ppm?) on Thursday to 90 yesterday

Well, I thought that this statement needed a little context, so I have created a graph from the month of August, up until yesterday to see what a dramatic effect the removal of so many cars from Beijing's roads has really had. The data is taken from where you can freely look at the countries pollution levels. I've created a graph from Beijing's recent data to see what the announcement really means.
The cars were removed from the roads in the last four days of the graph. The sudden drop from 115 to around 90 (similar, as far as I can tell, to the other changes throughout the month) is the result of the cars, or so we're told. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but this sounds like statistics being used without any context behind them.

For more context on the pollution index, take a look at this, though China's own pollution index is not exactly the same as this one, they seem very similar.

Apologies for the hastily created graphics, I'm in the midsts of calculations as I type.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kabuki coming to Beijing

Anybody who has kept up with these travel adventures will understand how pleased I am to hear that Kabuki is coming to Beijing. Just for two days in September, but if you are in the city and want to see a Japanese art form, which is certainly the most spectacularly beautiful stage art I have ever seen, then buy yourself some tickets.

See here and here for my previous encounters with Kabuki in Tokyo.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach 1924-2007

I just read the sad news that Max Roach died yesterday. Max was one of the most influential jazz drummers of the last century.

Although most seem to claim that Kind of Blue is the best jazz album of all time, I have a definite soft spot for Money Jungle, from Blue Note Records, on which Max created a spectacular album with Charlie Mingus and Duke Ellington.

If you're either a fan of jazz and don't know this great album (I've met several people who passed it off because they figured Duke Ellington was purely big band) or if you haven't heard much, take today to listen to this stunning record. If you know it already, sit back, listen and remember some of the amazing records this guy produced. (M+D, you'll find the album in my collection, do put it on).

Max with Billy Harper, Cecil Bridgewater, Reggie Workman, enjoy.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

I managed to catch about 3 hours sleep on the train from Wuhan last night, so I'm not very with it today. I've finished a couple of calculations but need to call it a day now. Anything else I do is likely to take even longer to undo.

The workshop in Wuhan was good. Just as the previous quark matter workshops I've spoken at, it's really nice to have an audience who are listening to your lecture because they want to learn and use what you're talking about. The people with a background in RHIC physics are really keen to get in there and use the new tools available to them to study more about the different phases of strongly coupled systems. Of course it's also good to speak with the researchers there and there were a couple over from the States too.

I didn't get to see a great deal of Wuhan this time either. We got to the gate of the famous Yellow Crane Temple but it had shut by the time we got there. I have a rant about Chinese ancient architecture which has been brewing for a while, but I'll save it for a time when I'm rather more awake.

From the closed temple we made our way through a night market, selling all manner of tat, and got to the banks of the Yangtzi river. Wuhan has the first bridge which was built over the Yangtzi, and I managed to get a few photos of the rather pleasing lights and shadows of this impressive piece of 50 year old Russian engineering. I'll leave you with the photos for now and go get some sleep.
The first bridge over the Yangtzi, Wuhan
The first bridge over the Yangtzi, Wuhan
The first bridge over the Yangtzi, Wuhan
Larger photos can be seen by clicking on these.

Introductory level string theory videos

Still in collaboration with Scitalks I'll post my suggestions for introductory level string theory videos. These are lectures for physicists with a grounding in quantum field theory. I count introductory as the most obvious step up from the previous videos which were popular science level.

Most of these courses are just three or four lectures long, so I want to make a request here.

There are many universities, mostly in the US, who run one semester, or even one year courses on string theory (amongst many other interesting topics). If you know somebody who gives a good course on this subject then I would urge you to suggest that the course is videoed next time it's run. It's a waste not to. For those who aren't lucky enough to be at universities who run long term courses in this subject then please try and share this as an open source course. This doesn't just go for string theory, but for all other subjects too. It just so happens that string theory is the current example. I've said this before and I'll probably say it again.

So, find out of your department will allow this, find a willing lecturer, video the course, upload it to your department web server (this may be a lot of material but servers are pretty huge these days) and send the link to Scitalks.

Anyway, here are some of the best introductory materials on string theory that I could find:

Over at Scitalks there are now two sets of lectures at the appropriate level. One by Barton Zwiebach and one by Clifford Johnson. See below for a set of lectures on perturbative string theory from Clifford too.

There’s another series of lectures by W. Lerche here. I have only been able to read the transparencies, which look broad ranging and reasonably detailed. In the cafe I’m in at the moment I can’t download the video. I would imagine it’s good, but couldn’t guarantee anything.

There is a nice colloquium by Shamit Kachru, who is an excellent speaker, talking about string theory and cosmology here:

If you go to this page, and look on the left for ” Summer School: Strings, Gravity & Cosmology” you will find a host of great videos. Unfortunately it’s really difficult to try and view these independently from their special player (you need IE, too!). The lectures on perturbative string theory, again by Clifford Johnson, are probably excellent and just the right level for first year grad students. I just wish I could rip them and watch them at my own comfort and time. I’ve watched a few, but I just don’t like this format of streaming.

Again, what would be perfect at this point would be a full graduate course in the subject available online.

Next week I'll post links to lectures at a more advanced level, mostly in my field.

How to work with extra dimensions

I'm posting an e-mail that I sent to Lee at Scitalks which was added as a blogpost on the scitalks blog. Sounds a little circuitous, but having written it I wanted to add it here, with the little video I made.

Having mentioned that the video explanation of extra dimensions was in no way accurate, I wanted to add my two cents about extra dimensions and so sent the following message:


In fact it’s pretty easy to understand higher dimensions from some simple visualisations. The video on Scitalks was fine, up to the fourth dimension, and then things started to get a bit cryptic.

One thing I should mention first is that trying to visualise objects in higher dimensions is good to feel comfortable with what you’re studying. However, sometimes if we try and visualise the things that we are calculating, we may stifle, or bias our calculations. In my opinion it is usually best to become familiar with the mathematics, the purest descriptions of our theory and try to ‘visualise’ in this language rather than trying to use common sense from what we see around us. A good example is quantum mechanics. If we try and visualise what is going on on very small length scales we will quickly tie ourselves in knots and not be able to progress as far as we can by exploring the mathematics of our system. Of course it’s important to be able to translate the mathematics back into what you will actually see in your experiment.

So, given that caveat I will explain how we can build ourselves a hypercube (or at least the frame of a hypercube), the higher dimensional generalisation of a cube.

The way we will do this is to start with less than three dimensions and see what rules we have to follow to go up in dimensions. We will see that we can extrapolate these rules to however many dimensions we want.

Start with a point, a zero dimensional object.

Take this point and turn it into two points. Now pull one of the points apart from the other one, say a distance L away, and join the two points with a piece of elastic. Now you have a line, a one dimensional object.

Now do a similar thing, but this time turn the elastic into two pieces of elastic (on top of each other - now you have four points given by the two ends of the pieces of elastic). Pull the pieces apart in the direction perpendicular to their length. While you’re pulling them apart keep the two ends joined by more elastic which will grow to length L. Now you have a square, something with four edges (pieces of elastic) and four points, or vertices. This object is two dimensional.

Now repeat the process. Take your square and replicate it with another square, on top of the first one. Join the vertices of the two squares with four pieces of elastic which will be stretched in the direction perpendicular to the face of the square. Pull the squares apart to a distance L. Now you have a cube. This object lives in three dimensions. It has six faces, 12 edges and eight vertices.

So, what rule have we developed? We have taken our previous object, replicated it, joined the vertices of the two objects together and pulled them apart in a direction perpendicular to the directions they lie, until the two copies are a distance L apart.

Let’s do that again.

Take your cube and replicate it. Join the vertices of the twin cubes to each other, again by elastic, and pull them apart to a distance L in the direction perpendicular to the direction they are living. There seems to be a problem though, in the last example, the square could live on a piece of paper and you could pull the two squares apart vertically to create the cube, we seem to have run out of directions. We need to pull the two cubes apart in the fourth dimension to a distance L.

Though we can’t really picture this realistically (at least I can’t) we can draw the projection of this onto 2-dimensions, just as easily as we can draw the projection of a cube onto a piece of paper.

When we pulled the one square from the other, we did this in the third dimension, say height, from your paper. So we don’t have another direction to go to pull the cube apart any more. This is where we have to imagine, as best we can, that we take the cube, split it into two and, joining the vertices of one cube with the other pull the two cubes apart to a distance L in the fourth direction, to create an object with 16 vertices and 40 edges. It’s almost as easy to draw the projection of this object onto a two dimensional piece of paper as it is to draw the projection of a three dimensional cube onto a piece of paper.

I've created a short animation of the above construction using Mathematica. We see the projection onto 2-dimensions. When I have time I'll let the objects rotate and slow it down a bit too.

In terms of mathematics, it’s even easier to go to higher dimensions. As an example, we might want to know the length of a line in two dimensions, going from some point (0,0) to (x,y). The length, as we know is the square root of x^2+y^2.

In three dimensions for a line going from (0,0,0) to (x,y,z) the length is the square root of x^2+y^2+z^2.

Well, let’s stop labelling directions as x,y,z etc and label them x_1, x_2, x_3,x_4, etc. (1,2,3,4 are simply labels). Now it’s easier to keep track of them.

Now a line in four dimensions stretching from (0,0,0,0) to (x_1,x_2,x_3,x_4) has a length of the square root of (x_1)^2+(x_2)^2+(x_3)^2+(x_4)^2.

Well, if you can work out the 2-dimensional example, I would suggest that it’s pretty easy to calculate the 4, 10, or any dimensional example. Imagining it isn’t easy, but as long as you have a mathematical handle on the objects that are living in your higher dimensional theory, you should be doing fine.

I would suggest having a read of Flatland, a romance in many directions - not for it’s political correctness, but for an idea of how things would be if we didn’t live in 3 dimensions. Chapter 16 is particularly relevant.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Wuhan beginnings

A ten hour train ride, four hours juddery sleep, a stationary traffic jam and a definite lack of coffee has seen me safely, if tired from Beijing to Wuhan where I will be talking in a couple of hours. Wuhan is at 32 degrees and climbing fast so we're all inside, trying to cope with the high strength air-con. No videos from this workshop, but Scitalks continues to add to the now impressive catalogue. I'll report back when I have more eyelid strength and another talk finished off.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The many degrees of Wuhan

This evening I'll head off on a ten hour train ride to Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, famous for being one of the four furnaces of China and also for having some excellent spicy duck's neck (superb as a snack with a cold beer). There is more to Wuhan than this, though last time I spent more time on the plane and road getting to and from the university than actually seeing it or any of the researchers.

This time I'm staying for a three day workshop on quark matter and again presenting on QCD from the AdS/CFT correspondence. I hope to see a bit of the city as well as discussing with some excellent researchers, both from China and the US, who will be at the workshop.

I spent most of yesterday stuffing myself in the all you can drink for 18 kuai (a little more than a pound) cafe near my flat while working on a current project and getting my talk for tomorrow polished off. I do find the buzz of a cafe inherently conducive to good work and almost without fail have more breakthroughs in these relatively noisy places than in the rather sterile environment of my office.

After spending all day in the cafe, a few of us headed over to Sanlitun in the East of the city, went to Kokomo (up on the roof of one of the taller buildings in the area), ordered a beer, sat back and watched for the Perseids. A strange sight for the others in the bar perhaps but we wanted to take advantage of the fact that Beijing is pretty cloudless at the moment (I speak a little too soon, I fear) due to last week's artificially induced storms and reduced traffic. We saw a few throughout the night, coming from the East, though you really need to be up in the early hours of the morning to catch the height of the showers, as the part of the Earth you are on is travelling towards the patch of dust and rock.

(The Bad Astronomer on watching the meteor shower)

Anyway, for now I'll leave some photos from last weekend, when I took a good friend for a birthday meal at Haiku, one of Beijing's top Japanese restaurants. Well worth a trip for the atmosphere and service. The food is good but sadly by my sushi standards which have been permanently affected by my stay in Tokyo, the food was excellent but not mind blowing.

The first photo is of the Beijing national gallery, currently housing an exhibition of works from the Prado. An excellent collection from Titian to Goya, with lots in between. Well worth a trip (though check online if it's still on). We went there in the afternoon before going for dinner.
Prado in China
I attempted to get a good view of the new, amazing structure which will be the CCTV headquarters. These two, leaning towers which will meet in a tangle at the top should be great for photographing, but from our position we could only get a hint of them.
and some photos from Haiku:
Haiku entrance
Haiku sushi bar
Haiku restaurant
Haiku tables
OK, got to go finish getting ready for the train ride ahead.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Basic string theory videos

A good number of string theory videos are appearing on Scitalks now. I've given long lists of videos and there are many still to be put up on the site. There are now many good movies from Clifford Johnson and Barton Zweibach at the introductory level and lots more advanced talks by Ashoke Sen, Matthew Strassler and others.

For the pop science level I think that Brian Greene's video series The Elegant Universe was excellent, and the book is also superb. It's what got many undergrads, including myself, interested in the subject.

From Strings 2005 the talks by Robert Dijkgraaf and Leonard Susskind are good presentations to the general public on a variety of stringy issues.

Some nice lectures by David Gross on a fundamental theory of reality. Parts I, II and III.

Also from the Princeton centenary lectures Juan Maldacena on gravity, black holes and string theory.

Soon I will be discussing slightly more advanced videos for which at least a degree in physics is expected.

I should note that not all of these videos are up on the Scitalks site yet. When they are I urge you to contribute, first in the initial stages of this site where you can vote for a video, but secondly when the tagging and social networking aspects of the site come online later in the year.

(I can't claim to have seen all of the above movies completely, I have seen some of them in their completeness and others I have watched samples from different sections to see that they are appropriate for this level. They are also all from very well known researchers in string theory. If people find problems with the videos then either tell me, or get in contact with the people at Scitalks).

Olympic warmup

A collective breath was held here in Beijing yesterday evening as 8.08 pm on 8.8.2007 came round. One year to go until the Olympics and this year is the trial run. Note that in Chinese numerology the number 8 is deemed lucky.

One of the biggest questions running up to now has been whether the weather will cause problems. With Beijing's chaotic weather, a storm during the opening ceremony could spell disaster. Well, it seems that the government has that in hand. Some 30,000 people have been employed around the country, especially in the North, to control the weather, in particular by seeding rain.

The last few days has seen tremendous thunderstorms across Beijing, coming in at around 7 o'clock in the evening and lasting for 2 or 3 hours. The lightning has been more frequent than I've ever seen, with flashes and blasts echoing around Wudaokou once every 5 seconds or so. Some of the lightning has been spectacular, but most of the time I was in the office, not able to get up to the roof of any of the larger buildings in the area to get photographs.

The one time I did have to make a break for it I find myself calf deep in water as the drains struggled to keep up with the massive downpour. The times I was safely inside I watched others struggle through similar flooding.

Along with snow seen over Chengfu lu (very close to me) - which is a sign of silver iodide seeding - speculation has been rife that the chaotic weather have been artificially created. It may just be a coincidence, but yesterday was a perfect blue-skied day and at eight o'clock the blue sky was simply dappled with small clouds. Rumour is rife on the Chinese blogosphere that this is no coincidence but truly the government proving that they can indeed control the weather.

Today temperatures are up to around 37 and the sky remains blue. A million cars have been taken off Beijing's roads for the next 20 days, so it will be interesting to see if the fine weather and reduced pollution continues.

As I have mentioned before, this face saving exercise will not impress the citizens who, after the games have finished and people are looking ahead to London in 2012, will again be cloaked in the deathly smog which we all know so well.

Anyway, for now I will try and enjoy the blue sky and clearer air in the knowledge that it's not going to last long.

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.

Monday, August 06, 2007

World's tallest building

The Taipei 101 has for around three years been the world's tallest building, something that stirs up some mixed sentiment here. A new building in Shanghai will be taller than Taipei 101, but not nearly as tall as the new tallest skyscraper, the Burj Dubai, still in construction but now taller than Taipei 101.

In July it reached 512 m tall beating the existing record. Estimates put its final height somewhere between 800 and 1000 m tall, though even this record is unlikely to remain for long in rapidly growing Dubai.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


John Denver is big here in Beijing. My planned work in a cafe is being interrupted by songs about leaving on jet planes and the like. I'm braced and ready for 'take me home, country roads' which blast the buses, the ring tones and my gym at all possible inopportune moments.

Anyway, I wanted to link to a few articles which have caught my eye today.

Firstly the fascinating news that the infamous researcher, Hwang Woo-suk, from South Korea whose claims of human cloning experiments turned out to be fraudulent may just have stumbled upon something even more important - Human parthenogenesis, the development of an embryo without using a sperm for fertilisation. The BBC news article can be found here and I'd love to learn more from those who know more about this subject.

Secondly an article about an interesting method of teaching physics from the US. This seems to have the emphasis shifted from remembering facts and formulae (not something which should be dismissed, but certainly not the most important aspect of learning the subject) to a deeper understanding of the laws of physics. In this method the student is lead to discover the rules by themselves. Sounds pretty sensible to me. Again, the actual details are sketchy and I'd be interested to learn more about this. (Original link from God Plays Dice).

Finally for now the news that a new clean energy bill has just been passed by the house of representatives in the US. One aspect of the bill is reduce subsidies for oil companies. The figures seem impressive, but I don't know what the percentages are. It also has a long way to go to become law but at least these issues are being raised in the US.

...And to the tones of Hotel California played in a pitiful saxophone cover I must get back to my topology.

(Photos to follow when my camera arrives back from a friend to whom it has briefly been lent)

Including your Feed Reader blogs in a blog roll

From the Google Systems blog are a set of instructions for taking the subscribed blogs in your Google Reader and automatically creating a blog roll which can be pasted into your blog. This takes about 2 minutes to set up and means a closer tie between the blogs you read and the blogs you advertise to others. Note that you can choose which blogs in your feed reader are included in the blog roll.

The new blog roll with a few new blogs can be found in the left column of this blog.

Friday, August 03, 2007

beginnings and endings

End of a tiring, stormy week. The CSSS summer school, which I've popped along to when I had some free minutes, has been fantastic and very well organised by Dave Feldman and others, lots to think about after that. New projects taking off, others fluttering to the ground, some of them falling harder than others, papers in the making.

Less than three months to go here in China so plans are afoot for travels both work related (I'm presenting at a school in Wuhan in a week or so) and extra-curricula (plans for doing China in October have been scaled down to tackling Sichuan for two weeks at the end of my stay).

In the humid, stormy summer months I feel like I'm running low on steam a little. The program starting here on string cosmology in September should certainly perk things up and there are still many things to see here in Beijing before I leave.

The huge midweek storms were not captured on camera as my camera had been lent to a movie director (who needed a digital SLR). He was the same movie director who came down with appendicitis earlier in the week and so the camera was inaccessible. He has now, quickly, recovered, thus the camera is back.

A random end of the week post I'm afraid.

Anyway, before a friend's birthday last Saturday I was stood in Wudaokou taking shots of the local hustle and bustle and got a fun shot of some of the Wudaokouites whizzing about on their scooters.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A better view of Chinese hospitals

I should add something to the previous post.

Last night I went to visit my friend who has now had his appendix successfully removed (and stitched up with what looks like shipping rope). He was in the new wing of the hospital in a very spacious room which would have looked pretty impressive in the UK. The corridors were wide, light and clean and the air was well air conditioned without being cold. It felt efficient and comfortable and the patients all looked to be as happy as one can be having just come through surgery.

It seems that the emergency room I saw on Sunday, which is still housed in a very old, badly kept building, really is the worst that you are likely to see and so my first real view of a Chinese hospital was probably a warped one. That said it was still in a terrible state and the fact that it's not the norm doesn't make it, on its own, any better. I'm told that this building will soon be replaced by a new one.

I'm also told by my friend from Sichuan that this is much worse than any hospital she has ever seen in her home province.