Sunday, 23 December 2007

(1) sushi and sashimi

Number 1 of "Ten things I love about Japan".

One has to begin here. Where else?

I can remember thinking, as a teenager in the eighties, how bizarre all of this raw-fish-and-seafood-eating was, and how exotic. Now having lived in Japan, it seems at once the most ordinary and the most indispensable thing. This is not to say that I routinely eat sushi or sashimi in Australia: I do have some standards. But then, I spend part of any given year in Japan, so I can afford to have standards.

Let's briefly get the terminology straight: sushi actually refers to the vinegared rice that is the base of the dish. Raw fish is only the most common of the toppings. Vegetables, seafood, cooked fish, cooked eel, and various other toppings are also used. And sashimi refers not only to slices of raw fish, but slices of raw flesh of any kind: chicken sashimi is extraordinary, although (I must stress) it's something I will only eat in Japan, in certain very good restaurants, in the company of culturally competent people whom I trust.

My typical sushi session begins with tamago (egg; in this case sweetened and scrambled) on sushi rice: even in Japan my habits are conservative. Then one of the mackerels: saba or sawara or aji or sanma. Then in no particular order a selection of hamachi (yellowtail) or kanpachi (a younger version), maguro (bluefin tuna), katsuo, iwashi (sardine), ebi (shrimp), and ika (squid). I go light on the last two, on account of my cholestorol, saving my ration for hotate (scallop), my preferred sushi-dessert. I'll toss in cooked unagi (freshwater eel) if I am in the mood. Soy as a dipping sauce, but not for unagi, which has its own special topping-sauce (similar to worcestershire), or for katsuo. The whole thing is helped along its way by pickled ginger as a palate-cleanser between sushi dishes, and generous quantities of green tea. Between these and the wasabi swiped onto the sushi rice, just underneath the topping, a sushi dinner doubles as an excellent herbal remedy against a cold ...

I am especially partial to katsuo. Wikipedia tells me that it's called skipjack tuna or bonito in English, and it may well be: but they mention nothing of its very particular, strong-but-not-overwhelming taste, or its texture. Texture is as much a feature of sushi and sashimi as taste, although I have no good vocabulary to describe it.

If you want to drink sake (rice wine) with the meal --- and I often do --- it's a better complement to sashimi. Sashimi can be served as an element of a multi-dish meal, or as a meal on its own: in both cases it comes garnished with shredded daikon, a white asian radish. When eating sashimi one has to add one's own wasabi --- not too much, people: it is not a contest! --- and if one adds it to the soy, there's the problem of keeping the daikon from soaking it all up: there seems to be some evil wasabi-daikon affinity. But I digress. My tastes in sashimi are similar to my tastes in sushi toppings, but with the addition of salmon (salmon sushi exists, but I am not a fan), and raw shrimp (likewise). And as for katsuo: you can get great huge inexpensive trays of the stuff at supermarkets --- its own special sauce included --- sometimes of a particular kind that's blackened just on the very outside layer, and still raw inside. I've no idea why it's so cheap.

If you do get trays of take-out sashimi from supermarkets, as I did a lot, you can wait until after local Japanese dinner-hour and get it at half-price: perfectly timed for the foreign researcher, cycling home from the lab. The quality is not as good as at a restaurant, but pretty good nonetheless: very good, by Australian standards. The same goes for sushi. As a take-out lunch, or for a dinner to take to duty-shift (eight hours staring at computer terminals underground: one gets hungry), I would often get a maguro plate: various tuna cuts including toro (more fatty), and various sushi types, like maki sushi (little rolls of sushi rice with nori [seaweed] wrapped around the rim, and a fish or vegetable core), and something similar but with the nori wrapping solid sushi rice, with minced raw fish on the top (I don't know the name). Trays with a full sushi selection are also sold; or trays of maki sushi, or some other type. One can also get inari sushi --- sushi rice stuffed into fried brown tofu --- although it's not my thing.

But the real deal is a restaurant meal: in my case (more by laziness than by other reason) it was often at conveyor sushi. It is a macho thing to be a sushi chef, and food-preparation-as-performance-art, still a relatively exotic thing for us Westerners, is part of the experience at a good kaiten-zushi house. Conveyor sushi is typically Japanese brilliance, by the way: fast food for the civilised.

Ten things I love about Japan

Number 0: prolegomenon

I was based in Japan for six years, which is too long for somewhere you're just not that into (as the saying goes). And like all resident gaijin, I've spent far too much time sitting around and griping about the place. If you've known any resident gaijin, you will know what I mean.

So it's time for a new approach. I am going to write ten posts on things I love about Japan, starting today in honour of the emperor's birthday. They will not all be about food --- although quite a few will be --- and if you've heard me talk about my time there I suppose you'll be able to guess some of my favourite things. But I hope there will be one or two surprises ...

The Clinton legacy

The Democratic primary contest for the upcoming US election is remarkable in that former two-term president William Jefferson Clinton --- can't you just tell, from their names, that Americans take themselves more seriously than Australians do? --- is a leading campaigner ... on behalf of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

There is an excellent article in this weekend's magazine section of the New York Times, The Clinton Referendum, discussing the extent to which Mrs Clinton's campaign is turning into a referendum on her husband's legacy: this then opens up into a discussion of that legacy itself.

It is interesting to reflect on the similarities, and the differences, to the situation in Australia, where there has been a long-overdue renewal of Labor Party government. I have missed the Hawke/Keating administration with a passion for all of the last eleven-and-a-half years, and it is true that Kevin Rudd is neither Bob Hawke nor Paul Keating ... but then, for all that he stands on their shoulders, it's good that he isn't either of these men. Theirs were not flawless governments. I am glad to see that we are moving on from them, in a way (I must hope) that acknowledges and builds on their strengths. Maybe the way to do this, in the American case, is with a president who is not also a Clinton?

Thursday, 20 December 2007

If the facts do not conform to the theory ...

... what do you do?

Over the last five years or so there has been a test case for this in particle physics, where experimental results and the expectation from theory were completely at odds: qualitatively different, and (where they could be compared numerically) out by a factor of ten or more.

My review of the experimental situation, Double ccbar production in e+e- annihilations at high energy, is now available on the web as arXiv:0712.3138 [hep-ex]. If you want the short version: theory fought experiment, and experiment won. In principle this always happens, but the trick is to get it to work out in practice. And the short version is of course prejudicial: it was always possible that something had been neglected in the analysis (there were some ingenious suggestions), or that some mistake had been made. The rhetoric about a theory being thrown out the moment you see a piece of contrary data sounds unlikely --- or just plain wrong --- and indeed it is. If you want to get a feel for how this sort of thing really plays out, at least in my field, read on. I can't claim that it'll be accessible unless you have some particle physics, however.

(This paper is the long-overdue writeup of a review I presented at the International Workshop on Charm Physics, a meeting I helped organise at Cornell in August. I posted earlier concerning the future of charm physics, the panel discussion that closed the workshop.)

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Tambourines and elephants

My research group had colleagues visiting from interstate last week, and after our official dinner some of us went out to karaoke in town. Some inspired person proposed Lookin' Out My Backdoor for what turned out to be the final song of the evening. Ever since, Creedence Clearwater Revival has been on high rotation in my CD deck, and in my head.

There is such joy in some of these CCR songs: unabashed, unashamed, unironic delight. There's some safety in it at karaoke --- one can always add inverted commas according to taste --- but I prefer to take it straight.

Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn ...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Truthful myths

A thoughtful Herald today! Here are fighting words from John Gray, self-proclaimed sceptic:
While the myths of religion express enduring human realities, the myths of secular humanism serve only to conceal them. It may be a dim sense of the unreality of their beliefs makes militant atheists so vehement and dogmatic.

One searches in vain in the company of militant unbelievers for signs of the creative doubt that has energised many religious thinkers...
As a scientist who is also a relatively conservative Christian, I have been dismayed by the recent descent into Philistine belligerence in the ongoing Science-Religion turf war. Here's a hint, people: if you can look at the capital letters on "Science" and "Religion" in the preceding sentence, and not feel an immediate need to swathe them in inverted commas, you are probably part of the problem.

Tanya on Jane on Catherine and reading and ...

In today's Herald, my near-contemporary Tanya Plibersek, Federal member for Sydney and recently-appointed minister for something-or-other, makes a heartfelt plea for reading, fiction in general, and Jane Austen in particular. I like her better already.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Life imitating art (imitating life)

The previous post reminds me --- fans will understand --- of Kiefer Sutherland's impending stint in jail for a repeat drink-driving offence. Quite a serious offence, it seems, from the description.

A lot of the credibility of the Jack Bauer character in 24 comes from the sense of damage about him: the feeling that the haunted look, and the troubled backstory, are not just window-dressing. Mr Sutherland's rather public excesses and disappointments --- and the plain fact that he struggles with them, not always successfully --- are thus one of the key things he brings to the role. As well, of course, as physical believability (if one can call anything in 24 believable), acting ability, and that wonderful, wonderful voice. Someone described it as velvet, wrapped around a brick. It's as like, and as unlike his father's, as the two are like and unlike each other, but it's when Kiefer is playing Jack calm, and the innate courtliness and respectfulness of the man comes out, and yet he still has to be menacing, that one says "Yes, he is his father's son".

Friday, 7 December 2007

Atonement, gentlemen!

I have been numbering the days to the Australian release of Atonement, Joe Wright's adaption of the extraordinary Ian McEwan novel. I love McEwan, I enjoyed the novel, and I was very impressed (despite my prejudices) with Wright's adaption of Pride and Prejudice, and with Keira Knightley as Lizzy. So after reading rave UK reviews of the new film back in September, I started counting down to Boxing Day.

But then I read A.O. Scott's review in today's New York Times. To quote it in part:
This is not a bad literary adaptation; it is too handsomely shot and Britishly acted to warrant such strong condemnation. “Atonement” is, instead, an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be. The respect that Mr. Wright and Mr. Hampton show to Mr. McEwan is no doubt gratifying to him, but it is fatal to their own project.
My anticipation of the film is now taking on a different colour. Ominously, the novelist remarked that "The one thing movies don’t do particularly well is consciousness, and the book is largely about consciousness. But I think [the filmmakers] got around it pretty well." I took that one way when I first read it; now knowing Scott's reaction to the film, it's adding to my unease.

Of course, I'm still going to see it. Two hours spent watching Keira Knightley and Vanessa Redgrave can never be entirely wasted; and they say that Saoirse Ronan, the newcomer playing the young Briony, is superb. But even so I have to hope that A.O. Scott is mistaken: and that doesn't happen often.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Miserere mei, Deus

Recently I've been listening again to Arvo Pärt's setting of the Miserere: Psalm 51 in the Hebrew (and usual English) order. Pärt's music sustained my devotional life --- such as it is --- through many expatriate years, and this setting of the great Biblical text is my personal favourite, and surely one of the best among Pärt's compositions.

It takes a little patience to approach it. An open copy of the Latin text will help, unless you know the psalm well enough in English (and have enough bluffer's Latin) to wing it as the song proceeds. The first three verses are quiet and reflective, almost to the point of stillness, until at peccatum meum contra me est semper (3b: "my sin is ever before me"), the setting falls endlessly into a great pit of music: the Dies Irae, no less.

Nine minutes in, one finds that all of this has been a preliminary. Stillness and quiet return, and the psalm begins a long slow climb of complexity, volume, and spirit, building to a sustained climax from verses 13-17: its two great peaks at Docebo iníquos vias tuas (13a: "Then I will teach transgressors your ways"), and holocaustis non delectaberis (16b: "You are not pleased with burnt offering") will take your breath away. And then verse 17's reflection, that the sacrifice [acceptable to] God is a broken spirit, appears as a still small voice after the storm.

This is a clever, sensitive, faithful reading of the psalm, and revelatory if you've been brought up (as I was) on sentimental and popular treatments that focus on verses 10-12. Let the reader understand: music, and specifically a demanding musical setting, can teach. This is how it's done.

An acquaintance was recently taking a shot at that most stationary of targets, the current state of Christian music. ("How the mighty have fallen" pretty much sums it up.) And it's true that there is very little to say in its defence. But I will defend Pärt anywhere, and in any company.


Recently I've been enjoying xkcd, aptly described on its site as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." This example is "Fall Apart", from 5th May last year.

It's not for everyone, by any means, but if you've ever been a geek, or loved one, you'll find something here to like. Spoiler Alert is one of the more accessible examples of the strip's sense of humour. (Note: it means what it says.)

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The future of charm physics

It was my privilege, back in August, to chair the panel discussion that closed the International Workshop on Charm Physics at Cornell University.

My writeup for the conference proceedings, The future of charm physics: a discussion, is available on the web as arXiv:0711.1636 [hep-ex].

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Rosetta is passing by ...

... making its closest approach to the earth later today (at 20:57 UTC, 13th November). The Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to meet, orbit, and land on a comet; this earth pass is a gravity assist manoeuvre to modify its orbit (it beats using a lot of fuel and money).

But you'd be lucky to learn any of this from a casual glance at the project's website. As for me: if I were running the world's second-ranked planetary science programme, I would be making sure that the websites for my missions were better than those of the competition. PR matters. I am not asking for mere empty slickness: Lord knows there is enough of that already. But do none of these people have primary- or high-school-age children who they want to enthuse about the solar system?


UPDATE: And right on cue, they do post a news item: Rosetta Second Earth Swing-by, on the bottom left of the page. I suppose it's better late than never. Actually I am being a little unfair as there is an ESA page on Rosetta, separate to the project home page, where there seems to have been a suitably public fuss for a while. So watching the project's own homepage appears to be a bad way of finding out what's going on, unless one wants to read every fine detail ...

For those interested in the misidentification of Rosetta as a previously unknown asteroid, about to make a close pass of he earth: see the comments below.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Breaking the ice

Saturn's moon Dione, a thousand-kilometre-wide ball of ice around a rocky core, as photographed by NASA's Cassini probe. The scratches are bright-walled canyons on the moon's surface.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Image details (from the Cassini multimedia pages): The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Sept. 30, 2007. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 36 degrees. Image scale is 3 kilometers (2 miles) per pixel.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Brisbane in the NYT

Australia's fastest-growing city has made the travel pages in the New York Times, under the heading Once Just a Stopover, an Australian City Grows Up.

I was in Brisbane for a week last year at a conference, travelling from our accomodation to the convention centre each day by ferry on the river, and thinking "I could get used to this".

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The Manhattan Project

There's an interesting historical piece in the New York Times (complete with 5-min video) on the links between the Manhattan Project and New York, specifically Manhattan island. The original headquarters were there --- hence the name --- and in the early stages of the project it was somewhat New York centred.

Odd as it sounds, I had never really thought about this before: it seems I'm not alone.

One notable detail is that two thirds of the uranium came from a single supplier: a Belgian civilian with a mining company, who somehow knew about the potential for atomic weaponry and wanted the uranium to which he had access in Allied hands, rather than letting it fall to the Germans. Apparently his initial approaches to the US government were unsuccessful ...

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Talk is cheap

Now here's why I have mixed feelings about blogs: a succinct and measured remark on the recent "outing" of Hogwarts' headmaster, a mere paragraph in length, followed by 61 comments (and counting) of the most tedious nature imaginable.

In an earlier post, I remarked that there are related matters which are more plausible in the films than in JKR's text. Presumably other people have noticed this. So following this latest discussion, we can look forward to the film of Deathly Hallows being dragged into the culture wars.

Great. I'm really looking forward to that.


UPDATE: There is an excellent reflection on this matter in the New York Times. Three cheers for the old-fashioned medium of print (which, of course, I access via the Web).

Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Anniversary Party

The independent film The Anniversary Party was released six years ago today (in Australia, anyway). The party of the title is to celebrate the sixth wedding anniversary of Joe, a rising author, and Sally, a (slightly older) film actress whose star is --- as they say --- beginning to fade. I guess you've already worked out that neither the party, nor the relationship, go especially smoothly.

Written and directed by the lead actors, the excellent (if unsmiling) Jennifer Jason Leigh and the all-too-appropriately named Alan Cumming, the film was shot in 19 days on digital video at a friend's house; the directors got their mates to play the other roles, with DIY makeup. It shows you what you can do with a little initiative, although it surely helps if the friend with the house is Sofia Coppola, and your mates include Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (and their real-life kids), John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, Parker Posey, and Jane Adams. (I must re-watch it and see what the glorious Mary-Lynn Rajskub was doing back then, before 24.) They got Gwyneth Paltrow to play an emotive starlet who's actually a fair bit sharper than people suppose ... a lot of the roles sail similarly close to the wind.

It is rather well written and very well (and fearlessly) acted. But you maybe don't want to see it if you only recently reconciled with your spouse.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Of giants and crockery

Is it my imagination, or is the relationship between Ron and Hermione easier to believe on the screen than it is on the page?

Exhibit A:[1] The three friends' meeting with Grawp, Hagrid's half-brother, in the film of Order of the Phoenix. (I finally saw this while on my return flight to Australia on Sunday night.[2]) Grawp picks Hermione up like a toy, à la King Kong, and H sternly tells him to put her down, using only the power of Voice (let the reader understand). Grawp is from this point onwards H's besotted twenty-foot[3] puppy --- the big daft lummox. "All he needed was a firm hand", Hermione comments. Ron looks on with a mixture of admiration and fear.

My two initial responses:

1. Oh my.

2. Well, you can see how it's going to be between them.

And whatever reservations Hermione's parents (say), or her friends might have about it all, "good luck to them".

Whereas, as I say, I don't really believe the relationship in the books. I understand that it's a given, and on that basis then sure, I suppose that there is going to be a certain amount of throwing-crockery-at-each-other once the two of them settle. But I don't see "it" happening apart from the sheer statement from JKR's plot that "it happens".[4]

I own only five of the seven books, not including this one, so I can't check if the scene is invented, or changed from the original, or close to it. Anyone want to help me out?

Oh and BTW what do Hermione's friends think of the relationship? She does have other friends, although we don't really see her with them. Isn't it a bit of a stretch to suppose that this subject, of all subjects, isn't regularly discussed? Aren't they, you know, girls?

[1] Exhibit B is the discussion between the friends of the million things going on in Cho's mind, re her relationship with Harry. (This is a scene I do partially remember from the book.) After an astonished Ron says that anyone dealing with the complexity of Cho's feelings (as H has described them) would simply explode, Hermione makes a despairing remark about him having the emotional range of a teaspoon, or some such. And then looks down, and laughs embarrassed at --- herself? Ron? their own relationship? the human condition? --- along with the boys. I can believe this too.

[2] I have commented elsewhere on the idea of Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange. Having now watched the film: girl gives good evil-crazy. Can I hope for a little nuance in the film of Deathly Hallows? The part is much bigger there.

[3] A quibble, sorry, film-makers: Grawp is supposed to be small for a giant; won't he be twenty feet tall at best? In the film he looks twice that.

[4] Just to make it clear that I am not a complete grouch: I cheered when I read The Kiss, and the remark that occasioned it, the same as everybody. But that's one kiss. Do I believe something lasting, on the basis of the rest of the books? Not so much.

Wrestling with Student Tragedy

A post on a student's tragic situation, and two responses (1 and 2) on the Rate Your Students blog.

Food for thought here. This site is not only about US professors letting off steam.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The PM and his puppy

In today's Herald: why the Mersey Hospital is like a puppy. The analogy is surprisingly exact.

Style warning: The last sentence of this otherwise fine article is an appalling pun.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Tangled up in (quantum) blue

An object goes "bang" in the middle of a room and two pieces go flying off, one to the left and one to the right. Each one follows the laws of physics just by itself, and is influenced only by things that touch it (and gravity etc.[1]). To know what the left piece will do, you needn't bother about the right piece in any special way: no more than you'd bother about the influence of your shoes, the ceiling, or the planet Jupiter.

Sorry: not true, so far as we understand.

If you believe quantum mechanics, those two pieces are in a certain sense still a single object ... even if the two pieces are on opposite sides of the room, or in separate towns many kilometres apart. It's called entanglement, a.k.a. "spooky action at a distance", a.k.a. "weird quantum s***".

I mention this because our paper on quantum entanglement at the Belle experiment has been published in Physical Review Letters.[2] The theory does just fine at predicting our data --- that's not unexpected, since it's done just fine on all the data it's been confronted with. The real interest in this kind of measurement is to see if one can go beyond testing quantum predictions, and test entanglement itself: to show that entanglement is just-a-fact-about-how-the-world-is-put-together which we'll always be stuck with, even if we eventually improve on quantum mechanics in some way.[3]

The gold standard for proving entanglement is a theorem by the late John Bell (no relation): our experiment couldn't meet this standard, even if our equipment were perfect (for rather technical reasons). What we can do is put other specific models --- other ways of explaining the data that don't involve entanglement --- to the test. The ones we have been able to try, fail; quantum mechanics succeeds. So entanglement wins this round, yet again, but some alternatives still live to fight another day ...

Here ends the lesson. It's not usually my aim to post such pedagogical material on this site, but there is no end to the flaky silliness on these topics doing the rounds in popular culture, so I feel some kind of duty to fly the flag when I've been a part of the work. What the bleep do we know? Um, well, quite a bit actually.

[1]Gravitational and electromagnetic forces act "at a distance" but their influence is not instantaneous: it's bound by the speed of light. For everyday purposes that's so fast that the influence might as well be instantaneous, but a lot hangs on the distinction. You can think of it this way: it's the gravitational and electromagnetic fields right where you are ("touching" you) that affect you, and they take time to catch up on what's going on elsewhere, the same as you do. These forces are still local in this sense.
The "spooky" part about quantum entanglement is that the connection between the parts of an entangled system works without any regard to distance whatsoever --- with no speed limit --- yet it turns out that you still can't use the thing to send a signal faster than the speed of light. Put like that, it seems somewhat contrived, and this is one of the things behind the intuition that it's our assumption of separability that's the problem, not the assumption of locality: it's not that relativity doesn't describe spacetime, it's that things really can't be divided up into "parts" the way we tend to think they can.

[2] It's also publicly available on the arXiv preprint server as quant-ph/0702267.

[3] Like many people (physicists included) I have my doubts about quantum mechanics: I suspect that there's something more going on. However, I also suspect that the "something more" will still leave us stuck with entanglement: that the weirdness is real.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Fifty years ago today ...

... Sputnik went "beep, beep, beep", and the world changed.

It's Space Week from 4-10 October in celebration; there is probably a series of events on near you.

Normally, I only post on the planetary programme, but of course Sputnik was the public beginning of human effort in space, so it's only right to join in the party.

Happy birthday ...

UPDATE: There is an article in The Australian today on a push to establish an Australian space programme.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Rate Your Students

Featured a few months back by Blogger: Rate Your Students. Its motto: Email us your pain.

I would not want to spend all my days reading American professors venting about their students --- I would not want to spend all my days reading any blog, or anything on the Web for that matter --- but this thing is worth a look. And I guess the site needed some kind of counterweight.

Today's RYS post: A New Correspondent Shares Some of the Normal Disgust Concerning Her "Special," Most Favoritest Student.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Australian Research Fellowship

On Wednesday the Australian Research Council announced the "outcomes" for the 2008 round of Discovery Project applications.

I've received an Australian Research Fellowship for the next five years, and some additional funding: not as much as I asked for, but hey. I'll still be based at the University of Sydney, but with a proper job --- who knows, maybe even a proper office --- and will once again be doing work at CERN, the Jerusalem of particle physics. [Sigh.] I have been away for too long.

Some colleagues from Melbourne were also successful in this round: Prof. Geoff Taylor (overboss of particle physics in Australia) has received a Professorial Fellowship, freeing him from other duties over the next five years, as ATLAS starts taking data; and A/Prof. Martin Sevior and Dr Glenn Moloney received a grant to use the (computing) Grid to support particle physics work. Congratulations, guys.

Oh, and an old schoolfriend who is working on the theory of freedom of expression, in the law faculty at U.Melbourne, also received a grant. The DP process funds all sorts of things, medical research excepted ...

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Dawn rises

Congratulations to the Dawn team on a successful launch.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The New York Times is free again

Editorial and other opinion columns at the New York Times, and the archive, are once again free online.

I've been a subscriber since this content went secured --- because the NYT is that good --- but on everyone else's behalf at least, I'm glad that it's back out in the open. Do I prefer that people's blogs link to some other unverifiable ranting guy, or to articles in a disciplined and relatively independent paper? Hmm, lets see, difficult choice ... not sure what I think about that ...

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Playing with loaded dice

Consider the contrast between the following news items:

In the New York Times: There is a gene called BRCA1; a woman with a defective copy of this gene has a 60 to 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, and about 50 percent of getting ovarian cancer (cf. 2 percent for other women). It's possible to test for this gene. One woman discussed in the article, a 33-year-old who tested postive --- some of whose relatives came down with cancer in their thirties --- has just had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. She is going to have her ovaries removed when she gets to forty.

All over The Sunday Telegraph (and the evening news): "The Royal Australian Navy is paying for women sailors to have breast enlargements for purely cosmetic reasons, at a cost to taxpayers of $10,000 an operation." The women in question were officers, not enlisted, a point not unnoticed in the online comments. There is something of an irony here: on the Navy's current PR vehicle, the fictitious patrol boat HMAS Hammersley, two out of the three officers are women, remarkably good-looking, and unlikely to win a breast-size contest any time soon. The least the Senior Service could do, it seems to me, is to get its story straight in this important matter.

"Are you happy to pay for this surgery with your taxes? Vote in our home page poll", the Telegraph howls. I would suggest as an alternative that $10,000 per episode of Sea Patrol be removed from the budget for fancy helicopter shots, and spent on a decent script doctor. Because at present, this show is making Patrol Boat look better every day.

Back to the New York Times article (which is extensive and very good, by the way): the story does at least have a hero. Cancer girl, while considering her eventual choice of mastectomies followed by reconstructive surgery, consults her boyfriend:
“Does the thought of plastic surgery bother you?” she asked.

A moment passed.

“It would if I thought the person I was with was doing it because they didn’t like the way they looked,” he said. “But that isn’t this situation.”

Good on you, mate.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Do the math, as they say

Polygamous sects have been in the news recently, with a New York Times article on the vile practice of driving teenage boys out of isolated communities into a wider world they are not equipped to handle, and separating them from their families. Such sects are said to be into control, and so an uneasy relationship with teenage boys is no great surprise; and of course it serves the older men's interest in a more sinister way. Unless men are being lost to war or accident (or expulsion), a community in which all men are expected to take several wives cannot be sustained ... but then, so much the worse for community commitment to such rules. Can't maintain your way of life? Surely the answer is just "Well, that is too bad!"

(Viewers of Big Love will recall that Bill Henrikson was run out of the Juniper Creek compound as a teenager, as a threat to its leader in several senses.)

Meanwhile mainstream Mormons and other folk are in some places learning to co-exist with polygamous sect-members via the classic means of cooperation, and respect for virtuous individuals. In certain senses one cannot argue with this, and nor should one want to. But it provides an interesting test-case for prevailing ideas on tolerance:

Polygamists (and especially their children) should not be subject to relentless taunts, quasi-legal harrassment, or irrelevant discrimination. Amen. Individuals should be treated on their merits, and ideally one should "take them as you find them" in social settings. Sure. Allowance for their customs should be made in forming moral assessments. Well of course, although this is not the same as bracketing polygamy as an issue, or approving of it: as discussed in an earlier post on Bill and Barb's "affair", it's difficult to express a coherent opinion on certain individual actions (I was against the affair) without taking a position on the lifestyle as a whole (I think Bill taking second and third wives was wrong, and the fact that his domestic commitments now prevent him from devoting himself to his first and "true" wife, even despite his feelings, is part of what made it wrong in the first place).

But it is somehow illegitimate to express moral disapproval or criticism of this lifestyle choice, provided it stays within norms of informed consent (and so on)? Um, no. Acceptance of such customs should be taught, for the sake of integration/respect/choice/whatever? Nope, doesn't follow. And so on ...

"Gay marriage" always seems to float around the back of these discussions, and to some extent discussion of polygamy can serve as a proxy for discussion of homosexual partnerships. To me, this last approach seems unhelpful: each case should be treated on its merits. Polygamy is useful to the discussion precisely because it is different, and thus throws our concepts and rhetoric into relief. For example, what does one make of "rights" in this case? What about arguments on "orientation" and "choice"?

Friday, 14 September 2007

Midgley on rights and social ethics

Here is my current author-crush, the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, writing in 1989, near the end of her book Wisdom, information, and wonder: What is knowledge for? (which I've recently been re-reading):
For instance, questions such as euthanasia and abortion are often made unmanageable by being treated in arbitrary isolation, as if they were the only moral issues in sight. They cannot be effectively thought about apart from wider issues. To name just one, they lead us into questions about the emphasis on brute, unreasoning competition that arises from arguing always in terms of absolute, competing `rights', rights which are not brought into intelligible relations within any wider system. They also bring in question the general unrealistic attitude to the inevitability of death which has long prevailed in our society ... But, besides this lack of a proper background, much-litigated questions like these are bedevilled by the disputants' refusal to admit that they are dealing with a genuine conflict, a real choice of evils. Out of the welter of previous argumentation, argumentative people have constantly picked in advance some set of concepts which favours their own attitude, and refused to extend it so as to make recognition of opposing arguments possible ...

The trouble wrought by mere disputatiousness is one of her themes in this book (and indeed throughout her writings), and is a standing challenge to all of us with strong opinions: one must ask, does a boofhead cease to be a boofhead, simply because he/she is an intellectual, or --- even worse --- an activist?

Dawn and the darkness

Dawn is being prepared for launch, after an earlier postponement due to a kind of traffic jam at Cape Canaveral. Good luck for the now-or-never launch window that's about to open ...

(I have posted previously on the Dawn mission and its delay.)

Meanwhile, in orbit of Saturn, Cassini has recently had a bad cosmic ray day, just after a close flyby of the moon Iapetus. It seems to have recovered now, and there's been no loss of data. The manoeuvre was set up using an earlier pass by Saturn's two largest moons, Titan and Rhea, shown here with the sun behind them. (The difference in appearance, due to Titan's atmosphere, is striking.)

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. More information on this image can be found here.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Brave, or foolish?

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has written an article on Jodie Foster and her new film, "The Brave One", which is both sensible and interesting. That's not especially easy.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm looking forward to this film with some trepidation. Ms Foster's best roles recently have been smaller ones, where semi-villainy (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), French (A Very Long Engagement), or if you can believe it Spike Lee (Inside Man) have given her the freedom to interpret a character, rather than perform: in each of those films her work was fresh, even witty, words one doesn't readily associate with her. Yet this new film could not be more central to her oeuvre: a strong woman, made a victim, and then turned Travis Bickle. Yes, I know. It could be a triumph or a fiasco, or just about anything in between.

It's directed by Neil Jordan --- a choice Ms Foster apparently had a hand in --- and that would seem like a good sign. One can only hope, because at the top of her form, and in the right company ...

... I might as well give up on the "Ms Foster" routine right here: it's no secret that I'm a Jodie tragic. At the top of her form, and in the right company, Alicia Christian Foster is one of the greatest actors alive and utterly fascinating. As for this film: fingers crossed.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Ethics in Sydney? Really?

Sydney is the place to be at the moment, if you're interested in ethics. (Now there's something I never thought I'd be writing.)

I'm currently sitting in on a conference on Moral Cognition and Meta-Ethics, which has the aim of bringing together "the various meta-ethical accounts of moral judgement" and understandings of "moral cognition drawn from the sciences". Not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure, but such interdisciplinary discussion is very necessary ... and based on the first half-day, I'll be back for the remainder of the conference.

I then get Monday to catch my breath --- which is as well, since I have other commitments --- and then from Tuesday 4th, the great Oliver O'Donovan will give this year's New College Lectures, Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith. I guess I'll see some of this blog's regular readers there.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

I'm still alive ...

... although you wouldn't know it from reading this blog lately. I've variously been on working holiday in the US, recovering from jetlag, and then nursing a virus (which I guess I picked up by not being careful enough while recovering from jetlag).

There are lots of things to post: with luck I'll find time in the next week or so.

I hope everyone else who took August hols had a good time ...

Monday, 30 July 2007

All together now!


Dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, DUM DE DUM,
Dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, DUM DE DUM,
Dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, DUM DE DUM,
Dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum ...

Wooo hooooooooooo, woooooooo hooooooooo,
Wooo hooo, woo woo hoo hoo he hoooooo,
He hooooo
(dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum)

NAAAAAAAAAAH naah naah naaaaah na na naaaah,
NAAAAAAAH na na naaaah,
NAAAAAAAH na na naaaah,
Na na naaah
(dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum, dum de dum)

Wooooh hooooh, wooooh hooooh, woooh hoooh, wooooh hooooh, wooooh ...

shwhrhzshrshwhrhzshrshwhrhzshrshwhrhzshrshwhrhzshrshwhrhzshr ...

Some friends recently loaned me the DVDs of the first and second series, to catch up on the episodes I've missed. As you can see, I've been enjoying the experience. But nothing has quite matched seeing the credit sequence roll for the first time, at the start of The Unquiet Dead (on an airplane, in fact), and the surprise: "Hey! It's Doctor Who!"

(I wish I could take credit for the idea of this post, but I saw it on a T-shirt once ... or at least, down as far as the "Wooo hooooo" part. And with the TARDIS bouncing along at the bottom, as on a follow-the-bouncing-ball sequence. It was a thing of joy.)

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Angels in America

I finally saw the HBO adaption of Angels in America recently: better late than never. I can see what all the fuss is about, but I must admit that the first chapter did nothing so much as place me in an ill humour. If you're thinking of seeing it, and are neither gay nor Jewish, you may run in to the same problem, but it is worth persevering past the opening instalment. And it helps to know that the original play was subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

There are some truly glorious things about this miniseries:

Al Pacino is extraordinary as Roy Cohn --- lively and terrible and unrepentant --- and the illusionless compassion that the play expresses at the death of this monstrous man is quite moving. Much more so than the usual American TV pieties, because more realistic: and I use the term advisedly, not excluding Meryl Streep's appearance as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

Joe and Harper Pitt's misery is taken seriously, and not patronised. Nor is Joe's Mormon matron of a mother.

And Jeffrey Wright as Belize. If you are going to have a designated truth-telling character, and he's going to be a camp black guy, you might as well do it in style.

But I remain unpersuaded about the angels. Like the confectionary old rabbi whose paean to the immigrant struggle opens the play, the angels are a theatrical conceit and they just don't translate convincingly to film. Not to put too fine a point on it: Emma Thompson does a better job of looking numinous when she doesn't have a silly great pair of wings stuck to her back. And as to the discussion in Heaven, and the angel's messages generally ... OK, OK: on one interpretation, these are the hallucination of a fevered AIDS sufferer, so I should probably cut the scenes some slack.

[For those with a New York Times subscription: Alessandra Stanley's reveiw of the HBO miniseries (2003/11/30) and Frank Rich's review of the theatre production, in both parts (1992/11/10) are both worth reading.]

Tuesday, 17 July 2007


In a surprisingly non-partisan op-ed piece in Tuesday's Herald, Gerard Henderson attacks the current journalistic sport of trying to catch politicians in an "embarrassing" failure of memory, in this manner: "Can you name all of the Senate candidates of your party from [some_random_State]? Your time starts now ...".

There has been a certain amount of this lately, and it serves no respectable purpose. It should just stop.

Monday, 16 July 2007

A proxy war

Like a fool, I interjected in a discussion on military chaplaincy on the Faith and Theology blog last Thursday.

I meant to raise my eyebrow at one correspondent's wholesale argument against chaplaincy --- illegitimate as a Christian ministry even if war itself were justifiable, we were told --- which seemed to cry out for contradiction. I told myself that I was thus engaging in a brief police action, in a good cause.

But now I find myself in the middle of a war-by-proxy, with Pacifism and Just War theory sponsoring the two sides. And I have no exit strategy.

There must be a moral in here somewhere.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

She is a very bad girl

Apparently Helena Bonham-Carter is playing Bellatrix Lestrange in the new Harry Potter film.

[significant pause]

Pardon me while I try to concentrate on whatever else it was I was doing ...

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Dawn will have to wait until September ...

... as stated in this press release. The other information in the previous post on this subject still holds good.

As I understand, there's no fallback period for launch after September-October: by the time Dawn would arrive in the asteroid belt following a late launch, Vesta and Ceres would be too far apart for the spacecraft to visit both of them. [I don't have an authoritative reference for that statement, but I may add one if I get time to look around online in the next week or so.] One hopes that they've cleared their slate in September, and that the weather holds.

Friday, 6 July 2007

ATLAS under construction

There are time-lapse movies of the ATLAS detector under construction on YouTube here, in one minute and two minute versions. They give a better idea of the sheer scale and complexity of the thing, than mere description does.

ATLAS, and the Large Hadron Collider project more generally, was discussed in an earlier post

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Dawn is about to depart

The Dawn spacecraft will be launched on a mission to the asteroid belt in a few days. Check it out at the Dawn website.

Dawn will be the first spacecraft to orbit two separate bodies after leaving the earth. This is a rather difficult thing to do, and the craft can manage it using ion engines: their thrust is low but they are extremely efficient in their use of propellant (more technically: the specific impulse is very high). You leave them switched on more-or-less permanently, and after a few months you are either going like the clappers, or have climbed further out of the gravity well of the sun (or some other body) ... or both.

The targets of the Dawn mission are the two most massive asteroids, Vesta in 2011 and Ceres (now officially classified as a dwarf planet after the recent shakeup in naming) in 2015. These two are about as different as asteroids get, in their characteristics, and so if one is to choose only two targets, this pair is a good pick.

Good luck to the Dawn team ...

Monday, 2 July 2007

Rings Around Saturn

NASA's Cassini probe has been at Saturn for three years now, and the team have celebrated by putting together a slide show. Some of the captions are insufficiently detailed, but there's no quarrelling with the pictures.

(I could hope that this post will attract as many hits as the recent one whose topics included "HBO", "Mormons", and "sex" ... but it probably won't. A shame, that.)

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Let's be honest

I just added "Christianity" to the official subtitle of this blog, as one of its prevailing concerns. Because, let's be honest: who was I kidding by omitting it?

The tendentious nature of much discussion on theo-blogs still dismays me: it sometimes dismays me when I'm engaged in such discussions. I would hope that my own contributions are reasonable, but this is for others to judge ... and it will not do to affect a distance from these discussions which is not supported by the data.

For the record, I have been known to contribute to the following theo-blogs, in roughly this order:

The Blogging Parson (Michael Jensen)

nothing new under the sun (Byron Smith)

hebel (Matt Moffitt)

Faith and Theology (Ben Myers)

My problem is usually with (some of) their interlocutors, rather than these gentlemen themselves.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

The end of the affair

In tonight's episode of Big Love (on SBS) Bill Henrickson had an affair. With his wife. Which was an affair because he is a polygamist, with two other wives who had rights to him on the relevant days, as part of their agreed rotation. Except of course that they are not legally his wives, the Mormon church (and thus Utah) having ditched polygamy in the process of making peace with the rest of the United States. So was it still wrong?

Pretty clearly yes, but to say that without also making some comment about the Henrikson family's wider behaviour is plainly inadequate. The show's writers dramatise this by depicting Bill having the affair with his first wife, rediscovering the extent of his love for her through (get this) a display of her maturity and accomplishment at an official function. "Rejoice in the wife of your youth" says the Scripture (Proverbs 5; specifically verse 18, but context is everything) and that is exactly what Bill is doing. His exhilaration with his wife is the realisation of an ideal, too little matched in real life, and this is what makes the wrongness of his behaviour so hard to admit --- what makes it something to be admitted through gritted teeth. If the affair had been with the gorgeous, immature little third wife Margene, it would instead have been "natural" in a more depressing sense.

This is intelligent drama of a rather high order, the Mormons' moralising gripes about the program notwithstanding. (It's easy for me to say that, of course: it's not my ox that is being gored.) The situation is naturally dramatic; likewise the marginal nature of most of the characters, given the strong conventions within which they are living. Bill is an independent polygamist, rather than a member of an organised group, having been turfed out of the (fictitious) Juniper Creek compound as a teenager; first wife Barb is a regular Mormon by upbringing, and has been dragged semi-willing into this lifestyle after about 10 years of regular marriage; second wife Nikki is the daughter of the compound leader, and a true believer in this sense, but has acquired an uncontrolled taste for the wider world; and Margene by her background is a stranger to any kind of settled family life, and has been sucked into the family almost by accident. One of Bill and Barb's teenage children is old enough to have critically watched all of these events unfold, and is openly opposed to plural marriage. And so on ... it's even more complicated than that, but the complexities have been rather clearly dramatised. It's well executed, in addition to being well-conceived.

I cannot speak to whether the circumstances are in any way credible, even by television standards. I have only ever been acquainted with one Mormon; with no polygamists, to my knowledge; and with only one fan of polyamory (the current secular analogue), and that rather slightly. And as a Christian rather than a Mormon, it is not as if I have a dog in this fight. There was polygamy in the patriarchal period, of course --- that was how it was --- but the Jewish Scripture narrates it with one eyebrow firmly raised, and the Christian church has never felt the need to second-guess that judgement.

But this is yet another example of the new golden age of series television in which we live. Three cheers for HBO. And if I have to pick out anyone from the stellar cast (another notable feature of these times), it must be the exquisitely odd Chloë Sevigny, who seems to know no fear whatsoever. I would not choose to be locked in a room with her, but she deserves some kind of award for the nuance that she brings to her portrayal of Nikki.

(I cannot establish a stable URL for the official response to Big Love on the website of the Mormons, or [their own name for themselves] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But if you go to their website, click on "Newsroom" on the right-hand side, and then do a search on "Big Love", you'll find it.)

Grabowsky and McGann

Paul Grabowsky and Bernie McGann played at the Sound Lounge last night (and also Friday), in an ad hoc quartet filled out with two of the Waples brothers; both nights booked out, although last night they were also letting folk in on standing-room-only tickets ... I haven't seen the place so full.

The first set was good, but the second was outstanding. It was a particular pleasure to see McGann play: at 70, and as a legend, he has absolutely nothing to prove, and his performance reflected that.

Andy and Yelena: thanks for the idea, and for the company. A great night.

Monday, 25 June 2007

The love that dare not speak its name

There is a fascinating exchange on homosexuality and Christian (specifically Catholic) doctrine here, in a recent Commonweal magazine.

The correspondents are, if you can believe it, a straight male theology professor (Luke Timothy Johnson) who advocates acceptance of homosexual relationships, and a lesbian freelance journalist (Eve Tushnet), a recent convert to Catholicism, who stands for the traditional position of the church.

Despite what I initially thought, both of them seem to be on the level. And despite what you might think, both of them are worth reading.

Professor Johnson's responsibly liberal position involves a certain amount of --- let us be frank --- special pleading and tendentious argument. (The references to slavery, for example, are depressingly rote and tone-deaf. If that's not already clear to you, I suggest reading The Letter of Paul to Philemon and then trying to square it against Johnson's statement on the apostle's views.) But Johnson is an unlucky man. He indulges in much less special pleading or tendentious argument than you might expect, and he is clearly trying to be straightforward and plain-speaking. His concern for being faithful to Christian revelation, and faithful to the phenomena, is manifest. And he has put all of his cards on the table, including those which count against his own argument: a refreshing thing, that, in these polemical times. In isolation I would have called his contribution to the discussion a good one, for these and other reasons, but he has had the misfortune to be up against someone who completely outclasses him.

Ms Tushnet is altogether extraordinary. She is rigorous. She is open. She is clear on what is secure in her own understanding, and what is provisional. Honest and critical about her own experience, and speaking with what anyone in our culture would recognise as a kind of authority, she finds that she needs to listen to what Christian (and specifically Catholic) tradition has to say. Reading her words, I am reminded --- quite outside my own experience --- of why I take the Scripture seriously. Of why I take Christian doctrine seriously. This does not happen often.

Her position is a classic example of faith seeking understanding, the great model of Christian thought. Prof. Johnson by contrast is trying to achieve a final position --- to get in all the data --- and one feels the strain. In fairness to him, he will probably think the same thing in five years' time. Ms Tushnet may well think something quite different in five months' time, and as a scientist I can't help feeling that that is an indulgence. But I will still listen willingly to whatever she has to say.


Stepping back from the detail of Prof. Johnson's and Ms Tushnet's positions, there is something deeply Catholic about their whole discussion. I mean that in a good way. It respects reason (and reasonableness), tradition, experience, insight, and beauty, in a way that many Protestant discussions do not. It takes difficulty and obscurity for granted. It is recognisably about a world that real people live in.

As an Anglican, I have the privilege admiring the (Roman) Catholic church from a safe distance. This is something worth doing, and something that my fellow evangelical Christians are depressingly reluctant to do. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, is an honourable exception in this matter, and I note that it is a brave man who would accuse him of being insufficiently Protestant. So what, exactly, is everyone else's problem?

[Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Ben Myers, and his estimable blog Faith and Theology, for a pointer to the Commonweal article.]

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Pheasant Plucking

This afternoon on ABC Classic FM they played The Pheasant Plucking Song. If you're going to indulge in innuendo, you might as well go all-out ...

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Cows With Guns (in claymation)

If you've never heard the comic classic Cows With Guns --- and there's a whole generation that seems not to know it --- there's a claymation adaption on YouTube with the original song as its soundtrack. Some of the claymation is a bit random, but still it's great to see/hear this song doing the rounds again in another medium.

In other claymation news, I only recently discovered the [adult swim] clip depicting What really happened after the Death Star blew up. Hysterically funny.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Back to Jupiter

There is now a proper website for Juno, the second in NASA's New Frontiers programme of medium-class, PI-led missions. NF is a good and necessary scheme: it fills the gap between the cheerful Discovery missions and the seriously expensive flagship efforts like Galileo and Cassini.

Juno seems like an intelligent, practical way to address the gaps in our knowledge of Jupiter: after the Sun, it's the dominant object in the Solar System, and it deserves a second orbiter. Juno is set to use a polar orbit, and a clever set of instruments, to complement Galileo's work and to further chip away at our ignorance.

In other planetary programme news, MESSENGER, on its way to Mercury, made its second flyby of Venus during this last week (one of many gravity assist manoeuvres to get it into Mercury orbit without breaking the bank). En passant it made some cooperative measurements with the ESA's Venus Express, currently in orbit around Earth's evil twin. It's good to see the inner solar system getting some attention as well.

Three cheers for the SES

The local branch of the New South Wales State Emergency Service spent the better part of Saturday at my place, together with a very big commercial crane, lifting a tree off the roof of my neighbours' townhouse. To be precise, the tree was leaning against the edge of the second-storey roof, having taken out a fence, the gutter, about ten tiles, and associated support beams. One metre further, and my neighbours' second bedroom would have been smashed open and under an inch of rainwater.

The SES generally has been busy in the last couple of days, with wild weather all along the coast and elsewhere. The rain is scheduled to last for at least another week, so there will be no rest for the wicked.

My last dealings with the SES were at a Cave Rescue Weekend more than fifteen years ago, in a late-adolescent flirtation (which would be surprising to some of my more recent friends) with the insanely dangerous pastime of recreational caving. In general, as a city boy, I don't have much cause to cross these guys' path, but I have always liked them. Even in this day and age, the work is voluntary. Respect.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Charm mixing in Physical Review Letters

My experimental collaboration, Belle, has a paper presenting evidence for the mixing of charm mesons (D0 and anti-D0) in the current issue of Physical Review Letters.

This is an example of matter turning into antimatter, and vice versa. There are four known mesons for which this can occur without "breaking the rules", and the D0 system is the last of the four in which the effect has been observed. A related phenomenon may, or may not, occur among the neutrinos. (Mixing is known to occur between different neutrino types [called "flavours"], a process usually known as neutrino oscillation due to its characteristic signature. It's still unresolved whether neutrinos and anti-neutrinos mix.) It's a pretty big deal in any case, especially for those of us who've devoted time to studying the charm sector. Mixing is one of the principal concerns of the research group I founded at Belle (and ran for many years), and so finding it is a milestone for us. And personally, when a paper has taken a large fraction of your life for a year or more, it's very satisfying for it to be completed.

A semi-technical summary of the work is available in the news section of the CERN Courier. Our paper is PRL 98, 211803, also available as a preprint at arXiv:hep-ex/0703036. The competing experiment, BaBar, presents a different kind of evidence for the same phenomenon in a paper published back-to-back with ours. These results were the talk of the conference at the electroweak session of this year's Rencontres de Moriond in March, when they were first announced, and have provoked a lot of theoretical discussion since.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

A German beer trail

A recent article in the NYT describes a three-city beer crawl the correspondent took through Germany: Cologne, Leipzig, and Bamberg. It's good work if you can get it.

Despite having done German at school, I've spent little time in the country, and Bamberg is the only one of the three cities I've visited. I can certainly endorse the writer's comments about the local specialty, rauchbier: it really is extraordinary stuff. I don't know about "liquid bacon" as a description, since that makes it seem over-the-top. But I've had people look at me strangely when I wax lyrical about "smoked beer", trying to work out what that could possibly mean. (For the record: apparently the malt is wood-smoked.) All I can say is, try it.

My Lonely Planet guide advised dividing one's time on a short German trip between Bavaria and Berlin, with a stopover in Bamberg [or another town, whose name I've forgotten, as an alternate] along the way. I have no quarrel with that advice. Bamberg is a delightful town for a quick visit, pleasant in aspect and with a great variety of architecture in a limited space that can be walked in a day ... and the beer is like nothing else going. The food was great too.

To my delight, when I was working in Blackburg VA for several months, I discovered that one could buy Schlenkerla Rauchbier from a specialist alcohol merchant there. I've not found it anywhere else. If anyone knows how to source it in Sydney, I'd be very glad to know.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Let's talk about sex (in the NYT)

In a minor miracle, a guest columnist in the New York Times has written an op-ed on sex and contraception that abstains from the culture war. Not a single shot is fired.

Something has to give of course: the writer (a surgeon) manages his unlikely feat by taking a shot instead at the entire political class in the States:
One statistic seems to me to give the lie to all the rhetoric about abortion, and it’s this: one in three women under the age of 45 have an abortion during their lifetime. One in three. All politicians ... say they want to make abortion at least rare ... But it’s clear they haven’t been serious ...

The burden of the argument is then that individuals need to get serious: parents, certainly, but really adults in general. (I knew that abortion was chiefly an adult issue, but I didn't know the numbers: apparently only 7% of abortions in the US occur in minors.)

Just about everyone, no doubt, would have things that they might want to say on the question, that the article leaves out. But the writer is 100% for real on all of the things that he does say. On this topic, I'll count that as a result.

(Sorry, but columnists in the NYT are in the Times Select paid section. So this is another free ad.)

Friday, 18 May 2007

The problem with Dawkins (the other one)

The other Dawkins, that is. From today's editorial in the Herald:
The Dawkins restructure of university education reduced higher education from two tiers to one, transforming or amalgamating the former colleges of advanced education into new universities, or separate institutes within existing universities. With hindsight, this development was probably a mistake.

Oh really? With hindsight it was probably a mistake? There was never anything about the idea of taking disparate institutions and calling them the same thing, that seemed like a mistake at the time?

The LHC in the news

The Large Hadron Collider has been in the news lately, with half a page in the SMH a few weeks ago, and big articles in the current New Yorker, and the New York Times science pages.

The LHC is the world's next big particle physics endeavour, and due to switch on soon; my colleagues in the particle physics groups at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne are working on one of the experiments there, ATLAS.

The NYT article is quite ambitious, skating over a lot of ground; it also manages to be quite jaunty. And in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words, it links to a beautiful interactive graphic that clearly distinguishes the general-purpose experiments (ATLAS and CMS) from the specialist ones (LHCb and ALICE), and explains what the detectors are doing.

The New Yorker article misses out on things like this, giving the impression (for example) that there are four experiments doing basically the same thing. I actually have a bunch of gripes with the New Yorker article: it disses the CERN cafeteria; it canvasses the idea that the LHC could destroy the world in an ice-nine-type catastrophe (it seems we'll never be free of that one); and it indulges a theoretical particle physicist in a theorist-as-performance-artist act, which is getting a little old. But if that's the worst I can say about a seven-page article in my own field, then it is clearly doing something right. The writer is engaged with the subject; she has talked to a variety of people; she is thinking.

There are, however, some bad thoughts expressed in memorable language, that seem destined to live forever. The New Yorker repeats the dread line that all science is either physics or stamp-collecting: an idea utterly without merit, but still in circulation. But what goes around can come around. Today's (Thursday's) NYT editorial on the LHC contemplates a scenario where the project fails, putting another nail in the coffin of the Age of Physics, in favour of the Age of Biology.

Yeah, right. Physicists, like everyone, are a menace when they get arrogant. So what should we do about it? Hey! I know! Let's replace them with arrogant biologists ...

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Europa Rising

Europa rising above Jupiter’s cloud tops at 11:48 UTC on 28th February, six hours after the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest approach to the giant planet.

It's longer than usual since I've checked the NH site; this image was posted on 1st May. A summary of a NASA Science Update given then, and lots of pretty and informative pics, are also posted.

New Horizons is a small probe --- inevitably described as being the size and roughly the shape of a grand piano --- which was put on a big rocket and flung towards to outer solar system to finally visit Pluto and, we hope, some other residents of the Kuiper Belt. It was actually thrown towards a precise rendezvous with Jupiter, passing just behind that planet to pick up speed on its way. (This now-standard technique for getting around the solar system is nicely discussed in the gravity assist page at the website of another spacecraft, Cassini.) The encounter has been used as a trial run for the Pluto encounter, and to do work in the Jovian system, which has been without its own orbiter since the Galileo mission was spectacularly wound up in September '03.

The NH site states that this picture "was one of a handful of the Jupiter system that New Horizons took primarily for artistic, rather than scientific, value."

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Sunday, 6 May 2007

In praise of Parker Posey

The summer movie season in the States is on its way, and the New York Times is celebrating with a dedicated section.

Highlights are a profile of Parker Posey, who is always worth watching; an essay by Manohla Dargis on what's right with blockbusters, and A.O.Scott's characteristically precise gripe about movie adaptions of old TV programs.

And for Firefly/Serenity fans: Nathan Fillion is one of five actors singled out for special praise, for his performance in Waitress.

The Trouble with Principle

I am currently involved in a discussion on liberalism (in politics) and the role of principle (in ethics), courtesy of The Blogging Parson.

The initial posts by TBP are almost always well-informed and provocative, and lend themselves to further discussion. I guess this makes it a good blog, my semi-frequent grumbles with the content notwithstanding.

Friday, 4 May 2007

I shall call him MiniBooNE

On email today with a colleague, I've been discussing the somewhat surprising/frustrating/tantalising result posted at arXiv:0704.1500 [hep-ex] by the BooNE neutrino experiment. Well, actually, the current experiment is called MiniBooNE, which is a bit unfortunate. (In their defence, I think their idea pre-dates Mike Myers'.)

MiniBooNE was set up to test the results of the LSND experiment, which <short version>found evidence for neutrino oscillations, but evidence that didn't fit with all of the other positive neutrino-oscillation results we've been seeing; and over the years, the disconnect has been getting worse</short version>. The idea of MiniBooNE was to come at the same physics using a different approach, and either reach the same conclusion or not --- let the data decide.

Trouble is, the MiniBooNE data (for which we have waited for a long time) are confusing. The simplest explanation of LSND will not wash, but we already knew that; some convoluted explanations of LSND are still hard to rule out, which we probably suspected; and there is an unexpected anomaly in the MiniBooNE data which looks like either (a) they have missed something, or (b) something very interesting is going on.

It has been difficult to have a sensible conversation about LSND for a long time. MiniBooNE was supposed to make it easier, whereas for now, it has made it more difficult. I for one am waiting for their next paper, and the one after that, and hoping they shed some light.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Colony collapse disorder

According to an article in the NYT science section, honeybee colonies in the US and elsewhere are collapsing, with one-quarter of the colonies in the States already lost. There are various suspects --- fungi and chemicals and so on --- some of them currently helping the police with their enquiries (as it were), but no-one has been charged as yet.

How is it that I am only just hearing about this? This is pretty serious stuff.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Teach your children well

From a meditation in the NYT on giving advice to children & teens, written from a working mother's perspective:
When we talk to our children about sex, about alcohol and drugs, or about the dangers of the Internet, we give them limitations and warnings. But when it comes to the subject of work, we tell them that they can be whatever they aspire to be; that they should aim high, work hard and dream big.

What we rarely do is tell them how hard some days are. Or that along the road, they might have to compromise, or detour, or backtrack. To warn them would be to discourage them. Or so our thinking goes. ...

Age shall not weary them

Jack Nicholson is seventy. It seems as though there must have been a mistake somewhere.

The film section of the Guardian (the source of the Nicholson retrospective linked above) also has an interview with Natalie Portman, who is about to turn 26: an equally odd thought, although the occasion is of course less of a big deal. The article is much concerned with age issues, which is a little predictable, but it does manage a sensible and measured discussion of her parts in Léon and Beautiful Girls, which is no mean feat.

I am over NP. Like a certain other promising actress who gave a few stellar performances as a teen, there is simply no way to see what the fuss is about, on the basis of the last five or six years. Mercifully, Jack hasn't shown interest in either of them, so far as I know.

For the sheer pleasure of the quote: Elvis Mitchell in the NYT, discussing the film Blade II:
And the vampires are still the kind of chic Versace-ridden Eurotrash you see dwelling in the most perilous areas of nightclubs; they're the type usually inhabiting the V.I.P. sections, secreted behind the velvet ropes with Jack Nicholson.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

The Condition of France

On the occasion of the French presidential election (or at least, its first round) I've been reading an excellent article by Alain Supiot, from the University of Nantes, in an LRB from the middle of last year. Despite its title, it's really about Europe, and the West generally, and our current predicament.

I'm afraid you need a subscription to read the full article: the website only shows the first paragraph. So consider this an ad. I will allow myself this brief quote, about the decay of western institutions, especially political ones:
Put less colourfully, de-institutionalisation produces idiocy, in the original sense of the word --- confinement within the self, loss of contact with the real world and an inability to subscribe to a shared meaning ... This phenomenon is made worse by the endogamy of the ruling class, since a single `noblesse d'état' monopolises the exercise of political, economic and media power.

This situation is not peculiar to France, but rather forms part of a fundamental tendency to see the law as merely a neutral instrument, a product that everyone ought to be able to use in the service of their individual interests...

Thursday, 19 April 2007

One reason I love the LRB

There is an excellent article on the science of global warming (on the excuse of speaking to books on the subject) in the publicly-available section of the London Review of Books: look for Warmer, Warmer on the RHS. With a little more effort, one can also navigate to a public article on The Political Economy of Carbon Trading from the subsequent edition. As a scientist, I have less of a feel for this second subject, but the article does seem eminently sensible.

I present these as Exhibits A and B for the case that one can write an accessible article on a technical subject, and still write for grown-ups. The LRB includes this sort of piece from time to time, usually to a very high standard. Medical/epidemiological articles tend to be written by tame experts (and the articles are superb), but those on general scientific subjects seem to be written by informed layfolk (scientifically speaking) who go off and swot. Maybe the Two Cultures are finally drawing together again.

The few times I've dipped into The Economist, I've also found the science and technology section to be of an excellent standard --- to my pleasant surprise --- and less uncritical than some of the science press. So let's give credit where credit is due.

P.S. If you plan to read the new Ian McEwan novel On Chesil Beach, best not to first read Colm Tóibín's review (also on the LRB website). Word to the wise.


Miranda Devine's ability to spoil an argument never ceases to amaze me.

In an op-ed article in today's SMH she mounts a critique of "try before you buy" cohabitation, hanging it on the Windsor-Middleton breakup the way one hangs a coat on a peg. One first has to wade through a page of tut-tutting at British snobbery: all very entertaining, but surely it's absurd if egalitarian sentiment becomes an excuse for feeling superior to the upper class?

She eventually makes a good point, if scarcely a new one: cohabitation, considered from the outside, seems scarcely in women's interest and "gives all the advantages to men". Very well, but what follows from this?

According to Ms Devine, it follows that If Middleton had really wanted to marry William she never should have set up house with him. Smart girls don't give away marital perks free. Really? Smart girls? Marital perks?

A critique of an institution is, by itself, no guide to individual behaviour. Ms Middleton is no more able to single-handedly change her social environment than any of us, but must act in the place and time she is given.

The naff reference to "smart girls" casts this as a matter of calculation, so let's be calculating. KM may have been trying out some merchandise of her own. Fancy being married to the heir to the throne, ladies? Not sure? Then perhaps you might want to try the role on for size, without making an irreversible commitment. It might be a way of finding out if you really do want to marry the guy, with all that implies. And at the risk of an obvious statement, KM may have been unenthusiastic about living through her twenties in celibacy. Is there anyone who doesn't feel some sympathy on that score? Anyone?

So perhaps the "New Rules" rhetoric is just a wrapper, and MD's real goal is a moral one, seeking to tie sex and commitment closer together. As a Christian, of course I sympathise. But one needs a fairly broad vision of the problem for this to make sense. If one is merely acting in a market, and the market is unchanged, then principles slow you down. There is such a thing as lonely virtue.

The problem is that many people don't feel ready to marry in their twenties, or would not feel supported in such a choice. This is almost certainly a criticism of our society; it may well (say it in a small voice!) be a criticism of ourselves. One is still left with the question of what to do. Marriage (and cohabitation for that matter) is a social phenomenon and I would have thought it an excellent start to broaden the frame of reference. Perhaps we can act differently as families, or groups of friends, or subcultures, or workplaces (!), and provide a milieu where an older-fashioned choice makes sense.

But to jump straight to how-the-individual-should-act is to claim that it is never prudent, or wise, or good, or even the lesser of two evils, to compromise with a flawed institution. This is ethical nonsense, and that makes it bad advice.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

A moment's silence

I used to work for Virginia Tech, so sadly in the news today because of the killings on its campus. Enough is going to be said about these things, and I don't wish to add to it, except to pause for a moment out of respect to those who lost their lives.

May God have mercy on us all.

A reluctant blog

I never was an early adopter. After 13 years or more on the web, I still write my HTML by hand, and until this moment I haven't had a blog --- until six months ago, I had never even posted to one. In the nineties I was the web responsible for my university department, and since then I've written up popular lectures and film reviews for my home page; and the web is something I use extensively for work. But something in me has resisted its more popular forms.

Maybe it's particle-physicist snobbery: we invented the thing, and now it's completely out of our hands, and often contrary to our values. Or maybe it's that, being an opinionated person, I've been afraid of ending up as one more ranting guy at a keyboard. But in any case, I started posting to some friends' blogs a while back, and the sky did not fall in. So it seems like it's time to give this a try for myself.

As for the title, taking things seriously is what physicists do, and taking things seriously is something I've been doing, to the occasional dismay of my friends, all my life. I hope it doesn't exclude having a sense of humour, but that's for others to judge.