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.