Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…

Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar header image 2

Entries Tagged as 'Nobel'

Quark open marriage

May 13th, 2016 · Comments Off on Quark open marriage

Sidney Coleman poker game, 2007
Wikipedia is not a blog. Fortunately, this blog of mine IS a blog, and it’s my blog, and I made it. So I can say what I want.

I just posted some (likely soon-to-be-deleted) comments to a talk page in Wikipedia, praising a 2011 book by Oxford’s Frank Close, The Infinity Puzzle. His book just arrived at our doorstep today–mail can be slow here!

I heard through the grapevine that the book had a lively chapter about 2004’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Frank Wilczek (my husband, so forgive me for putting him first), his thesis advisor David Gross, and the grad student of a dear friend of ours (Sidney Coleman) named David Politzer. Frank Close bases his account on interviews with all three of the laureates in question. Not surprisingly, there are some contradictions among the different accounts, about who said what to whom in 1973.

I don’t remember much about “asymptotic freedom” in 1973, but I do remember the excitement of first seeing Sidney Coleman that springtime in 1973, wearing a green velveteen suit in Princeton’s upmarket streets. Or Sidney’s suit might have been purple, I know he had both. My young soon-to-be-husband Frank Wilczek pointed him out to me as one of the grand sights of universal great science, and I was glad to be impressed by this eccentric genius. Here are some more memories, from my (most likely soon to be deleted) comments:

In the summer of 1973, after the initial papers all had been published, Sidney Coleman (thesis advisor to David Politzer) lectured as usual at the Erice Summer School. Frank Wilczek, who had turned 22 in May 1973, and who had married me on July 3, 1973, left for Erice on July 4, 1973, where he served as the “secretary” for Sidney’s lectures. Frank won the prize that summer as “best student,” so his airfare and all fees were paid for. When I learned this, I said, “If we had known this would happen, we could have afforded for me to go to Erice with you.” Frank said, “Betsy, if you had been there, I would never have won that prize.” He is probably right! I imagine the lecture notes from that particular summer school would also be a useful resource on the history of this topic.
“Asymptotic freedom,” as a description of quark interactions, is a term coined by Sidney Coleman. Sidney had a bigger vocabulary than any 5 normal people of your common acquaintance, but in later years he jokingly said to Frank, “I did you a bad turn when I suggested that name.” What would have been better, I wonder, in an era of god particles and theories of everything? Left as an exercise to the reader.

Wikipedia lists “asymptotic freedom” as an article of medium importance. With such an incomprehensible and boring name, it is lucky to get to “medium”! What if it had been named “Theory of Everything”? I am sure that in 1973, nobody yet had claimed that descriptor. Or “Theory of Negativity” (since the beta function has negative sign)? That could surely have sparked some op-eds and sage disagreement from non-science pundits.

Even those names are inadequate now, when so much of science has become marketing (as can also be said for politics and even university practice.) Today, any science theory needs a name that combines relevance with edgy assertive “please quote me on this.”

Maybe, “quark open marriage”? You heard it here first.

p.s. Frank is asleep now, so don’t blame him for my indiscretions.

p.p.s. We both miss our friend Sidney Coleman, who died before Frank Close’s book was published. Sidney’s widow Diana Coleman remains a dear friend, and an energetic organizer of Sidney-memorial poker games. Diana is working with Sidney’s former student David Kaiser on a book of Sidney’s letters, which I am sure will be wonderful!

Tags: Frank Wilczek · Nobel · Science

Polish honors for Frank’s Polish grandfather

December 10th, 2008 · Comments Off on Polish honors for Frank’s Polish grandfather

Jan and Franciszka Wilczek

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Frank Wilczek’s grandfather Jan Wilczek joined Haller’s Army in 1919 and served with them as a private until 1920, fighting first in Galicia and later on the Russian front. In honor of Grandpa Wilczek’s service, the Polish War Veterans in America gave Frank a beautiful bronze Paderewski medal last night. Frank’s uncle Walter Wilczek also shared in the honor.

Many thanks to the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in America and to its hard-working president Thaddeus Gromada for organizing a remarkable evening of Polish surprises and to Poland’s Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzyk for hosting it. PIASA organized the event on the occasion of its own Casimir Funk Award for natural sciences, an honor first given to chemistry Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann, who gave Frank his award last night.

Thanks also to the Association of Polish-American Engineers (Polonia Technica) and Poland’s National Academy for honoring Frank and the Wilczek family’s Warsaw-Galicia-and-other-Polish origins. In fact, thanks to everyone who made this evening so special.

There’s a longer translation of this document’s Polish on this photo’s Flickr page.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · Nobel · Wide wonderful world

Thumbs up for Nambu, big thumbs down to Reuters

October 8th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Frank Wilczek and Yoichiro Nambu

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

What wonderful news that Yoichiro Nambu finally got a Nobel Prize! Frank and I were just beaming at each other when the announcement came. It felt like having the Red Sox win the World Series, although minus the cars honking and people screaming in Harvard Square.

Frank is a big admirer of Nambu, whose work he praised in in a postcript to his own 2004 Nobel Lecture (pdf):

I’d like to mention specifically a trio of physicists whose work was particularly important in leading to ours, and who have not (yet?) received a Nobel Prize for it. These are Yoichiro Nambu, Stephen Adler, and James Bjorken. Those heroes advanced the cause of trying to understand hadronic physics by taking the concepts of quantum field theory seriously, and embodying them in specific mechanistic models, when doing so was difficult and unfashionable.

In fact, Nambu won the prize yesterday for a different part of his work, which just goes to show how brilliant and creative he is. I hope he will have as lovely a time in Stockholm as we did; it is a wonderful party.
Meanwhile, I quickly uploaded my own snapshot of Nambu to Wikipedia. And that photo soon went to the front page of Wikipedia, which delighted me. But it also soon went up all over the Google News with a credit to Reuters instead of to Betsy Devine and/or Wikipedia. That is a violation of the photo’s license, and I think that Reuters should be ashamed of itself.

Tags: Nobel · Wide wonderful world · wikipedia

Oxford Ig Nobel aftermath

March 7th, 2008 · Comments Off on Oxford Ig Nobel aftermath

After the Ig Nobel road show 2

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Last night in Oxford’s Martin Wood Theatre, Marc Abrahams kicked off the 11th annual Ig Nobel tour of the UK with a free Oxford show.

I think you can tell which cast member is the sword swallower (Dan Meyer)–to his right are Fiona Barclay (periodic table table) and Jim Gundlach (effects of country music on suicide.)

In the front row, Dan Meyer’s medical co-winner Brian Witcombe and
Caroline Richmond, who writes colorful obituaries for the BMJ. She told a questioner that she does get some protests, citing one doctor’s family who “took exception to my use of the phrase ‘snake-oil salesman’.”

John Hoyland, who writes funny stuff for the journal New Scientist, gave a great talk but left before the group photo–and Ig-Meister Marc Abrahams was with me taking photos instead of appearing in them.

Advice: if you attend any later show on the Ig tour, do not leave before the bank-robber promotional video.

Tags: Nobel · Science · Wide wonderful world

The funny Ig Nobel one, not the ignoble Nobel one

January 19th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Nobel and Ig Nobel together at last

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Here you see Frank with New Zealand’s own James Watson–no, not the infamous James Watson biology Nobel but the deservedly honored (with a 2005 Ig Nobel Prize) author of a paper on Mr. Richard Buckley’s exploding trousers.

New Zealand is a lovely land full of surprises, whose only non-good surprise has been just how hard it is to get internet access even from hotels that advertise “broadband internet.”

Item: Palmerston North Coachman Hotel, where we paid for “broadband wifi” and then discovered that the signal didn’t reach as far as our room.

Item: Albany Executive Inn, just north of Auckland, which charges $4 for your first 20 Meg per day and $.15 more for every Meg on top of that level. Heck, 20 Meg hardly covers my uploads to Flickr!

Item: Jet Park Airport Hotel south of Auckland, which offers broadband in only “deluxe” rooms, and charges an extra $26 per day if you use it.

New Zealand is not alone in the problem, of course. Our worst “yes, we have internet” story was near Poitiers in France, in a lovely chateau (it was not our nickel) where the “internet” was one computer behind the front desk, the very computer where all the chateau’s daily business was done. But if you wanted to check email, the clerk would kindly let you sit in her chair a few minutes and try to access your email through her very slow telephone modem.

Tomorrow, however, we move on to even less internet. Our hotel on the Coromandel Peninsula has “internet” in the sense that you get 20 minutes each day to check up on your email. That’s 5 minutes per Wilczek, since all four of us will be together, something I’m incredibly happy about.

So if my blog goes a bit silent next week, don’t assume that sharks got me–I’ll have lots more to tell you about once we get back online.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · Nobel · Travel · Wide wonderful world

Over the edge appearance on Swedish TV

December 15th, 2007 · Comments Off on Over the edge appearance on Swedish TV

Waiting to be on TV

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

I should not neglect to mention (although I am tempted) that Frank and I both made multiple appearances on December 10 on Swedish TV 4.

Late in the evening, Anna Björn re-interviewed us about what had been the best and worst Nobel bits of 2004. In case you missed it, the worst for me was worrying about walking down multiple marble staircases. The best was how charming everybody Swedish is (including HRH Prince Carl Philip) and going to the Green Frog Lucia Ball on December 13.

When the interviewers thanked us, and our car was waiting, and had been waiting for fifteen minutes, I took a step backward and stepped off the fairly high platform, almost but not quite falling on my black ball-gowned behind. On live TV.

Everybody that I know in Sweden seems to have seen this.

And to judge from their reminiscent smiles when I ask if they saw this, my almost-fall was a high point of Nobel late night TV.

Anyone who wants to give near-universal satisfaction on TV should really consider this quite simple method.

Actually falling might have given even more pleasure…

Tags: Nobel · Sweden · Wide wonderful world

Good time being had by all

December 14th, 2007 · Comments Off on Good time being had by all

Good time being had by all

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Maybe this photo is a little blurry, but it was late night and near the end of a wonderful party, the Stockholm University Student Union’s Luciabal for their “Order of the Ever Smiling and Jumping Green Frog.”

Many thanks to the students who invited us (again), especially to Per Marcus and also to his brother Mårten.

Not that either of them is at all visible in this photo.

Good night.

Tags: Nobel · Sweden · Wide wonderful world

Vikings with chests full of big medals and golden chains

December 13th, 2007 · Comments Off on Vikings with chests full of big medals and golden chains

In Second Life we both look even more glamorous

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

They call it “white tie” but many also wear their honors, ribbons or brooches or long chains with giant gold medals.

The most festooned among male guests look like ancestral Vikings with trophies of plunder.

Meanwhile, back at Stockholm’s huge palace, I was just getting up to the border between France and Norway when first Al Gore (in my blog) and last night’s Nordita Nobel dinner party (in real life) broke off my narrative.

Nobel events come with extra one-ups of high protocol, strict and careful ordering of where everyone sits or stands and with whom one parades.

Once you get to the palace, the protocol deepens and thickens, as if layers of old marble had been wrapped up in more layers of tapestry.

Just to mention the most intimidating example: the end of your evening is signaled by loud, loud crashes from ceremonial walking sticks banged on the floor by elegant men in fine uniforms. It’s the signal for honored but non-royal guests to flee quickly back to the non-royal side of the room so their Majesties can bow solitary farewell.

There are few things more comforting, in such an atmosphere of does-the-whole-world-except-me-know-these-rules, than being escorted to dinner by the hugely and handsomely ribboned-and-medaled Norwegian Ambassador Odd L. Fosseidbråten, someone who really does probably know all the rules.

And sitting between two ambassadors feels even safer, most especially between the contrasting but both very charming ambassadors of Norway and France. (This handsome Viking is neither of those two ambassadors.)

Both Odd Fosseidbråten and French counterpart His Excellency Monsieur Denis Delbourg are near the end of their terms as ambassador. (“Past my sell-by date” was the smiling description from one of them.) It was fascinating to hear each one’s warm perspective on Sweden intertwined with historical ties to his own country. But diplomatic careers don’t keep you too long in the one lovely place. The fresh ambitions when one arrives somewhere new are a precious resource to both host and source country. Over time, it becomes hard not to settle down on your laurels. Meanwhile, young diplomats need their own chance to shine.

So now I do think I know what is the diplomat’s “job.” It is to gather up knowledge, will, and empathy so that you can act strongly for your own country while recognizing and valuing what will be important to somebody’s different country. Of course nobody I met said anything like this (and if they had would have framed it in less-flowered language.)

I am just trying to interpret the metadata.

Now it’s time to get ready for tonight’s Green Frog ball.

Tags: Nobel · Sweden · Wide wonderful world

“The future is knocking at our door…”

December 12th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Ice crystals in polarized light

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Al Gore’s Nobel Lecture includes a Nobel story that I didn’t know:

Sometimes, without warning, the future knocks on our door with a precious and painful vision of what might be. One hundred and nineteen years ago, a wealthy inventor read his own obituary, mistakenly published years before his death. Wrongly believing the inventor had just died, a newspaper printed a harsh judgment of his life’s work, unfairly labeling him “The Merchant of Death” because of his invention – dynamite. Shaken by this condemnation, the inventor made a fateful choice to serve the cause of peace.

Seven years later, Alfred Nobel created this prize and the others that bear his name.

The whole speech is worth reading, not least for Al Gore’s reminder that “political will is a renewable resource.”

Well worth remembering, as our shared future ticks closer.

Tags: Nobel · Science · Wide wonderful world

The very enjoyable border of France with Norway

December 12th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Map of northern Europe that puts France next to Norway

On December 10, toward the end of the Nobel evening and wine, some remarks of wisdom ensued over our brandy glasses.

The considered advice of Nobel laureate Barry Sharpless was that zinc gluconate is an excellent preventive medicine.

My finest advice was that sleeping in really cold bedrooms is like free marriage therapy eight hours in each twenty-four. (I’m not sure now this would work for Europeans, if they have separate-but-equal duvets. It is based on experience in American big beds.)

Then Barry and I turned hopefully to Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Foreign Minister in both real and Second Life, who was (during his stint as Sweden’s Prime Minister) the first head of state ever to send out an email to another head of state, in that particular case US President Bill Clinton. (I found this out from Mr. Google, not from Carl Bildt.) But instead of advice, he imparted some meta-wisdom that I am still thinking about.

He said, “People imagine that the job of a diplomat is being polite to foreigners. That is not the job.”

So last night, when I found myself seated in Stockholms Slottet on the very enjoyable border of France with Norway (between the distinguished ambassadors to Sweden from those two large glamorous countries), I did interesting research into Carl Bildt’s statement.

But this blogpost is already long enough. More wisdom (I hope) will flow after I do some packing.

Tags: Nobel · Sweden · Wide wonderful world