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

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Entries Tagged as 'Science'

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

Scientific diaspora

February 18th, 2015 · Comments Off on Scientific diaspora

Exiles in 1732, from Wikimedia Commons

Exiles in 1732, from Wikimedia Commons

The US in the 1930s and 40s inherited the educational wealth of exiled German scientists. In the 1970s and 80s, we inherited the scientific wealth of a disintegrating Soviet Union.

Now the US is headed toward the losing side of this equation.

Once we valued education and research. Now US funding for both gets worse with every passing year. Young scientists are hit hardest. Research and teaching jobs in the US are going away.

Frank and I were recently in China, where by contrast the government eagerly invests in universities and academic research. It hasn’t happened yet, but I think countries like China (and Sweden, etc.) are on the brink of inheriting the educational wealth of the United States as young people who want to do science become economic exiles.

Tags: politics · Science

First Nobel gold for Higgs? 10 chocolate coins

October 6th, 2012 · 1 Comment

Nobel gold chocolate coins by betsythedevine
Nobel gold chocolate coins, a photo by betsythedevine on Flickr.

Back in 2005, Uppsala Castle hosted a gala physics dinner where two MIT physics professors, Frank Wilczek and Janet Conrad got into some jokey trash talk about the existence (or not) of Higgs particles. Years later, neither one could clearly remember all the details, but one scribbled notepad recorded details of a bet between Frank and Janet about when, whether, and at what energy, a Higgs particle would be found.

Frank bet Nobel chocolate medals, at 100 to 10 odds, that CERN would find a Higgs before the end of 2012 with a mass less than 150 geV. And in July 2012, ATLAS, CMS, and Fermilab all announced finding the same Higgs-like signature at about 125 geV. So Janet conceded and gave Frank his prize: 10 golden Nobel chocolates, at another lovely festive event at Uppsala Castle.

And I even got one of these pieces of chocolate for having suggested the second Uppsala Castle Higgs particle party, as recorded in this YouTube of Frank’s talk there.

Although Frank was dubious about this party idea, I sent email to Uppsala physicist Antti Niemi, asking if he didn’t think Uppsala might enjoy being part of the end of this story — and the rest was history, by which I mean hard work by Antti and by Uppsala University’s Tord Ekelof to bring this idea to fruition. A very good time was had by all the participants, including an audience of about 500 people who came to hear talks by Tord, Frank, Janet, and Fabiola Gianotti, the head of ATLAS at CERN.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · funny · Science · Wide wonderful world

I miss Sci Foo already

August 15th, 2011 · Comments Off on I miss Sci Foo already

Liquid galaxy coming soon from Google by betsythedevine
Liquid galaxy coming soon from Google, a photo by betsythedevine on Flickr.

Hallway display at Google. Big screens, big VR-panorama scrollable city images that look 3D but sides of buildings etc. are based on projections from Google Earth data, not on street view. If you look closely you see cars are very flat.

I asked if I could take a picture and was told ok. I think they set it up Sunday morning while we were in the 10 a.m. Sci Foo session, because I surely would have noticed seeing this before. The name of this wonderful toy is Liquid Galaxy.

I miss Sci Foo already. Thank you, O’Reilly team, Google team, Timo Hannay team, and everybody I met there for being amazing. I told Cat Allman the best part was introducing wonderful people to other wonderful people they needed to meet. She said, “I love that too.” Of course she does, that’s what Sci Foo is really about.

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world

Here’s looking at you, squid!

August 13th, 2011 · Comments Off on Here’s looking at you, squid!

Here's looking at you, squid! by betsythedevine
Here’s looking at you, squid!, a photo by betsythedevine on Flickr.

“May I photograph your squid?” One of those things heard at SciFoo, rarely heard in other places.

William Gilly was showing the insides of a Humboldt squid to interested folks.

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world

Data Visualization Show and Tell

August 13th, 2011 · Comments Off on Data Visualization Show and Tell

Data Visualization Show and Tell by betsythedevine
Data Visualization Show and Tell, a photo by betsythedevine on Flickr.

Session I’m organizing, for which I should be finishing up my own talk. Bye!

Chris Lintott gave a great talk about Galaxy Zoo at last year’s session but had a schedule conflict with this week’s slot.

Who’s who on the poster:
* Rick Cavallaro of
* Debra Lieberman of
* Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik neuroscience and magic
* Bradley Voytek
* David Rothenberg NJIT musician showing sonograms
* Adam Nieman Futurelab, concrete imagery
* Aaron Koblin Google Data Arts team
* Yossi Matias also of Google who will talk about really massive data sets is
not on this poster but also recruited to speak.

Tags: scifoo2011, scifoo, #scifoo, #scifoo2011, #amitaggingthisright?

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world

Double helix … in our stars or in our selves?

August 23rd, 2010 · Comments Off on Double helix … in our stars or in our selves?

L0029145 Detail of foilio showing Capricorn and Aquarius wit

Originally uploaded by medicospace

Substituting a fine Flickr image from the Wellcome Library London for the image I want but probably should not steal (a drawing by Crick of the DNA double helix) I suddenly realized something orthogonal to my original point.

1. Point of Crick’s drawing of double helix, shown in conjunction with a lot of his other lab notes and scribbles of molecular structures, diffraction patterns, etc. — making pictures of things lets us see structure instead of chaos.

2. Orthogonal point made by constellation image: making pictures of things lets us see structure that isn’t there!

One more thing I love about the Wellcome Library besides their wonderful slideshow: they have a copy of my science joke book in their History of Medicine collection.

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world

The unreasonable beauty of August sunset

August 17th, 2010 · Comments Off on The unreasonable beauty of August sunset

The unreasonable beauty of August sunset

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

“Nature is profligate,” said Annie Dillard. Thousands of green leaves erupt from seemingly nowhere to cover an urban wasteland gone to seed — hundreds of little frog eggs float out over the spring pond that may add no more than one new grown-up frog this season — millions more blueberries get eaten in NH summers than ever manage to sprout into new bearing bushes.

Nature is profligate not only of mass and energy, but also of entirely senseless beauty. There is so much extra beauty everywhere going to waste if we don’t take just those few minutes away from our busy lives just to stand and take heed of our own part in this world.

Tags: New Hampshire! · Science · Wide wonderful world

The Nematode Diet

August 9th, 2010 · Comments Off on The Nematode Diet

"Hairy" nematode (Stilbonematinae), Bocas del Toro, Panama

Originally uploaded by artour_a

Why does peppermint-stick ice cream have to taste so darn good, when everyone knows that calorie restriction is Better? Or at least, calorie restriction makes nematodes live a long time, which surely must mean it could turn every one of us into a sleek superfit suntanned sexy sextillionagenarian.

Now consider this shortcut to glory: a diet of nematodes. Calorie-restricted nematodes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — with some crunchy nematode cysts for between-meals snacking.

If my nematode diet does not motivate you to eat a lot less than you do, I will be very very very surprised.

Tags: food · funny · Science · Wide wonderful world

More fascinating SciFoople (my word and I made it)

August 5th, 2010 · Comments Off on More fascinating SciFoople (my word and I made it)

Lots of us!

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Here are just a few more of the fascinating people whose ideas helped make SciFoo 2010 such a treat.

Linda Stone It was great to see Linda Stone again working so energetically and creatively at pulling important ideas out of the subconscious and giving them good names, e.g. “continuous partial attention” and “email apnea.” She’s now thinking about play, or as she says, “the place where your passions find you.” Mapping the early play activities of scientists to their later work, she recommends Stuart Brown on the neuroscience of play, and wants more scientists to get in touch through her website, Early remarkabilities: programmers played at building things; physicists loved games of asking why; many neuroscientists zapped bugs with electricity.

Werner Vogels I first met Werner at an early Bloggercon–soon afterward he became tech guru at Amazon–so it was lovely to see him the same Werner Vogels after an infinite number of Internet years. He made a couple of really good contributions from the floor about “Citizen Science.” Amazon’s Mechanical Turk lets people do small tasks online for small amounts of pay — hunting for porn is a popular task, and a common one as companies filter user-generated-content. One big motivation for turks is having a clear task that fits into a short space of otherwise blank time.

Yoshiyuki Sankai He is an MD whose company Cybernics makes working exoskeleton pieces. One assemblage helps people walk, using their own nerve activity to move legs and feet. He showed us some remarkable videos of people standing up and walking after years of being confined to a wheelchair or bed.

Gary Bradski Gary works on a computer visualization program called Open CV, at Willow Garage. He gave a lightning talk about perception (“harder than vision,” to quote him). “What is an edge?” he asked, showing a photo where we could see lots of them. Then he focused in on just some of the different kinds of edges we perceive … discontinuities in depth, color, reflectance, texture, and surface orientation.

Debra Lieberman Debra is a professor at UCSB who designs interactive games that promote good health outcomes. I begged her to give a talk at my virtual/visual session, but she was already committed to speaking elsewhere that session. I did repeat for my group her definition of a game, which you will notice does not involve competition: “A game is a rule-based activity that involves challenge to reach a goal and that gives feedback to player on progress toward the goal.” (This is her definition as said across a dinner table and scribbled by me in my notebook, so please blame me rather than her for any flaws therein.)

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world