October 27, 2007

Watering Can

I haven't had any Colloquium Drawings of the Week recently, because I haven't been going to any colloquia, at least not any mandatory ones.

But I did draw this robot, so enjoy.

October 16, 2007


A 1949 composite picture with Robert Herman on the left, Ralph Alpher on the right, and George Gamow in the center, as the genie coming out of the bottle of "Ylem," the initial cosmic mixture of protons, neutrons, and electrons from which the elements supposedly were formed. [AIP]

I was pursuing my latest issue of American Scientist and happened across the rather unusual photograph shown above. It depicts George Gamow pioneering cosmologist, rising vaporuously from a bottle of primordial liqueur. 'Ylem' is

a term which was used by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and their associates in the late 1940's for a hypothetical original substance or condensed state of matter, which became subatomic particles and elements as we understand them today. It reportedly comes from an obsolete Middle English philosophical word that Gamow came across while thumbing through a dictionary, which means something along the lines of "primordial substance from which all matter is formed", and derives from the Greek hylem, "matter". Restated, the Ylem is what "thing" Gamow, et al, presumed to exist immediately after the Big Bang. Along with the ylem, there were assumed to be a large number of high-energy photons present, which we would still observe today as the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Despite the invention of this term in an era before the early universe was well-studied I don't see why it isn't used anymore. Instead, the matter right after the big bang is described in descriptive but dry terms such as 'quark-gluon plasma' or just plain lousy ones like 'primordial soup.' Over these competitors it has many advantages: it is unique and memorable; it is a stand-alone term with no sub-words that people may not fully know (such as 'plasma' or 'soup'); it is four letters long, as opposed to being a lengthy phrase; it is not clear how it should be pronounced. I found a few papers back in the 80's that used the word, but none in more recent decades (I wonder if they were worried about being taken seriously...). Gamow seemed to think (at least for a while) that the Ylem was mostly neutrons, but updated science shouldn't stop us from using a perfectly good Middle-English word, obviously the intended meaning is that of the universe's initial composition. Full stop. That is the kind of word cosmologists could use, if only to frighten and confuse civilians with our unorthodox use of the letter 'y.'

The bottle depicted above is kept under glass in some kind of display in the Smithsonian Institution. Replicas are also available to professors I know (that one at the bottom), it would seem.

P.S.: Gamow was well known for his sense of humor. One oft-repeated tale is of how he tacked Hans Bethe's name onto a paper that Bethe had nothing to do with simply so the byline would read "Alpher, Bethe, Gamow" as a pun on the Greek alphabet. Bethe actually was made aware of the paper and contributed a bit to subsequent work, but this has to remain as one of the most whimsical paper authorships (as well as the most blatantly unethical), especially since the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow theory became well-known enough to be referred to in that way. Robert Herman (pictured above) was not interested in being included under the name 'Delter.' The theory was later found to be lacking in several key ways, but this work was important in the development of Big Bang nucleosynthesis, Gamow's comedy stylings aside. Amusingly, the only person who never got the joke was Alpher himself, who was resentful of sharing credit for his work with the more eminent Bethe (Alpher was an unknown PhD student at the time and was rightly concerned about being overshadowed). As late as a few years ago he was still expressing disapproval.

P.P.S.: Thanks for this inexplicable photograph flickr!

[Photo credit AIP and Snapshotartifact.org]

October 14, 2007

It Could Happen

Thanks news media! I was just wondering why public understanding of science is so poor, and then I saw this article in MSNBC's science section.

Sex and marriage with robots? It could happen

As software becomes more advanced and the relationship between humans and robots becomes more personal, marriage could result. "One hundred years ago, interracial marriage and same-sex marriages were illegal in the United States. Interracial marriage has been legal now for 50 years, and same-sex marriage is legal in some parts of the states," Levy said. "There has been this trend in marriage where each partner gets to make their own choice of who they want to be with."

"The question is not if this will happen, but when," Levy said. "I am convinced the answer is much earlier than you think."

"My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots," artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands told LiveScience.

Levy predicts Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize human-robot marriage. "Massachusetts is more liberal than most other jurisdictions in the United States and has been at the forefront of same-sex marriage," Levy said. "There's also a lot of high-tech research there at places like MIT."

Same-sex marriage = human-robot marriage. Finally, someone brave enough to make that comparison!

The main benefit of human-robot marriage could be to make people who otherwise could not get married happier, "people who find it hard to form relationships, because they are extremely shy, or have psychological problems, or are just plain ugly or have unpleasant personalities," Levy said. "Of course, such people who completely give up the idea of forming relationships with other people are going to be few and far between, but they will be out there."

Hey! Half of my family are from Massachusetts and we aren't that hard to get along with!

The possibility of sex with robots could prove a mixed bag for humanity. For instance, robot sex could provide an outlet for criminal sexual urges. "If you have pedophiles and you let them use a robotic child, will that reduce the incidence of them abusing real children, or will it increase it?" Arkin asked. "I don't think anyone has the answers for that yet — that's where future research needs to be done."

Keeping a robot for sex could reduce human prostitution and the problems that come with it. However, "in a marriage or other relationship, one partner could be jealous or consider it infidelity if the other used a robot," Levy said. "But who knows, maybe some other relationships could welcome a robot. Instead of a woman saying, 'Darling, not tonight, I have a headache,' you could get 'Darling, I have a headache, why not use your robot?' "

Child-sex robots. Oh my god. I am not the kind of person who shouts exclamations of disbelief at no one in particular while reading, but for this I made an exception (if only so my roomba could hear). When discussing potential topics was this guy's thesis adviser just like: "Think of the creepiest possible thing you can imagine. Now double it." (I know that is how I ended up working on cosmological neutrinos as an undergrad.)

Furthermore, "Darling, I have a headache, why not use your robot?" Solid gold. Can we please make this a cliché? Nothing would better exemplify the loss of America's collective can-do spirit...

In summary,
Wacky PhD thesis from some European university with low standards? Check.
Ridiculously ill-advised comparisons to actual civil rights struggles like inter-racial and gay marriage? Check.
Repetition of common (but partially misguided) stereotype that all New Englanders want to marry/copulate with robots/quahogs/houseplants. Double check.

October 4, 2007

Well, well, well

It looks like somebody over at Slate reads my blog. Well, at least on one occasion-- when they were looking for writing on a particular topic. That topic was the Providence Mall stowaways, about which I am, evidently, an expert. It won't be long now before I have achieved internet fame, by far the most rewarding type of fame.

Also of interest, at least 3 people from Ricoh read my entry on Ricoh. I presume that a cash settlement for Prof. Aaronson can't be far away. Scott, in advance, you are welcome.

October 3, 2007

Ricoh: Worse Than Enron

At long last, the world has a printer ad featuring Australian fashion models discussing the philosophy of quantum mechanics. 'Well that took long enough!' you are no doubt saying to yourself. And indeed it did. But now that they finally made it, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, right?


Yes, Ricoh's ad agency did make the connections between models, Australia, and Quantum Physics on their own. But they, just like nearly half of all professional models, don't know enough about QM to come up with convincingly authentic dialog for a commercial. So they stole it from Scott Aaronson. For shame Ricoh! I think you owe Dr. Aaronson an apology. In writing. And you have to mean it this time. And some free paper wouldn't hurt either.

[via Seed's Daily Zeitgeist]

Set Your Calculator To 'Stun'

Look Around You is a British parody of 70's and 80' era educational films. I don't think there is anything I can say to add to these, they are basically flawless as far as 70's and 80's era educational film parody goes. Here is the first one on Math.

October 2, 2007

Crazy Kids Live in Providence Mall

Those zany RISD kids have done it again! An artist has been sentenced to probation for creating a secret apartment in the Providence Place Mall. From the Providence Journal:

The story of their audacious stunt — they call it performance art — spilled out in District Court, after the leader, Michael J. Townsend, 36, of Providence, was arrested. He pleaded no contest to a criminal charge of trespassing.

Townsend, a self-described “professional public artist,” said the clandestine project was born of a wish to explore the phenomenon of the modern American enclosed mall, its social implications, and his own relationship with commerce and the world.

The casually furnished, unheated apartment was in a 750-square-foot loft beneath an I-beam and above an unused dusty storage room in the mall parking garage that was accessed through a door in a stairwell, according to Townsend, his fellow artists and the police.

The collective labored mightily to haul in more than two tons of construction materials and furnishings to build out and equip the space, which already had a concrete floor. Some of the material was brought in through an 11-inch-wide aperture on the west side of the mall that allowed access to the garage interior. Larger items were brought into the garage by car and carried up fire exit stairwells, the artists said.

In order to section off and disguise the space, the artists cemented together 90 30-pound cinderblocks to make a wall and then installed a generic, beige-colored industrial door. Anyone who came into the storage room would see a steep metal ladder leading to the locked door.

In a feat of derring-do likely to be savored for years by the Providence-area underground-art community, the artists illegally ate, drank, slept, read, held meetings, watched TV and enjoyed games on a Sony Playstation2 in a palace of American commercialism.

The apartment, which was relatively soundproof, contained a sectional sofa, a love seat, a coffee table, a breakfast table with four chairs, lamps, a throw rug, a hutch and paintings on the walls. Although the group had bold improvement plans, the apartment lacked running water, a refrigerator and a toilet.

Townsend acknowledged that the lack of certain creature comforts, after a while, tended to sap the thrill of being there and to curtail each stint inside.

The artists lugged in gallon jugs of water to drink, and to answer nature’s call, they would sneak out to use mall bathrooms. They did have a waffle iron, Yoto said, so meals tended to run toward breakfast food. They obtained electricity by running an extension cord to an outlet in the storage room.

The collective’s ambition to, as Townsend put it, make the apartment “super-sweet” with laminated wood flooring and other embellishments was terminated Wednesday. He and a visiting artist from Hong Kong walked into the storage room and were confronted and handcuffed by three mall security men wearing dress shirts and ties.

On the one hand, I admire them for getting away with this for so long. It isn't like anyone was using the space, and they certainly weren't hurting anyone. Furthermore, I am not surprised by the story itself at all. It is known to many that the Providence Place Mall boasts an inordinate number of hidden corridors and rooms. A friend of mine discovered, for a memorable time, a labyrinthine route that brought you from a parking lot staircase to the inside of the movie theater. The building that contains the mall is significantly larger than it appears from the inside.

Yet on the other hand, when you poke around on the guy's website, it is clear that he is trying to cloak what could be a straightforward 'punking' in a shroud of pseudo-intellectual statement-making. He refers to stowing away in the mall as a "project" and an "opportunity." He whimsically describes the inspiration behind the squat, having taken very seriously a radio ad that humorously contemplated how wonderful it would be to live in the mall.

...This, along with a wide variety of theoretical musings about my relationship to the mall - as a citizen and public artists - provided the final catalyst for making the apartment.

From those Christmas seasons to the present, I have spent the time to quietly create this space and occupy it from time to time. I cannot emphasize enough that the entire endeavor was done out of a compassion to understand the mall more and life as a shopper. It has been my utmost priority to not disrupt the security forces working at the mall, and I have gone to great lengths to make sure that my project did not interfere with their work.

Umm, except for moving your entire living room into the bowels of the building they are supposed to be protecting. Is there a more indirect way to describe squatting in a quasi-public place to hang out and play playstation with your friends? I think not. Why all the profundity? You set up residence in a massive public landmark with a fairly large security staff and stayed there for years, watching TV with your art school pals. That is more than enough to establish you as a regional legend, you don't have to muddle it up with some kind of amorphous statement about the current state of American capitalism as well.

I mean seriously, why do the cops always bust you right before you can install "super-sweet" laminated wood flooring in your critique of consumerism?

October 1, 2007

Here, look at these

National Geographic picks the best science images of 2007. This is some type of tiny current-carrying ribbon or something.

The Best Scientist in the World

In keeping with my ongoing quest to catalogue every obscure mention of cosmology in popular culture, I present this clip from last weekend's Saturday Night Live. It features Kanye West cursing out last year's Nobel winners Smoot and Mather (laureates for their work in the CMB). For what it's worth, I thought he was robbed too. Even if he doesn't know what the prize is called...

And this has nothing to do with physics, but I'd be remiss if I brought up SNL without mentioning Iran So Far. Those kids at the end, that just killed me. All of the trappings of any shmatzy ballad music video. "You can deny the holocaust all you want, but you can't deny that there's something between us."