Archive for the 'Second Life' category

The Higgs Boson: a talk in Second Life tomorrow morning (April 6)

It's been a year since I've given a public outreach physics and astronomy talk in Second Life. I used to do these things fairly regularly as a part of MICA (the Meta-Institute of Computational Astronomy). However, the MICA project has completed, its island in Second Life has gone online, its Second Life groups have been disbanded, and MICA no longer really exists. (Its website is still up, and should stay up for at least a little while. If I were smart, I'd probably make sure to download and archive elsewhere all of the audio recordings of my own talks....) A write-up of what MICA did and was all about is available at, and was published in the conference proceedings of a SLActions conference on virtual worlds

I've always meant to find other venues for continuing to do popular talks in virtual worlds. Someday, I'd like to escape from Second Life's walled garden and start doing these talks in an OpenSim grid, and even did the first steps for trying to get set up to do them in my own region on OSGrid. However, of course, the audience in Second Life for now is still far bigger.

Fortunately, the Exploratorium, the excellent science museum in San Francisco, has a presence in Second Life. This Saturday (tomorrow, 2013 April 6) at 10AM pacific time (17:00 UT) I'll be giving a talk about the Higgs boson in the Exploratorium region in Second Life. Remember, basic Second Life accounts are free. Drop by if you're interested.

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"Whence Supernovae" : online talk on Saturday March 3

At 10AM PST (18:00 UT), I will be giving a talk in Second Life entitled "Whence Supernovae?" This is an update to a talk I gave with the same title back in September 2010. I'll go over some of the same groundwork, but will also share some of the latest results that have only come out in papers in the last couple of months.

The topic is Type Ia supernovae. These are the type of supernovae that were used to discover that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. However, even now, we aren't completely sure just where these supernovae come from. We know a lot, and indeed just within the last half year we've come to know a lot more, but some questions remain.

Remember that a Second Life account is free! For more information about the talk (including the location in Second Life), visit the MICA website, and particularly the Upcoming Public Events page.

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Online Talk Tomorrow (12-03) About FTL Neutrinos

Tomorrow morning, December 3, at 10:00AM pacific time (18:00 UT), I'll be giving the MICA public outreach talk about the faster-than-light neutrino results from CERN and Grand Sasso. The talk will include an overview of the OPERA experiment that has led to the result, a summary of the result, my own headscratching about whether or not it's real, and some notes about what this does (and, more importantly, does not) imply about our confidence in the theory of Relativity.

The talk will be at the MICA Large Ampitheater, and all are welcome. Remember, a Second Life account is free!

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Online Talk, 10AM Pacific Time : SpaceTime Diagrams

As a part of MICA, the Meta-Institute of Computational Astrophysics, I will be giving a public talk tomorrow morning entitled "Understanding Relativity with SpaceTime Diagrams".

Einstein's theory of Relativity completely changed our notions of reality in the early 20th century. Time, it turns out, is not absolute, but rather mixes with space in a particular way that depends on how fast a clock (or other time measuring device) is moving relative to whoever is asking questions about it. Spacetime diagrams are a great tool for understanding Special Relativity. In this talk I'll introduce a few of the startling results of Special Relativity, and show how they can be described using spacetime diagrams. In next week's talk (September 17), we'll use SpaceTime diagrams as a tool to help us describe the geometry near black holes.

The talk will be at the MICA Large Ampitheater in Second Life. Remember that Second Life accounts are free, so register today!

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Virtual World enthusiasts should boycott SpotOn3D

There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.

Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it's significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I've heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could "just run it inside a browser" rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don't support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you're just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it's inside their browser, it's easier to use than if it's a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that's run "inside a browser", it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That's changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they're not there yet.)

Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package... and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it's a negative; browser plugin installation, because it's designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What's more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can't get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year... but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.

The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn't that they've created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it's more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn't approved, however; they've just applied for it. It's possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)

Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren't a surprising new innovation; they're things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they're working in today's economy, especially with regard to software and "business methods", is that they turn first-to-market (or "first to claim to want to get to market") with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That's completely absurd.

And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn't have. It's bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn't lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.

A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn't work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there's always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using "defensive" patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.

Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you've done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you've open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it's particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.

So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.

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"Galaxies in Collision" : public online talk today at 10:00AM PDT

As of this writing, in just over an hour I'll be giving a talk in Second Life on the topic "Galaxies in Collision".

Second Life is an online virtual world. Basic accounts in Second Life are free. I regularly give these talks as a part of MICA, the Meta-Institution of Computational Astronomy. Most Saturday mornings at 10AM pacific time (17:00 UT if we're during Daylight Savings), MICA has a public outreach astronomy talk. (However, like many academic institutions, we tend to slow down and get spotty over the summer.)

This talk will be at the MICA Large Amphitheater.

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Online talk tomorrow morning : "Neutrino: Placeholder Particle"

I'll be giving a talk in Second Life tomorrow morning at 10AM pacific time. (That's Saturday, Feb 5, at 18:00 UT.) This is part of a regular talk series; follow that link to find the slides and audio recordings from most of the previous talks I've given in the series. Remember that a Second Life account is free! Come and hear the talk. You can also ask questions in text chat, which I generally try to respond to as the talk is ongoing.

Tomorrow's talk is entitled "Neutrino: Placeholder Particle". I'll talk about the history of the discovery of the neutrino. Even Pauli, the guy who proposed the neutrino, was uncomfortable with making up a new particle that nobody had seen to explain things that seemed to be missing from other observations. There are clear parallels to Dark Matter today, with many being uncomfortable that we've got most of the Universe made out of stuff that we can't identify. I'll also talk about our current state of knowledge of the neutrino, and I hope to get into the issue of how the "mass neutrinos" are not the same as the "flavor neutrinos", and even though there are three of each, there are still only three total neutrinos. (It's a Schrödingers Cat sort of thing.)

Here's the abstract I sent to Paradox Olbers, the organizer of the MICA talks:

Sometimes critics of nonbaryonic dark matter will characterize it as a "placeholder particle"-- the name we give to the fact that we can't find particles doing the things that we see happening gravitationally. Of course, dark matter is not new in astronomy; Uranus, for instance, was originally detected indirectly. Nor are palceholder particles new in particle physics. The neutrino was originally proposed more than 20 years before it was first observed. In this talk, I'll go over the history of our discovery of the neutrino, and how it was in fact astronomy that led to some relatively recent important discoveries about these elusive little particles.

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One-Slide Explanation of Tides

I realize that this Bill O'Reilly quote is two weeks old, which in Internet time is a substantial fraction of the age of the Universe. And, the Internet being what it is, a top conservative commentator can't say something this butt-ignorant without having bloggers jump all over him within seconds. So, yes, I realize that I'm way, way behind the times, sort of like somebody getting all snarky to the dinosaurs because they didn't invest in programs tracking near-Earth asteroids. But, still, I think it bears repeating, to remind ourselves collectively the kind of people who are shaping the agenda of an entire political party in the USA right now.

Here's my one-slide explanation of how the tides work:

Click image for larger version

This slide does go along with some speaking, normally. Indeed, it is one (of 28) slides that I'll be using in the talk I'm giving in Second Life in about half an hour, all about interacting galaxies and whether or not they're connected to the phenomenon of active galactic nuclei. (Really, tides are relevant to this story!)

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Online talk tomorrow morning: "Observational Evidence for Black Holes"

Tomorrow morning, I'll be giving a public lecture entitled Observational Evidence for Black Holes. This is part of a regular series of talks sponsored by MICA, Saturday mornings at 10:00 AM pacific time (1:00 PM Eastern, 18:00 UT). They're open to anybody.

These talks are in Second Life. A basic Second Life account— everything you need to attend the talk— is free. Go to the Second Life page I just linked in order to sign up. Once you've downloaded the Second Life viewer, and have created an account and logged in to Second Life, you can follow the link on our Upcoming Public Events page to find the talk.

Here's my blurb for tomorrow's talk:

Black holes are a theoretical prediction of Einstein's Relativity. But do they really exist? The answer is a nuanced "yes." We have observational evidence for two sorts of black holes. In our Galaxy, we observe black holes that are several times the mass of the Sun. At the core of almost every big Galaxy, we find a supermassive black hole that's a million or more times the mass of the Sun. In this talk, I'll give an overview of the evidence that these objects are in fact black holes. I'll also point out that the observational definition of "black hole", meaning those things that we know exist, isn't exactly the same as the definition of the objects predicted by Relativity, although most astronomers suspect and assume that what we observe are in fact the things that Relativity predicts.

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"Whence Supernovae?" : Online public astronomy talk Saturday Sep. 11

The summer is over, and that means that MICA is resuming its activities. MICA is currently undergoing internal evaluation and evolution, but one thing that we're going to keep doing is our regular public astronomy outreach talks. This Saturday, I'll be talking about where supernovae come from:

There are two types of supernovae: thermonuclear and core-collapse supernovae. Both signal the deaths of stars as best we understand them. Thermonuclear supernovae in particular have been important as tools to tell us about the Universe. It was observations of such events out to great distances that told us the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. Yet, supernova science has a dirty secret: our model for how these events occur hasn't been observationally confirmed. In the last year, X-ray observations have called into question what many of us believed to be the primary mechanism for the production of such stellar explosions. In this talk, I'll give an overview of what we do know about these thermonuclear supernovae, and what the current state of knowledge is in figuring out just where they came from.

The talk is at 10AM pacific time in Second Life. Remember that Second Life accounts are free! Follow the link to sign up. Once you're in Second Life, follow this link to find the MICA Public Amphitheater, which is where the talk will be.

For more information, look at the MICA Events web page, and follow the links to see slides from previous talks, and announcements of upcoming talks.

(As for why I've been so quiet in the last couple of weeks: soon I will make a post about what it's like to teach on the block plan!)

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