Archive for the 'Self' category

Off to VCON this weekend, talking about Newton's Laws in TV and movies

This weekend I'm going to be off hanging out at VCON 35, a science fiction convention in Vancouver. As has been the case with science fiction conventions I've gone to in the past, I'll be giving a talk about something science-related. (Yes, I wasted no time finding a geek convention to talk at after arriving up here in Canada! In fact, truth to tell, it was during the afterglow of Hypericon last year that I searched around to see what might be going on where I was about to move to, found VCON, and volunteered to give a talk.)

The talk I'll be giving is a slightly modified version of one I gave at Hypericon a couple of years ago: Newton's Laws in Science Fiction Movies and TV: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I'm also going to be on a couple of other panels (presumably with other people).

Monday, it's back to the Energy & Matter course I'm teaching this block— and grading, since there's an assignment due Monday! (So if you're a student in the class, get to work! There's a wiki page to write....)

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Teaching on the block

As you will know if you've read the sidebar of this blog, I teach at Quest University Canada. I've started there this year, and started teaching my first class just under two weeks ago. The class is "The Practice of Statistics". Because Quest is so small, the faculty here teach a wider range of subjects than they would elsewhere. At Vanderbilt, I taught only astronomy (with undergraduate General Relativity having been defined as an "A" course so that students could count it towards an astronomy minor without our having to revise the catalog description of the minor). At Quest, the first class I'm teaching is a math class.

Quest runs on the "block system". This is a system for scheduling courses that was pioneered (I believe) at Colorado College; certainly CC is the best known college that's on the block system. Students take only one class at a time. However, they hyperfocus on the class. Class meets three hours a day, every Monday through Friday, for three and a half weeks. Then there's a two-day block break (next to a weekend, so it's sort of a four day weekend), and the next block begins. Full-time students take eight blocks over the course of two semesters, so it amounts to the same number of courses. (You aren't really able to overload, however.)

Professors teach six blocks during the year. This is also a similar load; at the higher-end private liberal arts colleges, the typical teaching load (I hate that term, but that's a rant for another time) is either three courses a semester, or two one semester and three the next. (Lots of details about lab courses complicate this.) (This is in contrast to a research University, where scientists might only teach one course a semester.) However, if you think about it, at a typical college those six courses are spread out over eight months. On the block system, those eight courses are condensed into less than six months. Everybody who has taught on this system has told me, and I can now confirm this from my limited experience, that the course you are teaching takes over your life, and you can do basically nothing else while you are teaching.

Each day, I teach from nine to noon. I usually decompress a bit, and then spend the afternoon trying to get some grading done, but in practice I spend a lot of the time talking to students. In the evening, I complete whatever grading there is to do, and then try to figure out what we're going to do in class the next day. Then I collapse, go to sleep, and start over the next morning.

Because students are there for three hours straight— we do take a break in the middle, but that's it— you can't approach the class the same way you would if you saw them for an hour three times a week. Straight lecturing just doesn't make sense; you can't just talk at people for three hours straight. Or, rather, you can, but you will probably dull their minds permanently. Of course, astronomy and physics research has shown that straight lecturing basically doesn't work anyway, so that's just as well! In statistics, I talk at them a little bit, but try not to talk at them uninterrupted for more than 10 minutes or so in a go. We spend a lot of time working through processing data (using GNU R), there are "labs" that the students do in small groups, and I'll sometimes give them problems and challenges to work out individually during class.

So far, I like it. Yes, I'm pretty damn busy, but I knew that that was going to happen going in to it. I like the fact that the students are hyperfocusing on my class. There's no other classes whose tests and homework compete with mine. They aren't going to neglect my class because another has a big project due. Their attention isn't divided. I don't know if this is the best way to do things for all students, but when it comes to how I, personally, have learned things throughout my life, it's very unnatural for me to try to learn several things at once and spread it out over several months. If I'm learning (say) a new computer language for a project I need, I will dig into it and focus primarily on that for a long time. It means less multitasking. Generally, when people talk about multitasking, they're talking about switching tasks several times a minute or an hour, but switching tasks a few times a day is also a form of multitasking, and it can also be distracting.

This year, after the statistics class, I'll be teaching a class that's part of the foundation courses entitled "Energy & Matter". After that is an astronomy course, and then two courses in a sequence of calculus-based physics. That will have been five blocks in a row, each with a different course, so I expect when it's over and February rolls around, I'm going to be completely used up. I plan to get nothing done in February; I am just going to recover. In March, I teach "Energy & Matter" again, and then the year is over for me. One of the advantages of having your teaching condensed into six months is that in the other months, you may actually be able to focus on other things and get a real amount of research or development done. I'll see how that goes this coming April! (And maybe in February, but I really do expect I'm going to need to decompress.)

I will have a lot more to say about what it's like to teach at Quest as time goes on.

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The view off my balcony

I just moved from Nashville, TN to Squamish, BC, where I'm starting teaching at Quest University.

Moving is always painful. There's the administration of it all, of course, and the sadness of leaving friends and community behind. And, there's all the boxes, the packing, the unpacking. This move is complicated by the fact that we're moving into a much smaller place (housing costs in Squamish are much higher than in Nashville!). We got rid of a lot of stuff in Nashville, but getting everything unpacked is still turning out to be a bit of a puzzle.

There are some advantages, though. Squamish is in a beautiful location in British Columbia, on the highway between Vancouver and Whistler. There's this massive cliff face (called "The Chief") overlooking the town-- and a harbour on the other side. We're in an apartment building, and below is a picture I took at 8:20 PM yesterday from our balcony. It had been a cloudy day, but it wasn't hazy (as it had been the previous day). Some of the low clouds were hovering below the height of the Chief, which made for quite an impressive sight.

Click to embiggen a bit

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Welcome to my blog!

Aug 02 2010 Published by under About the Blog

Welcome to the scientopia iteration of Galactic Interactions! At the moment, I'm deep in the process of unpacking after moving from the USA to Canada, having arrived just there days ago, so there's no meaty post just yet. The archives from when this blog was at ScienceBlogs have been imported-- those go through 2007. The more recent archives at the blog's last location aren't imported yet, and I'm working on it.

Stay tuned; if I get a chance amongst all of the unpacking I'm doing, later today I will post the history of the entire Universe....

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Renaming the blog

Jun 02 2009 Published by under About the Blog, Personal Updates

I have renamed my blog back to "Galactic Interactions", the name of the blog that I started when I was still an assistant professor of physics & astronomy.  After I started working at Linden Lab, I noticed that I wasn't blogging about astronomy all that much any more, and what's more I have to admit that I was feeling kind of sad that I wasn't spending the time thinking about physics & astronomy that would lead me to spontaneously blog about it.  As such, closed down my blog on and started a new blog entitled "Second Sight".

Life changes. I no longer work for Linden Lab. Also, over the course of the last year, I've become involved with MICA, which has made me more active in the astronomy community -- not as active as if it were my job, but it does give me a connection that allows me to keep it up on my own time. Especially given that MICA was founded by people who work in N-body calculations (i.e. the computational/theoretical arm that goes into dealing with, among other things, galaxies interacting), it makes sense for me to rename my blog back to "Galactic Interactions". So here it is!

I may be changing the look of the blog a bit in coming weeks too. Being the nerd that I am, I don't find themes or anything like that. I hacked the PHP and HTML for a standard WordPress theme to get the current look, and I may hack it a bit more to make it more appropriate again to its new/old name.

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Welcome to my blog - there's lots of room, so come right in

Dec 01 2007 Published by under About the Blog, Personal Updates

I know, I've said that sort of thing before. I'm not a new blogger... until a couple of months ago, I was writing Galactic Interactions, a science blog that (like so many other blogs) was about everything under the Sun, but which tended to focus vaguely in the direction of astronomy.

Lots of things have changed in my life since then. I'm no longer in academia. I'm no longer an active physics & astronomy researcher or teacher. I'm now a computer engineer, working for Linden Lab, the company that has created and runs the virtual online 3D world known as Second Life. For a while, I tried to keep writing Galactic Interactions, but I was finding it difficult on a few fronts. First, I was quite busy learning my new job (my new career!). Second, I really am somewhat bitter about having had to leave physics & astronomy, and it was a bit of a bitter reminder. Most importantly, though, I was finding that I felt the need, the responsibility to post something about astronomy regularly (each week?) to Galactic Interactions, and it was starting to feel more like a burden. I wasn't naturally running into random astronomy news tidbits as much as I had been, so the spark of "oh I must post about this!" wasn't coming so naturally. What's more, there are always nasty comments out there from people who know everything, and the personal attacks in the comments were making me feel like it just wasn't worth being out there saying my say— even though they were rare in comparison to what quite a number of other bloggers at, say,


Continue Reading »

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Note: warning of impending memory hole

Nov 03 2007 Published by under About the Blog

My Seed overlords have let me know that as I have decided to no longer continue this blog, I won't be able to keep the backlogs here indefinitely. Sometime in the next couple of months, the archives will disappear from this site.

I also plan to take down the archives from the blog's former site, in part of an ongoing effort to make it so that people at Vanderbilt don't have to depend on me to maintain computers there.

I have not decided yet if it is going to be worth the effort to try to set up archives on an independent site for posterity. Likely this will not happen. If there is anything you've ever read here that you think you want archived— either because you thought it was worth reading, or because you think you might want to send me abuse about it later— you will want to make copies of it now.

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Blog going on indefinite hiatus

Oct 16 2007 Published by under About the Blog

I am going to take a break from astronomy blogging for an indefinite period of time.

I'm finding that as I'm involved in my new job, while I still do get a charge out of posts like the Big Bang post I did the other day, my heart isn't 100% in this.

Also, after the deleted post yesterday, I'm just too digusted with the nature of academia at our forefront research institutions (and with Vanderbilt in particular-- as anybody who reads this knows, I already bore a fair amount of bitterness towards that institution, and now I have a huge amount of disgust with Vanderbilt's Physics department). Yes, in the past I got a lot of mileage out of echoing those complaints, and I know that I hit something of a chord because of the response I received. Heck, even to this day news stories get generated in part by my own meta-issues with academia. But the fact is that I'm out of it now, and I'm finding myself really wanting to move on and not remain so mired in the issues that drove me into clinical depression and eventually drove me out of the field. They are not my problem now, and I'm not enough of the crusader type to want to fix the world even though I've been booted from it.

I truly do regret having to give up teaching college. Ironically, yesterday when I visited Vanderbilt, I also dropped by the Society of Physics Students meeting, and really enjoyed meeting and saying "hello" to the students. I loved the science, I loved the teaching, and I loved interacting with the students... but the academic politics and the nutty standards of "rigor" that Universities think they are applying wrecked it all. And learning what I learned about the academic politics reminded me that, yes, however wistful I may have been in the interactions with students, I made the right decision by fleeing that environment.

The fact is that my heart just is not in this astronomy blogging gig right now. I have moved on, and I really want to move on. I will make myself unhappy if I continued to be mired in what I was mired in before. And, the fact is that I don't have enough left over cognitive energy to be making the kinds of astronomy breaking news and pedagogical posts that composed what I think were the best of Galactic Interactions. Astronomy and teaching remain two of my passions, and some day I may try to come back to it. In the the mean time, however, farewell.

It is possible at some point in the future I may change my mind, and want to start blogging again— about astronomy, or about something else. I can't predict if I'll ever be able to re-join the family, but in any event I'll link to it from my personal home page. If for whatever reason you may have some interest in that possibility, periodically check that page, as I'll assuredly drop a link there to any public blog that I'm doing.

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The Gruber Prize Ceremony

Hello from England! Last night was the award ceremony for the 2007 Gruber Prizer in Cosmology. It was good to meet up with the members of the SCP again, many of whom I haven't seen in several years. Picture below is the members of the collaboration who were present, underneath one of the many trees labelled as "Newton's Apple Tree" in the UK; this one is at Trinity college, and apparently is a descendant of the original tree from the apocryphal story about the apple falling on Newton's head. Here we are all looking for apples of our own, but evidently these apples are made of dark energy and as such are not falling into gravitational potential wells....


At the awards ceremony, a number of people spoke. I want to comment on three things that people said. First, Jim Peebles, one of the previous winners of this award, thanked the awardees for two things. First, for solving one problem: the mass density of the Universe, and fixing the cosmological "age crisis" through the measurement of a positive cosmological constant. Second, for the introduction of a new conundrum: just what is this cosmological constant or dark energy stuff? There's nothing scientists like better than a good conundrum.

The two individual winners of the award, Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, each spoke, and each had similar themes to what they said. Saul started by noting that there is this popular image of the lone scientist working on brilliant discoveries all himself, but often it doesn't work that way. He then went through a serious of snapshot images he has in his head of the process of discovering the acceleration of the Universe, mentioning the names of each of the rest of his team who were present. (About me, he said that I type and program faster than he talks... and if you've heard Saul talk, that's saying something!)

Brian Schmidt, likewise, came up and said that he wasn't speaking for him, but he was speaking as the representative of the High-Z team. He said that a lot of the problems that are present in science today can not besolved be individuals, despite the fact that many prizes are still given to individuals. Rather, they are solved by teams.

It is significant to me that half of this award went to not individuals, but to the teams of which Saul and Brian were leaders. There were many, many contributions all worthy of recognition.

If I were more cynical I might say that Saul and Brian were just saying what they were supposed to say, facing the fact that about 1/3 of the people in the audience were the other team members.... However, I am not that cynical. I really believe that what Saul and Brian said was heartfelt. I appreciate both of them and the Gruber Foundation for so publically recognizing that this discovery did require teams, and that those teams were worth of honor.

I close with just one picture from the dinner later last evening. Alex Kim, who is pictured, was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when I and Peter Nugent arrived as post-docs in 1996. Ironically, Alex Kim defended his thesis in late 1996, but both Peter and I defended our theses in early spring 1997... for a while, the post-docs didn't exactly yet have their PhDs, but the grad student did! You can see that Alex (now a permanent staff member at LBNL, after a stint as a post-doc in Paris) has done well, for he seems to have located a new standard candle....


Photograph by Nelson Nunes

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Offline for a few more days

Sep 05 2007 Published by under About the Blog

I"m sorry the blog's been so quiet recently. With my new job, and my trip out to SF getting started at Linden these last two weeks, I've been quite busy! Things won't settle down until next week, as I'm off to the UK for the next for days for the Gruber Prize award ceremony. I'll be back next week and trying to settle into a routine, after which hopefully I'll be getting to some of my mentally queued posts including one on the Coriolis Effect, one answering common criticisms you may see about the Big Bang, and hopefully one on the bigass void that some of you have read about.

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