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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

A physicist watches prime time

Hi everyone! I’ve been house-sitting for a friend and so have had a chance to catch up with some television. (Ever since grade school I would have the TV on while I did my homework… now it helps while I check calculations; I guess some things never change.)


First up was last night’s episode of the Colbert Report (on Comedy Central) in which Stephen Colbert interviewed Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll. Sean is very well known as one of the bloggers on Cosmic Variance (the first physics blog I ever followed) and the author of an excellent general relativity textbook. He was promoting his new popular science book. Colbert has interviewed physicists in the past (including Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson), and jumped straight into the big question: what is the nature of time and why does it only go in one direction? These are rather deep questions that I suspect may be outside the realm of experimentally accessible science. (Maybe that means I should read Sean’s book?) It’s understandable that the 5 minute interview didn’t provide any concrete answers. 🙂  The quote of the evening:

“What does light, and gravity, and Einstein… and all that crap… have to do with this?”- Stephen Colbert

Here’s Sean’s description of his interview experience.

Next I should probably mention the number of hospital-themed television shows out there. (Gray’s Anatomy is insane.) Of the bunch, I’ve been told by several sources that Scrubs is the one that most accurately represents life as a resident. (Though, unfortunately, the series jumped the shark some time ago.) In fact, shows like Scrubs help my soon-to-be-doctor friends explain what it’s really like to be in med school. On the other hand, are there any TV shows that I can invoke to explain what my professional life is like? While The Big Bang Theory is a very charming show, it is more about geek culture than what life as an academic. (There are plenty of academics who aren’t geeks; at least not in the conventional way.) This week I’ve come up with a new answer: House.


Believe it or not, there are many aspects of theoretical physicis which follow House. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend my entire day sitting in a chair “just thinking.” (And I can’t count how many times people have asked me this.) In the same way that Dr. House’s team has to diagnose a medical mystery, theoretical physicists have to sort out our own mysteries: what controls the Higgs mechanism? What is the nature of dark matter? Why is there so much matter in the universe but so little antimatter? And in the same way that Dr. House has to navigate false-leads (it’s not lupus!) and apparently contradictory symptoms, we grapple with experimental constraints on models and thorny calculations. And here’s the point: most of the actual “thinking” in theoretical physics doesn’t come from sitting alone at a desk: it comes from animated discussions  and bouncing ideas back and forth with colleagues while scribbling at a chalkboard. (Theorists would scoff at House’s whiteboard.)

Alright, now for primetime’s nod to the “LHC is going to end the world” audience: Flashforward. This show was recommended to me by a prominent particle physicist, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’ll be honest: I don’t really have any idea what’s going on, and after several episodes into the show there are still no obvious references to the LHC. CERN has a public page about the story (originally a novel), and the US/LHC site hosting this blog has it’s own FAQ. The relevant part of the FAQ can be paraphrased:

Q: Could this really happen?
A: No.

In fact, so far there’s been very little for a physics geek to latch onto. The latest episode finally has some science jargon, some of which is worth connecting to the real world. They mention the “national linear accelerator project” in passing, a reference to the real-life International Linear Collider project. The ILC is the “precision machine” that we hope to build to follow-up on the LHC.  Next, the show’s pair of dubious physicists suspect that their experiments on “proton wakefield acceleration” was the cause of the show’s eponymous “flashfoward” event. Proton wakefield accelearation is a promising, if very nascent, avenue of research which could become the basis of particle colliders in the far future. For more about this, see SLAC’s FAQ on Flashforward.

It’s a bummer that the show’s physicists appear to have questionable morals (are they villains?), but the scene where they settle an argument by playing high-stakes poker is rather unlikely given the state of university budgets these days. (Though this doesn’t mean that being and academic isn’t a great job.) There is, however, one notable example in my mind: Michael Binger, who finished third at the World Series of Poker just after graduating from Stanford with a PhD in particle physics.

I can’t really tell if I like the show or not. The whole premise of a collective glimpse into the future is a novel plot device and there’s plenty of thick drama, but I’m not sure yet if it all comes together a good story. In other words, I’m not sure if this is going to replace Battlestar Galactica as mainstream science fiction. On a random sci-fi note, a new season of Dr. Who premiers soon. The previews promise the return of the “weeping angels,” which are my favorite examples of science fiction taking liberties with real science in order to develop a fantastic story.

Finally, the NCAA basketball tournament is looming, but in the professional league I should mention my support for my hometown Los Angeles Lakers. (This might impair my chances of landing a nice post-doc in any university in Boston.) They haven’t been playing that well recently, but hopefully things pick up. The connection to the LHC? Starting center Andrew Bynum has said that his favorite subject in high school was physics.

Anyway, that’s it for my adventures watching television.

Flip Tanedo, on behalf of the US/LHC blog


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