a little light housekeeping

Inlovejenluc[UPDATE: Many thanks to the commenters who pointed out the broken links. They should be fixed now. In my defense, I frequently wrap up blog posts late at night, when I'm a bit punchy from working all day. Oh, and for those interested in hearing my first KITP session, on "Finding Your Narrative," it's been posted at KITP's Website, in several different formats. (They tape all their talks, in fact.) I had trouble getting the video to stream smoothly, but maybe you'll have better luck. There's also the option of just an audio Podcast. The accompanying PowerPoint slides should be posted on Tuesday or Wednesday at the same place.]

Every now and then, it's necessary to engage in a bit of bloggy housekeeping and clear out the flotsam and jetsam that's worth mentioning, but somehow doesn't quite work into a full-length post. This is one of those times. I offer the following miscellany:

Bloggy Endings and Beginnings. Oh noes! After a whopping 2624 posts, Angela Gunn has shut down her TechSpace blog at USA Today. Howls of anguish reverberates through the science blogosphere at the news, only to be quickly replaced by cheers, because she's started up a new blog, Science Fair, that promises to combine the best of TechSpace with new lively innovations, not just from the Divine Miss G. herself, but also a handful of talented supporting writers. Jen-Luc Piquant sez check it out!

Celebrity Physicists on TV. It's been a big week for big-name Boston-area physicists (h/t: Peter Woit). First, MIT physics professor Peter Fisher did a guest stint on Conan O'Brien, performing an experiment on how long Conan's wedding ring would spin on the desktop. [Blake Stacey has the actual video.]  Second, Harvard's Lisa Randall (and author of Warped Passages) appeared on The Colbert Report, chatting about extra dimensions. Both these shows routinely have fun with physics (and physicists, when they're willing). Everyone remembers the classic appearance by Jim Carrey a year or two ago, in which he and Conan discussed quantum mechanics and Penning traps — based on work by Harvard's Gerald Gabrielse. I learned today that Carrey also appeared on Conan's show in 2003 and staged an on-air phone call with Stephen Hawking (who claimed he was watching Carrey's movie Dumb and Dumber) to discuss new cosmological models. Classic! We need more people like Carrey willing to find the humor in science, and more scientists willing to play along occasionally.

Talk Like a Physicist Day! Long-term guests of the cocktail party know I've tried for a couple of years now to drum up enthusiasm for an official "Talk Like a Physicist" day — kind of like the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day. I've been quite negligent about pursuing this, but fortunately, others have been more diligent. There is now an official blog devoted to the very first Talk Like a Physicist Day on March 14, 2008, with a logo and FAQ in the final stages of development. (There's already numerous short fun posts, including a series on Thursday Threads, for those committed to amassing a vast physics-themed wardrobe.)  I hereby invite my fellow physics bloggers to start promoting the occasion, ad coming up with ideas of whimsically creative ways to celebrate it. BTW, March 14 is also Einstein's birthday, and International Pi Appreciation Day. Check out this sketch by the Upright Citizen Brigade — a spoof of 1970s educational show ZOOM! — all about the value of pi. (Thanks to regular reader Justin Purnell for sending me the link.)

KITP Kommunique. Of course, the bulk of my time these days is being spent at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara.  Everyone here talks like a physicist every single day; the challenge is getting them to drop the jargon to talk to regular folks in plain English. The KITP, for those who don't know about it, is a unique academic model: there are very few permanent scientists here. Rather, there are special programs organized around specific hot topics in theoretical physics — planned years in advance, in many cases — and the institute invites leading scientists in those areas from all over the world to spend anywhere from a week to a few months in residence. (Among other things, this makes me pretty much the dumbest person here when it comes theoretical physics; the collective brain power is awe-inspiring.) Right now, there's a program on Nonequilibrium Dynamics in Particle Physics and Cosmology (just winding up), and another on the physics of the Large Hadron Collider (just starting up). If past programs are any indication, at the end of both, there will be a flurry of cutting-edge technical papers appearing in the peer-reviewed literature, based on all the conversations going on here right now.

But the KITP is also committed to fostering scientific communication. That's where I come in. Each Friday through April 26th, I'll be presiding over a "Journal Club" meeting focusing on some aspect of communicating science. This week is all about "Finding Your Narrative" — the core narrative that lies at the center of any good science story. It's a common experience among science writers to spend 30 minutes or more listening to a physicist describe his or her research in impossibly advanced terms, and in a disorganized fashion, while we try desperately to find that kernel that will sprout into the core narrative for the story we end up writing. This happens so frequently because, well, the scientists already know the story; they're right in the middle of it, so they start their "narrative" in medias res, forgetting that the science writer might not be quite as embedded in the story line. The narrative has been going on, from their perspective, for years and years.

It's a bit like a hardcore fan of Battlestar Galactica (or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who's been avidly following their favorite series for several seasons and discussed every minute detail at great length. Someone trying to join the party that far into the story is going to have a whole lot of questions, and won't be able to keep up with the ongoing discussions very easily. The underlying concept for the very first session is a type of journalistic reductionism: if we can boil the topic down to the most basic ideas — the core narrative — it then gives us a strong foundation to add layers of more detail as needed for different types of media formats and audiences.

So tomorrow, after a brief introduction, I'll be taking one example from the program on Nonequilibrium Dynamics — the latest theoretical work on the reheating phase of the universe's evolution per the inflationary model — and detailing how far I've gotten this past week in finding the core narrative to pitch an actual written article about the subject. Because I want every single workshop to be interactive — nobody learns communication skills by passively listening to someone lecture about it — the participants (assuming someone shows up) will work with me to flesh out the remaining details, hopefully learning a few tips on how to do the same on their own.  Then we'll do something similar for the LHC program — actually a tougher task, because there's already been so much media coverage of LHC physics, and we're kind of in a holding patten until the machine turns on later this year and scientists start getting data. We'll have to ferret around in the nooks and crannies to find an interesting new interim angle to construct a compelling narrative.

There will be blog posts on all of this, oh yes, so stay tuned. I've got a whole series of 10 workshops planned, exploring various media formats and how to tailor one's communication approach for different venues and target audiences. We'll be exploring Science Blogging 101, naturally, and practicing mini-press conference presentations, as well as on-camera interviews with the aid of a video camera and a few of my fellow journalistic sorts. As people get comfortable with the level of interaction, we'll get more ambitious, including stealing a page from Alan Alda's playbook and bringing in an actor/drama coach to run us all through a series of improv exercises. We'll even have a session on the interaction between technical consultants and TV writers, "Inside the Writer's Room," during which we will try to come up with a plausible concept for a physics-centric TV series — just in time for Talk Like a Physicist Day! And finally: PowerPoint Karaoke! Okay, maybe not, unless I want to lose willing participants in droves. But it's a great idea, especially if some of our specialty physics cocktails are involved. [UPDATE: I've decided to go ahead and do the PowerPoint Karaoke, using it as a jumping off point for a discussion of communicating across disciplinary boundaries.]

The Holiday People Love to Hate. And finally, we all know it's Valentine's Day today. For those who missed it, last Saturday, the Spousal Unit and I teamed up for a special "Science Saturday" V-Day edition of BloggingHeads.TV. Otherwise, we mutually agreed not to officially celebrate this particular holiday, mostly because, well, it's so much nicer to surprise one's loved one constantly throughout the year with small thoughtful gestures. Making it an obligatory holiday kinda spoils the fun for us. But it's not an official boycott or anything, so that won't stop me from posting an amusingly mushy "Science-Themed Valentine" (h/t: Chad at Uncertain Principles) in his honor:


7 thoughts on “a little light housekeeping”

  1. I’ll try to fix the extraneous hyphen tonight (along with the typos I noticed when re-reading this morning). The MIT link worked for me the first time I tried; I guess it didn’t stay up very long. Glad we have you around to step in!

  2. Isn’t it only North Americans who celebrate International Pi day on the day before the ides of March?
    Here in the UK, we use July 22nd.

  3. As a non-physicist (Something I hope to change), I just want to quickly add my thanks for your work, present and future. The interface between the laymen and professional physicist is becoming more advanced day by day.
    I hope your message be widely received!
    Thanks, Sam

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