Nobel laureates: often worth meeting, when you have the chance

With the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prizes this week, I’ve been reflecting back on my experiences at the 2015 Lindau Laureate Nobel Meeting. These meetings are held every year and “are designed to activate the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and experience between and among Nobel Laureates and young scientists.”

Although I was skeptical going in, attending the meeting gave me a lot of food for thought. This past summer (one year later), being interviewed by a reporter for the Süddeutsche Zeitung gave me the chance to process and articulate some of that.

However, the interview was in English, and print newspapers have space constraints. Hence, for the resulting article (which published back in June), my answers to the interview questions had to be a.) severely abridged, and b.) translated into German. Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to post my original*, long-form responses here.

* with some links added and a few typos corrected
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My favorite things about today’s LIGO press conference

As you’ve no doubt already heard, it was announced earlier today that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected gravitational waves1 — i.e., ripples in space-time, which in this case were produced by a merger of two black holes that took place about 1.3 billion years ago (and, accordingly, 1.3 billion light years away) over the course of about 20 milliseconds.

Yes, ripples in space-time are a real thing; they are a predication of the theory of general relativity (which last year celebrated its centennial) and now they have also been measured. Serendipitously, the measurement itself also took place last year, on September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC (i.e., in the middle of the night at the detectors themselves, which are located in the U.S.), when those ripples finally reached Earth2.

This is a really, really impressive achievement. It involved decades of work on the part of thousands of people1, detectors that are miles in length, and the measuring of distances a tiny fraction of the size of a proton.

It’s thrilling to see how many quality write-ups there are out there about the news (e.g., BBC, NYT, NPR). You can get an explanation of the physics in comic form or in more detail, read about how the detection event went down (i.e., not exactly as planned, in that the machine hadn’t quite started its official “experiment run”), read an eloquent retrospective from a fellow Caltech professor, or even get a tour inside the facility.

Given all that great material, I don’t have much more to add in terms of explaining the physics . . . but watching the National Science Foundation’s live stream of the press conference produced a few highlights (besides the science itself, of course), which I didn’t want to let go unremarked.
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The “problem” with Pi Day, and why I celebrate anyway

I confess, I’m a fan of \pi, the transcendental and irrational number that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and when written out in base 10 starts 3.14159 . . . Somewhat amusingly, I’m honestly not sure if this is confessing that I’m too much of a nerd/geek or not enough of one; we’ll get to that later, though.

I’m also a fan of pie, the dessert.

So is my cat. That is, she is a fan of pies, especially those with meringue on top. I don’t know how she feels about the number pi.

Last but not least, I’m a fan of puns and word play in general. Thus, it seems clear that I should be pulling out all the stops when when it comes to celebrating Pi Day (March 14th), especially this year (2015). As you probably already know, the best way to celebrate Pi Day is with pie.

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What makes a thesis?

The second anniversary of finishing grad school seemed like an appropriate time to try to get this blog going again. This might go without saying, but writing a Ph.D. thesis* can really interfere with a person’s recreational science blogging. (Not that the time thereafter is necessarily much freer, at least not when starting a new job in a new sub-field, on a new continent, in a new country that speaks a different language . . . but that’s another matter.) Similarly, the topic of the Ph.D. thesis seemed like an appropriate one with which to start.

“How long will it take me to write my thesis?” is a question that every grad student must wonder at some point along the way — probably several points, in fact. I was wondering it just as I was starting** to write mine in February 2012, and I decided that strictly tracking the number of hours I invested in the project might both A.) be an interesting factoid, and B.) help me to better focus on the task.

Looking back at the data I’d taken and adding it up, the answer, it turned out, was approximately 283 hours — i.e., the equivalent of 11.8 24-hour days, 15.7 18-hour days, 23.6 12-hour days, or 35.4 8-hour days.
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There’s a lot of cool science out there . . .

. . . and I want to do my own, small part to help it become a bigger part of people’s lives and conversations.

How do I intend to do that? Right now, I’m envisioning mainly trying to help disseminate and explain interesting new research — besides the handful of Science and Nature articles that get widespread press every year.

And I’ll probably also share the whimsical science/math calculations I occasionally do for my own entertainment, in hopes that they may entertain others as well. (These include such pressing questions such as, “Is arranging the cookie dough balls in a triangular lattice ALWAYS more efficient than using a square lattice? Or can the size of the cookie sheet change that?” and “When jumping off a 12-foot platform into a lake, should one try to do two back flips on the way down, or just one?”)

Other than that, I think this is one of those situations where there are many possible outcomes, and you just have to do the experiment and see how it goes!