Thursday, September 27, 2007

Apparently, I Exude Physicistiness

So I'm going to be observing in Arizona for about the next week. This evening, I was waiting for the other graduate student to get off of the plane in Tucson, I was just standing next to my luggage. A Japanese man, about 60 years old, comes up to me (as he's leaving the jetway) and asks (I kid you not): "*mumble, mumble,* are you a physicist?" Me: "*stammer, stammer,* yes." He asked what I was doing here, and I said observing at MDM, and he was like, "oh, okay," and went away. I didn't realize the weirdness of this story until after he'd left (I'd been asleep on the plane so I was not exactly "awake" yet) ... but I don't think there was anything about me that screamed, "I am a physicist!" I checked, and I wasn't wearing a physics shirt or even anything particularly nerdy (is a Hawaiian shirt, black slacks, and black loafers that unusual?). The other graduate student postulated that perhaps he had been in earshot of our conversation at the beginning of the flight over which temperature scale is superior (which included calculating the average body temparture in Celsius); apparently the guy across the aisle from me had been shooting us weird looks for the duration of this discussion. But does a discussion of temperature scales really give it away that I'm a physicist?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Saturday Morning Ramble-Blogging

Fall quarter started on Wednesday, which means that the little ones are back, and even though I'm not taking any classes, everything has this shimmering buzz about it that was lacking during the summer. We've already had our first CCAPP seminar—the lack of colloquia and seminars are one reason summers have so much copious free time—and the coffee and sandwich shop on the first floor of our building has reopened. There have already been several home football games; I went to my first a couple of weeks ago thanks to a pair of tickets someone else couldn't use. We played Akron, and as games go, it was OK: the first half was abyssmal with a halftime score of 3-2, but the second half actually played like a real game rather than a lazy Saturday afternoon practice. College sports like this (i.e., football and basketball) still kind of disturb me: why bother with the messy premise that these atheletes are also students? Why not just have a "young professionals" league for players under, say, 23? What's the point of college "spirit"? Am I the only one who finds it mildly sickening just how clearly laid out the gender roles are in this arena?: man fight, woman cheer. My dad was a high school guidance counselor when I was growing up, and I remember it being a big treat to go to the Friday night home games with him; I was never interested in trying to follow the game, but I would always run down to the bottom of the stands to watch the cheerleaders. I know ther eare people reading this who don't think this dichotomy is a big deal, so tell me: how come there are no big popular women's games, and especially none with male cheerleaders on the sidelines enthusing the vast crowds?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Scientists in Movies (and TV)

I saw Pi last week for the first time since about when it came out in 1998. Back then, I didn't really see what the big deal was, but then, I probably was unable to follow the "plot." This time around, I really don't understand what the big deal was: it's an artsy-fartsy film that is trying way too hard. Everyone knows that Contact (the book) does a better job of hinting at the mystique of number theory—even though it's nominally a book about astronomy and aliens and religion!—and even Kushiel's Avatar does a better job at trying to guess what it would be like to hold the supposedly unholdable Name of God in one's head.

But what really disappointed me about Pi—and thus made all of the number theory and religious mumbo jumbo just silly and contrived—was the utter stereotypical nature of the main character, Max. He's clearly supposed to be the troubled genius, an antisocial outcast rife with self-destructive hallucinations and unthinkable mathematical insight. No. Just, no. Even if mania/insanity/depression/whate-have-you and intelligence are linked or correlated, the movie still screams, "Ooooh, look at me! Isn't this disturrrrrrbing?" No. It's ridiculous. Now get over yourself.

Even most movies which clearly try to be realistic fall short. Take for example the play-based Proof. In it, Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to have proven this really amazing theorem about "prime numbers," but she is also battling various mental issues. While the psychosis in this film still comes across as a bit off, I think it's a good effort; where the movie is utterly painful for me is whenever the characters attempt discussing math. This is the problem the writers face: they can either have the characters speak naturally like real scientists or mathematicians would—and thus have essentially no one in the audience understand any of the jargon-laden sentences, or they can have the characters repeat definitions to one another that they would have realisitically known since they were six years old and have the conversation come across and stilted and forced. Most movies I can think of choose the latter path; they'd rather hold the audience by the hand and let them feel like they can follow the conversation rather than have a realistic exchange in which the tone of what is spoken—the jokes, the tension, the insults, the interruptions and half sentences—are the drivers of the plot rather than the actual words.

The only two movies I can think of that take the latter route (and even then, still let the words be the plot driver) are Contact and Real Genius. The particular scene in Contact that doesn't try to painfully explain the details to the audience is the one in which they are taking the Vegan signal and converting it to a TV visual and audio output; the dialog exchanged is reasonably realistic, and the audience doesn't have to understand it all because it all makes sense when the TV is turned on—and part of the humor in the scene is that the nasty miltitary man doesn't understand the conversation either. Contact has its own shortcomings of course—you can seriously not convince anyone who has spent time trying to decipher puzzles lacking instructions that "we can only get three sides to fit together!" doesn't scream "I'm a cube, damn you!!!"—but it is still one of the best movies with scientists as characters I know of.

The other, of course, is Real Genius. The students and scientist-types in it are all obvious caricatures, but they are exagerations of something realistic and along the correct axes. Sure, many of the characters in the movie are the stereotypical "oh no I'm smart and can do math so I must be a total social dork!" but the main character, Chris Knight, is clearly well outside of this box. I couldn't even begin to list the number of movies and TV shows featuring a scientifically intelligent character who is white, male, with glasses, doesn't shower often enough, can't get a girlfriend, can't carry on a "normal" conversation, and is uncomfortable in big groups and pretty people. Of course, this is a travesty because it's through pervasive moves and television that most kids subconsciously learn the cultural stereotypes of many professions and different kinds of people. It is extremely difficult to fight stereotypes once they are planted.

Are there any movies, or even TV shows, out there that I'm missing which depict scientifically minded folk in a realistic—or at least non-condescending—fashion? Even the West Wing, which clearly respects characters with intelligence, treats mathematical intelligence as inferior to the ability to yield verbal rhetoric. I think the main problem is that (good) writers write what they know, and almost by definition very very few writers know what it is like to be or be around real scientists. This, combined with the fact I mentioned above about writers being scared to write conversations their audiences can't actually follow, is why even those writers who want realistic technically-minded characters on screen don't achieve them.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Ceci n'est pas un "link dump"

So I was fairly dead to the world (of the internet) in August. But with September comes a whole new month! I've been so slack on reading blog posts (probably a good thing, of course, given the general inverse correlation between number of blog posts read and amount of work done) that I've started using Google Reader to keep track of the unread posts. Seeing as how I've also recently bought my very own coffee pot so I can enjoy real coffee at home, this morning's internet perusal is also slightly more caffeinated than usual. In reality, I was actually planning on reading a set of papers on absoprtion systems in close quasar pairs, but I cleverly left the stack in my office. So you, whatever little readership is left after such a month of non-posts, win.

The Friendly Atheist talks a little bit about an article in the Columbus Dispatch on the recent surge of atheistic books; the article itself isn't terrible enlightening or interesting, but I think it represents a response to the overwhelming support the editor of the Faith & Values section was sent after innocently asking in February whether or not nontheists should enjoy a more representative sampling of articles in the F&V section than is typical.

Elizabeth Wood over at Sex in the Public Square rightly points out that the whole "debate" over whether sexual preference is chosen or biological is completely irrelevant to the fact that it isn't something that should be a basis for discrimination.

We also saw (and are seeing) all sorts of people fleeing from the White House like rats from a sinking ship; see this recent AP story on Tony Snow for a probably complete list. My favorite quote is:

Snow, ailing with cancer, had said recently he would leave before the end of Bush's presidency because he needs to make more money.
See, he could have said, "for health reasons," or something completely believable and forgivable like that ... but "more money"?! Sheesh. And certainly the timing these sudden desires for more money and wanting to spend more time with family are mere coincidences rather than being due to knowing something we don't know and not wanting to be held as accountable later. Certainly.

Speaking of people focussing on all the wrong things, Mark at Cosmic Variance provides a nice superposition of people worried about action rather than hypocrisy and baggy clothes rather than crime.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems that ScienceBlogs is doing a 500,000th comment contest, and it appears that the winner will be sent to Cambridge (the one in the UK, that is). Personally, I think Boston is the "greatest science city in the world," and I'm completely unbiased, but I also think most people (myself included) would rather score a free trip to England. I'd be perfectly happy to get my hands on one of those Sb mugs, though.

This is also one of the more fantastic times of year for those of us on the evil quarter system, seeing as how plenty of other places have already started classes and are being innundated with floods of undergrads. Best part is: I'm not taking classes this term! Or next term! Or, really, ever again! I doubt the gloating will ever get old.

And then we have this delightful gem showing us that I may not be representative of those educated in South Carolina: