Greetings, and welcome to Cocktail Party Physics, a science-and-culture blog that aims to create a salon-like virtual space highlighting the latest news and ideas in physics and related sciences -- with a twist. I know, I know, you hated physics in high school -- all those mathematical formulas made your eyes glaze over, and being forced to calculate the slope of an incline plane bored you to tears. Yeah. Me too.
Trust me, this blog is nothing like your high school physics class. The aim is to make this all-too-often intimidating subject fun, funky, and a bit unconventional, while blurring the lines between traditional disciplines -- both within the sciences themselves, and science and the arts, literature, pop culture, history, and every other aspect of our culture. That's why I started the blog in the first place back in February 2006, and I'm looking forward to continuing to do just that in my new home at Scientific American.
Think of it is being like tasty tidbits, or tapas, for the brain. Flying snakes? Check. The Vdara Hotel death ray in Vegas? Check. Hitting unsuspecting insects with tiny cream pies launched from itty-bitty catapults? Zombies? Lady Gaga's fashion choices? Check, check and check. Pretty much anything to do with science and culture that has an element of physics in it is fair game.
Featured at the start of every post is Jen-Luc Piquant, my faux-French avatar; she started out as an inside joke, but quickly developed her own personality and became what one might call a "cyber-character"; she's the hostess of the cocktail party, with a penchant for gourmet cuisine, high fashion, existential angst, and dabbling in amateur scientific research of questionable import. Any other rumors you may have heard about her are lies, vicious lies (except for her crush on classical violinist Joshua Bell, who can email her any time). She is created by Lee Kottner using templates provided by Portrait Illustration maker -- with a little extra help from Photoshop.
Those who've encountered Cocktail Party Physics before know there are frequent references to the Spousal Unit and the Time Lord -- both nicknames for my husband, Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, the latter arising not from Dr. Who, but from the fact that he wrote a book about the arrow of time and the origin of the universe called From Eternity to Here. We met through our respective physics blogs (his is called Cosmic Variance), so don't let anyone tell you blogging is a useless activity.
I should give a shout-out, too, to artist/writer Jason Torchinsky, who designed the spiffy banner art. He's built a functional, 15x-scale Atari joystick, a hoax Kyrgyz arcade machine, and several kinetic sculptures that have been exhibited at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, as well as the Hammer museum.
Jason is also the author of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. This fall, he gets to install his first public art piece, Invaded!, in downtown Culver City, California. Go, Jason! To fund his lavish, decadent lifestyle -- hey, those spare mechanical parts don't come cheap -- he teaches design at the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities.
"Cocktail party physics" is generally a perjorative term among scientists, implying a lack of depth or substance. I'm reclaiming it with a positive spin. Not every discussion about science needs to be an earnest, pedagogical event.
There's no reason a bit of light and fun can't be brought to bear on deep issues, especially when it comes to physics. It's the kind of stuff I wish I'd encountered in high school and college, when I was was convinced that science, math, and especially physics had no relevance to my life. (Hah!)
See, I wasn't always a big science geek; my academic background is firmly in the humanities, although I enjoyed high school biology, and staring at constellations as a child (my favorite was Orion). Clearly the universe has a sense of humor, because while struggling to find my niche as a writer in New York City after college, I took a job with the American Physical Society, the largest professional organization of physicists in the US -- you know, just to pay the rent for awhile until I could get back on my feet.
And something amazing happened: I belatedly fell in love with physics and became a science writer. It was my first exposure to science as it is actually done in the real world, rather than the more passive, textbook-oriented encounters I'd had with science previously. Suddenly I was visiting laboratories, interviewing physicists about cutting-edge research and its impact on biology, and seeing their passion for their work firsthand. I discovered the rich history behind modern-day physics, and the amazing people, past and present, who diligently labored for years on end to understand how our world works at the most fundamental levels.
Remember that pivotal scene in Legally Blonde, when Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is having a crisis of confidence during her rocky first semester at Harvard Law School? She bitterly complains that nobody takes her seriously, so why should she continue to struggle "to be someone I'm just.... not." And her young lawyer love interest counters, "Maybe you're trying to be someone you are" -- it's just that her true self has simply been lurking beneath the surface, waiting for someone to expect more from her than just to be charming and decorative.
Okay, I've never been Elle Woods. But I did make a lot of incorrect assumptions in my youth about my interests and abilities, particularly when it came to math and science. I'm glad I had the chance to unlock the eager science geek lurking within, and share my newfound passion with others through -- shameless plug alert! -- three popular science books, the most recent of which recounts my struggle to overcome a lifelong math phobia. It's called The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. (Yes, there is a calculus of zombies, and I'd be happy to show you the derivation. Wait! Come back!)
To give you a taste of what's to come, here's a sampling of some of my favorite pieces from the original archives -- some of which may find their way onto this reboot of the blog in slightly reworked form in the future.
Stupid Human Tricks
Come Firewalk With Me. What happens when a UCLA physicist tries to impress his students with a stint of firewalking? Badly burned feet, that's what.
By the Sword. Why yes, there's a science to sword swallowing!
Juggle Me This. The mathematics of juggling.
XX vs. XY
Tit for Tat. Is the guy you're dating more like general relativity or quantum mechanics? This handy guide breaks it down for you.
Bait and Switch. In which I offer dating advice to lonely geeks.
Every Sperm is Sacred. Physics lends a helping hand with a new sperm-sorting technique.
Ringing Up the Changes. Sure, you think those tolling bells are just cacaphony, but there's an art -- and math! to change-ringing. The bells toll for thee.
Stradivari's Secret. Why do Stradivari violins set the standard for sound quality above all other violins? Is it wood fungus, or just that we hear what we expect to hear?
I Hear the Cosmos Singing. The Northern Lights, Saturn's rings, and black holes all have a "voice" in the great cosmic symphony.
Singing Sands. That classic Dr. Who episode might be fiction, but the singing sands phenomenon is very real.
Much Depends on Dinner. Sure, we can use the Zagat's guide to find great restaurants when we travel, but what if you're just a lowly amoeba?
Brain Candy. The science of chocolate. Mmm. Chocolate.
Snap, Crackle, Pop. What does your morning bowl of Rice Krispies have to do with glass?
A Spark in the Dark. What's it called when you bite into a Wint-O-Green Lifesaver in the dark and see a flash of green light? Triboluminescence! Use it in a sentence today!
The Legend of Finn McCool. What formed Ireland's Giant's Causeway? A battle between a folk hero and a Scottish giant, or something even weirder?
Hot Capillary Action. The formation of "ice flowers" and a Buddha that "weeps" milk both rely on the little-known capillary force.
They Like To Move It, Move It. On the Improbability Drive in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and microscopic Brownian motion.
What's That Stuff?
It's Better With Bubbles. Bubbles! Why do we love them so? The science is more complex than you think.
A Girl's Best Friend. The cautionary tale of my ruined engagement ring, with a foray into the science of gold and diamonds.
Shiny Things. Lovers of opal jewelry, behold the power of photonic crystal structures in nature to create eye-catching iridescence!
And finally, the highest-trafficked post in the blog's five-year history: The Photon Has Two Faces. It's all about the centuries-long debate on whether light was a particle or wave, with a special cameo appearance by Ms. Paris Hilton doing an experiment showing that it's, well, both. Warning: Contains quantum mechanics and exploding Paris Hilton head.