Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the latest Secret Science Club North presentation, featuring particle physicist Dr Daniel Whiteson of the University of California at Irvine and CERN, teaming up with Dr Jorge Cham, recovering robotics researcher and the genius behind the Piled Higher and Deeper comic. Drs Cham and Whiteson have a new book, We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. Their presentation concerned the topic of the book and was a celebration of a certain type of ignorance- that ignorance which inspires inquiry, that ignorance which seeks to remedy itself with discovery.
The good doctors first decided to combine their talents a few years back when Dr Whiteson approached Dr Cham to ask if he did commissioned work. They combined forces and produced a video which has been described as the best explanation of the search for the Higgs boson for the layperson:
The video was a distillation of eight hours of conversation between Dr Cham and Dr Whiteson, a brilliant 'editing' job on the part of Dr Cham combined with his charming cartoon art.
The presentation was lovely, a casual tour through millennia of inquiry with a recap of the current state of particle physics. I pretty much just sat back and enjoyed the lecture, which had Dr Whiteson lecturing in front of a screen displaying Dr Cham's art, with Dr Cham improvising comical additions to the background. As such, I figure that the best way to recap the lecture is to present a video of it (seeing as Dr Cham's drawings are an integral part of the program):
I had a lot of fun- the interplay of Drs Whiteson and Cham was funny, and they quickly imparted a fantastic overview of the state of physics to an audience ranging in age from grammar school children to senior citizens, from second graders to PhDs. The talk covered such topics as dark matter and dark energy and particle physics. There were some hilarious moments, such as Dr Whiteson's observation that, even as a kid, he was one to smash rocks together to see what they were made of, and Dr Cham's characterization of his life as a grad student as reminiscent of a video he made of a cockroach-modelling robot on a treadmill occasionally getting smacked by an offscreen aggressor. There was a brief Q&A session afterwards, during which the bastard asked about antimatter, and possible reasons why it is in such short supply compared to regular matter- Dr Whiteson indicated that it is unknown whether there was a higher proportion of matter from the beginning of the universe, and that there might actually be entire sectors of the universe that are composed of antimatter, joking that the residents of such an area would call it matter. There were a lot of questions about dark matter- could it even be considered made of 'particles', is there a fifth force which determines how it interacts with the universe?
The night was a love-fest, I have to note that, in particular, Dr Cham is held in esteem and affection by the world's grad students... my friend Dr Garnier noted that Dr Cham's cartoons are ubiquitous in university offices worldwide. At any rate, the presentation was fun and informative, and I do not hesitate in plugging Dr Cham's and Dr Whiteson's book.