May 2011

Arthur Phillips at Politics and Prose, 5-24-2011

I went to see Arthur Phillips give a talk on his latest book, “The Tragedy of Arthur“, tonight at Politics and Prose Bookstore in DC. As usual, he gave a very engaging talk/reading of the book. I’ve been to a few of his talks now (he’s one of my favorite authors), all at Politics and Prose: for “The Song is You” , “Angelica“, and “The Egyptologist“.

See previous posts: Arthur Phillips Reads “The Song is You” and Walter Isaacson, Arthur Phillips recent events.

His latest book (The Tragedy of Arthur) is different: the premise is that this is a memoir of his (actual) life with his (con-artist) father and sister. He has written the Introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play, “The Tragedy of Arthur” (discovered by his father, a convicted forger – see where this is leading?). I was really drawn into this novel (memoir). Ok, it’s not a real memoir, but it reads like one. Just go with it. I haven’t read the play at the end yet, but Mr. Phillips mentioned it has been staged by a theater company in NY for the audio book. That would be interesting!

At one point tonight Mr. Phillips asked if anyone in the audience was a “real” Shakespearean actor and would like to read one of the soliloquies. Turns out someone was there who was with the Shakespeare Theater Company, and he came up to read. Not sure if that was a coincidence. :)

Arthur Phillips at Politics and Prose, 5-24-2011

Arthur Phillips signature on my iPad 5-24-2011

One different thing about tonight is that I asked Mr. Phillips to sign my “ebook” version – i.e. my iPad. He smiled and did so, though he hesitated to “mess up Machu Picchu” (I have a Gelaskin on my iPad, from a photo I took on my honeymoon at Machu Picchu). Turns out that signing ebooks is a real possibility now, though it hasn’t really hit the mainstream yet. Soon? Hopefully it can be done in realtime, as part of the fun of getting a book signed is meeting the author. A “virtual” signing isn’t the same thing. We’ll see. For now I plan on adding more signatures to the back of my iPad. When the back is filled I’ll come up with something…

Pope Benedict XVI
From the Vatican Information service:


VATICAN CITY, 21 MAY 2011 (VIS) – This Saturday, Benedict XVI held a
conversation with the group of cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the
International Space Station, on the occasion of the space shuttle
Endeavour’s last mission.

From a room in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace the Pope could see the
astronauts on a television screen while they could only hear his voice on an
audio channel.

During the conversation, the Holy Father asked the astronauts five
questions. The first: “When you are contemplating the Earth from up there,
do you ever wonder about the way nations and people live together down here,
or about how science can contribute to the cause of peace?”.

Mark Kelly
United States astronaut Mark Kelly answered that, from space, you cannot
see the borders between the nations, but “we realize that people fight with
each other and there is a lot of violence in this world … The science and
the technology that we put into the Space Station to develop a solar power
capability, gives us pretty much an unlimited amount of energy. And if those
technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some
of that violence”.

While emphasizing “the responsibility we all have towards the future of
our planet”, the Pope asked how the astronauts see Earth’s situation from
their “extraordinary observation point?”.

International Space Station
United States astronaut Ron Garan answered that, “we can see how
indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is; but on the
other hand, we can really clearly see how fragile it is”.

Benedict XVI asked if, “in the midst of your intense work and research”,
the astronauts ever stop and reflect on the mystery of creation – perhaps
even to say a prayer to the Creator? The Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori,
who before leaving for space had received a medal from Benedict XVI
representing the Creation of Man as painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine
Chapel ceiling, responded. On seeing the beauty of the planet, he said, “I
do pray: I do pray for me, for our families, for our future”.

The Pope addressed his fifth and final question to the Italian astronaut
Paolo Nespoli, assuring him of his prayers for the astronaut’s recently
deceased mother and asking him how he was living through this time of
sorrow; if on the station he felt “far away and isolated, if you suffer a
sense of separation or if you feel united to and included in a community
that accompanies you with care and affection?”.

Thanking the pontiff for his prayers on the death of his mother, Nespoli
agreed that, being outside the world, “we have a vantage point to see the
Earth and to feel everything around us”.

The Holy Father concluded the conversation by thanking them for “this
wonderful opportunity to meet and dialogue with you. You have helped me and
many other people to reflect together on important issues that regard the
future of humanity. I wish you the very best for your work and for the
success of your great mission at the service of science, international
collaboration, authentic progress, and for peace in the world”.

shape of inner space

Professor Shing-Tung Yau gave a lecture last night at the Smithsonian (Carmichael Auditorium of Museum of American History), based on his book, The Shape Of Inner Space. He basically described the trajectory of his career over the past 40 years or so, along the way describing “Calabi-Yau” space and how it relates to String theory and maybe even the real world.

The basic tenet of String Theory is that all particles, at their most basic level, are made of vibrating bits of tiny strings. Yes, strings. The way they vibrate basically dictates which particles they manifest as. I won’t even pretend to know the math involved. One non-intuitive (to me as a non-mathematician, anyway) upshot of the string theory math is that it requires (reveals?) a total of 10 dimensions – 6 more than the 4 with which we are most familiar (3 dimensions of space plus time). Turns out according to theory that the extra 6 dimensions are hidden away in Calabi-Yau Space. This invisible space exists at every point in “real” space.

At this point, Prof. Yau asked, “Who cares?”. Well, it turns out the exact shape/geometry of this “Calabi-Yau Space” dictates the properties of our universe and the kind of physics we see.

The lecture was sold out…

Keep reading to see how Yau’s discussion of Mirror Symmetry (spaces) can be related to eating at a British-themed pub…

After the lecture I managed to take some pictures of Washington, D.C. in the evening light. I had a half-mile hike back to the Metro anyway, as I used the Archives stop on the Green line. This involved no train changes, and the weather was just perfect for a walk downtown. It’s actually very relaxed in the evening, as most people have gone home for the day. The downside is that it can be a bit hard to find someplace to eat around the Smithsonian in the late evening. I asked a security guard who happened to be taking a break, and he pointed me to the Elephant and Castle Pub on Pennsylvania Ave. Ok, his exact words were more like, “not much open right now except super-fancy places- just that sports bar over there…”. That was not really what I was looking for, but I was going that way anyway and I had missed dinner, so I stopped in. Glad I did! Got a nice table outside (did I mention perfect weather) and had some Fish and Chips and a London Porter. Yum! Not too pricey, and the fish was delicious – just lightly breaded/ fried crispy and golden. The porter was delicious too- chocolately and coffee undertones.

Mirror Universe? I was quite intrigued by something the waitress said when she brought me my fish and chips (she was a different person than the waiter who took my order): “Hey, that’s funny, I thought I must be seeing things – there’s a guy inside who is also having a Porter, fish and chips, and using an iPad”. Neat!

I wonder if he is in a Mirror Geometry (Mirror Symmetry)? Turns out you can have two Calabi-Yau spaces with different topologies (shapes) but the same resulting set of physical properties (simplistic: i.e. same universe). I wonder what shape the other guy was? :)

Mirror-symmetry is powerful: if you have a hard time solving a problem (typically in string-theory) with one of the spaces, just use its mirror space! This has been successful in many cases, sometimes allowing problems to be solved that have eluded mathematicians for over a century…

From the lecture description at Smithsonian Resident Associates page:

Do we live in a 10-dimensional universe? String theorists believe we do, even though we can sense only four dimensions.

Geometer Shing-Tung Yau has mathematically proven the existence of the elaborate, twisted six-dimensional shapes at the center of string theory. If that theory is correct, these “Calabi-Yau manifolds” (pictured here) may dictate the forces and particles of nature.

Yau tells the story of how physics met geometry and the new picture of the universe that has emerged as a result. He concludes by describing the ongoing exploration of Calabi-Yau spaces and the quest to uncover the shape of this small, hidden domain that may govern almost everything in our universe.