A passage to parallel worlds

Now that the Melbourne Fringe Festival is over for another year, why not take an overdue look at the 2016 festival? For something different, I put together an interactive art installation called “A passage to parallel worlds”.

Based on a prototype event in bushland at A Centre for Everything, this version was held at the Abbotsford Convent Industrial School (formerly home of Shadow Electric).

After listening to a recorded introduction on walkmans (yes, walkmans – or is it walkmen?), participants followed a choose-your-own-adventure style story of the life of physicist Craig Lemming, as he encounters various concepts of multiple universes. These included parallel realities in higher dimensions, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and identical copies of Earth repeated in an infinite cosmos.

Although the event was held in an out-of-the-way location far from the rest of the Fringe Festival, on AFL Grand Final Day (a mistake in retrospect), it turned out pretty good.

The highlight was being runner-up in the Best Live Art category at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe Awards. Yes, there were only two nominees, but it still counts.

The story was told through a series of stations representing each alternative event in the life of Craig Lemming, suspended from the roof of the Abbotsford Convent’s old Industrial School.
At each station, a text card explained what was happening at that point in the story, and the choices to get to the next point.
Participants each had their own ball of yarn, to thread through each point so their choices were made visible.
Some stations involved a random element, to represent the unpredictability of quantum mechanics.
Each participant worked through the story on their own, creating a web of intersecting and diverging timelines.
It’s important to choose carefully, as the timelines can get quite tangled.
The friendly guide, Dr Craig Lemming himself, helped people through and explained the real physics behind the parallel worlds.
The result was a delicate and strangely beautiful map of the multiverse. It was fascinating to see which were the popular choices and which were the paths least travelled.

(Photography by Image Workshop)

Lost in cat science


I’m breaking out of this here cave, this “astro” cave. No longer to be restricted to the limited world of the internet, I’m heading out on the electromagnetic spectrum, in a way that can only be described as talking on the radio.

Yes, from 8.30 am this Thursday 27 January I’ll be joining the team on Lost in Science, a weekly program of news, discussion and sciencey explanations on 3CR Community Radio 855 AM. But, if you can’t listen to AM radio at 8.30 on Thursday mornings you get a second chance when it’s repeated at 6 pm on Tuesday nights.

And if you miss that, you get a third chance when it’s podcast on the 3CR website. So take up any of these options and listen to me talking about physics and other not-quite-physics topics.

And if you’re reading this because you heard me mention this blog on the show: Hello! You should probably get yourself over to Lost in Science’s new blog, lostinscience.wordpress.com, to read about the following topic:

Bonus gag: Turning over and over like that, that’s what I like to call a “loll cat”.

Science chic

So, there’s this cycle chic movement, which seems to be about hipsters taking ownership of the roads away from M.A.M.I.L.s (middle-aged men in lycra – I got that from someone at work). Apart from that dubious goal, one of its aims is apparently to make cycling more appealing by getting cool people to ride bikes, rather than just saying that bike riders are cool.

This reminded me of the constant effort that’s made to get The Kids interested in science by convincing them that scientists are cool. Which for some reason never seems to work.

Instead, I’m proposing that we take a cue from cycle chic and enlist as science communicators people who are already cool. And I’m talking really cool. Even cooler than Brian from D:Ream.

Our starting point? Björk.

As she so rightly says, the scientifical truth is much better – you shouldn’t let poets lie to you.

Ain’t no drought in this here ocean

Ah, Herald Sun. How we rely on your scientific reporting, particularly when it comes to creative interpretation of climate change.

A couple of months ago we had an article about how the first 6 months of 2010 were, globally, the warmest ever recorded. This was ably refuted by the accompanying photo of a lifeguard shivering next to a Melbourne pool in winter. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the article, but it’s a classic theme that winter disproves global warming.

Last Friday, that was matched by a story about water restrictions remaining while storage levels rise. All quite reasonable, including a climate expert who describes the ongoing trend towards drier conditions. But most important was the picture they chose to illustrate the article:

People on a jet ski at St Kilda beach

Summer Disbray and Lara Tori enjoy the nice weather at St Kilda beach.
Picture: Stephen Harman Source: Herald Sun

Yes, there’s plenty of water there. At the beach.

Next week: kids eating Frosty Fruits show that the ice caps aren’t really melting.

Schrödinger’s parliament – update

Previously, we discussed the indeterminate result of Australia’s federal election and how that left us in a very rare state of macroscopic quantum superposition. Well, I discussed it, and if you did too then you’re probably wondering how far the analogy can be pushed in light of this week’s Oakeshott-Windsor led resolution.

The answer is: just a bit further. Instead of a normal election result, where the quantum system collapses into a classical state either one way or the other, we have a more fragile equilibrium that still has a chance of fluctuating, even if only on individual pieces of legislation. This close-as-you-can-get-to-classical-while-still-being-a-bit-fuzzy-around-the-edges situation is, I declare, a coherent state.

To save me having to go into the details, please read the linked Wikipedia article if you want to find out more. I usually find Wikipedia to be quite good on matters of quantum physics, and this article is no exception. One of its gems is to point out that a coherent state is not the same thing as a Fock state, which is a state with a definite quantum number of particles.

But then again, some would say we really are in a totally focked state.

(Thank you, thank you. It took two blog posts and two weeks of hung parliament to build up the gag, but I think you’ll agree the punchline was worth it.)

Bad scientist

Lex Luthor is clearly a bad scientist. If for no other reason, then the simple mathematical formula of ‘bad guy + mad scientist’. (What? That’s how maths works.)

But he does go to some good sources for his science news. In Action Comics #890, where Action Comics is famously the title that Superman first appeared in, but which Lex Luthor has recently taken over in what could be considered a metatextual response to his failure to conquer either Superman or the Earth, we have the following scene:

Splash page from Action Comics 890

Here, Luthor has plugged himself into his Lexcorp Intelligent Listening Engine, a phenomenally over-engineered virtual reality system that allows him to search for the mention of certain key words on the internet (most of us would just use Google, but then we’re not mad geniuses). He’s seeking news on certain black lantern rings, which appeared in DC Comics’ Blackest Night storyline (don’t bother asking, just read Wikipedia). And yes, he’s wearing bike shorts.

But the important bit is in the lower left of the page, where we see the following caption:

- some new influence on the subatomic world - @benjamingoldacre

That would Dr Benjamin Goldacre, writer of the Guardian column, blog and book, all called Bad Science and all well worth reading. And although his actual Twitter username is @bengoldacre, and his interests are typically more around medical research than subatomic physics, it’s a nice tribute. Where better to go for your sciencey internet needs?

And after all, comic book science is some of the best bad science you’ll find.

Bonus feature: If you want to know what happens in the rest of the comic, check out the live reading from CONvergence 2010. I had no idea they did that sort of thing, but I found it in an internet search. Without, I might add, the aid of any fully-immersive 3D display, and without having to strip down to my underwear. Take that, Lex Luthor.

Elders of the Internet

How do I miss these things? It seems that seven people hold the keys to the internet – chosen to restart it if something breaks the domain name system and, I don’t know, stops phishing phraudsters pretending to be your bank account.

Apparently a restart requires five of the seven key holders to bring their smartcards to a secret location in the US, from their home countries of Britain, the US, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, China, the Czech Republic and… Burkina Faso. (For those who don’t know, Burkina Faso is a landlocked African country; it used to be called Upper Volta, its capital city is Ougadougou and its main industry is lint.)

This is a fantastic opportunity for any lonely nerds out there. Despite the fact that some key holders have come forward, no one really knows who they all are. So all you need to do is mock up your own fake smartcard, and you finally have the key to attention and respect.

“Yeah baby, it’s true, I’m one of the seven secret lords of the internet. Me and Al Gore. But don’t tell anybody: it’s a secret.” (To be read in a Burkina Faso accent.)

But of course, this is old news. The truth about the hidden elders was revealed two years ago, in that excellent documentary series, The IT Crowd: