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Where do all the socks go?

Colourful socks

Image source: USDA ARS via Wikimedia Commons

(Everyone is familiar with losing socks.  No matter how careful you are, or more precisely how careful you think you are, socks inexorably disappear.  Scientists have the same problem.  Or rather, in addition to the sock problem, scientists have a related problem: the disappearing book problem.  Typically, we don’t have a lot of books compared to scholars in the humanities, but the ones we have decrease in number over time.  I was thinking about this recently when I was asked to write a book review, and I enclose that review for Physics in Canada directly below.  Some of it is a little technical, for which I apologize for this forum, and heads up as well for a private joke: my PhD supervisor was Rashmi.) (more…)

Unintended consequences: With red squares in the sunset, what is the value of a University education?

Tree growing out of bookExcuse me while I back into this.  In Charlottetown PEI, when I was young, for one day each year children would wear masks and roam the streets at night, walking from door to door to get candy from neighbours.  At some point children started to wear face paint instead of masks so they could see cars coming.  At some point parents started to walk with children to ensure their safety.  At some point people only visited homes of those they knew.  And, at some point in Charlottetown PEI and everywhere else, people started to lock their doors, and groups of masked children no longer roamed the streets on Halloween night calling out trick or treat.  With the benefit of hindsight, an unintended consequence is revealed – a last Halloween trick – our fear for our children diminished our community: our neighbours first became strangers and then potential predators. (more…)

Publish or perish

BooksAcademics and academic administrators are always looking for ways to measure and quantify performance.  That is, how can we tell if someone is doing, or not doing, excellent science?  This is easy to assess in hindsight – excellent science is that which advances the field – but it is a surprisingly tough question to answer in real time, because the scientists doing the work are studying right at the boundaries of what is known.  The scientific method provides the rules for the game, but it does not keep score: there are no infallible scorekeepers regarding the importance of just-discovered knowledge.  This is why we enlist the work of other active scientists to assess quality, called peer review.  It is a cumbersome method.  We do this for publishing scientific papers, for decisions on hiring, on tenure, to prepare nominations for awards, and so forth.  The real-time assessment of science and of scientists is a lot of work. (more…)

Holiday fun ideas inspired by Sam the Christmas Dog

(By Martin Grant, Dean of Science)

Small dog wearing reindeer antlers

As we come out of a long strike by our support staff, like everyone at McGill, I am pretty tired and not in the mood for fun or even a holiday – but boy oh boy do I need one, as does everyone else here.  With that thought in mind, I would like to suggest a few family-fun things for the holiday season, in the spirit of the advice of Sam the Christmas Dog which I suggested last year: see family and friends, relax and have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  So, to get everyone out of their bah-humbug moods, here are some ideas for Holiday fun for kids of all ages! (more…)

The black tie and the purple tie

Neckities in a rowIn my office I keep two ties for emergencies.  I do not mean emergencies like preventing a fire or helping someone with a health problem.  Rather I mean occasions where I should be wearing a tie, but regrettably I have shown up to work without one.  One tie is black, one is purple.  I have never worn the purple tie, though I may one day.  I have worn the black tie once.

In the fall of 2009, I received a call that I was to be interviewed on television on very short notice.  Usually such interviews involve our Principal or one of our Vice-Principals, but they were unfortunately unavailable.  Being without a tie I looked at my two emergency ties, and picked the black one. (more…)

Neither monks nor beatniks

Order and chaos

A great University is on the one hand as rigid and hierarchical as a seminary, on the other hand as open and anarchic as a commune.

Our values include the explicit openness to all ideas – except for one: that all ideas are equally good. We believe the quality of ideas can be measured like stones on a scale.  Measuring, we identify – and at a great University, we recognize, respect, and reinforce – excellence and achievement.  We are hierarchical to provide a rigorous structure to do that appraisal; we are anarchic so that the ideas to be appraised can be proposed. (more…)

The Fermi paradox and a revolution in the head

Cupcakes in the shape of orange extra-terrestrials. These may not be a fully accurate representation of aliens.

Today, like on most days, I walked to work.  Walking is a funny thing.  While walking, one kind of falls forward while pushing backwards against the planet Earth with one’s feet in an intricate two-step dance. The Earth pushes back, and one is propelled forward in a sort of lurching way.  It is kind of clumsy, and takes babies a while to learn it.  But, like everyone else, I did not think about this while walking, I thought about my work for the day, my family and friends, and some things about science.  It was kind of a semi-related jumble of thoughts as I tried to figure various things out, particularly my thoughts about something odd that has confused me for a long time about life elsewhere in the universe. (more…)

Jimi Hendrix and musical acoustics

Jimi Hendrix performs for Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

Jimi Hendrix performs for Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

Last year, I was attending a reception at a McGill event.  I was standing in the back – perhaps too far in the back – and a colleague asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book about the physics of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar sounds.  Huh, I said – just before a microphonic feedback howl announced that the reception’s speeches were about to begin.

My colleague said Hendrix’s playing must involve complex nonlinear dynamics (yes, my colleague was drinking the wine offered at the event).  The second thing I told my colleague was that, unlike most guitarists these days, Hendrix played so loud that he literally played the room, but, however that might be, room acoustics are linear, not nonlinear.  Then I stopped, because my colleague was right, there was something nonlinear going on in Hendrix’s playing.  The answer is not enough for a book, but fits a blog entry well. (more…)

The McDLT and the arrow of time

The inexorable arrow of time
Years ago McDonald’s introduced a lettuce and tomato hamburger called the McDLT, where the (hot) hamburger was kept on one side of the container and the (cold) lettuce and tomato on the other.  The patented container was intended to keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool.  When you received your order, you would combine the two sides.   The burger was similar to, and presumably a competitor to Burger King’s whopper, distinguished by the unique packaging.  The product sought exclusion or at least a reprieve from the second law of thermodynamics – but physical laws, unlike those for speeders and tax evaders, brook no exceptions, as we shall see.

The Story of Sam the Christmas Dog

Christmas dog(By Martin Grant, Dean of Science)

Many years ago, I made a homemade CD to send to family and friends at Christmas.  I got the idea from my brother Nick, who had done something similar the previous year.  The CD was called The Story of Sam the Christmas Dog.  There was some narration by me, my wife, our children and dog, and some silly songs.  All of this was to illuminate a silly story about how our dog Sam searches for and then finds the true meaning of Christmas (by the way, according to Sam: seeing family and friends, relaxing and having fun, and not taking yourself too seriously).

For your amusement this holiday season, I enclose one of those silly songs: Silent Night [.mp3].  Listen as much, or as little as you like, to me and my friend Steve goofing around, with some barking in the background.  Sam was a good dog, as my family told him many times; he died in 2005, just before I started as Dean. (more…)

How many monkeys to type a book?

Monkey using a laptop computerHere is an interesting old riddle.  If we set up a room full of monkeys, how long would we have to wait before they type out Hamlet?  This is sometimes called the infinite monkey problem.  It does not take a long time to figure out this will be a long time. (more…)

Toppermost of the poppermost

Student Holding Successful Exam PaperMcGill aspires to be one of the world’s Grande Ecoles.  How do we get there, from where we are now?  When I started as Dean of Science several years ago, this is something to which I gave a lot of thought, and I still think about it a lot. A meeting I had with a Dean at another University from Europe when I started snapped this into focus for me.

At the time, both of us were young (in Dean years) newly-minted academic administrators – or more precisely, and with the benefit of hindsight, both of us were know-nothing, overly-aggressive academic administrators, who thought we had all the solutions to all issues.  Both our institutions were highly ranked on respected international scales.   And both of us were committed to moving our Faculties up in those rankings. (more…)

What is Science, and what’s in it for me?

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

To be a Dean of Science means different things, in a shallow sense, at different institutions.  At the same time it means the same thing, in a deep way, at any institution.  Some Universities have Computer Science in their business schools, some have Biology and Chemistry in their medical schools, some have Mathematics, Psychology, and Geography in their arts faculties, some have Physics, Geology, and Meteorology in their engineering faculties, and some would have a Natural Museum in their office of public affairs.  All of these are in Science at McGill, and make up the Science Faculty.  At another university, another, almost random mix of departments might make up a science faculty.  But, whatever the mix of Departments and Schools which make up a Faculty of Science at any institution, there is only one point of view on what science is, and what it means to all universities.

On Shovelling and Other Duties


Recently I was shovelling our car out of a pile of snow. This was, as usual, a neighbourhood bonding exercise: middle-aged men and women like to take breaks from shovelling, and like to catch up on family events. One neighbour asked me about my family’s holidays, and I asked about her family, and so on. Then she asked me about my job as Dean, how long was it for, how long had I done it and so forth.

I told her I have been doing my job for five years now and had agreed to do another five-year term. With a puzzled expression, my neighbour then asked me the same question many of my family and friends, and indeed my University colleagues ask me: What does a Dean do? (more…)

For the want of a nail

Hammer and nails
The first flowering of science at McGill can be traced to William Dawson, a naturalist, paleontologist, and geologist. He was McGill’s principal for 38 years, from 1855 to 1893, and launched the study of science at McGill, working to secure funds to make his initiative a success.

The turn of the century brought about the culmination of that effort. Ernest Rutherford, a physicist who came to McGill in 1898, and Frederick Soddy, a chemist who arrived in 1900, were the interdisciplinary collaborators of the day, and studied the transmutation of the elements, both receiving Nobel prizes for the research they undertook at McGill. For the want of a nail it might have all been for naught, and McGill would be a very different place today. (more…)

Numbers big and small, and the anthropic principle

numbers-150pxI’d like to share a couple of spooky things about numbers which a friend told me about years ago.

In our laws and formulae in science, we need some constants to make them work. Things like the speed of light, the mass of an electron, Avogadro’s number, and so on. These are some of the numbers that a professor puts on a test’s formula sheet so that students do not have to memorize them.

Everyone different, or twinkle, twinkle little star



If there is one thing people in Montreal become familiar with quickly, it is snowflakes. We walk through snow, we shovel it, we ski on it, and it falls on our heads. We welcome snow’s arrival, and then welcome its departure.

The truism is that all snowflakes are different, and there are books cataloging their symmetrical complex shapes. The reason they are all different is interesting. (more…)

Thermodynamics 101

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

The first time a new professor teaches a course, a lesson is always learned: sometimes by the students, always by the professor.

This is how the professor sees it. We stand in front of the class, confident and ready. We have spent years training in advanced scientific concepts. We have contributed to original research and scholarship. And we have the book—the textbook—for the course.

We advance to the blackboard with our chalk, or flip on our laptops containing our PowerPoint presentation, and begin. Things go fine for a few minutes or a lecture or two, and then a student asks, “Why?” (more…)

Computers Everywhere

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

There has been at least one unnoticed revolution in modern science: computers. When I was a young assistant professor in the 1980s, physicists suggested that we further split the discipline from our self-conscious dualism (theorists and experimentalists) and add a third category of computer modelers. With hindsight this seems quaint. Computational work has superseded any self-conscious categorization, and is now completely integrated into the work of all theorists and experimentalists, and indeed the work of all scientists. (more…)

Many Years From Now

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

More than 100 years ago, the 20th century ushered in a golden age of science, technology, and scholarship. This golden age was so deep that it is almost incomprehensible to think many key figures of the time—such as Albert Einstein, Vladimir Lenin, Sigmund Freud, and Marie Curie—were contemporaries, sharing their views and rubbing elbows together, in the same cafés, conferences, and colleges.

However, the luminaries involved in all that change at the cusp of the 20th century were not all European. Indeed, one of the brightest stars of the time was a Canadian from Knowlton, Quebec named Reginald Fessenden. Fessenden was an inveterate tinkerer, an inventor almost without parallel. Among his hundreds of patents, the most famous was his method of down-shifting radio waves, improving their resolution and strength, thereby allowing radio to be used for the first transmission of voice over the ether, the progenitor of modern telecommunications. (more…)

Dress Codes and Convocation

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Convocation is a special time for our students, their families, and all who work at McGill. To understand the significance of convocation, certain aspects of the ceremony of the event are worth a closer look. This is an odd focus, but a powerful one as it reveals our values as a University.

Consider the dress code. All the graduating students, all the professors, are dressed in robes. Some professors have very colourful robes, depending on their University of graduation and their degree. I have heard one Dean remark that his red robe requires only a red clown nose to complete the picture (OK, I said this). All the undergraduate students wear black robes. (more…)

Thinking Outside the (Musical) Box

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Last week I went to southern Ontario. Dan Levitin, one of our psychology professors, gave talks on Wednesday in Toronto and Thursday in Hamilton. Dan is a neuroscientist who studies how the brain reacts to music, amongst other things. He is a renowned scientist, and in addition to his academic papers he has recently published two popular books on music and the brain.

Both events were packed. People who like music like it a lot, and they want to understand it better. My job was to introduce Dan. I’ve presented Dan to audiences in the past and heard him speak on many occasions. Although remarks had been prepared for me, I confess to using my introductory duties as opportunities to share my sense of the fundamental strangeness of the topic of music and the brain, and provide a subtext for Dan’s talks.

After all, although it is not uncommon for a neuroscientist to study the interaction of music and the brain, have you heard of neuroscientists studying other arts: the neuroscience of sculpture, or the neuroscience of stand-up comedy, for example? I am sure neuroscientists sometimes study the brain’s interaction with others arts, but these occasions are as rare as hen’s teeth compared with the study of music and the brain. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend the otherness of music, the strangest of all our arts, and its direct route to the brain.

Here is a thought experiment which I believe makes this clear. (more…)

Beginning at the end

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Being Dean of Science at McGill means that I am, in some sense, the local guy who is expected to understand all areas of modern science, and understand the relevance of those areas to our lives.

This came through to me last fall when the CERN collider was getting set to be turned on for the first time. McGill is a major partner in the ATLAS project at CERN, and there was a fair bit of media coverage. I was asked questions about the ATLAS project at CERN by members of the media, by alumni, by my professorial colleagues, by my friends, and by my family. They figured that, as Dean of Science, I was an expert. In fact, their flattering misunderstanding showed they did not appreciate that a rather large fraction of a Dean’s job can best be described as clerical rather than scientific, and by no means am I an expert on all, or even a few areas of modern science.


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