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Hello, Goodbye


In 2001, Suzanne Vega wrote a song called I’ll never be your Maggie May, where the last verse starts, “And so a woman leaves a man, and so the world turns on its end”. She pitches the line ironically; on the surface, she means the opposite of what she says: the breakup of relationships, people leaving their jobs and moving on and so forth, these are everyday things, not the end of the world. Of course, at a deeper level, she means exactly what she says, as the world is made up of these everyday things.

And so, goodbye. I officially started as dean in June of 2005, but it was just before Christmas in 2004 that I was told I would be the next dean, and it was announced the following January of 2005. Now I have a few months to go, and then I will go on to other things. (more…)

The very intense man

Group of people listening to a speaker

Everything happens. Not, everything has happened, or everything will happen, everything happens.

Years ago I was invited to attend a lecture by a famous scientist, and asked to introduce the scientist. Remarks were prepared for me, and after I introduced myself, I read them to the crowd and then the scientist took the stage. He gave a good solid, but somewhat dull lecture to the packed darkened room. At the end, the lights came up and he asked for questions. (more…)

The green flash

Big green flash

Photo credit: by Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons and used via licence  (CC-BY-SA-3.0 / CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0)

In the history of human affairs, occasions of importance are sometimes signaled by natural events of unusual and unexpected providence. Think of the blood moon of a lunar eclipse, a flood of biblical proportion, comets raining from the sky, or an anomalously bright star shining high and constant above a shepherd’s field. These can signal the death of a King, the end of an empire, or the birth of a God.

This year, I made my tenth annual visit to McGill’s Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados. I go for the annual meeting of the Board which runs the Institute – this year marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of Bellairs – and, more prosaically, I go as the Dean to monitor the annual audit. My three criteria for running an off-site program, such as the Bellairs Institute, are: (i) it must serve an academic purpose for McGill, (ii) it must run in the black, and (iii) it must run in the black. This was my last visit to Barbados, at least my last as Dean. (more…)

Soup and science and the demographics of academic hiring

Auditorium view of Soup and Science

Full house at Soup and Science.

It was an idea copied from the Departments, arising indirectly from the great demographic changes of the twentieth century.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was a massive wave of retirements at McGill. The retiring professors had been hired thirty to forty years earlier to teach the similarly massive influx of students in the 1960s who were born shortly after the second-world war, the baby-boomers. But after these students moved through our system, Universities found they had more professors than they needed. Exacerbating this in Québec was the establishment of CEGEPs at the end of the 1960s, our junior college system. CEGEPs teach the equivalent of grade 12 and first-year University – after the CEGEPS were established, McGill taught a three-year program to Québec students, rather than a four-year program. Hence, going into the 1970s, McGill had way more professors than necessary. In my Department, Physics, as a characteristic example, no professor was hired between 1970 and 1985. (more…)

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel

Facepalm Here are a few phrases I have heard during my not-quite-a decade as Dean of Science. They all have some truth to them, but with an underlying oddness. I share them with you so that you can understand them too, and indeed use them if you wish. After all, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

To show you what I mean, let’s start with one everyone knows: “I want to be frank with you,” which begs the question of the problem with frankness prior to this admission. Of course it means the opposite of what it says: “I would like to be frank with you, but I need this thing from you, so I am going to try to manipulate you.” You will hear this two-thirds of the way through a conversation, and it signals the end is coming soon. (more…)

Money, that’s what I want

Wallet and money

It is commonplace to hear that money is the most important thing in the world, especially from the hard-edged cynics who work as paid consultants to, e.g., Universities. And without a doubt, Universities are filled with academic administrators, including me, who day-dream about how to get money moving from one desk to another to another – until it ends up on my desk. But that is not what defines us, as everyone wants money. The things that define us are what we do because it is the right thing to do, even if it costs money. The real currency in a University is ideas and innovation, and that currency is spent changing young people’s lives for the better through our teaching and research programs. (more…)

What changes, what does not change


This year, I attended my tenth convocation as Dean of Science, and for the tenth time I stood in a tent and shook approximately 1,000 hands. I have learned a few things over the course of these convocations, some important, some not so important. It is important to shake everyone’s hand. It would not be right to do this online with a video. Yes, there were big hands and small hands, sweaty hands and dry hands. Those who shake many hands from long lines carefully size up their next partner. We know that imposingly tall athletes have a firm but measured grip. They know they can hurt you, but they do not. Painful grips come from excited students who are not that big, as they do not realize they can hurt you. In any case, I personally congratulated every Science graduate; I shook every hand, carefully in some cases, because it is respectful and important for me to do so. (more…)

The longest day

Grib skovNow is the time our planet’s Northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun, days grow longer and warmer, and at high enough latitudes the sun never sets.

Once I spent the longest day of the year in Helsinki. I was there for a PhD thesis defense. I was the outside examiner, or as it was explained to me, the Opponent. As the Opponent, I dressed up and, as is traditional, wore a black suit with tails for the public defense. Immediately following the successful defense, again following tradition, the candidate threw a party for the Opponent, me, at a bar. The party went on until late hours, featuring, memorably and fittingly ending the party, a wrestling match on the floor of the bar with the candidate and the candidate’s doctoral supervisor. As the party ended, I stepped out of the noisy dark windowless bar in my formal black suit with tails, tired with my head whirling from the long day, my jet lag, the physics back-and-forth of the defense, and the late hour, into the bright Finnish sunlight. I felt like I had walked into a new world. (more…)

No, it never propagates if I set a gap or prevention.

Symmetry (5846632471) Some of the prettiest mathematics ever invented was used to explain classical mechanics, where the law of force and action principles are utilized. This gave rise to world-changing ideas, such as E = mc2. The math has a beautiful symmetry: time-reversal invariance. The equations look the same going forward in time, as they do going backwards in time. They describe nature as a perfect palindrome (unlike the imperfection imparted by the punctuation in my title, which serves to give meaning), like a perfect propagating wave, oscillating indefinitely without dissipation.

So pretty is this math, so beautiful are its consequences, that there have been arguments in the scientific community as to whether time goes forward or not. In essence, these are high-level arguments on causality: determinism versus free will. The quaintness of these arguments, and the ability of scientists to focus relentlessly on the consequences of their theories without quarter, has no analog I know of in any other field of human endeavor. If you think I am exaggerating the heat and significance of these arguments, I recommend to you a review of the life and work of Ludwig Boltzmann who, with a world-changing idea, explained the origin of time. Indeed, there are still some scientists who fuss and fret about this. But of course the simple act of arguing argues against the thesis: convincing one means something has changed, and is hence irreversible, not reversible. (more…)

On preparing for the coming zombie apocalypse


Many people give me advice on what I should do as Dean of Science. Since my job can seem a little mysterious to people, I believe this gives rise to an opportunity for open-ended advice. And it turns out this advice is sometimes broached in pretty unequivocal terms. (more…)

Cuesto obrigado tanta mucho que can eat it carousel

UFO over city

Let us imagine we commandeer a giant alien spaceship. Then we fly through the skies to Europe, where we stop, hovering over Belgium. Floating high in the sky among the clouds, we activate a giant tractor beam to lift Brussels into the air. We carry Brussels over the ocean, and drop it (carefully) in the middle of North America. (more…)

Where is the science in music?


I have taught a course on the physics of music several times. Most physics departments offer a course like this, and typically the teaching is assigned to someone who has some musical background. But musical enthusiasts who take such a course leave vaguely disappointed – for the same reason that the music background of the teacher is irrelevant for teaching the course. That is because these courses are really on the physics of sound: how sound propagates, how it reflects, how it is generated and filtered. And in fact the physics of sound, of musical acoustics, even that of musical instruments themselves has been understood for many years. Here is how you do it: solve linear equations with the right initial and boundary conditions and you’re done. The equations are those for gas flow; they’re a little messy, but they are well known. The key word here is linear; for those with a math background, that translates to “easy-peasy”. I’ve written about this before. (more…)

The longest night

Bright blue holiday lightsNow is the time our planet’s Northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun. The winter sun shines, but warms not, the cool greeting of a former friend. The earth rotates around the sun like a child’s spinning top, almost perfectly timed by the gravitational forces locking the star and planet together in mathematical synchrony. On the planet’s surface, the temperature drops and so pressure differentials arise – winds blow in unseen kaleidoscopic convective patterns. Clouds of water vapor form and hang over us. The gloom and cold come with the year’s longest night. (more…)

When I get older, losing my hair

Child with punk haircutWe, the living, share the world with those who have lived, those who will live, and those who have never lived. Their voices interrupt us, cajole us, and attempt to guide us. Their subtle and not-so-subtle interventions lead to flash points amongst us.

When I was a teenager, the usual battle took place between the young and old. It was no less intense a battle at that time then it is now – but, now older, I feel I have some perspective on it. Here was the trivial subject of our battle: hair. Boys grew their hair long, and it enraged the older generation. As intended. My hair rested on my shoulders throughout high school, as did the hair of my friends. This scandalized our parents, teachers, potential employers, and so forth. In hindsight, as I said, it looks like a pretty silly battle. Indeed, I have pictures to confirm that it looks at least somewhat silly. (more…)

She’s so heavy

Snowy roof

I was watching the news on TV one night last winter. The woman reading the news made a public service announcement: Get the snow off your roofs before it melts, she said, because it gets heavier when it melts and your roof could collapse.

First things first: yes, get the snow off your roof so it does not pile up and collapse your house. But, no, snow does not get heavier when it melts. Try this: go outside this winter with a large clear glass. Fill the glass with snow. Go back inside your house and watch the glass until the snow melts. The dense water takes up a smaller volume than the fluffy snow. But is the glass of water heavier than the glass of snow? You will notice it is the same weight. And it is not almost the same weight, it is exactly the same weight. This is called the law of conservation of mass. It is not just a good idea, it’s the law. (more…)

You know that what you eat you are


Cows confuse me. I appreciate that they are raised, fed, and then brought to an abattoir, a butcher, and finally end up on my BBQ. I appreciate that we have much in common with cows, and that we share a common ancestor. We’re distant cousins. Let’s say I felt uncomfortable about eating my distant cousins, or at least about eating cows – would I feel uncomfortable about my other cousins, cats, eating our common relatives, mice? I find it a bit of a conundrum. If no one ate cows, and so farmers did not raise them, I suppose there would be no cows, or very few of them. Like I said, a conundrum, at least for me. Same thing with corn – raised, cut down, BBQ’ed, common ancestor – worthy of thought on the uncomfortableness meter. (more…)

Film day in Grade eleven

8 mm Kodak film reel

Image: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons

Some of my favorite days in school were film days. They were a little like film days in the movie “School of Rock”, where Jack Black’s character plays old movies on the VCR to fill out class time (before he realizes his students can be the basis of a rockin’ band!)

The last film day I remember was in Grade 11 physics. The teacher told us he had a great film to teach the concepts of electricity and magnetism, so he played it for us. Like Jack Black, our teacher then sat at his desk reading something (maybe the newspaper, I don’t remember) while the film played. Some real effort had gone into this educational film – there were deep and convincing analogies between electricity and magnetism and water pipes and pressure, and the animation was first-rate. But I paid little attention, and talked to my friends, as did everyone else.

Years later, I became a physicist and a professor – not because of, but probably in spite of my Grade 11 class. Professors talk occasionally about the same idea my Grade 11 physics teacher tried: have film days instead of classroom lecturing. We debate the value of distance learning via video-taped lectures – the value in terms of teaching, and the value in terms of any dollars and cents savings, as we don’t need to pay professors to read newspapers. (more…)

The Potatoes of Thanksgiving

Variety of fingerling potatoes. Source: iStock.com

When I lived in Philadelphia, I found out that American Thanksgiving is similar to but different from Canadian Thanksgiving.

It is something like bottles of Coke. When I moved to the States, all the bottles were 16 ounces. Canadian Coke bottles were 12 ounces. I was perplexed, as I didn’t understand the reason for the extra four ounces. My thirst was quenched after 12 ounces. Years later, I moved back to Canada to work at McGill. I was perplexed again. Twelve ounces was not enough. I was still thirsty.

At Canadian Thanksgiving, families get together and eat a big bird, just like in the States. But it is a holiday like any other. In the States, it is the biggest holiday of the year, it is a major family thing. People get worried if you are spending Thanksgiving alone. So they invite you to their home. What follows is a very heavily disguised, perhaps true story which I have told people occasionally when asked about reasonable accommodation. (more…)

Science and religion

Reflection in eye. Looking up at the ceiling of the Bahá'í Centre of Learning, Hobart, Tasmania.

Image: JalalV / Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I had breakfast with a well-known scientist, let’s call him Richard.  Richard had just finished a book on science, creationism, and religion.  That was pretty much all Richard talked about: it turns out he was not a big fan of creationism – neither am I, if you are curious – and also he was not a big fan of religion.  Actually, I am understating it: he hated religion.  He really really hated it.  His opinion started me thinking.  I was surprised by his vehemence, as it did not match my own recollection of my Roman Catholic upbringing.  His anger seemed misplaced when I thought about those I knew who had become nuns or gone into the priesthood.  Those people were touched deeply by something, a sense of wonder about the way of the world, they had a need to commit themselves to that mystery. (more…)

The academic legacy of Heather Munroe-Blum

Arts Building cupola with flag, looking outward to downtown MontrealI wish to reflect upon the academic legacy of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. I appreciate deeply the Principal’s contributions to McGill, which have changed us for the better. How has the academic leadership of the Principal been expressed? It is both more subtle and more pervasive than one might think. (more…)

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, why are scientists from Earth?

Solar system

I was lucky. When I was looking for an academic job in the early to mid-eighties, I looked to the success of the people who had graduated a few years before me to get some idea of my chances, naturally enough. To first order, it was pretty easy to calculate my chances. All the scientists a few years older than me had exactly the same success getting academic jobs: no success at all.

I admit to not finding this all that encouraging, but I nevertheless could not stop myself from working on science. And then, dumb luck came my way, as the job market for academics opened up at exactly the time I was looking for a position. At McGill, as a characteristic example, I and a few of my soon-to-be friends, were the first physicists hired in fifteen years. Versions of my story are shared by many scientists of my age (born in the mid to late 1950’s, a bit younger than baby-boomers). We could not stop ourselves from working on science despite the apparent long odds, and luck came our way. I don’t mean crazy world-changing, lottery-winning luck, I just mean lucky. If you want to be a scientist, you should really want it, because on top of everything else, you might just have to be a little lucky.

Why isn’t it hard to rip a piece of paper in half?

Tearing Paper

Interesting scientific questions come in at least two categories. The first category comprises those big questions that everyone knows. Things like the origin of the universe, how consciousness works, ways to ensure that our brother and sister species – and we – survive and prosper, how to build better computers with better algorithms, build better roads and buildings, conquer disease, and so forth.

The second category also comprises those things that everyone knows, but they are things we do not see as questions. I’ve written about some of these before. For example, while everyone agrees consciousness is a big question, we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange the way we think is. While everyone agrees the origin of the universe is a big question, we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange the universe’s complexity and richness is. (more…)

Questions that people ask the Dean, and the answers that I give

Question marks

I was interviewed for the job of Dean of Science some years ago in December of 2004, shortly before Christmas.  I was asked a number of questions, which I admit now to having largely forgotten.  Even at the time, I remember being preoccupied by the coming Holiday season.  But, with hindsight, I see this was a turning point.  Since then, many of the questions I have been asked are asked because I’m the Dean.  A lot of these are paperwork things like, can a dossier be a day late, or can the Faculty contribute to some project, or something like that.  A surprising number are not though. (more…)

Expo 67: the world is made of ideas

The US Pavilion for Expo '67, which now houses the Montreal Biosphere Museum.

When I was ten years old, my family went to Expo 67, the Man and his World Fair in Montréal.  I remember this as an astonishing event: the passports, the pavilions, the monorail, the people.  Canada was 100 years old, and Montréal’s sights were toward the future, not the past.  It was an exciting time.

In fact, I think it might have been more than an exciting time.  I think it was a time when the world became seized with innovation, invention, creativity, and a sense of wonder and possibility.  Expo 67 was just one example of this. That sense of possibility informed the excitement of Pierre Trudeau’s election the following year.  It informed the music and overwhelming experience of Jimi Hendrix, and many other artists.  It is no coincidence that scientific laws discovered at the time refer to “universality classes”, where properties are “self-similar”.  In fact whatever was in the air was so pervasive, it was in commercial advertisements, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” went the jingle for Coca-Cola. It was the common language and mind-set of the times: the ideas of equality of opportunity for all people, and particularly of living now, in the present.  There was some sloppy thinking as well: “being here now” can lead to nihilism, where surrender to the realm of the senses becomes the only objective.  In any case, it is easy to recognize this ideology in hindsight; it was the language of the enlightenment, of naturalism and humanism, expressed in the streets rather than in scholarly tomes. It was a world consensus, empowering but more fragile than thought at the time; elements of this consensus remain in place – and indeed this ideology forms the basis of the meritocracies which constitute modern Universities – but it is no longer a public ideology. (more…)

Origin of the species at Redpath Museum

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

Redpath Museum. Photo by Torsten Bernhardt.

One of the things that all schoolchildren find fascinating is the origin of our species through evolution.  It is no accident that we share four limbs, two eyes, two ears, and so forth with, for example, our brother and sister species of dogs and cats.  We are very closely related.  If we look back far enough, we can see how we are related to fish and plants.  But there is an earlier point at which we can look back and say, OK, that is when and where we started, these are modern people like you and me.  Picking where modern people started is of course arbitrary, but doing so provides a way to express those values to which we aspire, and what it means to be human.   For example, picking as modern people our early progenitors who only had stone tools does not ring true.  Perhaps a good time to pick is around 50,000 years ago when art, painting, jewelry and ritual gifts became widespread.  It is easy to imagine those people in communities with love and faith and bickering, with families of respectful and disrespectful spouses, children, and pets.  It is easy to imagine those people as the mothers and fathers of our modern age, as we are little different inside, notwithstanding our rocket ships, our color TVs, and other innovations. (more…)

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