Physics for the TV generation

13Jan07

Are video iPods the next ‘killer app’ for research? Webcasts as a tool for physics outreach, grad research, and career opportunities.

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up watching television*. Eventually I went to college where I was largely without a television — and thank goodness or else my brain would have been complete mush. Alas, you can take the boy out of TV-land, but you can’t take the TV-land out of the boy. Thanks in large part to a comprehensive list by Serkan Cabi, I’ve spent a good part of my winter break watching physics talks online. (See below for my own vastly incomplete list of links.)

The number of free physics lectures available on the net is growing, and this is a huge boon for education. Online lectures are not a replacement for attending actual schools and conferences where the chance to interanct with other physicists is a major component. However, there is a tremendous capacity for educational outreach to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to hear lectures at this level. This latter demographic would include students in developing countries, undergraduates in liberal arts schools with no graduate courses, science-savvy lay-people, and even beginning grad students who can’t make it to all the summer schools they’d like.

And personally, online lectures have an inherent appeal to graduate students of the iPod generation. Trying to learn about a new area of research? It sure helps to be able to hear the tone of a lecturer’s voice: what they emphasize versus what they trivialize. The ability to pause and rewind an unlimited number of times gives the ‘e-audience’ a chance to digest topics at their own pace. Such lectures are an ideal way to get an overview of a topic before diving head-first into a proper literature review. And really, there’s something really nifty about being able to listen to a panel discussion on Naturalness while going for a morning jog, or to watching a lecture on the hierarchy problem while sitting on the subway?

Looking at it from a different point of view, it is important for the physics community to be able to broaden the audience of seminar and conference talks. Such talks are meant to be ways to share current research ideas and —for younger physicists— to “sell themselves” to departments with postdoc and faculty openings. While it’s impossible to attend all of the simultaneously-scheduled plenary sessions scheduled at a conference, an online record will allow anyone in the world to keep up with what was presented (and to discreetly fast forward past uninteresting talks). Who knows, an online record of a conference talk might lead to an invitation to come give a seminar at another institution, which may then lead to new collaborators or even a future job.

As mentioned earlier, online lectures are not a substitute for actually being there and interacting with other physicists. Having such records does not devalue conference attendance. However, it opens up opportunities on several fronts, including outreach, research, and career opportunities.

So here’s my plea: please put more lectures online. CERN and Fermilab regularly webcast academic training lectures, the KITP in UCSB does the same with talks, and even major conferences like SUSY are starting to experiment with podcasts. MIT’s OpenCourseWare program has been slowly putting up entire courses online, though the number of videos. SLAC’s Summer Institute has some of the best content online, and its SPIRES database even allows one to search for videos. This is wonderful — but this is still largely an untapped resource.

How to make the most of physics webcasts:

  1. Make it standard practice. Video compression and streaming technology is getting better (witness youTube) and cheaper**.
  2. Use hybrid media. One can get away with lower quality video if it is supplemented with pdfs of lecture slides that can be downloaded. Fermilab has an interface that synchronizes slides in a browser with a small streaming video. (Being able to see the gestures of the lecturer is important.)
  3. Keep it free.
  4. Keep a record and make it searchable, as in SPIRES.

An incomplete list of physics video repositories

For a much more comprehensive list, look at Serkan Cabi’s page linked below or search the SPIRES database for videos. The links below are those that I peruse most often.

Other videos…

The absolute golden fleece of physics videos is a fabled set of QFT lectures by Sidney Coleman. I’ve heard that these are archived in Harvard and supposedly DVD copies exist. A friend of mine tried to make them publically available but was met with some resistance.

My favorite physics videos

If you’re looking for some good videos to get you started, here are some of my recommendations in no particular order.

  1. The Last Word on Nature’s Greatest Puzzles, Nima Arkani-Hamed at SSI04
  2. Particle Physics at the Millenium, Hitoshi Murayama at SSI01
  3. Introduction to Extra Dimensions, Tom Rizzo at SSI04
  4. ASTI Lectures, I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve been able to watch
  5. Unifying the Forces, Keith Dienes at SSI05
  6. Beyond Einstein, Rocky Kolb at SSI05
  7. Before the Big Bang? Roger Penrose at the Newton Institute


* – Despite the preponderance of mind-numbing children’s programming (I fear for the “Spongebob-generation”), there were a few memorable shows that were inspirational for young scientists. These included all sorts of educational cartoons on PBS, Square One TV, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Scientific American: Frontiers.

** – Stanford’s Computer Science department regularly webcasts its courses, allowing CS students to ‘go to class’ without ever leaving their dorm and further galvanizing humorous stereotypes.



6 Responses to “Physics for the TV generation”

  1. You’re absolutely right, people need to be putting more stuff out there. Three others that I often find really great are:

    -The rest of the Vega science lectures (one of which is Feynman’s Douglas Robb lecture) – for example, they have some Royal Society public lectures, including an anecdotal one on the mathematician Paul Erdos that I really liked, and a number of ‘face to face’ interviews with some big names.

    MSRI lectures, if you’re into math.

    David Deutsch’s really great lectures on quantum computing. I’ve only watched the first one so far, and will probably blog about them whenever I’ve gotten through them all, but they’re really well done.

  2. 2 David

    I studied Physics at university but then went on to a career in computing. However, I still retain my interest and have been looking for physics lectures on the net but not found very much. I am thus very grateful for your list (and your reference to Serkan Kabi’s list)


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