Azimuth News (Part 1)

Here’s some good news about Azimuth:

1. George Musser, a science writer who is an editor for Scientific American, is coming to the Centre for Quantum Technologies here in Singapore from 10 October to 17 December 2011. I found this out in a Google Plus conversation when I happened to mention I was in Singapore. He will be visiting to write a book on “nonlocality and emergent spacetime”. But when I said I’m also interested in climate change, he suggested that we write a couple of joint blog posts on that! This is great news. He has written about “detection and attribution” questions.

2. I am hiring Brendan Fong as an intern during September 2011. He has just graduated from the mathematics department at Australian National University and is starting a masters in mathematics and the foundations of computer science at Oxford in October 2011. He has written a thesis on algebraic geometry, but now he’s working on image analysis for plant growth modelling, with Jinhai Cai of the Phenomics and Bioinformatics Research Centre at the University of South Australia. He wants to help with the ‘network theory’ program we’ve been discussing here

3. On Google Plus, Cameron Smith has expressed interest in writing an article for the Azimuth Blog. He has done work on synthetic biology, but now he’s interested in gene regulatory networks and multi-level selection theory in evolutionary biology. Best of all, he’s interested in applying elegant math, like category theory, to these topics! So, I’m hoping he’ll explain some of his thoughts here, and we can discuss them, and ideally push them forwards a step or two.

As you’ll note, two of these three items are directly due to Google Plus. (The third is due to this blog, which Brendan has been reading.) So, Google Plus may be a useful way of making connections and accelerating the growth of the Azimuth Project!

Meanwhile, over on the Azimuth Forum, we’ve been having an interesting discussion of Milankovitch cycles, enlivened by the new presence of Marcel Bökstedt, an algebraic topologist who has gotten interested in climate science. A lot of what we’re discussing will eventually find its way into This Week’s Finds, so I mention it only in case you want to peek into the kitchen and see what’s cooking!

On another note, Lisa and I are going to China tomorrow. First to Beijing, where I’ll give a talk on Energy, The Environment and what Mathematicians Can Do at Capital Normal University, and she’ll try to buy a guqin:

That’s not Lisa, but you get the idea: a guqin, also simply known as a qin is a zither-like instrument. The prefix gu- means ‘old’, and this instrument is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back almost 3,000 years.

Then, on Tuesday, we’ll take a train up to Changchun, which is about 500 kilometers west of Vladivostok:

There will be a mathematics workshop at Jilin University up there, and I’ll give a series of lectures on how the octonions let us construct category-theoretic structures good for doing superstring theory.

But before the workshop, there will be an excursion to Changbai Mountain from August 3rd to 6th. This is part of a mountain range near the border with North Korea:

or, on a warmer day:

Changbai Mountain is actually a volcano, and the lake occupies a caldera formed by an explosive eruption that occurred around 969 AD. Debris from this eruption has been found as far as the island of Hokkaidō in Japan. In 2011, experts in North and South Korea met to discuss the chances of a significant eruption in the near future.

So, if it blows up while I’m in Changchun: goodbye, it was nice knowing all of you!

Otherwise, I’ll be back on August 12th.

9 Responses to Azimuth News (Part 1)

  1. peadarcoyle says:

    Do you hire other interns? Or can you only afford one at a time?

    • John Baez says:

      Unfortunately I’ve made my budget for this year, and next year I go back to Riverside. If I’d been more organized and planned ahead more I could probably have hired more people.

      When I go back to Riverside in Fall 2012 I will try to get serious about getting grants, hiring people and the like.

  2. John Baez says:

    An embarrassing error! I said Lisa was going to buy a guzheng, but she’s going to buy a guqin, which is a smaller zither-like instrument. I’ll try to fix this later.

    Unfortunately, I don’t seem able to log in to my WordPress account from the hotel in Beijing, so I won’t be fixing this mistake now. If this is an effect of the Great Wall rather than a temporary glitch, I won’t be able to post blog entries until August 12th, nor approve people’s comments (for those who need their comments approved).

    I’m also unable to contact Google Plus, though gmail and the basic Google functionality work here.

    • Tim van Beek says:

      John wrote:

      …Lisa …is going to buy a guqin, which is a smaller zither-like instrument.

      If you find out,who invented it and if it is somehow related to the zither-like instruments of people living in the Alps in Europe I would like to hear about it. The zither is more or less unknown in the regions of Germany, France, Italy etc. that I visited, it seems to be a peculiar feat of the Bergvolk (the “hill people” :-)

      And there are different variants, some are played with sticks, for example.

      • John Baez says:

        I don’t think Lisa and I will get any information on who invented the guqin that isn’t publicly available.

        I have read in Saudi Aramco World that the zither percolated into Europe via the Arabs. This magazine is a somewhat biased source: it’s produced by the main Saudi oil company, and its goal is to encourage an appreciation of Arab and Muslim culture. (But it’s an interesting magazine, beautifully illustrated, and subscriptions are free. I’m happy to get something back from the price I pay at the pump!)

        Wikipedia has a somewhat short and stubby article on the zither, which says:

        The zither is a musical string instrument, most commonly found in Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, northwestern Croatia, the southern regions of Germany, alpine Europe and East Asian cultures, including China. The term “citre” is also used more broadly, to describe the entire family of stringed instruments in which the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box, including the hammered dulcimer, psaltery, Appalachian dulcimer, guqin, guzheng (Chinese zither), koto, gusli, kantele, gayageum, đàn tranh, kanun, autoharp, santoor, yangqin, piano, harpsichord, santur, swarmandal, and others.

        It would be nice to create a ‘phylogenetic tree’ of these instruments. Do they all have a common ancestor? We can say the piano came from the harpischord; did the harpsichord evolve gradually from some more primitive zither? I’m aware of clavichords, virginals, and spinets, which should fit into this tree somehow… are these ancestors of the harpsichord?

        I’m not sure these questions have yes-or-no answers: unlike organisms, musical instruments do not reproduce themselves, so the concept of ‘ancestor’ is a bit more fuzzy.

        The Wikipedia article also says:

        While the term zither is mentioned in Daniel during the Jewish exile of 606 BC, the earliest known instrument of the zither family is a Chinese guqin [a fretless instrument], found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng dating from 433 BC, featuring tuning pegs, a bridge and goose-like feet.

        and the article on the guqin goes back further:

        Legend has it that the qin, the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments, has a history of about 5,000 years. This legend states that the legendary figures of China’s pre-history — Fuxi, Shennong and Huang Di, the “Yellow Emperor” — were involved in its creation. Nearly almost all qin books and tablature collections published prior to the twentieth century state this as the factual origins of the qin, although this is now presently viewed as mythology. It is mentioned in Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years, and related instruments have been found in Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng from about 2,500 years ago. The exact origins of the qin is still a very much continuing subject of debate over the past few decades.

        So it’s possible that the guqin is the ancestor of all known zither-like instruments… though I have no idea, and perhaps nobody knows.

        There’s even a Wikipedia article called Guqin history, which goes deeper.

    • John Baez says:

      John wrote:

      Unfortunately, I don’t seem able to log in to my WordPress account from the hotel in Beijing, so I won’t be fixing this mistake now. […] I’m also unable to contact Google Plus, though gmail and the basic Google functionality work here.

      Okay, I figured out how to do all these things— it’s best not to explain how. I’m sorry it took a while for some people’s comments to appear, but they’re up now.

  3. I hope your train takes you 500 km *west* of Vladivostok :-)

  4. John Baez says:

    After a 6-hour train ride, dinner at a restaurant that served dog meet, a night in Changchun and then a daylong bus ride, we’re now in an extremely fancy hotel at the edge of the national park containing Changbai Mountain. It will probably be too rainy and foggy to see the lake tomorrow, but we’ll go hiking anyway.

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