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GoldieBlox: Engineering toys for girls

Debbie Sterling decided it was time to make engineering toys that appeal to girls, so she founded a new kind of toy company called GoldieBlox. Her Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in 5 days. This observation of hers struck me:

How do you get girls to like a construction toys? It all came down to one simple thing: boys like building and girls like reading.

You can pre-order the toys now with the first deliveries set for April 2013.

Carleton horse trades academic freedom for $15 million dollars

Some great reporting by Bruce Cheadle on the $15 million dollar donation that Carleton University recently accepted for its school of political management–the single largest donation in school history. The donation comes with some serious strings attached:

Carleton quietly released the donor agreement on the Friday afternoon before Canada Day after stonewalling The Canadian Press for almost a year to keep it under wraps.

The contract reveals the Riddell Foundation effectively appointed three of five people on a steering committee. That committee was given sweeping power over the graduate program’s budget, academic hiring, executive director and curriculum.

This is some scary, back-room dealing, stuff. Universities are starving for cash right now, but is giving up this much freedom worth it? This eats away at the ideals and principles on which universities are based. Of course, in practice, universities still suffer the same lapses as other human enterprises, but these are principles and ideals that worth striving for. Carleton has horse-traded long term academic freedom for a short term cash infusion.

If what is happening in the US is any indication, we will start to see lots more of this here in Canada:

The Washington-based Centre for American Progress published a study in October, 2010 that exposed numerous problematic deals involving American universities and major energy companies.

The study, titled “Big Oil Goes to College,” examined 10 agreements worth almost $1-billion and concluded that almost all of them undermined the schools’ independence and integrity.

In addition, news reports exposed that the billionaire Koch brothers have been giving universities funds for entrepreneurial studies provided their staunchly Republican foundation could pick the faculty and set curriculum. And since 2005, U.S. banking giant BB&T has spent millions to get colleges and universities to develop programs on Ayn Rand’s books and right-wing economic philosophy.


The Quantum Dance

My TEDxWaterloo talk is out! With the help of a magician, a live band, and nearly 500 dancers from around the world, I explain how quantum entanglement can be used to build super fast computers. For more information on how the talk was put together check out the Project Q website.

Each part of the dance represents a different aspect of quantum computing. In the coming days I plan on writing a longer blog post that breaks down the routine and explains what is happening. Stay tuned.

HELP: What is your favourite science poem?

Next Wednesday I am giving a lecture to a first-year poetry class on the "Physics of Poetry". In this talk I am going to discuss some of the connections between physics & poetry that I have encountered. I need some help though. Specifically, I would like to find out three things:

  1. Some examples of poems that discuss Science? (ie When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer).
  2. Has poetry influenced the way you see the world?
  3. As a scientist, has poetry influenced your work or the way you share your work?

Any suggestions, thoughts, or comments people have would be greatly appreciated!

The iPad revolution in education

Fraser Speirs on Apple's recent education announcements:

Apple already revolutionized education when it invented the iPad. While iBooks textbooks are a bridge from the past to the future—and we do need a way to get to the future—they are not that future. If Henry Ford had been an educational publisher, his customers would have asked for electronic textbooks instead of faster horses.

The recent announcement of digital textbooks, iBooks creator, and iTunes U is a move (mostly1) in the right direction. My feeling is that the best is yet to come. In some ways Apple's development of the iPad is like Guttenberg's invention of the printing press. All the benefits of the web, apps, and digital communication converge seamlessly in one device. The next ten years will be interesting.

  1. Except for the draconian licensing terms associated with iBooks creator. As John Gruber put it: "This is Apple at its worst". 

The genius of Tom Lehrer

I think Tom Lehrer is one of the funniest people ever alive. Which is surprising given that he is a mathematician. Lehrer is known for his witty, bitingly satirical, songs. A number of videos of Lehrer performing live have surfaced on Youtube. The man is a charismatic, charming, and irreverent performer.


The first Lehrer song I encountered (introduced to me by my PhD supervisor Aephraim Steinberg) is about the great Russian mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky:

I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.
In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics. Plagiarize!

Plagiarize, Let no one else's work evade your eyes, Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, So don't shade your eyes, But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize - Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.

The Elements

Tom Lehrer rapping before rapping was cool. The Elements has been covered by many people over the years. Be sure to check out this performance by Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe on the Graham Norton Show.

New Math

Poking fun at the new math approach to teaching mathematics:

Now that actually is not the answer that I had in mind, because the book that I got this problem out of wants you to do it in base eight. But don't panic. Base eight is just like base ten really - if you're missing two fingers.

Derivative Song

There is some great footage of Lehrer performing in 1997 at Irving "Kaps" Kaplansky's 80th Birthday Celebration. Here he sings, amongst other things, about how to take a derivative. Short and sweet.

Also from the same concert is another clever math song There is a Delta for Every Epsilon.

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

Not a science or math song (although it does mention cyanide), but it is one of my favourites.

All the world seems in tune On a spring afternoon, When we're poisoning pigeons in the park. Ev'ry Sunday you'll see My sweetheart and me, As we poison the pigeons in the park.

A Christmas Carol

With Christmas around the corner, I thought it fitting to wrap up with this final Lehrer song.

Angels we have heard on high,
Tell us to go out and buy.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other Lehrer songs I recommend checking out: - The Vatican Rag - That's Mathematics - Odepius Rex - The Decimal Money System: Song played to a British audience poking fun at their complex money system. - The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz - The Masochism Tango - Pollution - Wernher von Braun - I Can't Think Why?: Funny satire of professors. - I Got It From Agnes

Amazon is selling The Tom Lehrer Collection on both CD and DVD.

I am speaking at TEDxUW

I am speaking at TEDxUW


I am excited to announce that I will be speaking at the inaugural TEDxUW event hosted at the University of Waterloo. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and is a series of global conferences that feature excellent and inspiring talks. I have been a big fan of TED ever since I heard about it three years ago. TEDxUW has a great organizational team that is putting together an awesome event. November 12th cannot get her soon enough.

Here are a couple of my favourite TED talks:

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Quantum Physics & Harry Potter Talk

For those of you who missed it in person, the video for the Quantum Physics & Harry Potter is now live. Dan and I had a lot of fun putting this on and are hoping to repeat the show sometime in the winter. A big thanks to Peter Kovacs for shooting and editing the video.

Dan Trommater teleporting a 20 dollar bill during the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

Physics is Information

Leonard Susskind's brilliant introductory lectures on Quantum Mechanics from a Quantum Information stand point. If you have 90 minutes, check out the first lecture in the series. The first 8 minutes alone are well worth watching for Susskind's explanation of why modern physics appears so strange. His imagination, creativity, and force of thought are on full display in this lecture. 

Leonard Susskind has made a number of important contributions to modern quantum theory and is one of the fathers of string theory.

Via Sean Carol.

Photos from opening night of the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

A big thanks to everyone who turned out for the opening of the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter show last night. The show was a lot of fun. It is the first time I have seen people eating popcorn in a physics lecture! Dan and I are looking forward to the repeat performance tonight. I would also like to thank all of the IQC volunteers who helped make the show extra special, as well as Katharin, Colin, Martin, Jasmine, and Kim for all of the behind the scenes work. Here are some pictures that the IQC photographer Peter Kovacs took of the event.

Quantum Physics and Harry Potter talk invisible snitch

Quantum Physics and Harry Potter talk audience

Dan Trommater teleporting a 20 dollar bill during the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

Demonstration of Spontaneous Parametric Downconversion during the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

Quantum Physics and Harry Potter talk laser refraction

Krister talking during the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

Martin and the levitating supercounducting train during the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

Good Ideas Get Around

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an expert as > A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

Experts are individuals who, through specialized training, are able to perform specific tasks that are out of the reach of others. I know what it takes to become an expert having spent most of my twenties in university earning a PhD in physics. I am an expert in a narrow field of quantum optics, and work daily with other experts in the same topic.

When experts communicate with one another they tend to use jargon. This jargon can speed the transfer of ideas, but leave those not initiated lost. When I attend talks given by experts in other fields in physics, I spend much of the time trying to decipher what the special terms they bandy about mean. The use of jargon is at best laziness; at worse it is a purposefully erected barrier designed to protect the exclusive knowledge of experts. If you cannot understand what an expert is talking about it is nearly impossible to challenge them.

Communicating effectively is hard. An idea at the cutting edge of human knowledge and experience can be complex, technical, and obscure. Unpacking an idea—peeling back the layers of assumptions and jargon—unleashes its true power. This process forces one to wrestle in new ways with an idea; to polish it until it becomes a glistening pearl of clarity that others will find precious.

I am not advocating the dumbing down of ideas. Everyday we are bombarded by sound bites and simplistic, inadequate, characterizations. One needs to look no further than the last political campaign to see this dumbing down at work. Instead of rational, earnest, discussions about the issues of the day, politicians resort to slogans and caricatures of their opponents. For an even baser example of this, just read the comments section of the typical Engadget post about an Apple product that devolves into a petulant flamewar between fanbois.

What I am suggesting is that as experts we work hard to eliminate all the barriers to our communication. When speaking with the general public try to convey the big picture of your idea. How does it fit in with their lives. Why is it important? What is interesting about it. I have found that asking these questions about my own research has dramatically improved my ability to communicate with other experts inside and outside my field (and funding agencies).

Nobody likes to be made to feel stupid; get rid of the isolating jargon and grapple instead with the essence of your ideas. Ideas want to have sex. Jargon and unneeded complexity are a venereal disease that keeps ideas from finding a mate. Good ideas get around.

Steel Rail Sessions 2011

Steel Rail Sessions 2011

I love living in Waterloo. There is a young, vibrant, arts community that is interested in Science, and a constant stream of awesome events. This past weekend I participated in the Steel Rail Sessions, a series of art exhibits and installations located on a train! There were even snakes. Between this and the cardboard fort project it has been an amazing weekend. Here is a video I shot of the event:

Krister with a snake on a train

The Institute for Quantum Computing sponsored an exhibit on the double slit experiment. I also have a video of this that will be going up shortly. Throughout the evening a group of us talked physics with the train participants.

The train ride was incredible, but what really took the cake was the live jazz band (Dinny and the Allstars) that greeted us as we got back to the station with cotton candy and donuts. The band then led us in a second line to the art gallery for an awesome after party. The Waterloo Record has a good write up on the event as well.

Big shout out to Hilary Abel and the other organizers for pulling this together. I hope to be back next year.

Quantum Physics & Harry Potter

Quantum Physics & Harry Potter

Update: Both shows are now sold out! Two free evenings of magic and science!

Magician Dan Trommater and I are teaming up once againfor a pair of fun, fascinating evenings exploring how the magic of Harry Potter mirrors the real magic of the quantum world. Levitation, teleportation and more—discover how these phenomena exist not only in Harry Potter's world, but in the quantum realm that underlies our world too.

Here is a trailer for the talk:

This is a non-profit educational event aimed at anyone who loves the magic of science. Dan and I held a similar event last year in Toronto that was a huge success. This year's show will be even better!

Poster for Quantum Physics and Harry Potter Show

SPACE IS LIMITED Reserve your free ticket here.

Thursday July 14, 6:30pm - 8:30pm Friday July 15, 6:30pm - 8:30pm Princess Twin Cinema, Waterloo, ON

For more information, visit or check out the Facebook event page.

Sponsored by the Institute for Quantum Computing, University of Waterloo.

Dr. Heel Click I presume

This past Friday was my PhD convocation ceremony at the University of Toronto. It was great to have so many of my family members there! We were called up two-by-two during the ceremony, and I heel clicked as I was being presented. Fortunately my mom caught the moment on video. 

Double-Slit Rap: The Disco of Space and Time

Double-Slit Rap: The Disco of Space and Time

Double-Slit Trajectories

Our double-slit experiment work has now been eulogized in song! The BBC Radio 4 program, Friday Night Comedy recently rapped about our work. What is most amazing is that they got the physics right and managed to sneak in a dig about the Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Skip to 5:30 to where the song begins. [audio 

I would love to see what kind of remixes people can come up with. I bet there are some funny Youtube movies that could be made.

Media coverage over our double-slit experiment

Media coverage over our double-slit experiment

Our double-slit experiment paper that was published this week in Science has generated a lot of media coverage. Here are some links to write ups about our experiment. I will update this with new links as they appear. Let me know in the comments if you come across any other coverage, and I will add the links here. Original Paper


- CBC's Quirks and Quarks Interview I did

**Press Releases**

- Press release from the University of Toronto - Press release from the Institute for Quantum Computing

These press releases have been picked up and are now being recycled on numerous other websites.

**Original articles covering our experiment**

- Science - Nature - CBC News - BBC (we made the front page!) And is the number 2 most shared and number 3 most read article! - Scientific American - Uncertainty Principle: The best overview on a technical level of what we did in our experiment. - Arstechnica - - Waterloo Record


- The Russian take on the experiment - This is what you get if you run the press release through Google translate and back

**[Update]** We hit Slashdot. **[Update x2]** Our experiment has been memorialized in song! **[Update x3]** Our experiment has been selected as Physics World's breakthrough of the year for 2011!

3DPlot trajectories through a double-slit apparatus

My interview with Quirks & Quarks

My interview with Quirks & Quarks


I was recently interviewed by Quirks and Quarks, CBC's popular science radio show, about some of our recentwork looking at the double-slit experiment. The interview should air this Saturday  (June 4th) at noon so be sure to tune in. You can listen online at the CBC Radio website, or tune in later via their archives or podcast. I have always been a big fan of the show so it was a thrill to be given the opportunity to be interviewed by Bob McDonald. I took the bus into Toronto and arrived at the CBC studios downtown. I was then given a visitor pass and escorted up to the Quirks & Quarks offices where I met the producers and the host. I was really impressed by the whole operation; these are people who really care about science and bringing it to a larger audience. Everywhere I looked there was science related memorabilia.

visitor badge for cbc

Bob McDonald is a fantastic interviewer. Funny, smart, and charming with the ability to instantly put you at ease. The recording studio is covered with various posters he has acquired. The crown jewels of this poster collection are two from one of the control rooms at the Russian space agency. While Bob was visiting as part of a documentary, he asked where he could get a poster like the one hanging on the wall as a souvenir. One of the people working there plucked the posters off the wall and presented them to him. Very cool and very hospitable. You can see the posters on the wall to the right of me in the photo below.

Krister& Bob McDonald of Quirks and Quarks

At the end of the interview I got a signed post card. I was given my choice of postcard, but this one had the best story behind it. A (different) copy of it was taken up into space. Above Bob McDonald's desk is a framed photo of this postcard floating in space above the Earth. This made my inner nerd very happy.

Bob McDonald signed postcard

How to make a double rainbow

After the past six weeks of exhausting election campaigning and coverage I think Canada deserves a rainbow–a double rainbow to be exact.  Here is a simple experiment I came up with using house-hold items to create your very own double rainbow.  All you need is a bright light source, a clear jar full of water, and a dark room. It can be a tricky at first to see the double rainbow so stick with it. 

Rainbows are usually seen right after a big thunderstorm when the sun is behind you. White light enters the raindrops, bounces around inside, and then is reflected back to the ground. White light is really composed of all the different colours. As the light hits the raindrop, the different colours separate and no longer travel along the same path. Different colours of light leave at different angles.

Inside the raindrops most of the light makes a single bounce and then leaves the raindrops. The light (that is now split into its different colours) forms the primary rainbow that we are used to seeing. Some of the light, however, can continue to bounce around inside the raindrop. This light leaves the raindrop at a different angle forming a second fainter rainbow that appears above the primary rainbow. Because these secondary rainbows are much fainter it is usually only possible to see them when there is a dark background behind them (like black thunder clouds).

Step-by-step instructions

Double rainbow experiment setup

To create a rainbow you need two things: a light source (to act like the sun) and a round glass jar full of water (to act like a water droplet).

  1. Set the lamp up on a chair, table, or high place.  Sit on the ground below the chair–you should be quite a bit lower to see the best rainbow.
  2. Hold the water-filled glass jar in front of you at an angle of ~45 degrees.  Now start to raise the jar higher.  You should see a reflected spot in the jar that looks like a rainbow.
  3. Keep raising the jar and a second spot will appear.  This is the double rainbow.
Double rainbow results

Let me know how it works out.  Special thanks to Jaime Almond who helped me shoot the video as well as Catharine Holloway, Evan Meyer-Scott, and Robert Prevedel for acting like photons.