Cool — I Mean Really Cool — Video Excuse For An Open Thread

This is a bit self serving, but I’m very proud of what my grad students did for the final projects in my science documentary course.  It’s a very demanding class, and a fair amount of it involves throwing the students into the deep end of the pool, and then making sure they have enough invisible scaffolding to climb out OK on the other side.

One of the key lessons I try to get across is that fine films — and this is especially important for science documentaries, which are always at risk of falling into the cod-liver-oil trap (i.e., watch them because they’re good for you) — have to operate on at least two levels.  There’s whatever happens — the plot — and then there’s what the film is actually about.

In the sample below, this team of students really got that.  Their film documents work within the Laboratory for Ultracold Atoms at MIT (which simply sounds awesome, doesn’t it) — and it’s about…well you can watch it yourself if you’ve a mind.  I’ll just add that the work was good enough that the Nobel laureate it featured told them that they had gotten all the science right within a depiction that he now wants to use in some of his presentations.  Not bad.

Note:  the file is large and playback stutters a little, especially in full screen mode.  Watch small, and maybe let it load a bit for best performance. Apologies.

<div align=”center”> <object name=”ttvplayer” id=”ttvplayer” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowScriptAccess=”always” allowNetworking=”all” allowFullScreen=”true” height=”288″ width=”437″ data=””><param name=”allowScriptAccess” value=”always” /><param name=”allowNetworking” value=”all” /><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true” /><param name=”bgcolor” value=”#000000″ /><param name=”movie” value=””/><param name=”flashVars” value=”autoPlay=false&streamerType=rtmp”/><a href=””>MIT Tech TV</a></object></div>

And yes, I’d say this would be a very chilly open thread.

77 replies
  1. 1
    kd bart says:

    Sports story of the day.

    Bill Maher bought one of the limited partnerships the New York Mets put up for sale a few months ago. They were going for $20 million for 4% of the team. He’s a life long Met fan.

  2. 2
    dmsilev says:

    Very nicely done.

    If I were in a nitpicking mood, I could quibble with a couple of the things they said, but I won’t.

  3. 3
    Yutsano says:

    Could just be me, but I found the narrator’s voice a bit grating. The subject material is fascinating though. And has me hopeful that maybe, someday soon, we’ll figure out how to travel faster than light.

  4. 4
    Jeff Spender says:

    I just got done reading a story on Yahoo! News about how Romney is attacking PRESIDENT Obama’s lack of executive experience.

    I shook my head and wondered who was stupid enough to believe it. And then I remember what country I live in.

  5. 5
    Valdivia says:

    Just downloaded your podcast from Story Collider which I can’t believe I only discovered today. I am looking forward to hearing it.

  6. 6
    James E Powell says:

    Science is so cool. Why do Republicans hate it so much?

  7. 7
    dmsilev says:

    @James E Powell: Because, all too often, it gives answers that go against Republican dogma.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    It would be bettah if someone photoshopped in the Pepper Spray Cop.

  10. 10
    cathyx says:

    @Yutsano: I thought just the opposite. The voice didn’t bother me, but the subject matter was incredibly boring.

  11. 11
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Yutsano: Be nice. She’s a grad student, trying this for the first time.

    Narrating is hard, and she did OK. Not a pro job, of course, but not bad at all for the first time out of the block either.

    Edit: I say this not to forestall criticism of the video, its content or its production values. But this was the one aspect of the production where someone had to put themselves out there in performance — and that’s hard. And yes, I do feel a little protective of my peeps.

  12. 12
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    Anybody see the TBOGG today, the latest contribution to the cult of personality of Andrew Breitbart? For $3995.00 you can have the head of St Andrew painted on Tyrion Lannister’s body in a heroic pose in the clouds.

  13. 13
    gaz says:

    Meh. Bandwidth bad. Too many viewers at once I suppose. Seems an interesting video, at least as far as I could get into it – admittedly only the first bits, up until Cambridge was mentioned.

    I’ll revisit it later when it’s not getting as much traffic =)

  14. 14

    OMG y’all, a friend just sent me the funniest e-mail. The subject line was “The unveiling of the Official Portrait of the 43rd President,” and inside the portrait being unveiled was of Al Gore … with W making that goofy face he made when he tried to open a nonexistent door in China. Hilarious.

  15. 15
    Off Colfax says:

    My shitty integral laptop speakers are not able to boost the low volume of the video. So I would’ve knocked them down a couple of production points for that one.

  16. 16
    Tom Levenson says:

    @dmsilev: Yeah, well.

  17. 17
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Valdivia: Many thanks. Hope it satisfies.

    The onsite recording engineer EQ-ed the hell out of my voice, turning me into David Gergen. Truly an odd sensation hearing the playback. But I like the story.

  18. 18
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    @dmsilev: $3995 you can have St Andrew’s head on Tyrion Lannister’s body, TBOGG is having much fun over it.

  19. 19
    gaz says:

    @dmsilev: And the guy wants $4000 bucks for that. I suspect that won’t be the final play on the grift though. I’m sure whoever buys one of the 40 or so will be placed in a highly exclusive database: People with no taste other than conservative branding, too much money, and too little sense.

  20. 20
    Valdivia says:

    on topic: I really enjoyed seeing that even if it did stop a lot even in small screen version. You have talented students.

    @Tom Levenson: I am sure it will and now I know your voice sounds nothing like the podcast. I love listening to science podcasts so I am glad I found them today, quite by happenstance.

    bleg: I have friends visiting from Italy in August. They will travel in Canada and along the West Coast before coming to DC. They are looking for a SIM card they can put on their phone to use here (and in Canada). From what I read on the nets Canada requires its own sim card and the problem in the US is that they tend to charge a whole lot for activation. Do any of you know of reputable sites that sell sim cards that work in both countries and won’t break the bank? (ps the phone is an iphone 4s)

  21. 21
    dmsilev says:

    OK, so for those who watched the video, here’s a little brain-teaser for you. They mention that the main tool for slowing down the atoms are laser beams which act like a stream of ping pong balls gradually slowing a bowling ball. So far, so good. But, when the bowling ball comes to a stop, the beam of ping pong balls is still hitting it, so it should speed up in the opposite direction.

    Why doesn’t it?

    (answer in a little while if nobody knows)

  22. 22
    currants says:

    This is wonderful, Tom!

  23. 23
    Baud says:


    I know. I know…


  24. 24

    I enjoyed the video. And I liked the narrator. And the subject matter was interesting.

    Bravo to the whole team!

  25. 25
    dmsilev says:

    @Baud: Nope, just some extreme cleverness.

    A hint: The color of the lasers was not chosen by accident. It’s really really important to get it exactly right.

  26. 26
    realbtl says:

    I spent 18 years working in laser labs and I’ll second his observation that there is nothing like seeing the beams running around the tables. Truly magical.

  27. 27
  28. 28
    Scuffletuffle says:

    Well done all who were involved. I am NOT a science geek, but watched all the way through and understood a little bit.

  29. 29
    scav says:

    Yellow? I’m a non-driver but doesn’t flashing yellow mean you get to keep going?

    ETA: and Arrg! Is that a bit of Adams from The Flowering Tree when all the atoms are singing together?!

  30. 30
    Roger Moore says:

    @Jeff Spender:

    I just got done reading a story on Yahoo! News about how Romney is attacking PRESIDENT Obama’s lack of executive experience.

    Yeah, well nothing he’s done in the WHITE House counts for some reason. If you know what I mean.

  31. 31
  32. 32
    scav says:

    And, to be serious, I’ll make a fool of myself. Is it easier to slow things down to a stop than start them moving and the energy in the beam of light has to exactly hit that window? Now, where’s my dunce’s hat and can I choose the color of that too?

  33. 33
    cathyx says:

    Since this is an open thread, I have a question that I have been pondering.

    New evidence has been discovered of Amelia Earhart’s last days on an atoll in the south pacific. If you were stranded on an atoll and you knew that no one was going to find you and you would live the rest of your life there, would you struggle to survive? Or would you try to end your life more quickly than not?

  34. 34
    dmsilev says:

    @scav: You’re on the right track. From the point of view of the atom, there’s a difference in the laser light depending on whether the atom is moving or stationary.

  35. 35
    Baud says:


    Is it related to the photoelectric effect? The energy of the slow atom is such that the photon can’t quantize into energy transferred to the atom?

  36. 36
    Keith says:

    @cathyx: I would try to kill myself with mercury poisoning by eating freckle cream like it was mayonnaise.

    In other news, Game of Thrones finale tonight. Really nothing else needs saying.

  37. 37
    Linda Featheringill says:


    I’d struggle to survive. The chances of being found in a few years are pretty good, I should think.

    It would be easier, of course, if I had a ball named Wilson.

  38. 38
    Roger Moore says:


    Why doesn’t it?

    IIRC, it’s the Doppler Effect. The laser is precisely tuned so the atom will absorb it when it’s headed toward the laser, but if/when it starts to move away, it’s Doppler shifted out of the absorption band. A very tricky bit of engineering.

  39. 39
    dmsilev says:

    @Baud: Very close. The photoelectric effect has to do with ripping electrons away from their atoms, and this is lower-energy, but the key point is that there are certain energies of light that atoms are good at absorbing.

  40. 40
    cathyx says:

    @Linda Featheringill: I guess I should have said that during the time of Amelia Earhart when navigation systems aren’t developed like they are now. It’s a small atoll and you are alone, although Amelia wasn’t by herself. She could catch enough food to survive, but I think the loneliness and despondency would be painful.

  41. 41
    scav says:

    @dmsilev: eeeeerg, we’re getting to the point where Einstein kept putting people in the front and back of spaceships and my brain falls apart. Things are as weird as this little level as they are at fast speeds. Do I have to starting worrying about all the empty space in atoms at some point about now? I’m honestly surprised I got this far.

  42. 42

    Heh. John McCain’s 2008 oppo research file on Mtt Romney has been released to the internet.

  43. 43
    dmsilev says:

    @Roger Moore: Ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

    The atoms (and indeed, the isotope of the atom) is chosen in conjunction with the color of the laser so that the wavelength is just ever so slightly longer than what is needed to excite a particular transition in the electrons of the atom. If the atom is moving towards the beam, the Doppler shift is enough so that the atom can absorb the light and hence the momentum transfer effect described in the video works. Stationary atoms see a slightly longer wavelength, low enough in energy to not be absorbable, and the light just goes right through without doing anything.

    Finally, to cool atoms moving in all directions, a full trap needs a set of 6 lasers coming in from the left, right, top, bottom, front, and back.

  44. 44
    Baud says:

    @cathyx: No Balloon Juice. End life.

  45. 45
    dmsilev says:

    @Southern Beale: It’s OK. He doesn’t believe any of that stuff anymore.

  46. 46
    lamh35 says:

    Any twitter users here? when u block someone does that mean you shouldn’t see their tweets even if someone you follow retweets the tweet?

    Gosh, is it weird that I can’t stand Romney’s family either?

    Matt Romney ‏@Matt_Romney

    my mom and dad just came 4 dinner and my 4 yr old greeted him by saying: “why haven’t you beaten Obama yet?”

    Really, really, the first thing on a damn 4 year old’s mind it Barack freakn’ Obama???

    Oh please. What galls me is that Michelle Obama and POTUS go out of their way to say nothing but nice things about the extended Romney family. Would Michelle or Barack ever say that Malia or Sash asked them when they are gonna beat Romney???

    All the interviews I’ve seen with Michelle, she always says she and Barack try to shield the girls from the nastiness as much as they can while at home.

  47. 47
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    @dmsilev: So is it the lighter the color that absorbs the energy like white absorbs all the colors of the spectrum? (Sorry if I botched that, years since I took science courses)

  48. 48
    Baud says:

    @lamh35: “Because Grandpa is a coward and a liar…Now come give Grandpa a hug.”

  49. 49
    James E Powell says:


    A lot depends on whether both Earhart and Noonan survive, or only one. I’d like to be believe I’d go all Robinson Crusoe, or maybe Tom Hanks in Castaway, but I really cannot know what I would do.

  50. 50
    eric says:

    @dmsilev: i have a random science question about the formation of the sun, is that up your alley too?

  51. 51
    scav says:

    @dmsilev: Now I’m really frightened. I think I get it. thanks.

  52. 52
    Baud says:


    i have a random science question about the formation of the sun, is that up your alley too?

    That’s probably how religion got started. Some smart caveman grew tired about answering science questions and started saying god was responsible for everything.

  53. 53
    dmsilev says:

    @Mr Stagger Lee: Lighter is the wrong way to look at it. It has to do with where you are on the rainbow (i.e. the spectrum). Reds are low-energy, and blues and violets are high-energy. For an atom to absorb light, it just needs to be energetic enough. So, if a particular absorption line needs lets say 532 nm (which is in the green), a 450 nm lamp (bright blue) will do the job, but a red laser sitting at 700 nm won’t.

  54. 54
    Freddie deBoer says:

    Such a great feeling, Tom.

  55. 55
    dmsilev says:

    @eric: It’s out of my field, but I have picked up some knowledge more or less by osmosis. Go ahead and ask.

  56. 56
    muddy says:

    I think I would try hard to survive for a while, but if it got really tiresome I would then end it as quick as possible. Break the bottle of freckle cream and cut my throat. There wouldn’t be enough freckle cream in the world if you spent any time on an atoll I shouldn’t think.

    As a Polkadot-American myself, I think it would be cool if there were freckle cream that could give people freckles. I have often thought it would be prettier to be a solid color, but the freckles really do hide a world of aging. Skin camo.

  57. 57
    PatB says:

    Congratulations to you, for structuring a class where students are required to produce excellent material, and to your students for producing a fascinating and understandable-to-a-non-scientist video on a complex topic. Bravo.

  58. 58
    eric says:

    @dmsilev: thanks here we go….as i understand the mechanisms of the universe, we have heavy atoms here on earth because they are the remnants of an exploded star, from a time long ago. Those heavier atoms are made up to iron during the life of the star and heavier than iron during the supernova “explosion.” Now, here is the part i dont get. The star went supernova because it ran out of fuel (hydrogen), so shouldnt the resulting nebula have little or no hydrogen so that our sun would not have enough hydrogen from the acretion disk to start nuclear fusion? does my question make sense? thanks eric

  59. 59
    Dee Loralei says:

    That was really well done Tom. Kudos to you for teaching them so well, and to them for learning it.

  60. 60
    muddy says:

    As for the physics, I am waiting until later to watch. I remember clearly how amazing it was in HS physics in the late 70’s and our teacher had some fiber optic tube curled into a complex shape. He shone a laser into it and it went all through the shape, coming out in another direction. It was just so absolutely gobsmacking that light could bend like that.

    I also liked the holograms, there was one that looked like a head and shoulders portrait of a man, but when you got close and looked down, you could see his legs down inside there. So so so cool.

    I never did well in the class, math above basic arithmetic is just slippery in my brain. But I can still see the visuals clear as can be in my mind’s eye 35 years later, well worth taking the class just for that. I look forward to watching the video.

  61. 61
    Culture of Truth says:

    I thought the video was great and production values were high. So many times I pop out videos full screen and they’re grainy, but this was clear. I’m still not clear what’s great about a BEC, but it sounds cool.

  62. 62
    jrg says:

    I enjoyed that video. It was informative, and the narrative kept me entertained.

  63. 63
    muddy says:

    @lamh35: When my son was young, he said while we watched PBS Newshour, “Aren’t the Republicans the rich ones? They should use it to buy some lessons in manners, they interrupt the most.”

    He got extra dessert.

  64. 64
    dmsilev says:

    @eric: Question makes perfect sense. Basically, the answer is that there’s a lot of hydrogen floating around in the universe. By far the most common atom. When a star forms, it tends to suck up most of the hydrogen in the area, and what the star doesn’t get, a giant planet like Jupiter takes. So, in an actual solar system, not much hydrogen.

    However, away from a solar system in empty space, there’s still hydrogen. Low density, but empty space is really really big, so it adds up.

    So, star goes bang and spews heavy elements all over the place. Over time, the heavy atoms diffuse away from the site of the explosion (being given a good initial kick by the bang helps…) and into regions of higher gas density. Thus, when a new star forms, there are some heavy elements that are available to form Earth-like planets and the like.

    One way we can tell the history of a cluster of stars or a galaxy is by looking at the abundance of heavy elements. A relatively high abundance says that the cluster is old, and that most of the stars are second or third generation.

  65. 65
    eric says:

    @dmsilev: thanks…that is how i thought it is supposed to work…it just seems odd that hydrogen “floating” around is sufficient…thanks!!

  66. 66
    Yutsano says:

    @Tom Levenson: I didn’t mean to sound harsh there. I didn’t expect a professional voice-over, and since she was volunteering I give her kudos for putting herself forward like that. It’s not easy to put yourself out there and end up dealing with dickheads like me. :)

  67. 67
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @eric: Supernovae do not in fact “run out of hydrogen” overall. There is only a relatively small region deep inside a star where there are nuclei moving fast enough to overcome their mutual electrostatic repulsion (both being positively chargesd) & fuse together. And there is no mechanism in the star’s structure for cycling more fuel into that region–in fact the pressure from the radiation that carries off the thermonuclear energy pushes strongly enough on the layers further out to counteract the force of gravity pulling them inwards.

    When a star exhausts the fuel in the region hot enough to burn it, it starts to collapse until either the electrons in the plasma become degenerate & resist further compression (this is a quantum-mechanical effect that’s hard to explicate in simple terms), or the region gets hot enough to “burn” heavier nuclei than hydrogen (like helium or carbon), restoring enough radiation pressure to halt the collapse. In Type II supernovae, the star burns up heavier & heavier nuclei in shells around a metallic core (getting less bang for the buck as the atomic weight increases) until it finally produces nickel-56, which is at the bottom of of the binding energy chart. When nickel-56 (or its decay product, iron-56) fuses with any other atom, the process is endothermic–you actually lose energy thereby. So once Ni56 is reached, further reactions suck energy out of the core, the radiation pressure falls abruptly, & the next outer layers (mostly hydrogen) begin to collapse into the core–during which they are heated & compressed until their hydrogen nuclei start to fuse. This happens so fast that a small but not insignificant percentage of the star’s nuclear fuel–enough to keep a star shining normally for tens or hundreds of millions of years–is burned up during a few days or weeks. And this immense explosion produces enough pressure (photons and neutrinos) to blow the material closer to the surface out into space at extremely high velocity. Some of this material is more complex nuclei, but most of it is just hydrogen that never made it into the burning regions.

    Does that answer your question?

  68. 68
    eric says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: yes….that makes a great deal of sense….thanks!! so the gravity is enough to keep the hydrogen there outside the “core”, but not sufficient to start thermonuclear fusion. thanks

  69. 69
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: Very nicely done.

    Anyone: you can take a look at a video version,of what Uncle Cosmo and Dmislev just discussed about the making of heavy elements. The stars and supernovae bit starts around minute 37. The two scientists talking us through the events of stellar life and death are Stan Woosley a major figure in supernova astrophysics, and Robert Kirshner, another such. Full disclosure — the scene comes as part of the last NOVA film I made. But folks have told me that it’s pretty good.

  70. 70
    eric says:

    @Tom Levenson: thanks tom!

  71. 71
    Tim in SF says:

    I can’t get past the first sixty seconds before it hangs.

    I think you should put this up on Youtube. No more streaming issues.

  72. 72
  73. 73
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Tim in SF: We will. Tech tv gets it first.

  74. 74
    taylormattd says:

    Wonderful video Tom. I wish there was a way to just download the source, however. The streaming is still pretty spotty.

  75. 75
    EIGRP says:

    I find this kind of science discussion fascinating, both Tom’s original post and all the discussions. Thanks everyone!


  76. 76
    canuckistani says:

    Really fascinating stuff. I’m wondering how many atoms at once get bundled together in a condensate. 10? 100? A billion? It has to get harder as you try and freeze more and more.

  77. 77
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Tom Levenson: Thanky kindly, Tom. Unfrocked astrophysicist-wantedtabe&almostwuz here–I flail & mostly fail to keep up with the field; Type II supernovae are one of the few subjects where the theory hasn’t changed too awfully much since I got bounced from the PhD pogrom. (Not zackly bounced, but might as well have been–the department lost >10% of its grad student support lines, mine was one, my life savings wouldn’t have come close to getting me through, & PhDs in physics were driving cabs in those days [the early 70s] so hocking my financial future for the degree didn’t look promising.)

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