Posted by Adam Wills
Caltech has more Nobel laureates than any other university, and is considered among the top five academic institutions in the world. The Pasadena campusâ contributions to science and technology are vast.
And then thereâs the Beavers.
It figures that athletics at such a prestigious technical university would take a backseat to rocket science and particle physics. But as of the 2005-06 season profiled in the documentary âQuantum Hoops,â the NCAA Division III Beavers had yet to win a single Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 21 years. The teamâs last conference title was in 1954.
The history-heavy film narrated by actor David Duchovny, which has been getting renewed attention (most notably in TIME) during March Madness in advance of the DVD’s spring release, follows the Beavers as they attempt to win their first conference game since the 1980s.
Focused on the last nail-biting game of the season against Whittier College, the film took the Top 10 Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January. However, itâs probably the only award the team is likely to see, if tangentially, for a while.
Director Rick Greenwald says the winless Beavers appealed to him on his first time out. It didnât hurt that the 36-year-old documentary filmmaker from Chino grew up watching the collegeâs pranks, which inspired the 1985 comedy âReal Genius.â
But for all the opportunities to poke fun at the team, Greenwald says he wanted to treat his subjects with respect. For instance, he resisted the urge to include scenes of flubber-sporting basketball players in the 1961 Disney film âAbsent-Minded Professorâ or Charlie Brown failing at trying to kick a football.
âI abandoned that plan,â he said. âPart of it was that I was very sensitive to making fun. â¦ I donât use the term nerd once. I tried to walk a fine line.â
Still hoping to score points with Caltechâs geek factor, Greenwald hoped to secure Duchovny as narrator based on his âX-Filesâ credentials. The actor, himself a college basketball player for Princeton and an avid sports fan, agreed to voice the film a few weeks before its release. âI still canât believe it happened, to be honest,â Greenwald said.
The documentary profiles many of its quirky student players, but the camera lingers primarily on Roy Dow, a veteran college coach who has helped the team close its average losing margin from the high 50s to roughly 20 points.
While Dow doesnât have the pressures of a NCAA Division I coach, Greenwald says the doc certainly evokes a strong reaction from more sensitive viewers, especially when the coach shouts at players for performing at a level below that displayed in practice. âYouâre playing like dumb smart kids!â Dow yells.
Rather than alienating the players, Dowâs passion for the game inspires them.
âThey respect him, they believe in him,â Greenwald said.
The reasons why players join a team as underwhelming as the Beavers varies, the director says, from bragging rites that they played in the NCAA to blowing off steam from the intense academic pressure.
Jeremy Leibowitz, an applied math sophomore from Las Vegas, played basketball in high school and says he joined the Beavers to have fun. He admits the losing streak is daunting.
âIt was discouraging, but it wasnât something that would motivate me to quit in any way,â he said. âThere are some games that are close and competitive â¦ thatâs the heartbreaker.â
He added that while jokers tease players off the court for their losing streak, the Beavers also have their share of loyal fans at every game.
âOnce these guys get going, they really want that win,â Greenwald said. âTheyâve never failed, statistically, on a level like this in anything theyâve ever done in their entire life. And I think a lot of them like the challenge of that part.â
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March 26, 2008 | 5:38 pm
Posted by Adam Wills
Two rocket-shaped mezuzot by Tel Aviv-based Judaica designer Laura Cowan are scheduled to be sent into space in May on the Discovery mission to the International Space Station. Flight Engineer and Science Officer Greg Chamitoff will carry the works to the ISS (no word yet on where they’ll be placed).
“I was contacted because of the space theme in my work,” Cowan told The Jerusalem Post. “All of my work has been space-themed, since I watched the moon landing on TV in 1969. I saw how excited people were, and just got carried away with the theme.”
The two mezuzot are:
Apollo Mezuza ($125/$140 + $35 for kosher scroll)
Shuttle Pewter Mezuza ($69/$71/$73 + $35 for kosher scroll)
March 20, 2008 | 12:02 am
Posted by Adam Wills
JPL announced today that astronomers have detected methane on a Jupiter-sized exoplanet in the constellation Vulpecula. While the planet itself is not capable of supporting life, the presence of the organic compound was detected by using an instrument about the Hubble Space Telescope, Nicmos (Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer), to measure the absorption of starlight in the atmosphere of the planet, HD 189733b. (New York Times)
âThe big news is that we were able to do this at all,â said Mark Swain of NASAâs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the lead author of the study, being reported Thursday in the journal Nature. Other members of the team, which used the Hubble Space Telescope, were Gautam Vasisht of the propulsion lab and Giovanna Tinetti of University College London.
The work, they said, represents a shift from barely detecting the existence of so-called exoplanets to probing them chemically.
âWe are able to start studying the conditions and chemistry of exoplanet atmospheres,â Dr. Swain said at a news conference on Wednesday. âThatâs a very exciting development.â
David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who was not part of the team, called the detection âboth persuasive and important.â
Sara Seager, a planetary theorist at M.I.T., called it âanother great day for exoplanets,â and a âtipping pointâ for the study of their detailed properties, though she cautioned that the findings still needed to be duplicated.
âHubble was never been designed to make measurements like this,â she said. âThis is pushing the telescope to its limits.â
She said she was looking forward to the day when the experiment would be repeated on Earth-like planets with the much more powerful James Webb Space Telescope, set to be launched in 2013. In that case, she said, the existence of methane and water would be indicative that the planet was habitable.
But given that HD 189733b is about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, the possibility of finding life there is pretty slim. (OK Trekkies, repeat after me: It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.)
One lingering puzzle, [Dr. Adam Burrows, a theorist from Princeton University], said, is why they did not detect carbon monoxide in the planetâs atmosphere. The models, he said, suggest that at high temperatures that molecule is more likely to form than methane, which predominates in colder regions.
Dr. Burrows theorized, however, that if the planet was tidally locked â with one side always facing its sun and being roasted while the other faces away and freezes â âthe hot side would have more carbon monoxide, the cold one more methane.â
During the transits observed by Hubble, he pointed out, the starlight passes through the dividing line, or terminator, between the hot side and the cold side, where fierce winds might be blowing redistributing heat and chemical species around the planet.
But nobody really knows how chemistry, climate and cosmic history are manifested on these planets. Dr. Swain said he hoped to perform similar measurements on a half dozen other so-called transiting planets that are within reach.
Dr. Burrows said, âA lot of other shoes are about to drop in this subject.â
But time is of the essence. Hubble will have four more years if its scheduled refurbishment by astronauts goes well this August, but the other warhorse of the effort, the Spitzer, has only a year to go before it runs out of the cryogenics that keep its infrared detectors cold and sensitive.
âPeople are frantic to get as much data as they can in short term,â Dr. Burrows said.
Above image ESA, NASA and G. Tinetti (University College London, UK & ESA) via New York Times.
March 3, 2008 | 11:50 pm
Posted by Adam Wills
Sure, Baltar gets it on with Cylon hotties in the reboot sci-fi series “Battlestar Galatica,” but now London A.I. researcher David Levy is predicting those of us on Earth will be interfacing with artificial life forms by the mid-century mark.
I’m sure this has probably been referenced in “Futurama,” but would the offspring from such a union celebrate a bot mitzvah?