I'm Jim and if you haven't heard of me then, whatever "it" is, you're probably doing it wrong (I'm always self-advertising). I've been asked to do an AMA several times and I'm finally getting around to it. We'll get to the timing further down the page.

About Jim


I have a masters degree in theoretical cosmology (if you're thinking "When is cosmology not theoretical?", the alternative is observational cosmology. I never used telescopes or real data. If, on the other hand, you're thinking "Why is someone who studies makeup a major contributor to physics?", then I'd say you're half right. A cosmologist studies the makeup of the universe). I also did my undergrad in space engineering (that's rocket science, with the spaceships and the orbits and stuff), so feel free to delve as deep as you'd like into that.

Before you ask, I am not currently doing active research. You'll note I only have a masters. I have full intention of getting a PhD, but a run of legitimate bad luck (long story, but it really was nothing but bad luck) put my studies on hold for now. I'm currently working at the University of Toronto: Mississauga campus as a technician in the undergraduate physics labs. This is why I'm not always prompt to respond anymore. I'm usually off fixing equipment, designing experiments, or helping students. However, it also means I have a fairly experienced view of academia from a perspective halfway between students and professors (if that gives you question ideas).

In general, I have a fairly well-rounded grasp of the sciences in general; however, I'm absolutely terrible with the names of things. If you just ask me "Do you know how best to explain/use so-and-so's theory to do this problem?" I'll be like "Don't know. Why don't you tell me what that theory is". Being from engineering and physics, there's a lot of competing terminology in my background, so I had to basically decide between knowing what everything is called and knowing how to use/perform it. I chose the latter; makes research easy, but also makes me seem like I don't know anything when talking to those that chose to know the names of stuff.


I'm an avid cyclist, so that's a good topic. I also am interested in neuroscience and neuropsychology. I love to debate. Any silly topic or serious discussion, I will argue with you, even if it's against myself, just for the sake of fun and practice. If you don't like long debates that will likely be ended by me turning it into a joke, then don't feed the bears and avoid starting something.

I'm also very into gaming. No MMORPGs or MOBAs. I hate multiplayers unless it's with friends because I find about 10% of random people ruin it for me (and they make the other 90% lose out on the treasure that is having Jim in their lives. That should be a crime). But wanna talk about some of the great single player games out there? Go for it.


Sorry, but I'm Canadian, eh? And go ahead and make jokes. I've probably made more jokes about Canadia than you could imagine. I live in Toronto, which is probably one of maybe three cities in the whole country that most non-Canadians can name. And yes, I do know Steve from Canada. He's a great guy.

Different note: you might have noticed I tend to ramble on and get lost on a topic. I have severe ADHD, so I switch topics and get lost without knowing it. (That also makes for a good topic of questions; "what strategies did you use to get through university with a learning disability?", for example)

Short Form

  • Cosmology & other space nonsense: ask me anything about it, I'll answer what I know.

  • Other physics & science: Physics = good. I'm no string theorist or fluid mechanic, but I can do my best. Science = life. I also have experience in practical teaching of physics. Ask just about anything. Chemistry is a wonderful field, but it bores me.

  • Personal or other interests: ask me literally anything else. If I can't or don't want to answer, I'll say so, but I promise to try not to be offended at all.


I'm thinking that Tuesday, July 25 at 1200Z is the best time for this. I'm also open to Thursday, July 20 at 1600Z if that works better for a lot of people. But unless I hear from a lot of people about that and you see me change it in this post, I'm going to be in chat expecting to answer questions on the 25th.

As per usual, post questions you want answered below.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Belated Happy Canada Day, it needed to be said... $\endgroup$ – user154420 Jul 5 '17 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Countto10 hey thanks. And it was the sesquicentannial, a big event for us $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 5 '17 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ Funny how people can be interested in the same things but never know it because of context... Not cosmetology or whatever you said, but cycling. I've been racing for 17 years and held every license USA cycling offers. Plus, only time I've been to Canada was as a director sportif at the GP Cycliste Gatineau. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Jul 6 '17 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ Except for the Albertans who were neglected by Trudeau. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jul 6 '17 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos Those rich Albertans get so much more than the rest of Canada, they can be neglected a hundred times and they'd still be better off than the rest of the country (especially New Brunswick; most of us forget that even exists sometimes. It's like the Wyoming of Canada) $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 6 '17 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim: I had to think about where Wyoming was in my country, which I think is proving your point. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jul 7 '17 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos That's amazing. It's in the middle upper left. I always remember Wyoming first because it has such a whimsical name. I'm surprised it's the one Americans forget most. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 7 '17 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ The room schedule now contains a corresponding event; interested users can register to receive a reminder when it is about to start. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Jul 12 '17 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos That's a funny comment, because I think that for many people from outside the US Wyoming is probably one of the best known states, if only for Yellowstone National Park as well as for its whimsical name. My daughter has talked about Wyoming endlessly since she was three years old, because she yearns to dig dinosaur fossils there - and also Wyoming's state dinosaur is her favorite. $\endgroup$ – Selene Routley Jul 13 '17 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ -+++ or +---? :-P $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Jul 17 '17 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform Mostly plus. I'm a very positive person; mostly minus is too pessimistic. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 18 '17 at 13:27

As a fellow theorist (albeit with a very different focus),

  1. In your view, what are the most interesting theoretical insights cosmology has produced in the last few decades?

  2. In your view, what are the most interesting/most promising open problems in theoretical cosmology?

As a fellow gamer,

  1. What's the best game you've played in the last 5 years?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ lol @ the 'very different focus' $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jul 7 '17 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ The official answers given during the AMA are as follows: 1) in my view, the most interesting insight comes from the observations of the acceleration of expansion; it led to the theoretical formation of our ideas of dark energy. But, more interestingly, it means that, theoretically, there cannot be any larger structures that form in our universe than what already exist. So think about it, even though the universe expands, the cosmic filaments are the largest things gravity can make $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ 2) As for the interesting open problems, the issues of dark matter and dark energy are very engaging. We still don't quite know what they are and whether we should include them on the gravity side or the matter side of the Einstein field equations. I've seen numerous works that could be correct and have very different interpretations. So whichever can come up with testable hypotheses will hold all of our attentions $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ 3) the best game I've played in the last 5 years probably goes to Borderlands 2. I was going to give it to a Bioware game, but Borderlands takes gold because of the co-op campaign feature and the amazing humour $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:18

I have two related questions about your background in theoretical cosmology:

  1. What made you choose theoretical cosmology in particular? What first drew you to the subject - especially after doing "space engineering" for your undergrad degree?
  2. You write

    I never used telescopes or real data.

    Engineering work aside, do you think this entirely theoretical background has helped you or hindered you in your studies? Did the theoretical focus make you stronger in that area, or did the lack of experimental experience detract from your understanding of cosmology (not that I can tell!).

  • $\begingroup$ The official answers given during the AMA are as follows: 1) to be honest, I've always been interested in why things work and how to predict the patterns in the world around me. I've not been much to care for looking through telescopes or showing through experiment that things work. So theoretics was a natural draw. Since I love space and the deeper aspects of how the universe works, cosmology was also an easy choice. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ 2) Honestly, the theoretical experience strengthened me. I don't have a lack of experimental experience. I was in engineering, which is more experimental than experimental physics. In fact, I'd say I suffered more in my understanding of cosmology because I was too experimental. Cosmology is very math intensive and has copious abstract and theoretical concepts. I wish I could have had many more years of theoretical prep, but the experimental stuff I have was a good way to view the theory from multiple angles. It gives a broad and less biased perspective $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:22
  • How does a person suffering from ADHD realise that they have ADHD?
  • At what point in your life did you realise that you were suffering from severe ADHD?
  • What strategies did you use to get through university with a learning disability?
  • $\begingroup$ The official answers given during the AMA follow below: $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ First off, I realized I had it when I was diagnosed at a young age. They told me it meant I would have difficulty concentrating (among other things) and I went, "Yup, that is definitely true!". $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ I always knew I had it, because it was extremely obvious I can't focus for long periods of time or anything like that. But I didn't realize how severe it was until I was older. I went to a session with other ADHD individuals and after interacting for a few weeks, we all agreed I had the worst case. Plus all my siblings have it, but milder. Plus I take the highest safe-for-adults dosage of my particular medication in order to mitigate the effects. So yeah, 1+1+1=severe $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ I had a few strategies to get through university. I'm going to boast a bit; I do have abnormally high potential for learning, which cancels out a lot of the "disabled in learning" stuff and makes me not require as many strategies, but there were a few I needed. The most helpful strategy has to be where I choose to do work. I don't ever do work at home unless it's an emergency. I know I'll get distracted at home, so I marked it as a work-free environment. That means if I want to get something done, I have to stay at school until it's finished. No opportunity to go home and not finish. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ The other good strategy is in taking notes. If I write down everything on the board as the prof writes it, that means I have to listen to what they say and read what is written. Maybe I don't pick it up the first time, but it becomes familiar. That way, when I go back, I can recall seeing something before. It also means I can't start daydreaming; I have to keep writing $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:28

What aspect of theoretical cosmology did you study? Was it paper-based work or computer-based work? If the latter, what kind of software/languages were used?

  • $\begingroup$ The official (and, unfortunately, incomplete due to frequent interruptions) answers given during the AMA are as follows: $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ My work include a large amount of pencil-on-paper math. However, to save time, we did lots of it in Mathematica. I did have majority in computational work. We used python and FORTRAN mostly, but I added some matlab and C as well. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:32

I'll bite.

Sorry, but I'm Canadian, eh? And go ahead and make jokes.

Is the top of your head attached to your body?

Also, how much of your day is spent in the vicinity of trees and/or rocks?

  • $\begingroup$ The official answers given during the AMA are as follows: No, my head is not attached. And (this one is real) I do spend most of my day very close to rocks and trees. In my office at the university, my window looks out to a large forest.... in Toronto. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ (Follow up to this) Growing up in Canada, there are so many rocks and trees around that I legitimately thought through most of my childhood that there was just this one large and unbroken forest that was always nearby to everything. There was no place in Canada I went where you couldn't drive for a couple minutes and find a forest. Plus there's trees and rocks scattered around everywhere too. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ Now I'm reasonably certain that the forest thing is wrong $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:37

You don't mention anything about music, just wondering your musical tastes/interests. What type of genres/artists/albums do you listen to? Do you find yourself more able or less able to study with music playing?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The reason I ask the last question is because there are studies out there that suggest music can help ADHD sufferers focus more clearly. Hopefully that might quash some of these downvotes. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jul 11 '17 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ never mind the downvotes, this is a great question and I'd really like to see it answered. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Jul 12 '17 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ The official answer given during the AMA is: I find that music distracts me way too much when studying, so I don't listen to it then. I'm also what you'd call musically neutral. I don't dislike any genre of music, I think they all have merit. But I also don't have much of a place for it in my life, which leads me to not listen to it often $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:38

Is there anything that surprised you about your field/career? What's the hardest part about being a cosmologist? Lastly, do you consider cosmology to be a branch of astronomy?

  • $\begingroup$ The official answers given during the AMA are as follows: 1) Yes, it was surprising how much of cosmology is grinding away at the math instead of thought experiments. It was naive of me to not expect that, but I didn't. 2) The hardest part has to be writing papers; I'm really slow at that; can't focus on writing that well. 3) And no, I don't consider cosmology a branch of astronomy. I think cosmology is to astronomy what atomic physics is to chemistry. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 12:40

As you say above: I also am interested in neuroscience and neuropsychology.

The physics aspect of, for want of a better phrase, "some of how we think", has been made more prominent by this recent research, Monkey's Pattern Recognition,

This, imo is a story worth reading, as a math algorithm has duplicated, at least to some degree, the process of neuron firing that the animal's brain went through.

Due to pure ignorance, I don't have any fixed ideas on conscious, if it exists, how it works, etc, etc...but it is an interest of mine, especially if I can use a physics or math based experimental results rather than philosophy.

So, my question is: although Max Tegmark (along with Penrose) may be out of their field with some of their ideas, I wonder if discussing their approach to "reality", i.e. that we / the universe are fundamentally based around math, is asking too much of a physics based AMA?

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    $\begingroup$ So, to be clear, your question is whether or not discussing Tegmark's approach to "reality" is asking too much of a physics AMA? That seems a bit weird. I figured you'd want to discuss their approach or an aspect of it. But if you really just want to ask if we're capable of discussing it in an AMA session, then I'll answer that during the session. But seeing as this is the only AMA session I see myself having, wouldn't it make more sense to just ask a question within the topic and see where it goes? It's the whole "don't ask to ask, just ask" thing. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 6 '17 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ Point taken, thanks Jim $\endgroup$ – user154420 Jul 6 '17 at 12:34

Is there anything what you believe (or, at least strongly suspect), but you can't prove?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Donald Trump wears realistic prosthetics to make his hands look bigger $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 19 '17 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ Heinz Ketchup and Hunt's Catsup are really the same thing $\endgroup$ – Jim Jul 19 '17 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ The Olsen twins are the same person. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Jul 19 '17 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Jim - I don't what peterh meant here, but how about we put this in an academic context. Any personal hunches/crazy ideas regarding your discipline that you think may be plausible, but for whatever reasons, you haven't cracked that yet? $\endgroup$ – 299792458 Jul 24 '17 at 19:14

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