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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, September 06, 2002

Babble About the Library

A little while back, Jim Henley cited a bizarre rant against the idea of public libraries. At the time, I sort of wrote it off as an obscure joke that I wasn't getting, but Avram Grumer and Diana Moon seem to have taken it seriously.

I don't have much to add to Avram's thorough demolition of the original argument, such as it was, but lest people think decent libraries are a New York City thing, I'll chime in to say that I don't think it's inarguable that "the selection at your average public library compares poorly with the selection at your average Borders," as Jim says. And while I'm technically a New Yorker, Schenectady is not remotely part of The City.

Yeah, your odds of laying hands on a recently released book are better at Borders than at the Schenectady County Public Library-- it takes them at least a couple of weeks to acquire and process new books, and get them on the shelves, and anything popular tends to get checked out pretty quickly. But then again, there are a lot of older books (for example, Blunt Darts, which even Amazon lists as out of print) that you just wouldn't expect to find in a Borders, or any other new book store. For another example, Kate and I managed to read most of the Nero Wolfe series out of various libraries (Tewksbury, MA, New Haven, CT, Brooklyn, NY), and most of those are still out of print, even with the TV series dragging some of them back in. And, far from the total absence of religious books that Lew Rockwell complains about, I've actually been mildly annoyed by the number of religious books in the "New Non-fiction" section (they take up valuable shelf space that could be used for science books...).

It's mostly a question of what you're looking for-- book stores tend to have a very good selection of new books, because, well, that's what they do. They stock what will sell best and make them money, and with the exceptions of a few perennial classics, what sells best is relatively new stuff. On top of that, new copies of books aren't available forever, because publishers print what sells best for them, which, again, is mostly new stuff.

Half the point of a library, on the other hand, is that they keep everything (to first order, anyway-- they eventually do weed out unpopular or damaged books, but they keep an older and more varied stock than any new bookstore I've been in). They won't have a dozen copies of the new Harry Potter on hand, but they will have older stuff that's out of print, which Borders or even Amazon won't. Public libraries, at least the ones I've been to, are good at what they do-- it doesn't happen to be the same thing that for-profit book stores do, but that's a feature, not a bug.

Despite Kate's best efforts to convince me otherwise, I'm still not a library fanatic. I prefer to own the books I read, even if I'm only going to read them once. Still, Rockwell's rant is bizarre, and Jim's linking to it even stranger-- maybe it's possible for private for-profit libraries to work (Blockbuster does do a pretty good business...), but I can't see a reason other than dogmatic libertarianism (coupled with a severe misunderstanding of what libraries do) to change the current system. To paraphrase the title of another post, it ain't broke, so why fix it?

Posted at 8:46 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Lying to Children

No, this isn't another shot at New York's beleaguered Board of Regents.

Terry Pratchett has a great phrase he uses to describe the way we "dumb things down" to explain them to people who lack the background to understand the real situation: "lies-to-children" (its first appearance may be in The Science of Discworld, though the idea certainly exists in Hogfather). The explanation you give when you lie to children isn't really true, but it's close enough to the truth to get the basic idea across, and you figure you can correct the misapprehension you've created sometime later, when the children are a little older.

It's like when we teach children that we vote to elect the President of the United States. In reality, we vote to choose electors, and the Electoral College votes to choose the President, except if nobody gets a majority of the electoral votes, in which case the task passes to Congress, unless it's a year that ends in three zeros, when-- but by the time you get there, their cute little eyes have already glazed over, and you fall back on "we vote to elect the President." You can explain the real process later-- barring a truly bizarre set of circumstances, they don't really need all the details.

Lies-to-children needn't be told to actual children, of course. The cocktail-party explanation of what it is that I do for a living (on the research side, at least) is a lie-to-children, whatever the age of the people I tell it to. Lies-to-children are part of the price of doing business in a technical field. The tricky part is crafting the lie in such a way as to minimize the amount of damage done through misinformation.

This is a topic that's been much on my mind recently, as I've started drawing up lecture notes for my class for the Fall term, on "Modern Physics" (the scare quotes are there because it's more mis-named with every passing year-- the class should really be called "Early 20th Century Physics"). Lies-to-children are an integral part of education, even at the college level, and "Modern Physics" is one of the best examples of how they come in.

The curriculum we're using at the moment (which we're in the process of changing) is mostly historical (both in the sense of following the historical development of physics, and the sense of "it's always been done this way"). We begin with Classical Mechanics-- Newton's Laws of Motion, momentum, energy, and all that. (Basically, the stuff you were bored by in high school physics, pumped up with a little more math.) Then we move on to electricity and magnetism (E&M)-- charges, voltages, magnets, and Maxwell's Equations. It's slightly more interesting material, with considerably more math. This leaves the students with a pretty fair approximation of the knowledge level of a physicist at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It's also fairly dull stuff, which probably accounts for the low opinion most students have of physics to this point.

Now, in a certain sense, a lot of this stuff is already lies-to-children. Classical Mechanics only applies to large objects moving at low speeds-- if you start to get close to light speed, you need Special Relativity to describe what really happens; if you start talking about very small systems (single atoms or molecules), you need Quantum Mechanics; if you want to talk about atomic-scale objects moving at speeds close to the speed of light, you need Relativistic Quantum Mechanics, and may God have mercy on your soul. Newton's Laws are a good approximation to reality where they're applicable, but the really interesting stuff in physics happens only where Newton's Laws break down for one reason or another.

There's a pedagogical problem requiring lies-to-children, though. The general level of conceptual knowledge we give to students in the first two classes in the sequence is comparable to that of a physicist in the late Nineteenth Century-- the basic ideas they learn are all things Einstein would've learned in school. All of this, even the mathematical bits, can be developed from basic physical intuition, without actually cheating. Their mathematical background, though, is nowhere near what it needs to be to handle what comes next. Some people will hold that this is a failing in the educational system (I lean that way myself, sometimes), but in practical terms, we're stuck with it, and have to find a way to get the important "Modern Physics" concepts across without swamping them in vector calculus.

This is nowhere more pronounced than in trying to introduce Special Relativity, which is what I've got to do to open the Fall term. There's a beautiful and elegant mathematical demonstration of why relativity is needed-- the whole thing takes half a page of math, and it's essentially the path that Einstein took. Unfortunately, the crucial mathematical steps require math that my students simply won't have seen coming into this class. Which means I need to find another way to explain the problem, and demonstrate that relativity is the solution.

Introducing relativity is a tough problem, the traditional solution to which (as near as I can tell) is to simply pretend that the equations of Special Relativity were revealed to Einstein on golden tablets found in a moldering box in the basement of the Swiss Patent Office in 1905. This is more or less the approach we got when I went through school (though, to be fair, the guy who taught the freshman mechanics course that covered this material was not an inspiring lecturer on his best days)-- the speed of light is constant, we were told, Einstein said so. It's not an especially illuminating approach, though it does boost Einstein's status as a genius. The "just because" approach bothered me until grad school, when I finally saw the simple and elegant mathematical method alluded to above.

Put in its proper context, Einstein's achievement is a little more comprehensible. He didn't simply pull equations from the air-- they were already there, and reasonably well known. Einstein's great achievement-- which, I hasten to add, is incredibly impressive-- was really to find the physics behind what the mathematics was already telling people. The achievement wasn't in writing down the mathematical description of Special Relativity, it was in convincing people that this really and truly is the way the world works, and indeed, the way the world has to work.

Finding a better approach to the material-- which I'm gradually doing-- has required no less than three textbooks. The one I've assigned (basically because it was used last year, and I was too busy to investigate other books in time to get the order to the bookstore) manages to get all the right equations in a slightly ahistorical but basically correct manner, though the path to the key results is slightly tortured, and risks losing the conceptual forest in the algebraic trees. The other book that's been used in the past has clean and appealingly simple explanations of some of the later material, but despite nods in the direction of the correct explanation, basically falls back on the traditional "bolt-from-the-blue" approach. The third has a very nice and straightforward explanation of the conceptual problem that drove Einstein to relativity, but veers off into material I really don't want to cover after that.

It's a Goldilocks sort of situation, only nothing is "just right"-- I'm stuck in the Three Bears' kitchen mixing the too hot and too cold porridge together, hoping to end up with a decent meal before they get home and tear me apart for messing up their dishes. In the end, of course, it's still going to be porridge, not haute cuisine-- whatever I end up with will still be a lie-to-children, just a more palatable lie than some of the other options. (And after a couple of weeks of this for relativity, I get to do it all again with quantum mechanics...)

In posts to come, I'll probably give a sketchy version of the explanation I've settled on-- if nothing else, banging out the basic concepts here, without math, may help me work out the best approach to presenting the ideas in class. If you want to put together a mental picture of the glamorous life of a physics professor, though, it involves spending evenings hunched over the dining room table mixing and matching and re-wording parts of three different books, searching for the most effective way to lie to my students.

Posted at 7:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 23 comments

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Don't Fix What Ain't Broke

The Poor Man posted about the hassles he has to go through to acquire and analyze data in his laser experiment. The process involves stringing together a bunch of computers and peripherals that are antiquated, obsolete, partially broken, or just incompatible. IT's appalling. It's also completely typical.

The first time my parents saw one of the labs I've worked in, back when I was an undergrad, they were shocked by the prominent role played by duct tape and cardboard-- they still tease me about that. Like most people who've never worked in research, their image of the process was of gleaming, antiseptic labs with high-tech gadgets neatly arranged in equipment racks, expensive lasers housed in gleaming metal boxes, and not a tool out of place. The reality is much uglier, for reasons of expedience.

It would be nice to have all the lasers housed in gleaming metal boxes, but that takes time. If you just need to keep air currents away, or curious fingers from poking at the mount, two minutes with a cardboard box and a razor blde will get you a perfectly servicable, if not aesthetically pleasing, cover for your laser. If a cable keeps getting in your way, the elegant solution is to run a network of cable trays and patch boards, and route all your electrical connections through those. But again, that takes time and planning, while duct-taping the offending cable to the floor or table is often sufficient, and much faster. Orderly equipment racks look impressive, but if you're just doing a quick measurement, or can't find a long cable, it's faster and easier to just slap the power supply or oscilloscope or whatever down on any convenient flat surface.

These sorts of kludgey-but-convenient arrangements pop up all the time, for the simple reason that the goal of a working lab is to do science, not to make the lab look impressive. Aestheitcs take a back seat to effectiveness, particularly when four of the six components you need to have working to take data are finally behaving, and if you can just get the other two to hold together for the next few hours, you can get the data you need, and go home to bed.

This drive for convenience sometimes leads to faintly ridiculous situations, especially when combined with the "post-doc problem"-- post-docs generally work in a lab for only one or two years, and it's important to get results in that span, in order to get another job at the end. That means that inelegant "temporary" solutions can often become permanently enshrined, as one post-doc slaps something together quickly, in order to get the results needed, thinking that the kludgey solution will be replaced with something better later, only to have later generations continue to use it as is, simply because they don't want to endure the down time needed to replace it, and, hey, it's working, isn't it?

The best example, and the one most reminiscent of the Poor Man's lament, was the data acquisition system used when I was at NIST. We had a complicated home-made program running within a commercial data acquisition program (LabView), to switch the dozens of components we used on and off in the proper sequence. While I was in grad school, LabView released version 5.0 of its software, and one of the postdocs decided to look into upgrading. It turned out we were running version 2.0-- the guts of the home-made timing program had been written by a long-departed post-doc, and nobody on staff at the time had any clear idea of how it worked, let alone how to modify it to be compatible with newer versions of LabView, so we muddled along with version 2.0 until the point when it would no longer run on new computers, and by then, we were three full versions behind.

Other classics included the 30' cable someone at Yale had used to connect two boxes that were 6" apart-- the cable ran down underneath one of the boxes, was coiled up tightly, and then came back up to the second box. I spent an afternoon trying to find where that cable went, thinking it had to be connected to something on the far side of the room, not realizing that somebody had been too lazy to walk down the hall and find another 6" cable when they ran out. Then there was the heater connection at NIST made with tiny alligator clips and heat-shrink tubing, or the 800V lead for a discharge source that sat exposed next to a knob I needed to adjust daily (I shocked myself on that a half-dozen times, and would spend a couple of minutes hopping around the lab saying "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!" trying to get feeling back in my hand...). Or the "biological lock"-- for one of the experiments in my thesis (the paper came out years ago-- the "to be published" tells you how often they update the web page...), we needed to repeat an experiment at couple dozen different laser frequencies, keeping the laser frequency stable for 5-10 minutes each time. This was accomplished by having a post-doc stand next to the laser controller, using the "manual adjust" knob to correct the frequency if it started to drift.

The really amazing thing about this is that sometimes, the best data is obtained through these inelegant methods. The first paper I was an author on involved another measurement done at a couple of dozen different laser frequencies, which were obtained using the "biological lock" technique, and involved counting the number of ions produced in collisions under different conditions. The first day we were trying the experiment, we rigged up an old counter, just to see if it would work. The counter would run for a set time, then display the results on an LED display for all of five seconds, during which we'd scramble to write the numbers down on a pad of paper, and argue about where to round them off. After that proof-of-principle day, we spent a day or two rigging up an automated system, using the computer to read the data off a $5000 photon counter system. When it came time to publish the paper, though, the data that went into the most important graph in the whole article were those we had acquired with pen and paper. The "look at the counter and write numbers down" method was inelegant, but produced the best-looking graph we got (the large graph in the center of this page, though you probably need to care about the subject matter to really appreciate the niceness of the graph...).

There are labs out there where everything gleams, and nothing is out of place, but I've never really understood how they get any work done. The labs I've worked in have all been slightly sloppy and unruly, but the work has gotten done, which is the important thing. And the lab I'm starting now? The laser mount is professionally machined, and gleams nicely, but it's covered by a simple cardboard box with "Beware of Diode" written on it in magic marker. When it comes time for something more permanent, I'll probably duct-tape the box to the table...

Posted at 8:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Monday, September 02, 2002

Get Your Genre Fiction News Here...

The Hugo Awards were announced last night. Lots of good news here-- Neil Gaiman won the Best Novel Hugo for American Gods, a pick sure to enrage idiots who argue that "The Hugos are for science fiction, not fantasy," but it's an excellent book, and a worthy pick. The "Dramatic Presentation" award went to The Fellowship of the Ring, an obvious pick, which, coincidentally, Kate and I watched on DVD the other night (the fourth time I've seen it, and it's still a great flick-- the adaptation is well done, the effects are great, and the occasional gaffes serve only to supply opportunities for snarky commentary, a necessary element of a movie that'll be watched again and again. Kate didn't appreciate my "Elrond as Agent Smith" impression, but you can't win 'em all...).

Special congratulations to Jo Walton who won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Kate and I visited Jo, Sasha, and Emmet in Montreal, where she insisted she had no chance to win. We were pulling for her, though, and it's great to see her win. Everybody go buy her books, starting with The King's Peace, in hardcover. Jo's now the only Campbell Award Winner to supply me with a recipe for macaroni and cheese, an extremely exclusive company...

Posted at 9:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Sunday, September 01, 2002

You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Chance

A little while back, Jim Henley wrote in a comment thread that the biggest problem with BlogCritics would be people trying too hard to sound like "real" rock critics.

That seems to have eased off a bit, and I'm sort of leaning toward the belief that the biggest problem may be the, well, "bloggier" stuff, like this bizarre rant about J. K. Rowling and the next Harry Potter book, or this fawning review of Dinesh D'Souza's latest, which is less interested in talking about the book than in taking more shots at "the left" and "Islamofascists" (another term, with "anti-idiotarian" that, used without irony, is a bad sign...). I wouldn't be as harsh about BlogCritics as this guy (scroll down to August 15th)-- the "best writers" thing is and always was hyperbole-- but I'm not entirely convinced that the spontaneity and individualism of the blogging approach really trumps the more traditional review approach.

Then again, the blogging approach also leads to stuff like this short but touching post about music and family, which makes up for a weird rant or two. You take the bad with the good, I guess...

(Regarding the "New Artillery" guy, reading over the current posts on his site leads me to believe that he's maybe a bit too relentlessly hip, but he has some entertaining stuff up there, if you don't mind that sort of thing. I like the comments on Puddle of Creed. And I suppose I should be flattered, even if he did call my purchases a "bunch of crap"-- the post he linked to end up in my referrer logs wasn't duplicated on blogcritics, so the plea for my individual site to gain some validation has apparently worked...)

Posted at 11:02 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Real Squiddy Goodness

I noticed Cubicle Dweller in my referrer logs a while back, but I haven't gotten around to linking to him until now, just after I've dropped off his blogroll (sob). That's largely because I hadn't actually looked at the Project Snack page until now... (The "adopted by penguins" story (August 28, if it moves off the front page), and the epic failed Linux install are also worth a look...)

This is another site that's sort of a hanging curve over the middle of the plate for me, given my interest in Japan, but his description of plumbing the depths of the horror that is Japanese snack food had me all but rolling on the floor. To quote Homer Simpson, "It's funny 'cause it's true." I haven't sampled the same variety of stuff, but I did once accidentally eat dried breaded squid, which was uncannily like eating a rubber band with a thin pastry coating, only not as appetizing. I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who has eaten the "Thin fillet of something fish-like with unsettling cartoon on the package."

(While I'm talking about Japan sites, I should also mention Sensei and Sensibility, also found via Cubicle Dweller. Notes From Pure Land Mountain is more personal, but has some good stuff from time to time.)

Posted at 9:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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