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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, July 30, 2004

Physics for Poets

A few other physics-related notes:

Via Electrolite's sidebar, we have McSweeney's presentation of Physical Theories as Women:

1. Electrodynamics is your college girlfriend. Pretty complex, you probably won't date long enough to really understand her.

2. Special relativity is the girl you meet at the dorm party while you're dating electrodynamics. You make out. It's not really cheating because it's not like you call her back. But you have a sneaking suspicion she knows electrodynamics and told her everything.

On a more serious note, Michael Nielsen has posted his essay on Principles of Effective Research as a single long post (he's been serializing it for the last month or so). I don't have anything constructive to add, so I'll just say "Read the whole thing," in keeping with blogger practice.

And finally, on the "revolutionary discovery" front, Lloyd Schumner has a bombshell:

Gemini: (May 21—June 21)Your belief that God does not play dice with the universe will be tested by the discovery of a 10,000-mile-long craps table on Jupiter.

Roll over, Albert Einstein, and tell Pierre Laplace the news.

Posted at 9:41 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Which Is It, Senator, a Particle or a Wave?

In comments, Kathryn Cramer notes that the Afshar quantum interference experiment described in an old post is the basis for the cover story in the July 24th issue of New Scientist. Sadly, it's not available for free online. I'm not sure whether I have free access at work-- if I do, it'll be tempting to do the J. Blackbeard DeLong thing, and copy the full text into some more accessible place, but I'll try to refrain. Failing that, Kathryn has more at her blog, including a teaser for a single-photon version. I'm not sure that there's anything new, or anything to contradict the explanation arrived at in the earlier discussions, but enough people were interested the first time around that it's worth pointing out.

The taglines for the New Scientist piece ("One man's simple experiment could unravel our most cherished notions of reality") have the usual hyperventilating sort of tone, so I'm not sure I'd consider this an entirely impartial presentation of the experiment. I'm still waiting to see a peer-reviewed version (which I don't think has appeared yet, but I haven't been looking for it).

Posted at 9:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Round vs. Square

I was more than a little surprised that my post last week about the intricacies of vacuum hardware managed to draw nine comments, none of which were "You wrote an entire blog post about ConFlat vacuum procedures? God Almighty, you're a dork." (Jeff, you're letting me down...) I think this is a testament not to any inherent fascination with the topic, but rather the fact that physicists-- experimental physicists, at least-- can go on for hours about experimental minutiae that are dizzying in their insignificance.

This is a natural result of the fact that those details probably consume well over 90% of the average experimentalist's day, but we're never supposed to talk about them in public. When I give a talk about my research, it's all Big Picture stuff-- what's the physics we're trying to study, how do the data illustrate the point we're making, where do we go from here-- which is a tiny fraction of what I spend my time doing. Most of the time I've spent in the lab has been spent trying to keep the hundreds of subsystems that make up a laser cooling or Bose-Einstein Condensation apparatus running smoothly: keeping the laser locked to the correct frequency, making sure that things are switching on and off when they're supposed to, performing the hundreds of little sanity-check experiments that you do every day to make sure that things are still working the way they're supposed to, and that your data will be reliable. And that's on a working experiment, where we were actually exploring interesting physics. When you're just starting a lab, as I am now, there is no Big Picture, just lots and lots of tiny little pictures of subsystems under construction. But nobody ever-- ever wants to hear about that.

This can be tremendously frustrating-- particularly for students who are just starting out, who really have no clue what the Big Picture is. They're in a much worse spot than I am-- I'm directing the experiment, so I at least know what the Big Picture is, and where we're heading. All they really know is the little stuff they're working on, and it's often hard to see how the silly little electronics projects they've been sweating over can possibly advance human knowledge.

(Why, yes, my summer students are giving talks next week. Why do you ask?)

The end result of this is that, when presented with an opportunity to actually talk about this stuff (whether on a weblog or in response to an ill-advised cocktail party question), we tend to explode with a torrent of superfluous detail and unwanted information. If you ever want to clear a room, ask an experimentalist a technical question, and stand back as people flee in terror from discussions of how to compensate the excess capacitance of bad solder joints in a resonant coil system, or whatever.

The most ludicrous example of this that I know of was back in the early days of the BEC effort in Gaithersburg, when a joint meeting of the experimental and theoretical BEC groups spent something like forty-five minutes on the question of whether to build the magnetic trap coils out of regular, round copper tubing, or special copper tubing with a square cross-section. I'm not exactly sure how you manage to blow three-quarters of an hour on this topic (I wasn't at that meeting, but the square wire is so obviously superior that it's hard to see room for debate), but they pulled it off. The "Round vs. Square" meeting grew to legendary stature within the two groups, and led to the creation of a separate "BEC Theory" meeting dedicated to Big Picture topics, at which any attempt to wander off into experimental minutiae was put down by the question "Does that use round or square wire?"

I'm not quite sure why theorists seem to be better about this stuff-- God knows, the theory students across the hall are consumed with fiddly little details of Fortran coding. You don't hear that many theorists holding forth on the merits of different numerical integration techniques, though, at least not relative to experimentalists talking about little details of circuit design and the like. I'm not sure why that is, though. It might be that theory is inherently more of a Big Picture venture, or it might be that I just can't tell the difference between round and square in a theory context (I catch about one word in three when two string theorists start going at it).

Posted at 8:52 PM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Good for Ricky

I should note up front that I'm not planning to say much of anything about the Democratic convention for two reasons: 1) when I find myself writing about politics these days, not even I like what I end up with, so I'm trying to cut back on the political stuff, and 2) I'm really not interested in watching political speeches these days. I know Bush is awful, and if I wanted to hear that at length, I would've bought a ticket for Farenheit 9/11. I know that Kerry and Edwards would be a better choice for President and VP than Bush and Cheney. I don't need a speech to tell me that-- Bill and Opus would be a better choice than Bush and Cheney. So I'm staying away from any political coverage that isn't The Daily Show.

With Presidential politics being right out, I'm going to talk about physics and music and other topics. Including sports, where the news of the moment is the surprising retirement of Dolphins running back Ricky Williams (re-written wire stories about it are available from Sports Illustrated and ESPN).

Initial reports of his retirement were presented as if he had suddenly turned up in training camp sporting a couple of extra heads and speaking Finnish. As the story has seeped out into the pundit class, however, the official line has shifted slightly, focusing on Williams's personality (substantially identical columns are again available at SI and ESPN). He's apparently always been a three-headed Finn, but nobody bothered to mention it before now. These stories take it for granted that his decision is both inexplicable save in terms of severe personal issues on Williams's part, and also some sort of grave sin against the sacred nature of Sport.

Taking these in reverse order, I have to say "bullshit" to both. If the last twenty-odd years of sports have taught us anything, it's that professional athletics is an incredibly mercenary business: we've seen childish contract disputes galore, season-destroying strikes in multiple sports over idiotic financial squabbles, and we've watched championship teams hold fire sales and unload all of their best loved players. If there were a buck to be made from it, the Dolphins would've cut Williams loose without a second's hesitation, and at the first sign of a slip in his abilities, the fans would've turned on him like rabid jackals. He owes these people nothing. The idea that athletic competition is some sort of sacred and inviolable trust has been moribund since about the time they started letting the participants wear clothing, and the modern media-driven sports business has driven a stake through its heart.

So what about the merits of his decision to hang it up? Is it really true that only a person with major psychological problems would've retired when Williams did? Most sports pundits seem to take that for granted, but here are two possible reasons: 1) He was in an incredibly destructive business that only a fool would stick with longer than absolutely necessary, and 2) He doesn't really care about the money.

Professional sports can be a pretty destructive career path in general, but there aren't many professions more life-shortening than playing in the NFL. Running backs in particular take an incredible pounding-- as many people have pointed out, the great Earl Campbell can barely walk these days. And Emmitt Smith, who's a whopping two years older than I am, is considered hopelessly washed up these days.

I can really appreciate this line of reasoning. I was never within a long-distance phone call of the level of athletics that these guys are at, but even the little bit of sports that I've played has left scars-- I separated both shoulders playing rugby in college, and they still give me trouble today. My major sports exploit of the last few years-- the faculty-student game I wrote about here back in June-- absolutely wrecked me for about three days. If Ricky Williams isn't feeling happy about playing running back in the NFL, he's doing the right thing by quitting. To quote a noted expert on pain, "if you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

Which brings us around to the money. The incredulity over his retirement stems in no small part from the fact that he's leaving a lot of money on the table-- better than $3 million. People can't seem to believe that anyone capable of it would turn down that kind of money for playing pro football.

But this isn't the first thing that Williams has done that demonstrates a lack of interest in making huge sums of money to play running back. His first NFL contract, famously negotiated by a rapper dabbling in sports agency, was also the first thing that had sports writers calling him a lunatic. Considering that the Saints traded away all of their draft picks to get him, he agreed to work for peanuts, relatively speaking-- he only got $10 million in his first two years of football (according to this article).

Granted, that's about half of what Edgerrin James got over the same span, but $10 million isn't chicken feed. "He fired the idiot agent who negotiated that deal," you'll say, which is true, but the contract he signed with the Dolphins had the same basic structure-- low base salary (league minimum, in fact), with a ton of incentives. Clearly, this is the sort of thing he wanted-- he got paid a great deal of money (by any sensible standard) to play foootball, but had no apparent interest in holding out for a really eye-popping deal. And if he was happy with that, what's the problem?

This is another idea that I have some personal sympathy for, as you might guess from my choice of profession (here's a hint: they're not paying me $3 million to teach physics). I'm really sort of irked by the common belief that if you're not straining to grab every last nickel you can get your hands on, there's something wrong with you. Don't get me wrong-- money is great, and I wouldn't be willing to work for free. But I'm always a little annoyed at the reaction I get when people find out that I go back to campus in the evening and on weekends to help out with events that don't earn me any extra cash, or that I'll occasionally shell out some of my own money to, say, have students over to the house for dinner. I'm not in this business to get rich, and I feel that some of those extra things are an essential part of doing my job well, whether or not I get paid to do them.

So, anyway, I'm inclined to take Ricky Williams's statements at face value, when he says that he's happy with his decision. He's obviously not interested in the money he could be making, and if he's not happy playing football, he should get out of the business. Whatever he goes on to do next, be it working with children (as he says), or "hang[ing] out under tropical waterfalls and smok[ing] blunts the lengths of goal posts" in the particularly bitchy phrasing of another ESPN columnist, I wish him well.

Posted at 8:22 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Monday, July 26, 2004

Scattered Thoughts

I made it back from the weeked in New Orleans (obliquely mentioned on a major sports media web site near you) last night, thoroughly exhausted after a weekend of too little sleep, too much beer, and way too much air travel.

One of the weird aspects of the whole blogging thing is that I see more and more of my life in terms of how it would work as a blog post. Daily events become hooks for posts, and in idle moments, I find myself writing them out in my head. Most of these never really come together in a way that makes them worth posting, so they end up as abandoned little postlets, either discarded entirely or scavanged for phrases and images to use in later posts.

I don't have a really coherent narrative to use to describe the weekend, though, so I'll break with my usual practice, and throw a bunch of this weekend's bits up here, and see if any of them click.

Are We Secure Yet? Airport security has finally defeated me. It's long been true that there are no good food options on airport concourses-- good food almost always requires actual metal cutlery, and God only knows what might happen if somebody were to pocket a butter knife and sneak it onto a plane. If you want to sit down and eat a reasonable meal, you have to go back out past the security check, and find a restaurant there.

I had layovers of more than two hours on the way down (in Baltimore) and back (in Orlando), and in both airports, I ate the lousy fast food on offer in the gate areas. The combination of stubborn idiocy and pointless hassle involved in getting back through security was just too much to take. And I'm a laid-back white guy-- if I were, say, a Syrian folk band, I think I'd cancel the American tour until sanity returns.

Who Reads This Stuff? On the way down, I finished Charlie Stross's Singularity Sky, and then read the new copy of Rolling Stone that arrived last week. It was a long enough trip that I wound up reading pretty much all of it, include the excerpt from the forthcoming Tom Wolfe novel ("Knight of the Love Skull" is the title of the excerpt. He's no Christopher Moore.).

Tom Wolfe is one of those cultural figures who hangs around the fringes of my awareness. I know that he's an author, and he's apparently thought well of, but I've never read any of his books beyond the bits that Rolling Stone will occasionally excerpt.

None of those bits have ever really suggested to me that I might want to finish the book, and this was no exception. It's a story about the exploits of a bunch of rich frat boys at a fictitious university, and it manages to display a dazzling combination of snotty condescencion and pith-helmeted anthropological reporting:

Without consciously planning it, Hoyt kept himself insinuated into the student social circles of Greenwich Country Day. He dressed in the marginally preppier, neater Greenwich Country Day boys' clothes. That only made him hotter in the eyes of the girls at McClellan [a public school], "hot" being the comparitive degree of "cool" in teenage grammar.

Gosh, thanks, Dr. Livingstone, had you not ventured into the jungles of teen life, I might never have picked up that bit of twenty-year-old slang. His depiction of frat life is presented with the same accuracy and clinical impartiality I would expect from, say, Chun the Unavoidable-- I can only assume that the Hermes Trismegistus bits were deemed too "hot" to be excerpted. Leave 'em wanting more, and all that.

God Almighty, this is awful stuff. How is it that this jerk is a famous author? Is he just trading off people who mistakenly think he wrote Look Homeward Angel?

I would've thrown the magazine away, but I was afraid I might need it to go all Jason Bourne on anyone who tried to take over the plane using a shiv fashioned from a food-court spork.

Soundtrack of Our Lives I'm very much a child of the video generation, and I frequently find myself falling into looking at life as if it were a movie. The invention of portable personal music devices only reinforces this, as it lets me wander through the day with songs playing in the background that nobody else can hear.

This occurred to me as we were coming in for a landing in New Orleans, while I was watching the lights of the city go by through the airplane window, with a down-tempo, slightly sinister, slightly wistful song playing in my ears ("Cautioners" by Jimmy Eat World, if you'd like to synch up with my personal soundtrack). The cabin was dark, and I could see myself reflected in the window, in front of the lights, and I thought "This is such a movie shot." It'd have to be the opening for some sort of Lost in Translation sort of alienation story, or possibly some kind of movie about a guy going to visit and estranged relative, or something like that.

My mind is throughly familiar with the visual language of film. Unfortunately, it has a disturbing tendency to speak only in cliches.

The Years, They Have Not Been Kind Friday night, I met up with my friends at a dive-y little club called the Howlin' Wolf, where former alternative superstars Urge Overkill were playing a show. I really liked their Saturation album ten years ago, but their next record was pretty disappointing, and they they broke up for a while.

They've re-formed, and were out on tour. I'm not sure how we found out that they were playing, but the music fans among us had all liked them back in the day, so we decided to go.

Here's a tip for any aging rock stars out there who are getting to an introspective point in their lives: If your opening band are also handling the guitar tech and merchandise sales duties, you've probably seen better days. I'm just saying.

It was a major disappointment. Nash Kato still looks about the same, but Eddie "King" Roeser has turned into Meat Loaf, and neither of them came anywhere near singing in tune.

"Sister Havana" is still a great song, though.

Books Do Furnish a Room The hotel were were staying at was the desperately hip W Hotel New Orleans, where all the interior lighting was dim, and the furnishings looked rather like the loft they use on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

In both the main lobby and the mezzanine area, there were large bookshelves, each of which was covered with carefully arranged books. In brown or white paper wrappers, like the sort of thing you used to put on your books in elementary school.

Blank brown or white paper wrappers. As in, no visible titles. Because, you know, that might mess up the look.

They missed the chance to be truly and brilliantly post-modern by using those blank books they sell in Borders, though. I don't know how they didn't think of that-- probably would've been cheaper, too. They clearly don't expect anybody to read anything while they're there.

Posted at 8:34 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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