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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, April 29, 2005

Relativity Explained

I'm battling stupid electronics problems today (the RF-driven plasma discharge is putting 144 MHz noise all over the small signal I'm trying to look at today, and getting rid of it is proving difficult), so I'm not really in a mood for serious blogging.

Happily, my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip ever has been reposted today (and been added to the cartoons on my door). Anyone who uses this as a springboard to talk about gender bias in science will get a Boot to the Head.

Also, The Darth Side: "Whose trachea do you have to crush with your mind to get a little service around here?"

Posted at 2:01 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mmmmm.... Sacrilicious....

My recent post about Christian Ministry was picked up by the Skeptic's Circle blog carnival thing. I don't usually contribute to these things because I tend to feel that nominating my own stuff is sort of like cheating (in the big high school of blogdom, I'm doomed to be the Chris Klein character from Election). Also, I'm lazy. This time out, though, Josh emailed me to ask if I wanted it included, so I said "sure."

In the same basic spirit, I realized that I missed a golden opportunity to quote from one of my favorite silly books, John Bellairs's St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, which includes a great description of a Papal conclave:

The worst Renaissance Pope was Bragghimento dei Crudelissimi, who took the name of Sporus VI (1549-1565). His election took place under most peculiar circumstances, since the Curia in 1540 had been drastically reduced by plague, sudden death, and a drowsy euphoria that came drifting up out of the Pontine Marshes like the exhalations of some besotted giant. At Sporus' election, fifteen prelates were present, with an average age of eighty-six. Eight were certainly senile, and there may be some question about Balbo of Genoa, who kept spilling his ink during the balloting, and who constantly referred to the cardinal next to him as "Rosa." The fifteenth ballot had been reached when a disturbance arose over pens. Old Cardinal Schotto of Mainz had broken his and could not secure another from the proctors, whom he accused (loudly) of being in the pay of the Italians. He advanced to the middle of the room, denouncing violently, and was met by three proctors, two Italian cardinals, and Scataphorus, the ninety-eight-year-old Patriarch of Alexandria, who was trying (in a general way) to find the bathroom.

(From "A Short Guide to Catholic Church History for Catholic College Students Going Out Into the World to Defend Their Faith," which also contains the admonition "The thing to remember about these "Bad" Popes is that they pronounced no ex cathedra doctrines." So there.)

For those who prefer their religion bashing a little lower on the brow, there's always Jesus Dress-Up (via "fearlessdiva" on Kate's LiveJournal friends list).

Posted at 8:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

There's Theory and There's Theory...

A recent comment alerted me to the fact that this blog is near the top of a Google search for "Poetry for Physicists". This made me go back and take a look at the recent post of that title, though it's interesting that a much older post shows up first.

Anyway, the relevant post here is the one making an analogy between math in science classes and critical theory in humanities classes. In one of those weird flashes of synchronicity that happen from time to time, this week's batch of forwarded links from The Chronicle of Higher Education included "Thomas H. Benton" on the death of Theory. (Look quickly-- it's a limited-time email link.)

The basic tone and content should be familiar to anyone who used to read the Invisible Adjunct, and it concludes with some thoughts on the teaching of theory:

I suppose it is poetic justice that I am now concluding a semester of teaching my department's introduction to literary theory. I asked to teach it, in part, to finally begin to give myself the systematic education that it was impossible to get in the frenzy of graduate school and the job scramble. But I also wanted a chance to teach theory in the way that I wish it had been taught to me.

I believe that literary and cultural theory can be subtle, learned, passionate, and aesthetically pleasing. And, of course, on a basic level, it is impossible to be a critic without some kind of theory. To claim to have no theory is like pretending to have perfect objectivity. We're all theorists now, and, ultimately, my grievance with theory has more to do with the credulousness of some secondhand practitioners than with the judicious application of various theories themselves.

I want my students to see theory as a means of shedding partial light on texts -- not a set of self-righteous dogmas that make literature irrelevant except as grist for the political mill. I want them to question the fundamental assumptions of everything, including theory itself. I want my students to know how to talk the talk, so that they will not have to be intimidated by the cynical use of jargon. I want them to avoid the tendency of Theory -- as it is too often practiced -- to define in painstaking detail the mote in thy brother's eye while ignoring the beam in thine own.

There's a certain amount of "divided by a common language" thing going on here, as I think he's sometimes using "theory" as a more narrowly defined term of art than I was. But then, I have even less idea what it means than he does...

Anyway, an interesting read.

Posted at 7:30 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Letting the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Tenure Case

My neck/ shoulder problem was acting up again yesterday, so I scheduled another physical therapy appointment, and took some of the leftover muscle relaxants from the emergency room visit. The pills did a great job on the muscle spasm, but left me feeling like my brains had been scooped out and replaced with cotton wool. Clearly, I was in no condition to do delicate laser work, and I wasn't about to do any heavy lifting, so I decided to take a cue from some of my students and write a paper. At least, I think they're writing under the influence of prescription pharmaceuticals.

I've had a fairly technical paper in the works for a couple of years now. It's based on something a thesis student from the class of '03 did, plus a few extra measurements, and I think it's clever enough to generate a publication. It's nothing all that ground-breaking, but every little bit helps at tenure time.

The problem is, there's always one more little measurement that could be added to improve it. And those measurements are sort of tangential to the actual research program I've got going-- the device in question works well enough to be useful to me, and making the extra measurements to turn it into a paper won't get me any closer to cold trapped atoms.

I'm planning to have a summer student clear up a few lingering mysteries this year, so I was talking to a colleague about this. I mentioned the paper idea, and he said "Well, what are you waiting for?" I explained about the extra measurements, and he said "That'd be nice, but you've got enough already."

So that's what I started doing yesterday-- I wasn't clear-headed enough to tackle anything really new, but I figured I still had enough on the ball to start writing, and see if it would really work (I wasn't entirely sure). And damn if he wasn't right-- the extra measurements would make it better, but it's enough to publish as is.

I could absolutely kick myself for this, because I could've written the thing up almost two years ago, and it'd be in print already. And the really stupid thing is, I knew I would run into this problem, based on my background, and even with that knowledge, I still screwed it up.

My graduate research was done in a group where if a paper wasn't likely to make it into Physical Review Letters (probably the top physics-only journal in the world), it wasn't worth the time it would take to write up the results. Of the five papers I was an author on during my grad-school career, four were PRL's, and the fifth was in Physical Review A (which is one step down from PRL), and that was because we wanted more space to write up the results. My post-doc only produced one article, but it was in Science (which is, as I once wrote late at night, "one of the top journals in all of science"). I'm not used to thinking in terms of small papers in lesser journals.

And yet, as I said, every little bit helps. Small papers count almost as much as important ones, when it comes to demonstrating a research track record for a tenure review. By continuing to think big, I'm shooting myself in the foot-- if there are little gadget papers to be published, I need to publish them, and not keep looking for the one more measurement that will turn a perfectly good little paper into a really excellent little paper.

(In much the same way, I didn't go to any conferences my first couple of years here, because I didn't want to stick other people with covering my classes for the sake of presenting lame progress report posters. But then again, lame progress report posters count just the same as non-lame posters... And thus, I'll be in Lincoln in a few weeks, with a progress report poster (I'd like to think it's not completely lame, but we'll see).)

Of course, you can go too far in the opposite direction. We had a good laugh, back in grad school, when (for some reason) a copy of the CV of a tenure-track person at a research school turned up in the break room. He had a huge list of publications to his credit, but they included numerous articles in journals like Proceedings of the Czechoslovakian Physical Society, which even good research libraries don't carry. You look at that sort of thing, and you can't help but think "CV Padding."

It's a fine line to walk-- you need to publish everything that you can legitimately get into print, without tipping over into publishing silly meaningless crap just to boost your statistics. And I've probably been being too conservative these past few years. I'll have to re-assess the other half-formed paper ideas that I've got, and see if I've been sitting on anything else that ought to go out.

(Also, blogging may be somewhat lighter than normal, as I work on writing this stuff up. Or I may give in to "Work Avoidance Syndrome"-- wait and see...)

Posted at 2:30 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Sunday, April 24, 2005


Various random items from the past week or so:

And that's about enough of that. We had an interesting conversation after the movie about SF subgenres, literary movements, and the eternal question of what's wrong with American SF, but my shoulder is tightening up a bit, so I'm going to stop typing.

Posted at 7:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

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