January 30, 2006

the [my last name] doctrine

there is absolutely no reason that my social interactions have to be as dull as they are. despite the fact that this is supposed to be some kind of bastion of intellectualism, i always seem to find myself locked in the same conversational patterns. “we should have underground tunnels,” “my professor is a jerk,” “i haven’t seen a movie in sooooo long.” the best and the brightest climb over themselves to get into a place like this. and what do they do when they get here? engage their fellow giants of academia in discussions of cephalopod development or japanese cinema? maybe in class. maybe in papers or on exams. when out and about in public, 90% of conversation follows a tired, painfully boring script. whether it is the idiot frat boy boasting about getting drunk on a tuesday night, the future i-banker smarmily explaining that the only skiing he finds “challenging” is in the rockies, or the aimless liberal arts major justifying her decision to take a year off; i have heard it before, and i am not impressed. and though all of these things are dull and all too common, i have narrowed my wrath down to 3 basic lines of conversation. basing their selection on the observation that unlike most other uninteresting talk, these categories simply contain no meaningful variation. eliminating the abuse of the following topics (and their permutations) from your life will vastly improve the level of discourse:
1. how tired you are.
2. how much work you have.
3. how cold it is outside.
we are all tired, busy, and cold. i don’t care that you are too. you may feel that there is something exceptional about your situation, but there really isn’t, trust me. obviously, if it is snowing in june, or you have to write a book in the next several days, you can broach the subject, but otherwise, think of something interesting to say before you open your mouth.

January 21, 2006

wright was wrong

i had lunch a few days ago with my college's esteemed president. it was surprisingly dull. basically we all went around, said our names/majors/home states and then had small talk for like an hour. the closest we came to discussing college policy was when we talked about the writing program...which i guess is some kind of contentious issue that i have never heard of. frankly, the president's intern was a lot better at inspiring conversation. at the beginning when we were all stating our names she asked us to say which author, living or dead, we would most like to have lunch with. the first few students chose these weird people i had never heard of. when it was my turn, i replied that if he counted as an "author" i would most like to meet richard feynman, who did, technically, write a few books, though he is best known for his demigod-like work on qed. for some reason the table full of humanities majors lit up in recognition (though i doubt any of them could have told me what he accomplished. meanwhile, i have to learn all about goddamn "heart of darkness"...). the president said "the physicist? if you had been here a few years ago you could have" since, (and he was talking very confidently here) feynman had been a montgomery fellow "within the past five years. were you not here for that?" i mentioned that feynman died in 1988.

he was not pleased. basically, he was suddenly channeling the expression of that foiled millionaire or conservative dean at the end of some clichéd 1980's bildungsroman. the blood drained from his face, there was a moment of awkward silence, and he moved on the next person without any sort of good-natured "oops!" that would have diffused the embarrassment. it was both comical and depressing at the same time. i wouldn't expect him to know in detail what one of the most important physicists of the 20th century worked on, but some basics like "quantum theory of electrodynamics" or "wasn't recently on campus" should be a given if you want to be the head of an ivy-league university. it is no wonder our physics program has to fight so hard for funding.

January 17, 2006

open questions

this is a list i came up with sophomore year of what i thought to be some interesting issues in physics. a few of them were stated a little poorly, but i think it was basically right on. obviously, i left a few things out, and the questions swing wildly between the grandiose "why are physical constants what they are?" to the incredibly specific "why to pulsars/black holes eject matter from their poles?" a few were clunkly and uninformed-sounding ("are gravitons real?") but were basically in the right area. clearly, it wasn't supposed to be comprehensive, but of course, i can always add to it...

January 16, 2006

celestial (half) sphere

for christmas, jenn, among some other things, made me a bowl.

the amount of time and effort she must have put into this boggles my mind. boggles it.

first of all, let me say that this explains a lot of puzzling behavior throughout december. there were these questions she kept asking me that seemed to come out of nowhere at the time, like "what are your favorite equations?" and when i told her, although she had no idea what they were, she seemed quite satisfied with my answers (and didn't want me to explain them at all!). she did the same thing with some other aspects of the bowl. let's continue our tour:

this is the inside. she copied out like a million decimal places of π, this definitely deserves a gold star.

as does this likeness of my pets, staring back at me when i finish eating.

the magnetic part of the feynman-heaviside formulae, (the electric part was on the first picture), an obscure but useful formulation of the fields generated by the motion of a single point charge--something you really never worry about, but certainly a result that feels fundamental, even if it looks like a mess.

this is the sackur-tetrode equation. it gives you the entropy of something. the total entropy. none of this change-in-entropy nonsense. the actual entropy--as in, "the entropy in this bowl of potato salad is nine." it isn't the most useful thing we learned about in statmech.

and the bottom features this inspired constellation map. "hey you, what direction is eridanus in this time of year?" "just give me a second to finish my lucky charms™ and i'll tell you"

all in all, one of the most thoughtful gifts anyone has ever gotten me. certainly at least as thoughtful as this phrenology head she got for me last year after remembering an off-handed remark i had uttered months earlier.


January 14, 2006

a spoonful weighs a ton

as previously mentioned, i am always on the lookout for trite physics allusions in places that they don't belong. particularly the ones that physicists themselves take notice of (often to the point of overuse, see "fire and ice"). here are a few more i've stumbled across recently. in terms of irrelevant or meaningless quotation, no one has been more abused than shakespeare. so it was nice to find this surprisingly apt (and vaguely self-referential) winter's tale passage in the opening of ryder's quantum field theory:

yet nature is made better by no mean
but nature makes that mean: so, over that art
which you say adds to nature, is an art
that nature makes
what a feynmanesque thing for shakespeare to come up with! better yet, listening to the flaming lips' soft bulletin yesterday i noticed that the lyrics seem to contain some kind of ode to the fusion reactions in the stellar core:
and though they were sad
they rescued everyone
they lifted up the sun
a spoonful weighs a ton
giving more than they had
the process had begun
a million came from one
i cannot say for sure whether they are singing about high energy photons, the nuclei, or the reactions themselves, but i know that i definitely prefer these to those irrelevant, out-of-context quotes from alice in wonderland that everyone seems so fond of. not to mention this abomination.

January 11, 2006

counterfeit faker

present life experience? doctorates and phd's?! part of me wonders why i'm applying to grad school...

from: "chelsea schmitt"
to: ------@dartmouth.edu
subject: nominated for msc
date: thu,
12 jan 2006 03:42:21 +0200

with the degree you have always dreamed of.

non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience.

if you qualify, no tests, study, books or exams.

we have bachelor's, mba's, doctorate & phd degrees available in your field.

confidentiality assured

January 9, 2006

the dream

after finishing many long, seemingly impossible, problem sets by narrow margins you start losing your wits and wondering what would happen if you were actually working on the hardest problems in physics without knowing it. and whether you would figure them out by virtue of having no idea how hard they are. this story answers this question, and that answer is a resounding yes.

in 1939 george bernard dantzig, a math grad student, came late to class and mistook two unproven equations written on the board for the homework assignment. obviously, in accordence with the rules of the humorous anecdote, he proved them. here is the story in his own words (college mathematics journal, 1986):

it happened because during my first year at berkeley i arrived late one day at one of [jerzy] neyman's classes. on the blackboard there were two problems that i assumed had been assigned for homework. i copied them down. a few days later i apologized to neyman for taking so long to do the homework — the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual. i asked him if he still wanted it. he told me to throw it on his desk. i did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that i feared my homework would be lost there forever. about six weeks later, one sunday morning about eight o'clock, [my wife] anne and i were awakened by someone banging on our front door. it was neyman. he rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: "i've just written an introduction to one of your papers. read it so i can send it out right away for publication." for a minute i had no idea what he was talking about. to make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that i had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. that was the first inkling i had that there was anything special about them.

a year later, when i began to worry about a thesis topic, neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.


how ironic is it that wikipedia, the epitome of everything good about the internet, has spawned this--the most useless website i have ever beheld? vicipædia, the free (latin) encylcopedia. hey guys, you're about 1,500 years too late. maybe if they had this back then, rome wouldn't have fallen.

January 3, 2006


dropping off some old clothes today at a charity bin. everything seems kosher. and then...disaster! is our children learning?

additional comments rarely improve upon the unintentional comedy of signs like this. do i even need to make the obvious jokes? clothing → kids = impossible. you get the idea. engrish from the very people who are supposed to be teaching us engrish.

ampersands in nature

thank you shaky hands.

January 2, 2006

glass onions

two unusual events in or around my recent life have involved mysterious windfalls.
first, my friend’s dad came upon a generous quantity of extra large onions sitting in the middle of the street. it may be the first time the phrase ‘they fell off the back of a truck’ has been used in complete honesty. he brought them home and his wife has since been engaged in a vigorous campaign to distribute them among the population. i got some, my parents got some, and the soup kitchen got some probably. they were given out as joke christmas gifts (resulting in real disappointment). the downside of all this, of course, is that the onions are being used in a primary role in our dishes, due to their abundance. long relegated (with good reason) to sidekick-status in the food world, these vegetables are now being asked to take the lead, a task they just aren’t up for. recent omelets have contained an obscene 1:1 egg to onion ratio. if that isn’t what's wrong with america nowadays, what is?
more fortuitously, my friends and i stumbled upon 4 cases of harpoon beer in a recycling center last week--inexplicably buried under a pile of bottles. our theory as to how they got there involves, like any decent drunken theory, a good deal of uninformed conjecture about the law. we found some broken bottles in one of the cases, probably forcing a store to throw them out since cases containing broken bottles can’t be sold. nor can boxes that have been opened (or so we supposed). the people who wrote these laws must not have had any problems with the paradox there, and we certainly didn’t either.

children eating an anthropomorphic pop-tart. is it even possible to produce a more disturbing wrapper for this product?

he did it!...flutie did it!...

despite my efforts to keep the sports stuff to a minimum, i freely admit a devotion to esoterica, regardless of the source. and it just doesn't get more esoteric than this. the first drop kick in 64 years. how long ago was that? well, the last successful execution took place at wrigley field. eat your flutie flakes kids, and someday, you too could be a historical footnote.