Welcome to WLOG: The personal explanation

Okay, so I just told you a why, from a technical standpoint, this is called the WLOG blog. The explanation was basically this: I like math and physics, conveniently, there’s this acronym “WLOG” that gets used a lot in math and physics, and the name “WLOGblog” sounds funny. I think that about sums it up.

Really, though there’s a second reason, which is probably just as dorky but at least not as nerdy. And that’s this: I’m starting this blog just as I’m simultaneously starting graduate school, in pursuit of a Ph.D. in physics, and as you might imagine, that requires a lot of specialization. In fact, in this day and age, getting an advanced degree in any field of study is going to really narrow your outlook on the world, as Matt Might so effectively demonstrates in his Illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

Well, I find that a little bit unfortunately ironic, because as a matter of fact, part of what drew me to physics and mathematics as a kid was the fact that so many of the originators of the fields (people like Euler, Newton, Lagrange, Bernoulli, and Gauss) were not just scientists and mathematicians; they were authors, lawyers, doctors, artists, and philosophers. They had inherited the tradition of the “Renaissance man,” and they lived out this ideal to its fullest degree.

Unfortunately, they were some of the last ever to do so. Since then, the total of human knowledge has grown to such an immense size that in order to perform at the highest level in any field, one requires a level of familiarity with the material that can almost only come at the expense of attaining a similar level of mastery in any other discipline. This is good for humankind, I guess, but probably quite frustrating for a lot of individual humans as well. I know it is for me.

So this is where WLOG comes in: I’ve accepted by now that if I want to make any contributions in physics, I probably won’t be able to pursue all of my other interests in such and expect to make meaningful contributions to them as well. The age of the generalists like Newton and Euler has passed into an age of highly focused specialists.

But what I’m not convinced of is that in accepting the deal not to specialize in more than one or two small fields I’ve waived my right to have some shallow knowledge of other subject areas. I don’t see why I can’t know as much as I want about everything that interest me at least at the level if I’m not trying to somehow be “competitive” in those fields, and if I’m lucky, the additional background knowledge might someday even help me contribute to the fields I have chosen to focus on. At least, I hope that’s how it works.

So the WLOG blog is also an attempt to find a guaranteed outlet for my other interests. It’s meant to keep me honest by allowing my friends and family members, with all their different backgrounds and specialties, to comment on the things I’m doing and share their own bits of insight and wisdom. So while you will probably see a whole lot of math and physics here, I hope you’ll also see a lot of other things, like word puzzles, movie reviews, political arguments, experimental recipes, and silly photographs. And I probably won’t be much good at any of them, compared to the experts and specialists, but at least I’ll be having a whole lot of fun.

So if you don’t see that kind of variety, kindly remind me. Because while I tried to show you in the last post how making your arguments WLOG is a good way to get a lot of value out of a short mathematical proof, I don’t think I need to tell you that making your education a WLOG experience is a good way to get a lot of value out of our short lives. I think that much is obvious, and I thank you in advance for the help.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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