Three Tidbits from the Big City

As usual, by the time it’s gotten to be the blogging time of night, I’ve run out of the brainpower to blog deep and thoughtful things. I’m going to have to find a way to schedule time to write about the more complicated things in life at least once a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s three things that caught my attention in New York City over the weekend.

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Richard Feynman, Book Critic

Well, almost. One of the thing’s that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the difficulty of introducing physics to children at an early age without simplifying the concepts so much that you end up just lying to them or terminally confusing them. This in turn got me thinking about how just downright awful a number of the physics textbooks I’ve seen in my day are, which made me want to share this anecdote with you all, from Dr. Feynman’s celebrated collection of reminiscences, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.”

It doesn’t make you feel better about the state of textbooks in our world, but it does make you happy that there are people like Feynman out there. And if you’re me, it makes you happy about the career path you’re pursuing.

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Things I Saw in Stony Brook, Part 4

Oh hush. I know it’s been several days since I updated (my longest absence to date, I think) Here’s what’s up: to  abusively paraphrase Longfellow, this blog is not dead, but nor do I sleep. Which is to say, I have a lot to blog about from a very exciting weekend in Boston, but am going to be up late tonight finishing some work that I shouldn’t have volunteered for, so it will have to wait until tomorrow. Wednesdays are my most free weekday, though, so there’s good news there.

Oh, right, the picture! This is my setup for my lab course (the one I’m enrolled in, not the one I’m teaching), and it’s the reason I’m going to be up late. I decided somewhat at the last minute today that I didn’t trust my lab partner and wanted to do a lot of the data analysis myself, because I thought I had a better idea about how to do it. When am I going to learn that this never actually saves me work?

I’d tell you all about the experiment, but it’s pretty obscure and I’m not too sure how to make it sound cool except to talk in generalities: we’re studying the behavior of a superconductor, an amazing piece of electronics that seems to be one of the few places in all of experimental science where something is truly “perfect.” A superconductor is so good at conducting electricity that if you start a current flowing through it in a circle, it will never stop. This is believed to be literally true in practice, and not just in theory: Unless you mess up the experiment, nothing will stop it.

Now if only I could learn how to become similarly tireless. Hmm… I’ll put that on my “to-study” list.

Things I Saw in Stony Brook, Part 3

Sorry it’s blurry. Had to hold my camera at an awkward angle to get this:

This was up above the catalogue computers in the Math/Physics library. Way to go guys. That’s not going to further entrench the “physicists don’t know things about letters” stereotype, or anything…

∫ Emmy Noether Was a Wonderful Woman, and Now I Have the Proof

In classical mechanics today we talked about Noether’s theorem, which is one of the coolest little things in physics. Ms. Noether, nee Noether (she never married), was an absolutely brilliant woman, often regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, and certainly one of the greatest female mathematicians ever. Her work spanned a wide, wide variety of topics, partly because her gender made it incredibly difficult for her to find profitable work, and so she would up attaching herself to whichever groups would take her.

Emily Noether in 1930

To hear Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen tell it (and I don’t know for sure if this is accurate) it seems that, after years of working without pay after finishing her thesis, she was offered a job by David Hilbert, another of the century’s greatest mathematicians and owner of a very strange hat. Unfortunately, Hilbert hadn’t exactly cleared it with the university first, and so when she showed up, they wouldn’t make her a professor, so he paid her to give lectures at courses taught in his name instead. To keep herself busy on the research end of things, she started doing work for a theoretical physics group at the school, who would come to her for her mathematical expertise to ask her to help solve problems without giving her any of the context. Fortunately, the fact that she only ever saw the mathematics and wasn’t distracted by the physical quantities involved allowed her to come up with some brilliant, overarching statements about physics from the patterns she saw popping up (which the fully-paid professors kept overlooking).

You can read all about her on her wikipedia page. It’s full of sad stories about how hard it was for her to find work and how, once she finally gained some respect in the academic community in spite  being persecuted for her gender, the Nazis gained power and started persecuting her for her Jewish heritage. But what I want to talk about at the moment is this excellent theorem of hers.

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Things I Saw in Stony Brook, Part 2

I also don't know for sure that Basketball Court Study Guy is a guy. If anyone has any intel, let me know.

It’s hard to see, but if you look about right in the middle of the picture, you can see a little red blob, which is actually a fellow in a red hoodie who I have named Basketball Court Study Guy. I’ve named him this because this is the fourth time now that I’ve seen him sitting on the side of the basketball court (but inside the fence) reading a textbook or doing homework. The first time I figured he was just waiting to sub into a game, but now I’ve seen him twice when no one was playing basketball, either.

This is not a criticism of Basket Ball Court Study Guy. Everybody has their own quirks about where they need to be to get their best work done (I, for example, almost always need a glass of water, even if I’m not thirsty). I would just love to know how he discovered that this was his ideal study space!

Ah, and before anyone conjectures that he just wanted to be outside and this was the place with the best light, I should clarify that the first two times I saw him he was out during the day.

DADT is Experimentally Wrong

There aren’t a whole lot of things I believe about politics in America that I think are true with a certainty approaching 100%. In fact, I did a quick check just now, and I came up with just four. On everything else, I can think of enough counter-arguments I can’t entirely answer, or enough places where the data are ambiguous, that even though I might have an opinion I am constantly having to work to re-evaluate my position (I try to continue to challenge these 4 other beliefs continually too, but I’ve been doing so for such a long time that I have to wait for someone else to think of a new counterargument, because mine are used up).

Anyway, most of these things I feel “certain” about are things that I believe are true because of some theoretical principle. But when it comes to the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which congress recently was too busy playing politics to bring an end to*, is unique in that I’m certain it should be ended and I think this for mostly experimental reasons.

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