Sunday, October 16, 2005

green gulch

This morning I managed to drag myself out of an unpleasant physics dream and drove across the bridge to Green Gulch Zen center. This was the first time I'd gone. The Dharma Talk for today was by Meiya Wender. She spoke of many interesting things in a way that was both personal and intellectual; a combination, together with clarity, I really respect.

The talk centered around a piece of caligraphy she recieved from a 105 year old man that said something like, "the flower falls and is swept away by the stream." She spoke about duty: duty to communtiy, or even civic duty. She said that American culture lacks humility, lacks the ability to ask for help, lacks a sense of home. The flower is at home as it is swept away by the stream.

She gave the example of the yoga guru Iyengar who recently spent a large amount of the money he made from his fame on improving the physical and educational infrastructure of the village he grew up in. She imagined that this flowed naturally from him: "the left hand bandages the right hand without asking whether or when it will be payed back". She also talked about her father whose mother died at a young age and was put in an orphanage by his father. He immigrated to the US and eventually became a successful business person. She said that he had the attitude that he had gotten to where he was mainly as a result of his own striving. If this is your atittude, then where is the community to give back to? Meiya Wender asked. I could relate to this question. Not because I haven't gotten lots of help, and lots of good fortune in my life, but because I do feel like I'm a pretty independent person trying to do as much by myself as possible. I asked her about this point later on in a discussion group. She acknowledged the question and the difficulty of doing this. How does one identify the community to be grateful to if it seems so dispersed? In addition to family and friends, I must be grateful to the rest of the world that to some (perhaps great) extent the possibilities in the US are responsible for. Can I feel this gratitude and find empathy when I hear about earthquakes and hurricanes? In my own situation, with a somewhat complicated family, I've always felt that bridging the gaps to identify such a "community" is a difficult, but somehow necessary task.

Anyway, it was a nice morning. At the end, they serve lunch- today was split pea soup, good bread and butter and a green salad with tasty cherry tomatoes and avocado. The meditation was hard, but seemed somewhat useful, and the talk and discussion felt surprisingly relevant. Asking for help, feeling part of community, giving back: things I struggle with.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

reductionism and monogamy

I can't stop thinking of this question of why elementary science is seen as more exciting than model building in less "elementary" science.

I think this attitude comes from our realist view of the objects of our theories. But it is a selective realist view, at least for the hard core ideologues. They take as real only those elements in our fundamental most reduced theories. This is the source of the often quoted statement that most of supposedly solid matter is "really" empty space. I would say that the fact that one can't move something else into a certain space makes a pretty good case for it not being empty. But if one takes the perspective of an electron, then yes, there is a possibility of moving into the space inside that chair over there. Or, more precisely, the way in which we describe the microscopic details of the atomic structure of the wood in the chair involves a somewhat thin probability wave of electrons moving throughout otherwise empty space. We forget that this itself is a model, that in fact one should use quantum field theory, although perhaps the same conclusion about the emptiness of space could follow with some kind of interpretation of how likely it is to find a chunk of field somewhere.

Now, if we take only the elements of our fundamental theory to be real and think of those of less elementary theories as composite, then its clear that the excitement for those adventurous types is in finding new elementary entities. It is sort of like the difference between the excitement of dating many people or building a relationship with one person. The "mistake" of the one who never builds relationships is in thinking that once the basic elements of something are identified, nothing particularly interesting can come of those elements. This person is always on the search for new basic elements, not realizing that there is an equally rich gain as one ascends the hierarchy. I'm tempted to point out that this is the percieved "male" reproductive strategy and to wonder whether this is one of the points that has been raised by feminists and cultural critics who have claimed that much of science is dominantly male in essence. But I'm venturing off into fields unknown and hence risking the ever worrisome label of "crackpot".

Thursday, October 13, 2005

model building in physics

I've been doing some reading for a history of science class.
There was an interesting article by Steven Weinberg on his views of Kuhn's "Structure.."
There was also in interesting article by Philip Anderson on emergent properties. He says that the reductionist assumption doesn't imply the "constructionist" assumption. As far as construction, he focusses on the issue of symmetry breaking and notes how complexity can approximately break a symmetry or introduce a new one.
I already knew this, but it emphasized two aspects to physics research. One is finding an appropriate model for a situation. The other is grounding that model in lower level laws. The lower level laws may or may not be the original inspiration for the model.

I went to an ice cream party at slac yesterday celebrating the achievement of 10^34 1/cm/s luminosity in PEP-II. I was talking to some particle physicists and one of them made the usual comment that accelerator physics "is just applied electromagnetism". I agree with this statement except for the implications of the word "just". As one moves up the reduction/construction ladder, one adds new elements, boundary conditions is perhaps a technical way of saying it that are really just approximate in the underlying theory. But why am I doing degenerate perturbation theory on symplectic matrices and working with stochastic differential equations? Am I really "just" applying Maxwell's equations?

I like this topic and I'd like to discuss it in a way that goes beyond sour grapes at not getting my fair share of respect. The article by Anderson closes by saying something like that perhaps we've gone beyond the arrogance of particle physicists thinking that all science is applied quantum field theory. But that we have a long way to go to get beyond the biologists thinking that all psychology and genetics is "just" applied biology. He suggests that there are probably many more hierarchicaly significant levels between human behavior and biology than between say chemistry and quantum field theory.
Why is it that supposedly "smart" people (like myself) need to constantly be reminded of such obvious things. I think it has to do with what I wrote awhile ago about the problems of focussing too much on one particular area and the (necessary?) lack of perspective that can result.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


I'm sure someone's sitting around ready to read submissions at 3 AM Sunday morning.
Now, I hope to hear something by tomorrow afternoon...
The next challenge is to wake up at 8 and pack.