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Friday, August 24, 2007

fade in/out

Who would have thought that feeling lousy could be such a luxury?

Back to the theme again: life and physics fight it out. There's only so much room.

Here's what I do: I read through the Handbook of Accelerator Physics and Engineering. Again and again. I'm looking for something. I'm trying to make the world be different than it is. I want to find unity. But instead of unity, I find the only togetherness there ever was, the togetherness of being familiar with something. No, you say: there's Maxwell's equations. And there's SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1). Ok, I admit it. I've tried to read Foucault's The Order of Things. Not healthy, but I like to think he was a good guy anyway. And I've come back to Zarathustra, and can still find a small amount of my own voice afterwards.

These voices who ask me to help them build the pyramids... What does one say to them, except, "I'm sorry, but I only have one lifetime"? I wrote to my brother and told him I am an indentured servant. I don't even know what the word indentured means, except that it brings back the song that some music teacher sang with us in 6th grade:
16 tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt

Saturday, August 18, 2007

huge systems

For the book group I'm a part of, this month we're reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The part I'm reading now is describing the modern industrial food system based around corn. He tries to get the big picture, to see how our eating habits tie in with industrial and economic logic of production. Corn production is based on petroleum use (petrochemicals, oil based transportations systems etc.), and feed lot cows in turn eat a corn based diet. On page 83, he says
I don't have a sufficiently vivid imagination to look at my steer and see a barrel of oil, but petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persian Gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot.
The part that interests me in this is the "sufficiently vivid imagination". Certainly Pollan has a vivid imagination as we see from all the creative, clarifying metaphors he uses. But the point is that the system is just too big.

I mention this because I feel the same way about my own work in particle accelerators. I jump in at different levels and understand different things, and find people and ideas and work flows and processes at each level. But it just seems too big. In order for it to work, the amount of expertise is literally incomprehensible. But on the other hand, any one person has only a piece of the picture. How this all worked was really a big question I've had for a long time. If no one person understands it all, then how does it actually work? Pollan uses evolutionary metaphors frequently, and I think that this gets at a good piece of the answer to this question. Both the people involved, and the system itself coevolve to form a relatively coherent whole. Corn evolves to use oil and maximize growth, and people adapt to eating processed food.

These big systems have a big effect on us. They shape our lives, and because they contain so many parts, the basic underlying logic escapes us which means we lose control of our life. I find Pollan's book very inspiring in that he is taking something so big that it is almost invisible, and laying it out in front of us in a clear, enjoyable way.

Friday, August 10, 2007

just give me

just give me one good reason
and I promise I won't ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four

Blue Umbrella, by John Prine.