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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I came across this piece of writing called iGooglesque by E. Sartwell, who is actually a cousin of mine (second cousin, once removed?). It was satisfying to see some analysis of what a large amount of time interacting with a web browser might mean, and what it says about personal choice and identity.

It left me with a desire to better understand these things, and led to a flurry of web searches and wikipedia reading on cyborgs. Particularly disturbing was the idea of distributed consciousness. I read something about this, and it opens up a new concept that then pushes me away from the path I've been following. To me, the concept of grounding oneself, of being very much in touch with one's surroundings, and of consolidating experience, and slowing down; all these things are very important and I would like to do them more often and be better at this. But reading about the idea of a distributed consciousness left me wondering if there wasn't a short cut to all of this. This left me with the same uneasiness I used to feel when contemplating the concept of determinism, after reading Richard Dawkins, for example.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

beam optics codes

So I'm continuing on with my conversion of the Excel optics code into Open Office Calc. I've been calling the code Open Optics. I've almost finished the part where a lattice is copied together with the appropriate formulas for calculating some uncoupled parameters by adding them up around the ring. Hard to keep up momentum on this project, because I think that no one will really use it.
But its really not that hard of a job to do, so I can keep moving forward slowly.

For a second project, I have two different possibilities. One is working on the idea of developing a TPSA library to work with Accelerator Toolbox (AT), so that the one turn map can be computed and used to optimize various quantities.

Secondly, there is the need for more collaboration on Accelerator Toolbox. Many different people use it at different labs and they are repeating the work. I can try to put the code in a central repository so that people can work together on it. This is probably the first thing to do before working on the TPSA project. Once more people are working together, it may be easier to use existing code and get more ideas about the right way to combine AT with TPSA. Of course, then, something like a normal form algorithm should be written- or at least something to find tune shift with amplitude.

For the moment, I need to learn better how to use Sourceforge and SVN. I did this with the Tracy code, but my collaborator knew more about it than me. I should set it up myself, and figure out how to do it from behind the firewall, etc.

Finally, there is MAD-X and PTC. This is the existing rich TPSA, normal form code. But its not used that much for light sources, and the tracking routines are somewhat obscure- buried in the PTC Fortran 90. Getting this physics (well, sort of- symplectic integration) out in the open, would be part of the point of collaborating on AT. The tracking routines are very easy to find and read there.

Monday, December 07, 2009


And one day we woke up, and everyone we ever knew was there.
The familiar smiles, the wry comments, each distinctive approach.
But there was a strange slowness and vagueness to each individual. Focus as you will, you couldn't quite grasp them. Small pieces came through, but not the whole. There was a kaleidoscope of moments, a flooding of halting attempts to communicate.
"This is who I am!", Alan said. "Ok, we believe you." But he had spoken too loudly. His mumbling had been mistaken for clarity. His words parsed, the structure analyzed, but his face was foggy, and the impressions he received were not coming through.

Friday, December 04, 2009


One can choose direction in many aspects of life.
I guess on this blog I have mostly dealt with my work and attitude towards online stuff.
Can analysis help? We may try to think about who we are communicating with, how we are doing it, and what we hope to gain from this. In a blog, you mainly put stuff out there and don't get a lot back. It can be valuable for the purpose of collecting thoughts and recording moments, but as far as interaction, its rather minimal. I suppose this is not set in stone. Some blogs may cultivate communities in which the relationship is quite different. Perhaps blog is just not a very good word, or its meaning is not specific enough.
Anyway, if one is to be serious about online communication and work this into one's life as a positive thing, and not always an experimental, rather unconscious hope that it will be therapeutic in some form, maybe a little more clarity and direction is required.
This is just to note here that I would like to do this. Either fade this aspect of my life out, or clarify it. The one to anonymous connection doesn't feel like a long term healthy solution. It is too murky, and though perhaps part of development, should be clarified.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

works too well

There are some things that work just too well.
Like google search, whatever you put in, you get something back, as if you meant it.

I was going to try to run a program I am writing, and realized that I hadn't written everything that I need to yet. I was thinking, could the code somehow be smart enough to guess what I wanted to do, and then just run? Why do I have to take the time to put all these explicit instructions in there? Of course the reason is that it is based on rules that I understand, so I have a certain measure of control in the situation. If the code could decide itself what it thought that I wanted to do, then its no longer a situation based on rules that I can understand to whatever degree I want.

I'm not saying I think Google should crash on badly phrased searches, but having hidden rules with a goal of never failing and always trying to guess what you want takes the control away from the people using the code and puts it into those writing it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Just because something has been done many times before, doesn't mean it shouldn't be done again. Yes, the awareness is helpful to some extent. But you will always bring something new.

I'm thinking of my project of writing an accelerator optics code in Calc. What can I do differently? Can I document it better than MAD? Can I make it easier to use?
This area has such a heavy history. Too many codes already. Yes, I'm writing another one. But maybe I can bring something good to the process, and even the result?

Monday, October 26, 2009


Realizing that there have been a number of situations in my life, where try as I may, I just can't put it all together, and can't find a nice picture. Ah well. No reason not to try to harmonize in other contexts, perhaps on a smaller scale.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

computers as tools

I came across this article (seems to be badly formatted- should be run through some wiki software?- I cut and pasted it into emacs to get the line breaks...) by Chris Dent at University of Indiana.

He says that there are two different views we have of computers. One is as "interactive artifacts", and the other is as tools. He suggests that the view as being interactive is flawed and the source of computers resulting in much less increase in efficiency than you might expect. He says that basically it is a flawed metaphor. We think of the computer as like a person, able to interact with us. However, for the forseeable future, computer programs are still rule based within a given domain, not able to form their own categories and make connections between domains. Thus, we have overly high expectations for how easy the interaction will be (the computer can understand what I want!), and also too low expectations for how that experience actually goes (I guess I just don't know how to talk like a computer :( )

He says that the two main ways in which computers are tools are in terms of automating tasks that are now or were previously done by people, and by acting as tools to augment ourselves.
I must say that I get a little uncomfortable thinking of augmentation. But I really like this idea of thinking of computers as tools. It throws away the fiction that we are somehow creating beings, or entities, or some kind of abstract existence out there. Instead we are using tools. These tools may store, represent, and manipulate information. And much more. But turning it back into tools, gives us the responsibility. What tools do we want? How effective are they? What do we want them for?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

living with networks

Whenever I hear that something is "on the internet", or to "buy it on the net", or search "the net", a little feeling of hopelessness creeps in. I guess the reason is that this view of the internet as an undifferentiated ocean out there, serves a role as a panacea. Or maybe the problem is the identification of the internet as a place, which to me seems to inevitably devalue our physical world. Now there have been video games and virtual reality games of varying degrees of simulation and imagination since when, the '80s?
This is the view of the internet as "cyberspace".

The problem is that to the extent that it makes sense that we exist in this space, we certainly have to change, and this change sometimes feels forceful, like its not recognized the level of discomfort resulting from these changes, and not dealt with in a delicate way.
Of course we can revisit the philosophical questions of life, and what it is, and of consciousness and what it is. And like all technologies, they can actually give new perspective on old philosophical questions. In the sense that one doesn't have to work as hard in "what if" statements.

I recently read Vannevar Bush's rather prescient article from 1945 Atlantic (available here, -- I found this thanks to John Jowett again). He describes the ways in which various technologies pushed forward will link us together, and make examining "the record" more powerful. It is somehow satisfying to see "the internet", or something like it, described at a much earlier date. It gives a new head space in which to think about it, not seeing its current incarnation as inevitable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

few thoughts

A little more on the previous topic.
First, Jodi Dean discusses the UC strike, in a rather abstract way.
Here, she says that the crisis in universities is that universities are a part of the capitalist system, designed to create whatever type of labor capital needs. But supposedly "capital doesn't need us anymore". Is this really true? Does she mean that computerized systems can do everything that people can, and perhaps better? I think this goes too far, and is a mistake in some way, but I may also misunderstand what she's saying. Not that I really want "capital" to want me so badly, or even that I quite know what "capital" is. (Oh, looking at this more, I see that she is actually critiquing that view of the university... I should read this more carefully...)

I've been trying to create systems for myself, and then follow through on them. Every time I start following a linear procedure, something in me tells me that this is dehumanizing, and I ought not to be doing this. I know there's something wrong with this. The most healthy of people have working systems they are a part of, and being a part of that system will certainly involve following linear procedures.

On this topic, I should quote from Karl Popper (stolen from here)
As I wrote many years ago at the very beginning of the debate about computers, a computer is just a glorified pencil. Einstein once said "my pencil is cleverer than I". What he meant could perhaps be put thus: armed with a pencil, we can be more than twice as clever as we are without. Armed with a computer (a typical World 3 object), we can perhaps be more than a hundred times as clever as we are without; and with improving computers there need not be an upper limit to this.

Karl Popper, The Self and Its Brain, p. 208

The French seem to really like bureaucracy. But it also seems to me to be a functional bureaucracy- one that really involves people. Something about this is reminding me of how Americans sometimes see nature, in terms of something totally separate, totally wild. This idea of not separating ourselves from our systems quite so much is also hitting me in terms of how I've seen Europe. I've seen it as a place of history. Its tempting, as in the case of nature, to see contrast civilization with the wild. Likewise, we can contrast living, modern places, with places steeped in history. But Europe, with longer experience of dealing both with nature and a longer history, maybe has developed a different, more interactive approach here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

People and computers

Sometimes it feels like we are designing/(haphazardly pushing forward) a world in which we have no part. Its moving faster and faster, and one wonders whether a different creature- perhaps some digital descendant of ours is better fit to survive here.
We can think of previous revolutions such as mechanical and chemical. In the end we still found a role for ourselves. We found ways in which to buffer ourselves and take advantage of the power of these new technologies. We created cars and airplanes to travel fast and still be in relative comfort. And we don't have to use these fast technologies.
Here's an interview with Ray Kurzweil. Actually he kind of pisses me off. Notice at around 2:30, he is asked the question of what we can do to prepare for the change. He doesn't answer the question, instead, he seems to revel in the predictions of how fast things are changing.
For him, the human brain is something to copy, source material for something else. That's ok, but why do we want to do this? Why just build and build and build. Ok, there's a certain inevitability to some of it. But what's more interesting to me, is people and how they interact with these changes. There's a cheapening effect. Where's the depth? Sure, he might say that the power is there for even more depth. But shouldn't we start with the depth that we have and try to increase that? Where is literature and art and experience of nature in this kind of vision? Its just faster and faster and faster? I guess this is just another kind of conversation to have.
But for me, the thing to remember is that there's no reason why things have to be worse. We don't need to just try to get faster stuff for its own sake.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

work vs. research

My new project involves developing a beam optics code based around a spreadsheet. The job is basically to convert this program from Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic to something based on Open Office Calc. Now, despite the fact that open source is nice, and open office seems to be pretty quality stuff, there is something decidedly unsexy about spreadsheets. They suggest doing a large number of small, not particularly interesting calculations. An emphasis on detail, an office setting, and a sense of the mundane come to mind.

But this area of beam optics and particle tracking is a mess. There are multiple codes with lousy interface and difficult interconnection. People become experts at particular codes, and this is what accelerator physicists do. The expertise, however, is often more in the technicalities of the mess- the bureaucracy of the multiple organizations and the history of the field, if you like. Its called research, or physics, or dynamics, or something exciting, just to motivate people to do this rather boring work.

Thus, to me, developing an optics code based on a spreadsheet is confronting this fact about this field honestly. We are managers of many small formulae, doing rather well-known things.
The point is that perhaps this project will allow one to more easily separate what is well known from what is a bit more difficult. In other words, we can train people to do those parts of this work that are already figured out. The operators in the control room should be able to change the quadrupoles to reduce the emittance, or affect a change in the optics to reduce the beta function, or play around with the weights on the non-linear dynamics properties. This isn't research, but it still takes effort, care, and can be done well with pride.

So I see this project less as a research project, and more as providing a tool that will separate out the known from the unknown- give people a tool with which the known aspects of this field can used, in the same sense that knowledge in finance, medicine, or nutrition might be utilized.
At the same time, in order for a field to be healthy, there must be this transition of knowledge into the arena of easily available, well known information. I think this is the value and nature of science, as described in "Laboratory Life" by Latour and Woolgar for example.

I don't want to say that there is no research to be done in this field, but just that there is a lot of known stuff, and it should be made easily available. It may not be popular with those who would rather keep the mess of obscurity. But I think its necessary if there is to be development.

Monday, August 31, 2009

moving and the symplectic camel

Yeah, yeah, more about this tedious moving process, whereby I reduce my digital, physical and mental footprint, so that I can cross the sea and find peace in a new land.
A recent paper someone forwarded to me:
"Symplectic capacities and the geometry of uncertainty: The irruption of symplectic topology in classical and quantum mechanics"
One of the main points is the story of the symplectic camel, that sad creature who could not pass through the eye of the needle. It is in fact a relatively recent rigorous result (Gromov's non-squeezing theorem) about symplectic geometry.
Basically it says that whatever your initial projection onto the different phase planes, a canonical transformation will never decrease, only increase them.
So, yes, I suppose this means that I should get rid of stuff. The connection is obvious, right?

On a different, not really related subject, I just finished reading Alan Watts' "The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are".
Some parts really resonated with me, though at times it put me in that kind of trance where he could say just about anything, and I'd nod slowly with a blank stare. No, actually, it did that remarkably little. The image of self as the universe playing hide and seek with itself is an interesting one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

frequency amplitude dependence

So, consider a dynamical system that has an elliptical fixed point. The eigenvalues of the map linearized about the fixed point gives the frequency associated with rotation about that fixed point. Move away from the fixed point and the frequency changes. This is one definition of a non-linear system. A pendulum, for example, has this property; and this changing frequency explains why it doesn't make a perfect clock.

This simple property is what I am trying to get to the bottom of. It becomes less simple when one wants to think of this continuum of frequencies as the spectrum of some operator. So the operator has become rather more complicated from the simple matrix expanded about the fixed point. Suddenly it has taken on an infinity of eigenvalues! Once we say this, however, we are left with the question of what the eigenvectors mean. Are they functions that are basically delta functions except where the orbit is? This is a rather messy singular quantity. How about the eigenvectors of the adjoint operator? These are the quantities we've been looking at, but they seem to be rather strange.
This is the line thinking I've been following lately. I'm hoping I can find a simple reference that explains all this. But I can't seem to.

Monday, July 27, 2009

trimming books

I'm trying to get rid of books. The problem is that many are unfinished. I start too many that I don't finish- then they sit there as reminders of work I should still do.
I need to figure out how to keep track of what I wanted from a given book, even if I don't keep it.

Item: "Flim Flam: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusion" by James Randi.
If I start to give a postmodern open to everything, relativistic view of science too much clout, then a book like this is an antidote- confident, documented. But really the value of this is that it is one of the places where the Maharishi (Mahesh Sharma?) is described in a skeptical light. Anyway, it has now been recorded, and I can get rid of it.

Friday, July 03, 2009

forming a working web: vague thoughts

What does it mean that the center doesn't hold in a dysfunctional situation? It means that there is nothing one can say that is constructive that doesn't piss someone off. So the situation is just constantly exhausting. But as long as one continues a certain level respect for all people involved, then one can just continue talking, continue communicating, until maybe, just maybe, the resentments get smaller. This ability to pick away at a difficult situation and not give up, and never fully lose respect for the elements (people, concepts, etc. ) involved; perhaps this is something I am good at. I think that its not necessarily a recipe for reconciliation. Perhaps its just a recipe for personal survival within a difficult situation. If one chooses to stay, instead of leave, perhaps this is one way to not be totally consumed.

Social media have been dominating lately. I don't know whether I have an unhealthy dependence. I think that they allow new possibilities. They extend your social life in new directions perhaps. But they certainly don't replace the need to develop meaningful deep relationships. Perhaps that depth can contain some elements of these new digital communications, but it seems that they can easily distort and make shallow appear deep.

Workwise, and socially, I am scattered, but using electronic media to make something more solid of this web. I've been trying to say no and yes at the same time. No to certain sustained commitments (because one can only make so many of these), and yes to a more loose form of electronic collaboration. Whether this latter turns out to be an illusion or not remains to be seen. But the saying no part has been hard. Painful and sad, and requires every ounce of my energy.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

map analysis

In a circular accelerator, if you look at a single beam position monitor (BPM), or say, a couple of them, to give you phase space, you essentially looking at the properties of the one and many turn behavior of electrons. The value of the Hamiltonian -free description, the map description, is that it treats the machine as a whole, without necessarily thinking of how that map comes about.
This is analogous to solid state physics and scattering analysis. You define various quantities of the material that can be probed via scattering stuff off it. You don't need to know the position of every atom in the material in order to define these quantities.

Why has this approach not developed further in accelerator physics? Because there aren't enough accelerators. Each one has its own peculiarities, and so people think more about how to change those peculiarities and effect certain global behaviors rather than be more creative in defining the global behaviors. It would be like analyzing ten space ships, each of which was rather different from the other. One would probably not extract a general theory of space ships out of this.

Tower of Babel

At some time, I'd like to try to lay out the genealogy of particle tracking codes in accelerator physics. Looking about the CERN site for MADX, we find a presentation on the Universal Accelerator Parser for the Accelerator Markup Language. Here, we see the status of accelerator codes described by Sagan as a "Tower of Babel". But, to be honest, at this point, I would not say that this accelerator markup language has caught on that widely.

I don't know why, but I keep trying to construct some kind of epic narrative about this topic. If the field of particle tracking codes is the tower of Babel, then we might refer to the shutdown of the SSC as the "hand of God" coming in and crushing the unified human effort to pierce Heaven for the glorification of Man.

Yes... dangerous waters. There is already far too much implicit religious metaphor pervading this field.

In any case, let us hope that something like the UAP/AML can help put the pieces back together again.

I should also mention another effort in this direction, the UAL, Unified Accelerator Library. I don't know the best link for this, since the BNL site seems to not be online anymore. Here's a paper, or here for a SPIRES search.

Friday, June 19, 2009

mathematical methods of accelerator physics?

There is a post by Mark at Cosmic Variance requesting ideas for topics for a course on mathematical physics. I added a comment suggesting non-linear dynamics for storage rings could make a good topic.
Thinking it through a bit more, perhaps this would be tough. I myself am in the process of trying to understand this field better and pick out what is and isn't essential. So maybe its not ready for someone to pick up outside the field.
The references I mentioned were to Dragt's online book and to the book by L. Michelotti called “Intermediate Classical Dynamics with Applications to Beam Physics”. The wikibook might still be a good place to sort this out.
Perhaps if one is talking about Lie Algebras or Lie Groups, this is nice to know that they are not just used in particle physics, but in classical mechanics as well. And classical mechanics is such a broad subject. It is almost the same as mathematical methods of classical systems.

I also mentioned that the maps with their resonance islands and separatrices and chaotic and non-chaotic regions had made their way into atomic and molecular physics through the quantum accelerator modes. Here is a link, first from google, but I haven't looked into the field enough to judge it yet... A topic for more investigation. I do know that the name of Shmuel Fishman comes up a lot with respect to this research area.

(Added comment: This topic did make it into several articles in Journal of Mathematical Physics. For example, see an article by Forest here.)

Monday, June 08, 2009


We accelerator physicists are the builders and caretakers of machines. We build machines that bring charged particles to very high energies, small sizes, strong currents. These flows of charge smash into each other, produce light, smash into targets and produce neutrons, are guided with great precision to be measured with great precision. We seek to control the flow, the identity, the environment of our charged armies. We build electronic systems, and software control, we protect, clean, and raise money for, and mourn the death of our machines. We are machine physicists. We create families of quadrupoles and sextupoles. We analyze power consumption, and ground vibrations. We deliver our beams shining and controlled, coherent and stable. We talk to the users of these beams- the scientists, the doctors, the patients, the companies. They want our beams- bright, stable, and on time. But we know that we need our machines to accomplish this.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

bottom up/top down organization

I recently read "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations " by Clay Shirky. It was a very refreshing book that made me feel like I got a bit of perspective on the changes we're encountering as we become more used to internet communications. He gave several examples of ways in which new things are possible in self organization with internet tools- basically, group forming and communication becomes easier, and because the technology to form these groups is essentially part of the web infrastructure, there is minimal cost associated with their formation.

As I've been thinking about jobs and where to go with my career, I've been seeing that there is a tension between the organizations that may want to hire me, and the connections I have and projects I can see to work on that cross organizational boundaries. I see the field of accelerator physics and how fragmented it is, and think that the internet could really facilitate some formation of commonality. At the same time, the reason the field exists is to build and operate accelerators that serve specific purposes or user communities. The building and running of such a facility is a rather expensive operation, and though there are new challenges for any project, many of the methods and technologies are already developed. So, from the facility perspective, a large amount of rather well-defined work needs to be done. This perhaps can only be done with the help of a more traditional top-down organization.

So I'm trying to understand how these two types of organization can work together- bottom up, spontaneous, informal, and multifacility on the one hand, and top-down single purpose, long term planned on the other hand.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

anchors across the sea

Trying to make a home, or at least imagine a home while working at BNL is challenging.
Firstly, there is Long Island itself, which is not an easy place to live for a Californian.
Some of it seems cultural, some is the landscape, some simply the lack of time and the feedback loop of too much work and lack of engagement.
Another aspect is the transiency of the people I meet in similar situations as me. The graduate students and postdocs are often only there for a few years and either plan to go back to where they came from, or on to somewhere else beyond BNL. Many are from across the Atlantic. This is a difficult situation. Its not that I don't want to travel to Europe, and can imagine living in Europe, but there is still a gap. If I were to live in Europe, it would be a jump. And my approach seems to be to continue moving in some direction. I feel like I need to consolidate rather than expand. So I make friends with those with anchors elsewhere, and I'm pulled. At the same time I search for grounding in this sandy land, and it seems rather inhospitable. And somehow, I feel that there is still something to learn, connections to be made before moving on.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

commissioning a machine

For complex machinery such as a synchrotron light source, one of the major considerations is the commissioning process. This is the process where all of the diagnostics need to be turned on and calibrated and the machine is tested component by component. This is what the LHC is going through right now, and what its recent problems relate to.
I keep trying to avoid some realities about this field I am in. One is the size and complexity of the machines. In order to come to terms with this, I have to come to terms with the commissioning process. I suppose the basic idea is to do it step by step. First you commission the linac and get the electrons looking good there. Then you inject into the booster and see if you can ramp it up to high enough energy. Then you inject into the storage ring, turning on your BPM's and trying to get a good orbit.
Somehow this seems so engineering oriented, I want to run away from the whole thing. I guess the problem for me is the stress level involved. I worry that there aren't enough people, and it will just turn into a mess. It also sounds like the end of research for me. The process also seems backwards, in that I'm building something without really knowing how it works first.
For practice, looks like I may be able to be involved with/observe the PETRA III commissioning.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Conference goals

1) get papers in proceedings and present posters
2) find out directions that field is going
3) get myself some job offers or leads on jobs
4) meet other theorists in this field and see what they are doing and
how they make it.
5) See what universities hire accelerator physicists and what the
options are.
6) Find out whether anyone has done the same thing on this non-linear dynamics problem.
Explain it to people.
7) Tell people who I am- get to be better known in this field.
8) Talk about wiki and openness in field.

Monday, April 27, 2009

science is for people!

As I try to write up work and look at the plots I create and the documents, I realize that these are for reading. A good part of the work was making files that could be passed back and forth between computer programs. I also realize that there are perhaps different styles and I was working with someone more on the autistic end of things.
So I'm finally looking at this work and trying to view it as natural language and as images.
What an odd path I have been through.
Have I been trying to turn dysfunction into function? Or simply a system I didn't understand into one I did?
I'm still not there, and even writing this is perhaps a form of procrastination. But being able to speak, think and look clearly about my work has been missing, so this is just a piece of the process that will or will not finish on time...

Friday, April 17, 2009


Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm not supposed to be a human being at work.
I feel like only the technical work is valued and the collaborative work and work at helping others understand things is left implicit. Its true that a certain minimal level of expressiveness and clarity is required in documenting. I sometimes find that if I really take the technical work seriously, I'm left without enough energy left to pull it together and explain it properly. I then appear to have done very little work.
I guess the point is that these abilities to pull things together and put them in a reasonable context require you to be a more complete human being. And this isn't nurtured in this environment. The time I need to feel like a more normal person just isn't allowed.
So this means I should change jobs?
Or just keep at it, and hope that I can straddle both worlds?
Regardless, it only makes sense to sacrafice being a full person for so long... and one hopes that by the time you remember to stop sacraficing so much, there is still enough of you left.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Day as theorist

Theory is a rather lonely profession.
And what is my approach?
I want to contribute to non-linear dynamics.
I approach it from this funny corner of technology/history/discipline called accelerator physics.
There is a body of insight here that is stuck and is a mess. If straightened out, it may be some important results can come from this.
Or perhaps it is just a cult-like curiosity?
I wonder if those who leave cults have a similar experience of trying to relate what they learned within the cult and bring it to a larger audience?
This is my basic question: am I actually doing something interesting, or is my main achievement simply survival within a difficult insular group?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Papers continue.
Slow progress. Somehow, out of disfunction and unfinished work, something more solid seems to form. I call this field unscientific. I complain a lot.
Maybe this is just how it goes.

I apply for jobs. I head towards staying where I am. I try to gather enough perspective, to see clearly enough that the choice feels like my own. Progress comes during the dark times, reveals itself after the difficulty.

I keep trying to find words and clarity. I keep feeling trapped and not wanting to trap others. I see every limitation and weakness in others as a potential cult. I question science, don't want to be managed. I look at this and it seems to point to a questioning of the notion of progress, of the value of any organization. I know that I go too far, here, and so I just float from day to day. My papers are like a mantra in a meditation. I put my attention on them, only to find my mind veer off. But what is satisfying is the fact that they don't go away. They are there to return to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I am trying to finish a paper.
In fact, I don't know how far along I am.

Let me be self-indulgent. I would like to say that the mess I find on my computer as I try to make improvements and clarifications is not entirely my own.

I try to find the text files describing the data I used in my sometimes blurry plots. What I find is a maze of changed directions, desperation. I think back over this time and how I've responded to the challenges. I sought outside resources and survived. But it is a story of trauma rather than excellence. Survival rather than triumph. At the same time, it is not entirely my own story. I confuse parts of others with myself. There is lack of clarity here.

So, how do I make progress amidst my own mess which I accept to be partly the mess of the community I have involved myself with? Taking it easy on myself seems to be a good part of this. I have tried to have high standards amidst a decaying science. I have mined the labyrinths of the minds who have contorted themselves in this history.

So, I keep starting over, each time having a higher standard for clarity, and hope, and hope for progress.

Monday, March 09, 2009

physics from control theory

One of the challenges I have been dealing with in my current position is trying to remain true to my scientist interests while working in a largely engineering environment. See e.g. here for some of my thoughts/struggles with science vs. engineering. Specifically, I had the feeling that a control theory methodology was killing the science outlook in my group.

Recently a colleague recommended an article on control theory in Review of Modern Physics:
(sorry, you need a subscription..) entitled "Feedback for physicists: a tutorial essay on control".
The author John Bechhoefer covers quite broad ground in this review article. I've just read a little so far, but a paragraph in the conclusion caught my eye:
What is perhaps most interesting to a physicist is the way new kinds of behavior arise from the structure of control loops. The tracking property of integral feedback comes from the structure of the feedback loop, not the nature of the individual elements. In this sense, it is a kind of "emergent phenomenon", but one that differs from the ones familiar in physics such as the soft modes and phase rigidity that accompany symmetry breaking phase transitions. Thus, engineering provides an alternate set of archetypes for emergent phenomena... (p. 832)
What Bechhoefer is pointing out is a way to go beyond control theory as purely an attempt to control, but instead to look for examples of control mechanisms in nature. He gives biology examples, and even suggests some quantum mechanics examples. Here is engineering giving back to science, at a conceptual level. Looks like the start of a more healthy collaboration!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Collaborating on a wikibook on non-linear dynamics in accelerator physics:
Guide to non-linear dynamics in accelerator physics
Nice to just start getting some of this material out there.

Monday, February 16, 2009

working with focussed people

Scientists are often people with very narrow focus. They like for a problem to be defined for them externally, and then within those contexts, use all their energy and creativity to find a solution.
This can go wrong when there is no clear direction to go in. People are so anxious to get to work. They want to create big things and just go go go. But it may be that the center doesn't hold in all this. That hard work just creates heat. And sometimes organizations and environments perpetuate this by rewarding hard work in itself. This is the case if the organization doesn't have a good grasp on what it is trying to do, or if it underestimates the difficulty or misunderstands the foundations of some of the work being done. Then people rise to power by simply making a lot of noise, pointing out flaws in others and making very confident sounding statements.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


I sometimes feel stuck in accelerator physics. I am running computer codes, reading papers and thinking about particles in storage rings that have been accelerated up to high energies. The machine I am working on for example, has electrons with energies of 3 GeV. This corresponds to a relativistic factor gamma of around 6000. Its a strange phenomenon to work at these extremes. Its not very grounded. There is not a feeling that you really understand things.
One of the aspects I've studied have been off-momentum dynamics. Whether particles with slightly different energies or momenta will still stay stable. Particles scattering for example causes a change in their energy and this can cause the particles to be lost.
As I finally start thinking about the relevant equations for off-energy particles, I imagine the deceleration process, the returning of these electrons to rest.
Even electrons themselves are hard to picture, and the whole field has an air of unreality to it.
I guess it says I've been too much of a theorist.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

value of analysis

What is the value of finding simple formulas to explain things?
Our minds, in the midst of this computerized landscape, sometimes seem small and insignificant.
If a program exists to simulate a system, what is the value of searching for simple ways of looking at it? One answer is that it cuts down on the number of cases one needs to simulate. Getting at the important parameters limits and sharpens the questions and makes on more effective at using the simulation. But what if one can somehow ask the computer to do this? To write such a nice interface to the code that new structures are created based on results from running the code.

The research topic I'm involved in has a funny history with computation. I think that some of the people involved in the early days had something against mathematical reasoning, and the slow process of analysis. One can try to guess at the reasons. Perhaps they'd observed too many mathematicians or theorists making grand statements on practical problems where the methods were simply inadequate and did not actually solve the problem. Or maybe they were not great analysts themselves and just trying to keep the power in their own hands. Regardless, the closing of the SSC precipitated a battle that is still going today between computation and analysis. There is excess on both sides. The theoretical structures one sees are overly grandiose. There are lie algebras and differential algebras and non-standard analysis and geometrical concepts such as tensors and fiber bundles. These are spoken of both with reverence and spite. Those who invoke such concepts either are trying to appease those theorists who they admire or prevent people from thinking critically and trap them into a self-serving view. Some of the original theorists had good motivations and indeed a broader set of questions they were looking at where such abstraction may have been helpful. On the computing side, one sees object oriented computing concepts such as polymorphism, linked lists, discrete algorithmic type approaches, control theory, optimization, SVD, model theory.
Viewing physics from an information theory, algorithmic approach. It sounds modern and laudable in some sense, but behind it is a desire to kill analysis.

This snake's nest of buggy concepts and software in the end often solves the problems good enough to get by. But one sacrafices understandability in entering this field. One speaks of minimizing terms and higher order calculations where exactly what kinds of objects these terms are members of and sometimes even what is meant by order is typically murky. It resembles a religious cult or a radical political group more than solid physics. But the rhetoric is getting old.
So I've gotten a bit specific here. I meant to try to explore the value of analysis. I feel that clear analysis is the only way out of this mess, but just what that means and whether it is adequate is not always clear.

Monday, January 26, 2009


"Tensors make me tense"
"Resonance driving terms drive me crazy"

normal form

A cross-roads. A meeting of the old and new.
I see other people's lives and I want to jump into them. I don't know if I can finish what I started.
My own work seems dark, slow, difficult.
But its because I always look elsewhere. If I look back on my own experience, I see my room at my dad's house, the oak tree outside, the hill with the curving gravel road leading steeply through forest to the small cabin. Behind it was the field which led to further paths with madrone berries, bay laurel leaves, blackberries. I would look down through a clearing and see the surface of evergreen trees covering the hills, and I wanted to fly down the mountain. I could almost taste it all, it was almost edible: the sights, the experiences, the possibilities.
And today I read through papers that describe procedures and equations and survival strategies. And I see strength and weakness and unfulfilled potential. And I try to do something with all of this, to put it into my own terms, to make each piece come alive. I reread the same difficult papers and try not to lose my balance. I follow the paths that lead to cruel tricks and powerful constrained mysteries. And I try not to get too lost, to always keep the common ground in mind, or at least the attempt to build common ground.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

arnold diffusion

Definition by Mathworld:
The nonconservation of adiabatic invariants which arises in systems with three or more degrees of freedom.

Yes, another dynamical systems topic.
Yes, it seeps into my life.
Near the origin of phase space, in enough dimensions, the tori do not hold.
The particles slip and slide out, in between.
And so, even when I try to be as normal as possible, as regular and elliptical as possible, I still escape. The regularity presses against me. It tries to constrain me, but I am one of many.
And don't even get me started on the homoclinic tangle...

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Its snowing outside.
I try to read a bit about the KAM theorem.
But those clever people switch it to KAM theory. Like string theory, its not so definite. It becomes an attitude, a community attached to solving some problems, not a solution.
What once seemed like a set of problems to be solved dissolves into history and definitions.
And perhaps all I've been doing is trying to find the calmest places amidst all of this, to navigate without being pushed over.