Sunday, October 7, 2007

Particle physics, personality, and a random unicycle

I didn’t get much of a reply to the question in my last post, so I’ll leave it open for now and move on. The question was: is there social pressure to avoid appearing or acting smart?

I went to another physics pizza lecture on Tuesday. This one was about particle and nuclear physics. Nuclear physics apparently doesn’t mean what I had always thought. I imagined that “nuclear physics” involved figuring out how to do useful things with nuclear reactions and processes like fission and fusion. Apparently that term now mostly refers to the theoretical and indirect study of the sub-subatomic particles like quarks, gluons, muons, leptons, etc. This kind of study is currently too new to be used to do anything useful. Amongst other things, the physicist giving the lecture told us about the numerous, large research groups that collaborate on the analysis of the data that comes out of even larger, multi-billion dollar facilities like particle accelerators and neutrino detectors. We (meaning the government and various other organizations) spend more money studying things like photons in an average year than most African countries have available for their entire budget in that same year. And yes, there does happen to be a reason I pick that particular comparison…

I met some of Gideon’s friends Wednesday evening. They were all out nerds, just like one might expect of someone who’s actually interested in logic and economics and such. One was fairly cool; he was a fan of video games and sci-fi TV and generally seemed calm easy-going. The other was constantly making really off color jokes and generally made no sense. His tone made it really hard to tell if he was being serious or not, so I just ignored most of it. At one point, I made a joke of my own about wiping out his computer, which he had obviously put some effort into customizing with a Linux operating system and such. He was apparently highly offended at this idea, as he replied by hitting me with his unicycle. Yes, that is very random: he actually does own a unicycle, he had it with him in the hallway we were sitting in, and he actually hit me with it. I was totally surprised. He proceeded to demand that I move away from his computer and hit me two more times, the last of which left a big black mark on the knee of my slacks. At that point I decided to take him seriously and leave. A unicycle, seriously.

Thursday a biology professor gave my DS seminar a lecture on the brain. He described his early (“early” meaning before he was a professor) belief that something more than just the mechanics of our brains must play a role in who we are, what we believe, how we feel about things, etc. He then described to us several cases in which people had traumatic brain injuries, like strokes, and the various ways that this injury messed them up. Sometimes, the people lost the ability to perceive the left side of an object, even though their sight and other senses were working just like they should. Yeah, that’s pretty weird. One person became completely convinced that their left leg wasn’t really theirs. Many lose the ability to speak or recognize faces, and some experience partial or complete paralysis. One case that he described was particularly interesting. It involved a man named Phineas Gage in 1868. This man worked for a railroad company on a crew that cleared rocky land for new lines. They did this by drilling holes in the stone that needed to be cleared, putting some explosive in the hole, and compacting some sand in the hole above it with a metal rod. The fuse, obviously, sticks out through the sand, and the charge is detonated in the rock once everyone is clear. Apparently, there was an accident in which the charge Gage was working on went off prematurely, shooting his rod out of the hole and through his head, right behind the cheekbone and left eye, leaving a big hole in his face and brain. Somehow, he survived both this and an infection he received soon after. This gave his doctors one of the earliest recorded opportunities to study a brain injury. In this case, Gage had no physical symptoms. No paralysis, no vision trouble, none of the perception weirdness, nothing. The only thing doctors, friends and family noticed was that he behaved completely differently. Before, he had been calm, intelligent, and generally regarded as a hard worker. After, he was rude, vulgar, angry, and lazy. The injury had completely changed his personality. Scary thought...

By Thursday, I had also gotten back all of my exam scores. “A”s or high “A”s on chemistry, physics, and java; not so much on calculus. I was taken completely by surprise on that one. I did score above the class average, but only barely. The good news is that we get to drop one exam grade in that class and the TA assures us that there will be a curve on our final averages, anyway. Also, the new chapter is really easy. The last one, the one on the exam, covered infinite sequences and series. I had never seen most of the stuff we studied before and, apparently, was doing some of the convergence tests completely incorrectly. The new chapter is over parametric equations, which are basically like components of vectors in physics problems. Some of the algebra sucks, but I’d rather have work that takes up a page per problem that actually makes sense than two lines of some series proof that makes no sense at all. To reassure everyone whose faith was just shattered, yes, I have figured out the tests I was doing wrong. I’ll still ace the final, don’t worry.

Friday I didn’t have java class, since everyone, including the instructor, was going to Dallas to watch the big Texas – OU game. That evening I watched “The Boondock Saints” with Brian and one of his friends. It’s actually an interesting movie. Not good, exactly, as Brian readily pointed out: it’s really predictable, the dialogue is generally dry, and about half the words said start with “f” and are variations on the same four-letter word. I’ll let you guess which one. Interesting still fits, though. First, its theme brings up a fascinating moral issue. It’s about two Irish brothers in Boston who are given divine orders to kill all of the organized crime bosses and other evil-doers in Boston, since the legal system seemed incapable of dealing with them. It also has lots of highly stylized violence that still seems just realistic enough to not be annoyingly fake. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

The movie ended at around midnight, which meant that I got about five and a half hours of sleep before BEST’s “Test Drive” event on Saturday. I then arrived about half an hour late because my Google map was wrong. First time that’s happened to me. I helped finish setting up the field and tables and such before the teams arrived. After that, I was the lead field monitor, meaning I was the authoritative looking guy that wandered around and watched the teams practice and occasionally lectured someone on how to use the field control system for their machines. Most of them were doing it wrong. The machines in general were really rough. Several were too wide to get up the ramp easily (or at all), and most of the kids were bad drivers. Only one had a mechanism for grabbing anything and scoring points, and that one didn’t work very well. Being the official presence, instead of just a member of a team, was definitely different. The pace was slower, and the main thing I did was stare kind of blankly at the machines driving around and ponder life. Which can be kind of nice.

The loading and unloading of the field after the event, however, was tiring and allowed for little staring or pondering. By the time I got back to campus, around 4 in the afternoon, I was exhausted and filthy. After a quick shower, I wandered around for a while to see where people were gathered to watch the OU game. It looked like a good game overall; the teams were fairly evenly matched, both had some good plays, and both made mistakes. OU ended up winning 28 – 21. Luckily, there were no riots. Well, not here at least; I guess all the true fanatics were in Irving watching the game in person. But I didn’t hear of anything disastrous happening there either.

So, about our massive spending on theoretical research… I’ve learned more about what mathematicians and theoretical physicists and astronomers study in the last month than in most of my life before that. The more I hear, the more convinced I become that I can’t be involved in any of it. Several people have asked me what kind of physics I plan to specialize in. I had intentionally left that open, to give myself a chance to learn more about what the different varieties of physicists actually do. Already, I’m leaning very strongly toward applied physics and engineering, as it turns out that there are a whole lot of scientists that never actually create anything useful. The point of everything they do is just figuring out new stuff. Intuitively, that sounds like a good thing, but I keep having more and more doubts. Obviously, some scientists have to keep learning new things just for the sake of learning new things. I’ve now heard several people argue that we can’t know how that knowledge might be useful later and that a lot of our current understanding is based on stuff that was completely theoretical and basically useless when it was first studied centuries ago. I completely agree. But, let’s consider my comparison. Billions of dollars and thousands of powerful minds are currently being used solely to gather new knowledge. If we used all of those resources (including the aforementioned minds, though yes, I know, there’s no way to just make that happen) to solve the problems in the world right now, more people would get good educations, more people would be productive and contribute to global society, and, overall, more would be accomplished. A few hundred less people working on gluon detection right now could lead to revolutionary solutions to all kinds of problems in the world and mean that more people might actually know what protons and electrons are. As it is, several billion of the world’s people go through life too hungry and poor to care. Particle physics doesn’t do anything to change that. Sitting around discussing exactly how little we know about dark matter doesn’t do anything to change that. Figuring out how to use resources efficiently, help people find ways to be productive, and control the population would change that. There are a lot of things we could be doing to accomplish all of this. For me, it would feel completely wrong to spend my life staring at particle collisions or measuring cosmic radiation when I know that I could create new technology that could fix problems here and now. And, for the moment, at least, that’s exactly what I plan to do.

5 comments:

ALittleMad said...

Have you ever heard the joke about the physicist, the mathematician, and the philosopher? If not:
Dean, to the physics department. "Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff. Why couldn't you be like the math department - all they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets. Or even better, like the philosophy department. All they need are pencils and paper." (source http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pannone/category/humor/)

Anyways, the point I want to make is that you shouldn't be to hard on theoretical physicist, (or mathematicians!!!!) they are the ones who only need paper, pencils, and the occasional computer. It is the experimentalists who cost all the money, and though they might be at the edge of their feilds, it is not theoretical-- the theoreticians are the ones who come up with the theory.... (I suppose in some feilds theoretical science requires experimentation, but not so much in the math/cs departments, and being a math/cs major, those are really all I care about defending). Though I suppose neither are the experiments with gluons applied. Yeah, unapplied experimental science is what it is..... Maybe it is an artificial line between theoreticians and experimentalists expenditures, but I still feel it is worth drawing.

As for your point about minds being used up on theoretical things instead of practical-- well, maybe you are right there (though first I would check the liberal arts departments for criminal misuse of brains =)). But besides for that... I might make it as an aplied computer scientist/mathematician and hate what I am doing (except for the part of it that means I am helping people...). Instead, I hope to be a pure mathematician (you should read some of the things pure mathematicians say about why pure mathematics is the best science-- very elitist sounding, but interesting none the less. How because it has no direct, obvious use that math is purer than anything else), and do my good some other way, perhaps by teaching at a University while doing my research-- after all, do not forget that a large percentage of those doing the theoretical research are also teaching others, both other theorists and applied scientists. Perhaps teaching others is the good they are doing for the world, and though it might be that they could do more good by doing something else, who knows? The world needs theoreticians, just perhaps not as many as we have....

Besides, I do not think it is simply man power that prevents allot of the good that could be done in the world from being done. I think the thing in the way is often called the political process...

As for the social pressure question... Maybe in some places it is true that there is pressure against people being intelligent. I was lucky enough to always be in an enviorenment where intelligence was considered a good thing (like at my last school, where we sucked at sports but dominated at more or less everything academic). From what I have heard from others, though, this is not universal. Have you seen the group on Facebook about public schools? I can not remember the name, though I think a search of groups should bring it up... it has crazy facts about how at many high schools huge percentages of people simply drop out, sometimes over 50% it sounds like, which was news to me when I first read it. The only causes for this that makes sense to me are either there is no particular push to be intellectual so there is no particular reason to put to much effort into school, or there are economic reasons, or a push against seeming intelligent....

I do not know where I read this, but there wa an article about how people tend not to raise there hand in class even when they know the answer, leading to only the less interesting questions being asked(could it possibly have been Laude who said that? Sounds like him.... I do not know where I heard it, which is annoying me.... ). It postulated it was due to the fact that people didn't want to outshine other students, or too seem like a know it all.... Again, more evidence!!

Oh no, you got a unicyclist mad at you!!! Never threaten a computer scientists computer!!! =)

One For Logic said...

I actually hadn't heard that before; that's pretty funny.

Ok, so you make a good point about the distinction between theoretical science and experimental science that can't be applied to anything. The pure theorists don't use massive, expensive facilities and extravagant equipment very often. The other half of this idea, that they might be able to come up with solutions to current problems, still applies.

You're not kidding that liberal arts people could be doing more practical stuff. I've never had this kind of discussion with a liberal arts person, so I don't know how they would react. Teaching does present an interesting exception to this idea that, ironically, as I figure I will probably work as a teacher or professor for at least a while, I hadn't considered. Teaching is definitely important, as it (in theory, at least) makes the students more capable of changing things and solving problems. I'll ponder this some more, but I guess educators get a pass for now...

I completely agree that politics get in the way of accomplishing useful things. I thought it was really interesting when my chemistry professor went off on a tangent about the interaction of politics and science during a lecture a week ago. He talked specifically about funding the space program and explained that "politicians don't vote for science, they vote for adventures". They don't care if the science is useful, they just want to be sure that it looks good later. This sounds like a problem some of those theorists should be working on...

You're really lucky to have gone to a high school that actually supported academics. I was breaking new ground in my school. Most people in Tom Bean had never known a proud academic before I went through the schools. Stats about dropout rates and such can be really depressing. It's just not possible to be productive in a useful way without a high school diploma. What's worse is that most of the dropouts come from areas or families that are already poor, so this ends up being a self-perpetuating problem. We need to get some theorists on that one, too.

I don't remember Laude saying anything like that, but I have heard it before. I've seen it before first hand. I imagine I made my belief on this fairly clear in my last post. People seem to feel like they have to hide their intelligence (or really not have any) to be socially accepted. This is wrong and presents one of the biggest social problems I am aware of in the US. This has to stop.

This thing with the unicycle and computer got me wondering how I would react to someone threatening to wipe my computer, and what I came up with is this: I would put my backup drive in my pocket, turn the computer off, and tell them "Go ahead and try". I backup and password protect everything. A real computer enthusiast is not afraid of software problems because they backup their data and know how to restore their system if they have to.

ALittleMad said...

Besides for that, peoples priorities for what is important/noble/ etc. differ from person to person. An excellent example: should we put millions, maybe billions of dollars into trying to prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth? If a big one did, it could concievably end all human life- on the other hand, the chance of one hitting any time in the not to distant future is miniscule, and chances are by the time we need the technology to deflect an asteroid we will have it. Instead, we cold spend that money that might stop an asteroid from hitting us in order to prevent starvation and the like. Both ideas are noble, but who is right? The same areguement, more or less, can be applied to the arguement about whether it is better to spend allot of money soving problems today, or better to build up theoretical knowledge that can help stop problems tommorrow...

One For Logic said...

I've been kind of surprised that no one has brought up the probability argument regarding my thoughts on "theory" vs. "application" (to sum it all up in three words). They way you phrased that, it sounds like it favors the applied science side. Is that what you intended?

ALittleMad said...

I had no particular intent.....