Your papers please…

A student from Pomona College named Nick George was recently detained for five hours in Philadelphia’s airport on suspicions that he was a terrorist – er, something (whack-job flamers, please read the above article before spewing crap here).  I guess learning Arabic and having visited Jordan, Egypt, and Sudan automatically qualifies one for ridiculous treatment.  George even admits that he would fully expect and have no trouble with a small delay, but that his explanation and the accompanying evidence – that he is a college student who happened to study abroad – ought to be enough.  Ironically, while the TSA denies some of his claims, the Philadelphia Police Department actually corroborates them.

There are a couple of interesting points about this case.  Upon reading about it in The Week, I Googled it since I didn’t recall reading about it online.  After three or four pages of Google results, the only major news outlet I could find that covered it was, amazingly enough, Fox.  Apparently this kind of overreaction – eight years after 9/11 – is so commonplace now that it no longer warrants comment.  Of course, we’re now closing in on twenty years since the downfall of the Soviet Union and the communist era and yet the FBI reportedly asked George if he had ever joined any Islamic or Communist groups on campus.  Apparently someone forgot to tell the FBI that McCarthy’s been dead for 52 years.  And, as for an Islamic group on campus, the fairly conservative Roman Catholic college I work at has a Muslim Student Association.  Our student commencement speaker this past May was a Muslim woman who wore a head scarf and spoke of her personal ‘jihad.’  She received a standing ovation in response.

And some of you had the hope these fascist nutjobs would be quieted down a bit when Obama got elected.  But, in Washington, the more things change the more they stay the same…

An electric Porsche? Could I be dreaming?

My favorite automaker, Porsche (soon to merge with it’s cousin and my second-favorite automaker, Volkswagen), is rumored to be working on an all-electric version of it’s iconic 911.  Another German company, eRuf has already converted a new 911 to all-electric power and hopes to begin selling them this fall.  Porsche was reportedly not happy about that and purchased a Tesla Roadster in order to study it.  I guess whatever it is that eRuf did, it was similar to a Tesla.  Either way, I’m psyched.  Someday I hope to afford a 911 (I might have to settle for a mid-1980s model which I can get for less than a small fortune) and it would be great to be able to get an electric version.

Co-authoring with a Nobel laureate may lower one’s Erdös number

According to the Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System (what I call ‘adsabs’), I have apparently co-authored a paper with Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek.  This, of course, was news to me until I realized that the system’s criteria for ‘paper’ and ‘co-author’ are pretty loose.  I wrote a letter to the editor of Physics Today a few years back challenging Wilczek on a point of fundamental physics and Wilczek was given the opportunity to respond.  Apparently this qualifies under adsabs as a co-authored paper.  So does this mean I can now claim that I have an Erdös number of 4?

REVTeX 4.1 – includes AIP journal style files

I have been thinking about submitting my latest paper to the Journal of Mathematical Physics since it is pretty heavy on the math but had been frustrated that there were no LaTeX style files out there for AIP journals – or so I thought.  Being a persistent bugger, I scoured the ‘net until I discovered that the APS is beta testing REVTeX 4.1 and it includes style files for AIP journals!  Apparently, this latest update to REVTeX is a joint project of the APS and AIP.  They are aiming to officially release it by the end of this month.  I haven’t tried the style files yet, but I’m hoping it works out well enough for submission to JMP.

The Middle Way

An old ex-girlfriend of mine unfriended me on Facebook partly (supposedly) due to my use of the term ‘Zen-like’ to describe fly fishing.  Of course, I know quite well what Zen really is (technically it is a version of Buddhism dating from the 7th century AD that emphasizes experiential learning over the theoretical) and I continue to maintain that fly fishing is very Zen-like.  While I am not a Zen practitioner – nor am I Buddhist – my personal spiritual philosophy, rooted in a combination of modern druidry and unitarian universalism, shares much in common with it.  As with Zen, my spiritual philosophy has come from experiencing and observing and my work in physics and mathematics has done much to further that.  Thus it would be wrong to say my spirituality informs my science and more accurate to say my science informs my spirituality.

One of the most enduring themes that I have ‘experientially’ discovered over the years has been the ubiquity of balance and symmetry in everything from particle physics to economics to human relations.  Whether or not there are scientific reasons for this, it seems to be an undeniable aspect of nearly everything.  As an example that is not necessarily related to science, consider the functioning of any bureaucratic organization such as a government.  There are essentially two extremes: a very hierarchical autocracy on the one hand and a direct democracy on the other.  As a libertarian I obviously favor democracy, but, as Fareed Zakaria describes it, democracy can be ‘messy.’  Because you have so many voices that must be heard and so much consensus that needs to be built to get anything done, it often seems like it takes forever to accomplish anything and progress is often slow.  On the other hand, things can take forever in autocracies as well, but for different reasons – too many requests clog the narrow information pipeline leading to the top.

Physics is much the same.  It is both a way of thinking as well as a way of doing.  Doing it well requires one to strike that delicate balance between the two.  On a more general level, the world has seemingly devolved in the past decade into fights between extremes over everything from religion to health care.  While this can give the illusion of being a balance, it is an unstable one.  To use an analogy from physics, imagine a realistic (i.e. not frictionless) teeter-totter with weights balancing on either side.  If the weights are further to toward the ends, it is tougher to balance because a small amount of added weight to either side produces a large torque that could easily overcome any resistance in the rotation bearing.  On the other hand, if the weights are closer to the center, it’s slightly more tolerant of a slight imbalance in weight since the torque is lower.

In other words, the world has devolved into a teeter-totter with the weights shoved out to the ends – lots of torque.  Slight differences make for large imbalances.  What we need is a middle way.  We need a middle way in almost everything we do, from indulging our vices (chocolate!) to running our countries to caring for our bodies to protecting people but also their rights.  Politically, this is not necessarily the same thing as traditional centrism, i.e. dilution via compromise.  Neither is it the unstable state of ‘maximum torque’ we seem to be in presently.  It is something new entirely – a new way of thinking.  It’s scrapping old ideas in favor of new and untested ones that better blend the best of all sides of an issue.  But it also means recognizing and acknowledging evident truths and, occasionally, admitting we are wrong.  Otherwise, sooner or later, the teeter-totter is simply going to break, and then what?

Random bits

Howard Barnum now has a blog (apparently it’s been around since January).  Predictably it involves wine.  For those of you who don’t know, Howard is a wine connoisseur who happens to also be a quantum physicist at Los Alamos which is why I list it under ‘quantum blogs.’  I have not created a section for ‘wine’ yet.

A student dropped one of my classes on Monday in the middle of the lecture.  OK, she was a freshman, but she couldn’t have waited until the end of the lecture or done it beforehand?  Dude.  Incidentally, this is only the second time in my eight years of teaching college that I’ve taught freshman.  I have mixed feelings about it.

This country has gotten too hell-bent on testing.  I just got back from my son’s third-grade parent orientation, during which we learned about the insane amount of standardized testing his class needs to go through.  At a meeting last week, the Dean of Admissions gave faculty an overview of the incoming class and noted (warned us?) that this year’s freshman are the first who have been subjected to the full range of testing prescribed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program (or, as my mother-in-law, a retired guidance counselor calls it, Every Child Left Behind).  The Dean pointed out that this means they were ‘taught to the test.’  In his book The Post-American World (generally a good read, but with a few minor problems), Fareed Zakaria indicates that this is what has long made the US such an innovative place.  He says that the reason other countries score better on certain standardized tests than the US is because those countries teach to the test.  In other words, they’re not taught to think.  There’s a reason so many of the world’s best universities are in this country.  Unfortunately, we seem to be heading down the same path which leads me to my next point…

…why do we keep electing the same numbskulls year after year after year?  I had high hopes that Obama might bring some much needed change to Washington.  Unfortunately, nearly everyone he picked for his cabinet members are Washington insiders and he has done what everyone in DC does – cater to the corporations while increasing the size and meddling of the Federal government.  The Democrats have done nothing with their majority and the GOP has reduced itself to a laughing stock, and yet the same damn people keep getting re-elected.  Dude, this is just ridiculous.  What happened to all those programs the Democrats were against that Bush pushed through?  This is their chance to get rid of them (e.g. NCLB, Homeland Security, etc.).
OK, enough ranting for today.

Blog at

Up ↑