Quantitative Comparisons Between Disciplines

As many a thoughtless person has observed when learning what I do for a living, physics is really hard. But you may have wondered just how much harder is physics than other subjects? Well, now, we have a quantitative answer:


This is a shelf of books at the Burlington, MA Barnes and Noble, clearly showing that while it is possible to learn all about politics and philosophy in thirty seconds, understanding Einstein takes three whole minutes. So, relativity is at least six times more difficult than philosophy.

(This presumably explains why there are so many physicists who dabble in philosophy, compared to philosophers who dabble in physics…)

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Greatest (Nonscientific) Nonfiction

While I was off at DAMOP last week, the Guardian produced a list purporting to be the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Predictably, this includes a tiny set of science titles– five in the “Science” category, two under “Environment,” and one each under “Mathematics” and “Mind.” And that’s being kind of generous about the boundaries of science.

This sort of thing is so depressingly common that it’s almost hard to be outraged about it any more. Almost. Because, really, your list has room for Herodotus, but not Galileo or Newton? The modern world owes vastly more to the early scientists than it does to credulous ancient Greeks, but the idea of using math is evidently a little too scary. And a few of the science-y books they did pick are a little dodgy (*cough*cough*Freud*cough*).

This is partly explainable by the structure of science, which has only occasionally advanced through the publication of books, and rarely celebrates the original books as objects of literature. Almost nobody learns physics by reading Newton– instead, we get it from more modern textbooks that use more elegant notation and, you know, aren’t deliberately opaque. Which means that while the Principia Mathematica is almost certainly one of the most influential nonfiction books of all time, it’s not something that’s read widely as a classic, so even that subset of the intelligentsia that is comfortable with math isn’t likely to vote for it on this kind of list.

But really, to read this list, you’d think that the crowning achievements of human civilization were found in fields like memoir and cultural commentary, rather than, you know, understanding the universe in which we live well enough to make the technologies that free people up to be book reviewers in the first place. And there’s something deeply wrong about that.

PNAS: George Farrants, Freelance Translator

i-547cc1148ac7b33d198445c2f6f77c8c-farrants.jpg(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of George Farrants, a freelance translator (and occasional marathon runner, as seen in the picture). The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.–post-doc–academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work as a freelance translator from Swedish and Norwegian into English. I try to specialise in scientific, medical and technical texts, but I accept texts from many other fields when they come along.

2) What is your science background?

B.Sc. in Physics from Imperial College, London University
Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Cambridge University (MRC Lab. of Molecular Biology)

3) What led you to this job?

I turned my hobby into my job!

After a number of postdocs and other positions in research, I realised that I would be happier working with my passion – language. I had reached the stage in my research career when I was expected to set up my own group, apply for research grants, take on my own Ph.D. students, that sort of thing. That didn’t appeal to me, and I gradually phased out of research and into freelancing (after a brief interlude in the business world – commercialising scientific methods and consultancy). Somewhere along the way I had moved to Sweden, and I had also lived in Norway for 8 years, so I was pretty fluent in these two languages, and it was easy for me to turn to translating.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I have an office at home. With a lot of bookshelves!

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One Person’s Golden Age Is Another Person’s Catastrophic Crash

One of the interesting things about reading David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics was that it paints a very different picture of physics in the mid-1970’s than what you usually see. Kaiser describes it as a very dark time for young physicists, career-wise. He doesn’t go all that deeply into the facts and figures in the book, but there’s plenty of quantitative evidence for this. The claim of the book is that this created a situation in which many younger physicists were pushed to the margins, and thus began to work on marginal topics like quantum foundations, which thus began be be dragged back into the mainstream of physics.

The interesting thing about this is that it’s starkly different from the way physics history is often described. I’ve read a whole bunch of popular-audience books about physics in the last several years, most of them with a particle physics slant, and there, the 1970’s are almost always depicted as a sort of golden age– the third-generation particles began to be discovered, electroweak unification was worked out and the pieces of the Standard Model all fell into place. The W and Z bosons were discovered in the early 1980’s, bringing to a close the real glory days of theoretical particle physics. Everything since then has been just wandering in the wilderness, with lots of grand ideas that just haven’t panned out.

It’s an interesting contrast, and a nice reminder (as if one were needed) that theoretical particle physics is not and never has been the whole of physics. The fact that the same rough time period that is usually presented as a golden age for one subfield was actually part of a gigantic crash for the field as a whole.

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More on Divided by Infinity

I had intended last Wednesday’s post on the Many-Worlds variant in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity to be followed by a post on the other things I said when I did a guest lecture on it for an English class. What with one thing and another, though, I got a little distracted, and I’m only getting around to it now.

Anyway, this was a guest lecture for a class on Science Fiction taught by a friend in the English department. To give you an idea of the stuff they covered, here’s the “required books” list from the syllabus:

  • The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (VBFSF) Anthology. Gordon Van Gelder, Editor.
  • Bradbury, Ray. Bradbury Stories.
  • Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  • Lem, Stanislaw. The Cyberiad.
  • Zelazny, Roger. Last Defender of Camelot

The last time I did this, I talked about Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, which is the closing story in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Interestingly, “Divided by Infinity” is the opening story in that same anthology, so now I’ve got the whole thing bracketed…

(Kate said that the next time I do this, whenever that may be, I need to pick something cheerful. Because, damn.)

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Calendrical Innovation

Union operates on a trimester calendar, with three ten-week terms (September-November, January-March, April-June), rather than the two 14-15 week semesters used by most other colleges and universities. This has some advantages in terms of flexibility– even science and engineering students get to take terms abroad, which is harder to swing in a semester system– and some disadvantages in terms of scheduling– we run much later than most other schools (the last day of classes is next Friday), which closes our students out of a lot of summer programs that begin in early June.

As you can imagine, this is a topic of intense discussion among the faculty, with both systems having their strong partisans. And as often happens, there has been an attempt to revive the debate in email this week, when everybody is cranky and exhausted at the end of the Spring term.

I find myself somewhat distressed by the constrained nature of the discussion, though. By considering only the trimester and semester options, we are missing out on a major opportunity to differentiate Union from other colleges, as called for in the strategic plan. Thus, I think we need to think more “outside the box,” and consider some more innovative and distinctive calendrical changes.

  • For example, there’s the Julian Calendar, used successfully for centuries, but tragically abandoned starting in 1582. Not only would this reform fit with the best traditions of the liberal arts, it would provide a great opportunity: when Tsarist Russia finally abandoned the Julian calendar in 1918, they needed to “skip” 13 days to synch up with the Gregorian calendar. Moving back to the Julian calendar now would require us to add two full weeks, not part of any existing month or academic term. Think what a boon that would be for faculty productivity!
  • Adopting the Maya calendar would not only show respect to non-Western traditions, its current trendiness would give us a hip and edgy sort of senibility that would be attractive to bright and creative students. The disadvantage of such a switch would be that the system of three interlocking calendars used by the Maya is very complex, but if we move quickly, we could take advantage of the fact that all three cycles start over from zero next December. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

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You Will Never Die

If I ever decided to abandon any pretense of integrity or credibility, and just shoot for making a bazillion dollars peddling quantum hokum, the particular brand of quantum philosophy I would peddle has already been laid out, in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity. In the story, the narrator is given a copy of a “crank book” by Carl G. Soziere, titled You will Never Die, which makes an argument that is essentially a variant of the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics:

And the argument was seductive. Shorn of the babble about Planck radii and Prigogine complexity and the Dancing Wu-Li Masters, it came down to this:

Consciousness, like matter, like energy, is preserved.

You are born, not an individual, but an infinity of individuals, in an infinity of identical worlds. “Consciousness,” your individual awareness, is shared by this infinity of beings.

At birth (or at conception; Soziere wasn’t explicit), this span of selves begins to divide, as alternate possibilities are indulged or rejected. The infant turns his head not to the left or to the right, but both. One infinity of worlds becomes two; then four; then eight, and so on, exponentially.

But the underlying essence of consciousness continues to connect all these disparate possibilities.

The upshot? Soziere says it all in his title.

You cannot die.

The “shared consciousness” stuff is twaddle, of course, but at its core, there’s actually a fairly coherent idea, which is no sillier than things that get published in reputable journals. For that reason, this is my favorite fictional treatment of Many-Worlds.

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Short Story Club 2: The Locussing

For both of the readers who enjoyed last fall’s Short Story Club, there’s another round starting up soon, this time run by Locus, featuring award-nominated works. I’m busier now than I was in the fall, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to participate in all of these, but then, I’ve already read two of the five stories, so that makes it a little easier…

Also in short fiction news, I have to do a guest lecture on Robert Charles Wilson’s “Divided by Infinity” for an English class on science fiction this Friday. Which means I probably ought to find some time to figure out what I’m going to say about that…

Overthought Reviews of Genre Fiction

One of the perils of book reviewing, or any other form of literary analysis is putting more thought into some aspect of a book than the author did. It’s one of the aspects of the humanities aide of academia that, from time to time, strains my ability to be respectful of the scholarly activities of my colleagues on the other side of campus. And it frequently undermines reviews of books that I’ve already read.

A couple of good examples come from this Paul Di Filippo column for Barnes and Noble, where he reviews two books I’ve read, and one I haven’t. I haven’t actually read his comments on the book I haven’t read yet (Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path), because it’s near the head of the to-be-read queue and these are the sort of reviews that can spoil major plot points, but after read the comments on the other two, I’m not sure I want to bother. For example, he writes of Robert S. Redick’s latest, The River of Shadows:

Redick has succeeded in creating a Kidnapped or Treasure Island for contemporary times, which reads at once like some timeless fable and also like a knowing postmodern artifact (a mysterious editor intervenes at times with pronouncements that break the fourth wall). This work manages to be both sophisticated and naïve, direct and cunning, heartfelt and cerebral. The adventure is nonstop, the characters powerfully endearing, and the world-building meticulous, generous, fresh, and surprising: the term “widescreen baroque,” coined by SF Grandmaster Brian Aldiss, proves a particularly apt tag for this example of what The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines as “a subgenre of science fiction characterized by larger-than-life characters, violence, intrigue, extravagant settings or actions, and fast-paced plotting.”

I agree with this to a point– Stevenson is probably a decent comparison, in terms of the tone and level of adventure– but really can’t take the whole thing seriously because it overlooks the giant glaring flaw of the series: the protagonists, collectively, are dumber than a bag of hammers.

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Advancing by Subtracting

I’ve got draft versions of all the chapters of the book-in-progress now, which is great. Of course, when you add up all the words in those chapters, it comes to 92,000, when the contract calls for 70,000. Which means I’ve entered the part of the writing process where progress is measured not by how many new words I type, but how many old ones I can make disappear.

I always find this faintly depressing, but it’s a nearly inevitable part of serious writing for me. There have been a few cases where I’ve had open-ended writing assignments– one of the papers I published in grad school, and my Ph.D. thesis itself– but for the most part, my professional output has been length limited. As a student and a post-doc, I always needed to edit words out to fit the length limits (4 pages for Physical Review Letters and about the same for Science). As a faculty member, I’ve needed to meet page limits for grant applications, op-ed articles, and now books.

This is another area where I always have trouble getting my head around the usual student mentality. Most students complain at length about minimum length requirements, wondering how they’ll ever stretch their thin argument into the required ten pages, or whatever. Even when I was an undergrad myself, though, I never really understood this– adding more words has never been a problem. Give me a minimum length limit, and I can exceed it by 30% without breaking a sweat.

If you want to see me squirm, give me a maximum length requirement. Because I can exceed that by 30% without breaking a sweat, too, and almost inevitably will. The sweat (and tears, and occasional blood) comes when I have to cut the text down to meet the target.