A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: December 2016

Farewell to 2016

This was a bad year in a lot of ways.  Among the wars, crimes, and self-inflicted sucking chest wounds of politics, an unnaturally large number of artists died, some before their time.  The artists got a great deal of the attention. I think that’s because we all had them in common. We all have our own sets of events, but losing David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds (et depressing cetera) is in the overlap of the giant Venn diagram. Good riddance, 2016.

But I’d like to close out the year by celebrating two people who died this year, whose books taught me a lot.  No tragedy here; their combined age was 174.  But I thought about them today, and they match the theme of this blog perfectly.

Sidney Drell was a brilliant physicist.  His Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Relativistic Quantum Fields, both written with James Bjorken, were the texts that really cracked quantum field theory open for me.  Writing well about quantum field theory is hard.  With most authors, by chapter 3 I give up on the words and just read the equations.  Bjorken and Drell’s books go the other direction.  Reading the words was good enough that I could figure out the equations for myself.  Prof. Drell also became one of the leading US authorities on national security, leading a group called JASON. When I got my first job after leaving academe in 1990, all the books I needed weren’t in my building; they were in the JASON library.  Seeing Sidney Drell’s name there was the only familiar thing about that job.

Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco.  How on earth a semiotician became a celebrity is a thing at which I’ll always marvel.  A friend who’s better at reading than I am gave me a copy of The Name of the Rose when I was in college.  The way Eco wove his erudition seamlessly into a page-turner plot was a new experience for me, and I started digging up all the other works by him I could find.  From his literary criticism I learned a new way to look at books, after which I finally “got” what so many twentieth-century authors were doing with non-linear flows of time.  And then, he published Foucault’s Pendulum.  That book was practically written for me and my friends. There might have been a few half-drunken dramatic readings from it at various parties over the years (eyewitness accounts differ).  And Belbo’s disquisition on the types of people in the world let me finally come out of the closet and embrace my identity as a Moron.

So adieu, maîtres. This wouldn’t be the same blog without you.

Institute for the Preservation of Technology

Brad DeLong has a great post about regional economic revitalization that’s attracting a lot of attention across the Web.  He’s responding to an article by Noah Smith that looks at the woes of the Rust Belt and presents four ideas for what can be done about them.  Prof. DeLong is less sanguine.  He sees real obstacles to any kind of government redistribution, and from conversations I’ve had with the demographic group in question (aka “my family”), he’s probably right.  But I think I have an idea for this one.

I’m already on the record with one idea for job growth, which was aimed at humanities scholars.  They’re not the primary problem, though.  The big need for employment in the USA these days is among people who didn’t finish college.  The older generations are particularly precarious.  Once we get into our fifties, we just don’t adapt as fast as we used to, so the turbulent pace of the new economy can be a strain.

As Lyman Stone has pointed out [1], and everyone else seems to agree, universities are the key to economic growth in this century, but the people we’re interested in aren’t to be found in universities. How do we bridge the gap between the solution and the people who need it?  The traditional response from the government has been to re-train and re-educate workers in new technology.  That hasn’t worked so well, so it’s time to turn it sideways.

My answer is not quite “technology”, it’s τεχνόω, to instruct in an art. We need universities to create institutions for the preservation of twentieth-century τέχνη.  Those old manufacturing workers, sheet-metal-benders, caregivers, farmers, weavers, etc. know a lot of things that are in danger of disappearing because they’re not in a Web-accessible format. [2]

Interlude:  Just this once, I’ll bring in an example from my day job.  The separation that air traffic controllers maintain between aircraft en route has to be at least five nautical miles.  Why five?  There are several likely explanations, but the truth is that nobody knows. It was set in an era when investigations weren’t formalized like they are today.  Those old controllers, long gone now, tried a lot of things and this one works so nobody’s changed it.  Let’s never forget important knowledge like that again!

The workers for whom the new economy has no place shouldn’t be students of these new institutes, they should be staff. I imagine them as the shop-floor equivalent of Senior Fellows at think tanks. That type of position always seems to be available for high-ranking political figures when their terms are up. Why just them? Frankly, society would derive value from listening to my father-in-law explain how to re-use waste heat from a fireplace to make a water heater more efficient, just as it does from former Secretaries of Whatever writing op-eds about their policies. [3]

The other half of the staff would be young people who are familiar with the most-recent means of mass communication via the Internet.  This Institute would be dedicated to the knowledge of people who will never write a book, and perhaps their knowledge is better suited to audio, video, or HTML5 animation anyway.  The younger half of the staff will get everything into a transmissible format, properly cross-linked, human- and AI-readable.  On top of all this newly-available knowledge, a superstructure of journals, peer review, synthesis, and scholarly progress can be erected in the usual manner.

Good universities that can sponsor these institutes exist in all fifty states.  Institutes like this would naturally be dispersed, and might even be naturally concentrated in areas forsaken by the flashier parts of the economy.  The Institute for Preservation of Technology doesn’t have to suffer from the negative reactions big government gets in rust-belt America, because it isn’t a “jobs program”.  It isn’t a handout. It would create important jobs that can’t be performed by anyone else. It would give proper respect to the people who kept the USA running for half a century, making sure that they and their hard work are remembered.

[1] Readers of Idiosophy already know Lyman Stone from his opus on Westeros.
[2] We saw this during the mobilization to prevent the Y2K bug from destroying civilization.  Old COBOL programmers were called out of retirement because much that once was, is lost.
[3] My father-in-law’s name is Frank.

Comments on The Dispossessed

As usual, I’m a month or so behind the Mythgard Academy.  Had I been present at the sessions, or had I an ansible that could reach back in time with a text message, these are the things I would have said about The Dispossessed.  No overarching theme, just three disconnected observations.

The Physicist at Work

This book has the best descriptions I’ve read of a theoretical physicist at work. I searched the Web for biographies of Ursula LeGuin to find out if she had any physicists in her family — no. She did this all with imagination, and it’s spectacular. I recognized myself in almost every line of those scenes.  Usually, works of fiction that deal with a subject I know about in real life are excruciating.  The only fictional scientists I can handle are the humorous ones: Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon; Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) from Real Genius (I know what you’re thinking, no, Laszlo was my college roommate).  But Shevek’s struggles with his work, and how it affects his relationships with other people, ring true.

Also, the way LeGuin describes Shevek’s original insight isn’t wrong.  There’s nothing there that’s obviously insane; were relativity one day to be falsified, the explanation might well sound like that.  Only exception is the paragraph that talks about “the interval” as the key insight.  Replacing the absolute position of objects in time and space with intervals as the fundamental description of a system is, in fact, the heart of special relativity.  But by that point I was too smitten to care.


I found myself yelling at my iPod whenever Corey referred to Annares as a communist society.  Anarres is anarchist (see it in the name?); Thu is the communist society.  The people of Anarres refer to citizens of less-evolved societies as “archists”, a collective term for capitalists and communists.  (If you want to hear more about anarchism, here you go.  It’s all Real Genius, all the time, here at Idiosophy.)  Anarres draws heavily from Marxism, but Communism was not much like what Marx had in mind.

Putting myself back in the mindset of the early 1970s, the Cold War is all over this book.  It’s all happening on Urras, though.  There weren’t any neutral observers to the Cold War, because nobody could be far enough from the bombs to be safe.  LeGuin is showing us what the USA (which I can hear inside “Nio Esseia”) would have looked like, if anyone could be neutral.

Vea, Siegfried, and Roy

Corey did a good job getting through the uncomfortable politics of Vea.  All through that disquisition, I found myself thinking of Siegfried and Roy.  Vea is in the same line of work as they:  There’s an awesomely powerful force around, and by making a public show of dominating it, you gain wealth and status.  In Urras, that force is the patriarchy.

Vea didn’t passively accept dominance, she figured out how to manipulate it and turn it to her own ends.  Because she was so good at it, she became wealthy, popular, and influential. However, when you’re playing that game, you have to be perfect.  One mistake, and it all blows up in your face.  When Roy Horn got bitten by a tiger, his career was over.  He was lucky to escape with his life and his fortune mostly intact.  Vea got off easy, by comparison, with just a dry-cleaning bill and (one presumes) a case of the shakes in her room after all the guests had gone.

Update:  Brad DeLong, to whom I have referred readers before, was posting a discussion of “communism and related issues” on his blog as I typed this.  The Dispossessed features prominently.  As does an interesting discussion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which TIL comes from the Acts of the Apostles.

Poetry is a conversation across the centuries

We begin with the famous line from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

That to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

To which A.E. Housman replied, in A Shropshire Lad [1]:

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.

Apropos of a situation in which snark was required, Colin tweeted out a gender-neutral version of Milton’s line. I replied with a couplet of which I am inordinately proud:

You’d need a vat of malt, enough to swim in,
To justify the ways of God to women.

Yes, I did just put myself in that list.  Seriously, though, you have to click that link for Paradise Lost – it’s an e-book version created to look as much like a Renaissance English text as possible, and it is delightful.

[1] Housman, A.E., A Shropshire Lad, 1896.[back]

This will not faze them

The book I’m reading right now has three levels of authorship.  (Searching the Web for the phrase “levels of authorship” leads you to a maze of twisty passages, all alike, most leading to swamps of tedium and despond.  This link doesn’t.)

The book is The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley. Or is it The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley?  Or is it one of the other possibilities?

One reason I love librarians is that they can catalogue this book “by author”, file it on a shelf, and then find it again later.  Librarians can handle anything.

Historical note:  When I first read this book (after a reference in Foucault’s Pendulum), it was in German. I mentally translated “Die chymische Hochzeit von Christian Rosencreutz” as the “Chemical Wedding of” C.R., not the “Chemical Wedding by“.  That was only the first of many bruises I got from attempting to read a book in renaissance German (in Fraktur!) after learning modern Hochdeutsch in high school. I knew I was going to like Crowley’s version when correcting that mistake was the first sentence in his Introduction.

Modern note: It never ceases to delight me that I can just pull up 400-year-old texts from my dining-room table.  Living in the future is in many ways awesome.

A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Footnotes

Tom Hillman is shaking his head at editors who footnote things that can’t conceivably need footnotes.  When we discussed this on Twitter, Tom tried to cast it in the form of a natural law:

That got me wondering what the utility of a footnote might be.  As with any form of communication, it must be related to the difference in knowledge of the writer and the reader.  Let’s suppose there’s a set of intended readers.  Some of them know the facts in question; others do not.  For any fact i, define R(i) as the fraction of the audience that knows it. This knowledge is measured at the point where the footnote is marked.  Define A(i) as the author’s knowledge of the fact on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect cluelessness and the total knowledge of all relevant facts is normalized to 1.

Now, we can use a result from information theory called the information gain between two probability distributions. In place of the two distributions, we use R(i) and A(i), and the utility of a footnote is:

U = –Σ R(i) log[R(i)/A(i)]

where the sum is over all facts i.  (Sorry, Tom — in Digital Humanities, the logarithms just keep coming.)

Using the example in the linked post, the text contains two facts: A. E. Houseman’s name and the title of the book A Shropshire Lad.  R(1) = 1 and R(2) =1; all the readers know these things because C.S. Lewis just told us. Since R=A, the contribution to the utility from these terms is log(1) = 0.   The footnote adds a third fact, that the book was published in  1896. How useful is that? Let’s suppose that Idiosophers are typical readers of this book.  Before reading that line, I’d have said A Shropshire Lad was published in the 1890’s.  The number 1896 has 11 bits of information in it, of which I knew 8. (8/11)*log(8/11)=-0.33, where the answer is in bits because I took the log to the base 2.

The total utility of this footnote is therefore U=0+0+0.33, or one third of a bit of information.  (For purposes of comparison, a useful footnote might contain tomorrow’s winning Pick-3 lottery numbers, which is 10 bits of information.)  This footnote is therefore almost worthless, so by the Hillman-Hoffman law, its appearance in the book was almost inevitable.

Nota Bene: the utility formula goes to infinity if the author does not know what he’s talking about and the readers do, i.e. if A(i) = 0 when R(i)>0. This is the case for student papers, which implies that footnotes there are of infinite utility. There is no way to have too many footnotes in a thesis.

Publishing On Line

I’ve put the final version of the Ardagraphy paper on a couple of social networks.  The first is the Humanities Commons, which is brand new and looks encouraging.

The second is Academia, which gets a high page rank on Google. I’m not exactly sure of what that site is doing, though.  For example, it put the PDF I uploaded into Scribd.

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