Sunday, April 30, 2017

An Enigma on Man - Part I, Verse 8

Thus ends part I of "An Enigma on Man", and the last of these posts. My hope was to provoke a thought of yours—if only to be more conscious, and, consequently, more ecumenical in how complicated and confusing our understanding of life and reality is.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Freeman Dyson

Today, I heard an interview on the radio with Freeman Dyson.  He's quite a remarkable man.

Freeman Dyson has worked in the field of physics since 1943.  He was a professor of physics for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 1953 to 1994.  He is still associated with the institute where he is a professor emeritus.  Along the way, he has known all the giants.  He has worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, and he knew Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr.

According to Dyson, Hans Bethe was "an extraordinarily good [mentor]. He was amazing with students. He had a lot of students and he always found the right problem for each student, just difficult enough but not too difficult. He was an ideal person to have as a mentor."

Of Oppenheimer Dyson said, "I had very mixed feelings. He was my boss. He was a very temperamental, unpredictable kind of character. He would suddenly blow hot or cold and you never knew which one you had to deal with."

Feynman was a "genius."  "He never wrote down equations. Most people in physics write down an equation and then find the solutions, but that wasn’t the way Feynman did it. Feynman would just write down the solutions without ever writing the equations. It seemed like a sort of magic because he thought in terms of pictures instead of equations. He had these little pictures in his head...."

Einstein "didn’t encourage young people to get to know him."  "He didn’t enjoy teaching. There were two important things for him. There was his own work, which he always continued, and there was his public activity as a politician, which he did extremely well."

As for Bohr:  "Bohr was about the same age as Einstein, but much more in touch. He talked to everybody. He was interested in everything and was well-informed and he gave us good advice. He was definitely part of the community. He came to seminars. He also came to lunch. We had a lot of interaction with him."

He also said some interesting things about science.  The divide between classical physics and quantum physics doesn't bother him:  "For me, it’s something to rejoice in. I like it better to have two universes rather than one. I think the classical world is real and the quantum world is real, too. The beautiful thing is how well they fit together even though they are so totally different. I like the difference. I always hope they won’t be unified, but of course nature will decide in the end."

And what leads to scientific breakthroughs?  "First of all, it helps to be ignorant. The time when I did my best work was when I was most ignorant. Knowing too much is a great handicap. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some years, things get so fixed in your mind and it’s impossible to think outside the box. I was in the lucky position of jumping into physics without ever having taken any courses in physics. I’d only been a pure mathematician up to that point."

Even great people have faults.  Heidegger was an anti-semite.  Dyson is a climate change skeptic.  See The Danger of Cosmic Genius.

Anyway, here is the entire interview, if you have about 35 minutes.

An edited transcript can be found here:  My Life with the Physics Dream Team.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Donnie Darko and Lent

I realize it's the end of Lent, but I hope you'll agree with me that there is always room for an article that brings Donnie Darko into the conversation.

Mostly I was reminded of seeing the first re-release of this in the theater in Carlisle with Myk and Sue (not sure if either of you remember, but this was clearly a big moment in my life since it has stuck with me for almost fifteen years). And since the author of this article first saw the movie in central PA, I felt like it was particularly interesting- or at least coincidental. Lent, Donnie Darko, Central PA. It's all a bit strange, don't you think? Anyway, if you're looking for a good and, evidently relevant movie to watch this Easter, at least according to Nick Ripatrazone, Donnie Darko is the must-see of the season.

Happy Good Friday!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

An Enigma on Man - Part 1, Verse 4

A whirling, cognitive gyre looms before us. To successfully navigate this unusually challenging three-page expanse, let’s review a couple of crucial concepts. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to provide the concepts as definitions of two words found in the poem. Both words are adjectives.
1. ontic [on-tik] — relating to what is, concerned with what actually exists or noumena, as opposed to phenomena. It comes from ontology or the nature of Being.
2. epistemic [ep-uh-stee-mik] — relating to what is known or understanding, concerned with phenomena as opposed to noumena. It comes from epistemology (TOK for Obama Academy fans) or the nature of knowledge.

These are often useful notions, responsible for instant replay in sports and surveillance devices in court proceedings. Obviously, dividing the world this way makes some sense.

We generally say science deals in the ontic, while philosophy with the epistemic. So the underlying ontic reality of the atom stays the same, despite its changing epistemic forms from Thomson’s plum pudding model to Bohr’s electrons-as-planets model to Schrodinger’s probability cloud model.

Further complications arise, however, when modern science places heavy bets “on point particles and fields”, which are well-nigh completely mathematically defined—an almost totally epistemic domain, albeit one supported and tested by what we believe is real ontic evidence. But then science further furiously fans this whirling vortex when it found that, at the atomic level, it appears that ontic reality is inextricably entangled with the epistemic known.

One further term:
Decoherence is the process by which a quantum system’s superposition changes from what can be explained by quantum mechanics to that which can be explained by classical mechanics. Feel free to review the double slit experiment. And don’t forget to look up “god-trick” when encountered.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, 
Our Being runs forward and back
For the ontic’s uncovered by thinking, 
And each thought leads us back to that fact.

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