Ways Physics and Cosmologists Can Baffle You

Cosmos

Night

I dreamed that I was looking at the universe, the milky way perhaps, on a screen as large as the side of a building. In the picture the stars are in motion, moving in a way that seems remarkably predictable for an expanding cosmic landscape. There is a character standing to the left of the big screen, waiting for me. He has gray hair and looks a little bit like Colonel Sanders, but he is actually the teacher. And he is patient. He is waiting for me to ask him about the scene, but I have been avoiding it.

Day

I have been trying to understand the basic principles of physics for a few years now, mainly because of my interest in quantum computing. But no matter how many books I read on the subject, I am still baffled by most of it. Sometimes my questions seem too big to ask, and yet my interest continues. Thankfully there are a few encouraging teachers, like Leonard Susskind, director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics, who say it’s perfectly reasonable to feel challenged here.

From Leonard Susskind to Everyone:

“A number of years ago I became aware of the large number of physics enthusiasts out there who have no venue to learn modern physics and cosmology. Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people. So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University, where I am a professor of physics. The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.”

The response was overwhelming and it was suggested that Stanford put them up on the internet. You can find them at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Catalog/Science/Physics/Modern-Theoretical-Physics/23022

Susskind On Why Physics Is So Hard

Susskind says that with physics, you have to go through the initiation rights of learning mathematics, which is why physics is so hard for the general public.

“Look, the process of modern physics has been very much the process of physicists rewiring their brains with abstract mathematics. Nobody, including me or anybody else, can visualize and see four dimensions in their head. But it’s very easy to add to x, y, and z, another letter of the alphabet and simply do with the four letters what you used to do with the three letters.

So you make an abstract mathematical visualization that you can’t see in your head, but through the process of rewiring you learn new ways to think about things. Well, I can’t use that when I talk to people who are not mathematically trained, so you use analogies, metaphors. So it is effective, but always at some level it is wrong. It doesn’t capture everything correctly.”

For more, watch The Cosmic Landscape: Leonard Susskind at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Susskind

— DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day — Episode 7

Night

I am in a small room, writing, and I have visitors. The woman I do volunteer work with at Reading Partners is there. She has the same first name that I do. She is smiling and interested in hearing about my book, but we are not alone. In the far corner of the room is a long table, the kind that you see in the conference rooms of corporate America. Seated at the table is an unknown cast of characters, but I know that the reason they are there is to judge my work.

Day

I am commuting again, this time to downtown San Francisco. Compared to my days in New York, this is a short train ride. The train station here is small too, and unlike Penn Station, it is all above ground and outdoors; at street level on the corner of 4th and King.

Caltrain1There is a small, glass-enclosed lobby with side-by-side doors that open directly onto the train platforms. Simple wooden signs announce when the train on that track will depart. Even though I consider San Francisco a big city, the size of the train station here reminds me of the city’s true scale.

It is a short 10- or 15-minute walk to the building on Brannan Street where I am doing consulting work these days. Built in 1935, the remodeled office is housed in the old Gallo Salame building, a connection I was able to make because of the iconic factory artwork that remains on the side of the old brick building.

This SOMA neighborhood is mostly quiet in the morning and the street views of the buildings in this area belie the innovation that is taking place indoors. Business signs for the tech startups here are either small and discreet or nonexistent. It is not unusual to see the employees standing on the sidewalk, waiting for someone to open the doors in the morning, or chatting while sharing a cigarette on an impromptu break. They are mostly young, dressed in the hip San Francisco style that favors grungy jeans, the color black, and for footwear, boots, sneakers, or flip-flops.

vespaBut the streets are generally quiet in the hours before 10:00 a.m. It is not until lunchtime that things start to pick up around here. It is a short walk past Delancey Street to the Embarcadero and the new Brannan Street Wharf. In the afternoon, I spot commuters on bicycles, Vespas, and Razor scooters. I think the Vespas are cool—they remind me of Italy. I wish I had the nerve to ride one in the city.

 — DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day — Episode 6

Night

It’s morning. The light seems to stream sideways across the never-ending landscape.

No clouds today.

We are flying low. Just above the treetops. Gliding actually. I have a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane, so I have a view of the winding river estuary filled with brackish water and yellow-green treetops as we slip along the interconnected trails of gently flowing waters.

I can see for miles.

Day

The Sun Microsystems reunion is today at the old Mountain View campus. I have only one group photo in my archives from all my years at Sun. This was taken at Sun headquarters in Menlo Park (now Facebook) after the launch of Project Blackbox back in 2006. What made Sun so great? It was the people.

SunMicro

Scott McNealy really cared about the employees, and his farewell message from 2010 captures his thinking as well as his sentiment. I know a lot employees replied to Scott that night after reading his good-bye email, myself included. I am pretty sure that he stayed up all night answering all those employee emails.

His reply, “You’re the best.”

–DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day — Episode 5

Night

“What if it’s all just a hologram?” I ask.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says as she walks away from me.

Day

The controversial notion that our experience of reality is nothing more than a hologram pierced my brain when Brian Greene suggested it in the NOVA series, The Fabric of the Cosmos, back in 2012. And I guess the idea stuck with me because it just popped up in a dream I had.

Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University in New York City, and when he explains physics on a TV show like NOVA I take it seriously. So I started doing some research to get the backstory on holograms.

In an interview by WIRED magazine, Greene explained that the idea that reality may be akin to a hologram is based on a wonderfully weird collection of ideas and theoretical studies developed over the last 30 years that go under the heading of the “holographic principle.”

What started as an attempt to understand the quantum properties of black holes soon turned into a scientific debate over the fundamental laws of physics as scientists wondered; “what happens to the information that an object contains when it falls into a black hole”?

And this led physicists to come up with the idea that when an object falls into a black hole, a copy of all of its information content gets “smeared out” on the surface or the horizon of the black hole. Flattened out in a sense—like a series of 0′s and 1′s, the way information is stored in a typical computer. And that idea, he said, would suggest that a three-dimensional object inside the black hole could be described by information on a two-dimensional surface that surrounds the black hole.

According to Greene, the reason this is interesting is because the space inside a black hole is governed by the same laws as space outside a black hole, or space anywhere for that matter. The point being, if a 3-D object inside a black hole can be described by 2-D information on a surface that surrounds it, then that lesson could be generalized to include you and me and everything else we consider reality.

“Now, this starts to sound like a hologram,” said Greene. “A hologram is a thin 2-D piece of plastic which, when illuminated correctly, yields a realistic three-dimensional image. The idea is we may be that three-dimensional image of this more fundamental information on the 2-D surface that surrounds us.”

In a related article, Our Universe May Be a Giant Hologram, Greene used an analogy to help explain: “If this line of reasoning is correct, then there are physical processes taking place on some distant surface that, much as a puppeteer pulls strings, are fully linked to the processes taking place in my fingers, arms, and brain as I type these words at my desk. Our experiences here, and that distant reality there, would form the most interlocked of parallel worlds. Phenomena in the two—I’ll call them Holographic Parallel Universes—would be so fully joined that their respective evolutions would be as connected as me and my shadow.”

Greene admits that the holographic principle and some of the ideas explored in The Fabric of the Cosmos represent some of the strangest features of modern science, but he also claims they are well-grounded in mathematical research and observational data.

“Now, let me just point out, this is a hard idea even for physicists who work on it every day to fully grasp,” said Greene. “We’re still trying to really dot the i’s and cross the t’s and understand in detail what this would mean. But there are many who now take this idea very seriously, that we may be a kind of holographic projection.”

I think it’s even harder for the general public to grasp. And if it’s true, I can’t help but wonder, who, or what is behind the projector?

— DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day — Episode 4

Night

I am sitting next to Bill Gates. We are in an auditorium getting ready for a launch presentation when he turns to me and asks, “Do you think writers have a responsibility to tell the whole story?”

I tell him that I think writers have a responsibility to be as honest as possible in their storytelling. But that doesn’t mean that they have to tell the whole story. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart. And that sometimes means you need to leave certain things out.

Day

Who are you writing for?

That was the topic of a conversation I had with a friend recently. It’s an interesting question and we both came at it from a different vantage point.

As a fiction writer, he is concerned with the reader. With fiction, you have a lot of latitude when it comes to what you write, even if you are following a tried-and-true method that involves character development, plot, and conflict resolution. After all, you are making stuff up and whether that stuff comes from actual events in your life or your imagination, you can pretty much run with it. The fiction writer needs to be outer-directed, taking care to use his or her creativity to bring the reader along as the story unfolds. I think most writers would agree that is the right approach for fiction.

I mostly write non-fiction, so my writing practice is highly tuned to telling stories about science and technology that strive to make complex and often remote subjects interesting and understandable. It is almost always a learning exercise for me–something of a puzzle to solve. I learn a lot during this process and I usually get to talk to some incredibly smart and interesting people along the way. So clearly non-fiction is outer-directed too, because you are still concerned with keeping the reader with you. You want them to trust what you are saying, so you need to be credible, relevant, and clear. Your currency is the relay of information and facts. This kind of writing is what I call work.

But when I write in my journal the reader is me, which makes my writing there inner-directed and strictly personal. To me, it is an art form. And the kind of honesty that good art requires is hard to do, and even harder to share. Because it exposes you to strangers in a trusting way that says, “this is how I am experiencing the world, can you relate?”

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if it is a poem, a painting, or music. If you are just skimming the surface of an experience in your art it will either come across as phony, or even worse, dull. And if you spend too much time worrying about what other people think about your art, it will force you to change it in ways that will completely mess it up. So all you can really do is make your art and see what happens.

I enjoy many different styles of art and writing. I like seeing the different filters people use to manipulate reality, and I especially like to see how the imagination can soar. It is truly inspiring to me. But I don’t confuse my art with my work. And I usually know exactly whom I am writing for. At least I think I do.

So to answer the original question, I think the reader changes depending on the form the writing takes. What do you think?

–DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

 

Night and Day – Episode 3

Night

This is a very strange elevator. It doesn’t go up and down, it spins. Fast. It reminds me of the old Equinox lounge at the top of the Hyatt Regency — a glass-enclosed bar in the Embarcadero that rotated very slowly to provide stunning 360-degree views of San Francisco.

Except that this circular elevator is moving at warp speed.

Larry is looking at some new technology on his laptop. One of the engineers just showed this thing to him and he is pretty excited about it. Before you know it, there is a salesman in the room. They move to a small conference room while they talk excitedly.

Alone, I start looking around the room and notice a really cool gym bag. It is light and practical and perfect for the Y, so I check to see how many inner pockets it has. (Because that’s what girls do!)

It is orange and yellow and white. Nice! But it looks expensive so I put it back down.

When Larry returns, he picks up something for himself in the shop, and he also buys the gym bag. “You should have this,” he says as he hands me the gym bag.

It symbolizes freedom to me.

Day

I quit my job.

FelixBaumgartner

If you want to know what that feels like,  watch this clip of Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic leap from the edge of space.

My parachute has opened.

— DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day – Episode 2

Night

Leaving the kingdom is hard. Just getting a sense of direction is tricky when you are surrounded by circular glass walls. You can get so turned around. Amidst a sea of empty desks my focus settles on a pencil holder and I think to myself, does anyone use pencils anymore? No, not here.

Out in the daylight is a giant green field, and what looks like a castle or large house sitting at the top of the hill. What a view! It looks so vibrant, but I am not sure how to get there. So I just start walking. The hill is a challenge, but I notice I am moving forward anyway.

Suddenly we are at a lunch party, having a good time, chatting and eating sandwiches. But I want to go home now, and I don’t have my car. So I borrow a bicycle and start riding along what I thought was a familiar trail, only to realize that I am lost.

Still, I continue. Now the trail is narrow and foggy with a steep incline and I start to feel concerned. It is beginning to get dark.  A man appears. He is an older man, somewhat professorial, and he has a warning for me.

“This is a dangerous trail,” he says. “You should go back.”

But I know I can’t.  I just need a different set of wheels. So I retreat temporarily on my bicycle and go back to look for my car.

Day

Fu XiIt is unclear when the I Ching, or Book of Changes was actually written, but some accounts trace its origins back to the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE.  Richard Wilhelm, who translated the I Ching from Chinese into German in 1924, said that in Chinese literature, four holy men are cited as the book’s authors: Fu His, King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius. Regarded by many as one of the most treasured parts of the Chinese tradition, the wisdom of the I Ching provides the foundation for both Confucianism and Taoist philosophy.

I am explaining all of this to a friend of mine, because I think the I Ching is a fascinating and rich text. Not only because of the ancient language it uses, but because it helps focus your attention on a problem by offering uncommon insights along with some very practical advice about conduct. It helps me by providing some timeless wisdom and philosophy to ponder as I contemplate the here and now. And I like the transformative nature of the wisdom contained in this book because when you are trying to solve a problem, Yin and Yang principals can trade places in a heartbeat. And so it is in life.

The challenge for me always has to do with how to interpret the advice that the I Ching provides, because it is bound to a culture, place, and time so remote from the world I live in today. Still, I find that it gives me something new to think about, and when I am working on a problem, I like that. One of my favorite expressions from the I Ching is “perseverance furthers.”

The text is arranged into 64 hexagrams that are composed of two trigrams each. When consulting the I Ching with a question, the ancient practice sought divination through the use of yarrow stalks (who has those?). The alternative, modern method is to toss three coins, six times. The coins must be of the same type, like nickels, and have clearly identifiable marks to indicate heads and tails.

Heads and tails are assigned different numbers (heads=2, tails=3) so that each toss of the coins can add up to a combination of 6, 7, 8, or 9. These numbers correspond to Yin and Yang lines, and it is the number and sequence of the coin tosses that creates the hexagram in response to the question that was posed.

This morning I threw the coins.  Hexagram 61 is Inner Truth.

That was my answer. I can’t tell you the question however. That would be just too personal.

– DJ

[For more on the I Ching, read my related essay.]

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.

Night and Day – Episode 1

RedSail

Red Sail, by Diana Reichardt

Night

The boy could not have been more than five or six years old. But it was hard to tell exactly because he had his back to me.  Sitting cross-legged, his posture relaxed, he appeared like a young Buddha. His wavy brown hair glistened in the morning sun as he observed the meditative push of the waves onto the sandy shore.

“See how beautiful it is?” he said.

And it was. In fact, it was perfect. The ocean was a collage of azure waves and sea foam lapping against the shore in the early morning light. White curls crested atop waves that seemed to arrive from another time. Unending. Rhythmic. Persistent.

But there was more to the picture than that. Standing 20 feet behind the boy gave me a panoramic view. It was definitely a tropical landscape, although I’m not sure where it was, and it really doesn’t matter. And it was beautiful — beyond words. High above the cascading waves, the deep-blue sky was adorned with dreamy horsetail clouds. Those are the gentle clouds, sweet, if you know what I mean.

Just off to my left sat a glass jar filled with money. Perched on a sand dune, it was only a peripheral distraction. Still, I was acutely aware of its presence.

Turning my attention back to the boy, I said, “Yes. It is so very beautiful.”

I did not know this boy.

Day

Another day in Silicon Valley. Up at 5:30 a.m. Two cups of coffee, then off to the YMCA to do my laps. It feels fantastic to swim. But one of my favorite things about the “Y” is that they have a huge spa right next to the pool. So when you finish your laps you can jump in the spa, fire up the jets, and RELAX. For ten minutesno more. You don’t want to go back to sleep. Gets too hot anyway. I had lobster feet last week.

Bruce was there again today. He’s a good guy, I think. He likes to chat in the spa and the last time I saw him there, he told me he was trying to go back to school (not sure what for) but he said he was struggling with math. He’s probably trying to retrain for a new career. I guess that’s not too surprising. Lots of folks are out of work here and just trying to get by. And it’s very expensive to live here, which only makes it harder. I try not to pry and just let him guide the conversation.

Well, today Bruce is talking about Julius Irving, “Nobody knows who he is anymore! I mean, kids today, what do they know?”

I’m like, “Oh, you mean Dr. J. ”

He’s like, “YEAH. That’s right!”

“Played for NY didn’t he?” I say.

“YEAH, then Philadelphia,” says Bruce.

Now the guy next to Bruce wakes up and starts talking to me about old movies. I guess he thinks I know about these things, since I remembered “the doctor.” At least I hope that is the reason he thinks I know about these things.

“Do you remember that movie with Gene Tierney? Oh, I can’t remember the name of it right now (closing his eyes now to visualize the answer), but it was about that girl that was murdered and the detective who is investigating the crime – he falls in love with her! He never even met her!”

Now we’re playing Jeopardy in the spa and I haven’t even had my breakfast yet.

“You mean, Laura?”

YEAH! That’s it!

I think it is time to hit the showers.  “Well guys, I’ve got to get to work! Have a great weekend!” As I’m getting out of the spa, they notice how tall I am.

Hey, do YOU play basketball?

I’m like, “not anymore.”

-DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.