My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Fri, 12 Mar, 2004

Mission Statement and Reasons

My mission since 2000 is to study and learn mathematics and physics, independently working through high school and college studies and proceeding if possible to the equivalent of a graduate student level. I would eventually like to encounter and work with classical and modern physics, and even current physics such as string theory, on the same mathematical basis as scientists do, rather than simply reading non-mathematical books on the subjects directed at laypeople. I would like to be able to understand scientific papers and discourse in the field of math and/or physics, both written and in lectures and conversation.

Time frame for this project: Ten to twenty years.

Time spent so far on the project: About three years, from February 2001 to March 2004.

Level reached so far on the project: High school/early college trigonometry.

Why am I doing this? Here is a list of Reasons. Wrong reasons first.

Wrong Reasons

1. Scientists are like super-heroes to me, with intellectual and physical powers above those of ordinary people. They lead exciting lives. This is the way they are often portrayed in books and movies. I want to be like these people, be a genius and do exciting things too. Science is about power, and I want power.

2. I am trying to transcend the limitations of my gender and age. Even though there are some women in physics, for the most part it is still heavily dominated by males, and there are still many scientific studies which attempt to prove that the male mind, shaped by testosterone and by the needs of being a hunter in the prehistoric world, is naturally more gifted in math and science than the female mind. Physics is comparable to an "extreme sport" done by young, powerful, aggressive, risk-loving males. Since I have no desire and no physical ability to run marathons, snowboard or climb mountains, I am doing the intellectual equivalent of it. (It's interesting how many physicists climb mountains, as if it were a kind of testing ritual for them.) I am told that a mathematician's/physicist's best work is done when he is under 30, or at least under 40. I am just starting when I am 50. So I already have a number of limiting conditions I have to overcome. I want the challenge, even though I am an old artgirl and perhaps better suited to producing pretty, overcomplex pictures jammed full of fussy details.

3. This is something which will keep me from being bored as I trudge through my middle years. I worked on religious studies both Christian and Zoroastrian for years until I realized that since there would never be any new sacred texts for these religions, it was just one re-interpretation after another. At least with physics there will always be something new.(This is also a "right" reason.)

4. I want to know physics so that I can make the science fiction and fantasy I write or illustrate sound plausible. This includes imaginary world-building, character creation, game and plot scenarios, and images of all kinds from cosmological to technological. The trouble is, the world really doesn't need any more science fiction or fantasy. There is too much already.

5. I want to know physics so that I can talk about it to New Age people in a way they will understand but at the same time convince them that the New Age is misusing physics. At the same time I would like to connect physics legitimately with spirituality, metaphysics, and imagination. (This may actually be a "right" reason for some physicists, but many, perhaps most others wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot monopole.)

6. My world is full of silly metaphors and childish analogies to physics phenomena, such as my car as an electron or the road as a quantum path my electron takes. I put names, colors, costumes, stories, sounds, and theater to things which should remain purely abstract.

7. I want to show the world that I can do something that is more difficult and complex than art. Mathematicians and physicists often play musical instruments or do other artistic things, and often with high competence, but it is almost impossible to find an artist who does math or physics with equal competence. I want to be that person. I want to show the world that I'm not a weakling or an eccentric underachiever. Maybe I'll even get some recognition for doing it. Wanting recognition or even worse, fame, is a Wrong Thing.

Non Reasons

I only have a few of these, but they are brought up to me by other people constantly, so I feel the need to state them clearly.

1. I am NOT doing math/physics because I want to improve my mental health and efficiency by doing "exercise." I am not doing this because I want to keep my brain occupied and working hard so I don't get Alzheimer's disease when I get older. There is no guarantee on that, and if hygiene through hard mental work were my reason, I might as well have picked something more useful, like computer programming or learning Arabic.

2. I am NOT doing math/physics because I want to change careers. I realize from the start that I am better off and much more effective in the career which I chose, namely fine art, commercial art, and a bit of writing. Also, I simply don't have enough time in my life to do it. And I don't have the guts and daring and endurance it takes to undergo test after test after test under high pressure conditions.

3. I am NOT doing math/physics to improve my artistic output. I may or may not do math or physics-themed pictures, but I would not be satisfied with just using such themes in my art without understanding them. That would be like being the pretty model sitting on the fender of a powerful, shiny sports car but not being allowed to drive it or even be a passenger in it.

And now, the Right Reasons

1. I love Big Systems of knowledge, language, and law. I have always been fascinated by these systems and I like to find patterns in data and information. Systems fascinate me, and there is nothing bigger than this grand and perhaps infinite system of mathematics and physics. Not only would I learn some of it, I would work on it at the same time as I was part of it.

2. I like a challenge. I like the feeling a challenge gives me. (This is the "right" version of "wrong reason" number 2.) If I am not striving for something, if I don't have a goal, I feel lost, dim, and futile. In my life I have striven for a number of goals, and have reached them. This is another one, which is open-ended but has some recognizable milestones. Therefore I will always have something to strive for.

3. There's a lot going on in physics and cosmology right now. I want to learn enough to pay attention to it in a serious and responsible way, and to represent it to those around me correctly. In my own way, however small, I want to be part of the ongoing story of humanity learning things about our own universe.

4. Physics and mathematics hold my attention while other sciences (such as biology or psychology) don't. I love geology too, but I like math/physics more because it is more fundamental. Contemplating things like subatomic particles and galaxies makes me happy and excited. When I see a jet from an active galaxy, or the tracks of particles in an accelerator printout, I am filled with awe and joy.

5. Physics presents me with things which are aesthetically beautiful, whether they are the aforementioned particle tracks, or the spiral of a galaxy, or the glow of a cathode ray tube. As an artist I naturally love light, color, and structure. Physics provides me not only with lots of brilliant visual images but with the scientific explanation for them. There are other aesthetic attractors as well. Mathematicians and physicists often talk about "beauty" and "elegance" in regard to equations and theories. I don't know what they are talking about, yet. I want to know enough math and physics to understand, and appreciate, just what that beauty and elegance is.

6. Though most of the physicists I know are non-religious and even atheistic, they still sometimes speak of physics as a "calling." (But what is doing the calling?) Despite everything, I feel as though I have something of that "calling" too. I felt it directly after my visit to Fermilab more than three years ago and I still feel it. It is strong enough so that despite many moments of frustration in my studies, I always come back to it. I don't stop and I never get enough. I don't know whether people get legitimate "callings" in mid-life, so different from what they start out with. But I think this qualifies.

7. Seven Right Reasons to balance seven Wrong Reasons. Last but not least, I love to learn things and to find things out. The process of inquiry in itself is rewarding, and when faced with a problem, even a trivial math example, I will go at it again and again till I find a solution. Let me quote from an essay by Alan Lightman, in BEST SCIENCE WRITING OF 2001 (edited by Timothy Ferris, HarperCollins 2001).

"…When in the throes of a new problem, I was driven night and day, compelled because I knew there was a definite answer, I knew that the equations inexorably led to an answer, an answer that had never been known before, an answer waiting for me.
That certainty and power, and the intensity of effort it causes, I dearly miss. It cannot be found in most other professions.…if given a chance to start over, I would do just what I did, to be not only a young man in the shimmering of youth but a scientist. I would want again to be driven day and night by my research. I would want the beauty and power of the equations. I would want to hear that call of certain truth."

This quote by Lightman must, of course, be put in context. He left the world of science to become a creative writer, an artist, in a more realistic world where there is no certain truth. In the essay, he says that he realized that even at age 35 he was past his prime as a theoretical physicist. But as a writer, he would have a much longer creative lifespan. He wrote this essay at the age of 50, and as he writes further, he also realizes that the "purity, power, and intensity" of what he experienced in science was part of his youth, which is gone and which he misses with keen nostalgia.

I sometimes use another religious metaphor to claim that after Fermilab, when I took up mathematics beginning again with elementary school arithmetic, I was "born again." I will never know science the way Lightman knew it, from the inside where real research is done. All my "discoveries" will already be well-discovered. And yet it will all be new to me, unfolding at the forever progressing point of this electron's long journey.

Posted at 2:51 am | link

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