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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Thu, 28 Apr, 2005

A Rainy Day in Cambridge

This posting comes to you from the environs of Boston where I am currently at my folks' home celebrating my father's eighty-fifth birthday. He's managed to make it this far, proving that a bad attitude is good for you, the way sour berry juice is full of healthful anti-oxidants. There will be a tribute concert for him at our local arts center, along with an art show by my mother and a banquet in his honor at a downtown restaurant. Eighty-five years: it should happen to us, as the saying goes.

I spent today meeting a friend in Cambridge and then doing some shopping in the places I like best, of course bookstores and the famous Bob Slate's stationery store. I lived for 12 years in the Harvard Square area. I spent two of those years (1976-1978) in Harvard graduate school, two of the most miserable years I have ever had. After I left graduate school, I stayed on, living in a ramshackle apartment in a wooden duplex house just on the border of the campus, literally in the shadow of the Harvard Divinity School. During the next ten years (1978-88) I took various jobs around the area and did lots of freelance commercial and commissioned art work in the fantasy and science fiction field.

I knew back then that I lived near an old particle accelerator, since I passed it every time I walked through Harvard's back lots into the Square. I was told that it was no longer operating, but found out later that it was still working at that time, though only as a system for treating cancer and not as a research instrument. Those days were long before my current physics era, though I knew where the Harvard physics department was and often passed it on my travels. It was a white building near the Peabody Museum (which houses the famous Glass Flowers collection) and there was a maple tree in front of it. During the fall, this maple tree's leaves turned an incredibly brilliant red color and I used to say that since it was in front of the physics department it was probably radioactive, at least during its autumn brilliance.

Little did I know that in that white building during the '80s while I was there, some of the most cutting-edge, famous physics was being done. Guys were doing the work that would bring them Nobel Prizes while I was doing bad science fiction book and magazine illustrations. The tough men whom Gary Taubes talked about in his book NOBEL DREAMS were scribbling their equations on blackboards only a few hundred yards from my house. For all I know, I stood in line with them at WordsWorth Books or ate bratwurst next to them at the Wursthaus Restaurant. I didn't know anything about physics back then (OK, I still don't) though even back then I felt the yearning for it echoing dimly in my fantasy-ridden brain. I never, ever thought of just walking up to the physics building and, uh, going inside. What would that have accomplished anyway? Would breathing the same air as them have given me any scientific insights? It would take the power of a Tevatron to turn things over for me. I moved away in 1988, and have been coming back at least twice a year ever since. I don't always get to see my old house and its neighborhood, but I visit Harvard Square faithfully. The Wursthaus restaurant is long gone, and now WordsWorth is too, a great loss to Harvard Square. My other favorite bookstore, the wonderful "Cambridge Architectural Books," is also gone. I still find things to buy, though. Today I wandered through a sodden Harvard Square in heavy rain, soaked and burdened with my paper purchases. The cafe's were crowded, including people with laptops and cell phones, science fiction gadgets which we never conceived of back in the 80's. The characters and garb, though, were comfortingly familiar to me: gentlemen professors in tweed, lady professors and administrators in dull-colored, elegant knits with interesting hand-crafted jewelry, students in printed T-shirts and cargo pants, old hippies still wandering the stony streets of their stoned youth. None of the workplaces where I put in hours are still there, but the places of my memories are unmovable on those wet streets.

Why 2K

My "2K" picture is finished, and has been presented to the person who requested it. It is a birthday present for my father at year 85. The full title of "2K" is "Homage to Klee and Kandinsky," who are two of my father's favorite artists. Desiring to make of me a "serious" artist, my father asked that I compose two artworks in the style of each of these twentieth-century worthies. He gave me no further instructions so I went ahead and designed them with a concept that would put the two together in a single composition. The picture, painted in watercolor, consists of two colorful panels, each a foot square, mounted on a black background on which some texture and lines have been added. The design for each of them incorporates a letter K. Klee's K goes forward, while Kandinsky's goes backward. I added a mathematical theme from my own recent experience by making the two arms of Klee's K into two vectors. The resultant vector goes across a gap into Kandinsky's picture, and the resultant parallelogram of the vectors (in yellow) joins both the pictures. I added the mathematical data about the vector calculation on the picture. Both pictures work with geometric forms, though the "Klee" geometries are all straight lines while the "Kandinsky" forms have plenty of circles and curved lines. I did a lot of research looking at pictures of both of these artists so that I could create something in as close an imitation as possible. This is a standard art-school assignment, to paint something in the style of (whomever), so it was a problem I could solve. And you know I love solving problems.

My father's reaction was mixed at first. He hadn't expected that I would combine the pictures into one composition. He was also surprised that I used the letter K as a motif and that the colors were so bright. I defended my choice of a letter-motif, since Paul Klee often used not only letters but numbers and other symbols in his paintings. After some explaining, and lots of inspection, my father seems to have become more positive about his "2K" picture. Whether it will become part of his collection is still unclear. It will be displayed in a show coming up next month. But if the picture is bought by some other collector, my father assures me that there's always more art where that came from.

Now you have a chance to view "2K" 2. See for yourself what happens when I do "Homage to Klee and Kandinsky."

Posted at 2:01 am | link

Thu, 21 Apr, 2005

The Painter of Lite

It was a lovely April evening here, and the conditions were perfect. It was a Real Kinkade Moment. Most of you Electron readers are familiar with the very popular paintings of Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light" whose saccharine renditions of cottages, gardens, and other architectural scenes made him millions of bucks in the '80s and '90s. He isn't as hot as he used to be, and he suffered from the economic collapse of the early 2000's. But he's still going strong, painting those fluffy scenes of misty landscapes and blooming flowers, which are too precious to be true, except once or twice a year, kind of like a stopped clock which has to be right at least twice a day.

The sky was an opalescent wash of sunset pink shading to deeper blue, with swirls of light pink and salmon clouds. The trees were covered with the first shoots of fresh yellow-green foliage. Flowering pink and white crabapples and magenta redbuds glimmered in the filtered light. The garden beds were full of bright tulips and daffodils, and just by the Burger King the dogwoods were about to break into bloom. Oh, wait, there isn't a Burger King in a Kinkade painting. Further down the cobbled street of charming townhomes, gaslights were just coming on. I drove my bright blue Hupmobile by garden beds colorful with creeping phlox and periwinkles, at the Sunoco station by the strip mall. Oops, there aren't any gas stations or strip malls in KinkadeWorld. That must have been painted by someone else. Finally I pulled in to the gravel driveway of my slate-roofed stone cottage, the yard filled with colorful rhododendrons and azaleas, where the windows gleamed bright gold, lit from within by the nuclear fusion reactor that I had recently installed….I think I'm losing track here.

I haven't had any time for physics recently, because I've been working on the artwork I mentioned in my last posting here, "2K." It's almost finished. Recent operations on it involved attaching two square watercolor paper panels, already painted, onto a textured black background using archival acrylic glue. In order for the whole assembly to lie flat, I have to press it down using blank illustration boards which are then weighted down with heavy books. Books about Italian Renaissance architecture are the heaviest books, so it is covered with these stone-like slabs of books on palazzi and mountain villages and carved garden sculptures and marble staircases. It will dry overnight and will be finished just before I go up to the Boston area where the recipient of the picture resides.

Not doing physics makes my Virtual Physicist nervous. (See my entry for 23 March 2005.) He is gently reminding me that I have not done any physics study in the last three or four days. My textbooks and work papers have been buried under watercolor stuff for those days. That is no excuse. Trajectories of projectiles aimed at an angle await me. How will I track those pop-flies, line drives, and hits off the wall while I'm watching baseball? Why, that outfielder knows his physics even if he never opened a physics textbook in his life! But I don't have the opportunity to hit or catch that ball myself. I may never do a real-life physics experiment, either. It's all virtual stuff, in the studio. I wonder if the big leaguers at the universities and laboratories get nervous if they do not do physics for a few days.

Posted at 3:42 am | link

Sat, 16 Apr, 2005

Busy Little Electron

I'm trying to do a lot of things at once these days. I'm working at my day job about 25 hours a week. One of my co-workers in the sign design crew has just transferred to another Trader Joe's, and I am thus left with most of the work, at least until another signmaker can be hired. We (the crew) are finding that calligraphic and lettering skills are quite rare among prospective workers, even among art school graduates. Seems like the art and design schools nowadays stress Photoshop, Web design, and computer graphics rather than hand-lettering or draftsmanship. But we want hand-lettered signs, even if I use a computer to create the background, so we have to search for someone who can do that, or learn to do it.

After work, I continue trying to advance in my physics study by reading, reviewing, and solving lots of textbook problems. But my main non-day-job work is doing art in preparation for at least two shows I will be participating in this month and next. My current ambition is to produce at least twenty high quality art works, probably all geometric abstractions and space pictures, which might be worthy to show in a gallery. I have a slightly better chance at showing my art in a gallery than learning string theory. Both, however, are possible, given enough time and effort. I used to show my art exclusively at science fiction conventions, but I only do a couple of those a year now, and I hardly make any money at them. In years past I could make quite a lot. Things have changed for many different reasons, so I must produce a different kind of art and look for other markets and collectors. I am not a purist artist who produces only for motives of inspiration and inner calling. I expect to sell my work, not keep it.

I'm currently doing an artwork for a special occasion coming up in two weeks. I can't say too much about it yet, but I will say that it has two parts and the title of the whole work is "2K." Also, it has a vector calculation as part of its composition. I might as well put what I'm learning to use somehow. Faithful Electron readers will see it when it's done.

I also have been doing commercial signwork for a number of local Starbucks Coffee shops. I do the seasonal decorations for the "Daily Offerings" sign in removable opaque paint markers. Currently, I have decorated five different Starbuckses with spring-themed designs. Since I am not officially an employee at Starbucks, their rules say they can't pay me in cash. But I receive barter items, including "free" coffee at the ones that I decorate. The coffee helps me stay lively for all the things I do. Being busy and productive is good. Maybe someday I'll be as busy as a Real Scientist.

Posted at 2:26 am | link

Tue, 12 Apr, 2005

Mithraism and particle physics

I'm back from New Haven, where I attended a little scholarly conference, the meeting of friends I told you about in the last posting. The meeting had plenty of eating, drinking, and talking, and on Saturday we all went into the Yale library to do a day's worth of research. This is a standard feature of the conference and one of the main reasons I go to it. I got lost in the stacks, which was an experience that could have come right out of the pages of Argentinian surrealist author Jorge Luis Borges. I was rescued by a student volunteer, who led me to the Greek philosophy section, after which everything was fine.

My old habits as a classicist have never left me, and I enjoyed being back among the Greek and Roman philosophies I have always loved. The focus of our conference, as always, is Mithraism, an esoteric Roman religion which flourished in the first to the fifth centuries AD. (or CE, "Christian Era," for the more correct scholarly term). Mithraism was practiced only by men (although there is some evidence that at least a couple of women, wives of Mithraists, managed to attain initiation) and appealed especially to soldiers, government officials, and professionals. It was the "Freemasonry" of its day, a men's lodge where slaves and generals might meet on equal terms and soldiers stationed far away from home could find convivial companionship.

Mithraic worship took place in torchlit underground temples filled with symbolic figures, astrological signs, and illustrations. Unfortunately, no clear interpretation of any of these symbols has come down to modern times, so scholars of Mithraism must puzzle them out as best they can. The central emblem of Mithraism is the bull-slaying scene, which is always at the focus of the temple in front of the assembled worshippers. It depicts the young god Mithras (his name and costume are borrowed from Persian culture) slaying the sacred cosmic Bull with a dagger or short sword. Even this central scene is not understood, though David Ulansey (the author of the website I have cited) seems to have come the closest, in my opinion, to deciphering the symbolism as an astronomical/spiritual allegory.

Those who are hostile to Christianity have often accused Christianity of borrowing (or stealing) from Mithraism. There are some superficial similarities between the two religions, though far fewer than what these critics have been led to believe. Most of the similarities are not because the two religions borrowed from each other, but because they both borrowed from the same cultural sources. The only provable Christian borrowing from Mithraism is the date of Christmas, December 25. This was celebrated as the birthday of Mithras, who was associated with the sun since the date is close to the winter solstice, symbolic "birthday" of the sun. When Christianity took over, it also took over that date; the actual birthday of Jesus is unknown. The official Christianity of the Roman Empire suppressed Mithraism and by the sixth century AD, it had disappeared as an active religion, though in some places, churches were built over old Mithraic temples.

My presentation this year was on possible Pythagorean influence on the sacred geometry of the Bull-slaying emblem. Pythagoras (Greek philosopher of the sixth century BC) was one of the West's first and greatest mathematicians. He was the first to say that all phenomena could be described by numbers. He also founded an esoteric school devoted to mathematics and mysticism. The influence of this school lasted well into Roman times, and so I proposed that this mathematical esotericism might also lend itself to Mithraic sacred geometry. I noted that the figures of Mithras and the Bull, in almost all the copies that have been found, fit perfectly into an equilateral triangle, something which was of great importance in Pythagorean symbolism. I'll be writing up this talk if you are interested.

While at the conference I also finished reading NOBEL DREAMS by Gary Taubes. I realized that accelerator physics, at least as Taubes described it, was Mithraism all over again. The great machines and their detectors are built underground in torchlit spaces, where bands of men (and some women, as long as they are married to men in the group) puzzle over cryptic symbols in the light of the mystic fires. The physicists are intellectual soldiers stationed far away from home, bound by an implacable general's command to man the borderline and combat the enemies of Rome (or more specifically, get results before the other group does). In Taubes' book, all the intense work, all the hardship and mad toil, comes to an inconclusive end, as they cannot confirm that they have indeed discovered anything new. And so the mysteries of supersymmetry, or the Higgs boson, or the slaying of the sacred subatomic Bull, remain unexplained, even unto the present time.

Posted at 1:47 am | link

Thu, 07 Apr, 2005

A very narrow focus

Lately, physics has been making me dizzy. I think it's the effect of that Taubes book that I'm reading (NOBEL DREAMS) which describes the world of high-energy physics at CERN, Fermilab, and other laboratories in the mid-'80s. He describes the frenetic pace of work there, using what would now be considered "antique" computers. Then he describes the mental and mathematical gyrations that the physicists, all in frantic competition with each other and working 20 hours a day, do to either prove or disprove particle events happening in their enormous machines. It makes me tired just reading about it.

Whenever I look too much at physics sites, or physics blogs, I get that dizzy feeling again. Like, will I ever understand a text such as this one, which I have lifted off a physics blog (which will remain unnamed):

"…. He managed to extend Cartan's classification of simple Lie algebras to superalgebras some years ago. Here instead of 4 (parametrized) series of algebras one gets 10 series, plus only 5 exceptional ones. You can understand these exceptional ones in terms of their maximal subgroups. Two of them have SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) and one has SU(5). And if you believe in SU(5) unification you are left with a unique choice since only one of the preceding ones can be embedded in the latter. We can name them now: E(3|6) and E(5|10).…"

I think this is mathematical physics. I hope to live long enough to understand what this, and other impenetrable passages, are all about.

As for the wild pace of physics, the notable thing about it, at least for me, is that all that fervor and intensity and mad toil, then and now, has not yet yielded any unmistakable proof for either "supersymmetry" or string theory. Well, there's always the next, bigger accelerator, and there are always more physicists willing to work 20 hours a day for the next few years of their lives trying to find the proof, or the disproof. Even now, they are still at it.

I admire fervor and intensity and mad toil. I am constantly aware that I could do more, work harder, get more done. I don't have the energy of those young graduate students, but I do have the focus. Unfortunately for me, it's a very narrow focus when it comes to physics. I can only do one chapter at a time, one page at a time, in fact, one problem at a time. The dizziness takes over when I look too far ahead in the book, or read too many accounts of professional physicists at work. My mental bandwidth is just too limited.

This Electron will be on a short hiatus while I go to a small classical studies conference, really just a yearly meeting of a few like-minded friends who like to learn and talk about Hellenistic and imperial Roman religions. I'll be back, Deo volente, next week.

Posted at 3:02 am | link

Tue, 05 Apr, 2005

Spinning the wheel

After spinning my wheels trying to review just about everything I have learned in mechanics up to this point, I finally went ahead and learned something new tonight. It was the next bit in my "Made Easy" textbook, namely angular velocity and torque force. It was illustrated by pictures of a wheel of fortune, a bucket crank over a well, and a seesaw. The sample problems were about things like levers, planks with weight on them, and a steering wheel. Even I, in my otherworldly virtual environment, could conceive of such simple ordinary things. I wandered through my quarters looking for a wheel I could spin to demonstrate torque for myself, but all I came up with were the small, very grubby wheels of a metal hand truck which I decided not to bother with. I get the picture.

The physics of applying force to a rotating thing is new for me, so I am finally breaking out of the orbit I have been stuck in for the last few weeks. I felt that I would never get anywhere. I often feel that way. Each time I try to review, I feel as though I've not studied it enough, I don't have the facility that would allow me to just snap through it as if it were a familiar skill. That goes for acceleration, vectors, weight and gravity, all the classical mechanical things I've been studying for the last few months. I have to artificially impose Newton's third law on my thinking. It is, at least for me, counter-intuitive to think of forces being balanced and equal whether something is floating or sitting on something solid. I have to remember that steady motion is as much an equilibrium as "at rest." In a way I am still an ancient Greek who believes that things seek their own "designated place" in a hierarchical Universe of earth, air, fire, and water.

I have also been both exhilarated and depressed by a book that I am currently reading. The book is NOBEL DREAMS by Gary Taubes, from 1986, real cheap at It's the breathlessly written story of how the great particle accelerators and detectors of the 1980's were built, and the men who built and manned them and wrung discoveries out of them. Towering over it all is the grandiose, heroic (and morally ambiguous) figure of Nobel Prize winner Carlo Rubbia who bullied, politicked, bluffed, and clawed his way to the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1984. This is a person I would not want to meet in a dark accelerator hallway. Not that I ever would, mind you. The world of high-energy physicists described by author Taubes is about as accessible to ordinary folk like me as the clergy of the Vatican (and the upcoming papal conclave) or perhaps, in another culture, the Freemasons. It is a relentlessly masculine world in which physics is warfare. Or at least NFL football. Here are men who are willing to consume their whole lives for their quest, working around the clock to track exotic particles while their patient wives wait at home. When they are not doing physics in the lab, they are bashing about all night in bars and strip joints, always talking physics. Not a very welcoming atmosphere for women physicists, that's for sure. There are just one or two in the book, and the author doesn't portray them with the loving attention to character he spends on the big men.

And then there are the great accelerators. This is where I first saw the luminosity, 14 years after that book was written, when I visited the Tevatron at Fermilab in 2000. I was lucky enough to have one of the insiders take me into the accelerator hallways (the machine was then inactive, while it was being upgraded). From what my guide told me, and what this older book tells me, the atmosphere and competition between the big accelerators and their canon clergy has not changed. CERN in Europe is betting on its immense Large Hadron Collider, now under construction, while Fermilab claims that its belltower is still the highest (as competing towns in Italy are fond of doing).

They are tracking the cuttingest edge of physics, while I am toiling over what they learned so effortlessly in their childhood. I turn the wheel again and again. But then, what are those accelerator rings but a kind of wheel? They don't turn, of course, but the particles inside them ride the rings, whipped into frenetic speed by the roaring klystrons (is torque applicable here?), circling and circling until they are aimed at each other and collided. The accelerators are great Catherine wheels, spewing particle fireworks into their detectors for the acolytes to record and study. I still hope that someday, somehow, I'll be able to catch some of that light.

Posted at 3:42 am | link

Sat, 02 Apr, 2005

A Year of Fantasy Writing

There hasn't been a new Electron entry in about a week, because I've been busy finishing up another piece of writing. I've been working on this for a whole year, even as I've been doing math and physics and reporting to this Weblog. Now I'm pleased to report that it is done.

Just like most fantasy and science fiction fans, I have an imaginary world that I've been making up since I was just a nerdy teenager. By now I have centuries of history made up in it, along with a vast cast of characters and many interesting (at least, to me) stories about them. Over the last thirty years I've written piles and piles of texts, all of which sit gathering dust in a corner. Now many of those texts also gather pixel dust in virtual corners of my hard drive. I've also made lots of pictures from this world, depicting characters, scenes, and architecture. These are in the same dusty and obscure places as the writing. I've only tried to publish once or twice, and having been rejected, I just shelved it.

But somehow I can't stop making up this world and writing about it. I've created timelines and histories, countries, universities, wars, political systems, money and media, vehicles and architecture. I've gone through generations of people, both famous and ordinary, from kings to vegetable farmers. It is the same sort of thing which made J.R.R. Tolkien happy for fifty years of his life, but in my own private, non-heroic, non-Middle-Earth sphere. It's kind of like playing an elaborate role-playing game, or a more sophisticated, philosophical version of THE SIMS (electronic simulated character game) but only for myself.

The world I created, unlike most of the fantasy worlds ultimately derived from Tolkien, is a modern world, with a level of technology just slightly ahead of ours. It takes place on an alternate Earth where humans as we know them have not (or never) evolved. The people I invented are almost the same human types as we are, with some differences in coloration and internal physiology. They look somewhat like Central Asian or Indian people, but with blue-grey, salt-and-pepper, or white hair.

The most important difference (from our world) about my imaginary world is that magic works, or more specifically, psychic powers. Most of my people have some degree of these powers; a rare few have far more, and they are like modern wizards. I am not hesitant to admit that I have freely borrowed ideas from fantasy authors like J.K.Rowling, Katherine Kurtz, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May, and Olaf Stapledon. I don't pretend to be original. But I think I have some unusual elements in my fantasy; for instance, instead of Celtic and medieval culture as main inspiration, which is standard for most fantasy worlds, I use Mediterranean and Persian cultures, with lots of Roman, Greek, and middle eastern allusions.

The text I have just finished is about 250 pages long. It is in the form of a year's worth of journal entries (or a weblog!) written by a middle-aged lady who is a professional journalist and editor. She works as the publications editor of an Institute for Psychic Studies. She has been unofficially contracted to write this journal as a reference for historians and a favor to a group of her friends. Throughout the year, she writes about the different adepts on the staff, the visitors to the Institute, a scholarly conference on aspects of psychic powers, and details of food, architecture, language, and history. She also writes about her travels on behalf of the Institute.

Given what gets published and appreciated in our modern world, my text has no sales potential. There is no graphic sex, no violence, no brutality, not much cynicism or irony, and not much plot, either. No one gets murdered or raped. It's more about the intrigue, gossip, and stories of an academic setting, like a "cozy" mystery story without the crime. There's no slam-bang action, but lots of tea drinking.

My immersion in physics and mathematics has had a great influence on my current fantasy worldmaking. The "psychic powers" of my world are not like the fantastic magic of Harry Potter's world, nor like the elvish magic of Tolkien's. I portray psychic powers, or to use an old science-fiction term, psionics, as a predictable, measurable, repeatable phenomenon, amenable to scientific study and experiment. In fact, one of my most important characters is a psionic adept who is also a physicist, and is the first person of his era to re-discover the scientific basis of magic. He is the Director of that Institute for psychic studies.

Sooner or later I will put this text, and others, and pictures from my world, up on a section of my main Pyracantha Website. For now, I am glad that I am not writing that extra thing because it will give me more hours to study my classical mechanics.

Posted at 2:41 am | link

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