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 It is no longer being updated.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, 30 Jun, 2005

Right answer, but still perplexed

I've been doing physics problems from Barron's chapter 4, and usually I get them correct. The trouble is, I don't know why I get them correct. All I'm doing is plugging the numbers into the formulas which I have attempted to memorize. It's the opposite of those frustrating mathematical moments I described about a year ago (for instance, when I was studying Logarithms) where I could not get any of the problems right even though I understood what was required to solve them.

This part of classical mechanics seems to be a shifting kaleidoscope of different quantities such as impulse, momentum, angular momentum, spatial extension, velocity, acceleration, mass, weight, gravity, time and force, all of which seem to be able to be multiplied by each other despite their very different qualities. Kilograms/meters/seconds, velocity2/radius length, and force * time. I am finding it hard to keep track of all of them. The problems are solved by combining and recombining them in the formulas. I am remotely aware that all of these things profoundly and precisely describe the "rea,l" at least the macroscopic, world, but I feel far away from experiencing them and understanding how they really do combine. Newton's apple has not dropped from the tree, it is still floating up there as if gravity had no pull on it, as if there were no Newtons of force acting upon it. But what's the difference between the force of gravity and the acceleration of gravity? Will I ever eat the apple?

What's the point of getting the problems right if I don't understand the material? And then should I dare to ask questions? If momentum is mass x velocity, then do photons, which have no mass but do have velocity, have momentum? Yeah, I shouldn't ask about photons, it seems like it will be years before I advance enough in physics to deal with them rather than with cannonballs, wheels, and orbiting Keplerian planets.

I know that these formulaic entities are part of my real life; my Electron Car's path along the road is a complex combination of forces and vectors and acceleration and friction and torque and momentum. I have no laboratory or workshop where things can be isolated and demonstrated, though I suppose I could find space somewhere if I tried. But the world is so full of phenomena that I hardly know where to start.

Posted at 1:08 am | link

Sat, 25 Jun, 2005

Cultural war, a follow-up

I am rather surprised that I have received more than one positive response to the rant which I posted in my last entry here. At this point I need to clarify just where I stand in relation to the content of the rant. The attitude, ideas, and lamentations which I expressed in "Losing the Cultural War" come from my own cultural and family heritage. This is what I grew up with. But I don't agree with all of it, only some of it. Most people don't agree with everything they grew up with.

My personal ideas about art and culture are more modest, simpler, and less lofty. I quote here from one of my correspondents, a Friendly Composer. (Just as I have Friendly Scientists and Mathematicians, I also have Friendly Composers, Writers, and Artists.) He said the following after reading my "culture war" essay:

"… I find myself all the time worrying less and less about huge cultural questions, and just focusing in more on my doing my craft and work as best I can.… I'm most interested in simply getting down to it and writing pieces, promoting them, publishing and performing, etc."

I feel the same way about my art. I would rather be considered a simple-minded craftsman who makes art to order for a client and gets paid for it, than have myself stuck in the stance of the intellectual who does less art (out of despair) and spends more time denouncing the cultural scene.

Now I hope I can get back to physics, which is as important to me as art.


Chapter 4, in the Barron's book, has a lot of material in it. It's got Newton's laws, impulse, momentum, conservation of momentum, angular momentum, Kepler's laws, Newton's law of universal gravity, the inverse-square law of gravity, and more. All of these essentials are expressed in mathematical formulas. Once they are derived, they are just there and you can plug in what numbers you have to solve for the quantity you don't have.

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century scientists toiled over data gathered with primitive (by our standards) observation equipment to find these laws. Only historians of science bother with the whole story of how the laws were formulated. For the rest of us physics students, you just use the formulas. An entire era of human history stands behind Newton's f = ma, but I'm using it to solve high-school-level problems.

When I was in academic humanities, the word "formula" or "formulaic" had only BAD significance. It was what you were never supposed to do when you were writing or creating art. Formula was mundane, repetitive, uncreative, and unoriginal, guaranteed to cause banal and lousy art. If a critic said that some piece of art followed a formula, that was a bad review. I have already said in a previous post how "generalization" was also regarded as bad. You were supposed to approach everything as if it were the first time each time, without any preconceptions.

But in science, it's the opposite. The goal (as one of my Friendly Scientists enthusiastically said to me) is to reduce a phenomenon to as simple an example as possible, and find a general formula which explains it. The complexity can come later.

As a border-crossing humanist (ex-humanist? transhumanist?) I feel somewhat guilty that I am learning and using so many formulas without creating them anew each time. "Learning science is more than just memorizing formulas," the modern teacher might say. But I think that in my case this is a mis-application of my old humanist ways to my new scientific endeavor. The formulas are what make the starry wheels of the universe turn, and I am glad that I don't have to re-invent those wheels each time I move them.

Posted at 3:17 am | link

Wed, 22 Jun, 2005

Losing the Cultural War

What is it like to lose the cultural war? Every time I go back to my old milieu in the Boston area, I remember. I grew up in one of the last strongholds of Euro-British-American elite culture. Classical music, classical museum art, classical literature, all were preserved and reproduced reverently in the ivy towers of Eastern universities. After all, up until I was in my mid-twenties I assumed, as did everyone around me, that I would become a professor of classical studies (Greek and Latin) in one of those ivy-ivory towered places, where even the architecture (at least, that which was built before the 1960s) referred back to the old countries overseas, rather than anything American. America was crass, commercial, forever lowbrow. It was to be held at bay, or even ignored, even though one had to live in it.

But now it is almost impossible to live any more in those towers, since the media are omnipresent, blasting that hated American culture into every corner and cranny of life, including, of course, the Internet through which you are reading this. In order to keep the classical life, one has to become a cloistered recluse, as the preservers of classical Greek and Roman culture did in the early medieval dark ages of barbarian Europe. And there are indeed cultural recluses out there. I know many of them, and not all of them are elderly, though most of them are. They know, no matter how much of the old culture still fills their lives, that they have lost the cultural war.

What is it like to lose the cultural war? It is tuning up and down the entire FM radio dial and not finding a single station that plays the kind of (classical) music one likes, when in decades past, there had been at least two or three. It is watching your kind, the intellectuals and professors and thinkers, being ridiculed and trivialized in films and TV programs, not to mention in the larger social world. If you are religious, you have seen your religion's ancient intellectual and philosophical tradition replaced by emotional, irrational, anti-intellectual appeals to "the heart" rather than the mind, or even worse, with politicized fanaticism. And for you, TV is as it was from its beginning, a "vast wasteland" where you visit only for escapism, simple-minded giggles or titillation.

As an intellectual from the old world, an alien immigrant or someone bred by immigrants fleeing the horrors of the twentieth century into this ever-foreign land, one has experienced, and possibly even produced, cultural works that fit the ideal: complexity, depth, subtlety, and restraint. Quietness and elegance, brevity and compactness, clarity and mathematical structure: this is the Renaissance perspective that has now been driven from the world. It can be seen only in relics preserved in museums or on the yellowed pages of out-of-print books, or in old recordings now faded and scratchy, untouched by digital adulteration, or the occasional concert performance attended by no one younger than age 60.

Nowhere, nowhere does one see anything in the world like the ideal. In fact, every cultural product now available does everything to violate that ideal, with its cacophonous noise, violence, assaultingly fast pace, primitive drumbeats, howling voices, crowds of leaping bodies, obsessive and fetishistic sexuality, snarling incivility, celebrity-worship, filthy language, inedible food, garish colors and unreadable graphics, tattoos and piercings and other imitations of savages, screaming into the world with no let-up, no consciousness of anything beyond the desire for more, more, MORE in an age where the extreme has become normal.

In the embattled cloister, the intellectual's job, as it has always been, is to remind the world of the Ideal, and to pass judgement on what is done. That judgement has been, throughout the ages, almost exclusively negative. Nothing is as good as the ideal. Nothing ever was as good as the Ideal that was realized in the golden past, whether it is said by Hesiod lamenting the bygone Golden Age in the early days of Greek literature or by a modern Nobel-prize winner. But now, here in America and the Americanized world that hates America, no one is listening.

So one's vocabulary, looking out the electronic windows of the cloister, is filled with the overheated language of judgement and condemnation, that none of the perpetrators of the cultural atrocities will ever hear: horrible!… idiotic! … terrible! … hideous! … ghastly! … vile! … pathetic! … insane! … crazy! … monstrous! …an unbelievable catastrophe!! it stinks! it's crap! and above all, it's stupid, irretrievably, incorrigibly, perpetually stupid, stupid, and ever more stupid.

It's all over but the shouting. The classical world has lost, and is being burned away in America like the library of Alexandria, over and over and over again, with every rock music album, reality TV show, music video, trashy fashion show, blockbuster fantasy movie, celebrity gossip magazine, and graffiti exhibit. No, no use doing any new art or writing or music that attempts to fit the Ideal—why try? why toil for months or years on something which will never see the light of day, or even if published or shown will never be noticed in the mindless madness of American culture? Why bother to grow delicate cultural flowers in a desert full of predators and ugly thorns? One's quiet efforts can never survive the competition of a million amplified shrieks, a world of endless mediocrity and incessant, exhausting vulgarity pumped and pumped by crass commercialism. The job of the intellectual is not to convey false hope, but true despair.

I'm back from Boston now. It has been a rather rough transition from the cloister to the workplace. While in the Boston area I confirmed with an arts director that I will be showing new work in a coffee-house gallery in my old Massachusetts home town, this November and December. It will be my first "gallery" art show rather than convention or private show. I visited the coffee house and saw the walls where, if all goes well, my art will hang in the late autumn, seen by people enjoying themselves with a coffee and a muffin in a pleasant space. The howling cacophony of the hideous world seems rather far away there.

A Postscript to the Cultural War

I listen to Internet radio. I am subscribed, for a modest fee, to, a vast compendium of Internet "broadcasting stations," maintained mostly by individuals or groups who love their music, whatever it is. There are, at my last inspection, over 100 classical music "stations" on Live365. There are other such compendia of Internet radio broadcasts which require no fee and take the listener to hundreds of classical stations, such as Classical Live Online Radio. All these places require is a modestly up-to-date computer and a cable modem (broadband) connection. As for visual arts, there seems to be an almost infinite variety of artwork, some of it approaching the Ideal, available for viewing on the Internet. The same is true for literature and poetry, where with enough searching ability one can access anything from the most exquisite Japanese haiku (very Ideal) to the poetry of nineteenth-century English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (very out of style.) Try Tennyson's long poem "The Palace of Art," available on The Tennyson Page (scroll down the list of poems to find it) for a highly elaborate and allegorical expression of the embattled cultural idealist falling into despair. It seems that the cultural Ideals that I grew up with have lost in "real" space, but they are alive and well in Cyberspace.

Posted at 4:19 am | link

Fri, 17 Jun, 2005


After more than a week of boiling hot steamy weather, the rains came and the temperature has dropped more than thirty degrees. The area has now returned to its usual state, even during summer: cold, wet, and clammy. There is something just wrong about wearing a sweater and putting the heat on in the middle of June, if you are near sea level. It reminds me why I left Massachusetts for warmer climes.

Inside the house the days seem indistinguishable from the nights, blocked in by dripping dark green vegetation and lit by dim reddish voltage-saving fluorescent lights. My parents' TV is on much of the time, delivering an endless stream of cultural fragments, snapped together by clicks of the remote: smiling blonde weather girls, golf tournaments, car racing, classical music performances, "concerned" blonde newsgirls reporting local crimes, loud car ads, barely-dressed blonde party girls, sober Charlie Rose interviewing a movie star, bits of old movies in black and white, barbed splinters of pop music, pretty girl threatened in a suspense movie, luxury travel destinations, cooking shows, animal rescue stories, pretty blonde girls in skimpy bikinis gyrating to pop-country music, Oprah Winfrey introducing African women victims of rape and torture, ads for prescription drugs, and, finally, the only thing I want to watch…baseball.. Thursday the Sox didn't play. Mother, meanwhile, is reading the collected letters of French author Gustave Flaubert.

Living in the big city, I've gotten used to a fast-paced life. But here it seems like the remote North Woods, despite the heavy traffic on the larger roads only a mile away. My father has planted his tomatoes and fenced them against voracious rabbits and deer. Grey squirrels, swift little red squirrels, chipmunks, and other woodland creatures roam the emerald grass under the trees. Loud little wrens, tweeting titmice, bright cardinals, and a dozen other kinds of birds fill the forest with song. If it rains a bit longer, we'll have mushrooms sprouting in the grass like cartoons. I couldn't stand all this cute nature. I took my mother shopping. I needed to see a parking lot, for Disney's sake.

As a would-be scientist, I have acquired a habit of intense, goal-directed, high-energy action, or at least the need for such action. I must be doing something toward my objective every waking moment. If I am not, I lose momentum. I have tried to do at least one problem a day, and read through one new section. I got to the end of chapter 4 in the Barron's book, the chapter called "Making things move." That is what physics is all about, it seems to me. Keep moving, keep striving, keep going forward, keep learning and finding things out, otherwise you slow down, decelerate, de-orbit. The mist could close in, the light fail, the impetus dwindle. Soon I will review chapter 4, run those formulas again to set them in my memory, crank the torque, and start the Electron's engine for my return to home and work.

Posted at 3:25 am | link

Tue, 14 Jun, 2005

Newton, Mass

Living away from New England for so long, I had forgotten how stifling, hot, and humid Boston summer weather can be. I'm remembering it now, here among the hum of air conditioners and fans and the whining buzz of mosquitoes. The TV flickers ceaselessly in the dim den, and a moist vegetable darkness surrounds the house. After the Red Sox game is over and won, it's time for physics.

I couldn't resist the title. Newton is a large suburb of Boston, and some of my relatives live there. These suburbs of Boston were settled by Europeans during the time of Isaac Newton, and even though I'm plugged into twentieth-century technology, I'm still in the seventeenth century when it comes to physics. Or even the sixteenth. I've been introduced, in my book, to Kepler's laws of planetary orbits, and those heretical ellipses. And his third law: "For every planet, the cube of its distance from the sun is proportional to the square of its period of revolution." There's the Harmony of the World, the first maps of the clockwork universe of the coming Enlightenment.

How did Kepler find out about those squares and cubes? According to my book, he used "data acquired through years of accurate observation by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe." And yet the formula seems so simple, expressed by ordinary algebra. These are the "giants" whose shoulders Newton stood on. My book, the tireless and un-botherable instructor, shows me how Newton derived his formula for universal gravitation from Kepler's laws of planetary motion. Though the book doesn't show all the algebraic steps, I try to derive them anyway, according to what I've learned. I cross-multiply proportions, and substitute one entity for another, attempting to move from one stage to the next. I scribble math graffiti all over the margins and between the paragraphs. It seems to make sense, but why? Why should a simple algebraic substitution or proportional statement or even solving for one variable, say something so important about the universe? Perhaps I am misunderstanding how theory is derived. But I continue to be in awe of Kepler time and space, and Newton mass.

Posted at 2:48 am | link

Sun, 12 Jun, 2005

The Class of 1970

My high school reunion is over, and I have survived it. Despite my fears and dithering, I found that my old schoolmates not only remembered me fondly but even thought highly of me. Evidently, I was not the class goat but the class "art genius" in their opinion. My egotistic self was thrilled, though I wonder whether the distance of 35 years might have sweetened their memories. I'm glad for it no matter what.

I was amazed at how good my classmates of Dana Hall '70 looked.. Their fresh clear faces of 1970 had not deteriorated but mellowed, with touches of silver frosting their hair and a couple of laugh lines here and there. They were well-cared for, most of them with stable marriages and children now in their college years or just beyond them. My classmates all went into careers in human service, medicine, teaching, and the arts, at least the ones who came to Reunion. There wasn't a physicist among them, I'm sorry to say.
But then the ones who had the money and time and inclination to come to Reunion were the lucky ones, the successful ones, and the healthy ones. At least two of our number were prevented from coming by serious illness. Others had other commitments, like children graduating or sick parents to care for. And there were many whose addresses were now unknown, lost in the shifting mists of American women's life.

I had eleven pictures in the alumnae art show, which showed art, crafts, and writing from our year's group. After a lobster luncheon in the main cafeteria building (where I and the others reminisced about our most and least favorite institutional food) we attended the artists' reception in the little gallery. This was where I got to show off my work and I got more ego-feeding as the attendees from the various reunion classes complimented my art. Interestingly, they said that my work of the 2000's was clearly recognizable as mine even though they knew only my art from my high school days. Is my imagemaking really that consistent?

Summer has arrived in the Boston area, with tropical heat and humidity. This only stays around for a month or so, but this is the month. The gallery area was not air conditioned and the place was stifling even though there were fans set up to stir the air. Adding to this difficulty was a heavy exudation of pine pollen which drifted through the air from the groves of pine trees on campus, settling on surfaces and turning them yellow. Walking through the grass, I raised up clouds of pollen with every step and my black shoes turned yellow. But despite the pollen and the bad air we had an excellent turnout of gallery-goers. The show was the result of tireless efforts by one of our classmates, Sarah Rodman, and by Gene Scattergood, who has been a professor of art at Dana Hall for more than thirty years.

Then it was time for more feasting at an outdoor dinner held at one of the dormitories. I was a commuter to Dana and never had the privilege of living in a dormitory, even though I wanted to. The dormitory I visited was newly renovated and the rooms and bathrooms were much fresher and more spacious than I remember from my school days when I visited classmates in their dorms. There was a lot of noise as twenty to thirty ladies filled the yard and common-room with their conversations, sharing old gossip and new achievements, taking pictures with digital cameras and showing pictures of their children and nice houses in photo albums. Since I have neither children nor a nice house, I showed pictures of my art.

There were a few more serious moments as well, with reference to careers and failures, divorces and bouts with illness and depression, as well as the loss of family and friends. And there were also things which could not be talked about back in 1970, like the presence of gays among the faculty, or even more controversially, the matter of social class. One of my best friends among the class of 1970 was a girl from the "upper crust," from Greenwich, Connecticut. We drifted apart after graduation and she went to a college in the distant Midwest. Now, thirty-five years later, we have reunited, with all those years' perspective on our Dana years. Catching up on the decades, our talk turned to social class. I was well aware when I went to Dana that I was of a different class from most of the girls there. Our friendship was an unusual match. I did not have lots of money, or a summer house on the coast, nor did my father drive a fancy car. And yet I was able to move among the upper-class girls without experiencing snobbery. Throughout my whole Dana years, that was one problem I never encountered. In my family of artists, our belief and policy is that artists are able to move between classes, and are not tied to any single stratum. In my own experience, my art (and that of others) is appreciated (and bought!) by anyone from a biker or a maintenance man to a lofty professor of philosophy. Art, at least in the ideal, transcends class. And at least in my case, my art overcame my high school geek-ness, creating good memories instead of the bad ones that I had feared.

Posted at 3:15 am | link

Thu, 09 Jun, 2005


I am about to embark on yet another of my trips to the environs of Boston, this time for the dreaded thirty-fifth high school reunion. The main reason (though not the only reason) I am going to this is for some hope of ego satisfaction, to see my art on the walls and to prove to the aging preppettes that the weirdo classmate of their teen years survived and is still active. It's not that they were cruel to me or that they did bad things to me; they didn't. As I remember, they were mostly rather nice girls from privileged families whose destiny in life was to have a career in some form of social service, as well as doing philanthropic work as a volunteer. From what I remember about the school, the emphasis on social welfare, fund-raising, and everything having to do with community was intense. I, naturally, had no interest in helping other people, all I wanted to do was make art, read superhero comics, and watch STAR TREK. In one incident I'm sure that one or two of these alumnae will remember, I stood up during an assembly and said I was sick and tired of hearing about "community" so much.

I remember my high school years through a haze of embarrassment and often outright misery, which I relieved then and now by retreating into an imaginary science-fiction world where techno-wizards in cool black and silver costumes did psi-magic in futuristic architectural settings. I still have never successfully done any social welfare.

Mathematics was the cause of a large chunk of my high school misery. One of the reasons I am going to this event is to tell those who were witness to my math misery, that I have overcome those thirty-five years of incompetency and that I now know how to factor a quadratic equation, and how to figure out the acceleration of gravity at any measurable level above, if nearby, the earth's surface.

When I'm in New England, I don't get to do much of either mathematics, physics, or art. There is too much social activity with relatives and friends. But I want to try to do at least one problem a day, to re-connect with the wider universe of Newton's laws, the impersonal world of physics and mathematics that waited for me for forty years, until I finally heard its summoning call.

Posted at 2:55 am | link

Sun, 05 Jun, 2005

One page a day

I usually work through about one page a day in my Barron's text. It might actually be two pages sometimes. I do a section on one subject, with a couple of sample problems. Each one of these is made ultra-simple for the high school beginner, but at least it introduces the concept. Today's section was on free fall and weightlessness. Tomorrow's will be how satellites achieve orbit around the earth or any space body exerting gravitation. This does indeed involve rocket science.

One thing that continues to confuse me is the combination of different units of measurement in calculation. There are so many different kinds of quantities to remember. For instance, the calculation of the mass of a planet using the acceleration of its gravity, its radius, and the universal constant of gravity involves not only meters per second2 for the acceleration, but Newtons x meters2/kg2 for the universal constant of gravity. And if you square the radius of the earth as one does in the inverse square rule, then that adds meters2 which really confuses me as I associate that with area, not radius. And then, it seems to all cancel out in the final calculation, leaving only the unit of mass, kilograms.

This is the kind of thing which is really hard to explain over Internet. You'd think that every communication problem could be solved by Internet, including sharing math calculations, and no doubt in the big laboratories they have virtual real-time screens which can share "blackboard" writing among people who are separated by continents. But it isn't here for us consumers yet. Where is my universal tablet-screen which can show me a DVD one minute and allow me to sketch, in real-time, a design for a client in New Zealand, the next minute? It will be mine if I live long enough. More technology is always good! More! As long as I don't have to actually meet up with anyone and bother them with my physics questions.

Enlightened Alan Lightman

I finally finished reading Alan Lightman's A SENSE OF THE MYSTERIOUS. This is one of those books where I like it so much I don't want it to end. This recent book is a compilation of some of Lightman's essays which he wrote over the last ten years or so. I wanted it to last as long as I could, so I only read a few pages a day. Since I am a painfully slow reader anyway, this worked.

Lightman, as I said before, is a physicist who became a writer. He describes his strategy when choosing a career:

"… I would put my writing on the back burner until I became well established in science. I knew of a few scientists who later became writers, like C.P. Snow and Rachel Carson, but no writers who later in life became scientists. For some reason, science — at least the creative, research side of science — is a young person's game.…"

As a result of this decision, he now writes better than any other writer I have read about the inner workings of a scientist's mind, and how he really feels when doing the work, and what motivates him to do it. He is an introspective scientist who can express what it is like from experience. He also carries on the tradition of scientific storytelling, with essays about some of the most famous scientists of our time, such as Einstein and Feynman. Every science writer I have read, and every scientist I have met, tells these personal stories; it seems to be a tradition. Musicians do the same thing, and I've listened to many wonderful (or funny) stories about composers or conductors while I was growing up. Writers get to write personal anecdotes in their professional work, while scientists don't.

My favorite piece in the collection is the one, written in 2000, called "Portrait of the Writer as a Young Scientist." This essay is so wonderful that I wish I could quote the whole thing here, because just one paragraph isn't enough. I am not going to try to extract a meaningful quote. If you have the interest, time or inclination, it's worth picking up the book and reading it yourself, here at

Alan Lightman is one of those people whom I would love to contact, in the hope of having a conversation about art and physics. Interestingly, he has chosen not to use e-mail as a means of communication (due to philosophical concerns he has portrayed in his books) so one has to write to him by paper mail. I have a list of people whose books I love or whose science or art I admire, whom I would like to contact, but I have held back from trying because I don't want to act like a dork (see my "Face to Face" posting of 1 June.). If there were a proper, socially acceptable, and gracious way to do it, I'd like to know. Maybe someone has written a "how-to" article on the process. It always helps if there's a text to read, even if it's only one page at a time.

Posted at 3:37 am | link

Fri, 03 Jun, 2005


Enough whining, back to physics.
I am introducing myself, for the second or third time, to Newton's law of universal gravitation. It took me many tries, with many books, before I realized that the "G" constant of universal gravitation is not the "g" quantity of the acceleration of gravity on Earth. Things don't always fall at 9.8 meters per second2. They only fall that fast near the surface of the Earth. Other places have other strengths of gravity, depending on their mass. I just read in my Barron's book about the experiment, in the nineteenth century, that determined the exact quantity of the constant of universal gravitation. I don't know whether Newton knew how much the constant was. But he knew it was there.

If this were another universe and I were someone embarking on a career in physics, I would almost certainly pick the theorist's path and not the experimentalist's. This is not just because I have not tinkered with enough electronics. I enjoy figuring things out and live to solve problems. I like to work through possibilities in the abstract, whether I set them down on paper or not. I am creative enough to think of things in new and original ways, if I have enough background to make sense of a subject. I suspect that theoretical physicists are a lot like artists; mathematicians even more so. When I read stuff about dark energy and string theory and other theoretical explorations, I sometimes have to laugh, and then I say, "And you scientists think that we artists make things up!"

I make up a picture in my head long before I ever touch a colored pencil or sketch marker. I can even make something up without turning on the computer! I have art ideas in my mind, that I have never put down on paper, and some of them are more than ten years old, maybe even twenty. (When was 1981? A century ago?) Now that I have new resources such as computer graphics programs, I am retrieving those old ideas and putting them into image files, which can be modified without wasting paint or paper. You don't have to clean messy pixels off your palette in the sink.

I have only met one or two theoretical physicists in my journey so far. They are shy, wary, ill-tempered, and hard to contact. The one I remember most was a strange and driven man who worked for private industry, and who seemed overwhelmed by the force and proliferation of his own ideas. After listening to him for an evening, I got the impression that it is possible for a person to be too intelligent, oppressed by the activity of his own fevered, hyper brain.

But theory has a power that fascinates me. For instance, according to the book, once the gravitational constant and one mass under Earth's gravity is known, as well as the radius of the Earth sphere, you can find the quantity of Earth's mass. I had wondered how they knew this quantity; how can you weigh something as big as the Earth? And how can you figure its weight if it's sitting in the center of its own gravity? This is only one example of how even in my simple high-school physics study, I've encountered theory which leads people to real facts. I am amazed that an abstract formula, when manipulated, can point to real data that experiments then go on to confirm. Why should the world be so easily turned by mathematical torque? That's quite an Archimedean lever, that can move the Earth, and perhaps it's no wonder that theoretical physicists sometimes are arrogant. They perceive the power of their equations to crank the mechanism of the universe. This makes some of them cranky, and others, well, just cranks.

Posted at 2:57 am | link

Wed, 01 Jun, 2005

Science face to face

Now back to whining.
Let me state this bluntly (I know no other way). I am socially inept. In this I follow the temperament of many artists and many scientists. I can put up a good front of being socially adept, charming, and witty, as I do when dealing with customers at work or with art clients, but there is a time limit on this and the longer the social exposure goes on, the more chance there is of my committing ineptitude, sometimes of gross proportions. I estimate that I have a five-minute limit of social competence, and then after that, there is no telling what I might say, even inadvertently. And if alcohol is involved, then there is no grace period at all. If I have some wine in me, then I haven't got a chance.

This social ineptitude was a problem all through my youth. It was only in my adulthood that I learned to get along at all. Like many of you readers, I spent my teen years hidden in my room, listening to records, playing with tape recorders, reading, and making up imaginary worlds.

I was, and am, inclined to be taken up with an all-consuming interest in one subject or another, spending months or even years in exhaustive study of it, boring everyone in my presence with my talk about it. In my younger days, this was simply thought of as annoying. Now it is identified as a symptom of mild autism, or Asperger's Syndrome. It has been discovered in the last decades or so that this syndrome appears in what are sometimes called "shadow syndromes," which are even milder versions of the condition. So what was merely eccentric or uncouth in my own younger years has now become pathological.

I was not unsocial, though. I really wanted to talk to people whom I respected, whose knowledge or skills or achievements I admired. But I didn't know how to approach them skillfully, whether in my youth or young adulthood. So I was constantly reprimanded for my forward or aggressive intellectual (not physical) behavior. I was "buttonholing" people. I "wore out my welcome." I "came on too strong." I "pestered" people and took up their precious time. I "imposed myself" on them. I bothered them. I talked too loudly. I was a bore, with my various interests, which were demoted to whims or "kicks" rather than legitimate self-initiated study programs.

Why couldn't I just "play it cool," I was often told. Be quieter, more of a listener and less of a talker, more empathetic, more aware of other people's feelings, more restrained and less intense. I should stop stomping on other people's tender opinions with "hobnailed boots." Stand back and let others have a chance. Be a good listener, and don't criticize, and don't ask questions in a leading and arrogant way. Don't be so abrupt. Don't be so abrasive. I had an obtrusive personality. In a young man, especially a young physicist, this might be considered merely brash, perhaps the sign of an ambitious brilliant intelligence… but in a female it was intolerable.

Over the years I have struggled against this. I have attempted time after time to stuff the big ungainly foot of my personality into the glass slipper of appropriate behavior. And every time, I have failed, at least in longer encounters. Some people, whom I am proud to count as friends, don't mind me the way I am. They even give me wine because they like to hear me sound off when the restraints are absent. But most of the time, I must continually be on guard, lest the old uncouth self take over again.

I have learned my lesson, then. If there is someone whose work I admire, I will not approach them. I will just "play it cool" and enjoy their work without inflicting myself on them, even by the neutral and indirect method of e-mail. I can learn from books, from websites, from articles, from videos or other impersonal methods. I know that scientists, perhaps more than other people, have incredibly busy and full schedules, and they don't have time for someone who is not in a formal, official study program, let alone someone who is older and not headed for a career in the field. They don't need to hear from me. Sometimes I don't contact possible mentors simply because I am scared of getting rejected.

Even so, I have sometimes broken my rule and contacted someone, usually by e-mail. Some of the time I will get a single answer back, with no follow-up. One physicist answered my e-mail query a year after I had sent it! Once or twice I have gotten luckier, and have actually established a helpful correspondence. These are my Friendly Scientists by remote presence.

At science fiction conventions, though, social rules and years of self-restraint evaporate. At least three of my Friendly Scientists or Mathematicians come regularly to the recent convention I just attended. There I meet them face to face. I can actually talk to them and they will show me calculations, written on my sketchbook pages or on convention flyers or paper placemats. In some cases, this Baltimore convention is the only time I meet them the entire year. In the case of the World Science Fiction Convention last year in Boston, I may never meet the friendly scientists I met there ever again. I can use up their time with impunity, because they have made themselves available by coming to the convention. I suppose this is why professional scientists are constantly jetting around the globe to meet with each other in conferences.

But most of the time I am not at a conference, and the non-interference policy remains. I am not willing, so far, to buy a specialist's attention by taking formal courses, though I would consider paying a tutor for sessions. At this point in my study, four and a half years into mathematics and physics, it is not a whim or a "kick." It is a life direction, even though I will not do it professionally. I need to know just where I have been, what I know, where I am in the progression of the subject, and what I need to do next. And more indirectly, what might I do with what I am learning, especially in creative work? This is nearly impossible to find from books or websites. But I do not want to impose myself, don't want to get into the old pattern of my blundering youth. Yet how will I learn what I need, if face to face contact will help me? The experts in the field are better off without me, but I am not better off without them.

Posted at 4:06 am | link

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