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 It is no longer being updated.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.

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

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