Category Archives: Caltech

Cults and hierarchies in physics

There’s a great post at Cosmic Variance about the cult of genius in physics:

During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you?

I remember clearly the moment I found that physics was much harder than I realized (although I had no delusions of being F-E-H smart by that point anyway): it was Ph 106a. I was used to being able to pick up concepts fairly quickly, but the subtleties of advanced classical mechanics (and Goldstein’s textbook) eluded me, and it was a serious blow to my confidence that I really didn’t get it. I worried that this was a sign that all the high-level physics concepts would be beyond my reach. Obviously that turned out not to be the case; I just needed to work a lot harder to understand these concepts. It’s striking to me how rapidly the difficulty seemed to ramp up, but this may have been due to the way Caltech structured the physics curriculum rather than an inherent property of the subject.
Chad Orzel has a related point:

Too many people approach physics as if there’s some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.
This drives me right up the wall.
There’s no inherent moral worth to working on more “fundamental” and mathematical physics. A lack of familiarity with algebraic topology is not a defect in character, or a sign of gross stupidity. Low-energy physics is different than high-energy theory, but not inferior to it.

This is something I noticed a lot as an undergrad—in my freshman class almost everyone who wanted to do physics was interested in high-energy theory; I was rare in actually being inclined towards experiment at that point. Part of it is that there’s a certain glamour to working on the Theory of Everything, and there’s an apparent elegance to a simple but widely applicable theory that makes the experimental world look messy and ugly by comparison. (Although in fact the Standard Model isn’t really what I’d call simple or elegant.) Furthermore, at roughly the freshman undergrad level the major contact with experimental physics is through high school or freshman physics labs, which tend to be pretty lame.
(So how did I end up wanting to do experiment at that stage? At the end of my senior year in high school I had the opportunity to do some labs on more advanced topics, and they were less structured than what I was used to—instead of the procedure being laid out explicitly, I was given a set of equipment and had to figure out how to use it to measure a certain parameter or figure out how something worked. Although it was still pretty far removed from the actual practice of experimental physics, it gave me a better sense of the kind of problem-solving involved, which I found I really enjoyed. Plus I noticed I was better at it than I was at theory.)

Shouldn’t the companion be named Norton?

Via Dynamics of Cats, the “dwarf planet” whose discovery led to Pluto’s demotion has been named Eris, losing its previous informal name of Xena. Steinn responds with an appropriate “Hail Eris!”, but then wonders if dwarf planets should have dwarf names.
As a sometime-admirer of the Goddess (one of the patron deities of Kaos Alley), I am pleased to see her recognized here, even if it is a dinky little dwarf planet. (At least it has an appropriately eccentric orbit.) In her honor, I suggest going bowling, eating hotdogs (especially tomorrow), or generally doing something chaotic. Initiates can go here, and click randomly in the table of contents.
Via Pharyngula, the Bad Astronomy blog finds a wingnut who thinks that this naming choice is… a vicious liberal attack on George W. Bush. His argument is based on the fact that the Caltech is in California and therefore must be a major liberal enclave. I would like to propose a slightly more plausible theory, in which the game Illuminati is an accurate representation of world affairs, and the Discordian Society has just added the IAU to their power structure.

Caltech bistromathics

I’m totally working on my talk for this afternoon, and not even connected to the internet, but take note of this article from The Onion (via Cheryl): Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill

PASADENA, CA—Sequestered in a private booth at a Pasadena-area Cheesecake Factory for nearly 25 minutes, a party of eight California Institute Of Technology physicists emerged exhausted but visibly excited Friday evening after successfully splitting the bill.
“This is an important day for us, not only because it marks Professor [Wayne] Newbury’s birthday, but because we have accomplished a feat thought unimaginable ever since [late computational physicist Philip] Eisenreich found that it was impossible to calculate how a group of paired bodies, set in motion by the presence of a solid-state check, could come to rest at a non-variable, evenly distributed mathematical constant,” said lead party organizer and theoretical physicist Dr. Cynthia Dreyfuss.
Before the arrival of the check, several early bill-splitting theories were proposed, including a simple process of dividing it into eight identical fragments, the Random Contribution Model, and a theory posited by Newbury himself—who insisted that he was bound to treat everyone—which was widely rejected on the basis that it would undermine the whole objective of the evening.

In reality, this problem is traditionally assigned to the youngest non-math-major.

Caltech Reunion Coordination Thread

It’s Ditch Day!
The remainder of this post will primarily be of interest to the people who are going to be in Pasadena this weekend. I’m posting this thread to facilitate planning and meeting up while I’m in town. I’ll be arriving around 4pm on Friday and staying through Monday afternoon; Saturday evening I’m planning to see Josh’s performance in Antony and Cleopatra.
I failed to register for the “official” reunion dinner on Friday, so maybe we should make dinner plans for that night. Saturday is also open for me before the evening, unless I decide to go to the seminars.
Mohi and I were discussing making a beach trip on Sunday (weather permitting) followed by games (video or otherwise) in the evening. Is this a good plan? Post your thoughts here, and let us know if you can make it so we can keep you in the loop.

Unofficial reunion at Caltech’s Alumni Weekend?

This post is primarily meant for the Caltech alums in the audience. Mohi and I were discussing alumni weekend—this year will be the five-year reunion for our class—and we’re wondering how many people are going to be there, or might be interested in meeting up there. We’re not necessarily thinking about going to the official alum events, but this seems like a good opportunity to get everyone there at the same time. Post your thoughts in the comments. The relevant dates are May 18-21.

Long Form [Open Thread]

My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I’m recovering—it was a busy week.
V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn’t be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he’s morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he’s fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.
The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It’s refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don’t think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.
As for the film qua action movie, it’s generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.
Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)
David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein’s effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don’t think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.
In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.
Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn’t quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it’s still pretty good. The major single seems to be “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” but several others are equally good, like “Fake Tales of San Francisco”.

Noble Traditions

I see some things haven’t changed. Via Fark:

Students in Tutus Saved From Mountain Road
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) – Two dozen Caltech students wearing Superman capes, tutus and other odd attire as part of a hazing stunt were rescued after getting stranded on the Mount Wilson Toll Road.

By this point in the article I already knew which house was responsible.

Organizers of the California Institute of Technology initiation ritual said they didn’t realize the road had been covered last year by a landslide.
“You’ve got to remember that common sense is not factored into the intelligence quotient,” said Deputy Greg Gabriel, who leads the Altadena Search and Rescue team.
The annual Mount Wilson Night, when freshmen are initiated into the Page House dormitory at Caltech, started off as planned Monday night, Caltech sophomore Nick Goeden said Tuesday.

(Emphasis mine.) That quote from the deputy should become the new Page House motto.