Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hat Tip to Mme Curie

The other day I was grocery shopping and, being in a weekend mood, I dropped some of the soft science magazines into the cart. At the register, the guy in front of me (two glasses mixed pickles and a sixpack Canada dry) made a funny face. "You readin that?", he asked and pointed to a headline about Cannibal Galaxies!, "Ain't no readin for a pretty girl like you." My turn to make a funny face then. In a rather unsuccessful attempt to imitate his accent I said "What's the right readin then for me? - Playgirl?"

Mr. Mixed Pickles considered whether to be insulted or amused, looked at the tampons I threw on the register and decided on apologizing. "Sorry, Miss, just thinking." While I tried to figure out exactly what he might have been thinking, he added "You know, if you interested in that stuff, there's these people at the institute down on Bridgeport, they do all kinds of weird things there." Yes, I think. Right, all kinds of weird things.

Later I sat at Starbucks on King Street, scribbling notes on a pad, sketching a talk and trying to decide which equations to put on the slides. Somebody accidentally bumped into my chair, and I drew a long line across the paper. A blond man, maybe mid fourties, very pinkish face. Formal shirt, no tie, uppermost buttons opened. He looked at my notepad: "Whats THAT?!", sweat on his forehead. "Propagator", I mumble, "Gauge field. Momentum space." The sweaty forehead frowned at me. "Physics", I said. "Ah! Physics! Are you doing that for money?" - "No." I said. What was I thinking? You tell me.

He looked at me like I was an unsolved equation, then he saw my pen, Perimeter Institute printed on it. "You ARE doing that for money!" he concluded, triumphantly, much as my office mate when he's found that extra minus which got missing.

I had not much desire to speak to him, an aura that I know how to radiate very efficiently, so he nodded a good-bye. While vanishing in the back of the room he said "Very special place that institute."


Yesterday, I am at Starbucks again, sitting outside on what I am convinced is an IKEA table, when he comes by. He grins at me and my book, "Madame Curie!" he says, and tips an imaginary hat.

34 comments:

Arun said...

I had not much desire to speak to him, an aura that I know how to radiate very efficiently...

LOL! This is a line very productive of various mental images. :)

Carl Brannen said...

On a long flight I got sited next to a young boy who obviously loved science. I had some thoughts on primitive idempotents and started scribbling Clifford algebra in my notebook.

He asked me what I was working on. I told him I was trying to understand the electron. He said, "oh, you're an electrician!", and since he was old enough to know that blue collar folks do not do anything interesting, he left me peacefully alone on the rest of the trip.

paul valletta said...

Really cool thinking B !

Maybe next time you can try the "shopping_list" method ?..replacing all your groceries with your Quantum Gravity essentials?..then maybe ask the inquisitve one's:Where do I find x..y..and z ?
best pv :)

Uncle Al said...

"I'm a janitor there. I love writing stuff on the blackboards late at night. They spend all the next day trying to figure it out."

candace said...

That's an excellent pen!

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the first guy was very interested in propagators, isospin or covariant contratransformations in npartite space (whatever that is)hehe.

as for second guy, you could've said to him: no, this pen is my sisters and this is her book. Gee, don't you have any imagination?;)

Bee said...

right. forgot to mention, it's actually my sister writing this blog ;-)

hi candance,

indeed, the pens are very nice. I only got them when I was a visitor though. I've tried to figure out whether I can invite myself and whether I would then qualify for per diem - and for another pen.

hi carl,

*lol* yes, i can relate to that. i once was at a party, and being asked i said i am a physicist. upon which i was told the fridge doesn't work, and if i could have a look. (needless to say, i am not even sure i recall exactly how the carnot cycle works.)

hi arun,

well yes. for a long time i was the only women in a physics department (except for the secretaries who on the average where twice my age). one learns how to get rid of guys.

hi uncle

i love that line - where's it from? sounds vaguely familiar. btw, do you know the movie 'Good Will Hunting'? very recommendable.

best,

B.

donna said...

I apologize for all the morons in our society, who have no idea how to deal with smart women.

It's a problem I have dealt with all my life, sadly enough. OTOH, my sons are quite adept at dealing with smart women, and have no interest in most of the unsmart ones. And all my friends wonder why they don't date more in high school, where all the girls are still pretending to be stupid to get dates with the unsmart guys.

Sigh. American society is so....

fh said...

Ugh, that must be annoying, but yeah those pens do rock.

And as for fridges, I once actually did manage to "fix" the fridge by pointing out that the back of it was basically in a no circulation space which was heating up dramatically, and that the whole thing would have a hard time pumping any heat there.
Therefore the "fix" was to move it a couple of inches forward.

Cynthia said...

Bee: Now I'm no expert on men, but it seems to me that this blond guy wants you to rub-off on him. In fact, he might even have the hots for you!

Bee said...

Hi Cynthia,

you think so? I am not much into blond guys and he exceeds my age limit. oh, and I am married, right. will make sure to wear my wedding band next time.

Hi Donna,

I don't have the impression that's specific for American society, it's essentially the same in most places in Europe. But yes, I had to realize repeatedly that men get easily pissed off when they notice the woman they are talking to is smarter than they are. Esp when it comes to science or worse, technology. What is interesting though, the more philosophically I taint my research the better it makes them feel. Like, it's perfectly okay for me trying to understand if infinity is meaningful concept, but not working on black holes.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi fh,

:-) I too know how to fix all kinds of appliances in my apartment. It requires punching ten digits and yelling at my landlord. Always works.

Best,

B.

garrett said...

Whoa, you're working out equations using a PEN? I don't think I ever fill a page without flipping a few signs back and forth, usually repeatedly. If you use a pen... that breaks symmetry: you can change a - to a +, but there's no going back!

If you're that good with signs, you could make a quick $100 over here: fighting negativity.

Francis Caestecker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arun said...

men get easily pissed off when they notice the woman they are talking to is smarter than they are

LOL! I get pissed off if they're not!

Bee said...

you get pissed off if the woman is not smarter than you are? hmm. does that mean I'd be required to make intelligent conversation all the time? or is it sufficient if I scribble unidentifiable symbols on the napkin every now and then? As far as I am concerned, a man doesn't have to be terribly intelligent as long as he has a good sense of humor and can pick a decent red wine. best,

B.

Bee said...

Whoa, you're working out equations using a PEN? I don't think I ever fill a page without flipping a few signs back and forth, usually repeatedly. If you use a pen... that breaks symmetry: you can change a - to a +, but there's no going back!

*sigh* you tell me. I've written two papers whose content is essentially a sign. but anyway, yes, I am pretty old fashioned I guess. In this particular case the problem isn't actually working out the equations but finding a Lagrangian to the equations. Is there any chance you happen to know whether this is always possible and/or under which conditions? I mean, I have a set of equations that as far as I can tell are consistent and have the right amount of constraints/degrees of freedom etc., but no plan how to get a Lagrangian (two sets of coupled non-linear DGLs, you name it).

Besides this, the thing I like best about my job is that I can do it everywhere and every time as long as I have a pen with me... oh yes, and as long as I can read my email of course, that's research in motion...

Best,

B.

garrett said...

The existence of a Lagrangian (and finding it) is called the inverse problem. It's old, and complicated, so don't feel too bad that it wasn't obvious. ;) And now you have a name to tell people what painful struggle you're working with this week.

You can do your job anywhere... and you spent this winter where? :-D
Just kidding -- I know PI is a great place.

Bee said...

Hi Garrett,

ah. another inverse problem. thanks. Sometimes all it takes is a keyword... I think I could add a Lagrange multiplier, but it's too ugly. regarding winter, you have a point there. but I am a disaster when it comes to money (famous for misplacing a 1000 DM bill). it seems I am constantly broke. currently I have no idea how to book a hotel for LA next week since all of my credit cards still get rejected. *sigh* will try to do better next winter. Best,

B.

PS: If you didn't receive an email from me today, check your junk folder, you should have.

Bee said...

PS: what if QG just doesn't have a Lagrangian formulation? are there reasons to believe it has?

Arun said...

As far as I am concerned, a man doesn't have to be terribly intelligent as long as he has a good sense of humor and can pick a decent red wine.

Good, 'cause finding an intelligenter man might be a problem :)

Anonymous said...

Bee,

If quantum gravity does NOT have a Lagrangian/Hamiltonian or path integral formulation, then how would one do quantum gravity in the first place?

Some old timers may try to argue that gravity may only be purely classical. (I don't have a reference handy, though I recall Freeman Dyson mentioning something like this).

Here's one paper which attempts to argue this http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/9504004

garrett said...

I think the main reason to believe in a Lagrangian is aesthetic. You know, they're pretty. Also, they're fundamental in both classical and quantum mechanics, based on the path integral formulation and Dirac quantization through Poisson brackets.

(Got your email around 1:3Opm PDT and sent a reply at 2:30)

I have lots of cool friends in LA if you end up needing a place to crash at the last minute. Just let me know. How long you going to be there?

Bee said...

Hi Garrett,

thanks... I should have checked my junk mail folder...

Yes, I too find Lagrangians pretty, that's why I am trying to find one. It just made me wonder what reasons we have to believe that there has to be one. Also, it's not so really pretty if you consider that the important thing actually isn't the Lagrangian but the action and that requires a volume integral. That I don't like so much. Best,

B.

garrett said...

I've never been discrete. :D

Gordon said...

From "The Devil's Dictionary"--Ambrose Bierce, around 1900:
FEMALE, n.
One of the opposing, or unfair, sex.

WOMAN, n.

An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication. It is credited by many of the elder zoologists with a certain vestigial docility acquired in a former state of seclusion, but naturalists of the postsusananthony period, having no knowledge of the seclusion, deny the virtue and declare that such as creation's dawn beheld, it roareth now. The species is the most widely distributed of all beasts of prey, infesting all habitable parts of the globe, from Greeland's spicy mountains to India's moral strand. The popular name (wolfman) is incorrect, for the creature is of the cat kind.
The woman is lithe and graceful in its movement, especially the
American variety (felis pugnans), is omnivorous and can be taught not to talk.
Balthasar Pober

http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/devils/w.html

Arun said...

http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0612086

1. We tend to look for the lost item near lamppost where there is light.

2. The search space for a theory of QG probably greatly increases and probably into what are very unfamiliar areas if it is not Lagrangian. But given things like the cite above, perhaps it is impossible to rule out.

Anonymous said...

you get pissed off if the woman is not smarter than you are? hmm. does that mean I'd be required to make intelligent conversation all the time? or is it sufficient if I scribble unidentifiable symbols on the napkin every now and then? As far as I am concerned, a man doesn't have to be terribly intelligent as long as he has a good sense of humor and can pick a decent red wine


actually I too get pissed of if woman is not smart, and so do all the guys I know. hmmmm?
And it doesn't mean you need to talk science all the time or make smarty comments all the time, that too is not intelligent. It's either you get it or don't.

best

a

Bee said...

Hi Arun,

Good, 'cause finding an intelligenter man might be a problem :)

Ah. I am intelligent enough to state that my husband is more intelligent than I am ;-) But seriously, there's as many kinds of intelligence as there are intelligence tests. If I go down the corridor I can't say Dr. X is more intelligent than Dr. Y. They are just - different. I mean, everybody has his/hers talents.


Hi A,

actually I too get pissed of if woman is not smart, and so do all the guys I know. hmmmm?
And it doesn't mean you need to talk science all the time or make smarty comments all the time, that too is not intelligent. It's either you get it or don't.


Sure. That's what they always say... (just kidding). Makes me wonder though what fraction of the society the commenters on my blog represent. Anyway, sounds as if I'd have a pretty hard time with you, as I usually 'don't get' at least 95% of what people say (my impression. I hope they don't notice.) But there's the theory that men are just intelligent to impress women, and women are only intelligent to find out whether the man is really intelligent. Not sure if evolution ever planned on us trying to understand quantum gravity though ;-)


Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Arun,

ha! Thanks for the link, looks interesting, will check it out (well. that means I put it on the pile with papers 'to be read')

1. We tend to look for the lost item near lamppost where there is light.

2. The search space for a theory of QG probably greatly increases and probably into what are very unfamiliar areas if it is not Lagrangian. But given things like the cite above, perhaps it is impossible to rule out.


Come on, we've thrown over board so many sacred things, four dimensions, continuous space-time, TIME!, locality, sensible equations of state, why not throw out the Lagrangian formulation? It must have become important somewhere around the 50ies or so? Yang-Mills? I think for GR the action principle came after Einstein had the equations. (I didn't say anything about quantizing btw...)

The interesting question would be if there's a sensible formulation of non-Lagrangian systems that in a low energy limit allow a Lagrangian, but not in the high energy limit (as those who do have been studied extensively).

Best,

B.

Arun said...

But seriously, there's as many kinds of intelligence as there are intelligence tests.

Exactly! And so it is easy to be more intelligent than me in many dimensions (especially as I'm deficient in some :). So it wasn't really a very demanding requirement :)

Anonymous said...

Great post Bee, makes for great reading. Thanks!

changcho

Rae Ann said...

You just cracked me up with the Playgirl comment. :-) I'm not sure I'd have been quick and brave enough to say that.

Bee said...

since my job requires I function in the mode think-before-you-speak, I compensate that outside the office with speak-before-you-think. it's not always recommendable. (e.g. never be funny with an US border post. I've learned that lesson)