Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Limerick

    Some people who write their own blog
    Do so to insult and mock
    Because they have fun
    But in the long run
    The result is just big clouds of fog.

That is to say I am presently pretty blogged out.


  1. :(.

    Well, I just want to say that I, for one, really enjoy your blogging, and I think it has a hugely positive impact on many people. Whenever I think of physics blogs, you and Stephan's is the one that comes up as a great mixture of serious current-events essays, interesting technical excursions, and fun little humor pieces. Often, in physics conversations with my friends or around the communal dinner table, I have to preface my points with "so, do you read Backreaction?" I love getting your perspective on things, which is always a sane and balanced one: I'm not saying you're unbiased, obviously, but your reasonable approach to just about everything means that we usually at least get an idea of what the two sides of the issue are, and a fair argument for both of them. (Often for issues I didn’t even know existed, before!) And, well, I have your renormalization illustrations on the wall outside my door :-D.

    The outreach is great, too. I think blogs like yours do a wonderful job of getting some interesting stuff into the public sphere. I gave a talk at my high school a few months ago, basically about "what is physics beyond high school?," and one of the things I mentioned was that even if these high school students don't have time to read popular physics books, they probably waste lots of time on the internet reading blogs and such, so they might as well spend it reading physics blogs! And of all the physics blogs, yours and Cosmic Variance were ones I had to specifically single out as a fun, accessible way of getting a window into the musings of a working physicist. More recently, your overview of the E8 theory is the best one on the blogosphere, with a great mix of historical background, mathematical framework, general theoretical overview, and discussion of some potential problems. When I talk to physics undergrads about this exciting new theory, I don't link people to Lisi's paper directly; I link them to your blog post. Oh and tangentially, that "inspiration series" of interviews is just genius.

    And all those people in the comments, with such strong opinions, but no kind of education to back them up? That's a triumph, Sabine. You've made these people care enough about a subject to start arguments in the comments section. You've given them something to think about, and even if they come to some completely wrongheaded conclusions (and then start to force them on everyone else), you've still improved their life just by putting them down that path.

    More heartening are all the people asking earnest questions, usually in the form of "I don't know very much, but I think I kind of understand this and am confused about this one little detail..." It's so cool that these people feel comfortable coming out of the woodwork to expand their knowledge in these comment threads! Yeah, it may end up being exasperating to try to answer them, but still, they're a great contribution to the public conversation: people who care enough to actually ask questions. Your posts encourage them and given them a place to do so, and that's really neat.

    So yeah, blogging can be frustrating, with all these people and opinions and anonymous sniping bombarding you from all sides. But in any event, don't lose sight of how much you've contributed to the world. Those people are just noise (or "fog," as you say). Your blog is an amazing, unique thing, for a huge number of people, and I hope you realize that. I just want you to realize, every time you sit down to post, how much positive energy you’re going to spread throughout the world: how many people’s faces will light up when their RSS reader tells them that there’s a new feed item on Backreaction, their favorite blog; or how many people will read one of your inspiration series and be, well, inspired; or how many people will have their interest piqued by a subject enough to start looking to science for fun (, instead of leaving that world for the scientists.


  2. You cannot get your head straight with only internal dialog. You've got to discuss it, teach it, blog it... with feedback. Innocents say the damnedest things.

    Science is a few percent "Eureka!" at most. Most of the good stuff begins with "That's odd..." The only real danger is having nothing to say and pursuing it at length.

  3. While it can be entertaining and even a badge of honor to be skewered by Lubos, for some reason there's not even a single superstring's worth of entertainment value in being skewered by Distler? Maybe I'm just more familiar with Lubos.

    Bee,I'm not sure what problem Distler had with your Blog post on Lisi, I reread it figuring I must have missed something but right from the beginning you didn't seem overly enthusiastic. You mentioned liking the potential of exceptional algebras with respect to handling bosons and fermions, but you weren't sure you like the way Lisi plugged things into E8 by hand. That still seems like an accurate assessment even though it was just a quick first impression for you. People are allowed to have first impressions and even change them after a closer look, but your first impression still seems fine to me even after the tons of collective brainpower applied via the blogosphere.

  4. Hi Domenic:

    Thanks so much for your long and kind comment, it cheered me up a big deal. I am just not an infinite reservoir of positive energy, so occasionally need to fill it up, e.g. with feedback like yours. Glad you enjoyed the renormalization :-)

    Hi Uncle,

    You cannot get your head straight with only internal dialog. [...] Innocents say the damnedest things.

    I luckily have friends outside the blogosphere. It's not innocence that bothers me. Mostly I've said previously what I find frustrating is the amount of people who don't even try to understand each other, but just repeat their own opinions. It's not even a dialogue. It's just a waste of time.

    Hi John,

    I actually wasn't specifically thinking about Jacques when I wrote the above. I guess I've just been reading too many comment sections lately. It's like witnessing people trying to build the tower of babel, very depressing. Then Chad's post yesterday really pulled me down. He disagrees with me because I allegedly want scientists to withdraw from the public discussion of science? I don't even know how he managed to extract that opinion from my writings. Regarding Jacques, yeah, as I said at his post, the decomposition of the group was and isn't what my 'gut' feeling is primarily worried about. I had asked Garrett all kinds of questions like that, how does he get the flavor in, the neutrinos, the higgses etc. But roughly speaking I'd think if a group is just large enough you will have enough roots to accommodate all particles that we know. And if one E8 doesn't do it, then maybe take 3 or make the whole thing supersymmetric or swhatever. I can just imagine a lot of ways to make things work out in this regard. So I was focusing on the aspect how to get the gravitational part to say something about gravity, which seemed to me the actually novel point.



  5. Thought this may cheer you up.

  6. Bummer. I knew the above post would be far too long to be comprehensible.


  7. I was thinking about signal:noise, and a comment made by tyler beneath the previous post. I'm a member of the noise subset too, and am well aware I might be disqualifying myself. I've no problem with that, if it serves the greater good.

    My suggestion might actually be more work/liability than it's worth, but optimistically I suspect that while it would be a chore initially, activity would drop down quickly to a manageable level.

    So here it is: Make comment privileges contingent upon full disclosure of verifiable personal identity to you and Stefan, and then only by invitation. I personally think it would be nice to allow a pseudonymous identity to continue to be used for public consumption, but if that's not sufficient, it's entirely your right to refuse continued pseudonymity. At any rate, demand civil discourse (your standards being the only relevant ones), and ban the uncivil with extreme prejudice.

  8. Hi Kea:

    Thanks for correcting a mistake I must have made a hundred times but nobody ever told me...

    Hi Low Math:

    The 'noise' is only an issue if there is a big knowledge gap in a discussion, which isn't often the case, because Stefan and I, we don't write very technical things. I mentioned it to explain why I don't think discussion of arxiv papers on blogs would work well. I like very much your above suggestion to have a 'whitelist' of commenters that one could use to cut off the background. However, here again is the problem that blogger doesn't allow that. And I am actually not nerdy enough to come up with a solution, though I think it would be doable. Either way, I hope the comment situation gets better when we move the blog. One thing that is particularly annoying about blogger is that I can't edit comments (not even my own), I can only completely delete them. The problem with that is that if I'm not fast enough and some people reply to a particularly nasty comment, it's almost impossible to disentangle the useful part from the crap. (That is to say, if you ever want to tell somebody he's an asshole, do so in a two liner that I can cleanly delete). Best,


  9. Oh, you're moving? I guess I missed the news somehow. Good luck with that!

    Also, I hope you're a-hole reference was to the universal "you", as opposed to my offhand comment about James Watson's characteristic portrayals of himself and his colleagues in his own works of science popularization. Especially given some rather unfortunate current events, I figured the notion that Watson has a remarkable propensity for denigrating behavior was hardly original nor controversial. In any event, I apologize.

  10. no problem... in fact, I didn't even notice. I am somewhat stressed out the last days. yes, we will be moving the blog and hopefully we can then run wordpress. we already have a domain, and if I find the time, maybe around christmas I will try to set things up. Best,



  11. Science today has gone astray

    String evangelicals lead the way

    Blogging wars went ablaze

    Bee said all is lost

    Time to give up and run away

  12. I just saw the video of earth-boiling vrs space-boiling of water, on your German site ... whoa ... that is a cool demo.

  13. Hi William,

    I thought I had deleted all the German sites I used to have. The video belongs to this post. Best,


  14. Wordpress, as you seem to know already, lets you moderate and lets everyone re-edit their own comments.

    Moderating as many comments as you have on this post would be a lot of work.

  15. Dear Bee,

    Long ago when I was applying to graduate school, my physics professor in India (who seems wiser and wiser to me as each day passes) was dead set against my even putting in an application to Harvard; because of the environment there and because of the type of person I would become if I should by some chance happen to go there.

    Physics suffers from Harvarditis. Harvarders who are not part of the problem yet need not feel insulted, there is plenty of room for their contributions :)

    I think also you've now experienced why politicians talk in sound-bites; even intelligent physicists skim and misread and misunderstand; how much more likely that will happen with John Q. Public?

    If you need a little change, I recommend Peter F. Hamilton, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained - lots of sci-fi themes put together in a great story (in my opinion, obviously).

  16. Please refer to a good interview w/Jonas Salk:

    which explains the idiotic behavior you're experiencing.

    Jonas Salk: I wasn't going out on a limb. The flack to which you refer is what taught me, very early on, not only about the human side of nature, but about the human side of science.

    While it is true that this involves personalities, it also involves different ways of seeing. It was not a matter of a popularity contest, it was not a matter of anything other than that my curiosity drove me to find out whether it could work or not.

    Q:How did the criticism affect you personally? Were you hurt by it, or did you just plow on?

    Jonas Salk: I just plowed on. Hurt? That's one thing. Being deterred is another thing. And so, while we prefer to have an open path, one thing you learn in life is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And there is no way that everyone is going to agree, and particularly if you go against the main stream.

    Q:It's unnerving to find that scientists who are bent on helping mankind get into these very bitter rivalries. Is that just a part of the field?

    Jonas Salk: The contradiction is in your assertion. You say these scientists have a bent to help mankind. That's not what their objective is. If that was their objective, they might approach it somewhat differently. That is not necessarily the case. The motivation that drives us to do what we do is different in each instance. You begin to understand, from the effect it has produced, what is the person's real motivation. There are two aspects to our pursuits. You have to deal with nature, as I do when I go into the laboratory and do an experiment, and you have to deal with the human side of nature, which concerns how colleagues or others will react. This is what piqued my curiosity early in life. It continues to pique my curiosity. That's what I think of as the human dimension.
    It sounds like you have to develop a fairly thick skin in this field.

    Jonas Salk: You have to develop a thick skin in life. Its not in this field only. You might think of the ideal of the scientists, the ivory tower, the idealist.

    [ this is my flaw, I have a hopelessly IDEALISTIC view of the (imperfect) world. I have an open-architecture research approach (based on trust). I literally couldn't trust anyone anymore. Which is why I left Academia ]

    That's true of some. And I wouldn't guess as to what proportion. But there are some who are of that character, and there are some who are not. What comes to mind now, as I often think of this, it's like a sea gull syndrome. I call them sea gull syndrome. When I walk on the beach, I see the sea gulls, going out and getting a fish or a piece of bread on the beach. And the others go after him, that one, rather than go get their own. And so I see sometimes that if someone does something and gets credit for it, then there is this tendency to have this competitive response.

    There you go.."welcome to the real (imperfect) world"

    From a renowned scientist, EVERYBODY experiences this cr*p.

    "Life is 20% what happens to you [ lot of crap ], 80% how you respond to it [ offensive/defensive moves ]"
    -- a wise man once said

    Some advice on a response from a friend of mine (Caltech prof):

    "sidestep it [ avoid it, continue with your own work ]"

    Other relevant comments he made to me:

    "He [ professor ] probably is a JERK [ starts laughing ]"
    "People behaving in their own self-interest"
    [ this is what you're experiencing B ]
    "playing the game"
    [ researchers are often opponents, not collaborative/cooperative ]

    Another advisor (on my current project) told me:

    "There are SCOUNDRELS out there!"
    [ people trying to steal ideas, etc ]
    "A GOOD PLAN will beat a Good Idea..anyday, 10 to 1"

    You are obviously being overwhelmed by the quantity of idiots (like I am in my current project), so the solution is obvious: get help from a team. Your husband (Stefan) can step in as an "enforcer" to any bullying. You should network with friends, & unite with their blogs. "United we stand, divided we fall". A united-front can win your battles, & ultimately the war. I'm impressed by how you are "scanning" (J. Salk's term) the blogosphere, so you have a winning strategy. That's how I made my breakthrough in my PhD thesis..I scanned every paper, textbook (grunt work). The discovery was a relatively simple thing.

    "Win as a team, Lose as a team"
    -- famous phrase from Sports

  17. Hear, hear, chimpanzee. If you really wanted to, you would be most welcome to join our team, Bee.

  18. Others of us prefer blogging

    elsewhere, by not monologuing

    someone else's domain

    can be less of a pain

    It takes two for some serious snogging.

    -- Prof. Jonathan Vos Post

  19. Dear Bee,

    nice attempt. I'd be tempted to answer like,

    "The limerick packs laughs anatomical
    Into space that is quite economical.
    But the good ones I've seen
    So seldom are clean
    And the clean ones so seldom are comical."

    but maybe a better tribute is to go with the flow:

    "If you think you've got something to say,
    just open your own blog today.
    Your voice will be heard
    And you will get referred,
    But don't let that bring you astray."

    The latter is (c)TD 2007


  20. My limerick muscles are flabby, but maybe the moral of the story, is don't offer up your thoughts for free; get them to pay, to hear what you say.

  21. Woody Allen once wrote in the New Yorker: "I could feel my coupling constant invade her weak field as I pressed my lips to her wet neutrinos."

    But I couldn't turn that into a limerick, and Woody Allen and romance go together in sometimes icky ways.

    So I'll try again.

    "I've lost an electron!" said he.
    "Are you sure?" right away replies she.
    So he said, although hurtin',
    "I'm plausibly certain.
    In fact I am positive! eeeeeeeeeeee!"

    -- Jonathan Vos Post


    see these efforts --

    Physics limericks, and post-exam musings

  22. The ancestor of all Theoretical Physics limericks is, of course:

    There was a young lady called Bright
    Who could travel much faster than light.
    She set out one day
    In a relative way
    And returned on the previous night.

    [Arthur Buller,
    Punch, 19 Dec 1923]

    which provoked:

    To her friends, that Miss Bright use to chatter,
    "I have learned something new about matter,
    My speed was so great
    That it increased my weight;
    Yet I failed to become any fatter."

    [A. Reginald Buller]

    Here are some more:

    A certain PHYS REV referee
    Considers all papers with glee:
    "What's new is not true,
    And what's true is not new,
    Unless it was written by me."

    A quantum mechanic's vacation
    Had his colleagues in dire consternation.
    For while studies had shown
    That his speed was well known,
    His position was pure speculation.


    From: Sam Hobbs
    There was an old man who observed,
    "I confess I am somewhat unnerved.
    I had never before
    Seen the truth of the lore
    That, where matter is, space must be curved!


    Said a pupil of Einstein, "It's rotten
    To find I'd completely forgotten
    That by living so fast,
    All my future's my past,
    And I buried before I'm begotten.

    Another on the same "Man of the Century":

    There's a wonderful family named Stein,
    There's Ep, there's Gert, and there's Ein.
    Ep's statues are junk,
    Gert's poems are bunk,
    And nobody understands Ein.

    The above from

    -- Jonathan Vos Post

  23. I always manage to be elsewhere

    when Bee talks about the stuff

    that interests me, but I think of this blog and Dorigo's when I

    think of blogs that have a positive impact.

    Does that rhyme?

  24. Hi Island:

    Wow, you almost convinced me you are the new Einstein!

    "Umsonst ist’s nicht, dass die Natur
    Uns schenkte eine Zung’ nicht nur
    Sondern dazu die Fähigkeit
    Sie rauszustrecken ziemlich weit!"

    ~ A. Einstein


    (Einstein's comment on the tongue photo, roughly: There must be a reason that nature didn't only give us a tongue, but also the ability to stick it out.)



  25. Wow, you almost convinced me you are the new Einstein!

    Too bad that my doesn't have the same effect... lol

    I hope that your new blog has email notification cause I'm lovin it.

  26. Damnit... I know that I tagged that correctly!

  27. Hi Chimpanzee, Hi Kea:

    Thanks for your kind offer. But I am not around in the blogosphere enough to actually make a good team member. I am trying to find a balance between reading other blogs and writing myself, but you will have noticed that I am only rarely engaged in discussions on other blogs. It's like I either have time to write mine, or to contribute on other's, but not both.

    I don't have a 'winning strategy', because I am not blogging to win a fight. I guess that's the very source of my confusion.




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