Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Public Display of Attention

Yesterday, the noise my car was making got worrisome enough for me to drop it off at the repair shop. They offer a shuttle service so you don't have to sit around between tires and unidentifiable metal pieces all day. The shuttle driver asks for an address. "31 Caroline North," I say. "Aaah, Perimeter Institute! I watch your lectures when I can't sleep at night!" Interesting approach, I think, but some of them can put you to sleep very efficiently indeed.

"I've read Brian Greenes' book!" Here we go. "And Stephen Hawkings' book." Sure. And he hasn't even yet pulled out of the driveway. "Black Holes are SO fascinating. What are you working on?" We make it onto King Street. "Quantum Gravity?" - "Aaah, that is the thing with light going, like, around things, right?" He draws with his hands what I identify as the unavoidable marble on the rubber sheet with a bent trajectory around it, and almost drives headon into the oncoming traffic. "Oohm, no, actually, that's got nothing to do with Quantum Gravity, that's..." - "Then that's what String Theory is about, eh?" - "No not really, it's..." - "No? Then what is String Theory about?" Excellent question. How do you explain what physicists are doing at the beginning of the 21st century when the vast majority of people hasn't yet understood what physicists were doing at the beginning of the 20st century?

So I explain what by the 3rd semester every student of physics has heard so many times they can repeat it in their sleep. "We know that all the physics we observe is described by 4 forces. Three of them are quantized. Quantization is the story with the particle-wave stuff and the double-slit experiment and that kinda thing, I believe Greene and Hawking wrote something about that." - "Yes!" - "Okay. Now gravity is what makes apples fall and tells us how planets move around the sun etc. But it doesn't have any quantum properties." - "That's so exciting!" Gee, that light was very very dark yellow already. I really wish he would look at the street and not at me. "Yes. But it's a problem because we know quantum objects fall, yet we don't know how they do it. That's why everybody is trying to 'quantize' gravity, and that yet-to-be-found theory is called 'quantum gravity'."

"Aah! So that's what String Theory is about?" - "At least that's the hope," I say. "You mean, like, I think I read there's some problems with it?" Some problem? "Did you read Lee Smolin's book by any chance?" - "Lee Who?" - "Well, you see, if there were no problems and all was easy what would you need theoretical physicists for?" - "Hahaha, that must be so interesting, to work on that stuff." - "I'm not a String Theorist, but yes, it's interesting."

"I read there's like really many black holes! Even in our galaxy!" He is basically jumping up and down now in the driver's seat. "Yes, we have good evidence for that." - "Black holes are so interesting! I am reading Hawkings' book again." - "Did you read Lenny Susskind's recent book?" - "Lenny Who?" So at least ignorance is evenly distributed. "And they have like, different sizes and isn't that complicated?"

He is so excited, I feel really sorry for my personal disenchantment with the wonders of physics. Last week I was at Starbucks and a guy asked me what I'm doing. I tell him I'm a physicist. If I want to fly to the moon he wants to know. "Why would I want to be shot through the atmosphere in a metal box to stand on a dusty piece of rock? No, of course I don't want to fly to the moon." - "But wouldn't that be interesting?" - "What? There's nothing up there! Not even air. If you want interesting, you better stay down here." - "But you know when you dig 4 feet deep into the moon it's made of cheese!" I think Chad's dog might like that.

The shuttle driver eventually arrives at PI. He asks me to write down the names of the books I mentioned. I kinda forget about Susskind's book. He wishes me good luck with my research. Thanks, I say, thinking I really have to make the travel reimbursement for the APS meeting.


  1. Gee, that light was very very dark yellow already.Hello Bee,
    is that "dark yellow" an American/Canadian

  2. Probably not. I was hoping it would be obvious. "That light was very dark yellow already" is an euphemism for "It just turned red." Best,


  3. Hello Bee,
    I knew this expression, in German
    it is quite common. :=)
    I was curious, whether it is known in
    Maybe the expression has something to do with cosmic redshift?

  4. Well, as I said, while I don't think it is common here, I think it is quite obvious what it says. There are a lot of German sayings that though not in common use can easily be understood in English. Same thing the other way 'round. Best,


  5. Hilarious Bee, Your humour is infectious:)You were being funny right, or, just exasperated with the general publics excitement with what science people do?

    Seen it before by other scientists expressive, so your in good company with regard to the trail and tribulations of scientists who have had similar talks with those sitting on air planes, bus rides, or even with those who deliver the Pizza.

    Good writing.


  6. Had Newton been a Pacific Islander it would have been a coconut, the problem then solving itself. Physical theory made a wrong turn very early on if it looks like molecular biology. Eight quartz marbles as two opposite parity atomic mass distribution pairs, 90 days in an Eotvos balance, and you would know.

    Gravitation physics after GR is like the Space Scuttle after the Saturn V booster. It boasts all the storm and fury to no apparent goal beyond more storm and fury. It lacks empirical basis.

  7. Hi Plato,

    Well, I had to drop off the car between 7:30 and 8:30 am. At that time I don't usually even talk to people, and in particular not about Brian Greene. I wasn't so much exasperated about the general public's excitement as more about that guy in particular. I usually appreciate any sort of attention we theoretical physicists get since it's rare enough and besides that a topic I like to talk about (in contrast to say, ice hockey). Best,


  8. Dear Bee,

    at least, PI seems to be well-known in Waterloo, and this sounds as it has a good reputation :-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  9. Well at least you were patient enough to correct him. When a layman talk to me about physics, especially if he pretends he understand more than he actually seem to, I just nod and tell them they're right, no matter how off topic they actually are.

    Like if it were me, that discussion would have look more like :
    ''"Quantum Gravity?" - "Aaah, that is the thing with light going, like, around things, right?"
    Yeah, that's exactly it ! Have a good day sir.

  10. Hi Anonymous,

    Well, it's not that the guy was actually dumb, he had just gotten it totally wrong. And I can relate to that because I too found it hard to make sense of popular physics books. I guess I just have a build in desire to help people understand the world they live in, though not sure how useful I am for that purpose. Besides that however, the alternative option would have been to walk 5 miles or so... Best,


  11. Some bizarre sentiments in your post and even more bizarre in the comments.
    Physicists, especially those inclined to make popular-level blogs, would use their time well trying to interact with confused commoners and figure out how to bring their knowledge and ideas to shuttle drivers. TV shows about men walking through the walls and hanging out in a quantum bar lead to more confusion than understanding. Isn't it one of LS's main ideas that the scientific community should be accountable to the larger public about their work? How otherwise can we set the goals as a species - to further our own understanding of the world? There are only so many rich men willing to sponsor theoretical physics initiatives.
    I wish you had not "forgotten" LS's (the OTHER LS) book. The landscape idea is actually a pretty comprehensible to the general public and illustrates some of the challenges of the string theory, and LS makes a good introduction to the ideas of inflation and why things are the way we find them and not another. Unless you meant the forgettable "How I beat Hawking" opus.
    Love the blog though!

  12. Hi Adam,

    Not sure what sentiment you read into my post? People seem to fall into two large categories: They either don't care about physics at all, or they do, but then they they seem to have an overly romantic picture of what it means to be a physicist (and can one blame them?). What the post is supposed to express is that I wish they were more aware of how research looks like in reality. Above all things, it's a job like every other job. You learn the basics, you do your work. Most of that isn't very romantic. David described that very well in a post here which I liked very much. Then there is a much smaller sample of people who believe they can understand modern physics without making any real effort and cook up their theory of everything in their basement (and sooner or later, it ends up in my inbox). This, I am afraid, is a consequence of the mistaken believe that a decade worth of education is actually unnecessary and we physicsts just spend our days sitting around in the ivory tower waiting for apples to drop on our heads (or coconuts if you're with Uncle) while we're wasting taxpayers money. Or so the story goes.

    Either way, I think that blogs (maybe not this blog in particular) do a great job getting across what science looks like in practice. Seems like I'm not so particularly good in communicating that.

    The other sentiment that you could read out of my post is that I didn't intend to die in a traffic accident in Waterloo, Ontario, while talking about the Elegant Universe.



  13. Hi Bee,

    As Plato said well written, for as I read the post I can imagine it all. To be fair though if push got to shove I don’t see many of us, myself included, fairing much better than this fellow if it really got down to the fine points of what you do and explore in your work. That of course would go the same for a lot of specialties regardless what they be. I think the general public finds what you do far more interesting and exciting then say a doctor, lawyer, economist, computer scientist or anything others than say a performer or professional athlete. I would guess they haven’t been greeted often, if at all with this level of enthusiasm in such situations.

    One thing though I wouldn’t have directed him to Susskind or Smolin, for as you have admitted they are dealing with current hypothesis more then what could be considered the bedrock from which this all sprang. I would say that going back a century or two is not even enough, yet back further still. I would have pointed him to a book such as I first read as a youth called “The Birth of a New Physics by I. Bernard Cohen written in 1960. It’s a marvellous explanation of the transition of from what was non focused ancient philosophy to the physics as it’s recognized today with Newton as its turning point. I offer here the last paragraph of the book with which I have always agreed and I think is what many like the fellow you describe, as a member of the general populous understand if only in spirit as being true.

    “In Newton’s genius we see the full significance of both Galilean mechanics and Kepler’s lawsof planetary motion realized in the development of the inertial principles required for the Copernican-Keplerian universe. A great French mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1813), best defined Newton’s achievement. There is only one law of the universe, he said, and Newton discovered it. Newton did not develop modern dynamics all by himself but depended heavily on certain of his predecessors; the debt in no way lessens the magnitude of his achievement. It only emphasizes the importance of such men as Galileo and Kepler and Huygens, who where great enough to make significant contributions to the Newton enterprise. Above all we may see in Newton’s work the degree to which science is a collective and cumulative and we may find in it the measure of this influence of an individual genius on the future of a co-operative scientific effort. In Newton’s achievement we see how science advances by heroic exercises of the imagination rather than by patient collecting and sorting of myriads of individual facts. Who, after studying Newton’s magnificent contribution to thought, could deny that pure science exemplifies the creative accomplishment of the human spirit at its pinnacle?”



  14. Pope Maledict XVI10:07 PM, June 02, 2009

    He is so excited, I feel really sorry for my personal disenchantment with the wonders of physics."

    Yes, I get that feeling too sometimes. Sometimes you feel like saying, "actually this job can be pretty boring and discouraging if you aren't one of the leading figures, and probably also even if you are. And actually at the moment there is really very little going on that is genuinely exciting. So please curb your enthusiasm."

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Phil:Who, after studying Newton’s magnificent contribution to thought, could deny that pure science exemplifies the creative accomplishment of the human spirit at its pinnacle?”

    I agree Phil, that the historical is very important and the "time line" as to where we sit today in terms of science leading us too. Ingenuity offering itself too, "application in principle."

    Would you defer one to not understand their own natures when this could evolve and benefit, while not of science, or, steeped subjectively in the psychological trade?

    What life lesson should be considered to see that a person becomes more reflective then sailing through life without hearing their own heartbeat?

    On the other hand, to work with such young bright students who have too "labour along side of," whilst jobs open up in the future for them "somewhere" as Postdocs?

    Always nice to be corrected by them so as to be held as true.:) Present new ideas in face of the mundane. None should be to proud to think we or they cannot be helped.

    Bee:Well, I had to drop off the car between 7:30 and 8:30 am.

    After a full days with the Job Bee I do understand how one might indeed want to discuss ice hockey, or throw in one of those blog posts that has nothing to do with the trade. Walking five miles, maybe an afterthought, and since early in the day, a full day to come. I am getting "to sense" more now.

    On another note.

    When you ask children what they want to be, they have their sights set high. One does not seek to discourage but to encourage, that the dream is possible.

    Yes I admit, we are not all children but there is indeed some of this spirit in people that is more honest and truthful then what can besmirched by a full life lead. It is an innocence becoming and a stand not unlike one might face in challenge, as if in an "appropriate and inquisitive mind" opened as a receptacle waiting to hear, put into action by application, and then problem solved to move forward.

    It just took some important well place words to set them on course?


    1:54 AM, June 03, 2009

  17. We shouldn't forget that the need to understand and explore nature and to wonder about the Cosmos, is hardwired in human idiosyncrasy.
    It's a constituent of who we are and one of the things that define us as a species.

    The fact that on the road it became a profession (like everything else due to the way the human societies are organized) is irrelevant in that respect.

    That's why you find TOEs in your mailbox and this (putting aside your personal inconvenience of course) is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary I would consider it healthy, since it reveals vividly that human behavior has not been fully molded and automatized yet but we still carry the remnants of our primordial impulsions.

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Hi Plato,

    I thought you might agree with the core of what I said, as you yourself are one such as I that have looked at it from a wider perspective. For many including myself, it is as much we can expect in what do as to be innovative once in a while. However, for those like Bee which comprise the small number of us that actually have the chance to add to the base from which we all draw upon and depend on, is what I find as so special.

    In a way one could say that Waterloo has become a special place in itself, thanks to Perimeter and the people it attracts, for such concentration and outreach has raised an entire community’s awareness in it all a notch or two higher than the norm. I then look forward to the day when more all around the world are so touched, that perhaps most in general will realize better how we got here and how important it is to not just to support it as to believe, but they themselves be more versant with the means and spirit which for now only those few hold central to what we might accomplish and more so become.

    A little romantic perhaps, yet this is also what Cohen was attempting to express as being part of it all and what you find to be that emotive aspect that cannot be separated from it, as this to defines us at our best.



  20. Dear Ms. Crackpot,

    you managed to write one significant sentence in this post. It is: "I'm not a String Theorist". Congrats.

    Best, Michael

  21. Hi Phil,

    I think I have been able to identify something very distinct about Pirsig's summation in terms of his Journey, as well as, a view one might garner with respect to one's science?

    Well spoken we may not all be, but "well placed" to think about what Holography or maybe even the dimensional perspective has this attribute to it. What it has to say about that sun as it shines, behind "is" what is faced, as moving ahead experimentally by looking at the past, sets up that future.

    Wheeler had his own progeny that followed. You see?

    It's as if one is looking to the source of the place in which all gravitational inclination is sent outward, and we are staring at it, while going past us, is the effect in all substance, toward a future?

    Just a thought.


  22. Over at Cosmic Variance - at the current post which directly refers to Susskind's work, - I made a query about a weird (to me) problem in GR: its treatment of falling electric charges. An excerpt:

    ...Consider the following: a tunnel is drilled through the Earth, and we let a charged body Q (can be macroscopic, not a “particle”) fall from one side to the other in SHM. It is moving like a charge in an antenna, and EM fields in any fixed vicinity change and these changes must propagate at c. Hence, even if there is some gravitational distortion of the EM waves, Q must effectively “radiate” and carry off energy.

    If Q was an ordinary charge in an antenna (yeah, usually electrons but charged bodies must radiate too) we’d put in work fighting the radiative reaction, f_rad = 2kq^2v.dot.dot/c^3. However, Q is in free fall - it “doesn’t know” physically that it is falling, so how can a reaction force apply? ...

    Sean replies, excerpted:

    You have to solve Maxwell’s equations in curved spacetime. There’s a temptation to appeal to the Principle of Equivalence and say “the particle is in free fall, it’s not accelerating” but that’s not right. The P of E only applies in “small regions of spacetime,” and the setup of the problem demands that you consider large regions of spacetime. ...

    In short: there’s nothing paradoxical and there are no loose ends, but to actually solve the problem requires a lot of work solving Maxwell’s equations in curved spacetime.

    OK, about what I expected but that doesn't tell me what that solution is. I'll ask there too, but does anyone know how this hashes out? Is the reaction force the same as for a charge in the absence of gravity, in an antenna etc? And did anyone check to see if the reaction force directly calculated from self-interactions is the one we need for energy conservation? (GR would presumably calculate the latter as a sort of circular argument from assuming it would be the needed value, since Maxwell's equations don't tell us directly what self-force should be on a charge!) Sometimes that self-force doesn't do what it should, true, as per runaway solutions etc.

    PS: I post there as "uncle sam."

  23. Hi Neil,

    Well, I agree with Sean. If you go into a free-falling frame the curvature is a mess, I don't see what you gain from that. I don't know what the result is but since the gravitational field of the earth is too small to significantly affect the emission, I'd suggest you just forget exactly what force it is that determines the trajectory of the charge and compute the radiation in the earth rest frame on that trajectory. Which should give the result you've been anticipating to pretty good accuracy. Best,


  24. Hey, check out what Lubos wrote. The guy's so deluded:

    "Sabine Hossenfelder wrote a very revealing story about her discussion with a yellow cab driver. He was absolutely thrilled by physics and string theory: she just hates it. This is not the first time I learned about it: she sent me quite a lot of mail explaining how she hated theoretical physics.

    "This is the result of the "politically correct" process of filling science with mediocre people who have no aptitude to study it and no love for it - they end up being unhappy themselves, and they're doing everything they can to spread the vitriol around and to discourage other scientists, by emitting tons of trash about their troubles with physics. I just hate them. And I hate all the people who have pushed people like Ms Hossenfelder to the physics community. They're my enemies."

    This doesn't even come close to describing Bee's story. I like how he thinks you hate theoretical physics, and yet you are going to Boston for SUSY '09. Doesn't quite follow, does it?

  25. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for letting me know. That's sick. I never said or wrote anywhere that I "hate" physics, and certainly not to Lubos. I've been moving from Arizona to California to Canada and now to Sweden to have an opportunity to work on what I'm interested in. Evidently, I'm doing that because I hate physics? It's no news for me however that Lubos hates me, though I honestly can't figure out what I did to him.

    (Besides, as I wrote in the second sentence it was a shuttle not a yellow cab.)



  26. Hi Pope,

    Yes, I think that describes it very well. Best,


  27. Hi Phil,

    Come on, you know that light deviation has nothing to do with quantum gravity!

    You are of course right that Lee's book isn't exactly the best for an introduction, though I think he does quite a good job explaining what quantum gravity is about and what that has to do with string theory and what else we're doing at PI since that obviously was where the communication (and the shuttle) was going.

    Anyway, after all the guy managed to cheering me up :-) Still haven't done the travel reimbursement though... Best,


  28. W.H.O. Health alert for Motlitis!

  29. Pope Maledict XVI2:22 AM, June 05, 2009

    As somebody pointed out, Motl's website is not about physics at all --- it's about his *emotions*. Hey, I think Lubos is an "Emo"! From the Wikipedia page on Emo:

    Criticism and controversy

    Emo has been criticized for its androcentrism and the tendency of most emo bands to relegate women to the role of muse or heartbreaker in their lyrics.[109] Andy Greenwald notes that there are very few women in emo bands, and that even those few do not typically have an active voice in the songs' subject matter: "Though emo—and to a certain degree, punk—has always been a typically male province, the monotony of the labels' gender perspective can be overwhelming."[110] The triumph of the "lonely boy's aesthetic" in emo, coupled with the style's popularity, has led to a litany of one-sided songs in which males vent their fury at the women who have wronged them:[110]

    The way typical emo bands sing about women is a volatile mixture of Ian MacKaye's strident puritanism—as in sex equals fear, failure, weakness—and self-obsessed sexist solipsism. If mid-nineties emo was mostly about not meeting girls or running away from them, emo's national generation dumbed it down and amped it up. Now emo songwriters were one-sided victims of heartbreak, utterly wronged and ready to sing about it, with the women having no chance to respond.[110]

    "Many emo songs both admit sadness and revel in it, exhibiting a phobia of women that seems to celebrate a perpetual adolescence"

    Case closed! Lumo the Emo!

  30. Hi Bee,

    “Come on, you know that light deviation has nothing to do with quantum gravity! “

    Well yes I know that that light deviation isn’t the heart of the matter, yet if a quantilized theory of gravity is found it will have to be able to explain it in such a context. The central point I was making is that all this is still up for grabs and with many different approaches: all of which are highly technical in nature as well as incomplete. So beyond saying it’s a search for a theory that will explain the force of gravity in the same context as all the other forces, there is not much that can be definitely explained beyond saying here are the different ways we are approaching the problem.

    Actually I was just trying to put a different perspective on it all with emphazizing how wonderful it is that you have this everyday fellow so excited about what you do, while at the same time having very little idea about what it actually is or how it’s done. I would say that puts you in a very unique category as the general public knows far more about other things they react so strongly to. I would say there are few places where doing what you do would be so highly thought of and respected. It would be kind of like being a professional hockey player in Toronto you might say. Actually better for most don't know enough to be critical of them as most are:-)




COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.