Saturday, August 21, 2010

Things I've been thinking about lately

* Wave-particle duality, etc. I had a dumbass moment this week when I forgot you don't learn quantum physics, or even the basics of relativity, in high school. I forgot we're taught that matter (as in things with mass) and energy are two totally different things; in relativity, mass and energy are fundamentally equivalent. People think the interesting thing about wave-particle duality is that light can act like a particle. But that's like, who cares. The mind-blowing part is that everything else can act like a wave. In other words, there's a real possibility that you could fall through the floor. (According to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, in some worlds, you do.) Light is radiation in the visible spectrum, a wave we can see. In a way, "matter" is waves we can see. This view is probably confused on some level, but so is everybody else's.

Anyway, the whole "is light matter" question is weird because "matter" doesn't have an agreed-upon definition. Some sources say photons are massless and not usually considered matter, but a system that emits a photon supposedly decreases in mass, and photons exert gravitational attraction and are subject to gravity, like objects with mass. So what gives?


* Other potentially needless distinctions. Why do we continue to study physics, chemistry, and biology as separate disciplines? You can't do biology without doing physics and chemistry. I mean aren't all sciences basically branches of physics (the study of "matter")?

* The above is in light of Turin's vibrational theory of smell (see video from a couple days back, or read his book The Secret of Scent or Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, which is actually a more engaging read). Turin wasn't even the first to propose the theory (Malcolm Dyson was), but most biologists didn't take it seriously because a) Turin was a biologist, and his theory involved a lot of physics (e.g., electron tunneling) and b) it's supposedly implausible that our nose could interpret vibrations, since we'd need a biological spectroscope (an instrument that measures molecular vibrations). But human vision and hearing both work via vibration; receptors in our eyes and ears sense the frequency of light bouncing off objects or the vibrations in the air, and our brain perceives these as images and sounds. So why is it so implausible that our sense of smell could work in a similar way?

* Stability versus intensity of experience as a framework for happiness. I find I'd rather be stable, in the present moment, but treasure memories of certain unstable times more, with their jagged extremes of emotion, though I know I was miserable at the time. It's partly that I can access those memories more fully, and occasionally they're so immersive as to be almost hallucinatory. So strange, this nostalgia for pain.


  1. i'm comfortable with thinking of physics, chemistry, and biology as separate. i mean on some level they might be the same, but they definitely diverge. i mean, you and i are technically the same "thing," since our bodies, in addition to everything else in the universe, are composed of particles that have been part of the same cosmic soup since the big bang, if i understand correctly. but really, it wouldn't be very practical to think of all things as the same thing. i mean my shoes are not my television, you know? and how would that work in a high school science class? how would a teacher teach photosynthesis and thermodynamics simultaneously, at least in a way that high school kids would understand?

  2. I understand treating it like branches, especially at the high school level. What's weird is when working scientists with PhD's get hung up on these distinctions. Like, "You're a biologist, get out of my physics lab." I'm not saying there should be no specialization, just that there are limits to how much you can keep them separate.

  3. "So strange, this nostalgia for pain."

    From noted physicists The Goo Goo Dolls: "When everything feels like the movies / YEAH YOU BLEED JUST TO KNOW YOU'RE ALIVE." Going uppercase to account for the decibel shift and because it's important to cite scientists correctly.

  4. It is important. Thanx for the reminder :)

  5. Some years back I was reading, at the same time (i.e. hopping back and forth between the two), The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav (a reflective and lightly-written book about some of the basic concepts of particle physics -- according to Zukav, "wu li" means "physics" in Chinese), and Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel.

    I would open one book and read about notions of the tentative nature of reality, and how the nature of reality might ultimately, at least in part, be the result of our perceptions of it; and that would be the book about particle physics.

    Then I would open the other book, and read about the universe being made of particles, and that the particles are constantly blinking "on" and "off" and each time they blink "on" it's in a very slightly different configuration, and that this constantly changing configuration of particles is, in effect, what we perceive as reality; and that would be the book about Tibetan Buddhism.

    I don't pretend to have more than the most superficial knowledge of either particle physics or Tibetan Buddhism, but I found the juxtaposition fascinating.

    I've read once or twice over the years the notion that novels are made of paragraphs, and short stories are made of sentences, and poems are made of words. Clearly this is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, and there can be much overlap, etc., but I found the distinction useful within practical limits.

    Similarly, I've read once or twice the notion that biology is the study of cells, and chemistry is the study of molecules, and physics is the study of atoms. (And I suppose particle physics, then, would be the study of sub-atomic particles.) Again the distinctions are somewhat arbritrary, and there's much overlap, though again I find the distinction useful within limits.

    I do agree that it doesn't make much sense for a scientist to reject an idea out of hand simply because "that's physics, not biology" or whatever.


    BTW, I came by here yesterday and saw the turtle-escape video, though in your previous post, though there was some kind of glitch in the video apparently, and it wasn't running the full loop, it was cutting off before the turtle got out of the bowl, and starting over again. So, turtle climbs up to edge of bowl, and...? I didn't quite get the joke. (I remember thinking, wow, that must have been some pretty strong Benadryl to make you laugh a lot...)

    Well, this time the video is working normally, and now... LOL-ing all over myself. I swear, I could almost hear the poor turtle give a sigh of resignation after the bowl flipped over.

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  7. "novels are made of paragraphs, and short stories are made of sentences, and poems are made of words"

    I love definitions like this -- even if they aren't "true," they're fun to think about. One of my faves is Denise Levertov's theory that a line break is half a comma.

  8. did you meet somebody in particular that was like "u r a biologist get out of my physics lab"

  9. I am not a biologist.

    Supposedly that happened to Luca Turin when he first started researching his theory of smell.