Category Archives: Popularization

17 Equations that Clogged My Social-Media Timeline

An image burbled up in my social-media feed the other day, purporting to be a list of “17 Equations that Changed the World.” It’s actually been circulating for a while (since early 2014), and purports to summarize the book by that name written by Ian Stewart. This list is typo-ridden, historically inaccurate and generally indicative of a lousy knowledge-distribution process that lets us down at every stage, from background research to fact-checking to copy-editing.
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A Potent Quotable

Here is physicist John Archibald Wheeler, interviewed in the documentary The Creation of the Universe (1985):

There’s nothing deader than an equation. You write that down in a square on a tile floor. And on another tile on the floor you write down another equation, which you think might be a better description of the Universe. And you keep on writing down equations hoping to get a better and better equation for what the Universe is and does.

And then, when you’ve worked your way out to the end of the room and have to step out, you wave your wand and tell the equations to fly.

And not one of them will put on wings and fly.

Yet the Universe flies!

It has a life to it that no equation has, and that life to it is a life with which we are also tied up.

I saw that documentary as a kid, and that little speech was one part that stuck with me ever after. For the story of how Wheeler made this point to his physics classes, see arXiv:1405.2390, page 292.

Concerning “Great Books”

Shimer College: the worst school in America?

Subhead: This tiny, eccentric institution in Chicago was just voted the worst place to study in America. But does Shimer, which shuns lectures and has no societies or clubs, deserve such an accolade? Jon Ronson went there to investigate.

In the body, we have a bit more detail:

This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

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Prompted by this review of Colin McGinn’s Basic Structures of Reality (2011), I read a chapter, courtesy the uni library. It was endumbening. To the extent that he ever has a point, he says in many words what others have said more clearly in few. He confuses the pedagogy of a particular introductory book with the mature understanding of a subject, displays total ignorance of deeper treatments of his chosen topic, blunders into fallacies, and generally leaves one with the impression that he has never done a calculation in all the time he spent “studying physics”. Truly an amazing achievement.

A few years ago, I might have blogged my way through the whole darn book. I must be getting old (“REALLY? NO WAY!” declares my weak knee). But is it a healthy and mature sense of priorities, or a senescent academic crustiness? Have I become one of those people, concerned with my vita to the exclusion of all else? Dark thoughts for this cold autumn evening, dark as our current season of superhero movies—Fimbulwinter 3: Flame of Despair….

The Transparent Academy

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to have all the course materials necessary for a good, solid undergraduate physics degree available online, free to access and licensed in a way which permits reuse and remixing. I’d like it all in one place, curated, with paths through it mapped out to define a curriculum. When I say all the course materials, I mean that this webzone should have online textbooks; copies of, or at least pointers to, relevant primary literature; video lectures; simulation codes; sample datasets on which to practice analysis; homework and exam problems with worked-out solutions; interactive quizzes, so we can be trendy; and ways to order affordable experimental equipment where that is possible, e.g., yes on diffraction gratings, but probably no on radioactive sources. I’m talking about physics, because that’s what I nominally know about, but I’d like this to encompass the topics which I got sent to other departments to learn about, like the Mathematics Department’s courses in single- and multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, group theory, etc.

One way to think about it is this: suppose you had to teach a physics class to first- or second-year undergraduates. Could you get all the textual materials you need from Open-Access sources on the Web? Would you know where to look?

What with Wikipedia, OpenCourseWare, review articles on the arXiv, science blogs, the Khaaaaaan! Academy and so forth, we probably already have a fair portion of this in various places. But the operative word there is various. I, at least, would like it gathered together so we can know what’s yet to be done. With a project like, say, Wikipedia, stuff gets filled in based on what people feel like writing about in their free time. So articles grow by the cumulative addition of small bits, and “boring” content — parts of the curriculum which need to be covered, but are seldom if ever “topical” — doesn’t get much attention.

I honestly don’t know how close we are to this ideal. And, I don’t know what would be the best infrastructure for bringing it about and maintaining it. Idle fantasies and pipe dreams!

I’d like to have this kind of resource, not just for the obvious practical reasons, but also because it would soothe my conscience. I’d like to be able to tell people, “Yes, physics and mathematics are difficult, technical subjects. The stuff we say often sounds like mystical arcana. But, if you want to know what we know, all we ask is time and thinking — we’ve removed every obstacle to your understanding which we possibly can.”

I don’t think this would really impact the physics cranks and crackpots that much, but that’s not the problem I’m aiming to (dreaming that we will) solve. Disdain for mathematics is one warning sign of a fractured ceramic, yes: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen websites claiming to debunk Einstein “using only high-school algebra!” We could make learning the mathematical meat of physics easier, but that won’t significantly affect the people whose crankishness is due to personality and temperament. Free calculus lessons, no matter how engaging, won’t help those who’ve dedicated themselves to fighting under the banner of Douche Physik.

Alchemists work for the people. —Edward Elric

“More Decimal Digits”

On occasion, somebody voices the idea that in year [tex]N[/tex], physicists thought they had everything basically figured out, and that all they had to do was compute more decimal digits. I won’t pretend to know whether this is actually true for any values of [tex]N[/tex] — when did one old man’s grumpiness become the definitive statement about a scientific age? — but it’s interesting that not every physicist with an interest in history has supported the claim.

One classic illustration of how the old guys with the beards knew their understanding of physics was incomplete involves the specific heats of gases. How much does a gas warm up when a given amount of energy is poured into it? The physics of the 1890s was unable to resolve this problem. The solution, achieved in the next century, required quantum mechanics, but the problem was far from unknown in the years before 1900. Quoting Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (1964), volume 1, chapter 40, with hyperlinks added by me:
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OpenLab 2010

The 2010 edition of The Open Laboratory, the annual anthology of science blogging, is now available for purchase, as a handsome print volume or a PDF compatible with e-reader devices. Proceeds from book sales go to funding the ScienceOnline 2012 conference, which is currently in the planning stage.

Eventually, I’ll find/make the time to write about how we make blog posts into a book. First, Series Editor Bora Zivkovic chooses the guest editor for the year. Then, the two of them contact me and tell me it’s time to take the LaTeX templates out of their ceremonial encasements. Next, I draw a transmutation circle and start looking for sacrifices. . . .


In the wake of ScienceOnline2011, at which the two sessions I co-moderated went pleasingly well, my Blogohedron-related time and energy has largely gone to doing the LaTeXnical work for this year’s Open Laboratory anthology. I have also made a few small contributions to the Azimuth Project, including a Python implementation of a stochastic Hopf bifurcation model.

I continue to fall behind in writing the book reviews I have promised (to myself, if to nobody else). At ScienceOnline, I scored a free copy of Greg Gbur’s new textbook, Mathematical Methods for Optical Physics and Engineering. Truth be told, at the book-and-author shindig where they had the books written by people attending the conference all laid out and wrapped in anonymizing brown paper, I gauged which one had the proper size and weight for a mathematical-methods textbook and snarfed that. On the logic, you see, that if anyone who was not a physics person drew that book from the pile, they’d probably be sad. (The textbook author was somewhat complicit in this plan.) I am happy to report that I’ve found it a good textbook; it should be useful for advanced undergraduates, procrastinating graduate students and those seeking a clear introduction to techniques used in optics but not commonly addressed in broad-spectrum mathematical-methods books.

Science & Fiction at ScienceOnline 2011

I’ll be co-moderating a couple sessions at ScienceOnline 2011 this coming January. Here’s the abstract for one of them:

Can we stimulate a wider interest in and appreciation of scientists and what they do via the medium of mainstream fiction, whether be it novels, plays, movies or TV dramas? And how can we leverage online tools to help? Is it possible to entertain and educate without becoming too pedantic or pedagogical, and how do we define “scientific accuracy” in the context of made-up stories? This session will explore the world of imaginary science and how we can leverage its powers without compromising our scientific principles.

With Jennifer Rohn, who will bring the respectable content, while I provide my best Wesley Crusher impression.

“This Room Smells of Mathematics!”

I reposted the previous entry from the depths of the Sunclipse archives because I found the whole “giggling over stuff you don’t understand” theme to be of a piece with this self-indulgently moronic article from New York magazine. The article in question appears to be written by those who, as Greg Egan sez, “have convinced themselves that the particular set of half-digested factoids in their possession perfectly delineates the proper amount of science that can be known by a truly civilised person and discussed in polite company”. Or, as C. P. Snow would have been too quintessentially British to say, we have this Two Cultures nonsense because people are #@!$%ing lazy. I was tempted to rant at some length about it.

But, as it happens, Zeno has done my work for me.

Woo hoo! Now I can get on with more serious matters (and procrastinate in a way which is safer for my blood pressure).

EDIT TO ADD: Stick around for the comments after Zeno’s post. Turns out, the description for the #1 most “ridiculous” mathematics class is a clumsily-concealed quote mine.

Know Thy Audience?

D. W. Logan et al. have an editorial in PLoS Computational Biology giving advice for scientists who want to become active Wikipedia contributors. I was one, for a couple years (cue the “I got better”); judging from my personal experience, most of their advice is pretty good, save for item four:

Wikipedia is not primarily aimed at experts; therefore, the level of technical detail in its articles must be balanced against the ability of non-experts to understand those details. When contributing scientific content, imagine you have been tasked with writing a comprehensive scientific review for a high school audience. It can be surprisingly challenging explaining complex ideas in an accessible, jargon-free manner. But it is worth the perseverance. You will reap the benefits when it comes to writing your next manuscript or teaching an undergraduate class.

Come again?

Whether Wikipedia as a whole is “primarily aimed at experts” or not is irrelevant for the scientist wishing to edit the article on a particular technical subject. Plenty of articles — e.g., Kerr/CFT correspondence or Zamolodchikov c-theorem — have vanishingly little relevance to a “high school audience.” Even advanced-placement high-school physics doesn’t introduce quantum field theory, let alone renormalization-group methods, centrally extended Virasoro algebras and the current frontiers of gauge/gravity duality research. Popularizing these topics may be possible, although even the basic ideas like critical points and universality have been surprisingly poorly served in that department so far. While it’s pretty darn evident for these examples, the same problem holds true more generally. If you do try to set about that task, the sheer amount of new invention necessary — the cooking-up of new analogies and metaphors, the construction of new simplifications and toy examples, etc. — will run you slap-bang into Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy.

Even reducing a topic from the graduate to the undergraduate level can be a highly nontrivial task. (I was a beta-tester for Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory, so I would know.) And, writing for undergrads who already have Maxwell and Schrödinger Equations under their belts is not at all the same as writing for high-school juniors (or for your poor, long-suffering parents who’ve long since given up asking what you learned in school today). Why not try that sort of thing out on another platform first, like a personal blog, and then port it over to Wikipedia after receiving feedback? Citing your own work in the third person, or better yet recruiting other editors to help you adapt your content, is much more in accord with the letter and with the spirit of Wikipedia policy, than is inventing de novo great globs of pop science.

Popularization is hard. When you make a serious effort at it, let yourself get some credit.

Know Thy Audience, indeed: sometimes, your reader won’t be a high-school sophomore looking for homework help, but is much more likely to be a fellow researcher checking to see where the minus signs go in a particular equation, or a graduate student looking to catch up on the historical highlights of their lab group’s research topic. Vulgarized vagueness helps the latter readers not at all, and gives the former only a gentle illusion of learning. Precalculus students would benefit more if we professional science people worked on making articles like Trigonometric functions truly excellent than if we puttered around making up borderline Original Research about our own abstruse pet projects.


  • Logan DW, Sandal M, Gardner PP, Manske M, Bateman A, 2010 Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia. PLoS Comput Biol 6(9): e1000941. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000941

Pressures to Explain

Evelyn the Skepchick, whom I met a few times before she left the Boston crowd for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, recently wrote about what it’s like to be a geologist in interesting times:

I am a hard rock geologist and a geochemist. As a geologist, I know about compasses, maps, GPS units, minerals, and hammers. As a geochemist, I know about acids, being paranoid about contamination, mass spectrometers, the periodic table, and the table of the nuclides. I know very little about ocean water and oil, and I know even less about deep-sea drilling rigs. Yet, over the past 101 days since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill began, I have been asked numerous times about the oil spill and its implications. As soon as people know I work at WHOI, they presume I am an expert about everything related to the oil spill.

I suppose that I should count myself lucky. Most of the people who know that I was trained in science also know that I studied theoretical physics, so I have nothing to say about anything important, ever, including the major disasters of our day.

I have sometimes been asked questions like, “So, what do you think of that surfer dude’s Theory of Everything?” This is where oceanographic eschatologists have a bit of an advantage: their subject is (all too) tangible. The difficulties with their work, or at least some of them, admit comparably easy explanations, such as, It’s hard to tell how much oil got spilled, because the gunk that spewed out is a mix of different stuff, and a lot of it is still beneath the surface. By comparison, when something hits the news which sounds like I would know about it, the issues have been . . . what’s the word? . . . esoteric. (Not to belittle the complexities of anybody else’s scientific field — the issue here is what questions get asked from outside, not what an individual scientist does on any working day.) By the time a story gets from the arXiv, through the physics blogs and into a newspaper, the juice can be sucked right out of it. When there’s nothing left but vague analogies for metaphors for speculations, when the residuals are more metaphysical than physical, what’s there to talk about?

Sometimes, I’ve tried to play Asimov: “Well, the mathematical structure the guy tried to use to fit all the different subatomic particles into a pattern didn’t have enough room to hold them all. And, when you try and squeeze the pattern to make them fit, it gets even worse: your mathematics says that new kinds of particles must show up, which don’t exist in the real world.” I always have a little paranoia about doing this, since invariably, the physics making the headlines hails from a subfield which I’ve never specialized in. So, while I might know more about it than the vast majority of the human population does, and I might be moderately well-equipped to learn more should the need arise, I can smack awfully hard into my limitations.

I’ve also tried to go for general background principles. “Most new ideas on the frontier turn out to be wrong. That’s only natural. If science were easy, we’d be done by now.” Or, getting into a bit more depth, I’ve tried to explain what physicists mean by symmetry, or by some other concept lurking behind the controversy du jour, on the logic that understanding a “basic concept” — that which one must know in order to know lots of other things — is a more lasting and valuable achievement than being able to repeat a soundbyte which will date itself in six months’ time.

All the Physics Stories We’ll Ever Need

“ZOMG! The Higgs field is actually an entropic force due to holographic degrees of freedom whose gauge group is embedded in a noncompact real form of E8! (No, we don’t know what that means, either, but we found two scientists with three amusing hobbies among them to pretend to explain it to you, and we’ll preface their interviews with a video clip or written blurb crafted by a high-school intern who will never take a math class again after getting that C in trigonometry! And after reading our story or seeing our clip, you too will know everything you need in order to complain about string theorists getting taxpayer money!) But we’ll never know if it’s true, because if we do an experiment to find out, hydrinos will travel back in time and cause seagulls to drop baguettes into our apparatus!

“On his Huffington Post blog, Deepak Chopra explained how this research proves the quantum nature of bodacious sitar riffs.

“Now this.”