Category Archives: Misc

At Least One Math Term That Makes Sense

I’ve complained before about how mathematicians name things. Mathematicans seem to have a knack for taking an ordinary bland word that’s almost indistinguishable from the other ordinary, bland words they’ve used before and assigning it an incredibly specific mathematical concept. Varieties and forms, motives and schemes, in each case you end up wishing they picked a word that was just a little more descriptive.

Sometimes, though, a word may seem completely out of place when it actually has a fairly reasonable explanation. Such is the case for the word “period“.

Suppose you want to classify numbers. You have the integers, and the rational numbers. A bigger class of numbers are “algebraic”, in that you can get them “from algebra”: more specifically, as solutions of polynomial equations with rational coefficients. Numbers that aren’t algebraic are “transcendental”, a popular example being \pi.

Periods lie in between: a set that contains algebraic numbers, but also many of the transcendental numbers. They’re numbers you can get, not from algebra, but from calculus: they’re integrals over rational functions. These numbers were popularized by Kontsevich and Zagier, and they’ve led to a lot of fruitful inquiry in both math and physics.

But why the heck are they called periods?

Think about e^{i x}.

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Or if you prefer, think about a circle

e^{i x} is a periodic function, with period 2\pi.  Take x from 0 to 2\pi and the function repeats, you’ve traveled in a circle.

Thought of another way, 2\pi is the volume of the circle. It’s the integral, around the circle, of \frac{dz}{z}. And that integral nicely matches Kontsevich and Zagier’s definition of a period.

The idea of a period, then, comes from generalizing this. What happens when you only go partway around the circle, to some point z in the complex plane? Then you need to go to a point x=-i \ln z. So a logarithm can also be thought of as measuring the period of e^{i x}. And indeed, since a logarithm can be expressed as \int\frac{dz}{z}, they count as periods in the Kontsevich-Zagier sense.

Starting there, you can loosely think about the polylogarithm functions I like to work with as collections of logs, measuring periods of interlocking circles.

And if you need to go beyond polylogarithms, when you can’t just go circle by circle?

Then you need to think about functions with two periods, like Weierstrass’s elliptic function. Just as you can think about e^{i x} as a circle, you can think of Weierstrass’s function in terms of a torus.

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Obligatory donut joke here

The torus has two periods, corresponding to the two circles you can draw around it. The periods of Weierstrass’s function are transcendental numbers, and they fit Kontsevich and Zagier’s definition of periods. And if you take the inverse of Weierstrass’s function, you get an elliptic integral, just like taking the inverse of e^{i x} gives a logarithm.

So mathematicians, I apologize. Periods, at least, make sense.

I’m still mad about “varieties” though.

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Valentine’s Day Physics Poem 2018

Valentine’s Day was this week, so long-time readers should know what to expect. To continue this blog’s tradition, I’m posting another one of my old physics poems.

 

Winding Number One

 

When you feel twisted up inside, you may be told to step back

That after a long time, from a long distance

All things fall off.

 

So I stepped back.

 

But looking in from a distance

On the border (at infinity)

A shape remained

Etched deep

In the equation of my being

 

A shape that wouldn’t fall off

Even at infinity.

 

And they may tell you to wait and see,

That you will evolve in time

That all things change, continuously.

 

So I let myself change.

 

But no matter how long I waited

How much I evolved

I could not return

My new state cannot be deformed

To what I was before.

 

The shape at my border

Is basic, immutable.

 

Faced with my thoughts

I try to draw a map

And run out of space.

 

I need two selves

Two lives

To map my soul.

 

A double cover.

 

And now, faced by my dual

Tracing each index

Integrated over manifold possibilities

We do not vanish

We have winding number one.

 

The opposite of Witches

On Halloween I have a tradition of posts about spooky topics, whether traditional Halloween fare or things that spook physicists. This year it’s a little of both.

Mage: The Ascension is a role-playing game set in a world in which belief shapes reality. Players take the role of witches and warlocks, casting spells powered by their personal paradigms of belief. The game allows for pretty much any modern-day magic-user you could imagine, from Wiccans to martial artists.

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Even stereotypical green witches, probably

Despite all the options, I was always more interested in the game’s villains, the witches’ opposites, the Technocracy.

The Technocracy answer an inevitable problem with any setting involving modern-day magic: why don’t people notice? If reality is powered by belief, why does no-one believe in magic?

In the Technocracy’s case, the answer is a vast conspiracy of mages with a scientific bent, manipulating public belief. Much like the witches and warlocks of Mage are a grab-bag of every occult belief system, the Technocracy combines every oppressive government conspiracy story you can imagine, all with the express purpose of suppressing the supernatural and maintaining scientific consensus.

This quote is from another game by the same publisher, but it captures the attitude of the Technocracy, and the magnitude of what is being claimed here:

Do not believe what the scientists tell you. The natural history we know is a lie, a falsehood sold to us by wicked old men who would make the world a dull gray prison and protect us from the dangers inherent to freedom. They would have you believe our planet to be a lonely starship, hurtling through the void of space, barren of magic and in need of a stern hand upon the rudder.

Close your mind to their deception. The time before our time was not a time of senseless natural struggle and reptilian rage, but a time of myth and sorcery. It was a time of legend, when heroes walked Creation and wielded the very power of the gods. It was a time before the world was bent, a time before the magic of Creation lessened, a time before the souls of men became the stunted, withered things they are today.

It can be a fun exercise to see how far doubt can take you, how much of the scientific consensus you can really be confident of and how much could be due to a conspiracy. Believing in the Technocracy would be the most extreme version of this, but Flat-Earthers come pretty close. Once you’re doubting whether the Earth is round, you have to imagine a truly absurd conspiracy to back it up.

On the other extreme, there are the kinds of conspiracies that barely take a conspiracy at all. Big experimental collaborations, like ATLAS and CMS at the LHC, keep a tight handle on what their members publish. (If you’re curious how much of one, here’s a talk by a law professor about, among other things, the Constitution of CMS. Yes, it has one!) An actual conspiracy would still be outed in about five minutes, but you could imagine something subtler, the experiment sticking to “safe” explanations and refusing to publish results that look too unusual, on the basis that they’re “probably” wrong. Worries about that sort of thing can make actual physicists spooked.

There’s an important dividing line with doubt: too much and you risk invoking a conspiracy more fantastical than the science you’re doubting in the first place. The Technocracy doesn’t just straddle that line, it hops past it off into the distance. Science is too vast, and too unpredictable, to be controlled by some shadowy conspiracy.

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Or maybe that’s just what we want you to think!

Textbook Review: Exploring Black Holes

I’m bringing a box of textbooks with me to Denmark. Most of them are for work: a few Quantum Field Theory texts I might use, a Complex Analysis book for when I inevitably forget how to do contour integration.

One of the books, though, is just for fun.

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Exploring Black Holes is an introduction to general relativity for undergraduates. The book came out of a collaboration between Edwin F. Taylor, known for his contributions to physics teaching, and John Archibald Wheeler, who among a long list of achievements was responsible for popularizing the term “black hole”. The result is something quite unique: a general relativity course that requires no math more advanced than calculus, and no physics more advanced than special relativity.

It does this by starting, not with the full tensor-riddled glory of Einstein’s equations, but with specialized solutions to those equations, mostly the Schwarzschild solution that describes space around spherical objects (including planets, stars, and black holes). From there, it manages to introduce curved space in a way that is both intuitive and naturally grows out of what students learn about special relativity. It really is the kind of course a student can take right after their first physics course, and indeed as an undergrad that’s exactly what I did.

With just the Schwarzchild solution and its close relatives, you can already answer most of the questions young students have about general relativity. In a series of “projects”, the book explores the corrections GR demands of GPS satellites, the process of falling into a black hole, the famous measurement of the advance of the perihelion of mercury, the behavior of light in a strong gravitational field, and even a bit of cosmology. In the end the students won’t know the full power of the theory, but they’ll get a taste while building valuable physical intuition.

Still, I wouldn’t bring this book with me if it was just an excellent undergraduate textbook. Exploring Black Holes is a great introduction to general relativity, but it also has a hilarious not-so-hidden agenda: inspiring future astronauts to jump into black holes.

“Nowhere could life be simpler or more relaxed than in a free-float frame, such as an unpowered spaceship falling toward a black hole.” – pg. 2-31

The book is full of quotes like this. One of the book’s “projects” involves computing what happens to an astronaut who falls into a black hole. The book takes special care to have students calculate that “spaghettification”, the process by which the tidal forces of a black hole stretch infalling observers into spaghetti, is surprisingly completely painless: the amount of time you experience it is always less than the amount of time it takes light (and thus also pain) to go from your feet to your head, for any (sufficiently calm) black hole.

Why might Taylor and Wheeler want people of the future to jump into black holes? As the discussion on page B-3 of the book describes, the reason is on one level an epistemic one. As theorists, we’d like to reason about what lies inside the event horizon of black holes, but we face a problem: any direct test would be trapped inside, and we would never know the result, which some would argue makes such speculation unscientific. What Taylor and Wheeler point out is that it’s not quite true that no-one would know the results of such a test: if someone jumped into a black hole, they would be able to test our reasoning. If a whole scientific community jumped in, then the question of what is inside a black hole is from their perspective completely scientific.

Of course, I don’t think Taylor and Wheeler seriously thought their book would convince its readers to jump into black holes. For one, it’s unlikely anyone reading the book will get a chance. Still, I suspect that the idea that future generations might explore black holes gave Taylor and Wheeler some satisfaction, and a nice clean refutation of those who think physics inside the horizon is unscientific. Seeing as the result was an excellent textbook full of hilarious prose, I can’t complain.

Movie Review: The Truth is in the Stars

Recently, Perimeter aired a showing of The Truth is in the Stars, a documentary about the influence of Star Trek on science and culture, with a panel discussion afterwards. The documentary follows William Shatner as he wanders around the world interviewing scientists and film industry people about how Star Trek inspired them. Along the way he learns a bit about physics, and collects questions to ask Steven Hawking at the end.

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I’ll start with the good: the piece is cute. They managed to capture some fun interactions with the interviewees, there are good (if occasionally silly) visuals, and the whole thing seems fairly well edited. If you’re looking for an hour of Star Trek nostalgia and platitudes about physics, this is the documentary for you.

That said, it doesn’t go much beyond cute, and it dances between topics in a way that felt unsatisfying.

The piece has a heavy focus on Shatner, especially early on, beginning with a clumsily shoehorned-in visit to his ranch to hear his thoughts on horses. For a while, the interviews are all about him: his jokes, his awkward questions, his worries about getting old. He has a habit of asking the scientists he talks to whether “everything is connected”, which to the scientists’ credit is usually met by a deft change of subject. All of this fades somewhat as the movie progresses, though: whether by a trick of editing, or because after talking to so many scientists he begins to pick up some humility.

(Incidentally, I really ought to have a blog post debunking the whole “everything is connected” thing. The tricky part is that it involves so many different misunderstandings, from confusion around entanglement to the role of strings to “we are all star-stuff” that it’s hard to be comprehensive.)

Most of the scientific discussions are quite superficial, to the point that they’re more likely to confuse inexperienced viewers than to tell them something new (especially the people who hinted at dark energy-based technology…no, just no). While I don’t expect a documentary like this to cover the science in-depth, trying to touch on so many topics in this short a time mostly just fuels the “everything is connected” misunderstanding. One surprising element of the science coverage was the choice to have both Michio Kaku giving a passionate description of string theory and Neil Turok bluntly calling string theory “a mess”. While giving the public “both sides” like that isn’t unusual in other contexts, for some reason most science documentaries I’ve seen take one side or the other.

Of course, the point of the documentary isn’t really to teach science, it’s to show how Star Trek influenced science. Here too, though, the piece was disappointing. Most of the scientists interviewed could tell their usual story about the power of science fiction in their childhood, but didn’t have much to say about Star Trek specifically. It was the actors and producers who had the most to say about Star Trek, from Ben Stiller showing off his Gorn mask to Seth MacFarlane admiring the design of the Enterprise. The best of these was probably Whoopi Goldberg’s story of being inspired by Uhura, which has been covered better elsewhere (and might have been better as Mae Jemison’s similar story, which would at least have involved an astronaut rather than another actor). I did enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation of how as a kid he thought everything on Star Trek was plausible…except for the automatic doors.

Shatner’s meeting with Hawking is the finale, and is the documentary’s strongest section. Shatner is humbled, even devout, in Hawking’s presence, while Hawking seems to show genuine joy swapping jokes with Captain Kirk.

Overall, the piece felt more than a little disjointed. It’s not really about the science, but it didn’t have enough content to be really about Star Trek either. If it was “about” anything, it was Shatner’s journey: an aging actor getting to hang out and chat with interesting people around the world. If that sounds fun, you should watch it: but don’t expect much deeper than that.

Poll Results, and What’s Next

I’ll leave last week’s poll up a while longer as more votes trickle in, but the overall pattern (beyond “Zipflike“) is pretty clear.

From pretty early on, most requests were for more explanations of QFT, gravity, and string theory concepts, with amplitudes content a clear second. This is something I can definitely do more of: I haven’t had much inspiration for interesting pieces of this sort recently, but it’s something I can ramp up in future.

I suspect that many of the people voting for more QFT and more amplitudes content were also interested in something else, though: more physics news. Xezlec mentioned that with Résonaances and Of Particular Significance quiet, there’s an open niche for vaguely reasonable people blogging about physics.

The truth is, I didn’t think of adding a “more physics news” option to the poll. I’m not a great source of news: not being a phenomenologist, I don’t keep up with the latest experimental results, and since my sub-field is small and insular I’m not always aware of the latest thing Witten or Maldacena is working on.

For an example of the former: recently, various LHC teams presented results at the Moriond and Aspen conferences, with no new evidence of supersymmetry in the data they’ve gathered thus far. This triggered concessions on several bets about SUSY (including an amusingly awkward conversation about how to pay one of them).

And I only know about that because other bloggers talked about it.

So I’m not going to be a reliable source of physics news.

With that said, knowing there’s a sizable number of people interested in this kind of thing is helpful. I’ve definitely had times when I saw something I found interesting, but wasn’t sure if my audience would care. (For example, recently there’s been some substantial progress on the problem that gave this blog its name.) Now that I know some of you are interested, I’ll err on the side of posting about these kinds of things.

“What’s it like to be a physicist” and science popularization were both consistently third and fourth in the poll, switching back and forth as more votes came in. This tells me that while many of you want more technical content, there are still people interested in pieces aimed to a broader audience, so I won’t abandon those.

The other topics were fairly close together, with the more “news-y” ones (astrophysics/cosmology and criticism of bad science coverage) beating the less “news-y” ones. This also supports my guess that people were looking for a “more physics news” option. A few people even voted for “more arguments”, which was really more of a joke topic: getting into arguments with other bloggers tends to bring in readers, but it’s not something I ever plan to do intentionally.

So, what’s next? I’ll explain more quantum field theory, talk more about interesting progress in amplitudes, and mention news when I come across it, trusting you guys to find it interesting. I’ll keep up with the low-level stuff, and with trying to humanize physics, to get the public to understand what being a physicist is all about. And I’ll think about some of the specific suggestions you gave: I’m always looking for good post ideas.

New Poll: What Would You Like to See More Of?

It’s been a while since I last polled you guys. Back then, I was curious what sorts of backgrounds my readers had. In the end, roughly half of you had some serious background in high-energy physics, while the other half had seen some physics, but not a lot.

This time, I’d like to know what sort of content you want to see. WordPress tells me how well an individual post does, but there isn’t much of a pattern to my best-performing posts beyond the vagaries of whose attention they grab. That’s why I’m asking you what you want to see more of. I’ve split things into vague categories. Feel free to vote for as many as you like, and let me know in the comments if there’s something I missed.