Saturday, November 24, 2007


I come up with plenty of gems filled with the wisdom I've collected in my physics career, but I just have the problem of getting to a computer in time to type them up for this blog. One of these gems concerns the tone one often encounters in physics.

It's a hard thing to discuss, in part, because it's hard to pin down and describe. At its essence is contempt. If one were trying to "cook" up the sauce corresponding to this conversational tone, contempt would be the chicken broth base. There's subtle spice added so that the contempt may not be directed at the audience, but instead to others who don't understand.

Somewhat paradoxically, you need to speak as if only the very intelligent can understand while at the same time making the subject appear child's play. In such a way, it is very perilous to ask a question because that may indicate how little is understood. And if your audience asks a deep question or one to which you don't know the answer, by all means, hide this fact. Act as if it's a stupid question, but you need to do so in a viable way so that on the off chance your audience actually does understand things better than you, they don't see through your bluff.

If you've never encountered such a tone (meaning you've had very limited exposure to physicists), this description may not do you much good. An example is in order, and thus we get to the cause which engendered this post (three and four syllable words are like a touch of cinnamon when adopting this superior tone).

Now before I provide a link, let me say that I don't relish harping on fellow bloggers from behind the safety of my anonymity. I've got three reasons for doing so. The first is that this blogger, in the words our president might use, "brought in on" himself. Another is that I'm not really harping on him, personally. Jacques' been trained just as so many others have. And the third is to defend Jacques after appearing to be such a jerk. He's been trained that way. Arguably, one must act like this in his field to maintain the respect of his peers. In person, he seems a pretty reasonable guy.

So, if you've not read it, you might take a look at Jacques Distler's adventure into all that is E8/Lisi:

  • If you look at all the italics he uses in the first sentence, you clearly see that this is all beneath him. He doesn't see any benefit, but just had to speak up. Why so?
  • In the next paragraph he slams the Physics blogosphere (of which he is a member) and Sean in particular. Sean publishes a reasonable discussion of why he chose not to read the paper, a process of thought executed tens, if not hundreds of times by every active physicist every week or month. He further hammers home his point in the update by declaring "the Physics blogosphere as an intellectual wasteland." Umm, sure there's some garbage out there, but when Steinn/Sean/Chad/Doug/etc explains some recent paper, how can that not be considered intelligent? Just as garbage shows up on the Arxiv, some shows up on the blogosphere.
  • He finally gets to some physics where his "tone" becomes a bit more apparent (in contrast to just being a jerk). He mentions something that "Garret[t] never deigns to tell us" as if Garrett is somehow the one adopting a superior tone. What's funny is that Jacques gets corrected on this point later.
  • He then expresses vaguely directed contempt by explaining "for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has taken more than a passing glance at Garrett's paper." Right, "anyone" should understand this point...meaning you are a big idiot if you glanced at the paper and still don't know the reasons. This really serves no other purpose than conveying his contempt or bolstering his own ego.
  • In the comments, he really tries hard to provide good examples. He sighs at one point in explaining some horribly simple thing.
  • In responding to Garrett (yes, he actually tries to help Jacques, and one should really contrast their two ways of "talking"), Jacques asks Garrett to "enlighten" him...he couldn't use the word "explain" because that would imply Jacques didn't know something, and one can't do that (easily) in his field of competence. One must always maintain the attitude that you are the teacher and thereby any question is just an opportunity for the pupil to gain praise.
  • Jacques later advises Garrett that "it would be best to pick one story and stick to it." That just plain isn't nice.
  • Later, he brings out more italics saying he "really didn't want to post." But then why did he? And why must he protest so much (besides the logically inconsistency of not wanting to post yet doing it). Surely he knew he couldn't tamp down the media hype. Because other bloggers weren't being sufficiently critical? I've read quite a bit of criticism and skepticism in the wasteland. I wonder if it was because the skepticism was actually polite and reasoned (I didn't read Motl, though).
  • He follows this up with "I'm annoyed enough at the apparent intellectual standards of the physics blogosphere."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


  • I've only done Sudoko once. I don't really see the point. My lazy students say they do it. And someone on the plane recently was doing it. But she must have spent two hours on a single one. And I didn't see her write anything other than the numbers in the box. No notes at all about the possible solutions. Maybe that explains why she was so slow. Is that how most people do it?
  • Why do hotels buy fancy, flat panel (LCD or plasma) TVs and then feed them with either a standard definition signal or an awful, noisy high-def one?
  • Does Sean get any money for all the quotes that APS News uses from him?
  • More and more, I'm being upgraded from economy to an SUV rental vehicle. Who buys a Jeep Liberty anyway? I suppose lots of people given my difficulty picking out my car in parking lots. The steering is so loose, that you need to use two hands just to keep the thing going straight on the highway. I suppose this impresses those who test drive it in a parking lot and you can steer with one finger?
  • Does reading a paper on the computer result in a net benefit to the environment? I had always gone on that assumption, but I've since gained an appreciation for power sucked down by computers. I suppose it depends on how often one refers to the paper, and whether the computer would be running anyway.
  • I know that Blackberries and the like, have really come down in price, but am I right in assuming that everyone walking around with such a device is paying something like, at the minimum, $30/month for voice and another $30/month for data?