Saturday, August 27, 2011

Surely You Were Thinking Outside The Box, Mr. Feynman!

If only Richard Feynman still lived and this blogger could present him with the conundrum of this blog: the reversal of the footer and header in the blog's left-side menu. However, Feynman is gone and this blogger stares at a mucked up blog. If this is (fair & balanced) case of having our cake and eating it, too — so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
A Quantum Life
By Lawrence M. Krauss

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Recently I published my first biographical book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science. This was a departure for me—I usually write about science, not the people who do science. But I realized that being able to explore Feynman's understanding of his own work, through his papers, would help me to give a clearer popular explanation of his physics.

Most people don't realize that in science nowadays—in physics, anyway—we rarely turn to the original literature to understand scientific concepts. That's because scientific ideas invariably get distilled and refined, with the result that they become easier to understand, and often more general. Ideas get reinterpreted, on the basis of new discoveries and new mathematical formalisms, to such an extent that often the content of original papers is almost unrecognizable. While the results of a lifetime of work on electromagnetism during the 19th century can famously be written on a T-shirt today in the form of what are known as Maxwell's four equations, these bear little resemblance to the formulation of his ideas as he originally expressed them.

So I knew that working with Feynman's papers would help me better translate the evolution of his ideas.

I also felt that I owed it to both Feynman and the public to present a more balanced picture of his contributions than was generally available. He created a mythology about himself that others have happily latched on to. He became known primarily as a prankster, a bongo-playing practical joker, and a womanizer, all combined with an almost mystical intellect. But Feynman's real legacy was none of that. His legacy was his science, and its contribution to our understanding of the universe. When it came to the details of science, he was deadly serious.

What made Feynman special was not so much his nonconformity, but the genuine weirdness of the quantum universe that he so personally and successfully assaulted. The wildness of the man was a match for the wildness of the quantum universe. He was willing to break all the rules to tame a theory that breaks all the rules.

Quantum mechanics has captured the public's imagination precisely because it defies classical logic, while at the same time appearing to make the universe strangely accessible. Quantum objects seem to be able to do many mutually inconsistent things—an electron, for example, projected at a barrier with two slits, can go through both slits at the same time. But the properties of the system that one measures appear to depend crucially on how one chooses to measure that system. Thus, after I shoot a series of electrons through the slits, the pattern of spots that can be observed on a fluorescent screen placed behind the barrier vary, depending on whether or not you measure the electrons' positions at the barrier at one slit or the other, or neither.

Alas, that fact has led to misunderstandings and new-age myths. Programs based on such misconceptions, like those about the "law of attraction" described in the best-selling book The Secret (2006), falsely suggest that quantum mechanics supports the notion that we can literally change external phenomena just by thinking about them. In the example I've given here, thinking about the electrons is irrelevant. One must make observations and take active measurements of the electrons to affect their behavior.

The work that led to Feynman's Nobel Prize was based on a fundamental re-examination of the quantum universe—one that led to a change in the way physicists now picture quantum processes. Driven by the need to reformulate quantum theory to deal with a vexing problem associated with the quantum properties of fundamental electric charges, Feynman trained us to think of quantum processes as occurring in both space and time, even though Schrödinger's conventional, wave-mechanics theory taught us that we cannot pinpoint elementary quantum objects at specific locations in space or time.

How can one have one's cake and eat it, too? Feynman was able to argue that elementary particles like electrons do not trace single classical trajectories, as baseballs and cannonballs appear to do. Rather, one can imagine them tracing many such trajectories at the same time. With each trajectory, we can associate a quantum "weighting" factor. The probability that an electron starting out at one point and at one time will be measured to be at a distant point at some time later can be determined by combining contributions from all the possible paths that an electron could take between those points, with each path's contribution to the sum total being proportional to its weighting factor.

This notion even explains the existence of exotic "antiparticles." These are not merely creations of "Star Trek" but actually exist in the real world. Every type of elementary particle in nature has an antiparticle with opposite electric charge but precisely the same mass. Feynman showed that this was required by the theory of relativity as applied to the quantum universe.

If, for short times, elementary particles could follow trajectories in which their speed exceeds the speed of light—impossible in the classical universe, but allowed among the possible quantum trajectories in Feynman's view of quantum mechanics—then they can appear, by relativity, to be briefly going backward in time. But a positively charged particle moving backward in time resembles a negatively charged particle moving forward in time. The trajectory of a particle moving forward in time, then briefly backward in time, then forward in time implies that during some period, three different particles appear to be existing at once—the original particle and a pair of particles with equal and opposite charges, or, as we now call them, a particle-antiparticle pair. Since one starts with a single particle and ends up with a single particle, a particle-antiparticle pair must be both spontaneously created and also annihilated during this period. Simple!

The techniques that Feynman developed do not apply merely to esoteric objects like antiparticles. They have played a central role in allowing physicists to do things like handling liquid helium and building the atomic clocks at the heart of modern global positioning systems. Indeed, Feynman's "path integral" formalism has become a staple of essentially every area of modern physics.

Feynman's own love of physics was not restricted to the esoteric. In 1960, well before the invention of microchips, Feynman wrote a beautiful essay speculating on the seemingly "infinite possibilities" of engineering machines on smaller and smaller scales—what we now refer to as nanotechnology. He laid the groundwork for what may be one of the most exciting future applications of quantum mechanics to the macroscopic world—quantum computing. By exploiting the fact that quantum systems can do many things at the same time (as long as you don't measure them during the process), we may one day be able to create quantum computers whose multitasking characteristics might allow them to vastly outperform today's computers, making possible in real time the completion of calculations that now would take longer than the age of the universe.

Feynman was driven to his remarkable insights about nature not because he loved to dwell in idle speculation, but because the requirements of understanding various experiments drove him to think outside the box. He once said that science is imagination in a straitjacket, and his willingness to force his creative imagination to bend to the will of nature reflects one of the most important characteristics of successful science.

It takes a certain kind of courage to accept the world as it is, whether one likes it or not, despite one's most profound dreams and hopes about the way the world should be. The risk is outweighed, however, by the gift of understanding. Feynman personified the scientific integrity and bravery required to follow nature wherever it leads. That may be his greatest legacy. Ω

[Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor of physics, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science (2011). Krauss received undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics with first class honours from Carleton University (Ottawa), and his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Buzz Off!!!

Buzzwords are everywhere. This blog is buzzword sanctuary. If this is (fair & balanced) meaningless confusion of words, so be it.

PS: The glitch in the blog didn't go away over night, but The Blogger abides.

[x Austin Fishwrap]
A Perfect Swarm — Buzzwords
By Helen Anders

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When did we stop getting in touch and start reaching out, circling back around and pinging? Why must we constantly dialogue about our true north? And how did everything get so darn impactful?

"It's the language we live in," says David Parson, a creative director at GSD&M [Austin ad agency]. "Everybody's using the same words."

Buzzwords are the plastic bags of the English language. We're bombarded with them on TV and in meetings, so we pick them up and use them, adding to the contamination of the linguistic landscape. (Surely somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, there's an island of floating buzzwords.)

Parson says he's been called out by friends for using "It is what it is," a meaningless conversation-filler that, along with "at the end of the day," simply refuses to die.

"It's just another way of saying, 'I don't know,' and you don't want to say 'I don't know' because then you're that guy, and nobody wants to be the guy who doesn't know," he says.

Some buzzwords start out as legitimate words and then "come into general usage in a sloppy way," says University of Texas associate professor of communication studies Matthew McGlone. An example: monetize, which originally meant converting currency or notes into legal tender and now winds up in ads: "Monetize your website!"

One of McGlone's specialties is the study of euphemisms, and some buzzwords qualify, such as "circle around" and "reach out" for e-mailing or telephoning somebody.

"Sometimes it's obsequious and a little unctuous," McGlone says. "It adds this touchy-feely element to something that isn't touch-feely."

One of McGlone's least favorite buzzwords is "impactful."

"You hear it and your blood pressure starts to rise," he says. "I first heard it when I did some consulting for advertising, and it struck me as suspicious to start with."

He's also not keen on "perfect storm."

"Just in the last week, some of my colleagues have used 'perfect storm,' " he says. "You can't say that in Austin, Texas. A perfect storm will involve some rain." Besides, that "Perfect Storm" movie is 11 years old. By now it should be merely a perfect tropical disturbance.

Well, it is what it is. So, here's a quick glossary to help you translate political press conferences, internal business memos and voicemails:

Reach out: To contact someone by phone or email, as in, "I can't talk to you now, but my assistant will reach out to you this afternoon."

Circle back around: To follow up and annoy somebody a second time, as in, "I'm just circling back around to see if you've received my proposal."

Ping: Another word for getting in touch, as in, "I'll ping you when I want to discuss that proposal."

Monetize: To make money, as in, "I really enjoy whistling, and I'm good at it, but I can't figure out a way to monetize it."

Kick the can down the road: A phrase that every politician plays on a continuous loop to describe what his political adversaries are not getting done. Playing this loop is, in fact, a way of kicking the can down the road.

Vision: Agenda, as in, "We will not compromise our vision."

Impactful: Bursting with impact, as in, "That's an impactful insight, Brad." This word is the unfortunate, inevitable result of using "impact" as a verb in a non-wisdom-tooth sense.

Business model: The way you do business. You're no longer a bad businessman or businesswoman. You just have a bad business model. Go get the modeling clay and try again.

Dialogue as a verb: Talk. It means talk. Why not just talk?

Issues: Problems, as in, "I have issues with people who refuse to talk about their problems."

Best practices: Stuff that monetizes, often used as a vague term, as in, "Our business is focusing on best practices to pull us out of the recession."

True north: Technically, the compass direction that leads to the North Pole. In the sense that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, this becomes an apt business buzzword, referring to a directional pull toward the goal of monetizing, as in, "A strong brand is a marketer's true north."

Fulfillment: Making both the customer and the boss happy, as in, "We must focus on fulfillment."

Value-added: Whatever you can get somebody to do without paying him or her.

Migration: A new way of doing things. No longer do only animals migrate. Everything migrates, and the verb has suddenly become transitive, as in: "Hey, we're migrating your job to our plant in Bangalore."

At the end of the day: Summing up, as in, "At the end of the day, he's just kicking the can down the road."

It is what it is: It's something to say when you've nothing to say. That's what it is.

Outside the box: This old, worn-out term for innovation refuses to disappear, despite the fact that its users are clearly thinking inside the box. (Parsons suggests people spin off their own versions of this, such as "outside the egg.")

RIF: Reduction in a force, a decades-old term now used as a verb: to RIF, as in "He was RIFFED," meaning he was laid off, which is also a euphemism, because, really, how many laid-off people get laid back on? He was fired.

ROI: Return on investment, the true north of all monetizers. Maybe the abbreviation makes it sound more likely to occur.

SEO: Search engine optimization. We all know this one. When you Google something, if you use the same lame words as everybody else, Google is more likely to display your website.

And that, folks, means that at the end of the day, we have no choice but to use as many buzzwords as we possibly can. So prepare for endless reaching out and pinging. Ah, well. It's better than having people put bugs in our ears. Ω

[Helen Anders is the travel writer for the Austin American-Statesman; Anders also contributes feature writing to the paper. She received a BA in English from Wake Forest University.]

Copyright © 2011 Austin American-Statesman

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Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves