March 2006

While casually browsing my website’s logs for hits from people looking for CICCU, rocking backwards and forwards and crooning “Soon, my precious! Soon!”, I noticed that some people from Facebook had been talking about the Losing my Religion page.

Coincidentally, Varsity recently interviewed one of the admins (PDF, look on page 7) of the Cambridge University mail server, hermes. The article mentioned Facebook, so I suppose it’s where the hip kids hang out these days. The article’s a bit odd. It’s one of those “the young people always think they invented it” things: apparently, email began in 2003. That’s more than just too late, for me, but I’m pretty sure that back in 1994 there was the joy of Pine and the anxiety of using finger to see whether New Hall girls had read their email (oh good, I seem to have navigated that sentence without saying “fingering”). There was none of this webmail nonsense. Things were starkly terminal based on the frontier of the Information Prairie, the bleached bones of our text lying on the dark surface of my wildly mixed metaphor. There was a greater awareness of the fragile underpinnings of it all, a rough justice needed to preserve order in our fledgling society: I got a sternly worded email from the man who became the author of Exim, telling me to stop pissing about sending myself mail from god@heaven. And we liked it.

So, Facebook. I joined. It seems to be a gentrified version of Myspace. There’s the bit where you can leave people messages and look at the pictures of them looking pale and interesting, but the residents’ committee has clamped down on the flashing purple text on a black background and the humourous cross-site scripting attacks. I didn’t have the de rigeur photo of myself exhibiting Internet disease (warning: Encyclopedia Dramatica is rarely safe for anything, although there’s nothing specifically worthy of summary dismissal on that page at the time of writing), so I just used the one off my website. I wandered around and laughed at the community called “FUCCU”. It’s all harmless fun I suppose. I’ve e-friended some of you on there, just cos: I’m not sure of the etiquette of friending on Facebook, so friend me back if you like, but don’t do it just because I know where most of you live.

I never did find out what people were saying about the religion page, the referrals were people following links from private messages. I expect it was the CICCU people wondering when I will actually overtake their official site in Google’s rankings. Soon, my precious, soon.

Anyone up for Isolatr? It’s where the cool people aren’t.

The Fabric of the Cosmos was given to me by one of the many ex-physicists at work. I’d previously read Greene’s The Elegant Universe, and found it interesting but perhaps a bit long: I suspect that attempting to get a whole book out of explaining string theory without using mathematics might have been a bit ambitious.

The Fabric of the Cosmos is lovely to read. Greene takes a couple of questions as his theme: Are space and time a “thing”, or merely about the relationship between things? Where does our perception of an “arrow of time” come from? He begins with Newton and Leibnitz and works forward through Special Relativity, General Relativity, quantum mechanics and modern attempts to unite the latter two, introducing concepts like entropy and inflation theory along the way.

Greene has a gift of explaining technical concepts clearly. Sometimes he chooses an appropriate analogy, but more often it’s a straight explanation written with the clarity of someone who has a deep understanding of the subject themselves but still retains some idea of how hard it was to learn it. I learned some things which I’m pretty sure were new to me rather than things I knew and then forgot (for example, I don’t think anyone ever explained that a flat, Ω=1, universe can either be spatially infinite or have toroidal topology).

Personal digression into “when I was at Cambridge” nonsense: My own, somewhat limited, success as a physicist relied mostly on my ability to do really evil calculus: given some likely looking equations, I’d just dive in and emerge, gasping, with the answer. My supervisors were always writing remarks like “more words, please!” on my work (oddly enough, these days my code is pretty well commented). Nevertheless, I did OK on the Cambridge course, which was basically about testing your ability to do this stuff really fast in an exam and to think on your feet in supervisions. This was fine until the later years when they started to ask questions which tested actual understanding, and I hit my head on stuff like the Feynman path integral like Asimov hitting calculus and realised I couldn’t just do the maths anymore. I don’t really have a physicist’s intuition, but in my defence, I mostly didn’t have people like Greene as lecturers (with some notable exceptions), but rather the “101 Great Moments in Calculus” sort. They almost certainly had the deep understanding, but they weren’t so good with the the words either. I’ve no idea whether it’s still like this, and it’s probably my fault for not reading around the subject in the stupidly long vacations that Cambridge undergraduates get. Nevertheless, there should be more educators like Greene.

Greene also conveys something of the wonder and strangeness of the universe. Space is big, as someone once said, but it’s also odd. Its constituents behave in ways which are so different from everyday objects that it’s hard to believe these objects are built up of such stuff.

I was reminded again that the majority of the universe is so unlike Earth that it beggars belief that some people could believe it was all put here for our benefit (“He also made the stars”, apparently) or that an entity who could create the whole thing would be concerned with the inhabitants of an insignificant little blue-green planet.

Rant over. Green writes engagingly. I’d recommend the book to people who want to know the secrets of the universe.

Continuing my theme, there was story a little while back about a quantum computer that can do calculations without actually running. I was annoyed that nobody in the popular science press seemed to get further with an explanation than “ooh! quantum! straaange!”. Luckily Sean Carroll rides to the rescue, with an explanation involving puppies and lettuce. Great stuff.