Tag Archives: Science

A Mash-up of Politics and Physics

This is my third attempt to write something tonight. Everything I’ve written feels forced, shallow, and dull to me.

I want to write about what is going on in my life, the things that matter to me. I’m following the Presidential primaries in the United States. I’m listening to music. I’m watching documentaries about string theory and fractals and reading Madeleine Albright’s memoirs.

I’m talking to people, strangers who suddenly seem desperate to share their stories, even with a perfect stranger if necessary. And I’m listening. I’m listening not only to the stories people are telling, but to the way they’re telling it, the emotions behind the words, and the hope hidden deep within their ideas.

There’s really no way to translate this into a simple blog entry, is there?

So much is going on in the world right now, things frightening and exciting and beautiful and despicable. 2012 is that kind of year, and here we are—shuffling through as the Earth travels around the sun yet again.

It’s kind of mind-boggling to consider we are walking atop a huge ball of rock hurtling at 67,062 miles an hour around an even huger ball of nuclear explosions that make Hiroshima look like a picture of a firefly, doodled onto a worn piece of paper and forgotten in the back of a notebook.

Gravity, and its quirky nature, is the only thing that keeps our home from becoming a mini-marshmallow in that giant bonfire. And yet, according to the documentary I recently watched, gravity appears to be the weakest of the four forces.

A Matter of Perspective

One of the wonderful things about becoming more aware is that you begin to notice the interconnectedness of it all. You begin to see how just a slight turn of the gaze can make all the difference in what you see and how you interpret it.

Which of course, brings me to politics.

Like so many others, I’ve been watching the 2012 Republican primaries with a mixture of curiosity, disbelief, fear, and dumbfounded amusement. It seems to me that so much of what is being presented as policy by the candidates seems to fly in the face of both reason and good sense.

Never in my life have I seen a group of candidates so blatantly and unapologetically disregard the separation of church and state. Their apparent hostility towards the social and political strides of the last fifty years, in terms of women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc., seem more surreal than anything else.

And yet, they fill chairs. They get votes.

It would seem to me that anyone with a bit of sense would look at their platforms and think, “Is this some kind of a joke?”

But that is not the case.

Closed Mouth and Open Mind

Tonight, Fey and I spoke at length to a young man who referred to himself as a died-in-the-wool Conservative. And for some reason, instead of arguing with him, we just sort of listened to what he had to say.

Of course, we disagreed on many of the points he made. But the surprising part of it was not our differences, but how many things we actually did agree on.

Now, there is no way anyone would call either Fey or me conservative. But for a short time, we were able to speak respectfully and pleasantly with a person with totally opposing viewpoints.

It’s a good thing to remember, when the public discourse seems to be getting more and more polarized, that everybody seems to want basically the same thing out of life—happiness, financial security, and the freedom to live their life as they please.

Politics and Quantum Physics

Okay, so what does all this have to do with the four forces of nature? Bear with me; I’m getting there.

Remember earlier when I said that gravity appears to be the weakest of the physical forces? The theory offered in my documentary was something like this—the energy strings that form gravity (gravitons) are actually loops (as opposed to open-ended strings). Being loops, they cannot connect to anything and can be lost between dimensions. Therefore, gravity seems weaker than its fellow forces.

Just like gravity, which is actually quite strong, commonality between people also seems weaker than it actually is. Our prejudices, fears, and arguments are like the other quantum particles—often flexible, but still fixed. We get stuck in these and give them so much more importance than the more fluid forces of communication and cooperation. We forget, in our attachments, that we have a very powerful force working to our advantage.

Tonight, I learned what happens when you let go, just a little bit, of your fixed positions and just let things float for a while. It doesn’t change your inherent nature, nor does it alter your fixed beliefs. But it does allow you to shift your perspective for a while. It lets you let go of your tightly held prejudices and just enjoy cooperation and conversation for a while.

I don’t know if any of this makes any difference in the grand scheme of things. Maybe I should ask the candidates to my house for popcorn and a screen of Physics: The Elegant Universe. It may not improve the state of political discourse, but it might just make a few of these guys think for a while.


How Television Saved My Sanity (and Other Absurd Observations)

About a year ago, Fey and I decided we would save money by getting rid of all those television channels we never watched. Basic cable, just for weather reports and emergencies, would do us just fine. After all, we could watch anything we wanted streaming on Netflix. We didn’t need all those other channels.

After two months of basic cable (and a television set that pretty much never saw the light of an On switch), we just got rid of cable altogether. It was obvious to both of us that basic cable (the bane of all channel surfers everywhere) simply wasn’t worth the cost. And, with a quick call to our local provider, we were off the television grid.

I won’t lie—I felt really good about it. No, not good. Superior. Awesomely superior, a newly-minted member of the intellectual elite, those ultra-cool folks who rise above the banal pleasures of Survivor Swap and Dancing with the Meercats and The Bachelor Whisperer, or whatever passes for entertainment among the Unwashed Masses. For about ten months, I enjoyed my own blank expression when friends, family, and coworkers gushed on about the lastest episode of Real Housewives of Celebrity Rehab, or whatever.

To be completely candid, I was a complete prig. A total snob.

Well, knock that one down and kick it under the couch, because I am back in the cult.

Monkey on My Back

My blissfully oblivious year came to a screeching end in December, 2011, when Fey’s mom moved in with us. Now, I love Fey’s mom—she’s pretty damned awesome. We work together, save money by carpooling, she likes to cook and she helps with the dishes.

But she will not live without cable. She’d rather live without oxygen.

So, with some reluctance, we allowed cable back into our home.

Remember that awesome superiority? Yeah, my hands actually started twitching in anticipation the day we first hooked up again. Oh, yes, those glorious high-number channels. It took me about a minute to get addicted again.

But It’s Educational!

In my defense, my taste in television has changed since the days of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Back in the Day, if it had a laugh track, I would watch it. (Yes, I even watched Hello, Larry! and Blansky’s Beauties.)

Now I’m more addicted to the educational programs. If it features outer space, quantum physics, or plate tectonics, I’m probably glued to the television. As a scientist, I make a great fiction writer—the math intimidates me, and the deeper we go into high-level concepts like physics, the more my brain begins to implode. My love of science, coupled with my basic ineptitude at anything but a cursory understanding of it, has been the source of much frustration in my life.

Just the other day, I caught a marathon of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman on Science Channel. I was gobsmacked. First, it had Morgan Freeman, who is one of the Six Coolest Guys in the Cosmos. Second, while it didn’t pull back from the tough ideas, it presented them in a way that didn’t make my head ache.

It struck me as miraculous that a mere television show could take such complex theories and make them come alive for me. I was back in the days of Cosmos, wide-eyed and transported by the poetry and loveliness of science in its most inspirational form.

The next day, armed with an MP3 player full of Philip Glass, I did my daily laps around the call center where I work. As the music winded itself into knots that unraveled themselves in exquisite complexity, I pondered the concept of quantum physics and how all things worked together.

And as Mr. Glass’s sparse harmonies played in my ears, I thought of subatomic particles—matter that is not matter, effect preceding cause. The floor beneath me, the rhythm of my feet, the people with headsets ignoring my progress—all of these things were more energy than substance. This was not a new concept to me. But until that day, as the notes of the music swirled around in my head, I never came close to getting it.

They say the universe is not made of matter, but of energy. They say reality is made of music, harmonics and energies and rhythms and patterns so complex and subtle that we mistake them for…stuff.

Philip Glass creates the universe in his compositions. You can’t look at the individual notes anymore than you can see an individual quark or electron. On their own the notes have no meaning, they are random and disturbing and even unpleasant at times. It is only in the harmonies, the connections between notes, that you find the music. With only a small number of tones, you open the door to infinite possibility—symphonies and slam dances and slow bluesy numbers.

So it is with the universe as well, a handful of elementary particles in infinite combinations create everything from dental plaque to nebulae. Broken down to its basic components, all creation is basically the same.

Notes become music. Particles become universes. It’s all in how you put them together. And the only true substance is in the harmony of the component parts.

Quantum physics, neatly illustrated by a cable TV show and a minimalist composer. Not too shabby for the price of monthly expanded cable.

This is television in its finest form. For all the hundreds of shows that erode the brain and corrode the soul, there are some shows that simply inspire you. In its noblest form, television has the power to educate and uplift. It can fire the imagination and fuel the spirit. How many doctors, scientists, and astronauts of today can look back to Cosmos and even Star Trek as an early inspiration for their careers?

So, I guess I’ll keep the high-number channels for a while. While I don’t necessarily need to know who’s sleeping with whom on Jersey Shore Leave, I may just wind up learning something in spite of myself.