26 February 2006

Melting Hostility and Vindictiveness

Privately, you may wish to guard against the worst thing he can do to you, but in your interactions with your adversary, you are wise to assume the best. Be disarming. Prepare by working the anger out of your system with the help of a friend or counselor. Then go forward with warmth, appreciation and invitations.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

25 February 2006

That huge hydrogen bomb inside a star’s nucleus is actually what keeps the whole thing stable. As long as the hydrogen lasts, the star shines steadily with the energy of a mere hundred billion hydrogen bombs per second; but when hydrogen in the core is exhausted and the star stops generating such enormous pressures from the inside, the result is far more violent. The inner part of the star collapses inward from gravity, sometimes down to a black hole, and the energy release is so great that the outer part is blown off into space, along with a lot of light, gamma rays, and cosmic ray particles. 

And what does this look like? The collapse to a black hole takes place at nearly the speed of light, so it lasts less than a second. During this time, there is a burst of high energy radiation, called a gamma ray burst. Afterward, as the shell is blown off, it becomes bigger and more spectacular. The shell is the part that glows with visible light, and it appears brighter and brighter for the first week, just because it is larger. This is a supernova.

Supernovae in our galaxy can be seen easily without a telescope. They can be as bright as the moon. But there hasn’t been one in 400 years. The next best thing is a supernova in our ‘galactic neighbor’, the Large Magellanic Cloud. We got to see one of those in 1987, and astronomers got their closest view of a supernova since the invention of the telescope.

Now, we’ve got another new star in the sky. This week an unusual supernova is exploding in the constellation Aries, best seen from the Southern hemisphere. This explosion is half a billion light years away – thousands of times further than the 1987 superstar. 

If Supernova 1987a was the nearest and brightest in recent years, then the new event is, perhaps, the most unusual. The gamma ray burst lasted half an hour. Is there some way that the collapse to a black hole could have taken place in slow motion? Or was the radiation purloined by a cloud from which it escaped at a stately pace? Physicists thought that they knew how a star collapses, but there are no theories yet about this one.

Article from the Baltimore Sun
New Scientist

24 February 2006

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Steve Jobs famously dropped out of college to play with electronics and, in the days when computers were big, expensive machines owned by banks and universities, he wanted one all for himself.  Jobs turns 51 today.

23 February 2006

Imagine making a list of all computer programs, starting with the shortest ones and working your way longer and longer. Then run them in the computer. Most of these programs will crash with an error message. Some will run, perhaps generate an answer and then stop. Some will keep running forever, in an infinite loop.

As you go along, keep track of which programs stop and which keep going forever. You might generate a score that says, “Of the first 10 programs, none of them stopped.” So you’d write 0/10, or 0.0 in your notebook. Later on, you may have examined 1000 programs, and you found that 7 of them that stopped. You’d write 7/1000=0.007 for your score.

These scores are successive approximations to a number that mathematicians call Omega. Omega is the probability that a “random computer program” will behave itself, and not go into an infinite loop.

Omega is just a number. Obviously it’s somewhere between 0 and 1. (The value of Omega does depend on what computer language you’re using, but the properties of Omega do not so depend.) For a particular, elegant but useless computer language that only a mathematical logician could love, the value of Omega comes out to 0.00787499699…

You might think of Omega as a number like pi. Pi has digits that go on forever, but in practice you can calculate it as exactly as you need to for any given purpose.

But it turns out that the number Omega has some peculiar properties. First, (great promise!) that it contains the answer to every mathematical question. Second (abysmal delivery!) that you can’t calculate Omega, even approximately, even with the world’s biggest computer. 

Read more
from this month's Scientific American: The Limits of Reason

22 February 2006

We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.

~Mary Antin, “The Promised Land” (1912)

21 February 2006

"Poetry is a break for freedom. In a sense all poems are good; all poems are an emblem of courage and the attempt to say the unsayable; but only a few are able to speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time; to create a door through which others can walk into what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage of a few short lines." 

~ David Whyte

20 February 2006

There is a small party who are of the opinion that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do. This party see everywhere only the arbitrary acts of the nobility and reject the popular tradition, which according to them possesses only certain trifling and incidental advantages that do not offset its heavy drawbacks, for it gives people a false, deceptive and over-confident security in confronting coming events. This cannot be gainsaid...[but] we are more inclined to hate ourselves, because we have not yet shown ourselves worthy of being entrusted with the laws. And that is the real reason why the party which believes that there is no law has remained so small – although its doctrine is in certain ways so attractive, for it unequivocally recognizes the nobility and its right to go on existing.

Actually one can express the problem only a sort of paradox: Any party which would repudiate, not only all belief in the laws, but the nobility as well, would have the whole people behind it; yet no such party can come into existence, for nobody would dare to repudiate the nobility. We live on this razor edge. A writer once summed the matter up in this way: The sole visible and indubitable law that is imposed upon us is the nobility, and must we ourselves deprive ourselves of that one law?

~ Franz Kafka