4 March 2007

People don't always know what they need to take the next step in their growth. Our mission in helping our friends and loved ones is to aim for what they need, which may not be what they want.  

But in practice, there is often little we can do to bring their desires more into consonance with their long-term welfare.  It is only the strongest, most trusting relationships in which our ideas and advice have the power to move another person in a helpful direction.  An assertion of will in a sensitive situation can be taken as a hostile intervention, and trust will be diminished; even unsolicited advice can be destructive.

Most of the time, the best we can do with friends and loved ones in our lives is to help them toward their avowed goals.  But with love and support, people move at their own pace toward their own realizations, and these are so much the more powerful for having been self-generated. 

– Josh Mitteldorf

3 March 2007

At the end of the 19th Century, physics seemed to be at the threshold of an end to its program.  The world would soon be understood as a vast, deterministic machine, with everything unfolding predictably, and complexity arising only from the sheer numbers of particles involved.

There are many people who cling to this view today, though they tend not to be physicists.  Physicists have come to appreciate the ways that our science leads us to the brink – not of determinism but a mystical view of the universe.

The most recent example is the discovery from cosmology that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace.  All known forms of matter would lead to a slowing of the expansion, due to mutual gravitational attraction.  Way back in 1917, however, Einstein noted that there is room in the equations for a term encompassing negative pressure.  Earthbound scientists have no experience of a kind of matter that exerts negative pressure.  The more air we blow into a balloon, the more the balloon puffs out.  Can you imagine pumping something into the balloon that has negative pressure?  The more of it you pump in, the more the balloon contracts.

Yet there is a consensus in the astronomical community the last eight years that ‘dark energy’ is a necessary ingredient in any viable model of the universe at large.  Dark energy is a name for something that is all around us in great abundance – there is much more dark energy than ordinary mass/energy in our universe.  Yet all that we can say about it is that it has different properties from any form of matter/energy that has ever been observed.  Science awaits an idea for how it might be located or isolated, so that its properties might be studied.

Brief summary of dark matter and dark energy from Scientific American

2 March 2007

I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.

Kurt Weill, born this day in 1900

Listen to Speak Low, from the musical One Touch of Venus
Listen to Notturno from Weill's Violin Concerto

1 March 2007

A little caring goes a long way.  In a social psychology experiment, African-American students were asked to write about values that were important to them, and subsequently their grades improved more than students who were asked by the same researcher to do a less meaningful exercise.  “Some readers will undoubtedly be surprised...that a 15-minute intervention can reduce the racial achievement gap by 40%.”

But similarly significant improvements in academic performance (average, about 1/3 of a grade point) have been found from such simple interventions as reminding Freshmen that everyone experiences difficulties fitting in at times, or that grades tend to improve once a student learns the ropes in a new place.  

Article in Science Magazine

28 February 2007

Satyagraha, or truth-force

        Satyagraha is a relentless search for truth and a determination to search truth....Satyagraha is an attribute of the spirit within....designed as an effective substitute for violence.... Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion, such that it covers all the elements of the society and makes itself irresistible....The fight of Satyagraha is for the strong in spirit, not the doubter or the timid....Satyagraha, of which civil-resistance is but a part, is to me the universal law of life....Satyagraha can rid society of all evils, political, economic, and moral...A genuine Satyagraha should never excite contempt in the opponent even when it fails to command regard or respect....Satyagraha thrives on repression till at last the repressor is tired and the object of Satyagraha is gained....Satyagraha does not depend on the outside [for] help; it derives all its strength from within....The method of Satyagraha requires that the Satyagrahi should never lose hope, so long as there is the slightest ground left for it....In the dictionary of Satyagraha, there is no enemy. Since Satyagraha is a method of conversion and conviction, it seeks never to use the slightest coercion... For a Satyagraha brigade, only those are eligible who believe in ahimsa – nonviolence and satya – truth... A Satyagrahi has infinite patience, abundant faith in others, and ample hope....A Satyagrahi cannot go to law for a personal wrong....In the code of the Satyagrahi, there is no such thing as surrender to brute force.


27 February 2007

We’re all familiar with tile patterns on kitchen or bathroom floors – simple patterns that fit together in a way that repeats forever in two directions.  Roger Penrose is a modern mathematician who made famous the discovery that it's possible for tiles to fit together in a way that does go on forever but doesn't ever repeat itself.  The simplest example is the pattern on the left, made from just two different shapes.  The method behind it is a spiral pattern.  If you are like me, you could gaze at this pattern for several hours, seeking to understand the underlying pattern.  Penrose Tilings were first published in 1973.  Intriguingly, there are natural materials, called quasi-crystals that are built out of atoms in regular patterns that never repeat.
Recently, Peter Lu and Paul Steinhardt discovered similar patterns on the walls of Turkish architecture from the 12th century.  The principle on which the pattern at the left is organized is that small versions of the tiles combine to make bigger versions, and then the bigger versions are used to construct yet bigger versions.  This is a kind of pattern that manifestly can go on forever, but it is not ‘periodic’ in the sense that you can’t just simply move over x inches and up y inches and find a repeat of the same pattern.

Science article by Lu and Steinhardt    NYTimes article today


26 February 2007

Q’uimporte que la vie inégale ici-bas,
Pour l’homme et pour la femme,
Se dérobe et soit prête à rompre sous vos pas;
N’avez-vous pas votre âme?

Votre âme, qui fuira bientot ailleurs,
Vers des regions pures,
Et vous emportera plus loin que vos douleurs,
Plus loin que vos murmures.

Soyez comme l’oiseau, posé pour un instant 
Sur des rameaux trop frèles, 
qui sent ployer la branche, mais qui chante pourtant, 
sachant qu’il a des ailes.

What matter if this base, unjust life
Cast you naked and disarmed?
If the ground breaks beneath your step,
Have you not your soul?

Your soul! You fly away
Escape to realms refined
Beyond all sadness and whimpering

Be like the bird which on frail branches balanced
A moment sits and sings;
He feels them tremble, but he sings unshaken,
Knowing he has wings.

Victor Hugo, born this day in 1802
   recording by Libana of a canon based on this text