Asymmetries in scientific fields

I’ve just finished reading Michelle’s candidacy report, on some of the research she’s been doing into catalysts for certain reactions in organic chemistry. It’s highlighted for me some of the differences between different fields of research — and in particular, between theoretical physics, and the more experimental work that most other people at Caltech do.

Michelle’s report was very easy to read. That’s partially because it’s well written, but I’d say it’s also because the difficulty is in a different place to that of papers that I’m used to reading. “Reading” a longish string theory paper can take literally months — and even then, I can’t claim to understand everything that is being said. Reading Michelle’s report took a few hours, and while I didn’t understand all the jargon, I think I got the gist of the issues and approach that her research took.

On the other hand, having read Michelle’s report has brought me no nearer to actually being able to synthesise anything more interesting than a bowl of pasta and sauce. “Reading” the string theory paper, however, has involved working through the mathematics behind each step, at great length — sometimes hours for a single line. So once I’m finished, I’ve done a substantial portion of the work that was required to write the paper in the first place. The analogy would be me reading Michelle’s paper, and then making some of the reagents too — and that would take months too.
Continue reading “Asymmetries in scientific fields”

Upgrading my memory

I’m proud to present the Official guide to Adding 256MB of RAM (memory) to your laptop:

  1. Turn off your computer. Open the relevant part of your laptop to expose the memory slots. Check that you have a spare (unused) memory slot.
  2. Remember (correctly) the result of the above check.
  3. Assuming the success of the above steps, order a 256MB RAM chip for your laptop. Sites like Crucial allow you to order the correct RAM for the exact model of laptop that you have.
  4. Wait for the RAM chip to arrive (allow approximately 3 days for shipping and damage. Though hopefully not much of the latter).
  5. Turn off your computer. Touch a metal part of it to remove any static charge you might have. Open the appropriate part to expose the memory slots, and insert the RAM chip. Close the computer again, and turn it back on.
  6. Live in eternal bliss. Or at least until software becomes yet more bloated.

All this can be had for the low, low price of 102.988 Del Taco “Taco Tuesday” tacos*. Or, if you must know, $36.79.

But wait, you say — there are surely lots of far more complete guides (with pictures!) on buying memory, all over the internet? True, but they all leave off the vital step 2.
Continue reading “Upgrading my memory”

Only YOU have the power to Save Toby!

Only in the Internet age can someone make over $24 000, just by promising NOT to eat his pet. Have a look at | Only YOU have the power to Save Toby!

This money-making ploy is right up there with some of the classics of our time, like selling your soul on eBay. The moral of the story: one part bored people surfing the net, one part instant virtual payment courtesy of PayPal, makes hitting the jackpot possible without even going to Vegas. Now I just need my big idea…

Thanks to my brother Martin for sending me this link. He occasionally does something useful, in between hijacking my friends’ computers to send me insults from their ICQ (instant messenger) accounts, in order to create much strife. I’m not sure why he wants this, but luckily I’ve seen through his shallow plan! 1-0 to me!

Lines, intersections and dimensions

Building on the interest in my post on knots and different dimensions, I thought I’d say a few words on some interesting issues on lines in different dimensions, as raised by a recent seminar. It’s an interesting mind game!

We explicitly consider only generic situations from here on, which means that we ignore special cases as physically unlikely. So parallel lines need not be considered — all lines will have some random angle between them.
Continue reading “Lines, intersections and dimensions”

Why “Peak Oil” isn’t what really worries me

To flog a dead horse, here’s another post on oil depletion. This one is a few thoughts, mostly rebuttals to some points that have arisen about the validity of the argument around “Peak Oil” — that we’re a few years away from the greatest oil production we’ll ever see, and it’s downhill from there.

This post follows from my post on Price Elasticity of Oil, as well as this post on blogwaffe, and a whole collection of excellent, but scary, posts on Ted Brenner’s blog.

One of the more common replies to Peak Oil concerns is that oil production is not merely a function of how much oil there is in the ground, but rather a raft of other factors — such as the price of oil (determing what deposits are economical to drill), technology, investment in expanding existing fields, and political stability. I have two points here: the problems of keeping up with demand, and what higher prices mean.
Continue reading “Why “Peak Oil” isn’t what really worries me”

Good news and bad, in Africa

Two events happened in the last few days in Africa, one promising and one bad, which will have further knock-on effects in Africa and abroad. The good (with reservations) was the referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the situation in Darfur, Sudan, for prosecution of individuals implicated in crimes against humanity. The bad was Mugabe’s successful stealing of yet another election in Zimbabwe. Oh, and apologies for yet another long post!
Continue reading “Good news and bad, in Africa”

The problem with point particles

Quantum mechanics is often viewed as a “weird” theory, with all sorts of non-intuitive predictions. However, there are more serious conceptual problems with classical mechanics, at least in its simpler formulations. One of these is what happens near point particles — in fact, point particles in classical mechanics lead to all sorts of infinities. I’ll say a little about this below, as well as talk about what quantum mechanics and string theory have to say about these short-distance infinities.
Continue reading “The problem with point particles”

Price elasticity of oil

A post on blogwaffe has reminded me of some of the economic implications of oil depletion, in areas like production of plastics.

As rightly pointed out there, many uses of oil have alternatives that could be pursued, such as plant-based synthesis for plastic. But many areas of oil use, particularly agriculture and some types of transport, would require huge societal shifts to move to alternatives. Unfortunately, however, the economics of oil depletion are not going to help that shift.
Continue reading “Price elasticity of oil”

Programming, mathematics and 1984

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in the last few days coding some web applications in the programming language PHP. While writing libraries of reusable code, I realised that some of the design issues have interesting parallels both to the expression of mathematics, and the linguistic aspects of Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

First, for newcomers, some software engineering jargon: classes are collections of code and associated data that are written to behave as coherent objects, which are then”plugged in” to other parts of programs, or indeed each other, to create entire programs. For example, a simple text entry box is an object, that stores whatever is typed in it, along with code to describe how to handle keyboard activity within the box, how to draw the box on the screen, and so on.
Continue reading “Programming, mathematics and 1984”