Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

There have been some obits out by physicists. My favorite so far is Bee's.

Update: Roger Penrose's Guardian Obit is don't miss, via PW. Fernando could learn some stuff about black holes from reading it.

Also, Leonard Mlodinow in the NYT.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Adios Rex

Rex Tillerson was fired, probably mostly for not getting along with the Moron in Chief, but he was also, by many accounts, a terrible Secretary of State. He lacked vision, and, surprisingly for a top CEO, seemed to have no clue how to run the organization, presiding over confusion, resignations of much of the departmental expertise, and an inability to communicate to his staff.

The new CIA chief will be Bush's chief torturer.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hulla Balu

Arun is continuing on a Balu related tear, and once again the point is to contrast Hinduism (not a religion) and once again, the target seems to be a book he hasn't read.

Here is a quote from a critic:

As S.N. Balagangadhara notes, if you take away the Bible and you take away Jesus, there will be nothing left that would be recognizable as a religion called Christianity. Similarly, if you take away the Quran and take away Mohammad, there will be nothing left that would be recognizable as a religion called Islam. Religions stand or fall based upon these two factors. If these two factors are necessary components of religion, it obviously means that the Indian traditions are phenomena of a different kind. You cannot use different standards of determination in judging this matter. Even Buddhism does not need a Buddha, nor does Jainism need a Mahavira.

I wonder. Take away the whole corpus of Indian religious literature (Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas for a start), and what remains? I think it would leave a pretty big hole. Take away all trace of Buddha and his teachings, and what remains? I admit that I don't really know the answer.

There is also this:

It is regressive to regard certain avenues of exploration as taboo just because the principles are deemed to be a part of Hindu religion. This is a double-whammy for Hindus. We are required to recognize Protestant ideas as secular and we are required to treat Hindu empirical discoveries and theoretical claims as religious.

I find this mostly incomprehensible, but I wonder what are those Protestant ideas that need to recognized as secular. Newton's physics? Darwin's evolution? Crick and Watson's DNA?

Friday, March 09, 2018

Quantum Field Theory

Quantum Field Theory has the reputation of being one of those subjects that separates the men from the boys. The boys, of course, go on to become particle physicists, solid state theorists, and so on, while the men find less challenging careers. I'm not sure if it's still possible to get a PhD in physics without taking a QFT course but I am quite sure that it's possible to get one without understanding it. I did take, and pass, such a course once long ago, and I've since worked a hundred or two quantum field theory problems, but I can't pretend to understand it in any deep way.

It's possible that others share my intellectual handicap. Maybe that's why quantum field theory texts continue to bloom like leaves in the spring. It's hard for me to believe that there are as many theoretical physicists as there are QFT texts, but I suppose that I must be mistaken. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that I own less than 100 of them, though it has been a while since I counted. Unfortunately, I do keep buying more.

I tend to blame Amazon's book preview feature. From time to time I see a new title, browse, and see something that seems to explain a point that was always murky to me. A few days later, another damn QFT book arrives in my mailbox - or on my doorstep.

Another problem I have is that I like to start books from the beginning. That usually results in my falling asleep sometime between the first mention of Noether's theorem and renormalization.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

That Old Time Religion

Arun has posted a link to a synopsis S. Balagangadhara's "The Heathen in His Blindness," a major critique of Western study of religion. This was interesting to me since I had never managed to understand his often intricate prose. My attempt to synopsize the synopsis: Hinduism as a religion was invented by Western colonialists, as was the anthropological conclusion that religion is a cultural universal, and, in particular, that the whole sociological/anthropological study of religion is hopelessly contaminated by Abrahamic prejudices.

Perhaps you are eagerly awaiting my opinion on all this - or not. Anyway, I think that if you accept his definition of religion, which essentially restricts the concept to those three Middle Eastern religions and their close relatives, what he says is true. It's also obviously true that one's culture inevitably colors one's analysis of any other culture.

Balu, as he is also known, has a cultural grievance and a resulting chip on his shoulder. He thinks, with some justification, that Indian culture has been unfairly devalued by analysis by Westerners, though many of the examples adduced are from a century or so ago. He's also pretty incensed by the famous intolerance of the monotheists, and seems to argue that it's not a vice of polytheists, or non-theists. Would that that were true, but we have seen that Hindus and Buddhists seem just a quick as monotheists to slaughter members of other religions.

Let's recall too, that 400 years before Christ, and more than 1000 before Mohammed, as well as well before Judaism had made a mark in the Hellenic world, the Athenians executed one of their greatest citizens, Socrates, for alleged impiety and atheism.

What about the alleged universality of religion in culture? Cultures are diverse enough that any claims of universality beyond the biological necessities are suspect. It does seem, though, that mythologies with a lot in common with religion are extremely widespread, and that there is even a pattern in the types of "religious" practices found. Hunter gatherers are almost always animists, assuming some kind of animating spirit in animals and even quite inanimate objects. Agricultural peoples have gods, often associated with natural phenomena. Civilizations seem to develop ritualized practices, usually featuring gods and spirits. All these have in common a belief in supernatural spirits or beings.

There are, however, practices we call religions that don't explicitly invoke the supernatural, like Buddhism. Some, like Israeli Historian Yuval Noah Harari would classify even Communism, Naziism, and humanism as religions.

Of course arguing over definitions is ultimately fruitless, but most, not evidently including Balu, would accept that whenever supernatural beings and rituals are linked to cultural prescriptions, we have a religion. By that standard, Hinduism is either a religion or a complex of religions.

It's probably worth mentioning that Indian politics has a dog in this fight, since India is officially secular, but the Hindu traditionalist party in power wants to protect certain privileges for religious temples.

Oddly enough, both the word "religion" and "secular" have been traced to Proto-Indo-European roots with the meaning "to bind," with the modern meanings perhaps linked to being bound to god or bound to time and the world.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Entropy of the Universe

In which Fernando asks a question, and CIP gets confused.

In some ways the initial Universe, which is hot and uniform would seem to have a high entropy. Of course we have good reason to believe that the entropy has been increasing, at least since the big bang. If we stick to classical thermodynamics, the entropy change of a system undergoing a reversible change is given by dS = Q/T, where dS is the entropy change, Q the heat transferred, and T the temperature. So for an isolated system, undergoing reversible change, the entropy can't change. You might think that our universe is an isolated system, but it isn't really. Because our Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, stuff at the boundaries of the Universe keeps "falling off the edge", that is going beyond the observable horizon. Another kind of horizon exists around black holes, so the amount of matter in the observable U keeps shrinking. On the other hand, dark energy keeps increasing.

Any smart person want to explain to me how all this affects the entropy?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Smarts, don't it?

Aristotle, I mean. In the older sense of causing pain. From the PIE *smerd- pain.