Saturday, February 26, 2011

In which I bite off more than I can chew

Although the universe is under no obligation to make sense, students in pursuit of the Ph.D are. - Robert P. Kirshner

Although I was not gunning for a Ph.D, after getting some interest in reading about astronomy, I became ambitious and decided to see what cosmology was all about. I found that one of the most recommended popular science books in field was The Whole Shebang. I bought it and started reading it. The preface contained the following ominous lines:
Then quantum chance reared its indeterminate face, as a creative agency that authored the first phenomena of cosmic time. So we are obliged to consider that even the largest systems are ruled by quantum precepts that govern nature on the smallest scales, and that the origin of the universe may itself have been a quantum flux.
This did not look promising. I encountered terms like shape of space, C-field theory, entropy of Black holes,baryon asymmetry etc. and my synapses jammed. There were passages where I thought I understood something followed by fog. There were parts that I understood as well as I did this contraption. The part I enjoyed most was a character sketch of the Nobel laureate, Paul Dirac. Apparently, Dirac was supreme in one area of human endeavour and had no interest or competence in any other area. He was famously taciturn. There was an extract from an interview he gave to a magazine:
REPORTER: Now, doctor, will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?
REPORTER: Will it be right if I put it this way - "Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth's batting average"?
REPORTER: What do you like best in America?
DIRAC: Potatoes.
There was a description of another Dirac incident:
The physicist Jagdish Mehra recalls dining with Dirac at hightable at Cambridge. "The weather outside was very bad, and since in England it is always quite respectable to start a conversation with the weather, I said to Dirac, 'It is very windy, Professor'. He said nothing at all, and a few seconds later he got up and left. I was mortified, as I thought that I had somehow offended him. He went to the door, opened it, looked out, came back, sat down, and said 'Yes.'"
With passages like these, I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But naive me! I did not realise that the light was from an oncoming train. I soon ran into terms like virtual particles, gauge bosons, Lie groups...and my neurons went on strike. But being a glutton for punishment, I struggled through to the end and managed to survive. If you want to have an idea about the kinds of topics that are discussed in the book you can listen to Dark Matter Rap.

Aside - I saw another anecdote about Dirac in this post:
At the question period after a Dirac lecture at the University of Toronto, somebody in the audience remarked: “Professor Dirac, I do not understand how you derived the formula on the top left side of the blackboard.”

“This is not a question,” snapped Dirac, “it is a statement. Next question, please.”


  1. That pretty much sums up how I react to many of your posts!

  2. Wonder what his reaction was when he won the Nobel prize!!
    Cosmology???I wouldn't even have bothered to read the preface(it sure does sound ominous) are ULTIMATE in your choice of books.Cheers!!