Yes, part of my job is to sit and think about how the universe works. People hear this, and they wonder exactly what that entails. Well, it entails a lot of things – sometimes there’s the grand thoughts and the thought experiments and the like that you hear of from documentaries and books about Einstein and other famous scientists – but more often that not it is grungy nuts and bolts.
Take yesterday for example. After a week of working on various calculations and chipping away at improving my understanding of how to approach a certain problem, I decided to take Saturday and be outdoors a bit more…see what it was like outside. You know…. Have an actual Saturday Saturday. (I did not end up being booked to do that TV shoot, by the way, so I had a nice clear day ahead of me.)
What actually transpired was this:
I sat around puzzling over factors of two and minus signs. Essentially the whole day. There were a few stops here and there to do a few things, like a quick blog post in the morning over breakfast, think about what I might do during the day, get some laundry started, and so forth, but eventually I got completely pulled back into the matters that had been on my mind all week.
It all started in the shower, where I began to find that rather than thinking idle thoughts, I was coming up with new interpretations of the aspect of a simpler version of the computation that I did understand and then wondering if those new interpretations could help me understand what the source of my puzzlement was in the current computations. (This is often how we work…. you try to understand a correct and completed computation in as many different ways as you can (the underlying physical interpretation sometimes, or a geometrical one, or sometimes purely from a mathematical standpoint) and then one or more of those ways helps guide you to make progress with new questions or computations.)
So I emerged from the shower and wandered downstairs to the board and stared for a while. Then I wandered into the kitchen to find the tiny notebook that I’d scribbled in on my way on the walk yesterday afternoon to get some things from the supermarket. I’d sketched out some thoughts there which I thought I’d got to work, but my new thoughts called into question a factor of two. I’d put aside my worries about a relative minus sign in the other part of the computation. The two was now more important.
Eventually, I could not let it go. I could not work out what the source of the two was. Was it physics? Did I mis-transcribe an expression at some point and lose it somewhere? Did I lose a two in computation somewhere in the notebook? These can be hard to isolate. I flipped to earlier parts of the big notebook from early in the week and found that I’d somehow multiplied at some point where I should have divided. It was a general expression, but it turned out that when specific cases were inserted those factors boiled down to lots of factors of two as well. So this meant going over that computation again and seeing if it filtered into my later computations…. Yes and no. I’d evidently already caught this error some several pages (=two days) later, but had not made a big deal of it in the narrative that I sometimes leave in my notebooks as warnings to my future self….. More puzzling over conventions. Then I realized that I’d been extrapolating a part of the computation based on a marvelous numerical coincidence (where all the puzzling factors of two miraculously cancel just in one special case – I later understood the physical reason for this…. something called supersymmetry, which you’ve heard me talk about here before perhaps) when I had no right to. So I had to re-think a sort of ad hoc rule I’d made up….
Mid-afternoon came. Still had not gone out. But there was always this sense that I was on a verge of a breakthrough in my understanding of everything since I really liked my new interpretation that I’d thought of in the shower… I was now trying to re-cast everything in that light. Then the minus sign began to make sense. All of a sudden I properly understood it physically (or at least I thought I did….I had to modify things slightly later, but the essence fell into place in a flash…). The factors of two kept me going well into the afternoon. Every time I re-did aspects of the computation I understood things better, until eventually… The very last factor of two fell into place. It was not me at all. I was working using conventions from a 1999 paper in one part of my notebook, and a separate 2003 paper in another part of my notebook. Guess what? The unit of energy used in one paper was precisely twice that of the later paper. As soon as I realized this, there was that flash/click of global internal resolution (I’ve discussed that feeling here before) and I felt great. I’d understood Stage Two of my computation.
It was time to celebrate by finally leaving the house. Looking at the time, I saw that it was six pm and I’d not had lunch yet. Decided to go and see a movie and hang out with actual human beings. Cinespia was showing Rebel Without A Cause in the Hollywood Forever cemetery in a couple of hours. I could get a tasty burrito, a drink, a blanket, and go along and hang out at what would no doubt be a packed and fun viewing. Sounded like a plan. So I had a few crackers and another cup of tea and decided to write up my results in a blog post (on the other blog) for my young apprentices to enjoy.
An hour and a half later I had not left yet. I’d got into the writing of the post, and then got sort of sucked in. Posted it after a while (having now abandoned the nice movie idea…perhaps I’d go see a late night showing of something later on) and decided to make some dinner. While starting dinner I realized that while I’d concluded that one of the papers I was working from had to have made a mistake in its conventions (because of my brilliant new way of thinking, of course) there were still some puzzling things that did not fit with the as yet to be done Stage Three of the computation.
Stage Three started trundling along on its own in my head, of course, and then I realized that I’d been stupid in part of Stage Two! There was of course nothing wrong with that paper after all. I’d been silly. I had to change the blog post to update my thoughts there so as not to mislead any of the guys reading it…. Another hour later, having done that, Stage Three just completed itself in my head.
So I decided I might as well do a blog post on Stage Three and get it over with. Sigh. 11:15pm I finally finish and now I decide to make dinner. I decided I’ll just got for some comfort food and so make some tasty cornmeal porridge and went and sat on the sofa. I looked over the blog posts, pleased. The voices in my head were finally quiet. Everything was resolved, and my quest for the last two weeks was actually fulfilled. I can move on to the really really new stuff now…. but I was happy to do that later.
I ended up treating myself to a viewing of “Team America: World Police” (IMDB) by the South Park people. It was just as gasping-for-air funny as I remember it from that great showing of it I went to when it came out in the cinema. It was the perfect audience for seeing that sort of film and I cried streams of real tears of mirth and we were all virtually rolling on the floor with laughter right from the opening titles. (Not sure it would be that funny if you saw it on television or DVD on your own…. it’s definitely an audience movie for the first viewing…. although once you’ve done it with a good audience, then the memory of the laughs really helps out the later viewings.)
So after an hour and a half or more of laughing out loud long and hard at many and various points (oh, goodness…. the appearance of Kim Jong-Il’s fearsome pumas…. got me laughing all over again just typing it on a Sunday morning) I went to bed.
Today, after a few slow Sunday morning activities (like coffee, picking up off the clothes line all the washing I did yesterday between scribblings, sending some emails), I’m determined to get outside for real today. So (what was supposed to be) a quick hello to you via this blog post is all I will do before heading out to the Hollywood Farmer’s market, and then perhaps I’ll tackle a nearby mountainside later in the afternoon.