Once More Unto The Breach…

Ugh. A night of computing (while making and eating dinner and recuperating from a strange day-long headache – dehydration? side effects from the big hike the day before?) and muttering to myself at various points left me in a state of confusion last night. I went to bed tired and confused after getting into a muddle and realizing that I’d been probably mixing conventions in parts of my computations over the last few days, leaving me with a flipping minus sign in a result. No, I really mean “flipping”, since sometimes a 1/16 was -1/16, and sometimes that represents a physical truth and other times it represents a computational mistake – and I got confused as to which was which. Ugh.

All of this was coupled with occasionally wandering outside into the late night air filled with hungry insects in order to seek the fragment of wireless signal (I accidentally discovered it nearby on the weekend) in order to download the odd reference to check an idea or a fact. I’d have a few minutes before the bugs would find me and start to chew (I suffer from being particularly tasty to insect life – always the first person to be multiply bitten at any outdoor evening gathering), at which point I’d have snagged the download of the paper and can then run back in to the safety of indoors, flapping my arms around my head like a madman. It is an amusing dance, since I can find the signal (I’ve no idea where it is coming from – there are three possible sources in the distance), just at the edge of being strong enough, in one of two semi-reliable places outside, but it is only strong enough when I am standing up. So I must present an amusing sight to the bears and other critters as I stand there with laptop in one hand, occasionally raising my knee up to a sort of “Cap’n Morgan” stance to support the laptop so that I can type with both hands, the latter happening when one of my collaborators, Jeff, discovered that I was on IM and wanted to chat about an aspect of the project for a bit. He’d been working on different aspects and ran into his own confusions too. (To tell the truth, I am happy that I only barely have such a connection, since I really like the idea of being cut off from the main river of communication while away from the office, during this visit. I like the idea of retreating to the sort of “cabin in the woods” and decoupling for long periods. But at the same time it has been good to be able to check the odd thing from time to time since I got stuck into this computational quagmire. A weak and uncomfortable-to-use connection is just the compromise. You know, maybe I should go back to dial-up when I return to LA.)

And so it was to bed at 12:30am with confusions, annoyances, and disappointments over the computation filling my head. Now it is 8:30am and I am at my desk fresh and ready to go again. A slow morning ritual from 7:00am of listening to NPR while preparing my sandwich, extra picnic food (since there’s a barbecue later for all physicists and their families) for tonight’s dinner, bag for the day, showering and so forth, has helped reset my mood.

I am ready to tear it all down and start afresh.

Yes, I’m ready for you, computation. Do your worst!


So here I am

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11 Responses to Once More Unto The Breach…

  1. Tommy says:

    Headache=altitude. I get them all the time. Stay as hydrated as you can, sometimes a good multivitamin helps me. Should pass soon enough.

  2. Clifford says:

    Yes, thanks… I do stay as hydrated as I can, knowing the issue here quite well (although it is easy to forget). Sometimes there are days when lots of factors come into play, and staying hydrated is not the whole answer – such as also recovering from a strenuous hike from the day before (strenuous and also at altitude, so there are oxygen issues as well as hydration ones). When I wake up my entire body in a hugely taxing way like that for the first time in a long time, the next day is always one of misalignments and feeling out of sorts for a bit while it takes this on board. I think this was the case yesterday.

    Ok.. back to physics!



  3. Jude says:

    As a Coloradoan, I get reverse altitude sickness if I’m below about 3,000 feet. I feel lethargic and I sleep all the time (but I never get headaches). The last time I went to Phoenix, I cured it temporarily by visiting Kitt Peak. My ex-sister-in-law is traveling over from Denver next week to see the Dalai Lama at the Aspen Institute (and incidently, me). Tickets for his talk in the music tent are sold out (she bought hers months ago), but I imagine that a lot of people will hang around somewhere to hear what he has to say.

  4. Clifford says:

    Shouldn’t you have superpowers when you’re down at sea level, with all that extra oxygen and thicker atmosphere? Maybe running super fast for really long… maybe being able to fly…. you know, the standard ones. Have you tried? Worth checking. You never know. 🙂

    Coloradoan. Hmmm. It that the standard usage? Interesting… How about Coloradarian? or Coloradan? Coloradonian? Tough one…


  5. Clifford says:

    for those few of you keeping track, even though I have not explained a jot of what I’m really doing… After starting calculating again from scratch I figured out all my conventions this morning and fixed my flipping signs and it all seems to hold together so far… hurrah!


  6. slim potato says:

    I would have assumed that most of your time when working on a paper was involved on catching good ideas, not getting muddled with conventions and calculations.

  7. Clifford says:


    Thanks. That’s a common misunderstanding of what we do. What makes a physical science field like physics work is computations – all of that business with calculations (including checking that your computations conventions are internally consistent) is vital to the field.

    Frankly “Good ideas” are a dime a dozen. Anyone in my field ought to be able to think of at least six of them before breakfast. What makes a good idea go from a good idea to an idea that actually is useful and relevant is those several hours of muddling away with computations and calculations, testing out the idea and seeing how it fits into the scheme of things, and how it fits into the larger tapestry which is all the calculations that have ever been done in physics for generations. You can’t just make up stuff out of whole cloth, you see. Sitting around dreaming or talking is important to do too, but it is all utterly worthless (as science) without calculation. This is vital to what makes what I do science, at the end of the day. Finally, if I were working on an aspect of the subject that was directly related to a physical phenomenon “out there” in the world (this project is not so directly related, as far as I know, it is more about what’s going on “under the hood” of string theory), then the value of the good idea and the computation is also tested by comparison to a well-designed experiment, which has its own sequence of stages of ideas and computations (and worrying about conventions) to go through to bring it to fruition.



  8. Shouldn’t you have superpowers when you’re down at sea level, with all that extra oxygen and thicker atmosphere? Maybe running super fast for really long… maybe being able to fly…. you know, the standard ones. Have you tried? Worth checking. You never know.

    Yes, sort of. Many athletes train at high elevation. This makes them produce more haemoglobin. So when they then compete at or near sea level, they respire more (since usually the limiting factor for respiration is the amount of oxygen that can be transported around the body) and thus produce more energy.


  9. Clifford says:

    Indeed (and I’ve often wondered why this is not considered as unfair as using a performance-enhancing drug…)

    …but has anyone tried flying though? Heat vision?*


    *P.S. (Ahem… I’m joking here and in the previous comment. Superman riff… red sun vs yellow sun, Krypton vs Earth, and so forth.)

  10. I’m sure if one trained at high enough elevation, flying and heat vision and things would be trivial. The trick is finding somewhere to train, since Mt Everest proves on the wimpy side. 😉

    Indeed (and I’ve often wondered why this is not considered as unfair as using a performance-enhancing drug…)

    I think it’s debatable as to how much difference it actually makes if you train in, say, Aspen and then compete at sea level. And it’s rather difficult to enforce, since if you said “nobody who trains in Aspen can compete” you would be discriminating against athletes who are genuinely from Aspen.

    Interestingly, for a long time, caffeine was considered a performance-enhancing drug in rowing races in the UK, and it’s use was banned during/prior to races. I think that is no longer the case.


  11. Jude says:

    Coloradan or Coloradoan. I prefer the latter. I’m also a Rifleite.

    For those who don’t want to leave sea level to train, you can acquire a portable hyperbaric chamber to simulate altitude.