Susskind's basic thesis is that information falling into a black hole is
conserved after all, thus preserving a basic tenet of quantum theory. For
years, the famed Stephen Hawking believed that information was irretrievably
lost, and the book describes the ongoing "war" between the two physicists,
who have nevertheless always maintained a close friendship and mutual
respect for each others' ideas. However, inexplicably, Hawking's now-famous
change of mind in 2004 is presented in Susskind's book as almost an
afterthought, and it's very anticlimactic, in my opinion.
very few equations in the book, although Hawking and Bekenstein's famous
black hole temperature formula is given, but its derivation is too
simplified to be of much interest. But Susskind's overview of the interplay
between entropy and information is very interesting, and I came away with a
renewed appreciation for information theory. Also, Susskind's Holographic
Principle, which states that the information swallowed by a black hole
exists as a two-dimensional "film" residing on the hole's event horizon, has
the ring of plausibility to it.
In Chapter 17, Ahab in Cambridge,
Susskind kind of goes to the Bahamas and takes a breather from physics and
all that to give us some insight into the soul of this notable Stanford
physicist, who's also an avowed atheist. He shares with us some thoughts he
has while sitting in the King's College Chapel, where he muses over the
likes of Joseph Smith (the founder of the Mormon Church), Darwin, Dawkins
and even Melville's Captain Ahab. Susskind goes so far as to admit a certain
hollowness he feels over a lifelong belief in nothing but electrons, protons
But then Susskind puts into words a feeling I've had
for many years. He describes "Cathedralitis" as the awe inspired by a
cleverly assembled pile of stones and colored glass. Though I am a devout
Christian, I also have been uncomfortable with such monuments to religiosity
— the Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame, even the Crystal Cathedral in Orange
County — because, while they were built intentionally to awe, intimidate and
bolster the idea that God really exists (and make their owners rich), they
are really nothing more than man-made idols of stone, mortar and glass
intended to encourage an unquestioning, unreasoning and uncritical belief in
their own version of the Almighty. The early Christian church, by
comparison, was nothing more than a relative handful of people who met in
each others' homes to worship and share ideas. That was the church of Jesus
Christ's time, and it's much more appealing to me today. To spend untold
millions on fancy megachurches while there is widespread poverty and
injustice in the world is, to me, the height of hypocrisy. Anyway, it's a
great chapter, and in it you'll also learn why Susskind can walk across the
grass at Cambridge today without being molested.
Two criticisms of
the book. Susskind describes only two options for the fate of information
falling into a black hole: it's either preserved or lost forever. But this
assumes that you believe in black holes in the first place, and it isn't
until Page 248 that Susskind gets around to that. My other criticism is the
book's lack of explanation as to where information comes from in the first
place. Nature? The sentient human mind? Susskind is silent about this, and
the book would have been better if he had addressed it.
Susskind has recorded ten lectures on quantum mechanics at Stanford that you
can watch for free on
YouTube, with each being about an hour and fifty minutes. The
lectures are pretty elementary, but the man is fascinating to watch.
Weyl and Dirac,
Again -- Posted by wostraub on
Wednesday, June 18 2008
There is one strong
reason in support of the [Weyl]
theory. It appears as one of the fundamental principles of Nature that
the equations expressing basic laws should be invariant under the widest
possible group of transformations. — P.A.M. Dirac, 1973
It is well known that the great British mathematical physicist Paul Adrien
Maurice Dirac was fascinated by the universal physical constants,
particularly the gravitational constant G, and he spent a great
deal of time in his later years trying to understand them.
Paul Dirac, 1902-1984. He
gets my vote as the greatest physicist who ever lived.
also fascinated by the apparently accidental similarity of certain large
dimensional constants in nature. For example, the ratio of the
electromagnetic force to the gravitational force between a proton and an
electron, which is about 2 × 1039, is roughly the same as the
ratio of the age of the universe (about 13.7 billion years) to the basic
atomic unit e2/mc3, where e and
are respectively the charge and mass of the electron. Dirac was convinced
that these similarities were not coincidences at all, but consequences of a
deep connection between cosmology and atomic theory. He called this
connection the Large Numbers Hypothesis. Dirac’s consideration of these
ideas led him to also believe that the numerical values of these constants
might actually be changing with time.
Thirty-five years ago this
month, Dirac published a paper*
in which he attempted to explain this connection using Weyl’s original gauge
theory of 1918. That the renowned Dirac would return to this theory nearly
fifty years after Weyl himself had abandoned it is testimony to the beauty
of the idea (and, as anyone who is familiar with the guy knows, mathematical
beauty was everything to Dirac). Dirac was particularly intrigued by the
possibility of parallel transport of an arbitrary vector in a Weyl space in
which transport takes place in time only. Thus, Weyl’s basic differential
equation for the variation in vector magnitude for a charged particle, as
dL = φμ L dxμ
dL = φ0 L dx0
= c dt and φ0
is the Coulomb potential. Dirac noted that if vector magnitude is taken to
increase with increasing time, then it would naturally decrease when
dL is shifted into the past. Thus the symmetry of spacetime is broken
by Weyl’s geometry, and it can be fixed only if one simultaneously changes
the sign of the charge of the particle while interchanging future and past.
It was precisely this kind of symmetry breaking that led Dirac to believe
that the numerical value of the gravitational constant G might
actually be decreasing as the universe gets older.
is one of least precisely known fundamental constants. While most atomic
constants have been determined to at least six or seven decimals, G's
current value of 6.67428 ± 0.00067 × 10-11 m3 kg−1
hinders observational efforts regarding variation with time. Dirac himself
was aware of this problem but he expressed hope that improvements in
technology (e.g., interplanetary radar measurements) would answer the
question within a few years of his paper.
Alas, Dirac's hope appears
to have been in vain. Will we ever know G
to greater precision? It is almost as if God decided to make the most
obvious force in the universe the least well known. Don't ever think God
doesn't have a sense of humor!
* P.A.M. Dirac, Long
range forces and broken symmetries, Proc. R. Soc. Lond., A, 333,
403-418, 26 June 1973.
Zürich -- Posted by wostraub on
Monday, June 9 2008
-- Posted by wostraub on Sunday, June
Here's a photo of a 39-year-old Hermann
Weyl, taken in 1925. I have no idea where it was shot. It came on a photo CD
I picked up back in 1999 at a conference at the University of Missouri at
Columbia, of all places.
-- Posted by wostraub on Sunday, June
Beautiful Washington State, May 2008.
This is the Columbia River from Cathlamet, where I got attacked by some
pelagic cormorants patrolling the ferry to Westport. I think they're trained
to spot and go after Southern Californians.
Another Giant is
Gone -- Posted by wostraub on
Wednesday, May 21 2008
Willis E. Lamb, the physicist who verified the hyperfine energy
shift in the hydrogen atom, is dead. He was 94 years old.
In 1928, English
physicist Paul Dirac developed his relativistic electron theory, which
predicted with extraordinary accuracy the allowed energy levels of the
hydrogen atom. But the theory did not allow for tiny radiative corrections
that were later deduced from quantum field theory. In that sense, Dirac's
electron theory can be viewed as a single-particle classical
theory, as it does not take into account the creation and destruction of
virtual particles and antiparticles.
Curiously, Dirac was the first
physicist to predict the existence of antimatter. He was also one of the
founders of quantum field theory, and he realized early on that his electron
equation was not the end of the story.
Immediately after the end of
World War II, Lamb applied his radar research expertise to the hydrogen atom
and, using an amazingly small apparatus by today's standards, discovered the
energy difference. That difference, which has become known as the Lamb
Shift, garnered Lamb the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955.
significance of Lamb's discovery lies in the fact that it immediately
motivated advancements in theoretical quantum field theory, particularly the
efforts of theorists Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro
Tomonaga. All three went on to share the Nobel Prize in 1965 for their
related work on quantum electrodynamics.
Descendants, Again -- Posted by
wostraub on Sunday, May 11 2008
I was recently contacted by Ulf Persson,
Professor of Mathematics at the Chalmers University of Technology in
Goetborg, Sweden. Dr. Persson says that he has contacted the son of Michael
Weyl, the younger son of Hermann Weyl. I was glad to hear that Michael, who
was born in 1918 (the year his father discovered gauge theory), is still
very much alive.
I've asked Dr. Persson to forward whatever
information he gets to me. I'll post whatever news I receive here.
Weyl and Noether
-- Posted by wostraub on Saturday,
May 10 2008
I found an Internet document today dated
January 2008 by Peter Roquette, Professor Emeritus at the University of
Heidelberg, Germany (by a strange coincidence, my daughter just happens to
be visiting Heidelberg right now).
Anyway, Roquette writes about the
personal and professional relationship between Hermann Weyl and Emmy Noether.
It includes a translation of Weyl's appeal to the Nazi authorities to let
Noether remain in Germany to teach, along with Weyl's funeral address on the
occasion of Noether's death at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where
Noether was teaching at the time of her death in 1935.
sure I've posted Weyl's funerary address here before, but I couldn't find it
in my archives. So, at the risk of being redundant,
here it is again. It's quite moving, and from it you can get an idea
of Weyl's selfless, humanitarian soul.
Descendants — Where Are They? -- Posted by
wostraub on Friday, May 9 2008
In the span of three months, I have
received five requests for information on the descendants of Hermann Weyl.
My answer: I have precious little information to give out.
two sons, Joachim and Michael, who both went on to become PhDs. Joachim
distinguished himself in mathematics. I know they had children themselves,
along with grandchildren. Three years ago I was contacted by one of them,
Elizabeth T. Weyl. After exchanging several emails, she stopped writing.
Perhaps she passed away, or perhaps she is a Republican who takes umbrage
with my political views (although I always thought Massachusetts was fairly
Since the centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis,
there has been much research into the fate of little Liserl,
Einstein's love child (with Mileva Marić), who was born in 1902 and
immediately given up for adoption. The rest of the Einstein family we know
about quite well. But I have drawn a blank on the whereabouts of Weyl's
descendants. This is a pity, because from what little I know Weyl enjoyed a
close relationship with his sons. Einstein, on the other hand, was a
miserable husband and father.
Perhaps one or more of Weyl's
descendants knows about this website. If so, I wish they would contact me.
John Wheeler is
Gone -- Posted by wostraub on
Monday, April 14 2008
John Archibald Wheeler
died yesterday in New Jersey at the age of 96. The inventor of the words
"black hole" and "wormhole," Wheeler was teacher, colleague, mentor and
friend to generations of physicists. He knew Hermann Weyl personally, along
with Einstein and many other world-class physicists.
receiving the Enrico Fermi Award from President Johnson
graduating from high school at 15, Wheeler received his PhD in physics in
1933 at Johns Hopkins University at the age of 21. That was it — no
bachelor's or master's degrees, he focused straightaway on the PhD. As a
professor at Princeton, he advised dozens of notable doctoral students,
including Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Charles Misner, and Hugh Everett.
Despite having an encyclopedic knowledge of physics, hundreds of research
papers and many fundamental discoveries to his credit, Wheeler never won the
Nobel Prize, but many of his students and admirers did.
always be remembered for his contributions to general relativity, which he
usually referred to as "geometrodynamics." In 1973, with co-authors Kip
Thorne and Charles Misner, Wheeler wrote Gravitation, still the de
facto standard text for physics graduate students.
Wheeler was one of
the very few still-living scientists who saw it all — the rise of quantum
mechanics and quantum field theory in the 1930s, the creation of the atom
bomb (which he actively participated in), and the development of modern
nuclear physics and cosmology. He will be missed.
Weyl Movie Clip
-- Posted by wostraub on Friday,
April 4 2008
I spotted this on You Tube this evening.
It's a short home movie shot in 1947 at Fuld Hall at the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. You'll see Einstein, Gödel, Dirac,
and (at about the 1:40 mark) a 61-year-old Herman Weyl talking with
mathematician Paul Erdos. It's the only movie clip of Weyl I've ever seen.
Unfortunately, the picture quality is poor and there's no sound.
Besso -- Posted by wostraub on
Thursday, April 3 2008
Earlier I mentioned Michele Besso,
Einstein's best friend since their very earliest days as students, who died
only one month before Einstein's passing in April 1955.
I have since
come across a fascinating account of how Einstein and Besso together tackled
the problem of gravitation in mid-1913. The two collaborated on Einstein's
general theory of relativity (gravitation) at that time, producing a set of
notes that has since become known as the Einstein-Besso manuscript.
It is one of only two extant manuscripts that document Einstein's
frustrating struggle with the theory in the few years prior to his final
triumph in 1915.
The 52-page manuscript is described in detail by
Michel Janssen of the University of Minnesota in his wonderful article "The
Einstein-Besso Manuscript: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain of the Wizard,"
which you can download from my site
Einstein had already formulated the groundwork of his
general relativity theory, and he knew he was on the right track, but there
were problems that continued to plague him. Besso stepped in and the two men
tried to resolve the difficulties, with Besso acting mostly as a sounding
board to Einstein's efforts.
Janssen's article includes
reproductions of actual pages of calculations in the hands of both Einstein
and Besso. It is remarkable that the brilliant Einstein was capable of
making truly simple mathematical mistakes, a trait that should make the rest
of us mortals feel a tad better.
Weyl -- Posted by wostraub on
Wednesday, April 2 2008
British physicist Stephen Hawking has
written a number of popularized science books (like The Universe in a
Nutshell), but he has also edited a number of books dealing with the
history of physics. One of these is 2007’s A Stubbornly Persistent
Illusion: The Essential Scientific Works of Albert Einstein, which by
itself perpetuates the seeming endless number of Einstein books that have
appeared since the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s special relativity theory
in 1905. The book’s title comes from a letter of condolence Einstein wrote
to the family of his dear and lifelong friend, Michele Besso, who died in
March 1955, just before Einstein’s own death a month later:
he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means
nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the
distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly
The book is really nothing more than a
collection of articles that Einstein wrote from 1905 to 1955, most of which
are translated from the original German. I have read all of these articles
over the years, not only for the physics but also to get a grasp of the mind
of Einstein. In comparison with contemporary physics articles, Einstein's
stuff is fairly easy to follow, and many of his philosophical ideas are a
revelation, so I encourage you to pick the book up (your local library
probably has it) and read it for yourself.
The special theory of
relativity was but a prelude to Einstein’s greatest work, which was his
general theory of relativity. Published in November 1915, it probably would
have stunned the world even more if it hadn’t appeared at the height of
World War I. Physicists prior to the advent of the theory had been
concentrating on advancing physics via the special theory. They all made
some progress, and a number of them were actually attempting to explain the
nature of matter through the theory. These attempts all failed, but when the
general theory arrived they took up the cause with renewed vigor.
The first of these efforts was probably that proposed by Gustav Mie in 1913,
whose attempts to explain matter as a consequence of electrodynamics
resulted in one of the first unified field theories. Mie and others,
including Hermann Weyl, renewed this failed effort using the physics of
Einstein’s curved spacetime, perhaps the most notable aspect of his general
theory. But these efforts also failed.
In 1919, Einstein himself
attempted to reconcile the nature of matter with the gravitational field
equations of the general theory. But he immediately noted that the presence
of matter in his equations was "gravely detrimental to the formal beauty of
the theory." Einstein's equations in the presence of matter can be written
Rμν - ½ R gμν = k Tμν
is the matter tensor. Einstein described the left hand side of the equation
as being made of "beautiful marble," as it perfectly described the motions
of the planets and a host of other physical phenomena. But Einstein
described the matter term as being made of "wood," because it consisted of
almost empirical quantities that did not depend on the variability of the
metric tensor gμν. Even though Einstein was able to
deduce the form of the matter tensor for electrodynamics and a field of
moving, non-interacting, incoherent matter, it brought him no closer to any
real understanding of the nature of matter.
colleague Hermann Weyl was also obsessed with the nature of matter, and his
signature book Space-Time-Matter
was written primarily to address this very question. In doing so, Weyl came
across his own unified field theory, which at first seemed to successfully
incorporate electrodynamics into the geometrical construct of the general
theory of relativity. However, in time this effort also failed, and over the
ensuing years Weyl moved away from his obsession with the nature of matter
and became more interested in group theory and quantum mechanics. Erhard
Scholz, an expert on the history and mathematics of Weyl’s work, eloquently
describes Weyl’s interest in matter in his 2007 article "The Changing
Concept of Matter in H. Weyl’s Thought, 1918-1930," which you can download
from my site here.
Einstein famously stuck with his theory for the last thirty years of his
life, trying to develop a consistent field theory that would unify
gravitation and electrodynamics and, later, quantum mechanics. Just as
famously, he failed utterly in all of these efforts. But late in life he
never expressed any bitterness or frustration over his failures, and he
remained convinced that the Truth was in the equations, and that it was his
own lack of intellectual and mathematical ability that had prevented the
sought-after breakthrough. Today, we realize that Einstein can be forgiven
on two accounts: one, that today's mathematical physicists, who are far
better trained than Einstein (and probably a lot smarter as well), aren’t
getting anywhere, either; and two, that Einstein’s ideas may yet lead to a
successful theory (perhaps via the mathematics of strings), albeit in a form
that the great scientist could have never dreamed of.
Two more final
tidbits for the more mathematically inclined among you: In his 1919 article
"Do Gravitational Fields Play an Essential Part in the Structure of the
Elementary Particles of Matter?" Einstein noted that a slight change in his
field equations as given by
Rμν - ¼ R gμν =
would resolve numerous problems with the
theory of matter in the presence of an electromagnetic field. The ¼
coefficient now makes the left hand side of the equation traceless,
as is the matter term for the electromagnetic energy tensor Tμν.
Although Einstein was forced to make the change without any real
justification, it is interesting to note that the field equations resulting
from Hermann Weyl’s 1918 gauge theory provide this very coefficient
Lastly, Einstein's equations are of
second order in the metric tensor and its partial derivatives, while Weyl's
are of fourth order. This fact has been used to criticize the theory as
having more solutions than are necessary. However, Weyl's equations for free
space force the Ricci scalar R to be a non-zero constant; this not
only removes the fourth-order difficulty but leads to the same predictions
(bending of starlight, gravitational red shift, perihelion shift of Mercury,
etc.) that Einstein's equations have long been noted for.
Weyl Was Also
Human -- Posted by wostraub on
Tuesday, March 25 2008
The Curious History of Relativity
relates how the simple calculation of the gravitational red shift tripped up
a lot of very smart people, including Einstein (its discoverer!), Pauli,
Eddington, von Laue, and even Hermann Weyl.
As brilliant as he was,
Pauli was subject to occasional computational lapses. Henrik Casimir relates
one such instance involving Pauli's derivation of the red shift formula in
... I remember that once when he was speaking about
the so-called red shift, he obtained an expression with the wrong sign,
which meant a shift towards the violet instead of the red. He then began
to walk up and down in front of the blackboard, mumbling to himself,
wiping out a plus sign and replacing it by a minus sign, changing it
back into a plus sign, and so on. This went on for quite some time until
he finally turned to the audience again and said: 'I hope that all of
you have now clearly seen that it is indeed a red shift.'
student has not witnessed a similar scene, what teacher has not suffered
a comparable agony?
As noted, Pauli was not the only
one to get tripped up in the derivation; Einstein and Weyl stumbled too. How
often have I also stood at the blackboard, momentarily blinded by my own
You can look the derivation up on Wikipedia if you're so
inclined — it's simple. Yet it provides some relief to know that at times we
all make mistakes, we're all human.
The Real Jesus
-- Posted by wostraub on Sunday,
March 16 2008
Damn you rich! You already have your compensation.
Damn you who are well-fed! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now!
You will weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you!
A rant from a radical preacher? Without a doubt. Someone on the Obama
campaign? Well, Sen. Obama says so. That's the Scholars Translation of Luke
6:24-26, and the speaker is Jesus of Nazareth.
In the King James
Version, the first part of Luke 6:24 reads But woe unto you that are
That comes off as quaint and a lot less shocking to modern ears — not the
kind of preaching that nets you space on Fox News. But Jesus meant his words
to be shocking. He meant them to strike against the status quo and shake up
God damn America for treating our citizens as less
than human! God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and
she is supreme!
That's Jeremiah Wright.
Is the vision of a
pastor standing in his pulpit shouting "God damn America" shocking? Yes. But
don't mistake Wright's (or Jesus') statement for what some drunk in a bar
would mean using the same phrasing. Wright isn't saying "FU America!" He's
saying "These actions of America are worthy of God's condemnation." He's
just saying it in a way that cuts through the Sunday morning sleepiness and
makes people sit up in their pew.
From Gandhi to King, it's in the
nature of spiritual leaders to grab their audiences by the throat and their
nations by the short hairs. This was true at the time of the Civil War and
during the Civil Rights movement. Martyrs did not become martyrs by
appealing to the status quo.
Don't take this to mean that I agree
with every word that Wright spoke (e.g. the United States did not create
AIDS), but neither do I feel like his words require that "his church should
lose its tax exempt status" that he's a traitor, or that he's an
embarrassment to his church or to Senator Obama — all comments that have
appeared on this site.
Do I think that 9/11 was the "chickens coming
home to roost?" Yeah, I pretty much do. Of course the terrorists bear the
personal responsibility for their actions and the deaths that resulted. But
to pretend that decades of actions overseas had nothing to do with that
terrible morning is far more delusional than anything said by Rev. Wright.
If you jab a stick into a hornet's nest and shake it for fifty years, the
hornets might do the stinging, but you can't blame only the hornets. Actions
have consequences, and though we may pretend to both purity of motive and
prescience about outcomes, the truth is that violence tends to generate
violence in return. Or, as that radical I quoted above said "those who take
up the sword, will die by the sword."
The purpose of a good sermon
isn't to placate, ease, and make people comfortable. A dangerous religion
isn't one that challenges people and makes them squirm. Makes them angry. A
dangerous religion is one that is too amicable to what you already think,
one that pats you on the head and sends you forth in assurance of your own
righteousness. If you want to search for "traitors" in the pulpit, turn your
eye toward those who never find anything wrong in the actions of this
I understand why Senator Obama finds it necessary to distance
himself from Rev. Wright. There were plenty of things in those sermons that
I don't agree with, and I'm suspect many of the ideas that grate on my
nerves also strike the Senator as either wrong or unsustainable politically.
These days, three isolated words on the news seem far more important than
context or intent. But I wish he didn't have to do so.
getting your personal beliefs regularly challenged, rather than reinforced,
AMEN! — wostraub
Redux -- Posted by wostraub on
Saturday, March 15 2008
Unified field theories continue to
permeate the literature. Why the interest? Because scientists want to know
how the universe works, and the more philosophical ones among us hope that a
unified theory will also tell us how God's mind works. It's an addictive, if
probably wasteful, pursuit, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.
recent paper by Indian physicist S.C. Tiwari entitled
Electron in the Einstein-Weyl Space. It's very typical of what you
see nowadays — you propose a Lagrangian in 4-dimensional spacetime that is
gauge invariant and contains the Ricci scalar (in this case Tiwari uses the
scalar from Weyl's theory) along with other terms, you carry out an
infinitesimal variation in the metric tensor, and voila! — you get
the equations of motion for a brand-new unified field theory.
suggest that you read the linked paper for two reasons. One, it provides a
very simple and readable description of the unification game (accessible
even to undergraduates); and two, it serves as an example of why many
researchers are still interested in Weyl's 1918 theory.
mentioned many times before, I find this interest curious because Weyl's
theory is just plain wrong. On the other hand, Weyl's work captivated even
the great Dirac, who in 1973 wrote a very interesting paper that tried to
resurrect Weyl's theory in a modern context (Dirac's paper is truly
beautiful, and I've sent out pdf versions of it to many people. I'll email
it to you if you're interested).
Next month marks the 90th
anniversary of Weyl's theory. Though it's wrong, it's still neat to see it
popping up in the literature from time to time!
Templeton prize -- Posted by wostraub
on Thursday, March 13 2008
Poland's Michael Heller, an ordained
Catholic priest and cosmologist, has been named the recipient of the 2008
Templeton Prize. The 72-year-old Heller, the author of dozens of
books and hundreds of scientific articles, struggled for years under
Poland's Soviet era of anti-religious and anti-intellectualist thinking.
Science gives us
knowledge, but religion gives us meaning. — Michael Heller
Heller won the $1.6 million prize on the basis of his distinctively
different views on the origin of the universe and the causal relationship
between physical laws and their underlying mathematics. A leading proponent
of noncommutative geometry as a basis for the description of the early
universe, Heller's question "Did the universe really need to have a cause?"
points to mathematics as the basis of all reality, with God the author of
Heller was interviewed on National Public Radio
this morning, and I was struck by his compassion, intelligence and patience
with the state of the world today. When asked why conservatives in the
United States tend not to believe in evolution, Heller described the reason
as a "misunderstanding."
Well, in my opinion the reason is that
they're idiots. Heller is obviously a much more reasonable and tactful man
than I am, and no doubt a far better Christian. God bless him.
to learn but, boy, it's hard sometimes.
Day of Reckoning
-- Posted by wostraub on Tuesday,
March 11 2008
Der Dummkopf Führer, George W.
Bush, spoke to a group of religious-themed broadcasters in
Nashville, Tennessee today and his theme, as usual, was that the
rest of the world is evil and has to be destroyed. And everything Bush said
in his speech confirms what I just read in traditional conservative
Patrick Buchanan’s latest book, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris,
Ideology and Greed are Tearing America Apart.
occasionally driven me to tears with his conservative opinions, but the
views he expresses in this book I can almost completely agree with. For one
thing, Buchanan appears to be a true Christian; he’s a Roman Catholic, but,
like me, he does not approve of abortion, homosexuality, and the rampant
materialism, anti-intellectualism and anti-environmentalism that now defines
this corrupt country.
At the same time, Buchanan manages to upset me
with his supportive views regarding Arctic drilling and minority population
control. The chapter Deconstructing America
is actually very offensive, although Buchanan probably does not realize it.
He admits that the colonization of America was founded not on God, freedom
and equality but rather on greed and racism, though he is not apologetic in
But Buchanan just nails it on everything else, which
pretty much has to do with the disastrous ideology of George W. Bush.
Writing about the run-up to the Iraq War, he says
lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history," I
concluded. This was written six months before Bush invaded Iraq.
But the president’s mind had been made up. Having named Iraq an
axis-of-evil nation possessing weapons of mass destruction, having laid
out his doctrine of preventive war, Bush, in March 2003, ordered the
invasion. In three weeks, it was over. Yet the United States has never
been able to find any evidence Iraq was plotting to attack us or its
neighbors, has never found any solid tie between
Saddam and Al Qaeda
or the perpetrators of 9/11, has never found an Iraqi nuclear program,
has never found any weapons of mass destruction. We attacked, invaded,
and occupied a nation that had never attacked us or threatened us — to
strip it of weapons it did not have.
President George W.
Bush is a criminal. Most of those in his administration are criminals. It
will aggravate me to my dying day that these monsters will receive no
earthly punishment for their crimes and the misery and grief they have
caused. And it aggravates me beyond words that the citizens of this country,
and the Republican Party in particular, have chosen not only to ignore these
crimes, but to support them.
Finally, for your viewing pleasure,
here's Bush at last night's Gridiron Club dinner, actually boasting in
song that convicted felon Scooter Libby has finally escaped the
prosecutor! Watch it if your stomach can stand it:
Hard to believe that this moron is the President of the United States.
Hitler -- Posted by wostraub on
Sunday, March 2 2008
In 1937, the great German physicist and
Nobel Laureate Max Planck personally begged Adolf Hitler to end the
dismissal of German scientists on the basis of race and religion. Hitler's
response was resolute:
Our national policies will not be
revoked or modified, even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish
scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then
we shall do without science for a few years.
Fortunately for the world, Hitler's stubbornness set back the German
heavy-water experiments to such an extent that the Nazi atom bomb never
really had a chance.
Unfortunately, I see the exact same
intransigence in President George W. Bush. He, like the backward party of
Republican morons he represents, does not understand science and clings to
the superstition that evolution is "just a theory." Well, jackass, so is
electrodynamics, quantum physics, chemistry, gravitation and everything else
that the modern world has adopted as fact.
A few weeks ago I noted
here that high-energy physicists in this country were looking forward to the
restoration of funding that seemed all but lost last year. But now Congress
has reneged again, due in part because the country's spiraling down a fiscal
rathole over the trillions we are (and will be) spending in Iraq. And now
America really is becoming irrelevant with regard to basic scientific
Case in point: the European Large Hadron Collider will
turn on sometime this summer, leaving Fermilab and SLAC in the dust. It will
almost certainly confirm or reject the existence of the Higgs boson and
extra dimensions, along with a host of other hypothesized findings. But we
can expect Bush to remain intransigent to the end — to hell with all that "scientifical"
nonsense, we got wars to fight and win, and dark-skinned enemies to be
Hermann Weyl or
Albert Dekker? -- Posted by wostraub
on Saturday, March 1 2008
Hermann Weyl wore rather heavy eyeglasses
late in life, giving him a distinctive Dr. Cyclops-like appearance. Here he
is in an undated photo from the mid-1930s.
-- Posted by wostraub on Monday,
February 25 2008
Hermann Weyl, along with the likes of
Wolfgang Pauli, Theodor Kaluza, Oskar Klein and even Paul Dirac, each spent
several years on the development of a unified field theory of physics. These
scientists initially thought they were on to something, but the theories
were either rejected outright or made predictions that were proved to be
wrong (or worse, they didn't predict anything, period).
the unification bug also bit Einstein. But unlike his contemporaries,
Einstein spent decade after decade chasing one crazy idea after another
until, as his friend Abraham Pais had it, "he laid down his pen and died."
Einstein labored for thirty years on unification while essentially ignoring
the real progress that was being made by others, most notably in quantum
mechanics. Pauli and the others, all close friends of Einstein, could only
sadly shake their heads, wondering why Einstein had wasted all that time and
The situation can be compared today with the fact that
roughly thirty years have now elapsed since string theory was first
proposed. But although string theory has made no verifiable predictions and
has offered no real insight into the nature of the physical world, it seems
as if everybody is working on it. This turnaround from the futility of
Einstein's efforts to the hope that string theory is the correct "theory of
everything" is especially notable in view of the caliber of the scientists
who are currently engaged in string research (most of these guys far surpass
Einstein in terms of sheer brilliance and mathematical ability).
Peter Woit, along with anti-string comrade in arms
of Canada's Perimeter Institute, believes that it's time to give string
theory a rest. They both feel that the world's most brilliant scientists
should refocus their efforts instead on conventional quantum field theory or
on promising new ideas like loop quantum gravity.
In his book
Not Even Wrong, Woit laments the very real possibility that, like
Einstein, we've wasted decades of research effort and money chasing a
nonexistent mirage. Smolin's book, The Trouble with Physics,
reiterates this same lament. Both scientists fear that, given the effort and
expense already invested, researchers will feel they have no recourse but to
follow string theory to the bitter end — that is, if there is one.
Several physicists have noted that the quest for a unified theory can be
likened to a disease of the mind. Weyl himself was afflicted by it, but he
wisely gave it up and pursued more productive avenues. Although Weyl's basic
unification idea remained in the back of his head, he finally discovered its
true (and very profound) application in quantum mechanics, not gravitation.
While watching glaciers melt on the Nature Channel last night, my younger
son and I discussed the plight of the polar bears, whose disappearing ice
floes are forcing them to do their hunting while swimming on the open sea.
He wondered if the bears will survive the next few decades, and I replied
that I had my doubts. At that moment, I wondered why it is that our
brightest minds are playing with strings and not working on ways to ensure
the survival of planet's inhabitants, including us.
In my moments of
darkest despair, I wonder if these scientists already realize that mankind
is determined to destroy this planet and itself, and that working on unified
field theory simply provides a means of occupying their tormented faculties.
California Education -- Posted by
wostraub on Thursday, February 21 2008
community can look forward to significant funding increases in 2009 (as
promised by President Bush, who knows damn well he won't be around then to
fulfill them), California public schools are facing truly
draconian budget cuts.
It seems that we go through this
little exercise on a regular basis. While he was campaigning to boot out
Gray Davis in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger promised that he would be an
"education governor," dedicated to providing educational excellence in
California's public schools. When reality began to set in in 2005,
Schwarzenegger threatened to go back on earlier funding promises, but backed
down under enormous pressure by the Democratically-held State legislature.
Now the state faces a gargantuan $16 billion budget shortfall. Unlike the
federal government, which can borrow money or let deficits go on forever,
the states are required to pass annual balanced budgets.
So how is
Schwarzenegger proposing to deal with the crisis? That's right — by slashing
the public education budget by almost $5 billion. And this time around, in
view of the enormity of the state's budget crisis, Schwarzenegger means it.
In response, school administrators around the state are already sending out
notices of anticipated budget cuts, hiring freezes, and teacher layoffs.
This seems to be the way this country does things — when the money gets
tight, our children's educational needs are abandoned.
Did I hear
you say "raise taxes" to deal with the problem? Unlike his predecessor
Davis, Schwarzenegger knows full well that would be political suicide.
Although Schwarzenegger can sexually molest women, smoke pot and inject
himself with illegal steroids without unduly arousing the hypocritical
Republican ruling class in this state (or the fawning celebrity-watchers
still entranced by having a Terminator for governor), raising taxes
would be a terrible mistake. Why, he might even be recalled!
How about increasing class size? Well, I've done volunteer work for
inner-city schools having 40-50 kids in each class, and I can tell you that
very little education actually takes place under these conditions.
Then what about year-round school? Or expanded classroom hours? Or
Saturday classes? Those options might work, but if you think the kids are
educationally challenged now, I suspect they'd be little more than mindless
idiots if these alternatives were implemented.
How about home
schooling? That might also work, provided at least one parent is available
to teach his/her kids during the day. I understand there's a lot of this in
the South, where godless subjects like math, science and evolutionary
biology have been replaced by good old-fashioned Biblical indoctrination.
But in most places where both parents work, the folks are already pretty
shagged out from working 70-hour work weeks, so that's probably out.
The only remaining solution seems to be to leave our children ignorant.
Sure, we need more engineers and scientists, but we can always get them from
India and China. Besides, those foreigners seem to be the only people
interested in math and science anyway.
-- Posted by wostraub on Thursday,
February 14 2008
Google has just released its latest
version of Google Earth,
which now includes Google Sky. The basic software can be downloaded for
free, but if you want to spend $400 you can get the same version that CNN
Google Sky has thousands of high-definition photos of
galaxies, planets, nebulae and other objects, along with their descriptions
and histories and even their right ascension/declination coordinates. It's
an incredible way to learn about God's universe.
My house from an altitude
of 1,700 feet, along with God's house from about 2.2 million light-years.
His is much nicer.
Pornography -- Posted by wostraub
on Friday, February 8 2008
We can do the innuendo We can dance
and sing And when it's said and done We haven't told you a thing.
— Don Henley, Dirty Laundry
Peter Woit, author of the best-selling anti-string theory book
Not Even Wrong, is talking about the possibility that the European
Large Hadron Collider, when switched on this year, will create a rift in
spacetime and produce a mini-time machine. He and others in turn speculate
that this is nothing more than an example of
Big Physics Pornography. I agree.
Last night, the Science
Channel aired a one-hour show on Einstein. Presumably focusing on Einstein's
last few hours of life in the Princeton hospital where he died in 1955, it
was instead just a montage of break-neck graphics designed to convince the
viewer that s/he was watching something profound. I watched it for about
thirty minutes, at which point the flashy, meaningless graphics and the
truly annoying musical vocals had me running over to Animal Planet. Even
CCNY quantum physicist Michio Kaku, the usually reliable populizer of modern
physics, couldn't save this turkey. Indeed, I found even Kaku annoying in
Einstein is an example of Physics Pornography,
intended not to inform and educate but only to entertain. It also serves as
an example of what has been spoon-fed to an increasingly disinterested and
ignorant public for some time now: news and information as entertainment, or
Woit cites the recent
by I. Aref'eva and I. Volovich, which considers Weyl's conformal tensor in
five dimensions, Tipler cylinders and Gödel's spacetime, but is otherwise
unnotable (the authors could have at least gotten Kip Thorne's name spelled
... not for my love or lovely wool am I here, but to
make some world a meal ...
Weyl and the
Gravitational/Electromagnetic Field -- Posted by
wostraub on Saturday, February 2 2008
In the first edition of his 1918 book
Space-Time-Matter, Hermann Weyl derived the combined
gravitational/electromagnetic field surrounding a spherical, non-rotating
material point of mass M and charge Q. (I believe Weyl was
the first to do this, but I'm not sure; the Finnish physicist Gunnar
Nordström is usually credited with the derivation. At any rate it has
nothing to do with Weyl's 1918 unified field theory.) Anyway, Weyl used the
Schwarzschild line element
ds2 = eνc2dt2
- eλdr2 - r2dθ2 - r2sin2θdφ2,
where the quantities ν, λ are functions of the radial marker r
(this is not
the physical distance from the center, but it's close enough for discussion
purposes). Using Einstein's equations for the space external to the mass
point, he came up with
which is just the Schwarzschild solution with an extra term that accounts
for the electric charge Q.
It is interesting to note that
spacetime is flat (eν, eλ = 1)
precisely at the critical distance marker r = Q2/(8πc2M).
At this distance, the field effects of the mass and charge exactly cancel
one another (ignoring any quantum contributions). Is this distance
For a proton, this distance works out to roughly
10-30 meters. This is only five magnitudes larger than the Planck
scale, so it certainly cannot have any physical significance.
about extended regions of charged matter in which Q becomes large?
Well, that's a thought, but then the mass M
must also become large, offsetting the charge effect. I can think of nothing
that might yield an observable critical distance with the possible exception
of a charged black hole.
When a star undergoes complete
gravitational collapse (by whatever process you choose), any net electrical
charge is almost certainly radiated away, leaving an uncharged black hole.
But if this loss could be circumvented in some way, then it is just possible
that a detectable critical distance could exist. Still, even for a black
hole of one solar mass the hole's charge would have to be truly enormous
coulombs) to set up a critical distance of only one meter. But the hole's
crushing tidal forces would completely overwhelm any interest one might have
at that point!
In 1965, the line element for a rotating, charged
black hole was discovered by E. T. Newman and his collaborators. It can be
shown that the external field of such a body is consistent with Dirac's
relativistic electron theory, a purely quantum theory. In the 1970s,
Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking used quantum field theory to show that
back holes can evaporate
through the process of electron-positron pair formation at the event
horizon. These findings give hope that the long-awaited unification of
gravity and electromagnetism may one day be discovered, perhaps via major
breakthroughs in black hole observation and research.
Lastly, it is
interesting to note that Weyl, Einstein and other early relativists did not
believe in black holes. [Note: the term black hole
didn't come along until 1967; in Weyl's day, it was called a collapsed
star.] They believed that as matter was compressed, it would eventually
provide sufficient pressure to resist the star's final plunge past the event
horizon. But it was eventually demonstrated that pressure acts as a kind of
mass-energy that serves to increase gravity's compressional effect; thus,
pressure actually hastens the star's collapse to a black hole.
Fascinating stuff, simply fascinating.
Whiz Kid --
Posted by wostraub on Saturday,
February 2 2008
In Volume 6 of their book The
Historical Development of Quantum Theory, authors Jagdish Mehra and
Helmut Rechenberg describe the early concepts of atomic and quantum physics
in the formative years of those theories (from the Bohr hydrogen atom to the
Schrödinger equation). It includes a brief overview of Hermann Weyl's
unified field theory along with the reaction of noted physicists in the
first few years following its announcement.
Weyl's theory appeared
about 2 years after Einstein's November 1915 general relativity theory.
Since Einstein's theory of gravitation perfectly predicted the deflection of
light and the perihelion advance of the planet Mercury, it was natural that
Weyl's theory would also be investigated to see how well it could describe
It's hard to believe, but the book recounts how an
18-year-old Wolfgang Pauli was one of the first to investigate Weyl's
theory. Using a variational principle for the Weyl action, Pauli showed the
theory was in complete agreement with Einstein's, thus paving the way toward
a fuller recognition of Weyl's work by the physics community.
However, Pauli also
believed Weyl's theory to be deficient in several important areas. In 1919,
The main difficulty ... is that the theory does not
satisfactorily explain the asymmetry of both types of electricity [i.e.,
positive and negative charge]. That won't be easy to remove. I also do
not want to forget about a physical-conceptual objection. In Weyl's
theory one operates constantly with the field strength in the interior
of the electron. For the physicist, however, this quantity is defined
only as a force acting on a test body; and, since exist no smaller test
bodies than the electron itself, the concept of an electric field
strength in a mathematical point appears to be an empty, meaningless
fiction. In physics, one would prefer to stick to introducing only those
quantities which can, in principle, be observed. Might we not altogether
be on the wrong track in considering continuum-field theories
for the field in the interior of the electron?
absolutely remarkable that the teenage Pauli was not only able to analyze
Weyl's theory in the way he did but to actually anticipate the need for
extended (i.e., discontinuous or non-point) theories for the
elementary particles. Almost 70 years later, Pauli's musings became the
basis of modern string theory.
Yang, Mills and
Weyl -- Posted by wostraub on
Saturday, January 26 2008
The role of the scientist
is not to dictate natural law but, rather, to uncover and elucidate it.
However, if it were up to the physicists to choose the theoretical
framework within which the physical world operates, gauge theory would
be a promising candidate. It is through gauge theory that science makes
its greatest inroad toward the reduction of the full spectrum of
physical behavior into a single inevitable underlying principle of
— Bruce Schumm, Deep Down Things,
Someone wrote to me asking if gauge
invariance hadn't actually been discovered by C.N. Yang and Robert Mills in
the early 1950s, and not by Hermann Weyl. I suspect she had read Schumm's
book, which focuses primarily on the contributions made by Yang and Mills.
But in the book's end notes, Schumm rightly gives Weyl credit for the
discovery in 1929.
Schumm goes on to say that Weyl saw U(1) gauge
invariance primarily as a means of explaining the indispensable role of
electrodynamics in quantum mechanics, while Yang and Mills took it to the
next step, SU(2), in which the principle of gauge invariance becomes non-Abelian
(non-commuting). SU(2) symmetry was subsequently expanded to SU(3), which is
the symmetry behind quantum chromodynamics. For either symmetry, the gauge
principle is an unavoidable requirement (in fact, these theories are
absolutely reliant on the gauge concept).
There is no question that
Weyl was aware of SU(2) symmetry late in his life, although he seems to have
been unaware of the work of Yang and Mills. Yang himself expressed the
opinion that Weyl would likely have been overjoyed by the findings in their
work. Unfortunately, Weyl died a year after Yang and Mills published their
first paper in 1954.
Are there symmetries higher than SU(3)? Indeed
there are, and there has been much theoretical research into the so-called
higher gauge theories
for generalized SU(N) symmetry. But SU(3) is already pretty complicated, and
theories like SO(10) are almost unimaginably so. So far, the Standard Model
of particle physics requires only SU(3), but anticipated results from the
Large Hadron Collider (see my January 24 post) may change all that.
Dream of Higgs" — Tom Stoppard -- Posted by
wostraub on Thursday, January 24 2008
The February issue of Scientific American
has a couple of great articles focusing on the imminent start-up of the
European Large Hadron Collider, now being completed after interminable
delays. The collider will bring mankind into the 1-TeV (one tera
electron-volt) energy range, which may be sufficient to detect the
long-awaited Higgs particle (which is believed to be the agent that imparts
mass to elementary particles) and any extra dimensions of spacetime.
BTW, here's a snippet of Tom Stoppard's 1962 play The Real Inspector
Hound, which seems oddly relevant to the elusive Higgs particle:
Moon: It is as if we only existed one at a time, combining to achieve continuity. I keep space warm for Higgs. My presence defines his absence, his absence confirms my presence, his presence precludes mine ... when Higgs and I walk down the aisle together to claim our common seat, the oceans will fall into the sky and the trees will hang with fishes.
That's pretty weird!
Dark Energy -- Posted by wostraub
on Wednesday, January 16 2008
Last night the History Channel aired a
one-hour program called Dark Matter/Dark Energy, a pretty good
layperson's overview of the "missing matter" problem now vexing
cosmologists. The usual gang of experts, including Michio Kaku, Alex
Filipenko and Caltech's Richard Ellis were on hand to try explain why it's a
big deal. And it is a big deal — dark energy, a kind of anti-gravity
field, is apparently causing the universe to expand at an ever-increasing
rate. In only a few hundred billion years(!), the universal expansion rate
will approach the speed of light, and all bits of matter remaining in the
universe will exist only as lonely, cold, isolated islands of stuff. Ice
death, as some cosmologists call it.
In the early 1920s,
Einstein (who believed the universe must be static) famously introduced a
"fudge factor" into his gravitational field equations to prevent them from
producing either an expanding or contracting universe. When astronomer Edwin
Hubble showed in 1929 that the universe was expanding, Einstein tossed out
the factor, calling it the greatest blunder of his career.
in the History Channel program, Kaku describes how Einstein might have had
it right all along. Since dark energy appears to be a kind of ether
permeating all space, it might not be any kind of matter or field at all,
but a quality of spacetime that is represented by by Einstein's fudge factor
(the cosmological constant Λ).
It is interesting to note that
Hermann Weyl's modified version of Einstein's theory produces an intrinsic
acceleration effect without the artifice of a cosmological constant. If you
vary the Einstein-Hilbert and Weyl actions respectively, you get
cosmological constant Λ has to be intentionally added in after the fact
(this is allowed because the covariant derivative D of the metric
tensor is zero). Weyl's action principle results in a traceless field term
which, when applied to empty space (T
= 0), gives the same results as Einstein's field equations (gravitational
red shift, bending of starlight, perihelion advance of the planet Mercury,
etc.) but with an acceleration effect that is proportional to a constant,
non-zero Ricci scalar R. However, Weyl's field equations are not
divergenceless. This means the theory cannot account for the conservation of
I've pondered previously if Weyl's theory (which has
been proven wrong) was even more on the right track than Einstein's. But
until scientists can get a better handle on the problem, we won't know for
sure who, if anyone, was right.
Let's Go Back
-- Posted by wostraub on Wednesday,
January 16 2008
I remember when I started college in 1967
there was this guy in one of my classes who had a Curta calculator.
He paid something like $150 for it, a fortune in those days, and I still
remember how badly I wanted one:
The Curta was
produced by some Austrian guy who worked up the design while in a Nazi
concentration camp. It had the look, size and feel of a combination pepper
grinder and hand grenade (which means that you'd win a free one-way trip to
Guantánamo if you brought one into class nowadays). It had a bunch of
sliders on the side of the cylinder with which you'd dial in the numbers you
wanted to multiply or divide, and this awesome crank on top that you'd spin
until the thing locked up, giving you the answer. I don't recall how many
decimal places it went out to, but it was much more accurate than a slide
The only thing equivalent to a Curta was the Frieden
calculator, an electric typewriter-like thingy with numerical entry
buttons. It weighed maybe 20 pounds (so it was hardly portable), but it
could do calculations out to 14 decimals on the better models. The downside
was that it would have to crank for quite a while if you wanted that kind of
My physical chemistry professor was a stickler for
accuracy, and he demanded that we do our thermodynamics problems using the
Frieden. This meant queuing up outside the school's data-processing center
(yes, that's what it was called then) to get some time on the thing. Either
that, or go punch a lot of data cards in FORTRAN and run the problems on the
school's IBM 360.
I recently looked for a Curta calculator on eBay
and got the shock of my life. Yes, they're available, but they now run
around $1,000 for a working unit. Dang it all, I still can't afford
Learning Why I'm Hung Here -- Posted by
wostraub on Thursday, January 10 2008
Hermann Weyl, the accomplished German
mathematical physicist and somewhat less accomplished philosopher, was also
a lover of poetry, particularly Goethe. I've read some of Goethe's stuff
(translated from the German), and I admit that I don't get it. In fact, I
don't get a lot of poetry, although I know what I like. I never knew why
I have a crumbling edition of Oscar Williams'
Immortal Poems of the English Language, a paperback that I acquired
sometime during my early college years. It pretty much sums up what I know
about poetry. My favorite is Alfred Hayes'
The Slaughter-House, which is deep and moving but also easy to
understand. But does poetry really have to be understood in the left-brain
kind of way?
I attended my very first poetry workshop this evening. I
didn't understand much of what I heard, but with each poem I was left with a
feeling that I couldn't quite put into words. I'm beginning to think that
this is what poetry is really all about. It's that feeling you take home
with you that you can't quite express.
The great British physicist
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac once lamented that poets take something
understandable and make it obtuse, while physicists try to do the exact
opposite. Perhaps that is why equations always appealed to me — the meaning
and application is usually obvious, and I don't have to think about it too
much. But occasionally an equation comes along that is also beautiful.
When I look at Dirac's electron equation, for example, it's as if God is
speaking. I don't even see Dirac as the discoverer — he's just some guy who
accidentally stumbled across something that God has known intimately for all
time. Is it pretentious to liken great physical ideas with poetry?
Maybe poetry is how God allows humans to express their innermost feelings
without being too obvious about it. Overtness appeals to me, but that's
mainly because I want the punch line and don't want to work too hard to get
it. But, as Einstein famously remarked, God is subtle, and perhaps
subtlety lets us enjoy the end result that much more.
the first time I read Eliot's
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I thought to myself, It's
just some middle-aged guy who can't make up his mind about a girl or
something. I read it again this evening, and still didn't understand
it; however, I'm middle-aged myself now, and the poem induces a feeling I
did not have when I was young. Yet I distinctly remember my son Kurt reading
it when he was in high school, and he was moved and saw its greatness. So
what's wrong with me?
High school, that great four-year desert
through which I wandered without a clue in a kind of girl-crazy,
hormone-induced lunacy, did produce some appreciation in me for poetry. I
still recall, with photographic exactness, my freshman English teacher, Mr.
James McNeely, reciting Henley's
Invictus. McNeely, then thirtyish, bald, of slight build and perhaps
all of 5 feet tall, had undoubtedly experienced more than his own share of
life's travails, yet there he stood, unapologetically booming out the poem,
especially the line My head is bloody, but unbowed.
some 45 years in the past, that experience was my first inkling that there
may be some good in poetry after all.
I certainly don't have another
45 years to work on it, but maybe it's worth another look.