The Theoretical Minimum

Dr. Susskind of Stanford has been continuing work on his course series ‘The Theoretical Minimum’.   He’s even set up a full website for it which you can find here:

http://theoreticalminimum.com/home

You’ll find courses on Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Special Relativity and Electrodynamics, General Relativity, Cosmology, Statistical Mechanics, Quantum Entanglement, Particle Physics (3 courses), and String Theory.

He describes the aim for the courses on the front page,

“A number of years ago I became aware of the large number of physics enthusiasts out there who have no venue to learn modern physics and cosmology.  Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people.  So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University where I am a professor of physics.  The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.”

If you’re interested in learning some deep physics, you should check it out!

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Skipping Through Time

Last night I was watching videos of slow motion and found a video of people jumping up and down on a trampoline at thousands of frames per second.  You could see every detail and movement as they performed backflips and bounced off the trampoline.  About a year ago I was jumping up and down on a trampoline and that got me thinking about time.

We barely perceive any of the time happening around us.  Human consciousness is very choppy.  Our awareness of the world happens when information is processed by our brains.  This takes time and we perceive a “frame” of time every ten to fifteen milliseconds.   That’s about seventy frames per second.  That’s why when we’re watching a movie it can be running thirty frames per second yet still appear like smooth motion to us.  If you recorded the playback of a film with a high speed camera, say 30,000 frames per second, you’d see each frame of the movie and the motions would be choppy.

All of this got me thinking about how we’re so often associated with our bodies.  The atoms of my body persist throughout all of these frames of time, but consciously I do not.  My conscious existence phases in and out, in and out, in and out.  When I’m watching a movie, a frame is displayed on the screen and I perceive it, and then I’m phased out.  A long gap of time exists where I’m not there, and then I’m phased back in roughly when the next frame appears on the screen.  It appears continuous and fluid to me, but it is not in reality.  How many frames existed where I wasn’t around?  Let’s just say that if you could perceive events trillions of time faster, when the frame on your computer screen changed, you’d watch the light travel across your desk and would perceive subtle changes in the shadows from objects on your desk.  You’d also be staring at the same frame on the screen for a long time.

Some people ask what is the frame rate of life?  Human consciousness is dependent on the rate of information processing in our brains, which as I said is about seventy frames per second.  As for the world, it’s much stranger.  In short, there is no absolute frame rate.  The question is misguided and is based on bad assumptions about how reality works.

Is it possible to always build faster and faster video cameras, capturing more and more detail?  The answer is no.  If you could perceive events fast enough, you’d see the light coming into your eyes pixel by pixel, colored dot by colored dot, and the images would come in slowly and at random times, trickling in over time.  If you perceived even faster than that, you’d have long periods of time where you’d just see black and then you’d see a photon hit your eyes.  Then you’d wait a long time and a photon would once again hit your eyes.  You’d have to assemble the “pieces” in memory, like a person putting together a puzzle before you could perceive anything going on around you.

Events from different times would get all jumbled up.  You’d be seeing photons from many different periods of time.  It’s a similar problem to when you look out into space and see images of stars from millions of years in the past.  Each star, depending on its distance away from us, is from a different era of time.  The light took a long time to get here.  The same thing would be happening for you in your backyard.  Photons from different areas of a blade of grass would come to you at different times and since they’re emitted at random times, you’d have to be pretty clever to put all of this together into a proper scene.

The atoms making up our world and our bodies, when not being directly observed, lose their definite assignments of location and speed (also, both can’t be known at the same time exactly), and they’re not moving through an absolute space.  Relativity theory tells us that space and time are one and the same thing, and I don’t know how to easily explain all of that.  The amount of mass and energy within the area of space dictates the flow-rate of time and they’re related by Einstein’s equations of general relativity.  Different observers moving through space-time in different directions and speeds perceive things differently and will disagree on how much time took place between events.   I doubt that helps much, but what I’m saying is that there’s no absolute frame rate of reality.  It varies from observer to observer because the amount of time between events depends on how you’re moving through space-time.   This Youtube video talks about the problem and offers a good visualization.

I really wish this video would have shown what happens at really high speeds.  If the train would’ve been moving at speeds near that of the speed of light, the man from the ground would see the train compressed and extremely shortened in length.  The woman inside the train would also see the world outside the train scrunched up, shortened in the direction of motion.  The same weird “time dilation” effects with the lightning bolts and people perceiving events differently would still take place.

It’s weird and counter-intuitive.  Also, perceiving the world at this level of detail, the world would spontaneously pop in and out of existence as photons fired off.  All of our world is grounded on a statistical fuzz.  The world is bubbling in and out of existence.  If you experienced things with this much detail, you’d experience the randomness directly.  Now you’re starting to get into the world of physics at the cutting edge, the very fabric of space-time and its quantum nature.  At this level of reality, you have to rethink what space and time are.  It’s an eternal world.  Electrons are going both forward and backward through “time”.  Up, down, left, and right do not exist. There’s little super-tiny wormholes.  Everything is like a bubbly froth, phasing in and out like the surface of turbulent water.  It’s commonly dubbed the space-time foam.

I’m completely fascinated with this foam.

We don’t perceive the world in this way.  It appears continuous, time seems to flow properly in one direction, and objects seem to be solid and persist.  Reality at its deepest levels is far more interesting.  Our brains are so slow, they just sort of average over huge numbers of signals from the external world, such as all the photons coming into our eyes, and then build this fictitious model of the world around us.  Our conceptions of space, time, and the objects within them are all wrong.

We barely perceive anything, whether it be all the detail of the world around us, or all the moments in time.  Our consciousness is just skipping through this reality, like a small rock skipping across the surface of a pond.  We don’t experience the full depth of this world.  Science makes us aware that this deeper reality exists, but it’s all so counter-intuitive, I oftentimes wonder what it means to “understand” it.

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A Boy And His Atom

IBM scientists animated a boy and his toy ball using individual atoms.

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With Water And Light

A plant on the verge of death receives a little water and is placed in the sunlight.

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Fulfillment and Happiness

As I get further into the physics program and find myself closer to graduation, I’m being asked to focus my studies in a particular area and choose which area of research I want to focus on.   All of that has got me thinking about happiness and fulfillment.  The road isn’t laid out for me and everything is branching into this large tree of possibilities.  Naturally I’ve found myself asking what path I’d be most happy with.  I’ve got a good idea, but I’m still not completely sure.

Happiness and fulfillment in life is a complicated thing.  I can’t say that I’ve mastered it, but I have a lot better conception of what a fulfilling life is than I did say ten years ago.  I’ll try to paint a simple picture of my best conception of it, and then elaborate.

There are some things everyone needs.  We all need access to food, shelter, clean water, clean air, and other basic necessities.  We also need security, a roof over our head, good health,  physical safety, money, and employment.  Without any of these things, it’s going to be really hard to feel at home in this world.

Many people feel that if they can get a “good” job that pays well, and find themselves a romantic partner, they’re “done”.  I used to have a friend in high school who’d tell me that.  “Jason, you’re earning really good money.  You’re done.”  When I’m around college students, such as students I often tutor in physics, that seems to be the way they view the world.  Once they graduate college and get that magic job, fulfillment, happiness, and bliss will come their way.  I think a good job will help them, but they’ll just have to learn on their own that there’s still a lot more to happiness and fulfillment in life.

As for love and romance, most all of us, outside of asexuals, have romantic and sexual desires.  Finding a loving partner, establishing a family, and building a place we call home is very important to most.  Not all, but most.  I often feel our society places too much emphasis on love and romance, as if it’s the end all of happiness.  I don’t think that’s true, but it can play an important part, and if you find the right person, your life can be made a lot better and easier.

But I think we all want to have relationships not just with a special someone, but also with the community around us.  It’s deeply fulfilling to enter a giant room filled with people just like you.

To give an example, as a hobby I enjoy playing video games.  It’s really special to go to something like the E3 gaming conference and enter this giant stadium filled with the things I love.  I love Nintendo and the Mario games in particular, and when I see the Nintendo booth I get joy seeing people dressed up in Mario and Luigi costumes, and am slightly mesmerized by the big screens airing the latest Mario and Mariokart games.  That’s really neat.  The whole room is filled with people just like me, checking out the latest gaming titles I’m wanting to play.  The same feeling comes over me when attending talks by physicists on topics I’m interested in, and the whole crowd is filled with people just like me.

It’s a lonely experience to be surrounded by people who are not like you.  It’s frustrating when any time you share your points of view, everyone around you disagrees.  Even worse, you may receive scorn and ridicule.  That’s painful.  You form this insulated bubble around yourself, shutting in, and instead of feeling connected with the world and society around you, you instead isolate yourself from it.  It’s difficult to feel happy and fulfilled when you’re surrounded by a world you feel alien in.

This bring us to intimacy.  It’s important to have people in your life who share your interests and views on life.  People who can help you, encourage you, and be there for you.  People who see the world the way you do, and who challenge you, better you, and take you to a higher place.  These sorts of people typically include your spouse and close friends.  This isn’t something where the more you have, the better off you are.   Humans can only handle a handful of close intimate relationships.  To really get to know people requires a large time commitment.

But even if you have all of that, you’re still far from done.  Now we get into self-esteem, confidence, respect for others, and respect by others.   We humans want to belong and play an important role in the world around us.  We want to feel like we have a part to play, that our actions are meaningful, and that we’re making progress.  We want to be accepted by our peers and to feel valued.

We also desire self-respect.  We have a desire to excel at something.  We have to exhibit mastery and competence in our “thing”, whatever that may be.  This gets into creativity, spontaneity, and being challenged.  In truth, we never want to be “done”.  That’s like being forced to keep playing a video game which you’ve beaten and there’s no quests left to work on.  You just wander around aimlessly, with nothing to do.

I would argue that people also have something which, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “spiritual” needs.  We want our lives to have meaning, even beyond our own lives.  We want a life project, a life work.  We want to leave something behind for future generations to let them know, “I was here and my life mattered.”

We also desire to feel connected to the cosmos.  To feel the mystery and awe of life.  To feel interested.  Inspired.  We want to be passionate about something.  To feel emotion swirling inside of us.  We want to feel we have a special quest to do in this life which only we can accomplish.  We want to believe we’re the only one who could ever do it and to feel special and unique in this universe.

It’s also important feel at home and accept this universe as it is right now.  We can’t be caught up in some future utopia, or some past golden age, but we must find what’s beautiful and wonderful in the world right now.  I think any hopes for fulfillment in the afterlife take away from the joy you should be having in your life right here and right now.  True happiness and fulfillment can’t be something you perpetually delay.

All of these things I mentioned could be greatly elaborated on, but I think that gives a general picture of the sorts of things which need to be addressed when talking about happiness and fulfillment.  So how does this apply to me looking at employment opportunities?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m way too idealistic and am looking for something that could never possibly exist, but what I really want is to be a part of some elite group who’s working on something really beneficial to humanity, which will move our species forward into the future and really change people’s lives.  I want to be around passionate people who love what they do, and work hard.  I want to work with people who view the work not as a burden, but as a blessing to bring something beautiful into the world.  I look for the ability to be creative and to be offered the opportunity to exercise freedom within this group.  I desire access to state of the art equipment and the best minds to really do something special.

Ambitious?  I guess.  The thing is, when I was in my early twenties, I had this really cushy job as a network administrator making really good money.  But you know what?  I was miserable.  I didn’t understand it back then, but now I realize that if you take that job and then compare it to all the things I listed, it barely had any of things I mentioned.  There was no real creativity or freedom.  There wasn’t any goal or mission.  There was no higher purpose.  There was no challenge.  There was little feeling of being part of a team of people who loved their work.  I had no way develop self-actualization, and while there was room for mastery, it was far too simple.  There was also no connection to the community.  I didn’t feel celebrated and valued.   There certainly wasn’t any deep connection to the cosmos or any mystery and inspiring awe of the universe.  It was completely reactionary, just fixing things that break.  I’d spend days just sitting in my office, bored out of my mind.

See what I mean when I say that having a job which earns good money is far from being “done”?  When I left that and was more focused on entrepreneurial efforts developing software, I felt more fulfilled, even if it didn’t have the same degree of security.  Having creative control and freedom was liberating.  When I was designing software from scratch, trying to solve problems in clever and creative ways, I felt like I was getting closer to something I was searching for.  Even still, the software I was forced to work on to earn money was lame.  Business software is lame.  Reports and accounting is lame.  That world lacked higher purpose as well.  I wasn’t happy there, and while it could be challenging at times, I didn’t feel like I was on a sacred quest.  I didn’t feel like I was solving a great mystery of life and the universe.  There was no adventure.  It was mostly tedious, unfulfilling grunt work.

I’ve had enough experiences by my age to know what I do and do not want from a job.  Still, I worry I can be too idealistic, looking for something that doesn’t exist.   Does the inspiring workplace, where everyone’s passionate, working on something worthwhile, changing the world actually exist?  I honestly don’t know.  Even if it doesn’t, should I ever stop searching for it?  And if I can’t find it, shouldn’t I do everything I can to create it myself? 

When you think about these things, it really makes you admire someone like Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple.  He really inspired the people working at his company.  He made them feel that they were involved in something that was going to change the world.  He demanded excellence and was always striving to be the best.  I really liked that aspect of him.  I’m drawn to work for organizations like that.

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