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What I’m Studying These Days

December 24, 2012

I thought I’d take a little time and tell everyone what I’m reading at the moment, and why I’m reading those books in particular.  When I study things, I tend to be reading a lot of books at the same time, but different books have different priorities and get more or less of my time.

I bought a textbook written by Dr. Gazzaniga called Cognitive Neuroscience, which I’m about to start reading.  Cognitive neuroscience is like the mid-way point between neuroscience and psychology, covering how the biology of the mind gives rise to cognition.  It talks about neurons, how our brain forms perceptions and encodes information, object recognition, cognitive deficits which we incur if we have brain damage, attention, learning, memory, language, how the neocortex is specialized in different areas, and so forth.  Later chapters involve emotion, how our brain evolved, and eventually the book ends on problems related to how brain activity gives rise to consciousness.  So I’m looking forward to reading that.  I also purchased another textbook of his called Psychological Science.   I’ll probably read that next.

You’ll always find some sort of neuroscience, psychology, or cognition book on my desk.  Over a decade ago I started a quest to understand thought and what it means to be a human.  I approach the subject from just about every angle you can think of.  Lately I’ve also been watching lecture series on artificial intelligence, mainly because I believe that if you deeply understand something, you can build it.  If you want to claim you understand how the mind works, you should be able to build a machine which can think, reason, and emulate human behavior.  Looking at the algorithms we’ve created and seeing how well they work, and comparing them to how our brains are structured (cognitive neuroscience), I’m always learning what I do and do not understand about myself.

I ended up buying a textbook on International Relations written by Joshua Goldstein.  From what I’ve read, it’s the most popular university textbook used.  It’s also praised in Amazon.com reviews, so I figured I’d start with it.  I’ve never formally studied international relations, but I’ve sort of picked up bits and pieces of it from all the history and economics books I’ve read.  So far, I’ve read the first chapter, but I just got it the other day.   Since we’re on the topic of politics, I’m going to soon read a book written by the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz called The Price Of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.  Here’s the Amazon.com review of the book.

“Stiglitz draws on his deep understanding of economics to show that growing inequality is not inevitable: moneyed interests compound their wealth by stifling true, dynamic capitalism. They have made America the most unequal advanced industrial country while crippling growth, trampling on the rule of law, and undermining democracy. The result: a divided society that cannot tackle its most pressing problems. With characteristic insight, Stiglitz examines our current state, then teases out its implications for democracy, for monetary and budgetary policy, and for globalization. He closes with a plan for a more just and prosperous future.”

It seems like everyday things are getting worse here in the U.S, super PACs being the latest in a long line of atrocities.  The rich and powerful completely control our political process and what do we get?  We end up with corporate welfare, bailouts, removal of the Glass-Steagall regulations, exploding healthcare costs, exploding education costs, and the list goes on.  The rich and powerful who benefit from this corruption keep out necessary reforms.  I’ve watched Dr. Stiglitz in many videos on Youtube, and after viewing a lot of his stuff, I wanted to get some of his books.

Each day when I’m out for a walk, I have a small mp3 player loaded with Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels Of Our Nature.  I listen to about an hour a day as I walk.  I used to find going for walks pretty boring.  It’s a lot better if I have someone intelligent and interesting to talk to.  But if I don’t, the next best think is to listen to a guy like Steven Pinker.

Another book I’ve had my eye on is MIT psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.  It’s about how online sites like Facebook and Tumblr  influence the human mind and change how we interact with one another.  She argues that these phones, blogs, and other digital communication mediums change who we are and not necessarily in good ways.  We demand more from our technology and less from each other.  We’re having trouble relating to one another.

I didn’t start attending college until roughly ten years after I had graduated high school.  When I sat through my first classes, I couldn’t understand the culture.  Young people today just sit there texting on their phones, ignoring the real people around them.  They text one another during class and ignore the lecturer.  Once they’re out of class they’re calling each other and texting one another.  They walk out into the street, staring at that little phone, ignoring the traffic.  Students in the hallway all have their heads down staring at these little glowing devices.  It’s bizarre to me.  I’m not that old, but when I was in school, nobody had these phones.  I don’t understand them.

Now we can get into some of the math and physics stuff I’m studying — I’m always studying this sort of stuff as well.  My other quest is to understand the fundamental laws which govern this universe.  What is space?  What is matter?  What is the world I exist within made of?  How does it work?

My main focus over the past six months has been related to computational physics, but I’ve also been studying quantum physics in general.  I studied all sorts of algorithms related to simulating quantum physics and electromagnetic phenomenon.  I also took time to write a lot of simulators and rendered them on my screen.  I’m currently writing 2D and 3D time-dependent simulations of quantum wave packets scattering from various potentials.  I’m using what would be called a leap-frog algorithm and it’s really fast.

I’ve also been reading two books, one that I’ve just about finished with, another I’m going to be starting.  The first is a book called An Introduction To Quantum Physics by A.P. French which is a textbook they use at MIT.  It focuses more on explaining quantum physics, and not so much mathematically working out problems.  All of the MIT Introductory Physics series is good.  I particularly enjoyed French’s Vibrations and Waves.  Highly recommended. Next on my list is Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei and Particles by Eisberg and Resnick.  It’s also another textbook which was written to explain quantum physics, being less focused around the mathematics, and more on explaining things.

Last on my “high priority” studies has been practicing programming clusters of computers.  Over the past month and a half or so I’ve been researching MPI (Message Passing Interface), which allows you to program huge clusters of networked computers and have them all work together on a single scientific problem.  Just this last semester I wrote a thermodynamic simulator for class and it took FOREVER to run.  I simulated the magnetic properties of a material at different temperatures, looking for the phase transition, and as my lattice size grew the amount of required computations rose exponentially.  If you do serious computational work, you have to know how to utilize computational clusters.  I’ve pretty much figured out MPI now, but I haven’t yet had the chance to use it on any big clusters.  I did however set up my computer to dual boot Linux and I set up Open MPI in my Ubuntu installation.  I then wrote some MPI programs and simulated 10 cores on my laptop to see if I understood what I was doing.  It worked like a charm.

I eventually got MPI working on my Windows 7 installation, but I’m learning that if you want to do scientific computing, you want to go with Linux.  You can get Open MPI working on Linux with just a simple single installation with no configuration of any kind.   It was a real pain to get everything working on Windows.

I’d like to also fool around with Posix PThreads and OpenMP, but I haven’t had a chance yet.  I’ve got a book explaining them, but I still need to read it all.

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