I will try to explore my relationship with IT / software / computers / computer science / software engineering or whatever the best term is to describe it. I am in a mode of looking back with content, and making small changes, learning a bit more.
As often, thinking in 'opposites' comes most natural to me:
Self-study versus formal education. The IT and software industry is young and - I believe - had originally been populated by people without a formal training in computer science as this did not yet exist as an academic discipline. The community was open to outsiders with no formal training or unrelated experience. As a former colleague with a psychology background put it: In the old times, anybody who knew how to hold a computer mouse correctly, was suddenly considered an expert.
I absorbed the hacker ethics of demonstrating your skills rather than showing off papers, and I am grateful about the surprisingly easy start I had in the late 1990s. I just put up a sign in a sense, saying Will Do Computers, and people put trust in me.
I am not 'against' formal education though. Today I enjoy catching up on computer science basics by reading classics like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.
Breaking versus building things. I have been accountable for 'systems' for a long time, and I have built stuff that lasted for longer than I expected. Sometimes I feel like a COBOL programmer in the year of 2000.
But I believe what interested me most is always to find out how stuff works - which also involves breaking things. Debugging. Reverse Engineering. Troubleshooting. All this had always been useful when building things, especially when building on top of or interfacing with existing things - often semi-abandoned blackboxes. This reverse engineering mentality is what provided the connection between physics and IT for me in the first place.
It was neither the mathematical underpinnings of physics and computer science, or my alleged training in programming - I had one class Programming for physicists, using FORTRAN. It was the way an experimental physicist watches and debugs a system 'of nature', like: the growth of thin films in a vacuum chamber, from a plasma cloud generated by evaporating a ceramic target bombarded with laser pulses. Which parameter to change to find out what is the root cause or what triggers a system to change its state? How to minimize the steps to trace out the parameter space most efficiently?
Good-enough approach versus perfectionism. 80/20 or maybe 99/1. You never know or need to know anything. I remember the first time I troubleshooted a client's computer problem. I solved it. Despite knowing any details of what was going on. I am sort of embarrassed by my ignorance and proud at the same time when I look back.
In moment like this I felt the contrast between the hands-on / good-enough approach and the perfectionism I applied in my pervious (academic) life. I remember the endless cycles of refinement of academic papers. Prefixing a sentence with Tentatively, we assume,... just to be sure and not too pretentious though I was working in a narrow niche as a specialist.
But then - as a computer consultant - I simply focused on solving a client's problem in a pragmatic way. I had to think on my feet, and find the most efficient way to rule out potential root causes - using whatever approach worked best: Digging deep into a system, clever googling, or asking a colleague in the community (The latter is only an option if you are able to give back someday).
Top-down, bottom-up, or starting somewhere in the middle. I was not a typical computer nerd as a student. I had no computer in high school except a programmable calculator - where you could see one line of a BASIC program at a time. I remember I had fun with implementating of the Simplex algorithm on that device.
However, I was rather a user of systems, until I inherited (parts of) an experimental setup for measuring electrical properties of samples cooled down by liquid nitrogen and helium. I had to append the existing patchwork of software by learning Turbo Pascal on the job.
Later, I moved to the top level of the ladder of abstraction by using *shock, horror* Visual Basic for Applications, ASP, and VBScript. In am only moving down to lower levels now, finally learning C++, getting closer to assembler and thus touching the interface between hardware and software. Which is perhaps where a one should be, as a physicist.
Green-field or renovation (refactoring). I hardly ever had the chance to or wanted to develop something really from scratch. Constraints and tough limiting requirements come with an allure of their own. This applies to anything - from software to building and construction.
So I enjoy systems' archaeology, including things I have originally created myself, but not touched in a while. Again the love for debugging complements the desire to build something.
From a professionals' point of view, this is a great and useful urge to have: Usually not many people enjoy fiddling with the old stuff, painstakingly researching and migrating it. It's the opposite of having a chance to implement the last shiny tool you learned about in school or in your inhouse presentation (if you work for a software vendor).
In awe of the philosophy of fundamentals versus mundane implementation. I blogged about it recently: Joel Spolsky recommended, tongue-in-cheek, to mention that Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs brought you to tears - when applying for a job as a software developer.
But indeed: I have hardly attended a class or read a textbook that was at the same time so profoundly and philosophically compelling but also so useful for any programming job I was involved in right now.
Perhaps half of older internet writing reflects my craving for theses philosophical depths versus the hard truth of pragmatism that is required in a real job. At the university I had been offered to work on a project for optimizing something about fluid dynamics related to the manufacturing of plastic window frames. The Horror, after I had read Gödel, Escher, Bach and wanted to decode the universe and solve the most critical problems of humanity via science and technology.
I smile at that now, with hindsight. I found, in a very unspectacular way, that you get passionate about what you are good at and what you know in depth, not the other way round. I was able to possibly reconnect with some of my loftier aspirations, like I could say I Work In Renewable Energy. However, truth is that I simply enjoy the engineering and debugging challenge, and every mundane piece of code refverberates fundamental truths as the ones described in Gödel, Escher, Bach or Structure and Interpretation.
I have been blogging 'seriously' about physics since 2012. My motivation has been a blend of jotting down notes on interesting things I've just found, conveying my decades-old fascination with some phenomena, trying my hands at popular science writing, and reporting on my own research.
Today I am asking myself - did I learn anything from that on a meta level? To read myself, I am re-arranging the list of my physics posts and sort them by topic and sub-topic. The list says it all, I think.
I wanted to write about quantum mechanics, but it seems I was always most intrigued by classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, and thermodynamics. The latter has become my true home in physics - which has come as a surprise to myself. Yes, thermodynamics is my specialization, but years ago I rather figured that this is my job, and I rather want to follow the latest news on quantum information and particle theory in my spare time. It turned out that I am more interested in history of physics and in the evolution of concepts that are now 'well known'.
My recurring meta-topic is that classical mechanics / thermo can be as interesting, 'geeky' if you wish, mathematically 'weird', and surprising as fields that seem to be more popular.
This list may remain a static snapshot. I am editing the chronological list of my physics posts here on the blog. This list might lseem to lack some of my more applied / engineering postings, re our heat pump system and data. These are here.
Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics
Concepts and foundations
Random Thoughts on Temperature and Intuition in Thermodynamics
Time evolution of systems in phase space: On the Relation of Jurassic Park and Alien Jelly Flowing through Hyperspace.
Phase-space in depth: Hyper-Jelly – Again. Why We Need Hyperspace – Even in Politics.
Carnot’s efficiency, irreversibility, proof by contradiction, paradoxes: Re-Visiting Carnot’s Theorem.
Mathematics used in statistical mechanics: Spheres in a Space with Trillions of Dimensions.
Heat pump basics
Brief explanation, absolute temperature:
Why Do Heat Pumps Pump Energy so Easily?
Coefficient of Performance of a heat pump: An Efficiency Greater Than 1?
Cross-check of numbers for a large heat pump system: Pumped Heat from the Tunnel
COP versus Performance Factor: How to Evaluate a Heat Pump’s Performance?
Energy accounting, economics: Heat Pump System Data: Three Seasons 2012 – 2015.
Heat conduction, diffusivity, latent heat:
Storage Challenge: High Score!
Heat conduction, heat equation: Temperature Waves and Geothermal Energy.
Heat diffusion length: Rowboats, Laser Pulses, and Heat Energy (Boring Title: Dimensional Analysis).
Simple version, daily energy balances:
More Ice? Exploring Spacetime of Climate and Weather.
Heat transport, energy balances. Simulations versus simple energy accounting: Ice Storage Hierarchy of Needs.
Detailed version: Heat exchangers, heat equation, 1-minute time slots: Simulating Peak Ice.
Thermodynamics and energy basics, dimensional analysis
kW and kWh.
No, You Cannot ‘Power Your Home’ by One Hour of Cycling Daily.
Phase transitions, ideal gas law (pressure sensor) Mr. Bubble Was Confused. A Cliffhanger.
kWp, power, energy, energy flow: On Photovoltaic Generators and Scattering Cross Sections.
History and inventions
Einstein’s Refrigerator and other inventions:
Einstein and His Patents
Centennial light bulb, sustainability: 111 Years: A Shining Example of Sustainable Product Development?
Checking 19th century papers: Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump).
Phase transitions of water, Mpemba effect: A Sublime Transition.
By an Austrian start-up – pressure gradient created by centrifugal forces: And Now for Something Completely Different: Rotation Heat Pump!
(I realize that some of my articles in the 'engineering' category would also qualify for this sub-category History. For example: I wrote a - less detailed - post on Rittinger's steam pump before. But part of the fun with these list is that you have to take those hard decisions of tagging ...)
Classical Mechanics and Fluid Dynamics
Equations of motion and Lagrangian formalism
Principle of Least Action.
Sniffing the Path (On the Fascination of Classical Mechanics)
Equation of motion, intuition in physics: Are We All Newtonians?
Motion of a falling slinky spring: The Falling Slinky and Einstein’s Elevator.
Principle of Least Action, again – extended version: Space Balls, Baywatch and the Geekiness of Classical Mechanics.
From Newton’s Law to Navier-Stokes Equations: Non-Linear Art. (Should Actually Be: Random Thoughts on Fluid Dynamics).
Estimates related to the physics of scything:
Grim Reaper Does a Back-of-the-Envelope Calculation.
Back-of-the-envelope cross-checks, hydro power: All Kinds of Turbines.
Torque, forces, precession, nutation.
The Spinning Gyroscope and Intuition in Physics.
Another way to explain how the gyroscope works: Intuition and the Magic of the Gyroscope
Coriolis force (1): The Twisted Garden Hose and the Myth of the Toilet Flush:
Coriolis force (2). Lest We Forget the Pioneer: Ottokar Tumlirz and His Early Demo of the Coriolis Effect.
Physics and geometry
My first (later corrected) proposal of a solution:
Physics / Math Puzzle: Where Is the Center of Mass?
Correcting my earlier proposal: Revisiting the Enigma of the Intersecting Lines and That Pesky Triangle.
Newton’s geometrical proof of Kepler’s laws: Mastering Geometry is a Lost Art.
Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory
Interpretations of quantum mechanics:
Is It Determinism if We Can Calculate Probabilities Exactly?
Quantum Mechanics versus QFT: Quantum Field Theory or: It’s More Than a Marble Turned into a Wiggly Line.
Started a series: And Now for Something Completely Different: Quantum Fields!
Summary on QM: May the Force Field Be with You: Primer on Quantum Mechanics and Why We Need Quantum Field Theory
Quantization – starting from statistical mechanics: On the Relation of Jurassic Park and Alien Jelly Flowing through Hyperspace.
Path integrals and symmetries: Learning Physics, Metaphors, and Quantum Fields.
Book review: Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory.
Electromagnetism and special relativity
Unification of Two Phenomena Well Known.
Charged particles lose energy when accelerating: Why Fat Particles Radiate Less.
An alternative way of understanding SR: How to Introduce Special Relativity (Historical Detour).
List of resources: Learning General Relativity.
Using physics-like methods in economics and sociology
Networking theory, instabilities:
Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Physics with Anything
E-Mails and communications: Using Social Media in Bursts. Is. Just. Normal.
‘Philosophical’: Learning physics, culture
On trying to explain physics without math:
Real Physicists Do Not Read Popular Science Books
Re The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smoli:. I neither Met Newton nor Einstein
On learning physics. Stupid Questions and So-Called Intuition.
Re Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe Physics Paradoxers and Outsiders.
Physics as Therapy (1) In Praise of Textbooks with Tons of Formulas (or: The Joy of Firefighting).
Physics as Therapy (2) Ploughing Through Theoretical Physics Textbooks Is Therapeutic.
This website shall finally reconnect with its roots – radices.
With the dawn of the new millennium a self-proclaimed Subversive Element has registered a bunch of domains. It was especially fond of radices.net and subversiv.at. Today, all these sites have been re-united and redirected to elkement.subversiv.at. But the site does not deliver on its promising name – I feel it became way too 'professional' recently. Historical content has been filed mostly under Physics (radices) and Art (subversiv). The category life displays some of the matter-antimatter collisions of these two worlds. Which also explains the category of the current article.
The Subversive Site was a Red Padded Cell, with Font Color = White, a so-called creative playground. The Element was aware that 'everybody' could read this but it did not care. The Merger of the sites was inevitable in the end, after a final detour of professionalization – when radices.net suddenly also hosted pages with IT Security links.
I have been a blogger, and I observed the evolution of other blogs: My anecdotal evidence shows that blogs live for about 1-2 years. If they are bound to survive they have to escape the matrix and to overturn their creators. A personal blog or website needs a 'Big' Idea. OK, not really big, but at least a-all-encompassing and abstract enough so that all the authors different threads and lines of thoughts can be silently tied together using this idea's magic glue.
My elkement.blog is relentlessly edited. It was a more philosophical site once, but I aim at following our punktwissen principles now. Articles should be concise, provide value, and perhaps also entertainment. There should be s logical connection between posts and my curated lists should help readers to find something 'useful'.
On the contrary, this site has more or less the same article over and over again – perhaps in disguise and interlaced with technical notes. It is all about my personal keeping the essence of Physics alive and useful for me. Since radices was originally a German-only science and philosophy site, the English version might not reflect this – but in the early articles on elkemental Force (at that time: Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything) I recaptured these ideas.
So I do finally accept this – let elkement.subversiv.at have its way. This is elkement's personal site, and its primary topic is How To Learn About Physics And Why This Might Be Useful Or Even Edifying In Very Different Ways.
- Learning physics means to start somewhere in the middle. That's why a first Introductions to Physics lecture is always hard (if the lecturer has some modest mathematical aspirations). You need to look at the same phenomena from different angles, and only after a while – and some work – everything will fall into place. This process and journey of learning is rewarding in itself.
- The more related to mathematical foundations (of physics) a question is, the less googleable the answer is. You can find anecdotes, and examples, science sound-bites for entertainment. Of course you find awesome lecture notes to learn the fundamentals from Feynman Lectures to Landau-Lifshitz – but you need to 'learn' them. In contrary to the mantra of You Just Need to Know Where to Find Something (like: Google for error messages) I believe that really knowing about fundamentals without googling helps a lot with problem solving: You can walk through how a system should work, just using the resources in your head.
- Mathematics purges the brain, and this does not only help with mathematical problem solving. So I believe that the hackneyed problem-solving skills of science graduates are real (albeit it is difficult to assess the self-selecting nature of STEM degrees for people with natural 'analytical' skills). But the caveat it: Years of corporate work, powerpoint slides, office politics, distractions, pressure to deliver ad hoc can erode these skills. I have long-term tested different methods to keep physics knowledge alive and usable - and learned now that science might even provide some evidence, in a sense.
- I have been in 'cyber security' for a while and I have written lots of gloomy articles about our new smart world of automation and where everything (including heating systems) is turned into cloud-based services. Thoughts on all of this is still work in progress, I am working on internal consistency and unambiguity. I came into the world of IT as an experimental physicist, I was applying my training of troubleshooting complex 'analog systems' to digital systems. Despite the myth of crystal-clear 0s and 1s it was often better to treat them as blackboxes. I lacked the typical computer nerd's / enthusiast's background and started late – playing with Microsoft systems and Office VBA and the like. In spite of this Treat-as-a-Blackbox approach I like to understand as much as possible about a system. Yes, I know you cannot understand, yet build, a power plant, from knowing how to solve Maxwell's Equations (yet understand or solve issues in cyber security related to such power plants). Nevertheless, if I have the choice to understand something at all, I'd pick Maxwell's Equations.
Since years I am using an (angry) dinosaur as my web and blog logo. The dinosaur is from another era, and sometimes it cannot deal with 'modern' concepts of our 'smart', 'networked' world. But perhaps, it was part of this world for a while in order to overcompensate.
Now the dinosaur is getting more and more confident that its typical dinosaur activities might be more productive and positive than it thought before.
On science and technology
- I believe there is often a simpler, a more low-tech solution to a problem technology is thrown on.
- I sometimes call myself a geek but I don't understand this 'geek' movement of cheering science and technology - without any desire to learn any of the details.
- I prefer to work on seemingly mundane problems that somebody really wants me to solve right now.
- This explains why I discarded inquiries to participate in and profit from governmentally funded research projects.
- Yet, I often find a universe of intriguing puzzles when mulling upon a 'simple' problem.
- Learning about theoretical physics has a mind purging effect: It helps, no matter if I ever need the math directly.
On business and life
- If a business relationship does not work without a written contract, it does also not work well with one.
- Don't follow any advice by strategists and experts, especially if their primary role is to act as consultants and not as doers.
- If somebody has an opinion on something, I judge them on Skin in the Game, hands-on experience, and education - in that order. I keep this in mind when voicing my own opinions.
- I don't pay for leads - I endorse other for free, and I am endorsed for free. Not necessarily on a 1:1 basis.
On the internet
- The greatest internet-powered innovation in the workplace I have encountered is to work remotely.
- I am grateful that I started writing online before there were Likes and Comments. The point of writing online is to hold yourself accountable because others could read this on principle, not because you need feedback.
- The internet sharing paradox: The more information you share for free, the more requests for free information you get. Learning to say No is a key skill.
- No matter how eclectic you think your combination of specialties is - you will find people on the internet featuring the same combination. Just better. It's humbling and this is a good thing.
I have written about all things physics for a long time - mainly on my blog, since 2012 – but I have never been quite satisfied with the result: Too boring for experts, not exciting and popular science-y enough for the 'educated public'. I think the reason was my hidden agenda, an agenda not even obvious to myself.
I wrote about phenomena and subfields I had just immersed myself and (re-)learned about, either because this was very remote from what kind of physics I use on a daily basis, or just because I was concerned with some aspect of it but wanted to complement that with 'more theory' for the fun of it.
In spite of that, I tried to keep a style that somewhat resembles your typical 'science communications', but that was most likely to no avail. Re-reading my old blog posting I don't read so much about 'the physics' as about my own learning process. Or I remember what I actually wanted to write about, but did not – in order to violate the pop-sci agenda - so the result was something in between a learner's notes and sketches of ideas for popular presentations. For example, I (re-)learned Quantum Field Theory after all the news about the Higgs particle and LHC. Both my experimental and theoretical background was in condensed matter physics, so it really took me a while to map what I learned about so-called Second Quantization and many body systems (described in a non-relativistic way) onto your typical QFT introduction that started with Noether's Theorem and Lorentz transformations. Now in order to drive that point home (in a blog posting), to explain what was so interesting for me, I would have had to introduce all those concepts to a lay audience which I considered futile. Or I was just too lazy to learn more LaTex or too hesitant to use equations at all. I noticed, I got on all sorts of tangents when I tried to run a series on QFT – I did exactly what I did not like myself about popular texts on theoretical physics: Pontificate on more or less palpable metaphors about fields and waves, but not being able to really explain anything above a certain threshold of abstractness.
I gave up on my series before I could 'explain' what interested me most: How forces translate into the exchange of virtual particles and how I actually knew about the 'Higgs field giving particles mass' without knowing any more: I had learned about Andersen's mechanism in solid state physics, and Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity. Perhaps that would have been a great example of symmetry breaking and that infamous sombrero hat potential typically used in pop-sci articles about the Higgs field?
I absolutely know that this may sound totally opaque – which is the reason why I only write about it here, on my website in that forgotten corner of the web, rather than trying to turn this into a blog post. Here, I follow my stream of consciousness and don't bother anybody on social media with it. There, I try to be somewhat entertaining and useful.
But even here, I try to write about something that somebody somewhere might be able to relate to, and here 'the internet' comes to rescue: For better or for worse, no matter how seemingly unique, special, and eclectic your hobbies and professional specializations, are – there is somebody somewhere on the net who indulges in the same combination of stuff. So, yes: It seems there is a growing community of hobbyist physics enthusiasts who feel the same and who 'practice' physics in the same way: Professionals with a STEM background who seriously learn about physics in their spare time, like R;&D managers writing textbooks about undergraduate physics or introductions about Quantum Field Theory. Like the IT server admin or the management consulting who write blog posts about what they have (re-)learned in their sparse spare time. Like the retired IT specialists who returns to what they originally studied – physics. Like me, who has an education mainly in applied condensed matter physics and who works as a consulting engineer and IT consultant.
From a down-to-earth perspective, this hobby can be worthwhile and useful: I noticed that it sharpens the mind, even if I don't use that physics and math directly on a daily basis. It's this effect that is makes the hackneyed saying about the 'analytical skills' of physics majors true. However, there is a caveat: Yes, physicists may be good at any corporate job, but I think not to lose you 'analytical edge' you need to practice the skills that originally shaped your mind. I don't know about research in psychology, so this is just my personal anecdotal experience. Living the corporate, inbox- and interrupt-driven work-style and having your mind scattered and distracted my social media does not help. There was a time in my life when I got up at 4:00 AM every day to re-learn physics, starting with Feynman's Physics Lectures. Surprisingly, that investment was well spent. I felt, my IT security concepts become crisper, more concise, and better – and it took me less time to compile them; So the ROI was great.
What triggered this article is my prime example of useful mathematical: While I had some background in QFT there was one subfield in physics I had missed completely: the theory called 'most beautiful', even by sober authors Landau and Lifshitz – the theory of General Relativity (GR). I had specialized in solid state physics, lasers, optics, and high-temperature superconductors, and GR was not a mandatory subject.
But I wanted at least to understand a bit about current research and those issues with not being able to unify quantum (field) theory and relativity. And I can relate to poor consumers of my feeble attempts at pop-sci physics: When I read popular physics books, I enjoy them as long as I have some math background - although I feel sometimes flowery metaphors make it more difficult to recognize something you actually know in terms of math. But when you would have to use new mathematical concepts you cannot understand the metaphors at all. Digression: So it baffles me when people like articles about Black Hole, the universe, and curved spaces but complain about not perfectly comprehensible explanations of more mundane physics and engineering. I believe the reason is that you 'need not' understand worm-holes etc.; so can just relax and scroll through the story, much like watching an illogical science-fiction movie. But mechanical engineering and simple thermodynamics feels like you 'should know it' and 'try a bit harder to understand it', and so it brings back memories of school and tests.
But as I said, there might be small community of people who genuinely want to learn, despite – or because of!! – the so-called hard aspects: Going through mathematical derivations again and again, and banging your head against the wall, until suddenly you understand. Which is a reward in itself, a feeling that's hard to share, and could and should not be shared anyway – in an act of subversive protest against our culture of craving for attention and 'likes'.
So for this community I'd like to share the resources I have picked for learning General Relativity: A set of free resources, each one complete and much more than just 'lecture notes'. Each of them also represents a different philosophy and pedagogical style, and I believe physics is learned best by using such a diverse set of resources.
One can debate endlessly, if and how to introduce the mathematical foundations used in some subfield in theoretical physics. As a physics major, you learn analysis and linear algebra before tackling its applications in physics and/or some mathematical tools are introduced as you go (Hello, Delta function!). I think it does not make such a difference in relation to the first courses in theoretical physics, e.g. learning about vector analysis before or in parallel to solving Maxwell's equations.
I feel it is more difficult the more advanced the math and the physics get, as you have to keep a lot of seemingly abstract concepts in mind, before you finally are presented with what 'you actually use that'. But maybe it is just me: Different presentations of GR seem 'more different to me' than different presentations of special relativity and electromagnetism.
In GR you can insist on presenting a purely mathematical and rigorous introduction of mathematical foundations first – your goal being to erase all false allusions and misguided 'intuitive' mental connections. Thinking about vectors in a 3D 'engineering math' way might harm your learning about GR just as too creative science writing might put false metaphors in your mind.
On the other hand, you could start from our flat space (our flat spacetime) and try to add new concepts bit by bit, for example trying to point out what curvature in 4D spacetime means for curvature in the associated 3D space, and what we might be able to measure.
Some authors use a mixed approach: They starting with a motivational chapter on experiments, photons in an elevator, and co-ordinate transformations in special relativity … and then they leave all that for a while to introduce differential geometry axiomatically … until they are back to apply this something tangible … until more mathematical concepts are again needed.
Sean Carroll does the latter in his Lecture Notes on General Relativity, that are actually much more than notes. He also published a brief No-Nonsense Introduction to GR that serves as a high-level overview, and he manages to keep to his signature conversational tone that makes his writings to enjoyable. Perhaps – if this was the only literature used – the mixed presentation plus digressions into special topics and current questions in physics would be a bit confusing.
But I was still searching for video lectures to complement any written text. A few years ago, I have not found any comprehensive self-contained course, but in 2015 this series of lectures was published, recordings from an event called the Heraeus Winter School on Gravity and Light 2015 – marking the 100th anniversary of Einstein's publication of GR. A nostalgic factoid I found most intriguing: The central lecture of the course by Frederic P. Schuller was given in the very lecture hall at my Alma Mater (Johannes Kepler University of Linz in Austria – JKU) that I received my education in Theoretical Physics, by Heisenberg's last graduate student Wilhelm Macke. Tutorial sheets and video recordings of tutorial sessions can be found on the conference website.
Schuller focuses on the math first, and this was really enlightening and helpful after I used other resources based on mixed intuitive physics and math. The Youtube channel of the event also has recordings of Tutorial sessions, and I found some versions of brief lecture notes. I think this is a must – and unfortunately often overlooked or downplayed in the world of free 'MOOCs'- In order to learn math really, you need to do problems and you absolutely have to walk through every single step of every derivation. It is tempting to just skip the boring proof in a text (that you thought you understood), and it is even more deceptive to watch science videos and believe you understood something. So thanks a lot to my former university to make this course available to the public.
But I was still curious if you can do without manifolds and stuff – without cheating – and I think I found the master of the genre. And again it is a signal from the past (my past): I had looked things up in Landau/Lifshitz Course of Theoretical Physics when I worked at the university. But as the 10 volumes were quite expensive I never bothered to purchase them later. Recently I jumped with glee: Due to whatever quirk in copyright law, the Internet Archive made 9 of 10 volumes available, and I downloaded them all. Browsing through table of contents I noticed that GR was actually explained in volume 2, The Classical Theory of Fields. I am totally smitten by their style, too: Elegant, terse, detached. Much like Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics. And I don't agree with those who say that the explanations are too terse: Landau and Lifshitz try to stay to tangible physics, and they use math in an ingenious way, mathematicians might call it sloppy (like: 'dividing' by differentials to yield a derivative). For that reason, one should consult other resources as well, but I think LL's GR is self-contained.
These books and videos will keep with busy for a while. I also try to interlace it with a bit of QFT again, e.g. by reading Dirac's version of it. My goal for next year is to complete first courses on GR, recapitulate what bit of QFT I learned in 2013/14, and then tackle an actual former specialty again: Re-learning about theories of superconductivity, with an emphasis about how these methods are also used in particle physics.
It might be dangerous thing to announce such grand plans on the web. But next year might be a busy one business-wise, and need to braze myself accordingly.
I start a radical experiment: Opening my blog's editor, and typing what I think right now - however, planning to never publish it to WordPress.
Contrary to what seems to motivate many freshly minted bloggers, and netizens inhabiting social web worlds in general, feedback and interaction had not been my primary goal. The appeal of writing 'in public' is that on principle somebody could read what you wrote, that the internet never forgets, and that you have to hold yourself accountable to what you wrote. Have to endure reading what you wrote when you were a different being.
The joy of my early web projects was also their subversive, semi-secret, and pseudonymous nature. Online spaces were wild places, blank sheets of paper, laid before me to hone my ideas.
There is another motivation for writing online, and this is as unrelated as possible from the philosophical approach: I enjoy crafting technical arguments, documentation of technical projects, 'science writing' because I want to force myself to turn my thinking into a consistent linear thread. I want to challenge my own ideas, find the loop holes in my own arguments. I know that my blog articles may be either boring or opaque or both unless the reader has explicitly searched for content like that. But actually the latter audience is who I am perhaps writing for: I have found so much useful tech / science stuff online, for free and in sublime quality, for my professional work, my own education, my pleasure of reading - and I do not want to remain on the receiving end of this communication only.
My second motivation is tied to a minimum level of 'feedback' - page views by fellow geeks - only seems to work for my articles written on our German blog: We only blog about two times a month now, but despite the smaller theoretical audience of German speaking readers the other blog has much more views, and views are still increasing. My English blog has fallen in oblivion again after I blog only twice a month and/or after I focussed more and more on energy, heat pumps, and down-to-earth engineering and physics of everyday life.
These are my personal recent top articles in the Physics / History of Science category so far:
- Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)
- Rowboats, Laser Pulses, and Heat Energy (Boring Title: Dimensional Analysis).
- Hacking My Heat Pump – Part 2: Logging Energy Values
- How Does It Work? (The Heat Pump System, That Is)
But ironically, a silent blog brings me closer to my other goal: Using the silent online space to write just for me, holding myself as accountable as possible though. Last year I had overhauled this / these website(s) here, and it turned more into a blog. Now I finally know what the purpose of having effectively two blog(-like) sites are:
Here, I give myself permission for introspection and self-centered updates. I don't share subversiv.at links anywhere on social media. If somebody wants to reads this, he or she really has to be determined and go to the 20th page of Google search results. There is no interaction. Of course this is also a consequence of my minimal web programming, but feedback can be blessing and curse. You (or maybe only: I) tend to write more about what 'people have liked before', or at least you feel a little bit guilty if you expose your loyal readers to something unusual - which turns each new post into a challenge, one you'd like to dodge sometimes. My writing self is quite 'authentic' here, in modern parlance.
But I don't want to appear fake on my real blog, the one that has much more content that this page, much more carefully crafted, and I don't want my blog to die. My solution has been - since a few months, I am only post-rationalizing now - to stay away from the autobiographical, from opinions, from philosophical, from big ideas ... and to focus on hard things. The stuff I do really know. I think The Internet would be a better place, if people would only post or comment if they 1) had through education on the subject, 2) practical experience with it, and 3) skin in the game - being personally exposed to risks and consequences arising from putting their opinions into practice. (In reverse order.)
So on my blog I just try to be useful (hopefully) to some tech and science enthusiasts, and perhaps a bit entertaining. If I will ever find a more useful 'spin' to what I have written here now, I might actually turn it into a blog article, like: What I learned from having two different websites. Why I stay away from opinion on the web. What I learned from tech / science blogging.
But for now this posting here will just remain some open-ended collection, snippets of my stream of consciousness, and I am copying these lines to a new 'post' at this silent website here and deleting the draft for a blog post.
I renamed my blog elkement.wordpress.com last November:
Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything
The original tagline was
Physics versus engineering
off-the-wall geek humor versus existential questions
IT versus the real thing
corporate world's strangeness versus small business entrepreneur's microcosmos, knowledge worker's connectedness
versus striving for independence.
until it became
I mean it
and finally turned into
Research Notes on Energy, Software, Life, the Universe, and Everything
This means that my blog elkement.wordpress.com has found its purpose, and I am able to distinguish blogging better from publishing to this website elkement.subversiv.at. My actual research and 'science writing' is featured on my blog. Over there I am using wordpress.com features I have no desire for developing them myself for - and this website will remain my 100% home-grown self-developed pseudo-blog with a very limited feature set and no interactivity. The blog has LaTex support and allows me to present galleries of technical figures and diagrams.
These recent blog articles showcase what elkemental Force has been and is covering now (the end of a journey that started already two years ago - when heat pumps and thermodynamics replaced quantum physics):
My personal website, on the other hand, should be just this: A more self-indulgent site that provides status updates, meta-information and About-Me-style summaries. Because of that I will keep not sharing articles here to any social network.
And so yes: The hands-on engineering, physics, math and data analysis will be done over there on the blog. But there really are personal meta-thoughts on physics - so I don't have to change categories here.
(Theoretical) Physics and Me
Over the Christmas holidays I have been nearly offline from social media. I used the internet as I believe it was intended for me: To learn about something in depth and not necessarily sharing my insights or my 'progress'. I indulged in theoretical physics lectures just for the joys of it. I can rationalize: Yes, a bit of mathy gymnastics also serves me well when I deal with more mundane physics as a professional - such as toying with the heat transport equation.
But the real reason is unrelated to work: Theoretical physics and mathematical modelling of a small part of a complex world gives me the pleasure - and/or the illusion - of being able to understand and solve, well, something. Whenever I had been very stressed out in the past, close to burn-out, I got up even earlier - as 4:00 AM sometimes - to plow through Feynman's Physics Lectures or my favorite German volumes of theoretical physics by my late professor, W. Macke.
Not only did it help me to focus onto abstract details of a logical clear universe and to enter a more detached state of mind, but amazingly it also made me work more efficiently and focused later - on whatever technical challenge I had to solve. In those days, I was mainly concerned with Public Key Infrastructure, networking security, and applied cryptography.
With hindsight - and hopefully not too much hindsight bias - I feel that a rigorous training in a mathy subject boosts your results in any endeavor that needs an analytical approach. Perhaps only your physics training makes your realize that you need a more analytical approach at all, in addition to soft skills, practice, and familiarity with culture in certain industry sectors. I am thinking about project management, for example.
I believe that in any 'STEM' job, e.g. in IT, it is soothing to re-learn fundamentals often. One should know more than seems necessary about 'theory', before or in addition to knowing how to google, where to look up things, or whom of your tech buddies to call. Success in technical troubleshooting always gave me most contentment when I was doing it in my head mainly - like walking through a networking protocol the way it was designed, comparing that to messing reality, and uttering an educated guess about the root cause of an issue which was finally correct.
Whenever I had been blogging about a field of physics not related to my work - like quantum field theory - it was these mental connections I had in mind. I was trying to convey the joys of physics, but my main focus was different from most science writers' ones, so I think my writing was not engaging enough for the interested lay audience and sometimes oblique owing to too much references to math (whereas it was very basic for experts, of course).
My science writing is often a covert and feeble attempt to encourage others to tackle the real thing, that is the fundamentals and the math, and then to feel the same effects. I have seen that more books seem to have been released recently that try to bridge this gap between classical science writing (following the mantra of: Every formula will half readers) and text books.
I want to be part of that movement.
Today I am writing articles on physics mainly on my English (elkement's) blog and our German (punktwissen) blog. This site (and its precursor, radices.net) help me with curating the links to my English physics postings.
All English postings written to date are displayed below, in decending order, from the Physics category's feed on my blog.
While I gravitated against quantum theory and the connection between physics and philosophy in 2012 and 2013, I finally switched to more hands-on applied physics in 2014. Before I have done 10-15 years of soul searching; some of these posts from 2012-2013 give prove of that.
I am running a small engineering consultancy together with my husband. Following Star Trek terminology, he is Chief Engineer, and I am Science Officer.
In overly correct legalese, my job titles according to our business licences are 1) Consulting Engineer in Applied Physics and 2) IT Consultant.
We specialize in planning of heat pump systems with unconventional heat sources, that is a combination of an underground water tank and an unglazed solar collector. 'IT' means: playing with control units and data monitorin.
As we run a German blog focused on this system and I also devote a 'sub-division' of my English blog to it, I use this site (radices.net) mainly for consolidating resources and links - in the same way as I curate security / PKI related links. Perhaps these link dumps will not be very useful for anybody but myself.
I once was a laser physicist and a materials scientists - my specialties having been high-temperature superconductors, laser-materials processing with Excimer lasers, and the microstructure of stainless steel. Then I turned to IT security, IT infrastructure and IT management for more than 10 years.
In 2012 I felt the urge to reconnect with my roots as a scientist and engineer, and we started working on our own heat pump research project in stealth mode. It turned to a second 'branch' of our two-person business. There are connections between my different fields of expertise - IT security and heat pumps - like: the security of the smart grid, 'hacking critical infrastructure', monitoring and control systems. Even the data we gather with our pilot setup have turned into 'big data' that require analysis and management.
So I am actually more of an engineer than a physicist. But I am still very interested in theoretical physics as sort of a mental exercise, and I indulge in reading textbooks as hobby. In 2013 I had focussed on (re-) learning quantum field theory.
Since 2014 I am mainly blogging on down-to-earth classical mechanics or thermodynamics, and I enjoy doing cross-checks and back-of-the-envelope calculations on my blog.
This is actually a translation of the title of a German piece I had written long ago (1998) on request of my high school
For better or for worse - those positions I defended back then did not change a lot. Today I probably hold even stronger opinions - however I rather declare them my personal opinions only. I sincerely do understand that there are people who are happy to play the game - and don't read any irony or critique into this.
I mean it. I have met academics who indulge happily and mischievously in optimizing their track record (tweak metrics) - just in the same way as a minority of corporate workers who have fun with metrics in the corporate world.
In 2012 I have blogged about my trading academia for being a computer consultant for small businesses here:
It’s a small-talk question, innocent and harmless. I have worked in the IT sector for about 15 years, about 10 years specialized in a very specific niche in IT security.
In the coffee-break during the workshop or when indulging in the late night pizza after 14 hours in the datacenter … you start talking about random stuff, including education and hobbies. And then you are asked:
But why is a *physicist* working in *IT security*?
Emphasis may be put on physicist (Flattering: Somebody so smart) or on IT security (Derogatory: Something so mundane). The profession of a physicist might be associated primarily with Stephen-Hawking-type theoretical research. In this case the hidden aside is: Why did you leave the ivory tower for heaven’s sake? Or simply put:
Young Jedi, why Did You – The Chosen One – Succumb to the Dark Side of the Force?
I have probably given different and inconsistent answers, depending on details as the concentration of caffeine or if the client was an MBA or a former scientist.
The gist of my story was (and still is - concluding from those many stories shared by contemporay post-ac / alt-ac movement):
- Simply ignore people who explain to you that they had such high hopes for you, you missed your true vocation.
- Degrees in fundamental science are fun and mind-altering in a sense. You hone your analytical and mathematical skills (Yes, now I am using that pitch, too!) - but this does not mean they can be translated to real-world jobs in an easy way. At least not in a way that can be explained the HR consultant with a degree in sociology.
- You are accountable for doing that translation to the real world - you better to do that start while studying. I didn't - and I know I was lucky.
- Expect your not fitting in (academia, global corporations...) as a matter of fact in life to be dealt with through doing something. You may blog about it but better take action first.
- The same goes for: Your not being fond of working long hours. There are people - academics as well as corporate colleagues who either like it or feel over-working is forced upon them. Which is their pleasure or problem - not yours.
Though I still agree with my own post it sound a tad too justifying myself. We should be more unapologetic about our life-style choices. Just do it - as the well-known brand told us.
Explaining science and technology is my passion and my mission - as a physicist, engineer and IT expert.
All children are curious scientists: We want to know 'how stuff really works'. However, in science education answers are finally given in the language of mathematics - which might kill curiosity.
I admit that I can indulge in math at times, just for the sake of it. Theoretical Physics was my personal therapy in fighting the detrimental impacts of having been sucked into Dilbert's (corporate) world once.
Nevertheless, I understand your discomfort - math haters / deniers. Fundamental theories in physics, such as string theory, seem to have developed a purely mathematical life of their own. Algorithms loom large: Corporations dig Big Data to predict our behaviors as consumers, and of course there is the NSA. And Facebook ads.
Thus I am determined to dissect and expound scientific underpinnings of, well of basically anything interesting I come across in physics, engineering or IT. As an IT consultant I sometimes gave stand-up quantum physics edutainment sessions in coffee breaks. So you are my target group: Experts in any science-y, geeky, technical or other quantitative field.
I am indecisive: shilly-shallying between excitement about curved space-time and multiverses on the one hand, and focusing on hands-on research and development from whose impacts we - taxpayers, John and Jane Does - will benefit in our lifetimes.
Currently my (science) writing is focused on
- Quantum Field Theory. When the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012 I realized that I cannot make head or tail of how the Higgs field gives the other particles mass. Based on the theory of superconductivity and phase transitions I had once been exposed too - I actually should have. Thus I am set to (re-)learn QFT.
- Thermodynamics - this is were fundamentals (entropy and the arrow of time) meet hands-on engineering (heat pumps).
And I am pondering on:
- classical physiscs and its underrated geek factor Why does a spinning top not fall over? Is it true that the sense of rotation of vortices in water flowing down the sink of your bathtub or toilet flips at the equator?
- the philosophical implications of different, but yet mathematically equivalent theories: This holds for quantum mechanics and determinism, but also for classical dynamics. The principle of least action adds a touch of multiple universes to Newtonian mechanics.
- how physics tools are used to model complex systems, such as the economy and stock exchange prices or how revolutionary ideas percolate society.
- the illusion of intuition in physics and related philosophical ideas: The Spinning Gyroscope and Intuition in Physics, Are We All Newtonians?
- Power engineering and the implications of 'internet-icizing' the smart power grid: Greatest Innovation Ever, Controlling the Four Elements. Or: Why Heat Pumps Are Cool.
- History of science, old patents and inventions in particular: Einstein and His Patents.
- Information technology and IT security. Cyber Security Satire?, My Google Searches Might Heat Your Home.
- how orthodox science relates to outsider physics: Physics Paradoxers and Outsiders.
But it seems a point of equilibrium has been reached. Peace and quiet. As an engineer 'in the making', focused on renewable energies, I am reconciling 'anything with anything'. Finally.
I have still not decided what 'science' means to me: Is it a world view, a collection of disciplines (I am biased in favor of natural sciences) or is it defined by the social system called scientific community?
I have left academia more than 15 years ago, trying to avoid the nomadic post-doc's lifestyle. It was a negative decision and not at all an easy one, I was not yet drawn to something new. I cannot leave blog posts on 'Leaving Academia' uncommented, see the following articles (highly recommended reading): The Cult of Academia und A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life.
Here is my take on this: The Dark Side Was Strong in Me.
Fast-forward: I have finally found out, that
my destiny was to start a business of my own and
that I am not comfortable with being part of any large organization or system - be it academia or a global corporation.
But it took me some years to realize that, because academia was not igniting my entrepreneurial spirits yet. Rather the opposite: Though you have been trained to become a very specialized expert for many years - more trained or more specialized than any other professional, 'the system' still makes you feel you are still 'a student' who has to jump through more hoops, do more post-docs, write more papers, apply for more grants etc.
Adding more trivial conclusions: Nice to analyze all this in hindsight, but I could have got there in an easier way. Maybe. And if you have problems with systems (sample n > 1) you should not blame it on the systems.
In December 2012 I was able to report on a milestone - not because something has changed dramatically in 2012, but because I have finally reached a Zen-ny state of contentment: 2012: The Year We Make Contact.
I have started to write about books I have read in my blog. I am not reviewing books really - but rather books trigger some random thougths of mine.
2013 is my personal year of cybersecurity, security of critical infrastructure and smart meters in particular. As a primer I can recommend this German novel: Blackout, by Marc Elsberg.
I have always wondered why my English articles about science, career (and the universe and everything) have different tone than my German ones.
The English version dated 2008 differed from the German version. After reading Bertrand Russell I dare to say that my English way of thinking about science was more Russell-like whereas my German version was a little bit too fluffy and written in 'longing for consensus mode'. Probably the statement on 'popular science books' was a bit too harsh.
Today I consider the following the most important aspect of science - both in retrospect as well as with respect to my current relation to science:
I am still most interested in the fundamentals of physics and in theoretical physics. Such as: Explaining why the sky is blue or how a heat pump works - both in words and pictures but also drilling down to the mathematical proofs. I admit that this is not primarily driven by the necessity to build technical solutions (although I do not object to apply that knowledge to real-life problems, of course). I believe that this way of scientific thinking has a value that stands on its own. It is not just 'technology' and 'formulas', it is rather part of our culture.
I re-discovered some really old books on physics last year. In contrast to the saying of the exponential growth of knowledge the very core of physics is unchanged. Strong foundations are even more valuable today in order to judge the overflow by so-called new stuff. I feel that immersing in these details and the full broad picture of nature as seen through the eyes of science allows to thrive (survive?) in modern project busywork more easily.
I have studied physics and worked in Research & Development for some years before I turned to IT. I cannot call myself a professional scientist any more though I have been involved in science / the scientific community here and then.
Natural sciences, physics and mathematics in particular are what I consider to be the core of all sciences. The way of thinking that I learned to apply to theoretical and real-world problems during my studies still influences the way I tackle any problem.
These are the results of my dedication to science:
So I do still love the following:
- Clarity and precision, 0 or 1, yes or no.
- Translating real-world problems to formal, self-consistent, preferred mathematical representations.
- Really understanding what I am talking about as a result of theoretical investigations, intensive learning and hands-on experience.
As a logical consequence I am not overly tolerant when it comes to
- So-called politically correct way to convey facts by adding lengthy explanations, most often as a result of too much soft skill centered psychological training (Well, I think we should probably change the warp core threshold value before the spaceship crashes - but only if you don't mind and this does not hurt your feelings too much)
- Vague, inexact theories of life, the universe and everything, especially if these theories are inherently inconsistent.
- Having to listen to somebody explaining (for example) quantum physics to me if this person has read one popular science book on the subject.