Physics and English

This site is all about understanding behavior.

Learning is a form of behavior.

And some of the most daunting learning to be done in the “natural” world is staring physicists right in the face.

Physicists.  The same guys who brought you transistors, fractal antennae, MRI and Voyagers 1 and 2.

I saw this excellent video by Brady Haran, with a most excellent professor of physics ranting about someone who PRETENDS to understand physics enough to make outlandish propositions about what it means.

That’s not the point for this post.  The points comes later in his video (3:15 and 6:40) in response to an excellent question from Brady.  Perhaps it’s the language that physicists use to try and communicate the strange phenomena to themselves, and the rest of the world.

Here’s where the behavior comes in.

Physicists talk to each other, and rarely to the public, and even more rarely to academics in other disciplines.  Almost never ever to someone in the English department.

Here’s a list of some of the incredibly weird phenomena they have measured.

  • Entanglement (spooky action at a distance)
  • Spin
  • Momentum
  • Inflation
  • Big Bang
  • CP Violation
  • Dark Matter and Dark Energy
  • Unified Theories containing all the known forces
  • Wave Functions
  • Atomic Orbitals

All of these are extremely strange things that happen in reality, things we use every day without realizing it.

Yet they don’t make sense in our big classical world.

Here’s where the English department comes in.

Physicists need a whole new language that removes all the connections these phenomena make with the classical world.  Using words like orbital, wave, even matter and energy for the quantum world is going to put physicists at a disadvantage.

The person who’s going to figure out how to make sense of the quantum world is going to have to release themselves from the classical world.  When you grow up in a classical world that has orbits and waves, you’re automatically making the job harder.

So, to all you physicists out there who want to confront the greatest natural challenges of our time, take a moment to understand behavior.  Talk to an English major, and change your language.  Shed your classical skin and enter the quantum world.

It’s weird, it’s wacky, it’s beyond classical belief systems.

Yet, it’s all behavior.

Is it a particle, is it a wave?  It's neither.

PS – Who says we can’t have Fun with Fiziks?  By the way, for those who have their own wacky ideas about the quantum world, save them for later.  I have my own, but they will have to wait for the right cocktail party.

PPS – By the way, Math is the proper language of physics, of Nature for that matter.  However, this post is about talking to people who DON’T do math.  Thanks for reading.

Numbers are Real Plus

The great mathematician, John Conway, discovered a very simple way to create all the numbers we will ever need using very simple rules.

Why is a mathematician being featured on a blog that’s dedicated to studying behavior?

Because math is an aspect of behavior.

Yes, you heard it here first.  Math is part of our behavior.

Math doesn’t feel like behavior when we’re in class, dreading the next quiz.  However, the whole concept of numbers, shapes, curves, areas and dimensions are all concepts that only live in our mind.

The fact that we can use these concepts to make our lives easier is extremely convenient, but not because we are directly connected to Nature.

We are INDIRECTLY connected to Nature.  That’s why it’s so important to study math, and to encourage mathematicians to research all sorts of new math.

Conway’s Surreal Numbers are a better way to construct all the numbers we currently know about.  It’s better because it’s simpler and more complete.

Do I understand what he’s created?  Hardly.  There’s a good chance almost no one alive fully understands what he’s given the rest of us.

But studying history reminds us that many great discoveries can take hundreds of years before SOMEONE figures out a way to use them.

This is where behavior kicks in.  As students of behavior we have to study history in general, history of science in particular, and also many aspects of today’s behaviors in order to get an idea as to what will happen in the future.

After all, when all is said and done, isn’t that the real purpose of studying any subject?  The ability to predict.

If you don’t think so, let me know.  If you’re on board with the idea, stick around.  This year is going to be fun, because there are a whole lot of predictions about to be made.

Thanks for sticking around.  I knew I could “count” on you.

And Happy New Year everyone!



John Conway on Surreal Numbers

Don Knuth talking about Surreal Numbers and the book he wrote about them.


Numbers are Fake News

How fake is fake?

Can you fake a cake?

How fake can a fact be faked, before it becomes an alternative fact?

A fake fact?

Can there be such a thing as a fake fact?

So many questions, so little time.

So I thought I’d have some fun playing with our minds in a totally different direction.


Are numbers real?

No, not real numbers, as in 1, 2, 3 and 4.  But are they in fact, real things within nature?

Spoiler alert…  they aren’t real!

How’s that for a brain bender?  Want to know why?  Check this out.

Go ahead and count something.  Jumping sheep? as you try to go to sleep?

Fine.  One sheep.  Two sheep.  That seems easy enough.

But wait.  Let’s sheer those sheep.  After all, you might like to have a nice woolly blanket to keep you warm while you sleep.

Now I have naked sheep.  Are they still two sheep?

Fine.  Two sheep.  Now, what if I cut their toenails?  Do I still have two sheep?

Yes?  Alright.  Now, let’s get gory.  Except that these are phantom sheep that only jump through my dreams.  So all of you sleep-sheep-lovers, please don’t get angry.

If I take the legs off the sheep, do I still have two sheep?  No?  Now we’re getting somewhere.

What if I only take off a bit of leg?  Better yet, how much leg will you let me remove from my sleep-sheep before it is no longer a sheep?

Forget sheep.  Let’s try a rock.

One rock.  Two rock.

What if my rocks hit each other and become three or four rocks?  How is this possible?

What if they bang about so much that they become a million rocks.  Are they still the same two rocks?

That’s my point.  Anything you choose is a thing only because we want it to be that thing.  Nature doesn’t work that way.  One sheep.  One rock.  One country.  One planet.  One star.  These are all made up in our minds.

The numbers that we use in math class are concepts that enable us to live better, understand Nature better.  But they are concepts, not real things you might find lying in the street.

Believe it or not, this is important.  It’s important because there is now a way to create numbers that is much more “natural” than our current method.  And I’m going to do my best to share that with you next time.

Until then, keep counting those sheep.

Have a great New Year’s everyone.



Homage to Tom Lehrer

There was a great article on what we know of the life of Tom Lehrer the other day.  I urge everyone to read it, simply because the man is an icon within our nation’s entertainment landscape.

The article states what many others have always wondered; why did such a popular entertainer want to leave the limelight and riches that had so readily embraced him?

Dear Gentle Reader, I humbly submit for your approval this hypothesis.  Mr. Lehrer was not in love with his audience, or his entertaining craft.  We, his singing, songs, and piano playing were not his first love.

His first love was, and probably still is, Mathematics.  And that is the key to his retirement, solitude, and heartbreak.  For once you have even the barest glimpse of what lies within the realm of the mathematical realm, you can understand why someone would reject everything else in order to live there, even if only for a moment.

If you are not mathematical, this will be hard to convey, but I will do my best.  To be religious, it is like peering into the mind of God.  To be artistic, it is like understanding the very brush and clay that Nature uses to create the world around us.  To be a child, it is like a box of toys is lain at your feet for you to play with, without instructions or restrictions from adults.  To be poetic, it is seeing infinite beauty within every particle, every action in our universe.  Finally, being practical, it is truly all of these things.  For mathematics is a realm that exists as surely as matter, energy, and logic exist.  It reveals natural structures that can’t even be imagined once they are seen, for they have aspects extending far beyond our feeble senses.  Mathematics plays with concepts so powerful that our great civilization is built upon only some of them in the crudest ways.  Finally, mathematics gives insights into our universe that we are not able to fully understand.

Mr. Lehrer has seen into the realm of math, and has been properly awed, and humbled.  He opened his heart to let her in.  Unfortunately for the rest of the world, math was not as forthcoming to Mr. Lehrer.  He did not achieve great insights, and has not attained what he set out to in the beginning, a formal and social acknowledgement of that achievement.  He is not Dr. Lehrer, but Mr. Tom Lehrer.  He is remembered as a wonderfully entertaining man, not an explorer of the mathematical realm.

Is it no wonder that he prefers solitude to platitude?


Multiply your taxes by ten, then…

Happy tax day everyone.  This Tuesday many of us are sending a few hard-earned dollars to our Uncle Sam.  He always appreciates the fact that we show our appreciation to him for all the fine work he’s doing.  We know he treats our money as if it was still ours; there’s no waste, no entitlements, no reason not to trust him.

Well, not today, anyway.

For today, let’s look at something else our favorite Uncle likes to do.  He likes to tell us how much he’s saving us when he does something.  For instance, he might change the tax laws that penalize corporations for paying their executives more than a million dollars a year.  I know it slows down my corporation.  They keep trying to pay the head guy many millions, but he says, “wait! we don’t want too many taxes!”

So Uncle Sam changed the laws to tax companies paying out “too much” money.  No discussion about how corporations figured out a way around this.  They did.  What Uncle Sam did next is the fun part.  He took to the cameras and newsertainment outlets and told everyone that he’d just saved you and me billions of dollars.  Wow.  That’s a lot of dough!

But wait a minute.  At the end of every sentence about that savings, he’d throw in this little tidbit under his breath; “over ten years.”

Really?  Really?  TEN YEARS?

So that Billion Dollars is not really a billion dollars, it’s a hundred million dollars.  That’s like nothing! I can’t even buy a small country for that amount.  Well, maybe a small country, but you know what I mean. So what’s the deal with the 10 years?

The politicians claim they always need a 10 year window because taxes take such a long time to accumulate and apply.  Sure.  I always wait 10 years before paying any particular tax – like my sales tax on chewing gum.

No, they put the 10 year number on there because it makes everything look BIGGER.  They don’t mention that within two years these corporations will figure out another loophole to hide those billions (oops, almost did it myself! I mean, millions) of dollars.

Yet again, this is something new that our country never did before.  And it’s something that our newsertainment people swallow hook, line, and sinker.  It’s something that the rest of us don’t even notice.  And it’s yet another little insight into how our nation is slowly becoming dumber and dumber.

So, this year, give them a taste of their own medicine.  Send in only a tenth of your taxes, and let them know they can get the rest over a ten year period.  I wonder how much of a sense of humor the IRS has?