Sunday, September 16, 2012

Viewing the World Through the Lens of Physics

Physics is a way of viewing the world, and it is one of my most important lenses. The most exciting thing about science is that it reveals the sub-text of the physical world. In other words, surface reality isn't all there is, the world is full of hidden stories, connections, patterns, and the scientific as well as the literary and psychological aspects of this mulch-textured reality are, to me, fascinating.

We live in a highly technological world. People who don't understand the technology are operating at a severe disadvantage. I've often been amazed by the technical prowess of young people. They seem to just absorb the technology via osmosis. I recall when my grandson, Gabe, was just four years old and I watched him play a simple video game. One of the controls of the game was the space bar. Press the space bar and the game paused. It was something silly like solving a simple math problem in a bubble that descended toward a swamp. If you couldn't provide the answer in time, an alligator would eat the bubble and you lost points. He was doing very well, solving the problems before the bubbles dropped even half way. Then, suddenly, he hit the space bar and paused the program. He leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head for a moment, then hit the space bar again to continue playing.

He didn't need a pause, but he was so into the game and its functions that performing the pause was simply a display of complete mastery of the game. I used to demonstrate technology to people, especially when I was with the Friends of the Library and personal computers were brand new. I would tell people that there was no command you could type in that would damage the computer; yet the adults were all so wary. They tended to keep their hands in their pockets so as not to touch anything. Kids, on the other hand, you had to keep yelling, "don't touch that!"

Still I fear for today's youngsters. Math and science just don't seem like they have the appeal they had years ago. Books don't seem to hold the same attraction they once did. Our culture has become focused on the famous — not even the gifted. Please explain Paris Hilton to me. She has no talent, she has no abilities. Seems all she is is rich and famous. Why would someone be interested in her when there are composers and musicians and authors. The Kardashians? Tell me what they do. Why are they on TV all the time? If this generation doesn't arm themselves with knowledge and understanding and discernment, they are going to end up serving fries at McDonalds. And "Rock Star." Why would someone spend so much time and practice to play a musical simulation, when they could learn to play the real guitar or drums with the same effort. My joy of the internet includes email and Facebook and blogs. I'm glad to see people writing, a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) record of their thoughts. But it also exposes weaknesses in grammar and spelling. (I should not be critical with my lousy spelling, but I do note completely mangled words and punctuation.) Practice makes perfect, but a good spell checker makes it even better.

The technical people I encounter, they come in two flavors. There are the people that live and breath the technology. They speak of stacks and ecosystems with a secure knowledge of how all the parts fit together. I work with those people all the time. I work with color specialist — they know gamuts and refraction indices, paper experts who understand grain and surface finishes, engineers, programmers, all with deep special knowledge. When there is a problem, and you gather these experts, new ideas abound. Young and old, they have engineering in their blood, and I struggle often to keep up with the flow of ideas.

But others, they are such posers. Especially in the field of computing. Civil engineers must be licensed by the state, but computer experts, they have no credentials. Some know so little about the underlying engineering, and just fake their way through following the scripts. Hackers have a name for those people, "script kiddies." It is so true. They can follow some directions and maybe get a web site up, but they wouldn't know how to do something outside the instruction book if they spent a month at it. Web page animations!! How do you do that? There is such a need for technical talent in this country that often these posers have real technical jobs. Scary! I don't mind that people are attempting things over their heads. That's how you learn. It's when the know-nothings pretend to know that I get all flustered.

But that isn't really what I wanted to talk about today. When I was going to CU, they had a program for engineers to be certain they got enough "liberal arts." It was a great concern to the curriculum designers that engineers have some sense of art along with science. The great men of the renaissance understood. Da Vinci was both a first class scientist and a first class artist.

I enjoyed the program at CU. It was based on the great books. You know, the writings of a bunch of dead white guys! I had always had an affinity for reading and had read plenty, text books and classics alike. So it was very enjoyable for me to discuss at length issues of the great works. Sadly the program didn't include much poetry. I wish now I had taken some poetry classes on my own. You are always in such a hurry to complete your degree, that taking courses that weren't required just didn't seem like the thing to do. I also enjoy art, especially painting and sculpture, although I have no talent at all in that area. I've never taken a class, but I've visited a lot of museums and like to browse around and read the information with the art. I can barely draw a circle, much less a person. Still I have a deep appreciation of light and color and how it can be portrayed by the masters.

Most of all, I have a great love of nature. Perhaps it was all those trips to Yellowstone National Park when I was a kid. We went there once or twice a year for about 12 years of my life. I've boated, fished, and climbed on about everything in the park. My brother was a ranger and I spent many happy times there in my teens. I also picnicked, camped, and hiked many of the mountains surrounding my home town. The Snowies, the Belts, the Moccasins, the Judiths. The views from those mountain tops were awe inspiring and Crystal Lake was a credit to its name.

So, what do you think?. Do you appreciate more what you understand in depth, or does knowledge remove the mystery? I don't think so. Does a sailor enjoy the sea less if he knows how to navigate and read the clouds and ocean waves? Does a pilot not appreciate flying because she knows about omni-ranging and altimeters? Does an architect not appreciate great buildings because he knows about arches and flying buttresses? No, I think not. I think that knowledge enhances the experience; it doesn't diminish it.

A plumber I know was at the house yesterday installing some shut off valves. We spoke about his training, the union, taking classes (that he later taught), apprenticeships, certifications, and job titles. I was amazed how much knowledge was behind his craft. Some are natural with tools and can repair a car or a water heater with equal ease. Some demonstrate a life time of learning and some exhibit deep knowledge from study, and classes, and books. Those are the people you want to hire. Those are the people that get the job done, right, and quickly. What a joy to employ a true craftsman (or woman). There is great honor in working with your hands. That is knowledge too.

Later in the day I visited the electrical supply house to get a replacement ballast for a fluorescent fixture. The two men at the counter both knew how they worked, what went wrong, how the quality had changed over the years, and the best way to install the replacement. That's why I go to specialty shops rather than Walmart. I'm sure there are some knowledgeable people at Walmart or Kmart, but I find the specialty shops — electrical, plumbing, paint, irrigation, stereo, TV, natural grocers — they have the knowledge and the experience. Well, maybe not all of them, but it is still a good place to look.

Plus, I think the enjoyment of things is increased by knowledge. Understanding why and how does not destroy the surface beauty. Knowing what is under the surface simply enhances the appreciation. I've quoted poetry before about the Learned Astronomer and the Flower in the Cranny. I won't repeat those here — Google them. No, when I look up at the night sky, and can name the constellations and understand what actually generated the light I see or comprehend the vastness that these stars exist in, I think I know more, not less. I think I see more, not less. I think I appreciate more, not less. The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about art and beauty, yet they worked hard on their physical philosophy to understand the world.

The lens I view the world through looks deeper and reaches for greater understanding. I can't imagine looking any other way. Knowing the history, the connections, the people that discovered this or that, the wisdom and knowledge of the ages. That is a deep satisfaction to me. Newton said he could see farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants. How many more giants have stood on the shoulders of giants on the shoulders of … to obtain the clear view we have today. There is a lot more to discover and more to learn. Don't turn aside from knowledge. Turn off the TV and open a book. (Actually you can leave the TV on. There is a lot to learn watching TV. But you won't learn much from the network shows. Seek out the Discovery Channel or the History Channel or the Biography Channel. That is where the knowledge is. PBS is another good source of art and science alike.) Take a class or seek a mentor. Visit the library. The books are free. Even the magazines are useful, assuming you chose the right magazines.

Not just science. Dig into the history of rock and roll and read about great guitar players. Learn about knitting in depth. Whatever you enjoy, dig in. Don't be satisfied with just the surface. I don't mean you all have to study math and physics. I want you to study everything, see deeper, understand and appreciate. There is more than just what is on the surface. Don't be satisfied with the thin veneer. Go for the solid wood that has depth and strength. Home design and color coordination, clothing styles, hair styles, dogs, cats. Dig deep. There is no greater goal than understanding. Read and study and learn more.

Don't be afraid of science. Use the internet as the ancients used the library at Alexandria. Learn what has been found, discover new areas of the world. Your appreciation of a gorgeous sunset will not be lessened if you understand why the colors are as they are. Forget a point and shoot camera. Learn about exposure and focus, depth of field and bokeh. Learn to control aperture and shutter. Drive a stick shift car. Learn the chemical elements. Study the differences between CFL and LED light fixtures. The ancients would never comprehend the information available to us with just a few keystrokes. They would think of us all as kings — neah — gods to have so much knowledge at our very fingertips. Discover history, it is the context of current events. There is nothing new under the sun — Ecclesiastes; yet there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy — Shakespeare. Learn about geography, geology, biology, harmony, wood stoves, flagpoles, these are all things that you can know so much more about.

I know several young people, just starting out their lives. Most recognize the value of a good education and a college degree. I'm happy to help any who want to pursue their personal improvement. Many are struggling with work, and a family, and school. More power to them. Congratulations on recognizing where your future lies. College is expensive and education is expensive. But, trust me, ignorance costs a lot more. Learn, participate, graduate.

I suspect I come across in this essay as a bit — no, a lot conceited. I am proud of my knowledge, but I am also aware that I don't know a lot more than I do know. I've read authors and met professors and scientists that put my small amount of knowledge to shame. I know just enough to appreciate how much I don't know. My good friend, Joe Green, who I worked with so many years in New York, had a Bachelor's and a Ph.D. from Harvard. (Somehow he skipped right over his Master's.) I could not keep up with his simplest thoughts on art or science. When he talked, all I could do was listen. No, I love to talk about knowledge, but I don't really have much of my own. I love knowledge, that is why I seek it, and that is why I write about it.

My granddaughter likes to say live, laugh, love. I say live, learn, love — and laugh too. I'm still learning … and loving … and laughing — mostly at myself. Sigh …

Originally Written on Feb. 12, 2011.

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