Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bear Down!

Wow, my heart is still pounding. The Bears must have caused at least a couple of coronaries today.

Okay, I know the rest of the country is rooting for New Orleans right now. But I live in Chicago. And the point of sports is to bond with the people in your own community. The Bears unite us. I hear strangers on the El asking each other, "You think they got a chance?" Today a group of people in Bears gear getting off the our train (probably coming back from the game) called out to Ken and me: "Go Bears!" We pumped our fists in the air and echoed it.

I can't betray my fellow Chicagoans. Just as New Orleans loves its team, Chicago loves the Bears. It is right and proper that Chicagoans should root for the home team.

So I hope New Orleans wins the Superbowl -- some other year.

To show my support for the Bears, I spent part of the day on a little art project.

It's one of the those Magic Eye images. So I apologize to those who can't see Magic Eye images. But we were shopping in a book store yesterday, and stopped to look at a couple of books of them, which inspired me to download a program for creating my own
(StereoCreator. Scroll down at that link) And then last night, Ken had a dream that we created a stereogram in which the 3D image moved. I'm sure it's been done before, but I haven't seen it, so I had to attempt it. For that I needed an animated .gif creator, so I downloaded unFREEZ.

Unfortunately, animated gifs with 28 cells are 28 times as large as normal gifs. So I cut down the number of frames and the color density to fit within Blogger's 3MB limit, and now the depth doesn't look exactly right. But still, as a first attempt...

Click on the image to enlarge and animate.

Wondering what it's supposed to be?

Click here.

I might post a few more (non-animated) stereograms if I have more homework to procrastinate on later.


In the comments, Stereo DDD links to a couple of animated stereograms that outclass mine like Cary Grant outclasses Pauly Shore.

3-D staircase
3-D descent
3-D pink

The "descent" stereogram in particular is really a stunning work of art. Check out this guy's whole gallery.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Physics Classes

I'm finally taking my last two classes this quarter. After that, I will probably never take another, at least not for credit. I can barely imagine never having to do homework again; I've been a student for so long, my whole life. I observed a while ago that I didn't feel ready to be done, didn't feel like I knew as much as I expected to, with only two classes left. A certain older, wiser graduate student with the initial "K" reminded me that I was supposed to be learning something from the research, too.

Surprisingly enough, I seem to have become a little less cynical since I wrote that last post. Just because you can't learn everything in grad school doesn't mean you learn nothing. And I have gotten a lot from independent study and bull-sessions with my co-workers (especially the one I married. I think we figured out what it meant to quantize the electromagnetic field while driving across France on our honeymoon. This was not as quite romantic as it sounds -- we nearly always get frustrated with each other when we talk about physics. But then, we nearly always understand things better afterward.)

Anyway, my last two classes are relativity, which I have been waiting to take, and the second quarter of quantum field theory. I think people might be kind of interested in what classes like that are like. The topics sound so... Deep. Don't they? Is it a profound experience, learning this stuff? Am I gaining access to the secrets of the universe?

Well... No. Physics classes aren't really like that. I mean, take Newton's laws, right? Everyone learned at least a little about Newton's laws at some point, and learned about gravity. Now, if you take a step back, Newton's ideas really are profound. They're universal. With them we can comprehend the motion of the planets, or how far a flea can jump. The same pattern underlies both. They allow us to build devices so powerful they might as well be magic, and, in the limited sense, even to predict the future.

But when you were sitting in your high school physics class, did it feel like a mystical experience?

Everybody who finds out what I do for a living tells me they hated physics in high school, and guess what? So did I. There's so much notation to learn, so many simplistic and unlikely problems to solve. I felt as mindless as a programable calculator, memorizing equations and plugging in numbers and getting out other numbers. It was dry and difficult and mechanical. Worst of all, the more basic questions that I was actually interested in, such as "Why are these equations true? Where do they come from?" were actively discouraged. Newton didn't know why his equations were true. He was just guessing. He figured he saw a pattern underlying a lot of the dynamics of the natural world, and he tried to describe it. It turned out to be a good description. That is all.

Nowadays we have even more sophisticated descriptions, and we can show that if those equations are true, then Newton's follow. So in that sense, we can explain his equations. But then, we can't explain the newer ones. Why do things obey Schroedinger's equation? We don't know. It's just how they seem to behave. Don't ask. Shut up and calculate.

This pragmatic approach continues to the very highest levels of physics education. You can think about "why?" on your own time. In class, we will address questions we can actually answer. Such as "what is the probability that an electron on a collision course with another electron will fly off at a 45 degree angle?"

Just so you know, when you hear physicists pontificating about different interpretations, "many worlds" theories and so on, those are just their own opinions. You don't learn interpretations in class. They aren't speaking for scientists in general.

I'm guilty of it myself. When I write or talk about science, I try to make it sound more interesting by injecting my own private sense of wonder, my own interpretations and opinions. Like I did up there with Newton's laws. But the day-to-day practice and study of science, in the lab and in class, is much more boring.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Colorado Trip

I'm late posting because I've been in Colorado, visiting parents and siblings.

As you may have heard, they've had a little snow there, recently.

You can click on the picture for a bigger image. That's not my parents' car, just a random one parked in my old neighborhood, which we visited on a little nostalgia trip. Actually, both my parents have SUVs, of which I've been disapproving, but I have to say they came in handy this year. The city doesn't plow the residential streets (instead they rely on the 300+ days of sunshine Colorado gets to melt the snow for them within a few days.) So the four wheel drives are the only reason anyone was able to make it out of the cul-de-sac they live on for a little while. The neighbors all shared a couple of snowblowers to clear each other's driveways and get rid of the larger drifts, and then drove in each other's tracks to flatten down the snow on the street.

That's what it looked like by Saturday, which was almost a week after the big storm and the cleanup. Of course, during that week, another eight inches or so fell...

As the van picture indicates, our old neighborhood got a bit more, even. Here's the house we lived in during the eighties, from a couple of different angles.

Driving back there took us a little closer to the mountains, so my parents took me into the foothills a little ways for lunch at a restaurant that they remember from when we lived in that old house. And I can't resist including a few pictures of that, because they show the biggest icicles I've ever seen

To get a sense of scale, compare to the doorway.

As for gifts...

From my husband I got a really fancy portable DVD player and earphones (which I used on the plane and in the airport, both ways) and a shoulder massager, and a Bears T-shirt which I am currently wearing, and a movie, "The Ref," which was hilarious and has nothing to do with sports and was perfect to watch on Christmas Eve, and a video game, "Nancy Drew: Danger by Design." Because I said there should be more video games where you have to solve mysteries.

From my parents, Ken and I got an electric toothbrush (which I asked for, and love) and a down comforter, and I got a new winter coat (black with cool random metal bits, and very warm), a couple of pairs of jeans and tops during a mother daughter mall trip, and holes in my ears. Yes, my mom paid for me to get my ears pierced. I must be one of the only women in the world to pick out her first earrings to match her wedding ring. Also, they're paying for the plane ticket for the visit, which is a huge gift in itself.

From my brother, the Xbox 360 remote, because the Xbox 360 is now the source of all our entertainment. From my sister, a poster sized Lord of the Rings Calendar and a Harry Potter bookmark, because she knows I'm a sucker for LotR and Harry Potter. And from my Grandpa, as usual, a pad of one dollar bills. You tear them off one at a time and the look of consternation on the store clerks' faces is worth way more than a dollar.

All in all I made out like a bandit, and I hope you did too. Happy New Year.