Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘physics’

Men in Trunks

In Life, Science on February 8, 2013 at 6:00 am


I’ve been traveling and missed a few days at the pool. I’m a swimmer. Upon returning, a friend mentioned that he hadn’t seen me and that it was good I was back “fighting the battle.” I asked if he was familiar with the second law of thermodynamics? Mind you, this dialogue is occurring between two men standing naked, but for their Speedos. I described to him the theory of entropy, which states that the universe moves toward chaos and disarray. I explained that if he’d ever had teenagers in the house or was married to a slob he would know what I meant. Test the theory at home. Don’t clean the kitchen for a week and you’ll see what I mean. Teenagers are too often walking examples of entropy. They are, to use a term of physics, isolated systems spontaneously evolving towards the state of maximum entropy.

It seems the battle he was referring to was the battle against entropy, that in fact the universe is aways moving in a direction contrary to our wishes. Eventually everything will fall into a state of entropy, including, yes, ourselves. Physically and mentally we are going to hell and there is nothing to be done but to pull on your Speedo and wage war. Sometimes locker-room talk might surprise you.


If, for some reason, you want to think more about entropy:


And if you want to pursue the subject down the rabbit hole, I suggest James Gleick’s Chaos. (You might recall I suggested reading Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman in a previous post.) Chaos is not properly about entropy but a background to64582 the development of chaos theory. The two concepts are intertwined. And for what it’s worth, Gleick is one of our best science writers. Any excuse to read him is rewarding.

Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend.


Babylonian or Greek–Which?

In Creativity, Curiosity, Philosophy, Technology, The infinity of ideas on June 7, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Richard Feynman

I’m re-reading Feynman’s Rainbow, a Search for Beauty in Physics and Life, by Leonard Mlodinow.  A freshly minted PhD in physics, Mlodinow came to Caltech on a postdoctoral fellowship in the 1980s. There he met Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman. The book is his look back at the conversations and ideas shared with Feynman. Feynman shaped the landscape of modern physics, but his mind reached far beyond his discipline. His insights into all aspects of human experience make for wonderful reading. He died of cancer–a disease he was battling when Mlodinow was at Caltech–in 1988. (I would suggest James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman if you want to dig deeper.)  Mlodinow’s rendering of  this vastly creative and productive personality is fascinating. In particular, I found this overview, quoted below, insightful.

Feynman used to say there were two kinds of physicists, the Babylonians and the Greeks. He was referring to the opposing philosophies of those ancient civilizations.The Babylonians made western civilization’s first great strides in understanding numbers and equations, and in geometry. Yet it was the later Greeks…whom we credit with inventing mathematics. This is because Babylonians cared only whether or not a method of calculation worked…not whether it was exact, or fit into any greater logical system….To put it simply, the Babylonians focused on the phenomena, the Greeks on the underlying order.

Feynman was, writes Mlodinow, a Babylonian. Greek thinkers, he says, bring the “full force of logical machinery” to the discipline. Babylonian’s, on the other hand, employ more instinct and intuition. All this can likely be reduced to the trite right brain left brain summary. But we know the brain fires neural impulses across both hemispheres. Nothing is truly simple in reduction. Or, to put it in (very) broad philosophical terms, the Babylonians were empiricists, the Greeks rationalists. (I offer this carefully, understanding that Feynman had no patience for philosophy.)

I am drawn to metaphor, so my curiosity was piqued at the notion that this concept might be applied to a larger context, to a society or time, Babylonian verses Greek culture. Logic verses intuition. I wonder, to continue running with the generalities, where we, us moderns, might find our place on this scale? Technology is a logical structure. Yet, most technology, consumer technology certainly, is designed to exploit the intuitive desires of the user. My hunch is that rationalism prevails, that the Greeks rule at the end of the day. As they say, numbers talk. That is not bad, nor good. Just an observation. Where the scientist explains the universe, the poet shows us the stars.