Getting Started

Connecting the Dots

I stated in my first post that I wanted to focus on learning, but that I was interested in and curious about many things.  In this post, I want to explore some of those many things and how they relate to the focus.

More than 40 years ago, I completed a PhD in solid state physics.  My motivation was pretty basic.  When I completed a BS with a major in physics and minors in math and philosophy, Uncle Sam presented me with two options: go to Vietnam toting a rifle as a grunt, or go to graduate school as a NASA trainee in physics with full tuition and a living stipend.  That was an easy decision.  Sputnik was put into orbit when I was in eighth grade, and we spent the sixties as a country playing catch up.  Support for technical graduate degrees was relatively straightforward to secure.

So I spent time learning and “doing” quantum mechanics.  That topic has surfaced recently around the potential for quantum computers which in concept can solve problems which our current classical von Neuman computers cannot, and with it discussions even in the popular press around some of the weird characteristics like the wave particle duality and entanglement.  And if that doesn’t mean anything, I’ll try to clarify later, but for now my observation is that when I was a graduate student what we learned was the mechanics, how to do the math we needed to design materials for transistors and integrated circuits.  We never addressed the philosophical questions of what does the math tell us about physical reality.  So some of the current discussion about quantum effects weirds me out too!  Some of my friends in graduate school went into high energy physics, and string theory was just coming on the scene then.  Again, they got excited about the elegant, esoteric math and never really addressed what did it mean to suggest that the most basic building blocks of the universe were infinitesimal strings in eleven dimensions, or whatever the dominant theory is today.  And astronomy has made even greater advances with the introduction of solid state (computer driven) instrumentation.  The department in which I earned my degree was a department of Physics and Astronomy, although we had only one astronomer and he was very low key.  What we have learned since then I find absolutely fascinating and philosophically challenging.  I read recently the comments of an astronomy professor, probably my age, who is retiring from a well regarded program.  He lamented that today’s newly minted PhDs never look at the heavens; they just analyze data on computers.   So I want to explore quantum mechanics, string theory, and astronomy both to learn the current state of the art, but also to characterize philosophically what we are learning.

Several years into my career, computers became relatively boring because once I figured out the algorithms, the execution was routine.  People, on the other hand, could pretty much be counted on to throw me a curve just when I thought I had them figured out.  Well okay, computers were often unpredictable, but after the fact I could repair the glitches and rationalize why they occurred.  Sometimes colleagues’, customers’, or managers’ behaviors left me wondering what the hell had happened, why I didn’t see that coming, or whether I had learned anything to prevent further occurrences.  And that is when I got intrigued by the fact that we are conscious beings with awareness and volition.  Some argue that given those are subjective states, they aren’t even amenable to scientific (objective) study.  That seems today to have bloomed into neuroscience which conducts experiments which tell us that some of what we thought about homo sapiens is just pure fantasy.  Another area just begging me to dive into.

And related to homo sapiens is homo economicus, which behavioral economics has determined to also be something of a myth.  One can’t manage in a technology business or teach in a business school without being steeped in the consequences of economic theory, and while I have not had a formal economics course, I am again intrigued since one’s choices here determine standard of living, workplace ethics, and many other vital mindsets.  So put commerce, capitalism, and behavioral economics on the list of topics to address.

And then there are the less serious subjects like cycling.  In grad school, I still played softball; when I turned 40, I started running somewhat seriously, and then when I moved to high altitude and my knees were hurting too bad, I switched to the bicycle and skiing.  Swimming was in the mix off and on over the years as well.   And I learned a good deal from these activities about diet and exercise and their relation to health and mental outlook.  And those are learnings worth examining as well.  As are the outcomes from reading, playing and writing music.

My last job was in an information and analytics department where we created models of business systems and explored them mathematically.  I learned that I am what is labeled a scientific instrumentalist, as opposed to realist, because I don’t think I have to believe in the models to derive useful results.  As an undergraduate physics major, I did a thesis project which amounted to doing the scut work for a grad student in preparing crystal samples for him to do resonance studies on.  One day in a discussion, our advisor, a freshly minted PhD in his first year on the physics faculty, said something controversial about electrons.  I responded that I didn’t believe in electrons.  Emboldened by a philosophy of science course I was taking at the time, I said that the whole atomic model was just that, a model.  It postulated that matter was predominantly empty space with particles too small to be seen whizzing around setting up forces which created the illusion of solid matter.  I thought that was a very useful model to describe and manipulate the material, but that reality was that desktop was not empty space but hard matter.  The advisor just sadly shook his head and said something like you better get out of physics while you still can.  In retrospect he was right, and I was not smart enough to see it.  What have I learned since about matter and my philosophy of matter?

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