Monday, August 25, 2008



The practice must indeed be very old
Of recounting some sequence of events
And adding structure as the tale is told
To try to captivate an audience.
Some storytellers introduced a formal
Religious rite for how their tales unfurled,
But storytelling’s actually the normal
Way we have to comprehend the world.
Our lives are really torrents of sensation
That we can partly grasp in retrospect
By limiting what stays in our narration
To those things with a cause or an effect.
No more real than the books that line our shelves,
Reality’s a tale we tell ourselves.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Hard work has one limitation:
There's a need for some vacation.
So I vacated (so to speak.)
I'll be back with more next week.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Fire remains one of the most powerful and compelling phenomena in our experience. We continue to be fascinated by it, and go to considerable lengths to have fireplaces, campfires, candles, and other forms of combustion available. We also think of fire as a metaphor for passion ("burning desire"), anger ("burning with rage"), ailment ("inflammation"), hell ("inferno"), destruction ("incineration") and, on the flip side, life itself ("the spark of life").

Fire is incredibly useful, not only for cooking and heating, but for cleaning, manufacturing, propulsion, and pretty much anything else associated with energy technology. Fire is also, obviously, capable of great destruction.

Fire was one of the classical elements, along with earth, water and air.

Obviously, fire has had tremendous impact on our daily lives and on our imaginations. I could write volumes more about it. However, if I don't get back to work, I'll get fired!

Monday, August 11, 2008



The heat and light that did inspire
Those early folks to capture fire
Could serve a wide range of intents,
Like light and warmth and self-defense.

And by the way, we found that heat
Is great for cooking stuff to eat.
But then we learned some other tricks
Like hardening sharpened points of sticks,

Or making things to use each day
By baking stuff made out of clay.
Some rocks that we could melt and cool
Became the world’s first metal tool.

Combustion engines, even glass
Were things that fire helped bring to pass.
All of these uses fire can boast,
But give me marshmallows to toast.

Friday, August 8, 2008


It's difficult to think of the word "genius" without thinking of Einstein. His name and face have become practically the archetype of genius ... wild in appearance, eccentric, and too brilliant to be understood by most people. The real Einstein was quite different from the cartoon version that we think of today, but why spoil a good myth?

Like Isaac Newton, Einstein had an annus mirabilis, a "miracle year." In 1905, Einstein published five papers that changed pretty much our entire conception of reality. If he had done nothing else in his lifetime (though he certainly did), those five papers alone would have established him as one of the greatest and most important thinkers in history. These are described in detail in Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness, by John S. Rigden, but briefly, they are:

  1. a paper demonstrating that light acts both as waves of pure energy, and as particles. The photo-electric effect, the basis of solar cells, relies on this particle aspect of light.
  2. an explanation of how to determine the size of molecules.
  3. a demonstration that Brownian motion, the motion of, for example, yeast floating in water, is caused by collisions with molecules.
  4. the theory of special relativity, showing that time and space are not fixed absolutes.
  5. the theory that matter can be converted to energy via the formula E=mc2.
These are described in more detail in Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics, by Roger Penrose and John Stachel.

Einstein spent much of his later life trying to find a theory that would unite all the forces in the universe, the so called unified field theory. He was not ultimately successful in this, though many think the current string theory holds the promise of fulfilling Einstein's expectations.

Monday, August 4, 2008


(Sung to the tune of When I Was a Lad from Gilbert's and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore.)
When I was a lad I needed work
And took a position as a patent clerk.
I took great pleasure in this position,
And I carefully reviewed each promising submission.
He carefully reviewed each promising submission.
I read each submission so carefully
And later I discovered relativity.
He read each submission so carefully
And later he discovered relativity.

Of patent work I soon grew tired
Though at least I had read enough to be inspired.
This inspiration lead me to teach
To see if there were others my ideas could reach.
To see if there were others his ideas could reach.
I tried to find a university
Where I could keep up work on relativity.
He tried to find a university
Where he could keep up work on relativity.
My first nineteen-five article
Showed light acts both as wave and particle.
Next month I finally finished school
By showing how to measure any molecule.
He showed us how to measure any molecule.
These papers got me notoriety
But nothing to my work on relativity.
These papers got him notoriety
But nothing to his work on relativity.
Now time and space won’t be the same
If we don’t move in one inertial frame.
But this ignores the speed of light
I redefined both time and space to make it right.
He redefined both time and space to make it right.
This was a big event for me.
This theory would be known as relativity.
“This was a big event,” said he,
This theory that is known as relativity.
In May I proved a widespread notion
That atoms are the cause of Brownian motion.
By late that year I was prepared
To prove that energy’s equal to mc squared.
He showed that energy’s equal to mc squared.
Since then my life has been so dreary
As I have failed to find a unified field theory.
Since then his life has been so dreary
As he has failed to find a unified field theory
So physicists, wherever you may be
If you want a thesis for your Ph. D.
If fame and fortune you prefer
And not just for your style and wild coiffeur
You won’t be known just for your style and wild coiffeur.
Just break new ground, like relativity
And you can be a physicist celebrity.
Just break new ground, like relativity
And you can be a physicist celebrity

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rhythmic Variation

In Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes how poems establish a pattern so the reader or listener can anticipate how the structure will continue. Imagine driving past a picket fence, and seeing the recurring pattern of one picket after another, evenly spaced. When the poem does something unexpected, like a break in that picket fence, it creates a sense of tension that gets relieved when the pattern is restored.

Music does this with tone as well as with rhythm, but it's a similar idea. A key or pattern is established, then set aside, and later restored. The relief of returning to the original structure helps create a sense of finality or ending.

At a finer level, this is done many times throughout some poems and musical works. The pattern itself may contain some variations in rhythm. Just think of that Bacardi Mojito ad that's all over TV these days. A simple, steady metronome beat would not be as effective in promoting alcohol consumption. (Well, maybe those models dancing have something to do with it, but if you close your eyes, it's still pretty catchy.)