Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Conservation of energy

I have a sudden burst of energy. Usually this is the first sign that I'm about to come down with a bug, but I'm going to ignore that for now and go with the flow. NormallyI would go to the gym, have a big session and completely wear myself out. Luckily the swimming pool I've been going to here is closed now so I'm going to try and use this burst of energy to be productive and get some of the things which I've put off for a while out of the way.

The burst of energy is partly a sudden realisation of the number of things I want to get done in a finite amount of time. The number of places I still want to see in Kyoto in the week I have left. The number of papers I want to read, books I want to finish, calculations I want to do and on, and on, ad infinitum. In fact I'm too tired now for much of the above to be accomplished succesfully, so I shall try and write up some of the less taxing things I wanted to put on the blog.

In fact, I'm sitting on the bus on the commute back to my hotel as I'm now staying the other side of the city. Everyone is giving me strange looks, as I type away, but I'm in the mood that a half our sitting, doing nothing is a wasted half hour. Usually I would be listening to my Chinese practice lessons getting similar strange looks as I mumble the conversations back to myself, but now's not the right moment. (I'm now around 40 lessons through the Pimsleur course and my opinions haven't changed that it's the best resource for beginner's Chinese that I've yet come across - two lessons a day will give you some very basic, but usable Chinese in a month. Without a teacher this is as good as you're likely to get.)

So, four weeks into Japan and the status report is that my work is going OK. I've spent a fun, but tiring couple of weeks working in an operational mode which is very enjoyable. As a theoretical physicist, I often spend a lot of time getting the mathematics of my calculations right. The physical interpretation often fits in at the beginning and end of a calculation (in my experience).

That is, you think of an idea, you work out how to do it, you then spend a long time doing the calculation and getting it to the stage that you believe it to be the 'correct' answer to your original question. The last stage is then working out why you got the result you ended up with. The first and last stages are the stages where I get to call myself a physicist. The middle is usually mathematics and computer programming. They're enjoyable and challening, but it's for the buzz of coming up with the idea and the thrill of understanding the answer that I do what I do.

I'm lucky that the work I've been doing for the last few weeks is a good mix of maths and physics. My collaborators and I have simply been working out what the mathematics that we're playing with means, physically and how we can push it in different directions, without making the physical picture meaningless. That's in some senses the idea of theoretical physics. You come up with an idea which is on the edge of what is known, you then play with the idea and see if it keeps you within the realms of possibility or whether the results are simply impossible. That's clearly a great simplification, but it sums up some aspects of it.

In order to work out whether the ideas we're coming up with are meaningful I've had to do lots of reading of papers in areas which I am not familiar. This is good for me but is also challenging, learning the terminology and methods of reasoning in (what in this case is) a far more phenomenological field than that which I am used to.

Another thing that has got me buzzing this evening is reading a post over at cosmic variance on Boltzmann brains, a topic which I know very little about, though it is something that I've been thinking about from a non-technical standpoint, for a long time. Reading this post, and the far more in depth study written previously here, has motivated me to sit and read some of the papers, though there are so many topics that I want to learn about that I fear this one will simply be added to the ever growing pile. Read the above linked posts for an interesting, if cursory discussion of some of the truly deepest questions in physics, including: why does time seem to go the way we perceive it to. Whether or not you've pondered this before, it's a truly massive question and a fine line to tread between metaphysics and real science.

I have my own thoughts on Boltzmann brain's, but I want to ponder my arguments before baring my soul :-)

Pause - OK, I'm back home in my flat. I went to a cafe that I spent all Sunday working peacefully in to see if I could use my laptop there but they didn't have wireless connection. In fact of the 6 or 7 cafes I've spent time working in here in Kyoto, only 2 have had internet connection. Compare that to Beijing where almost every cafe has internet connection and all expectations are suddenly reversed. This is a pity because the gentle hum of a cafe late at night is one of the most conducive places I find for good work. So, I'm back in my apartment, the terrible Japanese television programs are well and truly turned off, msn is off, skype is off, even the BBC news site is off and I will see what I can achieve now.

The things I want to get done are not all related to my work. I've been reading some great novels so, in the next post or two I will try and give some brief reviews. If you're looking for a synopsis of the storyline in a book, you're unlikely to find it in one of my reviews, that's not the way I work.

Talking of books I've just written a large section about my confusion with the Japanese fascination with Manga, and then deleted it. I can't quite state my thoughts on this clearly. I find it strange that this nation is so engrossed by these comics. I know I appear to use Wikipedia as a default but it often happens that I search around on the web and find that Wikipedia does have the most complete information that's accessible on a subject which I'm not familiar with. Again, on the cultural importance of Manga, there's this interesting paragraph in Wikipedia:

"Though roughly equivalent to the American comic book, manga holds more importance in Japanese culture than comics do in American culture. In economic terms, weekly sales of comics in Japan exceed the entire annual output of the American comic industry. Several major manga magazines which contain about a dozen episodes from different authors sell several million copies each per week. Manga is well respected both as an art form and as a form of popular literature, though it has not reached the acceptance level of historically higher art genres such as film or music. However, approval of Hayao Miyazaki's anime and other works of manga are gradually changing the perception of anime and manga, placing them closer to the status of "higher" arts (Top of box office charts of all-time in Japan is Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, 30.4 billion yen). Like its American counterpart, some manga has been criticized for being violent or sexual. For example, a number of film adaptations of manga such as Ichi the Killer or Old Boy were rated Restricted or Mature in the States. However, there have been no official inquiries or laws trying to limit what can be drawn in manga, except for vague decency laws applying to all published materials, stating that "overly indecent materials should not be sold." This freedom has allowed artists to draw manga for every age group and for about every topic."

In the cafe I've been frequenting in the evenings to work, students spend hours sitting flicking through these comics, sometimes in deep concentration, sometimes casually browsing through the pictures. I find it strange that so many people of all ages engross themselves for hours at a time in what, at a cursory glance, seem to be somewhat facile stories. I'm genuinely interested by this cultural phenomenon and if any manga fans can enlighten me I'm happy to listen.

OK, I'll try and sum up a couple of novels in the next post or two.

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