getting to grips with nearly everything

Posted: 2004-12-13

I’ve recently finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and I must say I was very impressed. I’ve read quite a few pop science books, and it’s probably the best one I’ve seen. The early parts were related to physics, and I found this quite satisfying as the things I know something about were covered well - the analogies never jarred and the explanations always rang true. Generally it was eloquently simplified, always managing to retain the essence of the science… Which helped me to trust the altogether more interesting remainder of the book. Once he left the physics behind, moving far beyond my field of expertise, the science became more fascinating and the lucidity all the more appreciated. Apart from anything else, it was reassuring to find that physics is not the only science for which a large number of fairly basic questions remain unanswered, or have answers which are less than satisfying. I took to turning over the corner of the page when I found something that was clearly very interesting (and usually fairly obvious) but which had no convincing explanation at present. Having made it to the notes and references, the book is now noticably thicker towards the top corner.

I was given two very important pieces of advice before beginning my Ph.D.. The first of these was “Don’t do it for the money!”, meaning you should never do a Ph.D. because you’ll get a higher-paid job at the end of it. Yes, having a Ph.D. means you are generally hired at a higher level of pay than someone with only a first degree. But that fresh graduate will be earning much more than you, and have much more experience, and will not have been living on next-to-no-cash for however many years by the time you finish the Ph.D. and are looking the job that that graduate recruit already has. You should only to a Ph.D. for the love of the subject, or perhaps if the job you want absolutely requires a Ph.D..

The second piece of advice I was given before applying for a Ph.D. was “The main thing you’ll learn is how little you know.”. This is very true and has been a heartily bitter pill to swallow for quite a number of the folks I’ve met over the years. The classic case would be the long time high-achiever; they got top grades at school, a first-class degree from a top university, and are used to getting the best marks. In some cases, their own self-esteem gets heavily caught up in their academic ability and they can be rather competitive about it. And then they go to some top-notch department to do a Ph.D….

…and are faced with trying to ‘compete’ with some of the brightest people in the world. Suddenly, you’re no longer top of the class - just another Ph.D. grunt who doesn’t understand a bloody word of those group seminars. Worse still, you find out that the vast majority of the stuff you were taught during your first degree was at best oversimplified and often just plain wrong. Most degrees cannot hope to bring the students the edge of that subject’s accumilated knowledge in the time it takes to do a first degree. Instead, you find out it that all the stuff you spent so long trying to understand or memorise was just a vaguely coherent set of lies, just so that you might be able to understand the next level down.

Some people get very disheartened by this. This is entirely understandable, but one should take care not to judge oneself too harshly. In particular, it’s easy to focus on the older members of staff and think that there’s no way they could ever measure up to them. This is usually unfair, in that the only major difference between the two is the years of experience that seperate them. This usually become sclear during the Ph.D. as, if all goes well, one finds that by the end of it you can talk to your supervisor and indeed your examiners about the subject on equal terms.

A more dangerous pitfall it compare yourself against the magicians - the really clever ones. I use the term magician as this term was used to describe Richard Feynman, who for a long time was basically the person I wanted to become:

:There are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre. :Mark Kac (in Phyics Today)

I’ve met a few people who I would class as magicians, usually by their ability to make massive predictive leaps as if by some infallable instinct that I cannot even begin to wonder how I might attempt to emulate. To judge yourself harshly against such an individual is foolish, but it can be hard to discover that there are individuals you can never expect to compete with. Of course, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of academics are not like that, and indeed that there is a degree of subjectivity about the whole thing. Different people think in different ways, and just because the way one bright spark works looks like magic to you, it does not imply that the way you work will not look magical to others.

I will now attempt to drag this whole digression back to the point I was originally trying to make. Bear with me. We’ll get there.

To these two pieces of pre-Ph.D. advice I would add one more, one that has in some slightly twisted sense furnished me a degree of hope despite the blinding brilliance of my peers. Not only will you learn how little you know, but also that surprisingly little is known. As you talk and visit and read, and the breadth and complexity of your field makes itself known to you, try not to get downcast as by necessity you chip away at the narrow coal-seam of your research. Step back a little and look at the sheer beauty and complexity of the whole, and instead of wishing you could understand it all, realise that no-one ever has or ever will, and that even the simplest things can be full of challenges and mysteries. For me, physics looks almost like a fractal. Vast areas of behaviour, indeed almost everything, seems to be generally understood in principle. But look closer and around the edges, at the boundary where researchers flex the known into the unknown, or in that gap between a theory that seems to work and what we call objective reality, and (perhaps most of all) in the difference between the fundemental laws and anything big enough to actually be experienced, there is a vast number of things we have not even begun to understand. The unknown area may be just a small fraction of the way things work, but along the edge of that area the level of detail is effectively infinite.

Now, thanks to Bill I find out that it’s not only, say, quantum mechanics or cosmology where we busily try to ignore the fact that various bits of it seem to be held together by wet string and wishful thinking. I found it oddly reassuring to learn that we only have the faintest inkling of what happens beneath the Earth’s crust, that we don’t really understand how alcohol makes us drunk, that the vast majority of our oceans remains unexplored, that we have no idea how a herd of Blue Whales can suddenly strike up a new song that no member has heard before but that each member already knows, that of all our species’ recent ancestors it is our own lineage we understand the least… etc etc etc…

Apart from that, I’ve also been doing a bit of random research myself. Quantum mechnics has long annoyed me, and I found a good paper covering the current state of the field: Decoherence, the Measurement Problem, and Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. I have some theories I would like to work on, but am aware that I might end up sounding like one of the significant number of crackpots on the forums. So, I’ll not be explaining my theories any time soon…

On a rather different note, I’ve also been thinking about applying the tools of physics to social/memetic evolution, during which I found this introduction Simulation for the Social Scientist, and this site containing various essays of variable quality, but largely of a mildy worrying nature.

On an entirely different point again, this page on Cockney rhyming slang taught me that the reason why folks sometimes call folks ‘treacle’ is because it’s short for Treacle Tart, meaning sweetheart. Did everyone else know that already?

Finally, some computer geekery. I’ve started piping all my mail through my GMail account, which then forwards it to my own server. This means that all the email I recieve will now have a backup copy on GMail. Also, their spam filtering is better than mine.

The last thing, I promise, is that one of my sites, Nutshells (dedicated to the RISC OS computing platform) has been nominated for a Drobe Best Of 2004 Award in the Best general contribution to the platform category. I wrote up my reaction here. In short, I’m flattered but probably undeserving. :)

Blimey, have you really read this far? I would have given up ages ago.



Posted: 2004-12-13 | anj


Fighting entropy since 1993

© Dr Andrew N. Jackson — CC-BY