Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department


Posted by Arjendu on September 25, 2013

I have been reading about energy — both fossil fuel and non-fossil-fuel — for the last few weeks. It’s part of an attempt to understand something new during my sabbatical and re-tool for my return the physics department and to the classroom.

As I read, I plan to post comments on books and articles that I’ve read. I will start with those that are not very technical.

The first is ‘Powering the future’ by Robert Laughlin. This book takes the perspective of looking at how the world will use energy in about 200 years or so. Taking this long view allows Laughlin to not get too deep into analyzing the technology race between different non-fossil-fuels. It allows him to cut to the bone of the physics behind sources of energy, and do ‘back-of-the-envelope’ sort of calculations to predict how it will work out in the long-term future. His analysis is extremely compressed (the actual text is 122 pages, though there are a further 90+ pages of endnotes including citations and calculations) and the brilliance of his thinking shows. (He *is* a Nobel Prize winner in Physics after all, though about something far from the topic of this book — on the Quantum Hall Effect). He is also a provocative and entertaining writer (there is a remarkable section on robots and how they will tend compressed-air energy storage on the bottom of the ocean, for example). I enjoyed the book tremendously and it clarified the intellectual landscape for me (albeit as a physicist) in a way that previous books had not managed. I would recommend this book strongly to anyone looking for a broad sweep understanding, though I do believe you’d probably benefit a lot more from it if you have a technical background.



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Because this is too brilliant not to be shared as widely as possible

Posted by Arjendu on September 19, 2013

Here’s Tim Blais of McGill with a superb video ‘explaining’ String Theory.

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Rush Holt

Posted by Arjendu on August 7, 2013

A Carleton alum, a physicist, a former liberal arts college professor, the man who beat Deep Thought at Jeopardy … who wants to put more science in the Senate. What’s there not to like ?

The Chronicle of HIgher Education has an article on Rush Holt’s campaign for the special election to the NJ Senate:

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Letter writing

Posted by Melissa on August 6, 2013

Summertime and the research labs are humming, but in addition I find myself doing a fair amount of letter writing – writing letters of support for senior physicists being considered for career awards, writing letters evaluating portfolios of junior faculty up for promotion and tenure, writing letters for students applying for fellowships. And because it’s not December or January, when I am slogging through writing mounds of letters for graduate school and summer research programs, I’ve been a bit more reflective about the task.

While I resent letter writing eating up time in the middle of an academic term, during the summer I find I actually enjoy the task. It’s an interesting opportunity to reflect on how academia measures success. Academia seems to reward the accumulation of individual accomplishments. In writing many of these letters, indeed the goal is to aid in evaluating how worthy an individual is of a particular award or achievement. But in the letter writing process, I find myself feeling acutely aware of the heartfelt professional commitments to our intellectual communities that many of us make. Ultimately, the academic career is relational – how we  relate our ideas to those of others in the field, how we relate our talents and interests to community needs on either a big or small scale, how we relate as mentors or mentees, as teachers or students. As I write letters for individuals along the career spectrum I find myself filled with gratitude that amazing people choose to share their talents with the physics community every day in such a multitude of ways.

Taking the time to write letters, many of which will never be read by the people who I am writing about, serves as a chance to provide the praise or gratitude that I don’t fully express in real life, and knowing that others have written these letters for me at various points in my career makes me immensely appreciative of the community that has helped me get where I am.

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The Quantum Indians

Posted by Arjendu on August 6, 2013

The Quantum Indians

“t the turn of the 20th century, the world was witnessing a renaissance in the area of quantum physics through the work of great scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford or Neils Bohr. Unknown to the world, three Indian scientists were also making significant contributions to the quantum world with revolutionary deductions, interpretations and theories.

Dr. Satyendra Nath Bose devised a statistical theory of counting photons – a revelation even to Albert Einstein — that paved the way for the two great minds to work in tandem in formulating fundamental theories as the Bose-Einstein Statistics and Bose-Einstein Condensate. Boson, the class of particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, was named after Dr. S. N. Bose. Sir C. V. Raman gave the world what is known as the Raman effect, which redefined how we see light and colour. Another contemporary, Dr. Meghnad Saha produced an equation that explained stellar radiation and is regarded as one of the fathers of modern astrophysics. All the three scientists started their careers at the Calcutta University, became Fellows of the Royal Society, and Raman was the first and only Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. 

The film is a tribute to the three exemplary minds, the significance of whose contributions was of vital importance during that time, and even today with great strides being made in quantum physics, fibre optics, nuclear science or astrophysics. They were not only great scientists, but were rooted to the social and political realities of the time and dedicated their lives to modern science in India. Along with being institutions by themselves, they built stellar institutions in the country that inspired many great scientists of the following generations.”

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Posted by Arjendu on July 23, 2013

I was lucky enough this weekend to visit the Clementium complex of Jesuit buildings in Prague  (a 2.5 hour train ride from Dresden), and in particular to climb up the observatory tower where Johannes Kepler worked in the early 1600s. Kepler was invited to Prague by Tycho Brahe (who was court Mathematican in the court of Rudolph II) and after Brahe’s death, Kepler used Brahe’s astronomical observation data to figure out Kepler’s Laws.

Kepler’s Laws, in case you didn’t know, were a huge step in the intellectual transformation of the world in multiple ways among which are that: (a) their existence meant the Earth and humans did not occupy the center of the Universe, (b) they indicated that all planetary motion could be understood by three simply expressible mathematical and geometric ideas and (c) when shown by Newton to be derivable from his Universal Law of Gravitation later in the 16th century completed the leap to modern thinking about physical nature as something that can be understood as explainable by models including forces and math.

A few hours later, right off the Old Town Square, and a few hundred yards from where we were staying, I found Tycho Brahe’s grave  in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. The whole place is gorgeous, and was a deeply meaningful day for me.

The first photograph below shows the view from the Klementium (Czech spelling) observatory where Kepler worked; you can see the castle where Brahe presumably spent some time. The second shows the Church of Our Lady before Tyn.


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Posted by Arjendu on July 15, 2013

Those who are not otherwise connected to me through Facebook or by being on campus will not have registered this, but the big event in my life in the last few weeks has been that I’ve stepped down from the Dean’s office (it was a three-year rotation, and the three years were up). And it being long enough since I last went on sabbatical, I have the entire year in which to get some physics done before returning to teach in the Physics Department. And perhaps also to start writing again on this blog.

This first post is me getting used to blogging again, so apologies in advance for the stiffness and or irrelevance of the content.

I am spending the first month or so of that sabbatical at the MPIPKS (Max Plank Institut fur Physik Komplexer Systeme; a name I am sure you can decipher even without clicking on that link to get to the English-language index page) in Dresden, Germany, courtesy of their Visitor’s Program, and even more specifically courtesy of my gracious host Jan-Michael Rost. I visited here during my last sabbatical as well, when I met and had good conversations with Andre Carvalho (who was then a post-doc here and is now across the world in Canberra, and where I had the privilege of visiting him about 2.5 years ago). I also started a collaboration with JM’s post-doc Anatole Kenfack  (who seems to have since landed in Berlin) which resulted in two papers, one each on classical and quantum ratchets.

This time the visit is more of a writing residency (I am not really venturing out there to talk to people) to finish up the project on Lyapunov exponents and the quantum-classical transition which I spoke about at SQuInT 2013. I’ve been nursing this project along for a couple of years, and every time I think I have it understood and ready to write and submit, I find a new wrinkle. In the Dean’s office, a roadblock could slow me down by months before I could address it. I’m hoping that sabbatical time will allow me to wrap it up quickly.

I am also using this visit as a reading residency — catching up on articles stored in my ‘to read’ folder, planning the arc of my research for the next few months/years and in general resetting my brain to think like a physicist again.

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Ashoka University

Posted by Arjendu on April 3, 2013

I — and Carleton College — have gotten involved in an exciting new venture to help create a liberal arts college (university) in India, named ‘Ashoka University’ and slated to open in the Fall of 2014. I was in Delhi recently, working with the remarkable team racing to make this happen. We got some press coverage; here’s the link. I get quoted saying all sorts of things — and for a change, I don’t think I was misquoted.


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Posted by Arjendu on March 11, 2013

On July 1 I will leave the Dean’s office at Carleton College and ‘revert’ to being a faculty member, at the end of my 3-year rotation as Associate Dean of the College.

It’s a (somewhat) unusual thing we do at Carleton: Our Department chair rotate regularly, and our Associate Deans as well. Since the Dean’s office interacts pretty heavily with people across other divisions at Carleton (Dean of Students, Vice President and Treasurer, etc) the regular change of management tends to catch people off guard and puzzle them. Likewise at institutions across the country with whom we interact, I believe.

Here’s a quick observation about what this rotation means to me (perhaps I’ll blog more about this wearing my faculty hat later):

Yes, it’s true that it can be weird to change jobs, and weird for everyone else when a whole new person with a whole new decision-making style and perspective shows up every three years (not that long, if you think about it, on the scale of an institution that changes rather more slowly otherwise). It also means that I spent an enormous amount of time on a very steep learning curve and neither the College nor I seem to be taking advantage of all the experience I’ve gained.

I could explain at length why and how that I have no regrets about taking this on at all — I enjoyed it — and am equally without regret at returning to being a physicist full-time. But for the moment, let it suffice for me to note that there is no moral hazard in such a situation. That is, every decision I (or my colleagues with the other portfolios here) make in the managing of faculty or curriculum is something I have to live with when I return to the faculty ranks. There is no forgetting what it was like, and what it will be like, to be in the trenches, and there is no ‘pulling up the drawbridge after me’ attitude that might result if I started thinking of faculty as ‘them’. Personally, I wish management in other divisions and other industries worked the same way: Coming from and returning to the ranks.

And if I’d been told I was going to be away for more than 3 years from doing Physics, I wouldn’t have contemplated taking it on, as irreversible a leap into the unknown as it would have been. No Peter Principle applying here, in short.

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Posted by Arjendu on March 1, 2013


The brownish building on the left is Kohn Hall, which hosts the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This week, I’ve been spending hours in a darkened room in there, trying my best to keep up with the talks at the workshop on ‘Quantum Control on Complex Landscapes’ going on there. I have also been trying to keep up with my ‘other/real’ job of Associate Dean, staying up late or waking up obnoxiously early in my hotel room. Lunch has been spent with other workshoppers, including my post-doc adviser and one former undergraduate student, clarifying something we’ve been hearing about, arguing about quantum mechanics in general, or just catching up with each other. Every once in a while I get 1/2 hour for a short walk.

I’ve been to KITP a handful of times before, and was a KITP scholar early in my time at Carleton; it’s also where I helped hatch the Anacapa Society. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to do physics. And not just because it’s in a gorgeous location: I love the feel and flavor of how it’s set up, encouraging conversations, collaborations, community.

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