Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

Unnecessary Truncation

September 19, 2013

We should consider every day lost

-Friedrich Nietzsche

You miss 100% of the shots

-Wayne Gretzky

People often say motivation doesn’t last.

-Zig Ziglar

I hated every minute

-Muhammad Ali

We can’t help everyone

-Ronald Reagan

We all have dreams, but…

-Jesse Owens

I don’t know the key to success

-Bill Cosby

I don’t know where I’m going

-Carl Sandburg

Your time is limited

-Steve Jobs

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed

-Mark Twain

… life is not worth living


You can never cross the ocean

-Christopher Columbus

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said

Maya Angelou

Fall seven times

-Japanese proverb

I would rather die

-Vincent Van Gogh

It does not matter


These quotes are culled from top Google hits, meaning many of them are probably false attributions, even in untruncated form.

14 Billion Cupcakes, Or: Why You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life

April 28, 2012

So here’s an alternative two-step method for understanding the universe.

Step 1: Remember: Six thousand years ago, God created the Heavens and the Earth.
Step 2: Repeat as necessary.

Isn’t that a whole lot easier than analyzing electromagnetic background for evidence of some “Big Bang” fourteen billion years ago? Fourteen billion is a pretty big number, and God didn’t create us so we could waste time trying to picture fourteen billion cupcakes. (DON’T TRY THIS!)

One, Two, aaargh!

-Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

You have a stronger mind than Stephen Colbert. If I ask you to picture 14 billion cupcakes, you’ll say, “No problem. Doing it right now.” Little do you realize that the ability to deal with 14 billion cupcakes is the heart of not knowing what to do with life.

So you claim to be picturing 14 billion cupcakes? That’s not what you’re really doing. Instead, you are (perhaps) imagining two cupcakes for every person on Earth. So I ask you to picture every person on Earth. “Okay,” you say, “sure.”

But you’re not. You’re picturing a map of the world, or maybe you see a crowd of faces with different ethnicities. The details vary, but in general your mind constructs a much simpler, more concrete idea that takes the place of “every person on Earth” – you create an icon.

For me, the interesting thing is that I know I can’t picture a billion cupcakes but it still feels as if I can. Our minds can build very high-level abstractions, and we’re so good at it that the process is transparent. That’s where the problem comes in.

What do I want to do with my life?

It takes me only a second to read this question and ten or a hundred seconds to ponder it before my mind wanders. Perhaps I can go a thousand seconds if I’m particularly melancholy or my pet chinchilla just died. But the expanse of time I am considering is a few billion seconds. I cannot imagine them all. The icon I construct for “the rest of my life” inevitably becomes distorted: idealized, homogenized, and definitized beyond reason, and this happens without my conscious recognition.

This isn’t just my personal affliction. The people we overestimate most are our future selves. In 2006, Netflix offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could improve their algorithm for predicting users’ film ratings. Their goal was to make better recommendations for what to watch next. The prize was won in 2009, but it turns out the Netflix didn’t use the improved algorithm.

Over the years the contest ran, Netflix’s business model shifted. In 2006, users were mostly getting new movies by mail, meaning they were placing orders for movies they wanted to watch several days from now. Why, me? I’m a connoisseur! A few days from now, I will be very interested in watching an intellectually- challenging cinematic landmark.

By 2009, Netflix users had shifted most of their watching to streaming over the internet. Suddenly, well, it’s certainly true that I’m a connoisseur, but I didn’t get too much done at work and I feel bad about not calling my mom enough. It’s a bit too late to turn a new leaf today, so I guess I’ll see what Steve Carell is up to in his latest movie, but tomorrow it’s Ingmar Bergman all the way. The difference was so striking that the algorithm based on the 2006 challenge was out of date by 2009.

And this goes on. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes tomorrow, Rush Hour 3 tonight. Vegetables and whole grains tomorrow, pizza and beer tonight. Ulysses tomorrow,Grand Theft Auto tonight. See the world in a grain of sand tomorrow, masturbate to fetish porn and fall asleep with your shoes on tonight.

When I’m thinking about the future, I occasionally write a To-Do list. It will start off with a mix of errands and the important stuff: go to seminar, visit to the bank, read the latest chapter, grade these assignments, get some exercise, check out this paper, etc. But when my list is long enough to fill up the day, I always have a few extra things in mind, so I write those down too. That brings more stuff to mind, and before long my list has items like “learn quantum field theory” and “overthrow the evil empire”. Even though the time scale would be the same, somehow my list never has “buy groceries two thousand times.” My future apparently consists of nothing but pure ideals and great achievements. Every mundane detail is excised, leaving only deep, meaningful stuff. It’s like I expect to start living in an Ayn Rand novel.

So any time I have tried to think about the future, I’ve never been close. Worse, I don’t realize how delusional I am. I can’t see the tricks my mind is playing on me. I become obsessed with the wonderful, abstract existence I’m about to create for myself.

How many times have you thought, “once I find a new job, everything will get better?” And if not that, we fantasize the turning point will be moving to a new place, graduating, falling in love, breaking an addiction, finishing a project, having a successful IPO, etc. Once I get over this hump, it will all get better.

That’s not true. “Happily ever after” isn’t how it works. I don’t mean we can’t be happy. I mean it’s an insufficient description of “ever after”. Our brains can’t hold an entire, rich future in view at once, so we compress it down to something like “let’s grow old together”. That’s a bad icon, but brains basically work like a man stumbling around a dark garage and grabbing things off the shelf at random. It’s the first available solution, not the best one, that gets thrown at the problem. The result? Three months after the Disney movie ends, the princess is homesick and Prince Charming is eyeing the chambermaid. The grass is always greener…

At long last, we find what we sought, only to realize it is not quite how we imagined.

Cruelly, the more optimistic you are, the harder you’re hit by this. Don’t trust your retirement portfolio to a happy person.

We tend to handle the big questions with small answers: aphorisms, epitaphs, haiku, koans, parables, quotations. The briefer the wiser. This seems backwards of how it ought to be. Beware of any medium in which the message seems to say more the shorter it is. It’s a sign you’re not getting advice so much as having your far-view blindness hacked by a platitude. It’s the journey, not the destination, man.

You can’t act on a wise saying, but I don’t have any more-specific advice for you either. Once I start claiming that such-and-such thing will solve this problem, it’s a lot easier for me to be wrong. The best you can hope for in this business is to get people to pay thousands of dollars before you tell them what to do. That way they’ll be sure to convince themselves it worked; it’s the only way they can keep from having wasted their money.

Even writing this essay has not released me from my poor grip on the future. Somehow, I still have that same feeling. Once I find what to do with my life, it will all get better. But I wouldn’t bet 14 billion cupcakes on it.

Further Reading:
Cobbled together from stuff in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias.

My apologies to anyone reading this the night before their wedding.

taken from my answer on Quora:

Earth to Humans: You’re Doing It Wrong.

April 24, 2012

Here’s my Earth Day article. You may notice it’s late. That’s because I didn’t realize it was Earth Day until a few hours after midnight when somebody said something dumb. Here it is:

The founder of a popular British festival has even said that he would consider powering the event on beer piss, should science find a way. Don’t laugh — human beings collectively produce around 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, so an effective way of harvesting energy from this golden wonder-fuel might end our fossil fuel dependency overnight, as well as mitigating the effects of one more way we go about polluting the environment.

We do not produce 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, even on a steady diet of coffee, alcohol, and the vague first-world boredom that leads to a bathroom break every half hour or ten games of Draw Something, whichever comes first. The 6.4 trillion figure is around 250 gallons of urine per person per day. If that were so, your urine would fill two midsize cars every week. At an average flow rate of 20 mL/sec, you’d have to pee for fourteen hours every day to get it all out.

That’s the dumb part – a silly gaffe. But there’s a stupid part, too. You can’t get more energy out of beer urine than you can get out of beer. You can’t get more energy out of beer than you can get out of beer plants. You can’t get more energy out of beer plants than you can get from the sunshine they absorbed. Processing your sunlight by way of a barley seeds, the digestive system of yeast, and a human liver is, as a thermodynamic strategy, piss poor.

Humans are not energy producers. Any energy we output came from our food and represents our bodies’ inefficiency. Only a fraction of the energy we eat can be reharvested, and the energy we eat is about one percent of the energy we use on all our gadgets and things. Measured purely by energy consumption, it’s as if every person in the US has 100 personal servants. Recapturing energy from our bodies is like realizing our 100 servants are too expensive, so we make one of them give us a percent or two of their wages back. That means we can only ever get a miniscule fraction of the power we need from any human activity – urination, generators inside exercise equipment, piezoelectric thingymabobbers in the floor, engines run on body heat, etc.

Even if you crush your enemies and drive them before you, the lamentation of their women will not provide much power.

Why bother, then? Why is there a dance club whose floor generates electricity for lighting as revelers hop around on it? Why don’t they just dance during the day?

Human-generated electrical power could make sense in special circumstances – charging your bicycle light with energy from the bicycle, for instance, but as a general plan it’s insane. The floor in that club is not about generating electricity. It’s very unlikely that the energy generated could ever recoup the cost of the installation – if you exercise for an hour, you’ll generate around a penny worth of electricity, and that’s with high efficiency. Instead, the floor is about advertising that it generates electricity.

This is what we’ve done with energy conservation – made it into a luxury item more about social signalling than ecological benefit. How many people, proud of their environmentally-conscious Prius, have any idea how much energy went into the car’s manufacture? How many of them drive it alone? (Though Prius owners may deny it, the car’s popularity is mostly about social signalling. For cars that come in gas-only or hybrid variants, the hybrids don’t sell well. If it’s not a hybrid-only brand, it’s a lot harder for people to recognize how environmentally-conscious you are.)

No one would tie a helium party balloon to a hippopotamus and say, “See? I did my part to help it fly!” Yet they feel just like that when they bring their own bags to the grocery store. On Earth Day, people turn their lights out for an hour. (Did that happen this year? Or is it some other day? Whatever.) If everyone turned all their lights out in their homes all the time, it would reduce power consumption in the US by about two percent.

The lights-out thing is symbolic, of course. It’s there to remind you of the importance of energy conservation, and to show other people you think energy conservation is important. The problem we’re facing is that everything is symbolic – our efforts at conservation are almost random, showing no systematic effort to focus on the big-ticket items, or even knowing what they are. How many cell phone chargers would you have to unplug to make up for the energy spent on one cross-country plane flight? Most people don’t know, and so most effort put into energy conservation is wasted.

Worse, if you’re conserving energy because you want the warm fuzzies associated with it, you get your warm fuzzies based on how much you inconvenience yourself and how much you show off, not on how much energy you actually save. You feel just as good about unplugging cell phone chargers as deciding to stay local on vacation. Our emotions have no sense of scale.

Even worse than that: when we talk about energy conservation and environmentalism, we’re largely bullshitting, and people pick up on that. That’s the thing with signalling to your tribe. It gets the other tribe pissed off. (And as we’ve learned, piss is not very productive.) The worst part about energy conservation and environmentalism is that they’ve been wrapped up into one issue and shipped off to the place where good debates go to die – politics.

If we could separate our conservation efforts from our warm fuzzies, we’d send out fewer of the pheromones that rile up political associations and drive out even the possibility reasonable discourse. Fewer news stories. Fewer buzz words and applause lights. More Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and The Azimuth Project. That is how you get a hippopotamus to fly.


January 30, 2012

Outrun a Tiger

Alice and Bob were walking in the woods when a snarling tiger jumped out in front of them.

Alice bent down and starting changing into running shoes.

“Why are you doing that?” asked Bob. “You can’t outrun a tiger.”

“I don’t have to out…” said Alice before the tiger sank its razor-sharp death teeth into the soft flesh around her jugular. It takes at least a minute to change shoes, and the tiger was only, oh, let’s say 20 meters away to begin with.

Then the tiger killed Bob, too. Not because it was hungry. Just because it lived for the moment when it saw the life go out of its victims’ eyes.

Moral: Tigers are nature’s perfect killing machine. By the time you see one, it’s already too late.

Looking For Keys

A drunk man was in the parking lot outside a bar, looking intently at the pavement under a streetlight. A woman came out of the bar, tottering back and forth some as she walked over to the man and asked, “Oh, did you lose your keys here?”

“I don’t know where I lost them. Probably over there by my car, I guess,” said the man.

“Then why are you looking under the streetlight?” asked the woman.

“Because there’s light here,” said the man.

The woman seemed to think this was ridiculous.

“Look,” said the man. “I suppose there’s about a five percent chance I lost my keys under this streetlight, but if I did lose them here, there’s a ninety percent chance I’ll find them. That makes four and a half percent chance that I’ll find my keys by looking here. On the other hand, there’s a thirty percent chance I lost them in a similarly-sized area around the vicinity of my car, but it’s so dark that even if they are there, there’s only a ten percent chance I’ll find them. If I search near my car I only have a three percent chance of success. Therefore I’m acting logically by looking under this streetlight, even though I don’t think this is where my keys are.”

“Oh, I um…” said the woman.

“Hey,” said the man. “Why don’t you just give me a ride? My place is only two miles away, and I would gladly pay you a fair price for your inconvenience. I can come back tomorrow and look some more when there’s light.”

“You’re weird,” said the woman. Then she shot pepper spray in the man’s eyes.

Moral: Everyone hates nerds.

Zen and the Teacup

A Westerner wanted to learn Zen, so he went to visit an old Zen master in a humble, secluded hut.

The Zen master, on hearing the man wanted to learn, invited his guest in for tea. The master filled the man’s cup all the way up, and the tea started pouring out over the brim and onto the table.

“Stop!” said the Westerner. “You’re overfilling it.”

The Zen master calmly replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

“This was a bad idea,” said the Westerner. “You’re crazy.” Then he went back home and tried to live his life as best as he could. He still had good times and bad times, but he was a little less likely to believe any given person had all the answers. Also, before he flew home he bought a samurai sword that looked really cool and authentic and stuff and once it even helped him get laid.

Moral: Just because you act super-calm while you’re doing something doesn’t make it wise.

Food for the brain

December 17, 2011

I’m not sure why, but someone on Quora wanted to know what you can learn from eating a book. So here you go:

If you eat a book, you might learn

  • whether you can stomach Chuck Palahniuk
  • how to Chew Your Own Adventure
  • that you need a cookbook cookbook
  • that you don’t have to finish a book just because you start it
  • that Finnegan’s Wake is indigestible
  • you’d rather rush to eat salmon than eat Salman Rushdie
  • that some things are worse than airline food
  • that “eat three squares a day” isn’t to be taken literally
  • that you can get away with murder by feigning insanity
  • what people mean when they say, “His words are coming out his ass!”

I was looking up “serendipity” in the dictionary when I unexpectedly discovered serenity.

December 14, 2011

The blog has been dormant recently. I’ve put more effort into and Quora. (You can see my profiles on those sites here: Phys.SE, Quora)

I figure I can cross-post content that I like, though. Here’s my answer on Quora to “What is serendipity?”

Serendipity is when

  • your alphabet soup spells out “Eat me.”
  • there’s a rock in your shoe, and it completes your collection.
  • you take a summer job herding sheep and wind up falling in love (consequences notwithstanding).
  • you buy an old used book, and the margin contains a proof of Fermat’s last theorem.
  • you take your dog to the park and there’s an Ultimate tournament going on.
  • you’re on a camping trip and it starts raining. A moment before, you had been thinking your oatmeal was too dry.
  • you decide to try to hold out a couple extra days before doing laundry, and then a dread virus triggers the zombie apocalypse.
  • you get in an accident with a truck carrying avocados, and you just bought a huge bag of tortilla chips
  • right before you get up for a bathroom break, the FedEx guy arrives. Your cheating ex sent you more flowers.
  • you write a tongue-in-cheek Quora answer just as a lark, and hundreds of people upvote it, and then some guy gives you a boat.


April 29, 2011

Some meditations I wrote a while ago, at the end of my grad school admissions process. I’ll begin graduate studies in physics at Johns Hopkins this fall.

Dear Admissions Committees,

It’s hard to make admissions. Congratulations! Don’t you feel better now that you’re done for the year? That must be nice. All the possible admissions are lined up and you just choose the ones you want.

Well, now that you have admitted what you are going to admit, I have some things to admit, too. I didn’t admit them before because I wanted you to admit me. But now that we’re done with all that, I think we can just be honest with each other, at least a little.

I admit that I read Brian Greene when I was a kid. This is the first thing that you’re not supposed to admit. I’ve heard it many places – “Don’t tell them you were inspired by The Elegant Universe! Everyone tells that story. No one wants to hear about that.”

And I will admit it. No one wants to hear about that. No one wants to hear how I confronted those passages in the book that proclaim, with unapologetic authority, a string of certifiably insane conclusions about some twins who get a kick out of the improbable combination of spaceships, clocks, and meter sticks. No one wants to hear how, as Greene assaulted me with each new claim, I squirmed back and forth in my father’s armchair for hours, alternately flipping the book down to meditate on the dimples of our ceiling tiles and snatching back the pages for another greedy interrogation. I was an absurd blending of agitation, cogitation, and meaningful hand gestures as I attempted to conduct into harmony this mistuned orchestra of ideas. It was awe, I guess, but not the Grand Canyon, photos-from-Hubble, double-rainbow-all-the-way sort. It was the sort of awe Elmo would feel if you told him he’s actually a puppet, and some guy named Alonso had been controlling him by jamming a hand up his butt the last thirty years.

And man, you sure don’t want to hear how I sat on the edge of my chair in class the next day, bouncing my leg as if I had to pee, just because I wanted to get back home and see what was in the next chapter. You’d grimace, (really you would) if you were forced to stand by and listen to how I tried to relate everything in that book to the kids at school. Have you ever watched a skinny, pimply-faced nerd talking three times too fast as he tries to explain the diffraction limit to a running back? But listen – it didn’t matter. I was going to solve the MYSTERIES OF THE GOD DAMN UNIVERSE. You missed out, man. If you had only known to ask me, you could have learned all about how smart I was, when I was sixteen.

I admit that I am older now, and I’ve learned a lot. For example, blocks sliding down inclined planes. Dude, I am a total badass at that. The learned professors have taught me all sorts of stuff about it, and I can solve those block problems a lot of different ways. But here’s something not too many people admit – I think they’re fun.

Would you believe it? Blocks sliding down inclined planes are absolutely fascinating! Like, take this, for instance: you have a lumpy, three-dimensional hill. You take a ball and slide it down the hill, frictionlessly. Now, you go back up to the top and do the same thing over again – same ball and same hill – but this time you roll the ball down without slipping. And the question is: does the ball take the same path? Do you slide down a hill over the same route you roll down the hill? I admit it took me three months to figure this out. Three months! Not of constant work, but three months of germination before the answer sprouted. And when I gave a presentation on it to the physics club, I filled up three blackboards with math. All for a ball rolling down a hill.

Or take the brachistochrone. You remember that, of course. The brachistochrone is the hill you slide down to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Finding it is a basic problem in the calculus of variations. But did you know it was solved by the Bernoullis in the seventeenth century, long before the calculus of variations existed?

If you take Snell’s law, it tells you how light bends when it goes from one medium to another – entering the water from the air, say. And by Fermat’s principle, it’s taking the fastest path. So you see, we can make a perfect analogy between an optical system and a mechanical one, both minimizing travel time, and Snell’s law applies equally well to both. If you start by understanding light, all the sudden you understand balls sliding down hills. And that’s how Bernoulli found the answer long before the techniques we now use even existed.

Did you ever realize that the brachistochrone shape changes depending on the size of the ball, or wonder what the answer is for tunnels going through the Earth? I admit an unhealthy fondness for such useless considerations as all that. And I admit that obsession with this trivia will probably compromise my usefulness as a single-minded researcher. I admit that I’m not ashamed of that, because blocks sliding down inclined planes are cooler than you ever imagined. That’s something I admit to thinking is worthwhile.

I admit that I don’t like lectures because ninety minutes is way too long to listen to you talking, and that I hate problem sets because, if you already know the answer, why don’t you just tell me already?
I admit that I am, paradoxically, both egotistical and insecure about my own ability. I admit that I have no idea what it actually means to do some meaningful work, and you’ve got a long road ahead of you if you’re going to try to turn me into a productive researcher. I admit that I’m practically computer illiterate, that I still don’t get what partition functions are for, and that I will probably daydream about quantum-mechanical midget porn during your colloquium.

Here. I will make my worst admission of all. I admit that I am not really a physicist; I’m just curious. I want to learn about the spin-statistics theorem, yeah. That sounds really interesting to me. But I also want to know why a hard-boiled egg stands up when you spin it, how a plant seed knows which way to grow, and why a circle saturates the isoperimetric inequality.

I admit that I don’t care if I’m the first to figure something out. I admit I don’t need to be a part of a great scientific establishment or to feel like I’m on a search for truth. I admit it’s enough, for me, just to be puzzled about something, to be squirming back and forth in my father’s armchair.

You wanna hear the next half of the Brian Greene story? Because it gets better. Six or seven years after my first encounter with that book, I’m at Caltech, learning such intricacies as Ehrenhfest’s theorem or retarded potentials (that’s a real thing!). And around this time, Brian Greene writes a new book, a kid’s book, about a teenager who goes flying around a black hole in a spaceship and gets sent a thousand years into the future.

Greene goes on a book tour, and his next stop is Caltech. I’m on the staff of the newspaper, so I send an email asking for an interview. An hour before the public talk begins, I’m finally seated in a little room backstage in Beckman auditorium, feeling my stomach knot a little as I start my conversation with Brian Greene.

“It’s actually a cautionary tale that’s closer to what actually happens in science,” Greene tells me about Icarus. To be honest, his new book kind of sucks. He’s out of his depth, and I don’t care about the book that much. But I thought I should ask anyway. “What happens in science?” he continues, “Well, we go forward into the unknown, we learn new things, and sometimes that drags us, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new reality.”

His response to my question about Icarus feels a little bit canned. Greene says,
“I have a strong sense from talking to people that for many, science is this abstract, cold, aloof body of knowledge that sometimes may make a difference in their lives if it yields a new medical technique or yields a new piece of technological gadgetry. But otherwise, science is something that people stay away from.

“My point is to try to convince people and open up to people the fact that science goes far beyond that. It can touch you in an emotional way. It can help you have a different connection to the world and the universe around you, whether you’re the next Einstein or whether you’re just someone who wants this to be a part of your life. As I’ll discuss tonight, I think that science is as important to a full life as music and art and literature and theater, and I think books like this can help people begin to recognize that.”

No! How can this be? Brian Greene doesn’t understand his own book. Let me explain. When I was sixteen, I didn’t just discover Brian Greene. I discovered Sibelius, too. And I used to lie flat on the carpet downstairs, listening to the second symphony over and over and feeling the blood in my veins. It was nothing like reading physics! And it shouldn’t be. It’s its own thing – a completely separate vital experience. The pursuit I learned about in Dad’s armchair should not be latched on to the back of “music and art and literature and theater”. Greene is talking about physics as Grand-Canyon-awe. I never even liked the Grand Canyon that much. I’m still Elmo. And now I’m forced to realize that the guy who showed me all this stuff in the first place is totally confused about it what it is.

All right, fine. I admit I still like Brian Greene. I haven’t read his new book or anything, but honestly it was a pretty good interview, and I like the guy. But I admit I had to go back after that, and re-examine some stuff. And what I learned is that Brian Greene was immaterial. The Elegant Universe was immaterial. It was special relativity itself that had mattered. I admit that was a revelation to me.

Let’s get down to it. I admit that I hate you for judging me, you admissions committees. Because how could you know? How could you decide what you do and don’t want to admit, just from that little admissions material I sent you? That’s none of it – nothing at all. It didn’t have me in it because it wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t supposed to admit myself, and so how can you choose to admit me? That’s the thing when you’re in our position. Between you and me, even with all our admissions, there is really no way to know.

Book Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

January 4, 2011

This review is for The California Tech, where it should appear later this week. You can listen to the full audio of my interview with Mike Brown here

Amazon Link

If you read enough pop sci books, you’ll learn that black holes ain’t so black and that our genes are selfish. Along the way, you’ll pick up a few tidbits about the lives and research of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. If you read enough memoirs by scientists you’ll learn that Feynman could crack the safes at Los Alamos (and knew the codes for something else men want to access), or that James Watson didn’t use modesty to discover the secret of life. You’ll also get a few tidbits about the character of physical law or the structure of the double helix. But if you read Mike Brown’s new book, you’ll learn that a scientist’s work and a scientist’s life are separate but inextricable, that the motion of the planets really can affect the path of a life, and that sometimes there is no distinction between teacher and raconteur.

“The amusing thing that I get now,” Brown told me about the hate mail he’s received since publishing How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, “are these obscene phone messages.” He’s smiling as he tells the story. “They sound like drunk fraternity boys who were probably thirteen when Pluto got demoted. They were pissed off then and now they’re drunk and pissed off.”

Brown, of course, did not kill Pluto. It’s still there, and still cold. What he really did was help it. He found it some friends. “The singular thing for which I am most famous is the discovery of Eris,” he said. “It’s not the most important thing I’ve done, scientifically. I don’t think there’s any question that the discovery of Sedna and this whole story I’ve been telling you is far and away the most important thing.”

Brown has been telling me the story about his discovery of several large Kuiper Belt objects – balls of rock and ice orbiting in slow, frigid ellipses beyond Neptune. Eris and Sedna are among them. Using the nearly-derelict 48-inch Schmidt Telescope at the Palomar observatory, Brown and his teams conducted several surveys of the outer solar system to search for these objects. His first search failed. His second did not.

They first discovered Quaoar, then Sedna, an object somewhat smaller than Pluto, but scientifically fascinating due to its extremely distant orbit, which separates it gravitationally from the influences of the gas giants. “Sedna never comes close [to the gas giants], and if you integrate the orbit backwards for 4.5 billion years, it never did,” Brown explains.

Since Sedna can maintain its orbit unmolested, it serves as the Solar System’s time capsule. “It’s this window into the earliest Solar System – into the formation of the Solar System. This is what really excites me. I want to understand what the earliest Solar System was like, how it led to what we have today, and what it tells us about the formation of other plantery systems. These objects out there are, I think, the best tools for understanding that we have.”

In other words, Brown wants another story to tell. He’s been hitting me with them since I entered his office, leaning in to tell me the good parts, then suddenly swiveling back from his desk, calling up online pictures of the Russian Venera lander’s panoramic photos of Venus, and holding them up next to an ultrasound of his daughter for comparison.

How I Killed Pluto is a repository of Brown’s stories. It recounts his obsessive data-recording and analysis, not of planetary motion, but of his infant daughter’s sleeping and eating schedules. Other anecdotes discuss the way Jupiter and Saturn looked on the epiphanous night when he first understood that the planets really are hanging up there in the sky, or just how relaxed his post-doc Chad Trujillo was when he announced their first Kuiper Belt discovery, or the gradual evolution from disappointment, to inkling mistrust, to deep suspicion as he learned that a particular discovery was perhaps not scooped, but stolen by a team of researchers in Spain. We learn Brown’s opinions on the weather near telescopes (nasty), the moon (his nemesis), living in the woods (good deal for a single guy), and, of course, whether Pluto should be called a planet (definitely not).

“I find that stories draw people in more,” Brown says. All the major events in his life – the beginning of his career at Caltech, his courtship and marriage, and the start of his family – occurred during the few years surrounding his search for planets past Pluto. For Brown, the personal context of the search is as important as the scientific context. If the book is about how he killed Pluto, it’s necessarily about those personal stories as well.

Brown says that even “scientific papers are more compelling and more readable when they have a story that they’re telling. Even if it’s a scientific story with data and analysis, it’s better if it’s a story.”

And if ever there has been a great story in need of telling, it’s the story of how a ball of gas twirling in deep space collapsed to form the Sun, the planets, and all rest of our Solar System. “It’s a huge set of phenomena. If you want to understand the entire Solar System and why it is the way it is, you need to understand details from quantum physics to organic chemistry to hydrodynamics to electrical discharge. I mean, there’s so many crazy things that go on that you’ll never be able to put all these pieces together in a predictive way and say, ‘I know exactly what happened.’”

Brown believes that careful scientific study of Kuiper Belt objects can still help fill in pieces of that story. For example, astronomical evidence from analyzing their orbits is currently giving insight into the mechanism of planet formation and whether the Sun formed in a cluster of other stars.

A story, to Brown, is not just a trick to hold your interest. It’s the essence of science, an active process of discovery. He told me that to write about science, “I walk though the whole process of how I think about it, and why I come to that conclusion. I think it’s much more interesting to understand the process, in addition to just saying, ‘Here’s the answer.’”

Brown doubled the number of words he’s written, lifetime, in writing How I Killed Pluto. The effort will be repaid in full as thousands of people learn how mysterious our Solar System still is. Our understanding continues to evolve, with new evidence like that of Brown’s discoveries continually challenging and inspiring our stories about the Solar System. Brown, with his hallmark enthusiasm and joviality, tells me, “We’re really starting to be able to not as much rewrite those stories, as write them for the first time.”

Mike Brown, Planet Killer: “Mercury is Pissing Me Off”

December 19, 2010

Mike Brown is famous for discovering Eris, a dwarf planet larger than Pluto orbiting out on the far edge of the solar system. Ultimately, Eris’ discovery led to the redefinition of the word “planet” and the eradication of Pluto from children’s lunchboxes.

Brown’s new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming tells the story of his team’s discovery of a complete menagerie out past Neptune – a place most astronomers thought held little but hydrogen, comets, and a few bits of rock that occasionally get flung out there by gas giants.

In an interview from last Wednesday, December 15, Brown told me that his most scientifically-important discovery was not Eris, but Sedna, a large object lying so far away from the gravitational perturbations of Jupiter and friends that its orbit can be traced back to the beginning of the solar system, and whose existence has challenged astronomers’ conception of how the planets formed.

Brown also showed me the sonograms of his embryonic daughter (now 5 years old) to compare side-by-side with photographs of Venus taken by the Venera Lander, and commented on the gravitational influence of my mother.

Part 1 (17 minutes: Hate mail, the process of writing, science of the early solar system)

Part 2 (31 minutes: More science, more writing, international intrigue, Pluto’s appeal and wimpiness)

Thermal energy of a gas

November 11, 2010

If we have a gas with some heat, the atoms are all bouncing around and stuff. Their kinetic energy is

KE = 1/2 m v^2.

But momentum is given by mv = p, so we can rewrite the energy as

KE = 1/2 pv.

Everyone knows pv = nRT, so

KE = 1/2 nRT.

The kinetic energy of the motion of molecules is just the temperature of the gas!

(PS – this is a joke, but it actually gets the right answer for a 1-dimensional ideal gas. See wikipedia Thermal Energy)