Reality Conditions

Monday, November 26, 2007

Searching for a Thesis Quote

My PhD thesis is almost finished and hopefully I will submit it within a few weeks. The most important thing lacking, at the moment, is a suitable quote for the beginning. I hereby enlist the help of my readers for suggestions!

I guess I should say something about the topic of the thesis and what kind of quote I am looking for. The topic of the thesis is particle detectors in quantum field theory. I have given a nontechnical explanation in this old post, but if you don't care to go and read it, enough to say that it is about the possibility of defining the "particle content" of quantum fields operationally, by the energy transitions an interaction with the quantum field can produce on another quantum system such as an atom. If an atom interacting with a field gets excited, you can say that it has absorbed a field quanta or "particle". This is important because in a curved spacetime context there are usually no other "intrinsic" definitions of particles available. My work concerns more precisely the question of giving a rigorous definition of the transition rate of such a detector, which is not as simple as it sounds. You can read the details in my last paper.

For the beginning of the thesis, I do not want a prosaic quote from a physicist about these matters. My ideal would be a poetic, literary or philosophical quote that could, with an effort, be read as alluding to this topic (even though this was obviously not intended). As an example of the kind of thing I like, my undergraduate thesis concerned calculation of vacuum energy of quantum fields in a class of spacetimes. As the reality of quantum field vacuum energy means that there is no real vacuum in Nature, that anything that looks empty really has a "zero-point energy", I used a quotation from Parmenides, the Pre-Socratic philosopher that based his philosophy on denying the reality of Not-Being:

That things which are not are, shall never prevail, she said,
but do thou restrain thy mind from this course of investigation.
And let not long-practised habit compel thee along this path,
thine eye careless, thine ear and thy tongue overpowered by noise;
but do thou weigh the much contested refutation of their words,
which I have uttered.

The Spanish translation I used is much more poetical, for those that can read it:

Pues nunca dominará esto: que haya no ser. Aleja tú
el pensamiento de este camino de investigación,
y que la inveterada costumbre no te obligue, a lo largo
de este camino, a utilizar el ojo que no ve, el oído que
resuena, y la lengua; juzga con la razón la combativa
refutación que te he enunciado.

Besides the rejection of Not-Being, the quote was appropiate for talking about "investigación", which in Spanish means "research" besides "investigation", and is used everyday in scientific context. Also, the rejection of the senses in favour of reason can be seen (with a slant) as endorsing theoretical physics over experimental.

So this is the kind of thing I would like. At the moment, my best candidate is the following quote from Bertrand Russell's An Outline of Philosophy:

'Matter' is a convenient formula for describing what happens where it isn't. I am talking physics, not metaphysics; when we come to metaphysics, we may be able, tentatively, to add something to this statement, but science alone can hardly add to it.

Reasons why this quote is appropriate are that (although he was not exactly talking about the same thing) Russell seems to be endorsing the operational definition of particles my thesis is about; that the ending of the quote looks ironical as a preface to a hundred pages "adding to it" from a scientific point of view; and that An Outline of Philosophy is a very dear book to me, being the first real philosophy book I read. Rereading it recently I found it full of things I could not accept, either scientifically outdated or philosophically unsound; but its general spirit of approaching philosophy in a way closely related to and interwoven with science is one that I still admire. Reason counting against this quote is that it is a bit too prosaic; I would like something more dramatical and unexpected. Russell is so well-known in the scientific community that quoting him is only slightly less predictable than quoting Einstein or Feynman. But still for the moment this is the best I have found.

Any suggestions...?

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21 Comments:

  • Maybe some Kant on Categories? How we use concepts to order experience?

    Heisenbergs "The path only comes into existence when observed" springs to mind, but fails the non-physicists test.

    I didn't know you worked on vacuum energy of Quantum Fields. We need to talk about that, I have an idea for a project (again ;)) I'll drop by tomorrow...

    fh

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:27 AM, November 27, 2007  

  • Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

    Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no relaization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

    Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

    "If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:37 AM, November 27, 2007  

  • Interestingly (at least for me), the quotation I chose for my thesis was fitting your general, though not specific, requirements: it was coming from a work of fiction (a novel) and it was in Spanish:

    'Ocho y ocho son dieciseis y el que cuenta'

    (extra points for guessing where it precisely comes from - the Google will actually get you to my thesis on the Arxiv, at least mine does it).

    Although may be not directly relevant to the content of the thesis, it describes to me perfectly what the pure mathematics is about. It is just a collection of trivial equivalences after all; when we prove a statement, however sophisticated, we reduce it to a (possibly very long) chain of obvious implications - that is the `dieciseis' part. The whole point is what one can see behind these equivalences - what hindsight into the nature of thought (or the nature of the universe, if you believe that mathematics has something to do with the latter) one can acquire from formulating them. Here creativity and individual talent suddenly become crucial, and `el que cuenta' has to be added to the right hand side to the equation.

    My general suggestion would be to look for something that is important to you now, but also can guide you in the future.

    Best wishes for finishing your work,
    Adam

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:14 PM, November 27, 2007  

  • Fh: That Heisenberg quote, by itself, has too little "punch", but something a bit fancier along the same lines might be a possibility. Kant's writing on any topic has exactly zero amount of "punch", so no. The idea of the quote is not simply to summarise concisely something about the thesis in a philosophical vein; its purpose is primarily aesthetic.

    Anonymous: nice koan, but too little relation to the thesis. Thank you anyway! It reminds me of a suggestion I read once for dealing with people who deny free will: start punching them until they admit that you are free to stop doing it...

    Adam: That is an excellent choice of quote! For those who didn't understand it, it says: "Eight and eight are sixteen and the one who counts". I didn't recognize the quote without Googling -I have read all of Borges back and forth, but only a handful of stories by Cortazar. Thanks for the good wishes!

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 1:38 PM, November 27, 2007  

  • "Como sabemos, los dragones no existen. Esta constatación simplista es, tal vez, suficiente para una mentalidad primaria, pero no lo es para la ciencia. La (...)banalidad de la existencia ha sido probada hace demasiados años para que valiera la pena dedicarle una palabra más."

    Stanislaw Lem, Cyberiad

    By Blogger JuanPablo, at 5:02 PM, December 07, 2007  

  • Buena cita! Pero creo que ya tengo definida mi eleccion (probablemente la postee pronto). Gracias de todas formas. Estuvo bueno el post sobre Lem y Martinez, aunque sin haber leido los libros que comentas (aunque si otros de ellos) no pude seguirlo demasiado, pero me genero intriga. Puede que en mi proxima visita a Buenos Aires me compre el de Martinez.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 9:02 PM, December 07, 2007  

  • ojo que en el de Lem puede haber otras mejores, justamente construyen un amplificador de probabilidad para detectar los dragones que no existen porque son 'negativos' o 'imaginarios' (los que no existen porque son iguales a cero son un caso perdido)

    By Blogger JuanPablo, at 11:26 PM, December 07, 2007  

  • I love this part of the sonnet "Everness" by Borges. Perhaps it is not appropriate, or perhaps it might be. I omit the first 4 lines and quote the next 6.
    ==============================
    ...

    Everything is: the shadows in the glass.
    Which, in between the day's two twilights, you
    Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
    Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
    And everything is part of that diverse
    Crystalline memory, the universe:
    ...

    Everness
    ...
    ...
    Ya todo está. Los miles de reflejos
    Que entre los dos crepúsculos del día
    Tu rostro fue dejando en los espejos
    Y los que irá dejando todavía.
    Y todo es una parte del diverso
    Cristal de esa memoria, el universo;

    By Anonymous Marcus, at 4:11 AM, December 08, 2007  

  • From "Portraits from Memory" of Bertrand Russell, an autobiographical memoir of his student days in the 1890s, there was this quick resolution of the Mind-Matter problem:

    What is Mind?
    ---No matter.

    What is Matter?
    ---Never mind.

    By Anonymous Marcus, at 4:22 AM, December 08, 2007  

  • Heh, the quote you attribute to Russell, I remember it from The Simpsons...

    That Borges poem is beautiful indeed. But if I had chosen some lines from him as quote, I would have picked:

    Que otros acudan a la astrologia
    Judiciaria, al compas y al astrolabio,
    Para saber que son. Yo soy los astros.

    or, in my own translation,

    Let others resort to predictive
    Astrology, to compass and astrolabe,
    To know what they are. I am the stars.

    from "Tamerlan".

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 4:25 PM, December 08, 2007  

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  • HOw about some of the sanskrit quotes from the Rigvedas? they have some interesting slokas on what could only be described as quantum physics..

    good luck!

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