June 2007


All right. The vacuum issue is resolved, I think. Space is still a relative vacuum, but since it isn’t necessarily infinite in a flat sense, and since the particles will still collide with others, I can accept the idea of pressure for matter travelling through it. However, this still leaves me with a few burning questions, such as: how come John Donne can make wordplay on “sun rising in the East” sound profound while everywhere else it’s just a cheap pun? Can particles of antimatter have pressure? Also, why can’t I special order Dutchy of Blenshaf gyro wheels at our hardware store?

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Today was our last lab of this session, which is both depressing and a relief. On the one hand, it means that I’m halfway through physics and doing really pretty well. On the other hand, that’s half a summer gone without a single day of complete rest, with another half to go. Also, I’m the only student taking the full course of physics, so I get to go back to knowing no one just as I become Dr. Kim’s scapegoat for questions. Still, it could be fun. We do learn all sorts of trivia along with the practical components. For example, we computed the temperature at which the human body undergoes uniformly irreparable protein deformation when we studied thermal equilibrium. I had never thought to even wonder what that was, but it turned out to be around 44ºC. Just today, I learned that an ultra-relativistic particle gas, such as a gas of photons, has a pressure roughly half that of an ideal monatomic gas. Now I just need to go figure out how that effects my conception of space as a vacuum. Any ideas?

Another physics-related path in my life lately has been reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It has nothing to do with physics, but the concepts of how cities relate to one another, how probable is any given city’s existence, and whether or not all cities do, in fact, exist are closely related to a lot of the theoretical work that has exploded in the past century. Einstein, Feynman, and Hawkings are the big names, of course, but people tend to relegate their work to graduate labs and forget that what they describe is everything we have ever known. It’s a wonderful adventure when one finds an author, musician, or artist who brings such grace and wisdom to his or her work that it opens not only the immediate material, but the nature of everything for our inspection. Such a book is Invisible Cities–simply told with great finesse and a world of interpretations. If you have not already read it, make a space at the top of your book list, and if you have, I get the feeling that this book ages well and is more pleasing with each encounter.

Happy Father’s Day! I wonder if Dad’s up for a wrestling match, but the better part of me says to let him do his crosswords and sudoku in peace. Maybe I can let the day slide with just a couple of noogies or a wet willie.

I’ve been attempting to put my room in some semblance of order, in between physics and music. Those of you who know my room and its bookshelf walls may recognize how long this is going to take me; I stop for each memory, and I have several hundred volumes of them to push around. Sometimes the care pays off, though, as it did today when I found a folded up piece of graying paper peaking out from my copy of Einstein’s Dreams, which I took with me to Tanzania a few years ago. It was written on in brown marker as follows:

This morning we went to Amani Home for Street Children. We met Rashidi, one of their social workers, and Valerie Jackson, a Duke graduate who practically runs the place. We brought markers, pencils, paints, brushes, pens, and paper. Meg and I started out inside coloring with Nora and Maria, whom I helped with math and counting in English. They went crazy with Uncle Carl’s and Meg’s cameras, especially Maria. She posed and then couldn’t stop giggling when the flash went off.

Amani, by the way, means peace. My favorite memories of Moshi are of being with the street children, playing soccer, painting, and just staying with the kids. This is just a fragment of a much broader picture, and if I can find some of my other writings about them, I’ll post them. In the meantime, please check out their website, www.amanikids.org.