Thursday, February 24, 2005

Hacking at the ivy

In a couple of weeks I will be traveling to New Mexico, where I'll give several physics talks. I'm speaking at University of New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute, and Los Alamos National Lab. So this week I sent off a bunch of titles and abstracts of my talks to the folks there, so that they can post announcements and so forth.

I can give a good talk, but I hate writing abstracts, and this time I was rushed and a little tired. So by the time I got around to abstracting Friday's colloquium at UNM, it wound up like this:
Local dynamics and information flow
Dynamics is local. In order to predict the future state of a system, we do not need to know the past state of the entire universe, but only a local neighborhood of the system. This general fact is most easily expressed as a restriction on how information "flows" between systems. The interaction of two classical systems can result in a one-way information transfer, but for quantum systems the transfer of information must always proceed in both directions. In this talk I will describe some recent work about the structure of local quantum dynamics that sheds light on how interacting quantum systems exchange information.
Yes, it does sound pretty technical. The mathematical results that I'll be describing are not too hard to understand, actually, and I think it might turn out to be a fun talk, in a physics-geeky sort of way. When I was done, I shipped off my abstract. After a while, I got an email back from my good friend Carl, who will be my host at UNM.
Any way you can jazz up the title and abstract for your colloq. I'm a little worried that it won't attract the audience that you really deserve to get, which would be a pity.
I looked back over what I had sent him, and sheesh, he was 100% right. Something had to be done. I paced around our living room for a bit (which unnerves our cat) and rewrote the thing as follows:
Local rules for the quantum web
We can analyze the world as a complex web of forces by which matter and energy are moved about. But at a more fundamental level, the world is nothing but a vast network of information exchange. Classical and quantum laws of physics lead to very different rules for such a network. For example, the interaction of two classical systems can result in one-way information flow, but quantum interactions always transfer information in both directions -- a kind of "action and reaction" principle for quantum information.
The dynamical laws we observe in nature are local. To predict the trajectory of a particle in the lab, we only need to know the fields and interactions within the lab -- and not, say, the exact conditions in the Andromeda galaxy. This is really a statement about how information is transferred between parts of the universe. In my talk I will apply tools and ideas from quantum information science to explore the implications of locality and discover what sort of quantum dynamics is possible in a local world.
Without vanity -- or anyway, without much -- I think I can confidently state that this version is much improved. I sent it to Carl. A little while later I got an email back from him, accepting the new version (with relief, I imagine). Then he concluded:
. . . you are perhaps unique in not flying off the handle when asked to rewrite an abstract. Thanks.
Which was, when you think about it, just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.

But you know, so much of academic writing is bad. It is banal, orotund, unmusical, and stuffed with wads of unnecessary jargon. It is the sort of writing that does more to obscure meaning than to convey it. I see this stuff almost every day. I swim in it. OK, maybe I do exaggerate, a little. After all, I teach at a liberal arts college that is moderately well-known for teaching people how to write. Our faculty is full of novelists and poets and whatnot. But let me tell you, it's here, too. It's everywhere. It is like a fungus growing over all things, blurring their shapes -- the verbal equivalent, maybe, of the ivy on academic buildings. And like the ivy, I guess, its main purpose is to conceal the shabby edifices beneath.

I live in fear that one day I will write ponderous, weedy, soporific academic prose. And worse, I fear that a day will come when I will simply not know the difference.

But, as Aragorn said before the Black Gate, it is not this day. I can still tell the difference, and I'm not ready to give up trying to write like it meant something. I'm grateful to Carl for giving me the chance to go back this time and get my abstract right. Fly off the handle? Not likely. On the contrary, I am much in his debt.


Blogger Kerry said...

Zeroth, I've linked to your blog at mine because of writing like this: "But you know, so much of academic writing is bad. It is banal, orotund, unmusical, and stuffed with wads of unnecessary jargon..." Orotund, one could chew that word for half an hour. And I think you'll never be ponderous, weedy, or soporific. Keep up the good work, I like it. Smoothingplane.

8:52 PM  

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