Thursday, March 24, 2005

And yet they call this Friday good

I haven't blogged in many days. I've been busy, of course, with the resumption of classes after our Spring Break. What spare attention I've had has been drawn to the case of Terri Schiavo, who will -- barring a miracle -- be dead a few days from now.

I understand about the terrible and tragic decisions we sometimes face at the end of life. Life often does not end neatly, or quickly, or easily. We use our medical skill to hold on to life, but sometimes we are left holding nothing but a few tattered fragments, just the ruins of a life really, held together for a little while by technology. When that happens, the right thing to do may be to open our hand and let those last pieces go.

I do know something about this. When my father died, it was like that. He heart stopped -- a stray blood clot, perhaps -- and it took too long for the ambulance to arrive. Though the paramedics were able to restart his heart, his tissues had by that time gone without oxygen for too many minutes. Over the next few days, it became apparent that his brain had largely died. His organs began to fail one by one. And so the family decided to turn off his life support and let the last embers of his life go out. This was, I think, the right thing to do.

Yet I think that the Schiavo case is different. I do not want to spend this whole post laying out the arguments for this position, since I have little to contribute to what others have done along that line. My own arguments would be based on doubt: the real doubt about the exact degree of Terri's brain damage; doubt about her treatment over the last many years; and doubt about the justice of taking Michael Schiavo as the sole spokesman for her interests.

There is also debate about Terri's previously stated wishes. As I understand it, a few people (including her husband) say that, while watching a TV movie about Karen Ann Quinlan, Terri said that she wouldn't want to live like that. Even if this is a perfectly accurate account -- and it did not come up until after Michael had won his million-dollar lawsuit to provide for Terri's long-term care -- the remark hardly seems like a considered and unambiguous instruction about her treatment in this situation. I had dinner once with Stephen Hawking. I wouldn't want to live like him. Who would? Yet I would try to do it, with some fraction of Hawking's humor and courage, if that lot befell me.

It might be that a more careful examination (which will not be allowed) would show that Terri's damage is as completely devastating as advertised. It might be that the choices made about Terri's care over the years (such as neglecting her teeth, or forbidding the nurses from turning on a TV in her room to give her stimulus, or deciding not to treat dangerous infections with antibiotics) were all reasonable. It might be that Michael Schiavo is the ideal guardian of Terri's interests (despite the appearance of possible conflict between those interests and his own). And it might be that Terri, if she had only thought of it, would have left careful instructions that she should be starved to death if she were ever in such a dismal state. All possible, I guess. So put these issues aside. These are not the things that make me heart-sick, anyway.

I am, first of all, upset and alarmed about the role of the judiciary in this. Even when the Congress, in a truly remarkable effort, passed a law instructing the federal court to hear de novo a petition on Terri's behalf, the judge managed to find a way to thumb his nose at the plain intent of the legislature. This amazing decision was upheld (though not unanimously) on appeal. There will be no de novo review, and no replacement of the feeding tube while it takes place. Whether or not the law Congress passed was wise and good -- and I do have a few worries about that, though the bill passed was admirably narrow -- the willingness of a federal judge to ignore its meaning is breathtaking. The judicial branch of our government is now out of effective control. (One of these days I will blog about this, which I take to be a central issue of our time. It is the other side of the coin of the increasing power of unaccountable multi-national bureaucracies like the EU. The will of the actual people, expressed in elected parliaments and popular law, must not be permitted to get in the way of human progress. We will be ruled by our betters, whether we will it or no.)

It also does seem to me that advocates for Terri's death are trying to have it both ways. They say that she is a vegetable, incapable of conscious experience of any sort. When you look at Terri, they say nobody is home. On the other hand, to cause her death is a merciful end to suffering. But either Terri has no more capacity for experience, in which case it does not matter whether the thing that she once was is kept alive or not, or else she does have the capacity for experience, in which case the years of neglect and the days of dying by starvation and thirst are very possibly torments. "Have pity on her. Let the poor thing die," they say. But if no one is home, why is she a more proper object of pity than, say, my car? Why not have pity on her parents, and let those poor people care for that empty husk of a human form?

In a similar way, the death advocates want me to accept Michael Schiavo as the sole legitimate spokesman for Terri's wishes and interests, because he is Terri's husband. But they do not want me to condemn Michael for living with another woman for the last decade and starting a new family with her. OK, fair enough. I do not really blame him, though it would seem to me to have been more honorable to divorce Terri first. But Michael has had to face years of terrible stuff, and I'm an understanding sort of person. Yet surely he can hardly claim the powers and priviliges of being Terri's husband, if he has in effect laid down that office in every way but name.

When people try to have it both ways in an argument, then the real basis for their position lies elsewhere. In this case, I think that many people -- including Judge Greer, the Florida judge who has had charge of the case -- simply believe that Terri ought to die, and Michael seems to be the one who is willing to do the right thing. So his authority cannot be called into question, or the parents' pleas entertained, or the essential facts examined afresh. This is, in other words, about euthanasia. It is a good thing for some suffering people to die.

Of course, they will try to argue that they are just respecting Terri's wishes, but once again the thinness of the evidence for those wishes does not match up against the implacability of the insistence that she die. When people insist so firmly on such weak evidence, their real principle lies elsewhere. Terri ought to die; but the unfortunate fact is that our society and legal system place a great weight on her expressed wishes on the matter. So we must fix on any scrap of evidence that she wanted to die, so that we can achieve the right outcome.

Anyway, the whole "right to die" argument seems profoundly wrong-headed to me. Suppose a friend of mine is very sad and unhappy with his life, and he announces his intention to commit suicide. Should I say, "I respect your choice, and if necessary I will help you"? I don't think such a response would be compassionate or rational.

Many people who face severe problems with their physical health also face severe depression. In other words, their present wishes are bent out of true shape. Now, an evil man (yes, I will call him that) like Jack Kevorkian can prey on this. Rather than try to treat the depression, as an ethical physician would, they exploit the patient's despair. Of course, it all masquerades as compassion and respect. The patient is suffering and wants to die. Why not let him choose to do so with "dignity"? So rather than try to ameliorate the suffering -- and we can do quite a lot of that these days, more than we sometimes do -- rather than helping the patient find a way to accept the care and compassion of others, we can just end the terrible problem in an afternoon. It is easier for them (because it is always easier to give into despair), and it is certainly a good deal less trouble and mess for us.

This is why doctors used to swear in the Hippocratic Oath that they would prescribe no deadly drug, even if a patient asked for it. A person's wish to destroy themselves is itself a sign of an illness of the soul, and it is a doctor's business to fight illness. (When the doctor and the illness are on the same side, the patient is in serious trouble. Hippocrates knew this. A surprising number of doctors remember this, even today.)

There is a terrible mystery here. We would like to think that there is a part of us that remains untouched, that can coolly make free and rational choices no matter what sickness afflicts us. But we know that this is a lie. The drug addict is not simply free to kick his habit. The suicidally depressed cancer patient cannot simply make a rational calculation about ending it all. Those of us who are Christians know about this from the teaching on Original Sin. The slave to sin (and we are all born so) is not simply free to stop sinning and henceforth lead a pure life. The effects of addiction and mental illness and sin are deep, deep. They corrupt the very means by which we think and feel and make decisions. Our wills can be in such bondage that we cannot by our own power even will to be free. Only grace can deliver us, and that must come from outside ourselves.

Early tomorrow morning I will be taking my turn at our church's prayer vigil for Good Friday. The timing is, in its horrible way, exquisite. I will pray for Terri Schiavo, and for the rest of us.

Addendum (Saturday, 26 March, 3:30 pm): This piece by Orson Scott Card pretty much speaks for me; read it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The memory of empty skies

Last week, when I was in Albuquerque to give a couple of physics talks, I stayed in a hotel near the airport. The airport shares its runway with the Air Force base. So one morning I was treated to a close view of four F-16s, one after another, zooming by really fast (they are much faster than commercial aircraft) and then tilting up and just leaping into the sky. It was breathtaking. The ten-year-old boy in me grinned from ear to ear. Wow!

Varifrank (found via Betsy's Page) has a post that touches on a vivid memory, for him and for me: the absense of jet contrails in the sky after 9/11. That was one of the things that really brought things home, that told me that the world I lived in was not unchangeable. Yes, I saw the Twin Towers collapse on live TV. And I knew that the attack had fallen on real places -- I had been inside both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But those strangely empty skies were something more. They told me that a mad ideology from the other side of the world could reach the heart of our civilization and make it skip a beat.

Varifrank turns it around and talks about what the presence of jet contrails has meant in places like Afghanistan and Iraq: the United States Air Force, whose unstoppable ability to put a bomb here, anywhere, has been a fact of great political significance. A Special Forces guy or a U.S. ally with a radio can call down a thunderbolt on the enemy, and that bolt will strike this house and not that one, at the time we choose. Far better, then, to be an ally than an enemy.

But it isn't just fear that those long white skylines inspire. It is, perhaps, also hope -- hope that the thugs that run so much of the world can be brought down. And hope is powerful, in Afghanistan and Ukraine and Iraq and Lebanon and beyond. The President and those around him have spoken eloquently about using our power to nuture that hope. Even if you can't stand his accent or his politics, even if you don't trust him to follow through, you have to admit that the guy is right about this. This, if anything, is what power is for.

And that is why the man, as well as the boy, can grin as I watch those jets. Power in itself is amoral, deceitful and oh so dangerous. Only a fool or a devil rejoices in sheer naked power. But power on the side of right is a reason to be glad, and in this struggle (always remembering the darkness, never forgetting the danger) we are on the right side. The bad guys emptied our skies for a few days in September a few years back. But that was then. Look up now, fellas.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The evil TI-83

I teach a lot of non-science students in "general education" physics courses at my college, and I have a complaint. Almost all students come to college equipped with a graphing calculator, almost invariably the TI-83, which they have been required to buy for some high school course. So you would think that, having had actual instruction and many hours of practice with this device, they would know how to use it. You'd be wrong.

Let's work an example: Let's say that you are calculating the frequency of green light, whose wavelength λ is 500 nanometers. The formula is
f = c / λ .
OK, so you find out that the speed of light c = 3.00 × 108 m/s, and with a little figuring you get that the wavelength λ = 5.00 × 10-7 m. Now it is time to divide one number by the other to obtain the frequency f.

The problem is, you have no idea how to do scientific notation on a calculator. The speed of light, for instance, is something 3.00 EE 8. On the TI-83, the "power-of-ten" key EE is inconspicuously placed as the second function of another key (the comma I think), which may be part of the problem. But not to worry; you can do what you've always done, which is basically to enter the number as a formula, like so: 3.00 * 10^8. Your calculation becomes
3.00 * 10^8 / 5.00 * 10^-7
from which you get 6.00, which you dutifully write down. Six hertz! You're too low by a factor of a hundred trillion.

Where did you go astray? Of course, it has to do with the order of operations. You might be thinking of your expression as one number divided by another, each number expressed in scientific notation. But that is not what your calculator is thinking. First it does the exponents; then it multiplies, divides, and multiplies, in the order that those operations appear in the formula. The factor of 10^-7, in effect, winds up in the numerator instead of the denominator.

This mistake happens a lot. Now, of course, it is quite possible to do things right on the TI-83. You can make use of the secret EE key. You can put parentheses in your formula to make sure that the operations happen in the right order. But the point is that the easy thing to do, the obvious thing to do, the thing that a typical college English major who hasn't used the calculator in two or three years will very likely do, is the wrong thing to do.

Do I blame the students? Not really. OK, it would be nicer if our liberal arts students were better at quantitative stuff. But they are actually a fairly smart bunch, as college students go. Ours is a pretty selective college with a good academic reputation that is largely deserved. I would wager that a more representative sample of college students would be even more helpless about this.

Do I blame Texas Instruments? Somewhat. I might have designed the keypad for the TI-83 to put the EE key in a more prominent place. After all, this is a calculator that is designed and advertised for mathematics and science. Scientific notation, calculator style, should be more straightforward. But of course, the problem is that the TI-83 is designed to do so many things. It solves equations! It graphs functions! It does linear regression! And the TI-83 Plus can store specialized libraries of useful routines! But the number of buttons is limited. The machine is already uncomfortably large in the hand. I would never use a TV remote or a cell phone this fat. Anyway, with all these features, some things -- like the EE key -- will have to be less prominent than some folks would like. And TI does make some perfectly fine scientific calculators that are far cheaper than the TI-83. (Of course, it is the TI-83 that they market to the high schools. In round terms, the devices cost $100 apiece. I bet they make a bundle from the program!)

Mostly, I blame the high school teachers and the adminstrators that have decided to put a TI-83 in the hands of each of their college-bound students. What is the attraction of this? I suppose the TI-83 is cool. I mean, it has all these nifty things it can do. It solves equations! It graphs functions! It does linear regressions! (Did I mention that it solves equations?) And so it looks like just the thing you need to do all sorts of math and science stuff. But does it actually help?

As far as I can tell, the actual effect of the TI-83 and its ilk is not to give the students a greater capability to handle the mathematical side. They either never learn how to use it well or they are unable to retain this knowledge. Their quantitative skills otherwise are not noticeably improved. And who in his right mind wants to use a lousy little LCD display to graph a complicated function or a big data set, anyway? If you need to do that for real, you'll probably use Maple or Mathematica or Minitab or SAS or Origin or something, on a real computer.

I suspect that the many, many hours devoted to TI-83 use in high schools are largely wasted. That's the optimistic scenario. On the other hand, they may do actual harm. The use of these graphing calculators does nothing but encourage a dependency on a tool that the students do not understand. The skills gained do not appear to be readily transferable to other tools. That is, students who have grown up with the TI-83 do not seem to have an advantage in learning to use either a simpler calculator or a computer algebra system.

When we do a mathematical problem without a calculator or a computer, we sometimes say that we are doing it "by hand". But in fact, we are doing it "by brain". Calculators are labor-saving devices, but we should never forget exactly what kind of labor we are saving.

With this in mind, here are my own rules for using calculators and computers.
  • When solving a mathematical problem, use the minimum convenient technological aid. That is, if you really need a super-powerful computer algebra system, go for it. But if you're doing a few simple numerical calculations, for heaven's sake just use an ordinary calculator. Why use a hundred-function graphing calculator to find the average of seven numbers (a real-life example that my daughter mentioned to me today)?
  • Do not teach the use of a high-power feature-laden technological tool before something simpler is mastered.
  • Never use a toy to do a real computer's job. There are real hand-held computers, and it might be worth while to teach their use. But the TI-83 is not one of these.
Note #1: By now you are probably thinking: I bet he was for keeping slide rules, too. Well, as a matter of fact, I never used a slide rule (and did not, until recently, even own one). But I was almost the last kid in my high school physics class to get along using printed tables of logarithms and trig functions. These were, in almost every way, inferior to a good scientific calculator, and when I upgraded I never looked back.

Nevertheless, there were a few advantages to those old-fashioned tools. First, when you used them you probably kept track of the "power-of-ten" part of the calculation separately, which gave you a sense for orders of magnitude. You found out on your own whether the answer was really big or really small. Second, you were much less tempted to write down 1.779342994135776 rather than 1.78. When you worked for every decimal place, you had a better sense of what was a significant figure and what wasn't! Third, you learned to organize your calculation in an efficient way, and to re-use parts of calculations whenever possible. This reduced the number of opportunities for mistakes. And, of course, your batteries never, ever died. The fact is, I was a lot better -- and faster -- at physics problems with my log and trig tables than the other guys in my class were with their calculators.

Note #2: My daughter, who had to buy a TI-83 Plus for her school work, has a sensible defense of it. She says that the good thing about the graphing calculator with the fancy multi-line display is that you can go back and correct typos in the formulas you enter. With a regular scientific calculator, if you make a mistake, you have to do the calculation over from the start. This is an argument nicely constructed to please Dad, who is happiest when life provides a healthy capability for error-correction.

But the reason that error-correction is so important in the graphing calculator is that its design encourages you to put in the whole formula and then evaluate it once, at the end. In other words, you tend to input a lot more keystrokes before you get a recordable output. More keystroke means a greater likelihood that one of them went astray. Also, an error in the result will be harder to recognize, since it is the result of a more involved calculation. It is not at all obvious to me that the net error rate on final answers is actually lower.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A sermon for Lent

As I have mentioned before, now and then I've preached a sermon at our church. Doing a sermon is the most challenging sort of writing and speaking that I have ever done, by far, no contest. A paper or a lecture on quantum mechanics is easy by comparison. To do a sermon right, you have to dig right down to the bottom and discover what you really believe to be true. Then you have to find a way to drag it back up to the surface without bending or breaking it, so that you can show it to everybody else. Then again, you have to realize that what you believe isn't the point at all. (Some echo of this process, perhaps, can be found in what follows.) You want to do a fine job and speak well, naturally. But you also know that, for every comment on how good a speaker you are or how nice it was, you have failed a little. For you have failed indeed if they've listened to you and not to the thing you were trying to say -- not to the Thing that was trying to be said through you.

This sermon was given in November of 2001, two months to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet I think it has a Lenten feel about it; and I hope you find in it some meat for your own reflections.

Getting real
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, November 11, 2001)

Even the most ordinary language has a kind of poetry to it, which we usually don't notice, because we are accustomed to it, or maybe because we are too busy talking to realize what we are saying. But even the commonest turns of phrase, which we have heard a thousand times, can be pithy and penetrating expressions. One of my favorites is to describe an issue as "a can of worms". You could hardly ask for a more vivid image: a tangled mass of wriggling, unpleasant complications, which you'd probably rather avoid altogether. A can of worms. Poetry, I'm telling you.

There is another phrase, even better, that we sometimes use as a response in certain situations. If someone is making a ridiculous argument or dwelling on trivialities, we want to shake them out of their foolish concerns, and turn their attention to more serious matters. We say to them: "Get real."

That is a phrase that I could imagine Jesus using – particularly when, as in today's Gospel, he is faced with a group of religious leaders who are trying to entrap him with some clever theological conundrum. Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Is it right to heal a man on the Sabbath day? Get real!

Some say that our nation has been undergoing a process of getting real since the attacks on New York and Washington two months ago. This is a commonplace idea on the editorial pages, but I really think there may be something to it. Millions of Americans are rethinking their priorities. News stories that not long ago would have dominated the headlines are now relegated to that little moving line of text at the bottom of the cable news. Jokes that were funny and advertisements that were appealing last summer, no longer are. We are now in a war, with all of the terrible realities that war brings. And we are learning new truths – some surprising, many unpleasant – about the world and our place in it.

This process of getting real, that we now may see in our society, is of course all too familiar from our own lives. Many things may "wake us up": An appalling loss; an agonizing personal crisis; a sudden, unexpected accident; the grim diagnosis. So many things that we thought were terribly important, turn out to be of no account. So much that we took for granted, turns out to be the real substance of our lives.

You see as well as I do the common thread here. That thread is death. It is the nearness of the reality of death that calls us most insistently to abandon our fantasies and our frivolities. When the time comes to get real, therefore, it will be how we face death, and how we understand the meaning of death, that will make the difference.

Jesus is dealing with the Sadducees – not a very numerous group among the Jews of the 1st Century, but a very influential one. They tended to be priests and scribes, the educated elite of their day. The Sadducees only accepted as Scripture the books of Moses – the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Psalms, the Prophets, and so on they rejected. And they also rejected what we might call the supernatural elements of the popular Judaism of the day. They did not believe in angels or demons, and they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. The Sadduccees believed that this present life was all there was, and that when you died, you were dead and that was that.

By all accounts, they were an irritating and argumentative bunch. (Later on, in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul basically starts a riot between the Sadducees and the Pharisees on the high council of the Temple, just by bringing up the issue of the resurrection.) (Do you know anyone like that?) So when the Sadducees show up and try to discredit Jesus, they come armed with their best rabbinical arguments against a life after this one. They bring up a law in Deuteronomy about a man marrying his brother's childless widow, to produce an heir for his brother. To really make their point, they pose a situation in which seven brothers all marry the same woman, one after the other. In the next life, who is married to whom?

And here is Jesus's answer. You Sadducees don't understand anything. The new life, the resurrected life of the age to come, is not just an extension of this life, as you imagine. Those who are raised are children of God, the equals of the angels. They do not die anymore, and neither do they marry one another. So your whole question is ridiculous. Get real.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I had better meet one issue head-on. I for one cannot read this passage without a little uneasiness. Perhaps people in unhappy marriages find Jesus's answer a source of comfort, but those of us in better circumstances do not. The Mormons, who are very family-oriented and who are (shall we say) not overly constrained by traditional Christian teaching, even have a different kind of marriage. If you are Mormon, you can be married "for time and eternity" – which means that you are still supposed to be married in heaven, and these words of Jesus don't apply to you. Frankly, that doctrine seems to me like a comfortable piece of fiction, and I believe that we must look elsewhere for real understanding.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we know so little about the new life that is promised to us, and so much of that knowledge is negative. We will be cleansed of our sinfulness, we will no longer be subject to death, and so on. All negative points. Unless we are careful, we will have a purely negative idea of the resurrected life. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer "No," he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality.
Negative knowledge only takes us so far. To understand the new life as a positive reality, to glimpse that torrent of love and knowledge and strength and joy which the resurrected life must bring, we must find a way to go deeper.

Having knocked a few holes in the argument given by the Sadducees, our Lord presents an argument of his own. When God appeared to Moses, Jesus reminds them, God said that he was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. But all of those patriarchs had died centuries before. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. To him, therefore, Abraham and all the rest are alive indeed.

He is God of the living. The sting of our Lord's argument is that this is exactly the sort of thing the Sadducees themselves might have said. What they would have meant was that when a creature dies, God no longer truly cares about it. But Jesus tells us that what God cares about cannot truly be dead. In short, the most real thing about us is God's relationship with us. The most real thing about Abraham was and is that God is the God of Abraham. And because of that, Abraham lives – not as some fond memory of the Creator, but with a life that is indeed more real than our own.

How could it be otherwise? For God, the theologians tell us, is the ground of all being. There is no other source of reality. In the end, what you and I are to God is exactly what we truly are. And what are we? We are people who are loved by God. That divine love is not some kind of generalized benevolence toward humankind, but a powerful and personal and particular love for each of us. It is a love that made us and gives us life from moment to moment, a love that saves us at a terrible cost from sin and death, a love that labors in us to make us more perfectly and eternally lovable.

So when the time comes in our lives to get real – and that time always is now – then we know where to begin. We begin at that place within us where God meets us, for that is where we ourselves are most truly real. And the more real we become, by his grace, the more of our lives that meeting-place will encompass. It is our business to learn to meet God in the whole of our lives. In the end, everything else will fade – ambition that does not serve him, knowledge that does not seek him, wisdom that does not honor him, joy that does not praise him, sorrow that is not shared with him. These things will die. Only what is real can be raised. Only what is loved can live.

The Empire of Lies

I remember those days, now more than fifteen years ago, when I and half the world watched openmouthed as the Berlin Wall dissolved more or less before our eyes. We had grown up believing that the Iron Curtain was a permanent feature of Europe, no more changeable than the Alps. What hope we might have was hope for reform, for someone like a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev to find a way to loosen the system a little and turn the nuclear clock a few minutes back from midnight. The problem of the USSR and its empire was simply intractable. It could be managed, but it could not be solved.

For myself, I never thought the Communists were right. I thought their rule was a brutal and dehumanising episode of history. Marxist doctrine was junk, and anyway the Soviets had abandoned orthodox Marxism decades ago. But it was almost as if I did not really believe in my own beliefs. I thought that the Soviet variety of Communism was hateful to human nature, but I had no faith that the people in that part of the world would really realize this. Most would accept the propaganda their government fed them, and the few who dared to think otherwise would be shipped to the Gulag.

So change was not in the cards. The best that could be hoped for was an extended armed truce, a Cold War, during which some on-the-margin reformers like Gorbachev might somehow tweak the machine and fend off the hard-line crazies in the Politburo. And Gorbachev himself? I had no illusions about him. He seemed to be less corrupt than the usual apparatchik, but I did not forget that he had been a protege of ex-KGB head Andropov, during the latter's short-lived leadership of the USSR.

But none of us really understood. People like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were not aberrations. People like Natan Sharansky and Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II and Vaclav Havel -- and oh my goodness there were a lot of them -- were not aberrations. They were the heroes; but just beneath the surface, throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, millions more longed to be free of the vast deceit. I say deceit; for the "Evil Empire" was, above all, the Empire of Lies.

Then came that late autumn night when we saw German teenagers standing atop that evil concrete wall, waving down to their friends, while the border guards watched it all in confusion. Later on, when the hard-liners tried to oust Gorbachev, we sat up night after night to watch the dispatches from Moscow. Yeltsin climbed onto a tank in front of the Russian Parliament and we all held our breath. And then the whole USSR just came apart. The Empire of Lies folded in on itself so quickly that everyone could see how rotten it had been.

The Middle East has also been the Empire of Lies. For decades it has been ruled by despots who kept themselves in power by sowing hate and falsehood. It has masked a dismal dearth of actual economic development with huge inflows of oil money. It has seen fit to harbor, and to export to the rest of the world, a violent and intolerant ideology.

But the news reports these days, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Israel and Palestine -- and, most especially now, from Syria and Lebanon -- make me think that the Empire of Lies may be buckling again. We must be cautious, prudent, sober and patient. We must not lose our judgment just because things seem promising. But there is something in the air that smells like 1989. May it be even so.

ISBN 1-58949-038-X

The day before yesterday I received two boxes in the mail. One small box was from some friends in Colorado. They had a seen an article that my College's alumni mag had done on a course that I taught about Einstein. So they decided that what I really needed was a tie tack that says E=mc2. It's an elegant thing, and I will wear it with my M. C. Escher "Relativity" tie. What is curious is how appropriate the gift turned out to be.

The second box was much larger, and contained ten free "author" copies of my new relativity textbook. My first book! My first ISBN number! It is pretty exciting, let me tell you, and I have spent a shameful fraction of the last two days showing it to people, grinning, carrying it around, and reading it.

Of course, reading it is dangerous, since I find more typos. (Dang, there's another one.) At least we managed to catch those sign errors in the Lorentz transformation before publication. And nobody will even notice them. No, really, it'll be okay. Except maybe for that whopper in the Preface when I'm thanking everybody. And the wacky numbering of the exercises in Appendix A. And the confusing Greek letters in the paragraph after Equation 12.67. (I'm already putting together the errata sheet.)

My book is published by one of the smaller scientific presses. My editor was very patient and willing to accomodate me, and the process was fairly painless. My book is an introductory textbook on special relativity, which, though not my field of specialty, has been a long-standing love of mine. The publisher also puts out in the same series a general relativity book by a Nobel laureate. Pretty fast company! (Between you and me, my book is a lot better, at least as a textbook. I have exercises and diagrams and everything.) Here is the publisher's page for the book. I note that the blurb and the table of contents there are slightly wrong. For example, I did not give the same title to both Chapters 8 and 9. (Argh! More typos!)

I had a lot of fun writing the book, and I worked hard to make it as entertaining as a physics book is likely to get. There are jokes. I do not know why there aren't more jokes in physics textbooks, especially in a really funny subject like special relativity. There is an exceedingly subtle Seinfeld reference on page 1, which is weird, since I never watched that show. Extra points if you can spot it.

Tell your friends. Recommend it to your book club. Watch for the thoughtful review essay in the New York Times, the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the super-cool video game, the line of mass market sequels ghost-written by starving grad students (Physics in Spacetime II: Revenge of the Light Cone). I'll be down in Palm Springs by the pool, living the good life off the royalties.

For now, though, that tie tack from my friends in Colorado is pretty cool.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Spell-checking famous physicists

I discovered this while typing a list of possible paper topics for my students. The spell-checker in Microsoft Word 2003 recognizes the names of many physicists, including Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Richard Feynman and Subrehmanyan Chandrasekhar. Other physicists are less fortunate. Here are some of the more entertaining replacement suggestions:
  • Louis de Broglie: bogie, boogie, boggle, froglike
  • Paul Ehrenfest: Ernest, earnest, serenest, ethernet
  • Ludwig Boltzmann: boatman, batsman, Batman
  • Eugene Wigner: Wagner, Winger, winner, wiener
  • Hideki Yukawa: Yakama, Yucatan
  • Paul Dirac: direct, Doric, dire, Dora, diary
  • Kamerlingh Onnes: ones, omens
  • Polykarp Kusch: Koch, Kirsch, kitsch, Kasich, Busch
  • Julian Schwinger: stinger, stringer, shiner, shinier
  • Peter Kapitza: capital, Capitan, baptize, kibitz, kaput
  • Arno Penzias: pansies, pencils, pennies, ponies
  • Hermann Weyl: well, wily, weal, wail, way
  • Hans Oersted: forested, ousted, operated, orated, overstep
As Glenn Reynolds would say: Heh.