Einstein’s Big Idea Rocks

WOW! I’m speechless. NOVA has outdone itself. My father e-mailed me excitedly earlier tonight to heap praise on “Einstein’s Big Idea”. It was really a remarkable combination of drama, history, and science. I’ve always liked “Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens” for that reason, but this takes the damn cake.

What I really liked was that there were people I know in this program. At the end, when they talk about the relevance of “E=mc2” to understanding the origin of the universe and show SLAC, those are all people I know! “Caolionn O’Connell”:http://blogs.quantumdiaries.org/13/ was the young woman looking pensive in all the shots (and staring at the sun, which ought to be really bad… but this is TV!). “Mike Kelsey”:http://www.slac.stanford.edu/~kelsey/ was the bearded man wearing the wild shirt, a BaBar physicist with whom I’ve worked many times in the past.

And, a point of pride for me lies in all of this. I’ve had the pleasure to be the “event display physicist” for the BaBar collaboration for several years. In this role, I’ve worked with Serge Du, Mark Donszelmann, and Joseph Perl on the BaBar event display. Serge and Joe were responsible for the original implementation of the HepRep file standard in BaBar, making it possible to export BaBar data graphically as a HepRep image, which is renderable with the WIRED viewer. WIRED was developed by Mark and Joe, and over the last few years Joe and I have worked closely on growing WIRED3 as a user-friendly event display for BaBar. This colorful display was featured in a fairly long visual shot of the BaBar control room. It’s the brightly colored one with the black background.

Working in visualization has always been described to me as a thankless job. Not so. Just seeing my fellow physicists using and reacting (and yes, even criticizing) the display, seeing them generating images of their events, and seeing the display featured in public displays and documentaries, is more than a reward. It reminds me, of course, that there is much to do to complete that work.

Back on the West Coast

Whew. This was a long pair of weeks. Between the marathon travel (and the actualy marathon for Jodi), the return to CA, two days of non-stop meetings (and work?), then travel to and from DC for my friend’s wedding, Jodi and I are EXHAUSTED. In addition to exhausted, we are also 2000 miles apart.

Let’s backtrack a bit. The wedding was wonderful. It was a small ceremony in a manor house at a golf course in Virginia. The reception was held in an adjoining building. Even the rain finally gave it a rest so that we could all enjoy ourselves, after drenching the mid-Atlantic for several days. The wedding was a chance to “renew acquaintences from college”:http://www.cooleysekula.net/wp-content/uploads/cs-015.png, to catch up with the happy couple and their families (the groom’s family I met for the first time), and to have a fun evening (with… my GOD… a little dancing even thrown in for good measure).

This weekend also got me thinking a lot about parallel worlds, chance, and life. Whoa there. That’s right: a wedding got me thinking about parallel universes.

Max Tegmark, among others, has ruminated heavily on the possibility of parallel universes. This young professor from MIT has several categories of parallel universe, one of which are quantum parallel universes that branch every time a quantum state collapses. The argument is that all quantum states are possible, and manifest as multiple copies of the same universe, but along different branch points of the quantum outcome. Each Steve, in his own universe, only perceives the history connected to the outcome his universe is born from.

Really, it’s all a pile of theoretical bull-hooey. Until a test can be devised to actually discern the presence of such parallel worlds, or until the different possible categories can be distinguished or ruled out, this is all a sugar-wasting brain exercise. That said, it sure is fun philosophy. Actually, it’s kind of a dark philosophy (at least in the way I wound up using it).

During the wedding, the topic of one of my ex-girlfriends – the one I dated right before Jodi – came up. After the wedding, I got to thinking about Tegmark’s parallel universes based on quantum outcomes. For instance, chemical processes (which drive emotion, decision, and thought) are fundementally quantum mechanical. One can construct a long argument that every time a choice is made, you’ve entered a particular quantum state (which is based on the microscopic outcomes of the chemical processes underlying consciousness). I asked myself: what if things had been slightly different back before 1998, when I met Jodi in grad school?

I started to imagine worlds where Jodi, having applied to Yale and having been accepted, met me in college in physics when I was a screwed up teenager on his own for the first time. Jodi would have been a Junior when I was a Freshman, so there’s a good chance I would have met her at colloquia. We’ve always kinda joked about this scenario (I’ve wished on many occasions I’d met her years earlier just to simplify my life), but we’ve also concluded that it’s quite likely that we might not have actually liked one another. She would have been a determined athelete, likely majoring in Engineering and not Physics (which was a switch she made by a long chain of events in her real college experience). I would have been a fairly shy, intimidated student with limited social skills, with a grudge against athletes. That’s a pretty bad universe. My life probably sucks in that universe.

Another scenario I wondered about was past relationships. What if past relationships that didn’t work out **had** worked out, as with my ex-girlfriend or with an ex-boyfriend of Jodi’s? We ran through the possibilities and identified a case for her where, had we gotten to UW-Madison under those circumstances, we likely would have never had the chance to hit it off.

Given how much I love Jodi, and how grateful I am for the life I have, I came to appreciate the delicate membranes that separate the consequences of one choice from another. If Tegmark is correct, and there are parallel worlds built from the branching trees of quantum collapse, they must surely be separated by a thin skin. Through such a wall, surely we must sense the joy, fear, and regret of our parallel selves as they – and we – cope with the choices we have made.

Given all that weighty philosophy Jodi and I tackled late at night in Virginia, after the wedding, it’s pretty crappy that she’s in Illinois all week for a bunch of meetings. Sigh. Guess it’s me and the cats.

Yes, yes! Get down from there. I’ll feed you!!!

Jodi’s Marathon is Over!

This weekend was the date of Jodi’s marathon run in Milwaukee. We left early on Friday morning, bleary eyed and eager to get to our destination. After a wonderful party with friends and family on Saturday night, we awoke at 6:15 on Sunday morning to get ready. Jodi left the starting line at 8:01 am and, 4 hours and 49 minutes later she crossed the finish line. Pictures to follow!