Category Archives: Richard Feynman

Hot Air: What Does a Pencil Look Like?

A Different Direction

Join me in something new here.

For the last year or more, I’ve been averaging only a post a month on this global communications colossus. When I started The Electron Pencil back in 2012 and running through 2019 or so, I was striving — and mostly succeeding — in putting up a post a day herein. For the last couple of years of that run, I wrote about the 45th President of the United States more than any other topic. Much more. The truth is, what in the hell else was there to write about starting in the summer of 2016? What had once been a Simpsons cartoon joke had become — improbably, alarmingly, disturbingly — serious business. The joke was on us.

Funny-Not Funny.

So, as I say, I wrote, angrily for the most part, about President Gag. And, truth be told, it eventually became a millstone. Thinking and writing about Trump, that is. By ’19, I was sick to death of him and the country that had elected him on a technicality. Next thing I knew, i was going weeks at a time without putting up a Pencil post.

Even though this Holy Land has had a new president for some five months now, I’ve not yet got back into the groove of posting regularly, much less daily. And for that period of time I’ve been wondering what to do with this tool I have at my fingertips and that I pay for, I might add. I subscribe to the WordPress Business package, an option that allows me to put up podcasts and get all sorts of analytics and bells and whistles that the WP free basic package lacks. I pondered long and hard about simply going back to basic and saving the yearly premium subscription fee. Hell, I even tossed around the idea of closing down this shop altogether, but I abhor that option most of all.

Back at the beginning (the year 1 AP, or Anno Penicillum * ) I did a lot of local news coverage and opinionating here, another thing I lost pretty much all my ardor for as Bloomington, like the rest of the country, became a soap opera of antagonists snarling at each other, righteous brothers- and sisters-in-arms convinced everyone on the other side of even the most innocuous issue was in league with Satan, or at least an aspiring child pornographer. I eventually lost any desire to continue wading into the cesspool of local news and issues as well.

[ * Some sources have the word penicillum as the Latin translation for the American English pencil. Those sources go on to assert the Latin word actually meant small penis back in the days of Cicero and Augustus Caesar. I suppose I get the connection, pencils and penises sort of resemble each other — emphasis on sort of. Once I learned this, though, I was hooked. Yep, I’m definitely denoting each year of the Pencil era as an Anno Penicillum.]

Bill Bryson

In any case, I’ve considered any number of different ways I could go with this blog and website. The one, though, that keeps popping back into mind has to do with science. Loyal Pencillistas know I’m a voracious reader. I purchase books the way some people buy cars or wine or Hummels. That is, obsessively. At the Book Corner, where I still work a few hours each week, when people ask me what I like to read, I tell them history and science. Hell, my favorite living author is Bill Bryson, who writes about both topics (as well as language and travel).

So, yeah, science. I love science. Or shall I say sciences? Every single one of them. Astronomy, particle physics, engineering, medicine, biology, geology, archeology, anthropology, mathematics. Name a hard science and I’m in on it, as much as an unlettered layperson can be. The soft sciences — psychology, sociology, and political science — you can keep. I mean, I’ll converse with anybody about those topics; for pity’s sake, I’ll converse with anybody about anything. But I’m fairly averse to accumulating books on those subjects and I take the pronouncements emanating from mavens in those soft sciences with a grain of salt. But the sciences that traffic in testable, demonstrable, observable principles? Friends, count me in.

Ergo (don’t you just love Latin?), I want to turn this Pencil thing into a fun science reader. Sure, why not? The idea being in each post I’ll ruminate * on a specific science or topic, illuminating it with a light, hopefully witty, touch. Let’s look at it as a digest of Things Every Adult Ought to Know. Every adult and a goodly number of exceptional kids, too.

[ * Most dictionaries define ruminating as 1) thinking deeply about a subject and 2) chewing cud. Don’t you just love American English?]

What’s She Thinking About?

Don’t you agree there is a floor-level of knowledge the grown-up human beings of the 21st Century ought to possess? We don’t necessarily have to be on intimate terms with quantum electrodynamics (the daddy-o of which, Richard Feynman, once famously said

Richard Feynman

anyone who purports to truly understand that particular science simply doesn’t) but, dang mang, we should by all rights know the difference between tensile, torque, shear, and compressive strength (we’d like to feel safe and secure when driving across big, high bridges) or what the four macronutrients are for human beings (water, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins). We don’t need to be PhD candidates in any of these sciences but, golly, we’d better know a little something about all of them.

For that matter, each and every one of us should know who Rosalind Franklin, Cecilia Payne, and Loney Clinton Gordon were. BTW: I’m not linking to their names here because I want to do future posts on each of them and more.

I’m going to start up this new Pencil push sometime within the next few days. If you dig it, keep coming back. If not, there are plenty of other ways for you to occupy your time in this world. Speaking of the world, did you know a University of Texas researcher determined that if everybody alive on Earth today hoped to enjoy a lifestyle similar to the average American, we’d need the resources of ten planet Earths.

See what I mean? That’s the kind of thing I’ll traffic in when this new Things-Every-Adult-Ought-to-Know phase of the Pencil kicks off.

See you soon.

Does This Look Like a Bunch of Penises to You?

Hot Air: Politics & The Quantum Kid

A Couple of Quickies

Hey, kids, you know we’re not at all out of the woods yet. Even if Texas et al‘s frivolous lawsuit before the Supreme Court fails (itself not guaranteed, BTW) the new Congress in January will vote on certification of the Electoral College result. I have a feeling that’s gonna be a hell of an alley fight.

Here’s some free (and unsolicited) advice for Kamala Harris or whomever runs for president under the Democratic Party banner in 2024.

The Loved One and I have taken dozens of Sunday drives throughout southern Indiana since the 2020 presidential campaign began. We’ve both been struck by the overwhelming number of Trump yard signs, banners, flags, and house drapings. Yeah, house drapings — these Trumpists are really into their boy.

Her Face On Every Garage And Barn?

Sometime in the summer I’d read that the Trump campaign was running short of cash, primarily because it had given away all those Trump things for free. Generally, you have to contribute at least the cost of the sign before a campaign gives you one. The idea in the story I’d read was the campaign was wacky for that kind of spending.

I’m here to tell you it was a hell of a smart strategy. Everybody in cow and corn land thought their guy was going to win in a landslide. The proliferation of the signs surely influenced a lot of voters who may have been iffy on four more years. Everybody wants to be on the side of a winner.

That said, I urge the putative Harris campaign to do the same thing. Flood the cities with Harris yard signs. Inundate the countryside with Harris flags. Anybody who wants to emblazon the name Harris anywhere on their property or body can on her dime.

It’ll seem like a grass-roots uprising. And it just might make farm and small town folk feel less sure that they can only be Republican.

Baby Steps

Ready for a healthy helping of optimistic news? Not all young people are stupid, annoying, and/or vapid. To wit: this brilliant human being, Maryam Tsegave, 17, of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, has created this wonderful video explainer about one of the pillars of our physical existence:

This is one of the basic tenets of quantum electrodynamics. Now, the parent of that arcane, inscrutable discipline, Richard Feynman, famously has said anyone who tells you they understand quantum physics doesn’t, period. Maryam, though, has come up with a metaphorical model of how quantum tunneling works. Quantum tunneling is at absolute odds with our everyday understanding of how tangible things work. The idea being on the sub-sub-sub-sub-atomic level particles can go through walls. We’ll never be able to truly understand how and why that is so. But Maryam’s tutorial allows us in a fresh, exciting way to gain a teensy tiny grasp on the phenomenon.

Just watching this thing makes me feel a bit better about humanity this morning. Just look at her eyes, the joy and energy in them, as she talks to us.

Hat tip to Maria Hamilton Abegunde for pointing this out.

Hot Air

Gay’s Rights

Extremely tall poet Ross Gay is back in town after a year-long sabbatical. The assoc. director of the Creative Writing Dept. at Indiana University, Gay took the year off to practice his penmanship, churning out scads of new poems and even an essay or two.

Gay

Ross Gay [Image from The Cortland Review]

For instance, his take on the dicey relationship between this holy land’s cops and its darker-hued citizens ran earlier this summer in The Sun magazine. The Sun is a neglected jewel, tackling issues and featuring voices that the corporate media usually only sniff at. Search me as to how The Sun survives: There aren’t any ads for Chevrolet, Subway, or Home Depot. Its cover price is competitive with periodicals that are chock-full of pimpings for vodkas and boner pills.

I’ll take The Sun over Time eight days a week.

Anyway, Gay revealed some very personal experiences he’s had with cops making traffic stops on him. He is a respected member of the community, tenured, a leader in his department. He’s also Black. Well, light brown. His dazzling smile can brighten any room. To associate the strictly chromatic descriptor black with him seems somehow amiss.

To many cops, though, that’s all he is. Black.

Police Stop

Just Another Stop

You have to check out Gay’s piece, written even before Michael Brown was whacked. I direct this especially to those who can’t seem to grasp why all the rage over the Brown killing. Don’t worry — Gay’s argument is not all anger and righteousness. This guy can write, of course. He cites, as an example, a  joke about blacks and the cops:

The African American comedy duo Key and Peele have a skit in which President Obama is teaching his daughter Malia to drive. When she runs a stop sign, a cop pulls them over. Astonished and a bit embarrassed at having detained the president of the United States, the cop tells them they can go. But Obama, earnest as ever, says, “No, I want you to go ahead and treat us the way you would if I weren’t the president.” In the next shot we see Obama getting slammed on the hood of the car and handcuffed. It’s funny. And not only black people laugh at such jokes. Everyone does, because everyone knows. [The counter-italics are Gay’s.]

If the comedy duo’s bit appeals to you, sneak a peek at Paste mag’s “10 Best Key & Peele Sketches.”

For the Gay essay, go here.

[h/t to Bryce Martin.]

A Fine Man

One of my personal heroes is the late Nobel Prize-winning scholar Richard Feynman. The Bronx-born theoretical physicist who helped develop the frustratingly arcane study of quantum electrodynamics was named one of the ten greatest scientists of all time by a Physics World poll, played the bongos, and worked on his formulas while sitting in a booth at the local strip club.

In other words, my kind of guy.

It tickles me to note that his second wife (his first died of tuberculosis) sued him for divorce, describing him in her complaint thusly:

He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.

Feynman gained national renown through his books and lectures. His memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and his collection of lectures on basic physics, Six Easy Pieces, are are valued parts of my core library.

Feynman

Feynman

Now comes news that his most famous lectures are available for free online. The California Institute of Technology has published his seven-hour-long “Feynman Lectures on Physics” in three volumes, readable on any device.

Say what you will about the internet — that it has turned us into a nation of screen-gawking zombies, that it makes nude pix of Jennifer Lawrence available to every drooling knucklehead, or that it is now the primary outlet for the likes of Glenn Beck — it allows us to learn the ABCs of physical existence through the words of one of the smartest human beings ever to walk the Earth.

[h/t to The Loved One.]

Church Girl

Speaking of drooling knuckleheads, who do you think makes the decisions about what you hear on your MP3 player? Not only are record company execs knuckleheads, they’re knuckle-draggers.

In their professional opinion, it seems, every artist who possesses a vagina must strip down and shake as much of her toned flesh as possible in order for her to be worthy of distribution through the corporate music system.

Here’s how bizarre the music biz is when it comes to gender politics: Rihanna earlier this year tweaked, bumped, grinded, and exposed herself while caterwauling the songs from her latest album — and she was praised for “empowering” women. The men who determine what we see and hear in popular music and the critics who shill for them view women as nothing more than fap fodder.

At least the strippers plying their trade while Richard Feynman worked on his calculus notes at a corner table didn’t claim they were the ideological daughters of Margaret Sanger, Rosalind Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Which brings us to Charlotte Church. Remember her? Back about 15 years ago, she made a huge splash as a cute, virginal 12-year-old, belting out arias and other classical and religious pieces in a debut album entitled Voice of an Angel. The Barnes & Noble music-buying crowd snapped up the disc by the millions. PBS ran a special featuring her, further endearing her to the faux-sophisticated crowd.

When she reached the age of 19, she decided she wanted to sing pop tunes. The first bit of advice she got from the bosses at her record company? Show ’em your tits.

Church

Church: The Virgin & The Whore

Well, that was essentially what they said. Here, let Church explain it herself:

When I was 19 or 20, I found myself… being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits. And the lines I had spit at me again and again, generally by middle-aged men, were “You look great, you’ve got a great body, why not show it off?”

Or, “Don’t worry, it’ll look classy, it’ll look artistic.”

Church revealed this in an eye-opening speech she gave at the BBC-6 Music annual John Peel Lecture.

Still a very young woman, Church felt enormous pressure to bare her skin. Those record co. execs made it clear that since they were paying her their good money, they had a say in how much jiggle she was to display. She continued:

… I was barely out of my teenage years, and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that now I am frequently abused on social media, being called slut, whore, and a catalog of other indignities that I am sure you’re are also sadly very familiar with.

How’s that for the voice of an angel?

You ought read the entire speech. It’s not long but it’s loaded with bombshells about the abuse of women by their record companies.

Me? I’ll still take Carrie Brownstein.

Brownstein

Brownstein [Image from Stereogum]

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“Those who, in principle, oppose birth control are either incapable of arithmetic or else in favor of war, pestilence, and famine as permanent features of human life.” — Bertrand Russell

KINKY STUDENTS

Student academic fraud is on the upswing, according to a piece in the IDS this morning.

We’re talking cheating on a test or hiring a ringer to write a paper, that sort of thing. Some 366 cases of such enhanced achievement misconduct were adjudicated last year. This year the number of cheaters already is approaching that total, according to the article, even though the spring semester isn’t even half over.

Giraffing

Using last year’s figure, let’s just assume the actual number of cheaters was three times the official number. That gives us a shade under 1100 future Wall Street icons…, er…, I mean, cheaters. That’s a pretty heartening number, no?

When you consider that some 95,000 aspiring scholars attended classes at the seven Indiana University campuses, you realize that only .0038 percent of students are kinky, to use an old alley cop term for lawbreakers.

“So, Cheating On Your Semester Finals, Eh?”

Not bad, eh? The pressure on college students to succeed, especially in this Great Recession era, is enormous. When only one in approximately 261 students spits on the academic code, in my hypothetical scenario, I think we can safely say IU crammers by and large are honest souls.

The whole subject reminds me of that great Woody Allen line: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

PRIVATES PARTY

Miles Craig, Crystal Johnson, and Mike Cagle all posted this funny pic on their Facebook pages.

If the GOP anti-sex league wasn’t so scary, it’d be funny.

WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS WOMAN

Bloomington author Joy Shayne Laughter paid her respects at Soma Coffee‘s unofficial Big Mike Table this morning when she came in for her daily IV drip. Joy was all agog over an essay she read by a writer named Andrea Balt on the web journal Elephant.

Balt tries to explain women. Don’t get me wrong, I love Joy to pieces, but now, after reading the essay, I’m more confused than ever about those folks who possess different plumbing than I do.

Then again, perhaps my confusion means I really get it now.

Women are like quantum mechanics. As Richard Feynman reportedly said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Particle Paths Illustrating Quantum Mechanics Probabilities

SCHOOL DAYS

Was there ever a cooler girl group than the Runaways?

Joan Jett and Lita Ford are underappreciated among rock ‘n roll experts only because they carried the wrong set of chromosomes in their cells.

And, by the way, doesn’t it look as though Joan Jett is chewing gum in this video? Maybe it’s my imagination, but if she is, it’s the perfect touch.

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