Monday, December 19, 2011

Links for December 19, 2011

Articles that I have been reading today:

An excellent article on denialism in general.

An article on how corruption is a part of human nature.

This gentleman is delighted that Kim Jong Il is no more.

And this tells you why the aforementioned man is delighted.

An interesting perspective on the Vedas.

Good to see eccentric inventors in India.

The tea party is popular no more. Looks like George Sr. will have to change to coffee with his dolls in the attic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And Ode To Data

As an engineer who has hung around lots of test sections over the last few years, I have developed a mortal fear of a four letter word: Data.

Data is nature's way of keeping your ego in check; data is nature's way of proving that your understanding of the universe (or that miniscule fraction of the universe that you are studying) is entirely incorrect (or at least, needs some level of tweaking).

Data is the world's best physics teacher. The curious engineer relishes fitting physical models to incomprehensible data patterns. The high of fitting a model and making measurable predictions is one of the great highs of life. It is often worth the corresponding low when one realizes that there's a caveat to the model that we just developed.

My attitude towards data has evolved since I joined Intel about a year ago. In graduate school my life was  centered around data. The emphasis back then was to fit an intellectually elegant physical model to the data - so as to make the results general. I believe there is a physicist within every engineer. It is this inner physicist within every engineer that likes to fit a physical model to the data. A shot at redemption for engineer who is, at some level ashamed of becoming a sell-out.\

Having made the switch from academia to the dark side (the corporate world), I am guilty of selling out all the more. While my loyalties do still lie with data (and at Intel, data is the undisputed king), the way of looking at data is completely different.It is less passionate; it is more dreary and mundane. Heartless sounding statistical methods are applied to the data to cull out main effects and interactions.

Which is not to say that physics is entirely forgotten. Physics is more like a philosophy here; it is what informs one's intuition. All the model fitting that is done here is done in one's head. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's not rocket science

One of my pet peeves these days is the phrase "It's not rocket science". Because rocket science is not complicated. You take chemicals that produce a large amount of gas on chemically reacting; you duct the gas out in one direction -- and you immediately move in the opposite reaction.  It's so simple that even ancient peoples had working rockets -- before they even knew what a technical paper was. I hereby take a vow: I will NOT use the phrase "It's not rocket science" ever again. Because that's an insult to my intelligence.

Let's think of something more apt. Manned flight? Meh. An undergrad who's been paying attention in fluid mechanics class can draw a couple of control volumes and prove the Kutta-Jukowski theorem. If an undergrad can explain something, I refuse to use that to signify a complicated situation.

Before I learnt how microprocessors worked, it was all greek to me. But now, I see how circuits of transistors trading in 0s and 1s essentially run the internet. While all this is remarkably complicated, it is not a philosophically closed book. I can wrap my head around it. But this is significantly more complex than rocket science.

I've a;ways found understanding avian flight to be a much more difficult prospect. It's considerably more complex than how an airplane generates thrust and lift -- but it's not impossible to explain. As a matter of fact, this site does a good job of it. If you say "It's not bird flight", you will earn a little more of my respect than you would have, had you gone with "It's not rocket science".

But one thing that does scream complexity to me is theoretical physics. I've sort of sold-out by getting a PhD in engineering ('cause that's where the monies are), so there's almost no chance that I can make head or tail of how a neutrino traveling faster than light can allow for time travel. My understanding of the world starts and stops with classical mechanics (like most engineers). What would intimidate me is the math and physics of string theory. Hell, even quantum theory.

Long story short -- if you say "It's not rocket science", I will either lose all respect for your intellectual faculties, or interpret it as "it's not as simple as rocket science". For a particular task to gain my respect you probably will have to claim that it's not bird-flight --- or, what the hell, the theory of faster-than light neutrinos.