Sunday, 19 April 2015

Reduction

People make me sad.

People make me really, really sad.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one thing making me sad right now (yes, just one, I'm not going to go into too many details right now) is reduction. And you might be wondering why that makes me sad. After all, this is coming from the same person who describes hairbrushes as wavefunctions and humans as balls of cells.

Yeah, guilty as charged. I'm a hypocrite.

For some reason, it leaves an awfully sick taste in my mouth that you can sum up a person's character in the following details:

  • which arbitrary set of borders they grew up within
  • which arbitrary set of borders they were born within
  • their gender(s)
  • their sexuality
People are not inherently bland. They are not interesting solely by virtue of being born in a place you consider "exotic" or something like that. To treat someone as being interesting only because of their nationality or their race or their gender, to reduce them to just that in your eyes, is demeaning and humiliating.

People are interesting for their quirks, their reactions, their passions, their mysteries, their unknowns, the way they crack up at little things and develop complex in-jokes, the things that excite them and make them happy and make them laugh, for the things you have to find out in more than just a potted summary. People are most interesting when you can't describe them.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Useless

The universe is useless.

Half of the people reading this think I'm wrong, half of them think that this is trivial, and the other half don't have a clue what I'm on about.

I am fully aware that this makes three halves.

Anyway, the universe is pretty damn purposeless. It doesn't exist for any grand, high-flown moralistic reason that we can work out; it just is. Because of (as far as we can tell) a Big Bang. Everything in it is just about as purposeless and useless, from galaxies to stars all the way down to us. The universe couldn't give a shit about human concepts like morality and purpose and so far all this is brain-bleedingly trivial so you might be wondering where I'm going with this.

Anyway, we're purposeless, useless beings living in a purposeless, useless universe and somehow I feel like out of 7 billion useless primates I'm the most useless of all.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Why do you have a stupid banner at the bottom of your blog?

I'm honestly not a fan of putting pop-up banners and ads and things on sites. So I apologise to everyone seeing the banner about Congress censoring the internet. Especially since, well, I'm not American and since a lot of big businesses are very much in favour of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

I will now say that I haven't looked into it enough to have a proper opinion, so I've largely tried to stay out of it. However, I am concerned about the secrecy of the proceedings and the severity of the intellectual property restraints, amongst other things.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Of Ivory Towers and Physics Woo

One of the reasons I really, really like doing physics is because it gives you an amazing bullshit filter, if you let it. All of a sudden the world becomes clear and sharp and deep, described by the beautiful and powerful language that is mathematics. Hopefully you learn the tools to tell the plausible from the just plain nonsense and try to base things on evidence.

Because physics is shiny and wonderful and leaves people speechless, the awe of physics is popular and widely publicised. By and large, this is a good thing; I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to learn not just for utility but for pleasure, and to learn whatever the hell they please. Unfortunately, because most people are averse to maths (this is an utter travesty; numbers aren't scary), most popular science books gloss over or ignore the mathematical foundation of physics, giving people misconceptions. Now add that to the wave of stupid people promoting things like quantum woo and what do you get? A bunch of people who think they understand physics but are fundamentally misguided.

As someone studying physics, I'll freely admit that I don't know everything - but that means that I won't peddle woo either. And while I can understand the arguments of those who argue that this woo can be beneficial to physics in small doses (How The Hippies Saved Physics is a magnificent book about how mysticism - not necessarily woo but often associated with it - lifted physics out of its Cold War rut), I think that right now we have too much woo.

You might argue that in the grand scheme of things, misconceptions about physics are not really something to get all het up about. After all, children are starving, economies are fucked and we're currently dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere whilst causing habitat loss. There are bigger problems out there.

The thing is, physics has a wide range of applications, from basic research to climatology to dynamical systems theory (the stuff that tries to work with chaos and complexity and is genuinely a very interesting field). If you can get the physics right, you can do things with world-changing consequences. If you get the physics wrong, there is every possibility that people might die. You cannot separate science from the complex problems facing the modern world.

So because I see everything as connected and because I'm also a massive physics nerd, I find it really irritating and upsetting that my subject gets turned into woo.

What makes it worse is that the vast majority of these people are not dishonest or evil. They are good people trying to make the best of bad information. I have access to good information, but that's because I'm studying for a physics degree. In the UK, this is expensive - at least £9,000 a year in tuition fees (although this will mostly be covered by loans) plus accommodation and textbook fees. In the US, this is even more expensive. Studying full-time is expensive. Textbooks are expensive and there are so many of them that without guidance (again, something that can be difficult to get outside of the university) someone might get lost.

It is shocking and humbling to realise that I'm inside the ivory tower now, and that I have relatively easy access to things from inside here, while those outside the ivory tower are locked out of so much. Frankly, it makes me feel guilty.

But the harsh truth is that my guilt will do nothing to dismantle the ivory tower. It will do nothing to help stop the spread of misinformation or advance public understanding of physics. We need real, concrete action for that.

Academically, I'm a nobody. I'm a fresher just starting out on my academic journey. And you might ask what a nobody like me can do.

Surprisingly, it turns out that the answer to that question is "quite a lot". Through university I teach young girls the basics of coding and am currently applying to mentor students for next year. Outside of university, I run this blog and a science enthusiast/personal blog. You can find me explaining bits of physics to people on twitter, where I also post science links in between political ranting and mental health stuff. Lastly, talking to people (and trying to explain special relativity on a napkin) never goes out of style. It helps that nowadays in the UK there is a government initiative to widen access to higher education, meaning that you can get support with funding and paperwork when doing science outreach.

And we are fortunate to live in a time where we have many more free online resources. It takes a lot of free time and discipline to self-teach, but they're a hell of a lot better than woo.

Physics Forums: If you get stuck on a question, look here!
Khan Academy: I don't personally use it, but a lot of people seem to like it.
HyperPhysics: Mostly aimed at uni students, but a very good guide.
MIT OpenCourseWare: As far as I'm concerned this is just about the jewel in the crown when it comes to learning physics from scratch, and even when you're stuck on problems.

There are of course a lot more resources than this. Please post them in the comments, as different people learn in different ways.

Perhaps I'm just naive, but I truly do think that if we all try to pass on our knowledge we can turn back the tide of pseudoscientific woo and one day - maybe - just about dismantle that ivory tower once and for all.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Ode to Tinfoil

Tinfoil is very important.

I don't mean literal tinfoil - I'm just being silly. But tinfoil sounds like foil and I happen to think that foils are very important - not just for wrapping up sandwiches and making good cat toys, but also in the literary sense.

That's all very well and good; foils are pretty important to literature.

This is the point at which I make a bit of a jump and claim that foils are important to real life - in particular, that they are important to friendship. This is also the point at which this post turns into a sappy ode to my friends.

I am blessed to have friends from all over life's weird ways. They're not exactly like me. I have friends my parents disapprove of.

This is a good thing.

The differences between me and my friends mean that we can bounce things off each other - ideas, perspectives, maths, soft toys, bouncy balls, buckets of ice cold water. We disagree. We argue. We get things wrong. But it is worth it to illuminate each other's dark places and light each other up; we make each other shine brighter.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Suicide is Funny

Obvious triggers for suicide and depression are obvious.

People get really, really angry when it comes to making jokes about depression, suicide and mental illness. You could make a case that they're right to do so; after all, mental illness is rarely presented honestly. It's usually romanticised or stigmatised. Why would trivialising it be any better?

My honest answer is that trivialising it doesn't help. But my honest answer has a second part to it: I'm fed up of well-meaning but annoying people yelling "you're trivialising mental illness!" every time I fail to get out my handkerchief and cry over the great tragedy.

Look, it's no big secret that I'm a suicidally depressed mental patient. I don't hide it online, because I have no reason to. If anything, I have several good reasons to talk about mental health openly and honestly. And it's no big secret that learning to manage your illness involves coping mechanisms. As a long-time fan of gallows humour, black comedy, and turning everything into a great big joke, humour is how I personally cope.

"But how can you find depression and suicide funny?" you might ask, especially if you've got loved ones with depression or someone close to you has taken their own life.

I have a weakness for random and absurd humour - think Monty Python and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It cracks me up like nothing else. And if you think about it, depression and suicide are really, really fucking nonsensical. Depression is your brain going against literally every imperative to pass on that DNA of yours. Suicide is when you get your body to cooperate. Failed suicide attempts are funny too; you try to literally obliterate your own existence and negate the urge to live and pass on DNA, which is absurd enough in itself.

And then you somehow manage to fuck up at doing that. That's pretty absurd too.

If you're sensitive about this sort of thing, you might accuse me of having a sick and twisted sense of humour. I'm guilty as charged; I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

What I will say is that as a person affected, I might potentially be stuck with mental illness for life. Oh, to be sure, I'll have good periods (like this one) and the bad periods will hopefully get easier to deal with, but longevity runs in my family. Even being an unhealthy, stressy slob, let's say I finally die of heart failure or cancer around 70.

At the moment, I'm 19. That means I might have 50 more years of this bullshit on the clock. Who wouldn't consider taking their own life after learning that they might be stuck feeling empty and hopeless for the next half a century?!

Point is, I might not ever be able to walk away from depression. And after a while, carrying around that handkerchief sobbing about how awful mental illness is gets old. It gets stale. It gets boring. Besides, I have to live with it and I'm sort of fed up with having brain chemistry that is trying to kill me.

And so I laugh. I laugh because when it comes down to the fundamentals, my only other choice is crying and I'm tired of crying over everything being hopeless and shit. Laughing at it is much better for my cardiovascular health, for a start.

I don't expect everyone to be comfortable with jokes about mental illness and suicide. I myself tell them only rarely (they tend to be running commentary in my head, which is hardly better because I laugh out loud at inappropriate times) and would never tell them in front of people who would feel offended. But I do expect people to respect my lived experience and to not patronise me. Most importantly, I expect them to understand that laughter is one of my very few coping mechanisms. Please don't take my coping mechanisms away from me for the sake of your own comfort.