Monday, August 28, 2006

The Roots of Things

For awhile now, I've been fascinated by the realization that the behavior of light, heat, energy, sound, color can all be described and represented, to some extent, in terms of waves. Because (at least at this point in my life) I believe that truth is consistent across contexts, and that the observation of similar patterns across contexts is a sure sign that something fundamentally important is at play, I started wondering about the potentially important truths embedded in that phenomenon.

As I explored, I discovered that light is cropping up as an important theme in all sorts of unusual places--Appliance Design magazine regularly contains articles that refer to light-based innovations, including the use of blue light to reduce bacteria in the mouth that causes tooth decay, the use of light to weld certain plastics, etc. Other articles in science magazines talk about things like quantum dots, the use of light as a mechanism for storing information, or the influence that light has on children's ability to learn (in one study, full spectrum lighting improved test scores by something like 67% . . . but replacing flourescent lights with full spectrum lights is expensive . . . so we continue to default to alternatives like attempting to use standardized testing to coerce change in student achievement).

All of these ideas seem to have a couple of things in common--a relationship to electromagnetic fields and, more generally, an association with quantum mechanics. Naturally, I wanted to know more about that. Unfortunately, math and I have not always been on speaking terms,
though, and I found that as a result, I didn't have the mathematical background to understand the answers to the questions I was asking. Fortunately, a friend of mine who is a theoretical mathematician, among other things, spent the better part of a year convincing me that math is a part of daily life, and that if I could live life, I could understand math. Through our conversations, coupled with a number of diagrams and three dimensional demonstrations, I learned about fractals, Julia sets, Mandlebrot spots, vanishing points, harmonics, vectors, pivot tables, and a host of other interesting things that I never knew existed and that I never could have guessed I would find so incredibly compelling. I suddenly had an appetite for things mathematical, and, more importantly, the confidence that I could digest them once I had consumed them.

Since then, I have been relying on sporadic, fortuitous contacts with physicists and mathematicians that life in a research one university affords, and their patient and good-humored explanations, to slowly fill in the gaping holes in my understanding of many of the fundamental principles that govern the world.

During one recent conversation of this nature, another friend suggested that I consult a book entitled, The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics for answers to some of my questions that were written for a lay person with only minimal references to math. Although I have to say that his definition of minimal and mine certainly differ, I have made it to page 63--pretty impressive for someone who finds that somnolence overcomes her the minute a mathematical equation crosses the page!

So, my next few postings will be an attempt to make sense of some of the things that I'm reading.


aKansasKid said...

> Fortunately, a friend of mine who is a theoretical mathematician, among other things, spent the better part of a year convincing me that math is a part of daily life, and that if I could live life, I could understand math.

Having some experience with the subject and its practitioners’ plight, I can easily envision your friend’s treat:

Leibniz, et al, were a bore.
“I’ll do heavy math no more!”
A fair maiden did plea,
“Please explain this to me.”
“Ah…THIS is what that was all for!” :-)

Cherice said...

Well, Leibniz, et. al do tend to be a bit ponderous . . . nonetheless, I've found that once you've taken a tumble down the rabbit hole they unlock, there are all kinds of magical surprises on the other side of that looking glass! Once one has spent some time in that world, one wonders how the majority of the population can be so completely oblivious to the existence of such a fantastic world and the implications of it all!

I'm pleased to report that I try to work in trips to the other side of that mirror often as I can, so the effort was definitely not in vain! :-)