Special Brain


A colleague (and friend) of mine (hereafter referred to as Katie Mack the Physics Hack) produced a fun video last year that tried to show how people sometimes react when she tells them that she studies physics:

I loved this video because I’ve had a number of experiences like this. My favorite reaction that I’ve ever gotten happened in 2007. I was on a trip during college with other college kids, and I was placed in a hotel room with some guys who went to another school. We met for the first time while unpacking, and naturally we asked each other what we were studying. Turns out my new roommate was majoring in international business, something I knew nothing about. Not wanting to alienate a total stranger I was going to be sleeping in the same room with, I asked him questions and told him that his chosen ...

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Quantum Mechanics: Trying to Sort the Physical from the Mystical


You can also just ignore any science assertion where 'quantum mechanics' is the most complicated phrase in it. [1]

A friend of mine (I’ll call him Ron), who knows that I study physics, likes to talk to me about quantum mechanics. He’s an easy-going guy and likes to joke around. “Hey, is it a particle or is it a wave today?” he’ll say, or, “How many dimensions do we have now?” When the conversation turns more serious, he tells me how he believes in the “quantum universe,” which is greater than what we humans are able to ordinarily perceive. He talks about consciousness, immortality, spirits, and the great cosmic grandeur of the universe, all of which he ties together with the label of “quantum.”

These conversations are strange to me. Both of us are using the same two words: quantum mechanics. When Ron thinks about quantum mechanics, he associates it with nonphysical concepts, like spirits. Through my time spent studying physics, I’ve come to understand quantum mechanics as a theory describing the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles. read more →

Tragedy of Great Power Politics? Modeling International War

By Brian

Recently I finished reading John Mearsheimer’s excellent political science book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. In this book, Mearscheimer lays out his “offensive realism” theory of how countries interact with each other in the world. The book is quite readable and well-thought-out — I’d recommend it to anyone who has an inkling for political history and geopolitics. However, as I was reading this book, I decided that there was a point of Mearsheimer’s argument which could be improved by a little mathematical analysis.

The main tenant of the book is that states are rational actors who act to to maximize their standing in the international system. However, states don’t seek to maximize their absolute power, but instead their relative power as compared to the other states in the system. In other words, according to this logic the United Kingdom position in the early 19th century — when its army and navy could trounce most of the other countries on the globe — was better than it is now — when many other countries’ armies and navies are comparable to that of the UK, despite the UK current army and navy being much better now than they were in the early 19th century. According to Mearsheimer, the main determinant of state’s international actions is simply maximizing its relative power in its region. All other considerations — capitalist or communist economy, democratic or totalitarian government, even desire for economic growth — matter little in a state’s choice of what actions it will take. (Perhaps it was this simplification of the problem which made the book really appeal to me as a physicist.)

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