Friday, June 29, 2012

"Magic Isn't Supposed to Make Sense!"

I wrote a post a while ago that, really, was supposed to be about the plausible impossibility of interacting with any sort of "parallel universe", if one were to exist and going there were possible.  So if you found a passage in to Narnia in some old professor's mansion, likely you'd find Narnia very much the way Digory and Polly found it - empty, lightless, and with nothing in it (not even the singing Lion).

However, while going there, I stopped to comment on fantasy fiction, which is how the thought struck me.  Parallel worlds are pretty common, after all.  Sort of in the vein if The Gods Themselves by Asimov (or more like it The Ring of Truth by Lake) I tried to think of a parallel universe that had an entirely different set of physical laws.  Where things behaved totally differently.  I guess it would have been a sort of partial ingress into Level IV multiverse theory?  I don't assert such a universe would actually exist, just that modeling one would be neat.  The goal was that the emergent behavior of these laws would make magic work.  Or something so totally different that we would see it as magic... whereas the inhabitants therein would look at a light bulb from our world and cross themselves to ward off evil spirits.

So contained therein was this idea of "hard magic", analogous to "hard science" fiction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Copper

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Please don't read if you haven't read both Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear.

I am going to continue posting my own speculation about the Kingkiller Chronicles.  In a spasm of fanboy insanity, I had written up some twenty or so pages detailing everything I think I had deduced from the text.  Recently, in his own blog, Patrick Rothfuss brought up a totally awesome copper knife a fan had made him, noting that it would be good in a fight against a Namer.  Rothfuss said this showed the fans had been paying attention.  I was glad to see that apparently I had been paying attention too, and that others (in the comments) had noted things similar to me on the use and possible function of copper in the books.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Zeno's Paradox and Why It Annoys Me

I have always been greatly annoyed by Zeno's paradoxes.

The reason why is due mostly to my stubborn pride at being ignored when I'm right.  When I was in 10th grade trig, we learned Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.  The problem so presented is an extremely simple algebraic equation, immediately solvable to anyone who has finished high school.

So in grade school, when I was taught this "paradox", I did solve it algebraically, almost before my teacher had finished reading it from the book, and I told her the answer, and she sort of gave me this exasperated smile and said "Yes, I know, but don't think about it that way."  And ever since, mention of this paradox as anything other than an ancient Greek misunderstanding of mathematics has infuriated me.

Basically, Zeno's paradox amounts to asserting that the geometric series cannot be summed.  Which is absurd; Archimedes was quite proficient at it, even in terms that Greeks would accept.  Some examples are below.  In terms of modern algebra, let $S$ be the sum of a geometric series; then
$$S = \sum_{n=0}^\infty a^n = 1+a+a^2+\cdots = 1+a\left(1+a+a^2+\cdots\right)=1+aS,$$
and rearranging, $S = \frac{1}{1-a},$ the formula you hopefully learned in high school.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Harry Potter is a Terrible Series

Unfortunately this post on my blog is the first one people land on when looking for criticism of Harry Potter.  It is not even close to being my strongest criticism.  If you want a much stronger deconstruction of the world-building in Harry Potter, please see my post What Do Wizards Even Do?  Or see the bottom of the post for other links with better analysis of the universe of Harry Potter.

In modern fantasy fiction, there are essentially two prototypes of approach; that of Lord of the Rings and that of Narnia.  Not that every work will copy one of these or be like one or the other or any other generalization that pedants will feel the need to scold me for, but that there's two basic, classic approaches to fantasy worlds.

The Narnian approach is simple, and usually followed by children's books.  There's some hidden land of fantasy magic, it gets discovered, and you go on a fun tour through your imagination.  It's almost an extended dream sequence.  There's trolls and goblins and witches and elves and fairies and satyrs and... and it goes on.  The magical creatures are there because they are magical creatures and this is a magical world.  Nothing is really supposed to make sense, so much as present a fun escape from boring reality.  The narrative space of the story is just a big bag for holding mythical creatures.  It's fun.  You're supposed to feel wonder at all the incredible surroundings, and not really think about why Medusa moved to New England and why no one has called the cops for missing persons.

It's pleasant, and there's nothing wrong with it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Denna and Her Patron

This is the first in what may be a series of posts speculating on characters and events in the Kingkiller Chronicles.

SPOILER DENSE!  Contains tons of things from the first two books in the series.  Please don't read unless you've read both books carefully yourself.

As has been noted, the Kingkiller Chronicles leave open the unique opportunity of an unfinished epic fantasy series with a solid and fixed resolution.  We know that whatever happens in the third book will bring us to the Waystone Inn.  We know that Kvothe will trick a demon and kill an angel, and then kill a king, and somehow start the entire war with the Penitent King.  We know that something is going to happen to unleash fairy creatures in to the world.  The whole series has already been written (and is just being revised), so there are definite hints and foreshadows and the material can be trusted to lead somewhere. It's like a murder mystery in that regard.

Seeing the unique opportunity, I decided to wildly speculate, as have so many other fans.

In this post, I will focus on Denna.  It is long.

Monday, June 18, 2012

To Stand on Charn

Since C.S. Lewis showed us a world on the other side of a wardrobe (and perhaps before), fantasy and science-fiction stories have abounded with this idea of traveling to parallel universes and experiencing strange new worlds.  It's almost iconic: awkward teenager struggling in school and with bullies, gets sucked in to an alternate magical world, meets fascinating elves and confronts evil, and finds confidence to face real-world issues on his or her return.

Typical example

So here's my question: how do they interact with matter in the alternate universe?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Virtual Aristotelian Physics

I spent several hours the other day looking up some sort of reference to a computer simulation of Aristotelian physics.

The thought came to me in connection to fantasy worlds.  Good fantasy authors will create their own fictional worlds with different histories, cultures, languages, and religions, similar to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Lately authors have started going kind of crazy, and have been experimenting with alternative physics, like flat earths and sentient quanta.

I was thinking, why not Aristotelian physics?  Is it that impossible?  A professor of an old friend of mine, remarking to a room of Thomistic philosophy students, asked why they were so enamored with Aristotle when you couldn't make your car run on Aristotelian physics.  Maybe not their cars, but any car?  Can a car run in a world of Aristotelian physics?
Aristotle with impetus

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smoke Rings

Last night it dawned on me that I consider the ability to blow smoke rings an essential part of fatherhood.  There is of course financial stability, emotional support, supportive family structure.  If I found out I would soon become a father, I would worry about these things.  And I would also worry about being able to blow smoke rings.

I just would not feel ready to bring a child in to the world before I could blow smoke rings.

Maybe that sounds silly?

When I grew up, my favorite book was the Hobbit, by Tolkien.  This was my favorite book because it was my dad's favorite book.  (I don't know how many times I have watched the Rankin/Bass animated version of the Hobbit, and I don't care how much spectacular CGI Peter Jackson uses, Rankin/Bass' the Hobbit is THE movie version of the Hobbit.  Forever.)  My dad was a huge fan of all of Tolkien's work.  And in addition to gripping fiction and overly-detailed world building, Tolkien was also really good at pipe smoking.

9/10ths of all Tolkien photos in existence
(Seriously.  Do a Google image search for "Tolkien".  Nine out of ten photos, he is smoking a pipe.)

So my dad smoked a pipe, too.

On the back of our old house, my dad had built what we all called the "bonzai porch".  It was screened in, with a built-in water hose.  In the winter we'd cover it in plastic and set out space heaters to keep the plants from dying.  In the summer, my dad would sit on the back porch and smoke an old pipe and blow smoke rings, and my sister and I would play with them.  We'd chase them around as the wind pulled them, or poke our fingers through them, or try to grab them like doughnuts.

And there is something magical about it.  About smoke rings.  The way they float out spinning in to the air, and then pause, hovering, then spread out like a lasso.  It's mesmerizing to watch.

I don't know why that's such an ingrained memory of mine.  When I think of my early childhood with my dad, I think of playing chess and smoke rings.

I sat on my back porch last night, pulled out an old paperback copy of the Hobbit I got at a used bookstore, lit up my pipe, and practiced my smoke rings.  I'm not very good at it yet, but luckily I still have plenty of time to perfect the art.

Why Blog?

I recently decided to start a blog.  This blog.

There's some amount of self-consciousness that goes in to that decision.  Am I doing this because I think I'm so important and brilliant that my thoughts matter to anyone?  Is it conceit?  Is it desperation?  Are people going to see me as self-important and conceited and desperate?

The idea has been rattling in my head for a while to start a new blog.  I say "a new blog" because I have an old blog.  The old blog I started to express theological and apologetic ideas I was exploring at that time.  It was really thick and heavy, and sometimes uncomfortable.  And sometimes mean.

And I wanted to talk about different things, sometimes.

Currently, I am a graduate student in physics.  Going on my third year.  I have been in my research for about a semester and am still learning the ropes.  The research isn't anything sexy, like dark energy or string theory; I use some computer algorithms to calculate electronic properties of crystalline solids.  It's useful. (I have not even begun thinking about what a thesis might possibly cover, so please do not ask when I graduate.)

Sometimes I have ideas pertaining to physics, or science more generally, or to math (I majored in math), and will want to share it.  Nothing groundbreaking or even researched - just thoughts I have.  I might use math to express those thoughts, and if you don't understand mathematical notation then you might just learn something.  I 'm still learning, a lot.

I enjoy reading.  Mostly I read fantasy literature (knights and dragons and wizards).  If I get in to a book, I will cease all activity until I finish it.  Like, I will cut out eating and sleeping.  I got a "B" in second semester quantum mechanics (angular momentum and perturbation) because I started reading George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series the week before finals and ended up not studying and barely sleeping.  If left to my own devices I would just read constantly.

It happens when reading that something in a story strikes me, or that there's an unfinished series and fans are speculating on how it will end (I'm thinking of Song of Ice and Fire and Kingkiller Chronicles in particular at the moment).  I'd like to share that sort of stuff, with whoever would read it.

I'm also an evangelical Christian.  To some of you, that means "embodiment of pure evil".  Fine.  I used to be worried other people in the physics community would think less of me if they learned that, and that it might affect my employment prospects, but I have ceased caring.  If you find me less intelligent because of my religion, all the problem there is on your end.  But sometimes Christian overtones will come out in things I say, when I'm being good.

Anyway, the reason I want to start a blog, is because I want to.  I enjoy talking about certain things and I want a place to talk about them.  I would like as many people as possible to be able to agree or disagree with the things I say, beyond just the usual people that I talk to.  So there.  I started a blog.