Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Next Incarnation

Now that I am done with school (finally, I know!), people keep asking me, "What are you going to do now?" Apparently, I was supposed to have a plan. 


Well, surprisingly enough, I do not have a plan. 

Which is not to say that I don't have things to do, or things I want to do.  I have a job that I enjoy, and that keeps getting better every day.  I have more courses to teach and will hopefully be leading a faculty / student research group in the fall.  I also have lots of running plans!  And I am looking forward to spending time with my friends and family, because I know I have not done enough of that over the past year.

Despite all these "plans" though, I also feel that there is a change coming.  Possibly a significant change.  I don't know what it is, but this is the year for it.  There is a little numerology behind this assertion. 

My lucky number is 6.  I was born on the 6th day of the 6th month, and each year that my age has totaled 6 has been a year that has brought significant change into my life.  For example, the year I turned 6 we moved from NJ to NY; if I had grown up in Jersey I would be a completely different person.  The year I turned 15, I left home and went to a boarding school in Lake Placid, which again significantly impacted the trajectory of my life.  When I turned 24, I went off to get my MA in Somerville, which led me to UNH and the life that I have now.

So this year, once again, I hit an age that totals 6, so I anticipate change.  And I am ready for change, whatever it might be.  I doubt that it will be a move across the country, or even across MA since I have a job that I love and live in a place that I love.  I think that this time the change will be more internal than external.  Each of my past Year-6's have coincided with a change in physical location that led to a new path.  This time, I am thinking the path will develop from personal change and growth.

Usually, I am a very anxious person, and change worries me.  For some reason, I am excited about this change.  I can feel it coming already in my workplace, as I am handed new responsibilities every day and am given plenty of supportive opportunities to test myself.  I am also anticipating change in my personal life.  In three days I will be running a marathon for the first time.  I plan to do a lot more of that, and to hopefully become strong enough to start running ultra-marathons as well.  I am also looking for new, fun things to try out.  I am going to start rock-climbing this summer, for example--even though I am terrified of heights.

But I know this isn't all of the change that is coming my way.  There will be new adventures and new friends that I can't anticipate.  I know that some of the years between now and the next Year-6 (OMG, I will be 42!!) will not be all fun and adventure; there will be loses and rough times and all the things that the past 9 years have had, and all the years before that.  But each of those things are important way-stations along the path; they make it more like a hike through the mountains (ups and downs, beautiful views--I trust you to follow the metaphor from here) rather than a straight drive across Kansas (which I understand is very flat and not particularly exciting unless you really, really like fields).  And hiking more mountains is also one of the things I intend to do with myself in this new incarnation!

So... I probably should end this with a witty remark about making sure I have a compass so I don't get lost on my new path.  But, I'm not going to.  Because I think that getting a little lost will make it more exciting.  And that is what you--my lovely friends--are here for, so that I am not out hiking by myself the whole way, and so that if we get a little lost together, you can help me back onto the path.   

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Perfect Asymmetry

After my previous post, this interesting RadioLab was brought to my attention (thank you, Leah):  http://www.radiolab.org/2011/apr/18/

In this episode, the hosts are exploring different aspects of symmetry, including Aristophanes' theory of symmetry in love.  He, through Plato's Symposium, told the story of our original forms, before Zeus split us all into two, and fated us to spend our lives looking for our other half.  If you read my previous post, you can see why Leah would have brought this episode to my attention.  I have been, after all, trying to understand why we feel so immediately attached to some people, while others pass through our lives almost unnoticed. 

But for every philosophical explanation there is also a scientific one, which the RadioLab hosts go on to explore.  They briefly discuss the possibility that our connection to others comes from similar brain patterns, but this neurological theory is too new, and too unexamined to provide many answers.  And so, they decide (naturally) to go all the way back to the beginning to try to find the roots of symmetry. 

What they find is that all life, indeed all matter, is purely asymmetrical.  In fact, without asymmetry we would all cease to exist.  And that is just about the coolest thing ever as far as I am concerned. 

Immediately after the Big Bang, the energy (a whole incredible lot of it) in the universe was so hot that it basically flew apart in two directions: particles and antiparticles.  (For a more scientific explanation, see my source: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/pubs/beamline/26/1/26-1-sather.pdf)  Now, if the universe was perfectly symmetrical, each particle would have an antiparticle.  As the universe cooled and these two halves came back together, they canceled each other out.  "Poof!" So, here you can already see where symmetry is actually a problem.  If the universe, immediately following the Big Bang, had actually been symmetrical then it would have ceased to exist; all the particles that could have become matter would have been annihilated by their symmetrical, antimatter counterparts. 

But we're here, and so is the Earth, all the stars, trees and birds and oceans and Dunkin Donuts.  It is all here because the universe and the very particles that make up matter as we know it are asymmetrical.  When those early bundles of energy split into matter and antimatter, they didn't split evenly.  For each 1 billion antiparticles, there were 1 billion + 1 particles. 

Okay, just stop and think about that for a second.  Think about EVERYTHING that is out there, made of matter (again, that is everything) and then be awestruck by the theory that it was all created from 1 extra particle of matter out of every billion that was destroyed by its antiparticle twin.  If you are really thinking about this, your brain should be doing something every similar to what the universe did at the moment of its birth: exploding. 

Since that moment, all living things have continued to be profoundly asymmetrical.  You should listen to the podcast for a better explanation, but essentially all living things are made up of matter that favors the left.  (Yes, even Republicans.)  Example: smile.  The left side of your face smiles more than your right side.  All naturally occurring molecules are built towards the left.  When scientists monkey with them and engineer molecules that are built towards the right, they are fundamentally different life forms that develop.  Caraway seeds (this is the example in the podcast, under the section "Mirror, Mirror") that are engineered to be right-sided taste like spearmint, not rye.  And that is just one example.  Several other harmless plants and compounds become poisonous when reversed.  All of this just points to the unexpected realization that symmetry is not ideal, but is in fact likely to destroy us. 

So, going back to Aristophanes.  If life--to begin and to continue--must be asymmetrical, why are we always searching for symmetry?  Theories of human attraction state that our brain favors faces that are highly symmetrical.  Look around at architecture, landscaping, and the way you have things set up on your desk: your brain likes balance and symmetry.  Things that have those qualities are aesthetically appealing to us, while asymmetrical buildings just look, well, weird.  (Think about some of the buildings that MIT has built on Vassar Street.)  Even the two hemispheres of our brains are not true mirror images, and there is some neurological evidence that we each favor one side more than the other (although this is open to debate at any time; email me).  So why are we always trying to create the balance that would, on a cosmic level at least, be our undoing? 

And more importantly, how does any of this rambling attempt at understand quantum physics get us any closer to understanding why we "click" with some people and not with others?  Obviously, it can't be as simply as symmetry.  In fact, it would seem that the more symmetrical of a relationship we have, the more likely it is to implode and take both people with it.  (Hey--we have all been there.)  Maybe the answer to the "click" lies in the asymmetry of the relationship.  The universe began with a very specific ratio, 1billion:1billion+1.  So, maybe that is what we are all really looking for, not just our other half, but also our extra particle.  The person out there who has everything we have, plus that extra little bit of energy that makes us, well, matter.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Only Rational Explanation

Recently, I have become sort of obsessed with the idea of multiple universes.  I read a crazy book and I watched Fringe all season, and those things sort of embedded this idea that there are more dimensions that the one we can see.  In the book I read (Anathem, if you are interested), the premises is that certain things filter between the barriers in the multi-verse.  In that case, it was geometry, but maybe it doesn't have to be.  Maybe there are things that are even more permeable than math. 

I started thinking that maybe that is where deja vu comes from.  When we have this overwhelming feeling that something has happened to us before, maybe it is because it HAS, but in a different universe.  When that thing happened in the other universe, there was something--some strong emotional attachment--that went with it.  And because of those emotions, the event filtered through the layers into our universe.  So, when you find yourself in the situation you have this emotional response, even though perhaps the "event" that happened over there doesn't happen here.  You get something that is like an emotional echo. 

(So, if you are still with me at this point that is amazing.  Even I am a little fuzzy about this.  And now it gets a little more insane.  Yes, I know that this is far and away the most crazy thing I have posted to date.) 

Recently, I was concerned about a friend, and Matt asked me "Yeah, but why do you care so much?"  And it occurred to me that I had no idea why I cared so much.  I haven't known this person very long at all.  But for some reason, I care. 

It has happened to all of us.  You meet someone and you feel like you have known them your whole life; you have a connection that you can't explain.  There is no weird getting-to-know you phase where silence is awkward.  You find yourself telling that person things you never tell anyone, and you don't think twice about it.  Why does that happen? 

Again, I think that it is the multi-verse.  Just like mathematical truths filtered through in Anathem, I think that our emotional connections to people filter through, if they are strong enough. 

In some other universe, that person that you just met who is suddenly your best friend really IS your best friend from childhood, or your sibling, or the love of your life.  The connection you have with that person over there so strong that it makes it all the way over here, and you feel its remnants across space, or time, or whatever it is that separates that universe from the one we are in now. 

So the next time you meet someone like that, think about how amazing it is that you found each other not just there, but here too, and maybe in countless other universes in between. And in each one, maybe you have a slightly different relationship, but all with strong enough emotions that you can feel them as soon as you meet that person. 

Of course, all of this could just be rambling thoughts I am having because Ben, Mason, and Reid broke my brain when they gave me all those sci-fi books.  Hmmm... well, I will get them for that in the next universe!   

Here and Back Again: A Race Recap of Sorts

I rarely write about specific running events or races, because mostly this blog is about what I think about when running - and that is almos...