Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Metamorphosis

It all started on February 22, 1999, my fascination with science that is and in particular physics. It was just over ten years ago. I attended a public lecture at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles where I’ve lived all my life. I’d been to the observatory many times over the years, but I never took advantage of their lecture series. I received a notice advertising the upcoming lecture by a professor of physics from Columbia University, Brian Greene. His topic for the evening was “String Theory.” The lecture coincided with his new book The Elegant Universe which was fast becoming a bestseller. I had heard about string theory in the mainstream press, but I didn’t know any scientific detail. All I knew was that it was highly theoretical and in a field I knew nothing about, physics. I took two quarters of physics at UCLA, but didn’t care for it much as I was devoted to computer science at the time and had little time for extracurricular academic interests. As an undergrad in mathematics I always favored abstract concepts (my favorite course was Abstract Algebra with rings, fields and groups) rather than applied techniques so this lecture in a field so obscure and esoteric appealed to me.

Arriving at the observatory I was immediately reminded of how much I missed science. Even with all the observatory’s aging and derelict displays of the planets, the moon and sun spots, I still felt a warm feeling of being close to science and discovery. I stood in the central rotunda just inside the main doors and looked down into the Foucault pendulum pit that demonstrates the rotation of the earth. I noticed a group of children looking down with me and asking questions and marveling at the demonstration. It was great to see kids excited about science and that energized me further.

I made my way to the ticket booth and then went into the theater to find a seat. In those days, the only place to hold a lecture at the observatory was in the planetarium. The ancient wooden seats creaked when you sat down and the hard headrests served only to elevate the head and not much more. These were the same wooden seats that were offered years later for purchase to potential donors for the new observatory retrofit project as a form of memorabilia. I looked around the large round dark room and stared at the 1964-vintage Zeiss Mark IV star projector in the center of the large round room. I strategically took a seat near the podium which was placed along one side of the room near the door.

Waiting for the lecture to commence, I stared up at the ceiling and recalled my history with this old place. Back when elementary schools still had funding for field trips, I remember loading up with my classmates in a yellow school bus and headed over the hill from the San Fernando Valley, rumbling past Hollywood and up Vermont Ave. to the observatory. Just about any field trip was exciting for a fifth grader, but my family had a predisposition for science because my father worked on the Apollo and space shuttle programs so I was firmly in tune with space, astronomy and the wonders of the night sky. This sense of science also rubbed off on my younger brother who became a talented amateur astronomer. Just being at the observatory was exhilarating and I recall being filled with curiosity and fascination. When I snapped out of my day dream and smiled when I thought how fortunate I was to have not lost the natural curiosity that kids have and frequently lose after being stymied by institutionalized education. So many kids have that curiosity ripped from them never to return and every parent should do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t slip away.

As the docent introduced Dr. Greene, I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe a stodgy older academician with a dry, leveled tone to his speaking style. But I remained open minded for the sake of science. Instead a young and rather dashing guy showed up and instantly captivated the capacity audience. You could tell Dr. Greene was accustomed to delivering his talk to groups consisting of laypersons. He brought down the subject to a level that pretty much anyone with an interest in science could comprehend. A year or so later I discovered his Nova television special on string theory and since then I’ve watched it several times whenever I feel I need a refresher on the subject. Dr. Green was enthralling as he opened up the universe of eleven dimensions, most of which are curled up into negligible size. As I understood it, he was speaking of the “theory of everything” and that was an exciting concept. I imagined a theory that established a link between Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics, something our best minds have been struggling with for decades. The most important thing I gleaned from the lecture was that to truly understand string theory, a very strong background in mathematics was required. I’m not just talking about Calculus which is beyond most people, but way beyond that. But for some reason, I felt challenged to understand this theory. I knew, however, that it would mean a major commitment in time and effort. I didn’t decide immediately, that would take several more months.

After the hour lecture plus Q&A session was over, I felt I didn’t want to leave. I wanted more. Fortunately, Dr. Green brought a pile of his brand new books and was selling them and autographing them for the attendees. Perfect! Not only did I enjoy a wonderful lecture, but now I could take something back home with me, a guide if you will, to set off on the path to understanding string theory. I took the shiny black book with the gold letters and enthusiastically left the observatory, bounding down the front steps to the grassy area where a few star gazers had set up their telescopes.

Although it was already around 10pm, I wasn’t ready to take the trek home. I want to take a peek at my new found treasure. So along the path down from the observatory on Vermont Ave. in the Los Feliz neighborhood I stopped at House of Pies, got a cozy booth, ordered my favorite banana cream pie and coffee, and began my journey. My metamorphosis had begun. Five cups of coffee later, I looked up and it was 2:30am! Yet I wasn’t tired at all. I was literally pouring over Dr. Greene’s book and didn’t want to stop. The more I read the more I got the feeling that this was something I wanted to pursue, not as a temporary interest but as a life-long pursuit. I know it is difficult to understand how a seemingly innocuous event can stimulate such feelings, but it did and that night began a completely new direction for me in the field of physics.

In the days that followed, I did research about what areas of mathematics and physics were required to gain a true understanding of string theory. The list, to my chagrin, was quite long indeed. I started from the top, string theory itself, and worked backward envisioning my pursuit of knowledge as an inverted tree structure where each branch led to simpler and more basic forms of mathematics. After a time, I wound up back at the basics (the leaves of my inverted tree): Calculus single variable and multivariate, linear algebra, differential equations, real and complex analysis and some mathematical statistics and probability theory thrown in for good measure. This was my starting point!

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