Roast Yam

One of the more common introduced mammals in the Southern Alps is the YAM (young Australian male). These mammals usually congregate in pairs, or in packs up to ten. I met an uncharacteristically charming and intelligent specimen yesterday in Christchurch. We got to talking about his recent climb of Mt Sefton and then he spotted me reading some papers and said he was very interested in physics, and he was even thinking of going back to university to study it (his background was in the Arts).

It transpired that he had been listening to radio shows on the String Wars, and in particular he remembered an episode on a certain book, the title of which he could not quite remember. Anyway, to cut a long story short, he was very keen to hear all about Category Theory! He said that there had to be something very wrong with physics when it was perfectly clear to a layman such as himself that the entrenched concepts being discussed were so plainly inadequate. We agreed that neuroscientists, for instance, had a better conceptual picture of the measurement of space than many physicists. I must confess, I had no idea this topic had become so mainstream.

Mount Cook has had a number of fatal accidents over the years, but very few lucky escapes. Last week, however, a group of three climbers headed down towards the Linda glacier from the summit. They attached themselves via a sling to a large rock, which then gave way (the rock, that is) as two of the climbers began to abseil. The guy at the top survived the fall, because a small falling rock cut cleanly through the anchor sling, separating him from his colleagues.


11 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    L. Riofrio said,

    Hee hee, glad you met a nice YAM. It also shows how, outside an elite circle of physicists, the science is losing respect fast. Many people on the street realise that there’s trouble with physics, and entrenched concepts don’t hold water. I hope you tell him many nice things about Category Theory.

  2. 2

    Kea said,

    Dear me, Louise. We were merely passing acquaintances. He is heading back to Oz tomorrow – otherwise why would he be in Christchurch?

  3. 3

    nige said,

    It’s a little interesting to me that there is a Mount Cook. However, its reputation is not encouraging and I won’t be attempting it unless I go crazy.


  4. 4

    Kea said,

    Hi Nigel. The Maori name for the mountain is Aoraki, after one of the gods that was turned to stone.

  5. 5

    L. Riofrio said,

    Oh dear! Communist Variance says “THIS ACCOUNT HAS BEEN SUSPENDED. Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible.” Should we cry?

  6. 6

    nige said,

    Kea, thanks, I think Aoraki is the most appropriate name.

    Louise: don’t worry, the commies have found some cash and had their service restored.

    String controversy:

    What interests me regards string controversy now is that Discover magazine – see Dr Woit’s new blog post – is searching for a 2 minute U-tube explanation of string theory, which will be selected by Dr Greene and displayed on the front page of the Discover magazine site.

    This is interesting because the thing presumably will have to be pro-string and not critical, or Dr Greene will reject it??!!

    So it boils down to hyping string theory some more.

    I’ve added a long couple of final paragraphs about the string fiasco to my about page on one blog and my new site at

    Really, there is nothing anyone can do. Prof Penrose wrote this depressing conclusion well in 2004 in The Road to Reality so I’ll quote some pertinent bits from the British (Jonathan Cape, 2004) edition:

    On page 1020 of chapter 34 ‘Where lies the road to reality?’, 34.4 Can a wrong theory be experimentally refuted?, Penrose says: ‘One might have thought that there is no real danger here, because if the direction is wrong then the experiment would disprove it, so that some new direction would be forced upon us. This is the traditional picture of how science progresses. Indeed, the well-known philosopher of science [Sir] Karl Popper provided a reasonable-looking criterion [K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934] for the scientific admissability [sic; mind your spelling Sir Penrose or you will be dismissed as a loony: the correct spelling is admissibility] of a proposed theory, namely that it be observationally refutable. But I fear that this is too stringent a criterion, and definitely too idealistic a view of science in this modern world of “big science”.’

    Penrose identifies the problem clearly on page 1021: ‘We see that it is not so easy to dislodge a popular theoretical idea through the traditional scientific method of crucial experimentation, even if that idea happened actually to be wrong. The huge expense of high-energy experiments, also, makes it considerably harder to test a theory than it might have been otherwise. There are many other theoretical proposals, in particle physics, where predicted particles have mass-energies that are far too high for any serious possibility of refutation.’

    On page 1026, Penrose gets down to the business of how science is really done: ‘In the present climate of fundamental research, it would appear to be much harder for individuals to make substantial progress than it had been in Einstein’s day. Teamwork, massive computer calculations, the pursuing of fashionable ideas – these are the activities that we tend to see in current research. Can we expect to see the needed fundamentally new perspectives coming out of such activities? This remains to be seen, but I am left somewhat doubtful about it. Perhaps if the new directions can be more experimentally driven, as was the case with quantum mechanics in the first third of the 20th century, then such a “many-person” approach might work.’

    I think the reason why he helped Dr Woit was that he felt it would help undermine string just enough to make people think. No chance, with Discover magazine using a string theorist to judge descriptions of string theory!

    That’s like having President Bush judge 2-minute summaries of the Iraq War and decide on the “best”. No surprise that the winner won’t be an unbiased explanation.

  7. 7

    L. Riofrio said,

    Kea, I could submit a video for you. I would use a can of Silly String to describe the string enterprise.
    I will show how soldiers use Silly String to detect tripwires and IED’s. I’ll wear a T-shirt with GM=tc^3, and close by spraying the camera.

    Nige, I just bought a copy of Penrose, having borrowed the library’s copy multiple times. I feel the same way about Sci American hyping “dark energy” as the cause of everything, even galaxy formation!

  8. 8

    CarlBrannen said,

    I just finished Robert K Massie’s sequel to Dreadnought, “Castles of Steel”. Some useful quotes, applicable to physics and string theory:

    Fisher (Britain who designed the modern battleship): “In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey orders!

    Bethmann-Hollweg (German chancellor in response to a general asking for yet another assault on the trenches): “Where does incompetence end and crime begin?

  9. 9

    Kea said,

    Hi Louise, Nigel, Carl

    Thanks for the great comments. I’ve been tramping for a few days – I’m thinking of making it a habit again.

  10. 10

    Carl Brannen said,

    I used to walk lots, especially when I was in school. Now I ride. My insane buddy is buying a new car.

    Any reason comments are turned off on the latest posting?

  11. 11

    Kea said,

    Comments are not turned off. Blogger has problems sometimes.

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