Monday, 20 August 2007

Alex's Work (I)

Since without a car I haven't been able to see that much of Cape Town, and because people have asked me about it any number of times in the past, I have decided to try and give some kind of explanation of what I'm working on right now. I think what I'll try to do is give it in several parts, to break up the monotony a bit.

Maybe let me start broadly. I work on String Theory. Traditionally, this area of research has been focused on string theory being the so-called "Theory of Everything," (TOE). What this grand statement means is NOT that if I understand string theory, then I can predict everything in the world. Rather, string theory is meant to be the ultimate reductionist theory (meaning smallest, most fundamental - i.e., originally atoms were the fundamental things, then we discovered protons and neutrons as more fundamental, then quarks are still more fundamental, etc.). String theory says that ALL the forces of nature - Electromagnetism, Strong Force (holding protons/neutrons together), Weak Force (making nuclear decay happen) and Gravity, each of which traditionally needs to be treated separately - come from ONE theory which describes how each of them work. This is great, and is really interesting, but it has been going on for almost 30 years, and it still hasn't come out quite right. In fact, right now, there is controversy over this research direction, made public in books by Peter Woit and Lee Smolin. They both have valid points that I agree with, but I think they miss some of the overall picture. Although perhaps that isn't fair of me, as I haven't read either of their books. Someday...

However, this is not the direction that I'm working in. It is definitely related very strongly, but the focus of it is not so much placed on having string theory being the TOE, but rather on using string theory to say interesting things about OTHER subjects. This goes under the broad category of "the Anti de-Sitter Space/Conformal Field Theory Correspondence," or as it is referred to, the

AdS/CFT Correspondence

So, what is this correspondence, you ask? Excellent question! It's a little like Voodoo. Start with two, a priori TOTALLY unconncected theories (here string theory in AdS space vs. what is known as a conformal field theory).

(Side note: What do I mean when I say "you have such-and-such a theory"? A theory is a set of rules that tell you how objects move around. So, for example, one theory is electromagnetism - there are charged things around, and there are rules as to how they move when you apply electricity to them. There are more technical definitions of what makes something a theory rather than BS, but this is good enough for what I mean.)

Ok, so back to the two unconnected theories. The analogy is to Voodoo, where you have a voodoo doll that you can stick pins in. And just like with Voodoo, these things shouldn't have anything to do with one another, but it turns out that everything you do to one of the things (say stick a pin in the doll) corresponds exactly to doing a similar thing to the other (equivalent to sticking a sword in the person, or whatever). AdS/CFT is very similar - every object in one theory has a corresponding object in the "dual" theory. And if the rules of theory A tell you that object A should move just so, then it will happen that the rules of theory B tell you that... yep, object B should move in just the same way.

Ok, so this is really vague and weird, so what do you actually mean, Alex? Let me be a bit more specific. What do I mean when I say "string theory in AdS space"? Just that it involves the strings of String Theory are moving around in a particular gravity set up (AdS space is just the name of the particular gravity set up). So just like you can imagine strings moving under the gravitational influence of the sun, say, you can imagine strings moving under the influence of gravity in some other set up. Obviously, this satisfies what I said about theories - there are objects, and there are rules.

Ok, so what do I mean by "conformal field theory"? Basically this is referring to a set of rules like nuclear physics has, involving quarks, gluons, and other elementary particles that we can do experiments on. So in this theory, there are objects (quarks, gluons, etc.) and there are the rules that tell you how they move about.

So why do we care? There are essentially two reasons why this is cool:

  1. The nuclear physics stuff happens in the normal number of spacetime dimensions - there are three spatial dimensions and one time. The string theory stuff all happens, however, in ten dimensions (meaning that strings can move not only up/down, right/left, forward/backwards, but also in six other directions!). And somehow, these two theories must be totally equivalent. In particular, if the string moves in one of these other crazy directions, what would that look like in the nuclear theory, where things can only move in the normal three? This is cool, and is a generally very interesting area of physics called "holography" (like holograms, which look like they have more dimensions than they actually do (three rather than two).
  2. In this AdS/CFT, in general, we know how to calculate the rules in one of the theories, but not in the second. So this duality is potentially really useful to be able to tell us the answer to rules that we otherwise DON'T KNOW HOW TO CALCULATE! That is also cool.

So, this is the broad outline of what I'm doing. Maybe next time I'll go into a bit more detail about what exactly I'm calculating in one of these theories. Let me know if any of this stuff is understandable/interesting.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Beautiful Campus

Ok, now I want to put up some prettier pictures - of campus and of where I live. So here is where I live...

Then here are some cool pictures of what campus looks like - see Table Mountain behind the building? It's like a straight up hike up the mountain to get up to campus - really a good workout.

In the picture to the right here, off in the distance is NOT Table Mountain - that's facing east, into another cool mountain range, I don't know what it's called.

And here is my favorite one - the fog just on the horizon, overlooking the city - how cool is that?

I have to say, I'm ashamed that I really don't have any pictures of wild animals yet (with the possible exception of Mishka). My only excuse is that every time I took one, the yard monkeys would steal my camera and erase it - they are seriously shy for such evil creatures. But fear not - I just today heard about two things which might ease your pain in the future.
  1. I found out where the penguins live. So as soon as I close the deal on this damn car, I'm there.
  2. I heard about a documentary called "Air Jaws," about FLYING SHARKS, which happen only off the coast of Cape Town and Australia. And apparently, we have about 140 sightings a year, compared to 5 a year in Australia. So things should get interesting soon...

&$*# the Yard Monkeys!

Alex: 1
Yard Monkeys:... 3 weeks

I finally got access to my photos. So I can now begin uploading these bastards and quiet down the restless masses.

So, welcome to Cape Town!

This was just when I arrived, and was being driven in from the airport.

And here is my first view of Table Mountain. It's raining and nasty, but the mountain looks pretty majestic, and it's true what they say - it really is covered in clouds...

For the first few days, I stayed with Amanda and Jeff (Jeff being my new boss). The most important member of that household, however, was the new puppy, Mishka. They had just bought here, and she was 8 weeks old - she's now like 10 or 11. And boy, she is seriously bitey. But also tres cute - hopefully the bity-ness can be cured by training...

On to UCT. First, I'll show you what I see all day - my temporary office, in all its glory. They will be moving me next door next week (it's been next week every week I've been here), but right now, that's me in the corner with the laptop.

The More Things Change...

Not everything is different here in Africa - Americans are still snotty bastards, banks still screw you at every opportunity, and Windows... well, let's not go there...

I was leaving my apartment yesterday (sorry, my flat) and ran into this American woman in the elevator. There was some sort of police siren shenanigans going on all through the morning, and she made some comment to me about it, inciting conversation - nice and friendly, right? Well, when I asked what it was, she started to get all snooty and rude, like, "I can't believe you Americans - never pay attention to anything going on outside the States." According to her, it was probably some demo because of internal strife in the government or something - she was absolutely appalled that I didn't know that the Internal Finance Minister was just fired. She was slightly mollified when I mentioned that I had just arrived here, and didn't yet know all the political situation. Of course, the real answer had nothing to do with any governmental issues - the traffic police were on an illegal strike, and were blocking the HELL out of downtown traffic yesterday morning. Man, the line of traffic (luckily going the opposite direction to my shuttle bus) snaked off as far as I could see. Stupid Americans...

What is really snaking my sneakers right now is the bank - the Standard Bank
of South Africa Limited has decided to put me through who knows how much useless security tests or something before they'll allow me a checking account. I opened the damn account two weeks ago, they told me it would take three days, and they STILL haven't approved it. Even after telling me on Monday that they would expedite the situation so that I could buy my car, incompetence and laziness rule. But frankly, this is nothing new to me in the banking world - I take pride in having always hated banks with every fiber of my being. Nice to have the comforts of home...

And actually, I don't even want to get into my current issues with Windows... Let's just leave it at that, shall we?

By the way, I just want everyone to know that I really appreciate all the comments - makes me feel well connected to the continent back home. And I swear I will put up photos soon - but what am I supposed to do when the yard monkeys swiped my USB cable upon arrival?

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Weathering the winter

The rumors are true - even though it's summer in the real world (i.e., the Northern Hemisphere), it's winter down here. However, you'd barely know it - the average temperature seems to be something like 15 - 20 degrees Celsius (~ 60 - 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Now, I don't know where you come from, but in my book, that's nice spring weather. Some days it's a little chilly, but only because everyone wears short sleeves and maybe thin jackets. And people are carrying on like a new ice age is coming. It definitely gives a sense of... I don't know, power, or invulnerability or something to get to say, "When I was in Montreal, winters NEVER got above -15 C (~ 0 F) and we were HAPPY to have it that warm! Why, I had to walk back and forth to school in 3 - 4 feet of snow, uphill both ways!" My God, I'm gonna love being a grumpy old man...

The other thing is the rain. From the way people talked, I expected it to be a constant downpour throughout the winter. But there are at least as many gorgeous days as rainy days. And when the rain DOES come, it barely lasts five minutes! Actually, that's really weird - having a huge downpour, and it's LITERALLY gone in less than five minutes most of the time.

I have to say, the mildness of the winter here has got me a little worried about the heat of the summer. If you know me, you know that I don't enjoy the heat, and especially not humidity. Almost all accounts, however, assure me that it is a very dry summer here, though it can get quite hot. One guy (Bob) so far, has contradicted that, and said that it is really humid here in the summer. However, he's from Kenya, and I'm going to have to assume that where he's from, it's outrageously dry (I did a really quick Wiki search on Kenya, but could not get immediate confirmation of my assumption, as Kenya seems to have widely varying climate).

Friday, 10 August 2007

First Impressions

So I've now been in Cape Town for two weeks. Let me now take the time
to write down my first impressions.

Funnily enough, what I have seen of Africa so far (which has not been
a great deal, admittedly), is really not very different to life in the
States. Yes, there are people speaking different languages (I've
heard some Afrikaans, and some Xhosa - the language of The Gods Must
Be Crazy [edit - I'm dead wrong - the people in the movie are Bushmen,
or the San people - which always makes me think of Star Wars,
and they speak Khoisian]), everyone else has a funny accent (half British, half
Australian, seemingly), and they drive on the left side of the road.
But probably the biggest and strangest difference to me is that the
public transportation systems sucks, and to do anything you need a
car. But presumably this is weird to me only because I've lived in
New York City for six years, and Montreal for five years before that -
having a car is insanity in those cities. Most other American cities
are probably just like Cape Town in that regard.

Which is not to say that there aren't differences. Like I said, the
fact that I have a foreign accent here has been kind of amusing. For
the first week or so, I was embarrassed to speak to anyone, because I
felt out of place by having an American accent. By now, it really
doesn't bother me anymore - nobody acts particularly weird when I
speak, so I just got over the whole thing. Although I have to say,
all the heavy accents makes it really frustrating sometimes to
understand. Especially when it's a non-native English speaker talking
(English is totally the dominant language here, though - a few things
are written in Afrikaans, but absolutely everyone speaks English). I
felt really bad in the class I was teaching the other day, because
this guy asked me a question, and I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what he was
saying. I had to ask him to repeat himself four times, went all the
way to the back of the room to hear him better, and I still only
caught about five of the words he was saying. I ended up nodding
stupidly, and I'm sure he just gave up trying to get me to understand

Regarding driving on the left - I'm quite nervous about it, because
I'm going to have to get a car soon (hopefully in the next few days).
The funny thing is, I was completely taken aback to realize that not
only do they DRIVE on the left, but people WALK on the left in
hallways, on the street, etc. It is completely obvious in retrospect,
but it never even crossed my mind that people wouldn't walk in the
same way as they do at home. It really brought back memories of grade
school, when my teacher had to drill into our heads that it was polite
to walk on the right side of the hall. Well, I'm taking advantage of
this state of affairs by being very conscious of walking on the left,
in an effort to get myself used to it so that it won't be so weird
when I have to drive.

Probably the biggest actual difference I've noticed here (other than
my New York City car-phobia) is security consciousness. Everything
has WAY more security than I'd ever been used to. Every single
residence has locked bars over windows and doors (even my little
single bedroom apartment, which is INSIDE a complex with guards and
gates) has an iron gate with a padlock. And if you walk around, every
house has a serious alarm system. It was definitely very creepy when
I first got here, but I have to say, I haven't seen any crime yet. Of
course, I've been totally sheltered the past few weeks, being mostly
on campus, so that doesn't necessarily mean anything. However, I get
the strong impression (and have been told this directly) that at least
part of all this security is a status symbol. The richer you are, the
more gates, and giant search lights, and alarms you have, in order to
say - "look, I'm SERIOUSLY important, so I can't afford to get broken
into." Of course, I'm sure that crime is a significant problem, and
these security measures don't come out of nowhere. It's definitely an
interesting scenario, and I predict that this will become a continuing
source of discussion for me.