Having spent a lot of time at German universities and American universities, I was amused by a passage written in 1903 by Stanford University’s first President David Starr Jordan. Qualitatively I think some of what he said in 1903 applies today, although he was surely much too harsh on the German boys. It smacks of resentment that he really thought German boys were better than ours, and he tried hard to find reasons why we might be better, even though as a University president I’m sure he wished Americans were more academically inclined.
Also, I wonder if in 1903 it was the same as today, that American students and American education has a significantly higher variance than students and education in Germany. This is widely recognized today, but Jordan doesn’t mention that. I suspect that it was the case back then also — think Little House on the Prairie schoolhouses versus fancy New England Prep Schools. And the quip about American westerners being more broadly knowledgeable about practical things of the world still holds true today I think. In my extended family, Western Americans can change plumbing, build a deck, and replace a muffler, but Easterners have to call somebody when the refrigerator light goes out.
Here’s the passage:
“It is true that in the gymnasium [academic track German preparatory high school] students get on faster than in our high schools and preparatory schools. The German student is as far along in his studies at sixteen as the American at eighteen. This is due to the fact that American life makes more outside demands on boys than life in Germany does. The American boy is farther along in self-reliance and in knowledge of the world at sixteen than the German at twenty. The American college freshman, especially if brought up in the West, knows a thousand things, outside of his books and more useful, because more true than most of what his books contain. He can ride, drive, swim, row, hunt, take care of horses, play games, run an engine, or attend to some form of business, while the German boy cannot even black his own shoes.”
- David Starr Jordan. The voice of the scholar, with other addresses on the problems of higher education. San Francisco: Paul Elder & Co, 1903
German boy on his first day of class with his Schultüte.
One of the things that literature can do that is hard to replicate otherwise is to give a boots-on-the-ground feel for what life was like in a different era. Being a professor, I am especially interested in what university life was like at different times and in different places.
For Christmas I was given Anton Chekhov’s fascinating 1899 first-person novella “The Dreary Story” about a distinguished professor of medicine, Nikolay Stepanovitch, reflecting on his life, and recounting the daily banalities near the end of his career. He chronicles his interactions with colleagues, his preparation and delivery of lectures, his thoughts on the value of education, his thoughts about who will become great researchers and who will not and why, and thoughts about students. It is a fascinating read for anybody involved in education, both students and teachers.
Chekhov was a physician by training, and was not many years removed from his schooling when he wrote this novella just shy of his 30th birthday. He also was a tutor for some time, and so had close contact with a multitude of students’s abilities, ambitions and life stories. The acuteness of Chekhov’s observations combined with his recent close connection to higher education adds interest for me in this story.
There is one section that is particularly interesting with regard to student interactions with the professor. It reports of a “sanguine youth” visiting Professor Stepanovitch during office hours, asking to be passed on an examination. Professor Stepanovitch denies the student a passing grade, and during the recounting of this appeal reveals to the reader his unflattering thoughts about the student: he is more interested in beer than thinking, has no real commitment to medicine, lies on the couch most of the day, and could tell you much more about “the opera, about his affairs of the heart, and about comrades he likes” than about his studies. There are any number of modern-day unproductive diversions for students that could substitute for what Chekhov meant by “opera”, such as following sports, pop stars, reality shows, movies, and other activities that have very little lasting value for the individual and present a huge opportunity cost when pursued to excess. Professor Stepanovitch’s thoughts fit well with what gives today’s professors concerns about some current students.
There is a moment when the student tries to give his “word of honour” that if he is given a passing score he will ___, but the student never finishes the thought, because Professor Stepanovitch has already waived his hands and sat down, signaling to the student that he has heard it before and he will not buy whatever the student is about to say. And what could the student have said? There are not many options. Perhaps the student is wishing to say, “I will keep learning it over time and will make sure that it never hurts my ability to practice good medicine. Just pass me on this last hurdle, and I will be on my way and make you proud. You’ll see. I promise.”
The professor will have none of that. It is often a young person’s fundamental confusion to believe that it is convincing to say “give me this thing I really want, and then I promise to do something good”, whereas life really works mainly in the other direction, “do something good, and then you will get something more.” Professor Stepanovitch ends his recounting of the office visit with a devastating unspoken send-off to the student: “Peace be to thy ashes, honest toiler.” He counts the student among the living dead, who will never understand and will never amount to anything.
It is a cynical story but presumably evokes well what Chekhov understood and saw in late 19th century Russia. So for all you students out there, if you eagerly sat through ESPN’s full coverage of “signing day” for college football, or if you are keeping up with the Kardashians, and you compromised success in the classroom in any way because of it, remember what Professor Stepanovitch would say,”Peace be to thy ashes.”
On the other hand, this story is from the perspective of a professor, who values, or at least has been conditioned over time to value, intellectual pursuits and academic success above anything else. There are more paths to a successful life than Professor Stepanovitch is able to admit, but he is surely correct that an imbalance of beer, “opera”, football, Kardashians, etc., are not compatible with the pursuits of higher academics or of intellectually intensive professions such as medicine. Young people have to choose.
Photo of Anton Chekhov
I once heard a famous and well decorated experimental physicist say that experimentalists simply shouldn’t listen to theorists at all. Experimentalists should just measure and things will come what will, and they should pay no attention to theorists speculations and arguments at all when deciding what experiments to do.
I was very young and inexperienced at the time, but thought then as I do now that it was a dangerous and silly philosophy. There are so many examples of how it pays for communication to go both ways, theorists paying close attention to what experimentalists say and experimentalists paying close attention to what theorists say.
An example that I was reminded of recently is of an experimental collaboration that was building up steam to look for invisible orthopositronium decays. One argument was that the electron and positron could annihilate into extra dimensions. However, Friedland and Giannotti (arXiv:0709.2164) showed that such decays would be disastrous to supernova cooling rates, and that the proposed experiment was guaranteed to not find anything. In other words, a waste of time and money, and a huge opportunity cost to the experimentalists involved. The anti-theory philosophy would say, “Don’t listen to those theorists! Just do it! Measure what you can and want to measure!” which would be clearly bad advice here. If there were infinite numbers of people and dollars, that might not do harm (I doubt it then too), but in the present world, it is more prudent to pursue our best bets, guided by theory.
Regarding best bets, it should be noted that the Higgs boson was pure speculation until it was discovered recently. It was, gasp, just a theory model! It had no direct experimental support, and alternative theories without the Higgs boson abounded. Yet, luckily, there were experimentalists who sorted through the alternatives to decide on a best bet, with theory guidance, and then designed fantastic detectors and experiments and search algorithms focussed on finding it. Without that sustained dedication to this speculation they would not have succeeded.
And anyway, theory and speculations are what give joy to intellectual pursuits. Theory haters are unhappy people, and happy people are more productive, so unleash your speculations and theories. If you won’t listen to me, here’s encouragement from John Steinbeck:
“There are some people who deeply and basically dislike theories and are hostile to speculations. These are usually unsure people who, whirling in uncertainties, try to steady themselves by grabbing and tightly holding on to facts. … Speculation or theory-making on the other hand is simply a little game of pattern-making of the mind. The theory hater cannot believe that is important. To such a person a theory is a lie until it is proven and then it becomes a truth or a fact. But there’s no joy in it.”
Some time ago, shortly after starting a postdoctoral research position at CERN in Geneva, I was offered an Assistant Professorship at UC Davis. My family and I decided to go, and so we scurried out of Europe for California.
When you move from U.S. to Europe and then back within a year’s time, you tend to have many things displaced. Here I was staring at my office in Davis with nothing to put in it: no books, no periodic table posters, no pictures of Albert Einstein, and no pictures of my family.
So, I went to a newsstand and bought a magazine with lots of pictures in it, cut out the first good picture I could find, stuck it into a frame I just bought at Walmart, and hung it on my wall.
The picture was of a woman with long flowing black hair, holding a cigarette in her right hand and resting her left hand on a stack of papers scattered across her park-bench desk. An old black rotary phone sat out of reach at the edge of the table facing away from the subject, as though she knew it was temptation that had to be suppressed. On the wall hung a poster of a typewriter rushing past a train on railroad tracks, with the title “la rapidissima. Olivetti”. I was proud of my emergency picture on the wall.
Within a week of hanging the picture I noticed everyone’s eyes drawn to it as they walked into my office. Most people didn’t say anything, but just stared, instinctively knowing that there was something special about the woman. Only a few would ask, “That your wife?” and I would have to explain. In time, I came to realize that most visitors that had come to my office over that year thought she was my wife.
I became intrigued to find out who my “wife” really was. I learned her name, Susan Sontag. I learned that she was one of the greatest “public intellectuals” our country has known. She refused university appointments, and the security that would come with it, despite surely being able to get any named professorship at any university she would like. I learned that she was a voracious reader. Larry McMurtry, a famous voracious reader himself, once remarked that she is the only person he has met who he is sure has read much more than he has.
I learned also that she had breast cancer, and while she was being treated wrote an incredibly moving treatise on illness — Illness as Metaphor — that redefined how we think about disease and the people who suffer from it. I learned that she wrote a sweeping novel on Immigration — In America — that won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.
I read her works, and it had a profound impact on me. I fell in love with her style, her wit, her intellectual strength, and her freshness of ideas. But our “marriage” was not to last. I accepted a professorship at University of Michigan, packed all my stuff up, including my picture of her, moved across the country to Ann Arbor, and never displayed her picture again. I recall when she died in December of 2004 that it felt like a void was left in me and in our country — that America had lost somebody that made me very proud to be an American — and wondering if it was possible again in the modern world to have another public intellectual of her stature and ability.
I was reminded of her again this past week upon reading the full transcript of her Rolling Stone Magazine interview by Jonathan Cott, recently released nearing the tenth anniversary of her death. It is a 168 page book published by Yale University Press, and it captures so well the sharpness of mind when she was at her peak in 1978. It brought me back immediately to those confusing times as a brand new assistant professor in Davis California, when it was unclear if the “life of the mind” was worth it, given so many other things to do in the world. Reading her words and feeling the power that comes from thinking and expressing and reasoning encouraged me. She was an inspiration to many, and ten years on after her death, her influence remains powerful.
I should not end without words directly her. From Cott’s Rolling Stone interview:
“I cannot understand the truth except as the negation of falsehood. I always discover what I think to be true by seeing that something else is false: the world is basically full of falsehood, and the truth is something carved out by the rejection of falsehood. In a way, the truth is quite empty, but it’s already a fantastic liberation to be free of falsehood.”
Louise Erdrich is one of America’s finest writers of literary fiction. I am partial to her because of her excellent writing and Native American themes that run through her work. I stumbled across a passage in her 2010 novel Shadow Tag that discusses supersymmetry — an elegant but speculative theory framework that relates boson particles to fermion particles. It’s the first discussion of supersymmetry I have seen in literary fiction, and it’s interesting how it is evoked. Here’s the passage:
“What kind of particle are you?
A worthy question, Top Quark. Let me think.
Florian smoked for a while, looking out over the constant motion of the lights.
Okay, I got it. I was going to say I am a tau, but no, I think I’m an unobserved particle. I’m only hypothetical. An electron gets a selectron. For every tau there is a stau. Floridan sang, For every muon there is a smuon.
They started laughing, tried to stop. Floridan started up again every time Riel said, Smuon?
For real. Smuon.
Florian got up and walked to the edge of the roof. For every muon there is a smuon! He sang and then pirouetted against the sky like a dancer in an old black-and-white movie.”
Whatever you might think of the Soviet Union, they undeniably had incredible physicists. There are many reasons for this, but a culture of grit and personal determination to tackle physics problems on one’s own appears to me to be one of the key factors. To illustrate, here’s a quote from I.V. Savelyev, author of the three-volume “Physics. A General Course”, a successful Soviet-era textbook of undergraduate physics:
“The solving of problems will yield the maximum returns only if a student does this by himself. It is often not easy to solve a problem without any aid or prompting, and this is not always successful. But even unsuccessful attempts to find a solution, if they were undertaken with sufficient persistence, will give noticeable returns because they develop thinking and strengthen one’s will power. It must be borne in mind that the decisive role in working on problems, as in general in studying, is played by will power and diligence.” (italics are the author’s)
From first paragraph of I.V. Savelyev, “Questions and Problems in General Physics,” Mir Publishers, Moscow, 1982 (English 1984).
Posted today on the arXiv:
S. Jung, J.D. Wells, “Gaugino physics of split supersymmetry spectrum at the LHC and future proton colliders,” arXiv:1312.1802
Discovery of the Higgs boson and lack of discovery of superpartners in the first run at LHC are both predictions of split supersymmetry with thermal dark matter. We discuss what it would take to find gluinos at hadron supercolliders, including the LHC at 14 TeV center of mass energy, and future pp colliders at 100 TeV and 200 TeV. We generalize the discussion by re-expressing the search capacity in terms of gluino to lightest superpartner mass ratio, and apply results to other scenarios, such as gauge mediation and mirage mediation.
Posted today on the arXiv:
L.G. Almeida, S.J. Lee, S. Pokorski, J.D. Wells, “Study of the 125 GeV Standard Model Higgs Boson Partial Widths and Branching Fractions”, arXiv:1311.6721.
The discovery of the Higgs boson, with mass known to better than the percent level, enables for the first time precision Higgs boson analyses. Toward this goal, we define an expansion formalism of the Higgs boson partial widths and branching fractions that facilitates such studies. This expansion yields the observables as a perturbative expansion around reference values of Standard Model input observables (quark masses, QCD coupling constant, etc.). We compute the coefficients of the expansion using state-of-the-art results. We also study the various sources of uncertainties in computing the partial widths and branching fractions more precisely. We discuss the impact of these results with efforts to discern new physics through precision Higgs boson studies.
Scholardox P5 (2013) note added today. This was written with the goal of understanding how triple gauge boson coupling sensitivities scale with different center-of-mass energy and luminosity of CLIC stages. Below is the full title and abstract.
Title: Energy and luminosity scaling of the sensitivity to dimension-six operators at high-energy e+e- colliders
Abstract: There exists in the literature careful simulation studies of the sensitivity to dimension-six operators at high-energy e+e- colliders for particular values of the energy and integrated luminosity. It is helpful to know how the sensitivities are altered with changing luminosity and changing energy without a complete re-simulation. This note estimates how the sensitivity changes in two cases: one where the dimension-six operator involves no derivatives and the other with two derivatives. In the case with two derivatives, which is for example applicable to anomalous gauge boson couplings, the sensitivity to the scale increases by the square-root of the increased energy.
[A write-up of this post, answers to potential criticisms, and simple LaTeX instructions for landscape mode can be found at this link.]
My collaborators and I posted article on arXiv today in two-column landscape format. Here’s why:
If you are like me, you have often been frustrated reading articles online. Invariably they are formatted in portrait mode, and if I try to fit the longer vertical part completely on the screen, the font is just too small to read well. I understand, of course, that it needs to be made that way, because if it is printed the font is just right.
However, if I let the pdf be longer than my screen height, when I page through the document I see only the upper half or two thirds of it, and perhaps what I am looking for is on the bottom of the page (e.g., the page number!). I then have to do a combination of paging and scrolling to look through the complete text. This is painful, and there needs to be a better solution to that.
Of course, if I have a huge desktop screen with high resolution, I can have my pdf file completely visible in the vertical direction and can page through it without a problem. This is great, except often I do not have that luxury — and in fact most people spend more time on their smaller-screen laptops than big desktop screens.
A much better way would be to format the pdf file such that it is convenient for laptops, and maintains convenience for big-screen desktops. This can be done by matching the aspect ratio and horizontal orientation of the laptop screen. This cries out for producing documents in landscape mode, where the longer side of the page spans left to right, and the shorter side of the page spans up and down.
The trouble with landscape mode is that if you have normal 11pt or 12pt text scrolling all the way from one side to the other of the long-end of the document, you have impossibly long lines to read. Finding the next line is an adventure. This is one reason why the portrait mode won out over landscape mode in printed materials. The other reason was because binding, turning pages and reading of books is better in portrait mode. This latter reason is quickly becoming irrelevant since increasingly fewer people read bound articles anymore. However, the issue of reading lines that are too long is serious.
How long is too long when reading a line of text? One quantitative measure of this is the ratio of the line length to the height of a capital letter, like T. We can call this the “Ratio of Line to T”. Most published material in books and on the web, where there is in principle no constraint on it, limit this ratio to well below 50, and usually it is between 25 and 40. Full landscape mode in 12pt type with 1inch (2.5cm) margins on each side has a value of about 80 for this ratio — much too high.
One way to solve this problem in landscape mode is to make the text width artificially narrow. However, that solution generates too much white space in the document. This is bad for efficient printing, of course, but it is also bad for taking up window space on the computer screen.
A better solution is to format the document into two columns in landscape mode. Then, the Ratio of Line to T is about 40 for each line, which is readable. Furthermore, there are no large white spaces in the document, and it can be efficiently printed (if need be), or efficiently displayed on a screen. A document with this two-column landscape formatting is ideal for reading and paging through on a laptop, since the document can be sized to fill as much of the laptop screen as desired.
For some people, especially in mathematical sciences in portrait mode, is thought to be awful. This is because equations and figures often can be hard to display in this format. The equations, for example, are sometimes too long and one has to awkwardly place them on continuing lines. However, this stems from viewing two-column formats in portrait mode. The two-column landscape format has much wider columns (about 30 percent more) than the two-column portrait format, and to me that is acceptable.
In fact, the aspect ratio of each column in two-column landscape mode is nearly the same as the aspect ratio of each page of single-column portrait mode (identical for Europeans dealing with A4 size). Thus, the two-column landscape format poses fewer formatting challenges. And when there are issues of putting side-by-side figures in two-column landscape format, there are easy ways to deal with that in most software packages, including LaTeX, by having the figures span the two columns. Same goes for tables.
Finally, the proof is in demonstration. If you are on a laptop, take a look at one of my recent papers in single-column portrait format, and now look at it in two-column landscape format, which is how my collaborators and I posted it on the arXiv. Reading the two-column landscape version is much easier on the laptop screen.
The two-column landscape format is better than any other format for online reading in my view, and should be adopted as the standard choice.