Garlic and tomatoes

It cannot be said, with any stretch of the imagination, that I am afflicted with green fingers. In fact, many years ago when I told my friends about my gardening attempts, they would burst out laughing. So, for years, prior to being presented with the opportunity to employ a gardener, I would think of that place outside my backdoor as a tortured garden. It is challenging to have a nice garden in a water scarce country.

So, why I decided to venture into this direction again, I don’t know. But it is fun, sort of.

I decided to harvest the pips of an overripe tomato and put them in some soil. Amazingly enough, they germinated. As they got bigger, I transferred them to individual containers. Now they are starting to become big enough to put into a big pot where they can stay until they would (hopefully) produce tomatoes.

I also had a garlic pod that started to look a bit sad. Although I like garlic in my food, I don’t seem to use it at a fast enough rate. So the garlic does not last. The thing made it quite clear that it wishes to burst forth and … grow. So, I relented and planted the thing. Now you wouldn’t believe just how must life there is in that pod. It sprouted leaves, all bunched together, like there’s no tomorrow. Soon I’ll have to find a bigger container and separate the thing into different pods, I guess.

Anyway, it would be a proud day, some time in the hopefully not too distant future, if I can harvest my own tomatoes and garlic and prepare some dish with them. It would mark a personal triumph, but I guess I still would not tell my friends, lest they laugh at me again.

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Hermitian existence

South Africa has the dubious honour to be among the top ten countries in the world with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of these ten countries, South Africa has the highest rate of daily increase in cases, over 4%.

Why? Perhaps one can blame the existing culture of disdain for the government’s regulations. It doesn’t matter that the government is trying to impose regulations to curb the spread of the virus. People ignore it and try to life as they like. One can understand why the government has lost it credibility looking at the recent history of corruption, state capture, and general incompetence.

I’m a scientist and not a politician. So I don’t want to discuss politics. Any reasonable person that sees the statistics can decide for themselves that it makes sense to isolate oneself as far as possible. So, what the government is trying to do makes sense, even if it is sometimes a bit too little too late.

The bottom line is, here I’m sitting in my house like a hermit. The hermitic existence is not so bad. The idea of living as a hermit has been part of western culture for centuries. It is intend to improve spiritual growth. I guess, it very much depends on the kind of person that you are. Not everybody can handle such seclusion for an extended period of time.

Charles Hermite
Charles Hermite

As a theoretical physicist, one can perhaps take some inspiration from Charles Hermite, whose last name sounds like hermit. He was a French mathematician who made significant contributions that are still widely used in quantum mechanics, among other fields. For example, a Hermitian operator is one that equals it Hermitian adjoint. It always has real eigenvalues. All physical states are represented by Hermitian operators

It this sound like twaddle to you. Don’t worry. What I’m try to get at is that if you currently also experience a “Hermitian “existence (as opposed a hermetic existence), then you can know that you are a real (valued) physical person. (Haha – just kidding. Perhaps only the mathematically inclined would find that funny.)

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Eating a Pink Lady

That may sound a little cannibalistic. Of course, if I added the word “apple” at the end (as you probably guessed) then it would sound less gruesome, but then it would also lose its appeal.

I could also have said “eating a Granny Smith,” but apart from the grammatical awkwardness, I don’t like Granny Smith apples much. I use to when I was younger, but these days they are just too sour for my taste. They are good for baking I hear. Not that I’ve ever baked apple pie.

The one’s I like most are Pink Lady, Royal Gala, and Fiji apples. Golden Delicious is also nice if they are properly ripened, but the shops tend to sell them when they are still very green. Then they are not so nice.

Pink Lady apples
Pink Lady apples

I mostly just eat them fresh. They are very helpful to combat heart burn. At my age that becomes a constant irritation. Instead of using some medication to control heart burn, I prefer to do that by my diet. So, I stay away from those things that tend to give me heart burn. In my case those are spicy food, breads and buttery pastry. Then I have an apple a day. That keeps the doctor away, as they say.

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Physics employment

Recently, I heard somebody talking on the radio about ways to start a day with positive energy. The person suggested all sorts of things, ranging from the things to eat or not to eat, the kinds of exercises to do and also even meditation. It occurred to me how fortunate I am that I don’t need to waste all that time on getting positive energy. When I wake up and I ask myself “what am I going to do today?” The answers is “physics!!!” and there I get all the positive energy that I need. It is my profession, my purpose and my passion.

Then I read the lamentations of Peter Woit in a blog post on the job situation in theoretical high energy physics. So, while it may be great to have a passion for physics, it is not a given that one can make it your profession. Indeed, I can remember that for as long as I’ve been in this field, the job situation was challenging. 

Students at University of Toronto
Students at University of Toronto

Part of the problem is the way that physics as a profession is being practiced. One typically starts as a student studying physics, but what are the career expectations? Most physics students apparently expect to become physics professors at universities. Well, if you look at the number of students compared to the number of faculty positions in physics, then it is obvious that such expectations are quite unreasonable. Moreover, if every physics professor produces scores of physics PhD’s during his or her career, then obviously there would be a huge oversupply of physics PhD to replace that professor.

So where do these PhD’s go to work? First they become postdocs. The ideal postdoc is a person that basically runs the research program for a professor. They come up with the ideas of what to investigate and they even supervise the professor’s PhD students. But what are the professors doing then? They travel and give talks, raising their profile, building their networks, and increasing their impact. Some of them don’t even touch any research. It’s all about fame and glory. The postdocs basically become cheap labor to produce the content on which these professors are riding their ego trips. More than once, when I’ve asked such “eminent researchers” questions after their talks at conferences, I’ve discovered that they don’t really understand what they are talking about.

So what can be done? Firstly, the poor students studying physics need to understand this situation and be realistic about their expectations. Other career choices include teaching (in schools, not universities) or industry. The latter represents the idea of an “industrial physicist.” However, in this case there is a different form of competition. The industry is better geared for engineers, for obvious reasons.

Another thing. When you decide to do physics, please do it for the right reasons. If physics is you passion and will remain your passion for the rest of your life, by all means proceed. Somehow you’ll find a way to live out your passion. But, if you want to do physics because you want to show off how bright you are, then rather join Mensa and leave physics to those that are passionate about physics. And, if you want to do physics because you want to be famous, like Einstein and those guys, rather consider a career as a rock star or a movie star. Very few physicists ever become really famous, contrary to what they may think.

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Consequences of lockdown

It is now just over a week since we entered lockdown. The statistics of the number of known COVID-19 cases seemed to have flattened off, but the authorities warn that there may be many more people that are infected that we don’t know about yet.

don’t panic, don’t panic

So, here we are going about our business in as far as one can go about one’s business sitting at home. Of course we need to stay positive. This is especially important for those of us living alone. As a result, I find myself thinking about the situation, observing how things develop and trying to think what it will lead to. I came to the conclusion that the world will probably never be the same again. Even assuming we get through this (and I guess one must hold onto the conviction that we will get through it), there are certain things that (I think) will change forever.

What does the future hold?

Perhaps you’ve already heard that one of the effects of lockdown is that more people will start to work from home. Video conferencing will become more prevalent. So will online file-sharing facilities and all that kind of stuff. (Let’s just hope the internet keeps on working.) However, I think there is another consequence that has been largely ignored. It is something I call the collective impetus.

So, what is this collective impetus? A long long time ago there was this TV series called Star Trek. It actually spawned several different series. One of the iconic antagonists that appeared in many of these series, but especially in Star Trek Voyager is the Borg, a cybernetic hive mind that called itself the Collective. It would inform its victims: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

Some time ago I started to see a resemblance between the Collective (the Borg) and those people that are constantly on their cellphones. It occurred to me that the obsession of these people to be in contact with others (so much so that they even do that while driving a car) effectively means that they are gradually becoming part of a collective hive mind.

Enter lockdown. Now, what little face-to-face interaction people had is drastically reduced. As a result, more people are forced to keep contact with one another via cellphones. Hence the collective impetus. The society that will emerge after the lockdown may look significantly more like a collective than before the lockdown.

Is this what cellphones will look like in the future?

One can even imagine that cellphones will eventually start to look like the devices on the heads of people in the Borg. Perhaps this is the next phase in the evolution of the universe. Perhaps people will lose their individuality and the whole collective hive mind will start to act like a single organism. What about those of us that refuse to become part of this collective?

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