New Words I Learned Today

  • Hyperopia: An excess of farsightedness. Most people aspire to be farsighted. It’s good to delay pleasure now so that we can be better off in the long run. But a recently published study (read about it here) interviewed people about what they regret. In the short term, people regretted partying when they should have been working. In the long term, though, people wished they partied more.

    On the surface, this seems like evidence that I should be partying right now instead of writing FOUR damn papers by the end of the month, but that’s probably not the case. The people they interviewed were probably the ones who did work hard to get to where they were. They may regret not partying now, but fail to realize they wouldn’t be alive to express their regret if they spent their entire life eating finger food and drinking martinis. I doubt they’d find the same results with less successful people. The homeless drug addict on the verge of death probably wouldn’t say “yeah dude, I wish I partied more…my life would have been so much better if I had even less self control”.

    Still, it illustrates that we should enjoy our lives in addition to working, or we’ll hate ourselves later.

  • Pseudocyesis: Fake pregnancy. This article tells the heartwarming story of a pregnant woman who went to see her doctor. She was quite far along, with a big belly, kicking baby, screwed up nipples, etc. The doctor, however, could not detect the baby’s heart beat. After further research, he discovered that there actually was no baby. There never was a baby. She just wanted to be pregnant so bad that her body changed to look like she was.

    The hilarious part of the story, though, is that the doctor didn’t tell her that she didn’t have a baby. Instead, in a mind boggling breach of ethics and human decency, he told her that the baby was ready to be delivered that very day. Then he drugged her, and when she came to, he told her she’d lost the baby.

    You’ll have to read the article to find out the rest. The power of the mind over matter in this case is fascinating, but equally fascinating is how horrible (but, looking back on them, hilarious) things have been done in the name of science.

    Thank science we have ethical standards now. Science bless you all. Merry Sciencemass.

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Book Review: The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene

It has literally taken me years to read this book. Not because it’s uninteresting or anything, but because I have to be in a certain mood to read it. A mood in which I’m ready to read slowly and think deeply.

The Elegant Universe is about superstring theory and M-theory; basically, the “theory of everything” that physicists have always been searching for. It’s written for a general audience, but still gets pretty deep into it – without much math. While that’s a good thing, since most people (myself included) would need years of training to even begin to understand the math involved, it also left me with a feeling that I was always missing part of the picture. I guess that’s unavoidable in a book of this sort, though.

The book answers a lot of questions, but also brings up just as many – most of which are things that the average person has never considered before. Many such questions are very very deep. So deep that it’s nearly impossible to really grasp what’s being talked about. Whenever possible, Greene illustrates things with 2 or 3-dimensional analogies, but again, you feel like you’re missing something when, in reality, the theory involves 11 dimensions.

That’s the thing, though – humans will never intuitively grasp a world with 11 dimensions. We live – and evolved in – the 3 space dimensions (and one time dimension) that we’re all familiar with. Our brains simply weren’t built to understand any more than that. Like a goldfish can never understand the math involved in buying a chocolate bar, maybe we will never fully understand the math involved in describing the universe.

People will damn well try, though. I have much respect for the physicists involved in string theory (and other cutting-edge stuff like it). Many would probably hate this word, but it involves a lot of faith. Faith in at least two things: 1) That humans are able to understand the universe, and 2) That the universe is understandable at all. As briefly discussed in the book, maybe there is no ultimate theory that ties everything together. Maybe planets just work a certain way, and photons work a certain way, and there is no connection between these two ways of working. Until they find it, these physicists don’t even know if the theory they dedicate their lives to finding exists. Of course, they feel it exists, as I’m sure most scientists do. How could it not? And so far, everything has gotten closer and closer to meshing together cohesively. But it could stop at any point, and yeah, that feeling that it won’t, in some way, that’s faith.

These are deep issues, and I can’t really get into them in a brief review, so you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you want to have your brain challenged and get a better understanding of one way the entire universe might be explained, give The Elegant Universe a shot.