An Ordinary Extraordinary Day

Often as we go about our busy lives, the days just go by one by one. If only we could stop to look about us and enjoy the scenery!

Today (April 17, 2019) wasn't a particularly special day, but it was remarkably wonderful and insightful in its own way. Somehow, at the end of the day, I ended up deeply awed at the state of the world today, with human germline gene editing around the corner, with technology pushing the limits of physics on the small scale and the large scale, with China rising in power and influence, with social media and internet memes affecting our lives beyond any way we could imagine. Somehow I'm lucky enough to go to a school where all these urgent (!) concerns trouble us and drift around us on a daily basis, where we're right in the middle of so many things happening.

If only we would stop to look at the flowers. After two years at such an incredible institution, today I wanted to step back and just rememember how remarkable it is to be alive in 2019 and to live amongst an incredible community of scholars. There was no particular reason for why today. It was an ordinary day, with lots of mundane banalaties of college life, but extraordinary in so many regards.

I've documented all the boring details and silly thoughts below.


Weak Sunlight and Shower Thoughts

I woke up at 8:30am to weak sunlight. The housing people decided to install some stupid new ‘‘blackout’’ shades that block all the light from coming into the room, which is absurd, because there's a streetlamp right outside my window, so if I leave my blinds up, then I can't fall asleep at night, but if I put my blinds down, then I can't wake up in the morning! So I inevitably always wake up much later than Mother Nature and Sunlight would like me to. It's one of the true disasters of living right next to a streetlight. I'm thinking about throwing a rock at the streetlight to put it out of commission (and put my bedtime back in commission), but some part of that seems ethically wrong. There's got to be a solution somehow.

Speaking of ethically incorrect decisions, I then decided to watch some youtube on my phone just for a bit, which of course ended up being much longer than just for a bit because my early-morning brain has little self-control, and because those recommendation algorithms are just too damn addictive (ugh!). I watched a little clip of the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson (more on him later today) telling the classic story about his journey to visit Enrico Fermi in Chicago. It's a short, humbling, and entertaining tale, and I'm glad I came across it so young in my own scientific journey. Incredible how he's in his nineties and still sharing his wisdom with all of us. And then the Invisible Hand of Recommendations directed me to an ElectroBOOM rant about the inefficiencies of our power sources in our everyday lives, which felt completely ridiculous and borderline misinformative to me, so I'm not going to link it here.

Anyways, after a while, I lifted myself out of degeneracy (with a mysterious symmetry-breaking perturbation) and went to the shower. My roommate and I have a silly signalling system to make sure we don't lock each other out when we're showering: I put a little plastic cup on the door handle, and he hangs his helmet. The joys of college life.

Here were my shower thoughts:

Anyways, it was probably time for me to get out of the shower, since I had all these wacky ideas going through my head. I started thinking about how my friends would respond if I told them my ideas, whether they would nod thoughtlessly or whether they would tell me that I was full of shit. Thankfully I realized that most of them would tell me I was full of shit. I couldn't tell whether this was a sign that I picked good friends, or whether it meant that I was actually on to something meaningful.

Brahmsian Detail and Miscellaneous Errands

Committed to reducing my screen time for the rest of the day, I put my phone on silent. I walked over to the dining hall as per my morning ritual. Breakfast has become a bizzarely optimized routine of college life – I've figured out every last muscle movement, from which of the four sets of tinted glass doors to push open, to the number of oatmeal scoops I need to fill the small soup bowls. I went through my super-automated breakfast, loaded my silverware into the dishwasher (cup in left hand and plate in right hand to avoid arm-crossing), and continued on with my day.

First in the morning was a piano lesson with Dr. Weldy. Last week I learned a short Brahms intermezzo, a delicate and sensitive little piece. I thought we'd only spend half the lesson on it, but after I played it through, Dr. Weldy told me it was a ‘‘good start’’ and began to pick through every detail of the piece. As it turns out, I had glossed over many subtle points on phrasing, articulation, pedaling, voicing, touch, tempo, and so on. I found it remarkable how carefully I had to read the markings on the page! So we spent the rest of the hour on careful points, such as how to use the pedal so that the left hand played a smooth legato while the right hand played with an otherworldly detatched sound. After the lesson finished, he told me once again that it was a ‘‘good start.’’ I was astounded by how effective this phrase was – it encouraged me to continue tackling the details of this music without discouraging me about my initial interpretation.

After jotting down the musical ideas from my lesson into my notebook, I was about to head over to the student center to do some errands and homework, but I heard a voice shout my name. Ah! I was supposed to return a quarter-to-eighth-inch-audio-adapter that I borrowed from him. Embarassed, I shuffled over, pulled it out of my bag, and handed it back. It turns out that he tried to call me a few minutes ago, but I didn't pick up since my phone was on silent. And my phone was on silent so that I wouldn't be addicted to it for the rest of the day. The perils of modern technology – everyone expects you to respond to your phone. Maybe it's not so easy to go screenless!

Once I found a nice little spot in the student center, I pulled out my laptop to run some very non-glamorous errands:

And then I ate some lunch very quickly – not so mechanical, since the food is different every day – and headed to my bioethics class.


It was a ‘‘classic’’ college course, filled with a few hundred people in a lecture hall, some taking notes on rickety puny folding desks, some completely spaced out browsing tattoos online, some asking questions way more frequently than they ought to, etc.

The most remarkable aspect about this bioethics course was that the professor served on an ethics committee whose job was to solve ethical dilemmas! He had this beeper that would go off if the hospital on campus was faced with a high-stakes ethical situation, and then he'd have to meet with a group of people to decide the ethically proper decision to take. For instance, on the first day of class, he had introduced us to the flavor of course material just by telling three stories of ethical dilemmas he had to solve that week – about patients whose religious beliefs forbade their treatment, about terminal patients with no chance of recovery whose families wished to continue expensive and ultimately fruitless care, and many more stories. I found it very humbling that the philosophical theories and ethical codes that he taught us about in class were directly practically applicable, and not just some theoretical, far-removed construct in a frayed textbook. These were real people, facing real situations, with no clear answer of the ‘‘right’’ action to take. And the man helping to make these tough decisions stood in the room right in front of us, gesticulating and wandering and answering questions!

That day in class, we talked about the ethics of medical research, a rather tough question (just like everything else in the class). The crux of the issue is that a doctor conducting a research study has two duties at the same time: a duty to heal the individual patient, and a duty to generate the knowledge to help future patients. Today's regulations make sure that anyone who chooses to join a research experiment has to give their informed consent. In contrast, half a century ago, it was culturally accepted that research subjects would have no idea what they were part of. The concept of skipping participant consent sounds almost barbaric today, but for most of medical history, that's just the way things were done. It took atrocities such as the infamous Tuskegee ‘‘study in nature’’ of untreated syphilis, or the terrifying Nazi human experimentations, for international committees to come together and decide to write down regulations. We talked about the contents of these various codes of conduct (Nuremburg, or Helsinksi, or whatever, I've forgotten by now), and all these concepts seem very natural to us millenials – a participant of a study must understand the risks and benefits, must not be coerced into participation; an independent group of people must approve the study (to avoid the experimenter's conflicting interests), and so on and so forth. Again, in the grand scheme of human history, it's remarkable how ‘‘modern’’ new these developments are, and we all take them for granted today. Well, maybe not completely. I was reading the other day about prisoner organ harvesting in China, which also sounds like another atrocity and ethical problem upon itself…

An Unexpected Magazine

Once the bioethics class finished up, I had an awkward half an hour before my next class, and I've never really known what to do during these strange half-hour-gaps. I decided just to chill in the physics lounge for a bit. There were a few classmates up in the lounge, but they were working on a project, so I was just checking out a magazine (these things still exist??) lying on the table. It was a ‘‘Phyics Today’’ magazine. As I mindlessly flipped through the glossy pages, I found some pretty hilarious advertisements for state-of-the-art lab equipment which looked like flashy vacuum cleaner commercials, except they were filled with all these technical words that I didn't understand. It felt like something out of a sci-fi movie. I flipped through some editorial about the state of different fields, and again I was entertained by the funny juxtaposition of a casual magazinish writing style with incredibly inscrutable jargon.

There were also some book reviews in the back of the magazine, and to my surprise, I actually recognized some of the books. One was about the ‘‘ecosystem’’ of science, including the labs, the funding agencies, the newspapers, the government decisions, the glossy and non-glossy journals, the crowded conferences, and so forth. As I sat there reading the book review, I started remembering the main messages that I got out from reading it last summer…

The other book review I recognized was about a book that I checked out from the library the day before! (It was really hard to find, hiding in the sixth floor of the claustrophobic west stacks…) The book was Freeman Dyson's autobiography, told through letters that he wrote to his family as a young adult.

At this point, I had somehow eaten through my half-hour of free time (including transit time, small talk, et cetera), so I went back down the stairs and walked across the street to my quantum mechanics lecture.

Quantum Mechanics

Here was classic college physics lecture; a much cozier, intimate, and slow-paced affair. About twenty of us huddled into an oddly-shaped room for a graduate lecture (which was funny since half the class was undergrads!). The professor was a calming, white-haired, abstract careful thinker, not detached and formal like the traditional stereotype, but a west-coast, down-to-Earth, casual intellectual.

Before class even began, we addressed the elephant in the room (or rather, the elephant in the room down the hall). The class was supposed to end at 5pm, but Katie Bouman from the black hole image collaboration (EHT) was going to give a talk at 4:45pm in the room down the hall, and we all wanted to go. So we decided to end the lecture at 4:30pm, hopefully leaving enough time for us to grab seats in the room (or so we thought…)

We then talked about the final project for the class – a little independent research thing exploring some aspect of quantum mechanics. As he was going through the list of previous project ideas, I had a strange feeling that all these concepts were marginally interesting to me, yet not deeply interesting, and I didn't know whether I'd be able to commit myself to digging in and creating a 15-page report out of any of them. I zoned out for a bit, thinking about what might actually be interesting for my strange tastes, and actually managed to come up with a few ideas:

The lecture itself was quite well explained, but I unfortunately found the topic itself a bit dull, perhaps unfairly so. We talked about the way you stitch together approximations of wavefunctions (the so-called WKB connection formulas), and it had a really fancy name of ‘‘matched assymptotic expansions’’. Oddly enough, in another class that I was taking, we had just spent an entire lecture on the same esoteric topic, but there we were talking about how to estimate the dynamics of a driven pendulum – a completely different subject matter entirely!

For some reason, this coincidence happens a lot. I often see some concept come up in two completely unrelated classes:

It's incredible that scientific knowledge is all intertwined and interrelated in unexpected manners.

Blurry Donuts

As soon as we hit 4:30pm, the class poured own the hallway in an attempt to get to the black hole imaging talk – and we were not a moment too late. The room was overflowing. People were leaking out of side doors and seeping into every possible crevice. Our huddle of physicists was one of the last to make it in, and thankfully we had a pretty great vantage point on the edge of a walkway, where we could see a slightly nervous speaker, an utterly befuddled host, and a endlessly restless crowd.

The room was chaotic, the wifi no longer worked, and there were still 15 minutes before the talk began. Through the four doors, an endless inflow of incompressible people tried to find their way in. As I stood staring at the faces flowing through a doorway, one face in particular caught my attention: our physics department chair was in utter shock at the sheer number of people in the room, desperately scanning for an open chair. (He eventually found a seat on a stairwell). We were lucky we got in so early…

A crowded room of people listening to the talk. 

Last week, the image of the black hole went viral and generated lots amount of attention from the press. Regardless of the crazy publicity, I wanted to learn about the science behind the imaging procedure, and I think the fellow physicists around me felt a similar way. I wanted to judge the talk based on the merits of the science – were the concepts well-explained and well-motivated? Were there important implications and messages behind the work? And was the science carefully done?

Here is what I thought:

The talk finished up right on time and people clapped for a long, long time. I kind of wish that academic talks had ‘‘curtain calls’’ like in classical music concerts, where the conductor walks offstage and onstage over and over again, so that the energy of the applause waxes and wanes with a natural rhythm. Otherwise everyone just kind of stands there awkwardly staring at each other.

Anyways, the questions started pouring in. Thank goodness, the first few questions were serious technical questions. The speaker rephrased them clearly and answered them quite well. In one of the early questions, I recognized the sharp voice of my former classmate Guillermo, a friendly and thoughtful EE student who views everything under the sun in terms of optimization problems. Naturally he asked whether this problem was convex or not, and it turns out (well no shit!) it's not convex. Good to know.

I also distinctly remember a question about the nature of the radio wave signal. A quick of back-of-the-envelope calculation tells you that a 1mm radio wave has a frequency of around 300GHz, which correponds to a Nyquist sampling rate of 600 billion times per second, or once every 1.5 picoseconds!! How the hell do electronics work so fast, and how the hell do you store all that data as it's flowing out of the detector? On another note, the data was simply a 2-bit channel, meaning that it suffers severe quantization error (since the signal has to be rounded off to one of four possible values at every time-step), and I have no idea how you're able to deduce anything at all from such a ridiculously noisy signal. Perhaps the electrical engineers know.

The last few questions started getting kind of silly. One person asked about what advice the speaker would give to everyone in the room. I don't even remember how she responded, probably something along the lines of hard work and perserverence, but it just felt a bit absurd to me, since this event was an academic talk, not a TED talk.

When we started shuffling out of the room, I got into a long and detailed conversation with my friend Dom, an electrical engineering student. We slowly made our way over to dinner, talking about electrocuting hot dogs and the magic of noise cancellation…and through dinnertime, we continued a long conversation with friends, about the craziness of Bill Shockley (inventor of transistors who became a eugenicist late in life), about the pros and cons of UNIX ‘‘everything is a text’’ model, about too many things…by which point I was thoroughly exhausted with the day and retired for the night.

And there wraps up my ordinary extraordinary day. Lots of thoughts, too many thoughts, and never enough time to think thoughts through. I wanted to write about other recent topics as well, such as Steve Quake's recent interview with the NYT about the human-gene-editing-scientist JK He, but this blog post is already turning out way longer than I expected, and my other academic obligations are tugging at me.

Too many things are happening around me these days. The pace of the world goes faster and faster, and there's just so much to think about and no time to reflect. Every ordinary day contains so many extraordinary happenings and ideas, but there's never any time to pay attention.

And onwards we continue.

-Jeffrey Chang, April 20 2019.

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