31 March 2011

A physicist encounters the curious laywoman

While at a recent physics conference, I met a 54 year old Southern woman who asked me lots of questions about what physicists do and whether physics had anything to say about the existence of God. I was trying to grab a quick dinner in the hotel sports bar and she was at the same hotel for a homeowner's (?) conference. We talked for an hour. She seemed a little drunk because she'd forget facts I had told her. Sometimes she didn't seem to quite understand what I was trying to tell her. Nonetheless, I did my utmost be respectful and sympathetic and I think I did a good job for public relations between physicists and the public. She thanked me many times for taking the time to talk to her.

Later, I described this episode to a physicist friend and he thought the fact she asked me the "existence of God" question shows that the public doesn't know anything about the boundaries of scientific inquiry. In his opinion, it would be like asking "are there any paintings that are unartistic?"

So maybe ... because of the abstractions and the high level education required to experience scientific research, the public doesn't have any intuition for what questions scientists ask. Or maybe it was legitimate of her to ask about God and physics? I'm not sure.

29 March 2011

Quote of the day: "Kind of a big deal"

On his blog "The Art of Non-Conformity", Chris Guillebeau says:
When we falsely compare ourselves to others, we needlessly belittle our accomplishments. We also give weight to the wrong idea that venturing out of our comfort zone is “no big deal” or that small successes are “overrated.”
He starts the last paragraph with the line:
Never despise small beginnings, and don’t belittle your own accomplishments.
This reminds me of my literature professor in college. He told us not to put ourselves down because there are so many naysayers and people out in the world who will do plenty of putting down for us.

We might not all invent general relativity, but as a friend told me, if we look over a long enough time period, the small things we do influence a statistically significant number of people. A more eloquent way of saying this, from the last sentence in Middlemarch by George Eliot:
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

15 March 2011

Short term mission statement

Those of us who are intellectual, who work in the academy, naturally have a prejudice against the crass world of business. But we can learn a lot from business.

Many companies have a mission statement. The idea of the mission statement is to put into words the main objectives and core values of the organization. It is the company's vision.

There is no reason why people can't have a mission statement. About two and a half years ago, my sister wrote a very lengthy, thorough mission statement for herself. I don't have that kind of clarity at the moment. But I can put forth some short-term values.

My short-mission statement is modeled after the short, declarative mottos you see in sports teams locker rooms.
  1. Have faith.
  2. Be committed.
  3. Be focused.

14 March 2011

Quote of the day: Committing is funny

Today I thought of a quote I read recently. Sometimes I goof off by reading interviews with actors I like. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Reese Witherspoon said:
When I started out, I was only doing dramas. Then I segued into comedy sort of accidentally. I did this movie when I was 18 or so called Freeway. I thought I was being so sincere, playing this juvenile delinquent, and everyone was laughing at the premiere. People were like, "You're so funny in this movie!" And I was like, "Funny? I thought I was playing this serious character!" And I realized, what's funny is just committing. That's what sent me into comedy, and it's been the greatest thing that's ever happened.
I think anyone who studies comedy quickly realizes that committing is extremely important to humor. As Witherspoon says, "what's funny is just committing."

But the power of committing can be extended to all aspects of life. The people we admire... all of them have committed themselves to something. I'd like to make this a motto for myself:

I will commit myself to something big and important. I'll run with it and see what happens. Even if I'm scared, even if it's risky.

This is why parents sometimes say "it's better to do it well, or not at all." We should decide what's important to us and then commit ourselves to it.

13 March 2011

The power of positive thinking

It is well known in psychology that visualizing your success is a very good way to improve your performance. This is especially true in sports, which is why professional athletes sometimes hire a sports psychologist.

Take hockey, for example. A goaltender can visualize how to stop a player on a breakaway. A forward can think about how to win a faceoff or where to go when attempting a one-timer. According to an article in USA Hockey Magazine, a big part of the mental game is "focus and elimination of negativity, no matter what happens."

The article emphasizes over and over again the importance of being even-keeled and mentally tough. Larry Lauer is a coach who works with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP) on the mental aspects of the game. He says:
I try to eliminate the triggers that create negativity. If you missed an open net, or if you're a goalie and you let in a weak shot, focusing on those things can lead to negative thinking. When you get caught thinking in the past or in the future, you're unable to do your best in the present.

You like players that don't ride the emotional rollercoaster.
Many coaches agree that the many of the best hockey players are "mentally strong." Don Lucia, the head coach of the University of Minnesota men's hockey team, says:
They have short memories. They don't allow what happened yesterday or a previous play or the previous period inhibit what they're going to do in the future. You can't get caught up in what happened, you've got to always be looking ahead.
But what about the successful people we know, who are emotional? It seems like they can get away with this.
The top players are better able to play a more emotional game because they come with a reservoir of confidence that few people have.

12 March 2011

Putting distractions out of your mind

I was thinking about how I can put distractions and concentrate better on what I should be doing at the moment. Here are some different methods.

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about how she shuts out distractions when she is writing:
Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away trying to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want -- won't give them more money, won't be more successful, won't see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down and get back to your shitty first draft.
A friend of mine uses visualization, similar to Lamott, but her ideas isn't quite as dramatic. She says that if she has a distracting thought that comes up over and over again, she does the following. She visualizes the distracting thought as a piece of trash, walks over to the trash can, and throws it in the trash can.

A while ago, I was in a very stressful, busy situation. I was doing a master's thesis, taking classes, and applying to grad school -- all at the same time. I was starting to obsess over a person in my life, but I had zero time to be distracted like that. So I used the following method. I would carry an index card in my pocket. When I had the distracting thought, I would record a tally mark on the card and stick it back in my pocket. This method worked for me. Unlike the first two methods, which involve visualizing everything in your mind's eye, the method I describe is physical. You could look at how many tally marks you have at the end of the day, to assess how you're doing. You could see how distracted you are, or how much you've improved.