My foray into mindful meditation

When I was young, I was skeptical about meditation process and its benefits. Growing up in India, I was surrounded by images of sadhus sitting cross-legged with closed eyes while doing samadhi. When I tried to imitate them, I would be left with my soup of thoughts while staring at the random light patterns that are formed on the inside of eyelids. I would try harder to push all my thoughts away and I would fail again. Unsurprisingly, I thought it as a pointless exercise.

Recently, I re-started doing mediation as a means to reduce stress and anxiety. I started following HeadSpace app for learning how to meditate. If you are interested in learning about mindful meditation, check the video out:

I learnt that it’s okay to have thoughts while meditating. The important thing is to be a passive observer to your thoughts and not get dragged into them. It’s like seeing the traffic move on roads from the passive bystander’s point of view. This specific lesson helped me a lot. As a result, I started doing meditation in my mornings as much as possible.

With consistent practice over time, I started getting more aware about my mental state. I could notice when I was sad and happy, and more importantly, what specific events brought me those feelings. Instead of being pushed mindlessly around by the life forces, I started noticing these life forces more carefully. Obviously, I would still be affected by them but I was more aware of their affect.

However, this awakening was a double edged sword. I was able to savor my happiness more but it also brought me closer to my anxiety. During the uncertain times, I wished I could dial down the awareness so that I would feel less miserable. With time, I have learnt how to handle the awareness better but it’s still a learning process. For such times, the technique that helped me was to wait patiently for it to pass.

Last week, I was listening to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense and heard him talk about the benefits of meditation. Inspired by his podcast, I have started using his Waking Up app. Since my learning has saturated in HeadSpace app, I am hoping that changing my meditation app would boost my learning.

Updates on my fiction writing

It’s a lazy and unusual Monday morning characterized by gloomy clouds and monsoon-like intense rainfall. As I usually write blogs on weekends, it feels a bit odd to do it on a Monday morning but I decided to reward myself as part of Thanksgiving celebration this week.

Another reason for the odd feeling is that I haven’t really blogged for more than one year (To be honest, I did just publish one post today but it’s not really a spontaneous piece of writing which is what a blog means to me.). It’s not that I have not written for leisure in past one year. Quite the opposite: Probably I have done more fiction writing than any typical year of my life. This is because I have been busy writing my first novella. Yup, I can’t believe it myself! I am still a long way before it is done but it is unbelievable for me that I had the courage to take such an ambitious project up. For a long time, I wanted to write a novel and I would think of so many ideas but I would never execute them eventually.

Somehow this time I didn’t just dream but decided to work on it. Since my writing muscles are not strong enough for a long-term fiction writing, I decided to start simple. Instead of writing a novel, I chose to write its shorter form: novella. It only has four chapters. And then instead of creating my own fiction world, I decided to borrow it from a Netflix movie —The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). My novella is like a prequel to this movie. It is set 20 years before the events happening in the movie. So, this novella can be seen as a fan-fiction based on a movie except that it’s not really a well-known movie. Unlike Harry Potter’s fan-fiction, a few people would understand the context in which my novella is set in.

My original plan was to release it sequentially chapter-by-chapter on my blog as I finish writing chapters. However, I realized that I was doing extensive editing in all of my past chapters while I was writing one chapter. For example, while writing the third chapter, I would realize that it would be nice to reveal something about a character. But then I would go back to my first two chapters and check whether I have given enough hints to the readers so that they don’t get too surprised when they read the revelation in the third chapter.

Come to think of it, a novella is more than just the sum of its constituent chapters. This is one of the joys that I have discovered during my novella writing phase. When I would introduce a particular character or plot detail in the first chapter, I myself would have no idea that it would grow organically into something bigger in the next chapter. I also get a similar creative kick when I blog but on a smaller scale.

However, I also realized that writing for a long-term project can feel sometimes slow and laborious. Recently, I have been feeling as if I were walking through molasses as I am trying to wrap up the last chapter. And this blog is an attempt to encourage myself a little and take a holistic view of my in-progress novella.

Hopefully, I am ready to share my novella soon. Till then, here is the blurb of my novella:

Danny Meyerowitz, a young student of music, is trying his best to fill into the large shoes of his father, Professor Harold Meyerowitz, a Whitney recognized sculptor. However, as he fumbles his way in his musical training, he is constantly reminded that he is not as talented as his younger prodigious step-brother. Would Danny be able to rise above his all consuming self-doubts and redeem himself in the eyes of his father?

The actual story of ignominious Periphetes

Similar to many ancient societies who followed pagan religion, ancient Greeks worshiped a large number of Gods. Even if you are unfamiliar with Greek mythology, you would have heard about Zeus (King of the Gods, God of lightning, thunder and justice),  Apollo (the God of music), Eros (the God of love)  and Ares (the God of war). For our story, the important God is Hephaestus, the God of fire, metalworking, and sculptures. 

Who forged Achilles’ armor? Hephaestus did. Who forged Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals? He did. Who crafted Eros’s bow and arrows? He did. Basically, he crafted much of the magnificent equipment of the Greek Gods with the help from his one-eyed assistants Cyclopes. As you can imagine, he had a lot of wealth. He lived in a large palace in Olympus with his family.

Hephaestus did not have a particularly large friend circle among the divines of Olympus, but he went along fine with almost everyone except Prometheus. As you may know, Prometheus, the God who created mortals, stole fire from the gods and gave it back to mankind. He is revered even today by mankind as the harbinger of civilization. Why fire was taken away from humans in the first place is a story for another day.

Zeus, the God of justice, got really upset and his punishment of Prometheus is known widely. However, as far as Hephaestus was concerned, it was a mockery of justice. If his mother were on better terms with her ex-husband Zeus, then he could have got Prometheus far more severe punishment. He thought that his assistants Cyclopes suffered way more pain while working with fire than Prometheus who suffered just once in a day when an eagle came to eat away his liver. Mortal Cyclopes couldn’t heal their burnt limbs as fast as immortal Prometheus. Herphaestus felt that Prometheus not only stole fire but also all the recognition that belonged rightfully to him. You see actually Prometheus stole fire from Herphaestus’s hearth. And keeping that hearth lit eternally was no easy task. Four of his greatest Cyclopes worked hard around the clock so that forging of metals didn’t stop even momentarily. What Prometheus did interfered with the plan of Hephaestus. Mankind would have got back the fire eventually once he taught them how to control it properly. 

Like any Greek God, he had many wives and along with them, many sons and daughters. Let us focus today on two of his sons: Erichthonius and Periphetes. King Erichthonius, as his subject in Athens used to call him, grew up in the palace with all the royal comforts fitting for a king. Periphetes, on the other hand, didn’t inherit much from his father except his limp. It goes without saying that Periphetes felt jealousy towards Erichthonius because he thought everything came easy to him. Compared to his older illustrious half-brother, we don’t know much about Periphetes. We know so much about King Erichthonius — there are detailed stories about how he was born, how he ruled Athens and how he died. But the only thing ancient texts mention about Periphetes is that he was a one-eyed robber, who tormented travelers on the road between Athens and a nearby town Troezen with his bronze club. And he died at the hands of Theseus, a later King of Athens. A popular depiction is shown below.

peri_greek

Periphetes has always stuck out to me like a sore thumb. After all, a son of a God can’t just be a robber in a patriarchal society. All of his siblings (like King Erichthonius) are rich and influential while he is described as a monster. The craftsmen of the ancient Greek society, like the European societies of the Middle Ages, were highly organized among the guilds and they were regulated heavily by the norms of craft guilds. Generally, a specific trade would remain confined to the specific guild and families which were part of it. So, one would expect Greek mythology to mirror ancient Greek society’s social structure. However, King Erichthonius was definitely not practicing metal craftsmanship. In fact, we don’t have any record of any of the children of Hephaestus who carried forward the family business, which seems really strange to me. 

I believe Periphetes was actually not a robber but a metal craftsman like his father. Of all the children, only Perihetes share the sound phe with his father’s name. Secondly, it cannot be just a coincidence that only Periphetes inherited his father’s limp. What must have been lost through passage of time was that he was his father’s true son. I suspect he lost his one eye while forging metal in the hot furnace for long hours with his father. That’s why he looked like Cyclopes. 

Let’s go back to the story of Prometheus giving fire to mortals, which I believe is telling us something real about ancient Greek society: it could have been a reference to someone violating the strict craft guild rules which would have allowed access of valuable trade secrets to everyone. In turn, it would have led to greater innovation in the society and probably, that’s why Prometheus was revered. Of course, the Gods, which were analogues of the rich class of the society, were bitter about the whole episode as they no longer had an exclusive access to fire. Thus, after Prometheus gave fire to everyone, it must have been available for everyone to do metal works. Now it’s Economics 101: more is availability of a commodity, lower is its price. Hence, the metal craftsmanship was no longer as valuable as it used to be during his father’s time. This explains why Periphetes, unlike his siblings, was not rich even when he was born in a divine family. I guess that Periphetes maintained a workshop somewhere between Athens and Troezen. It’s possible that he must be charging highly for his brilliant craftsmanship. However, his customers might have thought him as a robber who was almost ripping them off.

The Meyerowitz Stories (Old and Selected)

Note: I have borrowed characters from the movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) You don’t have to watch the movie before reading on but you should know this story is set twenty years before the events in the movie. Movie was set in New York City of 2017 and this is set in Bard College, New York of 1997. It’s about 100 miles away from New York City, New York.

 Chapter 1 : Three Beginnings

It was a Friday evening on the campus of Bard College, New York. The grass around the Quad still had the greenness of summer while the leaves were starting to turn yellowish red. The white oak tree stood tall in the middle of Quad with sparrows on its branches chirping freely. A girl with violet-colored blonde hair was playing banjo. The breeze carried her notes around the Quad. Some were stopped in their tracks mesmerized by her music and some smiled while continuing to walk on.

Fiouna Lake would have liked to stay around the oak tree. She usually preferred to walk slowly and soak in the ambiance around Quad. But not today when she was late for her MU211 class. As she approached the Lincoln building, she could see Professor Cook entering the class on the third floor. Instead of taking the smelly old elevator, she ran up the stairs. She was panting and sweating when she reached her class. The class had acoustic pianos lined up along the walls with one piano in the center. Everyone had circled around the central piano. Professor Cook gave her a cold glance as she joined the group.

While sitting on the central piano’s stool, Prof. Cook said, “Last time, we began playing with our left hand which can be difficult for some of you. We played the left C and I am sure you would have practiced it outside class. Today we are going to play Presley’s Love Me Tender. Now everyone can go to one of the pianos and practice in group of two. I hope everyone has got their sheet music. I would come to you in fifteen minutes.”

The group dispersed and started walking towards their favorite pianos. Fiouna decided to walk towards the piano farthest away from the center although she knew that the particular piano wasn’t the best one. She found an annoyed Danny Meyerowitz who was bending down and pushing the pedals with his hand.

“The damper is rusty. Don’t bother fixing it up.”

“Dammit! That explains why my notes are being sustained for too long. Ah, well…I am stuck now with this.”

“Stuck with the piano and me.”

“Haha, I don’t mind your company as long as you have the sheet music. I forgot mine.”

***

The class was filled up with off-tuned music as everyone tried their best to play the song smoothly. Fiouna had started to get a sense of the key strokes. Danny was helping her with the timing of one of her strokes. Prof. Cook came up to them and asked, “Danny, why don’t you show me how are you playing?” Fiouna stood up gladly and moved behind the professor. Danny gingerly took his place on the stool while both of them were looking at him. Danny did his best to pretend nobody was looking but he could feel Prof. Cook’s gaze on him. He looked at sheet music for a second before he started playing. Unlike last week, he didn’t want to give an opportunity to the professor to say anything about his timing. Professor signaled him to stop within ten seconds. He said, “Danny, you need to practice more” and moved on towards the next piano.

Fiouna put her hand on Danny’s shoulder for a moment without saying anything. Danny sighed and started to play again while pressing the damper harder than necessary.

As Prof. Cook was checking on his students going from one piano to another, he was surprised delightfully by someone playing almost perfectly, even Presley would have been proud. He tried to listen harder amidst the imitational music to find out the direction from which the pristine music was coming.  He finally found the really young looking player; he had not seen this student before.

“Is this your first class, son?” Prof. Cook asked as he approached the player.

“Yes, sir.”, he replied keeping his head down respectfully.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Matthew Meyerowitz, sir.”

“Aha…at least someone has inherited his father’s artistic talents.”

***

It had almost got dark. Most bars along Kelly Road were crowded. Kelly Road was a favorite bar destination for the college students; it was just a fifteen minutes walking distance away from the Bard College campus. These bars were filled up with the thrill of meeting someone new, raucous young laugh, and exciting smoke. The Bog Pub was an exception. They were not many people inside but it was still filled up with warmth of meeting someone you knew before, relaxed old laugh and deep smoke of brooding. Its door opened to let in a black jacket wearing man. He dragged his large black umbrella as he walked towards the bartender. He would occasionally use his umbrella to support himself whenever he felt pain in his left knees. The pain was not sharp enough for a doctor’s visit but frequent enough for him to always carry his umbrella. He  looked around the bar and found some of his friends drinking and listening to each other intently. The week had just finished and there were stories to be exchanged.

Tom, the bartender, was wiping dark mahogany bar with his wet white cloth. He had a phoenix tattoo on his left hand and he was wearing a blue shirt over black jeans with Yankees cap on his head.

“Professor, what would you like to have?”

“Just the usual on the rocks.”

“Alright, give me a second, Professor,”  said Tom and turned away towards his booze cupboard.

“Hey, Harold! Long time no see,” greeted John.

“Hey John! Yeah, sorry. Been busy with the admissions,” replied Harold taking off his black jacket, keeping his umbrella on his side and then shaking hand with John. Harold was in his forties and had grey hair; he was wearing his usual white shirt with dark black formal pants.

“So, how have you been, John?,” asked Harold after settling down in his favorite rightmost stool.

“Not too good. My son was sick last week. Now he is doing better. I heard about your father-in-law’s death. Sorry about that. Harold, how’s your wife doing?”

“Ummm…she is doing alright, John. Thank you. She just came back this afternoon from her brother’s home. I wish I could have accompanied her but you know how beginning of the semester is hectic. Admission process doesn’t give you anytime”

“Hmm…I can imagine she would not be happy with it.”

“Well, anyone would be sad when dealing with father’s death. But as I was saying, spending hours reading pages long admission forms and interviewing unenthusiastic students. So boring! However, I did find time for her. I sculpted my version of Rodin’s Thinking Man when she was away. I am sure she would be delighted to see my sculpture. It’s made with jade. It was not easy to get the finishing right. Ah, here is my drink.”

“A sculpture made with jade is one of my favorites! When would you make something for your bartender friend, Professor?”, asked Tom while handing neat Old Scotch to Harold.

“As soon as my knee stops paining, my friend”, replied Harold while taking the sip.

“Tom, it’s going to be a long wait. I don’t think Harold’s knee is going to stop paining anytime soon.”

“I know, John,” replied Tom rolling his eyes and moved away to serve his other customers.

“John, did you hear about Giuliani signing that goddamn law? It’s crazy in New York City!”

“The one about the domestic partnership? The next thing we know would be faggots making out on the streets.  Everyone is saying when your mayor is a faggot, then it’s not a surprise that your city is going to the dogs.”

“I know, right !? That’s why I say one should never live in big cities like New York City or San Francisco. Imagine, Harold, what if Bard College was in NYC, then would you still have liked to be a Professor in Bard College?”

“Never, John! It’s one thing to go to NYC to showcase your work to the world and another thing to …”

“Excuse me, Professor. Your wife is on the phone,” Tom interjected.

“Tom, can you tell her I am going to reach home soon? Thank you”, Harold replied.

He finished his drink, said goodbye to his friends at the bar, buttoned his black jacket and used his umbrella to support himself upright. As he opened the door to exit the pub, the cold breeze hit his face. He could hear the conversation and smell the cigarette’s smoke; there were people standing on the pavement. A tired Harold Meyerowitz took a deep breath in, checked his pocket for the gift-wrapped heavy sculpture and started walking towards his home. He knew the long night had just begun.

***

Philosophy-centric Physics graduate education

As a part of my Physics education, I have had the pleasure to attend a large number of courses. Typical trajectory of a physics course can be summarized as follows: we start off by picking up necessary math skills (for example, vector algebra and calculus for Newton’s laws of motion), then we use these skills to unpack the concise statements of physical laws (for example, what does F=ma mean?) and at the end, we apply these laws to specific problems to improve our understanding of the laws (for example, if an object of 5 kg is subjected to 4 N of force, what’s the acceleration?).

I attended a Machine Learning course recently which was different from traditional courses in more than one ways. It was based on flipped classroom concept; we did simulations in class, we had discussions in class and we read research papers as part of assignments. One can argue that the unusual strategy suited the course because it was on Machine Learning, which is still in infancy unlike Electrodynamics. However, I believe that the same strategy can be applied to graduate courses teaching well-established fields. Although flipped-classroom approach has been applied to undergraduate courses in many universities, it’s hard to find a Physics graduate courses, which has been taught in non-traditional approach.

The two most important skills, which I learnt in that course, was to ask big questions and read research papers critically. I am going to explain below what exactly I mean by the above terms and why I think these skills are crucial for learning how to do research. These two skills have never been taught to me in any other course even though the goal of any graduate course should be to prepare graduate students for their life as a researcher.

Why learning to ask big questions is important for a budding researcher? Asking the big questions helps one to understand what’s the whole point of a certain subject (for example, what is Machine Learning and why it’s hard?). This is the first step that one can take to get a sense of where the community currently stands. Once we know what is the current body of knowledge, we need to ask second question: how can we expand the boundary of current knowledge?

To make it more explicit, let me give examples of big questions that can be asked and explored in graduate courses:

  • In a Quantum Mechanics course, we can start by asking what’s a quantum system – does quantum systems need to be necessarily small and discrete? When does a system stop behaving like a quantum system and starts becoming like a classical system? How do you design experiments that measure the quantum behavior of the world? Stern-Gerlach experiment and Feynman’s double slit thought experiment are good examples to illustrate the subtlety of quantum experiments.
  • In a Statistical Physics course, we can ask what’s the recipe of studying complex physical systems according to Statistical Physics? What is ergodicity and when does it fail? Why Anderson argues More is Different? In other words, why reductionist principle can fail to explain an emergent phenomenon like Bose-Einstein condensation? How Quantum Statistical Physics is different from Classical Statistical Physics?
  • In a Quantum Many-Body Physics course, we can start by asking why many-body systems are hard to simulate on classical computers? If one starts from non-interacting limit, can we use perturbation to understand the effect of interaction in a many-body system? Would we ever discover a general principle that goes beyond mean-field theory? What’s the effect of infinite dimensional phase-space on physics of many-body systems? Anderson Orthogonality Catastrophe is a perfect example illustrating this point.
  • In a Quantum Computing course, we can ask what is a quantum computer? Is a quantum computer necessarily better than a classical computer? Why Feynman argued that a quantum computer can help us simulate a quantum world?
  • In a Machine Learning course, we can ask what is machine learning? What is the recipe of studying complex systems according to machine learning? Why machine learning is hard?
  • In a Biophysics course, we can ask what defines life? What measurements can be done to distinguish between a living and non-living beings? What is Physics of Life – would we ever discover some new fundamental force in living beings?

The whole point of these questions is that we are spending time in class thinking about what are the most important questions for the field, how does the subject traditionally answer them and is there a better way to go about solving them?

When we start asking these questions, it’s natural to ask how scientists before us tried to answer them. This brings me to the second skill: reading research papers critically. Before I go into details, let me list some resources which I found useful in improving my paper reading skills. I recently got to know there is a systematic method called QALMRI to learn how to read papers, which people follow in cognitive science. Also, I have found Terry Hwa’s reading guide useful.

It’s important to note that merely assigning classic papers to read without any proper class discussion would not help. A class discussion would help students to see what they missed in their first reading. Further, reading classic papers can also help students write better papers in future.

I have seen that almost all Professors know classic papers in their field, but curiously they rarely assign these papers as part of course assignments. I don’t know why they don’t. However, they definitely assign a lot of problems.  They seem to be convinced that physicists learn best when solving problems and calculating physical quantities.

Sometimes, calculating something doesn’t necessarily leads to better understanding. You can solve problems by following some algorithm without any deep understanding; you need to stop and ponder why something is working (or not working). Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely helpful to solve textbook-style problems to gain some intuition. But I feel since we physicists are so good at calculating things (using spherical cow approximations), we forget that starting point of any research is asking the right kind of questions. Also, we sometimes ignore the fact that there are other ways of acquiring knowledge – asking big questions, whose answers can’t be necessarily calculated at the current moment and learning from someone else’s calculation/simulation/experiment by reading their papers. Along with problem solving skills, I am arguing here that above mentioned skills should be also taught in classrooms.

Graduate courses that emphasize asking big questions and reading papers critically are needed to train next generation of physicists, who don’t only know how to solve problems but also to recognize which problems are important. This philosophy-centric teaching approach is truer in spirit to the goals of philosophiae doctor (PhD) degree.

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