Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Banned for life

I keep getting farther behind. There are so many things that I have to post and new things keep getting in the way. I was talking about the isoelectronic series of helium last week and never quite finished. When I left off I had worked out a formula for the ground state energies of all the two-electron ions. It turns out the data for the first four ions is available. It starts off out of whack but rapidly converges: I'm out by ten percent on the first one (H-), a couple percent on Helium, less than one percent on Li+ and half that on Be++. I have a table somewhere that I'll post someday when I get around to it, but it's a very cool outcome. The error on the light ionsmakes total sense because the calculation uses a direct product for the wave function of two electrons, which is an oversimplification. It works for the heavy ions but not for the light ones, and the reason goes back to the same thing I talked about in my blog entry on the two-electron potential well: the small box limit corresponds, "counter-intuitively", to the case of no repulsion between the electrons.

I put the word "counter-intuitively" in quotes because I used it ironically: it's the sense in which the world at large uses the term, as though to suggest that we shouldn't trust our intuition, we should only believe what the math tells us. My belief is the opposite: there is nothing more important in physics than developing your intuition. A "counter-intuitive" result is in fact an opportunity for us to develop and refine our intuition. It means we guessed wrong and now have to figure out why, so next time we'll guess right. It doesn't mean we shouldn't guess at all!

But that's not what I started to blog about today. The big news in the world of physics happened yesterday: the evil Conway was banned for life from the on-line forum physicsforums.com. This forum is run by a small clique of, shall we say tin-pot dictators, whose authority to expel members is not subject to appeal. The unusual thing about this particular expulsion has to be the wave of jubilation that ensued in its aftermath; you'd think that someone had just announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson or whatever it is they spent all those billions of dollars looking for in that big hadron collider. But no, it was just me; yes, I was the evil Conway and I'm sure physicsforums.com has never seen such a display of high-fiving and backslapping as you'll find if you check the last page of the thread on "decoherence". (The username was chosen in honor of country music legend Conway Twitty in case you wondered.) So the question has to be asked: why was I expelled?

Technically, I was expelled for technical reasons that really don't really matter. In fact I was expelled because people hated me passionately. It's interesting because I took special care to stay away from the kind of personal sparring that often characterises these online discussions. It's almost as though I drew hatred strictly for the physics. There is a certain personality type that you find on internet forums which consists of professional physicists who take it upon themselves to be guardians of the truth. It's an attitude I don't really understand. People post nonsense on these forums all the time and I ignore it. I'm interested in engaging in discussions with people who know what they're talking about, whether or not I think they are the most upstanding gentlement or the most obnoxious assholes. Because either way I stand to learn physics from the exchange. But it seems that the people who chose to argue with me are the opposite: they are driven to seek out those who spout incorrect heresies, so they can argue those heretics down to the ground and thereby defend and protect their beloved edifice of revealed truth. I don't think the above characterisation particularly misrepresents either my psychology or theirs.

Anyhow, what's done is done. If anyone's interested I think this link
should get you to where all the fireworks happened. It was fun while it lasted but now I have to get back to doing physics.

Oh, one more thing. I have the impression that the physicists running the newsgroup are mostly from England, so they may not see the irony in the fact that the system administrator who actually pulled the plug on Conway Twitty was someone by the name of George Jones.